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  • Steep sliding away

    Posted on July 31st, 2009 Sheila Yair 5 comments

    kugtiChamba valley is a very steep valley people there have lived steep lives for thousands of years. Any piece of land that is at less than 90 degrees is good for a trail, terraces, a road and even a village. If it is not a pure vertical cliff they will use it for something. That takes a little getting use to for although we stand vertical our senses are horizontal. Our eyes, ears nostrils even our mouth are horizontal. Even though evolution has lifted us up and set us on two legs we are still horizontal creatures. Our surroundings are always wider than they are higher, our houses our cars our fields. Even a high rise building is always part of a much wider city. Not so in Chamba valley, and so goes our vertical tale;

    We planed a trip to Raylong, also called kudi kot, a beautiful flower meadow at 4000 meters above sea level, up the river Budhil and below the famous Kugti Pass. Sarup our friend from Malkota tells us it is spectacular and fairly easy to do the pass. He has done it twice with his father. His father who is a shepherd does it every year with his flock, going over the pass the beginning of summer and coming back over the pass before fall. He says it is especially easy this year since there has been very little snow. I am very glad to hear that as it is, pardon the pun, very hard for me to pass on a pass. A pass is never judged by its altitude alone, the ease of a path, the technicality of the climb and the need of special equipment for climbing or ice also play a big role. This one seems to have it all in our favor. Many Chamba valley shepherds go over it every summer with their flocks so good trail. No snow this year means no need for special equipment so we are left only with the altitude of 5040 meters which we decide we will do slowly. The other great advantage is that crossing the pass will put us in Lahul which is out of the reach of the monsoon, closer to Ladhak, where we are headed, and will save us about twenty something hours of bus ride. Sarup draws us a little map which seems simple enough. He says there are only two points where the trail splits and shows us where to go.

    So we start packing. We are heavy as we are taking all our equipment plus some extra food in case we decide to stay and acclimatize in Raylong. We bring dry food, rice and lentils, and some wet treats; 1 kilo of tomatoes, ½ of potatoes, pepper, onions, garlic, three bags of bread and even 200 grams of cheese. We are very heavy but we will eat well and finish the heavy wet food before we reach altitude. We bid farewell to our friends in Malkota.

    That night it starts raining heavily. It still rains in the morning and with great disappointment we are thinking of canceling the trip, but at 10am it clears and the sun comes out at full might so we decide to proceed. We take a public jeep to Dharhoul and from there walk 6 kilometers to Kugti. Kugti is a beautiful wooden secluded village up in the hills. It has no road leading to it and is totally cut off during the harsh winters. The people are very friendly and are very excited about our camera. We take many photos of the locals especially the kids and collect all their addresses to send the photos once we reach a big town. We also talk to a few guide/porters that are willing to take us up to the pass but eventually decide to make it on our own. As soon as we get out of the village there is a split in the road, this of course is not on our little map. We ask some people but can’t really get an answer. Our camp destination is the temple but some say it is the right way and some say it isn’t. We take the left fork which seems logical because it is climbing up. After a while another uncharted split, again we stick to the left. After a long climb we finally make it to the temple.

    templeWe have seen some families on the road going to Kugti and now we see them all here in the temple. It is 6pm and getting dark and cold. We ask around as to where we can camp and the sadu (holy man) points us to the dharamsala (pilgrim’s rest house). We lay our bags and go to the only little shop selling food. The shop is very smoky and the old man tells us he only sells maghi, it sounds familiar although we don’t really know what it is, but we want something warm in our stomach. It turns out to be a noodles-in-a-cup made by Maggi. Some pilgrims whom are also having Maggi offer us some chapatti (Indian flat bread). After dinner we go to the temple and sit with Bablu and his grandfather whom are cooking a big meal. His grandfather is 65 years old and this is his forth pilgrimage to this temple. We realize the Maggi was a mistake as we are invited for dinner. Hinduism with altitude shows its friendlier side. It is all about sharing and giving with no casts or indifference to suffering which is frequent close to sea level. We eat a huge meal of rice, lentils, vegetables and chapatti. We eat only with our right hand, as customary in India, since there are no utensils. As a thank you I give Bablu and his friend a mango, they are very happy to see a fruit at this altitude and devour it. We ask the sadu about the two goats in the temples courtyard, he says it is for the puja (offering) tomorrow morning. As he finishes saying that two more people arrive with a ram and a goat. I wonder how many animals are offered in this remote temple. The families now are drifting in to the temple and setting up for their night sleep. There is some song and prayer in the temple but it starts petering out. We move to the fire in the middle of the court yard and talk to the sadu and some of the late nighters. We talk about holy places, about monimahesh and this temple. This temple is devoted to Kartik a form of the blood thirsty goddess Kali. We eventually also make our way to bed. We sleep well awakened only by the caretaker who is a bit touched as the Irish would say, or not totally sane as the rest of us would put it. He talks to himself for about 15 minutes before falling asleep on a bench in front of us.

