This is the story of how Anya and I met and what brought us together – our first trek in the Indian Himalaya.
I met Anya in Indonesia.
I was Australian, she was Dutch.
I was on a surfing trip, she was an overlander.
With her long fair hair tied back into two plats and her blue eyes Anya was obviously from Northern Europe. In the scarcity of her possessions, she could have been an Eastern ascetic. She travelled light: when I met her she had a small rucksack which contained a change of clothes, some toiletries, a towel and a diary.
She travelled light and she went to places – alone – where few others went.
She’d left Amsterdam 18 months before and in that time she had travelled alone through Southern Europe, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Thailand. This was her third trip overland. In those days, a woman travelling on her own across the Middle East and Asia was a rare thing. Anya trod where few others, be they men or women, dared to tread.
I was following the surfing trail through Indonesia. My life revolved around waves. I had no plans of returning to Australia. When the money ran low, I was planning on getting a flight from somewhere in South East Asia to Paris. Two years before, after completing a degree at university, I had taken a break and spent a year surfing in France, Spain, and Portugal. The ‘break’ turned into something longer than that. I came back to Australia, worked for a while and then went on another surfing trip. My plan was to fly from somewhere in Asia to France; I was hoping to find some illegal work in there and stay awhile. I loved the country and loved the language. My ambition was to become fluent in French.
Instead, I ended up in The Netherlands.
On the face of it, we didn’t much in common.
There was one thing though.
We were baby boomers, members of a generation which came of age during the Vietnam War, the counter-culture, Woodstock, and the New Left. Both of us were, in quite different ways, classic examples of everything that went wrong and everything that went right with the 1960’s and ‘70’s: life was an experiment, an adventure. Its purpose was to find meaning rather than chase after money, success or consumer goods. It was to take chances and push the limits. The world was divided by the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over us like a dark cloud.
‘Live now before all of us go under.’
When Anya and I met, we talked a lot.
For me, a novice when it came to travel in Asia, Anya was a revelation. In her stories, I got vivid glimpses of worlds so different to my own as to be almost inconceivable. Of all the countries Anya had been to, the one she loved best was Afghanistan. On her journeys across Asia, she had invariably spent a few months there before going on to Pakistan, India and Nepal. This was in the days before the Soviet invasion, the ensuing civil war between the communists and the Islamic mujahedeen, the occupation by the Taliban, and the invasion by the U.S. In the Afghanistan she experienced, there was a medieval culture which due to the natural barrier of the mountains and the fierce independence of its tribal leaders had remained isolated from the outside world for centuries.
In the course of week or so, Anya and I became good friends.
We made a loose agreement to travel overland together to Afghanistan.
I gave my surfboard to a local kid.
India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan: I couldn’t wait.
In those days, travel in Asia was much harder than today.
There was no organised tourism industry.
The sheer logistics of finding transport and accommodation and dealing with the customs, government officials and police could be daunting. The standard of the hotels and guest houses, especially at the budget end of the market, was very primitive. Rats and cockroaches and bed bugs and flees were standard fare. There was no such thing as air conditioning and if a room had a ceiling fan and water, both of them only ran a few hours a day. The standards of living of the local inhabitants were far lower and the hygiene standards also. The chances of getting sick, seriously sick, were far greater. People left home and travelled for as long as they were healthy and that was always a great unknown. Talk among travellers inevitably involved conversations about dysentery, hepatitis and malaria. People died on the way. The Lonely Planet guide books had just come onto the market and there were many areas of Asia which they didn’t cover. They were aimed at budget travellers – who formed the greatest part of the travel market then – and bore such titles as ‘South East Asia on a Shoestring’ or a ‘Travel Survival Kit’. In themselves, the early LP guides were icons of the hippy overland trail. Today they are a very different sort of publication altogether, reflecting the changed market place and far greater prosperity.
