After retracing our steps over Khardung La on the 11th August, returning to Leh, we take a rest day, though make a journey to the nearby village of Taktok, where there is a traditional Ladakhi Buddhist mask dance. The local Ladakhis are gentle, good spirited people, always bellowing the Tibetan greetings Jule! or Tashi Delek! when encountering another person, local or visitor alike. And the local religion, Buddhism, is in my opinion by far the most appealing of the major faiths, with its lack of dogma or outdated social prejudices. However, the rituals and architecture of Buddhism, a school of thought which in essence shuns ritual and material attachment, have never moved me in the way that for instance large communal evening prayers in open-air Persian mosques have. I leave the immediate area of the festivities and wander around the village, where I meet Nao, a pretty Japanese girl who accompanies the three of us back to Leh, where we spend the evening together.
Next day, Matjaz, Ana and I head east once again, toward Pangong Tso, another of Ladakh’s breath-taking high altitude lakes. Leaving Leh, we pass Taktok once more, beginning a long climb to cross the Chang La, which like Khardung La lies at a staggering altitude of 5,350 metres. On the far side of the pass, we help some stranded German hippies whose minibus has broken down at around four thousand metres, and don’t make it to the lake until the following morning. Making use of the cars, we leave the track and cross some steep and sandy dunes to find our own secluded lakeside campsite. We’re battered the following day by strong winds and rain, though on the second morning we wake early to see the lake as a perfect calm mirror reflecting the black, grey, buff and white hues of the mountains beyond, and the white clouds which start to boil from the damp hillsides. We sit out on our chairs drinking real coffee and smoking, looking out to the far end of the lake, which spreads east across the Changtang into disputed Aksai Chin. It’s not the first time in Ladakh that I sit back and think that I’m in the most beautiful place in the world.
During our third and final rest-stop in Leh, Christopher, the German cyclist, and Nao, both catch up with us, and the five of us head west, to the edges of Ladakh. After an overnight stop in the village of Alchi, where we camp in an apple orchard, we say goodbye for the last time to Christopher. We spend two days at the beautiful gompa in Lamayuru, whose building s spread up an entire eroded hillside, before following the Indus downstream as far as is possible, just twenty kilometres short of the Line of Control (cease-fire line), to the village of Dha. The Brokpa people of Dha look noticeably different from their Ladakhi neighbours, and linguistic similarities to ancient Vedic scriptures suggest that they may be remnants of the original Indo-Aryan settlers of India. The Brokpa are one of a number of distinct ethnic groups who are linked loosely by language, and are scattered across the Hindukush Mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and here in Ladakh. These people have been termed Dards, and include the Nurestanis of Afghanistan, and the Kalasha people of Pakistan, who form an area known as Dardistan. Though the Brokpa have converted to Buddhism remnants of ancient pagan deities remain in their pantheon, and their villages of stone-walled houses are noticeably different from the Tibetan-style adobe houses of the Ladakhis. Their true origins remain an intriguing mystery.
Returning from Dha to the main highway, we say farewell to Matjaz and Ana who have opted not to follow the road down to Srinagar in troubled Kashmir for security concerns. I’ve had some amazing experiences with the two Slovenians, and in their company have for the first time on the trip fully made use of the abilities of the car, both as an all-terrain vehicle, and as a home. Happily, I will meet them once again in Iran next February.
Nao and I cross two low passes on our way west into a stark and remote corner of Ladakh, and we’re reminded once more that centuries ago this rough provincial track was one of the great trade routes of Asia. In the village of Mulbekh, opposite one of the western-most gompas in Ladakh lies a huge rock-carving of Maitreya, the ‘future Buddha’ who will come to Earth as a successor of the original to teach the Dharma at a time that it has been forgotten. Dating most likely from the 8th century and set on an ancient trade route, generations of people must have passed and been moved by the grandeur of the sculpture, which through a dozen centuries has sat here and survived local shifts of empires and borders, and a transition from Buddhism to Hinduism and more recently to Islam. Soon the settlements begin to change in appearance; gone are the Ladakhi villages of whitewashed adobe houses amidst golden barley fields, apricot orchards and poplar tress, replaced by more austere villages of unadorned houses. Schoolgirls in white headscarves, colourful mosques and even a rather incongruous advertisement of Iranian Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khomenei sprout up as we enter the Muslim region of Baltistan which spans the contested boundary, extending well into Pakistan and occupying the very western reaches of the Himalaya.
The drab town of Kargil is the first settlement of any size on the road, and with its endless rows of small shops and bearded men, feels very much like Pakistan, albeit a little cleaner and more orderly. Beyond Kargil, the road hugs the Line of Control, following the Dras River through a steep-sided valley, with the cease-fire line lying atop the cliffs on the far side of the road. At the roadside, a large yellow sign reads ‘WARNING – YOU ARE UNDER ENEMY OBSERVATION’. This rather inhospitable and windswept valley has a feel of military tension, and not long ago it was the site of full military deployment during the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan. As we climb and pull away from the border, the landscape opens up into a beautiful, rather Central Asian scene of yellowing grasslands grazed by horses in the golden afternoon light, which picks out soft multicoloured mountains along the meandering river.
After stopping for a night in the town of Dras (which claims to be the second coldest town on Earth having recorded a temperature of -60ºC in January 1995), we cross the last ridge of the Great Himalaya via the rough Zoji La and descend into a wonderful green, wooded landscape reminiscent of Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Kashmir today is a name which in the Western mind conjures images of warfare and terrorism, but prior to the division of India, was an area renowned for its benign, alpine beauty. Since the mid 19th century, when the Sikh rulers of Kashmir were forced to join the British Empire, ‘Kashmir’ has referred to a far greater region, incorporating territory currently claimed and administered by India, Pakistan and China. Today it is one of the world’s most divided regions.
This princely state incorporated all the areas I have recently passed through since leaving the Spiti Valley, and a large swathe of northern Pakistan. At the time of partition in 1947, the incumbent on the Kashmiri throne, Hari Singh was given a choice between joining Pakistan or India. With a 77% Muslim population, the obvious choice was to join Pakistan, however when Singh hesitated, still clinging to dreams of maintaining an independent state, Muslim guerrillas infiltrated Kashmir from the Northwest Frontier, and a terrified Singh appealed to India for help. The Indians came to his aid on the condition that he accede to India, and in doing so he triggered the outbreak of the first Indo-Pakistan war, where army units on each side which had earlier in the year been part of the same force, took up arms against each other. With a history of feudal exploitation of the largely Muslim populace by Hindu landlords, Kashmir has remained a tense and volatile place since the birth of India it’s status awaiting a referendum which the Indian government has no desire to see happen.
In crossing the Zoji La, we have entered the real, historical Kashmir, or rather the Vale of Kashmir, a beautiful fertile plateau on the banks of the Jhelum River ringed by forested mountains. We stop in the small town of Sonamarg for lunch, finding that almost everything is closed due to the latest round of civil disturbances and army intervention which have placed the state capital Srinagar under curfew. We find an open restaurant where we are the only patrons, which is run by an ebullient Kashmiri with striking green eyes and a mullet. Kashmiris are renowned among Indians for their avarice and wiliness, and among foreign visitors for their promotion of vastly overpriced excursions to unseen houseboats on Srinagar’s Dal Lake, regardless of the current state of militancy in the city. It comes as no surprise then that he tells us of his houseboat on the lake, and of course it’s safe, it’s a lovely time to go to Srinagar, and that we mustn’t worry about the curfews / shootings / shops being closed, if only we’d care to pay him a deposit…
Sonamarg is a deeply beautiful place; not in the way of Ladakh’s sublime high-altitude lakes, or of the highest snow-capped peaks of the Himalaya, but a gentle, comfortable greenery. Large wooden two-tiered houses with sloping roofs and balconies look strikingly European, as do the fair-skinned Kashmiris who have strikingly Aryan features. Scents of the pine forests send my senses reeling back to childhood summers in the Black Forest, and as we descend slowly through forests and sleepy villages of ripening maize and clear blue rivers, it’s difficult to believe it is India around us, and not the Carpathians. Near the village of Gagongir, we camp in a cool and fragrant forest clearing next to the Sind River, whose gentle burbling is interrupted only by the frequent army traffic. Occasionally, large family groups of nomads pass us as they move down from the mountains towards the plains. These deeply Aryan-looking people, their women wearing colourful headscarves, leading horses loaded with their tents and all other possessions, are like a vision of the original Aryan tribes who settled the bountiful plains of India millennia ago.
We descend further through more delightfully bucolic and un-Indian looking villages, until the valley starts to widen and fill with bright yellow-green paddy fields which produce the world famous Kashmiri rice. Here the villages become less attractive than those in the hills, with large, unfinished brick buildings which typify much of lowland Kashmir. Here also, the trouble starts. The area is under curfew, and the Indian Army – a force I have come to regard as being of unparalleled incompetence – are out on the streets, armed. Our presence is something of a shock to them, and each time we are stopped I must explain that we have come down from Leh, that we are tourists, and that we were unaware of the curfew, before we are waved on, only to be stopped minutes later. In one small town where all the street shop-fronts are boarded-up and barricaded, we are stopped three times in perhaps a kilometre. Passing a stranded Indian Army truck, I am about to nudge one soldier – who is standing oblivious in the middle of the road – with the front of the car to break him out of his trance-like stare, when one of his comrades pulls him out of the road and I merely clip the barrel of his rifle. It’s rather terrifying to be around such fools who are armed and loosed in the streets.
The current episode of tension stems ostensibly from a sacred Hindu pilgrimage site, the Amarnath Cave where a huge conical ice-stalagmite is worshipped by Hindus as the linga (penis) of the god of destruction Shiva. In granting a swathe of land around the cave (which lies in the upper reaches of Kashmir) for the annually visiting Hindu pilgrims, the authorities stoked the fires of separatism which (allegedly) erupted into civil disorder and violence. It’s difficult to separate fact from fiction in this region, but in the eyes of Kashmiri Muslims, is just the latest example of a long history of their domination by a Hindu majority. As well as the usual economic disruption, the district-wide curfew has a – perhaps premeditated – disastrous effect on the Kashmiri tourism industry.
Eventually we roll into the streets of Srinagar which is a city under a twenty-four hour curfew. The streets are ghostly-empty, devoid of traffic, all the shops closed, no shoppers. It’s very odd to be the only car on the streets, to drive around a completely dormant Indian city, though a unique and memorable experience. The atmosphere is tense, and we’re frequently stopped by the army and asked for curfew permits, which inevitably gives rise to the following conversation:
SOLDIER: ‘Where is your curfew permit?’
AUTHOR: ‘I don’t have one, we have just arrived from Ladakh’
SOLDIER: ‘You must obtain a curfew permit’
AUTHOR: ‘Please point us in the correct direction to obtain one’
Thus we slowly make our way across the city. We have no intention of course to partake in the bureaucratic ordeal of obtaining a permit, and so ask a civilian to direct us to Dal Lake. Upon arrival we are of course besieged by offers of accommodation on one of the lake’s iconic houseboats, and eventually take a room aboard the Long Melford, named after a Suffolk village.
The tradition of houseboats dates back to the end of 19th century when the Maharaja of the princely state of Kashmir, despite formally being part of the British Empire, outlawed the British from purchasing land in Kashmir. Kashmir was a land coveted by India’s colonial rulers for its European beauty and specifically as a cool summer retreat from the stifling heat of the plains. The British circumnavigated this restriction by purchasing houseboats – literally floating homes – on the tranquil waters of Dal Lake. As Collins & Lapierre describe in their epic novel Freedom At Midnight, the retired colonels and civil servants lived ‘…[an] untroubled existence in a paradise of sunshine and flowers, where a man could live the dream of the Emperor Jehangir on thirty pounds sterling a month’. The Long Melford harks back to this age, and though the current craft is a 1980s reconstruction, the owner of the boat, a mild-mannered Kashmiri who seems exasperated by the endless conflict and near death of the tourist trade, shows us a folder of letters of recommendation and appraisal which go back as far as 1914. Old black and white pictures show elegantly dressed sahibs and memsahibs relaxing on the boat, and the current owner’s forebears decked out in gleaming white turbans and smart uniforms; today the owners (and clients) are considerably less well-dressed.
Though it may now lack the pomp of the bygone era, staying on the houseboat is a uniquely relaxing and decadant experience. Meals are brought to us three times a day, which may be enjoyed in the bedroom or on the boat’s open terrace. There’s little else to do, as one cannot venture into town at any time, save for an hour in the afternoon when everyone flocks the streets to shop. Our Kashmiri friend in Sonamarg seems to have been right; with the curfew in place, now really is a great time to visit, as the natural tranquillity of the lake is complimented by the lack of a background of city noise. Lying in our bedroom, looking out onto the mirror-like waters of the lake which are dotted with stationary houseboats and smaller shikaras which locals paddle round for transport to the lake’s far shore, one becomes positively serene. One hears only the gentle sounds of life on the lake; small craft floating past, sometimes containing whole families, snippets of caught conversation, the squawking of wheeling seabirds and fish eagles which hover above, and the distant clamour of the mosques, from where the sound of singing wafts across the water from dawn until sunrise and again in the evening. All these sounds come to life without the usual Indian sounds of manic traffic, horns and the hubbub of throngs of people; even the dogs seem to have given up their incessant barking. How wonderful India is under curfew!
