an overland journey from Calcutta to Berlin, 1989

1- Pakistan. The little village of Sust in northern Pakistan is the very last stop before the Khunjerab pass that stands gigantic at almost 4700 meters in the high Karakoram Mountains. It is also the entry point into China. This is the land of the last snow leopards. In less than 40 miles a bird could be in India, Afghanistan or Tajikistan. For me Xinjiang, in the Far East region of China is the aim. The pass is closed most of the year, lying under heavy snow at sub-zero temperatures, and on May 1st it officially opens. I am in Sust since a few days, sleeping on the floor in the kitchen around the open fire with at least a dozen others. This is a check post point and life is tough. It is cold, smoky, food is scarce. We are a handful of westerners, a few colourful people from Tajikistan and some traders from the nearby regions. We are all on our way to Kashgar.

An old bus with tinted windows is stationed there by the still frozen river; it will drive us to the Chinese border as soon as the road is clear. Every morning since a few days we inquire desperately as when we are going to move; and today is April 30th already. But the weather forecast doesn’t look good, the pass is apparently out of reach and so we must wait.

The next morning a couple of traders from Urumqi are engaging with the bus driver in a heated discussion. Impatience is in the air. They want to leave today!

What happened then I never knew, but I suspect that some baksheesh was paid and so the bus was suddenly ready to go.          

We all got in and off we were.

The ride is one of the most spectacular I have ever experienced. I was used to sit on the roof of buses during my journey north in Pakistan, and it was an intense yet delightful place to be during the peak of the March heatwave; but here there was no chance. It was dry and cold, snow was covering everything around and we were slowly moving above the 4000 meters line.

After a couple hours the bus suddenly stopped and we were all told to get out.

That was it!  The road was actually no more accessible, and in fact we should never have left in the first place. Snow was getting thicker and we had no choice but walk the last bit!

How long was the last bit we had absolutely no idea.

And so on May 1st 1989, I wrapped myself with all the clothes I had and covered my head with a yellow Shiva scarf. Of course I was a hippy and the idea of sunscreen or sunglasses or a hat had never even occurred to me. I put my pack on my back and up we walked. We were less than 20 people, from such different places, on such different trips, but here we were, moving step by step, up and up and up. I remember an English man who was travelling with his Hong Kong girlfriend. She seemed so exhausted and unhappy and she had 2 suitcases! He was a big guy and I still see him carrying that luggage on his head leading the way while his girl was threatening to just stop and sit on the snow. I remember an older lady from some remote village in Tajikistan; she had come to Pakistan for some medical treatment and was now on her way back home through those high mountains. Two men were taking turns to help her up. It was totally surreal and I felt in a movie from a different time. The air was getting painfully thin, the sun was bright and blinding, but the nature and the high pics all around were so absolutely breath-taking.

I cannot remember how long we walked. It was one step at a time, one breath, another step, and another breath…

This very moment was all there was. How we got here was a mysterious unfolding that only the divine could possibly make sense of. I recall the feeling of being completely one with life and the magic it is made of. I recall that sense of being in the hands of something infinitely bigger than my little self. I recall the awe in my heart in front of so much beauty. As the amount of oxygen was diminishing with every step so was the holding of the mind; everything became lighter and a strange sense of emptiness was pervading the air. Life was being lived, fully and dangerously. In that moment there was no thought about tomorrow and the feeling that I could die here and then was an obvious possibility; and yet in that moment I felt more alive than ever, more present than ever and in touch with something that clearly would never die.

We finally all made it to the top and crossed over to China. By foot. On the snow. At 4733 meters above sea level!

The long overnight trip to Kashgar was excruciating. I was snow-blind.

 

2- Tiananmen Square, Beijing, May 1989

After 4 days and nights in a train from Urumqi I arrived in Beijing. I had left Calcutta 3 months before and was travelling overland. I had spent days on the roof of local buses up along the Indus River in Pakistan under the scorching April heat, had hang out in the most extraordinary Hunza region of Kashmir, crossed the Khunjerab pass by foot at almost 5000 meters, then entered China and the oasis town of Kashgar where I recovered from snow blindness in a welcoming Uyghur family.

The sun was rising as I walked out of the station.

During this last month in Western China the only news we had was from the English edition of the “people’s voice”, a daily newspaper that we often got a week after it was published, and as I remember all was really good and happy in this great country.

Stepping out of the train already something felt odd. I soon found out that there were no buses or subway, basically no traffic, demonstrating students everywhere, and that the huge 6 lanes streets were jammed with … bicycles! I can’t remember how it happened and it does sound surreal today, but I got a bicycle here and then, sat on it with my pack on my back and off I was through the streets of Beijing looking for the cheapest guest house!

The cheapest Guest House I found was a 5 star hotel. On the top floor and overlooking Beijing with breath-taking views, was a restaurant under renovation, and there we could sleep on the red sofas and keep our luggage on the thick carpet between the tables. “We” included a few dodgy Polish business men and a bunch of hippies on the same trail as I was. We were all ultimately going to be on one of the Trans-Siberian trains that were running twice a week between Beijing and Moscow.

