Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dharmasala, McLeod Ganj

After the intensity of the heat and the spiritual (and otherwise) experiences in Varanasi, we were ready for a break. We made our way to New Delhi where we set up for our next trip northward, this time on the western side of the country in the state of Himachal Pradesh. We had our sites on a different kind of spiritual capital: the place where the Dalai Lama lives and has established his government in exile and a center of Buddhist and Tibetan culture. Its also become somewhat of a mecca for Westerners who descend upon the place to study Buddhism, yoga, meditation, tantra, reiki, rebirthing, and generally chill out and drop out. The place is called Dharmasala and its about 400 km north of Dehli, at the very beginnings of the Himalayas. To get there involves a gut-wrenching, twisty-turney, 13 hour overnight beast of a bus ride with no shocks. We arrived in the morning, bleary eyed and still somewhat nauseous, to the town where the action is, McLeod Ganj, nestled at 7000 feet and set on a hillside of pine trees, looking up at some rocky, snowy peaks, reminiscent of a Colorado landscape. The weather was pleasant, a nice break from the heat of Delhi and Varanasi, and teeming with westerners seeking bliss, Punjabis on vacation, and Tibetans who now live and work there. Every other store is an internet café and we finally found the critical mass of wireless internet we have been looking for all over India. In the past 10 years, the town has grown too quickly and the narrow streets are teeming with auto-rickshaws, taxis and jeeps ferrying the Indian tourists around. Even still, the atmosphere is 1000 times more mellow than anywhere in lowland India. We found a nice guesthouse with a balcony and a Western toilet (a joy, let me tell you) and set to reading the signs plastered on every spare building surface that, not dissimilar to a college campus, advertise all the goings-on in town: where to get dreadlocks done, where to learn to play the tabla, where to watch documentaries on Tibet, where to find the best cappuccinos.

We had heard that Dharmasala is known for being a place where you can sample some of the spiritual activities that make India famous. The town is home to 2 very well-known Buddhist meditation centers that offer 10-day intense, silent meditation retreats and it is a hub for people wanting their yoga teacher training certification. Its also surrounded by Buddhist monasteries and nunneries and, if you are lucky, you can attend free teachings by the Dalai Lama or one of the other prominent Buddhist lamas who live in the area. Unfortunately for us, His Holiness, as he is called, was on a retreat and not in town, so we didn’t get a chance to have an audience with him or get blessed by him or hear any teachings, but the classes abounded and so we signed up for a milder 2-day introduction to meditation course with the Tushita Meditation Center.

We spent 2 days sitting cross-legged on pillows, learning to quiet our minds and focus on a single point and ignore the pins and needles and frank pain in our knees and ankles and our racing thoughts. The class was led by an Aussie who was attempting to find happiness in an otherwise empty life through Buddhist philosophy and meditation and 85 people showed up for 2 days of learning the basics of meditation, drinking a lot of ginger-lemon tea, eating vegetarian food, and attempting silence during breaks from meditation. We learned that sitting for 10 hours at a time is hard, very hard, and calming the mind is even harder. About 20 people dropped out over the course of the 2 days, but we hung with it, and although I had some problems with falling asleep the first day, still recovering from the bus ride, and we both felt totally silly doing the walking meditation (picture 80 people pacing back and forth v-e-r-y slowly, focusing on each footfall), it was very interesting to get a little taste of what meditation is about and how much work it takes to maintain such a practice. It really requires being in a community where other people are doing the same thing, and Dharmasala is such a place, with streets crowded with monks and nuns with heads shaved and crimson and saffron robes, spinning meditation wheels as they walk, as well as Tibetan and westerners, lipping mantras as they thumb their prayer beads.

After 2 days of meditation, we really needed a rest, so we hung out and drank amazingly good coffee, chatted with other travelers and took a hatha yoga class with a 90-pound Indian guy named Vijay who has been teaching classes for years and did a nice mix of the yoga we are familiar with in the west and Indian-style yoga, which is more like rapid calisthenics and does not have the usual flow or narrative. Refreshed and recharged with plenty of western-style food (a nice break from thalis and chow mein), we decided to do one last hike. No guide required here (!) so we hiked 10 km up to a place called Triund where there was a small government-run guesthouse and 3 tea shops that make simple meals and rent tents to people who want to spend the night above Dharmasala, with beautiful views of the big mountains that tower over the town. We slept on mattresses on the floor of one of the back rooms of the guesthouse, had a lovely meal of veg-dal-rice, and woke up early the next morning to try to hike up to a pass at 4300 meters where the views of the valley on the other side were supposed to be stunning. Normally the trek takes several days and people hire a guide and camp at some caves higher up, but being us, we decided to shorten the trip and try for 1 day to summit and come back down.

