This is part III of my “2016, What the Year!” series. I'm recapping some of my travel memories from the year that was...2016.
Missed the other parts? Jump to [Part I] [Part II] [Part III] [Part IV] [Part V] [Part VI]
G, Ben and I wanted to visit the Khardung La, the highest road in the world, located near Leh. To get there, we rented motorcycles from a local shop. I had never driven a motorcycle, so I went with Ben.
G on his motorcycle.
On our way up, we came across some construction. A large group of workers lined both sides of the road. They wore loose clothing to protect themselves from exposure to the brutal sun and cold. Each of them was hitting a small rock with a hammer, presumably to make two or more smaller rocks. They looked like they were in a prison chain gang. I felt terrible for them – this was probably their whole existence, breaking rocks, all day every day.
A bulldozer sends rocks tumbling down the mountain.
There were many switchbacks in the road. A bulldozer was a couple levels above the rock-breakers. Some employees blocked the whole road, then the bulldozer send a large pile of rocks tumbling down the side of the mountain. Most of the rocks stopped on the next level down, very close to the cars that were waiting patiently. The bulldozer slowly made its way to the next switchback, from where it would send the rocks down even further. We snuck around the bedlam and continued upward.
At the Khardung La.
The rest of our long ride up the mountain was beautiful but uneventful. Eventually we reached the pass, 17,582 feet (5359 meters) above sea level.* We had a cup of tea at the top, took a few photos, then made the long ride back down to Leh. Interestingly (or perhaps sadly), despite Ben's significant alpine climbing experience, this was the highest he had ever been. On a road. I had only been higher a handful of times, while mountaineering in Bolivia. Compared with the other great mountain ranges of the world, the Himalayas are in a league of their own.
Near the pass.
Leh is far below.
*** I should note that the souvenir shops and signs at the Khardung La all claim that it is the world's highest road, at 18,380 feet (5602 meters). This is false; the actual elevation is 17,582 feet (5359 meters), still quite high, but that's a pretty big error to overlook. Is it still the world's highest road? That depends on your definition of “road”. Does a military road count? How about a dead end road? Or a gravel road? No matter what your definition, Khardung La is certainly one of the highest roads in the world. ***
Actual elevation: 17,582 feet.
Here are a few more photos from Leh:
Leh has a very dry climate, though the trees help to disguise this fact.
Due to his red shirt, G stayed as far from the cows as possible.
Electricity, Indian style.
At a vegetable market.
I Sikh you to join the military.
* * *
Ben had to return to work, so he caught a flight to Delhi. G wanted to get back to his laptop in Vashisht. I wanted to do some more traveling, so we split up. My plan was to travel by myself in a large circle around Kashmir, before meeting G back in Vashisht. This would take about a week, and it would involve several long bus rides.
Beginning my trip.
The first leg of my trip was from Leh to Srinagar, in Kashmir. As soon as I boarded the bus, I saw that my height would be an issue. Even when sitting straight up, I couldn't face forward. My thigh bone was actually a few inches longer than the distance between my seat and the one in front of mine. And each row had five seats, rather than the standard four. The couple across from me laughed when they saw that I didn't fit. I get laughed at all the time for being tall. If I had to share my “2 seats” (really barely wider than my ass) with another person, this would be a torturous 22-hour ride. Luckily, I got both seats to myself, and it felt like a luxury.
Continuing down the long and lonesome road.
Our driver wore a saffron turban and a thick beard. His left eyeball was pure red. He had a slight paunch and a nice smile. We left 40 minutes late, and almost immediately stopped at a military checkpoint. About ten minutes later, we passed through a military base. I saw a soccer game in action, and everyone was in full fatigues. How did they figure out who was on which team?
Colorful mountain scenery.
We continued along the mountainous road all afternoon, winding our way down a beautiful valley and then back up again. The hills looked like they were painted multiple colors. We stopped for dinner at a dhaba, and I stayed on the bus. I had been sick for the last five days or so, and I had no appetite. I did have a package of Oreo's with me, and I managed to eat a few.
