First time Asia
An innocent traveller
The woman in the cramped office in Regent Street seemed to know what she was talking about. The bundles of paperwork, the telephone receivers, some tucked under her chin gave me, in my innocence, a sense of security. ‘Your best bet would be this. I’ll do you a cheap flight to Karachi; you get the train up to Lahore, cross the border into India then on up to Srinagar.’ Put like that it all sounded so easy. Maybe it was good advice, I’ll never know, although today I would tend to see Delhi as a better route in; but then I would have seen nothing of Lahore and may never have returned to marvel at the Karakorum Highway.
And so my first taste of Asia was Karachi Airport. The request from a fellow passenger to carry money through customs was a foretaste of the frequent dubious deals and arrangements. But true to form as I later discovered, declining the request carried no resentment and I was offered a lift in his taxi to Karachi railway station. Under other circumstances I might well have declined this offer, but emerging from the airport I struggled to deal with the sights, smells, and cacophony of sounds, which were to become all too familiar in my travels through urban Pakistan. Camel carts, bullock carts, brightly painted buses, tuk-tuks. To my untutored brain, I was unable to distinguish the beggar from the tuk-tuk driver, the ticket tote for the bus from the lassi seller. Everyone wanted my attention, or more to the point, my money.
The drive to the station was a chance to recover, a chance to assess what was going on from the security of a taxi. Whether this was real or imagined security didn’t matter; it was real to me at the time, and I was deposited at the correct railway station for my journey to Lahore. This ride, and the refusal to accept any contribution to the taxi fare was my first introduction to Pakistani hospitality; a hospitality unrivalled in all my travels.
In the back of my mind the station represented something of a safe haven. Get a ticket, get on the train and all will be well. There was no queue for the little hole in the wall. The lack of a queue, I was later to find, is always an ominous sign. The ticket was ludicrously cheap for a sleeper, but it was in my hand, it had a number on it. In my mind, I would soon be curled up in a bed. Despite a regular insomniac I was so exhausted, sleep would come immediately.
I found my seat, snuggled up between men wearing what to me was distinctly foreign clothing. All were wearing baggy trousers and what seemed to be extremely long shirts. The headgear varied between what I now know to be the traditional north Pakistan rolled up hat and turbans. On reflection and from later experiences, it was clearly me who generated a rather stand-offish relationship with my fellow passengers.
It was only a few hours into the journey that all formality collapsed when I asked the naive question ‘Where do I sleep?’ The reply came as shock. It was in the form of a finger pointing to where I was sitting. Examination of my ticket confirmed my suspicions. The horror of another day’s journey in front of me slowly sank in. No bed, and what was becoming increasingly clear, no British Rail tea trolley.
My naivety and vulnerability must have been blindingly obvious by now. The response was extraordinary, and I am certain my reaction did not do it any sort of justice. Food was offered, and I nibbled at it, trying to appear polite. In reality, my fear of what was in the food and whether it had been festering in the heat all day was holding me back despite my desperate hunger.
My exhaustion must have become apparent as I was offered a place on what seemed like a slightly larger than normal luggage rack. It was only later that I realised the generosity of this offer, which I eagerly took. This was a sleeping berth that my fellow traveller had paid for.
Did I sleep? I frankly don’t remember. I do remember isolated incidents from the journey. One is the squat toilet, watching the railway track sleepers flashing by through the hole, fearful that my money pouch would fly off the belt and be lost forever. Another is that strangely peaceful moment when the train stops after relentless hours of clickety click, only to realize we are not just outside a London station, but somewhere on the edge of the Thar desert, nothing but sand, scrub, and blistering heat. A woman, skin like leather, appears from nowhere and boards the train with a bundle of sticks.
A breakfast menu arrives; reassuringly expressed in quasi military fashion. ‘Toast, two pieces. Egg, fried’ etc. I have now learnt that some things are better not to be too closely observed. The bulk breakfast was delivered at one of the many station stops. The serving area was the track, individual portions handed onto individual plates. I have to say, all a step up from normal airline, with china plates and metal utensils, although clearly not available for serving up. Although cold, it’s edible. The sweetness of the bread is something one becomes accustomed to.
