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.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Happy Diwali!

November 5th was Diwali, the Festival of Lights, perhaps India’s most important religious holiday. Diwali celebrates a story from the Hindu Ramayana in which Lord Rama returns from the jungle after a 14-year exile. To celebrate the return of their king and to guide him home, the people of the city of Ayodhya illuminate the kingdom with oil lamps and fireworks.

In terms of decorations and activities, Diwali is like the noisy lovechild of Christmas and the 4th of July. In the early evening of Friday, Nov. 5th we walked down the hill into town, admiring the houses and shops decorated with strings of lights and garlands of plastic flowers. People were out in droves, buying sweets (mitai) and small presents for their families. One common candy that I sampled was crystallized pumpkin, which tasted more like unadulterated sugar than it did pumpkin, but was totally delicious! As it began to get dark, people put little clay dishes with oil and wicks out on their doorsteps, casting tiny flickering lights to guide Lord Rama home from his banishment.

We ate dinner in a shop in the Landour bazaar, and on emerging an hour later into the dark, found ourselves in Mogadishu rather than Mussourie! Fireworks are another major component of Diwali, and from about 8pm the youth of the nation was out on the streets, letting off all manner of firecracker and explosive noisemakers (appropriately known as “bombs”). Total chaos ensued as the narrow streets echoed with the boom and crack of colorful explosives. One popular game seemed to be “drop a sonic boom firecracker right behind the foreigners and scare the s*** out of them”. I didn’t enjoy this game so much, but the whole city rumbling with light and noise was a sight to see.

As we walked up the hill towards home, the lights of Dehradun down in the valley became visible. It looked like there was a civil war going on down there, with flashes and sprinklings of color blossoming every second amidst the city lights! I hate to think about the number of kids that may have lost a finger or two during the course of the evening, but everyone who didn’t blow their hands off surely had a great time.

These next two pictures are of men making a super sticky-sweet dessert called (I think) gulabi, which also means "pink"

Yoga and Yuppies

My time in Mussourie is growing short, and thus, on a quest to see more sights of local interest, last weekend R. and I braved the somewhat sketchy local bus system to get ourselves to Rishikesh. What should have taken 2 buses and 3 hours turned into 3 buses and 4 hours when, with a clunk, the drive shaft fell off our second bus and we had to stand on the side of the road until the next one rolled through.

Rishikesh is right on the headwaters of the Ganges, India’s holiest river, and is a hot-bed of spiritual activity with lots of ashrams, meditation, and yoga. It all seemed a little artificial, however, as the vast majority of the spiritual seekers were Westerners of various sorts, with the locals just playing along to make a quick buck. The scenery is quite spectacular though, with the river flowing through a deep and forested valley and colorful temples and ashrams lining the banks.

The yoga class we braved one morning was fun (ow…still sore!) but I think our best Rishikesh activity was the morning we spent river rafting. The Ganges has some decent rapids up in its headwaters. Now, I’m as knowledgeable about rafting as I am about yoga (which is to say, not at all) but reputable people tell me that the rapids we bounced through were in the 3 - 3.5 range. Midway though the last rapid our guide told us to stow our paddles and jump. So we bobbed down the fast-flowing Ganges in our life vests for a few minutes before the frigid water drove us back into our boat. From what I understand, for most of its length, this holiest of rivers is rather sewer-like. But this far up, I felt fairly comfortable swimming. No ill effects so far.

Check out some pictures above and below. They are, in order:
1.) View of the Rishikesh tourist neighborhoods on either side of the Ganges.
2.) Pedestrian (and motorcycle, cow, and monkey) suspension bridge linking the two sides of town.
3.) Nightly ganga aarti puja on the riverside ghats.
4.) Bells and decorations near the top of a temple.
5.) Temple doors and a holy cow.
6.) Rikshaw-wallas waiting for customers.
7.) The Ganges, upriver from Rishikesh.