Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Manali To Leh

When we started on the 500-km journey from Manali to Leh we had no idea that we were going to have more adventure on the journey than on the trek itself. Folks here have an extremely liberal definition for what constitutes a road. Can't really blame them because the elements are so cruel here. The first part of the journey was on one such poorly disguised road up the mountains to Rohtang pass which we navigated before sunrise. I've paid several dollars on fancy roller coasters and had much less fun on them than on the curves here. Tashi and Pooran, our nepali drivers, seemed at first to be insane to be driving so dangerously. At every turn I clenched my teeth, tightened my thighs, clasped my seat and curled my feet inside my shoes as if to prepare for an imminent slide downwards. After a few hours, though, I had numbed down and had in fact begun to appreciate the skill of the drivers. Yet, I distinctly remember thinking "what if.." several times. The awesome sunrise that lit up the peaks, however, made it all worth it.

After a refreshing breakfast at Keylong, we started again. The landscapes are stunning on this stretch. Most of us had our cameras sticking out of the window clicking in every direction. I vowed to come back here on this route on a motorbike some time in my life, because looking at these vistas through a window is not doing justice to them. At some point on the journey our collective exhaustion got the better of our wide-eyed wonder and most of us had dozed off. When we woke up, we realized that the Qualis wasn't behind us anymore.. On this stretch, at intervals of roughly 50-70 kms, there are tiny camps consisting of half a dozen parachute tents inhabited by tibetans who sell food and shelter to travelers. Sarchu is one such camp exactly midway between Manali and Leh. We were getting refreshed there when a Sardar came enquiring if we had companions traveling in a Qualis. He coolly informed us that it had toppled 20 kms away. It was hard to discern the meaning of his nonchalance; was he trying to reassure us, or was he hardened by the cruelties of this land? Chida and I immediately headed back in our Sumo. We reached there and realized that the Sardar's version was fairly accurate. Tashi had taken a sharp turn and had almost crashed into a rock that had fallen on the road in landslide. He had swerved sharply to avoid it, found himself driving towards the deep gorge that lined the road, had veered back towards the hillface and the vehicle had turned turtle in the process. When I saw the location of the accident I had a shiver run through my innards. I can't complain about our share of luck though; not one person was injured! The car didn't start, but between all the misfortunes that we could have possibly faced we gladly embraced this one. We left the car on a wide part of the road, came back to Sarchu and enjoyed hospitality that only tibetans can provide.

The next morning, Tashi had managed to coax the vehicle to life and we were on our way. What followed was my favorite part of the journey. Between Sarchu and Pang there lies a seemingly never-ending dust plateau that's lined by awesome mountains on all sides. The strangeness and the desolation of that 50km stretch can hardly be described. We stopped again for tea at Pang, and drove on continuously almost till Leh. Hot water baths and soft beds brought us tears of joy.

The return journey (after our trek that is) on this stretch was fascinating too. It was almost as long, except that this time our bodies were sore even before we boarded the cabs. Unexpected snowfall at Baralachla regaled us briefly but it was quickly back to the grind. To give you an example of how cruel these roads are, the Qualis we had hired lost its wheel alignment so bad that the vehicle kept curving to the right on its own. To add to the thrill, Sharmaji, our driver regularly opened the door to spit out his gutkha (which he explained he needed to eat because he hadn't brushed for 3 days). By the time we had reached Rohtang pass the tempers inside the vehicle were not amusing at all. If something can go wrong it will, right? The vehicle promptly got stuck in a slushy ditch and needed all of us and 4 drunk Sardars to lift it out. We reached Manali, once again, just before sunrise. We had been on the road almost continuously for 28 hours. This time just ARRIVING brought us tears.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Manali is a typical hill station. There are choodas wherever you look. There are also the fresh fruits. The lychees, for instance, are irresistible. As soon as we landed there C & I picked up a few kilos originally intended for the entire dozen of us. In the short ride to the hotel, between us, we had completely finished eating the pack.

From our guest house, we could see a nice little water fall cascading down a hill. We did a short two hour trek to the bottom of the falls. Some of us took bath there. In the evening we even made a little torch-light hike up a small hill and then stuffed ourselves with awesome paranthas. When I hit the sack I felt like I was at the end of a long distance flight; my tummy was uncomfortably full, my crapping cycles were awry and I felt like I had to catch up on a lot of sleep. The journey, however, had just begun. We had to make the really long journey from Manali to Leh in two vehicles- a Qualis and a Sumo- that were not designed for comfort at all.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ladakh Trek

I flew to Delhi on the 20th, on my way to Ladakh for a trek that I have been planning for years now.

I've been mocked at and ridiculed for my paranoia about missing a flight, train or bus. I usually end up at the place at least an hour before most sane people would. Chida, who prides himself on not being like me in any respect, is on the other end of the spectrum and usually gets a kick out of sneaking in while the doors are being shut. He sniggers at my cautiousness. This time, though, he missed the flight and it cost him Rs.10,000 and his perceived upperhand against me. I've resolved to not make him forget this goof-up in a hurry.

Of all the rewards of a vacation, one of my favorites is forgetting the day of the week. I have just returned from such a time-warp, and I'm incapable of talking about my Ladakh trip as a chronologically ordered travelogue. So the next set of posts would be about all random things worth mentioning from the trek.

Friday, June 19, 2009


There's something transcendental about talking to SR. Yesterday she was telling me how she got a big-shot executive to dish out enough money to pay for uniforms for students in half a dozen rural schools. I asked her how she does it and she says "Men easily agree when they are asked by a beautiful single girl". Not an earth-shattering discovery for me but I marvel at the way she says it. There are no traces of hubris. She's not being coy, resigned, smug or smart-alecky. I had signed up to help her on a project that she's working tirelessly on. Apart from throwing my thoughts around I've done precious little. She summed it up "You get your kicks out of intellectual masturbation. You've got to start doing something". Once again, nothing that I didn't know before but she manages to say it without judgement. She's not being dismissive and she's not trying to provoke me. She seems to have embraced every little reality around her and that lends her an innocence that's rather amusing. And very refreshing.

I'm an atheist, and she has dedicated her life to the service of her Guru. At first sight, our personal philosophies have no common meeting ground. But whenever I meet her, I'm always left with a slightly altered world-view. This world can't be a bad place, because a person of her authenticity thrives here.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Too late to be pessimistic

A.T. gave me this incredibly simple piece of logic. Divide all the earth's resources- everything from energy, food, water, etc- and divide it by the human population. Of course, due to the enormity of the calculation, and the complexity of the parameters this is going to be conjecture. So fix your own baseline, even if it means eating 45 kilos of red meat every year and driving a hummer. Now, next year the denominator would have increased by quite a bit but the numerator wouldn't have. Stated another way, since the population has increased, your ration has reduced this year. What that means is that if you do not have a reduced footprint this year compared to the last one, you are not living it right! And yet, every definition of success in contemporary culture revolves around increasing your claims on this planet. Buy the SUV, get the dream home, fill your passport with visas, get a bigger paycheck. Once you've done all that, upgrade everything.

Pessimism is a safe place. Too often I've hid behind the excuse of the hopelessness of it all. After all, this requires not incremental changes but total upheavals of our core values. This week, I came across these two links (Paul Hawken's speech and Yann Arthus-Bertrand's TED talk), both from vastly different sources but both with the message "It's too late to be pessimistic". Let me start by acknowledging the people around me that have made the plunge into figuring out what else can replace the traditional success metrics. Pat on the back to the few others who are on the threshold. May your tribe increase. May your fire never die out.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The 6-AM-Wedding

Weddings were a lot of fun when we were kids. We have a huge extended family and these ceremonies were the best excuses for all the cousins and second cousins to meet each other. As we grew up, as an unfortunate offshoot of adulthood, each of us collected prejudices, snobbishness, judgements and biases and the set of people that we looked forward to meeting kept shrinking. Besides, as we inherited the responsibility for running a part of the show, these occasions became less about people and more about the rituals. You would have people running around in auto-pilot mode fixing details without a clue why they are doing it. One person panicking that there is not enough camphor, another distraught that the betel leaves are not folded the right way and a third giving the heavy metal band cues to play the right riffs. The rituals became so much larger than life that I've seen people in my family ostracize others due to disagreements over what ceremonies to follow.

Early today, I realized that I don't have a problem with rituals if people don't attach too much of a significance to them. Macha got married this morning. At 6:30 AM! That's when people are probably at their most benign. The rituals happened, but nobody seemed to have their tails on fire. Then there was Macha bringing his classy unperturbability to everything he does. It was a very pleasant wedding. Everybody should follow this template. Happy married life Macha!