William Dalrymple and other well-known writers on armchair travel in the time of the Coronavirus

Hiking in the Dolomites

Hiking in the Dolomites   | Photo Credit: Oleh_Slobodeniuk

In these house-bound times, five authors help propel us around the globe to the places that captured their hearts

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the whole point of travel writing is to make us journey from our sofas. This is usually the time of the year when schools slow down to a stop and plans are made for the annual great Indian family exodus. Entire continents are seen in a week; the odyssey is a patchwork of people, places and packed lunches. For some, slow travel is the way to go.

This summer, it is different although the sun shines brightly outside and the birds are chirping in the trees. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed the romance of leaving on a jet plane. Web series have been watched, board games played and marshmallows made — you’d rather be somewhere else. And yet, in the tradition of travel glossies, here is your chance to experience Dehradun or Dushanbe without leaving Delhi.

Five well-known authors write on places that have fallen off the map and are nowhere on the tourist radar. So walk through rhododendron-carpeted hill trails, lounge in the thermal waters of northern Italy, rediscover exquisite Pahari paintings, take a boat out to an island North of Jaffna and picnic in the orchards of Afghanistan.

When the world rights itself, you can slip these experiences into your backpack, step out and sing the song of the open road.

Mountain lines

Valdagno, Italy

Carlo Pizzati

More important than where and what you should visit is why you should visit it. Go only where you need to. Where is a place I’ve needed to go to? Occasionally, I feel I must go home, to the town where I grew up, Valdagno, about an hour’s drive North of Venice. It is five minutes from my mother’s hometown of Recoaro Terme and near my favourite mountains, the Little Dolomites.

Valdagno has some of the most interesting residential architecture of the 1930s, in the Social City built by the industrial family Marzotto, and enchanting hikes in the hills that surround it. Also, quite a vibrant aperitivo life at sunset. You must try the famous biancorosso of the Carlotto distillery or its milder rosolio. Recoaro Terme is a famous thermal waters town, where even Friedrich Nietzsche went to seek inspiration.

There you can hike, ski, rock-climb, trek up to 2,200 metres, cross a Tibetan bridge and discover delicious local foods like polenta with finferli mushroom or the very famous gnocchi with fioretta cheese, which you can find only there, as it is an original dish from that valley. You will see faces that look slightly Germanic, rather than your stereotypical Italian. It’s because the ancient Cimbri people, from whom I also descend, moved there from Germany centuries ago. The Cimbri (a word that comes from ‘timber’) came South to cut the woods that built the navy fleet of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, leaving traces in our DNA, language, work ethics and customs. Yes, go home, go to my home.

Read: The Travel Diary of a Philosopher by Herman Keyserling

A Search in Secret India by Paul Brunton

The author and journalist’s latest memoirs are Bending Over Backwards and Mappillai. His collection of short stories will be published later this year.

The hills are alive

Jasrota, India

William Dalrymple

As the heat begins to rise, I am already dreaming of the hills, especially of the small hill town of Jasrota. It was here that the great Pahari artist Nainsukh spent his glory years in the court of his principal patron, Mian Zorawar Singh and his son, Rajah Balwant Singh, and here that Nainsukh produced his greatest masterpieces. These include A Leisurely Ride, my favourite of all his works. It shows a courtly company riding out on a winter’s evening.

A painting by Nainsukh

A painting by Nainsukh   | Photo Credit: Picasa 2.7

In this painting you can almost hear the male singer Saddu with his lute, can admire the vulnerability and beauty of the lovely dancing girl Amal as she rides swathed in her winter shawl, turning back to catch the eye of Mian Mukund Dev, another of Nainsukh’s patrons; and you can sense the growing intimacy between the two of them. This is Indian courtly life at its most elegant and perfect: music, the faint bubble of the water pipe, the chill of a winter sunset, a mist of yellow winter mustard, hunting dogs out on the hills looking for partridges and a blossoming love affair, with its consummation soon to come.

Today, the palaces of the Jasrota rajahs lie on the edge of a cliff at the top of the jungle-clad hill, in the middle of a leopard sanctuary. Two magnificent palaces, surrounded by tanks, stable and barrack blocks crown the summit of the hill. Sadly both are roofless and all that remains of any frescoes Nainsukh might have painted are some fragmentary pieces of decoration under arches and over window frames. Jasrota was clearly a much richer and more lavish court than Guler: Nainsukh had upgraded considerably by coming here.

