On the Road again...After following in Alexander the Great's footsteps straight across the Pamirs, the NHK team next headed south. South into India.
So far, the team had been traveling along the two great east-west running roads-- known collectively, of course, as the Silk Road-- these roads that once connected the Roman empire with the Chinese empire. Yet, we are reminded again and again that in fact there were all kinds of roads. And for videos 15 and 16 of the NHK series, the team traveled on the ancient roads that led south over the mountains.
Using the Karakoram Highway, the team passed through Hunza with its beautiful valleys full of apricot trees, and then briefly joined the well-traveled Grand Trunk Road that has for hundreds of years connected Afghanistan with India. The Grand Trunk Road-- it reminds me of another book by Hopkirk I have been wanting to read for years called, Quest for Kim: In Search of Kipling's Great Game. The book traces the steps of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, which took place mainly along the Grand Trunk Road, or the GTR as it is lovingly called in South Asia.
What is it about these ancient caravan roads? Is it just me or does everyone get excited and ready to pick up and hop on a plane just thinking about them? These grand pathways that have served to connect peoples, ideas, religions and every manner of goods on earth-- they somehow beckon to us...
"Look! Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims -and potters - all the world going and coming. It is to me as a river from which I am withdrawn like a log after a flood. And truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle. It runs straight, bearing without crowding India's traffic for fifteen hundred miles - such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world." (Kim)
The Sino-Japanese team had by this stage lost their "Sino" partners and from here they head on alone-- over the mountains. For the most part they are following in the steps of the great monk (again) Xuanzang. Up into Kashmir (which was once a vibrant Buddhist center of great scholarship) and then further up, up into the clouds of Ladakh.
They are traveling along the the dazzling-high Beacon Highway. Up past the alpine tree-line of Kashmir, then through the snowy Zoji La Pass, they enter the moonscape of Ladakh. Cold, dry and treeless, it is unbelievably beautiful. And cultures are dispersed by altitude so that if you are about at the same altitude in these mountains, no matter how far removed, you will find the same groups of people. And, it is the Tibetans who are up at the top.
The air is so thin. But I remember Tibetans saying how much they hated descending into the Indian plains. Too much oxygen was stifling, they said
Up to Leh and then on to the place that I cannot get out of my mind: Alchi. The murals at Alchi were so beautiful that I feel as if I could easily devote the entire rest of my life just thinking about them. I very much wish to return here-- to travel there with Adonis, but he says, no, "The air is too thin up there for a little boy."
From Ladakh, the team next travels into the deep south of India- again in the steps of the the 7th century monk, Xuanzang-- to the Buddhist Holy Land-- to Lumbini, Kusinigara, Sarnath, Bodhgaya, and of course to the legendary ancient Buddhist University of Nalanda. (For more beautiful photographs and commentary about Nalanda, see Shunya's post here). We are now back in the places where Bernstein traveled. **
And speaking of Bernstein, I no longer read much travel literature. You would think I should have become a true armchair traveler since I am no longer really able to really satisfy my wanderlust. But, I just do not seem to enjoy much of the travel literature out there. It is always so much about the traveler and less about the places themselves. This is seems to be particularly so of books about India. The Western traveler is inevitably it seems pushed to his or her limits and starts complaining-- and this usually leads to self-psychoanalysis. This was my problem with Bernstein.
I am, however, re-reading Vikram Seth's From Heaven Lake. Seth, an Indian who has spent much of his adult life in London and California is also a poet. He is also happens to be the author of my very favorite book about India (as India is every bit the main character at Lata): A Suitable Boy. I've read the novel 3 times and am next thinking of listening to it on audio (since my first-ever audiobook experience was not too horrible!)
Compared to a Suitable Boy, From Heaven Lake is so simple and sparce-- and yet it so beautifully written you just can hardly put it down. Seth, studying Chinese at Nanjing University, wants to head home to Delhi via Lhasa. This is back in the 1980s so the journey itself is impossible. But aren't all journeys impossible? Traveling along the silk road just like the NHK team, instead of going south over the Karakoram, he heads south over the Kunlun Range-- a far more daunting endeavor. The great Qinghai plateau, I believe is the source of most of Asia's greatest rivers-- the Yellow River, the Yangzi River, the Mekong River. What about the great rivers of India?
