Monday, July 25, 2016

The High Road To China: George Bogle, The Panchen Lama & The First British Expedition To Tibet by Kate Teltscher.

The High Road To China: George Bogle, The Panchen Lama & The First British Expedition To Tibet by Kate Teltscher. Hardcover book published by Bloomsbury 2006, 316 pages with a few colour and black and white illustrations.

In 1774 the head of the East India Company in Bengal, Warren Hastings, determined to open trade relations with the hitherto impenetrable court of imperial China. To this end he entrusted the young Scotsman George Bogle to be the first British envoy to Tibet. Once there, Bogle attempted to enlist the influence of the Panchen Larna in a bid to attract the sympathy of the Qianlong Emperor; a hard task, for the imperial court generally viewed trade with disdain, and took an altogether dim view of the British Empire. But what began as an unprecedented diplomatic mission soon acquired a different character. Bogle became smitten by what he saw in Tibet, and in particular by the person of the Panchen Lama himself, with whom he struck up a remarkable friendship, fuelled by a reciprocal desire for understanding. And as for Tibet: ‘When I look upon the time I have spent among the Hills it appears like a fairy dream.’ Bogle’s letters and journals, by turns playful, penetrating, self-deprecating and packed with engaging detail, were to help create the myth of Tibet in the West, the Shangri-La so familiar to us today. This book tells the story of the British attempt to reach the Qianlong Emperor’s ear, a narrative of two extraordinary journeys across some of the harshest and highest terrain in the world: Bogle’s mission, and the Panchen Lama’s state visit to China, on which British hopes were hung. Piecing together the narrative from Bogle’s private papers, Tibetan biographies of the Panchen Lama, the account of a wandering Hindu monk, and the writings of the Qianlong Emperor himself, Kate Teltscher deftly reconstructs the momentous meeting of four very different worlds.”

Although I have never visited Tibet, I have been within spitting distance. ...Not that I want to spit on it or anything like that, i'm just using the spitting distance thing as an indication as to how close I have been... which isn't really within the distance that I or anyone else can spit, but more along the line of, “i've travelled in places not that far from Tibet”. Darjeeling, Nepal, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh are all destinations I have ventured too and are all not that far from where the action in this book takes place...or at least a little closer to the action than where I presently sit.

Unlike George, I've never been over the border, but like George I am “smitten”, which is a strange thing to say about a place i've never been too. I guess my adventures in the Himalaya are all about my fascination with Tibet without my ever having been there. Sort of like an unattainable Holy Grail, wished for and within my grasp, but never achieved. Ladakh, although not Tibet, was as close as I believe I have ever been to what I imagine Tibet is like and even as I sit here many years later, I can still vividly picture most of what I saw there. It is truly spectacular on many levels and to a certain extent I would agree with Bogle in saying ‘When I look upon the time I have spent among the Hills it appears like a fairy dream’ even though i'm not really sure what a “fairy dream” is and we are talking about different places.

My interest in things Himalayan and Tibetan did of course lead to me to the purchase of this book and although I have read a number of books about things Tibetan and the British and everyone elses interest in things Tibetan (eg Huc & Gabet), I haven't read this book but it does looks like my sort of thing and I figure it is probably someone elses sort of thing as well.  

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