Something about the Himalayas
Since I am back in the Himalayas now for the 19th time, maybe I should say something about them.
There is a saying in the Himalayas, that "if man is to have a future at all, he must understand himself and his own past." Maybe that is why I keep returning to the Himalayas: in front of the face of the highest, purest and loveliest mountains in the world you stand naked, spiritually naked, and you have to confront your own nakedness and consider your situation carefully. Thus you are forced to get to know and understand yourself.
Man is much more than just his historical past. For me, the main attraction of India is her spiritual depth and the seriousness of her culture. Indian civilisation is probably the oldest in the world, it is impossible to date, but Hinduism is certainly the world's oldest living religion, and her main offspring is Buddhism. But Hinduism was born in the mountains of the Himalayas.
In the depth of the great Himalayas you find a valley called "the Valley of the Gods". It's in the heart of the land of Vishnu, but the geographical names of that area are rather of the predecessors to the well-known Indian gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, that is, of Rudra, Karna, Indra and others. You find these valleys and strange places in Garwhal, western Uttaranchal, where the Ganges runs up, where also the sacred pilgrimage sites Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath are found, all these representing different sources of the Ganga, the holy river of India.
But no matter how sacred these places are, for many modern people and thinkers the chief place of attraction in India is Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh because of the Dalai Lama's presence there. He represents much more than just Tibetan Buddhism since he there leads an exile government of the suppressed Tibet and the persecuted Tibetan people, who today face what the Jews stood against in the Second World War. The comparison is not far-fetched, though there are differences: the Jews did not have a country of their own when the Nazi persecution set in, but the Tibetans did have their own country which never had belonged to anyone else, when the Chinese occupied it by military force and compelled many Tibetans to choose between exile or death. Many who chose to remain perished in torture chambers or labour camps, at least about 500,000, probably much more. It's not a Chinese tradition to count casualties.
For this very special situation of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans, he appears as the leading freedom fighter of the world together with the imprisoned Aung Sang Suu Kyi of Burma, especially since both strictly follow the principle of non-violence. Their method is wisdom and patience against the cruelty and folly of mundane politics.
You can feel this inspired freedom aspiration all over Dharamsala mixed with bitter memories and painful melancholy, but the optimism is there. Just as the Nazi terror became a driving force for the Jews with their greatest dynamic expansion since the times of king David and Christ for a result, so will the communist-atheist persecution of Buddhism and the Tibetan nation and culture transform into perhaps the greatest dynamic growth of Tibetanism and Buddhism in history - for the first time Buddhism will spread into all corners of the world.
A bit further away in Himachal you find a paradise of a different kind, where you find cannabis growing all over the country wild in nature around Manali, the Kullu valley and Manikaran. Those who find the best way to enjoy life through drugs will find many hippie paradises in the eastern areas of Himachal.
Further down is Shimla, the last Indian summer capital of the British, which still retains its style and is an agreeable spot to spend some days in. Another place like that is Mussoorie above Dehra Doon, one of the nicest hill stations, which is almost exactly as the British left it. Further down is Rishikesh on the Ganges, an entirely vegetarian town with many holy men: you can't find a drop of alcohol or a piece of meat for eating in the whole town. I never heard of anyone who didn't like it in Rishikesh.
But let's move up along the river to the sources of the Ganga and to the valleys of the gods. If you follow the river up west you will eventually reach Gangotri, the traditional temple at the main source of the holy river. But this river is now being controlled by a dam, which has caused much controversy. Several towns and villages have been drowned, like Tehri, and people refused to move from their family homes through many generations to alien places until they were forced to. If an earthquake will happen here and the dam will burst, all Rishikesh will be washed away.
But the eastern arm of the river is more interesting. It's called Aliknanda, and along it you will find a richer landscape with flourishing villages and communities to a much greater extent than on the main Ganga. Another riverarm leads up to Gaurikund, from where you can walk up to the temple of Kedarnath at 3500 meters, another source of the Ganga. It is set under wild mountains in the middle of the snows and is a quite fantastic place.
