Journey to the East

Several decades ago, in this month, two young men, who’d escaped from school and had started to enjoy their gap year, decided to go east.

One of them had managed through his mother’s work to obtain a free airline ticket. He was to act as accompanist to a mentally-ill Sicilian person who was to be repatriated to his family in Catania.

His friend joined him a little later and, after a train journey to Messina, they crossed the straits and started to hitch across the heel of Italy. In some respects this was the most dangerous part of their journey since they were warned of a confrontation with a mafia gang at the booth of a service station where they had been invited to spend the night. Reaching Brindisi safely the two took the ferry to Patras and touched Athens where they stayed in the city’s youth hostel,

The next part of the journey took them through Northern Greece to the border with Turkey. The weather at this stage was getting colder and colder and by the time Istanbul was reached it was positively freezing.

Istanbul was the first taste the two had had of the mysterious east and they enjoyed visiting the City’s old quarters, Hagia Sophia and the Blue mosque.

The longest, and perhaps most uncomfortable, train journey either had taken took them across the Anatolian plateau through Syria, where they visited the great mosque of Damascus,

and finished up in Beirut.

At this point money problems stared to afflict them and one of them took a job as a barman at a ski resort in the Lebanese mountains. Baalbek was visited:

A meeting with a Swedish guy who drove a Volkswagen van enabled the two to reach a still-divided Jerusalem.

A dip in (or rather a float on) the Dead Sea was a must:

Amman’s Roman theatre was also explored:

Then it was a journey through Jordan past the H4 border post and into Iraq where they arrived in Bagdad. After a few days in the thousand and one nights city the next stage took the two to Basra where they were hosted by the British consul there.

A journey to Kuwait was rewarded by a chance to gain some extra money, both through giving blood and also by writing up travels so far and broadcasting the script on the English-speaking section of Kuwait radio.

Another van, this time driven by an English person, took them through the unstable Iraq-Iran border past the amazing ruins of Persepolis

and the graceful architecture of Isfahan and Shiraz

to a Teheran still ruled over by a Shah.

Thence it was towards Afghanistan via Meshed and past Herat and Kandahar to land up in Kabul.

The descent down the Khyber Pass to Pakistan was accompanied by ever warmer weather. It was now March and the torrid heat of the Indian subcontinent plains was building up. A stay at the hill station of Murree was welcomed.

From Lahore a train was taken towards New Delhi with, of course, the obligatory border transport hiatus where one had to walk a mile across no-man’s land to India.

A stay in Varanasi (Benares)

was followed by a crossing into Nepal and Kathmandu where a full month was spent at the mythical blue Tibetan guest-house and restaurant. Cycling and walking around the Kathmandu valley recharged one’s batteries before starting the return leg.

More of Northern India was visited, including Jaipur and Agra.

Then it was a return crossing into Pakistan and back to Kabul. Here a truck with a home-ward bound expedition in the Hindu Kush Mountains took one directly back through Iran and Turkey to Istanbul. Thence it was through Greece and Italy to come home to the UK from Catania airport.

This was a journey of a lifetime and one which changed the outlook of both protagonists for ever. The world’s diversity was opened out for them, the exposure to different cultures was seminal and the encounter with some of the world’s most amazing and often strangest sights was stunning.

It was also the journey of a lifetime because it would be difficult to repeat such a hitch-hiking trip today. Parents would have been dissatisfied with just an occasional post-card and no cell-phone calls. Certainly, the UK’s foreign office would have strongly discouraged such a voyage, especially by two teenagers.

Yet such an expedition was all the rage in Sergeant Pepper year. The hippy trail was a central experience for the youth of that distant decade and one which laid the foundation of social changes which radically transformed attitudes and views.

It’s so sad that practically every country journeyed across then has since been torn apart by inner conflict and exterior meddling. Some of these have been worse than others. Will one ever gaze peacefully on the ruins of Palmyra for example? And as for the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan…

There are no prizes for guessing who one of the two who came back, changed and chastened by their oriental voyage, was….

