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  • The river

    Posted on October 27th, 2009 Sheila Yair No comments

    rish1On the edge of the gigantic Gangetic plains where the mighty Himalayas turn into mere rolling hills before petering away to the vast flatlands, only the rivers are evidence of the true expansiveness of the mountains to the north. Huge tributaries who will tell anyone who is willing to listen about the enormous peaks where they were born. Rishikesh is located on that border between mammoth mountains and vast plains on one of those rivers, the holiest one, the Ganga. Right as the Ganga River leaves its turbulent descent from the north it bends to the east just before commencing its slow lazily run of the plains all the way to the Bengali gulf, that is where you find Rishikesh.

    A river is always reason for celebration in India. There are two things that Indians of all creeds wholly believe in. Two things that lay well beyond any hint or shadow of doubt in the Indian psyche. Two things that unite Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians. The first thing is the horn, Indian drivers believe the horn to be the almighty protector from all threats of the road. You are fine driving fast on a winding road as long as you toot your horn. You can go through a busy narrow street with other cars, pedestrians, rickshaws and animals with no need to reduce speed as long as you beep your beep. You can even pass two trucks right before a blind curve on a highway with no qualms, as long as you press that button in the middle of your steering wheel and honk your horn. The second undisputable truth is water. Indians radically believe in the purifying ability of water. A few drops of water can clean anything, even if the water itself is polluted. Three drops of water on a plate and it is ready for use (and re-use). There are sometimes buckets of water where you can wash your hands and mouth before eating to clean yourself, never mind the amount of hands that were in there or the drops that fell from the many mouths back into the bucket. In Amritsar, the golden temple, the Sikh’s holiest place, lays protected by a shallow 2 meter by 5 meter pool that every visitor has to dip his feet in. The water retains its purifying quality even after thousand of visitor’s feet go through it each day. In Varanasi one of the most polluted rivers in the world is persistently used for cleansing body, soul and all other household items. So with such trust in water a river carrying an unlimited amount of this wonder substance is cause for rejoicing. All rivers in India are extremely sacred. Waters purifying trait is due to its remarkable ability to dissolve almost any chemical. Maybe subconsciously, the Indians admire that latter ability, the capacity to dissolve anything it comes in contact with. This is very similar to what India itself has done throughout its history, dissolving any intruder and eventually swallowing them and making them a part of India. Maybe they feel a certain brotherhood, a similarity of qualities that bonds them with this miracle liquid. So here, in Rishikesh, the mighty Ganga before becoming one of the most polluted rivers on this planet is still in its virginal cleanness with only mud and rock dissolved between its molecules and is celebrated as a flow of purity.

    rish2But there are many rivers running through Rishikesh not all carrying water. One of them is a river of tourism coming to enjoy the tranquil surroundings and numerous ashrams. Its waters of tourists come from the south and crashes on the town’s ashrams, yoga centers and cheap guest houses, all of which serve as sand bags soaking up the gush. That is the river that carries us into town as we get off our bus and look for a nice place to stay. There are people from far and wide all different walks of life and different ages coming to look for themselves, meditate or do yoga. Ever since the Beatles came to meet the Maharishi here, Rishikesh has become a famous center for new age yoga, meditation and Hinduism. We visited the old Maharishi ashram which lays abandoned since the guru’s death. Like many gurus he left this materialistic superficial world with a lot of debt having the Indian government confiscate the ashram and the little he left behind. Money can’t buy me love…