But if you keep following the Aliknanda you will eventually end up in the valley of the gods, where the small town of Joshimath has perhaps the wildest and most dramatic settings found anywhere in the world. It's right in the middle of the great Himalayas, where the river bursts through the mountains in gorges which you can't see the bottom of, while the mountains rise sharply and almost vertically straight up to 7000 meters and more. One of the mountains here is the Nanda Devi, the highest mountain of India, at 7800 meters. It's a sharp top with a hunch like a camel and is a very spectacular mountain and almost impossible to climb. You see it best from Auli, a small village above Joshimath, at 3000 meters.
Of course there are lots of places around here where you can retreat and philosophise in peace and quiet, like Gandhi did in Kausani, where he wrote his autobiography. There is an ashram there in his name with a museum and is a very peaceful spot, ideal for a retreat, and you can see all the Garwhal high Himalayas from there.
Lower down and more busy is Almora, the old capital of this part of the world, with the shrine of Kesaar Devi next to it, another hippie paradise; but for me Almora is too modern and hectic. I prefer the delightful oasis of Naini Tal, a small summer town constructed around a lake, which was the first summer capital of the British in the 1820s. The style and charm of those days is still there. It's a wondrous place where Christian churches, Hindu temples, Moslem mosques and a Buddhist Tibetan monastery exist together without any problem at all; but the centre of the town is an impressing cricket field just by the water. They always play there, and loudspeakers keep informing the whole town how the game goes. Together with Dharamsala and Darjeeling, it's one of my favourite spots in India.
Darjeeling lies on the other eastern side of Nepal and is geographically Sikkimese. The British leased it from Sikkim in the 1840s to start growing tea there, and after Indian independence 1947 Nehru continued the lease contract with Sikkim and even voluntarily doubled the fee. Not until India formally occupied Sikkim in 1974 there was no need for India to continue paying the rent for Darjeeling to Sikkim.
The main reason why Indira Gandhi decided to put an end to Sikkim independence was her fear that China would do it instead. Not until this year did China accept Sikkim as a part of India, while India at the same time formally accepted Tibet as a part of China. One can't help remembering the pact between Nazi-Germany and Soviet-Russia in 1939 before they cut up Poland between themselves.
The main characteristic of the landscape and mentality of Sikkim is softness. It is a green lush country completely dominated by its sacred mountain the majestic Kanjenjunga, who generously spreads out her hills in all directions towards the east in grand green valleys and an extremely agreeable landscape incomparable with anything else. This geographical harmony also marks the people, who perhaps are the kindest in all India. It was an independent kingdom for many centuries until India decided to incorporate it into the Indian Union, thus making sure the Chinese would not invade it. Previously, Sikkim had only had troubles with Nepal, which consistently has been rather aggressive against Sikkim; and the main population of Sikkim today are Nepalese, whereas the original Sikkim people, the Lepcha, have withdrawn more and more into a rather obscure minority.
Geographically, Darjeeling belongs to Sikkim, although its characteristic is entirely different. The name 'Dorjeling' means the 'home of the thunderbolt', and Darjeeling could be described as one of the most dramatic places in India, not only because of the very changeable and constantly surprising weather - you can have glorious sunshine in one moment to be immersed in fog the next, and then suddenly there are torrential showers and thunder. The main languages are Nepali, Hindi and Bengali, but the first language is English. More than any place in India, Darjeeling has retained its British stamp, and when Gandhi wanted to separate India from the British (and cause the secession of Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon as well) Darjeeling was not interested. Several of the small provinces east of Darjeeling shared that failure to be impressed by the activities of Gandhi, and some of them are still fighting to get rid of the Hindu dominance. The North East Territories are the most troublesome spot in India after Kashmir, and foreigners are not allowed there without special permits. The people there are mainly Christian and Burmese.
