August 15, 2009

Ladakh is the eastern region of the northernmost state of India, a dry place in the rain shadow of the Himalayas. It is an alpine desert, with high mountains and valleys composed of loose rock, dust, and sand. Ladakh is devoid of trees except for the valley bottoms where rivers and streams run, most notably the Indus River which originates in Tibet, even further north. Ladakh is strewn with snow-capped mountains of high elevation, making it a popular destination for trekkers and mountaineers.

At various points in history, Ladakh was part of the same kingdom as Tibet, as they share the same stretch of the Himalayas. They have a lot of common culture, and Ladakh is home to thousands of Tibetan refugees who escaped, along with the Dalai Lama, when Tibet was taken over by China or to escape Chinese persecution since then.

Ladakh’s population is about 80 percent Buddhist, with the remainder primarily Muslim, which accounts for the mosque which wakes us up every morning at 5 AM, after which we promptly go back to sleep. Most of the people look like Tibetans or Nepalis, more Asian than the Hindus from the South or the Muslims from the West. Many people wear traditional Tibetan clothing and Tibetan food, mostly heavy soups and dumplings which we really enjoy, is commonplace.

Leh is the capital city of Ladakh, and has about 30,000 people. It is situated on the banks of the Indus River at an elevation of 3500 meters (11,500 feet), which is why we both experienced some symptoms, primarily headache, of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) when we arrived by plane. These resolved themselves in a couple of days as we acclimatized. The city is dominated by a 500 year old dilapidated palace set on the hilltop above the town, with a Buddhist shrine and small victory fort on the mountaintop further up.

In summer, Leh is a busy place, with tourists coming for the trekking, mountaineering, river rafting, and Tibetan culture. The residents are busy catering to the tourist trade, and preparing for the long winter ahead by cutting and storing wood for heat and grass for their animals (both of which are stored on their rooftops), and harvesting apricots, apples, barley, and wheat during the short growing season. In winter, which lasts about nine months, all roads to and from Leh are blocked by ice and snow and the only way in or out is by airplane.

On our first full day in Leh, we joined a young couple from Belgium on a day tour in a rented jeep with a driver and guide. We visited two Buddhist ‘gompas’ (monasteries) and two palaces, each about 500 years old. Hemis Gompa and Thiksey Gompa have been in continuous use since they were constructed. Buddhist monasteries typically have a walled main courtyard, several chapels adorned with colourful paintings and statues of Buddha and related deities, and the living quarters of the monks called ‘cells’ (they sound cozy, don’t they?). Heading south from Leh, we also passed through Choglamsar, home to thousands of Tibetan refugees, and a ceremonial residence that the Dalai Lama uses when he is in town, which he was on the day we passed by.

Our guide, a young Buddhist man, did his best to explain some of the basic concepts of Tibetan Buddhism (the five things that all Buddhists must do; the Wheel of Life; the three elemental sins – ignorance, anger, and lust; reincarnation; etc.), some of the history, and the elaborate ornamentation of the monasteries. Buddhism, like most religions, seems to be very complex when you delve into it.

Before entering a chapel, you must remove your shoes. Visitors process in a clockwise direction around the room. Most chapels have one or more large statues of Buddha, in some cases two or three stories high. In Hemis Gompa our guide felt the need to remind us that farting in a chapel is not appropriate, after someone, who shall remain nameless, let one loose.

We watched some Monks preparing a ‘mandala’ of brightly coloured fine sand. This is a painstakingly detailed procedure, and risky in that the slightest bump, brush, or breeze can spoil weeks of effort.

At Thiksey Gompa we visited the kitchen where they prepare food for the over 300 resident monks. We saw the massive stove with built-in pots, and we were offered a cup of Ladakh tea, which we accepted, not knowing initially that this was the famous ‘butter tea’ common in the Himalayan regions. Butter tea is made with water and tea (presumably), but also butter and salt. Patrick, after reading many books on Himalayan mountaineering, was excited to get his first taste of the legendary brew. Unfortunately, it left much to be desired. The taste of butter, obtained from variety of potential sources (cow, goat, sheep, or yak) and almost certainly not pasteurized, was overpowering. The drink is very rich, intended to keep people warm during the long Himalayan winters. In the heat of the summer, the buttery taste was overpowering, clinging to the lips and palate, and repeating thereafter.

