Claire and I are in a small seaside town in South India. It’s called Gokarna, which means Cow’s Ear in Sanskrit. Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, is said to have been born here, by emerging from the ear of Prithvi, a deity representing both earth and the mother – or mother earth – who is often depicted as a cow. The temple at the centre of Gokarna contains a lingam – a vaguely phallic stone – which is thought to contain Shiva’s soul. It’s an important place of pilgrimage and, sitting at the one of the town’s few restaurants, you occasionally see religious processions – women in wet saris returning from a ritual immersion at the beach, along with fantastically garbed saddhus and monks in orange robes banging cymbals – moving through the streets.
Unfortunately, we’re here to work. Our lives in Shanghai aren’t completely behind us yet, and we’ve had to divide out time between the beach and tying up loose ends. Claire is finishing her book about contemporary Chinese art and, over the last couple of days, I have compiled all the posts from our last journey, from London to Shanghai, into a single eBook. There are two versions: a PDF, which has pictures and is worth reading on a large screen, and a plain text version, available as both an ePub and a Kindle book through Feedbooks. (Feedbooks has a PDF version too, but ours is much prettier.) The book has the same Creative Commons license at the site. You’re welcome to pass it on to friends and quote from it, as long as you attribute the work with a link.
The eBook has one entry, in the epilogue, you won’t find on our site. It’s a short description of our journey’s end, which moves us and our narrative past India, at last. I’ve inserted it below.
Hyderabad / Cyberabad was our last update to Old World Wandering. It was posted almost two years after Cochin, when Claire and I were already in Shanghai, leading busy lives, first as English teachers and later as writers. We had found work as writers because of Old World Wandering; editors read the story of our journey from London to Shanghai, liked it, and hired us to do other things.
We often talked about how to finish the story, trimming down the list of places we passed through after Hyderabad and occasionally going back to our notes and a blank screen. But India already seemed far away and we were, besides, planning another journey – this time from Shanghai to Cape Town, again overland.
The journey did not end in Hyderabad. We spent a total of nine months in India, stretching out our budget by eating cheap thalis and sleeping in hot, ramshackle hotels. We travelled to the country’s north and crossed into Nepal to extend our visas, returned and headed east to Calcutta, where, after a while, we again started travelling west. We spent time in silent meditation at Lumbini, where Buddha was born, and taught English to Tibetan refugees in McLeod Ganj, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile. We drank bang lassis and covered ourselves and other people in bright powders and coloured water during Holi, did yoga at an ashram on the banks of the Ganges during the monsoon, and hiked for weeks in the Himalayas. We were, I think, a little lost, not travelling towards Shanghai anymore, just looping through a country we had come to love.
China Hands – and the Chinese – like to tell new arrivals that after a month in China you can write a book, after a year, a single article, after five, not even a single page. An annoying platitude, it nevertheless contains a grain of truth, which could apply equally well to India. My articles, after six months in the country, started with page long descriptions of minutiae – of a single object or moment – beyond which they never developed. There is a hint of this in my page long description of a typical Indian bus leaving for Mysore, but I at least found, and finished, the article’s narrative, because at that stage Claire and I were still moving forward, still travelling towards a destination.
We did eventually reach Shanghai by land. We travelled out of India to Kathmandu and from there in a jeep to Lhasa, where we boarded a train to Chengdu, on the world’s highest line of rail. We went to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors, but were stunned instead by the extent of China’s development. And a few days later, on November 14 2007, we arrived at Shanghai Railway Station, where we disembarked from the journey’s final train. There are two pictures of us on the station platform, one below a sign welcoming us to Shanghai, another next to our train carriage, looking at little disbelievingly at the words “Xi’an – Shanghai” displayed on its side. After taking the photos, we hovered on the platform, grappling with our arrival, unsure of what to do next.
A few months later, a friend, another South African in Shanghai, asked me if I planned to finish writing the story of our overland trip. I said yes, but made excuses. I was busy, there were other things I wanted to write, people weren’t visiting the website anymore. “A journey doesn’t have to end,” he replied, and time has, I think, proved him right.
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