It’s freezing here today, with a forecast of possibly -10C tonight. So here’s a photo of a line of Buddhist monks going for their breakfast one morning near Bodhgaya, India, from 2004.
It’s freezing here today, with a forecast of possibly -10C tonight. So here’s a photo of a line of Buddhist monks going for their breakfast one morning near Bodhgaya, India, from 2004.
As promised, I’m putting up an old post on India. This one I originally posted just over five years ago, so you might not have read it.
Wednesday 13th April 2005
This morning, there is a clear blue sky, with just a couple of clouds sitting on top of the Stok Mountain Range. It doesn’t seem quite as cold in the morning as it has been recently.
I go for breakfast at the Budoshah. I don’t really know why I eat here (I certainly don’t always), unless it’s because the morning sun warms the corner that I’m sitting in. I’m the only person here and when I walk in, the waiter always seems frightened to see customers. When I’m eventually given a menu (and everything is always ‘off’ – it’s a Kashmiri restaurant, so two thirds of their dishes are chicken or mutton. The day before yesterday, people were being told ‘no chicken no mutton’.), I ask for scrambled eggs on toast.
I’m told no, they can’t do it. Fried, boiled or omelette, yes. But the cook obviously can’t scramble them.
And black coffee.
How big is the pot? I ask.
‘Ah…I get one’. He disappears back into the kitchen, never to return. I sit back and contemplate the Ladakh Mountains in the sunshine, prayer flags waving lazily beside the temple. With luck, it will be another warm day. I think I’ll catch a bus to Thikse Gompa.
My coffee arrives. In a glass.
The toast arrives with heart-stopping chunks of Ladakhi butter – like everything here that calls for butter. I thought at first that it must be cheese. It seems to be the Ladakhi/Tibetan way. I made a mistake and had a cheese sandwich the other day – the cheese is just like butter, so you can imagine what it was like for my poor western tastebuds. I had to scrape most of it off.
It’s 12.45, and I’m sitting on a rock in hot sunshine at the foot of Thikse Gompa. The bus ride here was remarkable (and where else in India would you find that the driver would wait a few minutes whilst a passenger nipped off the bus to buy some bread?). All the way here, we passed through this wonderful desert scenery, with fairy-tale castles and palaces and the like clinging precariously to the tops of cliffs.
The Ladakhi buses are like all Indian buses, though. Today’s had plenty of pictures inside and on the windscreen (The Dalai Lama, Buddha, etc.), two vases of flowers and a fancy piece of wooden scrollwork on the dashboard, and several drawers incorporated into this.
At the moment I’m having my apricot and water lunch to the accompaniment of drumming in the background; a ritual going on somewhere. There are so many gompas here, and every private house performs their own pujas, that it could be coming from anywhere.
We passed through Shey on the way here. More of this tomorrow, I think. I intend to spend the day there.
I ‘strolled’ up to the gompa, and was shown around by a monk. We chatted in a mixture of Ladakhi, Hindi and English. He is a Ladakhi, in fact all of the monks here are. There are no Tibetans. In fact, despite the large Tibetan population here, he says that there are only two monasteries with Tibetan Lamas.
We watched a group of young monks kicking around a football, a hundred metres or more below us.
Do families still send one son to be trained as a monk?
No, but there are still many coming.
I was first shown the giant statue of Maitreya Buddha, which is fairly modern, then the fourteenth century gompa, which is very dark and unlit, which made it difficult to properly see the wealth of thankas and statuary. I had to tell him about my family, job and anything else he could think of. That was quite hard going, and I don’t think we totally managed to get through. A pigeon flew into the gompa and started a discussion (not literally, you understand). In Ladakhi, pigeon is (I think) Po-ro, fairly onomatopoeic. In Arabic, I told him, it’s Bulbul, also onomatopoeic. Possibly it is the same in Hindi and Urdu.
Back for tea and a bucket shower.
