Jullay from Leh

Welcome to Prue and Ian's blog of their cycle tour of India

"Soaring thousands of metres above the rush, heat and chaos of India's plains, the Indian himalayaare a world apart. prayer flags snap in the wind on high mountain passes, immense yaks thresk barley at harvest time and the colourfultata trucks crawl up the hairpins like ants. The people, especially in Buddhist Ladakh, are cheerful, honest and gentle. The landscape is a reflection of their religion - white chortens line the roads and approaches to villages like pawns from a giant game of chess, burgundy-clad monks hitch lifts at the side of road, gompas perch on spectacular crags and everywhere the air is alive with the flutter of prayer flags Here is some of the most starkly spectacular mountain scenery you will find anywhere in the world"

Laura Stone Adventure Cycling

Thursday, November 25, 2010

In the end we always arrive at the place we are expected.

Yesterday, November 22nd, we arrived in Mumbai increasing its population to 16.4 million + 2. Our arrival was calculated to miss a long cycle into this megalopolis. Instead we caught a ferry from the southern side of Mumbai Harbour at Mandwa.
Our journey from Kochi five weeks ago had taken us inland on two occasions but our path generally followed the coastal route.
Cycling from the Kerallan capital, we hoped to leave the late monsoonal rain behind us, but it seemed to follow us for several more weeks. Rust and mould were constantly a problem - only on the bikes and clothing though!
We ferried across to Vypeen Is from Fort Cochin and as we cycled beside the backwaters we enjoyed the political fanatacism leading up to the local elections.Small villages supported by coconut or banana plantations or rice paddies were inhabited by the local Malayalams. It didn't take long to leave the non-Indian tourist trail and the ease of English road signs. This inability for us to read the signs was to be a constant problem for the next few weeks. Languages spoken across southern India change rapidly as well. Luckily the usually reliable "point at the map and follow the non verbal direction from whoever we asked" worked well.- especially if repeated at every major intersection.
As mentioned in earlier blogs, the religious diversity of a population so devout in their chosen faith is astonishing. Leaving Catholic Kochi one day, sleeping a short walk from Hindu central - Guryayir's Sri Krishna's temple, the next. If the money changers at the temple so incensed Jesus in the New testament account, he wouldn't have coped at all in India. Actually "in the temple " is a sacred place for the Muslims, Christians, Jains, Hindus, Jews and Buddhists but one step outside the hard sell is on for religious icons and just about anything else.
Our next day was a long 100 kms cycle to Calicutt arriving after dark with flashing tail lights and head torches letting the evening traffic know of our arrival. The day's ride was again slowed down by numerous people stopping us, interested in our journey ( and usually with a new phone number to "ring me if you need help") Kingfisher beers from Room Service was the reward for the long day.
 Our coastal route now took a turn inland as we caught a bus up on to the Western Gnats and to the old Raj hilltop town of Ooty. "Snooty Ooty" as it was known when the Brits escaped the heat of the plains to take the officialdom up into the hills for some colonial air-con. Here we again ran into teachers Ian and Megan from W.A. working at Ooty's International School. We had previously met them at the cricket in Kochi. They helped us make some decisions about our next riding leg.
I wanted to connect a ride from Ooty to Mysore with a visit to the Nilgiri Hills and its ecologically significant Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. Tigers and wild elephants being the star attractions. Having a personal and professional interest in ecological management issues, I have been drawn to the tigers' plight in India ( and the other 12 countries that support the remaining tiger populations)
Guess what is the main problem facing tigers in India? And guess what the human population is in the Wayanad sanctuary? 780,200 humans. 38 tigers.
I have been reading Valnik Thapan's book The Last Tiger - Struggling for Survival. Of course it's a very similar tale to that of our own thylacine. Hopefully the current tiger summit in St Petersberg of the 13 tiger range countries will help India towards the plan to double tiger populations by 2020.
I have digressed from the cycle route planning. After looking closely at the maps of Northern Kerala, the road to Mysore actually dissected the Wayanad Sanctuary. Tiger symbols each side of the road on the map led to the thought that "we might have a chance on a downhill run but an encounter with a tiger on an uphill could place us at a distinct disadvantage". I discussed my plans with Ian and Megan. Ian related the stories of deaths from the previous year. Not a high number but a significant factor in our decision making. Aggressive, wild elephants on the road were the real problem, although tiger attacks had happened.
 Knowing you all would have been disappointed if this final blog wasn't completed, we decided to ........ catch a bus to Mysore.
Mysore was a great place to spend a few days - bustling markets, magnificent monuments - many created by the Wodeyar Maharajas, and the friendly locals. The Maharaja's Palace is an India must-see and diving into Devaraja Market was exciting as the the Hindu devotees geared up for Diwali - the festival of light (and noise).
Next we put the bikes back onto a bus and "over-nighted it" to Panaji in central Goa.
As we rode out of the bus stop the next morning, Amey a member of the Goan bike Club, pulled us over and invited us on their Sunday morning ride the next day. Guest house Casa Paradiso became our home for the next week as we explored the rich Portuguese-flavoured history with new friends.The town was alive with Diwali lights and the making of huge papier-mache effigies. The Panaji sojourn allowed us to not only explore Old Goa's grand cathedrals- once the ecclesiastical wonder of the Eastern World, and eat more seafood, but also take in a dose of Indian musical culture and a baby boomer surprise. The Kala Academy Cultural Centre hosted a classical Indian musical event which we enjoyed- especially the sensational tabla players. Several days later we read that The Cavern Beatles were in town - a cover band from .......Yes. Liverpool. There were only a handful of non-Indians in the sell-out crowd and we were surprised when not only did the locals know every word to every song, but spirited singing and dancing was the response to the mop-tops' urges to join in. Great fun and a very sweaty night dancing in humid Panaji.
A chance discussion previously with a fellow traveler in Bundi made us plan a visit to the inland again to the World Heritage-listed Hampi. Quoting Lonely Planet "Unreal and bewitching, the forlorn ruins of Hampi lie scattered over a landscape that leaves you spell bound the moment you cast your eyes on it".
Think Mt Buffalo with its monolithic boulders and rock formations but with the alpine vegetation replaced with jade-coloured palm groves, banana plantations and paddy fields. It was easy to visualise the decaying facades of the 16th century bazaars coming alive when you learnt of the original 500,000 population dabbling in international trade from faraway lands.
Without the bikes, we hired a scooter for the afternoon and enjoyed the experiences of visiting local rural villages. One fleeting image down a laneway brought back childhood memories and brought a smile to my face. Diwali celebrations also includes plenty of fireworks, particularly crackers- big crackers.(penny bangers if you're over 50)As we scootered past, I glimpsed four boys surrounding a large, fresh cow pat. A penny banger was sitting in the middle of it, an older boy was striking a match and the other 3 were about to leave the scene as quickly as they could.
After our return to Panaji we realised it was time to explore more of Goa. Another ferry took us across the river and we rode north through the seaside towns of Candolim, Callangute, and Baga. Wall-to-wall sun seekers cheek-to-cheek on the beach and the local economy trying to flog everything from spiderman beach towels to diamonds. Not for us.
Our hope was to find the best Goan beach and to stay put for a few days. Vialankanni Beach Resort, Mandrem ticked all the boxes.
No crowds but new friends to meet. - tick
Bamboo hut for sleeping to the sound of the waves - tick
restaurant/bar - tick
French Patissier close by - tick
interesting walks, clean beach, beach lounges, waves, - tick
G&T's delivered to the above lounges at sunset - tick
We booked in for 2 days, extended for another 2 days, and a another ( final) 2 day extension.
We contemplated a 5-day yoga course but ordered another G&T instead.
Prue's diary reads "Run/swim/breakfast/lounge/swim/walk/swim/read/food/lounge/G&T/ dinner/read/sleep" x 6!
We had fun meeting Ulva and Jonathan from Stockholm and sharing several meals, conversations ranging from ABBA to social justice issues, and a trip to an Organic Spice plantation.Tack så mycket!
Yes we finally left after making the most difficult decision in 4 months.
An 80km ride took us to Malvan for the night and then on to Devgarh the next day.
Our plan to ride to Mumbai was unravelling as we realised how many kilometres were ahead of us. So again Plan B ( B as in Bus) came into action. Another "over-nighter" took us to Nagothana. After a quick omlette and chai at a roadside cafe we headed off to Roha. Midway to Kashid, our destination for the night, we stopped at the village of Chennare. Local kids asked if we played cricket, and 10 minutes later The Chennare Test started. Local backyard rules were explained - on the roof - out, in the long grass - out, near the windows - out. The same all over the world! End of the morning session and we were invited home for a drink and lunch. Just another example of the very hospitable locals.
Back on the road we finally reached Kashid- the beach playground of Mumbaikars. Stupidly we hadn't realised it was a busy Saturday night, and the place was throbbing with day-trippers and over-nighters enjoying the weekend and end-of- Diwali school holidays. We eventually found accommodation. Strangely the Diwali sales prices we had seen in shops didn't flow on to Guesthouse prices - quite the opposite. Consequently our most expensive accommodation was agreed upon -  R2500- actually only about $50 so we didn't stress for too long.
Our final leg into Mumbai was via the coastal city of Alibag and then onto Mandwa to catch the ferry.
Our week in Mumbai will go quickly, the traffic isn't too chaotic for cycling, and many attractions and experiences are within walking distance of our Hotel.
Commentators of Mumbai talk of its rhythm- a harmony that takes a while to hear. " A complex but playful raga, a gliding, light-footed dance." So we have a week to become a part of the song.
We depart Mumbai on Wednesday 1st December, followed by two days in Singapore before setting foot on Terra Australis on Saturday 4th December.
Finally, a newspaper snippet that caught our eye.A local entrepreneur is making paper products derived from elephant dung. He has been experimenting with colours, feeding his elephant beetroot or tumeric. We are trying to source some Christmas cards for you all.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Delhi and heading south (so we can cycle north!)

