Ladakh 3

 

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The Wheel of Life, Tibetan Buddhist wall painting, Thikse Gompa. The Wheel represents the cycle of being, the various realms of existence, and the three poisons (desire, ignorance and hatred).

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View of the Stok Mountains, Part of the Himalaya Range, above farms and poplars on the edge of Leh, Ladakh.

From my diary, Friday 15th April 2005:

Outside, my hosts are planting their potatoes, today. It’s been fascinating watching over the last week, as they’ve dug over the whole vegetable garden (about an acre), then divided it up into a total of about fifty smallish and four large plots, all neatly divided with earth walls, between which are carefully dug channels to the stream that runs along the side.

Then, over the last couple of days, half of the plots have had compost dug in and the channels opened one by one to flood each plot for a set time, then closed and the water allowed to soak into the earth.

The first of the large plots is now being planted with potatoes, presumably saved from last year’s crop, and some more digging is commencing at the far end of the garden, where so far there are no small plots.

I’ve just noticed what’s happening at the far end of the garden. It’s going to be one huge potato patch. Dad is digging, Mum is planting, whilst Granny is sorting the potatoes ready for planting. The little girl is happily employed in making mud-pies, like small children anywhere in the world under these circumstances!

 

The monastery at Thikse, Ladakh. Virtually the whole of the hill is covered in buildings belonging to the monastery, whilst the Gompa or temple crowns the top. Founded in the fifteenth century by monks of the Gelugpa, or ‘yellow hat’ school of Tibetan Buddhism, to which the Dalai Lamas belong.

Wednesday 13th April 2005:

12.45 and I’m sitting on a rock in hot sunshine at the foot of Thikse Gompa. The bus ride here was remarkable. Where else in India would you find that they don’t bother charging anyone for just going a couple of stops, or that they’d wait a few minutes whilst a passenger nipped off the bus to buy some bread? All along here, passed all this desert scenery, so similar to Oman. And so many fairy-tale castles and palaces and the like hanging precariously to the tops of cliffs. 

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Building at Thikse Gompa.

If it is so beautiful now, in winter, then what must it be like in the other seasons? I’d dearly love to come back to see! And after all the heat, dust and pollution in Delhi, well, need I say more? I’ve not even been asked once for baksheesh, either. 

Mandala painted onto roof of entrance to Shanti Stupa, Leh. The Shanti Stupa, or Japanese Peace Pagoda, is one of more than 70 built around the world by the Japanese Buddhist Nipponzan Myohoji Organisation, which was run by Fujii Guruji. They were built to promote world peace.

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The River Indus at Choglamsar . The Indus originates in Tibet, near Lake Mansarovar – a lake sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists – and after flowing through Northern Kashmir, including Ladakh, passes into, and flows the length of, Pakistan, to the Arabian Sea. So, ironically, the river that gave its name to the state of India, flows mainly through Pakistan.

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Trees on the edge of Leh. Trees are highly important to Ladakhis – they provide timber for building, fuel, food in the form of walnuts and apricots, and fodder for animals. In all of Ladakh, the only trees that grow are willow, poplar, walnut and apricot.

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Visit to Kashmir

I fell in love with Kashmir.

It was 1989, and I had come to India to have a closer look. A year before, I had flown to Delhi and the same day taken the bus to Kathmandu to go trekking in Nepal.

This meant that I had a lot of hours sitting and watching Northern India go past the windows of the bus, and this had piqued my interest and convinced me I should go and have a proper look.

So I arrived and, a couple of days later, took the bus up to Srinagar, a journey of 24 hours. In those days, I never kept a travel journal, which is something I regret now. It makes it difficult to piece together the details and leaves me, at best, with impressions and, of course, a number of photographs.

The photos, though, were taken on a cheap camera, and I did not take many.

But I had a week in Srinagar and although I did not venture far afield from there, I loved what I saw of the valley with its gardens, Lake Dal with its confusion of meandering paths through fields and grass, naturally, the houseboats on the lake and also the shakiras, the sampan-like boats used by the fishermen and the traders on the lake.

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Shakira on Lake Dal

I found a houseboat when I arrived, managing to resist ending up in a hotel in town that was being pressed on me by a fellow on the bus. I seem to remember I found my houseboat by going to the lake, hiring a shakira and asking the boatman to take me to the first of a long line of moored houseboats, where I asked if there was a room. I think at the second or third I struck lucky.

I keep trying to remember the name of my houseboat.

