Hermes' Wings

History, Writing and Personal Musings

Travels in the Himalayas

In the long, often tortuous journey to the Himalayas, along the eastern range, a lucky traveler comes upon the small hill town of Lansdowne, straddling a series of sharp peaks blunted by Englishmen and Indian labor over a hundred years ago.

The long two hour ride on a rickety, antiquated bus which has seen better days moves scenery which is serene in places and jarring at others. I sat on the thinly cushioned seat, frayed and worn by years of misuse. The bus is sparsely populated. Not many people try to go up to Lansdowne these days. Besides it was too early in the season for the summer revelers who took up residence in the chilly hill towns to escape the oppressive heat of the plains.

An Indian peasant in the front seat turns back and stares, his aqueous blue eyes glimmering with inscrutable wonder, sizing up my pithy yet unreachable education, my western gear and clothing. The eyes are a brilliant tint of Prussian blue, in stark contrast to his handsomely tanned face and I wonder if he knows where he has come from – the eventual progeny of the Mughal Empire or perhaps an Englishman and a native woman a hundred year ago, when the British sahibs were the masters of India and when the India was the jewel of the English crown. But maybe it was the other way around. Maybe the foreigner had been an Englishwoman who in a moment of incredible passion fell into unavoidable coitus with a native man and then gave up the child to hide the shame of it all.

The Far East is full of stories like this even though the Mughals and the English are now long gone, their legacy left by a smattering of institutions, blue-eyed descendents and places like Lansdowne, towering 4,500 feet above the green, serrated plains of lowland East India.

A view from the road of those plains.

En-route the bus occasionally stopped to let people off and to allow a solitary car or a rickshaw coming down from the other end to pass along the narrow road. At every unannounced stop, minutes stretched out into hours on that miserable bus. When a minivan appeared, coming down the mountain, the bus once again paused and to my irritation waited by a rocky curve blasted into the mountain wall to accommodate the bend of the road.

Instead of edging past us the other vehicle imperiously stood still in the middle of the road, taking its time, disgorging a handful of passengers who milled around with callous nonchalance. I fought my impatience. An hour’s ride on the wafer-thin cushion of a seat had reached the last barriers of my resolve. This, coupled with the fact that bus manufacturers had overlooked the important invention of vehicle shocks began to aggravate my traveler’s fatigue. I focused my attention at the far horizon, to the shadow impressions of other peaks on the far horizon. From here the Himalayas were not far. The Kingdom of Nepal which had all the best peaks, was only about 130 miles away. You could just catch glimpse of the snow-capped mountains from where the bus had stopped, rising far beyond on the foggy horizon, towards all that was mysterious, epic and near attainable. Shangri-la for the mountaineer.

As the congress on the road continued I thought back to the original Shangiri-La, of Hilton’s Lost Horizon, another place trapped in antiquity. In the west, the passage of time can be measured by technological and social landmarks. In America, the sixties were nothing like the seventies, and the eighties were unlike anything at all. But in parts of India, time stands still. The terrain might have seen some man-made improvements such as new roads, but the sum of the greater parts seem to belong to another, ageless era.

On the road, a pretty girl appeared from the van. She had the enviably features of Greco-Western beauty that can measured in gaps within the massive Indian population (after all, if there is one international listing which India frequently tops, it is for its uncontrolled population growth). She laughed at something the driver said, stroked back her  brown hair and said something in return. I wondered if the two had a romantic tryst. It might have explained the driver’s reluctance to get going.  Finally he decided to push on and as his ugly van coasted down the winding road, our bus started up again. The girl had disappeared down one of the trails leading along the side of the mountain presumably to some local hamlet cut into the slopes. I found myself watching the terrain again. The open slopes turned into great pine-treed heights that a Yeti would be proud to call home.

The road wound perilously close to the edge at times.

