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Note 14: Back in India - Ladakh

September 03, 2005


Note 14: Back in India - Ladakh

From: "Michael Tselman"

Dear Friends!

I have not been writing for 3 months and I feel like I took a summer vacation off writing. First of all, for those who are new to these Notes, or want to see the previous ones, they are all available at I’m back to India now. This time I’m in Ladakh – the northernmost state of India bordering Pakistan on the west, China on the north and Tibet (which is a part of China as you know) on the east.

But let me first briefly mention my summer travels. After leaving India on the first of June, I spent a week in Moscow. I love Moscow – it’s my home city and my most favorite city. It is also a city where my closest friends live. There has not been a time when I had not enjoyed my visit to Moscow. This time was the same, but there was one detail that upset me. I noticed that the people on the streets and in the subway became more tense, less smiling and the city felt less active compared to my past visits. I shared this opinion with one of my friends there and his reply was: “What else do you expect when there is an ex-KGB man in the power seat.” The prices on goods and foods also went up considerably in Moscow over the past few years and now are close to the prices in US, while the salaries are lower by at least an order of magnitude. I do not want to enter an opinion on these changes into these Notes as these subjects are so complex that it is all too easy to become one-sided or misunderstood. So I’ll just leave these as my observations. In any case, as usual I enjoyed my visit, but it was very short, as I flew to New York after a week in Moscow.

My only business in New York this time was to collect my climbing gear and get prepared for the climbing trip to Peru. I had just over a week and it was quite enough to see my friends in both New York and Boston, to spend some wonderful time on Long Island, to drive through Manhattan and realize that I still want to come back to work in this energetic city. I had some interesting discussions with many of you about my adventures in India and beyond and I did not really get tired from repeating all the stories. The trip to Peru was planned long time ago and it was the main reason of my departure from the Asian continent. Right after getting to Lima – the capital of Peru, I remembered my first impressions of Lima that I had on my first visit there about 7 years ago. Back then, the sights of poverty, dirt and smog on the streets have shocked me deeply. Then it was my first visit to what we call a third-world country. Amazingly, this time I have been noticing how clean the streets are compared to Delhi. How accurately people are dressed, how little poverty you see compared to the big cities of the Indian subcontinent. There is also no pushing, no hassling from the vendors, from the taxi drivers. You do not feel like you have to be in a defensive mode.

A super-comfortable bus took me from Lima to Huaraz – the climbing center of Peru and possibly of South America. Some people call it the “Chamonix of the South America”. The town is located at around 4000m and is surrounded by Cordilliera Blanca on one side and Cordiliera Negro on the other. The Blanca is where all the tall snow covered peaks are, many exceeding 6000m in height. The scenery is spectacular but I will not go into describing it as my limited language will not do it justice. A group of my climbing friends arrived from US a couple days later and after spending two more days in Huaraz we departed into the first valley towards our acclimatization peaks and other mountain objectives. As our climbing adventures in Peru deserve a separate complete story, I will just mention the facts here. Some of us climbed Ishinka and some climbed Urus for acclimatization (both around 5500m). Some of us got sick from bad water or some other stomach bug and were resting and recovering. The stronger and healthier ones climbed Tochlaraju (around 6075m) by a grade “D” route – the ridge. After some rest in Huaraz we went towards the other valley where most of us climbed Artesonraju (also just above 6000m) by a classic SW Face route (also grade D) and Dima and I tried to climb Piramida Grande. I was in some very strange state of mind on this climb and just could not commit to it, so after starting the route and climbing up to the low crux of the climb we decided to retreat. Maybe someday I will write an analysis of what went on in my head on this climb and about some moments when you feel like you just cannot and should not go there or be there.

My US group of climbing friends left back home, but I was still in Peru and a group of friends from Russia (actually Moscow, Germany and France, but all Russians) was still in Peru and I joined them for one last climb in Peru. I climbed Artesonraju again but this time with Alex, by a different, more difficult route (“TD+” SW buttress, also known as Slovenian Route). The route was considerably harder than anything I climbed before maybe except for the colouir in Bolivia on mt. Huaommen, where 2 years ago Dima and I spent a really cold night. Two days later I left Peru, flew to New York and a week later – to Moscow. This time I came to Russia with a plan of joining my best friend and his company on their trip in Karelia – the part of Russian north bordering Finland. It’s a wonderful land of rivers and lakes, close to Arctic Circle, so the sun almost does not disappear from the sky in the summer months. It was the best season for gathering mushrooms and berries and the fishing was great. Before leaving Russia to go study in US in 1991, I was spending around a month every summer in Karelia, going down the rivers on “baydarka” – a foldable kayak. The memories of those times came back to me and I felt like those 15 years of absence from this place never happened. I was surrounded by the same friends, in the same places doing the same simple living off the nature – fishing, gathering mushrooms, berries, cooking on the fire, watching the amazing sunsets and the morning fog above the lakes. Those who’ve been to Karelia, know exactly what I’m describing.

