Location: Lamayuru, India
After spending a week pottering around Leh, we decided it was time for an adventure! A short trek seemed the most obvious choice given that we needed to continue acclimatising and we weren't sure how Asaph's back would fare carrying too much weight (Sitting at a desk for too many hours a day writing his thesis has proven havoc for his poor back).
A short five-day trek west of Leh had caught our attention as it connected two of the oldest Monasteries in the region: Lamayuru Gompa and Alchi Gompa. So with our bags packed with camping essentials and 5 kilos of dry food, we set off early one morning for what we thought would be a hassle free trek...
We spent the first day hanging around Lamayuru with a young monk who befriended me while I sat by the river where we were camping. Dorje - with an intelligent, curious and humorous manner that defied his young age - asked me many questions about my culture and proudly boasted that he was Aryan - one of the first peoples thought to inhabit the earth.
After a while he jumped up eagerly and insisted I come with him to a "very beautiful place for swimming". Asaph and I followed, edging our way across barley plantations and through a thick cluster of willow trees. I could hear splashing and laughing ahead and then suddenly found myself next to a small pond where 15 naked monks were giggling nervously and covering themselves shyly. I feigned embarrassment, but Dorje turned to me and explained "it's ok really, they are still only children after all"! Within seconds, the monks found the whole situation hilarious and began dive bombing the pond and even leapt out of the water pulling funny faces when Dorje began taking photos on my camera...not quite sure about the legality of having naked photos of young monks in my possession....
The scorching heat of a Ladakhi summer revealed itself to us the next day as we set off along a barren gorge. Being in such a harsh environment was amazing: dry river beds, small twisted vegtation gasping for water, crumbling cliffs, vast eerie plateaus that stretched for miles and giant jagged mountains. As we stood at the top of the first pass - dripping with sweat beneath ladels of suncream, hats, scarves and true-blue Aussie zinc - we felt an intense connection with our surroundings. As Buddhists would say
we began to understand the idea of "interconnectedness".
Survival in this environment seemed impossible, yet as we approched small villages or encampments, the barren desert was replaced by lush green fields, hillsides sprinked with wildflowers: lavender, eidelweiss, wildroses, flowing streams and rivers and, of course, wonderfully friendly people.
Aside from the heat, the actual walking would have been dead easy if it hadn't been for the fact that we half starved ourselves! We knew that water boils at approximately 89 degrees at around 3500m - cooking would take longer than normal - but we didnt realise that cooking lentils at this altitude would prove absolutely impossible without a pressure cooker! After 3 hours of cooking and a whole night of soaking, we gave up in despair.
Consequently, we spent the next 5 days eating tsampa (roasted barley flour) - which is actually quite tasty...in moderation - with some carefully rationed apricots, nuts, dried tomatoes and spinach and cheese (50g each per day!). With more than a fifth of our food useless - our main source of protein! - we went to bed each night super hungry.
The annoying thing was that there was limited food available at a few of the villages we passed through, but we couldn't afford to buy anything but butter tea (and tsampa) because for some stupid reason we only had enough cash to get a bus from Alchi back to Leh. This was a real lesson in learning to appreciate the food we eat!! And since being back we've been savouring each mouthful...
The combination of intense heat, high altitude, lack of food and heavy packs proved far too much for Asaph's back. By the 4th day he was trying to convince me to follow the river down to the closest road so we could hitch back to Leh. My determination to reach Alchi Gompa - which has remained almost intact since it was built in the 11th Century, hosting rare paintings by Kashmiri Buddhists - was such that I eagerly transferred as much as I could from Asaph's pack into mine and we set off (me trying not to grimace under the weight I was carrying!) to find ourselves another monastery...
...the problem was we never found it! Considering we were armed with nothing but a toy map (the kind they give out at shopping malls saying "you are here") and a rather vague description from the Lonely planet, you shouldn't be too surprised. It wasn't that we got lost, we just couldn't find the trail that headed North off the trail we were on! I don't know what God or Deity Asaph was praying to, but he certainly got his wish to walk out following the river! After a bit of frustation (and a near tantrum!), I realised it was actually quite beautiful where we were anyway. Besides Asaph's back was still hurting and we were absolutely ravished so getting back earlier wasn't such a bad thing.
...except we were to come out 20km away from the main highway! Another 20kms of walking! By this stage we only had a handful of salt, some ginger and a few nuts - we were exhausted and dying for some food with substance! Luckily after only 2kms of walking along the road a kind truck driver picked us up and took us all the way to Leh!..for free!!
