Brief Visit to the Tabo Monastery

From Dhankar, we were picked up within a few hours by a monk traveling to Tabo in the "Monastery Jeep". Antonia and I loaded into the trunk and James and Yann got the back seat, it was a rare comfort in comparison to the other rides we'd lived through on this trip. The village of Tabo is home to a thousand-year old monastery, with vast collections of well-preserved frescoes. The monastery also houses a beautiful guesthouse were we slept, just a few steps away from the mud brick walls that surround the dozens of chortens and buildings that make up the monastery complex. Attached to the monastery guesthouse was a tasty restaurant where we ate every meal and socialized with a sweet teenage migrant worker from south India who had found people with whom to discuss his Christianity.

Our stay in Tabo was brief. We had a private tour of the thankas in the monastery buildings by a surly novice monk. We studied the walls by flashlight and contented ourselves with a booklet of postcards as a souvenir of the hundreds of images wonderfully-preserved in the monastery. The dusty alleys around the monastery are filled with souvenir stands and a few western-style restaurants and cafes. We were treated to real espressos by James and Antonia in honour of our seven year anniversary. This was a real treat, our first and only real coffee on the trip. We sat in a small village square sipping our coffees among the stray dogs and playing children as dusk crept up. As the sun set, so did much of the village activity.

Dhankar Village - Worth the Hike

After five days in Kaza we were eager to move onwards down the Spiti Valley. James was still recovering from his allergic reaction, but felt strong enough to make the trip to the next village. The trip involved a short bus ride, and a longer hike, to the village of Dhankar. We had received instructions from a Kaza local as to where to debark from the bus in order to take the foot path up to the village. Other than hiring a private driver, walking was the only way to reach our destination. Even considering the local tradition of impressive monastery locations, Dhankar seemed to be particularly impractically situated, especially when lugging backpacks up the side of a mountain. The two hour climb was made more difficult by the high altitude, with the sun beating down on us feeling that much closer, and the trail getting narrower and steeper as we approached the village. The farm houses along the road turned into tiny specks against the backdrop of the Spiti and Pin Rivers winding through the valley. By mid-afternoon the footpath had snaked its way into the village and we climbed even further up the side of the mountain, to where the crumbling 1000 year old monastery sat overlooking the homes below. The tiny village was completely empty, other than a few stray sheep. The first person we met was a solo tourist who had been driven to the monastery, where he sat waiting to get in. I put my bag down and climbed the stairs into the monastery tower. We were planning on spending the night in the monastery, and we were exhausted and eager to secure accommodation. I finally met a young monk who didn't really know how to deal with me. I inquired about sleeping which he seemed to tell me was impossible. This, being contrary to what our guidebook said, had the effect of annoying me. When he entered his small chambers I followed him to the door from where I could see another older monk lying on a bed. When I inquired about him, the younger monk gave me a solemn look and said in his broken English: "he is dead". Shocked, I responded with "when?" to which the young monk replied "this morning". I apologized for my intrusion and went back to relay my discovery to Yann, James and Antonia. They had meanwhile concluded that we would have to descend into the village in order to find a place to sleep. We didn't have any solutions to the dead monk problem so we headed to the village confusedly. From the road we spotted the hand-painted sign of the "Manirang Family Guest Homestay" which we followed. We were greeted by an elderly man who settled us into our own rooms, showed us the pit toilet and offered to make us lunch. We eagerly settled into the comfortable family room where we waited to be fed. After a few minutes the elderly man came out with the pressure cooker which he sat in front of us. He was eager to get back out to the fields and asked for us to finish cooking. He seemed utterly unimpressed when we explained that none of us knew how to operate the pressure cooker. After re-fueling, we set out once again to climb even higher into the surrounding hills where we were told we would find a high altitude lake. There was considerable debate among the four of us as to whether or not we had the energy to undertake another hike that day. Yann was definitely the keenest to head out again, and somehow managed to convince the three of us to follow him.

