Friday, May 27, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-VII (Paris, a “Moveable Feast”-I!)

After completing the Outward Bound course, I had intended to return to France and visit some more ski resorts. However, my climb of Hellvellyn, the second highest mountain in England had made me sick.
I developed a severe cough due to the chill caught during our marches in rain in the Lake District. It seemed that I had developed some congestion in the lungs. So I told my friends in France that I will return after ten days or so after I had recovered from the severe cold. I wanted to be fit to go to French and Austrian ski resorts. I asked Bashir to suggest some good doctor so that I could get my cold treated. Dilshad told me that the healthcare was very expensive and a General Practitioner will charge me £ 20. He advised me to go to a Hospital Emergency and tell them about chest pain. As advised I went to the Emergency counter of the King George Hospital. I told the receptionist that I had a severe cold. He replied that they do not treat common cold in the Emergency. I then told him that I have chest pain also. He at once became very alert and wrote my details in a register and asked me to go along with a nurse. She took me to doctor who asked for a chest x-ray and ECG. I was whisked by the nurse to both x-ray and ECG room and within hardly 10 minutes both these tests were done and I was brought back to the doctor. He conducted a detailed examination and told me everything was fine and there was no cause for worry. I had severe chest congestion. He gave me some antibiotic capsules and cough syrup for five days. Thus I got the best treatment free of charge. Exactly in five days all my symptoms disappeared and I was fit once again.
I informed my French friends that I will return in a couple of days but would spend few days in Paris before travelling to Grenoble. In the first visit I did not have the opportunity of going round Paris. This time I flew from London to Paris as I got a very cheap return fare but the flights were fixed. There was no change allowed. A friend of mine had come to receive me in his own car. He drove me to the heart of Paris where he had booked a room for me in a medium category hotel. He also introduced me to the famous French Metro, the underground train. There is no better way to see Paris than the Metro. It is fast and also cheap. One can buy tickets from even newspaper vendors. The only thing to know is the direction in which one has to go to reach a particular destination. Those days Metro stations were very neat and clean. It was a joy to travel on the Metro. Apart from sight seeing, I wanted to meet a number of friends whom I had met earlier in Kashmir. The first one was Francois, the correspondent of the Le Photo magazine. The first thing he did was to take me to a Bistro for a true French meal. Bistro is a traditional French restaurant.
We tasted a number of French delicacies like foi de gras; les escargots; cote d’aignou and so on. French drink a lot of coffee. The breakfast usually consists of coffee with milk called cafĂ© au lait and croissants which is like our soft baqir khani shaped like a crescent! Next Francois took me to the famous night show, the cabaret in Lido. The show goes on till past mid-night. Next morning he gave me guidance for visiting various tourist spots. I was keen to visit the Louvre Museum to see the Mona Lisa painting. The other spots were the Eiffel Tower, the River Seine and the bridges on it, the Champs Elysee, and the church of Notre Dame. A little distant sight was the gardens of Versailles. I began by visiting the Louvre. There are dozens of paintings in the Museum. These are of all sizes. Some are very huge occupying large portions of the walls. I asked the guide inside about the Mona Lisa painting and he gave me directions to find it. However, seeing it was an anti-climax. It is a small painting encased in protective glass.
Next I went to Eiffel Tower. It is a huge steel structur. There was a long queue for tickets. One can go by lift right up to the top of the Tower. There is also a restaurant at the middle level. The view of Paris from the top is fantastic. However, there is protective iron grill to prevent people from jumping over. There have been cases of suicide after which the protective grill has been fixed. At a walking distance from the Tower across the road is the huge fountain of Tocodero. It is a lovely sight during night when the whole place is illuminated. I was visiting most of the places through the Metro. Almost all the tourist sites are just walking distance from the Metro stations. In the meantime, I contacted some of my other French friends whom I had met in Srinagar. A brother and a sister had visited me in Srinagar in August, 1974 for assistance to go to Ladakh.