    There is an orange river of sadus (Hindi holy man) who pass through the town on their holy quest to the mountain temples and sacred glaciers. Many of India’s big rivers start up in this section of the Himalaya and every one of these river origins are extremely holy to the Hindus, making them central destinations for yatras (pilgrimage).
    There is also a river of thought, this one flowing with no clear direction. There are many gurus and yogis offering cosmic solutions of universal enlightenment to all our worldly problems of planetary existence. There, I have used as many astronomical terms as possible in one sentence, Rishikesh is really rubbing off on me. I don’t really understand how there are so many solutions on such a cosmic universal level. If you talk specifically, solving each problem separately, than there are probably as many solutions as there are problems. But if you talk about a one fix-all solution, one thing that will solve all of civilization’s problems, I would think that there would be two or three of these multi fixers maximum. I mean how many ways can you screw in a light bulb? But maybe I am oversimplifying. Here in Rishikesh every guru seems to have his own all-in-one solution for the world, and there are many many gurus. But the solutions ring with similarity. The one element that seems to subsist in all the above mentioned solutions is the fight and distraction of our self, the annihilation of the ego. It seems, to destroy ourselves we haven’t the slightest problem but with our self it gets tricky. So here are all these gurus telling you, join me, join my ashram to fight your self (if you bring a checkbook better still). Our odds look pretty grim against our self. But I am getting cynical. There is much good in yoga, meditation and obsessing less with one’s self. During our stay here we try looking for a meditation class. But destiny does not want us to enter the realm of calmness quite yet, postponing our enlightenment for a later date. We tried a few times, once going to a place and finding no one there, once finding something that starts only after we would have left and once we mistook the time and arrived about an hour after it all finished. The cosmic right time and universal right place did not meet with any of the courses we tried to attend. That is saying a lot because not being able to participate in a meditation course in Rishikesh is about as hard as not being able to find any sand in the Sahara desert.

    rish3But not all rivers run on the ground here, there is a river of birds going through the sky as Rishikesh lies in a thick jungle region. We went up to Nilkanth, a small village about 9km up the hill. It has a very colorful temple, something like a house out of Hansel and Gretel, where lord Shiva, according to legend, swallowed poison as part of a bet he had with the demons. 2 minutes out of Rishikesh you are surrounded by jungle. Away from thoughts and theories of enlightenment, you are submerged in nature. The path takes us through thick vegetation with tons of parrots, wild peacocks and we even see a few specimens of the very elusive hornbill among the many colorful winged fauna. On our way back from the bubblegum temple as we are approaching town, a local fellow traveler tells us we better hurry up as dusk is when all the elephants, boars and tigers come out to drink and it is dangerous to stay out in the woods. Hearing this, of course, the two of us plant ourselves right by the first stream we come across and decide to wait till dark. We do not want to miss out on nature’s cocktail hour, and are excited about this chance of sighting large mammals. We see some more hornbills, many birds and monkeys but no tigers or elephants.

    But going back to the main river that runs through Rishikesh, the Ganga. Water is the liquid of life thus making rivers an essential source of life, the IV of civilization, carrying with in it the base of our existence. It is no wonder all great civilizations developed on the shores of rivers, everything our civilization is, every invention, idea, belief can be traced to a riverbank. We can’t quite pinpoint where civilization started, but we know it was next to a river. And here by the holiest river in India we decide to end our trip. They say a river is timeless, at its beginning and end at the same time. That is a romantic look at the macro level. In the micro, every molecule goes through each stage of the river, through its different temperatures, different tides and different directions. Every molecule is in one specific stage at a time. Such is our trip, timeless in our memories but at its end stage in reality. We have made many plans but the trip always seemed to go in its own direction, taking us along. And now as it is writing its own final scene, on the shores of the Ganga, we say goodbye to India, these two molecules are going home.

    click here to see photos

  • Wild fever

    Posted on October 21st, 2009 Sheila Yair 185 comments

    orchaOrcha, the land of lost castles. Nestled in the Gangetic plains, Orcha was the capital of the Bundela rajas, a small kingdom that lived in the shadow and under the protection of the much greater Mughal Empire to the north. Orcha means hidden place and after the last raja, Bir Singh Deo was killed by bandits in the beginning of the 17th century, the city was all but lost to the surrounding jungle. Most of their palaces, temples and tombs have been recently reclaimed by the new Indian nation to become tourist attractions but many still remain under jungle custody.
    The weather is very hot in Orcha, just about as hot as you would want any dry sauna to be, except there is no exit door here. There is only flat land all around, not even the tinniest hill to create some breeze, not even the smallest valley to channel a draft. Still hot heavy air all around you like a thick blanket. The air, not used to moving for lack of wind, becomes lazy. You can see the fans struggle as the motor pushes the blades through the languid air molecules, which reluctantly follow the laws of physics and ever so lightly blow on you. In places like this where the air has not moved for millenniums it becomes heavier and heavier with every tale it helps weave. This is the exact same air Raja Rudra Pratap exhaled when he tried to save a cow from the jaws of a tiger. It is the same air the tiger used to snarl in delight as an unexpected royal treat just jumped right into his mouth as he was devouring some divine bovine. It is the same air King Akbar the Mughal used to sigh in surprise when he saw the beautiful palace they built him for his one and only visit. The same air the princess pushed out of her lungs to call for help as she fell into the river. The same air that was going through the queen’s head as she dreamt of the god Rama in Ayodhya. Later organizing a convoy of elephants to go fetch a statue of Rama from Ayodhya and place it in a temple where it still sits till this day. And the same air Bir Singh Deo used to express his surprise as bandits attacked his camel convey loaded with booty killing him and putting an end to the partnership with the Mughals. His successor Raja Jujhar Singh used the air to declare a rebellion against the Mughals and was crushed and exiled from Orcha. This exact same air is now boiling all around us, encumbered with the stories it partook in. an oven of royal fairy tales. We push our way through this weighty air to see all the places, temples and tombs, the reclaimed ones and the ones still lying under the jungles claws. The Bundelas built a striking fusion of Hindu stone curving and pointy domes with Moghal arches porches and red rock. All the buildings, especially the jungle covered ones seem to attain a certain romantic mysteriousness, but maybe it is just all the local air in me talking.

