Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bodhgaya & the search for enlightenment!

I'll put up a post soon, hopefully, about my time in Bodhgaya, India. This is the serene town where Buddha attained enlightenment.

After visiting the holiest place in the world for Buddhists, it's off to the holiest place in the world for Hindus - Varanasi and the Ganga river!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

HMI - Part III

To pick up where I left off in my second HMI post, we had finished our main altitude adjustment period as well as completed most of our lectures and practice work on the nearby Rathong glacier. It was time for our final exercise: an altitude gain day with option of summiting a peak, weather permitting. The goal was to reach approximately 18,000 feet (previous high altitude was 15,500 feet on the glacier) -- and the summit of BC Roy Peak.

Panorama, hiking up from base camp to BC Roy Peak (appears at approximately

We set off at the not-so-alpine-start time of a late 6 am, and after crossing a river with tons of yelling and confusion and passing handfuls of sand to step on slippery rocks, started up the peaks north of camp. We hiked at a ridiculous climb rate of 40 ft/minute and continued for about 2 hours. Resting every hour or so, we made it to the snow/ice and put on crampons and other cold weather gear. Ropes were fixed and we used our ascenders (Jumars) as safety as we climbed the final ~2000 ft on snow, in mostly clear, sunny weather. As we reached the final resting spot (and a possible base camp for higher peaks) in a beautifully protected cirque, we organized into teams to try for the summit.

Celebrating at the summit of BC Roy Peak. I have no idea why I'm making the Peace Sign. It seemed like the thing to do. When in Rome, I guess.

I gathered the three remaining members of my team (of originally 10 people) and we picked up two more friends, so 5 of us were roped up together. I led the final couple hundred feet, kicking my own steps apart from other teams that were headed up the same peak. It was really cool to be given the responsibility to pick a safe route and be asked to do the work of kicking steps in the snow/ice. The final altimiter reading at the top of BC Roy peak was 17,765 feet.

(I misheard the altitude reading, and as you can see there was lots of excitement at the top.)

After summiting (er... doing an altitude gain exercise), our time at Base Camp came to a close. We played a few games of soccer and cricket, had a lecture or two more, and then headed out.
Cricket at (allegedly) the world's highest cricket pitch, 14,400 ft.

The solar panel array at Base Camp that I didn't know existed -- I didn't bring my camera battery charger!

My friend liked to cuddle in the hut. He took a particular liking to me because (aside from feeding him), he knew that I, the sole White Dude, would always treat him well. My Indian counterparts were equally divided between petting him gently and kicking him -- confusing for me, let alone a dog! Street dogs in India have it tough.

Up at base camp there wasn't much to do, and because of the altitude we were asked not to sleep more than 8 hours per day -- luckily most of the Indians on the trip enjoyed singing continuously for hours upon hours.

Another nightmarish multi-day trek with 100 people (all hiking together, no gaps, etc.) later, we were back in Darjeeling at HMI.

We had a climbing competition on the outdoor wall (see last post) that I completely biff'd on... but the wouldn't let you study the route before starting your climb, so I'm writing that off as "bad practice." And we all then had a cross country competition. The race, for me, was more of race for the toilets, as my bowels weren't in the best shape. Still, I managed to take second place! The race was about 5 km, at 7000 feet, with hills, and my time was about 21 mins.

Finally, there was a graduation ceremony, where we all dressed up in matching pullovers. The presiding speaker (in addition to the Principal of HMI), was Nawang Gombu(wikipedia). Mr. Gombu(news article) was the first person to summit Mt. Everest twice, and lives in the Darjeeling area.
Each student was presented a pin. Additionally, three medals were given for boys and girls each in the Sport Climbing and Cross Country competitions. Additional awards were for "Best Technical Student" and "Best Overall Student."

Me receiving my mountaineering pin from Mr. Gombu. He also presented me with my "Best Overall Student" and 2nd place cross country awards!

The team I led for a month, with our excellent instructor. "Rope 6" from left: Ashish, Ajeet, Holden, Saikat, Juna Sir (instructor), Hiten (in front), and Tumpa.

With that, the course finished, and we went our separate ways! I have to say that despite my concerns for the safety, organization, and discipline in the course, I am glad that I attended. Though I didn't learn many new things, I really did reinforce and get clarity on those skills I already possessed. I was able to help the other students with their knots, first aid, and mountain skills. I was recommended to take the Advanced Mountaineering Course and will consider that in the future!

And finally, here's a picture of my most-favoritest brillo pad salesman in the world (to date) showing off his wares. You'd think that displaying one of the many identical packs would be enough... and I really do wonder how many pads he sells in one day (in this miniscule town in Sikkim that has 3 streets (named "Street 1," "Street 2," and "Street 3")?

