Friday, December 06, 2002

I have departed Almora, a fine small town high in the hills, an excellent destination for those planning your own trip. I think it's safe to say that I'm happy not to be living there this winter, nontheless, for while it has some nice qualities -- including enclosed sewer systems and an internet cafe -- and a great bazaar featuring plenty of chai stalls and copper smiths, it's elevation made for a couple of butt-freezing nights. On the way back, I took a side trip to the ancient temples of Jageshwar, a small town on a spur road off the main highway between Almora and Pithorogarh (where I am once again). The temple complex, dating back to the 13th century (I think) includes more than 100 temples of many sizes. Most of these are smaller structures containing symbolic linghams, which are worshipped by an application of water and a fair amount of rubbing -- lucky Shiva, methinks. The larger temples are handsome affairs, with room for a few people to gather and make offerings. The stonework includes remarkable carvings of Hindu gods, and though I'm sure it's my American ignorance, I couldn't help but think of the Mayan and Aztec temples of Mexico: Such were the fierce faces and intricate designs on these stone walls. On the backside of the temple complex, there's also a few buildings dedicated to various goddesses -- the Hindu religion has some 300,000 deities -- and overall the site is very serene, alongside a small burbling brook.

I don't know what it looks like at the height of tourist season, sometime in the spring, but judging from the very few urchins who came out of the woodwork to beg coins and try to wend their way into my photos, I would say this was a good time to visit. I sat for a while at an overlooking temple away from the main complex, and there an old man and I enjoyed the sun and had a broken conversation about the monkeys who were coming down from the mountains. They are allowed at the temples, much to the distress of local curs, but folks otherwise don't appear to tolerate monkeys anywhere near their homes. A few birds flitted through the tall pines, and then back up to the main highway I made my way, enjoying the quietude, gently berating myself for making offerings that obviously went straight into the pocket of the fellows "maintaining" the temples as opposed to keeping my money tight in my pocket. Just the same, we're only talking about 75 cents!

Back at the main road, in the tiny hamlet of Artola, I was surprised at the paucity of jeeps, then assured a bus would be along soon. Then told I had missed the last bus. Then told I had only a 10 percent chance of catching a jeep. Meanwhile, a full Indian Army regiment roared through this small burg, really a blink of a crossroads, including several troop busses, supply trucks and military jeeps, not to mention "public carriers" (Indian trucks) bearing big "Army business" signs in their windshields and kicking up major dust on their way through. "So," I think, "that's the hold up." Then it dawned on me, I had counted about 40 vehicles; 10 percent was beginning to look optimistic. The troops, it turns out, were on their way back to Dharchula -- my HOME too -- from the Pakistan border, where tensions are now easing. This gave me small hope, but of course the Indian Army is no different than any other when it comes to allowing civilians, especially shaggy foreigners, to join them on military business.

Lo and behold, after a couple of hours hitching, a shared jeep finally appeared and I jumped aboard. Soon we had the misfortune to catch the Army caravan, and spent near three hours swallowing deisel fumes and road dust as we snaked around any number of trucks in our race to Pithorogarh by dark -- a target we didn't make, finishing the ride in blackness. Now, I'm headed back to catch up with C in Dharchula, where we'll be for a couple more weeks before coming back for the holidays in Delhi/Rajasthan.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Until 1814 or so, Kumaon -- the area where we have been living, note the corrected spelling -- was considered Nepal. But as the English crown sought to impress its might on the subcontinent, the Europeans fought the fierce Nepali Gurkha forces to a standstill in the Middle Himalayas, which form a gateway to the highest mountains in the world. I know only a little about the Gurkhas, but my brother brought me a deadly Gurkha knife some years ago after his travels to this part of the world. Judging from the steely blade and the region's topography, it's safe to say they must have been damn tough warriors. The boundary line of the Kali River, which rushes by the lodge in the town of Dharchula, where more specifically we have been staying, was established after the Brits had already marched on Kathmandu. In other words, the UK was winning the war, but dared not continue the battle in the mountains.

For close to two centuries, still, Kumaon continued to enjoy a sort of local autonomy as the traders of southern India came north to mix with the Nepali people to the East and the Sino-Tibetan traders to the North. The fact is that Dharchula sits in a valley that is one of the shortest tracks to Tibet from central India. From nearby mountains, we have seen the mountain passes leading to China, and also well into Nepal and the famed Anna Purna range, which features the third-highest mountain in the world. This strategic location brought additional complications: About 20 years after India won its Independence, the brief 1962 war with China prompted the government to close our corner of Kumaon to all travel.

For close to 30 years, Dharchula was off limits to all foreign travelers, and even today there is a strong military presence both in this small town and in Pithologarh, some 60-plus km down the road. This geo-political isolation, of course, is one of the reasons that Christina has been able to find a language that is so little documented most Indians have never heard of it. That would be the Darma tongue (not Dharma, which has spiritual implications) spoken by local traders who many thousands of years ago claim to have relocated from Tibet to India. (You can see this heritage in many of their faces.) Our location also means that we are living in a pretty primitive place, where each night we lose power for about 45 minutes as the local authorities switch from one power source to another. For the time being, we have been staying at the local tourist lodge, a government cooperative program that during the summer serves as a stopover for pilgrims making their annual journey to the holy mountains along the Sino-Indian border: This is a region not only rich in political intrigue, but also a spiritual center for the people of all three countries China/Tibet, Nepal and India. In short, Kumaon is said to be the birthplace (and playground) of the Hindu god Shiva.

Our day-to-day existence touches on all this narrowly. The isolation is most obvious in that English appears to still be a novelty around these parts. Christina's Hindi is coming along much better than mine (but she's had some schooling), but as those who know me might well guess, I am beginning to make small jokes, which is better than nothing. Mostly, I am content to order my food and puzzle through the number system. "What's this? What's that?" I am constantly nagging C, who says insists that I am becoming a ''polyglot'' (speaker of many tongues) though I suspect mostly I am picking up Hindi so that I can continue ordering dinner when I have to depart Dharchula, as I did yesterday for a look around and some better communication options. Meanwhile, C is up in Dharchula, visiting with folks who for all intents and purposes were cut off from the Western world for some 30 years.

More sights and sounds to follow when the system comes back to work....