    orcha2Our last night in Orcha we go to bed early as we are planning to catch the early morning bus further down the plains. At around 1am I wake up feeling freezing, in my sleep stupor I start thinking maybe the sauna heat has turned to ice overnight. Maybe for the first time in history a cold front mistakenly made its way to Orcha. But as I slowly climb out of my sleep and reach the plains of “awakeness”, consciousness settles in and I realize I am burning with fever. I cover myself but still feel the cold. When I get up to put my long pants and a few extra layers, Sheila conquers, the reason I am feeling so cold in this sizzling dry sauna is fever, a very high one. I toss and turn till morning but the fever is still with me, flowing through my entire body. We are both nervous it might be malaria. Since the decline of the Bundela kingdom, Orcha has become a very small village with no big towns around it. So if there was an ideal place for contracting malaria, and I am not quite sure such a place exists, Orcha would not be it. Sheila goes inquiring about a private hospital as we have heard some horror stories of the conditions in the government hospitals. She is given an address to a hospital called Medical in the neighboring town. Medical, that is a very original name for a hospital, would you kindly direct me to Medical hospital? yes I work at Medical hospital, I hear conditions in Medical hospital are very good etc. It is probably almost as good as Curing hospital and a whole load of chapatis better than Hope You Get Well Soon hospital. So we get on a rickshaw and off we go. This is a fever like nothing I have ever had before. I feel extremely weak and all my joints are aching. It is very hard to walk to the rickshaw and the road which is well paved feels worst than the bumpiest roads we traveled on in the Himalayas. We take two rickshaws to get to the above mentioned Medical hospital. The price to see a doctor, a Medical doctor, is a whopping 2 cents. The rooms are filled with simple beds and people. The people outnumber the beds by about 5 times. The air is heavy with odors of cleaning detergents, staleness, body orders and urine. It is obviously a government hospital. I can’t decide which is worst, malaria or laying here for 3 weeks recovering from malaria, hmmm I guess having both is the worst. We decide to keep looking for another place. As I can barely walk we take rickshaws for even crossing the street. The drivers ask for exaggerated prices as they can see I am in no mood to haggle. It is strange the way this street is set, to the south the Medical hospital covers a few blocks and to the north there are a bunch of private practices, private pharmacies and private test labs (for the more fortunate unfortunate people). We find an office that looks OK and see the doctor. He asks me a bunch of questions and sends me for a blood and urine test at the nearby lab. He diagnoses me with having wild fever, well even I having no medical background could have told you this is no tame fever. The lab is outside on the street. They take my blood, the guy is wearing no gloves, and hand me a tube telling me to fill it with urine. Where is the bathroom I ask, just go to the corner. This is typical India, privacy is something nonexistent in a subcontinent that is home to over one billion people. So I try to find a somewhat secluded corner on the street where I can fill my urine test tube. As I return the tube I see the guy is taking blood from two more guys and sending them to fill their tubes in the comfort and privacy of their own bustling street. He tells me the results will be ready in 45 minutes. All this waking, about 40 meters, with some steps of up to 10 centimeters has really tiered me out. I stretch out on one of the benches and uncomfortably rest. As crooked as this bench is I am much happier here than at Medical. So there I am outside on a bench on the side of the road among outdoor labs, pharmacies and patients, trying to gather enough energy to hope it is not malaria. After about 40 minutes that seem like eternity the results are in, it is malaria negative. The doctor prescribes some paracetamols and antibiotics and sends me on my way. Sheila loads me up on another rickshaw and we go back to the hotel. We wont be leaving Orcha after all. The fever subsides after 2 days and the joint pain sticks around for about five days. It was a nasty blow out of nowhere. And as I am laying here fully recuperated sweating to death I find myself missing the fever a little bit for despite all the swelling, the pain, the discomfort I felt nice and chilly even cold for those two days, a luxury unimaginable in a sauna with no exit door.

