Follow your Dreams
By Cecil Wagstaff (Australia)
What does a derelict Tennis Court at the Corner of York & Sule Pagoda Roads, Rangoon, with an enormous mango tree growing next to it, in the 1950’s, later developed and a Cinema & Hotel development (The Thamada, Or The President) Cinema, the original 1937 Version of a movie of the James Hilton Book ‘Lost Horizon’ by Frank Capra, an extraordinary Teacher of Geography at the Methodist English High School or M.E.H.S., in Rangoon, a Teacher who inspired two schoolboys whom she taught and instilled an immense appreciation of her subject in them, these two schoolboys who originally lived in Rangoon, but later moved to Pakistan & Australia respectively, forged links in a chain that commenced way in 1958 and still endures.
Let me please elaborate:
One Cecil Leighton Wynter Wagstaff, was a really mischievous schoolboy, who was always in trouble with this Geography Teacher …and other Teachers too, if he may add, particularly his English teacher, lived and grew up at No. 5 York Road, Rangoon, next to the Tennis Court, with his late beloved parents, Moira & William Wynter Wagstaff.
No. 5 York Road was a Boarding house run by his late beloved Grandmother, Phoebe (lovingly known a Budded) Pereira. He learnt to ride his first bicycle (a Raleigh) Sports Model which was a borrowed bicycle. He was devastated when the Court and the mango tree were demolished and uprooted respectively, by developers, more the mango tree, as he used to shoot mangoes down with a homemade catapult, a banned implement, nowadays. This was the 1950s where every naughty schoolboy had his ‘prized ‘catapult’ or Gwa as it is called in Burmese.
The Developer, built what is now The Thamada Cinema & Hotel, which opened in 1958.
As with all Cinemas, it ran movies for a few weeks before opening its doors to the public, and one afternoon, being the inquisitive chap Cecil was, he was wandering around the construction site of the Thamada Hotel, which was still incomplete, and heard Sounds of movies within the Cinema Complex. Curious, as always, he found his way into the Cinema Complex, and found himself enjoying the ‘Free Movies’.
Unbelievable luck, better than winning the National Lottery, perhaps or knocking down a half-dozen mangoes. The movie, which was about to start was Lost Horizon, in Black & White, the original 1937 version, starring Ronald Coleman & Jane Wyatt.
He was enthralled with the regions of the Karakoram and Himalaya Mountains, the location of the legendary Shangri-la, those were projected on the largest screen (of the time), that he had ever witnessed. He was enthralled and fascinated, and could picture himself amongst those mountains. He vowed to get there – one day.
The years rolled by, Graduation from school in 1962, a job with a Travel Agency, Mandalay Tours and Travel Service, and because he spoke French, courtesy of the teachings of his MEHS French Teacher, he got this job and the next at Air France in 1963, in New Delhi, India, and these took him to the far flung regions firstly in Burma, including Pegu, Mandalay, Loikaw, getting to meet and even share a meal with the Padaung Tribe (the Ladies with the elongated necks, with rings around this, for support.
In 1963 after he moved to India and joined Air France, then Lufthansa and secondly, these took him to the far corners of the World, all the major and not so major cities he wanted to visit. He married and had two lovely and loving children, Michelle & Craig, but till he left India to migrate to Australia in 1977, he had not fulfilled his dream of getting to his ‘Shangri-La’.
Undaunted he made several trips, to Pakistan, albeit for ‘other reasons’ ……………..but still not to his Shangri-La. On these trips he constantly sought ‘someone’ who would be interested and willing to accompany him to these mountains.
At long last, he found this very special person, in his long-time and closest friend, one, Mohamed Amin I. Gaziani.
Amin and Cecil had been in school together from Std.7.A, and by coincidence, the class when they first met and became friends had ‘Homeroom Teacher’, the Geography Teacher, mentioned earlier.
Amin and Cecil planned the trip, with most of the organizing having to be done by Amin, who lived in Islamabad at the time. Islamabad being one the closest major cities to get to Shangri-La.
Then in 2001, the next century following the century when the dream was dreamt, it finally happened.
In August 2001, Cecil, his loving wife Perveen (who was really not to keen, but did, for Cecil’s sake), Amin (whose wife Farida could not accompany the group, due to their daughter just having presented them with a grandchild, but was pleased to let Amin accompany Cecil, as he had done for many years albeit on other outings and visits to Karachi, and a group of Amin’s other friends, began their odyssey.
From Islamabad, along the famous Kararoram Highway, which replaced the Old Silk Route, to Besham, then further to Chillas, Gilgit, the capital of Pakistan’s Far Northern Areas or F.N.A, to Hunza or Karimabad, the town believed to have inspired the novel Lost Horizon.
Lunch at Besham overlooking the mighty Indus River, one night in Chillas, two in Gilgit and two wonderful nights were spent in the Hunza Valley.
Standing at the Junction Point of the three Highest Mountain Ranges, The Hindu Kush/The Karakoram & The Himalaya, at the confluence of the mighty Indus River and the slightly smaller, but awesome swiftly flowing Gilgit Rivers, in the valley below, demonstrated the awesome power of Almighty God Who created all this, and humankind’s – diminutive part we play in Our World.
One of the two nights’ stay in Karimabad or Hunza, coincided with the Birthday of the Mir, or Leader of Hunza. Amin, Cecil & the group were fortunate to receive an invitation to his Birthday Dinner, and watch Fireworks (sic.) Display, at his Official Residence. This through our Group Leader’s personal contacts.
The Fireworks Display is not what we know in the Pyrotechnics of today, and although our current fireworks teams do a magnificent job, spare a thought for the people of the Hunza.
The fireworks there are actually old automobile and Truck tyres that are hauled up the steep mountain-sides, manually, many days & weeks in advance. These are arranged in varying shapes and designs, such as Cars. Ships, ancient and modern, aircraft, Castles, even Disney Characters, and a Coca Cola Bottle.
When darkness fell they were set alight (environmentalists will shudder and die a thousand deaths). Burning tyres are rolled down the hillside, to great the appreciation by onlookers. Definitely not the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Hong Kong Harbour, or New York’s Times Square, on New Year’s Eve, but spectacular, nonetheless.
From Karimabad, our group proceeded further along the Silk Route, to Sost, the last Border Town before one crosses the famed Kunegar Pass and the Border between Pakistan & China at 16,500 feet above mean sea level, where the air is so thin, even matches will not light.
Cecil exchanged Caps with a Border Guard, as a gesture and token of our Group’s respect and appreciation.
The Karakoram Highway which replaced the Old Silk Road was built at the cost of many brave men who made the ultimate sacrifice and paid with their lives.
It is tragic, but a credit to the detail project management of the planners of the Karakoram Highway. Empty Graves were prepared in advance, and those that were not filled, on completion of construction, with a brave Road Construction worker, are still there, for all to see, in a Cemetery in Gilgit. A credit, as these ensured proper and respectable grave sites so that in the event of a life being lost, the hero, was not subject to a hastily dug grave on a hillside, and this also ensured the hero received a ‘fitting burial’.
Returning from Sost, the group stopped at Gulmit and were amazed to see a school Cricket team – why you may ask? Cricket is played with a Passion in Pakistan?
Well this Team was wearing the Green & Gold Colours of Australia, with ‘AUSTRALIA’, boldly emblazoned on the chest and back of the shirts. Unbelievable! In this remote part of the world. Of course we stopped for photographs and a chat. How could we not?
Even more unbelievable when Cecil asked them for a name and address to send the photos to, the Captain responded, saying, ‘Sahib, please send these to us via The Internet’ !!!!!! …..and gave his internet address. Later on his return to Australia, Cecil sent them all, caps from Australia…………………and the photographs via The Internet. He is happy to say that he is still in touch, to date, by e-mail……………….of course!
However, one must give credit to the Administration of the Hunza Region.
Education is a prime objective of the Mir of Hunza with 92% of the population, being educated and they are working hard to move into the modern age.
The Crime Rate in the Hunza is an amazing Zero percent, and Yes, there are NO Police there. Food is plentiful and the longevity of the people is astounding, with health rates being excellent, no doubt the lifestyle and conditions are contributing to this.
They work hard, BUT never rush. Cecil saw someone who looked like a 70 year old man with about a 50 pound load on his back, walking up a hill, walking slowly, but getting to the top, nevertheless.
Truly a Shangri-La.
Returning to the city of Islamabad, we were advised that a Flash Flood had washed away the one bridge that gave access to the plains. This was at the village of Shatial.
We had no choice; we had to halt and could go no further, until alternate arrangements could be arranged. We had to hire porters, as they did in days of Frontier Travel of centuries ago.
We were advised that three men had been washed away in the disaster, one corpse had been located, work was underway, digging out another man, who was found to be still alive, and there was a full scale rejoicing, but sadly, one was never located. We had to, ourselves, clamber down the steep sides of the riverbank and up the other side.
In the village of Shatial, we secured two rooms, in a tiny road-side truck stop venue, the only road-house in Shatial, there are No Hotels or even Boarding Houses. We nicknamed this the ‘Shatial Sheraton’, and spent the remainder of the day there – the Ladies in one room, the gents in the other, as per the custom that prevails in those regions.
We had a Grandstand View of the Pakistan Air Force and Army Helicopters flying up, along and through the River Valley, flying in Men & Equipment to mend the Bridge, and we learnt that this may have taken up to three days.
Fortunately for us, when we contacted the organisation from which we had hired our vehicle, we learnt there was another group heading up to the Kunjerab Pass who had hired a vehicle from the same Company as we had, but that vehicle would take a few hours to get to Shatial. We made arrangements to use theirs, when it arrived, and they would take ours that was stranded there, when they got to the other side of the now demolished bridge.
We had a few hours wait, as you will understand.
We asked the owner of this only road-house in Shatial, if he could cook a meal for us. He obliged, but advised he did not have sufficient plates as the number of people who used the road-house never exceeded four (two rooms, after all) at any given time.
What to do? Amin, resourceful as ever, went to the local Marketplace and bought a second hand Melamine Dinner set (Melamine ware is manufactured in Pakistan and they do a good job).
We had a great meal, eating with our fingers (right hand only, as custom demands), and then advised the Owner, that he could keep the Dinner Set, with the Compliments of our Group.
Getting back through Besham was a major concern, as we would be travelling at night….Besham is notorious for Dacoits or Armed Robbers. So what did we do? We waited a wee bit longer for another vehicle which was leaving and the two vehicles traveled in a Convoy, with only their Parking lights on steeply curving Mountain Roads, – hazardous, but, the Drivers seemed to feel that this was the safer of the two options – so who were we to argue with experts.
The Fact that we got back safely to Islamabad, is a tribute to their skills….and boy, were we relieved when the lights of the first major town, after Besham, came into view.
Cecil and Amin have been back to their beloved Mountains, since then, and hope to keep going back as often as they can. On these they have had the privilege of seeing some of the magnificent Twenty Thousanders, Peaks over 20,000 Feet. To name a few, K2, Nanga Parbat, Masherbrum (Cecil’s favourite mountain peak), and many of the lower ones, perhaps not as well known namely Rakaposhi, the Twin Ulter Peaks & Lady’s Finger, Gold,Peak, Diran Peak.
Cecil’s love of the mountains also took him the Eastern Himalayas to see Kanchenganga and Everest (in Nepal) – he saw Everest, but only whilst airborne. As these were in India, Amin could not accompany reasons, sadly, because of the political situation that exists between those two countries.
Again, another trip with Amin, to Skardu, Lower and Upper Kachura Lakes, Sadpara Lake, Shigar, the Deosai Plains at 14,500 feet, and the Sanctuary for the Himalayan Brown Bear, Khapalu and very close to the L.O.C. or ‘Line of Control between Pakistan & India. We even shred hot cup of Tea with the Pakistani Brigadier and his platoon of 12 Soldiers, who politely accosted us enquiring to what we were doing there.
We have seen and thanks to our favourite Geography Teacher been able to identify the physical features, Ox-Bow Lakes, Rift Valleys, ad have gazed on the magnificent Passu Glacier – just awesome!.
We also enjoyed a cup of hot Goat’s Milk with the owner of a small farmhouse overlooking picturesque Upper Kachura Lake.
Cecil now has another dream – to go and live up there, and, inspired by the 5year old daughter of the owner of the Farmhouse, but who had no school to attend, to build a small school for infants, perhaps be the Administrator, or even teach, as any idiot, even himself, can teach basic A/B/C and 1/2/3/ and Amin is assisting him in this.
Can he realise this dream too? …………………….….Only Time will tell.
Every Good story has a sequel. Can the Sequel of this story be written?…………………………Cecil hopes so