Archive for July, 2010

India, Days 39-41: Udaipur, Delhi

Okay, so this may be our last post. For real this time. :) We are back in Delhi (ugh), along with the monsoon in full force. Thankfully, that means it’s 36 C instead of 45 C, but it makes walking around in the muddy streets pretty unpleasant.

However, we’re feeling pretty good after spending four wonderful days in Udaipur. We really loved the area, especially Mountain Ridge where we were staying. Sunday we took a day trip to Kumbhalgarh Fort and the Jain temple in Ranakpur, both built in the 15th century. One of the best parts of the day was the drive, through lush green country side and small villages. We saw lots of scenes of typical Rajasthani village life – women dressed in saris of bright red, orange, and yellow, carrying huge bundles of sticks or several pots of water on their heads; small children herding goats or water buffalo; men wearing the brightly colored and infinitely varied turbans of their caste and profession. The two sites were also interesting. While we could imagine the magnificence of Kumbhalgarh (the fort walls are 36 km in length), imagining was about all we could do in the thick fog that enveloped the fort. What would probably have been a really lovely view was just a white blur about 15 feet in front of us. Thankfully, the weather improved somewhat by the time we got to the Jain temple, a magnificent structure with 1,444 carved white marble columns, no two of which are alike.

Mohit, the assistant manager of Mountain Ridge, also came with us for the day, since he just moved to Udaipur about 6 months ago from Punjab and has not seen many of the sites in the area. His English is pretty good, so we enjoyed talking to him throughout the day. Our driver was not quite as pleasant, although not a bad guy. He just drove like a bat out of hell, listened to Bailamos by Enrique Ingelsias multiple times (along with In Da Club, some Britney Spears, and many other such classics), and stopped for lunch at a place where he almost certainly got a commission or free lunch, while we payed a ridiculous amount for what we had to eat.

Sunday was also the day the monsoon weather really seemed to hit, and it has rained pretty constantly since. Given the weather, we spent Monday relaxing at Mountain Ridge, enjoying the fresh air, green countryside, and chatting with a couple and their son who arrived the night before. We headed to the train station in the afternoon for our last train ride in India (overnight from Udaipur to Delhi). Again, it was a relatively easy and painless experience. We listened to music, played cards, and got a decent night’s sleep.

And now we’re back in Delhi. And everyone is trying to rip us off (already had a rickshaw driver take us to the wrong place, clearly trying to get us to go to a shop from which he would get a commission), and it’s raining, and the traffic is terrible. And I’m whiny. :) So, it’s not likely there will be anything much left to write about, since we will spend this evening and tomorrow mostly trying to avoid the aforementioned scams, rain, and traffic. And Thursday at 3:30am we get on a flight to Hong Kong by way of Bangkok, and then on to San Francisco. Interesting tidbit – we leave Hong Kong at 12:30am on Friday, July 30, and arrive in San Francisco at 10:00pm on Thursday, July 29. We get to live the first 30 minutes of July 30th twice!

India, Days 37-38: Udaipur

Almost 6 weeks have gone by, and so this may be our last post (or, at least, the penultimate post) from India! We are looking forward to getting home, but we are sad to see our adventure wind down, especially after the past two days.

Thursday night we took an overnight train from Jaipur to Udaipur. It was our first overnight train, so we weren’t quite sure what it would be like. Would we be fighting large Indian families for sleeping space? Sleeping in shifts so our bags wouldn’t get stolen as we slept? Nope, none of that. To our surprise, it actually went better than expected. We were in an air-conditioned car, were given clean sheets and a pillow with our sleeping bunk, and didn’t get hassled or bothered by anyone. Although we both woke up a lot throughout the night (I wouldn’t say the bunks are super comfy), I actually slept the entire ride and felt surprisingly rested.

We arrived in Udaipur at about 6:30am, and although the driver who was supposed to pick us up was not there, we hopped in a taxi and were quickly on our way. We are staying about 10 minutes outside of Udaipur, in a beautiful B&B/homestay called Mountain Ridge. When we first arrived, no one responded to the ringing doorbell or our knocks, except for a small black dog that eventually showed up. Just as we were beginning to wonder whether it was in fact the dog we had been emailing with about our reservation, the household woke up and we were welcomed inside.

Mountain Ridge was built by a British ex-pat, Piers, who first moved to India in 1999 after his mother had a debilitating stroke. He decided he could find better care for his mother, at a much better price, in India than in Britain. Once in India, he hired a Nepalese man (I am blanking on his name, so let’s call him Sam) and his wife to care for his mother. His mother died in 2005, just after he finished building Mountain Ridge. Sam also unfortunately passed away two years ago, leaving his wife and three young kids. By that time, Piers considered them all to be family, and so he committed to caring for them. They opened the home as a homestay, where various members of the family live and work (Sam’s wife, Sam’s brother Dil and his wife, etc). Piers pays for Sam’s kids, as well as a local boy who lives with them, to attend a good school in Udaipur. As a result, the kids speak at least 3 languages (Nepalese, Hindi, and English), which is pretty impressive. The black dog, it turns out, belongs to Piers, and goes by the illustrious name of Pee Machine. Nope, not joking. We have made fast friends with Pee Machine, who slept under our bed last night.

Mountain Ridge is set among rolling green hills and fields, just outside a small village. The home is beautifully designed, with lots of balconies and windows that open to let in the breeze. It’s the monsoon season now, so everything is very green. It’s such a peaceful place, all we did yesterday was relax and enjoy it. We met a really nice young British/Welsh couple who was also staying there and an American woman about our age who is in India working on a PhD dissertation in nutritional science. We had a really lovely breakfast and lunch with them, with lots of lively discussion about politics, Bollywood films, the British and American health care systems, and a lot in between. The British/Welsh couple told a hilarious story about their encounter with a hijra (google it if you want) on an overnight train, but you’ll have to get us to tell you about it, as it’s not entirely blog-appropriate.

In the afternoon, when the kids (Raj, Ravi, Sirzana, and Bandana) came home from school, we played and interacted with them. Ravi took us on a short hike to a hill nearby where we had a beautiful view over Udaipur. On our hike, we saw a langur monkey (black face, long tail, much bigger than the monkeys we have seen previously!) and a gigantic boa constrictor snake skin. No actual snakes, thank goodness. That evening, we had a delicious Indian/Nepalese meal with Piers and watched a movie with the family using their new projector (which Piers just brought back from Britain).

Today we are exploring Udaipur itself, including the city palace (Udaipur claims to have the longest serving royal dynasty in the world) and an historic haveli (traditional Rajasthani mansion). Tonight we have tickets for a traditional Rajasthani dance performance. Tomorrow we are planning a day trip to a fort and Jain temple in the region, followed by a morning of hiking outside of Udaipur on Monday before getting on an overnight train to Delhi on Monday night. We then have Tuesday and Wednesday in Delhi, and get on a plane bound for home at 3am on Thursday. I feel like I should end with two cliches that both apply, in different ways, to our trip: “All good things must come to an end” (this amazing, once-in-a-life-time adventure, which we will never forget) and “This too shall pass” (wearing the same smelly clothes for 6 weeks, getting food poisoning, being hassled everywhere we go). :) See many of you soon!

India, Days 34-36: Jaipur

On Tuesday we set out to see the old city of Jaipur. Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and the historic capital of the Rajathani state. The old city is about 300 years old and is a (rare) example of a planned city. The streets are broad and are laid out on a regular grid. This isn’t to say that in modern times the streets aren’t jammed – they are full of the buses, cars, rickshaws, bicycles, people, cows, pigs, and occasional elephants just like any other indian city – but, the area is much easier to navigate than others that we’ve visited.

We first visited the Hawa Mahal, a palace built for the the wives and concubines of the maharajah of jaipur. The building is quite unique. from the street, it appears to be just a honey-combed facade, but in fact it is an entire building full of courtyards and many rooms filled with stained glass windows. We took a picture of sarah pretending to be a rajathani queen :)

We also visited an observatory built by the same maharajah who build the Hawa Mahal. It is full of various astronomical instruments including the worlds largest astrolabe. Our guide demonstrated how these instruments can be used to tell the exact time according to the shadow cast by the sun. I was impressed, but then i thought i saw him checking his cell phone before he declared what time it was — who knows.

