A Travellerspoint blog


The Parcel

Nell had been collecting various souvenirs and gifts for others over the days we had spent in Leh. We thought it would be a good idea to send them home by parcel mail rather than carry them with us for the next few weeks and then pay excess baggage for them on the plane. [Let alone get them through the quarantine and security checks back in Australia.]

“I don’t mind how long they take, we may even get home before they arrive,”said Nell.
She had taken a fancy to a large patchwork wall hanging made from bits of recycled sari and cloth, which was displayed opposite Javid’s little shop. We had got to know Javid quite well after browsing in his shop several times before. He seemed genuinely more interested in us than the majority of rather pushy and intrusive young salesmen that we had encountered in the touristy souvenir strip leading up to Changspa. Or it could be that he was just a better salesman by being so laid back.

It baffles me that these youngsters actually seem to think that being pushy will help them sell more stuff; but then, many of the tourists have not been to poorer countries before and get bamboozled into a shop where the hard sell really starts. Hmm...Which technique will I use for these tourists, this guy looks well travelled and experienced but the lady...she looks very kind...a soft touch. The salesmen may be young but they are very street wise. It’s a pity they are not more creative with their pitches. “Come look inside, best prices for Pashminas...Buddhas, Tibetan artefacts, Tankhas...Tankhas...” Tankhas, but no thankas, I thought.

So on Saturday [when, we had discovered, the post office closes at 2pm] we walked about two kilometres uphill to arrive at Javid’s shop at 9.30am, packed a box with patchwork and pashminas and trotted back to the guest house carrying the box.

10am We decided to fit in some clothes we were never going to wear and added more gifts and trinkets until the box was full. May as well; we congratulated ourselves on this neat way of lightening our backpacks. Javid had told us we needed to pack the parcel in a certain way; it had to be wrapped in a white linen cloth with the address written on in indelible marker. We would be able to get it done very easily at a local tailor. He knew a good one and said, “my boy, when he gets back, will show you where to go and translate.” So Nell puffs back up the hill to Javid’s shop to collect the boy. In the meantime I carry the heavy box down to the mosque in the centre of town to wait for them, and watch the action on the street.

The Muslim men are gathered together in grey suited groups. They mostly wear beards and little skullcaps which make them stand out from the majority, but they seem to be of a different race too; more like Afghans or people from the ‘Stans, which they probably are. They are looking at me suspiciously. Why? I’m not doing anything! [Later I realised they may have been wondering what was in that large box right outside their mosque. Was this a bomb? Was it mine? Did I look like an American suicide bomber out for revenge?]

A milk truck parks nearby, which seems to be the reason for the gathering of many of these men. Milk and yoghurt is ladled into bowls and containers as the people push forward. Is this a handout for Afghan refugees? Now there are women too, filing out of the local shops and houses. Are these Muslim women? Is this special halal milk? Can milk be halal?

Some street dogs are hanging around the truck and when it pulls away they look for other things to keep them amused. One of them, a youngster, trots towards me, tail wagging playfully. I know the language well, having owned dogs, and can read that he is friendly. Checking for ticks, mange and other unpleasant conditions, I see that he is well looked after, healthy and clean so scratch him behind the ears, that favourite caress of all dogs. Now he is my best friend and especially likes my box, which he snuffles with curiosity, leans against and finally, when nothing is forthcoming, guards with his life.
10.45am Nell finds me, and we [including the dog, who told me in Dogue that his name is Rusty, by the way] head to the tailor shop where the “Boy” [Javid’s cousin], is organising the wrapping of the parcel. He translates that the Tailor will sew up the parcel completely despite our misgivings, as they no longer ask you to open the bag up in order to check the contents. They now have a machine which can do all that; easy! The cousin leaves and we watch the parcel being sewn up. Then we watch Rusty who has found a cute playmate and is romping about with her in the alley. Oh, what it is to be young and fancy free! He disappears around the corner with his lover; best friend with the parcel abandoned and already forgotten. We paid the tailor Rs200 plus Rs50 as a tip for the boy. “Be sure to give that to him”, we said.
11.30am The post office is a long way down near the airport so we caught a taxi there for Rs100. The man at the counter raised his eyebrows when he saw our parcel and pointed us in the general direction of a board on the wall which indicated that there were, in fact, prepaid boxes for international parcels up to 5 Kg at Rs 2500 for standard air mail. “These ones are expensive, no?” said the man at the counter. We agreed; glad that our traditional parcel would be cheaper, it must weigh less than 5Kg.
We decided to go ahead and turned back to the man behind the counter. This time he indicated that we would have to go around the counter, through a door to the back of the office where somebody would fill in a form for us. Everybody was very friendly and cheerful as though they were having a great time doing something different to relieve the incredibly dull work they were normally engaged in. Smiles and jokes were being shared by customers and staff alike. Our arrival had cheered the place up no end.

And then the man behind the counter asked us to open the parcel.

“But...umm, you have got a machine...you know...x-ray,” we stammered. “No machine,” the man behind the counter said, “you can go there” pointing towards a shelf. One of the Post Office Ladies handed us a pair of scissors, a needle and some thread; it was obviously a common occurrence for they had the materials readily at hand. Opening the parcel was quick enough, as was the cursory inspection that followed, but sewing it back up by hand took us the best part of half an hour.
By now we knew everybody personally, it was a most relaxed atmosphere. The tellers were doing Facebook on their computers, their families gathered around with the kids playing on the floor together. Names and addresses were being exchanged and photos taken so that we could send them to everybody when we got back home. We all had a lot of fun.
“That will be Rs 5975’’ said the man behind the counter [whose name is Stanzen Tondup by the way, we knew that by now]. “ Yes, look, weigh more than 8Kg.”

“More than 8 Kg...? There must be something wrong with the scales!” I exclaimed.

