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Trekking

As the days went on, it became obvious that we would not be able to proceed with our original trekking plans. Tashi had prepared a somewhat ambitious journey of 12 days in which we would first go to his village of Kabban, and then over a high pass, roughly 17,000 feet, and then back a different way, through other villages such as Dongel, Lossani, etc. However the snow is late in melting this year, and the weather continues to be unsettled, very likely with more snow higher up on the passes. Instead we will do it in reverse, up through the villages, and then, weather permitting, over the pass. If not, we will return back by the same route and make the trip shorter.

Prior to setting out I talked to Ramdee, Tashi's mother, about the history of her people. She didn't know very much, but she said that four generations of Tashi’s family now live in Kabban. The village was originally settled by four families, who came from the other side of the mountains in Lahaul and Zanskar, some 300 years ago. They moved because of better growing conditions on this, the wetter side of the mountains. Kabban eventually grew to have 60 families.

Legend has it that there was a feud between a Buddhist King,and a Hindu king. The latter said he would marry the Buddhist King’s wife and apparently made a secret agreement with her. She hid her husband’s arrows and bows and prevented him from sleeping. He was tied to the bed and killed by the Hindu King, who then killed his wife. Many of the the original settlers left Kabban after this and settled back in Lahaul in Darcha Marwa. They moved there and became Muslims, but still speak some Ladakhi. Not everyone left, or else more people came over the mountain passes, and the population of Kabban increased once again.

The day we started our trek was fair, and we hiked 15K or 20K up the well traveled path through a steep sided river valley. We spent a pleasant night near the river where the valley widened out in a grassy and sandy area. Despite the warm sun, my attempt at bathing was thwarted by the ball shrinking coldness of the water.

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Not long before dark, a very voluble Hindu man showed up from Mumbai who spoke English fluently. He asked if he could spend the night, as he brought no camping equipment other than a blanket. I didn't particularly want him in my tent, but said that if it was okay with Tashi and the porters, I had no objection. He stayed with us, sleeping in the cook tent, and gushing about how wonderful it was to meet Tashi and I. He was a bit over the top, and by the time he left early the next morning for Machel, I was glad to see him go.

Once more the day started out fair, although the weather began to deteriorate in the afternoon as we approached Lossani. The trail meandered up and down along the river and the adjoining slopes, and a few times we had to make our way across avalanche debris, ice and snow.

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Villages, mostly Hindu, dotted the landscape, including Machel, which is the site of an annual pilgrimage in August when thousands of people show up and camp for a few days near the temple. There is even a helicopter service for those who can afford it. The temple was not all that impressive, though it was locked and we didn't get to see inside.

Small village festival
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I am now in Lossani, a small village of mud and straw houses without many windows. Snow is still visible, not only on the summits, but also the remains of winter avalanches.

Approaching Lossani
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Old Buddhist temple, Lossani
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It has started to rain, a cold, icy drizzle, and Tashi and the guys elected to sleep in an abandoned school and cook there as well. Tashi's brother in law showed up, fairly drunk, and spoke in broken English about all the friends he has in the US and Canada. Doubtful. Another of Tashi's older brothers also lives in Lossani, and we went to his house for a brief time, and then on to a local wedding party. Actually, it was after the wedding had taken place in Manali, but now the couple had come back to the village to celebrate. It was the daughter of the brother in law. Virtually the entire village was crammed into one small room, sitting cross legged on the floor. There was barely room to eat, and the brother in law kept plying everyone with booze. On one end of the room, the cows were nestled in their wooden cages, so their warmth would help keep the room warm. Usually by now, they are put out to pasture, but because it still felt like winter with temps in the upper 30's and a cold wind blowing, they are still inside. Although it was difficult to make our exit, my legs had started to cramp up in the very tight space, and I needed Tashi to find my way back to the the tent. Luckily, as promised, the tent did not leak, as it rained steadily all night long.

In the morning it was still overcast and chilly, with a weak sun trying to shine through low hanging clouds that totally obscure the peaks. Going over the high pass seems increasingly less likely, as it will require 4 or 5 days of snow camping, and with the weather being what it is, it might be dangerous. It seems every time I trek with Tashi I bring the bad weather.

After a few hours of hiking, we arrived at Dongel, a village further up the valley. The weather has only worsened over the past two days. The rain is steadier and heavier now. I am safely ensconced in the house of a distant relative of Tashi's. I have the penthouse, aka, 2nd floor room, all to myself, and I am dry, if not warm. I can see my breath, and the temps inside are only marginally warmer than outside where it is just above freezing.

