Mysuru (Mysore) & Coorg

Nick and I went to the Bengaluru Train Station and stood in line to buy tickets. Of course, the line was chaotic with cutting locals and unnecessary merging. In addition, needless to say, our tickets were never checked on the train. However, as we stood on the platform we watched the sweeper women who were sweeping all of the human fecal matter off of the tracks. Life in a India is hard and there were constant reminders, like cows with split hoofs searching the streets for garbage, differently abled folks crawling on the floor of the trains begging for money or hungry street kids with eyes full of tears.

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The master wood carver

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As the train approached there was a fight to get on. Nick was able to push himself on about 10 people before myself. As he sat, a 65-year-old man from outside poked him and began yelling, “I put my handkerchief on that seat so you better move!” Obviously Nick was on the train first so the seat should belong to him. I sat down next to him and he warned me we might have an interesting encounter. The man got on and was screaming! “Move now! Get up! This is my seat!” We looked around at all of the staring locals to see whether or not this was the practice and if we should give up our seat. Of course, no one helped, as in most scenes. We have been told that many Indians fear of getting involved and raising a voice as it could turn on them. Nick told him we’d wait for the conductor but we all knew the conductor would never come. Nonetheless, he started grabbing my bag and I asked him to stop touching my things. He bounced into a boxing stance with his fists in the air saying, “Touch me see what happens! Touch me!” Nick and I looked at each other; touching him was the opposite of what we had asked. I had had it. I yelled, “Maybe if you were more kind, people would do what you asked!” Zing. I told him haha. I exasperatedly rearranged some bags on the bunk above and squished myself above, while Nick awkwardly sat next to him for the next 3 hours. This is just one of the many interesting and unpredictable encounters we’ve had in India.

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What time is it? Kannada time.

We arrived to Mysuru, home to Ashtanga Yoga, incense, essential oils, beedi (Indian cigarettes), and woodcarving. The tourist town was empty of foreigners but full of local tourists as it was a holiday weekend. We explored the Mysore Palace, grandest of India’s royal buildings. It was originally built in 1897 then rebuilt in 1912 after being destroyed by a fire. It reminded me of a palace from Beauty and the Beast or Anastasia. It was full of mirrors, stained glass, chandeliers, and gold and blue archways. At night it was decorated with 100,000 glowing lights.

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The next day, Nick and I took a series of buses to Coorg, stopping in Bylakuppe. Bylakuppe was the first ever Tibetan refugee camp established after the 1959 Chinese invasion. Within the 6km tuktuk drive we notice a difference in physical attributes, attitude, architecture and dress. We visited the Namdroling Monastery, ate some momos and thenthuk before continuing to Coorg.

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Namdroling Monastery

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After passing through Coorg, we took a bus (the cheapest and most dangerous rollercoaster ride we’ve ever been on) to Mukkodlu. where we expected to meet our trekking guide. Due to some miscommunication, there was no guide and we wandered until we found an inviting homestay. We hiked 8 miles to the highest peak and got some great views. The landscape was lush and green with rolling mountains. It was nice to escape the hectic cities and spend some time in nature.

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Mountain top Hindu Temple

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Sweaty Betty

Mysuru Eats:

Hotel RRR – queue for tables like at ski resorts and wait to be served veg thalis served on banana leaves (always eat with your right hand and your left is reserved for the toilet)

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Vinayaka Mylari – queue and eat masala dosas with coconut coriander chutney (no utensils will be found here)

McDonalds – We may or may not have tried McDonalds McVeg and Aloo (potato) Tikka meals.

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McVeg

Bangaluru (Bengalore)

Known for its booming IT industry, Bangaluru offers green space, craft breweries, and indoor bouldering gyms. This city was the most progressive, clean, and at times Nick and I forgot that we were in India. We noticed a change from the north to south, the food became spicier and the aggressive personalities became more rare.

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We spent time walking around Cubbon Park, Lalbagh Botanical Gardens and MG Road. However, we most enjoyed spending time with our wonderful CouchSurfing host. She lived in a quiet old neighborhood and the second we walked into her home it felt comfortable. It smelt of essential oils and we spent hours with our feet up on her coffee table discussing gender inequality, demonetization, GMOs and labor conditions in the Middle East (as she previously lived in Saudi Arabia).

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Her views were extremely progressive and she helped explain to us why conservative Indians view women of rape as stained or adopted kids as less. Being the first single female local willing to discuss these deep topics with me we were able to laugh about how ironic it is that in India you end up apologizing for having something stolen or your body sexualized. Perpetrators play it off so casually you question weather or not you are yelling or accusing someone of nothing. She answered some of our questions, like why transgendered woman clap in your face on the train asking for money. She told us that transgendered kids are taken away from their families at a young age to live in communities. They are believed to have a sort of “magic” where they can bless you (for a fee) or curse you. It is common for Hindu men to give as many fear this magic.

Our CouchSurfer took us to a local theatre to see a documentary, we ordered late night take out and ran errands. Nick and I have been to uncountable markets, however exploring the Krishnarajendra Market with her was a treat. We picked up cottons and silks for her dressmaking, jewelry, vegetables, and kitchenware. We were thankful for this experience so our host but also thankful for our passport. As we have been constantly reminded by CouchSurfers how lucky we are to be from a country that has valued currency and access to visas. However, we are also reminded how much fear our current administration is creating worldwide.