The more we climbed without spotting a lake, the grumpier James got. At one point he exclaimed "I'm from Manitoba, we've got 100 000 lakes in Manitoba, you want to see lakes, I'll show you lakes". I then fell way behind the three others silently and not so silently cursing Yann as I dragged myself along the trail. All was forgiven though when we reached the lake. We all sat quietly in admiration. In the evening, the family had returned to the house and we ate dinner watching the villagers return from the high altitude pastures. The sight of thousands of goats streaming down the sides of the mountain into the village was spectacular. As the sun set the voice of the town crier announcing an upcoming meeting echoed through Dhankar. We were warm, well-fed and completely mesmerized by our surroundings. The next morning we returned to the monastery in an attempt to buy tickets and visit. We were greeted by the young monk from the previous day as well as his dead companion. We now were wondering if the monk had misused the word dead in order to get rid of a pesky tourist or whether it had been an honest mistake. Yann, James and Antonia were convinced that I had been purposefully duped and couldn't contain their laughter. The young monk atoned for his bad behaviour however, by feeding us tea and cookies. He explained that the old monastery was now closed and that all but two monks (himself and his dead companion) lived in the new modern complex on the other end of the village. We spent the rest of the morning exploring the monastery and the village fort before making our way back to the road where we hoped to catch onward transportation. We didn't wait too long before being picked up by a monk from the Tabo monastery, our next destination.

Ki Chaam Dance

Ki is a small village a few kilometers away from Kaza. The spectacular Ki Monastery sits perched above it and is the area's most recognized sight. We had heard that every July the monastery holds a Chaam Festival, a Buddhist ritual involving music and dance performed by monks. We had arrived in the Spiti valley in the last week of July and despite asking a handful of locals, were unable to confirm whether or not the festival was taking place. The staff of both hotels had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned Chaam.

As James was sick, we were taking it easy in Kaza, sleeping in and not planning too many activities. We had found a small restaurant where we ate noodles every morning. The restaurant was in Kaza's central square, this is where most tourists ended up for meals or to access the internet at the town's only internet cafe. One morning we arrived for our morning noodles to find the plaza and its restaurants emptier than usual. Sitting at an outdoor table we were greeted by a local travel agent who inquired "why aren't you guys at the Chaam dance?".

Somehow every tourist in town knew of the festival but us. Despite having inquired the night before at our hotel. We sped through our already late breakfast, got help from the travel agent finding a driver and were off towards Ki by noon. James was in rough shape, it was probably the worst day of his allergic reaction, but he dragged himself out nonetheless.

We arrived at the festival at the end of lunch. A communal meal was just wrapping up and locals were settling into the monastery courtyard for more dancing. Antonia and I squeezed in with women and children on the ground level and James and Yann watched from the balcony above. The crowd jostled for the best position from which to view the monks as they paraded onto the courtyard in their bright robes. Four young novice monks were in charge of crowd control. Dressed in tattered robes and scary masks and armed with sticks, they patrolled vigilantly, even whacking people if they attempted to encroach on the monks' dance floor. The monks danced for almost two hours, spinning and stomping while musicians kept a trance inducing beat on large drums and Tibetan long horns. The older monks wore the larger, elaborate masks but moved little, restricted by their age and the weight of their costumes. The younger monks spun around them, almost never pausing. As the dancers spun, their colourful robes would rise revealing their beautiful but cumbersome boots highlighting the difficulty of their movements. We watched intently, absorbed in the music and the coordinated movements of the dancers. The ritual ended with final prayers from the microphone wielding senior monks and the lighting of a gasoline soaked pyre, startling the crowd (and visibly the monks who lit the fire).

What the crowd was really waiting for however, was the final procession of dancers and monks leaving the courtyard. Pilgrims of all ages rushed to throw themselves on the ground before the procession reached them. They lined the entire walkway leading away from the monastery down to the village. The monks, still in full costume, stepped over the pilgrims, one at a time. It was a chaotic and magnificent scene. Before leaving Kaza we returned to Ki to visit the monastery and get one more look at its spectacular setting. Our visit to Ki will remain a highlight of our lives.

