Back in Karimabad, it was great to kick back and enjoy the creature comforts in the beautiful Hunza valley after five days trekking in the mountains. Comfortable bed, hot water to wash, good food, and conversation. Korean tourists apparently didn’t appear as put off by the security situation in Pakistan, I had spotted a few in the town. But that was it for foreigners apart from a some English speakers in my guesthouse. James, a debonair young Kiwi professional photographer travelling overland to London via “dodgy places” (who has an impressive website), had arrived by bus from Islamabad. Barbara, a blond Hungarian emigré and mathematician who had represented Australia at chess, was on an extended backpacking holiday. After a month in the Hunza valley she was finding it difficult to leave. Also visiting to do anthropological research in the area was the awesome Ramla, a switched on, feisty feminist from Karachi who appeared to this infidel as everything the stereotypical subordinate Muslim woman wasn’t. In this traditional area where as a woman you are generally under some man’s ‘protection’, Ramla was off hiking in the mountains on her own for days collecting material from local women.
Alex, a cyclist from the Ukraine, had arrived in the guesthouse the previous day. He was travelling by bicycle from Europe to India the more conventional route through Iran. Having put himself and his bike on a train across Pakistan on his way to India he had decided to take a side trip up to the Hunza valley. There had always been bandit activity preying on local travellers crossing to and from Iran, due to the near impossibility of policing the huge desert badlands of Baluchistan in the west of Pakistan. In a former life in a travel job I was asked to relocate an overland truck from Nepal to England for its long overdue refurbishment. (What a trip – and no passengers! But that’s another story). The further west from the Punjab and central provinces, the more traditional it got. In the more mountainous Tribal Areas as the province is known, the Pashtun population exercise their own law enforcement and carrying firearms is part of the culture. It was a little disconcerting as a westerner driving through remote areas coming across a road block manned by grim faced, rifle toting, bearded men in djellabas and pakul, the Pashtun hat. (To be less conspicuous I wore a shalwar kameez, the local long shirt to the knees over baggy pyjama-like trousers narrowed at the ankle.) Through towns and villages most men had guns slung over their shoulder. For days I saw not one woman, they were kept indoors. From Quetta the few days drive across barren, uninhabited Baluchistan to the Iran border, it was not permitted to drive after sunset. I had to aim for a settlement with a military compound each night.
Alex didn’t have much English (and I no Russian) so our conversation was limited. He introduced me to a couple from Belorus – he a gentle bearded chap, his wife, very quiet and unassuming, wore a long floral hippy dress. The three of them spent the afternoon under the shade of an umbrella discussing travel plans and I headed off sightseeing through charming Karimabad and up to Baltit fort. Later, after eating dinner, it was dark when I returned to the guesthouse. To an uneasy, tense atmosphere. Hello, what’s going on here? James pulled me aside and told me the shocking news. There had been a road accident involving Alex and the Belorus couple. The three had decided on a short trek to Rakaposhi base camp, just a day or two’s walk from the main road, a half an hour’s drive down the Karakorum Highway (KKH). Night had already fallen and the advice was to wait for the next day. But they wanted to be there ready to walk in the morning. Tragically, the truck they hitched a lift from went off the road and down the mountainside. Alex managed to jump free and escaped with a broken leg. The Belarus couple didn’t and were killed.
It was such sudden and sickening news. A sense of tragedy, unavoidably, but also of unreality. Are you sure? But they… I saw them here this afternoon, they can’t be… There was simply a feeling of shock in the guesthouse. This was one of those moments where a ‘real life’ tragedy disturbs our reality, throwing into confusion our futile yet constant attempts at controlling fate. There was the immediacy – these victims we were just talking to today, but also, for me, the identification with fellow Europeans travelling in a faraway country. I had met just a handful in the past month. “It could have been me!” We were totally helpless.
A couple of days later, after exchanging mournful hugs which was some help, I got back on the bike. There had been a shift in my mood. This journey was all so exotic and different and offbeat, but also just around the corner tragedies can happen.
