The song of the yak

The Ochre Border Justine Hardy Constable £14.95 The Maze Lucy Rees Bantam £12.99
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The Independent Culture
Believing himself to be the first man to set foot in an isolated Alpine Valley, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was chagrined to discover a stocking factory hidden in the foliage. Much the same reaction must have been experienced by Justine Hardy and her youthful travelling companions when, after slogging through the scree and snowfields of the Himalayas, they reached the Spiti Valley, a Tibetan border region cut off from the outside world for 70 years, only to find a party of English package tourists who had made the journey by coach and pack pony. The two groups of visitors behaved in true British fashion: they cut each other stone dead.

In order to attain this goal, the 25-year-old author gathered four London females of a similar age. A quite different book might have resulted had she not rejected three attractive French girls for being "more interested in discovering Tantric sex than donning a pair of trekking boots". The party was completed by a male photographer of stoic placidity.

Their trek started from the cannabis capital of Parvati. Though it has recently become fashionable for travel writers to engage in a extensive dgustation of local psychotropics, Justine Hardy has none of that; "When asked if I smoke I drift into a soliloquy about cancer being the scourge of our family." Nevertheless, one can't help feeling that a recipe for bhang lassis (iced yoghurt with ganja) might have enlivened her book in the way that "haschich fudge" famously did for The Alice B Toklas Cook Book.

Probably Head Girl at her public school, the author is possessed of a relentless cheeriness which might eventually provoke the most tranquil of companions to violence. She admits that the rest of the party gazed on her "with unbridled hatred" during a two-day march in heavy rain.

Undaunted, she "countered this with a thick layer of hockey field jollity. "I chattered and played out cabaret turns during breaks from walking. Nobody laughed at me." It is a tribute to her companions that she wasn't nudged down a crevasse.

The Spiti Valley turns out to be pretty much as you'd expect. There are monasteries, engaging children and yak milk tea. This is a book of close- ups, with little attempt to integrate the history of the region into the narrative. A warning comes early on, when the author breezily insists: "The best portrayals of the faraway are often given by those who are not specialists. Like a sponge, they soak up what they find."

The resulting report is padded out with lengthy chunks of impenetrable Buddhist theology and some odd digressions: a gruesome account of a mountain guide afflicted by TB is incongruously followed by a recollection of the confectionery stalls of Delhi. Worst of all is an unfortunate excercise in anthropomorphism called "The Song of the Yak". However, though an apprentice piece, The Ochre Border benefits from the author's keen eye for detail and fine ear for dialogue, as in the case of a pea farmer explaining his reluctance to let his sons leave home, "They be finding girls making them ill, making them scratch." As long as Hardy rids herself of the delusion that she is a sponge, her next book should be worth looking out for.

The Maze describes a meandering journey, both physical and spiritual, through northern Arizona by Lucy Rees, a Welsh horse-breeder and writer. Since six of her seven previous book titles contain the word "horse" or "pony", it comes as little surprise that two of her three companions here are equine. There's Rick, "funny, moody, charming, pig-headed"; Rose, "endearing and exasperating, hilarious and daft"; and Duchess, "smooth, sensitive, unpredictable, hysterical". Rick is the human. But it's hard to tell at times, particularly when a bit of dialogue (" 'Can't,' she panted, 'it's after me' ") turns out to come from one of the horses.

The book's straight-from-the-heart style has drawn dust-jacket plaudits from Maureen Lipman and Rachel Billington. In fact, this lack of restraint results in toe-curling embarrassments and frequent opacities. You have, for example, to know that the area around Sedona is renowned for ley-lines and similar mystic paraphernalia to understand Rees's description: "the mecca of the drifting lost, earnestly dissecting their innards in pursuit of essences which cannot be found in burgeoning stores, however 'spiritual' their wares".

Rees is not averse to sneering at down-at-heel suburbs ("the dirt streets of trailersville, that ubiquitous psoriasis of the south-west") or tourists. She even tweaks history in order to badmouth white Americans. Describing "shuffling septuagenarians" looking at an ancient Indian irrigation system, she says "I was fascinated by their fascination in the remains of a culture their values had destroyed." Sadly for her pre-judices, Arizona guidebooks point out that the tribe concerned, the Sinaqua, dis-appeared a century before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas.

Midway through the story, there occurs one of the most drastic detours I have ever encountered in a travel book. Rees unfolds a tragic personal history of multiple miscarriages before describing how, when she finally gave birth in Liverpool, the baby died within hours. The telling of this harrowing tale may have served a therapeutic purpose for the author, but it casts a terrible shadow over the vast, gauntly beautiful landscape that is the setting for this odd book.