Occasionally, during their waking day, a dreamer will catch a glimpse, a snapshot – no, not even that; perhaps no more than a hint, a flavour of a previous night’s dream. Something akin to catching a scent on the breeze that is gone before it is even realised that it was there. That is the best way I can describe the teasing hint I may get of the name of that boat. I think ‘Ah, yes, it began with ‘S’…no, wait, it didn’t, but there was definitely an ‘S’ in it somewhere. Perhaps…’ then it has gone.

But it was my own floating palace for a week. A marvel of beautifully carved wood, a magnificent bedroom and living room all to myself, and a fellow who lived on board (not the owner, I gathered) who cooked my meals. When I wasn’t ashore exploring, I sat on the deck and read.

I remember the Shalimar Gardens, and that there were at least one or two more; masses of flowers, large lawns, trees…I wandered around there with the high mountains towering above us.

And, there was the beginning of the agitation. At that point, I knew next to nothing of India’s history or politics, and although I could detect the tensions, I was unaware of what they comprised. Once or twice, there were isolated gunshots in the distance, especially at night. ‘Bandits’, said my fellow on board, rather too casually. I came across a mass demonstration outside a mosque in town, with either the police or the army, I’ve no idea which, a very heavy presence. There was a lot of shouting, and the atmosphere was hostile enough for me to make myself scarce fairly quickly.

But I personally encountered nothing but politeness and good humour, and other than the underlying tensions, despite getting ripped off now and again in shops (it was Kashmir, and I was a tourist!), I felt comfortable and happy there. When I left the valley to return to Delhi and thence further afield, it was with the thought I would return again one day.

Regrettably, though, each time I have returned, it has not been considered a safe destination.

Perhaps, though…perhaps…one day…

Save Naini Tal

A rather different post from me, today. This time I am requesting everyone’s help to save the lake in the Indian hill station town of Nainital.

I was alerted to this by fellow blogger Rajiv Chopra, who has the link to the petition on his Facebook page, but for those who have not seen it, the link is also here: Save Nainital

I have a special affection for Nainital, as I visited it in 2005 and only discovered afterwards that my father had also visited it during WWII when he was stationed in India. I have a couple of previous blog posts on Nainital which, if you are interested, you can find by searching my blog – I’m not putting up the links, since the purpose of this post is to garner signatures for the petition.

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My father on Naini Tal

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My first view of Nainital in 2005, having just stepped (groggily!) off of the overnight bus from Delhi.

So, what’s it all about? Simply, the lake is drying out. The causes for this are complex, but apparently high on the list is the simple fact that more water is being taken out by users in the town than the natural rainfall can replenish. Many trees are being felled to make way for too much construction – this increases the water run-off, and means even less water is retained in the ground.

Please click on the link; all the information is there – much more than I have written here. Again, it is here: Save Nainital

There are also many articles on this subject on the web, especially those by the premier Indian newspapers. Please sign.

Thank you.

Progress Report

Yes, I know. Could do better. *sigh*

But this is just about the writing…eh? What do you mean, that’s what you were talking about? Do you, by any chance, mean my tendency to skip from one writing project to another before finishing the first? Yes? You do? Well, okay, guilty as charged.

Perhaps I’d better explain.

I’ve got two novels on the go at once. I get a bit stuck on one, so I go and work on the other for a while. I’m making progress with both of them, but…just…not…very…quickly…

At the moment, I am back working on the follow-up novel to ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile.’ It’s not a sequel, since I regard MFWTC as a stand-alone work, so to speak. The new work, which I do not have a title for yet, is set in a fictitious Himalaya Hill Station, takes place in the 1980s (mainly), and is about the remaining British and the Anglo-Indians in this particular small corner of India, although the story naturally references a good deal more than that.

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Steam engine…yes, at a hill station in India. But, relevant to this post? No, not really.

It’s a little difficult to say much about the plot without risking spoilers, but the story is about relationships of various kinds – people with other people, with the land, with ideas and ideals. I’m probably about a third of the way through the first draft at around 30,000 words, and currently going strong.

Of course, this could be a really good reason for a trip to a hill station in the not too distant future. Purely for research, of course! Perhaps I could apply for some sort of grant?

A Week in McLeod Ganj – part 2

Apologies for the weird changes of tense – it was how I wrote the journal (in fits and starts), and I’ve not altered anything, merely missed out a couple of extremely uninteresting entries.

Sunday 29th November 2009

I didn’t get off to sleep for a few hours last night. There was lots of noise outside; lots of revellers going past. And then when I felt that I was almost off, a couple of vehicles crashed into each other just outside the gate. Lots more shouting. Then every time that a vehicle went past after that, I was waiting for another crash.

