All of Life is Here
Another visit to India. I've come to know the country pretty well over the years and yet it is still something of a mystery. I actually think that, no matter how many times I visit, it will always remain a mystery and I like that. A place where every day is both exhausting and enriching. Where every turn in the road brings a new adventure. India is certainly unique.
I watched that Best Exotic Marigold Hotel film on the flight over for this trip (it's the perfect film to get you in the mood for a visit). It's a feel good film about a group of pensioners who move to a tumbledown hotel in India to benefit from a cheaper lifestyle. There was a scene that really struck me and you may have seen it too. One of the female characters is desperately struggling to come to terms with the country and another film character (whose name I forget but it's the man who has come to find his past lover and then, having fulfilled his dream of being reunited, promptly dies of a heart attack) tries to convince her how special the place is. He turns to her and says 'all of life is here' and I thought how well it describes this special place.......
We took our Stok Kangri expedition team to Agra for a visit to the Taj Mahal before heading home. The hotel we'd booked, it turned out, didn't have enough rooms. The guide we were working with arranged a motorbike to take us to view another hotel and the guide, my colleague Guy and I all climbed aboard. It was a very cosy fit and I was behind the rider with Guy behind me but the rider wasn't happy with my seating position. 'Closer', he said repeatedly as I crushed my crotch up to meet his backside. When we were well and truly squashed together he turned and, with a glint in his eye and a smile on his face, said, 'good. Now you ride like an Indian!'
We waited patiently at Delhi Airport as the flight to Leh kept getting pushed back due to poor weather in the mountains. Infact, by then we'd already flown up to Leh that morning before the pilot, having got in the airspace above Leh's runway, circled above the clouds a few times then announced he was unable to land and would be returning to Delhi. Now, several hours later we were called back to the plane and it suddenly looked promising. We climbed aboard and the pilot spoke over the PA system. We all wanted calm reassurance but instead he uttered the words we'd least wanted to hear. 'Welcome aboard ladies and gentleman. Fasten your seatbelts - we are going to attempt a safe flight!'
Our team had been celebrating at Delhi's Alive Bar. It had been a raucous night and we climbed aboard a selection of rickshaws for the ride back to the hotel. The streets were quiet (by Delhi standards at least) and the rickshaw drivers, encouraged in part by a bunch of shouting and cheering passengers who undoubtedly looked like they'd be good tippers, were up for a city centre race. We got back to the hotel in record time although a few team members then had to do a race of their own to lose the contents of their stomachs in the bathroom!
Our 4 wheel drive journey out of the mountains passed through many small villages and the common theme was that they all had an impromptu cricket match on the go. Tiny tots played alongside adults and the games usually involved a tatty old ball and a bat formed from a discarded plank of wood. It didn't matter - these games were played with more passion than you'd see in many an international match.
At Base Camp we arranged a cricket match with our guides, cooks, pony men and a few randoms who always seemed to be around but certainly weren't part of our staff crew. 6 trekking poles for wickets, an improvised bat and ball plus a patch of fairly flat ground and we were good to go. The end result was inevitable. The staff team hit every ball and we missed almost all of ours. It was a cricketing massacre.
Getting tickets on this train had taken some rupee sweeteners to a couple of key staff, a lot of Indian bureaucracy form filling and even a trip to a local internet cafe for photocopies of our passports (passport copies to buy train tickets!?). Eventually it looked promising and we started seeing our names being typed into the computer system that reminded me of a Sinclair computer (which will only make sense if you are old enough to remember them). Suddenly our man waved the booking form and shouted 'Lara'. The whole booking office burst into laughter. One of our team was called Lara and they thought it hilarious that a woman would have the same name as the famous cricket captain.
We arrived at the base camp for Kang Yatse after a long trek through Ladakh's Markha Valley. Kang Yatse is a 6400 metre peak with several summits and an interesting ascent route. We had the base camp to ourselves and I positioned my Quasar tent to give me a good view of the mountain every time I unzipped the door. It was a tranquil place and my first visit to Ladakh. I lay in the sun and soaked up the ambience of the high mountajns. 3 days later the team summited but the trip had a long lasting effect on me. India's mountains would keep calling me back.
