Friday, July 29, 2011

Nubra Valley

Visiting Nubra Valley in a way felt like coming home.  In a lot of ways it reminded me of Arctic Village.  We didn’t board a tiny Cessna and fly two hours into the remote Alaskan wilderness, instead we rode in a Toyota over the highest highway in the world.  Nubra Valley was the Yukon Flats of Ladakh.  Small villages spread throughout a desolate yet beautiful valley.  Vast spaces filled with daunting mountains, huge valleys and unique wildlife.  Warmhearted indigenous people living the way they have for thousands of years.  It was inspiring.
From Leh we immediately began climbing the partially paved, mostly dirt highway up over Khardung La pass.  This is the highest highway in the world.  The top of the pass peaks at 5360 meters.  For about two hours we wound our way through tight switchbacks opening up to large hanging valleys.  We stopped briefly for photographs, and to test the effects of elevation on our lungs.  This was the highest Gretchen and I had ever been- 17,582 feet.  



Atop the highest point we cared to climb, our guide, pulled out a roll of prayer flags.  In ritual fashion, we planned to hang them with hundreds of others.  First, unrolling the brightly colored cloth.  Then finding a nearby fire pit.  We relit some incense and dangled the roll of flags in the smoke.  The smoke cleanses the flags before hanging.  Next, we each held a flag to our forehead and said a prayer.  Our guide, reciting his own mantra.  I prayed for safe travels, for loved ones far away, for guidance and direction, and to be used for good in the world, a servant.  Seven months later I know my flags are still there, dangling in Himalayan skies.

Nubra Valley is home to several unique features and creatures.  The double humped Bactrian camel lives here.  Our guide enthusiastically hoped we would opt for a ride.  Gretchen and I promptly replied “NO”!  A month since our last camel encounter, my bottom was still bruised.  There are also spectacular sand dunes worth exploring.


No visit to Nubra is complete without seeing the newest, outdoor sitting Buddha at Diskit.  The statue provided a nice contrast with the vibrant blue sky and rugged landscape.  The Buddha was completed in 2010.  Funny enough, the Buddha seemed to be watching the Pakistan border.  Looking up valley, the border is less than 20 miles away.
We spent the evenings at the Lha Rimo Resort.  The word “resort” should be used loosely, but the accommodations were adequate.  We had a basic room with hot shower.  Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were included.  The size of the resort provided a very intimate setting.  Nearly half the guesthouses were empty.  In the evenings only a few families gathered in the dinning room for traditional North Indian and Tibetan meals.
On a clear day, looking up the Nubra Valley towards Pakistan, K2 is visible.  The second highest mountain in the world, located in the Hindu Kush of the Himalaya.  Unfortunately this time of year it tends to be cloudy at the higher elevations with monsoon storm systems moving in.









Our last evening in the valley we visited a local community hall for a traditional dance.  I was again reminded of dances back home in the Yukon Flats.  Women dressed in home made clothing.   Men played a variety of instruments.  Two drums and a woodwind instrument similar to an oboe.  Children watched and occasionally joined the women in dances.  It was wonderful.

For an encore the audience was pulled from their seats and formed a “congo line”.  We made several laps around the circular tent, made from an old military parachute.  The culture dance lasted nearly 1.5 hours.  At the end, I briefly felt like less of a tourist, and more of a guest.  These people warmly brought us into their home, sharing their sacred traditions.  Past down through generations living in this distant place.   We drank several glasses of Chang, a traditional home brew made from fermented barley and butter.  Though we didn’t speak their language, laughter is universal.


