Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas Trippin'

In Which I Celebrate a Christian Holiday by Visiting the Spiritual Homelands of Buddism and Sihkism.

India is an inclusive and tolerant country, and Indians subscribe to many faiths, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity and Islam. Eager to appear fair, the government has declared a huge number of public holidays in an effort to please everyone. Despite the relatively small percentage of Indians that are Christian (about 2%), Christmas is a public holiday in India. Taking advantage of this fact, I took a week around Christmas Day to visit two spots in North India that have great significance to two of India's other major religions, Buddhism and Sikhism.

My first stop was Dharamsala in the state of Himachal Pradesh. This city rose from relative obscurity to international recognision in 1960, when the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddism, set up his government in exile in the Dharamsala suburb of McLeod Ganj. The Dalai Lama's home is also in McLeod Ganj, as is a sizable and ever-increasing population of Tibetan exiles. I visited a poignant museum near the Dalai Lama's home that condemns the Chinese invasion of Tibet in no uncertain terms. The truth may be slightly more nuanced, however. China invaded Tibet in 1950 (described in China as "the peaceful liberation of Qamdo"), an event that was actually sanctioned by the Panchen Lama (second highest ranking Lama after the Dalai Lama). China's claimed justification was that Tibet was a feudal state, holding portions of the population as agricultural slaves forced to work on land owned by wealthy monasteries and aristocrats. China maintains that the invasion served to break this abusive system and modernize Tibet through amalgamation with China. However there seems to be no doubt that in the years since the invasion, China has perpetuated massive human rights abuses and destruction of Tibet's cultural heritage.

The Dalai Lama was not at home during my visit. So I ate a lot of pizza instead. Dharamsala is a popular destination for Western tourists, and thus a large percentage of the town's economy is geared towards western-style restaurants, souvenir shops and internet cafes. It was a strange contrast to visit a place with a large and needy refugee population and instead find myself surrounded by overpriced cappuccinos.

The Dalai Lama's residence in McLeod Ganj

After a few days I jumped on a rickety bus and traveled 200 km to the south-west to Amritsar, a city in the Punjab right on the border with Pakistan. Amritsar is home to the Golden Temple, or Harmandir Sahib, the spiritual and cultural home of the Sikh religion. I knew next to nothing about Sikhism before visiting Amritsar, but what I learned was very impressive. Sikhism originated in the 15th century partially as a reaction against the prescriptive Hindu caste system. Sikhism is a very inclusive religion; non-Sikhs can fully participate in Sikh ceremonies and activities, and Sikhs pray daily for the well-being of all man-kind. Religious and political freedom for all people is an integral part of the Sikh faith, including equality for women.

An awesome manifestation of the Sikh belief in equality is the Gurdwara, or community kitchen, an integral part of most Sikh temples. Visitors of every religion and socio-economic background are welcome. I visited the Gurdwara at the Golden Temple three times during my stay in Amritsar. As you enter the complex, you are handed a plate, cup and spoon. After making your way into the dining hall, you sit on the floor in long rows with hundreds of other people. Volunteer servers come down the aisles with big caldrons of dal and baskets of bread to fill your plate.

As you can see, the Temple itself is quite spectacular!

The other main attraction of Amritsar is the Wagah border, the only road crossing between India and Pakistan. Every evening before sunset a "lowering of the flags" ceremony takes place on either side of the gates between the national borders. This event is a massive spectacle on both sides, with armed soldiers goose-stepping up and down and large rowdy crowds trying to drown each other out with cheering and shouting.

Despite the pomp and slight ridiculousness of the whole display, the intensity of this nightly event has been considered a barometer of India-Pakistan relations over the years. The ceremony has been recently scaled back, and in 2006, for the first time since the 1947 partition, trucks carrying food goods were allowed across the border. But if there's ever any doubt about feelings between the two countries, just take a look at the border fence. Ouch.

Everest Adventure in Two Parts - Part Do (Two)

Late in the afternoon on our seventh day on the trail we finally dragged ourselves into Gorak Shep, the last settlement on the trail up to the Mt. Everest base camp. Gorak Shep consists of three or four guest houses clustered together in a sandy valley, perhaps the former site of a glacial lake. Unlike most of the other settlements we'd passed through on the way up, this place's only purpose was catering to trekkers. Other villages support agriculture or yak-ranching or craft production, but Gorak Shep is exclusively a base for trekkers and climbers.

At 5,140m (16,864 ft) the air was ever-so thin and cold. This is how it must feel to be very old, we thought. You can never catch your breath and every step is an effort. The landscape was extreme, more so than anything I've seen outside of Antarctica. Nothing but blue sky, black rock, and snow and ice.

After an uncomfortable night in our Gorak Shep guest house, we rose early and headed up the last 3 hours of trail to the base camp itself. Surrounded by high mountains as we were, the valley was in shadow until nearly 10:30am. By that time we were trekking on the Khumbu glacier, a flow of ice descending off Mt. Everest, channeled into a stream between Nuptse and Khumbutse Mountains. About 2/3rds of the climbing trail up Mt. Everest itself is up the Khumbu ice fall, an extremely treacherous landscape of crevasses and shifting ice.

There was not much to mark the site of the base camp itself. There are no permanent buildings there, and outside of the climbing season (March-May) the only man-made structures are patches of flat stones used as tent platforms and a few crudely made stone wind barriers and roofless huts. The main attraction of the base camp is the spectacular views of the Khumbu ice fall, winding up between the mountains to the towering bulk of Mt. Everest, just out of site behind the nearer mountains (see picture above). At 5364m, the base camp is just a bit higher than Gorak Shep.

By the time we started our return journey back to Gorak Shep, the sun had finally made it above the towering mountains and into the valley. Within minutes of the sun hitting it, the dirty ice we were walking on came alive, creaking and cracking and suddenly sprouting rivulets of melt water. It was a little intimidating, and made us remember we were wandering around on a very active glacial flow.

Back at Gorak Shep we ate a quick lunch and then rolled right back out the door for our assent of Kala Pattar, a stony hill right near the village, from the top of which there is a good view of the Mt. Everest summit. Lemme tell you, this hill is *steep*. It would be a pain in the butt at sea-level, let alone at five and a half thousand meters. But our perseverance was rewarded, and as the sun started to set we stood on the top at 5,550m in a stiff wind, treated to an amazing view of the mountain, the glacier and the mountain-ringed valley at the top of the world.

Mt. Everest in the center

Mt. Everest in the center, looking a little smaller than the nearer Mt. Nuptse on the right.

After one more night at Gorak Shep (our eight night on the trail) it was time to walk down-hill for a change. We'd made such good time on the way up, we got a little ambitious and decided to take the long way home. Rather than decending the way we'd come, we only retraced our steps as far as Lobuche and then cut away to the east, following the trail over the Cho La Pass and decending the neihboring valley. So much for going downhill - the Cho La Pass tops out at 5,330m, almost as high as the base camp. Our ninth night was spent at Dzonglha, the crummiest and most expensive guest house yet, and then on the tenth day we tackled the pass. After a sharp slog up switchbacks and a 2-hour boulder scramble, we made it into the glaciated pass. This was probably the sketchiest part of the entire trail, crossing the icy and steep snow pack with nothing but one trekking pole to check my decent if I'd fallen and slid. The trail across the snow was not well marked, and we were worried about straying into areas of unstable ice.

