Singalila Ridge

Above, you see one of the countless iterations of the Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum that we passed on our trek along Singalila Ridge.  We set off five days ago from the Indian side of the ridge, but crossed into Nepal many times along the way.  Each time we re-entered India, a soldier carrying an M-16 recorded every detail from our passports and had each of us, Phoebe included, sign the official Indian Army ledger before we could pass. The Nepalese Border Guard apparently had the week off, as we were more often greeted by a chicken or a cow than a human when we walked into Nepal.

I am no expert, but my hasty research suggests that a single, definitive interpretation of the above mantra has eluded scholars to this day.  At the same time, this mantra is said to contain all of the Buddha’s teaching within just a handful of syllables.  Om itself, a foundational term for Hindus and Buddhists, has hundreds of meanings, the most common of which appears to be “The Primordial Sound.” Or the Sound of One Hand Clapping.  One researcher has determined that the frequency of Om matches that of the rotation of our own planet, which is to say that the Earth itself chants Om.

Whatever the case, thoughts like these seem much more within reach in a place like the one we’ve just visited than our other stops in India.  From 11,000 feet above the sea on a Himalayan ridge, the grime and sonic clutter of Delhi and the Rajasthani markets and streets, not to mention an emergency room in Agra, are a long way away. Kerala, where life seems to move at a slower pace, may have offered a sample or two of the Primordial Sound.  Floating on the backwaters of Alleppey, as much a tourist staple as any in India save for the Taj Mahal, one could easily slip into an Om-powered trance. In Fort Kochi, we attended a Kathakali dance performance where the MC flipped a switch on a small black box that produced a fabulous sitar-like drone to support his own chanting and the dancers’ dancing. An admirable attempt at The Sound of the Universe. Wish I had a better photo.

There was silence to be found in Goa, but it came in the form of surly Russians who wanted no part of us Loud Americans at a fancy hotel.

Back to the trek. Our route covered about 35 miles over 5 days, starting at 6,000 feet.  We followed the Singalila Ridge northeast from Chitrey, always in the direction of Kanchenjunga, the third-highest peak in the world. Our highest point was about 12,000 feet, where we slept at a spectacular spot called Sandakphu. The path was mostly a very rough cobblestone road, and we were amazed to see several jeeps packed with Indian tourists making the drive. We were told later that Bengalis will refuse to walk when any motorized transport is available, and I believe it now.  You would have to really hate walking to put up with that drive. We were lucky to have our guide, Santosh, and three ponies to lighten our loads and carry the occasional kid who needed a break from the walk.

We stopped for lunches and for overnights in teahouses along the way. The level of luxury varied, but none offered heat or hot water. A private bathroom was a treat. We were told to lock our door at all times in one place. Food was basic but hot and we were always happy to see it: noodle soup, dal, porridge, hard boiled eggs.  And tea everywhere we turned.

Moving back and forth between India and Nepal, we found the freedom to be both loud and contemplative. We passed the time on the trail with dozens of rounds of Twenty Questions, and argued over games of War each night in the teahouse dining rooms.

We talked about highs and lows of our big trip so far, and the subjects of Home and What We Miss About It came up far more often than in the past.

We often slept six to a room and three to a bed to cope with the below-freezing temps and lack of heating. This made it possible for us to pass around Phoebe’s copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, taking turns reading it aloud at bedtime. We experienced high drama when Coco’s pony was spooked by a passing Jeep and almost sent her, headfirst, over a cliff. And we woke before dawn to watch in silence as the Sun rose over Everest and Kangchenjunga.

It is probably lazy to think that the stillness of that dawn, or the slow whoosh of wind through the bamboo forest on our final descent from Singalila, might represent the Primordial Sound more closely than the insanity of a Delhi intersection at rush hour.  The Earth chants Om, after all, not a bunch of cars and rickshaws. But these are all part of life, and certainly all part of India. I’m glad that we’ve been able to see them firsthand.

In closing, here’s a shot of Phoebe winding up to whack William with all of her might. Way off in the background are Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu – three of the highest mountains on Earth. Insanity and the (almost) Primordial, neatly wrapped up in one photo.


Our Kanchenjunga Base Camp

When Sir Edmund Hilary climbed Mt. Everest, he left from Darjeeling. Now, the entry point for the epic climb is Katmandu.  On our trip, we prefer to keep it real.  We are gearing up and getting acclimated for our Himalayan trek here in Darjeeling (which we’ve learned is properly pronounced with the emphasis on the ‘Dar’ rather than on the ‘jeel’ we all stress when discussing the tea).  Not a bad spot.  Here is the view from our cozy guesthouse.

This is the view from our balcony, which looks east.  In the distance, you see the Bhutan mountain range beyond which lies China.

Our trek on the Singalila Ridge won’t take us quite as far as Hilary went, but we’re told we’ll have jawdropping views of the Everest range and an even more astounding look at Mount Kanchenjunga, which, at 28,169 feet, is the third highest mountain in the world. Comprising 5 separate peaks, Kanchenjunga stretches across the border of Sikkim, India into eastern Nepal. Below is our first view of the mystical range, which we caught on Monday as we first drove into town.

I say mystical because Kanchenjunga has long been worshipped as a spiritual place by the people of Sikkim and Darjeeling. I also found myself worshipping the mountain a bit as our sighting of it signified the end of the most white-knuckled drive I personally have ever experienced (from the airport in Bagdograh up to Darjeeling).  The concept of guardrails on steep, curvey, impossibly narrow mountain roads apparently has little meaning here in West Bengal.

Kanchenjunga was first climbed by two Brits in 1955. They stopped just short of the summit in order to keep a promise to the Sikkim monarch that they would not violate the sanctity of the top of the mountain.  Since then, no climber has violated the tradition.  We’re thinking well leave it intact as well….

In fact, our trek will take us no higher than about 12k feet, but it still promises to be quite an adventure.  We’ll sleep as high as 11,000 feet on at least one night and we’re told the temperatures may dip as low as negative 10 degrees Celsius.

Until now, we’ve spent almost all of the trip in tropical or near tropical climes, so we’d long planned to outfit ourselves with warm clothes once we reached this mountain town. The gear is here, with Northface, or at least very well done Northface counterfeits, readily available.  Our problem lay, once again, in the Modi demonetization. When purchasing Northface, real or not, the rupees add up. And as in most of India most of the Darjeeling shops do not take credit cards. Once again, we’ve gotten by, due in large part to the understanding and patience of a kind Indian we met, who offered to accept a wire for our purchases and then gave us a sizeable discount.  He was really worried about the littlest of us being cold if we skimped.

Well outfitted and ready for our departure tomorrow, we spent today wandering the city.  We visited the Himalayan Mountain Institute, a shrine to Everest expeditions, with a fascinating emphasis on Tenzig Norway.

We had tea at the iconic Glenary’s, founded by the British when they still controlled the area and now run by a Tibetan family.  They have a wonderful bakery and chocolate plus views to die for.

We watched football with the locals in the square and then continued to fortify and hydrate with Nepalese momos (chicken dumplings and now Coco’s new favorite food) and exotic mocktails.

It’s been a time to remember and the trek hasn’t even started yet.
We’re thinking of everyone back home on this Thanksgiving Eve.  To be honest, it’s a little hard to imagine turkey and pie and football from here. It’s very easy, however, to count the many, many things we have to be thankful for this year.

Namaste and Gobble Gobble.


Cash Money…

After trying and failing at three ATMs on the way to the Goa Airport…

…we were finally able to get some valid rupees at the airport’s forex desk.  What you see in this pic are some of the brand spanking new Rs 2000 notes the government printed and began issuing to coincide with the demonitisation of the old Rs 500 and 1000 notes.

There is relief for sure, but also frustration and skepticism, among our group.  We paid a large “credit card transaction fee” on top of an exorbitant exchange rate to get these rupees.  (As I explained to Coco, “exorbitant” means we got ripped off.)
Also, we’ve heard that very few merchants are willing to take the Rs 2000 notes for purchases less than Rs 1500.  So that means we may not be able to use these bills for a lot of the things we actually need cash for: bottled water, snacks, tips, and taxis.
I will admit it feels good to have some cash in hand.  And I’m well aware that things are MUCH better for us than they are for hundreds of millions of Indians, for whom the positive attitude I reported earlier appears to be wearing thin.

One nontrivial issue people are facing: the country is headed into the height of the wedding season, and while the government has raised the limit for those who can prove their withdrawing cash for wedding expenses, many tell us the limit is not nearly high enough to cover basic costs. Meanwhile, the papers include reports of the lavish weddings hosted and being planned by high government officials.

Double standard alive and well here on the subcontinent….