House where I stayed in Dongel
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Couple inside their house. In the back is where the animals stay for the winter
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Not far up, less than 1000 feet, fresh snow has fallen. Just now it is difficult to see it, because the clouds and mist have descended almost to the valley floor. A profound sense of gloom pervades the pine and cedar forest around this tiny village. Mist swirls amidst the lower trees, blending into the greyish, blank whiteout beyond. Rock walls and wooden posts, strung together with wire, separate the muddy tzo- shit strewn paths and fields that separate the dozen or so houses.

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The dark mud of the paths contrasts with the tawny colored mud of the houses, constructed of stone and timbers cut from the surrounding trees. They are then packed with mud and straw, both inside and out, a surprisingly effective form of insulation, though temporary I suspect. This is not, after all, the dry climes of Leh or New Mexico, where adobe can last for years. For some reason the roofs are mostly flat, and so need to be shoveled in the snows of winter, some of which still remains in the thick forest.

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One of the younger porters, Modup, has been taking good care of me, although Tashi has disappeared into another nearby house to visit other relatives, no doubt imbibing more of the local brew. Hard to refuse in this weather. He reappeared this morning when I asked one of the men to wake him.

There is nothing to do but wait. Hiking in this cold, wet weather would be uncomfortable at best, but it is hard to be patient.

If I want to get warm, I go down a set of very steep stairs, past the wood pile to one room on the first floor, where there is a small wood stove. Though vented, the draft is poor and the room is smoky. There is no furniture, only blankets on the mud floor, which thankfully, is much warmer than the cement floor of Tashi's house in Gulabgarh. After two hours in my sleeping bag, warmed with the aide of a make-shift hot water bottle, I will venture down now and continue writing from there. The walls of my upstairs room are papered with old English language newspapers and sexy pictures of Hindi movie stars, posters of Kashmir, and one larger picture of a boat and harbor, stating, ironically to me at least, God LOVETH THE CLEAN. On another wall there is a half page ad for Nestle chocolate, emphatically stating, "IN TWO DAYS, 100 CRORE(100 million) WILL WORK HARDER FOR YOUR DIGESTION. Hmmm. I never knew that chocolate bars, or a lot of money for that matter, would do wonders for my digestion. I am convinced, however, that if the outhouse, which is perched only a few feet from the water supply, were to be moved 50 yards in the other direction, and pit was dug to contain the shit, most likely this would do wonders for the digestion of the villagers. I have thus far, and rather miraculously, avoided any major stomach upset. I insist on having all my drinking water boiled, but others still cook and handle all the food. I do seem to have developed a cough which is similar to many others in these parts. I hope it will be short lived.

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Well, nature calls, and I have to make my way out to the shitter. After my short, but perilous and very slippery journey, I am back inside the warm room. One of the porters is here, along with some other young men from the village. The man of the house , who looks damn good for his 74 years, sits cross legged to my right, eating rice and mutton with his fingers, as is the custom. He has short grey hair, face wrinkled from the sun, and is garbed in homespun woolen clothes. His right ear is adorned with an earring. His daughter looks to be about 35, and sits on the opposite side of the stove. With high cheek bones, a kerchief on her head, and smooth, reddish brown skin, she is quite attractive. She wears a pearl necklace and a 2nd one of coral and turquoise, which is somewhat similar in color to her machine made orange sweater. Underneath the sweater she wears a flowered tunic and baggy pants, and is barefoot. She has just now finished the laborious process of making roti. The walls of this room are unadorned, though there are wooden shelves built into one side, which hold dishes, pots and pans. On the other wall, a solar powered light and clock, which seems to keep accurate time. A single small swastika is painted on the main soot darkened beam, and there are two drafty wooden windows, letting in the dim, grey light.

Every one sits waiting.

Waiting for the weather to clear so they can plow and plant their fields, several weeks late already.

And we are waiting to hike.

The clock ticks

The cock crows,

but the distant drone of the river is soft and soothing.

There is desultory chatting in Ladakhi, and some laughter. Always laughter. One of the young men, perhaps not from this village, takes out his cell phone and puts on some Hindi music. Cell phones are useless here for calls as there is no service. I can't imagine why a villager would have one, but you can never tell about these things. Actually, he has not one but two, and seems to be comparing them.

