Monday, July 19, 2004

It felt like we were in Lord of the Rings

The first night we stayed in a flower covered meadow, where horses grazed around a gently bubbling stream and snow covered mountains gleamed in the distance. Scant preparation for the day that was to follow, in which we climbed into a landscape so barren and bleak that we celebrated any sign that human life - in the form of other trekkers - had been there before us.

It felt like we were in Lord of the Rings - the perpetual mountain path, and always the Mordor-like peak of Parang-La towering ahead - so we called our pack-carrying donkeys Frodo, Sam, Smeagle and Gandalf. We became quite attached to them over the course of the week. When we finally reached the huge glacier at the top of the 18,000ft mountain pass, we were happy for our two local guides to rush the animals down the other side to get them out of the snow. We took our time ourselves, picking our steps across the fields of ice. At the end of the week, having wound our way across the flat river valley floor, we reached Tso Moriri, a deep blue lake measuring 45km around, home to nomadic herders and their horses, sheep, goats and, incredibly, yak.

All this was a far cry from running management seminars for Longsho, the Tibetan youth movement, or watching game after game to select the Tibetan national football team. But perhaps it wasn't so distant from the six-day meditation retreat I did in McLeod Ganj, where I learned to concentrate on one breath, one step, one moment at a time.

So, I'm in Leh now, medieval capital of Ladakh, and one of the most interesting, picturesque cities I've ever visited. On Thursday I fly to Kolkata, where I'll spend a few days with my brother, who's volunteering with an Indian NGO for the summer. And then a week Wednesday, 28th July, it's back to England. To all those who are around, I'm looking forward to seeing you. And to all of you, I hope you're enjoying a fantastic summer.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

I'm up in the clouds

Have spent a gorgeous few days in the barren Spiti Valley. Shabbat I was in Kibber, the world's highest settlement connected to electricity and a road and a village with charm overload. 4,200 metres high. Had more of a shabbat hike than a shabbat walk.

But now it's onwards and upwards, 8 days' trekking through the mountains towards Ladakh. Just three of us and a couple local guides, who will take us over a 5,600 metre pass and towards the closest you can come to Tibet without messing with the Chinese.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Spiti

The bus was due to leave New Manali at 6am yesterday morning, so oversleeping my alarm and waking up at 5.20 almost sentenced me to another day in the Himalayas' most touristy of tourist villages. It was only because I waved across the river to a rickshaw driver relaxing with his early morning chai and bundled my stuff into his vehicle (losing my trainers in the process) that I made it in time. Then the bus was utter chaos. The Manali-Spiti bus had been cancelled and merged with the Kullu-Spiti bus, so now we had two sets of passengers and two sets of reservations but only one set of seats. It emerged that the ticket office, knowing of the cancellation, had decided to double book the seats and make a bit of extra money. I, on the other hand, didn't have a ticket at all. An Indian passenger sold me his absent friend's ticket for the seat next to him, but that was already occupied by a woman from Kullu and her ill looking child. I was standing and squashed and the journey to Spiti, over a couple of mountain passes and round bend after bend after bend, lasts 11 hours. But such is the Indian experience, I reasoned.

Yet, by any evaluation, the journey turned out hugely enjoyable. Once we were over the freezing, cloud-covered Rhotang Pass we descended onto the spectacular Spiti side. We snaked between towering valley walls and alongside the ever present, cheap coffee-coloured river. The clouds couldn't get over the mountains, so the sky turned clear and blue. After we stopped for lunch I joined the Indian guy who'd sold me the ticket and the other westerners - an Israeli girl, a Spanish couple and a German boy - on the roof. We lay or sat on the bed of backpacks and soft cases, let the sun beat down and enjoyed some of the most beautiful scenery I've seen.

We arrived in Spiti's main town, Kaza, at 6pm. I say town, but it's still very quiet with hardly any foreign tourists. From every point in town you can see the gargantuan rocky hills and ravines.

It's 3,600 metres above sea level, so the Spanish, the Israeli and I all had headaches last night. The air felt lighter and I kept feeling dizzy. It was like my awareness was blocked and I felt like doing nothing. I did manage to get my guidebook out and read it takes about 24 hours for the body to adjust to the height. I've taken it easy today and sure enough I'm feeling almost back to normal. We've been gathering our strength to set off early tomorrow. We'll be getting a jeep further into the valley, where we'll stop at a lake and numerous Tibetan Buddhist gompas and monasteries.

In Manali I felt I wanted something more remote, harder, more solitary. Well I've got it. That I've attached myself to a group of tourists waters that down a bit. But Saturday, when they plan to move on from Tabo, the next town, and I want to rest for Shabbat, I may find myself more convincingly alone.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Observer's Paradox

My giardia is gone and I too have left Dharamshala. Now that my volunteer work is finished, I have a month to travel. So I'm in Manali, staying in a gorgeous guesthouse among apple orchards, pine trees and fragrant but (I'm told) barely potent marijuana bushes. I had a very relaxing day today, straying out only for a shabbat walk along the river in the nearby forest. The main street is best avoided, truly a North Indian Costa del Sol for Israelis. It's not the Israeliness I have a problem with, but rather the synthetic atmosphere. My friend Jay has a theory that it's easier to perceive God/Being/Now in the country than the city because modern urban life is designed to cater for our desires. So too with tourism. It's obsever's paradox. We come looking for authenticity and our very presence prevents it. All the restaurant and shop signs are in Hebrew and trance music blares from every interior. I just ate dinner in the Third Eye Cafe - Ayin HaShlishit if you prefer - watching an Indian waiter dance exactly like an Israeli and listening to another speaking Hebrew better than mine. There was to be a trance party tonight, started yesterday and continuing on into tomorrow. But someone forgot to pay off the police and they shut it down about 5 this afternoon. For me, Manali is a stop-off, en route to the deserted, desertified Spiti Valley. I'll be travelling with four very nice, very chilled Israelis, exploring the villages, walking in the mountains and moving on to the equally remote region of Ladakh.

On a different note, on Sunday 11 July (also my birthday) you can catch the UK debut of Tibetan film We're No Monks, showing at Screen on the Hill in Belsize Park. It's about the Tibetan community in McLeod Ganj, where I've been volunteering the last two months. The director will be giving a Q&A session afterwards. Funds from ticket sales go to the Tibetan Jewish Youth Exchange (the project I've been working with) and the Tibet Relief Fund. Email mekella@broomberg.co.uk if you're interested in going.