Himalaya by Michael Palin

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • What the Sahara is to desert, the Himalaya is to mountains. Both share the same contradictory attractions, appealing and appalling, tempting and terrifying in equal, and ultimately irresistible, measure.
  • The schedule was very tight, and I’m aware that these diaries are stronger on spontaneity than sober reflection.
  • In short, we found a Himalaya not reticent and forbidding, but permeated by every sort of human activity.


  • ‘Such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world’, is how Kipling described the road that crosses the Khyber Pass.
  • Why should I not be surprised that Charlton Heston was in Peshawar? The common ground is, of course, the West. The Wild West and the North-West Frontier have so much in common: proud, patriarchal societies with a marked dislike of outside interference, and strict moral codes of their own.
  • As the tempo of the music accelerates, so does the speed and intensity of the movement, until both merge into a stomping, exultant crescendo, which leaves everyone exhausted, ecstatic and applauding wildly.
  • Road gangs, muffled like mummies against the dust and heat, stop to watch us pass, then resume the Sisyphean task of fighting landslides with spades, shovels and wheelbarrows.
  • The view from this cool pavilion out towards the Badshahi Mosque is a reminder of what makes Mughal architecture so fine. It’s all about balance and symmetry. Towers, domes, minarets, columns and cupolas, some in red stone, some in white marble, are all gracefully harmonized.
  • They are followed by a squad of 12 more Rangers, who emerge with a splendid mixture of panache, aggression and bad acting that has the crowd roaring. Speeding, slowing, high kicking, strutting, stamping, grimacing, leering and hissing with a finely honed ferocity, they create the impression of caged beasts ready at any moment to bite their opponents’ heads off.


  • The bracing, or exhausting, anarchy of Indian streets begins as soon as we leave the hotel. Cars veer out of side roads without stopping, lame dogs hop gamely across your bows, bicycles and buses appear from nowhere and blasts of the horn mingle with blasts from exhausts.
  • There is something infectious about his optimism, an optimism which comes from confronting rather than avoiding the unacceptable and acknowledging, understanding and demystifying it.
  • The Vice-Regal Lodge is an extraordinary edifice. Built at the top of a hill and the peak of Victorian self-confidence, it is authority made manifest, superiority set in stone.
  • Modesty and earnestness has replaced display and grandeur. Entertainment has given way to enlightenment. This bastion of British certainty has become a place of enquiry, curiosity and debate. Three very Indian preoccupations.
  • More controversially, they’re to take 2000 cows out of circulation as well. Not, I notice, to improve road safety, but, so they say, to curb the illegal milk trade.
  • Outside the window prayer flags are tied to nests of satellite dishes. One sending out messages, the other receiving them.
  • The Tibetans in exile are skilful operators and I admire the tenacity and persistence with which they court world opinion,
  • Poverty is corrosive, but it’s always worse when it is found side by side with wealth.
  • Flowers have been planted around the place, perhaps to represent on earth the gardens the martyrs are promised in heaven.
  • I’m back among mountain people – patient, taciturn and politely wary of outsiders. Masters of survival.


