Sunday, May 19, 2013


Leysin, Switzerland, May 19, 2013

Our tiny piece of paradise, Makunudu
It’s a snowy mid-May morning here in the Alps, so it’s a good time to catch up on my shamefully neglected travel blog.  With a trip to Iceland coming up next month, and a student trip to Cyprus before that, I should get the fingers loose and type up a few words about my trip to the Maldives, my 112th country. 

The view from our cottage of an afternoon storm rolling in.
The swing where we whiled away many enjoyable minutes.

I rarely take package holidays; mass tourism is not really my style, and I think that tour buses, charter flights and cruise liners bring out the worst in human nature.  Having said that, there are certain countries, like Bhutan (see my post from my 2008 trip there) that essentially require you to take a tour in order to enter the country, and the Maldives is one of these.  You can fly to Male independently, but if you want to get out to one of the paradisiacal islands that dot the Indian Ocean, booking a package tour is the only reasonable way to go.  Years ago, while backpacking around India in 1997, I looked into booking a holiday deal to the Maldives from Madras or Trivandrum, but it was well beyond my microscopic budget at the time. 

Since then, the Maldives (like pretty much every country on Earth that I haven’t yet visited) has been on my radar.  It’s legendary for its diving, its manta rays, its sybaritic luxury resorts and its outrageous prices.  This March, when, despite a December-mid February ski season of record-breaking snowfall, it seemed as though the Engadin valley wasn’t going to provide Terri and me with great ski touring, we made a snap decision to go to the Maldives.  Although our trip coincided with Easter, a huge holiday season in Europe, we managed to get reasonably inexpensive package deals to a little island named Makunudu through a Swiss holiday outfit called Manta Reisen.  Within a couple of weeks of deciding that we would head for the sun, Terri and I found ourselves getting on an Edelweiss Air direct flight to Male, the capital of the Maldives.

Our first afternoon on Makunudu
The Maldives, a bit like Bhutan, has adopted a model of tourism in which they try to maximize economic benefit to the country from foreign visitors while minimizing the impact of the tourists on the daily life and culture of the country.  While Bhutan has done this by restricting tourist numbers, the Maldives has thrown open the doors to tourists but restricted where they can go inside the country.  The country’s 1192 islands, grouped in 26 oval atolls, are divided into either tourist islands or local islands.  The tourist islands are completely given over to expensive resorts, while the local islands have only local Maldivean inhabitants.  Given the bare flesh and booze of the resorts and the strict Sharia law in force on the local islands, it seems to make sense to keep the two cultures apart.  However, given the long history of repressive government, particularly under the former president Maumoun Abdul Gayoom, it also points to a government keen on maintaining control over the economy and individual citizens.

The colourful crabs that prowled the rocks of the breakwater
We landed in Male a bit bleary-eyed, met our Manta Reisen rep and strolled across the street to the boat jetty where a sleek speedboat awaited.  There were 15 or  so other tourists aboard, all destined for a different island resort owned by the same company as owns Makunudu.  As we sped off across the gentle waters inside North Male atoll, we could see the highrises of the crowded capital city off to our left.  The individual islets of the atoll are so low (the highest point of land in the entire country is only 2.4 metres above sea level) that we didn’t see many islands until we were quite close, giving the strange feeling of speeding off on a small speedboat into the far reaches of the Indian Ocean.  After a stop at Cocoa Island resort, a big hotel bristling with water cottages built directly over the ocean, Terri and I arrived at the tiny island of Makunudu and immediately fell in love.

Friendly hermit crab
Big Bertha of the hermit crab world
Makunudu is a microscopic island, perhaps 150 metres long and 50 metres across at its widest point.  It contains 40 or so bungalows, a restaurant, bar, dive shop and employee housing.  The island is densely forested and is surrounded by a huge expanse of coral reefs.  There is basically nothing to do other than swim, snorkel, scuba dive, eat, sleep, read and watch stunning sunsets.  Hermit crabs trek across the beach, stingrays cruise into the sandy shallow and waterhens prowl the undergrowth.  

The juvenile stingray who cruised right up to the shoreline every day

Since it was such an inactive vacation, it seems as though there is little to describe about our trip, but the underwater action was really quite spectacular.  When we went, Terri, who last dived well over a decade ago, wasn’t sure whether she would dive or not.  As it turned out, she loved diving so much that she did her advanced open water certification, and she and I dived quite a lot.  The coral reefs weren’t as spectacular as they might have been (the Maldives has been prone to lots of coral bleaching as the Indian Ocean water temperatures increase), but the fish life is very healthy.  The shark population seems pretty robust, there are lots of turtles, and we saw manta rays.  

Feeling pretty happy with life on Makunudu

The manta ray encounter, appropriately at Manta Point, was pretty spectacular.  We were making our way along a steeply sloping coral wall, and I was the first to spot the manta sailing serenely into view.  I had seen a manta before, in the Philippines, but this one was in much clearer water and so was much easier to see.  It was huge, a good 2.5 metres across, and he headed directly towards Terri, much to her alarm.  Something that big, even if you know it’s a gentle giant filter feeder, can feel menacing when he’s making a bee-line at you.  He passed perhaps a metre from us and soared effortlessly past us up the slope, his wings flapping lazily but efficiently.   We missed another manta while we were in the water, but snorkelers at the surface saw more than the divers did, with mantas circling just below the surface and breaching from time to time.