Later, I’m walking around the market. How strange to go around market stalls and shops in India, not getting pressured and hassled at all. At times it seems almost unreal. You wonder whether suddenly it’s all going to crash around you and normal India will be resumed as soon as possible. The longer that you spend here, the more laid back you become. I don’t think you can help it! Everyone strolls around smiling and Julay-ing you and each other. I know that Ladakhis consider it the height of bad manners ever to lose one’s temper, but it really does seem unreal. I think it would be easy to just sink into the ambience of it all and find you’d suddenly missed your flight out and had overstayed by weeks, or months…
Andrew Harvey said, and I’ll have to paraphrase because I can’t remember the exact quote, ‘The wonder of Leh is that there is absolutely nothing to do. Nothing to do except slow down, switch off and just observe. Just be.’ I understand that, now. I realise that that is what I have been doing the last few days without realising it.
I had Phung Sha and rice for supper at the Amdo -a Tibetan dish. It is a sort of thick vegetable stew, which I shall certainly have again.
I have always wanted to read Rumi, the thirteenth century Persian mystic and poet, and I picked up a copy today from the little bookshop. I am now wrapped up in my blanket reading it by the light of my candles.
Downstairs, my hostess is singing again. Last night, I tiptoed out to the landing to listen to her singing what I was told this morning were Ladakhi folksongs, and I creep out again to listen now.
This time it’s ‘Bob the Builder’.
This is another day when I feel frustrated because I’d like to be out travelling, although I did get to have a great long walk on the South Downs on Saturday. But rather than post about that at the moment, I have a fancy to re-post this piece I wrote a few years ago:
I’ve never wanted to ‘conquer’ mountains.
Or any other parts of the world, really.
I’ve always felt this was the wrong way to think of a journey. It was ridiculous to think I could impose my will upon a mountain, or on a desert, or indeed upon any part of my route. That I could, perhaps, somehow bend it to my will.
I feel it is more a case of preparing as best as possible, including mentally, and then perhaps said mountain will tolerate my presence; will allow me passage.
‘Conquering’ also carries the implication of invasion, of fighting, of strife. That is not the sort of relationship I want with mountains, or with any other place I choose to travel.
Certainly, in the past I have travelled at least partly with that mindset at times.
Some of you may recall I wrote about an extremely foolish journey I took in Oman when I lived there over thirty years ago (Mr. Stupid Goes For a Walk). Although I was running low on water, I pushed myself to the limit to reach the final ridge of hills on the route I had decided I was going to achieve one day, nearly killing my stupid self in the process. And although I achieved my aim, I didn’t feel victorious.
Only a bit stupid.
I prefer instead to think of myself as a visitor. And as a visitor, I need to have some manners. You do not expect to find the visitors pushing through your house and demanding to see this or to be given that, so I don’t.
I am not out to break records, nor to prove how tough I am.
This does not imply a lack of ambition, nor a lack of determination. Indeed, I have both – it’s just that the mindset is a little different. In particular, I give myself different priorities. I want to reach my goal but if I don’t, it does not matter. I think I’m more attuned to my own safety, and perhaps that of others. I hope I can be receptive to the feelings of others, too.
A good example in the climbing world is that of the mountains in Nepal that climbers are forbidden to reach the summit of, due to the belief that they are the abode of gods. Theoretically, a climber will stop some 10 meters or so short of the summit. Opinion is naturally divided over whether a climber would, or wouldn’t, in the absence of any witnesses, respect that ban.
I would respect it every time.
The mountains, of course, are inanimate. They do not wish me harm or otherwise. Neither do deserts or oceans. Even the most inhospitable of landscapes is neutral. It does not care whether I succeed in my aim to reach or traverse a particular part of it, and it will not hinder or help me in the attempt.
My feelings about a landscape are just my reactions to it, and if I should choose to give this landscape a kindly or vindictive character, I am only projecting my own feelings onto it.
This may give me comfort, or otherwise, but will make no material difference.
Maybe I am simply suggesting it’s good to travel with humility.
I have touched upon that before!
Part 1 can be found here: Part 1
It was a long way to Colmenar. I was walking up into the Malaga Mountains, with no map and no directions other than a road sign at the edge of Malaga suggesting that by following this road I would eventually reach my destination.
I suspect I have undertaken other journeys where I have been better prepared.
