Thursday, November 29, 2007

Golden Years

Wish I was here
Lama Watch: Amritsar, Punjab

Today HH the Dalai Lama opened a 4-day inter-faith conference at Amritsar.
This wasn't announced publicly (at least not up here) till a couple days ago - otherwise I would have made tracks to Punjab. Flights out of Leh were full!

Here is the adorable photo from news. Note the big, burly Khampa Tibetan security guards on either side of him, wearing the mandatory white kerchiefs required by the Golden Temple.

I especially enjoyed the comments the (presumably Indian) readers made, below the story.
Things like:

This man is truly a saint...
i think he is beyond religion..i am proud that India had the honour to Shelter...nay be blessed by his presence...


i always get smile to see him. he is wonderful human .

and, more politically, in response to a critical Chinese reader:

As far as I know, India as well as all Indians respect One China Policy. We can not understand why China or Chinese doubt this fact!! Only thing we request Chinese people is to respect and accept the social, religious and cultural freedom of different chinese communities such as Tibetans. Even his holyness Dalai Lama has accepted Chinese political authority over tibet. But he asks for cultural, social and religious freedom for his people. When will China understand this?

Back in the heady post-independence days of the 1950s, India was very pro-Communist. Many people seem to have imbibed a lot of pro-Communist and therefore pro-Chinese ideas at that time. A well-known example is N. Ram, editor of the major newspaper The Hindu, who is always printing pro-China and anti-DL stuff. It is heartening to me to see Indians articulate views like those of the readers above.

I just hope they extend the same respect to the Tibetan people at large, once the inevitable, unthinkable happens and this particular iconic DL incarnation is no more.

(Although I have been lucky enough to photograph HH a number of times, this wonderful photo above is not mine. It is by Manpreet Romana of GettyImages/Agence France Presse. I hope he/they don't mind my sharing it here. )

Successful succession?
People always ask me (once they find out I am, in fact, some kind of weird Dalai-Head whose life is mostly devoted to following the Dalai Lama around) ---they always ask me, "Has the Dalai Lama picked his successor yet?"

Some say, "I heard he may refuse to pick his successor." or, "Isn't there a prophecy that he will be the last Dalai Lama?"

Other people are a bit confused by the figure of 22-year-old HH the Gyalwa Karmapa, who is so often photographed holding hands with the Big DL.

"Is that monk going to be the new Dalai Lama someday?" several people have asked me. Which is sort of like saying, "When I die, will you take over being me?" The Karmapa has already been incarnated as The Karmapa. He can't change identities in mid-life. (He very well may, however, assume the de facto role of leadership of the Tibetan community.)

In fact, the Dalai Lamas have never named or hand-picked their successors, in the 600- or-so-years of the office. The tradition has always been that after the DL's passing ("leaving his body,") the inner circle of senior rinpoches and lamas
(after a suitable period of a year or so) look for signs and omens, indicating where the newborn Lama will be found.

The high lamas examine their dreams, and they all have training in how to "read" the symbols in the universe. Things like "I saw a crane flying east" or "I had a dream about a lake near Taktser" all have an agreed-upon, shared meaning - or at least they did 60 years ago, in Tibetan monastic life.

Obviously, things are more complicated now, to say the least. (For more background, the best books to read are In Exile from the Land of Snows by John Avedon and Freedom In Exile by HH Dalai Lama).

This has led HHDL to announce that, following the tradition of conscious reincarnation, he will definitely choose NOT to be reborn in Chinese-occupied Tibet.
"If my death comes when we are still in a refugee status, then logically my reincarnation will come outside Tibet," he said on the sidelines of an inter-faith meeting in the Sikh holy city.

That way, the Chinese government cannot hand-pick their own "Dalai Lama" and claim authenticity - they way they have with the 11th Panchen Lama.

The latest has HH saying that not only will he not be reincarnated in Chinese-occupied Tibet, he will perhaps "skip reincarnation" altogether, and choose for the first time to hand-pick a successor. The really hilarious bit is that the Chinese government condemned this statement as a "breach of religious protocol."

Like they would know. But the Dalai Lama has always maintained that it should be "up to the Tibetan people" whether the tradition of Dalai Lama should even be maintained.

Now he says it may be time for a radical break with tradition - In the most recent statements, HH announced there may be a public referendum on the issue when the time comes.

While the sun shines
In the meantime, HH is racking up the international frequent flyer points, meaning he is in India these days only about 50% of the time. I see him as a figure like Gandhi - a once in a generation icon of peace. So, I'll soon be on my way to see him in Karnataka, south India. There are lots of other places in India I'd like to go, but things like Khajuraho and the Taj Mahal will be there in 10 years, for sure. Unfortunately we can't say the same for HH.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Ladakhi Lunchbox

Neighborhood munchies
Leh, Ladakh

It's lunchtime in Ladakh, and all the
tourist places (with salads, pizza, and lasagne) are closed, boarded up for the winter. Where do you eat? What do you eat?