“Can that be right...almost Rs6000?” I asked Nell [hoping she would tell me that someone had made a mistake]. “Um...it looks like it” she replied slowly; “how much is that anyway?”[Hoping that I would tell her that it was not as much as she thought.] But we had both worked it out by then...a lot...more than all the gifts in the box put together. More than all the gifts and the folded up clothes [the ones that Nell had decided to send home as she was not using them] put together.

What’s going on? This is India, where everything is cheap! We were confused; as Stanzen had said that the prepaid boxes were expensive, so our old fashioned, slow mail parcel...

12.30 pm We did not want to argue with our new found friends, they were so nice, and so cheerful; so we just paid and left.
Refusing to pay for a taxi, we had a long, uphill but rather pleasant walk back up to Leh, through country lanes and little barley fields. The way Leh used to be before the tourist influx. We enjoyed the sound of babbling streams and birds and yet we were only a few hundred metres away from the hubbub, heat and dust of the main road.
2.15pm We arrived thirsty and hot back at our favourite trendy watering hole the Open Hand Cafe, where, slurping our ice cold lassis, we pondered on the day’s events. By sending this parcel we had made the day for quite a lot of people; Javid, his cousin, the tailor, the taxi driver, Stanzen, Stanzen’s family, possibly his colleagues and their families, probably a corrupt post office manager, no doubt a high ranking civil servant and definitely the owners of this trendy cafe with their expensive lassis.
It’s good to know that a day’s effort and a few bucks go such a long way. In India.

The parcel arrived a month after we got home.

Posted by takinitezy 03:38 Archived in India Tagged rupees sari lassi indian_post_office tankha Comments (0)

The Nubra Valley


We had a few days of recuperation in Leh after our trek and managed to find an organised tour into the Nubra Valley which is very close to the Tibetan and Pakistani borders. Over the last couple of years they have opened these areas to tourism as there have been no border disputes, although special permits are still issued to those who want to go there.

Before we had left on our trek we had put a poster in an agent’s window asking for extra people to share the cost of a jeep hire to Nubra. The agent soon found two more sharers but, as this is India, and backpackers are always looking for a better deal, they had dropped out when we arrived back in Leh so we had to plan again. The nice Tibetan guy with the long plait, who had organised our rafting earlier, was able to slot us into a Nubra trip with just enough time to find us a permit that day [we had to provide him with our passports].

One evening we saw the grand final Polo match of the Leh festival, which was rather disappointing; not really a spectator sport as most of the action is a long way away on the other side of the enormous playing field. There was the odd time it did get exciting when a group of ponies thundered past and stirred up the dust, the riders flailing their mallets in the general proximity of the ball. It seemed to me that the ball was only touched very occasionally, more by chance than judgement. But hey, who am I to comment? I know how hard it is just to stay on a horse let alone steer the animal where you want it to go with one hand!
The locals next to us were happy enough, smiling their toothless smiles at us as we did a running commentary as though we were at home in front of the telly watching a World Cup Football match. “YES, good try mate... that’s it, that’s it...NOW!! OH NO, he missed the effing ball!! What a useless game this is!” The old guys grinned broadly and nodded encouragingly.

We wandered back through the old part of town where a multitude of businesses plied their trade; fabric shops, hardware, goldsmiths, tinsmiths, barbers and so on. These were real shops with real prices for real locals, not catering for well heeled tourists from afar.

Day one

“WELCOME TO ONE AND EVERY TOURIST KHARDONGLA HIGHEST MOTORABLE ROAD IN THE WORLD ALTITUDE 18380 FT.” said the sign on the pass. Work it out in metres for yourselves if you like, but I’m not sure of either claim; the height or the motorableness. The jeep was full of six of us; Tom the psychologist, Arek the microelectronic engineer, Paul the social worker/ DJ, Ernesta the teacher, us two oldies and the driver. It had taken us an hour and a half to get here on endless hairpin bends as we ascended the mountain with the snows of Zanskar rising and the fields of Leh dwindling, still visible behind us for most of the climb.
Some small patches of dusty snow, a hopeful host of prayer flags, military huts and oil drums littered the pass. It was cold, dirty, scruffy and smelly as we visited the highest public toilets in the world which emptied their contents a few meters down the slope through open pipes. We felt dizzy and out of breath due to the lack of oxygen and the excess of methane and ammonia. But despite the discomfort I was excited, because way in the distance we could see a spine of snow capped mountains; the edge of Tibet.
India_2011_327.jpg India_2011_390.jpg
It’s strange how drawn I am to Tibet. I had been very close to the border in Yunnan Province of China a few years before and I was enchanted then by the rosy cheeked character of the people. They seem to shine with an inner beauty, just like those Ladakhis we had got to know on our trek. The magical mystery of Tibet is enhanced by the difficulty in getting there; I had not been able to go from Yunnan but I always wonder whether there will be any magical mystery left after many years of Chinese occupation. In Yunnan my friend Daniel had said that to go there would only cause me distress, when I saw the destruction and oppression of such a unique and beautiful people.

The scale of this place is difficult to appreciate. Somehow the mountains are quite approachable from here and it seems possible to climb them in an hour or two. Up the scree slope, along that ridge and you’re there; not too bad really. But when you descend in the jeep for hours through the same valley with the same mountains constantly in view, not seeming to make much progress, you realise that the valley is a lot larger than you had thought.
It is not until you have something to compare with, that the scale becomes clear. There was not a single tree to be seen. Those little brown bits of grass are barley plots and whole villages with houses. When you spot a little dot moving across the slope you realise that it is a truck on the road 4 kilometres ahead of you. What looks like an eroded gulley in a dusty creek is in fact a hundred metre deep river gorge. Yaks look like ants; pebbles are the size of houses as you get closer to them.
The road was wickedly bad. We bumped and swayed, held on for our dear lives as we passed other cars stuck axle deep in mud and trucks that had overturned the previous week. Amazingly we saw guys on motorbikes [mending a puncture] and even someone on a mountain bike with all his gear in saddlebags. [Doing the Himalayan Trail, one of the ultimate cycling challenges].
As we got further down, the road got a little easier, but now we were worried by the speed the driver was doing down the single gravel lane, often with a deadly drop on one side and a rocky cliff the other. There were endless blind corners but he did not slow down at all. The men in the car were trying to keep their cool, pretending that they were used to this kind of reckless rally driving. It was up to the women [always more sensible] to speak up and Nell was the first to do so. We spoke up; the driver reluctantly agreed but it did not last long. Ten minutes later he was at it again. Several times we screeched to a halt just inches from the front bumper of a vehicle coming the other way around a blind corner. There was little we could do except remind him from time to time. It’s just the way people drive over here. They rely on their luck, or to put it another way; their Karma. If you have led a good life then your next one will be even better.

