India via the Old Silk Road: 1977 letters home

In 1977 I overlanded to India along the Old Silk Road. I was 19 years of age. That summer the Sex Pistols released ‘God Save the Queen’ and there was a whiff of revolt in London. Everything was changing: punk was a giant wind that blew all sorts of cobwebs away. I’d saved about £2k from working as a hospital porter for nine months, and suddenly I wondered about holding off the trip. Hippies were out, and punk was in. During a bonfire at an all-night party on Harrow hill one Saturday in June I decided sod it, it was now or never. Much as I loved the buzz, I was never going to be a punk, I was a middle-class kid fresh out of boarding school. For a couple of years at least I’d wanted to go off on an open-ended trip, and I chose India partly because I was a big fan of George Harrison, and partly because my uncle had served in the army in India and Burma during the war and told some great stories about the sub-continent and the Gurkhas, Sikhs and Hindis he’d fought alongside. But actually I knew next to nothing about the place, and that was a draw too. It was ‘Into The Wild’ for me, except for one minor detail: I left behind £1,000 with my folks in case I ran low or was robbed, in which scenario they could send the money on. I told my parents I was going for a holiday in Greece because I knew they’d have been alarmed if I told them my true intentions.

So off I went, telling chums I was heading for Tibet, not knowing it was closed to Westerners following the Chinese invasion in 1950: the borders had been shut in 1959 after the overthrow of the Tibetan government, at which point the Dalai Lama left for India. I took the ferry to Hoek van Holland and hitchhiked through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, to Turkey. I travelled solo, with no camera, no map, no diary… these letters home are the only immediate record of the voyage other than my passport at the time.

After a few days in Istanbul I took the bus out of town, which is where I first wrote home to my parents and sisters in London. Some personal comments to family members have been left out.

Me in 1976 with ‘Sai Baba’ afro

Wednesday, July 20, 1977/Corum, Turkey
This is merely a quick note to reassure you that I am OK. At the moment I am in the town of Corum, somewhere in the middle near the north of Turkey, and I have just spent the last hour trying to make a phone call, but no one understood me and the queue was so long I nearly caused a riot! Will ring later.
Last night I spent at the home of a Turkish family who were really kind. This guy of about 21 had picked me up in Nis in Yugoslavia and took me all the way here — very kind etc. It seems I have travelled a long way in a short space of time and I think I will go slower now. Soon — this morning — I will be taking a bus towards Tehran, I guess that will take me a couple of days. Maybe I have been travelling too fast because the culture out here is very different.

Corum, Turkey

Everything is very simple, it has been rather a culture shock, Soon I will buy some leather sandals and a cool kaftan or something because it’s pretty hot out here. Also maybe I will discard some clothes from my rucksack, most of which are unnecessary. Hope all is going well at home. Don’t work too hard Ma!

Saturday, 30th July, 1977/Kabul, Afghanistan
Iran was a really difficult place to go through, especially Tehran. The rich man and the beggar walked the same street and neither acknowledged the other. Luckily I was staying with a good friend and there were no problems. Give my love to all.
[2021 note: Most of my memories of Iran — the food, the culture, the architecture — are of a vibrant culture, with well-educated and hugely considerate people. But there were tensions: protests started in late 1977, leading to the fall of the Shah and the start of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. I had several experiences bussing through Afghanistan — Herat, Khandahar and Kabul — that I didn’t want to, or know how to, share with the folks.]

The Golden Temple — also known as Harmandir Sahib, meaning ‘abode of God’ — in Amritsar, in the Punjab, is the holiest Sikh site. It was originally founded in 1577

Wednesday, 10th August, 1977/Srinagar, India
I am having a really wonderful time in Kashmir, in the town of Srinagar. I had left Kabul and was travelling with some French Canadians through Pakistan until Amritsar, the first city in the Punjab. It had a really beautiful temple called the Golden Temple. Then I came through the mountains, the clouds and the rain to the Kashmir Valley, which is so picturesque. We are living on a houseboat for four — two bedrooms, toilets, shower, sitting room and dining room for Rs10/- a day, which is about 50p. That is very expensive. So far I have been eating rice with lentils and apples and tea, all for about 15–20p. It’s so serene and calm on this lake, and boats are paddling around. It’s not so hot as Pakistan. It rains a lot till midday, then the sun comes out. Am thinking of you all often.