I was sad to leave Nubra Valley.  Climbing back up the pass meant a lot of things.  We were quickly nearing the end of our trip.  One more night in Leh and we would fly back to lower India.  I thought for a long time on places I’ve visited in my life, that I may never visit again.  Could Nubra Valley be one of those places?  This spectacular valley might be another one of those places.  I stared frantically the countryside, trying to capture every image possible in my mind.  I thought how many other places in my life will I never see again?  I don’t like goodbyes, especially with places like Nubra Valley.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ladakh: Leh & Beyond

Long drawn out bus rides, some with multiple interchanges and layovers always seem to end in a frenzy.  After two days and 485km traveling the second highest highway in the world, we arrived in Leh.  It was just after dusk.  We disembarked our dusty bus to a scurry of taxi’s and porters tossing luggage across the parking lot.  It can be overwhelming at first.  The daunting feeling of being in a brand new place, while all your earthly belongings are floating around.  Your senses are heightened to an uncomfortable state of alertness, while you quickly try and push aside the grogginess from traveling.  This was again, not time to hesitate.  We first fought to grab our backpacks, then quickly pushed outside the huddle.  I found a taxi, and we were on our way. 

After nearly a month of day by day devising our plan- we opted for a guide service and hotel package in Leh.  I have no regrets doing this.  With only a week to spend in the province of Ladakh, it was well worth it.  As we would discover, this is a very large area to cover in a short period of time.  Unlike places in what I’ll call, “mainland” India, this hidden province operated on even different schedules.  With a driver we were able to see multiple sights in a day.   The hotel included in the package was Hotel Omasilla. It was on the more moderate of hotels we stayed in- but well worth it.  The rooms were spacious and very comfortable.  Our hot water was plentiful, a wonderful upgrade from the  cheap limited options we found in Uttarakhand.  And best yet, each nights stay included a free meal in the hotel restaurant, a five star all you can eat buffet.  Any weight gained on this trip was surely put on at this point.  Each night after a long day exploring, I gorged on delicious Indian, Tibetan, Nepalese, and Chinese cuisine.  
We really liked Leh.  It had a similar mountain adventurer feel as Shimla and Manali, while being much more influenced in the zen like state of Buddhism.  As the pace of life in the lower Himalayan provinces was a little higher tempo, Leh was relaxed, almost easy going.

The climate could be some what compared to northern Arizona or New Mexico.  It was very dry.  Yet the Indus River ran through the main valley below, allowing for a fertile strip of farmland down the center.  Surrounding hillsides were dotted with monasteries, shrines, temples, and stupas.

Leh sits at an elevation of over 3500 meters.  The surrounding peaks easily top 6000 meters.  Nearby Stok Gangri is the tallest at 6150 meters.  In the photo below you can see the sandy tone of the mountains, with taller snow capped peaks in the distance.  In the foreground you can see the lush evergreen trees the grow within the city.  







Like a sea cove, Leh is nestled in a large valley uphill from the Indus.  The main valley runs north west towards Pakistan.  We would later travel up the valley to visit a couple monasteries.

Walking around Changspa Lane, the tourist section of Leh you can hear a variety of languages spoken.  French, Dutch, Hebrew, Japanese, English, and Spanish were just a few.  Cool guy neo-hipsters raced by on Enfield motorcycles.  For only 800 rupees a day you could rent a motorbike and watch people stare as your dreadlocks blow in the breeze through these narrow streets.  We often strayed from the main drag into the real Leh.  Stopping at large prayer wheels to listen as bazaars became enlivened with business.  Children played in the streets and monks picked out produce from the market stands nearby.  Tibetan refugees have taken home here, setting up craft stands, selling a variety of goods, along with “FREE TIBET” stickers.


While we were splurging a bit for a nice hotel at the end of our trip- Leh was filled with cheap guesthouses.  It would be easy to arrive without a reservation and find someplace nice to stay, even on a shoe string budget.  It also seemed like there were plenty of treks and climbs constantly heading into the mountains.  In the future I will return to Leh, I would even plan an entire trip just in Ladakh based out of Leh.  I’m not sure I would opt for the two day bus ride again, multiple flights a day come from Delhi.  Making travel a little easier.


Our first stop was at the palace in Stok, across the Indus Valley from Leh.  Summer weather is typically warm and dry- providing stellar blue skies for photographing the monasteries and palaces.