The devastation at Stok Kangri base camp (Ladakh) was evident even before we arrived. We were getting there the day after a big storm had swept through the exposed site in which base camp sits and the final approach slopes were littered with equipment and even a collapsed tent had found its way there. As we climbed over the crest of the hill we were shocked to see only a handful of tents still standing and dozens of people dashing around trying to create order from chaos. Our team got the kitchen and mess tents set up in record time and soon we were able to start dishing out hot drinks and food to many grateful mouths. For some the wreckage was repairable but others realised it was game over and headed down the valley. We'd certainly fallen lucky. 2 days later we summited in perfect conditions and blue skies.
India's Uttarakhand region makes a perfect destination for climbing and trekking. The infrastructure for accessing the mountains is good and the trails are quiet and peaceful. After 10 days camping we spent the last night at a small guesthouse. 10 days with dusty, grimy clothes and 10 days without a decent wash. Job 1 was a visit to the guesthouses shower and number 2 was some clothes washing. After sorting out the personal admin job three was perfect. A seat in the sun on the small terrace with views out towards Sangam Chatti and a milk coffee in my hand. The mountains simplify life and I love that.
Our first trek meal and our local guide made it clear. 'From now on you eat only Indian food', he said with a smile on his face. Music to my ears. I love Indian food and in my experience trek food is some of the tastiest you'll get in India. Freshly made each meal, simple and wholesome ingredients, portion sizes guaranteed to satisfy the biggest post trek hunger pangs and cooked to perfection. On this trek our cook, Singh, was a legend. From his tiny cook tent dish after delicious dish was greeted with delight by the team. Singh is king became the team's chant each mealtime.
I love Indian street food. There is something so satisfying about eating at a roadside stall. The food is usually fantastic and the prices make it a bargain - but for me it's really about the other benefits. The chance to watch India go by in all its craziness. Day or night the streets bustle, the traffic splutters along and the colour, noise and vibrancy shine through. If you are going to try street food anywhere then make it India.
The tradition at base camp is for the cook team to bake a cake to celebrate the team's success on the mountain. I've never quite worked out how such delicious iced and decorated cakes can be prepared at 5000+ metres but it's just another example of the wizardry of the cooks. I always try and make the cake eating ceremony a whole team celebration which means we invite the cook team, guides and even the pony men to join us to. A piece of cake is a great way to bond a team.
Visiting India can be a shock to the unprepared. A drive through downtown Delhi and you'll see poverty. Families at the side of the road with nothing - literally nothing at all. Open sewers in the streets, mutilated beggars, sinewy rickshaw drivers peddling both fat locals and tourists around to scrape together enough money to send home to their families. India is a land with plenty of people living on nothing at all.
The in place in Delhi is Connaught Place. After travelling past several street families you'll arrive in this westernised consumer Mecca. It's a place for both tourists and wealthy Indians and where better to pay homage to this shrine to consumerism than the McDonalds restaurant. The familiar Golden Arches and the same design as McDonald's the world over. The only difference is the armed guards on the door who sort the desirable clients from the wannabes.
I remember seeing Nelson Mandela's prison cell on Cape Towns Robben Island along with the small quarry where the prisoners spent endless hours breaking up rocks. The days in the intense sun with the dust and physical exhaustion irrepairedly affected Nelson's health and eyesight. In India we drove from the mountains and, along the remote roads, we passed whole families breaking rocks at the roadside. The babies were strapped to their mothers backs, the toddlers carried the crushed rocks to waiting baskets and the older children and adults sat, hammer in hand, making bigger pieces of rock smaller. We enquired with our jeep driver what the pay rate would be. He thought they would probably receive no more than 100 rupees a day (about £1).
Posted by Paul