    click here to see photos

  • The science of rickshaw filling

    Posted on October 13th, 2009 Sheila Yair 4 comments

    rickshawIn the great Gangetic plains, India’s vast flat lands, the burden of short distance transportation falls primarily on the rickshaw. There are busses that go between the towns, but if your journey is up to 25 kilometers and you want to escape the limitations of one or two busses a day, your vessel of choice is the rickshaw. There are rows of rickshaws at bus and train stations and any big junction with a cacophony of drivers yelling their destinations. There’s no schedule, a rickshaw fills up, and leaves. This is exactly where the art is, the decision to leave. During rush hour it is easy, it’s a buyer’s market or rather a passenger market, meaning there are more passengers than rickshaws. So if your rickshaw can take ten people you stack thirteen to fourteen and leave. But it is not rush hour all day, and more often than not, it’s a rickshaw market. So the rickshaw driver can say he will only leave full, quality not quantity. But then he will only do a few runs a day, albeit having a large profit margin he would be leaving himself and his rickshaw unutilized for the majority of the time. Not the most efficient. So let’s say you have four people enter your rickshaw, they’re all comfortably seated. Now two more people arrive, do you leave or wait for a couple more minutes? Two minutes might bring more customers, increasing your profit, or a fuller rickshaw that will take your passengers and send you right back to square one losing the time it took to collect the six people. Remember the rickshaw driver is doing short distances, so any minute not on the road is loss of business. Let’s introduce another consideration, your profit. Let’s say the breakeven point is five people. Anything over that is gain, anything under is loss. So the rickshaw driver says quantity over quality, and every time he has over five passengers he leaves. He will be a busy bee but with a high gas bill and not too much profit at the end of the day. It is also not always correct to take the per ride approach. You have to look at the bigger picture. Say it is rush hour between point A and point B. You want to come back as fast as possible from point B even at a loss, to get another full load from point A. So the two extremes are not the most efficient. So let’s go back to the last example but let’s make it more interesting. You now have three passengers seated in your rickshaw, and two more come. Do you leave at no profit, hoping to collect more people on the way? There might be three people waiting 200 meters from here. Or like in blackjack, do you ask the dealer to hit you, risking that the next two minutes will bring passengers and not a fuller rickshaw. So what is the formula? Is it just luck? Day in and day out of passenger gambling, a rickshaw casino? Like poker, it is both luck and skill. The more you know the less chance you’re taking. Seven people getting off a bus and into your rickshaw, is a stroke of good luck. But if you know the bus schedule and work it into your schedule, you have more chance of that happening. If you share info about the road between A and B with a rickshaw driving friend, he tells you on his return from B and you tell him on your return, then again you have more info and can guess less. If your helper is standing two blocks away instead of with you, he can warn you if passengers are coming or if a rickshaw is getting full and is about to leave. Once more, you have more information and less chance. So the more information the rickshaw driver has the more he can calculate instead of estimate when deciding whether to leave or wait. We mentioned luck, what is luck? A series of events that works for us is considered good luck. Events that work against us are considered bad luck. We label these events as luck or chance, because we cannot calculate them. Those events will occur anyhow, regardless of us. But the lack of ability to predict them makes us call it luck. If every bus driver would call our rickshaw driver and tell him where all the passengers on his bus were headed, then the seven people coming off the bus and into the rickshaw would be a known fact and nothing to do with luck. The rickshaw driver would just be sitting there waiting for them. Three kings and two aces by all considerations is a very lucky hand. But if we could follow each and every card in the deck as it is being shuffled, something no human can do but a skill not that unimaginable, we can then calculate where to split the deck to get the best hand. We will also know exactly what the other people have and can decide our betting accordingly, rendering poker to a boring game of card following. No luck, no skill. The beauty of poker is therefore in the lack of info, the inability to fully calculate each card, what we call luck. If we drop a ball in vacuum, there is only one force at work, gravity. It is easy to calculate the precise time and place the ball will fall. But if we want to calculate where and when a leaf would hit the ground falling from a tree? Now we have many more forces to consider. We have to calculate the surface of the leaf, its’ weight, friction, and the hardest, the wind, which with every meter of fall it blows the leaf in any which direction. Is such a fall calculable? Or does something become incalculable after a certain number of variations? Does the wind just blow our leaf in to the chaos theory?

