2007 #20: The Case of the Lost Himalayan Crab

Close to a year later, I figured I’d better finish this chapter of my journal off.

After our failed attempt to get a breakfast at the dhaba (and after watching the owner drink out of a cup on the ‘help yourself’ shelf then wipe it on his sleeve and put it back for the next unsuspecting drinker to use), we grabbed a bus back to Shimla. This took a mere 8 hours, after an unscheduled stop at a most inconvenient landslide, which did nothing for my ‘Gotta get there – I have a plane to catch!’ nerves. We got to the bus station at 8pm exactly and made enquiries about another bus to Kalka to catch the 11 p.m. train back to Delhi. Ahhh, the God of Irony strikes again. It would take 3 hours to get to Kalka, and if there were any more landslides, we were stuffed!

A quick confab and we decided to see what buses were available to Delhi.
“Ah yes sir, you can be catching a luxury bus to Delhi.”
“What time does it leave?”
“It is leaving at 8 p.m. sir.”
“What time is it now?”
“It is being 8.05 p.m. sir.”

Somehow we made it onto the bus in question and flopped into our seats to wipe the nervous sweat from our brows. This was just cutting things too fine! However, even though I had to take turns sitting on each of my now very unhappy buttock cheeks, it was a major relief to have pulled this whole situation off and we started to relax and come to terms with our major hunger pains and the prospect of sleeping sitting up all night. Fortunately, with our bus fares came complimentary packets of snacks and a bottle of water each. I think the snacks lasted all of 30 seconds.

Happily, the bus driver stopped at a restaurant somewhere out of Shimla and we were able to have a quick wash in a lovely clean, posh-feeling western bathroom. We had a meal of something that I can’t even remember now, but it definately did the trick. What happened after we paid the bill and arose to get back on the bus was very much more memorable. I was standing around waiting for the other passengers to rise, when a reasonable sized crab started sidling along the floor, coming from the kitchen direction in a beeline towards me. I kind of rubbed my eyes and looked again, and sure enough, there was definately a crab coming towards me. What on earth is a live crab doing in a Himalayan restaurant, hundreds of miles from any sea, walking around at nine o’clock at night?! None of the other customers had seen it, but when I looked at the waiters and gestured towards the crab, they just looked at it then back at me with very straight faces. I had to cover my face to smother my grin as the crab made it from one end of the restaurant to the other and out a doorway with not one single customer noticing it. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and it really made my day. Another one of God’s little jokes? The waiters and I just waved goodbye to each other quietly and I climbed on the bus feeling priveleged to have been in on such a nice little crustaceous joke.

Arriving in Delhi at the disgusting hour of 6 a.m., we caught a rickshaw back to Pahar Ganj and were finally able to lie on beds in our usual room and take the weight off our poor calloused buttocks. And feel heat and high humidity again and listen to the roar of the ceiling fan going at typhoon speed, backed by a veritable symphony of dozens of horns blasting outside in the traffic. Ahhh, home.

Two days later and I’m back in another vehicle on my way to the Airport. My driver was a keen sort of a chap and took some very exciting risks, squeezing our little mini van between large, uncaring trucks and doing 4-wheel drive numbers off the side of the road to get us no further than we would have been had we stayed on the road anyway. At one stage he got us hooked up on a large rock, where we sat marooned and rocking, while he revved the living daylights out of the engine in a most unhelpful way. But I wasn’t worried. In fact I was feeling fairly smug about my decision to leave for the airport 2 hours before I actually needed to. And I just knew that after all our hard, rushed travelling back out of the mountains, the God who sent the crab through the restaurant would be there for me and get me to the plane on time. Which he did. So I’m back in New Zealand and all is well, and it only took a few months for my buttocks to lose their callouses and flat shape, and we’re now going through the planning phase of our 2008 trip back to India.

I wonder what happened to that crab?

2007 #19: Sarahan – Seven Light Switches Equals One Bang

Sarahan, the “Gateway to Kinnaur”, is an exquisite place. It had been described to us by somebody as ‘something like being in fairyland’. Well, I’m not quite sure about fairyland, but it is as beautiful a place as anywhere I’ve ever been, and we enjoyed our brief stay there immensely.

With one or two exceptions:

