Wednesday, May 28, 2008

the high road

Before I start, the monk next to me is on Facebook.

Okay, I left off in Vashisht. Let's go to Leh. For reasons inexplicable, the minivan to Leh leaves the Manali area at 1:30am. So I have to wait with my stuff on the road in Vashisht, alone, hoping the van comes to pick me up. I get there around 1am, and park my butt on the road outside the travel agency.

Now, immediately I don't like this. I'm scared of dogs, and Vashisht at night is crawling with strays. Barking, growling strays that make me tense and uncomfortable. I don't like it one bit and start counting the minutes to 1:30am.

1:30 passes. 1:45 passes. By 2:15 I'm annoyed and don't think the van's coming. By 2:45 I'm sure of it.

I don't have a place to stay, no room for the night. And I'm so pissed and these goddamn dogs are making me so nervous I can't sleep. So I'm gonna sit here until the sun comes up and the dogs go away and when the travel agent guy comes back I'm gonna slam my ticket down on counter and yell at him and a crowd's going to form and I'll tell the agent Ganesh hates him and I won't be allowed in Vashisht anymore. I swear to you, that was going to happen, but at 3:15, a van came and picked me up.

Of the 11 of us in the minivan, 4 are tourists and 7 live in or near Leh. I'm the only one who hasn't been to Leh before. They tell me the drive there is amazing, how excited I should be. They were not lying. My camera couldn't really get photos of the early morning mountain passes, with the sky just glittering with stars, but this single photo came out a little:

Now, I'm going to put up what are, I think, gorgeous photos of an unbelievable ride. But here's the rub: altitude sickness. Bad altitude sickness. Vashisht is already at 8700 feet, which is pretty high, but this highway is out of control. The first mountain pass takes us up to 13,000 feet, then back down to about 9000. The next pass goes up to 16,000 feet. It's gorgeous.

The third pass is 16,600 feet, which looks a lot like the previous pass, but hey, I could keep looking.

Those are the Himalayas.

One really neat thing you get to see when going up and down so much, besides the obvious vistas, is river formation. I've always been kinda curious how rivers have so much water. Okay, I know that sounded kinda dumb, but seriously. They can flow pretty fast, and even small rivers have tremendous volumes; where's all that water come from? I mean, I "know" the answer from my geology classes, but it never viscerally took. But when you're up at the top of these passes, you see the snowcaps melting a bit under the sun, just a little wetness on the rock.

Then, descend some, and you'll find the little sprinkles gathering together, like peasants gathering to storm a castle, and they'll team up and cross the road.

Down more, these trickles coalesce into veritable streams.

And finally, these streams roll and fall down into the river in the valley, who takes them all in and flows on.

So that's where the water comes from! 'Twas neat to see.

Oh, and sometimes, down at 9000 or 10,000 feet, we'd hit a road block.

I really like that second photo.

The roads are kinda dangerous. They're rocky and bumpy and sometimes the sides are very steep. It'd be a looooong fall. (How bumpy and steep and tortuous? The 300 mile trip took 20 hours.) So anyway, the highway is dotted with signs, usually in terrible couplets, like: "Keep your eyes on the road or be taken to a heavenly abode." But one sign was just terrific, so curt and anachronistic. "Don't gossip. Let him drive." What a great sign!

Heading up to the final pass, we're getting near Leh. Now Leh is totally safe, but the whole Jammu/Kashmir region is under kinda heavy military surveillance, so we're constantly stopping by checkpoints to show our passports and whatnot. Sometimes the military caravans, in the dusty high-altitude desert, looked like Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Why they use forest camouflage thousands of feet above the treeline, I don't know.

Now, the last pass is an incredible 17,500 feet. Do you know how high 17,500 feet is?! (Technically, Taglang La is 17,470 feet, putting it in the top five highest "motorable passes" in the world. The other four are all nearby.) We get up to the top of the pass, and there's a huge line of trucks, not moving. The driver says sometimes a landslide or an avalanche will block the pass, and we'll have to wait for them to clear it.

An hour and a half. An hour and a half at 17,500 feet. Now, I was already feeling plenty ill. I didn't really harp on it in this post, but I'm definitely sick this whole time. Going from 9000 to 16,000 and down and up again, and the whole time the windows are open so the windshield doesn't fog up. So it's freezing and then warm, then freezing, and warm, and up and down, up down, and well, I'm way sick. But being stuck up at 17,500 feet?

My body just went bananas. Fever, wild shivering, intense headache, the worst sore throat, heavy heavy breathing (the air pressure at 17,500 feet is half that of sea level). I was just so sick, and so miserable. So, so miserable. But the view up there, wow.

Once the block cleared up, this photo was pretty neat, too.

So there's about 2 hours left in the ride to Leh, and I'm super super sick.