The tension in Beijing during that time, the energy on the streets, and the creativity people were showing was just something so outrageous and that I have never experienced again. After about a week, I moved out of the restaurant and joined a group of students in one of their buses stationed in a corner of the great Tiananmen Square, where I was anyway spending most of my time.

We all hang out together, ate noodle soups, drank tea, and at night we all were working under a kerosene lamp at the back of the bus where I would be translating pamphlets into English, French and German.

After so many weeks travelling on my own I had found a family. We were smoking lots of Pollen and everything and every breath was out of this world. I actually had little idea what this student revolution was all about, but I loved hanging out with those guys my age, I loved driving my bicycle for hours without holding the handle and get lost in this mind-blowing city, I loved the buzz, I loved the madness and I loved being high.

I had no idea at the time that those very days in this particular square were going to be carved in history forever. Even more unthinkable that it would be carved with so much blood, the blood of those I had shared such precious moments with.

As far as I was concerned and as far I understood there was no sign that something bad was going to happen any time soon; in fact it sounded that the movement was picking up, that more and more were getting involved, that the government was going to fall and that victory was coming soon. The energy was rocketing, it was just unbelievable.

I could easily have stayed an extra week, but on Wednesday May 31st 1989 I found for 30 dollars a trans-Siberian ticket on the black market and left that very evening. The trip to Moscow would take 9 days.

Only upon reaching Russia a week later did a newspaper find its way to the train. I remember staring at the picture on the front page. Tiananmen Square filled with tanks and corpses. In shock and denial I was mumbling “where are all the people, where are my friends?”

Some survived, some were jailed, some were killed.

Those weeks of freedom on the pavement of Tiananmen Square were an extraordinary time in history. A time that may never happen again. A time that impacted me in more ways than I understand, that changed the course of my life, and for which I am forever grateful.

I dedicate this chapter to those who lost their life standing up for their freedom.

 

 

3- Siberia. We are now at the very end of May 1989 and my Tran Siberian Express is approaching Irkutsk by the Baikal Sea. I have unknowingly left Tiananmen Square in Beijing 48 hours before the army would march in and kill thousands. Before boarding the train I had followed my intuition and spent my last 100 Dollars on the very best jeans I could find. They were bad by any western standard but they did look like jeans and I was told that somehow I would get good money for them in Siberia. I had about 30 of them stacked in yellowish wrapping cloth.

We were now about halfway to Moscow and I was starting to wonder how I would sell those jeans. I had hardly any money to eat, and I would need to spend a night or two in Moscow and buy another ticket to Berlin.

Just then, a bunch of local business men entered the train. It seemed that they were ready to buy anything that looked vaguely western. The first one who approached me got the deal- He took my jeans and left me with a stack a 100 rouble notes which filled my little backpack. I was not sure how much it was and I was fine with finding out later. From then on the restaurant compartment changed configuration; the straight tourists were now watching their cash while all the hippies just asked for the very best.  Caviar at every meal and smuggled Chinese Champagne replaced the goulash soup. I was obviously rich, but in less than a week my short visa for the Soviet Union would expire; I would need to be out and those roubles would be worthless once I crossed the iron curtain. We had a few more days before reaching Moscow and another miracle would need to happen before then.

I was sharing the compartment with 3 other young guys from England. We had a great time. I was only 23 then but was still the older one and I was enjoying this role. I was rolling the joints, paying for all the meals; I had so many stories to tell and I knew it all. When the train slowly stopped in the huge Novosibirsk station I clearly understood that it was at least a 20 minutes stop, and I ordered us all “let’s explore the station and come back with ice creams”. And off we were, out of the compartment, and up the stairs. What happened then I never knew, because those 3 friends I never met again.

I lost them in the crowd, panicked, and finally just made it back to our train. I am still sure that less than 10 minutes had passed but the train started to move as I just got in. I looked around and certainly my 3 friends were not back. I got hold of the manager and explained in my best Russian what had happened; he run to the front of the train, talked to the conductor, and came back in. The train had to leave.

He and I went back to my compartment to look through my friends stuff and make an inventory! Their passports were here and their bags were full. They had walked out for a few minutes just wearing a jacket in search of ice creams. And now they were left behind in the middle of Siberia without passeports.

I was now alone in the compartment and I invited the conductor for a glass of champagne. We had such a wonderful time! He hardly spoke English and my Russian was rather poor, but we managed as I recall, to have deep talks on philosophy, religion and the meaning of life.

I ordered more bottles of champagne and plates of caviar.

We slowly were approaching Moscow, and although I was generous with my cash, my backpack was still full of it.

The second miracle happened in the middle of the night, as I was sleeping alone in my compartment. Another kind of business men had entered the train and those had dollars. Again the first one who knocked on my door got the deal. He gave me 3000 dollars and took all my roubles. This time I was rich and it felt real !

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