London, 1971 found me clad in floral granny skirts and red hiking boots, spending several hours a week washing dishes for my work scholarship in the underground kitchen of the Eckerd College Gower Street student residence, staring through a window at feet shuffling by. My many free hours were taken up with rambles on Hampstead Heath, nights at the Paris Pullman, countless visits to the British Museum and V&A, and general street haunting. Russell Square and the adjacent area were packed with Oriental booksellers and antiquarians which drew me like a magnet. I acquired an Arabic dictionary, a Buddha statue and a map of Tibet. I also purchased Overland to India by Douglas Brown, the hippy guide to land travel across the Eurasian continent through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to India. Although I dreamed of dropping out of college and making that journey – a few of my friends had done so, I only got as far as the eastern tip of Crete, before backtracking to Italy where I have been based ever since. I didn’t have the guts or the funds to undertake such a trip alone. But Shelley Buck, author of EAST: A Woman on the Road to Katmandu, did.
Her book opens with a bizarre coincidence right out of a fairy tale. Researching material for this memoir of her 1972 journey, she searches for the out-of- print Overland guide which she had once owned but discarded. The densely annotated, used paperback she finally locates turns out to be her very own copy, which launched into the ocean of time, now washed up at her feet. What more proof could you want that synchronicity –the mysterious quality of time which fuses unrelated events into cohesive, magical meanings –actually exists?
Being in the right place in the right time — traveler’s luck — is important in her story, embodied in the talisman she picks up : an ancient coin stamped with the blurred face of Alexander the Great. And luck will follow her as she sails unharmed through danger– clashes with border guards, interrogations by secret police in Iran, unwanted attention from grabby men, hepatitis. Like Alexander, she is moved by a deep yearning or Pothos to go east, to see palaces and princes dreamed about in childhood.
While saving money for her trip, the author worked in a lab in California, studying diseased tissues from cadavers. One day it’s a breast she must dissect, and she is struck by how much it resembles a Tibetan stupa. This epiphany is a prompting from Kali, the goddess of great transformations, urging her not to delay, and underlining the nascent feminism in her journey. Stunned when a young man refuses to travel with her—because he is afraid they will be hassled, she sets out on her own to prove to herself that she can do it and indeed she triumphs — like Alexandra David Neel on her harrowing trip to Lhasa, she shows the world that a woman can make it through.
Throughout her travels, Buck is sensitive to the condition of women in these eastern countries, of the physical and mental freedom she enjoys as a westerner. In Herat she buys a decorative strip of a nomad’s veil, patterned with geometrical figures representing dancing women. This handwoven textile, testimony to women’s work and status, invites her to interrogate her own place in the dance and her kinship with strangers. She asks: “Was I somehow in that dancing line, too, though in so many ways my life was so different from the lives of women who tended camels and tents? ….Was I at core so different?” Later, trying to communicate with a Tibetan woman across the language barrier, she writes “For a few seconds, we gaze at each other across about a thousand years.”
Shelley Buck writes with immediacy, wit, vivid color, and verve weaving in strands of history alongside wry observations on herself and her traveling companions. East is a compelling and delicious book to take along on a journey, or just while armchair dreaming, evoking exotic atmospheres and the joys and mishaps of traveling very rough. This was all long before the advent of special garments and accessories, like the she-wee, made life a bit easier on the road for women travelers. The squeamish will squirm at some of the sanitary conditions she describes with humor, and also graphic details.
Many of the places she visited with such freedom are inaccessible to most western travelers these days, and dangerous for men as well as women. Wandering into territories explored by Peter Levi in The Light Garden of the Angel King, Buck sweeps you up on an exciting vintage adventure, in the heroic days of backpacking when young people struck out on solo adventures in a world where borders were thresholds to new experiences, not locked doors.
— Linda Lappin
Title: East: A Woman on the Road to Katmandu. Author: Shelley Buck