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  • My friend which country

    Posted on September 26th, 2009 Sheila Yair 3 comments

    srinagar1Our first night in Srinagar we spend in the center of town. It is noisy but we need to use the internet, get some information (since we are traveling with the soft guide) and replenish supplies. At night there are two mosquitoes that keep buzzing around and leave me with about 8 big bites. Now this is nothing to write home about but I am doing exactly that to set the stage for the real story. The real mosquitoes in Srinagar are day creatures, they are the size of humans and swarm around you all day buzzing in a steady low hum “house boat? Pashmina? Shikara?”. You go through huge efforts trying not to get bit. It is not blood they are after they just want to suck up your money till the last coin.

    srinagar2Kashmiris, or cash-miris as I like to call them, are known throughout India for their aggressive sale tactics. They have their stores all over the sub-continent. Make the mistake of even glimpsing at something in one of these stores and out of nowhere 3 Kashmiris jump all over you shooting 5 sentences a second “come here, more inside, very cheap, what you looking for, best quality, looking is free, just one minute, first customer of the day”. A lot of times the above scenario will take place without you even stopping to look. A Kashmiri road block where no tourist can pass. They will do anything to get you in the store. If you are actually interested in buying something and you do go in, you can kiss the next half hour goodbye. You can try and get out but it won’t happen until you see every single shawl, scarf and paper mache animal in every size and color. There is a constant game of excuse and answer, where you try to tell them it is too heavy (not heavy at all), you don’t have space in the bag (we can arrange for it to be sent) you are not interested (if not for you get it as a gift)… whatever you say they have an answer ready. They also always make a point of telling you how all these souvenir shops sell very cheap quality and only they have the real handmade top quality merchandise. They speak very good English but there are a few words they unanimously don’t understand, a few words that were erased from every English book in Kashmir, words like no, not interested, don’t want to buy. After the whole inventory has been shown you sigh in relief. Ahh, you figure, you are almost out, you strongly held your ground saying no to everything, the door is gleaming with the outside sunlight and you can almost taste your exit. But you are only half way there. The second round is about to begin. Now the questions start revolving around where you plan on going. Why not go to Kashmir? It is the most beautiful place on earth. My family has a houseboat. No sooner is the word emitted and you find yourself with a photo album in hand. Photos of the house boat, of tourists who stayed there, shikara (the local boat) tours and letters of recommendation. As the person goes on and on about the marvels of this house boat, how tourist love it and how he can give you a great deal you start reading the recommendations. None of them are up to date. Many photos are from the 70’s judging by the attire. Some letters date as far back as the 60’s, way before the seller was born. Jeese, do you have anything here about Woodstock? My girlfriend and I are contemplating buying some tickets. After a long description of the great times you can have stuck on a house boat and the great friend price you can receive (only 4 times the regular price) the jeep offer comes up. They always seem to have a cousin that is leaving to Srinagar in 2 days. They are always going with them and you only have to contribute for gas. Basically a regular jeep taxi. The amazing thing is that all the merchants always do the same routine. They carry it out like a well rehearsed performance. I am wondering if there is some Kashmiri selling university that they have all attended. We got the first show in Delhi and have seen reruns in almost every place we visited.

    In India they are among other sellers therefore diluted and a little easier to avoid. In a market you will have 20 regular sellers and only 4 Kashmiri shops. In a bazaar you can always find other little alleys to run to. But here in Kashmir they are all, well, Kashmiri. So every tomato you want to buy, every person you ask for directions, every bus you board, they all have a house boat, they all sell pashmina, they all have more colors, all have cheapest and best.

    srinagar3It starts on the bus before we even get to Srinagar. A person gets on and immediately spots us, we are the only tourist on the bus. He proceeds for the next half hour to offer us his house boat. No matter how many times we say no. when we get off the bus he still follows us but now is joined by many more people hovering over us all offering house boats. We run to a coffee shop to shake them off. This is worst than any bug attack in the jungles of Bolivia. After a coffee and making sure they are gone we get in a rickshaw, it is too dangerous to just walk. And out of nowhere a “friend” hopes in the rickshaw and starts offering his house boat. We get off the rickshaw, another swarm. So we run to safety in a hotel right in the center. No bites yet. We figure our bags are like big signs “no room yet please offer house boat”. We figure it will be better once we walk around without bags. But no, without bags they start offering you arts and crafts, shikara tours and even house boats. They follow you for long periods of time supplying an answer to any excuse. I told them we have a great hotel, wife hates water, we are leaving tonight… but nothing helps they still say come to house boat, just see, I give you great price. Even in our own guest house the family organizes special private previews of merchandise in the yard. All of a sudden we hear a knock on the door, when we open somebody we never saw before is out there saying he set up all his jewelry, scarves, pashmina for us to see. And you have to start with all the excuses and answers again. You have to watch every step. One of the guest house family kids is very enthusiastic about Islam. We talk for a long time about Muslim culture and mosques. As a gift I give him a picture of el aktza and tell him tomorrow I am heading off to the old city to see some of the famous Srinagar mosques. He says he would be glad to join me and explain some things. The next morning as I head out he catches me. I figure I will pay for this somehow but go with him. We go in a car with his cousin (they are all cousins here). After one tomb and a mosque the uncle jumps in. he says we should go see a hand loom and see how they hand make rugs and shawls. We go to a couple houses and see some people work. It is very interesting and I start feeling bad for being so harsh in my thoughts. After the looms we go to the uncle’s house where every single rug and shawl is presented to me. It is a very special collection of his grandfather he claims. Coming from nomads and Sheppard villages all over Kashmir they are all very unique and one of a kind rugs for “bargain” prices. They all look very new and factory made to me, probably china. He shows me item after item until I just say I have to go. It seems his grandfather went through great effort assembling this collected works I just can’t bring myself to spoil such a nice collection by taking one item. As I didn’t buy anything I get to take a rickshaw back to the guest house, the wife needs the car he says. Fare enough you took me way out of my way to something I really didn’t want to see so it is only fair I try to find the way back to the guest house on my own. He also joins his daughter and nice to me claiming their school is near the guest house and they can hitch a ride with me. Even on the water you are not safe. One evening I rented a boat just to go on the cannels and see the sun set. Sure enough the minute I was spotted, boats from every direction selling flowers, saffron, wood carvings and drinks attached themselves to our boat. No tranquility. You find yourself spending most of the time dodging sale pitches and insisting you are not interested and barely have time to enjoy the city which is quite a nice one.