We saw plenty of white-tip sharks on most dives, with a few blacktips here and there.  The best shark experience, however, was on a night dive right off the beach in front of the restaurant.  We saw a few sharks here and there as we drifted down to 10 metres, but then our guide had us kneel on the sandy bottom and hide our torchlights against our chests.  After a minute or two we all shone our lights around, and the torch beams lit up a good half-dozen nurse sharks cruising around us in circles, an experience which definitely got our pulses racing.

Terri and her dive instructor Satoko, on the way home from diving

We went diving on a fairly slow local boat, giving us lots of time to absorb the sun and the views from the roof.  One particular coral patch that we passed frequently was a favourite hunting ground for a pod of dolphins, and we saw their dorsal fins bobbing up and down through the surface as they rounded up shoals of fish.  The marine life in general seemed to be in good shape; we didn’t see a lot of fishing going on near the dive sites, and there seems to be a marine reserve in place around a lot of islands.  There were always a few tuna and trevally flashing past in the deep water, and vast clouds of colourful reef fish like red tooth triggerfish.  It was good to get underwater for the first time since my trip to Oman in December, 2011.

Warming up in the sun after a dive
Terri atop our dive boat

Our days above the water floated by delightfully.  I read several books on my Kindle, did yoga, snorkeled, caught up on a few months of grading physics labs, and ate meals of sybaritic luxury.  We had saved a bundle of money by only signing up for half board at the hotel, but the breakfasts were vast spreads that kept us going through the day, aided by a clandestine sandwich that we would sneak out of the restaurant every morning.  The food, like the service and the room cleaning, was remarkably good.  Evening meals would be preceded by sunset cocktails at the western end of the island, and by 10 pm we would be tucked up in bed (usually decorated in clever ways by the man who cleaned our room), ready for another day of relaxation.  It was hard to peel ourselves off the beach and get back on the long flight back to Zurich at the end of the week!

Not a bad seat for a lazy afternoon
Decoration by our room cleaning man
I’m not sure I would go back to the Maldives anytime soon (there are still nearly 100 countries left to explore first), but it was a wonderful, restoring experience with some of the best diving I’ve done.  It's well worth visiting, not just to tick off another country, but also to see some of the best-preserved marine life in the Indian Ocean, and experience some luxurious pampering. It was fascinating from the point of view of natural beauty.   

Night life in the Maldives
Another Makunudu light show

However, on the human front the country’s political future is still unclear, with the reformist former president (jailed and tortured for years for opposing Gayoom) having been removed from office after an army mutiny in 2012 and now under arrest for abuse of office, and the old tyrant Gayoom positioning himself to run for president again.

While we were on Makunudu, we watched a documentary called The Island President, about ex-president Nasheed, his years in jail and his attempt to get the Maldives’ position on climate change and the dangers posed by rising sea levels recognized at the Copenhagen climate change conference.  The optimistic tone of that film contrasts with the political gloom currently enveloping the country.  Given the natural beauty of so much of the Maldives, I can only hope that it manages to steer clear of the political and civic ugliness that has marred so much of its recent history.

The culmination of a week of innovative towel and flower arrangement

In an amusing postscript to our trip, as we were waiting in Male airport, I spotted a bottle of 50-year-old Balvenie’s whisky for sale in the duty free.  It’s faintly ironic that in a country where the inhabitants are prohibited from buying alcohol, they’re selling some of the most expensive whisky on earth.  And who on earth buys a $46,000 bottle of hooch on the spur of the moment in airport duty free?

Yes, you read that price right

Friday, April 5, 2013

By the Numbers

Makunudu, Maldives, March 30, 2013

OK, I admit it.  I’m a terrible blogger, completely devoid of the tenacity required to keep up with regular posts.  In fact, I owe my few faithful readers a number of backdated posts, on Newfoundland (three years ago!), several posts on my last year and a half in Leysin, last summer’s mountaineering in Central Asia, my Christmas swing through Togo and Benin, this trip to the Maldives, and a few assorted posts from here and there.  With my energy somewhat restored by a few days of sloth, diving, good food, snorkeling and general relaxation here in the Maldives, I think it’s time for an update, but I’m going to start with a very brief one.

The Maldives, where Terri and I arrived a few days ago in an almost last-minute decision to flee the dying winter and unpromising ski touring outlook, is the 112th country I have visited in my life, not counting my home country of Canada.  Of course, exactly what constitutes a country is a bit slippery.  My well-travelled friend Natalya Marquand holds that the only objective list is the 193 permanent members of the UN.  Others hold that these countries, plus the non-UN-member Vatican City, make up the 194 canonical countries of the world.  I think the reality is a bit slippier.  When I visited Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia, despite the fact that these countries aren’t universally recognized, I had to get a visa to visit them and cross at a border post manned by people in uniform who stamped my passport.  Somaliland not only has its own consulates and border guards, it even has its own currency.  And, to take an extreme example, anyone who claims that Taiwan isn’t effectively an independent country isn’t really recognizing what’s been de facto the case since 1949.

So my list of independent countries is a bit bigger than 194.  It’s about 204 countries; the number may fluctuate a bit, and it doesn’t include three countries (Western Sahara, Palestine and Tibet) with pretty legitimate cases but without their own border guards.  One of the many lists of countries on Wikipedia lists 206 entries that either are recognized by at least one other state as being independent, or effectively control a permanently populated territory, but they include Western Sahara and Palestine which are at the moment illusory pipe dreams, to the distress of the people who inhabit them.

