Friday, September 30, 2011

A taste of McLeod Ganj

Today and yesterday have been pretty dismal, involving hours of internet cafes, writing essays for grad school fellowships. Glad I had the time open! Turns out I had a bit of work to do. It also turns out that internet fritzing out for 20 minutes while I'm writing grad school essays in Google Docs makes me want to die a lot. To compensate, here's a bit of silliness.
Special pricing for dead communist dictators

I'm not sure why this strikes me as funny

Y'know, just in a temple, y'know, just around. (the down staircase is a snake!)

it's made of almonds, flour, sugar, and rare t-bone steak

Thursday, September 29, 2011

PSA: Trust no one in tourist Delhi

So I've talked to at least a dozen travelers about Delhi, and everyone has the same story. Their flight went in there, they had about a day there, they stayed in Paharganj, and they hated it. In addition:
- everyone got taken to a shady Delhi tourist office
- everyone had their shady Delhi tourist office tell them lies and try to get them to book package trips to Kashmir (one tried to tell me the roads to Leh were closed)
- everyone had someone try to scam them on train tickets
- everyone had at least one dishonest tuk-tuk driver

So, tips for first-timers:
- don't go to any tourist offices in Delhi
- if anyone tells you anything that doesn't sound quite right, confirm it with someone who's not in tourist Delhi/Paharganj
- do not book package trips in tourist offices in Delhi, particularly to Kashmir
- book your transit out ahead of time if possible (I used successfully; I guess is good for trains)
- spending money here is like gambling: don't spend any money you can't afford to just throw away
- get out of there as soon as possible

Despite your fears, it's not at all true that everyone in India is a liar and trying to take your money. But I think it is true in Paharganj.

The Dalai Lama has a famous speech about "never give up."

Here it is. But it's nonsense. Sometimes giving up is exactly the right thing.

2 free days in McLeod Ganj, before the teachings by HHDL himself. Beautiful scenery, and a motorcycle rental shop just out of town. Wonderful! I grab my sunglasses and head down.

I was just trying to convince my friend Jay that anyone can motorcycle, given two things: a light bike (preferably an automatic scooter/moped), and good roads. Leh has been pretty good for both (Bajaj Pulsar 150 on mostly good pavement), and Chiang Mai was amazing (Honda scooter on US-quality pavement). McLeod Ganj is... the other direction. The shop only had oldish heavy Royal Enfield Bullet 350's. And the main road from McLeod to Dharamsala is kinda rough, but the back way, where this shop is, is really quite mental. The good parts look rather like this.
I would post photos of the bad parts, but Mom and Dad are probably already freaked the heck out.

And so, after laying down the bike twice on the way down, I decided to ignore the Dalai Lama, cut my losses, and probably save my life. Think I'll go back and sit in a coffeeshop, apply to grad school, and scrupulously avoid extrapolating this incident into a bigger story about myself.

(on the way back, I awkwardly walk into a tea shop containing only a couple having a very intense conversation. *sigh* it's a day.)

EDIT: this evening I met a guy who rode one of those same Royal Enfield Bullet 350s from Manali to Leh to Kashmir to Dharamsala. Inspiring! Maybe someday...

Also, I forgot to send out waves of gratitude for the ~6 people who helped me pick up my bike, pull it out of a roadside ditch, get it started, etc. along the rather short way. Thank you thank you thank you!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How to mail a package overseas from India

or at least from McLeod Ganj:

1. Get it packed. This is important, and the most fun part of the process. Shops around town advertise parcel packing; go to one and a guy will cut and stitch a cloth wrapper for your box. His precision will be remarkable. Then he will seal it a few times with a wax seal. Write your destination (and your return address, i.e. your guesthouse here, even though this doesn't make any sense because if it gets returned you will not be here) on the cloth in a magic marker.
2. Get a customs form. I got one from the printing shop next to the post office. I have no idea where you get it if you're not in McLeod Ganj where there's a printing shop next to the post office.
3. Get two copies of your passport and visa. The printing shop is good for this too.
4. Wait in line and pay about 1 rupee per gram. (this may have been a coincidence, but it was about spot on in my case. really, of course, you just pay what they tell you. there are alternatives like fedex and dhl, but they're a little more expensive.)
5. Hope that it's before 1pm. It closes at 1pm. You can imagine there is not much leeway.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Cricket: not actually totally insane

Thanks to my friend Marty, I've learned about how this cryptic pastime actually works, and it's not really that hard!

