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Posts Tagged ‘ladakh’

Up in the Mountains

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

I’m back in McLeod Gang, the Tibetan enclave which is a suburb of Dharamsala, as well as the place where the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees reside.  I’m sitting on my hotel room balcony, watching the rain fall; it’s been raining for 24 hours straight.  Actually, it’s pretty much been raining since my arrival 6 days ago.  I was lucky to have a couple short breaks, and actually saw the sun for a few hours one afternoon, but it brings me back to Kundapura and the arrival of the monsoon.  It’s a shame because it really is beautiful up here in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh.  The view here in McLeod is lined with Tibetan prayer flags.  If only I could see them, naught for the fog.

Thankfully, when I was here almost a month ago, it was different.  There was some rain and fog, but the monsoon had not yet fully hit.  Like all of India, HP is short on its rainfall, having a 30% deficit this monsoon season.  Yet, that made for a drier visit for Dore and I, and allowed for us to be able to walk around, see sights such as the Tsuglagkhang Temple Complex (the main Buddhist Temple and home of the Dalai Lama) and embark on a stunning hike through lush forest loaded with rhododendron trees (unfortunately not flowering, but this is their native habitat) and more shades of green than I even knew existed, to a boulder strewn waterfall of crystal clear freezing cold water.

McLeod is an interesting place.  For the most part, you would not know you were in India, until the horns start honking, but you could be in Tibet or other parts of Asia.  There are always monks dressed in red and gold robes walking the streets and sitting in cafes , some sort of organized talk about the refugees or Buddhism to attend, and then the tourist aspect which adds a bit of Western flavor.  There is a huge Asian influence to the food here, and it is amazing.  There is a fantastic vegetarian Japanese restaurant which has delicious sushi, I’ve found a wonderful veggie Tibetan restaurant with hands down the best momos ever, and there is a superb Chinese restaurant which you know makes all its sauces from scratch.  I’ve been doing a lot of eating since the rain doesn’t allow for much else, or that’s my excuse anyway.

Actually, regardless of the rain, I’ve made a few visits to the Tsuglagkhang Complex, just to be in the atmosphere.   When Dore and I visited last time, we were lucky to arrive towards the end of Sangha and witness the monks in prayer, chanting and playing their myriad of musical instruments: drums, horns, bells, cymbals.  This visit, I haven’t made it for that, but there seems to always be a gathering of monks, there are always devotees engaged in their personal prayer practice (which honestly seems like a form of exercise where they move from a standing position to a prostrated position and then back up again with a push up), and of course there are the prayer wheels.  I haven’t counted them.  Possibly a hundred of them surrounding the Tsuglagkhang Temple, adorned with the Tibetan mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum,” The Jewel in the Lotus.  I have spun many of them sending prayers out in several directions, although always spinning in a clockwise direction, even though I’m not sure why this is the rule.  For pictures of McLeod Gang, link here.

When Dore and I left last time, we headed next to Manali, a short distance as a crow flies, but a 9 hour bus ride through curving mountain roads.  This was a warm-up to the 18 hour bus ride from Manali to Leh.  We stayed in Old Manali; a town which seems to have been built for tourists, yet still has some charm, set next to a rushing river in the mountains.  Here, I mostly relaxed, practiced yoga, shopped, ate.  One day did a hike up to have a look at the beautiful view, and another day the 3km walk to Vashisht, another tourist enclave on the opposite bank of the Beas River.  I made a connection in Manali for when I return to study Ayurvedic massage.  It really is a beautiful relaxed place, one I would like to visit again.  Link here for more pictures of Old Manali.

Next destination Leh, which I have already shared a little about in my last blog, but which had another special aspect for me.  The Dalai Lama was not in McLeod Gang when we were there, he was touring Ladakh, and happened to be in Leh at the same time we were.  We were lodging at a homestay and the family was going to see the Dalai address his audience, which was open to the public.  I asked if I could tag along.  There were probably 10,000 people there to hear him speak.  It felt a little like being at a music festival; the excitement in the air, people camped out on blankets, the anticipation of what one might witness.  There were several sections partitioned off; some for monks and nuns, another for old age, and then one for foreigners directly next to the podium.  Here one had a perfect side view of the Dalai Lama, and English translation over a speaker about one sentence behind what his holiness was saying.

It was really amazing to see this great leader, who is known to be a very charismatic speaker, address an audience.  At times, serious and profound, at others light-hearted and comical.  And then, of course, compassionate.  He stopped the Ladakhi translator at one point to ask if someone would assist an elderly woman attempting to navigate through the crowd.  Always present, always aware.  Something special to have witnessed.  He spoke of compassion, to bring more of it into the world.  Of evil and why it exists.  He made a joke that if there’s a hell, there has to be people to go there.  He spoke of the self, that it exists not on its own, but as a part of something greater, without beginning or end.  And he spoke about Tibetan Buddhism, that some say it is not really Buddhism, he says that those people must not know Buddhism.  It was a very thought-provoking and meaningful morning for me.  For pictures of Leh and His Holiness, link here.

So, my main observation about my time in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh is that the Tibetan influence on this part of India gives it a distinctive feel and flavor, unlike anywhere else I’ve been in India.  Being a white woman is no longer a spectacle, possibly because the Tibetans don’t care, or because there are many more Western tourists here.  Regardless, it feels really nice to not be on display anymore.  And the whole atmosphere is different.  Much more chill and laid back.  Smaller towns, higher altitudes, fresher air, cleaner water, cooler temperatures, pine laden mountains, yaks and sheep, apples and pears and apricots…oh, the apricots.  Just different.  There is something to be said for mountain living.  Not that I have ever done it.  I haven’t, but I am certainly intrigued after my most recent experiences.

Well, this will be my last blog from India.  I’ve been taking a Thai Massage class which commences today.  Tomorrow, I embark on the 12 hour bus ride to Delhi, and in three days, I will find myself in Sri Lanka.  After four months here, I am looking forward to the excitement and adventure of a new place.  I’m also looking forward to being where it is sunny and warm again, maybe relaxing on a beach for a few days.  And I’ll be easing myself into SE Asia, since Sri Lanka has lots of Buddhist and Southern Indian influence.

So, with a Namaste, Namaskar, Hadi Om, Julley (whatever your flavor isJ), I bid you farewell from India, and look forward to greeting you with Sai Ram or Ayubowen from Sri Lanka.

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Posted in Massage, nature, Spiritual, travel | 6 Comments »

Snow in August…Who Would’ve Thunk

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

If I’d been told that I was going to see snow in August, in humid tropical India, or arid desert India, I would have thought I was being lied to.  But here I am, in the city of Leh, in the state of Ladakh, looking at snow topped peaks of the Himalayas.  Those of you who are mountain people, who know altitude, you would have known.   Yet, this is something that I don’t have much experience with, this is all new to me.

So, I have just returned from one of the best times of my life, a 6 day trek in the Himalayan range.  I had never seen mountains like this in my life.  My experience is with the small mountains of the East Coast, the Smokies and the Blue Ridge.  I’ve never even been out to the Rockies.  Once, I’d hiked to the peak of Jabal Katarina in the Sinai, peaking around 3500 meters.   This time here in the Himalayas was a very special experience.

We trekked from Tso Kar to Tso Moriri (Tso meaning “lake” in Ladakhi), 4 days of serious walking, we figure somewhere around 45 miles.   The hiking was strenuous and arduous, the air thin and difficult to breathe.  I can say one of the most challenging feats I’ve ever undertaken, yet also one of the most rewarding, both physically and mentally.  It feels like an amazing triumph.  At one point when I could hardly catch my breath, Dore said to me, “Gail, it’s not supposed to be fun.  It is hard; everyone is breathing heavy, even our guide.  The reward is once we get to the top.”  And, this was so true.

We started at about 4500 meters above sea level, in mountains of red, gold and green.  Even though it is very arid here, the snow melt allows for lots of growth along the mountain sides and in the valleys.  When you come over a pass, it’s like seeing an oasis; a valley of green pasture studded with grazing Nomad herds of yak, sheep, and goat.   As we got higher, the mountains transformed in color and contour.  The smooth sandy hills of red and gold converted to more rocky mountains of purples and blues.  Our first pass, Horlan Kongka La, was 4950 meters and gave me lots of confidence for the following day, when we would climb our two highest passes.  The achievement of each pass is acknowledged by a shrine of Tibetan prayer flags, usually adorned with the horns of an animal, Tibetan carvings, or the words of another trekker written in sharpie pen on rock.  Our second, and most difficult pass, was Kyamayur La, 5450 meters, at a very steep angle.   When we crested our third and highest pass, Gama La, 5850 meters, we were greeted with snow flurries and blustery northeast winds.   This felt like a remarkable accomplishment.  In our final pass, Yalang Nyau La, 5440 meters, we followed a babbling brook for miles, lined with walls of slate, and the river itself, laden with huge chunks of quartz and other mineral and gem stones.  It is stunning.  Gama and Yalang Nyau were more gradual climbs, not as steep as Kyamayur, allowing us to enjoy a little more, and work slightly less.  Each pass was so beautiful, offering different views of the glacier peaked mountains, different vantage of the valleys, and depending on where the sun laid, very different shadows and colors.

Our team was led by a wonderful 19 year old man, Tsultim.  He was a fantastic guide.  He’s from Leh and has been spending his summer’s guiding since he was 14.  He is currently an art student in Jammu, a city further west, and spends almost every day of his summer leading treks.  He is knowledgeable, fun, and sweet.  We really enjoyed him, and him us.  Our cook was a Nepali man named Pudna.  He has been cooking on treks for 7 years.  He works the earlier season in Nepal, and then finishes the trekking season in India.  And our pony man, Paldin, who is from Karzok, the town we ended at at Tso Moriri.  Six ponies for the two of us and the crew.  They carry all the camping gear, food, and fuel (20 liters).  We camped near a water source every night, so water is boiled daily.  The food was really good, a combination of Indian and Nepali, and all vegetarian.  After a couple of days, we finally convinced Tsultim and Pudna to start eating with us, none of this client-staff stuff.  I can imagine that they have clients who expect this, but not us.  We wanted them to be a complete part of our experience, which included eating together.  It wasn’t until the second to last morning that I discovered they were eating a totally different breakfast than us.  We were being given a “Western” version, eggs, toast, and cereal.  They were having curried rice and potatoes, something both Dore & I preferred, so the final morning we all ate the same thing.  Now we know for future treks.

So, future treks…I would come back and do the Indian Himalayas again.  We covered a very small area of a very vast range.  I am grateful that this was my first trek, and not the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, which we had originally considered.  That trek is much higher in altitude, and much longer in days.  I felt that for my experience and physical ability, this was perfect.  I have been very interested in a trek in the state of Uttarakhand, also in the Himalayan Range, to the Valley of the Flowers.  It sounds stunning and amazing, and is a part of the country I did not venture to.  All in the return trip I am planning back to India.

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Posted in nature, Spiritual, travel | 5 Comments »