Stok Palace, the residence of the current King of Ladakh (now purely a ceremonial role) is being converted into a hotel, like many of the palaces of Rajasthan, to bring much needed income to the monarchy. Princess Anne visited there at some point, as evidenced by the dusty black and white photographs on display. We walked right past the King, sitting in his SUV outside his palace, presumably waiting for someone to emerge. We didn’t talk to him, as we always feel so awkward when conversing with royalty.

Leh is a beautiful city with amazing views of the scenic mountains and historic buildings. The rich culture is palpable and we plan to make this area our base for a variety of activities over the next two weeks.

Jammu and Kashmir

August 15, 2009

After some great machinations in Shimla, we finally agreed on our approach to head further north.

India’s northernmost state ‘Jammu and Kashmir’ extends north from the rest of the country into a volatile region bordered by Pakistan to the West and Tibet (part of China) to the North. This state is composed of three separate regions – Hindu Jammu, Muslim Kashmir, and Buddhist Ladakh. Many people in the Kashmir region are seeking independence from India. The Pakistan government, also Muslim, supports this to free their Muslim brethren from Hindu oppression and presumably so that an independent Kashmir would be free to join Pakistan. The border between India and Pakistan has been in dispute since the two countries received independence from Britain and were partitioned. In fact, it isn’t even referred to as a ‘border’, but a ‘line of control’, based on who currently controls which parts of the disputed territory. There has been constant bickering and battling between the two countries for the past 50 years.

Jammu and Kashmir has pretty much been off limits to travelers for the past 20 years due to open or clandestine (i.e. terrorist) warfare in the region. The border between India and Pakistan is porous due to the nomadic people who traverse the high mountain passes. The quality of relations between India and Pakistan changes like the seasons, and security in the region changes like the weather. As we considered going to Kashmir, we monitored the situation closely, reviewing national and regional newspapers on the Internet.

In the past there have been attacks on the public and tourists including bombing of public places, trains, buses, etc. In the week prior to our departure, there were daily incidents between rebels and Indian police and military. The rebel strategy seems to currently be focused on agencies of the Indian government, rather than the public or tourists, but this can change quickly, and there is always a risk of getting caught in the cross-fire.

Indian newspapers are obsessed with the acrimonious relationship between the two countries. They report the daily events of border ‘skirmishes’ (i.e. battles), terrorist attacks, and body counts. The Canadian government has recommended a total travel ban for this region. Unfortunately, the Great Himalayan Circuit of Northern India circles through Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. Skipping Kashmir necessitates either retracing difficult mountainous terrain (days of travel on bad buses) or resorting to expensive and difficult-to-book flights.

For this reason and that fact that it contains some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet, some travelers choose to brave the Kashmir region. After much debate, we decided to skip the majority of Jammu and Kashmir (the western side of the state), and instead fly from Jammu’s southernmost city (also called Jammu) to the city of Leh, located in the far north of Ladakh, which makes up the eastern side of the state. Leh is the capital of Ladakh, which is relatively untouched by the violence in Jammu and Kashmir. From here, we could travel south by bus, avoiding most of the hot areas.

To get from Shimla to Jammu, we took a five hour bus ride down the twisting mountain roads to the city of Chandigarh, where we’d been for a day the previous week. For some reason, Indian people seem susceptible to car sickness, and the bus stopped frequently when people walked forward with clear plastic bags of vomit to through out the door.

