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Posts Tagged ‘mountains’

When you’re out of breath, it doesn’t take a lot to take your breath away. But coming over the hill on the hike to Triund and seeing the snow-capped mountains of the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas would certainly have had that effect on anyone.

A view from above of Dharamsala

I had arrived in Dharamsala the day before and stepping off the airplane was like entering another universe after time in Mumbai. Instead of the oppressive, dusty heat I was hit in the face with cool, crisp air and a view of mountains all around me. Everything was clean, the trees and flowers had changed from tropical to mountainous, and the people were no longer mostly Indian.

Dharamsala is most well known for being the home of the Dalai Lama and over 35,000 Tibetan refugees (number according to the Dalai Lama’s website), who moved here following the 1960 takeover of Tibet. The Tibetan government operates here in exile. Everything here feels far more Tibetan than Indian – Tibetan faces, Tibetan temples, Tibetan food, Tibetan prayer flags every way you turn. Monks in bright crimson robes walk past the backpackers and tourists without so much as a thought. When the Dalai Lama and his followers left the real Tibet they certainly created a convincing version here in India.

But beyond the cultural experience the most notable part of a visit to Dharamsala is the Himalayas – towering above the city, the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas is a good layman’s viewpoint. Dharamsala boasts the ‘easiest’ hike to a Himalyan snow-line and we wanted to experience the world’s greatest mountain range.

A view of the mountains on the climb up

We set off in the morning with a rag-tag crew: myself and my two friends; a friend from Mumbai who also happened to be here this weekend with her friend; a guy I’d met at the airport; and a group of three we’d encountered at dinner.  Everyone wanted to hike and we figured we’d all take it in together. We began hiking and I was keen to not stay at the back of the pack – I am obviously not the best or most experienced hiker and I was worried from the get-go about rocky terrain and high elevation.

Hiking up!

But we moved slowly, taking in the scenery and stopping to gaze out at the beautiful view as we climbed higher and higher. At a few points along the way there were chai stalls where we could stop and have a break. We walked up and up – we started to feel we were getting close when we encountered a a snow covered area. My legs were starting to feel a bit like jelly but I wanted to continue on.

A few of us with our first snow sighting!

As the elevation grew and the slope became steeper I started to hope that the top was close. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could balance myself on varying rocks along the way and climb up. But just as I started to wonder how much further I’d have to go, I came over the top and saw the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.

The sign letting us know wed arrived

We were at Triund, 2,827 meters above sea level. And the view in front of us was like something out of a postcard. I think I audibly gasped. One minute we had been climbing and then suddenly, there it was. Every step had been worth the journey.

A shop at the top of the hill was happy to sell us more chai and some noodles. The two men who ran it lived on Triund 10 months out of the year in nothing but a small hut. I wondered how they managed. A few dogs ran around, happily enjoying their surroundings. How could they not? It was as though we had escaped the rest of the world and all there was was the sight of the Himalayas.

The Himalayas and a happy dog

Eating our very well-deserved noodles

We could have gone further up to the snow-line, but clouds started coming in quickly and we decided that our view was quite spectacular enough. I had to admit I was relieved- as much as I’d wished they would, I wasn’t sure my legs would carry me up much further.

We came back down and had a hot bowl of Tibetan noodle soup. I felt victorious – we’d achieved what we’d set out to do. And beyond that it gave me a greater context to the Tibetan culture and their home away from home. I may not be able to comprehend the depth of their plight, but I do know one thing now: if you had to find a new home for a spiritual movement, this would certainly be an inspiring place.

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“Can we possibly order three cups of chai, one order of onion pakoras and some firewood?”

That was certainly a phrase I didn’t know I would ever utter.

The road driving up to Munnar

Everything changed after we drove off the red dusty roads of Tamil Nadu and up into the lush mountains of Munnar in Kerala. As we drove, it seemed like the world we had just been in was slowly disappearing – the air started to clear; the language subtly changed from Tamil to Malayalam; the cows and dogs and goats that populated the streets started to look healthier; tropical plants were replaced with tea plantations and rugged trees; and of course, we lost all cell phone service.

The altitude, the dramatic scenery and the windy roads felt like a new world.  Munnar was like no place I’d seen in India – it is truly off the grid in every sense imaginable. In a weird way, the trees and mountains and lakes kind of reminded me of a bizarre version New Hampshire – except it wasn’t snowing in January and everyone was Indian. Except us, of course.

Our hotel

We arrived after a long drive up into the mountains, and then onto a rocky dirt road that we could only get up with the help of an ancient 4-wheel-drive Jeep. Our hotel was in the middle of nowhere- a few houses and farms spotted the area, but otherwise it was just the hotel. Breathing in the clean, crisp air it was hard to remember we were in the same country we’d just come from.

