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I’ve been in Delhi again the past few days. It’s over 40 degrees celcius; not sure what that translates to in Fahrenheit other than *hot as balls*. But I haven’t minded so much. Two weeks ago I was more than ready to go home, but now I find myself wondering what it would be like to live in Delhi. Having a place of one’s own and friends and a job to go to make a place seem quite different.
I’ve been finding out that there are a lot of places in Delhi to escape the heat and crowds — mostly walled gardens (the root of the word ‘paradise’ means walled garden) with old stone tombs. The tombs are built of thick sandstone with extremely high ceilings and cross-ventilation through shading stone screens, so they’re the best place to sit and read.
I have loads of notes in my diary about the last few days and weeks, but I find I don’t want to waste my last few days inside writing, so they can wait until I have more time on my hands.

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I may have just been to the most beautiful place on earth: Pangong Tso is a salt lake that straddles the India/Tibet border at around 14,500 feet. Long and thin and surrounded by red rock cliffs and snowy peaks, it turns color from light green to turquoise to deep blue to purple every few minutes, depending on the light conditions and cloud shadow.
The road to Pangong passes over the Chang La, third highest motorable pass in the world, and is maintained by the ‘Mountain Tamers’ regiment, whose primary duties seem to be snow clearance and serving complimentary tea (if you can judge by the bored-looking young Punjabi soldier in the hut at the top who plied me with said tea). Very few people other than military live in the high valleys beyond the Chang La because the land is so inhospitable.
We (my share jeep companions much more congenial this time – German Jochen and Filipino Ricardo) stayed in a homestay in a village of nine houses at the far end of where tourists are allowed. Or rather I did, as Jochen and Ricardo had their own tents, which they pitched in the garden even though the temperature dropped to minus five celcius overnight. I thought I was the lucky one until I went into my bedroom to sleep and found the walls literally covered in black beetles (and a few worms for good measure). I shook beetles off the bedding and moved the bed into the center of the room then put on all my clothing in an attempt to cover my skin. I slept well, however, and if beetles danced all over me in the middle of the night I didn’t notice.

 

We had arrived in the early afternoon, starving, to find a tiny settlement with little movement other than some people tilling a field in the distance. We asked the woman at the homestay if she would cook for us; it had begun to snow, so we sat on the carpeted floor of the kitchen for several hours while she prepared dal and rice. Eventually the room filled up with villagers, mostly elderly-looking. Apparently the deal is that everyone works everyone’s fields and lunches at the house of the person’s fields they are working that day. As we sat we were offered some of our host’s home-made cchang – local wine. I was wary, having tasted Nepali fire-water, but was assured that Ladakhi cchang wasn’t as strong. So we had one glass, and it was cold outside, so we had a few more. I won’t go on record saying it was precisely good, but hungry on a cold windy afternoon being stared at by old Ladakhis (though to be fair many of them were falling asleep in their soup) and not having had a drink in two weeks, it did hit the spot. Tasted like a cross between wine and beer: an acidic front with a barley aftertaste.

The sky cleared and we decided to walk off the cchang. Braced up, my ankle was feeling a lot better. We took off along the lakeshore, expecting to be stopped by guards within half an hour (our Inner Line permits and passports had been examined at length numerous times along the road) but two hours later we had seen no one other than two Red Cross jeeps. It grew steadily colder, but the color of the lake fascinated us. It was like Mediterranean water transplanted to the roof of the world. The cliffs glowed red-gold in the setting sun while the peaks behind went blue.
Ricardo was wearing shorts with only a scarf wrapped around his legs and we realized we were five miles from the settlement, so we reluctantly turned around. My ankle had begun to throb with my stupidity in coming so far, but it was worth it. It was so beautiful.