    In the morning we are awakened for the puja. In the temple the priest has secluded himself in the altar. He comes out after a while with a plate of smoking charcoals. There are people following him with drums and chimes as he walks around the alter. The door is open and we can see the statue of Kartik to whom all these proceedings are dedicated. The sadu guides me to a bell on the ceiling and tells me to ring it with the rest of them. They go around and around, my hand is starting to really hurt, I try to think “mind over matter, there is no pain…”

    Finally we all go outside. Some people are preparing sweet fried dough with nuts, raisins and coconut. They pass it around and we eat it with a sweet pancake. The animals are taken away. They have been treated very well the last few hours, hand fed and watered, they have no idea as to what is about to happen. They are taken about 200 meters from the temple where one by one they are butchered very quickly with one hit of a very sharp knife to their throats. Within 5 minutes there are four bloody heads brought to the Kartik’s alter. Within 20 minutes pieces of mneat are making their way to the fire and to the big frying wok under Bablu’s grandfather’s supervision. We are offered some meat which looks very tasty but we insistently refuse saying we are vegetarian. It is very hard eating animals you saw alive a few minutes ago. In general I don’t understand animal offerings it is really the animal who is offering its life or rather losing it, while the humans gain a hearty meal. But the statue of Kartik seems happy and says nothing to counter the sacrifice.

    With all the excitement it got to be already 11am so we bid farewell to all and after a long series of photos we are on our way. After an hour and a half we reach Doghi, the plain where we have to cross the river. The river seems un-crossable and there is another plain a few kilometers further up leading to a different valley. We walk up a bit and can’t decide. We are lost again. So much for the map Sarup drew us. There is no one around us and we decide to just make the best of it and hike and camp in the mountains for a few days then just go back.

    kugti2In the midst of our frustration we see two shepherds crossing the river. We run towards them. They come back and help us cross the river. There is a big log we have missed which goes over the deepest part of the river. So now we are walking on a wet log with everything we own on our back and below us a gushing river. The rest of the river we cross walking in it and getting wet to our knees. We thank the shepherds and walk with them for a while. They are going to Raylong. They are very light and acclimatized and I wonder how long we will be able to keep up with them. After two hours or so they are far ahead. It starts raining and the first flat place we find we set-up camp. There is a beautiful rainbow in the sky but our equipment is wet at its expense. We are in the tent by 6:30 having cheese sandwiches, a little wet but happy we are back on track.

    The next day we set off to Raylong. It is a steep and taxing climb to 4000 meters. Along the way we pass the shepherds from yesterday. They have gone all the way up just to bring down a couple of horses and some goats. We thank them once more.

    We set camp in Raylong and go say hi to the shepherds. They offer us fresh goat milk with chapatti. It is such a treat to have some fresh goat milk. We offer them some cookies in return which they gulp down. One of them speaks very little English and I have my ever improving Hindi. But at a rate of one or two words a day it is only enough for the very basic of conversations. Our conversation is mostly about what the U.S.A. has and what India has;

    “America much apples?”

    “Yes much apples”

    “America much rice?”

    “Little rice much potato and bread” etc…

    At one point the English speaker leaves to inject the goats with what I suspect is antibiotics as he gives it only to the coughing ones. He comes back and offers me the syringe. I decline. Then he proceeds and pours from the syringe some of the fluid on to his cuts on both his heels. We immediately offer him our iodine. I can just see a western doctor cringing at that sight. We than talk about one of them guiding and us to the pass and helping us with our bags. They happily agree to the unexpected extra income. A little more conversation about America much and little and the shepherd says “give me 2 cups of tea”. He repeats it several times. I am guessing he is offering but we both just say no, thank him and say we want to walk around.

    Raylong is a beautiful meadow with small green rolling hills filled with tons of different flowers. If not for the lack of oxygen and mountains all around you would think you were in Ireland. We have a nice rice and lentils meal and go to bed. At 2am it starts raining we know this because we both can’t really sleep due to altitude. It rains till 11am, at which point we can finally leave our tent and step out. We talk to the shepherd and tell him we would like to postpone our climb for tomorrow. He tells us “you not go tomorrow”, why we ask. “yes me go, you not” it is only then that I realize he has me and you reversed and that explains the tea confusion from yesterday. We agree that me/you/us go tomorrow if no rain.

    raylong2We walk up to the end of the meadow to see if we can make out the path to the pass. It is wet and cloudy and all we can see is a big wall of rock no path in sight.

