Starting this blog, about Varanasi, a famous Dickens line comes to mind… ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’
To me Varanasi represents much that is wonderful and intoxicating about this extraordinary country, but also a great deal that is extremely hard for our sensitive Western sensibilities to digest. The simple spiritual beauty of the dawn Ganges bathers or the Brahmin priests chanting their evening prayers, juxtaposed by the filth, the poverty, the shrouded corpses and the burning ghats, is remarkable and unique; Varanasi is the city of life and death… a city of complex variety.
What Mecca is to the Muslims and Jerusalem is to the Jews, Varanasi is to the Hindus. According to the Vedas – the grand law of Hindu philosophy – this is where Lord Shiva lives, and to die here offers a one way ticket to paradise, a chance to climb off the wheel of life and the constant cycle of death and rebirth by attaining moksha. Just a dunk in the river’s murky waters is enough to drive all sins away. As such it is the key pilgrimage site in India making it a remarkable spectacle for the visitor.
‘Sixty thousand worshipers a day come to take a dip,’ said our excellent guide, Rajeev Pandy. ‘Many more if the timings are auspicious, or there is a festival going on.’
We arrived late yesterday afternoon and drove straight down onto the ghats, the sandstone steps that lead down into the Ganges from her western bank. We walked pass an army of limbless beggars, pleading for alms, passed a man having his head shaved, hopped over a cow (avoiding her excrement), and climbed aboard an old wooden rowing boat. With time to spare before the evening aarti – when the Brahmin priests offer prayers to Lord Shiva in a colourful riverside spectacle – we rowed upstream towards the burning ghats. Despite the costs of 12,000 rupees (£150), a constant draw on the fragile local forests – to burn a corpse takes two and a half hours and uses 200kgs of wood – and the much less expensive and eco-freindly electric alternative being offered nearby, this is still the way most families dispose of their dead. And at night it makes a ghoulish scene.
Beneath the pointed towers of the Shiva temple, where sinister flagpoles pierce the night sky, ten roaring fires burned in a row. Around them sudras – the untouchable caste paid to prepare and cremate the dead – busied themselves, adding logs to the fires, stoking the flames, pushing back escaping limbs. Below them more scurried in the darkness, over the mounds of mud-like ash, silhouetted by the flames. On their shoulders they carried corpses on stretchers down to the water’s edge to give the deceased one last dip in the Ganges holy water before their final journey to the purifying flames. Ghostly black boats laden with wood moored at the water’s edge. In the shadows stray dogs howled. It put me in mind of a medieval siege at some dark forgotten fortress.
We headed back down stream to the Dasaswamedh Ghat, meandering through a thousand floating candles, and joined a throng of other boats to watch this evening’s aarti. Here, on a stage at the river’s edge, seven young Brahman priests stood in a row and made offerings to Lord Shiva. Dressed in glittering braid, accompanied by live sitar, conch, tabular and bells – and much chanting from an enthusiastic crowd – each waved a large gold-plated serpent, in whose mouth fired a camphor flame. Smoke from burning incense rose around them like dry ice at a rock concert.
Again, according to the Vedas, the Ganges bursts from Shiva’s head making this very spot the centre of the universe. The city’s ancient name is Kashi, meaning centre of cosmic rays, and the former name Benares roughly translates as ‘readymade heaven’. (The new title Varanasi simply comes from the Varana and Assi rivers that join the Ganges here.) Everyone around me seemed mesmerised. I put down my camera, sat back and enjoyed this timeless Eastern scene.
Eight hours later in the warm dawn light we were back in the boat rowing passed the ghats. Varanasi was coming to life in the way only Varanasi can. At the water’s edge the devotees took their sanctifying bath facing the rising sun, the men in simple loin cloths, the women still clad in saris. At a burning ghat a grieving family gathered around while a sudra shaved the head of their departed relative in preparation for the fire. Unconcerned beside them young boys fished and dhobi wallahs rinsed their soapy washing. Above them on the wider steps, three men contorted in strange positions as they went about their morning yoga. Along a little further another family enjoyed a picnic. At a temple a priest rang a bell to summon the gods. On the higher steps, running passed the ashrams and monasteries, the ancient palaces and cheap guesthouses, school children hurried off to class dodging indolent cows that lay chewing the cud. And above them all a troop of mischievous monkeys scurried across the rooftops. Far away I heard a train’s whistle blow.