Anyway, without further preamble, here’s my list of the countries I have visited, arranged according to the date I first visited them.  The non-UN/Vatican members of the list are coloured red; there are eight of them, so if you’re counting by the UN+Vatican list, it’s 104 (out of 194).  I would make it 112 out of 204.  Whichever way you count it, I’m now over half-way to my goal of visiting them all, and my to-visit list is now down into double digits.   

1. US

2.  France
3.  Switzerland
4.  Liechtenstein
5.  Germany
6.  Netherlands

7.  Tanzania

8.  Norway
9.  Italy

10.  UK
11. Vatican
12.  Greece
13.  Hungary
14.  Austria
15.  Czech Republic (Prague, then part of the now-defunct Czechoslovakia)

16.  Belgium
17.  Monaco
18.  Poland

19.  Australia
20.  New Zealand
21.   Fiji
22.  Cook Islands

23.  Egypt
24.  Turkey

25.  Spain
26.  Kenya
27.  Uganda
28.  Democratic Republic of Congo
29.  Japan
30.  Singapore
31.  Indonesia

32.  Philippines
33.  Malaysia
34.  Thailand
35.  Cambodia
36.  Nepal

37.  India
38.  Sri Lanka
39.  Pakistan
40.  Luxembourg
41.  San Marino
42.  Andorra

43.  China
44.  Portugal
45.  Morocco
46.  Tunisia
47.  Jordan

48.  Israel
49.  Syria
50.  Lebanon
51.  Chile
52.  Argentina
53.  Peru

54.  Bolivia
55.  South Korea

56.  Mexico
57.  Brunei
58.  Laos
59.  Taiwan

60.  Kazakhstan
61.  Kyrgyzstan
62.  Tajikistan
63.  Uzbekistan
64.  Turkmenistan
65.  Iran
66.  Bahrain

67.  Vietnam
68.  Burma

69.  Mongolia
70.  Palau
71.  Bangladesh

72.  Bhutan
73.  Cyprus
74.  Northern Cyprus

75.  Kuwait
76.  Azerbaijan
77.  Georgia
78.  Armenia
79.  Nagorno-Karabakh
80.  Iraq
81.  Bulgaria
82.  Serbia
83.  Kosovo
84.  Macedonia
85.  Albania
86.  Montenegro
87.  Bosnia-Hercegovina
88.  Croatia
89.  Libya
90.  Malta

91.  Ethiopia
92.  Somaliland
93.  Djibouti

94.  Denmark
95.  Abkhazia
96.  Russia
97.  Ukraine
98.  Trans-Dniestria
99.  Moldova
100. Romania
101.  Slovakia
102.  Belarus
103.  Lithuania
104.  Latvia
105.  Estonia
106.  United Arab Emirates
107.  Oman
108.  Qatar

109.  Slovenia
110.  Togo
111.  Benin

112.  Maldives

The next country in line is Iceland, set up for this summer.  I’m hoping to clean up my European to-do list over the next 18 months:  Ireland, Sweden, Finland and (I hope) South Ossetia.  Then Madagascar awaits a long, leisurely exploration, and my long-awaited African road trip should polish off almost all the outstanding African countries and take me into the 150s.  A couple of more trips, through Central America and northern South America, and another one through the Caribbean, would finish a lot of the remainder.  Then comes the hardest part:  finishing off the stragglers, many of them either dangerous (Afghanistan), expensive and annoying (North Korea) or hard to get to (Pacific islands).  But what would be the fun if it were too easy?

Monday, July 2, 2012

A valley and Two Lakes

July 2, 2012, Delhi

It’s 40-something degrees in Delhi, and the roads are the usual chaos of vehicle fumes, rickshaws, pedestrians, hawkers, beggars and dust. I’m so glad that I’ve only had to spend a day and a half here, in the air-conditioned oasis of the Hairy Porko Hotel in the tourist slum known as Paharganj. After loafing around in the hotel almost all of yesterday, Terri and I dragged ourselves out of the hotel to head to Humayun’s Tomb today, the red-stone prototype for the Taj Mahal. It was beautiful and impressive, but the hammer-like impact of the sun detracted somewhat from the experience. We took the metro and then walked for rather longer than we had anticipated through the affluent neighbourhoods of South Delhi. Walking through Delhi shows the crazy geographic proximity of extreme wealth and abject, miserable poverty. We wandered by the very posh Delhi Public School, which is right next to a huge garbage dump inhabited by hundreds of “sweepers”, the hereditary caste that disposes of other people’s garbage and who live very, very close to their place of work . Some of the quieter residential streets reminded me of Rangoon’s posher neighbourhoods, although with much more litter strewn everywhere. Between the crowds, the pollution, the insane summer heat, the traffic, the interpersonal hassles, the touts, the rubbish, the smell of urine and feces everywhere and the general chaos, I don’t think you could pay me enough money to make me live in Delhi.

