Saturday, May 31, 2008

leh, ladakh

Well I'm feeling much much better, and have been wandering around Leh (in Ladakh, in the Jammu & Kashmir province of India) for the past couple days. At 12000 feet, Leh is super dusty and you get sunburnt in no time at all, but it's absolutely beautiful. Reminds me a bit of Luang Prabang, in that each little alleyway is a work of art.

Ladakhi culture is very similar to Tibetan culture, and after China invaded Tibet in 1949, many Tibetans took refuge in Ladakh, so the cultures are now pretty mixed together. Just about every house and building has prayer flags over it, and the main street is just covered.

Overlooking the city is a old fort slash palace, so I went to check it out. The entry fee is 5 rupees for Indians, 100 for foreigners. It's obnoxious, but standard all across India; tourists pay more, even at official sites. Not very welcoming.

Anyway, the palace is totally derelict, it's great. The hallways are so tiny, little ladders and doors and dusty passages, it's a hide-and-seek paradise. It's like getting to play around in the Gerudo Fortress! (I know, not my proudest comparison, but, well, it looks just like it! I'm sorry, but I like Zelda and I have a pocket full of rupees, my brain's primed.) Seriously though, if you know what I'm talking about -- and it's probably best if you don't -- look at this and tell me what you think of.

The only room that was in some state of grandeur was the central temple, which a lama helpfully unlocked for me and showed me around.

Check out these masks!

All the artifacts in that room are from the 16th century.

For a full hour, I was the palace's only visitor, and every now and then you'd explore your way to a rooftop, where the view...

Wowza! The historic town of Leh, which you can see, looks much different than the newer structures. And it looks so pretty! I tried to explore the old town, but constantly got lost in the alleyways. Even so, it was kind of fun. Look at this garage I found.

Have you ever seen such an attractive garage in your life?!

And how'd you like this to be the door to your house?

What an unbelievable door!

The Tibetan Heritage Fund's Leh Old Town Initiative, which raises money to repair and restore Leh's historic district, runs guided tours of the old town. Done and done. So I head to the office at 3pm, when the tour should start. The office, like so many buildings in old town, is cramped and tiny, with steep stone staircases and old wooden ladders. (Unfortunately, it's so cramped I couldn't back up far enough to take decent photos of anything.) In a dusty little closet are 5 stones with religious carvings. What are those? Nobody's really sure, but they're probably from the such-and-such period, which puts them at around 1000 years old. Tea is served. The guy in charge of this tiny office is a local Ladakhi who speaks impeccable English, while the two other office people are a Swiss archeologist and a German volunteer. The three of them are leading the two of us foreigners on a tour. Three guides for two people! The other tourist is also a Cal alum. The scene in the office, sipping tea and talking history in a cozy, dusty, 400-year-old building, might be improved if they changed the boombox to something, anything, besides 50 Cent.

Here, a photo tour of old town Leh. The houses here date from the 17th century, and most have been abandoned. Due to extensive restoration, folks are starting to move back in.

Walking through some of the alleyways.

The doors are often sunk well below the road, a sure sign of homes built for roads long gone. Road repair raises the street level, and the houses just have to cope.

Now, I noticed also in the palace, the doors in historic Leh are inexplicably small. I'm talking 4 to 5 feet.

Why? Because rumor is demons can't bend - they just walk straight - so if you have to duck to get into the house... we'll outsmart those demons yet!

A real pleasure, a real, real pleasure of this walking tour was getting to pop into a restored, inhabited historic house. It was unbelievable. The stairs up to the main floor?

Once there, the ceiling is covered in a layer of soot from the huge wood-burning oven, and the floors are the most beautifully tiled old wood.

And from the balcony, the view!

Now this home was totally restored, but most are in complete disrepair. On the way back down to the office, we saw another building being restored. The laborers are both men and women: the women carry huge stones to the site, and the men put them into place. Lookit how the women carry these stones.

Doesn't that look so, so hard? What a job. What a life!

Back to the guesthouse. Goodbye, historic Leh. See you again tomorrow.

The guesthouse I'm staying at is actually on the fringe of old town, and is one of two guesthouses grandfathered in; new construction is not allowed in the historic district. New construction usually involves a corrugated tin roof, while the older buildings have roofs made of mud and clay that you can walk on. So not only do I get to be in old town, but getting to lie on the roof at night, up in the desert at 12000 feet, hundreds of miles from anything resembling a modern city...