They were called the D’Sivrys. They lived in a huge house near Champs Elysee. When I phoned them, they informed me that their parents wanted me to have lunch with them. Their house was very near the Tocodero Metro station. The street was known as the Avenue George Mandel. When I reached the house, the parents of the young couple were very glad to receive me in their house. They profusely thanked me for helping their children during their tour of Kashmir and Ladakh. They had arranged a very special lunch for me. I came to know that they belonged to French Aristocracy and that was the reason of attaching D’Sivry with their names. I had heard that the Parisians are very snobbish but the behaviour of the D’Sivrys was an anti-climax. I asked my Le Photo friend Francois about it. He told me that the French are truly snobbish but there is a difference. The people who travel are different. They are warm and friendly. I found it to be true during my later visits to Paris.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-VI (Climbing in Lake District)

After having spent a couple of weeks in London, I got a call from the Outward Bound Trust that I had been enrolled in the Executive Course at their Ullswater School in Lake District. I had to report to Squadron Leader Lester Davies. The School would arrange my pick up from the railway station. Accordingly I purchased a return train ticket for £ 30 from London to Lake District. I have now forgotten the name of the small station.
The train journey was through the English countryside but it was a slow train compared to the fast French trains. We could enjoy the scenery on the way. One of the instructors from the School called Jerry had come to receive me. As it was a small station so he easily spotted me and we got into his van for onward journey to the School which has a wonderful location. It is right on the banks of the big Ullswater Lake. The entire campus is lush green. The School is located in a traditional building. It has living quarters for young trainees and also a number of guest rooms for senior people. There is a ration store, equipment shop, and all other ancillary facilities needed in an Adventure School. They have area for physical training, a jetty going into the Lake for kayaking and boating. I was allotted a guest room. There were other senior people who were also staying in guest rooms. Normal courses last for a month or forty days but the Executive Course is only for a week. It is specially designed for top Executives who want to get a feel of the Outward Bound. We were only 10 persons in the course and some of them were from London. After meeting the Warden we were introduced to our instructors. I had already met my instructor Jerry. Incidentally, his wife was the secretary to Chris Bonnington, the famous British Climber who too was living in the Lake District. He told me that Chris Bonnington knew me as he had climbed in Kishtwar area of Kashmir. Jerry’s wife had told him about my coming and he had proposed to invite me for lunch to his farm house.
The first problem I faced in the hostel was about the bath-room. They had common bath-rooms. When I entered to have a shower, I discovered that there was no privacy and everybody was naked having a shower along a row of showers. Not being used to this type of common bath-rooms without any privacy, I approached the warden. He gave me a key to a special single bath-room but asked me to keep it locked after use and return the key at the time of my departure. During first two to three days we were familiarised with various Outward Bound activities. Lectures were given on the use of compass, maps, and other equipments. Some rock-climbing and slides on a rope were also practiced. We also did some kayaking in the Ullswater Lake. The School owned a jet boat and some of us were taken for a joy ride on the Lake which is quite big. We had a night out. We were divided in groups of two and given tents, sleeping bags and all other equipment. We were also given some rations and walkie talkies. However, we had to use the walkie talkies only in some medical emergencies. We were left late in the evening in different spots in the wilderness where we had to camp and sleep. Early in the morning we had to find our way to some specific spots where we would be picked up. It was a thrilling adventure. Especially the night out was an experience. In the morning we did find the right spot and were picked up. Back at the School we had a hot shower and a nice breakfast. The finale of the course was the climb of Helvellyn, the second highest mountain of England. I thought it would be a good climb to try. I had heard a lot about climbing in the Lake District. Before embarking on this venture, I was taken by Jerry to Chris Bonnington’s house for lunch. It was a nice drive through the English countryside. The farm house was a small hut but very elegantly decorated inside. Chris Bonnington and his wife were very happy to receive me. The lady gave us good lunch. We talked about Himalayas and Chris mentioned about his forthcoming climb of the South-West Face of Everest. It was going to be a tough climb. While peeling an apple Chris cut his finger and seeing the blood his wife became quite panicky. She started running around looking for band-aid and medicine. I thought if she could only imagine where Chris was shortly going to be climbing would she ever allow him to go? Human nature is same everywhere!