But the day was perfect for walking, with high drifting clouds and a light breeze to keep me cool, and having done little for several days other than eat, drink and wander around Malaga, I was feeling fit, fresh, and eager to get going.
As the hours went by and I slowly gained height, the clouds began to build up, and the temperature gradually dropped. About an hour from my destination, it finally began to rain. Immediately the temperature plummeted, and I rapidly went from merely chilled to decidedly cold.
Usually, we approach rain all wrong. Buddhists would say unskilfully. If it begins to rain, we hunch ourselves up, both physically and mentally. We fear becoming cold and wet. We need to let go of this fear. It’s a good lesson to learn. Stop. Take several long, slow, deep, breaths, and let go of this feeling. Let go of this need. We act as though hunching ourselves up will keep us dry and make us warmer. It doesn’t. Unless one can find shelter, it is better to accept the rain and finish the journey.
It is a cliché to speak of heightened awareness, yet that is also a by-product of this letting go. We remove our focus from the rain and instead allow it to go elsewhere, where it is really needed. We should throw back our heads and embrace the rain, enjoy the freshness of the rain on our faces. Listen to the sound of the rain on the ground and the leaves around us.
Back then, I hadn’t learned that lesson. I hurried towards the town as fast as I could.
One of the first buildings I came to was an inn. I went into the bar and asked for a room. The room I was given was reached by leaving the bar again and walking around the side of the building. The door to my room had a gap at the bottom of an inch or two, but otherwise fitted the door frame well enough. It was locked and unlocked by the type of huge key frequently described as a jailor’s key. The room was furnished only with a bed, a chair, and a small chest of drawers. There was a mirror above the chest of drawers and a crucifix above the head of the bed, but other than those the whitewashed walls were bare. There was a small window which was shuttered. The floor was of flagstones, with no carpet or mat. To use toilet or bathroom it was necessary to leave the room again and continue still further around the building to reach a very basic room. But again, it was clean. And there was a toilet that worked, and a sink with a cold tap. There was also a shower set into the ceiling I could have braved, but it felt much too cold for that.
Later, I would occupy rooms like this in many other places, in many other countries. Simple, perfectly clean, and usually very cheap. I am not sure whether it is because they appeal to the minimalist in me, but in many ways I prefer them to more comfortable accommodation.
Whenever I have stayed in one, I have always felt I was carrying too much baggage with me. I have been beset with the feeling I should be throwing out some of the items I have in my bag – do I need all those clothes? All those other items? It has been a recurring regret of mine that I have never managed to live a simpler lifestyle than I have. I have never enjoyed the frenetic hurry and clamour of modern urban life, and I hate how easily my life can become complex and filled with what feels like unnecessary fuss.
Here, even the spartan contents of my rucksack seemed too much. Perhaps I had too many books with me…
But now I was here, I changed out of my wet clothes and opened the shutters so I could look out at the low cloud and misty horizon. The rain drummed comfortingly on the roof and I settled down to read a book for an hour or so. I was content, and that’s a good place to be.
I cannot remember what I had for supper that night, but I do remember I drank a bottle of cheap red wine with it. Perhaps that is the reason.
I rather think I slept well, too.
And as in all good stories, the morning dawned bright and clear, the sun shining low in a clear blue sky. Before I left the town, I passed a couple of shops and bought a few items for my lunch: bread, a huge tomato, a hunk of cheese, a couple of apples, a bottle of cheap wine.
With the improved weather, and the fact I had more downhill stretches that day than uphill ones, I allowed myself the luxury of returning to Malaga slowly, including a stop for lunch of about an hour. Compared to the UK, Spain is a large country and the rural population is comparatively small. Although I was not far from the city, I saw almost no one else on my walk and I meandered along slowly through a mixture of low trees and bushes, many of them in flower – the distinctive Mediterranean maquis vegetation – rocky outcrops and clumps of flowers, and the occasional lone farmhouse. The ground was dry and dusty, as though the rain of the previous day had never happened, and the sun was hot. With my lunch consisting of about half a bottle of wine as well as the food, I was feeling extremely weary and footsore when I reached Malaga again. I found the hotel I’d stayed in before and got a room on the same floor. After showering, I finished the bread and cheese and decided all I wanted to do was read my book for a while and then have an early night.