Okay, so there's a few varieties: 20/20, 50/50, or a multi-day "test match." The test match is more complicated, so I'll focus on 20/20 or 50/50. That number refers to the number of "overs" you get, and 1 over = 6 bowls (1 bowl = 1 "pitch", for baseball fans). So in a 20/20 match, each team gets 120 bowls.

There are two wickets in the field. The batter stands in front of one wicket, another guy on the batter's team stands in front of the other wicket, and the bowler bowls to the batter.

  • if the bowl hits the wicket, the batter is out, and that's a big deal. So the batter hits almost all of the bowls.
  • if the bowl is wide or otherwise bad (like a "ball" in baseball), it's a redo and the batter's team gets 1 point. So that's rare.
  • if the batter hits it:
    • if it's caught on a fly, the batter is out. So the batter usually doesn't try to hit it up in the air.
    • if it goes outside the boundary around the field in any direction on a fly, that's a "six", meaning the batter gets 6 points.
    • similarly, if it goes outside the boundary on a bounce, that's a "four".
    • otherwise, the batter and the other guy run back and forth between the two wickets as many times as they want. But if the fielding team gets the ball to the wicket and the batters aren't on base, the batter is out. So they usually run pretty conservatively. Usually a hit results in 0 runs or 1 run, and sometimes 2.
Anyway, so the bowling team keeps bowling until either all the overs are finished, or until all the batters are out. (which is why getting out is a big deal: after 11 outs, your team is done!) I guess technically that completes an "inning", and sometimes there are multiple innings in a game, but I don't quite understand this either.

This means that generally one team scores as much as possible, and then the other team gets a chance to match. That's kind of cool.

Why is this in my travel blog? Because I got to see the Dharamsala cricket stadium yesterday.

So that was neat.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Okay, enough talk, back to a good story with photos

Here is what McLeod Ganj looks like:

As I mentioned, you can walk to amazing places from McLeod Ganj! Let me tell you about one. There is a popular waterfall at Bhagsu; this is not it. This is Waterfall #2, on the road to Triund, branching off at Guna temple. It is a bit of a hike: we left around 9am and got back around 4pm, exhausted. First we walked through places like this:

You can imagine that signs for a "waterfall cafe" were met with a bit of disbelief:
Anyway, we kept walking and eventually made it to this:

Fellow hiker Talia
Jackie: I'm not in this photo, am I?
But it's okay because then they got this one of me:
And, believe it or not, the Waterfall Cafe finally did materialize. They must carry all their food (and drinks!) for an hour each morning. Mad!

Future plans: now I've really done it.

Now until October 4: in McLeod Ganj
October 4-10: trip to Gangotri, on my friend Gaurav's suggestion. It'll be a lot of travel: overnight bus to Rishikesh, long bus to Uttarkashi, short bus to Gangotri, 2-day hike to/from the Gaumukh glacier, then a long bus back to Dehradun.
October 21-23: hang out in Rishikesh for a couple days
October 24-26: back to near-Delhi to celebrate Diwali with the Mohans. (thanks to them for inviting me!)

Which leaves a gap from October 10-21, doesn't it. Well, I've just signed up for a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in Dehradun.
The organization (it's legit; internationally known and recommended by my Seattle Buddhist friends)
The daily schedule during the retreat:
4:00 am              Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am           Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am           Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am           Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am           Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
11:00-12:00 noon           Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm           Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm           Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm           Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm           Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 pm           Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm           Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm           Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm           Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm           Question time in the hall
9:30 pm           Retire to your own room--Lights out 

Yikes! But this is it, this is an actual substantial retreat. It'll be a test, for sure. But I think I can do it, and I like how it's all practice with little talking. I don't imagine I'll go through it and not make progress. Well, wish me luck!

McLeod Ganj: Damn, It's Nice!