Heidi, the nice Dutch 40-something, noticed that I was shivering like crazy and my nose was bleeding, and she and Casper basically took care of me at Leh. They, being tourists who had been to Leh several times before, were familiar with altitude sickness and were kind enough to help me. But oh no! Heidi starts talking non-Western treatment, which I'm very not into, but I'm too sick and despondent to argue. But Casper, who reminds me a lot of Uncle Harold (and not just 'cause he's South African), dismisses Heidi's nonsense and hands me some pills. Some chalky little made in a lab by a chemist with safety goggles pills. Thank you Casper. Heidi, you're a sweetheart, you really are, but I'm sick, and I don't need my chi aligned with Saturn.

An aside. I'm not saying Western medicine is perfect: When Big Pharm tries to make money (understandably), there's an ethical twist. And basic science research has too many externalities to jibe well in a capitalist system; that's one of the reasons most countries socialize basic science. And I think plenty of Western countries could more highly prioritize preventative care and healthy lifestyles. But that's neither here nor there. All I'm saying is that my faith in the scientific method is unshakeable, and when I'm really, truly sick, I want something that works.

Anyway, we got into Leh at 11pm, and I was truly sick. Totally despondent, febrile and unable to take care of myself (I couldn't stand -- I'd pass out), so Heidi and Casper took me to the guesthouse they were staying at and got me into a room. I hadn't slept in 40 hours.

Woke up so, so sick. Leh is at 11,500 feet itself, so it's not like going back down to Chicago. I don't want to rant to much, but being sick and alone in India is awful. It's absolutely the worst thing that's happened this trip. You're sick and upset and little things become huge deals. I want a shower that's an actual shower and not a bucket under a faucet with a ladle floating in it. I want a sit-down toilet. I want to be on a couch, under blankets, with Iron & Wine on Cam's fancy speakers and, if I'm awake at all, Zelda on the Super Nintendo, or if I'm asleep, a comfy pillow and clean sheets. But I'm alone in India, and I'm so goddamn helpless, and so alone, and my head is pounding, hurts so much. Such a fever. At home you have people, Mom and Dad and Joshua, Jeanne and Cam and Leah, people who will call and go to the store and get you Ovaltine and vanilla soy milk. Who make sure you have advil and a roll of toilet paper to blow your nose. You know how important that is? Here, I'm just so alone and helpless, and I'm so so sick, and I can't do anything.

Okay, okay, I didn't want to rant, but obviously it happened a little. I'm sorry that wasn't more upbeat, but being sick at home is bad enough, and here... I guess it's honest though. Traveling isn't always good times. I usually don't write about the bad stuff, but it's there. And it helps, when times get rough, it really helps to think of Mom's favorite saying: This too shall pass.

But anyway, I still have a little headache and sore throat, but I'm a million times better than yesterday and the day before. So that's good. And the Cubs are tearing it up, so that's good too. And I'm in Leh, which is pretty neat. It's certainly pretty:


Anonymous said...

hang in there, jake! i wish I could send a pint of ice cream via the internet. (for some reason, I always think of ice cream as the one food that heals all ills.) hope you're recovered from the altitude sickness by now!

wechter just stopped by and I think we're all going out to Thai Bowl, so I must leave. take care!


Yvonne said...

Hey Jake,

I hope you are feeling better. The other day, I went up to Todd and asked, "Where in the world is Jake?" and he said, "Let me check!" That is how I learned of your blog. Your writing captivates, and your adventures and lessons are inspiring and give me wanderlust. I just got back from a week in Marseille (international Rickettsia conference), where I felt pretty satisfied with my abilities to get around, being illiterate, and even made it into the wild for a day of hiking... but you, what you're doing is BEYOND AWESOME. By the way, I love your photographs. They are all very well composed.

I think I would have freaked out in so many instances (i.e. that bus not showing up for over two hours), but you have this admirable quality of keeping your cool (or at least appearing to stay level headed). Take care. Monks facebook?!


Jake Cooper said...

Leah, thanks! I wish I could get ice cream here, but the closest I can find is "fruit raita," which is a sour yoghurt-y thing. It goes down pretty smooth, but ice cream, it ain't.

And Yvonne, thanks so much for the kind words! I'm really floored and flattered that folks like the blog, and I hope hope hope some are motivated a little more to travel.

For the photos, you gotta give credit to the environment, not the photographer! If a real photophile like you were here in Leh, believe me, your shots would be National Geographic quality. See the one of the fruit stand guy in the next entry (that I just put up)? Poorly framed, but oh well. You're just gonna have to come to Leh yourself!

Hope the experiments are running smoothly.

Anonymous said...

oh Jake I'm so sorry about the bad times. It's the first time I worried about you (got misty eyed, heh). Stupid mangy dogs and low air pressure. Two bad those couldn't have been locked in a room together to sort it out themselves.
Well we love you so much. I hope you're feeling much better. And, wow, 17.5k'? Dayum.
Oh yeah, "This too shall pass" is on my fridge too!
your bro

Jeanne said...

jake, your brother was really worried about you last night. he was telling me as i fell asleep and immediately called your parents to have them not worry. we love you so much! hopefully, the worst is behind you and from here on out all you have is great travels and fun stories.