A Travellerspoint blog

Crossing the Void

Manali-Leh Highway

It’s 2:30am and the bus still hasn’t arrived! We have been awake since morning and sleep is now slowly creeping up on me. The bus was supposed to arrive at 2am, but this is India… Finally headlamps break the dark night and our minivan has arrived. Our bags get tied to the roof and off we go! Lucky for me I got the broken seat, but since the van isn’t full I lie down in the back and try to get some sleep. I wake up every now and again to the sounds of no engine. Dammit! We’re stuck in traffic! I guess everyone is trying to get up north while the weather is safe enough to do it. The Manali-Leh highway has only been opened to foreigners for the past 22 years; before this they had to go from Srinagar (in Kashmir) to get to Leh and due to the harsh weather conditions the road is only officially opened from July to September.

When it gets light I sit up and look out the window- there are trucks, cars and motorbikes in front and behind us. Some cars are getting stuck in the sludge of icy mud, hence the holdup. There is too much fog so I can’t see how high we are, but I know that the Rohtang pass is 3978m so I have a pretty good idea of what lies below us…

For the next 12 hours I experience a mind-blowing attack on my senses. The “highway” (haha, if you can call it this) is rough, bumpy and potholed and takes us scarily high up in the mountains and down low in the valleys. We pass scenery that I just can’t describe; for to give words to it would take away its magnificence. We pass turquoise lakes, hanging glaciers and soaring peaks. The environment up here is desolate, dry and so bleak. But all of this adds to the grandeur and mystical atmosphere of the landscape. We stop a few times to pee and get some food. I do love peeing with a view ;-)

We were supposed to do the 485km all in one go, but Deepak (our driver) decides to stop in Pang (a tiny tent camp settlement) for the night. Pang lies at 4500m, so I suffered from a little bit of lightheadedness and nausea. It was such a cool experience! There we were, literally in middle of nowhere- with nothing but the bright night’s stars above us and the looming mountains around us. Huddling together in the makeshift tent; we ate veg thukpa (delicious Tibetan noodles) and drank masala chai. We all slept in one big tent with heavy blankets to keep out the bitterly cold.

We get up early the next day and take to the road. When we reach the second highest pass in the world we stop for a break. Taglang La lies at 5360m! It’s quite an incredible feeling to be this high (especially since I didn’t have to hike it ;-) ). From here it’s all downhill to Leh.

After a few hours we arrive and I am glad to be out of the van and on solid ground again. When I think back to the journey, I actually can’t believe what I saw and went through to get to Leh. I recommend this journey to anyone that wants to experience something totally out of this world! And even though you are stuck in a car for 20 hours- the landscape is so fucking fantastic that soon you forget all about how uncomfortable your seat is, or that your ass is getting numb. And together with a little help from my friends- the journey flies past! Leh and its surroundings is a whole other story, which I will tell another day.

(There are photos on Facebook from this trip)

Posted by piratejax 01:02 Archived in India Comments (0)

Into Fairy land

Khirganga

Woah, so much to write about! Ok, I’ll back track to last week…. We stayed just one night in Kasol and the next day us four (the Israeli couple and us) took a local bus to the small village called Bashani. We didn’t want to carry our heavy backpacks up the mountain, so a kind Nepali offered to keep our bags. We were a little weary of how safe it would be (especially because I left my laptop), but at some stage you just have to trust and let go.

The hike up to Khirganga was one of the most beautiful I’d ever done. We first walked along a path that ran alongside the mighty and gushing Parvati River. We stopped for a tea and noodles at a little village and sat in awe at the way these people live out here: So far away from anything, so cold in winter and so many flies!!! The path took us up and down and then we reached the bridge to cross the river. The impressive river below us was something else- you could hardly hear yourself think due to the crashing and thundering force of the mountain water. After crossing the path got a bit harder- but only because I am so unfit and any up hills just about kill me! It was just amazing, fairy land as we used to call this kind of environment as kids: Tall trees reaching for the sky with awesomely bright green moss and small bushes at its feet. I could almost sense the magic working all around me. We marched on for 2 hours until we finally reached the top. It wasn’t at all what I expected: instead of there being a “top of the mountain”, it was more like an “open area we call the top”. It was weird to be at 2930m and for there to be like a field of grass with rocks and small pebbles and cows and goats. Directly across from us is the most impressive scenery: since it’s a valley we had a fantastic spot to see how steep the opposite mountain cuts down into the river. And in the distance we can see even higher snow-capped peaks.