When the woman who had laughed at me for being too tall returned to the bus, she asked if I had already eaten.
“Yes,” I replied, hoping that would be the end of the conversation.
“What did you eat?”
“I'm not feeling good so I just had some cookies.”
“No.” Quite the opposite.
“Yes,” I admitted.
“How many times have you been to the toilet today?”
This was getting far too personal. I just sat there, trying to think of what to say.
She laughed and said, “Most foreigners have to start taking antibiotics before they even come to India.” She dug through her purse and found a small plastic container with what looked like Tic Tacs inside, and said, “Open your mouth.”
“Come on, open up. These should help with your loose motions, and even if they don't, I guarantee they'll cause you no harm.”
I opened my mouth. She held the container over me and shook it. A few Tic Tacs hit their mark. It was so humiliating.
“There, that should help you,” she said, with a look of pride.
“Thanks,” I said. I hoped she was right.
The road got even more remote as we continued to drive, late into the night. I drifted off for a bit, but then our driver played the music louder, likely to keep himself awake. The pavement ran out and we got jostled. No way I could read. And I couldn't sleep. And there was nothing to look at because it was dark. The terrible road just kept going, hour after hour. At last we reached the city of Kargil at about 2am.
We were on the border with the disputed part of Kashmir, and the atmosphere was tense. We stopped at a military checkpoint, and men in fatigues were roaming around, guns in hand. I couldn't blame the government for being paranoid, considering that India and Pakistan have fought in multiple wars over this territory. Even to this day, tensions occasionally flared.
The checkpoint was closed until dawn, so we had to wait. This should have meant that I would get a few much-needed hours of sleep, but there was a problem. Our friendly driver found an empty space next to some semis and parked. The ground was uneven and the bus listed to the right. Gravity was pulling me toward the center of the aisle, and I had nothing to lean against. Two kids started whining near me and several adults started talking loudly. On top of that, we were at 9000 feet and it was freezing. This was one of the most uncomfortable bus rides I had ever taken. The phenomenal scenery was the only thing saving it.
At around 5am, the checkpoint opened and we were on our way. As we went downhill, the temperature warmed and the road's condition improved. We stopped for breakfast and the lady who had shaken the “medicine” in my mouth asked if I was feeling better. I told her that I was, though I was pretty it was because of the antibiotics.
On our way down, toward Srinagar.
By noon we were driving next to a huge lake and entering the city of Srinagar. The ride took 22 hours and all of the passengers were exhausted. Hats off to our driver for getting us there safely, on such little sleep.
* * *
The lakefront in Srinagar.
The majority of people in Srinagar are Muslim, and multiple mosques were broadcasting their prayers on loudspeakers when I arrived. I found a hotel and took a long nap, desperately trying to block out the noise of the prayers.
In the afternoon, I went for a walk. Srinagar is on a lake, and this is a popular place for domestic tourists to go on boat rides and sleep on houseboats. I wasn't interested, so I just walked along the lake front, hoping for some peace and quiet. Of course, I would have to avoid the boat guys' sales pitches, but I really had my work cut out for me on other fronts, as well.
Every couple of minutes, a local man approached me and wanted to talk. Around two-thirds of them genuinely wanted a long conversation, but the rest wanted to sell me stuff. The problem was, they almost always started the conversation the same way: “Hello my friend. Where you from?” I had never been to a place where the locals were so eager to approach me.
At one point a guy asked where I was from and started walking with me.
I said, “USA.”
“Cool, which part of the USA?” he asked.
Just then, another guy approached me and said, “Hello my friend. Where you from?”
I said, “Wisconsin,” answering the first guy, but the second guy thought I was saying the name of a country.
The first guy asked, “Is this your first time in Kashmir?”
Simultaneously, the second guy asked, “Which part of Wisconsin?”
