Leaders, Lecturers & Tour Managers

Assoc. Prof. Alex McKay

Associate Professor Alex McKay has travelled extensively in Central and South Asia and in the Arab world, originally as a back-packer and subsequently as an academic. He has led ASA tours to Bhutan (2009, 2011 & 2014), Tibet (2010), North India (2015), the Silk Road (2011, 2013, 2017), and Morocco (2014 & 2016) – with Oman to come in 2018.

After travelling overland across North Africa and then to Asia via the Persian Gulf he became a relief worker in northern Bangladesh during the famines and smallpox epidemics of the early 1970s. Since then he has spent around six years researching and living in India and its South Asian neighbours, and has also made around a dozen visits to Morocco, his ideal holiday destination.

After funding his travels by working on North Sea oil rigs and as a private investigator in Sydney, Alex studied Religion and South and Central Asian history and culture at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London University), where he obtained a BA (Hons) in Religious Studies and History and a PhD in South Asian History (1995). Dr McKay subsequently became a History lecturer and a research fellow at both the University of London (SOAS & UCL) and the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden (the Netherlands). A fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and the American Academy of Religion, he holds visiting fellowships at the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in Sikkim (India) and the ANU in Canberra. He has published extensively, given more than 50 seminar and conference papers in a dozen countries, and organised academic conferences in London, The Netherlands, Bhutan, and Sikkim. In 2006 he took early retirement to return to Australia, where he lives in the Manning Valley (NSW) with his artist wife.

Alex’s specific interests are wide but centre around the frontiers between different regional cultures and their adaptations to the environment and their use of space. In Central Asia he has been particularly interested in the history of religions, the famous Kyrgz epic Manas, and the ‘Great Game’ (the much romanticized struggle between Russia and the British for control over the Central Asian and Himalayan approaches to India). His interests in Morocco centre on its colonial history, its Berber minority and its Islamic religion> In the wider Islamic world his focus is on architecture, pilgrimage, trade and colonial encounters.

Much of his published work concerns Tibet, which he first visited when it opened to Western travelers in 1984. In 1986 he was one of the first Europeans to cross the newly-opened border (the world’s highest) between Pakistan and China en route to Kashgar and Central Asia. His academic publications have mostly concerned the colonial encounter between East and West, particularly in the political, personal, and medical spheres. His research also includes Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, and local tribal religious culture, particularly pilgrimage and asceticism; the early history of tribes and migrations; as well as modern sports and pastimes – with his most requested article being on football in Tibet! (He remains a keen supporter of the Bhutanese football team.) Reflecting that range of interests, his most recent books are an academic history of the multi-faith pilgrimage to Mount Kailas in western Tibet (2015), and a popular social history of the 1967 All Black rugby team (2017).

Alex’s interests have always been in the actual world of the people, rather than in Western academic theories. He enjoys the fact that his works are widely read by the peoples he writes about and he maintains friendships across Asia and the Arab world with people from all ranges of society from royalty to rickshaw drivers.

