|Highways in the Himalayas
by Clement Salvadori
There is a certain drama to riding across Kansas in August when the corn is as high as an elephant's eye, but the highways and byways tend to be straight. For myself, I prefer the twisty roads in the mountains. And the higher the better. As in the highest mountain range on this lonesome earth, the Himalayas.
We, four of us on three motorcycles, were headed in that direction when we crossed from Pakistan into India in the fall of 1973, through the only open border-crossing between those two acrimonious nations; they had still not forgiven each other for the bloody separation of a quarter-century before. The passage took most of the day, and that evening we rolled only as far as Amritsar, capital of the Punjab, found an inexpensive hotel, and went off to see the Golden Temple, the holy of holies for the Sikh religion.
This temple is sited in the middle of a small artificial lake, and the faithful make their pilgrimages. At dusk I was admiring the scene from the edge of the lake, and an elderly Sikh came and sat beside me and gently enquired as the reason for my presence. To understand Sikhism, I said. And he explained his religion to me: Very briefly, it was founded 500 years ago as an attempt to bridge the gap between Moslems and Hindus. Noble beginnings, except that in the great partition of 1947 the Sikhs sided with the Hindus and slaughtered tens of thousands of Moslems, and now the Sikhs are persecuted by the Hindus. So much for religious understanding.
And my lack of camera understanding. All I had was my little Rollei 35, as compact as cameras came back then, and while I still have a picture in my mind's eye of the temple glistening in golden light, I would have liked to have a photo as well. Had I all my travels to do over, a good camera would be at the top of the list of essentials.
Spend the night here, advised an army major, the road will be clear in the morning. And it was, and we roared high into the mountains, cheerfully dodging errant trucks and buses, avoiding precipices and broken bridges. At around 11,000 feet we entered the infamous Banihal tunnel, a coarse hole drilled through the Pir Panjal mountains, unlit, lined with jagged rock, the narrow roadway full of deep mud-puddles. Good fun. And when we exited on the north side, the Vale of Kashmir was before us.
I wanted to stay in a houseboat on Dal Lake, on the outskirts of Srinigar. At the small parking area a half dozen houseboat owners were looking for customers, which were few in this riotous time. I liked the sound of the name, New Golden Hind, the Golden Hind being the ship that Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world in the 16th century. And since I was going around the world ...
The houseboat was moored on the far side of the lake, a large, spacious place with a verandah at lake end, then a living room, dining room, three bedrooms and a bath. Another motorcycling couple joined us, so we had a full boat. In the mornings various small boats would come by: the greengrocer boat, the butcher boat, the pharmaceutical boat, that last selling everything from toothpaste to hashish. We would buy what food we wanted, and our host would prepare it for dinner.
During the day we would do our touristy best to see the sights, including having a lovely outdoor lunch at the Gulmarg Golf Club, claiming to be the highest "natural" golf course in the world. None of us were golfers, but the establishment provided us with a pail of balls and a driver, and we whacked those silly little things off into the distance. I can only presume that a well-hit ball might travel further at 9000 feet than at the Death Valley golf course, which lies 200 feet below sea level.
I had to be in Delhi by the end of November in order to sort out some paperwork, and I thought it wise to leave before the first snows closed the pass. Five of us departed our houseboat, leaving one of our mates, Barry, to pursue his private spiritual avenue. After sampling some of the pharmacist's wares, in the form of LSD, he had become quite sure that his personal religious crisis would be resolved if he stayed on and heeded the teachings of a neighborly guru. So be it. We headed back through the tunnel and down to the hot plains. A year later, I might add, I saw Barry in New Zealand, and he did have interesting tales to tell.
We rode into Delhi, where the quintet split up, pursuing different roads. Done with business after several days, I headed to Nepal, traveling solo. I had three road maps of northern India, but no two of them matched up the roads; my feeling was this was a strategic ploy to confuse any invader, Pakistani or Chinese. I decided to enter Nepal via Lumbini Gardens, the birthplace of Gautama the Buddha, which I had heard was exceptionally beautiful. None of my maps showed a road leading from Lumbini further into Nepal, but I would cross that bridge when I came to it.
The roads approaching Lumbini were an interesting exercise in reductionism, leaving the crowded chaos of the Ganges River valley, going from two-lane asphalt, to one-lane of very broken pavement, to dirt. As I approached the border the road was lined with flimsy stalls -- intent on the minimal tourist trade that came. An Indian soldier, in unpressed uniform, lifted the token barrier to let me pass; he was certainly not interested in my documents.
