Saturday, May 21, 2016

From ‘The Indian Ferment. A Traveller's tale’ by H G Alexander

(From his travels in 1927-28)

…cultivators are all in the hands of the money-lenders. They can only work for seven or eight months in the year. It is suggested that the real purpose of Mr.Gandhi’s spinning wheel isto give the ryots something to occupy themselves with when otherwise they would be idle. Also it might keep them out of debt. But apparently it is almost an accepted custom to be in debt.

The attitude towards cattle seems to be rather like “the sanctity of human life” in the West. You may twist the tails of the cattle; you may beat them and prod them and neglect them, and starve them; but if you are guilty of the death of a cow, you have committed the greatest crime. I have seen a greater number of poor, diseased, starved cattle …since I reached India than I have ever seen before ……

When I was in Bulgaria one of the Bulgarians I met said that the way to tell where the west ends and the east begins is by observing whether men wear their shirts inside or outside their trousers….the Bulgarians wear the shirt inside, the Rumanians outside…..

The vast army of worthless sadhus …..who live by terrorizing the people by threats of Divine wrath into giving them food and money, seems to be one of the major curses of India.

…second-generation young Christians…..They are outcaste from Hinduism, belonging to the Christian community in some cases from necessity rather than conviction.

…the Principal…persuaded me to come and speak to his students…on “Whither the World is Tending” – the stupendous kind of question that Indians love to discuss…

I think the average sadhu repels me more than any other Indian type. He seems to make the idea of religion disgusting. Most of them have a cruel, disdainful expression, quite unlike the friendly countenance of the ordinary Hindu.

The most amazing feature of Delhi is not its endless ruined monuments of forgotten empires, but its myriads of vultures and kites…..Other Indian cities boast many kites and some vultures; but Delhi easily outdoes all the other cities I have visited…

…..Tagore’s young men at Santiniketan, seem to have learnt what was good from Western ways of thought without losing those fine qualities of intuition which are characteristic of Hindus…. My impression is that caste is breaking down very rapidly indeed among the younger educated Hindus; and when the older generation (over fifty) are dead, it will largely disappear in all the centres of culture….

We generally had rather silent meals (that is, of course, the old Hindu custom, but Tagore does not stick to it as a principle)…..When he does speak he expects his audience to attend, and to pay the respect due to an oracle; and he could give a poet’s justification for this….. Our (British) rule, he said, is in many ways better than that of other Western peoples in the East – American, Dutch, or French. We allow so much personal freedom……It is largely the inspiration of England that has stirred in India the passion to be free….

….C. F. Andrews…. His attitude is practically this, as I understand it. Let each religion be true to itself, respecting the others, and ready to learn from the others. A Christian living in that spirit is welcome anywhere among enlightened Indians.

The taxi-drivers in Calcutta are nearly all Sikhs and nearly all opium-eaters. They are furious drivers, but personally I found them safe.

The …..people of Orissa are, indeed, a sorrowful people. They are very poor…Many have to migrate to other places on labour contracts…..

….Indian students I certainly think many of them want to use force. I do not think they are restrained by cowardice, but rather by ancient Hindu tradition, perhaps also by reluctant consent to Mr.Gandhi’s principle of non-violence; and it may be, by older men who have learned wisdom and caution through experience.
…one impression that has been made upon me in India generally, but especially in Calcutta. It is the refinement of feature that is characteristic of a great proportion of Indians. Over and over again I have seen men wearing nothing but a loin-cloth doing heavy manual work, whose faces suggested intellectual distinction and spiritual refinement. When you meet people casually in the street it is quite impossible to judge of their education and social standing from their general appearance……my father-in-law…he told me that , according to Sir Francis Younghusband, you can travel from the Himalayas to the Cape Comorin and never meet a vulgar person. I think there is much in that saying. The struggle for existence in India is terribly severe, and no doubt it leads to much cunning and brutality; but the lust for wealth as such would seem to be rare…..

Assam was never conquered by the Moguls. Until the British conquest of Burma, whose king had recently conquered Assam, the Assamese had been for a long time outside India. Nevertheless, their religion is largely Hindu. I saw no traces of Buddhism in the Assam valley. The people mostly look more Indian than Mongolian, but many have strongly Mongolian features with Hindu colour. The hill tribes, south as well as north, are thoroughly Mongolian in appearance…..Why, it may be asked, if the country is so productive, do not the Assamese people increase and multiply and flourish exceedingly? Are they inherently lazy? …answer is contained in the one word “opium”. Take India as a whole, and the opium problem is a minor concern….Take the Assam valley alone and it is one of the gravest problems in the country….the Assamese people have been under its influence for about a century. ….In 1921…Gandhi visited Assam, and appealed to people to abstain…..Consumption dropped by nearly one-half in the year. The Government claim some part in this decrease….I do not think there is the least doubt that the real job was done by Gandhi and the other workers whom he inspired.

….I have often noticed that if an Indian starts off with an erroneous idea in his head it takes some patience and tact to eradicate it.

…. “inevitable long-windedness of all Indian speeches”

The Indian attitude towards birds is excellent. They leave them alone; and the birds respond by being more confiding than in any European country. But Indians seem to have no inquisitiveness about birds; they do not trouble to distinguish one from another, or study their habits…..

It is curious that our national game, cricket, hardly spreads beyond the English countries. Even Americans seem to find no merit in it. So it is the more remarkable that young India – especially in the towns – seems to play cricket with as much zest as young England…..there must be more in common between British and Indians than is usually supposed. I suggest that the practical British have deep down in their nature a strain of quiet contemplation which a few of them have developed into Quakerism, while the majority prefer to sit in silence round a cricket ground, or to stand bareheaded in the field waiting for the ball that never comes, or the turn to bat which passes so quickly. We are shy about our innate mysticism, so we work it out in cricket; the Indians are less shy, so they have not needed to evolve cricket for themselves; but their mystical nature finds it attractive now that we have introduced it to them.

India is immense and unfathomable; Assam, by contrast, compact and straightforward….

….the great snowy range of Kinchinjunga…..the first glow of the rising sun. It was a great sight, finer, said my father-in-law, than the dawn on Monte Rosa from the plains of Lombardy.

Our guide seems to be a real Christian and a real Indian. Too many Indian Christians I have met seem to be neither.

….I think the personal relationship of the Dutch to the Javanese is better than that of the British to the Indians. ….partly due to the fact that the Dutch live a more homelike life…..The position of the Eurasians is much better than in British India. An English business man told me that no white man in Java would speak disparagingly of half-castes……More remarkable is the fact that Dutch and Javanese “Tommies” serve together in the Army and fraternize without discord. If you suggested such a possibility to a British officer in the Indian Army he would certainly have a fit!

The people of Jave are nearly all nominally Muslims ….I saw neither the regular devotions nor the orderly democratic feeling, nor any of the harsher Muslim characteristics. I suspect that the people are still closer to the Hindus in life and thought than to the full-blooded Muslims of North India and the Middle East. Their culture is, of course, notoriously Hindu in origin; the batik work, the puppet-shows and drame, are derived from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

All the people I saw in Java looked better fed and more prosperous than India’s underfed millions. Generally speaking, they have much better houses.
Compared with the Indians, I think the Javanese are an unsophisticated, gay, happy-go-lucky people…I can well believe that they spend all their money as soon as they get it. …One day I saw a big youth in the street suddenly catch hold of his little brother’s foot and kiss his leg, apparently out of sheer elder-brotherly emotion. I think they live very much in the present. Perhaps all unsophisticated people do.

…..for four hundred years or so Malaya has been colonized by the Chinese; and today they form two-thirds of the population of Singapore and the backbone of all the towns in the country….thousands of Tamil labourers from South India come and work on the rubber estates and in the tin mines. As you travel through the country by train or motor-car you see Chinese everywhere and Indians nearly everywhere, and you begin to wonder where on earth the Malays can be. The explanation is that most Malays live by the rivers, and they do not take much part in the development of the country……A further complication arises from the fact that a good number of the present inhabitants of Malaya are recent immigrants from Sumatra or Java.
The Malays seem to live a placid, unambitious life….A good many of them have shown capacity as mechanics, motor-drivers, sea captains, and in various crafts; but a Malayan merchant, or a Malayan rubber-planter or tin-miner, is almost or quite unknown. …Some people think the Malays are a dying race – that they will gradually disappear under the pressure of their neighbours, especially the Chinese.

The [Malayan] jungle contains an immense variety of trees. Over twelve hundred species are known, which is a larger number than all the species found in India. Many of the forest trees grow straight for 50 or 100 feet before they have any branches. …The rapidity of growth is equally remarkable. Some of the bamboos grow six inches in one day…..To atone for the absence of flowers the Malayan jungle is very rich in butterflies. I have been seeing gorgeous butterflies everywhere since I reached India, but the butterflies of the Malayan jungle surpass all the others, alike in size, variety, and brilliance of colouring.

