June 27, Monday A new leaf
Awaking amidst the roaches and rats that plague most train stations I have visited I boarded a train around the stroke of midnight and rode in a small cabin with 5 men as we tried to sleep. Around 5 hours later we pulled into the New Delhi train station and I squinted through bleary eyes as dawn lit up India’s biggest city in front of me. I was soon picked up by a taxi and was sent on my way to a house in the Defense Colony (Defense neighborhood). It was too early for me to check in to my airBNB but the man running the small enterprise welcomed me all the same. He gave me filtered water and instructions on a mile long walk that would supply me with breakfast. As I walked for my food I marveled at the peaceful and surisingly quiet neighborhood I had found myself in. After some yummy Dosa and a cup of chai tea I meandered back to the apartment on the fourth floor of a small building in a crowded residential block. Looking out into the alley I spied people brushing their teeth, doing laundry, and eating breakfast on their balconies. As my room was readied I was delighted to find it had its own bathroom, kitchen, and windowed balcony (all for $18 a night). While I watched the traffic pass by below me I was reminded that I could only spend one night in this room as it was booked for the next 5 consecutive days. Deciding to make the most of my time in a clean, comfy bed and combat the misfortune bestowed on me by having to drink unfiltered tap water while travelling from Bhind (don’t ask) I spent most of the day drifting in and out of sleep. I only woke to pursue dinner which yielded a mutton cheeseburger (6/10 I might recommend) and a surprisingly high quality chocolate éclair. With my French pastry and American fast food urges subdued I walked home with a package of Jim Jam biscuits and decided to call it a night as rain began to patter on the roof. (I didn’t loose power once).
It truly felt like I was living in a large American city and I am reminded that my time in Bhind was not so much indicative of Indian life as it was of rural desert life. Many times I have marveled at how much Delhi feels like Chicago or another large American city and I hope to explore it more in the coming days.
Sleep glorious sleep, MG
June 28, Tuesday No, I don’t want to buy a silk bra.
I woke late, taking all possible advantage of my living arrangements, and departed for my new residence in a neighborhood called Kalkaji. Situated near Deshbandu college and near the the famous tomb of Humayun I was excited to see my room. Arriving a bit early I bided my time in a nearby park and basked in the warm morning heat of New Delhi. A short while later a maid arrived and let me into the apartment. A kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and living room awaited me. With no technology more advanced than a sink and with a small ant problem the apartment was exactly what I needed. A $12 a night home base for my adventures in Delhi. After a brief period of relaxation, I mounted my next expedition: A trip to the famous Sarojini Nagar. This well known market is home to a complex maze of interconnecting roads that are crammed with vendors selling shoes, clothes, watches, trinkets, leather goods, and jewelry. Needing a few gifts for back home I enjoyed walking through the stalls and was entertained by the dozens of men who approached me trying to sell me their wares. Some seemed logical, I might very well have need of a cheap watch, pair of sunglasses, or backpack. But I think few young men are looking to purchase high heels, bed sheets, or female undergarments. I smiled, genuinely enjoying the challenge of convincing the persistent gentlemen that I didn’t need a bra for my wife, a kurti for my daughter, or a small drum to play music on. I think the total number of times I was asked to buy a selfie stick actually reached double digits.
With gifts in hand and sweat abundant I strolled around and took in as much of the bustling market place as I could. Deciding it was time to leave I used my phone to get an Ola (Indian version of an Uber where you can pay in cash) and rode back to my apartment. My driver seemed a bit green to the driving industry and didn’t have a solid grasp on how to read his GPS. He asked me how to get home a number of times to which I could only shrug my shoulders, smile, and apologize. The adventurous route he chose wound up taking a bit longer but I was happy as it gave me time to gawk at the buildings as we drove through Delhi. It truly is amazing to be in such a large, densely populated urban area.
Once back to my residence I made the risky decision to order a pizza once again. (When in Rome? Yeah I’ve been here for a month, Chicago deep dish sounds better)
I crossed my fingers while I waited but was overjoyed when the undercooked pie arrived at my front door. Digging into the extra small pizza (I didn’t want to risk more the $3 on more capsicum and coriander) I melted when I tasted a strong resemblance to American cuisine. While still very Indian in its flavor the pizza reminded me of home so much that I called and ordered a second one.
Snacking happily on (chicken)sausage, (chicken)pepperoni, and black olives I set about making the apartment feel like home and attempting t download a few Game of Throne Episodes from the slow Wi-Fi network. The AC kicked in automatically and for the first time in a while I was surprised to feel a bit chilled.
Maybe I should have bought a blanket?
June 29, Wednesday
So an Argentinian, a French woman, two Indians and a white kid walk into a bar…
Sleeping in late, I dedicated my morning in the apartment to figuring out how to download and watch season 4 of Game of Thrones on my laptop with help from Aaruran. Finally, his facebook messages solved my dilemma and I happily watched the evil Cersi Lannister die. (KIDDING! But mark my words her days are numbered) After my brain cells were sufficiently friend and I realized how much I missed TV in general I decided to plan the day’s adventure.