The Spiti Valley- A Rough Start

The four of us spent only one full day in Manali. We slept in a small guesthouse hidden in an apple orchard on the outskirts of the small but popular tourist getaway town. We all probably needed about a week of rest but we bought our onward bus tickets for the earliest available departure. Actually only one daily bus made the 200km trip to the remote town of Kaza. With a population of just about 4000 people it is the largest settlement in the Spiti Valley, where we planned to spend a day or so arranging special permits for onward travel.

We arrived at the Manali bus station before sunrise to load our bags onto the bus and claim our reserved seats for the 6 a.m. departure. We were not surprised to find that our seats numbered 32 to 36 were in fact in the last two rows of the bus. For the first hour or so of travel, these seats proved to be better than we thought. We were mesmerized by the quick transformation of the lush Manali scenery into arid plateaus and snowy passes. At the halfway mark we stopped at a restaurant whose existence was due to the necessity of feeding passengers on this particular bus ride. The bus ride was already wearing the four of us down and it was difficult to motivate ourselves to eat, despite the fresh meal ready for us on our arrival. We did however take advantage of the first bathroom break that didn't involve the driver angrily honking at any passenger attempting to lengthen the 3 minute stop. We were no longer content with our back seats and we were coming to terms with the hellish discomfort that we would have to endure for another 6 or 7 hours. The barren scenery that was just hours earlier eerily exciting was becoming depressing and repetitive.
In twelve hours we would gain almost 2000m of altitude and cross two 4000m+ passes on a rickety, over-crowded bus. By the time we arrived in Kaza we were exhausted and grumpy. By the time we found hotel beds it was nightfall. Our exhaustion had made the hotel-finding process more difficulty than usual. I will take most of the blame for this as I was certainly the worst behaved that evening. I was in no mood to bargain or shop around and was willing to basically sleep anywhere. So we ended up in a empty guesthouse with characterless rooms for which we paid too much.

The next morning we were awoken by Antonia at an unusually early hour. She seemed slightly concerned and came to request that we come to inspect James. Overnight he had developed a rash on his face and neck. My initial reaction was that he had psychosomatically willed it upon himself to prove to me how terrible my hotel choice was. After closely inspecting a very annoyed James we concluded that he had probably reacted to a cleaning product used on the hotel bedding. We agreed to change hotels and take it easy until his rash subsided.

James and I probably visited every guesthouse in Kaza before finally agreeing on a new accommodation. By mid-afternoon James' rash had not improved, in fact he seemed to be getting sicker. His hands, feet and face had begun to swell. We decided that we wouldn't leave town until his reaction had cleared up. Antonia and I worked on getting our travel permits for 7 days of travel along the Hindustan-Tibet Highway. This involved frustrating back-and-forth trips between shabby government offices and the equally shabby local police station. Luckily I was accompanied by the ever-so patient Antonia, because after an entire afternoon of poor instructions and idiotic procedures she was the only one keeping me from blowing up. In fact, we secured our four permits right before another traveller's melt-down in the permit office.

Another night passed with James showing now signs of improvement. James had become convinced that he was allergic to the town of Kaza and was adamant that we leave. But when it appeared that his neck and torso were swelling Yann and I tried very hard to hide our growing concern for fear of scaring him further. In the mean time we concluded that we wouldn't leave town under any circumstance as it was the only place in the valley with a helicopter landing pad and access to some form of medical care. The three of us also decided that we would have to drag the reluctant James to the hospital.