Back on the KKH, this extraordinary road that links Pakistan with China through the Karakorum mountain range. The Chinese are seen as good neighbours in their assistance to build and repair the road, and as Pakistan’s closest ally, particularly in light of their relationship with the US. A recent survey shows 81% view China favourably. Anecdotally however, according to a PhD blogger pal of a pal, many locals accuse the Chinese workers of not respecting the local cultures, of selling alcohol, causing incidents and, at times, of not bringing anything to the local economy. “Some Chinese traders and officials were eager to highlight the laziness and inefficiency of the Pakistanis; while on the other side many Pakistani businessmen despised the Chinese for cheating and for their arrogance”.
It did feel great to be on the bike again, and such enjoyable cycling. Knowing that any inclines were just temporary as it was downhill to Gilgit! After a while the soaring snowy peak of Rakaposhi – “the shining wall” in the local language – became visible from the road. Though not one of the Himalayan 8,000m peaks – not really up there with the Everests and K2’s – it’s one of the world’s exalted mountains because of its drama. On the edge of the Eurasian plate, measured from base to summit it has an uninterrupted vertical rise of six kilometres – and for that reason is claimed to be the tallest mountain on earth.
Cycling into the town of Gilgit, capital of the Northern Areas province of Pakistan, felt strangely bewildering. After the few weeks travelling through the remote, lightly populated areas of the Karakorums and Himalayas I was now entering an urban area. A Pakistani urban area, built up, and cacophonous. Concrete buildings crammed together, added to, a spaghetti of electricity wires, colourful signs – vertical and horizontal – advertising each little business. People moved en masse along the broken footpath, weaved across the road dodging traffic, or sat in small gatherings outside shops shooting the breeze, pausing to glance at the tourist on his loaded bicycle trying to get a take on it all. Feeling like a country bumpkin with eyes popping out of my head at the intense activity all around, through the traffic congestion I found my guesthouse, the Medina, a sanctuary near the centre. Barbara had heard Alex was in a bad way over the incident and my intention was to visit him in hospital in Gilgit. After a few phone calls I learned he had been flown that afternoon to Islamabad for treatment. (When I did get to Islamabad his appreciative reply to my text came from the Ukraine – he had already been repatriated. At least he was physically ok. I can only guess how the whole experience would impact on him. Maybe it would seem like a receding bad dream. Not one however that can disappear.)
I had my first real curry in a bustling restaurant with shiny, stained walls, shouted conversations, and welcoming smiles at my arrival. Followed by a chai. This felt like I’d arrived, my blast of the urban intensity I associate with the Indian subcontinent. I met up with Daniela, an Italian environmental engineer working for an NGO, who had been with the Dutch dental crew on the street in Karimabad. It was fascinating to hear of the challenges working here. I didn’t know that the local language – Shina – is spoken by 80,000 people in the area. And her stories of working in sanitation. Some of them far fetched it seemed, though the sober Daniela didn’t strike me as the kind to make them up. Her experience in Sudan for instance visiting a house in a rural area and the main room was full of little piles of shit. Apparently a sign of prosperity, to indicate they had food! To my protests that that goes against any animal practice with regard to their waste, she shrugged. Humans respond in strange ways to their circumstances. As an illustration of cultural differences and misunderstandings she recounted how a local woman rejected hygiene advice from an NGO’s western nurse. “How can I listen? She is more dirty than us, she doesn’t take her shoes off in my house!”
From Gilgit the KKH continues to the capital Islamabad. But there are security issues. As an expat and obvious target for some, Daniella was only permitted to fly to Islamabad, or ISB as its colloquially written. The road passes through the North West Frontier province – now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – a traditional and fundamentalist area. In two separate incidents the previous year, buses had been stopped by militants on the KKH and nearly fifty Shia passengers from northern Pakistan taken off and executed. In this province that borders Afghanistan, subjected over recent years to regular violence and disruption, the Taliban are considered a serious threat by 94% of the population. (It was interesting to read opinion poll results that show despite the country’s reputation internationally, relatively few Pakistanis – one in eight – express a positive view of either the Taliban or Al Qaeda. The army gets a high approval rating (77%) the police low (24%)).