A gang of road-builders was hard at work, led by a fair-skinned overseer who calmly stood on a nearby boulder, watching the road being expanded. After another long wait, the bus started again and we moved deeper into the trees. At another bend, a company of fully-armed soldiers, in camouflage gear filtering slowly through the trees. I watched them with jarred fascination. I don’t know why I should’ve been surprised. Lansdowne, although a sleepy hill town, was home to an Indian army regimental training center. From where we were, India has its own range of Himalayas less than a hundred miles to the north beyond which lies China and the forbidden valleys of Tibet. This entire part of the frontier is disputed territory. The two countries had a fought a ferocious war in 1962 over the stretch with China sending waves of infantry against a badly outnumbered Indian force until an armistice was declared. But the border dispute was not the only issue for tensions between the two regional superpowers. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, India had granted asylum to the Tibetan Spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama and his followers, infuriating Beijing.

An hour later, the largely-empty bus pulled into a large open culvert near a marker proclaiming “Lansdowne,” although I didn’t see the town anywhere. The other passengers shuffled off. The blue-eyed peasant had long since dismounted. I stepped out of the bus and stared. A sheer drop was on my right, its hazards cordoned off by a low-cut concrete wall. Ahead, unfolded the entire hill range. Around me, the unbroken green canopy stretched for miles while the white Himalayan caps poked up beyond them. Presumably, the town was located across a range of hilltops further west. A well paved road led sinuously in that direction past a white troop post set beside a gate. The biggest game in town was the army, in particular the Royal Garhwal Rifles with their hitherto-mentioned regimental center.

The regiment is another institution left by the English. First formed in 1887 under the command of a British colonel with local men, the regiment had seen heady action during World War I, winning its first Victoria Crosses in France – the British Empire’s highest award for battlefield heroics. During the Second World War, two entire battalions had been captured at Singapore by the Japanese but the rest of the regiment had seen victorious action in North Africa, Italy and Malaya. In the 1950’s, it had gone to war in Korea as part of the United Nations.

The Garhwal Rifles in France, 1915 (Photo: National Army Museum)

Gathering my pack, I walked down the road. The rest of the bus passengers had melted away. In fact, the sight of an empty road in population-heavy India was discerning, and despite this being some sort of de-facto army place, I hardly saw any soldiers. Tensions had been high on the northwestern frontier with Pakistan and Islamic terrorists, and I wondered if the entire garrison of trainees had been shipped off there. A large rectangular parade ground appeared on the bottom of a shallow lower terrace by the side of the road. It was deserted. Beyond that, a tall, stone building resembling a Victorian Church appeared. I knew instinctively that this was the Regimental Museum. Although I had an official notice granting entry into this hallowed bit of army territory, off limits to the town folk and other civilians, I ignored it for now and pushed on down the empty road. The tree line once again appeared to greet me as I gladly left the bald, sun-baked slopes.

Tall, awning oaks and pines flanked the road. I had little idea of where the town was and wondered if I had come down the wrong way. I had no map, only directions obtained at the great transport hub of Pauri, fifty miles away on the lowlands, a cesspool of flies and dust mingling with the smell of Indian spices in the lurid summer air. A fork appeared in the road. Across from it, on a stone wall sat a craggy-faced local wearing a faded old brown coat, his sandals off, biting on a honeysuckle. Despite its seemingly uniform demographics, India is land of ethnic diversity. Although human behavior largely remains the same, each state has its own language and customs. Here, in this alien place, my greatest handicap was that I did not speak the language, but somehow I managed to get across that I was looking for the town. He squinted lazily up at me.

“Oh,” he said in pigdin English, showing me his teeth and pointed down the road. “Just a hop and skip away.”

I looked uncertainly down at the road as it turned again and vanished into the trees. To these hardy mountain people, a hop and a skip might mean ten miles. I thanked him and walked on.