Wednesday morning we slept later than we are accustomed and inertia kept us relaxing in the room and reading till around 2:30. We still aren’t 100% after our food poisoning episode, so it felt good to take it easy. In the afternoon, we visited the Jaipur city palace – home of the historical (and present) Jaipur royal family. Jaipur still maintains its royal family who seem to operate in a ceremonial fashion. The palace was striking particularly because it was so well maintained. While many of the monuments we’ve seen in India are are grand in scale and architecture, their maintenance leaves something to be desired. We figured that because the palace is still privately held (i.e. not government owned) they can keep the place much tidier. The palace featured a grand thrown room and a courtyard with colorfully decorated doorways. Our audio guide said that this courtyard is a popular location for bollywood movies…

And speaking of which, after our tour of the palace we went to our first bollywood film in India. We saw Milenge, Milenge (We will meet, we will meet). The film was entirely in Hindi, but honestly, it didn’t really matter that much. The film wasn’t particularly complex – a pretty formulaic love story: bad guy, nice girl, he changes for her and they get married – but the crowd loved it, random dance interludes in the desert and all. It was surely an experience we won’t forget.

Today, our last day in Jaipur, we visited the Amber Fort. Prior to the founding of Jaipur, the city of Amber was the capital of Rajasthan and it’s fort was the home of the Maharajah. This was another beautiful monument in Rajasthan. It’s built into the hills outside the modern city, and it’s walls crawl up the mountainside – almost great wall of china-esque. We got some elephant and camel pictures (you can ride an elephant up to the fort, but we opted not to). By the way, camels are much larger than I thought they were.

Now we are back in Jaipur and have about 6 hours to kill before our overnight train to Udaipur – our last destination in India. Exactly one week from now we’ll be on our way home (actually we’ll be in Hong Kong airport on a 12+ hour layover). We’ve had a truly wonderful and unforgettable time in India, but I know we’re both really looking forward to seeing everyone soon!

India, Days 31-33: Agra, still Agra, Jaipur

After our post on Saturday, we went on to have a (mostly) nice day. We visited a pietra dura shop (inlaid marble, like you see on the Taj Mahal) and bought a beautiful pietra dura elephant statue. It’s not quite life-size, but being solid marble, it’s still pretty heavy. It’s definitely something we will keep forever and will always remind us of our adventures in India.

After a restful afternoon at the hotel, we ventured out for dinner at a rooftop restaurant with an amazing view of the Taj Mahal. The evening turned out to be unexpectedly lovely. It had rained a little earlier, clearing the sky some and making the temperature a little cooler. As we were eating dinner, we could see people in the surrounding neighborhood also escaping the heat on their rooftops, chatting with family and friends. Several young boys were flying kites, incredibly high in the sky and seemingly without much effort. Although the sky was still pretty hazy, the setting sun poked through just enough to cast a faint pink glow on the western side of the Taj. Around 7:30, the local mosques projected a call to prayer, sending a few of the kite-fliers scrambling inside. We ended the evening with delicious banana lassis and climbed in bed early, preparing to catch a 5am train to Jaipur the next morning.

And that is where the fun stops. About an hour after falling asleep, I woke up with a severe bout of food poisoning. I’ll save you the details, but suffice it to say the next two hours were some of my worse in recent memory. Later in the night, it hit Dante, too, although fortunately not quite as bad. Given that we were both still feeling terrible and as limp as wet rags at 5am, we did not get on the train to Jaipur. Instead, we spent the entire day in bed, venturing only as far as the hotel restaurant to get water and Sprite. We both were pretty much out of reading material and our room did not have a TV, so we entertained ourselves mostly by sleeping and reciting a good portion of The Princess Bride from memory. Probably he means no haaaaarrrrm…

We did finally manage to make it to Jaipur today (although on an AC bus, not a train…which turned out to be more complicated than it should have been, but what else is new). The most exciting parts of the bus ride involved wildlife – we saw camels, an elephant, and at one rest stop, two monkeys got on the bus. They realized it wasn’t going where they wanted after all, so they got off pretty quickly. So now we’re here in Jaipur, taking it easy, hoping we feel up to seeing the sites over the next few days.

India, Days 30-31: Agra

I thought the south was humid, but I think Agra in July has it beat. Ever been dripping with sweat at 5:30 in the morning?

Anyways, yesterday we took an early morning train from Delhi to Agra. Staying in a nicer hotel for two days in Delhi gave us yet another perspective on modern India. Most of the diners in the hotel restaurant were clearly middle/upper class Indians, many of whom were having business meetings. I think we saw more overweight women in one small restaurant than we’d seen in the entire previous 4 weeks. My guess is that wealth in India, like maybe anywhere, means people eat very well, but given the expected gender roles, wealthy women also don’t exercise much? Not sure. As we drove through the neighborhood of the hotel yesterday morning, we passed huge mansions locked away behind large gates and protected by security guards. Just a few short minutes later, we were passing people sleeping on the ground – in the median, on the sidewalk, on the concrete ledge of a bridge. As we’ve seen in all of India’s cities, life of all sorts is immediate and impossible to ignore.

