The Big Open – On foot across Tibet’s Chang Tang
Make a mental picture of an icy, insurmountable and impregnable region, enveloped by an azure dome and fleeting immaculate clouds.
The Big Open exemplifies Chang Tang, the 16,000-foot-high Central Asian Plateau – an open rangeland with rising and falling snow-covered crests. The beauty of the land crystallises in the mind and ceases to thaw.
Author of five books, Rick Ridgeway takes the reader on an incredible journey through the vast plains of Chang Tang. He was joined on this expedition by Conrad Anker, Galen Rowell and Jimmy Chin in the summer of 1999. The author, a quintessential mountaineer, has traversed famed mountains of many a land.
This time, however, his mission was different. He chose to use his skills to “give back to the wild Earth that had so sustained and nurtured us.” The Big Open paints a portrait of a little-known region, its endangered fauna and focusses on the chiru, the Tibetan antelope that is killed for its fine wool or shahtoosh.
The wool is woven into shawls that are in high-demand. This has led to a drastic reduction in chiru populations and though trade in shahtoosh has been banned, the illicit business continues. For centuries now, our vanity has driven us to bring down species such as the enigmatic chiru. What do we stand to gain from crafting natural beauty into shrouds and selling them in markets of the free world? The quadruplet travelled on foot pulling along specially-crafted aluminium-rickshaws to the chiru’s calving grounds in the hope of reaching before the poachers and traders and capture on film a spectacle that had hitherto not been recorded.
The author writes of the suspense, drama and surprises in the journey to the calving grounds. “Finding the chiru is a detective’s work,” “Tracking, observing, making notes and trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together,” suggests Gallen. The idea was to bring together all possible facts on the chiru and the vital missing piece of information – the location of the calving grounds – to the Chinese officials and bring to their notice how the animal is being systematically wiped off and its ecological importance in the bigger picture. The author says that there is no such thing as a ‘grand solution’ in trying to achieve a perfect environmental balance.
There is a need for many individuals to pool in their efforts and this journey was an attempt to stem such trade. The Big Open has thrown light on the legal aspects of the animal trade, the role of the various organisations and the few individuals who are fighting to save the chiru and the international campaign. The ‘unputdownable’ book is a perfect blend of conservation and travel, peppered with just a bit of humour, making it a perfectly delightful read.
Reviewed by Shivani ShahRick Ridgeway, Published by: The National Geographic Society, US $26