A New Year!

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The New Year passed quietly and enjoyably this time around in Rishikesh. I have spent the last two year’s holidays in Goa, India and Sihanoukville, Cambodia respectively and this year I add another one in India.

My stay at the Raj Resort has been a stroke of luck for finding a cheap place with decent food and a nice staff. All the guests here are friendly and make a good crowd with several Japanese yoga students. Several others have come for shorter times during my stay, but most are perusing some Ayuverdic, yoga, or related education.

Alcohol is only sold in a special store 17 kilometers from my guesthouse, but we managed to get a bit of spirits for the evening. Around midnight we ventured to Luxman Jhula, one of the two bridges that span the Gangees a ways from the city center. After loitering a bit we started a small fire on one of the beaches and attracted some others before heading in for the night.

For the most part I am finished with what yoga I did here and will pick up a few more random classes before I depart. I did a little painting on some tables my guesthouse has added to their outside along with some large coverings made from and decorated with bamboo. I had to leave before they were finished so I hope they look nice.

Table Painting

Table Painting

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I finished the year with a respectable 39 books on my reading list.

Rishikesh

It was here in Rishikesh that The Beatles joined Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968 and wrote 48 songs, most of which would become popularly known as The White Album. Today the Maharishi’s ashram is closed, but many more have sprung to take it’s place.

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Rishikesh Panorama, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Ashrams (from Sanskrit for toil or penance) are perhaps the main attraction for visitors to this rather sleepy city set in the foothills of the Indian Himalaya. An ashram is a center headed by some mystic or spiritual teacher dispenses teachings for the spiritual upliftment of it members. This is achieved through yoga, meditation, strict dietary regiments, and even long periods of silence vows.

Rishikesh is also my first taste of the mighty and mythological Ganga River, better known in the West as the Ganges. This is Lord Shiva’s river and it attracts thousands of pilgrims and tourists who come for a wash in the river, meditation, white-water rafting, and of course yoga.

I figured if I am staying in the self-proclaimed “world-capital of Yoga” I better give it a go. In fact, it’s something I’ve always wanted to practice since the stretching and flexibility involved would be a great addition to my martial arts training.

My idea was to participate in a more physical yoga with less attention to the spiritual teachings and readings of the Yoga Sutras, though this interests me greatly as well. But in my short stay I wanted to feel the burn.

I found a great teacher by the name of Rajesh running Chakra Yoga. He lived in Japan as well as Korea teaching yoga so we found many things in common. Twice a day for a total of 3 hours a day I learned many of the basic asanas (yoga poses) and routines.

His style was exactly what I was looking for. Some ashrams (I attended other free classes at another nearby ashram) are quite slow and focus on breathing and meditation more than sweating. Rajesh is more inclined to demonstrate a pose and in a loud voice say, “Get up there and do it!” He utilized belts, wood blocks, and cushions with a fast paced and demanding yoga that left me feeling increasing better as the lessons commenced.

In addition I walked out to some small waterfalls in the hills, enjoyed the sites offered from Rishi’s two famous bridges, and enjoyed the company of some great people at my hotel. I couldn’t ask for a better introduction to yoga than in Rishikesh. It ranks high on my list of travels and perhaps one day I can return again for further studies.

Planned Chaos in Chandigarh

Rolling into Chandigarh I had high expectations. A couchsurfer invited me to come and stay and I thought it a great opportunity to see this city famed for its urban planning, much like Islamabad in Pakistan.

When Pakistan split from India in 1947 the capital city of the state of Punjab was Lahore, which went to Pakistan. Like Pakistan’s need for a new, organized city to house the government, India needed a new capital for Punjab (and Haryana state).

The city was built with an eye for the future. Carefully planned city development projects began with internationally known architects and artisans such as Le Corbusier and his International Style. They were called upon to create something India could proudly show the world.

The city is laid out nicely with accessible transportation and gardens. But India is more known for cows blocking traffic than standards of city planning. Walking the streets in the short two days I spent here, I thought a lot of development is left unfinished or taking place such as sidewalks and sewers, but perhaps it is the unrepentant Indian city shining through. A variation of an idiom come to mind with this place: “You can take an Indian to Chandigarh, but you can’t take the Indian out of Chandigarh.”

Unfortunately, my couchsurfing host failed to appear to meet me and his communication became weak. So I struck out for lodging and found the city to be needlessly expensive. This is compounded by the fact that the English cricket team also arrived the same time as me for their anticipated matches with India, a trip that was in doubt since the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

I first visited an area with International Style government buildings, court rooms, and judges dressed in English style drinking chai. Yes, long black robes and wigs. I came to see the famous Open Hand statue which is also a symbol of the city.

The cluster where this statue is kept was at least planned well enough to keep me from getting to it. Security gates guarded all entrances and I received 3 different sets of instructions on how to get to this monument before aborting the goal.

Le Corbusier's Open Hand

Le Corbusier's Open Hand

On the last attempt I was directed to a road upon which a machine gunner sat in a bunker. My instructions were to take this road, but he looked at me with disbelief in his eyes and shook his head, “Please…. please” which gave me the impression I was trying to enter the Prime Minister’s personal quarters instead of one of the best known landmarks. I had no permission slip, could not be told where to get such slip, and told the statue is not reachable. Indian bureaucracy at its finest: I can’t help or know who can help, but since it’s not my problem you should go. There are a billion people here after all.

So I went. To the Nek Chand Rock Garden. Nek Chand is a guy who crated art pieces out of recycled trash and industrial waste for 18 years before the government took notice and turned his work into a legitimate public space.

Nek Chand Rock Garden

Nek Chand Rock Garden

For some reason in 1996, while Chand was on a lecture tour, his funding was cut off and the park was vandalized- a mistake that has since been corrected. Its said the park sees more visitors than even the Taj Mahal in India with over five thousand people daily visiting!

I’m glad the admission is kept cheap though the forty-acre sculpture garden has its charms with waterfalls, passage ways, and an amphitheater of sorts.

Pieces of light sockets, broken ceramics, clay pots, and other industrial waste adorns the walls and exhibits inside. Figures and strange creatures stare back at you in numbers.

It was interesting, but the combined punch of the city didn’t knock me out. A dorm-like hotel turned me away (no foreigners), my couchsurfing host bailed on me, and I couldn’t see the damn Hand statue… not auspicious for me.

This city has been brought to my attention before in Art History courses and the quick glimpse I got was interesting but its not the India I came to see.

I took the cheapest room I could find at 400 Rps (was paying 100 in Dharamsala not that I should expect the same, but still) and left for Rishikesh.

Hill Station Shimla

A bit over 2,000 meters in elevation, Shimla sits a bit higher and colder than my recent stops. This city was the summer capital for the British Raj officials because of its dip in temp compared to the sweltering plains of Delhi. The colonial aricheture of this heritage looks amazing on the closely packed hills. The city itself is built on ridges and stretches some 9 km in all.

My stay was short spent walking the Mall, the commercial center of Shimla, and stopping to see the famous Christ Church, second oldest in nothern India. An old Shiva temple also caught my eye.

The tourists here are mostly Indian, come to spend time in the romantic city in the hills. I almost witnessed the first snow of the years; the tempratures dropped but percipitation didn’t.

Pictures have become very hard to upload with slow India connections and unreliable electricity, so pictures will be added later.

Tibetan Government in Exile

Dharamsala

Dharamsala

Back into colder mountain weather, my anticipated next stop is Dharamsala and the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile. I spent most of my time just above the village proper in McLeod Ganj, also called Upper Dharamsala. Administration buildings, monasteries, the home of the Dalai Lama, Parliament House, and schools have turned with place into “Little Lhasa.”

Since 1960, several thousand Tibetans have relocated themselves to this area transplanting their monasteries and culture into the surrounding Hindu backdrop. McLeod, a couple kilometers walk uphill, is what you consider “touristy” with guest houses, Western cuisine, and souvenir vendors lining the streets.

My schedule has slowed much in the past month and my stay of almost 2 weeks was rather quiet and relaxing. I met a few local Tibetans and got into a habit of playing pool everyday, along with lots of reading and chess games.

Rinchen

Rinchen

The most notable thing I did was attend some philosophy classes at the Library. I would love to have several months to spend studying here with many kinds of Buddhist teachings offered. As it is, I attended a class given by a Tibetan lama and his interpreter, an English woman in her 60s. The translator was excellent, having spent many years here in study.

The focus of this class, which runs about a month in total, is on “The Wheel of Sharp Weapons Effectively Striking the Heart of the Foe” composed in the 10th Century by Dharmarakshita. The text is essentially an investigation in the effect of karma on our lives, the vital role of cause and effect, and that all our suffering is self-imposed. Our own selfish actions come back to us and cause harm, which is why a life of compassion for all living things is cultivated. “The Wheel of Sharp Weapons comes back upon us full circle!” was the repeated phrase in these talks. Very interesting text I will pick up later to study in depth.

I also briefly saw the Dalai Lama as he returned from a speaking tour in Japan and Europe. Unfortunately his motorcade drove through the closely packed streets quite quickly and I bungled the photo operation before I could get a good shot! I had someone else man my video camera so perhaps I got something there (will have to wait and see…). I did see him though and her was in the front seat of vehicle waving both hands at one and grinning.

Waiting for the Dalai Lama

Waiting for the Dalai Lama

Dharamsala, shortly before my arrival, held a series of important talks concerning their stance on the occupation of Tibet by China. One cannot help but feel a sense of despair hanging over the setting here. Some sport shirts that say “Tibet was Raped by China” in bold lettering and an anti-Chinese feel permeates the literature, DVDs, thoughts, and mentality that are produced here.

You also find many foreigners here volunteering and working for all types of causes. Not negatively implied, this sort of “do-gooder tourism” attracts certain kinds of people. I myself have done this kind of thing extensively (in Jamaica) but it brings up mixed emotions on the effectiveness of this and the fine line between tourist and community member. Some people walk the streets with wine in their belly; others searching for some religious experience and it’s quite impossible to tell the two apart.

One “local-foreigner” approached me one night with bundles of raffle tickets supporting some charity for which she probably spent the day painting benches for. Prizes were big TVs and other electronics. What the hell am I going to do with a flat screen TV here? Why, donate it to charity of course!

Her (to anyone listening): “Where is the ________ Shop?”

Her (to me): “Where is the–, How long have you been here?”

Me: “Ummm, about–”

Her (to anyone listening): sigh, “I guess I’ll just have to go myself”

Me: “……..”

She tromped off with her raffle tickets.

I can’t figure out of this girl (and others) is motivated by her compassion to help people, or her sense of self-worth derived from her compassion to help people.

Since its off-season, I found a room for very cheap (100 Rps = $2) during my stay. I enjoyed the mini-enclave of Tibet in India and hope to return someday to explore further north into Ladakh, which is reachable by plane in the wintery months.

Golden Temple of Amritsar

Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib)

Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib)

Across the Pakistan border and into India lies the city of Amritsar with it’s Golden Temple. The site is the focus place of the Sikhs. The Sikhs are an interesting religious group that contains elements of both Hinduism and Islam, and the Golden Temple is like the Taj Mahal for the Sikhs. That’s actually a bad metaphor because the Mughal rulers who built the Taj were bitter enemies of these Punjabi people who built the Golden Temple in 1585.

I previously knew of the Sikhs through their distinctive look of long beards and long hair wrapped up in a bright turban. They are fierce warriors with warrior bodies and I once saw a photo of a Sikh contingent in the UN Security Forces with all the men wearing light blue turbans.

In Lahore I visited a Sikh temple and ate for free, a feature of their faith that goes with the values that all are welcome to visit their temples regardless of faith. In fact the Golden Temple is also a free hotel, albeit a hotel that doubles as the center of worship for a religion with 25 million adherents.

A separate room for foreigners, guarded at all hours of the day, contains four basic rooms with blankets and beds (Indian pilgrims throw down some blankets any place they can find). Its like a Sikh communal living space, connected to all other operations going on in the complex. The actual Golden Temple itself is about 200 meters outside the door to the sleeping space.

Harmandir Sahib Plan[/caption]

I took meals in the kitchen area. Several floors of large open rooms served as eating places as hundreds of people sit in lines on long carpets. The chowpati man then the dhal man, the creamed rice dude, and the veg man take turns scopping up the grub. You eat and talk loudly with your neighbors.

Eating Time

Eating Time

On the way out the dishes are dumped off right before the chai area. This is right by the entrance to the Golden Temple and the large pool of water it sits in. You slurp down some hot chai before wandering around the main temple.

The Sikhs have a very interesting history. There were 10 gurus and the first, Guru Nanak, traveled the lands singing hymns he composed, all the time preaching his “one-ness” philosophy.

They were involved in terrible battles with their Muslim and Hindu neighbors. Starting with the 5th Guru, a series of Sikh martyrdoms started that had Mughal leaders offering 60 Rupees per turbaned head. A museum in the Golden Temple contains many paintings of these martyrs being sawed in half down the skull, boiling alive, being scalped, and other horrendous visions. Even the British got in the act by opening fire in a park in the 1800’s.

Sikh Martyr

Sikh Martyr

One of my favorite recurring images is that of Baba Deep Singh, a warrior noted for carring his head in one hand and sword in the other as he slays Afghans while being martyred.

Baba Deep Singh

Baba Deep Singh

The last and 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, proclaimed he was the final living guru, don’t worship men and turn your attention on to the last guru, Guru Granth Sahib, which is actually a book.; the book of hymns and religious songs that the first Guru Nanak composed has he traveled the lands.

The 10th guru crated the Khalsa, a body of saint-soldiers all of whom are baptized Sikhs. Guru Gobind Sing died in 1708 and the book Guru Granth Sahib became the permanent Guru.

Every night in the Golden Temple this book is “put to sleep.” All day in the Temple holy men read the chants and sing the songs from the book accompanied by instruments such as a small accordion like one. About 9:30 the book is wrapped up in cloth and moved to a plaquin to be carried out of the Temple, across the bridge leading to it, and into a room for the night.

Putting the Book "to sleeep"

Putting the Book 'to sleep'

I witnessed this nightly ritual from the front row as it happened- again all are welcome to view this. Outside revelers take turns hauling the very have book and palaquin down the bridge, an honor indeed for practicing Sikhs.

This only scratches the surface of this complex religion, which seems unique when viewed from the outside with little knowledge of the practice. I stayed five nights at the temple, reading in the day by the water (Pool of Immortal Nectar as its known), while bathers take a holy dip.

I picked up a book to learn more, Western Perspective of the Sikh Religion, and continued on my way north back to the mountains.

Walking the Pak-Indo Border

Indian Side's Crowd

Indian Side's Crowd

Crossing the border from Pakistan to India, one must navigate from Wagah to Altai respectively. These smaller cities serve as buffer between the pre-partition twin cities of Lahore and Amritsar.

In fact, at the border I departed an auto rickshaw, walked across the border through lax immigration, and seated myself on the Indian side to find a beer and await the nightly closing ceremony. This border has been called the “Berlin Wall of Asia” and has served as a “barometer of the India-Pakistan relations over the years” (Wikipedia).

With the terrorist attack in Mumbai only two days old, I thought it best I get across the border in case she closes up in the even of armed conflict.

Each side populates their security officers (Pakistani Rangers and India’s Border Security Force) with the tallest men with the most honorable mustaches. A lowering of the flags draws crowds of peoples with school buses arriving with to drop kids on field trip off. Pakistan has constructed a half-bowl arena seating while India has simply lied the street with bleachers. The result is more people on the Pakistan side are closer to the action, making them the louder side. More than once in Pakistan I was told, in the humble opinion of the speaker, that Pakistan possess the better side in the matter and I agree based on my one viewing. Large flags are waved on the Pakistan side to entice the crowd to a higher state of fervor.

Indo-Pak Border[/caption]Pictures forthcoming

Both sides give loud cheers. “Pakistan!! Super-Power!!” and “Hindustan!!” are issued forth as the tall guards, most well over six and a half feet, march forward with gusto and swing their long legs as high as possible. Glowering at one another through a gate, the flags are lowered at the same time.

Indo-Pak Border

The closing ceremony proved to be an entertaining insight on the Pak-Indo relationship and is a positive step towards mutually understanding, even if it comes off feeling like one big pissing contest between the two nuclear powers.

I’m on to Amritsar where the hits keep on coming.

Lahore

Lahore is no bore; it’s the second largest city after Karachi in Pakistan. This ancient heart of the Mughal empire (the guys who built the Taj Mahal) is spread with history. It lays claim to Pakistan’s second largest mosque, Badshahi, and the Lahore Fort. The Lahore Fort is one of the big four Mughal defense structures, rich in architectural intricacies. It was sacked by the Mongols in 1241 and eventually taken by the British several hundred years later.

I buzzed right to the Regale Internet Inn after the 5 hour train ride. This was the guest house on everyone’s lips to stay in and it had a nice atmosphere of travelers. They also organize a trip on Thursday’s to a Sufi drumming circle.

The museum was top notch, the best I’ve seen since Urumqi, China. They featured several main rooms of art collections such as Hindu art, Muslim art, weapons room dating back several hundreds of years, and the most interesting to me, the Gandhara art.

The Gandhara style arose from the influence of western invaders, both military and commercial. Alexander the Great invaded and left his touch and later branches from the main Silk Routes into India brought traders from Europe. What emerged was a combining of Greek artistic values with those of the local Buddhist culture. Statues and depictions became more lifelike, inheriting the Greek values of proportion and attention to details. The crowning piece is the famous Fasting Buddha, which you can read more about here.

