Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Desert in the Sky - Leh

"It's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it. And then it flows through me like rain. And I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life." - Lester Burnham 

The Furnace

Since my arrival back to 907 Mukherjee Nagar I had been writing non-stop. My original intent for visiting Nagaland was to research agricultural strategies used by Naga farmers. India's agricultural modernization has already left thousands of rural villages completely demolished and helpless. I worried the same had occurred for the Naga. Leaving with such evidence of immense sustainable accomplishment was a beautiful surprise, a relief, and a blessing. Days of research in Nagaland had left me with hours of voice recordings, gigabytes of photos, and documents hundreds of pages long. It was a long 4 days as I processed the research. Late nights of work at the computer were accompanied by frustration towards my apartment's rising temperatures. Although exhausted, my body was unable to cool enough to properly rest. Wallas wailed to the rising sun at 7am every morning. My sleep cycles narrowed. The hours dwindled to 3 per night, with an unavoidable siesta as my body collapsed at the unbearable heat of high noon.

Dust and swelter; Delhi was heating up. When I arrived 4 months ago the weather was beautiful, cooling to 0 C in the evening and never topping 30 C (86 F) during the day. Yet the seasons had changed since January; I was in the thick of Spring. On a good day, it was 33 C (92 F), but on average I sweltered in 38 C (100 F). Evenings were never below 30 C and sometimes reached 35 C (95 F). When temperatures hit 40+ C, I couldn't stand it anymore. With no A/C, it was up to the fans to keep us from going crazy in the heat. I reconfigured my bed and the living room so that every piece of furniture was directly under the fan. A blast of dusty air continuously filtered into our apartment from the dirty city streets. Sweat was our air conditioner. As the days passed, the oven dial and my sanity limit in the concrete jungle ticked ever warmer.

Pest control in the house became uncontrollable. Every time I went to the squatter, a tiny black cloud erupted from the water basin at the bottom of the toilet; mosquitoes. They were breeding in our toilet water every evening, and each time someone went in for the first morning bathroom break, the eruption leaked out and into the rest of the apartment. Never again will I be so thankful for fans, as these running full blast kept the mosquitoes from navigating to my skin. All the same, the skin of several EAP members became a war zone. Azzar's bite count went from 10 to 30 over one evening, and by the end of the week he looked like he had chicken pox all over his legs. Enough.

On May 3 I finished my academics. Within one week I had aced my Hindi final, compiled my research on Nagaland for my Anthropology course and completed a report on the development of religion and society for my class in Sociology. I'll be honest, the expectations for foreign exchange students at the University of Delhi were low. I was thankful my teachers knew something else needed to develop during my time here: a story, one that involved escaping the classroom to personally experience what India was all about. And I knew, after all these months of studying and barging, where my story of India would end.


The Great Himalaya: the youngest mountain range in the world, yet home to all 14 of the "eight-thousander" (24,000ft+, 4 miles+) peaks. It is as majestically massive and mesmerizing as it is mysterious and maleficent. Thousands of superhumans have striven conquer these mountains a million times their size, but torrential and sporadic weather conditions have swept and swallowed thousands away into the jagged, high altitude wasteland.

There are several places to visit in this wild frontier where the living fight for survival. Some popular destinations are the great Mt. Kanchendzonga in Sikkim, the source of the river Ganges in Uttarakhand, and the extreme sports capital of India, Himachal Pradesh. Many people have praised these locations for their mountain beauty. However, there was one place that every traveler demanded I must go.

Leh is a small mountain town in the valley of Ladak, Kashmir, 12,000 feet in the sky and separated from the rest of the world by the massive Himalaya surrounding it. I was very fortunate with weather pattern. I had planned my trip over 3 months ago in a gamble. People had warned me that May 4th was too early, that the mountain passes would not be open for bus rides and that violent weather could cancel my flight at the last minute. All worked out as I successfully boarded my flight at 5am that morning. Almost immediately after sitting down in my seat on Jet Airways, was fast asleep.

I awoke out of the deepest sleep to a flight attendant's humble voice. I threw open the window cover.