Nepal, which produced the best soldiers for the British Empire, the famous Gurkhas, and which always co-operated well with Britain although never colonised, suffered a very traumatic tragedy the other year, when the heir to the throne shot his whole family dead except his uncle, who is now king. Behind this atrocious family quarrel was much more than the heir's displeasure at his parents' not allowing him to marry the girl he wanted. He was on drugs, mainly cocaine, which his uncle had initiated him into the use of, and the terrible royal family tragedy should be seen mainly as the result of a drug psychosis on behalf of the heir, who ended the massacre by turning his gun on himself. Since then there has been no real stability in Nepal. The king, the former uncle, is conservative and has little concern for his people. Being an orthodox Hindu, he doesn't like Buddhists and Christians much, and things have not improved during his rule. On the contrary, the Maoist guerrilla warfare has increased, and it's not safe anymore for anyone to journey by road. There are police checkpoints everywhere causing much trouble and delay, traffic doesn't work at night because of the curfew, and even tourists have become robbed by bandits.
China obviously plays some part in this, since she officially supports the Nepalese central government and the royal throne while at the same time she provides the Maoist guerrilla with weapons. I have heard this from several sources. China denies this, but the weapons of the guerrillas are Chinese. China claims Tibetans smuggle them across, or that Indian communists are doing it; but the only motive behind this must be a Chinese ambition to gain more control of Nepal, like she has of Burma, where the military dictatorship firmly maintains the economic control of the country by a monopoly on drugs, mainly heroin. Only the Chinese government has accepted the military dictatorial government of Burma, backing it up with weapons. One can see Chinese control of Nepal increasing: she wants to stop the refugee flow from Tibet to Nepal, and Nepal has started to return Tibetan fugitives to China, spiting the United Nations international agreement concerning political refugees. Nepal is in a bad fix between the giants India and China with no other bordering countries except these threatening mammoth states. Of course she is afraid of both and has a difficult diplomatic balance to keep by trying not to upset or anger any of them. But whatever Nepal does to please India will anger China, and vice versa, so Nepal can do nothing to improve her relationships without causing either of her two overbearing neighbours to start threatening again.
The last year, though, since the king resigned from power, things have improved and are gradually returning to normal, but the Nepalese will now have a great job in building up their society again from zero.
On the other hand, every traveller I have met to Burma has praised the country and her people. The trick in visiting Burma is not to make any money exchange at the airport but to reserve all expenses for the people, so that the military government gets nothing. It's easy to travel alone, people are extremely helpful and want to speak English with you, it's ideal for a student of Buddhism, adorer of nature and lover of idylls; and the military autocracy will of course fall sooner or later to give way to the democratic opposition led by the most admirable Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who has devoted her life solely to serve and help her people. Burma (Myanmar) is definitely a country of the future.
If there are troubles in Nepal, there are no less troubles in main India, which was manifest as I travelled through Bihar. The same kind of strikes that paralyse Nepalese traffic sometimes occur in India. I was held up seven hours on a train because a local politician had felt insulted and in anger organised the local police to stop the trains indefinitely until he had obtained an excuse; and as I travelled by bus there was a corpse on the road, which also caused the police to stop the traffic on the main road in India to the North Eastern Territories for hours. Bihar is the most notoriously criminal state of India, it is backward, illiteracy is high, it's difficult to find people who can speak English, so for us it is best avoided. The problem is that it is the heart of India, so it's difficult to avoid.
The capital Patna used to be the capital of the Indian Empire when it reached its highest expansion under the Buddhist king Ashoka the generation after Alexander the Great. It was then called Pataliputra and is still today an awesome metropolis of 3,5 million; but nothing is left of the ancient Buddhist imperial splendour - except the oasis Bodhgaya 100 kilometres to the south just off Gaya.
This is a fascinating spot where all Asia meets - here you find all Asian nationalities with Buddhist temples of their own, from Ceylon to Japan with all nations in between. The two most beautiful temples are the main Tibetan ones, but also the Thai and the Bhutan temples are startling masterpieces of architecture. Pilgrims from all over the world come here, even from the west, to study, meditate or just enjoy the peace around the Mahabodhi Stupa, built before the 7th century by the spot where the Buddha had his enlightenment, the holiest site of Buddhism in the world. It's impossible not to be impressed by the general atmosphere here of devotion, piety and respect.