 

 

 

The Ride of a Lifetime

Our journey to Gyangtse took us along a branch of the famous ‘Friendship Highway’ which joins Lhasa with Kathmandu. This has to be one of the world’s most spectacular roads and I only wish I was doing it on a motorbike (I’ve done many of the big alpine passes, the Stelvio, the Gavia and the Col d’Iseran and feel that riding on two-wheels is truly the best way to appreciate these incredible vistas. You do become part of the landscape when biking).

However, we did have frequent stops on our little bus and enjoyed the rarefied mountain air and breath-taking views to the full.

The actual road is 920 kilometres long and reaches heights of above 5000 metres (well over 16,000 feet). It was built in the nineteen sixties to cut the journey time between Nepal and Tibet from almost two months to just a handful of days. Very often it is closed sometimes due to political reasons but largely because of landslides.

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The first part of our journey took us past some rocks with ladders painted on them.What was the meaning of them I wondered? The best version I heard was as follows: the ladders are painted to represent a divine bond between Tibetans and the Gods. These are spiritual ladders which allow one’s spirit to ascend to the heights more easily or, alternatively allow the Gods to descend upon the earth and sanctify it with their blessing.

On our journey to Gyangtse we crossed three mountain passes. The first one was Gampa La pass, height 15,748 feet, which is a little less than thirty feet lower than Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc (15,777 feet high).

An extraordinary sight greeted us from the top of this pass, so richly decorated with prayer flags. It was the view of one of Tibet’s’ four sacred lakes, Yamdrok-So. (The other three sacred lakes are Lhamo La-tso, Namtso and Manasarovar).

The intensity of the lake’s turquoise colour pitted against the highly sculptural barrenness of the mountains surrounding it and with a distant view of a snow-capped peak was stunning.

The lake is over forty-five miles long and twists and turns like an undisciplined snake across quasi-lunar landscape. It’s sacred to the Tibetans as it is regarded as the transformation of the goddess Dorje Gegkyi Tso.

For lakes, like mountains, are sanctified by Tibetans as they are the abodes of protecting gods. We were not just driving through some of the most spectacular scenery we’d ever come across, reaching heights we’ve never attempted before on Earth but we were also performing a pilgrimage which so many Tibetans undertake. Yamdrok-So is the largest lake in south Tibet and it’s said that if its waters run dry then Tibet will no longer be a habitable area – a severe warning indeed!

The lake also has associations with Padmadambhava, the second Buddha, who introduced Buddhism to Tibet. We did not have time to detour to Samding monastery which was a real pity as it’s the only male Tibetan monastery to be headed by a female incarnation – a Dalai Lamaess, in fact. I couldn’t verify this as I couldn’t verify that the monastery has been rebuilt since it was one of the thousands destroyed during the disastrous Cultural Revolution.

If you’re interested in more of the history of Tibetan Goddess reincarnations then there’s a book by Hildegard Diemberger (2007) called When a Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty: The Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet. You can get it on Kindle at https://www.amazon.co.uk/When-Woman-Becomes-Religious-Dynasty-ebook/dp/B0092X8WHE/re . Definitely a Christmas book for some!

The lake has good fishing and I noticed quite a few yaks grazing on its shores. Yaks are happy at these altitudes. It would be very cruel to bring them lower down.

Our second pass, the Karo La, was the highest at 16,551 feet. It passes the foot of Noijin Kangsang mountain with its glacier. We stopped here too and looked at the local stalls filled with trinkets set up by villagers .

There was an outstation here and I can definitely vouch that the toilets here are not to be highly recommended.

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However, we should be grateful for small mercies. With the lack of trees it’s difficult to find any sort of privacy. Perhaps women travellers should wear long Tibetan skirts to do their business by crouching without embarrassment.

Noijin Kangsang is 23,641 feet high and was first climbed in 1986 by a Chinese expedition. I realised it was this snow-capped mountain that we saw from a distance over the turquoise waters of lake Yamdrok-So. I’ve heard that it’s not too difficult to climb so it could be an economic way of grabbing a Himalayan peak for the first time. Next visit?

