Monday, October 29, 1984

A Week’s Drive in Yorkshire

Written for Travel & Leisure, 1985

To the cynics, the world has been totally mapped and digested. There are no more unknown places, and certainly not in Britain—the most written-about country on earth. But Yorkshire, with its steeply undulating dales, its long austere moors, its rough coast, is very much an unknown place, even to Britons.

The locals go further. The locals will tell you that Yorkshire, for all its beauty, simply does not exist. Your map may confirm this, and refer to the North Riding, West Riding, and East Riding—boundaries that are still used by everybody except the government. But Yorkshire?

“Noo such place,” a white-haired, corpulent under-sheriff in York told me. “There you have it, sir. Just the three ridings. ‘Riding’ cooms froom ‘thriding,’ which means three. That’s why there’s noo South Riding. Simple enough.”

Fortunately I’d already decided on a route, and wouldn’t let myself be swayed by such controversy. I would start in the ancient town of Yor k—easily accessible from London. Swing westward and through the dales, James Herriot country, for several days. Cross east-northeast to the moors. Finish my week by veering sharply up to Whitby, birthplace of Dracula and Captain Cook, then wend my way down the coast (all journeys should end by the sea). Thus, I thought, I might discover Yorkshire’s existence for myself.

I took the bullet train northbound one morning from London, in October sunlight, and watched suburbs give way rapidly to neat fields and meadows with sheep grazing like tiny clouds. My elderly taxi driver in York, like most Yorkshiremen, was at heart a philosopher, and like most philosophers he’d discovered that a life of thought does not pay suitably. He was also, he said, not really a local.

“Noo. sir. Far from it. I’m from twelve mile oop the road. Use’ t’be a farmer, meself. But too mooch o’ the hard labor, ’n’ me back’s gone out. I tell you, if I had it all t’do o’er again, I wouldn’a work atchall. Not the hard labor. Wears out the joints. I’d ha’ me soom cooshy job, in the government, like. And I’d practice the yooga every day. There ye have the problem with the world. Not enough o’ the yooga. If everybody spent their time readin’ o’ the Good Book and practicin’ the yooga. we wouldn’a ha’ so mooch trouble today.”

He let me off in King’s Square, where I bought a baked potato at a street oven that looked like a miniature locomotive, and set off to explore the shops and hidden churches in the squeezed narrow streets. York has been a Roman walled town, a Viking walled town with merchant contacts as far away as the Black Sea, and a medieval English walled town. Though only two and a half miles square, it seems much larger due to such a concentration of influences, and I took my driver’s advice and walked around the top of the most recent set of walls to get a sense of the town before descending. Because Yorkshire is mainly villages and hamlets and lone farmhouses, York’s comparative size can be misleading.

The town was all style and atmosphere: rare-book dealers. expensive antique stores of all kinds, confectioners, tea shops, handknit-wool shops. York was England the way Americans wish it to be—cobblestoned England, country-squire England. Dickens’ England. There were pubs with names like the Golden Fleece and Trafalgar Bay, all full of Americans. Occasionally, passing the fashionable shops, I felt I was being asked to furnish a Masterpiece Theater set.

But this was history, too, for York has been a trading center for centuries, situated on the river Ouse (pronounced “ooze”) that leads conveniently to the sea. The 9th century Vikings, after their usual pillaging and raping along the coast, quieted down and made York as much of an international arts-and-crafts center as it is today. So the merchant tradition, and the slightly dour Viking expression, are in York’s blood. All the streets are called  “gate”—Micklegate, St. Saviourgate, Whip-ma Whop-ma Gate—but despite the Shakespearian sound, the suffix “gate” derives from the Norse word for “street”. The same holds true for many of the place names.

I’d been warned not to visit York because of the fire a summer before at the great church, the York Minster, which dates back to the 13th century. There’d been much speculation—and exaggeration—about the July fire, started by a bolt of lightning one night. Only a day earlier, the extremely controversial Bishop of Durham had been ordained right in the south transept, and many were still calling the fire an act of God.

If so it was a small gesture, since fortunately only the south transept roof burned—about ten per cent of the total, gigantic roof area. At evensong in the late afternoon, as the voices of the hidden choir rose and echoed up the nave, it was easy to walk across the great stones toward the altar and feel oneself a pilgrim to this grace. These Gothic British churches, with their soaring limestone and arched stained-glass windows, are as expansive, as clean to the mind, as an open meadow. They are a human equivalent of the dales; they give a sense of infinite space without an oppressive hugeness, and they never fail to exhilarate—perhaps because they are places where, as T. S. Eliot put it, “prayer has been valid.”

Within twenty minutes’ drive from York lie several of the “stately houses” of Britain, including Harewood House. I plumped for Castle Howard, where much of the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited was filmed. Driving up the long colonnade of trees—so familiar, from the series—I kept expecting soundtrack music. As Horace Walpole wrote, “Nobody had informed me that at one view I should see a palace, a town. a fortified city, temples on high places, woods worthy of being each a metropolis of the Druids, the noblest lawn in the world fenced by half the horizon, and a mausoleum that would tempt one to be buried alive; in short, I have seen gigantic palaces before, but never a sublime one.”

What I fear he exaggerated was the taste of the whole extravaganza. There is something unfeeling about taking a beautiful site in the heart of Yorkshire, bounded on one side by a brimming lake and on the other by the serene dales, getting Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor to create an architectural marvel of a palace and a series of stately gardens, then filling them both with an unending catalogue of relics from the classical and ancient world: drab paintings of the Colosseum surrounded by nymphs, copies of copies of Greek and Roman statues, third-rate plunder. On the grounds, among mythological statues, stood a needlelike obelisk and a giant pyramid, absurd against the English countryside. Peacocks were strutting among the maze-like hedges. Around Atlas, rising from a fountain to hold up the world, several mermen were all blowing trumpets, and the net effect of Castle Howard was just that: too much trumpet-blowing. It was like a monument to vain collectors everywhere, and the splendor of the house and gardens could not counteract that impression. Castle Howard looked as if it were waiting for the right Texan to come along and buy it, and I came away hoping that the televised version—inside, you can see the staircase on which Sebastian, played by Anthony Andrews, crumpled and wept—would persist more strongly in memory than the house itself.

In Harrogate, west along the A59, under a glowering grey sky I went for a walk in the Valley Gardens, just past the great Royal Baths. Elderly women with spry dogs and men strolling with canes were also ignoring the weather. Together we passed a long bank of dahlias, in purples and yellows and reds and pinks and blues. It was like an exuberant reef of flowers, built up over the years until they were as tall as I. Small signs on stakes gave the names of the dahlias: Respectable, Tangle, Bloodstone, even the Vicar of Copthorne.

Nearby, in the center of the gardens, was a wishing well with the bronze figure of a baby clambering over its lip to peer in. Past it a merry-go-round was slowly revolving, though there was nobody on it.

In these winding gardens, with grand hotels peering from among tall trees, Harrogate seemed like the Britain that had been fought for in the war. four decades ago now. It was a kind of ideal Britain, far from the slums of London, from punk fashions and even, it seemed, from Yorkshire miners’ strikes. Beside me a man in spectacles said, “Mind you, it’s trying to rain.” As he spoke, fat droplets started to come down, and we both ran for cover. Even the sky looked amazed.

I’d stayed a couple of nights in York, and now I shifted to Bolton Abbey as a good central location for the dales. One morning I set out early, while mists still hovered, holding the fresh light. I drove along close-shaded lanes and up narrow climbing roads, with stone walls, lumpen as fallen cakes, higher than the car on both sides.

As the mists lifted the dales were revealed, valley after valley, and the sight was almost too much for the astonished eye—a swelling sea of vivid green, its currents marked by stone walls, its horizons bounded by trees being swept along on its flood. Sheep, too, were swimming slowly across the beautiful green vistas, making themselves at home—but it was the walls that most attracted one’s eye.

These wobbly stone barriers, intricate and lichened, had seemingly insinuated themselves all over the tumbling landscape, so that they appeared inseparable from it—as if they’d been there so long they’d been able to take root and spread out of their own accord. Their jumbled appearance made light of their permanence, for many dated back to the 13th century and few were more recent than 1789, when a government act dictating how property divisions must be marked was passed by Parliament. As they crisscrossed the dales they gave each valley a discreet, if unfathomable, order; and their stalwart decay brought back Robert Frost’s line: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

They were more than just picturesque fences for wandering sheep, however. A Yorkshire sheep farmer uses the walls as a kind of diet, for he moves his flock from a contained grazing pasture in one season to another wall-enclosed pasture in the next. The result is a vast network of walls climbing over the dales—a system that sometimes fails, since one frequently sees stray sheep. Indeed, several farmers confessed to me that there were just too many to keep track of. even though farmers often mark their sheep with blue dye, in a telltale blotch on the back.

One sheepfarmer said to me, “And do you know. sir, that’s why when you go to purchase a blue sweater, it’s so expensive? Can you imagine how many o’ the creatures it takes to make up that much blue wool?”

I drove up through Appletreeswick. and across a small bridge rocking-horsing over a brook. In tiny Burnsall the gardens were wealthy with roses, and the rising sun caught the few white houses among the usual grey stone ones and made them into white handkerchiefs tossed across the greenswards.

In Grassington, steeply laid out across its dale, wood smoke was rising from chimneys, and the scent made me stop to walk around. Everywhere I saw tall, irregular walking-sticks leaned against garden walls. On Rymer’s Fruit Shop, on the white stone outside, a sign read:

This shop is the original smidy 
owned by the notorious
Tom Lee 
in the year 1766.

Inside, a young blonde girl with a milkmaid smile explained the enigmatic “notorious”.

“He was the blacksmith, y’see. And he was a terrible criminal. He used to murder and rob the local miners when they got paid. But the doctor, y’see, found out, so Tom Lee waits till dark one night the doctor was makin’ rounds. Then Tom murders him, and buries him up in Grasswoods. But all the peat kept the body preserved, so old Tom went to throw the doctor off a cliff. Down in Burnsall. But it was a moonlit night, they say. and everybody saw him and that was the end. They hanged him, down in York.”

It was a fine story to hear on a crisp autumn morning—it seemed to say a good deal about unchanging attitudes toward the medical profession. Outside the shop, I could see wood smoke dispersing across the dales. Here they had an innocent beauty, and seemed to convey a full sense of life. A few stone houses always stood in view, a brook, an old church, a bank of trees, the slow curve of the dale’s edge against the deepening sky. Sheep were always seeing to their duties, keeping the grass cut, sleeping fitfully, or kneeling as if in prayer. They never seemed to notice my car.

As I drove north there were fierce outcroppings of white rock, high up the dales. I drove across to Arncliffe, the landscape changing dramatically from fervent green to a rusted gold that was almost like Kansas. In Giggleswick were boy’s schools hidden in copses, with the uniformed lads trooping down the muddy lanes past herds of cows, carrying valises and soccer shoes and calling to each other in high purling voices. Settle, slightly larger, was a small market town where dale dwellers might come down to have a drink or buy groceries.

All these villages—some only a cluster of half a dozen stone houses, one of which (at least) might be abandoned—had their own individual atmospheres. But here was the eerie thing: often they seemed uninhabited. In the smaller hamlets, especially, I rarely saw anybody about. Perhaps all sorts activity was going on behind closed doors, but it remained secret to me; and since I travel in order to enter another way of life, “to un-self myself” as V. S. Pritchett says, I felt I was missing a great deal of the true life of Yorkshire. My one regret of my week was that I did not leave a night or two open, to simply stop in one of these hamlets and stay in a bed-and-breakfast cottage or a farmhouse with a family. Many caught my eye; it would’ve been easy. Yorkshire, it seemed, had little to do with my inns.

The next morning in Bolton Abbey I borrowed a pair of Wellingtons, since it had rained heavily in the night, and walked along the Wharfe River. The banks were richly green, with gigantic trees so thick they made the land look curly-headed. Just up the bank, mists were drifting among the tall ruins of the 12th century priory. (Later, owing to the Reformation, the tower was abandoned at the level of the nave roof.)

To see the far pastures through the empty archways, the small trees growing hardily from the old blanched stone, the cows idly assembling before the abbey, the silver winding river, was more moving, I thought, than if the abbey had been whole. Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang, sang Shakespeare. Grass covered the stones in an open part of the priory ruin, forming a fine carpet, but beside the ruin the main part of the abbey was intact, with medieval stained glass, fresh flowers on the altar, and finely-carved narrow pews.