The main attraction to this place is the holy hot springs. So after finding a room (there is about 20 small rooms- wooden, like a barn), we went to take a well-deserved dip. Now this is the time I got a bit annoyed at India. The hot spring was divided into a ladies and men section. The ladies is all boarded up so there is no view except the sky, whereas the guys section is out in the open with beautiful views all around. We didn’t want to be boxed up so we sat in the boys section. But then a guy came and told us to get out or else we would have to pay a fine! So irritating!!

A short rant: Why is it that women in the east are always shunned away, put away, hidden and covered? Are men so weak that they can’t control themselves whenever they see a girl in a short skirt? It makes me really angry that I have to cover up in order not to distract or to tempt them… I do understand that in countries like India things work differently, but I am looking forward to the day when women start a revolution against men who have basically forced them, for “their protection”, to cover themselves up and to feel ashamed for their sexuality.
Ok, I’m finished ranting…

While we were eating lunch we met this Swiss guy, Mauro who was currently living in a cave! I had to have a look at this setup, so later we took a walk to his “den”. I have put up photos on Facebook of his cave, so you can get a better idea. But it looked pretty sweet- large area in front to build fires and a small stream close by. He had been there for a few days and was planning on spending a few more.

That night we just chilled in the restaurant- staying close to the wood-fired heater. It was surprisingly warm in our room and we all got a good night’s rest. The next day we just sat and admired the beauty around us before we took the long way back. We arrived in Bashani just as the rain came down and went to get our bags. True to his word- everything was as we left it. We then got a ride up to a small village called Tosh, where we stayed the night. The view from there was spectacular! I can’t get over how amazing these mountains are!
The next morning Angie and I left for Manali. After changing buses 3 times we eventually made it in 5 hours. It was actually pretty interesting how perfect it all worked out- as soon we got out one bus, our next bus was there, ready to go! We only stayed there 2 nights and on the third we left for the most epic and arduous drive of my life: the Manali-Leh highway.
More about it coming soon!! :-)

Posted by piratejax 07:43 Archived in India Comments (0)

The Dalai Lama is da man!

His voice is peaceful, soothing and strong –and full of kindness. He speaks in his native language, while we follow the English (or Korean, Spanish or Japanese) translation on handheld radios. He lectured about the “Origin of Dependence”, a topic bursting with scientific Buddhist doctrine and statements which go straight over my head, but I try to follow with all my mental strength. The monks have first choice of seats around him, and then it’s the rest of us. We arrive a bit late and luckily find a spot about 30m from him. His physical presence is awe-inspiring and his moon- face is constantly at ease with shiny sparkly eyes. He would make such a great grandfather- imagine bedtime story- time?! :-)

The morning and afternoon lectures were 2 hours long, and I was surprised that I was able to sit still on the floor and concentrate for all this time (the yoga must have helped after all!). The +- 600 people there were from all religions and colours. It was fantastic for all of us to be there, together- united in our admiration and utter respect we all have for him. He’s actually quite a small man, and when he left in his car, the entire crowd literally held their breadth in silence- with huge smiles on every single person. It was just so incredible!
I also liked that there weren’t any hysterical, weeping or fanatical “fans” there, as there sometimes are with other religious/spiritual leaders.
Then when the crowds started to leave, there was no pushing, no rushing- everyone moved in a calm manner. For the rest of the day, the whole town seemed to be riding on some high of the Dalai Lama-everyone seemed happier, calmer… or maybe it was just my imagination…

We also visited the Tibet Museum. It was extremely sad to read about their history, the unimaginable pain and suffering they have, and are, going through. It brought tears to my eyes to read about the refugee’s experiences in the labour and concentration camps (which still exist!).
Between 1947 and 1949 the Chinese started to invade Tibet- completely destroying their thousands of old temples, scriptures and holy places. They systemically destroyed (and still are) their culture and tore their religion to threads!! “Religion is poison” is the way the Chinese government thinks. The Tibetans are forced to give up their heritage and have to “become” Chinese…

We went to a party one night and I met some Tibetans born in Tibet but came to India (on foot, across the Himalayas) at a very young age. One guy’s parents are still in Tibet…I can’t imagine what his life must be like! He has no family (with him) and no country to call his own. Never before have I had so much appreciation for my easy childhood, my eternal freedom and the simple fact that I can go home whenever I want. I also wonder how they feel about the lifestyle they are living in India- drinking, Western music, different style of clothes, girls (I have heard that many young Tibetan men try to find a Western girl to “get with”, in order to get some money or sponsorship from them). I wonder if they feel like they are stuck in some contradicting life: trapped between trying to hold onto their Tibetan heritage, but at the same time wanting to let it go out of sadness and utter hopelessness.

