Defeated by snow and meeting Churchill’s widow

WHEN I WAS SIXTEEN, that was in 1968, I made two memorable trips. The first was a youth hostelling trip in Wales and the other, which followed soon after that, was my first visit to Paris.

PARIS Clouds over the Beacons_800 BLOG

Three good friends of my age and I travelled by train to Chepstow in South Wales. Our plan was to walk from one youth hostel to the next, carrying our baggage in rucksacks.

 From Newport, we struggled along footpaths by the east bank of the River Wye until we reached the village of St Briavels. The youth hostel was housed in parts of the place’s mediaeval castle, whose construction began in the early 12th century.

We were assigned beds in a dormitory. At night I struggled to make myself comfortable in the shroud-like sheet sleeping bag that was required by guests staying in British youth hostels. In those days, I used to find it difficult falling asleep in places away from home. St Briavels was no exception. In the middle of the night I felt the urge to go to the loo, but because I was anxious about walking across the dark castle courtyard to the hostel’s only toilets, I remained becoming increasingly uncomfortable until day broke.

The eight mile hike from Newport to St Briavels had been a hard, tiring ‘slog’. We were not looking forward to doing something similar the next day. We walked a few miles until we reached a main road, and then boarded a local bus. At this point, dear readers, you need to know that in 1968 youth  hostels were only supposed to be used only by travellers making their way under ‘their own steam’ (i.e by walking, cycling, canoeing, horse-riding etc.), but not by motorised transport.

We reached the small town of Crickhowell and walked from there towards an isolated youth hostel on the edge of the Brecon Beacons mountain range. The Nantllanerch youth hostel, which only functioned between 1966 and 1969, was about a mile from the house where its warden lived. We were the only people staying in this un-manned hostel miles away from anywhere. It had no electricity and the chemical toilets were attached to septic tanks. Lighting was via gas lamps fuelled from a cylinder. This delightful place was also supplied with an out-of-tune upright piano. We stayed there for two nights, using the day between them to climb one of the nearby peaks. I had never climbed a mountain or a significant hill before. Every time I saw what I hoped was the summit, it proved to be a ridge behind which there was another gruelling climb. After that experience, I decided that Everest was not for me. However, a few years later, I did climb, or rather scramble up, Mount Ventoux in the south of France.

We left Nantllanerch and used public transport to reach Brecon, where we spent another night in a youth hostel. Then, again disobeying the rules, we travelled a long way using public transport to Great Malvern, where we spent another two nights. On the day between them, we completed a lovely walk along the ridges connecting the peaks of the Malvern Hills. I fell in love with Great Malvern and have revisited this mainly Victorian resort often.

Every time one left a youth hostel, the warden was required to stamp our Youth Hostel Association booklets with the hostel’s official stamp. On leaving Great Malvern, we notice that the warden had placed the hostel’s stamp upside down in each of our booklets. We wondered why. Long after we had returned to London from Great Malvern, we discovered the reason. An upside-down stamp was to warn the wardens of other youth hostels that the bearer of this stamp had caused trouble or breached a rule. The warden at Great Malvern must have realised that our itinerary as recorded by the hostels in which we had stayed could not have been undertaken without making use of motorised transport along the way.

I loved my first youth-hostelling trip and felt sure that my first trip to Paris, which followed it, would be an anti-climax. But I was wrong. I  travelled with my family to Paris on the Night Ferry train, which was boarded in the evening at Victoria station in London. There were two platforms at the station dedicated to the Night Ferry trains. To enter them, one needed not only tickets but also passports. Our family occupied two neighbouring compartments. My sister and I shared one of these. It was equipped with two berths, one above the other, and a basin with water taps.

The Night Ferry travelled to Dover, where the sleeping cars, such as we occupied, ran along rails into those in the hold of a cross-channel ferry. We all remained in our compartments. After a while, our carriages were pulled out of the ferry and onto the rails at the French port of Dunkirk. I could not sleep a wink. I stared through the glass of the window of our compartment throughout the night. There was not much to see during the sea crossing, but things improved at Dunkirk, where our carriage was shunted around a huge floodlit marshalling yard for what seemed like several hours. As dawn broke, we set off through France towards Paris.

