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Wanderlust, with Wheelbarrows

April, 2013
By Anthony Marshall

The yak lay diagonally across the track in front of us, quietly chewing its tobacco, or its cud, or whatever it is that yaks chew. It made a pretty effective road block. On one side we had a steepling wall of slick rock, on the other a sheer drop of a thousand metres or two thousand metres, enough metres anyway to do us in if we slipped over the edge, which would not have been difficult. “Now we must wait,” said Tralick, our guide, smiling his dazzling smile. “I make tea.”

And so he did. We sipped black tea from dented metal cups, hardly bigger than thimbles, as we crouched on the narrow path, gazing at the distant peaks of Shangri-La, shimmering in the hazy Tibetan sunshine. “What if the yak gets up, and comes our way?” said Dr. Bierbrauer. Tralick nodded. Then he waved his cigarette in the direction of the void beyond the precipice and, grinning, flapped his arms. “Then we must fly.”

It was a sort of Baron Munchausen moment in our Tibetan journey. Which was appropriate, seeing that my travelling companion, Dr. Ullrich Bierbrauer, was (and is) German. And it was mostly thanks to him and his wretched Wanderlust that we were where we were. Every German baby is born with a knapsack on his back, an Alpenstock in his tiny fist and a little green walking hat, like Pinocchio's, on his head. And into all German babies is programmed Wanderlust, this ridiculous urge to get out and about, to hit the road, to cover twenty kilometres before breakfast, to reach the foothills of the Himalayas by suppertime. And as small children they all read, or have read to them Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia first collected and published by Rudolph Erich Raspe in 1785. Munchausen was a real person- his full name was Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymous von Munchausen. An aristocrat from Goettingen, he was a skilled raconteur who delighted his after-dinner guests with tales of his Russian travels and his exploits fighting the Turks. Mostly lies or wild exaggerations, but all told with flair, a straight face, a twinkle in the eye and tongue planted firmly in cheek. Dr. Johnson, when chided for having written too fulsome an epitaph, said: “In lapidary inscriptions, a man is not upon oath.” Quite so. Nor indeed is any man upon oath when entertaining people with tales of travel. Tall stories, bragadoccio, imaginary voyages, cock-and-bull travelers' tales have great charm. Above all they make us smile. We know it's all bulldust but it's entertaining bulldust.

The spoof travel book, the travel parody, is a subtler offshoot of the genre espoused by Baron Munchausen. One of the very best is Through Darkest Pondelayo by Serena Livingstone-Stanley (Chatto and Windus 1936), sub-title: An Account of two English Ladies on a Cannibal Island. The text is so plausible, you often wonder if it really is a spoof. Especially when you see the tricked-up photos, showing the ladies in various predicaments. This delightful, but politically incorrect, book was written by an Australian, Joan Lindsay, better known for her novel, written more than thirty years later – Picnic at Hanging Rock (Melbourne 1969). Another famous travel spoof, which is highly recommended by mountaineering cognoscenti, is W.E. Bowman's The Ascent of Rum Doodle (Max Parrish 1956), a totally imaginary account of an expedition which sets out to conquer a peak in the Himalayas. Now that I have actually been to the Himalayas, I am tempted to read it. It is almost certainly a parody of The Ascent of Everest by John Hunt, (Hodder 1953) leader of that successful expedition completed exactly sixty years ago. I am really not sure whether Rose Maucalay's The Towers of Trebizond (Collins 1956) is a spoof travel book or not. It opens with the sentence: “ 'Take my camel, dear,' said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” And it gets better. It is one of my favourite travel books, no, it is one of my favourite books, regardless of genre. Strictly speaking it is a novel: indeed it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. So how much of it is true? Is it the telling of a wholly imaginary journey through Turkey or is it a highly-embroidered account of a real journey? Does it really matter?.

