Prologue: Lakewood to Leh

July 9, 2010

Shauna and I ground the kernels of the wild wheat berries between our teeth outside the Shell station, watching the sun go down over the mountains of the Klammath range. The wheat grew everywhere, escapees from someone's fields. The wheat was joined by grasses and flowers and shrubs and bushes. The mountains were burning orange, their wooded hillsides dark against the light of the nuclear fire of the sun. I went inside to buy a can of beer. We gave the lonely woman inside a few of the kernels to chew on, to work over, which she did, once overcoming the natural skepticism that we all have when someone we don't know offers us something we have never had before. Who eats kernels of wheat plucked from the road side?

It would be a while before we would see each other again. The Marble Mountains and Etna were the last of the month we had following the end of school and the start of my trip to the Himalaya. A mountain that we had spent in Santa Cruz and San Francisco and Chico. A good month. But it didn't seem like enough. In five days I was being flown to the other side of the planet to a place that I'd been planning on visiting for nearly a decade now. We would still have tonight in Etna, and a day in Chico, but then I would have to go. Go to the Himalaya.

We walked back slowly to the trailer where we were staying, behind the bed and breakfast. I liked Etna. It was the kind of place where everyone really is friendly. Even the teenagers. Not a single mopey or angsty one could we find. A woman in the middle of an argument on a payphone stopped her tirade as we passed to say “Hello. How are you?”. Once we passed she turned her mouth back to the person on the other end of the received and screamed an obscenity at the top of her lungs. The trailer was part of the hostel accommodations at the bed and breakfast for PCT hikers, donated to by a local couple whom we happened to meet on the walk back. A brewpub in town served up excellent eats and tasty beers. Shauna bought a coffee mug shaped like a cow at the local junk shop. Yes, we liked Etna.

We were putting off the inevitable. It was dark now. Dark, but still warm from the day, with the billion of stars view that those used to spending time in wild places are accustomed to. Crickets chirped in the woods and the grasses. Morning would follow night and we would have one fewer day together. It was only two months. Seven weeks, really. It wasn't that long. But it was. Every day is long when you're living right.

July 14, 2010

Everything is brown below me. Brown and tan and beige and sage. The color of summer in the Great Plains of the US. A few exceptions here and there. The rivers feed irrigation systems that bring green to the land and crops to market. A simple thing. A dam on a river and previously unproductive land is brought under cultivation. An change in life and culture and economics. And in the natural world. There is always a price to be paid. Ask the Mandans. It was close to a year ago that I was leaving Chicago on a bicycle after spending a month with my mother, pointed generally west with a destination of the Pacific. Brian is somewhere in front of me. Three hectic days in Lakewood and Tacoma brought me to the airport, where I met Brian on the other side of security. Our plane is heading east, which is generally the wrong direction for civilized humans to go. Thoreau was at least right on that. We have a brief stop in Chicago and then a long, long flight direct to Delhi, India.

It was Mike's fault. Nine years ago he started telling me about Ladakh. About Little Tibet. About a wilder, less tame version of Nepal. Nepal had been plenty wild for me and I had nothing but great memories of it. The soaring Himalaya, capped with icy glaciers and black rock. The specter of Everest. The friendliness of the Sherpa. I was there in December of 2001 and January of 2002, when a total of 90 people had entered Sagamartha National Park. 90 people. Just enough to enjoy someone's company without stepping on any toes. No roads and hence no cars. I had built up Ladakh to be all that Nepal was, and more. All backpackers, no guest lodges. Wild country where you trek for days, weeks, between towns. The soaring mountains and barren valleys and green, irrigated river edges, with cliff side monasteries, had the look I liked. There was always something easier and closer to do. Something I didn't have to go around the world for. But now the time was right. Last November I was nursing a broken leg back to health and recovering from a brief, but stormy, encounter with...well, I'm not sure how to refer to her. Brian was happily unemployed, having recently sold his company, ULA. We both needed something to plan for and it didn't take long at all to talk him into the trip. As in two sentences in one email. Shauna was only in the periphery. But coming into focus every day.

We are traveling in fine style, as befits two gentlemen of leisure. We have tickets to and from Leh, the capital of the Ladakh region. We have backpacking gear. We have maps. We have guidebooks. And we have fistfuls of dollars. But the rest is up to us. We have ideas ranging from the standard to the wildly implausible. The details will form themselves as we settle into the area. No fixed plans. Complete freedom of action. That is luxury. Allowing life to happen, rather than trying to fit it in to a mold that at some point you thought you wanted, that is luxury. If only Shauna was here, I thought to myself, I'd have everything I could possibly want.