Paris was a wonder, an ‘eye-opener’ for me. I loved everything about it, especially the metro with its curious pervasive characteristic smell and some of its trains that whooshed along on rubber tyres instead of metal wheels. In those far off days, the entrances to station platforms were provided with doors, ‘portillons’, which closed automatically just before a train left the station. These were supposed to prevent passengers from rushing to board the train just before its doors closed. Once, I got caught behind a closed portillon just after my parents and sister had passed through on to the platform. For a moment, I felt panicked, but the family waited for me to be liberated. Above ground, some of the metro stations were decorated with art-nouveau metal work. I loved this because I was already very keen on this artistic style.

We stayed in a small hotel on the Ile St Louis, a peaceful oasis separated from the rest of Paris by the River Seine. It was the nicest place I have stayed in the city. On my first visit, I loved the bookshops on Place St Michel and the well-stocked record shops nearby. We did a great deal of sight-seeing including a visit to the Louvre. What I remember most about this world-famous collection was rather mundane. We had left our coats at a garde-robe near one of the entrances. By the time we had paid our respects to the Mona Lisa and many other great works of art, we had forgotten where we had left our belongings. We spent longer looking for our coats than we had done admiring artworks.

My parents, who were not keen on visiting places that were neither churches nor museums, did take us up the Eiffel Tower, but only to its lowest viewing platform. What impressed me there were the lifts that climbed at an angle rather than vertically. My first visit to Paris was followed by many more, always enjoyable and always eliciting in me the same sense of wonder as my first.

We returned to London on the Night Ferry, arriving at Victoria in the morning. After we had stepped down onto the platform, my mother pointed to a lady disembarking from the next carriage to ours and said to us excitedly:

“Look, there’s Lady Churchill.”

It was Winston’s widow. I had been at the Hall School in Belsize Park when in early 1965, my class gathered around a small black and white TV to watch Winston’s funeral, ‘live’, as it happened.

The next year, following the success of our first hostelling trip in Wales and nearby, my three friends and I decided to go back to Wales on another hostelling trip. The first hostel on our itinerary was at Capel-y-Ffyn in the Brecon Beacons National Park, just north of the ruins of Llanthony Abbey. We booked in and woke up the next morning to discover that the ground was covered with a thin layer of snow. Then, fate struck.

 I had promised to telephone my over-anxious mother every day. So, I went to the village telephone box and rang her. She told me that she had heard that there was snow falling in Wales. I told her how little we had seen. She replied that we were to return to London immediately. I do not know what she was imagining. She might have thought that snow in Wales was likely to be as dangerous as blizzards in the Arctic.

My friends and I knew that my mother’s orders were never to be questioned. It was with great sadness that we packed up (while the snow was melting) and returned to London. My mother’s over-anxiety had wrecked our adventure.

Years later, my wife and I were entertaining the mother of one of my friends on the sabotaged trip. Then in her late eighties, she could still remember being amazed at the time when she heard how my mother had reacted to the news of snow falling in Wales.

To my great relief, my three disappointed friends remained friendly with me despite my vicarious role in greatly abbreviating what promised to be a great trip. Sadly, of the three one died a few years ago. A spot of snow never put him off risking his life more excitingly during his colourful career. Nor, did it deter the rest of us from doing many things that would have given my late mother cause for great anxiety.

 

Photo showing clouds over the Brecon Beacons in south Wales

FROM WHITE TO BLACK

IT WAS ONLY WHEN WE left our accommodation at Dholavira and headed east onto the causeway which connects Khadir Bet to the rest of Kutch (part of Gujarat) that we saw a truly white part of the White Rann (desert). Until then, we had seen small patches of salt crystallising on the surface of what had once been the seabed, an inlet of the Arabian Sea, before seismic activity rendered the sea into a desert.

As we drove across the causeway, we passed larges patches of what looks like freshly fallen snow. This is the salt that has crystallized after the evaporation of rain, which has fallen on the salt laden terrain. The layer of salt looked to be at least an inch or two deep. What we saw is what gives the White Rann its name. It is a truly white desert. We were also fortunate to spot three flamingos searching in a pool of water that had not yet evaporated. They were silhouetted against the morning sunshine.

After crossing the causeway, we drove for several hours towards the outskirts of Bhuj. We stopped for refreshments at Rapar, which looks like an Indian version of a small town in an American cowboy film. A woman in colourful traditional garb disembarked from a motor scooter on which she had been travelling with her husband and son. A cow wandered past her before she crossed the road with her son. A stray dog took a great interest in various used packages I threw in a bin, and then ran off.

At another stop, I drank tea from a saucer as the locals do. By pouring the tea into a saucer, the surface area of the liquid increases and the drink cools quicker than if it is in a cup.

At Bhuj, we headed north on a road that eventually ends abruptly at India’s border with Pakistan. At first, we drove across part of the Great Rann of Kutch. This is a very flat sandy area with sparse scrubby vegetation but no trees. We passed herds of buffaloes grazing in this arid area. Unlike the White Rann, the Great Rann is mostly sand coloured although I did spot occasional salty patches that looked like very light ground frost. The Great Rann is classed as a desert but it is home to a few industrial plants.

Somewhere along the long straight road crossing the Great Rann heading northwards, we passed a sign indicating we had crossed the Tropic of Cancer.

At the tiny village of Bhirindiyara, famed for its fine mawa. This is milk boiled slowly for about four hours and then mixed with sugar. It is a sweet paste faintly resembling vanilla fudge or caramel…delicious but probably not too healthy!

We left the main road leading towards Pakistan and began climbing towards the Black Hills of Kutch. We reached a sign that announced that we had arrived at the “Magnetic Field Area”. Our driver explained that here thrre is a magnetic field strong enough to drag a car. To demonstrate this, he turned off the engine, leaving the gear in neutral. Amazingly, our car began moving uphill without the engine.

We continued on our way into the Black Hills of Kutch, driving through a moonlike, rocky landscape. We drove up a series hairpin bends to Kala Dungar, the highest place in Kutch, 458 metres above the Rann.

The road between Bhuj and the side road to Kala Dungar is the main route to the largest part of the White Rann, where the annual White Rann Utsav (festival) is held in January and February. A huge tent encampment is set up on the salt covered desert and a fairground atmosphere reigns. The Utsav attracts many tourists, both Indian and foreign.

It is interesting to contrast the road from Bhuj to the Utsav with that from Bhuj to Dholavira. The former is highly developed for the large influx of tourists. Unlike many other roads in Gujarat, the one leading to the Utsav has many signs in English and is lined with resorts designed to appeal to visitors. In contrast, the road from Bhuj to Dholavira is like a route into the back of beyond. Apart from a few low-key tourist oriented enterprises near Dholavira, the road from Bhuj to Dholavira makes no concessions to attract tourists. Dholavira, unlike other parts of the White Rann, feels far away from the rest of the world and its few inducements to get tourists to part with money seem charmingly naive. However, in a year or two this is likely to change.

The change will follow the completion of a new road from Bhuj to Dholavira. Unlike the existing road that passes through Bhachau and Rapar, the new road will pass close to Kala Dungar and cross the great Lake of Kutch to Dholavirs on a new causeway. This will shorten the journey time between Bhuj and Dholavira from its present four and a half hours to about an hour and a half. The present remoteness of Dholavira, which is part of its charm, will be lost forever. The area will become much more easily accessible to tourists, and no doubt this will be beneficial for the prosperity of the locals. From a selfish point of view I am pleased that I visited Dholavira before the greater influx of visitors that will surely follow the completion of the new road.

We arrived at our hotel in the bazaar in the old city centre of Bhuj after sunset. After a couple of days in rustic Dholavira and several days in the countryside near Mandvi, the small city of Bhuj seemed to us to feel like a large metropolis.

