The thick red line of travelers heading from Istanbul to Kathmandu, traveling on the most direct and least expensive route, meant that you were always meeting other, and often seeing the same travelers over an extended period of time. However, once in India, like in Europe, there is no specific destination, and although travelers clustered in places such as Goa, or Kovalam, or Pushkar, or Manali, the concentration thinned out, and often I was traveling solo. Most of the time I traveled by train in India.
My route took me from Patna to Bombay, then to Goa, Bangalore, Mysore, Ootacamund, Cochin, Kovalam, and right to the southern tip of India at Kanyakumari. In Cochin, I met a couple of German girls planning to go to the Maldive Islands. I had not previously realized that the islands were easily accessible, so I decided to fly there. In 1978, the resort tourism sector was only taking off and it was still possible to stay locally. A group of travelers, including myself, in Male arranged to take a rickety boat to the island of Himmafushi. Life was incredibly simple there. A cot in a local hut and all meals (all identical meals of smelly rice and fish curry and a few hard biscuits) cost just over $1. These were the days before travel in the Maldives became more heavily regulated.
Timing is everything.
In early 1978, Sri Lanka was a travelers tropical paradise. The civil war started in 1983. Back then Sri Lanka was another wonderful lush tropical island with a very rich culture, dramatic temples, glorious beaches, hill stations and horrendously crowded local transport. Over the course of a few weeks, in addition to enjoying Colombo as a base for travel, I visited the temples of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Dambulla. Then some time in the beaches around Hikkaduwa, and Hambantota. Then some time in the hill stations around Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, the Horton Plains and World’s End. I then took the train up to Talaimannar and the ferry back to India at Rameswaram. While I was aware of the differences between the Sinhalese and the Tamils and the undercurrents of ethnic tension (as in Malaysia as well for instance), I never had the sense of what was to befall the country only a few years later.
Back to India and Bangladesh
For whatever reason, I was particularly enamored by India and loved the sensation of being back. Many backpackers at the time had somewhat contrary views and described, only partly facetiously that places like Nepal, and Goa and Sri Lanka were places to rest and relax before going back “to do battle with India”. I gradually worked my way up the Coromandel Coast, visiting first Madurai, Mahabalipuram, Kanchipuram and Pondicherry. I spent a few days as a guest in Pondicherry with the parents of a professor I had known, who had suggested I contact them. While I never dabbled deeply into it, there was some social tension between the Sri Auribindo Ashram and the Aurovilians. Later I went up to Puri and Konarak in Orissa before reaching Calcutta, the ultimate expression of Indian urban frenetic energy.
My experience in traveling in South Asia, mixed being in travelers centres – an ashram, a beach, or a famous hill station, with some aspects of solo travel where other western travelers were rare. Such was the same when going to Bangladesh. The journey from Calcutta to Dhaka, was a longish broken affair. At the border I met an urbane Bengali smuggler who had fallen on hard times. Obviously well educated, the split from East Pakistan to Bangladesh seven years earlier had hit him hard and he was smuggling jute and muslin out of Bangladesh for a minor profit, and had a more lucrative business getting gems into Bangladesh. He invited me to stay with him in the slums of old Dhaka, where for a few days I had a series of experiences which in later life I would recognize in the film “City of Joy”. I found one of the best and most gentle ways to repay such hospitality at the end of the stay was to give a modest sum of money and ask him if he could use it to buy presents for his children. I hardly met any other travelers in Bangladesh, save for a group from one of the “freak buses” from Goa whom I met at Cox’s Bazaar. I joined them for a few days and we went up to the Chittagong Hill Tracts and on to Sylhet. I was later to briefly bump into them in Darjeeling.
Political frontiers often do not jive with cultural ones. Dropping out of Afghanistan onto the Indo-Gangetic Plain was dramatic. Yet from Peshawar to the flat part of eastern Bangladesh, the changes were always incremental. But as soon as one started ascending into the hills of eastern Bangladesh, the beginnings of oriental features first became noticeable. Variations on this theme were also noticeable leaving Bangladesh at Dawki and heading to Meghalaya, Assam and Nagaland and then again in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Sikkim.
