July 28, 2011

Return of the native

I am back! In Toronto. And full of the usual returned-traveller's appreciation of all the little things, such as Starbucks, air-conditioning, reliably heated & drinkable water, and especially, peace & quiet. India (outside of the Himalaya) is a very noisy place.

Meanwhile, I've been reaping some egoboo benefits of my TechCrunch gig: in the last few days I have popped up at The Times of India, The Atlantic, CNN, The Week, TC sister/mother publication The Huffington Post, Newsweek Polska, and the Spanish-language eNewspaper.

I leave you with a few photo highlights of this trip. 'Twas quite a good trip. I did not get to South Sudan, but that didn't seem fated to be, and Djibouti was a sufficiently weird substitute. I did not get to Srinagar, but between the monsoon and a pilgrimage of tens of thousands that was going on, all the transport links would have been flooded, so that's probably for the best. I did get to hike up to an ancient Ethiopian monastery carved out of raw stone, tour the station (and see the cable) that carries all of East Africa's Internet, dive in the Red Sea with the Special Forces, visit the world's third-deepest depression, ride the world's third-highest drivable road, drink where Watson & Crick drank, attend a wedding in a castle, and spend several days trekking in the Himalaya. There are worse ways to spend a couple of months.















July 04, 2011

Indiapix I

As threatened

In the pines.

India in miniature.

The last village.

The Jantar Mantar.

Jantar Mantar detail.

Gurgaon, from MG Road Metro.

They don't call it "weed" for nothin'.

The first snowcapped mountains.

In case you didn't notice.


Cobra temple.

Onwards and upwards.

Under construction.

July 03, 2011

kullu valley blues

Uh-oh. I fear I'm out of shape. Well, I'm not as out of shape as I first feared I was, but I'm still out of shape. We went on a day hike today, and after a mere half an hour of steep ascents, I was seriously dogging it. (M., being ferociously fit, barely even broke a sweat.) We're only 2000m up, and it's our third day here, so it shouldn't be altitude. Fortunately, I seemed to kick it up another gear for the rest of the day, and/or the ascents were lower-grade. I think basically my aerobic fitness is OK, but my anaerobic fitness has gone all to hell. I hope Phil-my-Montreal-boxing-coach never reads this. He'd be so disappointed.

So where was I? Oh yes. Leaving Chandigarh, and ascending into the mountains. We felt them long before we saw them, swaying back and forth with every switchback, as we passed Tata and Ashok Leyland trucks - some driving by night, many more parked beside the road. The only road to Manali and thence Leh, National Highway 21, is not a route for the faint of heart or the low of skill. It climbs and climbs, paralleling and traversing many a sheer precipice and roaring river, and at its best it's two unmarked lanes. Plus there are all the more usual problems of driving in India - the endless traffic, and the endless chaos, and the endless noise as everyone leans on their horn to survive.

Eventually the dark turned to light, though more slowly in normal, as we were driving along a steep gorge with 500-foot walls on either side. The road wound past roadside diners and through fair-size towns overlooking the river whose course we were following (and whose name I never got, though it wouldn't be hard to look up.) Scattered houses and a few temples somehow perched on the other side of the gorge, reached by bridges that were sometimes real bridges and sometimes little more than a pole and two ropes to hang on to while you walk across it. The gorge was lush, overgrown, intensely green. At first a few palm trees still hung on, down at its base, but as we climbed they vanished.

Then, suddenly, a tunnel - a tunnel a full three kilometres long, no less, vast and cavernous - and we emerged into the wide Kullu Valley, at the other end of which I sit and type. It too is a green and fertile land. Apple trees grow everywhere, surrounded by corn. Enormous pines reach a hundred feet or more towards the sky. The road up the valley is bleak and unattractive, and even the attempts at pleasantry by the many hotels and motels (the Kullu Valley received 2 million tourists lat year, 80% of them domestic) do little to leaven its oppressive industrial feel; but everywhere else is green and glorious.

