Friday, October 30, 2009

Passage to India IX

22 September
After the bone-breaking 358 km drive on the day before we needed some rest and decded to stay in Leh. The day started slowly, having literally good times...

...and some decent food in the Leh View restaurant.

In Leh, it is usually Leh that's being photographed...

...and people from Leh.

I liked this young lady in particular. It was about time to buy some presents for the folks back home and there was no shortage of money-spending opportunities. Prices are usually fixed in Leh but not with the street vendors, and she was great fun to bargain with.

And this lady was the owner of an internet café, a very kind person. I wanted to take a decent portrait of her, stretching her kindness and patience to the limits, and eventually she asked "why you need this photos?" I replied, I put them on the internet, people tell me they are wow great shots, and this makes me feel as if I would be a good photographer. She said "but why you photo me, I am not good in photos." I showed her the shots on LCD and told her, "Here you look calm and pensive.... you are lost in your thoughts...

...and here you look beautiful... see how many different faces you have? You are like a real photo model, always different. You are much better than Aishwarya Rai. Because Aishwarya Rai has only one face in the movies, when she is looking worried with tears in her eye because she can't decide whom to marry. But you have many faces." To which she answered, "Who is Aishwarya Rai?"

I sighed, closed Firefox on my screen and left.

Anyway, two minutes later asked myself why graffittis look the same on the whole earth...

...and spent some time photographing this Tibetan doctor, to the great amusement of nearby shopkeepers...

...and of course everyone not quick enough to hide from my camera....

...and a nice lady selling me a yak-bone necklace painted blue to imitate turquoise. God, was I angry when I found out.

Now, the problem with Lehladakh (as Soni called it) is that coming here is like entering a carroussel in a Buddhist theme park. "You go Hemis gompa sir, Thikse gompa sir, Buddhist prayer meditation sir, Tibetan refugee camp handicraft centre sir give you good price." Problem Nr 1 was that I'm not interested in gompas. I went there to see people, catch moments, great lights, and not for sightseeing. Problem Nr 2 was that even if I wanted to see Thiksehemisalchigompa, we were not allowed to to this in our car - we had to rent a local car from the Ladakhi taxi maffia (LTM). We were assured that otherwise our Rajasthani jeep could experience some "problems", meaning not a breakdown on the roads but a rock in our windshield or knife in the tyre while we sleep; in a better case, we could have been simply refused to pass through a checkpoint maintained be the LTM. On hand hand, it is understandable that they don't want to lose business. On the other hand, it was clear that behind the happy-happy tashidelek jhuley jhuley atmosphere lots of greed is hidden. For example, there was our hotel manager. He did everything to force us into this game by recommending brutally overpriced ayurvedic massages and taxi services (causing him to become the first Ladakhi hearing the expression "menj a retkes picsába"), and the little bastard knew that we had no other chance than to accept (except the ayurvedic rip-offs). As our cellphones didn't work in Ladakh (in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, that is) he offered his own local card for extra money, which we also had to take. I hated his guts. Later I found some emotional text messages on his card: "You are our only son. Please come back to us. At least pick up phone." Reply: "I have nothing to talk with you". This made me sad and realise that he is only just a human being, having his own problems and troubles in life and deserves compassion. Another soul opened up before me when I read these messages and I really felt sorry for him and his troubles as a father. From then on, I treated him with more understanding and smiling and nicely and didn't sent him to the picsa again. But I still hated his greedy guts of course.

