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Janine quickly gets physical, but I’m still a little too upset with Air China to fully embrace the Olympic Mascot/Powerpuff Girl in Beijing’s Terminal 3 Airport (more photos)

How do you say “Bird’s Nest” in Chinese?

– Dave

Janine has a delightful little Marge Simpsonesque “Hrmmm” that she utters when vaguely disconcerted.

“Hrmmm,” Janine uttered, looking at her watch as we taxied down the runway of Beijing’s shiny new Terminal 3 airport after an uneventful red-eye flight from Delhi.

Well, uneventful for me anyway. Towards the end of our Madagascar trip, a friend had given me one of those traveller’s sleeping blindfolds, generally sported only by supermodels and cast members of “Dynasty”. As an incredibly macho guy, I’d initially been sceptical. But after secretly testing it (with feelings of misgiving similar to those of a man trying on silk panties), I’d discovered that it affected me in the same manner as a tranq dart in the arse of a grizzly bear. A little confusion, a violent leg wobble, one last roar of defiance and I was out like a light. Now I’d become a total convert, slipping on my little sky blue blinder during every long bus trip and airport layover, drooling off to dreamland with greater ease than I’ve ever experienced travelling before.

Janine thinks I look silly. But it’s easy to ignore people making fun of you when you’re in a mild coma.

In any event, within 7 minutes of taking our seat on the 3 a.m. flight out of sweltering Delhi, I was snoring away to visions of the horses and steppe that we would soon see in Mongolia. So I failed to notice that we took off 45 minutes late. WIth only an hour scheduled between our arrival in Beijing and our connecting flight to Ulan Bataar, that posed a problem.

“I’m sure they’ll hold the flight for us,” I told Janine confidently, wiping the sleep from my eyes and rummaging through Air China’s version of a continental breakfast – a miniature Dove chocolate bar, a juice box and something looking like a cellophane-wrapped squash ball.

Still, we hustled to make the flight. After successfully miming our tight schedule to a Chinese speaking flight attendant (we’re really getting good at miming), we were whisked off the plane before the other passengers and ushered into the sparkling confines of Terminal 3 – one of Beijing’s newly-opened showpieces for the games. Like everything else in this city, it’s massive, modern and designed to impress. “We’ll have to admire it on our way back to Delhi,” I huffed fatefully to Janine as we jogged down the sparkling concourses, a little surprised at how empty the place was for day 2 of the world’s biggest party. Flatscreen televisions blared the Olympics from seemingly every corner. Good luck reading a book or catching a nap in this place (unless you have a sleeping blindfold of course).

Security for the games being what it was, we passed through two searches before making our gate. While waiting for my hiking boots to come through the security scanner at one stop, I finally had time to ask a Chinese official the question that had been bugging me all morning.

“What the hell is this?” I said, holding up the breakfast squash ball.

The red-clad security woman looked at the black ball and then me suspiciously. “It’s an egg,” she said, politely leaving out the word “stupid”, which I could tell she wanted to append to the end of her response.

I looked at the black ball acutely, searching for any sign of eggdom. I was not convinced.

“Is it an egg from a bird?” I followed up.

She looked at me again and nodded patiently.

“Is it an egg you can eat?” 

She nodded again, maybe a little more curtly this time.

“Would you eat it?” I offered her the ball.

She smiled and said no. With Janine tugging more forcefully on my forearm with each question,  I collected my boots, exited security before the search got any more personal and deposited the squash ball in the next garbage bin. The final dash to our departure gate was on.

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Last call my ass.

“We made it!” Janine puffed triumphantly, jogging to a halt at departure desk, above which another large flat screen television bore our flight information and a flashing “Last Call” boarding sign. Outside the gate, a bus with 6 or 7 other passengers waited to whisk us over to our plane. Four other passengers waited in line ahead of us with more coming up behind us by the second.

“I’m going to take a picture of the ‘Last Call’ sign! Great souvenir!” Janine said happily, reaching for her camera bag. For once, my Murphy’s Lawdar relaxed and I consented to this fingering of fate.

The first couple at the check-in counter were handed their boarding cards and hopped on the bus. Then, I kid you not, with another couple ahead of us and 4 more people behind, the boarding agent pressed a button and the flashing “Last Call” sign changed to a “Gate Closed” sign. The bus closed its door and drove away.

