Round the World with Uncle Chris

Round the World with Uncle Chris
In September 1973 I got bored of living
in Yosemite and counted my savings:
in a year of having worked as a
produce clerk, busboy, room-service
waiter and then finally a regular dining
room waiter at the Ahwahnee Hotel, I
had squirreled away over $2000, a
fabulous sum for a 22-year old with a
bad case of travel fever.
My friend David Gomez took this
picture of me with a body full of gear,
ready for the road.
I procured a student ID card, to avail of student travel discounts.
On a Sunday afternoon in late November I talked my dad into driving me up to Market Street in San Francisco for a
rendezvous with a bus known as the "White Rabbit." This was an underground, unlicensed bus line run by hippies which
provided coast-to-coast transit in old buses which had all the seats removed and replaced by window-height mattresses,
and filled with Love Generation travelers. The name came from the Jefferson Airplane song "White Rabbit" and
reportedly suggested parallels between the hallucinatory effects of LSD and the imagery found in Lewis Carroll's Alice's
Adventures in Wonderland. I paid my $50 and thereafter enjoyed four days of shared PB&J sandwiches, cheap wine and
copious quantities of marijuana while we followed a circuituous eastward route across the United States. I was finally let
out at the bus's final stop on the sidewalk outside the Manhattan Port Authority building in New York City at three o'clock
on a freezing November morning.
After three cold days wandering the
streets of New York, I rode a bus to
JFK airport and bought a $135 ticket
to Luxembourg on Icelandic Airlines,
a small budget transatlantic carrier.
I left the US on November 15, 1973,
headed east across the Atlantic
Mid-way across the Atlantic, the plane touched
down in Reyjavik, Iceland, to re-fuel. The pilot
announced that those getting off or stopping over,
could de-plane now.
Stop over? I hadn't realized it was an option. My bag
was checked through to Luxembourg and all I had
were the clothes on my back, but I jumped off the
plane and was granted an on-the-spot tourist visa by
Icelandic Immigration.
I wandered the icy, sub-zero streets of Reyjavik,
wearing a shirt and my trusty wool sweater; I didn't
even have a hat (note the frozen lake in the photo.)
At least the youth hostel had a furnace. Whale meat
was cheap and I bought a slab of it to fry up back at
the hostel. I followed my hostelmates to the
municipal outdoor thermal hot spring pool, where
we lounged in relative comfort in the steaming hot
water while watching the pale sunlight of short
arctic winter days.
I flew on to Luxembourg and retrieved my travel pack which had been sent on ahead
by the airline. The airport immigration agent didn't want to let me in because I didn't
have a return ticket to the US. I showed him my $1500 in traveler's checks and said I
would be going all the way around the world. He scoffed but granted me entry.
I discovered that Northern Europe is also damned cold in the winter. Next morning I
jumped on a train heading south, where I hoped it would be warmer.
The train traversed France and Switzerland,
passing this lake in the Alps.
We crossed into Italy and I arrived in Venice, where I discovered that
even southern Europe is cold in the winter: What the F*#!?
The Grand Canal was pretty, but the city was frigid.
I bought a ticket on the infamous "Orient Express" of Agatha Christie fame and
discovered that the train had suffered a little with the decades: it was now reduced to
a single car which was shuttled between trains as it wound south-east across Europe
through Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and finally to Turkey. At length we arrived in Istanbul
and I got my picture taken in front of the Great Blue Mosque.
Istanbul is the only metropolis in the world which is situated on two continents,
Europe and Asia. It was warmer and interesting so I hung out for several days with
George, a Scotsman I had met on the train. Finally we rode a ferry across the
Bosphorous Strait, from Europe over to Asia.
We bought tickets on a bus which carried us from Istanbul to Tehran, Iran, a cold
three-day ride across Eastern Turkey. Here's George at the Turkish-Iranian border.
We took an immediate dislike to
Tehran, so we hopped on a train
going east to Meshad, near the
border with Afghanistan.
This snapshot-from-the-train is
the only picture I took in Iran.
We rode local buses to the border and then walked over into
Afghanistan, a country that appeared to be stuck in the fourteenth
century. We spent about a week here in Herat, our first town.
