Not a Water Buffalo Day Today

A rather nicer day today, although very cold. A day for double socks, a duvet jacket and hands thrust deep into pockets. The birds are into their winter silence, flitting low down between bushes and clumps of trees, although a blackbird does set up an aggrieved alarm call as I approach.

This holly tree keeled over some years ago, but life finds a way to hang in there. Now it throws out lateral branches that act like new trunks.

This holly nearby is laden with berries, which folklore claims is a sign of a harsh winter to come. It’s not, of course, it’s merely the result of the weather patterns we have had earlier this year. It may still be a harsh winter, but the berries are not a portent.

But it’s a very Novembery day, almost a Decembery day. The leaves have fallen and the sun is very low.

But where the sun strikes the trees the light is still glorious.

A Day in Ladakh (2)

I’ve posted (and re-posted) a few times over the years about my trip to Ladakh in 2005. So here’s another extract from my journal for one of the days I spent there.

For those not in the know, Ladakh is high in the Indian Himalaya to the west of Tibet, with which it shares many characteristics, not only of geography but also the ethnic makeup of its people. In fact, since the Chinese invasion of Tibet, it is frequently said that Ladakh is more Tibetan than Tibet. The climate is not dissimilar, either, and although I visited in April that is still well before the main tourist season, and I don’t recall seeing any other tourists during my stay there.

Sunday 10th April 2005

I slept well. No alarms during the night! (I had had a very bad headache the previous night which I put down to altitude sickness) Then up at 6.30 to a fresh snowfall – just a sprinkling of powder on the ground. The skies are clear, though, and the Stok Mountains look wonderful in the sunshine. In fact, they’re going to get photographed right now.

I go out for breakfast and it’s quite mild. Soon last night’s snow has already gone. A few shops are slowly opening – no internet as yet, but I’ll mooch this morning. I’m sure that I can find something.

To use the internet, I need to find a place that is both open and with a generator. This looks as though it might take some time! Never mind, I’ve got a woollen scarf from the Ladakhi Women’s co-op, so a good start to the day.

As well as the scarf I also bought a bag of the dried apricots (organic, ‘solar-dried‘) Ladakh is famous for, and at last a singing bowl. I’m sure I paid more than necessary, but he came down RS 200/-, so what the heck. I think we were both happy with the deal. And it’s a nicer one than any I saw in Bodhgaya.

After a Ladakhi lunch of apricots, apple juice and water, – not that I suppose for one moment that is what a Ladakhi might have for lunch, only that it is all locally produced – I headed north past the Shanti Stupa towards the first line of hills. Reached there at 1.15pm and stopped there for a breather. Silence, apart from the pounding of the blood in my head. Absolute silence. After a few minutes the call of the muezzin drifts up from Leh, from the Jama Masjid. Then a few bird calls from the crags. Perfect peace. A perfect desert landscape, with pockets of snow. I’m sitting on a boulder, warmed by the sun, my feet in patches of fresh snow.

1.50 and I am at the col. A lot higher than the fort at Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, with a fantastic view north up the valley towards the Kardang-la.

2.45 and I am at what appears to be the highest point. There is another peak some way to the west, but this one has a cairn, walls and prayer flags, so I’m taking it to be the highest. At a rough guess, I’ve climbed about seven to eight hundred metres. The views are out of this world. More side valleys to the north and I’m up in the snow here. On the northern sides it is quite thick and I am feeling quite light-headed. It was worth coming to Ladakh just for this alone! Stunning!

Very reluctant to start heading down, but a few flakes of snow convince me that it’s time to go.

Down to the road just before 4.00, then head up the road to have a look at what appears to be a half reconstructed fort. When I get there, there is nothing to indicate what it is, just a sign warning people that it is of historic interest, so don’t go knocking it over. I guess that it might be Tisseru Stupa, although it does not really look that much like a stupa to me.

I then head back to the guesthouse, feeling a bit weary. Wander out into town and end up eating thukpa in a Tibetan restaurant.

Back again for the evening. It’s getting cold!

Looking at my map, there is a peak a couple of kilometres north of Leh, marked at 4150m. It’s in the right place and is about the right height, so I’m bagging it.

Return To Tengboche…

…but not literally, unfortunately. I did say I would re-post another travel post from some while back, so here it is.

Four years ago I wrote four short posts about Tengboche. Here I’ve combined them into a single post and added some extra pictures and text to give a little more information about this lovely place.

Tengboche is a monastery complex and a couple of trekking lodges at 3860m on the route up to Everest Base Camp from Lukla, in Nepal. It sits high above the waters of the Dudh Khosi, the rapidly flowing river than runs alongside much of the Everest Trail.