Dharamsala is a name you may have heard of: the HQ of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, plus a tourist hotspot. Really, all the action is in McLeod Ganj, which is maybe 10km outside Dharamsala. I guess Dharamsala proper is big, cranky, and dusty, but I wouldn't know, as I've been in McLeod.

Life here is reasonable. It's a pleasant temperature all the time, kind of damp and misty, but pretty as all get-out. You can actually get coffee here, and you can even go to a coffeeshop that has wifi. (I'm kinda convinced that this is a cornerstone of every good place to live.) There are classes to learn all sorts of things, from yoga to music to cooking to jewelry making. Plus, there is good food all over the place, it's hilly, and it's full of white people from all over. It's rather like Seattle.

(okay, there's a difference: the coffee's no good. Oh, and the Tibetan government thing. Also we're in India. People are super friendly; you can make friends just talking to them. And the number of roads is in the single digits, and you can walk to really breathtaking places from your house.)

But the similarities lull me back into old routines. Wake up whenever, lounge around drinking coffee and reading stuff all day, using perhaps too much internet. Sometimes even join some friends for a beer at night. It's been a good break so far from my quick travel schedule, and I feel rather like myself again.

The difference between these routines and the rest of the month of September has been profound. I've had no coffee and almost no alcohol until I got here. I've slept early and awakened early, eaten almost no meat, even eaten few desserts or unhealthy foods. Internet has been an hour every couple days, not multiple hours in a day. In short, I've lived really a rather virtuous September. And it's been easy, due to environmental factors: no social pressure to indulge in anything. I've enjoyed the chance to try life without all my old mini-vices.

You'd think this line of thought is going somewhere, but really, I'm not sure which way I like it better.

I'm dumb, but still, nothing works

Some things that have failed to work today:
  1. Picasa 3.0 on linux (doesn't sign in)
  2. Picasa's web uploader (froze after 6 pictures as my laptop's battery was dying)
  3. The internet, in Internet Cafe #1
  4. Internet Cafe #2's fax machine
  5. Blogger, right now. It's not loading the text box to enter text. I've been composing in Notepad.
  6. India Rail's website (not even to book tickets, just to see if they exist!)
  7. Finding the post office. I'm staying on Post Office Road. I walk up and down the length of Post Office Road to get everywhere. I cannot find the post office.
  8. The receiving fax machine at Dehradun Vipassana meditation center
  9. The phone at the Dehradun Vipassana meditation center
  10. Information on how to apply for a permit to visit the Gaurmakh glacier on the internet
  11. The receiving fax machine at the Dehradun Forest Office (where I guess you actually should apply for said permit)
  12. The phone at the Dehradun Forest Office
  13. The phone at the Uttarkashi Forest Office
  14. The travel agency I was going to use to book all this (closed)
... okay, that's not quite everything. I guess it's enough of "everything" to be frustrating? And while 7-14 can be explained by the fact that it's Sunday (duh), 1-6 are due at least in part to the fact that the internet does not work, which is much more frustrating than I'd have thought.

Also, another problem is that sometimes you get cascading chains of failures. Like "I need to buy a bus ticket. Okay, this guy doesn't have the right tickets. This guy either. Okay, now this guy does- but I'm low on cash. Have to go to an ATM. The ATM is broken. The other ATM has a long line." If everything works 95% of the time, then you can do a series of 8 errands in 8 errands' time, or at worst 9 errands' time. But if that number goes down to say 50%, then it'll take 8+4+2+1=15 errands' time.

But I have plenty of time, which means the only problem is that I'm frustrated, mostly because it's tantalizingly similar to my regular life here. Hmm. Maybe that deserves a bit more thought.

EDIT: 15. Google Maps crashes Firefox 4.0 beta 9 on this WinXP machine with who-knows-what installed.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Amritsar: actually quite a lot of "huh?!"

I mean that in the most wonderful, appreciative way, though. It's a curious and friendly place! Besides the Golden Temple, here are some reasons why it is so droll:

- the Wagah border ceremony. Every day India and Pakistan close the gate between their two countries with much fanfare. It is part pep rally (cheers and shouts, mostly something like "Hindustan Zindabad!" and "Joo-la joo-lay Pakistan!"), part dance party (but only for the Indian ladies it seems?), and part, well, ceremony. Soldiers with big hats walk very briskly and then kick their legs high and stomp their feet.

