Everest, the tallest.

The mountain is in the news again, for three different reasons, all in the same week. One of human conquest, one of human stupidity, and the third of nature’s unpredictability.

First, the one about human achievement. Indian mountaineer, Anshu Jamsenpa summitted twice, within a week. She has summited twice in 10 days in 2011, and last week was witness to her fourth and fifth successful summits.

Anshu Jamsenpa with HH Dalai Lama

Anshu, with HH Dalai Lama

The 37-year-old mother of two from Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh (state in the far east of India), summitted on the 16th May, and then again on the 21st May. Before her second ascent, Anshu said: “My only aim now is to unfurl the national flag once again atop Mt Everest and pay homage to Lord Buddha. I seek blessings and support from my fellow countrymen.” She was blessed by HH Dalai Lama before leaving for the expedition. What a Rockstar!

The second story is about Ravi Kumar, from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh who is untraceable on the mountain after having summitted on the 20th. Kumar and his guide, Lakpa Wongya Sherpa, got separated during the descent near the Balcony and the latter was later found unconscious and suffering from frostbite at Camp IV.

a8e9f2b6fac66d36d1761c9c30b10f5dIn another incident six climbers suffering from altitude sickness had to be rescued and then sent to different hospitals. The human body isn’t made for 25K feet, and the body cells literally start dying at that altitude. If one isn’t a trained and seasoned super hi-alt mountaineer, please stick to doing mid-altitude treks. Everest or other 8-thousanders aren’t really for you stupids.

The other in-fashion thing for some years now is to go up the mountain with a guide. Everest isn’t a tourist spot, you know. In 1996, most of those killed on the mountain weren’t seasoned mountaineers either. And there is no business that a ward should get separated from a guide. The life of the ward is the guide’s responsibility. Lakpa, this might have been your eighth summit, but your license needs to be taken away.

And finally, “…a piece of mountaineering history has disappeared “, said British mountaineer Tim Mosedale after he descended from his sixth successful summit attempt. Considered to be the last obstacle, some 58 metres below the summit, the rocky outcrop known as the Hillary Step has collapsed. Likely because of the 2015 earthquake. Last year, the American Himalayan Foundation did publish images, but it was not clear whether the rock formation had actually collapsed because of the snow cover. Tim Mosedale who summitted last year as well this year, has confirmed, with pictures that he has posted.

The crumbling away of the Hillary Step makes summitting easier and quicker for the inexperienced climbers, but also will expose them to the elements for a longer time because of the potential traffic jam which will ensue with larger number of climbers passing through that spot.

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Deaths on Mt Everest (data, graph courtesy – BBC)

More than 240 people have died on the mountain (above base camp) so far, and three more already added this year, more so since climbing up has become almost a joke. Teams have to be sent up every year to clear rubbish and debris from previous years’ climbs. There are bodies on the mountain, and plenty debris. Most seasoned pioneers regret what happens to the mountain every climbing season.

But, we need to stop for a moment and perhaps listen to Sagarmatha. The mountain, I believe, is telling us that she feels tired and abused and that we should stop climbing her now.

 

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Hrvatska 01 : Zagreb, Croatia’s capital in the northwest

“​Zagreb, Croatia’s northwestern capital, is distinguished by its 18th- and 19th-century Austro-Hungarian architecture.” That is how Wikipedia starts describing the city of about 800000, capital of a country that the EU considers one of the poorest and backward in the union. This isn’t large by any standards, but packs a lot of character. Croatia is one of the parts that former Yugoslavia got broken into. 

Landing in from Heathrow, the new Zagreb airport was quite a change. Small, with one KLM 737 just arrived before us, and three luggage belts but modern.

Immigration takes a while, and so does luggage. But, as a tourist, who cares. Not as if I had some place to get to in a hurry. As one steps out, has a different feel compared to a western European city. Felt somewhat like Bratislava really. The trees look different, but green. The houses look different, but nice. Somewhat picturesque, but not overwhelmingly so. 

Took about 20 minutes to town. The taxi drivers at the airport will fleece you. Uber is available, but has long wait time. What showed 3 minutes turned to 24 as soon as I booked it.