The inevitable time comes however, after three of the most relaxing and restorative days of my life, for us to move on. Say a fond farewell to the Long Melford and her owner, we head back onto the tense streets and make our way across town, always on the pretence of being on our way to the appropriate office from which to obtain a curfew permit. Resuming our journey south, the roads are once again quiet though the traffic increases slightly with distance from Srinagar. The roads are full of police and army, and lined with people hoping to hitch a lift; one wonders how long they have been waiting for the curfew to be lifted and for normal life to resume. Leaving the southern edge of the Vale of Kashmir, we start to climb into the Pir Panjal Range, from where the vale spreads out in a magnificent tongue of textured, vivid green rice paddies. Passing through the unlit two-and-a-half kilometre Jawahar Tunnel, we leave Kashmir proper and wind down through quite heavily populated rolling green hills. After the magnificence of Ladakh and Kashmir, the hills are rather uninteresting and views are once again obscured by the last of the season’s monsoonal clouds. We roll out of the last outriders of the Indian Himalaya on a long descent, finally re-joining lowland India in the unexciting town of Jammu, just thirty kilometres from the (formal) Pakistani border. The town is not under curfew, but there is a general strike of the predominantly Hindu population.
Next morning I’m awoken by the sound of explosions, which turn out just to be firecrackers from some demonstration or other. The police have set up a number of roadblocks at the edges of the city, and it takes some time (and a penknife to cut through one roll of barbed wire blocking the road near the hotel), and a few arguments with the police before I find a way out. We don’t get far before we’re delayed for several hours by the Indian Army, who are trying to organise a roadblock at the city’s edge in anticipation of a VIP convoy. It’s not until evening that we reach the city of Pathankot, just over the state border in Punjab, where we spend our final night together. Tomorrow Nao will leave east for Dharamsala, the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama, and on to Delhi to obtain a Pakistani visa, whilst I will head more directly back to my favourite country, where we hope to meet next month.
Without the responsibility of a passenger, my final drive in India, an almost straight one-hundred kilometre dash across the Punjabi plains back to the city of Amritsar, is an orgy of automotive aggression in which I have a final chance to vent all my frustration at India. I use the full potential of the truck’s size, muscling into the heavy car traffic from a side road, and overtaking lorries straight into oncoming motorcyclists and bicycles. As I force one motorcyclist to hit his brakes and leave the road, clinging onto his machine for dear life as it flies over the rough un-made surface, I catch the look on his face. It’s not one of mortal anger – as it would be were I in his shoes – but a smile. It’s as if he is vindicating my recklessness, an admonition that I have finally understood the philosophy of driving (and more) in his country.
I spend four days with my friend Alvin in Amritsar, staying once more in his comfortable hotel suite just as I did very nearly six months ago upon entering India for the first time. My journey has taken me to the very far edge of the subcontinent and back, a great swathe of people, cultures, landscapes, religions and ideas. While India can be frustrating – strangely far more so than Pakistan, Bangladesh or Nepal – it is a staggeringly diverse and fascinating place. Although at this time I feel I’ve seen more than enough of the country, deep down I know, sooner or later, I will feel the urge to return; to the outer states of the north-east, the strongly Muslim region of Gujarat, which borders my beloved Sindh, and the tribal states of the central Deccan. Firstly however, I will continue my journey through the mountains, before moving back towards Europe as the year ends.
The Tibetan Plateau is a huge upland area which lies in the Trans-Himalaya, that is, from a southerly perspective, the area beyond the Himalaya. As the Indian Subcontinent relentlessly ploughs into the rest of Eurasia, giving birth to the Himalaya, this vast plateau has been uniformly uplifted to altitudes of up to five thousand metres. This stark, high and dry region, lying in the rain-shadow of the world’s greatest mountain range, is a land of sublime and other-worldly landscapes; huge open vistas of rolling mountain steppe, fantastically deep-blue skies dotted with ranks of puffy cumulus clouds, and crystal clear high-altitude lakes. Sadly, much of the Tibetan Plateau lies within the boundaries of modern-day China, a country where one cannot move freely with one’s own vehicle. But a small section of it, the former Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh, lies within the boundaries of modern India, and will be the focus of this third visit to the country.
It’s the 17th July 2008 and I’ve just left Nepal to enter India for the third and final time on this journey. I enter the southern reaches of the mountainous state of Uttarakhand during heavy monsoonal rain. Against the deep shades-of-grey sky, the brilliant landscape, shimmering with new fertility brought on by the monsoon, is green-upon-green-upon-green. As I head ever closer to the holy city of Haridwar, huge numbers of trucks occupy the road, slowing down the traffic and muscling past each other with no regard for other road users. In one town, where the traffic stops, a man stands outside my open window, staring in at me blankly like a horror-film zombie. It’s a rude welcome to India after the solitude of the Himalayan trails in Nepal. Darkness falls as I enter the industrial state of Haryana where many of the trucks are heading, and I stop for the night near the town of Ambala. In the morning, I head up once more into the foothills of the Himalaya, to the mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh, passing the hill station of Shimla, crossing the first major ridge and dropping down to the Sutlej Valley.
The road up the valley of the Sutlej, one of the five rivers of the Punjab, is quite a feat of engineering. In many places it has been blasted from a sheer rock face, and winds along the near-vertical valley walls, hundreds of metres above the raging white-water of the river. The road follows the river upstream almost all the way to the Tibetan border, with the valley becoming ever drier and more spectacular as it climbs further from the monsoon-swept plains of lowland India. A few kilometres from the frontier, in a huge brown-grey valley of yawning alluvial hills utterly devoid of vegetation, vastly complex, twisted, tortutred geological strata in the rock exposures attest to a violent recent history. This is the Himalayan suture zone where the Indian Subcontinent met Eurasia roughly fifty million years ago, and continues to do so today. At this point the road turns due north into the Trans-Himalaya, entering the Spiti Valley, through which it will climb to the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
As well as marking the tectonic boundary, my entry into the Spiti Valley marks the transition from an area which is culturally Indian, to one which is culturally Tibetan. Buddhist chortens (mound-like structures containing Buddhist relics) start to dot the landscapes, standing out brilliant white in the intense sunshine, against the intrinsic dusty-grey of the bleak surrounding hillsides. In the village of Nako, which sits around a deep-blue lake on a green ledge high above the canyon of the Spiti River, I meet a number of other overlanders; Slovenians Matjaz and Ana in a 4×4, Christoph, an Austrian motorcyclist, Germans Kari and Werner in a 4×4 Unimog camper conversion (which was too large to progress any further up the road, and who I would meet again in Pakistan the following year), and a German cyclist, Christopher. The five of us travel together for a few days up the valley, which becomes ever more beautiful. We Camp together each evening, cooking communal meals, and enjoying the freedom our vehicles give us in this magnificently remote extremity of India.
Like many of the inhabited areas of the Tibetan Plateau, hidden away from the outside world throughout much of history, the immense, forbidding mountains of Spiti are dotted with gompas, Tibetan monasteries of the Mahayana School of Buddhism, which are an almost intrinsic part of the Trans-Himalayan landscape. Tabo Gompa, the largest of the Spiti Valley, will be the retirement place of the Dalai Lama, should he choose to retire from his public activities. The nearby 12th century Dhankar Gompa, the next in the valley, is a fantastic mixture of nature and architecture where the dozen or so religious buildings, brilliant white with crimson roofs and window-frames, nestle like eagles’ nests amongst bizarre finger-like protrusions of soft tuff which hover over the yawning valley. In these fantasy-like settings, generations of monks have devoted their lives to the teachings of the Buddha, renouncing the ways of the world in a hermetic life which seems to compliment the natural austerity of the region, far from the seething crowds of India.
The 11th century Gompa at Key however, is perhaps the most spectacular in Spiti. Dozens of boxy whitewashed temples and meditation cells surround a central monastery, all spread around the conical slopes of a rocky outcrop hanging at almost four thousand metres on the valley-side. Key is an incredible sight, surely one of the world’s most striking architectural complexes.
Next day, Matjaz, Ana and I say goodbye to cyclist Christopher (who will not be able to match our pace), and motorcyclist Christoph (whose pace we will not be able to match), and begin our journey west and then north into Ladakh proper. Crossing the rough, 4,500-metre Kunzun La (pass), we drop down into the district of Lahaul, which is immediately greener, more populated, and less attractive. We make slow but steady progress on the ever-deteriorating roads, first over the 4,900-metre Baralocha La, then into the state of Jammu & Kashmir, winding the cars up to just over five kilometres above sea-level on the endless climb of the Lachalung La. At these altitudes, higher than the summit of any peak in the Alps, the car struggles in the airless altitude, and any significant incline reduces progress to first of second gear. This is the infamous Manali to Leh Highway, built in the 1950′s and allowing surface access to Ladakh from July to October. Although its existence is strategic; due to the need for supplies to be taken up to the frontline of India’s tense standoff with Pakistan and China in the upper reaches of Kashmir, since the 1970s it has been open to foreign travellers, and now sees a steady stream of tourists.
Shortly after the military garrison of Pang, we reach the wide open More Plains, a dusty, desolate flatland which sits between the encircling ranges of mountains. We have reached the Tibetan Plateau proper, the eastern reaches of the huge Changtang which stretches sixteen hundred kilometres, deep into Tibet. Incredibly, out here in this most desolate and rarefied environment, we meet two Changpa nomads herding a surprising number of sheep and goats on foot. One of them asks me for some water, giving me a chance to study him; a stocky Mongol with skin darkened from such high-altitude exposure, his face and lifestyle hark back to the days of Chinggis Khan and the great Mongol hordes.
On these windswept More Plains, a set of dusty tracks head east from the main road to a broad basin, at the centre of which lies the turquoise lake Tso Kar, ringed by soda pans and coarse, brackish grassland on which the three of us camp. To the south are the smooth, undulating ridges of the Zanskar Mountains, whose six thousand-metre peaks look from our elevated perspective to be mere hills. Despite the thin atmosphere, blinding soda pans and fetid, brackish water, the area is far from sterile. The lush grass, though sparse, spreads in a rich green carpet to the foot of the mountains. From the dusty, desiccated earth, marmots dig their burrows, watching us carefully on their hind legs, their front paws held passive on their bellies, with faces like giant guinea pigs. From the grass, early in the morning, larks rise high and unseen into the sky, and the calls of numerous wildfowl on the lake are the only sounds to pierce the stark, deafening silence. In the far distance a kiang, a Tibetan wild ass, its body a two-tone of brown and cream and with a noticeably larger head than a domestic ass, makes his way down to the water’s edge. It’s a sublimely beautiful environment; starkly beautiful, yet benign and comfortable at the same time. These high grasslands, so quintessential of the rolling upland plateaus of inner Asia, are almost certainly my favourite environment. Camping here with friends, totally independent with our cars, is one of the greatest of life’s pleasures. The three of us camp in such a manner day after day, cooking breakfast and dinner in the lee between our cars, sitting out drinking coffee in the most magnificent of landscapes. The sense of independence and isolation is fantastic, and the outside world seems to slowly pull away from our minds.
We spend two nights at Tso Kar, before pushing further east into the wilds, passing the tents of more Changpa nomads, who may very well be the strongest-smelling people I’ve encountered. We cross another pass, passing the magnificent Tazang Tso, pushing on to mirror-like Tso Moriri, where we strike another idyllic lakeside camp, watching jeep-loads of tourists who stop a few hundred metres from us for a compulsory two-minute photo stop, before heading on to the rather squalid lakeside settlement of Korzok. North of here, we descend through a purple-rock canyon to reach a river very dear to my heart: the Indus. Freshly arrived from its Tibetan headwaters, the river is small and milky from glacial inputs, and altogether different from the muddy, slow moving giant which I last saw in Sindh, five months ago.
We re-join the main Manali – Leh highway in Upshi, a squalid truckstop set among vast barracks of the Indian Army which mar the landscape for several kilometres, and move north to the Ladakhi capital of Leh. The road passes through villages of unrendered mud-brick walls, behind which are rows of elegant poplars now releasing their cotton in great blizzards, irrigation canals and clouds of tangy woodsmoke. My thoughts are immediately moved to think of Central Asia; of the backstreets of Samarkand or Kashgar and the ancient trade routes which crisscrossed high Asia. Shortly after, we pass on our right Thikse Gompa, the largest in Ladakh, which like a scaled-down Potala Palace transports the mind to Tibet. Despite its marvelous isolation, Ladakh is very much a crossroads of cultures.
Leh, the capital of the former Himalayan Kingdom has historically been a crossroads on trade routes which linked India, Central Asia, and Tibet. Today it remains a curious mix of these three Asian cultures, which comes as something as a surprise given its considerable isolation; a city inaccessible by any means other than air from November to June. The native Ladakhis look to be straight out of the mountains of Tibet, though they seem to be outnumbered in the city by Kashmiris from the southeast, who bring to the city a palpable Muslim presence; black beards and white topis (hats), and the sound of the azan (call to prayer), which competes with the chants which emanate from the city’s temples and monasteries. Sikhs, mostly shopkeepers and lorry drivers, wearing colourful turbans add to the kaleidoscope of humanity one sees here. Both these groups can trace their origins in Leh to the annexation of Ladakh by Kashmir in the mid 19th century, though what draws many to the city, a city which practically shuts-down in winter, are the tourists who make up a considerable proportion of the town’s summertime inhabitants.
Leh seems to attract particular types of tourist; those that favour baggy orange trousers, though there are also plenty of middle-aged European tour groups, and Israelis, who zoom around town on hired or purchased Enfield motorcycles. Indeed, the low, single-cylinder throbbing of these archaic British motorcycles seems as much a part of the aural ambience of Leh as the sounds of Buddhist mantras wafting from tourist restaurants and the afterburners of the Indian Air Force’s MiGs and Sukhois which scream overhead from the airstrip on the town’s outskirts. Yet despite all the tourists, trekking shops, curio stalls, kerbside cobblers, German bakeries, rooftop pizza restaurants, motorcycle hire outfits, Bihari beggars, alternative medicine clinics, massage parlours, drum salesmen and bookshops, the town’s relaxed Buddhist-cum-Muslim atmosphere is decidedly hassle-free when compared to India’s other backpacker hubs. However, with the prospect of more wilderness camping, Leh is little more than a rest and refuelling stop before we alter our border permits with a pen and resume our journey north.
