Archive for September, 2009


Friday, September 18th, 2009

It’s older than Christianity, has a celebrity spokesman on par with Bono, and believes in the end of suffering for all the world’s beings, it’s Buddhism!

All kidding aside, I’ve been in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Government in Exile, and some many tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees. Almost every single one of them, including His Holiness himself, spent 25 to 30 days on foot over the ridiculous Himalaya to get here. Hearing their stories has been incredible. The Chinese Army sits on the border with rifles, waiting to pick off any would-be refugees making the trek. They don’t bother with arresting them, they just kill them.

I’ve been to a few “teachings” here with H.H. the Dalai Lama. Six or seven hundred people – mostly Tibetans, but many foreigners – gathered on cushions at the temple in his residential complex to hear him speak about Buddhism and life. The English translator is good (you listen over FM radio) but the concepts are difficult.

So to help with my understanding, I’m beginning a ten day Buddhist meditation and philosophy course tomorrow. We live in the school, eat in the school, in fact I don’t think we’re allowed to leave the school. No electronics of any kind, no books except approved material related to Buddhism, etc. In fact, we’re only allowed to speak for an hour a day, in little discussion groups after our daily lecture on BUddhist philosophy.

I’ll looking forward to it, though also apprehensive. I’ve never really meditated before, though I’ve heard good things. At any rate, I’m going to disappear for a while, and when I get out I’ll tell you all about it.

Love you, miss you.

Bargaining with Kashmiri Boatmen

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

As much as any place I’ve experienced, Kashmir is a land of businessmen. They aren’t swindlers, however. Unlike the Vietnamese, they never give you the wrong change or alter a price once an agreement has been reached. But they speak excellent English and know exactly how to respond to every objection or excuse. Here’s a typical conversation we’d have sitting on the veranda of our houseboat. The merchant quietly paddles his shikara (similar to a broad, wood plank canoe) alongside our steps and bids us a good morning.

“Hello, my friends.”

“Salaam Alaykum,” I respond, touching my right hand to my chest.

“Walaykum salaam. You would like to see some of my beautiful things?”

“What you got with you, brother?”

“Oh, some beautiful things my friends, wonderful. All locally made, by hand. My family has a small workshop.”

Always locally made. Always by his family, which has a shop nearby. Perhaps we’d like to visit the shop? We’d have more than one shikara merchant try to sell us the same stuff, so either they are all in the same family, or they’re lying to us.

“You see my friends? Many beautiful shawls. All one hundred percent local Pashmina wool. Kashmir wool, you know? Very famous, very expensive except in Kashmir.”

“Oh, I’m not a big shawl guy, brother.”

“Yes, but your mother would like? Your girlfriend would be very happy with these yes?”

“I don’t have a girlfriend, brother.”

“Perhaps if you bought some shawls, you would then, yes?”

Soon he’s climbing aboard our boat, resisting our protests and assurances that we won’t be buying anything. It’s free to look, they all say. No effort to look, my friends. Once again, the Indian disregard of personal space is demonstrated in full. I was enjoying my Haruki Murakami book, but I guess I’ll put it down.

Now there are a few dozen wood carvings or paper mache jewel boxes or shawls or carpets or necklaces or uncut stones or small blocks of Kashmiri hash arranged on a white cloth on the floor of the veranda. One boatmen only sold baked goods: chocolate covered cashews and butter cake and peanut cookies. Two different men cruise about in boats piled high with everything you find in convenience stores: Coke, Lay’s, Marlboros, toilet paper. One guy started offering us opium and heroin.

Our attendant, Golam (goh-lahm, not Gollum), would come out on the porch and watch us bargain with the guys. We quickly learned that kickbacks went to houseboat owners when their tenants bought something. Golam would quietly encourage us to speak with certain boatmen rather than others. He’d assist in the sale. Once, when considering a carved chess set, Golam was an active participant.

“Nine hundred rupees for this one? Seems expensive, my friend.”

“No sir, not expensive. Look at the board, the pieces, hand carved walnut wood. Walnut very expensive wood, you understand?”

Golam scampered into the dining room adjoining the veranda, pulling back the table cloth.

“You see? This table also walnut wood. Insects do not go inside this wood.”

Thanks, Golam. As if my big worry with my little chess set was a termite infestation. I ended up buying it anyway, damn it. I bought a few things, in fact. I got a jeweler to make me a necklace with piece of Kashmiri jade the size of a quarter.

