01 September 2014

He who has never left -- Leh

'So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.'
-- T.S. Eliot; Four Quartets: Little Gidding

A friend in New Zealand  and another in the US say they're looking forward to reading a post about Leh. Maybe others are, too -- but what do I say? How do I convey what it means to me? When something's important to us, we want to do justice to it and we try harder to find the right words, but too often that striving defeats itself; the words falter, the flow dries up, we fall back on silence and the shrug of resignation -- we don't know how to express the significance, we say, and open our hands in the gesture of helplessness.

There -- my excuses have been made. All I can do is try, knowing (to quote Eliot again) that ' every attempt /
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure'. I have to try, too. If you'd prefer I remained silent, don't read on.

At the start of a new month I sit in the little icecream shop in Leh with a small bowl of apricot icecream decorated with shards of waffle cone. Minimalist decor: clean, bright, pine tables, each with a coloured tin tea pot and a Tintin book; simple heavy stools with blue denim seats; the small range of icecream neatly displayed behind glass. All the ingredients have been carefully chosen from local produce, and the obvious attention to cleanliness and presentation encourages me (my trust proves warranted, too). A friend introduced me to this place yesterday after we'd had tea at the nearby restaurant; I'd had Kashmiri tea with ground almond and saffron and today did exactly the same -- Kashmiri tea followed by apricot icecream. I'm so imaginative. I'm also able to recognise a good thing.

The Old Town, in contrast, represents almost everything this new, modern, icecream shop doesn't. Those small, low doors with their patina of great age and countless stories; the massive trunks of trees around which the town seem to have been built, the bark worn down and polished by the brush of generation after generation of hands; the stone walls that, in some cases against all apparent reason, have survived without collapsing; the way some buildings cross low over these narrow alleys to form tunnels where I have not just to stoop but to bend well over -- those tunnels with their quirky hand-written signs telling people not to urine in here O.K.

More, much more. For example, the ancient tandoor bakeries with their magnificent, mouth-watering smells, where, for 30 generations or more, customers have queued in the early mornings. The tranquility and cool relief of the Old Town despite its proximity to the chaos and heat of the new city -- turn a corner and you step from the 21st century into a world where evidence of anything later than the mediaeval requires careful looking. Or, that strange, fetish-like object hanging from the outside wall of a dusty, whitewashed house -- an assemblage of twigs and cord so old it looks one gust away from crumbling to dust. What makes it so eerie and slightly unnerving is the old, weathered skull lashed to the centre of the fetish -- the grey skull of a dog, I think, judging from the pronounced saggital crest and zygomatic arch. At Rumbak I saw a similar object and asked Stanzin what it represented; he hesitated, then said he thought it might be intended to provide protection against evil. The beliefs that hung these objects on these walls might have preceded any formal religion, and I wonder whether they might have given rise to the chillies-and-lemon charms hanging from many doorways elsewhere in India, but this is pure speculation on my part. Whatever the belief that put this one here in the Old Town, two things seem irrefutable: the need to believe in something beyond the evidence of the senses proves irresistible for most humans, and even for those with no such belief, the sight of a fetish like this can be unsettling. Mystery appeals to most of us.

I walk through the Old Town, losing my way, finding it again, avoiding the meaner-looking dogs, looking down fondly at the-dog-who's-eaten-too-many-biscuits. He slowly opens an eye and looks at me in hope. Disappointed, he closes his eye and resumes his sleep.

Even the new town has a charm that rises above the more difficult characteristics it shares with so many other Indian towns. When I walk along the Main Bazaar I must make a conscious effort not to stop and inspect the countless shawls and scarves in so many colours, patterns, materials, and quality; if I do, I'll never get where I think I want to go. It's not just shawls, either -- here you can find a huge range of jewelry, heavily dominated by turquoise (which I happen to like); shops selling traditional clothing including the distinctive headgear that looks a little like a top hat with up-turned ear flaps, and others selling Goretex and down clothing and all manner of modern hiking and climbing gear for the trekkers and Stok Kangri hopefuls (this obvious awareness of the importance of the mountains as a source of recreation -- and admittedly, money -- strikes a chord with me, despite my reservations about the view that sees mountains as little more than a way of satisfying human needs and desires). Even the souvenir and trinket sellers add colour and life. Sure, during the middle of the day the place is chaotic, but it's chaotic in a more humane way than places like Main Bazaar in Pahar Ganj, Delhi, which so often seems not just frantic but desperate.

I step carefully along the footpath then onto the road, which is undergoing major renovation, to avoid the simplest of all kinds of markets: a line of women in traditional dress sitting on the footpath with vegetables and fruit spread out on blankets in front of them. Someone with a cynical disposition might suggest this is more to capture the tourists than for anyone wanting to buy vegetables -- the cameras click constantly -- but this appears to be not the case because the photographers neither buy the produce nor offer any compensation (most, it seems, don't even ask if they can photograph).

An old man, so leathery and wrinkled he looks as if he's spent all his life shrivelling under the fierce Ladakh sun (and probably has) sits at the end of the row, at the intersection. He seems to be permanently smiling. On his blanket, spread out like the produce of the women, lies a collection of crystals. I have no language with which to ask his story and must pass by each day, still wondering.

Further down the road I step into a shop with an interesting range of books in the window. The range inside is even more diverse -- reprints of the books of Jim Corbett on paper seemingly produced before he even wrote them; a range of New Age and pop psychology books that wouldn't be out of place in an Auckland bookshop; an even more extensive range of high quality coffee table books of excellent photographs from Ladakh; maps; postcards; school textbooks and stationery; and, of most interest to me right now, natural history field guides for Ladakh, including Grimmett et al.'s Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. I'd never intended buying the book because of its weight and bulk but, frustrated by the shortcomings of the app (and annoyed by its outrageous price), I'm sorely tempted. Eventually the advantages of the book win the day. A good bookshop can redeem most towns, but already I know Leh doesn't need redeeming. The longer I spend here, the stronger its hold on me.

In the evening of my first day in Leh, a new friend shows me some of the places she knows so well, eventually guiding me through the Old Town and up past the palace, along the steep, gritty track. At the monastery she asks if I'd like to go inside. I hesitate, then decline. No, I say, I'm uneasy about gawping at places important to other people's beliefs when I can't share those beliefs. She nods; she feels the same, she says. Instead we stand at the edge by the low wall, looking out into the evening, over Leh, across to Spituk, to the Ladakh Range, the 6000+ metre pyramid of Stok Kangri, and Hemis National Park. Somewhere deep in those mountains snow leopards prowl, hunt, live their lives. My chances of seeing one, particularly at this time of year, are almost nil. 'Almost', though -- not impossible, and in the process of looking, who knows what other wonders I might see? Also, in my travels I've been unreasonably lucky with wildlife sightings; now, perhaps, I need the lesson of not seeing the snow leopard, if for no other reason than the reminder that wishing too hard for something guarantees disappointment. This is not a rational argument, but it is a true one.

For now, it's enough to stand here high above Leh as the sun goes down behind that last, long ridge. I want to be nowhere else.

She points out the Sunni mosque from which that heart-breakingly beautiful azan rings out each evening -- the call to prayer that haunts me and comes close to bringing me to tears I don't understand -- and the Shia mosque not too far distant; there, she says, right behind the main bazaar, is the Buddhist centre; and down there near the edge of the Old Town is the tree considered sacred by Sikhs. The Christian presence is strong here too. In a world in which intolerance, particularly by religious factions, seems so prevalent, Leh seems like hope.

In the early morning before the sun begins to burn, while the shade under the trees and against the high stone walls still provides shelter, I stride out down the path to Changspa Road. An old woman makes her way slowly up the path and I greet her.
'Julley,' I say.
'Ju-LEY!' she replies, smiling, enthusiastic, stressing the last syllable so it sounds more heartfelt.
This, I think, is one of the reasons I find it so easy to like Leh. This kind of response has been typical, unlike many other areas of India where the frown and stare seems so common (although usually easily disarmed with a nod and a smile); to be greeted warmly even by many of the women here in Leh is almost startling -- elsewhere in the parts of India I've visited I found this highly unusual; there, the usual reaction is the careful avoidance of eye contact.

I scribble a note in the little cahier: 'More often than not,' I write, 'it's people who hold me in a place rather than the place itself.' Now I'm less certain, not because I doubt the power of great friendships but because people and places are inextricable; each colours the other, and eventually we have only the memories, where people and place cannot be separated. I can't think of Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca, for example, without thinking of the people with whom I shared my too-short time there, and I can't think of those friends without thinking of Huaraz -- seeing the huge full moon rise behind some of the most spectacular mountains I've ever seen while Marin and Charlotte and I waited for our meals to arrive and I skimmed Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Bruce Chatwin -- and that brings back memories of the charming middle-aged Italian woman who, in broken English on the coast of Ghana, likened me to Chatwin purely on the basis that I was always writing (having now read Shakespeare's biography in full, I'm not sure I'm entirely flattered, but I appreciated her intention). All these connections among people and places. This is what enriches a life, and here in Leh the connections, even those seemingly insignificant or momentary, like this old woman's greeting or sharing the laughter of the two women in the icecream shop, keep coming.

