A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about postcards

Description of Town and Life in Gulabgarh

The town is surrounded by towering snow covered mountains, pine forests, steep rock walls, etc.

View of bridge leading to Gulabgarh

Unfortunately, like so many small towns in India, it is full of garbage on the streets, and in the narrow alleys near the houses. Tashi has said that he has organized a clean up a couple of times, but within a few weeks the place looks the same. People just don’t seem to get the concept and importance of cleanliness, and are content to live amongst the garbage and the shit, both cow and human alike, because that is what they are used to. Many houses seem to have some kind of rudimentary septic tank, but obviously not all. There is no town wide sewage system.


Alley leading to Tashi's house

Along side the main street is a three foot deep ditch with plenty of garbage, and so I have to watch where I step at all times. Cows and many stray dogs roam about chewing on the garbage.


There are 40 or 50 small shops selling everything from food and clothing to cell phone sim cards. There is even a “Peace Hotel,” with “semi-deluxe" rooms, though I wouldn't want to stay there. Despite all the rain, the main street is dusty, especially when trucks arrive from Kisthwar. Making it here along the extremely narrow and boulder strewn road is a feat unto itself.

The town has about three thousand residents, some of whom return to their mountain villages for extended visits to family members, or to help out on the family farm.


The Himalayan Culture School occupies a prime spot on a small hill in the center of town with prayer flags fluttering all around.


Unlike other schools, this one operates from March to November because it is simply too cold during the winter, and there is no source of heat in the classrooms. Even now, in late April, it is still quite chilly here, especially at night in the uninsulated, concrete houses with minimal sources of heat. I can imagine what it would be like here in mid-winter, at 6000 feet. Many of the the children who reside with relatives here in the summer, return to their parents in their villages for the winter. These villages are higher, 9000, or 10,000 feet, far more remote than Gulabgarh, and there is usually snow all winter long. Animals and people keep very close company, ie, in the same room, in an attempt to keep warm.

Mountain view from school yard

Relative to these villages, Gulabgarh is a metropolis with creature comforts, and yet life is still primitive here. Bathing is a luxury I have not had for a number of days, and everyone else bathes very infrequently because it is such a chore to heat up the water on an open fire, Doing laundry is also a major production, and I have more or less worn the same dusty clothes since I arrived. I am hoping to wash out some clothes today, or have someone in the village do it. If I can wash them soon, perhaps they will have time to dry in the sun.

After a week, there is no longer any more bottled water to be found in the shops. There was only one place that had it, and they have now run out. I have some trepidation about using the crude filtering system that Tashi has in his house. Thus far I have managed to avoid any major stomach problems.

We are also running out of toilet paper, and Tashi went to see if he could buy more. It seems like there is none left in the whole town, and at least one person said to him, in Ladakhi, “What’s that?”

Perhaps on his return from Jammu, he can bring some. He intends to go soon to check on construction materials for his house.

Drinking, eating, and sitting around the smoky wood stove are really the only forms of entertainment. Most nights seem like a party, as everyone knows everyone, or is related, and they often drop by to talk and drink, at least the men, and I feel some pressure to keep up with them. Tashi was complaining about it to me, although he drinks as much as everyone else. He also mentioned the lack of privacy in the town. These are my words, not his, but he feels that there is pressure to see everyone and check in, especially if he has not seen them in a while. He said he thought that there was extra partying going on as a form of congratulations, because he has started building his new house in Jammu.

I frequently take short walks in the town, and I am very noticeable. Kids openly stare and others just obviously wonder who I am and what am I doing here.

Two gentlemen in local shops

I may be only one of a handful of foreigners to come here. Two others than I know of, Alex and Mari, have also taught at the school because they know Tashi, but clearly there has not been an influx of tourists. Now that I have been here a little while, I feel incredible respect for Mari, who spent about a month here, longer than I will spend, and while she was here Tashi was absent for almost the entire time. And then she came back again for another month. This is not an easy place to be for anyone not used to doing without western conveniences, but for a woman alone without having anyone to talk to for a month, now that is impressive. Okay, she is 20 years younger than I am, but still....