This is a family friendly blog so I won’t list all the expletives that escaped the remaining passengers’ lips and headed in the general direction of the boarding agent. But the general tone of it all was, “I hope you can explain yourself within 4 seconds because that’s how long it’s going to take for us to get around this desk and strangle you.”

A manager arrived in sufficient time to prevent bloodshed, explaining that due to our Delhi flight’s delay, all the passengers on it had been removed from the connecting flight to Ulaan Baatar. Apparently, thanks to Terminal 3’s slow baggage transfer times (which we would get very familiar with later) our bags would never have made the connection anyway. Rather than fly us to Mongolia luggage-less and simply send our bags on the next flight, Air China preferred to put 8 people up in a hotel for the night, leave those seats on the current flight empty and fly us out the next day. 

Remind me why so many airlines have trouble making money?

***

The Chinese symbol for “crisis” contains within it the word “opportunity”.  I found myself pondering this idea after I’d finished cursing Air China, about 45 minutes after our connecting flight left. We had been excited to reach Mongolia and the manner in which we’d missed our connection had been frustrating in the extreme. But if we could not catch a flight until the following day, that meant that the Chinese would have to give us a 24 hour visa. The very visa that had, until now, alluded us until we’d given up hope of visiting China altogether.

Standing in one of the many lines that Air China was to make us stand in over the next 3 hours, I turned to Dave and Valerie, a delightful couple from South Africa and France respectively, who’d also been shafted on the Ulan Bataar connection and with whom we were fast becoming friends.

“If Passport Control will stamp my passport,” I whispered to them confidentially, as if the Chinese secret police could swoop down on us any second for even suggesting it, “I’m going to the Olympics tonight.”

Dave bore the tired look of a man who’d been on a 7 hour red-eye flight, missed his connection and was now stuck in an airport for a hazy period of time. But his eyes suddenly brightened. “Really?” he said, leaning in and sharing the conspiracy. After a quick look across our huddle at Valerie he looked back at me. “Let’s split the cab.”

I was delighted. With a European and a South African joining us, we’d now have at least 3 embassies to call if arrested for violating Chinese immigration laws.

***

Air China must have sensed our excitement at the prospect of a free night in the Olympic city. Immediately after giving us our visas, it directed us to a featureless room of the airport to await our baggage.

We waited for two hours.  As the afternoon faded, I saw my Olympic dream fading with it.

Two pretty Air China attendants had been assigned to see us all get our bags and reach our hotel. Every time I asked them how much longer it would take for our bags to arrive, they told me “20 minutes”. Now, after sitting on a baggage cart long enough to have acquired a second arse crack, I approached them once more.

“Do you know the Fleetwood Mac song ‘Tell me Lies’?” I asked them.

They stared at me blankly; boredly.

“It’s been three hours since we landed in Beijing,” I said. “Please get our bags. Please don’t tell me it’s going to be another 20 minutes. If you do, I’m going to have to start singing this song to you.”

They stared at me blankly; boredly.

“Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies. Yeah tell me lies (Tell me! Tell me lies!). Oh no, no-o-o you can’t disguise…”

We had our bags 5 minutes later.

***

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I’m convinced I could have dominated the 40kg Body Building category if I’d only qualified. Thanks a lot rigged stool sample!

The imaginatively-named Beijing Central Airport Hotel was the nicest hotel we’d stayed in since, well, actually, it was the nicest hotel we’d stayed in since leaving home. Our room had a big t.v., a shower with water pressure, beds with mattresses and sheets you didn’t mind sleeping in without a full suit of clothes on.

We couldn’t wait to leave.

With a thrill of naughtiness (reinsert “man in panties” allusion here), we met Dave and Valerie in the hotel lobby. While I took out yuan from an ATM, Dave pored over a city tourist map with the hotel receptionist and tried to figure out how to tell our taxi driver what Olympic venues we’d like to visit. A few minutes later, we were in a cab and driving down Beijing’s broad, deserted boulevards, a strict air-pollution control effort keeping what must be most of the city’s motorists off the streets. The centre of the world’s attention seemed more than half-empty. Combined with a steadily driving rain, it was a rather eerie introduction to China’s capital.

But the excitement of seeing the Olympic Stadium changed all that. At our first view of the famous Bird’s Nest, all the morbid thoughts, all the fatigue, even all the strains of “Tell Me Lies”, which had been on a constant loop in my head for the past 5 hours, vanished. 

We were at the Olympics.

