As the Wheel Turns 4


Hidden Paradise

Shangri-La. How we conjure with what that evokes. It appears as Hilton’s mystical green eden in Lost Horizon. Shangri-La…. Its promise of love and peace is real but elusive, just out of sight, around the next corner, if we get there.


Where is Shangri-La? Some say it’s in China’s Kunlun mountains, through which we drove last year in Tibet and before that in Tajikistan and China. I didn’t see it, though maybe that’s the fault of the dense smog that obscured most everything. There’s a claim that Pakistan’s Hunza Valley is the true Shangri-La. Others suggest the real earthly paradise of the fictional Shangri-La is in the Himalayas, a hidden valley referenced in Tibetan Buddhist texts as an idyllic and sacred place of refuge.


My personal contribution to the myth is to suggest it’s in Ladakh. Hidden in the steep, bone-dry hills of this 13,300-foot plateau which receives 3.5 inches of rain a year, are narrow valleys. They run like spokes from the calm, Buddhist town of Leh, each one is a separate treasure of tranquility and beauty such as I’ve never experienced elsewhere.


Under the serene protection of a Tibetan monastery perched on a nobby brown hill, stands a collection of stupas said to house sacred relics related to Buddha.


The oldest have sides made soft by centuries of erosion, while newer ones are tall and sharply defined. Some have mani walls, built up over the centuries by pile one rock on another, and these walls can be many yards long. All stupas, even the most crumbling are freshly white-washed and draped with prayer flags, in honor of the presence of the Dalai Lama in Leh,


Just beyond is a patchwork of emerald and canary fields divided by stone walls and stands of slender poplars, leaves fluttering.


Glassy blue-grey water gushes down narrow canals that draw from tumbling rivers swollen with snowmelt. A willow casts a deep shade on the dirt road leading to the village, where rose bushes bursting with pink blooms hug the white stucco houses.


Each flat roof is already partially covered with the stacks of hay and the dung patties that are needed to see each family and their livestock through seven months of deep freeze each winter. The cobbles of an ancient lane are bed to a fluffy beige dog which slumbers, impervious to a cluster of flies tickling its nose.


The air is warm, faintly smoky, with a floral perfume of sweet william, geranium and rose.


In the middle of a pasture dotted with brown and black cows, a red gilt prayer wheel spins, casting its prayers to the wind, yet no one walks around it. Completing each revolution it makes a slight, ee-oo squeak, silently turned by the invisible hand of water power. Red finches hop and peck, pigeons do a languid mating dance, issuing their burbling coo. A woman with a stick moves goats from one field to the next and in the distance the pock-pock of a mallet on stone suggests a summer building project is underway.


If this isn’t Shangri-La. what is?

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As the Wheel Turns 2.5!


Dolomites to Delhi

I don’t want anyone to have too great a shock when my next dispatch arrives from the far kingdom of Ladakh. Because if I’m having a bit of a time getting used to the change I can only imagine what it’s like simply to read about it. One moment I’m faced with this:


And the next, this:


I had a little reverie about the vast differences in view above. There are two sacred cows lounging on a sunny Delhi garbage heap, one munching a plastic sack, the other fondly licking a yellow and silver foil bag of chips. One says, “Do you ever think about the after life?”

“Sure, every day. You?” says the second one.

“Yeah, me, too. In my next life, I hope I come back as a pariah dog,” sighs the first one, pointing his shiny nose enviously toward a dog lounging in a damp gutter shaded by a stout banyan tree covered in twisted vines.

The other one looks around and said, “Not me. When I come back, I want to be Italian.”

So, here we are in Delhi, about as far away from the Dolomites in look, feel, taste, sound and smell as one can possibly get.



It is great to be back in India, despite that the 106F temperature left me feeling like I was walking around in my own personal hot tub. I still find a dinner of richly spiced dal and basmati rice enticing. A breakfast started with watermelon juice quenches my morning thirst immediately and the rich magenta of the juice seems a statement of the world of color that awaits.