Looking down again, an old man with a stark and wizened face immerged from the water. Having bowed and offered a prayer he turned to go… his devotions done, his sins washed away, if only for another day.
As we left our hotel a little while later to drive to the airport, a jeep went passed with a corpse on the bonnet. ‘Look!’ exclaimed Rajeev excitedly, as if pointing out a major tourist site, ‘another dead body.’
Varanasi is not a traditional tourist location and will not be for everyone; the town is noisy and dirty, with few typical attractions, and much that can turn your stomach. And yet for anyone wanting to scratch beneath the service of this captivating country at least one visit here is essential. Varanasi will have you grimacing at the freakishly macabre spectacles it offers, but it may also have you understanding India more, and the life (and death) of the billion Hindu souls that live here.
Faud and his mates did not manage to lead the horses quite as far as we’d hoped, leaving us a 5km ride along an asphalt road. It didn’t matter. The sun was once again burning down from a clear sky, the countryside to either side was lush and green with plenty of things to admire and there was precious little traffic. By noon we reached the large iron bridge crossing the River Vjosa.
Built by the Italians during their ill-conceived campaign against Greece in the winter of 1940, it carried the tarmac road to the north bank. Ignoring its advances we ducked down beneath the colossal structure and struck out along a mountain trail.
This ride was as pretty as any we’d done, along the steep-sided valley with a turquoise river tumbling away to the left. We rode through thick bracken, pushed blackberry brambles aside, strode across meadows of high grass where cows grazed.
After about an hour we heard Auron shouting to us from the far bank. Although carrying on a loud and animated conversation with Faud in the vernacular it was easy to understand the gist. In order not to reach a dead end, where vertical cliffs climbed from the river to the sky, I knew we’d have to cross the river somewhere and evidently this was where Auron thought best. But as we were on a perfectly good path, that presumably led to another crossing point, and neither Faud (standing on the saddle of his mule) or I could see a way down to the beach across from which Auron was gesticulating, we decided to ignore our guide and push on.
After 10 minutes we came down to the river’s bank. Here the river looked reasonably shallow but the water was flowing in a raging torrent, crashing into whitewater as it raced downstream. Auron again screamed at us not to cross. This place was dangerous he bellowed, adding the locals crossed downstream and so should we. Reluctantly I turned the troops around and we retraced our steps until I found a route down to the river where Auron had intended. At this point there was both an area of fast rapids, about 50 meters across, and a little further upstream, a more sedate section of the river, but this was obviously deeper, and about a hundred meters wide. Had I been alone I’d have gone for the shorter section of rapids, but leading clients of varying ability and Auron insisting the calm part was where the locals crossed, I struck out on foot across the wider section and into the icy torrent.
With the group following on horseback I stuck to the route Auron pointed out. The water climbed higher and higher until it was above my belt pushing me this way and that. Auron shouted I was drifting too far to the right. The water was now up to my chest. The stones beneath my feet were slippery, the force of the current extreme. Then I was down. For a moment I was completely submerged, with the only trace of the group’s venerable leader showing, a white sun hat bobbing up and down on the surface of the river. But remembering I had my camera in my hand and rucksack on my back (filled with, among other things, the medical kit and a mobile phone I’d been given for safe keeping) I was up in a flash, had regained my footing and was quickly back on track.
Of course the guide taking an unscheduled ducking is cause for great hilarity and looking back I could see the group had enjoyed the situation enormously. However, still crossing, with their own fate far from certain, they saved the full force of their mirth until safely up the other side.
The ribbing continued the rest of the day as I rode and walked in sodden clothes leaving a damp trail behind me.
Day three with the horses and we’re getting the hang of things. With help from the gang - and the ever decreasing roll of gaffer tape - we were tacked up, mounted and on our way on schedule at 10am. A minor miracle if you ask me!
On top of a ridge overlooking the fertile valley with the rugged mountains behind, we rode through the ruins of the ancient city of Antigoneia. Situated on a major trading route between Illyria, in northern Greece, and the Adriatic coast, the town reached its zenith in the 3rd century before Christ, when it was the third largest metropolitan centre in the region. Sadly very little has been excavated, but there are enough exposed walls, pillars and pathways to imagine what the place must have been like in its heyday and made an interesting start to the day.
