Book of the week; week 15, 2005
In Himalaya, Michael visits the Earth’s greatest mountain range – 1800 miles from the borders of Afghanistan to southwest China. He’d covered none of this ground before, let alone milked a dri, washed an elephant or swum at 14,000 feet… Himalaya might well have been Silk Road, which was a proposal from Roger Mills, our series producer. But when I opened out the atlas, the largely desert character of much of the Silk Road made me think it might look too similar to the Sahara. Then my eye caught the word Himalaya and I was immediately excited by the prospect. I had never been to any of the area before. The character of the series would be as high and mighty as Sahara was flat and mysterious. And no-one could accuse us of ‘going soft’ as we got older. We were under great pressure from the BBC to have a series ready for transmission no more than two years after Sahara, and as Himalaya also entailed the preparation of two books to go with the series, the pressure was very tight from the beginning. After two or three months of preliminary recces, we began filming on the Pakistan/Afghan border in mid-May 2003. Filming continued on and off, for a total of six months until our last shoot in Bhutan in April 2004. All the book text (over 100,000 words), photographs and layouts were ready for the printers by early June. The commentaries for the series were written and recorded through the summer and the first episode aired on BBC-1 on October 3rd 2004. Himalaya means “Abode Of Snow” and I think we all underestimated the physical demands of working at altitude. We’d climbed mountains in previous series, but never spent such sustained periods at extreme height. In Tibet we spent over a month working at, or well above, 4000 metres (over 13000 feet). Himalaya was not just about high mountains but high anxiety as well as we visited some of the political flashpoints of southern and central Asia. The Pakistani border, the disputed region of Kashmir, Tibet and Nagaland were all tense at times, but, ironically, the nearest we came to a dangerous confrontation was in tourist-friendly Nepal, where Maoist insurgents abducted our Ghurkha officers during filming. The spectacular beauty of the highest mountain range on earth and the profusion of different religions and small tribal communities fighting for their survival amongst these mountains combined to make this one of the most physical demanding and spiritually satisfying of all the journeys. I hope that by choosing to travel the entire 2,000 mile length of the range, we showed that there is much more to these mountains than Everest and Annapurna. For the first time, the vast spread and enormous influence of the Himalaya, winding its way through six countries, has been examined as a whole. If you look at a map the Himalaya range resembles a raised eyebrow above India. I hope this adventure will have raised a few eyebrows and opened a few eyes to these epic and magnificent lands.
If at times it was hell, the hell was always beautiful !
Michael Palin, London. October 2004.