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Eats:

Indira Darshini- try the paper masala dosa (curried vegetables in a large crisp crepe), kesari bhath (sweet polenta like texture with nuts and raisin) and filtered coffee

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Sweets – between fadoola, curd, sweet balls, jalabis and vermicelli noodles soaked in saffron milk, anyone with a sweet tooth will go nuts

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Fadoola (noodles, basil seeds, ice cream, jello, saffron juice, and curd)

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Sajjan Rao Circle – street food

Toit Brewpub – 5 microbrews on tap

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“Sending it since 2010”

Ice apple – an asian fruit with a texture similar to lychee, rambothan or longan, this palm fruit is now one of my favorites

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Ice Apple

 

Goa & Hampi

Nick and I spent 4 days and 3 nights in Goa. Our guidebook described the beaches we visited; Palolem, Agonda and Patnem as hippie backpacker chill outs with cheap bungalows, drugs, and silent (headphone) dance parties. That is the definition of what Nick and I try to avoid, however everyone talks about Goa and we figured we should go.

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Agonda, Goa

We arrived in April and to our pleasant surprise it was dead. Visiting during off-season we enjoyed abandoned towns, quiet beaches and spending time doing absolutely nothing. We hadn’t realized it had been months since we just stopped and relaxed, and it was needed. We met up with our friends form Angola and spent our time eating mediocre tourist food, playing Uno, setting off fireworks, swimming in the ocean and just hanging out.

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After taking a sleeper bus to Hampi it reaffirmed our love for India’s rail transit. In the 2 months we’ve spent in India we will have spent 6 overnights on trains. The system is cheap (subsidized), efficient, and comfortable. We’ve met so many wonderful people on the trains and at the stations. Nick and I have a blast arriving to a city and figuring out the train, tuktuk, Uber, plane and bus systems.

Visiting India during the off-season has been wonderful, however the heat was hard. It’s been on average 105-110 degrees and we haven’t had ac in 3 weeks. We wake up in the middle of night sweating; try taking a cold shower, only to find that the water is turned off. It feels like my clothes are consistently damp, however the perks of the off-season outweigh the heat by a hundred fold.

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Hampi

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We spent time in Hampi exploring the ancient ruins dating from the 11th – 13th century. In the 16th century, this now World Heritage Site was once a thriving capital home to 500,000 individuals. My favorite artifact was a large granite Ganesh, while nick liked the elephant stables in the Zenana Enclosure. We saw many young females with shaved heads and learned that it’s common when traveling to Hampi to offer your hair to the temples. The town was quant, empty, meatless and alcohols free. Every morning locals painted the street in front of their home with cow feces and water to welcome guests. We were told that Hindus believe cows resemble their mothers as their provide nourishment to their fields, thus cow fertilizer is sacred.

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Stone Chariot

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Elephant Stables
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“Take my family’s photo.”

 

The ruins were thought provoking but what I thought made Hampi magical was its landscape. A sea of round granite boulders with beautiful cracks engulfed yellow planes with palm trees. It resembled a scene from Jurassic park. Nick and I spent 2 days bouldering, as it is world famous for its problems. However, since we seem to have lost most of our climbing strength and the blistering sun made it difficult, we didn’t spend too much time on the rocks. It is obvious why travelers (climbers specifically) could spend months in Hampi.

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Bouldering in Hampi
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Crashing on crash pads

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We met our friends from Angola again and it had been nice seeing familiar faces throughout India. We rented bicycles and were told to bike 3 km along the river to spend the afternoon swimming in waterfalls. Needless to say, the next few hours we wandered around banana plantations, got lost in the desert, cooled off in a lagoon (thankfully no crocodiles were spotted) and we reached the falls only to find rocks. It seemed like the bike rental shop and all of the locals along the way forgot to mention the water dries up during the spring. After flipping over the handlebars of my bike and scrapping up my hands we ended the evening with some Uno before taking a sleeper train to Bangaluru.

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Goan Eats:

The Cafe – set veg breakfast, amazing.

New world – expensive organic/veg restaurant, we enjoyed a delectable paneer steak

Little world – cheap tourist food

Feni (cashew liquor) – try the local cashew nuts, cachew fruit or alcohol made from the fruit

Hospet (Hosapete) Eats:

Udupi Sri Krishna Bhavan (across from the bus stand) – impeccable. The set dosa cost 45 R (70 cents) or try some idlis (spongy round fermented rice cake) and vada (fried dough) for breakfast.

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Breakfast Idly and Vada
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Breakfast Puri
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Half eaten set dosa with coriander coconut chutney

Hampi Eats:

Mango Tree – the special thali is huge (130 R)

Laughing Buddha – great hangout overlooking the river

Mumbai (Bombay)

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Mumbai sits on a narrow peninsula that juts into the Arabian Sea. This congested and densely populated city is home to 25 million people. The public transit system is poor, however the business district is booming and many famous Bollywood actors and actresses live here.