Staying at a mid range place in Donji Grad, the lower city, which is one of the 17 districts of Zagreb. Two days of lack of sleep is about to take a toll, but certainly not before stepping out to buy some food.

If you happen to buy at the local super market, it is pretty cheap. I bought a baguette, some cheese, some prosciutto and a beer in glass bottle (bottle returnable). A quick efficient sandwich, more like four.

All of 50 kuna. But, there is plenty food available,  plenty coffee and plenty beer ( Ožujsko, made by Molson Coors, is the most popular Lager around). All across town.

The Best Western that I am in is in a less touristy area, and this closer to where locals live. Has a different, quieter feel, but is close to the railway station and about 10 minutes from the center of town. It is reasonably priced, provides a turn down service with a chocolate on the pillow and a pretty decent breakfast.

I walked out, looking for a local Sim card. Don’t go by what web sites seem to proclaim about tourist Sim cards with great deals. Those are difficult to find. Get a local whatever Sim to ensure you have telephony, internet would be available in your hotel. 

This area of Donji Grad has a different feel, with neighbors talking to each other, petunias on windows, some dereliction, coffee bars with friends smoking over coffee or a beer, some super markets.

 

 Many of the walls are covered with rather artistic graffiti. Check my facebook post on the same subject and some other interesting images.

 You get the drift. 

As I ambled around, I visited the railway station for a short while. In front of the station is a large park at the end of which is the Opera house. 


There is this ancient hotel, the Esplanade next door which was used by the passengers of the Orient Express which used to stop at Zagreb. The railway station has a quaint feel to it, some buildings from the early 20th century and some rectangular non description ones from the communist era.

There is a small railway museum here too.

Later in the night, I stepped out to get to the main square, with the famous equestrian statue. Found a busker, playing out a very familiar tune.

You will recognize it too. Very often, I find the quality of buskers in western towns often betray the cultural standards of a city. Classical music, if you find, is a good sign.

Ban Jelačić Square is officially known as Trg bana Jelačića, is colloquially called Jelačić plac. This is where the young of Zagreb seem to  hang out, and most tours start from. This is a good place to see Zagreb’s famous blue trams including the old heritage  ones.

Incidentally, the day before, 11th April, marked the anniversary of Croatia’s declaration of independence by a puppet regime, in 1941. These are a handful of people, a bit of an embarrassment to the populace who celebrated the event. The group gathered at Jelačić square.

Touch down Croatia / Hrvatska

Ever read Alistair MacLean novels, as a young adult or even later? He wrote one called ‘The Partisans’, which I read while in senior school. Never mind what that story was about, but the setting was former Yugoslavia. Exotic sounding Zagreb, Mostar, Sarajevo, Graz, Zadar etc which became infamous later during the Serbo-Croat-Bosnian conflict. Somewhere along the line a city whose name started with a Z, sure did pique some interest in me and that interest to get there, sometime in life, remained.
Just before getting my shackles removed, closing my eyes and forefinger jabbing a map of Europe pointed roughly to Croatia. What shackles, you ask. Ah, but that is a story for another day.

Dealt with the Croatian embassy for a Visa. Have never figured why such seemingly immigration risk insignificant countries need such amazing amount of paperwork to issue a tourist visa and why do they charge so much? Am I about to illegally migrate…to Croatia? Not as if there is a large bunch Indians traveling to Croatia either.

 

Meanwhile, getting tickets on miles from British Airways was as much a bitch as it always has been. Can’t fly through here, not from there, not on this day, not on that, not in economy, not this airline etc etc. Getting some workable, but inconvenient combination is akin to expecting a singularity type event to happen and a space time continuum portal, to the other dimension,​ open up. So they routed me through LHR, but couldn’t find me a miles seat to Zagreb. That is supposed to be my destination, you see. In any case, my return trip on miles and paid LHR->ZAG ends up costing more than flying economy to ZAG and back.

The travel day from finally arrived. BA seems to have fallen on bad times. Their planes lack upkeep, the service borders now on surly, the food is just plain bad. Their Twitter CS team is callous in approach as well.

If you are flying short-haul economy, then you pay for food. Their central software system crashes, and disables online check-in too.