And the monastery across the road has its first puja at around 4am – the crashing of cymbals and the sounding of foghorns – that always wakes me, too.

So, I’m not entirely refreshed, but back in the restaurant at Green Hotel awaiting breakfast and just perking up with the first coffee.

I think I’m going to put off the visit to Dal Lake until tomorrow, and sit and write this morning. I’m tired and still feeling a little unwell. And read. It’s easier than having to think. I bought a big, thick, book yesterday, which should keep me going for a while.

Then in the afternoon, I mooched. Partly wandering the roads and hills around McLeod Ganj, and partly going for tea and coffee here and there. I have planned to go to the Tibetan music concert at the nearby school at 6pm, and after a shave and shower I head off there, find it, and take a seat along with about a dozen other westerners.

We sit and wait, and about a quarter of an hour or so after the scheduled start time, a chap comes in and announces that he’s sorry, but the musician isn’t coming. He has phoned to say that he couldn’t make it. He apologises to us again, and we get up to go. Because it was organised by a recognised NGO, and was intended to raise funds for the needy, I go and offer the guy RS 100/- towards the costs. In return, he gives me a long, meandering talk about volunteering and costs that I can’t really follow. It’s obvious that he’s been on the whisky and he presses me to meet him tomorrow to talk about the project. I waver, and then agree in a cowardly sort of way.

Once I have escaped, I go up to the Tibetan restaurant where I ate last night, since I rather liked the ambience of it. Unfortunately, tonight it proves to be full of a bunch of hard-drinking Tibetans, which I hadn’t really realised when I sat down to order. I get a beer and a thukpa, and am surrounded by whisky-swilling, chain-smoking Tibetans. This does nothing for my appetite, so I drink up, eat up and go.

I then wander up to the main part of McLeod Ganj and go to ‘Excite’ – the bar looks quite inviting from the outside.

Inside, though, it proves to be otherwise. I get a beer and order some masala peanuts, but don’t think much of them when they arrive. They are simply fried with a few bits of onion and tomato and seemingly no spices at all. I am offered a hookah which I decline. There are no other customers, and no music, in a plain, tatty room. I drink up and go.

Monday 30th November 2009

I cannot find the place that I agreed to meet the Tibetan chap and so, relieved, I go off to Dal Lake instead. It is a very pleasant walk of three kilometres or so each way, mainly through wooded hills, becoming quite autumnal in places. Magnificent birdlife – as well as the familiar ones, I see one with a very long tail that I take to be a Lyre Bird, and a very large eagle passes overhead, quite white underneath.

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I pass the church of Saint John in the Wilderness and go in to have a look. It says that it is the largest ‘cathedral’ in the Himalaya, in the diocese of Amritsar. It is big, and nice inside. There is a monument to Lord Elgin outside, but I am more interested in one of the plates inside, to a Thomas Knowles, who met his end at Dharamsala, courtesy of a bear.

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I rather like the ambience both inside and outside of the church. It is very peaceful and I linger. I think it is very hard to shake off the spiritual part of you that was formed when you were young, and I felt that I wanted to just stay there all day.

But I didn’t. I walked on to Dal lake, passing through the army training area, full of army personnel training, and along to the lake. It is a lovely spot, surrounded by deodars, and probably even more beautiful when the lake is full of water rather than full of bulldozers and mud.

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So I return to McLeod Ganj and go to lunch and, oh dear, food is beginning to taste a little rank, again. Not a good sign.

It is McClouding over, now. So far the pattern of weather each day has been the same – morning warm and sunny, with clouds beginning to come over at lunchtime. By late afternoon it is quite cool.

Later, I go down to visit the Tsuglagkhang Complex; the temples and the residence of the Dalai Lama (he’s out, at the moment). Outside the main temple, there is a puja going on involving a fire. I watch for a while, wander around the temples and then wander out.

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Tuesday 1st December 2009

Another visit to the Tsuglagkhang Complex, where I wander round and sit for a while, finishing with a visit to the sobering museum, telling the story of the rape of Tibet.

It is now evening. I am sitting in McLlo’s, looking out of the window down onto Main Square. There are a couple of liquor stores, with plenty of people, especially Tibetans, patronising them and milling around. But there is no trouble. People are peaceful, gentle. One would have to put this down to the influence of Buddhism. People have a code of behaviour that is based not on fear, but on an understanding of what is the right thing to do, for respect for others. There are no rowdy crowds; people don’t feel threatened. That is just one of the wholly benign influences of religion here.

