“What brings it most to life is Schmidt’s fine ear for dialogue, his keenly visual prose and his love of curiosities”
Himalayan Passage: Seven Months in the High Country of Tibet, Nepal, China, India, and Pakistan was published in 1992 by The Mountaineers Books. It tells the story of a seven-month journey around the Himalayas — from Lhasa, Tibet, to Rumtek, Sikkim — by me and my wife Wendy, and our friends Pat and Baiba Morrow. It’s been called a classic of Himalayan travel writing from the old days. I figure that means only that I’m getting older. The book won the Barbara Savage Memorial Award for adventure writing, and is often the first title I suggest to friends who kindly express an interest in reading something of mine. It’s available — on old-fashioned paper — directly from Mountaineers or from Amazon.
“What brings it most to life is Schmidt’s fine ear for dialogue, his keenly visual prose and his love of curiosities… Nature writing doesn’t get any better than that.” — San Francisco Chronicle
“… harrowing, raucous, and earthy… All this and more can’t stop Schmidt’s exuberance over the richness of the feast at the top of the world… Wonderful photos…” — Christian Science Monitor
“Schmidt’s prose is as vibrant as the countries traveled… Every page is a fascinating education…gorgeous color photos…” — Albuquerque Journal
Central Tibet: Everest Region
In Tibet, in this wonderful landscape that has the power to grab your heart and hold it hard, this place of great, empty, reverberating silence where the land lies open to the sky and you really could imagine God wanting to live there–in this huge, powerful place, you nonetheless find yourself plodding along from stage to stage in a dizzy sort of dream, too small for the surroundings and too tired to ponder the improbability of being there. The sun shines bright and hot. The air is thin. Shadows stab the ground like black ice. But it’s hard to pay attention.
It’s hard to think of anything beyond getting down the road. And then a sacrilegious thought pops uninvited into your mind. You begin to consider if Tibet isn’t best appreciated as a memory, something to polish up and keep in the nostalgia kit for the greying years. That rocky road past Gurla Mandhata: how will it play in old age? That’s the important thing.
Western Tibet: Chang Tang Plateau
I had never seen a more featureless place, all sky and flatness underfoot. Without disliking it–actually I very much enjoyed being there–I found that it made me want to travel, to get beyond the horizon. I have felt the same way looking out on the ocean. Move, keep moving, don’t stop. The surface beneath your feet is nothing but a way to go somewhere.
It was the sort of place where a nomad would be utterly content, because he’d have no reason to stay.
In traveling, wherever you go, you are caught between memory and anticipation, between where you have been and where you think you want to be. You get impatient. You want to move on. You are sure the next place will be everything you imagine.
It is the chief, perhaps the only, luxury of the traveler, to live in a world that is always part fiction.
Pakistan: Hushe Village
As we left Hushe, rain was falling lightly. On the edge of town, Ibrahim stood in a field under a heavy load of wheat stalks that he was carrying to the family threshing grounds. He returned our waves as we drove past and then stood watching us a long time, until we were out of sight far down the valley. He was a strong, handsome, clever man in his early twenties. I knew how restless I had been at that age, and I was certain that he wanted to be going somewhere, going along with us, going anywhere, if only harvest hadn’t been the overriding concern of the season.
That we, who were not wealthy in our own countries, could cruise through Hushe like minor lords was due to an accident of economics: a day’s labor at home was worth a month or two of labor in Hushe. An amazingly small sum–less than ten dollars a day for each of us–could provide nearly unlimited access to the former principalities of northern Pakistan, much easier for us than it had been for Godfrey Thomas Vigne. Hushe was only a day’s drive from the airport at Skardu. We could breeze in, hire porters, walk with light loads across glaciers into the heights, wander back as fast or slowly as we wanted, order a meal, a room, a jeep, even do a little labor for the fun of it–and head off to see more of the Himalaya in India.
Uttrakhand, India: Land of Gods
He gestured to one of his friends. “This man, he has great meditation power. He can stand the weight of you and me both on the end of his paniss, no problem, light like a feather.”
“Paniss? What’s a paniss.”
He gave me a look of astonishment. “It is your sex.”
“Oh, I see. He can do that?”
“He can show you. One hundred fifty kilos. He can pick up a stone 150 kilos with his paniss.”
“How does he grip it? Does he use a rope?”
“He can balance on the end of his paniss.”
“Really? And spin ’round like a top?”
“It is nothing. You would like to see?”
“Of course I would.”
“You must first pay him respect.”
“I have enormous respect for anyone who can do that.”
“I, too, can do it. I have meditative power to pick up a hundred kilos with my paniss. You cannot pick up five kilos with your paniss, am I right?”
“Oh, yes, you’re right. How do you grip the stone?”
“It is by meditation.” He pointed to a pillow-size rock nearby. “This stone, he pick up this stone with his paniss if you give him a thousand rupees.”
A little more than sixty dollars. It would have been worth seeing, but I was skeptical. “Is it good to do these things for money?” I asked.
“No. I am meditative for myself, for my soul, not to do magic.” He gave me a broad smile. “You will now give us money for breakfast.”
“Why should I do that?”
“Because I talk to you.”
“And I’m talking to you, so we’re even.”
“You talk to me for yourself. It is nothing for me.”
This lovely, balanced landscape gives me a good feeling. I wonder how it must be for a man to look out across the terraced fields of his home valley and know that was how it looked to his grandfather–and to assume that, long after his death, his grandchildren will sit in the very same place on the same old stone porch smelling the same air and thinking the same thoughts.
Most of us have no way of knowing how that would feel, immersed as we are in this world where rapid change is the only thing of which we can be certain. We are accustomed to staring at old photographs, trying to divine something of commonality with the recent but so different past. I have only a vague notion of what my grandfather saw and only a fantasy of the world my grandchildren will know. We think we are rich, but we’ve lost knowledge of our past and are blind to our future.
Sikkim: Breakdancing and Bayonets
The next morning we would catch the bus for Gangtok. There would be another one to Siliguri, a taxi to the Nepal border, an overnight bus to Kathmandu, a series of airplane flights to Vancouver, and an overnight train across the Rockies to Banff. There, we would pick up our car and in two more days drive home.
Which brought a Buddhist thought to mind: The body always returns to the place from which it started. Only the spirit goes on. And on and on. I knew it would be back, the restlessness–the dissatisfaction with a life rooted in one place, the desire to be stirred by strange things and foreign outlooks.