In 1979 it was much harder to travel, but so too, the world had far more to offer an intrepid traveller ready to make the sacrifices and bear the discomforts. The cultural differences between countries and within countries were far more intense than they are today. Progress inevitably demands trade-offs and one of those trade-offs is the loss of cultural identity. In the last few decades, rising living standards, modern communications, mass tourism, overpopulation, consumerism and globalism have together conspired to destroy the bonds of community at the local level as well as the natural landscape. The village, the tribe and the region have increasingly faded away before new forms of identification such as the nation-state. Symptomatic of this process is the rapidly diminishing number of languages in the world; every year, twenty of them vanish. In the 1970’s and ’80’s, the local and regional differences even in a country like Thailand – today one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world – were breathtaking. In the course of a trip, the traveller crossed many other boundaries besides than the ones indicated on a map. The human geography of Asia was at a picture of intense local diversity.
Flying into Calcutta in June 1979 Anya and I were met by heat the likes of which I had not often experienced. It was just before the monsoon and the temperature hovered around the mid 40’s during the day and at nights dropped into the low 30’s. The humidity was stifling. But far more overwhelming for me, as a first time visitor to India, was the culture shock. I found myself in a world beyond the bounds of my imagination. In the centre of Calcutta were elegant old buildings from the times of the Raj and sidewalks thronging with people dressed in colours of the rainbow and streets crammed with human pulled rickshaws, scooters, bicycles and oxen drawn carts. In wide parks with elegant pavilions and stately old trees, thousands of people lived in low huts. Colonies of the poor lived on the sidewalks with their scarce belongings and the incredible thing was, they laughed and joked. The scale of the human suffering and the intensity of contrasts and colours – temples, mosques, slums, huts, British architecture – was overpowering. Taking the local bus to the Howrah train station was in itself an odyssey; the sheer number of people at the station running this way and that and all seemingly yelling at the top of their lungs at the same time.
We travelled across the north of India to Delhi. The heat and humidity seemed to get worse. At this point in time, I was an unrepentant and dare I say, intolerant, atheist. Having rejected God at an early age and later, at university, consumed a philosophical diet of Freud and Marx and Nietzsche, I had no time for religion. In keeping with Marx’s famous dictum about religion being the opium of the masses, I dismissed religion as poisonous nonsense: an illusion masking deeper, more basic forces, such as economics. In India my ideas about religion began to change. I became interested in it, not because I concluded that there was any kind of divine force behind human existence – but because it was religion which made India so colourful, so vibrant and so different. And there was not just one religion – there were so many of them, all living alongside one another. There were Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsees and Christians as well as an endless number of smaller sects within these mainstream religions. The majority religion Hinduism was in itself really just an umbrella term covering an extraordinary range of deities and mythological beings worshipped by different groups and castes. In India human society was permeated with religion and not only in the sense that everyone worshipped at churches, gurdwaras, mosques, monasteries and temples. Religion, the idea of the sacred, went far further than bringing the believers together in officially designated institutions. The abodes of God came in many different shapes and sizes. The owner of a tiny stall, no bigger than a packing crate, turned his means of existence into a place of God with a framed print of deity or Mecca hanging from a nail and garlanded with a string of plastic flowers. The driver of a truck or a bus had a similar framed print fixed above the window as well as a stick of incense and images fixed to the dash-board. Peoples homes, be they a few square meters on a sidewalk, a low hut of bamboo and plastic, a tiny cement apartment or a mansion, had their altars to a meaningful Beyond; their sacred spaces.
God in one or another form was to be found everywhere in a thousand different mutations. Everyone believed in something and even not believing in anything was regarded as a kind of belief. Even the Marxists were seen as the followers of a God, which in a way they were of course, only in western countries the Leftists liked to consider themselves as rationalists. Religious diversity was the source of India’s colour and exuberance and, it was also the source of horrific tensions, which periodically resulted in outbursts of violence; in riots and murderous clashes. The partition of the subcontinent in 1948 into India and Pakistan – when the British colonialists finally departed – led to one of the greatest orgies of religious violence in history. Hindus and Moslems set upon each other and millions died or were left homeless. In future years, as India became a part of the life I shared with Anya, we visited the country regularly and stayed for months at a time and in the process, witnessed dramatic developments in the country’s history. Time and again, religion and religious hatred lay at the heart of it. In so many ways, the violence of partition echoed through the fabric of Indian society and politics for many decades afterwards. The very thing which made India so interesting, so alluring, was also a profoundly double-sided quantity.