  • The bus ride up to Sarahan. Not at any time of my life has it taken me an hour to go about 17km in a vehicle. This raised my stress levels by quite a bit, as we were supposed to be on a train to Delhi, leaving from Kalka, by the next evening. Considering we were many miles from Shimla, from which we were hoping to catch a bus to Kalka, to catch the train to Delhi so I could catch my plane to New Zealand……well you get the picture. And here we were meandering up a mountain road on a bus going slower than a duck’s waddle, with Indian music on a screaming, scratchy stereo speaker not so far from my head – featuring women that can sing higher than fingernails scratching a blackboard – and no idea really whether we can get a bus back down this road in the morning to get us to the right places on time… After being on a bus from 6.30 in the morning (and was by now not long before dusk), I was starting to come a little unravelled at the edges. God help me, I can be an unreasonable woman at times.
  • The dhaba next to the bus stand, where we sat for two hours waiting for our breakfast order before the owner admitted he wasn’t actually going to feed us. With no good reason forthcoming. At first we were fairly cruisy about this situation. After all, the bus wasn’t leaving till midday and the place was fairly entertaining with it’s foil-gift-wrap-covered wall, plaster parrot statues and various and sundry people dropping in on our table to chat with us. And this was India after all, and there’s just no rushing around in this country. But upon enquiring at quarter-to-bus-leaving time as to when our paranthas were going to arrive, we were met with a bewildered look and a shrug of the shoulders. I leave you to imagine the ensuing conversation between said miscreant and two very hungry travellers who still had a day and a night of travelling ahead of them…
  • The guesthouse room we stayed in, where naturally, two of the seven light switches in the room actually worked. This, not being a new concept to us by this stage in our travels, did not exactly come as a surprise. It was the loud bang when I switched on the bathroom light in the morning that kicked off alarm bells within me. I chose to ignore that and have a shower in the dark. HOWEVER – for some reason the hotness of the shower was on an equal functioning par with the lightbulb. In other words, not working. And I’m not even going to talk about there being only, mysteriously and suddenly, enough water coming out of the tap to brush our teeth. The language I used at that point is not appropriate to put in here, because my Dad will probably read this. The ironic thing was, when leaving in the morning Paul booked us out and forgot to pay. One of the workers came to the bus stand to fetch him back and extract money out of him, and it was all I could do not to ask him why he wasn’t paying us for putting up with such an expensively useless room. Fortunately for him I found I just couldn’t be bothered even discussing it. I was just glad that we had had a sleep and were back on the road to continue our journey. Little did I know…

Aside from these little hiccups, things went reasonably smoothly in Sarahan. They have a beautiful temple complex in the village that we could see very nicely from our room window. The mountains were strung out in a dramatic line with fluffy-looking snow-covered peaks. Mountain dogs wandered about or snuggled up in comfortable heaps together. Children frollicked happily in the little park across from our guesthouse. And they served real Tibetan momo a few doors down on the right.

We went on separate wanderings for an hour or two, and while Paul explored the impressively ornate temple, I, succumbing yet again to womanly tendancies, went and explored a few of the shops, which very considerately were still open in the evening hours.You gotta love a place that doesn’t slam it’s doors closed at 5pm. Particularly on a Sunday. I ended up having chai and a delightful conversation with a guy who’s actually an English teacher, but was minding his sister’s shop for the day. His charm was a splendid anaesthetic to the surgery on my wallet that did actually occur in the end, and I finally left his shop as the proud new owner of some Himachal-style woolen waistcoats and a Kinnauri-style hat, such as are seen in my photos. By the way – some of these photos can be seen Here:

I load them on there as I can be bothered, so check back occasionally for updates, if you’re interested.

So, apart from being miles from where we were supposed to be in our rapidly-becoming-a-very-tight schedule, having no breakfast because of the idiot in the dhaba round the corner, being horribly unwashed and running out of clothes that wouldn’t scare off the average hyena pack with their smell, we rather enjoyed our stay in Sarahan and I’d like to go back there again.

2007 #18: Sprung with a Secret Cellphone – In Which a Local Snaps the Westerners

Leaving Chitkul was a very hard thing to do. We’d fallen in love with this village and didn’t want to leave it. I’d never been to a place where the locals crowd a around the pole on the side of the gorge to use the village telephone. Or where I’ve played on a one-man cable car over a broiling river or stacked river rocks beside grazing donkeys. In no other village have I drunk ice-distilled Angori with a toffee in it to kill the tequila taste (personal dislike of mine, tequila – and no, I’m not telling you that story.), or eaten salty, hacked-off bits of mutton specially brought to the village and cooked for us by an important local. Nor have I sat sipping on ‘Nature-Simulated Apple Juice’ looking at the sun going down over the higher peaks of the Himalayas. It’s a pretty hard act to follow.

We’ve been very lucky to visit Chitkul. Up until 1992, foreigners weren’t allowed past the Wangtu bridge which crosses the Satluj river, further back down the Kinnaur District before Sangla. So we’ve been staying in a village that has only been seen by foreign (Westerners) eyes from 14 years ago. What a privilege.

Sadly, we bid Raj and Suk goodbye, and they us. My partner gave Raj a cap he had carried all the way from Waihi, New Zealand, specially to give to someone he took a liking to. I gave some almond mosturizer and vanilla perfume to Suk. I left my sandshoes in the room for anyone who wanted them (not a lot of shoe-shops in a village this small). And Raj got up at 5am to cook us breakfast and chai. What a lovely man.

We had to catch the 6.30am bus, so off we trekked, remembering when we climbed between mud and rocks that we never did get round to telling Raj that it might be a good idea to put some steps there.

The bus was just a little one and lots of people were waiting at the side of the gorge to get in it. We opened the bus door to swing in and found that it was already full. Many of the locals catch this bus to go and work in the fields, etc, every day. So we squeezed in as best we could, my partner finding a seat at the back and me finding a window seat next to a local man who a hard plastic 70’s retro suitcase wedged into the gap between the seat and the one in front, so I had to sit with my knees almost up to my ears. But I was fine with that for a while. So what if my left leg was going numb? I wasn’t going to be using it for a few hours anyway. At least I had a seat.

Come departure time and more and more people squeezed onto the bus. We took off when there was about 3 quarters of a cubic inch of space left inside and rumbled our way back down the mountain road. My seat happened to be on the left-hand side, so I got to gaze down at the very deep gorge we were driving along the side of. We stopped frequently to pick up more people from the areas further down and many of them went up on the roof. A very dangerous thing, (we were told by an Israeli couple that rode up there), if you weren’t looking ahead. There were several times when the bus drove under solid rock overhangs, and if you weren’t watching for them you’d just get swatted like a fly. And end up about as healthy.