You’ll notice from the photographs that Tibet seems largely barren. The mountains aren’t prettily dotted with extensive forests as the Alps or the Apennines are. There are few opportunities for refuge from sun or the rare snowfalls and strangely the snow line only seems to start above 20,000 feet. If you want pretty mountain landscape go to the Austrian Alps. If you prefer powerful natural sculptures and vast areas of impressively desolate purity then Tibet is the place.

There was a third pass to negotiate at only just over 14,000 feet before we descended to follow the fertile Nyang Chu valley which would lead us to Gyangtse.

This was truly a breath-taking ride in all senses of that word. ‘Mozzafiato’ as one would say in Italian. I have only praise for the driver of our little bus!

 

 

Three Parallel Rivers in Yunnan, China

Our journey from Lijiang to Zhongdian took us through one of the most extraordinary geographical phenomena on our planet. For three hundred odd miles three rivers take parallel courses separated by mountains reaching over 20,000 feet in height and forming some of the world’s deepest gorges, only to suddenly diverge and take very different routes. The three rivers are the Salween, the Mekong and the Yangtze.

We have already been to the estuaries of two of the rivers, indeed canoed on one of them. The Mekong, after crossing Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, emerges in Vietnam’s South China Sea (which we’d visited in 2014 and 2015), the Yangtze empties into the East China Sea near Shanghai, the mega-city we’d landed at and started our journey which would eventually take us to Tibet. The Salween we’ve never seen although we knew it finished up in the Indian Ocean near Moulmein, Burma and its old pagoda made famous by that haunting Kipling barrack-room ballad which starts:

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,

There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;

(Kipling was captured by the beauty of the Burmese girls) and famously sung by Australian Peter Dawson.

The distance between the estuaries of these three rivers covers thousands of miles yet they all start and flow for hundreds of miles close to each other in parallel courses. It’s a phenomenon that has always intrigued me ever since I spotted it in my school atlas.

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It’s no easy matter to get from one river to another even when they run in parallel. Mountain ranges over twenty thousand feet high separate one watercourse from the other. It’s possible in some cases to swing oneself across on a rope cable slung across the world’s deepest gorges like some locals but I didn’t have time to try this transportation system out.

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(Courtesy QB news)

The whole area is called the ‘three parallel rivers of Yunnan protected area’ and is a UNESCO world heritage site. The region is not just a geographical marvel: it’s also what UNESCO describes as “the most biologically diverse temperate region on earth” and “an exceptional range of topographical features – from gorges to karst to glaciated peaks — associated with the site being at a ‘collision point’ of tectonic plates

The most astonishing feature is the sudden acute hairpin bend the Yangtze takes to turn from its southerly course, northwards and finish up as China’s main river and the world’s third largest. We were unable to get to this mythical riverine bend but here’s a picture of it we found on a shop poster:

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Our stops on this journey included climbing up  a rather rickety tower with an even wobblier spiral staircase, the top which did, however reward us with magnificent views of the young Yangtze:

There was also a stop at a market where I found some unusually-shaped pears. They were truly not pear-shaped!

We also stopped at a local village and were introduced to one of the families there. The large square draped hat of the elder lady of the family told me that the family belong to the Yi ethnic group.

Let these photographs of their house and village speak for themselves. That’s yak meat drying from the beams by the way:

As a stark reminder of China’s rapid modernization were these pylons which would eventually take another railway into Tibet, this time routing from the east through Chengdu.

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No doubt the time will come when one will be able to get a cheap return ticket to Lijiang from St Pancras station London.

The journey to Zhongdian was remarkable for its scenic beauty but it was also very tantalising. I could have spent months just exploring the three parallel rivers area. But if one lifetime is not enough to visit Rome then I wonder how many reincarnations on the Buddhist wheel of samsara are needed to explore China.

