Our adventures in India have taken me to a completely different part of India: the Buddhist Himalayas. Alice and I couldn't handle the illness-inducing heat of the plains and after a quick stop at the Taj we made a bee line straight to the mountains and more habitable temperatures. We started our mountain adventures in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. It's very strange to see a government operating inside the sovereignty of another government, but that is exactly what the Dalai Lama and his government do within India. They have a parliament, courts, a library, etc. It was quite an experience for me to learn more about the situation of Tibetan refugees and I now have an even deeper appreciation for the Dalai Lama as I feel I better understand his life's mission to nonviolently restore independence to Tibet.
We then embarked on a harrowing two day trip over the second highest navigable road in the world, passing over 17,000 ft passes between towering peaks and then through remote and beautiful valleys. The Lonely Planet interestingly describes it as a "bone-crushing" trip, and we soon found out what that meant. Sitting in the back of the bus, every time the speeding bus hit a bump or pothole our entire bodies became airborne before slamming back down, painfully, on the seats. We learned to immediately stand up at the slightest indication of a loss of contact with our seats in order to spare our spines and butt bones. It was certainly a unique dance.
We arrived, exhausted, in Leh, a city so remote that the internet functioned intermittently, the atms ran out of money(!), and probably most indicatively, it was never really conquered by the Hindus or the Muslims. Instead of having cultural connections to Muslim Kashmir or the Hindu plains, it pays homage to the Dalai Lama and to me seemed like a slice of Tibet in India. We made it our base for a 6 day, 66 mile, 17,000 foot high trek through three different mountain ranges with nothing but an extra set of clothes and a sleeping bag strapped to our back.
The trek initially had us walk along the Indus river before we turned south and climbed slowly up our first valley to the 16,600 foot pass into the wide Markha valley. The initial valley was nothing but a space cut from the mountains by rushing melt water, and only in rare instances did it open up wide enough for arable land and cultivation to form. Here, in isolated niches hours from anyone else people farmed the land and lived in square, mud homes with large interiors that they furnished with nothing but rows of windows, mats and small tables for sleeping and eating, and a row of pots and pans that invariably ended in a beautiful ornate stove. While there was a lot of empty space, the lack of decoration merely highlighted the intricately carved wooden tables and the beautifully designed, brass high-lighted Tibetan stoves. The arable land is minimal to fertile, thanks to the irrigation they create by diverting part of the melt water higher up in the valley and guiding it down to their fields.
We climbed the pass and descended into the beautiful Markha valley, where everyday we walked for 6-8 hours with about 30 pounds on our back, stopping to spend the night in people's homes. It was a treat to spend time with them and see their life in action. Tending to the fields and flocks was nothing new to me, but seeing the women clean and spin wool while muttering the sacred mantra "Om mani padme hum" continuously helped me to understand the spiritual nature and daily rhythm of life here. Buddhism has deep roots here. It seemed that in every village of any size (here meaning 10 houses) there was a monastery with a caretaker monk and a prayer room with statues of the Buddha and gongs and trumpets for music. Along our trek we passed countless stupas (round mounds originally containing the Buddha relics but now used as simple reminders) and mani walls (long, low, and wide walls covered with intricately carved rocks citing sacred texts). The idea behind the mani walls is to have the rocks mutter the carved prayers every time rain fell upon them, much like how prayer flags catch the wind and whisper their prayers or the rotation of prayer wheels sets the sacred words into motion. It's definitely a different form of prayer than I am used to.
We ended the trek by finishing at the top of the Markha valley, in the high plains of Nimaling. We started the day in Markha town at 12,500 feet and nine grueling hours later ended in a tent at 15,500 feet. We spent the evening enjoying the scenery: the enormous Stok range ringed us on all sides, culminating in the towering 21,000 ft Kanyaze peak. We were on top of the world: the sky was a darker blue, the stars shown more brightly than ever before, and there was nothing around us but bare alpine grasses climbing gradually to snow-covered ridges and peaks. Nothing, that is, except for the goats and sheep. The vast plains are too high for anything but grazing, yet their magnitude makes them perfect for large flocks as high as 2,000 to feast upon the earth. In other words, we spent the night among shepherds who brought their flocks high into remote summer pastures.
What a world.
We woke up early the next morning, climbed the 17,000 foot Kongmaru pass, and began our gradual descent out of the mountains, ending later that day nearly 5,000 feet lower. The pass was everything it was meant to be, mainly gorgeous and difficult. At the top we looked out upon panoramic views of several mountain ranges while we sat down and enjoyed our celebratory chocolate under hundreds of brightly colored prayer flags. The passage up and down, however, was exhausting. It drained us of our energy, gave us headaches, made us make silly, oxygen-deprivation mistakes, and made us enjoy the health and normality of lower altitudes.
Overall, it was a magnificent experience, and I am so glad I did it.
Due to the sad conflict in Kashmir, we were forced to forgo the legendary beauty of the neighboring valley and retreat back down to the plains. We just finished up a stay in Amritsar, the holiest city for the Sikhs. We spent the night with hundreds of pilgrims in their ashram, ate the free, assembly line-like meal, and toured their holy of holies, the golden temple. Set amidst an artificial lake, the temple has 1500 pounds of gold adorning its roof and ceiling. We meandered through the complex, stopping to admire the marble inlaid with precious stones, the magnificent murals, and the overall richness of the scene.
We left with a much better understanding of the religion, having experienced its commitment to equality, its open stance towards all, and its wealth.
We are now wrapping up our time in India. It's been 11 months for me now. On Sunday we climb aboard a plane and head off to Istanbul where act two of our adventures begins.