Anyway, the plan was to go to Nubra valley (what a wonderful name) and Pangong lake, as far as tourists are allowed towards the Shiatsen glacier and Tibet respectively. Fortunately Soni made his own research and found a car for less rupees than with the tourist agency we were pressed to use. This gave me a little bargaining advantage when I had a long and not too pleasant business discusson with the agency. I wasn't happy to being pushed into this deal by threats of the LTM and the bastards knew that I have to, otherwise no way to go except by bus (which didn't go to Pangong lake anyway). Eventually, after some mutual shouting and bitching, we agreed in 10.000 rupees for the five-day trip. I tried to look at the bright side: Soni can have a rest, we don't need to torture the Scorpio on those bad roads, and having a local driver who knows the way couldn't harm either. But Soni was sad. "You know sir, there is Khardung pass on the way, 5600 meters, highest motorable pass in the world and I was looking forward to drive over it". His dream was eventually to become true.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Infrared interlude

The first batch of my infrared photographs is ready. To have a break from those brown and blue landscapes, let's have a look at them in a different light.

I made these on expired Kodak HIE film with a Voigtlander Bessa T + 25mm Skopar combo and a 39mm Hoya R72 filter. This IR film is difficult to use because we can only guess the correct exposure (Kodak says "use 1/125 and f:11 but do a lot of bracketing"), and results are mostly an ugly grainy mess but sometimes it works fine. Using a film camera, especially a rangefinder, is so refreshing after digital - the sound of the flick with my thumb on the film forward lever is priceless.
The shot with the chorten and prayer flags was taken in Kalpa, the rest in Ladakh.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Passage to India VIII

21 September

The day before, after Rohtang...

...following the river meandering through gorgeous gorges...

...and through Keylong... Jispa, where we arrived late evening. There's not much to say, only that the air was thinning and breathing became an issue from time to time, especially in the Ibex Hotel where the manager, who must have had a weird sense of humour, put me up on the top floor. For me in my condition, I mean fat, out of shape and forty years old, climbing up there was an achievement like climbing Mt Everest without an oxygen mask. The hotel was almost packed because of a bunch of lovely Scottish eccentrics who drove from Manali to Leh in a convoy of jeeps, real old-fashioned sturdy Mahindra Gypsies, driving themselves. They were smart: usually you can't drive on your own in India (apart from traffic hazards, there are so many bureaucratic traps you could easily fell into, not to mention asking for directions), 4X4 is rare because the federal government is afraid that all smugglers and thugs would drive better jeeps than law enforcement and therefore put a ban on selling and renting such cars - so what did the Scots do? They rented the Gypsies (probably bought from the Army by well-connected private drivers) together with their owners - they drove the cars and the actual owners followed this flying circus in a separate jeep. Soni told me they were constantly scared that the Scots will damage their beautiful jeeps. Well, they didn't had to fear that because the Gypsies had a tendency to fall into pieces without any outside interference. We turned the trip into a Himalayan version of the cannonball race, with us overtaking them and making them choke of dust in their open jeeps, and them overtaking us and make me frantically cover my camera to protect it from dust. Next morning...

21 September

...the lovely sound and smell of two dozen idling diesel engines greated the day which was to be the most tiring, and maybe most memorable day of the trip.

The first challenge was Baralacha Pass (4980 m), which for us Hungarians is memorable for Kőrösi Csoma Sándor was among the first Europeans crossing it (and since he was Kőrösi Csoma, he crossed it not once but several times, once ráadásul in winter if his biography is to believed). It was cold, so cold that even 7Up! bottles froze to death but Funny Soni was Happy Soni today because at last he could put on his cooooool black gloves.

The pass was impressive, offering almost an Arctic scenery....

...which soon turned Alpine as we descended...

...towards Darcha and Sarchu, two little tent villages in the middle of nowhere.

After Darcha (or was it Sarchu?... not as if it mattered, a Maggi soup tastes the same everywhere) we saw some yaks which could be the richest yaks in Ladakh if they received only 1 rupee from every tourist who photographs them.

We crossed three more passes that day...

...on a road always dreadfully dusty...

...but never boring...