I was also lucky enough to meet a cool Korean dude from Seoul- Moon Chul. He is definitely not your typical Korean- he is the eldest and left home and currently lives in Dharamsala. (His younger brother is not impressed that he has to stay at home look after his parents). He owns a second hand shop where travelers can give their unwanted clothes and if they want- buy more at half the price. Moon Chul’s plan is to collect a bunch of clothes and open a similar shop in Seoul (Hongdae). He has a pretty slow and relaxed life (very Un-Korean of him) and spends his time either at his shop or smoking hash with friends and travelers.
No matter who they are- I will always have a place in my heart for Koreans and whenever I meet one- it’s as if this one person represents my whole Korean experience and I can’t help but want to talk to them about anything Korean. (Ok, I apologize for this oh-so-sentimental statement- but I can’t put it any other way ;-) ).
We also had some doenjang jiggae, ramyeon and kimchi at a local Korean restaurant- expensive, worth it of course ;-)

Right now we are in Kasol, or more commonly known as “Little Israel” (due to the huge influx of Israeli travelers). This little town is snuggled in a beautiful valley with huge mountains covered in pine trees flanking either side. In the distance are very high snow-capped mountains. There is an extremely powerful river gushing through the ravine with enough power to whip a house off its feet!

Getting here was not so easy- it included a 7 hour bumpy-night bus ride and then getting dropped off in literally nowhere at 3am! Another couple was with us, so we felt safe. We shared a taxi (luckily one drove past) to Kasol. We walked around earlier and I couldn’t help but feel a weird, ominous vibe in the air. It’s like something bad just happened and no one wants to talk about it. The squawking black crows do not help my feelings. There is also the fact that this is the place where many travelers have gone missing in mysterious situations… Angie and I both think that the reason we feel like this is that previously we stayed in such a spiritual and serene place- with monks meditating all day; people doing yoga- thinking positive and optimistic thoughts and this helped to contribute to the pleasant feelings we felt in Dharamsala. It may sound like hogwash to some of you, but I believe this to be true :-)

Alrighty then…Peace Out

Posted by piratejax 06:52 Archived in India Comments (2)

The Mountains are cool

We enjoyed the comforts of a family home for a few days- recovered from our colds and injuries.
In Chandigarh we spent our time eating great home-cooked Indian food, met some of Kishan’s friends and just did basically nothing. It was a well-needed holiday from our holiday ;-)
Last week Sunday we (plus Kishan and his friend, Mayank) took a 5 hour bus up north to Shimla. Shimla is one of the most famous and popular hill stations here in India- the British ran here to escape the hot, humid summer months in Delhi and nowadays it’s a very popular summer destination. The bus ride took us on windy roads with steep valleys below us and high mountains above us. Sitting on the seat away from the window- if I looked out I couldn’t see the road; only a steep fall down…
We only stayed one night in Shimla- had a well- deserved dinner and just walked around through the busy streets. The next day the boys went back to Chandigarh and we headed on north to Mandi. Mandi is nothing but a stopover town to cut down the journey to Dharamsala into 2 days.

The ride from Mandi to Dharamsala was surprisingly pleasant. Despite the fact that the bus was a ramshackle-of-a-bus, the trip went by pretty nicely! It was so fascinating to see Indians looking really different to ones I’ve seen before. The mountain folk have sharper features- longer, pointier noses, grey-blue eyes and are averagely tall. They look more like Iranians, than a stereotypical Indian. They also treated us differently than the ones in the flatter plains south- they stared out of curiosity and interest and never once did I feel like any of the men stared in a perverted way (as many of the Delhi and Punjabi guys have done). After 6 hours we finally arrived in Dharamsala, but our journey was finished yet. We had to take a squashy jeep up to Mcleod Ganji, 7km away. There was a guy sitting next to me who smelt drunk. His left arm was spread out behind Angie and I. Every few minutes he would remove it and place it back in his lap. But his movements included a slow movement, touching my back as his arm went past. He even tried to touch my leg. It was a small space and I didn’t want to cause a scene, but man I was this close to slapping him!