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Nick and I spent 3 days Couchsurfing in Mumbai. Our host took us out for late night rides to the beach, kulfi ice cream, paan (refreshment leaf) and tours of Bollywood homes. I particularly had an interesting experience as his views of women made for a unique experience. However, not negative as I was excluded from conversations and actives. Nonetheless, it was a cultural experience and we were thankful for the hospitality.

We spent time wandering the south and taking in the old architecture: High Court, Gateway of India, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (awesome train station), Taj Mahal Palace (high end hotel), Chhatrapti Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, and Rajabai Clock Tower.

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Gateway of India

 

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CSVMS – Prince of Wales Museum of Western India
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High Court

We explored the bazaar district and loved the variety of fruit sold at the Crawford Market, the largest market in Mumbai. We were lucky to be there during the beginning of Alphonso mango season. We paid 400 R ($6) for 12 delicious locally grown mangos and drooled over beautiful papayas, pomegranates, cashews, dried fruits, spices, and figs.

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Crawford Market
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Alphonso Mangos

Dharavi slum- Nick and I decided to visit the Dharavi Slum, as 53% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums. This slum is home to 1 million people and stretches over 432 acres. Parts of the movie “Slum dog millionaire” were filmed in Dharavi. There are over 10,000 government registered businesses located in the slum, mostly in the leather, recycling (plastics), and pottery industry.

We were torn whether or not visiting was ethical, however decided that in order to address issues within our society we need to educate ourselves in every way possible. In addition, by booking a tour through Reality Tours & Travel, 80% of the proceeds went to community centers educating youth. Nick and I found the experience fascinating as it didn’t feel like we were in a “slum”. It felt like we were in any other part of India, walking through back alleys to a bus station. The word “slum” simply means a settlement residing on government land. The degree of poverty within slums vary, however the West puts such a negative connotation on the word. This community had shops and did the work that others would not. The jobs were dangerous (burning paint, melting aluminum and recycling plastics) and takes years off of the local’s lifespan. Since photography was prohibited (rightly so) check out the great photos we were provided.- read more on slum tourism

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Crossing the bridge to Dharavi
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Dharavi Slum – photos below by Reality Tours & Travel

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Marine Drive – Here, Nick and I watched the sunset over the Arabian Sea. The twinkling night-lights of Mumbai were nicknamed, ‘the queens necklace’, and hundreds of locals gathered for the evening. Unfortunately, we couldn’t actually see the sun set due to the dense air pollution.

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Sunset at Marine Drive

Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat- This 140 year old area is known as the largest human powered washing machine. Thousands of kilograms of clothes are cleaned a day and there are over 1,026 open air troughs.

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Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat – human powered washing machine

Bombay Panjrapole- 300 homeless cows are located in the middle of the city. Goats, donkeys and dogs can be found and they are all provided shelter and fed.The Mumbai Wall Project – Nick and I wandered parallel from Bandra to Colaba train stations. The 2 km wall of street art addressed issues regarding pollution, gender equality, aborting females, and child abuse. Although the majority of the wall seemed to be repainted, the murals left were thoughts provoking and beautiful.

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Malabar Hill- At the tip of the peninsula, Nick and I roamed around an exclusive and quiet neighborhood. The homes were large and it felt like we escaped the chaos of Mumbai for just a few minutes. Hidden between streets, we visited Banging Tank where kids played and Hindu pilgrims bathed.

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Banganga Tank

Food:

-Try a bombil (Bombay Duck) thali, it’s sun dried fish that’s then deep fried.

 

-Near Marine Drive there is an amazing kulfi shop that serves pre sliced ice cream between wafers.

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bhel puri at Chowpatti (beach food trucks ) *excellent fadoolas

Jodhpur & Udaipur

Nick and I spent 2 days in Jodhpur, the blue city. Traditionally, the highest caste, Brahmins or priests, painted their homes blue. Now, not only Brahmins, but also individuals in other castes paint their homes blue to add to the vibrant hue of the city.

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Jodhpur, the blue city

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Like in most Rajasthani cities, the prize of the city was the fort. We explored the fort, the clock tower and watched little donkeys carry heavy loads of rocks to and from work sites throughout the city.

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Jodhpur’s clock tower

We took an 8-hour government bus to the last Rajasthani city on our list, Udaipur. On the ride we noticed a change in dress. Local males wore hot pink or enormous turbans (pagris), which we learned, can tell one’s region, caste and social class. The women wore thick matching plastic bangles from their shoulders to their wrists. Widest near the shoulder then smallest toward the elbow. Then they would start again, the widest at their elbow and smallest at their wrist. No part of their arm was exposed and the funnel of plastic was very unique to this area.