“How impressive, then,” wrote Henry James, “must the beautiful church have been in the days of its prosperity, when the pilgrim came down to it from the grassy hillside and its bells made the stillness sensible.” Bolton Abbey, half-ruin, half immaculate living church, made me think that of all the abbeys I saw across the dales—including Byland, Rievaux, Jervaulx—those in semi-ruin seemed most accessible, most at ease. Set in the landscape like stone islands of faith in a sea of perpetual grass, they seemed to imply, half-fallen, that some compromise had been reached—a bridge between man and nature.

That afternoon I made a brief pilgrimage to the Bronte parsonage at Haworth, a rather bleak industrial town to the southwest. (There’s an entire other Yorkshire, made up of towns like Leeds and Haworth, full of the “dark satanic mills” that Blake wrote of.) Haworth, where the three writing Bronte sisters spent their adult lives, has changed considerably since their day, when it was simply a country settlement.

Nowadays it is the second most-visited literary shrine in England, after Stratford-on-Avon, and it shows the strain. The parsonage-museum, with its small graveyard and church, is unfortunately surrounded by tourist junk-shops of a quaint “Bronte village” type, and so little of real note remains that unless one is really passionate about the Brontes, it seems hardly worth a visit. A better, deeper homage would be to study the books closely and spend time in the specific Yorkshire countrysides—the moors, for instance—they wrote of with such feeling.

After Haworth I made my way north into the dales again. On the road past  Cray, on top of the dale, there was a wilder feeling—gashes across the land—and the afternoon light caught the walls so they looked like dark grooves in the slopes.

In West Burton, said by James Herriot to be “possibly the most beautiful village in all England”, a boy walked past me swinging his coat sleeves around and around lackadaisically, and biting his lip. The village proper (I would nominate West Tainforth as competition) ran neatly on either side of a green, and up into hillside farms. Following a narrow track I came upon two horses, one brown and one a flecked white. When I produced some raw carrots bought in Ilkley and whistled the horses over, they both managed to fit their eager heads through the open car windows while I fed them.

Coming across Stainton Moor, at the northern tip of the dales, in the middle of miles of wild bracken and heather a young mother was wheeling her baby carriage while a grey dog, tongue lolling, came following patiently after. The road back to Kettlewell and Grassington followed the river valley all the way, and here the land seemed to have a more experienced beauty: it was less stately, and the river gave it a wildness.

All the dales—there are more than a hundred—have their own distinctive personality. It may be difficult to state it with precision, but there is no mistaking it once you’re there; and these distinctions have rubbed off on the people. “Each dale has its own accent,” a wiry man named Terry Parker told me. Parker runs the James Herriot Walking Tours and other Yorkshire treks with Lord Willie Peel (descendant of the Prime Minister who started the bobbies) out of Grassington. “Each dale has its own character, and this is why a dalesman would consider which dale he was from more important than which village, and speak of going up-dale or down-dale, to market, say.”

Part of the beauty of each village was sensing its position in a dale, its importance relative to the other nearby villages, and in the small distinctions: how the houses faced the green, or stood apart, or nestled near an abbey. As the days flew past and my eye grew more experienced, I began to see hidden beauties—the precise lilt and fall of a country road among trees, or the white trim on a grey cottage, tempered by fiery scarlet creepers.

In Middleham, a market town with great medieval gates, I wandered up a hill to see the castle where Richard III—in reality, nothing like the monster Shakespeare described—wooed and married Lady Anne Neville. Set looking across a plain, the castle’s jumbled remains were suggestive of the complex castle life of the times, and it was amusing to think that without the play, Richard would be just another half-forgotten monarch with a short untidy reign. As it is, he seems more vivid in our minds than many of our closest relatives.

Crossing toward the moors the next day, near Ripon, I found myself driving slowly behind a man pedalling methodically along on an old bicycle with a woven basket perched on the handlebars. He had buttermilk hair and a snub face, and he wore a dusty blue jacket. He kept such a steady speed, as if he were walking, that I pulled alongside  to talk to him. On his jacket lapel was a red badge with gold lettering: Royal Mail Service.

“So you’re the postman,” I called out. In his basket was a modest pile of letters peeping from a brown sack.

“Aye, that I am.” He cocked his head and kept pedalling. “’At’s why I ha’n’t been knoighted yet.”

“Do you have far to go every day?”

“’Bout sixteen moiles,” he said shortly. “Keeps me fit enough. Still, I ha’n’t been knoighted yet.”

I drove past Thornborough to Thirsk for market day. In Yorkshire the market shifts from town to town on different days. and a wise visitor will be careful to find the local schedule and catch the market somewhere. Thirsk had its town square lined with barrows of fresh vegetables and fruit, sweaters knitted from local wool, household hardware, fresh toffees and cheeses, baked goods, animal supplies, and every manner of clothing. People seemed to have descended from all across the nearby moors to do their shopping for the week.

In looking for a place to park in Thirsk I inadvertently found the veterinary office of one James Herriot, author of All Things Bright and Beautiful and All Creatures Great and Small, among others. Despite vast literary success, Herriot still maintains a practice along with the Siegfried of the books; though as Siegfried’s brother Tristram told me, “Nowadays it’s five million Americans for every Alsatian.”

It may come as news to some readers that none of these names is correct, that “James Herriot” is a pseudonym, though enough fans have discovered his true identity to warrant the sign outside the office door: James Herriot away on vacation, regret no autographs.

Beside it was a windowbox of flowers, and ivy climbed the white stone; up the road a hundred yards stood the church where Herriot and his wife were married— the scene will be familiar to his readers. (The town of Darrowby of the books is a conglomeration of Thirsk and Leyburn.) I will not give Herriot’s real name, though it is no secret in Yorkshire, nor is the office’s location—but while the good veterinarian maintains his professional practice, it is fair to warn avid readers that he only sees people “on literary matters” between two and two-thirty on Friday afternoons, after surgery.

I was there at the right time, but I’d caught him on holiday, and Siegfried was out on call. Still, there out front hung the original placque that was the honeymoon present to Herriot from Siegfried, offering him partnership in the practice—and it brought all the stories back.

After the frustration of the Bronte tourist trap and the absence of Dr. Herriot, I had little hope in a literary venture to Coxwold, skirting the moors, to Laurence Sterne’s Shandy Hall. But Sterne, the preacher who wrote most of the abundant Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey in Coxwold, is a writer who never fails to give pleasure, and his house and small village were no exception.

Until twenty years ago the house was on the edge of decrepitude and abandon, before it was taken on, in trust, by husband-and-wife Sternists named Monkman. They have restored the house and turned its garden and study and dining room into living homages to the writer.

Most houses lose a great deal by becoming museums, by not being lived in, but with the exception of Sterne’s study—lined with the appropriate old editions of the works that were in his library—the house is fully used. Rowlandson prints of authors quarreling with publishers, 19th century illustrations of Sterne’s characters, caricatures of Sterne himself, give the place the exact perfume of Sterne’s work—and anybody visiting the intimate village and house will come away with far more interest in reading (or re-reading) the works than, say, a Haworth visitor. The house became Sterne’s in the last seven years of his life, when he’d all but retired from preaching. His writings show how happy he was in Coxwold, near the abbey on whose grounds he lies buried, under a jesting tombstone of his own devising.

In a Helmsley pub where I stopped for lunch I asked a thin-haired man with a peering gaze how Yorkshire folk were different from the rest of the English.

“For one thing, they’re t’only ones that’ll talk to ye. T’others have all their noses stook in t’air. I wen’ down t’ London t’other day an’ t’only man wit’ any sense to ’im was a taxi driver. Well, lad, when it cooms to that stage o’ things— ” He broke off to watch a man hoist up his trousers and slide tenpence into a gambling machine. “T’ere goes another fool,” he muttered.

On the moors—with a more savage, serene beauty than the lush dales—I stopped in tiny Beckhole, by some sheep, to have tea at the Birch Hall Inn by a fire and listen to the drumming rain outside. The moors were a dramatic world unto themselves, higher than I’d anticipated, with occasional sharp chasms. Walls were rarer now, and generally in real disrepair, and the villages seemed less related to each other, more solitary and independent. There was no sense, on the moors, of a dale’s scattered but strong community; and yet in these pubs there was photograph after photograph of members of local quoits or darts teams. I decided that the moors’ relative bleakness made each village more tight and friendly within itself.

It was hard to believe, though, that here on the moors I was only a few miles from the ocean. But as I drove on the sky seemed lower and, in the cloudy distance, scars of sunlight indicated clearing over the sea. Then, unexpectedly as I topped a rise, the sea hove into sight, so high a horizon line that at first I thought it was a bank of clouds. It was a thrill after being so long inland to sees gulls mewing above me. When the road dipped I was back in the moors again, and it was difficult to imagine the town of Whitby, on the coast, only ten miles away—since the difference was an entire way of life.

Whitby is a packed harbor town with curious associations. Bram Stoker, trying to leave a life of theater management behind, wrote Dracula there in the summer of 1890, taking a fashionable house on Whitby’s West Cliff. The town figures in the book, though the Count himself never sets foot or fang in England. But Stoker used a number of that summer’s real events in his novel—like a captainless ship coming into harbor —thereby starting a rumor that Whitby was the true home of the vampire.

Whitby was, in the afternoon, a very un-eerie place. The toy houses set above the toy harbor, with fishing-boats bobbing in the nearly Nordic light, gave the place a cheery aspect, and a seaside seediness too. The tumult of the sheer coast bespoke the great mariners produced here, including Captain James Cook, who got his training in Whitby for twelve years as a young man, and whose statue looked out to sea from one bluff.

On another bluff the vast skeleton of a medieval abbey gazed across the harbor at wide-shouldered, turn-of-the-century hotels along an esplanade. Farther up the coast, two dark cliffs thrust into the sea like the paws of a lion.

Late in the day I walked out a long, high pier beside the lighthouse at the harbor entrance. The wind was chill, and the North Sea was raging. At the end of the pier a lone man was fishing, his rod propped against the railing. He had his hands in the pockets of his dark pea-coat, and the hood up.

“How’s the fishing today?”

He gave me a timid smile. “Very quiet today.” He seemed glad of company. “But I’ve had some quiet times out here, and I’ve had some breezy times. I caught the fishing bug when I was eight, and this is me fiftieth year in Whitby. I took a long rest from the fishing, though, and I’m only just now returning.”

“Why the long rest?”

“Domestic issues.” He gave the rod a tug. “Me wife didn’t like me coming out here. But I decided to leave her in the house today and go back to it.” He glanced out at the roiled surface of the sea. “Herds of white horses out there today.”

I wished him luck and continued down the coast to Robin Hood’s Bay, the prettiest town I saw by the sea. Jammed into niches in the cliffs, Robin Hood’s Bay had houses with names like Sherwood Cottage and Bow Cottage. Lifeboats were pulled up from the water at a narrow slip between two pubs, and lanes connected the different mezzanines of the village. It was like a small fantasy place of pack-and-jam cottages looking over each other’s shoulders to the sea, with gently sloping roofs and a few cafes and one black and white cat licking itself on a gatepost.

Night had fallen, and I drove down the coast to Scarborough. In morning light the great bay looked idyllic, with its wide curved beach and massive shoulders of dark cliff. A few people were walking their dogs among the tidepools, and the huge white hotels on the cliffs above—where people came for their “hols”—looked down benignly.

This was where Yorkshire folk came to look out to sea, turning their backs on the more private oceans of the dales and the moors. In summer the town would be packed; now it seemed just right, enough people to nod to and still have it for oneself. It seemed the place to end my journey.

I ate breakfast and walked beside the pummeling surf for an hour, watching the fishing boats lope out to sea. Earlier, in the ballroom of one of the Victorian hotels, I’d seen elderly Yorkshire couples, in Scarborough for the weekend, dancing to the lilting strains of record-player tunes from the time of their courtships. Now, glancing up the cliffs from the beach, I could still see them through those high windows, like phantoms waltzing to old silent songs. I watched them as the mist burned off the water; the bellowing surf was their accompaniment now. When the far dancing stopped, I climbed a staircase up the cliffs and started back to York.