Dal Lake, Srinagar, land of the houseboats and mountains

Wednesday, 17th August, 1977/Srinagar
Thought I would write another letter as am trying to write once a week if possible. I am still living on this houseboat and having a few days rest as I had a slight illness. All is well now however, as the guy on this boat is well known for his good cooking. I would like to have stayed here another month but am slightly disillusioned by the number of people living off tourists — ie about 100 per cent of them. There are some houseboats which cost £10 a day and these are taken by rich old Americans who spend freely. Unfortunately therefore, all the Indian people here believe that everyone is a millionaire and take as much money as is possible to extract on every possible occasion. It is difficult to reconcile this with the all-pervading religious spirit which is also visible.
So far I have found India to be a land of absurd contradictions which will probably take ages just to begin to understand. For instance the cow is still a sacred object but economically I think they are trying to remove it as it wanders freely and eats any food it wants, while people are starving. I bought a beautiful wood carving box which I found while rowing along the lake to another village which was so cut off it didn’t even have a tea stall! Hope everything is well.

Sunday, August 28th, 1977/Hotel Koko Nur, McLeod Ganj
I am very well at the present time thank you and am staying in the Tibetan town of McLeod Ganj near Dharamsala. This situation arose in 1959 after the Chinese had invaded Tibet and the Dalai Lama, who is both the religious and ‘political’ head of Tibet, moved to this town which was given over to Tibetan refugees by the Indian government. Today it is called the ‘Little Lhasa in India’ and seems to retain all the customs of old Tibet, as they chant the eternal mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”.

The Dalai Lama in McLeod Ganj (though he wasn’t in residence at this time in 1977)

There is also a library containing many ancient books totally unseen in the West which could be of much use I’m sure. I have just finished reading ‘Tibetan Medicine’ which was very valuable from many points of view. This being my introduction to ‘biology’, however, maybe I shall be returning with some slightly irregular points of view!
There is also a Dharma course which teaches the basic points of Buddhist philosophy but it lasts a month so I am not taking it. However I was very lucky to meet the Junior Tutor to the Dalai Lama, who was a very old man radiating serenity, compassion and understanding. It was truly a unique experience, and I know I will never find myself in such a position again. Just now I have returned from a Tibetan Folk Opera which was packed full of Tibetans, Buddhist monks in their saffron robes, and Europeans. It started this morning at 9.30 and finished at 5.30, but apparently some of them go on for two weeks so this was relatively short! The costumes and dancing were beautiful and shed some light on a unique and, I fear, endangered culture.

Tibetan Library, left, McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh

It has been so good to stay here as the food is so good and totally without the obsession the Indians have with curry. I am convinced they only put in so much curry to cover up the quality of the food, whereas here the food is something like Chinese, with noodles and chou-chous. In other places I have spent a lot of money, mostly on eating well, as I was a little sick in Pakistan and am more careful now. [2021 note: I’d lost a stone and a half after a lergy in Lahore.] When I am in Delhi I shall ring you and ask you to send over the rest of my money. It has not lasted very well so far but I don’t care as long as I’m alive and well. There are so many diseases out here and it is almost inevitable one shall catch something but so far I have been lucky. Already one guy I met in Srinagar was flown home.