Young shopclerks in Herat, who look to
have been about my age. What kind of
lives have they had? This was pre-civil war
Afghanistan, a medieval country ruled by a
king, before it was invaded by the USSR,
before it became a pawn in the Cold War,
before the Mujahideen were armed by the
CIA, before twenty-nine years of
continuous civil war, before the Taliban,
before Osama Bin Laden, before Operation
Enduring Freedom bombed mud villages,
before the NATO International Security
Assistance Force stationed 47,000 troops
Are they still alive? What have they seen?
Afghanistan was not much of a tourist mecca.
Infrastructure for travelers was primitive, which
was probably OK cuz there wasn't much to see
anyway. It was December and damned cold. The
food was almost inedible. The hotel room had no
heat. The people didn't speak English. Why did I
spend a month there?
One thing Afghanistan did have was the world's
finest hashish, and it was dirt-cheap and plentiful.
I smoked hash in the morning, in the afternoon,
and in the evening, every single day, as many
bowlfulls as possible, thank you. Wherever I
went there seemed to be a few foreigners or
locals passing around a 'chilum', a small clay pipe
packed with a mixture of tobacco and black, tarry
Afghani hash. Suck in deeply and then hold in
the burning smoke as long as possible while
trying not to break into a fit of coughing. Repeat
as often as possible, all day, every day, until time
and space cease to matter. It was lovely.
At length it was time to
move on, so we rode a bus
from Kabul up and over the
legendary Khyber Pass.
This is a view down into the
Khyber Gorge from our
overloaded bus.
On the other side of the pass we dropped down to the warm and green
Laghman Valley and the city of Jalalabad.
We rode another bus to the Pakistan border and then boarded a train for the ride to the huge
city of Lahore. A fellow pasenger, a Pakistani dentist, tried to sell us medicinal cocaine. I tried
a little on my tongue but didn't get a buzz, so we passed up the buying opportunity.
This is the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, which according to Wikipedia was built in 1673 by
the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and epitomises the beauty and grandeur of the Mughal era.
Continuing on, George and I crossed the border
into India on New Year's Day 1974, and rode a
train to the capital city of Delhi. Here we separated,
George proceeding to the Himalayas in order to
find a guru (teacher) so he could study in an
ashram (this was the era when George Harrison
was a follower of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and
ashrams in India were opening up to foreigners.)
I followed a fellow traveler's tip and found a free
buddhist retreat near Delhi and stayed there while
exploring the area. Asoka Mission Vihara was
located in Mehrauli Village, an area containing
many abandoned and (at the time) untouched
historic buildings dating from the Mughal era.
In Mehrauli Village I fell in with two destitute British expatriates who were scraping
by on their wits and smiles. I bought a few kilos of wheat and dal, and they
reciprocated by cooking up some great Indian food and showing me how to make
chapatis; the survival skills of poverty-stricken foreigners living in India. Great guys.
India was at that
time still a very poor
country, with
bicycles and bullock
carts as major means
of transportation.
Hinduism is the major
religion of India and is
characterized by a vast
array of deities, such as
Viratswarup pictured
here. This is a scan of a
small poster I picked up
along the way.
Trains are one of the highlights of India, and I rode them all over the country. They were
frequently packed with passengers to the point where many people rode on top (free ride.)
I rode a train southeast to the coastal city of Chennai (formerly known as Madras), then down
to the southern tip of India, and then up the west coast through Kerala and Goa to Mumbai
(formerly known as Bombay), then east again to the historic city of Agra.
Agra is site of the Taj Majal, a mausoleum built under Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan
in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Per Wikipedia, "The Taj Mahal is
considered the finest example of Mughal architecture, a style that combines elements
from Persian, Turkish, Indian, and Islamic architectural styles."
This distant view from the Agra Fort is the only photo I wanted to take of perhaps the
most beautiful building in the world.
One of the interesting people
I met on Indian trains was
this Australian single mom,
traveling around India alone
with her infant son. She was
riding third class, just like
me (but more adventurous
for traveling with a baby.)
Next I went north to the mountain kingdom of Nepal. The capital Kathmandu was at
that time a sleepy, medieval town of ancient stone buildings, with religious deities
and statues on every corner and mountaineering outfitters and ganja shops catering to
western visitors who were then just beginning to flood the city.