Fort Cochin: out in front of me the tidal flow of the Kerala Backwaters is carrying vegetation out into the  Arabian Sea.
Prue and I are sitting  at a local Juice Bar in the Chinese Fishing Nets area of Kochi (Fort Cochin). The ancient counter weighted structures are dotted along the coastline and continue a centuries old tradition for the local fishermen.
Our stay here is the start of another leg of our cycle touring. Tomorrow (or the next day or the next day..) we will depart the comfort of Green Woods Bethlehem Homestay (More Christian iconology than the Sistine Chapel) and the wonderful care of owners Sheeba and Ashley.
Last night the majority of guests were treated to a cooking demonstration followed by a Keralan feast up on the rooftop communal space. Harold from Germany, Alain and family from Geneva, two honeymooners from Georgia, USA, two English lassies, Ella and Bryce from Castlemaine(Vic)on their gap year exploration of India and two older Aussies sat around the laden tables. Luckily, for Prue and I, six of the diners were vegetarians so we volunteered to eat more than our fair share of the local speciality of Prawn Curry - Keralan style.
Our five days here have been foodie heaven. Occasionally, in between meals, we walk or cycle to local attractions, the swimming beach twenty kilometres away or explore new neighbourhoods. Reading the Hindu Times each day keeps us up with the regional news: Coconut prices are down and the Vanilla Growers are annoyed by the synthetic version swamping their markets.
We planned our trip to Kerala to coincide with the first ODI cricket match. On Sunday we excitedly headed off on the ferry to the mainland with the locals for the 9:30am start. Unfortunately the late monsoonal weather put a dampener on the contest. (The players didn't even arrive at the ground) There were plenty of conversations with the locals about who would have won. We stuck to our line "No Master Blaster, no India". (Sachin Tendulkar was being rested)