Due north of Leh, a road winds across the Ladakh Mountains, over a low defile known as Khardung La, which at 5,360 metres is the highest road I have driven on (the Indians falsely advertise it as the highest road in the world), a fantastic altitude which is just twenty metres lower than the mountain I climbed in Nepal in order to view Everest. Groups of unfortunate Bihari road-workers in the employ of the Border Roads Organisation fight a losing battle against the streams of meltwater which cascade endlessly down the unsurfaced upper reaches of the pass, from where the view is rather an anticlimax. North of the pass, the road descends through dramatically eroded lunar mountains dotted with villages of brilliant green barley fields, to the Shyok Valley. On our way down, we are held up by the Indian Army, who, through astounding incompetence have managed to get two of their trucks travelling in opposite directions wedged on a sharp mountain bend, high above the Shyok Valley. As the two officers argue over who is to blame, and who should move first, one wonders how such fools could ever conduct a military campaign. It’s also a reminder that this is a highly sensitive military area, bounded by long-disputed borders with two nuclear superpowers, with both of whom India has engaged in armed conflict. Following the Shyok River downstream to the west would lead one to the Line of Control, the hotly contested cease-fire line with Pakistan, while to the north the Nubra Valley leads to the world’s highest battleground, the Siachen Glacier, and the Shyok Valley leads upstream to the disputed border with the Chinese-occupied area of Aksai Chin, where India fought a war in 1962. To date none of these borders have been ratified, with India making territorial claims in all directions.
Having passed the blithering Indian Army, we descend to an environment quite different from the Chagtang of Ladakh. We camp overnight in an apricot orchard in the village of Diskit, before moving as far east as is possible for foreigners, the village of Hunder. Hunder is a sprawling village of apricot orchards, clear river-water running in irrigation channels, and dry stone walls topped by thorny bushes which grow in the gravely alluvial deposits, all of which make it far more reminiscent of the Wakhan Valley in Tajikistan or Pakistan’s Hunza Valley than the sere landscapes of Ladakh. Beyond the village, the broad river valley where the Nubra River joins the Shyok is filled with fluvial sand, which has been whipped into smooth, sensual dunes by strong winds which come from Tibet in the east. We camp in amongst these dunes, a strange mini-desert within the stark mountains, near a group of Czech tourists, whom we befriend. In the company of my Slovenian travel-partners, and the group of four Czechs who sit around a campfire playing music and singing, I’m reminded up here in the austerity of the high Himalaya of the great warmth of the Slavic soul, and I appreciate more than ever the sense of absolute freedom in this fantastic landscape.
When I enter the Himalayan state of Nepal on the 8th June 2008, it’s a country in transition; on the 28th May, following a decade-long communist insurgency by Maoists, and their subsequent formal integration into the government in 2006, King Gyanendra was constitutionally forced to abdicate, thus transforming Nepal into a republic. On my third day in the country, the former king, a man accused of widespread embezzlement, makes an emotional plea to the impoverished populace of this backward Himalayan state, and vacates his huge, opulent Narayanhiti Palace in the capital.
Kathmandu, as the capital of a famously beautiful and exotic country, is rather a mundane place, though not unpleasant. It’s less squalid than most of the subcontinent’s major cities, with a free-market air, and a noticeable presence of many western aid and development organisations. The city is surrounded by a backdrop of rolling green hills and distant snowpeaks, now almost permanently obscured by the haze and clouds of the monsoon. There’s a noticeable air of religious tolerance here, and indeed the country itself is a land where Hinduism and Buddhism sit easily side-by-side. The city’s most iconic building is the 8th century Boudhanath Stupa, painted with the all-seeing eyes of the Buddha and festooned with prayer flags. Across the city in Durbar Square are a collection of ancient Hindu temples dedicated to various deities, including a striking idol of the Hindu deity Kali, goddess of power and consort of Shiva. Here the air is alive with incense among distinctive Nepali architecture; red-brick temples with multi-tiered timber roofs.
But it is the people of Kathmandu who are in my opinion, its greatest attraction. Unfalteringly friendly and welcoming, despite the concentration of tourists, and are an attractive mix of the two great swathes of humanity which meet in the Himalaya; Indo-Aryan face from the south, blending into lighter-skinned, round-faced Nepalis, to Tibetans with their high cheekbones and pink-tinged cheeks. There’s little of the usual hassle of India, no crowds of vacant starers, and even the beggars, who seem all to be dark-skinned Biharis, the archetypal beggars of the subcontinent (I never saw a Nepali or Tibetan begging) are gentler than in India.
The city draws huge numbers of tourists, and has done so since the Asian overland trails started in the 1960’s, who flock to the central district of Thamel, a veritable tourist ghetto set along ‘Freak Street’. Thankfully, I’ve found accommodation with an American volunteer, Mario, in the largely foreigner-free district of Handigaon. It’s in a shop here that by chance I meet Liam, a Welsh ex-pat who runs a UK internet cosmetics business from his Handigaon flat. Over plates of buff (buffalo) chow mien, and cans of Nepali-made San Miguel lager, he tells me a story which exemplifies the anger people feel towards their decadent former royal family, and a story which is sadly not unusual amongst the rich-and-powerful of South Asia. One of the King’s sons was in a nightclub owned by a friend of his. He noticed someone had written something on his car, and, fetching a shotgun from the car boot, shot wildly in one of the club’s bars, sped off in his car (drunk), killing a Nepali actress. He was duly arrested and detained, but the following day released without charge. Similar stories abound of Indian film stars, and Pakistani landowners.
My reason for coming to Nepal however is to see more of the world’s tallest mountains, far to the north in the district of Solu Khumbu, or simply the ‘Everest Region’. One very noticeable aspect of Nepal having not been part of colonial British India is a glaring lack of infrastructure. Everest is almost two weeks’ walk from the very last town accessible by road, and so I decide to save around ten days of walking by flying from Kathmandu to the airstrip in the Sherpa village of Lukla. Kathmandu’s domestic airport has the air of a bus station, with frequent arrivals and departures of small propeller aircraft, which are the only means other than walking, of reaching many parts of the country. After an interminable wait, and thirty minutes after what was meant to be the cut-off time, my flight is called and I board the small Dornier turboprop aircraft. There are fifteen passengers aboard, of whom three are foreigners, and one very attractive stewardess who hands out small wads of cotton wool for the purpose of plugging ones ears against the drone of the propellers, and small toffees. She takes the pilot a Snickers bar and something wrapped in an air-sickness bag, presumably not vomit. We fly just above the boiling froth of monsoon clouds, only once glimpsing a distant peak to the north very briefly. Once again I hope that the clouds won’t prevent me from seeing the mountains throughout the trip. The landing at Lukla is memorable; the aircraft lands heavily at the bottom of a steeply inclined asphalt airstrip (one wonders how the asphalt was brought here), which hovers above an abyssal valley. At the top of the airstrip, it seems the aircraft will crash straight into the mountainside, but swerves at the last moment sharply to the right and comes to a stop neatly outside the stone-walled terminal building.
Nepal is in many way’s the world’s best country in which to trek. In a country where perhaps 50% of the population must walk a day or more from the nearest roadhead to reach their homes, the country’s well-worn mountain trails are lined with facilities which preclude the necessity for guides, porters, cooks, pack animals, tents, cooking facilities, and even food. This makes trekking here extremely affordable and accessible, though of course this draws vast numbers of foreign trekkers, who swarm certain routes transforming these service trails into tourist trails. By coming in the monsoon season however, one escapes the choking crowds, and can have a totally different experience of the mountains. The drawback of course, is catching only fleeting glimpses of the mountain grandeur which lies behind the banks of swirling cloud. Once again, the undertaking is a gamble; risking missing the views in return for missing the crowds. As I enter Sagamartha (the Nepali name of Everest) National Park, I notice a visitor logbook. Last October (the peak season), the gate counted 7,750 foreign visitors, whereas one year ago, in the month of June, just 284. Further to this, I’ll be heading up the less-visited Gokyo Valley rather than heading straight to Everest Base Camp (where one cannot see the summit of the mountain anyhow).
I make the ascent from Lukla to the trail-end at Gokyo in a leisurely six days, ensuring that I acclimatise sufficiently to climb the final peak, well above five thousand metres, from where I hope to see four ‘eight-thousanders’ including Everest. I have a rest-day in the damp Sherpa town of Namche, the ‘capital’ of Solu-Khumbu, and a town where, at a distance of at least seven days’ walk from the roadhead, almost everything is brought on the back of the local Sherpas who can be seen slowly ascending the steep, rocky trails carrying loads which often exceed them in terms of sheer size, and almost always in terms of weight. I meet one diminutive Sherpa whom I estimate to weigh around fifty-five to sixty kilograms, who is carrying ninety kilograms of bottled lager on his back, in a load which towers above him. The landscape is quite similar to that in Sikkim, though less attractive without the huge rhododendron forests. The area is far more heavily settled, with extensive terraced farming and occasional grazing yaks. Traditional stone-walled dwellings are mixed with more modern ‘teahouses’, which serve as hotels and restaurants to trekkers, and at present are almost all empty.
The last, steep stage to Gokyo passes the terminal moraine of the Ngozumpa Glacier, the largest in the Himalaya, where a violent tongue of milky brown water cascades from the tongue of dirty-brown rock-strewn ice which creeps incessantly down from the bases of the world’s largest mountains. Gokyo, which lies at 4,770 metres, is one of the very highest settlements in the world and is sustained by the trekking industry. To my relief, I find an operating guesthouse, and check in. The village lies squeezed between the turquoise waters of a glacial lake, and the right-lateral moraine of the Ngozumpa Glacier. Scaling this tongue of glacial rubble on a clear morning, one can look all the way up the grey conveyor-belt of ice and rock to view a wall of glaciated rock which marks the Tibetan border and is crowned by the 8,201-metre peak of Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain. The real aim of being in Gokyo however, is to ascend a ridge just beyond the village to a small peak known as Gokyo Ri, which at 5,383 metres provides a spectacular viewing platform towards Everest. One must start the ascent at around 02:00 in order to catch dawn from the summit, and on my first morning, I am just beaten by the clouds which swirl in front of the highest peaks, largely obscuring them. On the second morning, the sky is wrapped in cloud, and I stay in bed. The third morning, initially obscured, clears just before dawn, and I make a belated half-ascent, only to be beaten by the clouds halfway up (and meet a smarmy Frenchman who had perfect views from the summit). It is not until the fourth morning of staying in this rarefied village which lies at an altitude very close to that of the summit of Mont Blanc, that I manage to reach the summit of Gokyo Ri and observe the day begin behind three of the five highest mountains on the planet.
Dominating the scene of course, is the almost pyramidal south-face of Everest (8,850 metres). Just to the right, nearly obscuring the eight-thousand metre South Col from where Everest expeditions make their final push for the summit, is the mass of Nuptse and behind that Lhotse, which at 8,516 metres is the fourth-highest, and a little beyond this another pyramidal mass, of Makalu, the fifth-highest on the planet at 8,463 metres. Just to glimpse these giants feels like a privilege, but to have such a perfectly clear view, and to sit alone on the summit of Gokyo Ri, my own personal mountain-viewing platform, makes all the trek, the rain and misery more than worthwhile. To have the whole view all to one’s self must make the experience rather different from sharing it with dozens of others in the peak season. Far below me to the south, the dirty mass of the Ngozumpa Glacier recedes into a distance where it appears to fall off the edge of the Earth into boiling clouds. Gokyo village sits far below, the multicoloured roofs of the buildings looking like mere specks next to the surreally coloured glacial lakes, and behind this are two six-and-a-half thousand metre peaks, sharp and fin-like, but dwarfed by the giants just to the north. It’s a sublimely beautiful, massively rewarding experience.
I’d decided not to book a return air ticket, and so it will take me ten days to reach the roadhead at Jiri. The descent is long and arduous, continually cloud-wrapped and offers very few views. Passing Lukla with its airport, the villages change markedly; gone are the majority of tourist-oriented teahouses, and one feels to be more in the ‘real’ Nepal. In the eight days from here to Jiri, I would meet just one other foreigner. It’s also a beautiful area, with bucolic highlands of stream-water pouring into wooden troughs, small, subsistence crops of maize, wheat, barley, vegetables and millet and friendly, curious peasant folk. I stay in various homesteads, and the highlight of each day is the lunch and dinner of dal bhat (lentils and rice), a simple, healthy, filling dish which I never tired of. I descend through endless cloudy, terraced hillsides and simple stone-hut villages, until I enter a stunning valley dappled with dark-green patches of pine forest, at the bottom of which lies the gorgeous village of Junbesi. With a jumble of neat, whitewashed houses with colourful roofs and window frames, surrounded by wild-flower filled orchards and backed by dark green hills, Junbesi could almost be a scene from a Bavarian postcard, and is one of very, very few places in the Indian Subcontinent which has been made to look pretty, and kept so; a tiny Nepali Shangri-La. In the next village of Tragdobuk, I stay for a night with a wonderful Sherpa family. The mother of the family is away in Kathmandu, and the father, Dorjee Sherpa, is busy reaping the last of the season’s barley which is stacked into every room of the house bar mine, in light of the ever-increasing monsoon. In the evening, he cooks an especially filling dal bhat accompanied by maize chhaang, which has a pleasant, beer-like tang over a thick, filling corn base.
