Friday, June 29, 2007

The Pilgrimage

Last I wrote, we were in Rishikesh at the recommendation of a friend we met in Delhi, a popular yoga and pilgrimage place. Rishikesh is where the Ganges River flows from the mountains onto the plains, and for this reason is considered a very spiritual place. From here, we took an 8 hour bus to Ghuttu for the start of our trek over the Panwali ridge and up to Kedarnath, another very popular Hindu pilgrimage place where people go to worship the god Shiva in the temple. In Ghuttu, we were able to secure a pony driver who would guide us and carry all of our gear on his sturdy little pony.

The first day of the trek was very difficult and we gained about 6000 feet in elevation, to top out on Panwali ridge. We were accompanied by two Babas (holy men), one of whom was doing the entire walk to Kedarnath barefoot. At one point, we were stopped at a shepherd’s hut drinking tea, when I heard Tim outside starting to freak out. I went out to see that his sock, shoe and pant leg were covered with blood and he had a small hole in his ankle. The pony driver and shepherd’s children could only tell us this was "zjunk", and stand by giggling with glee. Finally we were made to understand that zjunk was not anything to worry about. Later, we learned that zjunk is a leech. Leaving the hut, I began to develop a cough, from the wood smoke, which would only get worse later.

As we reached the ridge top, I began to dream of a nice quiet campsite with expansive views. It was not to be. We walked down into a shepherd’s village and camped amongst the grazing animals, whose bells tinkered all night. We also found that we were unable to make our stove work. Out pony driver, Alamsing, arranged for a shepherd to cook us dinner, and breakfast the next day. The food was excellent, some of the best we have had in India. We were also able to watch the chapatti (bread) being cooked over the coals. Unfortunately, the culinary delights were served in another shepherds hut, which had a wood burning fire pit/oven in it and no ventilation besides the small door. By the time we left, my cough had grown very bad. That night, Tim also found out that besides being sucked on by a leech and carrying a broken stove that he had left his headlamp in Ghuttu. It is an example of the extreme kindness of some of the people that we have met that when he called a friend we made in Ghuttu, this man secured our headlamp and drove it down to us in Rishekesh, refusing any payment.

Next day we woke up to beautiful views of the Himalaya Mountains spread out along the horizon. We hike some ways across the ridge, gaining another 1800 feet in elevation before dropping down about 5000 feet to Tiyrgi Naryan. We were led into the crazy courtyard of the pilgrim rest house, which was full of babas and people surrounding us to see what we were all about. At one point, one baba began to beat another with a large willow-like stick. We never did figure out why.

Tiyrgi Naryan was an incredibly air-polluted place, even more than Delhi, with homes, teahouses, fields, and temples constantly spewing out masses of smoke from burning wet wood. The people were very nice, however, and one priest took us through the temple and explained the puja ceremonies to us. He likened the objects of worship to photographs in that when you look at them you think about and remember who they represent. In this case the statues and stones represent and remind the people of the various reincarnations of god. Alamsing again arranged our meals.

The next day we walked a fairly easy day to Gaurikund. Here is where the major pilgrimage route begins, which we walked the next day. The trail from Gaurikund to Kedarnath is 14 km long and about 5000 feet elevation gain. It is traversed every day by thousands of pilgrims in the summer season. There is more than one way to make the trek. Most people walk. Some will ride a mule or pony up. A small person, children and the frail elderly, can ride up in a basket on a porter’s back. Finally, a person with lots of money to spend can be carried up by 4 men in a doli, a large wooden chair like contraption.

There was a wonderful sense of camaraderie on the hike up, with people shouting "Namaste" (hello), "Jay Bole" or "Jay Kedarnath" (basically, praise lord Shiva) or "Hello, how are you, where from?", as they held out their hands to tap yours on the way by. When we arrived at Kedarnath, we found lodging and went to look at the mountain views of Kedarnath Peak, at almost 7000m high. We were lingering outside an Ashram full of babas when they called out "come in, come in." We joined in another puja ceremony and were invited back that evening for a free meal. After this we headed to the temple for yet another puja ceremony and a viewing of the representation of Shiva. These puja ceremonies basically consist of throwing offerings of flowers, food, and/or scented wood or incense on a fire while reciting specific mantras. Other, larger food offerings are not burned, but left for the priest, along with money.

At the temple, we ran into Mickey and his family, who we had met in Gaurikund and who had promised to teach us the breathing and meditative exercises of Pranayam, which they said will keep us healthy and cure all disease. Mickey’s family was very protective of us and shepherded me through the temple, which was a crowded mass of people vying to get in and view a streamer covered alter type thing. There was a metal detector to walk through and many police trying to keep things under control, and I was barely able to get a glimpse before I was pushed on. Later we learned Pranayam. That evening we went back to the ashram for an excellent dinner. We ate after the babas were served, who assembled in a large U shape in the courtyard. The babas are very colorful with wild hair and sometimes bodies painted with ash. They wear sandals or go barefoot, carrying a blanket, a small water bucket, and some type of tongs or poker for fires. I complemented them on the food being very good, and one answered back "of course it is good. It has been offered to the gods". I very much enjoyed being a part of this pilgrimage and learning more about the culture and Hindu religion.

