Thursday, 12 August 2010

All But A Dream

I have spent the last five months of my life travelling the vast expanse of the great Himalaya, from the tropical borders of Bhutan to the desolate crumbling mountain plains on the borders of Pakistan. It has taken me to the very limits of my body and mind, from the home of the Dalai Lama to war-torn Kashmir, everything has been a blur of beauty in one way or another.

In February of 1968 The Beatles travelled to Rishikesh to find spirituality and much of the 'White Album' through the teachings of the renowned Maharishi Yogi. Some found it and others didn't, Ringo found the whole experience overwhelming and swiftly retreated to the normality of home. I couldn't tell you how much the Pink City has changed in the passing years since that famous journey took place but I can assure each and every one of you that it's immense depth and energy remains entirely intact. Sadus wrapped in a shroud of brilliant orange (and Chilum smoke) float through the dusty streets, serene and blissfully oblivious. The city has an incredible vibrance. Its colours are astonishing and to watch the sun setting over the Ganga, and setting the walls ablaze with vivid pink fire, is beautiful beyond words.

McLeod Ganj with its monumental scenery and breathtaking views, rolling hills and snowy peaks. Overrun with the signature red robes of Tibetan monks in exile. Their futile battle for freedom was known to me for a long time but never fully realised until I was there, living amongst them. The work being done in McLeod Ganj towards the ultimate goal of a free Tibet is wonderful and the genuine desire and compassion from all kinds of people to achieve this is intensely heart warming. It made me appreciate my own freedom more than ever.

With my time now drawing to a close on this trip I was drawn to see a different side of India, one I had no perception of. We left the cool climes of the mountains and struck a course for the sun soaked Great Thar Desert and the fortress stronghold of Jaisalmer.

"On the road south I see a man crouched on the side of the road, weeping before the destruction around him. Smashed concrete and stone. Who knows how hard the climb from the river had been, how desperate his thoughts were. Engulfed in a mind of darkness he looks down at the ruined trees, splintered like a matchstick model. His livelihood lays scattered across the vast slopes. He sits, his friend does not, nor ever will again, no happy long hauls, no smiles and carefree laughter anymore. A mist is rising from the cliffs. Out of sight, on murky green waters float both their lives, and the truck that carried them from the edge." There is always a darker side to the beauty that has surrounded me, it is inescapable and ever present.

On a train bound for Rajasthan I awake and carefully peel myself from the hideously sticky bed to find the entire carriage filled with red mist. I squint the sleep from my eyes and peer down the eerily quiet row of bunks, everything is red. As my knotted mind clears I realise that it is in fact a thick blanket of sand. I stagger to the end of the car and look at myself in the mirror, what looks back at me resembles something teetering between an Ewok and David Dickinson, beautiful. We are hammering our way through great plains of open desert. In the distance a honey coloured town begins to emerge, it's small mudbrick faces glowing in the morning sunlight. The great fort of Jaisalmer stands overlooking the entirety of the town and far beyond into the wilderness. It's ninety nine magnificent bastions standing ominously like proud centuries guarding the precious buildings within. The towns bustling streets and markets are alive with noise and colour, goats and chickens vent their pathetic desperations on deaf ears, the raucous shouts from the stalls rise into the sky on spirals of hot dry air. It is a maze of small alleys which endlessly wind in circles, ensnaring unsuspecting wanderers into an intense game of hide and seek from the touts, sellers and beggars.

Camels are unsavoury animals. Grumpy beasts which seem to be in a constant state of flatulence, spitting, moaning and groaning. Still, what other way is there to travel in a desert? We rode our smelly creatures through the searing heat over colossal orange dunes and vast expanses of open nothingness. We slept under the stars, drank whisky on the highest wisps of sand in the moonlight, walked blind as long as we pleased and broke bread with our nomadic desert guides. I experienced silence, real silence.

I sat quietly, thoughtfully, as he cut the chickens throat, it's life blood flowing through his fingers and gently falling to the soft sand. There was a definitive moment it stopped being an animal and became something entirely different. Our Muslim guides showed such grace, appreciation and respect for this creature it became an almost spiritualistic ritual and as such I felt incredibly humbled. It was something I have wanted to experience for a long while, to buy, kill, prepare and eat an animal. Start to finish. Maybe that sounds slightly sadistic but I guess I needed to know if I could still eat meat knowing where it came from, as an animal, alive and beautiful. Apparently I can. We sat encircling the warm fire with the dying sun to our backs and ate the most delicious and appreciated meal of my life, simple but extraordinary. It was in fact one of the most beautiful moments of my Life So Far.