    I will say in their defense that since the insurgency started in 1989 tourism has dropped dramatically in an area that relied heavily on it. But I have never ever, not in Morocco, not in Sinai nor in Cuba seen such pushy salespeople.

    I have gathered some popular Kashmiri terms and their meaning:

    Hello friend which country, this is the ever present southing opening line. After these short formalities friendship is struck and the ground is ready for the sale pitch.

    Looking is free, this means you can come in and spend a few hours seeing every single item in the store and explaining thoroughly why you don’t want to buy it.

    Have more colors inside, like the one above an invitation to see every single thing in stock.

    Cheapest and best, this means you will get the cheapest quality while paying the best price they can get from you.

    Have a cup of Kashmiri tea, they know westerners will feel obligated if they drink anything and probably less opt to haggle, do you take any sugar with your trap?

    First customer of the day, I have heard this as late as 7pm. Basically it means you should buy immediately because he will give you the first customer discount which won’t last. FYI there can be limitless first customers in any one day.

    Family business, everything you see in all the stores always is handmade and comes from the family business, please disregard the made in china tag.

    Pay me what you like, now this is the trickiest one. Many times you ask how much for a boat ride, tour, hotel even merchandise. Once the deal is done and service granted you pay your price which is always insulting and way too low. But now you already took the boat trip and are left with the awkward situation of trying not to get ripped off.

    But we did end our visit to Srinagar on a very good note. Zulfi, one of the guys from the computer institute in Leh where I did the website, grew up in Srinagar and his parents still live here. He has come to visit them and invites us over. We have an amazing meal, Kashmiri food in general is very good. The dinner includes rice, cooked greens with garlic and curry, lotus flower roots with potatoes in a sauce of cardamom, cinnamon and saffron and succulent lamb. All this is served with yogurt and a sauce made of cashew nuts and chilies. For desert we have some kind of pudding with fruits, raisins and nuts. We barely believe the assortments of great tastes. During dinner Zulfis father tells us the storey of his father. Zulfi’s grandfather was a Chinese Muslim. He went with his father on hajj, the trip to Mecca. On one of the mountain passes the father died but the son decided to keep with the hajj. He made it to Mecca and back but on arrival the indo-china war started and the border was closed so he stayed in Leh. He was only 16 years old and was never to see his family again. The grandmother is from Pakistan which is also probably an interesting story but we were there, unfortunately, only for one dinner.

    The next day we leave Srinagar.

    click here to see photos

  • Leh to Srinagar

    Posted on September 24th, 2009 Sheila Yair 14 comments

    lehsrinagar1The distance between Leh and Srinagar is 475 kilometers but it takes us about a week to cover it. No one can accuse us of traveling too fast. We leave Leh with mixed feelings. We are glad to be moving again. Almost everybody we met here is long gone and our poor backpacks have been neglected for 3 weeks collecting dust. But it is sad to say goodbye to our friends at the women’s alliance and the computer institute.

    I will divide the story to 3 parts based on the three places we stopped at.

    Our first destination Alchi, is the oldest temple in Ladakh. The site was holy even to the bon, the religion that antedated Buddhism in the area. We have dedicated most of our time to mountains and valleys, a little history can’t hurt us. Alchi is a small village 70km west of Leh, we are thrilled to spend some time in the more remote Ladakhi countryside. Not so, Alchi unfortunately turns out to be a bit of a tourist trap. They are far too accustomed to heaps and jeeps of tourists coming from Leh. Most of them on organized tours thus the prices jump up. There are only four places to stay and they all charge the same price, 3 times more than Leh. None are fancy, and one of the places despite offering only tents still charges like the rest. We bargain with one of them for a price that matches its shabbiness. The next day we head to the temple. There are 4 temples each from a different period. All of them covered with beautiful elaborate paintings of Buddhist symbols, gods and demons. In one of the temples there is a group with a very knowledgeable guide. He is explaining the symbolism and meaning of the paintings and the history of the temples. Apparently nothing is arbitrary and every shape, color, creature and number means something. I follow the group to the next temple for some more insight. I am guessing they are here for a short time, going in their jeep from temple to temple fascinated by the intricacy of Buddhist culture and amazed by the richness of Ladakhi history. It is a very different India from our India of mountains and rivers and rough hikes. But here in a temple for a brief moment the two Indias meet.

    After the temple we have a no frills touristy priced lunch and head off to the main road. We are off to Lamayuru. The bus passes around 6pm but it is only 3 so we decide to hitch hike. In India hitching can be a little tricky, you never know if they are going to charge you or not. Sometimes the driver will charge you, which is fine, but if you don’t ask how much you might get an awkward surprise. A couple times at the end of a ride we were asked for ridiculous amounts of money, $20 for something that cost $2 on a bus. In the rupee world that is quite exaggerated. So we always go through the awkward moment of asking how much, right as the vehicle stops, even to nice people who never meant to charge. We are pretty lucky this day and after 15 minutes a truck stops. It is going to Srinagar and can drop us in Lamayuru.