Friday, August 24, 1984

Remnants of the Raj

Written for Geo in 1984, just before its untimely demise; published (much abbreviated) by Travel & Leisure in 1987, and (in full) by Gourmet in 1989

In July, when the rest of India was baking in terrible heat, cursing and hoping for the monsoon that would bring floods with its blessing, I decided to go up above it all, to the cool air and heights of Simla.

Delhi, Old and New, was unbearable. After one hundred and twenty degrees the mind and the spirit stop working properly, at the body’s urging; the air is a recipe of dust and sweat. This is the curse of the Indian subcontinent, and in part an explanation for the philosophical asceticism so prevalent for centuries. One must simply withdraw into nothingness, and accept it all. The monsoon, which beggars all description with its force (I saw it dent the roofs of cars), can be as awful. No wonder the British in India, early in the 19th century, created these oases in the lower reaches of the Himalayas—Darjeeling, Ooty, Mussorie—where the mind could still operate, tiny nirvanas for a master class, with elaborate support systems of numerous bearers from below. They were called, inadequately, "hill stations," and Simla was and is queen of them.

To get to Simla I took the toy train that begins at Kalka, in the Punjab, and carries one slowly and precipitously up. India has one of the greatest railway systems in the world; it is the efficient bloodstream that keeps the country alive. A father, three sons, and a snoring Sikh shared my half of the first-class car, which looked about a half-century old. It was like being on a motley picnic. The toy train, on its narrow-gauge toy track, crept audaciously up through mists and around mountains; below us lay folded valleys and terraced fields of an extreme green. We passed through forests of pines and cedars, and paused at small stations with melodious names like Koti and Sonwara, that resembled blue-and-white retirement cottages surrounded by careful gardens. We burrowed through stone tunnels cut into the hillsides, 103 in all, some only twenty yards long. Cows and water buffalo shambled away at the nearness of our train, and the air became fragrantly cool.

Just when I was wishing I’d had the foresight to bring some food, we stopped at Barog Station, at 5,024 feet, for a twenty-minute lunch. I purchased a five-course meal for an extravagant forty cents from a blinking hawker on the immaculate platform. The father in my car, who’d been watching me, said gravely, "I see you are left-handed. Yes? Let me be getting you some tea."

He whistled for another hawker, and soon we were sipping together. As we clambered higher into afternoon, the mountains were obscured by slow mists, and their shapes seemed more determined, like skin stretched tight across an animal’s back. We left wrinkled valleys behind, crossing arched stone bridges; dark hawks heard us coming, and swung out over wastrel gorges. And then, after Summer Hill, we came up out of the clouds to the majesty of sunlight burning on Simla.

Furiously packed onto a series of steep connecting ridges, all Simla looked precarious, a jigsaw-puzzle place. It seemed to tumble across the Himalayan spines, and from afar, set in tall trees, it resembled a British country town that had gone a-wandering, far from home. But for nearly a century, during the summer months, Simla was transformed into one of the most important, powerful spots on earth—for it was the summer capital of the British Raj, the play-paradise of ruling gods with idle wives and spoiled children, outnumbered by servants. I wondered what remained of the Raj now, here on Olympus.

As we neared, the social profile of Simla was rapidly revealed. On the highest level, where it appeared to stroll and bustle even at a distance, stood Simla’s most striking emblems of Britain: a Gothic church, a bandstand, a Victorian theater, and a Tudor stone town hall, all set along the winding esplanade known as the Mall. Dribbling in profusion below, connected by cart-roads and circuitous lanes and dizzying staircases, was a large community of lesser, chattering structures, the lower Simla bazaar, called "a crowded rabbit warren" by Rudyard Kipling in Kim:

"A man who knows his way there can defy all the police of India’s summer capital, so cunningly does verandah communicate with verandah, alleyway with alleyway, and bolt-hole with bolt-hole. Here live these who minister to the wants of the glad city—jhampanis who pull the pretty ladies’ rickshaws by night and gamble till the dawn; grocers, oil-sellers, curio-vendors, firewood-dealers, priests, pickpockets and native employees of the Government."

Little seemed to have changed, though there were few rickshaws. An elevator lifted me in stages from the railway-station to the Mall; it took a huffing porter, with my bags strapped by a coarse rope to his back, twenty minutes to make the same journey. These men were the human trucks of Simla, and I saw them every day staggering along the winding roads, carrying sofas or chests or filing cabinets, glad to have the work.

Behind them, always, was the great panorama of mountains, and scattered across the dense ridges and rising from trees were the sloped roofs and weathervaned spires of private mansions and bungalows with names like Wingate, Prospect Hall, Knollswood, Strawberry Hill, Holly Lodge, Oakover.

I stayed at Woodville Palace, a mansion turned into a hotel, at the quietest end of the Mall. Surrounded by pines, protected by cannons, with great lawns, a gazebo, and chairs outside where the guest played cards over tea and watched their children, Woodville still looked like the summer home of the Prince Rana of Jubbal, a Punjab state. His wife, the Princess Brinda, had traveled widely in the Thirties, and the great rooms downstairs were hung not only with swords and tiger’s heads and old prints of local scenes, but also inscribed photographs of Tyrone Power, Laurel and Hardy, Hedy Lamarr, Clark Gable, and Queen Victoria. There was a gigantic billiards table, and ebony bronzes of Pan, Shiva, and a nymph.

It was maintained by the grandson, Uday Singh (his family occupied the entire second floor) and his mother, the Princess Ourmila, whose young portraits I mistook for Ingrid Bergman’s. I used to sit outside and watch the Indian families at tea: father and uncles serious over cards, mother and aunts pouring and discreetly spying on the hands, children on the swing or playing around the lawns among nodding flowers. Woodville was five minutes from the activity of the Mall, in its own secret grove, and some days I had the whole mansion to myself. Every morning at breakfast a barefoot servant in circular cap and gray Nehru jacket would bring me my newspaper, clasp his hands, give a slight bow, and murmur, "Sir, are you happy?" I always said, "Very happy," and he always looked relieved.

Simla was still a resort, but for the inheritors of Empire. Families were on promenade all day long on the Mall and the higher Ridge, stopping to gossip where the two met at Scandal Point. Men in holiday suits whirled their canes, women in swirling saris twirled parasols, and children happy on ponies were led about by impassive attendants. Simla monkeys, a local kind of rhesus, were everywhere. Nut-brown, with plaintive, concerned faces, they scampered along the streets or from rooftop to rooftop, discussing and disapproving of the human activities below.


My first day on the Mall I fell into step with a well-groomed boy in shorts and knee-socks, hand in hand with his little sister. The boy greeted me politely; perhaps he was eleven. I envied him his perfect diction.

"Good morning," he said brightly. "And how are you enjoying Simla? You have seen the Viceregal Lodge? No? You must. They’ve done quite a good job of keeping it up, I should think. And how do you like these Simla monkeys? A special breed. We don’t have them down in Delhi. I should show you my Star Wars collection. Do you know, I was up on Jakko Peak with two bags of nuts that cost me five rupees each and one of these jolly monkeys leapt on my head and grabbed one bag while his friend ran up and stole the other! Naughty fellows, they cost me ten rupees!" His sister wasn’t paying attention, staring after a trotting pony. The boy said to her, "Be polite to the gentleman. Show some manners to the uncle."

The children reminded me of what Ajay, a young, amiable sales representative for a British metal works firm, had told me on the train from Delhi, the Kalka Mail. "Simla is a society that talks," he said. "It always was. Why? Because up there people have time. They look down on the people in the big cities on the plains as being too modern. Always in a hurry. In Simla, in the summer, even if you work there, you go to work late, have a long lunch, close up early and go for a stroll along the Mall. In the winter you might not go to work at all. You might ring up and say, ‘Too much snow in front of my door.’ But people there gossip, gossip, gossip. Who was with whom last night on a bench on the Ridge and what x is having for dinner and why v was not invited. It’s a favorite honeymoon place. My parents had their honeymoon there, and their parents." He grinned. "So will I, next August. It’s an older style of living. Not like Delhi or Bombay. Like the British."

On the Mall, where no cars were allowed—only horses and rickshaws—I was able to have coffee in a coffeehouse, tea in a teashop, buy a sari, buy goggles, go roller skating, play billiards, sit by a waterfall, hire a rickshaw, feed a monkey, select a carved walking-stick, ride a horse, purchase a faded photo of a British hill-picnic, eavesdrop, pick up Martial’s Epigrams in paperback, have my fortune told, my head examined, and my picture taken in front of snowy peaks in the distance. Had it been winter I could’ve gone ice-skating.

I’d been wondering if there were any British left, and a gentle antiquarian bookseller named O.C. Sud told me of an elderly lady named Mrs. Montagu, who lived on the Upper Bharari Road. He was busy reorganizing his shop, since a Japanese Mountaineering Society had come through and bought up masses of rare Himalayan books. He seemed, cannily, to have plenty more. "You must meet Mrs. Montagu," he said. "She’s a bit of living history, and she’s the last one left. She’s been here since 1909. She’s ninety-two this year. Be sure to speak up."

The next day I made my way along the twisting lanes that lead away from the Mall. Grand bungalows perched on the slopes above me, in stages of absolute decay or preservation, and flowers grew around them: zinnias, dahlias, pink cosmos, and others in yellows and whites and purples. All the gabled bungalows had country gardens that might’ve been found in Kent, though unfamiliar blossoms of the East grew among them, especially where the gardens had gone to abandonment. Some bird calls, too, I recognized from walks in England: thrushes, and the unexpected cuckoo, imported permanently by a homesick officer a century ago. All Simla had about it, beneath the memory of cheroots and wine and officers’ clubs and dances and flirtations and tattling servants, a profound sense of homesickness. There were carved hearts clasping British names, pierced by arrows, still on some trees.

I found the dark, gabled cottage behind a green gate, amid the scents of honeysuckle and roses. Stone steps led from the garden into the woods. The cottage would’ve been at home in Tunbridge Wells, but the ayah who answered my insistent knocking was a skinny Indian woman named Rada who spoke little English. I was led into a shadowy hallway rich with the odor of newly-polished wood and the hollow ticking of an old clock. By the staircase was a many-paned window with lace curtains, and old prints of wild tribes, men on horseback, palaces on cliffs. Upstairs, a sitting room full of books. A tiny fireplace, wicker furniture, and armchairs with handmade cushions. Rada left me mysteriously, then returned five minutes later. "Come."

I was led into Mrs. Montagu’s bedroom, that gazed out on her garden. It began to rain very lightly, a falling mist. She lay on a settee in one corner, and she was so old she seemed miniature, though her skin glowed and she still had a beautiful, open Renoir face. She was wearing a square green Indian cap that made her look jaunty, and she was wrapped in a blanket. Near her, in a hanging cage, a parrot hopped from foot to foot, and behind her were several framed photographs of British men in uniform. Her eyes were squeezed open, but she stared past me. She put her hand out, palm upward, on the small table between us. It was an effort. I touched her hand with mine, and she took it and squeezed my fingers.

"I am a hilly-billy." she announced. "I love these hills. I have lived in them all my life and I will die in them. I have my place already. At Jalore. My grave."

"How old are you, Mrs. Montagu?"

She said with surprise, "I can’t remember." She paused. "I’m sorry. I was here in Simla when I was a little girl. It’s changed."

"Were you born in the eighteen-nineties?"

"I—I think so. I’m very old, you know. I’m a hilly-billy." She loved saying that word—it made her smile sweetly.

"What do you remember most?"

She said firmly, "There were so many dances then. And parties nearly every evening. At Viceregal Lodge. And the Hotel Cecil. I was more beautiful then." She squeezed my hand more firmly. She said suddenly, "Are you married?"

I said I wasn’t. "Should I get married?"

"Well, I expect it would be a good idea. Then you and your wife could call on me more frequently."

I pointed to the photographs. "Was one of those men your husband?"

She blinked at me. "No," she said finally. I saw a memory pass across her face like a cloud, but she let it go out of sight. "I can see you, but I can’t read anymore. I ruined my eyes. Have you seen my animals? I’ve got lots."

I’d seen none but the parrot, and it seemed tired. I stood up to go, and Mrs. Montagu, still holding my hand, leaned forward on the settee a few inches. She was waiting to be kissed, and when my lips brushed her cheek her skin was as soft as a flower’s petal. "Perhaps I’ll see you again tomorrow," she murmured.

Rada led me downstairs in the gloom, past the pictures of old India. Somewhere in the inner reaches of the house a clock struck once. It had stopped raining. Rada followed me nervously out to the gate and closed it behind me, giving a little wave. I felt I was walking out of the deep recesses of the past. In the garden a young English rose was glistening with the rain.

One morning I walked to Viceregal Lodge, at the top of Observatory Hill. It was a tiring haul without a carriage and horses, up a long steep road that during the Raj had been covered, on festive occasions, with more than a mile of red carpet. Now the Rashtrapati Bhavan (the Indian Institue for Advanced Studies), the once-center of British power in Asia looked the same as in old photographs: a grand stone mansion in the high Victorian style, almost a castle, surrounded by carefully manicured lawns with solemn rows of blooming flowers and gardens on many levels linked by mottled stone staircases. Ivy still climbed the walls, and a great bell hung in a cradle before the entrance. The interior, all five floors, was entirely of carved Burma teak. Once the ballroom had welcomed nearly a thousand guests at a time; now it was devoted to the natural sciences.

It had been built during the rule of Lord Dufferin, from 1884 to 1888. This Viceroy had not been as enamored of Simla as most; in a letter he wrote, "That the capital of the Indian Empire should be hanging on by its eyelids to the side of a hill is too absurd." Viceregal Lodge still seemed invested with enormous power. It wore an aura of military theatricality, of plumed pomp, and from here Viceroy after Viceroy had decreed, absolutely, the fate of several hundred million people and the movements of the mightiest army on the entire continent.

I sat outside by a sundial, beneath an oak, and watched the gardeners at work. The entire scene was so British, but for the hypnotic mountains, that it was easy to enter that past. More than the gabled, polite buildings of the Mall, Viceregal Lodge was an act of total confidence, authority, and conviction—from the balustraded balconies wrapped around every wing, as if waiting for some commanding officer to perform his morning constitutional, to the shaded walkways with their hanging lanterns and the weathervane perched on the highest painted dome. It was a good old British cock, and today the wind was blowing firmly from the east.

On my way back I stopped at Sidhuwal Lodge, perhaps the oldest building in Simla, dating from 1826—about five years after the town’s inception. It nestles just above Christchurch and the Simla Library. There I met the ex-major Bhai Fateh Jang Singh, a stooped gentleman of seventy-five in a turban, with a white beard, glasses, and a steadfast gaze. A Sikh, he was a reservoir of stories. He’d known Simla since the Twenties, and I asked him if there was a tale behind the name of Scandal Point.

"Which tale? Which scandal?" he said. "I can tell you several. The best, and don’t bother to try to verify it, is that around the turn of the century a local maharajah was scouting around for girls for his harem, and one of his servants collected a daughter of the Queen’s Viceroy for him. He had to give her back and move twenty miles away." He shrugged. "I don’t think the British would have been satisfied with that." I asked what he thought of the British rule. He rested his hands on his cane. "Considering the fact that they were an alien culture, and had to do certain unpleasant things to control India— " He paused. "They were all right. It was quite a life we had in Simla with them. Polo thrice weekly. Other days, train our horses in the morning, lunch, three rubbers of bridge, cocktails, dinner, bed. Dances. Hunts. Pheasant-shooting. I was a fine shot. And a great deal of tennis." He preened his white mustache. "You must remember, the British never sent us politicians. I was a politician—I won my first election in my early twenties. No, the British sent us statesmen." He arched his eyebrows. "Look around you. Until recently every stick of every building in Simla was put up by the British. Like Folkestone or Sussex, old chap, yes?" He was teasing, putting on the accent. "They all knew how to give fine parties. One Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow—his real name was Sir John Hope—had three daughters. We called them Hope, Little Hope, and No Hope."

I said, "Besides the town, what did the British leave behind?"’

He grinned mischievously. "The bush shirt."

One afternoon, at his invitation, I was taken to lunch at the estate in nearby Mashobra of Rajah Harinder Singh. He is one of the thirty-odd rajahs still alive in India who actually ruled, in his case the large province of Faridkot, in the Punjab, from 1934-47. This, his summer estate, had been named Kenilworth (after the Walter Scott novel) by its previous owners. Harinder Singh turned out to be jolly, obese, rakish, and kind; he acted and looked the part of a good-humored despot. For years when he traveled he took his own orchestra with him, so he could hear the music he preferred. When I asked about a crack regiment from his province, and how long he’d led it, he said, "My boy, I owned it!" He had a pronounced sense of humor. "I’m an arms dealer," he proclaimed over soup. It turned out he owned two gun shops in Delhi. He said, "In the old days in Simla, every May there was Wife-Buying Day, when you could sell yours and buy another. This did not apply to the British, of course." A French couple were also lunch guests. He told the wife, "We would’ve fetched a good price for you, my dear."

He showed us some of his rare motorcars—Rolls, Bentley, Jaguar—which he started once a year and had polished daily. With his vast lawns and fruit-trees, his numbered and alphabetized library of 8,000 English books, his many gliding servants, his immense windows looking past kneeling clouds down the hillsides he owned, he seemed the healthiest survivor of a bygone age. "Polo? I was a terrible player," he scoffed, then admitted he’d played on a cavalry team that won an unprecedented two championships in one day. "You see, I loved the cavalry. Such esprit de corps. Like being in the Masons." He guffawed. "We fought the Afghans, the Germans, the Japanese." When we left, he somehow shifted his girth onto a motorcycle and accompanied us to the gate. "Tally ho!" he shouted, and we heard him roaring as we drew away.

On the way back we stopped at the golf course in nearby Naldehra, named after the Viceroy Lord Curzon’s daughter. A tournament was in progress, and against some of the most stupendous views in Simla the golf course looked demure, though there was only a slight difference between overshooting a hole by eight feet and by eight thousand. A Delhi lawyer said to me, "Hello, sir. Lovely to be here, isn’t it? Far from the maddening crowd." I stayed out of the way and regarded the arcade of forest and sweet air and height. A few couples were chatting on the course, plummeting valleys beyond them. Holiday snaps were taken. Gaily-clad families wandered through the pastoral scene as if in a painting by Constable. On the cedar slopes above me a speckled white horse, saddled but riderless, was flicking its tail in the mists.

At the Gaiety Theater on the Mall, built in 1837, I saw on successive evenings a Punjabi dance troupe, a magic show, and two plays, presented with different casts—one night in Hindi, and the next in English. The director was a young lady. The first play, Two Feet Off the Ground, was by a local playwright, N. Varna. The second, Anniversary, was by an out-of-towner, A. Chekhov. Upstairs in the theater, in the private club rooms, were aged photographs of old productions: The School For Scandal, The Constant Nymph, Aren’t Men Beasts?

The theater completed the picture of the British town. In these gilded boxes had sat the officers and wives, leaving after the show in order of rank. Here had posed the infamous beauty Mrs. James, soon to become the most famous amoreuse of the 19th century: lover of Liszt, the Czar Nicholas, and King Ludwig of Bavaria; actress, dancer, and horsewhipper of an Australian newspaper editor—but by that time Simla and her first husband were long behind la grande horizontale, and she was using the name Lola Montez.

I never got used to the Indian method of entering a theater, which was to wait until the last possible moment, when the lights dimmed, then loudly stampede the empty house. At the Rivoli Cinema, just off the Ridge, I went to see Tootsie in English. Every seat was filled, the audience was entirely Indian, and here the film was a hit as well. In mid-scene the film suddenly stopped, huge doors in the side of the theater rattled open: intermission. I stood on the balcony, looking out at the white ghosts of the Himalayas. In the dusky light, through gathering mists, I saw a woman on a roof below me spreading out her laundry to dry. She finished her task and straightened; as the mists crept in, she began to knit, just standing there; and when the mists covered her ankles it looked as if she were standing on cloud.

My last afternoon in Simla I went to have tea at Chapslee —"the most beautiful house in the hills," people said. I found it on one of the lanes past the smoky clutter of Lakaah Bazaar, up a flagstone path by a tennis court. It was one of the more discreet old houses in Simla, without the grandiose melodrama of some of the mansions; in bygone days it had been a Secretariat. Among its shrubberies it wore a country-cottage aspect, but it was large.

A servant showed me into a hall of carved teak. Paintings of lakeside castles, mountainscapes, princely forefathers were framed on the walls by elegant daggers. Gleaming blue-and-white Mogul vases ushered me into a sitting room of velvet chairs, painted miniatures, silk drapes, and a marble hearth; the carpets seemed an ornate lawn. In a farther room were books in glass cases and ivory-inlay tables.

A boy came to greet me, with a sweet, open face that held all the humor and intelligence of Kim himself. "May I show you around? My father will be along in a minute. My name is Chandrajit."

He caught me staring at a silver-framed photograph on the mantle, from the time of the First World War. The young woman in it was British, and beautiful in a soft-complexioned, spirited way, without fuss or pose. She looked oddly familiar. The photograph was inscribed: From Hermione M. with love in a flourishing hand.

The boy said, "That was Mrs. Montagu. There’s a lovely painting of her upstairs, as a girl with long, long hair."

His father said quietly, "A very interesting woman," and came into the room. Lithe, calm, misleadingly fierce-looking with his black beard, Ratanjit Singh had a kind of slippered ease that put me at ease. He put his hands in his pockets and said, "She was a great friend of my parents, so my wife and I look after her. She was born in 1892, in India, and lived here until she was seven. Then she went back to school in England for ten years. Her father wanted her to stay there, but she threatened to swim back if she had to. A long swim."

"What did her husband do?" I asked. "She didn’t talk about him."

"Ah," said Ratanjit. "Very strange. She went back to England only once, in her early twenties, and she married some handsome young man on a dare. It lasted less than a month. That’s when she came back." He picked up the photograph. "She never married again, but she had a great love affair. With an Army man here who was already married. It lasted almost thirty years. He went back just before our Independence in 1947, and she never saw him again. A few years later he had died." He shook his head. "She was quite a beauty, as you can see. But she was very vain about her looks. She loved to read, but she wouldn’t wear glasses, and when her eyes weakened she looked through a magnifying lens. Now she can’t read anymore."

I said, "What about her animals? I didn’t see any."

Ratanjit nodded. "She used to keep dozens, dogs and cats and thirteen parrots in her bedroom. Now there’s only the one."

Over tea we were joined by his wife, Proneti, and their daughter, Mandira. We talked of foreigners’ expectations of India. Proneti said, "I think it’s films that do the most damage. What was that film you talked of, Ratanjit? Octopussy? Full of snake-charmers and fire-eaters. People come to India and they expect all these things. And beggars, beggars, beggars. Tigers everywhere. And elephants." She sighed wearily. "I’ve almost never seen a snake-charmer."

It was time to go. Ratanjit walked me down the flagstone path, and said, as if in afterthought, "Did Mrs. Montagu sing to you? No? It’s a shame. Sometimes she sings. She still has a lovely voice." He smiled. "She remembers the old songs."

We shook hands, and he wandered back to the house. I stood there, watching the dusk descend and the lights begin to twinkle across the valleys and around me, making Simla an enchanted place. Voices floated to me, a monkey capered in the road; in a few hours those winding roads would be filigreed by moonlight. Now it was still day, though, an in-between time, and the bungalows were lordly among the trees. Ravens flew out over the pines and cedars; the mists were lifting. As I made my way back, a dark-eyed girl wearing the navy skirt and white blouse of a British schoolgirl passed me, humming to herself and plaiting her long, long hair.



Thursday, August 23, 1984

Kipling’s Simla

Written for Geo in 1984, just before its untimely demise; published by Gourmet in 1989

There are certain places that, once colonized by authors, remain inexorably theirs even many years later. London has been written of by countless authors, but it will always be Dickens’ city. In much the same way, Simla—the Indian "hill station" on the lower, forested slopes of the Himalayas that was the summer capital of the British Raj—will always belong to Rudyard Kipling.

He saw it in the 1880s, at the height of its theatricality, glamor, and power, as a young reporter for the Civil and Military Gazette. He was just commencing his literary career, and Simla’s visual excitement, ready-made stories, and constantly revolving cast of characters were perfect for the burgeoning writer. Thus Simla figures predominantly in Kipling’s early books of verse, Departmental Ditties And Other Verses and Ballads and Barrack-Room Ballads, and in his first volume of stories, the punningly-titled Plain Tales From the Hills, as well as The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Ghost Stories, and Under the Deodars. And in Kipling’s later masterpiece Kim, Simla is where the Anglo-Indian boy goes to be trained by the mysterious Lurgan Sahib in the ways of the British secret service.

