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BOOK REVIEW: "Walking the Himalayas" by Levison Wood

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"Walking the Himalayas" is Levison Wood's second book.
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BOOK REVIEW: Walking the Himalayas by Levison Wood (Little, Brown) 2016

With a love of adventure, different cultures, and a willingness to suffer a bit in order to have mind-blowing experiences, I really came to admire Levison Wood, the British writer behind the new book Walking the Himalayas.

I will admit to being unfamiliar with Wood and his writings – along with his stellar reputation, which includes being considered “the toughest man on TV.” He's a mix of Rudyard Kipling, Alexandra David-Neel and Bear Grylls. One can only imagine the stories he doesn't share in his book, covering this grueling, 1,700-mile, six-month-long trek.

Wood’s prior book, Walking the Nile, got a lot of attention. And after a riveting adventure like that, Wood took a needed break in London, seemingly giving into the notion of enjoying a pint at the corner pub and becoming “domesticated.”

But his friend Ash prodded Wood to get off his ass and get back to some adventure. There was a discussion of following the old Silk Road route (now becoming part of China’s “One Belt, One Road” project), but it was decided it was too long and too many swathes of open space – “nothing.”

So, having served in Her Majesty’s military in Afghanistan, Wood opted for following a southerly route along the Himalayas, from the remote Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan through Gilgit in Pakistan and the Kashmir region, into Indo and then Nepal and over to secretive, isolated Bhutan.

And this being the ancient “rooftop of the world” with all of the spirituality, mysticism and thin air that goes with it, Wood, for the most part, maintains a positive attitude, even in the face of stressful conditions. 

But a desire to meet new people and see breathtaking vistas, in one of the most interesting parts of the world proves too tempting. And we, the reader, get a chance to learn so much about the people who live there while not fully understanding why a westerner like Wood would walk through this corner of the world.

And Wood’s conversational style, as he treks from west to east, makes you feel as though you are making the journey right there alongside him, encountering Islam, Hinduism, animism, and Buddhism all along the way.

But the journey is, in part, fraught with peril.

From the terrorists hiding in the Afghan/Pakistan border regions, to the animals and natural obstacles, Wood wonders why he is making this trip. But only occasionally.

But then along the way Wood meets a “holy man” who is part of the mysterious sect of Shiva worshippers called the Aghori. They are known for drinking whiskey and eating human flesh.

Wood feels compelled to ask how the rest of the journey (he is about halfway at this point) will go and the holy man says: “You will complete your journey. You are strong-willed. But first you will face something terrible.” Alarmed, Wood, naturally, wants to know more, but the monk refuses to say.

And the Aghori monk was right. Once in Nepal, on the way to picturesque Pokhara, Wood, his visiting brother and his companion Binod do, in fact, face a most perilous situation – but I won’t spoil it for you. And this, some 14 years after a prior trip Wood made to Nepal when the Maoist insurgents were running rampant and causing problems there and Wood nearly getting swept up in the turmoil, experiences that open this book.

And this "event" near Pokhara comes not long after meeting with the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, in Dharamsala, India, where he gave Wood some friendly travel advice. Perhaps not what he expected, but appreciated nevertheless.

I should note that Wood does not get a Chinese visa and does not go into Tibet. He does get an expensive helicopter ride to an area near the Mount Everest Base Camp, and takes in the breathtakingly cold beauty of the mountain the Nepali call Sagarmāthā or “Holy Mother” by the Tibetans.

All that said, I really found the end of Wood's trip, inside the mysterious kingdom of Bhutan - first visited by Westerners in 1974 - to be among the most interesting part of the book, in that it is sort of a Himalayan Singapore. Quiet. Clean. Friendly. And considered the happiest place on Earth. But it all seems a little forced and society a little too regimented. Wood's observations in Bhutan, particularly its remote beauty, make me definitely want to visit that country someday.

I suspect Levison Wood will be taking a break for a few years before his feet get itching again to embark on a new walking adventure. And I hope to read all about it when he publishes that next book.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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