The problem with deserts is that there is just so much fucking sand, it gets everywhere, and after a battering ride you find yourself somewhat desperate for comforts which don't exist. So we left the desert and headed off on tired legs, back to that endless road. Johdpur with it's vibrant blue buildings and evening breezes filled with painted kites, flown by laughing children from roof tops silhouetted against a fire scorched purple sky. Then, to the opium filled nights in the serene and romantic white city of Udaipur, it's floating royal palace on the turquoise lake said to be a tear drop from Shiva.

"A journey lies behind me, finished but not complete. India has on all accounts been an incredible experience, one which has changed me and imprinted itself forever on my mind. Sitting in the white city, with its green waterways and glistening palace reflecting on the water I look to the sky. Its quiet here in comparison to the majority of India but it still cannot captivate my mind, my emotions any longer. I say the journey is finished but not complete because I have found myself lost in what time I have left. Not enough to find a place or really experience what it has to offer. I have seen a place I love because I have never had the limitations of time so readily holding me back. But now with the prospect of home a reality its hard to clear my mind and enjoy the present completely. It feels like I am just waiting for something I cannot escape, not that I don't necessarily want it to happen.

The slow chill-out trance beating in the background is emotionally enveloping, its methodical thump hits me hard. Music has always had a profound affect on me, it can raise my spirits in even the darkest of moments. I think I began to write because of moments like this, I find it hard to express what it is that alters my moods, so maybe this is my source of freedom I have been looking for for so long. To capture glimpses of bliss lost or irrelevant to all others, so clear to me for a second but then lost again into the abyss. But I have it now, marked and realised forever in my memory".

You see it all your life, it is possibly the most familiar building to any of us, its milky white domes and perfect sensuality so easily distinguished. But, face to face it biblically surpasses any perception and expectation you may previously have possessed and sends you to your knees. The Taj Mahal is perfection in every sense, a staggeringly exquisite pearl on the banks of the mighty Yamuna river. Delicate curves and subtle lines with a pure sense of tenderness and fragility. It truly is a Wonder of our World and surely the most breathtaking monument to endearing love eternally.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Tarmac Burning Into Dust And Desolate Days

Ambling through the narrow twists of dirt between crumbling homes,

Surrounded by my wandering imagination.

I try to picture myself in the position of others,

Their lives and ambitions, their achievements and downfalls.

The contrast is vast, past life dreadlocked hippies searching for themselves,

A small score and a life beyond repair

Or maybe the decrepit leather skinned women

Bearing bundles of brushwood to ramshackle homes, overrun with warm bodies.

Each equal but opposite.

The trees cascade, roots clutching to the last remains of firm foundations.

Pathways wind beneath towering pine.

The sun scorches needles green to brown but I scramble, barefoot over cool earth.

Climbing step by step, to the top of the hill.

Sweat burning my eyes, sights obscured with the bright light from up high.

It was a beautiful walk through the dense forests which finally led us to the mass of flowing water falling from the cliffs above. It was huge, in every sense of the word, the water smashed on rock sending an enveloping mist into the hot air soaking us to the bone. A small path or maybe a track led behind the wall of water to a dank cave swathed in dark moss. Rainbows surrounded me as the sunlight was smashed into its elements by the impenetrable droplets, everywhere I looked the glowing bands of colour were ever present. It reminded me a lot of a certain waterfall on the road to Pai, in Thailand and the happy memories surrounding it. From the cave you could look through to the illuminated valley and the frosted mountains beyond.

Manali is a town either blanketed in clouds or in blazing sunshine. There is no middle ground, no compromise, I guess it is still India and India is at all times the extreme. A turquoise glacial river splits the valley in two with a basin of rough stone and bolder its protector on all sides. The town spreads itself on either side like the wings of a bird and the higher you go the more magnificent the spectacle becomes. Many days have been spent here swept up in ones thoughts, the vibe is so relaxed its hard to get anything done. but then maybe nothing has to be 'done' to enjoy what's around you, just look and listen.

