Saturday, July 21, 2012

Travelogue: Kailas Mansarovar

A few years back, my father undertook the Kailas Mansarovar Yatra. From then on, I had it in my mind to make it to the Yatra. And due to a fortuitous set of circumstances, I found myself in a position to take up this trip last month.

Details: I took the private route – which takes about 15 days to and fro. The trip I took was a road trip where one drives down from Nepal to Tibet. There are helicopter services available too that greatly shorten the trip duration (while reducing the total landscape you see). The total cost of the trip will come to little over a lakh or so – depending on how much you need to “buy” stuff like shoes, sleeping bags, clothing et al. The agents by themselves will charge anywhere in the range of 70-80k depending on when you book and what is included etc.

Is it worth it? In a nutshell, this is a one in a lifetime kind of opportunity - with very few making it to Tibet more than once in a lifetime. This makes the trip all the more daunting or enjoyable, depending on how you see it. Also, since there is a rare chance of a repeat customer experience, that leaves some gaps in what one sees as customer service. But, if you can keep it aside and focus on the positives (and there will be many of them) and focus inward, the trip is worth it.

How does it work? There are essentially two ways. There is an Indian Government Yatra for which nominations are invited every year. But this is by draw of lots and leaves very little scope of flexibility (take it or leave it kind of thing) - and requires a good 30 odd days to complete. The other route is what is called a private route (which is the one I took) via Nepal - which is shorter and I would think physically less taxing as well. The yatra route incidentally was re-opened thanks to the efforts of one Dr. Subramanian Swamy (yes, the same one)

How to go about it? Assuming you take the private route (which is what this piece will be all about), there are two ways to go about it. I will come to that in a moment. This trip is arranged by 3 separate "agents". First there are service providers across India - indeed, almost all tour operators provide customised tours (Maharashtrian, Gujarati, Kannada, Tamil etc) with food choices etc.

These Indian agents aggregate their customers and then hook up with Nepali agents who in turn hook up with Chinese-Tibetan guides et al and arrange the whole trip. It is possible to cut out the first set of agents and contact the Nepali agents directly. Possible, but not desirable as we discovered. It is better to go with the Indian agent -since the agent does facilitate a lot of things (like money, passports, visa arrangement).

Also, the Indian agent typically accompanies the group so you can hold him accountable for everything - which is required considering the vagaries of the trip. You are best left not worrying about these peripheral things which the agent will take care of. And these guys are experienced - so it is better to go along with them. If you go by yourself to the Nepalis, they will tag you along with one such group - and since you are not from the "agents" group, you will be treated as the tail of the dog. Also the whole part of making payment to Nepal, while simple enough, requires some amount of patience. Having an agent takes care of all of these.

The obvious downside of going with a homogenous group is that it will take away any space you need as part of the trip and you could find yourself sucked into a reality show kind of environment. So, choose carefully!

In any case, it is not possible to go on this trip as an individual (from India atleast ) since the Tibet Group Visa is issued only to groups and only to authorised travel agents.

Highlights In my view, there are two highlights to the trip. A dip in the Manasarovar lake and a 3 day 40 km parikrama (kora) around Mt. Kailas (Kang Rinpoche). There are other sidelights - like an Ashtapad or a Pashupatinath/Swayambhunath or shopping or something else in a Kathmandu half day tour, but they pale in comparison with the main ones.

How to prepare for the trip? Be prepared for reasonably harsh and varied weather conditions. And be prepared for all seasons. Sunlight, Rain, Snow, Wind are all equally possible. And for all terrain - a bit of snow, lots of gravel, mud, rocks, water. So, invest in the right footwear and clothes - especially if you intend to walk the parikrama. Buy good hiking shoes and break them in. Walk around a few kilometers each day for a few weeks atleast. If you can do more and get physically and mentally fit, go ahead do it. It is worth it.

Carry a good medical kit. Have a smallish day pack for carrying snacks - even though much of it will be provided by your tour agent. You surely need strong sunscreen. Two layers of head protection. Thermals are a must. Gloves are a must. Carry a lot of pairs of clothes - which can be layered. Forget washing clothes or having a bath each day -when you are back, all these luxuries can be appreciated better. Carry a bottle or thermos to carry water and a small tiffin box – both are again appreciated while on the trek. A trekking pole is useful - a stick works as well.

