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Book Talk: K2 – The Story of The Savage Mountain

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Standing atop the Mt Haramukh in Kashmir on an assignment of the Trigonometric Survey of India to study heights in September 1886, Lt TG Montogomerie was rewarded with an outstanding view towards the north; where over 200 km away the then almost totally unknown Karakoram range stood imposing in a clear sky. Little did he know that his markings of the two most prominent peaks – labelled K1 and K2 by himself – would one day command prime attraction of the mountaineering world.

While K1, the peak with a distinctive double summit was subsequently popularised with its local name Masherbrum but the random mark applied by Montogomerie to the other distant triangular massif was retained as it is. In the years to come, this “Mountain of Mountains” massif, K2 became tantamount with adventure, exploration, difficulty, danger and impersonal savagery.

Written by Jim Curran, K2 the Story of the Savage Mountain was first published in the year 1995. Having won numerous awards, this bestseller traces the mountaineering history of the remote K2 and attempts to search for the common thread – laced with high adventure and exploration – that has been uniting all attempts to summit the peak for more than a century now. Himself a mountaineer, Curran happened to be the climbing cameraman on the British expedition in the tragic year of 1986 for K2. That year, after a long, terrible summer he was one of the few people left at base camp to witness the final tragedy when five climbers, including his friend Alan Rouse, perished in a storm high on the Abruzzi Ridge of K2. With the objective of making climbing safer and more practical, a debate followed worldwide to evaluate the rationing of human intervention in a fragile ecosystem up at such Himalayan heights.

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Not only had the year 1986 but with K2, tragic events on the Abruzzi Spur in 1939, 1953, 1954 and 1986 become subjects for intense discussion, speculation, disagreement and occasionally lifelong rancour. Circumstances governed by variables like the weather, human frailty, ambition and misjudgement had indeed produced epics of endurance, suffering and often, a stark tragedy. Although Mt K2, the highest peak in the Karakoram Range, falls 784 ft short of Mt Everest, it is far harder to climb and has claimed more casualties as compared to success. Even as this book was being published in 1995, seven more people had died in a freak storm on K2. The author has masterfully highlighted the commonness in all such attempts.

Starting from Montogomerie to the contribution of Godwin Austen and Francis Younghusband to giving due thought to the prevailing politics and spying on newer and derelict trade routes to Mustagh Pass, Curran retraces nearly everything known. The arrival of the Duke of Abruzzi in 1909 along with the legendary mountain photographer Sella at the base camp of K2 is also presented in an enthusiastic manner. From Wiessner and Durrance’s attempts to the first casualties in 1939, Charles Houston, Bob Bates, the tragic end of Art Gilkey in 1953, Ricardo Cassin and Desio to other important mentions including the colossal expeditions involving more than 1500 porters have been given their due share; all of which contributed to popularise climbing at K2.

After the first successful summit attempt at the K2 in 1954, attention in the Karakoram focused on the superb collection of spectacular but lower peaks scattered right across the range. The Mustagh Tower, Gasherbrum IV, Gasherbrum II, Broad Peak, Hidden Peak and Rakaposhi were becoming major scalps. Names like Uli Biaho, Paiju, Trango Tower, the Ogre and the Latoks epitomised the huge potential of the area. After a decade of inactivity, in 1970s the range became climbing hotspot again with world’s top class climbers like Reinhold Messner, Peter Habeler, Bonington, Doug Scott, et al making their efforts through a different route to the summit of K2.

In writing this book, Jim Curran, has lucidly achieved three objectives of much value to mountain enthusiasts: First, he makes available a well-organized mass of history on K2. Second, his text introduces a powerful cautionary element badly needed for future visitors to the mountain. And third, he supplies a great deal of statistical data not previously available in any one volume on K2. K2: The Story of the Savage Mountain would appeal equally to a mountain climber, Himalayan expert or a layman. The maps, sketches and tabular data mentioned at the end are quite useful. The book has some well-captioned photographs as well. With 255 pages, the current edition of the book continues to be unfortunately out of print. I bought this edition from an online store in UK.