India side: big deal!

Pakistan side: not such a big deal

- the friendliness of the people. This is not "huh?!" so much as "thanks!" A high-school-aged guy named Tarun saw me on the street and just stopped to see if I was all right, then asked for my email and later emailed me to make sure. And then there was Shahjahan M.V. (nickname: Shaju) and his English language school: he saw me in an internet cafe, then invited me to stop by his shop and talk with his students, so I did.

Shahju, Mr. Khan, and me

Dramatic pose

If you're in Amritsar, look them up, and go talk with them as well! It was fun to talk with the students, and they sure appreciated it. It's called "Brainstormers", they're near the bus stand, and you can reach Shaju at shaju_mv2007 at the rate of, or 9814947937. ("at the rate of" = Hinglish for "@")

(they invited me to join them for lunch. they asked what I like for lunch, "rice?" I said that I generally preferred breads, thinking y'know, like chapati. hilariously, they arranged sandwiches of white bread and jelly, thinking that I'd prefer such western food. d'oh.)

- The place I stayed, with couchsurfer Narinderjit. Here's where it was:

and here's what it looked like:

So Mr. Singh was very friendly. I guess this was his family's home, he rented it out as a guesthouse, and then he also used it to host couchsurfers, while he stayed at his son's place in the city. Meanwhile, a staff of non-English-speakers kept up the place and ran it as a restaurant/"canteen". People would come there for parties.
Also, through a curious government arrangement, a group of 5 dancers plus a DJ would come there to perform a Bhangra show every night.

This was a little odd when the audience consisted almost entirely of me and Mr. Singh. But it was fun to watch.

If you're a couchsurfer, do look up Mr. Narinderjit Singh in Amritsar. He's not hard to find; he's one of about three real hosts there. On the down side, his place is about 10km outside the city (10 rupee shared auto-rickshaws are common, but it's still 30 min rickshaw + 30 min walk to get to the city), water can be sporadic, and sometimes parties last too late at night. But on the up side, he's friendly and it's a nice place otherwise. Did I mention the swimming pools?

- Punjabi food: great! I guess their specialty is dairy products, and you can indeed get paneer a million ways, and their own special lassis. (they tasted like normal lassis to me, with occasional chunks; like thin, sweet cottage cheese.) Also there is "Kulcha", which is like the idealized form of paratha: hotter, crispier, more flavorful, and served with chickpeas.

- the only downside: the heat. I guess this is not Amritsar or Punjab's fault, just that lowlands India is pretty intolerable for much of the year. Every day, somehow, I'd end up sweaty, grimy, and with black gunk in my hair. I couldn't wash clothes fast enough. Eww!

Fortunately, now I'm in McLeod Ganj (by Dharamsala) and everything is wonderful. It's hilly and beautiful, maybe 70-some degrees, and easy in most of the ways that India often isn't. Every guesthouse looks pretty good, every restaurant looks pretty good, few touts. Some may call it "touristy", and it is that indeed, but that's okay (and maybe I'll go on about this in the future). But! I should not spend all day on the internet, so that's all for now.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Want to adventure somewhere in Southeast Asia?

So I've got a couple unexpected free weeks, like late December, early January. I'll be in India in December and have to get to Australia by January 18.

Want to join me for some particular adventure in this part of the world that you've always been meaning to make?

Or, have you been somewhere around here and have ideas for what I should do?

(FWIW, the first thing that comes to mind is go to Angkor Wat and then up to northern Thailand and motorbike in Mae Hong Son. But I sorta did that a couple years ago, so I'm open to suggestions.)