Tashi has told me a story about the forest here, which is one of the highest in all of Jammu district. A prince of Zanskar, on the other side of the Umasi La pass, four or five days of hard walking, was going to marry a princess from Dongel. The forest was going to be a dowry present, since Zanskar is much drier and has no forest of its own. When the prince arrived in Dongel, the princess held her nose because he was so dirty and smelly. A wolf intervened, and said to the the Zanskar prince, that the princess must not have a nose if he couldn't see it. Enough doubt was sewn by the wolf that the marriage did not take place, and so the story goes, that is why the forest remained here and was not cut down. Exactly why the wolf didn't want the marriage to occur is something of a mystery. Tashi says that no one knows this, but perhaps, in my mind at least, the wolf, who lived here, wanted to continue to roam the forest, and did not want it taken to some far off place.

There are still wolves here. A few days ago one killed a sheep in a nearby village.

Lunch is served, curried cauliflower and rice, not my favorite. They seem to have a lot of cauliflower here, almost every day it seems. Somewhat dutifully I managed to finish most of it, but wait, before I can refuse, in typical fashion the daughter is already refilling my plate. Just then she has a series of sneezes. Yah, just what I need. In their generous spirit, more cauliflower and more germs. Everything, and I mean everything, is shared here. There is no way to avoid it.

The rain continues on unabated, clouds menacing from all sides.

The clock ticks.

Slowly, very slowly.

The cock crows.

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The rain continued heavily all night. The wind blew so hard one of my windows flew open at about 6 AM. Now it seems to have stopped and the clouds have lifted somewhat. What the rest of the day will bring is hard to tell. We will wait another few hours before deciding, but at $100 a day for the porters and Tashi's fee, I can't really see the sense of continuing with conditions being what they are. The pass is clearly out of the question, and I am getting tired of waiting and the spartan life of camping in this weather.

Once again the old man of the house is sitting near me, this time with an enormous ball of yarn that he is winding onto a wooden stick. I was told that his wife is in Jammu getting some kind of medical treatment. Tashi said that he doesn't drink much now, but I think yesterday must have been an exception as he seems a bit hung over.

The day has continued on without any decisions having been made, though once again the village is socked in with clouds. In late afternoon, I sought out Tashi for some company in another house, his real brother in law's, as he put it, since he calls even his wife's distant cousins his brother in law as well. There was drinking going on again, and naturally they tried to fill my glass repeatedly, which I resisted.

Tashi and his brother in law wearing my unneeded sunglasses
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As always, there was a lot of laughter, and this time, it seemed as though the women were drinking as much as the men. Someone put on a music tape powered by a car battery, and since I wasn't drinking much, I encouraged everyone to dance, which eventually they did. They all got a kick out of it when I joined them. There wasn't a lot of room to move, but we managed to weave in and out of the bottles of hooch and the wood stove. There were several generation of relatives there, including young women nursing babies, as well as the old man of the village, my host, who after a time began to sing in that same sing-song voice, about how guests bring sunshine to the village. He must have been drunk, because in my case, nothing could be further from the truth.

Tashi's real brother in law, who did look like Puti, kept repeating the word nothing, when I said no booze, no food, hence nothing. I literally had to shield my glass with my hand to prevent him and others from refilling it. After a time, the pressure to drink got a bit much, and despite the obvious pleasure they took in my company, I returned to the other house. I asked Tashi if he could make it over to join me for dinner. What I didn't know was that about half an hour later, he would bring the entire party to "my house." More chang and wheat wine was consumed, but thankfully, the brother in law did not show up. The porters started preparing my dinner of chow mein, basically ramen noodles with a few veggies thrown in. They asked if I wanted any mutton. To be polite, I said a little, but meanwhile another porter took out an enormous leg of mutton, mostly raw, and began chopping away at it with an ax. This was bit much for me, and though they only added a few pieces to my dinner, I did not eat them. I asked Tashi if there was ever a problem with spoilage, and he said they dry the meat, but yes, some of it did spoil. That was all I needed to hear with the ax chopping away at the bloody leg, a piece of firewood on the floor serving as a chopping block. My gut was already giving me a few problems from bouncing around the dance floor earlier, but having the ax, thwack, thwack, right next to me did not improve matters. I had my dinner, or some of it at least, and made my way back up to the refrigerator that was the 2nd floor. I crawled into my sleeping bag, shivering from the cold, but my hot water bottle, held tight next to my femoral artery was a big help. I may be turning into a wimp, but I am looking forward to a few western comforts, especially a hot shower and clean clothes. It will be several days before that is possible.

  • ***************************************************

The rain finally did stop the next morning though it remained party to mostly cloudy.

A brief sunny moment, fresh snow on the mountains
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I was all for starting back, as I didn't want to be stuck in Dongel with more rain. Tashi said the porters wanted to stay, and I finally agreed, but I didn't want to spend money just to sit around. He spoke to them, and they decided to stay anyway, even without getting paid for the day.