In our last blog, Alice and Riley were with us us exploring Rajasthan. We returned to Delhi via a visit to the Rajasthani village of Bundi. The highlight here was an afternoon on motor scooters through the rural landscape  with Prue and Alice playing Audrey Hepburn to Riley and my Gregory Peck a la Roman Holiday. 
No helmets. No licence. No travel Insurance and No worries.
On our return to the capital after eight days away, we found a transformed Dehli in readiness for the Commonwealth Games. Our hotel on Paharganj's Main Bazaar was spotless and even a white line had been painted down the middle of the road - not that much of the traffic knew about it!
A few last experiences of India for the kids and we off loaded our unwanted gear into their packs before their departure home. Warm clothes, tent, mats, sleeping bags and the odd acquisition all lightened our loads but Riley was slugged with a $200 Excess Luggage fee before he left.
Free of the responsibilities of children, we headed to Varanasi for a quick visit linked by two overnight train trips. With the Ganges in flood, the gnats of Varanasi were difficult to negotiate but we did manage to experience the city's spiritual rituals and lose several of our nine lives on a hair-raising (yes, yes ...difficult for one of us) tuk-tuk ride in peak hour traffic to catch a train.
Back in Delhi we purchased tickets to the Games. We had exciting experiences at Indoor Cycling, the Road Race, Netball x 2, Hockey x 2, Swimming and a night at the Athletics especially to see Stephen Hooker pole vaulting. Due to a few mishaps we arrived late to see him warm up to attempt a record and then pull out after winning the Gold earlier! The Swimming session included watching Wangaratta's (and ex Galen College student) Belinda Hocking swim in the Final of the 200 m Backstroke.
No doubt the media in Australia painted a very negative picture of Delhi, but we had a great time. Apart from some over zealous security at times and ticketing issues that left stadiums half empty, our experiences of the Games were very pleasurable.
One disturbing, re-occuring experience we had, was being questioned about the violence towards Indians in Melbourne. One rickshaw driver was spot on when he said, "You are in my country and I treat you as my guest. Why aren't you treating Indians in Melbourne the same?" Every article in The Age or Sun-Herald about the violence is magnified in the media here.
We all need to be of the solution.
Our departure from Delhi saw us heading south and changing our plans for returning home.
We want to spend more time with Hugo ( a five year old we have been playing grandparents to for the last few years) and some extended time at Point Lonsdale. So plans to cycle into Nepal have been scrapped and we will return home from Mumbai on December 4th - instead of Jan 15th.
Ahead of us before our departure we plan to have 6 weeks of cycling, making our way up the coast to Goa and then on to Mumbai.
Beaches, pineapple juice, manic traffic, lots of cricket tragics wanting to know why Shane Warne doesn't love Ricky Ponting, plenty of Incredible India ( National tourist slogan) experiences and hopefully an end to the monsoonal torrents await us.

Photos at    


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Blog 7 Our "jullay" has changed to "namaste"

I'm starting the writing of this blog in an idyllic setting. We are in Jodhpur, Rajasthan at Singhvi's Haveli with its rooftop restaurant decorated with saris and floor cushions. There are several roof top sitting spots with views over the city's blue hues and up to Martrangarh Fort above us. A Costa Rican / Swiss couple are sharing Kingfisher beers and their travel stories with us. The culmination of the Hindi Ganesh Chatonurchi festival celebrations is filling the soundwaves with music and singing. There's a kite fluttering above the roof tops and monkeys are jostling for positions along the fort's rampants.......get the picture?

The Minns- Noble family arrived on the overnight train from Delhi this morning. (Both Alice and Riley joined us in Leh, Ladakh a week apart) Our intial foray in Dehli was an easy introduction to India's capital - despite a terrorist attack, floods and the Commonwealth Games accommodation village not being clean enough. ( and our bicycles haven't come out of their travel bags yet!)

Our three months in the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu / Kashmir's Ladakh district were full of interesting experiences. Although the Ladakh cloudburst, resultant floods and fatal destruction dominated the time, we will also have fonder memories of the friendliness of the Ladakhi people, their unique natural environment and the ever present devotion to Tibetian Buddhism.
Following our blog regarding the destruction in Leh in early August, friends from the North East have been very compassionate in their response to the needs of affected Ladakhi people. Our thanks to the organisers of the gathering at the Grogan Haveli - especially Clare, Mick and Kath N. and thank you to all who supported the initiative. To those who supported the apppeal at Galen College, the Catholic Education Office or very generously deposited money in our account - our grateful thanks. When we recounted to some of the Leh locals that our village in Australia had donated money to the cause, they were impressed that a village so far away cared about them.
The final toal was 107,500 Rupees! ( Before Mick Grogan gets the calculator out for a spot of his second favourite passion...... 1.Saints 2. Maths 3. Clare...... the exchange rate was 43cents to the rupee.)
After talking to several locals for their advice and to a few NGOs working in response to the floods, we decided to give the money to the Ladakh Buddhist Assosication (LBA) in Leh. Most of the inital basic needs of the flood victims have been met, but the long term care and education of orphans of the distaster are still issues. The LBA has set up a special account to start this process. At the time of our discussion with the President and the General Sec., 36 children had been placed in boarding schools in and around Leh at 6 different schools. Many more were being assessed. The LBA is commited to the long term sponsorship of these children until they have found independence at the end of their education. This will of course require greater sponsorship over a long period of time. The LBA can organise individual student sponsorships if you are interested.
 The transfer of the money from our account into the Bank of India's LBA account created small problems (of course!) The bank employee who managed such transactions was on leave. We had to empty the outside ATM and carry the wad of rupees back into the bank. The amount was roughly the equivalent of handing over $20,000 in cash to a teller in Australia. The crowded queue behind us ( and either side! Indian queues don't translate into Indian file!) gawked at the teller as he counted all the notes.
As mentioned in an earlier blog, my sister Maree and a band of commited Beechworth knitters had created numerous winter woollies for Leh families who had lost their clothing. Both Alice and Riley brought over items that we distributed to young and old. One of the beanies didn't get too far and has become this winter's favourite item of clothing for Angmo la (Grandma) at our Leh guesthouse.
Thanks again Maree and your helpers.

