In this modern age of easy accessibility the opportunity to visit somewhere largely untouched by modernity is rare. In 1981 Mark Boyden was one of the first westerners to visit the remote and isolated province of Zanskar in Western Tibet. Now, 32 years later, he has written the compelling story of that expedition in his first book Travels in Zanskar. It is, in many ways, a classical travel book which chronicles an adventure in an unknown and hidden world.
Although he has lived in West Cork since 1974, Boyden’s early upbringing near San Francisco gave some hint as to how his life might unfold. “The first time I camped by myself I was only nine or ten, and by the time I reached my early teens I was travelling into the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains. I would bring some cheese, some flour and a rifle and stay up there for weeks at a time tracking caribou and just observing eagles and grizzlies. After a number of different jobs — apprentice dairy herdsman, merchant seaman and stage designer — I became entranced by the spate rivers of West Cork and their salmon populations. I set up the Streamscapes aquatic education programme and have been detained here ever since.”
Boyden became fascinated by Zanskar because “I have always been interested in comparative mythologies and ancient calendars and in what is loosely termed primitive societies,” he says. “The opportunity to get a last glimpse of a particular type of pastoral culture, which was still un-mechanised and probably hadn’t changed in a thousand years, was too great to pass up. As happened with Christianity in Ireland, which blended with pagan culture, when Buddhism came to Tibet it was overlaid onto the existing Bon tradition. It is this mixture of the two traditions which makes Tibetan Buddhism so distinctive.”
Unfortunately, maps were unavailable at the time of his adventure and an arduous and sometimes dangerous journey ensued, accompanied by his neighbour Paddy and a willful horse they called Himself. The first thing that struck him when he climbed through the Himalayas and reached the highest, continually inhabited valleys on earth, was the friendliness of the welcome.
“We were so new to them and as word spread before us we received a rapturous welcome,” he remembers. “Whenever we arrived in a new village the lamas and the children would come out and feed us and our ponies. I remember them as a fantastic fun-loving people. As it happens, I resembled the king. There was great fun to be had at the idea that I was his long-lost, returning son. It helped that I became fluent in the language and we ate the local food and tried to be as respectful to their culture as possible.”
Although light-hearted in tone, one of the great merits of the book is its scope; it covers subjects that range from linguistics, through incense production to the churning of butter. But does Boyden feel that this traditional society has lessons to teach the modern world? “I believe each age has to face its own challenges and technology is taking us to places where we have never been before,” he says. “I suppose the parts of their culture which are relevant are their simplicity and good humour and reverence for life. Their ability to face reality, no matter now stark. As an ecologist I believe we need to put some buffers in place so we don’t destroy the web of biodiversity that everything depends on and that is something they would have instinctively understood.”