Thursday, September 24, 2009

Leh and the Dalai Lama

Wow, it's been a long time since I've been able to blog! Been in some places where the internet was slow or non-existent. Here's a brief rundown of what I've been up to in the past few months:

Chorten near Shey Palace


Leh itself reminded me a lot of Tibet - whitewashed buildings built into the sandstone hills, a huge and vibrant Buddhist culture, chortens and gompas surrounding the city. It was much more developed for tourism than I expected, with an entire section of the town devoted to rows of garden restaurants featuring all your favorite Thai and Italian dishes.


The old market still had an atmosphere of a meeting place between cultures, and you could see native Ladakhis from all over the region mixing with Tibetans and Indians. I came during the Dalai Lama teachings, so many many people appeared to be making their annual trips to town to stock up on athletic shoes and other supplies (everybody seems to like Nike, even the monks).

Dalai Lama Teachings, Leh

For a traveler, Leh is mostly a base from which you can do excursions out into Ladakh. I can't picture staying very long in the town itself. I hurried to Leh to see the Dalai Lama at the nearby Tibetan refugee colony. This was one of the most amazing experiences of my trip. There were between 20,000 and 30,000 local Ladakhis and Tibetans at the large outdoor field, all in a peaceful and joyful atmosphere.

Dalai Lama Teachings, Leh

Native Buddhism was said to have disappeared in India before the Tibetans sought refuge here in the 1950's, but that's not really true for Ladakh (it wasn't really part of India until the 20th Century). It has had a thriving Tibetan-style Buddhist culture throughout. So for the Dalai Lama to show up here is like the Pope coming - it's the biggest event of the year. Entire extended families walked or climbed aboard seriously overstuffed buses to make it out to the 4 day teaching - every day was like a huge pilgrimage.

Dalai Lama Teachings, Leh

It was incredible to be able to sit in the Dalai Lama's presence for such a long period of time and hear him teach, but I found myself more amazed by the crowd I was surrounded by and the intense devotion that pervaded the place. I had some great meditations sitting on the lawn with them for hours, and met some cool Buddhists from around the world. I made friends with this guy from Israel, Erez, and we decided to do some excursions together when the teachings were over.

Erez on the road to Alchi Gompa

Renting bikes (and teaching Erez how to drive a motorcycle), we headed out on a series of three trips to see local monasteries, ruins and remote villages. The first day we went out to Shey Palace, an old home of the Ladakhi royal family and the incredible Tikse Monastery, me riding an Enfield for the first time (kinda like an Indian Harley - very butch).

Tikse Gompa

One of the highlights of Ladakh is that the Buddhist monasteries and temples are so well-preserved, having avoided the upheavals of those in Tibet. Tikse had a wonderful atmosphere about it and we were tempted to come back and stay a night at the monastery.

On the road to Alchi Gompa

Next up was Alchi, a very old Buddhist monastery and temple, with some of the oldest and best preserved Buddhist paintings in Asia. The place itself was a bit underwhelming, but the drive out and back was spectacular - going through enormous winding valleys and flat, barren plains.

Khardung La PassNubra Valley

Finally we drove over the highest motorable pass in the world (which evidently is up for debate) to Nubra Valley, a little oasis in the high altitude desert served by a couple of rivers. Erez and I had an excellent time driving the bikes (though his first gear decided to stop working at the big pass and he had to push it Flintstones-like with his feet to get going into 2nd).

Rockslide #2: Srinigar - Leh Highway

We continued to travel together out of Leh, on the 19-hour bus trip to Srinigar. People say the Manalai-Leh route is worse but I'd lay my money on this one. The roads wash out and are unpassable every winter and have this feeling of being barely patched together enough for the trucks and buses to get over them for the rest of the season. After hours of this (including another roadblocking landslide!) suddenly the scenary changes and we found ourselves in green, beautiful Kashmir. Lush and full of a surprising number of goats.

Waiting for the rockslide to clear

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Manali - Leh Highway

Manali - Leh Highway

The highway between Manali and Leh is famously bad - a 20 hour slog on pavement that is almost impossible to maintain given the punishing elements. It's closed a good part of the year for this reason. The first three hours out of Manali going over the first pass lived up to the hype. The road was so full of potholes and big stones that it felt like an amusement park ride gone terribly wrong. Another 17 hours of that would have been pretty tough, but thankfully after we got over the pass the road improved considerably. I mean, it was still 20 hours in a jeep, but other than that...

Manali - Leh Highway

And the scenery was truly unbelievable - some of the best I have seen on my entire trip. My pictures unfortunately don't do it justice as I missed some of the fantastic parts: huge fields of fairy chimneys carved out of the rock, and enormous ornate "palaces" that looked man-made but were far too large, being slowly revealed by sand eroding away from the stronger rock underneath. The colors of the different minerals and the scrub grass made mountain-sized designs that followed the melting paths of the snow. On other hills, different sedimentary layers had been pushed around by geographic forces, and forced into wave or even swirl patterns. This landscape was similar to the Mustang area of Nepal or the Tibetan Plateau, but with more beauty and diversity.

Manali - Leh Highway

For most of the way, there were no villages at all to speak of. We stopped for meals in these little tent restaurants that had been set up on the side of the road - if you asked them where the bathroom was they just giggled and pointed to the hillside. The trip went by fine (a bit dusty perhaps - that swine flue mask the Tibetan lady gave me came in handy) until about the last hour, when some food in my stomach felt like it was planning to make an exit in any number of directions. Luckily right then a nice Belgian guy traded me his super comfy seat, and as I started to doze off my symptoms almost completely disappeared. Proving once again that most things are just in my head...

Manali - Leh Highway

Sunday, September 13, 2009



After Dharamsala I took a night bus to Manali. It's a bit of a crazy drive on a windy mountain road, and we were blocked in the middle of the night by a rockslide on the roadway. Looked liked we were going to be sleeping on the side of the road, but after about an hour and a half, enough drivers were fed up enough to start hauling the rocks away by hand. Then our driver accelerated and we drove (ye-haw Dukes of Hazzard-style) over the smaller pile of remaining rubble.


I only spent a couple of days there as I wanted to get up to Leh quickly to catch the Dalai Lama's teachings. Manali is a gorgeous area - lush, green, a few rivers flowing through, and lots of tucked away secluded guest houses. Mine was called the Rock Way and up on a cliff over one of the rivers, surrounded by gardens and fruit trees. You could totally hide out there for a week or two, reading and playing chess with the fiendishly good guest house manager. He would make a different fresh curry every night using stuff from his garden or wild mushrooms he found in the hills - delicious.


Manali also has the dubious honor of being both a big Indian middle-class tourist / honeymoon destination and a hippie backpacker hangout. It's a strange combination...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Leaving Dharamsala at last


I spent about 7 weeks total in Dharamsala, during which time I kind of settled in a made myself at home. I stayed out in the quiet nearby village of Dharamkot, moving around between a few guesthouses but ending up staying at Paul House, which was run by my friend Naushad. One of the best parts about my time there was getting to spend so much time hanging out with him - he's really an amazing guy, and very focused and mature for 22 years old. I had visited him earlier in March of this year and he was just beginning to get the guest house and restaurant in shape - he had a lot of ideas for what he wanted to do to make it an inviting place to stay. Coming back it was great to see his vision become a reality.

Fourth of July in Dharamkot

Over course of the weeks I had a lot of different experiences. I took a couple weeks of Iyengar Yoga classes, some Indian cooking classes, and did a lot of hiking in the surrounding mountains. The monsoon was in the process of coming when I was there so it was always a crap shoot whether you were going to get dumped on. But my luck was surprisingly good and I was only caught outside a couple of times during the real deluges. On the Fourth of July there were some cool Americans at Paul House, Josh and Tristan, who happened to have a fireworks fetish, so we enjoyed some crazily powerful $2.50 rockets.

Me and Miss KipaVolunteering at ANEC

Most of the time I was there I found myself kind of unexpectedly working full time. I started volunteering at the ANEC Organization and redoing their website took a lot of time (plus I didn't really know what I was doing for a while). I even had a daily commute down the mountain into Dharamsala proper; it was an amazing walk through the forest and the central Tibetan government-in-exile buildings. The people were wonderful down there and we had a Tibetan cook come in every day to make us these great lunches. They even threw me a going away lunch with homemade momos (including sweet paneer ones).


When I wasn't down at ANEC, I was hurrying off to do a series of interviews with Tibetan refugees for a documentary project. As you may or may not know, in March 2008 there was one of the biggest series of protests in Tibet since 1959. It was brutally cracked down on by the Chinese. The stories of bravery and sacrifice I heard were inspiring and of course very sad.


I met a ton of great people during my stay - Levinia and Ross, Josh and Tristan, the two Ilans, Leighton, Kimberly, Susie, and randomly ran into my friend Christian who I had met at a yoga retreat in Nepal. I stayed longer than pretty much everyone else (except this Australian guy who I think was running from the law - shades of Shantaram!). After my last interviews wrapped up, it was clearly time to go.