May 24, 2010
Once in a while, a book comes along that transcends its region-specific subject matter and addresses universal questions with calm moral clarity.
Jonathan Green’s Murder in the High Himalaya: Loyalty, Tragedy, and Escape from Tibet is such a book. It is a mesmerizing alpine adventure of horrifying consequences, a sober look at China’s crimes against humanity, and a reality check on the so-called heroics of Westerners who belong to the elite mountaineering community.
On the morning of September 30, 2006, a 17-year-old Tibetan nun, while attempting to escape to Nepal via the 19,000-foot glacial pass of Nangpa La, was murdered in cold blood – shot in the back – by Chinese border police.
When rumors began to surface, Chinese officials assured the international media that there had been no foul play. What the officials didn’t realize was that a Romanian mountaineer, on a quest to summit nearby Cho Oyu, (the world’s sixth highest peak) had not only witnessed the event but captured the carnage on video as well. A graphic film clip soon made its way to youtube.
CLICK HERE TO VIEW FILM CLIP (Note: This clip was hastily cobbled together and broadcast before it became known that the victim was, in fact, a nun.)
The effect of the film clip was straightforward. Chinese propagandists had their heads handed to them on a platter. The international community cried out in protest at a time – less than two years before the Beijing Olympics –when China was doing everything in its power to win over the world with a more humane reputation.
Murder in the High Himalaya cuts back and forth between the Tibetan nun and her compatriots, who risked their lives traversing the highest mountains in the world in order to meet their spiritual leader, and Western mountain guides, who saw the Himalaya as a means to exact extraordinary fees from clients, commercial sponsorship and self-glory. The difference between the two groups could not be more apparent. The former had pendants of the Dalai Lama to inform and protect their progress; the later had Gortex, movies to watch in the evening and laptops with satellite connections.
The author begins the story by taking us to the Tibetan village where Kelsang, (the nun), and Dolma, (Kelsang’s best friend) grew up in harsh conditions (the village was situated at 14,000 above sea level) and the even harsher atmosphere of religious repression. Unlike Kelsang, Dolma survived unscathed the barrage of Chinese bullets at Nangpa La and eventually made her way to Dharamsala, India, where she had an audience with the Dalai Lama. In conducting his research, Mr. Green befriended Dolma and much of the two friends’ journey is seen through Dolma’s eyes.
We experience the girls’ trip that – from the very beginning – was fraught with danger. First, came the perils of being discovered while rendezvousing in Lhasa, a city rife with Chinese spies and bristling with video cameras. Next came the endless succession of Chinese check posts designed to thwart the thousands of Tibetans who attempt to escape Tibet annually. The two girls’ next challenge was purely physical: making it through the deadly conditions leading up to the 19,000 foot mountain pass in cheap Chinese shoes purchased in Lhasa, which had long since become all but useless.
Green writes: Once out of Tibet, over the border into Nepal, they would still be in grave danger. In recent years the Chinese assiduously courted Nepal with large sums of money and trained its military in an increasingly close relationship…The Chinese paid [the Nepalese border security forces] for the arrest and return of Tibetan refugees to China. So they too ran networks of informants and hunted refugees when they crossed the border on route to India. And they aided the People’s Armed Police (PAP) when the Chinese soldiers crossed the border illegally to capture Tibetans.
As for the shooting on September 30, Green’s unflinching eye darts between the Chinese patrol excitedly running along a ridge to get the best shot at the fleeing Tibetans, to the Tibetans themselves caught like ducks in a barrel, to some of the Western climbers who witnessed the shoot-out – first in groggy disbelief and, finally, ignobly, in self-interest:
…each year, climbers tried to outdo one another with their hardship stories in order to attain book deals and speaking tours”. Climbers had their careers to consider. What if they spoke out against the Chinese? Would they be banned from major peaks in the future? Many Western climbers simply turned their backs on what they had seen, refusing to bear witness. There was nothing to be gained by speaking up about Kelsang’s murder except banishment from the world’s most glorious mountain range.
This is an extremely relevant aspect of the book: The stark contrast of climbing for one’s life as apposed to climbing for one’s personal gratification. What is the meaning behind ascending mountains anyway? Wasn’t it once a heroic deed – when no paths had yet been blazed and people really did venture into the unknown? Concerning the flagrant commercialism of mountaineering in the 21st century:
Today, in Everest Base Camp, there are regular reports of theft and prostitution in what has become known as the “highest garbage dump in the world.” …The approach to base camp from Nepal, once thick with juniper bushes, is now barren and rocky as successive expeditions have burned them all for campfires.
Green lets the most famous climber of all time have the final say on how far the once noble ideals of mountaineering have sunk:
Sir Edmund Hillary was disgusted. “Everest, unfortunately, is largely becoming a commercial, money-making opportunity. If you are reasonably fit and have $35,000 you can be conducted to the top of the world.” He sniffed, “It’s all bullshit on Everest these days.”
Throughout Murder in the High Himalaya, Green’s narrative is acutely atmospheric. Those who have spent time in Kathmandu, for instance, will instantly recognize the feel of semi-respectable Kathmandu hotels, where tens of thousands of dollars are surreptitiously counted out and handed from one mountain guide to the next. Those who have visited Lhasa will be instantly transported to the bullying presence of Chinese security profaning the would-be spiritual experience of Buddhists circumambulating the Jokhang. And those who have ventured into the topographical splendor of the Himalaya will know that they have a seasoned adventurer in Mr. Green to guide them up and around the next curve in the trail.
For those readers who haven’t been to this spectacular region, they are in for a rare experience.
And what of Kelsang and Dolma – the two teenagers who risked everything for a taste of freedom? In one of the concluding chapters, Green writes:
Two girls from rural Tibet defied [China] by refusing to believe what they had been told about the nature of freedom and the Dalai Lama. They set out to find truth in defiance of China and it’s propaganda, whatever it might cost.
In doing so, Kelsang and Dolma, untainted by the great evil of our age, cynicism, acted as a perfect prism refracting the human condition. Their quest and its outcome shone a powerful light on how the West often acts only in self-interest. Climbing outfitters, escorting the wealthiest and most pampered members of Western society to Himalayan peaks, secretly disdain their Chinese hosts but outwardly act as apologists for them.
This is a deeply moral book to be treasured, to be discussed and to be passed along to loved ones. Highly recommended.
About Jonathan Green. Green has reported on jihadist militias from Sudan, on the cocaine trade for the guerilla-controlled jungles of Colombia, on the destruction of the rainforest in Borneo, and on human rights abuses connected to gold mining in West Africa. He has received the Amnesty International Media Award for Excellence in Human Rights Journalism, the American Society of Journalists and Authors award for reporting on a significant topic, and been named Feature Writer of the Year in the Press Gazette Magazine and Design Awards. His work has appeared in Men’s Journal, the New York Times, Fast Company, the Financial Times, British GQ, and Esquire. He lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife.
Murder in the High Himalaya release date is June 1, 2010. You can order your copy today by CLICKING HERE