The monsoon reached the Andaman Islands this week, and India let out a collective sigh of relief.

In Delhi, however, it remains 'too much' hot. The evenings are bearable, however, and the cry of the peacock from neighborhood parks is a nice touch. It's going to be difficult to leave.

But that's what we're doing tonite. Taking off after 6 months of India for the USA. We'll make a token stopover in Amsterdam this week. Then back to Texas.

As I think the preceding notes attest, it's been a good trip. I'm pretty sad to be leaving. Later.


I’d been roughed up by whitewater and mugged by the unbelievable Delhi heat, so it seemed provisionally like a good idea to try for a houseboat in Kashmir. In the past two years, despite ongoing violence, this Himalayan border state has seen a tenfold increase in tourism. Peace talks between India and Pakistan have helped ease political tensions, while recent flare-ups have been attributed alternately to the Indian Army, Pakistani troublemakers, homegrown Muslim militants and Kashmir’s very own, heavily armed police force.It's no wonder, when I arrived in the state’s ill-fated capital Srinagar, I found a city suffering from extreme schizophrenia.

The shifting Himalayan light, refracted off the surface of Dal Lake, reflected the many moods of the Vale of Kashmir – peaceful, foreboding, meditative, dangerous. I wondered: Had we escaped to a land of legendary beauty and cool climate, or a war-torn Hell?

The answer was neither here nor there. For, like so much of India, Kashmir defies easy dissection; in fact, despite 50-year-old national boundaries that say so, most residents don’t even consider themselves to be a part of India. Still, it’s the national Army that crouches in the levies on the edges of town and maintains the street-level bunkers found throughout Srinagar – and those with a sense of history rightfully note that while these Indian faces represent an occupying force, they are a force invited by Kashmir. The question of who’s to blame is one that even the locals have not sorted out.

But it was easy enough to lose sight (quite literally) of these divisional factors when on board our houseboat(s). These floating properties, numbering some 150-200 locally, represent a leftover from the British era, when non-Kashmiris were forbidden from owning property in the state. In a city constructed around a series of canal-connected lakes, the British built their domiciles on the water itself, turning the city of Srinagar into South Asia’s answer to Venice.

With elaborated, Kashmiri-style carved woodwork on the walls, ceilings and doors and thick Oriental carpets coating the floors, the places we stayed – The New Crystal Palace and New Gulistan – were close to the lap of luxury. Cheerful servants were de rigueur, arranging water taxis, providing tea and Kashmiri kawa, a local beverage brewed from cinnamon, saffron, almonds and bark. In other words, Hell for the most part seemed a long way off.

During our first and last days, we cruised the lake shore by car to see Srinagar’s famed Mughal Gardens, where the pansies and peonies were in full bloom beneath the immense branches of maple-like Chinar trees. We enjoyed shikara rides in a Kashmiri-type gondola or canoe, taking in floating gardens and out-of-season beds of lotus flowers. Bird life was abundant, including herons, a multitude of kingfishers, the prettiest flashing neon blue, grebes, parakeets and plenty of domestic ducks, rumored to be tasty but never sampled.

Our estimable host on New Gulistan, Mr. M.R. Guru, sprightly at 70, greeted us unbidden at the airport, and made sure all needs were met. “Don’t worry,” he would say. “I’ll profit, but I am straight with you. You are like Guru. You must sometimes trust.” In turn, I had to convince Guru that my stay in Kashmir would not be complete without an attempt to seek out Himalayan trout. He remained concerned about militants, which made me concerned about militants, but the strength of my desire was abundantly clear.

So, after two days of touring Srinagar we headed for Pahalgam, a small town, altitude 8,000 feet, on the pilgrimage route to the Amarnath Cave, where an ice Shiva lingam, draws Hindu faithful by the thousands each year – militancy notwithstanding. The fisheries officer met us with a big grin, and let me know that I was among the first 30 international trout “addicts” (his term) to ply the Lidder River since the season opened in April.