    rickshaw2So let’s talk a little bit about humans favorite small talk. We have made a science of predicting the weather. We have instruments that measure wind, air pressure, and temperature, along with satellites that take constant pictures of weather systems. But as anyone who watches the evening news can tell you, there is still a lot of error, the chance or luck factor. What if we had a processor, a super computer that had information about every molecule of air at a single moment, its’ position, temperature and speed? We would add to that every molecule of the sun so that we could calculate sun storms, every molecule of the earth so we could calculate volcano eruptions, the seas, the moon, everything in this one machine. Now you’re saying what about the ‘butterfly effect’ in the chaos theory? One flap of a wing at point A can cause a tornado at point B. Very well, we add another hard drive, giving us more memory, and store information about all the butterflies, their size, position, and DNA, so that we can calculate every wing flap. We are years from developing anything with that kind of processing capability, but let’s say for the sake of argument some green aliens who were traveling through New Mexico left their ACM (atmospheric calculating machine). They went ahead and loaded it with all the information relevant to earth. Any molecule pushed by another molecule will only go in one direction. Any molecule pulled by a low barometric pressure point will also move in one direction. The laws of physics are very strict. If we know every single force in the equation, it becomes a ball in vacuum calculation. So no more weather predictions, or weather forecasts. No more chance, now we can have weather calculations, accurate to the mili-degree for the next year, five years, twenty years. Millenniums of weather mapped out. September 7th, 2076 light showers in London, and sunny skies in Cairo (ok you don’t need an ACM to know that but you get my point). So the weather is set, it was set the day this planet was created. But here is the million dollar question, weather is fine, it is all physics, but how about the human brain? Can there be a BCM (brain calculating machine)? Let’s simplify, let’s say we have a hypothetical person in a hypothetical lab that’s a totally controlled environment where any external stimulation is fully controlled. If we know every single cell, every single neuron in this brain, can we calculate the thoughts? The reactions? Is it all biochemistry or is there some divinity, some incalculable spontaneity in our thought? I heard a guru talk about cosmic unfolding, the usual guru stuff, but I love the term. Is there only one cosmic unfolding scenario, only one path? Or like the movie, Run Lola Run, is the path ever changing? Those are big questions for a whole other posting. I will leave you to ponder that, as I have to get on an almost full rickshaw that’s about to leave to point B.

    Dedicated to my mother, one of the smartest people I know, and someone who always makes me curious.