Udaipur is known as the city of (manmade) lakes. The landscape was hilly with bodies of water dispersed throughout. Nick and I CouchSurfed with an extremely friendly family, which included, Raja (King), Rani (Queen) and their daughter. We enjoyed interesting conversations and researched international universities that offer scholarships to Indian citizens for their daughter. The mother and daughter were more than upset to find out I wasn’t carrying any cosmetics on me as they love foreign cosmetics. The mother told us that she felt unlucky to have been born in India, as she was an intelligent and hard working woman, but her currency wasn’t worth anything and because acquiring foreign visas is difficult for Indian residents she will never be able to leave. When her husband, Raja asked us about our new president, Rani interrupted, only to tell us that a famous Bollywood actor (who has god-like status in India) went to visit the U.S. however was either refused or the process took hours, as he was Muslim. Later in Mumbai, we drove past this Bollywood actor’s house, to hear the story again by another CouchSurfer. Exaggerated or not, this was extremely embarrassing and a terrible reflection of our new administration and the travel ban.

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CouchSurfing with Rani (Queen)

On our first evening in Udaipur, Nick and I hiked a small hill to enjoy a sunset point. The next day we visited a famous 18th-century haveli (Bagore-Ki-Haveli) with 138 rooms and the city palace. This palace, built in 1599 was the largest in Rajasthan. It was the most restored and really gave a complete understanding of what it must have been like as a royal family at that time. The palace was enormous and grand and the museum seemed to go on forever. After, Nick got a 40 R ($.62) straight razor shave.

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Sunset over Udaipur, the lake city
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Nick dancing with Rajasthani puppets at Bagore-Ki-Haveli
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City Palace

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Nick’s 62 cent straight razor shave

The next day, we visited a Hindu temple at the center of town and Nick worked on applications. The end of our trip is beginning to come into sight and neither of us are ready. We walked around some lakes and experienced a hindu funeral. We saw parade of men walking by us as and they threw flowers onto a deceased man they carried. His face was powdered with colors. We watched as his body slowly turned into a cloud of smoke. We were thankful to experience this tradition. We learned that woman are never allowed to attend funerals, as they are more emotional than men. Some foreign traditions seem strange, however at least wives are no longer being burned with the husbands. We ended our last day by visiting the Monsoon Palace (Sajjan Garh) for a beautiful sunset with psychotic and aggressive food driven monkeys.

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View from Mansoon Palace

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Sajjan Garh

 

Favorite Eats:

  • Hotel Priya- best lassi ever. Thick yellow custard flavored with saffron topped with dried fruits and nuts. They also have the biggest dosas ever!
  • Om Juice – right behind the northern gate, serves great mango lassis
  • Start the morning at an omelet shop at the northern gate and wash it down with some chai
  • Millets of Mewar – a delicious organic Indian fusion restaurant that offers vegan and gluten free options.

Camel Trek

From Pushkar, Nick and I took a bus to Ajmer, a train to Phulera, and another train to Jaisalmer. Although 18 hours of transit and feeling ill we made the best of our situation and made a friend at 2 am in the station. As we approached our destination, we peered from the window of the train and watched as a massive fort emerge from the sand. It resembled a life-sized sand castle sitting in the middle of the desert, overlooking a gold city below. The inside of the fort was extravagant, however different from the many other forts we’ve visited in Rajasthan. Built in 1156, it holds 3,000 residents and resembled more of an ancient city with crumbling infrastructure than a well preserved historic site.

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Jaisalmer Fort
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The Gold City
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Homes inside of the fort

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Outside of the fort, Nick and I enjoyed good views and, of course, impeccable food. The streets were more quant in Jaisalmer, however as always, honking motorbikes and cows eating trash roamed the lanes. The desert heat was extreme as temperatures reached 110 F and observing nomadic life in the desert was unfathomable.

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Haveli

The next morning, Nick and I began our camel trek. You may be thinking, a little hypocritical, I often write in my posts to do research before riding elephants. Nick and I have looked into riding camels and with Sahara Travels in Jaisalmer the camels are very well cared for.

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Goat escape in a desert village
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mud home

Our guide, Napu, Nick, and I rode our camels in a line for a few hours and visited a desert village. The camels had 1 hump and were taller and more slender than the camels we rode in Mongolia. However, this made sense due to their environment. When the sun became too strong, we relaxed under a tree, what seemed like the only shade for miles. A nearby goat herder joined us, and he and our guide must have had a deal as he gave us fresh milk for chai and in exchange we all drank tea and ate lunch together. Providing fresh milk for our tea entailed taking my empty water bottle, squirting milk into it from 3 goats utters and pouring it into our chai.

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Goat herder, providing us fresh milk for chai

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Over lunch, Nick and I had some touching conversations with our guide. As I was reading, Untouchable, I had many questions about India’s caste system, Hinduism, and woman’s role in society. Napu told us that in the villages, the caste system is still very much alive. It determines your job, friends and who you’ll be arranged to marry. Speaking in perfect English, we were shocked to learn that he never attended school. He could not read or write and this seemed to trouble him. Some of the other boys in his village were able to get an education (none of the females) but he began guiding camel trips at the early age of 14 (he is now 20). He had never left Jaisalmer and said that sometimes when he sleeps, he prays that he wasn’t born in India. We asked him why and he said, “Because Indians follow and change isn’t happening quick enough.” He heard that in China, years ago, they had a similar caste system and arranged marriages and that gave him hope because if a China had changed, India too could change. Nick and I often find individuals that work in tourism have it tough as they idealize Western culture, however are stuck in the confinements of their own.