Notes of caution: This is not a walk in the park. This is a trek at upwards of 4000 m altitude where there is just enough oxygen for grass to grow. At the highest point - Dolma La pass - even grass doesnt grow. So, there is a serious shortage of oxygen - it is like being breathless every minute. After all the preparation, how your body reacts in high altitude wont be known until you reach there - and believe me, in this there is no one size fits all. Your body may see it through without any issues or it may behave in weird unpredictable ways - regardless of your levels of fitness. There is one way to figure out - which is to get there and see.(And there are medications available - google Diamox)

During the trek, do keep yourself hydrated – with Electral water if required. Have dry fruits to snack on while walking. Have good sun protection (70SPF types), cap, gloves, anti-UV glasses, good hiking shoes (like the Forclaz 500), multiple pairs of socks (woolen+cotton combo) etc.

In Nepal: Nepal is a lovely place. Foodwise, weatherwise, you will find yourself at home in Nepal. Best masala tea in the world ever. The easiest leg of the tour in my view. In Nepal IC(Indian Currency) is 1.6 times NC (Nepal Currency). While 1000 and 500 rupee notes are illegal – we found that it is possible to exchange them in many (if not most) places. Better to carry stacks of 100 rupee notes.

In Tibet: Great scenery. Amazing landscape. Breathtaking drives. Panoramic vistas. Nothing unlike anything you have ever seen in your life. Reminds you of your own insignificance in the world. If you have a good camera, you wont regret, but more than that, enjoy your moment there – there isn’t anything like this on earth. And by the way, Indian credit cards don’t work here (for some reason), so you are dependent on local yuan changers – some bargaining is possible here as well, if you can manage the language.

What facilities are available? Roads are good. Networks and calling facilities are there everywhere to remind you of the civilization you left back home. Toilet facilities are not great. Bathing facilities are expensive - but good and worth it. Electricity is available everywhere as well – though I had initially heard this would be a problem – it did not seem to be a problem during our trip. A word of caution here: The facilities we got were basic – dormitories, shared toilets (or too filthy to use), one lamp per room. Overall facilities are clean, but don’t expect anything great once you cross Nepal.

The Sherpa team that accompanies you will be your best friend for these days and they do put out their best given the conditions – ours was fantastic and could save the day multiple times. Most likely, yours will be as well. What to carry? I wont dwell on this since each travel operator/agents has their list and it is presumably updated by them so it is best to depend on them.

Tips: I saw many of the yatris carry bindis, bangles and the like to give away to Tibetans. They are surely a better option than junk food and yes, the Tibetans love them. There were others who carried small childrens school bags, pencil boxes and school related things to give them away. Pity we had none of these things, but yes, they love them and in any case it is better than handing out cash or junk food.

And if you have more questions, I will attempt to answer them…

(Cross posted in CRI)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Meadow

The Meadow is the title of a book by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark that is basically an investigation into "The Kashmir Kidnapping that changed the face of modern terrorism". I had written on this before, but that was before reading the book.

But a few points that I came across on reading the book.

This book follows the typical template of journalism while writing about Kashmir.There is a little RSS bashing, a lot of Indian army bashing. It has one or two obligatory sentences on the plight of Kashmiri Pandits - camouflaged with military precision. To its credit the book does call out the terrorism in Kashmir in a few places as well.

I did find the obsession with skin colour intriguing at a couple of places in the book.

Page 29: Aquiline noses, cat-green eyes, skin so fair that many seemed more Aryan than Don or Jane - some Kashmiris would have passed as Europeans.

Barrelling into town, their taxi passed yet more bunkers and pickets, out of which dark-skinned Indian soldiers peered, their guns aimed at Kashmiri men and women who walked solemnly along the broken pavements, heads cast downwards.