So long as the country remains prosperous the various communities – Chinese, Indian, Malay, and European – seem to live contentedly side by side…..though each community lives mainly to itself, and the Europeans suffer from the usual “superiority complex” of the white man. I fancy that the Chinese also regard all the other races, or at least the Europeans, with silent contempt…..The whole country is bent on getting rich quickly, and the Chinese certainly lead in the race. Nearly all the big houses of Penang and Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have Chinese names advertised on their gates, and the tawdriness of the display is not pleasing….They have “made the country”, and they are still making it, and they intend the fact to be known.

Practically all Malays are Muhammedans; and there are clauses in the treaties with the Sultans which may be interpreted as precluding Christian missions among Malays – or at least as precluding any Government support of mission institutions. Nearly all the mission work is among Chinese and Tamils.

…. That disgusting “superiority complex”, which is the hallmark of almost every Englishman outside his native land – the quality which our Continental neighbours less politely describe as “hypocrisy”.

I see in nearly all I meet, especially those one meets casually on trains and boats, a loss of refinement, of true gentleness, of that consideration and courtesy and self-restraint on which we English pride ourselves, The Englishman in the Tropics often ceases to be a gentleman.
The problem is not mainly political, British administration is very generally respected, in the eyes of many business men in the East the administrators are too generous to the “natives”. An American missionary in the school at Ipoh said that, after seeing the administration of the Dutch in Java and the Americans in the Philippines, he had the greatest respect for the British. Chinese and Indians have spoken to me of their respect for many of our administrators.

…..I met some more of the typical young English business men…The recognized opening for a conversation with a stranger about India is to abuse all Indians as incompetent, untrustworthy, deceitful, and so on. You laugh and remain silent ….it is no use trying to refute them for of course they know and you do not.

….Muhammedans in East Bengal….They are, as generally in India, ignorant and backward; and there are far more crimes of violence among them than among the Hindus

Mr.Gandhi enjoyed himself by stretching out his hand as if to catch one or two small infants who were running about near him; and when he did catch them they crowed with joy. I found it hard to feel that I was looking on one of the great souls who have shaken the world, he has not the “presence” of Tagore. Perhaps he could show it, but he prefers to keep his great soul veiled behind his marvelous humility. So what you see is a man full of simple human emotions: very quick to understand, with a genius for giving and inspiring trust. ….His eyes have, indeed, a beautiful expression, and when he comes to the point of something he is saying he looks at you with a quick glance that is very direct……. His face has the look of one who has undergone much spiritual conflict; but in his expression there is the peace that comes to those who have overcome.

I never spoke to Mrs. Gandhi, though she does speak a little English. I believe she several times told people in the kitchen to offer me more milk or what not; and she “took notice” when I was saying good-bye. She is a motherly woman, who is, I should think, a very good hausfrau; and she looks as if she shared pretty fully the burdens that have fallen upon her husband’s back. Yet I never saw them even exchange a glance. All the same, I am sure they know what is in one another’s mind.

…..hand-spinning ….Its moral value is, I think, absolutely proved. There appears to be less drinking in the villages that have taken it up. And it is bringing professional men into intimate association with the villagers, helping to form a union of hearts….

Part of a letter written to me by Mr. Gandhi ….. “….if a man has true religion in him it must show itself in the smallest details of life. ….The slightest irregularity in sanitary, social and political life is a sign of spiritual poverty. It is a sign of inattention, neglect of duty….”

…my impression of the ashram [Sabarmati]. One cannot but be aware of the contrast between this place and Santiniketan. The Satyagrahashram (the Soul-force Community) relies on a severe daily discipline, strict asceticism, and the regular performance of menial tasks; Gandhi is a strict Puritan. Tagore is a Poet. He relies on aesthetic expression, on releasing the soul of man, on silent meditation. Yet I think their goal is the same ….Tagore seems to doubt the efficacy of the way of renunciation, while Gandhi doubts the efficacy of the way of free growth. But it may well be that each method is needed for various types of men …..The Servants of India are following yet another road – in some respects closely parallel to Mr. Gandhi’s – to the same goal.

India is an unhappy land – unhappy and at the same time fascinating. She has a freedom of the soul – a freedom from the tyranny of convention – that seems to me to lie deeper than our political freedom, deeper even than our “freedom of thought” in the West.

From ‘Walking the Himalayas’ by Levison Wood

….the chilling words of warning Kipling issues….
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’go to your Gawd like a soldier.

…the Wakhan corridor, a narrow valley that juts out from the main body of the country….. and acts as a buffer between Tajikistan, China and Pakistan. It was the wildest, most remote and inaccessible part of Afghanistan.

….infamous Hindu Kush mountains – or the Hindu Killers – so named because of the vast numbers of Indian slaves who died while being transported through them en route to the Khanates of Central Asia, during the Middle Ages.

The old adage was true; the Afghans simply loved fighting each other. But when foreign powers dare to invade, they have a habit of putting their differences aside and ganging up to oust the invader. Most of them weren’t, and still aren’t, particularly inspired by religious fanaticism, but rather an innate sense of war, one that is in the blood after centuries of violence.

….the Wakhan corridor….the reason that this remote strip of land belongs to Afghanistan is that it provided a convenient buffer zone during perhaps the most intriguing of all the political conflicts of recent times: the Great Game.

‘The Afghans say that the Pamir is so high, even the birds must cross on foot.’

The Wakhan is in fact the most impoverished region in Afghanistan. Farming is virtually impossible because of the harsh climate and there are no roads. All of the borders are closed and so trade is limited to that which occasional merchants can smuggle over the high passes from Pakistan or China – which isn’t much. As a result, there’s no need for currency and people simple barter a yak for some sheep, or a guard dog for a rifle. There’s just a few basic school houses…..and there are no clinics or medical facilities. The Wakhan has the highest rate of infant mortality in the world – every second child dies at birth; the average life expectancy is under forty.

…..the Irshad valley ….Malang ….laughed…. ‘They love a good drink. We are Ismaili here. We’re not like those Sunni Muslims. We don’t do Ramadan and look around – do you see any mosques?’

[Pakistan]…The trucks were painted like Wedgwood china vases…..Pashtu tradition from Peshawar…. ‘Isnt it unislamic to draw pictures of living beings?’ I asked, wondering how the tribesmen of the North West Frontier, the wildest men in Asia – supplier of recruits to the Taliban and supposed religious fanatics – reconciled this art with their version of Islam.
‘They were drawing pictures much before Islam came. These Pasthtuns have a very long history, and good art.’

Sost [Pakistan]…. Reminded me of one of those Wild West frontier towns… Inspite of the fact that Ramadan had begun just a few days before nobody seemed to be paying the slightest attention to it…. ‘I am Wakhi, you have seen how we live, we do Ramadan all year round, just drinking salty tea and eating bread. We don’t need to fast any more to show we are good people. And anyway I am Ismaili, and the Aga Khan has shown us that these Sunni ideas are just stupid. Those Muslims in the south are bad people and fasting won’t change that.’

….the majestic 7,800-metre white face of Rakaposhi, which Wilfred Thesiger described as one of the finest mountains he’d ever seen….Here the people were from the Burusho tribe among whom, like in Afghanistan, they liked to claim descent from the soldiers of Alexander the Great. Their dialect is unlike any other in the world, bearing no relation to the neighbouring Pashtun, Urdu and Persian languages and has left anthropologists bewildered for centuries.

….literacy rate for Pakistan…..average is sixty-three per cent…in some tribal regions it’s only twenty per cent, and for women, ten……in the Hunza….We have ninety-five per cent …..because we aren’t like those Sunni barbarians….before we became Ismaili we were pretty savage ourselves. We prayed to trees and rocks and birds and stuff like that……You know that we have the longest lifespan in the world here….No processed food, we grow it all ourselves and we drink clean water from the mountains….

….Nagar valley. If Hunza was spectacular, then the Nagar was sublime… Gilgit lies just north of the confluence of the Gilgit and Indus rivers, marking the exact convergence of the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Western Himalaya mountains…Some of the names of the villages, like Ganish and Gorikot, indicated a Hindu heritage. Other signs clearly showed Buddhist influence. At Kargah Nalah, a vast image of the living god is carved into a cliff-face, too high for vandals to desecrate. It was chiseled in the seventh century, when the whole of Gilgit-Baltistan was part of a greater Tibet, and later China. Muslim rule cam much later…..