The monastery complex. On arrival in the afternoon, the clouds are low. This seems to be the pattern most days – clear mornings and then the clouds coming in early afternoon. In a general sense, weather patterns in the Himalaya – certainly in some parts, and probably at certain times of the year – can be quite predictable. When I trekked the Annapurna Circuit, for example, we were told one evening that around ten o’clock the next morning there would be strong winds blowing in the valley we were to follow, because that was what happened every day. And blow they did. At ten o’clock.

From inside the monastery grounds. The monastery is a Tibetan Buddhist complex, liberally decorated with the pictures, statues, and symbols to be found in every such place.

Roof decoration
145a

Inside Tengboche monastery following a puja (ceremony).

Rightly or wrongly, I don’t like taking photographs of pujas in monasteries. It feels intrusive and bad mannered. I would feel the same in a church, mosque or temple. This has nothing to do with any beliefs of my own, but is born of simple respect.

I noted in my diary: We have just sat in on a chanting puja, but my meditation failed dismally. I was completely unable to concentrate on my breath as all that I could think of were my freezing feet!

It was blooming cold!

198a

This view must have been photographed so many times, but how fantastic is it? Sunset on Everest (left) and Nuptse (right), photographed from Tengboche. This was taken on my third visit; the other two times the clouds failed to clear in the evening, so this was an unexpected treat.

212a

And this is the same view in the morning – but with the addition of Ama Dablam on the right of the picture. Ama Dablam is possibly my favourite mountain; the classic ‘mountain-shaped’ mountain, similar to the Matterhorn.

Close-up of window showing the dawn chorus orchestra.

We were awoken in the mornings by the harsh notes of conch shells and the clashing of symbols. This was part of the morning puja, rather than a summons for coffee and porridge. It does make for an excellent alarm call, though.

Hindoostan

Reading my blogging friend Arv’s latest (excellent) blog on Jaipur, I was reminded that the area that is now the state of Rajasthan was originally called Rajpoot, the area comprising a mix of princely states. This sent me to look at an old encyclopaedia I have – volume two of the 1848 / 1849 Chambers Encyclopaedia. Things were rather different back then, in the days of the British Raj – a complex history I won’t go into here, especially since I know a number of my readers are already familiar with it. But from that volume, here is the map of India, or Hindoostan as it was usually known by the West, although it was occasionally referred to as India and sometimes as the East Indies.

Obviously, the countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh were still part of this country as this was long before Independence. Indeed, this was even before the First War of Indian Independence, also referred to as the Indian Mutiny, in 1857.

There is a lot that can be learned from old encyclopaedias, especially about the attitudes the west had towards other parts of the world, which make for uncomfortable reading today. But again, I don’t propose to go into that now, rather just leave this map here for interest.

But for anyone who has ever struggled with the conversion rates of currency when they have travelled, this extract might bring a wry smile. The circulating medium of India consists of gold and silver coins, paper-money and cowries. The most common silver currency is the new coinage of Calcutta…Cowries are small shells which, not being depreciable by imitation, form a good medium for buying and selling among the lower classes. Their value varies in different places. The following is their value in Calcutta:-4 cowries 1 gunda; 20 gundas 1 pon; 32 pons one current rupee, 0r 2s. sterling (2560 cowries); 10 current rupees £1 sterling. The sicca rupee is 16 per cent less in value than the current rupee, which is an imaginary coin. The Bombay rupee is valued at 2s. 3d.; a pagoda is 8s.

Good luck trying that one in your head in the marketplace.

India – My First Time 2 (reblog)

The second and final part of an early travel post:

A few more photographs from 1989 (my apologies for the quality of some of them – all I had with me was a very cheap camera):

After a few days in Delhi, I went to Srinagar, in Kashmir. I took the bus that went through Jammu, and 24 hours after leaving I was deposited in Srinagar.

On the way, I did one of the most stupid things I have ever done in India.

The bus was packed. I think that I was the only westerner on the bus, but I liked it that way. On a 24 hour bus trip, it is pretty well impossible to ignore your neighbours for the entire journey, and so I spent much of the time chatting with the chap sitting next to me, and the ones across the aisle. When the bus halted to allow us to get some food, we sat at the side of the road together munching on the samosas, pakoras and newspaper twists full of nuts that we had bought.

When it started up again, we chatted long into the night before falling asleep.

And at the first stop just after dawn, at another cluster of roadside stalls for breakfast, I joined them at the broken water pipe beside the road where we all brushed our teeth.