I took the opportunity to be given wings and make dreams come true. What better way to see the Himalayas, soaring on invisible thermals rising steadily from the hills with a parachute holding you to the sky. I can't tell you what a buzz it is to jump from a cliff and be sent into a spiral of hot air, carrying you higher and higher beyond trees, clouds and sound. The only noise is the cold air rushing beneath the parachute, deafening but silent at the same moment. My legs hung suspended above hundreds of meters of nothingness, the ants below me utterly insignificant compared to the scale of what my eyes perceived. I couldn't say how long I was up there, maybe a lifetime maybe a moment, it certainly felt like both. Aerobatics are new to me. When the time came to descend back to reality I was sent into a horizontal spiral, my body was entirely paralysed with the almost free-fall speed. Muscles locked in chains and the sound of my voice lost far behind me. The air hit so hard my face felt distorted and flat. We hit the ground hard, the mass of adrenaline pumping through my body made any movement difficult, shaking but elated I got to my feet and stumbled off between the thronging crowds of people, unsure of what to do I just sat down and laughed.

Friday, 18 June 2010

On A Bullet To The Ganga

When purchasing a motorcycle there are many factors to consider, age, reliability, fuel economy and of course appearance. One out of four isn't bad. A 1972 Enfield Bullet is possibly the most beautiful piece of British engineering in existence, it's slow thumping heartbeat and explosive roar shakes the very foundations of the Earth. Black and silver has never been more perfectly matched. I defy anyone to find a more sublime way to travel hundreds of miles across the vastness of India. Yeah, I bought one, Shes called Yoni. Sure, she doesn't really work and will undoubtedly kill me but God damn what a way to go.

As always life sends me on the right road, through one way or another it seems to give me the means and purpose to fulfil dreams. Maybe it was the obvious offer of a bike, maybe peoples insanity or maybe it was the mad enthusiasm of the Mexican. I couldn't tell you, but life put everything in front of me and just said take it. What could I do, it must be fate right? Life had become almost structured and I liked it, but I'm not quite ready for normality yet, so the Bullet was loaded and we blasted off into the pale orange Himalayan sunrise, the open road has never held so much promise.

Thundering through glorious pine forests with the sun dappled road winding endlessly before us we made good time. The hills rolled past in a blur of spectacular colours, vibrant and powerful. Stopping whenever the desire came to eat fresh mangos in remote road side stalls. The blistering heats of the plains gave me the the beautiful opportunity to clamber my way into the bows of a great tree and lay gazing at the glowing rice fields that surrounded me. Yoni ran like a dream, she carried us through thick and thin, packed like a faithful donkey with limitless energy and insuppressible life. Finally we pulled in to a nameless town as the sun was setting after spending eight solid hours in the dust. We had hit the National Highway but were in no condition to continue, physically and mentally drained we ate a simple meal and rented a room. With life's perfect capabilities of ruining a perfect day I awoke in the darkest depths of the night and proceeded to vomit myself into unconsciousness, superb news considering the length of the ride to come. Morning brings a tough first few hours but my spirits soar as I behold the most incredible sight yet, the meeting of the two great rivers and the very source of the sacred river Ganges.

The unbelievable energy that river has is indescribable, the clear turquoise water that has travelled hundreds of miles from distant glaciers and continues for yet a thousand more. Utterly magnificent. Yoni has brought us to the most sacred water on Earth and the concept sends my mind spinning. The road now follows the Ganga for two hundred Kms to the city of Rishikesh and the spiritual capital of India. Each and every second I rode I had to reassure myself this intense experience was truly happening. The road leapt and plummeted along the hills, getting tantalisingly close to the river only to send us rocketing back up into the forests. It played with us, mischievous and ever teasing, we were like children just a little too small to reach the cookie jar. However, determination will always prevail and hope came as we finally hit the bustling streets of Rishikesh, the Pink City. The main town sat on the opposite side of the river and it shone in the bright evening sun, glowing with warmth and an ancient prosperity.

They say that when you swim in the Ganga your life's sins are washed away, it's not only a place for redemption and forgiveness but also for hope and happiness. If that's really true then I guess I've been given a new start.

What's Your Price?

"Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely" - Lord Acton

When on a journey into the unknown unexpected events present themselves on a frustratingly frequent basis. My road was to take me from Kathmandu to a town sitting somewhere in India and a unique paradise unknown to the rest of this vast sub-continent. A small farming project which promotes entirely self sufficient living and a lifestyle so free and beautiful it would be worth travelling monstrous distances to catch just a glimpse of it, the name of which I had hastily scribbled down on a crumpled napkin, being the extent of my directions. In my opinion it was quite optimistic to believe I could travel half way across India in a direction I didn't know, following just a name, and not get myself in to stupid situations. That lack of optimism was unquestionably justified. The heading I had chosen was to start out West, through the centre of Maoist controlled Nepal, maybe not the smartest choice considering they had decided to overthrow the government on the day I departed. Over 18,000 Maoist revolutionary soldiers descended on Kathmandu and I was to be found at the very centre of them. Finding a bus willing to make the long trip to the western borders was difficult enough, but the choices left to me were minimal, so I shouldered my pack once again and so begins the gruelling adventure.

The bus ride was scheduled to take fourteen hours, nothing I hadn't had to endure a hundred times over during my travels. However, this was something all together different. The residence of Kathmandu had also decided it was time to get the hell out of Dodge, the roads were jammed for mile upon mile. We covered maybe three miles in little over seven hours. Small makeshift food stalls and shops sprung up along the roadsides selling everything imaginable at outrageously inflated prices, talk about being kicked whilst your down. I was so tired by this early point I climbed to the roof of the bus, nestled myself among the various bags and boxes, and lay looking up at the infinitely bright stars twinkling high above in the black velvet sky.

Eventually movement came, bringing a rushed excitement as everyone piled back to their seats and settled themselves for an uncomfortable night ahead. I woke next morning after a heavily drug induced sleep, feeling groggy and bedraggled, to the sound of shouts and movement as the bus was being thoroughly searched by a group of well armed soldiers. Several people were physically dragged from the bus and into a small guard room sitting in the woods a hundred yards from the road, we didn't wait to find out the outcome of their hasty departure, but instead roared off again with full power and the engine screaming.

We finally arrived at the 'bus station' in a desolate part of remote Nepal twenty nine hours from departure. I happily flung myself from the bus and to my great annoyance found my bag had already been unloaded and was sitting comfortably on the back of a colourful rickshaw. I was unimpressed to say the least. I apparently infuriated the driver for swiftly removing it and went on my way to the sound-track of angry shouts. I walked for an hour in the blistering heat along a seemingly endless road, picturesque though it was. On finally stumbling to the Indian border (having missed Nepali Immigration) I sat myself in front of the official in charge of making my entry as easy as possible and confidently handed over my passport. Here we go.

The border post was as isolated as you can possible get, utterly uninhabited save for a family of cows grazing nearby. The official looks at my papers, then at me, again at the papers, and then smiles. First thing he says is this; "Go back to Nepali Immigration and get stamped out" so back I head and do all the necessaries. Head held high I return and expect the process complete, not so. After a long while he tells me I can't cross to India as there is a serious issue with my visa, he doesn't elaborate. So here I find myself in no-mans-land, unable to go forward nor to go back, right in the heart of nowhere. Three more police officals arrive and I'm taken to a room in the depths of the building, out of sight. The questions begin, good cop - bad cop scenario and a lot of general fear mongering. They tell me endlessly I'm in a bad situation, as if I didn't already grasp the concept! The price is finally given to me, cold and clear, $200 to pass and be on my way. I sat for a moment and considered my options, they stand and watch me, a gleam in their eye. Maybe not the smartest of choices but I give my answer as clear and cold as they gave it to me, "No". Needless to say they were unhappy with my decision and turned the heat up. Three hours they kept me, and all they received were glowing red faces and a ruffled hair-do. Without so much as a glance at me one of the officers take my passport, stamp it, and cast it whimsically into my lap. Uncertain of their next move I got the fuck out of there sharpish, grabbed my belongings and walked in the only direction I could, away and finally into India.

I was forced to spend the night in a village on the Indian side of the border, filthy Banbassa. I guess a bed is a bed but this bed happened to be the worst I have had the pleasure of lying my weary head upon. Already having spent thirty hours on the road it was however, still greatly appreciated, I found a cold beer, watched the golden sun set and sat on the terrace way into the night until the birds stopped singing their songs and the world was fast asleep.

