Thursday, September 27, 2007

Walk on the wild side

The wonderful thing about Tiggers
Mumbai, Maharshtra news item


The rapidly-vanshing tiger is beginning to make a comeback in at least one Indian state - Maharashtra. Here is the Reuters news item.

At least 20 tigers have resurfaced in a tropical rainforest in western India, almost three decades after it was thought that poaching had wiped them out there, experts said on Tuesday.

The big cats were sighted over an 800 square kilometer (300 square miles) mountainous forest range in the western state of Maharashtra, bringing rare good news in a country that is rapidly losing its wildlife to poaching and habitat destruction.

India is believed to have half the world's surviving tigers, but according to a census in 2001 and 2002, their numbers have dwindled to 3,642 from 40,000 a century ago.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


People in my neighborhood
Leh, Ladakh

Well, I finally saw a yak. A great big beautiful black and white yak - or maybe a Dri (female yak). It had no horns; perhaps that is a trait of a Dri. It's absolutely huge, like a shaggy black-and-white tank, and is placidly grazing on the newly-harvested field down the lane from my guest house. (Wait, I think I used that phrase last week...placidly grazing camels!)

Since I can't get original photos onto the site from here, here is a stock photo.

In Ladakhi bioculture, nothing is ever wasted (even human waste gets composted for about a year, till it is non toxic, then used on fruit trees). So, after they finish cutting all the wheat or barley, the Ladakhis put the cows and yaks out to graze on the stubble and finish the job for them.

What was surprising was that it was a yak, a real yak and not a Dzo or Dzomo (yak-cow hybrid). In the last episode I related that the valleys are now still too hot for the yaks. But there has been a slight dip in the weather and perhaps this one was transferred from the upper elevations down to town.

<>I try to walk as much as possible down back-country lanes and away from main roads. The poplar leaves are falling and crunch golden under my feet. It's been so long since I smelled the smell of rotting deciduous leaves, it really feels like home in October. (Really - after a few years in the tropics you forget that trees elsewhere change colour).

Closing up shop
All the Kashmiri merchants are packing up and going back to Srinagar. If you are ever in doubt about which merchants are Kashmiri, they are the annoying ones that sit in front of their shoppes all day annoying you. I really love the contradiction between the obsequious, wheedling, oily tone of voice ("come have a look in my small shoppe madame???") and the resentful, frustrated and condescending facial expressions (which say, "you stupid foreigner, step inside like a bug into my spiderweb"). They never, ever seem to "get" that harassment does not equal salesmanship. Then they wonder why the foreigners and other tourists all go to the Tibetan and Ladakhi merchants. These other merchants give sincere smiles, and leave them alone to browse in silence. What a concept!

The fact that something does not work and never has worked is absolutely no obstacle to its continued practice in India. Doing things The Way They've Always Been Done is far more important than getting results.

I actually worked out a roundabout path from the guest house into town that bypasses all but one Kashmiri merchant on the Changspa road. Other foreign tourists I talked to had done the same.

<>Too bad, because the Kashimiri pashminas, sweaters, shawls, scarves and jewelery really are very nice. They just do not get the concept of "browsing."

Also, in case you need to identify them further, Kashmiri shoppes always have names like "Kashmiri Emporium," "Ancient Arts Antique Emporium," and my favourites: "Useless Wali Arts Emporium" and "Age of Old Era."

One shoppe I like to frequent because the owner does not resort to sidewalk touting is the cornily-named Antique Heaven, just off the main bazaar. Mr. Bhatt will not pressure me, will gladly show me anything I'm interested in with no pressure to buy, and loves to talk about Ladakh, Kashmir and the local political situations. He is extremely laid back, and a great source of information. I even go by his shoppe just to say hello (and as any experienced Indian traveller will tell you, that is saying a lot about a Kashmiri merchant).