We had heard a rumour that Canadian doctors were staffing the hospital, but when we arrived on a Sunday afternoon we found the building to be completely empty. We circled the empty building looking for anyone who might be able to help us. We finally crossed paths with a dentist who referred found us two off-duty nurses, neither of whom could speak English. We stood outside outside the hospital explaining James' condition. The nurses inspected him before pulling out a cellular phone and concluding that they would call "doctor"! We patiently watched and waited as one of the two nurses discussed. When she finally hung up she turned to James and exclaimed "Injection! Ready?". James almost screamed out his answer "NO!". We translated to the startled nurses: "Maybe we will come back tomorrow". They agreed that this was a reasonable plan unless James got worse in which case we should return to find them. The next 12 hours consisted of attempting to convince poor James to return to the hospital the next day. We sat in a crowded hospital waiting room the next day, and embarrassingly, enjoyed the privilege of being foreign tourists to jump near the front of the rowdy, disorganized queue of poor villagers waiting to talk to the one doctor on duty. Armed with a prescription of a hefty daily dose of anti-histamines the mysterious rash began to disappear within a day. Two days in Kaza had turned into five, but we could now continue our trip feeling that the four of us were safe to do so.

Himalayan Roadblock

We left ourselves about 5 days to make the 30 hour trip to Manali. We started with a 6 hour trek down from the Valley of Flowers to the highway where we jumped on a bus to Joshimath. We had worked out a plan to spend the night in Joshimath and leave on the first morning bus. The Joshimath bus station consisted of a wooden shack staffed by a grumpy attendant who issued hand-written tickets. We opted for the second morning bus at 5:45 am bus so that we could make the 14-hour trip in good seats. We would be in Manali in two days and have three days of rest before James and Antonia's arrival. We were quite content with our purchase and we went to bed feeling like we might be the world's best travelers.

Our bus left the next day on time and as we were able to stretch our legs in the roomiest seats on the bus. We were brilliant. After twenty minutes on the road we hadn't crossed any oncoming traffic but we had caught up to the first morning bus. The bus was stopped and our driver pulled up behind it. It took a few minutes for us to get the news of the landslide up ahead. We spoke to fellow passengers who had been assured that the road would be cleared in a few hours. I was optimistic that we would be moving on that day, that is, until Yann returned from his visit to the sight of the landslide. He reported that a boulder the size of a house had dropped onto the road and that the current clean up crew consisted of 20 or so young, skinny men in flip-flops carrying virtually no equipment other than a few mallets and construction hats. As the hours went by, a queue of hundreds of vehicles had built up behind us. One motorcycle after another sped past us, returning a few minutes later having seen the rock pile for themselves. The original time of two hours quoted for the clean-up had been revised multiple times. Sometime in the late morning a small bulldozer arrived on scene as well as a compressor to begin dynamiting. The soldier in charge of the clean up operation yelled frantically trying to control the various workers. The bulldozer was moving one soccerball-sized rock every 10 minutes or so. Meanwhile, dozens of workers were scattered over the landslide moving hammering and heaving things, seemingly at random. At the same time a crew was setting up to begin dynamiting (also seemingly at random). My earlier cautious optimism had turned into utter disbelief. There was no way we would be moving, maybe ever. Yann had made an earlier suggestion to hike over the mountain, around the landslide which I had flat out refused. After having been shoveled into another bus and watching our driver head back to Joshimath I realised this might be our only hope of moving forward in the near future. So we picked up our bags, got a refund on our bus tickets and headed up the steep mountain side as the workers began blowing things up.

We climbed for almost two hours, through thorn bushes, sometimes on our hands and knees, trying to get as high as we possibly could to avoid the dynamiting. After much swearing, sweating and frustration we eventually reached a mountain trail connecting Joshimath to the neighbouring village. We celebrated with photos and hugs having cleared the landslide successfully. The mountain trail seemed to be used by local herders and wasn't particularly wide. We crossed a few villagers who shook our hands and seemed to emphasize the need for care, as they made gestures of falling over the side of the trail. Any hope of Yann staying calm had now been eliminated. His vertigo began to kick in as we followed the winding trail. He hugged the side of the mountain and quickened his pace leaving me out of his sight. Within a few minutes I noticed Yann in the distance now heading back to me. As he approached I could read his lips: "no way ... no way ... we're going back". Although I am usually sympathetic to Yann's cautiousness, I was now in a bad mood. We were less than a kilometre from the next village, we had been walking for hours, and I was simply not going to turn around.