After spotting a marmot we looked for them on the slopes but soon realised how much they look like rocks. So we did a lot of rock spotting but saw very few marmots...it kept us amused. “Was that a marmot?” I asked the driver, knowing full well that it was. I regretted making such a stupid tourist comment immediately afterwards. No wonder they think tourists are stupid. I did it to try and involve him in our enthusiasm for every little detail of our trip, but should have realised that all he was thinking of was how to get us to our destination before it got dark; or whether his heavily pregnant wife was beginning her contractions yet; or that he would not have to talk to us too much. He was obligingly enthusiastic saying, “yes, many Mamot here, many many Mamot!” We saw three.

After Kardung village, which was strung out for quite a distance along the hanging valley we diverted for many kilometres around a gorge and ended up on a high shoulder above the Nubra valley. It seemed even dryer than the Indus valley around Leh. Very rocky and sandy with scorched scrub desert, the only patches of green around villages. The river was like flowing mud and could hardly be distinguished from the landscape at first glance. It took some concentration to see that part of the wide and flat valley floor was flowing...that part was the river.
On the valley floor there was quite a different flora to the Indus valley. Here the trees and shrubs were reminiscent of a desert; thorny scrub, Acacia and occasionally Casuarina. Most of the hedges around settlements and farms were piled up thorns, presumably to protect the livestock against Wolves and Leopards. The valley narrowed as we drove for many kilometres towards Turtuk village near the Pakistani border. We passed many military camps, an airfield and had to stop twice for passport checks. Turtuk had only been opened up very recently and was the “cool” place to go. The river now raged through the precipitously narrow valley, past mountain-sized blocks of stone, twisting between unbelievably huge scree slopes and suddenly opened up onto Turtuk.
This village and its people are of a very different character. It is Muslim. There were excitable youths and charming children who plied us with questions. Tourists were still a novelty to them. The driver did not know about any accommodation here and after asking a local took us to a very expensive tent “resort” which we rejected immediately. After wasting much time we asked him to drive us back up into the village and found another place ourselves, the Balti guesthouse which was tucked way into the alleyways of Turtuk. We had spent nine hours in the car, which left us with very little time to explore the village. As always, organised trips are far and fast travel, waste too much time driving and do not provide enough time to enjoy the character of a place.
Being located in such a steep valley, the light soon disappeared behind the mountains so we wasted no time in going for a walk through the village. The women wore veils; the men little white skullcaps. There was a mosque with a rickety wooden minaret. It was how I imagined a village in Pakistan or Afghanistan would be; no longer like Ladakh. Turtuk was greener than any village we had seen before; there was no lack of water from a rushing, icy blue mountain stream that runs through the centre. A bouncy suspension bridge connected the two halves. Being tucked between the mountains meant that the crops did not scorch in the relentless desert sun and we saw lots of veggies growing on the terraces.
But despite being such a remote village with very little tourism, it seemed more prosperous than those we had visited on our trek. The little children could all speak remarkably good English so the education must be good. We had fun with them as we strolled around the alleyways. The prosperity was probably due to the large numbers of military personnel in the area, some infrastructure has to be provided. Military presence has its positive spinoffs.

It was getting dark and we found some food at the only little eatery in town; SELMO RESTURANT, less of a restaurant really than a teahouse. We had booked ahead and a special Chef had been brought in to cook for us. He was just one of the local youths who seemed to run the place. I don’t think there was anyone older than twenty five. This was their regular haunt where they could gather for a drink, play cards and dream of riches brought by tourists like us. Dinner was simple enough, Chapattis and Dal, but it took about an hour of lighting the stove, making the bread, burning the first lot and starting again with much arguing in the kitchen; only then to arrive in dribs and drabs. We had two lots of tea while we were waiting, and even those took forever to arrive. But we did not mind, it was fun being served by a different kid every time. They were falling over themselves to help us.
We watched the roadside entertainment with people, tractors and trucks passing by from higher in the valley. The trucks were brimming with men who grinned and waved enthusiastically at us as we peered over the banister. There certainly was a jolly atmosphere in Turtuk.India_2011_1007.jpg

Day two.

We were off to Diskit, which meant driving all the way back along the same road, spectacular enough but somewhat wearying the second time around. As we passed through little villages we saw lots of flags and flowers along the road. People were gathered in little clumps wearing their Sunday best clothes; or in this case, the traditional costumes worn only on very special occasions. Today a very important Lama was passing through, coming home to this region where he is Chief Buddhist administrator. [He was of Rinpoche “rank”]. I would have liked to stop and take some photos but the driver had a purpose.
The villagers had made a huge effort to welcome him home after his travels, all for a brief glimpse and wave as he passed through in his large four wheel drive. We stopped for lunch and saw the convoy of security and retinue vehicles pass by. We could not even determine which car was his, but guessed when the locals suddenly cheered.