  • Although it is dimly lit and hard to distinguish individual buildings, the complex of streets and squares has an extraordinary atmosphere. I’m reminded of walking at night in St Petersburg or Rome. There is a theatrical unreality to the place. Astonishing buildings, unlike anything I’ve seen before, are silhouetted against the night sky. Towering pagodas with long wide-eaved roofs, stacked one above the other, are topped with Hapsburg-like spires. Deep balconies cantilever out on long poles, the lintels and sills of the windows are thick timber beams. A fairy-tale kind of architecture, the more magical for being first encountered at night.
  • Dopali is like something in a dream, a vision of delicious drowsiness and lethargy sent to subvert the purposeful and debilitate the dedicated.
  • Once the helicopter has delivered us we’re left in deep and almost sensuous silence, hemmed in by the steep and thickly wooded walls of a valley, one side in brilliant sunshine, the other in deep, impenetrable shade.
  • As I watch their rubber sandals nimbly negotiate the rocks ahead of me I’m ashamed to think how long I spent deciding which kind of boots to wear. And some of them are carrying 40 kilograms in their wicker backpacks.
  • We set out at half-past seven, climbing up steep stone staircases through a tangle of semi-tropical woodland, with wispy lengths of Spanish moss trailing from the branches of the trees like a trail of feather boas. When we emerge from the trees the sunshine is still way up in the mountain tops but the air is cool and fresh.
  • I stubbornly resist offers from Nawang and Wongchu to carry my backpack for me. It’s become a matter of pride for me to carry it, a defiant attempt to show that there is still something I can do for myself.
  • This is sublime mountain scenery. Only Concordia in Pakistan, on the threshold of K2, reduced me to the same sense of inarticulate wonder.
  • The sun is still out of reach, setting fire to the crests of the mountains, but still a long way from delivering us from this bitter morning chill. We fall to reminiscing about the good old days in the heart of the Sahara desert.
  • I wonder if we aren’t all in danger of falling into the romantic delusion that by staring at these great massifs of rock and ice we achieve some form of communication with them, as if something so forbiddingly colossal must somehow be friendly.
  • Day Forty Four : Kathmandu We arrived here last night from Delhi on the penultimate night of Dasain, a big Nepali festival, and though badly in need of some rest and recuperation after our Indian adventure, the final day’s celebrations cannot be missed.
  • ‘It’s not that the Maoists are terribly brilliant or strong, just that successive governments have been weak and fractious and corrupt, and they (the Maoists) have tapped into that bedrock of neglect and apathy and frustration in the people. They’ve grown so fast precisely because everything else has been in such disarray.’
  • I know nothing about these people yet, in this brief ceremony, I feel a wave of empathy, not just for them, but for loss, for the end of a life. I come from somewhere where death is kept private, almost as if it’s an embarrassment. We send our loved ones away hidden in a box, into a hidden fire. We don’t even press the button that sends the coffin sliding into that fire. It’s all at arm’s length. Here in Pashupatinath it’s very much hands on. The reality of death, the fact of death, is confronted, not avoided.
  • With the SARS epidemic so recently over, I first have to fill in a Quarantine Form. I then take it to a booth where a man in a white coat checks it, produces a gun, points it right between my eyes and pulls the trigger. He then peers at the gun, notes down my temperature and motions me into China.
  • In every country we’ve been so far private cleanliness and public squalor seem to quite happily co-exist and I’ve never really been able to work out why.


  • I can find no satisfactory explanation for the nocturnal activity other than that Xangmu is a frontier town and frontier towns have a life of their own.
  • Though perfectly comfortable in my congenial little room, sleep was light and fleeting and broken by twinges of headache and nausea. The zero temperatures with which Mr Tse Xiu threatened us didn’t materialize and when I should have been sleeping I was engaged in an energy-consuming nocturnal striptease, peeling off the various layers of clothing I’d gone to bed in and dropping them out of my sleeping bag one by one.
  • Many years ago, encountering similarly appalling conditions in a boat on Lake Tanganyika, I took Imodium to prevent me having to go to the toilet ever again. As I squat in this howling tempest three miles up in the sky, I think cyanide might be the better option.
  • Their complexions, skin textures, their whole physiognomy is a reflection of the life they lead. Coloured by the wind and rain, stunted by the bitter cold, their features sculpted in a craggy resemblance to the weird and wonderful landscape around them, they’re elemental figures, created by and in the likeness of the mountains.
  • later in the day we climb up to Sera, one of the great monasteries of Lhasa, to witness an activity that would probably be classed as highly eccentric in any religion other than Buddhism. Around 100 young monks gather beneath the trees of a shady, walled garden to take part in ritual arguing, a sort of verbal martial art. The idea is that one of a group has to stand and defend a proposition, which can be as provocative as possible (Migmar says he heard one monk arguing that there is no such thing as water) and the sitting monks must debate with him.
  • The hundreds, no, probably thousands of pilgrims who have defied the elements to come here and worship a lake, are largely poor, rural people. I don’t know quite what to make of their tenacious dedication. My rational, enlightened, Western self recoils from the tackiness of it all, the parade of plodding, vacant faces. Another, more instinctual side of me is fascinated by and even a little envious of the deep belief that can bring them all this way and turn this remote and unforgiving lakeshore into a sanctuary.
  • Salty tea is poured for me from a big, blackened kettle, and in lieu of sugar, a rarity on the plateau, Sonam adds a small slab of butter, which liquefies into a greasy scum across the top. It tastes, well, not bad, just different. As someone wisely said, if they called it soup rather than tea we’d have no trouble drinking it at all.