Thursday, 15th September, 1977/New Delhi
Unfortunately at the moment I am in a very serious position. My week’s stay in Delhi has been a little short of disaster! My things I bought in Kashmir — the engraved box and jewellery — were talked out of me by a dealer who said he would send them safely to England but stole them from me. I’ve mis-timed my money and was forced to sell my sleeping bag for Rs255 /- ie £17. The money from England hasn’t arrived yet. I cannot wait in Delhi any more and am returning by tonight’s train to Dharamsala, where I can rent a room for Rs75/-. With 30 Rupees for the journey and 50 Rupees to return to Delhi, plus a hotel for one night, this leaves me with only 100 Rupees to live for a month. This is just over 20p a day. It’s called desperation! Luckily I have a friend/teacher in Dharamsala in the form of a sadhu — an aesthetic who has renounced all material things. He has taught me many things as I was sitting at his feet for a week overlooking the mountainside before and he may help me now. I am angry at myself for being so naive. I have been cursing myself for days but now I have no more emotion — I just need to survive.

Baba — Mahatma Ombilas Kashyap — in the late 1990s, shortly before his passing

29th September 1977/Dharamsala
Oh dear! Where does one start a letter after the last one was such a dramatic plea for help! I expect you have been rather worried but rest assured now. My letter from Delhi was the result of my state of mind at that time. Never have I seen such a terrible city, filled with pain and misery. My hotel was full of drug addicts living on junk time, the noise on the street was terrible as everyone tried to survive in a city where so many seemed to be dying. People were shitting in the streets, an incredible amount of beggars followed Europeans around, some of them — most of them — so thin you could literally put your fingers around their lower legs. I walked around with the leaden feeling that if I didn’t personally give them something they could be dead tomorrow. Out of my last 300 Rupees I had 200 talked out of me and I lost all the stuff I wanted to send back to you. I was down to my last 50p when some guy bought my sleeping bag and I am at the moment living on 20p a day for food. Actually, this is no problem at all! It’s a good experience in self-control etc.

Dharamsala High Street, Himachal Pradesh, India

The reason I returned to Dharamsala was due to the presence here of a sadhu, Baba, an Indian saint who since a month ago has been talking with me on the side of a mountain as we overlook a valley. Such is the power of this man’s words that he makes everything I have been talking about seem meaningless — I feel no worrying or hunger with him as he has conquered these things and I feel that. This is a very well-read man who has encouraged me to study in a practical manner, which is not difficult as there is a Tibetan library with books from West and East. Baba has also explained to me much about Indian society and the changes there have been in the last 15 years. He has shown me an India that is blazing with light and understanding, but also under a cloud of material changes.
I am staying at the moment in the house of a Frenchman for free on the side of this mountain, and have got some cooking together. Usually we have great steaming clay pots of porridge in the morning, some other things during the day and rice and curried vegetables at night. In this way have I been living for the past two weeks. I have 150 Rupees left but don’t worry , I’ll try and ring sometime. I’m sorry I didn’t write before, I really wanted to reassure you but at that time I couldn’t save Rs1.60 for a letter out of Rs3 daily, now I can. Anyway instead of indulging in all this selfish talk you must tell me how things are at home. Did Frances [younger sister] have a nice birthday? Mum was telling me on the phone that Jay [older sister Julia] didn’t like Israel much which seems a pity. I have had a letter from Adrian Bridge who is leaving France where he has been picking grapes and is also coming to India — he should arrive within the end of next month, so we shall travel together after that I should think. I shall be ringing sometime either from here or Delhi when I get there.

The Taj Mahal at dawn

Wednesday, 13th October, 1977/Agra
I write from a little cafe outside the Taj Mahal where I am having breakfast. It is about 8am. I arrived in Agra before light this morning and saw the amazing Taj Mahal at sunrise — a truly magnificent spectacle as it stands so imposing under a cloud-free sky with the sun rising just above the horizon. At 6.30am it is completely empty and I felt an incredible sensation of space and timelessness as I walked around it and went into the tomb, where the echo carries on in timeless wave after wave.
Yesterday I rang from Delhi and you told me about the bank blaming me for the money not arriving. I went back to them furious and demanded they write you an apology. I hope they did as the money arrived on Sept 10th and I left on the 15th after going in every day. The guy I was asking was an absolute idiot, all the time the money was lying two desks away. I could not wait in Delhi for the £40 you sent, for which I must thank you, as it is a waste of time and money etc. Therefore I will collect it and return it when I come back from Nepal in maybe a month’s time. I am deeply sorry, I must say at this point, to have caused so much worry and confusion for which I am to blame to a certain extent.

