Five weeks visiting a Buddhist wedding, bouldering and hiking with two kids in the utmost north of India, Ladakh, that turned out to seemingly endless trouble shooting.
Sometimes time is longer that it looks on a calendar sheet. Sometimes time is a trip. Into yourself or out of it. Dense with pictures, sentiments. Too deep just to remember where you are coming from and if you will ever return. If you’ll ever be the same you’ve been before.
This trip, it wasn’t long actually, five weeks, half of the time we meant to go. But it quickly dropped us out of time, just at first glance. And we had fallen out of space. Into another world. To India.
I’ll try to keep it brief, what can’t be taken brief. I’ll try. We were invited to a wedding in the most northern part of the country, Ladakh, Zanskar. A local guy and a Swiss girl. We would take our two little kids (3 and 0 years old) with us despite all the objections from around us and we would not go for just one or two weeks as most of the other guests from Europe did. If we already had to fly (we found no other way to get there in time), we wanted to counter balance our pollution with the time we’d stay in the country. We would trek, we would boulder, we would visit and we would photograph. The wedding couple would borrow us their car, so we would be free to move, sure to have proper water with us and proper food. Free to leave in case that something happens. We would not back pack in any case, we had to promise to all these generations above us looking with sorrow down on our kids. And we didn’t want it neither, as we had not only a lot of luggage (including two crash pads), but two kids that could not at all or at least not seriously walk. (With food for two weeks and the babies about 130kg.)
When we arrived in Ladakh (after having miraculously survived one day in 40° hot Dehli) we learned that the car was not only broken but also down in Zanskar (3 days of driving away). But it would soon be fixed again and somebody would get in up here. Nice! These people were really hospitable. We didn’t know by then that disinformation is a contagious illness and so we started hopefully into our first small boulder spot right next to Leh. Three days of acclimatisation are recommended at 4000 meter (and after three weeks we then really felt somehow normal, without however being it) and so we took it slow. Some easier problems up to 7C+ and some calm chilling in the mortal September sun after two days in the still quite stressful Leh (at least when you have white, blond kids). Anyways we quickly noticed that this trip wasn’t really about bouldering. It couldn’t be. Life was much to prevalent up here. No need to distract yourself from the boredom of super smooth western existence.
Life up here was for example about fear. The fear of people.
I hadn’t been afraid of people since Bavarian nut heads had stopped beating me up at the age of eight (because my parents were green and not Bazi (Bavarian Nazi)). Just on the other side of river we drank from (because it was supposed to be clean) worked some poor Indians from the south in the fields. First they just stared at us (especially me bouldering or Jeanne being without me), then the started to cross the river for small kind of excursions without any visible goal than spotting us. They didn’t answer to greetings and not even to eye contact. But until the night they always withdrew when I was joining my family. There was no way to leave (we could not carry all of our stuff at once and Leh was 15km away), we had ordered a taxi only for the next morning and the night came quickly, as it does so close to the equator. We couldn’t see them leaving and it was not sure if they slept just over there under the blank and star covered sky. I prepared some money and a Swiss knife. I felt ridiculous and unwell. Jeanne felt afraid. I could understand, it was her they would rape, not me.
Nothing happened during the night, they had been down in town, but on the next morning they started a more massif invasion. Ten young men approaching in little steps, spotting, spitting, not responding. We had everything packed waiting for the Taxi but were still unable too move, if we didn’t want to split up or leave a great part of our luggage behind, what would have meant the end of the trip after five days. Only when they were five meters away, they turned out to be simply humans under the influence of sheer curiosity and a deeply anchored feeling of inferiority and shyness that life had told them. They finally opened up their closed faces and passed by.
