Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Nubra Valley... Ladakhi Heaven

After a day acclimatizing in Leh (photos), and a 10-hour round trip jeep ride to Pangong Tso on the Ladakh-Tibetan border, we again commissioned a land cruiser for a two day trek into the North-Eastern corner of Ladakh. With permits on hand, we enter the Ladakhi paradise known as the Nubra Valley.

The Nubra Valley is linked by 150 km of road to Leh, and requires one to pass over the highest motorable highway in the world. At 18,380, the Khardung La pass offers one steaming garam chai, military handshakes, and prayer flag vistas toward peaks that tower above and below. Beyond the Nubra Valley is the Karakoram Pass which links Ladakh to Xinjiang province in Western China. This is not accessible even with a permit.

Descending over the Khardung Pass into the Nubra Valley, after snapping picts with a requesting Punjabi family, we came upon a desolately straight road. Always above 10,000 feet, even the bottom of the valley offers unprecedented topography. Glacial green rivers run clear over smooth stones, and the verdant banks provide food for wandering yaks. Hundreds of white and brown horses wade knee deep in a lush marsh at the banks of arid crags which descent thousands of feet from snow-capped knife-edged corners. The marsh is a verdant quiver for the arrowheads of granite which stretch, puncturing clouds, and slicing knife edges like obsidian into the deep blue sky.

On a solitary road that crosses the valley floor, we stop aside a moonscape of sand dunes untouched by humanity, only whipped by the Karakoram winds (photos). Ripples show in its silver surface. Beyond, visibility must be a hundred miles. The valley extends ad infinitum into a diminuendo of spikes, black, gray, silver, and green. The sky melts from a deep indigo above into a painted white canvas on the horizon. Giddy with discovery we attack the sand dunes, yell, pause, listen to the silence. We dive off the dunes, twirl and then stop in awe of our surroundings; Heaven.

We continue down the valley where we find a seated group of Bactrian Camels like those once used to cross the Silk Road. For $3 we commission rides across the dunes through a sand storm, before returning to the land cruiser for sunset at the Diskit Gompa hundreds of meters above the valley floor. The vista from the whitewashed buddhist gompa nestled into sheer rock walls is spectacular. Punctuated by the maroon robes of laughing children studying toward peace, we sit, breathless because of altitude and spectacle, feet dangling off the wall. The sun powers its way past a far off crag in straight rays which illuminate patches on the valley floor. Its yellow lines paint color into an already infinitely nuanced canvas, each hollow and line illuminated by the 5pm shadows, and called to attention by the angle of the light.

Pangong Tso... Ladakh and Tibet

A death-defying and dramatic five hour drive from Leh, Pangong Tso (Ladakhi for "Lake") glows spectacular aqua and indigo in the sunshine at 14,000 feet. Though permits are required to climb the desolate and snow-capped peaks that bring you dangerously close to the Indian-Tibetan border, we managed to expedite the process through veteran antics and a wink from a U.N. travel-mate. Cramming our diverse Bain, Google, U.N. and Fulbright, Detroit-to-Ireland crew into a land-cruiser, and we set off at 5am.

By 8am we took rest at the Changla Pass, the world's third-highest motorable mountain road. Though it was June 21, the first day of summer in the rugged Himalaya still comes with flurries of snow. A Nepali man who had served 23 years in the Indian army served me a complimentary cup of chai in his tented green military outpost. Two fatigued men with rifles laughed at my basic Hindi and Bollywood one-liners aside their burning furnace, faces half-shielded by bandanas to keep away the snow. Whereas overpriced coffee would accompany any Western tourist stop, Ladakh is still remote, inaccessible, and hidden behind the expectations of a dangerous Kashmir. As such, it's a world of immense and unparalleled rugged beauty, smiles and rifles, edgy moments and deep histories.

Descending from 17,300 at Changla Pass to 14,000 where Pangong Tso straddles the Indian-Tibetan border, we came upon a world not known as Earth. Infinitely complex patterned lines carved their way down thousands of feet of arid red-brown rock. Martian hills plunged toward an un-Earthly green and blue crystal lake, and above them towered the knife-edged Karakoram peaks of Tibet. Surrounded by flat shale, the pristine lake offers unparalleled rock-skipping. Overcome by elation, dizzy with altitude, whipped by crisp wind, we laughed as we dipped to skip perfectly-shaped bits of shale over the rippled reflection of Tibetan peaks.

The journey to Pangong Tso consisted of 10-hours of extreme-altitude driving over a bouldered pass often lacking pavement or even legitimate form. The road, though a snaking line carved into the brown of nearby peaks, was often little more than a clearing or flattening of natural elements. Forging streams of glacial run-off, passing flocks of high-altitude Dzo (Yak-cow hybrids), agile goats, and grizzly Yaks (16,000 feet plus), our tires were frequently inches from thousand-foot drops, and spit flecks of gravel into lush valleys below. As Greg Morteson notes in Three Cups of Tea, it's the roads that will kill you before terrorism.

Kashmir... Landing in Leh

Jammu and Kashmir is the north-western-most Indian state, known both for its immense beauty and its troubled past. J&K, as it's called, consists of diverse ethnic and religious regions. While Jammu, near the Pakistani border, is predominately Hindu, the Indus Valley and capital, Srinagar, is mostly Muslim. To the Northeast of Kashmir is a region known as "Little Tibet," and Ladakh (map). Ladakh is home to a buddhist community not so different from that in the nearby regions of Baltistan in Azad (free) Kashmir, neighboring Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. Ladakhis have the features and stature of their Himalayan brethren, and visibly differ from their Hindu and Muslim Kashmiri counterparts.

After reading Three Cups of Tea, a book about a K2 climber-turned-activist who builds schools through out Pakistan's Baltistan region in the extremely rugged Northeast, I was keen on understanding Ladakh. Split by the Indian-Pakistani "Line of Control," running north of Kargil, Baltistan and Ladakh are ethnically, historically, and linguistically similar despite their split national status. The Silk Road once linked the region to Central Asia and the Sub-Continent. Today, political divides leave those in Pakistan isolated amidst spectacular but spartan Karakoram peaks. Leh is linked only by bouldered roads to Kargil and Srinigar, and Manali.

Landing in the Ladakhi capitol, Leh, on a Deccan Air flight out of Delhi, I was reminded of the antics of Maverick dropping below the hard-deck in Top Gun. Narrowly avoiding the arid ridges surrounding Leh, we made our descent, wings paralleling the razors of rock, only hundred of feet of sky between. Deftly sinking into the valley, we touched down in Leh at an altitude of 11,500 feet. My head spun for the first day, but during the course of acclimatizing I managed to finish a book on Ladakhi culture called Ancient Futures. As the sun dipped lower on the horizon, we advanced up the final steps of the towering Leh Palace. Modeled after the Potala Palace in Tibet's capitol of Lhasa, it offered a perfect sunset view over the valley below.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Nepal 2.0

On Wednesday King Gyanendra of Nepal stepped down from the thrown. On Saturday the palace was occupied by those who had peacefully deposed him. Saturday was also the day we, a Tamilian, a Canadian, Georgian, Coloradan, and Californian, arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal on Yak Airways.

We had spent one previous day slicing through the misty green hills of Pokhara atop motos, occasionally catching glimpses at nearby Fishhook, and the wall of the Annapurna Massif. We had hiked to an incredible vista over Pokhara Lake up an arbitrary trail through small Nepali villages. 8000 meter peaks are globally rare, but they frequently loom in Nepal, sentinels that stand broadly above the clouds. A day along the beautiful lake shores, and we were ready for a return to the diversity and pace of Kathmandu. Visiting a friend's former host family on the outskirts of Kathmandu, we found local hospitality warm, and smiles wide. We meandered through Pashupatinath Temple, where wafting ash in the monsoon sky told of passing lives on the burning ghats.

