Friday, 16 October 2009

Ambala.......Get me outta here!

Now I don’t mean to harp on about this – but seriously. I know that men the world over have that annoyingly penis envy making habit of peeing in public. The ability to whip it out and deposit the last couple of pints consumed down a back alley has always been a great source of frustration to me – or rather – the lack of my ability to do the same (especially since I have the world’s smallest bladder and would probably utilize this ability on a regular basis) – but here in India it would seem that the requirement of the back alley has been foregone and the whipping it out part happens pretty much everywhere and anywhere. Most times it is sort of subtle and almost forgivable – but yesterday – in a place that rivals dear old Kargil as the shit soaked dirty asshole of the earth: Ambala, as I sat waiting over 3 hours for my delayed train (after an almost sleepless night that saw me toss and turn ten million times to the sounds track of an inefficient A/C unit, the reverie of a nearby party going on into the wee hours and the occasional nasal buzz of a mosquito passing by my head; as my skin crawled with the thought of what lovely creatures might be attempting to nestle under my skin, from the mattress I lay on, made of nothing more than layers of burlap sacking tied together) I watched in disbelief as one of my many fellow commuters whipped it out and pissed right there off the edge of the platform onto the tracks below. Now – call me a prude – but in what part of the world is that acceptable behavior, unless it’s 4am, you are pissed drunk out of your skull and absolutely no one sober is watching? Let’s just say we breathed a sigh of relief when our delayed train finally pulled into the station and we were able to get the hell outta dodge. Our departure from Ambala could not have come soon enough. I will certainly be sending an email to the editors of Lonely Planet recommending that they actually add Ambala to their next India edition, because it certainly has taken top spot for us (in places to avoid). Having said that – there was a certain amount of fun to be had in arriving at the central train station of a huge Indian city, after dark, with absolutely no idea where the nearest hotel would be and realizing that, if it’s not even mentioned in the guide book, then the chances of backpackers passing through these parts on a regular basis was slim to none (never mind blonde ones) so there was a good possibility that we might attract all kinds of attention and not necessarily of the good kind! It turned out that we didn’t have to go far (after taking our lives into our own hands crossing the ‘interesting’ intersection that was the railway station entrance) to find ‘The Savoy’. I’d always wanted to stay at the Savoy – but I think that this particular Savoy’s heyday was well and truly in the past. If a hotel had a sell by date I think this one passed some time in the middle of the First World War. There was a quirky little open air lounge area that displayed some incredible black and white photos to prove that this funky little hotel did, once upon a time, live up to it’s name, with some apparently prestigious guests (about a hundred years ago) – but those days were long gone and we were left with the moldy remains!!! Yes – there is a reason that the Lonely Planet neglects to mention Ambala in its lengthy tomes: it could well have been the inspiration for AC/DC’s famous song ‘I’m on a highway to Hell’! And please don’t misunderstand me – it’s not that I’m down on any part of India that doesn’t have a mountain or a majestic man-made wonder of the world like the Taj Mahal in it: Prior to our arrival in Shimla we spent a couple of nights in the town of Mandi
(clearly a place that gets only a fraction of the foreign visitors that other more well known landmark towns in India get), which has no major notable feature to remark upon, but we loved it.
Maybe it was our favorite (and only) fast food joint in town; ‘The Treat’ that served up a delectable array of tasty treats at each meal we munched on for less than the price of a beer back home. Maybe it was the cute and cuddly little munchkin beggar kids that tried to follow us home like little lost puppies in a pestering and yet polite manner.

Or maybe it was the random fireworks set alight in the street to signal the arrival of an impromptu street party that was part of an elaborate wedding celebration with brass band and all (right in the middle of the road) that endeared us to the town. Or maybe it was the day trip we took (only an hour away by bus) to Rewalsar Lake

where we explored the little village streets
and monasteries and marveled at the huge and gloriously painted brand new Buddha still undergoing the final stages of completion on the hill overlooking the lake that towered at least 30 meters above our heads.

Maybe it was the combination of all these things that made Mandi a place well worth the visit and the lack of a single endearing quality that made us distinctly un-enamored with Ambala – but whatever it was – we were glad to be outta there!