Maybe if I had spent longer than just a few days in India by then, the consequences would not have been so violent. But as it was, my stomach had clearly not yet adjusted to Indian bacteria.

And maybe if I had spent longer in India I would have realised that it was not a clever thing to do in the first place.

IMG

In Srinagar, I stayed on a houseboat on Lake Dal. I no longer remember what it was called, but I was the only guest, and I had the place to myself. These wonderful floating mini-palaces are a relic of the days of British India, when the local Prince refused to allow the British to purchase land to build houses. They got around this by causing the construction of houseboats to stay on, instead. Made from wood, beautifully carved, and furnished opulently throughout, they seemed to me to be unspeakable luxury after my 24 hour bus journey.

The rapidly multiplying bacteria in my stomach, though, were clearly in a hurry to join all of their friends in the Lake. But for someone feeling poorly and reluctant to stray too far from a bathroom for a few days, the houseboat could not have been better. I had my meals cooked for me, and any little treats I fancied I could buy from one of the many shikaras that continually paddled up to the houseboat. These little boats, which also acted as water taxis, sold chocolate, flowers, fruit and vegetables, cigarettes, snacks, flowers, newspapers and yet more flowers.

I passed much of that time on the deck or on the roof reading, or chatting with the folks around me on the nearby boats or on the shikaras.

After a few days I recovered enough to explore the area a little. I walked many of the paths around the lake, which is a more complex shape than the visitor first realises. I would frequently find myself on causeways or small spurs of land sticking far out into the lake. I wandered around the Shalimar and Nishat gardens, and I walked up the long, winding path to the Shankaracharya Temple, on the hill of the same name.

This was March, 1989, and even someone as unobservant as me could not fail to spot the signs of unrest. Once or twice in the evenings I heard what might be shots or small explosions in the distance, which my host casually dismissed as ‘bandits’. On one occasion, walking through Srinagar I found the road blocked outside a mosque, where there was lots of shouting and a large police presence; although on reflection, I have seen much the same thing outside the rail ticket reservation office in Kolkata, and perhaps I should not make too much of it as an incident.

It was only a few short weeks later, however, that the insurgency began in earnest. For a long time there would be very few further visitors to the lovely Vale of Kashmir.

After a week, I returned to Delhi and then headed immediately to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. I chartered a car and driver, because I wanted to also visit Fatehpur Sikri on the way.

IMG_0002

Fatehpur Sikri was built by the emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century. His intention was to create a new capital city that honoured a Sufi Saint whose blessing the emperor believed had given him a male heir. This site was chosen, as it was close to the dwelling of the saint. Unfortunately, the area suffered from water shortages, and the city was abandoned shortly after the emperor died, after only 13 years occupation.

There remains the magnificent, well preserved, fortified city that I wanted to wander around for a few hours. Inside, there were a few stalls selling souvenirs and drinks, and a number of other visitors looking around, but generally there was an impression of peace and emptiness. I have not been back since, but I believe that it is now far more crowded, and that there are far more touts and hawkers on the site.

IMG_0003 (2)

Performing bears at the side of the road. The cruel practice of dancing bears was made illegal in India in 1972, but was certainly still common in 1989. These ones were at the side of the road not far from Fatehpur Sikri, on my way to Agra.

In Agra itself, I visited the Taj Mahal.

the_classic

There are plenty of people who will tell you that it is over-hyped, and that there are many greater buildings in the world. It is possible, also, that some of these people have actually been to Agra.

It may be that there are some buildings that are more impressive, but how can you measure such things?

My first sight of it, as I walked through the gateway, made me catch my breath and stop still. For a moment, I could not believe how lovely it was. I then spent a long time wandering around the site, and I still think it one of the most beautiful and magnificent buildings that I have ever seen. I watched the afternoon light fade and die, and the sun go down, and the building seemed to glow and shimmer and almost float before me.

I left when they threw us all out at dusk, knowing that I had just seen something very special.

India – My First Time 1 (reblog)

As promised, a repost of one of my early travel posts. This is part one of two, so I’ll re-post the second one shortly:

Just a few photos this time, taken on my first proper trip to India. On the only previous visit, in 1988, I had spent a manic 18 hours in Delhi, and then taken a long bus journey to Nepal. That was a journey that really should be the subject of a blog itself, sometime.

On the following year, then, I returned to India, intending to spend rather longer there this time. As it turned out, I had to return to England after a few weeks, but the short time that I was in India whetted my appetite for more. It is said that western visitors to India tend to fall into one or the other of two categories. Either they fall in love with the country, and return whenever they can, or they swear never to go within a thousand miles of it ever again.

I’ve been back about ten times.