Gilgit bazaar was heaving with men. Pashtuns, Uighurs, Punjabis and Shina tribals mixed freely…. The few women to be seen in the streets were dressed in burkhas. Until now, the rural areas had seemed liberal and welcoming. The influences of Ismaili Shia Islam had given the Hunza a progressive and tolerant outlook, and I’d been surprised by the high levels of education, spoken English and gender equality. But here in town there seemed to be undertones of a stricter, less compromising culture going on. For the first time on the journey, there were large mosques and almost everyone wore salwar kameez…..the majority of men wore long beards, often with the upper lip shaved – a sure sign of orthodoxy……I had noticed a tension in the air the moment we crossed the Gilgit river; stares and squinting looks and no smiles. The people weren’t hostile, just a lot less friendly than we’d become accustomed to ….Maybe we’d been spoilt by the hospitality of the Wakhi and Hunzakut.

It is only a one-day walk that separates the Karakorum from the Himalayas, but those few miles heralded a new world – one that was less harsh on the eyes, less craggy …But something sinister remained, both in the nature and in the people that lived there.

Pilgrimages are an integral part of Indian culture. For thousands of years Hindus and Buddhists have embarked on journeys to show their devotion to God.
In many places I’d travelled, the concept of walking would raise eyebrows and protests of disbelief. In Africa the locals would laugh at me or ask if my car had broken down. ‘Only a poor man travels on foot,’ they’d say. Or they would just shake their heads and tut and tell me that I must be quite stupid…. In India it was different. Walking is so deeply ingrained in the national psyche that nobody batted an eyelid. There was no question of my motivations; of course I was on a pilgrimage. It didn’t matter which god I worshipped, or where I was going – there was just a simple understanding that I was a traveler. Nothing more, just another walker with my own mission, and that was something to be respected.

We passed shrines to Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu…..We’d left the Islamic world behind now, although there were still mosques in some of the villages. We’d entered a new world where spirituality was more tangible, more colourful and generally a bit more fun. ….Nothing was too bright or vulgar; plastic and concrete were just as suitable a medium for the gods as wood and stone.

…Umanga told us…. ‘If we see a tiger, best thing is, don’t turn your back. If you turn your back, tiger will attack. They always come at you from behind’ ….. ‘If a rhino is charging, you must climb a tree, but if we see a bear, no climbing a tree. The bears can climb very easily. In this case, you must stand your ground. The leopards are afraid of the humans, so they wont come close. No worrying about the leopards.’

Apart from the Terai lowlands, the rest of the country is so mountaineous that it is said that if you flattened out Nepal, like pulling on a creased tablecloth, then the surface would amount to an area bigger than the whole of the USA.

…the difference I encountered walking into Bhutan.
The Indian town of Jaigaoon ….was crowded, filthy and noisy….Nobody bothered to clean the streets because the monkeys and the cows would do it for them….Everyone, it seemed, thought it perfectly acceptable to spit vile globules of phlegm onto the pavement….or to piss in the gutters in broad daylight. The whole town stank of shit ….On the far side we emerged into Phuentsholing and it was another world. There were no beggars or lepers. No car horns – everything was eerily quiet. Signs everywhere indicated that smoking cigarettes was illegal. So was ‘spitting on the walls’ …..Almost all the men and women sported the traditional national dress……

Thimpu is a bizarre town. Despite being a capital city, its barely worthy of the title of city; with a population of fewer than 80,000, you can fit more people in Wembley football stadium. It must be one of the smallest cities in the world and it doesn’t have a single traffic light. There’s only one road in and out…..It was peculiarly quiet, except for the howling of a few street dogs…People moved about shiftily, looking around as if they knew that their happiness lay elsewhere – in the mountains and villages, and that life in the miniature metropolis was an unnatural sin.

I found out that in fact high-altitude mountaineering was illegal in Bhutan.
‘Its because we don’t have any rescue infrastructure here….only one helicopter….It would be embarrassing to have a foreigner die in our mountains, so we ban it.’

Behind the facade of modernity and development and cleanliness there seemed to be a mystical, almost Shamanist undercurrent to life in Bhutan. In spite of the image of a happy, pure nation there were hints at a darker, more superstitious existence.

Even though I don’t believe in superstition, after so long spent walking through this part of the world I knew never to underestimate the power of spirituality and people’s beliefs. There seemed to be some things we couldn’t just explain away. Call it God, fate, karma or magic……

Great things are done when men and mountains meet;
This is not done by jostling in the street
-          William Blake

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.