On this fine Wednesday I would visit Humayun’s garden tomb. After an exciting taxi ride I arrived roughly 6 kilometers from my destination. Asking the driver to look at the pin on the Ola app (Indian variant of Uber). The man would not bend and insisted that by taking me to the backside of the monument he had done his job. Championing patience, I paid the driver before giving him a scathing one-star review on Ola. Yeah, I totally showed him (I need someone to talk to). I began my 6km stroll and arrived at the entrance to the tomb’s outer grounds covered in sweat when my parents picked the most inopportune time to call. With rupees in one hand and phone in the other I panted short responses as my parents shared their love and expressed concern over the graphic nature of my previous blog post (you’ll notice it has been edited). While they were 100% correct with their remarks (Yes, yes, I admit it. Sometimes you guys are right) I didn’t have the clarity of thought to rewrite a blog post on the go. I was also sweating so profusely that I was reconsidering my decision to not buy a waterproof phone case.
Walking onward I was rewarded with an ancient engineering marvel. Humayun’s tomb and its surrounding tombs and gardens are some of the earliest known examples of Mughal architecture. Built with copious amounts of red sandstone and inlaid precious stones the great tomb is decorated in the iconic Mughal six sided star. A raised platform vaults the tomb into the air providing space for over 100 buried bodies as well as a few sleeping bats. Strolling around the gorgeously symmetric structure I sat down in the gardens and simply relaxed. With nowhere to rush to, no work to accomplish, and no one to talk to I felt like a king in his royal garden. I soon explored deeper into the compound coming across ancient tombs, mosques, and an Indian couple kissing behind the latter (PDA is gross even in India, people).
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the compound and was saddened as the sun finished its trek across the sky and the site began to close. Smiling to myself and feeling accomplished I returned to the apartment to find someone in the bedroom adjacent to mine. A young American woman working at the UN smiled as I offered her a cup of coffee and laughed when we both realized that all we had in the apartment was instant creamer. The 22-year-old went beyond polite gesture and invited me to join her and her coworkers for a drink after we ate dinner. Patrolling the surrounding streets, we soon rustled up some coffee as well as dinner before heading to the well known Hos Kaus district. We shared stories while sitting at a rooftop bar stories above the ground and looked out over the Delhi skyline. Turning around a back corner we suddenly ran into my new acquaintance’s work associates. Having visibly partaken in the consumption of spirits a beautiful French woman, stunning Argentinean girl, and formidable Indian pair were trading dance moves to decade old American music that they insisted was “current”. Well, when in Rome.
While I have rhythm I don’t think anyone has ever respectfully called me a dancer. But the gorgeous Argentinian took pity on me and gave me a short tutorial that surprisingly, had me popping, locking, and dropping better than I ever had before. Grateful for my newfound skills I “danced the night away, danced the night away” with the interracial squad as we fulfilled the UN mission statement by bringing together different ethnicities to achieve nothing politically.
However, while we may have been as unproductive in world peace and power as the UN, we had much more fun. A handful of bars, restaurants, and dance clubs later I said goodbye to my new friends as my roommate and I shared a cab back home and red tickled the edge of the horizon.
Captain of the UN’s nightlife dance team,
June 30, Thursday I’m a lazy bum
I slept in late once again. After making myself some Indian cereal and contemplating my day I made the bold decision to do absolutely nothing. Sure, I went out and got some food but I mainly just relaxed in the apartment. Normally I would feel guilty and call this a waste of a day but I honestly wasn’t that interested in any particular monument and decided to do a last load of much needed laundry instead. Ladakh is not an easy place to live and so I wanted all of my things in proper order before I left. I then went to bed early so I could get up at 3 AM for my early morning flight. Yeah, I pretty much cleaned stuff all day.
So sue me,
July 1, Friday Nirvana
Getting up at 3 AM is never pleasant but I did so in a reasonably good mood. I actually love early mornings plus, I was going to Leh, Ladakh. At just under 12,000 ft the Ladakh region is located in Jammu and Kashmir. This province is bordered by Pakistan on one side and China on the other; both large enemies of India. Due to religious and cultural tension the area has certain governmental warnings associated with it. (Love you mom)
Most notably, the security in and out of Ladakh is very tight. Many times you cannot bring hand baggage or batteries when boarding a plane back to Delhi. However, the flight itself is no simple journey. As the sun rose I looked out my window to see the mighty Himilayas defying the time and gravity’s efforts to bring them down. The highest mountain range in the world took my breath away even from the plane, and quite literally when the plane door opened.
You see, there are those of you back home (most likely guys my age) who think, “Yeah, I skied Copper Mountain and A-basin out west in CO. Altitude doesn’t affect me.” While I admire your accomplishments I too have skied out west and climbed as high as 14,000 feet. While not exactly an achievement in the world of elevation, these heights noticeably affect how you breath, think, walk, and the severity of a possible headache. Here’s the difference. When people go to Colorado they usually fly into Denver and then drive into the mountains. This gives their bodies time to acclimatize. In Ladakh, you go directly from Delhi to roughly the same height as the top of Vail ski slope in one hour and seven minutes riding in a pressurized aircraft. When that plane door opens, you feel the altitude really quick.
While I was ogling at the beauty of the surrounding mountains my breaths grew slightly quicker, I felt slightly nauseous, and my balance was a bit off. Noticing my struggle as I wrangled my backpack over my shoulder a traveler reassured me that everyone was feeling the same way. After meeting my driver, I was taken to my hotel accommodation. No AC, no Fan, no wi-fi. BUT, it was possibly the cleanest place I have yet stayed in. Built mainly of clay with a wood thatch-like roof my hotel’s architecture was representative of the entire town. These clay and thatch designs are seen in only three parts of the world: Ladakh, Nepal, and Bhutan.
As I guzzled water and popped an aspirin I sat out on my balcony and marveled at the surrounding mountains. I feel as if this blog has been fairly original and truthful so let me be cliché for one moment. This place makes you feel small, it makes you feel thankful, and it begs the question of intelligent design. I am a well traveled individual, but this is the closest I have ever come to crying at a landscape. The beauty of the mountains, the cold deserts, snow capped peaks, Bacterian (two humped) camels, the people, and prayer flags make this place heaven on earth. Just as people told me it would be.
After restless sleep that left me feeling a bit breathless the driver-guide duo arrived and took me to the palace of Leh. Far from the modern and gaudy Scindia palace this place crested a ridge and stood empty apart from its massive stone walls and 9 story architecture. Climbing to the top I wheezed as I stood in the glory of a 360-degree view of the valley. Contrast between the trees, desert, and rocks lit up my view as did the brilliant and fluttering Buddhist prayer flags.
Descending, we journeyed to the famous Shanti Stupa, another ridge cresting building that was a Japanese Bhuddist monument. It’s painted murals and designs cast a gaze over the city as it watched the citizens with a protecting eye. After leaving via my first precarious mountain road we arrived at the Leh market where I took inventory of the famous Pashmina scarves that this region is known for. Deciding it was time for rest we ended our long day at the hotel.
This region is beautiful, but it is tense. The religious, cultural, and ethnic divides between certain parts of the population warrant a strong military presence here. Except unlike cops in many cities, these men actually have ammunition for their weapons. While they do protect the people and run the only hospital in the region that specializes in high altitude care the still aren’t people to mess around with. Guns are much bigger here as well, I passed multiple gun shops for my first time in India in spite of their strict firearm laws. While sitting writing this entry on my porch I was even interrupted by a gunshot that rang up the hill from lower in the valley where the soldiers were test firing weapons. (love you mom)
Make no mistake, this is no war zone and the people here are peace loving, kind, and incredibly hospitable. There is also currently a cease fire in place. But the reality of the situation is that they are surrounded on three sides by countries that India has had violent clashes or skirmishes with in recent history. While not on the brink of war there is definitely a tension that is not spoken about, but felt in the watchful eyes and omniscient presence of soldiers.
July 2, Saturday Out of shape
Today my adventure started on an interesting note as we visited the Military Museum. This building chronicles the entire history of the Ladhaki region as well as documenting the numerous struggles and sacrifices by Indian troops to keep it safe. With conflicts in the thirties, fourties, sixties, seventies, and finally in 1999 the Indian troops have been busy. The Museum, while probably not a marvel for most foreign tourists, made my day. Ancient rifles, military history, tactical diagrams of strategic points and famous battles, all of these made me feel like I was a kid again learning about World War 2 or the revolutionary war. Since the Military is present in all parts of life here (food storage, mountaineering, road maintenance, medical care, civilian assistance, traffic, ecological conservation) a section of the museum was dedicated to each part of the military’s involvement. Pressurization chambers, climbing gear, artillery guns, airdrops of canned food, and construction machinery crowded the halls. What interested me most were the photos and descriptions of the soldiers who serve atop the Siachen glacier. Frozen the entire year, constantly battling altitude, temperature, and climate while fed only by canned food that is dropped from airplanes these men are the toughest of the tough. Defending a strategic point in conditions that freeze and apple solid even in the summer. Obviously not guys I wanted to mess with.
From the museum we drove to Shanti Spituk, a Buddhist monastery erected on a large ridge towards the edge of Leh. As I had guessed from his mustard and red clothing choice, my guide was actually a Buddhist monk himself. Together we spun the colorful Mani (prayer) wheels and climbed the seemingly infinite steps to two different halls of worship. The first was completely painted with beautiful colored depictions of deities and masters of the temples lineage. Prayer flags, drums, and gorgeous detailing surrounded benches, incense statues, and a solitary monk in the middle of the room. Asking why the large hall was nearly empty I was told that the monks were observing a period of time where they would journey to surrounding villages and share the Buddhist message. The higher place of religious worship was full of citizens who I chose not to interrupt as they said their prayers. Drums played and incense burned as me and my monastic friend gazed at the city below us while we caught our breath. Descending, we took a drive out of the city and towards the place where the Indus and Zanskar rivers meet.