    At around 4pm I cast a shadow fore the first time in Raylong, I call Sheila to come see, it is great to feel the rays of the sun on your back warming you. The pleasure lasts only 2 minutes but the warmth we feel and colors we see for those two minutes lift our spirits. That evening when the shepherd tells us “you give me 2 cup tea” we know to accept and go for our afternoon tea. Luckily we have left some wood in the tent so we again enjoy a warm meal. At 8pm we hear people arriving from the other side. They have crossed the pass. They walk at all times and under any condition. I think how we go through great effort to do what for them is just work. We buy food we carry heavy loads we acclimatize just to see the trail that for them is their livelihood. I guess they might be interested to see a New York office at work and if possible would probably go through some trouble to experience corporate America. But I am sure they would not take as many photos as we took of their “office”.

    We go to sleep hoping for a clear day tomorrow.

    That night it starts raining at 3am. We are both disappointed beyond words and just lay there. But the rain stops after an hour and a half.

    The morning is crystal clear with only some feathered clouds around the mountains. For the first time we see all the snow caps around Raylong and see the meadow for its entire and full beauty. As the sun comes up we see two sun rises from two distinct spots. We can not understand it until we realize the sun and moon are rising at the same time. I take that as a good omen and a sign to cross the pass.

    The people who came over tell us it is a very hard pass but possible and that we should look out for falling rocks. Neither one of us knows what to do, should we go on or go all the way back. We don’t want to go all the way back, so we decide to continue. After passing the 2 kilometers to the end of the meadow we start climbing up for about an hour. At this point we reach the snow (so much for no snow). We keep advancing slowly upwards. It is harder to breath and the bag seems heavier than ever. One of the dogs is herding us walking slowly behind us. We see the snow end far up at the rock wall we saw yesterday but still no sign of a path. With snow you suffer both the altitude and the need to dig every step you take to secure yourselfer. It is excruciating. We approach the end of the snow. I see something that looks like a path to the right and point it out to Sheila. After a week in Chamba valley no trail can surprise me. Suddenly the guide turns to the left and just starts climbing. I cant believe it but again this is Chamba valley. Looks like the last 600 meters are vertical. Now 600 meters at sea level and horizontal can be traversed at a leisurely pace at around 10 minutes. The world record for 400 meter dash is 43.18 seconds which means about a minut and 6 seconds for 600. But we are at 4500 meters and it is vertical. After 20 seconds the guide is far up yelling down to us “problem?”. No of course not what possible problem could there be? We start climbing, clinging to the slippery sharp rock for our lives. It is agonizing advancing and many times rocks crumble and fall below us. I can see how people take their animals their livelihood up and down this pass every year. I think of Mark’s goats and what they would do up here. We stop every 10 seconds for air, the dog patiently behind us and the guide up ahead every now and then yelling “problem?”. Nahi, haste haste, I yell, which means “no, slowly slowly”. After a grueling hour we make it to the top. It started snowing as we were coming up and a heavy cloud has set. We have to move on, no time to appreciate our achievement or bask in our conquest. I caught a quick glimpse of the valley below but not enough to see a clear path. I see on the guides face he is anxious to go down. I also see by the size of the shrine and the amount of offerings, candy, rice, coconut and colorful shiny cloth that this is a dangerous pass even for the locals. So much for an easy pass. No one can say if the weather will clear it is freezing we are getting wet and do not want to stay up while it is snowing. The guide says to stick to the left and follow the “got sit”. But it is very hard walking a trail you don’t know in fog and snow. We are both scared stiff. For the first time I can remember I kneel down and pray. Mother Nature please let us enjoy your beauty without harm, please let us go down as we came up without injury.

    passHundred of years of goat shit has accumulated on this pass and we fallow the freshest. After a while of mud and slippery stone we reach gravel. Gravel is great for going down you go fast and steady like a dune, at this point I can almost kiss the gravel. Both the fog and fear lift at once. We reach a 2 kilometer stretch of snow we have to descend. On the far left I see a landslide over the snow that extends our gravel for about a kilometer. It is the first time I notice the beauty of where we are. I wonder if the storm up top was caused by the eclipse which I know is occurring today.

    After a long way down we reach the bottom safely. They told us we will be passing over a glacier, but no one said it is covered with rocks and boulders. We have to skip from rock to rock going up and down through the crevices caused by water running through. We constantly look down to secure our path and up to try and devise the easiest rout. Again I just can’t imagine how people go through this with all their animals. The glacier is never ending, every time we climb up what looks like the end of it we just see the rocks continuing. This place is the true Rockland County.

    Finally at 5:30 after hours of up and down in a boulder field we see a green meadow. We both are exhausted and just go into the tent, neither one feeling like eating or cooking. We have some tomato sandwiches and finish all our treats, cookies peanuts and biscuits. We are very grateful to be alive and uninjured. I promise Sheila that was our last hurdle and we just have to get to the road tomorrow.