We reached Mcleod Ganji and took an auto-rickshaw a further 3km up the hill to Dharamkot- a peaceful little village sitting at 2200m above sea level. We found our guesthouse and soon we were eating pizza and drinking tea, whilst overlooking a beautiful valley below us and mountains above us.

Dharamsala is the home of the exiled- Dalai Lama and his government and all the Tibetan refugees who have escaped Chinese- occupied Tibet. So this area is completely dominated by Tibetans, meditation centre’s, Tibetan libraries, monasteries and temples. I feel like I have left India…

Our first day was spent researching different yoga courses and just walking around and getting a feel for the place and enjoying the glorious cool weather. In Dharmakot there are numerous little cafes and restaurants and laundry services. This is also a favourite spot for young Israelis who have just finished their compulsory army service (2 years for girls, 3 for boys) to chill out and smoke hash- so there is a lot of Hebrew and Israeli food around. (Yummy hummus!) I really like the Israelis- they are interesting to talk to and have different approaches to life.

We decided to join up for a 5 day (3 hours a day) yoga course. Hmm, if only we had known what we had signed up for… I thought I liked yoga, but after 3 years of being mute to it- I have lost all my mental strength and balance! The course is for everyone, even if you are an advanced student. Sharat (our teacher) teaches right from the beginning- how to stand properly and how to do the poses absolutely correctly. During class we use a lot of props to help us with the exhausting and painful poses- this is new to me and I don’t like it. I like to just use my body and a matt. But it has been interesting to try a different method of yoga. I thought I would struggle, since my right arm is still sore from the scooter accident, but since the course started my arm has gotten so much better and stronger!:-)

Since being here we have met 2 weirdoes. First it was a 23 year old dude from Delhi. He asked Angie and me if he could join us on our walk. In the beginning he seemed ok, but then he asked us if we had boyfriends, I lied (didn’t want to give this boy any thoughts) and the conversation carried on. Then he asked us what we thought about commitment (?!). We weren’t sure where he was going with this… then later he asked if he could stay in our room for the night since he had to walk back to his guesthouse alone and he was scared to be attacked by a bear!! Really?? WTH??
Day 2: a guy asked us where we were going etc, he told us of a waterfall close by that he could take us to. We agreed. He suddenly blurts out “can I live with you?” (??!!) Do we look like a homeless shelter? Then when we decided not to go all the way to the waterfall, be became so pushy that we politely ditched him.

Next week the Dalai Lama will be in Dharamsala for 2 days giving some talks and teachings. I never thought I would get the chance to hear him, so I am really excited that we are here at the perfect time! :-)

Ok I must go now and eat some more splendid food! (Since we walk up a steep hill every day and we do yoga- we need the extra calories. So it’s all legit ;-))

Posted by piratejax 07:54 Archived in India Comments (0)

This place is crazy...but I love it!

Delhi

My back is dripping with sweat; my pants are stuck to my thighs as if I had just had a run in the rain and my fringe is flat on my forehead. Angie leans over and whispers “the man next to us looks like a mixture of Jesus and Father Christmas”. He has such a big, grey beard covering the lower half of his face, so I find it hard to understand his English- no chance of lip reading! His eyes tell everything- very inquisitive, kind and have a certain constant look of surprise in them. He is wearing an orange scarf; light orange pants and is without shoes. He looks like one of those holy men whose sole life’s purpose is to roam from temple to temple, on foot. We discover he’s actually a meditation teacher- has a card and is even on Facebook! Even the spiritual guys have made friends with technology. He offered to take us to a Hindu temple the following day; but we politely decline as we have made other plans.