After a night’s rest and the inevitable ordering of firewood (yes, our cabin got quite cold at night!), K and I decided that the only activity for the day could be a hike. So we set off with a guide from the hotel, who instilled a bit of initial fear when he told us to watch out for leeches.

taking a picture half-way up

We climbed and of course I lagged behind – I always love a good reminder of how completely out of shape I am. I was a little bit embarrassed when I saw a chatty group of older women sauntering up the mountain as though it was nothing at all. We had stopped halfway up and I was watching them as they climbed. When they saw us, they giggled and took a moment to gawk at the funny white girls trying to climb up their mountain. One of them offered us a piece of fruit – it was yellow on the outside and looked like a passion-fruit. Our guide said it was okay to eat and I thanked the woman. I stood, catching my breath and eating a piece of delicious fruit- that certainly wasn’t a bad way to spend a day.

As we continued to climb we eventually saw the same group of women heading down – but this time, they weren’t quite as chatty. As they came towards us I noticed they were all carrying huge, long stacks of wood on their heads. Their arms balanced the wood while their bare feet balanced their bodies down the narrowly demarcated path. They were hardly breaking a sweat. I caught the eye of the woman who had given us the fruit, and nodded. She smiled back, completely unfazed by the poundage bearing down on her head.

A view of Munnar

Since moving to India I’ve been endlessly enjoying watching the ways in which people go about their days.  And as I continued to pathetically huff and wheeze my way up the mountain, I couldn’t help but hope that this would be what I’d remember when I’m back in New York and totally caught up in the day-to-day pressures and expectations of my life. It’s amazing how much it feels like none of that matters when you’re so far away from it.

View from the top

But these thoughts dissipated as soon as we reached the top because all I could think of was sky and mountains and clouds. It was really something to see.

I hate to invoke the old cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this instance I don’t even think a thousand words could do justice to the breathtaking views. So I’ll end this post with some photos – and a true appreciation for the little slice of India called Munnar.

The mountain we climbed (in the background)

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Ranakpur

I have seen some pretty unbelievable man-made structures in my life. Versailles. Ankor Wat. The Hagia Sophia. The Chrysler Building. So I suppose by now I shouldn’t be surprised by human ingenuity and skill. But it still would never have occurred to me that you could make an entire giant structure – inside and out- out of marble.

Wide interior view of Ranakpur

But that is Ranakpur a Jain temple about two hours drive outside of Udaipur. And it is a work of art, a true example of man’s devotion to his god (or gods).

For a bit of context, its important to note that (according to our guide the day before) 95% of the marble in India comes from the environs of Udaipur. It explains why the Lake Palace and the City Palace are adorned throughout with beautiful white marble. But they have nothing on. Ranikpur.

One of the many, many marble sellers outside Udaipur

Just the drive is worth taking- you drive out of the city of lakes, drive past dozens and dozens of marble dealers (your first clue of what’s to come), and into a mountainous world that seems like a cross between the Scottish Highlands and Lord of the Rings. Rajasthan in the monsoon is very different to the desert most people associate with the region- it is a lush grouping of craggy mountains with monkeys and goat herders co-existing with the cars and motorbikes making their way along a road reminiscent of Amalfi’s perilous drives.

When you pull up to Ranakpur’s main temple you start to get the sense you’re seeing something unique. Every piece of the structure is marble- the steps you climb, the wall you lean against, the ceiling you walk under. And when you finally step into the entranceway you are greeted by an imposing labyrinth of a space, with 1,444 pillars holding it up- all are intricately carved top to bottom and no one pillar has the same design.

One of the ceiling designs in Ranakpur

The temple dates back to the 15th century and the same group of families have looked after it since that time. Our guide’s entire family had devoted their lives to its upkeep- he spent every morning cleaning and ‘feeding’ the temple with a bath of milk. Tourists are allowed to visit between noon and five every day, although certain areas are off limits to non-Jains.

A close of some of Ranakpur's columns

For those unfamiliar, Jainism is a religion focused primarily on non-violence. It has been explained to me as a cross between Hinduism and Buddhism (pardon the complete oversimplification). A Jain friend of mine and I joke that the Jains are like the Jews- small in number, powerful in business, but very focused on family and education. And like the Jews who often give significant contributions to Jewish causes, so have the Jains, across the centuries, donated funding for some extraordinary temples.

Everywhere you look in Ranakpur you see some new intricate design- on walls, on pillars, on statues and most especially on the ceiling. Some of the designs are so finely carved that they appear translucent.

Carving of a snake made from a single stone

When you walk out you’re supposed to look up and make a wish on one of the more staggering ceiling designs. Our guide insisted that there is a 100% success rate here. Perhaps that belief comes from 600 years of wishing to maintain the beauty if the temple. That wish certainly has stayed true.

Another interior view

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Bali

(Side note: I’ve gotten a lot of emails asking why I haven’t been writing. I see this blog more as a place to share my experiences living in a new culture, not as much a travel blog. So while I’m travelling I won’t be writing every day, but I will be posting a few times. We’ll be back in India June 30th though!)

So…

The second time we tried, India let us go. And we arrived in Bali – a tropical mountainous volcanic paradise halfway around the world from where we started in New York.

Mount Batukaru and rice paddies

We drove an hour and a half north to Ubud, which is in the center of the island. When most people think of Bali, they do not first think of Ubud (unless you’ve read Eat Pray Love where Ubud features prominently. And at this point it seems everyone has read it). Bali to most people is beaches, partying and, unfortunately, nightclub bombings.

Daniel and a monkey side by side in the Monkey Forest

But Ubud is a thousand years away from any party central you can imagine. Ubud is an ancient city hidden among jungles and mountains. When we arrived we first went to a forest that is literally called “Monkey Forest.” It’s called this because when you walk inside you curiously find yourself walking along with hundreds of monkeys. Most are waiting for you to feed them one of the bananas you can purchase at the entrance (“Official Monkey Forest Bananas”. The only thing official about them is that they are 10 times the price of a normal banana). But these monkeys live among thousand year old temples in a forest sanctuary. Let me just say it is not something you see every day.

Daniel and Ali in Monkey Forest temple

Our first night we met a driver named Wayan, and we agreed with him that he would take us on our varying excursions over the next few days. Meeting Wayan I think was the luckiest part of our stay in Bali – but as Wayan would say, “You do good things, so you have good karma, so good things come back to you.” That is the wisdom of Wayan. He is a man who owns his own business in partnership with his friends, speaks three languages (English, Japanese and Balinese) and is devoutly Hindu. I think that the wisdom of Wayan should be written down somewhere, so I shall do it here. A sampling:

“No one feel stress as long as they don’t have target. Target means you must make more money than you make now or must get better job. But without target, you just happy living your life.”

or

“I do not understand Muslim Jihad. Why would they want to hurt people? Jihad brings very bad karma I think.”

or, after Daniel asks how the government prevents tax evasion in cash businesses like his:

Me and Wayan on a rice paddy

“Yes, the government doesn’t know what I do. But God does. So even if I get away with it with government, I would not really get away with it. Bad karma.”

Karma. What a beautiful amazing concept. It drives Wayan and it certainly seems like a very good way to live. But, as you learn wherever you go in the world, people can lead happy successful lives but they are still only privy to the knowledge that their society affords them. And while Wayan lives by his karmic wisdom, not everyone around him does. For example, when we ask Wayan if he has a website he says he can’t have one anymore, because its too expensive. But more importantly, it’s too dangerous because the website operators in Bali will take bribes to steal emails from their site and give the emails to competitors. If they pay even a day late the operators will send viruses to their computers.

Seriously.

So Daniel very animatedly told Wayan about how you can build a website for free or even just get a domain name very cheaply. It really hit home that education and technology can do so much to even the playing field in a world where monopolizers will take what they can when they can. So, while I write this, Daniel is currently helping Wayan build his website. Wayan says this is good karma. I certainly hope so, because we need it after our initial difficulties in India.

Gunung Kawi

Prayer march at Besakih

But beyond website building we’ve also been able to explore the incredible and varied sights of Bali. On our first day with Wayan we went to a number of ancient Hindu temples, such as Besakih, which was built in the 14th century at the foot of a large volcano. You can’t imagine a more beautiful view.

Besakih

On our second day we decided to take the more scenic route and go for a hike near Munduk, in the north of Bali. Wayan took us to meet his friend Budi, whose family owns a plantation in Munduk and gives tours of the plantation and the nearby waterfalls. It turned out that Budi was no ordinary tour guide – he speaks 5 languages, has a civil engineering degree from a university in Tokyo, is an architect, and is sought after for his knowledge of coffee, specifically the rare Kopi Luwak coffee (if you’re thinking this is the world’s most expensive coffee that is made after a cat-like creature digests the beans, then you are correct).

Daniel and Budi in Munduk

And yet, when Budi was asked to speak in Denmark about his architecture (he designs and builds villas when he’s not running the plantation or showing people around the plantation. Naturally.) he didn’t enjoy it because the cold was too off-putting. Like most Balinese people he can’t really imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere else.

And when you tour the plantation with Budi you tend to agree with him.

What I’ve come away with from my trip to Bali is that for all the amazing things there are to see, the people here are very special and that whatever their station in life is, they all tend to find comfort just in being from Bali. I think that in itself describes the beauty of the island.

I know this blog is more about people than places, but for the rest of our visit the pictures truly are worth more than any thousand words I could write. I also have included a video – because things like monkeys up close, sprawling vistas, waterfalls and loud bugs that sound like the whole world is coming to an end are things you can only watch for yourself.

Gungung Agung

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