    In the morning we hear the familiar pitter patter of rain falling on our tent. Lahul Spiti is beyond the monsoon and the guide book says it gets precious and scarce rain. We are trapped in our tent until 11am felling little compensation that we are experiencing such scarce and precious rain especially since it rained every day of our trip. We leave camp late but supposedly we only have about 6 kilometers to the road. The first challenge of the day is to cross the big glacier river. We go up and down looking for a good place to cross to no avail. After about an hour we decide to just cross wetting our shoes and pants. A shepherd points us to Raape which is the next village down. There is no clear trail, it is just a bunch of grazing paths and we constantly have to guess which is the best one. There are also many streams coming down into the main river which we also have to guess as to where the best crossing is. It is very steep and the trails are very narrow we are not advancing very fast. At one point Sheila jokes and says it would be funny if she crossed the pass with no injury only to slip and fall on one of these trails. Now they say there is a little truth in every joke. Around one of the bands we come up to a fresh landslide. It has washed away the trails. We start crossing it walking carefully on all four. I take a little path above and Sheila is making her way on a little path below me. At one point she gets stuck. She is standing on a little rock 150 meters above the river in the middle of a landslide. She can’t move up, down, forward, or backwards without having rocks and earth slide. I take off my bag, not an easy task at this slant. I get as close as I can and stretch out my walking stick for her to grab. She grabs on and starts moving towards me. She places her foot on a rock, it plumps out and starts tumbling down the long fall towards the river. Sheila starts sliding down. Hold on to the stick I yell to her. She is. I manage to pull her up a little and to the right where she places her feet on a sturdy rock. She slowly climbs up towards me. She is safe besides me. We both just sit there on the edge of the mudslide. After a few deep breaths we promise each other to get out of this alive. We keep walking and the valley just gets steeper and steeper. I can’t really see how we can cross this and get to the road but we haven’t missed any turns and really seem to be walking on the only path possible. After a few minutes of frustration and turning a corner we see the trail winding down to a pasture where yaks are grazing, from there a little path goes all the way to an aqueduct curved into the side of the mountain. We are getting out of here. We reach the aqueduct, finally a true trail. For two days we have been walking on snow, ice, rocks and mud constantly looking up and down and now at last a nice horizontal patch of ground.

    kugti3We walk for 4 kilometers, we see the main road ahead of us. The aqueduct which was mostly dry till now runs under a huge waterfall. It is broken at that point and flooded from there on. It seems a little dangerous to walk it and we don’t want to get all wet. It is 4:30 we see the road but cant get to it. We don’t know what to do. This trek will put obstacles in front of us till the last minute. we decide to go back and see if we missed a path going down to the village, we also figure we will camp one more night and head out early tomorrow morning. As we are walking back we see a little trail in the pine forest we passed. We go down it all the way to the outskirts of the village. It is a very steep trail but it leads us down.

    We reach a tall grass field and start setting up to camp when some locals come and tell us we can’t camp here since we will flatten the grass. This is a huge wild field and I am not quite sure what they intend to do with all this un-flattened grass. Nevertheless we continue to the village. We are told that the last bus to Keylong passes at 6pm. We have half an hour to cross the river and climb to the main road. We get there at 6:10. A couple people who pass us by on the road say the bus has passes. This is the only bus that was on time our whole trip and probably the only bus on time in Indian history. We ask the people if they know of any hotel close by. The say we have to go back one village, the bus in the other direction is coming and there is no time to ponder what to do. We get on it and go the 4 kilometers to Jahalman. The town is a tiny one we walk up and down asking people of the hotel but there is none, there is only a government guest house which is full. But they allow us to pitch our tent in their yard, we must look real desperate. We have 2 dinners each at two different restaurants and go happily to sleep. I don’t want to promise any last obstacle promise like last night but it does seem our ordeal is over.

    In the morning we have some more scarce and precious rain wake us up we get on the bus and go to Keylong.

    I have lost my right toenail and Sheila’s heart is still pounding but we are both fine. We have left New York seeking adventure, with this trek we have officially left the haves and joined the half nuts.


    A few weeks later we were skimming through a trekking guide book to find out that ku ghati means miserable goings and that it is one of the hardest passes in the area.


  • Holy lake

    Posted on July 31st, 2009 Sheila Yair 2 comments

    monimaheshEver since arriving in Chamba we start seeing pictures of the sacred lake Manimahesh. We see these posters and postcards in every store and restaurant. Manimahesh Lake sits on the foot of the Manimahesh Kailash massif. The mountain is believed to be the house of Shiva, one of Hindus main gods, making the lake which is really just a pound one of the holiest places in north India and the site of a huge pilgrimage. Somewhere in mid august for two weeks many pilgrims climb the trail to bathe in the lake and pray to Shiva. We couldn’t get exact numbers but it was somewhere between 200 people a day to 300,000 people.