The approach march to Hellvellyn starts from across the Lake. After collecting our equipment and rations we were taken in boats across the Lake. The first days trek was not very long. We set up camp in a bowl surrounded by some low ridges. It was a nice small meadow. Night was somewhat cold. There was a drizzle in the morning. Living on dry rations and warming up tinned food on a small gas stove was a new experience for me. Usually, back home we would have a kitchen tent where meals were cooked during expeditions especially on trekking ones. It was only on very high camps that we used dry rations and tins. The School store had issued us a lot of dry rations and from my standards it was too much! The next day trek was quite tire some and cold. It was continuously raining. We were trudging along a flat and then started climbing a sloping ridge. After an hours trek from the base we reached a flat. I was shocked when they told me that it is the Hellvellyn top! I told them that back home we drove 4-wheel drive vehicles on such slopes! A mountain in our area means a sharp peak with snow on top. We had over 40 people on the top. The normal course of 30 and the Executive Course of 10! It was a crowd on the top! Due to continuous rain we did not stay long and rushed down. After walking for sometime we camped for the night. This was our second night out. I felt very cold. In these parts the cold is more severe. It is because of chill factor. The breeze from the sea increases the intensity of cold manifold. Next morning we got up and trekked to the road ahead. Before boarding the transport we had a very hot meal in a restaurant.
We were scheduled to leave after graduation ceremony next morning. John who had met me during the course and was working in Rediffusion Company in London had driven in his own car. He offered me a lift back to London. He said it would be shorter than train. We would be using the motorway and we could stop for lunch in the way. Graduation ceremony was a simple affair compared to our parts where for every event we have some or the other VIPs. We took leave of the Warden and staff and I invited all of them to visit Kashmir sometime in future. The drive back to London was very smooth. I told John about my unused train ticket. He asked me to go to the station and get it refunded. I went to the station next morning and informed the man sitting on the ticket counter. He took my ticket and gave me £15. No refund forms, no receipts. He just believed me and refunded the money! Total surprise compared to procedures back home!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-V (Going round London-II!)

After initial sight seeing, I took up two other tasks about which I was very keen. The first was to meet my friends at the BBC. Those days many top journalists and media people had been visiting Kashmir. One of those was David Stride, the Head of Eastern Services in BBC Radio. He had come to Srinagar for a night and I was conducting him. He had to catch a plane for his onward connection to Kabul. The weather had gone bad and many flights got cancelled. His flight too was supposed to get cancelled.
However, I got a message that his flight had come through and would be taking off in half an hour. I rushed to his hotel and picked him up. Those days flights would land at the old terminal. I rushed him to the Airport in my jeep and reached when the last boarding was being done. He thanked me profusely and asked me to meet him whenever I had a chance to visit London. Now that I was there, I gave him a call. He was thrilled to know that I had come over. He invited me to his office. He once again thanked me for my help in Srinagar. He told me that he was able to keep his schedule throughout because of the flight he got from Stinagar. He wanted me to meet the heads of Urdu and Hindi sections of BBC Radio and invited me for lunch next day where he would call these people. We had lunch in an Italian restaurant near his office where he introduced me to his colleagues. He told them the story of his journey to Kashmir and asked them to fix some interviews for me regarding Kashmir tourism especially the winter tourism. Accordingly I got five slots of interviews in Hindi and Urdu on Kashmir tourism. He also spoke to Mohinder Koul who ran TV programmes at Pebble Mill in Birmingham. I was interviewed by him for BBC TV on winter sports in Kashmir. I had some video cassettes on skiing, clips from which were used for the interview. All these interviews got me about £ 200 which was a good sum those days! It was a profitable encounter with BBC! Subsequently, I had a longer interaction with BBC when we filmed in Zanskar a series called the “Lasr Place On Earth”. Those programmes were made by the producer Peter Montagnon and the French author Michel Peissel. George Arni also became a good friend and I met him during my subsequent visits to London. During my London tour one landmark which I witnessed almost daily was the Big Ben, the famous clock tower!