Book Talk: Annapurna

Published first in 1952, this fabulous and gripping read is the French expedition leader Maurice Herzog’s account of the first ascent of the mighty Annapurna (8091m) – the tenth highest mountain in the world and the very first 8000m peak to be climbed at that time – in the pre-monsoon season of 1950. The first ever ascent of an eight-thousander, made the French expedition team national heroes overnight. Their heroic conquest stirred up general mountaineering interest the world over.

Ever since it was first published more than six decades back, the book Annapurna, detailing the first conquest of an 8,000m peak, continues to be a bestselling classic of mountain and adventure climbing literature. Originally written in French language, the book was later translated into English language and subsequently into over 50 different languages. So far the book is said to have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.

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Positioned in the Himalayas in north-central Nepal that includes Annapurna I over 8,000 metres, thirteen peaks over 7,000 metres and sixteen peaks of more than 6,000 metres, Annapurna Himal is a Sanskrit designation to the massif that translates into “full of food” and is revered as Goddess of Harvests. The main peak is held to be an intimidating peak with a deadly reputation. Even to get a close view of the main peak is a no mean task; a fact which is upheld by the mountaineering fraternity and the Annapurna peaks are considered to be among the world’s most dangerous mountains to climb. With an overall fatality-to-summit ratio of 40 per cent, many world class climbers prefer the Annapurna to be their last option among the eight-thousanders. Just a couple of years ago, in October 2014, 39 people were killed as a result of snowstorms and avalanches in the Annapurna region.

Back in 1950, with numerous handicaps including that of any accurate Himalayan map, route guide, technological aids or technically sound gear, the French expedition led by the author Maurice Herzog set out to try their hands at either Dhaulagiri or the Annapurna. For more than a month, the team initially struggled looking for a feasible route to either Dhaulagiri or Annapurna. Just as they hear the arrival of monsoons, the group having decided the Dhaulagiri to be out of reach and way too difficult, fix and direct their efforts to the North Face of the mighty Annapurna.

The telling account begins with myriad nuisances of establishing base camp, provisioning foods and supplies as well as arranging porters and alliancing with locals. The team begin with multiple exploratory reconnaissance where each expedition member has a specific task assigned to survey the area around Annapurna and its neighbour Dhaulagiri; trying to find a feasible access to the top of either one.

Slowly but painstakingly, and at times frustratingly, the team arrives at a conclusion with respect to the routes and plans to conquer either one of the prized peaks. With the arrival of monsoons in Calcutta, the final assault starts taking shape to climb the Annapurna. After which the frustration started to peter out and pitches became more productive and realistic. With their expertise, enthusiasm and not to forget the exceptional camaraderie which is so uncommon in today’s world of mountaineering, the team quickly established the trail and camps up the mammoth Annapurna.

Against the overpowering odds of the harsh Himalayan terrain and weather, the determined team carried on with complete synchronisation keeping in mind the dangers ahead. The mannerism of planning and detailing to gain the height reflect on the fundamental discipline in French team members. With persistence they carried on successfully. The entire narrative is quite readable and realistically presents minor details seemingly live time.

On the fateful day of June 03, 1950 Maurice Herzog and his teammate Louis Lachenal reached the summit of Annapurna without any supplemental oxygen. The harrowing descent in the bad weather, however, turned into a nightmare with Herzog losing his gloves in excitement after which his hands became frostbitten. Lachenal’s feet too became severely frostbitten. As they both barely make it back to camp V, Lionel Terray and Gaston Rebuffat helped them to ease but the rough weather obstructed all their plans to descend the slope safely. The team wandered helplessly on the exposed slopes before finding a crevasse to spend the night. As they emerge out of it next morning, they get caught in an avalanche. The raw but expert medical treatment and care they both received right from camp II in the open to the plains, by the expedition doctor, was truly exceptional.

After descending from the sanctuary, the end part of the book deals with multiple amputations of the two infected climbers and village life as the author is carried on the back of a porter or on a stretcher through hills and jungles on their way back to civilisation of the plains. The book is a gripping account of the heroic climb and is definitely one of the best I have ever come across. Herzog’s masterful narrative makes it to be one of the greatest mountain-adventure stories of all time. The latest edition of the book in English featuring a foreword by the legendary Conrad Anker is averagely priced at Rs 900 at Amazon and Flipkart. I totally recommend this book to someone who is a keen enthusiast of the Himalayas and especially mountaineering.

