The greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing familiar is taken for granted. -Bill Bryson
i thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping green spirits of trees and a blue dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes -e. e. cummings
Happy Sunday! I’ve been in India for two weeks already, time is flying. I was more nervous about heading here than any previous country, but luckily on my flight to Delhi I sat next to a fellow lady traveller around my age who helped put my mind at ease, and on my flight to Leh the next day I met a man who by crazy coincidence graduated from the same high school as me, who was visiting the area with NASA’s Spaceward Bound program to further the study of astrobiology. I only really spent one night in Delhi, but my twelve short hours there were a feast for the eyes. The first thing I noticed was the pride the men take in their hair: every strand perfectly combed and gelled, occasionally painted red with henna; curled and coiffed moustaches; and for the hairless, elaborate toupees. My taxi ride to and from the airport was exhilarating, I did not see a single person use a turn signal, instead traffic lanes are mere suggestions and a language of honking that I have yet to decipher indicates turns, stops and merges. I found myself mesmerised by the women walking past at the airport, with their bright saris, elegantly draped scarves and thick long hair, and I watched them while standing next to a literal giant couple, they must have been at least 10 feet tall.
I’m currently writing from Leh, Ladakh in northern India. The ‘Land of High Passes,’ this is the highest, most remote and most sparsely populated region in all of India. Leh is a dusty little town situated at an elevation of 11,000 feet, surrounded by mountains on all sides. The brown of the buildings and surrounding hillsides is interrupted by pops of colors from Tibetan prayer flags and the blinding white of countless stupas. Exiled Tibetans roam the narrow streets, many wearing traditional long dresses that in my mind makes them look like wizards, although this might only be because I just finished the new Harry Potter script. Instead of street dogs there are street cows roaming freely, sacred and doing exactly as they please. I can’t exactly pinpoint it, but there is something about the clarity of the light here, the way the clouds travel across the sun-struck blue sky and the sound the wind makes blowing through the poplar trees that has totally captured me.
More importantly, my love affair with gluten continues, I am happily turning into a little dough ball eating mass amounts of bread any chance I get. To reach the main town center from my guesthouse I have to walk through what I have affectionately dubbed bread alley, rows of delicious smelling bakeries with bearded men churning out mass quantities of bread in all its forms using traditional wood-fire ovens. So far I have tried papadum (thin and crispy like a giant chip and usually served with a spicy cilantro sauce), roti (Malaysia does it better!), naan (chewy perfection in any variety, especially butter), bazaar bread (2 rupees, what a steal), chapati (naan’s more mature cousin), Tibetan bread (simple, and delicious with apricot jam) and puri (I think it’s just fried naan? It might be my favorite), and I feel like that is just the tip of the iceberg. The clear highlight for me food-wise so far has been the discovery of momos, bite-sized (if you have a big mouth) Tibetan dumplings that when fried and stuffed with cheese and potatoes make me feel a little closer to heaven. And tea! And juice! So many delicious things to drink, from sweet milky chai, to ginger lemon mint tea, to bright orange seabuckthorn juice, to apple cider exclusively bottled in the Kashmir region, I am always well hydrated. When not eating momos or sipping tea I found a bizarre expat haven in a little garden with stunning views called Bon Appetit, where at $6 a plate (expensive for here!) you can feel like a queen and have a break from the traditional Tibetan and Indian spread. Although I love talking about food, the infamous Delhi belly is definitely real. My stomach has been in a nearly constant state of uproar since my arrival, but after surviving the worst food poisoning of my life I am hoping that we are now cool.
At my guesthouse I was lucky enough to meet newlyweds from Rome on their honeymoon, and on a whim my boss friend Richard and I decided to join them on their five day trek up to the summit of Stok Kangri. I’m not going to be able to write well enough to do the landscape justice so I’ll just post lots of pictures instead (all stolen for the most part from Nima or Richard!), but the three days spent trekking to base camp were absolutely stunning. We passed through green valleys thick and glossy with wheat ready for harvest and hopped over countless streams, all the while surrounded by purple mountains and rust colored pinnacles dusted orange with lichen, while towering snow capped peaks loomed in the distance. There were plenty of wildlife sightings as well, including yaks, marmots, a mongoose, eagles, griffins and adorable blue mountain sheep, who effortlessly scrambled up steep cliff faces, making 5.11s look easy.
We crossed over Stok-La pass at a cool 16,000 feet, our guide extraordinaire Nima motivating us all the while. In a surprise twist, while trekking I discovered what it must feel like to be royalty: 8 mules carried our things, monitored by the always singing Tseten, while Rinchen the apprentice guide set up our tents and Kumar the cook prepared daily feasts large enough for a group twice our size. Every night we camped by a different stream, icy cold glacial melt rushing to join the massive Indus River. I was lucky enough to turn 29 the day we reached base camp, and was touched when Kumar managed to whip up a birthday cake, frosted, decorated and with an actual candle for me to blow out. That night after a couple hours of sleep we awoke at midnight to begin our summit attempt, fuelled by coffee and seconds on leftover cake.
Base camp was at just over 16,000 feet, and the summit at just over 20,000, so we were in for a long day. Using our headlamps to light the way we slowly puffed along, gradually ascending uphill until we reached the glacier at the base of the mountain. We strapped on our crampons and trudged across, the moonlight glittering on the snow, stars salting the sky. From the glacier onwards I was suffering, the cold was intense and the air so thin that you couldn’t go for more than a couple of minutes without needing to stop to attempt to catch your breath. As the sun began to rise we roped up to make the final push to the top, arriving amidst prayer flags, where I cried tears of gratitude and awe, hugging everyone. The views were tremendous, although the lack of oxygen and the frigid temperatures kept us from lingering too long.
The descent was killer, but we made it back to basecamp with plenty of rest stops in under 12 hours in total, where I immediately took what was probably the best nap of my entire life. I awoke with a nasty cough, my finger tips still aching from the cold, my knees grumbling, and my face feeling chapped and raw, yet totally elated. After a quiet celebratory dinner we were all thrilled to sleep more, and the next morning after an easy five hour descent we arrived in Stok, feeling like giant lungs. The past two days have been spent in full recovery mode, nursing a bit of a cold and tending to my sore legs. I can hardly believe the trek actually happened, and I think it will only feel more and more like a dream as time passes. Excited to see what the next two months have to offer!