Leaving the site behind we happened upon an old shepherd, travelling up to the high pastures with his three donkeys, who directed us onto the right trail, directly across the hills. At first the path was clear, hugging the contours of the land, passing through meadows of long grass. But little by little the route narrowed and the grass grew higher until it was barely discernible at all. We stopped on a ridge and looked out across a canyon, a giant ravine, stretching away before us. Another dead end? On foot I scurried down the hill, where, much to my relief, I found a narrow track through which we could pass. Summoning the group forward, we all dismounted and lead our horses down towards a river at the bottom. It was a slippery route, with vegetation often hindering the way, but eventually we made it to the water and rode up the other side.
Here we reached a picturesque village of Qesorat. It was here that Byron and Hobhouse had lunch in a house they described well. We found the house, but sadly the last 200 years have taken their toll - the roof had caved in and one wall had collapsed - leaving it unsuitable to use today. Beside the dilapidated dwelling was an old school, now being used as a cow shed. Beside that we found a small shop which we cleared out of beers, had a rest before continuing on to another little village where, by the shady spring, we had a delicious lunch of peaches and cherries, cheese and tomatoes.
In the afternoon we rode on through meadows and vineyards, crossed small rivers, waved at shepherds, and eventually reached the village of Andon Poci. Here we left the horses and, sensing a shower and a comfortable night would go down well, jumped into a minibus and headed to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Gjirokastra where we checked into the town’s best hotel.
Well, it is supposed to be a holiday!
My respect for our horse trek operators has just increased ten fold. I have always realised they work hard. I’ve been on enough to see the level of organisation required to get 10 horses ready for a trip, and then to keep them sound, fed and prepared while on the journey. But now, having had to play the roll of the horseman - for all intense and purposes, the only horseman - I dip my hat in exaggerated reverence.
While the group looked around the old castle in Libohove, once home to Ali Pasha’s sister and scene of a visit from Lord Byron, I tacked up 9 steeds. With my trusty role of gaffer tape I made three nose bands, a couple of throat lashes and mended reins. A more motley looking band of horses could barely be imagined but at least we could move on. And just after noon we were rode out of the castle and back onto the trail… or so we thought.
Sadly a mile or so out of the village we took a wrong turn, walked for an hour only to emerge exactly were we started. Trying again we took a somewhat un-scenic route, through the village rubbish dump, but eventually we were out into the countryside. And from here, as is usually the case, things began to improve.
Once again the skies were clear, the landscape spectacular and the horses and riders happy. We took lunch by a water channel, in the shade of a Mediterranean Oak and then pushed on, up a trail towards another distant village. Here an old boy grabbed a lift on one of our mules, claiming he’d show us a short cut but in reality getting a lift home. Having jumped ship, pointing vaguely into the distance, unsurprisingly we managed once again to get lost, but a few shouted messages to various silhouetted shepherds, eventually put us on a path and after a couple of hours scrambling though bracken and brambles, riding up and up, we finally emerged on the top of the mountain, in what was apparently an ancient Epir city (3rd Century BC) called Antigone.
The sun burst through the clouds in golden shafts illuminating the valley and the distant hills - another magic moment. Here we sat around a camp fire enjoying a fine single malt I’d packed in my bag before bedding down in a small reception centre.
Another interesting and ultimately successful day done but what tomorrow will bring is anyone’s guess. More tacking up is a given!
There are recces and then there are recces, and this trip is definitely pushing the boundaries.
So much happened yesterday its hard to know where to begin, but I suppose, being a horse trek, we should start with the horses. We met them in a field by the road and to be honest I was rather relieved. Although small, the average being around 13.2, they had quite elegant proportions, no gaping wounds (as can happen in this part of the world) and pleasant demeanours. We led them across the vast valley floor, down to a river and prepared to tack them up in the shade of two walnut trees.
Auron, the Albanian mastermind of his country’s inaugural horse trek, is many things - TV producer, politician, writer, journalist and tour operator - but one thing he isn’t is a horseman. He did provide enough tack: saddles, good saddles, girths and bridles. The problem was most were made for English hunters twice the size and we spend the next three hours armed only with a Swiss Army knife and a roll of gaffer tape, remodelling equipment for our ponies. Sadly we ran out of suitable bits and girths on eight, leaving Alex - who, somewhat ironically, works for Tattershalls, the horse world’s equivalent of Sotherbys - and myself to ride two local mules.
Anyway by quarter to one, three hours later than scheduled, my intrepid bunch mounted their rugged steeds and off we set, across the river and into the hills. And so my spirit soared. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, we were soon high up a verdant mountainside with Greece at our backs, and Byron’s ‘rugged land of savage men’ in front.