We had ten days to go until the wedding and the car that was ought to be fixed by then would pick us up somewhere on the road, we just had to phone or to write a massage where and when. So we did. Five times to be sure. Unfortunately we could find no one who would drive us to our desired place somewhere in the outback underneath Nun and Kun, the two highest peaks in the region and the only ones above 7000m. So we stayed in Parkachik, the last Muslim village before the again Buddhist Zanskar. People were lovely, they took us for poor Gypsies and gave us to eat and to drink without being able to communicate with us at all (the run through all their school life (but maths) in English, but don’t speak it don’t understand it. Thus it is practically impossible that they learn anything at all). They played with the kids and invited us to drink tea in their houses when they stopped their never ending working day for half an hour or so. I felt strange and stupid bouldering and hiking besides these lives. My already very reduced photo equipment had the value of several houses.
We did want we had come for, as we hadn’t the courage to join their lives for a while. Furthermore bouldering war brilliant. The biggest glacier of the region brought half a dozen different kinds of gneiss down from the mountain and offered several different types of surrounding on his younger or older moraines (from ice to sand to grass). And above all, 3500m higher, rested the peak of Nun. Majestic, especially for someone like me who never had left Europe before.
On the fixed time, two days prior to the wedding, we set ourselves at the side of the (only) road to Zanskar. And waited all day long. But no one came. Back at our packed stuff we found half of our food ripped and eaten by yaks. We had no idea how to leave this place without mobile phone network, sufficient money for a taxi or telephone. But we found a “taxi driver” and at six o’clock the other morning the guy arrived with his Maruti (looks like a fifteen years old Fiat Panda, but is definitely smaller). When he saw our hump of luggage, he tried to get out of this story again (eight hours of driving awaited us) but we wouldn’t let him (this sounds chauvinistic, but when you really want something, you have to act strictly chauvinistic, a little like an imperialist from the fore last century). Three of five seats stayed free for us and the pads were lying on the roof. Let’s rock and roll!
It became real rock and roll. The road up here had been bad, this one was worse. Three hours for the first 30 km without a break (on the way back the same part in a truck would take us four hours). Brilliant weather, breathtaking landscapes and the most beautiful and vast boulder field I have ever seen in my life. We would come back (we had to anyway), this was already clear.
The car had holes in the ground and so we got entirely covered by dust, the pads were pushing the roof inside (the driver hadn’t agreed to fix them 90° turned around, so that the would have rested on the frame), but nine hours later we had fought us throw the 170km.
The bridal pair looked very surprised to see us there. A cousin of the fiancé, that we had never met or heard of, had spread the rumor, that we had returned to Switzerland after two days in Leh. And the network didn’t really work down here. (These are the kind of crucial information you would like to have before you leave to the outback.) “Ah yeah, and the car, we never intended to repair it, sorry.” In the end we were happy to be there and happy not to have found a way to get further up than Parkachik. How would we have left this village again, especially in time for the wedding?
The party would take three days and turned out to be the total anarchy. For inner and external reasons. The (purely vegetarian) cooking was excellent and we wouldn’t stop to eat enormous amounts for the whole six days we spent there. Already the first day of dancing and chanting and gifting and so on was covered by meals all along the way. We ate with the hands and we drank from the palms of our hands!, rum and local beer, called Chang. The mountains above our heads named Chang’n Go. Europeans started to get ill one by one (we had asked the bride, an ongoing doctor, a million times in advance if hygiene problems were as severe as in the rest of India and we had always been appeased), but at least Aliénor (our 11 months daughter) and me stayed well. 300 people had assembled in the yard of the house and no one knew which step of the complicated protocol was coming next. I loved it. By 2pm I was drunk.
The sky slowly covered with clouds and filled in with wind.
I appreciated that the central part of a Buddhist wedding, the moment the couple is regarded as married, is no bling blang with God and company but something humble, the act of eating together (of course with the hands). And that the bride’s dress later becomes an all day utensil.
There is weather forecast even in this cut off region of the world. But people don’t believe in it (the same as they believe, that cold makes you vomit and dust makes you ill, but not the water from the river or the fact of putting the fingers in a baby’s mouth in an land where no toilet paper exists! (Yes, I learned to effectively body check really friendly but drunk Buddhists.))