We toured Bhaktapur, a preserved city on the outskirts of Kathmandu, and ate plates of water buffalo momos (steamed meat dumplings) off the street for less than a quarter dollar. For fifty rupees we helped a weathered Nepali man spin a pot from clay on a slimy spinning wheel. And we cashed in Starwood points to spend a night at Le Meridien Gokarna Forest Resort and Spa, utilizing the innumerable amenities and smoking hookah into the rainy night on sheltered wicker chairs by candle-light in the King's forest.

On our final day, taxi strikes meant that we had to convince a private tourist taxi to return us to the airport. We set off cautiously, but within 3km of the international airport, perpendicular busses, abandoned cars, and loitering locals blocked our path. Our driver refused to go on, and with circumspection I discretely slipped a wad of Nepalese rupees into his hand amidst the protesting taxi drivers. With an hour until our flight we began running through the protest until we eventually found a pioneering and capitalistic taxi driver who, for double the price, agreed to drive us on the other side. In a confident push through airport logistics (entry, airport tax, boarding pass, baggage, customs, and security), we made our flight.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Real World: Gurgaon (Season 1)

The New York Times, on June 9, covered the duality of life that exists in Gurgaon in far more eloquent prose than me, though it failed to address the relationships that exist between residents and staff. Though we have six members of our own house staff cooking, cleaning, and managing various activities, we also watch cricket with them, practice Hindi, and learn about their homes and lives. They make chai; we make conversation. But the NYT article highlights the divided world of gated apartment and slum-life that's increasingly visible in Indian metropolises. In cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Bombay, and Delhi NCR (Noida and Gurgaon) where the educated 0.7 percent of the 1.1 Billion people work predominately in outsourced IT jobs (Source: Edward Luce) bifurcated communities are certainly evident.

Cycle rickshaws still patrol the streets, curbsides are crumbled and littered with the tents of road-side slums. The vibrant colors of residents ornament the dusty scene as usually seen through tinted windows of honking vehicles. In Gurgaon I find smiles are common, though most of my co-workers complain of local crime. I realize that my reception as a foreigner on the street is perhaps different, my involvement in street life is usually novel, and novelty inspires smiles in otherwise sad and desperate lives. Those with whom some interact when leap-frogging between the shopping malls that moonlight as oases, are not bad, but they are desperately poor. Some cite visiting malls as the only activity in Gurgaon. As Rory Stewart would agree, it's only The Places In Between that matter. The ubiquity of the desperately poor does not impact the extent to which luxury in India is available and growing; however, the fact that Mercedes and Burberry exist does not mask the truth that India has egregious resource allocation issues with consequences of the highest magnitude.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Dhaba... Dhaba

With evenings occupied by video conferences with California and Euro 2008 football matches, I've recently found that I don't remember dinner until late-night. Last night, under the buzzing lights of a nearby office building, I frequented a 24-hour Dhaba in Gurgaon with my Chennai friend. Dhabas are road-side restaurants. Steam and smoke mix under the glow of street lamps. Behind a tattered billboard, and on an uneven dirt patch, plastic chairs and tables are packed for midnight snacks. The waiter accosts us, and shouts our orders over 100 others to the kitchen. There are no menus. Men and women hunch over flat aluminum plates, their fingers drip with dal and ghee from their hot parathas. I order a chai, dal makhani and two parathas.

The experience costs me Hindi embarrassment and 60 rupees.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

CR Park Birthday

Over Kingfisher and Sula champaign, Saturday marked a night of celebration for a friend's birthday. It was here that I realize the amazing group of people that have converged on New Delhi. The scene is small, but the smiles wide, and the conversations deep. In the Facebook world in which we live, collaboration is close. I realize that though lives will part in Delhi, as the transient expat world in which we live is short-lived, lives will again converge thanks to technology. In New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, friends in the room will reunite. Between Harvard and Columbia, Wall Street and the Wall Street Journal, East Coast and West Coast, the gaps in contact are increasingly diminishing. Though thousands of miles exist in flight, when one's address is on the information superhighway, memories are a click away.

A Pile of Shoes

Many Saturdays in India I make my way through Old Delhi to Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in Asia. Atop the steps, as birds circle in silhouettes against the pale blue sky, the pink minarets tower above. Echoing over an expansive moving sea of bodies below, the muzzin performs the call to prayer. Beggars sit curled on the warm red sandstone steps, their withered skin telling a story of time passed. Men in white, beige, and green make their way slowly up the steps. Women in black slip from their sandals, and drop a few coins for the shoe patron. He tosses the coins below his rug for safekeeping. Aside the steps he piles the sandals and shoes in a neat pyramid. The Nike Air Zooms are on bottom as they provide stability for the others. The shoes tell a story of the men and women whose bare feet now shuffle over the textured standstone into prayer time. It's no longer an abstract concept, but a way of life. A man in a red and white gutra stares at me with penetrating eyes. His beard is worn long, and aside him a man stands in a lungee and chapan. Their faces are weathered, but their eyes kind. With a nod, there is mutual respect. A boy scampers to my side and asks in English if he can take a picture. His grinning father documents the moment on his Nokia, and when I respond with a "Shukriya," it prompts new conversation. The man behind me critiques the moment in Hindi, telling me that it was the boy who should have said thank you. I say it's ok, but he tells me of his life in Kashmir. My Hindi is basic, but I learn that he works in a Noida garment factory for 4500 rupees per month ($112). I tell him I'm American, and he buys me a chai. This is Saturday afternoon life on the steps of Jama Masjid, as the gulls dance to the Koranic call against a sky that dims into hues of color, and the night begins in India.

IndoChine and Mbeki

After two late-night movies in Gurgaon and Saket watching Owen Wilson in Darjeeling Express, a ridiculous American movie filmed in Rajasthan, and the Bachchan family reunion in Sarkar Raj, a Bollywood revenge story paralleling the underworld Bombay life of the Thackerys, Friday night involved the coordination of 25 plus friends in an outdoor tent reservation at a South Delhi club called IndoChine. Operated in the Singapore style of its predecessor and with the Laos touch of its founder, it boasts a great outdoor lounge for hot summer nights, despite its hidden locale near Qutab Institutional Area outside Saket in South Delhi. Friends from Google, BMW, the World Bank, United Nations, Wall Street Journal, and Fulbright joined together in an evening that migrated to Rick's at the Taj Mansingh Road, an after-hours Delhi hang-out that combines the nights of an unlikely group, old and young, in an overpriced 3am cocktail.

When we returned to the Taj Mansingh on Sunday morning for brunch, the security and clientele was slightly different at the latter half of the weekend. Seated aside a camera-man, and receiving a text from a World Bank friend, I determined that the newest addition metal detector was not so much decorative as it was preparation for Thabo Mbeki, the President of the Republic of South Africa. He's no Shane Warne like in Bombay, but exciting nonetheless.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Home Sweet Gurgaon

After work I typically board a cab that wedges its way into inching traffic. The bumpers of cars come surprisingly close, and deft motorcyclists somehow manage their way at speed through increasingly smaller gaps. With a ready hand at the horn, each driver is aggressively poised over his steering wheel. The free hand will gesticulate and frustration will become audible in the form of the word "yaar" (man).

Past the windows, men and women stand atop crumbled curbsides, longingly looking into the street. Bicyclists manage their way along the roadside edge, and vendors dole out dusty glasses of water for 50 paise (1 penny). Under a corner telephone wire, a local liquor shop stands surrounded by dozens of cycle rickshaw owners, each idly sprawled betwixt the metal bars of their livelihood in an uncomfortable collaboration of fabric and aluminum, legs and bike frame. Men in suits and women in saris travel to and from their BPO offices, some in AC cabs, others on dilapidated cycle rickshaws. It's a dusty anachronism on both the road and the road side. Brilliant edifices of glass are erected on a monthly basis, but surrounding them are piles of bricks, heaps of corrugated metal, spikes, tents that serve as the homes of those who labored 24-hours per day. The potholed road is littered with standing water, putrid in smell and green in color despite the fact that rain was weeks away. Tattered billboards with calls to action advertise products inaccessible to the majority of inhabitants.

Along the street side a family of three boys cooks corn atop a flame that spits out black smoke. It paints their faces darker, and only makes their smiles brighter. A woman draped in wrinkled skin holds her arms to me, and a bouffant-styled Bollywood look-alike fixes his Royal Einfield. Two boys feed sugar cane into a grinder that's powered by a sputtering generator which coughs deep black puffs into the air. Small children sit nearby. The sun dips on a dusty, crane crossed horizon, its brilliance dulled by pollution but its heat undiminished. Another day in Gurgaon.

Campai Mumbai

When I arrived into Mumbai on Friday evening, I was giddy with excitement, and in the dizzying heat I commissioned a taxi to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel & Towers for 300 Rs, a 90 minute ride that cost $8. Inching by Marine Drive in the back seat of a Bombay black and yellow non-AC taxi in 42 degree C 8pm heat, I could not have been happier. Bombay has become one of my favorite global cities. Watching the skyline inch higher over the past year, I can tell that this is a city of the future, if not the present. If I were to describe Bombay, it's the pace of New York, the glamour of Hollywood, and the immediate access to local cuisine, street food, and real-life that one finds in a back-alley neighborhood. Even the richest people seem to know the best place for 20 Rs street chaat. It's grit and urbanity, a kaleidoscope incarnate.

We decided to splurge. The Taj is perhaps the nicest hotel in which I've stayed, save for the KL Mandarin Oriental. Host to movie stars and innumerable presidents, it's waterfront location just before the Gate of India is spectacular. In appearance it's similar to the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. Inside, a dip in the pool conjures notions of swimming in an Ivy league quad, with victorian balconies, lush greenery, and the sound of birds surrounding. This weekend there was an added benefit; The semi-final Indian Premier League cricket teams were also staying in the hotel. At the pool, at breakfast, and in the bar we were surrounded by Aussies like Shane Warne who, in the world of cricket, make guys like Kobe Bryant seem like nobodies. Flanked by beautiful women, and illuminated by the flash bulbs of paparazzi, their presence added wickets of fun.

Friday evening we ate at Wasabi in the Taj, an acclaimed Japanese restaurant run by Masaharo Morimoto, the Japanese iron chef. Over a sake bomb, in a private dining quarter in which we sat seated at a round table nested in a dome windowed alcove looking out over the India gate, we cheered Japanese style, "Campai, Mumbai!" Saturday night, after rooftop drinks at The Dome, an incredible glass-walled belvedere atop Marine Drive's Intercontinantal Hotel, we visited a restaurant called Khyber for delicious frontier style food, and Sunday brunch at Olive Bar was fitting for Bollywood. In the posh Pali Hills suburb of North Mumbai, we discreetly pulled up in our dilapidated non-AC taxi into the languid Prada-clad melange of Bombay's in-crowd. We were inside, but more obviously on the outs.

And in between our opulent culinary endeavors, which seemed to be the running theme of the weekend, I strolled the sweltering streets of Colaba and Fort, entertained the adventures of Shantaram in Colaba's famous Leopold's Cafe, and read the entirety of One Thousand Splendid Suns poolside on Saturday. Contrasts such as these make one appreciate moments.

Boarding our delayed flight from Bombay on Sunday evening, the runway end was crowded by hundreds of people sitting on rooftops and loitering outside a nearby mosque. As the plane rounded the tarmac, I realized that they were all onlookers. There was no cricket match, and there was no entertainment except us, those people fortunate enough to board planes to other worlds, far away from the poverty and squalor that exists for most of Mumbai's 12 million residents. As the engines roared, the rushing wind gave lift to our wings, and in our escape we became but the fleeting entertainment of a hapless mass, making ends meet in the shacks that line the runway's end. The activities of my two days were vacation, but fuel the perspective on opportunity and fortune that must impel us to be cognizant of the disparities that are globally ubiquitous. That which makes us content without also making us good is selfish.