It was a windy coastal sunrise. The ocean was choppy that morning, with every wave in the sea capped in white, towering 6000m high. Its a sight I had dreamed about since stepping foot on India's soil. As far as I could see into the horizon, mountains. I had come to the subcontinent to feel their power as they birthed from the clash of Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates. I'll never forget the feeling, 10,000m high and so insignificant to the timelessness the Himalaya. This continued for another 20 minutes before the valley of Ladakh emerged. The plane descended, swallowed by the overwhelmingly large mountain range that engulfed Leh.

Every flight into Leh lands in an Indian Air Force base. The provinces of Jammu and Kashmir are the closest tourists can get to the conflicts between India and Pakistan. Because of several extremist attacks in the borderlands of Jammu, the province Kasmir also holds high security for any traffic into the region at all airports. I was not permitted to bring anything on-board with me, and all bags were ordered to be checked before take-off in Delhi. As I walked down the stairs from the plane, I was thankful to be bagless.

Tomorrow by Thievery Corporation on Grooveshark
(if the last song hasn't finished, pause it! these media players don't work well together)

The air was thin, extremely thin. I had never been so winded in my life from just walking down a flight of 20 stairs onto the ground. I walked to the transport vehicle that would take me to my bag, panting. Hotel... water. I was still incredibly exhausted from little sleep the night before and was quickly running out of energy

I was completely powerless to the insistence and desperation of the Ladakhi taxi drivers. I walked up to the first man that addressed me, who happened to offer a good price and a cheap ride to his hotel. Within a half hour I was at his hotel and settled in my room. But the altitude was creeping into my skin, sucking my moisture dry from head to toe, leaving nothing but incapacitation and a migraine the size of Everest. Thankfully I was given a large pitcher of water on the coffee table. It was worth the gamble at this point, as I judged nothing to be worse for me than altitude sickness at 3,500m. I immediately chugged the whole pitcher, and passed out.


I awoke 4 hours late. It was the first time I had felt well rested in weeks. The pitcher of water had only delayed my dehydration for a moment; altitude sickness was imminent. If I didn't hydrate within an hour I would be on the floor, feeling pressure the size of an anvil on my forehead. I immediately left the hotel, found the nearest store, and bought 6 L of water. I chugged one of them and stored the rest away. Though the hotel manager had insisted I rest all day, my youthful confidence got me moving around town at a slow pace. Things were just opening up in Leh. Souvenir shop owners were just unlocking doors as I walked by. I braced for their shouting. Yet, instead of insisting on a first customer, they simply waved and smiled. I couldn't believe how peaceful they were, especially to a promising youth customer. Besides the Tibetans in Sikkim and Mcleod Ganj, no one had ever been that peaceful to me as a store owner. No blurts of "discount," "cheap price," "scarf? you want scarf?" or any other painful phrases used to lure a tourist. Only simple hellos, waves, and smiles. Leh was quickly becoming a favorite.

A few blocks later I met the man who had convinced me at the airport. He waved and smiled like all the other Ladakhis, with an extra invitation for breakfast. We ventured off and away from the main drag of Leh into the local's area of town. After sitting down in a small shack to some eggs, puri, and chai, we began to talk business.

It turns out this man was far happier with me than I thought. He said I was one of the most respectful travelers he had met, and because of this wanted to help me. Of course, as with all Indian bargains, there is a deal. If I were to help him convince other arriving tourists on an incoming flight to stay at the same hotel, then he promised my room and transport to some beautiful locations around Ladakh free of charge. They wanted an international hustler.

That morning I did my job and did it well. Within one plane flight arrival I had 4 people staying at the hotel with me. And the day wasn't even half done! When I arrived, I had no plan and no expectations for how Leh would be. Half way through the day, I was getting a free ride across the valley and had met 4 great new friends at the airport. I'm no natural, but it sure was easy opportunity and reward ... or so I thought. Never trust an Indian hustler, no matter how good the deal sounds. I ended up paying for everything I thought I would get free. Another lesson learned...


(again, pause the last song if it's still playing!)

The valley of Ladakh never drops below 3,000m. It is largely uninhabited except for sparse areas close to the Indus, but when life is spotted it is breathtaking. White almond trees scatter across what little land has been cultivated as willows weep into the dark blue of the Indus. Cows roam the grasslands, and straw mud homes are lathered white. Prayer flags flicker a blessed arch of the Five Pure Lights: earth, fire, water, air, and space.

