The Frozen River: Seeking Silence in the Himalaya by James Crowden

Reviewed by Peter Reason

Opening this book, I am immediately drawn in: ‘Silence, snow and solitude have got hold of me and will not let me go. I am possessed by mountains, cold and ice’. In this preface, Crowden introduces us to the main themes of his book: life in Padum, a Buddhist town high in Ladakh; the high passes shut behind him, not to reopen for half a year; the ‘ice road’, the chadar, along the frozen river through the Zangskar gorge that he undertakes in mid-winter with a group of Zangskari traders; the high mountains of the Himalaya, a dry mountain desert. He takes us into the tiny room he occupies, normally only used in summer, tells how he can scratch away the fernlike pattern of ice on the small windowpane when he wakes in the morning and look out across the village to the mountains on the far side. And he draws us into the silence: ‘You can savour silence, you can breathe it like savouring a fine wine, yet there is no delusion. Clarity of purpose and being becomes all the more obvious. Absolute silence, like absolute zero, is a state of mind.’

In 1976 James Crowden left the British Army and travelled to Ladakh. This book, published only now from earlier notes and drafts, is part adventure, part account of the lives of the Ladakhi life in the Zangskari valley, part a spiritual pursuit of the silence of the mountains and of Buddhist way of life. The narrative starts with his journey through the high passes to Zangskari, first in buses, then on foot with packhouses—a significant adventure in its own right. This leads to the account of his time during the early winter in Padum with description of village life and the people he became friends with. This is a fascinating account of Tibetan Buddhist culture: he is invited to tea with the local rajah and family; they encourage him to get the local blacksmith to craft a stove out of jerrycans; he watches a wedding ceremony, complete with drumming and horsemen arriving to carry off the bride; there is a strange arrival of police in jeeps; then the winter snow arrives.

The central part of the story tells of his journey down the frozen river through the Zangskar gorge to the capital city Leh. Local people undertake this journey every year to sell yak butter in the Leh markets and return with necessary purchases. Crowden describes how they waited for the river to be sufficiently frozen, consulting astrologers for the favourable time to set off. The journey itself is beset with hazards—of the ice cracking underfoot, of climbing over precipitous rocks, of avalanches, of sleeping in caves the roofs of which are smothered with the soot from fires of generations of travellers. The cold is penetrating throughout: little sun penetrates the narrow gorge and there is continual risk of frostbite. The return journey is even more hazardous, since the ice has begun to melt and in places is liable to give way. It is an extraordinary story, throughout which Crowden draws on that special quality of mountain silence that possesses him.

Back in the Zangskar valley, we learn more about life in the mountains, including an account of a ceremony at the monastery in Karsha, with the whole village gathering to participate in the spectacle of music and ritual dance that Crowden describes as a battle between good and evil. Winter conditions persist, supplies dwindle, until at last ploughing the fields and planting can commence.

The easing of winter brings Crowden to his final adventure: leaving Zangskar and making a long solo ski trip back over the high passes. It is a test to the very limits of endurance as he confronts the extreme cold, the avalanche risk, the hungry wolf packs. He just manages to make it to the shelter of a village on the far side of the pass where he is welcomed and given warm food.

All these adventures took place in the 1970s. Since then, climate change has altered weather patterns in the Himalaya as elsewhere: glaciers have retreated, fields have been abandoned for lack of water, villages have moved. The chadar down the frozen river is increasingly perilous. Even at that time the Indian government was building a road up over the high passes; and the whole area, between disputed Kashmir and China dominated Tibet, is threatened with conflict. One hopes, with Crowden, that the “commitment to a Buddhist religious life is not undermined by ‘Western’ values and Indian commercialism”.

The culture of the high Himalaya and Tibetan Buddhism has fascinated me since I read Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer as a young boy. Later, I read Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg-Hodge, who emphasizes the significance of Ladakhi culture as a model of ecological wisdom. My dear friend and Buddhist teacher, John Crook, whose contribution Crowden acknowledges, made several trips to Ladakh, including a pilgrimage to visit hermits in the Zangskar region, told in his book Yogins of Ladakh. From John I heard at first hand of the challenges Crowden relates, such as of crossing the high passes, knee deep or more in powder snow, keeping going by chanting with each step, as Crowden does the great Buddhist mantra Om mani padme hum. Frozen River is an important addition to the literature on this region.

I do have a significant reservation about Crowden’s writing style. In many parts the account is gripping: I can almost feel the ice-cold water on my own feet as he describes wading through a river; the cold, dark caves in which the travellers huddle around a scant fire. But I found Crowden’s frequent use of short, verbless sentences to give emphasis increasingly irritating. He often summarizes a whole descriptive paragraph in three or four words: the description of a birch twig bridge ends with ‘Ingenious local engineering’; of the books he taken with him with ‘Food for thought’; of his reading while confined by a snowstorm ‘Peasant academic’; of the wolves that invaded a villager’s chicken run ‘Hit and run’. Picking out these few as I leaf back through the pages doesn’t really convey the tediousness I found in this repetitive style.

In contrast writers who I much admire, praise the writing: Philip Marsden describes it as ‘lyrical’; Jay Griffiths as ‘luminous’. Mark Cocker, not one who spares his criticism when it is needed, writes in The Spectator ‘Crowden’s speciality is the one- or two-word sentence’ and finds his prose creates ‘a sense of enormous immediacy’. So this may well be a matter of personal taste: it spoiled the book for me, but may well appeal to other readers.

In closing this review, I want to appreciate the beautiful jacket illustration by Joe Maclaren, which conveys so much of the sense of the book in a single image.

References:

  • Crook, J. H., & Low, J. (1997). The Yogins of Ladakh: A pilgrimage among the hermits of the Buddhist Himalayas. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
  • Harrer, H. (1956). Seven Years in Tibet. London: Pan Books.
  • Norberg-Hodge, H. (1991). Ancient Futures:  learning from Ladakh. London: Rider Books.
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Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes regularly for Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. He has written two books of ecological pilgrimage, In Search of Grace (Earth Books, 2017) Spindrift (Jessica Kingsley, 2014). On Presence: Essays | Drawings (The Letter Press, 2019) with artist Sarah Gillespie will be followed by On Sentience: Essays | Drawings in 2021. Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason.

James Crowden, The Frozen River (William Collins, 2020). 9780008353216, 352pp., paperback.

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