    lehsrinagar2Lamayuru is a small village on the edge of Ladakh. Technically Kargil is the last place in Ladakh but culturally Lamayuru is the next to last Buddhist village and geographically only 15km from the pass out of the Indus valley. The truck ride is very bumpy but we are sitting in the open back and can see the whole view with no roof hindering the scenery. After about an hour and a half the truck stops. The driver signals to me to come down with him and bring our passports. It is one of the checkpoints. The driver enters first and I follow. Once I am in the shouts start. The driver is fighting with one of the officers. I cant understand a word but feel it has to do with us. The yelling intensifies and eventually the driver is pushed out of the station. At that point I am pulled aside to another room. I am constantly wondering if this is just an act to squeeze some tourist money out of me and am just waiting for the officer to name his price. But he only asks for the passport numbers, names, addresses etc. he tells me that hitchhiking is illegal and that we have to take a taxi from here. I tell him we will just wait for a bus. He says no bus passes here. When I mention the exact Leh to Lamayuru 4pm bus that goes through here he says oh yes but the taxi is better, bus always full, late etc. it seems I am off the hook he only wanted commission for the taxi. Outside the driver is still fighting with the officers. He has now brought two more drivers who are driving with him. The driver calls me out and with hand singles asks me to explain to the officer. I try to mediate in his favor but to no avail. It is starting to look like a very bad episode of Cops with no subtitles. One of the friends says they got a 2000 rupee ($40) fine and they want us to pay it. He says we can pay the fine and get back on the truck. I guess in India once the fine is paid you can continue with the crime. There are no ATMs till Srinagar and I do not want to be stranded without money, plus I am still not convinced this is not all an act. We give them 500 rupees. After some arguing they realize they wont get more, they get on their trucks and angrily depart leaving us with dust and some curse words in Kashmiri. Two seconds later a truck stops and asks us where do we want to go. Right in front of the officers. Technically there is a law that trucks can’t stop for tourists but I think it is enforced only before big police picnics or poker nights.

    The police taxi of course is way over priced so we start walking to get away from the station. After we are out of sight we try hitching again. This time only cars. After about half an hour Sheila’s volunteering proves very beneficial. Some of the volunteers from the women’s alliance rented a car and are on their way to Delhi through Lamayuru and Kashmir. They take us to Lamayuru with no further incidents. We treat them all to dinner that night.

    We walk up to the monetary at 6am to see the puja (religious ceremony of prayer), but there are no monks awake. So we walk around and see a beautiful sun rise on the Lamayuru hills. The volunteers continue on their way as we stay behind. Our amale (literally mother in Ladakhi but also a term of endearment for any women) tells us about her hard work in the fields we ask to join her for the day. Figuring we will only stay for half an hour she agrees. We are taken to the alfalfa fields where Sheila ties stacks of alfalfa with the women and I cut it with a group of migrant workers from Bihar, one of the poorest states in India. It is very refreshing to see a women in charge giving orders to men but also a little sad to see the situation of the lower and poor casts in India. All work is purely manual all we have are circles to cut the weed and not the sharpest ones at that. The alfalfa has to be cut very low to get as much plant as possible for that long cold Ladakhi winter. Unfortunately my squat is, pardon the pun, not worth squat. Westerners don’t know how to squat. Sadly, I was born right on the border between squatters and non squatters, the squat frontier. To the west, the Israelis can’t squat and to the east the Arabs can squat effortlessly for days. Had I been born just a few kilometers to the right I could have squatted like nobody’s business. So while the Biharis squat away I have to alternate between squatting, until my legs hurt and standing up bending until my lower back can’t take it no more. We work till sundown and get about a third of the field done.

    Alfalfa is a nice smooth weed but unfortunately there were some thistles and bamboo-esque plants with leaves like knives in the field. But despite my left hand being filled with thorns and cuts I feel very good. After a nice shower as I stretch on the couch in our room, my muscles ache from being over-used and my hands swollen from hard labor I feel true life running through my body. I have seen many of these fields from bus windows, with people cutting barley, wheat, alfalfa. After today I will never look at these fields the same way.

    As thanks for our labor, our amale says she will cook us Ladakhi food. She says a name we never heard before. One of Ladakh’s staple foods is the noodle and one of the most common ways of eating it is in a hearty vegetable soup. Although always the same soup they are quite particular, and regard and name each soup as a totally different dish based on the shape of the noodle. I guess when you make the noodles by hand, which most Ladakhis do, it merits its own name. But to me the eater they are all vegetable soup with noodles. I call them all Tukpa which is the only name I remember. Just for the record Tukpa is the one with spaghetti noodles. That night we have the soup with the bowtie noodles. The nights are getting nippy in Ladakh so a good warm soup hits the spot, whatever the noodle is. We are joined by two sisters that arrived at the guest house today. They have traveled by land from England. In china they decided to buy bikes and have been cycling ever since. We saw them heading to Ladakh from our bus, as we were also heading there. We heard about them in Leh. And now we meet them as we all are on our way out of Ladakh. They tell us some fascinating stories about Iran, Pakistan and the other “stan” countries. We decide to stay one more day.

    In the morning we go up to Khar, a high mountain on the other side of the valley. It has a nice plato right before the peak from where we enjoy the views of Lamayuru and the valley spread out below us. We come down in time for a quick lunch and then back to the alfalfa fields. They all seem pretty surprised but happy to see us. Again we work till sun down leaving two more days of work. I later learn that the Baharis will get 4000 rupees ($80) for the field. They start at 2pm every day because their real job us working on the roads. This they are doing for extra money. So $80 divided by 10 people over 4 days of 5 hours each comes out to 40 cents an hour. There is a great gap between the western word and the developing world.

    The next morning we bid farewell from the guest house family and are off to catch the bus. It is sad to leave Ladakh but we do so on the best of notes and we had a great rural experience.

    lehsrinagar3Kargil is one of the only shia dominated places in India. It really belongs to Baltistan which lies to the north, but was taken in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1948. It is very religious but suppose to have an interesting bazaar. We are traveling in a totally different region we note this immediately upon boarding the bus. There are pictures of Mecca, Arabic writing (Urdu uses Arabic script as its letters) and even a picture of the Ayatollah. We have come from Hindu land through Buddha land and are now traveling through Allah land, no I didn’t say lala land but it does get a little crazy at times. You barely see any women. Sheila, although well covered bearing little skin, gets a lot of stares especially when she takes out a deck of cards to play solitaire. Cards are looked down upon as they are associated with gambling. There also is an abundance of mosques. In the Middle East you will see one mosque per village two or three if it is a very big village. But here there is a mosque every other building and they are all in a competition for the loudest one. There is a cacophony of prayers the whole day long. We reach Kargil at 4pm. We intend to spend one night and head out to Srinagar the next morning. But Kargil has some serious transportation issues. Although the road by the river is clogged with busses, it took us about 20 minutes just to get into town, no one knows where any bus is. Even the bus drivers, who are usually very helpful, here in Kargil know only about their route. Most of the replies we get are “no bus”. But we do get a 2:30am, a 3am, a 4am and a 4:30am reply w different departure points for each case. I realize we need 10 people strategically places across the town asking every bus they see for 24 hours to get a bus time and departure location. Frustrated we decide to continue the search in the morning. Neither one of us wants to wakeup at 2 in the morning and start hunting for a bus.