Posted by jonshapiro 06:24 Archived in India Tagged landscapes mountains postcards living_abroad Comments (3)

Arrival in Gulabgarh, Paddar

Next day we left for Kisthwar at 6 AM in a share taxi, for the 10-12 hour ride. I had forgotten just how crazy the roads can be in the mountains, and it was in terrible shape in many places due to the almost constant rain over the last two months. There were landslides and boulders in many spots, and par for the course, our driver went far too fast and often passed on blind curves. We finally got to Kisthwar around 4, and decided to push on to Gulabgarh after stopping to eat. It was still another 2&1/2 hours in a different share taxi The road was in even worse shape, and after riding in the front for a while, I asked Tashi to switch places with me because I felt safer in the back. I kept thinking about his older brother dying on this same road ten years earlier.

Tashi told me that his relatives were descendants of Ghengis Khan, although I was never able to confirm this. I wondered how his people could have ended up in such a remote place, through such intimidating terrain, well over a hundred years ago. His village, Kabban is still more than 10K from the nearest road. The road to Gulabgarh was only built in the 90's, and Tashi said it took his father more than 20 days of hard up and down climbing to make it to Kisthwar to purchase salt and rice. I thought it might be interesting to try and tell his family's story, but this proved more difficult then I expected.

Eventually, and thankfully, just as it was getting dark, we made it to town in one piece.

Main street not far from Tashi's house

Gulabgarh is where he now spends most of the summer months, having moved down from his original village 15 or 20 years ago. His boys, age 15 and 17, are in boarding school in Jammu, and his 8 year old daughter attends the Himalayan Culture School, where I will be teaching. Puti, his wife, had just reached Gulabgarh earlier that day from Jammu, where Tashi has started to build a winter home because it is much lower and warmer. In previous winters they have run a simple dry goods shop outside of Agra, along with Tashi’s sister. I never realized what a jack of all trades he has had to be in order to make ends meet.

His house in Gulabgarh is a modest affair, with four cement rooms, furnished with cushions on the floor and a few wooden cabinets and beds.

My messy room

There is no hot water because the minimal amount of electricity will not support it, nor will it work the washing machine. When I arrived to the smoky rooms, Puti was brewing up coffee (well instant actually) on a kerosene stove in the middle of the floor. She doesn’t speak English, but having heard Ladakhi again for the first time in many years, I managed to say Julay, which means hello, how are you, similar to namaste in Hindi.


His daughter Tsering, a tall girl at 8 years old, who I’m told does speak a bit of English, greeted me a big smile, cute as can be. She did not answer when I asked her name, however.


The one 20 watt bulb was flickering constantly and barely threw any light. After a time we went over to Puti's sisters house. She had prepared a meal of momos and other things, and Tashi and I chatted away, as we imbibed the local hooch, a kind of wheat wine. There were several other relatives there, though it was very hard to see them in the dim, smoky light. They plied me with more food than I could eat, and kept refilling my glass with the wheat hooch. We discussed the school, along with the foundation that Tashi has helped to set up, Education Access. He wants to encourage more donations so that they can build a dorm and a kitchen. The school now has more than 200 kids, age 4-16, many of whom come from the surrounding mountain villages. He has dedicated himself to trying to keep his community together, while also trying to improve their lives.

In a somewhat drunken haze, I asked him if he felt caught between two worlds? Not an easy question to answer. In spite of the fact that some of his other nine siblings have more formal education, he has clearly been exposed to much more of the world than they. After a time he answered by saying, we are all really of one world, and that everyone should get their fair share from the politicians (ie, the government). A nice sentiment, but I didn’t feel he exactly answered my question.

Finally, exhausted from the days travel, we went back to his house, where I piled on about four heavy blankets to stay warm in the chilly night. The stray dogs barking half the night didn’t help with sleep.

The next day we went over to the school, where I met the teachers, the principal, and spent a few minutes in each class with the kids.

The main administration building is done in the Tibetan style, and in fact I was told the Dalai Lama was here a few years ago in order to bless the school.


Although the school is run by a private foundation, Buddhist Heritage, of which Tashi is now the president, it receives most of its funding from the government. There is also another public school for non-buddhist kids up the road a piece, mostly Hindu and a few Muslims. Although Gulabgarh now has a significant number of Buddhists, overall they are a small minority in this part of Jammu, unlike in Ladakh, which is on the other side of the Himalaya Range. One of the classes that is required for all of the students here is Pali, taught by a monk. They are also taught Hindi and Urdu, as well as English. All classes are supposedly taught in English, but as I later found out, most of the kids can understand very little and can speak even less.