Somewhere along the line we drove past a truck that had just gone over the side. Fortunately the truck had caught on a ledge on the way down and the driver survived. They were helping him into another vehicle with a rag applied to his bleeding head as we turned up. As my partner said, accidents happen very slowly in these parts. Your vehicle gets too close to the edge and you gradually topple over. I really, really don’t ever want to feel that sensation!

There were parts of the road where I kept myself distracted by watching the plastic fishes, mounted up the front of the bus, light up every time the brakes were applied. This was mainly when we had to pass other large vehicles coming up the mountain. That’s where the edge of the road gets really scary. Gradually the bus started emptying of people again and finally we landed in Sangla. There, we had to wait about four hours for the next bus going down, so we had breakfast in a dhaba on the side of the road. That was rather cosy and fun. We chatted with the Israeli couple, then she got some wool out to do some knitting. A local lady turned up with a big woolly dog on a leash and the two of them starting rewinding and organising the wool together on the floor. I got chatting with a young woman outside and took photos of her and her baby. Women from a wedding party walked past, surrounding the bride who had a beautiful blanket on and bristled with jewellry. Another Israeli couple that we had spent time with at Kalka Railway Station turned up, who had spotted us from up the hill and specially come down to tell us they had gotten engaged in a glade, under a tree that he had decorated with colourful things. All in all, it was rather a lovely morning.

As it turned out, the wedding party attached to the jewellry-laden lady was on our next bus. So we got to see the groom also, with rupees pinned to his front as wedding donations, an old lady in the seat in front of us with about seven earrings in her ears who spat out the window at least ten times before we had even moved anywhere, and various and assorted other people dressed in their finery. This journey took us back through Rampur, where there’s a beautiful new Tibetan Gompa (temple) and I took a few shots of it, courtesy of the dhaba wallah, who showed me how to get up to the next storey for a better view. Bless his heart. We had chai there (of course) and bought sweet cakes for the journey and I sprung a local guy trying to sneak a photo of us on his cellphone. I nudged my partner and we both posed like crazy. The guy actually blushed. It was really funny to be the ones being photographed for a change, after filling our own camera cards with photos of the locals.

Soon after, back on the bus, we continued on to Jaori. We leapt off that bus, crossed the road, climbed onto another bus and were then on our way to Sarahan.

2007 #17: Chai With The India Tibet Border Patrol (ITBP)

Raj, owner of our guesthouse in Chitkul, is a very interesting guy to talk to. He is very high caste, is the local postmaster and also secretary of the temple committee. In fact, you might as well come right out and say he’s pretty much chief of the village. So he knows a fair amount of history about the place.

He has servants of his own to mind his flocks, etc, so it felt a little odd to have him cooking for and serving us. The two times he accepted our invitation for a drink of angori, he wouldn’t sit in the chair. He would crouch down facing us. No matter what we said, he wouldn’t sit in the chair. Personally, I found that quite awkward. It didn’t feel right to be looking down on him.

However. He told us a few things about the village, such as;

  • It burned down 70 – 80 years ago and was rebuilt a little further down the hill
  • In older times, a man would be taken up the hill across the river and sacrificed. Each year. Now they just sacrifice a goat.
  • The Maharaja of the Bushar Kingdom (who was based in Ramur) used to come up sometimes and stay in the fort, which is the tallest building in the village and has been recently re-roofed. This fort is at least 200 years old.
  • Caste used to be a lot more important here. There was a lower caste that had to put their hands over their mouths before addressing someone of Raj’s caste. Their shadows weren’t allowed to touch either. We had a wee bit of a discussion about how awkward this would be if you needed to have a prolonged conversation. Raj doesn’t remember these times. He’s 60 and his mother told him about it when he was a kid.
  • The locals here used to trade with Tibet until the 1970’s, when China put a stop to it. They’d swap rice and wheat for salt. China finally relaxed the rules again though, and it’s starting up again now. They have to have a special permit (only the locals of this village are allowed these) and they go over the Shipki La (pass). They trade kerosene, cigarettes, etc. The ITBP – India Tibet Border Patrol – post is 3 km away and only local with these passes can go past there. Many locals have to go up this way to manage their flocks of goats or sheep.

We thought we’d go for a look at this ITBP for ourselves. So we ambled along on this comfortable flat 3 km walk and wandered into the compound like we were allowed to or something. We approached fairly slowly, of course, to allow them to fire shots into the air if they didn’t want us. No shots ensued, so we continued in. We approached a Sikh guy and chatted with him in our most congenial manner and then asked if we could sit at their picnic table. He accompanied us and I pulled out my little photo album. It was a cunning plan – no Indian can resist a photo book. Within minutes we had most of the soldiers almost inhaling our photos. We told tales of our village and children and they poured us chai.

After a little while, the Area Commander came along. The other soldiers scattered, more chai came out and he too became absorbed in our photos. Then he kindly showed us around the compound – their little Kali temple, the greenhouse and his bunker. We sat in his bunker, which is like a small, half-round barn with a double-door entry, and chatted for a little while. After about half an hour he gave us friendly, firm handshakes and bid us Namaste. We had been dismissed.

It was a very nice walk, the hospitality had been wonderful and we were very happy. We’d gotten as close to Tibet as we couldmet some very nice people and drunk chai in the highest place we could get to in this region. What a day.