The snow mountains to the north-east of Stok Kangri gleam in the evening sun. Men and women come and go, but the mountains remain. The most we can hope for is that maybe, just maybe, the mountains will remember us when we've long turned to the dust that will bury our ruins.

Something looks out of place on the folded macpac merino top sitting neatly on top of the corner cupboard. There, on the fine black material, clings a tiny, pale, patterned gecko about the length of my little finger. I encourage it onto my hand. It feels soft but definite. I nudge it onto the wall but it immediately drops off and hides beneath the merino top. Clearly, this small sophisticated lizard has fine taste in habitats. I'm happy to leave it there and like the idea of its company.

Early one morning I pack the camera, binoculars, and a small bottle of water and step out onto the cool, dusty road. Sleepy dogs and two policemen at the lake eye me as I stride by: past the water carriers filling their oil drums before sealing them closed with tightly stretched plastic and wheeling them off to the poorer parts of town on their rickety, ragged-tyred, three-wheeled carts; past three small and dusty donkeys feeding from a rubbish pile; around the corner and into the Old Town. At the palace I begin the steady climb up the still-cool track and past the small cairns of rocks and stones that remind me of secular chortens -- the kind that seem to spring up wherever someone adds a second cairn, and so a tradition begins -- until, almost at the point where the track forks, I look up and see a chukar.

A second bird appears. Carefully I retrieve the binoculars and admire the pair -- their beige, rock-and-dust-coloured bodies and black markings with vivid red bills and legs, their typical game bird shape. They make their way along the ridge in clear view, drop out of sight on the far side, reappear, and pose against the backdrop of the mountains and blue morning sky with prayer flags fluttering overhead. When they again drop out of sight I follow with the telephoto lens mounted, but they've gone now and I catch no further sight of them, as if they've become the rocks they resemble so closely, as if saying this is enough, a photograph another time perhaps.

As I sit at the knoll, still thinking of the delight of seeing the chukar and of being here before anyone else, a small falcon comes speeding across the mountainside. When close, it spreads its tail and begins to circle, gaining height, moving closer, until finally it flies right overhead. A kestrel. Through the binoculars I can see the patterns, the colours, the details, and the intensity of this small, beautiful predator. The sun shines through its wings and tail and they glow as if illuminated by the energy of the bird itself.

Through cool shade and burning sunlight I make my way back down the track towards the Old Town, from where the smell of bread baking in tandoor ovens hundreds of years old drifts up the mountainside. The dust of Ladakh lies on my shoes, the memory of birds lingers in my heart.

The minibus that will take me away from this place will leave at one in the morning; I must report at half past midnight. Jameel and Saira insist I eat with them on this last evening, and they stay up until midnight until I have to step out the door for the last time. They hug me, and Saira gives me a long, lithe poplar stick to fend off the night dogs. Leaving this place, leaving Leh, is like leaving home, but harder -- the thought of home always contains the idea that maybe, one day at last, we will return. Now, though, I step out feeling close to undone by my time here and still not fully understanding why. I cannot leave Leh but do not know how to come back.

All these emotions. I walk on into the night with the promise of more journeying ahead. My life has been enriched immensely during these two, too-short weeks, but the present has now become the past. Somehow I must learn to let go, and to do so without diminishing the gift.

I walk on, stepping through the moon shadows, watching for dogs, listening to the knock of my poplar pole on the stony path, and wondering whether I will always be beset by the restlessness that hopes that at last it might find what it did not know it was looking for.

1. '… the books of Jim Corbett …': Corbett, in whose honour Corbett National Park is named, was famous first for shooting numerous man-eating tigers and leopards in the region now known as Uttarakhand; later he was a vocal proponent for conservation in India. His first major book, Man-eaters of Kumaon, was published in 1944. 
2. 'Men and women come and go …': a reference to a whakatauki (loosely, a Maori saying), one version of which is ' Whatungarongaro te tangata toitÅ« te whenua: People perish; the land remains'.
3. 'The thought of home …': 'He who returns,' Neruda said, 'has never left.' 

1. Getting closer to Leh on the second day of travel from Manali.
2. This tandoor bakery is reputedly 600-700 years old.
3. Dog-skull fetish, Leh Old Town.
4. Leh gompa.
5. Old town door, Leh.
6. Last light behind Leh, from the prayer flag knoll.
7. Chukar calling at Rumbak.
8. Early morning, Leh. A water carrier wheels his empty load back up the hill. On the the way down, that load will weigh the better part of a couple of hundred kilos, over 160 of those in the 44-gallon drum alone. I asked one of the men how often he did this each day. 15 times, he said.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

18 August 2014

Coming down -- return to Delhi

While waiting for the last lunch in Manali -- possibly forever -- I scribble a few notes and think about the journey. Right now I feel as if I'm just killing time, waiting for it to pass until I board the bus to Delhi; as if my time in Manali has already ended and I just want to get on the bus and start travelling again. This journey has a strange feel to it -- less coherent, less unified, perhaps, than the other big journeys. Already I have the impression I'll remember it much more as a series of episodes: Delhi and Amritsar (Amritsar seems so long ago now); Dharamsala and Manali; Leh/Ladakh; and then of course the times to come, most of which seem impossibly far in the future but in an instant will be here then receding into the past. This is the incomprehensibility of time; I simply can't get my head around the way the future becomes the past. It's both a comfort -- no matter how how difficult the present, it will eventually become the past (time heals all wounds) -- and, sometimes, a source of grief (time wounds all heels).

I'm not even sure this reflects the different nature of this journey, though. When I think of the other big journeys I think of them as episodes, too; for example, my time in Mongolia and my time in Italy, as well as other places, took place on the same trip but they were so different the link seems tenuous. Perhaps what's different about this journey, what's so strange, is the way I seem so much more immersed in it; how, when I do think about being back in the Pohangina Valley, I have no trace of the slight wistfulness that usually accompanied those memories on all the previous journeys (which is not to say I won't greatly enjoy being back there). More than on any other trip, I seem to be comfortable wherever I am, which is remarkable given the physical conditions -- this almost unrelenting heat and humidity -- which are more difficult than anywhere I remember except perhaps Ghana, which they resemble. Perhaps this is a good sign. Perhaps, after all this travelling over all these years I'm only now beginning to learn how to travel truly.

The aimlessness of this scribbling probably speaks for itself, and probably arises from too much sitting. Was it Nietzsche who claimed that the only worthwhile thoughts come from walking? If so, it's typical Nietzschean hyperbole but also typical of his insights, containing a germ of truth: being in motion really does seem to stimulate thought processes. Walking does this best, but other forms of movement can achieve similar results. This is one of the main reasons I love most journeys by bus.

 I remember too, how one of Chris Bonnington's books about his attempts on the south-west face of Everest included an extract from an expedition member's diary; in that, the diarist admonished himself for wasting time in unstructured thought. When I read that, decades ago, I felt guilty because I recognised how much time I spent in 'unstructured' thought. Now, much older and more critical, I think the claim that unstructured thought is a waste of time is utter bullshit. Certainly, structured thought has a place -- for example, when you're trying to resolve a logical problem -- but most insights, I suspect, come from thoughts allowed to wander, to make connections where they will, to go off on tangents or explore their own paths.

The bus leaves two hours late. Waiting for passengers from Leh, the driver said. Plausible, and frustrating, but delays, often protracted, are part of life in India and the trick to dealing with them is, I think, to know when something might be done to hasten the process and when the only option is acceptance, resignation, and a philosophical attitude. The problem, however, is that knowing whether something might be done requires a good understanding of how things get done here, and for visitors like me that's seldom possible. Consequently, I might sometimes be too philosophical, too resigned. That's hardly a great cost, though.

Already late, the bus then stops several times to load vegetables. This involves groups of men standing around apparently doing nothing except talking and occasionally putting another large, shattered-cardboard box held together by flimsy twine into the cargo hold. Five minutes' work turns to half an hour; what should have been several hours of gazing out the window watching the evening landscape pass by turns into several hours of watching the landscape NOT pass by, until finally night shuts down even that option. Once the possibility of enjoying the scenery has passed, the long stops cease.

Surprisingly, I manage a fair amount of sleep -- fitful, but it helps the night pass. We stop at a truckers' dhaba where the extremely efficient staff deliver my paratha promptly and I finish it with time to spare. Back on the bus we continue to drive through the night and I continue to sleep, off and on, seeing almost nothing of the places we pass through save for house lights high on mountainsides; small, illuminated villages; a large market selling mostly fruit and vegetables; and occasional bridges, including one over an expanse of water that in the moonlight looked impossibly large to be situated in the mountains.

Dawn comes; the sky lightens; the sun glows just above the horizon, red and perfectly round through thick haze. As it rises, it turns from red to orange to an intense yellow disc bearing the threat of tremendous heat. We stop again soon after, around 7 a.m., at another travellers' complex where the conductor tells me we have 15 minutes. I order an excellent aloo paratha and chai, bolt the breakfast down within the 15 minutes and wait around for the remaining 15 minutes until we begin the final leg to Delhi.

The delays, however, mean instead of arriving between 5 and 7 in the morning, we reach our destination closer to 9.30 a.m. Roger, the Australian from near Alice Springs, and I share a ride to Paharganj after some hard bargaining that lets us halve the initial Rs400 fare. This all takes time, though, and when we eventually arrive, all chance of visiting the Kazakhstan embassy today has vanished.

Every restaurant I visit in Paharganj feels like a sauna, even the rooftop restaurants that in theory should catch the breeze. This wouldn't be so bad if clothes were optional, but unfortunately they're not (although some foreign visitors with less concern for local sensitivities seem to be testing that requirement to its limit). Besides, if I stripped down I'd be taken for a reincarnation of Gandhi and I could do without that attention.

The bottle of ice cold water I bought half an hour ago has already reached blood temperature, and I can't help thinking of those evenings on the top floor of the Tiger Eye in Manali with a cold Kingfisher, a plate of steamed veg momos, and a view of misty, forested mountainsides. On my last day there I'd had breakfast as usual at the Bee's Knees and had been greeted like a long-absent friend, which in a sense I suppose I was. I lingered there, wondering why so few people seemed to visit and deciding that perhaps it was because here you couldn't be seen from the street; here you couldn't display your coolness as effectively; here, too, you couldn't evaluate the passersby and keep an eye out for friends who might be walking along the road looking for similarly trendy and conspicuous places to eat.

Eventually I abandoned my cynicism and simply enjoyed being where I was. Jungle crows held an animated conversation in the trees and some other bird, probably a Himalayan bulbul, warbled melodiously nearby. A dog barked; a vehicle screeched its horn as it made its way down the narrow road; the thump of the kind of music Rico detested sounded like a heartbeat lower down in the town, and perhaps that's what it was -- the sound of the kind of life that attracts a certain kind of traveller to Old Manali. Marco, the Italian photographer in the minibus that had survived only half the journey from Leh to Manali (another story), didn't fit that stereotype -- not in the least -- and he chose to stay in New Manali. Coincidence or not? I know what Rico would have said.

As for me -- just as far as Marco from this stereotype of the typical Old Manali traveller -- I prefer the sound of the birds.

1. I've skipped much of what I sketched out in my handwritten notes in Leh, not because it's unimportant but for precisely the opposite reason. Leh affected me deeply, and when something's that important you want to do it justice. I don't know whether I can; I don't know how I might. I think it needs time, but the previous post is as good an attempt as I can manage for the time being, even if focused more on events outside Leh itself. (Conversely, the photographs are all from in and around Leh, but that's mostly because the bug-riddled app, Photomate R2, won't let me access anything from Manali or earlier.)

1. The Taglang La, 5328 m, on the road from Manali to Leh. When I returned, this was lit by the light of the almost-supermoon.
2. Mani wall at Rumbak
3. Dog on the  steps leading to the palace, Leh.
4. The poorer part of Leh at sunset, from the Monastery knoll.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

08 August 2014

In the land of the snow leopard

At the homestay in Rumbak, almost two hours' walk from the end of the road, I sit writing, cross-legged on a hard cushion at a low table, having returned not long ago from a walk along a high track above the river where I sat watching a herd of over 30 bharal make their way down the steep, dusty mountainside to the river. No sooner had they reached it than they returned up the mountainside, as if they'd just wanted to check the river was still there.

We'd driven to Zingchan, avoiding the 10 km stretch of road from Spituk described aptly by one of the guide books as a 'masochistic slog'. I understood the description: for much of the way the road was a sealed, winding strip through a searing desert, utterly devoid of shade -- the sort of environment in which fresh apricots shrivel and desiccate in minutes. The same would happen to exposed human skin. Further towards Zingchan the valley narrowed. Steep, rocky mountainsides showed upended, folded, twisted strata; little grew except harsh low shrubs, well spaced. Only a few willows at the very bottom of the valley along the river looked anything like lush.

We reached Zingchan, which appeared to be nothing more than the end of the road and a collection of tiny, heavily laden ponies. When the van drove off, Stanzin and I had already walked some distance down the track; five minutes later, Stanzin pointed out a chukar running along the track ahead of us, picking seeds from pony dung. We walked on in the blistering heat, past the enormous generator powering the drill with which workmen prepared to dynamite the mountainside, extending the road further into the valley, making the home of the snow leopard more accessible. Ten minutes short of an hour's walking we stopped; Stanzin scooped water from the stream; I swallowed a few mouthfuls of oral reydration salt (ORS) solution which tasted like a bottled pharmacy but proved surprisingly palatable. Perhaps my body knew better than my taste buds.

Suddenly Stanzin stood and exclaimed, pointing across the stream. There, only about a hundred metres away, coming down the mountainside and apparently contemptuous of our presence, was a band of bharal. After a quick look through the binoculars, I handed them to Stanzin. The ponies we'd passed earlier had begun to catch up, though, so we moved on. Despite the heat and the altitude, I felt good, and we reached Rumbak in well under two hours, after several stops for photographs and to inspect more bharal, a red-billed chough, and more chukar.

The woman at the homestay has enough rudimentary English for a conversation.
'Married?' she asks. 'Children?'
She tells me she has three children; the eldest, seven years old, goes to school in Leh and comes home for holidays. Here she looks after her two-and-a-half-year-old girl and one-year-old boy. She seems gentle and thoughtful. I ask whether she ever sees Shan, the snow leopard.
'Never,' she says, but she means now, in summer. 'Only winter.'
I wonder where they go -- deeper into the mountains, higher, where it's colder? Or are they still here, hidden deep in caves during the heat of the day, only coming out in the relative cool of night? I want to believe one might still be here, perhaps even having watched us walk up the valley, but I know this is wishful thinking. Wherever they are now, they're not here, and as the new road extends further up the valley, will they finally stop returning in the cold months?

This, however, is called progress, and the seven-year-old boy will be able to return more easily and more often to his family, and life will become easier for the residents here, who will be able to enjoy more of the privileges I've enjoyed all my life. But how long will it take before they recognise the cost, and will they ever question it? Would I, if I were in their position?

Later the woman brings me a small, handmade, felted toy, instantly recognisable with its cream body, black spots, and long, black-tipped tail. Two nights, she says, to make this Shan.

Perhaps, after all, I have seen the snow leopard.

The four o'clock light on these sere mountains surrounding the Rumbak Valley looks as old as Time. Cloud shadows, sunlight, white clouds, the rock red or pale dun or even almost white. The willows along the river bend and sway in the wind; the wind which sets the prayer flags fluttering, sending prayers to heaven. I don't even know what mine should be.

At five in the morning I get up, pack the camera, binoculars, bird guide, and a partly full bottle of ORS, which has resumed its disgusting taste. Stanzin offers to accompany me but I can see he's desperate for sleep and, besides, I prefer to walk on my own, at my own pace, unpressured by any goal other than to stroll around, looking. Above the camp and information signs at the junction, I stop and sit. Below, on a a patch of close-grazed grass, the crazy Swiss or Austrian man who'd arrived lost at Rumbak yesterday evening lies in his sleeping bag on a groundsheet, surrounded by his mountain of gear. He'd been carrying an enormous, protruding pack on his back, a similarly large grubby yellow sack dangling from one shoulder, and a smaller pack in front. He'd looked like a malformed Bactrian camel.

Not much seems active: a black redstart, a Eurasian magpie, a mixed flock of hill and rock pigeons, chukar in several places. No sign of bharal or any other mammals. I continue down the valley to the chorten with the bharal skulls at the entrance to the gorge and linger, trying for a photograph that might be more than a record shot. All the energy seems to have drained from my body.

I return, very slowly, to the room at our homestay where Stanzin still lies asleep. Last night on the way back from our evening excursion he'd remarked how he'd had only 2-3 hours' sleep the previous night. The poor guy must have been exhausted, but to his credit he'd hidden it well -- at least until this morning.

The woman at the homestay dresses her one-year-old boy and stands him in front of her, encouraging him to take a step. This, though, is one too far. I ask if he can walk.
'No,' she says, smiling and shaking her head.
His balance suggests that step won't be far off.

Sunlight creeps down the mountainside, followed by cloud shadow -- the typical pattern of light on these arid mountains. Maybe the lack of vegetation makes the pattern so much more obvious, so much more dramatic? The heat, though, hasn't yet arrived, and I'm pleasantly cool even with the Mont Bell parka on. My hands never felt particularly cold this morning but that might be because they're so dry, with less feeling than usual: I had to work to get them functional enough to be able to write.

The three Indians here with us, husband and wife Dev and Nehar, and Muddin, join me for breakfast of something resembling puri and something halfway between an omelette and scrambled egg. The puri leaves my fingers greasy; my omelette has a slight off flavour as if one of the eggs was a little older than desirable. The woman brings seabuckthorn jam, though, and this, with its sweet-sharp flavour, suits the oily puri very well. Last night I chatted with Dev and Nehar, both of whom speak excellent English. They're keenly interested in wildlife of all kinds, not just the charismatic megafauna, and they exhorted me to visit India's north-eastern hill states, Assam in particular. They knew their birds, too, and we swapped notes on what we'd seen in the evening, with the notable bird in common being the beautiful red-fronted serin.

They leave this morning to walk at a leisurely pace back down to Zingchan, wildlife viewing on the way. The walk in along the same route the previous day, Nehar said, almost killed her. I've enjoyed their good humour, their appreciation of all kinds of wildlife, their down-to-earth attitudes, and their excellent English which meant I could have a good discussion, and I'm sorry to see them go.

In the middle of the morning we walk a long way up the other tributary in the direction of the Kanda La. Small skinks scuttle for cover; a brown dipper flies along the stream and calls; a pair of red-billed choughs won't allow me close enough for a good photograph. The sight of the choughs gladdens me. Stanzin calls them crows, which in a sense they are, but the usage reminds me how anything resembling a crow -- ravens, rooks, the many types of crows, the choughs -- are all known by everyone except the bird people as just 'crows' and, more often than not, disliked or even hated.

On the way up the valley I stop to talk to the crazy Swiss or Austrian man. In fact, he's Swedish. He fries chipped potatoes over a small, efficient fire, not to eat now, he explains, but to carry for lunch; he wants to conserve his supply of firewood for when he's higher up where wood will be scarce. His big yellow sack apparently holds a supply of firewood. He's heading for Skiu and the Markha valley, he tells me, adding that the pony man estimates 5 hours so he'll probably take 15. His straggly beard has been singed by his fire, the shrivelled tips of his whiskers a fried-chip colour that looks like the tar stains of a bearded chain smoker. When we return towards midday, he's entertaining three local people and shows no sign of packing to begin his walk.

A middle-aged couple with heavy packs arrive in the afternoon after crossing Stok La. I talk with them in the evening. They come from Switzerland, although she's originally Turkish. He's an architect, thoughtful, with a wry sense of humour; she's a doctor and has been attending the sick man who, ever since we arrived, has been sleeping continuously outside. She's diagnosed a urinary tract infection that has spread to his kidneys; he needs antibiotics, she says. I offer the azithromycin from my kit but, soon after, a young woman arrives and it transpires she's a pharmacist with the needed antibiotics. The Swiss doctor had given him paracetamol to reduce his fever, which had already begun to subside, and by morning he's feeling much better. He's a lucky man.

Soon after dawn a black redstart hits the window of the room where Stanzin lies asleep and I sit, only half awake, wondering whether to get up and what to do if I do -- go for a walk? Write, crosslegged and uncomfortable at one of the low tables? The redstart flies off. Perhaps it was just snatching an insect. I get up and go next door to squat over the small rectangle in the compacted dirt floor, trying not to breathe the ammonia fumes from the open-air dung pile below. Afterwards I walk up the hill to the main building to write, only to be promptly served an early breakfast. The Swiss man joins me. In the direct way of many people with only basic English but a keen interest in their guests, the homestay woman asks what the man does for work, how old he is, what's the nature of his relationship with the woman, how old she is. In turn, he asks how old she is. Twenty-eight, she says. Her husband works in Leh. When the doctor arrives, the homestay woman enquires whether she has children.
'No time,' she replies, but she clearly has a way with children, picking up the one-year-old boy and cradling him and playing with him.

We leave at 7.45 a.m. under cloud that keeps the temperature bearable and, in a stroke of excellent luck, stays with us all the way to the pass with only brief breaks when the sun's intense heat reminds me how lucky we are. Where the trail begins to climb more steeply, Stanzin comes running back to urge me on; he's seen some big birds; vultures, he thinks. At first I think he's right, but when I get the binoculars on them I see they're not vultures at all, but some kind of megapode. They're big, beautiful birds with greyish backs and chestnut stripes along the flanks, and later, at Changma camp, I get the bird guide out and discover what we've been looking at are five Himalayan snowcock.

Stanzin easily outpaces me but, by simply not stopping to rest, I outpace everyone else on the route -- the two groups of French people and the battalion of Israelis trekking independently. 'Outpaced' is a relative term, however -- I don't recall ever having walked so slowly in any mountains. About five minutes from the summit of the La, Stanzin comes running back down, insisting on carrying my pack. He's delighted; 'You are the fastest!' he exclaims. I think he must feel his status among the locals has increased by having the fastest client, but although I admit some satisfaction, it feels largely pyrrhic -- mostly what I feel is relief at having finally reached the top.

After three quarters of an hour, a tetrapak of mango juice, and a small bar of chocolate that sticks uncomfortably to my teeth, we begin the descent. The contrast between the ascent and the descent could hardly be more striking; suddenly I feel almost back to my old self. Stanzin decides to take the shortcut -- directly down a very steep path of deep dust, and after a moment's hesitation I follow. It's just like a New Zealand scree run, except the substrate's deep, fine dust instead of shingle, and we drop rapidly -- maybe a few hundred metres in a matter of minutes. The shortcut meets a dusty, winding trail that leads down a steep gully, down which we trot at a good pace, and I manage to keep up with Stanzin. We reach Changma camp just under an hour after leaving the pass.

Sweet tea; a chance to rest. A young couple -- she from the UK, he from Spain -- and their personable guide arrive for lunch. I chat with them and, as they're about to leave, they offer me the mango juice from their packed lunches. I accept gratefully, drink one, and keep the other for the evening. I can feel a headache coming on, though, so I retire to the tent; this, however, is like an oven, so I shift to the area under the camp's canopy and lie down on one of the barely-padded benches. Then a French couple arrive; I sit up, chat with them, lie down when they leave, then get up again when the remaining French from the Pass arrive. Realising the Israeli army will arrive soon and probably continue to do so throughout the afternoon, I return to the oven-tent, take a couple of ibuprofen and manage some fitful sleep. When I'm finally woken by intense pain over and behind my right eye, the Israelis must have either passed through or got lost. I resort to the paracetamol + codeine tablets and return to sleep under the canopy. The next time I wake I'm much better and the headache has faded to a just-discernible pain. I've been lucky.

About the time I wake, two Indian guides arrive. They've somehow lost their clients. Long discussions with Stanzin and the young camp manager ensue, until the guides finally set off up the track. Five minutes later, the lost party arrives: six Germans. Stanzin whistles and shouts and beckons, and the guides eventually return. The leader of the Germans isn't happy. He insists they camp here; they're not acclimatised, he says, and the next camp is too high. The guide points out that the camping equipment is with the ponies; he blames the pony drivers for not stopping and says that for him to go ahead and bring the ponies back down will take at least three hours, by which time darkness will have fallen and the Germans will be freezing. Returning to Stok, from where they've just come, is the only option.

The leader flings his trekking pole down, swears, abuses the guide, and finally takes off his daypack and throws it at the low wall by the track, where it topples over into the dining area. He turns his back on the chastened guide and stalks off. No one does anything; everyone stands around. The younger of the two German women looks as if she's about to burst into tears.

Eventually I go over and suggest they might like to have some tea while they decide what to do. I ask how they're coping with the altitude. One of the German men shakes his head.
'Borderline,' he says.
I cautiously suggest that staying here might not be a good idea, and perhaps returning to Stok might be the best option. At least it's downhill. He nods and, glancing across, sees my bird guide in Stanzin's hands.
'You are an ornithologist?' he says.
Yes, I say, but not a serious ornithologist; I just like looking at the birds and other animals.
'You were on the Galapagos?' he asks.
I tell him yes, I loved it there, and he smiles and enthuses -- 'We too!' he says.
The young woman has the best English, and I commiserate with her a little. She seems to become more resigned to the prospect of returning to Stok. I suggest they could consider this good for helping them acclimatise, and she and some of the others laugh. The ice has broken.

They start the walk back to Stok, having seemed to appreciate my efforts, and I think they might even have looked forward to meeting us again tomorrow -- the older man asks if they'll see us as we walked out. Perhaps just having someone who understood their dismay and could offer a gentle alternative perspective encouraged them. The guide thinks I'm wonderful. I become his best friend; he thanks me profusely for having mollified his clients and shakes my hand several times. He continues to blame the pony drivers, probably with some justification; nevertheless, the whole fiasco could have been avoided with clearer communication among everyone right at the outset. This, however, is not as easy as it sounds when English is at best a second language for everyone and not one at all for the pony drivers.

