Monday, January 28, 2013

Ha Noi!

Oh boy! We're in HA NOI!

Dave and I flew out of Nanjing yesterday after pulling an all-nighter with Jack Daniels and Willet Reserve.  It was my first round-the-clock in about 10 years, and I walked a fine line between death and just wishing I was dead for most of yesterday.  Dropping in and out of consciousness in random Chinese airports is pretty cool/weird.

We met up with friends of a friend in Yangzhou at the train station in Nanning, got set up with a NICE hotel room (best shower since I left the states... my skin melted) and then went out for food that Nanning was famous for - I was relieved that it was just spicy noodles with veggies, stinky tofu and some soup with stomach and intestine pieces in it, NOT the DOG-Hot Pot we'd been promised by the guidebook.  Ugh...

Today we sprinted to the train - late because I insisted on taking another shower to re-melt my skin - and jumped on only to wait.  A few hours later, after dodging screaming babies and shouting old-men with fingernail claws rivaling Edward Scissor Hands, we arrived at the border, caught a taxi to Friendship Pass and BOOM!


The problem: The people at the border wanted to short us on the exchange.  We wanted 20,500 per dollar.  They wanted to give 20,200 per dollar.  Never mind that we'd only lose about $1.50 in the transaction.  Principle. 

The other problem: We crossed into Vietnam only to find NO money changers. 


We walked and ultimately found someone that would change Yuan into Dong, caught a mini-bus to Ha Noi and here we are.

The best news so far is that my friend Beth Klein's sister is still here, and we're meeting in a few minutes! YEAH!

More updates to come.  Tomorrow, Cowboy and I will try to find bikes for this idiotic bike tour we've got in mind.  We'll see how it goes.

I'm off to get Pho!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

China it is!

Where in the world is...Devon-Patrick-Murphy?! (To the tune of Carmen Sandiego)

Well, a few days ago, I would have answered "purgatory." I had hopes for the future, but I had no way of knowing which way the road would split - to China where I'd meet my PC-buddy, Cowboy, or to Thailand where I'd meet warm beaches and surreal SCUBA adventures - until Tuesday the 4th when the Chinese embassy either granted or denied me a VISA. 

The verdict: CHINA IT IS! YEAH, YEAH, YEAH! My ticket is purchased, and I'll be leaving Kathmandu (Nepali for "City of infinite dust clouds, garbage, shitty roads, 600,000+ motorcycles and even more dust (did I mention how dusty it is?) and, um, more garbage...") on Saturday.  I'm looking forward to a vacation from my vacation when I hope to mix some (illegal) part-time work teaching/tutoring with further explorations.  Great wall, here I come! (Thanks to Cowboy and Mr. Brian Stock for planting the idea in my brain.)

Since leaving the Everest Region, I've been staying, ironically, with three priests, a German Shepard named Jackie and a puff-ball Paris-Hilton purse-dog named Jimmy - who, unexpectedly, I've taken a great liking to - at the local Catholic Church south of town.  Rodrigo, one of the Father's, only three years older than I, is awesome and has suggested places for me to visit as well as inviting me to events around the city (on Sunday, a party hosting Johnny Walker, Grey Goose and Maker's Mark as well as some amazing Ex-Pat's who have lived here for 30-50 years including a Peace Corps Volunteer from 66-68 (!) - who was then drafted to Vietnam! - and Jan Salter (, a well known artist and NGO-founder who gave me a swift kick in the ass about getting started on writing a book 15 minutes after I met her!... and Wednesday, to a meditation session taught by Antonio, a Spaniard that drove a van here from Spain back in '74, reached the Afghan border and, refusing their demand that he cut his long hair and beard, detoured 2000 KM to Pakistan and continued to Nepal via India and has remained ever since.  Amazing stories!)

