Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Monday, September 24, 2007

Monsoon Mela in McLeod Ganj

After our intense trek through the Markha valley and two-day jeep safari over the Himalaya, we were excited for our arrival to McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, the next destination on our travels through northern India. McLeod Ganj is a peaceful mountain town with a strong Buddhist influence. Furthermore, it is home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government-in-exile and, most importantly, our dear friend Bob Miller.

The view from our apartment in McLeod Ganj.

Bob and I have been close friends since our high school days at Naperville North and, although spending the majority of the past 13 years in different parts of the world, have continued to see each other during holiday visits home.

We came across some serious monkey business on one of our walks with Bobby.

While I spent my time after graduating from university exploring and working in Latin America, Bob spent his time living in Asia, pursuing an education in Buddhism and the Tibetan language. Back in 1998, Bob participated in an intensive training course focusing on the translation and interpretation of Tibetan in McLeod Ganj. Soon afterwards, he took a job at a dharma center in Australia, interpreting and translating the resident lama's teachings for Western students of Buddhism. During Bob's years studying and living in India, Nepal and Australia, he decided he would dedicate his life to Tibetan Buddhism, and was fully ordained as a monk six years ago. His ordained name is Lozang Zopa.

The Venerable Lozang Zopa (aka Bobby Miller).

Bob lives a full and active life in McLeod Ganj as a teacher, student, translator and friend to locals and Westerners alike.

Rachel and Bob take a seat after climbing one of McLeod Ganj's local mountain passes.

More "serious monk-y" business.

With a great friend like Bob here, plus a multitude of volunteer opportunities, not to mention the numerous possibilities to study Indian cooking, yoga, Buddhism and Tibetan language, we knew McLeod Ganj would be a great place to settle for a few weeks. With the one year anniversary of Rachel and I being on the road passing just a few days ago, we have been taking a lot of time to reflect on the previous twelve months, as well as think about life after our travels.

With a grand window in our apartment looking out at Himalayan peaks and a lush green valley, the daily appearance of the monsoon rains sweeping across the valley has provided an excellent backdrop for pondering life. The sun and rains would battle for presence throughout the day, with both triumphing in the end. After our first seven days full of monsoon rain, the phenomenon stopped and the rains haven't appeared for the past couple days.

In between sessions gazing out our picture window, contemplating our past and future, we found time to complete a three day Indian cooking course. We are now (theoretically) well versed in making paratha, kofta, aloo gobhi and a wide variety of dishes using paneer. May your kitchens beware, as we'll be on a guest cooking tour through the UK and US in the coming months.

On day three of our cooking course we were able to get our hands dirty making the Indian favorite, samosas! Our instructor, Mrs. Nisha, is pictured demonstrating the proper way to fold, stuff and seal the fried, triangular snacks.

A major goal we set before departing on our travels was to take on a volunteer project along the way. McLeod Ganj provides a plethora of options for volunteering, with many Buddhist monasteries and not-for-profit organizations working with the large population of Tibetan refugees in the area. Rachel started an excellent opportunity as a staff writer and editor for a community magazine called Contact, while I have begun training Bob as an English instructor, as well as teaching some classes at his monastery.

Bob presents a grammar point, observed by his nine young students and my camera.

Bob getting down to some serious English with the young monks.

I don't know if I was more nervous presenting a lesson under the watchful eye of the Dalai Lama or nine unfamiliar students.

The young monks at Chime Gatsal Ling Monastery are committed to their teachers and practice of Buddhism, but also manage to fit in a childhood full of jokes, pranks and plenty of Bollywood videos.

My experience with the monks at Chime Gatsal Ling has been very positive. They are some of the most enjoyable students I've taught during my teaching career.

As you can see, we are settling nicely in McLeod Ganj, focusing on our respective projects with Contact magazine and the Chime Gatsal Ling monastery. We'll be leaving McLeod Ganj the first week of October, after attending three days of teachings by the Dalai Lama. We look forward to seeing what this experience will entail.

Over the previous year, we have been fortunate to visit friends and family in Ecuador, Colombia, England, Ireland, Senegal, France and Finland. We have embraced many unique experiences and gained insights into local culture and traditions. Bob has continued the love our friends and family have shown us around the world and we look forward to another couple weeks of recreational walks, and long talks with him about our families, days in Naperville & Buddhism. It is a true pleasure to spend time with Bobby, and to witness the unconditional compassion he shows to everyone he encounters.