Feeling a little lost, riding across a field, we ask directions from a shepherd and soon found ourselves on the old cobbled road, Byron and Hobhouse, must have taken more than 200 years before us. We rode through villages where bewildered locals greeted us warmly, picked plums from their trees, had lunch on a ridge gazing out at the immense landscape, and around five arrived at a Bektashi monastery. Although Islamic, the Bektashi’s are an extremely liberal sect, so much so that we were greeted with shots of raki. The position on a spur above the valley was stunning but after a vague discussion about staying the night we decided to ride on over the hills towards the village of Libohove. Riding high in the mountains as the sun was setting, passing shepherd and their flocks, was truly amazing and any doubts I might have harboured about the sanity of attempting such a venture disappeared. Such moments are what adventure travel is all about.
As far as international cultural centres go, Tirana does not have a great reputation. More renowned for shabby communist architecture, litter and abysmal driving than anything of historical significance, it has been almost totally overlooked by the modern tourist.
I think this is a shame. Okay, so the mayor’s idea of simply painting the town in bright colours (leading Michael Palin to utter the immortal line, ‘you can’t polish a turd!’) has not done that much to smarten up the city centre, but it does add a jolly air to what would otherwise be a grey remnant of the former Eastern Block.
Added to that, the litter has gone and the driving I felt was fine. We visited two excellent museums - the first showing English photographer, Martin Parr’s, pictures of the country in 1990 and the second a fascinating archaeology museum - walked on boulevards built during the Italian occupation, visited a building that housed the Gestapo during WWII, sauntered in pretty parks, and ate at a very pleasant outdoor restaurant.
Later the town was buzzing. We went for a drink at one of the many street bars all of which were crowded with the city’s beautiful young. It was strange. It seemed like a typical Mediterranean coastal town, but with no tourists, only locals. One thing that surprised me was the minarets and early evening call to prayer. During communist times, religion expression was banned, mosques were closed, churches turned into welfare centres, synagogues pulled down, as Albania became the world’s first official atheist state. But since the wall came down and the government changed, religious expression has increased and once more chants from the minarets can be heard echoing across the city.
Quite who’s listening is hard to say. Not the young judging by the scantily clad girls walking the streets in miniskirts, boob-tubes and halter-necks, or the men enjoying a beer. But that’s the feeling you get from the place; somewhere that has had a tricky past, revelling in the new. I liked it.
After 48 hours here we’re now heading south to start our horse trek.
What is the first thing you think of when you contemplate Albania? I was pondering this on the plane over this morning and try as I might I could think of little else but cliched answers: black Mercedes, criminal gangs and illegal immigrants. Umm, is this the truth about Albania or is the country simply in need of a image makeover?
Over the next week I am sure I will find out, but the first signs were definitely encouraging. My guide, Auron, picked me up at the airport and on the way into Tirana started to explain something of the trip upon which we are about to embark. ‘It is important,’ he said, in near perfect English, ‘that the group understand this is a new venture in Albanian tourism. No one has ever organised a commercial horse trek through the country before and we must all keep an open mind.’ That sounded like sensible advice. ‘It is so beautiful down there in the south, and we are sure to have a great time, but not everything will go to plan.’
As Auron continued it transpired that certain fairly crucial things had already gone array. We had been planning on taking some very elegant horses from a stable in Tirana for the trek. I was now to learn that they - yes, the entire stable - had developed some kind of hoof infection and would not last a day never mind a week. Auron had just got back from the south rounding up some local replacements. Added to that there was the little problem of the saddles. So far Auron said we only had six and he was waiting on a friend to bring another four over the border from Kosova. With a group of nine arriving tomorrow to start the ride on Monday, this was leaving it late, even by our standards.
But was I worried? No. Auron used to be a fixer for Channel 4 News and over lunch and a couple of beers he not only put my mind to rest about the logistics he also excited me with tales of the mountains, of the medieval monasteries at which we would be staying, of the ancient Ottoman citadels we would see, and deep canyons we would explore, of the picturesque villages through which we’d ride. On a map he showed me how we would be following in the hoof-prints of Lord Byron.
Recently my travels have been of a rather luxurious nature, top end stuff through Mexico, Indonesia and Burma. It feels good to now be heading off on something a little more rugged, a little less predictable.