In Varanasi we bought a small lump of opium, like black putty, at a government ‘Opium and Ganja’ shop. This helped us to go places and look around and forget the heat and humidity. We slept together and spent our days together, caught ramshackle and overcrowded buses, stayed in cheap budget hostels and hotels, ate at cheap roadside stalls, suffered from mosquitoes and heat and bouts of dysentery; we shared bizarre, miraculous sights and experiences together. In the brilliant burning sun the vivid colours of India seemed like a painting from Van Gogh or Dali come to life. You didn’t need to look far to see human suffering, brutal exploitation and grotesque injustice yet my Marxist view of the world, my grandiose explanations for all the ills of the world, became confused and blurred because together with all the worst in the world was all the best and the most beautiful and the most mysterious too: the architecture of an ancient mosque or temple, the lyricism of worshippers singing at dawn on the Ganges; the constant surprise of the unexpected. There was a flood of impressions which I had no way of reconciling let alone understanding. India was Shiva and Rama and Buddha and Ganesha and Mohammed rolled together into a panorama of colour and madness, an inextricable mass of contradictions somehow hanging together.
By the time we got to Delhi, our opium was finished. We stayed in a cheap hotel in one of the many narrow, thronging back streets of Old Delhi, not far from India’s most famous mosque, the Jama-Masjid. The monsoon still hadn’t broken and the heat was murderous. After changing our rooms a few times because of the bed bugs, we decided it was time to move on. At first light one morning, we took a scooter rickshaw to the Kashmiri Gate bus station to buy a ticket on a bus heading north to the city of Amritsar, the sacred city of the Sikhs and home of their holiest of all shrines, the Golden Temple. We planned to visit the Golden Temple and then cross the border into Pakistan and on across northern Pakistan into Afghanistan.
If there is a single place in India where one can experience a vivid cross-section of Indian society in all its diversity and colour, it is a bus station. On this morning however we had had enough of the diversity and colour and all we wanted to do was to get out of Delhi. Battling against the masses of people to get to a counter, we were given one lot of information about the bus to Amritsar – which subsequently turned out to be wrong. We then battled against another mass of people to get to another counter where we once again got the wrong information. In the meantime, the temperature began climbing and the number of people and the volume of noise began to increase exponentially. In the midst of our frustrating quest to find a bus leaving for Amritsar, we were accosted by two German hippies who had come to Indian to find spiritual liberation and in the meantime, found solace in the cheap heroine. They had bought bus tickets to a town in the hill country preceding the Indian Himalayas and for some reason couldn’t or didn’t want to go there. They were trying to sell their tickets to someone. The bus was leaving in an hour. The clincher was: the Germans knew which bus it was and where it was parked.
After weeks of extreme heat, the idea of spending some time in a cooler place exercised an irresistible attraction over us. Our plan was to spend a few weeks in the hills and then continue our trip across the north of India and Pakistan after the monsoon had broken.
But our diversion in the hills of northern India turned out to be a longer than we ever could have imagined.
The bus trip out of Delhi was a long one – a day and a night – over mostly unsealed roads. During the day, we travelled over parched plains, through dusty, noisy, overcrowded towns and impoverished villages and I kept wondering to myself whether I would ever feel cold, truly cold, again.
At night we entered the hills and saw the silhouettes of huge trees and dense forests. The following morning, we crossed an old bridge over a wide river and arrived in a town of small shops and stalls surrounded by forested hills. On the far horizon was a line of ice capped mountains glistening in the early morning sun – the first range of the Himalaya.
It was bliss to feel cool again.
We found a room in a hotel which was formerly the residence of a local maharaja. It was run down and badly in need of renovation. There were long high passageways with worn out carpet, a dining room with filthy curtains and dusty chandeliers and a lounge whose walls were dotted with the heads of ibex, bears and wolves. We got a room with a creaking bed and bathroom with no running water, but it had a fine view of the river and hills.
We stayed at this hotel for a few weeks and during the days, did long walks into the surrounding countryside, leaving early in the mornings, as bells rang in the temples and monkeys scampered over tin roofs, and returning late in the afternoons, with the streets thronging with people and traffic and herds of goats and sheep. The surrounding countryside, rolling, heavily forested hills dotted with villages and fields, was perfect for doing long walks.
