Dharamsala India – services

August 8th, 2006

Summit Adventures, Mr Milap Nehria, on main square in Bhagsu, for all travel arrangements www.summit-adventures.net, milap@summit-adventures.net.

Sagar High Point Adventure on Bhagsu Rd for overnight sleeper bus to Delhi

Mehra Forex money changer on Temple Rd, in Sahil Plaza – negotiate!

Rita Kapoor’s cooking classes – see separate entry – located on top of the Old German Bakery in Bhagsu.

meditation courses at Asho Institute in Bhagsu, given by Master Hardesh: One three hour session on energy chakras was enlightening and for me, sufficient.

It’s well worth a visit to the Norling Institute, 30 minutes by taxi from Dharamsala, to see how Tibetan arts and culture is being nurtured in workshops and classes. They do have rooms, and the restaurant serves fine food. www.norbulingka.org. Showroom prices of crafts are inflated.


Rita Kapoor’s recipes:palak paneer and malai kofta

August 5th, 2006

After 2 wonderful sessions in Rita Kapoor’s cooking school in Dharamsala, I can turn out creditable palak paneer and malai kofta. Here are her recipes, which we three participants madly scribbled as we worked, and then corrected as we ate:

Palak Paneer: 4 portions
1/2 kilo spinach, chopped
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup water
1/4 cup oil
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 onion, chopped fine
cheese mixture: 200 grms ricotta, paneer or tofu; 1 small sharp green pepper, finely chopped; 1 tblsp ginger, finely chopped and 1 tsp fresh garlic, finely chopped
1/4 tsp turmeric
2 peeled tomatoes
1/2 tsp Kitchen King masala spice

Cook spinach in covered pot in water with salt for 15 minutes (till very soft) and drain. Heat oil and when hot, add coriander seeds, wait till black and add chopped onion, cheese mixture, turmeric, peeled tomatoes blended (or in foodprocessor) with spinach and finally masala spice.
Cook, covered, on a low flame for 10 minutes. Serve with chapati or white rice.

Malai Kofta: 4 portions
3 tbsp oil
2 fresh bay leaves
a few crumbs of fresh cinnamon
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
3 or 4 garlic cloves
1 tblsp ginger
3 peeled tomatoes
4 or 5 cashew nuts (or 2 tblsp pinones or watermelon seeds)
1 cup water
1/2 tsp sharp paprika
1/2 tsp sweet paprika
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp butter
1 tbsp sour or sweet cream

Heat the oil and when hot, add the bay leaves, cinnamon, cumin seeds.
In blender, mix together the  garlic and ginger with 1/2 cup water and add to hot oil.
In blender, mix tomatoes with nuts and 1 cup water, and add to hot oil. Add the paprikas, turmeric, and salt. Cook for 10 minutes, covered, then add the milk and butter, the curry and the sour or sweet cream.

1 cooked potato
1/2 cup cheese or tofu, grated
11/2 tblsp grated coconut
2 tblsp flour
drop of baking powder
1 tsp butter
raisins and cashews

Mix and knead all ingredients together to egg-shaped forms. With finger, make hole in center of each and insert raisins and cashews. Pinch closed. Fry in deep oil till golden, and drain.
Serve on plate, with sauce on top, add grated cheese and sour cream. 

*Recipes from Rita Kapoor, Dharamsala India August 2006

Dharamsala India – food and lodging

August 2nd, 2006

Chonor House, belonging to the Tibetan government-in-exile, is considered the top spot in Dharamsala, and the nearest thing to a 4* guesthouse. The rooms, at $60, have to be booked months in advance, which I did (via reliable Milap Nehria at Summit Adventures in Dharamsala, who also booked the a/c car from Amritsar, www.summit-adventures.net, milap@summit-adventures.net). After traveling by train and car for 2 days, it was relaxing to take long hot showers and sleep in a comfortable bed. The rooms are ethnic but shabby, rain poured in through the ceiling, and the restaurant is totally unremarkable. They also never replied to the email sent them directly. On the other hand, I did meet interesting people in the lobby. So after 2 nights, I checked out the nearby Pema Thang ($30) which unfortunately was full, but ate in the very good restaurant – Tibetan pizza! (pemathanghouse@yahoo.com, www.pemathang.net. That’s where I’d stay next time. I ended up in Bhagsu, a 10 minute walk uphill, in Akash Deep, one of the simple but clean guesthouses, where it was quieter. Bhagsunat Road has numerous backpacker cafes, Circling Dawn Cafe opposite the temple serves the best muesli and yoghurt, and salads.

My favorite restaurants in Dharamsala are Ashoka on Jogiwara Rd and Tibet Hotel on Bhagsu Rd (try the kulchas!) Vegetarian Japanese Lung Ta on Jogiwara Rd was fine for once or twice.

To be avoided: Om (near the bus stand) – worst service and food


Amritsar India

July 30th, 2006

Getting there from Delhi is easy with the overnight Golden Temple Express, advance reservation needed ($25 for 2nd class berth, clean sheets included, I slept like a baby). The main sights are the Golden Temple, Jallianwalla Bagh, Khalsa College and Wagah Border Post, and you can see them all in one day. Amritsar is hot and humid – mosquito repellent a must. I went straight from the train station to the Golden Temple, where for 3 hours I flowed in the circular pattern around and around the pool, watched men and women devotedly hand clean the marble floors, listened to the Sikh music and prayers, and entered the central shrine.  From there, it’s a 5 minute walk to Jallianwalla Bagh, a beautiful park which is the memorial site of the 1919 massacre. It’s a 10 minute taxi ride to Khalsa College, the most beautiful building in Amritsar, with spires, pillars, domes and gardens. A basic but clean restaurant, with typical vegetarian Punjabi food, is Bhrawan da Dhaba. The Wagah border post is 20 km further.