The second day of the wedding started with rain and despite the steady affirmation that it would end in half an hour, because it always did like this (in fact they only have 100mm of annual precipitation), the day ended with rain, too. The only difference was, that by then the house was soaked. We had made some visits and had eaten a lot of excellent food and by the time we got back it was already dripping from the ceiling in the upper floor. They tried to fix the problems with some canvases, but created just more punctual pressure in the middle of the roof. By 9pm the had to pierce it. During the next 30min some hundreds of liters came pushing into a big barrel in the corridor. The harvest got wet and we kept on eating a last snack of the day (in a valley where in winter they sometimes haven’t enough to eat.)
Somebody who had still been in Switzerland one week ago said that they had announced snow for the next day. Fortunately “the weather forecast is very bad up here in the mountains”, where the sun is nearly always shining and weather should in fact be easy to read.
During the night the rain stopped. Finally. (Further up the valley we later saw several collapsed houses and in ours they had to pierce the walls, too.) When we woke up, clouds were hanging deep and light was bright. The whole valley was covered in snow. No one of the persons in charge of the organization had known of anything. The people of the village had to save their cattle, free their houses from the snow and skip some of the dances (but not the rum part). Europeans (that can party all the time and not only every one or two years) were already tired of the ceremony but the feeling of catastrophe made them wake up from their stupor and brought everybody a little closer together. Only those who had an onward flight to Madagascar from Geneva! four days later got afraid, that when the 4400m high pass to Ladakh wouldn’t be open the next day, they could miss their next holiday destination. (Unfortunately the pass was open the next day.)
The official wedding ended with another night of rum and chang. The sky cleared up, the moon came out, electricity went down and we tried to dance the Zanskari dances under the bright white mountains 2500m above. It was the moment of this three days party. Then the air began to freeze. It was the 24. of September. And it wouldn’t stop so soon. Not for us, at least.
Two days later we were on the way back to this boulder field. We trusted the forecast and so we knew the next five days were supposed to get chilly. Very chilly. We were heading to one of the coldest villages on planet earth, Rangdum.
We searched the outback, now that slowly our resistance against the never ending bacterial invasion in our bodies was decreasing and after these extremely touchy days for the kids. (Perhaps one of the first European kids in the valley ever. During the wedding Aliénor had managed to crowd up to forty people around her.) We hoped for clean water and the end of our pseudo super star role. And we hoped for endless bouldering.
We made just one little mistake. We stopped at a small, friendly restaurant in Rangdum. Once on our way there. Little vomiting, little diarrhea, nothing special. And we should do the mistake twice. But for the moment: total exposure. Nothing more and nothing anymore. The next houses 8km away, the road quite close, but silent (ten to fifteen vehicles a day), just us and our tent. Bears and wolves and snow leopards (supposed to be). And a pale and silent moon on the snowy ridges thousands of meters above. I was afraid to take this pee at night.
It was paradise we had searched for, but it was something like limbo we stuck in. Everything was beautiful in a surrealistic way. The river, the thousands of unbrushed five star lines, the grass land. But we couldn’t get our feet an the ground, as a foreigner who doesn’t integrate. The land was too wide, the night was too high (and too cold, minus 15), the boulders were too many, I just didn’t know where to start. And why (despite for myself). Even if someone came climbing up here, he would hardly find my lines. He wouldn’t have to. He would get crazy on his own, from the very first second he’d enter into this chaos of orange gneiss. I chose one hard line, but it turned out to be too hard. But too hard for what actually? For the “up to three weeks” we had come for and had taken food for with us? No, probably just right. Too hard for the time we would stand the cold (the snow wasn’t melting in the shade for five days and we had hallucinations of humps of European food, to renourish our bodies that were sucked out by three weeks at 4000m)? Rather yes, but the weather would get better soon. So, too hard for the time we had left, before the equation was tilting over? We couldn’t really know it, but I think we felt it coming.
The equation: Increasing performance due to better adoption to altitude, sun, permanent elevated stress levels, dryness of the air, cold and wind, as well as lost weight, against decreasing performance due to fatigue, burned muscles (I never burned muscles before) and above all: the never ending stream of bacterias. Not only in your body, but on you. Below your finger nails. A simple thing but pretty efficient in causing the kind of pain that makes you stop climbing.