This morning we visited the Taj Mahal, and it certainly lived up to expectation. Even though the weather isn’t great (hot and humid means the sky is a dull gray, not ideal for taking pictures), the Taj is still stunning. The intricate detail of the carved marble, inlaid with semi-precious stones, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We got up before sunrise to be there when it first opened, and even so there were lots of other people there (and we were drenched in sweat in a matter of minutes). Still, it was a peaceful and beautiful place to be.

It’s hard to believe we have less than two weeks left here in India. While we will both be sad to see this once-in-a-lifetime trip come to an end, I think we are also looking forward to getting home. I, for one, am sick of being stared at all the time. Although we have enjoyed meeting and talking with people at times, there is a big difference between respectful interest/curiosity and leering/staring. I finally told some men at the Taj Mahal today that it’s not nice to stare, and they actually went away. In general, though, ignoring people seems to be the best policy. Not the most pleasant way to go about your day, but the most practical and manageable as a white/blond-haired/blue-eyed westerner in India.

On a completely separate note, we saw our first camels today! They were walking through the streets of Agra near the Taj, some being led or ridden by small boys, some just walking on their own. They are such huge animals!

Also noticed an interesting article on CNN.com today. We’ve watched some TV here (mostly the world cup), and have seen many, many commercials for this type of skin whitening cream. It’s funny how Americans want to be tan and Indians want to be pale…why can’t we all just be comfortable in our own skin?

Tomorrow, we head to Jaipur in Rajasthan. We’ll write more from there!

India, Days 28-29: Delhi = Crazy

On Wednesday, we took Jet Airways one way from Leh to Delhi. It was a pretty uneventful flight (save that it was an hour late – which no one really seemed to notice). The view of the Himalayas was wonderful as we flew by.

For our two nights in Delhi, we are staying at a nice hotel for a break and a rest before we begin our journey into Rajasthan for the last two weeks of the trip. It’s a nice break to be in a very comfortable hotel and we spent the balance of Wednesday just relaxing, reading, and watching Animal Planet.

Today, we decided to venture out of the oasis of the hotel and visit the National Museum and some of the government shopping emporiums. The Museum had a nice collection of various pieces of art from throughout Indian history. However, as are many things in India, the museum looks like it hasn’t really been updated since the 60s.

Next we went to the first government emporium and did a little bit of browsing. We will probably come back before we leave for home. After the first shopping stop, we decided to go to another government run emporium and here is where things started to get crazy. We hopped on a rickshaw and the driver took us to the “government emporium”. The trouble with being a tourist in Delhi is that it is basically impossible to navigate. There are no street signs, all the streets pretty much look the same, and you can’t really ask anyone directions because they are more likely to misdirect you to a “tourist office” that gives them a commission.

This is what our rickshaw driver had in mind when he dropped us off at the “emporium”. As soon as we walked in, we could tell is wasn’t the right place. We were immediately pounced on by a bunch of staff asking what we wanted, and that we’d get a good price. Sure we would.

We got out of there as fast as we could practically needing to push our way out the door. We tried to look around for the right place, but like I said, it is just about impossible to ascertain where you are. We decided to give up and just head back to the hotel as we had already had a good day.

We hailed another rickshaw driver, who when we showed him where our hotel was, decided it was too far and drove off. Okay, we’ll try again. We hailed another guy who was driving around with a friend. He said he would take us there, but not before asking if we wanted to go to every other tourist attraction, mall, and train station in the city. After saying ‘no’, ‘no’, ‘no’ about 50 times, he finally said okay – 200 rupees. Probably about double (or more) what it should actually cost, but at this point we just decided to go for it.

The streets in Delhi are totally crazy right now (and probably always) as a result of the preparations for the Commonwealth games in the fall. Practically all the sidewalks are ripped up and “construction workers” (just a bunch of men, women and children moving dirt around) are busy trying to fix the roads. As our rickshaw driver got closer to our hotel, it became apparent that he didn’t really know where he was going, so we pulled over a bunch of times so he could ask.

Thankfully, we eventually got back and are now relaxing again before an early morning train to Agra. I have a feeling that Agra will also be crazy, but I think ‘delhi crazy’ is hard to beat. Hope all are well.

India, Days 26-27: Back in Leh

Monday was a pretty chill day back in Leh. After staying up to watch the world cup final the night before, we slept in and spent the day reading, relaxing and catching up on email. The only sightseeing we did was later in the afternoon.

