Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Still in Spiti

I'm back in Kaza again, Spiti's big town. I made a mistake last time I was here, I needed to apply for an inner line permit to travel back to Kinnaur and didn't realise that the day I was planning to do it was a Sunday. So I'm here again.

I've spent the last couple of days going for long walks up mountains in the morning and then crashing at the monastery in the afternoon. I don't think I've ever been so fit. And on top of that, I'm clearer of celiac symptoms than ever. It must be the diet of rice, dal, vegetables and occasional fruit and yoghurt. Plus plenty of chai. At the monastery it's like chai is on tap.

Every time I walk I say to myself that I won't do anything that difficult again. And then I do something harder the next day.I went over 5,000m yesterday and the day before. You can see the start of the path I followed going up the hillside below.

I'm handling the altitude fine but the camera is not so healthy. I pulled it out to take pictures of some mountain goats yesterday and started screaming when it wouldn't even start. It now seems to be taking pictures but the viewfinder isn't working. Luckily I made a second sighting of mountain goat things. Without the viewfinder, however, I didn't manage to zoom in on them.

As much as I'm loving it, I need to calm things down a bit. My hands and face have had a bit too much sunn (despite incredible precautions) and don't match the rest of my body. And with the exercise and diet, I look like I'm auditioning for 'The Machinist II'. I can't afford to lose any more padding because roads here are really bumpy. In a bus yesterday passengers forced a crazy old saddhu to get off the back seat and move forward. As soon as he did, the seat flew off the frame and landed on the floor!

On the same bus trip, we drove past a field where 100+ people were standing in a circle. Our bus stopped to watch them and it turned out they were doing the hokey pokey/cokey!

There were a couple of foreigners there so I guess they were to blame. Earlier that morning I was walking towards a mountain village when a kid started shouting from the top of a cliff. I stopped to listen and realised he was singing 'Inky pinky ponky'. I have no idea who to blame for that!

And the monastery has also provided plenty of ridiculous moments. There's a French girl staying there at the moment and we're having a lot of fun sharing observations. It really is the Fawlty Towers of monasteries, it's a lovely place with lovely people but it's incredibly dysfunctional. The young lamas seem to run wild. I sat in on prayers this morning and they were playing and giggling through the whole thing. The ones nearest me were even playing with a very realistic looking toy gun!

Being a Hindi speaking foreigner often makes me a confidant and at the monastery it's particularly true. Several of the younger lamas have told me that they find monastery life pretty boring but think that it is better than doing farm work in their village. Monastery life is weird enough when you've chosen it yourself but even weirder when you were thrown in at a young age. Lamas can get released but their family needs to pay a sum of money to the monastery. I guess that plenty must do this because there is hardly anyone there between the ages of 20 and 40.

Anyway, I leave Spiti tomorrow and I'm going to miss the place incredibly. Lamas at another monastery in the valley have asked me to come back next year to teach and even with my misgivings about the system I'm considering it. The monastery is gorgeous.

And the view from the monastery is just as amazing.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


After a couple of epic bus trips, I've made it from the green Kinnaur Valley into the dry Spiti Valley. Each place I stop at seems to be more beautiful than the last.

My first stop was Nako, a town in the transition between the two valleys.

I managed to rent a room with a local family, fantastic except that electricity and water supply were intermittent at best.

I also did some more work on my herding skills. This time it was goats and I was quite pleased with my efforts. I was on a long walk when I ran into a goatherd who insisted on carrying my bag - in return for conversation.

The walk was stunning. Incredible new views lay around each corner but after walking five hours I was hungry, thirsty and exhausted and forced myself to turn around.

I moved on from there to Dhankar - a town towering over the Spiti River with an (almost) 1,000 year old monastery stuck on a rocky outcrop. Dhankar is quite a climb from the road which travels along the bottom of the valley and I was lucky enough to get transport up.

The monastery guesthouse seemed so luxurious (snow views, delicious food and occasional hot water and electricity) that I decided to base myself there and do the rest of the valley in day trips.

It's a little village. The only guesthouse is in the monastery and the guesthouse contains the village's only shop. The monastery is also the only place to get food, which comes only at set times. I've been very content just sitting around watching the light change throughout the day.

The monastery kitchen is a fun place to hang out and I'm guaranteed to get offered a cup of Tibetan salty tea.

I also love watching the goats and sheep get driven down from the hills at the end of the day.

And then watching the locals use various methods of rounding them up. Mostly, it's the grandmas job to lure their own goats into their pens with bits of bread. This girl had a more aggressive approach.

A huge advantage of Dhankar is that there are only a couple of other tourists there each night. I've now split from my little group and a lot of the other tourists around here are particularly annoying. About half the tourists here are from one country and they have a bad reputation. I've witnessed enough unpleasant behaviour to understand why.

So this is where I turn around and head back the way I came, stopping at smaller places along the way. I'm only just over halfway through the holiday but I know the next two weeks are going to go incredibly fast! I should be back in Kinnaur and online again in about five days.

Monday, July 23, 2007


I'm close to the top of the Kinnaur Valley and I've loved every bit of it as I've climbed up.

After leaving Shimla I headed to Sarahan, a little village on the side of a mountain. I met several other tourists there and much to my dismay I found out that everyone had the same itinerary planned as I did (albeit quicker with Kashmir etc. tacked on the end). I compensated by taking a day walk out to remote villages where I helped an old lady herd cows, carried a drunken grandad up his steps and sat for an hour talking to an old apple grower about the shock of his first trip to Delhi as a 19 year old.

Wanting to be a little different, I changed my planned route and headed off to a little village in a remote valley and stayed in the family home of someone I met on the bus. I learnt about edible forest fruits, trekked up to an alpine meadow,

evaluated 'Hips Don't Lie' impressions on a glacier (Vengaboys are out and Shakira is in!),

gained a following of loyal dogs,

drank the local apricot brew, learnt to play carrom and chased cows out of apple orchards.

I'm now in Kalpa, a village on a hillside directly opposite towering snow-capped peaks which are over 6,000m.

I've met some much more interesting and positive tourists here and now have a little Italian/Spanish/German possee to travel up into the dry Spiti Valley with. I thought that I wanted to get away from tourists but spending time with people who really appreciate this place is a lot of fun. Jason, I have discovered your German double, he's photograpy, football and Formula One crazy!

And there is so much to appreciate. It's stunningly beautiful, there is fruit growing everywhere and I've met so many lovely people. Tailors who adamantly refuse to take money for fixing my clothes(!), villagers who go to the trouble of preparing rice for me instead of bread, locals who go out of their way to show me how to get somewhere - I've been really amazed.

The area is also fascinating because of the amount of change going on. There are a lot of hydroelectric projects and all the labour (hydroelectric, farming, construction) is done by migrants from Nepal and poorer parts of northern India.

My favourite uni essay was on internal migration in India and I've spend hours listening to people's fasinating life stories.

I head off into the 'Inner Line' are tomorrow, near the Tibetan border (they refrain from calling it the Chinese border here, very fascinating!). From there I'm going to explore the high altitude desert valley and then come back through the Kinnaur Valley, stopping again at places I've liked most.

I should be online again in about a week :)

Saturday, July 14, 2007


I'm in Shimla, the old summer capital of the Raj, and loving it.

The net cafe shuts in fifteen minutes so here is a brief rundown of stuff so far:

Bad times

- Sitting between a guy who stank of urine and another with an intruding elbow on the plane. And right behind a screeching baby. Trifecta!
- Oh, and struggling to lower the faulty footrest and then getting racially insulted in Hindi by the (British Indian) girl in front. I resisted the temptation to say anything.
- A ten hour bus ride in a semi-concious state after not getting any sleep on the plane. Falling asleep and banging my head on the seat in front!

Good times

- Meeting a girl on the bust who used to live just off Seven Dials, literally metres from our place! I never expected to have an in-depth discussion of the relative advantages of my local Tesco, Sainsburys and Waitrose in India!
- Drama at Jakhu Mandir, the monkey temple. As you approach you pass stalls hiring monkey whacking sticks, then a popcorn vendor yelling out 'monkey fruit le lo' who was claiming that food would give you immunity against attack (yeah, right!). Then seeing a monkey jumping on a tough, moustached man (in possession of 'monkey fruit' who started screaming 'save me, save me!'. Note the monkey scarer in the photo below:

- Touring the Vice-Regal Lodge and seeing the table where Mountbatten etc. sat to arrange partition. Incredible! And then having the tour guide offer English translation and hearing the sharp intake of breath (by the group of thirty) when I told her I already understood. Showing off can be so much fun!

Shimla is an incredibly gorgeous place and packed with local tourists. That makes for a lot of fun people watching (esp when monkeys are involved) but I'm heading off tomorrow morning for smaller towns higher in the Himalaya. I think there should be net access in a couple of places so I'm hoping to post again soon. And I'll add photos when I get home.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Things I'll miss

I felt a little bit sad the other day when I realised that I was on my last bike ride to work for more than a month. I'm still loving riding - I get fit, I save money and I get to see what is going on in London.

I cycled down The Mall on the day before the Tour de France and was so tempted to ignore the security guards and do my own little race to the finish line. Maybe not a good idea with all the terrorism hoohah.

The next day, we were walking through Hyde Park and chanced on the tail end of the race. HN got an impressive picture of the last cyclist. I got this picture of super keen spectators.

But there's one thing I will miss more than riding. Mogfa is housesitting while I'm away and she's coming over tonight for an induction. It will mostly focus on plant care. She's feeling a bit of pressure but the weather can only improve so I'm sure they will thrive.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


It's only a week until I fly to India and I went to get a visa on Tuesday. The Indian consulate in London is almost as fun as the one I've applied at before in Hong Kong, where the queue goes out the front door and into the lift lobby.

From what I've heard, Indian consulates all over the world are the same. They function as a kind of disclaimer, warning of the chaos that will ensue when you enter the country.

On the advice of several blogs (thanks Google), I arrived at the consulate half an hour before the opening time. The queue snaked and I only caught a bit of it below. Still, I only waited an hour before getting served.

Checking out the other people in the queue was quite entertaining. There were a lot of young people about to head off on gap years and I couldn't believe how many of them were there with parents.

Let go! If they're going to overseas alone they need to be able to handle the consulate by themselves!

A couple of gap year girls were wearing particularly skimpy clothing and attracted a lot of attention. People were obviously wondering if they were going to modify their attire while on holiday.

I was on best behaviour when I handed in my documents because the lady in front of me had got yelled at for attaching photos in the wrong place. I felt so sorry for her. She was making applications for her whole family and had arranged everything particularly neatly.

I got away unscathed. While I waited for the visa to be processed, I went for a walk across Waterloo Bridge and along the South Bank.

I stopped for a minute, trying to figure out how someone got the t-shirt on this Anthony Gormley sculpture (arms first and then the head).

And went back to pick up my passport and new visa. Yay!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

End of term

It's almost the end of term and one of my jobs is very busy. The other is anything but.

Most of my students at the college have finished their courses already and stopped coming in. I've requested a decrease in working hours for the next two weeks. My colleagues think I'm crazy for giving up the chance to be paid for doing nothing. I can't think of anything worse!

Things there really are quiet. When I arrived last Wednesday, the notices on the staff intranet were:

'Would anybody be interested in giving a good home to some baby stick insects?

Stick insects are really easy to look after - they eat bramble and privet. They are completely harmless and only move slowly so they can be handled. They make an ideal first pet!

If you are interested, please ring me on 221.

'I have a small fish tank (cylinder shaped) to give away. It's brand new with a blue top and base, ideal for a small goldfish. Our fish really wasn't happy in it as he is quite a chunky guy! If anyone can use the tank please let me know and I will bring it in, I'm in L6 ext 221.'

'Did anyone record Cold Blood on TV last night? This is a new series and I missed it. Please let me know. Thanks.'