 

China’s Most Classic View

We were both lucky and unlucky in admiring what is described as the most classic view in all China. The Jade Spring Park was built in 1737 in the Qing dynasty.  Its Kublai-Khan like atmosphere is enhanced by an artificial lake, pagodas and a wonderful five-arched bridge.

We were lucky in that the black dragon pool in the park was full. It has been known to dry up which would have been a real pity as the carp in it were magnificent:

We were unlucky in that the view of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the highest in the province, was covered by cloud and only partially visible. This is what the view should look like:

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The mountain is, in fact, a massif consisting of various peaks the highest of which, Shanzidou (18,360 feet), was first climbed in 1987. Shanzidou has not been climbed again since as the mountain is believed to be the home of the Gods and permits are not issued to preserve its sacred nature. Another peak in the massif, however, mount Satseto (Nakhi name) or Yulong (Chinese name) can be reached by cable car and offers good ski-ing and awesome views.

Among famous travellers who have visited and fallen in love with the area are the botanist and explorer Joseph Rock (1884 – 1962) who wrote extensively about the Nakhi people, Bruce Chatwin and more recently Michael Palin.

The Jade Spring Park is absolutely gorgeous and, naturally, a popular destination for Chinese courting couples. During our visit there were still many lovely flowers in bloom and the pavilions were enchanting.

These included the Moon-embracing pavilion:

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The Dragon god pavilion:

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and the Wufeng tower:

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We could have spent ages in the countryside around Lijiang but time’s winged chariot was hurrying very near us…..

I felt a bit like those three courtiers, Ping, Pong and Pang in Puccini’s masterpiece ‘Turandot’ when they sing nostalgically of their homes so far away from the imperial court.

E potrei tornar laggiù…

…a godermi il lago blu…

tutto cinto di bambù!

I’d just love to fly out again to this area again…and I will.

Home Sweet Home

I’ll take a break from our eastern exploits to describe a little of what I found when we got back to our little place at Longoio.

First we found snow on the Apennines.

So it was a journey from one range of snowy mountains to another. Of course, the Apennines are rather less than half the heights we reached during our adventures but they still make a joyous picture.

The absence of tree-lined slopes in much of the Tibetan plateau was more than made up for in our little part of the world. Strangely, the trees had hardly a tinge of autumn colour on them!

Our house was happy to welcome us home again. The begonias and Japanese maple were still putting on a good show.

And so was my neglected orto, still sprouting some salads

And with our olive trees ready to be picked of their succulent harvest:

Napoleon, Carlotta and Cheekie were very happy to follow me again on their woodlands walks.

I sometimes think the purpose of holidays is to make one appreciate one’s own home that little bit more. But my heart goes out to China, especially Yunnan, and our unique entry into Tibet. I promise my next post will return to those fabled lands.

Country Dancing in Limano’s Piazza Gave

Limano, like most villages in the Val di Lima, retains a very small population outside the summer season. In winter you’ll only find around sixty persons living here. In summer, however, its diaspora, who have emigrated to such places as France (largely to Marseilles), Finland, Switzerland (especially to Geneva) and Canada (in Toronto the largest number of ex-pat Limanesi live) return to regain their roots and Limano becomes a place of feasting, dancing, meeting, relishing and enjoyment.

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The Limano back-to-home festival officially starts on August 1st when there’s a traditional dance on the main square which unites the two sections of the village, each placed around a little hill. (If you want to see more pictures of Limano, including its castle and church do read my post on it at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/04/03/limano-at-the-limits/.)

For me Limano is one of the most attractive villages in the Val di Lima and, at a height of around 540 metres, has some of the most spectacular views to be found in our valley.

Emigrant Limanesi have regularly sent back money to their home village and so Limano has many old well- restored stone houses. Indeed, there are no more houses for sale in the village – it seems that, sensibly, those who have left for pastures new want to keep their base here. Moreover, several Limanesi who may live down the valley in such places as Borgo a Mozzano, or even Lucca, transmigrate back to the cooler climate during the summer months and reoccupy their ancestral homes.