But it was time for me to leave to India. During my previous stay in India this spring I was trying to get to Ladakh, but the high passes were still closed due to snow conditions and the flights were overbooked so I could not visit that region.

The nature of Ladakh can be most easily described as a mountain desert. Most of Ladakh is at the altitude of above 3000 meters with 6000 and even 7000 meter peaks sticking out of the high desert plain. There is very little rainfall – probably just a few inches over the whole year, so the conditions here are extremely dry. The only sources of water are the streams coming from the melting glaciers and high snowfields. Only the little villages and small cities have trees and grasses and fields of crops planted around them. The rest is rock, sand and dust. In summer it is hot as in the real desert during the day and chilly at night. The winters here are extreme, with temperatures dropping down to -45C. Being the size of Great Britain, Ladakh has a population of only 130,000 people. The people are predominantly Buddists. There is a mix of Tibetans, Ladakhis (which look similar to Tibetans), Kashmiris (which contribute to a small muslim population).

The first contrast that you see with the rest of India when you arrive to Ladakh is how clean it is there. You actually do not feel like you are in India at all. The people look different, the food is different, the houses are different, no one is hassling you, every one is genuinely friendly and looks happy. And I want to point once again that it is very clean. In Leh – the capital of Ladakh, they even made a restriction on the use of plastic bags – whatever you buy in the store comes wrapped in the “brown bag” – a kind of recycled paper. There are several places to refill your water bottle for half the price of buying an new bottle, and of course it is not the cost, but the consciousness that makes you walk am extra hundred meters to refill your bottle instead of throwing the old one away and buying a new one. Most people do that.

The most annoying part of Ladakh is the tourist invasion. And this is the start of the low season already and the numbers of tourists went down. Around 90% are young Israelis. Right now I’m sitting in the internet point and all the keyboards have Hebrew stickers on the letters and almost everyone around me speaks Hebrew. It is like this everywhere. It is the most unfortunate nuisance of traveling in India. Even the Israelis who travel by themselves and not in hordes complain about their countryman on the noisy motorbikes, with all-night parties, with a total disrespect to the local culture and traditions, just treating India as a super-cheap land to get drugs, hang out for a few months and by some cheap stuff to send back home for making some small profit.

But let me get back to the good stuff.

I arrived to India just over a week ago and this time arranged for a connecting flight from Delhi to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, so that I would not have to spend any time in Delhi during the summer heat. The flight from Delhi to Ladakh is quite spectacular. The flight goes over the Great Himalayan Range and all the mountain giants are clearly visible from the window. The landing is also thrilling as the plane dives into one of the narrow valleys, makes a full circle and you feel like you can touch the mountains if the window was open. A quick ride on a taxi shared with a couple more travelers and I’m in Leh, in its quieter part, looking for a guesthouse – that’s how family run hotels are called here. My second try is successful and I get a small room in a GreenLand guesthouse on a top floor for 130 rupees (about $3). The top floor has an open roof section, two more rooms, a wonderfully decorated prayer room and a shared bathroom/shower that is big and sparkling clean. I have only seen bathrooms so clean in expensive hotels in US or Europe.

