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Himalayan Odyssey

March 16, 1986|MELVIN M. BELLI | Attorney Belli is based in San Francisco.

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.

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