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After lunch and some deep discussions, Napu let us “drive” our own camels, although they knew exactly where they were going. We spent the next few hours riding along and enjoying the sandy landscape. A dog that had been following us the entire trek was running ahead of us, laying in shade, then catching back up to us. We were told he was a “wild” dog but had recently began following treks. As we passed through a village, 3 dogs attacked the dog following us and had him pinned to the ground. They were going to kill him. When he finally got away there was blood all over his neck and head. Again, they tried to attack but Napu chased them away on his camel (this was a sight!) The dog was persistent and followed us in the heat and hot sand to the dunes where we camped for the evening. When I tried to give the dog water he was extremely uncomfortable, as he had probably zero positive human interaction. However, he soon let me poor water into his mouth.

That evening, we enjoyed sleeping under the full moon on the sand dunes among the dung beetles and mosquitos. We were only 55 miles from Pakistan but all we could see was desert. I woke up several times just to take in the view, and unconsciously check on the dog. The dog got attached again as he obviously was in another dog’s territory. After that, he slept next to Nick and I. I was so concerned for this dog that it seemed silly. Sure, have compassion for all sentient beings and if you can prevent a death, obviously do so. However, I don’t think I was as fixated on this particular dog, rather what the dog represented.

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Sleeping beauty

I felt as if this dog represented all of the street kids in India. I have the ability to give some food and water, enough to survive for x amount of time, however by doing so I habituating a behavior. I am ultimately making the matter worse only to feel like I’ve helped. There are so many people that need help, support and compassion and I don’t have enough for everyone. I felt conflicted. The next morning, I gave the dog a little more water and he patiently waited our group to pack up before eating the scraps we left behind. He had enough energy to hunt a small desert antelope, however was unsuccessful. We rode the camels for a few hours back to Napu’s village where we said goodbye to our guide and the dog.

Nick and I would have loved to do a longer trek, however since we had to buy our train tickets in advance (as they fill up quickly) we were on a constant schedule. India is a large diverse country and 2 months is not nearly enough time to explore it.

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Local Recommendations:

Chandan Shree Restaurant – serves spicy Rajasthani, Punjabi, South Indian, Gujarati and Bengali dishes.

Hotel Fort View – cheap and clean rooms (250 R) with friendly staff and zero pressure to book a camel trek.

Sahara Tours – great camel treks, cheaper than other companies in town, ask for Napu.

Try breakfast from a street cart across from Sahara Tours. It’s similar to a large papadam covered in curry with fresh red onion.

Bhang Shop – This government authorized shop sells a variety of bhang lassis, juices, cookies and candies. It also appeared on Anthony Boudain’s tv show and there are photos plastered on the walls to prove it.

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Jaipur & Pushkar

We arrived to Jaipur, the pink city (although I thought more peach) by train. We ate delectable masala paneer dosas at the train station before catching a 45 R ($0.69) Uber to our CouchSurfing host’s home. Nick and I love Couchsurfing as we meet local people and learn about a city from the inside. Our host’s wife, a professional cook, made us delicious homemade meals and we enjoyed spending time on the rooftop, watching kites litter the sky.

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Jaipur, the pink city

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CouchSurfing at Joshi’s

Our first full day in Jaipur, we visited Jantar Mantar, an observatory built in 1728. This UNESCO World Heritage site included “instruments of calculation” and the world’s largest sundial. After, we visited Hawa Mahal and walked up an ancient tower for a view of the city. Next, we visited Tiger Fort.

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Hawa Mahal, 1799
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The world’s largest sundial

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Tiger Fort

On our second day, we woke up, drank creamy lassis and headed to the Amber Fort. This expansive fort with secret alleys and rooms was built in 1599. It was amazing to see how many tourists were interested in riding elephants when there are warnings in our guidebook and on the internet that suggest not to encourage the poor condition in which these animals are kept and treated. When elephants are being jabbed by their owner, ridden along city roads with honking motorbikes, and have open sores, maybe you should considering walking. Outside of the fort, Nick and I walked to an old stepwell. After, we visited the Albert Museum before running some errands and heading back to Joshi’s, our Couchsurfing host. We spent the evening hanging out with a couple from Angola and discussed hip-hop, corruption and exchanged travel stories.

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Lassiwalla
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Amber Fort

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Panna Meena Baori (stepwell)

After 3 nights in Jaipur, Nick and I packed our bags and headed to Pushkar. Pushkar is known by locals as a Hindu pilgrimage town with a holy lake and over 52 bathing ghats. No meat, alcohol or eggs were served in this town. It is also a touristed hippie backpacker oasis that offered cheap accommodations and food. The town was extremely friendly and Nick and I found that the western influence seemed to have positive influence on the local culture rather than negative like we’ve seen in other parts of Asia. Most travelers seemed to spend 1 week to 3 months there, when we asked some foreigners how they filled their time, they simply said, “drink chai.” After 2-days of exploring and meeting up with our friends from Angola, Nick and I avoided the tempting trap to relax and continued on our way.

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Pushkar
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3 of 52 bathing ghats

Agra & No Tigers

Nick and I left Delhi and took the train to Agra. We spent a day exploring the town, visiting Subhash Bazaar and trying local sweets (petha and gajak). We passed the Agra Fort and crossed the river for a view of the Taj Mahal at sunset. Although beautiful, the tuk tuk driver who previously scammed us and the dense air pollution slightly took away from the awe.

The next morning we woke with the intentions of seeing the Taj at sunrise. We walked to the ticket counter and because we arrived prior to opening, we were forth in line. Eventually the office opened, and for the next hour and a half we’d be pushed and shoved in a line that didn’t serve as a line. There were Indian males in the foreigner female queue buying 20 individual tickets for a group. As like most “lines” in India, it turned into a chaotic mess.

We stood in another long line divided by sexes before we finally entered the compound. As we walked trough a final doorway we were struck with the beauty of the grand white mausoleum. Built in 1632, it took over 20 years to construct the complex. It was built by Emperor Shah Jahan after his 3rd wife (Mumtaz Mahal) died while giving birth to her 14th child. Jahan was later imprisoned by his son and he could only see his work from the window of his cell in the Agra Fort. Although highly touristed, this must be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It’s simple yet ornate design, detailed calligraphy and huge arched recesses make for an extremely satisfying structure. Inside the main building we got a closer look at the extravagant marble screens and precious gems.

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The Taj was under restoration as air pollution stains the marble.
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The marble is cleaned with a lime-rich clay mixture
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Taj Mahal Mosque

As Nick and I left the compound we tried to catch the free public shuttle back to the ticket office. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much luck. We were told it was reserved and to walk 50 m to another, only to walk back and repeat the process multiple times. We soon found out that the free shuttles funded by the government weren’t offered to us as guides were paying shuttle drivers to take their tour groups, so the free shuttle was no longer free or available to individuals without a guide. From shuttle drivers in Agra and teachers in Ladakh to guides at Ranthambhore, it is obvious there is an enormous amount of corruption within government positions.

Overall, Agra was an interesting place. High poverty and high tourism created an interesting dynamic. The majority of locals associated white skin with money. Multiple times we were told “Oh, USA, very rich country. You must be very rich,” or asked our salaries only to be told half of our salaries paid for rent. We hadn’t felt this degree of push, buy, money since Vietnam. Between the air pollution, 103-degree heat, getting counterfeit change, butt grabs, and unreliable electricity and water, we had an interesting experience that we hadn’t yet (entirely) felt in India.

The next day Nick and I took the bus to Fatehpur Sikri where we explored an ancient city built by the Munghal’s in 1571 and a mosque. The sandstone palace was fascinating and elaborately carved. As we walked around this compound it felt like we were walking through the set of the HBO show Gladiator. We left this compound and spent time around the local mosque, Jama Masjid, which reflected Persian and Indian design.

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Fatehpur Sikri, 1571
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Jama Masjid (mosque), 1571

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We soon found out our train to Sawai Madhopur was canceled and had to change plans. We ended up bussing to Bharatpur, where we stayed for 150 Ruppes ($2.30) and were certainly a sight as we were arrived during the off-season and there were no other foreigners. From there we took a train to Sawai Madhopur where we planned to visit Ranthambhore National Park and hopefully see some wild tigers!

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bus ride to Bharatpur

As the train left for Sawai Madhopur, we watched the landscape quickly turn to desert. Sand covered fields, the sun was strong and the land flat. When we arrived we walked to a guesthouse and passed elaborately painted camels that were decorated in beads and pompoms. We took an afternoon safari in Ranthambhore National Park where over 70 tigers live. We saw a unique landscape, antelope the size of moose, deer, crocodiles, peacocks and birds. The jeep in front of us spotted a tiger but we weren’t so lucky. Although beautiful, our rowdy jeep of 20 local men didn’t seem phased that we were more likely to see tiger if we were quiet. We woke up the next morning at 3:50 am to try a morning safari but between our hotheadedess, corruption and not wanting a repeat of yesterday we decided to save the money and walk back to the guesthouse.

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Ranthambhore National Park

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Days in India are long, especially when they don’t go as planned (and they never do). It’s hard work and easy to get down, but when you sit and eat the most delicious paneer punjabi and sip on chai in a rinky dink hut, you remember that you are in mother fucking India! And it’s not about the things you do or the wild tigers you see or don’t see, it’s about being present and watching cows eat cardboard and beautiful women peering through their sheer brightly colored sarais. It’s about letting go of the many butt grabs and stares and making friends on trains. It’s about shoving your face with street food, taking in Muslim architecture, eating with Sikhs, participating in Hindu festivals and sneezing at spice markets. All of it’s annoyances (and there are many) undeniably add to its magic.

*Another thank you to Nick who has done a terrific job with the majority of planning!

Local recommendations:

Sweets- try Petha, a square sweet made from pumpkin and glucose, it resembles a sugar water injected dried papaya. Also try gajak, a sweet crunchy biscuit, available October- April.

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Gajak – a sweet crunchy biscuit

Cafe- 1/2 off any pizza over 150 R from 1-2 pm and 7-8 pm

Suoma Guesthouse, Bharatpur – We showed up off-season and were the only tourists in town. The owner “baby” was extremely friendly and only charged us 150 R ($3) for a room. We’d highly recommend this guesthouse.