Despite the heat we’ve been walking around, mainly in old Delhi, where streets narrow to lanes, then alleys, then cobbled paths where the buildings shadow the ground and wires and cables seem to seethe overhead.


Is it my imagination or are the streets more packed than last time? Some say everyone’s out more because Ramadan started on June 29. Perhaps it’s because it’s summertime.


Or maybe it’s just that I feel the heat of the crowds more since I’m so darn hot myself. In a manner of speaking….


Today we begin our drive north. We held a short puja for us, our cars and the route ahead. As in 2009, limes and a coconut were put under our car tires, we each were ringed in marigold necklaces and an important symbol of safety was smeared on the trunk.


Sweet smoke from incense wafted about in the still humid morning air. The red tilak placed between my eyebrows by a damp finger covered the seat of memory and thinking. A few uncooked grains of rice were flung at me, to make a point. All this was meant to protect my energy and, being red, to channel my warrior instincts, As it dried, it itched. Mindlessly I kept rubbing at it with my hand as we navigated up the packed roads toward the Delhi outskirts. By the time I looked in the visor mirror, it was smeared all over my forehead. Energy dispersed. I took a wet wipe to the red swath above my eyes as we headed north on the Grand Trunk Road.


Unlike previous trips I haven’t present a completed map yet, thinking you might like to piece together our route yourself, using Google Earth so you can see how high we’re going to be. Our stopping points:
Sarchu Pass
Uleytokpo (~50km west of Leh)

We’ll be traversing 4 of India’s 29 states: Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Jammu-Kashmir. Each state used to have its own ruler of course, before all were combined into one India. And there were varying ethnicities, too. All of which is to say that India is not one homogenous country, but a country that has been melded starting in 1947 and continuing for decades thereafter. Take a look

Happy researching and keep your fingers crossed that we drive safely.

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As the Wheel Turns 3



It’s monsoon in the high hilltop town of Shimla, favorite retreat of the British during the Raj, the place where they escaped the heat and humidity of Delhi. I can relate. Delhi has been unspeakably hot and humid and, Raj or no, I am happy with the promise of coolness.


The rain is a clear, beaded curtain of water drops. Before, the air is heavy as an old wool blanket. After, it’s ten degrees cooler and the air is fresh as clean laundry. When the first strands slash to the ground I take my bare feet outside to savor the cool puddles. Two black-haired girls in bright sweaters crouch under a purple and a yellow umbrella, laughing as they inspect rivulets coursing down their steep lane. The hotel staff looks askance as I lift my face to the trees to feel the water from head to toe.


Monsoon time is tricky, like an eccentric uncle who promises a visit, but then doesn’t show. What can you do but wait and wonder? Here the monsoon’s arrival was announced for June 29. A drizzle showed up, and a puny, silent drizzle at that, with not even a grumble of thunder. Like petty nobility standing in for an absent duke, it’s a poor substitute, despite having its own title: pre-monsoon.


When the real monsoon arrives, days late and oblivious to the furor its delay has caused, it comes with a bang, deluging the passes, relocating scree, rock and mud onto roads distressed by a rough winter, encouraging fragile underpinnings to slip away, at which the remainder of road i tumbles into the gorge below. Wedding dates predicted to be auspicious now will be. That the bride strolls in under a gauzy fuchsia awning sagging beneath a swimming pool’s worth of water, or that bouquets of drowned pink and white gerbera daisies droop overhead, is no matter. Everyone is joyous, relieved, wet. Life can go on.


Our drive has been much tougher than we expected, as we share the road with hundreds of heavy cargo trucks and oil tankers, the latter hauling fuel to the Indian military bases that line Jammu-Kashmir. They chug at a painful crawl up steep rocky roads as twisted as cold spaghetti. We pass ten of them and congratulate ourselves on the accomplishment, relieved to be done with the big guys, only to round a corner and see ten more in the distance.