  • Affiliated Fellow: International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden, The Netherlands.
  • Affiliated Fellow: Namgyal Institute of Tibetology (Gangtok, Sikkim, India)
  • Member: The Royal Asiatic Society: The American Academy of Religion: The International Association of Tibetan Studies.
  • Committee Member: The International Association for the Study of Traditional Medicine.
  • Academic Board Member: Brill Tibetan Library series.
  • Editorial Board Member: South Asia Research; Asian Medicine Tradition and Modernity.
  • Kailas Histories: Renunciate Traditions and the Construction of Himalayan Sacred Geography, Brill, Leiden, 2015
  • [Co-editor] Sikkim History and Culture (2 volumes.), Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, Gangtok, Sikkim, 2010; with Anna Balikci-Denjongpa
  • Tibet and the British Raj: The Frontier Cadre 1904-1947, Curzon Press, Richmond, London, 1997 [2nd edition by Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala, India, 2009]
  • Footprints Remain: Biomedical beginnings across the Indo-Tibetan frontier 1870-1970; University of Amsterdam/IIAS, 2007 [University of Chicago Press; 2008]
  • [Editor] Tibetan History: Tibet and her neighbours, HansJorgye Mayer, London, 2003
  • [Editor] The History of Tibet (3 volumes), Rutledge Curzon Press, London, 2003
  • [Editor] Pilgrimage in Tibet, Curzon Press, Richmond, London, 1998
  • ‘Tibetological Material in the Journal of the West China Border Research Society’, in Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, 35.1, 2016.
  • ‘“A very useful lie”: Giuseppe Tucci, Tibet, and scholarship under dictatorship’, in David Templeman & Andrea de Castro (eds.), Asian Horizons:  Studies in Honour of Giuseppe Tucci, and His Legacy, Monash University Press, Melbourne, 2015.
  • ‘A Forgotten American: Francis Nichols’s quest for Lhasa, 1903–04’, in Asian Affairs, XLVI.II, 2015.
  • ‘Indifference, cultural difference, and a porous frontier: some remarks on the history of recreational drugs in the Tibetan cultural world’, in The Tibet Journal,1, 2014.
  • ‘Perceptions of Independence on the Indian Frontier’, in the Bulletin of Tibetology, 49.2, 2013.
  • ‘The British Invasion of Tibet, 1903-04’, in Inner Asia, 14, 2012.
  • ‘In Search of Zhang-zhung, the “Grey and Empty” Land?’, in Henk Blezer (ed.), Emerging Bon: The Formation of Bon Traditions in Tibet at the Turn of the First Millennium AD , IITBS, Halle, 2011.
  • ‘Tibet, Sikkim, Bhutan: the myth of venereal disease’, in Sienna Craig et al., (eds.), Studies in Medical Pluralism in Tibetan History and Society, IITBS Andiast (Germany), 2010.
  • “Tracing lines upon the unknown areas of the earth”: Reflections on the Indo-Tibetan Frontier’, in Sameetah Agha & Elizabeth Kolsky (eds.), Fringes of Empire: Peoples, Places and Spaces at the Margins of British Colonial India, OUP Delhi, 2009
  • ‘Himalayan Medical Encounters: the Establishment of Biomedicine in Tibet’, Mona Schrempf (ed.), Soundings in Tibetan Medicine. Historical and Anthropological Perspectives, Brill, Leiden, 2009
  • ‘Fit For The Frontier: European Understandings Of The Tibetan Environment In The Colonial Era’, in New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, 9.1, 2007
  • “An excellent measure”: the battle against smallpox in Tibet, 1904-47′, in The Tibet Journal, 30.4-31.1, 2005-06
  • ‘Traditional Medicine in Bhutan’, in Asian Medicine Tradition and Modernity, 1.1., 2005, [With Dorje Wangchuk]
  • ‘”Playing for the Tibetan people” : Football in the High Himalayas’, in James Mills (ed.), Subaltern Sports: Politics and Sport in South Asia, Anthem Press, London, 2005
  • ‘The Birth of a Clinic?: the IMS dispensary in Gyantse (Tibet), 1905-1910’, in Medical History, 49, 2005
  • “It seems he is an enthusiast about Tibet”: Lieutenant-Colonel James Guthrie OBE, (1906-1971)’, in Journal of Medical Biography, 12.4, 2005
  • ‘The indigenisation of Western medicine in Sikkim’, in Bulletin of Tibetology, (Gangtok, Sikkim), 40.2, 2004
  • ‘British-Indian Medical Service Officers in Bhutan, 1905-1947: A Historical Outline’, in Karma Ura and Sonam Kinga (eds.), The Spider and the Piglet: Proceedings of the First International Seminar on Bhutan Studies, The Centre for Bhutan Studies, Thimphu 2004; (online; www.bhutanstudies.org.bt/publications/spdr-pglt/spdr-pglt.htm).
  • “‘That he may take due pride in the empire to which he belongs”: the education of Maharajah Kumar Sidkeon Namgyal Tulku’, in the Bulletin of Tibetology, (Gangtok, Sikkim), 39.2., 2003
  • ’19th century British Expansion on the Indo-Tibetan Frontier: A Forward Perspective’, in The Tibet Journal, 28.4, 2003
  • ‘The Drowning of Lama Sengchen Kyabying: A Preliminary Enquiry from British Sources’, in Henk Blezer (ed.), Tibet Past and Present, Brill, Leiden, 2002
  • ‘”Kicking the Buddhas Head”: Tibet, Football, and Modernity’, in Paul Dimeo & Jim Mills (eds.) Soccer in South Asia: Empire, Nation, Diaspora, Frank Cass, Cambridge, 2001
  • ‘Hitler and the Himalayas: The SS Mission to Tibet, 1938-39’, in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, (N.Y.), 2001
  • “Truth”, Perception and Politics: the British Construction of an Image of Tibet’, in Thierry Dodin & Hans Rather (eds.), Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections & Fantasies, Wisdom Press (N.Y.) 2001
  • ‘The British Imperial Influence on the Kailas-Manasarovar Pilgrimage’, in Toni Huber, (ed.), Sacred Spaces and Powerful Places in Tibetan Culture, LWTA, Dharamsala, 1999
  • ‘Tibet 1924: A Very British Coup Attempt? ‘ in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3.7.3, 1997
  • ‘The Other “Great Game”: Politics and Sport in Tibet, 1904-47’, in The International Journal of the History of Sport, 11.3, 1994
  • ‘The Cinderella of the Foreign Service’, in South Asia Research, 12.2, 1992
  • ‘The Establishment of the British Trade Agencies in Tibet 1904-1909: A Survey’, in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3.2.3., 1992
Past Tours

Alex first joined ASA in 2009 and has since led numerous ASA tours including programs to China, India, Bhutan, Central Asia and Morocco. These include:

  • Al Maghrib Al-Aqsa: Islamic Civilisation in Morocco (2014, 2016)
  • The Silk Route: from Xi’an to Tashkent (2011 and 2013)
  • Wild China: Guangxi, Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet (2010)
  • Bhutan: Himalayan Fortress of the Gods (2009-2011, 2014)