This tumultuous convergence is important as the Zanskar river (translating to “copper river”) mixes with the Indus and makes it less safe to drink. After combining, the river is now known only as the Indus and eventually flows to the Arabian sea. While tourists gleefully hopped aboard rafts for an exciting ride I gazed at the surrounding mountains before washing my face in the cold glacier water and sipping a cup of tea. Heading back to Leh, we stopped at a Sikh temple where I was asked to cover my head. Of all the religions present in India (Hinduism, Buddhism, and to some extent Christianity among others) the Sikhs are a religion I know very little about. Not wanting to offend anybody I respectfully walked through the temple and exited to find my Buddhist guide waiting for me. Together, we headed back to Leh.
Arriving earlier than expected I settled into a fitful nap and awoke several hours later feeling lazy and wasteful of my time. I solved this feeling of guilt by exploring the area around my hotel and buying some bakery sweets. Feeling like I had run a marathon already I walked back to my hotel for some dinner before falling asleep.
July 3, Sunday Getting high (without drugs)
This morning I set out to drive the famous Khardung La pass. At 5602 M or 18,380 ft Khardung La is the highest motorable (drivable) pass in the world. Climbing over six thousand feet up the face of a cliff our small car veered towards the edge of 3,000 foot cliffs. While the road is very dilapidated it is constantly cleared of snow in the winter as it is a vital Military transport route. The only real inhibitors of travel are the frequent erosions and the fact that diesel freezes at this altitude in the winter. So yeah, this is intense.
When I was young I was terrified of heights. In order to get over my fear, I forced myself to climb, hike, and ride small rollercoasters. While I won’t be jumping out of a plane any time soon I rarely am caught off guard by heights these days. Regardless, I am certain nothing in the world can prepare you for Khardung La. At 60 MPH (not KPH) we swung around curves that had no railing and had long since begun to crumble onto the switch backs below. Blind hairpins at this altitude were navigated by sounding a horn before turning and hoping a truck wasn’t on the other side. Glacial streams had turned much of the single lane road into nearly impassible cascades that required one or more wheels to hang off the edge. Nevertheless, I resolved to keep my eyes open and can honestly admit I only closed my eyes in mortal fear twice. This is most likely due, in part, to the extreme change in elevation.
To even call this path a road is being overly generous. The pavement ends at about 14,000 ft and forces drivers to traverse rocks that have been smashed up into smaller rocks by workers. People work their entire day just hitting boulders with a sledgehammer to make stones that can fit under an axle. Add in the water, avalanches, and sped and you can see why I was a bit worried. In a comical attempt to slow down drivers and promote caution the Indian Border Roads Organization or BRO has put up signs along their roads with funny, poorly translated phrases that drivers seldom pay attention to. “BRO. Drive like hell, you be there. ” , “If you married, divorce speed. BRO” , and “Drinking whiskey, driving risky” are just a few examples of the messages on painted stone that made me smile as we made our ascent to the roof of the world.
Once we arrived at the top of the pass and my knuckles returned to a healthy color I exited the car and was hit with a freezing blast of wind. Snow capped the mountain and surrounded the pass as we posed for photos and laughed when two or three steps forward winded us momentarily.
Elevation is tricky, people can easily live their lives at 18,000 ft (some in the Himalayas do) but you have to be acclimatized. Driving up from the desert below over the course of an hour is a great way to feel lightheaded. Giggling at our deteriorating motor skills the driver, monk, and I descended down the backside of the pass into even riskier terrain. At one point the monk turned around and told me, “Normally this section is really dangerous, a lot of people die here. They were supposed to have widened the road a bit.” Buddhist monks, not always as comforting as you might think.
After we reached the bottom of the valley my heart almost stopped. Ridges gave way to flats, trees, bushes, sand dunes, and gorgeous river running through the valley. Three gorges converged joining Nubra valley, the Siachen glacier, and Pakistan. (Hey mom and dad, maybe I’m a little more northwest than I told you guys.)
Checkpoints since Leh had been asking for my passport and Inner line or Protected area permit. These are required for foreigners so that the government can control the flow of visitors and make sure not to disrupt the nomadic and cultural influences in the region.
After checking in at my hotel we rode to Diskit Monastary which overlooked the entire valley. Nestled into one of the mountains this monastery is hundreds of years old and houses beautiful Mani wheels, Thankas, and murals. Sitting down for almost and hour I simply gazed down on the valley and admired its beauty as the sun got lower in the sky. Next we drove to the statue of the Future Buddha. A massive structure that cast a watchful eye over the town of Diskit.
Immediately afterwards we drove into the heart of the sand dunes and found some of my new favorite animals; camels. Camels are like horses that aren’t afraid to tell you what they think. They are sassy, powerful, intelligent, and fast. These camels were a special reed known as Bactrian which means they had two humps instead of the traditional one. So, with sand blowing around me and the sun setting behind me I rode a camel through the mountain-desert of the Himalayas. Pretty awesome day. My camel however, loved to run (yes they do that) and took off ahead of the group as I did my best to maintain proper riding posture. Basically what British people do in the movies. I think some people actually thought I was a worker as the camel seemed to listen to my commands while I bobbed up and down with a straight back and relaxed smile. Hopping off of my new friend I met some baby camels who were so excited to take a selfie with me that they actually opened their mouths for a smile when I did and sneezed/bit anyone who tried to get into our photo. So, yeah. Matt Greydanus, the Camel whisperer.
As night fell I sat on my porch and contemplated all of the beauty I had seen in a single day. It was almost too much to remember every detail. I thought for a long time and was able to do a lot of growing throughout the day both at the monastery and as I lay in my hotel room. This place is perfect, and I don’t want to leave. I’ve been in India so long that all of my vivid memories are of this country and, comically enough, I’m a little scared to go back to America. Everyone back home has moved on. It’s not that I haven’t grown or developed as a person during this trip (quite the opposite). But I have missed a large period of time in the lives of my family and friends. Catching up will be difficult and time consuming which means I’ll need to fight the lazy bones in my body so that I don’t just sit at home and relax the rest of my summer away.
The Camels, the cliffs, the climb, all amazing.
July 4, Monday INDEPENDENCE DAY
I woke with a start. Today was an important day for my country and I truly expected to find some American somewhere who was celebrating. Alas, I enjoyed my country’s liberation from the British Empire without fireworks or barbecued meat. I did however, manage to blast some country music as me and my companions made the drive back up Khardung La.
Arriving at the top with shattered nerves once again I asked if we could stop and enjoy some tea. Clad in my warmest clothes (a long sleeve t-windbreaker) I sat on the edge of Khardung mountain with my feet hanging into nothingness as I sipped hot black tea. The wind whipped past me and brought thoughts of happiness, joy, sadness, redemption, and perspective. My friends will tell you I’m not really a “mystical” person. I don’t use horoscopes, I don’t really view our planet as a “mother”, and I’m not one who attempts to talk with spirits or whatever. But I do feel that in the presence of vast bodies of water or large mountain ranges people are forced to confront themselves and their lives in a way that they normally don’t. Maybe it is the isolation that so often accompanies these places, maybe feeling small puts things in perspective, maybe I was dropped as a child; I really don’t know. But sitting on the top of Mt. Khardung I had one of many thoughtful and pensive moments that had filled my time since arriving in Ladakh.
As my motor skills deteriorated and a headache set in I snapped a few quick photos, finished my tea, and enjoyed my last few moments on the roof of the world. Hopping back into our Mahindra Scorpio (basically a jeep minus everything except the shell and engine) we proceeded down the mountain and back to Leh.
Arriving at my hotel I fell into what I will call a slumber and awoke to find several hours had passed while I drooled on my pillow. Pulling myself together and cleaning up surprisingly nicely considering the patchy beard and sunburn I decided to mount an expedition to the Leh market just a couple of miles away. Unfortunately, those miles were uphill and I arrived at the market tired, thirsty, and angry at the poor price I had gotten on a gift for my father. (Ladakh is expensive. My one week here costs the same as 5 weeks traveling around India) My spirits were raised by a mango smoothie and a stroll through the stalls, mosques, monasteries, temples, and restaurants that make up the market. I watched a street performance and picked up some cheap food and drink from a store so I wouldn’t have to pay the hotel’s expensive prices. (expensive by Indian standards) Walking back I discovered a French bakery and bought a surprisingly authentic chocolate croissant which I enjoyed once back at the hotel. After a light dinner I set about contemplating how the power could go out so often in a single building. Next I curled up, and watched an episode of “Friends” on repeat to finish my fourth of July celebration.
The land of the curry and the home of the spicy,
July 5, Tuesday The Edge of Existence
Today I began a journey eastward towards the disputed Chinese border (please don’t hate me mom and dad). It began with an early rise and a short drive to a gorgeous monument called the Shey palace. Named for its glistening stone this building and its surrounding town acted as the ancient capital of Ladakh. Housing Mani wheels, a temple, and the largest bronze statue of Buddha in all of Ladakh (it was huge) the palace was a marvel. It was also unique because its temple was the only one that allowed pictures to be taken inside, albeit without flash, which is a treat considering these areas could easily be called the most beautiful parts of the area. More color than I ever thought possible is present in these Buddhist shrines in the form of murals, Thankas, statues, woodwork, and curtains. Truly a sight to behold the palace also featured a 360-degree view of the valley which was astounding.
After the temple me and my Buddhist, auto driving friends made the 6 hour trek to Tsomoriri lake. (Pronouced like somorie) Driving over metal, wood, and tin bridges we followed the Indus river through the mountains and drove past many sites where the Indian film “3 Idiots” was shot. Stopping for lunch in a small village we encountered some famous hot springs that bubbled up near the river’s edge.
