Archive for the ‘general’ Category

Leh Ladakh India – services and shopping

Wednesday, June 28th, 2006

Leh is chockful of shops and markets, selling ethnic Tibetan and Ladakhi jewelry, clothing and crafts. The shop with the best selection and fairest prices (and yellow banners all over the town) is Ladakh Art Palace on Main Bazaar Rd, upstairs in the Akbar Shopping Complex . I also found interesting jewelry made of yak bone and horn at Tashi Arts, on Fort Road, opposite the power house. It goes without saying that bargaining is part of the purchase. And for a shopping experience which truly is an experience, seek out Hadji Ramatullah. Just inside the path leading up to the palace, next to the flatbread bakeries, Mr Ramatullah presides over a haphazard jumble of old Ladakhi jewelry. On the back wall of his stall is his photo from 50 years ago, dashing and with a glorious moustache.

The biggest selection of English language books on Indian culture and religion, as well as literature, is at Ladakh Book Shop, Main bazar, near State Bank of India., upstairs. But prices are better at Bookworm on Fort Road, next to Lingzi Hotel. 

Trekking and jeep tours in Ladakh  – see separate entry for details, but recommended agent is Mr Tundup, the director of Tsarap Himalayan Adventures on lower Fort Road,, who is knowledgeable about everything except the lodging en route – so plan that independently.

For a guide, I heartily recommend Jigmet Chostak, a young man who knows Ladakh intimately and thoroughly,, mobile 9419658545.

For body care, the best massage in India is in a small white building in the compound of Open Ladakh in Changspa ( a 15 minute walk from Leh center). Rajendran is professional, a specialist in ayurvedic massage, and an hour with him ($15)  is recommended before and after each back-breaking jeep trek. mobile 9419815299. You can leave him a message on the writing pad hanging on his door.

For manicures, pedicures, waxing and all other cosmetic treatments, Shamima, the owner of Rahat Beauty Home, is the address. Local girls troop in to have their eyebrows shaped. If you’ve never had a pedicure while lying down, here’s your chance  – mobile 9419090664, just north of the main square. 

Changing money is slow as molasses at the State Bank of India on Main Bazar, open mornings only, but if you’re changing upwards of $200, the small difference in exchange rate might be worth your while. Otherwise, moneychangers are omnipresent. 

Meditation – the Mahabodhi Society in Changspa gives daily and weekly courses. I participated in a  2.5 hour meditation session led by a British guy who was terrific. I’ve never sat so long without moving – and crosslegged – in my life! Just up Changspa road is the Open Ladakh complex, aka Alternative Ladakh, run by Vivek. An ex-Buddhist priest, Vivek runs daily meditation sessions in the center, and also a weekend travel meditation course in his family home in Stok village. Highly recommended if you’re ok with Ladakhi toilets (open hole) and rudimentary facilities. Discussions with Vivek are fascinating, and include historical background as well as current cultural issues. My weekend was cut short by torrential rains threatening to wash away the bridges, so we were hustled back to Leh in a taxi. I still regret not being able to stay on. mobile 9419179917,, .

Internet cafes are all over. The fastest connection I found, with the fewest service cuts, was at Gompa, around the corner from Dzomsa Laundry at the top of the main square. Compared to everywhere else in India, Internet is expensive in Leh, 2 rupees per minute.

Leh Ladakh India – food and lodging

Sunday, June 25th, 2006

Because high altitude sickness is going to turn you into a pathetic weakling for your first 24 hours, you want somewhere safe and comforting to crash. I booked ahead at Lotus which was perfect. I was served tea in the garden and then managed to unpack in the clean and spacious room before collapsing into bed. Mr Shankar, the helpful English-speaking concierge, insisted I have some dinner and conjured up consomme and rice, and that is how I spent my first day in Leh. But paying $40 a day was way too much, and next morning I scouted around for a cheaper guesthouse. I looked at many. Some, like Asia and Oriental, were nice but in Changspa, out of the town center. I lucked into the brand new Saiman guest house, run by Mrs Shahida Bano (mobile 9419371240, 9419218642). It’s smack in the center of town on Upper Tukcha Road, hidden on a small alley (look for the stone arch on your right after you pass the river) between green fields and a river, surrounded by the family’s vegetable and flower gardens, and with lawn furniture where guests eat, read and dream the time away. For $16 I got a huge room with balcony and Western bathroom, 24/7 hot water and the cheerful efficiency of English-speaking Shahida. Importantly, I left with her all my valuables while away trekking, including cash, and all was safe and sound. My top guesthouse find in three years of India!

Food in Ladakh is basic but fine. Hotel and guesthouse breakfasts include freshly baked pita bread with butter and honey, omelets and tea.  Backpacker cafes in Leh offer great banana pancakes and fruit crumble pies, which work well with chai and fruit shakes. Don’t look for great coffee.  My favorite place, where I ate huge salads (no tummy problems), soups and everything was the Tibetan pure vegetarian restaurant on lower Fort Road. With only 6 tables and everything prepared on the spot, it’s the favorite of Leh foodies. (I found a bottle of Italian olive oil in a tiny grocery shop on upper Fort Road, and used it liberally on the salads.) Look for it opposite the over-rated Tibetan Kitchen restaurant, where wannabe Chinese food vies with wannabe Western cuisine (and dinner reservations are required!) 