My task for the morning was to find someone who knew in which direction I should set out to find the particular town I was headed. After much deliberation I clamber on yet another bus and rumble my way out of town. Several hours pass and the sinking feeling hits, I have been sent the wrong way on a direction unknown to me. Desperation drives me off the bus into a village with no name, I stand in the dust bewildered and lost with a crowd beginning to mass, ever growing as word of me passes through the streets. Overwhelmed I walk on and find myself in a sea of fields, scorched by the sun with the subtle scents of dry hay and grass wafting around me, children running through the sweeping meadows, splashing through streams and chasing animals until exhaustion sends them sprawling in the dirt, happy and content. The only option left to me is to hitch the rest of the way, hoping it will find me closer to my destination. Standing at the side of the road waiting patiently for a ride I see a car speeding toward me in a flurry of brown haze. To my immense luck its a police truck. They stop and ask to see my papers, here it comes, "you cannot hitch in India, you must come with us to the station, or... you can pay the fine". I laugh at the irony of the whole situation and cast a wodge of notes through the open window, what choice do I have, luck is clearly not on my side.

The next truck to stop holds an ancient old man with a heart of pure gold, he sets me in the wagon of his truck with the animals, gives me a mango and sets off. Nothing could sully the happiness I felt on that drive, absolute freedom without a care in the world. I lay back and watched this beautiful world roll past with this golden mango tasting sweeter in my mouth than even the best of Eden's apples ever could. The hours float by in a heavenly bliss, Kerouac has nothing on me!

Against all odds I arrive at my oasis in the hills with a thousand miles covered in just three days. The town sprawls, tumbles, turns and cascades over the bronzed hills, its lights twinkle in the purple dusk, mirroring the very stars in the sky.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Annapurna - To The Pass Of Throng La

My bus limped into Kathmandu just as the sun turned gold and the sky a delicate shade of blue. A wheel was lost during the night and the heart of the bus had given up all hope a hundred times over, somehow it bravely struggled into the dusty station, puffed a final sigh of relief and died there and then. Farewell sweet prince. Still, it got me here and will be eternally grateful for that.

Kathmandu is a dusty old dog, its a chaos quite unique unto itself. An ancient city inhabited by an ancient people, the roots of the ancestry run deep in this town. So much history and culture makes for an incredible time spent here, the smiling faces and leathery skin of the locals can be your only source of refuge or they can be your portal to unbelievably bizarre situations. I'm choosing not to elaborate for 'legal' purposes, maybe one day, but for now its buried. The architecture is a mix of greasy blackened glass and mediaeval wood, the homes precariously holding one another up whilst always slanted at very alarming angles. Everywhere is the inescapable dust and pollution, so thick you can actually scrape it from your skin after just a insignificant period in the open. Even so, nothing could stop me loving this place with a passion.

My original plan for a jaunt to Everest had to be altered due to dangerous weather, so the decision was made to start the long trek to the pass of Throng La and the Round Annapurna Circuit. A 300km trail that would mean seventeen days of pure bliss and agony, heartbreak and joy, at times panic and despair, but always intense awe. Never have I taken on such a monstrous adventure and never have I been more suitably unprepared. People come to Nepal in search of adventure, spending hundreds on the latest clothing and equipment, the 'Sunday Trekkers' I call them. I am immensely proud of the fact I completed this exceptional challenge using no guide or porter and nothing but my trusty Levis, a t-shirt, hooded jumper and a pair of trekking shoes repaired with super glue and gaffer tape. "Gore-Tex? Pffft, sorry precious you're just not cut out for this shit!".

It all started sitting with a ride on the roof of a bus, trundling for almost two hours over rocks and sand, sounds comfy? It wasn't. Grasping with all my might onto whatever I could reach I succeeded in stopping myself being flung off and into the raging white torrents of the river below the road. With much relief the exhausting ride finally came an end in the village of Beshisaha, Permits stamped and in hand we shouldered our bags and set out into the wild.