Most days, I get a delicious vegetarian thali at Leh Chen Restaurant, which is just a tiny hole in the wall on Fort Road. It's run by a Nepali family from Sindhupalchowk who have 2 beautiful little girls.

A "thali" is kind of like the old cafeteria lunch tray, with separated sections. I get rice; a "dal" or lentil (black, yellow, green - it changes) for protein; two types of vegetables (often it's potato-peas and eggplant), 2 chapati & one papad (that's homemade bread for all you non-Indians), pickle (mmmm.....) and hot water. It is traditional to drink hot water all day long here. It's also part of Tibetan medicine. Everywhere there are Tibetans, there's "chu skor" or hot water being served in big thermoses....all day long, all year long.

In traditional north Indian fashion, they also give me a side dish of raw onions and green chili. I don't touch these. A South Indian thali would have mandatory yogurt included.

All that, plus refills on the lentils, rice and papad, for 45 Rupees (about $1.15).

But that is Indo-Nepali food. What about real Ladakhi food?

It's hard to find traditional Ladakhi food in any restaurant. Most of the tourist trade and restaurant biz is run by Tibetans, Nepalis, and Indians. They serve good Indian food like the above veg thali, or Tibetan stuff like thukpa noodle soup, then-tuk (another kind of noodle soup), mo-mos (dumplings), ting-mo (steamed bread) and butter tea. ("gur gur cha").

Since the Women's Alliance kitchen closed down due to lack of participation (they had great food!), and since the Ladakh Festival is over (there was one vendor there with authentic Ladakhi food), there is only ONE place in town to get actual Ladakhi fare.

The Aluya Restaurant (stands for All Ladakh Unemployed Youth Alliance) is run by a few women, in the middle of the town square and is one of the only places you can always, always count on being open, from about 8AM till 7PM.

Ladakhi food is a lot like Tibetan, with a few more vegetables. It is all very filling, and starchy, and based on either buckwheat, wheat or barley (sorry, I don't know for sure which is really being used. Translation problems).

Here are some tradtional Ladakhi dishes I have tried:
Chu Tagi: a sort of bow-tie shaped pasta filled with potato and served with chunks of carrots, potato and sometimes local greens (which they erroneously call "spinach...." --it's more like collard greens) in a sauce.
Drue: another wheat pasta with sauce of ground apricots. Drue was never available when I visited. Sounds yummy though....
Skyue: yet another pasta shaped like little caps or gumdrops, with same vegetables in sauce as Chu Tagi. Chu Tagi tastes better to me, though....

and my very favourite which is NOT available at Aluya right now is, I think, called
Tsu Tsu: --it is a buckwheat pancake, served either with homemade apricot jam (in breakfast time) or with dal and pickles at lunch time. Tsu Tsu is a sort of Ladakhi Dosa - a crepe-like bread.

Always available for breakfast, though, is the heavy dark Ladakhi pita-type pocket bread, "khambir." It's served piping hot with butter and locally made apricot jam.

The regional staple (all over the Tibetan plateau) is Tsampa - roasted barley flour. I have developed a genuine taste for Tsampa. It gives you a slow-energy release that is really helpful especially in cold weather. Tsampa looks like chalk and always reminds me of being a kid when I used to sneak unbaked Pillsbury biscuit dough off the counter. Or, a bit like eating Play-Doh (didn't you ever try to eat it? come on!!).

Tsampa is used for everything; I dump it in the namkeen tea (another name for gurgur cha or salty buttery tea) and stir it in to make kind of a grainy milkshake. In the same way it is dumped into Chang or home made barley beer for fortification. You can also stir it into yogurt (for breakfast), or into your noodle soup for extra thickening.

I know Tibetan refugees who crossed the mountains into Nepal with nothing but bags of tsampa powder. They mix it with water to make a paste and it's enough to sustain them.

Snack pack
All varieties (--except the really good ones pitted sweet ones that Dzomsa sells in season) - of dried apricots, including apricot nuts, as well as raisins, peanuts and sometimes cashews from Tamil Nadu , be bought in bulk on the street....along with that disgusting dried yak cheese. I don't know how anyone eats this cheese, which is dried into hard bits of stringy...hard stringiness. I can't chew it at all.

Dzomo (the female version of a Dzo, or yak-cow hybrid) butter is sold on the street from mangey looking barrels covered in fur. I can't figure it out; it really looks like they have chopped off a dzo's leg, hollowed it out and filled it with this rank butter. What is the fur for?

Of course, the person selling the dzomo butter is always a rugged country person who can't explain it to me in English, either, so the mystery continues. Dzomo butter definitely has a tang and a gamey smell that repels me.