Templed out at this point, I've focused my attentions on an amazing locally started NGO called "Himalayan Roots to Fruits"  ( that provides free English/Spanish/Chinese classes to interested Nepali's in addition to vocational training and job placement.  The staff is young, energetic and professional, and their dedication is inspiring.  To help, I've taken over their Conversational English classes for the week and have thoroughly enjoyed myself (on day #1, while working through a section on adjectives I heard both "You are very handsome!" and "You are a wonderful teacher!" so how could I NOT be enjoying it, eh?!).

I owe you a story about my travels in the Solu Khumbu region where I hung out with the giants of the world, but for that I'll wait until China where electricity is more stable and I have the ability to upload pictures.  I will say that I doubt I'll ever see such extremes concentrated in one place again: the epic, jagged peaks in all directions, the sickening greed of the local people, the near-vacuum quality of the air, the razor-sharp cold and the civil-war relations between me and my two travel partners (my father and his former priest...). 

Again, thank you for the "likes," kind words and keeping up with me.  I'm pumped to have you along for the adventure :)

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Look back and slightly forward...

I know very few people that would do their laundry in a toilet; those that would consist of PCV's, RPCV's and... probably my Dad.  That said, surely they would insure that the toilet was clean and unoccupied before they began.  Thus is came as a great shock to watch hundreds - thousands over the last three days - not only washing clothes but bathing, brushing teeth and drinking the water while squatters did their business 15 to 20 feet away.  Minutes later, boats with pumps and fire-hoses drifted up, and kids rinsed the filth away... literally flushing the largest toilet I've ever seen into the  the holiest river in India - the mighty Ganges (pronounced: "Gonga"or "Gonguh" NOT "Gan-geez").

Welcome to Varanasi, the CDC's worst nightmare!

I arrived here on the 26th, and have spent the many hours since elapsed exploring the tangled alleys of the Old City, exploring  the river-side Ghats (bathing, clothes-washing, drinking, poo'ing zones) and eating delicious food/drinking insanely delicious lassi (yogurt fruit smoothies).  The old city, unlike any other place I've been produces live memories...  the narrow "streets" (read: alleys big enough for one oversized cow and a thin human), like tetris pieces, fit together logically only for locals.  For the rest of us, they dance, spin and realign with every passing, laughing as we - the tourists - circle, round and round past the same street-food vendors, flower shops and temples with confused, half smiles pasted on our faces.

I love it.  I love, love, love it.  God what a unique city... covered in poo -  I cannot emphasize this enough - but surely one of the more amazing places I've been.  The spirtuality, something I am not usually keen on, is palpable.

I arrived here after a 12 hour train ride from Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, which on my arrival there I was still not convinced I wanted to spent 15 dollars to see.   "Ït's only a building," I'd said.  "Couldn't he have shown his wife that he loved here by stopping at THIRTEEN children (the 14th killed her...)?!" "15 dollars... that's like 1.5 days in the mountains!" etc... but I finally caved.

Spectacular.  A mirage.  Impossibly perfect.  Strikingly symmetrical.  The most beautiful building I've ever seen (and I've seen them all).  I had planned on being one of the first into the enormous compound where nearly 10,000 people per day visit, but I was screwed by a thousand tourists in groups that had pre-purchased their tickets.  Whatever.  Human beings disappear in the presence of infinity.  And the building just gets more beautiful as you get closer... the intricacies multiply time and again into the unimaginable.

It is a sight to behold.  I'll leave it at that.

Before Agra, I spent a day - far too long - in Delhi while I squared away my tickets.  I'd arrived there at around 6am, hallucinating after 24 hours of straight travel out of the Chitkul valley in Himachel Pradesh.  

I now know why babies scream when they leave the womb.  That mountains had been  my sanctuary.  The people: happy, honest, friendly, helpful! The air: crisp, thin, clean.  The views: EPIC.  The peaks: inspiring.  And SLAM, I was hit with a cricket paddle in the face with the filth of the cities, the reek of the smoggy air, the incessant calls of street-men trying to make a few rupees off you.  The traffic.  The... the... the... Agh! I made the transition quickly, like pulling off a bandaid.  RIP! But GOD did it ever keep on hurting.