Having bathed in hot springs previously during a trip to Colorado I expected a soothing warm water. However, reaching down to touch the bubbling geyser I promptly burned myself, much to the amusement of my monk/guide. Saving my pride, the man began to tell me about the different properties of the hot springs and what they were used for. He mentioned that many people come seeking cures for illness and only local doctors know how/which hot spring to use to cure each affliction. Intrigued I asked how patients were treated. The response I received was interesting. “When people come the doctor makes them drink a lot of the water” the monk informed me, “then, they throw up the acids for four or five days until they are better.”……
There ya go folks.
Another few hours and we passed a small lake fittingly named “Small Lake”. Over the next ridge we finally reached our destination, and it was glorious. Tsomoriri lake is located in a valley with snow capped peaks surrounding it on three sides and the Ladakhi range making up its fourth. Changing color form blue, to green, to violet, throughout the day the lake is home to several species of rare Himalayan birds and animals such as Marmots, Black Band Geese, Black Necked Cranes, and Snow Leopards, Foxes, and Wolves. Unfortunately, the cute and snuggly Marmot’s are often prey for the large yet magnificent beasts of the mountains. Yaks, Pashmina goats, cows, and a few ducks make up most of the rest of the wildlife with mosquitos coming in as an irritating food source for some of the smaller birds. Situtated within a wildlife preserve the lake is truly the definition of breathtaking and represents the last Indian settlement before the Chinese border aside from the roaming’s of the Nomadic tribes. At almost 14,000 feet the place was a Shangri La for me, a paradise hidden away as a secret from the rest of the world.
Finding my tent (yeah there aren’t really buildings besides a small military outpost here) I tucked my things away and walked with my monastic pal to the edge of the lake. Sitting in silence for the better part of an hour as we bathed in the glory of this natural wonder we eventually resumed talking as we took photos of each other, skipped stones, and marveled at the small animals in the water. After a few hours of what I can only describe as the purest form of contentment we headed back to our campsite. After a brief nap I arose at sunset to find the temperature had dropped dramatically.
Putting on a third (and last remaining) layer I ventured to dinner which was interrupted when the single, naked light bulb lost electricity. Finishing the meal by flashlights I walked back across the stream to my tent amidst the maelstrom of wind that had descended from atop the mountains. Honestly, I was freezing my Boondi off (Hahaaa Indian word puns! Slightly scared I’m turning into my father.) until I remembered that I had forgotten the small bit of whiskey I had hidden away for the Fourth of July. Figuring America wouldn’t feel too bad if I celebrated a day late I was soon snuggled under 2 blankets, 3 pairs of clothes to fend off the shivers.
That pretty much brings me to right now. It’s pretty chilly and very windy but hey, I came to the Himalayas. I will say I am missing Aaruran and Madi right now as their humor and company would make my tent much more comfortable. Alas, they have returned to the land of Taco Bell and Netflix, America.
“I’m on the eeedge, of *China” -Lady Gaga (*Glory)
July 6, Wednesday Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
A common symptom of high altitude sickness is waking up from sleep with the sensation that you are suffocating. Your body actually stops breathing forcing you to wake up. Knowing this doesn’t make it any less scary.
I slept for maybe an hour as the wind roared and I woke up every time my eyelids closed. Finally, as wind gave way to rays of sunlight I ate a quick breakfast and we were soon on our way leaving the picture perfect Tsomoriri lake behind.
Our 8-hour drive included lunch, more hot springs, and an ascension to the second highest motorable road in the world at 17, 584 ft. This really isn’t much of an achievement in comparison to Khardung la, however, as the pass was paved almost all the way to the top and even a squad of incredible German athletes on bicycles had made the summit. After we drove to a more breathable level I made one last trip to the Leh market for souvenirs and was surprised to find most of the town deserted. The monk informed me that today was actually the Dalai Llama’s birthday and the entire city was celebrating.
Unfortunately, festivities had begun to end by the time I reached my hotel so I consoled myself with a tasty dinner and a wonderful view of the surrounding mountains as the sun set.
My thoughts turned towards my family, friends, and all of the people back home. It didn’t seem real, I couldn’t believe this amazing trip was coming to an end. I was scared.
Ugh, real life.
July 7, Thursday Catharsis
I woke up early and waited in line behind what seemed like an entire company of Ladahki soldiers to board a plane to Delhi. The security here was tough, no carry on items except for phones and laptops NO exceptions. Even extra batteries were confiscated (thankfully I thought ahead).
As the plane took off it wove in and out of the peaks, gaining altitude and pulling me farther and farther away from the slice of paradise I had been getting accustomed to. I wanted to be sad, to be nostalgic, to be bittersweet, but I wasn’t. I was content. That single revelation made my day. I am so thankful to so many people for my experiences here and I flew to Delhi basking in happiness as I recalled specific moments of my time in India. With a smile on my face I landed in Delhi and was greeted by two things. First, the air was so thick I wondered if I could actually chew it. My time in the unpolluted Himalayas made breathing in Delhi feel like taking a drag from a Lucky Strike.
My second surprise was far less amusing. My phone still wouldn’t work even though I was back in range. No finagling would work and the airport Wi-Fi required a text message confirmation to activate. Typical Indian travel moment. After debating the ethics of giving me the Wi-Fi code without having to text with an information desk assistant, I was politely shooed out of the building to a bank of payphones. As I approached my eyebrows raised. The phones, cords, and money collection systems had been ripped out of each of the booths. Classic India. I then began asking around for someone to let me borrow their phone. Seeing my shame some man took pity on this poor, lost American and let me use his phone to call my Air Bnb who confirmed that I could, in fact, check in 6 hours late.
A short ride later and I was cozied up in my room making sure I had everything for my trip home. It all seemed to be there but I couldn’t help but feel like my bag had more space. A quick walk to dinner and groceries solved the mystery. My clothes were gone.
Another symptom of altitude sickness can be a loss of focus. After what was genuinely a half hour of going through a week’s worth of my actions I realized that sometime during my first two days in Leh I had put my clothes in an armoire at a hotel and completely forgotten about them. My pride took a knife to the back.
I decided to just smile and be thankful. There was a certain poetic finality to the situation that gave me closure and soothed my feelings about the incident. I took off my only pair of clothes and crawled under the covers and flicked off the lights.
No shirts, no shoes, no pants, no underwear, a bit of a problem.
July 8, Friday Fading Chords
I’ve always thought that the most beautiful part of music is when its emphasized more in your mind than in your ears. You know what I mean? That part where, as the song swells your heart resonates louder than the horns ever could, or that soft, fragile moment where the strings stop playing but you hear, truly hear, a final lingering note in your mind. These are the moments in music when we lose ourselves. When we forget where we are, who we are, or what we have to deal with tomorrow. The moments that move us to deep emotion, rousing inspiration, and passionate action. These notes that transcend auditory hearing are what composers slave over, music artists sweat for, and what we search for. These are the moments that matter.
I’ve always found that I grow the most in these moments. Usually, because I confront an emotion I have never learned to deal with. Truly speaking, most emotions are pretty standard. Sadness, pain, happiness, surprise, joy, yeah sure. Boring. They happen often. We understand and interpret, even create them in ourselves and others. But we often forget the experiences of our youth when we run across new emotions that we can’t quite tackle. As we age these get few and far between but they are no less important. A vital part of growing up is realizing the differences and similarities between what we think an emotion like anger is, and what we actually feel as we get hot, livid, and uncontrollable. Diagnosing, understanding, and figuring out our emotions is one of the cornerstones of maturing, yet we skip over it so easily. Understanding our emotions is what defines us, and today, I was stumped for the first time since probably middle school.
I made myself go to one last monument known as the Ashkhardam temple. Basically, it is a monument constructed with the techniques and materials of ancient India but with the money and influence of modern India. In short, it’s fascinating. However, I wasn’t having any fun. I was pissed off, angry, anxious, and very confused. My mood was swinging more violently than two acrobats on a Russian swing and I finally had to sit down and think through some things.
I didn’t want to be a bigot or a hypocrite but I just couldn’t make peace with going back to the USA and acting the same as before. I saw my friends and acquaintances in different perspectives, both good and bad. I really just couldn’t handle the idea of leaving India after all this time. It reached a point where I was convinced that if another Indian tourist cut me in line I was going to turn into John Cena and WWE them. Luckily, the running water, fountains, and slightly cooler weather helped me calm down as I tried to process all of the thoughts running through my brain. After packing up I had said goodbye to my AirBnB hosts and caught a taxi to the airport.
After arriving I instantly realized that I had not adequately prepared myself for another round of torture with United Airlines. I tried to convince myself that maybe this time it would be different, but somewhere deep inside me I knew it was going to be awful again. After going through Indian Immigration and security I was informed to get to my gate an hour early for extra boarding procedures. I quickly purchased an outrageously priced $7 USD bottle of water and raced to the gate.
As I walked up to gate 17 I was confused. There was another security scanner. That’s right, a third security checkpoint since dropping off my checked bag. I walked up to the guard and was immediately stopped by a rough hand on my shoulder. Apparently, even though I had just bought a $7 bottle of water AFTER Immigration AND security I was not allowed to bring it into the gate area even though it was still sealed. Exasperated I mumbled something about a racket and watched as the airline agent placed the bottle under his podium instead of in the garbage (I assume to drink later).
Already miffed by United Airline’s obvious ploy to steal from customers to avoid having to provide food breaks for their workers I was even more jilted when one of the United agents announced our plane had a mechanical failure and would be delayed. Sulking in pain I boarded my aircraft an hour late and was not even surprised when my seat back TV screen sputtered and died as soon as I sat down. Ironically, during a video informing me that “United is pleased to be a prestigious founding member of One World Alliance, the largest airline alliance in the world!”
Yeah, probably because they need the help of other companies to even be a functioning airline. Alas, after moving some 20 customers around seats (but of course not upgrading them to first class) the United crew wasted another 30 minutes rebooting the monitors of every seat on the plane until only a handful were broken.
Finally, we took flight. As I drifted in and out of sleep I imagined what my strongly worded letter to United would sound like and hoped for a quick flight home.
United Airlines, “Killing your happiness is free*!”
*with purchase of ticket
Anyway, what I am trying to say is that finding moments when we don’t totally understand why we feel what we feel is important. We should chase these moments, the end of a song, the rising sun, our child succeeding at something they love. The moments when we feel deeply and challenge ourselves to define what that emotion is are the moments in life that matter. It’s how we understand ourselves, how we understand the world, and how we understand each other. So don’t be afraid. Lose yourself.
July 12, Tuesday Dropping The Clutch
Stick shift cars are awesome. For those of you old enough, intelligent enough, or pretentious enough to have mastered the art of driving a manual transmission automotive vehicle you know exactly what I am talking about. Stick shift’s are not only fun but allow you to truly push your car to the limit of its performance. The trouble is, they are also difficult to master.
Many times, after not driving a manual car for a long period of time I find my self jerking to a halt in parking lots or grinding my clutch through stop lights. It’s embarrassing, frustrating, and even makes me feel like an idiot some times. But eventually, unless the transmission breaks, I get used to the car after a week or two and things go back to normal.
This is the period of life I have entered in the United States. After 2 late United Airlines flights where the flight attendant overslept at her hotel and the towing cable broke off of the second plane I arrived in the United States irritable and exhausted. My family quickly commenced to hugging, plugging their noses at my ambient Delhi-like smell, and force feeding me pizza because of my extreme weight loss.
Three days later I am screeching to a halt in the parking lot of my life. I don’t want to be a bigot, a hypocrite, or ignorant and so I try to stay quiet but adjusting to life here in the US has proved infinitely harder for me than adjusting to India. Social media makes me want to punch Mark Zuckkerburg, grocery stores make me feel guilty of all of my food options, and the only people who I can even begin to reconnect with are my closest friends.
I’ve changed. I do believe its for the better, but life certainly isn’t any easier. To try and explain to much of this re-adjustment period would sound silly I’m sure. Some of my emotions are expected, some are not. All I know is that right now I am focused on getting back into the routine of things. Ease off the gas, press the clutch, shift up, clutch off, gas on. I keep trying to let muscle memory bring my daily life back but the truth is that my friends and family have changed as well. The worst part is that only a few select students who got back before me can truly understand how I feel.
When fireworks go off I still look to make sure it isn’t a gunshot, I can’t stand walking into a D&W grocery store, and I find myself wearing the same pair of clothes for days at a time. I don’t have PTSD and I would never want to belittle the conditions that soldiers and survivors deal with but I truly am struggling to cope with the safety, cleanliness, and comfort that I once took for granted.
The truth is, most people don’t care about my trip. Ten, maybe fifteen seconds of summation fulfills their appetite for information. Pictures aren’t of interest, stories don’t always seem to land, and most people don’t like some of the truths I have come to realize about how I and the Indian people around me lived while I was gone. So right now I just have to have hope. To have faith in the fact that what I’ve learned about myself and about the world will mesh into my world and some point. That somewhere down the line I won’t have to think twice about going from second to third gear.
Until then, I guess I just have to keep the car on the road. So if you’ve got time, genuine interest, and a stomach for the graphic, please ask me about my trip. I’ve got a lot to share and I’m certain that whether I get to tell my story or not, my life will never be the same.
I started this blog with the concept of adventure and I am now a firm believer in its benefits. Leave your life behind, explore the world and find challenges that help you grow, develop, and look at life in different ways. I may not know exactly how this trip will fit into my life but I will NEVER forget it. This trip has surpassed all of my expectations, made my dreams come true, and tackled half of my bucket list. (Considering I’m only 19 the rest of my life looks pretty boring right now.)
I urge whoever reads this to find adventure in their own lives. No, this is not a cutesy “try soy milk instead of 2%” adventure blog. I’m not telling you to only take joy in the little things. I’m begging you to plan, sacrifice, dedicate, and work to place yourself on an adventure that is only possible in your dreams. Because that’s what this was for me, a dream. An application that I filled out in my spare time and day dreamed about on Sunday afternoons. It took work, sweat, a whole lot of blood, and time but I can truly say it is the most important thing I have ever done in my entire life. So find the adventure in your own life. Pick a risky, challenging, and seemingly impossible location then don’t stop working until your plan becomes real. Adventure is crucial for us humans, we need to discover, to explore, to diagnose, to question, to contemplate, to be surprised, to be scared, to sacrifice, and to learn. It’s what we’re made for. So stop reading about the insane adventure of one skinny dutch kid and find your adventure. I’ll want to hear all about it when you get back.