It matters sometimes. The question arises in Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin ed. Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare (Jonathan Cape 2010) which I recently finished reading. Bruce Chatwin was an English travel writer who died in 1989 at the age of 48. The first and best-known of his five books is In Patagonia (Cape 1977) which has been hailed as a modern classic. He also wrote Songlines (Cape 1987) which takes as a central theme the close relationship of the Australian aborigines with the land. Nomads, wanderers, people who move about are what interested Chatwin. He considered his books to be not travel books but books about travel; they are not strictly “true” in the sense that he felt free to merge events and personalities, and even invent some of them, an artistic licence which he felt was justified. Thus In Patagonia was eligible for, and won, the Hawthornden Prize for imaginative literature. And because Chatwin held that Songlines was a novel, he insisted that it be withdrawn from the shortlist for the Thomas Cook Award, a prize for non-fiction. There is really no reason why a travel book should not step off the edge and fly away into fantasy and exaggeration. It is a question of what the reader may reasonably expect. If you buy a travel guide, a Lonely Planet guide to Patagonia, say, you expect the information provided to be accurate. A travel book by Bill Bryson, on the other hand, is not a travel guide but an entertainment. If he exaggerates, or telescopes events or makes things up (maybe he does, or maybe he doesn't) it does not matter one whit. Unless are we are going to follow slavishly in his footsteps. And who would be so crazy as to do that?

Perhaps I would. I was crazy enough to have followed in other footsteps to Tibet, to a precarious yak-track, somewhere in the Upper Dolpo, sipping tea alongside a Tibetan sherpa and a German physicist. Why on earth?  When, instead, I could be sitting comfortably drinking beer or coffee in some civilized cafe or hostelry, in Freiburg or Melbourne. How had it come to this?

It had come to this at least partly because of Robert Louis Stevenson. If he had not written his delightful Travels with a Donkey through the Cevennes (London 1878) none of this would have happened. Dr. Bierbrauer, I discovered early in our friendship, was not only an ardent walker but also a donkey-lover. A donkey-loving walker who had never heard of Stevenson's book? I soon got hold of a copy for him. He loved it. RLS, with his passion for the open road (see his poem The Vagabond) is just the fellow for a man with Wanderlust. And who can read the touching passage at the end of Travels, when RLS has to say goodbye to his donkey, without having a little cry? Not me, and not Dr. Bierbrauer either. Before long, we'd hatched a plan. We would follow in the footsteps of RLS and his donkey, Modestine. And so we did. What fun we had! Ten days spent tramping in the hills of the Massif Central in southern France last June. Opting not to be burdened by rucksacks nor indeed by a donkey, we carried our possessions in a wheelbarrow. A wheelbarrow, ingeniously modified by Dr. Bierbrauer. But that is another story.

Having knocked off Stevenson's Cevennes, in what other footsteps could we follow, we wondered? Perhaps Hannibal's, over the Alps into Italy? With pack elephant? Or along La Route Napoleon, tracing le petit general's march from Nice to Grenoble? Or should we retrace the epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople made by the 19-year old Patrick Leigh Fermor, in 1932, and narrated, with hindsight in his two classic books A Time of Gifts (John Murray 1977) and Between the Woods to the Water (John Murray 1986). I was keen on this idea, having just read Artemis Cooper's biography Patrick Leigh Fermor (John Murray 2012) and having long admired him as a writer and as a man. “A gigolo to high class ladies” was how W.S.Maugham described him. Yes, and a whole lot more besides. Or would we tramp across Spain, following the path taken by Laurie Lee in 1935, on the eve of the Spanish Civil War and described by him in As I Walked Out One Summer Morning (Andre Deutsch 1969). But if Spain was on the menu, would it perhaps be less demanding to tag along behind Shirley Maclaine on the The Camino, from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela? However we agreed we would rather die than walk the Camino. It is a walkers' cliche. The Camino in summer must be like Manhattan at rush hour. Every man and his dog has walked, is walking, the Camino. Every man and his donkey even. Dr. Bierbrauer presented me a book by an Englishman, Tim Moore: Spanish Steps: Travels with My Donkey. (Vintage, 2005) which is an enjoyable account of walking the Camino with a dinky donkey. Slightly perplexing that, despite sauntering down many literary and historical byways, Tim Moore omits any mention of surely the most famous donkey in Spanish literature, the burro ridden by Sancho Panza.

Does Sancho's donkey have a name? If so, I have forgotten it. As I have also forgotten the name of Tschiffely's horses, with which he made his remarkable journey from the southernmost tip of South America to Alaska. I read Tschiffely's Ride (Heinemann 1933)) many years ago in my horse-obsessed days. Should we attempt to follow at least some of Tschiffely's ride, perhaps with wheelbarrow? We should not. But the idea got us thinking outside Europe. Why not go walking in Australia? A chance for me to show Dr. Bierbrauer a part of my adopted continent. We could follow in the steps of Robyn Davidson, who described in her book Tracks ( Cape 1985) her epic crossing of the Great Western Desert east to west with a camel, or a couple of camels. I was interested to read in Bruce Chatwin's letters that his friend Salman Rushdie fell in love with Robyn Davidson. Or perhaps vice-versa. In any case, they had a relationship which was volatile and relatively short-lived. A friend commented : “Curious couple. But then Robyn Davidson clearly has a thing for camels.”