It’s a gorgeous full moon, tonight.

 Wednesday 2nd December 2009

After breakfast I decide to sit up on the roof with my book for the morning. Some hours later, I am interrupted when two troupes of monkeys leap onto the roof and begin fighting each other. Honestly, how is one meant to concentrate? I give up and go down.

The cold develops. I spend most of the rest of the day in my room reading.

Saturday 5th December 2009

I still have a bit of a cold/sore throat/headache, but am feeling better in myself. Indeed, walking around the town this morning, I feel that I shall really miss McLeod Ganj. I love the ambience; the only place in India that I have visited that that felt more laid back than here was Ladakh, and this runs it close. The Tibetans are brilliant, and the Buddhist attitude to all things tends to come through all of the time – even the stray dogs get fed and petted and seem much better off than elsewhere, although I suppose that might be because they chase off the monkeys!

And having ranted about westerners enough times, last night the chap at the next table to me called the waiter over to say that he wanted to pay for the supper of the two monks on a nearby table, and I’ve been in conversation this morning with a great group of Americans who are working with the refugees here.

A Week in McLeod Ganj – part 1

2009. Blimey, that’s almost 8 years ago, now! Doesn’t seem that long! So here’s a couple of extracts from my journal, plus apologies for only taking a few photos.

Friday 27th November 2009

(I’d not been well, and couldn’t face a 12 hour bus journey, so I took a flight to Dharamsala) It all goes smoothly, and we get away just about on time. The plane is a twin engine prop; lovely, and the flight is marvellous. We are crossing the North Indian plains for a while, then all of a sudden the Himalaya jag up like freshly whitened teeth, from side to side across the horizon. We slowly approach, the ground beginning to rise up into hills and the towns disappearing. We pass Shimla atop a ridge, with its airport running along a second ridge, looking for all the world as though the top has been sliced off – and perhaps it has.

Eventually we come into land – another tiny airport where the aircraft taxis up to the small building, switches off, and then when we get out all is quiet, the mountains staring down at us and the air clear and cool. Pick up baggage, out to get a taxi to McLeod Ganj (or Gunj).

At first, the roadsides are crowded with troops of monkeys – I quickly lose all idea of how many. We pass hundreds. But as we gain height, they disappear and we are surrounded by forest.

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In about half an hour, we get to McLeod Ganj and I check into my room at Hotel Ladies Venture. It is basic, but is clean, has hot water, a bed with lots of blankets, a table and a chair. For RS 200/- a night I’m in no position to complain.

So the first thing that I do is go off to explore. I am surrounded by a busy little town full, largely, of Tibetans. Lots of shops and cafes, monks, monasteries, gompas and chortens. No hard sell. In my mind, I turn cartwheels. At the moment I am sitting up on the terrace at Village Meeting Point café, finishing apple pie and Darjeeling tea, watching the sunset amongst the mountains.

This is better.

Later, it gets colder.

Saturday 28th November 2009

I slept pretty well – it didn’t get as cold as I thought that it might. The shower was good, although the hot water didn’t last for too long. This morning I have wandered up through the town to Green Hotel for breakfast. Probably like most places here, it is filled mainly with westerners, discussing Tibetan politics. Most of the more upmarket places, that is. The Tibetans will be in the cheap eateries, since most are not exactly well off.

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There is a large ex-pat community of all sorts here, and one of the consequences of this is that such things as real coffee are served all over the place. Also Italian food, etc., etc. It is certainly no hardship for westerners, here. Everywhere offers yoga classes, meditation classes, massage, cookery lessons – you name it. Opportunities of all sorts for volunteering, too.

Today I am just going to wander around and get to know the place a bit. Try to feel the pulse of it, as it were. Like other, similar, places (Bodhgaya) it seems like several separate communities living side by side, interacting occasionally, but still separate. Or should that be different layers?

A sudden commotion beside me, as a monkey nips in through the window and nicks a bowl of porridge off of an adjacent table, making its escape out of the same window. No one seems too bothered.

After breakfast, I change some money and then stroll the kilometre or so uphill to Dharamkot village. The track goes through forest and I pass first through a troop of Macaque monkeys, who chunter a bit at me, but keep out of my way, and then pass lots of birdlife, including a small flock of birds that look a little like tits, with a mainly black head with a small black crest, and one beautiful bird, a little larger, an iridescent turquoise (mainly) like a kingfisher or a roller.

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Teashop, this way!

