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India and Nepal

a travel blog by Katy and Mark Lewis

Katy and I depart for our adventures into the Himalayan region on April 1st. We'll begin the trip by flying into New Delhi for a short stay before continuing on to Kathmandu, Nepal. From there, we'll begin the Annapurna Circuit, a world-famous trekking route through the Himalayas. Once we conquer Everest (or at least take a couple pictures of it), we'll spend another week in the Kathmandu Valley before returning to India to visit the Taj Mahal, explore several sites along the Ganges River, and finally to Dharamsala to visit a friend and endeavor to complete a 10-day silent meditation retreat. We invite everyone to participate in our travel blog, and perhaps we all can share some part of the essence of the trip: Discovery of land, people, culture, food, and self.
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Day One - Off to a good start

Delhi, India

Aaaaahhhh, it is good to be back in Asia! There was a small sense of accomplishment upon arriving into Delhi after a 15 hour flight from Chicago (American Airlines' longest non-stop international flight). I managed to watch three movies en route, two of which were of the Bollywood variety. These flicks quickly illustrated the materialistic capacity of what I considered to still be Ghandi's land of homespun clothing and peaceful meditation. The flight served dinner when we boarded, and then breakfast about 13 hours later, at 8pm local time.

The 30 minute ride from the airport seemed to be one long construction zone. Apparently there is a new underground metro that will be servicing the airport in the near future, bringing welcome relief to the highway traffic. After realizing this was our first visit to his country, the proud Indian driver insisted this particular night carried a strange "fog". Katy and I agreed this "fog" certainly contained potent elements of dirt and pollution. Arriving at our bungalow hotel slightly disoriented, we decided, rather effortlessly, to go to bed. By 4:30am, we were both wide awake, wondering when the sun was going to greet our day.

Overall, the city of New Delhi is surprisingly clean, with more beautiful shady trees than most urban areas. The people are generally quiet, kind, and peaceful. This seems to be not only a reflection of their collective heightened spiritual state, but also a direct result of their densely crowded condition.

The TV and newspaper coverage has been dominated by the G20 Summit and pictures of India's PM with President Obama. One gets a strong sense that India has turned a corner and no longer considers itself a "developing country", but rather a "rising world power". Indeed, India's economy is expected to be one of the few (if not only) economies that is expected to grow (not contract) in 2009. There is a feeling of pride that India might not need to be included in receiving international aid during this global economic downturn.

During today's tour, we took in the beautiful Lodhi Gardens, practically useful Khan Market, emotionally touching Indira Ghandi memorial, educational and inspiring Nehru museum, relentless Kashmir rug sales pitch, and our first local meal without contracting the infamous "Delhi belly"! We struck out on foot, but quickly hailed a rikshaw to cover more ground and get cover from the heat.

We've just met up with our friend, Courtney, who has been living here for several months. She's going to show us the local scene tonight, and then we'll depart tomorrow for somewhere else. We thought we were going to Kathmandu, Nepal tomorrow, but India's grip has proven to be too strong, so we'll remain here for a bit longer. We hope to visit Old Delhi tomorrow, which is apparently much more of an adventure.

Katy has just awoken from a nap to provide some stunning shots of our first day...

permalink written by  Katy and Mark Lewis on April 3, 2009 from Delhi, India
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Old Delhi

Delhi, India

Old Delhi was postponed due to Mark's case of the "Delhi Belly". Surely this will strengthen the tummy for more things to come!

permalink written by  Katy and Mark Lewis on April 5, 2009 from Delhi, India
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Apologies for the extended silence

Pokhara, Nepal

Due to any number of potential factors (not excluding user error/incompetence), we've been a little slow on the blog. We've kept a voluminous pace thus far, opting on a number of occasions to crash in our beds at the end of the day instead of updating the blog. For the last few weeks, we've been trekking high in the Himalayas, totally removed from internet access. We've found a fairly cheap and reliable internet cafe here in Pokhara, so I'll attempt to catch up a bit while we're here. We still haven't figured out how to align the photos that Katy is uploading with my blog entries, but we'll get there, maybe.

permalink written by  Katy and Mark Lewis on April 25, 2009 from Pokhara, Nepal
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Varanasi and Sarnath

