The Himalayas have, for years, drawn willing expeditions and explorers to its rugged terrain. The romance associated with these mountains has endured the ravages of time, and historian John Keay has continued his mesmerising affair with this extraordinary region ever since it began in the 1960s when he first visited the Himalayas as a foreign correspondent in Kashmir. In the 1970s, he published two standard works on the exploration of the Western Himalayas and in the 1980s, he wrote and presented a seven-part BBC Radio 3 documentary series on the Himalayan kingdoms.
With his latest exhaustive book about the Himalayas (Himalaya Exploring the Roof of The World Bloomsbury), Keay draws on a lifetime of exploration and expertise, narrating tales of explorers and locals alike, and talks about what makes him go back to the mountains, time and again.
When was your first visit to the Himalayas
I came to India, specifically to Kashmir, in the late 1960s I was a bit younger than I am now (laughs) and was reporting for The Economist. There was a lull in the political situation, so there was no turmoil except probably along the LOC with Pakistan. From Kashmir, I travelled up to Ladakh, went on to Nepal and Bhutan, and have been going back to different parts of the Himalayas sporadically. I have been going back and forth for the last 50 years and writing about it. What we understand of the Himalayas today is because of the explorations undertaken by various people, and it intrigued me because these encounters form our idea of the Himalayas.
What draws you to India What brings you back to the history of the subcontinent
In addition to Himalaya Exploring the Roof of The World, I have written two major histories on India and China. I am a historian by trade and have always been interested in history, but not European or British history. My introduction to India was as a historian I was operating as a freelance journalist, and India's archaeological and architectural heritage really appealed to me. I have been fortunate to have travelled around the entire country almost every year somehow, it is never the same. It is an excellent excuse to go back.
Have you ever faced criticism for writing about a region as an "outsider"
Mahatma Gandhi had once remarked in his pamphlet Swaraj that Englishmen had a habit of writing other peoples' history, which is a little presumptuous on the face of it. And I have been guilty of it I've been writing other people's history for a long time. But I think it is a good idea that outsiders address history rather than just their own. I am always delighted when Indian friends tell me they want to take up something on British history. I don't often use the term historian for myself. I like to think of myself as a history writer. And I think writing is just as critical as history if the work is well written, it'll have a wider audience.
Do you believe the primary issue with protecting the Himalayas is that too many countries are involved, each with its own military agenda
Himalaya is a single term for a single entity we tend to overlook that it constitutes a single ecozone. It is, therefore, exceedingly worthy of conservation. But it is very politically and culturally fragmented and always has been. Antarctica is an example it is another precious ecozone on our planet and has been treated gently. Various countries have signed a treaty to preserve the pristine quality of the territory and not engage in any military and political activity. So all trash is returned to where it came from. Something like this for the Himalayas would be valuable, but the difference is that there are no Antarticans. In contrast, the Himalayan region is home to several people and is constantly encroached on by neighbouring nations.
The Himalayas today are threatened by mass tourism and climate change. How do we find the right balance, especially for countries like Nepal that depend on the mountains for sustenance
I explored the change of ideas concerning mountaineering institutes. The passion to conquer the highest peaks is contrary to Tibetan Buddhist beliefs they worship the mountains. The western approach to the Himalayas was more assertive, with most European nations trying to be the first to climb the peaks. In many ways, it was a disaster and, in others, a saving grace.
But mountain peak tourism needs to be regulated by Nepal very carefully. The terrible sight of every base camp looking like an aftermath of a music festival abandoned tents and bodies left in the mountains. It is reprehensible.