Out behind the city of Leh, there is a big stupa built into the hill that overlooks the whole city. Sarah was feeling a bit under the weather, so she decided to rest while I undertook the short hike to the top. The view was grand from up there, but unfortunately, it was a bit overcast when i was on the top. It was quite peaceful up there though.

Later that night we met our friends again for dinner. Sarah and I decided to split a very good lamb dish since we have been eating mostly vegetarian for that last week and a half. We had another nice evening discussing our treks and stories from travels through India. It was Gjs and Mona’s last night in Leh so we bid them farewell at the end of the evening. It was wonderful getting to know them.

Today (Tuesday), we hiked to the the two “main attractions” of Leh. We visited the ancient palace and the mountain monastery. The palace was quite simple inside and was constructed in a very similar was to the way that homes are constructed in Ladakh. It had a wonderful view of the city below and we enjoyed hanging out there for a while.

After the palace we headed up to the monastery. It also had a wonderful view of the city, but the most memorable part of our visit was sitting with Buddhist monks as the chanted prayers in one of the monastic shrines. It was a very peaceful experience. The monks chanted, but also played several instruments including a drum, cymbals, and horns. The mood was somber, but also full of energy and life (particularly when they were playing the horns right near my ear!).

The way down the hill was quite steep and unfortunately, both sarah and I took a spill. I scrapped my knee and sarah bruised her behind. Our first Indian injuries. Not so bad i guess.

Tonight we will meet Adi for dinner since we are leaving first thing tomorrow on a flight back to Delhi. We’ll be in Delhi for a couple days and then on to the Taj Mahal! We’re excited for the next leg of our trip, but it is crazy to think that we are just about 2/3 of the way through the trip. It’s one of those weird things where the time moves both quickly and slowly at the same time.

We’ll update again with news from Agra!

India, Days 24-25: Shingo, Chilling, and Leh

I’m picking up where Dante left off in telling about our trek. The fourth day of our trek we hiked from Shingo to Chilling, where we could catch a bus back to Leh. Fortunately, Adi woke up feeling much better that morning, and I’m pretty sure our hostess took full credit (after force-feeding Adi the night before). It was a long and tiring day, but again through some amazing scenery. The most exciting part of the day was crossing the Zanskar River, which you do in a little basket attached to a cable that goes across the river. There is no bridge at the moment, so the basket is your only option! When we finally found the place to cross, there was no one on the other side to pull the basket across. We weren’t sure it would be possible for someone inside the basket to pull themselves across, and we weren’t sure what to do! We didn’t want one of us to get stuck out in the middle of the cable hanging over the river. We finally managed to flag down a construction worker from the other side of the river who helped us over.  I was the first person to get in the basket, and although I was nervous at first, I quickly realized the basket was pretty sturdy and quite enjoyed the ride!

On the remaining part of the walk to Chilling, we met a woman with a young son who said she had a homestay, so we followed her to her house. Although it was probably the “poorest” family we stayed with, based on the size of their house (primarily the size of their kitchen), our room was still comfortable and dinner (dahl, greens, rice, and a delicious cheese/mint sauce) was delicious and offered in larger quantities than we could eat. Breakfast was also generous portions of roti (bread), with a curd-tsampa (barley flour) mix to dip it in. Maybe not something I’ll eat back home, but certainly an authentic Ladakhi breakfast!

It also happened that Saturday was Adi’s 30th birthday, and Chilling had a small store selling drinks. We bought a Godfather beer (an Indian brand that is not too tasty, but better than nothing!) to share among the three of us to celebrate her birthday. We also lit a candle and put it on top of a chocolate bar we bought, and sang to her. We really had a great time with Adi on the trek, so it was fun to celebrate with her in whatever way we could.

The next day, we caught the bus back to Leh, and managed to stay awake long enough to watch the World Cup final with our Dutch friend Gijs. It was a crazy night (no restaurants were serving beer, and we were told it had something to do with the phase of the moon, but that they could also get in trouble with the police…still haven’t figured out what that was about), but fun to watch with a rowdy crowd, even though the Netherlands lost.