Varanasi, India

After Mark rallied like a champ from his brief digestive bout with the help of Katy's healing hand, we ventured to Varanasi (also called Benares), the holiest city of the Hindu faith. Varanasi is almost beyond description. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, and daily life for its inhabitants has remained more or less the same for several thousand years. I literally found myself thinking that certain snapshots of life here that I witnessed could have been exactly the same in the time when the Buddha walked these streets. It is the city of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, and Hindus (82% of all Indians) come here to be cleansed by the Ganges (Ganga) River. If you die and are cremated here, you end the cycle of reincarnation. Katy and I both decided to stay alive, but we appreciated the intimate experience of death that is common and pronounced in this place. We found ourselves discussing how and why our Western culture tends to keep death and dying hidden away out of view and out of mind. Not in Varanasi. The bodies are cremated on the shores of the river over open flames.

It is challenging for the Western mind to reconcile how the people of Varanasi can treat the Ganges as their public bath, toilet, and sacrosanct spiritual water source, all in one. I suppose one way of viewing this is to realize that for these people, there simply is no separation of daily life and spiritual life. Mundane tasks such as brushing your teeth need not seem strangely juxtaposed to the most sacred and revered act of worship. Many faith traditions preach continuity of ordinary life and religious life, but this is the practice in action as no other.

Varanasi is dirty, really dirty. After walking the streets for an hour or two, your nose begins to run and you find yourself coughing from the inhilation of dirt, pollution, smoke, and animal (including human) debris everywhere. This is the condition of much of urban India, but it's particularly alarming in this place.

We also made a day trip from here to Sarnath, the location of the Buddha's first lecture after attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Despite this being the birthplace of Buddhism, only a couple percent of all Indians claim this spiritual tradition. If you've read the book, Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, this is the "Deer Park", and looks just like what I pictured from his description in the novel. It was very cool to imagine monks and Hindu holy men gathered around, listening to this new philosophical breakthrough from a recently enlightened being. It is said that the message was so potent, several in the crowd realized nirvana upon the conclusion of his remarks hitting their ears. In other words, he described reality with such lucidity that it just plain made sense to his intimate audience of yogic practitioners.

permalink written by  Katy and Mark Lewis on April 25, 2009 from Varanasi, India
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Taj Mahal

Agra, India

The Taj Mahal is grand. Staring up at the edifice certainly inspires awe, and boggles the mind with questions of "why?" and "how?". There are a couple of different versions to answer both of these questions, so I'll encourage you to fact-check on wikipedia or someplace legitimate if interested. The story we got from our excellent guide went something like this: The ruler of an empire which stretched further than modern day India decided to build the monument as a tribute of sorts to his favorite (one of four) wife who passed away shortly after giving birth to her thirteenth child. In this way, the magnificent structure is a monument to the love he had for this woman. This is definitely the theme emphasized by the government-sponsored information, complete with a sob-story romantic ending of the ruler gazing out the window at the Taj Mahal on his deathbed, yearning to join his love in the afterlife.

An alternative version we read about claimed that the ruler died after an intense night of opiates and aphrodisiacs at the ripe old age of 74. Either way, this guy definitely had a soft spot for the female. It is also theorized that the structure was intended to transport the ruler and his wife directly to heaven, after they were both buried directly under the main dome of the building. There is some speculation that this ruler believed he was God himself. In any case, the narcissism (perhaps even solipsism) that this ruler engaged in continues to bring tremendous benefit to the people of Agra, India, 450 years after the completion of the building. I'm currently reading the book, Atlas Shrugged (the capitalists' Bible), by Ayn Rand, which apologetically states that the highest form of morality and virtue is to act in your own self-interest and produce more than you consume. I can't help but think that Rand would emphatically approve of the Taj Mahal construction as an ego-maniacal tribute to the love of wife and self which has had unmeasurable positive economic impact for this region of India.

The trip from Delhi to Agra was filled with stereotypical visions of India: A snake charmer, camels, elephants, monkeys doing tricks on sticks, an eyeball-less beggar, endless roadside trinkets for sale, etc.