The Sufi drumming circle was a couple of intense hours of drumming. The Sufi are an interesting mystical flavor of Islam who define themselves as “a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God.” (Wikipedia) Two drummers and a variety of supporting characters all crammed into a tiny space. The most notable aspect was the extreme smoking of charas (hasish). Musicians and revelers would work themselves up into at times trances and shake sessions, while most joined in singing songs.

The drummers themselves were amazing. With a drum hanging from a strap around the neck, large Pakistanis took up their curved canes and pounded the skins. One spun around in a circle fastly as the drum left his body with centrifugal forces, all the time maintaining a rattling drum roll.

Supporting characters weaved their way through the crowds, or stood in the front by the drummers. Small children shook and danced in the front, while one older gentleman played a whistle and danced about with a sword. In the background others blowing shells could herald caravans of brightly dressed men. Some looked like stereotypical gypsy traders moving through to pay their respect, another religiously serious in bright orange robes, and still others where just rich men making their way to the VIP sections with a trail behind them handing out fruits and snacks.

One the way out I managed to thwart a pickpocket as his hand crept into my pocket. He quickly retreated and I caught on to my wallet. With such a huge crowd all moving to small exits it would be easy to fall prey to this. I pushed him away and pushed through the crowd. Lucky for me.

Fasting Buddha of Lahore

Fasting Buddha

Fasting Buddha

From the 6th century BC to the 11th century AD the Kingdom of Gandhara prospered in modern day eastern Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and Kashmir. Before falling to Muslims the area was ruled by Buddhist kings.

From the 1st Century to the 6th, an interesting style of Greco-Buddhist art arose due to the influence of Alexander the Great’s invading armies. The Bactrian Greeks brought their classical Hellenistic style with attention to realistic depictions of the human body.

The synthesis of Buddhist religious symbols and life-like Greek artistic ideals resulted in a sculptural sophistication unknown to prior depictions of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Mediterranean curly hair and mustaches began to adorn statues and the figure is in proportion; less cartoon-like and more Hellenistic.

The cities of modern day Taxila (I had visited) and Peshawar (currently seeing violence) were important centers of commerce and learning.

The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, spent 6 years in self renunciation in an effort to gain insight on the human condition and this image depicts just that. In a moment of epiphany, Buddha later embraced the “Middle Path” between the two extremes.

The attention to detail in Gandhara art is generally not found in Indian art but would continue in north India and Tibet. The neck and sunken eyes are especially rendered with such extreme realism that the viewer shares the suffering.

This is the crowning piece in the excellent Lahore Museum in Lahore, Pakistan.

Fasting Buddha @ Lahore Museum

Fasting Buddha @ Lahore Museum

Sources:

Life of the Buddha: The Emaciated Buddha

Couchsurfing Islamabad

Twenty hours through some fantastic scenery lands you in Islamabad or it’s sister city of Rawalpindi. Pindi is a sprawling metropolitan area characteristic of any south Asian city. Livestock walk the streets among honking cars, rickshaws, and food vendors. Organized chaos.

Islamabad, on the other hand, is one of the best planned cities. It has origins in the 60’s to replace Karachi as the capital of Pakistan. Roads form a grid system that provides easy and fast transport around the city. The Diplomatic Enclave houses all the embassies under tight security, as much of the city operates.

Lots of police checkpoints but its generally not a problem so zip around quickly on Islamabad’s highway arteries.

My stay here was firstly to acquire an Indian visa, a week process during which I could possibly leave. I parted with Eddy heading south to wait for a few days and try to find a couchsurfing host.

To my rescue came Badar and his amazing friends and family. In the ensuing 10 days I enjoyed perhaps the best hospitality anyone has shown me outside of my own family. Badar is the CEO and founder of a successful British Immigration Consultancy with 6 locations all over Pakistan.

I happened to arrive at a good time as he was traveling for his home village several hours away in Talhatta. He took me along for the ride and he stopped for my benefit in Taxila so I could see the museum there.

Taxila is the present day archaeological site of an ancient Buddhist center of learning in the Gandhāran empire. Dig sites and broken down stupas spot the area and are probably the main attraction since the museum is a bit lackluster. Their collection was small but the pieces were choice, with nice sculptures of Bodhisattva in a near classical Greet style. Th figures are life like and contain more attention to details like mustaches. The museum in Lahore would later have the best collection.

Talhatta was a welcome respite from the busy city life. Badar’s forefathers actually founded the village and nearly everyone is related somehow, including many, many uncles and cousins who I was always meeting. It proved to be a welcoming couple of days.

Badar & I

Badar & I

Badar and his longtime friend Yassin organized a barbecue one evening in their newly planted orange grove. The bbq chicken and other goodies were delicious. Relaxing time in the mountains looking at the river and taking night walks.

Upon return I stayed a few days with the family of some coworkers. I surfed with Osama and his brother Vicky. At one point we were watching a movie about a plot to kill the US President and Osama says to me, “Did you ever imagine in your life you’d be sitting in Pakistan with Osama watching this?” I had to laugh.

Vicky was a great friend to me and introduced me to many of his own friends. I felt very much at home in their presence with an atmosphere just like with my own friends in the States. Vicky ushered me many places, including a midnight visit to the bombed out Marriott Hotel, Parliament Building, local hangout at Jinah Super, and a scenic drive to the top of a mountain through some jungle. I got to see a lot of locations I otherwise would have missed.

It was hard to pull myself from their good company. This experience was true evidence to how couchsurfing.com can change the face of travel. It was great to be able to have conversations on political and religious themes and get their opinions. I expanded my knowledge of Islam and was also fortunate to be able to meet Badar’s religious teacher.

With Pakistan considered President-elect Obama’s number one foreign policy obstacle and the terror attacks in Bombay, this area of the world will have much effect on the rest. These are the people living with what you see in the news if Pakistan is mentioned. There are dangerous areas, such as the tribal regions near the Afghanistan border. Peshawar, the city before the Khyber Pass on route to Afghanistan, is unsafe though I did meet travelers who visited there. One American was recently ambushed and shot in his jeep there.

Even so, these stories are all that is reported from Pakistan. Friends and family who only see Pakistan through this lens deem everywhere to be dangerous. But my travels have shown me, much of the country is a dream to visit. The Northern Areas has been untouched by any unrest. Badar expressed what I think is a correct desire for Rule of Law that is held consistent. An accountability process that is dependable and applies to everyone including authority members. He himself is pushing forward a case against a bribery attempt not because he will get any monetary reward, but to follow through on the process as law dictates.

Upon leaving Badar treated me to a delicious meal of sheep and chicken Biryani. These sheep have huge humps of fat on the bums. I thought the posters I first saw of them were exaggerations as part of the ad, but then I saw some being pulled down the busy street.

We had some chai and I settled down for the morning train to Lahore.

Polo in Gilgit

Several hours down the KKH is capital of the Northern Areas, Gilgit. The city has a long history of invading forces including the British who left unmistakable marks on the local culture as well as other parts of British India. One of those is polo.

I arrived in perfect time to catch part of the Gilgit Uprising polo tournament. This smaller tournament features mostly local teams and a few surrounding villages with the police and military teams being the most dominant. The games and considered “freestyle” polo with no referees and loose rules allowing the play to become very aggressive and violent.

Gathered around the long, narrow field were several thousand people, all men, in it’s height. The crowd also spilled over onto the playing field at the goal ends and in the middle of the field where (guarded) doors allow access. Subsequently horses would also charge into the watching crowds sending bearded spectators scurrying for safety.

At other times several steeds would have the equivalent of a horse fender-bender that sent the riders flying off the seat and crashing to the ground. At least twice I witnessed someone knocked out cold and carted off in an ambulance.

The security explained that these games are like proxy wars between the villages and the intensity of the games very high. At one point a grizzled, older player dismounted his horse to stand guard on foot by the goal, mixing it up and throwing elbows at the horses.

Trophy games drew huge crowds, and myself and the other handful of foreigners present were escorted into the VIP section and given chai. We were allowed onto the field in the roped off section to take pictures of dancing celebrations and the handing out of trophies, like we were press. A bit surreal at the time… a feeling that would repeat itself many times in the near future.

The Winners Dancing

The Winners Dancing

Hunza Valley

After I got a visa in Sost, it was to Passu for a couple days of hiking around the area. The tourist season is at it’s end, so many guest houses and shops are closed for the year.

Passu and Hunza Valley offer some of the best hiking and trekking in the world with several 6,000 and 7,000 meter peaks in the area. K-2 is not far away near Skardu, though its difficult to see because of clouds and surrounding mountains. I took a day hike near a large glacier and then to a mountain lake, and another short hike to some shaky suspension bridges. Autumn colors are in full swing with brilliant yellows across the valley.

Then several hours down the KKH to Karimabad, one of the most popular villages in the valley and for good reason. First of all, its incredibly cheap. This has to do with the season, yes, but it is still the cheapest country I have traveled. The guest houses cost from about US$.60/50 Rupees to $2/150 Rps. Most serve family style meals for $2/150 Rps that are delicious, refilling dishes (as many as 7 different ones) as much as you want.

First I stayed at Hider Inn, ran by the amazing Mr. Hider. This has probably been the best guest house of my trip. Not the cleanest nor does the electricity always work, but just friendly and great service. Mr. Hider is just one of those individuals you meet that resonates with you.

Mr. Hider

Mr. Hider

Karimabad and its surrounding villages have long been princely states enjoying a great degree of autonomy (over 900 years). Only 100 years ago these areas still derived much of their wealth by raiding caravans coming through the valley. That thankfully has given away to tourism, and the people of the Hunza and renowned for their warmth. In 1974 was it finally dissolved and absorbed into Pakistan by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Baltit Fort dates back over 700 years and is a testament to those fiercer times.

Baltit Fort, Karimabad

Baltit Fort, Karimabad

Like India, large trucks are garishly decorated with bright colors. You can hitch rides with them, but they are quite slow.

The people usually don’t mind to have their pictures taken. Children will trail after you with requests of, “One picture!” And they are so photogenic; beards, Hunza hats, shawls, and smiles. Women predictably tend not to want photos though. Young girls are very skittish. Several times I’ve moved too fast and sent several running down alleys. Kind of funny really.

And the chai! Milk tea is to be enjoyed often and just walking around town will result in many invitations. Thats a great custom!

In all, the Hunza Valley has been my favorite destination thus far. It’s just a relaxing place with stunning natural scenery, very cheap, and extremely friendly people.

Karakoram Highway

On To Pakistan

On To Pakistan

One of the most anticipated parts of my journey is the Karakoram Highway (KKH), the highest paved international road in the world. It crests the Khunjerab Pass 4,877 km on the border between China and Pakistan and marks the a section of the Silk Road that descends into the riches of India. The KKH claimed at least 892 lives in the making.

Karakoram Highway Map

Karakoram Highway Map

China and Pakistan maintain sturdy relations. China has provided a lot of funding and workers for the road and its subsequent upkeep. Even today, China has just undertaken a huge upgrade of many parts of the highway to double its width in many parts. Chinese workers and their camps can been seen all along the road working very hard.

From Kashgar I met an Italian traveler, Eddy, heading the same way so we joined forces. The journey is a two day bus ride, but we opted to take a taxi with two others to Karakul Lake for the first night and meet the bus before it leaves in the morning.

About 200 km out of Kashgar, we have fully entered the Parim Mountians when we reached Karakul. The lake is 3,600 meters in altitude and has several mountains in reflection when it’s waters are still including Muztagh Ata (7546m).

Karakul Lake

Karakul Lake

Unfortunately, I took ill and missed much of the benefit of taking a taxi the first night. I think the altitude put me over the edge and I got a fever and spent most of the time sleeping at the Kirgiz settlement we stayed at, though I did walk by the lake for an hour. It was cloudy anyway. Accommodation consisted of round cement gers and my favorite: yak dung fires.

The next day we hit Stone City and jumped on the bus into Pakistan in Tashkurgan. Immigration was quite easy; Chinese side at Tashkurgan and Pakistani in Sost.

I received my visa on the border at Sost, getting a taste of the kind of bureaucracy awaiting on the Indian Subcontinent. I had to wait while the officer made a handwritten form for me to fill out before issuing a visa. Pakistan here I come.

Kashgar

Leaving Urumqi, I had a desire to cross the cold Taklamakan Desert, meaning “go in and you’ll never come out”. The Silk Road splits into northern and southern routes around the desert, sprouting oasis towns along the way.

Thus began about 36 hours of hellacious bus travel: 6 hours to Korla, overnight 22 hours 500 km on the Cross-Desert Highway to Hotan, and then a final 10 to Kashgar.

I had hoped for a day bus across the desert, but there were only two night ones (possibly a day bus coming the other way). I took it anyway and can say its been crossed, whatever that does. The scenery was predictably flat, barren, and gray.

The road bounced the bus every second of the journey quite roughly and a tepid headache turned into migraine status. I thought Minerva was going to spring from my head fully armored by the last leg, but finally Kashgar appeared.

Kashgar has been a hive of commerce for over 2,000 years and is the western most tip of the Chinese Empire, as the large statue of Chairman Mao in city center reminds you.

