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Memories of Shangri-la_Part 2

Tiksey Gompa (Monastery), Ladakh, Inida. Canon New F1 camea and Canon 50mm f1.8 lens with Agfachrome 100 film

Today’s post is the second of two articles on my first overseas trip. It’s a reasonably long article accompanied by 4 photos so, even if you don’t feel like reading it all, please make sure you click on the More symbol and scroll down to see the rest of the photos.

It was early August 1988 and I had crossed the border from Tibet into Nepal. After a difficult trip to Kathmandu, where the upper end of the highway to the capital had been washed away in a flood, I hiked for an afternoon and much of the next day until the state of the road improved and I was able to catch a bus the rest of the way to Kathmandu.

Nepal wasn’t a major part of my travel plans. I had originally planned to travel overland from Hong Kong through China into Nepal, around the top of India and then through Pakistan into Kashgar in far northwest China. Striking out from Kashgar I would journey across the country, via the fabled Silk Road, to Beijing. From there I would travel back to Hong Kong from where my return flight home was booked. The ticket included a special return trip to the Olympic Games in Soul. I wasn’t that excited by the event, but the opportunity to travel to another country was certainly enticing.

Anyway the dodgy meal I’d mentioned in my last post, on my journey from the Chinese border to Kathmandu, continued to cause me problems. I suffered from terrible stomach problems (I’II spare you the details) and, as a consequence, saw very little of the country. After around 10 days I took a flight to Varanasi, the famous city on the holy Ganges River. It is here where Hindu’s hope to be cremated and have their ashes cast onto the river. I remember reading at the time that, as the very poor couldn’t afford the cost of the ceremonial cremation, deceased babies from poorer families were often singed, rather than cremated, and their bodies thrown into the river. In an attempt to deal with the problems this practice was causing a species of crocodile had been introduced into the river to finish off the bodies. This policy wasn’t popular with local fisherman whose boats were little more than large canoes. They were, naturally, sacred of the crocodiles.

After a few interesting days, including a sunset boat trip on the Ganges, where my latest travelling companion was hasselled by our boatman causing me, once again, to swing the tripod, I took a night train to New Delhi.

Well, that train trip was certainly an adventure. I was robbed in my sleep. The next morning I was without my passport, plane ticket home, travelers cheques and all my cash, albeit for about 80 cents. There was no doubt that the eight or so seudo professionals, who bordered the train in the middle of the night, were suspicious characters. A guard approached with a 303 rifle pointed straight at them but, with a “now look here my good man” approach they embarrassed him and caused him to back away and leave the carriage. Outside of an old B-grade movie I doubt that I’d ever seen someone outside of a hospital or medical clinic wandering around with a stepascope around their neck.

Canon New F1 camera and Canon 50mm f1.8 lens with Agfachrome 100 film

Once I reached New Delhi I headed straight for the Australian Embassy where I was made to stand, in pouring rain outside the front gate, while the two local security guards grinned at me from the shelter of their guardhouse. Once inside the treatment was little better. I was interegated by an Australian Diplomat to determine whether or not I was an Australian Citizen. Eventually I passed and was issued with a temporary (12 month) passport and a hardship loan of around $70 cash. American Express were wonderful and my travelers cheques were quickly replaced. Mum and Dad forwarded cash and, after a few days of beaurocratic hassles, I was ready to get back on the road. Unfortunately two events threatened to stop me continuing my travels. Pakistan’s President Zia was killed, probably assassinated, when his plane exploded. The turmoil that followed meant that it was too risky for me to continue my journey through Pakistan and then back into China. The second obstacle I faced was a miserable Indian beaurocrat who refused to re-issue me with a new Indian visa for my temporary passport. As a consequence, although I was certainly in the country, I was not allowed to leave. His argument was that the flight from Kathmandu to Varanasi, by which I’d entered the country, was a domestic flight. The fact that both cities were in different countries, Nepal and India, appeared irrelevant to him. The discussion continued round and round until I left totally frustrated. After a few days travelling back and forth to Agra, where I visited the magnificent Taj Mahal and was driven to near insanity by touts, I decided to head north to Kashmir and then, by bus over the Himalayas, to Ladakh were I met new friends and had many great experiences.

Canon New F1 Camera and Canon 24mm f2.8 lens with Agfachrome 100 film

On the way back from Ladakh I stopped off in Srinagar where I met a Swedish army doctor serving with the United Nations (UN) who were there to monitor the ceasefire line between India and Pakistan. He diagnosed my stomach condition as giardia and prescribed me with the appropriate medication. Within a day or two I was cured and, after 6 weeks of continued illness and a loss of around 27 kilos, I began to recover my strength.

Canon New F1 camera and Canon 50mm f1.8 lens with Agfachrome 100 film

The image at the very top of this article was made at Tiksey Gompa (monastery) in Ladakh, India. It’s a lovely gompa which, at 3,600m altitude, provides a commanding view from the rooftop just outside the main temple. The Champa Buddha Statue in the above photograph is 15 meters high and housed inside the main temple. The statue possess both serene and majestic qualities, which is probably why it’s been featured in numerous films. I may well post one or more images of this location over the next few weeks.

This final image was made of an elderly pilgrim at Hemis Gompa, 47 km west of the capital, Leh. He was an ideal subject but, sadly, the conditions were such that making a great photograph of him was impossible. These days there would be all manner of things I could do to reduce the extreme contrast under which I was shooting. But, as it is, the fact that I’ve completely lost his eyes in this image is a motivation to never let the same happen again.

I wanted to stay and the only bug that remained in my system was the travel bug. But my younger sister was due to be married and, as an ex wedding photographer, I’d been drafted in to do the photography. Unfortunately, while I was able to procure a replacement ticket for my return flight to Melbourne from Hong Kong, the heavy demand on region flights due to the Olympic Games in Soul prevented me from being able to fly there from New Delhi.

I bought a ticket to Bangkok after being advised that, from there, it would be easy to catch a flight onto Hong Kong. I then fronted the same Indian beaurocrat who’d refused to grant me a visa during my previous interview. He was shocked to see me again and to be told of my travels in his country, without a visa. I put tthat nights plane ticket to Bangkok in front of him, together with my temporary Australian passport and a cash incentive (for his troubles, after all). He stamped my passport with the most pathetic, almost invisible stamp you could imagine and wrote directly onto my passport, in pencil, that I should be allowed to leave the country that night. It was as easy as that. But, from desperation comes inspiration.

Unfortunately, once I arrived in Bangkok I discovered that there were no flights available to Hong Hong. I was now stranded in Bangkok, with very little money. I did it tough, even spending one night in a slum by a river, being eaten alive by mosqitos. Eventually, after 19 days, I finally got a flight to Hong Kong. And you don’t want to know how I pulled that one off.

Once back in Australia I determined to work hard with the sole intention of saving enough money to travel again. One year later I was off again and continued to travel, on average every 18 months, for the next 12 years. Over the last 10 years my travels have been restricted to my own country. Australia is a wonderful country and I’ve been fortunate enough to have photographed some of its most spectacular locations. But, the bug has returned and I feel it will soon be time to venture overseas again.

© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography


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