It is forbidden for foreigners to travel the road. With my bicycle I was quite happy not to challenge that one and accepted the public bus option. Which was not altogether reassuring. Apart from the risk of Taliban hold ups, road accidents were a regular occurrence. A recent newspaper article reported “34 missing after bus goes off road near Gilgit.” Apparently “such accidents are common”. I turned up at the bus station, sorted out a ticket on a bus company Daniela’s minder had recommended as more comfortable (and dearer) than the others, and watched over the black Cadillac being tied onto the roof before taking my seat for the 24 hour ride. The buses all left at the same time in the morning in a convoy, an armed military jeep leading the entourage, another following behind.
It was a long journey. Passengers drew the curtains across the windows to block the light – and the jaw dropping scenery! It was a gut wrenching feeling to be sitting in the bus and not cycling this magnificent road.
Just off the KKH, “like the bows of an advancing ship” (Royal Geographic Society International Karakoram Project, 1980) is the world’s ninth tallest peak Nanga Parbat, at the end of the Himalayan range and considered the second hardest 8000m mountain to climb after K2. Nanga Parbat means “Naked Mountain” in Urdu, referring to the south face, the largest in the world extending over four kilometres above base camp. The mountaineering site Summitpost.org describes the first ascent in 1953 by Hermann Buhl, part of a large German-Austrian expedition that was troubled by disorganisation.
“Sherpas from Nepal never arrived and there was a drastic shortage of high altitude porters that severely limited the siege attempt with higher camps never formed. Bad weather, altitude sickness and porter strikes had led to many members (including Buhl’s most regular climbing partner Kuno Reiner) throwing in the towel and descending to base camp.
When four climbers… made a last push for the summit from camp III (20125ft) with a small elite of high altitude porters they had been under persistent orders from base camp to abandon their attempt and descend immediately – to which they firmly refused. Beyond camp IV (22000ft) only the younger Kempter and Buhl continued as Camp V (22640ft) had never been properly established and there was only one small tent pitched. On summit day Buhl left ahead of Kempter who did not rise for the appointed 2.30am departure. Kempter eventually followed one hour after but never caught up and soon turned around leaving Buhl the task of climbing solo to the summit. Buhl reached the summit (without bottled oxygen) at 7.30pm shortly before sunset after 17 hours of climbing. Having only descended a short distance before nightfall he was forced to bivouac in the open at 26000ft until sunrise, which he amazingly survived. This was the highest ever bivi at the time. Next morning he continued his descent arriving at camp V 41 hours after his departure exhausted, feet frostbitten and suffering wild hallucinations. Three days later he reached base camp by which time many of the party had already packed up and left.”
A few months previously my concerned sister had forwarded me news of the killing of ten foreign climbers near Nanga Parbat base camp by the Taliban, dressed as the local paramilitary force the Gilgit Scouts. This was concerning on two levels – the cold blooded murder of the innocent climbers, and more selfishly, the implications for my route. Would that mean this part of Pakistan, not seen as dangerous as other regions of the country, be too risky for foreigners now? Surely that would make it even more difficult to get a visitors visa. “The killing of foreign climbers on the way to Nanga Parbat Diamer Base Camp will have far reaching negative impacts on the already lifeless tourism industry of Pakistan,” according to the president of the Sustainable Tourism Foundation of Pakistan. “Forget tourism for another 10 years,” Inspector General of Police Sarmad Saeed Khan is quoted in the same newspaper report. I continued at the time on the cycle across Central Asia just hoping things would settle by the time I arrived.