For the first time on this 8-month adventure, and probably deservedly so, we encountered bad weather. The hike takes you pretty much straight up the mountain, covering 2000 meters in about 10 miles, and most of it is clambering over rocks and boulders to the top. We hit snowline and the rocks started to become icy and slippery, but we were getting closer and wanted to make it to the top. Every day before we hiked (and as it turned out, after as well) the weather was beautiful with sunny, clear skies until 2 or 3 in the afternoon when a mountain thunderstorm would hit and then clear again. The day we decided to attempt the pass, the skies never cleared and we were eventually walking in clouds and slipping on the snow and goat shit that riddled the path. About 50 meters from the top, I chickened out. We were wearing running shoes and I started to have feelings of impending doom. Just as we stopped and geared up to go down, the sky opened up with a huge crack of lightening right above our heads and poured down torrents of freezing rain/hail, creating little landslides of the icy balls and making everything more wet and slippery. Several hours, some tears and frozen fingers and 3 more giant rainstorms later, we were down, hiding under the plastic tarp of a tea shop, watching rain and thanking our stars that we made it down the sketchy slope without any falls. So, no view of the pass, but another adventure all the same.

The last few days in Dharmasala were spent with more yoga classes, more coffee, more eating, and plenty of chilling out. We took an Indian cooking class and learned how to make malai kofta, vegetable korma and chapatti and can’t wait to try the recipes out for you guys when we get back. We met a fun Aussie couple, a British couple who have lived in India for the past 20 years, and a ton of Israelis, many of whom get stuck in the town for weeks on end as they travel around the world. Guy found a Chabad House and went to Shabat dinner, and we both enjoyed pretty authentic falafel from an Indian guy named dudu.

We also visited the Dalai Lama’s residence and the main Buddhist temple, Tsung Lakhang that is a replica of the one that was in Tibet and houses images of different Buddhas. When you approach the temple there is a loud din of voices and we assumed it was Indian tourists, who in our experience make a lot of noise wherever they go. We were surprised to see the temple courtyard full of mostly Tibetan monks, although mixed in were some white monks and some women and men dressed in western clothes, all passionately arguing and discussing. They were broken up into pairs, with one sitting down and the other standing above, and they were punctuating their points with loud claps of the hands. We found out that Dharmasala houses a Tibetan Buddhist university that specializes in debate, and the students are given a topic daily. The clapping is done on a point that is particularly clever or intelligent. All this is done in Tibetan and is very lively. The café at the Dalai Lama residence happens to make delicious Roquefort cheese pizza as well, to our delight (and it's rumored that occasionally his holiness himself orders take-out!).

We finished up in Dharmasala with some gift shopping and clothes washing and boarded the same night bus, this time armed with Dramamine and Ambien, and landed back in the hot, dusty suburbs of Delhi to complete our last days in India with a trip to the Taj Mahal.
For more pics of Dharmasala and McLeod Ganj, click here.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


The time you spend traveling around this massive country is astounding: 7 hrs in a jeep, 14 hrs on a bus, 19 hrs on a train. The roads are slow, the traffic heavy and the distances vast, and we’ve never even undertaken one of those 40 hr. train rides you hear people talking about to get across the entire country. To get from Sikkim to our next destination, the holy city of Varanasi, we took a 6 hr. jeep ride to Darjeeling, another 5 hr jeep ride to Siliguri from there, a 19 hr train ride, an hour-long auto-rickshaw ride and finally a bicycle rickshaw ride to get to the Vishnu Guesthouse, above the Hanuman Ghat on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi.

As you ride through the streets of Varanasi, the energy of this holy Hindu city that has been continuously inhabited for over 3000 years, and whose cremation pyres have been burning for over 2000 years is mesmerizing. In addition, you are hit with a constant stream of annoying touts, who are famous for their scams, aggressiveness, rudeness, and ruthlessness in this city. We got our first taste of one when our bicycle rickshaw driver, instead of taking us to our chosen guest house, took us instead to one of his buddies in a different direction who tried to sell us a guest house in order to get a commission. After yelling at them both using expletives that, best for all involved were probably not understood, we took our massive backpacks went the rest of the way on foot, not trusting any of these thieves, through the narrow maze of alleyways crowded with shops, people, garbage and cows, to our guesthouse. More that 30 hrs after starting our journey we finally lay our packs down, in the searing heat of the city, gathering forces to take on this city for the next few days.

No other place in India, and perhaps the world, is as in-your-face and brutally naked as Benares (Varanasi). It is the heart of the Hindu faith, a city that runs along the river which contains the water that cleanses the soul, and brings Moksha – enlightenment – to those who die here. The city may have an ancient soul, but its buildings and infrastructure is relatively new, having been pillaged, burned and laid ruined to multiple times, the last assault by the Moghuls in the 15th and 16th century. Varanasi is also ungodly hot, with summer temperatures soaring near 50 degrees Celsius (well over 100 degrees F).

We gave ourselves 2 days, despite the depth of this city, thinking that with the heat, the annoying touts, the stench and filth of the place, a few days would be all that we could handle. The holy Ganges river unfortunately is also one of India’s most polluted places.

Varanasi is the confluence point of the four rivers that make up the sources of the Ganges. Each of these rivers is said to be created from a drop of the holy amrita (nectar) sprinkled by the gods at the beginning of time. In reality, with damming and farming, it is estimated that less then 1 percent of these source waters actually reach Varanasi. Furthermore, along with the 32 open pipes in Varanasi alone that dump sewage directly into the river, multiple industrial sites along the river dump large quantities of waste. This, coupled with millions of offerings, people washing clothes, bathing, animal and human excrement and the dead bodies and cremated remains dumped into the river, it is no wonder this place is destroyed. To put it into perspective, normal bathing water has a bacterial count of 500 E-coli per liter of water; the water of the Ganges has 1,500,000 per liter. Of course, this doesn’t stop the natives, pilgrims, herds of water buffalo, and hordes of devotees from bathing, praying, drinking, gargling, cooking, frolicking, laundering, swimming, and prostrating themselves in the putrid, sacred water. Almost all travelers get sick in Varanasi, and so, even though we have been blessed with iron stomachs, (probably by the divine intervention of Vishnu, Shiva or maybe just 4 months in Africa), we decided to play it safe and not drink tea or eat too close to the river in which the wallahs most likely collect water to boil and wash their glasses.

The best way to see Varanasi is from a boat on the river, which you can hire readily. From there you can watch the pilgrims and residents descend to the river at dawn and dusk to perform Puja, or devotion, mostly unmolested by touts, save the occasional boat-propelled salesman. However, the alleyways, and riverbank ghats are also interesting to tour on foot. Timing is also important, as between 9 am and 5 pm the heat is so oppressive one just has to lay low in the shade with a cool glass of mango juice. We awoke our first morning at 6 am and walked north along the river, along the various ghats, watching pilgrims “swim,” bathe, prostate, do laundry, or fish by the sewer pipes. Every ghat also has a temple, in which a lingum, a phallic representation of the god Shiva, has offerings made to it. The light in the early morning is magical. As the heat of the day rose to a crescendo, we left the shadeless river and made our way through the more shaded alleyways and markets of Varanasi to the modern part of the city, where we found a hotel that would let us wallow in their pool during the hot hours of the day.

We walked back to the river in the evening via the Muslim quarter, where silk cloth is woven by hand and on mechanized looms, to watch the ceremony that takes place every sunset at the main Dashaswamedh ghat. In the ceremony, a dozen priests perform devotion and blessing to music and crowds with incense, fire, flower petals and choreographed dance. From a distance we could see the fires of Manikarnika ghat, the buring ghat, the most auspicious place to be cremated in Hindu tradition. After the ceremony we made our way to those very burning ghats, one of the most intense places we have ever been. The most sacred place to be burned in the Hindu faith, the ghat has been in continuous operation for over 2000 years. Specific roles are played by priests, family members and the untouchable cast who set the body on a pyre of sandlewood after having dipped the body in the Ganges. Then, visible to all, and naked as the day the person came into the world, the body is set aflame and burns for 3 hours exactly. Afterwards, a remain of the body, usually a piece of bone is found in the fire by the priest, who passes it using 2 sticks to the elder son who tosses it into the river. The place is heavy and mesmerizing, and not for the weak of stomach or constitution, and raises many an existential thought.