Even though we have now covered the main events of our five-day trek, I think this is one of the parts of our trip that will be hard to adequately describe in words (or even show in photographs). The Markha Valley in Ladakh is truly the most amazing place that I have ever been. The natural environment is absolutely stunning. Having grown up in Tennessee, I’ve always had a preference for areas that are green and lush in spring and summer. Yet this high altitude desert is beautiful beyond description. The rocky mountains are so colorful – mineral deposits create splashes of purple, turquoise, and red. Wild roses grow along the snow-fed streams, and small plants and flowers take a stubborn hold in the dusty soil. And towering just beyond, in all directions, are breathtaking snow-capped peaks (literally and figuratively, being over 3500 meters in altitude). Given the altitude and the lack of pollution, the sky is a deep deep blue.

In addition to this natural beauty is the amazing Ladakhi culture that exists in the Valley. Dante mentioned “towns” in his post, but the small inhabited areas are really villages at the most. Rumbak, the largest village we stayed in (other than Chilling, which is a little bigger because a paved road goes there), consisted of 9 houses. As he said, the Valley is not accessible by road, has no running water anywhere, and no phone service (either land or cellular). Electricity is provided mostly by solar power, which heats water and lights a few small bulbs. To western eyes, the environment might be considered “inhospitable,” yet these people have lived a sustainable life off the land for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. Their clever use of mountain streams in summer to irrigate their fields makes each village a green oasis in the middle of the arid mountains (a very welcome site to any weary hiker). Ladakhi houses are built of bricks, made on-site with mud, and are large and comfortable. Soft rugs line the floors of the kitchen and bedrooms, and there is lots of room (and endless cups of tea) for guests. Ladakhi toilets are dry composting toilets, which not only don’t smell much (not nearly as bad as portopotties in the states), but also result in fertilizer to use on the fields. Every Ladahki house has a beautiful vegetable garden, in addition to their fields and livestock (cattle, sheep, goats, etc).

Ladahki culture is primarily Tibetan Buddhist, so you see signs of the religion everywhere (stupas, mani-walls, monasteries, prayer rooms in each house, pictures of the Dalai Lama). It is hard not to feel a sense of spirituality when passing these sites, in such beautiful settings. Ladahki men and women work side-by-side, both in the house and in the fields. In each home we stayed in, both the husband and wife helped fix dinner, and were also out in the fields or garden during the day. Although it can be easy to idealize such cultures when looking in from the outside, everything we have learned about the Ladahkis shows that they are also a happy, fun-loving people. They live physically difficult lives in some ways, yet have built a culture and society that incorporates lots of time for fun, including festivals, relaxing with family, playing games, and chatting with friends. They are clearly happy people, who welcome guests into their homes with incredible hospitality and generosity.

Dante and I are off to meet Adi for dinner in a few minutes, since we fly out of Leh tomorrow. I feel that there is so much more I could write about our time here, but I will have to save it for another post or conversations once we get home. Julley! (Ladakhi word meaning hello, goodbye, thank you, you’re welcome…) :)

India, Days 21-23: Markha Valley Hike

We began our trek on Wednesday morning by meeting up with Adi (one of our friends from the bus ride) at 8:00 AM. We filled up our water bottles and caught a taxi to Zingchen which was the beginning of our hike (and also the last place that cars can travel to inside the Markha Valley). As is typical in this area, the “road” was unpaved and full of rocks and potholes. The 5 mile journey took about and hour and a half.

Once we reached Zingchen, we set out towards our first destination: the town of Rumbak. The hike to Rumbak follows a stream through a gorge. They scenery is quite rocky and there are some interesting looking rock formations along the way. The rocks are also different colors varying from a deep red to almost purple – probably from varying mineral content. This area was pretty arid except for the banks of the stream which had some light trees and brush.

After about 3.5 hours we arrived at a tea tent where we stopped for a break. As we were relaxing, two Austrians also arrived at the tent. We started talking, and it turns out that after their trek they were headed to Bangladesh to do an internship at the Yunus center. What a coincidence for me since I was planning on looking into that exact internship when i return! I got their contact information and hope to learn about their experience.

After the tea tent, we continued the last .5 hours to Rumbak. When we arrived in the village, we were greeted by our homestay host. Her name is Tsering and has a truly happy, generous, and bubbling personality. She welcomed us into her home and gave us tea, cookies, and Ladakhi bread to snack on.

Tsering’s home is a very typical Ladakhi house. The largest room is the kitchen which is decorated with many ornate copper pots (we read that these pots are a traditional form of wealth for Ladakhi families). In her home there was also a smaller kitchen, which had a simple stove and simple “everyday” type pots. On the roof of the home there was a small meditation room. We did not go in, but it looked like it contained a small shrine and candles.