The truck drivers are so familiar with the road they could drive it in their sleep, which we hope is not the case as we toot and honk our way around one blind curve after another. They’re helpful and polite, know where passing is possible and wave us around with a flick of a brown hand outside an open window. Sometimes the driver, head wrapped in a ragged scarf, t-shirt blackened with grime, will flash a smile as we wave a thank you.


One gaily painted truck broke down, neatly blocking half the road, with a long tumble into a coursing glacial river as the reward for misjudging the space for squeezing by. The army showed up lickety-split (one benefit of having lots of bases around), to help sort out the uphill and downhill blockage.


We press on over ever-higher passes, Rohtang La at 3978 meters, then Baralacha La at 4890 meters. It’s a rattling, jarring, shattering drive, during we ask over and over as we reach a plateau: “Do you think this is the top?” Yet we know that every summit here is marked by tangles of prayer flags and until we see them we must keep climbing.


At times there is pavement, and it’s like heaven to drive on it. I can release the grab bar, roll out my neck and shoulders, search the road side for an appealing Dhaba, a roadside food shop. It’s “No,” to those that welcome the trucks; they look to permeated with diesel and oil. And it’s also “No,” to hotels. They’re too empty, suggesting a kitchen with food that’s spoiled and pans that are too cool to kill bacteria.


We stop in front of a river crossing which, by the number of people sitting at stalls looking sleepy and bored, speaks of being a bus-stop, too. Within short order we have masala tea and two chapatis stuffed with spiced potatoes, supplemented by a packet of cashew biscuits and two Cadbury chocolate bars.


By the time we arrive at our tented camp for the evening, on the windswept plains of Sarchu, I have been so shaken, rattled and rolled that I’m light-headed. Or perhaps it’s being at 4,200 meters. Regardless, it is a true joy to walk around the level grassy plain. My delight at finding large clumps of edelweiss in bloom is even greater having been told I’d see them in the Dolomites and not found a one.


Ahead, Thalang La at 5329 meters, beckons. After that it’s all downhill into Leh, where monks are dancing in masks, and the Dalai Lama has arrived to celebrate his 79th birthday. But for tonight there’s a vegetarian buffet in the dining tent, good company to share it with, and me swaddled in four layers of tops and two sets of pants, hoping that’ll be enough to keep me warm through what promises to be a bitter cold night.


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As the Wheel Turns 2


Pits and Heights

I am reminded of a line in the movie Good Morning Vietnam. Adrian Cronauer, the DJ, asks a soldier in the artillery what he’d like to hear on the radio. The soldier, who’s been manning the big guns, shouts “Anything. Just play it loud!!!”


THAT’S HOW I FELT AFTER STANDING 10 YARDS FROM THE LEMANS TRACK for 15 of the 24 hours that the cars were racing. The engine noise was loud enough and the hours long enough that I did once or twice feel I might not be able to bear it. But only briefly, because really, it was so fantastically exciting being surrounded by “Son of Batmobile” vehicles.


OK, seeing the same cars going round and round was not, in and of itself, fascinating. But the Ferris wheel at the midway and the fast food stand next to it were compelling. Why? Because zey were Francais!! And let’s not ignore the lovely white hospitality tent filled with gentille hospitality servers who brought us champagne and tasty morsels.

Outside were 250,000 jolly fans, their tents and cars manning hard fought beachheads on any swatch of grass, gravel or tarmac within miles of the track. While we were inside sipping they were outside slugging beers, getting sunburned and waxing infinitely car happy.


And yes, the cars themselves were a huge draw, starting out in a compact mass and over the hours, spreading out according to their speed, so that a car would whiz by every few seconds. Ears firmly plugged I gave in, letting the wail and moan of those high-powered engines shiver through my body as they screamed around tight corners and accelerated down the straight away with a roar.

During an afternoon shower we stood with the crowds at a tight corner as one million-dollar car after another skidded on the slick course, spinning like slow-motion bumper cars. And we hung out at the Oak Racing pit, where we witnessed some tense moments as a decision had to be made on whether to bring their car in for a major repair.


