The Joy of Unknowing (2)

As soon as I had written my last blog post, I thought of this piece I wrote quite a long time ago which offers a similar take on travel and navigation. I am tempted to tidy it up a bit and perhaps update it to mention GPS, but instead I’ll leave it as it is.

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When I was a teenager, I began to use maps, although in rather an ad hoc, hit and miss manner. They were there for me when I was really stuck, or just wanted to know which general direction something lay. It would be a very long time before I began to use them in a careful, detailed way, able to predict the exact lie of the land, navigate in the fog or the dark, find my way through complicated landscapes with the map and compass. And, do you know, since I’ve learned to do that, I feel as though I’ve lost something rather magical, although I don’t suppose that I can blame it all on that. The maps that I was using as a teenager would tend to be the Bartholomew’s touring maps, small scale with little detail. I would feel, as I headed along a Cornish footpath, that I only knew roughly where I was going. It felt like an adventure, an exploration.

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Now, I need to be more and more remote to get that feeling, and even then it does not always work. Having just spent some time in Ladakh, in the Himalaya in the far north of India, I was surprised at just how easy all of my walking was. Setting off with map and compass, I always knew exactly where I was, only confused at times by the multiplicity of tracks criss-crossing the landscape. Even then, reference to mountains and villages with map and compass would invariably allow me to set my position. It doesn’t mean that I wanted to get lost, just that there was a small part of me that said ‘even this is all tame!’ Equally, I can be put off, by using the map, by the knowledge that over the interesting looking ridge that I was heading for, lies a motorway or building estate, and so I spend ages trying to plot a route that I try to get perfect, rather than simply heading off in the direction that I want to go and exploring as I go, correcting my course as I travel.

Nothing can tempt me more than a track leading tantalisingly into the distance, perhaps meandering through Mediterranean scrub towards a notch in the skyline, perhaps leading through a glowing archway of trees. Even now, when using map and compass to navigate, I often have to resist the temptation to ignore the map and head off to follow an interesting looking track. I think that this must be a part of my ‘I wonder what’s over the other side of the hill?’ nature. It is another reason why I’ve never been able to lie on a beach – apart from the fact that it seems a particularly pointless pastime in any case. Any time that I’ve tried it, it never seems to be more than a couple of minutes before I begin to think ‘What’s round the cliff?’ or ‘If I head back up the river, I think I might find a way through those hills.’ And then I just have to go to find out.

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Leh Old Town

Fourteen years ago I went up to Ladakh, in the Northern Indian Himalaya. Crikey, fourteen years! Where did that go?

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This is a painting I made in ink and watercolours of an area of the Old Town of Leh, the Main Town of Ladakh. It shows part of a Buddhist shrine, next to another old building. Most of the buildings are a mixture of stone and wood, the wood frequently carved and / or painted.

Although there were quite a few new buildings in the town, the majority of them were old and the whole town had the feel of belonging to another century. I travelled in early April, before most visitors arrive and when Ladakh is still bitterly cold and wintry – certainly overnight. During the day the temperature just sneaked a little above freezing. This meant that I seemed to be the only Westerner there – I certainly don’t remember seeing any others – and I was never hassled by touts of any description, possibly because it was still too early.

But, above all, the people were among the friendliest I have ever met.

Regretfully, I doubt I’ll get another chance to go there, but it is certainly a very special place!

Picture available on my Etsy shop site here

Wordy Wednesday 1

Many bloggers post photographs on Wednesday under the heading ‘Wordless Wednesday’. Me? I’m going to write a few posts about words – specifically words in English borrowed from languages of the Indian Subcontinent.

I’m just plain awkward, but you knew that, didn’t you?

I am currently editing the first draft of my novel A Good Place, which is set in a hill station in Northern India. And in that hill station live a number of English who remained behind after Partition.

‘I’m sitting on the veranda of the bungalow in my pyjamas.’ Well, no, no one says that in my book. But if they had, what is the significance of that sentence?

The significance is the number of words borrowed from Indian languages.

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Veranda is an Indian word, but coming originally, perhaps, from Persian. The Oxford Dictionary suggests two derivatives, either from the Hindi (varanda) or from the Portuguese (varanda). Digging a little deeper, if I refer to Hobson-Jobson, the Anglo-Indian Dictionary that was published in 1886 and traces pretty well every word or phrase borrowed from the Sub-Continent, I discover a very long entry on this word. It begins by dismissing the possibility of it being derived from the Persian beramada, and goes on to state that it appears to exist independently in both Hindi, and in Portuguese (and Spanish). It then traces the possible routes the word might have taken to reach the English language, before then saying, surprisingly, that it could have its roots in the Persian after all. This seems quite likely to me, since many Persian words made their way to India especially with the Mughals, and it suggests a possible route to the Spanish peninsular when the Islamic armies arrived in the early eighth century.

I tried typing it into Ngram Viewer. This is an online tool that searches through the entire database of books that Google can access online (including ones still under copyright) published since 1800. Looking at the results for all books in English, it tells me it was barely used in 1800, although it does exist, rises steadily to a peak about 1910, and then falls away slowly, although it is still in common usage. Unfortunately Ngram has not been set up to search books in Indian languages, or even Portuguese. I tried Spanish and the pattern was similar, except that after peaking just before 1910 , it dropped sharply, but since then the trend has been upwards. I then noticed something. I had actually looked at the trend in American English. So I then tried British English, and this gave me a rather different pattern; The curve rose gradually until it peaked in the 1950’s and then fell away sharply. Why? I think it must be due to a surge of historical / biographical / nostalgic writing, both fiction and non-fiction, after the British left India.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to go into that sort of detail with other words.

Next, bungalow actually refers to a ‘Bengal style’ house (often with a veranda!) that the British frequently chose to live in.

And pyjamas are loose cotton trousers worn in India which were ‘adapted’ for night wear by Europeans.

Okay, class, lesson over. Be sure to wash your hands before eating your snacks (samosas and pakoras today, of course).

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal – 4

Part Four – from 30 years ago.

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On the western side of Thorung La, the climate is much drier and in places the scenery is very much that of a desert landscape.

 

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As you descend, though, you soon come across settled areas where meltwater from the snows and glaciers higher up enable vegetation to grow.

 

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Mani stones plus a fine set of argali horns on top of a wall in Kagbeni. The argali are the wild sheep of the Himalaya.

 

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In Tukuche, at 2590m – less than half the altitude of Thorung la, which we had crossed just two days before.

 

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It was in places like this, that we really felt we could be in another century. Buildings of stone and beautifully carved wood, ponies for transport, no wheeled vehicles, and the two fellows to the right of the picture are busy crushing lengths of bamboo to a fibrous pulp, ready to make into paper.

It was in places like these, actually, that I felt I could just leave the world behind and spend the rest of my life. Yes, totally impractical, I know, but…

 

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We came for the high peaks, but the mountains lower down have a breathtaking beauty of their own.

 

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Sunrise on Poon Hill is a treat most trekkers ensure they don’t miss. Unrivalled mountain views, and in the spring the massed flowers of the rhododendron forests.

 

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Ah, yes. Did I just mention the rhododendron forests?

 

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Photos just don’t seem to do them justice.

 

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And then a few days later it was over, and we were back in Kathmandu…

…and that is a different kind of wonderful…

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal – 3

At Manang, we pitched our tents on the flat roofs of the buildings…

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…essentially, it is the only flat area in the village that doesn’t either have someone living on it or crops growing on it.

 

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A Buddhist temple in Manang. We took care to visit the priest and receive his blessing for the crossing of the pass in a few days time. The high pass- Thorung La – is at 5416m and  is the highest pass in the world, and who knows what the weather and fate might decide to throw at us.

 

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A view of Annapurna I (I think!) from Manang. Annapurna I is the tenth highest mountain in the world, but also one of the most dangerous. The reason for my uncertainty is that the route of the trek takes us around some twenty or so peaks, including Annapurnas I – IV, Gangapurna, Tara Kang and Khangsar Kang, all of which can be seen from the Manang part of the trail.

 

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Nomadic herders’ camp above Ledar, at about 4300m. Theirs is not an easy life.

 

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Bridge across the Khone Khola, near where we camped before crossing the pass. The bridge is covered to protect it from snowfall.

 

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The porters at Thorung Phedi, where we camped before crossing the pass.

 

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A couple of hours later…

 

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We were snowed in the next day (and you can get very bored stuck in a tent for a day), but the following day we set off at dawn to cross the pass (Note the small figures passing the first rock).

 

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Some of the rocky, icy, snowy, lumpy bits beside us as we crossed the pass.

 

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After several hours hard slog through the snow, and the pass crossed, we began descending the western side down towards the village of Muktinath.