One of our cycling day trips out of Leh was to a private, sustainability themed, boarding school (SECMOL) for students who had failed year 10 and wanted a second chance. The school is sited on the banks of the flood ravaged Indus River and took a bit of navigation and luck to find. We came across a volunteer teacher from SECMOL returning on bicycle from giving English lessons to monks at the local monastery - just as we were about to turn back. Another 3 kms along a dirt road high above the Indus followed. The school could be transposed to a farm site behind a certain school in Wangaratta! The buildings were all solar passive  designed yet retained elements of traditional Ladakhi structures. Solar power, vegie patch, orchard, cows and a volleyball/cricket area that turned into an ice hockey rink in winter (See picasa photo) The school is only able to exist through the support of sponsorhips, fees and volunteer teachers. Although fairly isolated, it would be an interesting volunteer position for a month or so.

With Alice's arrival in Leh, we decided to finish our teaching at New Millennium School and see a bit more of the Ladakh countryside. Our farewell day was very special with a lunchtime gathering in the dining hall. The Lama, Principal, staff and 260 special guests farewelled us with speeches, gifts, kata scarves, blessings, handshakes and goodbyes to Madam Prue and Sir Ian.
Alice acclimatised quickly to Leh's altitude and we planned a trek back to the area where I got Prue lost several weeks before. We wanted to visit the village and gompa at Lamayuru and then walk from Temisgram to Likir. We recuited Tsering  - a Leh local on uni holidays and brother to Rigzen Dolma who we had been teaching with at N.M. School. Rigzen and Tsering's parents' village, Nurla, was near the start of the walk. The drive to Lamayuru was simply spectactular. After numerous switchbacks climbing impossibily up scree slopes, we arrived at the village and Gompa at the hilltop. Wonderful views and we wished we had allowed more time to stay in the township. We returned to Nurla where Tsering's mother Angmo greeted us with open arms and we were treated to a delightful night of Ladakhi home cooking and hospitality.
Our walk started through the flood effected valley of Ang. Although land was washed away, houses lost and infrastructure damaged, rural life was focused on harvesting the wheat and barley crops. This activity would be repeated from village to village over the next three days. At the village of Hemis Spupachan Prue and I visited the family of Rigzen Jigmet - our Principal from N.M. School in Leh. Rigzen had called ahead to let them know we would be paying a visit. Again, the opportunity to be part of a local family's life was refreshing and not part of the Lonely Planet's well worn trail.
The third campsite was again off the track a bit. We were fortunate to talk our way into sleeping on a farmhouse roof top. Tsering's charm had us persuade a local woman into letting us share the roof space with drying apricots, solar panels and recently stacked hay. We spent an hour or so shelling apricot kernels with our hostess. Kunzes cooked up a local treat of sku for dinner - a homemade pasta (small round discs with a thumb print on one side) and seasonal vegies. This turned out to be one of the culinary highlights of our Ladakhi experiences. Finally, our trek took us to Likir and a local bus back to Leh.
Having a younger female accompanying Prue and I in Leh quickly increased our social circle. Mainly males seemed to be our dining partners each night! Alice also enjoyed running each morning and created a "Shanti Stupa loop" ( for those with local Leh knowledge) for the daily exercise. She also made social in-roads at our guesthouse. Guidebooks on Ladakhi customs suggest that physical contact should be kept to a minimum and displays of affection were frowned upon. Well Alice had Angmo la (Grandma) wrapped around her little finger with hugs and kisses almost a daily routine.
Riley finally touched down but it was a very different Leh and in particular Changspa Road - the tourist area near our guesthouse. The vibrant street that greeted us nine weeks before was now 95% closed due to a lack of tourist trade post floods. Fortunately the Main Bazaar and Fort Rd areas still heaved with local traffic & commerce.
Alice and Riley teamed up to explore Leh Palace, and Tsering again shared his guiding skills with a visit to Thiksey Monastery just out of town.
As a family we re-visited N.M.School for a morning. We hired two extra bikes so the kids could "enjoy" the local traffic and ride home.(up the hill)
Two memorable nights in Leh included Riley's birthday at Jeevan's Cafe with some of our new friends - including Phillip, a young German architecture student volunteering to help restore Leh Palace. I met Phillip in a post office queue that morning!. The second night was a momo cooking class at Rigzen and Tsering's home. It would be fair to say that my momos stood out from the rest (mis-shapen and falling apart). We played dress-ups with the encouragement of their Dad, in his traditional clothes and hats. 2011 will be the Year of the Momo at 5 Crisp Street dinner parties (Yes - no more pizzas!)
On the 13th of September we were blessed with a visit to Leh by the Dalai Lama. He came to support the flood devastated community. It was not difficult to be caught up in the excitment of His Holiness's presence.
If only he had known that several days later the International Friendly (football/soccer match) was being played between Australia and Ladakh, he might have stayed on. Tsering is a keen footballer so we issued a challenge: 5:00pm at the pologround. Bring some mates and a soccer ball!
Australia: Prue, Alice, Riley & Ian PLUS Karma (Tibetan teacher from N.M. School - not a Ladakhi but obtained a temporary Australian citizenship just prior to the match) PLUS two ten year olds kids on their way home from school and walking across the polo ground. (technically Ladakhis but allowed in the underage clause) They turned out to be pretty handy Pat Arcuri types (Galen college teacher/soccer superstar) who controlled the game especially after Prue "took a dive" with a turned ankle.
Ladakh: Tsering, Tsering's mates x 3, Tsering's cousin - best player in Ladakh, Tsering's cousin's mate - second best player in Ladakh.
 The game see-sawed but the Aussies were up 4 -1 before I let through a goal followed by Alice discovering what an "own goal" was. On a roll, the opposition looked unstoppable until our youth policy started paying dividends.
As darkness descended, a "next goal wins" decision was made (Unlike a certain Melbourne event)  The guests made it home 7 - 6 in a very tight finish.
A small crowd had even filled a portion of the stands to watch the game.