At the top of the hill is a little teashop where I get a lemon tea and join the other few people sitting there in silence. It is perfectly peaceful, a good place to watch the world go by, except that the world decides not to pass that way for the moment.

Back into McLeod Ganj, past the chuntering macaques, to Jimmy’s Italian restaurant for lunch. The rooftop has fantastic views over the town and across the mountains, and I watch a couple of kites slowly circling and calling nearby. If it wasn’t for the fact that I want to explore this fascinating place, I think that I could just sit here for the whole afternoon with a book.

In the event, I don’t do anything much more constructive than that. I read, I wander around; I go for tea and cake. After all, I’m here for ten days or so, so there is no rush to do anything.

I plan to walk to Dal Lake tomorrow, which is no more than half a day there and back.

 

Nepal – Annapurna Region

In 1988 I went to Nepal for the first time, travelling by bus from Delhi to Kathmandu. Although the trip took almost 2 days, and the bus was remarkably uncomfortable, it was one of the most spectacular journeys I have ever taken, and a most remarkable experience.

And then I trekked the Annapurna circuit, still considered by many to be one of the 10 classic treks of the world. It took 24 days to complete, and from the time we left Ghorka, until the day we walked down into Pokhara, we were travelling entirely on footpaths and saw no vehicles of any description.

Part of the walk is now over a new road, and whilst this is surely welcome to the inhabitants of the region, I suspect that it takes away a little of the magic of the trek.

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Village near Manang (posibly Mungji), on the Marsyandi River, close to the Annapurnas. In many ways, a typical Nepalese mountain village, it is built on man-made terraces, up steeply sloping mountainside, to avoid using any of the precious farmland available in the valley.

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View from Poon Hill. Poon Hill lies a little to the west of Ghorapani on the river Ghora (pani being water), west of the Annapurnas. Sunrise there consequently occurs behind the Annapurna peaks, including the spectacular Machhapuchhare, or ‘fishtail’ peaks. That said, this shot was taken towards the west, looking across the Kali Gandaki valley.

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This is dawn, though. Machhapuchhare and its double peak are shown clearly on the left.

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Mountains and glacial lake from the village of Manang.

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Lower down, the land is heavily terraced, fertile land being at such a premium that every available bit is used. These rice paddies are near the village of Chepe Ghat, on the Marsayandi River.

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Chorten. Chortens, or stupas as they are also commonly known, usually contain relics of saints or priests. The original stupas held relics of the Buddha, such as at the Temple of the Tooth, at Kandy, Sri Lanka.

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Mountains near the village of Muktinath. In the rain-shadow, here, the landscape is that of a high altitude desert.

 

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Mani stones on the Annapurna trail. Mani stones may be carved, painted or both, and serve a similar function to prayer flags, in that they either have a prayer or mantra carved on them (typically ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ – from which the name ‘Mani Stone’ comes from – meaning ‘Hail to the jewel in the heart of the lotus’ i.e. The Buddha) or they may have a picture of the Buddha himself. Although they may be encountered singly or in small numbers by shrines or at Gompas, at times they make up huge walls containing many hundreds of stones, some of which may have been there for hundreds of years. These walls, like shrines or any other Buddhist relics encountered here, are passed on the left.

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Houses at Manang.

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The Upper reaches of the Marsayandi, looking down to Manang.

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Snowed in below Thorung La. Not an unusual occurrence. Thorung La is at 5415m (17,700ft). We arrived at our campsite early afternoon with the ground clear of snow and the sun out. This was the scene a couple of hours later, delaying our crossing the pass (‘La’ is Tibetan for ‘Pass’) by 24 hours.

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Crossing Thorung La. On the day we crossed the pass, we left camp just after 4 in the morning, and were down the other side by late afternoon.

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Looking west (and down!) from Thorung La). On this side of the pass there is far less precipitation and the land is noticeably drier. This is looking towards Muktinath.

Nepal – Everest Region

Everybody knows the statistics; Everest, also known as Sagarmatha by the Nepalese and Chomolungma by the Tibetans, is the highest mountain on Earth, at 29,028ft or 8848m. First successfully climbed in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay from the British Expedition led by John Hunt, it has now been climbed by around 2,500 climbers. There have also been some 210 deaths on the mountain, or slightly more than one death for every 12 summiteers. A grim reminder that whilst nowadays if you have the money you can virtually buy your way to the top, it is still an extremely hazardous venture.

Everest from the summit of Mount Kala Pattar (5545m).  In the foreground is the Khumbu Glacier, the summit of Everest is the dark peak against the central skyline, with Everest West Shoulder directly in front and Nuptse (7879m), apparently the tallest peak in the picture, because of the perspective, to the right of them. Changtse (7550m) across the border in Tibet, is to the left. Lhotse (8501m) can be glimpsed to the right of Everest, behind Nuptse.

 

Cairns to climbers who have died on Everest, near Dhugla (Thokla). And a very sobering sight they are, too. Some have plaques, some simple inscriptions, many are anonymous. As you walk further up the Thokla Pass, you look back to this line of cairns on the ridge.

 

Local transport. A caravan of dzo – a cross between cattle and yaks – pass stone seats provided for travellers. Dzo tend to be both larger and stronger than yaks, an obvious advantage in an animal used for carrying heavy cargoes! They can also go down to lower altitudes than yaks, who are adapted for life at high altitudes.

 

Traditional door in old house, Khumjung village, near Namche Bazaar.

 

Inside The temple of Tengboche monastery. Although the temple is beautiful both inside and out, my dominant memories are of sounds – the chanting of the monks at puja, when I sat in the temple one afternoon, completely unable to meditate, since I could not focus on anything except my freezing feet. Also the sounds of the bells, drums and horns that woke me at 7 o’clock in the morning – beats an alarm clock any time!

Entrance to Tengboche Monastery and Temple.

 

Khumbu Glacier at Lobuche.

 

Ama Dablam from Khumjung village. In the foreground is one of the schools built by Sir Edmund Hillary, rightly revered throughout the Sherpa community for the huge amount of work that he and his Foundation put into improving the lives of the poor in this area.

 

Traditional house in Khumjung.

 

Himalayan Accentor on top of a cairn on Nagartsang Peak . This is a 5083m ‘Trekking’ Peak, ie one that can be ascended without having to use climbing skills. Apparently in America cairns are referred to as ‘ducks’, due to their shapes. So, for American bloggers: Bird on Duck.

Looking down onto the Khumbu Glacier . Although looking rather like a rubble-strewn pathway, in places one can see the bluey-green ice. Here it shows clearly around a glacial lake. As I watched, I could hear the sounds of cracking and splitting as the glacier ground it’s way incredibly slowly downhill.

 

Yak skull on mani stone with katas (silk scarves) and prayer flags. Cairns are not always simple piles of stones.

 

Yak train crossing new bridge near Phunki Drengka. The old bridge was washed away.

 

The old bridge. Testament to the tremendous power of floodwater. 

 

Khumjung Gompa, where a yeti skull is kept.

 

The yeti skull.

 

Sunset, and Ama Dablam appears through the clouds.

 



Looking south from Dengboche.

 

The Spirit of the Himalaya.

 

Moody autumn shot just outside Lukla.

 

Nuptse (on left) and Everest (on right) at sunset, from Tengboche. In February 2008, when I visited, I saw nothing but clouds and mist. When I returned in October we were treated to the most marvellous sunset and sunrise.

 


Monks blowing conch shells at morning puja, Tengboche monastery. The monks at the top left hand window are blowing the shells that make a hoarse, trumpet-like sound, during the sunrise puja.

 

Autumn colours.

 

Prayer wheels.

 

Ploughing a field with a wooden, dzo-drawn plough.

 

Namche Bazaar from above.

 

Carved Mani stone near Tengboche.

Dodgy digestion in Dharamshala

I am not sure why, but I frequently think of the room that I stayed in when I went to McCloud Ganj in 2009. It was not my best trip to India, since it was the one time that I have picked up a bad stomach bug that I could not shake off for the entire duration of my trip. I had a few days in Jaipur, the condition of my digestive system rapidly going downhill despite medication and fasting, and finally took the bus back to Delhi where I felt strangely comfortable in the familiar warren of Paharganj.

When I felt that my stomach had at least stabilised, although it was by no means cured, I decided I was well enough to go and spend a week or so in Dharamshala. Or McCloud Ganj, which is what most people mean when they mention Dharamshala. McCloud Ganj is where the Dalai Lama and many Tibetan refugees actually live; Dharamshala is a town close by. Anyway, instead of taking the bus – a twelve hour journey that I just couldn’t face – I splashed out and took a flight.

Actually, the flight was wonderful.

The plane was a twin engine prop, rather than a jet, carrying just a few passengers. If one has to travel by air, then I think that there is no nicer way of doing it. We were crossing the North Indian plains for a while, then all of a sudden the Himalaya jagged up like freshly whitened teeth from side to side across the horizon. We slowly approached, the ground beginning to rise up into hills and the towns disappearing. We passed Shimla atop a ridge, with its airport running along a second ridge, looking for all the world as though the top had been sliced off – and perhaps it had.