Luckily, most of this past month was spent, not in Smelly Delhi but in Lovely Ladakh, doing two beautiful treks and loving every minute of both of them. After a slow, frustrating start, in which we had to abandon not one but two previous plans, we finally got going on the trail three days after our anticipated date, on June 13. Our original plan, a 19-day trek along little-travelled trails from Hemis to Darcha, was impossible to find horsemen for. Plan B, the long-established standard Lamayuru-Darcha trek, suffered the same problem. Horse owners, and even the local donkey-owners of Lamayuru, were reluctant to set off before the Lamayuru Festival, and showed an amazing lack of will to make money by renting out their animals. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this sort of reluctance in any other mountain area in the world. Very strange and very frustrating.

In the end, we decided to do two shorter treks. We started off with the most popular trek in Ladakh, the Markha Valley trek, for a week. Then, after a turn-around day in Leh, we went for 8 days along a higher, wilder, more remote trek from Rumtse to Tso Kar and on to Tso Moriri, two of the high-altitude salt lakes that dot the southeast corner of Ladakh where it merges into the endless plateau of Western Tibet. Both treks greatly exceeded our expectations and left us impressed and often awe-struck at the endless vistas, surrealist colours and sheer natural beauty of this stark, rocky landscape.

Our naught grey mare rolling in relief once Tundup had released her from her load
Our little wind and snow-proof summer home (note the welcome mat!)
The Markha Valley trek was great fun, particularly as there were only a handful of other trekkers doing it in mid-June. Later in the season, it must become unpleasantly crowded in the campgrounds, but we were alone in most of campsites throughout the trek. We drove across the Indus from Leh to the starting point in Zingchen, met Tundup our trusty pony-wallah and set off mid-morning. We had been warned that Tundup might not speak a word of English, so I had brought along my guide-book Ladakhi phrases, but he turned out to speak quite good English, so communication was never an issue. The owner of the horses had insisted, in order to weasel more money from us, that we take no fewer than 4 horses, when 3 or even 2 would have sufficed. Our horses had personality, especially the grey mare who had a terrible attitude and managed to kick most of the other three horses, while kicking and missing at Tundup and myself. The big black mare needed to be in front, while the white gelding was the solid workhorse of the lot, and the little black gelding needed to be led along by Tundup, when he or Terri wasn’t riding it.
One of the many marmots we saw on the Ganda La

The Markha Valley trek is a wonderfully diverse cross-section of the rugged Zanskar Mountains that run south of the Indus. We spent a couple of days climbing up and over the 4950-metre Ganda La pass, past dozens of completely fearless marmots. Despite having been at 3600 metres for five days at this point, both Terri and I found ourselves gasping and out of breath atop the pass, having slept very poorly at 4350 metres the night before, both sure signs of lack of acclimatization. Mercifully, we dropped down over the pass to a lovely campsite at Shingo at 4150 metres, and slept much better this time around. We continued down the valley to join the actual Markha Valley at Skiu the next day at 3300 metres, at which altitude it was distinctly hot, dry and dusty. The Markha Valley is dotted with irrigated green oases that contrast beautifully with the red rock of the gorge walls. There are picturesquely situated gompas (monasteries) and chortens (Buddhist stupas) perched precariously here and there, while in the distance high snowy peaks play peek-a-boo with us along side valleys.

Hangkar Fort
After camping in an idyllic isolated meadow called Hamourja, we continued to wend our way along the valley floor to the village of Markha, where we camped beside the river and endured some serious winds that knocked down Tundup’s precarious parachute tent, breaking its central pole. For the rest of the two treks, his tent kept getting shorter and less stable as the pole broke again and again. I have a new tent for this summer, a very strong winter tent made by Crux, and it proved its worth again and again by staying virtually motionless in the most howling of Himalayan gusts. Markha is the metropolis of the valley, with at least 50 houses (most of them empty), a telephone office, a medical centre (closed) and a very picturesque gompa. From this point onwards we left the flat, hot valley floor behind and climbed more steeply uphill. We slept in beautiful Tachutse, watching a herd of bharal (blue sleep) play far above us on the skyline, having walked through the wonderfully situated hamlet of Hangkar with its ruined fortress perched, Walt Disney-like, atop a vertiginous crag. The rock faces beside the river grew ever more vertical and sculpted as we gained altitude and looked (to my untrained eye) like a fantastic place for serious rock climbers to come and explore.
Kang Yatse rising above Nyimaling

