In the high Himalayas

1 February 2020

9:00 AM

1 February 2020

9:00 AM

The Frozen River: Seeking Silence in the Himalaya James Crowden

HarperCollins, pp.352, £16.99

In my twenties I once visited a lonely spot among the western Himalayas called Zhuldok in the Suru valley. Politically it is part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, but geographically, ethnically and culturally the region is bound to the Tibetan plateau and its former Buddhist theocracy centred on Lhasa.

I remember one compelling moment, with the twin peaks of Nun Kun looming above us to 7,000 metres, when we watched two wolves on the far shore of a torrent of glacial meltwater. Those predators lolloped at easy pace through the autumn colour of that immense Himalayan landscape and for one of the few occasions in my life I felt at the edge of all that I had known.

To the author of this exceptional book, however, that spot was not the end-point for his travels, it was only the beginning. Further south and over the Pense La Pass — where two metres of snow can fall in one night and can eventually accumulate to eight metres and then remain on the ground for six months — lies another valley called Zanskar. These meteorological conditions leave it cut off from the outside world for half of every year. It was this blend of place and splendid snowbound isolation that was Crowden’s heart’s desire at just 22 years of age and in the winter of 1976/7 he achieved his goal.

Crossing the Pense La with all his supplies, Crowden then watched it snow continuously for ten days while his universe shrank to the width of one valley. As he notes, it was as if the entire population of Zanskar — ‘men, women, children, artists, blacksmiths, weavers, musicians, soothsayers, monks and nuns were all in a closed order. As if we had all taken a vow of inner silence and contemplation. Introspection was the order of the day.’

If the author’s journey was more arduous than mine, then, in turn, let us pause to admire the far greater resilience of the people who were Crowden’s hosts. Their lifelong lot, shaped and consoled by the colourful rituals of their faith, is one of subsistence agriculture in the highest mountains on Earth. Zanskar is a land where the fruits of the short summer season are barley grain and yak’s milk; where the meagre economy depends almost entirely on butter sales; where the winter involves routine avalanches and temperatures of -15˚C. And that’s inside the house; outside it can be -40˚C. The book may be a retelling of Crowden’s adventures, but for the Zanskaris it is an audit of the commonplace.

During the short winter days, the Zanskaris spend much time on their roofs, grinding grain, cording wood, plying wool then weaving the rough homespun, while telling stories, laughing or singing as they work. The author’s account of this locked-in world is not only filled with respect, it’s also steeped in time. For while The Frozen River is narrated as if it were an account of one winter, albeit viewed from a distance of more than 40 years, the author has been a lifelong student of Buddhism and has returned to the Zanskar region many times. His book is thus informed by a prolonged investigation of both the landscape and its inhabitants, yet manages somehow to retain the particularity and verve of a 22-year-old’s first impressions.

Much of that achievement is down to Crowden’s writing style, which has been acquired after decades of experimentation and reworking. The author has previously published several volumes of poetry on his home county Devon and the verse is notable for its unstuffy, demotic diction and for dwelling upon the prosaic lives of practical rural folk. The same combination is also present in The Frozen River, only here the prose deploys the compression and exactitude of his poetry.

Crowden’s speciality is the one- or two-word sentence, an accumulating list of items. This is part of his account of a two-day Buddhist ceremony in a Zanskari village: ‘A kaleidoscope of colour. The flowing quickstep, dancers in time, almost like the tango, blue, green, orange, yellow, red, a gyrating blur. Bone necklaces, like court jesters, teased and tamed the spirits, sometimes in pairs, sometimes half a dozen at a time.’

Occasionally one wishes for relief from its staccato rhythms, but the singular virtue of Crowden’s prose is to create a sense of enormous immediacy. The Frozen River is also an immensely modest account. In fact I have seldom read a travel book where the narrator is so absent. Instead, he acts as a transparent lens that gathers all that fierce Zanskari winter light and illuminates the primary colours of both the place and its people. In so doing he creates a tour de force of luminous writing.

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