The guide book tells of a university city. I had expectations of my home town, Oxford. The experiences of a fleeting glimpse of Karachi, the towns and cities en route were preparing me for another reality. It was leaving the railway station that I felt the desperate need to get a grip. I have no memory of getting to a hotel, how I knew where to go, checking in or even getting to the room. It must have been aided by my guide book. What I do remember was looking into the cubicle of the en suite and seeing cockroaches fleeing as I turned on the light. What is vivid is that sense of the need to ‘get a grip’. I was in a room with a bed, I could sleep. Nothing lost, passport, main rucksack small rucksack. I was secure. I had two options; get to hell out of here or deal with it. The first seemed very attractive until the practicalities; buying a ticket for the train, the plane, somewhere to stay in Karachi, finding food. All these would require getting a grip. No choice, I have to get a grip whatever I do.
I had so far survived on tea; sweet, milky tea served up by the chai wallahs on the train. Was there bottled water, I really can’t remember. My water bottle with sterilizing tablet was now an option. What about food? After a welcome rest on a bed I decided to set out into Lahore.
What is reality? So much depends on our state of mind. Sleep deprivation and dehydration (not much in vogue in those days) had created a deep sense of fear. The unfamiliar, far from being stimulating, was a source of insecurity, rapidly degenerating into fear. With too much fear we go into a metaphoric foetal position. With a little sleep I was heading to more of equilibrium between excitement and fear. The lessons learnt in those first few hours stayed with me.
Out on the street and refreshed, I was more able to hear see and feel what was around me. Just as important, I was more able to reach out. With this renewed energy I found food and returned to the hotel a new man.
That’s not to say I didn’t keep running. Pakistan was not at this point my objective, the destination was India.
This involved crossing at Wagah, now famed for its strange rituals which have become a tourist attraction. Getting there involved my first ride in an overloaded minibus. A little way into the journey jammed tightly into an impossibly small face, I felt something cold and wet on my arm. Freeing myself sufficiently to turn round I found that one of the fellow passengers was a rather large sheep. At 3 rupees for the journey, what else would I expect?
My knowledge of international politics did not extend to the open hostility between India and Pakistan, so the negativity on both sides of the border came as a surprise. Having successfully exited the Pakistan side and trekked through no man’s land, I arrived at the Indian side to be greeted with ‘We’re closed now’. I’m not sure which of the following did the trick; the look of total dismay, the sweat dripping off my nose, or the suggestion that I would pass and he would have to shoot me to stop me. Even if it was the last of these, it is not an approach I would recommend.
Finally, I was through and close to Amritsar. A woman with two small children was standing by a taxi. We agreed to share the cost, but I was a little taken aback at being expected to pay beforehand. But this was what she did, so I joined in. Money in hand, the taxi driver hailed a man on a pedal rickshaw and sent him off with a jerry can. He returned later with fuel for the journey.
Armed with a grasp of Indian Railways I booked a ticket to include a sleeping berth to travel overnight to Jammu. At the station, the guard showed me to my birth and alarmed me with a warning.
‘There are dacoits on this line. Don’t open the door for anyone.’
Having established that a dacoit is a bandit, I settled down to sleep in the compartment all to myself. It was sheer magic. The smell of steam mixed with the pine of the wooden carriage, the clickety – click of the track, the whistle wailing into the night, the moonlight on the rivers we crossed as we were hauled up into the foothills of the Himalayas. We stopped at stations and sometimes out in the country for no apparent reason. At one stop there was a banging on the door.
‘Open the door sir.’ I ignored it. The banging continued. I continued to ignore it. ‘Open the door, I’m the guard.’ After several minutes I decided to reply. ‘If you are the guard you will know you told me not to open the door.’
Peeping out of the window I realised that this was in fact a station, and it was indeed the guard, now accompanied by several police officers together with my future travelling companion. I was joined by this rather sour looking military officer in a Sikh turban. We did not converse much on the rest of the journey. Whether that was the result of the boarding fiasco or otherwise, I will never know.
The bus from Jammu to Srinagar contained a number of foreign tourists. I was clearly on a more orthodox route. With Srinagar offered so much of the west, even down to a Barclays Bank, I felt able to relax. I felt so at home, that I indulged in meatballs, a mistake rewarded with an upset stomach. To this day, I don’t trust meatballs).