I answered them both, then they both asked another question and it was like a sliding scale where the second guy was always one question behind. Finally, the second guy broke the flow by asking, “You know Amsterdam coffee shop? You want that?”
“No thanks,” I said, and the second guy left. But the first guy was still walking with me. I politely excused myself and walked in the other direction. But I knew it wouldn't be long before someone else would approach me. There was absolutely no way possible to get a few minutes of peace and quiet, at least not near the lake. I needed a new plan.
I went in the direction of the Old City, away from the touristy part of town. Eventually, I found some back streets that rarely, if ever, saw tourists. This was a fascinating neighborhood. A butcher was lying back in the window of his stall, bare feet on the counter, with two skinned goats hanging upside-down in front of him, genitals dangling, flies flying all around. Men were boiling tar in a bucket, preparing it to be spread across the road. The stench was overwhelming. Kids were playing cricket, admiring my camera a little too much. Men gave me creepy stares; women seemed afraid of me. Two fruit vendors insisted that I take their picture. They were so proud of their stands.
The proud fruit vendors.
A “rick” and a motorbike.
At last, I had found the “authentic” part of Srinagar. Afterward, I walked back to my hotel and planned the next leg of my journey.
* * *
I took a minibus from Srinagar to Jammu, with plans to head to Dharamsala from there. Along the way we passed through village after village, while skirting the edge of the same hill for four hours straight. As we went lower (Srinagar is at about 1600 meters, Jammu 300) it got hotter, until I was sweating like crazy and couldn't stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time.
The first thing I wanted to do in Jammu was leave. The area around the bus station was as filthy as I had ever seen. I thought I was crossing a garbage dump until I looked down and saw that it was a river. People and garbage were everywhere. And did I mention how hot it was? I found out that a bus left for the town of Pathankot in two hours. This was on the way to Dharamsala, so I bought a ticket.
While waiting for the bus, I sat on the only bench that wasn't already covered by a human or filth. A skinny old man hobbled past me. He had long gray hair and a beard to match; his dark skin was covered in dirt. He looked around, found an empty water bottle with the cap still attached, and used his foot to roll it against a wall. I thought he was getting ready to bend down and pick it up, but then he sat on it. A nifty seat.
A cockroach scurried across the floor in front of me and ducked into the next room. Then a couple minutes later, a rat ran across the same spot, as if following the roach. It caught peoples' eyes, but nobody seemed that surprised to see it. The bottle-sitter didn't notice at all.
An older man sat next to me. He had short gray hair and light skin and at first I mistook him for a tourist. But he was also wearing business casual clothes and speaking to me in Hindi. Or was it English? His accent was so thick, it was hard to tell. I did my best to answer his questions; he showed me a brochure and now I understood. He was selling drains with built-in cockroach guards. How appropriate. He kept trying to get my phone number. I explained that I didn't need a drain with a cockroach guard. Or any drain at all, for that matter. Eventually he handed me a key chain with his phone number on it and left me alone.
The bus took about 2.5 hours to reach Pathankot, and I slept for about 2.4 hours. When I got to the bus station, I got a room at the local guesthouse, located directly above the buses, and immediately passed out.
The next day I took a bus the rest of the way to Dharamsala. Thankfully it went uphill most of the way, bringing some cooler temperatures. From there I walked further uphill to Mcleod Granj, home of the Dalai Lama. This town was quieter than Dharamsala, but still packed with tourists and motorcycles. I continued walking uphill to the village of Baghsu, but that was also too busy. So I kept going uphill, until the roads ran out at the tiny hamlet of Dharamkot. Finally, I was in a place with a relaxed atmosphere, and a cooler climate to boot.
While hanging out at the cafe in my guesthouse, I met an Australian guy named David. He informed me that the Dalai Lama was in town, and would be giving public lectures for the next few days. I hadn't really considered going to see the Dalai Lama because he's usually traveling around the world (or so I thought), but my timing was impeccable. We decided to go to the lecture in the morning.