    Pilgrimages in India rarely travel flat land, there is always a steep climb involved. Manimahesh is 4100 meters above sea level. We wake up early and take the public jeep to Hadsar. There is no bus as the road is always in bad condition. After two chais (Indian milk tea) we start the relentless 13 km climb up. The trail goes up along the river Ravi which at its steep slant, is really more like one long waterfall. We packed food for two days figuring we might stay at the lake an extra day. We are not very heavy and we start collecting wood to cook dinner as we guess there won’t be anything that high up. After an intense 3 hours we break for lunch. We have tomatoes and paneer (Indian white cheese) sandwiches, which are becoming a camping favorite, especially since we have our own salt and pepper shakers. We pass a couple seasonal villages with many goats and sheep. People climb up these hills during the summers building makeshift villages and bringing their livestock to the better grazing areas. All goes well until we hit 3500 meters, our first time so high this trip, we both feel like 80 year old heavy smokers. We make it to the last village before the lake. We are about 1.5 km away and 200 meters below. We have two more chais at one of the tents. Many people are starting to set up tents for the big pilgrimage offering basic food tea and even accommodation. A little after the village we spot a big green meadow with a stream running through it. We set camp and start cooking dinner. Locals watch us with amazement and don’t understand. For them it is all about getting up to the lake bathing praying and going back down and here are these people stopping right before the lake setting their own tent and camping.

    Now lighting a fire is no small feat at this altitude. My trustworthy lighter breaks after a few uses, leaving me with very few matches. I take the cap off the lighter and pour the lighter fluid on to some sticks and with the help of a candle finally get the fire going. We have a nice hot meal at a cold 3900 meters. Neither one of us can sleep due to the high altitude and we pass a very long night just laying there.

    In the morning I manage to light the fire again and we have some soup made with last nights leftovers. There are no clouds in the sky and we see all the impressive mountains around us. We hast up the trail to get to the lake and see Shiva’s house before clouds form. They usually form around noon. Once we reach the lake we see it is very small like the photos indicate. But what we didn’t realize is that Shiva’s house is the huge mountain we saw from our tent. There is a valley between the lake and the mountain which is exactly where we camped. We walk around the lake taking in the mountain views and meet the local sadu (holy man) who speaks good English. We chat about world events, history, Hinduism and have a few chais. He points us to a pass 3-4 kilometers up above the lake. We leave our bags with him and go exploring. It is a hard climb but we are slightly more acclimatized and with no equipment on our backs. We reach the pass at about 4700 meters just before a clouds sets in. we manage to see the valley below, a mountain deer and the steep trail leading down. The angle is about 80 degrees but there is a trail. We sit and wait for it to clear which it doesn’t. But we both have seen enough to decide we are going back down through here. On our way back the temperature drops dramatically and it starts raining, making it a lot less pleasant then our ascent.

    When we get back to the lake it is a babafest at the sadu’s tent. Baba is the nick name of respect they give sadus. Baba Gi and his entourage have arrived from Punjab along with another sadu. They are sitting around the fire in the tent passing a chillum (a clay pipe usually used for smoking hashish) and snacking on treats. It is a lot like a teenager’s party just with a holy aspect to it. We tell them we are from New York and tell them about 6th street and all the Punjabi restaurants there. They are extremely impressed when I start naming popular Indian dishes and every dish earns a round of laughter and applause. Alu gobi, laughter, palak paneer, laughter, chana masala, laughter. Wow it’s an easy crowd tonight. We go have dinner at another tent where we end up spending the night. It rains all night.

    When we wake up in the morning it is sunny and as we get ready to leave we are advised by several locals not to take the pass as it goes by a glacier and is dangerous after a heavy rain because of falling rocks. We decide to stay one more night and attempt the pass tomorrow. I go bathe in the freezing lake with Baba Gi’s entourage and some locals. You are supposed to dip 3 times. It is icy cold and I can barely feel my legs, to the point of almost falling, when I get out. Baba Gi and his entourage are preparing to leave. He is walking around, covered in white powder, with a towel to his hip, and a towel around his chest. But, as I said before, it is a, ‘Baba fest’. And no sooner does the sound of his wooden clogs start fading away, two more sadus arrive.

    monimaheshIt is a beautiful day, and we decide to enjoy it, walking to the snowline. We reach the snowline after a good 4 km walk. There is another lake there, where I swim, figuring I’ll be double good on Hinduism’s side. After a while, a kid from Chamba arrives, and explains to us that this is Shiva’s third eye, and it is absolutely forbidden to bathe in it. Oopps. He tells us about Chamba valley being Shiva’s place, and about places in the valley with footprints of the gods. As we head back, the clouds appear, and it starts raining. It rains all night, meaning again we can not do the pass.