Delhi Red Fort 1

The Red Fort (1989)

I arrived in Delhi with a copy of Lonely Planet’s ‘West Asia on a Shoestring’. In those days, the Lonely Planet tomes really were aimed at backpacking budget travellers, with their recommendations for rooms tending to be dormitories and really cheap hotels. My flight arrived in the late afternoon, so that not only was I weary from the long journey, but the light was already fading when I walked out of the airport. In the chaotic maelstrom outside of passengers and taxi drivers fighting over them, I managed to remain calm enough to locate the corner where the buses of the Ex-Servicemen’s Air Link Transport Services waited. I think they are still in operation today (I’m sure someone will tell me), with their yellow (I think) buses providing a cheap link into the centre of Delhi where I was heading.

I was dropped off near the hotel I had decided to use, the Ashok Yatri Niwas, which stood at the junction of Janpath and Ashoka Road. It has long gone, now; a great concrete monster of a place with cement beds and lifts that seemed to take half a day to do the full journey up to the top floor. I don’t think that many people mourn its going, but I was reasonably comfortable there for a couple of nights. It was where I had stayed the previous year for the one night I was in Delhi. There was hot water in the bathroom, as long as you rose early enough, and I remember the cafeteria being fairly basic, but adequate. For someone on a tight budget, it was fine. Back then, it was a case of turn up and hope there was a room, especially if you had just arrived in the country. There was no email in those days. But it was pretty big, and there was room for me.

Unlike my previous flying visit, I now had time to wander about and savour everything around me. And for the first time, it really did seem an alien and exotic society. I had enjoyed browsing in the souks (bazaars) when I had lived in Oman, and also out in the little villages there, but my first taste of India seemed to me to be as exciting and exotic as it got. Everywhere I went, I was surrounded by the noise of traffic and the odours of exhaust fumes. But the traffic was different; the buses appeared to be almost falling to pieces, loud and fierce, with people hanging off the outside as well as being crammed inside behind open, barred, windows. I saw autos everywhere; the little three-wheeled taxis that buzzed like wasps through the traffic, squeezing through every available gap. Amongst this impatient, petulant, hooting traffic, carts pulled by horses or buffaloes plodded. Motorbike riders forced their way through, and cyclists cautiously weaved their way along. Everywhere, pedestrians took their lives in their hands to cross the roads, but the traffic all swerved out of the way for the cattle that wandered imperiously through the streets, ignoring it all.

Incredibly, through the traffic pollution so thick that you could grab handfuls of it out of the air, there were dozens of other smells assailing me everywhere I went. I was tempted every few steps by cooking foods, and then I might pass a doorway and a strong smell of incense would waft out. Seconds later, I would suddenly wrinkle my nose as I passed a pool of sewage on the sidewalk, but then immediately I might pass a fragrant flower stall.

delhi_gate

Delhi Gate, in the old city near Chandni Chowk. (1989)

There were temples everywhere, and a shrine of some description every few steps. Here and there were green and white mosques, stalls of old sacking and weathered boards set up outside gleaming new metal, glass and concrete shops. There were holy men jostling office workers, great hump-backed cattle and pariah dogs in corners or in the middle of the footway, beggars, shoe shiners, touts and hustlers, people in a hurry and idlers passing the time of day. I was urged to discretely change money, buy drugs, see pornographic videos, have a massage, change hotels, visit ‘my brother’s’ shop or book a trip to another part of India.

It was dirty, colourful, loud, exciting, and different and I loved it.

I walked everywhere I could, not just because I was on a tight budget, but it is always how I have got to know a place. I went to the Red Fort, on my first full day there, enjoying the relative peace and quiet inside, and it was here that I discovered Mogul architecture: The beautiful soft red stone and the marble, the carvings and inlay, the arches and columns…the only time I’d seen architecture that beautiful, before, was in Grenada, in Spain.

And now, looking at the photos I took, I am struck by an odd discrepancy. In my memory, one of the defining things about Delhi when I arrived was the incredible press of traffic. In my photos, though, there are comparatively few people, and even less traffic. Is my memory at fault? Is it just that there were obviously far fewer people in India 30 years ago? Perhaps it is chance alone.

But I think I’ll return to the architecture at a later date.

What To Do?

What can you do when you lose all confidence in your own writing?

Write a post about my inability to write anything, I suppose.

It has been a real struggle for the last six months or so. It would be easy to blame Covid and lockdowns, and they might have played their part, but it goes deeper than that. I could blame some health issues I have, but that’s not the whole story. Every time I sit down to write, I feel stale and uninspired. Even when I have a day that seems to go well, when I read back what I have written later it seems contrived or forced. Uninteresting. I feel I have nothing worth saying; nothing anyone else would want to read.