The beautiful massif of Stok Kangri.  With 3-4 extra days we would have had ample time to hop on a climbing party and tag this peak.  In India, and the Himalaya, they consider these trekking peaks.  Despite elevation, the summits can be easily climbed in minimal time with basic mountaineering skills and equipment.

From Stok we traveled just south, back across the valley to Thikse.  This gompa, or monastery, is over 500 years old.  Now, 100 monks still currently live and work here.  The gompas are vibrant with color, a nice contrast to the beautiful blue skies and light brown sand of the landscape.  The epicenter of each site is the prayer room and Buddha statue.  Prayer room walls are always adorned with ornate murals of the life of Buddha.  Bench seats circle the room with age old velvet pillows on the floor.  Most still have no electricity, yak butter lamps burn in the corner.  The outer walls are lined with cabinets containing various idols and miniature Buddha statues.   

Color, color, and more color!

The River Indus, originating from the Tibetan Plateau of China, briefly scurries through India before running all the way across Pakistan to the ocean.  With heavy winter snow, and some rain- the Indus sustains people throughout the year where little life might not exist otherwise.

Small prayer wheels line walkways entering and leaving the monastery complex.  With each prayer you walk and spin the wheel, clockwise only.














A Buddha sits ornately decorated.  Each large Buddha is crafted and placed differently.  Typically enclosed, and all in different postures.  There were sitting Buddhas and standing Buddhas.  There were teaching Buddhas and future Buddhas.  Each held a story from the life and religious practice of early Buddhism.

Our third day in Ladakh we traveled 110km to the village of Lamaryu.  Within an hour of leaving Leh the highway turned into twisty canyons.  We passed the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar Rivers.  Then, turned out of the main valley and climbed what felt like an hours work of switch backs.  The vegetation was all but gone, it felt as if we were headed to Mars.  Even today, crews were still blasting away mountains to widen the road that continually erodes down steep cliffs to raging rivers.  We briefly stopped for thirty minutes as construction crews worked diligently to keep these routes open through the summer.




The monastary in Lamaryu is over 1000 years old.  We explored this gorgeous place, spun the prayer wheels a couple times, and headed back to Leh.  Only a few minutes out of town we picked up a hitchhiker.  The boy was dressed in monk motif.  With the help of our guide as an interpreter, we learned the boy was actually 16, and had been a monk  for 6 years.  He was very shy, but honest about his passion to help others and live his life as a monk.  He traveled several times a year to nearby gompas and back home to see his family.  On the way back to Leh we stopped in the town of Alchi.  This tiny village about 30 minutes off the highway is home to 5 temples.  These memorials or gompas, contain Buddha statues over 1000 years old.   The highlight here though is gorgeously painted ornate mandalas on the walls.  Tiny doors mark the entrance to these buildings.  The shortened doorways are intentially built so anyone entering the chamber will boy to Buddha as they enter.  Once inside, you walked around the room clockwise, pausing to inspect the amazing paintings on the walls.  In this culture Mandalas are not only art, but stories of the life of Buddha, and other holy Buddhists.  They are gazed upon in a circular fashion, as your eye travels from the outer rings to the inner rings of the circle.  They are a story. You not only learn of the life of a Buddha, but values and morals associated with this practice.






Saturday, July 23, 2011

Manali

Manali was one of the coolest, hippest, dare I say trendiest places we visited.  Despite a very un-India feeling at times, it was really quite quaint and comfortable.  The “mountain scene” was alive with travelers from all over the world.  It felt like The Beach.  Having traveled halfway around the world, we were surrounded by hundreds of people that looked just like us.  This was certainly the epicenter for western neo-wanderers in northern India.
Our bus from Shimla dropped us in the heart of Manali.  We pre-purchased bus tickets for the following morning to embark on a two day journey over the second highest highway in the world to Leh.  All we wanted was a nice place to relax for the afternoon and a quiet place to spend the night.  Typically I resist all barrages of husslers at the bus stops trying to offer me a ride, or hoping I will stay at their brothers hotel.  One man in particular in Manali was dressed a little different from the others.  After turning and walking away from a couple other pushers, this petite nicely dressed man explained he had a new clean guesthouse with one room available in Old Manali.  I kindly replied “no thank you” and walked further down the street.  After gaining our bearings Gretchen and I glanced at the travel guide book.  As I was looking up from the pages I noticed the same petitie man standing in front of me.  He once again offered his services, and said he had a car right around the block which could take us to his house.  I decided to trust this one, and told him we would first look at the room, then decide.  