What had turned Yann back on his tracks was the result of another landslide. This one having taken out the footpath. The metre wide trail had now narrowed to about a foot. The drop was most likely a deadly one. But I really didn't want to give up, we were so close. I made the suggestion of crawling across the narrow part, but we couldn't figure out how to deal with our heavy backpacks. I made another suggestion of making several trips, carrying over all of our bags, that way Yann only had to worry about himself. At this suggestion Yann completely lost it. He threw his bag to the ground, sat down, and refused to move until I promised that we would turn back. Turning back was disappointing and frustrating, but clearly the correct thing to do. During our travels there are very few times where I am the one physically supporting Yann, I tend to get sick more often, get tired more easily and generally be more affected by discomfort. So it gave me a little bit of pleasure to spend a few hours with Yann clinging onto my arm, following the trail back towards Joshimath. He was now completely rattled by the height of the trail and wouldn't really move forward without me. We arrived back at the sight of the landslide in the late afternoon and hitched a ride back to town.

We spent the next 2 days in Joshimath. We visited the bus station 3 or 4 times a day for updates on the road. We spent hours sitting on the steps of the station killing time. The road finally opened three days after our initial departure. On the advice of the bus station staff we left on an early bus to be among the first in line when the road actually opened. Other than the hundreds of motorcycles ahead of us we were among the first to finally leave Joshimath. We now had almost 30 consecutive travel hours ahead of us (all in the back seat of the bus). But we arrived in Manali a few hours before James and Antonia.

The Valley of Flowers

Govindghat is a town about an hour from Badrinath and the departure point for Sikhs pilgrims heading to Hemkund, a high altitude lake (4200m) in the Himalayas. The arduous 19 km climb to Hemkund takes two days with an overnight stop in the small seasonal village established by villagers from Ghangaria who spend the winter at lower altitude but run restaurants and hotels for pilgrims closer to their sacred site.

Thousands of Sikhs were in Govindghat, some arriving exhausted from Hemkund, others happily preparing for the climb. We were among the handful of visitors who were not actually heading to Hemkund. We were actually on our way to the Valley of Flowers, an Indian National Park. The park had a short but inspiring write up in our guidebook and we had been attracted by its secluded location: a 16 hour bus ride from Haridwar and 2 day climb. Most of the Sikh pilgrims we crossed assumed we were heading to Hemkund and admittedly we had been surprised by the thousands of pilgrims who (thankfully) were heading somewhere else. The presence of so many people on the trail created a significant amount of litter, noise and horse excrement but in exchange financed the seasonal hotels and restaurants and the creation of the trail itself. The presence of so many people also attracted Nepalese porters, who spent their summer hiking up and down the mountain. I was grateful for the porter that we hired and found the walk up the steep muddy trail difficult even without my pack. I didn't feel as bad about hiring someone to carry my bag when I saw the first, of many, large men being carried up the hill by a teams of porters. We walked fairly quickly but didn't reach our first night's rest stop until nightfall. Mainly because every time we passed someone on the trail they would stop us to take photos. We had never turned anyone down for a photo before that day, but after 6 or 7 hours, with our legs cramping (maybe just mine) we couldn't bring ourselves to stop anymore. The seasonal camp where we slept is a collection of guesthouses and restaurants, including a large Sikh gurdwara, a temple which acts somewhat like a community centre, serving as a place for prayer and the housing and feeding of pilgrims. Gurdwaras are open to people of all denominations but we found a lovely guesthouse overlooking the village's only trail. The atmosphere was festive as exhausted pilgrims made their way into town either from the starting point at Govindghat or from the descent from Hemkund. All the towns' supplies are carried up to the village on foot or by donkey so prices were expensive. Apparently pilgrims were not expected to have to make too many sacrifices in terms of comfort or food. There was much more than expected: hot showers, comfortable beds and menus with as many options as anywhere else in the country including a large selection of Punjabi dishes. The noise and excitement subsided fairly early, with the generators being shut off and people preparing for their next day's trek. We were happy for the quiet as we had been a little bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of people that had descended onto the otherwise peaceful valley. The temporary town was built right at the fork in the road veering one way to Hemkund and the other to the Valley of Flowers. When we set out from the guesthouse in the morning we were the only two heading down the trail to the valley. According to the park rangers (Ghangaria villagers) who registered us at the entrance, we were the second group to enter the park that day. The valley, although known to locals who used it for grazing livestock in the summer months, is said to have been "discovered" by a British mountaineer who stumbled upon in while lost on the return from a successful summit of a nearby peak. He named it the "Valley of Flowers" after the meadows of alpine flowers that blossom there. For its botanical importance and simply for its natural beauty it has been named is a UNESCO Heritage Site. From the entrance to the national park there is still a 4km climb to actually reach the valley. It took us for ever to actually get there because I was slightly preemptive in my wildflower spotting. I stopped to photograph every single flower on the trail with Yann urging me frustratingly to move on. When we arrived to the actually valley of flowers I regretted every second I had wasted somewhere else. It's hard to express the sense of awe that we felt while wandering alone through the valley. It felt so far from the garbage-strewn tourist mayhem just a few kilometers away. We found it difficult to leave, but had to make it to the gate before sunset (park closing time). We decided to skip the trek to Hemkund the next day and return to the park for another day of peace.