When you’re listening to engines for hours you can’t help but pick favorites. For me hands down it was Aston Martin, which sounds like Marlene Dietrich, all low and throaty. Second choice: Corvette. Go, Chevy!!! Porsche’s engine sounded OK, but Ferraris, well, fuggedaboudit!!!

I don’t fancy myself a car fan, but I easily identified the black Porsche run by Patrick Dempsey’s team. I definitely saw him, too, though how I know this when all three drivers on his team wore identical black helmets is a good question.


After LeMans, Bernard and I split up, but not in a bad way. He headed to Paris for a few days with family, while I made my way to Vienna where I was welcomed by long time friends Heinz and Heidi. My last visit there was in the winter, when mainly I searched for places where I could be indoors. This time I got to experience the full graciousness of this lovely city, with its wide parks, bridle paths and ample bikeways.


We bicycled along the Danube, applauded the well-behaved dogs in evidence at many restaurants, indulged in far too much food and wine at a wine garden on the outskirts of the city, and ate fresh Matjes herring at that icon of fine deli foods, Julius Meinl. You see, it is the start of the season when herrings are at their mild and freshest best. I had herring in curry sauce, herring in wine sauce and shiny silvery herring filets naked as the day they were born.


We also attended a superb piano recital at the Musikveriein. Heinz and Heidi secured us seats on the stage, though thankfully not at the piano itself. I can tell you that sitting on stage is one way to ensure that you don’t doze off despite one too many petit fours during intermission. It’s also the perfect spot from which to spy on those who have dozed off. The Musikverein, though located in a city which has a round little chocolate called a Mozart ball, is not Mozartian in origin. It’s a 19th century hall with an inordinate amount of gold gilt, velvet and ceiling paintings. Enough to make even a pope blush.

Then it was on to the Dolomites, via a short flight into Verona where, joy of joys, we were reunited with Brunhilde, last seen on New Year’s Day 2013!!! When a car has driven up and down the Andes, followed by 9,000 miles from Istanbul to Calcutta and months in southern Europe, you expect to see a fluff or two of dust in a nook or cranny. But Brunhilde’s sojourn in the hands of an Italian Bentley dealer had done her nothing but good. Not only was she spotless, her air conditioning worked.

After a near brush with an empty gas tank on the autostrada–please don’t ask me how this could happen—we were able to complete our drive to Val Gardena and my date with some calorie-burning hikes.


The Dolomites have satisfied all my requirements for a perfect Alpine week. I’m happy to share them with you:
1. bottomless helpings of prosciutto (no photo here, cuz I ate it all…..several times)
2. curious and mild cows perfuming the air


3. voluptuous green slopes peppered with brilliant wildflowers,


4. rifuggios spaced at a polite hour and a half walk one from the next, the better to allow me to admire the stunning scenery while nursing a plate of apple strudel.


While I hiked, Bernard did what Bernard does: he took to the air. His flight from the heights was magnifique, he says, including the long skidding landing in a low pasture. After I watched the video I understood why I found gentian and buttercups in his back pocket!

Flying over Ortisei

Our time here has not all been about happy hiking. We spent one infernally rainy day deep inside a near-vertical, kilometer-long tunnel blasted through the cliffs above Passo Falzarego,


which served as a military stronghold during the devastating and tragic battles between Austrian and Italian troops from 1914-17.


This period of World War 1 resulted in a Sud Tirol which changed from Austrian to Italian hands, and is a reason why apple strudel and prosciutto co-exist here.

When we stumbled upon Sud Tirol two years ago, both of us were intrigued by the difficulties of the fighting that took place within the Dolomites’ limestone cliffs. And I must say we also were both ashamed not to know anything about it. We vowed then that we’d return to get more hands on with that history and we have.