And then, finally, Manali; which is to say, its mud-pit of a bus stand, and overpopulated, overtrafficked streets. The first impression is not exactly welcoming. But the touts weren't too bad, and while my overall impression of the town itself has remained stuck at "dungheap", there are many consolations. There's an absolutely wonderful park on one end of town, a huge and downright mystical cathedral of pines; there's only one official entrance, but I have discovered various other unofficial ones, some of which lead through fields of wild marijuana. Our hotel is a little bit away from the worst of the noise and the chaos. The people here are, by and large, very nice. And Old Manali, on the other end of the park, is a classic hippie-backpacker-oasis a la Yangshuo in China, or Caye Caulker in Belize, or (once upon a time) the Vumba in Zimbabwe, albeit largely populated by that distinctly Indian mix of gorgeous Israeli girls and sketchy Israeli guys. (Apparently spending a few months in India after completing one's Israeli military service is Israel's gap-year equivalent, so the Israelis here tend to be young, extremely fit, and more than a little surly.)

Also, did I mention that there are mountains? There are mountains, green and stark in the foreground, snow-capped in the distance. Today we hiked to an enormous and beautiful waterfall - the "holy place" sign next to it was really quite unnecessary - and (once I caught my breath) back down, and across the Beas River, and through three small villages, all of which are booming: new houses, new cars, new construction, new satellite dishes, the works. Between the cash crops, the tourism, the overall development of the region, and India's more generalized economic boom, Manali seems to be doing quite well.

As further evidence, I give you the ski resort we came across at the very end of today's trek, which in summer is a paragliding / quad-bike / pony-ride / various-other-amusements park, densely populated with domestic tourists. Near it is a sign that proudly proclaims the US$365 million tunnel that will replace the Rohtang Pass we intend to traverse on Tuesday, which will open up an entire new region to year-round access. I'm kinda glad I got here early enough to do it the old-fashioned altitude-sickness way. Kids today. Sheesh.

Pictures to come -

July 02, 2011

notes from the foothills of the himalaya

Wow. India has gotten positively mellow.

Well, relatively speaking. Once - which is to say, the first two times I came here, in 2000 and 2004 - it was a pounding, nonstop, all-out assault on every one of the human senses, including especially those of dignity, decency, propriety and personal space. For travellers it was a destination of constant hassle, a land of lies and scams (some so elegant that they were almost beautiful.) Those moments of transition when I first stepped out of the airport and into India proper - the arena, if you will - remain two of my most searing, powerful travel memories.

This time? I girded my loins, battened my hatches, readied my defenses, and stepped past the airport barriers, and found myself beset by ... nothing. There was no gauntlet of touts or taxi drivers. Nobody noticed or cared. A 21st century train service took me to New Delhi Railway station. There was indeed a vast mass of humanity there, waiting to be security-groped before entering the metro - the metro! Delhi had no metro ten years ago, nor even any hint of one; now it's five times the size of Toronto's. I bypassed them and found an autorickshaw driver, who hardly tried to rip me off at all. We took a six-lane highway past green parks and the airbrushed Red Fort. And I kept thinking: "Am I sure this is India?"

Don't get me wrong. Delhi and its teeming zillions are still a seething, all-consuming vortex of humanity. Step past the gleaming new shopping malls and five-star hotels and you'll find yourself in a twisting warren of narrow alleys and grinding poverty. Once, though, there was almost nothing but those narrow alleys, in which nothing seemed to happen; now they too thrum with activity, as men carry, drag, cycle, and drive immense loads through apertures that seem too small for them. Now droplets and pockets and even corridors of a whole new First World city has erupted from that sea of poverty, while brand-new satellite cities like Gurgaon boom on its outskirts. The infrastructure can't keep pace, as that link attests, but no wonder. It's all happening so fast.

On Thursday night we went to the offices of the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation, and waited only ten minutes past the scheduled departure time, while a family of monkeys frolicked outside. (Cows and monkeys remain common sights in Delhi, but I don't expect to ever again see an elephant right outside the railway station, as I did in 2000.) Then a battered but seaworthy Volvo bus appeared, collected us, and carried us across Delhi's vast cityscape and along a massive under-construction highway to Chandigarh, via a stop at a roadside restaurant/department store that sold nearly-life-size Indian Elvis statues, six-foot-high gold-plated lamps, and a surprisingly decent book selection. A wretchedly bad Bollywood comedy played on the flat-screen TV, and M. (my travelling companion) and I took turns taking refuge in my iPod. I think it was about 2AM when we finally began to ascend into the mountains, towards Manali, where I sit and type.