Thursday, November 1, 2012

Into Thin (but not that thin) Air

Back in Kathmandu after a remarkable two-week trip through Khumbu, the Everest region of Nepal. Hiked to two base camps (Ama Dablam and Everest), two lookouts (Kala Patthar at 18,192 feet and Gokyo Ri at 17,575 feet), and one pass (Cho La).

The route is pretty crowded, especially this time of year, but for good reason. The landscape and views are incredible. From Gokyo Ri, in particular, you can see five 8,000m peaks. The weather was perfect, too -- clear, cloudless skies.

It wasn't hard, but it wasn't easy, either. Five- to seven-hour days with a 30-pound bag, all above 10,000 feet. There were definitely some cold and tired older tourists wondering why they were there.

It's pretty mind-boggling to imagine the rate of change in lifestyle that's taken place in the last twenty years as more and more people visit Khumbu. Many of the inhabitants (Sherpas) were once yak herders, constantly trading goods between Tibet and the lower-elevation areas of Nepal. Now many are lodge owners and earn enough in five months to travel in the off-seasons and send their kids to Europe and the US. They're incredibly nice and welcoming.

By not hiring a guide or porter I was able to condense what should have been a 16-day itinerary into 11 days -- and save a considerable amount of cash.

Watching porters carry HUGE loads on their backs with only a head strap is one of the most humbling sights imaginable. It often seemed like porters outnumbered trekkers, most carrying 70 pounds or more worth of food, bottled water, building supplies, appliances, trekkers' backpacks, etc.

Kathmandu is crazy. It's multi-cultured, brash, and loud. It's a sea of multicolored four-story buildings with no clear layout or evidence of any sort of urban planning. Thamel is the busiest and most chaotic tourist district I've ever been to.

On to Dubai for the weekend, then NY for election day. Pumped. And sending love to everyone affected by Sandy.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Built Like a Gun

Just returned to Manali from a 15-day motorcycle trip through the Ladakh, Kashmir and Jammu regions of northern India. Incredible.

I had read (and heard) about the landscape and cultures of Northern India and knew I wanted to explore it by motorcycle. Rather than buy and sell I rented a Royal Enfield Classic Bullet 500 -- "Built Like a Gun" according to the gas tank -- in Manali, in Himachal Pradesh. Manali itself is a weird combination of crazy bazaar, hippie Israeli hideout, and Indian honeymoon destination.

I ended up meeting four guys from Bangalore with similar intentions in the rental shop so I decided to head out with them. It was great having Hindi (and English) speaking company, but the lack of independence and self-reliance got a bit frustrating.

First, Ladakh. It's the most otherworldly place I've ever seen -- it's like Mars. It's a high-altitude cold desert, and the scale and remoteness are mind-bending. Gold sandstone mountains ribboned with deep maroon rise out of dusty plains, backed in the distance by the snow-capped peaks of the mighty Himalayas. The rivers run an electric blue, and a panorama of insanely bright stars illuminate the night sky.

It's also a highly contentious area, as it's the region where India shares a border with China/Tibet. The last official war with was in 1962 but the Indian military presence is strong and Army camps are frequent.

Many of the roads are built primarily for military purposes, which means that they're not really roads in the first place -- one lane "paths" are etched into mortally steep hillsides with no guardrails. Furthermore, the region has a ridiculous number of high mountain passes (including the world's highest, Khardung La, at 18,380 feet) which take an insane number of switchbacks to climb.

Story: In northern Ladakh, north of Leh, we attempted to shortcut the ride from Nubra Valley to Pangong Lake, only to discover that the road ended at a river about halfway there. As we were too far and it was too late in the day (temperatures drop below freezing shortly after sundown) to turn back, we stayed the night in the temporary Army encampment with the six workers stationed there to build the road. We ate dinner in a kerosene-choked tent listening to stories of the three workers they'd lost this year due to construction accidents on the section we tried to cross. The next morning one of their dogs was missing, spurring talk over breakfast of the many snow leopard sightings and the dog (and likely a second) and one goat they've lost this year to snow leopard attacks. It wasn't exactly the most hospitable area.