Old Manali is about 5 kilometers north of Manali.  Nestled in the woods.  Roads still unpaved, much of the town only accesible by foot.  We parked the Tata, and walked a couple minutes through alleys and trails back to his guesthouse.  I was thankful we chose to go with him, today we found a very nice, very small, very clean and accomodating guesthouse.  Once again, it was someplace I could have spent weeks relaxing and exploring.
It was Cheech and Chongs wildest dreams, the streets were literally over growing with marijuana.  Nearly every where in Old Manali we found shrubs of marijuana plants growing.  I’m not really sure who they belonged to.  At times little gangs of Indian men seemed to be watching them, other times they were just growing in-between other flora.  

Manali was more embellished then most places.  If you didn’t come with the right about of bohemian clothing, hemp bags and tie die t-shirts- no worries, they could be purchased from nearly every bazaar.  It was actually hard to find something authentic from India here.  We ate in a Mexican restaurant that also featured Greek, Italian, and Israeli food.  Across the street they served Heineken from behind an espresso bar.    
The countryside around Manali was very different from Shimla.  After leaving the hill stations we twisted over and around a series of ridges and mountains.  Deep within the Kullu Vally lies Manali.  As the valley widened from the Beas River drainage, orchards and farms filled the land.  Buddhist red, green, blue, white, and yellow prayer flags hung from everything.  Across bridge spans, throughout trees and houses- prayers flags blew in the gentle breeze.  The people changed along with the landscape.  Thousands of Tibetans call this part of India home since being thrown out of China.  The Dalai Lama lives only 100 kilometers way in Dharmsala, India.     
Sadly we awoke just after sunrise, had a nice breakfast and left Manali.  Our stay in the Kullu Valley was briefly extended when our bus failed to shift out of second gear.  For 15 minutes the driver blocked a major switchback in the road out of town.  He jolted back and forth trying to get from 1st to 2nd and finally 3rd gear before he called it quits.  The bus gently rolled back into a pull over and we waited for our backup bus to arrive.  Moments like this quickly remind you where you are.  Not that accidents don’t happen in other places, but the buffoonery in cultural differences is amusing.  It felt like the bus driver thought he would be able to drive the bus another 495 kilometers without those gears if he could only get around that one turn.  Not only that, but several locals came over and tinkered with the bus for at least 20 minutes before deciding it was inoperable.  Like they could magically put a curse on the transmission to work in all gears.  I’m not a mechanic, but I think low gears are important when you’re  driving a bus loaded with people over steep mountains passes at extremely high elevations.  So what else do you do in these types of situations?  Find the closest chai shack and wait for a new bus to come.
The second highest highway in the world travels 500 kilometers from Manali into the northern province of Ladakh and its main hub city, Leh.  Squeezed between Pakistan, China, and Nepal- you might recognize the other name for this territory, Kashmir.  Over the last 60 years the border here between Pakistan and India has been constantly disputed and fought over.  Where artillery volleys are fired across jagged glacier peaks and valleys.  Thousands of troops sit just a few kilometers from one another, waiting.  Its actually quite sad.  The acreage is petty.  Yes its gorgeous country, but not worth dying over.  The real victims here are the Tibetans.  Displaced from their true home in China.  They make the majority of the population in Ladakh, with only a few Hindu’s that have migrated from over the mountains.  Several of the even more remote valleys around Leh have indigenous communities that have lived and survived here for thousands of years.
The landscape is remote and desolate.  Rocky peaks as far as the eye can see.  This highway has only been open to westerners since 1989.  Before that, a few wary travelers visited from the western part of the province by way of Sringar on the rim of Kashmir.  The average mountain pass was around 3500 - 4700 meters, the highest pass at 5360 meters.  This was the highest elevation I had ever been to.  Nearly 17,000 feet.  Surprisingly we both felt fine.  After spending several weeks at altitude, I think we were prepared.
Gretchen in her usual travelers posture, me on the lookout. 