What then is to be said about Tibet and China? Let me quote the words of a good friend of mine in Darjeeling:
"Another obviousness is the absurd political existence of the China phenomenon as a single extreme monster state in a fairly democratic world, but the politicians and business men of the leading democratic countries in the west are so stupid that they keep backing up, investing in and fawning on China in the preposterous illusion that China is a golden calf to make the best and quickest money out of, while in fact the whole Chinese society stands on clay feet and is tottering as the economy might collapse at any moment, being overheated and completely corrupt. Their yuan is overrated, they invest tens of billions in megalomaniacal projects that destroy the environment instead of remedying the lacks and wants of the country; the railway to Tibet, their greatest project ever, can never pay itself off and is as absurd as the concentration camps project of Nazi Germany; and the second greatest, the Three Gorges Dam on Yangtse, may at any time burst in an earthquake causing all cities along the river to be washed away, while tens of millions of ordinary Chinese are evacuated by force to satisfy the vanity and inhumanity of the accountable bureaucrats. The situation in Tibet is the most flagrant manifestation of the hysterical madness of China. She does everything to extirpate the Tibetan people and culture to replace it with a Chinese one in order to forever confirm Chinese ownership of Tibet, while this only raises accelerating protests all over the world, highlighting China's catastrophic environmental destruction of Tibet. China is very well aware that she is making all efforts to destroy Tibet completely, and she does it on purpose, just because that villain Mao set China on that course, this Mao, whom the whole western world cherished and admired and kowtowed to just because America behaved badly in Vietnam, while everyone gladly closed their eyes to how badly Mao's China behaved in China and against their own people, the casualties being something about 150-200 million including all enforced abortions. China even opened fire against their own people on Tiananmen Square in the middle of the capital Beijing on June 4th 1989 - never has the cruelty and inhumanity of the governing party of China more clearly showed the nature of its real face of only cynical inhumanity and vanity; and still the Chinese continue to adore and cherish Mao and follow its beastly governing party, as if they refused to realise the obviousness of its absolutely and unacceptably criminal existence."
So the problem is not Tibet. The problem is China, and Tibet has wrongly been made to suffer for it.
The incident by Cho Oyo on September 30th focusses the problem - there have been no human rights in China since the communist take-over in 1949. A group of 70 Tibetan refugees crossing the Nangpa La at above 5700 meters were shot at by Chinese soldiers deliberately in cold blood, who succeeded in killing a nun. 11 children were arrested and brought to no one knows where, while everything was witnessed by western mountain climbers by Cho Oyo and was even filmed by a Romanian. The Chinese, when the news reached the world, at first stated the soldiers had fired in self defence and denied any killings, but the evidence will now cause problems to the Chinese communist establishment, also notorious in later years for allowing organs (like liver, kidneys etc.) to be taken from live Falun Gong prisoners to be sold on the international market at lucrative prices for the government while the victims of course get nothing except sometimes death.
But there is one more country in the Himalayas, which I have not dwelt on and even less been to visit - Bhutan. In a humdrum ordinary Indian canteen among locals I met a young lonely German lady with glasses who had been to Bhutan not as a tourist but on a special invitation and mission and thus got around the necessity to pay for her existence there by $200 a day. She described Bhutan as the last Himalayan paradise - still completely segregated and untouched by the vitiation of modernism, mass tourism and mass immigration as well as completely free from civil wars and political crises - the monarchy still retains all power, and it’s probably best that way. It’s just to hope for the country’s continued virginity and that she may continue like that in her own style as long as possible.
So there are still hidden and unknown Shangri-La-like paradises in the Himalayas although you have to search for them and they are getting more difficult to find. But they will always be there, they always were basically inaccessible, since they always were reserved for only those who really make an effort.
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