The glacier in the Cho La pass

But we lived, and after slipping and sliding down a scree slope and dodging falling rocks on the far side, we had 2 days to make it back to Lukla to catch my flight to Kathmandu. During the day we rolled down the river valley as the terrain got greener and the air palatably thicker. On nights ten and eleven we slept at Dragnag and Mong. And finally, after an epic 12 hour hike on the twelfth day, we arrived back in Lukla a little foot sore but contented and amazed by our experiences.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Everest Adventure in Two Parts - Part Ek (One)

According to the terms of the Fulbright grant, during my year in India I'm only allowed to be out of the country for a total of three weeks. R. and I decided to use two of those weeks to travel to Nepal and attempt one of the better known treks in the world, the Mt. Everest base camp trek, in which one hikes about 60km and climbs from 2,800m at Lukla to 5,545m at the summit of Kala Pattar, a mountain near the base of Mt. Everest. It's traditionally done in about 13 days, which include two acclimation days and a straight up-and-back route.

We arrived in Kathmandu from Delhi in the morning and spent the rest of the day organizing our domestic flight to Lukla for the next morning and seeing some of the sights in the Kathmandu city center. The next morning we arrived at the airport to find chaos - it was the 4th day in a row that fog had encased the city, and for 4 days no flights had made it to Lukla. Trekkers, hippies with nappy dreads and Nepalis alike cluttered the departure lounge. We spent all day in the airport, hoping for good news, but by 3:00pm our flight had been officially canceled. The next day we were luckier, and our 6am flight finally left the ground at 9:30am. The short half-hour flight to Lukla was spectacular, with terraced hillsides to the right and views into the snow-capped Himalayas to the left. We flew low, sometimes clearing forested ridges by only a few hundred feet.

Stepping off the plane in Lukla at the Tenzing-Hillary Airport (see first picture), I was surprised at 1) how cold it was, and 2) how precipitous the landscape was. The Lukla airport clings to the side of the hill, and must be one of the more difficult landing strips to get into in the world. It kind of resembles a ski-jump. When landing, don't overshoot, or the plane will end up as a flaming smear on the hillside. While taking off, better get those engines cranked up, because if you're not flying by the time the runway ends, off the cliff you go!

Our first few days of hiking was through forested valleys, crossing back and forth over the Dudh Kosi river. We spent our first night in Phakding, our second in Namche Bazaar, and the third in Tengboche at a guesthouse near the Buddhist monastery.

Namche Bazaar through the mist

The monastery at Tengboche

As we climbed, the temperature got colder and the air thinner. Despite this, during the day the weather was gorgeous, sunny and bright and warm enough in the sun or when hiking. Night time was downright chilly however. None of the rooms in any of the guest houses where heated in any way, and in the mornings there was ice in our water bottles. Getting out of bed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night was quite an ordeal! The focal point of all the guest houses was the dining room, in which there was always a wood or yak-dung-burning stove. Every evening hikers and staff would gather around the stove to drink chai and eat dinner, creating a very convivial atmosphere. During our 13 days on the trail we met all manner of people from all over the world.

Stupa near Pangboche

Nights four, five and six were spent in Pangboche, Dingboche, and Dughla. On our fifth day, we actually hiked right past Dughla and made it another 2 hours up the trail to Lobuche. This may not have been the smartest thing, however, as we were aware that we were pushing ourselves, acclimation-wise. When we developed slight headaches, we decided to descend to Dughla for the night. Headaches are the first symptom of altitude sickness. Once you've got it, you have to descend or you are running the risk of seriously damaging yourself, requiring a helicopter evacuation or worse. We listened to our bodies very carefully for signs of altitude sickness, but even so, our accent to Gorak Shep, the settlement at the top, was a day quicker than is recommended. I chalk up our fortitude to the months we spend at altitude in Mussourie, which is at almost 2,000m and provided good preparation.

The next morning we quickly reached Lobuche again, right adjacent to the bottom of the Khumbu glacier. A quick investigation of the glacier revealed a crystaline glacial lake (picture left). We were tempted to go for a swim, but then decided against it on the grounds of 1) sketchiness and 2) flippin' freezing-ness! On we went, through the now tree-less valley, to our last stop - Gorak Shep, the final guest house on the Everest trail at a height of 5,160m. Next post - Kala Pattar and the base camp!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Safari, India-style

We left Mussourie hideously early in the morning on a rickety old bus. The driver took advantage of the early morning lack of traffic to whiz down the hill and around the curves at a speed my stomach and inner ear did not agree with. In the early afternoon, much road-side food and many near-traffic accidents later, we arrived in Ramnagar, the nearest town to Jim Corbett National Park, one of the best known national parks and tiger preserves in India.

The days of our visit were the first two days of the park's open season, and at first it seemed that we would not be able to get entry permits due to the park’s popularity. But after hanging around the office for an entire morning and speaking with numerous officials, we finally triumphed over bureaucracy and got a 2-day, overnight permit to the Bijrani zone of the park. Our morning was enlivened by the presence of a protest at the park headquarters. Just a few days before, a tiger had killed a woman from a nearby village who was gathering wood in the outskirts of the park. About 50 villagers were staging a sit-in to demand compensation and increased protection. Tigers are a huge draw for tourists and a source of income for local people, but this was an important reminder that people are still killed by tigers every year and that human-wildlife conflict is an important issue in India.

We finally got our permits and headed into the park in a jeep with a guide and another couple we met in the park offices. During our two days in Corbett we saw all manner of beasties, including barking deer (or Muntjac, Muntiacus muntjak), spotted deer (chital, Axis axis), and sambar deer (Rusa unicolor). Also seen where wild peacock, hoopoe birds, and languor monkeys, and the big two, the Asian elephant and two tigers! We were very lucky to see the tigers - they are rather rare and many people spend days in the park without seeing any. For us, it just took a bit of patience and some luck. Our mandatory guide was not much help though - of the two tigers we spotted, I saw the first one and R. found the second!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Everest house to Everest base camp

On my last weekend in Mussourie I went in search of a little-known landmark on the far side of the saddle ridge on which the town is perched. On a grassy lawn cropped close by wandering cattle about 6 km to the west of Mussourie lays the remains of a house once owned by Sir George Everest, British Surveyor-General of India from 1830 to 1843 and the namesake of Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. The mountain was named by the Royal Geographic Society upon the recommendation of Andrew Waugh, George Everest’s successor.

The house is now owned by the Archeological Survey of India, but is in an advanced state of crumbleage, covered in graffiti and carpeted in cow dung. It’s still a very atmospheric place, however, with fantastic views down into the Doon Valley.

Without ever thinking about it too much, I always thought that Mt. Everest was called such because it went up and up forever! Mt Everest is in fact 29,029 ft. (8,848 m.) tall. I know this because I climbed to the base camp, cast my eyes up to the summit, and said “Dang, that’s high!” More to come – ascent to Everest (base camp)!

...and an adorable puppy that was cavorting around the nearby teahouse.

Last Images of Mussourie

My time of intensive language study in Mussourie is now finished. For three months I’ve enjoyed the cool air and tree-covered hillsides of this wonderful little town, all the while knowing that this protected little aerie is quite different from the India that most people experience. On clear days, looking down into the Doon Valley and the scrum that is Dehradun, I could almost hear and smell the ruckus of humanity down in the plains. Well it’s now time to join the ruckus! I’m headed to Delhi to meet up with my NGO, but first a visit to one of India’s premier conservation areas, Corbett National Park and Tiger Reserve. And then, a quick visit to Nepal. And then, dear reader, I will actually commence my research.

Back alley cow-like beast.

This clear line across the sky is called the winterline – apparently Mussourie and a few places in Switzerland are the only places in the world where you can see it. Visible only in the fall, it comes about through the combination of an evening temperature inversion and dust in the atmosphere.

Our local view of the Himalayan foothills.

A chilly breakfast of veg. omelet and chai before class with R. at Anil’s CafĂ©.

The man who cooked for us and his family.

The competent teachers of the Landour Language School.