Travelling by train along the Silk Road in China recently, I was struck by how many young Chinese are travelling these days, backpacking, staying in hostels, discovering the cultural and scenic riches of their country. Many of the hostels are brand new and tastefully done, with mixed dorms and common washrooms like in hostels in the West.
Nothing similar, in value or scale, is happening in Southasia. Among the young, there has been a rise in highland trekking, and some expansion in adventure sports like whitewater rafting and hang-gliding. However, even today, much travel is restricted to the affluent. There is little movement across the borders of the Subcontinent, and even less to nearby destinations in Africa, Southeast and Central Asia. Bangkok, Dubai and Singapore seem to set the limits of our collective imagination.
The Southasian neighbourhood is full of fascinating places beyond the tried and tested destinations such as the Taj Mahal, Dal Lake, the Khajuraho temples or the Benaras waterfront. Few would think of going down to the Buriganga docks in Dhaka, to mingle with the masses and board the steamers and shuttles that go to the far corners of the Ganga-Brahmaputra (Padma-Jamuna to the Bengalis) delta. Getting on to the ‘Rocket’ shuttle is itself an adventure, with people scrambling on and off the steamers on the crowded jetty even as the engines rev up to push away.
I was on the ‘Rocket’, headed for Khulna in the southwest, and before long the shore receded and we seemed to be at sea – that is how wide the Padma is. The boat heads downstream and reaches for the far shore, entering channels and sub-channels, passing rich emerald-green countryside. All along, we cross steamers going the other way, blowing their horns and signalling with their powerful strobes as darkness envelopes the delta.
Few people think of Bangladesh as a touristic country, but Khulna is the gateway to Bangladesh’s Sundarban (‘Shundorbon’) mangroves, which are much more pristine than the section found in West Bengal. You can glide on residential steamers, keeping a lookout for the Royal Bengal Tiger on land, and the telltale splash of the Gangetic freshwater dolphin. Upon reaching the Bay of Bengal through the winding distributaries, walking along the beaches, you know that another beach beckons. This is the ‘world’s longest beach’ at Cox’s Bazaar, past Chittagong, for which you have to head back to Dhaka and take one of the superfast Volvo buses to the harbour town.
The touristic glories of Nepal are much better known, of course, and made all the more attractive for Southasians because of Kathmandu’s open visa regime (with only official ID cards required for Indian citizens). Beyond the pilgrimage sites of Nepal – which include the Pashupatinath temple of Kathmandu Valley, the towns of Lumbini and Janakpur in the plains, and the Muktinath temple in the high Himalaya – it is trekking that attracts the modern traveller. What is unique to the Nepali hills is ‘tea-house trekking’: travelling on village trails and staying in lodges and hotels. Unlike elsewhere, there is no need to take along guides, cooks and mules, or to carry tents, sleeping bags and rations.
The major trekking routes of Nepal include the Upper Khumbu (including Mount Everest Base Camp), the Annapurna region north of the lakeside resort town of Pokhara, and the high valleys of Mustang, Manang, Helambu and Langtang. Everywhere, the lodges found at convenient intervals are clean and comfortable. Unlike elsewhere in the Subcontinent, in Nepal you can often fly up to the starting point of your trek in short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, in airlines with names like ‘Buddha’, ‘Yeti’ and ‘Sita’.
While the Nepali hills are highly populated, and Kathmandu city overrun by urbanisation, Bhutan remains uniquely pristine. The country’s touristic attractions include trekking on trails which are not overrun by other tourists, and visiting the forts (dzongs) and monasteries of the Drukpa sect, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism.
At the other end of the Subcontinent is another high-end destination – the Maldives. There, more or less every resort has an island to itself, and you arrive either by boat or seaplane from the airport-island of Hulhule. You may want to visit the nearby capital of Male, which can be circumambulated on foot in a couple of hours. Beyond fresh seafood and fine sandy beaches, the Maldives is a world-class diving destination. The atolls themselves rest on coral islands, and the quality of snorkelling or diving available here is rarely on offer elsewhere.
The Maldives is better connected to Europe and to the Gulf than to Southasia. Nearby Sri Lanka is more affordable than the Maldives, and nicely linked to the cities of South India in particular. The visa regime is now quite liberal, and the beaches have now recovered from the 2004 tsunami. The domestic conflict, which ended in the middle of 2009, is only a memory in Sri Lanka’s touristic south. The Kandy highlands, the inland jungles, the tea gardens, the Dutch-Portuguese heritage of Galle, and the British colonial heritage of Colombo – all provide affordable variety.