Aahhh, but what would life be if I were just fit, skinny and well-informed. Surely there was something missing. And then it hit me. Cooking!!! Though I do pride myself on my cooking there was something about our hotel that drew me in. What could it be? Their 2-star Michelin restaurant? Perhaps their chef would know a thing or two I didn’t?

I could have picked any dish for my cooking lesson, something with long, unpronounceable strings of syllables, applying techniques requiring abstruse gadgetry, deconstructing a pages-long recipe and involving ingredients normally found in a chem lab. What I came up with: potato gnocchi and ravioli. Bear with me on this. Because really, while these two dishes may sound humble to you, they define good Italian cooking to me. If you’ve ever had a gnocchi that could function as a doorstop or a ravioli that is the consistency of a hacky-sack, I know you’ll agree with me.

Rosa Alpina cooking lesson

Bernard accompanied me into the kitchen, trembling all the while. I put on an apron. He refused. I cozied up to the counter. He backed away. I dug into the dough, he raised his camera to his face. But there was no hesitation when the finished product was dished into white bowls. “Mmmphh,” he said, his mouth working on a ravioli filled with burata and mushrooms.

Rosa Alpina cooking lesson

Everyone’s invited to my house for pasta when we return!!


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Tibet-Dispatch 3

How to bring you here, to share this experience with me. Ordinarily I have a good story to recount, a funny experience, an odd encounter, that brings to life the otherness of where I am. But what do I do when I’ve been in a different world, one for which there are no GPS points relating to my normal life nor to anything I’ve seen or done before.

This has been a trip of landscape more so than people, unless you count yaks as people, in which case there’s been a lot of that. The Tibetan Plateau has me awestruck. For days we have been traversing plains of curry and cinnamon velour, stretching for a hundred miles without a bump. At a continuous altitude of 15,500 feet we are high above tree line, yet still, thankfully, below snow line. When I’m out of the car, the sun beats intensely on my skin, but the wind blows strong, with sharp edges that carry a chill.

At the edges of these plains the velour carpet thrusts up with an abruptness that defies geologic creation of the volcanic sort. These are crumpled hills, like the earth making a fist that is all bare knuckles. They rise another 3,000 feet or more in colors of clove and bittersweet chocolate, some rocky, some softly carpeted in low grasses. The boundary between plain and hill is so startlingly it’s as if they say, “And you thought that was high! Wait till you see this!!” And still those hilltops, which in my beloved Colorado would overtop even the highest peak, taper off below snow line.

As we jar along on jaggedly rocky tracks, the road chances to swoop in a mile-long curve, and then mountains appear. We’ve driven on the north side of some of the most storied peaks in Himalayan mountaineering lore. As we left holy Lake Manasarovar and Mt. Kailash, the monumental summit of Nanda Devi stood head and shoulders above all nearby peaks, her white cliffs blushing pink in the first rays of a late dawn.

Day after day in the high reaches of the Tibetan Plateau, the snow line sinks. When I emerge from the guest house where we’ve slept the night (more on that in a minute) the confectioner sugar that sprinkled the higher peaks has changed to a thick whipped cream covering, and the white sprinkling is now lower on the mountain flanks.

This plateau we are traversing is the highest in the world and arid to the point of receiving less than a few inches rain a year. Yet it is lake country in the finest sense, with both fresh and salt water lakes created when two continental plates smashed together, forming the Himalayan range and creating basins that trap snowmelt and rivers into lakes of a passionate turquoise and aqua color. Four of the ten highest lakes in the world are in Tibet, at altitudes that puts Lake Titicaca (12, 464 feet) to shame.









During the day we progress slowly, averaging 35mph only at the best of times. I had expected to pass through small villages, places to which herders of those aforementioned yaks would retreat during the depths of winter. But there are none, at least not real ones. Once or twice a day we pass through China-made facsimiles, with a half-mile strip of concrete for a Main Street and solar-powered street lights illuminating the packs of furry black dogs that roam freely.

These are sad places, where village women sit on the ground, prayer wheels spinning, and young Tibetan men pass the time shooting pool on outdoor pool tables. In one or two there’s a cemetery of small stone chortens on the outskirts, evidence perhaps that there was once a bonafide Tibetan town here.

In the evenings, we eat in a local teahouse, sitting on carpeted wood benches around carved and painted low wood tables. A large tin kettle boils on a blackened steel stove in which a dung fire flares and dies. Whatever manure is at hand is used, whether little round goat pellets or chunks of yak droppings. The smoke has its own particular incense, a mix of moldy tobacco and wet cement, and it stings the back of my throat. We make a meal of rice with a few plates of vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage and bok choy. Sometimes there are curled snippets of yak meat in the dish. I scour each platter for those deadly red peppers and use my chopsticks to pick them out in advance. Our food is undoubtedly richer than what locals eat, but is lean nonetheless.

Dinner is our only meal, though I am grateful for the hardboiled egg I am able to get each morning. I have tried the thin rice gruel Tibetans eat in the morning, but it did nothing for me. Lunch usually is scrounged from our supplies in the back of the car: chocolate chip cookies, a big hunk of gouda donated to the expedition by Sabrina before she had to return to Hong Kong, salty crackers, chocolate bars And spam. Yes! Spam!!! This was Paul’s idea, who has a charming if incomprehensible attachment to the stuff from his childhood years. I declined spam the first week, but then hunger overcame my better judgment. The day I put a cracker with spam on it in my mouth was the day I tossed all culinary principles to the wind. All I could say as I chewed the bland, fatty stuff was, “Wish I had some cornichons.”

On the far reaches of the plateau, nestled beneath the towering hills, will be a solitary white tent, with a thin curl of smoke rising from the peak, the seasonal home of a nomad and his family, who tend not only yak, but herds of small white sheep and cashmere goats. Now and then we cross paths with a man on an underpowered motorcycle handlebars decorated with green tassels, garlands of plastic flowers and lengths of prayer flags, seat covered in layers of carpet, wares piled high behind. It creeps along at barely faster than walking pace. The man wears his black hair in a long braid wound around his head with a scarlet cord. He’s in a thick coat, sometimes lined with fur, knee length and cinched at the waist. His skin is darkly tanned, cheeks ruddy with cold and wind. We nod at each other as he passes, and raise a hand in a short greeting.

Despite the harsh climate we have seen wildlife : herds of wild donkeys, caramel colored with ivory legs; black-necked cranes which revered by Buddhists and breed on the Tibetan Plateau; Tibetan antelope and water deer, along with marmots (not quite like ours) and the same enormous lammergeier buzzards that we saw in Ethiopia. The lakes themselves, though, are strangely silent and empty. There’s no bird life around, which makes me think there no bugs on the shore nor fish in these high waters. But how could that be?

We did pass through one village whose narrow streets, personalized houses and sense of age struck us all as the first and only authentically real Tibetan village on this trip. This was the village of Ombu, where one of the last remaining Tibetan monasteries also still functions. We’ve been in other monasteries on this trip, but all of them were simply shells, with a handful of monks retained to let in visitors, as compared to the sometimes thousands that used to reside in them prior to 1959. In Ombu the sense of permanence was still there, and I know I breathed a sigh of relief to be in a place that was legitimately alive with its own sense of history and purpose, rather than being an artificial implant.

Which brings me to the most lasting impression from our traverse of the plateau: a sense of a people and culture vanishing before my eyes. Of standing on the edge of what was and seeing it fade into history, a ghost of what used to be. Of derelict towns, built in a Disneyland caricature of Tibetan architecture, populated by Chinese shopkeepers, with Tibetan nomads wandering the dirty streets, devoid of livestock. OK, I know I saw only a fraction of the country, and I know my impressions are based on a superficial view and not in-depths analysis. Still, I couldn’t help feeling as we drove along that all those garlands of prayer flags whipping in the wind were waving good-bye.

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