Thanks for visiting Donkey Crossing and feel free to leave a comment and let us know you visited!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Trekking India's Himalaya with Five Ponies, Two Pairs of Trekking Poles and One Pounding Headache

August is monsoon season in much of India and Nepal. Monsoon rains and trekking don't mix well, unless you're a fan of muddy trails, treacherous river crossings, mountains hidden in mist and leeches. Unwilling to have our trekking dreams thwarted by the seasons, we transcended the rains by venturing to Ladakh, high into the Himalaya in Jammu & Kashmir state.

Scenes like this one enticed us to beautiful Ladakh

We'd chosen the eight day Markha Valley trek for its reputedly varied and breathtaking route, winding high into the Himalaya, down into the Indus valley and into parts of Zanskar. We expected six to eight hours walking each day, starting at 3,200 meters (10,500 feet) and crossing two passes over 4,575 meters (15,000 feet). Having hired a solid team to accompany us on this high altitude adventure, we stocked up on drinking water, as well as band-aids and painkillers, anticipating blistered feet and aches, pains & strains.

It's amazing how much gear it takes for one couple to trek in the Himalaya for eight days.

Here we are with Dhondubtsering, aka "Dhon", our Tibetan guide, on day one of the trek. Our clean and fresh appearance didn't last long.

Bikas Lama, or "Lama", played the dual role of Nepali music loving youth and Head Chef. In retrospect, it would've been fairer to photograph the tasty fruits of Lama's labor rather than his fairly basic and rather scummy looking kitchen tent. Lama fed us a veritable feast every day, including fantastic veggie curries, delicious rejuvenating soups and energy boosting carbohydrate concoctions.

Tsering Gurmey, known universally as "Our Pony Man", was an ever smiling presence. His kind temperament was particularly appreciated at 6:00am every day, when he appeared at our tent door with steaming spiced black tea.

We were secretly disappointed to discover our gear would be hauled by five ponies, having hoped there would be at least a donkey or two on the team. We were tempted to adopt this donkey, but he'd already been 'hired' by other trekkers.

For the first couple of days, we hiked through the Indus Valley gorge, then climbed to Yurutse village, soaking in the barren yet dramatic surroundings. On day three, we found out why our tour agency had placed the Markha Valley Trek in the "demanding" category. We slogged our way up an obscenely steep ascent to Ganda La, our first major pass at 4,900 meters (16,075 feet), gasping and stumbling along. We basked in the glory of making it to the pass long enough to take in the superb view of Stok Kangri mountain behind us and the Zanskar range ahead, before being urged onward by the cold wind and lack of oxygen.

Burnt rose red and orangey brown cliffs provided a striking backdrop to our Markha Valley trek, a recurring presence through changing altitudes and terrains.

A quick photo at Ganda La pass before continuing downhill to greener and more oxygen rich ground.

From Ganda La we began a long and scenic descent to Skiu, where we found the Markha River flowing and crops growing in the valley.

Crops, especially barley, grow on every farmable surface near Markha Village. The green fields provide a pleasant contrast to the naked, rocky mountains.

This barley is almost ready for harvest. We munched a local toasted barley snack called "Yosa" while we walked.

Bordering Tibet to the east, it is not surprising that there is a large population of Tibetan refugees in Ladakh. Their presence and influence is visible throughout the region, particularly through the plethora of Buddhist symbols and shrines.

We trekked past many stupas (also called chortens) like these, built by local Buddhist families.

Perhaps even more beautiful than the mountains themselves are the mani (prayer) walls. They are abundant throughout the Markha Valley, many simply consisting of hundreds of flat rocks, engraved with Om Mani Padme Hung, the well known Buddhist prayer. Larger stones often bear passages from Tibetan Buddhist Scriptures. The mountains provide the perfect backdrop for this particularly exquisite mani wall.

These prayer flags bring both color and blessings to the region, and to those who live here.

Although Jason and I had booked a private trek, one of the highlights was meeting locals and other trekkers. Nicola, from Heidelberg, Germany, was also doing a private trek. She walked at our pace and we enjoyed each others' company, so we soon became trekking buddies, sharing snacks and conversation.

Dhon leads, with myself and Nicola following close behind. The co-ordinated t-shirts were unplanned.

We had fun with these two Brits, Rob and Richard. River crossings with them were particularly entertaining, as they both attempted the first one barefoot. Jason and Dhon ended up throwing their own sandals back, after they'd successfully crossed, to save our friends breaking their ankles or getting swept downstream.

There's nothing like a glacial river to make life feel like an invigorating, fast moving adventure.

Jason demonstrates an altogether more civilized method of crossing the Markha river.

These cute local children distracted us from our aching limbs as we took a break in one of the trail's many "tea tents", operated by local women.

There is no denying that trekking in the Himalayas is hard work. Walking up and down steep rocky paths would be taxing in any environment, but the lack of shade, proximity to the sun and oxygen deprived elevation along our chosen route made for some physically challenging days.

Our smiles conceal the pain!

Since this was about the only patch of shaded grass we encountered in eight days, a lunchtime snooze proved irresistible.

Unfortunately, in spite of several days acclimatizing in Leh, Jason's body had trouble with the high elevation along the trek. He developed a persistent headache which worsened with each climb. By the fifth night, we reached Thochuntse, where we camped in a high, exposed valley, nursing Jason's pounding head.

In this stark spot, Jason tried to get comfortable in the hired sleeping bag that was a foot shorter than he is, while I washed clothes in the ice cold river.

The next morning we set off towards Nimaling, the highest camp site of the trek at 4,700 meters (15,420 feet), and starting point for climbing to Kongmaru La, a 5,306 meter (17,408 feet) pass. It was a gorgeously scenic hike with jaw dropping views of Kangyaze Peak. Despite Jason's thumping head and feverish chills, he still managed to take the stellar photos you see here.

The mighty Kangyaze and her reflection.

In spite of a determined physical and mental effort, Jason's body refused to continue, and Dhon initiated a pony rescue. Nicola and I waited with Jason, constructing a sun shade with trekking poles and a bandana (proving our merits as potential contestants for the next series of 'Survivor'). For two hours we looked after Jason, feeding him water and sugary snacks, while treating him with Nicola's aspirin. We'd long since exhausted our supply of painkillers, even though we'd brought enough to kill a horse, never mind a headache. Eventually Dhon appeared with a fairly uncooperative but nevertheless adequate pony. Onwards and upwards to Nimaling.

Jason straddling his pony with "Nurse" Nicola and Dhon "Quixote".

Neither of us slept much at Nimaling, a particularly bleak camping spot, the only facility on site being our kitchen tent. Even Lama's tasty dinner failed to entice Jason out from his sleeping bag. The next morning, the rescue pony was put to work again, carrying Jason up to Kongmaru La. Once over the pass, Jason was back on his feet, relieved to make the final descent of our trek.

This heroic pony looks a bit weary after carrying Jason up to this 5,306 meter pass. Somebody give him a carrot.

We were extremely grateful to Dhon, whose expertise not only with our route, but also dealing with altitude sickness, saved the day. He carried Jason's water supply, constantly monitored his symptoms, orchestrated a rescue operation and ultimately brought both of us down from the mountains safely. Dhon's weakness for a rum or three in the afternoons didn't detract from him being an excellent guide, who treated Jason more like a brother than a client.

Dhon in his element in the mountains. He has 13 years experience as a guide, but cannot start his own tour company in Ladakh because his parents are Tibetan refugees, meaning he has very few rights. He will climb Mount Everest for the first time in October, guiding for a charity climb. We wish him a safe and successful expedition.

Our descent from Kongmaru La involved a seemingly endless downhill trail of scree and red dust.

The scenery on the way down didn't disappoint, with jagged formations and neon shrubs amongst the rock scape. I even spotted a herd of Himalayan Blue Sheep. They resemble something between goats and deer, and aren't blue.

Covered in dust and boasting bulbous blisters, we spent our last night at considerably lower altitude. Lama cooked us a special meal and we gave our crew a bottle of rum, which made things a bit more festive.

Lama produced pizza, "baked" potatoes, stuffed peppers, various curries and even a chocolate cake. Particularly impressive since he was working with a couple of kerosene burners and pressure cookers. Not an oven in sight.

The rum loosened everyone's vocal cords and we took it in turns to entertain each other (and humiliate ourselves a bit) with songs. We had a Nepali song from Lama, Ladakhi songs about ponies from the pony men, who overcame their shyness under peer pressure, plus a Tibetan love song and a Hindi song about intoxication from Dhon. Then it was our turn. Nicola sang a German folk song, then I did a couple of verses of On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at, followed by Jason's rendition of Take Me Out To The Ball Game. It was quite a party for about half an hour, before the three tired trekkers crashed from exhaustion and chocolate cake coma.

The mess tent. Left to right: Nicola's cook/guide, our pony man, me, Lama, Dhon, Nicola, Nicola's pony man.

Our wake up tea didn't appear until 7:30am on our last day, giving us a luxurious lie in. We walked along the Martselang Valley for a couple of hours, which felt pleasantly undemanding, towards the jeep that would take us back to Leh.

Four happy hikers enjoying our last day together.