I looked around at the crowd of whiteys waiting to get on the plane with Brian and myself. I didn't like the look of them. No, not one little bit. They were clean. No beards, not even on the Israeli women. Suitcases, not backpacks. English school kids. Dreadlocks and fisherman pants. I looked and looked and looked some more. For someone. Anyone. Anyone who might be doing something interesting. There was a small selection of traveler riffraff, and then rest were the worst of all. Family tourons. Fat and pink with a clutch of little ones around, going some place that they could impress their friends with after their two weeks were up. I didn't even like the look of the plane. Perfectly acceptable for a flight between Seattle and Las Vegas. Modern, spacious, safe. But it didn't look like the sort of plane one should be taking into the Himalaya, into a place that was a final, or first, refuge along one of the chief routes on the Silk Road. No, I didn't like the look of things one little bit. Our flight was less than 90 minutes, but it was either this or spending three days on an Indian bus over dubious roads with someone vomiting on me while I slept, glared nervously at the cliffs below, or crapped on the side of the road. I could do 90 minutes on the plane to get to Leh.

Every year, starting in April and May, the Asian monsoon begins to pound the southeast edge of the continent, making its way to the Nepalese Himalaya by the end of May or the start of June. It then works its way across the range which, along with the Karakoram, runs northwest to southeast and forms a barrier to the life giving rains. Tibet, to the north of the Himalaya is a high, cold, desert: The rains simply don't get to the country. Trekking in the Himalaya is limited to October to May because of the rains, but not in Ladakh. Situated in the extreme northwest corner of India, where Tibet and Pakistan come in from opposite sides, Ladakh is in a bend of the Himalaya, and thus in the rainshadow. High and cool in the summer time, high and cold in the winter time. Or so the guidebook's weather data told me. Far below the plane the plains of India led violently to the upthrust of the Himalaya. Covered in snow and ice, the front range of the mountains were impressive from the air and would have been scary from the ground.

The fourteen, and change, hour flight from Chicago to Delhi was surprisingly comfortable, with plenty of space for my 6'4” frame, tasty enough food, and a nice entertainment console. It was rare that I left a flight feeling refreshed, but I stepped off the plane and into the Delhi airport feeling fantastic. We had another nine hours to kill in the airport before we left for Leh. We napped a bit. Talked a bit. Wrote a bit. Wandered around a bit. And then congregated by the gate, where I met the other inmates for the plane.

The plane broke through the front range and dropped into the broad valley of the Indus. Brown was the dominate color. The only exceptions to this were the bits of brown scattered by the river side. A little grey from rock. The mountains were brown, except for the snow and ice, of which there was plenty. The plane circled and circled, slowly losing altitude until we touched down gently on the tarmac of the military controlled airport. Pakistan is only a valley over. Kashmir is a valley over. The military was here in force, or at least the Indian version of force. In the baggage terminal we met yet more family Euros and Khao San Road tourist trash. The only people carrying real packs (real packs don't have rollers) were two Germans carrying what looked like refrigerators on their backs and wearing split sided short short short running shorts. I wasn't sure where they were going to run to given the weight they were hauling. It didn't matter. Leh was a big town and Ladakh was a mecca for the those pursuing outdoor adventure.

We exited the airport and stepped into an unexpected furnace. The average high for Ladakh was supposed to be a balmy 68 degrees. At 9 am it felt like it was already in the lower 80s. Two young Australians seemed to have gotten misplaced from the party scene at Ko Samui asked how far it was to Leh. Five or six kilometers to whiteytown. They decided to walk. Brian and I decided to take a taxi for the equivalent of $4. If we haggled, it would have gone down to about $1.50. We passed the Aussies sweating under the sun and their packs as they walked uphill into town. Brian and I took a random guess at a guest house in what looked like a quiet, though central, part of town. We rolled through town and my image of Leh as being a charming town in the foothills of the mountains was quickly dispelled. I had hoped that it might be like Namche Bazaar in Nepal. A gateway to the Himalaya. Something worth visiting. But Leh was dry, dirty, and industrial. Trash littered the streets. Dust clouds blew through the tight corridors. A generalized stink wafted. And cars. Cars and trucks and vans and motorcycles. Everywhere the eye could go was a vehicle. Out of work men urinated by the roadside. Leh was grim.