...but the best part was the Morey plains where we faced a very difficult traffic situation:

In 1994, I did this trip by bus and now I wondered why I am so tired, almost exhausted; travelling in a SUV sounds comfortable but in 9 minutes out of 10 I was in the state of weightlessness, being thrown up from my seat by the bumpy road, with one hand grasping for hold and with the other desperately shielding my camera from dust; the Rampur flu was still in me, the air was so thin that after doing anything I was gasping for oxygen and anyway, I was 15 years older and 30 kgs heavier, but this was no explanation for my exhaustion. I write this not for complaining but because I still try to understand the perfect black-and-white moment of my life - I was deadly tired but at the same time, when the Morey plains opened up before me, a feeling of ultimate exhilaration engulfed me and these two emotional extremities were tearing me apart. I wanted at the same time lay down and sleep till I die and run away into the wilderness, sit down meditating at the most isolated hill on the horizon because I was sure that I will find answers here, and more importantly, the questions I need the answers for. But after all it was not God who talked to me but Soni, asking "are you finished with photographing, sir?" I replied "not yet" and took a pee admiring the scenery for a last moment.

We climbed back into the car and drove on.

Met a little caravan on the way:

And drove...

...and drove...

...and drove...

...and drove...

...and drove...
...and drove...
...over the last pass...

...towards the Indus valley.

We met a Scot repairing his broken-down Gypsy on this pass. A rock smashed into the chassis and the jeep was loosing oil as if it was bleeding. He was lucky because the support car was with him, and had no doubts they would make it to Leh before the dreadfully cold night sets in (it was at ca 5000 meters). I offered him almonds and water, which he refused but literally jumped at the few beef jerkies I could give after living on them the whole day. Realising we can't do much to help them, we continued.

Now, I'm not a confessing Buddhist but when I saw the first chorten at dusk it made me very, very happy. It was only comparable to the feeling I experienced later, somewhere in Punjab, when I saw a McDonald's sign.

This time it was not about safe and clean food (anyone who doesn't appreciate a juicy Maharaja burger after weeks of dhal and rice is a nutcase IMO) but the closeness of the Indus river. There are places which even nowadays sound magical like Timbuktu, Samarkand, Isfahan, Cairo - like magic words which cast a spell of golden domes glittering in a glorious sunset, places where one would dream of riding into on the back of an elephant adorned with jewelry, swords flashing and saddles blazing, and when I say Indus river, all human history comes to mind from Harappa over Alexander the Great to... I forgot. Anyway, Alexander aside, arriving in the valley also meant that the day is over and soon I can tend to my broken bones and dust-covered camera sensor. In the magic and glorious city if Leh of course.

Talking about Indus:

...and here's the original song:

Magic and glorious Leh greeted us with dark streets and the challenge to find a hotel where there's place for our faithful car, but compared to the trip from Jispa this posed no real challenge.

After hunting down the only wine and beer shop still open, all I had to do was to study the map and guidebook (there's a Bengali guy who wrote one that blows LP out of the water) , trying to find something that I hadn't seen before in Ladakh. How I wished I could go beyond the mountains into Tibet!

Kinnauri aftermath

I received this poetic message today and since it goes back to the Nako days, I'd like to put it up here for a little meditation. It captures the spirit of traveling - in a wider sense of meaning. No wonder, as it comes from a real writer.

Deep down in my luggage, I just found the business card on which you had scribbled your website. (...) I'm looking forward to the Kinnauri part. If life's a river, what are the people you meet upstream and downstream?
Fellow-stowaways? Simply drowning men? I particularly like and am surprised by the nude section. But for myself, I'm more interested in the mental nude. Only, that doesn't produce interesting pics. Or could that be a new challenge?

Flowing with the river or bumping around on a Himalayan bus - looking at the shore, looking out of the dusty window, you are being connected to other humans for just a split second, for an evening or a day, doesn't matter after all. What matters is, any eye you look into offers a moment from which a life-long companionship can evolve, even if you never see each other again. When traveling, the healing power of motion puts our senses into a higher state of alertness, so that we can grasp the moments which are lost on us at home when our life is routine. A woman we see while waiting for a travel permit can become the benchmark for all future beauty, casual words by a fellow-traveler over booze can echo in our mind until we die, and a two-minute piss-stop at sunrise can present us with the most memorable moment of our life*. We are not lost on each other. Driftwood is traveling stuff, and all driftwood is related because only trees close enough to the river can become driftwood. The rest of the forest we never see.

