Road to Katmandu, Patrick Marnham (1971)


I had seen this book for sale in Canberra’s Academic Remainders Bookshop while I was waiting to hear whether I’d got the job I wanted in Kathmandu. I was tempted to buy it right away, but decided that if I heard the very next day that I hadn’t got the job, I wouldn’t want to read it after all, I would likely feel resentful. Fickle, I know. So, when I found out that I’d got it, I bought it on my next trip to Garema Place.

However, I found it quite disappointing, not least because the Kathmandu of the title–really the only reason I noticed this book–makes a minimal appearance at the end. Patrick Marnham traveled from Turkey to Nepal, overland through Iran and Afghanistan and India, with few resources but an adventurous spirit. Road to Katmandu has been described as a classic, but I think developments in travel writing since its publication in the early 1970s–particularly changes in ideas about the role of the author–means that it has aged poorly. This was a very character-driven travel narrative, perhaps unsurprisingly as the author does note that it was a fictionalised account of the travels he undertook. But, I learned too little about the places being traveled through–even from a biased perspective, as one expects from travel literature–and too much about the young westerners who were, ultimately, pretty uninteresting and vapid people despite the amazing adventures they embarked upon. Nowadays, such self-indulgent travel to “find oneself” is normal for middle-class youths from many first-world countries, it has been thoroughly commodified and normalised. The gap year, or the OE (is this a New Zealand-ism? I never heard it in Australia) is a right of passage. I have some respect for those who blazed the trail, but perhaps nowadays it’s what we (or I) are trying to resist in travelling to exotic lands. Or at least convince ourselves isn’t the goal.

There were some aspects of Road to Katmandu that I found interesting. This was a book that was actually written quite a long time ago now, and it was easy to forget this. I was able to put this back into perspective when I read the following passage, on travelling by bus through Iran:

“The dispute continued well beyond the point of reason or experience and was followed by an hour of determined silence broken only by a youth immediately in front of us. Now and again he popped up over the back of his bench and beamed the beginning of an announcement. ‘Bobby Kennedy kaput.’ He ran his finger across his throat and disappeared still beaming. Apparently the ex-President’s brother was not popular in Persia.” (p. 80-1)

I’m an avid Mad Men fan, and several weeks ago watched the episode where Bobby Kennedy is assassinated. This seems like another age, when people wore different clothes and spoke differently and had different values, and re-contextualising the journey narrated in Road to Katmandu as also of that age is necessary to put it into perspective, to realise that young western travelers like Marnham really were being radical.

The hippy trail was, ultimately, a masculine adventure. The tokenism of female travelers in this journey–whether we are speaking of the actual journey this fictionalised account represents, or the fiction–put me off side from the start. This was not necessarily Marnham’s fault, as a writer or a traveler, as it was a sign of the times, but it prevented me from empathising with the journey. Marnham describes a rare female traveler he meets:

“Ann was a self-contained person with a devastating ability to unman the natives if they got a little out of hand. Like Maud’s brother, she simply gorgonised them from head to foot with a stony British stare. She was one of the few girls we met on the road. Not many travellers wanted to expend that much energy in guarding them. In Istanbul, rape stories had been exchanged like football scores.” (p. 41)

The 2006 edition includes an up-to-date (2005) foreword by the author, in which he does reflect on personal and political changes since Road to Katmandu was written. It should go without saying that some excellent literature provides the reader with an unfamiliar perspective on life, rather than merely reinforcing the known, and this is why most of us read. But, I couldn’t find enough in this to empathise with to really enjoy it. So I’ve been looking for books on Nepal elsewhere. Watch this space.

This edition: London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2006. First published 1971.

The Carpet Wars, Christopher Kremmer (2002)

I have a particular liking for travel reportage, and Christopher Kremmer’s The Carpet Wars is very enjoyable, though unsatisfying in several important ways.