The ghost story The Phantom Rickshaw is a good place to start, and it’s easy to trace the tale’s route around Simla. From within a rickshaw the ghost of the jilted fiancee, Mrs. Washington, torments the hapless, jilting officer, Jack Pansay. Observatory Hill and Jakko Peak—the highest point of Simla, and a frequent slope for lovers on horseback—are both there, beneath "the black, powder-riven cliffs and rainswept sky". Today’s astute traveler may find, along the Mall, Peliti’s Coffee-house, the center of gossip in Kipling’s day, where Pansay took his cherry-brandies.

All the Mrs. Hauksbee stories concern Simla ("where all things begin and many come to an evil end") and its gossip. Some plays in The Story of the Gadsbys are set in the hill station, and may have been performed there; the black comedy of Gadsby’s death by marriage seems appropriate to the place.

I found Simla still full of ghost stories, as in Kipling. Anybody taking a stroll along the Mall cannot help but notice, at a frequented curve, a large white bungalow perched high on a cliff over a dangling waterfall. This is Richmond House; ages ago a young lady lived in it who was having an affair with "someone important" from Viceregal Lodge. Every night at three o’clock, even now (it is said) a ghostly carriage makes its way up the back hill path and her ghostly lover alights.

Kipling’s finest, deepest portrait of Simla is in Chapters 8 and 9 of Kim. The figure of Lurgan Sahib—secret agent, master of the Jewel Game, orientalist, magician—was based on a real person, A. M. Jacob, who arrived in Simla in 1871. His profession of curio-dealer did not stop people whispering that he was a Russian spy, and a mystic who could make himself invisible. The description of Lurgan Sahib’s shop in Kim was, apparently, accurate: "ghost-daggers and prayer-wheels from Tibet; turquoise and raw amber necklaces; devil masks; gilt figures of Buddha; carpets in dusty bales, smelling atrociously; dull copper incense-burners, neither Chinese nor Persian, with frieses of fantastic devils running around them. . . arms of all sorts and kinds. . . ."

It is a long description, and the Kipling of 1901 writes with more command than the journalist of a decade earlier. Jacob left Simla after a purported jewel fraud and trial, in which he was found innocent; one wonders if he ever read about himself. His shop on the Mall (I was told) is now Batish’s Bookseller’s, whose back veranda is still "built out over the sheer hillside."

Finally, one mustn’t forget that Kipling was at heart a critic of the society he wrote about; Simla itself was not particularly pleased with his stories about its goings-on. For a look at Simla written from within that society, a curious reader should hunt down the 1898 novel Jadoo, by Lieutenant Colonel N. Newnham-Davis. The prose is rather mannered at times, but the book is set almost entirely in Simla—"the Mecca of India, to which so many longing eyes are always cast." (The figure of Emanuel is also based on A.M. Jacob). It, too, concerns an adulterous affair and its unhappy end, due to sinister and watchful Indian gods—the title means "magic." But it evokes those days beautifully:

"Something of the feeling that of old came to the boy, going London-wards to make his fortune, at the first sight of the great city, came to every man and woman in India at their first sight of Simla. On that green hill, with its dots of white and its long offshoot of ridge, there is a perpetual struggle going on for fame and wealth and honours. Never a man, never a woman, goes up that hill for the first time but has some dream, social or professional, that they have to realize. It is the casket that holds all the big prizes of the East. Victory or defeat lie there. For a man, the rulership of a province, the pulling of the threads that set all the crowned princelings dancing, the command of some successful expedition. For a woman, the pleasure of finding the rulers of India sitting at her feet, the incense of clever men’s praise, the glory of power."

Tuesday, May 8, 1984

Journey Through Oman

I made this trip, one of the most memorable of my life, for GEO magazine in February 1984 with the photographer Alen MacWeeney. Unfortunately the journey was far beyond my capacities to compress into a workable article. I suppose it deserved a book; they asked for 2500 words, I gave them 10,000. They were at least kind enough to pay me. The piece was never published in English, although a couple of years later it did appear translated, at a sensible length, in the French edition of GEO.

We are in Arabia, to explore one of the most unknown countries on earth. We might as well be exploring a tale by Sheherazade.

In a wild and burnished land where the men wear skirts and women wear trousers, where camels are few and sailors plentiful, the ruler—an old-fashioned sultan—has confined his only son to a remote southern palace alongside the ocean. The son is filled with new and dangerous ideas; sending him abroad to be educated was a mistake.

The country is ancient. Once a colonial empire, its rule extended south and north for thousands of miles along the coasts of Africa and Asia. Its sailors traded with faraway China and a young country called the United States. Until only recently its interior was divided among quarreling tribes. Now the sultan rules absolutely the peoples of those harsh impassable mountains, wind-wracked deserts, and long beaches of wistful palms.

The son bears his captivity for seven years, then decides on a revolution. With secret foreign assistance, he manages a coup. The father is deposed and exiled to a distant kingdom by the sea, where he dies soon after.

The son’s dreams come true. He sells some oil. He lives thriftily. Listening to his people, he builds schools, hospitals, and even a few roads, though the landscape resists them. But soon, thinking the country must now be weak, invaders appear from the west, to stir up a different kind of rebellion within the country.

The son goes among the guerrillas of his enemies. They are his own countrymen, and consider themselves liberators. He offers their leaders security, gold, and top positions in his palace if they will lay down their arms and transfer their loyalty. They obey: it is a lesson in unification his father taught him through imprisonment. And with this new peace, fortified by the presence of his European sponsors, the young sultan’s country grows wealthy. Yet it remains closed to outsiders; and within this antique, modernized, but still pure land, the past lives on.

The tale does not come from The Thousand And One Nights. It is a true story, set in Oman, the last secret corner of Arabia, and it happened in the last two decades. Under the father. Said bin Timur—pushed off the throne by his British-educated son Qaboos in 1970—the country was kept incarcerated in the 17th century. Even in Muscat, the northern capital, there were few cars, smoking was forbidden, and anybody walking around after sunset had to carry a paraffin lamp to avoid arrest.

This November [1984] there will be two weeks of festivities, culminating in National Day on November 18, to celebrate the fifteen years of Qaboos’ reign. The celebrations will draw dignitaries and television cameras from all over the world, but they will see little besides Muscat fireworks and speeches. At the moment the country is open only to the first tiniest trickle of journalists, scholars, and a few motley British tourists—two busloads a year. The Sultan, though broadminded, does not want his country stampeded by women in shorts or vultures with cameras. A photographer and I were very fortunate to be allowed entry.

Oman can be a difficult country to travel within, despite the people’s open-handedness, modesty, and charm. Distances are vast, and outside Muscat there are only two hotels in the entire country. Some areas, like purple-cragged Musandam (which includes the volatile Straits of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil passes), are among the most difficult terrain on the planet, accessible only by helicopter. Parts of the Empty Quarter can still only be crossed by camel and on foot, as Wilfred Thesiger, in disguise, managed during the previous sultan’s reign and wrote about eloquently in Arabian Sands. Oman comprises such diverse landscapes—the sole country where you can explore Arab sea, desert, and mountain life—that it gives the impression of being even huger than it is. We rented four-wheel drive vehicles and walked when we had to.

Muscat has Oman’s only international airport, but still deserves the title ancient mariners gave it: “the most hidden port on earth.” All ports are different; Muscat is tucked compactly into a small cove that cleaves plunging gray mountains, a wedge holding them apart. Until recently, when a road was built over the mountains, the capital was only approachable by boat or donkey. Then a new port was built in a nearby rival cove. But in those long years prior to the coup, every twilight was a dramatic event.

“Twenty minutes before sunset, the dum-dum drums would start to beat,” one oil man, a Briton, remembered. “You could hear them echo off the ruddy mountains. That meant you had twenty minutes to get inside or outside the town gates. Then, at sunset, the dum-dum drums would cease altogether, and cannons would be fired from the two old Portuguese forts that guard the harbor like big sand castles, Murani and Jelali. That last was the prison for centuries, and a sultan in the 1850s used to fire some of his less amiable prisoners out of a cannon into the sea, as a comprehensive way of getting rid of them and discouraging the others. Anyway, once the cannons went off with a roar then all Muscat would rattle and shake, the little pedestrian gate would be shut with a clank and the big town gate, for camels and donkeys and a motor car or two, would be shut with a boom and most of Muscat would rattle and shake again. You knew when it was sunset.”

Muscat today, with its houses of Arab, Persian, Indian, and African design, has changed superficially. A new palace gleams by the water; there are more cars. But with nowhere to spread within its cove, some of the old cosiness, the sheltered leisure, remain. On the radio the announcer—a woman—will give the time as “a few minutes before two o’clock” or “several minutes after,” and road signs advise sagely: Drive Carefully. Do Not Kill Yourself Or Your Friends. A visitor still senses a well-defended, pack-and-jam waterfront place, of whitewashed stone, sedate turrets, climbing alleys, and people ambling in more colorful robes—scarlets and indigos, purples and yellows, along with the basic white and black—than elsewhere in Arabia. And they are more courteous, less aloof, than those in countries farther up the Gulf.

This is the paradox of the Omani character. For so many centuries a closed country, it was well known internationally: at least a bit of that finesse and savoir-faire has rubbed off on most Omanis. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ancient, outgoing seaport of Sur, a third of the way down the coast from Muscat, near the easternmost tip of the Arabian peninsula.

Sur was our first goal, a remnant of centuries when Oman’s empire extended south to Zanzibar and East Africa, and north to Gwadur in Baluchistan. We wanted to explore the interior, too, since Oman is home for two hundred different tribes—most of them extinct elsewhere, many of whom speak their own languages. (The government had promised translators when possible.)

We drove east from Muscat, along a tarmac road Qaboos built three years ago. The route wound inland a couple of hundred miles through a lunar landscape of severe brown hills with mountains endlessly beyond, cooking in the sun. The mountains of Oman are a visual miracle: softened by morning, turbaned in mists, they grow less tranquil and recede with the onslaught of daylight, hardening and brooding through stuporous afternoon heat. In the explosive sunset, they become a range of mirages with birds flitting among them. When darkness finally descends with the abruptness of the tropics, as all light is obliterated from the earth, still those mountains remain, looming blacker than the star-tangled night sky.

It was afternoon as we drove. On promontories stood remnants of watchtowers and forts guarding the rock passes through encircling mountains. Each protected a tiny village. They looked made from moldy cake; many were nearly whole. Sometimes in green dawn light they would rise through mists as if summoned entire out of the past. It was easy to imagine heads peering over the tan parapets, and tribes eyeing each other’s water, women, and herds for a raid.

At one point, seeing a grove of palms to our left and knowing it meant a village, we turned off Qaboos’ road and jounced across a rocky dirt track, then up a dry wadi (riverbed) that was awaiting the winter monsoon. Doves in the palms took flight to scattered voices of children. A woman was coming down the path in swirling robes the color of a peacock’s eye, one arm swinging, the other reaching up to steady the bundle on her head. The village revealed itself: trim mud houses around a larger, older castle with balconies, terraces, ornate wooden doors—I imagined the delight with which amateur archaeologists would fall upon this place—and a central well with falajs (stone water channels) leading through the village. Roosters wandered among the open rooms of the castle. A spreading tree ceremonially shaded the courtyard.

Farther on was a tiny creek, and brambly trees. In the watery shadows of palms, men in work-skirts of deep blue and gold were plowing a field of alfalfa and onions with two cattle, the women helping. One man lifted his two children in his arms and came over, smiling. He said in broken English,”You come to my house for coffee.” We sat on the mud floor of his tiny house while his children watched, giggling, and for a half-hour he spoke to us enthusiastically in Arabic and we replied in English, neither party much understanding the other. But there is something about the Omani willingness to laugh, and the vividness of gesture—his children were growing so quickly, his hands indicated, wasn’t it always like that?—that made our lazy feast of oranges, dates, tea and coffee seem more hospitable in its strangeness. Perhaps we rely too much on the apparent precision of words.

When we left the heat of the day had passed, and birds were singing in the trees. He and his children watched us go, waving.