There was a knock at the door and when I opened it Matthias was standing there grinning.
‘I saw you arrive earlier. We go for beer, now!’
It wasn’t my first trip to Spain, although it was a long time ago now. I walked into Malaga with a rucksack on my back and followed the signs for ‘Centro’ until I found myself in the crowded central district of older narrow streets with three- and four-story shops and cafes, guest houses and cheap hotels. The second hotel I tried offered me a perfectly adequate room on the third floor at a very good price.
The hotel was old. The wooden floors of the corridors were worn and polished by the passage of countless feet, and everywhere seemed gloomy. It gave the impression of having more nooks and corners where light never penetrated than it should. But the only light came from the occasional bulbs hanging from the ceilings, and other than by returning to the street, the visitor would only encounter daylight once they had reached their room and opened the curtains.
The bed was old, and sagged a good deal more than it should, and the furniture was so dark with age it was difficult to make out the grain. As a base for a few days, I decided it would suit me fine. As I unpacked and settled in, I suddenly heard a violin being played. It sounded quite close, and I opened my bedroom door to investigate. I had just decided the sound was coming from a neighbouring room when it stopped, and then a door opened. A man about ten years older than myself emerged and stopped when he saw me.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Did I disturb you?’
He introduced himself as a German who I shall call Matthias, although I am no longer certain that was his name, and who immediately invited me to go for a beer.
It would have been rude of me to refuse.
Matthias was meandering around Europe, he told me, and supporting himself largely by busking. Later that week I was to see him playing in the street and be surprised at just how many passers-by threw coins into his hat. It seemed a particularly enjoyable way to travel. Over those beers and then over a few more later in the week, we talked travel and philosophy, music and religion. When I meet someone while travelling, I find it interesting how I often have less constraint than I would when I meet someone for the first time in more familiar surroundings. Frequently, I will reveal things about myself I would never dream of doing to someone I meet perhaps for the first time at a friend’s house, or at my writing group. I presume it is the unspoken knowledge we will never meet again.
Beside the entrance to the hotel was a little café where I made it my habit to take a breakfast consisting of strong coffee, sometimes with slices of thick white bread dipped in olive oil, sometimes with fried eggs. It was a good place to sit and watch Malaga waking up. Its clientele were a broad mixture of workers all grabbing a quick breakfast on their way to office, shop or building site. Mostly they sat in silence, reading the morning paper and smoking, other than to give their orders to the waiter. On the bar a tiny transistor radio chattered away in speech too indistinct for me to make out more than the occasional word. In a way, though, that only added to the atmosphere. Despite it being a familiar situation, there was enough of the unfamiliar and the foreign to make it feel a little exotic.
I wanted adventure, I wanted to explore. I’ve wanted to do that for as long as I can remember. I travelled in those days with a few changes of clothes in a rucksack and a minimum of half a dozen paperbacks, which invariably included something by Hermann Hesse and at least one poetry book.
That, at least, hasn’t changed much.
I liked to travel light (other than the books, of course), so I had no camera with me and probably very few of the essentials most people would think to take on a Spanish holiday. No swimwear, for example. I don’t do beaches, at least not in that way.
But I had come to Malaga because I had a peripatetic nature, and my itchy feet were troubling me. After a few days I decided to take a walk out to the little town of Colmenar, to the north of the city. I would take a room there for one night and return to Malaga the following day. Any other destination would have done just as well; the purpose was the journey, and the journey was the purpose. I chose this route simply because while wandering around the outskirts of Malaga I saw a narrow road winding up into the hills with almost no traffic on it, signposted to Colmenar. The morning after I had made the decision, I packed my rucksack and checked out of my hotel immediately after breakfast.
Part 2 to follow
Inhospitable deserts. High mountain passes. Hills or moorland in thick, blanketing fog or sudden treacherous snowfall.
A situation in which I test my skills and resilience to the limit, aware of the consequences of a miscalculation or of taking my eye off the ball for too long. Certainly not a case of me fighting against the desert, or the mountain, because it’s not a battle. I have no need to ‘conquer’ anything, merely to respectfully request safe passage.