  • White water thinking

    Posted on October 11th, 2009 Sheila Yair 1 comment

    delhiNight2With photosynthesis, plants take CO2 and water and turn it into food. They add a drop of sun to each molecule they create. We humans do the opposite. We take food and turn it into waste. Hemingway once said, humans take fine wine and turn it into piss. But it is more than that. We take nature, animals, plants, rivers, oceans, mountains, and plains, and turn it into waste and pollution, in the process releasing civilization. We take these drops of sun and convert them in to ideas, some good like art, culture, science, philosophy and some bad ones like war, slavery and abuse. We were up in the mountains among all the resources and now we are in the midst of the civilization production line. There is nothing like an Indian city to let you know you are out of the mountains, even a small one, the heat, the filth, the misery and noise. But we are in a big city, New Delhi, the capital. Delhi is an extremely busy city, constantly bustling. It has a long rush hour, about 24 hours long, a rush day 7 days a week. The subway we take is always full of people. The roads we cross are always overflowing with traffic, constantly presenting a challenge to reach the other side. But Delhi is a main junction and you have to go through it to get to the different parts of India. We have traveled the north, and now have to decide which of the other three directions to take. Heat rules out the south, and politics seems to rule out the west. We have thought of traveling to Pakistan and Iran, but Pakistan wants $300 upfront, before they approve or disapprove our visas. I can just see the smile on a Pakistani clerk as he stamps my papers with rejected in big red letters “No imperialistic Zionist is coming into my country”. You see my passport bears my birth-country, why do they always have to put the country of birth on all passports? Why are we humans so obsessed with boarders? So while in Delhi, one of the days I decide to brave the overcrowded train and face the challenge of crossing the roads and I head out to Akshardham Temple. It is a fairly new temple, with supposedly amazing elephant carvings. I have a weakness for anything elephant. The temple is very large and stands in the midst of extensive grounds. It took seven thousand stone carvers five years to complete. Every inch of the temple is carved with something. The mixture of styles is mind boggling. The domes are of a British parliament, which they in turn took from the Greeks. The spade shaped arches are from the Mughals. The towers and courtyards from the Muslims. The symmetrical shapes are from the Rajput. The swastikas and deities are from the Arians. And mother goddesses and holy animals from as far back as the Indus Valley civilization 2500BC. All carved in a characterless fashion so typical to modern things. Like a huge plastic resin mold, similar to the cheap handicrafts you find in the markets. This temple is modern India in a nut shell, in a pink meticulously curved nut shell. It is not surprising that a country over 3.28 square kilometers with 1.1 billion people and almost 5,000 years of history would be so diverse, you can only expect that. But it is not only diversity. India is so full of paradox, full of contradictions. Jungle carvings in one of the most polluted places on earth. A country filled with vegetarians but some of the most miserable animals. A nation that believes in the holiness of rivers but systematically pollutes every single one of them. A non-violent people that occupies territories and possesses an atomic bomb. A history with a woman president and a very strong women prime minister but countless women who don’t even go to school. And then suddenly it hits me, this is the India people look for. It is not a mystical place filled with answers. It is a place so illogical, it forces you to think. It obligates you to reevaluate everything you know. Your brain looks for anything logical, your mind tries to grab anything rational in the turbulent reality around you. Perhaps that is why for centuries, Indian philosophers and thinkers have keenly searched for perfect peace, nirvana, in this chaotic place. Perhaps this is why the theory that reality is an illusion was born here. Some people come here and start thinking only until the first yogi they find. Others can spend a lifetime thinking. But whether alone or with a guru, whichever way, India tosses serious whitewater five current thinking your way. So go ahead and use those sun drops.

  • Ahimsha

    Posted on October 6th, 2009 Sheila Yair No comments

    ahimshaAhimsha is the Jain practice of nonviolence. Based on the belief that every life is sacred, animal and human, it is strictly forbidden to end one. Mahatma Gandhi made ahimsha famous when he turned it to the core principle in the Indian struggle for its independence from the British. Traveling in Kashmir I came across this poster. Four super friendly faces with the title Allah dislikes violence. I am sure Allah does not like violence like any father would not want to see his children fight. But it is these four companionate gentlemen I want to elaborate on. These four angels of mercy with every word and every action seek ahimsha. Their speeches are filled with love and peace as they constantly call for tolerance, patience and compromise. Their actions show they are true fighters for nonviolence, building armies of peacefulness they bravely and without hesitation are willing to kill any violent man who does not accept their serenity. One of them is so nonviolent he refuses to believe the holocaust happened. These four noble souls are so kind hearted they make even Gandhi look like a violent gangster.

    peaceTouched by this overwhelming demonstration of ahimsha I wanted also to put together a poster. I wanted to display some western icons of peace and understanding of compromise and nonviolence. To show that ahimsha is strong on both sides. So here it is, four gracious true leaders who think only about the wellness of others, to whom life, any life, is more sacred than anything. I titled it “the west dislikes violence also”. With this abundance of peace loving, tolerance and nonviolence in our leadership you can see the human race is steadily marching towards full ahimsha.