Soon enough the beginnings of a town ensconced by the trees came into view. Down the road, a stationary figure stood by a tall-wrought iron gate leading to a large bungalow at the top of small rise. It was a Garhwal trooper, wearing his regiment’s typical slouch hat, a chin-strap wound tight under his mouth, over the chin. In true British-Indian fashion, he stood immobile and defiantly stared out into space. I asked him where the Lansdowne hotel was, half expecting him to remain silent.

He pointed up the road without emotion. “Keep that way.”

I looked at the gate and handsome English-style bungalow on the crest.

“Whose house is that?” I asked.

He gave me a discerning look but I suppose he must have decided that I wasn’t a Chinese spy because he said: “It is the C.O.’s house.”

“C.O.?”

“Yes, yes, brother,” he said impatiently. “The Commanding Officer – the Regimental Colonel.”

I remembered the contact in the lowlands who had arranged an introduction with the colonel. As a Second World War buff, I had hoped to talk with the man about the regiment’s actions during the war. But it was getting late, and half-afraid that I would not find the hotel once it turned dark, I bade the trooper farewell, saying: “I hope your relief shows up soon.”

He didn’t say anything and I walked off.

Soon enough I spotted the “hotel” – a slightly run-down two-story cottage that looked as though it belonged in Surrey; built upon a mound. The proprietor, who used part of the house for his own family, showed me in.

“You are the only guest,” he explained proudly. But then again he had only two rooms, he added, showing me into a neatly-maintained, if spartan room with a large bed covered with white sheets, a dusty couch and a night stand.

Beyond the rise of the hotel was another large mound on which two large colonial-era houses stood. The one closest was painted royal blue. From where I stood, the road continued past the hotel, and dipped down a shallow decline before sweeping into an open town square which was just visible beyond the trees. As I stood in the clean, mountain air, and watched the sun set, I half expected a couple of old Citroens and 1936 Fords to come speeding up the road. Instead there was only a bright red Paradise-Flycatcher perched atop a nearby telephone pole. It looked about, its long, pale tail dangling like a great streamer below its feathered body. Then with a flurry of its wings it was gone.

Named after the 19th Century Viceroy to India, Lord Henry Lansdowne, the town looked as though it belonged in an Appenine setting, with its massive stone-paved square and its contours which adjusted to the roll of the hill, up and down, with quaint stone stairs leading down from each home. Part of the architecture had been decidedly influenced by Tibet, with white-washed monastic walls towering up, tapering as they neared their zenith. Other influences were something else, a native spirit of stone-walled buildings that perhaps embodied Garhwali culture. The town had come into existence in 1887 and by 1901, had a population of 3,943. By the time of my visit (early 2000s), its population was barely higher, at 7,000.

The whole place with its army peripherals, had a charming “Bridge on the River Kwai” kind of rugged quality. It was beautiful. It remains possibly the most beautiful place I have ever seen, occupying a rift in time. If I had to picture such a place from my subconscious it would, in the words of one writer, carry “all the strange beauty of my night time dreams.” But as I stood in the chill of the evening cold, a  terrible and haunting loneliness came over me. If I had been shipwrecked on a Pacific Atoll I could not have felt more disconnected from the modern world despite its scattered presence all around me. By the doorway voices from the proprietor’s family filtered through the walls and hung like eternal whispers. As the sun vanished behind the mountains, the night lights of the town square came alive and filtered through the heavy covering of trees. Generations of soldiers had been stationed here over the century. Indians, Englishmen and Gurkhas. How had they dealt with this overwhelming sense of solitude in the mountains? I had to confess that I had no idea what they had felt. Theirs is a story that will never be told because there is no one to tell it.

The sounds of civilization drew me back. Somewhere nearby a muffled television replayed the sounds of the International Cricket World Cup, held once every four years. Old rivals, Australia and England were at it again. I left the bombast of the gamely crowd and made my way into the town. As the tarred road reached the town, it gave way to a sprawling, near-deserted cobbled main square. A café was open with a few patrons sitting outside by round tables. I walked into a narrow, general store to buy a cola. The owner, a small, bookish-sort of fellow, peered at me curiously out of his thick-framed glasses.