I mentioned Seabuckthorn juice before. It is full of antioxidants, and very bitter so some sugar must be added for drinking. I have seen the packaged juice in other Indian states. The commercial name is "Leh Berry." I wonder how much antioxidant is actually remaining after processing, though. Unfortunately the places serving homemade juice are closed now and it's available only in the packaged form.

Apricot Jam, Apricot Juice, Apricot Nuts and Seabuckthorn juice could potentially all be major exports from
Ladakh. The jam is just out of this world...I cannot go back to eating that horrible red food-colouring jam (supposedly it's "Mixed Fruit") they serve everywhere in India, ever again!

Vanishing Victuals
The sad thing is that it's all you can do to find this food, outside of a Ladakhi home, anymore. Even small restaurants in rural areas and shops run by Ladakhis are not likely to have these things (except dried apricots, which are in every shop).

What they are guaranteed to have is:

-packaged Maggi Noodles. Experienced Indian travelers will groan at this. It's the Indian equivalent of Ramen Noodles. Instant noodles with a flavour packet.
-Sugary Indian tea or chai
-Every shop has pre-packaged manufactured snacks (aloo bhujia, namkeens, moong dal etc) from mainland India, which are wrapped in shiny colourful mylar plastic. The streets and gutters are littered with them!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Friday Faces

wrinkles in time
Leh, Ladakh

I just came from the Jamma Masjid ("Friday Mosque") in the main square of downtown Leh. Friday is the best time to take photos, because it's the special day for Muslim prayers.

I love the way identities are so confusing in Ladakh. People who "look Muslim" turn out to be Buddhist and vice versa. It totally messes with my preconceptions.

My favourites are the old-timers with ravine-filled faces and traditional clothing. When I was much younger, I used to hear people describe the elderly as "beautiful" and thought "yeah right, who would really want to look like that? They are just being polite...."

But now I really find it hard to take interest in photographing most younger people. The older people really are more beautiful.

This afternoon at 1.30 prayers, I was only able to photograph men. (Women generally pray in the home, at least in this area.) I haven't been able to upload today's photos of the old timers yet. So here are some more wonderful Ladakhi faces with the invariable Ladakhi smile.

Can you believe I've never been to the Taj Mahal?
I can't.

After all these years in India, I have been to so many places... but still not the Taj Mahal, definitely the most famous UNESCO World Heritage site in India, if not the whole world.
While browsing the UNESCO website (looking for information about protected rock carvings - the ASI director for Leh swears that such things are not protected by UNESCO, which of course, is not true) - I decided to list all the World Heritage sites I have visited.

Tamil Nadu:
Brihadeshwar Temple
Mahabalipuram monuments including the "Shore Temple"

Ellora Caves
Ajanta Caves
Victoria Terminus (recently renamed "Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus," which peeves me, because Queen Victoria's people built has nothing to do with Shivaji, he was dead a long time before this building was erected; why should he get credit?)

Mahabodhi Temple

The Red Fort

Pashupatinath Temple (foreigners not allowed inside..but they want your money anyway)
Kathmandu Durbar Square (foreigners not allowed in Kumari Ghar or most temples. They still hit you up for entrance fees. Somehow they have it worked out that this makes sense)
Patan Durbar Square (same policy - foreigners not allowed inside temples. Indians, who technically are foreign, are allowed - just not white people)
Bhaktapur Durbar Square (same - foreigners not allowed inside temples)
Boudhanath Stupa
Swayambunath Stupa
Changu Narayan Temple

I have consistently lodged my own one-woman protest at the discriminatory Nepali sites, by never, ever paying the price for buildings I'm not allowed into. (Makes perfect sense to me.) Instead, I have enjoyed the surrounding areas without paying, and now know all the secret back entrances to each of the sites. Write me for details. I don't support places that claim to represent the heritage of "all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located," and then discriminate based on race. I welcome you do the same.

All the other places listed do charge more for foreigners, but at least the access is equal for all. If I'm going to pay five times as much, I should be able to see the place - that seems more than fair.

The Bus Is Back

Good news, budget Himalayan travellers. The Kathmandu-Lhasa Express is back on the road (as of January).

Too bad the same cannot be said of Nepali politics. Yesterday was originally meant to be the historic elections. It passed without a peep as political infighting continues and fresh violence erupts in the Terai region.

Here's more about the bus:

The bus service ran into trouble soon after its start in 2005 and remained suspended. Though resumed again for a short period in 2006, it has been closed since spring.

Officials in Nepal blame the closure on the Chinese reluctance to issue visas.

Beijing issued visas only to tourists travelling in groups, that too after stringent scrutiny. Travellers had to submit details of their itinerary and accommodation and the bus service was shut down by China on the eve of demonstrations in Tibet or anniversaries of historic days.

The revival of the flagging bus service coincides with the start of the Visit China campaign by Beijing to mark 2008 when it hosts the Olympic Games.

Nepal's state-owned Sajha Yatayat will run the weekly service from Kathmandu, like it did in the past. The pact will be a shot in the arm for the floundering state service, most of whose buses have not been running for over a year after an agitation by employees.

The one-way fare for the three-day trip will be $70.

Full news story here.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Rocks of ages

...and ages of rocks
Leh, Ladakh

Just when I am getting used to the consistent inconsistency of India,
someone starts getting reliable and timely on me. Yesterday, I got a surprisingly prompt email reply from the Delhi Bureau of HH the Dalai Lama.

Dear _____

Today I have inquired about your PAP (Protected Area Permit) case to the dealing officer Mr.T___ C____. He replied me verbally that in mid of December 07 possible to get PAP sanction. In this way, you remind me on mid december. If your PAP permit release then you need not come to Delhi for the collection. Because I can send it by the mail attachment copy to your mail address. Obviously, you can also come and collect it.




So, it looks like I may not have to hoof it out to the Delhi Bureau at all. I can just email "Mr. T. "sometime around 2nd week of December, and ostensibly, he will be reminded to email me the Protected Area Permit for Mundgod, Karnataka.

A stop through Delhi may be mandatory anyway, as it is the usual air transit point between Ladakh and anywhere. (An alternate route would
be to fly to Jammu, on the other side of J&K state, then take a bus - about 8 hours ride - to Dharamsala.) The jeeps, both to Manali and Srinagar, will stop running any day now (so they say) due to snow on the high passes. It's hard to remember this, as days here in the valley are still warm and sunny. So, the only way out will be via air. Indian Airlines, Jet Airways and Air Deccan/Kingfisher all fly between Leh and Delhi. (Air Deccan and Kingfisher had a merger a few months ago. They seem to have compromised by keeping the name Air Deccan but adopting the red Kingfisher logo. Air India and Indian Airlines have also merged recently, into one Indian Airlines.)

Air Deccan is the cheapest at 3,022 Rs (about $75) for a one-way flight. Jet Air and Indian Airlines are both around 4,600Rs for the same flight.

Rocks and a hard place
Some people disparage "hanging out with other tourists" when they travel. The fellow travelers in Ladakh, however, have proven to be worth
knowing. They have given me some great memories of my three months in Ladakh: JonJost, Emil, Flora and Karin from Netherlands; John and Jamie from UK; Yasmine from Belgium; Enrico from Italy; Takasi and his friends from Japan; Teodora and Misha from Russia via Canada; Voytek from Poland; the nice guy from Slovenia who helped me fix my laptop - the list goes on. You never know who you're going to meet at dinner. Most Ladakh travelers are more adventurous, outdoorsy and interested in engaging directly with the culture than your average backpacking-partygoer.

Martin, a Swiss man at my guest house (staying along with his wife and two small girls) turned out to be an archaeologist and expert on the prehistoric rock art of Ladakh. Iron Age and Bronze Age rock art - featuring hunting scenes, shamanic dances and herds of primitive animals like the buffalo and ibex - is found all over Ladakh. It's very rarely mentioned in any tourist guide or trip itinerary, and its existence is only barely acknowledged by the government. Occasionally a metal sign-board is erected proclaiming the carved boulders as "protected monuments" and threatening fines for their defacement; that's about the extent of government protection.

Ironically, the government itself seems primarily to blame for the destruction of the ancient art. Martin says the giant boulders are being broken, blown up with dynamite and crushed into rubble for use in the new expanding roads of Ladakh, particularly the one under construction from Chiling to remote Zanskar.

Martin, who has been frequenting Ladakh for 15 years and speaks Ladakhi language, has been studying and documenting this rock art almost nonstop for the past 10 years. He's in a bit of a hurry - every year he returns, more of the boulders and their carvings have vanished. He published one study, all in French (but I can make out a great deal of it).

Martin doesn't seem to hold much hope for the protection of this archaic art. For one thing, it's not centralized in such a way that it could be easily protected and monitored; the carvings are strewn over most of the Ladakh Indus Valley and Zanskar. Nor could awareness be raised by promoting easy public tours of the sites - most of them are too scattered and many of the interesting ones are far from the roads.

But more than logistical challenges, the government, including the designated authorities such as Archaeological Survey of India, just do not seem to care. Perhaps it's too much to ask the military road-building bodies such as Border Roads Organization to recognize the importance of these things. But there are plenty of antiquities and archaeology entities in India that should be on the job. Such offices are notoriously proprietary when it comes time to issue research visas and permits to foreigners to study such things. Where are they when the works of art are being destroyed?

In fact, Martin says they are so lackadaisical about these ancient rock carvings, he has not even been required to work on an official research visa. He just comes on a regular tourist visa. It's all he can do to "get arrested," as they say, regarding his work.