Ladakhis are super efficient. In the old times I do not think anything was ever going to waste. That is just natural for people living in these harsh mountain desert conditions. My guesthouse has a great vegetable garden – everything is completely organic, as chemicals are too expensive to bring and use here. Instead the old and reliable manure and composts are used for fertilizing the short harvest. There are cabbages, carrots, potatoes, spinach, and some other veggies growing in the garden. Nearby are the fields of wheat and barley. Every night I have an option of either eating in one of the many restaurants in Leh, or eating dinner at the guesthouse prepared by the hostess and her helper – a beautiful 18 year old girl from Kashmir. Most of the time I opt for the guesthouse food as it is excellently cooked from all of the garden ingredients. The dining happens in a Ladakhi-style kitchen. In Ladakh, the kitchen is the main room of the house. It is usually the largest room of the house. One side contains a stove, shelves with many different pots, pans, and dishes and other kitchen utensils. The other side has mattresses or thick carpet along the wall with low narrow tables lined along them. All guests sit on the mattresses cross-legged and the dishes are served by the hostess. The main reason for the kitchen to be so big and multipurpose is its use during the winter time. In winter, Ladakhi family has neither means nor tools to heat the whole house, so the only space used during winter is usually the single room – the kitchen, where stove serves for both heat and food preparation and the remaining space for sleeping of the whole family. After spending first 3 days in Leh, once again on this long trip getting used to higher altitude and having a few wonderful, accidental meetings with some friends I made back in springtime in Rishikesh, I decided to go for a short trek. After all, trekking is the main tourist activity in Ladakh. Not wanting to go on one of the organized treks with donkeys, cooks, porters, and many other unknown people, I decided to do what is called here a “homestay” trek. That means that I do not need to take a tent, cooking gear and food, but can go from village to village asking for a “homestay” in each village, where I’ll then be fed, put into a nice room and generally cared for by the local family. A girl from Luxemburg staying in my guesthouse decided to do the same trek so we went together.

It was a 4 days/3 nights trek from the village of Chiling to the village of Stok with several villages in between that had the homestay option. Homestay is not just a stay in a random house. Rather, a nonprofit organization “Snow Leopard Trail” organized a system which would allow low income families in the villages to supplement their income by having trekkers to stop in their houses. In return the family should prepare a proper room, cook dinner and breakfast for the visitor and provide him with clean boiled water, tea, etc… A payment expected from the trekker is around $8 per person, which is not cheap by Indian standards, but as you pay it directly to the family, you know that the money are not going to someone else’s pocket, but go towards the welfare of the family feeding and taking care of you.

The first day of the trek the excitement started. After going for 3 hours on a local bus and getting of in Chiling, we had to cross Zanskar river. The crossing is done in a small basket made out of wood planks, suspended on a metal cable by two rollers. A person (“operator”) on each bank of the river holds a rope connected to the basket. The basket fits exactly one person who should crouch on the floor together with his backpack or other things. The “operator” on one side screams and releases the basket, which starts its quick ride towards the middle of the river. Inertia then brings it further towards the other bank after which the other “operator” pulls the basket to his bank by the rope. This is very exciting when the river you are crossing is about 200 meters wide and is not just a river, but a true mountain river carrying brown waters with extreme swiftness.

There were a couple of locals from the bus who where carrying many simple goods bought in Leh to their villages – things like eggs, biscuits, sugar, etc…Also on the bus with us was a teacher from a school in one of the valleys to which the closest access was by a 3 day trek. His first day coincided with our first day and so he led the way. He knew a shortcut to the first village we were going to, which instead of climbing over a small pass was going along the Zanskar river by a very narrow trail over not so stable ground. It was fun. He was a teacher of “everything” in a school with a total of 25 children. Very nice guy. Every time we stopped for rest he was offering us some biscuits, explaining some local rules and asking many questions about life and schools in our countries. His English was quite good. I have to note here that Ladakhis (except for the remote villages) speak English much better and much more clear then people in the other parts of India that I’ve visited. (Of course I’m not comparing with high caste, high education classes). The village of Kaya was beautiful! An oasis in this desert land, stretched along the fast, clear stream, with many fields and apricot trees everywhere. We got to the homestay house and were immediately welcomed by tea (chay) and biscuits to start with. We then tried some “Chang” – a form of local homebrewed barley based beer. Barley is a very popular crop in Ladakh, I guess due to its higher resistance to the harsh climate conditions. As barley is usually very slow to cook, they roast it first and then mill it into barley flour that can even be eaten as is or made into porridge or added to soup or used into many other varieties of dishes.

In all the houses we’ve been to, we’ve seen very few (if any) men. All men are busy on trekking jobs, working as cooks, donkey drivers, porters, etc… Women stay home and deal with both field work and household duties. In the first homestay there was a young woman with a little child (just under 2 years old) and a mother of her husband. The room was beautiful. It was more than I have expected, with a nice carpet on the floor, colorful mattresses, nicely decorated low tables in front of them and the windows looking out right on the apricot trees and into the yard. These people are always smiling. They seemed very happy and content with their hard lives and were trying to make our stay as pleasant as possible. The meal in the evening is simple and traditional – rice, dal (lentils) and some cooked vegetables, followed by tea. Early in the morning I was woken up by the sound of cow milking. The old lady was milking one of the cows in the yard and the sound of milk streams hitting the bottom of the pot worked as a perfect alarm clock. We helped to make chapattis (kind of simple flat bread) and had a breakfast with the family.

The walk to the next village, while not so demanding as far as the altitude gain goes, was the most tiring of the whole trek. Most of the walk was up the canyon with a small stream running in it, but even the little greenery that grew along the stream could not provide adequate protection from the heat. As there was no wind, the heat was hanging in the canyon getting stronger with every hour. We arrived to the village of Shongu totally exhausted and my friend decided that for going over the high pass tomorrow shoe would try to hire a porter or a man with a donkey to carry her backpack.

Once again we were greeted by an old lady – Padma in the homestay of Shongu. She brought us tea and started making butter tea. Butter tea is a hot water with butter and salt. To make it, the locals use some very long (about 1-meter) and narrow (about 10 cm in diameter) wooden cylinder closed in one end. They pour some water, add some salt and butter into that cylinder, and then use a long pole with some stripes of leather at the end, to beat the mixture together. Sort of a “mixer”. Then the mixture is poured into a teapot and brought to boiling point. If prepared with good butter and right proportions, this drink is quite pleasant to drink after a hard day of walking. It especially goes well with plain chapattis. Padma brought us the tea and left to work in the fields for two more hours, which gave us some chance to recuperate after the walk. For dinner we had “Skew”. This is a tibetan dish of spinach cooked with small pieces of dough made from the barley flour. This is quite a heavy dish to digest, but we were happy to be taken care of anyways.

Next day my travel companion found a man with a donkey to carry her pack. He was also carrying things for two Dutch ladies. Both in their 50s, they have been trekking for over a month by now, carrying all their supplies, tent, stove, etc, until a week ago, when one of the ladies had trouble with her foot and they finally decided to hire some help for the last few days of their trek. The Kanda-La pass we had to cross was about 800 meters above the village. At the top of the pass my altimeter showed 4965 meters. Different Indian maps show this pass anywhere from 4800meters to 5100meters. That’s the precision in India. Later I compared my altimeter with a GPS and I was only 10meters off. After the pass, the trail down was long and finally we arrived to a village of Rumbuk. This was a bigger village with multiple homestays and with my travel companion we decided to stay in different houses as it is easier to make contact with local people when you are alone. Well… It worked out for her, as she ended up staying in the village for 2 more days, but did not work too well for me. It started out pretty well, as the room looked great, and a nice tea was served. After a quick rest I went into the fields and found my hosts working on putting the cut grass into fancy thick strands for further drying and carrying. I joined in and soon learned how to build perfect strands – they are about 5-10cm thick and about 1.5 meters long, twisted hard, so that the grass keeps itself together. Then they are bent onto themselves to create something reminding a twisted pastry, or a dog-bone. I got pretty good at building those. We had some tea and chang in the field after work and then headed into the house. The donkey man that was helping my friend with her pack happened to be the friend of the family and so he joined the dinner. The dinner consisted of rice with some cooked cabbage followed by more tea and chang. The donkey man got quite drunk. That was when the family suggested that the donkey man share a room with me. I did not like the idea too much. There was so much space in the house: the kitchen had a few mattresses, there were at least two more rooms visible. I did not give a strong “no”, but showed that I am not a big fun of the idea. Nevertheless, when I went to my room to sleep, the young girl of the family came in, put on the bright light, brought some dirty blankets and said that these are for the donkey man. (They also always referred to him as “donkey man”, so I’m using the same). Once again I did not show excitement, but when after 15 minutes no one came I turned the light off. A few minutes later the girl comes in again and puts on the light, which goes right into my eyes. I wait another 5 minutes and look outside the room. The donkey man is still loudly chatting and drinking nonstop. I turn off the light once more and go to sleep. The donkey man does not come, but once it gets quiet I can here that there are enough other creatures in the room and possibly in the mattress I am using. I get up with my headlamp, search around, kill a few crawling things, shake off the mattress, close more tightly my sleeping bag, hoping nothing will get inside and go to sleep again. I wake up only one more time when I hear a metal sound on the table by my bed. Turn on my headlamp. Half of the biscuits that used to be on a metal plate on the table are now turned into little crumbs on the floor. This is just some mice. I do not mind mice. I like crawling things much less.