David and I met at 6am and walked to Mcleod Granj together. We found the Dalai Lama's temple, registered and went inside at about 7:30; it was still fairly empty. There was a small inner room for VIPs, and a larger room for everyone else surrounding it. Many people had shown up early and laid out blankets and cushions to reserve their places (much like they do for the Concerts On The Square in Madison, WI). We didn't think to bring blankets or cushions, so we just found a small patch of bare concrete, sat down and waited.
We didn't have chairs or any sort of back support, and the lecture wasn't due to start for an hour and a half. It was going to be a long wait. People gradually shuffled in. We were soon surrounded by monks in red robes. One generous monk gave me a spare cushion. Soon the place was packed. The crowd appeared to be about 30% Tibetan monks, 40% Indian/non-Tibetan, and 30% foreigners.
At 8:30, there was a 30-minute meditative chant, where a man repeated the same short phrase over the loudspeakers. Funny thing though: a day later I couldn't remember what the phrase was, even though I probably had heard it a thousand times. I fell asleep partway through, while sitting up. At the end, two overhead TV screens were turned on and the Dalai Lama approached, right on time.
The head of Tibetan Buddhism looked a bit heavier than I had expected. He was covered in red and yellow robes, and he had a shiny head and oversized glasses. He looked frail – two monks helped him along. He slowly made his way into the building, up the stairs, and to his chair. Everybody stood; nobody clapped.
The Dalai Lama spoke for an hour; his message was mostly about creating peace on Earth. He seemed to be winding down his time on this planet – he made it clear that he was from the twentieth century and now it was time for the twenty-first century folks to take over. He was humble, too. At one point he said that if he thought of himself as the Dalai Lama, he felt lonely. But if he thought of himself as a human, then he had seven billion others to share this life experience with. He spoke in English for this whole hour. During his speech, monks walked through the crowd, passing out bread rolls and pouring cups of yak milk tea. It was savory, not sweet, but still delicious, and a nice gesture.
The second hour was a Q and A session. Most of the questions were well thought out, such as asking how to work toward world peace, and peace within ourselves. But the question that stuck out for me was when one guy asked, “If I put a golden statue of the Buddha over my grave, will I be reincarnated?” The Dalai Lama simply answered, “I don't know.” I knew the man was smart, but damn, that was a good answer.
For the final hour, the Dalai Lama and another monk read from a prayer book. This was done entirely in Tibetan. My back was sore from sitting up for the last three and a half hours. I kept shifting, trying to get comfortable. I couldn't lie down because there were too many people. But somehow, I made it through. The monks, on the other hand, looked like they could've sat up straight for a week without the slightest discomfort. Surprisingly, a lot of people, monks included, were talking while the Dalai Lama talked. David made a comment that had this been a Western audience, you could've heard a pin drop.
The session ended at noon. The Dalai Lama walked down the stairs directly below me, helped up by two others. While he was talking I saw what a great ambassador he was for the world. Either the monks who had found him when he was just a toddler had gotten incredibly lucky, or maybe they really were onto something with the whole reincarnation business.
* * *
The next night I headed back to Manali, crammed in a taxi with five Thai tourists. I walked up to Vashisht and met up with G at 6am. We sat on the roof, drinking coffee, eating breakfast and discussing what to do next. We still had a few days to climb a mountain. Friendship Peak was on the radar, but G's ankle was still in pain, especially when he walked sideways uphill – exactly the type of climbing we would do on Friendship. He thought about it for a long time and determined that it just wasn't going to happen. We'd be in the back-country and if he hurt himself again, it would be bad news.
As for me, my antibiotics (or possibly the Tic Tacs) had helped, and I was feeling healthy once again. I could've looked for another partner, but I wasn't willing to do any serious climbing with someone I'd just met. So mountaineering was out, and that was OK with me. Instead of climbing, I had traveled to beautiful places and seen interesting cultures that I wouldn't have seen had I sat at Chattru looking at a mountain for a month.