Beige, deep purple, dark aqua green, brown. Endless space. My driver and I bounded along the empty highway through the barren otherworld. No more was I bearing the heat of the sun, the humidity of the air, the hustle and bustle of the subcontinent's overpopulation. In a bland perfection, Ladakh mesmerized me. I was floating in a desert in the sky.


Alchi was the smallest, most desolate village I would visit in India. It was like Gangtok all over again except no person ever showed on its streets. The only person I would meet was a monk at the village Gompa.

It has been a place of worship, learning, and protection for over 1000 years in this small village. Alchi Gompa is most famous for a massive statue of Kannon, a bodhisattva of compassion, lacquered in the original painting from 1000 AD. After paying my donation, the monk led me along the courtyard to a tiny, weathered entry. He revealed a small loop of ancient keys to open a rusted lock on the shanty doorway.

The interior was dark, lit only by a sparse set of tiny candles. Yet the Gompa resonated with a thousand designs and colors. Giant mandalas covered every inch of the walls, all leading inwards towards Kannon (above). The bodhisattva towered over me at 50 feet tall.

Kannon in Alchi Gompa - Photographer Y. Shishido

The body positioning, though intimidating at first, emanated compassion towards those visitors of the Gompa. My neck ached as I stared into those eyes of beauty, love, and peace. I wandered in thought to the conflicts between India and Pakistan only 200 km away in Jammu. What a shame it was that, even though these relics of pure compassion, worshiped by those who wish no less to one and all, bordered a region that had become a war zone. Ladakh truly was another world, yet tied by pen and paper to a nation that holds little or no interest to respect the region.

And what better a time for an example of these shameful legal ties to come than in that very Gompa. An Indian man brushed past me with his family. He furtively glanced back, clutching his digital camera with all his life. I smiled, tilted my head in a warm and courteous fashion. He ignored me, and began to snap photos left and right. The old monk who had invited me in stood outside, unaware of the terrible damage that this man's flash photos were doing to 1000+ year old paintings. The man's family member quietly told the man that no photos are allowed in here. The man replied, "Why not? We are Indians."

"You are Indians?" I exclaimed to him. He quickly turned to find me a foot from his face. "Yes, we are Indians, we are Canadians, we are French." I'm surprised I said anything in return, but I huffed and exclaimed, "wow."

No, he was not Canadian. No, he was not French. No, he was not even an Indian in my eyes. He was the collective filth and ignorance that come with the power of wealth and superiority in a nation tainted with corruption. He found himself above the law, above the simple requests of a poor old monk whose only wish is to preserve the village's most important landmark. This Indian wishes and will do as he pleases, regardless of whatever anyone else may think. It is these thoughts that spewed out of this snob of a living thing, smothered in his own self-righteous demeanor. For this man, there is no need to respect those of misfortune, or to simply respect those things that are invaluably ancient to another collective group. Instead, this man, a mass of corrupted filth, has poisoned himself deeply. He wishes only for self-satisfaction in the form of a crappy photo of a temple so lavishly layered in ancient paintings, a sight that no picture could ever do justice.

I was enraged. I had been separated by the aura of tranquility in the air of the Gompa. I stepped outside to see a group of women and children waiting. Calmly, I said, "May I ask whose husband is taking photos in there?" A woman addressed me, and I simply said "Well I am sorry to tell you, but he is a complete, self-righteous asshole." I left no room for a reply and trailed out of the Gompa courtyard. Soon after the Indian man followed me.

"You call me asshole? You call me asshole?" he yelled in my face. I had crumbled its soft, cotton Abercrombie t-shirt and denim attire and left him naked to its puny, worthless ego. "Yes, you are a self-righteous asshole, ignoring the monk and taking photos wherever you want." I laughed in his face and began to leave. He followed for a while, flustering about, cursing me in any which way. How pathetic. Weren't you an Indian, one that could do whatever you want? Could you not disregard the snide comment of a young traveler, obviously unaware of the powerful riches and status acquired from being a member of the pseudohuman elite?

