Monday, 27 July 2015

Monsoon Musings from Mussoorie

Monsoon Musings

Apparently I had a blog once, but then we had a baby! It's fair to say that since Charlie has been on the scene, I've not been that prolific! Still, as he is currently in his English residence, and I have returned to Hindustan, I once again have the time to write a new blog post! Here is a photo of him and his Mum swimming in the pool on holiday.

Looking pool: The boy and Kirsten: ED BEAVAN
Right now we are in the midst of the monsoon. As I write I can just make out the outline of a tree about ten metres away - it is very misty and quite bleak. Usually from our house we can see out over a valley to the other side of Mussoorie, but not during monsoon. Instead, the eerie mist hangs all around. Occasionally, the mist clears and there are short bright spells. But for most of the time we are living in the clouds, which means things get very damp, and you often arrive at school soaking wet because of the rain. For most of this time I wear an anorak and waterproof trousers as I go around, while an umbrella is essential. Although this isn't the most sartorially stylish of attires, I'd rather be a geek and stay dry! Scorpions and leeches are also unwelcome visitors in the house! On the plus side, the vegetation is lush and green during monsoon, with some beautiful flowers out.

Below are some great photos of the monsoon by Martin Cadee, who is currently visiting Woodstock.

A misty Mussoorie monsoon scene: MARTIN CADEE
Looking down from Woodstock towards St George's College: MARTIN CADEE
Woodstock School main gate shrouded in mist: MARTIN CADEE
Amrika! (This is how some Indians say America)

We had a great time visiting Kirsten's brother and family in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the US of A, over the summer. It's the first time I'd been to the middle of America having visited both New York and California previously. Minneapolis is a very cool city with a laid back vibe, while we also spent a great week having a family reunion with Kirsten's parents and other brother, two aunts and uncle, up at a cabin by a lake in a place called Blackduck.

Here in no particular order are one Englishman's observations on this trip:

1) America is big. There is so much space. Every shop or restaurant has a car park, which in England would have been developed into housing.
2) This is because everyone drives everywhere. You really do need a car to do most things in the US.
3) That said, the public transportation system in the Twin Cities which includes the light rail is very good, as well as the numerous bike paths. Bus drivers were also very generous to me and kept giving me free tickets when they heard I was from "out of country" (and also because I kept messing up the touchcard payment system!).
4) A baseball game is like theatre! There is always something going on up on the big screen, as well as the game itself. The vendors walk up and down the aisle selling snacks. Opposing fans sit together (couldn't happen at a football - soccer - match in the UK - there would be a riot!).
5) A walk off homer - when you win with a home run on the last ball of the game. This happened at the game I was at, Twins beat St Louis Cardinals 2-1. Much celebration ensued.
6) Singing the national anthem before the game was quite an unusual thing for me.
7) The Mall of America in the Twin Cities is quite large. It's a shopping mall with a rollercoaster in the middle!
8) Food is delicious in the US and the portions are quite big, which was good as I needed fattening up!
9) Football (I mean soccer) is on the up! More than 10,000 people were at the Minnesota United match we went to. The women just won the FIFA Women's World Cup!
10) Minnesota has a lot of lakes, around 10,000 to be precise. Lake Blackduck was beautiful, and the skies were huge.
11) Americans do not say swell! Despite this, I had a swell time there!!
12) Americans sometimes seem a bit curt. This is not rudeness. Sure. Yeah. OK. You know what I'm saying Abe and Jeremiah!
At the HUGE Minnesota Twins baseball stadium with my bro-in-law Mark: MARK BRADBY
Family reunion in the cabin at Blackduck: MARK BRADBY

Big sky at lake Blackduck: ED BEAVAN

Thanks to the Class of 2018!

I completed my first full year of teaching last academic year at Woodstock, which was another reason I did not blog very much! Although it was a challenging year, I had a great time teaching four sections of Grade 9 history and one class of Global Perspectives. I would like to thank all of my students for making it such a great year, I will miss you all. Roll on 2015/16...

