I have never met the historian John Keay, but I feel I know him. We seem to have a lot in common – the same county of birth, the same Oxford college attended in the 1960s, a love of the hills and an early introduction to and continuing professional fascination with the Indian subcontinent. For him, these last came together in the two magnificent books on nineteenth-century explorers of the western Himalayas that launched his career in the 1970s.
When Men and Mountains Meet tells the first part of this story and was named after William Blake’s lines about great things being done which are not done ‘by jostling in the street’. I am sure we both believe that, whether of trudging up 3,000 feet in Scotland where John Keay lives, or of craning one’s neck to see how high 23,000 feet looks in the Karakorams. Keay goes further. ‘It is not even enough to have seen it,’ he writes. ‘With head throbbing, lungs pulling fiercely at the harsh liquid air and feet burning with blisters, one must feel it.’ Only then, he says, comes that ‘unburdening of the spirit’ which is ‘the peculiar reward for penetrating the greatest mountains’.
This book and its sequel The Gilgit Game assemble a procession of the ‘rabid careerists and brooding romantics’ who trekked into this staggering tangle of mountains to the west of the main Himalayan range. Some were simple explorers. Others were horse-traders, botanists or missionaries. One of my favourites is an old-fashioned soldier of fortune called Colonel Alexander Gardiner, born in the United States of a Scottish father, who fought variously for rival Afghan factions and then for the Sikhs. Gardiner made stupendous journeys through the mountains and ended up dying in Kashmir, a death doubtless hastened by the fourteen severe wounds he had sustained in his career. There is a photograph of the old boy reproduced in the book. He has a curved sword in hand and wears jacket, trousers and turban of a showy matching tartan. The turban is crowned with heron feathers.
The focus of John Keay’s two books is the evolving imperial game that British India played on its north-west frontier. The Khyber Pass was one of the great invasion routes of history, and for all the Victorians knew there w
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