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review 2017-12-18 03:01
My Quest for the Yeti
My Quest for the Yeti: Confronting the Himalayas' Deepest Mystery - Reinhold Messner

A bit of background: Reinhold Messner is, as you may know, a famous, record-breaking mountaineer. He was the first to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen, he was the first to climb all of the 14 eight-thousanders, and many other incredible feats. However, in the mid-to-late 1980s, he became the target of much mockery when the media picked up an interview in which he apparently claimed to have seen a yeti (which is not what happened, as this book explains). 

 

When I first saw the book, I must admit that I rolled my eyes. I looked at the title and thought "Oh, dear. Here we go - it's the story of Reinhold and his Yeti." Still I was intrigued, and now I am glad to have read it, because it is not what I expected.

 

While it is about Messner's encounter with an unidentified creature, he does not claim the creature to be a yeti. The book actually takes a look at the myth of the yeti while investigating what the creature he saw might have been. He also looks at why the story made the headlines and how the mis-reported interview caused a rather cycnical reception.

Why this skepticism? The answer is simple enough: explorers and discoverers see what they want to see. Like all of us, they perceive reality through their own preconceptions.

Messner's descriptions of his trekking and travelling in Tibet is phenomenal. He clearly loves the place and has a lot of respect for its land, people, and culture. His knowledge of the area is remarkable, and he comes across a fairly grounded person - except when he thought his girlfriend left him stranded in Lhasa. 

 

He visits many different areas and interviews locals about the yeti myth. His conclusion is that the yeti exists only as a myth, but that the creature he encountered was likely a rare Himalayan bear.

 

This book was published in 1998. Since the time of the precarious interview with an Indian newspaper in 1986, Messner had been subjected to quite harsh ridicule, and his credibility as a writer and mountaineer really suffered. 

Considering this undeserved treatment and considering that Messner's theory of a rare bear as the origin of the yeti myth, it has been satisfying and delightful to learn that the scientific community now (in the last month or so as I am writing this) seems to consider Messner's idea as a valid explanation. Well done that man!

 

Still, even with the latest articles supporting Messner's ideas, it is still worth reading this book. Messner's writing in parts is absolutely gripping as he avoids being arrested by the Chinese police, or as he walks across Tibet by himself with nothing but a backpack and a sleeping bag (not tent). 

 

The other part that I found really gripping was the part where he described his observations of the Chinese regime in Tibet. He gives some background to the political situation of his visits at the time that the book is referring to but he also adds his first hand experiences.

As I have learnt from this (and his Everest book), he doesn't hold back and he doesn't seem to embellish, which makes the paragraphs on Tibet quite a decent work of journalism (in any case much better than what I encountered in Forensics recently, not that this is a high bar to set). 

 

This is from a visit in 1988:

 

"One day, I was in the middle of Parkor when suddenly plain-clothes policemen carrying guns and radios went running past me. The Tibetans scattered in panic; an old woman next to me began crying, and a distraught cripple, who had been cringing by the roadside, dragged himself into the nearest doorway. A truck blocked the way of the fleeing crowds; tear gas was in the air. Six young lamas who had been carrying a banner proclaiming "Free Tibet!" were hauled into a truck, which raced off, sirens blaring. Columns of soldiers marched in; then came trucks and more soldiers, their clean olive-green uniforms clashing starkly with the Tibetans' dirty rags."

Not long after this scene, the Chinese government closed Tibet to foreign journalist as the number of protests in Tibet increased. Incidentally, this prevented Messner from being able to conduct more research into the yeti myth for a number of years. 

For clarity, Messner's concern in the book is not for the disruption to his project for the welfare of the people in Tibet. Not that he spends much time on political issues, but, as I mentioned earlier, he has a very high regard for the country and its people. 

I found Messner's writing about Tibet absolutely riveting. In many ways, I could not help comparing it to Heinrich Harrer's book Seven Years in Tibet, which is an equally riveting story. Both books show their authors concerns for the country, and though they have been written in different times, they shared a common outlook.  