The first few days took us through bright and brilliant green hills, stepped with millet fields that shimmered like water in the wind. Sandy paths led us through opal rivers, giant deciduous forests, dusty open plains and a number of ever shrinking villages. The trails wound their way over bulbous comic like hills, up and down in seemingly endless repetition. Just as you reach what you believe to be the end, having climbed hours over boulders and precarious canyon passes your hopes are smashed as you see the path descend into yet another astonishingly beautiful valley, bitter sweet to say the least. The climate is hot, steamy and tropical. This makes life especially tough, the heat saps all but the minutest amount of energy from your body with unrelenting efficiency. Birds sing in perfect unison, goats bleat their pathetic pleas for freedom and the smell of the never ending donkey trains make for a wonderful sensory experience. They say the slower you go the more shades of green you see, there has never existed a more suited location to realise this than the that of the emerald marijuana fields in the valley of Bagarchhap.

As the days passed and our ascent to the snow gathered pace I noticed, almost daily, how the landscape changed in just epic proportions. From Tropical to Mediterranean, European to Scandinavian, plants growing steadily hardier, taller and browner. The palms turned to oak and pine, the red sands to dusty grey soil, it was as if I were walking through countless countries, each melting into the other hour by hour. Things began to cool down and life became increasingly more bearable, by 2000m it was possible to make pace and cover serious ground without the need to rest at such regular intervals. Much of each day was spent in breathless silence, the concentration required physically and mentally is immense, each step must be carefully placed as an injury could result in disastrous consequences. Being so far from help and significant medical support really changes ones perceptions of certain, otherwise trivial, everyday activities. Everything has the potential to end your journey, force you to turn right around and back the way you came, a tough concept to remember when total exhaustion slaps you down.

Himalayan village life is really something special, a small community that is at all times reliant on one another for support. Everyone has their place in the workings of the village from builders to bakers, all equal and as important as the other. Homes made from lumps of deep grey stone ingrained with luminous yellow lichen and enormous beams of blackened timber. Prayer flags flutter in the breeze, hanging loose in shallow loops between roof tops, and in the distance the ever present snow capped peaks of the Annapurna ominously looming, bright and brilliant. Steaming Thukpas and Masala tea provide the only real comfort in these spartan little pockets of civilization.

After around nine days, I came face to face with my first Himalayan mountain and its epic proportions. A canyon ground smooth by a long gone glacier, bare rock carved into a perfect crescent half-pipe, each side crowned with a pure white frosting. Its difficult to gauge the size of mountains when your so close but I was told by a Sherpa that each side of that canyon was over a mile high. Humbling. Our path led us to a vast plateau peppered with the last of the hardiest trees, and this, I believe, is when the Vultures arrived. They circled us for mile upon mile, eyes fixed on the weary travellers. This didn't do wonders for the self confidence and dark thoughts began to materialise, "maybe a lesser 'Gore-texer' could be kind enough to be mauled by a wild beast and become bird feed, but please God, please, anyone but me!". One can only hope in situations like that, I'm still here so I guess an exceptionally angry Yak answered my prayers.

By 4000m altitude had become a serious factor, time was required to acclimatise and let my body adjust to the new pressures and variations. Altitude does odd things to the body, flatulence becomes an issue, socially speaking. Altitude sickness can be fatal I am told, a combination of lower oxygen intake and increased breathing causes the lungs to fill with fluids and you gradually drown in your own juices, nice. It was so serious in fact we had to actually consider taking advice from a doctor on the matter, madness. To really adjust, an ascent and descent of 1000m in a day is recommended, so an insane climb ensued to the Ice lake of Manang. Three hours of fast climbing on sixty degree slopes found us at the lake, bereft of all energy and in -3C temperatures. But my god it was beautiful. I touched my first snow on that desolate peak, I was in a truly special place and I felt it with every bone in my body. A turquoise lake encircled by a impenetrable wall of white snow and red rock, I sat and marvelled at my own insignificance in the history and future of this planet. With blue hands and red faces we rapidly descended, three hours up and twenty minutes down. I will thank the doctor for that day.

The penultimate climb consisted of a trail through what can only be described as a moonscape, rock and nothing but. Endless expanses of nothingness on all sides, until red rock meets white and the ice covered summits pierce the very fabric of the sky. Miles from anywhere we met a lone Sadu adorned in burning orange robes. I sat with him for some time in the ruins of a long abandoned cattle shed and couldn't help but feel a little unlearned in life, there was complete content in those sapphire eyes. He had been walking for three months, leaving his village in Ayyodhya, India on a pilgrimage to find exactly whatever it was he was looking for.

