Summer 1998: For my first trip to Asia, I chose the Indian Himalayas to base my travels. I planned to be in India for at least 3 months, but my schedule was open. I did have to return for my Fall Quarter of college, but I figured I could survive if I missed one Quarter. I wanted to do a multi-week trek deep into snow clad mountains and visit remote Buddhist villages that have rarely encountered foreigners. The very image of the Himalayas ignited my imagination, and with no real plan in mind or itinerary, I booked a flight to India visa travel agency on my college campus, organized my Indian visa through the Indian Embassy in Washington DC, purchased my traveler’s checks and trekking equipment and set off on a long Air India flight to New Delhi stopping enroute in a few Gulf Countries, Abhu Dhabi and Doha, in the middle of the night, which at the time were not nearly as luxurious and glamorous as they would eventually become.

I arrived in new Delhi, exhausted after 2 plus days of plane travel and multiple stop overs and the moment I emerged through security I was met with a deluge of chaos. The arrivals lounge was full of beggars, pushy venders selling everything from taxi rides, money changing, luggage carrying to guide services. They surrounded me calling me my friend, asking me where I am from and promising a good discount. All of these statements I would learn would become the three phrases that I would learn to despise the most in my trip.

My baptism to travel in India was not a good one. At the New Delhi airport, I was tired, hot and impatient with the onslaught of desperate touts pleading for my business. I cashed some travelers checks at the airport, exited the airport and just kept walking until I left all of the venders behind me. The outside of the airport was not any better than inside the airport. The streets of New Delhi were crazy, hot dusty and I was enveloped in a scrum of humanity. The pollution, incessant noise of horns, and construction, and general chaos of New Delhi with no apparent clean refuges to seek a moment to think were nowhere to be found such cities great I eventually found.  rickshaw driver and I gave him some rupees and asked him to take me directly to the bus station. My plan was to leave New Delhi immediately and when I arrived at the bus station, I opened my Lonely Planet India guide and matched up a bus name with one listed in the book as the gateway to the Himalayas, Shimla and I sat down inside. Hours later once the bus filled to the brim with passengers, we set off on a 18hour overnight journey to Shimla. The experience of travel so far in India was hell and misery but it didn’t take long for me to feel as if I was in my element and India began to grow on me. I ended up staying for three months and trekking in Ladakh/Zanskar and Spiti Valleys for over a month, climbing a 20,000 ‘ mountain-Stok Kangri and traveling to the sacred Hindu Ganges River city of Rishikesh and eventually Western Nepal in search of the elusive tiger. This is the story of my travels in northern India.

 

 

 

 

My route
Ladakh & Zanskar
I had my sights on going to the Tibetan Buddhist Himalayan kingdoms of Ladakh and Zanskar in the northern Indian Himalayas. To get there I had to travel 2 days via bus on dangerous mountain roads but first I needed to get to Shimla, an old British hill town in the foothills of the Himalayas. My trip almost ended in disaster on the first day when my bus was stopped in a small Himalayan village for a toilet break. As Buddhist monks from my bus squatted in their robes to relieve themselves on the side of the bus, I climbed to the roof to secure my luggage, which I realized wasn’t tied in. While I was on top of the bus, and all of the passengers of the bus standing below me, my money belt around my waist came undone and most of my rupees-hundreds of dollars’ worth spilled out and fluttered in the wind raining down on the passengers below. I thought for sure my money would be gone but to my surprise passengers began to pick it up not to claim for themselves but to bring to me. Every last rupee was accounted for in the end and my faith in humanity was restored. I did realize however that if the same scene were to unfold in new Delhi, the outcome would have been different.

I stayed a few days in Shimla to recuperate from the long journey. Shimla was far more relaxed than New Delhi. The culture of India really is about as different from that of the USA as one can be. I first realized this when I discovered how revered monkeys were by the local people. I will never forget checking in to my hotel in Shimla and going to bed wondering why there were the bars on my window. In the morning I discovered why, when I saw a pair of monkey paws reaching in through the window trying to snatch my travel wallet with my passport and money that was sitting on the table nearby. Rhesus Macaque monkey troops scurried across my roof. They were considered sacred in town and free to roam at will and menace the population. Later I would visit the Hanuman, Hindu Monkey God temple on a hilltop in town where monkeys were worshipped and fed. As I walked to the temple, I watched monkeys snatching food from locals and behaving badly in pretty much every way. Any time I made eye contact with them, they would bare their fangs and threaten to charge me. Then when I reached the temple a monkey dropped from a tree and stole my sunglasses from my head and ran off into the treetops. A nearby monk with a broom came to my rescue and chased the monkey down from the tree rescuing my sunglasses.