The taxi dropped us off at the Old Ladakh Guesthouse, where we got the penthouse suite, complete with attached bathroom and outside clothesline, for 400 rupees. About $9. It was quiet and peaceful inside and had an excellent view of the city and mountains. We were in the Muslim quarter of town, which hopefully meant we would be free from the respectable Euros we shared the flight with. We dropped our stuff and went out to explore the town, for surely there would be a quaint and charming part of Leh. A part where we could relax after the flight and enjoy some of the culture of Ladaklh, rather than the grim reality of life in a poor, poor place.

The winding lanes and random construction reminded me of much of the developing world, with open sewers and meek dogs. Shops selling plastic wrapped trinkets that no one really needed, but seemed to buy anyways. We followed random paths through the quiet backwater of Leh until we broke through to the central part of town with its throngs of cars and tourists. The same fat, complacent tourons of our flight. The same cars, except more polluting, that you'd find in Bangkok. The heat was rising and the sounds and sights getting worse and worse. We wandered around before retiring to the security and quiet of the guesthouse for a long nap. I sweated as I fitfully slept in the high 90 degree heat of the afternoon. It wasn't until nearly 6 pm that I got up once again, determined to find something in Leh that was appealing, beyond our guesthouse.

The night air brought a coolness to the air, but also brought out more and more people. Along with the pink families were now all the local families as well. We wandered around the backlanes that Brian had found during an afternoon jaunt he had taken while I slept, avoiding the worst of the traffic and crowds. We found a vegetarian restaurant by a sewage ditch and had a surprisingly good meal surrounded not by Euros and Israelis, but rather by locals, which is a universal sign of better than usual food. The saag paneer and egg biryani did not disappoint. We lounged by the sewage ditch for some time before heading back through the well traveled part of town, looking for food supplies and a beer. We found the first, but the second was conspicuously absent. As in nowhere. As we walked through the filled streets, ignoring the pleas of shop keepers to come in and look at their carpets/pashmina/thangkas/shirts/whatever, a tall, thin man tried a common tactic to get you to stop. Angular features and a large smile, he stepped boldly in front of us and stuck out his hand with a “Welcome! Please enjoy my shop!” Having been put through the hard sell ringer by such experts as the Aleppans of Syria, I knew well enough to keep walking and Brian followed. But then the man did something I didn't expect. “What? Am I too dirty for you?” he said in a voice that really did sound somewhat pained by our ignoring of him. We kept moving through the crowds and with relief into the backways leading to the Old Ladakh. Leh was not wearing well on me. Every town, in every country, that I've been to in the developing world has something redeeming and charming about it. Something that makes you happy to be there. Even the worst town in the smallest backwater of Nicaragua was worth visiting. So, for that matter, is Cleveland. We'd find it eventually, but if we didn't we'd be leaving Leh soon. To where we were not quite sure. But it would be good. Of that I was confident. I went to sleep in India about the time Shauna would be waking up in California, on the other side of the world. I missed her and wished she was here with me. Seven weeks seemed like a very long time indeed.

I was sleeping fitfully when I heard Brian moving around, trying to be as quiet as possible. No use, as it was approximately 4 in the afternoon according to my body, but 4:30 AM according to my watch. It was cool and quiet outside and Leh was actually an appealing place. No tourists and only a few locals out getting ready for the day. Laborers hauling water in broken down old carts without brakes, or even tires, mingled with women fetching water for tea. They seemed slightly surprised to see us as we walked up the steep cobblestone streets toward the old, abandoned palace and active monastery that overlook the city.

The sun was rising and bathing the mountains in a soft pink light. This was more like it. More of what I was hoping to find in Ladakh. Perhaps it was unrealistic to hope to find it in Leh, but for now it was here. In a six hours it would be gone, gone with the rising of the inhabitants of Leh and the tourists. People would be here selling trinkets and offering to guide you through the city. Tourists would be here snapping photos in bad light while sweating under the hot sun. Fortunately for us, they were still asleep in their beds and we had the best time of the day all to ourselves.