Simply stated, I don't disagree with the claim that the Taj Mahal might just be the most beautiful building in the world.

permalink written by  Katy and Mark Lewis on April 26, 2009 from Agra, India
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Trekking the Annapurna Circuit

Muktinath, Nepal

After a HUGE travel day involving trains, planes, and automobiles, we arrived at the start of the famed Annapurna Circuit in northern Nepal. The last bit of the journey was an eventful five hour taxi ride in which we very nearly made dreadful impact with, in sequential order: a dog, a two year old girl, a chicken, a duck, a mule, and a water buffalo. Our driver was in a hurry, and thankfully the brakes worked as well as the accelerator in that little Toyota Corolla.

I'll use this blog entry to give the overall picture of the trek, and then fill in some interesting daily details in entries to follow.

Katy and I started out carrying packs weighing about 40 lbs each. We didn't have an opportunity to leave any gear behind because we ended the two-week hike in a different location than we started. So, we carried everything we had packed for the entire trip. Feeling young, fit, and invincible, we declined many offers for hiring a guide or porter (sherpa), determined to be "independent" trekkers. By day two, Katy was dealing with leg pain that was cause for concern. It was at this point that I realized she was carrying about one third of her body weight, so I took on an additional 10 pounds or so. On day three, we decided to really charge it and marched 14 miles, over 9 hours, and 2,500 feet of elevation gain. My calf muscles have been sore ever since, and that was 14 days ago.

In short, the Annapurna Circuit is certainly one of the most gorgeous, rewarding, culturally-diverse, and fun hiking experiences on the planet. We walked a total of 15 days, covering more than 130 miles. The highest point of the trek was over Thorung La pass, which is 17,768 feet high. We slept the night before at 14,500 feet, which is higher than any peak in Colorado.

We met many wonderful people on the trail, and made some new friends along the way. In addition to the peaceful and hospitable local Nepali people who fed us great meals and provided a bed to lay our heads at the end of the day, the Circuit is populated with a fascinating blend of international trekkers. We met people from over 20 different countries, so we were learning about many world cultures in addition to the varied sort dwelling high in the Himalayas.

If you're looking to heighten your world view, your physical fitness, and your relationship with nature, go trekking in Nepal.

permalink written by  Katy and Mark Lewis on April 26, 2009 from Muktinath, Nepal
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Day two on the trail

Muktinath, Nepal

We slept last night in a "teahouse" on the banks of a stunning river landscape with the sound of a soothing waterfall gently augmenting our dreams. We enjoyed a tasty breakfast of oat porridge, apple pancakes, eggs, toast, and coffee. Our legs, feet, and backs are definitely stiff from our first day of hiking, but we're determined to motor through the soreness because we've only got 15 days to cover 130 Miles.

Most of the time on the trail it feels like you could be hiking in any beautiful mountain setting. Then, you'll turn a corner and find yourself suddenly struck by the Vista of 26,000 + ft. Himalayan peak towering above you. To give a feel for the scale, if you're in Keystone, CO looking at Grey's and Torrey's (two very fine fourteeners), you are experiencing about a 5,000 foot elevation differential. In roughly the same horizontal distance, we're experiencing the view of about four times that. These are big mountains, making the Rockies look a bit like hills.

All of the children living in the small villages that we pass along the trail are very keen on saying, "namaste" many times upon sighting a foreigner. If you respond in kind, the kids proceed to uncannily request, in order, a pen, sweets, then rupees. The elder Nepali people use the same "namaste" greeting, but their body language suggests they intend the full and true meaning of the expression. Roughly translated to English, it means: "I bow to the divine spirit within you". What a beautiful expression of brotherly love and righteous expectation of one another.

permalink written by  Katy and Mark Lewis on April 26, 2009 from Muktinath, Nepal
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A couple of final Nepal trekking highlights

Muktinath, Nepal

Katy and I walk mostly in silence, occasionally pointing out a wonderful view or sharing an insight or pondering. We've enjoyed a couple of hefty philosophical debates along the trail, and several conversations analyzing our upbringing, our place in the world, and our dreams for the future. It has struck me recently that there is no other human being on the planet that I've spent more time with than my little sister. So, there's really nothing to hide from each other and nothing that needs explaining. We understand each other, we completely love and accept one another, and I feel utterly blessed and grateful for our relationship. Not everybody is lucky enough to have a wiser younger sister, so I'm trying to take advantage! Aside from one or two brief moments of frustration, we've been getting along swimmingly, and we're very compatable travel partners.