"The Chinese paid no attention to tourists, and the Tibetans seemed preoccupied with mumbling their prayers, as they had done for centuries. Traditionally, prayers were written on strips of paper, then rolled into cylinders and stuffed into containers the size of a fist. These were set in motion by a swipe of the hand; a weight revolving around a metallic rod in the middle of the cylinder kept it spinning. Once a Tibetan symbol of faith, these prayer mills were becoming increasingly rare, and the paintings of gods on rocks were fading. But the mumbling continued. Most Tibetans are indifferent to the rise in living standards brought about by China's rule. Spiritual life is dying out, and they have nothing to counter this with except their mumbling."

As far as books go, this was one of the most surprising reads this year, and I love that the books has changed my own preconceptions of the author. 

 

 

Previous status updates:

 

Update 1

Update 2

Update 3

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text 2017-12-17 16:08
Reading progress update: I've read 134 out of 165 pages.
My Quest for the Yeti: Confronting the Himalayas' Deepest Mystery - Reinhold Messner

When I returned to my office in Austria after my Kailash trip, Ruth, my secretary of many years, handed me a letter from Kodak. 

"The roll of Kodachrome slide film you sent us for development was damaged during delivery," the letter read. "Unfortunately, we will be unable to develop it. As a gesture of goodwill, we are happy to enclose a new roll."

The damaged roll had contained shots of the prints in the snow. My clearest proof to date had been destroyed.

 

Oh, wow...

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text 2017-12-17 13:24
Reading progress update: I've read 107 out of 165 pages.
My Quest for the Yeti: Confronting the Himalayas' Deepest Mystery - Reinhold Messner

With every journey to Tibet, I moved further and further away from the popular concept of the yeti. And with every year the scorn of the yetologists grew.

People sent me caricatures. There were jokes about my being unable to capture the yeti on film. Questions about my abominable snowman were now inevitable at readings and conferences. My most severe critics were the ones who confused the yeti of their imagination with the real thing and would only accept as conclusive evidence photographs reflecting their vision of the yeti. But how could I fulfill their fantasies?

I continued my quest, ignoring the scientists who found me amusing and the fantasists for whom I unlocked secret aspirations. It wasn't my job to confirm or refute what millions imagined the yeti to be.

 

I'm a bit further on now and am really liking the book. Maybe it is in reaction to our recent reading of The Science of Discworld, or rather, a reaction to some of the arrogance displayed by two of the authors of TSoDW, but it appears that "narrativium" is alive and well on "Roundworld" and that includes its scientific community. 

 

What is becoming very clear is that Messner does try to collect the legends and follow these up against what we (think) know about the facts of geography, ecology, biology, anthropology, etc. of the region. He's not pushing the claim that there is or is not a "yeti" - he is just trying to figure out what he's seen - without letting the narrativium take over, i.e. without being swayed by the legends or tales of what he might have seen.

 

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text 2017-12-16 21:49
Reading progress update: I've read 57 out of 165 pages.
My Quest for the Yeti: Confronting the Himalayas' Deepest Mystery - Reinhold Messner

So, does he or does he not have permission to be where he is?

 

Considering he seems to have a lot of trouble with Chinese police, are his problems caused by him not having papers or by the Chinese police being obstructive?

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text 2017-12-16 18:51
Reading progress update: I've read 19 out of 165 pages.
My Quest for the Yeti: Confronting the Himalayas' Deepest Mystery - Reinhold Messner

In Lharigo I was chased away from a nomad encampment - children threw stones at me, dogs attacked me, and women waved pots of flour at me as if exorcising an evil spirit. I didn't dare talk to anyone about the yeti. 

Towards midnight I found a house with light on and walked toward it, calling out. I entered the forecourt, surprised that nobody tried to chase me away and that there were no dogs. I should have taken it as a warning: Tibetans keep dogs, the Chinese eat them. The door was ajar and I poked my head in, ready to run at any moment's notice.

I could see a dim light. A man's voice asked me to come upstairs. I made my way through the low-ceilinged basement and climbed some stairs to the first floor.

I realised to late that I had stumbled into a police station.

There are parts in this book so far (and I am only just starting chapter 2) that remind me of Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet. Apparently, not much had changed in 40 years in this part of the world (this chapter is set in 1986).

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