He suggested an excursion to Somchen, the highest and most isolated village at around 3000 meters. I was happy to finally get out and walk again, but I had to talk him into coming as the porters and other relatives wanted him to stick around and drink with them. We finally set off around 11 for a pleasant two hour uphill hike. We stopped first in Deschedi, another tiny village about 1K from Somchen, where I was fortunate to meet and take pics of a 93 year old woman. She gave me a toothless grin when I showed her the picture afterwords.

Mother and daughter
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We had some tea with her and continued the rest of the way.

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Somchen looked a bit like the monasteries in Ladakh. The village consisted of one large stone and mud structure of several houses, built one on top of another, like an apartment building.

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The reason for this is that they need to keep the arable land free for grazing, and they are very close to a major avalanche zone. It is quite chilly up here. Fresh snow had just fallen last night, but had melted by the time we arrived. We stopped for more tea,rotis, curd, and fresh eggs, talking with the brother of Sonam, who lives next to Tashi in Gulabgarh, and who had lent me a trekking pole. This brother spoke a bit of English, and told me that his three children attend the Himalayan Culture School. He and his wife stay in the village and run the farm. In the village, life is difficult, he said . This year there were more than 15 meters of snow, which lasted more than 6 months. Temps were often minus 20C, and so all they could do was stay inside with the animals. Staying warm was their main preoccupation. He seemed quite eager for company, and encouraged me to spend the night, and to come back the next year and spend 5 or 6 days. Needless to say, I was not interested in either proposition, but his friendliness and hospitality were contagious.

As the afternoon wore on the clouds looked more threatening. Tashi went out to take a leak or so he said, and then disappeared for an hour. He had apparently met some other relatives.

We made it back just as the rain started anew.

I made it clear that I wanted to leave the next morning, rain or shine. Also, I wanted to get an early start, and if possible, make it all the way back to Gulabarh, about 30K. I didn't relish another chilly and damp night in a tent.

Although overcast, the next morning was dry. I was up by 6 and more than ready to leave by 8, but Tashi and the others were staying in a different house and they didn't seem to be in a hurry. When they arrived about 8:45, the donkey had still not been loaded. Tashi's brother in law, whose donkey it was, literally tried to grab and drag me into another house for more drinking. I was not amused and said no, which he ignored.

No, NO NO NO, LOUDER AND LOUDER. He eventually let go, but Tashi had to stay behind to help load the donkey. He had doubts whether the porters would leave at all if he didn't get them going. Modup, who had done all my cooking for the past few days was ready to leave, and Tashi suggested that I start with him and that he would catch up.

We kept up a pretty good pace and I wondered when or if Tashi and the others would catch up. The clouds thickened, and sure enough it started to rain shortly before noon. We stopped in a crude little dhabba in a small Hindu village. By then we were both pretty damp, and I had stupidly left a rain jacket behind with Tashi. I had a cup or two of very sweet tea and cookies, and huddled up to a tiny fire to try and stay warm. We waited over an hour, but the rain continued. Finally a donkey man and one of the porters showed up. Tashi had apparently stopped in Machel, so when the rain let up a bit we decided to push on, but after another hour or so it was back. Eventually, after two more hours of wet, cold walking, we stopped in another village at a small dhabba, with nothing to eat except ramen noodles. At least it was hot and not sweet. I played out the various options in my head. It was still about three more hours walking to Gulabgarh, and I wasn't sure we had that much daylight. Hiking in the cold rain in the dark did not seem like a good idea.

Finally Tashi showed up, nursing a toothache that had been bothering him for several days, but had clearly worsened. I was not happy that we had to wait so long because of his dawdling, especially without a rain jacket. I was also pissed at the porters, who had obviously been drinking, and told them that they should easily have been able to keep up with me, someone twice their age. It was obvious we weren't going to be able to hike more that day, and the rain had only picked up in intensity. Tashi found us a couple of basic rooms that would at least keep us dry, or so I thought. When I returned after drying my jacket by the fire, I found the rain was dripping in steadily on one side of the room. Luckily it was not on my bed. Later, the porters made a cooking fire in a leaky barn, and knowing I was angry, ran around asking me if I wanted tea or soup or something to eat. It didn't help with my foul mood.

We left early the next morning which thankfully was clear. Tashi could barely talk because of his tooth. I was still upset with all of the waiting around, but he and I go back a long way and I didn't want this to ruin our friendship.

We arrived back in Gulabgarh before mid-day.