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Finding out our friends, Larry & Kaitlin, are joining us on the last 3 months of our trip (Nepal, Indonesia, NZ & Australia)!

Delhi

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India’s capital, Delhi, is home to 25 million people. It’s an enormous city filled with fresh fruit stands, western influence, delectable cuisine and rich culture. Overall, Delhi was less chaotic than I expected and the people were friendly and helpful. Delhi lacked the aggressiveness that I experienced in Kolkata and not only did I feel comfortable, a man told me when I should cut the 50 person metro line, because I was a lady. The smells, colors, and tastes made the city fascinating.

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Hindu Alter
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Flowers drying on the rooftops of Delhi

The first two nights in Delhi, Nick, Dan and I stayed at Mr. Charan’s apartment, through AirBnB. Young guests were in and out and he seemed to be making a pretty decent business from his apartment. He generously took us to a Sikh Temple, Gurudwara Bangla Sahib (as he is Sikh) and was able to give us the behind the scenes tour. First, both genders had to cover their hair and wash their feet before entering. We entered the temple where many people were praying then walked around the enormous pool located behind the temple where individuals splashed water on their heads. It was a beautiful complex and we learned a lot about the religion. We learned that the Sikh religion is a rather new religion and started from a holy war. Sikhs accept every religion; they never cut their hair and most avoid consuming alcohol and meat. Later, we accepted an offering, which tasted like a ball of sticky sweet flour and continued on to the kitchen for dinner.

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Our Air B&B Oasis
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Gurudwara Bangla Sahib (Sikh Temple)

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Hundreds of people entered the kitchen and sat crossed legged in rows. Volunteers handed each person a silver plate, threw us chapatti, which we accepted with both hands, and spooned us dhal (lentils) and potato curry. It was mandatory that we finish all of the food and it was an experience, we were thankful to be included in. This temple served dinner everyday from 5pm- 10pm and anyone, Sikh or not, would be served. Rooms were available and individuals could spend 1 night to 1 month there. It didn’t feel like Dehi’s street community took advantage of these services, and walks of all life, joined together.

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Eating dinner at a Sikh Temple

That night, we spent the evening hanging out with a both locals and foreigners at Charan’s. Charan joked about Sikhs having receding hair lines due to their turbines and a recently married coupled joked about weddings in the north of India being better than the south. We exchanged travel stories with a German, Chinese and Canadian who were also staying with Charan. In this moment, I felt thankful for all of the people that have shaped my travels and added to my global perspective.

The next morning we joined Street Connections on a walk of Old Delhi. Salaam Baalak Trust ran this program, a non-profit supporting street kids. Not only was our money helping this non-profit, our guide was a young beneficiary who spent 14 years with Salaam Baalak Trust. This trust has been working with street kids in Delhi since 1988, and was recently recognized by Michelle Obama. They have contact points where they provide medical care and education to street kids, and 6 centers where they home a total of 6,000 boys and girls. They perform sting operations in factories that rescue child laborers.

We spent the morning wandering around crumbling mansions (homes with windows facing the interior) and embroidery factories. We walked through Muslim, Jain, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian communities. We learned a little about Jainism and how the religion is similar to Buddhism, however more strict. Jains are not only vegetarian, however they will not eat root vegetables as they believe when they are removed from the ground it kills a plants life. A sect of Jainism is nudist and wears masks to avoid inhaling micro insects. We realized that the nude individuals we saw hauling goods on a highway in Kolkata must have been Jains. Later, we visited the largest spice market in Asia and although pleasantly aromatic, we coughed and sneezed the entire time. I learned about the health benefits of various teas, long pepper, black salt (which smelt like eggs), saffron, Indian cinnamon and turmeric. We ended the tour at the shelter home where our guide was raised.

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Embroidery factory
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Asia’s largest spice market
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Sneezey spices
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Drying papadums on the roof

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When he was 5, both of his parents died and him and his sister moved in with their aunt, and only living relative. She treated them as servants and he eventually ran away. He caught a train and that brought him to Delhi. He joined other street kids picking up plastic bottles in exchange for money and got hooked to hard drugs at the age of 5. Drug dealers try to hook children as it guarantees lifelong customers. When a police officer caught him picking up garbage, he sent him to Salaam Baalak. The non-profit gave him the option of returning home or joining their program. He joined, and is now a guide for Street Connections and studying theatre. He had his first feature in a Bollywood movie and will move to Germany to marry his fiancé. An unbelievable story and when we saw the movie feature, awe-inspiring. This program seems to be doing a fantastic job housing, educating, nurturing and mentoring children.

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Salaam Baalak Trust kids

After visiting Ladakh, Nick, Dan and I returned to Delhi and explored the Red Fort and took a cooking class. We eventually said goodbye to Dan, and Nick and I explored Delhi for one last day. We woke up early to meet some locals at Jama Masjid, a calm mosque that sits in the middle of Old Delhi (25,000 person capacity). Later, we visited the  Lodhi Gardens and India Gate.