We poked around the fort above the palace and then took a different way down to the valley floor, darting through a new construction project (no doubt another tourist class hotel), and picking up the creek that flowed down into the city and provided both drinking water and, further down, a sewage system. A few more people were moving about, but there was no place open for breakfast. Not even street vendors hawking something for the local day laborers, of which there were many gathering. It was very clear that there was a surplus of people in Leh. Too many people and not enough work for them. Not enough water for them. Not enough electricity for them. They gathered in the square by the mosque near our guesthouse, waiting for work that might or might not come today. They'd be happy to get $4 for a day of work. Most of them wouldn't get that. Brian and I retired to the rooftop in front of our room to plot out our first trek, as both of us wanted to get out of Leh just as quickly as we could. The elevation, about 11,500 feet, requires a certain amount of patience for acclimitization. We needed another two day before setting out. But plan we could.

Both of us are map people. Both of us are planners. But only planning the right sense of the word. You do enough to give structure to your trip. You make sure you have the basics for what you need to survive. And then you go out and do it. For our first trek we settled on a variation of the Markha Valley trek, one of the standard ones in the area. A taxi ride to a trailhead, then up and over a pass and down into the Markha valley. Walk up valley for several days, then detour over three high passes before coming back to the Markha and then up and over one last pass before rejoining the road. Nine days or so and a taxi ride back to Leh. A simple plan with an interesting twist, which is usually what you want to aim for for a first trip in a new place. We sketched out an outline for common dinners and then headed out to the tourist quarter for breakfast. There was no need for more details. The shop keepers were just getting their wares put out and simply smiled as we went by. We found a cafe geared toward the foreigner called The Wonderland and decided to take advantage of its roof level dining. The Tibetan breakfast special was actually very good. Two super thick rounds of bread came with a couple of scrambled eggs and potatoes, peppers, and onions fried up in an oily mess. A large glass of butter tea washed it down. Butter tea is something that people either love or can't stand, sort of like fishsauce or durian or Glen Beck. It is more of a soup than a tea. It is made, roughly, by combining green tea (or brick), yak butter, salt, and baking soda and then churning it up together. Ladakhis and Tibetans call it gur-gur cha, which is derived from the sound made during the churning (cha meaning tea). Salty and savory and uplifting, it is a great morning drink and I hoped to be able to buy some in the villages we passed through in the Markha.

We ambled back to the central part of town where the shops were now open and beginning to bustle. We found Amdo Foods, a shop we had scouted last night, and began to pile up supplies for nine days of trekking and five passes at or above 17,000 feet. Rice, lentils, noodles, and bulgur wheat would form the base of our dinners, to be flavored and supplemented with soya chunks (really just large TVP), oil, soup packets, and dried vegetables. From another shop we bought multiple packets of homemade muesli, one benefit of a town used to dealing with large numbers of Euros, for breakfast, to be mixed with water and dried milk. From an old man on the street we bought bags of dried apricots and got lighters and tubs of Nutella and peanut butter from another. An old woman sold us two liters of blue tinged kerosene. Sacks of raw, unsalted and unroasted, cashews rounded out lunches. Tomorrow we'd buy naan from one of the innumerable bakers we'd found in the backlanes. For nine days of supplies for two people we spent about 16000 rupees. About $22. It was not going to be hard to stay on budget. Our chores we done. We had nothing left to do, unless you count finding a beer something to do. We retired to the guesthouse to pack and wait out the heat of the day.

Along the way we found the tall, angular man, whose hand we had rejected last night, standing by his shop looking bored. We stopped to talk now that the crush of people of the night were still working or lounging. His name was Ish, short for Nazir, and he was from Kashmir. He owned the shop along with his three brothers, none of whom looked even remotely like Ish. Ish was perhaps in his late 20s and worked in Leh during the summer tourist season before heading south to Goa to pick up the winter tourist season there. I didn't know it at the time, but Ish would come to play a strong role in my time in Ladakh. For now he was just another shop keeper looking to sell me something I didn't want at an inflated price. We'd do business later.

Our gear sorted and packed, our food repackaged, our guidebooks read and maps consulted. We waited. The heat of the day ended and I awoke from. My mind wandered back to California and Shauna as we headed out for dinner at the vegetarian restaurant by the sewage ditch once again. The horns of the cars honked at everything, even themselves, much like a cat chases its tail. No, I didn't like Leh one bit at this time of the day. For a second night I went to bed without a beer. This was decidedly uncivilized.

