2016, What the Year! Part II: India

India: Picture of scenic mountain view near Manali, India.

On the way down from the Sethan Dome.

This is part II 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]

May 2016


I spent about five weeks in India. It was an incredible country, with never a dull moment. This is a long post, but trust me, it's just a brief summary of my time in India. In fact, this entry will only cover May, so there's more to come. Stay tuned.

* * *
Two boys on a bicycle in front of some slums in Delhi, India.

On the outskirts of Delhi.

I took a red-eye flight from Beijing to Delhi, arriving at around 2am. Getting through immigration was very easy and customs was literally just walking past a guy who looked like the Great Tiger, wearing a turban and a Western suit, bobbing his head from side to side, welcoming newcomers.

Because it was the middle of the night, I decided to stay in the airport until dawn. I got a paper map of the city, withdrew some money from an ATM, and figured out which part of town I was going to look for a hotel in. With these formalities taken care of, I found a bit of empty floor space in the airport lounge and slept for a few hours. A handful of other people had the same idea as me, sleeping in various corners of a small room. This was already a huge difference from China, where people have an aversion to sitting on the ground. Pleasant Indian music was playing overhead. Earplugs helped.

I got up a little before 5am, when the train into the city started running, and walked to the train station. Along the way, I passed dozens of people sleeping on cement railings, about one foot wide. It wasn't clear to me if they were also travelers, or simply homeless.

The train into the city was clean, modern and cheap ($1). It dropped me off in the middle of Delhi at 6am. I stepped off of the air-conditioned carriage and walked outside. Dawn was breaking, so it was the coldest part of the day, yet I was already sweating from the heat. This place looked just how I imagined India to be. Tons of people, tuk tuks everywhere, honking horns, people sleeping on the walkways. One guy appeared to be having a seizure on the ground; everyone just walked past him without looking. Even the stray dogs ran past him without a second glance.

A guard was standing outside with a long gun slung over his shoulder. I asked him where the subway was and he pointed it out. His directions were accurate, and he even spoke English. This was so different from China.

Once I located the subway I bought a token for 16 rupees (25 cents) and was off. The subway itself was nice, built like subways all over the world. I went to Kailash Colony metro station, got a room in a hotel, then went in search of breakfast. While walking, I ran into a guy selling chai for 6 rupees (9 cents) a cup. There was a man sitting at the chai stand; he wore a bucket had that said “India”. We started chatting; he told me that he lived nearby and he came here every morning for chai. He bought a newspaper from a bicycle delivery man and started reading. I got two servings of bread with egg in the middle and drank cup after cup of chai, taking everything in. Here I was, in India, and Delhi's street life was passing by all around me:

There were three fruit vendors across the road; all of them sat there, reading newspapers between serving customers. Four men pulled up on bicycles. I think they were collecting cardboard. They all got a cup of chai and chatted. People came and went, many passed by on bicycles, a few in cars and motorcycles. It was already a scorching hot day, but sitting in the shade made it manageable.

Everything seemed so different from China here, yet I couldn't quite pinpoint why. Maybe because India is so much less developed. Many people I saw walking around were emaciated, especially those picking up the trash. Maybe it was because I saw cows in the road. In China, those cows would get eaten in a second. There was also a canal that was completely covered in trash, as far as the eye could see. The roads were dusty. Everything seemed so in-your-face.

One thing that especially separated this place from China was the lack of smart phones. I sat in the same spot for over an hour, and I only saw a couple of people talking on their phones. And nobody was looking down, tapping away like a zombie or taking selfies. A few people read newspapers, which really wasn't that different from browsing the web on a smart phone, but nonetheless the people seemed much more attentive to their surroundings than in China. Sadly, I'm sure it's only a matter of time before smart phones become so cheap, nearly everyone will have one. Today the base models cost less than $100, but that's still too expensive for many people. Once they hit $10, I think India will become entrenched in smart phone culture.

At any rate, I greatly enjoyed just sitting around, chatting with the locals, and taking it all in. I wasn't even tempted to take out my SLR camera or even my phone. I was happy to live in the moment.

India: Picture of Safdarjung's tomb in Delhi, India.

Safdarjung's tomb.

I did do a bit of sightseeing later in the day, at Safdarjung's tomb. To my untrained eyes, this place looked like the Taj Mahal, at least a smaller and slightly crumbling version of the Taj. A large park surrounded the tomb. There were about twelve trees on one side of the lawn; underneath eleven of them, a young couple was feeling each other up. I lay under the unoccupied tree, not far from a couple making out, and took a nap. This was another difference from China: you could actually sit on the grass here. Once when I was in Shanghai, a cop actually woke me up from a nap and told me to get off of the grass.

* * *
A large crowd forms in Delhi, India.

The area around the bus station was crowded.

The main reason I had come to India was to go climbing. On my second day in Delhi, I met with my friend G, originally from Chennai. We planned to head north to Himachal Pradesh, at the base of the Himalayas, where we would work on climbing several of G's projects. That night we boarded a bus bound for the small city of Manali, where we would base our climbing adventures. As we drove, I saw all sorts of interesting stuff on the outskirts of the city: a cricket game in a park next to a slum, many people burning garbage, lots of cows and some pigs too, near (and even in) the road. The sun went down over a hazy horizon and we settled in for a long ride.

India: Picture of a motorcycle on a dusty road in Delhi, India.

A dusty road.

We arrived at Manali at around 8:00 am. G left the bus first, while I put on my hiking boots. He was going to negotiate a fair price for a taxi to the neighboring town of Vashisht without me (a white foreigner) in the picture. I gave him a few minutes, then got off the bus. The plan had failed. While stepping off of the bus, G had landed awkwardly on a rock and twisted his ankle. He was hobbling around, trying to assess how bad it was.

G did still manage to negotiate a fair price for the taxi. We went through town, then up a long hill, for around 20 minutes and arrived in Vashisht. This was a small, laid-back town, a perfect place to relax.

G's sprain seemed kind of bad, which would definitely put our climbing ambitions back a few days. Luckily we had some time to spare. We went up to a cafe for breakfast and sat on cushions on the floor, overlooking a whitewater river, with the snowy Himalaya mountains in the background. There were a bunch of rock climbers at the restaurant, and G knew most of them (he had become something of a rock climbing celebrity during his short time here a few months ago).

India: Picture of snake charmer in India.

Least surprising thing in India: a snake charmer at my doorstep.

One person we met was Huzefa, who lived in a little house, up in the hills. If we were going to climb anything big, we would have to get acclimatized, and Huzefa suggested a hike that started from his home. G, with his sprained ankle, wouldn't be able to go, but I was up for it.

G and I rented a scooter, drove up a long series of switchbacks and eventually arrived at Huzefa's. The house was very basic, with an entry room and a bedroom. Water was running constantly outside (it was spring, and the snow in the mountains was melting), and there was an outdoor toilet. There were only a few other houses in the area. The reason Huzefa was living in this remote shack without any ammenities was to harden himself. It seemed to have worked. We hiked up to the dhaba (general store/home) above him, and Huzefa was practically running out of the gate. We were at 2500 meters (8200 feet), so I was quickly out of breath. Now I wasn't sure if I could keep up on our acclimatization hike.

* * *
Far above Manali.

Manali is far below.

We got up at 4am, ate a quick oatmeal breakfast took off walking uphill in the darkness. I think I was just fast enough for Huzefa not to get frustrated, but it was obvious that he still wanted to set a faster pace. Eventually we fell into a regular rhythm so we could stick together.

We hiked up through the forest, in a narrow strip between a mining project and some private property. After 1.5 hours we reached a clearing at the edge of the tree line. Cows were grazing in the grasses. There were also some sheep and the ruins of a few houses. Huzefa told me that a shepherd lived here, but I didn't see him around.

We went up a grassy hill, which was as far as Huzefa had gone in the past. From here on up was uncharted territory. The rock face in front of us looked steep, so we circled around and scrambled up a ridge. Now we were both thoroughly exhausted. I would no longer have to worry about Huzefa running ahead of me.

India: Picture of Huzefa on the snow above Manali, India.

The snow line.

The snow line was at the top of the ridge. We walked across a few patches, then up maybe another 200 meters, on our way to the summit of the Sethan Dome. We reached our goal, at 3960 meters, after five hours. There were many higher peaks around us, but this was a good goal for the day and I was glad to have reached it.

We sat on top, napped and enjoyed the scenery for 1.5 hours. Hopefully this would be a great help for acclimatizing. Then we headed back down, basically along the same route. We were back to the dhaba two hours later. We met up with G, ate lunch and headed back down on his scooter.

India: Picture of people paving the road from Manali to Vashisht, India.

Paving the road.