Then we went for a camel ride in some sand dunes. Yes, I know; touristy! But my motto is; DO WHAT THERE IS. [Which is actually a second hand motto, provided to me by a diplomat lady friend in Kenya who was showing my wife and I how to feed giraffes from a high platform at the time]. It was silly but it was fun!
More authentic was when a large flock of goats and sheep came through the valley and completely surrounded us as we were walking back to the jeep. An opportunity to get up close for some nice photographs.
The Gompa at Diskit was closed for lunch when we got there. Nell and I seem to have a habit of doing that. Bad timing; but a kind monk opened up especially for us. Nell stayed near the toilets as she could feel another bout of Delhi Belly coming on. In the main temple, which also served as a canteen the monks were having bread and soup, and managing to chant at the same time; no mean feat. In one corner there was a wonderful sand Mandalay in a cabinet. I could not understand that, since I thought the whole idea was to destroy the beautiful creation as soon as it was finished, to illustrate the impermanence of everything.
Some other tourists showed little respect for the kind monk who had let us in. He had asked us to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible, but the other tourists marched through loudly and took flash photographs as though it was all for their entertainment. It’s a wonder the monks let tourists in at all. Another, older temple had very delicate Thankas and precious artefacts. The monk stood by to advise us again that no photographs were allowed here. The other tourists still took them behind the monk’s back. I could hear the clicking of their shutters and so could the monk.
From the Gompa on top of the hill we looked down towards a large, rather garish statue of the Buddha but we had no idea of how big it was until we arrived there.
The plan was to stay in this town for the night but we asked the driver to take us to a small village called Saumur further up the valley, since Diskit was rather scruffy and uninteresting. It did mean another two hour drive but we had not seen this bit before and it turned out to be well worth it. A charming guest house was found very quickly and the whole group went for a lovely walk in the evening which turned out to be much further than anticipated but gave us a good appetite for the evening meal. Whether it was our appetite or the skill of the cook we will never know but I can say without hesitation that the aubergine curry was the best food we had eaten in India and still rates amongst my most delicious meals ever. We all agreed and asked for more, much more of the same please! We still strive to recreate that recipe and send each other e-mails to see if we have discovered the secret. [I suspect it has something to do with using a rare Himalayan mutton stock...]

Day three

I was up early. The mist was still hovering over the barley fields. Already the locals were heading out to harvest. A glow of sun touched the tops of mountains but it was cold. I followed the raised runnels used to irrigate the terraces, walking along the low dikes which served as footpaths. The bunches of Barley were laid in neat rows ready for the sun. Rows of twisted lentil plants had been cut and snaked through the fields. Clear water ran through the channels. The hedges were of thorns and more than two metres tall. This was life in the Nubra valley; all was as it should be. The harvest was coming in, ready for the long winter ahead. No doubt villagers on the other side of the border were doing the same. Where the borders are is irrelevant.
Not far from the guesthouse was Samsteling Monastery which was where the Dalai Lama would stay on his rare visits. It was fairly modern by Gompa standards and very smart and prosperous looking. The colours of the wall paintings were particularly bright because they were only a couple of hundred years old. I personally prefer the really old ones which have faded into subtle shades; they exude mystery even though they are not so perfect. [Sigh] wall paintings are not what they used to be. It was a cheerful visit that made us all smile. Someone had offered a packet of Hobnobs to an image of the Dalai Lama. Lots of young monks came out to play football during their morning break from lessons.
The trip back to Leh was quite nice to start with. We saw Tibetan dogs, marmots and gentians when we stopped for tea. But then we ground and bumped back up to the pass with the hot sun glaring and Nell and I developing a headache which got worse when we had to wait for two hours right at the top for an army convoy. The lack of oxygen, altitude and diesel fumes made us feel quite ill. It took several hours down in Leh and numerous strong pills for our headaches to subside.

Posted by takinitezy 02:25 Archived in India Tagged river valley himalayas buddha lama jeep ladakh leh nubra scree Comments (0)

The Sham Trek

Part 1


An organisation called The Snow Leopard Conservancy [SLC] displayed several posters around Leh town which caught my interest. They were advertising a scheme which involved local communities to protect mountain ecosystems and hence the habitat of the highly endangered Snow Leopard.
Whereas previously the villagers would shoot leopards and wolves when they began to take their livestock as prey, they are now engaged in their protection with this innovative, highly participatory scheme.
The SLC has established the Himalayan Homestays program along some trekking routes in Ladakh, Zanskar and Spiti. Homestays offer the trekker a unique opportunity to stay with, and share the culture of Ladakhi people in their traditional homes in remote villages. It allows you to enjoy the rhythm of life in hamlets where farming and livestock herding has been the way of life for centuries.
Although only recently established, the organisation has already been very successful. They have trained over 90 homestay providers at more than 20 sites in Ladakh. Of the average of 500 visitors annually, 91% have rated the host service as excellent.
The first ever fully sustained livestock insurance scheme was initiated at Ulley village [the highest and most remote where Snow Leopards and Wolves often prey on livestock] and others soon followed. The majority of a village’s large able-bodied livestock are insured against predatory animals but also other accidents.
There are also community led conservation drives that include restoration of village cultural features, garbage management, ban on the sale of plastic bottles, fencing of tree plantation areas and setting aside pasture areas.
Predator-proofed corrals were built that directly benefited more than 300 families and prevents incidents of multiple predations where 20-50 or more sheep are killed at a time.
By opting for a Himalayan Homestay, you help local people generate income from tourism activities in their village. This additional income helps in many ways; offsetting livestock losses caused by Snow Leopard and other predators; increasing local communities’ stake in conserving wildlife, and supporting local conservation actions that protect cultural and natural heritage.

We were impressed and wanted to contribute to this excellent scheme so chose an easy 5 day walk called the Sham Trek. Whether it was called Sham because it was not a “proper” trek I don’t know; but in retrospect it was hard enough for a couple of unfit 60 year olds [well, one of us anyway]. To avoid being “packaged” and spending a lot of money on guides and porters we decided to go on our own. The brochure had instructions which indicated that it would be easy enough to find the route.

Our first local bus

We arrived at the bus stand an hour early but unfortunately all the seats had already been taken. There was only one bus per day serving several villages along our trek so a lot of locals would pile into the bus for the four hour trip to Leh in the morning, do their business and then return on the same bus in the afternoon. It seems that most of them had already completed their business an hour before it was due to leave.
After a few minutes of looking dejected [Nell had said there was no way she was going to stand], some young girls offered us their seats with no apparent prompting . We cheered up immediately and with big smiles on our faces thanked the girls profusely and sat down with our packs on our laps as they would not fit into the overhead racks. Nice to see some respect for elders still survives here.
We waited on the sunny side of the bus for more than an hour as, predictably, the bus was late and looking for a couple of extra passengers to cram in. We baked and burned our faces on one side, but refused to budge in case our seats would be taken by some-one else. In the meantime the girls and other passengers wandered on and off the bus to buy cold drinks and ice cream.
Due to the discomfort we endured rather than enjoyed the journey. Apart from gazing open mouthed at the unbelievably rugged scenery unfolding on the other side of the dusty pane, the most memorable part was the communal smacking of bubble gum, an activity engaged in by the majority of passengers, often in time with the music blaring on the radio. We bumped across piles of rubble where the road had been washed away by floods. The worst damage had been done right through the centre of villages which had obviously been built long ago beside mountain streams, the lifeblood of this high altitude desert. This kind of damage had never happened before. Once again, here was visible evidence of unprecedented extreme weather events due to climate change.


We were dropped in the evening sunshine right in Tarutse the village where we had decided to start our trek, and walked down through narrow mud brick alleys until we saw a large traditional house with a discreet SLC sign on the roof.
Our frantic gestures and mimes were politely interrupted by the young woman who greeted us at the door as she spoke in hesitant English; “yes come. You like some tea? Please sit.” She removed her shoes and we did the same before entering a small kitchen with mats and a low table that looked like a bench. We almost sat on the Choktse until we clicked that this was in fact, the Ladakhi table.
The woman’s name is Sonom; she was heavily pregnant and had a shy toddler clinging to her legs as she busied herself boiling a pot of water on a little two burner gas stove.
An older man came in with a ruddy, weathered face and sparkling smile. He had been working in the fields and his clothes were worn and stained with earth. His hands were gnarled and powerful, used to hard labour; he stooped and limped slightly as he moved around the room. A little later when we enquired, with Sonom’s help as translator, he showed us his swollen knees and told us he owned the farm. Sonom is his daughter in law; his son was in the army and away on the Pakistani border somewhere incredibly remote and inhospitable for a period of many months, even years. Then his wife came in too, she had no English but greeted us warmly and had an aura of capable confidence about her.
After several cups of tea, some black and one with salt and butter, we were shown our room which was up a flight of stairs leading onto an enclosed roof courtyard. The whole building was made of mud, including the flat roof; an indication of the very low rainfall in this region. Our room, on one side of the courtyard was the biggest in the house and had large windows without curtains on two sides. The bed was two thick mats rolled out onto the floor and some blankets.
Sonom and the toddler slept next door. The toilet was also on the roof and consisted of a dark room, the rickety door fastened by a piece of string, a pile of dirt, a shovel and a hole in the middle of the floor. This was the traditional Ladakhi long drop composting toilet; the compost would be collected a couple of years later and end up on the farmer’s fields. Our room was mirrored by another guest room on the other corner of the house and Dad’s bedroom was along the back. I peeked inside and saw a little decorated altar with a Buddha, a picture of the young Dalai Lama and incense burners gently filling the air with a perfumed haze.

After a short nap we went for a quick walk around the village and took photos in the dramatic evening light.
Our meal was being prepared and we ate our barley bread, vegetable curry with curd and rice in the company of the family. More tea.
We were shown into the large traditional kitchen and living room next door, the walls of which were covered with rickety cupboards filled with many polished copper, steel and tin pots, pans, plates and cups. It was as though the family wealth was on display, just like the European “Parlour”. The largely empty polished earthen floor was punctuated with crooked, carved pillars supporting the roof courtyard above. Low tables and mats were arranged along the window wall and a huge traditional earthen wood burning stove dominated the space as well as a smaller, decorated metal one.
They showed us the store of barley chaff under the floor, which would be used in the winter to feed the few animals they kept in high walled enclosures next to the house. Every evening they brought in their animals, presumably to protect them from predators.
Nell showed the family pictures of Tasmania and her house, in which they took great delight; especially the photos of cows and sheep grazing in a lush landscape so different to theirs. After more cups of tea, Mother occupied herself with making curd from fresh milk and Father sat in the corner and murmured prayers from an ancient prayer book whilst spinning his prayer wheel. He would do this at every opportunity, during breaks from work in the fields; a devout and kind man, with hope and laughter shining in his eyes.
I could not help noticing a resigned sadness in Sonom’s demeanour; she moved around quietly and gracefully, the toddler peering at us with wide open dark eyes from behind her mother’s loose pants. She obviously had the task of serving the guests and did so most attentively but we learned that she was waiting to buy her own farm with her husband’s earnings whilst he was in the Army. It would probably take many years of separation and loneliness whilst living in with her parents-in-law.
We retired to bed early, brushing our teeth at the outdoor bathroom which was no more than a tap by the front door with a bucket to wash yourself in.
No doubt the family were tired and so were we after a day of new experiences. We were both thrilled to be here; these were the kind of experiences we had hoped for when we came to India. Dad was softly chanting and murmuring prayers as we fell asleep to the smell of incense and cow dung.
Continued in The Sham Trek -part 2

Posted by takinitezy 00:25 Archived in India Tagged trekking homestays ladakh snow_leopards Comments (0)


Or What To Believe


The confusion starts at Indira Gandhi Airport. Perhaps due to over anticipation we expected to be hassled by bureaucracy; and we were. The Immigration officer wanted the form to be filled in correctly. Not having an address to go to is not allowed, even in this land of homelessness and nomads. He knew the absurdity of it, which was evident by the slightly cynical amusement in his eyes. He did not care personally; just doing his job.

Later we realised that security was strict everywhere. Hotels needed to take copies of our passports, we had to report where we had just been, where we were and where we were going, and fill in the same forms with endless questions wherever we roamed. In Kashmir, closer to the Pakistani border we were required to do the same at roadblocks. That means we each must have filled in the same form approximately 30 times. There are millions of visitors to India every year. Where are all those photocopies and forms now, I wonder? I thought e-communications were highly sophisticated in India.

We had been warned and briefed about the taxis at the airport. Don’t let yourself be led astray by taxi touts who will give you all the excuses under the sun to divert you from your destination in order to collect commissions from their cousin’s or uncle’s hotel, or will persuade you to drop into this “interesting” crafty workshop or, after your long tiring trip, a refreshing cup of tea and cakes at their brother’s cafe just around the corner where they just happen to have a few carpets for sale.

So, armed with the address of our Couchsurfer host [www.couchsurfing.org] and with his advice still ringing in our ears we pushed our blinkered and deaf way straight to the taxi co-operative stand; no more than a dingy box with a barred window, standing some distance away from the exit.
Inevitably, before that, we were assailed by a pack of touts who hurled offers of help and advice at us; “Hello, this way for a taxi.” “You want taxi co-op?” “Yes this one co-op,” as they pointed the opposite way to the box. There was no sign on the box so we needed to ask someone. Who to trust? These older men are taking no notice of us so they might be OK.

“What, that little box?” I queried, expecting something more professional and slick. We approached, together with a gaggle of touts, and could smell the urine wafting from the plywood wall. Surely there is no-one in here. It must be the wrong place. But after circumnavigating the box a couple of times and peering into the gloom, a lanky, slow moving figure manifested himself from the shadows and stared at us in a bored, grey faced way. I stuttered “Taxi co-op?” Gave him a stressed smile and showed him a piece of paper with my host’s address scribbled on it.
He wrote out a slip of paper and mumbled four words; “XXX rupees, number 39” Number 39? Number 39? I handed him a large bill, way too much of course and shuffling around to various drawers he laboriously counted out the change. A bystander showed us where to wait...next to the sign with 39 on it.

In the meantime touts were still approaching us. One of them did the “get annoyed with foolish tourist” bit to try and bully us into his taxi. “You’re fucking stupid, you don’t know anything!” was his parting shot. I was pleased in a way that I had made him angry, rather than the other way around.

At first we chatted merrily with the nice taxi driver, stage one had been successfully negotiated and we were puttering along in the battered black micro bus, the ubiquitous Maruti Suzuki, made in India. But, as traffic increased, doubts began to creep in; concentrate on your driving mate, you’re wandering in and out of lanes! Don’t turn around in your seat like that and slow down at the corners! Whoa, watch those cows and rocks on the road...where are the seat belts anyway!
Luckily there were few vehicles slower, so everyone had to avoid us. We were having our first experience of Indian driving and looked at one another with a grimace and a helpless shrug. “This is what it’s like in countries like this” I said sideways to Nell, in my well-travelled voice, not knowing what kind of driving thrills were in store for us later.

When in Delhi and not at his “palace” in Rajasthan, J lives in an enclave of apartments and houses which is locked at night for security. That brings to mind modern Condo-like developments like those in Florida, but instead of that we arrived at a warren of rather tatty and tall, concrete and brick terraced blocks which looked as though they had been thrown together a long time ago with little maintenance since. It was cute, in a way, a bit like bohemian back streets in Athens although with an Indian flavour, or aroma. I guess it looked like the kind of area which could still be affordable for wealthier Indian people; a city pad near the centre of New Delhi.

We clumped up the dark flights of stairs and called out J’s name.
“Welcome, welcome to India” said J as he led us into his cosy apartment. We chatted for a while and exchanged cultural differences; like you’re supposed to if you are a member of Couchsurfing. He and his family were delightful hosts and prepared a typical Indian lunch for us. We were amazed at how the food was hand prepared and cooked, including the chapattis. No baked beans on toast here, at least not for J’s guests. As there were already a lot of family members staying at the apartment we did not want to impose and did not stay the night, so a hotel had to be found. We already had one in mind which seemed reasonable, amongst a reputedly rough lot in the centre of town at Paharganj.

J’s son found us a Tuk Tuk around the corner, a new experience for Nell although I had used them before in China.
The traffic had got much worse, it was rush hour now and the journey can only be described as a cacophonic dodgem ride from hell designed by The Joker. I cannot remember any detail in particular, probably because I was catatonic. I can vaguely recall seeing Nell’s white knuckles desperately clutching the frame of the Tuk Tuk. She muttered something like “shit... I can’t kill him ‘cause I don’t know how to drive this thing.” Thank God [I was a believer again], we’re slowing down.
Oh NO! I wish I had not looked up, for we seemed to be headed for a solid mass of vehicles, bikes, rickshaws, people, cows, fruit stalls, kids, dogs, donkeys, potholes, lampposts, electric wires and piles of rubbish thrown together like one of mum’s Hutspot stews. With incessant blaring of horns on all sides including our own, miraculously a tiny gap appeared for just long enough to allow us through. We were now a couple of mum’s ingredients on our way through the Epiglottis, into the bowel of Paharganj. [Also known as the Main Bazaar, we later found out].

These bowels had Diverticulitis, because there were dark, smelly side passages where ingredients would lodge and fester. One of these held our guesthouse and, still shaking and feeling sick, these ingredients were about to lodge there. We did not care any longer. Exhausted, traumatised and in shock, we just needed to lie down. Our room, because it did not have any windows was blissfully quiet. We would happily have slept in a tomb.

We did wake up around dusk, probably because there were builders demolishing the wall downstairs. Also we were hungry. We had to head outside to eat as there did not seem to be a restaurant at the guesthouse. We were told that there would be one soon, which is why they were removing the wall.

We could not get out into the Main Bowel, there was a festival going on, people were jam packed against the sides of the street watching the parade. There were bad brass bands sounding a bit like the New Orleans Mardi Gras with an oriental twist,
orange ladies with jugs,
Knights in white satin [doobedoobedoobedooo],
moody blue costumes, men in orange scarves, monsters with several heads and dozens of arms,
children throwing marigolds and much more. We did not have a clue what it was about but jostled around excitedly, taking blurry photographs in the fading light.

The show finished and we squeezed through the crowd to go and sample some of that famous Indian cuisine. I kept my eyes on Nell’s steel reinforced handbag which she had borrowed from a friend and I was aware of every touch from passers- by. I pressed the little rucksack to my chest and tried to imagine what I would do if somebody tried to rob us. All depends on the size; I could handle a little pickpocket. What about a mob of them...do they have knives? I remembered some scary incidents in Jamaica. What have I done to poor Nell, bringing her here?

All we could find were a few tiny holes in the wall with some pots being heated over bottled gas burners. The odd backpacker was the only customer [there were indeed some odd-looking ones, wearing stranger clothes than the Indians, who were in western gear. The Indians looked at the dreadlocks and body piercings with more scepticism than we did in Australia].
We had been advised to “only frequent those restaurants that are full of Indians, the food will be good and fresh.” All very well, if you know where these places are; we were not prepared to wander about all night looking for a place to eat whilst getting more and more hungry. We both hate that.
At the back of a hole off the Main Bowel, we sat at a rickety aluminium table glaring in the fluorescent light. I thought, we should have worn sunglasses. Nell looked nervous and pale. I hoped it was the lighting.
“It’s OK they are boiling the food and frying some stuff.” I tried to reassure her. “It will be properly cooked”. The “waiter”, a young man with holes in his T-shirt, was attentive, placed some stainless goblets in front of us and filled them with water. We ogled them with suspicion and gradually our mouths began to feel like the deserts of Rajasthan. If only we had bought a bottle of water! He fetched some cutlery from somewhere, proceeded to wipe them with a filthy black cloth that had been dangling from the top of his trousers and, with a flourish, arranged them on our table.

We sat in silence for a while, imagining the consequences of using these contaminated utensils. The tension was palpable between us, then burst. “Did you see that...that cloth!” Nell hissed. I was struck dumb. What could I say? The stupidity of it all. Do we go and wash it in the greasy sink, and then, how do we get the water off? Or, do we walk out and starve to death?
We never had the nerve to walk out. This was our first meal in India, we could not be rude. What is the alternative? This is how it is here, the chilli will kill anything...Thus we received our first dose, on the first day, in the first restaurant in India, of Bacillus Delhius Bellyus.

I asked some bloke in the street where I could find a map of Delhi. We wanted to use both the Metro and the HoHo [Hop on Hop off] bus to see a bit of the city. “Yes, you can get free map over there,” he said, pointing down a narrow alley. “There is Mall and government office with free map.” That sounded good to us; perhaps we could buy some things we needed at the Mall. A hundred metres on, Nell whispered, “is that the man we asked?”_ “Yes it is, isn’t it? Hmm I don’t like that.” He was walking ahead of us down the alley, which was dark and filthy; crows were pecking at an overflowing garbage skip. It felt ominous but holding each other’s hands we decided to just carry on around the next corner, prepared to run should that be necessary. We felt greatly relieved when the alley opened out onto a main road and the kind, smiling man held open the door of the “Government Office”. We had not seen a Mall but; oh well, we will at least get a map.

The people were so nice; we sat down in front a young man who asked what he could do for us. I mentioned the map. He smiled “of course, where will you be heading?” He did not give us one straight away, but wanted to tell us all about India, the latest political news about a hunger strike by an old man who was demanding an end to corruption in the Government. Admirable stuff for sure, but we were not really in the mood for deep, drawn out discussions; especially after a very, very long day. I’m afraid I got impatient and said I was not interested in politics. He was offended; “what’s the hurry? Relax, we have plenty of time.”
“But I only want a map” I said. He ignored me and carried on for minutes, talking politics. I began to get up and urged Nell to do the same. “Hey, hey, where are you going? This is very interesting information!” I saw his scowl as we walked out muttering, “All I wanted was a map.” The other people in the office moved out of the way and stared at the stubborn old man.

The next day we asked the hotel staff, where we could get a map. The wall had gone now and there was a huge pile of rubble in front of the stairs, so we could not pass without getting covered in dust. They had been bashing away at the wall until midnight but we slept like the dead anyway. A man on a rickety chair was chipping away at the cement overhead trying to break into our room right above. Some chips whizzed into my face and I ducked through quickly. All residents of the guesthouse had to pass this way. Health and safety? Public liability? These were the thoughts that flashed through my mind. A different world indeed.

A young errand boy would show us where to get the map. Of course he led us to exactly the same place as the previous night. We should have known better but went in anyway, thinking we could just walk out if they got funny. Luckily there were different people at the desks and one young guy actually took out the map; he was quiet and agreeable. He suggested an itinery we might like to follow in order to get the most out of Delhi, pointing out unmissable sights. Almost as an afterthought he said we could also go for short trips out of the city, to Agra for example. “This is a Government Office and you will get a great number of discounts on buses, trains and taxis everywhere”. He swept his hand across a map of northern India. “Many places are included in this, Varanasi, Rajasthan...”
It all sounded so plausible; a flexible Government permit which included even hotels in the cities we wanted to visit. We could stay or leave at will. We looked at one another, it was tempting. He offered us a cup of tea. I pushed for a price. He tapped on his calculator and gave us an estimate of around $2500 each, all inclusive except for food.
So easy... nothing to worry about; less than the rough budget we had planned.