Martin thinks it's mostly the location. The powers that be, comfortable in their Delhi offices, are just not interested in trekking out to remote, dusty steppes in the desert to check out what's going on, he says. On the odd occasion when attention is drawn to the area, a perfunctory sign is erected, the official self-congratulatory photos are snapped in front of it, and the govt. officials fly back to Delhi having had a nice weekend in Ladakh.

The road workers themselves are more often than not illiterate migrant workers from impoverished places like Nepal and Bihar, who can't be expected to recognize or preserve the carvings. As for the local villagers, about 70% of Ladakhis still live a traditional lifestyle, meaning subsistence village agriculture and animal husbandry. They certainly don't have the time or even ability to agitate for protection of a bunch of rocks.

I was able to view some of the archaic art on my trip to Dha-Hanu in Kargil district. These carvings are far more than crude stick figures. Some are fluid, with swirly motion reminiscent of Celtic designs. Others feature surreal, shamanic details, like an ordinary figure with giant outsized hands upraised, or figures wearing curious headdresses. Despite the sign "protecting" the rocks, some thoughtful locals had added their very own contributions. Alongside the Iron Age artwork, someone had carved (in English letters) his name and occupation, "Hassan Mechanic."

Having heard the archaeologist's side of the story, I decided to get quotes or statements from the local Antiquities Registration Board, and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) office. So far, every trip (three) to the Antiquities office (which looks like an antiquity itself) has found Nobody Home. Any day, any time I go there, no one is there. What a great job!

I bet they are out on location at some remote site registering artifacts....right.

There's always some old Ladakhi men there, with their ruddy cheeks and maroon coloured goncha robes, sitting in front of the empty office. "Close," one of them says with a big smile showing missing teeth. His smile gets bigger every day I return.

I will try again on Monday, but I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Off limits

Impermeable permits potentially permissible
Leh, Ladakh/Mundgod, Karnataka/Delhi

You may be wondering about the next chapter in
the Adventures of Sirensongs. So am I. Following my semi-formal plan to follow the Dalai Lama around India for as long as possible, the next step should be Mundgod, Karnataka, in south India, where His Holiness will be teaching in January.

Mundgod is an official Tibetan Refugee area and as such requires a Protected Area Permit for stays of more than a day or so. Of course, this is an ordeal to obtain. It can only be gotten from the Delhi Bureau of HH the Dalai Lama and for some reason, takes up to 8 weeks to obtain.

I am having difficulty finding out anything about Mundgod. It's on the map, but is not listed in any India guide book, perhaps because of the permit requirements. (However Bylekuppe refugee area, which also requires a permit, is listed in these books.)

So back in the 2nd week of October, I got all the necessary elements (photocopies of passport and visa, passport size photos, etc) together and sent them via Speed Post/Registered Mail to the Bureau. (Just the trip to the deserted, forlorn Leh post office was like a parody of a post office. There were no staples in the stapler, no glue in the glue pots - Indian stamps require extra glue to be added - and they tried to sell me an extra stamp instead of just giving me my 5Rs change. AND the guy huffed and puffed indignantly when I insisted on getting my 5Rs. There was 5Rs sitting right in front of him in a dish.)

I sent off all the materials in plenty of time, and followed this up with a long distance phone call to the Delhi office to confirm, plus an email. Only yesterday (more than one month later) I received this reply:

Dear Ms ___:
Till today I didn't receive your mail so I couldn't write you reply
of your messages. Regarding your protected area permit case, I check in the registered book whether your name is light in the book or not. At last i found and submission date is 11.10.2007 and your pap reference # is 362 as per our office records. Normally it takes three month to get the PAP sanction from the Ministry of Home Affairs Rehabilatation Wings office, Govt. of India. In our office, PAP dealing officer staff is Mr.T. C. and please contact with him. If I have got a time I will help you a bit.

With Greets,
T. J.

IF he has time to do his job, he might help me out a bit. Somehow, the period of time to get a permit has magically extended from 8 weeks to THREE MONTHS.

Looks like there is a trip to the Delhi Bureau in my near future.

I wonder why Dharamsala itself, with all the refugees there (and the occasional story of a captured Chinese spy), is not a Protected area? Let's just be grateful for small wonders.

However, I am looking forward to a winter in South India, which is the only time to be there (in December and January it's heaven. After February, it is just too hot). There is a great deal to see in Karnataka state - lots of Indian historic sites I have yet to see, like Hampi/Vijayanagar, Belur, Halebid, Mookambika Devi temple, Sravanabelagola and of course, my old stomping ground of Mysore (home of the best Ayurvedic massage that I know of).

Days of future passed

Thanks to Facebook, I am now back in touch with my erstw
hile New York City boss, Ed Steinberg of Rockamerica Music. He recently dug up this vintage photo of Yours Truly circa 1983. Enjoy! Thanks to Ed.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Breathing space

Taking a breather
Leh, Ladakh and environs

I've been talking about leaving Ladakh for a few weeks...yet keep finding reasons to stay. Here is another one.

Ladakh is a great place to breathe.

In most of India (ironically the home of yogic deep breathing or pranayama), you really don't want to breathe too deeply. Either the air is horribly polluted, or there are dreadful smells nearby if you breathe more than superficially. After a while, you forget that you are not breathing properly.

I knew a guy in New York that said incense was bad for meditation, because you breathe in too much smoke that way. Obviously, he had never been to India. Compared to what you normally breathe here, incense smoke is benign, and pleasant.

Once you adjust to altitude and catch your breath, Ladakh has plenty of deep breathing space. Here is an exercise that is great for Ladakh:

"Now and again, it is necessary to seclude yourself among deep mountains and hidden valleys to restore your link to the source of life.

"Breathe in and let yourself soar to the ends of the universe; breathe out and let the cosmos back inside.

"Next, breathe up all the fecundity and vibrancy of the earth.

"Finally, blend the breath of heaven and the breath of the earth with that of your own, becoming the breathe of life itself."

- Morihei Ueshiba Osensei

Last week, in honour of both my birthday and Halloween, I spent 6 days in various remote monasteries in Leh valley area. I attended the Thiksey GuStor masked dancing ritual and festival, and visited Shey Gompa (which includes a ruined palace, the former home of the Ladakhi kings), Stakna Gompa (a Drukpa Kagyu monastery, patronized by the kings of Bhutan) and the out-of-the-way Matho Gompa, famous for its tradition of Oracles, or monks who become "possesed" by a protector deity and answer questions about the future.
Here are a few random photos.

You know that Incredible India tourism ad that shows the monks blowing horns at dawn? It was made at Thiksey Monastery. This is how it looks in real life. I think they only wear the yellow hats if you are from India Tourism!

Here (below) are two of the dozens of masked dancers at Thiksey Gustor. At the end of the ritual, the Torma, or gruesomely-shaped barley cakes that represent sacrifices to negative forces (they used to be real animal sacrifices, back in the bad old days) are brought outside, thrown over a cliff and burned, amid much fanfare and dancing.
This old timer gladly posed for me at Thiksey, whirling his prayer wheel. And, he did not ask for money! (below). I am quite fond of this traditional Ladakhi hat. It serves absolutely no practical purpose (doesn't keep your head warm, or keep the sun or wind off) - it's just a goofy kind of top hat with horns. Very jaunty.
Thiksey Gompa is very easily reached by a half-hour or so's bus ride (15 Rs, or about 45 cents) from the New Bus Stand. Buses leave all day long and the last one back to Leh is at about 5 or 6pm (no one knows for sure). In season, Thiksey has a fantastic guest house, well furnished with beautiful views (a bit pricey at 300Rs or $8.00 for single occupancy), and a good restaurant (run by Nepali staff) that has a killer veg thali for 45Rs. I was there the very last day of the guest house season....when they shut the water off and the Nepalis went south. Quite sad, really. There is also a family-run guest house in the village but then you must climb up the steep hillside to the gompa every day. (However, it is much cheaper than 300Rs.)

During GuStor, Thiksey, like most monasteries during their annual festival, becomes the epicentre of social life in the area. Locals descend en masse, as much to pay respects to the gods and lamas as to socialize. (This is especially evident in the behaviour of the younger people.) Vendors set up stalls and tents in the village below the monastery, selling plastic wares, mo-mos, simple food and tea, and playing Hindi film music. This gives a carnival atmosphere and I noticed several younger people getting intoxicated (outside the monastery, of course).

Below is one of the dancers after the torma-burning. Peek a boo!

Friday, November 09, 2007

Making light

A Blessed Diwali to All !

Sweets on the street
Leh, Ladakh
There aren't many Hindus here in Ladakh. Just a few shopkeepers (sweet shop and general store owners mostly), and men in the Army. The only Hindu temples are rather garish, brand-spanking-new concrete ones created to serve the Army men. They are painted bright comic-book colours and look jarring against the sombre grey landscape with its white-washed Buddhist chortens and occasional onion-domed mosques.

Where there are Hindus, though, there is colour, festivity and lots of sugar, and Leh is no exception. Today is Diwali, a festival of light, the most universally-observed Hindu holiday that is also honoured by Sikhs, Jains and anyone with a general sense of fun. (It's actually a series of days...but that kind of gets lost up here).

Yesterday many shops were closed, but sweets vendors had opened special stalls making fresh jalebis in the open-air cold, and displaying all manner of fancy boxed milky Indian confections. Stationers sell tinsely garlands and ropes of plastic flowers (since real ones aren't available here in the cold season). And print icons of the goddess Lakshmi, usually accompanied by Ganesh and Saraswati, beam benevolently from every corner.