Despite these occasional perks, the long days of trudging up and down slippery, damp paths, avoiding leeches which may drop onto one’s body from the plants which line the paths, and with almost no rewarding views, becomes tiresome. I’m still thrilled at having had such a personal experience amongst the world’s highest peaks, but at this stage all that sustains my morale is my well-thumbed copy of Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game, and the thought of returning to the truck and driving up into the high-altitude deserts and lakes of Ladakh with barely a monsoon cloud in sight. As I approach Jiri, I leave the Sherpa area, and enter slightly larger, predominantly Hindu settlements which are shabby and poverty-stricken, and where every child asks for pens, then money. A day from Jiri, just as the end of my long walk back from Gokyo seems in sight, I meet an American volunteer who gives me a startling piece of news; there is a bus strike in Jiri, and no transport to Kathmandu. I curse myself for not having booked a return flight from Jiri.
Arriving in the nondescript market town of Jiri, my fears are confirmed: no transport is running. The strike is due to the monopoly held on the Kathmandu route by one bus company, representatives of whom have arrived in town for negotiations which seem to be going well. By 17:00 I have a ticket for a bus the following morning; the end of this huge walk seems to be in sight. But in the morning the deal is off, and I’m still in Jiri. Further negotiations are taking place, and I find a place on a pick-up heading to the capital. The driver however, hearing that a police car has been stoned for travelling during the strike, wisely decides against making the journey. Talks don’t seem to be going well, and just after midday an angry mob forms, smashes the windows of five or six buses, guts the bus station office, smashing the wood panelled walls, ripping out furniture and scattering papers through the street. It’s a good example of how easily anger can boil over in the such impoverished communities. I curse the country and its restive population; all I want to do is get out of Nepal.
In a mood of resignation early the following morning, I shoulder my backpack once more and begin walking on the road to Kathmandu. For a country of people who are overwhelmingly pedestrian, there are almost no others making the walk along the road. At around midday, after walking eighteen kilometres, I get a lift a short distance to the town of Tribeni, where I get an onward ride in the back of a truck carrying granite slabs and perhaps forty other people. The driver of this vehicle, like many Asian drivers, seems to be subject to a religious injunction to using first gear, or perhaps feels it is an affront to his manliness, and labours the overloaded truck in second gear up steep hills, with the almost immediate result of waves of hot clutch-smell filling the cargo area in the rear, in which we are all sat. Inevitably, after twenty minutes, the truck expires at the roadside, with a steady stream of smoke issuing from the clutch housing. I curse the country again, and the imbecility of the driver, who luckily has a spare on hand, and has one of his boys swap the clutch plate over in surprisingly little time.
It’s around 02:00 when we finally arrive in Kathmandu. I share a taxi with Kedar, a fellow passenger and native of Jiri who is returning to his teaching post in the capital. He invites me to rest for the night in his apartment, and early the next morning I move back to Mario’s place in Handigaon.
While my return walk was long and unexciting, it has given me a small insight into seeing the ‘real’ Nepal, as it is for much of the country’s population who live in areas devoid of any modern infrastructure. I’ve witnessed the peaceful goings-on of these small peasant communities; tending and harvesting crops, fetching water, winnowing wheat, chasing chickens out of kitchens, just as subsistence life unfolds all across Eurasia. One appreciates the peacefulness of an area devoid of modern machinery; cars, motorbikes, trucks, tractors, generators, televisions, radios and so on. From my point of view, it’s wonderful, for a short time. But at the same time, one is forced to contemplate the backwardness of it all; the poverty, the tough lives of backbreaking labour, the porters who carry loads of up to one hundred kilograms up steep tracks, day after day, the pitiful incomes of people, the lack of sanitation, the malnutrition and, of course the isolation. What does one do out here if something goes wrong? It’s a rare chance in this day and age to see a place which is truly cut-off, well away from all modern infrastructure, even so much as a phone line. It’s a life where, if one wishes to reach the nearest town with its amenities and wider range of goods, one has to walk, perhaps for more than a week. Either walk, or fly, which is a good option in Nepal so long as one can afford the ticket, can get a seat on the aircraft, the aircraft is functioning, the airline hasn’t gone bust, the weather is perfect, no essential air or ground-staff are on strike, and if one’s name doesn’t disappear from the passenger list. It’s a striking degree of backwardness, one which puts even the poverty in Bangladesh, for example, in a new light.
I stay for a while in Kathmandu, doing some car maintenance, spending evenings with Liam in a local café, then make my move back out of the mountains, down through the green Himalayan foothills and back to the country’s east-west artery, the Mahendra Highway. In this verdant southerly strip of lowland Nepal, known as the Terai, the monsoon is in full swing, bringing the temperatures down to more bearable levels with torrential deluges of monsoon rain. I stop on the first night in a hotel in the town of Kohalpur, and continue my westward journey the next day. Large, black clouds collide with the foothills, and in one place, where the road is being washed away by a flash-flood, I get chatting to a Nepali motorist who is also waiting for the floodwaters to recede. Deepak, a Hindu poultry farmer who is driving a pick-up full of eggs to Mahendranagar, the last town on the Mahendra Highway, tells me there are more than just natural problems ahead.
Although this lowland area is in comparison slightly more developed than the highlands, it is currently racked by fuel shortages (due to political disputes with India), and a number of local strikes-cum-demonstrations, known as bandhs. Motorists risk having their car destroyed, or worse, by attempting to drive through them, and they frequently bring the country’s few roads to a standstill. Most of them seem to be on the roads heading south into India, which could be problematic as I have insufficient fuel to reach Mahendranagar, but sections of our route seem to be problematic too. I ask Deepak if he knows what the strikes are about. ‘These bandhs; I don’t know what they’re about, and I don’t care. It can be anything. These people are selfish, and they are ignorant. A couple of weeks back, a man in Mahendranagar beat his wife, and there was a strike! It makes no sense, and it doesn’t help anyone.’
I make my way through the floodwaters and manage to find enough diesel to get me into India, buying ten litres in one station, five in another and so on from reluctant station-owners. At Chisapani, the traffic stops once more as there is a bandh fifteen kilometres ahead. Whilst waiting in the receding heat of the late afternoon, I go for a dip in the cool mountain waters of the Karnali River, which flows south to meet the Ganga. It’s a delightful, peaceful spot at the edge of green, hilly jungle. Just before dusk, the traffic starts to move again and it’s a beautiful drive to Mahendranagar on a good, straight and empty road in the soft evening light. As the sun sinks behind huge, bloated cumulus clouds which hover over the plains of India, a palette of magnificent colour spreads across the sky. After all the endless walking in the highlands, it’s wonderful to be back in the car and I’m reminded of how wonderful it is to drive alone on good, empty roads in such beautiful scenery. The further one drives west from capital, the more the country feels like it’s slowly regressing to a simpler pace; virtually all the other traffic on the road is non-motorised; buffalos, goats and bicycles, and some of the locals have taken to the habit of lying on the warm asphalt surface of the highway, making rather alarming obstacles on the now-dark road. It’s a wonderful ending to my stay in Nepal, though I’m glad to be leaving. The country seems deeply troubled, with the grinding poverty and backwardness erupting into anger, civil strife, and occasionally violence. Nevertheless, there is an air of hope among people, and of a hard-earned integration into the country’s political system which I’ve not felt anywhere else in the region. But whatever may lie in the future, Nepal has, for me, set a new benchmark in terms of under-development; my walk of two weeks, something I undertook for pleasure and as a one-off, has given me an insight into the everyday reality of many of the country’s citizens.
I stay a night in a damp hotel in Mahendranagar, and am the first through the border the following morning, having woken up the supine immigration officer on the Nepali side. My sights are now clearly set to the trans-Himalaya; the high, dry plains of Ladakh.
The Himalaya, or the ‘abode of snow’, arcs across the continent marking the collision zone between the Indian Subcontinent and the rest of Eurasia; it is the world’s greatest mountain range. But the Himalaya is far more than just a large accumulation of mountains; it divides the continent, a physical and cultural border between the Indic societies of the fertile lowlands to the south, and the Tibeto-Burman societies of the high deserts and grasslands to the north. The Himalaya has fundamentally shaped life as we now see it in the Indian Subcontinent; all the great rivers of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh – the Indus, the Ganga, and the Brahmaputra to name just the largest – all flow from this vast swathe of highlands. As they do so, they transport not only water, but huge quantities of alluvium, bringing fertility to the Punjab, the Gangetic Plain, and Bengal, which in turn have nurtured the rich societies I’ve recently passed through. But in one way these awe-inspiring peaks have united people, for the cultures of both sides; the Hindus of India and the Buddhists of Tibet, revere the Himalaya as the abode of the gods, of various Himalayan deities, with the holy Mount Kailash (in Tibet) the very navel of the world.
My return journey across the Indian subcontinent will take me across the Himalaya, past the world’s highest mountains, and over the main crestline of the range onto the Tibetan Plateau in the far northern reaches of India. But the Himalaya is not just a collision zone for tectonic plates; here Asia’s greatest powers face each other, the political machinations of which will affect my route. The insular kingdom of Bhutan will be beyond my reach, as will the vast plateaus of Chinese-occupied Tibet. In the western Himalaya, my natural progress west will be impeded by the tense cease-fire line between India and Pakistan in an area which has been disputed since the very formation of the two countries. Regardless, my journey will take me through what is quite possibly the most beautiful region of the world, and will provide a very different physical and cultural background to that of the subcontinent’s lowlands.
We return to our journey on the 16th May 2008, and I’m moving west in an environment still very different from the great heights of the Himalaya. Having crossed the Brahmaputra, I’m driving west through stifling heat, out of Assam and into the north-eastern reaches of the state of West Bengal. The landscape, intensely green, lays dormant in the torpor of the worst of the pre-monsoon heat. I pause for the night in the unremarkable city of Alipur Duar, a town so little visited by tourists that I’m wholly unmolested by the usual parasitic touts and beggars of India. But in this torrid heat, all my thoughts are focused on escaping to the mountains. My destination is the tiny Indian State of Sikkim, once an independent Himalayan kingdom before being merged into British India, remaining a British protectorate until merging with India in 1975. It’s a small, rocky salient of India wedged between Nepal and Bhutan, and touching Tibet. However, by mid-morning I begin to feel rather drowsy and weak, and must take frequent rests just from the little effort of driving. At one stop, where I leave the car to purchase a bottle of water, I must lean on the car for support like a drunk. I make it in the afternoon to the Gurkha town of Kalimpong, where I collapse into a hotel room and rest for three days of fever and at times mild delirium.
Kalimpong was a Hill Station in British times, a place where colonial administrators would retire from the fierce summer heat of the lowlands, exactly as I have done. It sits in the very southern reaches of the Himalaya, just a few kilometres from the border of Sikkim, but it isn’t until the morning of my departure that the clouds finally part, and I have an inspirational glimpse of a brilliant-white ridge of snowpeaks in the far distance.
Following my recovery from this mysterious fever, I re-join the busy road which runs high above the frothing grey-white waters of the Tista River, the only road to the state capital. Gangtok is a mildly attractive city, situated in cool, green hills and consisting of multi-storied buildings perched on the steep land astride the main road. Its only really striking aspect is just how much cleaner and more organised it is than the rest of India, and I make the mistake of parking my car on the otherwise empty main road.
My reason for visiting Gangtok is to organise a trek high into the restricted mountains of Sikkim, in order to get close the holy mountain Kanchenjunga which at a height of 8,586 metres is the third highest in the world, the easternmost of the fourteen ‘eight thousanders’, and the highest in India. As the area is a restricted border zone, it’s necessary to take a licensed guide, so I approach a few trekking agents in the hope of joining a group which will depart soon. Due to the arrival of the monsoon season, which blocks mountain views with vast daily barrages of cloud and rain, I’m unable to find a group to join, and must contemplate the expense of taking a personal guide and porter. I wander the streets for a short time, until I spot another foreigner and ask straight out if he’d like to join me. His name is Duncan, British, twenty-nine, and we soon agree to leave on a trek as soon as possible. And thus began a deep and lasting friendship.
I return to the car after lunch with Duncan, only to find a crude clamp on one wheel of the car, fastened with a small padlock which looks to have come from a Christmas cracker. My initial temptation to prise it off is tempered by a nearby grinning policeman, and I am shocked to find that there is a rather steep five-hundred rupee fine. I wish to appeal, as there is no sign nearby which states parking is forbidden, but the chief of traffic police, a pompous and unpleasant brute of a man, tells me the notification is at the state border, and upon protest, bellows ‘IF YOU WISH TO TAKE THE CASE ANY FURTHER YOU CAN WAIT TWO YEARS WHILE I IMPOUND YOUR VEHICLE!’ In four and a half years on the road, this would be the only traffic violation I paid for. I would never have predicted this to be in India.
Next day Duncan and I drive across the centre of Sikkim on narrow, winding roads which cross valley after valley of steep, lush, green terraced hillsides, dotted with simple whitewashed homesteads which exist in stark isolation on the roadless slopes. We make a stop at the 18th century monastery in Pemayangtse, one of the most important monasteries in Sikkim. Despite being relatively close to the Bihari plains where the religion was born, the monks of this monastery, like virtually all monks of the Himalaya, practice the Mahayana school of Buddhism. In contrast to the earlier Theravada school, this later and now more popular school of Buddhism made the journey west out of India, through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, up across Central Asia and back east into Tibet, where it crossed the Himalaya into Sikkim before spreading further east to China and Japan.