 Most visitors who fly into or out of Leh are treated to a glimpse of the Himalayas along the flight path. Our early morning flight down to Delhi was just fantastic.

After three days in Delhi, including a very wet,soggy visit to the Taj in Agra, we trained to Jodhpur and are now enjoying the sights and sounds of Udaipur.
In the Travel section of The Age newspaper last year, a journalist suggested that journeys should have a theme, a quest, a focus that linked experiences
 Our quest in Rajathstan could be
1. Find the camel that Geoff Morrow rode on his desert trek 20 years ago.
2. Re-inact the scenes on location from James Bond's adventure Octopussy filmed here many moons ago.
3. Find a miniture painting (local speciality) that doesn't illustrate a tiger / elephant / horse / camel / palace.
4. Haggle over every financial transaction to the ethically acceptable 50% mark.

Stay tuned.

Photos at    


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tragic events in Ladakh

The last week in Leh has been an emotional one. Ladakh experienced its worst ever natural disaster. A violent cloud burst  at 12:30 am on August 6th initated floods and mud/rock slides that would kill 184 people, injure over 350 and, at this stage, still have 500 people unaccounted for.
Prue and I had an interrupted night with lightning and heavy rain occasionally waking us. As with many living in our area of Leh little did we realise the huge effect of the storm.
When we were about to head off to school on our bikes our Guesthouse owner said that we might have trouble getting there as the storm had caused a great deal of damage and loss of life. The ride to school certainly opened our eyes to the mudslides in particular and the utter confusion of Leh's population. The storm destroyed the electricity supply, radio station and communications infrastructure. Word of mouth was the only form of communication.
We arrived at school to find that we were that only adults there and that the boarding school senior students had conducted the normal 9:30am assembly and were oblivious to the destruction above them in the Leh valley. Finally, one other teacher arrived and then Rinchin, the Principal. Rinchin and his family had slept in his car after the cloudburst has destroyed some of his home's roof and walls. Most other teachers lived in the Choglomsar area that we would later find out was one of the hardest hit villages. (In this village hundreds of people are still missing as mud 1 - 2 metres deep had completely engulfed the area.)
School was called off for the day . As the bulk of students are boarders, a Sunday (non school day program) was put in place. Eventually the school was closed for a week and many anxious parent and took their children home. Road closures and bridge wash aways didn't allow 60 of the students to return home so they were cared for by wardens at the school.
Prue and I rode back into Leh through the destruction and news was starting to spread about the deaths and the extent of damage.
Over the next week we volunteered through one of the agencies that quickly responded to the tragedy. The local Christian school was running daily buses to outlying villages that weren't helped in the initial emergency response. We chose to go to Saboo, 10 kms from Leh. We ended up in an international team with South Korea, France, Italy, Germany and Australia represented. For the next few days we returned to the same house emptying the mud and rocks from the remaining rooms that withstood the torrent.We were amazed how very sizable rocks were able to flow with mud into houses.
Unfortunately bodies were still being recovered from home sites near us. The villagers knew who was still missing and where the bodies probably were. Yet the anguish of actually recovering their loved ones was over-whelming.
Our small team became close through the experiences and we frequently shared our evenings together during the following days.
The destruction of the houses and farmland is devastating.  Precious soil and retaining stepps that often surrounded family homes were completely destroyed in parts of Leh and villages close by.
Although the aftermath of our own 2009 bushfires took time, (and still goes on in many cases) it is not hard to feel that the destruction here will take generations to re-build. As climate change effects the region, the lifestyle of the Ladakhis will need to adjust to more rain / less snow and the resultant mud slides. Housing design and materials, urban planning, agriculture, roads and other infrastructure will need to change with the shifting rainfall patterns.
As with all natural disasters there are also the secondary casualties and in Ladakh's case it is the tourism industry and the cash flow from it. Over the last week thousands of tourists have left the region mainly by air. Road access from Manali from Srinagar has been closed. Cafe owners, shop keepers, taxi drivers, trekking companies, guesthouse owners are all depressed about the premature end to an already short season.
The Prime Minister arrived in town yesterday and threw his support behind the recovery with  a pledge of 135 million Rupees. A few Ladakhis we have spoken to about the package are thankful but reserved about how much will actually get to the victims or to re-build infrastructure. The culture of mismanagement of public funds is so strong in India generally that the locals just see it as a fact of life.
The response to the emergency has been overwhelming. From the core Leh community, monks from surrounding monasteries and local villagers who have been unaffected, to itinerant workers and tourists - everyone one has contributed. A Condolence candle light walk and prayers through town four nights ago was attended by thousands. It proved to be a very powerful experience. Most tourists seem to be willing to pitch in for a day or two and in some cases holiday plans are totally on hold, with daily volunteer work removing mud at the hospital, surrounding villages or in schools..
Comments from the trickle of tourists still arriving are usually concerned with 'How can I help?"
We are very appreciative that several of you at home who are working to send clothing or money. Thanks for your concern and efforts. My sister Maree, in particular , has put together two large bags of clothing that Alice and Riley will endeavour to bring over in a few weeks.
Finally, thanks to family and friends who became aware of the crisis here and inquired about our well-being.  Embassy officials from numerous countries, including Australia, have been in Leh ensuring that all tourist are accounted for.
We have now returned to teaching at the New Millennium School and our days are spent covering classes for two absent teachers who remain effected by the disaster.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Blog 5 A few adventures and the start of school.