As darkness descended, the mountains grew more jagged, then stopped altogether. With night we entered the vast Wahibah sands, the road absolutely level, and saw no other cars. We knew dunes were all around—“wide-sweeping, warm-coloured”, Thesiger wrote. The lights of a fueling station indicated we were near the coast. We’d driven for hours longer than the map indicated was necessary; this is normal in Oman. We had nowhere to stay; we’d been told Sur offered no hotels. We hadn’t yet been given our official letters of introduction.

“Plenty damned hotels, sahib,” said the fueling station attendant, who was from south India. “Hotels on the left, hotels on the right. Too many.”

“Which do you recommend?”

“Yes, sir, those hotels on the left are a damned sight better.”

It was nearly midnight when we reached Sur. We expected a less preserved place—we found ourselves in a moonlit 17th-century Arab seaport. A dirt road led us bumpily alongside the water, by a beach and harbor of silhouetted masts and a mysterious profusion of white stone houses and narrow circuitous back-streets. A watchman passed us carrying a lantern, singing softly to himself. Sur was asleep.

If you cannot arrive by water, it is best to enter a seaport in darkness, so the ocean scent, the creak and thrum of rigging, the mingled odors of varnish and fish and ship’s wood, can work on the imagination. But we still had nowhere to stay; the fueling station had misled us; there was not a hotel in sight down these furtive lanes, and the town was so quiet we could hear crabs whispering across the sand.

Before spending the night in the open, it seemed sensible to ask about alternatives, and high on a bluff, well-lit, stood the Royal Omani Police station, looking like an army barracks. Because there’s virtually no crime in Oman, the duties of the police are paternal, almost pastoral. (When the previous sultan visited Scotland Yard and was shown the murder records by a detective, he turned to his aide and murmured, “When did we last have a murder in Oman? Was it before the war or after?”)

A couple of khakied young men, seemingly teenagers, were on duty in the gleaming new office. They spoke no English. We had difficulty explaining our situation by gesture. One man ran off, the other motioned for us to sit. We offered to leave. No, sit down.

In Bahrain a year earlier we’d had machine guns shoved in our faces for photographing a rose. So we were even more alarmed by the sudden appearance of a small man in white robes, obviously turned out of bed on our behalf. He had a bushy mustache, alert eyes, and he looked bulletproof. He was also obviously the Captain.

“Good evening, sir,” he said in excellent English. “And you are—”

We introduced ourselves. An American writer. An Irish photographer. “We’re here for a magazine.”

“Do you have a letter of introduction?”

“It wasn’t quite ready yet in Muscat.” That sentence sounded complaining so late at night. “We were told there might be a hotel.”

He said gently, “I am afraid I have some bad news for you. There are no hotels in Sur.”

“It’s all right, we can sleep in the car, or on the beach—”

“I’m sorry, but that is against the law.” Now his tone seemed to carry the certainty of arrest. “However—” He shrugged. “I hope you will let us offer you our guest house. There are several rooms, a kitchen, a dining room, a living room, three bedrooms. Though it is not luxurious, of course. Will that suffice?”

We were unable to express our relief.

He uttered a burst of Arabic and one young officer sprinted  off into the night. The Captain said, “You must be hungry. Let me have some food brought for you, yes?” Another officer went sprinting.

When the first returned and reported, the Captain looked chagrined. “A small problem. The Inspector-General has left for Muscat with the key to your house. So we will have to break down the door.” He held up a meaningful finger, “Two minutes.” We started to protest, but yet another officer came running up with a key. “Ah, my mistake,” said the Captain. “Perhaps you will join me for a late tea tomorrow morning, insha’Allah? Sleep well.”

The house was modest, clean, and about thirty yards from a lovely private beach on the Indian Ocean. Two minutes after we were left there by our officer, an Indian appeared bearing enough dinner for four men. “More food? No? Good night, sa’abs.”

In Arabia it’s said that the hour between dawn and sunrise is stolen from Paradise. We awoke early enough to get down to Sur’s main beach, wrapped like a prayer shawl around the town, to watch fishermen coming in. Out to sea a couple of dhows rode at anchor like imitation Noah’s Arks. Closer, dories bobbed in the golden light, the men calling news of their catch to buyers on the beach. In the shallows the men clambered out and tugged plastic bags laden with silver fish through the mild surf. On the sand the haggling began. Several hammerhead sharks and swordfish were dragged in, admired, and summarily cut up.

Once a buyer was satisfied with a price, after arguments, dismissals, and theatrical apologies, he summoned one of several men waiting with donkeys, and a lurching basket of fish was lifted and secured on a donkey’s back. The donkey always complained, but when he set off it appeared he was leading his man to market—the clamorous souk in the town square was a quarter mile away—rather than the man leading him. These blinking men on the beach with donkeys were all blind. It was the Islamic social system given meaning: find work for everybody.

In most of the men’s dark faces, darker than elsewhere in Oman, was the history of Sur. Over the centuries, and until only seventy years ago, it was the Omani center of the East African slave trade, as well as the more vigorous traffic in arms and general smuggling. These men with the blood of slaves and slave-traders in equal parts all wore khanjas, the huge silver daggers that are the mark of manhood. They looked piratical; but the businesses of this coast  were established for so many centuries it was hard to see them as anything but professions. Marco Polo visited Sur; its dhows still trade with India, China, and East Africa. “They are murderers and brigands every one,” wrote Sir John Malcolm in 1786. “They are monsters.”

One monster placed the largest starfish I’ve ever seen in my hands, and before I knew it five more of equal size were piled on top.

We followed the donkeys to the souk, already bustling, where the fish were rapidly sold among the pleasanter smells of fresh bread, fruits, and incense. In the open market were corners for silversmiths, barbers, cloth-sellers. It was impossible to hurry, because everyone greeted everyone else by exchanging news and good wishes. The fiercest-looking men in Oman not only shook hands but kissed and rubbed noses as well.

Afternoons we’d wander along the curved beach to the harbor, a shallow inlet where dhows leaned at low tide, being washed by chanting men. Schoolgirls in mustard frocks ambled hand in hand past other dhows being constructed, skeletal arks, from the misshapen wood of the Malabar Coast. These dhows were like shapes out of time, for they have all but vanished from the other shipbuilding coasts of Arabia; there was a gazing-outward quality about the people in Sur, a sense of faraway news that freed them from the tribal squabbling of the interior.
One morning we were taken to meet the local Wali. He’d gone to the capital, so we met with the under-Wali instead. There are forty-five walis, Muscat-appointed governors, though the term beggars their actual powers. They can, for example, forbid you to travel within their territory. We’d certainly not been hampered in Sur by not having called on him, but since in a sense we were his guests, uninvited and unannounced, it seemed politic to do so.

He had one of Sur’s few modern buildings, squarish and plump, by the sea. In an antechamber about twenty men were waiting in postures of importance or servitude. It is to the Wali that all local problems taken at the frequent majlis, or open councils, and some of these men must have had grievances; a few looked like they’d been waiting for hours. (By contrast, a desert bedu can wait for days and still be so cheerful you wonder if you have not arrived early after all.) The walis are the remnants of the traditional Arab hierarchy that extends from sultan down to the local sheiks. So we too were prepared to wait.

Suddenly we were ushered in. The under-Wali looked more piratical, humorless, imperious, and busy, than anybody in Sur. Light-skinned, he seemed young to be the acting governor. We were waved into chairs and the under-Wali sat down beside a desk with an entire bank of telephones, beneath a portrait of Qaboos, surely the most handsome prince Arabia has produced in some time—were he not so thoughtful, he could be a movie star.

The under-Wali ushered in a servant, who brought tea and orange soft drinks. A sweating police sergeant did the translating.

“Can we see whatever we want here in Sur?”

“Of course,” said the under-Wali. “Whatever you want.” Surely this could not be why we had interrupted his activities?

“We have been enjoying the generosity of the Royal Omani Police,” we said.

“The Captain is a personal friend of mine,” said the under-Wali. His brood grew deeper.

“Would you consent to let us take your photograph? Perhaps even outside, by the ocean, so we could include those two gigantic dhows at anchor?”

The under-Wali grinned. “Why not?” He clapped his hands and an aide went hurrying out to clear the way. “But only—” He held up a finger, and the sergeant waited for him to complete the sentence. “Only if I can have a picture for myself.”

When we left the office all the hangers-on pressed forward to shake hands. He swept impassively through, trailing us behind like clumsy acolytes, while one aide carried a chair so the under-Wali wouldn’t have to stand on the beach.

Returning to Muscat, we flew south seven hundred miles to Salalah, capital of the Dhofar province—a third of Oman’s land and only a tenth of her million-plus people. Dhofar is almost like a different country, and until a century ago Muscat could not really claim any power over it or political responsibility toward it. The only link with the rest of Oman is by geography; tribally, culturally, economically, physically, historically, they are nearly completely separate.

Salalah was reminiscent of the Caribbean. Around the low, spreading town of wide streets were acres of green. A perfect beach of untouched white sand, with blustery cliffs rising sheer behind it, stretched for miles along the coast. There was a Holiday Inn of local design, tan stone with fountains and palms, in a quiet grove outside town. It had that soft beach, with its reassuring breezes and porpoises leaping in circlets, all to itself.

Salalah has been the traditional summer home for the sultan of Oman—this coast soothes the heat-withered mind like nowhere else in Arabia—and Said bin Timur so sequestered himself here that in 1955 he’d had to make a grand journey by motor convoy all the way up to Muscat to regain control of the interior from the loca1 Imam. (An expedition described by James Morris in his classic Sultan In Oman.) Here, too, the young Qaboos was kept under house arrest by his father; the coup ended with the old sultan accidentally shooting himself in the foot.

A photo of Qaboos in those years is scarcely recognizable as today’s serene ruler with a silvery beard: it shows a gloomy young man with a drawn face and bushy black beard standing in a web of shadows, before a colonnade of palms leading to the sea. (His father ended his days in a London hotel after two years’ self-imposed house arrest.) Soon, Qaboos built a great white summer palace in Dhofari style—no steel and glass, as in the Muscat palace—around the old one in Salalah. We weren’t admitted, though everybody pointed over the wall at the infamous room of imprisonment—surely an exaggeration of the prince’s circumstances. It seems that Qaboos is spending more and more time down in Salalah; some traditions die hard.

“You can’t blame him,” people said in Muscat. “Muscat in summer is one of the hottest places on earth. The heat will knock you to the ground.”

But there were undying rivalries beneath this apparent sympathy. As a result, perhaps, a couple of times a year Qaboos visits all parts of his country, by car and helicopter. (With Oman’s terrain, it’s always easier for a sultan to visit his people than the other way around.) His father never bothered, until the Imam’s claims of independence had made it necessary.

Up the coast one morning we found the fishing town of Mirbat, with its tall twin forts. Thousands of sardines were spread on the beach to dry, and men sat in the sand mending their nets like diligent seamstresses, pulling them taut with their toes, while boys watched.

The old town, private in its cove, looked down the coast to the blaze of misted cliffs that separate Oman from communist South Yemen to the west (known as the People’s Democratic Republic), whence stirrings of rebellion, Soviet-sponsored, came a decade ago. Those mountains are probably Oman’s roughest terrain, and made the invasion impossible, because they shield the coast from the interior as well, and there are few passes. North of them lies the Empty Quarter. This attempted invasion out of the Red Sea was an Afghanistan that died stillborn, for the Soviets sent only arms to the Yemenis, not men.

It was sobering to see how fortified this coast was, with modem equivalents of crumbling watchtowers along the cliffs. Barracks, too, for Mirbat was the setting for an important battle of the Dhofar war. The few men of the town fought with 19th-century rifles from the parapets of old forts against rebels from the hills, felling one hundred on the brief plain between the mountains and the sea. “My grandfather killed three rebels in the battle of Mirbat,” one boy said to us in perfect English. That war is still sharply remembered on this coast: most men carry old rifles.

It took us two days, along a couple of miles of coast, to find the ruins of Sumhuram, from the 3rd century. Hidden on the sandy, folded shore, they are merely jumbled, low remains. But Sumhuram’s vast headland, green as much of Dhofar, is split by a turquoise river known as the Khor Rori that is really just a long inlet fingering from the sea. Sumhuram looks out to the sea through two symmetrical cliffs, matched as square bookends. A skinny beach, in ancient times only a sand bar, joins them. After the June rains a waterfall in the mountains just behind spills down a plunging cleft into the Khor Rori; Morris calls the place “one of the wonders of Arabia.”