Until Agra.  Until Varanasi.  ANd wouldn't you know it? I'm headed back into the hills! I leave in about 15 minutes to catch a train to Gorakhpor where I will bum it in a train station until tomorrow when I catch a bus to the Nepal border and continue on to Kathmandu where I will meet my Dad for some more TREKKING!!! in 2 days time.

Surreal! LIFE! YES!

God... the stories I have yet to tell! For instance: I was pick-pocketed! Yep! Got my wallet and all the money it it! But then - thinking quickly - I found the guy that did it (he was getting the crap kicked out of him by other people who wanted the wallet... or were mad that he had stolen it? Whatever... I got it back, money and picture of Michelle and all :)).  And more about Varanasi! God... I've not even mentured the cremation ghats.  The processions of people carrying wrapped bodies through the streets to the river where they are burned into the next world on great piles of sandalwood ("Hey, that's not a log... that's a LEG! And a head!").  Oh, the odd sound of crackling flames on flesh...

But onword I run.

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


Friday, October 19, 2012

(From my journal): A journey to Asia’s highest village:

Since leaving home, the name “Komic” has been stuck in my head.  Regarded as the highest village in Asia, I’d read about Komic being in the vicinity of Kaza.  Where? I had no clue.  I had mentioned to Fred – a Swiss man in Manali – my plans to go there, and he had said it was perfectly possible from Kibber, as most of the elevation had been gained by that point.  It was surprising to me that – when having lunch with the road crew on our way to Ki - that komic was described by Choper as being closer and far more accessible from Kaza.  A day hike.  I checked this information with the manager from my guest house and he confirmed it.  In fact, there were two ways to Komic, but one was steeper, more rocky and more dangerous.  I opted for that route possible on the way down. 

The alley providing access to the steps to the small temple were just where the manager said, and in 5 minutes I was overlooking kaza with several locked meditation rooms behind me.  The steps had ended, so I climbed over the ledge and headed towards a forest of prayer flags flapping in the crisp morning air.  The sun was out, and I was warm and full from breakfast, wearing only a t-shirt, beanie and gloves. 

Just beyond the flags, I find a well worn trail that switch-backed higher and higher.  At a rock pillar, prayer flags.  Higher and higher.  Another pillar – more flags.  While standing there admiring the view, I heard a *WHOOOOOOOISH!!!* as a black bird tucked, wings back in full attach dive blazed by me.

Eventually, I hit the road the manager had promised was there… the road to Ikim and Komic.  Down the road I walked passing two women and a man.  “Namaste!” I said.  “Jooleh!” They replied.  Oh yeah… Spitian here, not Hindi.

The road hooked far to the left, so I followed a foot path shortcut across an open, shallow wrinkle.  At the bottom, a large rectangular pile of rocks sat.  Carvings and pictures adorned the capstones.

By now I was close enough to see that village I had though I’d seen high on a cliff was actually the ruins of one.  Adobe houses falling into themselves like an old Indian pueblo.  Another house, well kept and lived in sat among them, empty.  It was only me, the view and two cows chomping away. 

Looking further up the road I could make out the white buildings of a small village.  Beyond, a steep triangle peak loomed, glittering white with snow:  Mt. Shilla - a 7026 m wonder - commanding attention.

Onward and downward, I am stopped cold by a fox standing in my path.  He doesn’t spook.  He stares.  Prances a few meters forward.  Stops.  Gives me another look.  I fumble with my bag to get at the camera, but the first pictures come out dark and the later pictures s/he is too far away.

Back to the road and down another shortcut, I am soon in the village.  Immediately, I meet an old woman collecting brush for a fire.  “Hello.” She gathers more  brush.  I am just about to walk away when I hear, “Chai?” I nod.  She leads me to her front door, the first house in the village.  “Ikim” I ask.  “Ikim,” she confirms and gestures that I enter.

