Saturday, May 21, 2016

From ‘Himalaya’ by Michael Palin

Great journeys tend to bring me out in a rash of over-used superlatives, so all I will say this time is that Himalaya was a wonderfully, magically, brilliant journey, with more gasps of astonishment per square mile than any other in my entire life. And for once, I think I might be right.

Despite the bloody nose of that terrible defeat in 1842, the British returned to Khyber almost 50 years later. Recognizing that the Afghans could not be subdued by war, they sought to keep them in their place by peaceful treaty…..they instructed Mortimer Durand to invent a border between Afghanistan and Queen Victoria’s India….Durand marked the borderline with giant numerals engraved on the foothills, and they can still be seen on the Afghan side of the pass……the Durand line made no sense, then or now, to the Pathans who live on either side of it……

One of the twin pillars of Pathan tribal society is the concept of melmastia – hospitality. Unfortunately, the other is badal – revenge – which can be swift and violent and provoked by as little as a glance at someone else’s wife.

Darra High Street [Peshawar], described by Geoffrey Moorhouse as ‘the noisiest street in the world,’ runs for almost a mile and is filled with the roar of horn-blaring, gear-changing trucks punctuated by the crackle of gun-fire…..As I cross the street a preoccupied figure in a white robe pops out of a shop behind me, raises an AK-47, blasts a few rounds into the air, shakes his head, and disappears inside again to make adjustments.

[in the Kalash valleys] ……he points out decomposing coffins on top of the ground. That’s the Kalash way of death, he says. The bodies are never buried and the tops of the coffins are left open to let the souls escape.

….Tirich Mir, 25,228 feet (7708 m), the highest mountain in the Hindu Kush…..

For men, literacy in Pakistan is around 60 per cent; for women, 35 per cent.

….the Karakoram Highway….A collaboration between the Chinese and the Pakistanis, the road winds 800 formidable and majestic miles, from Kashgar in western China almost to the Pakistan capital, Islamabad. It first took traffic in 1978 after 20 years of construction. Considering the obstacles in its course – some of the highest and least stable mountains in the world, fierce winds, temperature extremes ranging from icy cold to blazing summer heat ……the human price paid was considerable. Between 500 and 800 Pakistanis and untold Chinese died in its construction, roughly one life for every kilometre.

…..the westernmost bastion of the Himalaya. Nanga Parbat, an uncompromising, irregular giant of a mountain, rises to 26,650 feet (8125 m).

His views on the trigger-happy North-West Frontier…… ‘They’ll shoot you if they feel like it. Any excuse. If they don’t like the food, or the way you smile, or farting. ….Farting is a crime on the North-West Frontier……’

[at Wagah] ….The Indian guard…..march out….They try hard to be as theatrically aggressive as their Pakistani counterparts but somehow you don’t feel their hearts are really in it.

The Vice-Regal lodge [Simla] has been reborn as an Institute for South-East Asian Affairs….Entertainment has given way to enlightenment. This bastion of British certainty has become a place of enquiry, curiosity and debate. Three very Indian preoccupations.

[Dalai Lama] crossed the Himalaya into India and in a brave gesture of generosity, Prime Minister Nehru gave him sanctuary …. (Many other countries would have had misgivings about what this would do to their relations with China).

I learn that he [Dalai Lama] gets up at 3.30 every morning, but goes to bed around 8.30, and that he recently lost his temper, in a dream.
I ask him if he ever loses his temper in real life.
‘Sometimes yes, but not remain long.’
…..For a world leader he seems extraordinarily well-balanced, natural and unaffected. His emotions are spontaneous, his judgements carefully pragmatic….he is happy to pose for a photograph….The crew are spread out on either side and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this hard-worked unit looking so happy.

I’m back among mountain people – patient, taciturn and politely wary of outsiders. Masters of survival.

…….not only is Hinduism the religion of 90 per cent of Nepal, the Nepalis take pride in being more scrupulous in their observance of festivals. The Indians, she says, have shortened their ceremonies.