Legend holds that long before Sumhuram, Ptolemy’s ancient city of Abyssopolis and the palace of the Queen of Sheba were both here. (An experienced Italian archaeologist in Muscat scoffed at the latter notion.) Sumhuram, certainly, was the great port of the coast of incense.

Frankincense made Dhofar wealthy, and desirable.  A powder dried from the sap of a stubbly tree, frankincense was required for centuries by the world’s religions, and Dhofar’s is the finest. Vast quantities of gold were sent from ancient Greece, from Rome, from Orthodox Christian churches, so that the same scented smoke might rise from different altars. Caravans bore the powder north and west, and ships bore it east to Asia, where it was equally valued.. Now a perfume made from it, said to be the most expensive in the world, is in the works.

Around us at sunset the light was silver, and white birds went flapping enormously. The stones were bright where they lay unexposed to sun, and charred black where they’d been exposed for centuries. The only sentinels were a camel with lovely mascarad eyes and hooves like floor mops, and thorn bushes everywhere. You could still make out the plan of different rooms—temples, storehouses, watchtowers—overlooking a lacework of meandering creeks and tidal pools with tall rushes. When that limestone was fresh, Sumhuram would’ve been a blaze of white, bursting forth from this headland like a radiant star, flashing in the afternoon sun.

Here, in the circles of mottled rock, must have been offerings to the goddess of the moon, and a view of ships making their way into the now-shallow Khor Rori. Here the queen walked, surrounded by slaves. Traders over the years would have marveled at this same view: to share their wonder was to break bread with the dead.

A fragment of skull tumbled from a rock wall as we clambered over. Ancient seashells were embedded as mortar in the wall. Tiny brown lizards scurried up steps worn smooth. In  the fading light the stones began to glow pink, with some of their original gleam, like the last light of an ancient empire. With the sea’s unhurried majesty and the night closing in rapidly, it seemed that time hung in the balance. Because of Sumhuram’s quiet, because of oncoming darkness and the sense of time raveling away all things, all empires, burying all queens, because the swallows must always have darted across the natural harbor as they were darting now through waning evening light, we felt part of the once-great ruins. Night made us into two more faceless ghosts.

North of Salalah the next day we drove up summits and down valleys of unexpected greenness, this being the dry end of the year. Scarred mountains surrounded us, but we were in pockets of fertility. Creek beds still held water, and herds of camel and small cattle wandered knowledgeably along the steep roads to feed and drink. Twisted, gnarled old frankincense trees grew everywhere—the wild remnants of careful cultivation.

Down odd dirt tracks tents were flapping in the wind, and women in blue or red robes, carrying pots toward their wells within groves of trees, glanced at us with heavy suspicion. The men emerged from the tents carrying rifles, bandoliers of bullets slung at their waists, and waved us away. These were “villages” of the Jeballi—a name for both the mountains and their herdsmen. Today they pride themselves on their independence, and their fierce loyalty to Qaboos, but a decade ago they were the rebels he had to win back from the Marxist Yemenis. Their numbers were divided in that conflict,  though no one today would admit to having fought on the Yemeni side. The Dhofar war had been won only partly by the loyalists among them, and at least as much by small British guerrilla forces (Qaboos is a Sandhurst graduate) and by the infantry of the Shah of Iran, who feared another Afghanistan.

Eventually we decided to chance an approach to one cluster of igloo-shaped steraits. The village did not seem to be on our detailed map, but beside one sterait was a shiny blue Mercedes. It seemed promising.

Steraits are made from a tangle of branches woven around a central tree, and wear a matted wig of straw and reeds that covers them entirely. We could just see women watching us from the smoke-blackened insides.

“Yes, how do you do?” A young man, immaculate in white robes—not a herdsman— pushed back a flap of the sterait. His English was perfect. “Are you looking for someone?”

“We’re looking for you. We wanted to meet someone who lives in the Jeballi.”

“Ah,” he smiled. “My name is Khalid, you must come in and sit down. You’re lucky to see me, I just came up to stay a couple of nights with my mother-in-law. I work in Salalah for the government. Mind your heads.”

The floor of the sterait was covered with mats and rugs, and ropes along the walls were hung with Persian carpets and bright shawls. Several kneeling women, young and middle-aged, drew back when we came in, but one obediently got the fire flaring in a corner. We lay back on cushions pressed against trunks. It was incredibly cool inside. As we talked, the women kept eyeing us, commenting among themselves.

“I like to stay here a couple of nights a week,” said Khalid. “You say my English isn’t bad? I’m glad to hear it. I learned it in Muscat, at school. My mother, mother-in-law, aunt-in-law, little brother, and two sisters-in-law all live here. That’s one bringing your tea. Don’t worry, she can’t understand us. Of course they know we’re speaking about them, they always know. Here on the Jeballi we drink tea without condensed milk, and unsweetened. It’s all right?”

A young sister-in-law was eyeing us both dangerously, and Khalid’s mother cackled, and muttered something that made the other women laugh. “She says do you want to marry an Omani girl?” He wiped one eye. “They are all very beautiful, especially on the Jeballi.”

I said, “I don’t think I could afford one. How much would she cost?”

He murmured, “Here it depends on how many cattle her family has. I was married once before—I’m nineteen. What a mistake. One week it lasted. I’ve been married to this wife for two weeks. She is much quieter than the last. I had to pay her mother three thousand rials ($9,000). Her father died, so she and her sisters and mother own many cattle. You passed the herd on the road. Each animal is worth nearly four hundred rials.”

The rest of the herd was shambling outside. “We’d like to meet your wife. Is she here?”

“She’s down in Salalah, with my father and brothers,” he said. “I know in your country it would be strange to live always with one set of parents or the other, but we are young, and here families like to stay together. My father is retired. He was a goldsmith.”
I said, “I wonder—how do you calculate taxes on property like a sterait, or cattle?”

“What are taxes?”

“The money you pay every year to the government. A percentage of your income, or your land’s value.”

“I’m sorry, my English is out of practice, can you explain it again?”

“It’s sort of a rent you pay your country, for protecting you.”

Almost apologetically, he said, “My Sultan protects me, I  still don’t see what you mean.”

I gave Khalid an explanation of our tax system, and with each detail he looked more horrified. “You give money to them? I still don’t understand. Why?”

Later that afternoon, when we started to drive away, he came running up. “Wait, is it true there are no camels in New York?”

“They’re in zoos.”

“Not on the streets?”

“No, they’re not allowed to roam freely.”

He said, “They must be very unhappy.” He got in his Mercedes and, in a roar of dust, led us back to Qaboos’ road.

Driving north out of the green Jeballi, toward the great dunes and gravelly plain that make up most of Oman’s interior, we found ourselves crossing several hundred miles of hard, high ground with occasional pyramidal rock formations. It sloped gradually down to monotonous desert. To the west was the Empty Quarter, the Rub al Khali—the huge sand sea Oman shares with Saudi Arabia. We would tackle it farther north. Around us a few bushes sprouted like fatigued shaving-brushes losing their bristles, and the rare oases on the horizon, near the shimmering dunes, looked barely inhabited.

We were crossing the Jiddat al Harasis, the plain of the Harasis—a remote bedu tribe who have their own language. We were in search of unicorns.

The term bedu (often mistakenly “bedouin” in English, a double plural) applies to the  nomadic desert way of life, and not to a particular tribe. The Harasis are the only tribe in 20,000 square miles of the hard limestone Jiddat. Their origins probably lie in Ethiopia, centuries ago. This plain has always been called theirs, and because they are known for their amiability (“My anxieties and difficulties were now over,” wrote Thesiger of his first meeting with them), historians conjecture that probably a more warlike people forced their migration as a tribe.

At the fueling station on the main road at Haima, the only such for four hundred miles, we were met by a gleeful Harasis in gray robes who seemed oblivious to the fact we were five hours late. He encouraged us to take our time eating at the Omani equivalent of a truck stop; you could choose which chicken you wanted barbecued. When we finished, the Harasis climbed in his Land Rover and, pointing unerringly into the featureless desert, drove like a lunatic through the night while we bounced through turbulent clouds of sand and struggled to keep up.

When his lights finally slowed, we were in a comfortable camp of well-equipped cabins in the most remote reaches of the Jiddat. Our host, who fed us a second dinner, was a British ecologist of about thirty-five named Mark Stanley Price, who looks as if nothing will startle him, and his wife Karen, somehow glamorous and healthily tanned. She said with a laugh, “Of course I’ve got a tan, it hasn’t rained here for five years.”

“Don’t worry about keeping the Harasis waiting,” said Mark. “He was glad to catch up on the news in Haima. He’d have happily waited until next week.”

For six years Mark has supervised, under the Sultan’s personal aegis, a unique project: returning a species extinct in the wild back to its original habitat. The Arabian white oryx—the maha of classical Arabic, the bin sola of the Omani bedu—was last seen on the Jiddat in 1972. Gone everywhere else in Arabia, poachers had finally killed off these last survivors. A few lived in zoos throughout the world, or private collections in Arabia.

Mark had worked for years with similar animals in Kenya, where he’d met and married Karen, and in six years he’d not only set up this camp with guest cabins and animal facilities, but managed to get two herds of oryx back into the wild. This has never been done elsewhere, with any animal.

Mark enlisted the aid of the Harasis, who felt that the oryx had been theirs to protect and they’d failed against the poachers. Now every man, woman and child among them has sworn to guard each oryx’s life with his or her own. Because they know their way so well around the vast Jiddat, many men are rangers for the Yahlooni project.

The oryx is a large white antelope, with two high straight horns spiraled like walking sticks. The myth is that the animal was the origin of the unicorn. “Or was it an optical illusion?” said Mark. “Anyway, the story was that you viewed an oryx from the side and mistakenly thought it had one horn. Doesn’t make sense. Just try to take a photo and see how long it stays still. However, they were kept as pets in ancient Egypt. and if you catch them young enough, when the horns are still soft, and push them together, they’ll grow into a single horn. The pharoahs may have manufactured unicorns, or perhaps the Arabs did it and sold them the fables first.”

Mark took us to see one bedu family’s camp, and explained his method of weaning his small herds of oryx back into the wild gradually, with larger and larger enclosures. “When that first herd was released from the 250-acre enclosure in 1982, all the Harasis had gathered for miles around to watch. After the animals started exploring and turned their backs on the camp, the bedu fell to their knees in prayer, all in a line, and thanked Allah that the oryx were once again free on the Jiddat.”

Mark took us to the tents of Said, a Yahlooni ranger. His shelters faced south, away from the stiff wind which brings cool fogs off the Indian Ocean a hundred miles away. Ravens circled nearby.

“I didn’t speak a word of Arabic before I came here,” said Mark. “Fortunately, most Harasis speak it as well as their own tongue. Otherwise I’d be in trouble. It’s not nearly as difficult as everyone says, I could get around in it after about a year. Of course I didn’t have much choice, did I?” He laughed. “These Harasis are some of the most resourceful people in the world. Absolutely nothing fazes them. If you gave an Omani from the city an air ticket to London and said, ‘Look, go there, pick up something for me, come back,’ he’d never make it. He’d worry about the plane crashing or getting run over. What would happen to his family. What if he got lost on the way to the airport. But you could send a Harasis anywhere and he’d be absolutely sure of himself, he’d have no troubles at all, he’d think it was fun. You should watch them find their way around the desert, by the shape of a dune or the way a tree looks from miles away. They’re absolutely unbelievable.”

At Mark’s suggestion we removed our shoes—the Harasis would be barefoot—and walked across the sand. Goats followed us. Around us was the flat lie of horizon, unbroken. A fence enclosed the shelter of flapping canvas. Lanterns, pitchers, a thermos, an outgrown sweater, a coffee grinder, a paint can, and two pairs of sandals hung on the fence. In contrast to the men of Sur or Salalah, these Harasis all had open faces, small, well-made features, and the clean looks of a tribe that has not mixed with others. They are compact, durable, and extremely relaxed among strangers.

Said came out of his tent at our approach, and with him Musallam, an old, toothily grinning man who was tough and tall in gray robes and said he lived “nearby”—though his tents didn’t break the horizon.