Pakistan is the undiscovered gem of the Subcontinent when it comes to travel and tourism. The rest of Southasia has been kept at bay, either by the run of political instability, fear of violence and lack of air connectivity. The land border at Wagah-Atari is restrictive, but this has not kept intrepid Nepalis from travelling to Pakistan through India, a facility that is not so easily available to other nationalities.
Pakistan has it all, from the deepest histories of the Indus civilisation, found at Mohenjodaro and Harappa, to the cosmopolitanism of Karachi, the cultural heritage of Lahore, the Sufi culture of Multan, and the Gandhara civilisation at Taxila (and the great collection of Buddhist statuary at the Lahore Museum). The trekking and mountaineering in Gilgit-Baltistan is superb, and just awaiting peacetime. When that time comes, there will be tourist buses plying the route from Peshawar over the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad and onward to Kabul.
The relaxation of visa rules between India and Paksitan offers hope that, as an Indian, one of these days I can, as promised by the negotiators, turn up at the Wagah-Atari border to get a visa-on-arrival for senior citizens. Then, I would take the Karakoram Highway up over the Khunjerab pass and into the Xinjiang region of China.
Little need be said of the touristic attractions of India, because the country has it all: mountains, deserts, jungles, monuments, ancient cities and cultural attractions of every kind, to suit every pocket. I only hope that there will come a day when Afghans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans will find it easy to travel the length and breadth of India, from Cape Comorin to Kashmir Valley, from the sands of the Thar to the deepest jungles of Assam.
Tantalisingly, with the recent democratic opening, Burma now beckons. Recently, a motor caravan went from Guwahati to Mandalay and Yangon and back. One also looks forward to the re-opening of the Ledo Road, which links the Northeast with Yunnan via Burma. Yunnan is one of China’s most scenic and ethnically diverse provinces, and is now also connected directly to Kolkata by air. Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, is the most accessible gateway to China for Southasians, and now it has high-speed train links to the rest of the country.
Nor do we have to remain locked within the land-borders of Asia. There are fascinating and little-visited destinations on the other side of the Arabian Sea. One can easily take advantage of stopover opportunities while travelling to Europe or North America. For instance, Addis Ababa, the major hub of Ethiopian Airlines, sits in the middle of a rich and ancient civilisation, with amazing landscapes, rock-cut churches and carved stele. This is also the gateway to visit southwest Ethiopia, where one finds the last vestiges of the self-sufficient pastoral life of Africa.
The regional airlines of Africa and West Asia are making ever more adventures accessible. For example, Yemenia flies to Sana, with its World Heritage site of mud-brick skyscrapers. Jordania flies to Petra. Turkish leaves you off at Istanbul to explore the Bosphoros. Uzbek is your carrier to Tashkent, the jumping-off point to all the ‘stans’ and a short train ride away from the spectacular Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
For wonderful travel experiences, it is vital to have an interest in other cultures, empathy for other societies, some tolerance for uncertainty, and a willingness to occasionally rough it out. It helps to have a bit of time, and to do as much reading as possible before heading out. Whether young or old, to really ‘see’ the world, one has to be intrepid. After finishing college in the UK, I came back to India overland, taking three months and a roundabout route through Syria, Jordan and Israel, and across to Egypt via Cyprus. I travelled up the Nile to East Africa and then by boat from Mombasa to Mumbai – there was a weekly passenger service in those days. Most of the time I hitchhiked, but sometimes it was easier to get on a bus. Passing through five Arabic-speaking countries, I acquired a smattering of the language. Going up the Nile through the Sudan on a steamer, for ten days I travelled ‘deck-class’. In the remoter parts of East Africa I sometimes stayed in local gurdwaras and police stations (voluntarily).
The most important reason to travel in the countries of the global South, of course, is to experience the cultures before they are changed beyond recognition, sucked up by the processes of development and homogenisation. The Silk Road of China is now a four-lane highway. Vast areas of old housing have been knocked down in Chinese cities. In Nepal, trails are becoming roads, and soon it will be hard to evade the internal-combustion engine. It used to be that trekkers started for Everest Base Camp from Jiri and walked two weeks; now you halve that time and distance by flying into Lukla and its sloped airstrip.
But there will always be diversity and authenticity remaining in the world to fascinate and stimulate the traveller. We may just have to explore deeper, or go a little further.