Letter from the State Bank of India, New Delhi, to Mum, 13th October, 1977.
Madam
At the request of Mr Michael Scialom, we have to advise that he has received the sum of Rs 2869/00 on our counters 11th August, 1977.
Mr Scialom did call on us for a week during the first week of September 1977 but at that time no remittance had been received by us.
Any inconvenience caused is sincerely regretted.
Yours sincerely
Superintendent

At this moment, as I embark on what I shall describe as the second half of my journey, I feel completely refreshed and ready to see Benares tomorrow — the holy city of India on the Ganges, after which I will go to Kathmandu for two or three days, then Pokhara for a few weeks. After that I return to Delhi and perhaps I shall meet Adrian there. I like this way of travelling which enables me to meet the Indian people more.

Sathya Sai Baba was a controversial Indian guru, widely revered in India but seen by some as a fraud. Because of my afro, people said I looked like him, and arguments often broke out as to whether he was a saint or a charlatan, much to my bemusement/amusement

Everywhere I am referred to as ‘Sai Baba’, a famous guru, because of my hair which seems to make me instantly popular! (He has hair like mine.) Post is very erratic here, on Tuesday I had no letters but on Wednesday I got letters from Jay (dated Sept 16th) and three from Dad (thank you) starting from Sept 11th I think, to very recent.
I hope everything’s okay, Mum and Dad you sounded a little strained on the phone.
Anyway thank you for all the trouble you took.

Tuesday, 21st October , 1977/Pokhara, Nepal
Am staying in a hotel in Pokhara by the lake. All is well.
Love Mike
PS I think maybe my guitar strings are getting rusty by now if it’s cold so could you tighten the strings so they are just above the level of the fretboard. After this am going to Goa and then will come home so be seeing you all.

Pokhara, Nepal, the start of the Jomsom trek to Annapurna

7th November, 1977/Pokhara, Nepal
Hope you are all well at the present moment. Haven’t unfortunately had any news from you for some time but I have almost finished my journey in Nepal now. Today I have just got back from trekking for maybe a week. [2021: The Jomsom trek leads to the base camp at Annapurna — needless to say, still mapless, I didn’t make it that far.] It was a very interesting journey, travelling through whole valleys of rice, then whole valleys of stones, across rivers etc. On the first night it rained and in the morning the ground was covered in leeches. I thought I was safe in my boots, while these two German guys I was trekking with had only plastic sandals. I was laughing until I had this slight skin irritation, took off my shoes, only to find the leeches had crawled through socks and shoes. Too much!

‘Annapurna mountain was in full and splendid sight on my path, and many times I was walking above the level of the clouds’

After a morning of this we all had had enough welts so we turned back and went a safer route. [2021 note: Actually I left the Germans — they spoke no English and my German wasn’t good enough for a decent conversation — and set off on another trail to a remote village where I was taken in by the grace of some villagers for a few days while I got my bearings.]
The lives of the Nepalese are destined to be determined by the surrounding mountains, which I may say are incredibly powerful. Annapurna mountain was in full and splendid sight on my path, and many times I was walking above the level of the clouds.
From Kathmandu I will fly to Patna as it’s pretty cheap, then start the journey to Delhi to meet Adrian, but I’ve had no word from him yet so maybe it’s not possible, in which case I will go down to Rajasthan, stay a week or two then cross the desert into Pakistan into Iran and Afghanistan and so on home in time for Christmas with any luck. Have decided to avoid Goa as it’s just a freak scene dominated by Europeans. It’s very easy to get stuck in these groups and thus fail to communicate properly with the Indians. Love to all.