On a Himalayan Pilgrimage

Leaving Kanpur was not easy. And it wasn't because we had gotten used to the air-conditioning and the cable television in our hotel room. We had simply gotten used to spending every day with Jitendra's family and it seemed painful to be saying goodbye. We were now affectionately known as Emilie Bhabi and Yann Bhaya (older sister and older brother) by Jitendra's cousins. We had been so lovingly welcomed by everyone and we got a small glimpse of the closeness of an Indian family.

We were also parting ways with James and Antonia, albeit only for a few weeks. Being their first time in India there were a few “must-sees” that we all agreed they shouldn't miss. But we would wait for them in the coolness of the Himalayas. We decided to head up to the state of Uttarakhand, the location of the Himalayan Char Dam, an important Hindu pilgrimage circuit covering four temples.

One of the main jump off points for the Char Dam is Haridwar, actually one of Hinduism's most sacred cities. The sacred Ganges river enters the North Indian plains for the first time from its origin in the Himalayan glaciers. According to Hindu scripture, Haridwar is one of four places where a drop of the elixir of immortality was accidentally dropped. We only had a day there, which was marred by the fact that I had been stung by an insect in the overnight train and had one eye completely swollen shut. Yann was his usual unsympathetic self and didn't seem to be as concerned as I was about the possibility that I might go blind. It was actually quite painful, especially trying to pry the the contact lens out of my eye. But the worst part was navigating through the hectic streets of Haridwar half blind. Yann did a good job of pulling me around for the morning until the anti-histamines kicked in. In the afternoon, we took the popular cable car trip to the Mansa Devi Temple which was crowded and confusing (The Goddess Mansa Devi is said to grand the wishes of her devotees, which might be an explanation for the the temple's popularity). We just followed the crowd and did what everyone else was doing. When we were in Haridwar, it was the tail end of the pilgrimage season and thousands of mostly young men, covered wearing head-to-toe orange scoured the city. Many of these pilgrims were walking to and from Haridwar from in order to carry back sacred water from the Ganges back to their home villages. They are known as kanwarias, named for the kanwar, the pole that they balance on their shoulders with water jugs hanging on each end. The orange colour represents the God Shiva and the Ganges water will be used to honour Shiva in their home villages. Apparently, at the busiest time of the pilgrimage season, entire swaths of highway are closed off to accommodate the crowds of kanwarias heading to Haridwar. With the rainy season fast approaching, the mountain roads leading to the four Char Dam temples would soon become too treacherous for the buses, so the number of pilgrims seemed to be manageable for the city. Although most tour bus companies offered a 4-day/4-temple Char Dam package, containing some ungodly amount of time on a bus. We decided to focus on only one of the four sacred temples. We picked Badrinath because it seemed to be the most accessible by road, and because the national park a few hours away was actually our main destination. We were able to book a direct bus to Badrinath for the next morning at 5:30am, we had no problem getting seats for the 14-hour trip.

