A Hong-Konger on the Chemin de Saint Guilhem

I am a, sometimes awkward hiker, on a peaceful path, that of Saint-Guilhem

By Peter Sherwood, Australian writer living in Hong Kong

«As far as I’m concerned, I do not travel to get somewhere. I travel to travel. The important thing is to move.»

Robert Louis Stevenson, «Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes», 1879

It was not quite the same trip: Stevenson did not leave Hong Kong like me. First we find ourselves compressed in an aluminum box and projected into space from a vast Chinese trading center to transit to another, in an even more enormous center(65 million travellers passed through Dubai airport last year, breathtaking figure that would show that most people never have enough – of anything. A consuming bulimia generated by the single thought of the whole world: I’m not enough to myself)

Leaving behind a series of horrors at very high altitude, my friend Carina and I are going to spend 12 very pleasant days, on the peaceful Chemin de Saint-Guilhem (we only passed one hiker on the path!).

These few words of Stevenson, very often misinterpreted, have launched me on a tour of the world to stupidly seek any new peak or valley behind a more promising horizon. Robert Louis Stevenson was not a pilgrim who went anywhere at random. The great Scotsman always had a reason for what he was undertaking: to draw a narrative from it. Luckily he finally led me to the delightful road in the Cevennes which now bears his name. But not before I had turned all around blindly for years. I chose the road to Saint-Guilhem without asking myself questions, especially since I will take, on the first days, the chemin de Saint- Jaques-de-Compostelle, a pilgrimage I had made from Le Puy -en-Velay nearby, a few years ago.

To get to the start, I must start at the end, where a white gravel path winds through a forest full of scents to arrive at Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert at the very bottom. On a gentle afternoon in spring, this luminous path seemed to be a hundred miles from the humid cold of the Aubrac almost a fortnight earlier, and rather reminded me of the stony and warm paths of the Greek islands in the summer, a leap in time and to places, that makes this trip so surprising, so memorable. Each day brings its share of changing lights, dramatic fluctuations in climate and terrain, especially in the spring, when the landscape offers a confusing variety of bright yellows, greens, mauves, lavender blue and pastels in all their nuances.

The apprehension at the beginning of the trip to Aumont-Aubrac was more due to an apprehension around food than to failure in the undertaking. Because here begins a challenge worthy of the Tour de France. Born of generations and generations of mountain dwellers and almost impossible to avoid there is aligot : a thick mixture of crushed potatoes and melted cheese with the consistency of quicksand. I imagine that through the ages, more than one of the local guys, having a drink or two ended up in an urn of the mixture and having to be released with a hammer and chisel. In medieval times, it may have been used to build bridges, and when this indestructible matter arrives in the human belly, it may require at least one visit to the prune vendor of the village. Worse, I understand it contains enough cholesterol to explode your arteries. This quaint conspiracy follows you through the countryside, from hotel to gite, with each cook offering you his own version with all the seriousness of a drug dealer from Detroit.

As if to compensate, it is said that the best beef from France is from the Aubrac. Yes, well, maybe. Of course we see the most beautiful cows. As you go by, they roll their hips with doe eyes and use their long lashes like a starlet in Hollywood in the 1930s and you want to cuddle them more than eat them. No wonder the bulls here seem to be so happy with themselves.

We have always been able to follow the Way without difficulty. A long time ago, a guide from the Himalayas explained to me that when we did not know where we were, it was enough to forget where we wanted to be and accept where we were. This theory seems to work, allowing me to help in reading maps, any person foolish enough to listen to me. Ask Gilles, a Quebecquois with whom we walked on the first day and to whom we said good-bye at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. He was on his way to Santiago and thought of spending that night further on than Nasbinals where we were headed, naturally, to the bistro for a beer. I turned around and waved goodbye to him, thinking that we would not see him again.

The next day, at the Nasbinals bakery, we saw the Canadian, looking very tired. “Hi, Gilles, it’s good to see you. But I imagined you’d be a lot farther.“ He answered me in his broken English “But you pointed me in the wrong direction and I had to sleep far from the path!”

“But Gilles, I didn’t give you any directions, I was just saying goodbye to you.”

I was quickly punished by the Divine Spirit of Schadenfreude, who inflicted a problem on my left knee almost immediately; At every step I felt I was receiving the kick of an angry goat; Unbearable waves of pain rose up all along my leg and seemed to want to reach out and then tear off my head. What I needed at the Saint-Chély-d’Aubrac stop was a good soak in a hot jacuzzi, a deep tissue massage by a beautiful blonde, a glass of the best champagne and 12 hours of sleep. Instead, I found myself in a very nice room with a corpulent gentleman from the north of France, whose sporadic snoring was preparing for the arrival of a real eruption. In the horrendous history of hikers’ dormitories, no human being ever produced such a paroxysm of gaseous bodily explosions while being so deeply asleep; A profusion of disgusting detonations seemed to emerge from each orifice; Next to it, a poultry yard would have resembled a Trappist monastery. At breakfast, the next morning I watched him load up on enough ammunition to lift the roof of the cathedral of Chartres, apologising without embarrassment and suggesting I invest in earplugs.

Back in Hong Kong, someone asked me what it was like, this chemin de St. Guilhem. Well, it was wonderful. Added to that the fact that I could do it again next week and that it would be completely different: someone else to mislead, someone who would snore in another registry, pains in the other knee and, If luck smiles on me, the end of the nightmare that still haunts me and where thousands of frantic cooks are chasing me with jars of aligot across the high plateaux of Aubrac.


Peter Sherwood wrote 15 books (most in a comic vein), including one on Everest. For ten years he wrote a satirical column for the South China Morning Post, the best-selling English-language newspaper in Asia.