We're all mental nudes on the trip. Sometimes it is tempting to abuse our being a complete stranger for a little masquerading and put on the clothes of somebody we want others believe we are, but nothing is as good as being free and ourselves. No conventions, no expectations, no role-playing. Probably that's the most refreshing about traveling - just being the way we are.

(And receiving such an email gives a blissful and elevating feeling - because it means I actually did remember my homepage address after two bottles of Kinnauri booze. And knowing that I even managed to write it down correctly and legibly- this is more than bliss, this is a miracle.)

*Happened to me in August 1993 in Beluchistan. The bus stopped, we got out, the sun rose and everything was red, red with millions of shades of red and I felt out of the planet on another plane of existence. The next closest moment to zen was on a cold winter morning in Brussels, when I was looking at the frozen lake nearby and found my place in the universe - I realised, there is a frozen lake with ducks on the ice and I Am The Human Looking At The Lake. (If you read anything about zen, you'll know I'm not crazy.) With my mind on the razor's edge towards satori, I went to the office where the coffee machine swallowed my 1 euro coin and didn't produce espresso and I got pissed off and thus lost my chance to attain enlightment. Still waiting for the next chance.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Passage to India VII

(OFF: I started to upload some edited photos to - if you want to see some better ones. Also added some 2009 photos to my nude gallery - - if you're bored by India...)

20 September

Soni suggested we leave Manali early to avoid the traffic jams up to the Rohtang pass (3980 m) . So we did, leaving at 5 AM sharp, and were quite happy with ourselves as the traffic was minimal indeed. Of course after two hours driving we ran into a row of vehicles - turned out, an idiot of a truck driver got stuck and soon there was a Himalayan gridlock. Looking back to Kullu, I realised there were worse places to get stuck because at least the landscape was gorgeous.

After a while even the most stunning vista gets boring however. We waited for five hours, and when not bitching at the hapless truck driver (all the people did, from German tourists to locals) I used the time for some casual portraits.

Maybe we'd be still there if it wasn't for the Indian army - the javans came to the rescue with a huge tractor-cum-crane (to say it the Indglish way) and towed the truck away.

And here is our hero, the officer who directed the operation:

Soni was unusually nervous and when I asked why, he told me that Manali drivers are crazy and foolish. I doubted I could see anything more foolish than I had seen before but when we approached the pass, I had to agree with him. The road is a dust track, one and a half lane wide by our standards, and it is NOT a nice feeling to see you're being overtaken by two cars left and right while dodging the traffic coming up from front.

This was the one and only moment when I was happy to have opted for Soni instead of self-driving - the behaviour of Manali drivers would scare any Western driver or, as it would be in my case, set free such an aggression to teach those monkeys some manners that would all the way end very badly.

After swallowing a few kilograms of dust (tons were yet to follow), we made it safely up to the pass. Rohtang was an infamous place, named "pass of bones" after the hundreds of thousands of travellers who perished there in earlier days, and was impressive enough to turn a young British officer called Francis Younghusband into one of the greatest explorers when he first saw it, and although I've been there twice in 1994, I still expected some magic. What I found was a winter theme park for Indian tourists who admired the first snow they saw and imitated winter sports.

The only thing reminding to earlier days were the pony drivers who, dressed up like high-altitude cowboys, were waiting for honeymoon couples and South Indian families to bring them closer to the dangerous and miraculous natural phenomenon called snow.

And then it happened - we were over the pass...

...and suddenly traffic disappeared, the crowd disappeared, oxygen disappeared and the road stretched out before us, with an inviting emptiness, leading us to Ladakh and beyond.