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal – 2

We followed the Marsayandi River for most of the first half of the trek, from the second or third day until we left it at Manang to head for the high pass – Thorung La. More about that next time, though. Not much chat on this post, I’ll let the photos do the talking.

On a technical note, I have slightly boosted the yellows on some of these photographs, as this is the main colour that age seems to have leeched out. Unfortunately I can’t do much about those photos that are slightly out of focus (I blame my poor eyesight) or the scratches and other blemishes that show up here and there. It was quite difficult to keep dust and grit out of the camera, and back in those days we used, well, you know, film. Film doesn’t like dust and grit, especially when you wind it on.

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We passed a school…

 

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And a pony train returning empty from the mountains to pick up more goods…

 

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After leaving Bahundanda…

 

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…we began passing high waterfalls. This one was just outside Sattale.

 

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In Sattale, where we camped on our sixth night.

 

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In Chame, we passed this beautifully carved mani stone. Chame sits at an altitude of 2670 metres, and the following day we were climbing steeply up to Pisang, at 3300 metres, and now we began to see the Big Stuff (this is a technical term, of course).

 

 

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The Big Stuff, although there was plenty more Much Bigger Stuff to come.

 

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And at Pisang we spent Night Nine of the trek.

 

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Carved and painted window in a house at Pisang.

 

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Large Prayer Wheel at Pisang.

 

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Pisang Village.

 

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal -1

In 1988 – thirty years ago! – I walked the Annapurna Circuit. This has long been regarded as one of the top ten walks in the world, and is certainly the walk I have enjoyed most. I put up a post about the circuit a year and a half ago (here) should you wish to read it, but as a celebration of that anniversary, I thought I would put up some more photographs over several posts.

Today, they are all from our second day’s walk.

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We camped the whole way, since there was virtually no accommodation on the route then. It was sometimes possible to sleep on the floor of a tea-house, but that usually meant an uncomfortable night in a very smoky atmosphere, and probably not a great deal warmer than a tent. It meant we were travelling with four guides, a couple of cooks, a couple of ‘kitchen boys’, and an average of fifteen to twenty porters (every so often one or two would leave, and others get hired from a village we were passing through).

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We began our walk from Gorkha, walking through the Terai – the sub-tropical forest region that stretches across most of Southern Nepal and much of the Himalayan Foothills of Northern India. This was a land of small rural villages, terraced fields carved painstakingly out of the hillsides, and, naturally, wooded hillsides.

Much of the woodland had already gone, cut both as clearance for fields and for fuel and fodder. It was already leading to much soil erosion and the degradation of the remaining soils. With the passage of thirty years, this can only have got worse.

On day 2 we walked from our campsite beside the Dharandi Khola to the settlement of Chepe Ghat.

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Transport in these areas was entirely by foot, usually in the form of porters who carried massive loads upon their backs. Occasionally by pony, or by bullock, but never by yak – they do not survive at these comparatively low altitudes. In 1988, walking the Annapurna Circuit was entirely on tracks and paths, since there were no roads of any description on our route. Today, there are motorable roads along part of it, but back then we did not see or hear a motorised vehicle for the duration of the trek.

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Building materials in these areas were, and predominantly still are, wood, thatch, and mud. Stone was used only in larger settlements.

The boy pictured above, incidentally, will now be in his late thirties.

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Wooded hillsides, with the terraced fields belonging to a nearby village encroaching.

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Rice paddy – terraced fields flooded for the planting of rice, the staple crop of the Nepal Lowlands.

Prayer Flags

Prayer flags are found wherever Tibetan Buddhism is found. As they flutter in the breeze, they use this wind to send blessings out into the world. Through many parts of the Himalaya they adorn monasteries and humble homes, chortens and bamboo flagpoles. They are tied in their hundreds and thousands to bridges, above mountain peaks, and in the courtyards of every conceivable building.

Elsewhere, they are to be found wherever exiled Tibetans live, and wherever their school of Buddhism flourishes.

The makers of the flags intend the prayers and blessings that adorn them not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all beings.

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Prayer flags in the Yumtang Valley, Sikkim, India.

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Prayer flags, Observatory Hill, Darjeeling, India.

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Prayer flags outside a monastery in Sikkim, India.

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Prayer flags adorn a pair of chortens and walls of prayer wheels in Khumjung, Nepal.

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Prayer flags at Tengboche, Nepal.

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And adorning a bridge of the Dudh Khosi, again in Nepal.