Page 58: It might have convinced the increasing number of Indian tourists coming from the cow belt that all was peaceful here, the dark skinned holidaymakers from the south who were all keen to do their bit to reinforce the government's writ in Kashmir.
Really? And how does skin colour matter here, authors?

In any case, Chapter 2 of this book is a rip roaring read that shows the real Masood Azhar a pusillanimous mouse - that terrorist who Indians shamefully giftwrapped and swapped for a planeful of hostages in the IC814 hijack drama.

And the book does make an interesting read on the whole story.

Then as now, I have no contest on the claims that the authors make. Perhaps they are right, perhaps they are not.

My opinion after reading the book hasnt changed much and I maintain that fighting terror is never easy and sometimes, it is essential to use dirty tactics against those who aim to kill/decimate/destroy you by all means - fair and foul. I only wish India had a uniform no-negotiation with terrorists policy...

No war against terror anywhere in the world has been won by peaceniks - it takes soldiers to win wars and no war has been won by giving up.

Of Corporates and Individual Businesses

David Brooks wrote this eye opening article a few weeks back. It is a must read.

Most people around us, in India, in cities hear this untiring trash that the social sector is a better place to work than the corporate world. Whether people say this because they think it is cool to say it or because they genuinely believe it I have no way of knowing. Whether they say it because it is nice to earn a fat salary and talk about becoming a volunteer without having intention to do so is equally unknown to me. But over the years, even NGO's and other self righteous champions have started mouthing the same - that corporates are bad and other things (like themselves) are good. A diluted version of this argument is that IT in general is bad while other businesses are good.

For all of you who want to counter things like this, that David Brooks article should be a welcome read. Here is the one killer sentence, though the entire article is worth a long read and a much longer thought time.

It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero.  [David Brooks - The Service Patch]

So, all you corporate warriors out there, please remember this the next time that self righteous, contemptous of corporate person attempts a takedown on your job with a statement that the social sector is better than the corporate sector.

There is another bigger reason for this as well. Look around you and see how corporate and individual businesses differ in their ways of operation.

Look at a corporate set up and look at an individual set up. The former is set up in the manner of an "ongoing concern" where the show will go on regardless of who is in what position - by and large. The latter, on the contrary, will be a one person show, where everything and anything is as per the whim and fancy of the one person in charge. The immediate focus of the individual business is to make money flow into the pocket of the founder one way or other - and not skill building of some employee way down the food chain. This does not include start ups which are in the formative stage that cannot afford to hire too many people etc. I am talking about well set up, established businesses.

There are exceptions on both sides, but look around you and make your own guess.

The doctor, the chartered accountant, the lawyer (and there are many many more) - each of which is typically run by the individual - their succession plan stops at their own progeny and nose. It rarely extends beyond that. Think why this is the case? And your answer is clear. Because their interest is them and them alone.

Extend this to NGO's who are purportedly in the business of servicing people. Show me an any NGO that has a great succession plan and you will see an NGO that has clarity of purpose and is genuinely working towards a goal. The moment you see an NGO driven by a "founder" and a bunch of lackeys, you can see "personal interest".

Am I saying now that corporates are better than NGO's and such individual firms? No. All I say is that the moment you see opaqueness (and niggardliness - in reporting, succession plans, developing talent), you will see personal interest. The moment you see transparency (and openness), you will see genuineness in purpose. That applies to NGO's and Corporates alike.

(This is a developing thought, but let me see, hopefully, I will be able to stitch the thoughts together better over time.)


At Bangalore airport, I have spotted the sign, Illy - which is the name of a restaurant there. I always thought it was a smart idea. Illy, in Kannada, means, here and in my mind, it sounded like the perfect name for an airport restaurant in Bangalore that sounds cool, contemporary and also has a superb meaning in Kannada.

I was in awe of the creative mind which would have come up with a name that is so simple, yet so memorable and so evocative!

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Illy had nothing to do with Kannada or Bangalore at all. In Nepal, I found the same brand in a hotel and I was shocked to discover that Illy is an, hold your breath, Italian brand.

Whatever it is, it is also cool that an Italian brand name can have a meaning in Kannada...