Our first wet day since arriving today. Rain through the night flattened the wheat crop at our guesthouse. The change in weather seems to have quietened the town down a notch.
Teaching at the New Millenium School started on Monday. Leh is sited in the middle of a long valley. Lardak Guesthouse is in the old Changspa village near the top and N.M. School is down near the airport at the bottom. Consequently the ride to work is almost downhill all the way AND guess what happens after school? It has been two sweaty bodies arriving home after a good workout ( Ryan's lookout x 3 for the Wang folks)
The school has 260 students - 230 boarding and 30 day students. A Swiss foundation called Eco-Himal has sponsored the school since its inception in 2000. Buildings, boarding dormitories, community hall and classrooms plus food, uniforms, text books and teachers' wages are all sponsored. The focus is to provide a traditional Tibetian Buddhism approach to a modern curriculum. Students come from far and wide - mainly from poorer backgrounds.
The bus-ing of students is certainly consistent with other Indian bus arrangements that many of you are familar with. An excursion to our sister school last week had 260 students plus staff into 2 x 35 seater buses. Don and brenda from wangaratta coachlines would have a fit! (We passed a school bus several weeks ago and from front on it was difficult to see who the actual bus driver was as so many faces were pushed up against the windscreen.)
Several teachers had not returned from school holidays dues to road closures (landslides) and a marriage, so Prue and I had a week of full teaching loads to cover them. My first class was Hindi (I had to explain to the class that Hindi wasn't my first language!) Luckily a reading comprehension task on fishing was the next page in their texts and I added a drawing of the scene to complete the task.
The staff are quite young and very friendly. We are greeted as long lost friends each morning. As time goes on and we settle into the term, our roles will evolve to more team teaching particularly in English classes (and Prue has her eye on the school library)
The students are also very friendly and so polite. As you walk into a class a  student will sing "Stand up" and then the group will all sing "Good Morning Sir /Madam".
The 4 -5 year olds are so cute in their formal uniforms.
Each morning starts with an assembly - Tibetian prayers and the Indian national anthem, and one person from each class performs a quizz, sings a song or recites a poem to the group. The formalities end with a march into class accommanied by drummers. The pint sized soldiers swing their arms enthusiastically and almost in time.
A quick toilet story. Toilets in schools can be problematic - particularly the Boys. The playground toilets are traditional Ladakhi - mudbrick built a metre and a half off the ground.. Inside is a 20cm x 40cm hole with earth covering the floor boards. The boys come in and pee towards the hole- consequently the earth around the hole becomes wet. the next boy stands on the dry dirt and pees towards the hole.... the wet patch becomes bigger. By the end of the day I'm not sure they even get inside the doorway!
Most days we track down a copy of the Times of India newspaper in a cafe, catch-up with the news of the world. The Times is a hybrid of melbourne's two offerings. Ample breasts on Page Two and gossip ranging from the lives of Bollywood stars to Aussie cricketers. Yesterday's lead gossip story was about David Beckham's tattooist bring out a line of T-shirt designs.
In the "it could only happen in India" category was the news that only 42 people had died so far in the construction works for the Commonwealth Games.
Finally, the good news that has featured several times in the last few weeks and hopefully was given coverage in Melbourne media, was the story of Indian migrant Pooram Singh. His cremated ashes were in storage at a Warrambool Funeral Directors since 1947. Three generations of the Funeral Directors were unable to contact his family in India. Finally, a chance conversation about the his fate and the state of Melbourne / Indian relations between a Indian ex-cricketer and a media commentator led to a solution and good Australian PR here in India. Pooran's final wishes for his ashes to be placed in The Ganges at Varanasi were fulfilled.
Just prior to starting our teaching we had two mini adventures.
I went rafting on the Zanskar River for the day. (Prue had an I.D.O. - Ian Day Off ) I had hoped to paddle a kayak for the day but in retrospect, I was glad to be in the relative safety of a six person raft. The Zanskar landscape was stunningly beautiful. Barren ridgelines dropping steeply into the muddy, icy cold waters.  I shared the raft with two Adelaide Uni students and three mates from Mumbai who were way out of their comfort zone. A flip (and swim)in a large Grade 4 diagonal stopper didn't do much for their confidence (or mine for that matter!)
The second adventure was to be a 3-4 day trek. The "baby" trek as it is called. We caught the local bus for a two hour trip out to Likir.At the departure time the 21 seater was full. Five minutes later 10-12 more people crammed on to make a very uncomfortable ride. For the second half I rode the open doorway - very scenic but I had to hold on to ride the bumps!.
Likir's gompa has a magnificent 23 metre high statue of the future Buddha sitting on the exterior of the complex. Before leaving for our walk we explored the gompa and had a private viewing of 6 monks starting a mandala. It would take several weeks to complete so we will need to have a return visit.
 The walk notes for the trek via three villages mentioned a four wheel drive track. Since publication of the notes the 4WD track had been upgraded to a road quality that was better than the Manali -Leh-Srinigar Highway. Unfortunately our group's chief route finder became very disorientated. (despite being given directions by locals.) Very quickly we were off the intended route and following a donkey track that I thought was heading in the general direction. Hours later after some very arduous climbing up a twisting gully, we found ourselves looking for some flat ground to pitch a tent at 4300 metres. The steep ground 200 metres below a ridgeline was looking impossible until we found a large boulder with a one person bivy overhang. After some digging we enlarged it to a 1.5 person bivy and we set up our mats and s/bags for the night. Neither of us slept a wink. The area is a hot spot for snow leopard sightings, so I spent my 13 hours awake creating scenarios of how to fend off a pair of hungry leopards. Choice of weapon - pocket knife or tent poles? The reality was snow leopards are so rare that a distant sighting, let alone an attack, was a very very remote chance. Prue, on the otherhand, concentrated her thoughts on down climbing what we had climbed up the afternoon before. (She was probably cursing her climbing partner for trying to follow a hunch about linking up tracks) The next morning, at 6:00am,  we sensibly retraced our our steps and found the loose rock/scree in the centre of the gully fairly easy to negotiate.
The heat of the sun by mid morning tookits toll and we headed back to Likir for a shower / sleep in an expensive hotel.
It took a while to work out where my route finding went wrong and it was not without some embarassment.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Blog 4 Settling in to life in Leh