On the bus journey the day passed, evening drew in and we were just halfway. Every few hours the convoy paused for food, toilet, a stretch of legs and to change driver and military escort. A few hours before dawn we stopped briefly at the city of Abbottabad, where Osama Bin Laden had been holed up for nearly ten years on the run after 9/11. The city was probably chosen by him for the chance of relative anonymity – it attracted refugees from fighting in the tribal areas and Swat Valley, as well as Afghanistan. Built in 2004, the three-story compound was located at the end of a narrow dirt road a few miles outside of town. Eventually his location was detected by the Americans. The CIA rented a home in Abbottabad from which a team staked out and observed the compound over a number of months. U.S. government files, leaked by Wikileaks, disclosed that American diplomats had been told that Pakistani security services had been tipping off bin Laden every time U.S. forces approached, so the whole exercise was kept from them. The CIA team used informants and other techniques – including a widely criticised fake vaccination program – to gather intelligence on the compound. One of the odd facts that came to light was Bin Laden – or OBL as he was referred to in subsequent reports – used to wear a cowboy hat, to avoid detection from above!
According to the official record, on the appointed night – moonless – Obama gave the nod to the CIA-led, Navy SEALS operation and two Black Hawks took off for the hour long flight from a US base one hundred miles over the border in Afghanistan. These were quiet and hard-to-detect helicopters, flying low over the hills without appearing on radar and alerting the Pakistani military. Heavier Chinooks followed as backup. The storming of the compound and killing of OBL and 4 others took 15 minutes, less than 40 minutes on the ground for the whole operation. One of the helicopters crashed into the compound with no injuries. By the time the Pakistan Air Force were alerted and got there the Americans had long gone. With the body of OBL. According to U.S. officials, bin Laden was buried at sea because no country would accept his remains. Before disposing of the body, the U.S. called the Saudi government, who approved of dumping the body in the ocean. They didn’t want a grave be used as a martyr’s spot for pilgrimage. There were objections, including from Amnesty International, about the cold blooded assassination. I reckon the Americans believed OBL would have been too serious a liability alive. Al Qaeda would in all probability capture a group of hostages to exchange for OBL.
In the early morning the bus pulled into the station at Rawalpindi, the poorer, untidier neighbour city to Islamabad half an hour’s cycle down the road. My mission was to get an Indian visa without too much delay. I had a return plane ticket booked from New Delhi for a week’s visit home for my father’s 80th birthday. Time was tight.
I had lined up a warmshowers host. For cycle tourers, this is the accommodation website I’d used across Europe a number of times. The cyclist checks members around his/her destination for comments by other cyclists, and emails the host a few days before arriving asking to stay. The host checks the cyclist’s profile (“a delightful/ fascinating/ well mannered guest” or “he stole my CDs/ chatted up my daughter/ lay in bed all day”) and accept the request or not. Couch surfing is similar though not limited to cyclists. Though initially sceptical of this idea – what kind of people would you be condemned to spend your evening with after a tiring day in the saddle – mine had been a very satisfying experience to date. The system is self regulating and seems to work – if a member is abusing another’s goodwill it will be reported on their profile.
And so began my attempts at getting the Indian visitors visa. I’d done some research on the internet about the procedures and knew that foreign embassies and consulates are located in the heavily guarded diplomatic enclave, difficult to access for the public. Visa applications were handled by a courier agency in the city centre. I was hoping to get the visa within a week. On submitting my application it didn’t look promising, there was a backup with a minimum of two weeks wait possibly longer.
My warm showers host was out of town for a few days and Aziz from the couch surfing website very kindly offered me floor space in his apartment on the outskirts of the city. There was a fan, a godsend in the heat. I learned to plan my day around the largely predictable times of the power cuts and got out of the apartment. For obvious reasons using the stairs instead of the lift the six stories!
And I learned that the social scene in Pakistan is a little different than in the West. As it wasn’t culturally condoned for men and women to publicly socialise, and as alcohol is forbidden, what do young men do for a night out? Hang out in each other’s homes it seems. I spent the Saturday night in the company of five middle class, well educated guys – a print business owner, a successful property developer, an accountant with a multinational, a furniture store owner and a fashion retailer – all sitting around the tiny apartment chatting for hours. Smoking hashish. They were continuously rolling, the room was in a fog of pungent smoke, and without any sign of things winding down I eventually unrolled my sleeping bag along the wall and stretched out. In the morning no-one had moved, all of them crashed out in the same position as last night.