Heading up to the Kongmaru La

The impressive striped gorges leading down to Shang Sumdo

From Tachutse, we started to climb in earnest up to the high-altitude pastures of Nyimaling, where we put up our tent and then walked up to the snowline on the impressive glaciated peak of Kang Yatse (6400 metres) which had dominated our views for the previous two days. It’s a very pretty peak, with a skiable face on the west and a dramatic cliff separating the main and subsidiary peaks. The landscape had changed entirely, opening up from the confines of the canyon into vast grasslands that were a relief to the eye. We slept comfortably that night at 4850 metres, and trotted over the final 400 vertical metres in an hour and 45 minutes to the top of the 5250-metre Kongmaru La. The views from the top back down the Markha Valley were epic, with endless layers of steep rock faces overlaying each other all the way to the horizon. We paused for breath, cookies and photos, and then trotted down the much steeper northern face of the pass towards the road at Shang Sumdo. The downhill proved to make for very interesting walking, as we descended steeply into a narrow gorge threaded by a path that sometimes seemed more canyoning than walking, with dozens of stream crossings. Terri rode the horse to keep her feet dry, but I put on my Teva sandals and got wet. We finally emerged onto a new jeep road, had a bite to eat and drink, and were whisked off by jeep back to the sybaritic comforts of Leh: big, soft beds, mango lassis, tandoori chicken and morning pancakes.
Dining well on the trail!  Check out those professional-looking chapatis!
Not that we didn’t eat well on the trail, mind you. We cooked for ourselves, and with the horses there to carry extra weight, we bought a pressure cooker and a chapati skillet and spent many a happy afternoon creating great meals: curried lentils, stews with dumplings, pancakes, omelettes, soups, cups of bouillon, chapattis and much more. We brought along lots of potatoes, onions, carrots, flour, eggs and other heavy, bulky items that, had we been carrying everything on our own backs, we would not have brought. It certainly makes a difference living off delicious real food, rather than instant noodles and dehydrated meals as has been the case in the past. We even brought along a bottle of duty-free Glenfiddich and made a point of having a wee dram (or as they call it in India, a peg; or, thanks to Terri’s Kiwi accent, a “pig” or a “piglet”) in the late afternoon. We tended to go to bed very full of great food, and to have great breakfasts of oatmeal or eggs or pancakes to start the day. Since we had bought food originally for 20 days of trekking, we had ample quantities (or, in the case of oatmeal, grossly over-ample quantities) of most things, and we seemed to eat until we were ready to explode. The strange thing is that, despite the fact that we usually only walked 4 or 5 hours a day, not carrying heavy luggage, and that we ate gluttonously, we seemed to lose weight quite quickly. Altitude, even though we were well acclimatized by the end of the Markha trek, is hard on a metabolism, and produces dramatic weight loss, both of belly fat (good) and of leg muscle (not so very good). I expect to look very skeletal by the end of the summer’s mountaineering!

Argali near Tso Kar

Kiang near the last pass
Our second trek turned out, by coincidence, to be with Tundup and the same horses. This time, for a change of scenery, we opted for a more high-altitude wide-open landscape. Seven years ago, when my sisters and I bicycled through Ladakh, we always regretted that we did not make it to the lovely lakes of Tso Kar and Tso Moriri, so Terri and I decided to put this regret behind. We caught a lift up to the village of Rumtse, met up with Tundup and the four horses, strapped on the luggage (now carried in two nifty tin trunks that Terri bought in order to reduce the chaos involved in packing our food and cooking gear in burlap sacks), and set off uphill. Rumtse, at 4150 metres, is by far the lowest point on the trek, which traverses a series of 5000+ metre passes on its way to the lakes. By now we felt much better at altitude, and walked easily uphill towards the first pass. The second day of the trek we crossed two big passes (5150 and 5230 metres), and I definitely felt the thin air on the second ascent, although I slept well at 5050 metres that night. On the third day, we crossed a third pass at 5300 metres, and then descended towards the beautiful blue patch of Tso Kar lake. On the way down, we scared up a large herd of argali (bighorn sheep) and watched how effortlessly they bounded uphill away from us. Terri watched them thinking “I bet they’d make great eating!”, as her carnivorous instincts overcame her vegetarian trekking diet. As we descended, Tundup told us that we would see “zebras”, and this puzzled us until we saw the first one, and realized that he meant the kiang, or Tibetan wild ass, an equid that bears a striking resemblance, other than colouring, to a zebra. We spent most of the rest of the trek admiring kiang and trying to take pictures of them, difficult as they tended to keep a lot of distance between them and us. 

Newborn foal and mother near Tso Kar
At Tso Kar we celebrated Terri’s birthday by visiting a nearby tourist camp and having a slap-up dinner of Italian food. The next day, as we trudged across the endless windswept plains around Tso Kar, I realized that I had eaten something that disagreed with me, and spent the next 24 hours feeling very sorry for myself, and not appreciating the tremendous views across the plains to the salty shores of the lake and to the high, snowy peaks beyond. We did see lots of kiang, a herd of argali and what Tundup thought was a wolf (it was difficult to see as it was far away and moving quickly). The next day I was better, and thoroughly enjoyed the last 4 days of the trek as we barely saw another human being while walking through endless high-altitude meadows full of horned larks, Tibetan snowfinches, robin accentors, kiang, marmots, pikas and voles. Every valley seemed to present prettier vistas than the last one, and the final pass, at 5450 metres the highest point of the trek, was fantastic, a huge open bowl ringed by 6000-metre peaks on one side, and a steep descent to the vast azure expanse of Tso Moriri on the other.

Contemplating eternity on the shore of Tso Moriri
It was a shock to the system to emerge from this Alpine idyll into the dismal end-of-the-road dump that is Korzog, the only settlement of any size on the shores of Tso Moriri. We gave our tins, cooking pots and leftover food to Tundup in gratitude for his stalwart service over the past two and a half weeks, checked into a tourist camp, bathed and slept and ate disappointingly, and then walked out of town along the shores of the lake to a secluded shaley beach that provided amazing views across the impossible blue of the lake to the riot of pastel colours that made up the opposite shore. We sat there, sketching and writing and trying to absorb the beauty and sublime setting, conscious that our trekking days had come to an end.