A friendly sadhu (mystic) on the
streets of Kathmandu.
I decided to hike up to the Everest Base Camp, where my idols Sir Edmund Hillary
and Jim Whitaker had encamped prior to ascending all the way to the top of
"Sagarmatha.“ (I intended to scope out the peak for my own future climb of Mt.
Everest, which I hoped to do later.) So I went trekking in the Himalayas. Being as I
was young and already knew everything, I decided there was little need to actually
prepare for such a brief journey: I bought a few candy bars and a map, and headed up
the trail towards Everest. This was where I started hiking, near Dolalghat.
Alas it was a long way to the Himalaya peaks. I started hiking and immediately had difficulties: I didn't
find any traveler's accommodations and therefore had difficulty finding food and lodging. Using sign
language I was able to get villagers to cook me rice, but I ended up sleeping in courtyards in the simple
mountain houses. I also started suffering from the altitude, and the chest cold I'd had for months became
noticeably worse, with near-constant coughing. After several days of climbing, one night I had a horrible,
feverish sleep and awoke in the morning unable to stand up. A small crowd of Nepalese stood around
gawking at the sick foreigner. I realized, "Holy shit, I'm really in trouble." I had to abandon my trek, and
fortunately I was able to make arrangements with a man to carry my backpack down to the road. He
carried my pack, and then both my pack and me, on his back, down a steep shortcut, and we reached the
road in several hours. This was the only picture of the distant Himalayan peaks (just poking above the
clouds) that I managed to take.
My porter put me on a bus and it was a miserable, bone-jarring ride back down to Kathmandu. I managed
to crawl into a medical clinic run by British missionaries. I remember lying on a bench in the waiting
room, unable to sit up. At length they brought me into a treatment room and I demanded a "big shot of
penicillin", so I could go back to my hotel to recover.
"You're not going anywhere, young man. You need to stay here in the hospital!"
They kept me in the hospital for several days and filled me with antibiotics and three meals a day. I slowly
gained enough strength to stand and they discharged me. I was very weak and since it was still cold in
Kathmandu I decided to descend to northern India to recover in a warmer and more oxygenated climate.
I rode buses down out of the mountains to the burning hot summer in Northern India. I met an
Englishman who invited me to follow him to the pilgrimage town of Bodh Gaya. This is
where, according to Buddhist tradition, in about 500BC Gautama Buddha sat beneath the
Bodhi tree and gained enlightenment.
There was in 1974 a bodhi tree in more of less the same location as the original, supposedly a
direct descendent of the very tree Buddha had sat beneath. During my stay I frequently sat
under the tree to help me recover from my recent illness. I gradually began to regain strength.
Perhaps the real key to my recovery was the Lassi stand, which I visited at least twice
a day for a big glass of lassi. Wikipedia describes lassi thus: "A traditional Punjabi
beverage that is made by blending yogurt with water, salt, and spices until frothy."
I would like to add, "delicious and possessed of signifcant recuperative powers."
After a week sitting beneath the bodhi tree and drinking lassi, my cough subsided and
I felt strong enough to continue traveling. I rode buses east to Calcutta, the great
colonial capital of the Punjab. The Howrah Bridge was crowded with thousands of
pedestrians and human rickshaws and even a few cars.
I stopped at one of Calcutta's many ganja (marijuana) and opium shops for a
snapshot. With uncharacteristic self-discipline, I refrained from imbibing on account
of my recent brush with death and still-poor lung function.
I flew on to Burma, at the time an obscure and mostly unvisited place. Here is a
smiling young buddhist monk in Mandalay.
Next I flew on to Thailand. After a few days in Bangkok I rode a train to the northern
city of Chiang Mai and visited this ancient Buddhist temple.
Thai buddha.
In nearby Chiang Rai, I joined a "hilltribe tour" to visit tribal villages. This form of
tourism has been criticised by many as exploitive, but at the time I thought it was a
fun lark. The villages were very simple and had no electricity or running water. The
residents seemed a little cool but not hostile.
A northern Thai family.