Our train journey ended up taking quite a bit longer than we had anticipated, what with the delayed departure and further delays along the way, so by the time we alighted the train in Gorakphur it was already past noon (instead of the scheduled 5.55am arrival). We grabbed street side samosas ‘to go’ and hopped on a bus to the border (3hrs) and by the time we had actually made our way over no mans land by foot to reach the Nepalese side, the sun was already fairly low in the sky so we made the executive decision to postpone Kathmandu, and make a little detour to the birth place of Buddha to complete our 3 days of non-stop travel – but more on that later.
Tomorrow we fly to Lukla to begin the journey I have been dreaming of for years into the heart of the Himalayas. We may already have reached the summit of a Himalayan peak in Ladakh on our trip, but in a few days time I will be standing at the base of the tallest mountain in the world and I simply cannot wait! So – with that thought, and a reminder that I’ll be ‘offline’ for the next few weeks, far far away from the rest of the world I will leave you in peace for a while – but don’t worry: I’ll be back!

Some thoughts on Shimla and yep, you've guessed it a little commentary on etiquette!

Today is our second full day in Shimla and we spent most of it doing nothing! …. Why? …… Well - whilst this is indeed a charming place that puts a quizzical smile on your face within moments of arriving on ‘the ridge’ I think it’s safe to say that once you have strolled it’s length – you’ve seen it all!

Of course I am being a little unfair for the sake of a writer’s gag – but really – there’s not much to it. Shimla is known as India’s premier hill station – and was the summer ‘home’ of the colonial government in India for many years thanks to the pleasant cool air of the mountains at this altitude, compared to the heat and humidity of the lowlands during the summer months. For this reason Shimla has the strange feel of an Indian ‘Europe theme park’. Many of the principal buildings were constructed in an English Tudor style of architecture and due to the considerable aging and weathering that they have withstood, look more like a crumbling version of an Oxbridge college, than anything you might expect to see in India. The centre of town is built around a ridge that falls away steeply to either side giving one the sensation that most of the buildings are just a light breeze away from sliding off down the mountain and since the lack of motor vehicles at the time of construction meant that the ‘streets’ and alleys were barely wide enough for a honeymooning couple to stroll hand in hand along them there is a certain sense in which the only thing stopping it all from crumbling away is that the building next door is leaning up against it and providing a replacement for the much needed scaffolding or reinforcement to keep it in place. It’s a charming effect, but certainly one that poses a question of safety. Were we in any ‘western’ part of the world – the whole thing would probably have been condemned and deemed unfit for human habitation a long time ago – but as always – in India it seems anything goes! And in fact, just this morning whilst returning from our little outing to the train station (to receive our first lesson in train station etiquette) whilst rambling through the middle bazaar, we stumbled upon what looked like the primary inspiration for that ‘half floor office space’ in ‘Being John Malkovic’. As I climbed the steep and uneven staircase leading from one level of the bazaar to the next my eyes were drawn to what looked like an attic storage space behind a wall of glass, but on closer inspection I saw that inside this ‘half floor’ there were several tailors, seated, at work, on their old school Singer sewing machines with barely an inch between the top of their heads and the ceiling. Now that’s what I call a sweatshop.
Now I may have said it already – but I am constantly amazed at the layers of society and class that operate here in India. From the terrace of our simple backpacker’s ‘Hotel’ we look down, at night, on the lights of the grand looking ‘Radisson’ hotel built only 3 or 4 yrs ago and dream of the warm fires probably burning brightly inside (it’s chilly up here in the hills with no central heating) and the 5 star treatment being received by the wealthy Indian businessmen and entrepreneurs that can afford such ostentatious accommodations. In contrast, as we stroll from the ridge up to our hotel we pass the street food vendors with their wooden carts and pass the porters carrying all manner of items (from boxes of noodles to heavy duty kitchen equipment that must weigh several times my own body weight) with ropes fastened around their heads and I wonder how it is possible that the division of wealth here is so incredibly skewed. Climbing through the bazaar, numerous tea-stalls offer hot chai and dosas for only a few rupees in hut like quarters resembling something from medieval times while right along the alley and up the stone steps a shiny new ‘Domino’s Pizza’ has an endless line-up of people waiting to pay western prices for a crappy old fast food chain version of Italy’s staple. It’s like 2 different dimensions co-existing in the same time zone – like 2 alternate realities somehow crashed in hyperspace and ended up jumbled together.
And while I’m on this topic – let’s just venture into the realms of social etiquette for a moment. In this department I’m afraid many Indians are (as I already mentioned) sadly lacking. It is virtually impossible to go 60 seconds without hearing the melodious sound of someone nearby ‘hocking a loogy’ and despite the posted warning around this particular town (probably the only place in India with such a threat) of a 500 rupee fine for spitting or littering – bodily secretions of this nature are openly shared with passersby with little to no sense of shame or embarrassment. Twice in as many days I have had close shaves with spittle and vomit (and not my own, I hasten to add). The vomiting incident saw me walking along the side of a parking bus to realize that I had missed being puked on by mere inches as a woman inside the said bus decided to just pop her head out the window and have a quick heave (the sound of her retching alerted me to the near miss in question). The spitting incident today followed much the same course – as I innocently walked by, a man decided it was time to dribble the contents of his mouth onto the sidewalk and never mind that there was someone walking by at that very moment. But my ‘favorite’ lesson of the day in Indian social etiquette came this morning at the train station. Yesterday when enquiring at the train reservation office (a small cubicle no bigger than a phone booth in the centre of town) we learned of an element of the Indian rail reservation system that I believe will be quite useful to us. Of course we only managed to get to the bottom of this system after considerable questioning and exclamations of horror and disbelief that the train we wished to book was completely full for many many days. It turned out that if we showed up at the main train station at 8am the following morning we would be able to obtain a ‘tatkal’ (Hindi for immediate) ticket for the train 2 days after that. Thankfully – someone in the Indian rail organization realized that it might be smart to save a few tickets on each train for last minute travelers and so we were able to get around our issue. Now I knew right away that the 8am thing would probably not be that simple – so we thankfully showed up a little after 7.30am – just in time to be almost first in line at the counter which was scheduled to open at 8. Well – things weren’t exactly orderly, and let’s just say that ‘personal space’ is obviously not a concept that India has thoroughly grasped yet in a queuing environment but besides a minor amount of jostling and gentle shoving it was actually going quite well – until the man behind the counter announced ‘tatkal’ at 8.01am at which time all thoughts of orderly line ups and ‘waiting your turn’ went right out the window and the whole thing turned into a bloody free for all. Fortunately my husband has long arms and was able to shove our ‘requisition form’ right through the hole in the window of the reservation counter, normally used for speaking and under the nose of the rail man. Within minutes we were the proud owners of a ticket for 2 to Gorakphur (a non descript Indian town close to the border of Nepal) and newly invigorated with confidence that we would actually make it out of Shimla this side of Christmas. Hurray!
Our first day in Shimla was far less eventful in the social etiquette department, but we did manage to squeeze in a little bit of culture.
Our morning jaunt took us to the top of the hill overlooking Shimla where we visited a so-called ancient temple that has obviously had a bit of a revamping because to the untrained eye it did indeed look decidedly like the cement between the bricks was still drying. It turned out that the ‘ancient’ bit was somewhere underneath the brand new exterior and not all that grand but it was worth the trip for the views. The greatest source of entertainment en route was of course the monkeys, somewhat famous for their menace in that area and we were occasionally glad of the 10-rupee stick that we had hired for the trip.