Assuming the weather holds, the school will make a picnic in my honor the day after tomorrow. On Sunday, Tashi and I will leave for Jammu, where it will be warm. I will spend a few days there helping him check out computer tablets, and then fly to Mumbai before heading home.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:19 Archived in India Tagged landscapes mountains buildings foot photography Comments (2)

Srinagar, Kashmir

After saying good-bye to Nanette in Mumbai, I left the next morning for Srinagar, where Tashi met me at the airport. A good thing since a policemen accompanied me outside since I couldn't tell him where I was staying. Tashi had already found me a place, aboard a rather funky houseboat, Young Ambassador.

My houseboat was smaller one on the left
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Whatever fantasies I may have had about Dal Lake were quickly dispatched as Farooz paddled us out to his boat.

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Despite the beauty of the lake, a sewage smell was noticeable and thick algae blooms were everywhere. I guess its been a long time since the British Raj.

A rare moment of sun
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We dropped my backpack, and spent the day wondering around the city in the chilly, rainy weather. It was in total contrast to the weather in the south. This was one of these, be careful what you wish for deals. I noticed that many of the men were still wearing their winter coats, long woolen things, very baggy, so they can keep a charcoal brazier underneath to stay warm. In the evening Tashi dropped me, and went off to stay at an even cheaper place.

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While Farooz made a simple dinner, he talked incessantly about his various family and financial problems. Perhaps this was an attempt to get more money from me? Nabu showed up shortly thereafter, wanting to show me his jewelry. By then, I didn't have the energy to simply chase him away, and foolishly picked out a few pieces that looked marginally interesting. I said I wasn't buying that night, and that he should come back in two days, hoping that I wouldn't still be there.

Sunset from Young Ambassador
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The next day unfortunately, was equally cold and rainy. We hiked up to a Hindu temple on a hill overlooking town,

View of the city from the temple
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and then took a tuk-tuk back to the the tulip gardens, a famous Srinagar site. But then the rain picked up and so we nixed that idea, and sat outside eating ramen noodles in a dhaba, trying to stay warm and dry underneath a plastic tarp. It wasn't easy, but there was nothing else around. Actually, this was a harbinger of things to come, though I didn't know it then. We soon gave up and went back to spend a few hours eating in a somewhat warmer restaurant. After seven years, we had a lot of catching up to do. Finally, when the rain let up, we walked down to the main market. Tashi is still struggling with his trekking business, which I later learned he more or less fell into after hearing about the internet from David and I, some 17 years earlier. He had help from a Swiss guy, who he also met on a trek, who said Tashi could his personal email and password until he eventually learned how to set up one on his own. He would spend hours practicing on a computer in an internet cafe in Jammu, which then cost 60 rupees an hour, a lot of money for him at the time.

Next day saw a big improvement in the weather and we hired a taxi to take us to Gulmarg, India's largest ski area.

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This has been a very cold and snowy winter for them, as it was for us in upstate New York. The 14,000 foot peak was still covered with snow, some of which was fresh. Even the gondola was still running and the place was packed with Indian tourists coming up to see and touch snow, perhaps for the first time. We passed on the gondola and walked up to mid-station in the tracks of old wooden sleds that were being used to give tourists a ride and make a buck.

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An hour and a half got us there, but not before we passed two elderly Israeli couples, also walking. A bit of a surprise this. Mid-station was a large flat area, just at tree line, and lots of people were cavorting in the snow, though no skiers, which should have told us something.

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A number of dhabas had set up shop on one side, and we stopped for some overpriced chicken and dhal. A cloud moved in and some grappel fell, even as the sun shone.

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Tashi and talked about taking another day and renting skis since there was still so much snow. Although the mountain was officially closed, we were told we could ride up and down on the gondola to mid-station, and then hike even higher if we chose.

So next day, also good weather, we went back out even earlier, and met the guy who said he had alpine touring skis. Turns out what he had was 190's, way too long and not in good shape. He took us to another shop, where we eventually rented shorter ones, also in poor condition. I ended up adjusting the bindings myself, since the shop guys obviously had no idea how to do it. After two hours of this, we finally made it onto the gondola and back to mid-station.

You wouldn't know the day was mostly fair from this shot
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Rather than hike up we decided to take an easy run back down, but easy was still difficult in the heavily rutted track left by the sleds from the day before. Tashi struggled with the uneven snow, not really ever having learned to ski on modern equipment.

We had these beautiful open woods to ourselves
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When we tried to reboard the gondola, but we were told that this was not allowed. Tashi tried to speak to someone he knew at the resort, who said he would intervene on our behalf, but it did no good The guy running the the gondola refused to budge. Once again it seems as though this crazy country is determined to enforce stupid rules, rather than say, traffic regulations, where someone's life might actually be at stake. Hiking up, with the equipment we rented did not seem like an option, and so after another hour of hassling we finally gave up and returned the skis, but not before taking a few pics of Tashi pretending to ski in front of the shop. The day's frustration only increased, when I discovered that I left my new and expensive rain jacket in another taxi that I somehow thought was ours.