I met some other foreigners and together we rented boats to carry us across the
Mekong River over to Laos.
At the market in Luang Prabang I filled up at the desert bar: a bowl filled with a
mixture of multi-colored sweet noodles, gelatin balls, sweet beans and coconut.
Laos at this time was in political transition: following a decade-long civil war which
was a spillover from the war in neighboring Vietnam, the Lao monarchy had cut a
peace deal with the communist Pathet Lao. (Between 1971 and 1973 the United
States Air Force dropped more ordnance on Laos than was dropped worldwide
during World War II.) On a Laotian road we passed a checkpoint manned by both
Royalist soldiers (on the left wearing green) and Pathet Lao (on the right in black.)
The Arc-de-Morte in Vientiane.
My lungs were by now feeling better and so I foolishly decided they needed more
exercise: I found an opium den and started visiting. I would lay around on a small cot
while an attendant brought pipefuls of the gooey black tar to smoke while surrounded
by mostly older Laotian men doing the same. At first the opium just made me sick
and I vomited a lot. But after a few days of "disciplined training" my body adjusted
and I got into the swing of laying around in a dreamy cloud of stoned indifference. I
guess it's a good thing my visa expired, which brought an end to my brief stint as an
opium addict.
I re-crossed the Mekong River back to Thailand and made my way to Bangkok.
I met a Thai woman in a Bangkok bar. She took me home to meet her family,
including her two daughters.
Here is where they lived: my first experience of a Southeast Asian slum.
In Bangkok, I went to a travel "bucket shop" and bought a $300 one-way ticket to the
US on Korean Airlines which offered unlimited stops enroute. This exhausted my
travel funds and I sent my mom a telegram begging her for a loan so I would have
travel expenses for the rest of my trip. She wired me $300.
I flew east to Hong Kong. It didn't feel like a glamorous place, but rather a faded and
crowded final outpost of the British Empire.
Hong Kong was packed with huge apartment blocks, adorned with television aerials
and drying laundry.
On Hong Kong Island, at the southern terminus
of Star Ferries, I found this man who claimed to
be "the last rickshaw driver in Hong Kong." He
let me take his picture and then demanded a
few Hong Kong dollars. I refused and he
chased me away.
On my next visit to Hong Kong, in 1999, I
think I saw the same guy still there, posing for
pictures with his rickshaw. Not a bad business.
My next stop was Taiwan, at the time still ruled by the aging Chiang Kai-Shek. I rode
buses around the island for a few days.
I flew to South Korea and stayed in Seoul. This is the famous Namdaemun Gate,
literally "Great Southern Gate." The national landmark was severely damaged by a
fire in February 2008.
A traditionally-dressed
Korean woman.
1974 Korean Postcard (front)
Pearl-diving beauties.
1974 Korean Postcard (back)
Message from Chris.
In July I flew to Tokyo.
I rode this bullet train to Kyoto.
In Kyoto, I stayed at an inn run by this family.
The last leg of my trip was a Korean Air Lines flight from Tokyo to San Francisco,
with a re-fueling stop in Hawaii. They allowed us off the plane briefly, and I snapped
this photo of our Boeing 747 with Diamond Head in the distance. This is the only
time I've ever been to Hawaii.
I arrived back in California in July 1974, and my mom Beth let me stay at her place
while I figured out my next move.
A few days after my arrival my brother got married with Nguyet, his sweetheart from
Vietnam (they're still married in 2008.)
My dad Stan is on the right.
The stoner son returned, having visited 21 countries in eight months.
Wiser? Heck no. But I had a great time, and in hindsight was lucky to have survived.
Postscript: In 1983 I volunteered at a
Bellingham hospital in order to gain
experience so I could apply for physical
therapy school. The hospital sent me for
a routine chest x-ray, required of all
hospital volunteers. Finding: "biapical
tiny nodules along both apical caps.
DX: prior pulmonary tuberculosis.”
Although I was apparently now free of
active disease, I was required to
undergo a year of prophylactic
antibiotic treatment with Isoniazid, a
first-line antituberculosis medication.
So the bad cold I had suffered for
months on my trip, which almost killed
me in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal,
was apparently tuberculosis. No wonder
I'd been so sick.