The monastery is a striking building, typical of Himalayan architecture; of square plan, whitewashed with a two-tiered yellow pagoda roof. Around the perimeter fly tall prayer flags of red, green, yellow, blue and white cotton, printed with prayers which the faithful believe will be taken around the world by the action of the wind. The interior of the building, which has the unmistakable smell of butter lamps and burning juniper branches, is decorated with rich frescoes of fantastic Himalayan deities, a beautiful artistic rendition of the great powers which local communities believe inhabit the mountains.
So twisted and torturous is the road from Gangtok to our trailhead at Yuksom, that a straight-line distance of less than forty kilometres requires a road trip of almost 150, and takes much of the day. In the evening, we reach the very end of the road, and enjoy our last evening in the comfort of a hotel. We are introduced to the delights of a Himalayan drink known as chhaang. It arrives as a small bamboo barrel known as a dhungro, and a kettle of boiling water. The dhungro is filled with slightly fermented millet, into which one pours the hot water to make an instant alcoholic drink, the taste of which is somewhere between malt beer and fortified red wine. One dhungro of chhaang per person is certainly enough for the whole evening.
The trek starts at a leisurely hour the following morning, under steady rain. Duncan and I have our Gurkha guide, Bob, as well as three Butiya (Tibetan) ‘yak boys’ who are leading two huge yaks which carry our kit. The first two days are a steady climb in the patchy rain; occasionally the clouds will part just sufficiently to reveal the far side of the valley; a verdant, untouched jungle of dark, damp cloud forest. We pass tiny, isolated settlements of simple, subsistence farms which lie in small clearings in the tall-tree forest. The blocky whitewashed stupas which mark high-points of the trail, surrounded with damp prayer pennants seem almost organic in this Himalayan landscape. On the second day, as we climb to four thousand metres, the trees become shorter and the forest thins and blends into rolling dark green hillsides of wild rhododendron as we approach the mountain hut at Dzongri.
I am not a fan of needless physical exertion. My motivation for trekking lies purely in the prospect of seeing scenery which is not accessible by other means. The actual exertion, the physical challenge of walking up mountains, in itself holds no appeal for me. The first two days therefore, are rather dull and unrewarding. Bob, our guide, at times looks rather worried at our progress, and expresses doubts that we will make it to the ultimate destination of the trek, the Goecha La, a 4,920 metre pass at the foot of mighty Kanchenjunga. Whilst I am in no doubt as to my physical ability to reach the mountain, I have nagging worries that on the entire nine-day trek we will be walking through this endless, miserable cloud, and not catch a single glimpse of the world’s third-highest mountain which lurks just beyond. My morale is therefore boosted somewhat when, at sunset on the second day, from a low peak just next to Dzongri, the clouds finally part to reveal distant, snow-flecked mountains. Not the big one, but inspiring nonetheless.
The third day is an acclimitisation day, trekking in thick, low cloud to a murky grey lake and back in order to give our bodies an extra day at this slightly rarefied altitude of four thousand metres. Our destination on the fourth day is Thangsing, a wide meadow upon which the yaks are let loose to graze. It is from here that we will make our attempt at 01:00 the following morning on the Goeche La. Bob complains unconvincingly of being ill – unless laziness is an illness – and tells us he’s sitting out the final leg. Nevertheless, as we stumble out of our four-thousand metre hut into the freezing night, our spirits soar when we see a clear night full of stars, and we make good progress up the valley and onto a moraine. The sky is illuminated in vivid pinks at dawn, and we soon see that we are surrounded by a vast amphitheatre of sublime mountain scenery. But the pink clouds are a warning of impending cloud cover, and it’s a race against the power of the monsoon to reach the Goeche La before all views are obscured. It’s a tough march in the thin air, but we reach the final pass at around 07:00, just as the first clouds begin to rise. The view is utterly magnificent; despite standing at very nearly five thousand metres above sea level, Kanchenjunga soars more than three-and-a-half kilometres above us, a solid wall of snow-covered glaciers and rock, occasionally showing its real light grey colour where the face is too steep for snow to settle upon.
We make a side trip to beautiful Lam Pokhari Lake on our return from Thangsing to Yuksom, which lies on the edge of a mountain, beyond which to the south the land falls away and is covered in a soup of monsoonal cloud. While the lake is not especially spectacular, its setting on the edge of an unseen abyss echoes of the edge of the world. The reality is slightly less spectacular, though it’s amazing to think that from this ledge, the whole of India unfolds, stretching out in front of me all the way down to the Indian Ocean. Clouds and rain accompany us on our descent back to Yuksom, though our bland diet is enriched when we come across a dead yak, whose solid meat sustains us for two days of yak for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We spend three days relaxing and drinking chhaang in Yuksom in an orgy of laziness before heading south once again.
Extracting ourselves from our post-trek lassitude, Duncan and I, with our fifteen-day ‘Restricted Area Permits’ about to expire, drive out of Sikkim and back onto the torrid plains of India, where the monsoon has arrived in earnest. Here, we’ll stay with Marcus, a German whom I had met in Romania on the outward leg of the trip. Marcus lives with his partner and two small children in the West Bengal town of Siliguri, where he works as a consultant for sustainable tourism. Siliguri is a busy transit bottleneck located in the ‘chicken’s neck’ of India, a narrow strip of the country which squeezes between Nepal and Bangladesh to connect the seven outer north-eastern states to the rest of India. It’s not a town of any specific appeal, though we enjoy good food and company, smoking bidis (small natural Indian cigarettes) on the veranda while the monsoon rains pour down. Duncan soon departs by train for Kolkata, from where he will head to Mumbai and then back to England (I will meet him again in Tashkent in November 2009), but I, enjoying the unusual European company (and cooking) of Marcus and his family, stay in Siliguri for a week of further relaxation.
On my first attempt to leave Siliguri and enter Nepal, I fail even to reach the border crossing as there’s a bandh (strike-cum-demonstration) over rising fuel prices. In South Asia, one had better not attempt to drive through such a bandh, unless one wishes to have one’s car set on fire, and so it’s not until the following day that I cross into the far south-eastern corner of Nepal, and drive in one long day to the capital, Kathmandu.
On the 6th May 2008, exactly one year into my trip, I leave Bangladesh and enter India for the second time, into the North-eastern state of Tripura. I hand my passport to the immigration officer, open at the page of my new Indian visa, only to watch him for three minutes carefully write down the details of a long-expired Kazakhstani visa, which sits opposite the Indian visa in my passport. After he has written a number of details into his ledger, including that fact my Kazakhstani visa had expired ten months ago, I tell him we are in India, not Kazakhstan. This is definitely India.
But this India, in the town of Agartala, capital of the tiny state of Tripura, is quite different from that which I left one month earlier. Though most people here are Bengali, the atmosphere is slightly different from West Bengal; policewomen are directing the traffic from elevated platforms, and women are digging the roads at the edge of town. Men move around town on motorcycles, wearing dark blue hard-hats. I stay a night in this otherwise nondescript town, and leave the following morning. Annoyingly, due to perceived security hazards from the tribal communities who inhabit the jungle either side of the north-bound road, it is necessary to travel in convoy, one which crawls up and down the narrow road in clouds of dust and diesel smoke, and makes only 150 kilometres of progress all day. The terrain here is similar to that in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, though the ridges are far less steep and pronounced. In the afternoon, thoroughly sick of the convoy, I break off in the town of Kumarghat, and find a hotel to rest in. Like Agartala, the town is mostly Bengali, and of no specific interest, but while having dinner in a small restaurant, I am approached by a man of non-Indian appearance. His name is Biakthanga, of the Darlong tribe, he lives in the nearby village of Darchawi, and he invites me to visit him in his village the following day. I of course, accept.
I arrive in Darchawi late next morning, and am welcomed by Biakthanga, and introduced to his wife and three children, Joseph, Ismael and Job. Like all Darlong, a Tibeto-Burman tribe closely related to the Mizo, they are Christians. The Darlong were reached by Welsh Protestant missionaries in the 19th century, and by 1911 were all converted. It strikes me here that, despite having travelled through very traditional areas, of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists, it is only Christians in my experience who feel a pressing urge to impose their faith upon others. Biakthanga tells me there are still Catholic missionaries in the region, though he doesn’t approve of them: ‘I don’t consider them real Christians; if I do wrong, I pray only to God, I don’t confess to a priest who is also a human being. It is my belief, not my actions which will take me to God. Catholics do a lot of good things, no doubt – schools, hospitals, aid – but ultimately they are to buy people. This you cannot do. Faith is in your heart; if I tell you something, you must consider it. If you believe it, that’s your choice. There should be no compulsion by money; this is Earthly redemption, not spiritual redemption.’
Like many Asian Christians, Biakthanga and his wife find it surprising, and clearly disappointing, that I am not a Christian. ‘You must let Jesus into your life!’ she tells me, though with a smile.
Darchawi is a large village, almost entirely Darlong, but is less traditional than settlements of a similar size in the hills of Bangladesh. Judging by the lack of lowland people, it seems that there are stricter limitations on prospective settlers here. All around the village are fields of fruit; lychees, pineapple, betel nuts, coconuts and jackfruits. Biakthanga takes me for a walk through these fields, where his wife is at work clearing a field (he works in the village as a schoolteacher), and down into some clearings in the jungle, where there are familiar looking elevated wooden houses of the Reang tribe, whose women wear elaborate jewellery. It’s a great pleasure to walk here and meet people, but the small villages feel far less ‘untouched’ than those in the Bangladesh forests near Thanchi.
One morning, a bell rings out, and I’m told that this signifies a death in the village of an old Darlong man. In this hot, humid environment, and without the possibility of refrigeration, funerary arrangements are dealt with quickly, and in the mid afternoon, the village shops are closed, and mourners, mostly female, come to observe the body of the deceased one final time. They hold prayers, and sing traditional Darlong songs. A grave is dug at the edge of the village, in the rich, red-brown earth of the deceased’s family’s land where tea, pineapple and rubber are growing. The coffin is brought from the village to the burial site, accompanied by howls of anguish which turn into uncontrolled shrieks of grief as the bereaved catch one final glimpse of their departed relative, while the nails of the coffin lid are driven home. There will be a formal wake; a dinner cooked tomorrow, to which the entire village is invited.
In an attempt to escape the stifling heat and mosquitos indoors, I’m sleeping in the fly-net of my tent on the flat roof of Biakthanga’s house. I’m woken at around 05:00 by a very excited Job (Biakthanga’s youngest son), who tells me ‘They’re going to cut a pig!’, and in the otherwise quiet dawn, I can suddenly hear the unmistakable screams of a pig. We make our way over to the deceased’s compound, where the poor beast that is going to form the basis of today’s lunch, a huge pig, is being rather slowly dispatched. Instead of making a clean, swift cut across the animal’s throat, here, the pig’s blood is prized, and so the animal is killed by a sharpened bamboo stick being gouged into the heart. Three men must stand on the poor animal at times in order to hold it down in its throes of agony, but after perhaps ten minutes, it expires, and is swiftly butchered. I’m not a squeamish person, but when the butchers pull out the pig’s football-sized bladder and throw it out into the street, disgorging it contents only to immediately be carried off by a waiting dog, I decide it’s time to retire back to my tent. Little Job is transfixed by the bloody scenes.
I feel far sturdier by lunchtime, and the whole village is coming to the town hall where a squad of cooks are watching over six large pots of bubbling pig stew. It’s a nice chance to see the entire village, but the highlight is the food. Despite having witnessed the poor animal’s demise, the food is a great treat, especially for a pork-lover who has been so long in pig-hating Muslim and vegetarian Hindu countries.
From Darchawi, I move north out of Tripura, across a small corner of Assam, and into another of India’s tribal states, Meghalaya, whose name aptly means ‘the abode of clouds’. The state occupies a knot of highlands which branch off the easternmost ridges of the Himalaya, and lie immediately to the north of the sweltering lowlands of Bangladesh. As huge, moist bodies of air coming off the Bay of Bengal move north and hit these uplands, vast quantities of rain are released. Officially the wettest place in the world, it can rain almost continuously during the impending monsoon season, from June until September.
As would be expected, the hills of Meghalaya are lush, emerald-green, and the road winds across deeply incised valleys and over rocky passes. As there is so little flat land, the settlements are few, but towards evening I stop in the village of Chiehruphi which is located in the damp, cloudy Jaintia Hills of eastern Meghalaya. As I settle down for the night in a clearing near the church, where the air is alive with the sound of insects, lizards and frogs and dotted with dancing fireflies, two young men appear, surprised to see a European striking a tent on the back of a truck. They are of the Khasi tribe, the majority group in Meghalaya, a modern, matriarchal tribe. They invite me to their home for a cup of tea. The house is typical of the region, a squat, single storey dwelling with a heavy, sloping roof. What takes me aback though is that I’m greeted by the woman of the house, who asks me all the normal questions; where I am from, if I have a family, what the purpose of my trip is, and so on. Her husband, in a complete role reversal to virtually all other homes I’ve visited so far in Asia, sits meekly in the corner, twiddling his thumbs. It’s a strange, though memorable experience.
Next day, I drive west over a wide plateau of rich green grass, dotted with stands of fir trees, which at times looks almost like a golf course. During British times, the state was nicknamed the ‘Scotland of India’. Passing the state capital, Shillong, I turn south, crossing a 1,800 metre pass through pine-clad hills, before gently descending along the side of a wide, gaping canyon filled with lush vegetation and small swirls of cloud. A steady drizzle descends, and the forest gives way to a damp, undulating grassy plateau, occasionally dotted by megaliths, the gravestones of long-forgotten dead. My destination is the town of Sohra, better known as Cherrapunji. Once officially the wettest settlement on the planet, the town has since relinquished its title to Mawsynram in the next valley, but for a long time retained the world record for the highest rainfall in one year, a staggering 22,897 mm in 1861. The town has a distinct end-of-the-world feel to it, perched on the edge of this sodden plateau, overlooking the plains of Bangladesh which one may glimpse through the haze, more than a kilometre below.