Next on my list was the British Museum. It is a huge affair. One would take months to go through various sections of the Museum meticulously. It has a very exquisite roof which allows light to come in. Inside view is dramatic in many places. I was very keen to see the original manuscript of Kalhan’s Rajatarangani. Sir Aurel Stein who translated it from Sanskrit to English is supposed to have brought it to London. I had first time read Rajatarangni in 1966 during my college days. The introduction in the translation by Stein describes the trouble he had to undergo to collect the parts of the original manuscript from Kalhan’s kin. This had roused my keenness to see the original manuscript which was supposed to be in London. I was really thrilled to see the original manuscript in a glass case. It is a pity that we have lost many books, manuscripts, and artefacts to outsiders. However, there is a consolation that these are safe here. Back home our Archives are in shambles and full of pigeon droppings! There were other rare books and manuscripts in the Museum. In fact, there are also many statues of Kashmir’s Hindu and Buddhist periods in the Museum. The British are very keen not only in preserving their own heritage but they also collect historical artefacts from all over the world.
I had heard about the British Museum Reading Room. Karl Marx is supposed to have written Das Kapital after studying books in the British Museum Reading Room! Before leaving Kashmir I had taken an introductory letter from the then Chief Minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. I went to the officer in charge of the Reading Room and mentioned to him my keen desire to see and read some ancient as well as recent books on Kashmir. He told me that for doing so I had to become a member of the Reading Room for which I needed an introductory letter. I showed him the letter given by Sheikh Sahib which he readily accepted and I was issued a membership card.
The Reading Room is a big hall with lots of books arranged in shelves. There are places to sit and read books and take notes. In fact, there is an arrangement to get photo copies of all written material against a nominal payment. The Reading Room had those days manual catalogues and one could go through these and write numbers of the books required on a card. This card was given to the person in the hall indicating him also the place where one was sitting. The books would be delivered on that spot within few minutes. It was a very efficient service. Now the entire thing must have been computerised? After going through the catalogue I was able to find more than 350 books and other written documents on Kashmir. I studied quite a few of these. I kept on visiting the Reading Room every time I stopped in London during my five month tour of Europe. I prepared a list of all reference books and documents on Kashmir with accession numbers. I had an interesting encounter in the Reading Room. After getting various references on Kashmir, I decided to study some references about the myth of Jesus being buried in Kashmir. I selected some books on the subject and was studying these when a Hare Krishna devotee dressed in a saffron robe and shaven head came to my table and requested permission to speak to me. As there is always pin drop silence in the Reading Room, we had to speak in very hushed tones.
He was curious about my chosen subject of Jesus in Kashmir and wanted a meeting with me. I invited him to Bashir’s residence where I was staying on the following Sunday but told him not to come in the outfit he was wearing. He promised to come as a “normal” person. As planned he came on Sunday morning in a nice suit and tie with a matching felt cap. I was totally surprised and could not believe if it was the same man? We had tea and discussed various theories about Jesus presence in Kashmir. So far there had been no concrete evidence and all were conjectures. I asked him why he was curious to know all these details. He replied that he wanted to demolish Christianity as it was based on a false premise of the crucifying of Jesus Christ. I was shocked and told him that one should not acquire knowledge to demolish other faiths. My interest in the subject was purely historical research and not to cause any harm to anyone. We parted company not to meet again! After visiting London, I made arrangements for undertaking a short outward bound course at the Ullswater School in the Lake District which I will describe in the next episode.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Osama’s death and the “Rogue State”!

(To understand the mystery and many unanswered questions connected with the death of Osama Bin Laden, it is very useful to read William Blum’s book, the “Rogue State”!)
