June 28, 2005

Ladakh

We just left the beautiful region of Ladakh (for those of you on my yahoo group, you already know a little about my journey out of there) and are now in McLeod Ganj to participate in the Dalai Lama’s teachings. We had planned to stay up there for a month so that we could do a long trek and rafting, but seeing the Dalai Lama on his home turf seemed like a once in a lifetime thing. When we get to a better connection we have a few things to post, including pictures of our 18 hr turned 28 hr road journey of being trapped on top of a mountain. For now, this is an overview of our time in Ladakh (links to pix at the end of each section). Later we will post some text & pix from a short trek we took.

Ladakh is a region in northwestern India that borders with Pakistan and China (Tibet). Culturally, it is more Tibetan than Indian, which is the reason I have always wanted to come. We flew from Delhi to Leh, the capitol city of about 25,000 people. The flight was spectacular - we first came upon the mountain range then started to descend into it until the mountains were surrounding us. Leh sits in a valley at about 12,000 ft above sea level and doesn’t seem that big when you’re trying to land a plane in it. The pilot did a few figure 8’s to finally land us, which was very impressive. Thankfully it was a smooth ride as well.

The town of Leh is a little hectic - the narrow roads are filled with cars, cows, donkeys, dogs and people, but everyone is always smiling and shouting “Jullay!!” (hello) when you walk by. Kids have perma-red cheeks from the cold, dry environment, which puts them in a second place for my “cutest kids in the world” list (first is Cambodia). Older adults all have those beautifully worn Tibetan/Ladakhi faces with infinite, deep-set wrinkles. The “cutest old people” list is a little harder - Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan/Ladakhi people all look beautiful and wise when they age.

One of the weirdest things was the massive military presence. With 2 very sensitive borders, it’s essential for the region. Apparently the 18,000 ft mountains aren’t enough protection (similar to Tibet in a way I guess). So you walk down the street feeling like you’re so isolated, then you turn a corner and there are 2 men carrying assault rifles & sub-machine guns (most of the times pointing out toward you, which I learned to get used to….sort of). Outside of town there are numerous bases and many of the supplies in town have labels that read “for defense use only”. Apparently the military makes some $$ selling these things to Ladakhi’s who have no other way of obtaining them when the road is closed during the winter.

The first few days were given over to acclimatizing. This included sitting in bed or laying around the guesthouse while drinking huge amounts of tea and water. For entertainment, we read, watched movies and farted. Yes, farted. Apparently there’s a term for this kind of thing - HAFE (High Altitude Flatulence Emissions). It happens when you ascend to high altitude too fast, maybe a pressure thing. Nate and I ripped it into the triple digit’s the first few days and it was hilarious. It makes great conversation with other travelers and we’re happy to educate newbies who arrive and have never heard of this “condition“.

We stayed at the Oriental Guesthouse in Changspa, which was about a 20 minute walk to "downtown" Leh. This meant it was much quieter and more remote. Perfect for us. The guesthouse is family run and I am constantly amazed at how gracious and cheerful they all are, all the time. Even if it’s an act, it’s amazing b/c the effort would have to be so great. At night they serve family-style vegetarian fare, which makes a great place to talk about the days events and swap stories with other travelers. This homey atmosphere attracts long term visitors, like ourselves, which has rewarded us with many friends (some of whom are from the Bay area). Our room was a large corner room with 50% windows and killer mountain views. The size and beam ceiling allowed us to put up 2 hammocks so that we can properly lounge while taking in the view. It also has turned our room into the party room with our international friends here.

During our stay the Indian Prime Minister made a visit to Leh. The purpose of his visit was to follow-up on an energy grant that was granted to Ladakh a while ago. In addition, the Ladakhi people are hoping for autonomy so this was an important visit for this topic as well. We decided to attend his speech, which was held at the polo grounds (the highest polo ground in the world apparently). It was interesting to see the people gathering there, but we soon lost interest since we couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying. Upon trying to leave, we found out that there was no way to get out. All the exits were blocked, yet people could still get in. The logic in this was beyond us and we soon started feeling like caged animals. Normally in this situation I would hop a fence or something, but with the area being guarded with gun carrying, turban wearing military, I felt a little intimidated. Finally we found a way out.