After a couple of days my warm showers host had returned from Lahore and I bid farewell and thanked the genial and smart Aziz for showing me around, driving me to the visa application office downtown, and generally being a hospitable and friendly guy. I loaded the bike and cycled the half hour to… quite a different environment. Finding the address in a very affluent part of town, the armed guard allowed me through the locked gate. To a large, comfortable house surrounded by manicured gardens. Colin (not his real name) came out to greet me and we spent some time chatting. He had seen my blog about the cycle and, a cyclist himself, was full of questions about the journey so far. Colin was a member of the Metropolitan Police in the UK, on secondment to the UK embassy here to look after security.
Naturally I was grateful for the hospitality but I was conscious of my initial wariness, a slight unease. What kind of person becomes a senior British bobby and part of the diplomatic corps? To me this man represented the Crown, repressive law enforcement to preserve ‘the system’ and the prevailing political order with all its inequities – which I do not particularly identify with. Will I be found out (“He’s not one of us!”) and politely asked to leave? Initially suspicious of his apparent charm and light heartedness, this gave way to a growing respect and liking for the man. Over the few days we got more comfortable in each other’s company, our initial reserve and civility relaxed and he was quite open and remarkably easy to get on with. Perhaps in me he saw a visitor – I’m not sure our paths would have crossed in his home territory – in whom he was interested and who didn’t appear to present much of a security risk. And damn him, he was good humoured, had a quick wit and an eclectic, interesting DVD and music collection!
One day I challenged Colin with a question. “Are you the famous Colin …, the internationally recognised photographer?” Some striking travel photos were hanging on his wall, and I had put two and two together. In a huge coincidence, a few weeks previously I had been struck by a photo published online in the UK Observer newspaper which had won some recognition in a travel photo competition. It was a striking portrait of a street stall holder in Lahore. Colin was the photographer! A little nonplussed initially at my allegation he then enjoyed the acknowledgement. I think he was secretly proud. He made a few nice comments about pics on my blog and gave me some useful tips.
I was intrigued with Colin’s background. How did someone as apparently genuine and liberal in his views rise to become a Chief Inspector in the British police? “I’ve always considered myself an ‘accidental policeman’,” he laughed. Now in his forties, he’d never had an ambition to be a bobby but not having other plans ended up as one, was put through college by the force, and subsequently fast-tracked for promotion rising rapidly in the ranks. “But this is as far as I’ll progress. The next step is Chief Constable which I’ve no wish to be. That needs a different set of skills, a lot more political, and it wouldn’t be for me.”
One anecdote Colin told was of being on security detail for Ian Paisley, on holiday at the time in Devon. “Actually he can be quite funny. And was certainly friendly to me.” The big man was in a bookshop browsing shelves while Colin sat in a chair in his civvies with just a bumbag containing any police “kit”. I didn’t ask what but guessed it included a gun. When Paisley moved to another room Colin idly picked up a book Paisley had been looking at. ‘Why The Pope Is The Anti-Christ’ by Dr. Ian Paisley. “Not many people know he has one of the world’s biggest theological collections”.
Colin’s vehicle was like an armoured car. A large SUV with reinforced body and bomb protected undercarriage. I had to use both hands to swing close the seriously heavy door. Entering the diplomatic enclave, security was very tight and a bomb detector camera was passed under the car before we were allowed in. We passed the extension to the massive US embassy being built, a new eight-story compound over 43 acres. Down the road from the British High Commission Colin pointed out the houses for ex pat staff, the swimming pool and club in which they socialise. “I made it a condition of my job that I didn’t have to live in the compound. It wasn’t easy but I was adamant. I see some staff and that’s all their life is, they hardly move out of here at all. Mix with the same people they work with and drink too much!”
