Being, in the Himalayas

April 30, 2010

Traveling north and closer to the sky, to Himachal Pradesh, has provided an absolutely necessary respite from the hot Indian plain, and simply incredible experiences. After arriving and fairly quickly departing HP’s capital of Shimla (i.e. Indian Tourst Town), I took the the bumpiest, windiest 10 hour bus ride ever and  arrived to the town of Manali (over 2200 meters elevation). Pictures forthcoming.
At first, I was both surprised and not to find my base, a little mountain village called Vashisht, divided by an overcrowded central road full of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and shops. With the help of my rickshaw driver, I found a cheap room down a little path. Feeling both tired and relieved, I stepped on to the balcony for a view so gorgeous it looked like a painting.  Suddenly, “bang, bang bang!!!” Loud drums to my right. Then “oonc, oonc, oonc!!” Frickin techno beats to my left. WHAT?!  Turns out, I happened to come on the end 2 days of a local festival–the neighboring temple’s Puja (devotional ritual) explained the drums and ‘celebratory’ techno of Indian tourists. Ahhh, yes, still in India. And, after realizing this reality, I began to enjoy.
Vashisht is the type of place I, initially, wondered how people could stay for so many months (apparently a common occurrence). That is, unless you have a decent amount of money to spend on some wild outdoor activities, and/or really like to chill and smoke charras all day every day.  But, this initial feeling wore off quite rapidly as I explored the beauty, met people, got over altitude sickness  and nicely settled into the mountain flow. Bathing in the natural hot sulfur springs, inside the village temple, warmed me literally to the bone and solidified the love.
The main highlight was a trek in the Himalayas, every bit as amazing it first sounds.  I was happy to quickly meet Polish woman, Kasha, who was interested in the same type of (not too too wild) adventure as I. So, we found us a trekking agency to make things happen. On the first day, Kasha, 2 porters each with 30 kilos on their back, a guide from Kashmir, and I set off for a 3 day, 2 night trek. It was on a beautiful, sunny day. After baby stepping it 800m straight up, we reached a glorious snow-line at 3600m high. Then the wind came in, and the temperature dropped to freezing, and it started hailing- all in a matter of 20 minutes tops. Then, our guide found out from descending hikers that there was too much snow for us to reach our campsite and ultimate trekking destination. Dissappointed, we  turn around and figured out a different spot to re-start from the following day.
It actually turned out to be a lucky occurrence, as we ended up with a new and fabulous guide and avoided seriously inclement weather that we were very unprepared for that night. Starting from Vashisht, Yagu led us on our first 16km day, through local villages and the surrounding nature for our second day. He entertained us with seriously wild stories from his years as a guide as we walked through constant rain for 7 hours, stopping once for a delicious lunch of Tibetan veggie momos and hot n’ sour soup. Extremely grateful for the fixed campsite that was our destination that evening, we immediately spiked our sweet milk coffee with local dark rum and dried off by the tent-covered campfire. We learned how to make 2 types of Indian bread- chapatis and stuffed parantha- and ate one of the best dinners I’ve had in India (note: It really was so good– definitely not our just desperate bellies distorting our taste buds!). That night, I had a deep sleep accompanied by strong thunderstorms and prayers that the next day would provide some sun.
…And it did! Well, mostly clouds and a bit of drizzle, but much better than the previous day and it was a beautiful ambiance in itself. The scenery was incredible, again, almost unreal.  Backdrops of huge snow covered mountains, alongside bright green mountains and stream filled valleys. Every time I looked, those  peaks and valleys never failed to take my breathe away. We saw multiple avalanches and rock falls, sludged through many feet of snow (which we never knew when it would be hard enough to walk on or lead to an entire leg-deep fall), and rock climbed up steep ridges that were scary to look back down.
After about 4 hours of trekking up we reached a steep ledge roughly 3500m high — a section that, from afar, I couldn’t believe we were going actually to climb. Suddenly, I had a sudden overwhelming, dizzying sensation and  just burst out crying. At the same time,  I started laughing because I couldn’t quite believe my reaction and felt  ridiculous and weird. But, Yagu was kindly comforting, and quickly made me feel better in that it’s apparently this is a “normal”  type of altitude sickness. In any case, we had gone high enough and were running out of return time before another big storm set in. We descended back down, feeling challenged, exhausted, wondrous and satisfied.
Vashisht was one of the few places that, so far, I’ve felt torn about leaving. I really began to love this place and realized I only skimmed the surface of what it has to offer. I must tell an interesting traveler story in particular: John Stoeks–a Dutch guy, who drove an autorickshaw from Bangalore (far down in South India) all the freaking way up to Vashisht. Here, it was stolen, and then recovered by kinder locals. He bathed and slept outside the entire time, according to him facing the biggest danger in the form of stampeding  cow herds.  He told us about buffalo and goat milk chai, one of which I would really really love try before I leave this country. Look out for his book some years from now.
Farther North, though not quite as high

Currently, I am in Upper Dharamsala, i.e. McCleod Ganj (about 1800m elevation). This is the home of His Holiness the Dali Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile.  The many red robe clad monks  make up a good portion of well over 100,000 Tibetan refugees who have make Dharamsala their home. It’s been eye opening to learning more about their history, and enraging that their home, culture, community continues to be destroyed by the Chinese. There are more Chinese soldiers than Tibetans in Tibet today. Last week was the 51st anniversary since the government was created, and I, along with thousands of others, crowded into the main temple complex to see His Holiness– quite a special experience.
Surprise, surprise, the town center is  insanely touristy.  I’m really not sure if there are more Tibetans or Westerners here. But, people are very nice and the shopkeepers much less intense than those further South.  But, I found serious respite about 3km up the mountain. Though it is increasingly scattered with guesthouses, Dharamkot is still a chill, traditional village with lots of baby goats, sheep, horses and donkeys roaming around– it’s a lovely place to be for a looong time. Bonus, I’ve  had excellent international company here– people I’ve met while in McLeod, and getting together with others I’ve met along this journey (including 2 friends from my yoga teacher training).
Overall this also is a truly amazing place with an endless amount to do, and totally not enough time to do it in. Sometimes it feels like it’s not real–  hiking up mountains and to crystal clear-blue waterfalls; choosing from various massage, meditation, cooking, reiki and yoga courses (plus more);  volunteer opportunities; the hypnotic sounds of monks praying; experiencing spiritual energies in the air…It’s also very conducive to hanging out and constantly meeting eclectic characters. For example, after dinner last night, I somehow found myself in the yard of a guesthouse listening to 2 Russians playing the accordion and drums, Frenchmen  flailing their arms while passionately dancing to the soulful rhythms, with an Israeli singing, a German observing, and others hopping over and joining in upon hearing the music. It felt like a movie.
I am both sad to leave this place, but I have a feeling that I’ll be back, at some point, and for a much longer period of time.
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3 Responses to “Being, in the Himalayas”

  1. dianamcf730 Says:

    I love reading your posts – all I can say is WOW. I can’t wait to talk and see you in person. What an incredible experience you’ve had! LOVE YOU!

  2. Margaret Woodside Says:

    You are a wonderful traveler. I am so impressed by your openness to the experiences offered to you. I’m not at all sure that I would have been able to just plunge in to the life around me as you have done. It will be wonderful to hear more from your very lips and see your pictures. See you next month in NJ. Your mom and I are hoping for cooking lessons…maybe your mom hopes you will teach your dad and me! Love, Margaret

  3. cami Says:

    Hil,

    I love reading your stories! I can see you bopping through the mountains and soaking in the scene:)

    Love,
    cam

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