    In the morning, we go up to the pass, but it is very cloudy, and we decide to just go back. We say a quick goodbye to ‘Baba Cool’, the local sadu, which turns out to be a 3 hour conversation about Hindu philosophy. One of the new sadus is young, very educated, and eager to explain Hinduism in very good English. We talk about the different philosophies and ideas of Hinduism, the main one claiming that God is real and everything is false. Material is false, and what you feel is God, i.e. sugar is Universe (false), sweetness is God (real). I find it amazing how these ideas can coexist with tales of monkey faced gods and god’s footprints, that the kid from Chamba told us. There are no different churches or no different streams, they all belong to one very flexible religion.

    Halfway down, it starts to rain heavily. We get to Bharmour very wet and hungry. We shower, go to our favorite restaurant, and order food for four people. Anything but lentils. We didn’t make it across the pass, but it was definitely an experience.




  • Until the cows come home

    Posted on July 31st, 2009 Sheila Yair 1 comment

    cowsbackWe’re in Bharmour, the town of apples and marijuana. The apples are not good this year, due to lack of rain (something we will change dramatically), and the marijuana just grows abundantly, everywhere, without anybody seeming to do anything with it. I don’t see anybody ‘baked’. Bharmour is in a steep, narrow valley, surrounded by mountains. It was the capital of an untouched Hindi kingdom, until the British built the first road in the valley in the mid-nineteenth century. The Muslims, Mughals, or any of the other India conquerors ever made it to this valley. It still retains much of its old ways. Modern advancements, like water, flood the valleys and plains, but takes time reaching the high hills. When it gets to high altitudes, it is usually just a drizzle. There are cars, a couple of satellite dishes, and electricity. But most houses are built in the ancient Gaddi way, with rocks and wood, mud and sand for floors, and slabs of slate for shingles. Houses usually have two to three stories, with the first floor for animals, and the others for the family. Bharmour, like Chamba, also has ancient temples, with intricate stone carvings. The antiquity and a sign, promising a ten dollar fine for anyone caught taking pictures, deters us a bit, but as we walk in, we see it is the village center. People sitting and talking, kids playing cricket (occasionally hitting some of the temples with the ball). It is summer, and people are hoping for rain, and as we visit the temple, there is a Puja for rain taking place. Sure enough, that night, it rains. But I believe it is not the Puja, but our intention to thoroughly hike that brings the rain. The next day, we walk 3 km up, to Bharmani, a spring and temple. We walk through the agricultural village, Malkota. Sheila comments how she would like to see the inside of one of the houses. The village is much more rustic than Bharmour. At the temple, we meet Amit, a local herdsman. We talk with him, and he invites us over for dinner. He tells us he goes down to his village around five. We go see his cows, and take the long way down. We reach Bharmour at 4p.m., and we need to get back up to Bharmani at five. So we start running. Halfway, Sheila stays guard overlooking a path where we see livestock starting to head back to the village. I go up to the temple, and to my delight Amit is still there. Thank god for India time. We bring down the cows. Now cows are not goats, and they do not just follow you. They stand and wait at every weed, bush, or puddle of water they see. You constantly have to nudge them to move. I can totally see where the phrase, “until the cows come home”, comes from. As we approach the village, Sheila spots us and starts taking pictures. Many locals are surprised to see a westerner leading cows down to the village. We go to Amit’s place, and meet some of his friends, after which we have dinner with his family. It is late, and he insists that we stay, instead of trying to walk the dark and narrow path down to Bharmour. The next morning, we go back, and calm our Guesthouse owner, who was worried when we didn’t arrive the night before. I meet Amit at his brother’s shop, and I have a first hand encounter with micro-economics. Amit’s brother has a little shop that seems to sell only bangles and hair products, but he has a huge array of items tucked away in his tiny shop. In the five minutes I’m there, he sells tennis balls, underwear, a toilet brush, and sewing machine needles. All the merchandise is sold for pennies and not a single customer was turned away empty handed. It is like a Wal-Mart, crammed into two hotdog stands.

    We met a friend saw the Gaddi life up close and got a little course in economics. A lot more than just seeing inside one of the houses.