    In the morning the suspense movie about two tourists looking for a bus in Kargil continues. We head to the tourist info center, where a very sleepy guy tells us he heard something about a bus in the morning but only the RTC (road transportation committee) will know. So we go to the RTC and get the comforting “no bus” replay to every question we ask. Bus to Kargil? no bus, but we see all these buses here, no bus, so all the locals just take a taxi everywhere? no bus.

    We realize we might have to give in and take a taxi jeep. A few of the “no bus” replays we got had a “only taxi” attached to them. Any taxi driver would be more than glad to take two tourists the 10 hour drive to Srinagar, at any time. But that would be a big waste of gas and cost an arm and a leg. Some taxi drivers tell us there is a shared taxi that leaves early in the morning but it won’t go until it is full, around 10 people sometimes even 11. Of course they always mention that a private taxi is better. We don’t know what to do, we only know we really want to get out of Kargil. We decide to go to the Suru Valley south of town. While at the tourist information center we saw some really nice photos of the valley in the brochures. So we start inquiring about how to get there. Same frustration, no one knows a thing. Why do I get this feeling like I am a fly in a spiders web? Are we ever getting out of this place? “You can checkout any time you want but you can never leave…”

    By stroke of luck someone directs us to the bridge where 3 shared taxis are feeling up preparing to leave for Suru. We jump on one of them. Two flies about to escape the Kargil web.

    Suru valley is stunning, small villages surrounded by bright yellow green wheat fields in the midst of high mountains on both sides. It seems much more laid back than Kargil. Kargil has a very religious feel to it with people never talking to you and all those posters of the Ayatollah and Ahmadinejad, we even saw a few of Nasrallah. I didn’t know which was worst, to tell people I am from the US or from Israel. So I became Jair from Peru. But here in Suru Valley we get many waves and glances they are mostly farmers too occupied with the harvest and very surprised to see tourists. We arrive in Panikhar and set ourselves in the government run “tourist bungalow”. In order to encourage tourism the Jammu Kashmir government runs hostels around the state. They are usually very nice rooms at very reasonable prices and always called tourist bungalow. The caretaker offers to make us dinner. We have very tasty rice with lentils and cooked greens all this with a local cheese spread called makhan. That night I teach Sheila poker. We play a few rounds and she takes a liking to it. But she is a little careless and after a few bad hands I have won all her fruit. But never underestimate the power of beginners luck. She insists on playing one more round. Since she is fruitless she takes out the money belt. The big leagues. I have a fairly good hand so we both keep raising the bid. She wins all the money. So we are in the middle of nowhere, I have no money and Sheila has no fruit. We are far from any ATM or any fruit stand. Since the fruit is nice and ripe and she has already eaten some of the lost ones I trade half of them for half of the money. A little expensive but it is all about supply and demand even here, maybe especially here, in the middle of nowhere.

    lehsrinagar4The next morning we wake up to see it has snowed at night. All the mountains around us are covered in a pure white coat. Albeit the snow, heavy clouds and rain we decide to walk up to Parkachik Pass. The guide book says you have spectacular vies of the Nun-Kun mountain range. It drizzles most of the way up only stopping at the very top where rain gives way to snow. Throughout the valley the mountains are black with green at the bottom and stripes of white snow and red on the top. As we approach the top we see the red stripes are gorgeous pink flowers with red leaves. We reach the top. The spectacular Nun-Kun range is in front of us in all its glory. The peaks, some towering over 7000 meters, with their hanging glaciers, snow and ice. Unfortunately there is a kilometer of cloud between us and the mountain so we can only imagine the view in front of us based on the glimpse we got the day before. Nevertheless it was a beautiful hike and we decide to stay one more night.

    The next day of course not a cloud in the sky so we start walking towards Sanku. We go through the villages getting many curious looks and waves. Everybody is out cutting the wheat. The Nun-Kun range is fully visible and seems bigger and bigger as we distance ourselves. We stop for lunch right before the valley curves, one last look at the range in all its mighty. At one point of our walk a tractor stops and tells us it is going to Sanku. We get on for the remaining kilometers. A tractor is a very good way to travel. It is very high so you see everything and moves very slow so you don’t miss much. The three guys speak very little English but we manage to talk a little. They have a grain separator hooked to the back of the tractor and tell me they are making the rounds going from farm to farm separating the wheat. One of the guys tells me they will go all the way up to Leh doing so. It takes about 12 hours by bus I cant even imagine how long by tractor.

    We do not want to face the aggravation of Kargil and decide to extend our peaceful stay in the valley. We head to the tourist bungalow and get one of the nicest rooms we have stayed in. a very big room fully furnished with a nice sun room to enjoy our evening cocktail. The cocktail is basically just the splash of water with no cocktail since there is no alcohol in Allah land. But the ambiance and location are great. We find out there are 3 daily buses between Kargil and Sanku. I knew these buses clogging Kargil go somewhere. We decide to take the 3pm one in order to get one more little hike in. we walk along the road to Umba. On the way back an old couple invites us for tea. We go in to their living room, it is very Middle Eastern. There is one couch and oriental carpets covering the floor with pillows against the walls. We are sited on the couch which seems to be used only for special occasions. The couple speaks no English so we barely manage to communicate about Islam, Mecca, hajj and the beauty of the valley. We take a picture of them and promise to send it to them along with a photo of el aktza mosque in Jerusalem. Waititng for the bus we enter a tea stall. Not that we want any more tea, it just seems the thing to do here if you want to pass time. There are many young guys and some more enter as they see us. They all speak pretty good English and tell us all about life in Suru along with many questions about the US.