I am blinded by darkness, and my eyes struggle to adjust to the room lit only by the sun sneaking through cracks.  It appears to be a communal room, a storage space.  There is a thick animal smell, unpleasant at first but dimming with time.

She opens another door in the right hand corner and invites me into a 20x20 room, well lit by two windows.  The floor, hard-packed, smooth dirt, is nearly covered by thin flower-covered mats.  Three wooden pillars support the ceiling.  Tiny stirrups hang from one of them.  Again, I am reminded of the adobe architecture of the Southwest. 

The old woman pours a pot of water from a larger pot resting on an old coal stove and begins to prepare hot water on a newer propane stove. 

One wall is dedicated to cooking.  Shelves of cups, bowls, plates, pots, pans.  In the middle, a propane stove.  To the left – I unhappily admit – a TV, vcr and set of speakers.  Yes, even up here there is power, and where there is power, there is TV. 

Mats for sleeping are stacked neatly in the corner.  Long, 1ft high tables for eating sit in front of the windowed walls.  There are no chairs.  Two small framed pictures, a clock and a calendar look lonely on the walls.

She serves me my tea in a small ceramic cup with dragons on it, walks to the corner and returns with some flat bread.  “Thank you!” She retires to the window, picks up a small prayer wheel and spins it round-and-round, breathes wheezing and quiet, and mumbles “om mani peme” over and over.   A small bell tinkles with each turn.

I finish my tea and bread and offer 10R.  She refuses.  I Ask for a pictures, and she says yes.  I finally get a good shot and show it to her.  She laughs, and despite her protests, I leave the 10R anyway.  Outside, the light is blinding.

I walk through the village, only a few houses collected on the hillside and meet five women and a man wearing a New York hat.  One woman plays with rocks.  Another rubs here dirty-gloves hands.  Another knits, while another picks nits out of the final woman’s hair.  The man tells me that Komic is 15 minutes away.  I thank them and walk on.

Beneath the village, there are terraced fields where donkeys graze on dry grass.  The path twists and turns.  I meet another group, excited to see me.  “Komic is half an hour away.”

Up and up over the rounded desert hills past more cows and donkey’s.  Another rock monument.  More flags.  Another hill, another crest.  And there on the horizon, I spot a rooftop.  I approach a woman who is collecting dried donkey  dung – stove fuel in the winter, after having been dried – in the flaps of the fabric on her shit.  “Komic?” I ask.  “Komic,” she replies.  I’ve made it!

The village is small comprising perhaps nine white-washed homes.  Inside each home, there are five or six rooms, each housing a family of four or five.  Conservatively, that’s 180 people… but you’d never guess it from afar.  It is placed on a wrinkle in the mountain where a small stream flows and is tapped into by black pipes to the villagers.  The road stars high and snakes lower through the village, over the stream – where, at this time of the year icicles are hanging – and ends at a pocket of homes and the start of the dusty terraced fields.  Down the valley, the drop to the stream gets treacherous.  That river flows all the way down to Kaza. 

I’m drawn to the top-most building in the village, the komic gompa- monastery.  Three main buildings stand on the hill, the right – red, the center – topped by a wind turbine, and the le – a two-story building with vertical stripe.  I learn later that the left-most building is the new gompa while the red building at right is the old. 

A man is standing in front of the new gompa looking my way.  A piece of angle-iron lays at his feet, angle down, and a hose is positioned such that the water flows onto the iron and creates a small stream down to an area to gather water or to wash clothes or dishes. 

The man is Chering, a monk, dressed in a hodge-podge set of jacket, pants, sweat-pants and a well-worn pair of converse sneakers.  “Are you alone?” he asks, a bit surprised to see me finding my own way.  “No, there are two more behind me,” I reply, lying but keeping with my “safety” answer.  Everyone wants to know if you’re alone here, and while I’ve never felt their question to be nefarious in nature, I think it better to be on the safe side.

Choper is amused with my trekking poles and can’t understand the need for two.  “Isn’t this one good enough?” I demonstrate the benefit of two by stepping up the three foot ledge that the water is streaming off of.  He tries to copy me, but the poles are too long.  Grunting, he makes it, laughing. 

Another man emerges from the gompa.  “This is Karmachering, the head cook.” “Nice to meet you.” “Come in for lunch.”

I enter the kitchen through a short door (I must bow through all doors in India due to my American-height). Another door continues into the main area – that looks like a fort or a rustic motel with a courtyard – and a window facing down the valley lets in more light.  Centered in the room is a large fire-stove with a huge vat of oil sitting on top, smoking.  One monk feeds shrub into the fire and then blows through a pipe to increase the flame while another – sitting cross-legged on top – holds a long forked stick, shiny from oil.  To his right sits a large pile of squiggly fried breads called mutter. 

Other monks enter the kitchen to joke and fill their plates with rice and dhal.  I am offered a plate heaping with rice and soaked with the delicious bean mixture.  I eat alone in the kitchen, the warm smoky air heating my outsides, the lunch heating the in.  The monks return for seconds.  My plate is filled again.  “Salt?” “Yes.” And a large pinch is dropped into my palm.  I’m filling up, topped off, stuffed and entering a food coma.  “Hello, man? Hello, man?! Want more dhal?” But I politely refuse. 

I ask about the mutter, and Chering gives me the good news.  “We are preparing for the festival. “ The festival! The one I’d heard of! “When is it?” “October 14th.” “Am I allowed to come?” “Yes, yes!”


I thank Chering, say goodbye to the other monks and walk off to see the village and start on the shortcut to Kaza that Chering has pointed out.

The “shortcut” ended up being “find anything that looks like a trail and follow it, or go cross country over those bluffs until you reach the cliffs, and then look for the trail from there.” Every twenty steps, I would turn to see both Komic, Ikim and Mt. Shilla towering behind them. 

The weather began to turn cloud, and the wind picked up as I approached the cliff edge overlooking Kaza.  Find Kaza: Done.  Now to get down… Cliff, cliff, cliff.  Nothing hikeable! NOTHING.  I made my way along the cliff edge, scouring for a trail.  Nothing promise.  In fact, it all looked downright dangerous.

My wheels began to spin… just a little.  “It’s cold.  I’m alone.  The sun is dropping.  The clouds are moving in.  And here I am, stuck on this stupid cliff.  Trail! SHOW YOURSELF.” I’d been promised switchbacks, but all I could see was scree and cliff. 

Making my way along the ledge, I eventually saw a trail.  Onward I walked, and the trailed snaked higher.  Finally, in the distance, I could see a rock pile and flags marking the start of the descent.  I was as good as home.

The down was steep and at times slippery, and after a few minutes flecks of snow began to pelt into me.  More and more, and soon it was pushing white-out, the flecks, swarming down the mountain towards Kaza, matching the angle of the slope as the wind whipped.  Down, down, down and finally… the road. 

A hot dinner.  A cold night but a warm sleeping bag were all in my future, as I strode the last few paces to my guest house.  “You made it!” said the manager  happily.  ”Yes!” I replied.

I made it.

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


(From my journal): Ki Monastery, attempt #1

On the road to Ki, 12 km up the road from Kaza, seven women were sitting on the side of the road knitting socks while a man tended a small fire (They were road workers from Ki taking a rest.  ).  “Chai, chai, chai!” they called out, motioning us to sit.  An exchange of looks between R, S and I; a definite “yes.” Ten minutes later, we’d introduced ourselves, snapped pictures and were sitting smiling as our chai warmed over a small twig fire.  During our introductions, I’d pointed to myself and said, “Devon,” then pointed to the girl nearest me.  “Pusa!” she said.  The ma laughed and said something to her.  More laughter, then she pointed at herself and said, “Tashiputeh.” The man then called to me, “Pusa mean boy.”:My “Devon” had been misunderstood.