G on our motorcycle.
The next day, G and I rented a motorcycle. We rode up a long hill and stopped at a dhaba along the way. We chatted with the owner, drinking chai and eating snacks. Our total bill was less than $1. If only they had dhabas everywhere, I think the world would be a much happier place. We continued to a waterfall that really wasn't impressive, but at least the views from the forest were beautiful. We headed down to the town of Nagar and walked through the famous old castle, built a few hundred years ago. It felt good to be a “normal” tourist for a day.
The valley below Nagar.
We made the long ride back to Manali after dark. Traffic was horrendous. We approached a single-lane bridge, and the traffic police stopped us. It was the oncoming traffic's turn to cross the bridge; we would have to wait about ten minutes before continuing. I got off of the bike and paced.
Once traffic started moving again, I jumped on the bike and we took off. Because we were already right in front of the bridge, we hit it at a slow pace. The bridge was built with wood planks with significant gaps between them. The bike's tires got caught in one of these gaps and the whole thing tipped over. I instinctively stuck out my foot, and brushed my ankle against the muffler in the process. There was no heat shield, so I got a painful second-degree burn. My ankle now bares a scar the size of a silver dollar, one of the only souvenirs I would take home from India.
Now that both G and I were injured (my burn prevented me from wearing shoes without being in a lot of pain), we spent the next two days simply walking around, watching a Bollywood movie (an interesting experience in its own right), and chatting with the many people we had met in the area. Then we caught an overnight bus back to Delhi, ready for the last leg of our journey.
* * *
We spent the day in Delhi, catching up with Abisheck, Schresht and a few other people we had met recently. At night, Abisheck, Schresht and I went to Old Delhi for dinner. The area was dark and packed with people. I pointed out a giant ball of bare electrical wires, with lines leading out from it and crisscrossing overhead. It looked ridiculously dangerous. Abisheck said that people run new wires out to the transformers in order to steal electricity. This is so common, nobody even knows who's paying for what anymore. The streets were full of trash and dirt. Cars were constantly honking their horns, everything smelled of piss, and there were lots of beggars and starving people. Yet this place was growing on me. Something about the intensity of India was just so damned alluring. The colors, sights and sounds were like nowhere else I'd ever been. We went to a Muslim restaurant for dinner. The mutton was almost falling off the bone. We also had chicken, curries, rice and roti, all of which tasted amazing. We washed it all down with a Thumbs-up cola.
Taken from the train to Agra.
The next morning, G and I caught a train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. The train itself was old but nice, with plenty of legroom and a large window. Chai and coffee vendors walked past us every few minutes, and I took full advantage. The train left on time. Soon we passed many slums, where people lived in tents; they probably had no electricity or running water. While glancing at these slums, I saw multiple men taking a shit on the train tracks next to us. I wondered where the women went to the bathroom, given that there didn't seem to be proper toilets. I saw (and smelled) men pissing all over the place in India, but never women.
We continued out of the city and for the first time since coming to India, I saw some actual countryside. Farmers were using oxen to plow many small fields. I saw very little machinery. There were also plenty of villages and a few more slums, but the landscape seemed much more open than anywhere else I had been in the country. The train was gloriously air conditioned, a wonderful contrast from the torrid outside world. A week earlier, while I was in the mountains, the temperature in Delhi had reached 47 C (116 F), resulting in many deaths.
When we got to Agra, we found out that because today was Friday, the Taj was closed. That should've been obvious to us, but we hadn't thought of it beforehand. Luckily we would still have time to go in the morning. With our whole afternoon suddenly free, we hopped on a bus to Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient city about 40 KM from Agra.
After arriving, we visited the famous Jama Mosque, built in 1648 by Emperor Shah Jahan. Here are some photos:
You have to walk barefoot in the mosque and the stone floor was scorching hot. This guy is giving us a bit of relief.
