Monday, July 28, 2014

Tales of Cleanliness & Godliness

For those curious, here’s a breakdown of the differences between the Malayali and the Ladakhi styles of bathing.

Kerala: Normal Temperature - 35 ºC; Humidity - 98%, on a dry day; Bathing Frequency - 2 / 3 times in 1 day.

Average time for pre-shower activities: 7 seconds. How long does it take to strip off 3 articles of sweat-covered clothing?

Average time for showering: 72 minutes. Includes the 15-minute rain dance before soaping; the 45 minutes taken for soaping each separate body part and then taking a leisurely soak after each soaping session; and finally, the 12-minute post-soaping soak.

Average time for post-shower activities: 1 minute, for towelling and dressing. (Any longer in the bathroom after a hot shower and you'd need another shower immediately.)

Total Time - 73 minutes, 7 seconds.

Ladakh: Normal Temperature - Minus 35 ºC; Humidity - 2%, during a thunderstorm; Bathing Frequency - Once in 2 / 3 days.

Average time for pre-shower activities: 55 minutes. It does take time to take 37 pieces of clothing off, plus the time you take to mentally prepare yourself before taking something off, and the little jig you do after.

Average time for showering: 2 minutes, 7 seconds. Includes the 7-second soak-before-soaping; the 105-second soaping, with constant apprehensive glances at the geyser; the 15-second post-soaping soak, before you jump shrieking out of the suddenly-freezing water, the geyser having given up the ghost.

Average time for post-shower activities: 16 minutes. It does take time to put 37 pieces of clothing back on.

Total Time - 73 minutes, 7 seconds.

The same time exactly. Must be similar habits then...


After the agony of the backpack on my first trek, I knew my back needed strengthening. So I set up a wooden stick between two trees as a bar for pull-ups. Worked like a charm, except that I shared that bit of space with the farm's cow. And she seemed eternally curious about why a human would want to spend 15 minutes grunting and pulling himself up towards the sky. If she'd just stuck to staring at me, it would've been all right - I wouldn't have liked it much, admittedly, but I could've dealt with that. Indians stare at each other all the time, after all.

But she wasn't satisfied with just staring. She would walk to within two inches of me and then stand gaping with a quizzical look on her face. And guys don't like having horns 6 millimetres from their crotches. We don't like it under any circumstances but even less so when in a position as prone as when doing pull-ups.

I tried reasoning with her, telling her that she had the whole field all to herself... that I wanted just the couple of feet around the two trees. But it didn't work. Talking to her only made her come closer still. In the end, there wasn't anything to do but adopt a Buddhist philosophy of "whatever will be will be" (if that is indeed a Buddhist philosophy), and hope that she wouldn't move her head suddenly while I was exercising.


The Dalai Lama paid a visit to Ladakh for the Kalachakra. It was quite something to see the adoration the people here hold for him. Entire villages emptied themselves into Leh for the festivities. His birthday was on one of the days and Richard Gere too turned up to wish him. (Gere began his speech with a message to the Ladakhis that they live in the most beautiful place on Earth. Who can argue with that?) I always lost count after 50 or so, but I was told by those who could count that over 120,000 people turned up on some days.

But even more interesting than the reaction to him was the man himself.

He was self deprecating (on why he hasn't practised a certain kind of meditation: "maybe because I'm so busy but more probably because I'm just lazy"), respectful of other religions and constantly referring to them to underline his points, and really just all-round cool.

He spoke out against religious intolerance, specifically mentioning attacks by Buddhists against minorities in Sri Lanka and Burma. He spoke of the debt Tibetans have to other countries and cultures - India for giving them refuge and a platform for him to speak for the Tibetan cause around the world, and also for their Buddhist heritage ("Tibet was a dark land before Buddhism came to us") and the 5 sciences ("the great masters of Nalanda," as he put it), and all the countries who've supported them against the Chinese occupation, while stressing that their struggle has to remain non-violent and based on a middle path that caused neither side any harm.

The coolest bit, though, was when he said that Buddhist teachings should not be taken literally and that they should be analysed and discarded if they're inconsistent with "logic and reason."