“Where from?” he asked genially. I was surprised by the language. It is one of the few instances of fluent English that I have heard in a while.

“The south,” I answered. “What’s beyond the square?”

“Just the forest. Oh, but you wouldn’t want to go up there at night. There is a leopard on the loose. It’s already mauled a child and tried to carry off another.”

I walked out with the soda, a look of disbelief on my face. Outside, the same café patrons stared at me. A girl sitting at one of the tables smiled. I gave her a terse hand gesture of acknowledgment and returned to the hotel.

Then dawn came and with it a new world. Stepping outside to watch the hills, the same debilitating loneliness as before struck me with imperceptible force, half forcing me into the ancient wormhole of the long-gone past. Sunlight burnished the rolling country, making its way into my soul, withering my solitude. I took the high road back to the regimental museum. A line of garden posts flanked the road, each adorned by a stylized balkenkreuz with a Yorkshire horn in the center – the emblem of the regiment.

At the museum, I was the only visitor. The building had more the feel of a private officer’s club than a repository of historical artifacts, with polished marble, stately white walls and a loyal cadre of army enlisted men on staff. The most visible item within the long hall of weapons was a Nazi flag hanging on the far side, captured in Italy during the Second World War. Once again I sensed the familiarity of Lansdowne, it’s presence now strangely awkward in the modern world, its place rightly necessary in the old-world cobble-stoned streets of the type found in Italy where the regiment had fought more than half a century ago. Scores of German small-arms and swords mounted on the walls reminded me of the regiment’s service for the British Empire during the World Wars. I paused to examine a German Mauser C96, the famous “Broomhandle” pistol and the same make of weapon used by Clint Eastwood in the movie Joe Kidd.

When I had my fill of history, I left the museum that late afternoon and ventured far beyond the town, taking great pains to remain on the uphill road after the leopard warning from the previous night. The man-eater in India too is something else that has remained constant in time. Every safari officer, conservationist and hunter in India knows that once a big cat has a taste of human flesh, it returns to no other game. I had no desire to be the latest item on the menu and armed myself with a hefty stick. At the time it seemed enough. After all I had nothing else, certainly no weapon. In retrospect, I don’t think I could have fended off even a particularly-determined monkey with that staff.

Half an hour of walking later brought me to a duo of benches set out by the side of the road, looking out onto the valley far below. As I sat down and took in the tremendous view, a car full of tourists pulled up, their voices loud and boorish, shattering the pastoral solitude that I had become accustomed to. I gave them an impatient glare, half hoping that the leopard would get some good eating out of them. Eventually I returned to town. As the red lips of the dying sun gave way to moonlit darkness, I walked down to the square. The same locals who had eyed me the night before sat at their usual places. I am certain that if I were to return that following night or even years later, I would find them where I had left them, caught in a perpetual schism of time, endlessly sipping tea and eating masala, a mixture of nuts and spices.

When morning came, I considered staying on for a few more days. After that day’s run, the bus was not scheduled to return again for a couple of days. I had not yet met the colonel and thought that I should see him before I left. But my decision to hang around was upset by some of the local cuisine. Nauseous and in some pain, I decide to pack it in. Besides, as a colloquialist would say: I had other fish to fry. Buying some medicine at the local dispensary, I hurried to the square to look for anyone going down the mountain to the rail-head at Kotdwara. I was in luck. A man was driving down in his jeep. I piled my bag in the back seat and clambered into the passenger side.

As we drove out, we passed the hotel and the blue English house beside it. I had the vaguest sensation that I would never see them again. Soon we were on the winding road back to the ordinary. But as we headed down all I could see was the picture of the Paradise-Flycatcher swooping in and out of the mountains. Then through a break in the trees, I saw the far peaked horizon. Somewhere on that distant Himalayan horizon lay the great pyramid-like promontory of Mount Saipal. At 23,000 ft. The stuff of dreams.

Mount Saipal

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