“Kashmiri jade? It is from Kashmir?”

“Yes, my young friend. It is local jade.”

Sure. I read an article in the Economist about how wines from Ontario and BC are allowed to claim they are a product of Canada even if the grapes were imported from Chile or Australia. So long as they are ‘cellared’ in Canada they can be sold on shelves alongside wines made from homegrown grapes. I  get the feeling that Kashmiri jade is a similar situation.

But, all the visits from paddling merchants aside, it was a peaceful place. A small, quiet lake full of birds. Kingfishers splashing into the water next to you, smacking the wriggling minnow against the porch railing before swallowing. Our houseboat owners provided us with a small shikara of our own, so I would paddle out beyond the weeds to the middle of the lake for my daily swim. At around 1000m, Srinigar is pleasantly warm and sunny. I read my Murakami, did some writing, took a shikara ride through lotus gardens. Calls to prayer echoed across the lake from mosques on the far shore. Chanting and singing in the pre-dawn and post sunset hours marked the feasting that is necessary during Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting.

After six days on the boat, however, we moved on. Ross and I rolled off to Dharamsala for a date with the Dalai Lama. From Hindu to Buddhist to Muslim and, now, back to Buddhist. Indeed, one of the spiritual hearts of Buddhism. Also, back to the monsoon rains of the Himalaya foothills.

The Road to Kashmir

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

I’m sitting on my houseboat veranda enjoying the sun and the birdsong. The lake is small but clean, and there are kingfishers and hawks and ducks and herons all around me. I’m also surrounded by four souvenir boats. I don’t speak Kashmiri, but I believe they are discussing the order in which they will climb aboard our boat to push their goods. A jeweler is already inside with Ross. It’s a scene, man.

Ross and I left Leh after a breakfast of half-decent cappuccinos, eggs and homefries. Steve had ripped back south to his farmhouse south of Manali through sleet and snow, and Matt had just gotten over a bout of the flu so was spending a few more days in town. I had done some research on the road conditions and the book gave some ominous warnings: the road to Kashmir passes alongside the UN mandated Line of Control (LOC), which separates Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) from India Occupied Kashmir (IOK). (Off to the northeast, there’s also Chinese Occupied Kashmir [COK] which I mention only for the acronym). All three governments dispute the others’ claims to the area, and so skirmishes along the borders are actually quite common. Every so often the road is shelled to disrupt military operations, trade, and tourists riding motorbikes. Great.

About an hour out of Leh, driving through a rocky desert with snowy peaks in the distance, a local stood in the road flagging us down. A few vans and jeeps were already pulled over, so I wondered if there was a breakdown – any self-respecting Enfield driver carries tools, so maybe they needed a wrench. The local apologized for stopping us.

“Sorry, please stop, they shooting.” My heart bounced into my throat. What?! SHOOTING!? Images of mortars and rockets and automatic gunfire swirled.

“WHO IS SHOOTING?! AT WHO? WHAT!?” Not properly registering my concern, he continued.

“Yes please, they are shooting. Only ten minutes they finish. It is for new auto.” Oh sweet lord. They are shooting a fucking commercial. Ross pulled up to see me squatting roadside laughing in relief. He had no idea what had just happened. We waited until the OK came over the local’s two-way radio, and then continued past camera trucks and a pretty mint looking Honda.

We drove through the epic scenery to Kashmir over three days. We passed through moonscape and marsscape. At one point we were climbing a long but gentle hill. Our bikes, however, were slowing to a crawl. We popped off and made adjustments to the air intake on the carb. Still no power. In first gear with barely contained panic, we inched toward the crest of the hill. When we arrived, a sign greeted us: You have just climbed Magnet Mountain! Wonderful. Not only am I dealing with ridiculous altitudes in a ridiculous desert with the Pakistani army within mortar range, I’m now dealing with magnetic mountains that want to suck my poor bike into the ground.

We struggled on. We stopped and ate lunch in a village built up a cliff face. After another frigid pass, we began seeing mosques instead of Buddhist monasteries. We spent a night in Kargil, a trading town only a few miles from the LOC. An hour out of Kargil, it started to rain. I was completely unprepared. I had brought more than enough cold weather gear – face masks and spare gloves and thick socks – but I thought this was a desert, for chrissakes.

We tried to continue on, but with soaked feet and legs and jackets we were getting cold. At a town affectionately named Drass, which proudly claims to be the second coldest inhabited place on earth (after some town in Siberia), we stopped and found a Tibetan dhaba. There we ordered noodle soups and chai and stripped out of our soaking outerwear. A lady out front sold us Nepalese wool socks for a hundred roops and I bought a counterfeit Nike touque that had NICE written above the swoosh. Love it.

After eating, we sweet talked our way back into the kitchen. There we stacked our gloves and shoes around the kerosene cooking stove, and stood huddled over it drying our jeans. For two hours we sat and watched the family prepare noodles and momos and waited for the rain to stop. We became part of the family. I overpaid the bill to recoup some of the cooking fuel we’d wasted on warming ourselves, and we were off as soon as the sky cleared.

After Drass, the landscape was still rocky and snowy, but now with a subtle dusting of green. Ross agreed it reminded him of the Scottish highlands. We stopped at a military checkpoint to write out our passport, visa and motorcycle details. It was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by freshly snowed mountains and a serene river. Soon we were slipping along some incredibly muddy road precipitously edged along a steep cliff. We crossed the pass leading into the head of the Kashmir valley. Suddenly we were in interior BC, with towering pines and cedars and spruce. Even a few token birch for good measure. It smelled of Canada. The greenery was startling after weeks spent with reds, browns, greys and whites.

We descended into the ever widening Kashmir valley. Unbelievably, the military presence became even more heavy. Every ten or twenty minutes we’d pass another patrol of camouflaged men touting AK47s and M16s. Every bridge had gun-mounted bunkers on both ends. We must have passed hundreds of transport trucks brimming with troops. They waved and hollered. We waved back and shouted Hindustan! in support. Little kids came running out along the road sticking out their hands for painfully stinging drive-by high fives. I’m not sure they understand the concept of danger, because we were doing fifty clicks an hour.

Now we are living on a quaint old English houseboat on a small lake in Srinigar, Kashmir’s capital. We have a dining room, a sitting room, a bedroom and a bathroom with an old bathtub. The furniture is an eclectic mix of 1920’s to 1940’s Britain. It all reminds me of my grandmother’s house. We even have a daybed. I like lying on it after dinner, to defy its namesake.

The boat originally belonged to an English family. They gave the boat to their servants as a gift back in 1975. Now the owners of the boat, they rent it out to foreigners then wait on them much the same way they would have back in the forties. The old man looked perturbed I poured my own water with dinner.

More on the houseboat soon, and on the road to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama.

Life in Leh

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

After much adventuring, which I’m sure you’ve enjoyed reading about (right?), we were in Leh, the capital of the region of Ladakh. It sits at 3300 meters, or about 10,800 feet, above sea level.

Ladakh is an ancient kingdom. It was expanded by Buddhist kings, who by the 9th century had extended their realm from Kashmir in the west all the way to the Tibetan border to the north and east. The kingdom is protected from invasion by what I personally regard as the harshest terrain in the world – the highest mountain passes on the planet within a desert as dry as the Sahara. The Red Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism came to prominence in the 14th century, and battles with Muslims from Kashmir lasted a few hundred years. Leh was established in the 16th century.

Modern Leh is a traveler mecca. Locals from Delhi and Bangalore and Mumbai eat Tibetan momos (fried or steamed dumplings) or thukpa (noodle soup) on rooftop terraced restaurants. Foreign backpackers from Israel and New Zealand and South Africa smoke charas and laze on cushions drinking lassis and eating chocolate banana pancakes. People go trekking for days to incredible snowy peaks. You can visit isolated mountain villages where locals irrigate tiny meltwater streams to sustain their agriculture. Huge Buddhist gompas (monasteries) are built like forts up the cliff faces. Some are hundreds of years old, but are still home to resident monks.

We visited one such site, Thiksey Gompa, built in the 15th century. It was an impressive series of whitewashed buildings climbing up a steep hill. With the altitude, it was a daunting task to ascend, but the magnificent Buddha statues and vistas over the Indus valley were well worth it. The stark desert contrasted with the green fields of irrigated land. The masonry was smoothed by hand, which results in ascetically pleasing finger grooves all along the white walls. The rich, saturated saffron of the monk robes soaks up the sunlight. Beautiful stuff.