Illy indeed!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Safa EV

As one walks along the roads of Kathmandu, every now then you will see a whitish autorickshaw that carries a good 6-8 passengers. This seems to be the lifeline of Kathmandu public transport - it stops anywhere and everywhere to pick up and drop people. When they stop, the vehicles behind have to do the same as well and they do that without complaining. The first thought that came to my mind was the dirty, venom spewing, black and yellow "6 seaters" of Pune.

And thats when you realize that these things are different. When they go past you, there is no thud of the engine, but a smooth whine - that sounds so much like an electric motor. It actually sounds like the EMU's in Mumbai - the smooth whine of the electric motors as they accelerate. I focussed on this a a few times and finally managed to read whats written on the side of these cuties - Safa EV. These people movers are electric.

So I managed to do a little bit more reading about them and here is something I found. Kathmandu has perhaps the highest number of EV's than any other urban center in the world. And they are in operation since nearly 1994.

The naysayers of EV's would do well to read this. The terrain is hilly - ups and down. It carries many passengers. It is operated, not by geeks and scientists, but normal ordinary people. And it does a fantastic job of moving people. Way to go Kathmandu!

PS: Blogger keeps rotating the image for some reason. Gave up in frustration...

Of Indian bikes and Chinese cars

As I stood at a traffic intersection in Kathmandu observing the cars and bikes that drove past me, I could not but help observe that the majority of the cars are Chinese and most of the bikes are Indian. So, while there are the Maruti 800s, Altos, Wagon Rs, Sumos there is a fair smattering of Kia, Chery alongwith the usual big guns like Volkswagen, Ford and Toyota. But look at the bikes and most of the bikes are our very own Bajaj Pulsars, Hero Honda Splendors and a few Yamaha Fazers and the like.

Why that is so I did not exactly know. So I asked a Sherpa friend of mine who himself owns a well used Hero Honda Splendor. He said that while the Chinese bikes were cheaper, they gave too much trouble from a maintenance perspective and the Indian ones were way better. Of course, he could not tell me why it was not the same story in cars. Neither did I. He said it was a clash of Chinese and Indian businesses and on that count, he was right.

But looking at Nepal - it is is a place where India should have paid so much more attention - and I think that this is a golden opportunity that has been missed. Culturally, Nepal is so much closer to India and this is one aspect that India could have used to build much better bridges. I am not exactly sure what India should have done, but somehow when I see around, I sense a big missed opportunity there. Perhaps there is that window of opportunity yet -before the Chinese gobble up this one as well. Perhaps we need some smart leadership in India which recognizes Nepals potential and helps it get there...

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Nepal Thoughts 1

I visited Nepal for the first time recently and would highly recommend it as a place to visit for Indians. Nepal is a small, hilly country and the first thing that strikes you as you enter Nepal from the Tribhuvan International airport, Kathmandu is that it looks like any hill station in India. Small roads, hills, quite crowded, disorganized traffic and nice weather.

And then you take a closer look at the vehicles. It looks like old cars from around the world come here to serve our their pensioner life as taxis. There are very few buses in Kathmandu - if at all, they are mostly for tourists. The locals use some sort of mini-buses for commuting within the city. And then there are the Safa EVs (a separate post on this later).

The culture of Nepal is a lovely amalgamation of Hindu and Buddhist culture. They give you anything as an offering - money, change, goods. I found this to be a very endearing tradition. There are roadside temples everywhere you can see. Interestingly Nepal has a half day on Friday and has its weekly off on Saturday - another Hindu tradition.

The going currency rate for IC (Indian Currency) is 1.6 NC (Nepal Currency). Kathmandu is a nice place to shop as well - especially Thamel. The good thing about Thamel is that it it is still not swamped by the mall culture and only sells traditional Nepalese and Tibetan items and not imported plastic toys from around the world. And yes, dont forget to buy yourself the Khukhri- the Nepalese traditional war knife/sword.

Food is nice - and Nepal perhaps makes the best masala tea in the world. Nepali fusion music is pretty cool to hear as well.

And Nepal is a great destination for treks, adventure sports, pilgrimage, spirituality or just chilling out...