    Unwillingly we board the bus to Kargil. We meet some students from Srinagar university who tell us the bus leaves at 4am from Khomeini circle (the Ayatollah is very big in these parts). We get up at 3am and are at the circle by 3:30. There are some people, good sign. After half an hour two buses arrive. As we board we find out the buses are sold out and we had to buy a ticket in advance. How did everybody know this? We have spent days just figuring out where the bus leaves from. Trying to get past the “no bus” replays. The driver points to the ally where the tickets can be bought and says it will open at 8am. The mystery is almost solved. At 8am sharp I start looking for the place. It turns out to be a tiny metal kiosk that sells tickets to all the local destinations. We even passed it a couple times on our searches. I buy tickets for the next morning. We spend an uneventful day in Kargil.

    The next morning we board the bus like Kargil experts, knowing the time and place with ticket at hand. We are off to Srinagar. We are traveling with the rough guide for India, which has proven to be for very soft travelers. It always recommends the very touristy places to eat and stay hardly ever mentioning anything local and authentic. Because of the problems in Kashmir it totally disregards Kashmir and Jammu, no information, it is not even on any of the maps in the book. Erased out of existence. So after Kargil our soft guide starts serving us as a great paperweight, a door stopper, and just a general space taker. We see the Bollywood version of E.T. on the bus. He is blue and often breaks in to song and dance with his earthly friends. But he also misses home and they finally call his friends to come and take him back. As the movie ends we are very close to Srinagar. We are a little sad as we are defiantly out of the mountains now. The horizon stretches as far as the eye can see and it is very warm. There is something about being in the mountains, a special feeling you get. We have been in the mountains for 3 month.

    At 4pm we arrive in Srinagar, finishing this long and eventful journey.

    click here to see photos

  • Volunteering in Ladakh

    Posted on September 12th, 2009 Sheila Yair 2 comments

    ladakhDzomsa, a co-op that encourages local products and sells filtered water to reduce plastic pollution, tells you that the ladakhi society was on the verge of extinction before tourism came to the area. The Women’s Alliance of Ladakh says it was doing fine until tourism came and is now on the brink of extinction. Before you arrive in Ladakh and all through the area, once you get here, there are many pamphlets and flyers about how to be considerate and how to help preserve the Ladakhi way of life. One gets a feeling of a supper delicate place where anything touched will be shattered to pieces. Reading all this alarming info we decide to volunteer but since we don’t know which point of view to accept we volunteer for the both of them. Sheila joins the Women’s Alliance and helps them with designing flyers warning local people and tourists about the harms of modern products like plastic bags, pesticide, batteries etc. I join forces with a local computer school and help them with video editing and their web site. That way we are safe, Sheila pulls back to the old way of life and I push ahead for modernization. We are nicely canceling each other.

    Which ever opinion is right it is clear that Ladakh is a society in the midst of change. Ladakh was a very traditional place until 1974, when it was flown open to tourism and modernization efforts of the Indian government. Western tourists swarmed in to see one of the only places that was an authentic desolated Buddhist Himalayan society. With the tourists came the tourism industry and the old way of life was forever changed.

    ladakh2When you are sitting there in the beautiful vegetable gardens eating your organic vegetable omelet under the blooming sunflowers it is hard to imagine how harsh life is for the Ladakhis. After the last tourist leaves in September the degrees also seem to run away and leave Ladakh well below freezing for the next 7 month. That makes Ladakh very susceptible to change. Seeking anything to ease those long freezing winters, most of Ladakh accepted modernization and the western way of life with open arms. But unfortunately for them their environment is an especially delicate one. I have already written on their huge dependency on melted snow and glacier water. So Ladakh itself cannot support the western way of life that its inhabitants are so fascinated with. It is the same in pretty much the whole of the third world. This planet can’t have 6 billion westerners, it can’t even handle the ones it already has.

    The Women’s Alliance tries to demystify the west in the eyes of the Ladakhis, to show the other side of the coke and pepsi commercials. It even brought some of them to England to see real life in the west. There is a very good part in one of their documentaries where two old Ladakhi ladies visit a nursing home and see all these abandoned old people just sitting in front of the TV. The look of disbelief on the women’s face cuts right through you and shows how we have lost a lot of basic things in our race to modernization. But it is very hard for westerners to say to these people that their old way of life is better or that they should keep on the way they are because it will save the world. Most westerners who say that then go straight to the airport and catch a flight back home to their comfortable west. We can’t expect a third world person to reject the west without the experience that westerners have, especially since most of the west that has experienced both still prefers the western way of life.

    Whatever the solution turns out to be it will probably involve the west adopting a more basic way of life and giving up many privileges and comforts that we have and a great deal of development in technology to provide more sustainable solutions. So maybe we did some good after all by helping in both ways.

    Nevertheless we have spent 3 weeks in Ladakh and got to know some really nice people while experiencing a little bit of the Ladakhi day to day life. We now have some new friends, a new desire for organic farming, we saw some very nice Buddhist monasteries, we heard the Dalai Lama speak and there is even one more web-site out the in cyber space.
    click here to see photos

  • The Sultans of Two Wheels

    Posted on September 10th, 2009 Sheila Yair 7 comments

    sultanWe are in Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Ladakh is a very beautiful and unique desert. It is technically dry and very high. It nestles between the Himalayas and the Karakoram Range. I say technically dry, because the snow from the two aforementioned ranges passes through Ladakh when it changes its state from solid to liquid. So despite having less than ten centimeters of rain annually, there is a gushing river going through every valley. Every village builds an elaborate system, a maze, of dams and canals to spread the water around. The result is a very harsh brown desert with all its valley floors green. You walk through a village with trees, green fields and flower gardens after the last field, only two minutes out of the village you are surrounded by only sand and stone, not a single plant around. It is an amazing exhibition of the power of water. A place’s liveliness is directly correlated to the amount of water it has. Nowhere is it demonstrated so clearly as in Ladakh. Since no water comes from the sky, the villages are riddled with canals, most of them less than thirty centimeters wide. Every family will divert its local canal to water its fields and gardens, and to fill their water tank for household needs, then let the canal flow again for the people below. There seems to be no quarrels over water, as they all understand its preciousness. The houses are whitewashed, made out of mud brick and wood, with elaborate wooden carvings around the windows and doors. The edges of the roofs are usually painted bright blue on them piles of drying hay and weeds for winter. These white houses are set among fields of wheat and barley and patches of forest, partitioned by stone walls. But the most amazing aspect is the gardens. Ladakhis only have four months to grow their food before conditions become too harsh. So you see all these beautiful gardens with rows of cabbage, cauliflower, carrot, onion, lettuce, potato, radishes and sometimes even tomatoes. As if these delicious organic vegetables aren’t beautiful enough, they surround these gardens with the most colorful flowers. It is customary in the guest houses to sit amongst these gardens and have a delicious vegetable omelet with fresh made bread.

    desertLadakh is predominantly Buddhist and known for its strikingly beautiful hilltop monasteries. But it is where India, Asia, and all the ‘Stan’ countries to the north and west meet. Located on the ancient Silk Road, there are Tibetan nomads, Asians, Kashmiri merchants, Arian shepherds, Sikks and South Indians. As the water floods the valleys in summer, Ladakh is also flooded by tourists. Monsoon is at its mightiest across India and Ladakh is pretty much the only dry spot in the entire sub-continent. So one other race commonly seen in Ladakh is the tourist race. Many a restaurant and agency serve this visiting race. Although we mostly eat around the market, we have gone a few times to these restaurants. So at 3,500 meters surrounded by snow peaks in the greenest desert on earth, I have had a burrito, olive and mushroom pasta and even a hummus, all dishes coming from very different climates and altitudes. It is here in Ladakh that we also decide for the first time to partake in touristy activities and we actually go to an agency to rent bikes. We hook up with another Israeli/American couple, Lee and Oz, and a crazy Spaniard, Joaquin, who has travelled seventy-two countries. We rent the bikes for four days, and head out to explore the Nubra Valley. Nubra Valley is even desertier than Ladakh, with sand dunes, double humped camels and hot springs. Tourists are allowed to visit only five villages, the army will not allow you any further, due to the proximity to the Chinese border. You also have to pass the highest road in the world, Khardung la, at 5,578 meters. We decide to take a jeep up to the pass as I have promised Sheila to take it easy (or at least to take it ‘easier’, as nothing we do can quite qualify as easy). So we head up. India has this thing about maps. You can never find an accurate one. As if they are trying to keep their terrain top secret. A tough thing to do since thousands of people, tourists and locals, constantly walk this terrain. It is very hard to plan a trip with these maps, maybe that is the point, maybe the Indian government wants to teach you that it is better not to plan. So we are at 5,578 meters, and according to the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide our first village is thirty to forty kilometers away, a nice little downhill ride. When you are going with gravity, you are king of kings. You effortlessly pass kilometer after kilometer thinking the Tour de France cannot be that hard. Look at us, we are the Sultans of Two Wheels. On our way down we have a couple of little uphills that break the euphoria, but they quickly give in to downhill. After seventy kilometers, we see a sign that tells us our village is still twenty kilometers away. This is the map accuracy we are working with. We go a little further, and camp at some dunes by the river. Seventy something kilometers tires you, even downhill. The next day, we have fifteen kilometers to the village, and seven kilometers to the camels. We take our breakfast leisurely and set off. We arrive in Diskit at eleven a.m. Diskit is the main town of Nubra valley, but still a very small and charming one. It is a cluster of small houses, surrounded by green fields, overlooked by a beautiful cliff monastery. It is like the rest of Ladakh, a lush green patch in an otherwise brown desert. We decide to stay in Diskit for a while, and ride to Hundar, the camel village after it cools down a bit. The villages are further apart than what we thought, so we choose to play it by ear. We find a nice guesthouse that happens to have a bar right next to it. Ladakh is a ‘dry’ region. I’ve already talked about the climate, but I also mean alcohol wise. So we are happy to encounter a nice cold beer. The bar is open to serve the general in charge of the area who is not from Ladakh and likes drinking, so army presence is not always all bad. One beer leads to another, until we find ourselves happy and far too lazy to get back on the bikes. We realize this is our first afternoon, the whole trip, lazing about, without doing anything. Now I know where this leads to. You have one rest in the afternoon, then it becomes a habit, resting in the afternoons, then your treks become shorter, the mountains you climb are lower, and the next thing you know your whole trip you’re just sitting on the beach enjoying yourself (…not on my watch).

    sultan2After a while we gather our tipsy selves up to the river for a swim. We find a nice spot underneath an apricot tree. The water is ice cold, but the sun is blazing, and we stay there and watch the sunset. Thus with only fifteen kilometers under our belts, we end our second day. The third day finds us traveling the seven kilometers to Hundar. To the right of us, the famous sand dunes slowly reveal themselves. It is like a picture out of the Sahara desert. We stop along the way and go swimming in some pools that are nestled between the dunes, probably left from the winter snow. It is amazing. Your body is under crystal clear water, as you look around, you see only sand dunes and mountains as dry as a bone. As I approach Hundar, one of the peddles on my bike breaks. It is like those movies, when you’re on a vehicle and your comfort is dependant on it, it is very feeble. One moment you’re sipping champagne on the Titanic, or you’re sitting in a cozy cockpit, the next moment you’re in the ice cold Atlantic or stranded in a jungle. Fortunately mine is not of such grave circumstances, but I was a Sultan of Two Wheels (and this is the last time I use this expression) and now I have a bike with no peddle. There is not much you can do with a bike with no peddle, but push it. So for the next two days, I will be pushing my bike. We reach Hundar and search for a place to have lunch. There are many signs advertising restaurants, but they all point to closed places. Eventually we find a canteen by the army base that serves masala dosas. We have our lunch and call to arrange a taxi for tomorrow, to take us up to the pass, and call the agency to let them know about the broken peddle. The agency does not offer much help, basically saying that I am on my own and they expect to see the bike on Friday at the shop. Our last night, we camp in the dunes. Lonely Planet warns you about ‘wild’ camels. But the only camels we’ve seen are the ones tied at the camel safari gate, waiting to take the occasional tourist on the routine ten minute walk. We are on the soft dunes with a beautiful river below us and a blanket of bright stars above us.