All pix from this can be seen at:
http://flickr.com/photos/natekoechley/sets/516132/

Morning puja at Tikse Monestary

We woke up at 5:30 to make the 6am morning puja (prayer) at Tikse Monestary, which is about a 30 minute drive outside Leh. Once we arrived at the monestary there were 2 monks playing horns outside (maybe as an alarm clock or calling to the beginning of the service). Soon the monks all piled into the hall with their empty bowls. First, each bowl was filled with butter tea then with some kind of ground meal. The monks then ate and started praying/chanting. This lasted for about an hour. During the service, one or two monks would get up and refill everyone’s bowl with the tea and/or meal. The monks covered a wide range of ages. The youngest ones joked around a bit during much of the ceremony, similar to what I experienced in Laos while sitting in on a service with a young monk I had met.

Putting a damper on what would have beena perfect morning was a jeep load of ugly tourists that barged into the hall to take pictures and video with their big cameras. These people had no qualms about getting into a monk’s face to get that perfect shot, forgetting that it was a prayer service and not a national geographic set. We tried to focus on the monk’s prayers but it was hard to ignore when one of the tourists almost spilled a monk’s tea while trying to squat and take a picture (Molly you would have died if you were there! I'm so glad I had Nate with me b/c you and I would have probably been laughing out loud).

See the pix:
http://flickr.com/photos/natekoechley/sets/516125/

Hemis Festival

We were lucky enough to catch one of the festivals in the region at a town called Hemis. The Hemis Tse-Chu, as it is called, is a 200 yr old tradition. The event features a series of mask dances performed by the lamas, which culminate in the destruction of sacrificial offerings on the last day. The masks represent the various guardian divinities of the Drug-pa order and the dances depict the magical feats of Padmasambhava. Seven of us piled into this small van (see the pix for a view of how crowded it was for our legs) and hit the bumpy road to Hemis. The costumes, masks and music were amazing. All performances were held in the courtyard of the monastery with people piled up along the sides and roofs to observe.

See the pix:
http://flickr.com/photos/natekoechley/sets/516097/

June 28, 2005 at 09:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

June 10, 2005

Kashgar - Central Asian / Silk Road Crossroads

Update

(We're in Leh now, in Himalayan North India. We've been here about a week, after spendings two days in Rajastan (sp?) and a day in Delhi, and before that two weeks in Thailand, and before that a short week back in in southern China. As always, were behind on our posting. Internet access has been pretty sketchy, as a partial excuse. Our trip continues to be excellent: we're both happy and healthy and enjoying everything It's great to be in the mountains now. We're staying at a wonderful guest house here, and just got back from a three day trek through several distant villages. More on all that later, but for now here's the report and photos from Kashgar, China's northwest-most. Everything's great. Love, nate and aimee)

Kashgar

After Urumqi and the overnight trip to Heaven Lake, we took a 24 hour train ride to Kashgar. Alternately Kashi or Kasha, Kashgar is in the extreme northwest of China, in the desert on the dry eastern side of the Karakoram and Himalayan mountain ranges. It is a crossroads city (easern asia, central asia, middle east, europe), and has been since before the Silk Road. (As the bird flies, it's actually quite close to Ladakh in the north of India - where i'm writing this from - but the mountains and the politically hot borders make it a tough route. Our plan took us from Kashgar to Ladakh via southern China, Thailand, then via Dehli.)

Chinese Soldier Roommates

PLA Soldiers

We reserved a soft sleeper on the train to Kashgar (4 berths to a compartment) and shared our room with 2 PLA officers (China's People’s Liberation Army) in fatigues. One spoke a tiny bit of English, the other none. For the first few hours of the journey they stayed outside while we read (we had the bottom beds). As night approached we started playing cards, with them curiously trying to deduce Gin's rules from a distance. After politely declining a swig of our Johnny Walker, one of them opened his pack of cigarettes and offered some to us. Since we didn't want to be rude, we accepted (as a way of bonding - even though they declined the whisky) and started to walk out of our compartment to smoke between traincars (since the cars are non-smoking). They laughed and shook theirs hands as if to say "no, no" and shut the compartment door. In protest of the pending hotbox, we pointed at the "no smoking" sign on the table. They grabbed the sign and put it under one of the pillows on the bed. No sign - no problem, apparently. Our compartment is now a smoking one with no ventilation...yummy. We sat and smoked (Aimee pretended to smoke mostly) and they loosened up and tried some whisky. We traded the phrasebook and dictionary to converse back and forth. They are very curious about how much american soldiers make, how much our salaries are, how much cars cost in the US, how much my watch cost, and even how much an F-16 fighter jet  and a Hummer costs (haha, yeah, i've got those figures handy...), etc, etc. We cut everything by at least 75% when giving them numbers. It’s now 1:00 am and they motion "sleep" and we nod that yes we're tired and getting ready for bed. They leave the compartment, and we got changed and crawled into bed. About 5 minutes later they unexpectedly returned --- with 4 large beers, local beef jerky and more cigarettes. The beers are poured into Dixie cups, which we drink like shots with immediate refills. As soon as the finished the first 4, they disappeared and returned with 6 more large (and as we've mentioned before, WARM) beers. Before you know it (about 30-45 minutes later) we have drank 10 large bottles of [warm] beer and are pretty drunk and laughing and making broken conversation with any of the words we can use in the dictionary. For me (nate), it was one of the highlights of the trip.