Balwant Singh lost the throne sometime in the 1750s, and Nainsukh was forced to wander the region, first following Balwant from village to village until his death, then after that wandering in search of other patrons. But despite such reverses his children and grandchildren continued and developed the family traditions from other centres in the Punjab hills. The most remarkable cycle of wallpainting influenced by their work lies several hours drive north of Jasrota, in the Pir Panjal hills on the borders of Kashmir.

From Jasrota, the road heads along the foothills to Pathankot and then rises rapidly through orchards of mangoes, until it reaches the wooded switchbacks of the Jot Pass. It is the landscape you see again and again in Pahari paintings: a panorama of terracing and white-spired temples, of looping rivers and hilltop forts. As you snake upwards, the air is fresher, the temperature cooler. Large hawks circle the thermals above the white boulders washed by headwaters of the Ravi.

Partly because of its very remoteness, many of the villages up here in the Chamba valley have managed to preserve their ancient artworks from periods of history when these valleys were not backwaters but a major cultural crossroads, mediating the art of Afghanistan and Kashmir with that of the eastern Himalayas. One of the side valleys leads to the ancient shrine of Brahmaur where 7th Century sculptures of heavenly apsaras still show the influence of the humanism of the Bactrian Greeks from beyond the Hindu Kush. Another village, Chhatradi, contains an amazing cycle of 17th Century Pahari wall paintings showing the life and loves of Krishna.

But my way lay first to the North, towards Devi Kothi. It is wild country up here: the only traffic I met were groups of nomads on their summer migrations, driving their flocks to the new grass of the high pastures. As the road crosses the treeline, the landscape becomes bleaker: you find yourself in an ambiguous landscape of mist and rolling cloudbanks, mosses and lichens.

The final unmetalled descent down to Devi Kothi brings you back into deodar forests, and it is through this tree cover that you first sight the village below. The stone houses tumble down a steep mountainside, the high-pitched slate roofs alternating with roof terraces where the women were drying apricots and stacking kindling for the winter. Looking down from above, you can almost smell the warm peach-brandy aroma of the drying fruit through the resin-scent of the deodars.

This remote village is home to one of the finest sets of 18th Century frescoes in North India, and certainly the greatest cycle of Pahari painting still in situ. The frescoes decorate a tiny Himalayan shrine to the great goddess, and are the work of two brothers who completed their decoration of the temple in 1754. Here in the middle of these remote hills, on the walls of a small wooden shrine, are paintings which would do honour to the most sophisticated urban centre: straddled on her tiger, the goddess swoops mercilessly down on an army of horned devils, cutting demonic heads from necks with a sweep of her divine blade. In one hand she holds a shield, in others tridents, bells, chakras, and an assortment of spears and javelins. They are astonishingly strong and confident compositions.

Nothing is known about Gurdev and Jhanda, the two men who painted these images. But these were local boys, and closely in touch with the other masters working in the hills, especially the family atelier of Nainsukh. Today, most of Nainsukh’s work resides in the great museums of London, New York and Delhi, but it is here on the mountaintop at Devi Kothi, surrounded by this most remote of masterpieces, that you feel most strongly the remarkable world he belonged to, with great works of art still intact, virtually unknown and almost completely unvisited in this most beautiful and distant of locations.

Read: The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

The Scotland-born, Delhi-based historian-writer-art historian is the author of several acclaimed books. His latest is The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company

Notes on a small island

Delft, Sri Lanka

Samanth Subramanian

Off the northern coast of Sri Lanka, near Jaffna, is a spray of small islands — mere bars of sand, so flat that the land and the water seem one. I visited them when I was researching my book, This Divided Island, and fell in love. In the afternoons, the light is so bright it shatters you, but at other times of the day, it has a mystical quality, as if some great Marquez tale were just about to unfold. Some of these islands are linked to each other by thin causeways, repaved and maintained by the armed forces after the civil war ended in 2009.

Nainativu North Jetty on Nainativu island, with the gopuram of Naga Pooshani Ambal Kovil in the background

Nainativu North Jetty on Nainativu island, with the gopuram of Naga Pooshani Ambal Kovil in the background   | Photo Credit: deniscostille

Between others run ferry services — not always pleasant ones, I’ll admit, because I was once stowed with a hundred other people below the deck of a small, smoky boat. On the islands, the roads snake through tiny villages and small palmyrah plantations, or next to the shores of white, alkaline sand.