To the west of Ladakh lies Kashmir, which shares an even more contentious border with Pakistan. Accordingly, the military presence is even stronger. The land is greener and more wooded. The roads are wider and well paved -- it's National Highway 1 -- so the riding is much faster but just as incredible. The road winds through many tiny villages with kids that run up to the roads with oversized grins and outstretched hands hoping for a high five.

As you move from Ladakh to Kashmir -- from one border region to another -- the entire culture changes dramatically. The facial features and language change from the wide-faced and throaty Ladakhi to the narrow-faced and snappy Kashmiri. The predominant religion changes from Buddhism to Islam. The food is entirely different.

On a two-lane road winding through the hills between Srinagar and Jammu we hit what would turn out to be an epic traffic jam lasting days for those in cars and trucks. Three separate incidents within 15 miles caused a complete standstill in both directions. We spent almost eight hours inching between the trucks, through the center lane and on either shoulder.

The remainder of the trip, through southern Jammu, Punjab, and back into Himachal Pradesh, was a hurried blur of small cities and tiny villages. Due to the above traffic jam and a few untimely bike problems, we were forced to make up time with a hurried pace and night driving.

Had a minor accident in Ladakh. Though I wouldn't have sought medical help in the States for the small gash on my knee, I decided to go the hospital to get it checked out. After about 20 minutes of getting whisked from one room to another for a diagnosis, cleaning and dressing, and tetanus shot, my bill was 4 rupees -- 8¢.

I think I've inhaled enough dust and lorry-puked exhaust to last a lifetime. All in all, though, the trip was amazing.

Travel

"India is like a wave. Resist and you'll be knocked over; dive into it and you'll swim out the other side." It's a quote from the movie I watched on the flight over -- it's especially true for India, but it holds for travel more generally.

There is no substitute for travel. To completely immerse yourself in a culture completely unlike your own -- to taste the foods, hear the sounds, sleep in the guesthouses, meet the people, understand their way of life -- when done well, you gain a perspective on your own life that's impossible to achieve otherwise.

My four weeks in India were remarkable. I had little idea of what to expect and seemed to constantly be in a state of amazement, shock, amusement, disappointment, awe, or perplexity. Nepal tomorrow!

Thoughts. With no continuity.

I'm not sure if people litter because there are limited municipal trash services, or if there are limited municipal trash services because people litter.

Perhaps as a consequence to a fading cultural standpoint of arranged marriages, the general shyness of Indian men toward women is pretty funny.

To induce Indian drivers -- primarily men -- to drive more slowly, advisory signs dot the roadsides in the towns and villages. Some are serious ("Better to be Mr. Late than Late Mr."), but others are comical ("I'm curvaceous, go slowly" and "Darling, I like you, but go slow.")

In India the vertical "yes" head nod is an odd angular nod. It also has a bunch of other meanings that are tough to pin down. There isn't a "no" nod; it's a shake of the hand.

Watching people eat soupy rice dishes with their hand (when spoons are available) is shocking. Reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld's stand-up, "Chopsticks."

There is a much more vague sense of personal space and ownership of belongings in India. Everything, from food to water to clothing, is shared.

Indian food is amazingly delicious but unhealthy.

When I asked a shop owner in Agra if he had a restroom, he ushered me outside and pointed to the exterior wall of his own building.

For all the commentary about declining social mobility in the US, in India so many people are destined from birth to lead a life of hard labor with no opportunity for education or advancement. One case in particular are the men breaking and shoveling stone on the high passes. Scarves on faces, pick axes in hand, they stop momentarily to stare as we drive by -- it feels like the Che Guevara / Chilean miner scene in Motorcycle Diaries.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Crown of Palaces

"India is freedom. Everything is free." It was said by a rickshaw driver in response to a remark about animals in the streets. On India's roads, cars, trucks, bicycles, pushcarts, rickshaws, cows and dogs all fight for space. Trucks brush past animals with an inch to spare. Vehicle size and horn duration dictate right-of-way. Within reason, you're free to do just about anything. Push it too far and you'll just have to pay off the policeman that catches you.

Traveling in India tests you. For all the beauty and intrigue, there can be a chaotic lack of civility. There are so many people, and they get so close to you, wanting to talk to you, sell you something, take their picture. The air is filled with the clamor of blaring horns and frantic Hindi yelling. Garbage is strewn across streets, alleys and empty plots of land. The ubiquity and persistence of the very poor makes you question not only your approach to it but your thoughts on humanity.

Indian women are gorgeous. They're slender and elegant, and many wear impossibly colorful saris and jewelry. Their eyes are dark and mysterious.

Someone told me yesterday that 90% of Indians are happy. The other 10%, he said, were the richest 5% and the poorest 5%. I'm not sure that's entirely true, but many people here play the hand they're dealt and find things to be happy about.

The Taj Mahal is pretty spectacular. Built almost 400 years ago by a labor force of 20,000, it's perfect in its architecture, symmetry, layout, and beauty. The white marble is powerful and oddly luminescent.

Was convinced to take a slight detour to Rishikesh, a small town on the Ganges north of Delhi. It's the hippiest spot I've ever seen. I was skeptical of yoga and meditation before, and now having seen the extreme, I sense my suspicions have been confirmed.

Pumped to get up north. Manali on Saturday.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Darjeeling Limited. Kind of.

Took the overnight open-air sleeper from Mumbai to Udaipur -- it was $9, and it was nuts. I've never been startled awake so often by such pungent odors or blaring horns. However, barreling through the Indian countryside and pulling into over-crowded train stations in what appeared to be near-desolate towns was pretty incredible.

Udaipur, in south Rajasthan, is a beautiful, idyllic (but touristy) city. The buildings are white and the people are colorful. Blue lakes and green hills surround the city. It feels like pure India, stuck in an age before the boom -- as such, a number of movies (and parts of Octopussy and The Darjeeling Limited) have been filmed here.

It's also a very sleepy city, especially after Mumbai. The people are all content with a slower pace and proud of "the most beautiful city in India."

Spent some time with some of the younger professional set -- the owner of the only Honda motorcycle dealership, the chef/owner of a popular new vegan restaurant -- it's always best to see a city through locals' eyes, but driving around through old Indian streets in a new VW blasting American dubstep makes for a pretty interesting contrast.

The highway from Manali to Leh closes in three weeks, so I need to keep moving. Next stop: Agra!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Maximum City

Mumbai is fascinating. It's a city of extreme opposites, it's the antithesis of itself. Rich and poor, new and old, state-of-the-art and antiquated, clean and dirty, calm and chaotic -- for most in Mumbai, life seems to exist mainly at the poles.

It is at once enchanting, spellbinding, majestic, appalling, frustrating, and heartbreaking.

Demographically, India is a very young country, and the youth possess a particular energy and vitality. In my four days in Mumbai I met Bollywood actors and actresses, software engineers, doctors, real estate developers, musicians, bankers -- they all shared a remarkable faith in one's self, in the future, and in India.

On the downside, there's the poverty. There have been improvements in access to education and a decline in the poverty rate, but urban blight is quickly apparent and severe.

Also, the infrastucture lags badly behind the rate of economic growth. Public transport, though universal, far-reaching and efficient, is old and decrepit. Construction timelines are painfully long and further complicated by corrupt politicians and a powerful mafia.

Mobile voice and data rates are incredibly cheap. I paid less than $5 for 100 minutes of talk time and 2GB of data -- incoming calls are free, so jump on Skype and give me a call at +91 98-19-798025.

Sorry for the stream-of-conciousness. The trip is off to a solid start -- heading north on the train, more to come!