Arrival

We arrived in Kashgar - a 80%+ Muslim city - in the afternoon. It feels nothing like the rest of China. With some small adjustments (cars, electric lines) it could easily be hundreds of years ago. It's desert, dry and dusty. Carts pulled by donkeys crowd the streets. There are some tall building - apparently the city has boomed a bit in the last decade, including the beginnings of tourism and Chinese intervention/development - but the majority of the structures are mud and straw-covered rudimentary brick. Many of the non-main streets are dirt (though the old streets in the Old Town are brick). The people are beautiful and fascinating looking, a mesmorizing mixture of Asian, Arab, Turkish and Russian. Very curious and interesting and complex: some have arab features with blue, asian shaped eyes.

Musical Friends

Musical Instrumenst

I dropped our bags and Aimee at our hotel, and went for a walk. Kashgar has a famous mosque near the center of town, so I headed that way. After about 5 minutes, a young man popped out of a story and yelled "Hello" to me. I walked over to him, and he asked if we could talk for a few minutes, as he's studying English and wanted to practice. We sat in a dentist office where he had been hanging out and talked while his friends fashioned precise gold teeth from plaster molds. (BET would be envious - tons of people in town had full mouths of solid gold teeth). He was 29 ("you're my younger brother"), had been a tailor, but was now living, along with his wife and son, with his parents while he studied English for two years. After a while, he offered to show me around town. We walked past the mosque, and off the new streets into "Old Town", a expansive maze of narrow dirt streets. He took me to a musical instruments shop that a friend of his owned. The family had been musical instrument makers for at least 5 generations. All types of beautiful instruments. I got to go into the workshop in back where a crew of a half-dozen men were busy making more instruments. The smallest ones take a man-week, while the bigger ones made with all traditional materials (apricot wood, mulberry wood, camel bone, horse hair) take at least a man-month to make. I had tea and bread with the workers, and sat and watched them for quite a while. My friend played and sung a few songs for me on a few of the instruments.

Back Alley Soccer

Soccer

Aimee and I explored the Old Town more each day. The streets are filled with donkey carts selling dried fruit, fresh vegetables, breads, cloth, old hardware, knives, firewood, straw, and everything else. The storefronts offered musical instruments, tailor and hat shops (Kashgar has a dozen types of traditional hats), antiques, painted tin chests (that are given to the brides family filled with gifts in exchange for her hand in marriage), dumplings, rugs, blacksmiths, and more knives (the locals are famed for their knife-making skills). Off the main road in this part of town, even smaller passageways, walkways and tiny streets go in every direction. We ducked down several and were immediately in another world. After a few lefts and rights we found a group of young kids kicking a soccer ball around. They greeted us with "Hello, Hello" and we spend the next few hours playing with them, having a great time. More and more kids, and eventually several women kept appearing from somewhere. Some were shy, but all warmed up. We just sort of watched each other, and played, and smiled, and communicated as best we could. We examined each others books, and wrote sentences in our native languages that the other half couldn't understand. Piggy-back rides, soccer drills, clothes examination, pictures, and smiles. Magical.

The Market

Kashgar is particularly famed for it's market. Locals from all around converge on Sunday to buy and sell everything. The guide books say well over 100,000 people. It was immense, and bizarre. Kashgar lives almost exclusively on meat, specifically lamb/mutton and goat. All over, skinned carcasses were hanging from hooks, with parcels chopped to order on the spot on well-worn wood chopping blocks. We walked east down one of the roads, past an initial meat area, then a dried fruit and spices area, a horse/donkey harness/tack area, a hardware and mechanical area, and stumbled upon the parking lot. Not a car parking lot; a donkey parking lot. Probably several hundred donkeys tied to posts, still harnessed to their carts. Many had bags of fodder tied over their heads. Across from the donkeys were a bunch of hair-cutting stations. Men getting their heads shaved clean with straight razors, and all types of facial hair styles. (The well-tanned herders and farmers looked pretty funny with extreme tan lines in their heads when all the hair was removed.) Intermixed throughout the market was vendors selling fresh-made ice cream, fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, iced-milk drinks from large, open-air fly-friendy vats, watermelon and countless other things. North of this area was a large covered market area, where clothing, beautiful cloth, blankets and rugs, jewelery, and "medicines" were offered from probably 500 stalls.

Dumplings

Making Dumplings

I couldn't resist the dumplings. We had met a traveller at Heaven Lake who reported hallucinating for 2 days after getting some type of food poisoning in Kashgar, so I tried to find the most-busy stall. Near the main crossroads one stand looked particularly active. It is quite a process to make the dumplings, with about 6 people working "the line". The first thing that catches your attention is the meat chopper. Full sheep hanging in front of him, he wacks off large chunks and dices in frantically with a pretty scarily huge cleaver. Wack, wack, wack...rotate the 3 or 4 pound pile, wack, wack, wack. One guy is busy preparing coals in a nearby pit, while anotehr guy mans the oven. With a how-can-it-still-exist arm, the oven guy reaches deep into the kiln and slaps the dumpings to the inside walls. Once he puts a whole tray's worth in, he grabs a hand-cranked fan and bellows the coals. After a few minutes, the dough cooks and the dumplings fall off the walls indicating that their down. They guy with the magic arm reaches all the way down to the the bottom of the oven and retrieves the finished dumplings. They are delicious, with blistered, crunchy outsides containing chunks of meat still boiling in liquid steaming fat and onion juice. If you eat them at the stall, they come with a bowl of tea for washing down and/or dunking. If you take them away, they come in a plastic bag, still too hot to touch, for the price of 2 for 1 yuan, or about 6 cents each. I ate about a half-dozen of them. Delicious.

Making Dumplings

(I'm a pretty adventurous eater, but my western refrigeration and sterilization sensibilities, and the fresh story of non-recreational hallucinations leave me somewhat apprehensive as I gobble them down. But, even with the room-temperature chopping block splattering the dough-pressing station with every wack, and the tea bowl cleaned out from the customer before me with an off-handed wipe of the server's apron, I can report no ill effects.)

Pakistan

Kashgar is close to Pakistan, sharing a border. Pakistani-based commerce is big in Kashgar, as I suppose it has been for 1000 years. After a month of Chinese food of varying degrees of vegetarianism, we, especially Aimee, were eager to eat some Pakistani food in Kashgar (especially as the other choice was between mutton kebobs and mutton dumpings). The first night we found, after some searching, a small restaurant recommended in our guidebook. It was a tiny hole-in-the-wall, with two tables outside and two tables inside, and a propane kitchen beyond. It was excellent. As with most of our meals, since many of the menu's don't have prices on them (and this place didn't even have a menu), towards the end we'd take bets on how much the bill would be. Our meal consisted of two entrees, I had some sort of chicken in lentils with dal and nan, and Aimee had a vegetarian plate of various dishes to accompany our nan. We split a large beer. I guessed about 80 and I think Aimee guessed 60. Turns out it was our cheapest meal of our trip, and Aimee says cheapest of her total travelling experience: 15 yuan. At a little over 8 yuan to the US$, the dinner for two, with drinks, was under 2 bucks.

Near our hotel was another Pakaistani restaurant, and we went there a few days later. The food was equally as good, and we were both getting used to breaking bread and eating with our right hand only (especially tricky for me being left-handed). We talked to a few Pakistani people in the restaurant, who were without exception very nice. A few funny things came of it. First, when it came up that we weren't married, the guy said, begrudgingly, "well, that's [sort of] OK here in China, but [basically] don't come to Pakistan until you're married". The other funny exchange happened when we told them we were heading to Ladakh. A look of near-panic came over the guys face because he thought we were going to go overland. While we have met travellers on the road who have made that trip, he reminded, as the headlines do nearly every day, that it would be a hazardous journey, one that he clearly advised against. He was relieved when we told he were we flying via Delhi.

Kashgar was a great adventure. It felt very other-worldly, and to experience such difference is why I'm travelling.

June 10, 2005 at 11:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack (0)

May 23, 2005

Tian Chi (Heaven Lake) and Xian

<p><p>Untitled</p></p>

Hey everyone-

This is Aimee. Just a little update & pix from 2 places (although this is about 2 weeks past). We're in Bangkok now and heading down to an island for relaxing. During that time we're going to work on some pix from Kashgar - a really cool place that we want to share. I'll also be posting something soon about our kick-ass Star Wars movie expereince in Bangkok. Until then, here's some stuff from Heaven Lake (Tian Chi) and Xian.

Heaven Lake (Tian Chi) lies at about 2000m in the far Western region of China. Its turquoise waters and grassy meadows are a far cry from the dusty desert and dirty cities in the area. The area is inhabited seasonally with Kazakh people, who are semi-nomadic and live in yurts on the lake and in the valleys. The people are beautiful - dark skin, light eyes. Many had features that reminded me of Tibeteans. Apparently many had not come back to this area yet (it's the end of the off season) so we literally had the whole area to ourselves. During the day we hiked through the valley with towering snow-capped mountains always in view. At night we stayed at a yurt on the lake (one of the only ones there at this time) with four other travelers.

The yurt itself and the whole cluster of them reminded me of something someone would make a burning man. The blankets used on the inside were bright colors and the outsides were often decorated with large stencils. Inside was a burning stove which kept us plenty warm. If any of you have ever rented a tent cabin in Big Basin you know what it's like to have too much heat. It turns into a sweat lodge of sorts where you're down to shorts and a tank despite it being cold outside. We slept well tho, a little too well. After oversleeping our 9am horse ride "appointment" (due to some late night drinking of cheap Chinese booze), we all eventually got out of bed about 12pm and rode the horses up some steep mountains to get some amazing views.

This place was one of my favorites in China. It was such a retreat from the pollution and the noise. Plus, I'm a huge fan of mountain areas like this not matter where in the world I am- spruce/pine trees, grassy meadows, the sound of the air when you're deep in a valley. Ahhhh….peaceful, happy. I'll take it anytime.

Check out the photos here:
http://flickr.com/photos/natekoechley/sets/370840/

We also have some photos of the Terracotta Army in Xian.  For those of you who aren't familiar with this here's a little info (courtesy of Nate): Discovered in only 1974(?), the Terracotta warriors are (self-)billed as the "8th wonder of the world". From about 200 BC, they are an ~8000-strong lifesize army of exact replica soldiers, in formation, that were designed to protect the tomb of their emperor (Qin - the same emperor as in the movie Hero). From the torso down they are from one of a few molds, but from the waist up they are all unique. Unique faces, unique hair styles and hats, custom real armor, and real weapons. Though their armor and weapons have deteriorated in the last 2000+ years (hilts, blades and arrow heads still exist), they originally were completely armed and ready for battle. There are regiments of archers, horsemen with lifesize horses, swordsmen, spearmen, sergeants, generals and all the others, exactly as they were in the flesh at the time. In fact, it's said that they're an exact replica of the actualarmy at the time, down to this faces and hair. Part of the story is that the 200,000 craftsmen who created this secret army to guard the secret tomb (both secret even at the time) were buried with the army so that the secret wouldn't get out. It took a farmer digging a well less than 30 years ago to discover them.

It's totally amazing to think about, but it doesn't really warrant a stop to Xian. Xian is a walled city which means that there's tons of people with no where to go. Although there were some interesting things, it was very crowded and dirty/polluted (just like any other city) so I didn't enjoy it much. This is partially attributed to me needing some country-time at this point tho so that my opinions with that in mind. Really tho, seeing the Terracotta Army in real life wasn't much more stimulating that the millions of pictures of them. You can see our contribution of photos at:
http://flickr.com/photos/natekoechley/sets/370652/

More to stuff coming soon. Really looking forward to beach, beer and Thai food. Smile. If anyone wants to join us, the hut door is open.

May 23, 2005 at 10:43 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (1)