Said ushered us in. “I’m sorry I have nothing to offer you, but fresh fruit is difficult to get here in the desert.”

We were given bowls of sweet Omani dates, and coffee as strong as jet fuel, while Mark translated. Much is made of the line between men and women in Arabia, much of it incorrect. The power the woman has within the home is rarely described. These assumptions are even more misleading about bedu women. We were, to our surprise, immediately joined by a half-dozen children and their mothers, who were visiting Said’s wife. They all wore not only black veils but stiff black masks of hardened cloth that covered most of the face. But they joked with us freely, even nudging us to see if we understood a punch line when Musallam reached the end of one of his stories. Far from being the most “imprisoned” women in Arabia, bedu women of any tribe are the freest, with rights other women do not have. They can, for example, sue for divorce on the basis of sexual unfulfillment.

I said, “Don’t you feel uncomfortable in the mask? Don’t you feel kept in?”

“Not at all,” said one woman. “It’s a liberation to put it on, you see. You can look out. No one can look in. What could be better?”

“You two should try it sometime,” said another dryly, to gales of laughter.

The boys and girls wore gold or silver necklaces and earrings; in the desert, a family wears its savings. One girl’s face was dyed orange for decoration. Three dots and a line ornamented her chin like a tattoo. She would not put on the mask until about fourteen.

A woman was complaining; a goat had died in the night. “There’s a new Sudanese doctor in Haima,” she muttered. “So what? The sick goat was here. There aren’t enough trees in Haima for a goat to sit under.”

Musallam, the old man, was full of stories. When I asked what made someone a bedu, he said, “You live in the desert, and the desert teaches you to be smart.” This brought back a convoluted tale about a bedu who had no money but convinced a merchant in town that he could pay one day soon, and offered a hair of his beard as collateral. A year later he came back to pay up; but of course the merchant had lost the hair,

Outside the tent, Savia, the eldest girl, walked swayingly beyond the fence to stir up the fire of charred branches. At fifteen, she’d put on the mask a year earlier. She began making lunch: rice with onions, tomato paste and tinned fish. All this food was bought in Haima, with cash; now the Harasis were not living entirely off the desert, but off the Sultan, in payment for watching over the oryx.

There was a direct power in her provocative gaze that was the female equivalent of the bold look the men had, a clear-eyed confidence. A Toyota truck roared nearby; a little boy, seated on his father’s lap, was learning to drive. Bedu start early.

Somehow I was left alone with Savia, standing at the fence’s gate. Beneath her black veil, her dress was deep blue, a richness of color against the bald desert. The beak of her mask glared at me, but her gaze would not leave mine. I didn’t know what to say, and it would be pointless to speak, since being of marriageable age she wouldn’t answer.

“What’s your name?” she asked suddenly in Arabic, Amazed, I told her, and she repeated it, her voice light and clear. Then she spoke again, a phrase I didn’t know—what could it be? But somebody was coming, Savia looked embarrassed; and when I tried to say, “I didn’t understand,” she turned away.

Not wishing to strain their limited resources, we left before the Harasis felt obliged to offer us lunch. The desert code, of generosity even to strangers, still is kept. Watching us go, the women waved goodbye slowly, with both hands.

That afternoon, Mark showed us a third herd he was preparing to release into the wild.  There were less than a dozen in this herd, and the hierarchy—the aging male king about to be challenged, looked after by his harem—was clear. Staring into the middle distance, breaking into a brief run, or settling into the shade of a bush, each oryx had a nonchalance hardly befitting one of the rarest animals on earth. Every so often it would turn its head just right, and give us a glimpse of mythology, the single horn seeking the perfection of the virgin, then just as casually turn to face us as if to say, “You see? It’s all a story.”

Heading north on Qaboos’ road, we decided to turn west and dip into the Empty Quarter. We were abruptly on a barely discernible track in sand that was no longer blistery and hard, as on the Jiddat, but blowy and soft. On the map the track was something akin to a highway. We were heading to a place called Shusr (reassuring boldface on the map) near the edge of the sand sea. Then, abruptly, the desert track forked, and we sat trying to decide what to do.

A cloud of sand was coming toward us. We waited. It turned out to be a grinning bedu man, taller than the Harasis, driving a green pickup pell-mell. A red chest of drawers was strapped to the back, fighting simultaneously the laws of gravity and motion.

He didn’t wait for us to speak. He yelled, “Shusr?”, pointed to the right fork, yelled again, “Come on!” and was gone in another cloud.

He seemed to come from nowhere; there were no towns out here, no trees, just a few undulating dunes one or many miles away, we couldn’t tell. Eventually be stopped his car again, pointed us toward another track that wasn’t hard to follow, yelled, “Shusr!” and vanished off to the right in a limitless horizon.

“No country has moved me as did the deserts of Arabia,” Thesiger wrote. “No  man can live there and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him, weak or insistent according to his nature, the yearning to return. For that cruel land can cast a spell no temperate clime can match.”

The spell he wrote of is a real one. We were in another world. Shusr consisted of one tent, one mosque, one family. An Omani flag (green, white, red horizontal stripes) flapped faintly. A young man and his beaming father offered us fresh camel’s milk from their herd rustling in the sand; it was sweet and luxurious. The young man pointed us to a track that would take us by the great dunes and curve back east to the main road. We thought giddily: We are here at last.

Difficult to set down clearly what happened over the next few hours. Parallel with our deepening sensations of a landscape that cuts man down to size, in which he seems superfluous against its austerity of gesture, its impassive beauty, was a descending fear that we were lost. O, to see that great dune again, where we camped with loved ones who are gone! runs a bedu poem. We could find no such landmarks. The four sets of tire tracks we’d been following, that we took for a track, began to disperse then were gone, absolutely gone, as the sand grew soft.

The sun was directly overhead. Impossible to gauge north from south: we were standing on our shadows. It was so hot that our clothes could not even stay soaked with our sweat. We had no compass. We kept driving, guessing; we couldn’t find our own  tire tracks leading back. I offer this series of mistakes as a primer in what not to do, since six months later this same part of the Empty Quarter claimed two men on a weekend exploration.

And then, in all that bareness, civilization: a grove of bushes, naked trees, and a wreck of a small yellow bulldozer. It seemed a surreal joke of the gods. Beyond it lay a camp, a gash made by the bulldozer in the desert, some tents flapping nervously. No signs of life. We were nearly afraid to look within the tents, expecting corpses. But there was nothing, just the chaos of a camp that had been left in haste.

We couldn’t shake the eeriness of the place, and drove on in silence, unable to talk around the situation. Mirages were everywhere: vast pools of brimming water, camels elongated by distance into giraffes that became palm trees as we neared, then vanished. These were real optical illusions, not our nerves, but they weren’t helpful. Eventually we got stuck in soft sand, and I had to get out and push the four-wheel drive vehicle and run beside it to jump on whenever we started making headway.

At some point you have to admit the obvious. We were arguing now, not like close friends but as distrustful strangers. We decided to try to find our way back to the weird camp, following our tire tracks; we poured water over our heads and promised to keep each other from doing anything rash, like veering from the tracks or taking a chance on instinctual routes. That sounds foolish, like some bad film, but anyone who has been lost in real desert  will vouch for how easily you descend to this state. You feel yourself only just hanging on to calm by your fingernails; and that calm becomes a coveted treasure to  protect at all costs, since you know that if you lose it you’ll probably die. We’d made the two most basic mistakes of desert travel: we had no compass, and we’d told no one we were going into the Empty Quarter. No one would come looking. We had only a little food. Not enough.

The problem is staving off thoughts of the future. By luck alone, it seemed, we found our way back to the deserted camp; a great triumph. We tried to recall at what angle we’d first seen it, and veer away at the same angle—and there, before us, were those original tracks, converging to lead us to the family at Shusr. It was a desperate joy, pure relief, to be on those tracks again, as if somebody had said: No, not today. Some other day. You are going to live.

When we reached Shusr the father brought us coffee and the young man, shaking his head with concern, showed us the correct track, which was a distinct path through the desert. Qaboos’ road is only two wide lanes of tarmac, but when we reached it, just as twilight brought stars, we felt we were gliding on a highway of polished and exalted marble.

Our final goal, to the north, were the villages of the Jebel Akhdar (The Green Mountain), Arabia’s highest range. For that area, near Nizwa—the capital of the interior, with a busy market and huge circular fort—we hired a shy, well-meaning guide, Abdullah. He was small, in a wide-lapeled brown leather jacket over his white dishdasha. We made him nervous. I took him, in reading glasses, to be a bookworm, for he was toting a translation of Maugham’s stories about the WWI spy, Ashenden, in the Balkans, Since Abdullah spoke little English and we spoke even less Arabic, the communication gap was almost total. Abdullah seemed to blame himself entirely. He had, however, acquired one reassuring phrase.

“Could we meet a weaver?”

“Yes, yes, no problem.”

“How about a silversmith?”

“No problem.”

“Are we going to drive off this precipice?”

“No problem.”

That phrase, in three days, broke our spirits entirely. For sheer ability to inspire terror, syllable for syllable, I will back it against any in the language.

But Abdullah also had many friends in the area. One led us to a wizened, waddling man who wove silver thread on two gigantic looms, helped by a man who was mentally disturbed. We saw the great walled town of Bahia, and the imperious fort at Jabrin, with men muttering about market prices on top of fallen cannons, among leaky shadows of well-fed trees.

One afternoon Abdullah said clearly, “Today I will show you Misfah. An old place. Very private.”

The trail from Al Haara, a dusty town at the foot of the Jebel Akhdar, led precipitously up the mountain. At 8,000 feet the trail became little more than a donkey track, and we looked  back across converging valleys, row upon row of severe rock, studded with groves of palms.

We came perilously down a steep ridge, and saw an entire town built into the side of the mountain. It was as tanned, after a thousand years, as the rocks it clung to and grew from. Much of Misfah looked carved from the sheer cliff. Palms rose around and within it despite the supernatural impossibility of its perch. As we approached we saw the falajs, the stone irrigation canals, winding cunningly up the mountain to natural springs that were the village’s lifesource.

“You are happy?” said Abdullah. “Then I am happy.”

A couple of cars were parked at the entrance to the village. Paths flowed away to different levels of dwellings.

The roof of one ancient stone house was covered with oranges; lime and lemon trees grew everywhere. A blind man, imposing in white robes, came through a blue doorway and tapped his stick down a narrow staircase to where we stood. His grandson led him to his donkey which set off boldly, leading the blind man along a path around the mountain.

The tap-tap-tap echoed off the walls of other houses. All were like secret grottos and hideaways. Beautiful fabrics dangling from windows billowed in the fresh breeze. Men came to greet us, happy that we’d made our way to their mountain fastness. They depended on the outside world for nothing.

Inside the houses spiral staircases hewn from rock led up to little roofs. On one a man was doing repairs with heavy blocks of stone. I worried he might slip at any moment and fall to his death, until I realized that he too was blind; and the phrase Insha’Allah—“if God wills”—took on sharper meaning.

We followed staircases down to dappled groves of palms, golden in the golden light, and came upon a little school in the filigree shadows, with children chanting. We watched hawks hover high overhead. The mist-strewn valleys lengthened with late afternoon. We saw a little girl run across rocks that would’ve troubled a goat, to find her favorite ragged red doll to show us. We saw a man scold his son then embrace him, over and over, for an hour. We heard whispers we couldn’t locate, and donkeys braying; around us the sky and mountains and chasms seemed one mutual cry.

Below, hugging the cliffs downward for two thousand feet, were successive terraces of  citrus orchards and date palms. They continued up the mountain like a giant’s staircase ascending the ramparts of heaven. In those terraces were garlic and alfalfa and cherry trees in pink blossom. Children ran among the green trees. Across from us on a solitary peak, seemingly inaccessible, stood a crumbling watchtower, protecting the terraces spread out like the gardens of Paradise described by the Prophet.

Muscat, the once-inaccessible seaport of the twilight gun, lay over the mountains; Salalah, that beach with its fulfilled promise of peace, lay far behind us. We’d crossed the width of Arabia to stand here, and climbed its highest point to look across these crinkled valleys, enchanted in the tired light. It crossed my mind that I would probably never see these gardens again—it seemed unbearable that a place so beautiful could exist without the promise of a return. By the time we made our way back down the mountain it was already dark.