Once at the bottom of the valley, we made our way back to Vashisht. Traffic was diabolical. Luckily, on the scooter we could maneuver our way around the mile-long line of cars. But then we ran up against the worst part yet. They were actually repaving the only road to Vashisht, in the middle of the day, on a weekend, in the middle of the high tourist season! Three guys were burning tar in a barrel, then women were filling buckets of tar and splashing it on the road, where others were waiting with mops. Finally, a steamroller flattened it. The whole road was blocked, save for a tiny section at the edge, barely wide enough to walk around. We waited for a long time before G was finally able to sneak around it on the bike. What were they thinking? They could have paved this road on a weekday, or a different time of the year (in the fall, it's relatively empty here), or simply done the work at night when there was little traffic. But to block the whole road at this time of day seemed incredibly short-sighted.

I was exhausted and my patience was wearing thin. But finally we reached our hotel and I could get some well-deserved rest.

* * *

G's friend Ben from Germany arrived on the overnight bus from Delhi. G's ankle was feeling better, so the three of us planned to take a bus to the remote outpost of Chattru for our first shot at alpine climbing. We had to be back in Manali in a few days to meet two more climbing friends, but this would be a good chance to assess the climbing conditions and our group's strength.

We arrived at the bus station early, but the bus wasn't there. Every five minutes, we asked around for more information, but got nowhere. Then the word came that for some unexplained reason, the bus wasn't coming. Now what would we do? G asked someone about getting a taxi to a tiny outpost called Gramphoo, and that actually seemed possible. But there was still one issue: we still had to get permission to take this ride. G went with an employee to obtain this.

Finally G came back and gave us a thumbs-down. The line to get permission was easily two hours long. This is when you know you're in the developing world. Plan A is cheap, but it fails. You don't want to waste time, so you decide to open your wallet and go for Plan B. But then that fails, too, and you realize that nothing – not even money – will make the inefficient gears move faster.

India: Picture of waterfall near Manali, India.

A waterfall on the way up.

We got lucky: there was a bus to Gramphoo later in the day, and it actually left on time. We left Manali and passed many shops hanging full body snow suits out to dry. It turned out that a popular tourism draw for this region was the Roatan pass, which at over 4000 meters still had snow. Most of the Indian tourists who came here had never seen snow, so a popular pastime was to rent a snow suit and go play around at the pass.

India: Picture of men at the Roatan Pass in India.

My bus mates.

The people on the bus were largely Punjabi, both Hindus and turban-wearing Sikhs. They gave the three of us many thumbs-ups and took our pictures, sitting in the back of the bus. We zigzagged around switchbacks up the road leading to the Roatan Pass. The scenery was spectacular, with mountains with melting snow leading to waterfalls and a river far below. A few hours later, we reached the pass. Indeed, there was a long line of vehicles parked along the side of the road, with many Indians playing in the snow, filthy from car exhaust and natural sediment. The bus stopped and I got out with my new Punjabi friends to jump around and dance. They even taught me a phrase: “dei machi saag” meaning “good luck” (I think). We would need it.

Now we could see the other side of the pass, and the scenery was equally amazing. We slowly made our way down; the road was much worse on this side. The pass had just opened after a long winter, so this side probably hadn't gotten any maintenance in the last eight months.

Once we reached Gramphoo, near the bottom of the valley, the bus stopped and dropped us off. We waved goodbye to our Punjabi friends and were on our own. Now we were delivered some bad news. A sign showed us the road to Chattru, 17 KM from here. We were carrying all of our climbing gear, as well as our camping gear and several days' food, so this would be a tough haul.

India: Picture of two people hiking on the gravel road to Chattru, India.

Hiking to Chattru.

We only had about two hours of daylight left, so we started walking. We crossed about six different small streams covering the road. Most of the time we could rock-hop, but a couple of them had no easy way across, other than walking over the glacier above. A couple of times we had ten-foot snow banks on either side of us, melting and creating an unbelievable amount of water.

India: Picture of hikers walking next to a five-meter snow field.

There were still some high snow fields.

When it started to get dark we found a great campsite, on a flat section of green grass, with clear water flowing nearby. We set up camp, made dinner, filtered a bunch of water and went to bed. We would have to finish the rest of the hike in the morning.

* * *

It began to rain soon after we started hiking the next day. Conditions were getting worse by the minute. We were now at a high point on the road, a few hundred feet above the river, and there were some switchbacks coming up. We started to cut them off, and almost immediately G twisted his ankle and fell. He was obviously in a lot of pain, and now his injury was probably worse than it had been a few days ago. And we still had at least an hour of hiking, through the rain, before we would reach Chattru.

