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.
When Anya and I met, we talked a lot. She was a rrevelation for me. 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. We flew to India.
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. There were elegant old buildings from the times of the Raj and sidewalks thronging with people dressed in the 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.
We travelled across the north of India to Delhi. The heat and humidity seemed to get worse. 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 Himalayas, didn’t matter where so long as it was cool. Our plan was to spend a few weeks in the hills and then continue travelling across the north of India and Pakistan after the monsoon had broken.
But our diversion in the mountains 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.
One afternoon, a week later, after ascending a long, steep forested slope, we found ourselves 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 were following a thin trail.
We were fascinated by that trail.
Two days later we returned and began following it up the mountain side. We didn’t know whether we would reach the top. 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 appeared seeing it 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. 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. With my new found friend, now my partner in adventure.
It’s still there, alive in my mind: she and I on that pass. The first of what would be many.
It was the start of a long journey together……
The story of our travels in the Indian Himalaya during the 1980’s and 1990’s – can be found at: