Friday, September 28, 2007

Uniformed elephants

...never get used to meeting them in the night.


Crossing the Sonauli border in rain - the makings of a new tradition, after a chilly night on the night train to Gorakhpur, passengers bundling up like headed for the burning ghats. Then a jeep to Sonauli , quick switch to a Kathmandu bus with leaking roof and blaring Nepali duets all night.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

ATM run , interrupted

Step 1 : Jump off the bus at Kunzum La.

Proceed up to the prayerflags at the crest , at N 32.40939 / E 077.62674 (altitude 4662)

Drop down to Chandra Tal , at 4296 meters , after 15 klicks.

If you get rain and sleet in front of the ATM two days higher up the valley, choose another machine and walk back .

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Morning.The Rs 100 room has a faint reek of urine from the attached toilet, and the window has no latch and is held shut by a cinderblock.

... and I read of Alain de Botton fighting over a piece of dessert in Barbados with his girlfriend.
Travel , Botton tells us is both created by and undone by anticipation. We rush in to the plane , as in to a new relationship , with images of perfgect beaches .. and mar this by bringing in our own imperfections in to the picture.
We fight over a piece of creme brule' as the sun sets over Far Tortuga.

Many would say that this is a gloomy outlook , condemning us to lives of quiet despair in Teg & Clapham ,but Botton surprisingly brings in two prophets of gloom to refute this : Baudelaire and Edward Hopper. Both had the same yearning for the starting points : Baudelaire could wax on indefinitely about over modern boats and railways , and Hopper found many of his motives im waiting rooms, roadside diners and the like.

Anticipation may be wildly unrealistic in travel , as in romance, but in difference to the rest of the the dream industry it leads us to new places.
Thanks Joe in the next room , for lending me the book, thanks to the sister who gave it to him , and goodbye T. who came and went again in in the matter of a day.

As yoy may have guessed , Losar ( a three dhaba town with a police checkpost , altitude 4108 meters) is no obvious contender to Barbados. The small temple ( rather unceremoniously shut with shop-style steel shutters ) holds the reamins of Serkhong Rinpoche in a silver stupa , there are some rare photographs of Dalia Lamas tutors, and som good torma. There are nice walks. The dahbas makes the tired old Eastern Europe joke mandatory : never mind the menu , just tell me what you've got.
Imagine our surprise when we ( Joe , Neil & I ) as the only passengers remained in town after the bus left was told that no , no roooms .. you must reserve ahead.After getting rooms in the cinderblock palace ( to the considerable surprise of the other patron ) we had supper and turned in for the night.
Later : singing ! music ! (overdressed) women !
Next morning , we ask about the party ( feeling , of course , a bit miffed about being left out ) .
"No party "
"But the music , singing ... "
"Oh that .. that's the film team. "

Monday, September 17, 2007

Looking for the Lama

Bookswap : I come out of Ki Gompa with the monasterys history (bilingual ) and leave a book by Gedun Chopel : Guide to the Sacred Places in India , a pilgrims handbook .. with train maps.

In the mid-70's a Swedish progrock band released a song which no one remembers for it's title, but with a refrain that still brings a whole generation to a standstill, in a variety of reactions .
All together now , in different shades of sentimentality , sobriety and defiance : " Who can you reeeally trust ? "

The title was looking for the Dalai Lama , and few if any reacted - in a time where anti-colonialism was a catchword - to the practice of taking a living Tibetan person and turning him in to a metaphorical tool for internal Western conflicts.

Tibet was at a safe distance , eight years before the supression of the Lhasa revolt and fourteen years before Dalai lama received the Nobel Peace Price. It was partly put there by the agenda of the Swedish left , who averted their eyes to anything but the Indochina war - and kept it averted after the defeat of the US.

The song was about looking for truths , and not leaders - a message that not only had bearing on the generation toting pictures of chairmens and party leaders , but remains valid in a present context , where many look for not the method of Buddhism but the prepared answers. Buddha in a box , retail price.

A long time after the melee of the 70's ( yes, sex was more fun before AIDS) reality will intrude on similar attempts at using the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile there is the real ongoing search for lamas : Tibetans looking for Gedun Choeki Nyima , the Panchen Lama abducted by the Chines government eleven years ago : a dress rehearsal for the grand event to come : the passing of the present Dali Lama. So far the the Panchen Lama rehearsal has not run smoothly . Two years ago I was in Shigatse and could see the Tibetans systematicaly ignoring the Chinese apppointed Panchen (Zuma Panchen , fake Panchen in Tibetan) : lots of pictures of the 9th and 10th , with fresh flowers fruits etc. - and two pictures of Zuma Panchen - with a naked shelf below.It is no coincidence that there has been no serious attempts to establish him in Tashilunpo monastery .
The 10th is obviously hugely popular , in spite of his long time in the People's Congress in Beijing . What Tibetans remember him for is coming back and saying that nothing of what had been gained was worth all the sufferings of the Tibetan people , and the famous letter before that. There is another level though , which links Spiti intimately in to this process : before the great speech and the letter , Panchen Lama made a religious ruling that effectively limited Chinese power. The ruling was that the next re-incarnation of Rinchen Zangpo , one of the most important figures in Tibetan religious history , would be found in the " Western Lands " , i.e. outside Chinese control. This is where he is found now , in the monastery of Ki. The Ki monastery monks have by tradition studied in Tashilunpo (shigatse) monastery , and this link was re-affirmed when the Rinchen Zangpo become head of the commitee to identify the present Panchen Lama. This game will continue : recently the Communist Party declared that all reincarnations are now subject to official state approval , and invalid before that point. Meanwhile the Ki monks will continue to go to Tashilunpo monastery - but now in south India . All major Tibetan monasteries now exist in two mirror versions , one in exile , one under Chinese control. Welcome to the twilight zone of Chinese religious politics..

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Now we\re cooking

The stove is in full swing now , amy-lais prayer wheel has also picked up speed ,Suchung and his wife are doing complex exercises with atta flour and another old woman has entered to run a load of butter tea through the butter churner : shlorp-shlorp-shlorp.
The TV sputters in to life now and then , ;pouring out bollywoodism, commercials and thrilling cricket results.
Meawhile I"ve landed in the bachelors corner , with a good buzz going from the arrak.

Somebody says something about the inji : I'm just past it , and join in the laughter with out understanding anything.

The 3D exercises with the atta flour turns out to be tingmo : not the big Princess-Leia-hairdo on steroids I'm used to from Manju ka tilla , but delicate , convoluted shapes - think Escher in bakery.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


Wake up to the sound of ... rain. Crazy.

Got out of the bus two klicks out of Sichiling, and had one of those what-am-I-doing-here moments as I stood alone and watched it going away. Next moment a jeep stops, and Sonam from Tabo pops out his head. As they prepare to go away , another jeep stops to talk with the other .. which turns out to be Kesang from Kaza. More two-hand handshakes.

Dhankar perched high on the ridge , some six hundred meters above : I set out feeling a bit queasy. Halfway up I meet Yechung Dolkar , who assumes responsiblity for my ariiving in a civilised hour.Despite my feeble attempts to say that no , you , don\t have to wait for me. Relentlessly she pushes me up the mountain , by just standing there and looking at me until I get moving again.

We part as we we come in to Dhankar Village , and a flight of swallows dive out of the trailside grove. I dive in to the first house with a welcome sign, and get a guestroom, and sit in the kitchen as the evening meal is prepared. I wind up with a toddler on my lap, as the men go slowly about making dinner. By the time the rest of the household appears, the dinner is finished.

Denial becomes impossible at this point and I start waltzing between the kitchen and the toilet.
Evening ends with a double dose of Cipro , and drinking hot honey wter brought up by Suchung-le. Nice chat over a fifteen minute candle stump.

next day , still a bit wobbly in the knees. Go up to Dhankar Gompa. The entrance hall to the dhukhang holds some interesting images of monasteries , and between them elaborate images of .... shoes , with comments. The two lay monks , teenagers in jeans and baseball caps , are unfortunately not in the same league as Sonam in Tabo : the monansteries are " in Tibet" , and all paintings are eight hundred years old.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Manning & Tabo

Today's big project is to clean up my table. Or : the most important things are beyond words. So , in the spirit of Thomas manning : my table. Thanks to the solar panel on the roof there is a working writing light (see upper left corner). The folded Silva 12 V solar panel supplied nicely for my camera during the three day power out. The trombe (passive solar heating wall) of the monastery serai , where I stayed is incidentally the largest I've ever seen.

(Tabo Choskor , religious enclave, is the oldest working Buddhist monastery in original form in India, founded in 996. Also one of only three surviving examples of the Kashmiri Buddhist painters , that re-introduced Buddhism in to India with the Second Spreading together with the Great Translator - Lotsawa.

Thomas Manning succeeded where countless other westerners had failed in reaching Lhasa, and was unable to say anything about the the Potalas logic defying perspective or the countless art treasures .He went looking for a hat.)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

In to Spiti

The bus rocks, swings and creaks like a ship in .... interesting weather .Some hours has gone by since leaving Kalpa luxuriously in afront seat of a Manali jeep. A ride that also came with good company and conversation from France.

The first glimpse of Spiti is a weather worn chorten , protected not only by by a crudely hammered multi colored tin roof from the BRO but also for some reason encircled by barbed wire.
Signs of life seems even sparser than when crossing in to Ladakh. Even the happy-go-lucky semi military sign painting squad from the BRO seems a bit taken by the environment : none of the usual streams of motherly advice , jokes and puns ("Darling , I want you , but not so fast" ) that I've come to take for granted from Ladakh. Just one single , sombre , litterary allusion : " Live and let live " , painted on a sharply descending rock curve.

A Buddhist cave adorned with prayer flags on the other side of the Sutlej river , with seeming impossible access, shoots by. Some khyang at a flat , narrow strip along the riverbed.
This time I've given up all attempts of poping out of the window and and holding on to my camera , let alone operating it. I,m hemmed in between two Kinnauri ladies one who switches to my window seat to dry retch out of the window.
On the other side sits a gelong and three nuns from Hango monastery. The nuns fret , in a nice way , with their one piece of finery : Himalchali hats with with dried white petals that catches the light like blades of fiber optics.

Afte the checkpost at Jangi ( where I technically becmes an illegal : " shall not resort to any photography, carry any maps not approved by the Defence Ministry. or or immaginaries.. " ) there is suddenly no one standing , and only two people in the two seats rows. A depp breathing spree ensues , which is dampened by the arrivall of new passengers and sacks at .

The road dips and bends ( " Horn Please " has been replaced by " It is an offence not to sound the horn at .. ") ; skirts precipices and shoots i to rock galleries in the usual way.

The canyons are different though : giant patterns of contrasting stone materials suddenly frozen , on smooth sides .Gargantuan coffeee and cream , and later licorice , Jackson Pollockses.

In a magic moment the bus descends steeply in to a sumdo :one canyon to the right , with a near perfect sugar cone reaching up to the golden evening light and the road cutting in to a rock gallery after crossing a Bailey bridge thick with prayer flags.

Didn't get the shot , but got apples instead , and a sense of sharing , from ne of the sacks on the floor instead.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Blam !

Nothing beats the wake up call of a large monkey making a four point landindg on the tin roof outside your window.
Shimla . Again.

Since I\ve had problems diting & uploading photos ( no smoking on the buses is great , the stapling ban on on bank notes is a relief , but cyber wallahs going all legal seem like sense of order running amok ) : the sound track of my life here , so far .

Manju was the babel of languages , competing with the fans .. well , you've already had that part.

Sarahan, next stop after Shimla. At 4:30 in the morning a Kali worshipper fires up a sound system that would have been the object of envy of the cavallery officer in Apocalalypse Now . ( Yes , that one : " I love the smell of napalm in the morning " )
This is one of the reasons why animals hide under the ground , to no avail. The pylon that that carries the the loudspeakers that hammers the entire valley in to submission seemingly looms even higher after the fall of the "new" tower , and as I clamp my teeth on the pillow to stop ther resonance vibrations to Kali's greatest hits I start to wonder if it really was a a earthquake that brought it down.

Kalka was the the fluttter of the prayer flags otside my room , and again the loud voices arguing from the kitchen of the Shivalik: from now on I'll asuume that what sounds as the preamble to a knife fight in Bengali is merely a difference of opinion .

The sound scape right now in Nako , beyond the Inner Line , could pass for a long intro to some minimalist music. Soft hissing sound from the kerosene lamp during the power break , the door to the dining room creaking and swinging open to the strong winds outside.
During the day , in the the village , the Kinnauri women dominate the audio input , swinging from melodious chirping to to sudden laughs and sharp calls.
Speaking of women brings me to the unexpected sound of ckicking steps that awoke me today. They came up to my door , which then was nudged repeatedley.
Never ruled out the presence of high heeled women in my life , but I was mildly surprised that one would turn up at this point.
I then went went out of my room ( quick check in the mirror) , said hello and gently led the young calf out along the balcony , along the corridor an in to the street.

Monday, September 03, 2007

In Kaza

If you lower it someone will come .Ground cover : just establish eye contact and throw it to someone.