Some things I had just assumed were true that are actually untrue

- if you have a water heater, and you turn on the hot water faucet, hot water will come out
- if you turn on any water faucet, some water will come out
- the electricity is either working or not, with no intermediate states
- surely in a densely populated place like India, you can't be farther than an hour from internet
- and you can't get internet on your phone for just $2
- you certainly can't fit 8 9 10 11 12 13 people in a tuk-tuk
- air conditioning is an unnecessary luxury
- just driving in a car won't make you filthy
- everyone will of course realize that broadcasting prayers over loudspeakers is a terrible idea, especially early in the morning
- it is possible that there might be bad Indian food

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

One Night at the Golden Temple

11pm: arrive in Amritsar, exhausted from a day of travel.
12am: make it to the Golden Temple, put my shoes and bag away, get a mandatory head-covering, wash my feet, go inside. Everyone's just sleeping all over the place. So I do too. The floor is hard, but it's peaceful! Ah, no need to worry about some guesthouse; I can just get some sleep.

1:10am: "Your eyeglasses, you should be careful, someone might steal them. And watch your pockets too."

1:15am: "Wake up! We have to wash the floor. Here, take a bucket, you can join and enjoy the work. If you feel bad, don't do. Take and enjoy!" (two minutes pass, in which 50 other people and I wash the floor by throwing buckets of water everywhere) "There! You have taken two buckets. Did you enjoy? Where are you from? Ah, America. There, everyone is businessman, working for money." (I think to protest, but before I can get a word in:) "In America, you will not find like this." (True enough.) "Would you like a cup of tea?"

4:30am: "Wake up! (something in Punjabi)" I notice a sizable, but kind of sputtering and dumb, fireworks display. Why are there fireworks? "Oh, it is not fireworks. Sometimes when the wires get rubbed off and are too close together there are sparks." At this point there are prayers in full swing, but I find some other people sleeping and figure I can still join them.

5:30am: I am awakened once again. Now at least it's dawn. I figure that's as good as it's going to get. A nice fellow about my age named Lakhwend befriends me. He was thrown out of his house for wanting to marry a New Zealand girl. He has literally the clothes on his back. He makes a few bucks teaching English (he is Indian, but his English is fluent); last week, his wages were stolen by a pickpocket. Dang. I find out he was the one that warned me.

6:00am: we get tea and some kind of corn chip things; as free as the place to sleep.

8:00am: I get a meal of rice, dal, and chapatis; also free.

9:00am: I check out the inside of the temple. The Guru Granth Sahib, the holiest Sikh book is there! (I think.) I am given a sweet mashed snack at the end.

10:00am: I contact a couchsurfer named Narinderjit. He owns an awesome farm guesthouse that he lets couchsurfers stay at. There are two swimming pools. I nap, swim, wash clothes, and relax the rest of the day.

A couple thoughts that have been brewing in India

1. Where are all the women? I have had one interaction with an Indian woman that went beyond a couple of words, and that was at the meditation center in Ladakh. Not that they're never around, but they're always cooking or something, and never interacting with travelers. It's too bad!

2. Everyone's life is so hard. I mean, of course, right? But I'm not just talking about the one-armed beggar or the ostracized widow. Everyone! Everyone's life! You go down the road and there are people literally breaking rocks! Cycle-rickshaw guys pounding it all day in million-degree heat! Construction guys, cooks, army guys just sweating all day, making pennies! And then you take a bus and it breaks down, and some guys fix it. Meanwhile someone else is huddling over a fried snack cart, making 10 rupees at a time. Everyone's life is so hard!

3. Some people just want to get out. Signs advertise "New Zealand study visa", "Make it to Canada in 6-10 months". Some people I talk to say that they really want to go to the US, just to study, or to work. Working is best; they can send home so much money. I say this with the utmost respect for India: I can't blame them (see thought #2).

Kashmir final roundup

I went to three places in Kashmir. I've told a bit about Srinagar, a bit about Pahalgam, and not much about Gulmarg. More about each:

- Staying on a houseboat in Srinagar is kind of nice. It's a houseboat! So that's cool. Also, you are treated like royalty, or at least I (and this other traveler I met, Francesco) was.

- You can go on a ride around the lake. This is rather nice, and only a couple hundred rupees. I will not make any "I'm on a boat" jokes.

- There are some sights in Srinagar too, like the Jama Masjid, which is a big mosque, and the Shahi Hamdan Masjid, which is a more interesting mosque. It looks almost Japanese.