…..the Kathmandu Valley, the widest valley in the Himalaya. Over a third of Nepal’s urban population lives here ……

….Nepal….has a fundamental ethnic division between the Indo-Aryan with origins in the south and the Mongolian who originates from the north. Sherpas [Gurkhas / Mongolians] think of themselves as Flat Noses and superior to the Long Noses, who in turn think of themselves as more urban and intellectual than the Flat Noses.
‘Traditionally, but not exclusively, its been the Mongolian hill men we’ve recruited [as Gorkhas for the British Army]’….

Nepal was never colonized, so the architecture has no Western derivative and its distinctive fusion of Indian and Tibetan influences was created by the Newars, the people of the valley, and craftsmen of the highest order.

The road that winds its way northeast from Kathmandu is called the Arnika Highway….Arniko was the Nepali architect credited with introducing the pagoda to China and the road that bears his name leads to the only crossing point between the two countries.
It is quite likely that there was more contact between Nepal and China 600 years ago than there is today. The road route from Kathmandu to Lhasa has only been open since the 1980s.

In every country we’ve been so far [Pakistan, India, Nepal] private cleanliness and public squalor seem to quite happily co-exist and I’ve never really been able to work out why.

The government of China, in their wisdom, decreed that the whole country, wider than the United States, should have only one time zone.

….the Tibetan plateau. The Roof of the World was once a seabed. What lay beneath the ancient sea of Tethys was heaved up onto the top of the world by the same collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates that built the Himalaya. It now rests at an average height of 13,100 feet (4000 m) and from its steep sides stream some of the world’s greatest rivers: the Indus, Salween, Yangtze, Irrawady, Yellow River and Brahmaputra.

[Yaks] ….big expediations rely on them to transport heavy equipment up as high as 21,500 feet (6550 m). Its on the lower slopes that the yaks suffer. Anything below 8000 feet (2440 m) can be very uncomfortable for them, as they tend to overheat.

In his book Tibet, Tibet, Patrick French quotes a contemporary Jesuit priest’s verdict on the sixth Dalai Lama [1683-1706]: ‘No girl, or married woman or good-looking person of either sex was safe from his unbridled licentiousness.’
As if that wasn’t enough, he also wrote poetry. Such apparently unrestrained love of life is not as incompatible with Buddhism as it is with Christianity…..

Drepung Monastery, once the biggest in the world, with 10,000 monks living and studying here in the mid 17th century, stands slightly outside the city, overlooking Lhasa from high ground to the northwest.

The Communists came close to expunging Buddhism from Tibet. Six thousand monasteries, 95 per cent of all those in the country, were destroyed. But Buddhism is 2000 years old and Chinese Communism was only 60 years old, so it was not a battle they could win….possession of any image of the Dalai Lama remains a political crime in China.

Potala Palace and Potala Square …One is the greatest building in Tibet, and the other is a large open space created by filling in a lake and flattening a neighbourhood of old Tibetan houses in order to celebrate 20 years of the creation of the Tibetan Autonomous Region…..The Tibetans call the peak on which the palace is built Mount Marpori and the soaring upward curve of the Potala’s walls, rising 13 storeys and nearly 400 feet (120 m) high….. Until the first sky-scrapers were built, the Potala Palace was believed to be the tallest building in the world. …The entire complex has 1000 rooms. Despite that, it wasn’t considered sufficient for the Dalai Lama of the time and within 50 years another palace, Norbulinka, was constructed on a 40-hectare site, a couple of miles to the west, in which His Holiness could spend the summer months.

….91 per cent of the peoples of China are from the same ethnic group, the Han.

In eastern Tibet and western Yunnan something quite dramatic happens to the Himalaya. They change direction. Crushed up against two unyielding plateau, the world’s mightiest mountain range meets its match and is turned inexorably southwards. The meltwaters of the Tibetan plateau, gratefully unleashed, pour south through a series of plunging, often impenetrable gorges, to spill into the Bay of Bengal or the South China Sea.
All except one.
At a small town called Shigu, some 100 miles into Yunnan, the Yangtze….changes direction, a quirk of geography that Simon Winchester, in his book The River at the Centre of the World, regards as being responsible for the very existence of what we know as China.
Having carved its way off the plateau and running hard alongside the Mekong, the Salween and the Irrawady, the Yangtze-Kiang, now called the Jinsha Jiang, River of Golden Sand, meets an obstruction. A thousand miles of tumbling water heading for Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin is, within a few hundred yards, spun round to the north and, though it twists and turns and tries to find its way south again, it is now effectively a Chinese river, heading east to create the enormous bowl of fertility and prosperity that is the heart and soul of the Middle Kingdom.