Monday, June 23, 2008

HMI - Part II

After our week and a half of physical training and lectures in Darjeeling, we commenced our trek up to HMI Base Camp. A quick bus ride later put us at the start of the trek, in Yuksom, West Sikkim, India. (Yuksom is an ex-capital of Sikkim, with a coronation seat, and was the meeting place of the lamas.) From Yuksom, at about 6,000 feet, we made our way up through Bakhim ("House of Bamboo"), through tiny Dzongri, over Dzongri Pass, and finally arrived at the Base Camp, at 16,400 ft. With rest days and acclimatization hikes each afternoon, the trip took 4 days.

(Shot while taking a break on the trail -- the yaks were carrying lots of food and cooking equipment that we'd use at Base Camp. Shot just above Bakhim, around 11,000 ft.)

Let's play word association. I say "this bridge"... you say.... "safe?"

HMI Base Camp (To see in Google Earth click here) is officially called "Chowri Khang" which means "Grazing place of the Yaks," due to the bit of flat land magically plopped among towering peaks. The flat spot is, of course, not wasted when yaks aren't around, as the worlds highest cricket pitch, as well as a usually-unaccessible helicopter landing pad. At camp there are a number of stone, fiberglass, wood, and tin roof buildings: one hut each for men and women, a few huts for instructors & caretakers, a kitchen hut, and a mess hall hut.

(HMI Base Camp from above. Since our course was so overpopulated, we used extra tents (row of white) in addition to cramming in the huts. The tents sometimes prevented runaway soccer and cricket balls from bouncing down the ravines -- but not usually.)

Here's a (whiplashing) panorama movie shot at base camp:

And two shots, one looking up at the Kabru peaks, the other looking down the valley towards Dzongri Pass.

Almost every day we made a 2-3 hour trek (each direction) towards the north west to reach the Rathong Glacier. Here we learned and practiced sequence climbing on ice, pick and toe (and other methods of) ice climbing, crevasse rescue, rappelling, and self arrest. After a few hours on the glacier we'd get some tea and then hike home, reaching Base Camp in the mid-afternoon for lunch. Afternoons were spent resting, attending lectures, and lots and lots of singing (Bengali, Nepali, Hindi, etc.).

Treking up to the glacier - one one of the very few good weather days. Our random pet street dog came with us to the glacier sometimes (he never had his crampons or ice axe, though!).

My friend Ashish on the glacier.

(Lecture on ice and snow anchoring techniques. Coldest lecture of my life. And in Hindi.)

Random glacier activities.

My team practicing making an improvised stretcher. From top, clockwise: Instructor Juna Sir, Ajeet, Saikat Banerjee, Holden Bonwit, Tumpa Roy (in stretcher), Hiten, Ashish Palande.

Up at base camp we had almost the same diet as in Darjeeling, with the following exceptions: no leavened bread (chapatis for breakfast), no eggs, and rare servings of meat (mutton) and soya for the vegetarians. There were a few occasions when we got halva parantha, kheer, or some canned pineapple dessert.
(Typical lunch or dinner at base camp: water, dal, rice, & potato subsy (also had chapatis every meal, I think those were in my pocket at the time of the photo -- I promise, I can explain).)

One of our pieces of equipment (an ascender / Jumar), proudly proclaiming its historical origin: "Made in USSR"!

Going for the summit: as we headed out from Base Camp for the summit of BC Roy peak, I got an education in Indian Mountaineering trail food. The top two items (chocolate & energy bar) in the picture I happened to bring personally, but the others (all candies + biscuits) were meant to sustain us for the 8 hour summit / trek & (I assume) save us in the case of emergency. Sugar, anyone?

More about the summit attempt of BC Roy peak, places not to fall down, and the final installment in the HMI series in the next post!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

HMI - Part I

This is the first of a few segments about my brief stint (1 month) at the Darjeeling based Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI, official website, official website #2). The institute was founded in 1954 by the Prime Minister of India, upon Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary's ascent of Everest (the first in history). (As I stood in front of Norgay's final remains and monument, I was reminded of my time in New Zealand where I was traveling at the time of Edmund Hillary's death, earlier this year. Interesting happenings for someone only moderately interested in the sport of mountaineering.)
I was part of the 28 day, 266th course at HMI,: Basic Mountaineering Course. With an enrollment limit of 60 students, our course naturally had 117 students, for after all, this is India, where any rule can be broken. Safety and student learning thrown aside, a military high school had decided to send an entire class, and allegedly the Principle of HMI could not refuse entry. Despite demanding all entrants be physically fit, few students were turned away throughout the duration of the course for not meeting this criteria.
Over the next 10 days, we attended lectures, did physical training and yoga, and practiced rock climbing skills, before heading higher into the Himalayas (Future Blogpost: HMI - Part II). Our lectures ranged from Mountain First Aid, Map Reading, Knots, History of the Himalayan ranges, and Avalanche Safety, among other topics. Physical Training consisted of a 5 km run alternate mornings with general calisthenics - stretching, push ups, crunches, squats, etc. and yoga on the other mornings. Rock climbing exercises were conducted on natural rock as well as indoor and outdoor artificial surfaces.