Tashi
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Pretending to ski
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All in all, despite years of trying to get here, Srinagar was a disappointment. Just another large and dirty Indian city. The surrounding area is stunningly beautiful, as was Gulmarg. Generally it is lush and green, although this spring more white. I'm sure there are some great treks, but this is certainly true in many areas of India that are less dangerous.

Posted by jonshapiro 05:17 Archived in India Tagged snow photography cities_postcards Comments (5)

Tranquebar

After three days of furious temple gazing, we were more than ready for Tranquebar. This small town by the Indian Ocean began as a Danish trading port in the 1620's. The old Dutch Fort is still standing, a tawny stucco and brick building just by the sea, looking very much like the Moroccan forts on the hill sides of the Atlas Mountains. The Danes eventually sold the place to the Brits, and it remained with them until Indian gained Independence in1947.

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We are staying in the old commissioners house, also dating from the 17th century. This house, with it's two foot thick walls managed to survive the tsunami, which killed 800 people here in tranquil Tranquebar. It was not tranquil on that fateful day.

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The remains of other brick walls jut directly into the water in front of us.

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Somehow, the old lamp posts leading up to the beach are still here, as well as several other large buildings with walls as thick as the commissioners house.

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In the rest of the town, there are much smaller houses with tile roofs and low doorways, also obviously quite old. Some of these are slowly being rebuilt or renovated after the flood. A number of NGO's have been active here, helping to rebuild. Around town there is much hammering and sawing going on. There are also small lanes of thatched roof houses that have obviously been built more recently, with goats and chickens here and there, eating whatever they can find. This was, and is, a poor town of fishermen, most of whom probably barely eek out a living.

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Despite the poverty and the destruction, the town has a relaxed and charming atmosphere, with a near constant sultry breeze that takes the edge off the relentless sun. Unlike in Kannur, the sea is gentle here, or has been, with small waves and little undertow. Perhaps for this reason, we see more Indians in the water, though almost all are fully clothed, and seem to prefer the safety of swimming within the old brick walls,where even the small waves are absent. The locals are very friendly, smiling and saying hello,and even asking for us to take their picture.

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Moods can change quickly at this age
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We were told that our hotel had just been renovated and opened the day before the great wave. They rebuilt once again, and fortunately managed to preserve the character of the old place. Our room, Princess Louise, with its 25 foot ceilings and windows almost as high, is a study in green. Our old brass canopy bed, felt like it might collapse as we made love this afternoon.

"The Bungalow," as it is called, a relative splurge, is the only upscale place in town, and seemingly has the only restaurant, which unfortunately is not particularly good. An interesting mix of people are staying here, including several Indians from the states, a doctoral student from London, with her Tamil translator, who is doing research on how people were effected by the tsunami. There is also a British couple, our age, whom we sat with last night for dinner, as they proceeded to fight about the spiciness of the food. George is an old India hand, and went to boarding school in an Indian hill town, while his father served in the military in India. He comes back every year for several months, and seems to feel quite at home, although his wife clearly does not.


The Bungalow has a wide veranda which overlooks the sea. Sitting here and looking out at the many fishing boats, I am reminded of other beach vacations in the Caribbean.

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Even the small palms and Norfolk pines are similar. I can almost picture one of the English commissioners, sitting in a wicker chair similar to the one I am now in, sipping a gin and tonic, and discussing trade with the Nawab of Tamil Nadu. Perhaps it was the same Nawab, or his relative, who encouraged the Danes to set up shop here before the Brits arrived.

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View from the veranda
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As the breeze picks up there are small whitecaps. Several Muslim women, all in black, are standing near the beach, and a group of Indian men, all in white, are walking on one of the brick walls heading toward the water. There is an ice cream cart, Arun,parked nearby, and another one selling fresh oj. Other women in brightly colored saris walk by in groups. Opposite the old fort on the other side of the veranda, is a small Hindu temple, recently painted and repaired.

These women in pink and yellow shawls were enjoying the sea view
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Despite what happened here some 10 years ago, there is nothing depressing about the place, even with all the destruction that is still present. Life clearly goes on, and it may be that one day Tranquebar will regain much of what it lost. The people here seem quite irrepressible.