Sitting in a small café in Cherrapunji, above the hotchpotch bazaar where traders are permanently installed in polythene covered sheds against the perpetual rain, I look out on a landscape which looks more like Scotland or Mongolia than any part of India I’ve ever seen. I get chatting to the café owner, about, naturally, the rain. ‘Once, in 1987, I remember it rained for seven days and nights, without even a minute’s break. In the rainy season, all your clothes are wet, we try to dry them over a small burner, but they never really dry, and they stink. You can’t see anything, there’s fog everywhere!’ I like Cherrapunji; it’s uncrowded, quiet, hassle free and friendly, and I feel sufficiently unharassed to camp in the middle of town.
Early in the next morning, I drive a little way into the nearby Nohkalikai Falls, which with a single drop of 335 metres is one of the highest in India. The waterfall can be seen from a plateau, overlooking a vast green canyon surrounded by a number of plunging waterfalls, a landscape intensely cut and scarred by the action of huge volumes of water. I leave the car on this plateau, and descend into the jungle on a steep, rocky path cut through the intense undergrowth of the jungle. I’m looking for a very unusual piece of engineering down in the jungle, though I’m not too sure of how to find it. As I descend, the temperature, cool and fresh on the plateau, starts to revert to the close, steaminess of the lowland jungles of Bangladesh. I cross a few rivers, of clear, blue-tinged water cascading over large, timeworn pink granite boulders. Under the tree canopy, rocks are covered in shimmering mosses, and occasional orchids grow amongst creepers. But after a few hours, I find what has drawn me down into this damp, shady world of greenery, near the bottom of a small jungle waterfall just before the tiny Khasi settlement of Laitkynsew; a two-tiered footbridge made from living tree roots, stretching sixteen metres across a rocky riverbed. It’s an astounding piece of bio-engineering; the roots of one huge banyan tree, which naturally emerge above ground and hang down into the river channel, have been stretched in two sections right across to the far bank, where they have naturally anchored into the soil for over a hundred years. The bridges are amazingly stable, far more so than equivalent rope bridges, though every part of the bridge, with the exception of some walking boards, is natural, living tree; there are no cables, posts or struts.
Exhilarated by having found this bridge, deep in the Meghalayan jungles, I make my way back slowly to the car, jumping into clear, blue pools of cool, fresh water on my way. I camp up on the plateau that evening, a wonderfully cool, tranquil night.
Next morning, I begin my journey back down to the sweltering lowlands; though I pause in the capital Shillong once more. The Khasi youth of Shillong, all wearing western clothes and listening to western music, certainly seem to look to the west, rather than to their lowland countrymen, as a cultural influence. The bruised, dark sky of low clouds threatens rain, and I enter a roadside restaurant for lunch. There’s a printed menu, wood-panelled walls, and a smell of faint cigarette smoke and spilled beer. The whole place feels eerily like Britain.
It’s a long, slow descent into Assam, where the roads become terrible, the air hot and muggy, and full of voracious mosquitoes. The Assamese seem an exotic blend of Indo-European and Tibeto-Burman people – the girls are especially attractive – but the crowds, noise, filth, stares and beggars leave me in no doubt that one has returned to India; rather a shock after the cool, tranquil and uncrowded hills of Meghalaya. I leave Guwahati, crossing the greyish waters of the Brahmaputra and head west on broken roads through the impoverished Assamese farmland, towards the Himalaya proper.
On the 25th April 2008, I leave my slice of paradise, the tropical island of St Martins, return to the mainland, and begin the long return journey back across the Indian Subcontinent. As I drive north, the hills which rise to my right represent the beginning of what is geographically, culturally and ethnically Southeast Asia, an area I’ve never had much interest in visiting. However, a tiny sliver of the hills are politically part of Bangladesh and India, and their indigenous tribal inhabitants are known as Adivasis (non-Indo Aryan tribes). In India, there are six entire states which cover this buffer-zone, but here in Bangladesh they occupy a narrow belt of north-south ridges in the east of Chittagong Division, which are known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts. I was drawn to these hills by the thought of jungle walks to remote tribal villages, and by their reputation as being dangerous, one which deters many foreigners from ever visiting them.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts are inhabited by indigenous Tibeto-Burman tribes, who have moved into these far-western reaches of Southeast Asia over the past centuries. At the time of partition, the area was roundly expected to be ceded to India, along with all other hill states, but the Radcliffe Line left them in Pakistan. This marked the beginning of a long period of tension between the native tribes and Bengali settlers who move up from their traditional lowland environment to farm the slopes of the jungle. Following the King of the Chakma tribe siding with Pakistan during the country’s independence struggle, tensions escalated to an outright insurgency which lasted from 1973, until a peace accord was reached in 1997. The Hill Tracts remain officially, and temptingly ‘dangerous’.
My destination for the night is the small market town of Lama, which sits on a low ridge, around twenty kilometres into the hills. The majority of the town’s inhabitants are previously landless Bengali settlers, who often clear the forest to cultivate tobacco, or engage in illegal commercial logging. There are also plenty of Southeast Asian faces here; principally members of the Marma (or Rakhine), Chakma and Mro tribes. The police, who naturally are Bengali, let me park the truck and sleep in the garden of their thana (police station). I’m not sure if it’s out of kindness or suspicion. They are certainly keen to know what I’m doing, and one of their numbers accompanies me into town in the evening.
I express an interest in seeing some of the town’s tribal people, but we rush through the area of Lama in which they live (the ‘village’, as my Bengali escort calls it), whilst he leers at the beautiful, uncovered Marma women. Soon we are at a Bengali cinema where my police host seems perplexed that I don’t wish to watch the two hours of over-amplified screeching and gratuitous violence that constitute most Bengali films. The evening is rounded-off when he orders himself dinner and cigarettes at a nearby restaurant, where I am to foot the bill.
The next morning starts off far better, as I’m given permission to move freely within the town. I go straight back to ‘the village’ and have a look round. The area is filled with very distinctive wooden houses with thick hardwood frames, elevated on stilts above the ground. The walls are usually bamboo mats, a little like Japanese tatami, but are sometimes made from hardwood planks. In larger houses, there may be a first floor balcony, and all have large sloping roofs to deal with often torrential rain. The area directly under the living quarters is often used to keep livestock in, generally pigs, or they may be used as an open, shady daytime seating area. Women play an obvious role in public here, and dress freely, wearing elegant flowery dresses and showing long, beautiful glossy-black hair. Many of the younger women are extremely attractive, and the older women, who often sit around smoking home-made cheroots or large pipes, are openly chatty.
My presence here causes some interest, though not the vacant, bovine stares which are so common, and so trying of one’s patience, here in the Indian Subcontinent. Instead, I’m introduced to a young Marma man, Maung-Maung, a Cox’s Bazaar University student who is visiting family in the village, and speaks good English. Maung-Maung and a friend of his invite me into one of these elegant houses, for a delicious lunch of fresh, crisp greens, wild potatoes and rice, and tell me a little about their people. The Marma are a branch of the greater Rakhine tribe, who hail from the state in Myanmar of the same name, having first settled in the area in the 16th century when the area was part of the Arakan Kingdom. They make up the second-largest tribal group in the Hill Tracts, and are almost all Buddhist.
After lunch, Maung-Maung accompanies me to the nearby town of Ali Kadam, which after initial concerns the police agree to, though I am met by four (Bengali) police officers when I arrive, three of whom are armed with sub-machine guns. It seems faintly ludicrous to walk around the peaceful villages of such warm and gentle people with a group of gunmen, but I don’t wish to push my luck at this stage, and the officers are relaxed and keep their distance. At the far end of the village, at a Buddhist monastery where children are being given a free (secular) education, I am introduced to a middle-aged man named Sawraza. He’s a Burmese ex-freedom fighter, who having seen his mother and father killed in Rakhine State in 1988, fled into Bangladesh. Although things are far from perfect here, it’s preferable to open persecution by the military junta government of Myanmar. He tells me he is a Burmese language correspondent for the BBC, and with the money he earns, he has built this school and temple for local Marma children who would otherwise not receive an education.
Maung-Maung, seeing my interest in his home region, invited me back to his family house in the village of Id Garh, a little further north from Lama towards Chittagong, and a few kilometres off the main road. Maung-Maung’s family welcome me in their large, elevated wooden house, which is made entirely from high-quality hardwood. There are three rooms inside, a long first-floor balcony, and a large shady veranda underneath. His mother cooks some local delicacies; wild pig which had been caught by hunters in the jungle, and is absolutely delicious, tortoise, which is a little like beef, and pigeon, which tastes like gamey chicken, with banana shoots and rice. In the evenings, I drink powerful locally made rice-wine with Maung-Maung’s uncle on the balcony. I can’t believe my luck.
Away from the police, I’m free to wander the village and its surroundings with Maung-Maung, and visit some nearby settlements of both Marma and Chakma tribes; kind, friendly and inquisitive tribal people. Some of the tribes in the region are matriarchal, and for the first time since leaving Russia, I’m in a society where men and women enjoy equal (though different) roles. Many of the women I meet, often smoking huge pipes filled with rough home-grown tobacco, are confident and engaging, and show none of the timidity or terror normally found in South Asian women. Despite my great affection for Asia and great respect of Asian social mores, strict gender segregation is something I have never been able to see as anything other than negative and regressive.
Local Bengalis traditionally look down upon these tribal societies, and admittedly, the Bengalis have a far longer and richer historical legacy. But I soon observe that the tribal villages I’m staying in, despite sometimes being even poorer, are more pleasant than nearby Bengali villages, or indeed any villages I’ve yet seen in the subcontinent. They are cleaner, with very little litter and no festering pools of rubbish and human excrement. There are no beggars, and no feral children rooting through garbage piles and sewers. The villagers don’t stand rigidly and stare blankly at me, and are dignified and industrious. The houses may be spartan, but they are clean and tidy. This doesn’t seem to be related to economics; people here just seem to be able to lead dignified lives within their means; real beacons in the squalid sea of the subcontinent’s tens of millions of poor. Perhaps for being comparatively simple, or not having a long contact with religion, these tribal societies have far less prejudice than their lowland neighbours; there is equality between genders, between rich and poor, educated and ignorant, disabled and able-bodied. Women can wear garments practical for work which show off their femininity, and men can go about their lives bare-chested, and may wear shorts.
Maung-Maung is a great example of this difference in mindset. As a child, he contracted polio, and was left without the use of his left arm. Traditionally, in subcontinental society, this would most likely relegate him to a life of begging. But his father, who was neither a rich nor educated man, saw that Maung-Maung was the brightest of the children and together with extended family, collected enough money to send him to university. After all the squalor and socio-religious prejudice of the last few months, being in this gentle society, communicating with both halves of the human race, eating pork, wearing shorts, I feel it’s the kind of place I could stay for a few months.
I wish, however, to make a journey deeper into the Hill Tracts, far from the main road and Bengali settlers. I don’t know how far I’ll need to go to do this, but I select Thanchi, the last town on the map, less than twenty kilometres from the Myanmar frontier, and Maung-Maung asks to accompany me as a guide. We set off in the morning, climbing steadily, through Mro villages perched on high, exposed hillsides from where they practice their traditional slash-and-burn shifting cultivation. We reach a pass at about 750 metres above sea level; quite an elevation for a country which is otherwise very nearly flat. The view from the crest is magnificent; to the west, the sky meets the Bay of Bengal somewhere in the hazy distance, while to the east is a breathtaking view of endless emerald-green ridges unfolding to a distant mountain range marking the Myanmar border.
We descend down into the jungle, negotiate through the army checkpoint at Balipura, soon after which I catch a glimpse of topless Mro women walking in the jungle. A few kilometres further we reach the Sangu River, on the banks of which lies the town of Thanchi. I make my presence known to the local police, who after initial surprise are friendly and accommodating, though they clearly intend to keep a close eye on me. I’ve not felt a hint of tension in the Hill Tracts, let alone anything remotely close to danger, and I’m becoming more suspicious and resentful of the police attention. Nevertheless, I’m allowed to wander in Thanchi during daytime.
This distant jungle outpost is a hub for the surrounding villages, and boats buzz up and down the slow, muddy waters of the Sangu River, which connects the isolated hill communities. Though there is a (currently) small Bengali minority, much of the town is of local tribes, who live in traditional wooden houses. What really interests me however, are all the trails which lead out of town into the hills, to distant and isolated hill villages.
To that end, the following morning, Maung-Maung and I slip out of the thana on the pretences of going for breakfast, then sneak off into the jungle, climbing in the growing heat up the steep, dry hillsides. The traditional slash-and-burn agriculture which the tribes practice leaves patches of the jungle burnt and naked, but never over-exploits a particular area beyond regeneration; a truly sustainable way of life. We climb up and down ridges on well-worn paths for around two hours, until we reach a Mro village. The first reaction of the children, who are playing in the cleared area between the houses, is to flee, screaming. I feel like a real Victorian explorer; for all I know, I might be the first European they’ve ever set eyes upon.
The Mro are perhaps the oldest of the tribes inhabiting these hills, but they are, for want of a better word, often quite primitive. We approach one of the village houses, into which many of the children fled, and meet the woman of the house, Tsiumrho. She is also timid at first, but Maung-Maung soon reassures her that we are just curious visitors. The house is made from bamboo canes around a simple wooden frame, with walls of woven bamboo-leaf. Inside the house is nothing modern, with the exception of a gas lamp and a few bars of soap. On a shelf are two dry, blackened cow heads. The family use hollowed-out gourds to store water, and banana leaves for fans. She complains that there are large numbers of rats this year, which will eat the rice and vegetable crops, particularly when the rainy season begins, during which the crops cannot be harvested. In the house are no instruments of timekeeping; no clocks or calendars. Some Mro tribes, such as this family perhaps, have no concept of time, other than the passing of the seasons.