The Nubra Valley lies north of Leh, over the Khardung La, the ‘highest motorable pass in the world’ (although someone told me that Bolivia bitterly disputes this) at 18,360 ft. I felt uncomfortably dizzy, which made me realize what a good job we had done acclimatizing to a similar height on the Annapurna circuit.
I was in a share jeep with an Indian couple who didn’t speak much English and English Paul, who spoke rather more English than I cared for. In fact he never shut up: with no encouragement he yammered on about his childhood, his parents’ livelihoods, his variety of jobs, and his stays in various spiritual places. He had been to India seven times before and so felt qualified to make blanket statements about Indians. The day passed mostly like this:

Paul: blah blah when my father bought the stately home people thought he was crazy, but then he made a good living turning it into a nursing home blah blah…when I was working as a gardener blah blah
MF: Oom.
Paul: blah blah I think it’s wonderful how the Indians can fall asleep wherever blah blah…
MF: (cough)
Paul: Did you know that the crown chakra has moved from the Himalayas to the Andes?
MF: (sniff)
Paul: So do you think Nepal is more spiritual than India?
MF: I am really not the right person to ask about this.
Paul: (momentarily quiet)
Paul: So my mother, who lives in the south of France blah blah…

In hindsight I wonder if the Indian couple spoke as little English as they claimed.

The valley, which is of strategic importance to India because of its location next to Pakistan and China, is filled with military bases but manages to retain its sense of solitude and grandeur. We visited a few monasteries, which isn’t hard considering that you can’t swing a cat in Ladakh without hitting a picturesque monastery clinging to the side of a cliff. One had an elaborate suite kept at the ready for the Dalai Lama’s infrequent visits; he had last been in 2003 and was expected again within a few years.

I was struck by how much Ladakhi architecture resembles that of Northern New Mexico: mud bricks plastered with mud; tree trunk beams that I would call vigas with decorative twigs placed in between that in Spanish are latillas. In the palaces and fancier monasteries there are carved colored beams that would look at home in a New Mexican mission. I wonder whether both cultures evolved the same style because they had the same materials to work with or whether there was some sort of cross-fertilization?

In the late afternoon we visited the Nubra sand dunes, which was the only underwhelming part of the trip. They’re advertised as a bit of Arabia in Ladakh but look more like golf course sand traps with Bactrian camels waiting patiently for tourist money. I did not bother to take a camel ride, as I figured that three days on a camel in Rajasthan had been enough, but I was interested to see that the two-humped camels are a lot hairier than their one-humped cousins and the humps look considerably less firm.

We stayed in a tented camp, which was fine until the morning when I managed to trip off my tent’s concrete platform and sprain my ankle. I was in pain the entire ride back but thankful it happened near the end of my trip with no trekking left. Back in Leh for the night I performed the third world ice trick, i.e. stuck my foot in a bucket of cold water. In the middle of the night I woke because it was hot and throbbing, so I dragged the bucket to the side of the bed and fell asleep with one leg hanging out into the water.

I thought riding a bus in Nepal was scary, but I was wrong: riding a bus in Ladakh is the way to white knuckles. The main highway from Leh to Kargil (in the west of Ladakh on the border with Pakistan) is a one-track road, sometimes paved, sometimes not, that seems to have been constructed by and for yaks. Luckily there’s not much traffic this time of year, although if there were maybe the drivers would take the blind corners less cavalierly?
The scenery is among the most dramatic I have ever seen: shifting vertical and horizontal rocky planes of every color imaginable interspersed with stark sand deserts under deep blue skies, monasteries clinging tenuously to cliffs. Above 12,000 feet there is very little vegetation, which adds to the otherworldly effect, but coming down into Kargil all of a sudden there appear sweet green river valleys: tall straight poplars, willows, lush grass, apples in bloom.

I got on the bus at five in the morning (as if there were any other time for an Indian bus to depart?) sitting right behind the driver, wedged with a family of four into three seats. The driver and conductor decided I was their charge, inviting me to breakfast with them at the halfway mark, then waiting with me in Kargil until I was delivered into the hands of my homestay.

The homestay was arranged by a travel agent in Leh named Zia; I soon found out that it was Zia’s own family who I was to stay with, and it was his 18-year-old nephew Nissar who eventually shuffled his way into town to pick me up. I didn’t know what to make of him at first: a typical 18-year-old he was perpetually doing something with his mobile and he walked quickly in front of me as we made our way through town to a village on the outskirts. He was clearly uncomfortable with me, and I began to regret the idea of the homestay. When we arrived at his house no one was home. I said I would take a walk and arranged to meet him again in a few hours.

I set out up the river on a road that eventually leads to the Zanskar valley, although apparently the pass is still closed in May. I regretted immediately that I had brought nothing to cover my head, as Kargil is predominantly Muslim and every woman I saw was wearing a headscarf. But the people were as friendly as in the rest of Ladakh (i.e. ridiculously friendly). Most didn’t speak English, but I got the gist of the old women asking me where the hell I was going. Two young men eventually fell into step with me, wanting to practice their English. One worked as a teacher in fifty kilometers away in Dras, which he claimed was the second coldest place on earth; the other was still in high school but planned to go to college in Delhi. I brought my ‘ailing husband’ out of storage, realizing I hadn’t used him in almost two months since I’d had people to travel with. They took me to their house and fed me noodle soup which I felt duty-bound to eat even though I’d just had lunch and was expecting dinner shortly. I drew the line at the cold water they brought me, however. I agonized about whether it would offend them if I didn’t drink it, but having been so incredibly sick so recently I felt I had to put myself first.

Walking back down the road I ran into a worried Nissar — apparently I had walked more than 10 kilometers. He had found out that there were no share jeeps leaving Kargil in the morning and that all the buses were booked up, the reason being that everyone was celebrating the results of the recent election. There had been two candidates for MP from Ladakh, and the one from Kargil had won. The only possibility for me to leave was to take a taxi, which would cost me 3000 rupees for the five-hour trip to Lamayuru, where there is a particularly spectacular monastery. Nissar evidently assumed that I would stay another day, but I panicked: what would I do in Kargil for another day and how uncomfortable would I be in the homestay? I told him I would take the taxi; he would have to go back downtown to book it.

Arriving back at his house I was introduced to his parents and given a cup of tea, then Nissar took off, leaving me to make stilted conversation with his father. After sitting in painful silence for a while the father asked me if I liked television, as there was one in the kitchen. I motioned that I thought television was the best thing in the whole world; with evident relief we moved to the kitchen and turned on the Discovery channel. Sitting on the floor we watched leopards and snakes until dinner was ready some two hours later. (Chairs are not common in Ladakh; you sit on the carpeted floor for everything including eating – you leave yours shoes out in the main corridor and slip them on to move between rooms.)

I was introduced to the traditional Ladakhi toilet, a room on the second floor (which is where all the other main rooms are, the ground floor being reserved for animals) with an open hole in the dirt floor. The room below opens to the outside, so mucking it out becomes fairly simple. You do your business, then you shovel some dirt on top of it. It doesn’t smell much at all and is environmentally sound. It is also, if you are honest enough to admit it, pretty fun to watch whatever you do fall eight feet.

At nine-thirty I was very tired and still feeling uncomfortable. It became clear that the room I was to stay in belonged to Nissar, and I couldn’t say no when he asked if I would mind if he slept there too. They had conjured for me an ancient camp bed that basically consisted of a board on sawhorses, so hard that I envied Nissar’s customary place on the floor. But I fell asleep immediately and didn’t wake until the sun hit my face at five.

In the morning everything seemed different and I was all of a sudden sad to be departing so quickly. Even though Nissar’s mother spoke no English she managed to communicate how lovely she was, and we had a great time grinning at each other in between watching men with long hair in spangled tights threaten each other theatrically with folding chairs (on the TV — ain’t globalization great?). I suppose a lot of things are like this – you have to endure some initial discomfort in order to get to the good stuff. Before I left she stuffed my bag full of her own dried apricots (rock hard and sugary as is the style here) and told me to come back soon. I shoved some money into her hand which she tried hard to refuse.

Uncle Zia had commanded that Nissar accompany me in the taxi to Lamayuru, and besides the taxi driver didn’t have a partner and didn’t want to make the trip alone. The evening before I was annoyed about it, but in the morning I was glad, as he had relaxed a bit and was becoming good company. There was a fair bit of singing in the car and they were good-natured when I made them stop repeatedly for photographing. It took us six hours to reach Lamayuru. Nissar put me into the guesthouse that Uncle Zia had specified, then they set off back along the road to Kargil.

In the afternoon I took a long walk down the road to see a rock formation called Moonland which was made when the area was a lake several gazillion years ago. Coming back up the road I was asked by a pack of Indian tourists what I was doing. “It seemed weird that you were walking alone,” one said. “Americans are weird,” I replied. Maybe we are – because the light conditions were so interesting, I took a number of bizarre photos of my shadow.

For dinner I sat on the floor of the kitchen while several Ladakhi women cooked, chattered loudly amongst themselves, and drank several hundred liters of salt butter tea (which tastes like it sounds). This time I was perfectly comfortable being ignored; I watched and listened to them, ate my noodle soup and went to bed. In the morning there were all of a sudden children everywhere. One adorable ten-year-old with perfect English told me that the five children had returned the night before from Dehra Dun (on the other side of the Himalaya) where they were in school all year. They hadn’t seen their parents in five months.

It’s cloudy today and I am feeling apathetic. I booked my ticket from Delhi to Scotland for the 29th, so the end of the trip is nigh. I wish I were going home now, but I have to gather enthusiasm to see Ladakh. When will I ever be here again?
Now that I’m so close to the next story I’m getting anxious about the future. I’ve committed to spending the summer in California to lend moral support to my mother, who has begun chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. After that, who knows. I’m tired of being unsettled and would very much like to move back into my apartment in Boston, but I don’t know how I’ll support myself. My self-confidence is uncharacteristically low, but on the other hand it’s not unfounded: every day I hear about more friends being made redundant. Now does not seem to be a good time to be looking for a job, let along starting a new business. On the other hand I have often been able to do things other people said were impossible simply by assuming that I could.

Up at 3:30 to catch my flight to Ladakh. I sit next to two Canadian women, about whom I am initially extremely judgmental: they are badly dressed and their voices bug the shit out of me. I don’t speak to them until the end of the flight, at which point one offers me a place to stay in Delhi at the end of the month. I am ashamed.
Coming into Leh is a bit like landing on the moon, but with snow on the peaks. The landscape is dry and rocky and dramatically shaped. The sky is impossibly blue. No air pollution here. It’s much colder than I’d imagined – 6 degrees Celcius – but when we step into the sunshine I barely need my sweater. The big marketing slogan for Ladakh is that it’s the only place on earth where you can sit in the sun and get heatstroke but have a limb in the shade and get frostbite at the same time.
I’m fatigued the rest of the day; the 3:30 wake-up was one thing, I’m still not totally over the stomach bug, and I’m huffing and puffing with returning to altitude (Leh is at 3500 meters / 11,500 ft).

Flying into Delhi is a bit surreal: the swine flu has apparently been multiplying while I haven’t been paying attention, and all the immigration officers are wearing face masks. It looks like some sort of futuristic totalitarian play. You have to fill out a health form saying where you’ve been; I have the slightest bit of a cough which I try to suppress while standing in line for fear of being thrown into a closet somewhere.
Coming out into the airport I find that none of the ATMs is working and no one wants to exchange Nepali rupees. I’m stuck with 2500 of them and probably will be for a long time. I splurge on an airport hotel, which is fairly clean by Indian standards but still a bit grotty.