Each day, as we grew accustomed to following the narrow villager’s trails, we went further afield. Old British walker’s maps of such areas show a vast network of villagers’ trails which until the 1980’s, provided heavenly opportunities for keen walkers to spend weeks alone travelling through a landscape of hills and rivers and forests and small villages. To read accounts written by people who had done such walking trips offers a rare glimpse into a world which has vanished. Today this once idyllic landscape is filled with roads and traffic and towns; what were once small villages are so overpopulated that they are now rural slums. The forests have been removed and every available piece of land is used either to grow crops or graze animals. In 1979 during our walks into these hills, we had no idea that we were looking at a world which on the cusp of profound changes. In our own baby boomer, hippy influenced minds, we were looking at a timeless world; a landscape which had remained unchanged for centuries and would remain so.
One afternoon after ascending a long, steep forested slope, we found ourselves on top of a ridge looking up at a towering steel-grey wall of rock speckled with glistening snow, rising a good thousand metres above the trees.
It was the first range of the several major ranges which form the Himalaya.
We sat down on a rock and took in the view, entranced.
I had seen mountains before in Austria, but this was something else.
The wall of rock was so high, so abrupt, and the sky behind it so blue.
We chatted in the afternoon sun and then suddenly, we both stopped and looked.
We saw something which we couldn’t quite believe: there was a group of villagers, one following the other, coming down from the top of the wall of rock and ice, a wall one would have thought was only traversable for a mountain climber.
In amazement we watched the villagers descending the wall, zig-zagging back and forth.
Only when the villagers reached the base of the wall, did we realise that they had followed a thin trail.
We were fascinated by that trail.
You could walk to the top of that high, steep, mountain.
Two days later we returned and began following the trail up to the mountain top.
We didn’t know whether we would succeed. It was a matter of just giving it a go.
It was a long hard ascent, with constant zig- zagging back and forth, but the trail was easy to find and obviously well used, and whilst the mountain side was very steep, it was not as sheer as it had looked from the forest.
In the early afternoon, after many stops to catch our breath due to the altitude, we found ourselves on top.
It was a clear autumn day, this at a time when there was very little air pollution, other than in the big cities. The population of India was less than half of what it is today.
Before us was a view of soaring ice-bound peaks and in between them, deep, snaking pine-clad valleys, extending all the way across the horizon. It was a view which one could lose oneself in and never leave; it was a scene of beauty and wilderness, of a world way beyond the margins of human existence. So often, so many times, I have found myself back on that pass. It’s still there, alive in my mind: she and I.
Then came our first dilemma, the first of what would be many: the kind of dilemma which inevitably confronts all those who venture above the snow-line, who wander from the low altitudes to the high:
Go back or continue?
Play safe or take a risk?
Directly in front of us was a trail winding its way down over a steep side of loose rocks and into a deep pine clad valley.
Should we go on, deeper into the Himalayas, or return to the hill country?
When we began the ascent to the pass, we had only half expected to reach the top and assumed that if we did, we would turn around and go back. This was the most sensible plan. It was a mild understatement to say that we were poorly equipped. We had basic, external frame rucksacks; cheap, thin sleeping bags and a ground sheet (i.e. a big sheet of plastic); we had no tent or insulation mats or stove. Our ‘boots’ were cheap Indian made basketball boots. Our clothing consisted of a jumper and a thin parka; our supplies of biscuits, nuts and raisins, packets of biscuits, and tins of fish and cheese. We had plastic water bottles we had bought in a bazaar and were meant for school children. We had no maps.
To continue into the depths of the Himalaya, alone, under these circumstances was just asking for trouble…..
On the other hand, the trail in front of us was like an invitation, beckoning us onwards.
The decision was made for us when two villagers, a young man and woman, appeared on the pass from behind us. They were dressed in the rough woollen cloth spun on village looms. The young woman had a baby fastened on her back with a woollen blanket. They greeted us, took a rest, and then got up and started the descent from the pass. They made it look so easy as they bounded between large boulders and skipped across sides of gravel with the effortless grace of ballet dancers.
