Last fall I set out from San Francisco with my attorney-son, Melvin Jr., his wife, Gretchen, and my partner, David Sabih. Our destination: Lhasa, Tibet. I'd been to Lhasa about five years earlier with Lars Eric Lindblad, the tour impresario. It was an area of the world that had always fascinated me--Lhasa, Tibet, and the Potala (former residence of the Dalai Lama and now a museum). In school I'd read everything I could get my hands on about it--even stealing time from my lawbooks to cram on Tibet--and I'd promised myself that one day I'd go there.
From New York we jetted on the Concorde to London in barely three hours, studying the curvature of the earth as we flew miles above it. As we got off the plane, the stewardess gave me a special bottle of ancient port to drink when I got to Lhasa. (Unfortunately, the bottle broke in my luggage on the climb up the Himalayas, but my clothes smelled wonderfully alcoholic for the rest of the trip. Indeed, they reeked of the stuff.)
In London I caught up with jet lag at the Savoy Strand. (A suite facing the Thames is simply a joy.) The plumbing at the Savoy reminds me of old Sutro Baths, and the beds are the sleepingest in the world. If nothing else, I enjoy the Savoy for the lineup of the spotless Rolls-Royces sweeping up under the porticoes.
We visited our Savile Row tailors, Hawkes & Grieves, and later caught the train from London to the Channel. Passing through the English countryside is far more memorable than overflying the stunning scenes in an airplane. At the Channel we boarded a boat for Holland and an appointment at the World Court in The Hague.
Upon landing we were whisked off in a Rolls-Royce to The Hague, where we had a case to try for a client whose property had been confiscated in Iran by Khomeini's bullies. Whatever the outcome, I can now say, for my biography, that I've argued a case at The Hague. (As for whether we won, we'll have to wait until the decision comes down.)
I had planned to take our entourage to Paris for dinner at Maxim's, where I'd been introduced to the owners years earlier by my good friend, the late Maurice Chevalier. Afterward we were to have motored to Switzerland and on to Rome. But Melvin Jr. argued for taking the Rheingold Express directly to Switzerland, so that's what we all did.
This is a great train, although, as on our Amtrak, the food has deteriorated. Still the wines, the beer and the schnapps were wonderful--as were the views along the Rhine.
We spent the night at Hotel Drei Konige in Basel, boarding the train again the next morning for a journey through the Alps to Milano. There we booked rooms at the Excelsior and dined at Giannino's, which serves about the best Northern Italian food in the world.
The next morning we took the express from Milano to my beloved Rome, arriving with more baggage than Hannibal had crossing the Alps. We stayed at the Excelsior, for which I've had a fondness since the days when I was a guest with Errol Flynn and Orson Welles. I found it impossible to leave Rome without visits to the Vatican and to Papa Joseph's Restaurant. Yes, and just riding through the narrow streets, watching Roman drivers race madly, barely missing one another--as well as pedestrians--by paper-thin margins.
The next leg of our trip--to India--was uneventful. In New Delhi we stayed at the Oberoi Hotel. We were there to see our clients of the Bhopal disaster.
It was I who wanted to take the train across India, so the fault of that decision was solely mine. Our travel agent could have put us on an overnight express with a diner and all the amenities, but he chose to accommodate us on a rolling covered wagon--no food, no bunks. Well, make that two bunks among five occupants in one compartment. Calcutta remains a tragedy with its homeless children sleeping in doorways and on the streets . . . filthy streets crowded with bicycles, and cars spewing fumes. Depression sets in from the moment one gets off the train in Calcutta until one leaves. Why and what was His purpose in creating such a catastrophic city? One has to wonder.
En route to Katmandu the next day we flew toward the Himalayas and saw those snow-doused peaks above the clouds, after being invited to the cockpit. Upon arriving at Katmandu, I realized that Nepal, though somewhat like India, is really another world. Lying in valleys at the foot of the Himalayas, Nepal is almost tropical in some areas, while elsewhere it seems fashioned only for mountain climbers--much of it being above the 18,000-foot level. We checked in at the luxurious Oberoi Grand. The next morning, in heavy fog, we left a sleeping Katmandu for Tibet--or, as events turned out, I should say toward Tibet.
By cab we rode upward into the Himalayas; they were still shrouded with fog and mist, and patches of snow were visible. Soon our road was skirting chasms and cliffs and rivers and cultivated fields colored with autumn and Van Gogh ambers, yellows and browns.
Near the Tibetan border, our baggage was literally dumped from the cab, and we were told by our local travel guide to walk along a washed-out road to the border. There, Sherpas placed our multiple baggage on their heads and started up the mountain.
I looked for a path. There was none. It was slippery and without rails--doubly dangerous. Two Sherpas helped me, one on each arm, and an hour later I was halfway up. I wanted to give up but I kept on walking.
Finally, at the top, we were picked up by a truck. We were now in Tibet. Later, a group of pompous Chinese declared that they hadn't heard of the Belli party and had no message from our San Francisco travel agent. Neither had he sent our hosts the necessary payment for our expenses.
They pounced upon our baggage and went through it thoroughly. Then we were unceremoniously directed to the partly furnished, bleak, cold "hotel." The manager, a Chinese, immediately made it known that he wanted $500 a day from each of us for a two-day visit. "You have American Express" seemed to be his complete repertoire of English. He even insisted on taking us to the local Chinese-run bank.
That night, a dozen travel agents arrived from Lhasa in a state of collapse, relating horror stories one never sees in the "Come to Lhasa" ads. They told us that, the night before, they had slept in tents at an elevation of 18,000 feet. There had been an avalanche, and a road had washed out. They'd had no food.
They advised us not to go ahead to Lhasa, insisting that the Chinese "hospitality" in Tibet was a rip-off. We had no blood-thinning medicine for the altitude nor, indeed, any of the medicines one should possess when crossing the 18,000-foot passes.
The next morning--because we hadn't produced the $500 apiece at the hotel--we were ordered out of Tibet. Still, we couldn't leave without transportation. David Sabih volunteered to hike to the river to round up a conveyance while we sat in Tibet and waited. About five hours later, a runner arrived with a message from David that I'm having framed: "Go with this man. I've rented taxi."
Rented a taxi? To Katmandu? (We'd given up on Lhasa).
That was about 100 miles, but David had managed it--at a modest price of $500. We made it back to Katmandu where we found a message from a colleague of our San Francisco travel agent. He was "very sorry" at our misfortune, explaining that the guides who were to have met us from Lhasa had been "swept off the road by an avalanche".
He offered us another chance, but I wasn't about to climb that mountain again. Instead, we aborted the trip to Lhasa and caught a jet to Hong Kong with a stop in Bangkok.
To me, Hong Kong is a second San Francisco. I went there years ago as a sailor in the merchant marine. I still enjoy riding the Star Ferry across the harbor, and the Mandarin remains one of the world's great hotels. The management sends a Rolls-Royce to pick you up at the airport if you wish, and there's the old Peninsula Hotel on the Kowloon side with Gaddis, one of the best restaurants in the world.
With my friend Oswald Cheung, a barrister and the Queen's counsel, we went to the Hong Kong courts, which seem like replicas of London's Old Bailey, the judges resplendent in scarlet robes. Will this--and the common law--all go when the Chinese take over at the end of the century? That's a question that can't be answered now. Nevertheless, travel remains an obsession with me, and Hong Kong is a memory I will always cherish. And you? Do you have that yearning to go around the world?
Well, you could do it easily in a month, as we did, and see some of the offbeat places that I like so much, too. There was the time that I visited the Kingdom of Swat. Our ambassador had telephoned the wali (king) and told him that the "King of Torts" was arriving. Boy!--I was treated like royalty, which, of course, the ambassador had told him I was. But still I wonder if the wali later hadn't asked his batman to get out the encyclopedia and find out where the hell the kingdom of Tort was and whether I was a Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal ruler.