    Our last day we head back to Diskit. I of course arrive last. The others have found a motorcycle shop with a few enthusiastic mechanics who can’t wait to try and fix my peddle. I go have breakfast as the team starts handling my bike. I have to admit, I feel a little bit like an important Formula One driver, as I eat my breakfast and see my bike being treated out the restaurant window. They try many things, and eventually put a big screw with two bolts and a few rubber pieces to keep it steady. It is not the best peddle, but it will do for the downhill back to Leh. We get on the jeep and drive up to the pass. We all remember every turn of the way, as we have done all this by bike. We figure out that in the last three days, we have done about a third of the kilometers that we did the first day. The way down goes pretty smoothly, with my contraption holding on. We have only one flat tire incident. We arrive back in Leh, and all five of us are happy to get back on our feet.

    click here to see photos

  • Hinduism and Capitalism

    Posted on September 10th, 2009 Sheila Yair 26 comments

    hinduI’ve been writing a lot about green valleys, snow peaks, and beautiful hikes. But India is not only nature. It has a lot of culture, and a lot of religion.

    Now why compare apples to oranges? First of all, it makes for a more interesting comparison. Secondly, many Hindus will tell you that Hinduism is a way of life, while many capitalists will practice and defend capitalism religiously.

    The first striking similarity is that both accept poverty. In Hinduism, there is karma, which means your present life circumstances are a result of your past life actions. So if you are poor and belong to a lower caste, it is because you did something wrong in previous lives. Capitalism looks upon poverty a little lighter, saying that the opportunities are always there, and if you are poor you just didn’t work hard enough or grab the opportunities that were present. The religious aspect to poverty and it being a punishment, perhaps explains why Indians mistreat their poor and are so appallingly indifferent to misery. Going through India, you will often see old men getting kicked and pushed in a train or bus line, you will see shop owners pouring jugs of water on beggar kids to scoot them away and I have even seen a policeman hitting a homeless person with a stick to make him leave a corner where the policeman wanted to stand. This behavior is accepted both by the inflicting and the receiving parties. You will never see any protest by the beaten poor. In capitalism, the punishment of poverty is less personal, and you are not reprimanded for being poor. Capitalism sees poverty itself as punishment enough. You have less means, therefore you can only afford lesser education, lesser health care, lesser accommodations, and even lesser justice when you get into trouble.

    In Hinduism, there is also the comfort of knowing that your position, your caste, is secure for this lifetime and will change only with the next reincarnation. Perhaps this gives a Hindu more security to mistreat the ones below him. In capitalism, you are more on your toes, as changes occur in this lifetime. Obviously, if you’re a multi-millionaire and do not have risky investments, you are financially secure for life. But there are very few of those, and even upper middle-class with one bad investment, with losing your job after taking too big of a mortgage, or with unexpected medical bills that no insurance company will pay, you can fall down the ladder and find yourself a lot lower than where you were. You are constantly responsible for your actions, being rewarded or punished accordingly.

    Every system needs a force to glue it together, to keep the poor from revolting, to keep order, and to keep chaos away. The forces are usually fear, necessity, or hope. A feudal farmer knew that if he would not make his quota with the harvest, the landlord could kick him off the land, mistreat his family, or inflict any other punishment. That fear made the farmer wake up early every morning, and work a plot of land that wasn’t his.

    In Hinduism, if you are good and fulfill your duties to the gods, to family, and society, your next life will be better. There is also Maya, in Hinduism, which claims everything is an illusion. All is false but god. So your poverty and misery are not real, and if you do right this life, your next life will be better. That gives you enough hope to keep going. With capitalism I have mentioned before how you can fall down the ladder, but you can climb it just as well. There is an abundance of rags to riches stories, people who started with nothing and accumulated vast fortunes. If you work hard enough, if you have a bright idea, or if you’re innovative enough, you will make it. That is the hope that makes people go to work, whatever job they have. That is also the hope that brings millions of immigrants knocking on the doors of the US. But both are a little bit of a pyramid scam, no matter how much people pray in India, go on pilgrimages, and offer goods to the gods, poverty is still at almost 50%, with many living way below the poverty line. No financial expert in his right mind will tell you that everybody can be a millionaire (unless they are trying to sell you a book they wrote). Someone has to open the shop on Sunday, wash the dishes in a restaurant, or man the cash register on Christmas Eve, we can’t all be the C.E.O. There will always be upward and downward movement, but there has to be a base. Now some will rightfully argue that the middleclass outnumbers the poor, but that is only because we have outsourced our poor base. The people making our clothes, electronic gadgets and pretty much everything else that we buy, are the base of our pyramid and are very poor.

    There is a reason the Egyptians, Aztecs, Mayas, and ancient Hindus, thousands of miles and years apart, all built pyramids. It is the sturdiest most stable shape we know. In Peru, which is very earthquake prone, the Spanish churches come tumbling down after every earthquake but the Inca ruins stay intact, they are all wide at the bottom and narrow at the top.

    We see social pyramids all across nature; a wolf pack, a bee hive, and a monkey tribe all have a pointy top and a large base. With capitalism, humans have taken the most stable shape, poured hope as the gasoline to keep it running, and even added a fair amount of justice by integrating socialist elements. But with globalization the base is pretty much cut off from true ability to rise.

    We have broken out of evolution by boosting our survival rate. We have fought and won many diseases. In the west, we have even managed to control our food supply, where drought, floods and plant disease no longer cause famine. So maybe one day, we will devise a social system that breaks out of the pyramid shape and is more horizontal, with more people enjoying a bigger piece of the pie, without compromising stability or efficiency.