We watched them carefully, taking careful note of where they went.
Then we followed them.
It was the start of a long journey.
For us, it was a slow descent.
We didn’t arrive in the valley below until nightfall. We stopped at the banks of a river where there was a lot of driftwood, started a fire and slept on a small bank of alluvial gravel.
Then the real madness began.
The next day we set off in bright sunlight.
We found ourselves in a very different terrain than on the other side of the pass.
Whole mountain sides were covered in vast forests.
In the days before the British Raj appeared, the entire north of India had been covered in them. Accounts left to us by early British explorers describe forests which once covered most of the present day Punjab, which today is completely devoid of trees. On a journey to the hills near the turn of the nineteenth century, the Englishman Younghusband recorded how after days of travelling under a canopy of trees and not seeing the sun he became very depressed. In the early twentieth century the British lumber industry started making serious business of exploiting the enormous forests in the north of India. By the time the British left India in 1947, they had taken out all the forests on the plains of the Punjab and many of these covering the hills bordering the commencement of the Himalayas. The Indians would complete the job of forest removal, taking it deep into the Himalayan Ranges – but the job of cutting down trees and transporting the logs in the Himalayas was a different matter than on the plains or in the hills. It would take the Indians decades to complete the job properly. By which time landslides had become a problem.
Besides the forests, there was lots of ice and snow.
Extensive sections of ice covered the creeks and rivers or lined the banks or lay wedged between the trees inside forests. Massive glaciers swept down from high altitude gullies, gigantic glistening curtains, and filled entire valleys. At nights, the sounds of ice creaking and breaking echoed eerily in the silence. The effects of global climate change were still a long way off; they wouldn’t become really obvious until the late 1990’s.
Often the trail disappeared or we took a wrong turning and had to retrace our steps. The terrain was alternatively richly prodigal or drastically sparse; we would walk across vast slopes of bare shale speckled with patches of snow and then around the next bend, enter a huge forest where it was so dark it became claustrophobic. Or we would scale down into a canyon, our view no further than the rocks in front of us, and then hours later find ourselves climbing a sheer slope and at the top, looking across a vast panorama of mountain peaks. At nights, we lit a fire and camped out under the stars, often next to a river.
We had no idea where we were or where we were going.
When we descended from the pass, we reasoned that sooner or later we would run into someone – local villagers or nomadic herders for example – who could indicate to us where the next village was.
But we met no one.
In reality our decision to follow the trail down from the pass was impulsive and ill -considered, something which only occurred to us when it was too late. We had too far to make turning back a realistic option.
Our food ran out.
Water was not a problem. It was everywhere, in many different forms: thin silvery streams running off glaciers, angry creeks appearing out of steep gorges, swirling rivers lying at the bottom of valleys. There was no chance of going thirsty.
It was hunger which became our enemy, our constant and unwanted companion. There was a trail to follow but we had no idea where it was taking us. The fear of starvation, mixed with the fear of being lost, gave us superhuman energy.
Each day came and brought the hope that we would meet someone. But we met no one. It was eerie.
The breathtaking, spectacular beauty of our surroundings took on another appearance, assumed another very different incarnation. The soaring, snow-capped peaks, the long sweeping mountain sides, the forests and glaciers and rivers, became something dangerous and frightening. The spirit of adventure which had lured us on from the pass and into the abyss was gone, replaced by a very different emotion: the journey was now about brute physical survival. It was a process which in the future, unbeknownst to us then, we would get to experience often; on that first journey into the Himalaya, an addiction was born.
Late in the afternoon on the fourth day after our descent from the pass, we entered a narrow band of forest and emerging the other side, found ourselves before a series of terrace fields cut into the steep mountain side like steps. Each field was very small – some of then no more than narrow ledges – and supported by a high retaining wall of rocks. In some of them were crops of corn and in others, barley.
The field furthest up the slope was situated at the base of sheer cliffs crowned by snow laden peaks. The field furthest down the slope was at the edge of a deep ravine, from which the echoes of a river resounded.