I wish I could show you the stars. Just a million, bazillion stars. The milky way is milky. And the night sky is so black. It's really something else.

Besides walking around old town, I watch the local cricket matches. If you like baseball, cricket's a really approachable sport. And instead of people walking around hawking beer and dogs, it's chai and samosas. A veggie samosa is 5 rupees. I handed the guy a 20. For change, he gave me a 10 and another samosa.

The spice and fruit and bread vendors use these great old scales to weigh out your food. I'm getting all sorts of food I don't need. I got a half kilo of cookies. Do you know how many cookies that is? It's 23 cookies. A half kilo of cherries set me back 50 rupees, but what a shop!

You know who would really, really love this place? Dad.

Hi Dad!

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:

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

three cups of chai

Oh boy, where did I leave off? Right, just got to Vashisht and was in love with the place. Okay, now, a little about the people. Let me introduce...


Neville's the avuncular, 50-year-old guest house helper guy (not the owner, but he takes care of the guests) who has a comical way of answering questions really abruptly, loud and staccato, like a little kid who's fiercely proud to know the answer:
"Sorry, I'm Jake, and y..."
What a great, British name. He's genetically Indian, but grew up speaking (pidgin) English at home. Calls himself Anglo-Indian. Neville's lived in Vashisht for 5 years now. More on him later. Next character:


Mooldas is either smoking or smiling, always. He's from Pushkar, in Rajastan, and moves up to Vashisht for the 4-month tourist season (mostly domestic tourists) to run a clothes shop. Vashisht is at about 8700 feet, and it gets chilly at night. I opted to get the coat Mooldas is holding up in the photo, custom-tailored for my measurements and everything. Ran about $13. Mooldas, surprise surprise, invites me in for chai. He's terribly friendly. And finally,

Little calf.

Lemme tell you about this calf. She liked to lick my pants.

Well, I think Neville and Mooldas are the only two you really need to know, though there are several other characters here. I think being a Westerner (instead of a domestic tourist), and being a single traveller, folks can tell I'm kinda walking around with my tentacles out, looking for people to chat with, eat with. And while it's a bit awkward, like walking into a bar alone on a Friday night, a little self-conscious, people usually pick up on it and respond warmly. So a lot of restaurant owners and sadhus* and bakers... we don't really know each other, but there's recognition and a smile. It's a very small town, everything's on the one road. So that's nice.

* - Okay, just one. But he's really nice, and while I didn't take a photo, his legs are lame, so he folds them up, pretzel-yoga style, and walks on his hands. If I had to guess, maybe polio? Dad, Anjeni, is that reasonable?

Anyway, at some point I'm eating, and Neville waves at me from the road. When in India... So I invite him in for chai. He's very chatty, talking in fits and bursts and waving his arms like a loony on a soapbox, but it's fun. He's about the first Indian I've met who isn't religious. Everything is said with such melodrama that it's hard to not laugh, but his philosophy really rings dear to my secular humanist heart: "We should be kind NOT BECAUSE OF RELIGION, but because WE'RE ALL WE HAVE! So live and let live, actually." He says "actually" a lot. The Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, were not written by "some fictitious... CLOUD MAN." Arms flailing! No, no, they came from some "clever Roman bullshitter." Okay, a little acerbic for me, but definitely entertaining.

The next morning, I'm hoping to go on a 5-6 hour day hike. I ask Neville, who's the appropriate guy to ask, and he says he'll take me! Gesturing wildly! Wonderful!

Actually, not that wonderful. You know how some things can be great for an hour, but for 6 hours it's way too much? Yeah. Neville's a bit too ranty for any real amount of time. And unfortunately, the hike was walking through a village, around a dyke, and up a road for 7 miles! Walking 7 miles on a road is not hiking, it's hitchhiking. Unsuccessful hitchhiking, at that. Here's me following Neville, catching him at a rare time when his arms are by his side, as he waxes pessimistic on the state of human affairs:

Neville doesn't like rock climbing. "So you did not fall off a rock, actually. WHAT SATISFACTION?!" Arms flailing emphatically. At one point I have to defend Salman Rushdie's intentions as an author: I don't think he's writing "bullshit he doesn't believe" just to make rupees and support his oh-so-opulent lifestyle. This negative outlook really wears on me. Neville, c'mon, there are so many wonderful things in life! Doesn't this view just make you smile?