We spent one night along the highway in a tent camp near the village of Keylong; a little less than halfway.  The scenery gave a lot of time to think.  We rarely passed other vehicles, except the occasional military convoy or road construction crew.  The landscape varied from narrow valleys, our road hanging over cliffs, to wide open vistas and epic mountain passes.  Our bus puttered up the passes at about 20-30 mph, then sped across wide open deserts.  Midway the second day we spent hours crossing a wide dusty valley.  It must have been as dry as a desert.  It probably was a desert.  I couldn’t imagine this place during the winter  The Earth was bone dry, the slightest breeze blew huge dust clouds across the valley.  The sand was fine and blew everywhere.  Closing the windows wasn’t enough, it was circulating through the bus ventilation system.  At times the road looked like a braided river, spreading out in multiple channels, our experienced bus driver carefully choosing the right way.  At times his conductor dismounted and checked the route.

There aren’t to many settlements along the highway.  Small populations of indigenous people have built summer shacks to serve soda pop and noodles to tourists.  Tanned by the sun, their faces always happy to see tourists arrive.  We gathered in round tents drinking milk tea, listening to stories from motorcyclists brave enough to travel this route.
It was hard to compare these mountains to anywhere else I have been.  At times, they reminded me of drier places in the southern rockies or mountains of New Mexico.  Except there were no trees and little snow left from the extreme sun.
We arrived in Leh well after dark.  Amidst a swarm of taxi’s at the bus stand we broke free and headed to our hotel.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Hill Stations: Mussoorie & Shimla

Hill stations are British Empire era' communities that grew as an escape from the thick summer heat of low land India.  Starting at around 2000 meters, they are usually easily accessible by rail or road.  Some, like Mussoorie are still very popular with upper caste families from Delhi.  Others, like Shimla, were born as the British summer capital and have maintained their quaint architecture and appeal years after Indian independence.

After leaving Gangotri deep in the heart of the Uttarakand Himalaya, we backtracked south along the same route towards Rishikesh.  Once again we woke very early and walked to the local bus stand.  I believed we would be able to catch an empty bus shuttling back towards the flat land.  Part of the pilgrimage tradition is to ride a vehicle to Gangotri, hike to the Gomokh glacier, then walk all the way back to at least Haridwar, or even all the way home as far as Delhi or beyond in the communities of Uttar Pradesh.  Since you don’t have a map in front of you, I will briefly explain that is a long way.  Gangotri is over 250 kilometers from Rishikesh.  Haridwar is another 30 kilometers from Risikesh.  I don’t even know far Delhi is, at least 700 kilometers- we’re talking great distances.  These are distances that take weeks, if not a month or more to cover.  

As we finally hailed an empty jeep and headed south, I got my first real chance to watch these wary walkers making the pilgrimage.  When I go for a hike I generally wear adequate walking shoes or hiking boots.  I carry a pack with water and snacks, and usually don’t wear excessive clothing or jewelry.  These groups of mostly men were walking in sandals, or barefoot.  They carried nothing except souvenir jugs of water filled from the Mother Ganga.  Yet they looked like the most cheerful people on Earth.  Singing, dancing, talking, and smiling as they walked these rough and rugged roads home.  The scene reminded me more of a college football tailgate then a rustic crippling pilgrimage.  We were amazed at their dedication to the cause and belief in the importance of what they were doing, not only for themselves, but their families.  

Traveling by jeep we once again got up close and personal with the local people.  We generally can’t communicate with most of the people in shared jeeps.  Most jeep travelers tend to me young uneducated non-english speaking males, but occasionally a mother daughter, or pair of sisters will hop on with a big brother.  The jeep drivers always decorate their vehicles in the most ornamental fashion.  Statues of Krisna, Vishnu, Shiva, and Ganesh decorate the dashboard.  Plastic lotus flowers dangle from the rearview mirror.  The latest hindi pop music blares from the stereo.  It’s actually a lot of fun, once you get past the loud stares and communication barrier.  Of course the constant motion sickness and imminent threat of landslide from above isn’t much fun- but hey, you’re in India, get over it.

It took us almost an entire day to travel from Gangotri to Mussoorie.  We left in early morning pitch black dark and arrived at dusk.  Traveling by jeep was relatively easy minus a strange argument in Uttarkashi.  I have no idea what was said in this twenty minute dispute, but its amazing how certain body languages are universal across languages.  I interpreted the driver and one of the passengers was very upset about a bargained price for a ride.  Every route generally has a set price for rides to and from major points, but the majority of people get on some where in between, and hop off way before the end- thus without a handy taxi meter, fare prices can become negotiable.  I think the driver gave a fair price, and I assumed that because the first two friends quickly paid upon getting out of the jeep.  Then, the third man must have been upset by either the price, the quality of his seat cushion, or just the principle of not being able to haggle the cost down.  Gretchen and I sat there, heads on a swivel, as these two went back and forth.  I knew the debate wasn’t to bad because several police officers walked by, not even thinking about getting involved.  Finally the man paid up, and we went on down the road to Chamba.  

Traveling by jeep and bus I quickly learned not every town, village, city, or neighborhood you pass through is in the travel guide, in fact, most places are not.  Sometimes you had to trust your instinct, or in this case, Gretchen had to trust me.  Chamba was one of those places.  It was almost as large as every other place we had visited in the guide book, but only received one quick sentence saying it is the ideal spot to catch a bus changing routes between cities.  Thus we got dropped off here by our jeep, and wandered for fifteen minutes trying to find the bus stand.  Its funny how quickly people understand the sign for “confused western travelers”.  Yet again another example of how safe I felt in India, and how it was a wonderful place to travel.  When you be patient, try talking to people, and trust in your navigation skills you will find what you’re looking for.  The bus stand wasn’t exactly a bus stand, but series of city blocks where the same buses always parked.  Upon seeing a couple busses we began asking the conductors and were pointed to our bus.  We boarded an extremely crowded commuter bus and headed west for Mussoorie.

The country side along the foot hills was full of orchards and honeymoon retreats.  A lot of farmers have decided its more economical to convert spare bedrooms into guest houses, and clear trees to offer spectacular views.  Over time more resorts have popped up, and its quickly becoming a premium destination for domestic and international couples nestled in the hills surrounded by fruit orchards and sheep farms.

I don’t know if it was a day of bumpy traveling, or our vacation in India had finally caught up to me- but I will spare the gory details.   One night in Mussorrie was about to become a two day rest to pass intestinal sickness.  After finding a fairly cheap hotel, we turned in for the night and barely emerged two days later.  It was my first bout of a stomach bug, and luckily we had some good meds with us.  I immediately noticed the signs and began taking heavy prescriptions we had brought.  Within 24 hours it cleared up enough to get out and see Mussoorie for at least a few hours.  If you’ve ever seen Empire Strikes Back, you will understand the reference- I was reminded of Bespin’s Cloud City.  The city twisted and turned along several ridges.  Every corner revealed a new over look with clouds blowing through.  It was beautiful.  On a clear day to the north 6000 and 7000 meter peaks loom in the distance.  To the south, jungles of India lay before you in every direction to Dehra Dun and beyond.  We experienced very thick cloudiness and monsoon rains each morning and afternoon. 

I know I will return someday to India, and back to the Himalaya, but I will only quickly pass through Mussoorie.  If this were the only hill station I visited it would be perfect, but after seeing Shimla and others, I found them much more attractive and exotic.  Mussoorie reminded me of the Jersey Shore.  Outlet stores and video arcades in a semi-attractive location just far enough from major metropolitan areas to make it an affordable vacation.  

After two nights I felt well enough to travel.  We once again packed up before breakfast and walked to the bus stand.  Little did I know we were about to embark upon our hardest couple days of travel.  In hind sight I would have drastically lengthened this portion of the trip to provide more days resting and enjoying these places.  Since our final objective for this phase was Leh, many many more miles north along the Pakistan and Tibet borders, we had to travel fast, skipping over places we could have enjoyed.
This is just one of the many busses we rode on.  Still uncrowded, its about 6am and only a few men are headed to work in the provincial capital of Uttarakand, named Dehra Dun.
This is one of my top 10 favorite photos from the trip, An Early Morning Tea Shack.

I will once again paraphrase to stay in sequence, and get to later details.  We took the bus from Mussoorie to Dehra Dun.  In Dehra Dun we took a rickshaw from the local provincal bus station to a larger national bus stand.  I hoped to catch a direct bus to Shimla, unfortunetly, that one passed by full shortly after arriving at the bus station.  So we had to take a bus to Chandigarh, which forced us to backtrack back into the province of Harayana and over to Punjab.

In the gorgeous city of Chandigarh we caught another bus to Shimla.  We were both really impressed by the design and beauty of Chandigarh.  I didn’t really expect to visit the state of Punjab, so I skipped over the overview in my guide book.  Punjab is primarily occupied by the Sikh faith.  And Chandigarh, its capital, was built from scratch after partition.  The city was designed in an almost perfect square grid pattern.  I was reminded in some ways to our own capital of Washington D.C.  Large grass malls and concrete plazas gave the city an unobstructed open feeling.  The Sikhs are typically middle to upper-middle caste and known as being good businessmen.  There were several American franchise hotels along with a variety of American fast food restaurants.  We had to once again change bus stations after arriving and caught a ride in the latest air conditioned propane buses.  The city was generally clean and easy to get around.  Gretchen joked about how we really had to trust people getting on and off in places, but I generally felt it was easy to read signs here and find my way around.  The city was laid out in over 40 sectors, each sector served a purpose and was broken into smaller sectors.  Looking out the bus windows it was easy to figure out which sector would come next, thus getting off the bus at the right place.

After changing busses in Chandigarh we opted for the premiere non-stop bus to Shimla.  For twice the price we paid about five dollars each.  But we got reclining cushy seats in a quiet air conditioned bus.  It was lush after riding the basic busses back and forth across northern India.

Shima was majestic.  The site of the British Empire summer capital, it was easy to see the change in architecture.  Shimla is home to Rupyard Kiplings famous story Kim.  The provincial government still calls this city home, and a large portion of the city is military barracks and government buildings.


Like most hill stations, Shimla is built into the hill side, resting atop a series of ridges.  The main thoroughfare is an area called The Ridge.  This strip of shops and restaurants feels like the Rodeo Drive of India.  People were happy to find out Gretchen and I weren’t British, or European for that matter.  It still seems to be a popular site for European travelers.  I really liked Shimla and could have spent at least a week here resting, exploring, and enjoying the majestic city.  We had a nice hotel situated on a mountain above The Ridge.  In the mornings it was a quick 5 minute walk downhill to find a coffee shop for breakfast, and a rigorous 15 minute walk back up the same hill at night.
Shimla is in the Himachal Pradesh province.  It was clean, affordable, and beautiful.  Any future trips I take to this part of India will certainly include layovers in Shimla.  We actually saw several fancy signs posted all over town warning of citations for littering or spitting on the ground- a drastic contrast from most of central, western, and southern India were it is common practice to throw any and all garbage on the ground.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Gangotri

One of our main goals for traveling to India this past summer was to spend time in the Himalaya.  For as long as I can remember I’ve felt called to the mountains.  There is something about having elevation above me, surrounding me- that brings comfort, joy, and peace.  To know I can head up a nearby mountain and have a vantage of the country side is both rewarding and nurturing.  Mountains are like my safety blanket.  Fredericksburg, Virginia is relatively flat, with only some rolling hills nearby.  Living in West Virginia for four years started this obsession with living in mountainous areas.  I feel a sense of anxiety when I can’t look up and see terrain above or around me.  As a geographer I enjoy the look of mountains, the feel of mountains, and the culture the mountains draw.  Some mountains are as looming as they are majestic, others are as jaggedly craggy as they are awe inspiring.  