We took the bus back to Agra, then got off near the Red Fort. We walked along the oppressive, noisy highway for a bit, then turned onto a side road and walked through a non-touristy neighborhood. Everyone here was friendly. Kids constantly came up and said hi. Many adults did, too. There were cows in the streets, kids playing cricket, people washing clothes, sitting around and chatting, carrying construction equipment here and there. Life was on full display.
Just sleeping. I hope.
Later, we took a rickshaw to a park behind the Taj Mahal. There were only a handful of other people in the park, so we could walk right up to the dry riverbed that separated the park from the Taj. One couple walked around a fence for a closer look, but a guy with a whistle and a stick made them come back. Then he went for a piss on the lawn. Apparently that was still allowed. A sign warned us that “sitting behind bushes” was strictly forbidden. I wondered if “sitting behind bushes” mean sex, or shitting, or maybe it really did mean sitting behind bushes. We took a seat (not behind any bushes) and watched the sunset. This was our view:
Not a bad view.
The next morning, we went to the Taj Mahal:
A monkey drops out of a tree in front of the Taj.
Afterward, we took a bus back to Delhi and boarded our train to Chennai. We got one of the higher-priced carriages, so we had beds, with a bit of space and privacy. This was good, considering that the journey would take around 36 hours.
G reads the paper from his berth.
We spent the day reading the paper, listening to podcasts and watching the scenery. I only got off the train at one stop, for about five minutes. I looked at a few books for sale and the vendor asked where I was from. I said, “USA” and he smiled and said, “Osama bin Laden!” Then it seemed to dawn upon that he had said the wrong name. He shook his head and said, “Obama!”
At one point I walked between two cars, unlatched the door and leaned outside. The train was going at least 60mph so this was incredibly dangerous, but also exhilarating. This country was really growing on me. India certainly has its downsides, but you have a kind of freedom here that doesn't exist in most places I have visited. The attitude seems to be “Go ahead and kill yourself if you want. There's a billion of us here as it is.”
While I was leaning outside and taking pictures, a guy approached me and asked where I was from. His next question threw me off: “Do you have a valid passport?” I asked who he was and if he was a train employee. He either didn't hear me (it was quite loud between the cars) or he didn't understand or he pretended not to understand. He asked me again if I had a valid passport and finally I caved and said of course I do. Then he started asking me more uncomfortable questions like when I had arrived in India and when I was leaving and how long my visa was good for. I ignored him. There was alcohol on his breath and he didn't carry the air of an official. I towered over him. So now I was getting annoyed and decided that the best thing to do was to walk away. My bed was very close, and he followed me straight there, then he asked me if that was my berth and started repeating the same uncomfortable questions. Finally he left me alone and went back between the cars. I walked the opposite direction and pulled open the door to the next car. The man followed me. I headed back to my berth; he followed and our neighbors yelled at him, and finally he left me alone. Our neighbors confirmed that yes, he was drunk, but he wasn't any sort of official and he was harmless. Just annoying. It was a weird situation, but I had learned that in India, you have to expect the unexpected.
* * *
G is from Chennai, so as soon as we arrived, we headed straight for his family's home. I got to meet his parents, sister and 92-year-old grandma. They were all lovely people and their home was beautiful. Unfortunately, I didn't have much time to spend in the area. I had to catch a flight to Dubai.
G drove me to the airport. We spent the whole ride reminiscing about the last five weeks. My first impression of India was that it was really chaotic and dirty. That impression didn't change, but the longer I stayed in the country, the more it grew on me. Many people here have a laid-back attitude, like “I just got drunk and I don't want to go home and have my wife yell at me, so I'll just pass out on this sidewalk.” Not that that's healthy behavior but it's an interesting lifestyle. I hope I get the chance to return to India for a longer trip. Even this shorter one was unforgettable.
Want to see all of my photos from India? Here you go.