At the entrance to the bazaar and on the way up to the Palace are several clay oven bakeries, where you can buy the flat bread piping hot.

The Dzomsa Laundry in the center of town, with a newer branch on lower Fort Road, upstairs, sells terrific yoghurt, fresh apricot juice, muesli, and other healthy snacks. They also sell filtered drinking water in recycled plastic bottles.


Leh Ladakh India – arriving

Sunday, June 18th, 2006

Jule (say joo-lay) which means hello, thanks, and anything you want it to mean in Ladakh. It’s the ultimate one word multi-tasker and a good thing, because arriving in Leh, the world’s highest-altitude airport, is so discombobulating that for the first 12 hours, your mind can’t deal with anything more demanding. High altitude sickness means fuzzy mind, tingling in fingers and toes, frequent trips to pee and inability to do more than drink tea in a prone position. Flights from Delhi leave at 5 am, so if you arrive on a connecting flight, as I did, you either sleep for 4 hours on a hard bench in the bare-bones user-unfriendly domestic terminal, hugging your backpack, or not at all. So sleeping away the first 12 hours in Leh isn’t a bad idea, and you can stagger around in town the next day, until you’re ready to attempt nearby climbs and further treks.

Storytime: Hanoi and Counting

Wednesday, February 6th, 2002

Thirty eight motorbikes, ten bicycles, seven cars. The light changes and traffic flows by in downtown Hanoi. Suzuki FX 125’s, Honda Dreams, Honda Waves. Chinese no-frill bicycles, taxis and cars with diplomatic license plates.

When I first came to Hanoi, eleven years ago, the bicycle reigned supreme. Motorbikes were a luxury and cost two years of hard labor. One evening, we heard a commotion in the courtyard we shared with fifty local families. A thief had attempted to steal a neighbor’s motorbike. He was pinned down, kicked and beaten until the policeman, who had been summoned to take him away, took pity on him and hauled him off to jail.

Behind me shimmers Hoan Kiem lake. The legendary giant turtle swims up from its murky depths and lumbers onto the grassy bank only once or twice a year. Whoever is lucky enough to see it will enjoy hanh phuc, good fortune. I was on my way to the post office several years ago when I saw people swarming excitedly toward the lake. I ran too, and there it was, purply green and enormous. In Vietnam, legends and life are often indistinguishable.

Fifty three motorbikes, nineteen bicycles, twelve cars and four taxis. The number of cars in Hanoi is increasing geometrically, although female automobile drivers are still rarer than snow during the monsoon.

Walk/don’t walk signs blink at most corners, but in Vietnam, their message is purely theoretical. Pedestrians are the lowest rung on the traffic ladder, and must weave through streams of speeding vehicles while constantly looking left and right – think of watching a live tennis match – to avoid being knocked down. It’s easy to identify a tourist in Hanoi: s/he’s the one pawing nervously at the curb. After awhile, you get the hang of it and it’s fun until whoops, you forget to look both ways and a motorbike driver snarls at you, or thuds into you, or both.

I celebrated my first day in Vietnam flat on my face in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The overland crossing from Phnom Penh, Cambodia was a deadening eight hour trip by shared taxi on rutted roads. We were five people in the back seat, four in the front, of an ancient vehicle. The driver honked at everything that moved including bicycles and ducks, so the trip was basically one unending honk. Finally arriving at my hotel, I should have showered and gone to bed, but instead went outside, tried to cross the street and was promptly mowed down by a motorbike.

After regaining consciousness and checking for contact lenses and teeth, I noticed a worried looking man hovering. He’s the motorbike driver, I was told, you really should apologize to him. He could get in a lot of trouble for running over a tourist. I apologized, he gallantly forgave me and a tiny scar under my left eyebrow accompanied me for many years before disappearing under a convenient wrinkle.

Eighty motorbikes, ten bicycles, five cars and a lone cyclo. Cyclos, relics of French colonialism, once wound leisurely everywhere in Hanoi. Drivers pedaled away on their bicycles pushing attached carriages piled high with entire families, great bolts of silk and the marketing. When it rained, a sheet of plastic was tucked around the passengers to keep them dry and in the fierce midday sun, an accordion canopy was opened for shade. Cyclos were once king of the road, but the Hanoi authorities have decided they slow down traffic and are bad for the city’s modern image, so the downtown area is now off limits to them.

You can still find low-tech transport near the marketplaces. Cyclo drivers ring their bells, looking for business. A peddler walks his bicycle, which he has outfitted with display cases. Over the front wheel are hammers, pestles and knives. The back wheel displays rope, pins and ribbons. Market women, straining under 25 kilo baskets balanced from a pole across their shoulders, offer sugar cane and oranges. Another cyclo passes, twenty chicken heads peeping out of their bamboo cages.