That night we stayed in High Camp, 4600m, -10 degrees and I am overjoyed when they tell me they have no blankets. This is the start. I finally find an old cover in the cattle shed and try my best to settle for the night but it is not to be. There has been so much talk of sickness hitting in the night and several people being sent down because of it that I lay awake for hours, my mind in a spiral of worried thought. Then, of course, the symptoms start, shortness of breath, headache and sickness, I was told the only thing to do is head down immediately. Going down meant a outrageously steep 600m decent in absolute darkness with a 15kg bag, with freezing conditions and completely alone. I figured I was far more likely to die doing this than to stay and take my chances, so I stuck it out and genuinely prayed I would last the night without any real danger. I lay in that icy room, on the roof of the world, clutching the only things I had that gave me hope, Tibetan prayer beads and a Buddhist amulet. I'm not a religious man or superstitious but I was deeply scared and sometimes I think you can find comfort in things that have strong meaning to you, to have come so far and fall at the final hurdle, not a chance my friend.

The sun rose on a sleepless night and before me lay the biggest challenge yet. Instead of going down I began the long and arduous climb to the end, 5880m and my ultimate goal. One painful, sickening step at a time for four straight hours I walked, pushing myself far beyond my means and my body's capacity of endurance. The air came to be so thin I was in a constant battle for breath, my pace gradually slowed and I became further and further away from my companions. Struggling with every element thrown at me and yet another heart-breakingly steep climb presenting itself I had, for the first time, the thought that maybe I would have to give in and go back. Ten steps more and I saw them, the beautiful flurry of coloured flags against the perfect blue sky being whipped back and forth by the ferocious icy winds that are said to constantly rage through the Pass of Throng La.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Queen Of The Hills

I scrambled off my bunk in carriage 13A, grabbed my belongings and dashed to the nearest exit. I threw myself beyond reach of the grimy train as it snarled its way out of the station toward an unknown and undesired destination. I had overslept. The journey from Kolkata had been uneventful in the scale of things, masala chai and odd Indian snacks forced upon me through open windows. Thankfully a small amount of uncomfortable sleep was accomplished somewhere in between.

Bleary eyed and deprived of a decent nights sleep, I make easy prey for the unforgiving touts. A barrage of shouting (closely related to screaming) finds me in a jeep seating all of 15 people, there's space for 10, just. The route up to Darjeeling is beyond impressive, it snakes its way up a dusty trail to an impressive altitude of almost 10,000ft. A rest stop gives me a chance to gulp down a steaming cup of chai and take in my surroundings. I look out onto an unimaginably vast valley, the sides of which seem to soar so high as to penetrate the very sky. This truly is the roof of the world, and its decorated with streamers of the bright green tea planations.

Philosophy seems to be a way of life in India, in Kolkata I spent an evening discussing the pros and cons of the British rule and its affects on life with a boy of fourteen. Darjeeling was no different. I feel I need to mention a man as he was the most bizarre yet thought provoking person I have ever met. His name is Dawa Sherpa. I met him in a dank and dingy pub and we talked for a very long time. He calls himself a philosopher and I believe him, although I have some doubts as to his mental state. Let me elaborate. He has spent his life devoted to meditation and as a result has opinions on life which seem to make a lot of sense. Alternately he says he is just 6 months from finding the cure for AIDS and that he had to turn down a pass made at him by Nicole Kidman due to the 'upset it would cause to Tom Cruise'. Hmmm I hear you say, indeed. Maybe his time spent meditating on the meaning of other peoples lives had a slightly adverse affect on his own.

"Everything in life drowns with time, only hope floats." - Dawa Sherpa , conceived at the moment before a failed suicide attempt. I sincerely hope he remembers his own words.

So Darjeeling, well how can I describe it? Its like everything beautiful and happy about England. The crisp cold air at night, the warm bright sun during the day and a sense of excitement and joy which is so reminiscent of a Christmas Eve in London. Ironic that I had to go so far from home just to find it again. The mornings bring a sight so magnificent it sends a chill down my spine, across the town and the hills beyond sit the immortal Himalaya. An impenetrable necklace of snow capped diamonds glistening in the pale morning sun. Beautiful to behold.

