Erika Fatland on Traveling in the Himalayas

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Erika Fatland on Traveling in the Himalayas

“Many of the people in the Himalayas live more isolated now than they did a hundred years ago.”

Erika Fatland on Traveling in the Himalayas

Dance day during the Jambay Lhakang Druk Festival, Bhutan

Credit: Erika Fatland

What is it like to travel through the Himalayas, a region of stunning landscapes, immense cultural diversity, and varying levels of economic development? In her recent book “High: A Journey Across the Himalaya, Through Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Nepal, and China” (2023), author Erika Fatland catalogs the lives of ordinary people juggling cultural traditions and modern aspirations in a rapidly changing world.

Fatland previously documented her travels in “Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan” (2020), and “The Border: A Journey Around Russia Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway, and the Northeast Passage” (2021), and is now writing a book on the lands formerly colonized by the Portuguese Empire. In an interview with The Diplomat’s Akhilesh Pillalamarri, she said that she doesn’t think that there’s anywhere else in the world with as much diversity as the Himalayas, highlighting her different experiences in regards to social mores in Fairy Meadows, Pakistan, where “local women were literally kept behind a fence,” and Bhutan, where she visited a naked dance festival.

What were your favorite places to visit in the Himalayas, and why?

That’s a difficult question to answer because the Himalayan region is so diverse. I enjoyed my time with the Kalash people in Pakistan immensely and was lucky to arrive just in time for the harvest festival. Bhutan is a very special place on Earth indeed.

The list of my favorite places is a long one, but during my eight-month-long research trips in the Himalayas, there were two places that I especially wished I could have stayed longer in. The first one is Hunza in northern Pakistan, one of the most beautiful valleys I have ever visited, inhabited by friendly and hospitable Ismailis. No wonder it has been mentioned as a candidate for the location of James Hilton’s “Shangri-La” (but that goes for hundreds of places in the Himalayas).

The other place I regret that I didn’t stay longer in was Kashmir. It’s a complicated region for sure, and there is sadly no solution in sight, but Kashmir is also stunningly beautiful. On the uppermost pavilion in Shalimar Bagh, one of the extravagant Persian gardens that Srinagar is so famous for, the following quote is carved into the gate: “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.” Inspired by this quote, I gave the chapter from Kashmir the title “Paradise with a Curfew.”

How did your trip to the Himalayas compare to your previous trips to Central Asia and around Russia’s borderlands?

I speak Russian, the lingua franca in most post-Soviet countries, so when I was doing research for “Sovietistan” and “The Border” I was able to communicate with people without the help of an interpreter, which, of course, was a huge advantage. Except for English, I don’t speak any of the languages spoken in the Himalayan region, despite studying Hindi for two semesters at the University of Oslo. This means that I was much more reliant on translators and fixers in the Himalayan region than in the post-Soviet countries. At times, I even had to use two translators, because my interpreter would not always speak the local language.

Nuances and meanings definitely must have gone lost in translation at times. At the same time, it was also an advantage to be dependent on help, because the local fixers and translators were invaluable when it came to understanding local cultures, getting access, and saving me from committing too many blunders.

Another significant difference was the need for planning ahead. It’s much more complicated to travel in the Himalayan region than in Eastern Europe. The red tape can be a nightmare and in quite a few places you are required to travel with a guide, like in Tibet, Upper Mustang (in Nepal), and Arunachal Pradesh. Traveling at high altitude also poses logistical challenges. Many roads and paths are only easily accessible a few months a year, for instance.

Could you share your thoughts on your experience in China vis-à-vis the other places you visited?

China is an authoritarian regime, and in authoritarian regimes people are afraid to speak their mind. During the research trips for “High,” I visited the two most repressed regions in China — Xinjiang and Tibet. I had visited Xinjiang a few years earlier, during the research trip for “The Border,” and it was a veritable shock to be back. During the few years that had gone by from 2015 to 2018, the regime had tightened its grip on the region. In Kashgar, a predominantly Muslim city, no women wore a headscarf and the grand old mosque was empty except for a few Han Chinese tourists. Visitors had to show their passport to be allowed to enter the mosque, and there were checkpoints and cameras absolutely everywhere.