So it was a crazy adventure in the end, but we survived and can now laugh heartily about it. We've decided to join a group of people for a longer trek that leaves tomorrow. It will be our luxury tour since we are taking ponies and a cook and guide! Given Asaph's back it seems like the best option and it is going to be amazing - 24 days of trekking from Leh to Spiti Valley!! My dream is to come true! I've been dying to do a trek like this forever...
The connection here is too slow to put up any photos so you'll all have to imagine the beautiful places I've been talking about until we get home.
Love and Hugs!!
Location: Leh, India
Getting out of Keylong proved rather interesting in the end. After being told "maybe tomorrow" for the second day in a row, and meeting a Czech girl who'd been waiting 5 days, we were getting desperate and preparing to hitch on the first crazy truck that would have us. But then Danielle thought up the brilliant idea of asking the bus driver if we could have a standing spot - as if a 15 hour bus trip over three 5000m passes on narrow dirt roads wasn't bad enough! Of course being an indian bus the driver said yes, and off we went on an adventure I won't soon forget.
Lucky for Danielle, it took about 5 seconds for someone to offer her a seat (which turned out to be half a bum in width and with enough leg-space for a toddler). So we spent the journey alternating between her seat, sitting on two hard uneven suitcases, sitting in the stairwell and standing in assorted bracing positions to avoid being jostled around by the rocking and rolling bus. Which must not have been too bad as we spent most of the trip smiling and laughing - much to the astonishment of the rest of the passengers.
Our smiling was initiated by the mind-blowing scenery, aided by an army officer who we kept insisting on buying us tea and lunch, and turned into mad grinning by the crazy roads and death-defying truck-passing manouvers. The road crawled along precipices and plunged through deep gorges with scant regard for geological stability, landing us in a world of incredible rock formations as if the bowels of the earth had been flung open. Finally we arrived in high altitude desert nomad tents, and a sky that told us we had arrived at the top of the world.
Despite the time spent in Keylong the altitude took its toll on us. The slow crawl over the final 5300m pass gave us both headaches, and we feared for the safety of some of the other passengers who were throwing up and looking much the worse for wear. When someone asked to stop at the top Danielle quickly waved the bus driver on to a more sensible altitude.
So now we're in the land of hill-top gompas, ancient chortens and high-altitude oasis villages - the land of Ladakh, sometimes known as Little Tibet. We're staying in a guesthouse in Leh with a lovely Ladakhi family trying to decide which trek to do, which mountain to climb and which tsampa dish to try today. More soon.
Location: Manali to Leh, India
Traveller rave about the road from Manali to Leh. When they start talking about the terrifyingly narrow width, the land slides, the insane traffic jams and dangerously sheer cliffs, their eyes light up and you can see the adrenalin begin to pump through their veins as they relive the journey. I had always imagined it wouldn't be as bad as their tales - surely they were talking it up!? How wrong was I! While the road has improved slightly since last year, the trip was indeed terrifying.
I'm almost embarrased that I was scared of the road from Manali to Dharamsala (though it was night time!) - it was nothing compared to this! In many spots the road was nothing but dirt and rocks - big rocks that made the bus jeer and jerk dangerously towards the edge of the cliff. And the width! - the engineer of this road was surely reincarnated as a tiny smelly slug as punishment for maing the road so narrow! Even 5cm wider would make the world of difference. In most places the road is exactly the width of 2 buses next to each other. However, in other places it is a little less than this width which means buses and trucks shuffle backwards and forwards until they find an angle or section that they can precariously pass each other. Meanwhile those sitting on the bus hold their breath trying to imagine themselves as thin as possible - surely this will help! At one stage we reversed almost 20 meters towards a hairpin bend looking for a spot that a truck could pass. Luckily, Asaph and I had been to a Tibetan Astrologer a few days earlier and we'd both been told we would live to at least 70 years old! So no need to trully panic right? (Incidently, we were both told many interesting things about our potential future - careers, strengths, weaknesses. health - some things were scarily close to our own observed reality, things we'd been contemplating in the last few years.)
We rode on the roof for most of the trip from Manali to Keylong. Sorry Mum, but our theory was that it had to be safer because we could jump to safety if the bus rolled...perhaps?!? Besides it was much more comfortable than sharing a 2-seater with a larger indian man, his car-sick wife , child and our 2 day packs! And the view!! Wow! Mountains, and huge ridge lines and gaddhi shepards and mountains, mountains, mountains...in all directions. Heaven.