Since our arrival in Leh two weeks ago, we have had some wonderful experiences and met a diverse group of people.
 Although there is a vegie market on Main Bazaar Rd and a friut and veg on Old Rd, and many convenience stores we have been eating out on Leh experiences for our nourishment.
Therefore I present the      

 Menu for the Jullay Cafe

Starters - Little snippets that  make us smile / get angry or are just very confusing
  • The P.O. Experience (On the menu again) The parcel sent from manali still hasn't arrived. "It could be 2 - 3 weeks Sir" then "It could be 3 -4 weeks Sir". Apparently the mail doesn't go manali - Leh. Instead it goes manali - Chandrahdad - Dehli - Jammu - Leh. A bit like Wang - Melb mail going via Hobart.
  • Drivers. Occasionally a driver will drive past without blasting you with an air horn.
  • Shop Owners 1. "Jullay", "Where are you from?", "Would you like to rest in my shop?"
  • Shop Owners 2  We have become very friendly with some and they are extremely helpful ( Most shop owners are seasonal and from Kashmir. Local Ladakis tell us not to trust them.)
  • The religious Diversity. The Muslim call to prayer is gently blown across the valley by the same wind that flutters the Buddhist prayer flays. A Christian school with Czech missionary origins is prominent in the centre of town.
  • Living at 3500 metres. One minute your body is in control but the next you are huffing and puffing putting on shoes!
  • Indian. Interestingly, leh has been a town without beggars until recently. indian beggars from other states have moved in for the tourist season - really frustrates the locals.
Main Course - core experiences that define Leh
  • Tibetian Buddhism. The powerful visual statement of Buddhism's living history - stupas, gompas, prayer flags, monks amd prayer wheels dominate the scenery.
  • Ladaki - Although there is a degree of urban ugliness on the outskirts of Leh, the central area, old town and villages in the Changspa and Upper Changspa areas all retain a faithful historica feel. New houses are generally built in traditional design. The old town, with the former Leh Palace, Monastery and fort dominating the skyline, is a rambling mudbrick and stone 3D jigsaw puzzle. Australian OH&S rules would have it all taped off creating a no - go zone. here you get to explore (read I have bumped my scalp on 5 ft high doorways) climb dubious ladders, get lsot in a labyrinth of hallways, stairs, rooms, roof tops - all for Rs 100!
  • Ladaki Dish 2  Although we are experiencing Leh at its tourist summer peak, we are already being lured to return in winter. To experince the challenge of living off summer product, closure to most of the outside world and perhaps to walk the infamous Chadar - the frozen Zanskar River.
  • Australian. Apart from the odd "mate" heard in conversations our menu item here was meeting up with Barb and John Griffiths from Whorouly. Our 3 days together visiting historic sites, sharing meals and stories, and the smelly cyclists using their hot shower, were wonderful. Barb and john were also kind enough to bring over some extra clothes for us. Barb, the jar of apricot jam is still being enjoyed.
  • Hippie, Hippie Shake! Leh attracts it fair share of hippie culture.  A room at our guesthouse is filled with didge-playing, drum banging, dope smoking, tattoo-creating, incense-burning, motor-bike riding, yoga-positioning, flowerpower beautiful people. Individualism always makes us laugh. Hippiedom has its own very defined rules- no zip-off pants here Lachie!
  • Seasonal produce. Leh's fertile valley gives way to the stark mountains within metres. The snow-melt creates a water supply that transforms the valley's trees, vegie gardens and orchards into a productive growth spurt. The apples trees in our guesthouse garden have just had their laden limbs propped up for the rest of summer.
Desserts - are sweet events that make Life very rich indeed.
  • Discovering Lardak Guesthouse.(even though Stu Pengelly had recommended its charm)
  • Meeting locals - Kunzes Dolma and her husband Rinchen Tundup who have welcomed us into their home
  • Meeting fellow travellers. Tomas from Czech Rebublic, Julia from Germany, Tatianna from Siberia, Geoff from UK via Dubai, Paul from Sydney and Daniel from Dandenong. Shared meals and stories have been fun.
  • Comfort food.  After a particularly hot uphill ride/walk to Hemis Monastery, Prue's only wish from the parachute cafe's menu was ...banana custard!
  • School. The New Millenium School is on a 2 week holiday so we have had an unexpected extra 2 weeks to explore Leh and surrounds.
  • The Leh Cafe. It didnt take us long to find the best cake shop in town! Mango pie, plum crumble, chocolate banana pie are current favourites.
  • No alcohol has passed our lips
  • Mint tea - go out into your garden right now and pick a sprig of fresh mint. Infuse in hot water and dream of being in Leh! Lattes are sooo last year!
  • mango juice and apple juice from Kashmir and Kulu valleys are always menu favourites.
Photos can be viewed on   http://picasaweb.google.com/106588479237837990839

