Pico Iyer Journeys

Along the Silk Road Today

The new Silk Road–20 years ago I called it the “Denim Route”–exists in Prague and Lamu, in Cuzco and Sumatra; it has its most vibrant and growing life, perhaps, in the virtual global village of cyberspace. And when I go to a place like Leh–or to Lhasa or Kathmandu or any of the great trading-posts in the Himalayas–what I find is all the ways it’s adapting to new markets, different audiences, a more global need these days. It’s still crisscrossing Central Asia, but now it’s full of young Danes carrying stories of trekking across the Andes and peace-keeping forces from Montana in search of apple pie; of Japanese boys with pony-tails bringing aid to less materially fortunate nations and Himalayan kids singing “Tequila Sunrise” in Christian-run coffee-houses to an Indian from England who likes to imagine he lives in Japan.

The foreigner who comes to Ladakh–let’s say me–is coming for the “authentic,” as he sees it, and tends to be unsettled, even outraged, by the fact that other foreigners have come to Ladakh in search of same; often, in fact, he cries that Ladakh is “spoiled” because it’s so full of people like himself (sounding like those compulsive criminals who beg that they be imprisoned before they can do more harm). In Leh many of the foreigners who have come over the last three decades have worked heroically to try to encourage Ladakhi traditions, to protect old customs before they are swept away, to protect the Ladakhis, in all senses, from themselves. The Ladakhis I met seem to cry out to be “spoiled” and long for the privileges that allow people like me to travel across the world and learn from cultures different from my own. Tourism, in fact, is just the latest industry that has enabled them to set up their tents farther afield and ensure that their children have better jobs and lives than they could have imagined.

For centuries their ancestors have sat along these dusty streets watching the caravans take off in every direction, towards Srinagar or Yarkand, bringing unimagined riches and treasures into a somewhat secluded land. The routes they survey have nothing to do with right and wrong, and everything to do with supply and demand. Need is what all of us have in common, they might be saying, and one part of a fruitful friendship is that you give me something that I’m in need of, and I do the same for you. Teach me the words to “Life in the Fast Lane”–and what that reference to “blow” means–and I will tell you the story my grandmother’s grandmother told me about Padmasambhava and his transport to the cave.

I sat in the Desert Rain on this warm summer evening, rejoicing in a quiet space where the airport is named after a lama and the only newspaper in my hotel was eight years old. Men in elegant dressing-gowns (as they looked to me) were conducting traditional archery contests in the outskirts of town, among the fields, and a few days before I’d watched marmots and wild kiang up at a pass 18350 feet above the sea. When I climbed to the rooftop in my hotel I could see stars beyond number, and large Buddhist structures in the hills all around looking over me. I thanked Jet Airways and Singapore Airlines for bringing me here, the mighty dollar and the fact of immigration, which allowed me to be born in England, as opposed to my parents’ Bombay, and so to grow up with a much wider sense of possibility than they had.

The girls around me giggled and asked me for a business-card. “Can I write to you?” one said. Of course; I was one way she could begin to make contact with a world as romantic and exciting to her as hers was to me–to feel that she had the beginnings of a foothold in the magical realm she’d heard of in the Eagles’ songs. I hadn’t come here for trade, and nor had she. But here we were, in the little candled space, built by traders in an alien faith, engaging in the age-old Ladakhi custom. You have gold, she might have been saying to me, as she glimpsed my passport peeping out of my pocket; I have tea and incense and stories.

Silk seems so exotic to us now, though once it was as everyday as any other good being bartered. One day perhaps “The Last Resort” or “The End of the Innocence” will acquire that faraway glow, too. All of us were traveling as we sat in the warm, bright room, and the lights around town began to go out around us; but we were heading in opposite directions, as travelers had always done among the snowy passes, the dusty thoroughfares, of the Silk Road.

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