That evening we took a drive up the precipitously winding road to a restaurant in the Margalla Hills overlooking the twinkling lights of the city and joined a few other diplomatic folks. I enjoyed chatting with Doug, a witty Scotsman, who questioned me on my experience in Uzbekistan. At one time he had been part of a negotiating team from a Swedish telecommunications firm who had the mobile phone contract for the country. After the network had been installed there was a dispute, the contract rescinded and a family member of Islam Karimov, the notorious president, took it over. Doug had warned the Swedes as apparently Karimov had form in matters like that. Colin later told me Doug was his superior and one of the sharpest detectives in the UK, responsible for a number of high profile investigations. As an Irish person, with notions of reactionary British colonialism, meeting Colin and Doug was proving to be a real challenge to my prejudices.
Islamabad was considered a hardship posting in diplomatic circles. Despite the air of normality – expensive cars and ostentatious shops of Western consumer goods in parts of the city – the security issue is always present particularly for expats. Socialising is difficult. Daniela had flown to Islamabad for work and had invited me to a party, walking distance from Colin’s house as luck would have it. There I found mainly just expat NGO and embassy staff, mostly young. Without children.
Colin had called a friend of his in the India High Commission. They’d met in a cycling club. It turned out Raj was the naval attaché and once he got my passport details, assured me he’d get my visa sorted. I duly got the phonecall from him a few days later, and paid a visit to his comfortable house. He greeted me and Colin with a broad smile and invited us in to the large open plan home. Ah, a social visit. Raj introduced us to his wife who pressed various Indian canapés on us. His unfortunate fourteen year daughter was called and urged to ask me questions about my trip. “It’s not everyday we meet a world adventurer!” He was warm and friendly and genuinely seemed delighted to have us in his home. I was curious about what it was like being in the navy but now a diplomat. He described to us his life at sea as a naval commander, which he missed. Life in ISB was even more restrictive I think for him, as an Indian diplomat obviously quite a target for insurgents in Pakistan. “No, I don’t socialise. Maybe we’d accept an invitation to dinner at someone’s home, but you know…” He couldn’t even go out jogging and his daughter had to have a guard going to school. That’s a sheltered life. He produced my passport with the visa stamp. I was impressed. The last I’d seen of it was a week previously, handed in to a courier firm in the city centre who handled applications. Raj also generously presented me with a handsome coffee table book on India which he signed with a lovely inscription.
And so after an absorbing sojourn in the capital I was all set and headed off the next morning. To the cultural capital of the country, Lahore, within striking distance of the Indian border. One of the most densely populated cities in the world it was manic to cycle through and after a while I enlisted a rickshaw scooter to help me find the guesthouse. Which an hour later we eventually did. This of course involved unloading the panniers and humping them up three flights of narrow stairs before carrying the bike up. It felt invigorating being in this ancient and historical city and though under pressure to get to Delhi, I spent a couple of days sightseeing and taking snaps …
An hour’s cycle brought me to the only open border between Pakistan and India at Wagah. Relations between the two countries are in a continual state of tension. As I passed through I reflected on what I was leaving – the edginess, food, spectacular KKH through awe inspiring mountain scenery, and most of all the vibrant and animated culture and the friendliness of the people I met. Leaving Pakistan was straightforward, though entering India was a little less so. Pushing my bike into the large new terminal I presented my passport to the guard, who, after glancing cursorily at it tossed it off-handedly across his counter towards me, and onto the floor. It was a casual mistake, but my national pride was ruffled and I pulled him up on it. “You are disrespecting my country.” I don’t think he knew what to say to that, though it didn’t seem to have much effect.