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Blog 3 Welcome to Leh

Left Pang at 8:00am and steadily climbed up to a high point above town - 500metres higher. Suddenly we wre riding along a plateau above 4000metres. The next 40 kilometres were relatively flat and the stark countryside was fascinating. There were numerous nomadic farmer camps - herds of horses, goats and sheep.
At a drink stop I realised one of my front pannier racks had snapped. The tubing needed some sort of splinting before I had an accident at speed. The rack was already electical taped up from a previous trip but this break required more. After staring at the repair kit for a while, we had to saw a spare quick release rod in half and fit that in the tubing. Next a flatish tent peg splinted the outside, All was bound up in electrical tape and we were on the road again. After several hours of enjoyable riding we scootered down to a parachute tent for lunch - just amazing. Three or four cafes in the middle of nowhere.  A quick re-fuel and chat with some French travellers (in a 4WD) and we rode off through some extensive road works. Ahead was the ascent of Taglang la - the highest pass at 5358 metres. It was mid afternoon and really hot so we decided to set up camp. No shade and about 35 degrees. We pitched the tent on sand and rocks and spent an uncomfortable few hours until the tent created some shade. Finally the evening came and we donned the down jackets and headed off for a short walk. The local road crew guys had been picking something from the low shrubs. We investigated and found they were supplementing their rice meal with a small succulent leaf. We tried a few but they were fairly bland. Our dinner was purchased back at the last parchute tent and carried in a tupperwear type container. We were carrying a small kero stove but as it turned out our loads were lighter if we relied on the parachute tents for food. It was a gamble as not all were marked on the map.
The next morning were were away early for the grind up and over the pass. There was a lot walking and pushing the bikes. Walking rate was around 4 kms / hour and the riding rate the same! So it became a toss up. The road would disappear into the folds of the ridges up ahead and it became frustrating to find out that another kilometre or two lay ahead unexpectedly. Numerous creek crossing from snow melt.
Landslides broke the boredom and we waited as dozers moved massive amounts of soil and rocks over the edge. Finally, within 200 metres of the pass the road works team had blasted a rock face and the road was blocked for several hours. Traffic backed up behind us. Several tourist bus groups were becoming agitated due to AMS effects at the highest altitude they had been to. As soon as the workers were walking across the rockfall in a safe manner, Prue and I approached and asked if we could lift our bikes over as well. One worker said Yes and one said No. In the indecision we pushed forward and saved several hours that still awaited the motor bikes, buses and trucks. A slow ride up to the pass, the "proof we were there" snaps, warmer clothes for the downhill and we were off on a descent to Rumtse for the night. The road was a mixture of snow, wash-outs, mud, rocks and lower down, some lovely sealed switchbacks. My disc brakes needed adjusting again and the confidence certainly lifed when I could actually control my speed. Prue was zooming away out of sight below. Rumtse (Pop approx 100) finally came into view and we exhaustedly booked into the first parachute cafe. The fact that a group of locals were playing cards and drinking rum shots should have warned us that this was the town's hotspot and it was Friday night! Food in our bellies and our daily dose of mango juice under the belt had us in sleeping bags on the couches at 7:30pm AND the tent was just about to fire up! Luckily we were so tired the noise wasn't a problem - although I did ASK a a guy to quiten down at about 11 ish. The best omlette so far for brekkie. A walk around town was a great start to the day. The local school's playground was a dirt and rock strewn area but I'm sure the kids made the most of it.
Leh was 86 kms away so we took off through some of the most amazing scenery we had encountered. Its funny how good the scenery becomes when you are going downhill! The little villages of Gya and Miru and finally Upsti and the mighty Indus River. As we approached Leh and its relious significance, the surrounding country side came alive with stupas, gompas and temples perched on crags. The temples at Hemis, Thinksey and Choglamsar were incredible and we would return later to explore their riches. The afternoon sun was again intense and when we were finally within reach of Leh township, the road abruptly turned upwards. The last 5 kilometres were exhausting. Tiredness, heat, heavy traffic, a savage head and cross wind left me wondering why Leh wasn't welcoming us with outstretched arms. Prue was very strong and forged ahead waiting for the old man at every stupa. The journey's last kilometre was almost the most difficult of the entire trip as the road climbed steeply into the old town. At last we reached the flattist terrain in the old town area but had the early evening traffic to content with. We cycled slowly up a one way street (the wrong way) and eventually found a space to park the bikes and look for accommodation. We were quickly pouced on by a hotel tout and I went off and checked out his palace. It was too late and we were too exhausted to make fussy decisions, so 15 minutes later we were eyeing off the shower and double bed. The excitement of reaching our destination slowly set in.

View photos from our journey Manali to Leh by following the link below