The most wanted man by USA on whom they had put a price of $25 million is dead. As claimed by Americans he was killed in a daring operation by the elite US unit, the Navy Seals in a mansion in the cantonment city of Abbotabad deep inside Pakistan. It is ironic that the very creators of this person as a legendary figure during the Afghanistan’s resistance to Soviet Invasion had to finally kill him in such a surreptitious way! Already a number of questions are being asked about the whole operation. Many conflicting reports are being handed out about the actual details of the operation. There are also theories about the timing of the operation especially keeping in view the US elections next year and the current Arab uprisings. It was first declared that Osama was killed in a fire fight as he was armed and had resisted. Within 24 hours it was stated that he was unarmed and had no weapon on him. It straightaway amounts to extra-judicial killing of an unarmed man! There are also confusing stories about the involvement of the Pakistani establishment. According to details given there was a fire fight for about 40 minutes and still the Pakistan Army placed just 800 metres from the spot is supposed to have been informed after the operation was over! Were they simply watching the show in the Pakistan’s most prestigious cantonment city where most of its senior officers have been trained? There have been conflicting reports about Pakistan’s complicity in the whole operation. The President and the Foreign Office spokesperson have given contradictory statements. The chief of ISI and the Army Chief have preferred silence. Incidentally both have got extensions in their services most probably due to covert intervention of US administration. In brief, there is total confusion regarding this targeted killing of what has been called the most dangerous man on Earth! Confusion and deliberately created delusions are a part of the US policy. To understand the actions of the US government not only in the case of Osama killing but in general especially their bullying attitude and global interventions, it is very useful to read the book “Rogue State” written by William Blum. In fact, Osama Bin Laden in January, 2006 had issued a statement asking Muslims all over the world to read this book to fully understand the American machinations. I read the book in 2006 after reading a news item about it. The operation involving Osama’s killing fits precisely in the plan of activities conducted by the world’s only super power and described in detail by William Blum!
Because of his opposition to what the United States was doing in Vietnam, William Blum left the State Department in 1967, abandoning his aspiration of becoming a Foreign Service Officer. He then became on of the founders and editors of the Washington Free Press, the first “underground” newspaper in the US capital. Since that time he has been writing and exposing the activities CIA all over the world. The “Rogue State” is a 300 page book which surveys the US wrongdoing in the world since 1945. Many people including young children in USA after the 9/11 happenings consider their country some kind of a “bully” but if one reads the “Rogue State”, then calling America a “bully” is a drastic understatement. In the introduction of the book William Blum writes, “America cherishes her enemies. Without enemies, she is a nation without purpose and direction.” The “War on Terror” including the global manhunt for Al-Qaeda including its founder Osama Bin Laden has only been a justification and/or a smokescreen for a number of international and domestic measures. These include massive increases in military spending and a crackdown on civil liberties on the home front. Internationally, it means hard headed unilateralism wherever multilateral consensus does not gel with US preferences. Global muscle flexing has been in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now taking place in Libya.
The book has very short and concise 27 chapters touching subjects like, "Assassinations”; “War Criminals: Theirs and Ours", and "United States Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons", both abroad and at home. There are chapters on U.S. involvement in or support for torture, kidnapping, looting, eavesdropping, drug-dealing, and election-trampling. Blum turns the spotlight squarely on the U.S. domestic scene in the final chapter, "A Day in the Life of a Free Country", focusing on the atrocious conditions in the federal and state prison systems, the racial injustice that permeates anti-drug policies and sentencing procedures, rampant surveillance of dissidents (and just about anybody else). Even though it is difficult to wade through all these gross violations committed by the world’s only super power without getting a benumbing sensation, yet the book is an ideal reference to various happenings all over the world involving USA. The most relevant chapter to present happenings seems the "Concise History of United States Global Interventions, 1945 to the Present". Thus going through William Blum’s book may be very relevant to understand not only the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden but even the present uprisings in the Arab World and American reaction to these.

Travels in foreign lands-VI (Going round London-I!)

One usually begins the London tour by visiting the Piccadilly Circus and the Trafalgar Square, the two most famous spots frequented by all who come here. For the first trip, Bashir accompanied me. We took the tube and got down at the Piccadilly Circus station. It is supposed to be the most frequented tourist hub in London. It is more colourful in the evening with all the neon signs and lights. Apart from sight seeing I had other two interests in visiting Piccadilly Circus.