At the moment I have to accept second best, walking in woodlands near my home. At least there are fewer people around while it is raining, although those who are include a posse of shrieking children – honestly, where are the wolves and bears when you need them? Two hundred years ago in Britain children would either have avoided all but the lightest of woodland, or passed through as silently as possible. Although the bears and wolves were long gone by then, the children would have been raised on a diet of nursery stories that taught them the dangers of venturing into wild places, the remnants of very necessary advice from those earlier times when careless children frequently got eaten.
Don’t misunderstand me, I love these woodlands, and am very grateful I can get to them easily. Within them, for example, is this wonderful grove of oak trees. The oaks are not particularly old, probably around two hundred years I would imagine, but are stunningly beautiful. Some have branches thick with moss, all have wonderfully sculpted bark and all are home to huge numbers of creatures.
Already one or two have a limb dropping to the ground for extra stability. And the grove as an ecosystem within the wider woodland is perfect – each tree is around twenty five meters from its neighbours, which appears perfect when I look at the size of the canopy of each tree: its branches just about meet the branches of its neighbours, but there is no sense of their growth being restricted. I wonder whether this is chance, the result of long centuries of naturally evolving woodland – when one tree dies and eventually falls, that newly-opened space exploited by another seedling, or perhaps intelligent planting by a long-forgotten landowner?
Where the woods are managed, especially the cutting in those areas where the holly is spreading in dense swathes crowding out all other growth, there are stacks of cut logs and branches exploited by children (shrieking or otherwise) to make dens. None of them would keep out the weather, but that’s not really their point. What I particularly like about them, other than it’s good to find children who want to play in this environment, rather than just sit in front of a screen, is most of these dens end up resembling the skeleton of some fantastic monster. And although that hardly turns these woods into a wilderness, it does give them just the faintest frisson of excitement, especially in the gloom.
And reminds me I want to be in the wilderness…
As is basic human nature, of course, the longer the restrictions (either imposed or of my own choosing) go on, the more I yearn for that wilderness.
For the last couple of months, during Lockdown and its easing, I have spent an awful lot of time up in the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal.
Okay, that’s not strictly true, but for most of that time I have spent my working day revising, re-writing, and editing A Good Place, my novel set in a fictitious hill station there. I have some new characters to weave in, some old ones to remove, and the story line to alter in several major ways, including a different ending.
I finished the first draft some nine months ago, but there were parts I didn’t feel entirely satisfied with then, and my beta reader unerringly picked those out for major revision. I then spent a while thinking about the story line and took out nearly all the final third of the book and chucked it.
That left me with a lot to rewrite.
Much of the problem stemmed from the fact that after I published Making Friends With the Crocodile, which is set in an Indian village with peopled with all Indian characters, I wanted to write a novel dealing with the British who remained behind in India after partition. A kind of balance to my writing. That was all well and good, but I began writing the novel before I was completely satisfied with the story line, and the more I wrote of it the less I liked it. So I kept changing the story line as I wrote rather than doing what I really should have done, which was delete the whole thing and go away and write something completely different, waiting until I knew what I really wanted to write. But I’m now content that I have the story I want to tell, rather than Just A Story.
Consequently, I have been virtually living in West Bengal during these days, inevitably leading to yearnings to be there in person. Which does nothing to ease the feelings of frustration at enduring the travel restrictions of Lockdown.
However, one of the advantages of having several projects on the go at once, which I always have, is that I can switch to another for a while when I need to. Last week, then, I spent one day giving a final edit to a short story which gave me the opportunity to spend the day (in my head!) in rural Sussex, which was very welcome. Especially as that is somewhere we can get to now, with a minimum of hassle.
And A Good Place? I’m glad you asked. I think I’m close to finishing the second draft, which will be a blessed relief.
Just so long as my beta reader doesn’t throw her hands up in horror when she reads it…
I love old roads that have fallen into disuse, or been relegated to the role of footpath.
There is one a few miles away on the edge of the next town. It used to be part of the road running from London to Hastings, but when the ‘A’ road that now serves that purpose was built, it not only rendered it redundant for the purposes of long distance travel, but the new cutting actually sliced through it, so it now ends at the top of a hill. From that point, there are only a couple of footpaths leading away in different directions.
Almost fifty years ago (really? Ye Gods!) I cycled along there on my way to the coast from the London suburb in which I lived as a teenager. Many of the roads I used that day are now very much wider, and all are much busier, save the one on the edge of that town. When I walk there from my house, it feels that for that part of the walk I am on a ghost road. I can still think myself onto my cycle, into that year, and the absence of traffic feels weird. If I think hard, I can almost feel spectral traffic going past. What adds to that effect, is that I often walk that way in the evening and the light – or lack of it – only encourages those feelings.
I think of it as a Ghost Road, but that definition really refers to a road that is haunted. Such a road is the B3212 that crosses Dartmoor, and on the stretch between Postbridge and Two Bridges it passes the cluster of buildings known as Powdermills. Powdermills is so-called because most of it was built for the manufacture of gunpowder. The buildings are spaced far apart in case of accidents (translation: the gunpowder blowing them to Kingdom Come), and for the same reason the roof of each building was of tarred paper. This allowed the blast of an accident to disperse upwards, hopefully giving the occupants of the building a slight chance of survival.
Anyway, there were many such accidents and many deaths. The B3212 is supposedly haunted at the bend nearest Powder Mills, just where it passes over the Cherry Brook, by a pair of hairy hands that try to wrench the steering wheel of unwary drivers that pass that way, causing them to crash. I admit to occasionally slowing down at that point and taking my hands off the wheel to see if anything happened.
But I still like to think a Ghost Road is one that has fallen into partial or complete disuse. Perhaps old Roman roads that survive as footpaths are ghost roads; there are certainly stories around the country of spectral Roman legions marching along them at the dead of night.
I think there is something magical about any road falling into disuse and gradually becoming overgrown. A road constructed for wheeled traffic used only by foot traffic. It has a special feel when you walk it, different to the feel of other footpaths.
A country lane at night can feel like a Ghost Road, especially in the light of a full moon.
Another type of Ghost Road is the ancient trackway. These paths criss-cross the British countryside and are often of great antiquity. Formed originally by the passage of feet, both human and animal, but used later by carts and other four-wheeled vehicles. These also seem to have that magical feel, although in this case I feel I’m sharing the passage with the ghosts of countless other travellers over thousands of years.
And in the midst of the lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic we seemed to acquire a few more of these Ghost Roads – an unexpected benefit of the pandemic, in my opinion. It seems a real shame they have become busy again.
For those of us who like to travel and have been under Lockdown for a while, the frustration is obvious.
And some of us, I’m afraid, only like to make things worse for ourselves…
Working on my novel A Good Place set in the foothills of Northern India, I’m not only writing about that place, but also referring occasionally to books, websites, and my travel journals on the area. Looking at lots of photographs, both my own and others.
Immersing myself in it inevitably leads to frustration, although I’m making good progress on the book.
I suppose I only have myself to blame, especially for lingering over the photos.
But that doesn’t make it any the easier.
Giveaway now live!
I think the thing I miss the most during the Coronavirus crisis is being able to travel around; being able to to take journeys. Even a day out is forbidden just now, and all I can do other than go for a local walk is to read books about travel or watch documentaries. I’m sure there are many more like me out there, eager to indulge their wanderlust in any way they can.
So here’s my contribution:
The Night Bus is my book of short stories and poems, all based around the theme of ‘journeys’, and I’m making the e-book free to download for a short period from this coming Saturday.
The link is here and the giveaway will run from Saturday 25th April – Monday 7th April inclusive, US Pacific Time (I know, but that’s how Amazon insists on setting it up! It’s 8 hours behind UK time, so that means the giveaway will presumably start 8 a.m. Saturday UK time and finish 8 a.m. Tuesday.). I’ve not run one of these before, so I hope it works! Please let me know if there are any problems!
Obviously, if you do download it, a review would be marvellous and I’d really appreciate it!