  • Further into the mountains

    Posted on July 17th, 2009 Sheila Yair No comments

    chambaLike most places on this trip we get to Chamba by chance. We planed to go to Bharmour and just change buses in Chamba. We wake up early to catch the 6am bus to dharamsala, which is 40 minutes away. The 6am leaves at 6:30 making us a little late for the 7am to Chamba. But luckily busses are consistent and the 7am leaves at 7:30. Two hours into the journey we have a flat tire which turns out to be 2 flats. I think to myself why is it that the god/goddess of bus traveling doesn’t like us? (They seem to have a deity for every aspect of life here). But the instant deflation of two very worn-out tires turns out to be a heaven sent. First it allows Sheila to take her last dysentery pill in peace and quite and with no bumps and second after two hours of fixing the tires the bus continues on its way almost empty. Traveling on a less crowded bus is true luxury here. You can put your legs in the isle instead of cramming your knees on the seat in front of you, you can put your bag to the side and each of us can get a window, this is the life. Now I should say two hours of trying to fix the tires as they are pronounced unfixable and we go on with one tire instead of two on the right back side and no spear. But luxury travel has its risks.

    The bus stays fairly empty and the tire fairly full till the end of the trip.

    We arrive in Chamba at 6pm a little late for the connection bus. Chamba is a small town with a busy one street bazaar. It is the district capital but still maintains a small place ambiance. It is very hot as it sits in the bottom of a steep valley but in the evenings a fresh breeze comes running down from the mountains. The center of town is a big grass patch where the whole town seems to congregate in the evenings. Families sit on blankets, teenagers play mp3’s from each others cell phones, vendors sell all types of snacks and beggars and holy men comb the crowd for donations. In the bazaar we have a moment of mobile domestication. We buy a tupperware container. When we set out for this trip, not knowing its duration, we cut on everything that weighs. We brought only the very basics, tent sleeping bags and very few items of cloth. But as we go on we discover that a few luxuries are definitely worth their weight. We have salt and pepper shakers. Imagine the pure pleasure of being able to salt or pepper your food to your desire. Definitely worth its 200 gram weight. We also have a plate and two spoons, it just beats cutting things on a rock or the floor. And now we have a container which serves as a salad bowl, bread box, and vegetable drawer in the backpack. Now traveling is not only fun and games and we don’t go out every evening, sometimes we stay in and have a nice candlelight salad cheese and bread dinner. We like to think of ourselves as a romantic couple but the candlelight here is mostly because of the power-outs. Hotel sweet home.

    The next day we go exploring the ancient temples which are more than a thousand years old and have very beautiful intricate stone carvings on their façade. On the way back we pass a bunch of ladies sitting in the park. We stop to inquire and next thing I know Sheila is sitting amongst a huge group of women singing and clapping. We later find out they are devotees of Sai Baba and every now and then they bring tons of food to the park and feed everybody. We are invited to eat delicious vegetable and cheese stew with fried bread. We look around to see the whole park being fed by these women. We can’t resist but to stay another day after that. In the evening despite eating so much for lunch we go out and have the best shahi paneer (a cheese and tomato based curry) and dosa masala (a pancake with potatoes and spicy stew) we had so far.

    We leave Chamba at noon, a very bumpy 2 hour ride that lasts 4 hours. Now I don’t think it was officially announced anywhere but they had a great deflation of time here in India and every hour is now two hours. 1 old hour is equivalent to 2 new hours. Several times now we go on trips that end up double the time. A 2 hour ride lasts 4 hours a 12 hour ride is 24 etc. at first I thought it was due to language misunderstanding, but we are traveling now with an English guide book written in English by English speakers for English speakers and even here durations are quoted at half of what they turn out to be. So the only explanation is time inflation, which I am not quite sure how that could happen but I know the rules of time and space are different here.

    During the ride I strike up a conversation with the person in charge of tickets, the bus conductor you might say. He has limited English and I have much worst Hindi. But we manage to talk about the US, Europe, India and our jobs. He is on the road for 4 days then goes home for one or two days. I have mentioned before that India is the land of the senses. So Indians tend to overwhelm the senses. Every now and then even in the middle of a sentence the bus conductor blows his whistle. They have a system here where one blow means stop and a few mean go. Now the conductor is right on my eardrum but a loaded bus away from the driver who is the intended receiver of the signal. So the blows pierce my ear every time. But I guess the conductor needs to make sure the bus driver hears him especially since he is on his cell phone the whole time taking with one hand extremely sharp turns on a very narrow road 60 meters above the river bed.

    A little after 4pm we arrive. Bharmour is a tinny village filled with wooden houses apple trees and marihuana plants. It is surrounded by mountains and certainly looks like a place one can spend some time in.