The rough green water swirled like a question mark around boulders, dipping into deep pools, where hefty browns of 15-plus inches and up to 2-pounds lurked. I plied the water with Coachmen and bead-head nymphs, using a dropper, and weights to reach the hungry fish. A local guide put me right on the trout, which have been aggressively reintroduced to the Lidder in the past couple of years (they’re not native, of course, having first been introduced by Europeans maybe 150 years ago) with the hope that a world-class fishery will develop. The main obstacle for the time being remains poaching, both by locals and by the Indian Army, which prefers to use hand-grenades over hook, line and sinker.

Still, even in the downpour that met me on the second day, the fishing felt a lot like Heaven as I reached my bag limit of 6 trout, releasing more than three times that amount in the end.

One’s appreciation of Heaven, however, increases directly in proportion to how close to Hell one must pass along the way there. For while Guru had warned that the trout trip might not be 100 percent safe, it was easy to forget where I was when faced with the splash of the waves, the run of the riffle and the constant tightening of the line. And so I was shocked and dismayed when we arrived back in Delhi to learn that a bridge just South of Pahalgam had been blown up just after our departure from Kashmir.

Officially, militants have been blamed, but I can imagine Guru blames the Army for its dirty tricks. This violence carries a message for the Hindu pilgrims who might think the road to Amarnath is otherwise safe. Nonetheless, what the repercussions will be in the region are yet to be seen, but as there were no fatalities, the story barely rated two column inches. There’s obviously a lesson for trout bums and footloose travelers, too.

Yet, I would be hard pressed to reconsider my choice. Kashmir may still suffer the bane of violence, but it’s as peaceful there as it’s been in a generation. And I don’t know when my next chance to visit will come.


Down from the snowy peaks, and into the river valleys, I’ve crossed the subcontinent once again. Left Sikkim with a grand smile after our big trek, spending a couple of days checking out Buddhist monasteries and lounging in the capital city of Gangtok, dining on Tibetan specialties and soaking up the atmosphere. Even managed to catch a speech by his Holiness the Dalai Lama before coming back to North India proper; although I’m not actually sure what the DL said in his talk (in Tibetan) about relaxing the mind, I did find something soothing about the whole affair even with a crowd of thousands attending.

Having been invited to participate in the first Indian descent of the Tons River, I followed up Sikkim with raging whitewater on this remote tributary to the holy Yamuna. One of the seven sacred streams of Hindustan, the Yamuna emerges as a dirty ditch in Delhi and is reputed to be incapable of supporting life when it passes the Taj Mahal downstream in Agra. But the famed river does get its start in the high mountains of Uttaranchal, covered this year with historic snow levels, and the Tons, flowing down from Bunderpanch (‘Monkey’s Tail’) Glacier, is one of the Yamuna’s main sources.

The expedition kicked off at the tail end of April with a refresher course for out-of-practice paddlers on the upper reaches of the Tons. The mountain scenery of the Aquaterra Lunagad Camp (Aquaterra being the sponsoring company for this outing) was all pines and ridge lines. At the outset, the river appeared impervious to the snow pack as the upper reaches were bony and boulder-strewn. A mostly Indian crew arrived, ready for action (the trip coincides with a forthcoming article I’ll pen for Paddler magazine in the US). A year had passed since my last Himalayan raft trip. Lungs conditioned by trekking to Goecha La, my arms and back – not to mention my reflexes – still needed work.

Nonetheless, it seemed an auspicious time to tackle the Tons. The sun was shining. The hills were alive with the sound of nomadic Gujjar tribesmen and their families moving herds of cattle, sheep and buffalo to the cool higher altitudes of Uttaranchal. Kingfishers – both the black-and-white Crested variety (called the zebras of the river) and common White-chinned, their fluorescent blue backs flashing in the sun – were commonplace.

The challenge got to me right away, as on the first day of practice I found myself swimming a rough stretch of water called the Horns of the Tons. Ironically, this continuous Class III/III+ stretch includes a sweep of boiling whitewater known as Longhorn Rapid; in another lifetime, I might have felt right at home. But with rocks looming and waves piling up, this erstwhile Texan was profoundly relieved when the guides pulled me back on board. That quick dip left me wide awake, ready to paddle.

I managed to avoid swimming for the rest of the trip, as we covered about 70 miles of river – including many sections of beefy Class IV rapids – in 5 days. Our raft, one of two, managed to do pretty well, losing just one other swimmer, getting surfed hard just one time, pounding down various slots and drops with a reasonable facsimile of military precision. For safety, we also had two kayaks and two pontoon boats. Along the banks, villagers came to cheer and stare in great number as the regatta passed out of the alpine zone through steep-walled canyons, eventually finding ourselves in a tropical clime with palms and fern-bedazzled seeps. At take-out, we rejoined the wandering Gujjars, their skullcaps and long beards reminiscent of Saudi Imams, still migrating upward.

So, between Sikkim and the Tons, it’s been back-to-back adventures. But as with any good travel, the memories are fueled by more than adrenaline. From local specialties prepared in Sikkimese style to the beef momos served in Gangtok’s Tibetan cafes, the food marks a change of pace from the rest of North India, marking a cultural shift. The relaxed Buddhist vibe and friendly Nepali faces (Sikkim was once part of Nepal, and with the political troubles in that Himalayan kingdom many Nepalis have come over the border) adding to the charm of this land of mountains and monasteries. New friends from my latest whitewater encounter hopefully will also remain pals well into the future.

(More details on the river trip should be forthcoming this fall in Paddler. Loyal fans, I’ll let you know. Just now, however, I’m not sure what India holds next.…)

Epilogue: With the whitewater bug still flowing through my veins, I managed to get C, who missed the river trip and has not been in a raft in a decade or more, to hop on a raft in Rishikesh. We were splashed by some big waves on the rolling, holy Ganga. For the weekend, our lullaby was the sound of temple bells. Then we came back down to Delhi, where the mercury has been hovering around 100 degrees. We hope not to stay too long.


I'd been writing a massive detailed account of our recent Sikkim trek, when the freaking power went out here in this two-bit cybercafe where I'm writing. I'd been trying to convey that when the oxygen gets thin, little things begin to mean a lot. The smell of butterscotch on the breeze, for instance. Or tiny blue flowers sparkling on the trail's edge like pale, displaced stars. The bells of the yaks coming downhill warning you to get out of the way.

And so forth....

Did I say yaks? Actually, the preferred pack animals in Sikkim, a former Buddhist kingdom opposite our Indian home state of Uttaranchal on the eastern border of Nepal, are cow-yak crossbreeds called dzo (pronounced "joe"). These thick horned critters carry about 100-pounds a piece, and allowed me and the missus to backpack without much on our backs except small daypacks. The dzos are soft-furred, cleft-footed ungulates, which have the advantage of not keeling over when you reach lower, humid altitudes. Yaks, I now know, are strictly for the heights.

But don't get the impression this was a simple walk in the park. On the first day, we gained about 4,000 feet over 6 miles, to enter the alpine zone, spending our first night at 10,000 feet in a Tibetan refugee settlement called Tsoka. We soon found that full-service trekking comes with a routine; it's kind of like car camping, but instead of a car, you've got a staff. Bed tea comes to the tent at 6:30 AM, followed by washing water, generally just this side of tepid, followed by breakfast in the mountain resthouses served at seven. Most days we hit the trail by eight.

And to what purpose, you ask?

Well, we were headed for the flanks of Mount Kanchenzunga, a peak over 28,000 feet, second in height only to Everest and K2. We weren't planning an assault on the big hill, just to take a gander from Goecha La. The pass is at around 15,000 feet, and taller than most mountains in the Lower 48. The trail was not a brutal one, but it did take a lot of heart and hard work to keep on trekking as we spent the better part of the past 10 days above 12,000 feet. Fortunately, we were blessed with pretty good weather, the clouds generally holding off to late afternoon, allowing us to walk in the sunshine and get good views of the jagged glaciers on a couple of early morning efforts.

In addition to our own porters, our Nepali guide Amar, and the orange-panted yak man in charge of our livestock, there were plenty of other folks on the mountain. It was my first time to see such swarms of touristic humanity in a natural setting. We traded leads with a group of crazy Swiss hikers, a pair of American girls, a French couple, and about 15 obnoxious Germans, who I dubbed (in a fit of something other than generosity) 'the Kraut dickheads.'