There are 26 officially recognized nationalities within Yunnan, the most ethnically diverse province in China

Intense as the ceremony (Lijiang Dongba shaman) has been….I don’t think any of us felt the sensation of the supernatural presence….But a week or so after we got back, Basil called me…on the photos he’d taken. No problems, except for all those taken with a flash at the Dongba’s ceremony. Despite his camera being fully charged up, all the prints came back over-exposed and burnt out. It has happened to him once before, when photographing the Ghost Festival in Penang. All his shots were fine except those taken when the shaman entered a trance.
Whats more, he knows colleagues who’ve experienced the same thing. Everything seems to point to some powerful force or energy current being emitted on the same frequency as the strobe of the flashlight.

Such has been the success of the American Baptist Church that 99 per cent of the Naga have been converted to Christianity. Nakedness is a thing of the past, as is the once common custom of head-hunting (Though a recent National Geographic article reported evidence of active head-hunters as recently as 1991.)

….Beijing is as close to Assam as Delhi.

Since the Rhino Protection Act of 1913 the horned rhino has returned from the brink of extinction….there are now 1500 to 1600 of them in the park [Kaziranga], 70 per cent of the world’s population……

[Bhutan] …a little larger than Switzerland, with a population less than the city of Birmingham …..only two planes…comprise the national fleet….over two-thirds of the country remains forested ….over 80 per cent of Bhutanese still work on the land….Bhutan may be a Buddhist kingdom, but the sects here are different from those in Tibet. …the Yellow Hats dominate in Tibet and ….the Red Hats in Bhutan. The Je Khenpo, head of the Drukpa school, is the religious authority here. The Dalai Lama has no jurisdiction in Bhutan and has never visited the country.

In the foothills near Paro is a complex of holy buildings….Takstang, meaning ‘Tiger’s Lair’, is built on precipitous rock ledges….Takstang stands out as one of the most spectacular holy places anywhere in the world.

Bhutan’s ubiquitous stray dogs (which, of course, no-one is allowed to cull)…..

In one of the rare examples of sex discrimination in Bhutan, women are not allowed to take part in traditional archery competitions….it looks pretty difficult and most of the participants are roaring drunk… man sings…at full volume, another lurches by with a whisky and loud yell, another becomes droolingly amorous. Khendum introduces me to them.
One is the Secretary of Employment, another the Managing Director of the National Bank. Others are chairmen of this and that…..the night before a match the men sleep together in a dormitory with the door locked, as sex before a big game is considered bad luck.

At their closest point Bhutan and Bangladesh are some 25 miles (40 km) apart, yet they could scarcely be more different. One is entirely composed of mountains, the other flat as a pancake. One is among the least crowded countries in the world, the other the most densely packed. One is an absolute monarchy with a stable government, the other a people’s republic that has just topped the list of the world’s most corrupt countries…. Bangladesh, three times as big as Bhutan, with 75 times the number of people, has a population of around 135 million, and the only reason it can support so many is because two of the greatest mountain rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, funnel down through the country on their way to the sea, depositing billions of tonnes of rich, recycled Himalaya.
Combined with the heavy monsoons that are the blessing and the bane of Bangladesh, this gives the country some of the most productive land in Asia…..The most recent serious flood, in 1998, inundated two-thirds of the country and left 22 million homeless.

The Burmese immigrants in Bangladesh are as much of a sore point here as the Bangladeshi immigrants are in India.

….the astonishing statistic that Bangladesh has 5000 miles (8000 km) of navigable waterways.

[Dhaka] ….In 1971 the population was one million. Even conservative estimates believe that number to have grown to 15 million, and with 80 per cent of the country’s jobs located here, there’s little sign of this headlong growth rate slowing down.

The waterways of Bangladesh seem to operate on the same philosophy as the roads of Dhaka, an improbable synergy that, by the most dangerous means possible, successfully accommodates every kind of river user. None of them seem to have lights or horns.

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