As we followed the trail, we rounded the mountain side, passing more fields. The first dwellings came into view. There were two story wooden houses set around a single, very tall, very old pine tree: the one tree which had been left standing after the others were felled to make way for the fields because it was the largest one, a symbol of the power of the god Shiva.
Then we saw our first villagers.
In some of the fields, they were scything and bundling up the stalks. In one field we passed, an ox tethered to a stick walked around in circles crushing barley seeds. Men and women tracked down from high fields with conical wicker work baskets on their backs full of corn cobs. Others had such huge piles of fodder on their backs that they were bent at right angles to the ground and were barely visible.
Following a narrow dirt path through the fields, we crossed a finely constructed pine wood bridge spanning a rushing mountain stream and came to the first houses. They were elegant structures with wide balconies and sloping grey, slate roofs. They were so well constructed that they reminded me of something one might see in Switzerland. On wide balconies there were wooden looms. On the slate roofs of many of the houses were rows of yellow corn cobs lying to dry in the sun. There were small gardens full of potatoes, pumpkins, sunflowers, beans and peas. There were big old apricot and walnut trees. In narrow lanes between the houses, chickens and dogs rooted around amongst wild marihuana plants. Children scattered in fear when they saw the strange white people approach.
An old man motioned for us to follow him. We had no idea where he was leading us. In the twilight we followed him through narrow lanes, up the mountain slope to the village temple. The temple consisted of four open galleries built around a cobble stone courtyard; at the centre of the courtyard was the towering pine tree. The galleries were made from pine beams and support posts and had sloping roofs of overlapping pieces of dark grey slate. Carved into the pinewood beams, with great artistic skill, were grimacing demons and goblins. Under the galleries were floors made from heavy pine planks and at regular intervals, there were rectangular, slate-lined pits in the floors to build a fire in. Piled against the base of the tree in the centre of the courtyard was a stack of iron Shiva tridents and goat skulls. A diverted mountain stream ran in a slate lined channel on one side of the courtyard and filled the temple with the sound of tinkling water.
In one of the galleries was a fire burning. The old man motioned for us to sit near the fire. The idea was that we were guests in the village and were to stay in the temple for the night. We unpacked a few things out of our rucksacks and rolled out sleeping bags. Before long, darkness set in and we could only make out the fire and see the silhouettes of the pine support posts. The sound of a breeze in the pine tree and the gurgling water echoed in the night. We were very tired and once inside our sleeping bags, passed out.
Hours later, it must have been near midnight, we were wrenched out of a deep sleep by the sound of someone shrieking.
In the courtyard of the temple, lit by moonlight, was a circle of village men chanting. It was cold, they wore goat skin goats. The shrieking was coming from a semi-naked man in the middle of the circle who was flagellating his bare back with a whip. The flagellant fell onto the cobble stones, writhing and twisting and yelling. It was like an epileptic having a fit. Sudden feelings of panic took hold of us, dark fears which were inexplicable, irrational. If one was lost in a wilderness without enough to eat, then the fears one experienced were rational, explainable. This was something different. This was a fear the likes of which only a child can truly understand. The flagellant was out of control. He was filled with a kind of animal power. It was as if a human being had suddenly turned into a wolf or a tiger. I started doing quick mental calculations about what I would do if he came our way. There was nothing lying around with which we could defend ourselves.
The flagellant got up off the stones, shrieking and running around. The men in the circle retreated under the galleries. Everyone was scared. It was chaos.
An image flashed through my head of the mad man grabbing one of the iron shiva tridents lying against the base of the sacred pine tree and making a murderous lunge at us. It was as if we were in a nightmare, somehow paralysed, fixed to our spot and unable to escape impending destruction.
And then it was over.
The flagellant collapsed on to the ground. It crossed my mind that he’d died. The village men appeared out of the shadows of the temple and lifted him from under the arms and dragged him outside the temple. The overwhelming silence, punctuated by the tinkling of the stream, was restored.
But we didn’t sleep too much that night.
In the moonlight, I focused on the grimacing faces of demons and monsters carved into the wooden beams.
We had entered strange territory, a place a long way from home.
There was no turning back.
(Accompanying photos from this journey can be seen on Serious Travel Images – ‘The Indian Himalaya in 1979,
Parts 1 and 2 –
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