4/16 - We killed a day in Manang in order to acclimatize and rest our legs before beginning the serious ascent to Thorung La pass (18,000 ft). We attempted to hike to Ice Lake, but we (Mark) lost the path and ended up in a fairly scary situation on a steep mountainside. Katy held her cool beautifully, and a couple of hours later we somehow rejoined another path which led us to a cliffside gompa (temple) where we were surpised and delighted to see a Buddhist nun tending her small vegetable garden. She escorted us up a ladder into a small cave-like room where we were greeted by Lama Teshi. Lama Teshi, we would learn, is 93 years old and has been living in this cliffside dwelling for over fifty years! The nun is his daughter, and they proceeded to offer us tea, conversation, and blessings for crossing the Thorung Lass pass and beyond. We spent perhaps half an hour in silence watching the Lama with his ritualistic prayer beads and meditation wheel. When we finally returned to Manang that evening, Katy and I looked at each other in astonishment and relief at where our day had taken us. Losing the path to Ice Lake, only to stumble upon a blessing from a Lama dwelling high in a cliffside cave gompa was quite the memorable experience.

4/19 - We slept last night at 14,500 feet and successfully traversed Thorung La pass this morning. It was a physically exhausting but tremendously rewarding day. After a long descent into the town of Muktinath, it was bizarre to catch the sight of the first motorized vehicles we had seen in five or six days. There are many Indian pilgrims that visit Muktinath because of the temple complex situated here. As we approached the complex, we were greeted by a very warm monk who's appearance indicated a blend of Buddhist monk and Hindu Sadhu. He had the traditional saffron robe of a monk, but was also donning the characteristic dreadlocks of the Hindu holymen. People in this region don't really identify themselves as Hindu or Buddhist, as their tradition is a mix of the two along with some shamanism/animism passed down from their ancestors.

4/20 - We're staying in Marpha this evening, a lovely little town nestled between a rising cliffband and beautiful apple orchards in the river valley below. We're dropping in elevation now, leaving the arid high country and entering a more lush lowland landscape. Dalgheri (world's seventh highest peak) towers in the East, rising above 26,700 feet toward the heavens. I'm sitting at the top of a beautiful monastery, drinking in the view and watching my thoughts. If I can observe myself, am I the observer or the observed? Perhaps the answer is that there is no "I", or there is no distinction between the two and really no separation between "me" and all beings. Good trip.

4/21 - Our first rain storm today. Just after lunch, the drizzle turned into a pretty good downpour which lasted until we reached the next teahouse around 4pm. We've joined forces with two other Americans and an Argentinian who we've been seeing along the trail for several days now. They have taught us a couple of fun dice games, and it is nice to have some additional company on the trek.

4/22 - Katy elected to catch a jeep to the next tea house today because she is growing concerned about her swollen ankle. Her hip was bothering her, and I think the correction she made in her gate has now effected her achilles. She has been nothing short of impressive the entire time, and we're both dealing with some pain management. I put my pack on the jeep with her, and we said we'd meet at a specified guest house in the town of Tatopani, where there is a nice hot spring to sooth the sore muscles. A long story made short, I had a momentary panic when I couldn't find my little sister for a little while and became convinced that something terrible had happened. I walked for several hours in the heat, and came back to the teahouse entirely dehydrated, hungry, and emotionally stressed. It turns out that Katy was just fine all along, and that I wasn't the horrible older brother who lost his sister in rural Nepal. A huge relief indeed. The hot springs were just what the doctor (mother nature) ordered, and helped relax my body and mind.

4/24 - Yesterday we had a monstrous climb from Tatopani to Ghorepani, involving just over a 5,000 foot elevation gain. This morning, we woke before the dawn and trekked up an additional hill to soak in the sunrise over the Annapurna and Dhalgeri ranges. The views were worth every step. After breakfast, we departed for Ghandruk. The trail weaved through gorgeous jungle of rhodedendron, birch, and magnolia trees. Moss and ferns were also plentiful in this lush landscape. Occasionally, we'd get a magnificent vista of one of the high snow-capped peaks through a window in the moss-laden tree branches. Tomorrow, we finish the trek and catch the bus from Naya Pul to Pokhara. I can say with great confidence that I'll return to Nepal someday...

4/25 - Looking out over the planted terraces of potatoes, beans, rice, corn, ganja, and wheat, I'm drawn to the idea of a subsistent farming lifestyle. Watching the genuine and meaningful interactions of the family who works this land makes me yearn for greater simplicity in life. The Himalayas tower in the distance, catching all sorts of varied light. The Tibetan prayer flags flap gently and rhthmically in the gentle evening breeze. The air is filled with with a subtle rhodedendren aroma. This moment is all that exists. It's the way back, and the way forward.

permalink written by  Katy and Mark Lewis on April 29, 2009 from Muktinath, Nepal
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Dharmsala, India

With a wonderful sense of accomplishment and reward for finishing the Annapurna Circuit in 15 days carrying all of our own weight, Katy and I enjoyed a couple of beers and some Western food in the lakeside town of Pokhara. We then continued onto Kathmandu, where we stayed one night before catching our flight back to Delhi. Kathmandu would do well to take a page out of the Delhi transportation policy by switching their bus fleet to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). The pollution resulting from the diesel exhaust is pretty terrible, and completely conceals the view of the surrounding mountains. It is also overly crowded, with motorbikes and taxis flying down narrow roads honking their horns and perpetually just barely missing each other and pedestrians. There is some charm in the street side stalls, and I'm sure many travelers really enjoy their time in Kathmandu. But, for Katy and I, we were content to just pass through in favor of less noise, haze, and chaos.

We then proceeded straight from the Delhi airport to the Old Delhi train station (complete madness) to catch our overnight train to Amritsar. This was our first train ride in India, and will certainly not be my last. We splurged for the air conditioned sleeper coach, which was a very wise idea and resulted in a fair night's rest. Amritsar is home of the Golden Temple, the holy site of the Sikh religion. We spent some time soaking in the sight of the many pilgrims circumambulating the mote-surrounded temple. Hopefully we can upload those pictures shortly.

Arriving into Dharamsala a couple of days ago, we're really enjoying ourselves here. For those of you who are unaware, this is the home of the Dalai Lama and a large portion of the Tibetan community living in exile. I won't get into the entire history, but here is a brief synopsis:

Shortly after Chairman Mao took power in 1949, China began its "cultural revolution" which sought to implement a Marxist-style state of socialism across the fragmented country. The Tibetans were among the many minority ethnic groups that were persecuted and killed and forced to give up their rich culture and unique spiritual tradition. In 1959, at the age of 26, the Dalai Lama was forced to leave his palace in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. He took up "temporary" residence here, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of Tibetan exile in India. If you missed his recent speech commemorating the event, check it out on You Tube. 1.2 million Tibetans have lost their lives in the struggle for freedom, and the Chinese have committed a host of human rights violations throughout the conflict. Before arriving here, I didn't realize that the Panchen Lama (#2 holy lineage in Tibetan Buddhism) is the world's youngest political prisoner, disappearing at the age of six when the Chinese disagreed with the Dalai Lama's appointment (recognition) of the 11th reincarnation of this spiritual figure. The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, but the nonviolent struggle to reclaim Tibetan independence (or at least autonomy) from China continues today.

permalink written by  Katy and Mark Lewis on April 30, 2009 from Dharmsala, India
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The mental journey continues

Dharmsala, India

Our childhood friend, Courtney Zenner, has been living here off and on for a couple of years. She is currently helping to teach a course on Tibetan Buddhism for an Emory University study abroad program. She is a wealth of knowledge on the historical struggle for freedom, as well as the philosophical and spiritual traditions which are unique to Tibetan Buddhism. We had the privilege of attending a class session in which the lecture was titled, "Buddhism and Science". It was an impressive talk, pointing out the commonalities between modern scientific theory and ancient Buddhist teachings. To compare the findings of quantum physics with the Buddha's teachings on "emptiness" was quite interesting and challenging to the mind.

This afternoon, Katy and I enroll in our 10-day silent vipassana meditation retreat in a forested monastery above the town of Dharamsala. We'll be waking up at 4am, eating two meals of rice and vegetables before noon, and spending 10 hours each day on the meditation cushion. We'll be watching our breath, our thoughts, and the interplay between mind and body. So, we'll check you on the other side of reality!

permalink written by  Katy and Mark Lewis on May 1, 2009 from Dharmsala, India
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We are two siblings from Colorado (aged 24 and 26) who find ourselves simultaneously between a job and a graduate school program. We both came down with a case of itchy feet, so we're going searching for the cure while we've got the chance!

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