The town of Rumbak itself is simply stunning. It sits in a small valley shadowed by snow capped mountains. The land is naturally arid, but thanks to some clever irrigation, Rumbak is a green oasis full of flowers and vegetables. The growing season in Ladakh is only 4 months, but we have learned that this is enough time to produce ample food for the rest of the year (which is quite cold). The staple food here is barley and it is used to make breads, beer, and other everyday food items.

That night we were invited into the kitchen to help make dinner. We made a traditional ladakhi dish called chutagi. chutagi is a type of thick vegetable soup. It has a lot of greens (similar to spinach), and contains a sort of wheat “pasta” that is rolled out and formed into a boat like shape. It was very good, and it we are ever feeling ambitious, we do have the recipe.

There is no power (or phones, or running water, or…) in Rumbak, however, there is a power generator that runs for 3 hours from 7pm to 10pm. After dinner, we did a little bit of reading and waited for the generator to quit so we could take a look at the stars. Unfortunately, at 10 it was still not quite dark enough and clouds were obstructing our view. We turned in for the evening.

The next day (day 22) we were destined for the town of Yurutse, but it is only a 2.5 hour hike, so we decided to first to in the other direction toward a mountain pass near Rumbak to see if we could get a good view. The hike was nice, but we didn’t quite make it all the way to the top of the pass. We made it to the snow line, but decided it would be better to save our energy and head to Yurutse. In retrospect, we probably should have saved even more energy than we did, but i’m glad that we got in some extra hiking.

The path to Yurutse, was not long, but it was quite hot. The sun is quite intense at this altitude and it is easy to get drained of energy very quickly. We did see a yak (or what we are pretty sure was a yak) on our way to Yurutse, and we also walked pass some large herds of goats and sheep.

When we arrived in Yurutse, we found out that all the homestay rooms were full (there is literally only one home in Yurutse that has 4 rooms). With no other options at our disposal, we opted to just sleep on the floor of the kitchen. We didn’t really have much else of a choice.

The home in Yurutse was similar to Rumbak, but had a very different feel since we were not the only travelers there. The was a group of Spaniards who were on an expedition to see a snow leopard (the Markha valley is the snow leopard capital of the world). I’m not sure if they were successful in their attempt. snow leopards are quite rare.

Day 23 was the by far the most exhausting, but also the most rewarding. We hiked up and over the 4900 meter (> 16,000 feet!) Ganda La pass on the way to our 3rd homestay in the town of Shingo. The hike was positively exhausting. the path was steep, and the air is thin up there. We walked very slowly and took many breaks. Once we reached the top, the view was stunning. Sarah and I agree – it is the most amazingly beautiful scenery we have ever scene. Although we saw a few other trekkers and some porters on our way, it is often easy to think you are the only people up there in they beautiful, snow topped mountains. Really amazing.

At the top, I caught a glimpse of an eagle circling around looking for some easy prey below. When Adi and Sarah joined me at the summit we celebrated our ascent with our packed lunch and some Mars bars we packed. Adi exclaimed “this is the best mars bar i’ve ever had!” it really was. The pictures will have to speak for themselves later on. I think (hope) we got some good ones.

It took about 2 hours to descend to the town of Yurutse. Adi was feeling a bit ill from the altitude, and our host, became quite concerned, she kept trying to get her to have more tea and some Ladakhi bread which was supposed to make you feel better. Adi went to sleep early and Sarah and I played cards. The grandma of the household was particularly interested in what we were playing and stood watching us for a while. It was nice to have some company even if we couldn’t communicate.

We ended our most strenuous day and had a good night sleep. At this point i’ve been writing for a while, and will have to continue the story of our trek later, but I hope you’ve enjoyed the story so far and will update more soon!

India, Days 19-20: Leh

Hello from 11,000 feet! After a day in bed and another day taking it pretty easy, I am finally feeling (mostly) normal again.

As I said, yesterday we took it easy, enjoying the laid-back atmosphere of Leh. I bought a yak wool sweater in anticipation of our 5-day trek (it gets cold up here, particularly at night!). We also had lunch on a rooftop restaurant that provided almost a 360-degree view of Leh. The city is surrounded by mountains – on one side, you see an old palace and fort that dominate the hillside just above town, and on the other side, the stunning snow-capped peaks of the Stok Range. This area is a high altitude dessert, so the landscape is very stark in some ways, but also incredibly beautiful. A big bowl of thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) was the perfect mountain lunch (not to mention soothing for my recovering tummy).