Further bother was awaiting inside. Leaving Uzbekistan I had been asked to unpack all my bags by a bad mannered customs man. That was the only time in all the borders I’d crossed by bicycle. This was a sensitive border so it wasn’t really surprising the procedures were followed to the letter. After opening everything the customs officer needed to see the receipts for the two carpets I’d bought in Lahore. “That will be $80 import duty,” he declared. Which naturally enough I had no intention of paying. We went through the motions of protesting and giving reasons for our positions. After going through his rehearsed explanation for this outrageous demand, and my breezy rejection, we were at a bit of a stand off. Nothing appeared to be moving. “So what can we do about this?” I put it to him, trying to get him onside. He could probably see I wasn’t going to give in. The problem was the value of the carpets. I then asked him for the receipts back – which he handed to me a little warily – and changed a figure, marking the value of the carpets down which brought them under the threshold. He was confounded. “You can’t do that in the presence of a customs officer!” He spluttered. I just had. He asked me to wait and went off, returning a little later. “It’s just as well my superior leaves early on a Sunday. He has already gone. Last week there was an incident with a Bangladeshi man on his way home from Europe. Same thing with carpets. He got very angry but had to pay.” I think due to my patience and lightness about it all he eventually felt he could relent without losing face and let me through. Phew. I was on the other side, in India.
Fifteen years previously, having driven overland trucks through India as a job, I had adapted in some way to the road conditions. There are a few differences between Ireland and India’s roads to grasp. First: all of life can be found on the road – everything from families, animals, push carts and horse or mule drawn carriages, to tractors, cars and long distance trucks. In between there are motor and push bikes. Second: there is a hierarchy – you get out of the way of anything bigger than you’re driving, they have right of way (except a cow. You never under any circumstances hit a cow.) The third: rear view mirrors don’t exist or are unused (except for combing hair) so it is the responsibility of a driver to notify those in front of his presence by parping on his horn. Constantly. The rest is learned by ‘feel’ and experience, and not being tentative or timid.
Going with the flow on the bicycle I began to understand a little how it worked. With only a very loose influence of the rules of the road, there was a sense of self organisation to the stream of traffic, including bicycles and cycle rickshaws. The analogy of flowing water came to mind, except unlike water, gravity is not propelling the flow but the internal combustion engines or pedalpower and the person’s destination. And that little piece of whimsy helped me in my initial negotiations cycling in India.
The Sikh capital of Amritsar was my destination, and Mrs Bandaris guesthouse, an institution I remembered with fondness from my overland travel job. Once again I paid a rickshaw driver a few rupees to lead me to the guesthouse, in the cantonment area outside of the city, a spacious suburb with comfortable houses in their own gardens. The driver asked me here I was from and I answered him with the usual confident reply, expecting the usual positive reaction. But his wasn’t. “You know the Amritsar massacre was ordered by an Irishman?” He informed me. I did not.
In 1919, in defiance of a curfew, thousands of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus had gathered near the Golden temple, the most holy of Sikh shrines, in protest at the arrest by the British authorities of two leaders of the India Independence movement. General Dyer —without warning the crowd to disperse—blocked the main exits before ordering the army to fire on the crowd, directing their bullets largely towards the few open gates through which people were trying to run out. This continued for ten minutes until the bullets ran out. Subsequent investigations put the numbers shot at 1,500, nearly 1,000 of them dead. Dyer, who earned the label Butcher of Amritsar, explained later that this act “was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.”
Dyer was born in India and spent some time at school in Midleton, Co Cork. I couldn’t discover more of an Irish connection than that. However Sir Michael O’Dwyer, governor of the Punjab at the time, was indeed Irish, a Tipperary man who entered the Indian Civil Service and rose to a senior level. Some historians now believe he was the architect behind the massacre. He was assassinated many years later in London in revenge. Rudyard Kipling, who claimed Dyer was “the man who saved India”, started a benefit fund which raised over 26,000 pounds sterling. Many others, including Winston Churchill, condemned the massacre. The episode is seen as a decisive step towards the end of British rule in India.
And so what a pleasure it was to pitch my tent at Mrs Bandaris and an even greater one to enjoy a few beers for the first time in weeks. Welcome to India. Onwards to New Delhi, and a quick flight home to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday.