In 'From Heaven Lake', Seth mingles historical fact with poetic description and telling anecdote to take the reader along effortlessly.
The other day in the hills I rose, after many years, to the sound of a cock crowing. Compared to the metallic, penetrating cell phone alarm that is the gift of technology to us, the cock-crow was sweet music. And the cloud had rolled up right to the large glass window, swallowing the heart-numbing sight of several half-built houses, gouged hillsides and handsome pines felled while asleep.
For a moment, I was once again the teenager of a lifetime away, treading lightly with the goats from the little village of Ani where the young and vigorous Sutlej rushed under a narrow bridge, to the village of Khanag, hidden high up among the conifers. Leaving the crystal-clear stream with its churning water-mills, we began the climb upwards, lunching against large rocks on parathas and mango pickle, when the cloud rolled down, like some lazy white pillow, from the mountain crest and covered everything in sight with a thin magical haze. It was the same sort of cloud again and holding on to the vision, I began to scour my shelves for travel books once again, books that would talk of unknown roads, open starlit skies, trains whistling in the dark...
A clutch of books presented themselves and in the coming weeks I will drift through them, wistfully and randomly, as these books deserve to be read. There is Chatwin's masterly The Songlines, Kerouac's Lonesome Traveler, Eric Newby's A Traveller's Life and Peter Fleming's One's Company. And a special re-read is reserved for that mother of all travel books: Robert Byron's Road to Oxiana. It is possible that any or all of them may surface more than once in this column at some time but today I will prefer to stick to a slim travelogue, From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet, written by a young Vikram Seth before he amazed us with the sheer inventiveness of The Golden Gate and then staggered us with his wrist-wrenching magnum opus A Suitable Boy.
Seth spent two years as a student at China's Nanjing University and, in the summer of 1981, as he announces almost casually in the introduction, “returned home to Delhi via Tibet and Nepal.” His journey begins in the towns of Urumchi and Turfan on the northern branch of the ancient silk route, hot Xinjiang towns crowded with flies, donkey carts and watermelons and not far away, at the intensely blue Heaven Lake, surrounded by green mountain walls and fed by the snowmelt from the Mount Bogda ranges, which sit “abrupt like a shining prism laid horizontally on the desert surface.” Like for so many of us who have worked or travelled in China, the former Soviet Union or West Asia, the immortal words of Awara Hoon open an unexpected door for Seth and he obtains a permit to travel by land to Tibet. Like any traveller, and particularly any travel writer, worth his salt would, Seth immediately begins to hallucinate on visions of yaks, trucks, lamas and the sloping white walls of the Potala palace rising forever into a cloudless azure sky. Not knowing quite how, he plans to cross over from Tibet into Nepal and then onto India.
But before that, he has a long way to go. First there is the frustrating detour to the east; to Xian (which reminds him “irresistibly of Delhi, with its “broad streets, dryness, the shop canopies leaning out over the pavements, the bicycle-riding white-shirted population”) and to Nanjing and Beijing, to pick up his passport, more money and the essential cell for the light meter of his Nikon. That light meter was well worth the effort: the book has some telling black and white photographs, showing sunburnt faces of smiling Uighurs and Tibetan yak herds, a desert storm building up over Liuyuan, trucks stuck in a desert flood, the oasis silk-route town of Dunhuang and of course, the Potala. Hitch-hiking on random passing trucks, closeted with chance acquaintances, a group of teachers, even a bunch of chickens, the writer moves on relentlessly towards Lhasa, crossing the lonely Chaidam Basin and then over the Kunlun range and onto the Qinghai-Tibet plateau.
In the classical manner of the successful travelogue, Seth tells the story of his journey with complete honesty. Mingling historical fact with the poetic description and telling anecdote, he takes the reader along effortlessly. Conversations and people can convey more about a place than several turgid paragraphs and Seth knows this well. He does not hide his frustrations and his fears or even his headaches. He bluffs his way, trades cigarettes, uses his “foreignness” when required and loses his temper with disturbing regularity. Most important, he does not romanticise: despite his yearning to see the Potala he describes the experience of being pushed around by a relentless juggernaut of pilgrims like someone coming out of a wringer, the rotting dirt of Lhasa is not swept away by sentimentality and an idyllic Nepal night is truthfully marked by mosquitoes, flies and bloodsuckers. And of course there is the beauty too, of the landscape, of flute music, of a “light paper kite, rhomboid, tail-less, like the ones we have at home, a prisoner of string and wind, flying now in one direction, now in another, with no appraisable trend or endeavour.”
Ultimately, overcoming bureaucratic imponderables and floods, he does cross over into Nepal, without knowing that he has done so, on some green slope in the Himalayas, and is greeted with the sight of a woman in a sari washing clothes at a stream, quite oblivious whether she is one country or the other. From there to Delhi airport, a bottle of duty-free Glenfiddich in his hand, is a short journey. And yes, one early morning, at the spring-fed lake at Nanhu, he too is woken up by an insistent cock-crow.