Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Chadar Trek

Mission 1: The Chadar Trek

Ladakh can be a difficult place to travel.  The mountains are steep and in the winter snowfall closes many of the mountain passes and makes the few roads treacherous. Some villages become completely inaccessible between November and March.  One method of accessing snow-bound villages during the winter is trekking on top of the ice of  frozen rivers. The Chadar trek is one such route, connecting villages in the Zanskar valley (deep in the mountains) with Chilling (on the road to Leh) along the frozen Zanskar river. This route has been used for centuries for trade and transportation, and is most reliable in February when the ice is most stable.

Now, I should make it clear that the Zanskar river is big and fast-flowing.  For most of its length between Chilling and the Zanskar valley the river is confined within a steep canyon.  If the idea of walking over frozen river ice with a large pack on your back and very cold rushing water a few inches below your feet is terrifying, then you are not alone. People sometimes die on the Chadar trek, usually local porters who carry goods on the river for their livelihood and can't afford to be conservative. The hike from Chilling to the Zanskar valley takes more than a week, and at night porters usually sleep in caves in the canyon walls.

Needless to say, having a good guide is critical on the Chadar trek.  Samstan was the man, and with him and four porters we set off from Chilling one chilly February morning.  Trekking on the ice was intimidating.  A covering of snow made it difficult to assess its thickness.  At times we had to walk along a narrow margin of ice, constrained by the canyon wall on one side and deep rushing water on the other. Slipping in or falling through would not just be cold; it could be fatal. The water was deep and fast, and you would likely be swept under the ice in seconds.

The first night we slept in tents on a spit of land on the side of the river.  It was cold, but perhaps not cold enough, as we discovered the next day.  Shortly after setting off the next morning, we encountered places where the ice was thin or non-existent, forcing us to climb up the canyon walls to get around the bad patch.  Reaching a vantage point we stopped to discuss the advisability of going on. Just below us on the river a huge ice dam of broken-off ice chunks seemed to be building up, suggesting the ice upstream was becoming unstable.  And as we watched, rising water upstream of the ice dam flooded out our only path forward, within minutes obscuring the footprints of a group that had passed that way just minutes before.

And that quickly, the decision whether to go on was made for us.  There was no path forward, and it may have taken days for the ice to stabilize again.  Despite all the planning and preparation that had gone into the trek, I was not so very disappointed to be turned back.  Over the last day I had fully realized just how dangerous the Chadar trek can be, and was not prepared to continue with an activity in which adventure could turn to tragedy in seconds.

For better or worse, the Chadar trek is an endangered activity and within 5 years will cease to exist in it's current form.  A road is currently being blasted out of the rock face above the river.  When completed, winter access to the Zanskar valley villages in the interior will be relatively straight-forward. The road will certainly be safe and more convenient than the river, but its completion will mark the end of an ancient local practice.

Porters heading down to the river

Preparing for a cold night

Where we turned back. Notice the flooded ice along the center left of the river

Beating a hasty retreat

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Adventures in Ladakh

India is a massive country, stretching 3,214 km from north to south.  Thanks to its latitudinal height, during the spring when most of the country is enjoying the last of the temperate weather and dreading the impending summer heat, there are places in the north still locked in ice and freezing temperatures.  One such place is Ladakh, a region in the northern-most Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Located on the Tibetan plateau, north of the Himalayan mountains, Ladakh is a high-altitude desert - a land of barren mountains, narrow fertile valleys, long winters and subsistence agriculture. The people of this region are Buddhist and culturally identify more with Tibet than India. 

Although sparsely populated and remote, the Ladakh region is strategically important due to its proximity to Pakistan and China.  Leh, the main town of the area, hosts a massive Indian army presence, to the extent that the soldiers outnumber the townspeople. The Khardung pass, thought to be the highest motor-able mountain pass in the world, is only 40 km from Leh.  Despite an elevation of 5,359 meters, the pass is kept open all year by the Indian army.  The thought is that if the pass were ever to be snowed in, China and/or Pakistan would take the opportunity to invade, knowing it would be impossible for India to send reinforcements to the region.

Ladakh is a prime tourist destination in the summer, but is much less visited during the bitterly cold winter.  However our objectives for visiting Ladakh required cold weather.  So, clutching our down jackets about ourselves, our intrepid team of three flew to Leh in mid-February.  The mission was three-fold.  First, complete the Chadar River trek.  Second, see a snow leopard.  Third bonus mission: don't die.  I'm happy to report we accomplished two of the three.  Coming up:  The Chadar trek!

Buddha on the dashboard with the Ladakh landscape behind

Rural Ladakhi children

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Grey Dawn on the Ganga

Varanasi is a grey city.  The sky is grey; the Ganga is grey; the buildings, oxen, dogs and ubiquitous Indian crows are all various shades of grey.  Perhaps the dour uniformity of the city’s color palate is due to the winter pollution haze that afflicts most of north India between November and March.  Or perhaps it’s because of the miasma of smoke in the air from the cremation bonfires on the banks of the river.  It’s no secret why the Ganga is grey; the river suffers from all manner of environmental outrage - massive raw sewage discharge from upstream urban areas being one of them.

But amidst the grays, blacks, and dusty browns, this holy city on the Ganga is full of life, religious fervor, and touches of intimate color. Walking along the ghats, I was struck by the snake charmer’s bright red robes and a swirl of pink and yellow flower petals washed up on the muddy bank, remnants of Varanasi’s evening aarti ceremony. Women beat dirty clothes into cleanliness along the river steps, and then hang the colorful garments along railings to dry.  A man roams the water’s edge with a collection of caged birds; for a small charge you can release one, thereby gaining good karma.  The little owls look scared and the bright Indian roller has a frantic gleam in its eye.  My friend tells the man “Apka kaam kharab hai”.  “Your work is bad”.

The west bank of the river is built-up with temples and ghats, which are steps leading down to the river to gain access for washing clothes, bathing (yourself and your buffalo), boating, disposing of waste, and most importantly, sending the cremated remains of your loved one down the river.  The east bank is a long stretch of empty sand where the feral dogs worry bloated buffalo corpses and entrepreneurial farmers grow crops between the rise and fall of the river.  We bought three paper kites for 6 rupees each and boated over to the east bank to fly them.  A little boy showed us how to properly tie the string and then demonstrated the technique; let the string out while the kite is upright; if it starts to nosedive, pull back.  The boy was expert and we were awful, but together we passed a pleasant afternoon.

To hear about our epic and gruesome journey back to Delhi, check out the "Food poisoning in sleeper class" blog entry of my fellow Varanasi traveler at:

Sad owls and an Indian roller

Goat/trash/flower melange

The nightly flotilla of observers watching the aarti on the bank
Laundry drying on the ghats
The west bank
The east bank
One of the cremation ghats from a respectful distance

Saturday, March 5, 2011

At the Rat Temple

So in addition to camel trekking, while R. and I were in Rajasthan we also visited the Rat Temple and Junagarh Fort and...what?  What did you say?  The Rat Temple?  Yeah, it's this Hindu temple, officially called the Karni Mata temple in Deshnoke, about 30km outside of Bikaner.  Are there rats there, you say?  Well, yeah, it's called the Rat Temple, after all.  How many?  Hundreds, at least! Probably thousands all up in the walls and creepy-crawling through the basement. 

Karni Mata was a 14th century mystic and supposedly an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga.  One day a storyteller she was in love with died, and she appealed to Yama, the god of death, to bring him back to life.  Yama refused, and in revenge Karni Mata reincarnated the dead man as a rat under her protection, and subsequently all storytellers. How romantic.

The temple is full of them, running around all nimbly-bimbly on the floor, popping in and out of holes in the temple walls, and feeding at big bowls of milk on the floor.  Like all Hindi temples, you have to take your shoes off before entering. In most cases this is not at all a problem, but at the Karni Mata temple it made me cringe, due to the floor being somewhat besplattered with rat and pigeon droppings. 

Although several tour groups came and went while we were there, the temple is very much an active place of worship and not just a tourist attraction.  A number of devotees sat on the floor around the temple grounds, each with a prayer book and various treats for the rats. One gentleman (picture above) had a friendly rat perched between his shoulder blades as he studied.

I thought the whole thing was kinda cool, but R. was disappointed.  In his imagination, the temple should have looked more like something from "The Temple of Doom" and, from 100 meters, should have appeared to be moving due to the sheer number of rats crawling on it.  The reality was a bit tamer, but still enough to give fits to the squeamish. 

And then on the way back to Bikaner, we had to jump off the bus in the middle of nowhere due to the sudden onset of a gastrointestinal ailment specific to India, if you know what I mean.  It was a busy day. 
In the courtyard of the Rat Temple.
Like a rat that's got the cream.
It's as if the place was build for them.....oh wait, it was.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Camels in Rajasthan

In my last post I commented on how most people think of visiting the Taj Mahal as a sweaty experience.  You'd think the same thing about the desert, right?  Not in January. Perched 10 feet off the ground on top of my camel, enjoying the sun and a light breeze, I was very comfortable. But at night, in a tent on the sand, it was rather flippin' cold.

Desiring to do a camel trek in the desert before it got too hot, and disinclined to go all the way to Jaisalmer, the hotbed of camel-trekking in Rajasthan, R. and I made our way to Bikaner during the last week of January. Our demands to the outfitter simple; 1) we wanted stirrups to prevent bum-burn (some low-budget camel-saddles we'd seen didn't have any, 2) we wanted to be able to drive our own camels, sans handler, and 3) we didn't want to be in a massive group of tourists. We mostly got our way, although our guides were a surly bunch who either didn't speak Hindi (which is possible, a dialect called Marwari is widely spoken in Rajasthan), didn't find our Hindi to be intelligible, or simply couldn't be bothered to communicate. Our camels were stubborn beasts, but I managed to exert my will on mine, and by the 3rd day, could get it to do (almost) everything I wanted.

Rajasthan is quoted by tourist guides as being one of the most beautiful states in India. I usually object to such subjective statements, but Bikaner, the city in northwestern India near the Pakistani border, was indeed beautiful in its own way.  Most of Rajasthan is desert (the Thar Desert, or Great Indian Desert) - a flat, scrubby landscape of acacia trees with the occasional sand dune. It's surprisingly rich in animal life, however, and we saw birds aplenty, foxes, little hole-dwelling mammals of several sorts, and nilgai, or blue bull.

One of our noble steeds.

Cruzin' on my camel

Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis)
Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis)

Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus)