Saturday, May 13, 2006

Snow

Zoom In and scroll around

(you might need: Flash)

Apparently the lovely Neil Diamond is way popular with the modern older crowd here in India. I never would have guessed it. Oh, and he finally came out a new good album; you should check it out.

Otherwise, not much to report with this update but it’s likely that I’ll ramble on about stuff that gets more and more interesting the farther down you read.

The biggest difference between where I was the last time I updated this blog, and where I am now, is that those two place are, in fact, different places. They are about as different as the coastal city of Mumbai is to a small Himalayan mountain village. Exactly as different; Mumbai is where I was four months ago and Manali (a small Himalayan mountain village) is where I am now.

Big Mountains! Deep valleys! Snow! Rain! Sun! Indians! Festivals! Sweets! The Backstreet Boys? Cheese? Hippies? Heliskiing? ---This place is like absolutely like nowhere else in India.

In the far reaches of Northern India, Manali resides within the long, tall, and narrow Kullu Valley. A prominent Tibetan influence colours the culture and is the result of the valley’s close proximity to Tibet and only a 3-hour paragliding ride (or 9-hour bus ride as most Buddhist travel) from Dharamsala –the home-away-from-home for the exiled 14th Dalai Lama. Both Tibetan and Indian cultures and traditions are ancient and well practiced here; such that a few steps away from the bustle of tourist activity leads the curios wanderer into the villages and homes of friendly people still churning butter by hand, building houses from roughly cut stone and wood, hand-weaving clothing for the family, and watching satellite television just as their ancestors have done for thousands of years.

Manali: (that word is hyperlinked, by-the-way, to the Wikipedia entry of the same title) Let’s read it…

…Hmm, well that’s was interesting (the link to charas has its merits as well. More on that later) (It should also be noted that the link to Yak Skiing is an entry about a friend of mine featured in various bicycling and hiking pictures below.)(That reminds me, I need add his contact info to Wiki…There now you can go Yak Skiing any time you’re here, just call up Peter). And a pretty good summary. Now, for an irresponsibly fearless act of possibly contradicting the information in the supplied Manali link, let’s continue with a run-down of the area…

One little absence from that summery is the mention of Hadimba’s temple and what it stands for. It stands for the purpose of enclosing a cave and trapping inside the devil. Cool! Well, a goddess who used to be a devil, until a Hindu god tired of her mucking about with his livelihood, married her, and turned her to the good side (watch out devils for all those shyster gods!). Ask anybody who’s not in the tourist industry and they’ll tell you that this devil-turned-goddess still watches over, and so influences, the valley in all sorts of peculiar ways. That may go a long way to explaining why people here are a little nutty and why the Himalayan Ski Village (I’m getting to that) is using the souls of foreigners as sacrificial offerings to the gods.

Manali (and the greater Kullu Valley) has three economical seasons:

1. Winter: the, like-all-the-other-Himalayan-villages, season. Not many extras are here, and the locals act like regular Indians.

The winters are blisteringly cold - the general lack of respectable heating systems see to that - but the snow piles up and those who love it come to build snow men (and ski). Helicopters access the higher peaks and provide 1000’s of vertical feet of powder skiing on massive mountains. Others prefer to hike/tour the mountains and forgo the $1000/day/person price tag of the helicopter expeditions. Nearly all of these people are wacky foreigners. The Indian crowd takes the more sane approach (though perceptively much more boring and exceedingly uncomfortable approach) of enrolling in a two-week government run ski course on a sad little slope with no functioning lift and withering enthusiasm.

Gosh, it was FEBRUARY when I first started the blog entry you’re reading now. I started this blog entry the day I arrived here in the valley; it began something like this…

Day One:

(Though I don’t intend to maintain any chronological tradition.)

Let me mention one of many peculiar elements of my situation considering the current circumstances: I am typing on my laptop computer. It is an unexpected place to be doing such things; up here at 9000ft, protected from the snow by thin wooden walls, and so far away from civilization and civilized insulation, but there you go…

While in Mumbai, I was invited here to the mountains by the Himalayan Ski Village for the purpose of my contributing, in some way, to the project. I didn’t know what to expect. Fortunately I packed my snow boots, a down sleeping bag, and my PADI scuba diving card because immediately it was suggested that I join the research team high up on the mountain. The route up was part thesaurus-entry-for-rough jeep ride, and part hike. We made our way to the small village of Sethan (yes, pronounced like that of the dark lord) where we settle:

Perched on a toeclinchingly steep mountainside, this village clusters from about fifteen wooden buildings/huts/shacks all connected by snow-gone-ice walkways sculpted in design to offset the balance of anyone wanting to use them. Though the village is deserted for the winter, I am surprised to be given my own spacious room about twice the size, and happily far less cluttered, then that which I have in the city. The differences between my city room and this one are subtle: the wooden floor and bed, a fireplace in the middle of the room (which I am too frightened to use for fear of the fire spreading or death by asphyxiation.), a ceiling to bonk the heads of short people like me on, and a general “it’s too cold to do anything” mentality that I’m settling in to. In the common-house a cook prepares all of our (unbelievably tasty) meals and keeps a fire burning wonderfully warm. After a long high-altitude day on the snow, both the food and the warmth are magical.

I didn’t have a camera then, but I do now, here’s a picture of the village a few weeks ago on a bewitching spring afternoon. Near here is also the site planned to build the mountain lodge of the ski village.



(Note #1: You may need to download Quicktime to see the Image above)
(Note #2: These quicktime images are scrolling pictures; mouse-click the images and scroll them from side to side)


2. Spring (Now): Honeymoon season. Manali transforms into a bustling getaway for uneasy newly-married couples EVERYWHERE.

The lonely 14-hour road snaking between Delhi and Manali transforms into a torrent of shrieking vehicles (that’s both a metaphor for the speed of the vehicles as well as an actual description of the verbal state of the passengers inside) traveling north and south. A typical seating chart on a long-distance bus to Manali may look something like this:

(on speed) Driver

Couple___Couple

Couple___Couple

Couple___Couple

Couple___Couple

Couple___Couple

Couple___Couple

Couple___Couple

Couple___Couple

Couple ME Couple

However, I’ve since learned to avoid the rear of the bus for the same reasons we seek the back seat on wild rollercoasters: it’s profoundly see-thesaurus-entry-for-turbulent.

For two months they roam the streets, these undersexed (er, an unnecessary qualifier, as that category includes about everybody in this country…though it may explain why new husbands drag their wives waaaaaaaaay up here to the mountains where there is nothing else to do but…)(hmmm, it may also explain why shopping has become such a popular…alternative…for the ladies) people wondering what they’re doing here and why they paid 4000 Rupees to be driven 30 km up the mountain for a photograph with a snowman with breasts. They’re starting to drive me crazy.

It should also be noted that springtime here is absolutely fantastic once one manages to get five minutes onto a trail or up a mountain. With the snow melted the rivers run wildly and the endless apple, cherry, and plum orchards are in bloom. Bike and motorcycle rides are fast & curvy and the Cannabis sativa is sprouting along the roadside, backyards, in town, anywhere dirt has fallen and a seed may sprout, and most appreciatedly in the higher reaches of the mountains.



3. Summer/Fall: It’s not only the proliferation and acclaimed tastiness of the Himalayan born marijuana (its assumed birthplace) that brings the foreign tourists in unbelievable droves, but it has a lot to do with it. Now in the spring, on a warm day about anywhere in the hills and along the roadside, wafting clouds of smelling like the personal goods of my good friend Frog, strike the passerby. In the Spring the cannabis grows better than any of the weeds it imitates and is merely another bit of chlorophyll. But in summer, whoo hoo! The rampant marijuana is harvestable and the whities goes nuts (lucky for me, it’s now mango season and I’m going nuts). But there’s more to this valley than the pot; the foreign tourist crowd comes in two types: dirty hippies and mountain adventure seekers. The former are not very well received though they keep the economy moving. The latter are catered to by a competing class of guides and the tallest mountains in the world.

Well, that’s enough economics!

Having said all that about Manali, I don’t actually live there. I live about 4km down-valley in a village called Shuru (that’s between Prini Village and Jagasukh, for those of you without geographically omniscient minds). No complaints about the place. I stay in a house operated by the Ski Village for its guests and non-permanent hired guns. Although, because the ski village is operating in its infancy, I am usually the only tenant here, and certainly the longest running. That’s not to say it’s small or unaccommodating. Rather the place is huge by Indian standards: seven bedrooms, sweeping marble staircase (a staircase built for the scene of a Bollywood movie, though, sadly for the staircase, never used), a garden, dog, angora rabbit, and two fellas to prepare all the meals, clean, and loudly watch Hindi movies at me late into the night.