Wake up in the morning early – 6am to have an early start for the next pass – Stok-La. The breakfast – 4 chapattis and some chemical berry jam from a can. Some tea, but no drinking water. I have to note that the “homestays” in the program are required to provide travelers with drinking water – just cooled down boiled water. This was the first house that had none. No worries, I had iodine tablets with me, so I refilled my water bottle in the nearby stream and treated with iodine tablets – not the best taste, but drinkable and safe. The departure from the house was also quite different from the previous ones. No good buys, nothing. They only waited, practically with a stretched out hand for me to pay for my stay and then immediately lost interest. This was sad. This village is the only village of those I visited that stands on the intersection of my trek and the other, more popular and more busy trek. I only can explain the strange behavior of these people by some possible bad experience with some other trekkers, so they are more reluctant to be open and show full hospitality that I have seen so far in every single place in Ladakh.

Oh well… I went over another 5000m pass, went down to the village of Stok and came back to Leh just in time for the beginning of the Ladakh Festival which starts on September 1st and goes for 2 weeks. The next morning was the opening of the festival. During the opening parade groups of Ladakhis from different villages put on their national costumes and walk through most of Leh under the banners of their villages. With drums, pipes, stopping and dancing, all in different clothes and masks, this parade would have been absolutely amazing had it not been for the tourists. From the early morning all the tourists got onto the sides of the main parade streets patiently waiting with their cameras ready. I will not deny – I was one of them. But once the parade started and the procession started going down the street all the order broke. The tourists jumped onto the street with the cameras and flashes right into the faces of those in the procession. They were sometimes getting to within inches from the face of the local, running ahead and around and even into the center of the procession just to make another shot. It was amazing how cool the locals behaved – as if the foreigners do not exist. They just completely ignored the tourist photo-chaos and kept on walking and dancing and playing their instruments. A true buddist behavior. At first I was also bitten by the picture opportunity bug, but once I realized what is happened I stepped aside. Later the procession went to the Polo Ground on the side of Leh where the show continued. Different villages were presenting their local dances in front of a big audience, but those waiting for their turn to perform were under a tourist attack. They did not mind too much, but I found behavior of some “photographers” totally disgusting. One of them, a slick guy in tight shirt and dark cool glasses was coming to the next victim and with his hands was positioning the face of the victim for the better light and then placing his lens to within 5-10 centimeters from the face and making multiple shots. Just treating people as photographic objects. I felt terrible.

Next day I rested and only saw a beginning of a local theater performance (as part of festival). It was interesting, but without translation was difficult to watch longer than 40 minutes.

And now I finally come to today.

Today was the first day (out of three days) of lectures that Dalay Lama is giving in Leh. The actual lectures happen on a big field near a big buddist center 7 km south of Leh. A colorful pavilion is built with a throne under the roof for the Dalay Lama. All the locals and many tourists went to the first day. There were at least 10,000 people on the field. Luckily for tourists, we got a separate section, on the side of the podium, with a few loudspeakers pointed towards our section which provided almost-simultaneous English translation of the lecture. At first it was quite difficult to understand the topic, as there were many repetitions of the same and not a clear logical direction. The translator was trying hard and finally both he and we got into synch with Dalay Lama’s talk. Most of the talk was about three things: “Positive thinking”, “altruism” and “compassion”. How important it is to cultivate those characters in us and how important it is to cultivate and show them to our children. With regards to children his statement was something like that – If a person does not see and does not experience compassion, altruism and positive thinking in his childhood, then it is almost impossible for him to cultivate those features in himself later. He just cannot not feel them.

The other topics he discussed were differences and similarities of different religions. How people with different levels of intellect and spiritual development should be taught differently. Some part of the talk was clearly targeted at young and aspiring monks sitting in front, as a lot of buddist terminology was used. This part was quite difficult to understand, but I guess this is exactly the case where he addressed different parts of audience with different words.

Interestingly enough, with all my respect for his teachings, I did not get a feeling of the person. Nothing close to what I felt meeting some spiritual people and teachers in India. Maybe because this is such an impersonal meeting, maybe because he is just too far away for me to understand anything, or maybe his fame and political role already created an image of a certain person in my mind and I’m just placing him into a known framework.

In any case, it was really interesting and inspiring and tomorrow I hope to go again to spend 3-4 hours sitting on a grass under scorching sun with another 10,000 people to hear a few poorly translated words of Dalay Lama.

Thank you for reading, I’m always happy to receive commentaries or just letters from all of you,