This is a guest post by Aleksandar Janicijevic (my father)
June to September, 1974
After several years of criss-crossing Europe, (visiting every country except for Iceland, Portugal & Poland) I met some Welsh guys on the Greek island of Crete. They were on their way to India, and at that moment my decision was made.
Next year, the four of us, all students of the final year of Belgrade University of Architecture, started our trip. Several years before, the Beatles, our favourite group, visited India. Hippies all over the world followed in their footsteps, the war in Vietnam was over and groups of young American soldiers were returning home through India. The path was not very well known, but everybody was talking about it. That was enough for us.
We used trains, buses, taxis, cars and on a few occasions even walked those 12,000 km separating Serbia and end point of our trip, Nepal. This adventurous journey turned out to be life changing experience.
It was on the long train ride through Bulgaria and Turkey that we were first asked where we were going, and it was the first time we were scared about the prospect. Then followed an exhausting 2500km bus ride through Turkey and another 1000kms across Iran, until we reached Tehran. We were planning to spend several days there to explore the rich Persian culture, but it turned out that there was only one hotel in the whole city that would rent rooms to Europeans. We discovered this after several hours of walking from one hotel to the next. Along the way we met some young Australians that gave us the only valid address. From that moment on, the only relevant and trusted information about where to sleep, what to eat or how to get where you are going was imparted to us by fellow travellers going in the opposite direction. The further we went, the more experienced we became and the exchange of knowledge extended to cultural and social events and attractions. As architecture students, we were mostly known for our interest in architecture and urban life. Once inquiring about certain monument, we were told to find ourselves, the Serbian students, at so-and-so hotel: “Those guys seem to be experts on the subject!”
Our Afghanistan experiences were among the most inspiring. On many occasions we were invited into the homes of locals, and to this day I am convinced that the Afghan people are the most hospitable people on the planet. We did not speak their language and of course they did not speak Serbian, or English, but communication was never an issue.
The time spent in Afghanistan was memorable, but once we reached Pakistan— “The gate of India”—through the famous Khyber Pass, the real impact of this journey began. For this purpose I’ll just list the most important places we visited during our three month stay in Pakistan, India and Nepal: Peshawar, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Amritsar, Chandigarh, New Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, Patna, Kathmandu, Badegaun, Aurangabad, Ellora, Ajanta, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Jaipur…
It would require a whole book to describe all the mind blowing experiences of India, but the one that follows summarizes my impression. For me, this story works on infinite levels:
After the first leg of our stay in India, and a visit to Nepal to escape the start of the monsoon season (50˚C temperatures and 95% humidity) we were on our way to the famous caves of Ellora and Ajanta in the Maharashtra state. We were traveling by train, and in India, this means switching trains every few hundred kilometres. One late afternoon we arrived at railway junction called Char Minnar in the middle of nowhere, with no town or even village in sight and four hours to kill until the next train. Sitting on the only available bench we watched an old man with no clothes, and severely undernourished, going around the station picking up breadcrumbs and other tiny eatables. We were a very obvious target if he was a beggar, but he just looked at us several times and never approached. After two hours, he had a ball of food, probably 4cm in diameter. When we were sure that he would finally eat his precious ‘meal’, a skeletal-looking dog appeared. The man handed his food-ball to the dog without hesitation, and turned his smiling face toward us. His happiness simply said “help those that are more needy and you can expect the same for yourself”.