My cough had continued to grow worse and the next morning I woke up very sick. I had a headache, was throwing up, 103F degree fever, coughing, and just basically felt horrible. In a sort of daze, I followed Tim to a free health clinic we saw near the temple. Dr. Swami was very kind and competent and put me on oxygen for a little over an hour after hooking me up to a pulse oximeter and diagnosing me with altitude sickness (AMS). He gave me antibiotics and pain/fever reducers for a lung infection with severe congestion. Tim asked if we should descend, but Dr. Swami assured us that everything would be fine after the oxygen treatment and that if I wanted to stay, we should. He exact words: "Your spiritual journey must continue."

As sick as I was from the lung infection, the only thing I wanted to do was sleep, and so we remained in Kedarnath several more days before heading back to Rishekesh and then on to Manali. Tomorrow morning we get on a two day bus for Leh. Hopefully, after 4 days in Kederath, we are now well acclimatized for Leh and Ladakh!


Terraces around Ghuttu

Shepherds camp on Panwali

The Himalaya from Panwali

Wild Orchids on Panwali

Kedernath temple-click on it to enlarge and see the detail

The steps are lined with babas.

Kedernath peak, shrouded in clouds

A colorful baba

A doli chair

An elderly man in a basket

A child in Tirgy Noryan

Monday, June 18, 2007

Into the fire

We reached Delhi in the midst of a heat wave-45 to 48 degrees C (118 F). Delhi was, to say the least, a difficult place to be. Heat, stench, pollution, and touts. These problems were interlaced with a few good experiences, however. I will write a long blog about this at a later time. Delhi is also an extremely easy place to get visas. We secured visas for both Pakistan and China in four days, after which we fled the city as fast as we could. After being told by several travel agencies (tout agencies) that there was no train to Dehra Dun the next day (one said the 28th, another monday, another no direct train at all, after which they all tried to sell us airline tickets to Shrinigar or expensive bus tickets to Dehra Dun-something was wrong here!), we finally went to the train station. They have a lovely air conditioned foreign travelers office away from all the crowds and craziness where we were able to secure our tickets to Dehra Dun the next day-go figure! So on Friday we were off on the train to Dehra Dun.
One thing we learned on the train was that the Hindu people do not hold grudges. A family got on the train late, and not finding a place for their luggage, decided to pick on us.
" your bags very large. you must move them to make room for ours. there is spot by door"
I could just see our bags walking off the train on there own if left conveniently by the door. I responded " sorry. but we are not putting them by the door. you can put yours there, or we can try to make room for them elsewhere".
A shouting match ensued. The situation was finally resolved when Tim slammed their bag into a space not quite large enough for it. Suddenly they were all smiles.
"Thankyou, Thankyou."
Next, they are offering us food and advice and telling us how much they liked Alaskans. They were getting off in Haridwar.
As it turned out, at the last minute we decided to jump off the train in Haridwar also, instead of going on to Dehra Dun. There is a special pilgrimage there to bathe in the Ganges. Haridwar was a crazy-insane place; a giant, colorful, wriggling mass of humanity - Tim and I arrived at night, got seperated in the mad crowds and traffic, I got run over by a bike rickshaw, and then a man appeared out of nowhere and showed me where Tim was-how he knew we were together and where Tim was I will never know. We finally found a room and as soon as we checked in the construction taking place right outside our door resumed, sledge hammers and masonary saws until midnight. Next day we followed the steady stream of pilgrims to the river, crossed the bridge, and then took an auto rickshaw to Rishikesh. This cost 300 rupees-we could have got there by bus for 14 rupees but just could not face a crowded local bus yet, and 300 rupees is still pretty cheap-about 7.50 US.
Now we are holed up in a semi-quiet backpacker enclave in Rishikesh with Delhi belly, Delhi lung, and Delhi exhaustion, but only for one more night-I put my foot down and said we are absolutely getting out of here tomorrow. We could be sick the whole time in India and just need to deal or we will get nowhere. So tomorrow night at 3:00 AM we take the dreaded local bus to Ghuttu about 8 hours away, and then will do a 6 day trek across a high ridge with views of the Himalayan range to Kedarnath temple. After this we will be off to Leh. Wish us luck

A mosque in Delhi

View from Majnu Ka Tila, the Tibeten refuge colony we stayed at in Delhi

Pilgrims heading to the Ganges to bathe

Selling offerings by the pedestrian bridge

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Farewell to Turkey

We are in India now, so as usual, a bit behind on the blog! For the rest of our time in Turkey, we finished our 3 day trek on the Lycian way, which took us six days as we stayed each place several days. We then went by night bus to Selcuk and saw the ruins at Ephesus. After 3 days in Selcuk we returned to Istanbul, picked up visa for India and got our visa for Kyrgyzstan before flying via Bahrain to Delhi. For my 'Western' eyes, the airport at Bahrain was fantastic-a real treat to see the turbans and robes and veils of all types. Many of the veils were as finely styled and as individualistic and fashionable as the hairstyles back home! One of the things I enjoyed the most about Turkey was getting to know the people and the culture while having endless cups of Turkish Chai. We also visited several Mosques and enjoyed speaking with the Imams. In one small town the Imam asked through the man who was interpereting for us if we would convert to Islam. He then told us that if we did, it would be the quick way to heaven for him! The Muslims we met and spoke with are peaceful and call us brother and sister, and expressed regret at the activities of a few extremists, and also at the Western response, which I would agree is often more divisive than effective.

Lycian way

The small beach is our prize at the end of the day

Turans camp, where we spent two nights. The cushioned seating areas are a Turkish tradition.

A typical house with vegatable gardens, fruit and olive trees, and a yard full of various animals- cows, goats, and chickens.

Most houses also have grape vines which create glorious shaded roof terraces.

Our cabins at the MonteNegro Pension in Faralya. We had a private cabin with bath, on site swimming pool, Turkish breakfast, and a five course dinner here for about 45$ US per night.

The traditional Turkish breakfast

Laundry and herbs drying in the sun.

Terraces on the Lycian Way

Mount Baba Da on the Lycian way

Paragliders go from mount Baba da to the beach in Oludenez

Ruins in Epheses

The Theater at Ephesus

Wall frescoe in the terrace houses of Ephesus

The bazaar at Selcuk

Isa Bey Mosque

A newer mosque in Selcuk


Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Getting to Alinca

We spent several days in Olympos, which was very touristic, although very enjoyable laying on the beach and exploring the ancient ruins there. In fact, at one point after a swim in the beautiful blue Mediterranean and laying baking in the warm sun, all I could think was "this is the life!". Coming back from the beach one day I was chased by a man into a fruit shop, where his wife proceeded to fill my turned up shirt bottom with fresh, green Turkish plums.

Getting to Alinca:
After Olympos, our agenda was to do a three day trek on he Lycian Way, stopping in small villages for the nights' lodging. To get to the start of our trek, we needed to take a bus to Esen and then find a way to Alinca. Esen is pretty far off the tourist track and this turned out to be quite an adventure. Our bus driver from Olympos dropped us off on the side of a road surrounded by fields. He told us that soon a Dolmus (small local bus) would come by and we could take it to Esen. On arriving in Esen we began walking down the road, looking for the bus station. Soon we were surrounded by 6 to 8 people talking loudly and excitedly to each other, and occasionally, to us in Turkish trying to figure out why we were here. We were finally made to understand that there was no Dolmus or Taxi that could take us to Alincha.
"Dolmus, no."
"Taxsi, no."
"12 kilometers." A scissoring motion is then made with the fingers.
I say to Tim "I think they mean we have to walk".
Someone nods the affirmative.
"12 Kilometers walk"
He motions his hand forward and then jerks it to the right, indicating where we will find the route. Someone shouts at him.
After more shouting back and forth between them, we are made to understand to wait. A couple of the men ran off. After a little bit, another man shows up on a scooter. He speaks a little English and has been asked to come speak to us. He tells us that another villager is looking for a taxi and invites us to his tea shop for the inevitable, addicting Turkish chai. He asks us why we want to go to Alinca,
"you will find nothing there" he says.
I jump up and run into the small shops, desperately searching for food that can be carried. The English speaking man, Metin, helps me and I am able to procure a loaf of bread, a large amount of cookies, and a bag of delicious homemade goat cheese. On walking out of the shop Metin grabs two tomatoes and gives them to me (In the US we would probably say "steals" but it is more casual here). I have spent about 3$ US.
Eventually someone shows up with a car (not actually a taxi, although they continue to call him Taxi driver) that is willing to drive us for about 27$ US. In case this seems like a lot (It was a lot!), I will just mention that petrol here is about the equivalent of $10.00 US a gallon! Garden tools and bags of cement are adjusted in the trunk to make room for our packs. Finally we are off! The road to Alinca climbed about 2100 feet (700 meters) on a narrow, steep, winding gravel road. Eventually the "Taxsi" driver stops in front of a few stone and plaster homes perched on the edge of the mountain and says "Alinca". At this point, I am laughing so hard I can barely get out of the car. For me, the most unknown and foreign parts of the trip are the most fun and memorable. We begin walking up the road, looking for the pension we had read about in the lonely planet guidebook. A women with a long, sharp looking garden scythe begins following us. To our relief she said "Hosh Geldiniz" (Welcome) when we turned to face her. "Hosh Bulduk" (good to be here) we replied.
She points down a trail. We follow the trail for a bit and to our relief, we did find the Pension. We have made it to Alinca!

The beach at Olympos

Olympos ruins

A man pauses by the road to pose for my camera where we are dropped off near Esin


A woman with her red haired daughter in Alinca

His shoes are just a bit too big!