2007 #16: Red-Bottomed Bumble-Bees, Sadie the Bat and the Alpha Sheep

No bars on the windows. A very unusual thing in India...

No bars on the windows. A very unusual thing in India…

The animal life in Chitkul is quite different from that of lower altitudes. There are lots of donkeys, no snakes and I didn’t meet one single cow wandering around the village, as they do lower down in India.

I was trying to think what was so different about the buildings, aside from the fact they’re a different shape, when it finally dawned on me – there are no bars on the windows. Hah – no monkeys! You almost need bars to keep the insect life out at night time though. We watched that many moths, etc, do a kamakazi act into the candles that we lost count. But several times a bat (who we decided shall be hereonout christened ‘Sadie’) flew into our veranda room and did several sweeps up around the ceiling before exiting again. My partner tried to tell me tales about bats loving to get tangled up in blonde hair, but I wasn’t falling for that one. Besides, after my imaginary snow leopard scenario the other night, a little bat certainly wasn’t going to scare me! Funny how men remain boys in some ways.

I listened to the donkeys braying on a regular basis – almost every hour, on the hour. Village News or security force? “Nine o’clock and all is well. Squeek-haw, squeek-haw.” I realised that that noisy part of their braying is when they inhale. The squeek comes out upon exhaling. They’re not overly endowed with dignity in the first place, but this really blows it out the window for them.

Donkey with cobwebs all over his head. Lordy knows what he's been up to...

Donkey with cobwebs all over his head. Lordy knows what he’s been up to…

One day, we were sitting outside the little tiny grocery store, when I saw a sheep that seemed to wander round the village quite regularly. A mountain dog nearby wandered up to it. I tensed a bit, as the dog was quite big and no one was guarding the sheep. But the sheep and the dog sniffed each other for a little while, then the dog started licking the sheep’s underjaw and grovelling at it, the way a beta dog will grovel to an alpha dog in the pack. The sheep lorded it over the dog for a while, then wandered off on it’s way again. This sheep must have been hand-reared and grew up thinking it was Alpha Sheep. The things you see when you’re doing the shopping.

I took a photo also of one of the bumble-bees living in our veranda room. They’re a bit smaller than our New Zealand bumble-bees, and have cute little fuzzy red backsides. I had a bit of a chat with them about the fact that we were paying rent and they weren’t, but they didn’t seem phased by this one bit. So we came to an agreement – I wouldn’t stand on them and they wouldn’t bite me. There was one, however, who was obviously a bee of little brain, and thought it would be okay to live on the floor. I carefully picked him up and put him on the table, but he stubbornly crawled to the edge and tumbled back down to the floor again. So I just made note of where he was and got on with my crossword. After a little while, something started tickling me – he was now crawling up my foot. So I just stuck my whole leg out the window, shook it around a bit, and off he flew into the wild blue yonder. In the process, however, I managed to confirm to our fellow house-dwellers that I was completely and utterly mad. From down below, they couldn’t see the bumble-bee – only my leg waggling out the upstairs window. I wonder if any of them have cancelled their plans to visit New Zealand…

The Himalayan Red-Bottomed Bumble Bee

The Himalayan Red-Bottomed Bumble Bee

2007 #15: In Which God WILL Have His Little Joke

Another day went by, consisting of lolling, drinking chai and chatting. We had an afternoon rest from this exhausting business in our concrete cell, reading and doing crosswords. A local guy went past our open window (which wasn’t actually very public at all), happened to notice us (hmmm) and insisted he was coming around to the front for a chat. My partner cut him off before he got to the door (I was feeling too lazy for talking) and he turned out to be one of the local schoolteachers. So somehow my partner ended up at his place, tasting the local brew (Angori), which has the kick of a bee-stung donkey and smells like tequila. It transpired that this guy found out I was a teacher (all right, literacy tutor, but YOU try explaining that to them), and he wanted us to visit the school the next day. So we found ourselves entered into his appointment book.

Meanwhile, we waited like vultures for the people upstairs in the only room with a bathroom and hot water to hurry up and vacate. It was quite a humourous situation, as they knew we were waiting for it, but liked the village so much they kept staying for ‘just one more night’. If they were horrible people we would have resented them, but they were very nice and we got on well, so we just kept patiently doing our vulture act and they kept staying on and apologising.

We, being more and more onto it as we spend more time in the mountains, had ordered some mutton to be brought back to the village by our guesthouse owner, Raj, who to our great delight turned out to be a fabulous cook. If you want mutton (all else here is vegetarian – not a chicken in sight), you have to ask for it well ahead of time. We’d ordered ours two days earlier, so when he finally arrived back from a trip down to the next village to pay his tax, we rubbed our hands together with glee at the thought of having meat in our food again. And it was as wonderful as we expected. We ended up sharing the veranda outside our room with various other tourists staying here also, and that evening I think they came to the conclusion we were mad, as we kept getting up to take photos of the moths on the walls. They couldn’t seem to rustle up the same excitement as we had about the fact there were at least fifteen different kinds of moths right in front of our eyes. Sad how some people just overlook the beauty of nature if it’s not more that three feet tall. Poor God – all that effort…

The next day – oh joy of joys, the room-with-a-bathroom-of-it’s-own people had vacated. We wasted no time. I’ve never seen my partner pack and haul his belongings so quickly. In fact, almost before I could turn around, he’d hauled most of my stuff up there also. The entrance to this room is a bit of a hard case, as Raj had added the ‘suite’ fairly recently and hadn’t bothered to create any additional stairs for it. So we had to go up the stairs leading to the balcony next door to the room and then climb into ours. We made mental notes to take extra care with descent, particularly if we came into contact with the local brew again.

This suite was well worth the wait. Not only did it have a bathroom with hot water AND a western toilet and a sink (which did not work but decorated the bathroom well in all its porcelein grandness), but it had a private enclosed porch also, complete with two big stuffed easychairs. Oh heaven!

However. God will have his little joke and decided that on this day and the day following, all power will be off in the village until after dark, so that the locals could install a couple of new streetlights somewhere yonder. And what does a hot water cylinder run on? That’s right – electricity. “So what?'”you say. “Have your shower at night time.” And I put it to you to have a shower in what still amounts to a concrete shell, albeit with a layer of paint over it, with only gauze in the window to NOT keep the cold out, ankle-deep in cold water as always, at 3,500 metres at night time, not forgetting to wash your very long hair, and keeping in mind that you have no towel to dry with, leave alone a hairdryer. Don’t forget to peek fondly out the gauze at the snow-capped peaks while you’re at it. Then you come on back to me and tell me what fun it was.

Aside from that, we loved our little suite and wallowed in our private porch and revelled in finally being able to loll with our feet up whilst looking down at the world going by. In private.

Once having moved and sated ourselves with food and chai, lolled and gloried in our new-found grandiosity, we trotted off down to the village to visit the little school we had walked past many times. We were invited in and offered a seat with the utmost of politeness, and then the schoolteachers looked at us as if to ask why we were there exactly. Finally, the message got through that we were indeed ensconced in the wrong school. Bugger! I knew immediately what was going to happen. I had witnessed older school children coming up the hill from the river, when sitting at “The Great Hindustani Dhaba” sipping on chai. Indeed, I had glanced down the hill when going past one day. Right at the very bottom, way way way down there, was a building. And sure enough, it was confirmed that this was indeed the other school – the Chitkul High School (which in this case was a Definate contradiction in terms. God laughing again?…). And we all know when you go down, what happens when you want to go in the opposite direction? You go UP. Dammit! I HATE hills when I have to walk up them. My partner doesn’t seem to have the same aversion to inclines that I have, and laughed at me when I wondered aloud if there were any donkeys for hire. Grrr. It’s disgusting how he almost skips merrily uphill while I stop every minute or so to puff and gasp, almost strangled from lack of oxygen. Who would’ve thought my ancestors come from the Highlands of Scotland while his come from comparatively flat Ireland.

Anyway, the school visit was fun. When we first got there, there was a line of female students lined up alongside the stone wall in the yard, sitting cross-legged and reading out loud to themselves from books. Their teacher was just hanging around looking superior. He came up and talked to us, and much to my alarm, one of his jobs was English teacher. This alarm was due to the fact I had to ask himself to repeat what he said several times because his accent was so thick. Erm – bit of a worry really.

We were then invited into the Headmaster’s office, which contained the rest of the teachers (all male) who were sitting around yakking and playing what looked like a game of pool on a legless square table, without a pool cue. There was a ramshackle, home-made-looking woodstove in the centre of the room, upon which a girl student was instructed to make the lot of us a pot of chai.

Outside, a gong was struck and lots of students piled out of the other rooms and started a game of volleyball. I was so hot in the headmaster’s room that I asked if it was okay to go out and talk with the students. I pulled out a ball and introduced the girls to the game of Hackey, in which you kick this little ball up in the air and try to keep it up while not using your hands. This was somewhat of a challenge, seeing as the local game here was volleyball. I wondered aloud why they didn’t play cricket here, as is normal in India, but when my partner told me to try playing cricket on the side of a mountain I immediately saw the sense in it.

It was a great visit, and I shan’t spoil this tale with graphic details on how I nearly died getting back up the hill again. Suffice it to say, I did survive, and in fact by the time we got back to our room a cold shower was starting to look quite attractive.

There’s a silver lining in every cloud, is there not?

2007 #14: The Great Hindustani Dhaba That Wasn’t

Kids coming home from school, carrying their slates, which are still used up in these parts. On the right you can see a 'Debta' post - very strong magic. Chitkul.

Kids coming home from school, carrying their slates, which are still used up in these parts. On the right you can see a ‘Debta’ post – very strong magic. Chitkul.

Something we came across here in Chitkul was the occasional “Debta” (sp) stones. There was often a patch nearby where a fire had obviously been going. These stones are two or three feet high, stand alone and are not to be touched. A local guy we chatted with (who’d been university educated) told us that when he was a kid and hadn’t learned about this taboo yet, he touched one of them and his skin erupted with horrible sores. So we made very sure to keep an eye out for them and not bang into any accidentally. Okay, it may not be part of our belief system, but we had no problem respecting the locals’ beliefs and customs.

After a wonderful day strolling around the village, we found out that the new restaurant that was being built (‘The Great Himalayan Restaurant’) and wasn’t open yet, was actually open if you could find the chef  ‘Bobby’ and sweet-talk him into cooking for you. He just wasn’t into crowds so he hid a lot. So I sat at the only other dhaba available (‘The Great Hindustani Dhaba’) while my partner went to use his charms on Bobby. The Great Hindustani Dhaba advertised on a large sign outside the door the following: ‘Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Chinese, Food, Chomin, Momo, Thuppa, Tea, Coffee, Cold drinks’. I grinned as various silly thoughts went through my head. How did they cook their Chinese? Did they have to chase them down first? In which case, were they tough to eat? Were they willing to serve them with Chomin, or were they a stand-alone dish?

The Great Hindustani Dhaba. Get your 2-minute noodles here...

The Great Hindustani Dhaba. Get your 2-minute noodles here…

I have no idea what a ‘thuppa’ is, but when we first got here we were delighted to see we could get Momo (Tibetan dumplings, a favourite of mine) at this dhaba. Except we couldn’t. Because the man who made the Momo had gone elsewhere (no further explanation). Upon enquiring about the ‘Chinese’ and ‘Chomin’ (Chow Mein), it turned out the afore-mentioned absent guy was also the cook of these things. The only thing the remaining guy could cook us in the late afternoon BEFORE dinnertime (at which time he apparently shuts the door) was a packet of Maggi 2-Minute Noodles each. And these took about thirty minutes to get to us from the time of asking. We were starting to catch on that all was not as meets the eye in this ONE AND ONLY daily eating establishment.

So I sat and sipped my chai (which this guy was able to brew with reasonable competance) and crossed fingers that Bobby and my partner got on well together. As it turned out, they did, and my partner came back with a 7.30pm dinner appointment for us. So a little later we left our room and went back down to the restaurant, and imagine our surprise when we found it half full of very loud-talking tourists who’s country of origin I will not mention here. The secret was out! So much for our quiet little tete-a-tete over candlelight with gentle music in the background. However, the food was varied and fabulous, and even if we couldn’t hear it over the talking, there was gentle music playing in the background.

The Great Himalayan Restaura...

The Great Himalayan Restaura…

Having eaten, we wandered back to our room, indulged in a tot or two of Southern
Comfort, which always goes down so well in the mountain air, and danced under the stars to Santana with an audience of bats and a firefly or two.

The next day a few of the local women turned up, and after a few minutes of confusion it became clear that they wanted to see the little movie of my partner’s daughters (7 and 3 yrs) dancing back at home. They were absolutely delighted at this miracle of technology and the cuteness of the girls. We were to see these women go by every day after that and they always waved cheerfully or stopped for a quick chat.

The local ladies marvelling at the technology we bought with us (digital camera) and getting all gaga over the cute little girls on the video.

The local ladies marvelling at the technology we bought with us (digital camera) and getting all gaga over the cute little girls on the video.

After breakfast and chai, I did some of my washing before it came crawling out of my backpack of it’s own volition. Mountain water is cold! My hands became so numb I had to take time out to warm them up again before wringing my clothes. We also acquired a couple of the local-style coats, tailor-made with goats wool (I think). This was most fortuitous, as there is no market here, no shops selling garments and when we enquired, we found that all the tailors in the village were too busy to take on any more work. I won’t say who or where we got these coats from, because as the days went by we noticed that we were the only foreigners wearing them, so we gathered it was just a quiet little transaction with a person who had somewhere along the line come to the conclusion that he’d feel okay about trading with us. This trade transpired while no one else was around and nothing more was mentioned, although we saw one or two double-takes by some of the locals, and the odd little grin in the corner of the mouth of the guy we got them from. These jackets are worth their weight in gold. They are extremely warm and very windproof, and we had no problem with the cold once we donned them. Apart from bedtime, they were to stay on us for the rest of our stay in the village.

Donkey power and legs - the only form of transport in the village. This villager wears one of the beautifully-cut jackets favoured by the locals.

Donkey power and legs – the only form of transport in the village. This villager wears one of the beautifully-cut jackets favoured by the locals.

Again, we wandered around this beautiful place, looking and marvelling. We stopped and talked with four carvers who were working under a tarpaulin, on the new Debi temple in the temple square. They were very nice guys and their work is exquisite. Apparently they’ve been hired by the ‘Archeological Foundation’ or some such outfit, and they are given lodging, food, local brew and 250 rupees a day. This is a brilliant wage as far as India goes. No wonder they’re so content – they get to be creative and are paid very well for it. Wonderful.

Carver at the Devi Temple construction site.

Carver at the Devi Temple construction site.

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2007 #13: Snow-Leopards and Flesh-Eating Snails

The village of Chitkul, below the Kinnaur Kailash mountain range, Himalayas. Over that snowy peak is Tibet.

The village of Chitkul, below the Kinnaur Kailash mountain range, Himalayas. Over that snowy peak is Tibet.

For me, the first night’s sleep in Chitkul was terrible. I think it was from overtiredness, but I went to bed super early, had a crappy sleep then woke up at about 4.30 am and ended up sitting outside on the veranda with my trusty torch wondering what to do with myself. I really needed to go to the toilet, but, having heard Raj’s (guesthouse owner) tale about a snow leopard taking his large, male donkey away for a meal a few months ago – just down the hill a little bit – I was just too much of a fraidy cat to go along the veranda and around the corner to the concrete box that contained the necessary hole in the ground. It was very, very dark, we were way up in the mountains, nobody else was around, and although I like to think I don’t resemble a donkey in any way, what if there was a snow leopard that needed glasses crouching in the shadows, just waiting for me to be at my most vulnerable with my pants down? Okay, I could close the bathroom door and be safely inside with whatever creatures lurk inside such less-than-salubrious surroundings, but what if the short-sighted snow-leopard sat outside the door and trapped me there until I could yell for help in the morning? These, and other wonderful-to-read-in-a-book-about-it-happening-to-somebody-else visions swam round and round in my head until I finally gave up and went back to bed with my legs crossed. My partner, as per usual, was comfortably asleep, blissfully unaware of the incredible dangers I had just avoided, and I lay there in our concrete cell waiting for dawn to throw it’s disgustingly cheerful sunrays over the mountain tops again and bring with it the sanity of daylight.

My partner, once awake and in a disgustingly cheerful mood, thought this was the funniest thing he’d heard in ages. He really can be quite unchivalrous at times. For the rest of our stay in Chitkul I had to put up with little jibes about snow leopards, killer donkeys and other such witticisms from him. I confess to wishing that he would one day be trapped in a toilet with a giant flesh-eating snail or that a crow would follow him round the village for a day trying to bite his bum every minute or so.

After a crappy cup of coffee and an absolutely wonderful three or so cups of chai, I began to feel a little more human again. The view from our guesthouse was fantastic. We were sitting amonst the giants of the world – huge mountains with glaciers and snowy tops, and clouds constantly dancing around them. Every few minutes the clouds shifted and we had an entirely different view to look at. And to our left, a wonderful snow-capped peak called Kinnaur Kailash. Over that peak – Tibet, the border only 60 km away. Mindboggling. It was hard to believe we were really there.

We went for a walk around the village. An absolutely exquisite place, steeped in history and culture. The buildings were made of wood, or wood and stone, with pitched roofs covered with slate, or in some cases, corrugated iron (a much cheaper alternative). There were many little storehouses dotted all over the village with hay stored in the roof, grains, etc, stored in the second story of some and (I think) oils stored in the bottom. They all had huge, old metal locks on the tiny doors. We figured they must send the kids in to deal with the stores, because the doors were too small for adults to go through.

A storehouse with an old padlock on one of its small doors. Each family has a storehouse of their own. Chitkul.

A storehouse with an old padlock on one of its small doors. Each family has a storehouse of their own. Chitkul.

A village elder walks up one of the village's steep paths. Chitkul.

A village elder walks up one of the village’s steep paths. Chitkul.

Chitkul houses constructed of wood and stone, with slate quarried locally on the roof of most of them.

Chitkul houses constructed of wood and stone, with slate quarried locally on the roof of most of them.

Every second step we took, we stopped to take photos, gasp with wonder then take more photos. There were waterways everywhere with little bridges and the occasional water-driven grinding mill across them. The people all wear ‘topi’ – wool-felt hats with one side that is green. They’re very gentle, quietly friendly people here and we had some nice conversations. On our way down the path by the primary school, we sat and watched some school children going home. They were going past a women who was crouched down with them, giving them something. As we got up to carry on walking, she rushed up to me and gave me two pieces of flat bread with what looked like a cake of honey and seeds on it. She gestured that one was for me and one was for my partner. I was quite bowled over by this kindness to complete strangers. And the food was absolutely delicious. Bless her lovely heart.

A millhouse straddles one of the streams in Chitkul.

A millhouse straddles one of the streams in Chitkul.

Beneath the millhouse. Chitkul.

Beneath the millhouse. Chitkul.

Local women with their 'topi's' (hats), denoting that they are 'Kinnauries' - from the Kinnaur districts of Himachel Pradesh, Himalayas. Chitkul.

Local women with their ‘topi’s’ (hats), denoting that they are ‘Kinnauries’ – from the Kinnaur districts of Himachel Pradesh, Himalayas. Chitkul.

2007 #12: Mountainside Audits and Goats Horn Cells

Part of the road we traveled to get to Chitkul, Himalayas.

Part of the road we traveled to get to Chitkul, Himalayas.

Finally, we got onto the final bus of our burst up the mountains. This was fun as well. We were tearing along quite nicely, when suddenly the bus driver screams to a halt after a landrover passes us. The guys got out of the landrover, boarded the bus and demanded to see everyone’s tickets. This turned out to be an audit! How about that – you’re most the way up the Himalayas and bureaucracy still manages to find you and wants to check the paperwork. Well, that’s India for ya.

The conductor of the bus told us it was not possible to get to Chitkul (where we were heading) but only to the village before it. But then we stopped at a river where the road had been washed away. The conductor got off, checked to possibility of us getting across it, and once we had made it across he charged us 10 more rupees and said they could take us to Chitkul after all. It seems that the road first has to be passable before they’ll admit to being able to take you there. This had me praying that there would be no monsoon rains for the few days we would be in this village, causing us to become local inhabitants until next summer.

Finally we made it to Chitkul. I had to kind of instruct my body how to get off the bus, because it certainly wasn’t volunteering by itself. I had no idea how tired a body can get until this journey. It was raining and cold and we were now at 3500 metres – the highest I’ve ever been. We’re talking 60 kms from the Tibetan border. Fortunately, there was a Guesthouse a few metres away. Unfortunately, they had decided to use their “summer season” to paint the place. Fortunately, they had an empty room with it’s own bathroom. Unfortunately, they were using enamel paint and this room was freshly painted. Try that after days of busrides and mountain roads coupled with complete exhaustion. We turned that room down and he showed us another one in another part of the building. If it wasn’t for the fact I was busting to go to the toilet, we may have applied a little more discretion to the choosing of our accommodation. As it was, we threw our packs down in the room and I raced off down the hall, down the dodgy steps and into the closet/dungeon they said was a bathroom. Having got that over with, I went back into the room and reeled at the smell of only slightly less fresh paint than the other room.

So we decided to go for a wander and see what other accommodation was available in this little town. Finally we found another place – Raj’s Guesthouse – after wandering up and down goat tracks for a while, and chose to stay there instead. We had the choice between the room with the curly goat horns above the door, or the one with straight goat horns. One of the ‘boys’ came back with us to help with our luggage, and no matter how we tried to explain to the owner of the first place that we just couldn’t live amongst paint fumes without throwing up on the floor of his wonderful and salubrious establishment, he still insisted we pay 100 rupees before he would allow us to book out. We hadn’t even been living there for an hour yet! In the end we paid, because we just had to get away from the fumes, and off we went back up the goat tracks to deposit our belongings in the goats-horn cell we had volunteered for instead.

Me at the goatshorn-topped entrance of our room, Chitkul.

Me at the goatshorn-topped entrance of our room, Chitkul.

Raj's Guesthouse, Chitkul. The top of the stone steps to the left is at exactly 3,500 meters from sea level.

Raj’s Guesthouse, Chitkul. The top of the stone steps to the left is at exactly 3,500 meters from sea level.

2007 #11: The “Oh God Save Me” Mountain Bus Experience

We were very lucky to be on a bus with quite good seats. This meaning our knees did not touch the seats in front of us. The ride was very mountainous, which I was to find out as we went along meant full of curves and alarming drops over the sides of quite narrow roads.

The mountain dips down to taste a truck - will it eat it or will it let it pass?

The mountain dips down to taste a truck – will it eat it or will it let it pass?

The mountains have jaws, and now and again they clamp down on a passing bus or truck.

The mountains have jaws, and now and again they clamp down on a passing bus or truck.

The bus driver was full of confidence, so he had no problem driving on these roads at the pace of a speeding bullet. This is not to say there weren’t warning signs, such as driving past trucks with “Oh God Save Me” painted on the sides and and local people needing to lean over us and throw up out the window. Too late – we’d already paid the ticket, boarded, and had very little chance of getting of aside from doing a 007 number out the door. Due to the lack of a helicopter fortuitously hovering beside us, we decided to stay aboard and take our chances.

If you look at the left of the photo, you can see a road winding along there. It looks low from here, but it's still a few hundred feet up...

If you look at the left of the photo, you can see a road winding along there. It looks low from here, but it’s still a few hundred feet up…

It doesn't pay to look up. There are rocks everywhere held up by little tiny stones, just dying to come down and meet ya...

It doesn’t pay to look up. There are rocks everywhere held up by little tiny stones, just dying to come down and meet ya…

The old man passed the blessed food around and people put rupees in his tray. He wouldn't accept any money from us though. Not sure why.

The old man passed the blessed food around and people put rupees in his tray. He wouldn’t accept any money from us though. Not sure why.

Very shaky because I took it out the bus window. This old man is a hermit and that doorway is the entrance to his cave. The bus stopped and he got on and passed around 'prasad' - blessed food. What exactly was he saying...?

Very shaky because I took it out the bus window. This old man is a hermit and that doorway is the entrance to his cave. The bus stopped and he got on and passed around ‘prasad’ – blessed food. What exactly was he saying…?

I some villages the tribes will have their own king - he gets to have the tallest house in the village.

I some villages the tribes will have their own king – he gets to have the tallest house in the village.

Yup, that's a glacier. We went past several of these. Sangla District, Himalayas.

Yup, that’s a glacier. We went past several of these. Sangla District, Himalayas.

The only highlight of this trip really was stopping at an “Aryan Tibetan” cafe, which served the first Momo’s we’d had here since last year. Absolutely delicious, as usual. By the time the bus arrived at Sangla, 11 hours or so after we started, the novelty of the bus ride had pretty much worn off. We hiked about 1km up a slight gradient, which felt like Mt Everest because we were stuffed and now getting up a lot more in altitude, and found ourselves a Guesthouse to stay in. We were given a room with a nice mountainy view (of course – what else are you going to see in the mountains?…) and flopped onto the bed to enjoy stretching out and not moving any more. After a while we tried all the light switches, which by now was becoming a bit of a game. Sure enough, we had about 6 switches and 2 of them actually did something to do with illumination. Another rang a bell downstairs, which I didn’t realise, and this caused a bit of confusion when the “boy” knocked on the door and asked us what we wanted, while we asked what he wanted, and we all stood around trying to figure out what was going on. Another funny thing was, even though we were in a double room, they only provided us with one towel. Never mind, we had 2 corners each, and when you have no towels in your luggage at all (use a sarong), this is the height of luxury.

A little later, down in the dining room, we tried to explain to the staff, who had about as much English as we had Hindi, the concept of putting onions with the fried mutton that was on the menu. I think they thought we were crazy as they had not heard of doing this before. It was akin to suggesting we would eat the wool and not the sheep or something, in their minds. Anyway, we ended up with something with meat in it, as well as yummy veges. Aside from the fact they had the t.v. turned up to screaming pitch on the counter and the forks were so thin they actually bent when introduced to mashed potato, it was a good meal.

And then – to sleep.

Looking up the wild and beautiful Sangla Valley.

Looking up the wild and beautiful Sangla Valley.

The village of Sangla.

The village of Sangla.

Aha! Momo territory. When I see these sorts of buildings, I start looking around for momo signs. Tibetan dumplings - yum!

Aha! Momo territory. When I see these sorts of buildings, I start looking around for momo signs. Tibetan dumplings – yum!