Delhi is the hottest, dustiest and dirtiest city I have ever been in. As soon as I step outside my hotel room (and I am still in the hotel!) the heat hits me with a force like none other! I move to the outside and I am hit slap bang in the head with an instant heat-headache and every step takes it out of me. The intense air just sits there in all its glory without making an effort to make way for me as I try to walk through it. I am sweating within minutes. As I take my first breath I can taste dust, pollution and who knows what else- I have definitely cut my life expectancy down a few years. (I think I am going to start taking anti- aging pills).
But despite the heat and the dust and the fact that even before we stepped foot in India we have both been pretty sick with a stuffy nose, headaches and a cough- it hasn’t deterred us from getting the most out of it- this place is just amazing! Colourful people; interesting smells and just so much going on all the time! Wherever I sit- I see the most fascinating scenes playing out in front of me- Israeli’s walking around bare feet; a man standing in front of me, crying, asking for 5 rupees; a dog barking madly at a kid; a man forcefully shoving away a beggar from his shop; pedestrians almost getting knocked over by the abundant rickshaws, motorbikes and cars passing through and just complete constant chaos!

How does one spend their days when the heat is so extreme? At the cinema of course! Angie and I walked in midday heat, shouting at each other about where the hell we are, getting more and more bad tempered as the walk goes on… Luckily Indians can speak English, and soon we find our destination. The only movie showing was The Hangover 2. Its set in Bangkok, and it made such a difference, knowing that we had just come from there! The little things about Thailand we were able to pick up and laugh even more at…
The movie theatre was amazing! Such comfy seats that can be pulled out so you can lie a bit back and there is also great customer service (what’s new?). There’s an interval halfway through and waiters come around asking if you want anything- coke, popcorn etc.

In all the time I’ve spent in Southeast Asia- never before I have been spoken to as often as I have been here in India. All the time people (100% always men) are asking what happened to my arm; where I am from etc. We have been invited for tea or a beer on numerous occasions, but we are always skeptical as to what their intentions are. I think in time we will be able to judge them, but for now I’d prefer to decline. The salespeople are also not so aggressive like in Vietnam or Cambodia, and if I say “no thank you”, they just leave me alone. Same goes for the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers.

We were standing outside a “Japanese, Korean and Chinese” restaurant; the owner comes out and asks us what we are doing and if we want to sit down. I reply I am just reading. He confusingly asks “reading what?” (thinking I just said that in order to not have to go inside)-while staring at the menu on the wall written in just Korean, Chinese and Japanese. Ha! Great feeling to say “I can read Korean!” :-)

The hardest aspect to understand about India, for me, is how to deal with the extreme lifestyles that exist here. One side of the street there’s people sleeping on the ground, wearing dirty or no clothes, having no food and begging to every passerby’s. There’s the tatty-dressed rickshaw drivers whose home is their rickshaw. There are cows who roam as they please-they are the king of the road.
Then you get wealthier side with flashy jewelry and smart attire; that walk pass the lower castes without a care in the world. Initially I was shocked at how degradingly the poor were treated, but I have to admit it’s similar to South Africa. Growing up with poverty all around you, you become numb to it. In SA it’s easy for me to pretend that the poverty and suffering of people don’t exist. Whereas as here- it is constantly in my face, in my space, in my psych. Wherever I go- it’s there and it’s real and it hurts me that I can’t help them all. I feel guilty every time I say “no, sorry” to a mother and her child on her hip. It kills me inside that so many people in this country have absolutely nothing and will always have nothing and will die as nothing. I won’t ignore these people and I do want to help in some way. But for now all I can hope for is the strength to not close my eyes to them....

Right now we are at Kishan’s parent’s house in Chandigarh. We traveled last night. The bus ride was very interesting! In the beginning everything was honky dory, but them just over halfway we all jumped at a loud bang! The bus had ridden over a huge piece of granite cement and a tyre had burst- fantastic! After what seemed like forever we were on our way again. I had a guy’s ass in my face for a while and I was so glad when Kishan whispered to me “in 10 minutes we get off”. Dragging my backpack from under my feet we managed to escape the metal-clanking machine. Once we were off I realized that one of my hiking boots had fallen out of the bag attached to my backpack- it was still on the bus! Since I had the one, it seemed lame to not have the other (rather lose both then just one). So Kishan drove (his mother’s driver had met us when we got off) like a crazy man to try catch up. We got to the bus station and were just in time to get to get my shoe before the bus went off again. Yahh! :-)

The internet here (in India in general) is not as good as it was in Southeast Asia, but I will try to upload articles and photos (on Facebook) as often as I can.
Ok, that’s all for now. Thanks for reading! :-)

Posted by piratejax 02:29 Archived in India Comments (1)

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