Hidden Heritage of Barog and Dagshai Hills

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Among the cluster of rising ridges located immediately uphill the tri-city Chandigarh, there is quite a collection of small hills that offer instant sylvan refuge from the humdrum of city life. As you climb the road to Shimla in Himachal Pradesh from Chandigarh, passing the beautiful Pinjore valley, the first of these destinations and usually the more popular one is obviously Kasauli.

Evening skyline from Dagshai

Evening skyline from Dagshai. Please visit Flickr for more images from the region

Spread on the facing ridges just off the Kalka-Shimla highway, at Kumarahatti, are the other two lesser frequented hilly sanatoriums – Barog and Dagshai – now fast emerging as popular weekend destinations from the plains. From up here, all around the lower hills spread out in every direction, romantic and picturesque, mountain, plain, and precipice, in hundred varied forms, blended by distance, and softened by the various tints of sunshine and shade; rounded ridges, green tops, ravines purple and red, and graceful hills covered most luxuriantly with dark cedars, clustered oaks, pines, and rhododendrons blushing with scarlet bloom. In the southerly direction the beautiful valley of Pinjore, and the verge of sight melting into a line of vapour scarcely to be distinguished from the horizon, is bounded by Punjab and Haryana plains.

The road and walkways through Dagshai

The road and walkways through Dagshai. More images from the region at Flickr

St Patrick's RC Church was built in 1852. The gothic and the stone structure with Chonna Mitti joined together, slate roofing, single stone piece cross, wooden ceiling, red stone flooring and teak wooden windows, doors, furnitures, the Italian marble Altar in memory of Lt Mary Rebeca, the stone Baptismal pond, the statue of Mother Mary with child Jesus, the picture of St Patrick and the way of the cross are said to be antique, unique and of great significance

St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church was built in 1852 at Dagshai. The gothic and the stone structure with Chonna Mitti joined together, slate roofing, single stone piece cross, wooden ceiling, red stone flooring and teak wooden windows, doors, furniture, the Italian marble Altar in memory of Lt Mary Rebecca, the stone Baptismal pond, the statue of Mother Mary with child Jesus, the picture of St Patrick and the way of the cross are said to be antique, unique and of great significance

Eleven km before Solan at Kumarhatti, a steep and narrow road bifurcates from the main Kalka-Shimla highway to reach the commanding hillock of Dagshai (1730m); at about six km from the main market. Compared to Shimla, the ridge may be a bit rainier, windier, and rather warmer being not so high in the altitude. But then, with its superb walks and wooded picnic spots under the canopy of oaks and holly forests, it remains to be a preferred destination for rejuvenation over a weekend.

Dagshai Heritage Museum

Dagshai Heritage Museum; the cantonment hill has a Cellular Jail turned Museum where Gandhi Ji spent a night. More images from the region at Flickr

Following the footsteps of its rather fortunate neighbour – Kasauli, a fine range of hills rising immediately above the valley of Pinjore, where a military station was established in 1843 by the British with a view to have an efficient body of troops ready on the contingency of a war with the Sikh nation spread in the plains below, the ridge of Dagshai eventually became a retreat outpost for the army regiments. With time, Dagshai became popular with army officers posted at Kasauli during the Raj.

The ridge of Dagshai certainly must have seen better days but unlike Kasauli it has successfully kept its pride intact which is mostly due to the army regiment stationed here. Due to burgeoning tourist and weekend party hoppers crowd, Kasauli might have lost a tad of its former self but at Dagshai, no street vendor or hawker would rob you off your peace.

The Cellular Jail compound; built in 1849, the building needed little or no repairs to be converted into a museum.

The Cellular Jail compound; built in 1849, the building needed little or no repairs to be converted into a museum.