Just then we saw a pickup truck coming down the road toward us, the first vehicle we had seen on this road. The driver was really nice; he was willing to take us the rest of the way. We drove over a bridge across the river and saw a few small buildings, covered with tarps. This was Chattru, with a population of 120. We thanked our driver and headed to a dhaba in the increasingly strong rain.

India: Picture of a dhaba at Chattru, India.

The dhaba at Chattru.

The guy who owned the dhaba welcomed us. This place was really just a shelter without any insulation. There were lots of holes where the wind howled through, and a wood stove that didn't seem to heat the place up at all. But it felt luxurious after being outside in the cold rain. Unfortunately the forecast called for 24 hours of rain, so we couldn't do a whole lot outside. We did our best to dry our gear near the stove and wait out the storm. One good thing was that the dhaba had enough room inside for all of us to sleep. The owner's assistant brought us many cups of chai as we waited.

India: Picture of two guys checking out the area around Chattru, India.

Scouting the area.

Later in the day there was a break in the rain, and we took a look at the mountains nearby. We were at 3383 meters (11,100 feet), and the rain we were experiencing here would be snow in the mountains, far above us. The peaks of the mountains already appeared to be covered in a fresh coat of powder. G and Ben took a long look at a pillar sticking out of one of these peaks. The dhaba's owner claimed that an Italian team had climbed the mountain about eight years ago, but they hadn't taken the pillar route, so it likely had never been climbed. Maybe, just maybe, we could take a shot at it. If the weather cleared up, Ben and I would hike up a couloir next to the mountain as a scouting expedition. G would stay behind and rest his ankle.

India: Picture of mountains near Chattru, China.

The mountains around Chattru.

With the rest of our rainy day, we played a few games of cards, recorded a podcast and drank many cups of chai. Early in the evening a bunch of the locals came in for a drink. A few stayed later to chat by the stove. The three of us were in bed by 9:30.

* * *

It was cloudy the next morning, but at least it wasn't raining. Ben and I left the dhaba and crossed the river to get started on our scouting trip. We scrambled up a steep grass/dirt section, then over a boulder field. Next we put on our crampons and hiked across the couloir. We ran into trouble right away: we had rented our crampons, and they lacked anti-balling plates. They immediately became filled with snow, so they wouldn't do us much good. We removed them and continued.

We followed the glacier uphill, kicking in steps and creating many switchbacks. At first I felt really uneasy walking uphill on snow without crampons, but soon I got more used to it. I just had a few slips, but no major falls.

The climb stayed at about the same low angle, maybe 25-30 degrees, as we went up. But as we gained elevation, I moved slower and slower. Ben slowed down considerably, too, though he was still faster than me. Our goal was to reach the top of the couloir, where we could probably get a great view of the other side of the mountains, and maybe find an exit point from the pillar.

About 100 vertical meters from the top, the terrain got steeper. I no longer felt comfortable walking without my crampons, so I leaned against a rock and put them on. The sun was coming out periodically, and every time it did, a sheet of snow slid down the face toward us. At that point, Ben made the call to retreat. The slope was only going to get steeper and the snow was getting deeper and softer. He was afraid the whole thing could come crashing down at any minute. I took off my crampons and joined him in the retreat. Our maximum elevation was about 4300 meters (14,100 feet).

Picture of mountain in India.

From our highest point, looking down.

When we reached the bridge at the bottom of the valley, G met us with some urgency. A truck was about to leave for Manali and the driver was willing to take us for only 500 rupees each (the going rate for a taxi was 7000 rupees). We took this deal immediately. We had planned to stay in Chattru a bit longer, but we simply weren't going to climb any high peaks given the weather conditions and G's ankle. Besides, this deal was too good to pass up.

We packed up all of our stuff at the dhaba, said goodbye to the owner and told him we'd be back with some more friends soon. Then we jumped in the truck and took off. The ride was ridiculously bumpy from the start, but our driver Tenzing was a totally cool Tibetan man with long hair who smoked constantly. He told us stories of living in Leh, in the far north of the country, and his various foreign girlfriends. We drove past waterfalls at the bottom of a canyon with a roaring class IV river below us and 6000 meter snowy peaks towering overhead, while listening to groovy Indian music all the way back to Manali.