Maybe it was the altitude, or the fact that I had envisioned fewer people on a trek to a land few people are familiar with, but I finally got over my reservations (except for hating the K-d's) and sort of even enjoyed the social aspects of this hard walk in the Himalayas. I even mustered energy to play soccer at 12,500 feet with the Swiss, who even with my dubious skills, could not handle the crew of Sherpas and assorted schleppers on high.

Of course, ask me now, and I'll tell you it was all worth it.

However, during the climb to Goecha La pass, I thought I would die. C was in the lead, with one of our kitchen crew making sure she didn't take a spill off the ridgeline. I was breathing hard, bringing up the rear and wondering whatever possessed me to think I was a mountain man. We crossed amazing moon-like glacial moraine, and faced into a cool wind for 6 hours to find ourselves amid Buddhist prayer flags and small white cairns, the massif of Kanchenzunga slipping in and out of the cloud-scape before us. Of course it was worth it.

Coming down, we took our time, but it's tough to find the words to describe the experience all over again. Perhaps I'll find a bit of inspiration later. Surely, I will find sparks in recollecting the amazing road I've traveled.


Rewind: Forget the swelter of Delhi’s April heat.

Recall the leaves of the Sal forest in Corbett National Park, a few hours north of here. Visited back in mid-March. The wind loosening the yellow planks of vegetation, dropping the leaves to the ground with a steady tic-tic… almost like rain. And then the rain did come, as we boarded an elephant to search for a tiger in the woods. The mahout, the elephant driver, smiling, confident. “I know where there’s a kill. We should find the beast,” and then we moved out across a field of tall grass. Elephant grass, where we found a herd of wild pachyderms lingering near the edge of the jungle. The wind blowing harder now, and the sky black with cloud. A stroke of lightening, a thunder clap, and we’re crossing a field on the back of a 20-foot animal, our heads just a little below the level of the tallest Acacia trees. Oh my!

That safari didn’t produce a tiger, but it was an adventure, wheeling through the woods, following the drag marks, where the killer cat had moved its latest meal. Under this tree, over to that bush, a small piece of deer meat left behind here, and hoof there. The tiger had been this way. And the rain falling the whole time. The mahout providing us with a tarp, which makes scratchy noises against our hats and hairs so that the whole world sounds like it’s wrapped in plastic. The elephant pulling up small trees, wrapping her trunk around leafy branches and stripping them bare. We double back, the ground muddy now, the pug marks washed away in the downpour. The mahout confers with another elephant driver; we are working the forest, crisscrossing in search of a glimpse of orange fur in the undergrowth. Not here. Not there. Hiding. Always elusive. The tiger.

I’ve had good luck in the past seeing India’s most famous fauna: In Assam, 2003, a tiger poked his enormous head out of the grass to look down the road after our jeep as we birded Kaziranga Park. I spotted a tiger in Corbett from elephant back earlier that same year. Now I was beginning to worry that we would be skunked; this photo safari cursed by unseasonable rain – and with my father in tow (although we’d already spotted a tiger in Ranthambore Park the week before), how embarrassing!

That evening in the park dining hall, three American girls with a digital camera, one with quick-film capacity, share their tiger sighting. A flash of orange in the bush. A warning snarl, a scream as the camera get jostled, and a charge that would have stopped our collective hearts had we been there personally. The tiger having had enough, warning the elephant-born bipeds, stay back. We are overcome with some pale green shade of envy; fortunately, we have another day to make up our deficit. We can still bring my tiger-sighting average up to .400.

At dawn, the sky clear, we head for our mount. Same mahout, same elephant; we are happy to know them. Fed her fruit after yesterday’s ride; tipped him nicely even without seeing a tiger. We make a quick circuit of the jungle, smelling something ripe right by a watering hole, hoping for tiger. Watching the shadows for something living. With the sun rising, I begin to despair. The rain-swept countryside is beautiful, though. The Himalayan foothills, lined in tall straight Sal trees and pines higher up, shiny and full forested to heights of 3,000-plus-feet, and the bigger mountains, snowcapped out of sight. Birds call, and a jackal breaks from the bush. Deer browse the grasses at the edge of the woodlands, which makes me doubt that a tiger could be lingering nearby.

After an hour, the mahouts decide to gamble on tigress known to inhabit the far side of the Ramnagar River, just a short ways from the lodge where we have been sleeping. We make our rough way down the slope, the elephant's thick pads providing surprising traction, and soon we are riding across the river when I notice an anomaly in the light on the shore upstream. I point, tentative at first, and wonder aloud “Tiger?” Our guide, then the mahout take up the call as soon as the word is out of my mouth. "Tiger! Tiger!" She’s moving, but the three elephant drivers are quick to corner the cat, who jogs up the river bank to the tall grass, breaking by a small tree.

I admit there’s something a bit sad, and also absurd, about wrangling a tiger with the help of elephants. Certainly, it makes the old sport of hunting tigers from elephant back seem a bit less sporting.

We don’t witness a charge, and after everyone gets a good look (and I snap a few photos) the big cat swims the river and vanishes. We’d spot an additional, final tiger on a game drive that afternoon, a bigger cat, lounging in the sun. Sleeping with his/her paws up and the white fur of its belly shining in the light. Such memories will certainly define my time in India when I look back on these days.


Hit the road two weeks back, and this is my first chance to really catch up. Leaving Dharchula, the Himalayan highway was lined with rhododendrons, and the towns filling with the first Hindu pilgrims of the season. Meanwhile, my father was on an overseas flight for a pilgrimage of his own -- to meet me, search for tigers and check out the Taj.

I'll spare my gentle readers the painful details of coming and going from Dharchula, and focus for now on the first of our tiger sightings. It came on an early morning jeep safari in Ranthambore National Park, a small preserve on the edge of the Rajasthan desert. Rocky escarpments overlooking the park feature thousand-year-old forts, and the jungle is said to hold anywhere from 20 to 40 of the big cats. Dad's proclivities steer as much towards birding as looking for tigers; though ultimately he is no different than any other tourist. The chance to spot India's most famous king of the jungle is one he prizes above counting our feathered friends.

As it turned out, birding paved the way for our initial encounter with the elusive tiger....

We sat at the remains of a small reservoir, a little lake populated by tall pink-and-white Painted storks, and comically beaked Eurasian spoonbills. Our fellow passengers in the jeep were a trio of older Australians, whose focus seemed as much the forest as the animals, so they were content as we observed the shore birds, when out of the woodlands behind us came the alarm call of the Sambar, the largest of the Indian deer. In a New York minute, we had left the lake in our dust and raced to the nearest high point. The deer cried again from the woods below, and we shifted into high speed once again, jostling over the jeep track to brake at a shady point in the forest.

About 70 yards distant, we spotted the tell-tale flash of orange on the heavily-muscled tigress who occupies the area (allegedly with her cubs, who were not in evidence) shifting slowly through the trees, neither concerned with us or with the Sambar hind who had tipped us off. For several minutes, she ambled at a slight angle to the road, and we excitedly glassed her through our binoculars until she disappeared from sight.

This was more fortuitous than we realized, for with three more drives through Ranthambore we never did spot another tiger. Our other jeep-mates sighed and rolled their eyes when we explained that birds were a good way to spot tigers; after all, that's how we'd found ours (though, honestly, I had some sympathy, but so did Dad). Meantime, we discussed with guides the problem of poaching -- pronounced in Ranthambore, where the arid climate forces concentrations of wildlife around water holes -- and amassed a list of over 70 bird species, not to mention seeing mongoose (mongeese?), crocodiles, spotted deer and the big Indian antelope known as a "nilgai," which means blue cow.

Our Ranthambore evenings, meanwhile, were spent at the old Jaipur Maharaja's hunting lodge, a charming if rundown state-run inn high on a hill in the Ranthambore buffer zone. By the end of two days, we were famous among the guests for having seen the tigress, an experience none seemed capable of replicating.

Next, we pushed off for additional parks -- Bharatpur's Kaledeo National Park, for birds; Corbett National Park in the Himalayan foothills for more tigers and wild elephants -- stopping off at the Taj Mahal enroute. Those seeking a final tally will be curious to learn that we saw two additional tigers in Corbett, and between all parks managed to rack up a list of some 213 birds altogether. Unfortunately, I'm heading back to Dharchula today, and the details of these other experiences will have to wait.

With luck, I'll find Internet access up the road. If I don't,expect me to be dining off my tiger sightings when I get back to Delhi at the beginning of April.

And, finally, yes, the Taj Mahal remains as wonderful as ever; though as a monument of romantic love, I can think of better company than my Old Man to take in the splendid marble architecture of Agra. Now, I've really got to get back on the road.


The weather has arrived, and it has been dreadful.

Cold fronts blowing down from Tibet have kept Dharchula under a cloud of gray and steady rains since my return. It’s been the worst winter seen in 50-odd years according to those who have lived here that long; the only saving grace that the snow-lined ridges take on a mystical hue beneath the silver sky. It’s not quite enough to turn a man into a ascetic, though. The constancy of overpopulation, the march of development turning our backyard into a construction zone, and overhead passage of helicopters patrolling for Maoists on the Nepal side of the Kali River, swollen with sediment and rainwater, just make it hard for a man to lose himself.

Fortunately, the sun has deigned to visit us the past couple of days, and in the muddy streets there’s a sense that spring may be on its way. India’s northern plains line-up longitudinally with Mexico, more or less, and despite the altitude of the Himalayas pressing down upon Kali River, we expect to see sunny days ahead.

I wish I could say the same for the neighborhood across the valley in Nepal, for while the weather may improve, it’s going to be a stormy season for those remote villages. In case you missed the news, the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal has disbanded the democratically-elected government, and the king has clamped down on press freedoms and other facets of open society. In short, the civil unrest that has afflicted Nepal for the past decade shows no sign of waning. I’ll save the global analysis for real South Asia pundits, but there’s plenty of blame to go around. To protest the royal power play, the Maoists have responded by choking supply lines leading from the cities to the villages, and at gun-point enforced a day-long market strike across the way. This forced Nepalis needing groceries and other goods to make increased use of the already busy footbridge that runs from Darchula, Nepal, to it’s sister city, our home Dharchula, India. Otherwise, the military presence on the Indian side of the border has kept things relatively quiet here.

The Maoists may be a godless bunch, but while the majority of Nepalis are not altogether sympathetic to the king, they remain nonetheless staunch Hindus. And since it’s wedding season again (guided by astrological concerns, wedding season has been nearly constant since our return to India) they’ve found an excuse to party despite the ongoing conflict. This commendable resilience could even serve as a reminder for brokenhearted American liberals still ruing last November that regardless of the political scene, life does go on

The amalgamation of Hinduism and mountain animism practiced by local people has provided a near-constant spectacle of drumming, dancing and fireworks. Thus, I found myself just a few nights ago decked out in a long wool coat, sword in my hand, a turban-like “shilay” wrapped tight around my dome dancing in the street. My friend Dinesh Vyas, a Rang man from Nepal, had made me something of the guest of honor at his wedding. Wearing the traditional costume, feeling every bit as self-conscious as a schoolgirl at junior prom, I found succor in a few pegs of rum as I paraded through the market, trailing a long line of similarly attired gentlemen.

We represented the groom’s side of the ceremony, and an hour after sundown arrived at the bride’s home suitably soused and ready to do battle, if necessary, to take her away. Actually, that wouldn’t be necessary, as the wedding was not only arranged but marked a love marriage. The sublimated violence represented by the sword and acted out in the dancing was a mere nod to ancient tradition. Sorting through the nuances of Hindu rites of passage has been no easier than obtaining expertise on the political scene in Nepal. Suffice it to say, however, that if you’ve found your so-called love match all it takes is a willingness to destroy one’s own reputation and a couple hundred rupees – roughly five dollars – to get married. Thereafter, it should take about two years for your parents and the rest of the community to ascent to this coupling, if you’re lucky, bringing down their stamp of approval with a big wedding shebang, ideal for erasing any lingering ill will.

Or so I was given to understand in a moonshine-fueled conversation that preceded our early departure from the party. C and I only knew too well from previous experience that as the night progressed, the festivities would wind up a raucous testosterone-heavy dance party. The bride and her sisters, in turn, would be kept under lock and key until the groomsmen departed for Nepal the following day. You might say that Indians really know how to put the pickle back into pickle parties.

Having crossed swords, so to speak, earlier in the evening, I preferred to stay out of trouble. After all, I’ve got travel plans: I need my integrity and health intact if I’m going to hit the road again.