That summer, when I was walking around in the surveyed streets of Kashgar, disclosures of the so-called re-education camps, where more than a million Uyghurs were held, made headlines all over the Western world, but I could not raise the topic, or any topics at all, really, with the locals, since being observed talking to a foreigner could get them in trouble.

The level of repression in Tibet was quite similar. Often, I had to remind myself that I actually was in Tibet, because many of the towns we visited resembled regular Chinese towns, populated mainly by Han Chinese. The fear and suspicion, however, were ever present, together with huge posters that encouraged people to denounce “dark elements” to the government.

Tourists can no longer travel independently in Tibet, and a new law prohibits tour agencies from using their own cars. Instead, the local agencies now have to rent cars from state companies. These cars all have cameras installed, so it’s not possible to talk freely even in the privacy of the tourist cars any longer. The red tape is, as you can imagine, a nightmare, and all permits must be organized ahead of the journey; this goes for local people as well.

The people that I met on the Chinese side of the Himalayas were usually better off economically, and the infrastructure in Tibet and Xinjiang is way more luxurious than elsewhere in the mountains. In Tibet, you can drive all the way to Everest Base Camp on paved roads! But the locals – especially the Uyghurs and the Tibetans – have no freedom whatsoever, and the situation is getting worse, year by year.

You write in your book that Pakistani society is both freer and less free than China’s. Could you explain?

China is a dictatorship, and a very sophisticated one, so people are in general careful and will not openly share their opinions on politics or other sensitive matters. In Pakistan, people would generally happily discuss politics and share their frustrations about everything they felt went in the wrong direction in their society, but there were also topics that, to my surprise, were regarded as sensitive and even dangerous, like the Chinese investments. The owner of the tour company that assisted me in northern Pakistan freaked out when he heard I had been discussing the Karakoram Highway with a local politician.

In Pakistan, culture and family connections seem to be the greater restraining factors in most people’s lives than politics. In Swat, for instance, I was invited into the home of a local family.

And here, before I make my point, I’d like to add a point about gender and traveling. The most common question I get when I meet readers both in Norway and abroad is if it’s not terribly dangerous to travel around the world alone as a woman. Most people automatically seem to think that it’s a disadvantage to be a female traveler, but on the contrary, it’s usually a great advantage. In Swat, my local guide and interpreter, who was a man, was not allowed inside the house, but as a woman I was not seen as a threat and was allowed to meet the female family members as well.

Here comes my point: inside the house I witnessed how Muhammed, one of the men present, mistreated his unhappy wife. He went over to her and slapped her head before sitting down beside me. When I said that he shouldn’t hit his wife, he responded: “Why not? It’s our culture. Wives should be beaten, they have to be held down, like springs. Otherwise, they jump up and get out of control.”

Ahmed, the brother of Muhammed, was soft-spoken and mild, and he adored his wife. But the young couple had problems on their own. His wife had a master’s degree, but after getting married to Ahmed, all she was allowed to do was serve tea and do housework. I asked if she would like to take a Ph.D. as well, like her husband, and for the first time that evening she smiled: “I’d like that very much,” she said.

Ahmed, however, didn’t smile. “There are lots of women in Pakistan who do Ph.D.s,” he admitted, “but in these parts … it’s not so easy.” I suggested that they could move to other parts of the country, for instance, Islamabad, but this was out of the question as well.

“No, that’s not possible,” Ahmed said and shook his head. “Our culture is too strong. To move from here is unthinkable.”

I’m curious about your impressions on the differences you observed when crossing between India and Pakistan, particularly the shock of suddenly seeing women in the public sphere.

I’m mildly obsessed with borders and border crossings because they highlight the contrasts and differences between people and countries in a very effective manner. Crossing a border is pure magic. You travel a very short distance, often just a few hundred meters, yet on the other side of the border crossing everything is different: the way people dress, the language, the stories, the money, the position of the women.