In the afternoon, we visited an organization called the Women’s Alliance, where we watched a film about development in Ladakh (the region of which Leh is the capital) and efforts to preserve the culture and traditional way of life. The movie was made almost 20 years ago, so it is interesting to experience today how these efforts have been carried out. Traditional Ladakhi life is very ecologically sustainable, and Ladakhi men and women are considered equals (unlike gender relations in many parts of India). This is really the first place we’ve been in India that has emphasized sustainable practices (for example, many places offer water bottle refills of filtered water, and really encourage people not to buy plastic bottles). Despite the pressures of modernization and development, it is clear the Ladakhis understand the value (both intangible and monetary) of maintaining their culture, even as they improve their education and health systems. For example, we set out tomorrow on a 5-day trek, during which we will stay in homestays rather than camping. We will be in a region that is accessible only by foot, with no telephones or internet. Homestays provide tourists the opportunity to experience Ladakhi life and get to know Ladakhi families, while also providing the Ladakhi families with income and also motivation to preserve their way of life and protect their environment (because it attracts visitors). We are really looking forward to the experience, and are trying very hard to be respectful of and genuinely interested in the culture. Some westerners we have seen here treat the area and the local people almost as if they are in a zoo or a museum. We saw several westerners with huge cameras taking pictures, without asking, of women washing their clothes in a stream.  It’s not hard to imagine how that feels from the perspective of those women – as if they are curiosities or quaint but backwards people, rather than human beings to be respected.

During our time in Leh, we’ve also spent time with the friends we made on the bus from Manali. The town is pretty small, so we have run into them many times, sometimes planned and sometimes not. One of the women, Adi, who is from Israel, is coming on the trek with us. The others we have met are from the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Britain, and they all seem like really interesting and intelligent people, with the same attitude towards travel in India as we have. It’s been fascinating to hear about their experiences on their travels throughout the country, as well as their perspectives on politics in their own countries and around the world. One thing we discussed is why we haven’t seen too many Americans during our time in India. Most of the westerners we’ve met have been from Britain, Canada, Israel, Australia, Korea, and other European countries, but not too many Americans. We have a few guesses as to why this is the case, but anyone out there have thoughts on the matter?

This afternoon we are headed to a town a few miles away to attend a celebration of the Dalai Lama’s 75th birthday. We’re not really sure what the celebration entails, but I am sure it will be a fun and interesting experience. Then tomorrow we set out on our trek and will be off the grid for a while!

A funny side note (Dante has a lot to write about our ride from Manali to Leh, so I’m helping out a little): All along the Manali-Leh road, there are signs imploring drivers to drive safely. It’s certainly a worthy message, as the road is very bumpy and narrow, so you would not want to drive carelessly. However, the signs sort of take on the tone of life advice, rather than just street signs. There are so many, but I’ll try to remember a few:

“Safety on the road means “safe tea” at home.”

“Peep peep don’t sleep.”

“Be gentle. Mind the curves.” (More innuendo than I would expect from street signs in India)

“Save driving is more horse sense than horse power.”

“Heaven, hell, or Mother Earth: Your Choice”

“A cat has nine lives, but not the one who drives.”

“Be Mr. Late; Better than Late Mr.”

“Don’t be a gama in the land of lama.”

“You may not be superstitious, but believe in traffic signs.”

And my 2 favorites (and by that I mean least favorites):

“Don’t gossip; Let him drive.”

“Darling, do not nag me, as I am driving. Instead, turn your head, and enjoy the nature charming.”

— Adding more on the Dalai Lama’s party —

Okay, so it’s many day’s later now, but we still haven’t talked about the party. It was basically a big picnic in a large open field. Families set up tents, were playing music (some of the teenagers were playing very loud american rap. oh well), and generally enjoying the afternoon. The site of the party also had a home where the Dalai Lama stays when he visits Leh. For the occasion, they opened up the house and we got to walk around inside. It had a nice collection of paintings and statues and many locals were walking around paying their respects.

On the way back our group (the friends that we made on the bus up to Leh) was trying to catch a bus, but it wasn’t coming. We were sitting there looking confused and a monk with a pickup truck asked us if we were going to Leh. We said we were, and he told us to hop in back. So, all 8 of us packed into the back of a small pickup truck and were driven by a monk the 5 Kilometers back to Leh. It was pretty fun… since we made it back alive :)

That night all of us went out to dinner and later in the evening watched the Netherlands beat Uruguay.