We have taken hundreds of bus trips, and it seems like every one of them is worse than the one before. This ride was no exception, in fact it this one seemed to surpass any of the trips in our recent memory as the most uncomfortable, the most unpleasant and the most dangerous. Although the road winding up and down the mountain is in relatively good condition, what makes it dangerous is the sheer volume of traffic plying the route. Buses speed and pass each other on perilous switchbacks, the one highway leads to the four Hindu holy sites and a Sikh holy site. In terms of comfort, clearly every single seat in the bus had been ripped out and been replaced with tiny ones so as to cram more people in it. Our knees were completely up against the seats in front of us, which seemed ok for the first few hours, but grew more and more awful as the ride continued. When we finally arrived in Badrinath it was already night. We were happy to be alive, but we were even more happy that it was so cold that we needed to pull out our sweaters. It was the first time we had needed to wear them since arriving in Asia. We were so delighted with the weather that we decided to stay for three days. Badrinath itself is a mainly seasonal town. In the winter the road is too perilous to travel and the weather too cold. Hotels and restaurants are open only for the summer pilgrimmage season, only a few villagers remain nearby for the winter. The atmosphere in town is festive with hundreds of saddhus living in the surrounding hills for the summer months and the colourful Badrinath Temple itself (for which the town is named) is overflowing with visitors. We were a big hit at the temple entrance where everyone wanted us to join into their family photos. We spend almost a full day walking into the mountains surrounding Badrinath. Various trails criss-cross the hills and lead to holy caves or worshipping places. We followed a trail that lead us to a small tea shop where we met two sadhhus (wandering Hindu holy men). One of them had a huge walkman that played tapes, he carried two small bags with him, one was entirely filled with tapes. He insisted on having us listen to one of his tapes to prove to us that he only listened to Hindu music. "No Bollywood... no Salman Khan ...!" Another saddhu at the tea shop seemed to be interested in us as well and hovered around us as we set up to keep trekking up the hill. Sensing a request for money we tried to go on alone but we had picked up a new friend and the three of us left together. We wandered along together and everytime we crossed other pilgrims he would make his plea for money. It seemed that he believed that our presence might be increasing the quantity and quality of alms he was receiving and he became increasingly cheerful as we walked up through the mountains. We crossed dozens of pilgrims who keenly inquired about us and requested photos with us. People were incredibly friendly and excited. At some point we decided to head back to town, and the saddhu accompanying us asked for a gift. He didn't want money, he wanted a gift. Luckily I had a bag full of Canadian flag pins and I handed one over. He was quite convinced that it was an earring and despite my attempts to dissuade him, poked one through his ear then asked for another one. In exchange he gave me his Krishna pin. actually he emptied both of his pockets and tried to give us everything he had in them, including his bag of hash. We left with only the pin. The next day we walked to Mana village, the last Indian settlement on the road heading to Tibet. The village was truly lovely albeit slightly overrun with visitors passing through from Badrinath (such as ourselves). The villagers didn't speak much English, nor did they speak much Hindi, and the older women dressed in brown wrap-like coats, adorned with jewelry carved from bone, reminiscent of their Tibetan neighbours. We were an easy 3km away from Badrinath, but we were in a completely new setting, the pace had slowed to a near standstill. Women sat around together knitting hand-spun wool, the village is known for its knitwear, but the wool was so rough, we couldn't bring ourselves to purchase anything (and actually everything also happened to be hideously ugly). While village men sat in their porter's baskets waiting to carry visitors up steep mountain paths (not looking particularly interested in nabbing any customers though). It took about 20 minutes to get a chai because the tea shop owner didn't want to interrupt his card game. It seemed as though the higher the altitude, the slower things moved, which made us perfectly happy.