After a quick lunch in the ‘Shimla Coffee House’, touted as an ‘institution’ in the guide book – which was indeed a brilliant place to people watch all the Indian government officials chewing the fat and shooting the shit over coffee (we had some tasty dosas) we headed a little further afield to find the ‘Viceregal Lodge’. (We decided to give the festival for the cow (no word of a lie), taking place in the main square on the ridge, a miss, since it is clear that there really is no need to raise ‘cow awareness’ is India – she is alive and well and roaming the streets pretty much everywhere we look.)

The lodge was an amazing display of European architecture, built between 1884 and 1888 by the Brits in power at the time and as we wandered the grounds and joined in on the brief guided tour to see some of the rooms and halls inhabited by the great minds and officials of the era we were shown the very table over which the division of India and Pakistan was discussed and were reminded once again of the contrasts of India (and perhaps some of the reasons behind them). We also found a very old map on the wall of the lodge with a detailed topography of the surrounding area and were highly amused to find half of the Lake District within a five mile radius of the place we were standing – there was a Windermere, a Grasmere and even an Ambleside! Our day finally ended with yet another search for some decent food at a reasonable price (not an easy task in Shimla) and although it was not exactly a meal worth writing home about it managed to take the title of ‘best so far’, so we retired to our quarters with full bellies and happy taste buds (ish).
While Shimla was a pleasant interlude to the ‘Indian-ness’ of it all here in India we are certainly looking forward to the next portion of our trip and switching it up from buses to trains (and then back again – there are no trains in Nepal) – Nepal here we come!