  • Half an hour in India

    Posted on July 5th, 2009 Sheila Yair No comments

    trafficI walk out to the street. It is horrifically noisy, it seems like a thousand cars are beeping at once. It is a small village of about 1000 people but it is noisier than New York’s midtown. On a one lane road cars, pedestrians and animals all try to make their way in both directions. A big truck is stuck in the middle and no wheels, feet or hoofs are moving at the moment. I look at the poor kids running around they are so filthy. After 10 minutes that seem like eternity things start to move. A beggar jumps up at me, I avoid him and get hit by a car that is speeding along. Despite the combusted mass of cars, people and animals they drive as if they are on the German Autobahn. I walk in to a shop to get some bread and toilet paper, I have to haggle with the shop keeper because he states a price 3 times higher than the real one. Everything here has to be an ordeal. Of course as I walk out I see that he shortchanged me so I go back to get my 5 rupees.

    I walk to the post office, naturally there is a long line, and it goes all the way outside. I stand here with the sun beating on my face and sewage running 2 meters from me. How can people survive here? I finally get in and see the cause of the line. The stamps here don’t stick by themselves so everybody has to apply glue from one jar with a stick before clearing the way for the next person.

    I look for the cleanest place to eat. I sit down at a place that seems OK. The owner serves the rice with his hands and his helper who is frying the potatoes checks the temperature of the food with his finger, thanks for the concern. There is a little plate of salt in front of me with mounds left behind by all the fingers who reached for it, I guess no salt for me. As the food arrives I wonder who in India didn’t directly or indirectly touch my lunch. I add hot pepper, my only friend here. Two women are coming over to ask for money. This place is hell.

    I walk out to the street. It seems a busy day. There is always something happening here even in the smallest villages. It is a truck stuck in the middle of the road. Even though they only have one lane for cars, people and animals things always somehow work out. I look at the children running around. It is amazing how happy they seem without anything, no ball toy or video game to entertain them. Things start moving. Some indecipherable harmony always prevails. A beggar jumps up at me, I almost get run over. I have to remember to more careful. I give him a few coins. I walk in to a shop to get some bread and toilet paper, things are so cheap here compare to back home. Even though he is probably overcharging me it is pennies. As I walk out I see that he shortchanged me, oh well 10 cents down the drain. I walk to the post office, there is a line stretching. I stand outside, it is a sunny day and I look up to the mountains and think of all the birds and monkeys that are playing around in the trees. I get in and buy my stamps. They don’t stick to well, luckily somebody thought of that and has left a jar of glue.

    I look for the cleanest place to eat. I sit down at a place that seems OK. The two friendly guys serve me a delicious plate of rice potatoes and vegetables. I add a little hot pepper just to be on the safe side. Two women in gorgeous brightly colored saris are headed this way. This place is heaven.

  • The number two to Galoo

    Posted on July 5th, 2009 Sheila Yair 1 comment

    galuWe are up in the mountains in a tiny little village called Galoo. It is on a hilltop above a forest teeming with birds; parakeets, magpies, woodpeckers, raptors and other little chirpers. Our little room has huge windows and we can see the forest the sunset the sunrise and snow peaks. When I say tiny village I mean five houses big with a couple hotels and a café selling soda and biscuits. If we want to buy anything or eat out we have to go one village down which is about 40 minutes, if we want to call or use the internet we have to go two villages down which is about an hour away. Unfortunately what comes down must go up and in both cases the way back involves climbing. For all this we use the number two line, our feet. It is a little peek in to the times before cars. It also teaches you the importance of a shopping list because you do not want to remember something halfway up the hill.

    Our trail mates are local villagers walking their livestock up and down, convoys of donkeys and mules bringing up anything from bags of cement and bricks to bags of flour and soda bottles and walking bushes with two legs (the local women go up to the forest and pile themselves with grass for livestock or wood for cooking, they rarely take a pile smaller than their own size.)

    monkeyIt is a great place for hiking, there are many trails going in all directions. Our favorite trail is about a 40 minutes walk to a waterfall with pristine green icy water. Aside from birds we have seen many monkeys. One can watch these human like animals for hours. They each have a very unique character. You can see the playful young ones, the caring mothers, the worried ones and the aggressive Alfa males. We have also become quite experts in monsoon prediction. It rains almost everyday for two to three hours. But it can rain at any point of the day so you have to know the monsoon clouds from the harmless regular clouds, otherwise you are under a three-hour long cold shower in the middle of nowhere.

    It is the 3rd of July today. In Conesus Lake, a beautiful lake in upstate New York (the real upstate, the one hour from Canada one not the upstate New York City dwellers usually refer to which is just half an hour out of the city) there is a tradition of lighting flares all around the lake. It is called the ring of fire. We thought of going up to a glacial lake two days away and having a little ring of fire there but Sheila has come down with dysentery. I will spare you the details and just say that she is recovering and constantly dreaming of clean food. I know she wishes she could be in the cookout tonight. We both do and not just for the food.

    Happy 4th of July.