I really knew little of what I would find in the mountains of India.  I’ve read several mountaineering books about the major peaks of the Karakoram and Hindu Kush of the Himalaya in Nepal and Pakistan- but not the lesser mountains, the foothills, or the communities of mountain people in India.  As sharply as the elevation climbs nearly strait up, so quickly do the villages cling to its slopes.  

We left Rishikesh in the early afternoon.  After missing all the buses north, we took a taxi to the shared jeep terminal.  Sharing jeeps was an unusual adventure.  Essentially you find a parking lot full of jeeps, people show up, and once the driver feels he can make a profit with the right load of people, everyone piles in, and you drive on.  The vehicles are called jeeps, but they are more like an oversized Isuzu Trooper or Mitsubishi Montero.  Most of them are manufactured by Tata, some are Toyota.  The front drivers bench seat comfortably holds 3, we saw as many as 5.  The middle bench seat holds 3, again, we saw as many as 5.  The rear of the jeep has two sets of bench seats facing inward.  This area should hold 4, we saw 6.  That adds up to a max capacity of 16, but we counted at least 17 or 18 in some.  It never ceased to amaze us how many people will cram more into a vehicle.  In the flatlands you could have over 25 people hanging off the back or sitting on the roof of the jeep racing down the highway.  Even a speed bump could be catastrophic with that load.

As for traveling in this country- it was insane.  I feel like I’ve driven some of the most twisted, windy, back woods roads in West Virginia and western North Carolina- they don’t come close to the Himalaya.  It is hard to fathom, much less describe how some of these roads were cut into the steep slopes.  Recently the History Channel filmed a season of Ice Road Truckers in India.  I’m not much for cable television, especially “reality television”, but I watched just a couple of these episodes to reminisce.  They realistically portray how dangerous the roads are, and how wreck less the local people drive on them.
In order to reach Gangotri we had to spend an evening in Uttarkashi.  Considered a hub of the northern parts of Uttarakhand province, Uttarkashi largely succeeds by supporting the tourism and rice industries.  There are many basmati rice farmers in this part of the country.  All along the highway farms are cut into  the hillside.  Rice is cultivated by cutting terraces, or large flat tiers into the hillsides, then allowing them to flood.  Most of the terraces are in the less sloped terrain near the bottom of the valleys alongside the river.  Nearly all the tiny villages in this part of the Himalaya are holy sites.  Each summer, after the snow melts and the roads open thousands of pilgrims come to pay homage to the source of the Ganges River.  Gangotri is the most important of the religious sites.

This tiny village is completely desolate in the winter months.  From late spring through early fall tens of thousands of pilgrims, maybe even hundreds of thousands pass through this site on the way to Gomokh, source of Mother Ganga.  With several options for treks and 6000 meter mountaineering peaks nearby, a lot of travelers also lay over in Gangotri.  We spent five days here.  It was a very serene and relaxing spot.  The weather was much cooler, very similar to Alaska mountain weather.  Evening temperatures could easily drop into the 50’s.  The elevation was over 3000 meters, almost 10,000 feet.  The mountains were generally obscured by dense cloud cover.  Occasionally the clouds would lift revealing steep sheer rock walls leading to razor edge ridges above.


Hindu’s believe at least once in a lifetime they must travel to the source of the Ganges River.  Once at the glacier they fill up containers with the sacred water, then return home.  Thus like any good tourist town, Gangotri had lots of souvenir shops in the bazaar.
They even had specific pilgrimage clothing.  Bright orange obviously the popular color.
Gangotri at sunset.