He doesn't understand. He has been corruptedHe is truly lost in his wealth. The compassion and peace of the Alchi Gompa caught hold of me as I reached the entrance. It's one thing to witness poverty in India; it's in your face every day. But every once in a while you get a chance to fully experience how terrible wealth inequalities affect a person. This man had been destroyed from within; he had lost compassion long ago when he and his wealthy friends found out they could do whatever they want. He would probably continue this mindset for the rest of his days, unable to self-reflect upon how his actions affect his surroundings. As I exited the Gompa, the man gave up on instigating more from me and stormed back to his family. I walked out in peace, yet saddened. Wealth can truly destroy a once beautiful soul.

As I returned to the main road, I met a group of tourists that had been stranded in Alchi for the day with no ride back to Leh. They had come assuming that Alchi would be a bustling town worth exploring for a few days. Deserted streets obviously deterred them. Compassion came easily, and I invited them to join me on the rest of my tour through the valley of Ladakh.



As I returned to Leh that evening, I took time to walk about the streets at night alone. I had been looking forward to the silence and solitude of the Himalaya for a long while, as living in Delhi provided no outlet. Though there were no people afoot, the walk was anything but serene. Hundreds of dogs barked, howled and growled across the city. The night brought the canine clans out for a battle royale that continued for the entire evening. Several times I was threatened, and in anticipation of attack I armed myself with an old rusty pipe I found along the way. Simply clutching this beat stick in my hand instantly deterred conflict, and soon enough I was left alone amongst the chaos.

I left town into the desert landscape, accompanied only by a million stars across the night sky. At last, after all those months of living in a clouded troposphere of pollutants, I could see the milky way and its surrounding stellar beauty. Finally, I was truly alone.

Chang La: 5,360

My last expedition in India began the next day. It had the potential of being the most dangerous of all. We had to drive through one of many mountain passes that were treacherous and vulnerable to immediate changes in weather. Chang La Pass was en route to Pongong, an elongated glacial lake that was part of both India and Tibet. I awoke that morning to find both Oscar and John even more altitude sick than the day before. I felt terrible for them, as going any higher in altitude was only going to worsen their situation. Yet, they decided they would fight through the sickness and join Olivia, Vanessa, and I to the shores of Pongong.

Sure enough, the road was treacherous. Though it did not rain or snow, our altitude brought us to icy conditions combined with switch backs carved into sheer cliff faces. Everyone in the car was struggling with the thinning air. I reached under my seat to find that several liters of water were available, and urged everyone to start chugging unless they wanted their conditions to worsen. They obliged, and by the time we stopped on the top of Chang La Pass I had finished 3L. Even with all that hydration, I still felt a headache coming. Conditions were much worse for John and Oscar, who immediately burst out of the car and heaved all over the ground. Though we didn't stop for long, I took time to enjoy a new personal achievement.

5360m. I would have never imagined reaching such a height on my trip through India. And yet, here I was, panting with each step towards the massive sign marking my elevation. All of the sudden, a snowball hit me in the back. It was Olivia, and John followed soon after, pummeling Olivia with his first snowball ever. John had never touched snow in his life, and even after puking his brains out, he boomed a hearty laugh as a snowball fight ensued. It only lasted a few seconds, but every moment was full of the purest joy. We laughed, smiled, and almost collapsed as the thin air smacked us back into reality. Delirious and exhausted, we piled back into the car and bounded off to Pongong Lake.

The Glacial Mirror

As we dropped out of the snowy mountain tops and into a flat, barren landcape, the sight was extraordinary. Pongong was a sapphire, morphing between a thousand shades of navy, indego, and turquoise as glacial water churned with the reflection of a deep blue sky. The glacial water surface was choppy, and golden brown sparkled across the ever changing water as reflections met the barren mountain landscape. As we stepped to the edge of its shores, still frozen from the sub zero temperatures of the night, I gazed eastwards into the land of Tibet.

Again, I stood at the border of a society viced by a heartless regime for over half a century. China's grip has not loosened, continuing to strangle the selfless and beautiful message of the Tibetan people. This borderland was different. A line had been drawn between Ladakh and Tibet, yet these places could not care less about boundary lines. It's a moment like this that made me appreciate the basic freedoms of being proud of my nationality, instead of being forced to call myself Indian or Chinese.