Eventually we came into land – a tiny airport where the aircraft taxied up to the small building, switched off, and then when we got out all was quiet. After the hum of the engines during the flight, the sudden silence with the mountains staring down at us, and the air clear and cool, was breathtaking and almost indescribably beautiful. I just wanted to stand still and drink it all in, but was eventually ushered into the terminal.

And the aircraft terminal was small enough to feel that it was built on a human scale. A few rooms and halls, and not too many people around. And even those people appeared to be in no real hurry, unlike the larger airports that I usually find myself in.

I thought immediately of Leh airport, in Ladakh. That had the same feel.

So I picked up my luggage, and went outside to get a taxi to McLeod Ganj (or Gunj).

Once in McLeod Ganj, I checked into my room at Hotel Ladies Venture. It was basic, but it was clean, had hot water, a bed with lots of blankets, a table and a chair. For RS 200/- a night I had nothing to complain about, and if you wish to read this as a recommendation, then feel free to do so.

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I shall write a proper blog post on McCloud Ganj at some point, but suffice to say I did very little during the week that I was there, other than wander around and look at the mountains, read, eat and drink, and visit the Tsuglagkhang Complex; the temples and the residence of the Dalai Lama (who was out when I visited).

But my guest house room has stuck in my mind.

By the end of my second day there, I had slightly rearranged the room to get it how I wanted it. My few books were lined up on the windowsill. Various belongings were on the table. I had hung a string of prayer flags along the wall. Little touches.

I have stayed in far nicer rooms. I have enjoyed better health at other times. But every time that I feel my life is too cluttered; too full of unnecessary junk and too complicated, it is this room that suddenly springs to mind, and I’m not entirely certain why.

It might have something to do with the fact that I do travel light, and so have nothing with me but essentials plus a few books and my notebook (although I would argue that they are also essentials!).

It might have something to do with the fact that my room that week felt like a bit of a refuge, partly because I still felt unwell, although I am not entirely convinced by this since I loved the town, the people were lovely, and I was completely at ease there.

I think that it is simply symbolic of the feeling that I constantly have that I need desperately to declutter and simplify my life. I think that when feelings of stress and anxiety threaten to overwhelm me, then it is an image of a refuge. I think that it is a reminder of much that I love about India and its people.

Dammit, I need to get out there again!

Himalayan Foothills

I am going offline for a few days, since I need a bit of a break, so I will leave you with a selection of photographs from the Himalayan Foothills, Northern India. When I log on again in a few days, I’ll catch up with everyone’s blogs and comments.

By ‘Foothills’ I mean the ranges of hills and smaller mountains that guard the approach to the Himalaya proper, where the big beasties rise up to heights of over 8000m with permanent ice and snow cover. The old Raj hill stations such as Nainital and Darjeeling were built at heights of around 2000m – high by UK standards, but certainly not by Himalayan ones.

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Naini Tal, Nainital Town, Northern India. Morning Light. Nainital lake, (‘naina’ is Sanskrit for eye and ‘tal’ means lake) in Hindu mythology, is one of the emerald green eyes of Sati, Shiva’s wife. This was my first view of it after getting off of the overnight bus from Delhi.

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Gadhar Kunkyop Ling Gompa, Nainital. Unlike many other Himalayan towns, Nainital has no sizeable Tibetan population, and this Monastery, perched high to the North East, overlooking the lake, is the only one in Nainital and home to just seven monks.

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Morning mist, Nainital.

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A sea of prayer flags on Observatory Hill, Darjeeling. Darjeeling, unlike Nainital, has a large Tibetan population and many Gompas both in the town and the surrounding hills. Observatory Hill is the site of the original temple of Dorje Ling, long destroyed, but after which the town was named, once the British had persuaded the then ruler of the area, the Chogyal of Sikkim, to lease them the land to build a hill station. The hill is now home to a Hindu shrine, with the British built church of Saint Andrew close-by.

But no Gompa.

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The ‘Toy Train’ stopped outside Samten Choling Gompa at Ghoom, near Darjeeling. This train runs for 51 miles from Siliguri to Darjeeling, rising a total of just over 7000 ft. It has numerous steep gradients and sharp curves, including the famous one at ‘Agony Point’ – originally the loop there was a diameter of only 59.5 ft and the train literally overhung the mountainside as it rounded the curve. All in all, quite a remarkable engineering feat and deservedly a World Heritage site.