Or at least, we were near the Olympics. A heavily-patrolled security fence ringed the Olympic grounds and kept the unwashed and unticketed masses a kilometer away from the venues.  But the buildings were large and magnificent enough to mostly make up for that. In the grey evening light, the Olympic flame flickered above the steel basket-weavery of the Bird’s Nest while the “Water Cube” shimmered a brilliant blue alongside. Chinese couples and families strolled hand in hand beside the fence, admiring their country’s architectural achievements and snapping pictures on cell-phones. Despite their contentment, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad for these people. Beijingers had obviously worked so hard and sacrificed so much for these games and now most were being excluded from them. Even a pedestrian bridge over a nearby highway which would have afforded a lovely view of the Olympic buildings had been purposely covered in “Beijing 2008” banners, leaving people peeping through tiny gaps in the posters for a good look at the games.

The rain intensified after an hour. Even full of Olympic Spirit, we started to get tired. Finishing our circuit of the security fence, we dove inside a cab and confronted its slightly bewildered-looking driver. “Tiananmen Square please!”

The driver continued to look bewildered. I considered using my miming prowess to re-enact a tank rolling towards a lone protester but then thought better of it and remembered the tourist map Dave had gotten from the hotel. With this, some frenzied pointing and a few thumb’s up signals, we were soon motoring towards Beijing’s best known and most controversial landmark.

Just when we thought it couldn’t pelt any harder, the rain started pelting our taxi even harder. After 15 minutes of driving which saw the streets turn into glistening black rivers, our driver pulled over on a dark side street and looked at us with a silent nod. “Tiananmien,” he said.

We looked out the streaming windows. “I don’t see anything,” Janine said.

“I don’t know if I want to see anything,” I said, enjoying the dryness of the cab. “It looks friggin’ terrible out there.” Dave and Valerie nodded agreement. One chance in a lifetime be damned. No one wanted to walk around in this weather.

I turned back to our driver. “Ummm, I don’t suppose you could just drive us around Tiananmien square a bit then take us home?” I combined this incomprehensible gibberish with the miming of hands on a steering wheel, a down-the-drain twirling motion, a happy face and a thumb’s up.

The driver looked at me stonefaced for a minute and then started the car again.

We must have been parked close to the square, because rounding the next shadowy corner, it seemed we were suddenly thrust into the bright middle of the square in all its glory. Through the furious window wipers, we could see the monuments, the imperial compounds, the stark communist-era buildings, and over it all, the great portrait of Chairman Mao gazing sternly through the rain. Once again, we were buoyed and gave a spontaneous cheer. This caught our driver off guard for a moment. But then he regained himself, smiled and nodded vigorously.

“Yeah!” he said thickly with a thumbs up sign, “Tiananmien!”

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Mao through the windshield

***

Something about that moment changed our driver. He finally seemed to grasp the concept of a sight-seeing trip. With a palpable energy, he started detouring and pointing out the wonders of the new Beijing, smiling happily each time we oohed and awed at the newly minted skyscrapers and innovatively designed buildings which seemed to be sprouting from every corner of the landscape. By the time we got back to the hotel, I felt a combination of awe, puzzlement and perhaps some vague disconcertion towards this great, empty, sparkling metropolis.

Had I been Janine or Marge Simpson, I might have uttered a happy but tired “hrmmm” about the whole thing. Instead, I fell silently, exhausted and a little damp into my fluffy bed. With a quick prayer of thanks to the travel gods for another unforgettable day, I fell asleep on the instant, blindfoldless, dreaming of exciting and enigmatic Beijing.

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Janine gets her snuggle fix at the Donkey Sanctuary in Leh (more photos)

Alright, let’s do some shit in Leh.

– Jason

4 days can feel like a long time.

It feels especially long when you spend most of it in bad web cafes trying to download flight information, on shaky telephone connections with agents and hoteliers who speak little English and holed up with travel guides that you’ve read a half dozen times already and that actually seem to be getting less helpful with each perusing.

But that was our first 4 days back in Leh after our beautiful trek in the Markha valley and Karnak region of Ladakh. We were trying to plan the next big leg of our trip – Mongolia – and it was proving tough. Before giving a 60 day travel visa, Mongolia wanted a letter of invitation issued to us from a tour agent or citizen of Mongolia. Without a letter, it would only give us a 30 day visa, that it said could not be extended. Travel agents in Mongolia were reluctant to go through the trouble of issuing us a letter, preferring instead to simply help us extend the 30 day visa once we got to Ulan Batar. But that meant we’d need to get a 30 day return plane ticket with a reasonable change fee. Figure that one out on Expedia.com with a 0.03 bite per second connection speed, I dare you.