At the back of my mind I was thinking, this is not really how I like to travel, but seeing Nell’s relieved and hopeful face, I asked; “how do I know you are really a Government organisation?”_“look at the receipt heading”_” You can print that anywhere.” [They actually said Government Approved.] ”OK, see these copies of passport pages with tourist’s addresses?”_”You can just get them from hotel counters, they copied ours just like that. We have been warned about booking long trips with agents. I will just phone a friend who lives here, to ask him about it.”He must have thought I was bluffing because he agreed.

J told me emphatically not to book, he had a traveller with him right now who had been misdirected completely by such a scheme. I told the agent but in a last ditch attempt to rescue his “confidence trick” [I can see where the name comes from] said he would speak to J himself. He regretted that, I think, for I could hear J’s voice from a distance and sparks were flying from my phone. Holding the phone away from his ear for a while without getting a word in edgeways, he handed the phone to his superior who had appeared from his room. Angry words like “Government approved... commission” and “We are NOT holding them, they are free to leave,” rang throughout the office as we cringed and a crowd gathered around.

I apologised to J for the inconvenience and thanked him for his good advice. He was perfectly calm and said, “don’t hesitate to call me anytime you like.” It felt good to have a friend and ally in this land where nothing is as it appears. We left, with the map. Bravo J!

While we are on the subject of Delhi, and what to believe...
After seven weeks of travel we headed back into Delhi on the train. At Delhi Junction we were told that this was the only stop in Delhi, so we had better get off. Good job I enquired! That’s just great; and when we asked at the other end too! We needed New Delhi station so that we could get a “Tourist Quota” ticket, our only hope of getting to Varanasi. Lugging our packs loaded with gifts to the exit, we were approached by the usual press of taxi drivers. The price they quote is often two or three times what it really costs. We knew that it was only a 2 or 3 kilometre trip but they wanted to charge us 400 rupees, so...we got a Tuk Tuk for 150 rupees instead. Oh yes... we were experienced now!

We drove through typical Delhi early morning chaos, which is a bit more manageable than the rest of the day. Dirty streets which were actually being cleaned in places. People living in doorways or just stretching and scratching themselves where they have slept in their rickshaws. Humans, dogs, cows, donkeys, even pigs, and of course all of their various bodily wastes.
Arriving on the opposite side to the Tourist Quota Office we were advised that we needed to walk all the way across the many tracks to the Paharganj side. “Next to platform one” said a particularly helpful chap, who then proceeded to practised his very bad English on us. He was kind enough to show us the way, and led us down to the booking office.
No Tourist window! Immediately, an “Indian Railways Official” approaches and tells us that there is no tourist office here, “closed some months ago; now at Connaught Place.” Helpfully, he bargains the Tuk Tuk down from 150 to 50 rupees.

OK..! At the “Government Tourist Office,” which did seem rather small to be the official one [...we were tired...] the suave young man is confident and listens patiently to our story. He checks the train schedules on his computer but shakes his head. Even the Tourist Quotas are full to Varanasi and Agra for the next five days. We sit and ponder for a while. Delhi, for five days? Oh no, I don’t think so! Until he suggests; “Why don’t you take the Golden Triangle Tour to Agra, Jaipur and places in between? It will only cost you about thirteen thousand rupees for five days, or four nights.” [We pay food and hotels]. That’s 300 dollars; or 60 dollars per day, for a driver and car. We knew we were being bamboozled, but that was not a bad deal and would take us to some interesting places for the last week, so we accepted. Our attitude had changed somewhat after seven weeks in the country. Go with the flow, was now our mantra.

We discovered later that the official tourist office was not there, although [deceptively] not far away. We did not read the bible “The Lonely Planet Guide”, but thought we could handle anything now; we were too cocky. Here is a Quote from that revered tome:

“For foreigners it’s easiest to make ticket bookings at the helpful International Tourist Bureau” [marked on the map as the place we were led to]...”Do not believe anyone who tells you it has shifted, closed or burned down- this is a scam to divert you elsewhere [see the boxed text, p133] {part of which says; Don’t believe helpful chaps who try to direct you to the many “tourist offices” around Connaught Place. There is only one official central tourist office, at 88 Janpath.” Not the place we were Tuk Tuk’d to} There are reportedly railway porters involved in scams, so stay on your toes and don’t let anyone stop you from going to the first floor of the main building for bookings”

[I’m still confused. The opposite side of the station, where we first entered, had an upstairs in what was the main building with booking windows, but no Tourist Quota Office!]


Unless I’m boring you with these tales of scams, which everybody encounters when they come to Delhi, read on for another, it’s only short.
Not wishing to be ripped off by another Tuk Tuk driver, I argued vehemently for him to reduce his price. He smiled sardonically and finally agreed to half price, 150 rupees. We travelled from the National Museum back to Paharganj. Along the way he argued. “Look, the roads are closed, I go the long way round” [later I checked the map and it was as direct as any other route]. He puttered to a stop on a wide road just before we reached our destination. “Oh dear, no more petrol, very sorry” he exclaimed with genuine regret. “Never mind” I said and Nell gave him 200 rupees; more than the agreed price, for during the trip, I had whispered to her that we should perhaps teach him something about honesty being the best policy. He was profusely thankful, but as we turned and walked away feeling good about ourselves, cried out; “Madam, Madam please, is wrong change!” He was waving a 100 plus a 10 rupee note. “Oh, I’m sorry!” With an embarrassed laugh Nell quickly swapped notes with him.
It took me a moment, as we walked away, but by then he was doing a U-turn and drove off the other way; his petrol tank miraculously filled.

Please read on in Delhi part 2...

Posted by takinitezy 20:59 Archived in India Tagged india airport delhi bazaar poverty tuk_tuk rickshaw couchsurfing caste_system Comments (0)

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