Tashiputeh then offered me a 1.5 L bottle of white liquid.  “Changa!” she said with a smile.  “Rice beer,” Choper called over my shoulder.  Beer? Yes, please! It was sour – similar to the beer in Zimbabwe and Lesotho – but tasty, quenching like lemonade but not as sweet. 

We were then given teeril (sp?), small cookie balls made of barley and slightly sugary.  “Those are given to us during religious ceremony.  The monks pray that whoever eats it has long life.  Normally, everyone gets one, but some not come, so there is some for you.”

With tea served, I pulled out a bag of apricots and walnuts to pass around.  They made the round, and all of a sudden a tin of momos appeared.  Then curry, rice, curd and rice and baked roti (tortillas).  A feast! Soon we were all eating, and each time we finished our plate, a woman would thrust something new forward insisting that we take just a little bit more!

Choper had just poured us each another cup of tea when two more hikers walked up.  “Chai, chai, chai!” the chant went.  All smiles, Irina and Pavel from Czechoslovakia, sat down.  They had just quit their jobs to travel the world, and after sharing more food and tea, we set off up the road trading logic puzzles to pass the kilometers. 

Soon, the tiny village of Ki was visible, but more exciting was the Ki monastery perched atop the tiny hillock at an elevation of 4116m.  Spellbound, we walked, paused, took pictures, walked, paused and took pictures (often of the same thing but in new light).  The mountains, the clouds, the farmers, the yaks, the valley, the monestary… “This is the most beautiful place in the world.”

Unfortunately, in the last hundred yards of the walk to the top of the monastery, I patted my pocket and realized that my travel wallet (passport, 300 american and 14,000 rupees) was GONE.  I checked all my bags (no luck), and ultimately had to race back to Kaza with a German couple happy to give me ride - “Of course! Jump in!”.\

They were Chris and Theresa, English and German history majors on the cusp of becoming teachers.  Jovial only begins to describe them.  Both dirty blonde and freckled, always smiling, they tell me about their trip thus far: “We never had plans to come to the mountains.  We were totally unprepared’ look how thin these pants are! I bought this jacket today!” Exploring India for 3 months, avoiding tourist traps, they ended up in Shimla, and one tour operator later, they found themselves doing my trip in reverse.  “It is so peaceful here!” Their driver dropped me off at the temple, and they left me with one final assurance, “You’ll find your passport!”

With haste, I marched to my guest house and into the office.  There was the manager.  “I’ve lost something VERY important!” He gives me a solemn nod.  “Yes.” He says, making his way over to where I’ve stashed my other gear.  “Your passport.” He pulls out my wallet from a small bag and hands it to me.  Passport, dollars, rupees: all there.  “Do you drink beer?” I ask him? “Yes.” “I’m taking you out tonight.”

I breathe a sigh of relief, and I give him a hug.  “Thank you again.” “It’s ok.”

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


(From my journal): Around Kaza (and a short poo’ story)

Today is cold.  I woke and opened the door to find the owner of the guest house emerging from the bathroom.  He pointed to the sky and mountains across the river that had been so sharp yesterday and said “snow on pass.  Very difficult.” Indeed, all is cloudy and the high rocks that had been brown and gold yesterday had a layer of snow on them.  So perhaps that is it? Rohtang is closed for the winter? If so, my change in trip was a great decision.  Now I wonder about the southern pass I don’t want to be trapped here! How must the locals feel? Used to it, I am sure, but the pinned down feeling of “so this is winter… I guess that’s the end of warmth and the freedom to travel freely and the beginning of survival mode,” might drive me mad. 

I found breakfast in a back-alley shop, a very local joint, where a short, smiling older man with graying hair parted on the side served me parantha and delicious tea.  While doubling down, I watched the man across from me try to shoo a dog that sat at the doorway to the shop.  “Go away!” I imagined him say in Hindi.  “NO FOOD HERE!” The dog’s reply being, “Yes-huh.  I can SEE it!” The dog stayed.  Panting.  Happy.  Steamed, the man grabbed a stick to prod the dog off.  Dodging the swing, the dog bounced off but was back as soon as the man sat back down, and both agreed to disagree. 

After breakfast, I hiked up the hill behind town in hopes of getting to an elevation where I could frame all of Kaza and the valley in one shot.  At first, my route was cross-country up an unpredictable scree slope, but later I found a footpath with water-pipes exposed running down to the city.  Up and up I walked until I came to a point where 20 switchbacks of the road climbing out of the valley were visible, and behind me sat all of Kaza.   Warm.  Peaceful.  And… guuuuuurgle.  God.  No.  Guuuuurgle.   Please.  No, no. 

Yes, the exercise had stimulated my cemented bowels.  And wouldn’t you know, I was out of paper? Agh! But life has taught me: When you’ve got to go.  You know the rest.

I choose a perfect squat rock.  270 degree views, all of Spiti before me.  Red berried bushes and grass clumps pop from the rocky landscape.  A thread of bushes – golden from season – trail down a mountain wrinkle (water there).  The occasional bird twitters.  A cool breeze blows, the sun’s rays passing through unhindered.  Ahh.

As for the paper… it ended up not being such a big deal.  I’d brought along my Lonely Planet guide book! I tore out 1.33-(bar) pages from the “INDIA’S TOP 20 MOST VISITED SITES!”-section, worthless as far as I am concerned, and recycled it. 

There you have it…

Most epic spot to poo: High above the Spiti valley

Most versatile guide book: Lonely Planet

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


Thursday, October 18, 2012

(From my journal): Manali to the Spiti Valley.

It was pitch when we left the small, beautiful Manali, but the slow, cold blue transition of dawn was not far off.  We (Roy, and Shlomit, Israeli friends I’d met and were heading in the same direction) were climbing nearly immediately, switchback, straight, switchback.  Soon, the dim outline of trees appeared, and the valley we had climbed out of became visible… we were hundreds, a thousand feet up.  Still the craggy peaks above – now glowing in the sun – were a long way off. 

On the climb, I only remember feeling fear once.  The road was paved for most of it, and only once did I see the bus roll to the left – Cliffside – during a particularly sharp turn,  and I commented to R and S, “Yeah, if we went over, we’d be dead.” The cliffs were steep! And in many places, sheer.  The long roll to the bottom and the sudden stop would have been mashing. 

1000+ feet below the pass, we stopped for tea and breakfast.  I took the chance to explore the temple covered in prayer flags.  A large dish of incense was smoking heavily, carried away quickly by the wind, and a monk was chanting soothingly.  Parantha (Hash browns squished between two tortillas) and chai for breakfast, and then we were back on the road. 

The paved road gave way to long sections of rock and powdery dusty dirt.  It rose in billows from the front tires and caught up to us as we slowed for turns, clouded our vision, gritted our lips and turned our bags grey. 

Rohtang La pass (3978m… multiply by 3.3 to get feet), literally “Pile of Dead Bodies” climaxed on a thin strip of road wide enough for one vehicle only.  We stopped to wait our turn as a large backhoe crept towards us leading 2 jeeps.  As we moved forward cautiously, I tried to capture the perilous section on camera, but the images were bumped and blurred.  We had cleared the most dangerous section! The rest was easy.  Slow to the top, slow over and then a nerve-wracking descent.

Descending into the valley was… exciting.  Hair-raising really… because it was one of the first times we had heard the tremendous grinding crunch of the brakes (“Those don’t sound good.”).  Hair-raising because through each downward turn, there was that moment where the giant bus was pointed straight off the cliff (Skiers and snowboarders refer to the point – I think – as the “fall line.”  You turn, for an instant you are pointed straight down the mountain, and you complete the turn to one side or the other.  I refer to it as the “Oh shit”-point, as you either make the turn or it’s “OH SHIT I’M GONNA CRASH!”)… and those brakes! Would they stop us? Could they? It was all quite exciting as well, for I began to understand what driving with Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassidy) in Kerouac’s “On the Road” must have felt like: Waste no momentum! Use the brakes only when our lives depend on it! Hug those turns in exactly the right spot! And most importantly: COAST TO SAVE ON GAS!


I decided to trust the driver and his gods he prayed to on the pass, and to sit back and enjoy it.

A shimmering ribbon lay below us, a river that appeared thin and frozen.  At the bottom, it was 50ft across and moving quickly, the water teal-grey from sediment. 

The valley, tight at first, opened, and soon we were in an enormous boulder-field.  Around bends, I could see where old sections of road had been rushed over by rock slides. The new section cleared by tractor will be crushed over in the future. 

The enormity of all that surrounded me gave me great hope for the earth.  The wilderness remains! (Joe, if you’re reading this, it really exists!) Man is a colony of ants: we can build and demolish all we want, but the slow groan of nature’s forward progress continues, with or without us.  Mammals survived the asteroid-earth collision that annihilated the dinosaurs.  Man may not survive the human-earth collision currently in progress.  But life… LIFE!... it will find a way.

I’ve never felt so small.  I’ve never felt so free.

Our next big pass before descending into the Spiti valley was Kunzum La, a 4551m viewpoint topped with a temple, the ever-present prayer flags and fantastic views of snowcaps in the distance.  Every now and then during the prayer break, the wind would die completely, the flags would settle and only an occasional *ding* of a bell was heard.

As the hours passed, the grind of the rocky road, the dust and my inability to drink from my wide-mouth nalgene began to erode my ability to keep my eyes open.  I would dose, balanced with the motions of the vehicle, drop a bit to far into sleep, jolt awake to keep from falling from my seat, dose, balance and then get rocked into the air, spine compressed, from a horrendous jut in the road.  Repeat, repeat, repeat. 

The final hour of the trip was an anxious one.  I kept seeing views I wanted pictures of.  I was tired of the dust.  I was hungry.  After a few more bends in the road, (the river was a thousand feet below having cut an enormous valley for itself) the frequency of villages increased.  Fields and cattle and a few yaks appeared.  Every now and then a man would give a whistle for a stop.  But where were we? Where were they headed? To that pile of rocks over there? Oh, to that solitary tent?

…After finding my guest house in Kaza, I ventured out to find food… momos (veggies dumplings).  There, I met Jampu – well-dressed, even stylish in his jeans and black motor-cycle jacket - an exiled Tibetan - he left in 1993 - who now lives in McLeod Ganj (The headquarters of the exiled Tibetan government).  He was passing through Kaza on his yearly travels to the surrounding monasteries to teach Tibetan language and grammar to the monks.  I asked him how Himachel Pradesh compared to Tibet:

“The Indian Himalayas are far more harsh than Tibet.  There is less water here, and the wind always blows.  In Tibet, we have beautiful grasslands.”

In between long pauses to joke and play with the kids, showing them videos on his semi-smart phone, he talked about the Tibetan populations in this area (around 75%), recalls his meeting with His Holiness, The Dali Lama in 2010 (“He pulled me aside and said ‘Jampu, let us take a moment together,”) and tells me how important it is to visit Tibet “to see what the Chinese government is doing… so horrible (grabbing his throat as if to choke himself).”

After dinner, I left for further exploration of Kaza but not before I had him write a few phrases in Tibetan in my journal.  “Good luck.” “Good morning.” “Good afternoon.” “Good night.” “How are you?”

And on a separate page:

”Go and enjoy good travels.”

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)