Friday, 9 October 2009

A little reflection and introspection

Oh India, India, India. As I sit on my patio balcony (only 400 INR a night – so less than $10) with the sound of the mighty river Beas that flows down this spectacular valley from the Rotung La Pass to Manali, looking up at (dare I use that much over used cliché) ‘the snow-capped peaks’ of the Himalayas bathing in the last gently, glowing rays of the day, watching the puffy clouds melting and molding together to form and dissipate and re-form I do truly marvel at the wealth of beauty surrounding me, that this region has to offer – but only hours ago, I was shaking my head and agreeing with my oh so meek and un-opinionated husband (tongue in cheek) that this place is dirty and stinky and these people are barbarians. Today we visited the Hadimba Temple in the middle of a small forest on the edge of Manali and as we approached I couldn’t help but be saddened by how little the local inhabitants respect the environment around them. Not a square foot of forest is untainted by some form of garbage or other – whether it be the butt of a cigarette or some more substantial form of waste, like a plastic bottle or chocolate biscuit wrapper. Were we any place else on this planet but India, natural surroundings like these would be treated with kid gloves and found in pristine condition – but here – with only India’s inhabitants to make it their job to clean up after themselves, sadly the effort is completely lacking. At least in Srinagar and Leh, although not always in the best of shape regarding litter there was at least some effort, some signs of awareness – public notices could be seen reminding locals and tourists alike to respect nature and ‘keep the nature clean’ – but here? – nothing! It seems so sad. And yet, it is the insurmountable truth – India does not take care of itself.
So you may ask me if the term ‘barbarians’ isn’t just a little harsh when referring to India’s people, concerning their lack of environmentally sound garbage disposal – but this wasn’t really the prime cause for the use of that particular term. As I mentioned we were visiting the temple – an ancient Hindu temple dating from 1615 where, to this day, animal sacrifices are made.
Now I’m no vegetarian, but even I found it a little gruesome to see the blood-spattered walls and sacrificial posts where the poor little lambs and goats are clearly axed to infinity. Dexter would have a field day with those walls and although the guide book explains that the sacrifice only takes place once a year in May, and I will point out now, I am no expert in these matters – those spatters looked a little fresher than 4 months old to me. And what’s more – while Darko and I looked on with morbid fascination, the local tourist population quite literally clambered over one and another to enter into the temple and ‘pay their respects’ to whichever god it was that was represented within it’s walls. We decided not to join the merry throng of jostling, pann chewing devotees inside and kept a respectful distance from the chopping post where obviously many a poor little sacrifice had met with it’s demise. Instead we headed to the ‘outdoor tree temple’ nearby, where we were greeted with an equally odd collection of offerings around the base of a tree and many pairs of de-headed horns nailed to the trunk, that were obviously the only remains and reminder of all of God’s great creatures that had been ‘offered’. For what purpose? Who knows? So – barbarians did seem quite fitting to us!

Manali itself is crammed full of tourist souvenir stalls and rug shops so it almost has the feel of an Indian style, cheesy cruise ship port, without the ocean and the ship, or perhaps Niagara Falls with spicy food and sari clad tourists instead of fat Americans – apparently it’s the honeymoon capital of India and is obviously very popular with the native population, so it’s certainly a lively spot and a good place for people watching – but since we wanted to enjoy some peace and calm we didn’t bother spending too much time in the centre of town. After a quick lunch at a Punjabi Dhaba with a spicy sweet sauce that left my taste buds tingling we set off for ‘Old Manali’ to see if we couldn’t’ find a little more of that ‘authentic’ India that everyone is searching for.

We did indeed find some pretty cool buildings that looked almost like overgrown lego land creations, built from a layering of brick and wood – where the top floor was clearly the living quarters above the ground floor: the domain of the family livestock – seemed like an interesting way to keep tabs on your cows! Interspersed within this ‘Old style’ India were, of course, the mandatory backpacker accommodations and snack stops and amongst them we managed to find ourselves a phenomenal ‘English bakery’; so after an afternoon of dillying and dallying around we felt we had earned ourselves a treat. One slice of warm apple pie and fresh from the oven chocolate cake later we were ready to head home to our balcony and reflect on the day. After the behemoth journey we endured to reach Manali we were quite glad of a somewhat lazy day – and here I am – once again pondering what it is that I hope to find here in India. Surrounded by the ‘well to do’ of India, here on vacation, just like me – I am again reminded of the inequalities of this country. Perhaps it is the cynicism of my husband rubbing off on me but as he put it ‘the rich culture of India’ seems to be a lie – they live through prayer and worship while throwing their garbage in the woods, and I struggle to see what people this numb to the damage that they do to their beautiful surroundings can teach me – so I think that I am learning – the path I hope to find is and always was going to be the one within myself. My inner voice is getting louder – and my inner voice is telling me what I knew 11 years ago when I embarked on a very different journey to a much more ‘modern’ part of the world – that the place where I belong has been there all along. As hard as it may seem to believe, while staring at the majesty of the Himalayas I find myself comparing it to the might of the mountains in BC and knowing that I can’t wait to once again call Vancouver home. All that I want and all that I dream about is there waiting. But I know that this time I spend in India is precious because it is about freedom – not Indian freedom, but personal freedom and finding my own power within to be strong and confident and creative. Each day I find time to be with myself, in my own thoughts and learn my own hopes and dreams and goals and build tools to embark upon my future with strength. I am ready for tomorrow each night when I go to sleep with more determination than I was the day before and I am ready for anything that India might throw at me because in truth, much of it is disgusting and vial – but my journey is to find the good that comes from seeing past the dirt. One of my greatest skills in life is to find the silver lining – I always have and always will be able to do that. Each and every day has one – and I can and will find it – even in India! The wonderful thing about being here is that sometimes there is no need for a silver lining because the whole damn thing is golden – like standing on the top of a Himalayan peak over 6100M far away from the garbage. But sometimes finding the silver lining is truly like hunting for that needle in a haystack – like standing in a bathroom that stinks of piss waiting for the hot water to run through after an 18 hour, dust filled bus ride over pot-hole ridden roads that made my flesh shake until it felt like it was the steak under the hammer of a French chef tenderizing his meat, and realizing that since this wasn’t the only hotel in town I was quite capable of putting my pants and shoes back on, picking up my backpack and finding a hotel with a bathroom that wouldn’t make my skin crawl at the thoughts of entering it naked! There is gold and there are silver linings everywhere – we just have to remember to look for them – and when we find them – be grateful for them – and life will be amazing!
After another day of recovery in Manali it was time to hit the road once more. This time though we were not going too far; just a couple of hours down the road to the Parvati Valley. One of the things besides its Himalayan beauty that this particular part of the world is famous for is its Charas – which certainly put Darko and I in the minority of people NOT visiting for the drugs. The reason for the abundance of bakeries and cake shops in the area suddenly became crystal clear……of course…..hippy backpackers with the munchies must be fed…..and when an attack of the munchies hits hard there’s only one thing for it: sweet stuff. Apparently the marijuana of Parvati is world famous – but since we had no interest in hanging out with a bunch of Isreali stoners we decided to give Kasol (dubbed the traveler HQ of the region by Lonely Planet) a miss, and stop in Jari (the quietest of the traveler towns). At first glance this sad little one horse town does indeed look like, to put it bluntly, a bit of a shit hole – but if your little legs can handle the hill, there is a little hamlet about 1KM above the main village where you will find one of several guest houses hidden away that are quite simply delightful.

The only drawback to this town is the ‘shared bathroom’ – for one with a bladder as small and demanding as mine, the trek to the washroom in the middle of the night is a little bit of a pain – but for only 100rupees a night (for the room – not the midnight bathroom run) – it’s worth the minor inconvenience.
This village is a little piece of heaven. Peaceful, scenic, sunny and serene! We ended up pootling about here for a few days – just to catch our breath and experience a day passing slowly. A trip to Manikaran, just up the valley one day to visit the hot springs and temples was a pleasant interlude to the peace – but our favorite happening was the annual festival for the cow – a one day event that we stumbled on quite by accident. With the intention of snapping a few shots of the village kids we trundled down the lane from our guesthouse to find the beginning of merriment in action. The holy cows of the village were being adorned with flower wreaths and paint and offerings of rice and grain were being hoisted in the air.

And then came the walnuts – the frenzy of children and adults alike hopping and jumping in the air to catch the tasty treats as they were tossed about was contagious and it wasn’t long before Darko and I too had our pockets full and huge grins spread across our pasty cheeks.
And the villagers were happy to have us along – as the festival progressed through the tiny alley we were encouraged to tag along and all present were more than happy to pose for a photo or 2.

What a fabulous to wrap up our journey in Parvati. Next stop Mandi!

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Not just a peak in sight – a peak to climb!

So – by now we are in the heart of the Himalayas, in Leh, Ladakh and the pulse of the mountains is all around us. What else do people come here for but to be with Mother Nature and feel the grandeur of the highest peaks on planet Earth? Well – they don’t just come to look. Trekking is one of the main events in Ladakh but since this part of the world is so truly remote it’s not something that one can do easily without equipment and guides. Unlike the Himalayas of Nepal, there aren’t ‘teahouses’ every few miles to stop at for the night and it is necessary to be completely self-sufficient. The easiest way to do this is to take an organized trek with a guide and porters – but since this is generally a little more costly than our proposed daily budget for our stay in India we had pretty much ruled out the prospect of a long distance trek and decided that day hikes would have to do. Nevertheless it didn’t hurt to take a look at a brochure or 2 and make inquiries at one of the many trekking agencies in town. One of our Spanish travel buddies, Berta was also keen to take a trek so we figured we’d give her a hand in weighing up the options. Now to set the scene of our trip to the trekking agency I should also explain that only the day before our arrival in Leh we had discussed some of the many trekking possibilities and agreed that if it was at all possible to pull it off, only a short trek was a viable option based on funds and time and climbing a peak was out of the question – none of us were trained or prepared for that! As we sat in ‘Dreamland’ trekking agency with their photo album of previous treks in hand, considering the views in store and the options available, we realized that none of us were even remotely interesting in a regular A-B trek. Again the ‘-‘ between A and B, or in this case A and A was going to be the most important part. We all looked at each other and instantly knew what the other 2 were thinking. Of course we’d said we weren’t prepared for a summit attempt, but clearly those resolutions had gone straight out the window the minute the proposition was right under our noses. In 4 days we could make it to the top of Stok Kangri at the dizzying height of 6153M and back down – and the price was not much more than any other, far less impressive trek available to do in that short amount of time. Without much discussion at all we were talking logistics and dates, times and cost and it seemed clear that the summit was the only way to go. Apparently none of us could resist the challenge!
Before we made any definite arrangements we decided to think it over during lunch and found the ‘Leh View Restaurant’ to order up some cheese/veg momo’s (a local Tibetan specialty) and chew it over. As we sat munching our lunch and simmering over the prospect of a peak we enquired of our waiter: ‘Stok Kangri, which one?’ and pointed to the horizon (clearly visible from our spectacular location on the rooftop terrace of our restaurant, aptly named the ‘Leh view’). He immediately, proudly pointed to the highest peak in sight (the one with a decidedly pointy and unfriendly looking peak) and told us ‘that one’. We were daunted, but excited – the decision had been made – we were off to climb a mountain.

We were due to leave for our trek in 2 days as we’d already made plans for the following day, (an outing to Pangong Lake – one of the most incredibly serene, scenic and surreal bodies of water I have ever stood beside – in fact worth every minute of the excruciatingly, bone-shaking, 5hr drive over the 3rd highest motorable pass in the world to get there), however when my stomach decided to violently eject the contents of it’s last meal in the middle of the night and remind me of some of the less savory moments of travel in India we decided to push it back one more day to give me time to recover and regain my strength for the mammoth task ahead.
During the time we spent in the city itself we managed to explore the ruined palace of Leh, and wander the narrow alleyways of the old town finding all kinds of hidden corners and crevices of fascination. This place is a photographers dream, as long as your camera has a high ISO capability, since all the alleyways are so narrow and sun starved that lighting at most times of day is scarce. One of our favourite things to watch was the Roti makers working their magic. They would take a small ball of dough and roll it into a flat, round patty, then literally stick it to the wall of their cauldron-like fire pit. In just a few minutes the bread would be baked and ready to sample, fresh and warm for only 3 rupees. An absolute bargain and tasty as hell (especially with the locally made Apricot Jam, or, if you can find it, Nutella - believe it or not we managed to track down 2 ‘supermarkets’ in town with supplies of this hazelnut chocolate flavoured gold dust.)
Anyway, finally the morning of our departure arrived. With nerves and excitement we packed up our kits for the next four days, stashed the rest of our belongings in the blanket room of our guesthouse (that would hopefully be waiting safely on our return) and headed off to the hills. Fortunately for us, since we were going with an organized trekking agency we only had the burden of our day packs for the hike – the main body of our gear was carried by the horses and donkeys that would follow us up the trail. Our first day, a projected 5-6 hr hike into the foothills was an easy 3 hr stroll for us – barely noticing the altitude or gain in elevation (having been in Leh for several days at an altitude of 3500M we were already quite well acclimatized). The only problem with arriving to camp so early was that the horses were quite a way behind and with only our day packs, containing our packed lunches and cameras, once the sun disappeared behind a cloud it was a little brisk to say the least.

But eventually the gear arrived, the tents were up and we were able to take the chill off our icy fingers with a hot cup of tea. After a pleasant stroll above our first camp and back (to assist further with our acclimatization) it was time for noodles. As we sat outside our guide’s tent listening to the sounds of pots and pans clunking around we wondered whether noodles was the main event or whether there was more to come. After quite some time we were invited to step inside and literally could not believe what was in stall. Inside the tent was a ‘table’ set up with tablecloth, napkins, candles and all. Apparently our noodles were merely an afternoon snack. First course served was soup and popcorn, followed by several freshly cooked curry options with rice and naan. There was even fresh fruit for dessert, and wow did it taste good! This was no crappy, boil in a bag, dehydrated camping fodder, this was a freshly made dinner, fit for a king.
Day 2 followed in much the same fashion – a proposed 3 hr hike to base camp that we polished off in 1 and a half. But now at an altitude of just below 5000M we were starting to feel the thinning of the air. On day two I also became acutely aware (and not for the first time since arriving in Ladakh) of the eerie, quiet calm around us. One of the things most notable about walking through a Ladakhi Himalayan canyon is the silence. As soon as the path steers you away from the tumbling cascade of glacial water flowing over it’s rocky path and the rumble that it makes, you hear nothing. Quite literally nothing! There are so few places on the planet where life has such a hard time sustaining itself that the sound of silence is literally deafening. Here in this mountainous desert there is barely a bird or insect to break that silence.

The occasional rustle of a dried out, freezer burned nettle plant that has made an attempt at growing, only to be freeze dried or burned by the sun is all that you hear, as a gentle gust of wind passes by, beside the sound of your own feet kicking up the rocks beneath your feet. A rare bird cry can be heard in the distance but since this is not a land of abundance and plenty most of our avian friends stay close to the small ‘oasis’ provided by the villages that sprout up around the more fertile, river-fed ground, further down the valley.

Our afternoon stroll on day two took us well above the 5000M mark and my head was starting to feel the effects. Mix that with the fact that as soon as the sun made her descent behind the sharp peaks around us, shielding us from her warming rays the inhospitable nature of the environment we were in hit home. In only a few hours we would attempt to go even higher, in the cold dark night. Our evening meal was taken earlier that night since our scheduled departure from base camp was to be at 1am, to reach the summit soon after dawn. This was to be a 10-11 hr day according to the schedule. Now – since we had halved the schedule on our previous 2 days we were sure our time would be faster than this, however there was no way to predict how that extra 1000M of altitude would affect our speed and since we were all starting to feel the effects we were preparing for the day ahead with caution.

At 5000M above sea level all kinds of strange things start to happen to the unacclimatized human body and insomnia is one of them. Knowing that every minute of sleep would certainly make the task ahead easier only made it harder to fall asleep, not to mention the sounds of the guides merrily chatting away in their tent next door and the sound of the horses jingling bells as they roamed the arid base camp area snuffling the ground for a patch of dried up grass to mow.
At some point though I must have drifted off because I remember the feeling of being aroused by our guide, informing us that it was time for ‘breakfast’ – the time in fact was 1.30am (how nice – he let us sleep an extra hr). We pulled on our icy layers, donned our wooly hats and gloves and exited the tent to take a quick cup of black tea and a bowl of warm porridge before we departed for the summit. The time: 2.10am.
Slowly, we retraced our steps from our afternoon stroll the day before in the dark with only our head torches to light the way, to reach the plateau from which we would make our final push for the summit. At this altitude the feeling of exertion is multiplied exponentially for the effort expended. Although I wouldn’t call it fatigue, you just somehow know that you simply cannot go any faster. If you attempt an increase in speed, the sound of your own heart pounding in your head becomes deafening and the will to continue fades beneath your feet – the only way to proceed is with slow, dogged determination and an iron will. From advanced base camp we crossed a rocky boulder field to join the lower end of a glacier mouth. Our ascent now continued gradually over crusty and slippery snow and ice, until we reached the final rocky south-east face of Stok Kangri – the gaping mouth of the beast, one might say. By this point, the sky was beginning to show the first signs of a rising sun, the silhouette of the mountain was taking shape above us, looming overhead and although we kept on going, she seemed to rise further and further above us. It was about this time, when the sky was taking on that flickering baby blue tinge (as opposed to the black black night with it’s magical array of mystical stars) that my head began to spin. Perhaps I had attacked that last small section of ascent with just a little too much aggression – but my brain was definitely mounting a protest on the pay cut it had received in oxygen currency in the last 48 hours and I started to doubt my chances of making it to the top. We took a break (one of many on our way up) and our guide suggested a snack. Although the edges of nausea were creeping up on my senses and I was hesitant to fill my buccal cavity with anything but my own tongue at the current time I decided to take his advice and pull out that emergency chocolate chip granola bar I had been saving for a moment of need. It did the trick – within minutes I was feeling revived and ready for the final assault. By now the sun was well and truly clamoring into our world and as the first rays poked over the horizon at 6.12am we were within reach of the peak. From here it took almost 2 more hours to reach the top – but by the time your body is struggling to climb that last 200 metres it takes all your might just to take 5 steps in a row. For the final ridge of snow covered rocky buttresses and exposed crags our guide roped us together so that, should one of us slip and fall, the others would hopefully take the strain and keep each other safe.
At 7.55am we made our final steps to take our place on the top of Stok Kangri at 6153M (well according to Wikipedia it’s actually 6137M – but what’s 16M between friends) and with tears in our eyes, had just a little glimpse of what it may have felt like for Sherpa Tensing and Sir Edmond Hilary to be on top of the world at the summit of Mount Everest. Now sure there may be another 2700M or so to reach that particular Himalayan peak – but for us mere mortals, with little to no mountaineering experience that peak may has well have been Everest, at least it was our Everest!
What made it even more special was that we were also celebrating Berta’s birthday that day and our guide had actually baked and brought a cake and candles to the summit. With quite some effort in the cold and wind the candles were lit and we all sung happy birthday with what little air we had left in our lungs to the smiling proud birthday girl feeling, quite literally, on top of the world.
From up there the views were magnificent. We could look to the East and imagine the Annapurna range and beyond that mighty Mount Everest herself and to the West and the North the Karakoram Range of Pakistan and K2. As far as the eye could see we were spying the icy peaks of a giant Christmas cake spread out before us; only this view, for sure, tasted sweeter than any festive fodder ever sampled at yuletide. We had made it! Now I’ll admit, that being a bit of a self-professed mountain goat and avid hiker, I secretly thought that this peak would be a breeze. And while it’s true that no one said it would be easy, no one actually mentioned that it would damn near kill me. The only adjective that seems fitting in my mind for what I experienced that day is ‘Gruelling’. On my travels I have reached an altitude of over 5000M on many occasion and I never imagined that that extra 500M would make so much difference but let me tell you – it did!
And then, after all that effort and emotion you realize you still have to bloody well get back down. It took us almost as long to return to base camp as it had to reach the summit and while my summit buddies crashed into an exhausted slumber (the sun kindly avoided the clouds for the majority of the afternoon and warmed their aching limbs), I lay, wide eyed, staring at the blue, blue sky in a euphoric state with far too much adrenalin still pumping through my capillaries to even think of sleep.
Our final dinner on the mountain was possibly the finest. Maybe it was the fact that our bodies were so desperately in need of re-fuelling from our ‘gruelling’ ordeal or maybe it was just that Motub, our guide liked to save the best till last, but if you can believe it we actually enjoyed, amongst other culinary delights that night, a freshly made pizza of the cheese, tomato and mushroom variety and it tasted oh so good. When we finally arrived back to Leh the next day we sat on the terrace of our cute little guest house ‘The Glacier View’ as the sun went down and marveled at the fact that only 32 hours before we had been sitting on the top of that peak directly in sight, feeling, quite literally, invincible.
If you ever get the chance to climb a Himalayan mountain, I whole-heartedly recommend it because very few things in life come even close to the emotion you will feel as you take those final steps to reach the summit, but a word of warning: Do Not expect it to be easy! It’s not!