My goal was Leh in Ladhak, perfect, meeting my desire to reach one of the purple areas on the map. For those with no experience of older school atlases, the highest point, those over 15,000 feet are shown in purple. But my aspirations were thwarted by an apparent lack of transport. I therefore set off for a trek to the Kolahoi Glacier. Apart from a few sunny intervals, the rain teemed down and over several days I staggered through mud and waded through streams. The area was clearly one for trekking as there were, and presumably still are, trekking huts which serve a staple diet of rice, dhal and potatoes which lured me from my packaged food.
On to Ladhak
The journey from Srinagar to Leh is now a little blurred, not entirely due to the passing of 35 years. A sleepless night due to frequent visits to the bathroom had left me struggling to carry my pack and fearful of the bus journey, one which was to last two days. The journey was split by an overnight stop in the town of Kargil. I recall a fellow traveller, an Indian army officer warning me that Kargil was a ‘bad place’, a place with large numbers of insurgents in the conflict between India and Pakistan in the fight for control of Kashmir. This is the sort of information which one receives in travelling. I was not quite sure what to do with it. It was to be somewhat irrelevant, as we arrived at 8.00 p.m. and set off the next morning at 4.00 a.m.
What I do recall is the spectacular surroundings; the green alpine scenery of the Srinagar region giving way to high altitude desert. The palette of greens and whites, of pasture rising to coniferous forest, and on to ice fields gave way to the yellows, browns, reds and whites of bare rock capped with snow. In places, scattered villages with meagre terraced fields merged with the rock. One particularly arresting sight was that of Lamauru Gompa; a dream like monastery standing amongst rugged peaks.
Leh is at an altitude of 3,500 metres (11,500 ft.), something one tends not to notice until attempting to walk away from a bus with a heavy rucksack. I realised how lucky I was when I met a fellow traveller desperate to leave. The effects of altitude vary between individuals. For many they tend to wear off after a day or so as the blood adjusts by making more haemoglobin. For this man, the effects of nausea and serious weakness continued.
My first stop having found a delightful homestay was to visit a doctor with my continuing diarrhoea. ‘Amoebic dysentery,’ was the diagnosis. ‘Very common in these parts’. I wondered how he could tell with no tests, but not wishing to spend a further several weeks with the complaint I began the course of treatment. (I have subsequently found that this was not wise as the treatment can have serious side effects.)
Despite being the largest settlement in Ladakh, Leh felt as if it was in a time warp. Although I had plans to trek, my earlier experiences of my load left me with a feeling I would be quite comfortable taking day walks, especially as I quickly learnt that there were a number of buses plying the road back toward Lamayuru Monastery. But first, as a teacher, could not resist visiting some of the schools as well as getting a feel for the town. I was welcomed, both by the local people in general and the schools.
There are a number of fine day hikes to take around Leh whether directly from the town or by taking a bus. These bring you to fascinating masteries through barren landscapes dotted with chortens and lush green fields fed by tightly controlled irrigation channels.
One such walk is that from Lamyuru to Likir Gompa. This should be an easy hike, some 6 miles or so up a valley and over a small col form Lamayuru where I had camped. I was not, however well prepared. I set out with an empty water bottle and remember distinctly avoiding a rather grubby water supply from a plastic pipe. I can picture the pipe to this day. As I walked up the dry river bed I felt slightly reassured of my route when I passed an old man. He was virtually shuffling along, spinning wool as he was walking and chanting ‘om mani padmi hum’. This chant incidentally can be heard all over Ladakh and Tibet, chanted by groups of people on buses, by monks, or just by people walking along the street. I overtook him, feeling, somewhat arrogantly, that if he could get where he was going I could get there too. Pride comes before fall. As the day wore on my thirst increased. Maybe not filling my water bottle was a mistake. It was only a few miles. But at altitude and with intense heat, the human body loses moisture at very high rate. I was climbing up and had set out at 11,500 ft. As I approached the col my mouth became dry, the dryness extending to my throat. Eventually, I found myself retching, staggering, feeling dizzy. I made it to the col stumbled down a track to an irrigation channel. There I slumped into the cool water. A man was working the field above me. As I lay exhausted I said ‘Chai’. He nodded and carried on working. He must have looked at me again, as this time he dropped his shovel and came across to me, gave me a knowing smile, took my bag and beckoned me to follow. We all know that alcohol is the very last thing to take for dehydration, but I was offered nothing else. I spent the afternoon slumped in his house drinking ‘chang’, this being the local rice beer.