With a lot of discipline and pain tolerance I pushed the peak of the equation on until the second week up here. I sent the light version of the originally aimed line and I would soon accept, that this would be the most that was in for me under this conditions. I called it Bacteria and with five days of work, four weeks of non specific preparation (especially acclimatisation) and 25 moves it represents something like 9a (8B+) on 4000m (so perhaps 8B on sea level). To my knowledge the boulder is the hardest of India, the Himalaya and whole continental Asia. The redpoint sucked all oxygen from my brain and totally stoned and euphoric I took a last walk among the boulders, we did the filming and then had the luck to directly stop a truck that would take us down to Parkachick again.
I had too magnificent hard lines left from our first visit up here but the balance had tilted. After the sending the other day, I was just fucked. Nothing was left over. I did not even try them again. We had six weeks to go, but since we had visited the Rangdum Restaurant a second time two days before, we knew, that trekking (what we would have loved to do) was no option for us, as just with the kids, some photography equipment and a day backpack we passed the 40kg. We had walked the 12km to Rangdum on flat ground and even when the weight was still okay, carrying in front and in the back made me heavy cramps. And we had experienced how it felt to make 500m up (what is a minimum trekking altitude difference). Quite breath taking. And we knew what had made us a little ill one week ago: the Rangdum Restaurant. And this time (after the long walk) we hadn’t eaten just a snack but a real meal. Up from this day the kids were vomiting each night, everybody was attaiined by hard diarrhea and every morning we passed washing our whole stuff in the river.
But there was still hope. Parkachik had welcomed us with open arms. The people had become our friends (especially the kids) without talking. I would have loved to try some more of the beautiful boulder lines. We had been already sure to keep the second part of our flight back from Istanbul (because we knew that there was no way to recover for the kids in this environment), but we hesitated. Was there no way to stay up here? There were so many beautiful places we hadn’t seen. And perhaps we could find a hotel for some days where really everything was clean and everybody would get well again.
The decision came by the horns and hoofs of some yacks. Out tent was standing in the same place than already eight other nights, but one day the animals decided to search for food in it and not only in the half open front part, but everywhere. The trampled all down. The tent was finished. And besides in Leh there was surely no new one to buy. Everything you lose up here is irreplaceable lost. A climbing shoe in a hole somewhere? No more climbing but barefoot. And so on.
This was on the third day in Parkachik. We had considered a smooth withdrawal, now we decided to flee. We gave everything we wouldn’t need any more (and some more) to the local people and then: One day to Kargil (whole bathroom full of vomit and the bed of diarrhea), one day to Srinagar (vomiting getting a little better but taking directly new verve with the guest house food), one day to Dehli (got twitted and forced into the super expensive airport hotel, decided to fly directly to Munich), one day to Abu Dahbi (the petrol hell, everybody how pollutes the planet by flying should have seen the collapsed houses in Zanskar and the total decadence where four decades ago was nothing than sand and camels), one day to Munich (the collapsing of stress).
We were both thin before, we had both lost minimum 5kg (beside one week of pure eating at the wedding). I ate the triple of what I normally and despite all hygiene it took us one whole week to get all the bacterias out of us (and then they still came back later). We wouldn’t have made it in India (perhaps in Turkey). It was the right decision to get out of there before one of the kids would have gotten seriously ill.
We have to be honest: It was nonsense to go there. It was deep and intense, it was beautiful and hart warming what we had lived and what we had seen. We had been kidding the rush of time. Five weeks like half of year in European routine. We had done this favor to the bright. But it was serious nonsense: financial, sanitary and most of all, ecologic.
I love traveling, I wanna see worlds so different from mine, I wanna lose my money elsewhere than in f***ing rich Switzerland, but there has to be a different way. A smoother way of less harm and less rushing. We’ll try it. On the end of November we will go by boat to South America. And we will (hopefully) stay the whole nine months, we have.