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The High Road to China

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In the summer of 1774, George Bogle, an East India Company envoy, packed up the best in European invention and, with a crew of 63 servants, set off to lead the first British expedition across the Himalayas into Tibet. His twofold mission: to study ”the customs and manners of the people” and to cultivate the Third Panchen Lama, Tibet’s Buddhist leader, as a trading partner (and potential route to Peking, the greater commercial prize). Bogle gained an audience with the Lama (”a fat, short man, and as merry as a Cricket”) and the two struck up a lasting friendship based on mutual curiosity: Bogle gamely exchanged tight breeches for fur-lined robes and learned Tibetan law and language, while the Lama eagerly quizzed his guest on Western practices (Bogle struggled to explain dueling to the nonviolence-practicing Lama). Unfortunately, Kate Teltscher’s The High Road to China loses its momentum when it leaves the Tibetan sojourn behind for less-compelling topics like political rivalries at the East India Company. Still, Teltscher offers a worthwhile footnote to the history of two imperialist empires and a beguiling glimpse of a culture that exists now only in exile. B