(The photos on this page are taken from various past celebrations in Nepal and Kerala.)

Timing is everything
It wasn't easy to find a solid meal in town yesterday. I had a steaming bowl of vegetable thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup, 30Rs) with lots of cilantro in the tiny, gloomy Tibet Restaurant as dusk gathered. Across the room huddled a group of four British girls, who had clearly just arrived in Leh. They were warming their hands round cups of tea, nibbling naan and poring over their Lonely Planet guides. (The Lonely Planet section on Ladakh is terrible. Most everything in it is wrong. More about that later.)

I almost felt sorry for them. Why had they arrived so late in the season? Just a few weeks ago, the gold and copper leaves were sparkling like amber in the fall afternoons. Now the rows of flaming poplars are grey skeletons, though skies are still blue.

"Hi!" piped up one of them. "Would you like to join us?"

I pulled up a chair. "Have you just arrived?" I asked, out of politeness but completely unnecessarily.

Turns out they have been in India for six weeks, and already "done" Kerala, Mumbai and Rajasthan.

"We really wanted to see the Himalayas," said one, "even though obviously the timing isn't right...." Another one sneezed and asked the Tibetan Amala for a napkin.

As I heard their itinerary, I realised they had done everything backwards. Had they only reversed their schedule and done Ladakh six weeks ago, *then* headed southward for Rajasthan (which is just now in its best season) and eventually to Kerala in late November, they would have missed the Kerala monsoon rains (which they caught instead) and seen Ladakh in its full fall blaze and the end of harvest celebrations.

Just a little bit of research makes all the difference in your trip. India (and Nepal) covers a vast area, none of it uniform in weather or landscape. Going to a particular place at the right or wrong time can very simply determine whether it's miserable or magical. Earlier this September, I met a Dutch couple who had somehow been convinced to travel to Rajasthan for a camel mid-August.

Needless to say, the desert was scorching hot at that time. Some travel company had talked them into it.

And last August, a dear friend (who shall remain nameless) and I met up in Kathmandu. He eagerly asked where he could see "the mountains." Which mountains? He looked impatient. "The Himalayas, of course." I had to break the news to him.

He had managed to arrive at the absolute worst season for viewing. Unless you take a plane - and maybe even if you do - you will see no snowcapped Himalayas until second week of October. Most of the country is blanketed in monsoon clouds during summer. Then he admitted, "I didn't do any research before my trip."

I met a new friend at the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu this past summer. She desperately wanted to get out of Kathmandu and do some trekking. She too had arrived at the worst time - not only are the views concealed by clouds, but the trails are full of leeches during the wet season. She was actually in Nepal at the ideal time to be in Ladakh - summer. If she had reversed her trip and gone to India first, then Nepal, she could have landed up in the Mountain Kingdom's spectacular viewing weather (October-December).

Timing is everything. After seeing so man ill-timed disappointed travellers, I can recommend consulting the guidebook under the "When To Go" heading, check the weather on an internet site like Weather Underground (link at sidebar on left), and prioritize accordingly!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

State of the state

UT doesn't mean University of Tennessee
Leh, Ladakh

This morning, my guest house manager stopped in his tracks at the sight of a banana on my breakfast table.

"Where did you get that?"

At the Sabzi Mandi (vegetable market), of course.

"But they are closed!"

I got it yesterday. Closed? Why?

"Today it is a strike. Strike till 2pm. The LUTF."

Ah, the Ladakh Union Territory Front! I thought they had lost steam lately....but no, they still have the ability to paralyze the city, one of the signs of political success in India.

For the past 20 years or so, many Ladakhis have been agitating for Ladakh, which is currently part of the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), to be declared a Union Territory. A Union Territory in Indian politics is a sort of in between state, neither quite fish nor fowl. Pondicherry is the most famous one; also Daman & Diu, Andaman Islands, Lakshadweep Islands, and there are a few others.

Union territories are usually historically and culturally unique pocket areas within a larger state, that maintain a separate identity. The Union Territories respond directly to the Central government in Delhi, not that of the surrounding greater state. In the case of Pondicherry, for instance, they have a certain degree of autonomy separate from surrounding and dominant Tamil Nadu.

I went out into the quiet, peaceful, empty streets. There were more policemen than civilians on the road. All the shop shutters (metal gates that pull down from above like garage doors) had been "downed." Shucks, there were more shops open on Eid day than there were this morning.

I asked the police officers when the strike would finish. One said "three pm," another just down the block said "2pm." It turned out the strike was a way to force everyone (more or less) to attend the LUTF speeches at the Polo Ground. So I headed toward the Polo Ground, the big open-air space where most public events are held here in Leh.

Several thousand people in attendance, mostly seated on the dusty ground in front of the concrete proscenium. Many carried cardboard placards in one hand, and spun Buddhist prayer wheels in the other. Fortunately the speaker would occasionally translate his Ladakhi words into English, so I could get the gist of them.

Essentially, the Ladakhis (at least these Ladakhis) do not feel much kinship with J&K state, and feel they have gotten the "stepmotherly treatment" from the Srinagar-based state government. Ladakh is a much larger land area than that of the rest of J&K, so this is used as evidence to rope in federal funds for the greater state. However, when it comes to dividing those funds, they feel Ladakh does not get its fair share. Also, the state government being based in Srinagar, and dominated by ethnic Kashmiris, with the official language of Urdu puts Ladakhis at a disadvantage in negotiations.

It is not a matter of Buddhist versus Muslim. There are plenty of Ladakhi Muslims, as I discovered back in August with my police story, who identify more as Ladakhi than Kashmiri.

I spoke with the LUTF leader and main speaker, who looked dignified in his maroon chuba robes. He asked me to come to the LUTF office this afternoon for a printed statement.

This is happening all over India - breakaway "aspirant states" wanting more autonomy and/or statehood status. New states are being created every few years (Jharkhand, Uttaranchal and Chhattisgarh are only about six years old, I think). The Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh has a similar movement. India's a big, diverse place and I am sure the lines have not been definitively drawn yet.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Drought's about

Water, water nowhere
Orme, Tennessee via Leh, Ladakh

Darkhorse from Nashville, Tennessee was kind enough to send this news story from my home state, regarding results of the severe drought down there:

Tennessee Town has run out of water
As twilight falls over this Tennessee town, Mayor Tony Reames drives up a dusty dirt road to the community's towering water tank and begins his nightly ritual in front of a rusty metal valve....Orme, about 40 miles west of Chattanooga and 150 miles northwest of Atlanta, is a town where the worst-case scenario has already come to pass: The water has run out....."You never get used to it," says Cheryl Evans, a 55-year-old who has lived in town all her life. "When you're used to having water and you ain't got it, it's strange. I can't tell you how many times I've turned on the faucet before remembering the water's been cut."

Dear Darkhorse:

For America, that is a shocker. An occasional power blackout in summer is one thing. But no water--!

Here in Ladakh, though, it's no biggie. Damn near all the water here is imported.

Every house that has "running" water has a big plastic Sintex tank on the roof. This has to be delivered and refilled by truck. All the water suppliers are private operators.

As far as I can tell, the "municipality" (city government) has no water infrastructure at all. Water runs all round the district and Leh Valley in literally ancient channels, dug centuries ago by locals to funnel the meltwater off the mountains for irrigation in what is otherwise a desert. This was the traditional version of "running water." Those lucky enough to live right by a stream (ie, not in the city) still wash their clothes, hair, and dishes from these channels.

However, with increased population, increased demand (including from foreign tourists) and increased pollution, it is now necessary for "safe" drinking water to be brought in from outside.

For the less fortunate, who cannot afford to buy/rent a tank and the monthly water refills, water is literally hand delivered. Every day I see bearded Kashmiri men pushing dolly carts loaded with oil barrels, jerry cans, plastic tanks, every possible available container of any size -- pushing these carts and up the streets. They are full of water and must be damned heavy. This is very hard work, sometimes they even have to push them uphill.

Every little family-run restaurant or ordinary home has to have water delivered this way. Every cup of tea I drink in such places has been carried in by hand in plastic can, then boiled before serving to me. The effort!

Now, with the freezing winter weather, most all the "running water" (piped down from the tank) has been cut off. In order to take a bath, I must get water in a bucket directly from the tank. That freezing water has to be heated on the propane stove. I only get one bucket to wash my hair, body and clothes in - even getting one bucket is difficult. Amazingly, I have learned to do this.

That's another story....the propane tanks. These red gas cylinders (which weigh about 16 kgs each) sustain life here. Electricity is unreliable, and very (comparatively) expensive anyway. To make a cup of tea or soup using electric energy would be extravagant. So, everyone except the ultra-poor has a gas burner and a government-issued (is Indian Oil and Indane Gas part of the goverment? I am not sure) red metal gas cylinder. (What do the ultra-poor do? They have kerosene stoves. These horrible, cheap kerosene burners like camp stoves, that take five tries to light. But they are far cheaper than the gas burner and cylinder.)

The cylinders must be acquired from Leh where they have been delivered from the "mainland" by truck, then ferried out to the villages via bus (most passing buses have a fleet of red cans on top, which are then tossed down by the Bus Boy), then lugged on the back of a villager....all the way to the home, monastery or tea shop. And here in the desert, distances are vast. (Thirty minutes is a short walk.)

This is pretty much the case all over India - the well-off people have water tanks. The poor go to the village hand pump and lug khumbhas back on their shoulders, several times a day.

So, when I had my tea at the monasteries this week, I really appreciated what a commodity this was. The water, the hot tea, the gas. It represents a very real expenditure of energy here.