A silver-haired orange seller points to her pyramid of fruit. Very sweet, she insists, and pushes an orange into my hand. No, I say, I really don’t need any oranges. No problem, she smiles, peering into my face. How old are you? Fifty. You look young, she says. Here, we’re old at fifty. Are you sure you don’t want to buy my oranges?     

Storytime: Ain’t No Glass Slippers in Cambodia

Saturday, March 18th, 2000

Forty years old, free, white and female and here I am, backpacking solo in Southeast Asia. Huge raindrops fall in gray, unending sheets as I land at Pochentong International Airport in Pnom Penh on a rainy Saturday afternoon. I share a taxi into town with a few selfless but gorgeous doctors from Medecins sans Frontieres. Should I fake appendicitis, I wonder, as my stomach rumbles its Delhi Belly refrain. Too late – the doctors get out at their clinic, flashing humanitarian smiles, and I continue on with the driver until he slows and parks in front of a huge puddle. Behind the puddle lies the mother of Cambodian guesthouses, the Capitol Restaurant and Hotel, my destination.
I climb up a dark narrow flight of stairs to the office, and ask for a room. The only vacancies are the $3 basic rooms without shower or toilet. Not exactly luxurious, but I am assured of being upgraded the following day to the $4 suite with toilet, shower and balcony. All the rooms, the manager grandly informs me, come equipped with fan and four poster bed with mosquito net canopy.  I pay the $3 room charge, dump everything on the bed and hurry outside to the sad, beckoning streets of Pnom Penh.
Later that week, while searching for peanut butter in a downtown minimarket, I meet a group of American officers, part of the US delegation assisting Cambodia in roadbuilding. Over the past decade, numerous countries have aided Cambodia in demining, roadbuilding, and restoration of ancient temple sites. The Americans ask how I’m managing in Phnom Penh. When I describe my “luxurious” surroundings, they invite me to join them at the pool of the Sofitel Cambodiana where they are stationed, courtesy of US taxpayers.
If the Cambodians seem focused on their ‘here and now’, the expatriate community embraces the good life even more heartily. Three locales are popular with the expats in Phnom Penh: the No Problem Café, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and the Sofitel Cambodiana Hotel.  All are tastefully designed to erase reality. The Café boasts a pool table while the FCC offers gin and tonic and black leather settees, but the Sofitel Cambodiana is the ultimate in escape therapy, with plush carpets, subdued lighting and impeccable service.
The switch from grubby Capitol backpacker to Sofitel Cambodiana poolside lady of leisure is disconcerting. It takes me a few minutes to refocus, much like going from boardroom to bedroom. So here I am, sipping fruit juice on a chaise lounge, far away from poor, battered Cambodia, when I hear a conversation in French about problems with an English translator for an official dinner that evening.
With blatant chutzpah (nobody knows you, so you can’t make too big a fool of yourself) I turn around, introduce myself and admit to overhearing their conversation. “I would be honored to translate for you,” I offer in my rusty French. “That would be marvelous, Madame,” the two gentlemen reply. “Dinner is at 8 o’clock this evening. Are you staying here, or may we collect you from your hotel?” Having them show up at the Capitol in a fancy car doesn’t seem like such a great idea. “I’ll meet you here in the lobby at 7:45,”  I suggest.
Only after bidding the French gentlemen farewell and sauntering toward the pool exit does it hit me: I have nothing to wear! Jeans and an “I dig jazz” T-shirt don’t seem appropriate. I need a fairy godmother, or her local rep.
“Take me to Psar Cha,” I tell the cyclo driver. “Quickly!” At the market, near the stalls selling textiles, a bevy of women stitch away at ancient foot-powered sewing machines. I tap one of the seamstresses on her shoulder. Out of my pouch I pluck pen and paper, and then quickly sketch a long straight skirt and tunic top. She nods her head in understanding. Together, we choose a bolt of green raw silk with gold embroidered borders from an adjacent stall, and after successful haggling (her, not me) with the cloth merchant, the two of us return to her work area. Surrounded by giggling women, I strip to my underwear so my seamstress can take measurements.
“I need this clothing in three hours,” I pantomime. The ladies giggle their agreement.
Three hours later, the outfit is ready. I try it on, to the approval of the sewing ladies, pay the $18 bill and voila – one has what to wear, as they say in French. As for shoes, Nike Airs just don’t look right and there ain’t no glass slippers in Cambodia, so I wear my flip-flops.
The dinner goes splendidly – interesting people, great food and my translation is, in fact, quite creditable. I find myself seated next to the economic and financial consultant to the Royal Cambodian Government, whispered to be an illegitimate son of the King of Cambodia. As the evening draws to a close, I accept the profuse thanks of my hosts and à la Cinderella, quickly exit.
Returning to the Capitol by cyclo through the deserted, unlit streets, I pinch myself to make sure it isn’t all a dream. My fancy attire and the prince’s business card in my pocket assure me I am totally awake.