Yunnan, China

  • When I stop on a narrow ledge to look around me, I find myself having to plant my feet very securely, for it feels as if the soaring vertical walls across the gorge are exerting some magnetic force, determined to tear me from my flimsy ledge.
  • The interesting thing about Namu is that she bothered to come back to Lugu Lake at all. Though she calls herself, wryly, ‘a five-star gypsy’, the claustrophobic world that drove her away still seems to have a hold on her.
  • There’s a cockerel somewhere close by that wakes me every morning, long before it’s light. Today I time its first call at 3.29. To make matters worse, it crows only on one note, a monotone cry like someone pretending to be a ghost.
  • With its brilliant white scarf of snow, this jagged diadem of ice and snow effortlessly dominates the northwestern horizon as we enter the village of Baisha.
  • Tradition dictates that ancient scriptures are only communicated to males, and then not until the Dongba who communicates them is over 75 years old. So the chicken’s fate is currently in the hands of a girl who can’t know what to do, and a boy who won’t know what to do for another ten years.

Nagaland and Assam

  • The problem is that the Naga tribes remain essentially a trans-border people who don’t fit neatly into any of the boxes that the politicians have created for them.
  • I look forward to my Scotch at sunset but I know that if I pour it myself, jobs might be at stake. So servility is perpetuated.
  • As soon as the bank is within leaping distance, half the roof-class passengers fling themselves off and race up the hill to the bus. The bus driver, clearly enjoying his moment of power, sounds the horn again and again, prompting more and more people to death-defying leaps.
  • It seems a place of rare and genuine happiness, where the hardest disciplines are artistic rather than religious and the goals are more concerned with fulfilment than denial.
  • But it’s only when I give him a really good whack that he appears to enter elephant heaven, rolling his eyes, stretching out his legs and emitting an infinitely appreciative rumble. The sound of a contented elephant is a wonderful thing, and I’m amazed that this battleship-grey hide, and these hard, immemorially ancient flanks can be as sensitive as a cat’s chin.


  • Its history is not to be found on display in tourist-friendly heritage parks, but on the street and in the countryside, as a part of everyday life.
  • He makes no apologies for enjoying the fast life, but now, at the age of 60, he’s having to move into the middle lane as his body registers the toll of many happily misspent years.
  • They stand about three feet tall (1m) and look to me like a cross between a goose and a heron, with slender, pale grey bodies, black tails and, of course, black necks. The only splash of colour is a tiny red cap. They aren’t arrestingly beautiful by any means, and I suppose I’m a little disappointed that rare doesn’t necessarily mean resplendent.
  • ‘The Buddhist version of poverty is a situation where you have nothing to contribute.’
  • ‘I love Bhutan. Bhutan is so relaxed and peaceful.’ ‘Everyone says that.’ She nods and shrugs. ‘But there’s nothing else to say about Bhutan.’
  • I must really have been walked out yesterday, the result being a long, deep, wonderfully restorative night’s sleep. Trekking beats any sleeping pill.


  • The White House has some grace and charm but it also has a fatal inertia, as if it’s being slowly strangled by the rich profusion of tropical flowers and shrubs that spill over onto it, mounting the walls and climbing over the balustrades.
  • Our driver hurtles along, firing off blasts of the horn at anyone and anything that moves. Basil notices that the driver’s thumb is in such continuous use that it’s worn a hole through the plastic on the steering column.
  • Breakfast is a disappointingly routine affair, enlivened only by discovering that my bottle of ‘Mum’ mineral water is proudly labelled ‘Official Drink For the 10th Asian Conference on Diarrhoeal Diseases’.
  • The enjoyment of the world is immeasurably enhanced not just by meeting people who think, look, talk and dress differently from yourself, but by having to depend on them.


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