So it was a long, drawn out and frustrating first few days back in the provincial capital of Leh. We’d hit the web cafe after breakfast, taking breaks to make international calls to the Mongolian embassy and travel agents, and finish the whole operation by around dinner. Sure, you’ll say, it’s better than going to the office. And you may be right. But not by much.

By the end of day 4, we were ready to burst. Here we were in the Himalayas, one of our dream destinations, and all we were was tired and pissed off with foreign bureaucracies. With a last burst of organizational energy, we booked a 30 day return ticket (screw it – we’ll fix everything when we get to Mongolia) and headed for Markha Valley Tours to visit our ever-reliable Leh travel agent, Tashi.

It was time to have a little fun again in Leh.

***

“I like Mahakala the best. He really doesn’t seem to take shit from anyone,” I whispered to Janine in the dusty courtyard of Phyang. 20 km from Leh, this little monastery town was putting off its annual festival before a crowd evenly divided between Ladakhis and foreigners. On this, the first day of the two day celebration, monks paraded and danced in peacock-colourful robes and elaborate masks depicting the visages of the tantric Buddhist gods. Displaying swords, banners and reproductions of sacred relics, the deities acted out stories and themes that have been circulating in these mountains for centuries, while their colleagues tapped drums and sang throatily in the background. I had come to especially like Mahakala, the multi-armed, skull-crowned protector of the dharma; for all his fierceness and frightening aspects a force for good and an ass-kicker of those who need to be ass-kicked. Everytime he came out over the course of the day long ritual, I elbowed Janine excitedly and perked up a bit like a little kid watching his favourite part in a movie, looking forward to Mahakala doing something suitably action-heroesque.

But mostly he just danced.

Monks dance in spectacular costumes during the festival at Phyang Monastery, Ladakh.

Seated on the sun-baked ground around us, Ladakhis watched politely, munching potato chips, nursing babies and twirling prayer beads. Some were dressed in the traditional fabrics and styles of their ancestors. Others sported knock off Calvin Kleins and t-shirts of U.S. football teams. Monks all ages circulated among the crowd, exchanging pleasantries, picking up items that had fallen off the dancers’ costumes during the dances. Two young boy monks played the part of monkeys for one of the dances, doing cartwheels among the twirling gods until they got too dizzy and started falling on their behinds. Another small boy, dressed in the maroon and gold robes of the monastery, blew bubbles with his chewing gum in between performances on a large horn. The hours flew by, despite the intense heat and the dust. As the sun made its passage over the courtyard, the audience moved with it, following the shade. The only truly annoying thing was our fellow tourists, who treated the spectating Ladakhis like zoo animals, shooting photos of them incessantly and without permission. I thought about how I’d feel if I were strolling about at the St. John’s Regatta and some camera toter came up to me and started shooting right in my face. It upset me.

Beside us, an elderly Ladakhi lady, dressed in traditional garb, had fallen asleep sitting up. An Israeli woman smiled delightedly, walked over to the dozing woman, crouched down right before her face and shot a pic within a few inches of the woman’s nose. Noticing me staring at her rudeness, she looked at me and smiled obliviously. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m not taking a picture of you.”

“Why not?” I thought.

***

“Grab the rope!” our guide yelled frantically, dropping to the floor of the raft and grasping the nylon cord that bordered its rim as it, in turn, dropped 4 feet down into a churning recirculating wave on the Zanskar River.

I thought I’d misheard him. Kayaks flip, canoes roll over all the time. But those huge rubber inflatable rafts don’t capsize; even in the big waves. Right? When our Nepali guide had shown us the rope grabbing maneuver on shore, before we’d set off on our one day thrill ride down the Zanskar, I’d assumed that it was similar to the stewardesses on the plane showing you what to do in the case of an “emergency landing.” The information was essentially useless and the chances of needing it were extremely remote. Far better to simply prepare yourself mentally for the messy death that was obviously coming.