Looking up at the sky inside the fort
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Posted by jonshapiro 09:00 Tagged buildings people children photography Comments (1)

Temples of Trichy, Thanjavur, and Kubakonam

We have been on a temple whirlwind. Flew from Colombo back to Madurai, and then a hot 2&1/2 hour bus ride to Tiruchirappalli, or as it is more commonly known, Trichy.

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In the AM we hired a tuk- tuk to take us first to the Rock Fort Temple, and then to Sri Ranganathaswamy.

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Rock Fort involved a lot of steps cut out of solid rock and many variations of Shiva.

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And no, this is not Mary and Jesus
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Good view of the city, but even though we went early we were dripping with sweat.

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The piece de resistance however, was the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. Dedicated to Vishnu and as large as a small town, many shops are located in the outer walls.

Not everyone takes their religion seriously, or lets it interfere with a nap
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We hired a guide for this one as there are as many as 49 separate shrines, according to Lonely Planet, and it would have been easy to get lost. There are also many towers or goparums, where there is a mass of humanity, Gods, demons, and animals, all climbing on top of one another, procreating, sometimes dying, destroying, etc. These Goparums seem to be the perfect religious symbol for India, in this crowded, sweaty, grungy, but incredibly colorful and vibrant country.

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Sex plays a prominent role in many of the Hindu temples with lingams, aka phallic symbols, both short and fat, and tall and skinny, some reaching up to the ceiling. Our guide pointed out that Krinshna was quite a playboy and had more than 16,000 girlfriends. How they arrived at this number I don't know. On one spot on the biggest goparum, he showed us a frieze of Krishna watching women bathing. They had left their saris on the shore of the river, and before they returned, he stole their clothes so that he had a good view of all them naked. There were sacred statues of bulls ,many Ganeshas, Hanumans, and of course, Brahmin priests, dressed in white, waiting to bless us in exchange for a small amount of money.

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They didn't want us taking pictures inside the temple, and I noticed these two cute girls. They didn't seem to mind having their pictures taken.

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On the way back we noticed a ceremony taking place on a side street that looked like a marriage. It turns out that it was a kind of coming of age ceremony for Brahmin boys of around 15 years. Similar, it seems, to a Bar Mitzvah. At first we stood in the back taking pictures, but it wasn't long before we were ushered to the front and warmly welcomed. Many people seemed eager to have us there, and to explain the ceremony, which involved the boy and his father and many other men of the community. When we left they gave us a bag of party favorites, consisting of a scarf, a sweat rag, very necessary here, and a bag which said construction and catering and the name of their company. Obviously not a poor family.

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Then it was back to our hotel, where we showered for the 3rd time of the day, and then took the bus to Thanjavur. Once again, we spent the afternoon by the pool before getting up early to see the Brihadishwara Temple, built by the cholas around 1000 AD.

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There were many big stone walls around the temple. Shiva's bull was once again in evidence, as well as this giant lingam.

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At one point there was a yellow liquid pouring forth from the lingams that looked very much like sperm. Fertility it seems,is prized here, despite the overcrowding.

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The architectural details and statues were brilliant.

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Next was Kubakonam, where we are now. Our hotel is quite comfortable, which is a contrast to this obviously very poor town with many temples. Our favorite was Airavatesvara, which was built by RajaRaja's son around 1146 AD. Similar to Brihadishwara, it had the feel of spiritual mystery about it, with dark colonnades, many candles, dark Ganeshes, and wonderful, detailed sculptures. It was also surrounded by granite walls, which were reddish in color in the fading daylight. Even though our tuk-tuk driver took us on a temple dash through the town and we saw five others just before sunset, none of them had the character of Airavatesvara.

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Posted by jonshapiro 14:04 Archived in India Tagged buildings photography tourist_sites Comments (2)

Anuradhapura/Negombo

Anuradhapura proved to be the most interesting of the ancient cities, as well as the oldest, dating to approximately 400 BC. The city was abandoned after an invasion some 1300 years later, and the jungle took over until the British rediscovered it in the 19th century.

Nearby to Anuradhapura is Mihintale, one of the holiest sites in Sri Lanka, where King Devanampiyatissa was converted to Buddhism in 247 BC, by Mahinda, an Indian missionary. However, we got there around high noon, and you know what they say about the mid-day sun in the tropics, only mad dogs and Englishmen, etc. As with many sites that are considered holy, we were not allowed to wear shoes or hats, and the hot stone literally burned our feet on the way up. I managed to cut my toe while attempting to move faster from step to step. We therefore did not spend a lot of time here, and skipped over several stupas or dagobas, as they are called. Perhaps the locals have more calluses and are able to handle it, but it seemed crazy to insist that we remove our shoes just to walk up to the base of the stupa during the hottest time of day in the hottest time of year.