The next day, we drove up the Khardung La. At 5602m (18,379 ft), it’s the highest motorable road in the world. At this point we were Ross, Steve, Leon from Ireland and Ruth from Brighton, England. Ruth took some incredible video of us racing up cliff edge roads overlooking ridiculous views. At the top, we took some well-posed photos with the signage and caught a glimpse of K2, the second tallest mountain in the world, off in the distance. Up there everyone is a tourist, so even the army trucks would stop so the soldiers could get a photo taken with the sign. You see we drove the road, but they built it. A few fifty-something cyclists pedaling to the top stopped us from celebrating our accomplishment too seriously, as our bikes had motors.

The rest of the time in Leh was very relaxed, the aforementioned cushion and charas scene was well enjoyed. I had some of the best western food I’ve tried in India. The heavily Buddhist atmosphere of the place lends well to it’s chilled out atmosphere, and it was easy to meet plenty of interesting travelers with unique stories and perspectives.

But, eventually, we were off to Kashmir.

To Leh

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

I’m going to be completely honest with you. I’m getting somewhat bored of telling you about my ride to Leh. This doesn’t bode well for my book writing prospects (were there any?), but regardless I’m going to briefly summarize the last couple of days of big trip up into the mountains. It was much more epic than it’s about to sound, but I’m lazy.

So we set out from Bharatpur riding in our newfound foursome. We began to climb a series of neverending switchbacks called the Gata Loops. We climbed and climbed. Bergen pulled away with the purpose of making it all the way to Leh in a single day. So then there were three. I was a few switchbacks behind Ross and Matty until they both crashed on the same corner. Matt went down overcompensating to avoid a massive pothole, and Ross went down out of sympathy.

Ross had his foot caught in his luggage rack, so Matt had to lift the bike off. I pulled up just in time to see them laughing about it. We stopped laughing when Ross’s bike wouldn’t start. Matt insisted we put it on a truck to Leh, but Ross persisted tinkering until he drained the flooded carb and she booted to life. Well done, mate.

Further down the road we were winding through a prehistoric canyon. It was like that canyon in the first India Jones where the Nazis had the Ark but Indy had a rocket launcher pointed at it threatening to blow it up but then the other archeologist who was working with the Nazis called his bluff cause Indy ain’t gonna blow up the freakin’ Ark, geez. This was where my wheel exploded.

It wasn’t the tire, it was the rear wheel. I was descending around a tight hairpin when my rear brake shuddered and the wheel snapped into a lock. I skidded to a stop with a FUCK. Ross and Matt had been dropping faster than me and I just had time to watch them lean around a bend and gone. Silence. The river slid under the bridge whispering to itself as if discussing my predicament.

Trucks came down the hill behind me. I flagged the first honking driver to help me move my frozen ride off the road and onto the shoulder. He slowly picked his way around me and roared off. Another two drivers saw the path of least resistance and turned the corner themselves. Alone again.

It was fifteen frustrating minutes before Matt and Ross returned. We struggled until a Belgian couple with experience helped us diagnose the problem: the wheel was done. I needed a truck. My baggage and I hitched a ride seven km to Pang, the nearest ‘town’.

The next morning I found the local welding/tire repair tent and asked after a mechanic. No luck. I discussed taking the bike to Leh with some truck drivers. A Delhi tourist staying in our yurt translated. They wanted 5000 roops ($120) for the pleasure. I offered 4000 and lunch. Still way too much, but I was stuck.

Swaying up in the cab as if riding an elephant, it was a twelve hour trip to Leh. I watched friends blow by on bikes. I saw some of the most incredible scenery this planet has to offer. I spent twelve hours with Indian truck drivers in the Himalaya.

As ridiculous an experience as it was, you should understand it was beyond disappointing. I was devastated I didn’t make it to Leh. This was a mission we were undertaking and I didn’t get there. I didn’t ride over the Taglang La, the second highest road in the world. Still, what a day. Remind me to tell you about it sometime.

I pulled into town after 10 that night. In the dark I had to convince the driver to leave me at a hotel instead of the airport. I had some chicken byriani and went to sleep. I was in Leh, five days and a lot of rupees later.

So there you have it. I’ve just spent the last week in Leh eating pizza and drinking proper cappuccinos and meeting people. It’s a real scene up here. I’m on to Kashmir now, more soon.