But, still interesting things happen. There are things happening everyday which make one gleeful. Finally the app based check-in today morning, self baggage drop and tag printing, and touch less card swipe on board for a coffee. Technology, when it works, is sheer magic.

Then this beautiful innovation of filter coffee in this cup with a cloth net filter.

Why didn’t someone think of this earlier?

Visible sunrises are still a delight. Even more so in England.

And then, John Cleese is going to be back on the tube; so reports The Telegraph.

…And touch down into sunny Zagreb. After a long line at immigration and a (fleecing) taxi drive, here is the view from my upgraded room

More on Zagreb and Croatia as I travel through next some days…

Fontainhas, Goa

Touching nostalgia in ‘Bairro das Fontainhas’

All this started while planning for a class reunion in Goa. The thought was to extend the trip on the back of this reunion, and indulge my amateur hobby of being behind the lens. Goa is overrun with tourists and photographers and there isn’t really anything new to shoot. But, just a little bit of research revealed this old Portuguese quarter of Fontainhas in Panjim. It is visited enough, but not enough. It is somewhat touristy, but quiet. If you see what I mean.

The visit was in last April, and quite out of the tourist season. Booking a hotel is easy if you do it early enough. In-season rates are obscene, but quite reasonable in April. Because I wanted to shoot in Fontainhas, I chose La Maison Fontainhas, right inside the quarter. It all started very unpleasantly (read review based on this experience), but the hotel itself is nice and some of the staff are nice. Temper your expectations down a bit, compared to the Tripadvisor reviews you read, and you will be alright. Don’t go by the response (from the hotel) to adverse feedback. But, this post isn’t about the hotel.

The once Latin quarter, is borderd by the Ourem creek on one side and the Altinho hill on the other. It has a relaxed old world feel, bordering on 19th century Mediterranean Europe muddled with (perhaps) a Konkani way of life. The Fountain of Phoenix, from which Fontainhas takes its name, can still be seen near the Maruti Temple in the Mala area. The settlement came to being somewhere early 18th Century, and was caused by a Goan expat (read its history). Most of the houses here are more than a hundred years old; some of them have been converted to galleries, cafes, and boutique hotels.

The place has somewhat been frozen in time in the way it appears, but tries to meld into the 21st century. The houses are still painted brightly (mostly) and add a splash of colour whichever way you look. But, you step out of this enclave, and you have the usual hustle bustle of the rest of Panaji.

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Imagine my surprise when I peeped in through the broken pane of a decrepit old house and and old lady peered back at me. Surprised, I could just mumble “Good Morning, Ma’am” and step back.

By the time I started walking about to shoot at at seven in morning, the sun was already up and it was warm and humid. The neighbourhood had just started waking up. The pav-wallah, had just started their early morning round going to designated houses, selling pav from their blue plastic sheet covered baskets on the back of their bicycles. The pav-wallah seemed like a morning alarm for the neighbourhood. He goes (as is the tradition in Goa) from house to house and rings is bicycle bell. Momentarily the door of the house is opened, by the residents, morning pleasantries exchanged and some pav handed over.

People just about had started opening the windows of their homes. But, few had yet stepped out. Some had started cleaning up the front sitouts, and washing them.

Fontainhas is a  beguiling neighbourhood with colonial quirks, throwing up pleasant surprises in every corner. As I walked around, I chanced up Anita Tea house and ventured in. Place has maybe eight tables, and able to seat may be 20 people at the most. It might have been, say eight in the morning and the tea house was busy serving tea, pav and bhaji. The bhaji looked and tasted something like usal. I sat around stuffing my face and drinking tea. Person sitting next to me got interested in my camera equipment and we got chatting. He was one of the local newspaper delivery people, who had stopped by for tea after his morning rounds.

The winding streets are an invitation to walk around and explore. I dipped into alleyways which looped back into themselves and chanced upon little shrines with candles or little LED lights. The names of the streets, most of them, are still in Portuguese. The arterial street is called Rua de 31 Janeira signifies the Portugese day of independence from Spain, in 1640. Then there is this 18th June road named after day, the civil disobedience movement (for freedom from Portuguese rule) was started by Ram Manohar Lohia and Dr Menezes

Little door painted at the bottom of a wall

Little door painted at the bottom of a wall. May be 3″ X 5″ in all.