The subtitle on the image I have posted (“Ten Years in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq”) differs from the one on my copy (“A journey across the Islamic Heartlands”), and I think this demonstrates how much the packaging and meta-textual aspects of a book can affect one’s reading of it. The Carpet Wars is not limited to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq at all, covering Tajikistan, Kashmir, a little bit of Delhi, and Iran as well. These latter places are not insignificant in Kremmer’s narrative, so why leave them out of the subtitle? I suspect the subtitle on this cover image is motivated by an attempt to tap into that lucrative market of books on the Middle East, post-9/11. This warps the real purpose of the book, and obscures the fact that this really is a travel account spanning the Middle East, Central and South Asia.

Keeping with my meta-textual criticisms, I found the title a bit misleading, too. Christopher Kremmer is a carpet collector, and on his various trips to these countries spent much time buying, researching and discussing carpets. Yet I don’t feel that I have finished this book knowing much more about carpets than I did before I started. Kremmer is a print and broadcast journalist, and visited most of these places on work assignments over a long span of time–the carpet business was fitted in whenever he had some personal time. Of course it’s fairly smart to combine work and pleasure, but I felt that the depth of the discussion about carpets was lacking because of the primary purposes of his travels. Basically, I think this would have been a richer book if Kremmer had set out to research carpets alone. Most of the discussion of carpets consists of him talking to sellers in their shops, and though the conversations he has are interesting, they didn’t seem all that different from the kinds of conversations anyone shopping in South Asia enters into as a matter of course. The combination of geo-political commentary, gained through Kremmer’s experience as a journalist, with a specific focus on a cultural symbol in the form of the carpet could have worked, but it didn’t quite. The geo-political aspects tended to dominate, which was a bit of a shame, as there are plenty of other books around doing the same thing.

As a travel account I found it very enjoyable, particularly the chapter on Tajikistan, a country I really know little about. Kremmer’s portrait of the Tajik capital Dushanbe made it sound quite sinister, with a little charm, and I must admit reading it and thinking how I should add Dushanbe to my list of places to avoid (though I do remember reading Simon Winchester’s Calcutta many years ago and being completely put off the city, which is now one of my favourite places in India, testament to the importance of keeping an open mind. And a recent conversation with some cousins who traveled through Tajikistan last year renewed my fledgling interest in the place!). An indication of the lawlessness and political instability of the country was the nickname given to the president Rahmonov: “Mayor of Dushanbe.” Kremmer’s descriptions contain a black, desolate humour, as is befitting of many (ex)Soviet places:

“The Hotel Tajikistan embodied the unique ennui of the socialist service establishment. Finding the particular restaurant serving your particular meal on a particular day was a treasureless hunt. Breakfast was in the basement bar, sometimes. Requiring a coupon, it consisted of yoghurt and sour blinchikis served on a genuine imitation snakeskin tablecloth. Dinner was on the ground floor near the lobby bar; I never found lunch. The horsemeat sausages were vile, the waiters refused to put meals on the room bill and were plagued by a mysterious lack of change, and one morning no one seemed to know where the coffee had gone. Yet there was something remarkably homely about the place, a sort of ‘We’re not trying anymore’ bonhomie. The floor lady happily listened to my execrable Russian, handled my laundry and made endless samovars of chai. The hotel’s rooms had balconies overlooking the snowcapped mountains to the south or, like mine, looked across Lenin Park, in which stood a statue of Vladimir Ilyich, eyes fixed on a future nobody else could see.” (p. 245)

(The conversation with the cousin backed up these descriptions of the food- he actually made it sound far worse!)

However, I think a real test of good travel writing is to read about a place you are familiar with and see whether it holds–Michael Palin’s accounts of New Zealand are completely cringe-worthy, for example; Paul Theroux’s observations of Dunedin are completely at odds with mine. Though I have not been to Kashmir, I have read a lot about it, and I ultimately found Kremmer’s account unsatisfying–it was repetitive of a lot of other writing on Kashmir and didn’t really add many new insights, aside from his experiences at carpet-making factories. I read his descriptions of the Dal Lake houseboats and the impoverishment of their owners in the past couple of decades, and had a strong sense of deja vu, wondering whether I had read this passage elsewhere, in a collection of writings on Kashmir. I don’t think I have, but this says a lot about the chapter, and the book as a whole, I think.

But I don’t mean to sound completely negative. It was an interesting and readable book, the type to read while travelling, perhaps. I have Kremmer’s Inhaling the Mahatma stashed away for this purpose.