The island I never managed to visit — my constant regret — was Delft, the last but one island in the chain before the Palk Strait runs on to India. When I visited the islands, in 2012, you needed to find a boat to take you to Delft, so I gave it a miss. Not long afterwards, though, a friend told me about the wild ponies on Delft — descendants of horses that had been abandoned by Dutch colonists late in the 18th Century. More magic realism, I thought with a pang. I’ve dreamed about Delft ever since: of the land and the water so close to each other that they recall the other Delft, the one that Vermeer painted in Holland; and of those ponies running free on the island.

Read: A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

The Cambridge-based journalist is the author of three books: Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast, This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, and his latest, A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane.

In lake district

Deoriatal, India

Rachna Bisht Rawat

A black puppy with shining eyes and white dots for eyebrows watches. It’s a village stray. “She needs a name,” says Rajni Murlidharan, our host in Sari village, where we are lodged for the night at Café Buransh, all set for an early morning trek. “How about Bhulli?” I ask. “It means little sister in Garhwali.”

An old stone house in Uttarakhand

An old stone house in Uttarakhand   | Photo Credit: draco-zlat

A seven-hour car ride from Kotdwar (or Rishikesh) takes travellers to this tiny village in Rudraprayag district, Uttarakhand, the starting point for the trek to the mountain lake Deoriatal. A long winding path uncoils amidst lush buransh (rhododendron) trees with arms spread out above our heads, dropping scarlet blossoms at our feet, laying out a soft red carpet for us to step on. Soon the village falls behind, reduced to a cluster of toy houses down in the valley. After an hour-plus walk intercepted with orange devouring breaks — popping juicy fruit into our mouths, spitting pips out with the hope that they sprout young trees — the path climbs up and then down and suddenly opens up dazzling us with a sparkling pool of blue, flanked by the towering Himalayas.

Crisp mountain air zips down to our lungs, calf muscles ache from the climb but the mind is free to roam amidst folk tales and poetry and thoughts of those that you have loved and lost; or found and loved. If you haven’t tried it already, I suggest you try it once. Trekking in the mountains is therapy.

One day soon, after we have overcome the virus that has brought our world to a standstill, I plan to return. And I hope to find a furry white-eyebrowed Bhotia dog named Bhulli roaming the hillside. I plan to pat her head, look into her eyes; and tell her who gave her that beautiful name.

Read: Falling Off the Map by Pico Iyer

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

The writer is an avid trekker and author of four books on the Indian Army. Her latest is Kargil: Untold Stories From The War.

A vale full of summer

Panjshir, Afghanistan

Taran N Khan

Picnics are a Kabul institution. Every Friday — the Afghan weekend — the roads leading out of the city would be packed with cars, which in turn would be packed with deghs (pots) of food, children, toshaks (mattresses) to spread out on, and melons rattling in the boot. Over the years, I made several trips with friends to scenic spots near the capital. Among my favourites were excursions to the Panjshir valley, around 100 kilometres North of Kabul.

The road passed small stalls selling dogh (buttermilk) and juices. It crossed a narrow defile where the Panjshir river gushed, unnervingly close, filled with snowmelt. The route opened into the valley, and across the water I saw green fields, rows of adobe mud homes, and the mountains. It was a landscape that seemed untouched by the passage of time, but in fact has weathered many transformations — like those witnessed by the ruins of Soviet-era tanks that lie by the roadside.

A valley in Afghanistan

A valley in Afghanistan   | Photo Credit: picassos

We settled by the running water; melons left to cool in the chilly shallows. On the riverbed, children played football. I remember perching on a rock with my friend’s family, and looking up at the bare mountains, and the azure blue sky. On another trip, a group of young men had driven up by the river where we sat. They were shooting a music video, and had left us a basket of sweet mulberries — or toot — as a gift. For a more substantial repast, we had stopped at a chaikhana and had fried fish with crisp naans, washed down with green tea.

The way back always seemed shorter. Once our vehicle got stuck on a flooded section of road, and a group of men pushed us clear of the swirling current, waving us off with cries of manda na bashi (may you never be tired).

These picnics were moments of pause; time spent by Kabulis with beauty and Nature, with family and music, poetry and laughter. We returned to traffic jams at dusk, the city appearing behind a dip in the road, its lights twinkling in the dusty air. In my pocket, as keepsakes, I carried pebbles, shaped and made smooth by the flow of an Afghan river.

Read: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia

The Mumbai-based journalist lived and worked in Kabul for nearly eight years. Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul is her first book.

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 6:50:05 PM |

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