Picture of scenery around Vashisht, India.

The scenery around Vashisht.

The next morning, back in Vashisht, I made coffee on our rooftop and we discussed what to do next. Was it worth going back to Chattru, given the bad weather and the snowy conditions? Could we potentially climb the pillar? Were we physically and mentally prepared for such a challenge, and did we have the gear? In the end we decided to stick with the original plan: G, Ben and I would meet up with Abishek and Schresht, and together we would return to Chattru for an attempt at the pillar. This time, we decided not to deal with the buses, and instead opted to hire a truck to take our group of five.

Picture of cows in the road in India.

On our second trip to Chattru.

A few days later, we met Abisheck and Schresht at the bus terminal, looking groggy from their overnight ride. Our driver was also there, ready to take us to Chattru in a large 4WD truck with plenty of space for the five of us and all of our gear. Our driver was a professional looking man, with close-cropped hair and a spiffy uniform, nothing like our Tibetan hippie driver from last time. He drove a little too politely, always being the one to yield when the road became too narrow, so the trip took longer than necessary.

Our old friend the dhaba owner and his faithful assistant were in Chattru to greet us. We had dinner and I took a walk with Abisheck and Schresht to look for a satellite phone next to a pea farm above us. It was broken. I felt a rumbling in my guts and I knew that I would soon be suffering a bout of Delhi Belly. I was low on energy and G was still injured – we made quite the climbing team. The next day, we would stay behind with Schresht, while Abisheck and Ben scouted a route to the pillar. We were finally going to find out if it was indeed climbable.

The scouting expedition didn't go well, and everyone was back in the dhaba at 1:00 pm. Now we had to go over our options. Most of our ragtag group was either sick or injured, and we had to be honest with ourselves and admit that this project just wasn't going to happen. So what else could we do? We decided to split up. G, Ben and I would head up to Leh, and the others would stick around Chattru for a couple more days, bouldering and maybe climbing some shorter routes before heading back to Manali.

I actually didn't mind this situation, not that I had much choice in the matter, given my exploding guts. This was first ascent alpine climbing, a risky endeavor. We were in the middle of nowhere, and even a small injury could have serious consequences. We couldn't attempt a climb of this scale unless we knew that everyone was ready, and we simply weren't. But abandoning our plans did mean that I could travel and see a bit more of India.

We learned that Tenzing was coming this afternoon. When he showed up, G, Ben and I jumped into the truck, along with the dhaba's owner, and we took off. Tenzing was still smoking like a chimney and driving like a maniac. He dropped us off at Gramphoo, where we would attempt to hitch a ride to the town of Keylong. From there we would figure out how to get the rest of the way to Leh.

India: Picture of Ben and Dan.

Ben and I.

We quickly found a ride with room for two. Ben and I went in this car at the insistence of G, who would continue to hitch. Our drivers were friendly and somewhat awkward. They had driven here from Delhi the previous night. The road took us along a river, beneath snowy peaks. Again, the scenery was beautiful. The only downside of riding in this car was that, because of the long distance and remoteness of this journey, our drivers had filled a few water bottles with gasoline and stashed them in the hatchback, directly behind us. Fumes were escaping and I was feeling light-headed. We reached Keylong just before dark, happy to breath fresh air. There was no electricity or cellphone signal. Later we searched for G, but didn't find him.

We found G the next morning – he had hitched a ride on a lorrie – and searched for transportation the rest of the way to Leh. We found out that the buses weren't running this route yet and the smaller shared taxis that stopped here were all full. The others were in more of a hurry than me, so they didn't want to hitchhike. In the end, we hired a couple of guys to drive us to Leh in their truck.

India: Picture of scenery near Keylong.

Mountain scenery.

The route from Keylong to Leh was one of the most scenic I had ever taken. We crossed four mountain passes, including Taglang-la, the world's 2nd-highest at 17,582 feet. Late in the day, the mountains began to look like Cappadocia in Turkey. Instead of describing the rest of the scenery, I'll let the pictures do the talking:

India: Picture of mountain scenery near Keylong, India.
India: Picture of mountain scenery near Keylong, India.
India: Picture of mountain scenery near Keylong, India.
India: Picture of mountain scenery near Keylong, India.
India: Picture of mountain scenery near Keylong, India.
India: Picture of mountain scenery near Keylong, India.

That's all for now. I'll talk about the rest of my time in India in the next post.

More of my photos from India

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