In the end, we opted for trekking in Tibet. For Dr. Bierbrauer it was a dream to visit a part of the world described so excitingly by Heinrich Harrer in Seven Years in Tibet (Hart-Davis 1953). Harrer was an Austrian mountaineer who escaped from a British POW camp in India and wandered through Tibet until the Chinese invasion. What an adventure! An adventure now widely known, following the release of the film, starring Brad Pitt. Dr.Bierbrauer also had a ghoulish yearning to witness an air burial, the ancient Tibetan ritual for disposing of a dead body by chopping it up on top of a mountain and feeding it to the vultures. Is it really possible? He has a scientist's skepticism which I find rather charming. My Tibetan dream, was to follow in the steps, more or less of Peter Matthiessen, whose book The Snow Leopard (Chatto and Windus 1987) is one of my favorite travel books, “a book of scarcely fathomable riches” the blurb says. Much less well-known is that Harrer's book is a classic tale of a quest, ostensibly a field expedition to observe the rut of the Himalayan blue sheep. Seriously. But it is much more than that. Matthiessen had also set his heart on sighting the rare and almost mystical snow leopard. And to have other mystical experiences. I quote the blurb again : “The Crystal Mountain in the Land of Dolpo on the Tibetan plateau, is a very ancient holy place in Tibetan Buddhism, and the Lama in the monastery of Shey Gompa is revered as the present reincarnation of the twelfth-century Lama Marpa. For Mr. Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, his journey was a pilgimage of the heart, and a profoundly moving exploration of the spirit.”

I am drawn to Buddhism, having stumbled across a Pelican paperback Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys (Penguin Books 1951) many years ago. The name of the author attracted me as much as anything. How could an Englishman with a name like “Christmas” end up becoming not only a Buddhist but also a High Court judge? But, many oms later later, I am no wiser and still no Buddhist. The basic tenet of Buddhism “All life is suffering” is too bleak for me. My motto is “All life is a mystery and a wonder” but I am no philosopher.  I am with Dr. Johnson's friend, Oliver Edwards who said: “I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher, but I don't know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.” Cheerfulness, despite the grim basic premiss of Buddhism, is a trait of many Buddhists. Look at the Dalai Lama, whose relentless cheerfulness I find rather vexing. The wretched Chinese have invaded his country, and he still manages to flash that radiant smile?

“If all life is suffering, why are you always smiling?” I asked Tralick, whose English , if I chose my words with care, was good enough for this sort of talk.

“I got cigarette, I got cup of tea, I happy, I smile.” He beamed at me.

I thought about the Buddhist doctrine of non-attachment. Tralick was almost permanently attached to a cigarette or to a cup of tea: modest addictions, perhaps, but still attachments...

“If you have no cigarette, no tea, are you still happy ?”

“Why not? If it is my dharma.” He shrugged and smiled again.

“And the Chinese in your country? Are they your dharma too?”

“My country's dharma. Yes. You see, all life is suffering. I have compassion for Chinese too”.

Which is more than I had. Having slogged the twelve hours from Beijing to Lhasa in a swish new train, in the company of mostly raucous, hawking and evil-smelling Chinese, and feeling glad more than once to have the burly figure of Dr. Bierbrauer beside me as unofficial bodyguard; and having found parts of Lhasa more like Kowloon than the mystical, magical city written about by Francis Younghusband, Peter Fleming, Peter Matthiessen, Fosco Maraini and Heinrich Harrer, I was disappointed, and angry. Damned Chinese. But what did I expect? Mindfulness is what the Buddhists bid us practise. I should be mindful of my disappointment, my irritation, my impatience, my anger. Such Western, capitalist emotions. I should remind myself: we are all connected. Take a deep breath. Cultivate mindfulness. Non-attachment. Compassion. Before long, I was feeling better. Dr. Bierbrauer and I went out into the market place and watched a man, a shaman perhaps, playing a sort of oboe, and causing a rope in a wheelbarrow to uncoil and rear up in the air like a cobra, without touching it. A rope charmer. Magic! The mysterious Orient! Dr. Bierbrauer was nonplussed. “There must be some trick to it!” He spent the next few minutes trying surreptiously to get a good look at the rope and the underside of the wheelbarrow, checking for dodges. Without success.