The top of the Rohtang pass is one of the biggest tourist attractions for Indian's from the south. Thousands travel here to catch there first glimpes of snow. I was expecting there to be 10 feet of snow in all directions by the way people talked about it. There was snow. And it was beautiful. There just wasn't much of it! There was only a few small patches and these were covered with Indian tourists wearing hired gum boots and big mock fur coats - despite the scorching hot sun - riding horses, sliding down rope-led tabogans or standing around holding skis!! It was certainly a sight to see. (photos soon!)
We arrived tired, but invigorated at Keylong (3300m) and have decided to stay here a few nights to acclimatise before heading to Leh. Our getting out of this village to Leh is dependant on there being spare seats on the bus from Manali, which could be difficult given that it is the tourist season. Fingers Crossed.
Location: Dharamkot, India
Yesterday was the first of what I'm sure will be many sad farewells. Our stay in Dharamkot ended up being 3.5 weeks in total - much longer than we expected. So many stories and experiences...Our last night was spent at my friend Thupten Choeden's house - a tibetan buddhist nun whom I've been teaching English to in the past 3 weeks. She cooks a wicked Thukpa soup, which I've really enjoyed as a simple alternative to the, often heavily spiced, Indian dishes.
Thupten is one of 3 students I've been teaching while practising yoga here. Every afternoon after lunch I've been going to Thupten's room (she is on holiday from Dehra Dun where she lives in Songlin Nunnery) where I'd spend an hour or so teaching. Eventually I'd tear myself away from our conversations to go to another local house where I would teach Yangchen and Pemo Tsomo - while being fed enough chai to fill a swimming pool! Yangchen is hoping to move to Australia next year to be with her husband - a political prisoner who moved to Australia as a refugee last year so she was excited to have an Aussie teacher.
I've really enjoyed teaching English and have made such close friends with my students. In the last week Asaph joined me and has been teaching Thupten's friend who is also from the nunnery in Dehra Dun (He has also been doing data entry for a Tibetan-Chinese -English Dictionary - also a fascinating experience). It's been extremely challenging at times - especially since I only know about 10 words in Tibetan! But it got easier as the weeks went on, particularly helped by their amazing dedication and determination to learn. Thupten would get up at about 4am every morning to study for 3 hours before breakfast!
It has been really pleasant hanging out with women everyday. In most of the towns we've been to so far it is almost always Indian men that work in the shops, sit around in the chai stands, sit next to you on buses or follow you down the street insisting you buy their interesting items such as massive knives that, if bought, would most definately call for a full body search and terrorist alert in Australian customs! While most of the men I've met have been wonderful, polite and friendly, it does get tiring having to be continously assertive and on guard. (One of the most amusing conversation's I keep having is trying to explain why I'm not married to Asaph and why I am not interested in extra boyfriends).
So the opportunity to speak and befriend women has been fantastic and its been great watching Thupten, Yangchen and Pemo Tsomo open up with great affection towards me. We've learnt so much about Tibetan culture through our conversations - despite having to often use very creative sign language, which would, at times, result in all of us rolling around in fits of laughter!
I am continuously amazed at the strength of the Tibetan people. They have been through so much - things I cant even begin to comprehend. All of our students escaped from Tibet between 12 years and 4 months ago. Their day-to-day suffering - despite the amazing infrasturucture set up in India - is clear. Thupten, for example, is constantly sick and misses her family dreadfully. She is the only family member to have escaped into India. She is constantly depressed and often finds it difficult to study. She wants to go back to Tibet, but realises that being in India is the only chance she will get to have an education. I'd been getting her to write stories that we read together - they were always about her sadness and pain for her family and country's freedom.
Tibetan's now have very little opportunity for schooling in Tibet thanks to the oppression of the Chinese government. There is currently a whole generation in Tibet who are not only uneducated, but are not able to speak their native language! Being denied a basic education, of course, makes them extremely unemployable once they reach adulthood. Those that escape to India to study are often discrimated against by the Chinese government if they return to Tibet in search of work.
We are both keen to learn more and play more of an active role in protesting against the Chinese Government particularly with the approach of the 2008 Olympic Games - (let me know if you are interested in knowing more...) One of the many charity groups in Dharamsala has made some fantastic posters advocating a boycott of the games - my favourite being the 5 rings constructed with bullet holes!
So we've certainly been busy in the last month with Yoga and English teaching taking up most of our daylight hours. We've also managed to squeeze in an Indian cooking class, some music concerts, massages, lectures from political prisoners, a Dharma Class on Buddhist teachings, and lots of fun dinners and wonderful conversations with other travellers.