Kashgar is the heartland of Uighur culture filled with white beards, kebabs, and peculiar hats. The highlight was the Sunday Market and Livestock Market held on the same day.

The Livestock Market boasts an animal to people ratio virtually equal. Sellers and buys come to barter over sheep, horses, donkeys, and camels.

Livestock Market

Livestock Market

The Sunday Market proved even more packed with stalls of silks, carpets, fruits, clothing, everyday items, and knives. The area is famed for its handmade knife production and I picked up the one in the middle:

China’s Wild West

Knowing Urumqi is no longer the Silk Road oasis stop it once was, its still kind of a shock being greeted by today’s vast urban city of over 2 million. By my rough estimate, arriving here marks the 10,000 km mark I’ve traveled in the last two months. Its also supposedly the furthest city from an ocean at 2,250 km.

Urumqi

Urumqi

The city is ultra-modern with all the parks, skyscrapers, and transportation similar sized Chinese cities have. It’s always cool to be in places where signs have to be written in two or more languages, and in Urumqi its Chinese and Uighur. Uighur is in an entirely different linguistic family as Chinese and looks like this:

ھەممە ئادەم زاتىدىنلا ئەركىن، ئىززەت-ھۆرمەت ۋە ھوقۇقتا بابباراۋەر بولۇپ تۇغۇلغان. ئۇلار ئەقىلغە ۋە ۋىجدانغا ئىگە ھەمدە بىر-بىرىگە قېرىنداشلىق مۇناسىۋىتىگە خاس روھ بىلەن مۇئامىلە قىلىشى كېرەك

The city lies in the gigantic (bigger than Alaska) sparse province of Xinjiang, meaning “New Frontier.” The history is rich with Silk Road routes and nearly 50 ethnic minorities lending a feel I’m in another country than China.

There are few travelers in the province but I’ve found some in the only youth hostel in this city. I’ve seen more adventurous Chinese and other Asians than anyone, the travelers being decked out with rain gear and backpacks sporting labels like North Face and Mountain Hardware. The Westerners I’ve seen tend to be more rugged than the usual South East Asia first-time wonder-struck kids you see elsewhere in Asia. The guys have beards of some rapport and the girls have no shame drying their underwear in the hallway. They’ve been around, some coming across from Europe and tend to keep their heads down and not say much. We’ve been through the “Where are you from?” routine too many times and know the road goes on.

Even so, I met a nice group of people and we went to a hot pot restaurant. This delicious dish is a Chinese staple (similar to Japanese nabe) and for some reason I have yet to sample it in my time in China. I think part of the reason is eating this seems to be a very communal activity, and I’m usually alone.

In the center of the table is a large pot, divided in two parts, on a burner. One side is spicy broth and the other plain. You peruse a large wall of skewered vegees and meets to bring back to the table and stick them into the pots to be cooked. Not for chopstick beginners.

You pay by the amount of skewers you eat, and six of us ate 152 sticks of food, though pricier items like shrimps have more than one skewer. Including beer and a couple plates of meat to throw in, we each payed 26 RMB (~US$3.80). Super good since it is quite chilly here and I saw the first snow of the year the day I arrived, signaling an end to some of the markets.

The breads (pan) here are also cheap and delicious. You can get bagels and plate-sized sesame covered breads for one or two RMB and they make great resting places for kebabs.

The main thing I wanted to see in Urumqi is it’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum, a newly renovated attraction for “Silk Road aficionados” (LP China). Sounds good. The only problem was navigating the draconian entrance requirements: closed Mondays (first day here), ticket dispensing times, entrance times, and limits on how many can enter. I felt like I was trying to see the Tonight Show and not some 4,000 year old mummies. Finally, Wednesday I got in but had to change my bus ticket to a day later to see it. To my surprise entrance is free!

Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum

Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum

The museum was well done with exhibits following the history of the Silk Road, ethnic minorities in the region, carpets styles, and the main attraction: mummies!

The desert mummified Caucasoid bodies include the famous Loulan Beauty. The 45 year-old’s face has been reconstructed from her remains, and she is (was!) considered quite attractive. The several on display and other Tarim Basin mummies are valued for their amazing state of preservation due to the desert conditions. Braids of hair, teeth, and clothing lie in remarkable condition for being up to 4,000 years old. No photos allowed but I managed to get a couple anyway. The light was very dark so the Loulan Beauty is blurry with a tripod.

Loulan Beauty

Loulan Beauty