Travelmag Banner

Finding the moon in Northern India

I went to the moon, with a Tibetan commando working for the Indian army. I do not know the exact coordinates but it is somewhere between the cities of Leh and Manali in northern India. If Neil Armstrong had been there as well, he would have confirmed my discovery of a piece of the moon right here on earth, in India. It could perhaps even be called Mars because of the reddish hue of this stretch of land of about 400 km. It is so out of this world that even the majestic Grand Canyon and the state of Utah in the US would get jealous.

This area in northern India is the playground of snow, wind and water. Can you, for example, braid sand? Unless you are the Michelangelo of sand art, only snow can do that here, and the wind, as it sweeps over the area, helps refine the braid. Or can you make pretzels out of water? Probably not, but the rivers running across this playground can. How about baking massive cakes of light brown chocolate with huge chimneys of the same color? Only wind can do that here, out of sandstone.

This region is sprinkled with indigo minerals, probably the magical result of Hindu deities’ fancy. If the moon had oxygen and water like this area does, these minerals would probably have turned it into a similar haven for this amazing display of flowers, on a par with the legendary flora of Cape Cod in South Africa.

This amazing treasure of land in northern India injects my brain with caffeine, making me forget the difficult, sleepless 17-hour jeep journey I am on, the pressure on my sinuses, and the headache caused by altitude sickness drumming my head. The government of India seems very much aware of the value of this treasure of natural beauty and rich minerals, very close to the Chinese border, which is why it guards it with the lives of its own people – Hindus – as well as Nepalese recruits and Tibetan refugees. These are the three groups that form the mighty Indian army, guarding every inch of land, especially in this area.

My travel companion, the Tibetan commando Tashi, serves in the Indian army and is one of the many children of Tibetan refugees who escaped the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s. I feel that India must owe some gratitude to the Chinese government as some of its best soldiers are the well-built children of Tibetan refugees. The Nepalese government should be as grateful, since thanks to its own Tibetan refugees, it claims to be the new Shangri-La – as does the city of Leh in India. Both Nepal and India use their respective ‘Shangri-la’s to attract tourists and to boost their economy.

Leh, predominantly home to Ladakhi people, who speak Ladakhi and write in Tibetan script, reminds a bit of Tibet, especially of Lhasa, because of its Tibetan refugee residents, its desert landscape, and the many stupas that crown the hills surrounding it. Unfortunately, the stray dogs of Leh, which almost attack me at two in the morning on my way to my appointment of destiny with Tashi, are also sad reminders of Tibet, which has been grossly neglected by the Chinese government who claims to have liberated it from the oligarchy of Buddhist lamas.

The architecture is also similar to that seen in Tibet, and Tibetans in this city freely exhibit signs of ‘Free Tibet’ with pictures of the Dalai Lama. In Lhasa and some other bigger towns of Tibet, however, most Tibetan buildings have been replaced by bleak Chinese architecture, and the Tibetans, even though still ever smiling, are not as happy and definitely not free to place their beloved Dalai Lama’s pictures in their homes, stores, or monasteries.

As we eat potato rotis and drink chai, in one of the tent towns called Pang on the moon in northern India, I feel that Tashi, although now an Indian citizen, still carries the heart of a generous, open, and peaceful Buddhist Tibetan. In our jeep, I watch Tashi, with his trendy red and black sunglasses and army jacket, dancing to Indian pop and rap and taking photos of the ‘moon’ with his Nokia mobile phone.

My feelings and observations in the other areas where Tibetan refugees have built homes for themselves tell me that many young Tibetans do the same thing – they keep rhythm to the music of their parents’ newly adopted country. Those still remaining in their own land, Tibet, although they try very hard not to, have to do the same thing. The music they keep rhythm to is, of course, Chinese. The only Tibetan that remains in Tibet is the land itself, which, sadly, only sets a background to Chinese rhythms.

When my trip in northern India ends, I feel scared as I am back in ‘civilization’, first in New Delhi and then in Bombay. I’d rather be back on the moon.

Of course, I encountered other civilizations like Kathmandu and Lhasa during my one-year sojourn, mainly in China, Tibet, and Nepal, but the ones I have lately been in contact with in India are different.

In New Delhi and Bombay, brand names are everywhere, stores stuffed with things I cannot even remember the use of – knick knacks of all sorts, artifacts of different colors and different styles, and millions of clothing items in different colors. Over the last year, all I have carried with me in my 11-year-old backpack have been my three t-shirts, four cotton pants, a pair of flip-flops, and some winter clothes which I subsequently gave away in Tibet. What are all these other things on sale for?

I am also scared because I feel like everyone is staring at me. I know that this is quite normal in India – westerners are stared at – but I feel it even more intensely in the ‘civilizations’ of Delhi and Bombay. Not having had any seafood since I left China, I decide to go to a seafood restaurant and then to a place called Basil and Thyme in Delhi to have some gooey chocolate cake but I feel that all the fancy customers are disgusted by my 8-year-old blue Adidas shoes, my baggy orange Nepalese cotton pants, my gray T-shirt from my university years, and my bamboo stick from Nepal. I can sense that their disgust grows even more when their stares turn to my long hair, which has not been combed for ‘forever’. I get scared because I did not realize one became so appalling when one did not have fancy clothes or perfectly combed hair.

I also get scared because there are no more comforting smiles by Tibetans, Nepalese, or smalltown Chinese or Indians. I knew that smiles are rarer in big cities of ‘civilizations’, but I had forgotten now that I had been constantly surrounded by smiles over the last year.

Most people seem manicured in Delhi and Bombay, especially in the newer neighborhoods. I watch the better-fed Indian population in these areas. Do they know what conditions exist, what kind of hunger prevails in the rest of their own country or elsewhere in the world, I wonder. Can they or will they ever be able to imagine what I have seen during my travels since I was 17 years old – many impoverished worlds in one wide rich world?

My old blue shoes feel they can no longer stand the sanitized streets of Delhi or Bombay, the lack of cow dung, and they sweep me away, back to the dusty but magical Indian province Rajasthan – first to the city of Udaipur. They greedily absorb the dust they missed. They walk me through the narrow streets of what once was the Maharajas’ playground of palaces. They inhale the smell of incense and cow dung hanging in the air at every corner, in front of every store, and outside every temple.

My 8-year-old blue Adidas shoes now have holes in them. They climbed hills in the jungles of Papua New Guinea with my life partner and best friend; they hid my feet from the religion police in Iran; they protected me from the heavy monsoon rains in Nepal and India; they jogged me around the Potala Palace in Lhasa; they took me to places that even I no longer remember. They carried me around the world but how much more can they take?

As I am waiting for the bus from Udaipur to Pushkar, where my adopted Rajasthani family lives, I am approached by a 7-year-old boy holding a tin can and asking for money for chapatti. Then, another boy approaches, leading his blind father. He holds up his father’s hand and asks me to put some money in it. A few minutes later, a middle-aged man approaches my blue shoes, pointing at his own non-existing legs. He too is asking for money. My shoes absorb all this poverty as well.

But this time, the sorrow they absorb is completely different from anything else. The poverty they once saw in the townships of South Africa is big, but the one in India is bigger. The shoes have managed to stand everything else they experienced but they are having trouble this time. What had made them so durable and free for the last eight years was that they could stand everything that exists in our world, and not only in the sanitized and manicured parts. That is probably why I was drawn to buy them in the first place. I feel that it is going to be very hard to put them aside, ever…

Today, in my Rajasthani family’s village, my shoes rest in my room. I am wearing flip-flops and my family finds it easy to decorate my toes and ankles with old Rajasthani silver. The jewelry looks adorable on my feet in the magical land of the maharajas. It is also the Raki festival this week, in Rajasthan just like everywhere else in India. It is the festival of siblings. The sisters visit their brothers and put a red thread around their wrist to protect the brothers against the evil eye. A well-protected brother is, in turn, able to protect his sister. The women of my Rajasthani family become my sisters and the men my brothers by tying red threads around my wrists.

As I admire the red threads on my wrists, I feel unsure about the possible reaction of my old blue Adidas shoes once they have arrived back in my country, North Cyprus. Would they, and if so, how would they be able to live without the generosity of Tibetan, Nepalese, and Rajasthani people? Would they still be able to live happily after having breathed in so much dust and misery in all these worlds? Would they ever find the middle way once back in North Cyprus?

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines
Central Asia