 

 

Shimla Traffic Cops
Angry monkeys charging me because I made prolonged eye contact with them
Long Bus Drive to Manali and Meeting the Exiled Lama of Bhutan
From Shimla it took me two days of bus travel to reach Manali, a Himalayan town where many treks into the outer regions begin. The 24-hour bus ride was horrendous and most of the road was gravel that hugged the side of the mountains. Occasionally I would spot a wrecked bus at the bottom of a canyon that had tumbled off the road killing everyone inside. Even on the day of my bus trip, one of the earlier buses going the same route had been swept off the road from a rockslide and hurled to its demise hundreds of feet below a cliff. The bus was crowded and uncomfortable and seats had more passengers than space for butts and the aisles were also packed with standing passengers. I discovered that it was more comfortable to sit on the top of the bus in the cargo bin where I would have more space to stretch out and a better view. For the remainder of my trip, I sat on top of every bus I traveled on when it wasn’t raining. This did present some risks. Overhanging rocks and power lines nearly decapitated me more than a few times and sitting on the bus required vigilance.

Manali is a cloudy, wet town surrounded by mountain ridges covered in pine forests. It is a pleasant town catering to trekkers, and it didn’t take long for me to meet some other trekkers and combine forces with a guide to arrange a trek into Ladakh. The owner of the trekking agency-Druk Tours also happened to be an exiled Buddhist Lama from Bhutan, a humble man who received divine like treatment from other everywhere he went in Manali. I was invited to tea with the Lama and even invited to stay at a guesthouse that was part of his monastery for free, which I did for a few days before beginning my trek. I was impressed by the man and his humility. Despite being treated like a Godlike figure, he confided in me that he wished people would treat him like everyone else. In his monastery, the other monks wanted his throne like chair elevated but he had it lowered to ground level. When I asked him why he left Bhutan, he claimed it was because of an age-old rivalry between his family line and the king’s that even goes back into previous lifetimes and that if he stayed in Bhutan, his life would be in jeopardy. Sadly, his concerns would later materialize into his worst fears. Years later when I attempted to contact his travel agency to ask for help with arranging a trip to Bhutan, I was told by a company representative that he had died from poisoning. When I offered my condolences, I was told not to be sad because he had already been reborn into an infant boy in the village of Bodhgaya in Bhutan.

My trekking guide in the Bhutanese Lama’s Monastery
Inside the Monastery of the Bhutanese Lama
Zanskar Trek from Darcha to Padum
During this time of my life, I didn’t plan my travels and I just went with the flow. I rarely kept details of the names and places I went and most of my recollections are by memory years if not decades later, so my recollection is that the trek I did in Zanskar was the Darcha to Padum trek but I do recall adding days and new routes to it so I am not exactly sure where I trekked. All I know is that for roughly two weeks I was in a Himalayan heaven of high passes through desolate snowcapped peaks with Buddhist stupas, and stone villages where smiling children in gum boots and rags followed me around and stared at me in my tent. The villages at the time were only accessible by foot and there were no roads and village life remained Buddhist and traditional as it always has been. I hiked with two other British travelers I met in Manali. We had ponies to carry our food, a cook and a guide. Our guide was an eager young local Bhutanese man named Tandin, who spoke 12 languages fluently and our cook was a polite Muslim man named Mangat from Kashmir, a region of India that has been embroiled in conflict for decades with Pakistan. We slept in our own tents and sleeping bags every night in freezing conditions and would receive two cooked meals per days of chai tea and dalbat. There were no frills, but the experience was exactly what I wanted.
Rustic roads that led to the beginning of the trek
Buddha stone carving out a mountain in Ladakh

Me in front of a stupa wearing a yak fur jacket I purchased in a market in Manali

Local transport across rivers when there are no bridges-me in the cart using a rope to pull myself across

Mountain scenery on the hike
Village Life in Zanskar
Walking through isolated villages was the highlights of my trek. I was fascinated by village life in Zanskar and Ladakh. So much so that I even wrote a report on them for a college class during my senior year. What amazed ne the most was how the people lives in a delicate balance between their harsh environment achieved through the cultural adaptation. The mountains of Zanskar and Ladakh are rugged with no trees and classified as a high alpine desert where very little rain falls. The main source of water comes from the glacial melt. The melt feeds into the streams and rivers and the villagers redirect the water into their fields to form an ornate stone irrigation system that feeds lush green fields of crops of barley, wheat, and alfalfa. The crops are gown for subsistence to feed the village and every family shares in the work. The people also rely on animal husbandry. Yaks are used for their fur and milk and for carrying large loads of goods across the mountains. The dung is dried on top of the rooftops and is used as fuel to provide heat and for fertilizer in the fields. Nothing is left to waste; even human waste is gathered for use as a fertilizer for crops that are used for feeding animals. In one very traditional homestay in Leh, I was doing my business in the 2nd floor. There was nothing but a hole in the floor for the toilet that opened up into the first floor where I pile of excrement was located on top of some hay. I hear the sound of shoveling below and when I peered into the hole, I could see a man shoveling the pile of human excrement into a wheelbarrow, which I figured was being used as fertilizer. Then there is the mudbrick that is used for construction of the houses. The mud brick has great insulation properties and keeps the warmth in during winter when temperatures plummet.

Families also adapt to the hostile environment they live in by the cultural practice of having the firstborn son joining a monastery as a Buddhist monk. This is not only honorable for a family, but Monks are also provided for by the community reducing the strain on the family to provide for him.  Then there is polyandry, the practice of having multiple husbands for one woman. In Ladakh and Zanskar, there is a higher proportion of men to women and over population can be disastrous in the harsh mountain environment so one way to adapt to these conditions is for women to have multiple husbands usually two that are brothers. This lowers the population growth rate and impact on the surrounding environments and keeps the family wealth from leaving the family. There are so many more adaptations, but these were the most interesting ones that I remembered.

Typical village with intricate system of irrigation working all the way up a steep hill slope to irrigate terraces of crops 
Typical village home
Family in their village
Farmers tending to their fields
Common sight of Villagers watching me outside my tent every morning and afternoon
My route
Young Buddhist Monk watching me pack up my tent in the morning 
me with cook, and ponyman climbing over a 17,000′ mountain pass
Our camp on a pass next to a glacier
I taught my gude how to make a snow man 
A highlight of the trek was visiting the remote Phuktal cave monastery which has been used by monks for thousands of years. The structures however were built 500 years ago. Hiking is the only way to reach the monastery and the monks there were more than thrilled to receive us. 
Phuktal Cave Monastery
A Senior Monk and I at the Phuktal Cave Monastery
Mne, My Guide and some of the monks at the Phuktal Cave Monastery
We crossed the mountains of Zanskar where the Buddhist Tibetan cultures lived into the region of Kashmir, where Muslim people live. The contrast in cultures was great and it felt like we ventured into another country. Our last stop was in the village of Padum, where alcohol was banned. We celebrated the end of our trek with a large meal and black-market beers smuggled into out restaurant by the cook.

From Padum we drove by jeep through horrendous mountain roads to Kargil, a key junction into the disputed region of Kashmir. We stayed in a guesthouse outside of Kargil. The town had a strict curfew, and no one was allowed outside at night after curfew. There was distant shelling and occasionally shelling would target Kargil from Pakistan held mountains. The next morning our bus to Leh left early in the morning when it was still dark and the bus drove through Kargil and the vicinity with its head lights off to avoid making it an easy target for the Pakastani military which I was told happened only recently killing everyone on the bus. less than a year after my trip, war erupted in Kargil and thousands were killed.

Me on left Celebrating the end of our trek in a Muslim village in Kashmir with illegal black market beers 
Spiti Valley to Kaza Trek
Another trek I did was the Spiti Valley trek that started in the lower pine forested elevations of the Himalayas and went through Hindu villages of unique tribes of various colorful dress. The scenery along this trek was even more spectacular than the Darcha Padam trek and more diverse. We camped near a hot spring the first night that was also a popular spot for wandering Hindu holy men who have renounced their earthly lives to embark on a journey of religious discovery through meditation, yoga, weed smoking. Sadhus also like to camp and bathe in the hot springs. This allowed me a good chance to get to know and understand the Sadhus.
Porters carrying our food and equipment in metal boxes secured to their heads via a rope
Local Hindu tribes Using the Foot Trails as Their Highways
The Sadhus were happy characters and smoked a lot of ganja which may have contributed to their happiness. They usually dressed in orange, had long hair and face paint. They rely on generosity of others for food, and we shared some of our food with them. They in turn share some of their medicine with others.
Saddhu Man at our camp
A Muslim Sheperd carrying a lamb to protect it from the lower elevations bringing his flock of sheep to the high mountains in summer
Me at a camp site witha view
We crossed a pass with glaciers that required us to rope to each other in the event we stepped on a crevice concealed by snow. Somewhere along the glacier, I was joined by a Tibetan sheep herding dog who appeared out of nowhere and walked loyally by side for the next few days, sometimes taking a break to chase yaks before returning to me.  it broke my Heart when I left Kaza in a bus as the dog ran after the bus. The walking along the pass was slow and challenging and I rewarded myself at the top with a kit kat I had been carrying for the occasion.

Crossing Glaciers

Me at the top of the pass eating  kit kat
The guide and me at the top of the pass
The other side of the pass was starkly different. instead of pine forest, now we were in the rain shadow and the Lanscape looked like Ladakh and Zanskar again. It was Tibetan in appearance, dry and desolate with no trees. We passed through mud brick Tibetan villages with yak herds. The villages and hilltop fortress looking monasteries were fascinating, but my camera was out of film, and I didn’t have many photos to show for this part of the trek. We stayed with a family in their home where i was introduced to Tibetan yak tea with salt that I found revolting.  In this area that bordered China and was in dispute with China sometimes resulting in fighting, I felt like I was son the edge of the Earth. It was remote and the only way out other than trekking was a long bus journey all the way back to Leh, where I stayed for a few days before deciding to climb the 20,000′ mountain, Stok Kangri.
Sheperd with yak herd
man with his yaks
Climbing a 20,000′ Mountain
While I was in the picturesque town of Leh, I couldn’t stop looking at the largest mountain in the distance, Stok kangri, 20,187 ‘. My curiosity led me to booking a trip up to its base camp. I journeyed to base camp with nothing more than a small pony to carry my food and equipment. Once in base camp, I figured I would trek to the summit by myself or tag along with another group. To book a summit myself I would have to apply for a permit and pay extra for it so i decided to just wing it on my own. After a few days of acclimatizing, one aborted summit attempts due to a horrendous headache and fighting off a herd of sheep eating my foo inside my tent, I found a group of trekkers that agreed to let me join them for free with their guide and we set off at 2am in the morning in the darkness to the summit. The climb was grueling and with the altitude felt like inhaling shards of glass into my lungs. Every step on loose scree slope felt like death. One by one other members of the group turned back until it was just one other Spanish guy and me. Even the guide disappeared and now we had to find our own way to the summit over a glacier. To do so we just kept going up. There was no trail and we just kept climbing until we reached the highest point where we posed in front of prayer flags. Sadly, the view was terrible and cloudy, and we couldn’t see anything. On a clear day K2, the 2nd highest mountain in the world in Pakistan would have been visible. After the summit, we descended back down to base camp and all the way to Leh in the same day.
My pony that served as my porter to base camp
Stok kangri base Camp
Sheep attacking the tents
the ascent
A glacier I crossed
Climbing to the summit
me on the summit
Gangeatic Plains of Northern India
When I wasn’t trekking in the Himalayas, I ventured into the flat steamy lowland river plains of the Ganges River. This area of northern India with all of its chaos, and sheer volume of humanity is India in its truest form. I traveled by myself mostly via public busses on the roof top, and occasionally with other backpackers I met along the way. Hotels were rough and sometimes nonexistent in some of the towns or cities I visited. I stayed in train stations, slept on overnight buses, and even slept in an Ashram outside of Rishikesh for a few nights.

Haridwar, holy city to Hindus where Ganges River exits the mountains and meets the plains, is where thousands of pilgrims go to bathe in the Ganges River, believed to cleanse them of their sins. Haridwar was essentially a people watching place for me for a few days and I watched as people swam in the river that also had floating dead cows, and pollution and garbage floating in it. Haridwar was loud, busy, and dirty and it was not an easy place to relax in so I went to the smaller and smaller more peaceful town of Rishikesh, also on the banks of the Ganges River and made famous by the Beetles who once stayed in an Ashram there. Rishikesh has lots of Ashrams where foreigners come and stay and study with Hindu Gurus. When I arrived at night it was foggy and mystical, and I had to cross a bridge over the Ganges and fog obscured everything but the bridge 5 feet in front of me. I somehow came across an ashram in the evening and inquired about a place to stay and was granted room and board because I claimed to be interested in learning more about their faith. The ashram immediately struck me as cult like, everyone wore orange robes, had a shaved head with the exception of a long ponytail. All food dalbat was served in a cafeteria and I stayed in a dormitory in a bunk bed with others. There were foreigners including some Americans living there. I befriended one of the gurus who explained to me that meditation was the key to purification and that through meditation the body can conquer pain and discomfort. One of the feats he explained he could accomplish through meditation was emptying a bathtub of water through his anus. I didn’t stick around in the ashram long enough for a demonstration and I continued my travels on to western Nepal through some Indian cities where I discovered the true definition of human misery.

Pilgrims cleansing themselves in the holy waters of the ganges-Hardiwar
me in a hot springs
Sadhu Holyman
me with Sadhu Holyman in kardiwar, Ganges River
 Sadhu Holyman in Hardiwar, Ganges River
My view from a horse cart in an Indian city
Sadhu Hoylman
From Haridwar I traveled into Western Nepal in search of the tiger in Bardia National Park before eventually returning to New Delhi via Lucknow and flying home.

 

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