  • Heaven on Earth

    Posted on October 6th, 2009 Sheila Yair 3 comments

    kashmir1We set out to the Kashmiri countryside in search of heaven on earth, that is how all Kashmiris refer to Kashmir. You can not have a conversation with anybody here without them stating at least once how Kashmir is heaven on earth. We also want to give Kashmir another chance as we were quite disappointed with Srinagar and figure the rural people will be more laid back. The first place we explore is Gulmarg. It is 1 hour from Srinagar and many people told us it is a must see. The name means field of flowers in Kashmiri so it definitely sounds promising. When we get there we find out it is a big ski resort. Since it is summer they offer only two attractions, pony riding and taking the ski lift up to the top, with a third one on the way (they are building a golf course to be complete next year). None of these are our cup of Kashmiri tea. We break out of the circle of people trying to sell us pony rides and head up into the hills. We see very few flowers but many big pine trees. About halfway up we come upon a mountain shepherd village. I have heard about these mountain people, the Kashmiris call them gypsies or nomads but they really only move between a summer grazing place and a winter base. So in Kashmir terms a lot of people I know are actually nomads. They live in very basic and low wooden cabins that are built on a slant with half the cabin underground. That way come winter they are covered with the best natural insulation, snow. Their life has not been affected much by modern advancements. They live without electricity, running water, cars or modern schools. It is like little house on a cold and slanted prairie. They raise water buffalo, cattle and sheep for milk and meat which they sell to the villages below to get everything else they need. During the cold winters they also make pashmina yarn which they sell to Srinagar’s big shawl industry and handicrafts mostly rugs. It is a great contrast to see this village in the middle of a ski resort. I wonder if people ski right through the village and if they do what do these mountain shepherds think of all these bright colored ski suits zooming by as they try to survive the cold while carefully preserving their meager winter supplies. We reach the top of the mountain, walk around a bit and go back down. Before we leave we step into one of the restaurants to have a little lunch. Our expectations are not high as these touristy places usually serve western or Chinese fair. You don’t come all the way to India or Kashmir to have great pasta. We are happily surprised with a splendid Kashmiri lunch of fried cheese and vegetables in a spicy aromatic cream sauce.

    kashmir2OK this wasn’t exactly heaven on earth but we got a good lunch and we have one more place to check. The next day we head out to Pahalgan. We are a little worried it might be another ski resort but we are giving it a chance nonetheless. The minute we get off the jeep taxi there are about 20 people around us shoving cards and brochures in our faces. We walk around the station to try and shake some off but no luck all 20 are still here without a single brochure missing. We take all our new enthusiastic friends and walk to the tourist information center figuring we will just stay at a tourist bungalow. Twice people manage to penetrate our tight entourage and solicit us for tea or lunch at their restaurant. They realize we are very annoyed and keep apologizing for not letting us breath saying they are very nice people they are village people not like the house boat people. I tell them that’s why I stay at the YMCA, but the joke falls on deaf ears. If house boat people are mosquitoes these village people are wasps. When we get to the tourist center the guy at the desk just joins the wasp nest and starts soliciting his friend’s place saying it is very nice and cheap price. His friend will take us in his car to see. At this point Sheila breaks down and says she just wants to get out of here. Turn around and go back. We head to the bus that goes back down to Anantnag. When they see how serious Sheila is they tell each other to back off but they can’t last for 2 seconds before all of them start hovering around us again. I see a bus coming up and convince Sheila to get on that one instead of going back, remember these might be the gates of heaven on earth and we shouldn’t miss it. We tell the ticket guy we want to go to the last stop wherever it is. He nodes his head and overcharges us with a smile. By the price I figure we have about 10 kilometers to go. Out of the 20 people only 3 board the bus. I tell them whoever talks to the madam his hotel is automatically disqualified. The bus stops a kilometer and a half later telling us this is the last stop. I look at a few hotels but they are all pretty dodgy. We are down to two solicitators, the two finalists. We go with the one that offers us kitchen facilities. I feel a little bad for the other kid we didn’t go with. But we have to go with someone and we can only stay in one place.

    We settle in and after saying no to dinner offers and pony tour offers made by Nazir, our host we head in to town. Pahalgan is a one street town with hotels and arts and crafts stores. Of course we are invited several times by each and every shop to come and see inside, looking is free. The mountains around are covered with massive pine trees it reminds me a lot of pictures I saw of Colorado. Consulting a big drawing of the area (I can’t bring myself to call it a map) in the center of town we start to plan some hikes. There seems to be many little lakes around.