After losing an impressively long game of poker against eight people from six various countries I was forced to partake in a five day trek along the Indo-Nepalese border to the hill point of Sandakhpur. Not such a bad forfeit on all accounts. A view of Everest was the ultimate goal, the sparkling symbol of magnificence our planet has to offer. It was not to be. We had been battling with the weather from the start and I think we were always destined to lose. The cloud being so utterly enveloping a view of more than 100m was seen as pure bliss. It swirled around us, blanketing our world in complete and absolute whiteness. No Everest this time. Still, taking tea and momos in a remote village home 4000m into the Himalaya was just as incredible. Or maybe the breakfasts of smoked Yak, chapatti, yet more chai and the sublime comfort of being surrounded by wood smoke and warmth on exceptionally cold mornings could be seen as a worthy alternative. Unreal to say the least.

Tired legs brought me back the the town of tea after walking more than 100km, completed in sandals I might add. Total exhaustion and lack of sleep resulted in the decision Everest was the next best plan of action. I don't understand my logic sometimes but I always trust my heart. So here I am, in Kathmandu. This is going to be one hell of a ride...

Monday, 15 March 2010

Of Football and Pakora

I once had a picture in my head of what I would find in Kolkata. It involved poverty, noise and a sense of unimaginable intensity. I was wrong. It is so much more, more horrific than can (willingly) be described, but also so wondrous and friendly it has shocked me to the very core of my soul.

I was invited into an Indian family home to eat a traditional Bengali lunch within hours of arriving, lucky? Indeed. It is something that will take time getting used to, eating with ones hands. It seems like the most obvious implement a human should be sufficiently apt at eating with, not so in my case. An embarrassing struggle with a plate of rice and various curries caused much hilarity and sly chuckles from the mother, three uncles, four brothers, one sister and various other people whom had been called to spectate the white man eating. It was an incredible privilege, although did tend to make one self-conscious.

I cannot fully describe how soul destroying it is to see some of the things I have seen. There is a hell far worse than that in the fiery underbelly of the world, it's on the streets of this city. My heart has been utterly destroyed and healed a hundred times over. I have been here two days. But every action has a reaction right? And there is no better place to prove this. Out of utter chaos and anarchy comes complete order and tranquillity, bizarre to say the least.

Tonight my friend Nick and I went on a mission. We set out armed to the teeth with mountainous paper bags containing various Pakora, Samosa, Roti, Chapati and Baji. Our mission was to find those who lived in complete desperation and give them something to smile about. To see someone grin is not usually such an incredible moment, tonight the feeling was that of pure joy.

We found ourselves led through gloomy, dank back-streets of Kolkata by an ancient old man. His body had been broken by the terrible hardships of his life but his mind and soul were still full of vitality and joy. He led us on a winding journey to the centre of a place cleverly named 'New Market'. Now, this New Market may once have been new, but in reality I think it may have seen better days, maybe in or around 1812.

So, have you ever played a wild game of football, barefoot, with a gang of Indian slum children? An invitation like that can never be turned down. Off come the shoes (although not a necessity, it does provide some ego coverage when you turn out to be useless... "shit sorry about that, if only I'd had shoes on" etc.). We are ordered into teams on opposite sides with a barrage of excitable Hindi and very enthusiastically greeted by our fellow team members.

Kick off begins the most exhausting 20 minutes of my life. Although 10pm the temperature is still grotesque. A crowd has gathered to cheer the game on, the entry of two Westerners has sent out a shock-wave of excitement from the locals. The pressure is on, feeling good and confident in my abilities to provide for my team. A burst of energy here, a sprint and leap there. Dizziness hits, heart pounding so violently I can hear it radiating throughout my head, sickness looming, need to sit down. "OK" says the local policeman "So are you ready to start?".

The battle fought (and sadly lost) it is time for a drink. I ask my new friends where I can buy water, they say to follow them. I am led to "where the tears of the Goddess Shiva come up from the centre of the world". It is a well and hand pump at the side of the road. The Goddess Shiva provides life for 14,700,000 people in this city. I wash my grubby face and feel totally insignificant.