Maybe if I'd had someone like him as a religious model during my childhood, I might have taken religion more seriously as an adult.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Trek #2: The Markha Valley Trek

So then, my second trek…

It surprised me somewhat how quickly I signed up for this one, given that I’d whinged and groaned my way through the first. I’d thought then that I’d throw up merely at the sight of a backpack but here I was, in about a week, in the mountains again with one that weighed more or less the same. Melville was wrong then; it’s not the sea that calls to us but the mountains.

And I was smarter this time. On the last trek, everyone was much fitter and more experienced than I was, leading to very embarrassing situations where I’d reach the top of a pass about half an hour after everyone else and where the guide practically held my hand like I were a 5-year-old. So, this time, I made enquiries about my companions. Two of them were 10 years younger than me and experienced trekkers. Not so good. But the third was about my age and relying on “muscle memory” to get her through the trek. That sounded promising: it sounded like I’d have company at the rear. I signed right up.

The first day of the trek, from Chilling to Skiu, along the Markha river, was exactly the same route as the last day of my first trek. But it was in the opposite direction, so it was a whole different 180 degrees. It began inauspiciously enough, when a porter cut her finger very badly on the trolley across the Zanskar. We had a vet in our midst and she expertly bandaged up her finger (only noting that animals are easier to treat, their inability to talk and complain being a huge plus) before sending her back to Leh, to get it looked at in a hospital. I’d hated the last day of my previous trek but I enjoyed myself this time round despite the fact that the walk was uphill and that it rained a bit. Ladakh is a desert but it’s a law of nature that if I have a bit of a cold and am outdoors, it will rain. Still, I suppose it kept the heat away. The walk this first day was fairly short, only three hours or so. And I was pleased to note that my back muscles were in better shape to handle my backpack. I didn’t feel like the straps would burrow into my shoulder blades leaving permanent marks as much.

At dinner that evening, I would get an inkling of the disaster that would befall the good people of the Markha valley over the next 5 days. My companions were English and I’ve never seen any group of people eat as much. The villagers couldn’t cook fast enough to feed them. On that first day, at supper, our guide had cooked us these delicious momos. After my fellow trekkers were fed their three helpings, she went in and got her little plate. She placed it on the ground in front of us and then went in to take care of some business or the other. Despite the fact that they’d eaten about 36 momos each, they thought this plate was for us too. There were four of us and only 6 momos on that plate, so there were heated debates on how they would be split up. This took some time so, thankfully, she was back before we did anything that could never be undone. After a long, hard day of taking caring of us in the mountains and then cooking us our dinner, I wonder how she’d have reacted if she’d come back to find her dinner polished off by the four of us. To be fair, she’d probably have handled it with typical Ladakhi stoicism and not said a word.

The second day, from Skiu to the village of Markha, was a very long, flat and boring 8-hour walk along the Markha valley. The itinerary had painted vivid images of a “beautiful, green valley,” but meh… I’m from Kerala, I’ve seen greener. And towards the end, my backpack started to make its presence felt, so I was very happy to see a tea tent selling beer. I’d read somewhere that alcohol is bad for you at high altitudes but I think that’s puritanical rubbish. That beer was just great and for the next two hours, I felt no pain whatsoever.

Day 3 began a little later than usual. Markha was our guide’s hometown and we’d stayed at her house; she was understandably a little bleary-eyed when we started our walk to Hanker. It was, to our delight, a walk of less than 3 hours, I think, so we decided to walk a little further to Upper Hanker, so as to shorten our fourth day. The last bit was very steep and the views of an old fort or monastery up on the ridges were exceptional but there was nothing further to report.

Day 4, to the high-altitude plains of Nimaling, was to be our toughest day, so my companions fortified themselves appropriately. I imagine the villagers are, to this day, shaking their heads sadly at their severely depleted food stores and on a diet of one roti and half a cup of tea a day.

Nimaling is at 4800 metres or so. The climb was steady and hard and I think it took us over 8 hours to reach the camps. It was cold and windy, and it was snowing lightly at places. The altitude made it hard to breath, and with the biting wind all the layers of clothing we had on still wasn’t enough protection. Despair is a word that is often used lightly but I think I now know what it is. Despair is fighting exhaustion and cold and using your last reserves of energy to somehow or the other reach the top of the hill that you’ve set your sights on… and discovering on reaching there that it's only a false ridge and that there's another hilltop impossibly high further ahead of you… and then climbing to the top of that one and finding out that it was just yet another false ridge… and one more… and yet one more. 8 hours of false ridges with 13 kilos on your back: that is despair. We did have lunch by this very nice little lake that turned up unexpectedly, where, all covered up in balaclavas, we took pictures pretending to be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Bolivia. So, it wasn’t all bad.

Nimaling itself was gorgeous: windswept and barren with a small stream running through its heart and a glacier at the head. To one side, the 6400-metre Kang Yatze dominated the view. We had it in our sights on and off for over 2 days, so it was thrilling to be finally at its foot. I climbed the ridge closest to it for a better view, only to find that it was another of those infuriating false ridges. Still, it was around sunset when I did so and the sight of Nimaling below me, more beautiful than ever in golden light, was adequate compensation.

This was the only night on the entire trek when we'd be sleeping in a tent. I had a sleeping bag with me but I foolishly thought I wouldn’t need it. And when it got really cold in the middle of the night, I was simply too lazy to unpack it. When we woke up in the morning, we found our water bottles frozen over, and my walk to the toilet a 100 metres across the windy plains redefined “cold” for me, like the walk the day before had done “despair.” It didn’t help that this toilet was only slightly less disgusting than the one in “Trainspotting.” After this 5:30 AM walk through the wind and the cold, and a wash of the face and the hands in the freezing stream, I simply had to listen to some Elton John back in my tent because I too felt like “a candle in the wind, never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in.” (That said, does a candle really try to cling to anyone in inclement weather?)

Day 5. The first 2 hours was a 450-metre ascent to the top of the 5250-metre Gongmaru La. I expected an unforgettably painful climb filled with desperate gasping, torturous steps and a fervent desire for death. And I wasn’t disappointed. At least there were no false ridges. And then began our long descent to Shang Sumdo. It was incredibly steep and long and I was glad that I wasn’t climbing the Gongmaru La from that side. After a few hours, we came to a very narrow gorge with a frozen stream. It was the most fun we had on the entire trek, sliding down the ice. I definitely enjoyed the sliding bits a lot more than the parts where we had to climb up the sides of the gorge and walk along narrow goats' paths with vertiginous drops to the stream below.

We then came across another of those tents that served beer, so I don’t remember much of the last hour or two to where our van was waiting to take us back. I suppose it was some sort of a path through the mountains along a stream.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Trek #1: Jingchen to Chilling

Beginners to trekking in Ladakh usually first do the Sham Trek, otherwise known as the Baby Trek. Babies in the rest of the world demonstrate they’ve made a step up by walking across the drawing room. In Ladakh, they’re set down at Likir and arrive 4 days later at Temisgam, walking, in the process, over a pass named Lago La, which translates to “a pass of no consequence.” It really is that useless. A trek made for me, then. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find companions for this trek. The one I did find ones for was the trek from Jingchen to Chilling, also of 4 days, but containing two close-to-5000-metre passes, which elevates it to the status of a trek for children aged 4 to 8.

The mini-van collected the three of us at about 8:30 AM and off we went. It was a ride of about an hour, punctuated by lovely views of the Indus. When the road ended, we were set down by the side of a small stream. Jingchen, it was, and our trek was at a start. This day was described in the itinerary as “a gentle incline of 3 hours.” Right from the start, I knew that this would prove to be an optimistic assessment of my day. I’d been rather enthusiastic with my packing, which resulted in a backpack that weighed about 13 kgs. Perhaps I could’ve dispensed with the change of clothes and the two sweaters. Maybe even the laptop. Anyway, walking on flat ground for 3 hours with a 13-kg pack is no mean task for me, much less on those uneven mountain paths. Also, by my watch’s altimeter, the 3-hour trek did eventually deposit us about 500 metres higher than the altitude we’d started at: “the gentle incline” was a matter of perspective. There were times when we had to cross small streams and walk along boulder-strewn river beds, but what killed me was walking up hills - especially with the backpack. I hadn’t yet mastered the art of taking short steps instead of my longer lowland steps, and so, what with the altitude and my backpack, even small climbs were unbelievably tiring.

Lunch was at this beautiful meadow and I don’t remember what we had save that it was the best lunch I ever had. Rumbak, our halt for the first night, was only half an hour away and I was much relieved to be there. From the side we approached, it didn’t look particularly beautiful - just a few houses perched up on the hillside. But the thing with the Himalayas is that you turn a corner and the sights that await you bear no relation with what you’ve been seeing up till then. So it was with Rumbak, at the base of this green valley, with fields stretching out nearly to the horizon. That it turned up unexpectedly amidst forbiddingly black mountains and up a seemingly inhospitable, barren, narrow, boulder-strewn valley was something I’d get used to in a while. We stayed in a house in the village, in a room with a view across the valley. It had none of the comforts that we city folk are used to but the thick blankets and the great views were more than adequate compensation.

The next day was what is known as an acclimatisation day, where you climb up a high pass and then sleep at a lower alitude, to enable your body to get used to the altitude. Plenty of trekkers on short trips to Ladakh ignore the need for acclimatisation and end up getting very sick (AMS can be fatal). Who it strikes can be rather random, irrespective of age or fitness. In fact, the younger, fitter folk are at higher risk because they end up doing too much too quickly. “They come here, they are heroes for a day, they fall sick, they eat oxygen, they go back in a stretcher,” as my guesthouse owner put it. Rumbak was at 4000 metres approximately and we were to climb up to Stok La, at 4850 metres.

The start of the day didn’t go too well. They put one piece of bread in our lunchbox and that was it, our lunch. We raised a quizzical eyebrow and they came back with, “Well, would you like butter and jam on the bread?” “Why not?” we said. Nearly as soon as the climb started, though, my day got a whole lot better. We spotted a little glacier to our right. It was across a stream and a bit of a climb up, but I was excited. I’d never seen ice that hadn’t come out of a freezer. None of my companions shared my enthusiasm, though. They were all Europeans and Ladakhis and said they’d seen enough snow to last a lifetime. But they did promise to wait for me while I climbed up to it. And it wasn’t a letdown at all, my first experience of snow! I even labelled pictures of some poo that I found on it as “snow-leopard poo” which my gullible lowlander friends on Facebook duly believed, too. The only disappointment was that, later on, we found ourselves walking across little glaciers like that all too often on our trek up Stok La: I could’ve experienced my snow without any of the extra work I did!

The walk was fairly flat for two hours or so but then we came across the ascent to Stok La, which was very, very steep. Since we were walking back to Rumbak at the end of the day, we weren’t carrying our backpacks and I was certainly thankful for that. I still didn’t make it quite to the top - was short by 100 metres or so - as I was a little too slow. But the views from up there were quite something. Rumbak was this little green dot far off, near the horizon, surrounded by mountains after mountains. There’d be one circle of peaks around the valley, behind which there was another circle, and yet another circle: mountains were all the eye could see, with tiny Rumbak in the middle. That is where you can appreciate what life is like in Ladakh, how isolated they are, how cut off from the rest of the world by the most massive mountains imaginable.

It also showed me how idiot trekkers can endanger the life and limb of other travellers. Somewhere near the top of the pass, I accidentally dislodged a stone that rolled all the way down to the base of the mountain. It was terrifying, as I watched it roll down, praying that no one was walking below, picking up other stones on the way, gathering momentum for what seemed like minutes on end. From then on, I kept a wary eye on the paths above me, wondering whether there were others like me somewhere high above. Also, the climb down was far scarier than the climb up. When climbing up, you are far too exhausted to note that the path is only a foot wide and that there’s nothing to break your fall should you slip. When climbing down, though, you note all this and your imagination gets very active - particularly when you see a stone roll about two kilometres straight down.

We were back in Rumbak by the middle of the afternoon, and began our short hike to the Yurutse. Our original plan was to sleep in Rumbak but we had a climb up Kanda La (4950 metres) (with our backpacks on) the next day, and our guide, perhaps noting how I made hard work of the climb up Stok La, decided that perhaps we should cut short the next day by walking right up to the village at the base of the pass. This part of the trek had a path so narrow that, at times, it wasn’t wide enough to put both your feet down side-by-side. It was high up a hill, with a river winding its way down below, and would sometimes disappear altogether, leaving me to scramble on hands and feet (ok, an exaggeration) along the hillside, trying not to look down. That was just me, though. The guide had a song on her lips and she looked like she was out picking daisies or whatever it is that Ladakhis do for recreation.

Yurutse is this village with just one house in it. It makes 9-family Rumbak look like a metropolis in comparison. It astounds me just to think about it, what their life is like, particularly in the winter when the temperatures drop to -35 Celsius, living alone like that, hours from anyone else. And it is also at the crossroads of many treks, so there were about 10 other trekkers already there by the time we reached. There wasn’t enough room for all of us in the house, so the only single members of the bunch - an Englishman and I - got bumped out into two tents outside. Which, I suppose, is still preferable to sleeping with three other people in one room. That was my first night in a tent, though, and I couldn’t sleep well. Thought the floor was at an angle. I dreamt fitfully of snow leopards, to the sound of barking dogs and braying donkeys (who have put in a performance at 2:30 AM precisely in every village I’ve trekked to).

The third day without a shower began early. I had my habitual brush and washing of face in a stream with a glacier a few feet upstream. By now I’d gotten used to the cold a bit and had stopped wondering whether my fingers had fallen off. Going to the loo was trickier. It was 5:30 AM and the house had not woken up yet, meaning that I was locked out. I could, of course, consider going out in the open but it was so cold and windy that I was worried about the effects of taking my pants off out there. What if my privates receded so far inside that they never came back out? Still, needs must and I scouted about for half an hour, trying to find an appropriately sheltered spot. None presented itself to me, so I was back at the house and banging insistently on the door. A groggy face opened the door and I let myself in without so much as a “jullay.”

A word about the composting toilets prevalent in Ladakh at this juncture. They’re essentially 10-foot-deep holes in the ground and have lots of loose dirt and manure lying about, with a shovel handy for throwing down earth after you’re done with business, which then is used to fertilise fields (animal dung, on the other hand, is used in place of firewood). On the whole, it’s very clean and dry, with no smell apart from that of manure. Not bad at all. The one criticism I have is that they don’t have hooks in there for trousers, which is an invention that has been around for thousands of years in other parts of the world. I did a survey and the women in the company reported no difficulties in using the toilet with the trousers on. Men, being anatomically slightly different, could get smelly stuff on their trousers and on the whole preferred to take them off before getting the job done. But, due to the complete absence of hooks, we had to leave them lying around on the dusty ground with the result that we looked like we’d just rolled down a hillside every time we came out of the loo.

This particular loo, in addition to not having hooks, also did not have a latch on the door. I like to take my time, usually going in with an improving book, but the absence of latches meant that I was out in 45 seconds flat. My attitude contrasted with that of the girl who refused to use the lock even when available, saying she’d rather be interrupted in the toilet by someone than take the risk of being locked inside a Ladakhi toilet. Different strokes for different bloke(ette)s.

If I thought the loo was hard, the climb up Kanda La was something else. This was at 4950 metres, and unlike Stok La the previous day, this had to be completed, for our destination lay on the other side of the pass. And I was carrying my backpack too. I couldn’t get enough air. I was gasping and going purple. So concerned was the guide that she offered to carry my backpack. Three times she asked and three times, like Julius Caesar, I refused, taking longer with each refusal. In the end, though, just when I was about to pass out, she took the pack off my back as if it were a pack of feathers and carried it for half an hour. She’s about half my size so it was a little humiliating, but what the hell, at least I lived to tell this tale. In the end, I did make it… after everyone else, granted. It was snow covered and had fantastic views, including of a 7000-metre twin peak way off in the distance. The climb down, to Shingo on the other side, was 3 hours or so but after the exertions of the climb up, it was barely noticeable.

Shingo is this little town of 2 or three families that seemed as if it was cut into the rock, LOTR style. Not much of a night life, admittedly, but absolutely stunning on first sight. Day 4, being just a downward walk up to the crossing on the Zanskar river, near Chilling, wasn’t very eventful. We hit a small town named Skiu with a monastery dominating it, in a couple hours, and in a further two hours along the Markha river, we hit the river crossing where our taxi was waiting to take us back to Leh. It should’ve been a nice, soothing walk back but it was at a lower altitude than the previous three days and it was very hot. Besides, after four days of subsisting almost entirely on bread, butter and jam, we were all already visualising the dinner menu in our minds and we walked faster than we should have. At least I did, and found my feet all blistered and cut up on reaching back home. The river crossing, being a manual trolley across a ferocious river should’ve been scary but after 4 days of goats paths along ridges, it wasn’t particularly.

The beer and the chicken at dinner was just great.