Since coming home from Lhasa, I have re-read The Snow Leopard. It is an entirely satisfying book. A quest, a pilgrimage of the heart, are surely essential ingredients of the best travel books. As interesting as the narrative of the outer journey may be, it is the inner journey which enriches, not only the writer but the reader too. What is the traveler's goal? And how does he, or she, overcome the difficulties and obtacles encountered on the road to this goal? And what does the traveler gain by the experience on the journey, what changes are brought about in his or her soul? What psychological insights about the self, what self-knowledge is acquired? And there is a mystery, a paradox, in all travel: the traveler, ever restless, always on the move, always busy, is actually searching for inner peace, the still point within. Happiness, peace, fulfilment appear always to lie on the horizon, over the next hill, on the side of the fence where we aren't. So off we go. Montaigne said something like this: “The source of most unhappiness in the world stems from man's inability to sit quietly in a room and do nothing.” In a room in a monastery perhaps. I find it no suprise that the peripatetic Patrick Leigh Fermor spent time in a monastery and wrote about it: A Time To Keep Silence. Bruce Chatwin wrote: “I travel in order to find myself.” This may or may not be true. Some friends asserted that, on the contrary, Chatwin traveled in order to lose himself, to escape not only from the humdrum routine of life, from the ordinariness of the every day, but from himself. In the end, Chatwin traveled to Mount Athos, in Greece, ancient spiritual home of Greek monks, hermits and holy men (no women permitted).  And there he truly did find himself: his final days were spent preparing to be accepted into the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Greeks knew about journeys, the physical journey and the allegorical journey: the spiritual search for meaning, for self-knowledge, for wholeness, for the sacred. In Greek mythology, the journey often takes the form of a quest: Jason and the Argonauts, searching for the Golden Fleece; Theseus, searching for the Minotaur in the labyrinth of Knossos; Odysseus, searching for home, after the fall of Troy; Herakles, seeking immortality by performing his twelve far-flung labors. Each is on what Joseph Campbell would call a “hero's journey”. And every human being is a hero on his or her own journey, on the one hand searching for gold, on the other grappling with monsters, demons and dragons. Every culture and every age has its myth of the hero and the quest. In our own day the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table and the quest for the Grail is still a potent one. What is the Grail, exactly? A chalice, a dish, a symbol? Anything we want it to be? And the dragon?  If such things interest you, seek out Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton 1949 and still in print) whch is a great treasure. Make finding a copy your next quest.

If I had to choose one travel book and one book only, to take with me, were I to be cast away on a desert island , it would be The Odyssey by Homer. “Much have I traveled in the realms of gold” and Latimore's translation is the one for me. Homer's story overflows with riches. All human, and much superhuman, life is there: love, sex, magic; violence, courage, adventure plus a Cook's tour of the Aegean Sea. A remarkable story, beautifully crafted, poetically told, and with a flawed hero who is Everyman. The outer journey is dramatic enough but on another level Odysseus's journey is an allegory of the life journey of each of us, what C.G. Jung would call our search for “individuation” . Odysseus's longing for “home”, in some interpretations, is a metaphor of our longing for the centre of ourselves, for wholeness, for oneness with the cosmos, and perhaps, with God. The sort of quest made explicit in that other great journey of the heart: Dante's La Divina Commedia.

One of the most touching moments in The Odyssey is when Odysseus, disguised as a beggar making his way through the yard of his palace in Ithaca. His ancient dog, Argos, who has not seen his master for what, twenty years? - is lying exhausted on, I believe, a dung-filled wheelbarrow. Suddenly he sniffs the air, and recognizing his long-lost master wags his tail and licks Odysseus's hand . And then he rolls over and dies. Poignant stuff. I have had my Odysseus moment too. When I migrated to Australia, the young couple who bought my house in England agreed to take on my old cat as well. It was not part of the deal, but they were cat-lovers and agreed with me that to transport a 14-year old cat to Australia would be too much. Three years later, I went back to England and called on these kind people. The cat was fine they said, they loved him and I could see him if I wanted to. It was a warm day in June and Parsley was outside in the garden basking on the dry earth under a rose bush. When I greeted him and stroked him, he gave a small chirp of recognition and started purring. Next day Sue waved to me in the street. “It's a strange thing,” she said. “We went back into the garden an hour later, after you had gone, and Parsley was still lying under the rose bush. Dead.”  I like to imagine that my old cat, like Argos, had waited for me, wanted to see me again before he died. My children had another explanation: “Dad, he probably panicked, thinking you'd come back from Australia for good, and died of a heart attack.”