The natural rock climbing area in Darjeeling is shown in this movie. Having worked and climbed (on and off) for the past 10 years with those new to the sport, I can not fathom a worse environment for a beginner. Besides getting randomly yelled at (mostly in Hindi, sometimes English) to climb faster or use this or that hold, belay techniques and general safety were sketchy at best. Further, honking jeeps, yelling hawkers selling pakoras, and tourists and schoolchildren interrupted our learning constantly. Miraculously, only one member of my team was seriously injured here (dislocated shoulder), although another left the program because of the "learning" environment at the rock.

The outdoor artificial rock (sport) climbing wall at HMI is one of only two UIAA certified walls in India (the other is at NIM). It's 50 feet tall, 20 feet wide, and overhanging in varying degrees.

Finally, just before leaving Darjeeling for the high mountains, we did a training trek to the nearby Tiger Hill. From here, on a clear day, one can see not only the nearby Himalaya that are visible from HMI (including the third tallest mountain in the world, Kanchenjunga), but also number 1 (Everest), and number 4 (Lhotse). Unfortunately, it was completely cloudy the morning we made the 22 km round trip hike with our laden packs.
(A quiet trek with 116 of my new bestest friends.)

View of Kanchenjunga from Tiger Hill (Same as that from my dormitory at HMI).

Food at HMI was, to say the least, very regular. For breakfast we normally had some white bread toast with some sort of potato subsy (salad/caserole) to go with some tea. A few days at the beginning we got a small egg omelet, before the breakout of bird flu here in Darjeeling.
Lunch and dinner always consisted of at least the following, clockwise from top left: water or tea (chai masala), roti/chapatis (unleavened bread similar to tortillas), chaval (rice) with some dal on top (lentil soup), pinch of salt if you want, potato subsy (salad/caserole), more dal (lentil soup), and if we were lucky, some achar (pickled vegetables for flavoring). On a rare occasion (~5 times in 28 days), there was the option for either paneer (cottage cheese) for vegetarians, or mutton for non-vegetarians (as omnivores are called, in India).

Stay tuned for "HMI - part II" to learn about trekking up to HMI Base Camp, living at 14,600 ft for 2 weeks, exploring Rathong Glacier, and a try for the 17,765 ft. BC Roy peak!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Darjeeling Tea!

While I was up in the hills near Darjeeling, I was able to visit some world famous tea estates! In addition to enjoying the palpable leaf-soaked-goodness with my mouth, the sights were excellent.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed to learn that there's really no smell from the tea plants. Bummer, dude.

The tea has been grown in these parts for hundreds of years, and virtually every bit of land is used -- even if it seems too steep to be used!
Again, like I said, it's pretty misty up in the hills. And steep. But they're determined to get the tea outta that land!

The tea pluckers are employed year round to pluck the freshest of new growths off the plants. They allow the tiny leaves to remain for next pass, pluck the extra large leaves & discard immediately on the ground, and pluck the "just right" buds for the baskets on their back.

Despite always appearing in rows, the pluckers individually seem to just float randomly between the unevenly spaced bushes. Even the bushes are not really arranged always -- sometimes they're in rows, sometimes in a "closest-packing" hexagonal format, and other times, just plopped wherever they'll fit. MMmmm!
(ps. Did anyone ever get any "Thurbo" tea? Must be loaded with caffeine, we all agreed, to warrant that powerful name! [It's pronounced "Turbo," with an aspirated T.])

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sick at last!

Seems that I definitely beat the curve of foreigners getting sick in India, but I'm not immune. Instead of the usual 1-2 weeks, it took me a full 10 weeks to get sick here!
(I should note that for the first 8 weeks I was under wonderful culinary care by the Chauhan family and then HMI's 'adventurous' cooks, but that really hurts my case as an outstanding traveler, so let's not dwell on that!)