Seth is a charming and generous traveler-- something I have heard about Colin Thubron. (Everything I wanted to say about From Heaven Lake, this lady already said quite well on her blog-- so here it is) In a nutshell, From Heaven Lake is great travel writing. The only time we ever spend any real time in the author's head is when he discusses the differences between India and China. It is a brief interlude, but it is not un-welcome.
India and China-- these are set to be the two great powerhouses and how they view each other may start being of real interest. You see all kinds of Westerners writing opinion pieces about "India overtaking China"-- but one wonders how the Chinese view the Indians-- and vice versa. They have fought that one war-- which to my mind is the single time they ever fough each other. Seth says much about the accomplishments of China (and this is back before there was any real economic accomplishments to speak of).
To sum up his opinion, he says, both countries have overwhelming populations that could destroy them from within. Yet, he thinks the Communist Party has made great strides in curbing that population with its authoratarian tactics. Basically his opinion boils down to probably what any of our opinions would be: if he was born in the Middle Class or above, then of course he values his freedom-- and would choose an Indian-style democracy (because of course India is a true democracy in which we have seen the people actually overthrowing unpopular governments).
However, he says, if he had been born in the bottom third of his country where people live in unbeliavable poverty, well, he says in that case he would rather be Chinese, because few people actually starve (again this is 1980s China-- the same time when the NHK team passed over those same desert tracks and dizzingly-high mountain roads,)
I have been meaning to post this article about India's first fluent Mandarin-speaking foreign Beijing correspondant's new book Smoke and Mirrors. I link a cite with no advertisements but you can access the original article via the Asia Times website-- the comments also show that there are books to be written on the subject of India/China comparisons-- Khourosh, are you listening? Seth ends his book with these words (which still hold true today):
If India and China were amicable toward each other, almost half the world would be at peace. Yet friendship rests on understanding, and the two countries, despite their continguity, have had almost no contact in the course of history. Few travellers have made the journey over the Himalayas, and not many have made the voyage by sea; trade, while it existed, has always been constrained by geography. In Tibet and South East Asia we find a fusion of the two great culture zones, but the heartlands of the two great culture zones have been almost untouched by each other. The only important exception to this is the spread of Buddhism.
As someone mentioned in the comments-- Dalyrmple's City of Djins is also a very excellent read-- highly recommended.
The most dramatic footage of this particular NHK video was of India's famous Kumbh Mela, which occurs 4 times every 12 years at 4 locations. The one at Allahabad is the most famous and the NHK team (with their usual impeccable timing) was on the scene. In Seth's A Suitable Boy, there was an incredibly vivid scene of an actual event that took place during the Mela in the 50's when several hundreds of people were trampeled to death in the crowds (the 1954 Kumbh Mela Stampede).
Another coincidence-- but Shunya just uploaded some of his videos of the festival from 2001 when he was there. The videos are extremely well-done and watching them could be even better than actually being there! The bridge, the river, the banners, and marigolds, the music, the lights-- a window onto what is a "giant human spectacle, an intense, absurd, spontaneous commedia dell'arte that offers to anyone who cares a great mind-expanding experience.." Both videos are beautifully shot and highly recommended viewing.
Finally-- back to China. Jonathan Spence remains one of my all-time favorite historians. I was so looking forward to the Reith lectures (BBC Radio 4) but have surprisingly found them to be a real sleeper-- until the 3rd one. Well, I found even the third one to be a sleeper-- except it has produced some interesting dialog and the questions by Holbrooke and Kissinger, not only do they "miss the point," but in fact they showed a really very surprising lack of understanding:
Holbrooke, for example, started the Q&A session with, "Do you agree that xenophobia is a fundamental trait in China? And if so, in what way is it different from other the other nationalisms of other countries?"
That is some question, isn't it? Spence handled it really well, first off by mentioning that are many nations in the world where we find much violence resulting from xenophobia. I actually found the phrasing of the question itself rather xenophobic-- but that's me, I guess.
Finally, the last lecture, Lecture 4: The Body Beautiful, I found to be extremely well-done. If you only listen to 1 this should be it.