I am back in Australia now. Having once been a full-time migrant, I am now simply a bird of passage and like the swallow, a summer migrant. It's a new pattern for me: spending nine months of the year in Germany and three (the Australian summer) in Melbourne. Here I have been able to inspect my first grandchild, Charlotte Rose: and here Simone and I have taken a new step in our journey together. In March we were married, to the sound of Elvis singing “It's Now or Never.”  My new existence is not exactly nomadic, but it's slightly unsettled. And not unusual for Englishmen or Scotsmen of my generation and with my sort of upbringing. British boys like me, and like Bruce Chatwin and Patrick Leigh Fermor, were not born with Wanderlust but we had Wanderlust thrust upon us. Born into the officer class, in the afternoon (or in my case the twilight) of the British Empire, we were brought up and educated to fill positions in far-flung colonies. Our destiny was to go out into the world, to keep the native peoples in line and to continue to confer upon them the self-evident benefits of the British versions of Civilisation,Christianity and Capitalism. No-one remembered to tell my teachers that by 1960 the British Empire was a dead duck. Rather like the Rothschild brothers, who in 1812 spread out into five different countries in Europe, my three brothers and I finished our educations and duly fanned out to fulfil our destines in a non-existent Empire. I ended up in Australia, Nick in Montana, Chris in Kenya. Only the youngest, Paddy, has stayed in England. But perhaps his time will come.

Ours has been an undramatic diaspora. Like many things English, it is rather quiet, slow and understated. Which is much like our way of walking. which is different from German walking. “Laufen” means in German to walk or to run. As though these activities are synonymous! And “wandern” in German means to hike, to stride out, to cover the ground. How unlike our verb “to wander” with its connotations of dreaminess, aimlessness, serendipity. How rich our vocabulary is with words for gentle walking: to wander, to stroll, to saunter, to amble, to drift, to mooch, to shimmer. Surely this is the way to walk the seven-fold path of Buddhism, the Confucian Tao, the pilgrim road: slowly and on foot, taking time to experience the delights along the way. And even the obstacles.

Suddenly the yak raised its shaggy head, as though startled. It struggled to its feet, then backed nervously towards us. “Bloody hell!” said Dr. Bierbrauer who has a good command of idiomatic English. I shouted to Tralick: “For God's sake, man, do something!” But there was nothing to be done. Out of nowhere, a wild creature about the size of a grizzly bear but with reddish fur and hugely long arms had sprung onto the yak's back. Grabbing it by the horns, it wrestled it to the ground. The yak bellowed and the creature grunted, then a sickening crunch told us the yak's neck was broken. The creature shouldered the yak carcase, as though it were a sack of feathers, and turned to glare at us defiantly, with its single yellow eye. Then it stepped with its burden over the edge of the cliff and soared off into the blue yonder, like a rocket. We stood mouths agape. It was simply incredible. If it sounds incredible to you too, I can do no better than commend to you Dr. Bierbrauer's level-headed account which appeared in Transactions of the International Society of Skeptics Volume XXXII, No. 23 (March 2013) as an article entitled : Hallucinations and the Munchausen Effect at High Altitudes.

Anthony Marshall, is a retired secondhand bookseller now living in Germany. He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers, a past member of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association in England, where for ten years he ran the County Bookshop in Oakham, Rutland, and former owner of Alice's Bookshop in Melbourne, Australia. This bookstore was co-founded in 1986 by Keith Richmond, now co-owner of Weiser Antiquarian Books, York Beach, Maine and author of several books including "Wanderings in Lower Dolpo" (Francestown, NH 1998), a search for traces of the Bon religion practised in this part of the Himalayas.  Mr. Marshall has contributed many articles to book magazines, all of which with the exception of "Book Source Magazine” are now defunct. Some of these articles reappear in his two books: “Trafficking in Old Books” (Lost Domain, Melbourne 1998) and "Fossicking for Old Books”  (Bread Street Press, Melbourne 2004).