I entered Lumbini Gardens, a giant swath of sub-tropical green backdropped by the white-capped Himalayas; seriously dramatic. No frond-roofed trinket shops here; the Nepalese government treated this religious site with great respect. To my left was a small police station discreetly placed in a grove of trees, and way in front was the Sal tree, or proclaimed descendant of, onto which Gautama's mother held when she gave birth in 623 BC, and a small Buddhist monastary. To the right was a two story hotel sitting naked in the middle of the greensward that looked right out of an old Clint Eastwood western. And on the upstairs porch was motorcycling buddy Kenny, who had arrived earlier that day, neither of us aware of the other's plans.
The hotel was pleasant, if spartan, the hotelier polite, but unfortunately no food was available, other than several cartons of tinned fish with rice that a busload of Japanese tourists had left behind. We walked down to the stalls on the Indian side, but no meaningful food was offered, other than the favorite candy of milk and sugar boiled down to a marzipan-ish consistency, and perhaps the sweetest confection I have ever tasted; it makes maple syrup seem like dull fare indeed.
Walking back to the hotel, with the moon coming on almost full, Lumbini Gardens was a minorly ethereal place. Were I to acquire a religious tendency, it would most probably be oriented towards Buddhism.
A chat with the police in the morning informed us that no real road connected Lumbini with the rest of Nepal (there is now), as there were three unbridged rivers to cross. Vehicles generally went back into India and re-entered Nepal further to the east.
But Kenny and I decided to see how the motorcycles would do. Following a pedestrian and bicycle path we wound our way through some jungle and came to the first river. Easy. Some light woods, and a second river. A little deeper, but doable. And then we arrived at the third river, about 100 feet wide, and three feet deep. Since our air-cleaners were about two feet off the ground, this was not a go. But we did not want to go back.
I looked around for an elephant whose mahout might be convinced to carry the bikes across. Damn! Every time you need a pachyderm, none are to be found.
Having attracted a small crowd of curious onlookers, we proceeded to organize these troops in a line across the river. First, we got all our baggage across. Then I would go first, killing the engine as soon as the air-cleaner got to the water level, and the spectators would push me the rest of the way. Success! Kenny did the same. We let the bikes dry out in the morning sun for an hour, and then were on our way.
We found a proper road within a couple of miles, and some hours later pulled into Pokhara, a splendid little town in the shadow of Annapurna. A very pleasant guesthouse down by the river took us in, and a walk into town showed that western culture had truly arrived, as the main street was lined with small restaurants catering to the hippie tastes.
It was a full-moon night, and as we left our restaurant it looked as though Annapurna was directly above the town; it was almost unnerving to see this great white mountain virtually overhead. In truth it was some 25 miles away, but with the town at about 4000 feet, and the mountain standing over 26,500 feet, it did appear to be ready to fall on top of us.
Kenny and I thought we should take a hike closer to the mountain, although getting trekking permits required a trip to Kathmandu. We'd give it a try, sans permits, and if we got stopped, we'd go back. Taking the bikes to the end of the road, and then several miles up a track, we left them in the care of a farmer, happy to look after them for a few rupees. Money for jam, as we say. We hoisted our packs and took off.
As late afternoon came and we arrived at the first village on our route, a uniformed type appeared and politely asked for our permits. Sure enough, busted. Nobody got upset; we spent the night in a backpackers' guesthouse, and then went back down to the motorcycles.
Off to Kathmandu. I had been there in 1966, soon after the king decided to allow tourists in without making them jump through bureaucratic hoops. At that time it was a very charming small city in a green valley, surrounded by wooded slopes. Seven years later it was still charming, but full of hippies. Anybody who had a house in the old part of town turned it into a hostel and charged a dollar a night. Hot showers were a little extra, because of the cost of heating, and a bucket of hot water cost about a dime; a two-bucket shower was the height of luxury.
The food was good, the ambience was great, and if you wanted a bottle of Heineken beer you could go to a fancy hotel and pay a lot of money. But essentially Kathmandu was its old self, an isolated mountain city that was trying to achieve a balance between its own culture and the demands of the western tourists.
Unfortunately, this was not the case when I went back in 2000, and tourism and overpopulation had won (lost?) the day. The valley was entirely denuded and smog hung over everywhere, and the traffic jams were constant. Such are the perils of looking up an old girlfriend after 25 years.
This temple is sited in the middle of a small artificial lake
I still have a picture in my mind's eye of the temple glistening in golden light
It was almost unnerving to see this great white mountain virtually overhead
text and photography copyright © 2001 Vivid Light Publishing