Sometime later the old man appeared, still chanting, still spinning. He joined us in chang drinking, but what followed was truly amazing. The man of the house went out into the fields and returned with a heap of dry soil. Clearly this must have been pure clay. The old man wetted it and started to turn it on a rudimentary wheel. At the same time he lit a fire and when he had sufficient embers he heated the base of the pot. In the course of the afternoon he made a whole series of perfect pots.
I slept the night at the house, as did the man who was clearly the local itinerant potter.
The gompas or monasteries were overwhelming. Even those close to Leh were virtually unvisited. It was relatively easy to take a bus a little out of town and make a circular walk to include a number, each with its own particular interest. It is hard to describe the atmosphere in the gompas, the cool and the darkness contrasting with the intense heat and brilliant sunlight outside. Thick trekking socks became caked with grease from the butter lamps which in some places were the only lights. Monks would enthuse over collections of prayers, bundled up in cloth. That I could understand neither the explanation nor the prayers themselves failed to dampen the enthusiasm. The chanting, the constant banging of drums and occasional clash of cymbals added to the surreal atmosphere.
A return journey always has a different feel to the outward. Confidence is high, knowing what to expect, and being more relaxed enables the traveller to take in more of the surroundings and people. But there are hidden dangers, not least the cultural clash between the precision timings of the ‘developed’ world and the more fluid approach to time of the rest of the world.
This was to be no exception. Meeting a teacher from Birmingham, England on a train to Amritsar came as no surprise. Birmingham has a large population of Indian and Pakistani descent. He was shocked to hear that I knew nothing of the Golden Temple of Amritsar. On reflection, I too am now equally shocked. The temple is the most significant shrine in Sikhism. Educated by my Birmingham friend, I decided to visit.
It was only on my return and some time later that I discovered the significance of visiting at that point in time. It was during 1983 that the temple served as the headquarters of Sikh groups seeking to create a new nation named Khalistan. This explained the number of armed men in and around the complex. It might also explain the lack of visitors. In June 1984 the complex was attacked and partly destroyed as part of an operation instigated by the Indian president Gandhi. Operation Blue star as it was called, led to the deaths of over 1,000 militants. It is still a matter of great controversy, even in my home country with accusations of the British army being involved.
The train journey from Lahore to Karachi was not without its problems. The train from Karachi had arrived in Lahore several hours late. I had no intention of missing my flight so decided to spend a night in Karachi. Giving myself a whole day’s leeway, I was bound to be safe. The train arrived in Lahore already several hours late and the lateness increased as we travelled. My confidence ebbed away. When we were stopped some way outside Karachi and passengers disgorged from the train to eat lunch, panic finally stepped in.
‘How long is it before we get to Karachi?’ ‘About an hour.’ Came the reply.
I realised at this point there was no hope of my catching the plane which was due to leave in about two hours. The airport is about one hour’s journey from the station. In shear frustration I clambered up to the driver’s cab.
‘Why are we waiting here when we are so late?’
‘People need to get some lunch, and we’ve had a problem with the brakes.’
I explained about the plane situation, by now patently in a state of sheer panic.
‘Don’t worry.’ Was the seemingly inept answer, to which I gave short shrift. ‘Is your bag ready? Are you ready to get off?’
He failed to explain any more, but as we moved towards Karachi, I noticed the tail planes of aircraft beyond the track. Suddenly it all made sense. The train ground to a near halt, with the driver hanging from the cab gesticulating to me to jump. I scrambled down the bank and within minutes took a passing tuk-tuk to the airport.
What incredible generosity. What kindness. What a way to treat a visitor to your country. I wonder whether such an incident could happen in Europe or America. Although I also wonder whether our trains could be that late.