Review: Trespassers on the Roof of the World, Peter Hopkirk

Rating: 5 out of 5

Not knowing much about Tibet, this was a good introduction of how West managed to get a foothold in the land despite the desperate wishes of the locals that everyone else would just stay out. Some of these stories, some of these people, are relatively well known, while others make for much more out-of-the-box reading. It was also enjoyable that Mr Hopkirk had included some comments on how he had tried to track down and research some of these explorers.

There’s also a great general overview of Tibetan history that the book starts out with. This enables the tome to be more than just another look at the Great Game, giving it also some general qualities that should increase the number of people for whom this is an appealing choice. Through all of the exploration stories, the author wants to indicate the good wishes of the unwanted intruders. In most cases, these sentimental notions are driven off by a more sober narrative; this wouldn’t be that much of an issue if the book did not end on a note of high optimism, only corrected in the afterword of a republished edition, that tones down the greatness of the Chinese in Tibet.

Younghusband is probably the most well known of the people who takes part in this. His advance into Lhasa, after all, opened it up, but also he possessed a certain humility not readily apparent in the other characters. Rijnhart and the French seemed to be particularly far up their own backsides in dismissing the natives and yet trying to penetrate all of their secrets. It seems a weird contradiction, when put down like that, but I suspect those explorers didn’t see it that way. This also allows me to pronounce the English vicar that the author described as the most sensible of all of these travellers—because the vicar turned back after realizing that absolutely no one wanted him in Tibet.

It does look as if the author’s original enthusiasm was crushed by reality, but perhaps that is not all that bad. The book itself is still very enjoyable, and the choices the author made in who to describe are also interesting to behold (as is the number of women explorers in the unforgiving Tibetan highland of the 19th century).

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