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Roopkund Trek: The Adventure of a Lifetime

Note to reader: this is an extremely long blog post!

I have just returned from a trek to Roopkund, a lake situated at 15,500 ft in the Himalayas in the north western part of Uttarakhand, the state where we live. The hike was one of the most physically demanding things I've ever done, but at the same time hugely satisfying to achieve. In one week I experienced a full range of emotions, joy, sadness, sickness, fear, and ultimately exhilaration and exhaustion when we made it to the top.

However, if things had gone to plan I shouldn't have been on the trek at all. This summer we were planning to take our four-month old Charlie back to meet his family in the UK. But thanks to the incompetence of the British Passport Office and their absurd scheme to try and process all global British passport applications in Liverpool, our son's application got stuck in a logjam of half a million.

But where one door closes another opens. I was on the trek! We were a group of eight in total; me and Woodstock colleagues Ben, Abe and Andy with Andy's 13-year-old son Micah; Josh and Adi from Hyderabad, and Sam from Delhi.

Those of us coming from Mussoorie took the night train from Dehradun to Kathgodam, and there we met the other three guys at the station. As we gathered in the waiting room rain sheeted down, and it seemed like Monsoon was in full swing. Please, not a week of teeming rain, I silently prayed. We piled into a jeep to start the gruelling ten hour drive north via Almora and Gwaldam to the start of the trek in a village called Lohajung, situated at about 8,000 ft.

We arrived at about 7pm with most of us feeling rough after an extremely long and sick-inducing journey. We found a guest house to stay in, booked a porter with a horse to carry our tents and food the next day, and found a cafe for a rice and dal supper. The next morning we woke up to bright weather to begin the trek in earnest.

Day 1: Lohajung to Ali Bugyal via Didana

It was a fine day and the trek started with a descent to a river in the valley between Lohajung and Didana. The scenery was beautiful but the drop took us back down to about 6,000 ft, with our ultimate destination that day at 11,000 ft, meaning a 5,000 ft ascent in total for the day. After we crossed the river our backpacks started to feel really heavy. I was struggling, while Ben was feeling sick, and the steep path up started to slow us down. We all made Didana for lunch, but were in a sorry state. It was here I gratefully handed my pack over the to our donkeywalla for the rest of the trek (kudos to the other guys who hiked most of the entire trek with their packs - I am not that hardcore!).

At the river on the first day  BEN BOWLING
The bad news was after lunch the paths up through a forest felt pretty much vertical. During the afternoon we got separated, with Andy and Micah out in front, and the rest lagging behind. I was on my own for much of the way up, before catching up with Sam, who was struggling with a cramped knee. Continuing through the zigzagging paths in the forest was slow going. Every step took an enormous amount of energy, and we kept having to stop for breaks. We eventually made it to the meadow at the top at about 5pm, where we met Andy and Micah. Andy decided to go down and try and find the four stragglers, so we three of us waited in the meadow as our donkeywalla implored us to get a move on, as the fog swirled in around the meadow.

Finally at around about 6pm the other group made it up, but were in bad shape. We needed to get to our destination before the weather turned, which can change very quickly in the Himalayas. As Andy and Micah kept up with the donkeywalla, the rest of us lagged behind, as rain, hail and fog started to come in. We were in a 3km-long meadow with limited visibility, no maps and no shelter. This was not good! At one point I couldn't see anyone else from the group and was blindly stumbling on in what I thought was the right direction. Thankfully, the six of us managed to find each other through shouting out and locating each other by our voices. By now hail was lashing down, and one of our group Josh had no waterproofs as Andy had taken his bag. We were badly exposed but had to keep moving - if we stayed still we were in danger of getting hypothermia.

The meadow in which we got lost    BEN BOWLING

We kept running across the meadow in the hail yelling out for any signs of shelter, but to no avail. It was past 7pm but thankfully we had some visibility, and eventually we stumbled across a small stone animal shelter which would have to double up as our accommodation for the night. Just as those who were the most cold were getting in, and Ben and Sam were about to go to look for the campsite, a light was spotted in the distance. Andy had come back to find us, and told us the campsite was just five minutes away! Relieved and thankful, we followed him to the campsite where we collapsed exhausted and cold, but happy to be safe.

It was a scary way to end the first day and a reminder how the unpredictable weather in the mountains can be so dangerous. Happily all's well that ends well, although our first day's itinerary most groups do in two days, now we understood why!

Snow peaks peeking through: View from the first campsite    BEN BOWLING
Day 2: Ali Bugyal to Patar Nachuani

This was a much easier day, a fairly straightforward and gentle climb up to the next campsite along undulating paths above beautiful meadows. It was a bit foggy so views weren't great, but we made it in about three hours and set up camp at Patar Nachuani, away from the larger clusters of Indian groups who make this trek. There are several companies that are making a killing taking up large groups all through the season, and while it is good to see locals enjoying the mountains, the size of their parties, who aren't always the quietest of folk, meant we did our utmost to keep our distance on the campsites.

At this point I should mention the food we ate during the trek - it was amazing. Trek organiser Ben and Josh had spent hours dehydrating meals for us, which meant we only needed to add water to reconstitute them. We ate like kings: chicken mango curry, chili con carne, as well as delicious puddings such as cheesecake and chocolate brownies. Ben did all the cooking, for which we were all enormously grateful.

Ascending in the fog    BEN BOWLING
Group jump at Patar Nachuani campsite  BEN BOWLING

Day 3: Patar Nachuani to Bhagwabasa (base camp)

I woke up on Day 3 feeling pretty rough. I hadn't slept well and I gulped down some water in the tent. Unfortunately this came straight back up as I vomited. Maybe I was suffering from altitude sickness; we were now at about 12,000 ft.

We decided to get another donkeywalla to take everyone's heavy bags for the next climb. Unfortunately we couldn't find one, but then four chappal-clad local lads turned up and said they would take them, before hareing off up the mountain ahead of us. The first part of the day was a steep climb and again hard going. However, by the time we reached a mundir things levelled out, and this is where we hit the snowline. A fairly level walk took us to Bhagwabasa, a rocky area which is effectively Roopkund basecamp.

Bhagwabasa is what I imagine Everest Base Camp is like, it wasn't the most pleasant of places. It was hard rock, so we had to pitch our tents on the flattest rocks we could find, and although there were two (grim) toilet tents, there was a lot of human excrement around the camp. It was also significantly colder as we were now at 14,000 ft.

That evening we faced a dilemma; to get to Roopkund we would be climbing through a significant amount of snow, other groups going up were using crampons (devices to attach to your boot to help with grip), we didn't have any. After asking the other groups if we could borrow some, we received a resounding 'no' in response. So we decided to attempt the ascent in just our walking boots.

Although the mist was closing in it occasionally cleared and we started to have great views of the snow peaks which were tantalisingly close, including Trishul and Nanda Devi.

Bhagwabasa - the base camp from which we made the final ascent
Day 4: Roopkund ascent

We woke at 3.45am for the ascent attempt. We shivered around the stove and gulped down some coffee for breakfast, and after a ten minute wait for Adi we were ready to go at about 4.45am, just as it was getting light. We managed to get on the path ahead of the large India Hikes group which was good.

The first part of the path was pretty straightforward with some snow patches to cross. We raced ahead of the other group and were making good progress, until they started yelling at us that we were going the wrong way, and needed to head up the mountain more. We did this by transversing a rocky outcrop pretty much vertically.

After a while we were walking in snow the whole time. Fortunately it was not too icy, but for some of our group this was the first time they'd ever hiked in snow, so it was a new and challenging experience. For most of the time Andy and Ben went ahead and dug in footmarks which we all then followed in. After about two-and-a-half hours we knew we were getting close, but the snow climbs were getting almost vertical. It was hard going and every step took a monumental effort.

Finally, after about three hours, we got over the final brow of a hill to arrive above the lake, a stunning sight of crystal clear azure blue water set against the white of the snow. It looked beautiful and it was so satisfying to have made it. The lake contains human skeletons which it is believed are the remains of a group who were on a pilgrimage in the 9th century, and were killed by giant hailstones. A few of us slid down the ice to the lake to get a closer look, although no skeletons were visible. The others stayed at the top and revelled in the joy of having made it, while the fog cleared affording us glorious views all around. We felt truly blessed to have had such a good day for the ascent.

After a while it was time to make our way down, although Ben (being Ben!) decided to try and climb the sheer cliff behind the lake (he got some great photos, see below). On the way down some of us decided to slide down the snow on our butts, which certainly was a lot more fun than walking! We made it down by midday for lunch and then a quick pack up as we left for our next destination.

We then had another three hour hike back down the way we came to our next meadow campsite. Going down was certainly a lot easier than going up, and the good weather meant we had great views which had been obscured on the way up.

We arrived at Bedni Bugyal, our final camping spot, at about 4pm, and found a lovely secluded spot close to a river. In the evening over dinner we shared the elation of the success of the hike, and the teamwork of the group was praised by one and all.
The only way is up: ascending  BEN BOWLING

Roopkund: our first glimpse of the magical lake   BEN BOWLING
View looking down from peak opposite   BEN BOWLING
Roopkund - members of group like ants top left   BEN BOWLING
Sam and me after going down to the water's edge   BEN BOWLING
The way down: the way we came       ED BEAVAN
Back at basecamp after successful ascent    BEN BOWLING

Day 5: Rest day, Bedni Bugyal

Day 5 was a much-needed rest day. There was a mountain dhaba near our campsite where we were able to have egg paranthas for lunch, some guys played frisbee, while others read. We had great views from the snows at this campsite.

The mountain dhaba where we got paranthas  ED BEAVAN
The rest day campsite   ED BEAVAN

Day 6: Final descent to Wan

We were up at 5am for our final descent to Wan, which was a steep trek back down through the beautiful forest which had been our undoing on the way up. When we reached the river five of us stripped off for a wonderful plunge in the icy cold water. It had to be done! Then it was a short ascent, then back down to Wan, which we reached by about 11am.

Arriving at Wan, which had a few shops and a few workman building concrete blocks, was slightly underwhelming. Tired but happy, we drank some chai and tried to work out how we could get to Lohajung, where our driver was supposed to be meeting us. After managing to charge our phones, it turned out our original driver hadn't come, but we managed to book another driver to take us back to Kathgodam.

It was a this point we said goodbye to our hilarious porter Treelok Singh. At the beginning of the week, he had seemed like something of an irritating maverick, yelling at all and sundry to get a move on, by the end of the trek he had become a firm friend, and we were sorry to say goodbye. A potato farmer by trade, he does the portering as an extra income stream during the walking season. What was incredible was that he did the trek in bedroom slippers! As we left Andy gave him his walking boots, which hopefully he'll put to good use.

So it was back in the jeep for the second awful day-long drive to Kathgodam, where we found a hotel and scoffed delicious pizza, watching the Netherlands-Chile World Cup game (I discovered England hadn't even had the decency to stay in the competition in my absence!). The next morning those going to Delhi got the early train, while those returning to Mussoorie had a day to kill in Kathgodam. We went to Cafe Coffee Day and then enjoyed a morning shopping in Haldwani. Then it was the night train back to Dehradun, the taxi ride back up the hill and we were home!

Our porter Treelok Singh    ED BEAVAN
The slippers he walked in!   ED BEAVAN

Clearer views on the way down    BEN BOWLING

We did it! I must admit that every day on the way up I thought I would not be able to make it. The trek was a great way for me to see that with determination and the encouragement of others we are able to achieve more than we think possible and develop resilience. I made great friendships with new people and deepened relationships with others. I will hold the memories of the hike with me forever and am so glad God opened the door for this opportunity. As I am getting older, I am being affected by a genetic condition that runs in our family which means my ability to walk is deteriorating, so it was great to do it while I still can.

On a side note, I will not mind if I never eat gorpe again (trail mix) - we had tons of the stuff between us. I would also like to say a huge thank you to my wife Kirsten who allowed me to do the trek by looking after Charlie on her own during the trek, a task as arduous as summiting Roopkund!

Kirsten and Charlie   ED BEAVAN

Below are my awards for the members of the group:

Hero award: Andy for rescuing us in the meadow, frequently taking two packs, and for helping people up and down Roopkund
Teenager award: Micah, 13, who did amazingly
Unpunctuality award: Adi!
Constantly losing toothbrush award: Ed
Chef extraordinaire and trek organiser award: Ben
Making things with his hands, including home-made tent, award: Josh
Self filming while sliding down mountain award, sponsored by Go Pro: Sam
The Abe Okie award for being Abe Okie: Abe Okie

Chai chahiye?
Great photo story here on chai, the drink India can't do without

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Seeing More of Incredible India: Goa, Hampi and Mumbai

Let the Train Take the Strain

We have just got back from our winter break, and were lucky enough to be able to visit Goa, Hampi and Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Because of Kirsten's condition (she is heavy with child), we were unable to fly, so we let the train take the strain.

As I have mentioned before, the Indian railway system is highly impressive, transporting 25 million passengers a day in 2012, which equates to 9 billion people a year! It covers the whole of India and has 7,500 stations and 40,000 miles of track. It is apparently the ninth biggest employer in the world with 1.4 million employees just behind the People's Liberation Army in China and McDonalds. Unfortunately its safety record is not brilliant, and there were two fatal fires on trains in recent weeks, but by and large it works very efficiently. It's also a great way to see India.

Being a train geek, I was delighted to have to spend two days travelling down to Goa. Our second train from Delhi to Goa, the Radjhani Express, took 26 hours, and in total the distance of our journey there was the equivalent of transversing the length of England and Scotland twice! The ultimate destination of this train was Trivandrum, which takes about two days and two nights!

The trains are comfortable in the air conditioned second class carriages which we travelled. However, the majority of people travel third class, and hundreds of people cram into carriages for these long journeys (these days sitting on the roof is banned). I don't think I'd last two minutes in there!

I also went on the suburban rail system in Mumbai which is very efficient and well-used, see photos below.

On the suburban service in Mumbai         TAMARA PHILIP
The Rajdhani Express which took us to Goa


We spent a couple of weeks in Goa which I suppose you could say is India's Costa del Sol, but thankfully not full of English tourists getting drunk on stag weekends. It is very popular with Russians now, with many signs in bars and restaurants in Russian, and some local waiters even speaking the lingo!

It's India's smallest state and very chilled out, and its beaches are lovely. It still retains its Portuguese influence, as Goa was a Portuguese province for about 450 years until it was annexed by India in 1961. You can see clues of this former history with Indian-Portuguese names such as Dr Varun Carvalho (sign spotted in the town of Margao), and the design of the houses which have a definite Iberian feel. The historic churches in Old Goa also highlight the Roman Catholicism inherited from the European invaders.

Another great thing about Goa is the food! The fresh fish is delicious, and we enjoyed browsing around the fish markets in Margao for freshly caught delicacies for our supper!

A Portuguese-influenced villa in Goa


After Goa we spent a couple of days in Hampi, a ten hour bus ride from Goa in the neighbouring state of Karnataka (relatively close in Indian terms!). Hampi is one of the most extraordinary places I've ever visited in India, and reminded me of Pompeii set among boulders.

Formerly called Vijayanagar, it is the ruins of a kingdom from the 14th century, with many temples, elephant stables and a plethora of other amazing buildings remaining, some in very good condition. What makes it more remarkable is the natural geographical setting among incredible boulders. It almost seems like you're on a different planet at times.

The scale of the remains is impressive, there were large areas of the site we did not get to see. A river also runs through the ruins, and one morning we were able to cycle up to a beautiful waterhole for a refreshing dip from the scorching sun.

I would say Hampi is a must-visit for anyone going to southern India.

A ruined temple at Hampi with ornate carvings on pillars
On the moon: Boulders at Hampi
Having a dip in a waterhole at Hampi
The Hampi crew: L-R: Jonny, Abner, Ed, Tim and Christina
More beautiful carvings on a wall
The Elephant Stables at Hampi
Another ruin from above

Mumbai (Bombay)

Finally we wound up in Mumbai, India's financial and cultural capital. The city has a real European feel, and many of the old buildings in south Mumbai are impressive, particularly the fantastic colonial era Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus) railway station, one of my favourite buildings in India, a UNESCO world heritage site. And yes there are Routemaster type red buses in Mumbai (see photo below)!

Just like London: Red bus at Chhatrapatai Shivaji Terminus

Like everywhere in India the sharp divide between rich and poor is clear to see. When you visit the Gateway of India, next to the sumptuous Taj Mahal hotel (scene of the awful terrorist attack in 2008), you are approached by street children begging. And as you drive to some of the more swanky parts of the city, you pass by many slum areas (blockbuster film Slumdog Millionaire was set here).

I went out to see the Elephanta Caves situated on an island just off Mumbai, which contain statues of Hindu gods in caves hewn out from the rock, dating from the 7th century. The day I went was a cold one by Mumbai standards (the newspaper said they were "shivering in temperatures of just 13 degrees"). It was a foggy day with a bit of drizzle, but I still boarded the boat to the island hopeful we would make it within the hour we were told it would take.

About half an hour in and limited visiblity, it turned out the boat driver (skipper?) was lost and had been going round in circles. Unfortunately he did not have a GPS, radio, or any other sort of navigational aid to help him find our destination. Thankfully a group of Danish tourists on our boat had GPS on their phone, and were able to point him in the right direction, and we finally arrived about 40 minutes late. Not sure that boat operator would pass health and safety regulations in the UK, but chalta hai, this is India!
India Gateway in the rain
The GPS-less boat to Elephanta Island
Statue at Elephanta Island

Time to Get Back in the Kitchen!

We were forced to partake in an activity that has become completely alien to us in the last couple of years - cooking! It's fair to say that baking, roasting and frying have become somewhat foreign concepts for us - largely because we have a cook!

Some of you may at this point be falling out of your chair thinking we are a couple of neo-colonialists harping back to the time of the Raj. However, having an ayah (maid) or cook is actually very common in India. It's win-win situation for employer and employee. We provide work for Vimla our outstanding and hardworking ayah, and in return she is able to supplement her family's income and pay for her grandchildren's schooling. I sometimes think if we had a similar system in the UK there would be fewer people on the dole.

So it was something of a blow when Vimla announced last month she was going to Delhi for a week for a wedding. Shamefully, we resorted to takeaway most of that week, highlighting how much we rely on Vimla. We really need to start doing some cooking again, otherwise we're in for a shock to the system when we leave India!

Christmas video

We made this video for our family for Christmas, and it gives a snapshot of our life here in Mussoorie. You can watch it here:

Monday, 18 November 2013

No Chai With Charles and Camilla, William Dalrymple in Town, Mussoorie Half Marathon

No Chai With Charles and Camilla

Last week our Principal Dr Long came up to Kirsten and me and said he had a dinner invitation we wouldn't be able to refuse. Being a man with a similar wit to my own, I thought he was setting up a bad pun. But as I awaited the punchline it became clear it wasn't a joke.

It turned out he and his wife had been invited to nearby Rishikesh to attend a dinner with Prince Charles and Camilla (aka the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall), who were on a tour of India. Due to short notice and prior commitments, our Principal and his wife were unable to attend. So Dr Long said he would try and transfer the tickets over to us.

That night we started thinking about what we would say to the future British king if we met him, how we should address them (Your Highness? Sir, Ma'am? Charlie boy?) what we should wear, and how we would get there.

In the event we needn't have worried, as due to the short notice Charles and Camilla were unable to get the necessary security clearance to meet us (or was it the other way round?).

So, a missed opportunity to meet our future sovereign.

However, there was another VVIP at Woodstock over the weekend (in India there are not just VIPs but VVIPS - very VERY important persons!). See below...

Larger than life: William Dalrymple at the festival  ED BEAVAN

Author William Dalrymple in Town

As part of the Sixth Mussoorie Writers' Mountain Festival at Woodstock author William Dalrymple came to town. I have read several of his books, including From the Holy Mountain and The Age of Kali, but I'd never heard him speak.

The renowned author and India-phile lives in Delhi and has written extensively about the Indian subcontinent. He was giving a lecture based on his new book entitled Return of the King: Afghanistan Then and Now, on the first Anglo-Afghan war.

Looking more rotund than the photographs in his earlier books, he started off slightly stutteringly during his talk, but once he got onto his subject, he was simply outstanding. He had the whole audience gripped as he recounted the desperate story of the British retreat from Afghanistan in 1842, which led to the needless deaths of thousands of British and Indian troops. He also linked the story back to Mussoorie explaining how one of the former Afghan rulers Amir Dost Mohammad was for a time under house arrest in the hill station. He really did bring history to life for all of us there.

We also chatted to him a bit at a party one night during the festival, he is a flamboyant character and was certainly the life and soul of the party!

Needless to say after his talk there was a run on sales of his book, and a long queue formed of eager punters keen to get an autograph. I'm looking forward to reading it!

Sign of the times: Dalrymple autographs a book for a Woodstock student from Afghanistan    ED BEAVAN

No Pain, No Gain: Mussoorie Half Marathon

On the Sunday of the writers' festival there is the Mussoorie Half Marathon, now in its second year. Last year I wimped out and only did the 10K.

This year I was determined to do the whole thing, so I drew up a training schedule with our head of PE Steve Luukkonen. In the end though, I probably only did half the amount of training I needed to do.

At 7.30 on the Sunday morning I arrived at Mall Road ready to run. The route takes you out to Everest House, the abandoned home of Sir George Everest, the Welsh Surveyor General of India from 1830 to 1843, the guy they named that big mountain after.

Born to run: At the finish with the chowkidars looking on (the crowd is behind the photographer)   KIRSTEN BEAVAN

Marathon Men: Ed with Woodstock's Head of PE and race winner Steve Luukkonen      KIRSTEN BEAVAN

Sadly his house is now a dilapidated wreck. It is around the halfway point of the half marathon, and up until then I felt OK. However, it was during the second 10K my lack of training kicked in. Running back to town there is a gentle incline which is a killer. I had to stop and walk some of the way, I must admit.

In the final mile there is a big hill (Mullingar Hill for those of you who know Mussoorie) which I had to walk up, as, to use a football manager's cliche, "there was absolutely nothing left in the tank".

My previous time for a half marathon was just under two hours, 1 hr 58 mins. However this was a flat course in Cardiff. This time, due to lack of training, hills, and altitude (7,000 ft!) I clocked 2:35, five minutes outside my aim of two-and-a-half hours. Still, it was pleasing to finish. There's always next year to try and clock sub two-and-a-half hours.

The aforementioned Steve won the race in a hugely impressive 1 hr 39 mins!

Cheeky Monkeys

In Mussoorie there are two types of monkeys. The rhesus are orangey brown with bright red butts, and should generally be avoided. They are aggressive towards people and scavenge food from bins around the school campus. Many of them were relocated down the valley recently, however this has had the effect of making the remaining ones even more aggressive.

Langurs on the other hand are greyish-white and a far more elegant type of monkey. They are vegetarian and eat leaves from the trees, and generally keep their distance. It's much nicer if a pack of langurs is on your roof than the rhesus.

Recently I was able to snap this langur outside our front door, and if you look closely you can see the baby langur hanging on to its mother's underside, having a drink of milk. It's great to have these amazing creatures right on our doorstep.

Drinking it in: A suckling baby langur         ED BEAVAN

Leaf off! Munching on the green stuff        ED BEAVAN

Thursday, 31 October 2013

India: Going Back in Time

Going Back in Time

My Swatch watch recently stopped. Yes, I know I'm probably a bit too old to have a Swatch, but I got attached to them during my teenage years and have had them ever since. Anyway, I was a bit gutted when it stopped the other day.

But the great thing about living in India is that everything is repaired or recycled. Not like in the West, where we just throw out a toaster or TV when it's broken and buy a new one. Here repair men still do a thriving trade, and most things are repaired or recycled, often in ingenious ways.

So I confidently took my Swatch to the watch repair man in the bazaar (see photos below). For some reason he sits in a little perspex box in a TV repair shop. Anyway, after about 20 minutes he returned my repaired watch for the princely sum of just 100 rupees (about one pound). I was delighted, my pride and joy had been restored!

Unfortunately my joy was shortlived. The next day strange things started to happen. My watch started going backwards, with the second hand going anti-clockwise. Then bizzarely, the actual watch face started to rotate backwards, with the numbers completely out of place. My watch was literally going back in time.

Sadly, this was the end of the road for this Swatch, and I ventured back to the bazaar and bought a flashy (fake) Emporio Armani watch, which will no doubt break soon.

But the moral of the story remains: re-use and recycle if you can.

The watch repair man destroying my Swatch

"I'm a living in a box": Watch repair guy's base

The box and the road at Landour bazaar

Here Comes the Sun (Nahi)

October is supposed to a gloriously beautiful month here in Mussoorie, with constant sunshine and views of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks. Visitors and alumni of the school flock back at this time to enjoy the Indian alpine experience.

Except this year it has just not happened. Monsoon went on interminably, from the 1 June to about last week. Then we had a few nice sunny days, and now the really cold weather has come in.

We have gone from Monsoon to Winter, without the sunny bit in between! It kinda sucks, as my American colleagues would say. Maybe it's a one-off, maybe it's down to changing climate conditions which have seen strange weather patterns everywhere.

The one positive is that we are getting a new, super-duper bukari (wood stove) soon, so that should keep us warm in this particularly cold Winter. It's due to arrive in the next six to seven days (not 67 days as I first understood!), so I'll blog about that next time.

A local man shelling beans by treading on them
Going Back in Time 2: A Week in a Himalayan Village

It was recently Activity Week at Woodstock, when the whole school has a week off classes and goes out into various parts of India for an outdoor education experience.

This year I accompanied a group of 15 Grade 9 (14/15-year-olds) students to a village in the Aglar River Valley, about a three hour drive from here.

Before we went, there were the expected moans from kids asking how they would survive away from the internet, computer games and TV for seven whole days. I, on the other hand, was rather looking forward to it.

Corn drying by a house
Our village was called Gaird, and staying there was a wonderful experience. Away from the distractions and obsession with modern technology, we taught at the local schools, helped the villagers harvest and shell their beans and chillies, tried our hand at ploughing with oxen, hiked in the surrounding hills and frolicked in the Aglar River for a day.

We were reminded how we take our food for granted and appreciated how hard some people have to work to get food on the table. Many of the villagers lost land in the recent severe rains in Uttarakhand.

We built up friendships with the villagers, were given the tastiest Indian khanna every day, and learnt to just enjoy having time to "be", not rushing around checking our mobile phones every two minutes.

Gaird village from above
We were the centre of attention for the village kids, and we also enjoyed demonstrations of local Garhwali dancing from the children, games of tug of war, arm wrestling and kabbadi with the guys.

By the end of it, even the kids agreed it was great to "go back in time" in a sense and experience a more simple way of life, where people who have much less materially yet seem in many ways a lot more content than those of us who are comparatively richer.

By the end of the week, we had all gone for seven days without the internet and a mobile phone, and guess what, the world didn't end!

Below are some photos of the week:

From generation to generation: Grandfather and grandson
On the pull: Tug of war
Just bought a yoke of oxen, trying them out!
View from above: local kids look down on the Woodstock kids
Buffalo Stance: Water bovine
Traditional Garhwali house with wooden arches
Our Woodstock group