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So, we went from there to our hotel, and spent the rest of the afternoon cooling our sizzling feet in the pool, before heading for the Bodhi tree, in the center of Anuradhapura. This tree was supposedly grafted from the fig tree in India, where the Buddha first reached enlightenment,and said to be the oldest continually tended tree in the world, dating back some 2500 years. The cutting was brought to Sri Lanka by Sanghamittra, an Indian Buddhist nun. Actually, it is not just one tree, but several, and although spread out, none of them appeared to be that large.

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Nevertheless it was an impressive place, prayer flags flapping in the wind, monks and others chanting at the end of the day, and people silently praying or meditating. So far, of all the places we have visited in Sri Lanka, it felt truly spiritual.

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We watched the special caste of tree tenders, carrying water to each tree as they must have done for thousands of years.

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As noted in a previous blog, even though the Buddha preached against the caste system, there is nonetheless a caste system in Sri Lankan Buddhism, which seems as rigid as the caste system in India. It would be nice to believe that somehow Buddhism is different than the other religions of the world, since many aspects of it appeal to me, but that clearly is not the case. Not only is the caste system proof of this , but so are the war atrocities committed by both sides during the 30 year civil war.

The next day we got up early to visit the other sites of Anuradhapura. We did not see them all. The brick dagobas, enourmous round structures with a squat part near the top, and then another narrrow spire pointing skyward, were especially noteworthy. They are, we are told, the tallest and largest stupas in the world, exceeded in height, only by the pyramids of Gaza. How they built them is still a mystery. The sloping round walls are far from uniform, but rather are undulating forms with indentations and bulges. Perhaps this was not how they originally were built, but a function of the bricks shifting over time. We did manage to circumambulate several of the largest ones, barefoot of course, but this time we came prepared with socks so that we did not burn our feet.

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There were white ones as well.

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Detail from elephant wall
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Detail from step. It looks almost Mayan
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And then we went out again, when the sun was low. We viewed another temple, seemingly built into and on a low rock face.

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Temple detail
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At sunset, we walked up to the large tank or artificial lake, also built thousands of years ago, as were so many of the lakes in this part of the country. There was a nice breeze across the lake and we watched the many birds, as the sun went down.

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In the morning, we got up early for a safari jeep tour in nearby Walpattu National Park. It was mostly several hours of bone rattling riding in the back of the jeep. We did see many deer, their version of buffalo, eagles, some chicken like birds, but the highlight was a juvenile leopard stretching himself out in a tree.

From a distance, I managed to get a fairly good shot of him.

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Back in Negombo, we said goodbye with some sadness to our very personable driver,Lalinda, but coming back to Serendib felt like coming home. Our hosts here, are a rather odd couple. Belinda, (a he not a she) is a 40 year old Sri Lankan, and the much older, and somewhat infirm Hillary, who is from Scotland. It is hard to know the true nature of their relationship, but suffice it to say, that they run a wonderful small hotel, and really make you feel at home. Belinda, it is clear, does most of the work, accompanied by other paid Sri Lankan staff who come in the mornings to clean.

We spent the evening watching, to us at least, the arcane game of cricket. It was the world cup final between Sri Lanka and India, taking place in Bangladesh. Belinda kept us supplied with beer, and gave us a running commentary of the game, attempting to explain how it is played to us cricket newbies. It was not intuitively obvious, but by the end we sort of got it. It was a pleasure to see the Sri Lankan team win, and then to hear the celebratory fireworks in the town afterwords.

Today, we are once again in the small pool attempting to stay cool. I may try to swim in the sea later in the day,but there is not much shade to be had there. The thing about travel, at least the way we do it, is that it forces you to slow down. Way down. I suppose you could choose to rush around from place to place, never staying more than a day here or there, but that is not what we do, particularly on this trip. In places, it feels like one day too many ,but that means you simply have to hang out, and more or less do nothing except read or swim. Maybe the heat also has something to do with it. Who wants to rush around in the day time when the sun is like a knife. Slowing down means relaxing, noticing the crows, the squirrels, the mangoes falling from the tree next to the pool, the clouds building up in the afternoon and the slow approach of a thunderstorm. You don't have a house or anything else to keep you occupied. You don't have people to see and talk to, other than whoever happens to be staying at your guest house. Depending on who they are, this can actually take up a fair bit of time, but other than that, your life is about noticing the things around you before you move on to the next place and do it all over again.

Almost a form of meditation.

Posted by jonshapiro 12:53 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trees animals postcards photography tourist_sites Comments (6)

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