(not pictured: the carpet factory I was taken to next. not kidding. it was hard to explain to the salesman on how many levels it would be ridiculous for me to buy a carpet. on the up side, I know how handmade carpets are made now. it is insane.)

- Pahalgam I've already talked about.

- Gulmarg is another nice resort town. In the winter you can ski there! It is one of about two places in India you can ski. Actually, it looks like it'd be a great place to ski: only a couple lifts, but a ton of area, and the gondola goes very high. In the summer you can ride a pony.

I will not make any "I'm on a horse" jokes.

Looking down from Khilanmarg, looking up at... Allopathri?

Ghulam Mohammed was my guide this time. I swear, he and Rasul were the only guys I felt I could trust in Kashmir.

- Kashmir food is great. It's kind of meaty- a lot of "mutton", which I think means goat here? Or maybe lamb. Rogan Josh is a famous dish I had heard of. Kashmiri kebab is I guess a kind of sausage. There's a yogurt mint sauce I really liked. They drink a kind of spiced green tea called Kahwa. Anyway, a lot of the food is nicely medium-spicy, perfect level for my tastebuds.

- Next I moved on to Amritsar, via Jammu. This ride was about 14 hours long, in two parts. The ride from Srinagar to Jammu felt like the Scrambler. I was stuck in a back seat. I am glad I'm not going on so many more long rides very soon. (Jammu to Amritsar was nice and easy though.)

If I had to go to Kashmir again, I think I'd just go Gulmarg-Pahalgam, and maybe Sonamarg. Well, Srinagar is nice for one night on a boat. Really, I would decide why I'm there (trekking?) and just do that. It's pretty, but tricky to get around and not so friendly, if you're just looking for a place to go that's pretty.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A few things in Srinagar

In Srinagar, there is the Dal Lake. There are houseboats on it. I am staying in one now.

There are also Mughal gardens, like this one. They are very symmetrical.

Anyway, so when we left off I was in Pahalgam. The next morning I was going to hike more but it rained, so we went back to Srinagar. Then today I went to Gulmarg. Pictures of all this will be coming up. Tomorrow I'm on another long bus to Amritsar via Jammu; I actually am looking forward to getting out of Kashmir. It's pretty but expensive (burn rate ~$75/day, but that was because I booked this driver half-accidentally) and kind of isolated. My phone doesn't work, the internet cafes are few and far between, I don't know how to meet other travelers, and I have to ask my houseboat operator whenever I want to go to land. In addition, everyone wants to plan your whole trip for you, and this is frustrating. When I ask "how do you do X?" the answer is always "okay, I'll do X for you." (and then ask you to pay for it after it's done.) Finally, everyone's always asking for more money, tips, etc; welcome to touristy parts of India, I guess.

It has not been awesome! But there have been awesome parts. More later about those.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I have felt like a couple of different people yesterday.

First: I'm a dumb tourist. After Altaf (travel agent, part-time model) and Faisal (guesthouse operator, master trekker) spent all of yesterday telling me I should go trekking, I finally agreed to a 3-day trip for 8000 rupees, or about $160. This was supposed to be a 2-day 1-night trip in Pahalgam, and then a day trip to Gulmarg. As I handed over my money, I realized that you can always pay more later, but you can never pay less. Still, I did want to do some trekking, and everyone in Srinagar sells these package deals, so maybe this was the best way I could do it. And $160 and 3 days is relatively low risk.

Second: I Am Sir Oracle (and when I ope my lips, let no dog bark). Part of the $160 deal was a share-taxi to these places. But another guy canceled, so I have the driver and car to myself. I mean, I could be like "hey Fayaz, drive over there" and he would. Yet we have no normal-people communication due to the language barrier. So that's weird. Being Sir Oracle is a little uncomfortable.

Third: I'm a dumb tourist. We arrived in Pahalgam, there's no indication of what we should be doing. I thought Altaf said we would meet up with a couple of other travelers and hike up to a hut where we're going to stay the night, but Fayaz the driver has brought me to some guesthouse, the owners of which are now telling me the price of some rooms. Dammit, let me call Altaf. Nope, number's disconnected. Let me call Faisal. He tells me everything is fine, and why am I wasting time talking to him, there's not much time left in the day! Well. Feeling bamboozled, I argue a bit, and call Faisal back.