That evening, after an unsuccessful attempt to get a sim card which fit in my phone, we sat around Tashi’s mother’s room near a small wood stove on the floor, also used for cooking fried chicken, which we munched on. She is a small, but very energetic woman in her 80’s, who is caring for two of her young grandchildren while they attend the school.


As usual, they served me first, and gave me the best pieces of meat as the honored guest.

It turned out to be quite a family reunion. Tashi’s younger brother was there from his village, in order to visit his two young son’s age 5 and 6, who were being looked after by grandma.


There was also an aunt from Himachal Pradesh, near Manali, as well as the wife of Tashi’s older brother, the one who had died.


Puti was there of course, and several other kids. Once again, much arak was consumed, which is what the wheat spirits are called. Everyone was busy talking away, until the aunt started singing in a high sing-song voice. I was told the song was about how nice it is for a family to get together, no matter how fleeting the time, because all of us are only here for a short while. A poignant carpe-diem message, if ever I heard one. Despite not understanding the language, and missing many of the jokes, of which there were many, I felt very welcomed and included.

I left around 10, although the party was in full swing. I managed to drown out the dogs that night with my white noise machine. Just enough electricity to do so. It was another chilly night, but once again the day dawned fair and clear.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:09 Archived in India Tagged people postcards living_abroad Comments (0)


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.



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.



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.



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


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.



There were white ones as well.


Detail from elephant wall

Detail from step. It looks almost Mayan

And then we went out again, when the sun was low. We viewed another temple, seemingly built into and on a low rock face.


Temple detail

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.


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.


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)

Polonnarwu and Passikudah Beach

After Sigiriya we continued to Polonnarwu, stopping first at Ritigala.


This is one of the more remote and less touristed sites on the cultural tour. And, because it is far less developed, it is free.


Former site of an ancient Buddhist monastery dating to 100 BC, it is the highest mountain (2500 feet) on an otherwise flat and dusty plain. Rumor has it that Hanuman, the Hindu Monkey God, dropped a small piece of the Himalayas as he was delivering medicinal herbs to Lanka. As in India, the rangers told us we could only go part way up the mountain because of wild elephants and leopards. Too bad, as it was a nice place for a hike and blissfully, there was no one around.

Termite mound

Urinal stones

After a half hour or so, we got to a place with a fence and a big sign telling us to turn around. Nearby there was a trail off to one side, and so we went a bit further. Not long after, Nanette heard some rustling noises in the trees. Then a monkey threw a small stick at her. We continued on, but then one of the monkeys with consummate aim, maybe Hanuman, pissed on her head. That's it, she said. I'm turning back. Leopards and elephants are one thing, but monkey piss, that's another thing altogether. And so we walked down the we had come.


Polonnarwu was another 2 hours, but when we got there it was just too hot, and we didn't feel like shelling out another 50 bucks for the ruins of an ancient city that is not as old as Anuradhapura, our final destination. Instead, we spent most of the rest of the day lounging about the pool of a nearby hotel. Our guest house, Seyara, was small and comfortable, but no pool. They served some excellent food however, and it turned out that the daughter of the owner, our server, had recently returned to Sri Lanka after living in Staten Island for 7 years. She plans to go back to the states when her daughter, age 3, is older. In the meantime, she seems pleased to be spending time with her family, and acquainting her American daughter with Sinhalise culture and language.

In the morning when it was a bit cooler, we walked around the parts of Polonnarwu where we didn't need an admission ticket.




We ran into this group of very friendly Chinese women. As always, most of them were hiding from the sun.


And then we drove on the remaining distance to Passikudah beach, a bit of a detour from our cultural tour. We passed the time chatting with Lalinda, our driver, who we have gotten to know fairly well by now. He is an easy going and educated chap who has told us a bit about his own background. Unfortunately for him, he married a Tamil, and he is Sinhalise. His wife is a lower caste Tamil as well. His relatively well to do and high caste parents, have more or less disowned him ever since, and his sister, now studying business in Japan, has become their favorite. We were surprised to learn that Buddhists, at least in Sri Lanka, have their own caste system, and we thought Buddha broke away from his royal Hindu background to free others from this repressive custom.