In his epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron wrote, ‘Land of Albania! Let me bend my eyes on thee, thou rugged nurse of savage men.’ Quite right. Albania… bring it on!
Why do I always have such hassle entering the States?
Last month I found out… Arriving into Los Angeles my anxiety rose to its usual levels on entering America. Besides crossing countless international borders over the years I have always found coming here the hardest.
Back in 1990, arriving from London into Newark, I was given the third degree, as I was six months later bouncing home from Guatemala, via Huston. Coming from Latin America at a time of multiple civil wars (I had El Salvador and Nicaragua stamps in my passport) it seemed fair enough. But on each of my last three visit, as a reputable businessman, dressed appropriately, and acting with utmost decorum, the reaction has been the same. Having stood for almost an hour in the queue, my passport is taken by the black uniformed immigration officer, studied, and then handed on to another. It happened last year coming into Las Vegas, and six months earlier into JFK.
Yesterday was the same. ‘Follow this man,’ said the officer coming out of his booth and handing my passport over to another pistol-packing official. ‘He’ll take ya down there to holding room Z.’ Holding Room Z? It sounded like something from the Matrix… a sci-fi anti-chamber where alien beings were processed. Here my passport was handed over to a third officer and I was told to sit down and wait, my name would be called in due course.
Holding Room Z was in fact the Admissions Review area of the airport, where travellers with suspicious dispositions, fake passports, Interpol records, outstanding murder charges - whatever - were questioned before being allowed (or denied) entry. Rows of plastic seats faced a panel of five desks behind which sat those that decided if you could stay or if you had to go… right back on the flight on which you’d just arrived.
Mostly my fellow undesirables were of Asian origin: Korean, mainland Chinese, Pilipino. There was another Brit off the same flight as me, carrying a guitar as hand luggage with ginger dreads falling all the way down his back. A Nigerian girl was being given a grilling. ‘Where have you been prior to coming here,’ the office demanded. In an almost inaudible voice I heard her answer, Dubai. ‘What were ya doin’ in Dubai?’ I couldn’t hear her answer but evidently it assuaged the fears of the office as he handed her the passport and told her she was free to go.
So why me? I had filled in my Esta US visa waiver on line and had been approved. I was here for a bona fide conference. I was kosher, above board, a record without blemish… or was I? As I sat there waiting my turn I started to think. Yes, this was my ‘clean’ passport. As the boss of a travel company I have always managed to get two, one I try to use in Europe and the States with relatively few visa stamps, the other for the rest of the world. But was their systems now so advanced that they could now track my movements regardless? Did they know that since my last visit I had been to Syria, Mexico, Burma, Indonesia, India, Pakistan! If so I imagined this could cause them some head scratching and me a great many questions.
At last the office that had had a go at the Nigerian girl took my passport and sat down behind his computer. He didn’t call me up, or look at me… just started to hit the keys on his keypad and stare intently at the screen. Once an office was working on a case it seemed to last no more than two or three minutes, but mine went on and on. I began to worry about my driver, would he wait - I was now 2 hours late. Would I need him at all? ‘Mr Bealby,’ the office said at last, ‘come on up!’
I did as I was told and sat in front of the desk. ‘Bet ya thought I’d forgotten ‘bout ya?’
‘Well,’ I answered in my most polite voice, ‘I was beginning to wonder.’
‘When did you last lose a passport?’ he asked. (Ah, so that was it…)
‘April 2010,’ I answered immediately, ‘… in Nairobi’ I’d wondered if that stupid mistake, the only passport I had ever lost - I left it in a coat pocket which I left in a hotel - would come back to haunt me one day.
‘Well the thing is the airline still has you travelling on that passport, not this one!’ He looked at me. ‘It’s lost, records don’t match, we get suspicious.’ How annoying, I thought. I had changed it with BA and checked when checking in.
‘So it hasn’t been used?’ I asked, ‘I mean my identity hasn’t been cloned?’
‘Not yet,’ he replied, ‘and you’d better hope it don’t. Then you got real problems. Thing is it hasn’t been found and it hasn’t expired and until one of these things happens it can still be a problem. And in the meantime make sure British Airways change their records or you’ll have this issue each time you come to the States.’
He handed me my passport and told me I was free to go. Thankfully the hotel driver, a charming chap called Jordan, was still waiting for me and 45 minutes later I was drinking a cold beer overlooking a dead-calm Pacific ocean, with the rays of the sun warming my face.
Its always a hassle, but it is always worth it.