September, 2009


29
Sep 09

Trekking near Manali

Once again we enjoyed the benefits of having a local friend in unfamiliar surroundings. One of Matthew’s travel guide friends, who works for the same guiding agency in Delhi, happens to be from the Kullu valley, at the foothills of the Himalaya, where we have been spending our time recently. He suggested a few days trekking in the mountains, with him and one of his nephews. Having a local guide on such a trip is great, having a local friend is invaluable. Jagdeesh is a really nice guy, with seemingly endless knowledge of and interest in both local and national Indian culture and issues. I kept thinking how much my Dad would love to meet him.

Way to Malana

So we spent 4 days trekking through the himalaya mountains, led by Heman (Jagdeesh’s nephew), who I believe was a mountain goat in a previous life. In his denim jeans and fake Nike runners he put us to shame on the mountain trails. The first day we hiked for 8 hours up over a pass on a trail which it seems only the locals know about. The trail began in a tiny farming village in the mountains which remains untouched by the tourists and modernization that has afflicted so many other mountain towns in the area. As we walked up the trail from the village, Jagdeesh randomly got talking to a lively old lady who turned out to be a distant relative of his. We were all ushered into her farm house for the obligatory cup of chai. She spoke not a word of English, and so the chai was enjoyed with smiles and giggles across the language barrier.

Way to Malana

After some knee-wrecking hours hiking up and over a 3,700m pass, we spent the night in officially the weirdest village I’ve ever been to. Malana was first settled thousands of years ago, and its people consider themselves descendants of Alexander the Great. It sits perched on the side of a steep mountain, in a luscious green valley. Until recently it was a long day’s trek to the nearest road, although the people of Malana had no need for a road as they are a very private and insulated community. With only 1000-2000 inhabitants it has it’s own parliament, and refuses to abide by national Indian laws. In a way it acts like a small independent nation in the mountains. It is also home to a very special temple in honour of the most important god in the area. Traditionally the people of Malana received gifts of food from other mountain villages in honour of this god. Another bizarre issue is the Malana law that forbids any outsider (whether Indian or foreign) from touching the people of Malana or their property, with a 1000 rupee fine for those who choose to test the validity of this law. Apparently this has been the way for thousands of years. Along with this goes the reputation the people have of being very unfriendly to outsiders. It makes for a weird and somewhat unnerving experience as a foreigner stepping foot inside the village. Almost impossible to relax. People staring at us as we walk with arms folded through the dirty narrow passages between the houses. I felt like an alien. Or a diseased creature. I bought something from the tiny shop in the village centre. The shop owner put the bag on the ground for me to pick up rather than place anything directly into my hand. I knew the rules before we even entered the village, but this gesture felt so personally insulting that it made me want to cry or shout out: “We are all people no?!”. Matthew reminded me that this concept of untouchable people is all too familiar to Indian people. To me it seems like the ultimate disrespect for another human being, which I suppose is the point…

To be fair, when addressed with a smile and hello, most of the locals responded with the same. And no rules could contain the children of Malana. We were greeted with big smiles by most, with some requesting to have their photo taken, and others in search of chocolate…

Malana

Another very prominent and strange aspect of Malana is the fact that cannabis plants grow wild throughout the area. Since the 70’s hippies have found their way there in search of a smoker’s paradise. While many locals continue to live the old primitive mountain way, some have entered the lucrative business of cannabis cultivation, with plantations scattered around the mountains. Such a bizarre combination of ancient and modern in one small mountain village.

Malana

The next night we reached Kir Ganga, which consists of an isolated temple and hot spring baths high up in the mountains, surrounded by monkey-infested jungle. It’s a 3-4 hour hike from the nearest village, up through beautiful jungle, past multiple waterfalls. We arrived in darkness and with fading torch light found our way straight to the baths. Such a special experience to sit with the steam rising around you, the stars above, and the dark mountains looming on all sides. With good company surrounding you, and satisfied laughter in the air.

Way to Kir Ganga

A wonderful few days.

And now we are back in Vashisht, plotting our next adventure together. And this is the magic of India. It is bursting with adventure. There seem to be no laws. And for a foreigner at least, just endless freedom…

(More Photos on the right)


28
Sep 09

Rohtang La

My ass hurts. There is a dagger between my shoulder blades that gets twisted every time I hit a pothole, which is a word that can be used to describe pretty much the entire road surface. Oh, and my hands are numb – vibrated into oblivion by the combustion engine that I’m sitting on. I’ve always said that I didn’t want to ever try riding a motorcycle. I’ve always told myself that I do enough injury prone activities already, why add another? But here I am, riding a motorcycle, up near 4000 meters above sea level; and I have to admit, it’s pretty damn fun. If I’m honest with myself though, I think the biggest reason that I never wanted to learn to ride a motorcycle is because I was afraid I’d like it this much.

Rohtang La, at 3978 meters, is one of the gateways to the high altitude desert region of Ladakh. It’s the first pass that you have to cross when you head north into the Himalaya from Manali and, while it is not the highest pass you have to cross on your way to Leh, it is the one most likely to be covered in snow and mud. A perfect introductory ride. We rented a 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet, one of the standard bikes here in India. Gina and Matthew are chugging along ahead on the Enfield while I, clad in a helmet reminiscent in shape if not paint job of Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, am riding Matthew’s 180cc Bajaj Avenger; a smaller, lighter, easier to manage bike.

The road leading out of town is paved, sort of. It reminds me of roads in West Virginia. You know the ones, with a strip of pavement in the middle that is just wide enough for one vehicle and gravel on either side of that. The idea being that you can drive along in the middle of the road, on the pavement, when there is no oncoming traffic and when you meet a car, you both put two wheels in the gravel and pass. That is how it works in theory at least. In India, there are too many vehicles and too many maniacs to allow for such order and organization. Everyone just drives as fast as they can and blasts a horn when they want to pass you, not minding that it is a blind corner cut into the side of a steep hill, when you are pretty sure that the twisted pile of metal that you can see a few hundred feet below is the burned out skeleton of a bus. No, just a honk and away they go.

We pilot the bikes away from town, switchbacking into pine forests. The road here is newly paved, a treat. Slowly the pines become smaller, more stunted, twisted by the howling wind. Then they disappear altogether, replaced by open meadows littered with stones and small cliffs. The road here is not newly paved. Hard-pack dirt, 4 inch deep sandy dust and rocky mud alternate, each pretending in turn to be the surface of a road. The trucks thunder along, their musical horns blaring, until they meet another of their kind. Slamming on the brakes, the outside truck must take his chances with the crumbling edge of the road. Still higher we climb, passing chai stands every so often. In places, the road is in a state of reconstruction – given that the pass is only open for 5 months a year, it makes you wonder if they ever stop trying to reinforce the road during the summer months.

As we near the top my excitement builds. 4000 meters above sea level, on motorcycles, and we’re still alive. Not bad for a newbie. We pull the bikes over at the top and join the throngs of Spanish, Punjabi and Israeli tourists walking to the highest point in the saddle of the pass for a view of the snowy Himalayas beyond. There are prayer flags waving from the electric poles and the chanting of Buddhist monks reaches our ears, carried on the wind. As we mount the bikes again the tiredness begins to creep in. Just like climbing, we have come up – but we still have to go down. And just like climbing, it’s the down that is the most dangerous. We take our time, focus all of our energy and make it back just as the darkness sets in – exhausted completely.

Yes, the roads in India leave much to be desired. Yes, the traffic in India is maniac. Yes, I’m probably slowly killing my mother with every word of praise I give to motorcycle riding. And yet, I can’t deny that it’s a beautiful way to travel. Good views, complete freedom to stop and go whenever you want, the ability to slip by massive queues of traffic (undoubtedly waiting on two psychedelically painted trucks who are trying to pass each other on an impossibly narrow mountain road while a shepherd deftly guides his flock down the road between them) are just a few of the benefits a motorcycle brings to the table. Plus, it’s just so much fun!

Mom, I’m sorry.

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Rohtang La

Rohtang La


21
Sep 09

Baths

The hot springs of Vashisht in the foot hills of the Himalayas have been a central part of the local peoples’ lives for thousands of years. The spring has been piped into 3 public baths, which are lined with smooth slate like stone. Jets of hot water shoot out of multiple pipes in the centre of the mountain village and are used by the locals for washing of all sorts: clothes, pots, people. Every morning and evening the centre of the village surrounding the baths becomes a hub of excitement and activity, with people of all ages coming together to bath in the steaming hot water.

Two of the baths are located within the walls of the ancient stone temple called Vashisht Mandir, which is dedicated to the sage Vashisht. Men and women bath separately, and behind the stone walls of the women’s baths, all restrictions of the outside world become void. Saris are removed, and bodies exposed. With the comfortable confidence of women who have been bathing in the company of others since they were born. They work in pairs, one woman scrubbing the other’s back. All is done briskly, and matter-of-factly, while discussing the days events. Like us westerners would wash dishes. No self-consciousness or awkwardness. It seems ironic to me that many of us westerners wear clothes that expose the shape and contour of or bodies, with shoulders, backs or legs bare. However, if faced with a communal, co-operative bathing scenario such as is the norm here, many of us would become shy modest creatures instantly. The opposite seems true for Indian women.

I was a little nervous about joining the women in the temple baths, but curiosity won. The strong buzz of community and the relaxed environment within the bath walls immediately put me at ease. Other than a few hellos and smiles from the locals, I was able to blend into the comfortable darkness of the night, and soak in the wonderful warmth of the spring water. There is no roof above the baths, and no city lights to obscure our view of the stars above. Bliss.

A young girl nearby introduced herself as Deeba and offered me her bar of soap to use. She smiled at me curiously, this funny white girl who is so pale. The sound of loud drumming began somewhere nearby, getting closer and closer. I asked for it’s purpose and was told by a lady beside me-

“Temple. God.” Keep it simple.

We have been enjoying (my big brother) Mathew’s company for a little over 3 days now. Such a pleasure to see him in what has become his “natural habitat” of sorts. Traveling in exotic places that is.

A guy of so many talents, with a wonderful way with people. Sitting on the back of his motorbike, as he guides me through the hectic streets of Delhi, I wrap my arms around his waist and instantly become a little girl, content and secure within the protective shield of my big brother.


19
Sep 09

Hadimba

Today, we visited our first temple. It made me feel better that we were the only other westerners there. It made me feel even better when Gina was stopped by a stunning Punjabi girl who asked politely if Gina would pose for a picture with her and her mother. The temple, constructed of beautifully carved wood and stone, was adorned with horned and antlered skulls. Each May it is used for grisly animal sacrifices, the evidence of which clearly splattered across the exterior walls. Taking our shoes off, I awkwardly rang the bell overhead before being pressed through the tiny carved entryway by the Indians lining up behind us. The smell of incense was immediately overwhelming. The interior was much smaller than the exterior would lead you to believe, just a simple room with stone shrine in the middle. Ducking down below the huge stone mantle to the shrine proper, the source of the incense smoke, I lowered my head in mimicry of the Indians on both sides of me and took huge breaths of the perfumed air. After what seemed the proper amount of time, I stood, paid my ten rupee tribute and was dotted on the forehead by the temple forehead dotter, who also handed me a small pile of what looked like stale rice crispies. I pocketed these, not knowing if they were for eating or burning or some other sacred purpose, found Gina and headed back into the fresh air – feeling thoroughly at one with the universe and thoroughly pleased with myself.

Oh and, did I mention that I can see snow in three directions from the windows of our hotel that costs about the same as a Big Mac? I am a kid, it is christmas.


17
Sep 09

Welcome to India

I can’t sleep. My body clock is all screwed up. I’m lying on the bed staring at the weird stains on the inside of the ‘bedroom’ door, the peeling paint on the wall, and the bare fluorescent light tube, and I have to smile at how loosely the term ‘hotel’ is used here. I’m jealous of Jeff’s deep sleep beside me.

I am feeling a little overwhelmed right now. I can see Diarmuid smile knowingly as he reads this. Arriving into the streets of Delhi at 11 at night after 53 hours of travel, stopping in 5 time zones, and the rapid changes in cultural surroundings have fried my brain.

Everything seems so surreal right now, like we are starring in our own movie – Slum Dog Millionaire II – The epic sequel. I had been forewarned that, as a big softy, I would be in danger of having a meltdown when confronted with all the poverty of India. At this point I feel cushioned by my own zombie-brain state. The Indian people seem like characters in my movie, all busy playing their roles. They have all clearly been rehearsing, and I feel inadequate and awkward around them. I wish I could remember my lines.


9
Sep 09

Traffic Jam – Yellowstone Style

Among all the new creatures that Gina was introduced to on our lap around The States, I think these guys might be Gina’s favorite.


8
Sep 09

Heading Back East

We left Amy and Adam in the Teton’s National Park yesterday morning. A wonderful week with them in the mountains. In the 6 days there we went up 3 peaks, each over 11,000 ft, went on another long day hike, and had a (short) afternoon of bouldering. The Teton mountains are all about “straight up and down” climbers’ trails. Adam, who works in the Park’s trail building crew, joked about the stark contrast between the well maintained, and comfortably graded “tourist trails”, and the climbers trails which shoot straight up the mountain’s steep slope. Each peak took roughly 8 hours up and back, and by the end of the descent my knees were ready to be done. I rediscovered the wonder of hiking poles for steep approaches and descents. And also my fear of steep snow slope descents. Well, moving to the Alps I”m going to need to get better at that!

It was great to have a more extended visit with Amy, whom I haven’t spent more than 3 consecutive days with since Jeff and I met. You know how it is, living in different towns, life getting in the way. I used to joke that we would have to actually give up work to have enough time for visiting all our scattered friends and family. And now here we are…

So now we’re back on the road, heading East. We just hit a grouse a few minutes ago. Messy business. I don’t recommend it to anyone. Jeff very kindly cleaned it up, while I sat in the car pretending nothing had happened, and doing my best to avoid looking at the limp bird (which I swear was nodding his head at me in the wind.) Poor thing.

There are some weird places out here. Picture it: driving through desolate open land as far as the eye can see. Barren desert-like terrain. No buildings, no features blocking the expansive horizon. You stop at an isolated and deserted petrol station. In the Middle of Nowhere. And there’s some guy sitting there on his lonesome. Twiddling his thumbs. Staring at the wall. You wonder when his last customer was, where he lives, and what on earth he does in this place to stop himself going insane! Aaaagggghhh!!! For those Irish readers; imagine all those thoughts that go through your head driving through the Irish midlands and multiply it by 100.

We will be home soon. A few spare days for family, friends and packing (again), and then off to India (via LA and dinner with Claire :-), where we will join my big bro Matthew. Happy days…


2
Sep 09

Back in the mountains

Writing from my sister-in-law Amy’s cabin doorstep, in Tetons National Park. Chilly toes and nose, but the morning sun is starting to rise high enough to reach me, so soon I should thaw. We are back in the mountains, beautiful big mountains. It has come as a wonderful relief. We arrived 2 nights ago, and rose early our first morning to head up Buck mountain. Nothing technically difficult, but a steep rise of over 5500ft, and a beautiful, exposed ridge climb/scramble. It has been over a year and a half since we last climbed regularly. We have been officially “taking a break”. It had become tiresome driving multiple hours to crags, and spending every weekend away from our home, most of our friends, and the beautiful hills/mountains surrounding Blacksburg (in which we could reach mountain biking trails by bike from our doorstep). We simply weren’t excited enough about it to be bothered. Over the past few months the need has slowly been growing inside me. And this brief taste of being up high, the early morning rise with cool mountain air, the exposure, and the buzz of it all, has us both so excited for our move to the Italian Alps next February. This route was a particularly nice welcome back, as we had the mountain totally to ourselves, apart from the bear and countless pikas that we met along the way.

Buck Mtn.

tetons-059

It’s such a pleasure to be here with Amy and her boyfriend Adam. I look forward to a week hanging out with them in these beautiful surroundings. We have our tent set up in the woods behind their park cabin, from where we can hear the elk calling to each other as we lay down to sleep. Such a high pitched cry, it’s hard to imagine it coming from such a stocky animal.

Since our last blog entry we’ve spent a week in Missoula, Montana with friends who used to live in Blacksburg with us. It was a week of eating, drinking, catching up with friends and mountain biking in the beautiful mountains surrounding Missoula. Highlights for me included riding the long sweeping bike trails, flashing through the trees and out into high mountain meadows filled with tall grasses. A much smoother ride than in Blacksburg, with serpent-like trails weaving back and forth down the mountain. And hours of floating down the river lounging on old car wheel inner tubes. Tired mountain-biking-legs dangling in the water. And extended dinners with friends, when too many cooks managed not to spoil the broth.

Very nice trails

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Gina learning how to ride Mike’s motorbike.

Floating

On our way from Missoula to the Tetons we spent a weekend in Yellowstone National park, where we rapidly suffered from geyser and tourist overload. I wonder how the world is not completely saturated with photos of geysers and buffalo, with the rate that they were being taken by so many people. It’s funny how people enter a tourist zone, such as a state park, and immediately lose their brain, metamorphosing into a “touron”. Emergency stops in the middle of a busy road, to watch a deer in the woods, suddenly seem the right thing to do. Driving the wrong direction down one way roads, is okey dokey. Everybody turns into the next David Attenborough, approaching dangerous wild animals as if they were puppy dogs waiting for a treat.

Yellowstone

Lower Yellowstone Falls

Yellowstone

Don’t get me wrong, Yellowstone is amazing. So beautiful and surreal, in a “we’ve just stepped into a prehistoric land” type way. Bubbling and exploding geysers all over the place, vibrantly coloured colonies of microorganisms covering the ground, magnificent waterfalls, and buffalo strolling along as if they own the joint (which of course they do). But Jeff and I were relieved to leave the herd of “tourons” behind, and head for the relative refuge of the Tetons.

Ahh, take a deep breath of that mountain air…

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