One was to meet some people from the sports firm of Lilywhites which is situated on the square and the other was to visit the world’s largest map shop in Long Acre near Piccadilly. In Gulmarg I had heard of a Lilywhites Ski Trophy which used to be there in mid thirties. Those days Gulmarg was an important resort for the British Army officers and their families. I was keen to revive this competition. I went into the sports store which is spread over a multi-storey building. I requested for a meeting with the manager. He was glad to receive me but knew nothing about the history of Lilywhite Trophy in Gulmarg. Next stop for me was the Stanfords, the largest map shop in the world. It is situated near Piccadilly in a place called Long Acre. As I did not know the way, I asked Bashir that we should consult a local Policeman about it. As I was just going to do it casually, he pulled me back. He said it was not Srinagar and the person was not a Kashmiri Policeman but a London Bobby. He went to him and said, “Good Morning, Sir! Could you please direct me to Stanfords in Long Acre please?” The Bobby took out his Walkie Talkie and asked the control about directions to the spot and then explained these to us. We thanked him and proceeded ahead. Bashir explained to me on the way that the London Bobby was a very well respected person. He may be more knowledgeable and trained than our Srinagar City Police Chief! One has to approach him properly and decently.
The Stanfords is a big shop with hundreds of maps stacked on shelves and spread on tables. It is supposed to be the largest map shop in the world. I was interested in getting a satellite map of Kashmir for our trekking and mountaineering expeditions. On seeing us searching in various shelves the shop owner came to us and offered to help. I told him about my requirement. He immediately took out the requisite map and showed it to me. I asked for two copies. It was £5 each. While requesting the map I had introduced myself as an officer of Kashmir Tourism looking after Adventure Tourism. I had also told him that we too had published some large scale maps of trekking in Kashmir. On my offering the cost of the maps, he refused to take it and said I could have these complimentary and in return I should send him some copies of our maps. I promised to do that. Bashir was surprised as he had seen for the first time a British shopkeeper giving something free! I did send him five sets of our own trekking maps on return. Bashir then took me to Oxford Street. This street is very much frequented by tourists from India for shopping. On the pavements I saw vendors as we have back home. They had their wares spread on sheets or on small stands. They were selling perfumes, t-shirts, umbrellas, and many other things. The moment they see a Policeman they hurriedly collect their wares and run away just like in some places back home! I wanted to buy some perfumes but Bashir advised me not do so. He said I may get only some coloured water and lose money in the bargain! Such people seem to be same all over! After going round for sometime, we went back to Piccadilly Circus where we had some snacks in the McDonalds. Next we headed for the Trafalgar Square. It is another landmark of London. Again full of tourists. A lot of Japanese. There are also hundreds of pigeons.
Bashir was keen that I should see some parks of London. We went to Regents Park. It was a big surprise to see such a lovely park in the heart of London. Apart from preserving their heritage, the Londoners have kept their city very green. There are a large number of parks which act as the lungs of the city. The other well known parks are Saint James Park, the Hyde Park and so on. The truly out of the world green area is the Hampstead Heath. It is like a wild forest in the heart of an urban jungle. Walking through Hampstead Heath one can never get the feeling that one is in an urban area like London! I spent a whole day in this area. Another globally known green area is the Hyde Park which has the famous speaker’s corner. Anyone can give a lecture on anything he likes and can have a readymade audience. There is always some sort of activity going on here. One wishes back home we too had something like a Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner where people could vent their feelings. It would save lot of trouble!
Another interesting landmark which Bashir wanted me to visit was Harrods. A very high profile shopping store. Mostly aristocrats and rich Arabs visit the Harrods. It was interesting to go round the multi-storey shopping complex. I was just looking at the price labels! It would be embarrassing to leave the store without buying something. So I bought some gifts for my sister. The monetary damage was not much! There were many other landmarks of London which I would see off and on while travelling. These include the Big Ben, the Tower Bridge, and the Buckingham Palace. It is also interesting to take a Red Bus tour sitting on the upper deck which is totally open. One can also go on a boat in River Thames. However, I was keen to meet some more friends especially at BBC and also visit the British Museum which I will describe in the next episode!