The highest point

LAST BUT NOT LEAST on our visit to Mount Abu was a visit to Guru Shikhar, the highest peak of the Mount Abu district. Being a Sunday, the winding road leading to it had heavy traffic. Many of the private cars had Gujarati registration plates, and judging by the general lack of driving skill and courtesy I guessed that many of the drivers had little if any experience of negotiating mountain roads. There is an observatory perched on the very top of the mountain. It is part of the Indian Space Research Organisation. The views from the summit were spectacular especially because the air was uncharacteristically free of mists and heat haze. We were surrounded by lower peaks and in one direction there was a good view of the plain far below us. Mount Abu is the highest point in Rajasthan and neighbouring Gujarat. We left this peak to visit other sights dotted around on the far from flat Mount Abu plateau.

A short visit to Shankar Math will suffice all but the most devout of Hindus. A modern structure surmonted by an enormous lingam houses a much older and slightly older lingam carved in white stone with bluish grey striations.

Achal Garh has several attractions. There is a large attractive Jain Temple, which looked quite old. It was surrounded by newly carved sculptural fragments which were being used to replace worn out stone elements of the temple. Old parts were being exchanged for newly made replicas.

Close to the Jain temple at Achal Ghar, there is a market place catering mostly to tourists. Beyond the market a well made road winds upwards to Kapoor Tank, a peaceful water body where we saw women washing laundry in its calm water. Little children, including a tiny three year old girl, offered to guide us around the area.

The road continues to ascend above Kapoor Tank until it reaches the gates of an old fortress. It was built in 1452 by a local Rajput ruler, Maharana Khumbar of Mewar, on the site of an older fort. Not much remains to be seen. The area within the fort contains various Jain temples, which I hope to look at on a future visit.

The Jain temples at Adhar Devi, high up on a mountain slope, can only be reached by climbing more than 350 stone steps. I did not feel like doing that, so there is little I can tell you about them except that one of them is called Arbuda Devi Temple, Arbuda being the pre-British name of Abu, as in Mount Abu.

The highlight of our excursion was not the highest peak but an incredibly beautiful lake surrounded by rocks in the middle of a wildlife nature reserve. A badly surfaced road leads from the main road between Mount Abu and Guru Shikhar to Trevor’s Tank. This water body was created in 1897 by Colonel GH Trevor to breed crocodiles. A fading notice on of the huge rocks surrounding the pool advises visitors not to enter the water because of the very real risk of meeting these creatures. Some German hikers, whom we met, pointed at some crocs resting on a rock across the Tank, but I could not see them. The land for the wildlife sanctuary had been gifted to Trevor by the Maharaja of Sirohi, in whose kingdom Mount Abu is located.

The Tank has to be seen to believed. Its smooth water reflects the finest details of the rocks and vegetation surrounding it. Our new friend Dr Sharma told us that one of the joys of Trevor’s Tank is listening to the sounds of nature. During our visit, these had to compete with the sounds made by the excited groups of mainly young trippers. If there is limited time available when you visit Mount Abu, then Trevor’s Tank and the Dilwara Jain Temples should be seen before anything else. But, it would be foolish not to allot at least several days to savour Mount Abu.

We ate lunch in the restaurant of the Jaipur House hotel, the highest of the former Rajputana palaces in Mount Abu . Its windows provide superb views over the Nakki Lake, the Polo Ground and the rest of Mount Abu town. The former palace, now a hotel, is elegant without being flamboyant.

We strolled down from the palace through the town to our hotel feeling sad that on the following morning we would be leaving Mount Abu, which has captured our hearts.

Around the mountain

LAST NIGHT WE MET DR ARUN SHARMA. He was introduced to us by Mr Kashyap Jani, the owner of Hotel Saraswati, where we stayed in Mount Abu. Not only is Sharma a medical doctor in Mount Abu but he is also an accomplished writer, a prolific poet, a composer of music, a keen and well informed local historian, and also a skilful painter. In addition to singing an excerpt from one of his many operas, he told us a bit about the history and mythology of Mount Abu, which he believes is the oldest place on earth. Partly at his suggestion and partly because we had seen some information displayed at our hotel, we decided to take a driver to visit historic places around the base of Mount Abu and its associated peaks.

Our driver, Zakir, picked us up early in the morning and drove us to a food stall next to the Madina Masjid, the only mosque in Mount Abu. We joined some men who were keeping warm around a bonfire and had tea and omelettes. Throughout Mount Abu, locals make bonfires to keep warm, especially after sunset.

We drive downhill from Mount Abu along the winding mountain road, Abu’s only road link to the ‘outside world ‘. The picturesqueness of the landscape was enhanced by patches of morning mist.

Our first stop was at the Badrakali Hindu temple, which is extremely old. We were told it is 8000 years old, but this seems unlikely. We entered the inner sanctum to see the idol depicting the principal deity.

We were followed by a man, who walked over to an enormous speaker and turned it on. We were blasted with incredibly loud music: mostly rhythmic drumming with frequent blasts on conch shells. The volume was as high as, or even greater than most discotheques.

The priest within the chamber with the main idol waved around a smoking censer before lighting several lamps on a metal holder, creating what looked like a fiery comb. While ring a bell with his left hand, he waved the flaming comb around the inner sanctum, up and down the principal idol and other lesser ones. All the time, the loud music thudded deafeningly. Suddenly, he put down the comb of flames, picked up a conch shell and used it to throw water at all of us facing him. As suddenly as it had begun, the music ended. The priest continued chanting while all those attending this ‘aarti’ left the temple. We were lucky to have witnessed this dramatic yet very moving ceremony because it is only performed twice a day.

A short drive, during which we saw wild peacocks and plenty of greyish monkeys with black faces, brought us to another ancient temple, the Hrishikesh, a very peaceful spot. After walking past cattle and a large number of monkeys, we entered thetemple compound. A young boy was cleaning an idol of the ‘guru’ which faced the main idol of the temple located in the innermost sanctum. This chamber was covered by a cloth curtain. The priest llowed us to peer inside, where he was carefully cleaning the idol. He told us that only when the goddess had been cleaned and dressed, could she be revealed to worshippers. The temple and its compound contains numerous finely carved religious stone artworks.

After a lovely drive through very rustic landscape, Zakir drove us along a rough track to the isoated Toda Paladi, a very small Hindu temple. We chatted to the priest, who, after inviting us to sit with him, asked us if we were at peace and content. Then, we looked at the old stepwell (‘vav’) near the temple. It was almost overflowing with water covered with a thin layer of green algae. The priest had told us that the well always received a good supply of water that flowed down from nearby Mount Abu. We left the customary donation to the temple. The priest explained that when enough money had been collected, he hoped that it would be spent on improving the road leading to his temple.

The Sun Temple at Varman was built in the 10th century AD. Somewhat ruined, but maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, it contains carved stone features such as some of those that we saw at the great Jain temples at Mount Abu. The Sun Temple is, even though now incomplete, a gem.

Not far from the Sun Temple, we drove along a very sandy road until Zakir said the car could go no further safely. I disembarked and walked with some difficulty through vey soft fine sand towards a pair of huge banyan trees. Near these are the unguarded remains of Krishna Vat. A passing local with flamboyant facial hair typical of that seen on many Rajasthani men made me understand that the temple had been destroyed long ago by invaders. Despite the temple being a disorganised pile of exquisitely carved stones, people still worship there. For that reason my ‘guide’ asked me to remove my sandals while I prowled around the ruins, taking photos. My companion explained to me in Hindi what I was looking at, but I barely understood what he was saying. However, he did make it clear that a small rectangular patch of earth surrounded on three sides by stones was all that remains of the innermost sanctum of the temple.

After a relatively long drive, we reached the Behra Tarak Jain temple, which was built about 20 years ago. Although recently constructed, this temple, like most other contemporary Jain temples, is designed in the same way as those which were built over 1000 years ago. Thus, this new temple gives the visitor a good idea of how the historic temples must have looked when they were just completed. In all of the modern Jain temples we have visited both in Gujarat and Rajasthan no expense has been spared to create or recreate the perfection seen in the earliest temples.

Another drive along country lanes brought us close to the Karodi Dhwaj Hindu temple. I had to climb about 150 metres up a track too rough for our taxi to reach this small old temple compound clinging to the rocky slopes of Mount Abu. A staircase cut into a huge rock led down to a pool of water deep in a rocky cleft. The temple buildings overlooked this. Although of great beauty, they had been heavily painted with silver and other coloured paints. Some of the finer details of the carved stone idols were also hidden under deep layers of garish coloured paint. This temple almost hidden away in the rocks reminded me of some monasteries I have visited in Serbia. They were located next to the sources of streams at the heads of valleys to make them less accessible to foreign invaders, in their case the Ottoman soldiers.

The Mirpur Jain temple is definitely not concealed. It overlooks the plain surrounding Mount Abu. The mountainside makes an impressive backdrop to this beautiful temple constructed in a rare stone with light blue streaks. Constructed before the better known Dilwara temples, this could well have been the model which inspired the builders at Dilwara. Many of the finely carved features seen at Dilwara, where photography is firbidden, are in evidence at Mirpur. Almost as breathtaking as Dilwara, seeing Mirpur is a ‘must’.

The last stop on our tour was a Hindu temple within a natural rock cave, the Vastanji Shiva temple. This is located above a slope that was covered with litter. We were welcomed by several friendly temple assistants to the cave temple with its low painted rock ceiling. After we had admired the deity, we were invited into a neighbouring building, where men and women were keeping warm around a wood fire in a hearth on the floor. We were given a warm welcome and cups of tea. Pur new acquaintances invited to stay for a night of prayer at the temple. They told us that we would be offered food and bedding. Many people make the pilgrimage to this place and avail the hospitality offered. The sleeping quarters are flattish surfaces below the temple under colourful cloth shamianas. I guessed that much of the litter lying around was the result of the previous night’s pilgrims. All around we saw monkeys busy eating discarded vegetables and flower garlands.

We drive back up to Mount Abu after sunset, and disembarked at the grandiose former summer palace of the rulers of Bikaner, an erstwhile princely state in Rajasthan. It is now a ‘heritage’ hotel. We ate an indifferent meal in one of the dining rooms. The place was so cold that all of the diners were wearing inelegant padded jackets for outdoor use rather than dinner jackets and other fine garments that would have been worn when the hotel was a royal palace.

Thus, ended a fine day that was inspired by the historical research which Dr Sharma has been doing for years and by the publicity given to it at our hotel by its owner.

A FEW MOMENTS IN NEPAL

THERE IS A SMALL BUDDHIST TEMPLE (a ‘Gumba’) next to our homestay in Darjeeling. It was built by the grandfather of our host. When I took a look at it this morning, our host’s aunt was walking around it clockwise, chanting and fingering a bead necklace, rather like a rosary. After she had been around the square gumba several times, she opened it up to reveal an elaborately decorated effigy of Buddha.

Moni, our driver of Nepali origin, collected us and drove along a picturesque road to Ghoom, whose railway station at just over 7400 feet is the highest in India.

A narrow rutted lane led through the centre of Ghoom up to the Yiga Choeling Buddhist monastery, which, having been built in 1850, is the oldest in the area. The interior of the inner sanctum contained a large seated Buddha and many smaller effigies of him. The sanctum was beautifully decorated with wall paintings. Butter lamps were burning. There were glass fronted cupboards containing numerous bundles of strips of paper with scriptural texts in Tibetan script. Words are inadequate to describe the beauty of this Buddhist equivalent of a chapel.

Offerings had been placed in front of the various effigies of Buddha. These included banknotes, packets of biscuits, fruit, and a bottle of Pepsi Cola.

A part of the monastery was a meditation room dedicated to the memory of Woody Strong (1914-2000), an American lover and helper of Nepal, whose papers about Nepal are stored in the Archives of Purdue University. When diagnosed with inoperable cancer at the age of 77, he visited Nepal where a Buddhist priest told him that he would be healed. Miraculously, the tumour disappeared.

We drove from Ghoom along narrow, winding mountain roads to a recreation area called Jore Pokhri. On the way there and later on, we passed through small woods of trees with tall straight trunks topped with leaf bearing branches. These trees, a type of conifer, are known as ‘dhupi’ (in Nepali language) and are very valuable. Their value lies in an oil that can be extracted from its timber.