Fontainhas, being relatively cleaner than rest of Panjim is evident, is a community with an interesting mix of Konkani speaking Hindus, and Portuguese and English speaking Christians. The Maruti (Hanuman) temple flanks the enclave. Right in the middle is the St. Sebastian Chapel (built in 1818), and right next to it is a “Sai Niwas”. The fringes of the quarter seem to blend into other cultures and what is the rest of Panjim.

Reviews and travelogues paint a picture more steeped in yore than Fontainhas is. Mario Miranda’s amazing sketches show scenes of time that isn’t anymore; Dalrymple’s description of streets full of VW Beetles, violinists heard from every other window, senior citizens in linen etc. don’t hold anymore. Faux historian Dalrymple visited Fontainhas in the early nineties, and that is not what the place feels like anymore. But, that doesn’t make it any less interesting. It is a delightful mix of the old world, and Kinetic Hondas, zooming motorcycles, people walking briskly to work, some backpackers frequenting the one cafe and restaurants and sleepy dogs. Yet the place is laid back, and lets you wind down.

Cafe Chodankar

Or find a place which asks you to F***. Not really, that is a local last name that many people carry.

By the time, I was done with my morning shoot I looped back to Anita Tea house for another cup. It was already shut for the day. Given where this place is, even it shutter is coloured bright orange.

The humidity was energy sapping, and after an early lunch I did as the Goans do. siesta. Felt hungry when I woke up late in the afternoon. Asking the receptionist wasn’t much help. Kinda pretty and dumb, at the same time. So, I walked out to Urban Cafe which I did notice in the morning though it wasn’t open at that time. Is a yuppie /backpacker visited cafe with a relaxed (surprise) feel about it. They had an electricity problem and did not have much to offer in terms of eats. After a coffee, I strolled out to the side of Fontainhas away from the creek to find bakeries. Later in the evening and next day I found a bunch of restaurants and cafes within a kilometer or so. Udupi place, Konkani sea food, pizza (decent one, by the way) and good Goan food.

As I walked about in the evening, went up the hill, went out to the water front and trudged back. Lost my way, grabbed some food instead and found my way back. Place is safe, and there are enough people on the streets till fairly late in the night.

I Ate dinner than night at Viva Panjim. There are boards everywhere in and around Fontainhas and you won’t miss the place though it is in an alleyway. It is a restaurant in an old house, with a little sitout. Beer, chicken liver fry, and a fish curry with rice. Generous servings, amazing taste. Heaven.

Go there to feel the world of yore, experience the cafes, the small boutique hotels,  and the warmth of the people. But, also for things which belong to that land, and non-Portuguese. Locate Anita Tea house there. Enjoy the company of locals, local food, warmth for about next to nothing.

Quick Facts

Places to Stay : Three WelcomHeritage Panjim properties, and Le Maison Fontainhas (at your own risk). There are some other hostels, and guest houses which I wouldn’t really recommend.

Food: Anita Tea Stall, Black Sheep Bistro, Viva Panjim, restaurants at the WelcomHeritage properties, Urban Cafe, Vihar (Udupi restaurant), the Caravela Cafe (good pizza)  and various others in and around Panjim.

You can see some of what I shot here, and then on flickr.

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Gorkhaland, on the rebound. A simmering pot.

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main bazar Kalimpong

The agitation might have started around the 1980s, and brought in some prominence to the Nepali, or the Lepcha population in the region … but the pot had been on the boil for a while now.

What region is that now? That would be part of Sikkim, and most of what is now Darjeeling district. The region which is administered by the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council since 1988. I was in the area in late 2015 and saw festoons, banners, flags, posters and road side meetings in Kalimpong. And, yes, Bimal Gurung (more about him later) does draw a crowd.