The social centre of Limano is the club which itself was a decaying building until Limanesi from Toronto offered funds to buy it and have it restored. I really appreciate the Limanesi for not having abandoned their village entirely and given it over for holiday homes for other nationals as has sadly happened too frequently…

The Limanesi have also made an effort to preserve and record their old traditions, stories and poems before these die out. In the club, among other books, I found a fascinating book on poets from Limano published by those now living in Toronto.

Limano is also a place of music and, indeed, the director of Borgo a Mozzano’s music school hails from Limano. The school’s web site is at http://www.scuolacivicasalotti.it/

Her sister was very happy to tell me about the traditional dance which, although not quite the splendour it used to be in the past, is still continuing, which is to be applauded. There are two groups of dancers, the little ones and the older ones and they performed a quite complex formation country dance whose aim in the past, must surely have been for young men and women to decide on possible partners for their future family.

Many of the costumes are quite splendid and are hand-loomed locally. Some of them clearly belonged to the dancers’ mothers or even grandmothers. Strict rules apply as to what to wear especially shoes and sneakers are definitely frowned on, although I did spot a few…

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The accordionist is an old hand in his part. Evidently, he’s been doing it for years and is also the church organist.

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One tradition which has vanished, my friend’s mother narrated, was the custom of serenading the girl one took a fancy to under her window in true Don-Giovanni style. If the girl accepted the serenader she would throw down a handkerchief as a pledge.

There are several other traditions which, unfortunately, have disappeared but the mum is working on a book describing them which will be presented at Bagni di Lucca.

It’s wonderful to know that villages which were once felt by so many to be places to escape from because of their poverty are now being revaluated by emigrants and their special features, stories and traditions are being recollected and preserved for future generations before they, alas, disappear for ever.

I’ll leave you with a few videos of Limano’s traditional country-dance:

 

If There is a Heaven it is Here

All around were a multitude of Narcissus Poeticus – that little daffodil with the intoxicating perfume from which some of the world’s most expensive perfumes are made. The flowers spread round across the northern and eastern slopes of Monte Croce and looked out onto the surrounding mountains: the Queen of the Apuans, Pania Della Croce capped by a threatening storm cloud, the Procinto with its panettone shape and the gentler mountains to the south: Piglione, Nona and Matanna. It seemed from a little distance as if the whole area had been covered with a sprinkling of scented snow!

I thought to myself – if the Elysian Fields do exist they must be here!

The previous week I’d visited the wonderful little flowers on the Prato Fiorito but this was a sight to even beat those in beauty. Had the rain stimulated those bulbs, so long hidden in the mountain’s womb, to burst open into the world, for there has been precious little full sunshine in recent days?

I rested by the cross at the summit of the 4311 foot high mountain and surveyed the immense panorama. In the middle distance were the villages of Trassilico and Vergemoli and beyond the Serchio valley the Apennines stretched their uniform ridges.

I’ve climbed this mountain at couple of times before but never before in this jonquil-flowering season. The route I took this time was different. Instead of going from Le Porchette, with the hidden natural stairs hidden in a torrent crevasse, and instead of branching up from the ancient milestone of ‘Il Termine’ I took an unmarked path starting from a lonely farmhouse above Palagnana.

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The path at first went through some last fragments of woodland before emerging into pastures on the east side of the mountain.

Here it joined up with footpath no. 108 but only for a short while, for another unmarked path, the ascent of Monte Croce, started. I’d climbed the mountain from the south but this was the first time I’d done it on its east side. The ascent is marked by this post:

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It takes around half an hour to reach the summit and the whole walk took less than three hours. It was just as well it didn’t take longer for as soon as I’d come off Monte Croce the summit was enveloped in rain…

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PS You get to Palagnana by going up the Turrite Cava valley in the direction of Fabbriche di Vallico and as described in my previous post. You’ll know that you’re in the correct valley because here are some of the sights you’ll see en route: