Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

Monthly archive August, 2011
Leh it on me!

Leh it on me!

When we mentioned to a friend that we planned to travel to Leh and he became super animated and excited for us. “Beautiful! Leh is beautiful. But it has one problem.”  In all seriousness he said, “Leh lacks oxygen.”

Beautiful Breathtaking Leh

Leh is tiny Buddhist city nestled in the Himalaya mountains. The entire city is bathed in searing light and the white stone buildings glow against the mountain desert. Gompas, prayer flags and stupas line dot the barren landscape. Monks and women carrying prayer wheels walk in the shade of the huge Potala replica that looms over the city.

It’s a stunning site but our friend was right.  You absolutely can not breathe.

Prayer wheels and cell phones

It’s difficult to catch your breath as you casually stroll downhill. Simple things like showering too vigorously can send your head into a spin. I constantly found myself trying to take huge gulps of air and panicking when I couldn’t fill my lungs. It’s not uncommon to spot a tourist sitting on the side of the road, eyes bulging, chest heaving, trying their best to simply breathe.

Mini Potala Palace in Leh

So in that environment the only thing we could think to do was TAKE IT UP ANOTHER 1,500 KM!

Need LESS Oxygen!

Vin and I teamed up with a few Frenchies and an Englishman to form team ‘Full Power!’

India has many, many amazing expressions. In casual conversation people will bust out with things like, “No worry, no hurry. No chicken, no curry” and the ever popular “First Class!” (Vinnie heard this the street everyday. Someone would call out to him, “Boss! That is a FIRST CLASS mustache!”) One of the most famed Indianism has to be “FULL POWER!” Anything and everything worth buying/eating/visiting/seeing was FULL POWER!

So on the way when the car broke down, we continued on with FULL POWER!

The trip starts off well...

When we hit a swiftly flowing river, we found a way to cross it with FULL POWER!

FULL POWER river crossing!

When the dizzies set in and we  nearly fell off a cliff, team FULL POWER was there to help!

Team Full Power!

The hike had no trail markers instead we were told to follow the path of donkey crap to find our way. Surprisingly this worked. Donkeys and their droppings were are hiking partners the entire climb and honestly, they are the only creatures cut out for moving at this altitude.

Don't get stuck downwind!

Our first day of hiking ended at a nearly empty Ladakhi village 4,000 meters above sea level. Giant stone stupas lined the path to the village where the 50 villagers poked their heads out of their mud homes and welcomed us with smiles. It’s always amazing to realize how many cultural divides can be crossed with just a smile.

Family house in Rumback

The village water supply

We spent the night sleeping on a mattress on the dirt floor in the home of a young family. After a fantastic dinner of potato and spinach momos (Love those momos!) we settled in for the night, only to be abruptly woken by the frightening bray of a donkey. And then the screech of a goat. And the wail of several unidentified animals. It was the soundtrack to a horror film or noises heard nowhere else but a delivery room. Clearly we are not farm folks.

Bull!

It turns out we’re not billy goats either and the next day of a vertical hiking proved very, very difficult.

We started out early, aimlessly walking through a vast valley surrounded by soaring cliffs. How were were expected to cross? There was no break in the vertical wall of mountain, no pass or even a smaller looking mountain.

The road to nowhere

Our eyes did not deceive us.  We walked over a vertical kilometer to the top of the Stok mountain pass.  In the thin air, on a tiny gravel path used by donkeys and criminally insane backpackers.

Keeping our energy up during the climb

We walked until we had to climb. Then we climbed until we had to crawl using every muscle to propel our bodies up another foot. We gave it a FULL POWER effort but every five minutes one of us would collapse to the ground, gasping for breath, fighting the dizzies and trying to stay on the path. We were in constant danger of passing out and rolling off a cliff.

It took four hours to reach the top. And I would love to say that once at the peak we enjoyed the sweet smell of success but honestly we couldn’t breathe at all. It wasn’t until we had walked down a good 1,500 meters before enough oxygen hit out brain and we basked in the euphoria of walking to the top of the world.

At that point we gave out a scream that echoed from the mountains that once again surrounded us. “FULL POWER!!”

Prayer flags at the top

 

The glamourous life of a backpacker

The glamourous life of a backpacker

Backpacking is certainly not a high class way to travel and in the past few weeks we’ve been discovering how low can we go. Bus rides. Himalaya Mountains. Days and days of jam packed public buses swerving up and down the steepest, most dangerous roads in the world.

One lane road high in the sky - without a guardrail

Surprisingly we weren’t the only people deranged enough to travel for over 76 cumulative hours in cramped, claustrophobic vehicles with crash-prone, slightly stoned drivers. On one particularly grueling, disaster-prone ride there were 7 other countries represented on our bus. It was like the mini-UN with three security council members on board – this helped delude me into thinking that we were safe. After all, what has ever gone wrong at the UN?

Here, today, presented for your amusement and our overwhelming relief that this part of our trip is complete, a run down of our Himalayan bus ride adventures.

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Traffic JAM!

Rishikesh to Manali –  19.5 hours of public bus battering
One would think that after viewing our chariot that we would turn around and head back to Delhi. Instead we boarded early, sliding across the cracked, oil-stained bench seat to grab a spot by the window. When the three-person bench seats were stuffed full and people were standing in the aisle, the bus lurched out of the station.

Public bus. Yes, I'm serious.

It was difficult to breathe; diesel and dust mixed with the fresh air that managed to flow through the small window opening. The whole bus was oddly silent; everyone seemed to be concentrating on the driver, silently supporting him to continue on through the night.

Our happy face

Across from us was a bench packed with four adults and a diaper-less, naked baby who peed out of the window. Occasionally young kids would board the bus, sing at the top of their lungs and beg for change. At one point in the voyage a young woman leaned across several seatmates and began throwing up out of the window. We slid shut our only source of fresh oxygen to avoid the run off.

The bus got stuck in hours of traffic. We did not sleep that night.

Left at 1:45PM: Arrived at 8:30AM: 18 hours

Manali to Leh – Breakdowwn! The 14 hour journey that took 2 days.

We hoped never to repeat the above scenario ever again so instead of taking the much cheaper public bus, we grabbed a minibus to Leh. A caravan of minibuses depart Manali at 3AM and they tend to stick together for the entire 14-hour journey. Our caravan was especially colorful, it included drivers under the influence of mind altering substances, a passenger who nearly died from altitude sickness and lots of momos. (Any trip involving dumplings can’t be THAT bad.)

One of the drivers showed reeking of booze and breath mints – he was absolutely dead drunk. The mini-UN of international passengers rioted, cops were called and after several hours the driver was replaced. This did not ease our mind that the journey over some of the highest mountain passes in the world would be a safe one. Especially when we began to notice the drivers take quick charras breaks…

Stunningly terrifying

But the drunk, stoned drivers weren’t the real problem- those men can drive! The problem was rain.  The mountain paths are 98% dirt and gravel, a monsoon quality downpour can bring traffic to a halt and keep it there for days.  Our minibus caravan ran into a three-hour traffic jam at the Rohtang pass where the mud was knee deep. In the misty morning fog with visibility at exactly 0.06% and the single lane pass covered in mud, I was pretty certain that we weren’t going to make it to Leh.  This suspicion was confirmed ten hours later when we ran into the next major roadblock- two trucks stuck in a roadside waterfall.

Waterlogged!

So with little else to do, the driver turned around and dropped us off at a tent on the side of the road. The inside of the tent was lined with cushions where you could sit down and enjoy a meal or a chai. These cushions also doubled as beds for the displaced.

Home for the night!

That night in the snowy Himalayan mountains at 4,000 meters above sea level, we slept in a circus tent beside 60 other travelers.

Good morning!

Left at 3:00AM:Arrived at 5:30 PM the next day. Total time in van=26 hours, total time traveling 40.5 hours

Leh to Srinagar: OMG! It’s love!

One thing that I did not mention about the minibus is that it’s very, very uncomfortable. The narrow dirt roads are severely pockmarked, causing vans swerve to left and right to avoid the holes. There isn’t much room to swerve on a one way road 3,500 meters above sea level therefore not only do you NOT miss the potholes, you actively hit them – hard. Your ass is blue upon arrival and your head is spinning from the combination of lack of oxygen and being thrown against the glass window several hundred times.

Faced with these conditions, we upgraded once more. With a packed public bus out of the question and the prospect of another minibus ride causing night tremors, we spent big bucks on a miniVAN!

Stunning scenery.

Sure, it was slightly less jarring. And yes, we had space to stretch our legs a bit. But this may have been the worst ride of all.

Our young English van-mates had commandeered the radio and choose to play their new purchace, a 51-track bootleg CD titled, “OMG! It’s love” with such classics as ‘Missing you now’ by Kenny G and Michael Bolton, ‘My Love’, Westlife and ‘Home’ by Daughtery. I wasn’t sure what made me more nauseous, the twisting switchbacks on the road or having to listen to John Mayer – twice.

Clearly the driver was equally enthused about 3 hours of music from Jason Mraz and Savage Garden. As soon as the CD began to play the driver drove straight into a motorcyclist.

Left at 4;00PM: Arrived at 8:00AM – only 12 hours!

OMG, FML!

Srinagar to Jammu to Dharamsala: The horror

Public buses are bad. Sitting in the very back seat of a public bus is worse. Sitting on the  back of a 100 degree public bus traveling through Kashmir where the military stops you every 5 minutes and highly-trained snipers wait in the bushes with machine guns is worser-then-worse. During this 22 hour trip a child peed on me and Vinnie was showered in vomit.

That’s all I can talk about, the memories are still too painful.

Left 5AM: Arrived 4:30AM the next day

Public bus unrination

Hello machine guns!

Final Leg of the trip – Dharamsala to Amritsar: Laughable

Public bus. Five hours. Piece of cake. We are PROFESSIONALS!

On the road again.

76 hours later: Denoument

Emerson may be right that life is about the journey not the destination. But Ralph Waldo Emerson never traveled in India. If he had taken the trip we just survived, he may been quoted for saying something like, “Are we there YET?”

No this bridge did not scare me. It should have though..