In short, I’m spoiled. But nobody likes to hear about that so I’ll just continue on…

One particularly neat-o thing about the valley is the how narrow it is and how screamingly tall the mountains are that enclose it. A few weeks ago I walked out of the house (elv. 6000ft) at about 9:00a.m. to explore the ski village terrain for its benefits as a mountain bike park (I still haven’t explained all that, huh? We’ll get there shortly). I hiked up an old trail and as the morning grew late Shuru appeared as a tiny toy-train model-town as the world miniaturized and the thoughtlessly dumped garbage along the roadside disappeared. By bread & cheese time people disappeared and only the apple orchards retained shape. I was surprised to note that by 2:00 p.m. I was perched at nearly 14,000 feet and overlooking a spectacular valley and much taller mountains very near by. In short, a person can climb high, quickly.






Okay, here by popular demand is the “Ski Village” explanation and why I’m here. The Himalayan Ski Village is a $300+ (depending on your source) million project, thus making it, by a fat margin, the largest investment in the Indian tourism industry to date. The current/original plan has a gondola running out of the valley at 6000ft up to a height of 13,000+. All that isn’t pure official skiable vertical because the lower reaches of the mountain is ripe with villages (however, on a good snow-year, much of this can happily be poached) but it’s a bunch all the same.

In theory, and I hope in practice, the project is aimed at increasing the health of the villages by providing jobs, encouraging the production pf organic foods and hand-made textiles, encouraging traditionally-styled valley development (as opposed to the soulless concrete structures that are rising everywhere), operating in harmony with the many spiritual sights on the mountain, and earning a good return on investors money. At the time of this writing the project is marinating in a lot of controversy cooked up by opposing political opposition. Sadly most of it is grotesquely untrue, but some of it genuine (I applaud those organizations fighting for transparency within the company and culturally/environmentally sound development). Such passions for the rights of the natural world are seldom fought in this county, and even fewer national or multinational enterprises voluntarily operate sustainabley (in reference to the natural environment). I’d like to think the Himalayan Ski Village is trying to create a standard of a socially and environmentally responsible profit-seeking company. That is, anyway, their platform and part of what lured me into the organization. We’ll see how it develops with time.

Due to a number of things, including a great deal of vexing from the political opposition, the ski village is somewhat stalled. I’m pretty well convinced that the Himalayan Ski village is trying to construct this resort by way of aboyning (the first person to correctly define aboyne wins a free set of Tibetan prayer flags Hint: See Douglas Adams’s The Meaning of Liff) the Indian traditions of doing business. But history proves that companies with government approval and lots of money succeed in the end. It will happen; it’s only a matter of time.



Oh yeah, so me. I came to India last August saying, “I’m going to see what I can do about building a ski resort in the Himalayan mountains!” Shortly thereafter I discovered that someone had already stolen my idea and ran with it. You know, already invested millions of dollars into research and planning. So I jumped aboard that project to see what I could do.

After a few months of learning the organization and understanding what the Himalayan Ski Village project is about, and grasping about .001% of the raging internal politics between the valley-local Indians within the project, I finally figured out what I wanted to do: Build a mountain bike park…naturally. It took a little time to convince the head-dude that they wanted a summer-time mountain bike park and then a little else to suggest that I should be the one to develop it in-house. As it stands now, I am victorious in the convincinging. That’s good.

Very briefly the that silly “mountain bike park” idea I just threw at you is of two parts: 1) gondola accessed singletrack with thousands of feet of vertical descending on the very high and breathtakingly beautiful ski village mountain, and 2) guided rides on full & multi-day routes on pre-existing thousand-year-old trails out of the valley and into the Himalayas.

But that’s all a few years away. The earliest target for the gondola and chair lifts to be running is summer 2009 and that’s a big part of my plan. So, what now? First, let’s look at some pictures and then I’ll wrap this up…


---ADVENTURE RIDE---

A few days ago Peter and I started early on a ride to explore a trail he knew. It climbs high onto a ridge and then to its end at a temple (temples always secure the best real estate). We hired a few junky bikes from an acquaintance and started off. Look how happy we were and how sunny of a day it was:


Apparently ol’ Thor didn’t appreciate our sunny disposition and started to make a mess of things in the sky. A few hours into the ride things got very wet and all our things got very muddy. However, as I’ve almost learned to expect, an Indian Dabbha (a man who chooses the most out-of-the way locations to erect a tent for selling chai and noodles) (the old saying in business “location, location, location” doesn’t seem to apply to these guys as they’re always around and occasionally selling stuff) (I guess it makes sense really; any time I’m out in the middle of no-where and I stumble across a fella selling hot tea I’ll buy it. Wouldn’t you?)(one trick to success, of course, is to operate in a country with a pop. of 1.3billion. That seems to be the kicker for the location) came to the rescue. We sat for an hour inside that small yellow tent with all the other men who had escaped the rain (where did they come from and what were they doing out here) with tea and snacks until the rain slowed.


We rode on and soon the sun came out again.


The day was growing late such that we were racing the sunset (the sun sets early when it must duck behind 20,000ft peaks on a horizon only a few kilometers away) to get to the temple up high. Somehow the bikes did it despite nearly falling to pieces, loosing shifting capabilities, and my fear that the wheels would detach in pursuit of trails of their own.


As hoped for, the view was big and the temple nearly deserted (oddly though, not completely deserted, but haunted by a few old men sitting and waiting. For what? I don’t know. Money perhaps).



We had our chai and ramen noodles from the location-savvy fella at the top and took the alternate route back home.





The alternate route started with about 4 million steps down that were far too nasty to ride these sad little bikes down


And fortunately it had started to get dark just as we began descending. On rides like these I bring along a small headlamp in case of an emergency (i.e. on a bike ride when it gets dark) and I guess this was one of those emergencies. We ended the ride with about 3000 vertical feet and 14km to go in near darkness but for that little light. It was a nice warm night so we had fun.


Oh yeah, and there was a beer dude near the end too,


And what’s with this Super-Bubblegum Man having boobs?


Anyway, that was fun and we finally got on a bus that got us back home by midnight.


Let’s see what else we have for pictures:


(A heavenly cow)





(grub at a friends wedding)






(The groom. Decorated with bills. Wow! People were jamming bills into his folds like he was pole dancer in a g-string)






(The bride. Note, no bills)





(The result of a hike)




(Some funky-monkey deities on horizontal poles. It should be mentioned that each of these deities is known to poses the power of one of the local gods. Men carry the figures around on their shoulders and apparently are controlled by the gods. I think they run around like chickens as a result. It reminds me of a type of wasp that burrows into the head of a spider and controls its movements my stimulating different parts of the spider’s brain. The wasp drives the spider back to the wasp’s nest where its young devour it. Nothing quite as exciting happened to the guys hauling the deities though I think they were properly drunk).






(Gnarly sweets. They’re dough swirled into kettles of sizzling sugar syrup were it is cooked to a magical orange crisp. Possibly the equivalent of absolute gluttony and negative nutrition)








(Yum, we made momos. Momos are a Tibetan food similar to what people in the United States
call pot-stickers. The difference between the Tibetan food and American pot-stickers is that momos are damned good and pot-stickers are, well…) (My influence was the introduction of cherry momos into the Tibetan psyche)


So, that’s it really. The plan is to spend a few days in Delhi and fly out of India on the 29th of May with no one knowing when I’ll be back. In the mean time I intend to forget all the Hindi and Sanskrit I’ve learned along the way.

But that’s not the end. I fly into to London where I’ll meet an English friend of mine I met in Thailand many years ago. I’ve bought a few scalped tickets off of eBay to see what should be a fantastic performance by David Gilmour (you know, the big guy from Pink Floyd) then it’s north to ride Bikes in the hills, visit a friend in Leeds (Sunil, he was a celebrity in my blog the last time I was here in England), and other stuff too. I hope to post some pictures from all. Afterwards I expect this blog to be silent for awhile.



And just because these are fun:
Zoom in and scroll around

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I know what you should do next. Come to London. I've got a new homemade shoe-rack you can put those dusty trainers on, and a newly seeded lawn to lie about. And I think we have a fox nest in our back garden. Do you have night vision goggles? I thought all Americans had those? Well, bring them if you do and we can stake the fox out. I've even got a hammock I've been meaning to put up, and if you come I will hang it in your honour.

Blue Helmet James

milos said...

Oh oh!! So you are heading to England and unknown when you will return to India... does this mean you may be on the island for a bit of time? That would be great and maybe we can meet up... I'm heading to Ireland in August with my sister and Brook.
-milos