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River Dog: A Journey Down the Brahmaputra    by Mark Shand order for
River Dog
by Mark Shand
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2002 (2002)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This is my favorite kind of travel literature, combining as it does a significant and challenging quest (the journey down the Brahmaputra) with witty (Brit style) self-deprecating observations of unusual cultures. Mark Shand, author of Travels On My Elephant, continues the theme of an animal companion by journeying with a 'Tripuri hound from the Lushai Hills', his River Dog. Charles Allen's A Mountain in Tibet inspired this expedition, to follow the Brahmaputra River from its source in the Himalayas to the Sea of Bengal, which Allen called the 'last great Asian adventure' and which, according to Shand, 'was to become in many ways the last great Asian misadventure.'

The trip would involve 1800 miles through 3 countries, going from 5715 metres to sea level, with a huge variety in conditions from arctic to jungle. The author's preparations are hilarious from extreme shopping - including the purchase of a GPS (global positioning system) - to the acquisition of a dog chain in a sex shop, and much doggy research. Apparently a canine that accompanied its family into Tibet was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (only in Britain!). Shand travelled to the roof of the world with Charles Allen, was awed by Mt. Kailash, suffered acute mountain sickness, and extracted a pebble from the Tsangpo, a rivulet that is the beginning of the Brahmaputra.

The search for the right pooch was problematic after the first flea-bitten mongrel ran away, but then Shand acquired Bhaiti of the 'cool, hypnotic eyes' from friends. With some difficulty they were able to trek through lands of the McMahon Line, disputed between India and China. Then the band hikes down to 'meet the river', the author engaging in some accidental stupa and (hanging) bridge demolition en route. There is a fascinating discussion of the Great Game and its 'almighty' (but unrewarded) player, Kinthup. This inspires a new quest by the author, to find one of the many tagged logs that his hero sent down the river in the 1880s.

There are encounters with snakes, the tasting of a poisonous beetle, and the usual blisters, leeches and other typical trekking discomforts. Another interesting aside discusses the six hundred year rule of Assam by the Ahoms, descended from the Burmese Shan civilizations. The journey continues on various boats, with varying companions, including towards the end Shand's great friend Aditya. Travelling through the disaster (ninety per cent of the country flooded) that was Bangladesh that year, the author felt like a ghoul, 'a foreigner from a land that had never known the meaning of hunger.'

Shand and Bhaiti do make it to the Bay of Bengal (though bureaucratic obstacles close off parts of the route), taste sea salt and deliver the Tsangpo pebble, 'a gift from a child to a respected elder'. I recommend River Dog as high entertainment - though it varies from the sublime to the silly, it is never soporific.

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