The jeep ride back to Leh, like all experiences in a vehicle in India, was more to be survived than enjoyed, although we figured out where all the nomads of southeastern Ladakh were while we were trekking through empty grasslands. They were grazing their flocks along the jeep road, looking very picturesque as they moved camp, yaks carrying their tents, hundreds of sheep grazing along slowly, and the nomad families themselves riding their horses. We dropped eventually down to the Indus and drove recklessly and dangerously along the road back to Leh. A day of complete sloth in Leh, and it was time for a flight here to the hellfires of a Delhi summer.

The view across Tso Moriri
Overall, the month in India has been a tremendous experience, for my seeing new areas (Lamayuru, Markha and Tso Moriri were all new places for me), acclimatizing for Peak Lenin and Muztagh Ata (my primary objectives for the rest of the summer) and for spending wonderfully fun, companionable time in nature with Terri, seeing wonderful animals and birds, eating well and getting into shape after the laziness and middle-aged spread of this past school year. I don’t know when or if I’ll be back to India again, but if this is adieu, it’s been a great send-off.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Back on the Roof of the World

Leh, Tuesday June 12

Up at the Shanti Stupa overlooking Leh
I am back in Leh, the capital of the northernmost bit of India (Ladakh) for the first time in 7 years.  In 2005 my sisters and I cycled from Manali to Leh, around a few of the scenic bits of Ladakh and then out to Srinagar.  This time I'm here with Terri, hiking instead of biking.

Or, rather, trying to hike.  We've been here in Ladakh for 4 days trying to arrange some long-distance treks back across the Himalayas, but until today, we've had no luck.  But let's start at the beginning of the story.

Another year of teaching came to a halt just over a week ago, and I left for Geneva airport the morning after our staff end-of-year dinner, having been up most of the night packing up my apartment for the summer.  I headed to the airport laden down with my backpack, full of hiking gear, and my ski bag, full of mountaineering gear for the second part of the summer vacation.  A long flight to Delhi, a long nap, and I was ready to face India for the fourth time.  Delhi was its usual steaming, polluted self, but I found a decent hotel in the tourist slum of Paharganj (the inelegantly named Hari Piorko, hereafter known as the Hairy Porko), with quiet rooms, comfy beds and (best of all) an aquarium set into the wall of every room.

A shikara on Nageen Lake, Srinagar
Terri and I being paddled across the lake on a shikara

Terri flew in from Bali that evening, and the next morning found us at Delhi airport again, boarding a Kingfisher Airlines flight for Srinagar.  It seems ironic that on an airplane owned by a brewery, they don't serve alcohol.  We flew through heavy pre-monsoon turbulence and landed in a howling gale.  I managed to find our way back to the same part of Nageen Lake that Audie, Saakje and I stayed on in 2005, and we settled in for 2 wonderfully relaxing nights on a houseboat.  It was easy to sit at the stern, reading or sketching the elegant shikara boats being paddled by, watching kingfishers and moorhens on the water, and gazing across the lake to the old Mughal fort topping a nearby hill.

A 2000-year-old Kushan Buddha near Mulbekh
All good things must come to an end, and our brief stay in Srinagar was followed by a 2-day marathon of discomfort as we bumped and ground our way to Leh in a hideously uncomfortable jeep.  The weather was poor, with rain on the Zoji La (the pass across the actual Himalaya range) and clouds and showers the rest of the way.  The Indian government is pouring lots of effort and money into paving the entire Srinagar-Leh road, but so far the main effects have been a lot of piles of sand and rock being pushed around lethargically by emaciated Bihari road workers, inbetween bouts of staring vacantly into the middle distance.  The road is full of diesel-belching trucks as it was in 2005, but a new feature is the hordes of middle-class Indian tourists from the plains riding the road on motorcycles.  It was nice to stop off and see the ancient Kushan-era Buddha carved into a rock face at Mulbekh, but the best part of the trip was the fact that it finally ended in Leh.  It was far more fun, stimulating, engaging and comfortable to cycle this road than to bounce along its potholes in a vehicle.  

Stok Kangri, the tallest peak near Leh; I climbed it in 2005                                           The Zanskar Range seen from Leh
It was strange to be back in Leh, having spent quite a lot of time there in 2005.  Most of the restaurants and guesthouses are the same, but it's taken me a few days to dig my memories of them out of the archives.  The setting of Leh is stunning, and looks more impressive this year since it's earlier in the summer, resulting in much, much more snow on the surrounding mountains.  Leh sits above the north bank of the Indus, with 5700-metre mountains to the north (the Ladakh Range) and 6000-metre mountains to the south (the Zanskar Range).  On a clear day (and there have been few of those so far), the views from a high vantage point like the Shanti Stupa are stunning.  

Terri spinning the prayer wheels at Lamayuru Monastery
The reason for this trip back to Ladakh is to do some trekking; in 2005 there wasn't much opportunity for that, as we had the bicycles, so we thought that this year we'd be free and easy and would walk all the way back nearly to Manali.  Little did we reckon on how difficult it would be to find horsemen and donkeymen willing to rent out their animals' services to carry our food.  We have had to abandon our ambitious initial trek (from Hemis to Darcha), and even the old fall-back from Lamayuru to Darcha foundered because there were no equids to be had in Lamayuru.  Lamayuru itself is a pleasant enough village, with a wonderful monastery and lovely surroundings, but it was frustrating not to have any luck in finding four-legged transport.  
A chukar partridge; the hillsides teem with them

We've finally pared down our ambitions to a tame 8-day walk up the Markha Valley, and have convinced a horseman to rent us no fewer than 4 horses (!) to carry our gear for us.  We leave tomorrow, and not a day too soon; 4 days of kicking our heels here in Leh and in lovely Lamayuru was too long!

So off we go tomorrow, hoping for less rain and snow, and for the passes to be clear of snow.  I'll keep you posted on developments!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

An Urban Odyssey through the UAE

Dubai, December 22, 2011

I am typing this while lying beside a rooftop pool atop a high-rise luxury apartment building in Business Bay, Dubai. All around me are the improbably shaped architectural fantasies that make up modern Dubai, and in front of me, glinting silver in the sun, is the fantastic needle of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower. Below me I can hear 14 lanes of traffic roaring along the Sheikh Zayed road, and the omnipresent sound of construction cranes and pneumatic drills that are building this year’s crop of skyscrapers.

I am not much of an urbanite. I have enjoyed living in big cities for short stretches of time (a summer in London, an autumn in Budapest, a winter in Toronto, a month in Barcelona, a few months in Cairo, two years in Boston, three years in Yangon), but much of the best living I have done has happened in smaller cities or towns. I am really enjoying living in tiny Leysin now because of the wonderful outdoor activity that I can do right outside my front door. When I’m travelling, a lot of what I most enjoy is the spaces between cities, especially if I’m on my bicycle. However, much of what is most distinctive and dynamic about different countries around the world is to be found in cities, and so sometimes I have to step out of my element and into huge urban conglomerations.

This Christmas vacation, I’m spending the first half of my break doing exactly that. I flew to Abu Dhabi a few days ago, leaving behind an epic winter storm that made me wish I was sticking around to ski. I had never been to the UAE, Oman or Qatar, and that was reason enough to want to come here. The fact that several of my friends from various parts of the world have gravitated here provided motivation to make the trip this year. And so for the past few days, I have found myself in two of the most highly urbanized hypermodern cities of the world, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

When I told people that I was coming to the UAE, a frequent response was “What are YOU going to do there? You don’t even LIKE shopping!" And indeed much of the face of the UAE’s megacities consist of gargantuan shopping malls. But there are things to see that are fascinating, if not soul-satisfying, and they’re not all malls.

I’m staying here with my Canadian friend Rhea, whom I met while diving in Indonesia 7 years ago. She has since taught in Bahrain and Colombia before coming to Abu Dhabi 18 months ago. It was her suggestion that we go diving in Oman that clinched my decision to come here; experiencing the underwater world will be the perfect antidote to too much city life. Rhea has been a great tour guide, taking me around the sights of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the most efficient, photo-friendly way possible without feeling the need to browse through designer shops along the way.

My first day in Abu Dhabi revolved around lunch at Tim Horton’s (a Canadian institution, specializing in coffee and doughnuts) at a nearby mall. Nearby is always a relative concept in Abu Dhabi; it means only 20 minutes in a car. It’s a bit sad that Abu Dhabi, as it has developed, has done so on the model of Los Angeles and Houston, sprawling enormously and designed around the automobile. It’s not a particularly pedestrian-friendly city, and the few pedestrians you do see tend to be the poor labourers from the Indian subcontinent who make up the majority of the population and do all of the actual work. Without a car, you’re dependent on taxis or the very occasional bus. After touching base with our Canadian roots, we got in the car and tried to find the Grand Mosque. Rhea’s GPS let us down, and we ended up making our way by eye to the mosque, which dominates the skyline of that corner of the city. Finding our way in was a challenge, and we ended up driving for several kilometres around the perimeter of the vast grounds looking for an entrance that was open.

Once we got inside, we realized that it had been well worth the effort. The complex is brand spanking new, and was built to be the largest, the most expensive and the most exquisitely designed mosque on earth. The architecture is quite wonderful, a mélange of styles that is huge without being bombastic, full of egg-shaped domes, slender minarets and a huge courtyard surrounded by beautiful porticos and placid pools of water. The outside of the mosque is relatively simple, with lots of big, blank white wall punctured by arches. It’s hard to get a sense of the scale of the place until you walk across the courtyard and realize how long it takes. The hundreds of tourists gawking at the mosque were dwarfed by the huge expanse of inlaid marble floor.

Inside, the simplicity gives way to a profusion of geometrical flourishes, most of them showing five-fold or ten-fold symmetry. It’s a riot of intersecting circles and curving tendrils, with a great variety of finishing touches borrowed from all over the Islamic world: Egyptian alabaster, Persian rugs and the sort of marble inlay that adorns the Taj Mahal. Everything shows really high quality workmanship, and should stand the test of time without starting to fall apart. The ceiling is particularly impressive, especially as it supports gargantuan crystal chandeliers. The overall impression is surprisingly serene, given all the individual details, and it’s the sort of place that would reward sitting quietly for an hour or two, absorbing details.

That evening we walked from dinner at the Hilton (one of three in Abu Dhabi) to the Emirates Palace hotel, a gargantuan complex that is, by some accounts, the most luxurious hotel on earth. It was a long walk through a construction site; six months earlier Rhea had walked the same route under jacaranda trees and beside flower beds, but a new road-construction project had erupted since then. Once we were inside the hotel, it was a rather surreal experience. There was a handful of staff around, and one or two guests, but the overall impression was that this entire hotel was deserted. Everything is oversized: the world’s largest and most expensive Christmas tree (last year it had $13 million worth of jewels on it), the enormously high ceilings, the huge staircases, the building itself. We crawled through the cavernous interior and out to the beach, where the scale of the building finally became evident. I felt Lilliputian as we made our way past the towering façade. When we finally emerged, I felt as though the scale and the expense and the luxury was just too much for me, and I was glad to get in a cab and head back to Rhea’s more human-sized flat.

The second day in Abu Dhabi found us renting bicycles and riding along the waterfront Corniche. I was pleased to see that the government actually found space for a bike path, as the rest of the city looks like a cyclist’s nightmare, with heavy traffic and insanely careless drivers. Feeling the wind in my hair as I flew along, I felt much happier than being stuck in a car waiting for a light to change, which is where most Abu Dhabi residents seem to spend much of their lives. We went to the huge Marina Mall to see another huge Christmas tree and to get sunset views over the Emirates Palace hotel and the nearby fantastic curves of the Etihad towers, before heading to have dinner with my friends from my Yangon days, Jared and Anna. She’s working for the Emirates education ministry, and living in a luxurious, outsized apartment in a brand-new skyscraper that costs an unbelievable sum in rent (covered by that staple of the expat life, the housing allowance). It was wonderful to catch up with them and get another inside view of life in this strange, ephemeral country.

Yesterday we jumped into Rhea’s car and drove 120 km up the road to Dubai. While Abu Dhabi has its share of huge, eye-catching modern steel and concrete, Dubai is like a set for Batman. I have never seen such a dense collection of huge buildings with such a variety of architectural flourishes. We drove along the huge, busy artery of the Sheikh Zayed Road, past the new Dubai Marina cluster of skyscrapers, and stopped at the Mall of the Emirates to have a quick peek at the indoor ski hill. Having just skied knee-deep powder in Leysin, I wasn’t really tempted to ski, but it was fascinating to see the entire artificial complex of ski hill, chairlifts, toboggan runs and Christmas trees, surrounded by restaurants with glass walls facing out onto the slopes. We walked out past yet another gargantuan Christmas tree (fairly amazing to come to an Islamic country to see the biggest Christmas trees on Earth) and hopped back into the car to head further downtown. We stopped at the beach near the iconic Burj al Arab sail-shaped hotel for some pictures (and to get sandblasted by the scouring wind) and then drove the final few hectic kilometres to our Dubai base of operations.

We’re staying in Business Bay, in the apartment of one of Rhea’s friends who taught with her in Colombia and now teaches in Dubai. It’s a ridiculously luxurious pad, with sweeping views of the surrounding architecture, but the best views are from up here on the 42nd floor, where a small pool and lounge overlook all the crazy towers of Business Bay. The Burj Khalifa looks amazing from here, like a gigantic hypodermic needle aimed at the sky; at its foot is the enormous Dubai Mall, reputedly the world’s largest, and surrounding it is an artificial lake with huge fountains that give a musical light-and-water show every evening.

I spent yesterday afternoon and evening catching up with old friends. I met up with my friend Natalya, who was in Yangon when I was there, and with whom I stayed in Baku a couple of years ago. Her parents teach here, and she’s catching up with them and then flying to Iran and Baku to take full advantage of her 4-week Christmas break from her school in Colombia. Then I went to the Dubai Mall, past yet another towering Christmas tree and the musical fountains, to the incense-scented Souq al Bahar for dinner with my friend from high school, Debashis, who’s a corporate lawyer here in Dubai and who has watched the frantic development of the Dubai skyline and real estate market over the past six years. After a fine meal, we went for a nightcap on the ground floor of the Burj Khalifa itself in a hypermodern cocktail bar, before Debashis’ driver took me back through the convoluted roads and construction detours to this apartment building.

Overall, I would say that Dubai is incredibly impressive, having been constructed out of nothing but sand and money over the past 20 years. It’s a bit like Las Vegas, an instant city in the desert, but much, much bigger and richer. I can’t say that I would ever want to live here; the car-based culture and inhuman scale would probably drive me crazy, while the difficulty of getting outside and doing sports would be even worse for me. It’s in some ways a dystopic view of the future: hyperdevelopment, built on an unsustainable base of cheap oil, desalinated water and cheap indentured labour. On the other hand, for many people in the Arab world and in Iran and Central Asia, Dubai is probably a vision of the sort of future they would like to have for themselves in their own countries: rich, modern, socially liberal, full of culture and shopping and a sense that anything is possible.

Three years ago I visited Delos, a small, uninhabited island near Mykonos in the Cyclades. Delos is in some ways a cautionary tale, as it was once a free-trade zone where merchants from all over the Mediterranean gathered to make money and build opulent residences. It was the Dubai of its time, creating out of a fairly barren and almost waterless island a bubble of enormous prosperity. Delos attracted the envy of surrounding pirate bands, and eventually the pirates sacked the city and destroyed its prosperity. I don’t think that Dubai will fall prey to pirates (unless the Somali pirates improve their range and firepower) but I’m sure that the envy of surrounding states and the enormous bubble of real estate prices here will provide strains on Dubai’s continued prosperity. The abandoned artificial offshore island of the World complex, visible off shore from where I am sitting now, might well be a harbinger of further shocks to come.