This is the serene spot in Mirik where I consumed the presumed problematic momos. I just happened to take this picture because I thought it was a nice scene, not because I felt sick within seconds. These momos weren't actually that powerful -- my friend's stomach stood up to the onslaught for nearly a quarter day, while my system seemed at peace before a complete catastrophic, instantaneous failure a full 13 hours after the initial attack.
Isn't it beautiful?

The establishment responsible for the "cooking" of the momos is behind the photographer here -- no need to put them out of business (I just checked and my blog has readers in 31 countries currently!). Separately, the momos aren't at fault -- the dudes who hang out here with horses for rent seem to enjoy them just fine.

This is me still feeling sick, back in Darjeeling. Luckily there were Hob Nobs and Mazaa (Mango pulp juice):

After going to the po-dunk hospital in Mirik, and getting my free doctor visit and antibiotics (thanks, India!), I'm now back to normal (~3 days w/o food or drink).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Danger in Darjeeling

Seems like I fled from the hills just in time! After getting off the night train here to Calcutta, I read the papers with disbelief: the struggle for independence that has been going on in "Gorkhaland" for a quarter century turned violent towards tourists for the first time!

Just as all the warring parties in nearby Nepal agreed during my visit 3 years ago, hurting tourists helps no one. This, rationally, had been the stance of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha group who has been leading the struggle for statehood thus far. They're still disavowing any voilence. Here's their cool flag:
The Gorkha's basic accusation is that the northern parts the state of West Bengal are really not given proper infrastructure, and they'd like to be an independent state (instead of lumped in with all the plains down to Calcutta). Allegedly, the water pipe to the city of Darjeeling (a town of 100,000 people) has been severed for over 1 year, necessitating water be trucked in when the natural supply isn't enough. The roads are potholed fairly badly (not sure if it's worse than any other parts of India), and sometimes mudslides/erosion take the roads out completely. There's a whole lot more than this, but that's what I've come to understand while visiting.

For those wondering, these Gorkhas are the same group who have the really sweet knives. Gorkha, Gurkha, it's all Bengali/Hindi/Nepali to me:
[Photo from ]

I was originally going to take a night, tourist bus, but switched to train a few days before, on a whim. Turns out they started stoning the tourist buses. The paper that described the situation as I left:
(Yeah, I noticed the right sidebar article, as well! Darn communists, shutting down the brewery!)

The indefinite strike is set to start in about a day, and one of the largest stores in Darjeeling (Big Bazaar) is showing empty shelves! Read the full article: "Chaos in Darjeeling - No Food, No Money" over at BeaconOnline:[Photo from]
Read more on the struggle for Gorkhaland independence at this good interview.

If you're trapped there as a tourist, I'm sorry. I love the consolation that is being offered, 50% off your hotel stay... in a deserted town with no food, nothing open, no way to leave, and constant clouds & rain.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hold your horses!

Or hold your yaks, or hold your zos (strong, sterile mix of cow and yak), whatever the case may be.

Yep, I made it back, safe and sound from the majestic Himalayan mountains, and, more importantly, survived the trials of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute's Basic Mountaineering Course! There will be posts in the coming days.

In the meantime, here's a smathering of random lighter from the few days since the course finished!
The mountains can be pretty misty and mystical. Not sure why we spell the two so differently.

The mountain roads are a bit narrow. Note the
slight drop off when you look across the luggage rack. Now note the width of the road, and jeeps. Somehow it works (99% of everything is nothing, right? Maybe the jeeps are passing through each other?).

I just really love this danger sign. It rivals the stick-figure getting electrocuted in my sophomore year EE course.

Apparently there was a thermo-nuclear event yesterday, and somehow I was spared while riding the train towards Calcutta. I could only look at it and wonder about the EMP.

This is where all the not-so-smart railroad engineers get sent.

I could have sworn I went to the university with that logo
and script, but that its mascot was the Fighting Irish.

Another great shirt, unfortunately he had it in only one size, Indian, so I didn't buy it. I wish he had it bigger! Ride your bicycle, America!

Wait a minute, I thought dating was against the law in India, now we have blind dates for entire families!?

If I ever have a zone of my own, I'm gonna call it the Smart Lucky Zone and pay this guy royalties. Imagine if the Koreans did this with their DMZ!

For those who haven't been to India: there's probably about 300 million of these in the country (1 for every 3 people!). And you can buy a sachet of shampoo for 1 Rupee. Love it.

Finally, this is me looking like and being a tourist.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rajni Radio shop - video

Just because people asked about the failed upload, here's the video from the radio shop:

(I know, I know, my commentary needs work. I've found when I'm in survival English mode it takes a few days to get back to my normal, vocabulariffic self.)