A Standpost Hydrant, antique Scottish Water Pump in the compound

A Standpost Hydrant, antique Scottish Water Pump in the compound. More images at Flickr

Unused and discarded wartime and punishment stuff inside the Museum

Unused and discarded wartime and punishment stuff inside the Museum. More images at Flickr

There are unconfirmed reports that Nathuram Godse, too, spent some time in the Dagshai jail

Entrance to the Jail; there are unconfirmed claims that Nathuram Godse, too, spent some time in the Dagshai jail before he was hanged at Ambala Jail

The building and adjoining areas were used as a storage yard until it was identified

The main hall and adjoining areas were used as a storage yard until it was identified to be converted into a Museum

Even after the opening of the renovated, more than a century-old, heritage cellular jail for visitors at Dagshai, just a few curious visitors travel their way across the wooded ravines and hills from the highway to Dagshai’s picturesque environs. Even though, Dagshai is particularly beautiful when covered with snow for a very brief period in winters but is equally attractive for short walks at any time of the year. Walk into the regimental past, reminiscent of the British Raj, through the old stoned streets lined with colonial bungalows and head towards the Charing Cross through to the main road with a picnic hamper in hand under the oak and holly forests. Roaming around Dagshai, one can see the remnants of the British regiments that served here in the times gone by. A couple of churches and a few cemeteries are the prime testimonies left.

Of the 54 maximum security cells, 16 were for solitary confinement.

Of the 54 maximum security cells, 16 were for solitary confinement. More images at Flickr

The solitary These cells had no ventilation and no access to natural light. These were for prisoners guilty of severe indiscipline, who were subjected to harsh punishment.

The solitary cells (middle) had no ventilation and no access to natural light. These were for prisoners guilty of severe indiscipline, who were subjected to harsh punishment. The right most in the frame is a non-solitary cell.

There was one cell for those who were to be meted out exceptionally harsh punishment for daring the British Empire. This special cell has two doors which are barely three feet apart. The prisoner was made to stand against one door and the front door was closed. The prisoner could only stand and being sandwiched between steel grills made the movement very restricted.

There were cells for those who were to be meted out exceptionally harsh punishment for daring the British Empire. The prisoner was made to stand sandwiched between steel gates barely a feet apart which made the movement very restricted.

The compound still retains much of its original structure

The compound still retains much of its original structure

Founded in 1847 by the East India Company, Dagshai is said to be one of the oldest cantonments in India. Legend has it that the name Dagshai was derived from Daag-E-Shahi and it is claimed that during the rule of Mughals, a Daag-e-Shahi (royal mark) was put on the forehead of criminals before they were sent packing to the then Dagshai village. The British built a jail here in 1849 immediately after taking thorough possession of the area from the then Maharaja of Patiala. The cellular jail came into limelight after a number of Irish freedom fighters were executed here, an incident that prompted Mahatma Gandhi to rush to assess the situation here. Four revolutionaries of Kamagata Maru were also executed at Dagshai. As of now this renovated jail is looked after as a museum by the concerned regiment of the Indian Army.

Monsoon madness above Barog Ridge

Monsoon madness above Barog Ridge. More images from the region at Flickr

Facing Dagshai, on a ridge across the Kalka-Shimla highway, is the wooded settlement of Barog that came into the limelight during the construction of the Kalka-Shimla railways more than a century before. The Kalka-Shimla narrow-gauge railway track is punctured by an arrangement of 969 bridges and 103 tunnels and between Dagshai and Solan, the railway pierces the Barog Hill by what is claimed to be the longest of the lot – tunnel number 33 – situated several hundred feet below the road through the settlement.

Barog Railway Station

Barog Railway Station. Photo by Sarabjit LehalPlease visit Flickr for more images

The newer tunnel - Tunnel No. 33; longest one on the route

The newer tunnel – Tunnel No. 33; longest one on the Kalka-Shimla route. More images at Flickr

The construction of this 1143.61 m long tunnel at Barog through fissured sandstone has a tragic story behind it. Col Barog, who was engineer in charge to construct this tunnel, committed an error in digging the tunnel from both ends. Having failed to align both ends of the tunnel by missing certain calculations, Barog felt humiliated and committed suicide. The incident warranted construction of a new tunnel which ultimately got constructed about one km away from the earlier point with the guidance of a local saint Bhalku from Jhaja, near Chail. The new tunnel was named Barog Tunnel and the settlement too was named after Barog.

The trail to the abandoned tunnel. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

The trail to the abandoned tunnel. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

The abandoned tunnel

The abandoned tunnel. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images from the region at Flickr

Barog was buried in a grave not far from the abandoned tunnel and till today rumours of his ghost being seen haunting nearby are not very uncommon.

Col Barog was buried in a grave not far from the abandoned tunnel and till today rumours of his ghost being seen haunting nearby are not very uncommon.

Barog was buried in a grave not far from the abandoned tunnel and till today rumours of his ghost being seen haunting nearby are not very uncommon. Thereafter, the abandoned tunnel gradually became a place for people to go test their courage by walking near its entrance and perform the daredevil act. The abandoned tunnel – even as it continues to be an eerie place that is mostly filled with water – is at a short walk from the Barog Railway station or the HPTDC managed hotel.

Valley view from Barog

Valley view from Barog. Please visit Flickr for more images from the region

With time, Barog (1630m) has developed into a curious and pretty little hillside in the centre of a magnificent amphitheatre of hills, which rise one above the other on every side. Set amidst pine and oak forests, Barog enjoys a commanding view including a frontal view of Chur Chandani peak in Sirmour. Apart from the short hikes it offers, Barog can be an ideal base to explore Dagshai, Solan as well as Karol ka Tibba. The Barog railway station on the Kalka-Shimla narrow gauge route, where quite a few Bollywood movies have been filmed, is yet another ideal spot for just a short rest. There is no dearth of rooms and food at Barog and even at the station which is managed by the northern railways.

During the Old Cart Road days, Kasauli on the old bridle path from Kalka to Subathu used to be the preferred halting point for travellers. Moving over from Kasauli’s once popular Himalayan Beer, weekend pubbing has now a new address – Barog.

During the Old Cart Road days, Kasauli on the old bridle path from Kalka to Subathu used to be the preferred halting point for travellers. Moving over from Kasauli’s once popular Himalayan Beer, weekend pubbing has now a new address – Barog. More images from the region at Flickr

Book Talk: Scandal Point

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A rainy spell has all the powers to strengthen your mood. As I write this post, a steady sound of pouring rain is comforting my ears and assisting my thoughts. All of a sudden, my mind is flooded with memories of my numerous sprees to the famed Mall Road of the famous hill station of Shimla. Just at the juncture of the four trails on the Mall Road lies an equally famous landmark intriguingly called the Scandal Point.

Quite interestingly, the point where the Ridge and the Mall Road converge is being called the Scandal Point since as far back as the late 19th century. But what exactly must have transpired that the junction, now a raised traffic police platform, was called a Scandal Point still continues to be a mystery. In her book Scandal Point, the Chandigarh based author Manju Jaidka, a professor at Panjab University, attempts to solve the mystery.

Although entirely a work of fiction, the story goes that it was here that the Maharaja of Patiala had whisked away the daughter of the then Viceroy of India. The already married Maharaja later eloped with her; causing much furore in the royal house of Patiala as well as the British authorities. This even led to the Maharaja being permanently banned from entering Shimla by the British authorities. As a reaction to this ban, the Maharaja constructed himself a new palatial summer retreat at Chail, located at a higher altitude than Shimla. In her historical fiction, the author Manju Jaidka has tried to weave around a tale of romance, politics, bureaucracy, jealousy, revenge as well as luxurious, royal lives of Kings; combining some basic popular facts with fiction.

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The story sequentially relates the Maharaja’s routine visits to the Viceroy Lodge in Shimla, his first meeting with the daughter of Viceroy, love at first sight, her stay at Patiala and their eventual marriage. Their son was named Richard Ram Rahim Singh. The author talks about the jealousy of the elder Maharani and the attempts on the life of Viceroy’s daughter Betty as well as the infant prince. Such circumstances force the Maharaja, Betty and the prince to part ways. Subsequently, the story talks about how Maharaja addresses this situation and continues performing his duties as a King. A good part of the story is about the life of prince RRR Singh, later called Kartar Singh, as he reconstructs this story.

Howsoever romantic or intriguing the story might have been but the author, in my mind, has failed to practically consider the sequence of events from the annals of history. Although, the author has clearly written in the beginning of the book itself that most of the events related here are imaginary and have to be taken as such. To this day, the “mystery behind Scandal Point” continues to be a permanency of Shimla and rest everything feels like a fairy tale consigned to the sphere of fantasy. Despite the lack of tangible relevant facts, despite any evidence to corroborate the story of the elopement, the Scandal Point continues to be a concrete landmark of the queen of hills. Today, a visitor to the Mall Road at Shimla would possibly get as many answers as the number of people questioned.

Negating the author’s version, the author and columnist Khushwant Singh says, “Though I’d love to cling on to this legend as much as anyone who has got pictures clicked at the Scandal point, the demi-official letters and notes which I came across at the British Library London might prove to be killjoys to a tale which has been passed from generation to generation with delight and pride”. “There is no denying that the Maharaja of Patiala married an Irish woman during the same period as attributed to the Scandal Point episode. However, the entire scandal apparently took place in Patiala, thus rendering the Shimla tale to a mere fiction”, he adds.

In about 227 pages, the author takes you through the royal lives of Patiala Palace, Nabha State, Kapurthala Palace as well as the Viceregal Lodge at Shimla popular for hosting Friday evening parties. Published by Rupa Publications, the Scandal Point is available at an average price of Rs 136 at Flipkart and Amazon. I recommend this book to all Shimla and Chail lovers who wish to know more about the region or love reading fictions in general.

Book Talk: A Mountain in Tibet

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Monsoon is my favourite season after winters to enjoy reading books. Even as the much-loved seasonal rainfall continue to elude my region for fifth year in a row; so far, I have wrapped up over half a dozen books. Before getting back to sharing travel stories on bNomadic, I’d wish to share my thoughts and reactions on a few more titles I came across during all this while. The current one in line is A Mountain in Tibet, a travel bestseller written by the master travel author and historian Charles Allen.

For over three decades now, the master storyteller Charles Allen has been bringing out thoroughly researched and lucidly narrated books illuminating the field of travel writing, colonial or regional history. And just so, carrying his signature expression, this particular book packs a researched and unprejudiced narration that traces the natural history, myths, legends and information surrounding the Kailash Mountain and particularly the sources of the Great Rivers of Asia. From the astonishing geographical properties of South-Western Tibet that are celebrated in Hindu and Buddhist sacred literature to the Indian surveyor spies called the Pundits who explored it in disguise or the controversy surrounding Sven Hedin’s claims and more, the author takes an objective approach to trace the origin and true sources of the River Ganga, Sutlej, Indus and Brahmaputra in Tibet.

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The book comprises ten interesting chapters; each talking about a specific period or activity related to the legend of the sacred Kailash, the queen of lakes – the Mansarovar, the true source of the Ganga, Sutlej, Indus, Brahmaputra and its course through the forgotten frontier, etcetera. Through this book, Charles Allen has tried to present a historical glance into what Sven Hedin would call, “a geographical mystery that had captured and held men’s imaginations ever since the first Aryans penetrated the great Himalayan mountain barrier some three thousand years ago”. Even as the Kailash remains the centre point of the book, the author has particularly emphasised on enticingly tracing the true sources of the four great rivers whose upper courses lay hidden in the Kailash Mansarovar region. The journey to retrace the rivers starts with description of the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s attempt to order the first systematic inquiry into the sources of India’s great rivers and fine-tunes with details coming out of the most recent satellite findings.

The author explains that the mystery around the Kailash was centred on the belief shared by a large slice of humanity that somewhere between China and India there stood a sacred mountain, an Asian Olympus of cosmic proportions. This mountain was said to be the navel of the earth, the axis of the universe and from its summit flowed a mighty river that fell into a lake and then divided to form four of the great rivers of Asia. It was the holiest of all mountains, revered by many millions of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains as the home of their gods.

The trans-Himalayan plateau of Tibet is a vast, sterile, and terrible desert, too cold and too arid to provide more than the meanest of existences. Till about a century ago, the Kailash remained an enigma to the outside world. With the onset of the twentieth century, a succession of few enterprising travellers, remarkable explorers and enthusiastic pilgrims who took up the challenge of penetrating the hostile, frozen wastelands beyond the Western Himalayas; reasoned out the mystery to some extent. Gradually the true sources of the four mighty rivers: the sacred Ganga at Gaumukh, the Indus, the Sutlej and Tsangpo-Brahmaputra in the Kailash Mansarovar region were identified.

Comprising 290 pages of full excitement, A Mountain in Tibet is available at an average price of Rs 270 at Amazon and Flipkart. I totally recommend this book to someone who is interested in knowing more about the Kailash Mansarovar region or the sources of the four great rivers.