Although a few Mro have adopted aspects of Buddhism or Christianity, they are overwhelmingly Animist, worshiping three deities; Turai, the creator, Sangtung, the spirit of the hill, and Oreng, the river deity. Their mythology, the Mro say, goes some way to explain why they are culturally quite simple, in a story as follows: God sent the Mro ancestors their scriptures, written on banana leaves, along with clothes for their women to wear. The messenger however, paused to bathe in a river on his journey, only to find on his return to the riverbank that his divine luggage had been consumed by a cow. The sacrifice of a cow, in the annual Kumulong, or ‘cow stabbing festival’ is an act of revenge upon the hapless beast which caused them to be without a formal religion, and their women traditionally half-naked. The cow heads in this family’s house are, I imagine, something akin to a souvenir from past Kumulongs. Interestingly, a new religion seems to be emerging among the Mro, known as Cranna, though with its emphasis on a single god, and weekly prayers on Sundays, many see this as an insidious type of proto-Christianity planted by missionaries who have traditionally had little success with the Mro.
After this interesting break, we trek further into the jungle, looping round towards the river, and encounter a small Marma village of houses made entirely from bamboo canes. A number of male voices can be heard from one of the elevated bamboo dwellings, and after making some enquiries Maung-Maung signals that we’ve been invited in. In the single-roomed, elevated bamboo hut are half a dozen Marma men, who invite us to join their dinner of bamboo shoots, prawns, banana plant, wild potatoes and rice. One of the men is another former freedom fighter from Myanmar, who fled across the border in 1979, leaving behind a family with whom he no longer has contact. They are extremely surprised to see me here, and tell me that it was just three kilometres from here that a Bengali NGO worker was kidnapped (though later released unhurt) last year by ‘hill men’. In response, the Bangladeshi Army arrested the entire male population of a nearby Mro village, four of whom have never been released. I later heard from Joyanta (my host in Dhaka) that the entire incident was staged by the Army. It seems clear that the country’s authorities are keen to maintain the dangerous reputation of the Hill Tracts in order to keep outsiders away. It’s a convenient cloak for the continuing encroachment of lowland settlers and their destructive agricultural practices into these tribal lands, which the government seems to do little to stop. I ask the men their opinion of their neighbours. They tell me that they live with, and respect the Mro, though they admit, with little prejudice, that the Mro are uneducated and backward. On their Bengali neighbours however, they are clear: ‘They are taking our land’.
Returning to Thanchi in the late afternoon, we’re in a spot of trouble with the police, and I’m assigned a guard who watches over me all evening as I strike my tent and prepare to retire for the night, saying hotly ‘You no reporting to thana!’ every time I catch his gaze. A huge, distant cumulonimbus rises above the hills of Myanmar to the east, its towering head illuminated in flashes of pink, silent lightning. I lie back and cherish the day’s experiences; my forbidden view of what may be a fast-vanishing way of life.
In the morning I’m woken by the azan (Muslim call to prayer), normally a beautiful sound echoing at dawn through the great cities of the Islamic world, it sounds out of place in this remote jungle town. Maung-Maung and I leave in the morning, heading towards the district capital of Bandarban. On the way, we stop in a Bawm village to eat a jackfruit, a huge, spiky, green-yellow fruit, the interior of which consists of a delicious, slightly slimy flesh which tastes like something between a mango and a pineapple, one of the best tasting fruits I have ever eaten. Bandarban is a hectic, uninteresting place filled with Bengali settlers, but just beyond the northern outskirts of the town lies a striking piece of Buddhist architecture, the Burmese style Buddha Dhatu Jadi, or Golden Pagoda. I’m welcomed here by an English-speaking Chakma monk, who, after my expressing an interest in his beliefs, tells me a little about Buddhism.
For the first time, I hear someone talking about their religion (if Buddhism may be called such) without any hint of zeal. Buddhism, he tells me, is not theo-centric, but homo-centric. It does not concern itself with speculation as to the nature of any god, but concentrates on the individual. Though many Buddhists worship the Buddha, this is not the main aim of their faith, not a path to enlightenment. The monk shows me a quote, said to come from the Buddha himself, which is perhaps the only piece of religious scripture which has really caught my eye:
‘Do not believe in anything simply because you have read it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe in anything because it is spoken of and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But, after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it’ - The Buddha
I come away from my whole experience; meeting Maung-Maung and staying with his family, trekking out to remote jungle villages, and finally sharing thoughts with this Buddhist monk, deeply spiritually enriched. These gentle jungle communities seem to be the antithesis of all the stresses and prejudices of the subcontinent as a whole. I feel deeply privileged to have met Maung-Maung, and finally bid him farewell on the main road. He will return to his village, while I will begin my trip north, and then west across the Himalaya.
It’s the 24th March 2008, and I leave Boštjan in the city of Kota, where we had relaxed for a day after the excesses of Holi. Boštjan is moving north, to go skiing in Kashmir (somewhere I will not reach until the end of August), and I am heading east, out of Rajasthan. The traffic is light on the smooth new road which moves from the arid plains of Rajasthan onto the red-rock plateau of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Farmland starts to appear, and I stop in the ancient town of Orchha, where the wheat fields are dotted with centuries-old Hindu temples, many abandoned (a temple may no longer be used if the main idol is broken). I relax here a day before moving on east.
Beyond the reach of zealous Muslim invaders and covetous colonial art-collectors, the sandstone temples in the village of Khajuraho, hidden away in the sparsely populated Panna Hills of northern Madhya Pradesh, show perhaps the largest and best preserved collection of erotic temple sculptures in India. A set of twenty-five 10th to 12th century, Chandela-era temples lie in the village, the exterior of many of which is covered in thousands of intricately carved figurines. Whilst most show scenes of battle (as is common in temple architecture of the period), some show highly erotic scenes reminiscent (though not representative) of the Kamasutra.
Some of the dioramas show extremely elaborate coital arrangements, necessitating the use of several assistants, while others are far cruder, and some show outright bestiality. Behind the light-hearted titillation lies considerable artistic skill, and for carvings up to a thousand years old, they are in an amazing state of preservation. Some of the ‘dancing girls’ (a euphemism still used today in South Asia for prostitutes), whose more curved areas are polished smooth by centuries of (presumably male) caresses, are of eye-catching sensuality, depicting lithe, full-breasted and comely girls in scanty clothing. It’s surprising how similar their poses and attire are to models in contemporary western ‘gentlemans’ magazines, but poses the obvious question in this prudish society, where women of wealthy families are usually rather large, and hidden from view, of what these pictures really represent. Are they depicting the antics of kings and their ‘dancing girls’ or was Indian society of a thousand years ago more open with regards to sex and sensuality than today?
The answer lies the invaders who have come to India in the intervening period; firstly the Moghuls, who although famed for their harems and pleasure palaces, represented a religion which found the artistic rendition of the human form unacceptable. One can only imagine the reaction of Muslim settlers on seeing that the temples of these idolatrous Hindus were adorned with such obscene decorations. But it was under the Victorian British colonial overlords that the last blow was dealt to Indian sexual liberalism. Together, the Muslims and the British brought a prudishness into Indian society, which remains largely intact. Interestingly, Indian society is slowly loosening-up when it comes to such matters, with scenes of mild intimacy arriving for the first time on Bollywood screens, amid much controversy.
The time has come to head down onto the Gangetic Plain of Northern India, the wide, lowland belt between the Himalaya and the Deccan Plateau, through which that most venerated of Indian rivers, the Ganga (Ganges) flows. This swathe of fertile land lies at the very heart of the Indian story; it is here where the invading Aryans planted the seeds of Vedic beliefs that would become Hinduism, and here where Buddhism was born. I head straight to one of India’s great cultural centres; the holy Hindu city of Varanasi.
At Manikarnika Ghat (a concourse of steps leading down to the banks of a river), one sees laid-bare one important aspect of Hinduism, in fact of life itself: Death, in the funeral ritual of Antyesti. Varanasi is a holy place to die; it is said that anything which dies here will break free from the cycle of endless rebirths, and the soul will be transported to heaven. People come to Varanasi to die, and along the river there are buildings full of old people waiting to do just that. These ghats on the Ganga are the municipal funerary grounds, and the air is thick with the smoke of numerous funerary pyres. The body of the deceased, wrapped in new clothes, is brought down to the riverside by members of a caste of untouchable undertakers, who ritually cleanse the body in the murky green waters of the Ganga. The chief mourner, generally the eldest son of the deceased (women are not permitted at the funeral, lest their displays of emotion prevents the gods from accepting the soul into heaven), his head shaved, and dressed in the mourning colour of white, leads the service. The body, rigid, emaciated and cocooned, is placed upon the pyre, feet facing south, and an untouchable carrying a flaming handful of straw from a nearby temple sets it ablaze. The fire soon consumes the body, giving off a subtle but nauseating odour. The critical point is the breaking of the skull, which releases the soul of the deceased into the hereafter. The bereaved men look on, showing no emotion aside perhaps from a hint of celebration as their loved one’s soul departs, unmoved by the destruction of the soul’s Earthly vehicle. It’s a deeply telling scene of Hinduism.
This amazing spectacle unfolds openly, hundreds of times each day along the short stretch of ghats here in the city’s old centre, whilst in a street not twenty metres away motorcycles wind through crowds of busy pilgrims, foreign tourists and itinerant cows. A hundred metres downstream of the funeral ghats, close enough to see the last remains of funeral pyres floating past (plus plenty of sewage outfalls), hundreds of pilgrims gather at dawn each day to bathe in this most holy of Indian rivers; families bring their aged relatives and help them into the soothing murkiness of the Ganga, children are anointed with its waters and people will even take nips of the stuff. The streets throng with visitors, holy men, souvenir peddlers, beggars, con-artists and pickpockets, all jostling through the crowded bazaars and deftly avoiding the numerous piles of cow manure.
Varanasi is in many ways the quintessential Indian experience. For all its piety as a holy city, and the insight into Hindu life, it’s equally soulless, embodying the seedy Indian tourist industry and the most revolting squalor. It’s shocking, fascinating, life-affirming, repulsive, tiresome, and awful all at once; no place better embodies the Indian travel experience for me. The city is something of a milestone on my Indian journey, as from here, everything will feel more low-key and easy-going as I head further east towards the point where the Ganga and the Brahmaputra meet and flow into the Indian Ocean: Bengal.
Sometime shortly after 500 BC, at the southern edge of the Gangetic Plain, south of the city of Patna in the sweltering green plains of the state of Bihar, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, one of the region’s many haggard mendicants and renouncers, sat under a pipal tree. He was tempted by a she-demon with all the pleasures of the world, and in denying them attained supreme enlightenment, to become the Buddha. Today, this sacred spot, the most holy site for Buddhists, lies in the village of Bodh Gaya. Though Buddha would have rejected the notion of making a place, or even himself, the object of adoration, such is the human need for some physical object of worship, that the village has grown into what resembles an embassy district of temples constructed by various Buddhist countries. In the desperately poor Bihari rice paddies, amid scenes of un-mechanised agriculture which must have changed little since the time of the Buddha, stand the temples, monasteries and guest houses from Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Bangladesh and South Korea. Monks flit around town from their respective centres, dressed in crimson, bright orange, mustard brown or sepia robes, amongst pilgrims from all over Asia. At the centre of the entire complex is the 5th to 6th century Mahabodhi Temple, built next to the very point upon which the Prince Siddhartha is said to have sat, where there stands a tree which is said to be a descendent of a tree in Sri Lanka which itself was a descendent of the original. To this revered spot, some come after days, weeks, months, or sometimes even years of painful prostrations; moving two steps before stooping to lie flat on the ground, pressing their forehead against the Earth, their palms pressed together ahead of them in prayer.
Sitting around this temple, watching the shades of devotion from pilgrims and tourists from across a huge swathe of Asia, I meet Tenzin, a forty-seven year old monk from Tibet. He speaks good English, and he tells me he is here as a refugee, rather than just a pilgrim. After guiding an American journalist in Tibet for five months, he was left with a videotape from the Dalai Lama containing messages of support from western activists; a dangerous thing in Tibet. The authorities soon came to hear of the materials, and seven PSB (Chinese police) visited his monastery, beating the eighty-seven year old head Lama until Tenzin arrived at the scene. They told Tenzin to spit and urinate on a picture of the Dalai Lama, and when he refused, beat him savagely, inserted a baton into his anus and wiped it on the picture, before beating him unconscious.
Tenzin was sentenced to three years in a Lhasa prison, but in October 2007, he and two others bribed a prison guard and fled. After making a final visit to his only remaining relative, his eighty-eight year-old mother (his father was killed by the PSB in 1960, and his sister died within a week of being released from a PSB jail in 1986), he started a hazardous journey across the freezing wastes of the Tibetan Plateau, travelling by night for fear of being spotted, crossing the world’s highest mountain range to reach the Nepali border. Here the Nepali authorities took everything he owned except for his clothes, destroyed his identity documents, but finally allowed him to pass. Tenzin, a man who had lived in a monastery since the age of seven, suddenly found himself alone and destitute in a foreign country, but managed to make his way to Bodh Gaya, where he survived on handouts and some work showing foreign tourists around. He’s an immediately endearing guy, and has a hint of child-like wonder at his new life. He plans to make it all the way south to a Buddhist monastery in Bangalore. There are thousands of such stories of the brutalities from the present-day Chinese occupation of Tibet, but the story also reminds one of just how religiously tolerant India really is, and has been, for centuries.