To India’s Northeast
Darjeeling, Sikkim and Bhutan had always intrigued me. The permit for Darjeeling was straightforward, Sikkim more complicated – but I managed it – and Bhutan impossible at the time. I later managed to spend a few weeks in Bhutan on my own a few years later in the mid-1980s through internal contacts, but that is another story.
The journey from the border of Dawki up to Shillong, at the time, was a particularly memorable trip. Part of it was a combination of geographic and bureaucratic inaccessibility. Meghalaya consists of the Khasi and the Jaintia hills, home to tribal groups of the same name. The most memorable aspect, for me, was being in the bus driving up through the hills and mountains with dramati , just bypassing Cherapunji, which I had remembered from reading “The Guinness Book of World Records” as the rainiest place on earth. Appropriately, just as we reached the turnoff for Cherrapunji it started raining. More interesting were the series of megaliths located everywhere on the journey to Shillong. During my trip across Asia, the hill stations I visited, cool ordered towns with British historical buildings, were among the most paradisical places I encountered. The immediate arrival at a crowded noisy dirty bus station was not appealing, though the comparatively cooler weather was, but within a few kilometres, the mass of struggle of Asia’s humanity in the heat and humidity gave way to a relaxed and ordered tranquility. In a journey filled with hardship and struggle, most hill stations were wonderful “time warp” retreats.
From Shillong I went down to Guwahati, a particularly “down at the dumps” place even by urban Indian standards. I decided on a whim, to buy a ticket to Dimapur in Nagaland. Although forbidden, I bought a ticket, met some Nepalese and Nagas en route, who were exceptionally friendly. Whether in Tibet from China, highland Nepal, or minority groups in the hills in India, young tribal males tended to imitate Western ways and were almost invariably more friendly and open to visitors from other countries. Two of the Nagas I met told me that en route between Dimapur and the capital of Kohima were two checkposts – one only a few kilometers from Dimapur, the other shortly before arrival in Kohima. I had no real subterfuge in mind other than visiting remote places. On arrival at the railway station was a large sign “Welcome to Nagaland: For Inner Line Permit See Additional Deputy Commissioner”. I went there only to meet the ADC who said I was forbidden in the area. To his credit, particularly in the bleak and crazed security environment that we endure in North America today, he accepted the fact that I was simply a curious adventurer – and had me escorted to the train station with a police guard to ensure I left. The escort waved me goodbye, as I looked longingly at the fascinating, but forbidden hills of Nagaland.
Back in Darjeeling I was fortunate to find that my permit for Sikkim had been granted. Yet Sikkim then had a slightly similar, though much less harsh, sense of what I later encountered in Tibet. A small and independent country had been annexed, and the local Sikkimese were now powerless in trying to retain their independence in the transformed global environment of the time.
For me, there was always something special about going to a place where you needed permission to go – perhaps a romantic attachment to the idea of the remote and inaccessible, where the people were overwhelmingly hospitable, if you could just get past the bureaucrats.
The topography of Sikkim was impressive, though slightly more depressing in the urban centre of Gangtok. This was 1978 and the annexation had occurred only a few years earlier. There was a building boom, and instead of a little “Shangri – La” was the transformation of the place to get into the mainstream of Indian society. Off further to the west I went to Geyzing and the monastery of Pemayangtse – looking across from a remote high ridge to Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. I recall walking through the monastery to the top floor where there was a gorgeous “temple of heaven”.
After ten days in Sikkim, I went to Kalimpong, back to Darjeeling, then across the Terai on one of the fast busses “The Tiger” back to Kathmandu. From Kathmandu, I bought a ticket to Lukla and then did an eleven day trek up to Kala Pattar above the Everest Base Camp. So much has been written about Namche Bazaar, Thyangboche, the Chukhung and Everest itself that my words would pale in comparison. It is one of the most striking place on the planet. You really do have to go there. Perhaps my most memorable experience was visiting the Nangkartshang Gompa, in the Chukhung Valley. It was a tiny monastery, perhaps better described as a shrine, with one solitary monk, enshrined in Tibetan Buddhism looking across at Ama Dablam and one of the most stunning views on planet earth. In this new odd age in which I am writing these words into cyberspace, the idea of a man devoting his life to Tibetan spirituality in a colourful way that I wanted to understand, but new that I fell short, was one of the most memorable experiences of my entire trip.