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Druk Sangak Gompa, a large Buddhist monastery on the edge of Darjeeling, West Bengal. A fairly new gompa, it was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1992.

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Not Chelmsford, UK, but Darjeeling, West Bengal). Many of the old British hill stations, such as Darjeeling, still retain much of their colonial character.

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A clash of cultures! And what a clash. East meets west, with brass band in the park meeting the Indian Himalaya, courtesy of the Darjeeling Police Band. The band played in a bandstand on the Chowrasta, the open square at the top of Darjeeling, close to Observatory Hill. In the days of the Raj, this would, no doubt, have been familiar to all who lived there. Close your eyes and think of England…

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Tea pickers, Darjeeling. Think of Darjeeling, think of tea. In the hills surrounding Darjeeling are numerous tea estates, where the job of tea picking, sorting, drying and packing goes on much as it has done for the last 150 years.

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Buddhist painting on rock wall, by open air shrine, Darjeeling. As well as the larger gompas, you come across small shrines and gompas unexpectedly around odd corners everywhere.

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Prayer Lags in Yumthang Valley, Northern Sikkim. This is as far north in Sikkim that you are allowed to travel, just a few miles south and west of Tibet. Everybody is still very touchy about borders.

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Crossing a bridge in the Yumthang valley. It should be safe, considering the number of prayer flags!

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Unnamed 6000m peaks overlooking the Yumthang Valley. We asked our guide the names of these peaks, only to be disparagingly told ‘They don’t have names. They’re less than 6000m tall.

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And more prayer flags…

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Young monks on a hillside, Phodong Gompa, Sikkim.

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Monastery wall painting, Lachung Gompa, Northern Sikkim. Lachung Gompa is about 2km above Lachung village, at a height of about 3000m. It is not a ‘working’ gompa, the monks living down in the village rather than at the gompa, so it is generally kept locked and only used on festivals and full moon days.

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Monastery door, Tharpa Choling Gompa, Kalimpong, W.B. Kalimpong, not far from Darjeeling, but 1000 metres lower, has also a large Tibetan population.

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Statue of Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara), Durpin Gompa, Kalimpong, West Bengal. Chenrezig (Tibetan) or Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva (a being who has partly or completely attained the state of enlightenment) of compassion. The well-known mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ is dedicated to him.

Kalimpong market:

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I watched this gentleman for some time before I approached and asked for a photo. he was rapidly serving a succession of customers at great speed, making up little paper screws of spices and powders at a tremendous rate…

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…whereas this gentleman served his customers at a more leisurely pace, as if he had all the time in the world.

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This gentleman was delighted to be photographed with his fine collection of Kukris. As I prepared to take the photo, he picked up a kukri and brandished it with a none too convincing snarl, to the obvious amusement of most of the people around him.

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This stall-holder seemed to find it hilarious that I should want to photograph her.

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This lady, on the other hand, was delighted to be photographed; volunteering eagerly when a lady on a nearby stall refused.

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The Katherine Graham Memorial Chapel, in the grounds of the Dr Graham School and home, Kalimpong. Built in 1925, it looks to have materialised straight out of the Scottish Highlands. Dr Graham was a Scottish missionary, and built the home and school originally to educate the children of local tea estate workers. It now has a far broader intake.

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Lake Dal, Srinagar, Kashmir. Unfortunately, it is still probably unwise to visit most of Kashmir, and things will probably remain this way for some considerable time to come. A pity, because this really is a most beautiful part of India and Pakistan. I took these photos in 1989, a very short while before the area became off-limits to tourists.

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Panorama – Lake Dal, Srinagar, Kashmir). In the distance is the Hazratbal Mosque, a comparatively modern mosque, enshrining a hair of the prophet.

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Hindu shrine. Near the shore of Lake Dal in Kashmir.

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Houseboats around the shore of Lake Dal, Shrinagar, Kashmir. In the nineteenth century, the British, who first developed Srinagar as a hill station to get away from the stifling heat of the Indian Plains in the summer, found that the then Maharajah refused to sell them land to build houses. The solution? They built boats to live on…great, elaborate, ornate carved and decorated houseboats. These same boats, with many more recent editions, now function as floating hotels to tourists. The majority are moored not on the actual shore, but a little way off, often on the edge of small islands. This gives the local shakira (a type of small boat unique to Lake Dal) owners a chance to clean up, as a taxi service.

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Shakira moored on Lake Dal.