In Chandigarh, we managed to find a night bus to Jammu, that would arrive a few hours before our flight departed, avoiding the need to spend any more time in Jammu than necessary. We booked a sleeper compartment, which is a small box for two people installed above the seats. The sleeper is equipped with two vertical bars at about chest and knee position to prevent us from rolling off as the bus rocks and rolls, a lovely vinyl sleeping surface, and a curtain to provide some limited privacy. The bus was air-conditioned, with small circular ducts like the ones on airplanes, and which dripped water onto Patrick throughout the night.

The bus dropped us off in Jammu just after dawn, at the side of a road nothing like a bus station. We caught an auto-rickshaw to the airport, which looked nothing like an airport. From the road, all that was visible was high cement walls and gates, crash barriers, spike belts, police, and guns. Seated in front of this fortress, were four young women from Israel, who were scheduled to take the same flight, departing at 9:20 AM. It was currently 6:00 AM, and the airport apparently didn’t open until 8:00 AM. So we sat outside like ducks (sitting ducks, get it?) for two hours.

When we were finally let in, we went through the most rigourous airport security that we’ve experienced. Before boarding the plane, our bags were x-rayed and sealed, we went through three metal detectors, and we were each physically searched four times. No cabin baggage was permitted, and we had to identify our bags immediately before boarding the plane, so that only the bags of those boarding made it onto the plane.

Thankfully, the flight to Leh was uneventful. The landing was exciting as the plane circled close to the mountains to lose the altitude necessary to drop into the airstrip. After a short bus ride to the terminal, we filled out foreigner registration forms (necessary all over India), and received an exception from the Swine Flu screening process due to the fact we’ve been in India for over six weeks.

More on Ladakh in our next installment…


August 12, 2009

We arrived in Shimla on a ‘toy train’. This is the name given to India’s narrow gauge railways. Our train went from Kalka, a one hour bus ride from Chandigarh, to the hill station of Shimla, in the province of Himachal Pradesh. It took about six hours to cover the 90 kilometers up the steep foothills of the Himalaya, so this is not a fast way to travel. This train line, a wonder of engineering when it was opened in 1903, has over 900 bridges (all built of stone arches), 103 tunnels, and constant turns as it switchbacks up the mountains. At over a kilometer, the longest tunnel took us three minutes and twenty seconds to traverse. The train is so small that there are no doors between compartments, necessitating the elimination of both conductors and food service, but the frequent stops allow passengers to hop off the train for refreshments.

Shimla used to be the summer capital of India. The entire colonial government moved here from Delhi for more than six months each year, in order to beat the heat on the lowland plains. At 2206 meters of elevation (about 7000 feet, or the peak of Blackcomb mountain), it remains comfortably cool even during the North Indian summer. It is often clouded, with mist rolling in from the surrounding hills. For us, it was a welcome change after the blistering heat of Rajasthan and the noise and intensity of Delhi.

Shimla spreads a long way across a ridge, and extends down the slopes of the neighbouring hills. There is scarcely a flat spot anywhere, and the hills gave us some much needed exercise. Shimla is a terrific place. No cars are allowed in the center of the city. Smoking and spitting in public, even outdoors, are both illegal and there are foot police everywhere to enforce this.

Shimla, like Rishikesh, is a popular tourist destination for Indian people. Aside from being cool in summer, it has a variety of old colonial buildings, and a lot of hotels and shops catering to tourists. One afternoon we walked five kilometers down the ridge to the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, which was previously the Viceregal Lodge. The British Viceroy used this building, which resembles Hogwart’s school, primarily to entertain guests. Every stone was carted up the mountain eight kilometers on the backs of donkeys. Although there are thirty scholars currently in residence, we did receive a brief tour of the interior, which consisted primarily of the grand lobby (clad in Burma teak), and a room full of pictures of dignitaries who have visited the building. This lodge is where the partition agreement was signed that created both Pakistan and India from the former British colony.

We spent a lot of time at a restaurant called “Indian Coffee House”, which, much to Diane’s delight, served real brewed coffee for 12.5 Rupees a cup (about 30 cents Canadian). We also managed to try out one of the tourist food outlets.