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Cooking class at Nitin’s home.
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Jama Masjid
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Making friends at morning prayer

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Old mosque at Lodhi Gardens
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Old tomb at Lodhi Gardens
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India Gate

Eats:

Haldiram’s – The most delicious cafeteria-style food and sweets I’ve ever had.

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Haldiram’s tikka paneer and sweet lassi

SodaBottleOpenerWala – A hip and an outstanding authentic Persian restaurant.

Jalebiwala – Best jalebis (syrupy fried dough sweets) in Delhi.

Karim’s – Meat mecca, Nick loved Karim’s roll.

Rajdhani – MUST TRY! Rajasthani vegetarian thalis.

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Rajdhani’s thali

Ladakh

Within a half an hour of departing Delhi we were flying above the Himalayas to Ladakh (land of passes). The snow-covered glaciers were astonishing and soon we were descending through the clouds. All we could see was white until we were eye level with jagged mountains. My heart skipped a beat as I remembered the number of flights that had crashed in Jomsom. I remembered flying next to the remnants of a plane that had crashed a week prior and knew how often accidents happened. However, luckily this flight was in a larger aircraft and anytime that I’m nervous, I put my faith in the universe.

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Landing in Leh, Ladakh
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Leh, Ladakh

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The plane landed at 11,500 feet and we took in our surroundings of white peaks and sandy desert hills. We spent the next day acclimatizing and exploring the town of Leh. There were virtually no other tourists and the combination of Tibetan culture and Mongolian dress made me reminisce. We visited the local monastery where locals practicing Tibetan Buddhism were spinning prayer wheels and reciting “om mani padme hum” (a compassion mantra to relieve all sentient beings from suffering) on their mala beads. We noticed the many closed shops and guesthouses and were thankful we came during the off-season. We were told that in the summer, it’s so busy that it’s hard to even spot locals at the market. As long as we could put up with the cold (high of 40s and low of 10s) then we would be rewarded with authentic interactions and pristine views. As we walked through town we were greeted with smiles and “tashidelay” (hello in Tibetan) or “julay” (hello in Ladhky).

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Tibetan Buddhism
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Mountain Monastery

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Leh is an interesting city. Hunting and fishing is illegal in Ladakh and the town is powered by hydropower. Due to the heavy snowfall in the winter, the town lacks Internet access. The affects of tourism and global warming are very real. It is positioned in between the border of China and Pakistan, which results in a high military presence. There are many Tibetan refugees living in Ladakh who seek independence from China and nearby Muslims in Kashmir who have the support of Pakistan are fighting for independence. This area is rich in diversity and is politically complex.

We passed the Dalai Lama’s vacation residence and explored Thicksey and Hemmis Monastery. We felt lucky to be the only tourists as it made our experience more meaningful. We listened to the monk’s morning prayer and were perplexed when we saw monks with dreadlocks. We were told that these monks recently spent 3, 6 or 12 years meditating in solitude in caves in the mountains. They had no human contact and would only leave the cave at night to relieve themselves. A younger monk would deliver food, and the other monks idolized their sacrifice. I learned about this idea when I visited Nepal, however had never seen any monks who recently achieved this hardship.

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Hemmis Monastery

Later, we visited the nine-story Leh Palace built in the 17th century and Tsemo Fort.

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View of Leh from palace

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We spent the next 6 days trekking, 4 of which were in the Sham Valley. We had some breathtaking views of the Himalayas and starry night sky. The 2 feet of snow and freezing temperatures made for an adventure. We were the first tourists of the season and enjoyed empty campsites and welcoming locals.

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14,500 ft.
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Indus River
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Prayer wheel in Yangthang Village
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“Most villagers are vegetarian, but in the winter it’s hard. We prefer to eat larger animals so we only have to kill once and can feed many.” – Pasang

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We drank butter tea (butter, salt, Darjeeling black tea and water), ate tsampa (ground barley) and enjoyed chang (local barley beer). The royal castles dated back to the 1550’s and a Buddhist monastery to the 11th century, and all had been kept in impeccable condition. On trek, we came across a deceased golden eagle that must have weighed 25 pds. Our guide carried it all the way to the next village where he gave it to locals to use the feathers on their bow and arrows.

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Trekking into Hemis Shukpachen
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Visiting a government school

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On our last day of trekking we were extremely lucky as we saw over 20 ibex. Our guide said that it was rare to see ibex in groups of more than 3 and it must have been mating season. We felt lucky to see them so close and watched the enormous elk sized animals traverse the rock face.

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Ibex

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Trekking to Skindeyang Village
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Hemis Shukpachen
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Tsermangchen Pass

A quote from, The Paradox of Our Age, written on the city walls of Leh:

“We have bigger houses but smaller families; more conveniences, but less time; we have more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgment; more experts, but more problems; more medicine, but less healthiness. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor. We built more computers to hold more information to produce more copies than ever, but less communication. We have become long on quantity, but short on quality. These are times of fast foods but slow digestion; tall man but short character; steep profit but shallow relationship. It’s a time when there is much in the window, but nothing in the room. – The Dalai Lama

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Indus River