Consider the story of the Buddha himself. As he wandered through this region of India, then known as Magadha, in the 5th century BC, he renounced not just the technicalities of the early Hindu faith, but its very basis; that the ancient Brahmin fire-rituals were not bringing people any spiritual gain. For doing this, no harm came to him, and Buddhism spread peacefully throughout the region. Buddhism subsequently spread across Asia in two schools, Theravada (south and east to South-east Asia) and Mahayana (initially west, then north and east to Tibet and Mongolia). Ironically, given it was the birthplace of Buddhism, India now has virtually no Buddhist communities which can trace their faith back to its origins here in Bihar. A renaissance and resurgence in the popularity of Hinduism between the 5th and 11th centuries largely replaced Buddhism, with Nepal and Sri-Lanka having the only indigenous Theravada Buddhist communities on the subcontinent.
I leave Bodh Gaya with a more positive view of India, and make my final drive along the Grand Trunk Road through the dry hills of the tribal state of Jharkhand, down into the almost fluorescent green rice paddies and water-hyacinth fields of West Bengal, to the metropolis of Kolkata (Calcutta). My first indication that West Bengal is a little different from the rest of India, a little more civilised, comes shortly after the state border, as I’m driving through a small town. I sound the horn to scatter some pedestrians from a zebra crossing (standard practice in India), and am immediately pulled over by a policeman, who shrugs his shoulders and raises his arms; the message is clear. In West Bengal, there are rules!
I drive over the Hugli River into Kolkata and immediately warm to the place; despite being a city of fourteen million, it has a noticeably different air from other parts of India; not of a holy city, or a tourist trap, but of a real city in the modern sense of the word; a place of commerce, unrelated to the spiritual. This in my mind is due to two reasons; firstly that the city was created from scratch as a planned city (principally by the British), but more importantly, due to the Bengalis themselves. Bengalis strike me as being more civilised, open-minded, intelligent, and cultured than other Indian city-dwellers I have encountered. Bengal was the intellectual and industrial centre of the British Raj, with Calcutta its capital from around 1690 to 1911, and this legacy survives today. Many of the country’s big industrialists such as Tata and Birla hail from, and still base themselves here, recruiting from the city’s prestigious universities. It’s a city of modest attractions; colonial churches and monuments, which seem more conspicuous than the many Hindu temples, a welcome respite from Varanasi. It’s the first place in India I’ve enjoyed as a whole, rather than for a specific attraction.
My host in the city is Rudradeb, a Bengali Lawyer who speaks English with a public-school accent that I’m a touch envious of. He comes from a wealthy and once powerful Bengali background, and as we sit on his balcony in the salubrious suburb of Tollygunge, watching the oily clouds of a pre-monsoonal storm gather, he indicates that much of the land in this area once belonged to his family. Now, luxury new apartments have been constructed here, and a squad of painters, balancing without ropes on a scaffolding of lashed-together coconut-palm trunks, put the finishing touches to the facades of the twelve-storey buildings.
The storm gathers into a great deluge of lightning and rain, and in the morning I wade through flooded streets on the way to the Bangladeshi Mission. Everyone has their trousers rolled up beyond their knees, and steps carefully through the murky water, leaping onto passing buses and helping others on. There’s an air of excitement at the impending coolness and change of season which the monsoon brings, and I further warm to the citizens of Kolkata; people here seem friendlier, and more decent to one and other than elsewhere.
After six wonderful days with Rudradeb and his wife, who cooked traditional Bengali food quite different from that known in Europe, rich in fish and fresh vegetables, I move on, ever east, crossing the border from West Bengal into what was once East Bengal, then East Pakistan, and is now the independent country known as Bangladesh, or ‘Land of the Bangla speakers’. Bangladesh, the world’s most densely populated large nation, had an extremely troubled birth, witnessing the upheavals of independence twice in twenty-five years; firstly from British India, and secondly from Pakistan. Bengal, rather like Punjab was split by the partition of India in 1947 to form the eastern section of the disjointed country of Pakistan. In this rather ludicrous country, its capital in Karachi, thousands of kilometres from Bengal, the Bengalis were pushed to breaking point after marginalisation, flawed elections and most crucially the adoption of Urdu as state language, one which virtually no Bengali spoke. This culminated in a liberation movement, based largely on the right to speak Bangla, the native tongue of Bengal, and led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.
Having crossed the border in the town of Benapole, I’m struck by how much emptier the roads are compared to West Bengal, as I pass through endless villages of intense cultivation. Simply everywhere is green and fecund. My first port of call is the city of Jessore, a homely, charming provincial town of friendly bazaar merchants and quiet streets. The city’s traffic consists almost entirely of bicycles and bicycle rickshaws and the silence is profound, almost eerie, after the infernal noise of India. This was to be a cruelly, brutally deceptive introduction to my next destination, the capital city of Dhaka.
One’s first impression of Dhaka is simply chaos, as one gets swept up in the traffic through broken, shambolic streets. There are no real suburbs in this incredibly densely packed aggregation of humanity, one simply enters the city. After only a couple of hours, I manage to squeeze and scrape the car down old lanes to the apartment of my host, thirty-four year-old filmmaker Joyanta. He represents part of a huge group of highly intelligent, university-educated Bangladeshis, who not only make Bangladesh something of an intellectual powerhouse (though sadly many of the most intelligent move abroad), but who, as a student movement, were crucial in the very formation of the country in 1971, and still play a very active role in politics.
One’s second impression of Dhaka is of crushing, omnipresent poverty. Beggars work the lanes of traffic at every intersection; wild, scruffy street children, and skeletal polio cripples who stagger painfully on all fours or are pushed along on porter’s carts. Beggars line the main streets, amputees and hideously deformed cripples writhing in the filth, muttering ‘Allah u Akbar!’ Like many beggars in the subcontinent, where alms-giving is a deeply rooted feature of society, they are controlled by gangs, who organise them into territories and cream-off their profits. As I walk with Joyanta along one street which is something of an open air freak show; a toddler with a vastly swollen head, and a man so covered in warts he might have smallpox, he tells me that such eye-catching deformities are often deliberately induced in the children of the destitute to make them successful beggars. With so many people living on the streets of the city, one must step carefully around the sleeping bodies of vagrants; on the pavements, in parks, and just about any free space, and there is the near constant, unmistakable stink of human excrement. It lies, slowly drying in the torrid heat behind every street-side tree, against every park wall, in every shady corner; anywhere where one may find a modicum of cover.
Joyanta lives in a middle-class district of the city, a small area of narrow, unpaved streets alive with bicycle rickshaws (the most convenient mode of transport in the city), and filled with an unthinkable concentration of apartment buildings. From one window I can see – close up – at least five other apartment blocks, the nearest perhaps three metres away, while from the other window, the gap is just a metre. I’m within a stone’s throw of at least twenty apartment buildings, and in the sweltering, sticky heat which builds-up before the monsoon breaks, everyone’s windows are open. I’m surrounded by the sound of other people’s lives; that low, featureless hum which one only hears when one listens for it, occasionally punctuated with the scream of a child, the nasal, nagging voice of a woman, or a man clearing his throat and spitting – carefully so as not to spit into someone else’s apartment – out of the window. There is a proximity of humanity, the concentration of which I have never experienced, not in Kolkata, Karachi or Cairo.
Dhaka’s public transport system is predictably startling. The buses are quite a sight; not for their decoration, as in Pakistan, but for their bodywork, which has the appearance of having been worked-over by an angry, hammer-wielding mob. Not one square centimetre is flat, and the skin of the bus resembles a hand-beaten copper bowl. The reason for this becomes obvious on the cripplingly choked streets of the city, where the buses are all in competition for fares, and race along with reckless abandon up to traffic lights, stopping in such a way as to obstruct other buses from passing. To counter this, shunting is an accepted technique, as is clipping corners. A small shunt will not so much as move the eyebrow of a driver, though the loss of a wing mirror may elicit a tirade of abuse at his driving adversary. All this time, the ticket boy, who manages to keep his balance inside the careening and crashing bus, and remember exactly who has, and who hasn’t paid, is busy shouting out destinations (important in a country where many are illiterate), and physically cramming more and more passengers on the already far-overloaded bus. The opportunities for death and serious injury are rife, and constant.
Despite the shocking quality of many of the city’s aspects – the chaos, noise, beggars, filth, traffic and sheer squeeze of humanity – I like the place, which is not without its attractive corners, and spend almost two weeks here. The National Assembly Building, for instance, is a fine piece of modern architecture, though it has been closed since parliament was dissolved by the army in January 2007. A history of military coups and martial law are one of the few things Bangladesh does have in common with Pakistan.
In Dhaka’s old city, on the bank of the Buriganga River, amid the stinking piles of rubbish which are being picked-through by the poor, one catches glimpses of past grandeur; elegant mansions now all but lost in a sea of modern sprawl. Down close to the riverbank is the Ahsan Manzil, the ‘Pink Palace’, in which Lord Curzon would stay when visiting the city. I take a short boat trip on the Buriganga, a moving mass of fluid so filthy it looks to be made as much from raw sewage and used engine oil, as from water, and can be smelt from across the old city. Huge sewage outfalls dump a constant stream of filth into the already black water, yet on the river’s shore, where a truly unspeakable accretion of muck exists, men sell food from roped-together wooden canoes, and women wash clothes. The Buriganga makes the Ganga look clean, and the Nile in Cairo look like spring water.
Nevertheless, in a country where more people move on the waterways than on the roads, it’s a quintessential view of the city. Dozens of enormous ferry boats are moored in the river port of Sadarghat, filled with village-like encampments of humanity waiting to move on to their destinations in the interior of this flat, sponge-like country. In all this glorious human squalor lies the vibrant heart of Dhaka.
Before leaving the city, Joyanta tells me of an upcoming festival; Bengali New Year. It’s a tradition which has been revived by the city’s strong alternative student movement, to become a notable middle-class festival, though the attractions are as much the artistic output of the central university as of clear folk beliefs. Like Pakistan, the middle class here are not too numerous, but being Dhaka there are throngs of brightly clad, well-fed and beautiful people. The women here are striking, with beautiful smooth, fair skin, and large, dark, slightly elongated eyes. For the first time in the Indian subcontinent I see a concentration of genuinely attractive women. They remind me of the girls on the temples in Khajuraho.
From what is almost certainly the most intense spot in the subcontinent, I move to one of its most relaxed, out in the Bay of Bengal, off the coast of Myanmar; St Martins Island. The drive takes me south from Dhaka, along the base of the very first ridges which demarcate the eastern edge of the Indian Subcontinent, a world whose western boundary I crossed three months ago as I descended from the interior of Baluchistan to Karachi. The end of the road comes in the smugglers town of Teknaf, which lies on a spit of land separating the Bay of Bengal from a coastal inlet, beyond which, lies Myanmar. Along the coast lies 120 kilometres of sandy beach, the world’s longest. I leave the car in Teknaf and take a boat down to St Martins.
St Martins is, after Dhaka, very nearly paradise. It’s a small tropical island with a tiny population, no real roads or cars, and is ringed by wide, clean and empty sandy beaches. I camp on a vast expanse of sand on the island’s north-east coast, overlooking the distant, hazy coastline of Myanmar. The waters of the Bay of Bengal are turbid; it is after all not far away that the two largest rivers of India, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, pour out all the sediment of the subcontinent into the Indian Ocean, but they are bathwater-warm. During the day, when the heat and intensity of the sun are uncomfortable, I snooze in the foyer of a nearby hotel, part-owned by Joyanta, until the late afternoon when a few souls wander the beach pulling up nets, or digging for shellfish. At other times however, the beach is all mine to enjoy; the long, red skies of dusk, starry nights sleeping under the fly-net of my tent, and the warm dawn, when I float in the warm seawater as a large, pink sun quickly rises over the distant hills of Myanmar, then sit and watch the crabs at the water’s edge, foraging in the flotsam and jetsam, cleaning out their burrows, and leaving intricate and ephemeral concentric patterns of sand around their entrance-holes.
I’ve traversed this vast, seething plain of humanity, through the modern states of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Upon its surface unfold the age-old scenes of worship; the Sufis of Sindh, the Sikhs of Punjab, the Hindu revellers in Rajasthan, the Buddhist monks of Bodh Gaya. Religion is so fundamental in these societies, so defining for people, that I had of course, to question my own beliefs, or rather my lack of them. As a child, I’d dismissed the puerile notion of a bearded, all-seeing God in the sky along with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and had never given religion any further consideration. I see few merits of scripture, though it obviously gives a great deal of comfort and reassurance to billions of people. It seems to me that across the religions, and across the ages, there is a struggle between the dumbing-down of a god ‘who’ exists (i.e. the man in the sky), and the god of the philosophers, the metaphysical god of the Hindus and Buddhists (that is, of the Indian subcontinent), or perhaps a god without any transcendence; an underlying constancy in a universe of transience, an absolute that bounds the continuum of existence. That, is what I had come to believe, but what’s the point of that? How does that inspire one to be a decent person, how does that build society?
Leaving these philosophical thoughts, I reflect upon the next stage of my journey. From here, I can only head west; it is very, very nearly impossible to enter Myanmar by land from India or Bangladesh, and entering China is almost as difficult. So I will re-traverse the subcontinent, arcing across the world’s greatest mountain range, the Himalaya, through cultures not of the crowded lowlands of the subcontinent, but of the Burmese and Tibetan peoples which lie in the forbidden lands just beyond.