But when I looked back, there was the guide, white knuckled on the floor, together with Janine and the 6 Israeli kids we were sharing the raft with. Just as I joined them (with a dazed expression on my face that clearly said “Are you shitting me?”), we hit the big wave, whirled sideways and tipped savagely upwards at a 35 degree angle as a cascade of glacial water rushed over us. I wanted to scream like everyone else. But the water was so cold I was instead left gaping, soaked and silent – kind of like those people in the Batman comics that get frozen by Mr. Freeze’s cold-ray – as we exited the rapid an instant later, shakily returning to our rowing positions on the edge of the raft. Janine, who had wisely hauled on a nylon jacket before starting downstream, had already shed most of the water and was laughing contentedly.

I, who am unwise, dripped.

The petite young Israeli girl sitting behind Janine summed it up best, her mascara dripping, dark curls plastered around her face. “F-f-f-fuck!”

“Does that happen very often?” I asked our guide, regaining my powers of speech and wondering how my testicles had managed to crawl so far up my bodily cavity so quickly.

“Yes. Sometimes. Not very much,” he said helpfully, digging his long paddle into the silty grey water and performing a powerful draw to face the raft downstream once again. Apparently, his first answer had been the most accurate. Later that day, we talked with another team of rafters who had actually capsized near the same place. Unlike us, they’d been given wetsuits by their rafting company. But they’d still been quite shaken by the experience.

Still, it was a blast. For three hours, we zipped down the river, shooting water that would have been suicide in a canoe and enjoying the orange, red, purple and brown peaks of the Zanskar mountains that surrounded the river. The Israelis told jokes and sang songs in Hebrew, shakily smoked joints during breaks on the river bank and generally enjoyed the fact that they were young, alive and no longer in the Israeli army. How could you blame them? Always a few dozen meters ahead of our raft, our safety kayaker kept an eye on our progress, playing and bobbing in the huge rollers with the ease of dolphin. Janine and I savoured the views, discussed the technicalities of the rapids and generally agreed that this whole thing would be a rather nice contrast to the monastery tour we had planned for the next day.

That is of course, if we lived through today.

Rounding a tight bend in the river, we saw another massive wave rear up in front of us. Our guide yelled a command, but one side of the boat completely flubbed it and we spun like a drunk right into the teeth of a roaring souse hole at the worst possible moment.

“GRAB THE ROPE!” our guide yelled.

“ARE YOU SHITTING ME?!” I yelled back at him as I held on for dear life. I could hear Janine laughing again.

Fondling my jugs, in happier, drier times.

***

The snaking, single-lane roads of Ladakh are marvels of engineering. Conquering 5000+ meter passes is routine, skirting razor edged cliffs fronting churning mountain rivers is commonplace. But they are not for the faint hearted or the unskilled driver. We were reminded of this forcefully as we left Leh on our monastery tour, driven by our skilled chauffeur, Tenzin. Fifteen minutes outside of town, at a blind bend in the road we passed the freshly crumpled wrecks of two trucks that had collided, head-on. A policeman walked among the wreckage taking notes.

“Oh, that’s blood,” I said queasily, looking at the ooze dripping from the shattered glass of one door. Whoever, had been in that vehicle had not walked away. “I hate seeing these,” Janine whispered. She’d been in a bad car accident as a child and the memories hadn’t faded gracefully. We reminded Tenzin of our favourite Ladakhi road sign, “Safety on the road, means safe tea at home”, and drove on, subdued.

In retrospect, it wasn’t an entirely inappropriate start to a day that was mostly about Tibetan Buddhism, a religion that tackles head on the issues of life, death and suffering. With our limited understanding of the faith, we couldn’t claim any great insights into these matters. But as we wandered the chorten-topped hills above Lamayuru monastery, stared in awe at the mandalas and giant sculptures in the atmospheric temples of Alchi and contemplated the serene smile of the mammoth gold statue of the Buddha of Likir, we at least started to feel some of the peace of mind possessed by the Ladakhi practitioners of this rich religious tradition.

***

“Don’t eat too many of those,” Tenzin said, looking back at us over his shoulder as he drove, smiling. “Diarrhea.”

We stopped, mid-mouthful and looked at each other warily over our pile of Ladakhi apricots. It was high season for these miniature juicy marvels and we’d gone a little crazy. Earlier in the morning, we’d stopped for our first sample near a roadside tree and had gotten completely hooked. At lunch, we’d stripped most of the low-lying fruit from the branches of our restaurant’s tree, much to the bemusement of our waiter, who I left a suitably guilty tip. On our way to Likir monastery, we’d passed a group of hitch hiking monks and offered them a ride home. They were taking back a huge crate of apricots (I swear this had nothing to do with our stopping to pick them up – we were just trying to get a little further ahead for our next reincarnation on the wheel of life). Guess how they insisted on repaying us? Finally, on the way home, we’d driven past an adorable little Ladakhi girl on the side of the road selling apricots in a used soup tin. It was like buying Girl Guide cookies with all the cuteness and none of the guilt.