Fourth: I Am Sir Oracle. Turns out they'll pay everything, afterward. Err, okay? So yes! Let's go hiking! I will hire a guard from among the locals (with the help of Imran, a young Pahalgam travel agent and fluent English and Kashmiri speaker) to walk alongside me, to make sure I don't stub my pinky toe or something.

Fifth: I'm actually an entirely reasonable dude. I guess we missed the original trek due to heavy traffic on the way to Pahalgam, so what we're doing is the consolation prize. That's fine. My guide Rasul and I hiked to Baisara which is about the most beautiful place ever.

Sixth: my guesthouse owners here in Pahalgam greeted me at the end of the day with "you are happy?", then pulled a bottle of mango juice out from behind the TV and poured me a glass as if I were a pouting child. He returned with tea and toast on a tray. I am Sir Oracle.

Practical tip for Pahalgam: if you're looking for a guide, Imran Ganai of Jungle Guyz Adventure seemed helpful and honest. imranbeachresort at the rate of or 09419923810.

Travel Makes You Be Gentle With Yourself

I had contacted two couchsurfers in Srinagar, one who seemed a cool guy my age, and one that was a family. The guy my age had some last-minute obligations, and the family turns out to be a guesthouse, where instead of a free couch, I was given a nice room for Rs1000 ($20)/night, rather in the middle of nowhere. (I can't even walk to an internet cafe.) Dang- couchsurfing lose.

Wait, it gets better: the guesthouse operator, Faisal, and his travel agent friend Altaf, are also pushy hiking guides! I mentioned that I might be interested to do some hiking in Kashmir, and they pulled out all the photos, gave me the whole spiel of All The Places You'll Go, described how nice it is, pulled out a pen and paper (hoo boy) and started writing things down, called a dude, and quoted... US$965. For a 5-day hike and a couple of day tours.

Maybe this is an okay price for full-service trekking. I don't know. I do know that $130/day is about $100/day over my India budget. Faisal's friend Altaf later joined in the fun, offering something like $500 for a less amazing tour. Still a lot. I eventually just said no, no trekking for me. And they've talked about nothing else since. ("you know, we could do a 3-day trek. or day trips." "what's your budget?" and my favorite, "I've noticed it is only Americans who have this problem. French and Germans just make decisions but Americans think about it too much.")

Anyway, three thoughts, each of which could take a whole post: 1. I hate being seen as a bag of money; 2. Nothing is explicit here, everything requires talking to someone; and 3. I guess when you're traveling, sometimes you just get stuck in a dumb situation, and it is important to know that, accept it, and not beat yourself up for wasting a day.

More thoughts about Ladakh

- they have a food called "tsampa", which is just flour of this particular grain. You put a spoonful of flour in your mouth and then, before you choke, quickly drink some butter tea. It's not unpleasant.

- you know how to make a trip through Ladakh even more moonlike? Do it at night, under a full moon. Really neat.

- as a whole, going from Leh to Srinagar is less excruciating than going from Manali to Leh, though it is still no picnic. Keep your bladder relatively empty. And yeah, the all-nightness of it is kind of lame. But I think the trip from 4pm to 8am is about all you can do, unless you book your own car or figure out some sharing thing well in advance. I met some great friendly Kashmiris named Javaid and... something else... who refused to let me pay for my tea.

- need a place to stay? I heartily recommend the Gangs-Shun Homestay, run by Dr. Morup and his family. He's a super friendly host, welcoming in a bunch of travelers and giving honest advice about Leh and Ladakh. And the rooms are very clean. He charged me 500 rupees/night in September (off-peak). Email morup_lee at india yahoo (that's, phone at 094192-69525 or 098580-60706 or 01982-252603.

- if that doesn't work, there are a bunch of places that look nice on the way to the Gangs-Shun on Upper Tukcha Road. Changspa Road also seems nice. It's peaceful to get out of the city center a bit.