As I was continuing to Dharamsala, I had arranged in advance a private airconditioned car with driver, from pickup at the train station, all day sightseeing, and on to Dharamsala. ($100 prearranged with Summit Adventures, milap@summit-adventures.net , who also preordered my $25 Delhi-Amritsar train ticket). The other option would have been taking local taxis and then the public bus (8 hours) to Dharamsala. After an overnight train ride and a full day of sightseeing, it would have been hell. I chose heaven, and drove to Dharamsala in cool comfort, stopping occasionally at places my driver recommended for sweet hot chai and a clean bathroom. The final stretch uphill is gorgeous, around mountain peaks and through clouds, surrounded by green forests and overlooking rivers.

Treks and tours in Ladakh

July 15th, 2006

Nubra Valley, north of Leh: up and over the 5602 meter Khardung La Pass and via the world’s highest motorable road, maintained courtesy of the Indian Army, whose trucks and bases are omnipresent. Take a four wheel drive car w/driver, and if you’re afraid of heights, do NOT look down – but then you miss out on amazing views. The 3 day tour is sufficient, and includes Sumur, Diskit, Panamik and Hundur. The Panamik very unexciting hot springs can be skipped, and Hundur’s only claim to fame are the sand dunes (ignore the tourist camel rides), but the gompa (monastery) in Diskit is worth getting up at 5 am for the morning puja, and in Sumur, there are beautiful hikes around the Samstem Ling gopa. Best place to stay is Sand Dune Guesthouse in Diskit, near the main bazar, tel 01980 220022 and ask for the new rooms. 

West of Leh: a 2 day monastery tour including Likkir, Alchi, Rhidzong and Lamayuru. Each gompa has its highlight – Likkir ancient thangkas, Alchi 11th century wall murals, Rhidzong wall paintings undergoing painstaking preservation, and Lemayuru perched atop a vertical cliff.

Day trip from Leh: Stok (the palace) and Tikse, a beautiful gompa from whose roof terrace the Ladakh countryside is one big panorama.

The day trip is easily done with local transportation – minibuses run from the bus station at the bottom of downtown Leh directly to Tikse. Between Tikse and Stok, try hitching to the nearest bus stop. My lifts included a pilot come to check out the airport, and a department of education official who’d been visiting the Tibetan refugee camp at Choglamsar (which is equipped with solar panels for electricity – as are, astonishingly, many of the gompas we saw). 

Longer trips require booking with driver and four wheel drive, but if you’re traveling solo, it’s easy to find a group to join and share costs with. As food on the road is sporadic, travel with muesli, dried fruit and bottled water (from Dzomsa  – see Leh recommendations)

Leh Ladakh India – services and shopping

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 www.ladakhartpalace.com . 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, tundupstc@rediffmail.com, tsaraphimalayanadventure@yahoo.co.in 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, jigmetchostak@yahoo.com, momo_KT86@yahoo.com 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. rajendran70@hotmail.com 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, www.openladakh.com, openladakh@yahoo.co.in .

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

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 hotellotus@vsnl.net 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 saiman_guesthouse@yahoo.com (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

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: Treasure Hunting in Hanoi

June 15th, 2004

In 1995, I moved to Hanoi with a thirteen year old son, four suitcases and a manuscript. We lived in the Old Quarter, in a tiny house which opened onto a common courtyard. Our front door was a metal grate, which opened accordion-style to accommodate visiting bicycles, and we breakfasted on the sidewalk along with our neighbors, sitting on tiny stools and sipping fragrant bowls of beef pho with noodles.
I had taken a sabbatical to write. Every morning, after the rickety school bus collected Jack, I wrote for four hours straight. And then I was free to do as I pleased, until Jack’s return in the late afternoon.
At first, I spent every free moment exploring Hanoi’s magical alleys and markets. Only when the days fell into a routine did I realize that I was without my bookshelves, or a library, or even a bookstore. Of the four suitcases we had brought, one was packed with books. Within a month, I had read them all.
I combed embassies, cultural centers, even hotel lobbies, but found only faded photocopies and technical handbooks. I was irritable and frustrated. Jack complained my withdrawal symptoms were driving him crazy, and would I please keep my hands off his schoolbooks.
And then I discovered the Green Bamboo. A typical Asian backpacker cafe, the Green Bamboo in Hanoi offered soothing fruitshakes and banana pancakes. Backpackers lolled for days, writing postcards and reading. And before moving on, these international wanderers would sell the books they had read, now dead weight in their packs.
The Green Bamboo had a whole wall of used paperbacks, arranged on wooden shelves behind dirty glass doors –  familiar books I was thrilled to reread, and new authors I discovered.  And best of all, every week meant new backpackers and new books.
Every Sunday, I strolled down busy Hang Bong Street, past the camera shops and clothing stalls, the stationery stores and noodle restaurants. Ignoring the art galleries, the uniformed schoolchildren and the dance hall, I burst into the Green Bamboo, lured by the seductive call of books, more books, new books. The young Vietnamese who worked in the cafe would point out the latest acquisitions. When the books were too many to carry, I rode home by cyclo. Seated in the small rickshaw with my stack of books, the driver cycling behind, my happiness was complete.
A decade later, back in the Western world, it is easy for me to buy books. I can walk two blocks to the nearest bookstore, or order books online. But nothing is quite as exciting as hunting for treasure among the grimy bookshelves of the Green Bamboo.

Storytime: Hanoi and Counting

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?