I had never thought of India as a paradise for women before, but everything is relative. The cultural shock that I experienced arriving in India from Pakistan of course says more about the role of women in the Pakistani society than about the position of women in India.

Could you elaborate a bit on the balance between modernity and development you write about in “High”? Is development a net gain, even when it erodes traditional cultural practices? And do you think that modernity will swallow up local traditions?

For sure, local traditions, languages and customs are at high risk of being swallowed by the forces of capitalism and globalization. The world is becoming more connected, and wherever you go nowadays the same American pop music is being played at the local bar. Almost everywhere – except for extreme cases like North Korea – people have mobile phones and the internet, they wear jeans, and drink Coca-Cola.

And this is, of course, not such a bad thing. Having access to the internet makes lives easier for most of us, for instance. And even if the process of globalization is accelerating, it is also important to remember that the forces behind it are not new. Chili, which all Bhutanese are addicted to and eat perverse amounts of on a daily basis, is not native to the Himalayas. No culture, no people, exist in a vacuum.

One should also not underestimate the resilience of local cultures. Yes, people drink Coca-Cola and listen to Taylor Swift almost everywhere, but at the same time the world is as large as it has always been, and a large number of the villagers I met during my journeys had not even visited the capital of the country they lived in. In fact, many of the people in the Himalayas live more isolated now than they did a hundred years ago due to the strict new borders that arose during the 19th century.

What do people in a lot of the rural communities you visited, including ethnic minorities, want?

They want roads, they want accessible healthcare, and, first and foremost, schools. Parents all over the world are aware that education is the key to a better and more prosperous life for their children. But sometimes, education can give people false hopes. Like the wife of Ahmed, for instance, who was not allowed to work or take a Ph.D. by her husband’s family due to cultural expectations and limitations. Preserving culture just for the sake of preserving it is not always a good thing, especially when culture is used as an excuse to limit and oppress half of the population.

Another example is Bhutan. Many young Bhutanese are well-educated, but there are not enough government jobs for everyone and few of the young are interested in farming. The recent development of Bhutan is truly spectacular, but the rapid development also creates a whole new set of challenges that need to be dealt with.

How would you compare the western (Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh) and eastern (Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland) regions of India?

They are very different, in so many ways. The western side is dominated by high mountains and mainly inhabited by Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. You will find – for lack of a more precise term – “better preserved” Tibetan culture in northern India than in Tibet. The mountains of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland are not particularly high, and the region is inhabited by a wide range of different ethnic groups, many of whom have recently converted to Christianity.

Missionaries are still hard at work in this region, struggling to eradicate local beliefs and practices. In my view, missionaries pose the greatest threat to the preservation of local traditions, and they generally tend to target small, vulnerable ethnic groups, like the ones you find in Arunachal Pradesh. I visited different churches in the region – there are a myriad of them – and witnessed how the priests energetically warned the members of the congregation against attending local festivals and spending time with “heathens.”

Do you have any final thoughts on your trip, on the communities you visited, and on your hopes for the region’s future?

The main motivation for writing “High” was the fascinating cultural diversity of the Himalayan region. I don’t think you find a similar diversity anywhere else in the world. Two examples highlight the extreme contrasts of the Himalayas: in Fairy Meadows in Pakistan, the local women were literally kept behind a fence, completely covered and out of sight from curious visitors. On the other hand, in Bhutan, I visited a naked dance festival where the whole village, young and old, men and women, had shown up to see the “treasures” of the drunken dancers.

My hope is that this wonderful diversity will survive and that people will continue to tell stories about yetis. Who knows, maybe they do exist? Simultaneously I hope that more children, especially girls, will get access to better education and better futures. Of course, I also hope that the Uyghurs and Tibetans will be granted more freedom in the future, but it’s difficult to be optimistic on this matter.

It’s also difficult to be an optimist when it comes to climate change. The Himalayan glaciers are melting at an alarming speed, and the consequences are already present in the form of catastrophic floods. I sincerely hope that more measures will be taken to protect this vulnerable region. These have to be taken both globally and locally, and time is of the essence.