We stopped at Simana Viewpoint near to a small tourist market housed in corrugate iron shacks overlooking a steep drop into a deep valley. Where we were standing, at Simana, was only a few feet from the border between West Bengal and Nepal. A village with a name beginning with M lay on the opposite slope of the valley in Nepal.

We continued to drive close to the border until we reached the Indian frontier crossing post at Pashupathi Market. Moni parked the car and we went up to the immigration hut to show our British passports and our Indian residence permits (OCI) to two ladies sitting behind a desk with a large ledger.

Our documents were passed between numerous plainclothes agents and men in uniforms whilst a lot of heated discussion took place between all concerned. After a few minutes, more officials arrived and joined the conversation, the outcome of which was that we were petmitted to proceed into Nepal, which neither of us had ever visited.

We walked into Nepal past a small Nepali police or army barracks along a winding street lined with decrepit shacks an occasional colourfully decorated more substantial buildings. After about 150 yards, we turned round and walked back towards India.

About 50 yards away from the Indian frontier post, while we were still in Nepal, we heard drums. We looked back and saw a procession of people in colourful Nepali costumes approaching us. The march filled the whole width of the road and occasionally moved aside to allow cars and numerous taxi vans to pass. We learnt that the procession was something to celebrate tourism. As it was a Saturday, there were plenty of Indian tourists paying a brief visit to Nepal.

While I, the only European in sight, was taking photographs, a man in colourful garb approached me and shook my hand before inviting me to join the joyful procession. Then, he placed a garland of yellow flowers around my neck.

We left Nepal and Moni drove us back to Darjeeling, a journey of just over an hour. The road ascended and descended a series of hills. We drove through occasional clouds, that enshrouded the road in thick fog. We emerged from the clouds onto bright sunlight before encountering the next patch of cloud.

We ate a good lunch at Glenary’s restaurant, an establishment founded in about 1910 and housed in a picturesque colonial era building.

Before returning to our homestay, we heard the sound of drums and bagpipes. The Darjeeling Police Band was giving a spirited concert of Scottish tunes on an open air bandstand overlooking The Mall. The pipers swayed from side to side as they puffed away on their bagpipes. I imagine that long ago when Darjeeling was a recreational resort for the British imperialists, it was likely that a band used to play for visitors promenading on The Mall as the sun set on Saturday afternoons.
Thus ended a wonderful day during which we saw many exciting things, superb scenery, and set foot in another country, Nepal, for a few moments.

FIRST DAY DAWDLING IN DARJEELING

ISTANBUL AND GJIROKASTER (in Albania) share something in common with Darjeeling. The three places have no shortage of extremely steep inclines. However, Darjeeling beats the other two in steepness. Its footways and streets often seem almost vertical. The thoroughfares are so narrow in many places – wide enough for only one car, and as few of them are one way streets, Darjeeling’s drivers have to be skilled in reversing long distances along them. Driving difficulties are compounded by the oft appalling road surfaces, the steep drops along edges of some streets, and deep gutters.

The Mall and Chowrasta (a square where four roads meet) are vehicle free pedestrian precincts. Some of the buildings in this area are over 100 years old and recall the ‘heyday’ of Darjeeling, when it was a high altitude resort for British colonialists. One of these old structures houses the well stocked Oxford bookshop. It specialises in books about the Himalayas, tea, and natural history.

Two long straggling bazaars start at Chowrasta: the Mall Market that is under a fabric roof supported by bamboo poles, and the Mahakal Market. The latter runs along a path which overlooks a lower part of the town. The Mahakal Temple and a Bhuddist temple perch atop Observatory Hill. These can be reached by walking up a very steep winding path, which was lined by mendicants soliciting alms, often pitifully.

We ate lunch in the very popular Kunga restaurant, which serves Chinese style food. One visit there is enough for me. The restaurant is near a large Victorian gothic edifice with a tall clock tower. Built in 1850, this used to be Darjeeling town hall.

Our quest for a Samsung service centre led us down a long, perilously steep pathway to the busy Chauk Bazaar area. This typical bustling bazaar divided into areas that specialise in one line of business, be it, for example, vegetables or tailoring or sweetmeats or shoes, is laid out higgledy piggledy on an area of level ground that is large by Darjeeling standards.

A taxi conveyed us at great speed up steep winding streets to the huge Sinclairs Hotel where our new friends from Lincolnshire kindly offered us sundowners – well, the sun had actually set long before we reached them.

Returning to our lovely homestay, our young driver forced his poorly powered tiny Suzuki Maruti car along some absolutely appalling roads, which reminded me of some of the worst byways I have experienced in rural Albania and off the beaten track in South Africa.

Foreign exchange

CAKOR 75 Summit

 

A chance encounter in the former Yugoslavia has stuck in my memory

Sometime in 1975, I travelled from Peć (now in Kosovo) to Titograd (now in Montenegro) by bus. I chose to take the route that went via the wild and difficult Ĉakor Pass that traverses the mountain range shared by northern Albania and Montenegro, where I was heading. We reached the highest point on the pass after driving around a seemingly endless series of tight hairpin bends, and stopped there to give the driver a break.

While I was wandering around the treeless, grassy summit, admiring the views into the valley into which we would be descending, a grubby little boy approached me. He said something to me in a language, which I did not recognise as being Serbo-Croat. It was probably Albanian. Somehow, he made it clear to me that he wanted foreign coins. I thought that he was either a beggar, or more likely, just a curious youngster pleased to have chanced upon a foreigner. I gave him a few British coins, and then he rummaged around in his pocket. After a moment, he handed me a few Yugoslav Dinar coins, and left. He was no beggar, after all, but simply a young fellow with a well-developed sense of fairness.

After leaving the Ĉakor, we wound through the mountains to Andrijevica, a small Montenegrin town, which was enshrouded in rain and mist. Then, we descended gradually via a series of deep wooded canyons towards Titograd. All I saw of the town on that occasion was its bus station.

 

Picture shows view from the summit of  the Ĉakor Pass

Flight to Crete

As a youngster, I had problems at high altitudes. These first became manifest during the early 1960s when my parents took me on a driving holiday through France to Switzerland. We were driving up a mountain pass – I cannot remember which – and I felt extremely unwell. My parents attributed my (temporary) malady to the high altitude we had reached.

CRETE

Some time later, in the late 1960s, we flew from Athens to Iraklion in Crete. We boarded a propeller driven aircraft at Athens Airport. I had forebodings from the moment the ‘plane began to move. Before taking off, the ‘plane made an excessively long trip around the airport. On our way, we passed several disastrous looking aeroplanes. Some of them were burnt out, and others looked as if they had been involved in collisions. Seeing these did nothing to assuage the fear of flying that I used to have.

Eventually, we became airborne. I was seated next to a chain smoker, who produced a persistent cloud of smoke, and my mother. From the moment we rose above Athens to a few minutes before we landed in Iraklion, the aircraft was shaken horribly by turbulence. After a few minutes in the air I felt tingling in my fingertips. Naively, I thought that this was something to do with my neighbour’s cigarettes.

Suddenly, I felt a plastic mask being placed over my face. My mother had noticed that my skin was becoming blue. She had called the stewardess, who immediately supplied me with oxygen from a portable cylinder. I wore this for the rest of the uncomfortable flight. All of us felt dreadful when we landed in Crete. It took us a day to get over the flight. My parents made sure that our return flight was booked on a jet rather than a prop ‘plane. The newer jet-propelled aircraft had better cabin pressurisation, and the problem, which I had on the outward-bound journey, was not repeated.

Since those long off days, I have never suffered from high altitude problems. I have crossed alpine passes without illness, and Bangalore in India, which I visit often, is almost a thousand metres above sea-level. Although I have studied physiology, I have no real idea why as I grew older high altitudes affected me less. As I write this, I wonder whether when I was a young boy, I had a mild anaemia, which only manifested itself when suddenly reaching a higher altitude. Who knows?