At night the tent initially holds a little of the day's heat, and when that later dissipates I stay warm in the sleeping bag. Stanzin sleeps in the camp manager's stone hut, so I have plenty of room to wriggle about to find the right combination of depressions for my hip and shoulder; I keep waking to turn over, but quickly drop back to sleep. At 5.30 I get up and sit outside, prowl around a little, and watch the dawn sun light the most jagged rock formations imagineable. Black redstarts, mostly females, flit about all around the camp; chukar call and feed and fight nearby. No sign yet of Himalayan griffons, though. No bharal, no ibex, no argali, although I scan the high, rocky bluffs diligently.

We leave for Stok around mid morning, after I've tried with moderate success to photograph some of the small skinks that live in the low rock walls around the camp, and when the first trekkers and Stok Kangri climbers have begun to arrive. Staying longer would add nothing to the charm of Changma camp, which has relied much on its wonderful tranquility during the evening and morning when we three, all quiet by nature, were the camp's only human residents. Birds; the mountain wind ruffling and snapping the white and red satin MITRA flag; sunlight on the fearsome crags; the possibility of a vulture circling in the evening sky, or an ibex or argali high among those crags. The sound of the river, quieter in the morning when the meltwater flow has eased.

Ten minutes down the track, Stanzin calls out and points. There, cruising the length of a high rocky ridge, soars a large vulture. Through the binoculars I search for the ruff of a Himalayan griffon, but this bird has none, nor does it have the right markings, and the wings taper distinctly. I'm confident I'm looking at a juvenile lammergeier. That's good enough for me. I high-five Stanzin and congratulate him on his spotting, and he grins broadly, happy to see me so pleased.

Where the track climbs to a knoll from where we can see Stok shimmering in the near distance, we stop and wait. Our driver isn't due to arrive for another couple of hours and we both prefer to wait in the mountains than in a town. Trekkers and climbers (essentially identical because Stok Kangri is just a long slog) pass in both directions; yesterday's Germans skirt the base of the knoll to avoid the climb, so we miss the chance to meet and chat. Given their slow pace, however, an interruption to talk might not have been desirable. Their guide had arrived at Changma this morning, still clearly thinking I was a wonderful person. He explained how the Germans had found a good homestay and had calmed down, even apologising for the abuse. I hope the rest of the trek goes well, so their memories won't be tempered by the unfortunate incident.

I photograph a small, beautiful lizard with bright orange on the sides of the neck, sulphur yellow beneath, black patterning on its back -- the same kind I'd seen near the steps to the palace in Leh. I haven't seen urial, ibex, or argali, but how many visitors pay attention to, or even notice, these small, beautiful things?

Back in Leh, the call to prayer begins. I climb through my window onto the patio and sit listening, looking up at the tall, slender poplars swaying and rustling in the warm wind at dusk, the bright gibbous moon casting faint shadows, the last light gleaming on the snows and glaciers of the Ladakh Range from which I've just returned. As always, the call haunts me, and I understand at last one of the perils of travelling: how strange and distant places and the people you meet in them can sometimes break your heart in a way that makes you think it might never mend.

1. I've skipped ahead in this narrative, otherwise I'll fall too far behind. As usual, these are just selected impressions. Prepared in haste; please excuse errors.

1. The Rumbak Valley from near the start of the climb to Stok La.
2. Chorten near Rumbak.
3. Ponies on Stok La.
4. Mountainside near Rumbak.
5. The chorten with the bharal skulls at the entrance to the gorge.
6. Mitra flag at Changma Chan camp.
7. Evening meltwater. In the mornings, the water's almost clear and slightly bluish, and it's easy to boulder-hop across the rivers. Very different by evening.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

31 July 2014

Life in Manali

Here at the Bee's Knees cafe -- quiet, no one else here yet except the staff; lush, green; at a low, comfortable table in an apple orchard; tranquil, relaxed. Manali might be strongly focused on the tourist trade but it does it well; I like it, probably too much and might spend too long here. It's more expensive than McLeod Ganj but the additional expense is relative; in absolute terms it's insignificant.

The muesli takes a while to arrive; the black tea I also ordered turns out to be a tea bag and a glass of hot water. Surprisingly, though, the tea has a passable flavour and -- a nice touch -- comes with a small, plain biscuit. Brooke Bond seems to be the ubiquitous tea bag; I've encountered nothing else anywhere so far. The day, which had begun to build towards an uncomfortable heat, has cooled; the sky's clouded over, and I hope I'll get back to the Tiger Eye before the rain. I have no plans other than relaxing, catching up on sleep, maybe preparing another blog post, and a little, gentle exploring of Old Manali. I might even look at buying a shirt or light jacket -- something that makes me stand out a little less -- and perhaps a shoulder bag for more convenient access to the camera and other walking-about items. Travelling often seems like this: a process of finding out what works and what doesn't, of adapting and modifying.

A small bird that looks like one of the British tits fossicks in the garden nearby. Black markings, grey body, some pale underneath, longish tail. I'll see if I can identify it when I get back to the Tiger Eye, but I might have to pay the exorbitant price for the Grimmett and Inskipp app -- the only alternative is the free 'Indian Birds' app which is riddled with errors, some serious, and, as I discover, isn't even close to comprehensive.

The first customers arrive: young; trendily dressed; Irish, judging from their accents; at least two of the three with colds. The muesli arrives at last, and it's worth the wait -- a small bowl of real muesli (no cornflakes here) with a large bowl of curd (yoghurt) and an enormous bowl of fruit: banana, mango, papaya, watermelon, plum. Everything except the pieces of plum has been scrupulously peeled and the cubes of watermelon have even been deseeded. I trust it's all safe; as Bradley pointed out last night while trying to alleviate my suspicion of salads, it's not in the interests of the restaurants here to poison people. I trust these words won't prove perversely prophetic.

Just going on 9 o'clock and the place is still quiet. The sun's just come out, and the big Irish guy with the tattooed shoulder and arm (he wears a loose tank top and even looser, floppy pants -- very trendy; almost de rigueur here) returns from another trip to the toilet and says, 'It's beautifully warm in that sun,' as he returns to his companions. A kid with a heavy crate of empty bottles races down the path at a half run, jandals flopping. He looks as if he should be at school. All these people working while we, the privileged and indolent, relax and eat our expensive breakfasts and enjoy the beautifully warm sun. How is it that we're so much luckier? What did we do to deserve our lives, other than being born in the right place at the right time? Maybe this is the rationalisation for theories of reincarnation and karma -- that in the previous life we lived well enough to deserve this one. Maybe also it's a reminder to live this life as generously, compassionately, and appreciatively as we can, so we might earn another as lucky as this.

A small spider climbs the arm of the cane chair opposite me, its world on a completely different scale to mine, utterly unaware I'm watching. What might be watching us? One apparently bizarre theory suggests we're something like simulations in some enormously complex computer model. Surprisingly, this has some supporting evidence in the form of the observed small changes in cosmological constants, as if some modeller were tweaking the parameters of the model. Far-fetched, perhaps, but what else explains those changes in constants, which are, after all, supposed to be constant, fixed, unchanging? The problem with that hypothesis, though, is that it's hard to see how it might be tested. If it can't, it joins the endless list of other intriguing ideas that have no scientific worth, and we're not short of those.

I stop on the way back to my room to refill my bottle with filtered water and buy a small tube of sunscreen. On the balcony I sit with the binoculars ready, but so far the only bird to appear has been a subadult common myna. In this heat the other birds have disappeared, but I suppose they'll become more evident towards evening. Sensible -- doing what needs to be done, or just enjoying being out and about, is definitely more pleasant early in the morning and in the cool of the evening. Now, even the mountains have retreated behind puffy, white-and-grey cloud.

Nevertheless, this sun and heat have advantages. A beautiful chestnut and buff dove with a blue-grey chequered pattern around the sides of the neck, a white band at the end of the tail, and an alert red eye spreads itself out on the dark, damp ground of a fallow garden below. As I watch, it repositions itself, giving me a better view of the beautiful colours of its plumage, but it appears to be limping -- yes, one leg appears to be cramped up and useless, making the bird hop on the other. Another point of difference between ourselves and other animals: no other animals I can think of will support another of their species with a disability, discounting the natural maternal instinct of many mammals and birds.

I'm not sure why I keep comparing humans to other animals. Maybe by paying attention to our similarities and differences we can understand more about ourselves -- and them, too. Maybe, too, some of these observations are a good counter to sentiment.