I try to paint. I have ideas I want to try out, but it just won’t come. No sooner do I pick up a brush or a pencil than I feel I can’t be bothered with it all.

I know what part of the problem is: I want to go travelling. Travelling has always given me the opportunity to press the reset. I travel light. I write. Whether I go on a long walk or a trek, or just visit a place, it gives me the chance to reconnect with the world around me.

I was out for a walk this morning. Autumn has been here for a good six weeks or more, but it isn’t progressing very rapidly yet. Clearly, it is in no hurry. Although there are plenty of berries on the trees, the leaves seem reluctant to turn or to fall. On the other side of the wood I could see the hills towards the south, bluey-green in the distance. I always find this view really evocative, and it makes me want to grab my rucksack and disappear off for a few weeks. And that immediately makes me think of mountains. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo says to Gandalf: ‘I want to see mountains again, Gandalf – mountains‘. He feels stale and tired of the familiar environment where he lives. (There’s more to it than just that in Bilbo’s case, of course.)

Well, that’s me.

Somewhere like this, perhaps!

Perhaps I’ll have a go at writing a few travel posts again. It has been quite a while since the last one. And before that I might re-post one or two of my earlier ones. Just to set the scene, as it were.

This way!

My Books

While I am still sorting out a new paperback printing both for Making Friends With the Crocodile and for The Night Bus, I have put up a listing on my Etsy shop for the last few remaining paperback copies of each that I have. If you fancy grabbing yourself a copy, the links are here: Making Friends With the Crocodile and The Night Bus.

A little reminder of each:

The Night Bus This book is in two parts. A collection of seven short – and not so short – stories, which make up the bulk of the book, followed by a selection of recent poems.

Travel has always been a passion of the author and, one way or another, nearly every piece here is to do with journeys. Some of the stories are quite dark, but the majority of the poems have a lighter touch. Two stories are set in India; in one, a young man goes in search of a mysterious destiny, while in the other a travelling Englishman becomes embroiled in a chilling disappearance. One story speaks of the support and comradeship of a close-knit island community while another tells of jealous intelligences far older than mankind.

There is one long poem, which gives the title to this collection and tells of a journey across India and into the mountains. There is also a short series of poems about the ancient paths and tracks of Britain; in these, especially, a love of the natural world shines through.

Making Friends With the Crocodile There is an Indian proverb: If you live by the banks of a river, make friends with the crocodile.

Set in India, this is a novel about the corrosive relationship between a mother and daughter-in-law, and the contempt in which that society still holds women. Siddiqa’s son has brought his new wife, Naira, to live with them, so Siddiqa is no longer the lowliest in the household, for she now has a daughter-in-law to assume that role. But when Naira accuses one of her husband’s friends of sexually assaulting her, all their lives begin to spiral out of control.

Making Friends With the Crocodile – Again

Well, it’s only taken me about six months, but I’ve sent the e-book version of Making Friends with the Crocodile out into the world once more. I expect you thought I’d never get around to it.

Actually, I expect you’d completely forgotten about it. I unpublished both my books from Amazon back at the end of February (this post explains why) and since then I’ve explored a number of platforms, and most of them came up short. I’ve gone with Draft2Digital for the e-books, since I can specify they do not appear on Amazon, although even now I’ve an issue with how my second book will be labelled. It means the e-book is now available on a number of platforms, such as Apple, and this link will let you choose one of them.

It seems impossible, though, to find a publisher that doesn’t automatically offer the physical books through Amazon. Much the same as anything one sells anywhere today, either online or offline, can reappear on Amazon and there’s nothing one can do about it. Short of becoming a publishing house myself, I don’t think I can avoid it.

And before you ask, no!

I’ll now have a last scout around the internet to see if I can find a platform for the paperbacks that don’t sell through Amazon, but I suspect I’ll be unlucky. In which case I’ll probably stick with Draft2Digital and ask you nicely, should you buy one of my books, not to buy it through Amazon.

About Making Friends with the Crocodile:

‘There is an Indian proverb: If you live by the banks of a river, make friends with the crocodile.

Set in India, this is a novel about the corrosive relationship between a mother and daughter-in-law, and the contempt in which that society still holds women. Siddiqa’s son has brought his new wife, Naira, to live with them, so Siddiqa is no longer the lowest in the household, for she now has a daughter-in-law to assume that role. But when Naira accuses one of her husband’s friends of sexually assaulting her, all their lives begin to spiral out of control.’