17th November, 1977/Bodh Gaya, India
Hope all is well at home. Perhaps I have not written for some time, the reason for this being that I prefer to write when I am well installed in a certain area, rather than scrawling something when I am half hanging out of an Indian train or some such crazy situation I often seem to find myself in.
I left Kathmandu by air about a week ago. It was just a small 44-seat plane with two propellers, but the flight was really stupendous as we climbed above the clouds to emerge in a clear airspace, and the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas were clearly visible on the horizon. Unfortunately it lasted only a couple of hours before landing in the heat and craziness of India again. From Patna I went to Gaya and then to Bodh Gaya.

Two surviving items from India — my passport bag which I wore round my neck, and a booklet from Sarnath, near Varanasi, which is where the Buddha taught his first sermon

Bodh Gaya has a long history as a holy centre as it was here that the Buddha gained Enlightenment whilst sitting under a bodhi tree 2,500 years ago. Since then not much has happened but there is a beautiful temple/monument and the temples representing the various Buddhist sects — Thai, Chinese, Tibetan, Ceylonese, Japanese and maybe some more. [2021 note: Bodh Gaya also features Burmese and Indian temples.] It really is quite a unique place with a very spiritual atmosphere which has been maintained all this time.
I am staying in a room at the house of a Tibetan lady who really is an amazing person. She is incredibly generous — when I arrived she made me a big meal for free. Just a week ago 100 refugees from Bangladesh arrived in town, penniless and with no place to go — everyone turned them away but this lady, who took them all in her small house and its surroundings, and fed them etc.
Anyway I have been squatting under a few trees and will return, or rather start the long journey back, in a few days. Apparently it’s not possible to go back through Rajasthan so I must come back via Amritsar and Kabul etc.

Me and Adrian in 2019: the India meet-up didn’t work out, but there’s been a fair few catch-ups since.

If Adrian is not in Delhi (and I’m beginning to suspect he never left Highgate) I will have left India before the end of this month. Before it took me 20 days including hitching so I should be back in time for Xmas. Anyway hope Dad had a good birthday and got my card.
[2021 note: It was bloody cold on the way home, especially in Afghanistan and Turkey: the return trip took three weeks, and I arrived back to London two days before Christmas.]

Postscript: It turned out Adrian had left Europe later than I thought: after a lot of discussion back in London some time after his return, it seems I left Amritsar heading west the day he arrived heading east, so we just missed each other. Adrian obviously had the travel bug too, and went on to become a travel writer and journalist. After returning to the UK, I started sending money to Baba on a regular basis , which he used to help build a house for his family. In 2016, Charlie, the laddie, went to Dharamsala, many years after Baba’s passing, and stayed in the house with his wife Kailash and their son, Prem. Charlie filled in a lot of the blanks in a travelogue called ‘The Circle of Life’ for which he has my eternal respect and gratitude, as does Sonia Puri for her translation heroics. Charlie has visited Dharamsala three times now: I’ve yet to return, though Baba is still in my world in thought and in songs I’ve written.
My parents have passed now but, forever to their credit, they never once tried to persuade me to come home, they always understood I had to find my own feet in the world, and I guess everyone has to do a bit of wandering about to know the value of things. My sisters still reside in London — Julia in Harrow, and Frances (after much travelling about) with husband Kostas and family in Walthamstow.
As a historical footnote the Islamic Republic was created in 1979, while Afghanistan has been semi-occupied by a superpower since the same year, though it seem
US forces may fully withdraw on September 11 this year. Who knows, maybe the Old Silk Road will open up again at some point. Meanwhile, I remain a member of Free Tibet. Om Mani Padme Hum.

From left are Charlie Baker, Kailash, Prem and Sonia Puri in Dharamsala, 2016

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Journalist, writer; facilitator at Cambridge Open Media

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Mike Scialom

Mike Scialom

Journalist, writer; facilitator at Cambridge Open Media

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