The next morning we woke up at 5 am and found a boat man who would take us up and down the river to watch the action from the water. The sunrise created magical light as the throngs of devotees descended upon the banks in the ancient tradition. From stoned Sadus, men dressed in orange robes with shockingly white hair and long beards who have renounced all material goods and possessions, to mourners, to frolicking Indians on vacation/pilgrimage, the river ghats were chock-full of people and color, filth and flower petals. We floated peacefully by the waters, which provided endless opportunities for photos and people watching.

That afternoon we bade farewell to this special place, and whether one hates it or loves it, Varanasi leaves a stamp upon the soul and questions in the heart. We made our way back in the searing heat that burns any exposed skin to the train station and a blissfully air-conditioned sleeper car to the capital: New Delhi.

To see more pictures of Varanasi, please click here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


A tiny state in the north of India, Sikkim was an independent Buddhist kingdom until 1973 when it was annexed by India following the war between China and India. Sikkim is made up of mostly Nepali and indigenous Lepcha tribe people. It is treated well by the Indian government, who pours in tons of money to encourage tourism, low-land Indians to move north and mix into the indigenous population, and keep Sikkimese content with Indian governance. The state borders China (Ex-Tibet), Nepal, and Bhutan and is a state of steep lush green hills and deep valleys of rushing glacial rivers culminating in the massive Himalayas along the north and western borders. Tibetan Buddhism flourishes in this fog shrouded cloud forest and this time of year, one has to be lucky and up at sunrise to catch any views of the high peaks. But we were adamant to catch a glimpse of the 3rd highest mountain in the world, Kanchenjanga.

India, despite encouraging tourism to Sikkim sure has a lot of red tape involved in trying to do any hiking in the wilderness. There were 3 layers of permits, one for Sikkim, another for trekking and one for entering the national park with a maximum of 15 days in the state. As per usual you must hire a guide and porters, this time in the form of 2 yaks and a yak-man. The trek to hike in Sikkim is Goecha-La pass (other treks require over 6 months to attain permits), at a little over 16,000 feet, the hike takes you to the base of the REALLY BIG mountains. The standard timetable takes 8 days, including 2 acclimatization days and an entourage of cooks porters, assistant cooks, assistant porters and the like. We decided to do the trek in 5-6 days, and with our own gear, requiring only with the mandatory guide and yaks. To that end we found an outfitter who agreed to our terms.

We got a small taste of what is an almost universal experience for tourists in India: a scam. The trek ended up being wonderful, but the tour operator tried to screw us in multiple ways. He gave us an inexperienced, minimal English-speaking guide (remember that he already gave us one of those on the previous trek; shame on us I guess), totally unprepared, who 1 day into the trek revealed to us he was given no tent, no stove, no food, and no clothes to camp the night before the pass! On the night before “summitting” the pass we had to wake him up (he had no watch), made him tea (he had no stove), lead with our headlamps (he had no flashlight) and had it been colder or raining, we would have been keeping him warm to ward off hypothermia. Needless to say, we appreciated even more our guides in Africa for their ability to understand what we were looking to do and help us to do it. Furthermore, the outfitter screwed a fellow hiker who was stranded without a guide in the middle of the hike because, without our or her knowledge, our guide was supposed to “slow” us down and bring her along. She had to leave the outfitter and go with another guide half-way into the trek. In India disrupting protocol is very, very hard for people and we went way out-of-bounds with our demands to camp (instead of huts and lodges), cook our own food (instead of their cooks making 3 hot meals and tea), and push the normal pace.The trek starts in the town of Yuksom, a Buddhist village catering to trekkers with serene gardens, stupas, and monasteries. Aspiring young monks and elder teachers walk the village in crimson-yellow robes counting prayer beads. The town was the first capital of Sikkim, and you can visit the coronation site of the first king in 1601. The few restaurants serve local fair of momos (veg dumplings), chow mein, noodle soup, dal with rice and vegetables and yak cottage cheese. The locals brew “thongba” - made from millet that is served in a wooden mug and drunk through a bamboo straw and is drunk by refilling with hot water. It tastes sort of like hot sake, if you use your imagination, and it gets the job done- after about 4 or 5 refills, you are definitely toasty.

From Yuksom we climbed through dense rainforest 18 km to a hut at the tiny village of Tshoka at 3000 meters through dense rainforest. We befriended a group of 3 Indians from Mumbai (although they call it Bombay), and befriended them for the next 2 days, enjoying their company and hearing about life as young, up-and-coming artists in India.The second day was a steep climb to the next hut at Dzongri (3600 m) and we arrived in a cloudy drizzle. We set up our camp inside the very basic hut, in a room with broken windows and a wood floor, and tried to dry our wet clothes by the caretaker’s fire. Dzongri is famous for mountain views and the sun rises at 4:30 am but by 6 am the clouds move in and completely obliterate the view. We were rewarded for 20 minutes following a short scramble up a nearby hill with stunning views of the Kanchenjanga massif. The rest of the third day we made our way to a beautiful valley called Lamunie at the base of the glacial moraine which defines Goecha-La pass. The valley is surrounded by massive, glacier-covered, sharp, scary beautiful peaks, but you would never know it walking during the day through thick clouds. We heard ice falls as we were walking in, though, so we knew there were some big mountains nearby and at night, before dusk, we glimpsed 2 of the peaks: Joponu and Pandim clouds flew by, showing us the icy, jagged peaks where the wind was whipping snow off the surface. A cheeky horse grazing near by ate a loaf of our bread and some apples from our food stock that had been left in the brick lean-to kitchen that has been set up at the sight, but we made dinner and settled in for sleep early, as we would be waking up early to summit.

We woke up at 2:30 am to bright moonlight and mountains staring down at us and, after waking up our guide, we headed up to Goecha-La pass. As night turned to dawn we watched the colors change over the quiet, stark landscape of a glacial moraine and lake and the surrounding peaks. The sun came up and turned the tops of the mountains a beautiful gold and we reached Goecha-La pass at 5 am, signified by prayer flags and rock pile shrines, with about 20 minutes to stare and marvel at the awesomeness of these huge mountains: Kanchenjanga, standing another 12,000 feet above us (we were already at 16,000 feet). A huge bank of clouds moved in and we hiked down but got a second chance with about 2 hours of bright sun and clear views as we ate breakfast and broke camp—it was definitely the clearest morning of our entire time in the north of India and it was amazing. We even saw an avalanche on one of the peaks behind our camp. That day was a big one and we covered 40 km by the time it was all said and done, getting ourselves back down to Tshoka, the first hut, so that we could make it back to Yuksom the next day. We celebrated with thongbas and hung out with the caretaker of the hut and his family.

The final day of the trek got us back to Yuksom where our celebratory meal was, unfortunately, local food and not a meat-filled meal to quench our protein-deprived states. We hung around the village, visiting some of the temples and shrines and talking to other travelers over dinner and beers. Our bodies were tired but we pushed the next day and hiked again, this time with our big backpacks (we had no yaks). We decided to visit Kachepari Lake, a sacred lake for Buddhists about 10 miles from Yuksom, reachable by a hike that takes you very steeply down and then very steeply up again, after crossing a river. The gods and our aching legs wanted us to chill out and we were dumped on by heavy rain during the hike. We got lost and bushwacked for awhile and by the time we reached our destination, soaked and muddy and exhausted, we were further rewarded by finding leeches all over our feet and ankles. The little things are tiny before they find you but once they latch on and start sucking blood they grow as big as a finger and when they come off, the bleeding is heavy and does not stop! Guy got destroyed and pretty much ruined a pair of shoes by bleeding, but we were greeted by our host Sonam at the guesthouse where we stayed, who took amazing care of us. We spent 2 days living with his family, playing with his 2 kids, eating delicious Nepali food, reading, sleeping (admittedly on very thin, uncomfortable mattresses) and getting enveloped in their mellow, simple, loving community. The Buddhist village above this holy lake is tiny and pretty untouched by the outside world and we watched the little boy monks walk to school at the monastery, the cows being milked, the gardens being harvested, and the children rough housing in the grass. The lake itself has been turned into a sort of Hindu shrine and many Indian tourists come to pray or do puja or make an offering, despite the fact that it is a Buddhist place. The more we see, the less we understand about any of these religions, but it is very clear that the boundary between Hindu and Buddhist, at least, is very hazy and they are quite fluid with each other.

We had to leave Kachepari lake after 2 days and made our way back to Darjeeling by jeeps packed to the gills and careening over cliffs on windy roads in the fog, always reassuring. We spent one more day in Darjeeling, doing laundry and walking about. As we left we heard rumors about another strike that was to happen 2 days after we left, but we got out of town without incident and caught a train that would take us to Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges—back to the heat, noise, in-your-face frewnzy of India!

For more pictures of Sikkim and Yuksom click here

For more pictures of Goecha-La and Kanchenjunga peak click here

For more pictures of Kachepari Lake click here

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Darjeeling and the Singalila Ridge Trek

“You should make sure that place is open before you go” and “that place is always on strike” or “nothing but trouble” is what we heard when we told people we are heading up north to the capital of tea and the former British hill station, Darjeeling. The plan was to enjoy the views of the Himalayas and to make it our base-camp to trek in the northern Buddhist state of Sikkim, which sits just north of Darjeeling and was annexed by India in 1973 to create a buffer zone between itself and China and is now a happy and peaceful Indian state that appears to have given China the middle finger.

Darjeeling and the surrounding are of the north of West Bengal is made up of mostly Nepali people, or Gorkha, as they call themselves. They look and act different from the Indians of the lowlands, they have Asain features, they are quieter, mellower and many are Buddhist. They want their own state, with the unfortunate name of Gorkhaland. Signs and propaganda for the proposed state are everywhere, on storefronts that have changed their address from “West Bengal” to “Gorkhaland” and all awnings and signs. It’s not exactly clear to us whose side is right. Some Gorkha say that it is their right to self determination, and since they (being Nepali) are so different from the rest of the state they belong to (West Bengal- the very Indian state whose capital is Kolkata.) Other’s say that its all bullshit, with politicians inciting uneducated masses to nationalism when all they really want is the power and wealth that would come when they rule their own state. Whatever the answer or reason, everyday people and internal, as well as foreign tourists who escape the summer heat and flock to the coolness and views of Darjeeling pay the price with power outages, constant strikes of stores, restaurants, supply vehicles and transport jeeps and general pain-in-the-asseness.

To get to Darjeeling we climbed from the plains of Siliguri, where we got off the train, northward, up the twisting and steep mountainside of the Himalayan foothills, to an elevation of 2200 meters. On the way we passed endless tea estates where women carrying baskets on their backs and heads collected the golden and precious leaf tips which make this region world famous. Our road closely followed the twisting miniature track of the “toy train” or the Darjeeling express, the small gauge railroad operating since 1881, famously shuttling tourists to their summer retreats. We were lucky: a planned strike had just ended and transportation was working again. We met several folks who had gotten stuck in Siliguri for a few days waiting out the strike before they could get a jeep to take them to Darjeeling.

Darjeeling is a nice town, almost a city. It cascades down a high ridgeline that, with good views showcases the not-so-far-away high peaks of the Himalayas and in particular the Kanchenjunga massif, the 3rd highest mountain in the world. It has a bustling market hawking all the usuals and a transport hub, above which lies the city, where mostly Indian tourists escaping Kolkata’s heat gather in the Chowrastra (square) while their chubby little kids ride ponies around or feed the cheeky rhesus monkeys. In all reality, there isn’t much to do in Darjeeling but enjoy the views, which are rare in this cloud shrouded town, unless one wakes up at dawn. Otherwise, you can shop for Pashmina and other Nepali or Tibetan crafts, enjoy the national food: momo’s – vegetable stuffed dumplings – with a side of hot chilli sauce, and relax in the cool atmosphere, taking in the subtleties of Nepali and Buddhist culture and the holy atmosphere of some of the monasteries and gompas. Darjeeling’s population is completely different from the India we have known until now. Consisting of 85% Nepalese, and the rest Sikkimese tribes such as Lepcha, Tibetan, and other Indians, the place feels more like Nepal or even China than it does India. People are calmer, quieter, and courteous. Men don’t stare in the ogling way that they do in India. Women dress more modernly. Men and women interact with each other, the language sounds more asian, and overall the place has a welcoming aura of peace. Hindusism is less apparent and Buddhism more, though the two appear to interact and blend more fluidly then we thought they would.

Our plan was to trek a nearby circuit called the Singalila trek that passes through inaccessible villages and high pasturelands on the ridgeline which separates India from Nepal. In reality, we would be sleeping in Nepal for 2 of the nights. If we were lucky, the trek was to afford spectacular views of both Kanchenjunga and the Everest massif and acclimatize us for our more ambitious trek in Sikkim that would bring us to over 16,000 feet at the base of Kanchenjunga itself.

We hired a guide through a somewhat high-strung, fast talking outfitter (as always, one must take a guide for these treks…despite the path being a wide road) and set off for the trailhead from which we climbed steeply in a dense fog to Tumling on the Nepalese side of the ridge. We brought camping gear, despite being able to stay at lodges along the way, but we ate dinner at the lodge, a warm meal of what was to become the staple food of the trek, veg-dal-rice, a dish consisting of exactly what it sounds like: fairly bland vegetables, dal, and of course, rice.

The next morning we awoke at dawn to clouds and no views of the mountains, and continued onwards to Sandakhpu, the highest point of the trek at 3636 meters. We met some other trekkers in Tumling whose company we enjoyed along the way including a pair of French grad students from Chennai and other European travelers whose conversation helped pass the time on the foggy hike through rural outposts and military checkpoints, past green meadows grazed by yak and clearcut for firewood used long ago for country stoves.

We camped again on the Nepali side of the trail, waking the next morning to hazy, moderately satisfying views of Kanchenjunga, but more pressing matters were at hand. Through some half –assed hand signals and minimal English, we understood that there had been a political murder in Darjeeling that morning. A highly respected political party leader, who has been fighting for Ghorkaland for 20 years had been stabbed to death on his way to a rally. Our guide didn’t know what to do: would Darjeeling strike? Would we find transport back from the trek in 3 days? Should we turn around or walk out now? While his decision and communication skills were below par, we decided to keep on trekking, cutting our trip short by one day by combinging legs, but continuing onwards to the best viewpoint of the trip: Phalut, a more remote outpost at 3600 meters where we could spend the night at a trekkers hut. The day was beautiful, walking through dense fog, and dense forests of rhododendrons, irises and the occasional wild orchid. We were still in search of the elusive view of Mt. Everest, or any mountain view for that matter.

Phalut was a mediocre hut, run down and under construction, and next to it a small caretaking family cooked the usual veg-dal-rice in a smoky kitchen. We shared the hut with 4 Czechs who also risked getting stuck by the strike for the hope of views. Fortunately, we were rewarded. We woke the next morning at 5 am to mostly clear blue skies. We scrambled a kilometer up the nearby hill and stood before 2 of the world’s highest mountain ranges: Everest, Lohtse and Makala to the northwest and Kanchenjunga directly in front, enjoying the views in the company of waving prayer flags. Our gamble paid off, we set on the long 32 km march to the end of the trek, the small village of Rimbik. We spent the night there and got on a shared jeep to Darjeeling the next morning. The jeep, as with all public transport in India, was stuffed to the hilt. At some point we counted 23 people in and on top and hanging off the back of a car meant to hold 8 traveling on treacherous and narrow roads that crawl along precipitously over precipitous 3000 foot drops.

We arrived in back in Darjeeling to complaints by foreigners and locals alike that the town had been shut down for 3 days since the murder, with shops and restaurants closed, and the Indian army gathering forces to put the city under martial law. The rumor was that things were to open the next day, lucky us, but in the meantime, finding a place to eat was like looking for liquor during prohibition, and the celebratory meal we were imaging ended up being, you guessed it, veg-dal-rice in some hole in the wall rebel eatery.

We walked by the place where the politician was murdered, now a makeshift memorial, past military checkpoints and soldiers in riot gear making their presence known. The next day the city did open, but only for the morning as new rumors of a march and the possibility of further violence forced the city to shut down and there was a mad scramble to the market to get whatever supplies we could find for our next planned trek in Sikkim. The day passed without much ado, at least, and the military presence and cool heads were able to maintain control and peace in the town. We spent some time in a beautiful hilltop monastery, watching monkeys and gods, and took in the Darjeeling zoo and the mountaineering institute started by Tenzing Norgay, the first man to reach the top of Everest in 1953. The next morning, armed with food and all the necessary permits and assurances we set off for Sikkim, and the next leg of our journey.

For more pictures, click here for the picasa web album.