When we finally get to the hike's destination, it's super anti-climactic. It's this bizarre domestic-tourist carnival playground kinda thing, where you can go mini-paragliding, or zorbing, which would be fun if it were more than a 50 yard bunny hill. But lookit those mountains in the background!

After the looooong walk back (Neville, ever-talking and waving his arms like a drunk conductor, is fifty years old and thinks of this as just a stroll!) I pass by Mooldas' shop, and...

Mooldas and I chat over chai while the tailor is sewing my coat on a foot-powered Singer. (Mooldas does the business end, and designs all the clothes, but his friend actually makes them.) An Indian tourist pops in and asks the price of a shirt, and Mooldas gives her a higher price than the inquiring British woman a few minutes before. He always quotes Westerners at a lower price. Why? "Because you came all the way here!" I love this man! More chai.

Mooldas is a Brahmin, so he's vegetarian. Me too? And I like Indian food? He insists I join "them" for dinner. I don't know who "them" is, but okay!

"Them" is Mooldas, the tailor, and their very quiet friend. Three grown men, in their mid-40's, with wives back in Rajastan, all live together in a one bed, one room rented hole in the village. They come here to make money during the tourist season, and, like the domestic tourists, to escape the heat of India's central plains. Work starts around 9am, and if today was any indication, goes 'til about 9pm.

The tailor leaves to fill a bucket with water. The "kitchen" is the corner opposite the bed, an outline delineated by the wet floor covered with old peas and flour smears, with a slab of rock, a pile of dishes, and a portable iron stove that Mooldas is pumping to pressurize the gas. One bucket is for "clean" water, and the other bucket is for used water. First thing's first: chai all around.

I know I should have photos of this, but I didn't want to bring my camera to dinner. Maybe it would've been fine -- in retrospect, I'm sure it would've been fine -- but at the time, I felt awkward.

The tailor is cleaning the dishes, while the quiet one cuts broccoli (17 cents a pound at the market), tomatoes, ginger, garlic, and all sorts of things with his pocket knife. He piles them up on some newspaper he laid down. Mooldas is tending to the stove, where rice is cooking. I ask if I can help. "You're my guest! Please, sit down." The three of them are all squatting while they work, old peas squeezing up between their toes, the cuffs of their pants sloppy wet. I sit on the bed. The bedding is 4 or 5 thin mats thrown together. You can feel the supporting wooden boards distinctly. The three of them, squatting and laboring on their food after a 12-hour workday, are chatting away in Hindi and constantly laughing.

Seeing this lifestyle is so... sooooo... I'm looking for a better word than "interesting," but I don't know, it's just damn interesting. Being there is awkward, too. Mooldas is the only one that speaks English, and while I'd love to be a fly on the wall while they work and cook and talk and laugh, I'm very... uh, corporeally present. I hear Mooldas speaking Hindi to the other two: "blah blah blah vegetarian [glance at me] blah blah scientist..." I'm very present.

There's only one tiny stove, so once the rice is done, it's time for the broccoli masala. 20 more minutes. After that, the chapatis. Cooking chapatis is a two-person job, apparently, because the tailor and Mooldas tag-team the exact same way the white-haired Brahmin and Mukul did. The quiet one lies on the bed near me and reads their only book: The Ramayana. The walls are totally bare. The whole place is lit by one neon tube-light, and there's no heat. We're all wearing jackets.

By the time the chapatis are done, it's probably 11pm, and I'm starving. The rice is cold, as is the broccoli masala, and only the most recent chapatis have a semblance of warmth. We all sit on the ground, cross-legged, and chow. They chat some in Hindi. The food is cold. I tell them it's fantastic.

I can't believe the three of them live like this. It's so, well, interesting.

At 12:30 or so, I need to head back to get some sleep, and they three walk me home. Very well-intentioned, certainly, but a bit intimidating. Since I don't speak Hindi and neither the tailor nor the quiet one speak English, there's no lingua franca, so nobody talks. It's night, and the few villagers awake stare at me, surrounded by three silent Indians, like I'm being removed by the mafia, like I'm Hannibal Lector. (I don't think they'd get it, if I yelled at them, "Have the lambs stopped screaming?!" But it crossed my mind.)

Anyway, I made it home, dead tired and full of broccoi and rice and the strangest thoughts.

Now I can't walk down the street without Neville, or Mooldas, or someone inviting me to stop for chai. It's so welcoming, but can be a bit much, even. Sometimes I want to be alone, you know? Solitude here is nice. So I'll sneak up onto a rooftop eatery, have a sweet lassi, and just look at the view.

These pictures are so unsatisfying when I put them up on a computer. They just don't hold a candle to being here. Seeing every individual leaf, watching the clouds roll down the mountainsides, around the trees like rocks in a brook. (Really, they do! Some treetops stand out above the fog and you can see eddies form!) Hearing water trickling past in the valley, and the chirp-birds and the maaaa-sheep and the moo-cows. It's rugged and bucolic and foreign and so so peaceful. I like to just sit up there, on the roof, above it all, and think I can't believe I'm in India!

This place is growing on me like a beard.

Tonight, I'm taking the crazy scary highway up to Leh. So I'm gonna sign off now, and go visit Mooldas one last time. I bet, as usual, he and the tailor will be smoking, chatting, and sipping chai.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


This will be mostly a photo update, because all I do here is walk around staring slack-jawed like a little kid. I'm in Vashisht, a hill-station a few k's from Manali, at the base of the Himalayas. It's gorgeous, it's beautiful, it's awesome, it's magical.

Vashisht, and the neighboring Manali, are popular destinations for domestic tourists who are looking to escape the heat of India's central plains. So everything here is nicely set up for tourists, but I'm one of relatively few white people. So that's perfect. You know what else is perfect? The scenery here.

A 21-hour bus ride (!) took me from Delhi straight into an 8-year-old girl's imagination. Waterfalls and sheep, horses and cows and bunnies and the most colorful clothes. Every group walking down the street is a bouquet of fabric. Oh, down with words! Let the pictures speak for themselves:

The bus ride here was picturesque, if cramped and uncomfortable and long and worryingly steep:

You'd think 300 miles wouldn't take 21 hours, but you have to drive pretty slowly on these scary roads (I'm quite happy the driver took 21 hours!), and sometimes an impasse would take an hour and a half to negotiate:

How cute is that little old man?

Arrive in Manali, take a quick cab to the quieter village of Vashisht. I had to push-start the cab, and then we ran out of petrol, so he bought another liter and we push-started it again. Vashisht is right out of a fairy tale.

That's the view from my room! My 150 rupee a night room ($3.75). The room has a pretty drawing on the wall, and the world's thinnest pillows:

The name of the guesthouse is Ganga Guesthouse. Marijuana grows here like, well, a weed. It's everywhere. Took me 30 seconds to find this shot. You just walk outside and there it is.

Lookit this roof I found in the village! What a great roof!

It's just one big fairy tale here.

"Alright," said the Indian raft that slammed into the Eurasian plate and smashed up the Himalayan orogeny, "let's get a little river in the valley, and the first mountains you see? Make 'em green, covered with coniferous forest. But behind 'em, let's have the rocky Himalayas loom triumphant, barren, and always covered in rolling fog."
"Barren mountains covered in rolling fog, 'looming triumphant'? Sounds a little, you know... B-grade cheesy? What, you want waterfalls everywhere too?"
"Yeah! Yeah, great idea! Waterfalls everywhere! Do it."

That's one of like, 10 waterfalls. Here, this river just tumbles down from the fog:

Oh! Oh! Have you ever seen an Angora bunny?!

HAHAHAHAH!! HAHAHAH! I can't look at one without laughing! FLUFFY BALL! FLUFFY BALL! HAHAHAHA! It's like a mythical sheep-bunny! Fluffy sheep-bunny!

Everything here is fuzzy 'cause it gets a little nippy here at night. And I packed only for hot weather, so I gotta get a coat. There are worse places to need to buy a coat, though. The tailor at this little hole-in-the-wall, Mooldas, is particularly nice, so I got a hoody from him. Custom-made, took my measurements. I'd like this material, that color, like this, but I want the pocket a little different. It's fun. And for $9? You can't beat that. Not with a stick.

Mooldas saw me walking past later, and, of course, invited me in for chai.

I had lunch at this cafe in the middle of nowhere. It was delicious!

This Vashisht place is pretty nice. Maybe I'll go hiking tomorrow. Here, I'll sign off with one last photo of the valley. It's just so gorgeous here. So gorgeous.