Final Excursions

With only one afternoon left in the Himalaya, there was only one thing left to do: rent a motorcycle. A small spill with a Honda Hero only a few months before in Rishikesh left me a little intimidated for picking up a muscle bike, so I had the guide drive and escort John, Olivia, Oscar, Vanessa and I around the valley instead.

(MUTE THIS SOUND! Then play music below with the video!)

As we headed back to town after a long 200km drive, I asked my driver to pull over. This was my last chance to ride a motorcycle in India, and I wasn't going to let the chance pass by. It was a hairy start, but soon enough I was coasting.

John and Olivia putting along

It was such an incredible ending to my journey as I drove along that barren landscape, the open road empty to all but the three of our motorcycles. It was my favorite time of day. The sun was setting directly ahead, wrapping over the Himalaya, rays of golden light descending on the desert valley. I kicked the Shadow into top gear and pulled the engine into full throttle. I beamed a smile from ear to ear. Ultimate bliss overwhelmed me on my final hours of daylight in the beautiful subcontinent of India.

I had traveled 13,500 miles by train/taxi/bus/motorcycle and 5000 miles by plane; 18,500 miles, 5 months. My life, as eventful as it may have been before, was overflowing into a new book of empty pages. As this first chapter came to a close in the Himalaya, I could do nothing but shout to the wind as it rushed through my beard. I flew down the desert highway of Ladakh, chasing the setting sun over the Himalaya. A new beginning had come from these experiences of beauty, love, misfortune, shock, stench, and discovery. And so much more awaited, just beyond that setting sun.


Mt. Kailash - Photographer: Ondřej Žváček
Mt. Kailash is a 21,778 ft monstrosity that rests in Tibet just east of Uttarakhand, India. Hindus consider it Lord Shiva's eternal residence, while other Hindu sects declare it the spiritual center of the world. The Bön, an ancestral sect of Tibetan Buddhism, considers the mountain to be "Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring," a perfected realm where peace and joy are the very fabric of being. Tibetan Buddhists believe it to be the eternal home of Buddha Demchock, the being of supreme bliss. And for the Jain, Mt. Kailash was the location of their first Tirthankara's (one to achieve enlightenment) liberation from rebirth. Other legends say that its four massive flat faces are made of 4 rare minerals: crystal, gold, lapis lazuli, and ruby. Though these religions hold differing beliefs towards Mt. Kailash, it will remain the most sacred site in the world for them all. Though the Chinese have given permission for a summit in the past, an overwhelming international disapproval has immediately deterred both the mountaineers and government officials from following through. And so, Mt, Kailash has never and will never be climbed. I hoped that I would at least get a chance to see this mountain from my flight pattern on the way out of the Himalaya, yet nothing was certain. It could easily be a cloudy day on the way back out, which was when the plane would be facing eastward and I would be sitting in a window seat looking into China.

Kailash is in the middle of the picture, along the horizon, hazed slightly by the atmosphere.

As I looked out the window of the flight back to Delhi, there was Kailash, guarded by the fortress of its surrounding peaks. To have simply observed this sacred mountain was a blessing in itself. Kailash, though a part of China, was an image that I held dear as I landed back in Delhi.

For how treacherous of a place the country may be for the traveler, India is a sacred ground to 24 different religions. It is a place to be respected and left alone, but has become one of the most corrupted societies as the imperial and developed world have seeped to its ancient roots. The reasons span more complex than just social oppression and economic pressures. Truly understanding such a change in an ancient, complex, and massive society would take a lifetime. But for all the frustration, disillusionment, and sadness compelled upon any that visit, it is a sacred land that can teach the traveler invaluable lessons. These lessons I have shared with you, and I will leave the story of India for you, the weary traveler to finish. Do not focus on the misfortunes! Instead, seek the sound, smell, sight and sense of knowledge these events can bestow upon you! Adventurer or reader, I simply hope you remember the beautiful things I have learned with each step through the subcontinent of endless culture, life, and love.

नमस्ते जी, और आपका ध्यान के लिए धन्यवाद!

(to be continued...)