  • Manali to Leh

    Posted on September 8th, 2009 Sheila Yair No comments

    The Manali to Leh road is just a little to beautiful for words so instead of doing it injustice by trying to describe it I will just provide a link for the photos.

    I will just say that you go through 4 passes and about 5 different climates. We also broke the trip for a little bit and camped two nights at Tso Kar Lake.

    click here to see photos

  • A Kullu Valley Moment

    Posted on September 8th, 2009 Sheila Yair 2 comments

    traffic2We are in Kaylong, which is in the north of the second most northern state in India. So we are way up north, on the edge of the Himalayas. Before we take the two to three day journey up to Ladakh, we decide to go to Manali. Manali is the second largest city in Himachal Pradesh and the capital of the lush green fertile Kullu valley. We need to do some shopping, replace some items of clothing that were worn thin by all our trekking. We need to get some camping supplies, Manali is famous for its nuts and dried fruit, and also since Manali is the base for the Manali Ladakh trip, we thought we might be able to organize a group to share a jeep.

    Himachal Pradesh is a very hilly state, filled with mountains. To have and maintain roads in this terrain is a great achievement or constant struggle, depending on how you want to look at it. There is a network of roads, going up and down huge mountains, crossing mighty rivers and connecting towns and villages in remote valleys. The roads are usually narrow, dirt with patches of asphalt, with rivers crossing them and not vice versa (i.e. the river goes over the road, and not the road over the river, like we are used to). This makes them passable pretty much to only jeeps and rugged state busses. It is not uncommon to stare into the distance from your bus window and see something that looks like a goat trail zigzagging up a mountain. You think to yourself, wow, who would walk all the way up there only to discover half an hour later that it is your road and to find yourself climbing a huge hill just to avoid a cliff, bend in the river, or any other obstacle. The distance between two points can be 10 km, but due to the terrain, the road might be as long as 50 km. The road builders here like to call themselves, ‘mountain-tamers’, but their job is never done, and the mountains are definitely never tamed.

    Come autumn, the snow begins falling, and the roads close. They lay under a thick blanket of snow the entire winter, leaving a lot of the villages totally cut off. In spring, the snow starts melting, and the water comes gushing down taking big chunks of the road as souvenirs. So the only time these roads are open, their shining moment is in summer. That’s when the monsoon arrives, and Mother Nature pounds these roads with huge drops of water on a near daily basis. Summer is also the only time work can be done on the roads. So often, you will have to wait for a bulldozer or a tractor shovel to clear a patch of road, to re-lay the rocks, or rebuild the edge. Most labor is done manually and all along the roads, you can see workers chiseling away, making gravel from rocks, digging drain tunnels and flattening the road. You see their camps all along the roadside. But, it is like building a sandcastle on the edge of the water, you can constantly rebuild it, but it will never last for more than two minutes before a wave washes half of it away.

    These are the roads we take to Manali. Our specific one goes through Rohtang Pass, which is at 3,978 meters above sea level. Rohtang means, ‘piles of dead bodies’; it is named so for the people who die in snowstorms on the pass each year. I’m not sure how people die so close to such a main road, but that is the name. We go through the beautiful Chandra valley for about an hour and then start our ascent to the pass. The road zigzags for 15 km to gain around 2,000 meters of altitude. The views are spectacular up until the last kilometer, in which we enter a big thick cloud. It is summer and the clouds love nestling up on the peaks (perhaps like us, they just want to escape the heat). We can’t see much through the fog only the road workers, their mules, and the two temples marking the pass, one Hindi and one Buddhist. At one point I feel the bus starting to descend and I know that I have crossed the pass without contributing to its name. Once out of the cloud we see below us the lush green Kullu valley. We don’t drive too long before we stop. There is a long line of trucks and busses ahead of us. Since the road is zigzagging, 200 meters below you, you can see traffic that is 1 km ahead. The two rows below us are clogged with downward traffic, and the third, forth and fifth with upward traffic. No one is budging. The trucks and busses who are transferring goods, locals, and tourists between Kullu, Lahul Spiti, and Ladakh, are at a complete halt. As I walk to the end of the long line of traffic, I see that there was a big landslide that left 200 meters of uncrossable mud. Lahul Spiti’s only connection to the outer world is this road. So 56,000 square km are cut off by 200 meters of mud (and by now kilometers of traffic). Apparently this happens a lot on this road and the systems spring into action. A bulldozer, as I mentioned there are many of them around, is pulling a stuck bus, a tractor is slowly making its way up, and the road workers are taking stones from the side and laying them on the road, or rather the patch of mud that was the road.

    But we could not have stopped in a better place. Below, we see the valley, we see Marhi, the cluster of restaurants where ascending traffic usually stops, we see its temple and a pool of water formed by one of the streams, probably a holy one. To the right, there is a paraglider station, there are a couple of cyclists slowly making their way up, and tourists, mostly Israeli, on motorcycles with huge backpacks strapped to the back passing the long line of trucks and busses. Although the latter are at a complete stop, Kullu valley moves ahead at full speed. Gliders are soaring through the air, the cyclists are slowly and painstakingly peddling up, the motorcyclists are all conjugating at the mud, where they are prevented by the police from continuing, and passengers and drivers are walking up and down the road, giving advice, asking questions, or just looking about. But the happiest are the opportunity grabbing snack sellers, which by now have made it up from Marhi. Most of them have a big pot of chickpeas, which they mix with fresh tomatoes and onions, add lime, chilly and spices, and sell in a bowl made of dried leaves. They walk with the pot on their heads and set it down the second someone seems to show any interest. There is a chai seller with a thermos and two cups going from truck to truck only occasionally stopping by a stream to wash the glasses. But the most entrepreneurial of them all is a guy walking with a milk crate, in it a wok with charcoals, selling hot barbecued corn on the cob. Now Kullu valley is green for a reason and after half an hour of this show it starts raining.

    So we are a little more than a kilometer from Marhi as the crow flies, around 5 km by road, and who knows how far from it time wise. But we have seen the essence of Kullu valley, its people, its commerce, its tourism, and even its weather.