By the time of Tenzin’s warning, Janine and I had a blood-apricot level that was off the charts and our Tilley hats were filled with the pits, stains and uneaten little globes of fruit’s equivalent to crack cocaine.

Damn you, Cute Little Apricot Girl!

“Well…” Janine mused, “I guess this is one of the reasons we sprung for a hotel room with an en suite bathroom.”

I thought on this and looked forward to the long evening that undoubtedly lay ahead of us. “We could give some away,” I said tentatively.

Janine’s eyes flared for a moment, rather like Bilbo when he tries to take the Ring back from Frodo. Then she softened. “Yes,” she said. “Or…. we could just not eat anymore apricots today.”

“Yes!” I agreed hastily, my body already craving another apricot. “By tomorrow, our stomachs will surely be adapted to them!”

We sat in silence for a little while, the mountains of Ladakh whirring by us on the highway, golden in the fading sunlight.

We each ate another 8 apricots before getting back to Leh.

“Maybe we’ll give a few away,” Janine said quietly as we exited our jeep. I nodded sagely.

Meeting a monk at the store across from our tour agent’s place, I offered him some fruit. He smiled happily as he picked an apricot from my hat. “Do you mind if I take two?” he said hopefully.

“Sure, take half a dozen if you like!” I replied, excited by the prospect of both diminishing our laxative stores and getting more good karma for helping monks twice in one day.

“Oh no,” the monk said demurely, patting his stomach. “I don’t want to get diarrhea.”

***

“Thank you for coming,” said Tashi, draping the white Kata over our necks.

I’m sure there are lots of nice tour operators in Leh. But how many of them are the kind of people who will invite you to their homes for a formal dinner and treat you like dear friends during your stay? Tashi Gonbo of Markha Valley Tours is such a man. We’d booked our Markha Valley/Karnak tour through him after interviewing many other agents and hadn’t bothered dealing with anyone else since. A soft-spoken man gifted with a near-constant smile, Tashi had made every one of our trips with him a care-free pleasure and had taken a truly miniscule profit to boot. It was such a pleasure dealing with him that we’d gotten into the habit of simply popping by his office for a cup of tea during our days in town. Now, as our time with him and in Leh neared its close, he invited us, along with a few other clients, to his house for a meal.

As we sat in his tidy living room/eating area with an amiable small group of Dutch hikers and an American professor, Tashi’s wife poured salt and butter tea and served a beautiful traditional Ladakhi meal of mutton dumplings (“momos”), stew (“skiu”), and fresh vegetables. Tashi, though a non-drinker himself, uncapped bottle after bottle of Ladakhi beer and entertained us with stories of his days as a herder, kitchen boy, trekking guide and ultimately, business owner in the busily-expanding capital of Leh. In between tales, the family’s new puppy, a fuzzy bundle of fury named Tommi, attacked our mutton-greased hands with playful abandon. Janine played with him until the blood started to drip freely from several nips on her hands.

When we finally could eat and drink no more, Tashi disappeared for a minute and then reappeared with a bundle of white silk scarves called katas. An auspicious symbol, the kata is a blessing to the start of any enterprise or relationship and indicates the good intentions of the person offering it. As we bowed our heads and accepted Tashi’s draping of the katas over our necks, we were all deeply touched by this simple but beautiful act of Ladakhi hospitality.

“What a beautiful way to end our time with Tashi,” Janine said in the car on the drive back to the hotel.

“Worth the rabies?” I said with a smile, looking down at her hand.

“Totally worth the rabies,” she laughed.

Tashi Gondo. Quite simply, the nicest guy in Leh. And a hell of a figure skater.

***

Ladakh had more than lived up to expectations. Like many of our favourite places, it had surprised us by being much more than we’d thought. We’d come for the mountains. But we’d been equally if not more enthralled by the people and the culture. It had been a long sojourn. Long enough to make friends and feel the lovely sad pain of parting. We’d miss the stunning vistas, the delicious Kashmiri, Indian and Ladakhi food, the smiling “julays!” of the locals, the deep, immortal calm of the holy places. Mongolia was calling. But we’d miss Ladakh.

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

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