Belly to belly: the author with Lalinda

In Passikudah expensive hotels and some restaurants are going up on one side of the bay,


while on the other side, not much is happening, at least not yet, and it is still a largely wild beach.


The sea is dead calm, in contrast to our time in northern Kerala. Our hotel, while not right on the beach, is spanking clean, with a nice pool. It is empty, as is every other place, as the season doesn't start for another week when school lets out for a month. The owner is quite chatty, and divides his time between here and Colombo. He is a Tamil, but converted to Jehovah Witness. When he found out we are Jewish, he seemed quite pleased, and told us all about the connections between Jehovah, and Yahweh. We of course, know far less about this than he does We assume his family must have money, because they all scattered when the civil war came to his home town,Jaffna, in the far north, which it did early on. Several of his siblings live abroad in the West, and are highly educated.

For two nights now we have eaten alone in the dining room. The staff is almost too attentive. They seem to hover over us, very anxious to please, but not that understanding of our need for space. Perhaps if there were more people here, they would have more to do and pay less attention to each individual guest.

Aside from lounging around the pool, and taking afternoon dips in the ocean, which feels like a bigger pool, yesterday we took a trip to Thoppigala Heritage Park. This was about an hour drive away through several small villages. It is essentially a small mountain, that overlooks a vast flat area of rice fields and forest, and was the site of several ferocious war battles.


The LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, took over the hill early on because of its strategic significance. They stationed a garrison of 5000 men nearby, and a much smaller force on top of the hill. We climbed up, accompanied by Lalinda and Franklin, a staff person at the hotel, as well as a park ranger. It was steep and hot, though short. On top, there was a bunker, now filled with solar powered batteries.


We asked questions about the war, which went on for more than 30 years. They said it was started by an uneducated Tamil, who wanted a separate country for the Tamils, who are Hindus, and speak a different language than the Sinhalese. We climbed down and went to the war museum at the bottom. There were few pictures of the LTTE members who are portrayed as terrorists by the Sri Lanka government. The museum clearly presents the government point of view.


From what I understand, many atrocities were committed by both sides, and in fact there is a debate now going on in the UN, whether to look into the war atrocities more closely in order to prosecute those involved. Lalinda, and the other two men we were with grew up with the war, although it was mostly fought in the east, where we are now,and in the north. For the last five years there has been peace, after the government forces decimated the LTTE in Jaffna, and if memory serves, killed many innocent people in the process.

Other people we have discussed this with, both Tamils and Sinhalese, say that the two groups lived in peace, and that the war was started by opportunistic politicians. Quien sabe? My understand is that the war was a result of years of hostility between these groups, started because of the colonial legacy employed by the British of divide and conquer. They apparently favored the Tamils, and later, there was the predictable counter-reaction from the Sinhalese, who far outnumber the Tamils.

On the way back from Thoppigala we saw this man, going about the chore of gathering firewood for cooking.

Tamil or Sinhalise? You decide.


Posted by jonshapiro 07:07 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged people postcards tourist_sites Comments (2)


The next morning we went to the Dambulla Caves with Lalinda, an hour or two drive from Kandy. By the time we got there it was already quite hot, which continued for our entire visit to the cultural triangle. Dambulla has been a Buddhist pilgrimage site for over 22 centuries, but most of the paintings and statues inside the caves were done much later, during the 18th century.

Outside the caves







No, I wasn't smoking anything when I took this shot

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

While we enjoyed the caves, sitting on the grounds of our guesthouse, MPS, was certainly more relaxing, and oh so much cooler. The rooms were nothing special, but the landscape. Well, you can see for yourselves.

In front of us was the lake, cattails swaying in the breeze as they caught the late afternoon sun.


The air is a bit fresher now, and the wind is drying the feathers of a dozen cormorants sitting on a dead branch, sticking straight out of the water.


A small mountain sits gently beyond the trees lining the lake. Catbirds cry out and swallows flit by trying to catch mosquitos. I wish them luck in their hunt. Immediately behind us is the pool, nobody using it but us.


Behind that, another mountain, low, but with a rocky incisor jutting up on one side, catching the softening light.


Enjoying a cold one

Dinner about to be served. Overpriced and not that good, but what a spot

Posted by jonshapiro 08:21 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged postcards photography tourist_sites Comments (3)

(Entries 11 - 15 of 45) Previous « Page 1 2 [3] 4 5 6 7 8 9 » Next