Looking back, although our Himalayan trek wasn't always straightforward, it was certainly unforgettable. It felt like we'd hiked halfway to heaven (with a little taste of hell at Nimaling). Back in Leh, we savored the luxury of changing into clean clothes and dining on good food, without an ex-army mess tent in sight.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Jason, Rachel and Donkey Crossing featured in
Chicago's Daily Herald!!!
Read Jamie Sotonoff's article at:
Donkey Crossing Update:
We've fully recovered from our eight day trek through the Himalaya and have made our way to the lush mountain town of Manali, India. After the trek, we endured a two day, twenty-two hour jeep excursion through the Himalaya for a few days of rest in Manali. We feel good and are ready to visit our dear friend Bobby Miller (aka Lozang Zopa) at his monastery in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India.
Our hired jeep took us to the second highest motorable road in the world. The highest pass is on the same stretch of road, but in the opposite direction of our route. "Unbelievable is not it?"
While our jeep reached well above the snowline, oxygen levels were noticeably depleted.

Rachel poses for a shot with our trusted Toyota Qualis on top of the Rohtang Pass. We were treated to multiple snowcapped peaks after an overnight snowfall.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Passage to India

Although our time in Thailand was full of sensational experiences, we grew more and more excited for our imminent journey to India. Visiting the high Himalaya of India had always been one of the most anticipated parts of our travels and our arrival was thankfully straightforward and efficient. We arrived to New Delhi airport in the late evening, but had to wait in the airport through the night for our flight to Ladakh, an isolated and barren mountain range in the state of Jammu & Kashmir.

After spending the night in New Delhi airport, and boarding our connecting flight to Ladakh at 5:30AM, our first sight of the Himalaya from the sky was fantastic.

A shot of the Indus River valley from high above the Himalaya.

The sight of snow capped peaks began to get more and more normal as we spent time in the Himalaya; however, soaring eye to eye with the towering beasts was something to remember.

The approach to Ladakh airport (situated in the town of Leh at 11,500ft ) was one of the most technical and nail biting flight experiences we've ever experienced. With the runway surrounded by 13,000-18,000ft peaks, the pilot circled round and round, slicing between mountains until we made the final approach. You can see how close the mountains are to the runway in this photo.

After a long day of travel from Bangkok, and spending a night in New Delhi airport, our arrival to Leh was complete with a comfortable room at the Sia La Guest House. Our hosts, the Sia La family, served us plenty of delicious milk tea and fresh Ladakhi bread during our visit.

Our beautiful "glass" room at Sia La Guest House. The mountain and garden views from our room made for a very peaceful place to relax.

With the drastic increase of elevation to Ladakh from the sea-level environs of Hong Kong, Macau and Bangkok, we knew we would have to acclimatize for a few days before starting our trek through the Himalaya. Leh, specifically the Sia La Guest House, was an excellent place to do just that and explore a few of the sights in the area.

Filled with local and foreign tourists, this young, local family takes in a view of Leh from one of the many Buddhist monuments surrounding the town.

A view of Leh from the top of a nearby stupa.

We'll never forget the gorgeous gardens that beautify the many guest houses in the area.

A shot of the former palace of the Ladakhi royal family (left) and an ancient Buddhist gompa (above right).

We unintentionally timed our arrival to Leh to coincide with the Ladakh Festival. A two week cultural event created for the sole purpose of extending the tourist season until the middle of September, we took the opportunity to check out an event we had never imagined to witness in India...polo! Evidently the sport originated in Kashmir.

As we made our way through a throng of locals at the entrance, we took one look at the crowded VIP stands and decided to settle ourselves directly in front, with our feet on the pitch. A couple close calls with a hard ball, horse and mallet made us realize all our attention needed to be focused on the pitch.

We never figured out which team was the home team, as the crowd went wild when either side, red or blue, scored.

A strong impression that was made on us during our time in Leh was the diversity of its inhabitants. With the state of Jammu & Kashmir situated next to Muslim Pakistan, located in a country with a majority Hindu population and an area with a large Tibetan Buddhist refugee population, the influences of all three faiths were omnipresent. We stayed in a guest house run by a Muslim family, hired a Tibetan Buddhist refugee as guide for our trek and saw many Sikhs and Hindus running various shops and cafes all around town. In a region of India known for conflict and an on-going war, we found a sense of peace and understanding in the village of Leh.

As for tourist sights, the Buddhist influence is the strongest. One of the most visited monasteries in the area is the Thiksey Monastery, known as "Little Potala" since it closely resembles Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.

Simple accommodation for the monks at Thiksey Monastery sits on the side of a mountain overlooking the valley.

Our arrival to Ladakh was exciting in itself, however the primary reason for traveling so far north was to trek through the barren and space-like surroundings of Ladakh's Markha Valley. Come back to Donkey Crossing soon to experience our unforgettable eight day trek through this magical region of the Indian Himalaya.