लेपचा भोटीया नेपाली
हामी सबै गोर्खाली

 – writing on walls in Kalimpong


Bazaar Area, Kalimpong

Armed paramilitary personnel, Kalimpong

There are armed security personnel on the streets with a sense of uneasy political calm as people go about their lives. The undercurrent is certainly there and is palpable. Talking to local people brought to light:

  • The Lepchas (along with some other tribes) are perhaps the original residents of the region.
  • Nepali folk arrived mainly with the invasion of Gorkhas in the 1780. The cessation from Nepal happened much later (for a pittance) after the British-Nepal battle. The ceded territory included Darjeeling, Siliguri, the entire terai, Simla, Nainital, Garwhal hills, Kumaon upto the Sutlej. The British came all the way in, and starting planting tea all over around 1860s.
  • As the world moved on, the Gorkhas lost some of their identity as they were neither in Nepal, nor were they in a ‘province of their own’. This loss of identity is what bothers the Gorkhas today, and their wanting to unite with Lepchas and Bhotias (tribes originating from Bhutan) to press for Gokhaland
  • There was some socio-economic pressure from the refugee Tibetans, but that has started easing out now as the Tibetans have started migrating to other parts of the country and also out of the country.

There are some other facts which play into the situation.

Shree Tibet Stores

Notice the Gorkhaland marking?

  • Subhash Ghising who was the face of the Gorkhaland agitation passed on early 2015 and left the movement somewhat rudderless. But, even in the years before Ghising had somewhat mellowed down.
  • As Ghising’s power based weakened, a new leader, Bimal Gurung, emerged. Gurung started as a GNLF member and later become a councillor in the Hill Council. Gurung capitalized on the mass support for Prashant Tamang (an Indian Idol contestant) in 2007, and garnered enough support to throw Ghising out of the power seat. In 2008, Gurung moved away from the Hill Council and also formed his new party Gorkha Janmukti Morcha.
  • Immediately afterwards Gurung resurrected the demand for Gorkhaland and had conversations with the Prime Minister in 2015 as well and got some assurances.

Surely, Gorkha identity is an issue as is the feeling of neglect as felt by the Gorkhas. Along with, there definitely is a problem of unemployment in many of the areas which are dependent on tourism (to a large extent) or the tea business.

Successive governments have tried to placate them with promises of development. It is just that those promises might not hold long-term unless there was some fruition.

Momo seller in the Haat Bazaar Area, Kalimpong

Momo seller in the Haat Bazaar Area, Kalimpong

Banners, flags, logo hangings in the bazaar area, Kalimpong

Banners, flags, logo hangings in the bazaar area, Kalimpong

Bazaar Area, Kalimpong

Bazaar Area, Kalimpong with Gorkha Janmukti Morcha colours all over

 

Sonam Tshering Lepcha plays his self designed string instrument

Sonam Tshering Lepcha, Padmashree

Lepchas are a small community residing mainly in the regions of North Bengal and Sikkim and believed to be primarily residents of Sikkim for the last some hundred years. They are a small bunch of perhaps 60,000 people. Today they are spread across Darjeeling, Kurseong, Sikkim and Kalimpong. Anthropologists venture that the ancients might have migrated from Tibet or Outer Mongolia. Maybe from parts of Burma down Erawaddy because their language (also known as Lepcha) has a wee bit of resemblance with Burmese and the script resembles Tibetan. Basically, they haven’t the foggiest.

The people themselves believe that they are aboriginal, native and didn’t migrate from anywhere except from northern parts of Sikkim. Though they are currently four communities, they used to consider the Sikkim Chogyal as their leader.

My short story is about the 89-year-old, full of spunk Sonam Tshering Lepcha. In lower Kalimpong, he runs a school but more importantly, runs a Lepcha museum; Perhaps the only one in Asia. The other museum that I have heard of is in Netherlands and has a host of artifacts and some ancient scriptures. Go visit the man, and his museum if you are interested in local cultures, a bunch of stories and a whole lot of indigenous music.

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The museum is kind of hidden away. Most locals have not heard of it either. Go down from the main bazaar somewhat eastwards. The broken road goes through a smelly area of vehicle repair and poultry shops gradually going downhill into a residential area. Ask for the Lepcha school, where the first floor is the museum.

While talking to you super enthusiastically about Lepcha culture, showing various older implements of cultivation and battle, he will talk to you about his Padmashree (2007) and Bangashree. He might, his memory is starting to fail these days, also mention that his wife got a Padmashree too for sustaining an indigenous culture. He might not be able to recollect when she received the award and what it was for. A bit of googling will tell you the year as 2013, and it was for folk music.

In any case, the museum is housed in a hall not too large, but is crammed with artifacts and small models that Sonam Tshering has made over time. It is amazing to figure that he has continued to remain motivated and keep the museum and culture going over decades, primarily, on his own dime. He is, however, widely respected in his community for what he has done, continues to do, his child like simplicity and sagaciousness.

Some visiting tourists donate, some don’t. There is no way, however, you will go back without heaps of respect for this individual. His child-like simplicity and enthusiasm is well-respected by the community too.

Belonging to the Támsángmú community which is based in and around Kalimpong, he has composed what is known as the anthem for the people in the language of Tibetan-Burmese decent. Sonam is usually clad in normal trousers and a shirt with a Lepcha cap; but on special occasions he would don a dumprá with a conical hat (which you will notice in video below).

Towards the end of the tour, he took us to what works as his office and took out a bag full of musical instruments. Most of them were wind instruments, except the last one which was a four-stringed fret less instrument made of wood and somewhat of a cross between a sarod and a rabab. Here he is playing a Bangla folk song. Click on the picture below to see the video (courtesy G Kozhipurath).

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Kalimpong itself is a boring, also ran hill town and there really isn’t much to see or do…except visiting Sonam Tshering Lepcha.

Indian Railways – looking forward

Indian Railways Logo  The finance budget for the Indian Railways was presented in the parliament yesterday. It does seem, prima-facie, to be somewhat different from the populist budgets of the last some years. The budgets in the past usually have had a tone of promising a dozen new trains (to friendly states), adding stops to trains passing through the railway minister’s constituency, introducing non-stop trains which travel the speed of a tortoise. You get the picture. But, in the last say twenty years, the only change that I have seen is adding power sockets, and some change in the bathrooms, some of the newer coaches have larger windows. Not much else. But, then I am not an Indian Railways fan and not a frequent traveler either. And this blog post is not about praising the new railway minister or the NDA government either.

So, what does the railway budget contain? It seems to be focused on financial stability, de-congestion, starting to think about customer orientation and safety. The total budget seeks an investment of Rs 8,56,020 crores. Two remarkable directions are allocation Rs 39000 Cr towards connectivity for the East, and J&K, and a whopping Rs 1,99,320 towards network de-congestion. This perhaps does not look too far out, but certainly does look medium term in its perspective.

Why didn’t someone think of re-designing the ladders (to climb to upper births) earlier?

Stability and fiscal prudence

WAP locomotive at Erode junction

De-congestion of the network is a priority and should have been taken up more than a decade ago.

Slew of initiatives around innovation, running a BPR, using of global bench-marks. Essentially a large amount of investment towards revamping management practices, systems, processes, and re-tooling of human resources. There will be an infrastructure fund set up and two existing vehicles will be used to secure loans from the public (bonds, I guess). Two interesting items hidden in the paragraphs are the digitization of land records and responsibility fixing for encroachments and setting up a university for employees in the current fiscal.

De-Congestion

Gauge upgrades in 800 km in this year, adding railway tracks in congested routes (9400 kms), increasing freight capacity, and increasing speed of trains for inter-metro journeys.

Customer Orientation

First class ac ladder to the upper birth

Try climbing the ladder to an upper birth. A herculean task for a senior citizen.

A large number of initiatives in this area including disposable bed linen, cleanliness, introducing hand-held technology, ease of ordering food. All these are easy to think of. What is new is that someone has thought of getting the National Institute of Design to re-design the steps/ ladders used to climb to the upper births. Why didn’t someone think of this earlier? There is more – a large amount allocated to building elevators, and escalators, Braille enabling newer coaches and wider entrances for the differently abled, and start of air-conditioned EMUs in Mumbai.

Then of course the usual of improving stations, wi-fi in a bunch of stations, adding capacity to many of the current trains and the like.

Safety

Train protection and early warning anti-collision systems, radio based signal design for unmanned railway crossings,cctv in trains,

 Budget Highlights, Government Publication