    The next day we start with a homemade breakfast, omelets, salad, butter and bagel-like bread with coffee on milk for Sheila, the luxury of having a kitchen. We go to the tourist office to ask about some places. We decide to go up to Baisaran, a small village in the hills. A guy volunteers to take us there, he says he is going there anyway. All the way up he tells me about his two guesthouses and the treks that he can guide us on. I keep telling him I will think about it. After a little over an hour of climbing we get to a clearing where we can see the whole Lidder valley. There is a little village of mountain shepherds (the so called gypsies) and a nice river coming down from the mountains. He points to a few peaks telling me there are glacier lakes behind them. That plants some ideas in my head for tomorrow. There are also of course some locals selling the usual Kashmiri things. There goes my promise to Sheila of walking in the woods with no people hassling us. But we end up having our first real conversation with Kashmiris. We need to refuse all the shawls for half an hour at the beginning then half an hour refusal of saffron (coming down from $16 to $2 for 100 grams) as we bid farewell but in between many non-commercial words are exchanged. We ask many questions as the merchants draw a descriptive picture of Kashmiri life. Their customs, life in the countryside, Srinagar, the Indian army the struggle for freedom and of course the big pashmina industry. I am very surprised to hear that actually most of the pashmina comes from Ladakh. A few more tourists are led to the clearing, some come on ponies some come like us with people who are “going there anyway”. We go down with the river and through the village we intended on visiting. That night we use our kitchen facilities once again and make some Mediterranean Kashmiri fusion food. I have missed cooking a great deal.

    kashmir3We decide to hike up and try and find one of the glacier lakes. Our host is a very paranoid person. He always insists we lock all the windows and draw the curtains, a few times he even came in to make sure. In the morning just as we are about to leave he asks me to accompany him. I am not sure where he is taking me, he says to register. We arrive at the police station and go straight to the commissioner’s office. The commissioner is still sleeping he gets up and receives us sitting up in bed. He asks me for my passport my visa where am I going, neither one of them knows how far the lake is so confidently I say it is only 10 kilometers away (might be true). He scribbles all this info in a little notebook. It is pretty obvious no one has come here before to register. The last thing he requests is a letter from me confirming I am going with no guide and out of my own free will. After that he tells me I can go camping but only for one night. As we get back to the guesthouse Nazir decides he also wants a letter from me, so I write and sign the same letter I left at the police station. Now that all Kashmir has covered their pashmina butt we are granted permission to leave. We start heading up the mountain. We have to reach the peak then there is a saddle where the river goes through after which we just follow the river to the lake. The climb is a lot longer than what it seemed from below but after a few arduous hours of climbing we find the saddle. We start walking with the river. There is an abundance of oregano so for lunch we have nice Italian tomato with cheese and oregano sandwiches. Neither one of us really knows how far the lake is but we keep seeing fake peaks where we are sure the lake lies just to find out it is another plateau. We camp in a big plateau right before the valley curves. It can’t be too far now. In the morning we start off early, after about an hour climb we are there. The lake is small but beautiful, emerald green set in a field of purple flowers to the foot of an ice blue glacier. We sit for a long moment in awe of the beauty. On the way down we run in to a group of Israelis with a guide. They are doing the same trek. They came up the same day as we did but are walking slower and do not like to start-off before 11am. They of course didn’t register with the commissioner, the guide just laughs when I tell him the story. Nazir and his hysteria. We go back by way of the river. We want to get some swimming in as it is a gorgeous day. We also have a liter of milk some rice and apples and Sheila has been craving sweet rice. So what better than a long lunch break by a nice natural pool? When I go to light the fire we see we only have one match left. That’s fine it is warm and dry. I set all the paper and small sticks, I have only one try. But the match is wet and crumbles before it even lights. We look around to see what else we have, our sunglasses are useless and the rocks are all limestone no flint. Than I remember our zoom lens. A zoom lens is usually made out of a biconvex lens along with a plano-convex one. Together they can’t really help but luckily this lens is easy to screw apart. I take the biconvex out and focus it on the fire. After less than two minutes of only smoke the flames appear. I knew I was dragging this lens around for something. We have a nice warm meal and head down to the village. As we reach the bus station we meet the kid to whose hotel we didn’t go, probably waiting for tourists. We ask him if he is open for dinner. He says yes. We have a huge and splendid Kashmiri meal and are a little sorry we didn’t go to his place as it seems a lot nicer and less uptight. Well you can’t win them all.

    The next day we head out to Jammu. Did we find heaven on earth? Well the camping was amazing as it always is. Earth itself is heaven, supporting so much life in such beautiful surroundings. I would say the Kashmiri mountains are heaven but sometimes the villages are a little more like that other H place.

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