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A Wanderer in Ugyen, Land of Guru Rinpoche.

Guru Rinpoche at the Jokhang, Lhasa, Tibet 1985.

Guru Rinpoche, Jokhang, Lhasa 1985.

Almost by accident in 1968 I found myself in the peaceful paradise of Swat State in Pakistan. I had no idea that this was the fabled “Urgyen” of Tibetan legend, but I did realise that this was where I wanted to live. By 1973, I’d built a house there and made it my home. The following is my account of how I came to embark upon the journey of self-discovery that would include meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama and culminate in life-changing events.

After studying accountancy, in 1965, inspired by my lifelong friend Kevin Rigby, I decided to take what might now be called an open-ended ‘gap year’ heading overland to India. We hitchhiked overland, eventually reaching Varanasi on the Ganges River by mid-1967 and exploring northern India.

We were not on a shoestring budget as we wore rubber flip-flops, neither could we be described as back-packers since we carried our meagre possessions in a shoulder bag. Nor could we be labelled ‘hippies’ because this term hadn’t even been invented yet! We were refugees and escapees from materialist society, inspired by the Beats, would-be Beatniks; intrepid travellers ‘on the road’ with no real end in view, and no plan to return.

1977 Kevin & friends to Swat.

1977 Kevin & friends en route to Swat.

After many a curious diversion on the way, back and forth, sometimes travelling alone, sometimes split up by fate as in Austria, meeting up again by pure chance in Teheran’s main bazaar six months later, only late in 1967 did we ever stop. We spent the winter in meditation huts on the banks of the holy River Ganges near Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, where we studied a large pile of books on the religions of India. Eventually, after following the Ganges down to stay in Varanasi we went our separate ways again. With the hot season of 1968 approaching I felt drawn by the cooler air of the Himalayas in the north. Influenced by the changing attitudes of Indians who had become less accommodating and sometimes openly hostile towards the burgeoning flood of more extreme western hippies now on their trail to Kathmandu, I then took the decision to quit India in the opposite direction and ‘escape to Pakistan’ in solitude. Having heard talk of beautiful valleys in Pakistan’s northern areas I crossed the border to Lahore and set off to walk across its hills and valleys, vaguely aiming for the high mountains and the cool air of Chitral in the far northwest to ‘chill out’.

Ancient Buddhist sculpture.

Ancient Buddhist sculpture, Swat.

After several weeks of walking over the mountain ranges towards Chitral, I was tramping through the beautiful pine forests of Ayubia in the Murree Hills when I was kindly invited for dinner and to stay the night by some Pashtoons working at a small government silkworm project. They told me that a huge dam was to be built on the Indus River at Tarbela, a few valleys to the west. On learning of my accountancy training and concerned about my lack of means, they insisted I applied for a job there and kindly wrote a letter of introduction to their village chairman, a Mr Rafiq Khan. He was not only the Chief Camp Commandant of the entire dam site but also married to a cousin of the then President of Pakistan, Mohammad Ayub Khan and a very helpful person. I did not expect to find a job but as Khan’s village, Dragri, was on my route, when I reached the area I dropped in to meet him.

The diminutive Rafiq Khan was, indeed, very kind and helpful. He was seated under a vast banyan tree holding an evening jirga or council with bearded tribal elders seated all around the village square. When my letter was passed to him by an attendant he interrupted proceedings to welcome me. Wearing spectacles, a moustache and a flowing turban, he read the note, sat me next to him and called for food. He commented that my timing was good because a European consortium had just signed the contract to build Tarbela dam, one of the biggest in the world and the first expats were flying in. They were under him, he said, and he would tell them to give me a job. No problem. Then my rice and curry was served, he excused himself and continued with the discussions of the jirga.

Sean at Tarbela Dam 1968.

Sean at Tarbela Dam 1968.

Next day he took me to Tarbela in his jeep, where the mighty Indus valley opened up between the foothills and the river debouched onto the Attock plain. He installed me in a large marquee on the riverbank, used by gauge-readers who checked the river levels. Then he took me to the European consortium’s office which was in a wooden shed and introduced me to the Managing Director, who was an Italian. To my great surprise I was given a job on the spot, with the salary I demanded, but they had no accommodation or office space for me yet so I was told to come back in three weeks time to start. Continue reading ‘A Wanderer in Ugyen, Land of Guru Rinpoche.’