We walked up the hill to the Jakhu temple, which is dedicated to the Hindu God Hanuman (the monkey god). The pathway up to the temple is plagued with many real monkeys, who are quick to attack anyone carrying food. Of course, there are ‘monkey food’ sellers along the way, with a troop of monkeys waiting just up the trail to set upon anyone who is carrying anything resembling food. The local people usually carry a stick to fend off the monkeys, and we brought one just in case, which wasn’t needed because we weren’t silly enough to carry food through a gauntlet of marauding primates.

The trail to the temple was steep, like the middle section of the Grouse Grind. What was vaguely satisfying is that the city council has erected a signpost at the bottom of the trail indicating various ascent times by age group and corresponding fitness levels. People aged 30 to 50 who are fit should take less than 45 minutes for the climb. We did it in 23 minutes (not that we’re competitive or anything). This sounds impressive until you realize that most Indian people don’t exercise, and most are doing the walk in flip-flops.


August 6, 2009

Rishikesh is a small city in the state of Uttarkhand that is known for its yoga and meditation classes, trekking, and white water rafting down the Ganges River, known in India as the ‘Ganga’. It is also a holy city where Hindu pilgrims come to the site where the Ganga emerges from the Himalayan mountains. The Beatles visited the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yoga in the late 60’s and ever since Rishikesh has been a famous place for people seeking a spiritual retreat. Rishikesh is now considered to be to “Yoga Capital of the World”.

On the day that we arrived it was very busy with lots of people and noise, which did not really match the yoga experience we had in mind. The streets were filled with orange garbed pilgrims who had come to worship at Rishikesh’s temples and to swim in the Ganga.

Apparently we arrived at the peak of the Hindu pilgrimage season, but fortunately within a day lots of people had moved on and it was a lot quieter.

In pursuit of a more spiritual experience, we spent five nights at an Ashram, with the plan to participate in yoga, eat a healthy vegetarian diet, and to relax. Our stay included yoga classes two times a day, our accommodations and meals. Each yoga class was two hours long, with the first at 6:00 a.m. and then again at 4:00 p.m. A bell rang at 5:30 AM for morning wakeup, and again before each meal which consisted of basic vegetarian Indian dishes, including for breakfast. Although we like Indian food, we still haven’t gotten used to eating it for breakfast, and try to find eggs, toast, or cereal whenever we can. We ate sitting on the floor cross-legged with our tin plates on a small stools in front of us. It’s been a long time since either of us has sat cross-legged on a hard floor for any period of time, and we were both surprised how uncomfortable it was. After our first meal Patrick said he felt like he had pulled a muscle and he hadn’t even been to his first yoga class yet. Obviously we could benefit from some yoga.

We went to the afternoon yoga class the day we arrived. The classes were good but a bit challenging. Diane is definitely not as flexible as she once was. Patrick never was, but participated fully and went to three classes within the first twenty-six hours at the ashram. Diane came down with a cold and did not feel well enough for yoga after her first class. Just when she was starting to feel a bit better Patrick got sick. So as it turned out, we didn’t do as much yoga as we’d planned, and we spent a lot of time in bed trying to feel better. However, Patrick really enjoyed the yoga and would definitely do it again.

The Ganga runs right through the middle of Rishikesh. Two suspension bridges called Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula connect the two halves of the city. These pedestrian-only bridges have a steady traffic of people, cows, monkeys and motorcycles. So much for pedestrian only.

We spent a lot of time at a restaurant by one of the bridges over the Ganga, which overlooked the 13-storey Hindu temples of Swarg Niwas and Shri Trayanbakshwar. This open air restaurant served great home-made vegetable pasta and brown bread. Very nice if you ignored the flies. Patrick discovered a mango juice fruit drink called ‘Maaza’, bottled by Coca-Cola, which was a life saver as he recovered from the stomach flu. During one of our afternoons of people watching and talking with other travelers, Diane got some great pictures of some baby monkeys in the tree below the restaurant.

We aren’t Yoga gurus yet, but we are definitely developing our skills in sightseeing, people watching and knowing when to kick back and relax.