Loads of restaurants are listed in the Lonely Planet, but for good service, good food, a good bathroom and the absolute best 360 degree view I go to Leh View Restaurant. The three-storey climb to the terrace was a real huffer and puffer when I first arrived, but now I am acclimated and trot up the stairs with ease. Everything I ate there (Vegetable Biryani for 70Rs or $1.50 reeks aromatically of cloves and all kinds of exotic spices) was great, the service is fast, it always looks clean and you can watch cricket games on TV in the downstairs room. Not to mention, one of the only decent bathrooms in town. A great bathroom here means, "the door locks, it doesn't stink and there is a sink - with SOAP!"

The rooftop terrace has stunning views of Leh Palace, Tsemo Gompa, the mountains, the golden-roofed Vihara across the street and even Shanti Stupa several miles away.

I noticed that during last week's Pakistan vs. India games, a lot of the Kashmiri Muslims (as opposed to Ladakhi Muslims or any other Indian Muslims) in various restaurants, shops etc. refused to stand for the Indian national anthem. They were rooting for Pakistan (they held their cheering at bay till the Indian tourists left the establishment in question, though). I thought maybe I was mistaken and asked them (when no one else was around) "who were you cheering for?" "Pakistan."

As soon as India won, the Kashmiris all poured out onto the street (all over Leh town) cursing. I was walking homeward when this happened and saw the crowds on the streets. I saw a Ladakhi kid start teasing a Kashmiri guy and decided to get home fast before something got out of hand. That is exactly the kind of thing that could start a rumble in an Indian neighborhood.

Ladakhi Libations
While in Ladakh, or anywhere in Kashmir, don't miss Kashmiri Kawa (also spelt Kehwa, Kahwa, etc). It's a Kashmiri hot drink made with saffron, crushed almonds, crushed cashews, cinnamon and sometimes green tea leaves (depends on where you go and who you ask). Leh View has very yummy Kahwa that is heavy on cinnamon. Only 15Rs (about thirty cents) for a glass.

A delicious drink that is a bit harder to come by is chang, the home-made Ladakhi barley beer. My guesthouse owner made it for a special puja last week, and I loved it - especially with a handful of tsampa or barley flour thrown in, making it like a grainy alcoholic milkshake. The Belgian guests at the dinner looked at me like I was some kind of intrepid adventurer just for trying it.

Another great unique Ladakhi drink is Seabuckthorn juice (aka Leh Berry juice or tsetsalu juice), reputed to have the highest level of Vitamin C and antioxidants of, well, anything. The juice of the tart, bright-orange berries, which grow only here in Ladakh, are mixed with a bit of sugar and served as a tangy drink. The Dzomsa, besides being a place to refill your water bottle, sells fresh glasses of this juice for 15Rs. Dzomsa also sells dried sweet apricots and roasted crunch, which make a great road snack.

I love the name of Hot Million Sweets and Snacks on the main bazaar - and they serve a really thick Punjabi-style lassi for 15Rs. However, the best samosas belong to Neha Sweets around the corner from the Big Mosque. One samosa, five rupees - you can pig out for 20Rs and a glass of tea to wash it down is another 5Rs. I like the big open picture windows, where I can watch people stroll by and even look up at the ancient Leh Palace on the hilltop.

The Big Mosque is a major neighborhood landmark. The muezzin's call is an easy way to tell the time of day. The mosque was built in 1666 as part of a deal between the Ladakhi Buddhist king (I think it was Sengge Namgyal) and the Mughals. The Mughals promised to defend independent Ladakh against Tibet, for a certain price. I have read in various places that the original Big Mosque (Jama Masjid) was built in a unique Central Asian-Ladakhi architectural style. More recently, it's been renovated to include onion domes, minarets and other more "Arabic" features.

My favourite internet place is Ancient Tracks Cyber Cafe right at the corner of Fort Road and the Main Bazaar. They are the only internet place downtown (or that I ever saw anywhere for that matter) who have a generator power backup. That means, when the power cuts out (at least once a day here), you can stay online. The Tibetan operators will offer you free tea if you stay long enough, especially during dinner time. I like the fact that it's run by women only. It completely changes the feel of the place. Plus, they are open the latest - open till 11pm.

