Yuck Time

Well, damn this blasted Covid.

March really isn’t going to plan at the moment. Having already messed up my creative plans for the month, even my Plan B has now fallen apart as we’ve coughed and groaned and generally felt sorry for ourselves. I did manage to write a couple of poems before the yuck set in, though, so all was not entirely lost.

We had plans to do some long walks, now the glorious Spring weather has finally arrived, getting ourselves ready for going away to walk some of the South Downs Way again next month.

At least we’ve got a sunny back garden to sit in, I suppose.

In the meantime, here’s an old photo randomly of a decorated window on a house in the Nepalese Himalaya I took in 1988.

Feels like quite a long while ago.

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.

Repost – A Day In Ladakh

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.

‘Pot?’

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.

leh street

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.

Untitled-TrueColor-01

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.

Untitled-Scanned-01

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.

trees

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’.

A Busy Time in West Bengal

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.

bookshop (2)

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.

050a

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…

In My Head…

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…

sikkim flags

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.

071a

Immersing myself in it inevitably leads to frustration, although I’m making good progress on the book.

219

I suppose I only have myself to blame, especially for lingering over the photos.

seven

But that doesn’t make it any the easier.

one

Dammit.

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.

Untitled-Grayscale-01

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.

Untitled-Grayscale-02

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.

Leh Old Town

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

025a

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.

Untitled-Grayscale-03

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.

IMG_0037

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.

 

IMG_0039

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

 

IMG_0038

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.

 

IMG_0040

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

 

IMG_0041

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…

 

IMG_0042

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

 

IMG_0043

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.

 

IMG_0044

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

 

IMG_0045

Photos just don’t seem to do them justice.

 

IMG_0046

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

…and that is a different kind of wonderful…