our trip

Sheila and Yair do the world
Home icon
  • 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.

    click here to see photos

  • 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