The most centrally located pharmacy and medical shoppe- and a bit of Himalayan history - is Het Ram Vinay Kumar, whose Punjabi family has been trading here for about four generations - "since before the time of the Chinese aggression," Mr Kumar himself told me. He's the stern-looking man behind the desk. He told me that National Geographic featured the store in a story about exiled Tibetans in a 1960 issue.

In classic general store tradition, Het Ram sells a bit of everything, as do the other large old-timey general stores on the block (they used to call them Dry Goods Stores). Their jumbles of Tibetan khatag scarves, burlap sacks of spices, fabric for heavy goncha dresses, coils of rope, candles for power outages, bins of potatos and dusty boxes of L'oreal hair colour give the comfortable feeling: "we can scrounge up anything you need...just give us a minute." I felt like Mr Drucker from Green Acres would peep out from behind the counter.

That's it!
I finally realized who the Kashmiri Merchants remind me of....Green Acres' Mr. Haney.

By the book
The most comprehensive bookstore in town is Ladakh Bookstore, just underneath Leh View Restaurant. Strolling through their aisles I feel almost like I'm in Delhi, or Barnes & Noble, and they accept credit cards (a rarity in Ladakh). However, they close up shop and leave for Punjab for the winter some time at end of September.

A more constant presence in the community is Leh Ling Books (Main Bazaar road), which is much more homespun but has a lot of the same stuff, in addition to kids' school supplies, blank notebooks, ink pens, maps, and greeting cards. Other great bookstores in town, some of which sell second-hand volumes, include the Bookworm and Otdan Books.

However, for a Ladakhi language-learning book - the kind used by primary school beginners - I searched in vain. The big bookstores had tourist pocket-phrase books in English script, and big unwieldy "Ladakhi-English-Urdu dictionaries."

I hit no less than five local stationery and bookshops (including shops that sold all kinds of Hindi, English and even Urdu learning books for schoolkids) and not ONE had a Ladakhi or even Tibetan script-learning book (Tibetan and Ladakhi share an alphabet). They all directed me to "Main Bazaar."

Surely Leh Ling would have it, I thought. Nope. Only one man in town, they said, "still" sold Ladakhi script-learning books - Thubsten Sanfan in the old bazaar.

I knew that there had been a struggle in the recent past about including Ladakhi language in the school curriculum - as opposed to Urdu, the official state language of J&K, but I thought it had emerged semi-victorious. Semi-, because now most public school education is in English medium, and the children can choose either Ladakhi, Urdu or (I think) Hindi as a second language. Ladakhi is not some obscure language - a great many of the signs are in Ladakhi Bodyig script. Most of the population is Buddhist and the script is the same for Tibetan, the sacred language of the area, which all Tibetan Buddhists should know how to read. I never thought it would be so difficult to find a Ladakhi script primer.

The old bazaar is a sort of more authentic, less exposed Main Bazaar, an alleyway running exactly parallel to the Main road but without the Kashmiri merchants, travel agents and junk stores. There are only real neighborhood stores here - tailors making salwar-kameez and Ladakhi gonchas, haircutters set up in tiny booths "for gents only" giving 40Rs cuts or shaves, a few butchers, a thangka-framer (a thangka is a sacred Buddhist scroll that must be mounted on brocade fabric), one tailor specializing in monk's maroon robes. I had to ask several times for Thubstan Sanfan, since there was no signboard in either Ladakhi or English.

Thubstan Sanfan Stationery was a tiny, dusty cubbyhole with nothing but the long skinny Tibetan scriptures on the shelves - nothing, not even a shopkeeper there, either. The shoppe was wide open and no caretaker to be seen. I thumbed through the mysterious books, deciphering an occasional letter, then decided to ask a neighbor where the proprietor was. The neighboring shopkeeper ran across the way to yet another shop, and brought back Thubstan Sanfan.

Mr Sanfan is a bit of a one-man industry. He publishes Ladakhi language calendars, reading primers, script primers, religious books and astrological references, in addition to running the religious supplies and thangka-mounting shop across the road. For 10Rs (about a quarter) I bought a bright yellow "Ladakhs Book Part I" which introduces me to the Tibetan/Ladakhi script.

Already, I can read simple one- or two-syllable words...but I haven't yet mastered the silent prefixes! As a spelling system, they are almost as annoying and illogical as English. Practicing Ladakhi script over and over is a good way to lull myself to sleep.

And for extra fun, there are actually 2 Tibetan scripts... U-chen (the everyday one I am learning) and the classical script, Gyuk Yig, sort of an elegant abstract version of U-chen. If I wanted to be an expert on Tibetan scripture, and thank god I don't, I would have to learn both.

Angmo will help me. She is the adorable nine year old niece of my guesthouse owners. I am really going to miss this place. Green Acres, we are there....

Above, and below, are examples of U-chen and GyukYig Scripts. What's written here is the 1st Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Big Valley

News from Nubra
Diskit, Nubra Valley, Ladakh

I am typing on the rock-like keyboard of the only internet available in the entire Nubra Valley. There are 2 terminals (c. about 1985) in the Community Information Centre here. I had to wait 2 days to get on line; yesterday the power was off all day. The day before, the operator wasn't around. I am typing as fast as possible before either the power cuts off again or the net connection fails.

Field and Stream

Nubra Valley has got to be one of the best-kept secrets in India. Peaceful villages, placidly grazing cows, burbling clear mountain streams, cheerful open-hearted peasantry working away in the fields like a Brueghel painting. Unfortunately, permits are given to foreigners for only 7 days at a time...that means, you spend one entire day on the bus here, and one entire day back, limiting your stay to five days, which is almost nothing. Still, it's worth it.

I made a gallant attempt at getting the Subdivisional Magistrate (a Ladakhi Buddhist woman) to extend my permit, on the basis of wanting to see completion of the Diskit Gompa's Yamantaka sand madala. But that extension is only possible for Indians (who also need a permit for this restricted area). As the Sikh sub-officer said, "No powers have been delegated to this location for the extension of permission to foreigners."

Yesterday I visited the official Yak Breeding Farm, only to find that all the yaks had been exported to the North Pullu grazing camp (about 5000 metres). Seems Nubra Valley, at only 3100 metres, is too hot and sunny for them....till December, when they are herded back down the Khardungla to Diskit. I was really disappointed, but it was a gorgeous, silent walk through the fields and streams to the Yak Farm.

Nubra valley, like Ladakh itself, is full of surprises. So is most of India. Unlike most of India, however, the surprises are pleasant. Like, getting a beautiful clean room with attached bath for 150Rs ($3.50) a night. Or, that the hotel "boys" are almond-eyed 16 year old Nepalis from Lumbini, who are thrilled that"didi" knows a few words of Nepali and will watch Indian Idol with them. Or, the fact that a brand new Sufi mosque has just opened in the valley. I have long been curious about the Indian Sufis, and now here they are next door, in a tiny valley a few miles from the Chinese border.

I spent three hours yesterday conversing with members of the local Shi'a community. When the Dalai Lama came to visit here, he made special trips to the various Mosques (all three of them - Sunni, Shi'a and Sufi). After the first hour or so I began to confuse the three S- sects, and everyone's name began to run together (Abbas Ali, Asaf Ali, Abdul Ali...) . but I am trying to get a picture of community relations in the area. As always, it's extremely complex and sensitive, especially around the issue of intermarriage.

Whoops - nearly lost this post when the power cut out. Better go before it happens again.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Release Forms of the Dragon

The saga continues
Leh, Ladakh

I heard back (do only Southerners say that?) from the people at China Stylus. They want to use three of the six submitted photos in Treasures of the Dragon. Now, all I have to do is figure out how to print out the photographer's release form (done - only took an hour), and either scan it (huh? ) or fax it to them from Ladakh. I haven't seen a scanner since I arrived; there might be a fax machine somewhere in town. It probably operates on a hand crank.

Weather Overground
The weather is slowly but surely shifting winter-ward. Going outside now requires a fleece jacket, and I can no longer sleep with the windows open. This morning revealed a very respectable coating of snow even on the lower elevations of what I think is the Zanskar range.

The Leh-Manali road (ie, lifeline to The Subcontinent Proper) is normally managed by the Indian Army, but it officially closes on September 15. This is not as drastic as it sounds. Cars and vehicles still run on the road. What it means is that after Sept. 15, the Indian Army is no longer available to dig you out if you are snowed in on Baralacha-La (a mountain pass).

I will still be in Nubra on the 15th, so I will have to arrange for a share jeep down to Manali in a few weeks. I call shotgun.

Camel walk

New to Nubra
Leh, Ladakh

Tomorrow morning at 5.30 AM, I board the J&K State Transport bus to Nubra Valley. I got Seat #2. This is extremely important. When riding any bus in India, but most especially a State bus (ie, cheap bus), you absolutely must get a seat in the forward section. Otherwise you are really not only in for nausea and discomfort, but possible danger. The taller you are, the more danger you are in....because when the bus hits bumps (which it does often), you will actually fly up in the air, off the seat, and bang your head against the luggage shelf above...then slam down onto the seat with spine-fracturing force. When I was in Bihar earlier this year, I heard no less than three separate reports of foreigners getting such injuries on local long-distance buses. I can think of much more interesting ways to fracture your spine.

The ticket for the 7-hour ride was 120Rs, or about $3.00 USD. (The cost for a return jeep to and from Nubra Valley is about 5000Rs, or $120 USD. I think I got a good deal. ) The ticket itself looks like a coat-check stub from a disreputable nightclub. The seat number 2 is scrawled on the back, so that no one can deny me my prime position.

There are two nondescript gray cinder-block buildings in the Old Bus Stand; one for LBOC (Ladakh Bus Operators' something) and one for the State-run buses, the Jammu & Kashmir State Transport Corporation. Both buildings are nearly empty, have schedules painted on the walls, and are manned by a lone guy sitting behind a formica desk. He wouldn't talk to me, though...I had to go to an office to confirm that I had the right place, that the bus actually did run Thursday morning, and that I really could buy a ticket right now (Tuesday afternoon). The only buses to Nubra run three times a week - Tuesdays to Diskit, Thursdays to Hunder, and Saturdays to Panamik (home of the hot springs). They all leave at 6am.

Big Valley
The Nubra Valley is a more temperate high desert than Leh Valley - home of apricot trees, hot springs and about 1000 shaggy Bactrian (two humped) camels which are actually left over from the days of the Silk Road. A two-humper can cary 4 times the load of a yak. The camels have been causing trouble lately raiding people's crops but the government is trying to encourage locals to start "camel safari" as a tourist attraction.

Nubra Valley requires a special permit, which only costs 120Rs but took most of the day today to achieve. The first two people were so busy telling me why they couldn't do it (too late in the day, not enough people to make the four-person quota, blah blah, etc) that they could have done it already in the time they spent complaining.

Finally I stumbled into a tiny office called Glacial Treks. Every town has someone like Mohammed from Glacial Treks. In Kathmandu, the guy is Bishnu at Youth Travel. This young man, who is very worth knowing, is not in a big, well-fursnished "professional" looking office. He is a young guy in a cubbyhole with nothing but a phone, and can-do spirit.

This guy will not waste my time telling me why he can't do it. He will figure out how to get it done as fast as possible before the Police office closes, and do it with a smile. Thank gods and gurus for the Mohammeds and Bishnus. I truly believe they are the future of India.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Prem Joshua is the Kenny G of the Sitar

...He just is.
If you've ever heard Prem Joshua, you know. The inane noodling "mellow" melodies, the vaguely jazzy "ethnic" arrangements...the drums that sound like a drum machine but probably are real drums....
Prem Joshua is the ubiquitous soundtrack for "hip" travelers' India. I never want to hear him again.

And just think, a lot of young travelers will go home thinking they have heard Indian music after hearing the exotically-titled "Mudra," "Dance of Shakti" or "Shiva Moon" over and over again at the German Bakery. Sort of like thinking you've seen Bharatanatyam because you've seen Bollywood dance.

Other backpacker soundtracks I never, ever need to hear again include Tracey Chapman, Jack Johnson, and anything at all by Bob Marley. Unlike Prem Joshua, there is nothing innately lame about these artists...they just play them into the ground here.

White Widows
Since I am having such a struggle uploading photos, please go to my friend Claude Renault's photoblog, Widows of Vrindavan. Claude (who's also extensively photographed the Khumbh Mela and other Indian events) spent one week at a home for widows, who are traditionally considered unlucky and unwanted in Indian society. Custom and peer pressure force them to wear white saris - a sign that their lives are now empty of colour.

Claude managed to get some amazingly intimate photos of their daily lives (especially considering that he's a "foreign" man). Maybe being a "foreign" man actually helped him gain access (must be important, if he's foreign!). I hope his project is published and brings more attention to the conditions that widows still suffer throughout much of India.

Friday, September 07, 2007


The geek version of sunburn
Leh, Ladakh




Eyedrops, please....

Instead of spending a beautiful day outdoors in the sparkling fall sunshine (poplars turning golden, turquoise skies, mounds of freshly harvested wheat artfully arranged in the countryside) here, I just spent five hours and about $10 uploading my full-sized photos and sending them to ChinaStylus for Treasures of the Dragon. Internet here in Ladakh goes through an old-fashioned modem via Delhi (only about 36 hours away by car).

I would have gotten mega-depressed just sitting there watching the counter creep forward, if it hadn't been for my secret weapon: James Brown's 20 All Time Greatest Hits. Oh, and the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou.

I told my British friend John (who also loves this soundtrack) that my grandmother used to sing "You Are My Sunshine" to me. I don't think he believed me. I guess that is kind of hard to believe these days. Not everyone was lucky enough to have a granny that knew real folk songs. Sometimes, after I talk to other people my age, I feel like I grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Here is another of the photos...the famous eyes of Swayambunath stupa in Kathmandu.

If they do use the photos in the book, I don't get paid...but I do get one copy of the book, which retails in Europe for a mere $325.00. That's US Dollars (remember those?). I'll take the money instead, guys...the wholesale price, even?

I feel like such a geek, spending a sunny day on the 'puter. After taking this quiz, though, I felt much better. Only 40% overall geek quotient...what a relief!

Your Geek Profile:

Academic Geekiness: High
Fashion Geekiness: High
Internet Geekiness: Moderate
Movie Geekiness: Moderate
Geekiness in Love: Low
Music Geekiness: Low
SciFi Geekiness: Low
Gamer Geekiness: None
General Geekiness: None

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year....

Back in the good ole US, it's nigh-on Halloween time. Troy of the Exotic Ones (Nashville, Tennessee) thoughtfully sent me this link to a review of the Worst Halloween Costumes Ever. Personally, I never wore any of these ready-made Collegeville things...I was raised to believe that Halloween costumes were meant to be creative (and cheap), like God intended them. (Yes, like God intended them. I was a kid long before the Christian conservatives figured out that Halloween was a pagan holiday.)

I do remember dressing as: Bugs Bunny, a Faery Princess with a wand, a Ballerina, a Southern Belle complete with hoop skirt and portrait-hat, a Smiley Face (remember in the 70s when Smileys were all over everything?), a racehorse jockey (that was during the horse obsession, which only lasted about, oh, 15 years), a Scarecrow (complete with broomstick slid through the shirtsleeves to make "arms" stand out), and a Gypsy, among others. Sort of a retrospective of my life, come to think of it.

What do kids dress as these days - Power Rangers? or Paris Hilton?