Brian and I wandered through the empty streets of Leh at 5 am on our way over a minor pass and to a village on the other side of a ridge. Leh was quiet and calm, without honking trucks or waddling tourist families. We had been here for several days and had yet to meet another person that I would call a backpacker. Sure, plenty of assorted specimens of tourist flotsam, and a few nice people, but no one doing anything like what we were going to do. It was like going to a concert expecting to hear some nice Beethoven, and instead finding that your concert hall was actually a Wal-mart parking lot and instead of music to listen to, you'll instead be held down and forced to watch episodes of Saved by the Bell. Maybe not quite like that. Regardless, Leh was quiet and cool and pleasant. We had made friends with a Canadian ex-pat named Aaron who had been teaching English in Taiwan for some time now and loved every moment of it. He was out to do some backpacking and was as close as it got to another kindred spirit. I was anxious to leave town and start exploring the mountains loomed over the sleeping town that charm forgot.

We made our way slowly up the dusty use trail leading to the pass, with sweat forming on my hat despite the cool temperature of the early morning. As with last morning, we were rewarded with views of assorted 20,000 foot mountains, pink in the morning glow. Stok Kangri was the highest of the local mountains. A supposed walk up of a little over 6000 meters, it was on our general list of things to do over the next seven weeks.

We hiked to a notch and had a sit while talking about our future lives back home. We had both lived very direct, very conscious lives up to this moment. We had both pursued our goals with purpose, making active decisions concerning the flow that our lives were to take. And now both of us were facing new directions and new opportunities. Shauna and I were going to be forming a life together. Brian had sold his business making ultralight backpacking gear, and setting forth on a path that was very murky at the moment. It was murky because it was not possible for him to create a path to his preferred outcome without the cooperation of others. Indeed, it wasn't even clear to him what the preferred outcome was. We watched the sun come up and then hiked up to the old fort to look around before breakfast.

Attempting complete control of ones life is not possible, nor even desirable. Akin to trying to squeeze Jello, if you grasp on too hard it will slip and slide through your fingers eventually. But if you give it a gentle grasp, you can keep it on course. Well that is rather inane. We all want to direct our lives. There is a fine line between over planning and sloth, much like there is one between cunning and stupid. I had heard part of the epic from him and was interested in how it would end. I was interested because Brian is a friend, but also because the issue was one at the core of how I developed in my younger years, and even still influences me today. I knew what I would do in his position. But whether or not that was really the right or even best thing was not clear at all.

We rolled around the fort looking for something interesting or charming, but had to be satisfied with the understated and quiet. There would be time enough, hopefully, for the gaudily beautiful later in the trip. For now, anything that did not belch exhaust and was still was appealing. I knew what we'd find in Leh once it woke up.

We hiked over the notch and down into a flat area before climbing up to another minor pass where we could spy greener fields. Sabu was our destination, a small town on the trail to Nubra, another region that we wanted to visit at some point. Nubra stretched to the Pakistani border in once section, and to China and Tibet in another. In the olden days caravans bound for Central Asia and the Levant would pass through the region on their way to India. In the olden days you'd probably be slaughtered by bandits. With global politics, you can't use any of the passes any more.

We descended from the minor pass and followed a dusty road to a dirt road that led past Sabu. In contrast to Leh it was green, pleasant, and quiet. And there were no tourists. We would have relocated here if we were not leaving for the Markha tomorrow, and if there had been a place to stay. At the lower end of the village we also found a well build irrigation dam, the source of so much of the green-ness of the town. It would not take much to add a mini-turbine to the dam and provide a basic, low level electricity to the town. This was more, far more, than Leh seemed to have. We walked down the road for about five minutes before the driver of a mini-van pulled over and offered us a lift into Leh. Off we sped, and in eight minutes we were entering the outskirts of industrial Leh. Sabu seemed all the more charming for it. Leh was loud and busy, but not in the interesting way that Chinatown in Bangkok is. A grim life here indeed. Ish provided a good example of the best that people could hope for. Make a few rupees off of tourists by selling a large quantity of junk, and a small quantity of exceptional items. Ish had nice stuff, but that didn't sell very often. But a blanket with an elephant drawn on it with sequenced beads? That's exotic! Ish and I talked and bargained and discussed our lives and lack of wives. I had been in the town for three days and knew shop keepers better than any other traveler, tourist, or touron. I had more to talk about with a local than with another paleface. We were leaving tomorrow for the mountains. Leh might be a disappointment, but it was not likely that the mountains would fail to live up to their reputation. We would have to come back to Leh, but that was a burden to bear later.