A row of prayer flags, so faded nothing remains of their colour, flutters in the breeze on a nearby rooftop, and two small, unidentifiable birds fly past. A jungle crow strokes its way through the air, high up, going towards the mountain, the conifer forest. A Himalayan bulbul flies up and alights, half obscured, at the top of a leafy fruit tree. I'm lost in thoughts, looking out over the valley, when I hear knocking and, looking around, see two mynas on the balcony with me, the nearest less than a couple of metres away on the railing. We study each other for a few moments, bird to man, then it apparently decides I have nothing to offer, so it drops off the railing and, joined by its companion, flies off. I must remember not to leave small, thievable items lying around -- my Lamy Safari, for example, is exactly the same bright yellow as these birds' bills and the bare skin around their eyes.

In town in the afternoon I meet Rebecca and Rose, the two young British women on the bus from Dharamsala to Manali. They seem cheerful, enjoying being here. Already they've visited nearby Vashist, which they recommend as lovely; tomorrow they're on the bus to Leh, staying overnight at Keylong camp. We talk a bit about altitude sickness. This morning I checked the map and discovered Keylong, the lower of the two camps, is almost as high as Leh and close to 1500 m higher than Manali. Still, as Rose pointed out, hundreds (possibly thousands) do the journey every year, so the problems can't be too serious. They seemed keen to chat. I liked their energy, their enthusiasm, their enjoyment of where they were and what they were doing. 'Maybe we'll see you in Leh,' Rose said as we went in different directions.

I'd like that.

A crow flies past the balcony where I write then arcs around to fly directly away. I love the shape of their wings when they fly -- the way the wings flex and curve, the deliberate grace of their flight. A few minutes later, two quick pigeons speed past, tilting so the sun shines through their wings. Rico and Bradley and two other friends sit in the far corner of the balcony, talking quietly while Bradley strums his ukelele. I'm sure I'd be welcome to join them, but I'm enjoying just being here, watching the birds, the butterflies, the sway and flutter of the faded prayer flags, the gradual darkening and thickening of the clouds over the mountains, the colours and textures of the rusting corrugated iron roof below us, so much else. Everything seems so laid back it feels like the land of lotus-eaters, although I suspect here the lotus has been replaced by another distinctive plants that grows wild and in abundance along the roadsides and pathways.

One afternoon I walk down the hill to New Manali to see what it's like and locate an ATM I can visit early in the morning before the crowds. On the way back I stop at a rough little shop that advertises aloo paratha in faded, just-distinguishable lettering. 'Yes,' the man says, 'aloo paratha. Chai?'
Yes, I say, chai also. I step inside and sit with the only other customer, an Indian man absorbed in his phone. The vendor returns.
'No aloo paratha,' he says. 'Only chai.'
Fine with me. I'm happy to drink only chai. The stall's little more than a shack with a corrugated iron roof and walls of tin and thin, buckled plywood held together by grime. On top of the partition between the kitchen and dining area (a table and two hard benches), someone has draped several pairs of what appear to be old underpants. The chai's wonderful: real chai; sweet, flavoursome, the taste of real India. I love it.

Ten rupees the man says. His tone's gentle, undemanding. He sits with a cigarette in his fingers, a friend in the seat next to him. He asks where I'm from.
'Ah, Nooh Seelund. Beautiful country. Beautiful people,' he says.
His friend nods and I hope I'm not letting the side down; I also wonder what he really knows about New Zealand but I appreciate the gesture. I ask if I might photograph them, and afterwards I show them the result. They seem pleased, and as I leave I tell them I'll see them tomorrow.

It's a promise I keep. The next day, after booking my minibus to Leh, I celebrate with chai. The elderly vendor isn't there (he arrives shortly after) and the underpants have gone from the partition. Once again, though, I can order only chai. The young guy who takes my order checks whether I want sugar.
 'Sugar?' he says.
 'Yes, please.'
I assume he means lots of sugar, like real chai. 'Yes.'
Laughter all round. I'm not entirely sure what the joke is, but it's all good-natured and I'm happy to join in. The chai's just as good as yesterday's -- sweet and full of flavour. I sit in the cool of the dark shop, watching people and vehicles passing by, and I'm slightly puzzled by why I feel so happy after such a couple of insignificant events: buying a bus ticket and drinking chai in a little shack with people who seem to like having me here. If it's easy as this, how is it that so many people, including so many of the visitors here, seem so unhappy, so stressed, so dissatisfied? Maybe their lives are so much more complicated than mine; maybe, when I travel, life becomes so much simpler and decisions reduce to straightforward things like where to eat, where to sleep, when to move on, and how to buy a bus ticket.

Up early on the second morning in Manali, I wander slowly up the road, past old wooden houses where colourful laundry hangs draped from dark windows and yellow straw fills lower-storey balconies or dangles in swatches from the railings. Mynas and house sparrows forage; great tits flit and snap at each other in fruit trees; two russet sparrows with their chestnut crowns tantalise me by not staying still long enough for a decent photograph (one later relents). I walk until the path narrows and squeezes past a construction site where several men are already assembling breeze blocks to form a wall, using the typical mortar that seems to consist mostly of hope. On the way down a family of jungle crows alights on the path to collect something indistinguishable from the ground. I photograph, crouch, photograph more, from a better angle, but they won't stay still. When I finally stand and move slowly and quietly past, they hardly bother to get out of the way. This acceptance -- it might be contempt but I prefer the other interpretation -- delights me.

I stroll down the lane to the Bee's Knees. The entrance is already open so I walk in and the young guy polishing glasses with a rag of indeterminate cleanliness beams at me. I ask if they're open and he nods.
 'Open!' he says, with a great smile that I later find seems permanent; I never recall seeing him without it.
Yesterday's waiter sits at a nearby table. He looks up. 'Yes sir,' he says. 'Open! Open for breakfast!'
He looks overjoyed to see me and no doubt recognises me from yesterday. Telling someone their food's good is one thing -- it's a nice gesture and always appreciated -- but returning to the cafe or restaurant proves. The cliche's true: actions do speak louder than words.

I take a seat at the same table in the apple orchard. A little way off, a crow forages in long grass beneath pinkish-mauve chrysanthemums, and a myna flies down and fossicks along the path. Under this overcast sky I'm almost cold in my freshly-laundered merino t-shirt and light cotton shirt. I should savour the feeling and store it for the heat that lies ahead -- months of it still to come -- but it's hard, perhaps impossible, to truly remember being cold when you're sweltering. A very loud, melodious bird flies past above the orchard; all I see is the movement, a glimpse. I have no idea what it is. 

After breakfast I walk down the road, past cars attempting 12-point-or-more turns, minibuses belching black fumes, shops setting up their multi-coloured wares. A man arranges seats in the upstairs Fusion cafe; he blows his nose vigorously into the street below and calls out a cheery 'Good morning!' as I pass. I carry on down to the bridge where I see several small birds on the big boulders of the raging river, so I go down to the ghats, frustrated by my inability to remember the name of these attractive little birds that I came to know so well in Uttarakhand almost eight years ago (how can it be so long, and will I manage to return this time?). I want a closer look and some photographs if possible.

Several males, with their blue-black bodies and rufous tails, chase each other and a few females dart about catching insects. While I crouch with the camera ready, just about to photograph, something taps the back of my left shoulder. Startled, I stand and look around. A tawny dog looks at me quizzically, as if expecting a response -- food, probably. Seeing none's forthcoming, it trots past, scaring the birds. One of the females lands on a nearby boulder in the shallows, but before I can frame a photograph the dog decides this would be a good place to splash about. The female flies off. This dog's lucky I like it.

Later I grudgingly pay for the Grimmett and Inskipp app and at last find the name of these lovely little birds: the plumbeous water redstart. The free Indian Birds app doesn't even list this species.

I spend most of one afternoon engaged in conversation with Rico, the Italian in another room on my top storey of the Tiger Eye. Mostly I listen; sometimes I manage to slip in a comment; sometimes those comments delight him, as when I mention the Elizabethan polymath Dr Dee.
 'Ah, John Dee!' Rico exclaims, leaning back and smiling and sweeping his hair back with both hands. He starts on a long discussion of Dee's interests in alchemy and occultism and leading eventually -- or was it back -- to the Benign White Cabal. On another occasion I mention Tarkovsky's film, Stalker. Rico beams and expresses great approval.
 'But don't watch anything else,' he says, warning me how most films are part of the way we're programmed.

Most of what he talks about leaves me lost, but I still enjoy the conversation, which ranges from topics like classical music, the origins of the term 'rock and roll', and the Beatles' White Album -- Adorno, he tells me, created the Beatles -- to the Tavistok Institute, Marlowe, 12 atonal music, and Orson Welles. Much more, besides.
 'There are no coincidences,' he says, shaking his head and looking serious. 'It's against the laws of physics.'
I can't work out whether he's a nutter -- at one stage he even says I probably think he's one -- or whether he's attained a kind of secular enlightenment that allows him to see society more incisively. Two things can't be disputed, though: his astonishing knowledge and his matching likeability.

Nor can I fault his taste in music. The next day the friendly middle-aged Dutch couple and I are on the balcony as the evening light begins to fade. Mist hangs around the mountainside, high up, picking out the slender, spiky, almost needle-like conifers in a beautiful, atmospheric, and slightly eerie perspective, like something from a Grimm's fairy tale. Music floats from Rico's room: Nick Drake, Nina Simone, a woman with a beautiful voice I vaguely recognise, Bob Dylan -- all slightly haunting, all perfectly suiting the mood. Rico comes out to check he's not 'inflicting it' on us, but we enthuse about it and encourage him to keep playing it. Later I ask him about the woman whose voice I almost recognised: Alela Diane, he says. Of course! Perhaps this is an indication that I've left my life in the Pohangina Valley behind me to a greater extent than I'd realised. I do feel more 'present' here and all through this journey; noticeably more so than on any other major journey. I take this as a good sign.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether, listening to this music, sleeping in a comfortable, clean room with a shower that delivers dependable hot water, simply relaxing on the balcony, sometimes enjoying a Kingfisher with a simple dish of veg momos on the balcony in the evening, occasionally making short visits to Old Manali with its almost single-minded focus on catering to the desires of the trendy travellers -- these things make me wonder whether I'm really in India. Did I return for this kind of lotus-eating life? This certainly isn't typical India, but I'll have plenty of opportunity to immerse myself in that (as was unquestionably the case in Amritsar) -- probably more opportunity than I'd like.

Sometimes I question what I'm doing on this journey, not in the sense of questioning my purpose, but of wondering what that purpose might be. Maybe it has many purposes. I wanted to see India again, to be part of the chaos and richness and strangeness and difference. I also wanted the feeling of being on the move again, doing something about the restlessness which is more curiosity than dissatisfaction. 

Perhaps also -- perhaps even mainly -- I wanted the stimulation and freedom that would let me write as much as I want: not a retreat, but an immersion. I wanted to write in places and among events that might break me out of writing about the same things, over and over. Time will tell whether this journey has succeeded in that, but the question remains: what will happen when I return to my usual way of life? Will the store of memories sustain me and my writing for long enough? Long enough for what? As I said, time will tell. I do know that many people have expectations that visitors to India will do certain things, that they go to India to be in India, that any time in India spent doing what might also be done back 'home' amounts to time wasted. I reject these expectations. Wherever you are, you live your life.

On a flat, concrete rooftop below the Tiger Eye, apricot kernels lie spread out to dry. The flesh lies on a sheet on the flagstones in front of the house, presumably so the owner can quickly scare off any marauding birds. Rico must have intuited my concern about being insulated from 'real' India, or perhaps we talked about it and I've forgotten; in any case, he plays a raga from Bihar: sitar, tablas, vocals. Beautiful music that goes on and on -- I can imagine listening to this all day and all night and never tiring. It finally finishes at exactly 1.30 p.m., to the second.

There are no coincidences.

1. Again, this is an edited selection of impressions. It's long, but I spent a while in Manali and wanted to do it justice -- at least from my perspective. I'm now in Leh, after a two-day minbus journey. More about that later.
2. Assembled in haste at an Internet Cafe. Apologies for errors.

1. The main road of Old Manali.
2, 3, 4. Along the path from the road to the Tiger Eye Guest House.
5. Male plumbeous water redstart.
6. Manali forest, evening; from my balcony.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

24 July 2014

Dharamsala: an alternative meditation

A pigeon flies past, going somewhere fast in the hazy grey morning. Pigeons in flight always seem to be intent on a destination; even when they circle they seem to be building momentum for an eventual arrow-like flight to somewhere that must be reached as quickly as possible. Strangely, I've seen very few pigeons here, unlike most other built-up places where they're almost always abundant. Perhaps the kites keep their numbers low, or maybe the climate's not good for pigeons. The old controversy about the regulation of animal populations comes to mind, and I have to work hard to remember the names of the most famous protagonists: Nicholson I remember easily, but I struggle to eventually recall the names Andrewartha and Birch. My own dabbling in the field as part of my work all seems so long ago now and brings to mind my own career -- if it could be called that -- as a scientist. Almost nothing of that time now seems worthwhile from the point of view of a direct contribution to science; what little might be considered worthwhile was largely a result of supporting the work of colleagues. Was that time wasted? Maybe, but the past is irretrievable and inaccessible. Perhaps not irredeemable, though, and I wonder sometimes if what I do now is in some way an attempt to redeem time I might have spent better. The less time that remains, of course, the more urgent this becomes, which is why I wonder why I don't feel a greater sense of urgency -- in fact, any sense of urgency.

The Gakyi restaurant's already open at 7.30 a.m. and I'm the first customer. I order a bowl of porridge with banana and honey, and black tea, having drunk enough more than enough lemon honey ginger over the last several days. I think about how I might photograph Mrs Dickyi if she turns up before the restaurant starts to fill with customers -- and, of course, if she's agreeable. The light's low in here; even at ISO 400 and f2.8 the shutter speed's a mere 1/30s. As I write, though, the sunlight strengthens on the rough brick wall on the far side of the narrow road, and the light inside the restaurant brightens a little accordingly.

A few days ago the ghost of the Last Imperial Eunuch passed by, going down the road to the past; this morning the doppelganger of Pete Garrett strides past, going up the road and also into the past. He glances inside, catches my eye for an instant, then looks away and carries on.

Let me explain. On Thursday I looked up from my usual seat in the Gakyi to see a small, shrivelled monk with a woollen cap pass by. His resemblance to the subject of Henri Cartier-Bresson's famous photograph of the Last Imperial Eunuch was so striking I felt momentarily displaced, as if in a different country and a different time, but later I thought the sense of fleeting disconnection from the present to be at odds with the nature of life, which is mostly concerned with connections. I've long felt the linear metaphor of a life -- as, for example, a fuse burning inexorably to final destruction -- to be unsatisfactory. Life, it seems to me, is a process of enrichment, a process not of using up but of adding, and the more connections we make, the richer the life. When I saw the ghost of the Last Imperial Eunuch tripping down Jogiwara Road , swaying slightly as he went, my life became slightly richer not just because I'd accumulated another vivid memory but because that memory connected McLeod Ganj, the Gakyi restaurant, and a particular moment in my life with the art of Cartier-Bresson's photography. Yes, life imitates art at times and art enriches life -- it's almost a truism to make that claim -- but, perhaps less obviously, life can enrich art: I hope it's not too grand a claim to say Cartier-Bresson's photograph now has an additional connection.

Perhaps, too, this is a characteristic of great art -- that it can accept these connections without being overwhelmed by them.

The small, whiskery French man who comes here regularly arrives, this time accompanied by a woman who might be Tibetan or Chinese. She says hello then corrects herself and says 'Bonjour,' then laughs and explains how she's always mixing up her languages.. She speaks good English with a US accent. Mrs Dickyi arrives but leaves shortly afterwards with her handbag tucked under her arm and prayer beads in hand. She returns soon and I can't quite pluck up the courage to ask if I might photograph her. If there's a trick to this, I think it might be to relax and not think about it too much -- just switch off and ask, then concentrate on doing justice to the person.

I order another black tea, partly because I want to keep writing, partly because, well, I simply want the tea. The pen runs out of ink; I switch to the yellow Safari. Snippets of conversation between the French man and the multi-lingual woman (I heard her say she speaks nine languages) drift across. Much, it seems, concerns buddhism, and I feel an unreasonable, unwarranted sense of -- what? It's not quite cynicism -- I'd like to think I'm more respectful than that (although maybe I'm not) -- nor is it entirely a kind of disillusionment (which true buddhists might approve of, given their apparent belief that all is illusion). If anything, it might be a kind of shame at the way, back in New Zealand, I've referred to aspects of buddhism as if I knew something about it (and as I've just done), but here everyone seems either to have much greater knowledge or actually practises these beliefs. Here, ironically, I feel far more distant from these beliefs which seemed to make so much sense to me; here I am an outsider, the other, a simple observer. Perhaps I don't belong here, although I feel comfortable in Dharamsala. This might be akin to the feeling of the perpetual guest, made welcome, treated hospitably, but always apart. The simplest description might be that here, where most visitors seem to be seeking something -- some kind of instruction or enlightenment or a furthering of their understanding -- I doubt I'm seeking anything, at least not until I find it.

Another regular customer arrives -- the French woman with shoulder-length, wavy, dark blonde hair. She smiles, says hello, joins the other two, and I return to my writing. More customers arrive, and Mrs Dickyi calls to a Tibetan woman passing by. She's obviously a friend, and the two sit to have breakfast together. I'm still trying to muster the courage to ask for a photograph when I pay my bill, but she seems distracted and I wimp out. Besides, I've thanked her for the time I've spent here, explaining this is the last time, and I don't want her to think I'm just buttering her up to get her to agree to a photograph. This sounds like a rationalisation of my wimping out, and it is.


On the way to the Tibetan Mandala Cafe: a monk stands outside a shop, looking into the street; he seems weary, as if the burden of negotiating the world of samsara to make his way back to the refuge of his monastery is too great. He holds a tray of white eggs, tied with thin, orange, plastic twine, in his left hand.

Outside the cafe, the valley lies behind a blank wall of white mist and even the cedars as close as the far side of the road have turned almost to silhouettes. Rain might not be far off, which is why I've chosen to sit inside at one of the western-style (and very comfortable) booths rather than outside on the cooler patio. My Assam tea arrives -- a pot with a strainer but only one glass. I ask for another glass, which the waiter brings just in time for me to salvage the rest of the pot. The rain holds off, the mist draws back a little, and the little housefly on my table goes about its exploration, looking for something it can't find, oblivious to the changing weather outside, and unaware that here in this buddhist stronghold it might live in one of the world's safest places for houseflies.


On the evening of the last day in Dharamsala, mist comes and goes; from my table at the window of the Kunga's restaurant I see the cedars on the opposite hillside in silhouette, the tiered buildings with their colourful roofs below -- then the mist closes in. The valley vanished a long time ago. One of these views will be the last I'll see of McLeod Ganj; when I leave, the mists of memory will begin to roll in, and all that will remain will be parts of these scenes, fragments of these events, the ruins of the moment.

1. 'Dharamsala' most often refers to Mcleod Ganj, the upper part of the town and the seat of the Tibetan Government in exile.

1. Evening forest on the Dharamkot Road above McLeod Ganj.
2. The main chowk of McLeod Ganj in the evening. It gets much more chaotic than this.
3. One of the most disconcerting things I've seen in a long time -- the cadaver of a macaque.
4. A happier sight.
5. I photographed this common myna in Manali, but they're abundant in Dharamsala too. Actually, they're abundant everywhere I've been so far.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

21 July 2014

Amritsar to Dharamsala

I rise early and go downstairs to use the wifi in the lobby. The ferocious female manager asks if I want tea. Yes, thank you, I say, so she yells aggressive instructions to someone out the back. Soon after, a deferent young man arrives with a full-sized cup of tea. The Volga might lack reliable electricity, but the staff do look after their guests.

Later I ask if any a/c buses go to Dharamsala. She shakes her head, confers with a man sitting nearby, and they both say no, no a/c buses.
 'Only State buses?'
They both nod. I check out soon after and negotiate a 20 rupee ride to the bus station, where the platform for the Dharamsala bus proves simple to locate. A ticket seller at the adjacent platform says the bus leaves around midday -- over four hours to wait. Four hours in 40 degree heat? I'll never survive.
 'Bus to Pathankot?'
 'This bus,' he says, indicating this platform.
  'When does it leave?'
In half an hour, apparently. I buy a ticket and he explains I have to change buses at Pathankot to catch the bus on to Dharamsala. That's fine; I already knew the deal, and I'm happy to find a seat that suits me well -- right at the back in the corner, where my bags are safe and I can gaze out the open window while the slipstream cools me nicely, or at least adequately. For most of the three hours I sit there, contented, relaxed, letting my thoughts drift, and enjoying the feeling of being on the move, knowing that for the next few hours I won't have to do anything and will be responsible for nothing. The only downside is the inability to scribble anything legible; even on the newly-paved sections of road we encounter from time to time, the bus bounces and bumps so badly it seems the wheels have been beaten by incessant pounding into some irregular and definitely non-circular shape.

So, with nothing to do but think and enjoy the view, I relax into the journey. Thoughts go unrecorded and, as I write up these notes later, are mostly unremembered save for one or two -- for example, the realisation that being appalled or even offended by the filth and squalor of much of India is pointless or worse; it's just a fact, and not the most important one either, unless you think it so. Or, the way birds have a freedom denied to us, and how this is particularly evident in India where escape from everything except the shriek of the streets is no further away than the few wing beats needed to lift into the air above it all. Birds can look down on us in more ways than one.

Or, a related thought, when I wondered how or whether I'd survive if I knew I'd never leave India: I realised I wanted to be a bird for precisely that reason, for exactly that freedom.

I'm still lost in thoughts like these when I hear someone calling to me. The conductor beckons from the street, calling 'Dharamsala!' and urging me out through the back door. I drag my bags up from beneath the seat, past the men crammed beside me, and out of the bus. Later I realise I've forgotten to retrieve the small pad of blue closed-cell foam on which I've been sitting, but after a momentary pang of loss, I let it go, hoping it will serve whoever claims it as faithfully as it served me. Of course the loss is tempered by the knowledge I have a second pad in my daypack.

The conductor confirms I want to go to Dharamsala then indicates an attractive, immaculately dressed woman in her late twenties (I guess) standing nearby.
 'Go with her,' he says.
She smiles and says 'Please, follow me,' and leads me across the street to a rickshaw, which takes us to the bus station. As I reach for my pocket to pay for the two of us, she waves my hand away; 'No,' she says, shaking her head and swiftly peeling off two 50-rupee notes and handing them to the driver. She gets out of the rickshaw and leads me into the station. I ask where she's going and she says, 'Too my work,' adding something I might have misheard; she says, I think, that she works for the Punjab Police.

She finds the bus to Dharamsala, checks what time it leaves -- in half an hour -- then smiles beautifully and gently shakes my hand. I thank her sincerely and she walks off, very upright, head bowed slightly, graceful and self-assured. I can't quite believe I've been so lucky but mentally berate myself for not having thought quickly enough to have given her one of my cards or thought of some other token of appreciation. Still, if I can't repay her generosity, I'll pay it on; I'll do my best back in New Zealand to treat some visitor with similar grace and generosity.

Chai in a little bus station dhaba, under a mostly ineffective fan; a purchase of a bottle of cold pani (water) for the bus, where a Chinese woman with golden silk Ali Baba pants and a yellow T-shirt stands with a pile of bags. As I approach she smiles and holds out her hand and introduces herself.
 'I'm Suri,' she says and, soon after, her husband William arrives. We board the bus, where I score the prime window seat by the front door.

The bus begins the gradual ascent into the hills. The first Euphorbia slips past the window, then the first macaque; cattle become numerous. The traffic veers around a cow and a calf sitting relaxed, chewing the cud, in the middle of the lane and no one honks their horn. Much lantana, and the forest grows more jungle-like. The first pines appear as the bus continues to climb, and I'm astonised to realise I can smell their resiny scent even from inside the bus. I buy two bananas from a wallah and eat them immediately, finding their scungy skins belie their firm, clean, delicious interiors.

At a brief stop to wait for a roadworks queue to clear, dragonflies flit and hover around the roadside ditch. Of all animals, are we the only that have any comprehension of related lives beyond our immediate experience? These dragonflies know only their own lives, not those of other dragonflies on the far side of the mountains the bus climbs, and they certainly have no idea that other dragonflies live in the Pohangina Valley.

With apparently only 20 km to go, the driver takes a 20-minute break. However, as the bus pulls out of the small village where we stopped, another sign says 39 km to Dharamsala -- the previous sign, three quarters of an hour before we stopped, had said 42 km. Then, a kilometre or two later, another sign says we suddenly have just 25 km to go.

The first prickle of rain arrives during the final 8 km uphill crawl to Dharamsala, but the higher I get the better I feel. We arrive at 3.10 p.m. and, after a short wait, transfer to the bus to McLeod Ganj, where we arrive in a torrential downpour. After waiting for the rain to abate and finding it doesn't, I pull on my parka, unfurl my umbrella, and set off in search of a rickshaw. I return to tell William and Sarah I've found the rickshaws, but William says the Green Hotel's only a hundred metres up the road, and he leads us there through the rain. Apparently he's been here before. They get a double room with a view; I opt for the cheapest room I can get: a double with no view and a fusty smell, for 800 rupees. Free wifi, though.

We eat together in the evening, and during the conversation I get to see some of William's photographs. Not only is he a buddhist, as I discover when he refuses to kill the pestering mosquito, he's also an outstanding photographer. I like these new friends a great deal, and hope to see more of them from time to time over the next few days. Of all the joys of travelling, these meetings and encounters, with which I've been so fortunate today, are among the greatest.

1. Despite reassurances that the photographs look O.K., they don't on my tablet -- they're enlarged, so they look soft and pixelated. 

1. Samtin, one of the people I met after I reached Dharamsala.
2, 3. Scenes from Naddi village, on a visit there with Suri, William, Bombom, and Samtin. The motor cycle's a Royal Enfield, the classic Indian bike. This one was in particularly good condition.
4. A typical street scene -- this was photographed from the bus between Amritsar and Pathankot.
Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor