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Displaying items by tag: travel himalayas

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

What Do Monkeys Want?

I had to get away, clear my head.  The year had more than its fair share of stresses, and I was readily distracted to the point where reading, writing and thinking were more difficult than ever before.  My concentration had been diminished.

It was early May.  I had arranged a house trade in the Dorsoduro section of Venice for a couple of weeks, followed by time in Switzerland: Five days in a remote farmhouse in canton Uri and then a week in Vals, in canton Graubünden.  I had been to all these locales and properties before – the summer prior and the one before that, too – and wanted, I thought, to repeat the experiences.

As the summer approached, I realized that neither Venice nor Switzerland would address my need for clarity.

So I sent an email to my friend Anita Gurnani, who runs Format Travel, based in New Delhi.  She had organized a trip I’d taken with my family through Rajasthan four years ago.

XL2J9655“I know just the place,” she said.  “I’ll send you photos, you’ll love it.”

I have to admit that my only trip to India had not been all that pleasant: Hours of daily driving, touring and the opposite of clearing my head.  I had been overwhelmed by the sights, smells, sounds and tastes, but at the same time I felt cut off from the narrative of lives I watched unfold.  I wanted to return to India to clear my head of that earlier visit.

The location?  Mashobra.  I’d never heard of Mashobra.

Situated approximately 250 miles east of Lahore, Pakistan, 250 miles south of Kashmir, and 250 miles southwest of Tibet, the village was one of several hill stations developed by the British Raj during their occupation of India.  The idea had been to move the summer capital to Shimla, about six miles from Mashobra, to escape the heat and monsoons of the cities.  Little cottages had been built, apple orchards cultivated, and churches and cobblestones constructed to create a replica of England within the Himalayas.

XL2J9530Anita sent photos.  The place was called Violet Hill, which I found immediately poetic.  The price, which included a male staff of a cook, guide/gardener and two housekeepers, was nearly the same as what my wife and I had planned to pay in Europe. I was in. I was so in.



Using Starwood points, I booked a room at the Maurya Sheraton in Delhi for our first three nights: The city looked like a construction site.  Roads were being torn up, buildings were coming down and going up.  It was all to prepare for the Commonwealth Games.  The hotel, located in Diplomatic Enclave, is a stunning refuge from the chaos of Delhi and has one of the world’s great restaurants, Bukhara, where I’d eaten several meals on the earlier trip.  It had an open tandoor oven, beautiful vegetables, rich dal (lentils) and amazing marinated lamb.

In the city, we spent time with Rafiq Wangnoo, a Kashmiri merchant, who sells carpets that belong in museums; did the Old Delhi motorbike rickshaw thing again; and visited an array of religious edifices: Jain, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim.  I do not have the religion gene, but the worshippers did, and from what I saw, the gene is dominant.

Flying north to Chandigarh was, however, an act of secular faith.  Security at Indian airports serves to heighten tension.  We had our passports checked numerous times and were groped periodically.  Once in the air, everything seemed OK.  That sense of things seeming OK (“I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m OK.”) lasted until we landed.

XL2J9407Then we were picked up and driven to Violet Hill.  Now if you Google to get directions from Chandigarh to Mashobra, you will find that it is approximately 72 miles distance and should take two hours and thirty minutes.  Hah!  What Google does not take into account is that the Indian infrastructure is among the world’s worst.

According to the World Economic Forum, India is ranked 89 out of 133 countries: “89th for road quality; 90th for ports, where the turnaround time for ships is 3.85 days, compared with 10 hours in Hong Kong; 65th for air transport; and 106th for quality of electricity supply. No Indian city receives water for 24 hours a day.”

Folks, it’s true.  The drive?  It took over five hours, and these five hours were not just spent in traffic or on dirt roads, but they took place beneath sagging cliffs, minor avalanches, hairpin turns, on the edge of precipices and, as a sort of grand finale lasting 30 minutes, through a thick fog and dense monsoon rain in which visibility was limited to perhaps 15 feet.

Sensibly, my wife covered her eyes until we veered off the paved road to the right and then up a narrow, dirt and stone avenue that led up towards the cottage.

XL2J9810The mood by then was informed by exhaustion and residual fear from the harrowing drive.  Hot tea and a brief tour by the property’s exceptionally pleasant owner improved matters, and by the time night fell and the shattering sound of locusts ceased, we were enjoying peace on the veranda.



The next morning we woke to what would become familiar sounds throughout our stay.

First, we heard screaming.  This went on for hours.  He was “a monkey man,” hired to scare off the monkeys.  We had arrived in the middle of the apple harvest and the monkeys were in the trees eating and gathering.

Monkeys do not know when to stop.

Then we heard movement in trees and sort of a “woo-woo.”  Next we saw the monkeys.  Dozens of monkeys: At the perimeter of the gardens, in the pine and apple trees, holding fruit, furtively scurrying, pushing faces forward expressively in alarm.

I found the monkeys very attractive and, thematically, they framed the holiday experience for me.  One paw holding an apple, one apple in its teeth, a monkey would look at me with a rare sentience.  They seemed to know that, except for the humans, they were the smartest animals around, which emboldened them.

Their only other predator was the snow leopard.

“Don’t take walks at night in the forest,” Prabhdip Singh, the owner, had said to us. “I had two dogs killed by leopards.”

During the day, we walked throughout the region, on our own or with Sanjul, the guide/gardener, visiting villages, farms and, up above the cottage, one of two retreats in the country for the Indian President.  Small plots of cabbage, corn, mustard and okra were growing.  Women in pink, scarlet and purple saris were working in the fields or on construction crews.  Men drove the Tata trucks carrying stones, laborers, apples and building supplies.

XL2J9524Between walks, we sat and read and wrote for six or seven hours each day.  I had brought a dozen books about India with me: Rushdie, J.G. Farrell, Sen, Chatterjee, and so on, and immersed in the works, I felt able to embrace the consciousness inspired by good writing.

Clouds rolled in, clouds rolled out.  We were high up, about 8,000 feet above sea level, and the weather changed dramatically by the hour, from a torrential monsoon storm to clear views of the snow capped high Himalayas.

In-between the books, writing, walks and the nature shows, we enjoyed the best Indian food I’d ever had.  The cook, Ramesh, took local vegetables and added buttery sauces; prepared classic lamb and chicken dishes; and, found papaya, pomegranates, and those amazing Indian mangos.

As someone who writes about food, I was eager to learn from Ramesh, and patiently he taught me 10 basic dishes.  The trick was to use spices – tumeric, cumin seeds, mustard seeds and so on – sparingly and to allow each dish to express its essence with specificity.  The flavors?  Deep and intense.

XL2J9551The whole experience was sort of like being in a dream college; the college I’d never had: Reading and writing all day, taking long walks, being with one person I love, and enjoying fresh, simple, delicious food.

Isolated, tranquil, digging deeper into emotional and intellectual recesses: The days were like long, hot baths, an Indian version of a Japanese inn (ryokan), where perception was heightened, ironically, through diminishment of stimuli.



We left the cottage and our walks only three times.  Twice to go to Shimla, the former British capital, where we bought spices in the fascinating Lower Bazaar and dodged monkeys that were like gymnasts on the wires, poles, and banisters.  Another time we left to go to Wildflower Hall.

I had been reading about Wildflower Hall for years: Built on the site of a home belonging to Lord Kitchener, commander in chief of the British army in India from 1902-1909, the property, now owned by The Oberoi Group, seemed in photos to be a fairytale castle out of “Lost Horizon.”

I had not known that the hotel was literally less than half a mile up a steep hill behind our cottage.  We climbed, walking past a tiny school for elementary age children, past two water buffalo ready to be snapped in photos for tourists, and then onto a long drive across the street from several dhaba (roadside cafes) where snacks and teas are sold.

P1130175Wildflower was intense: Exquisite, honeymoon heaven, with a bar that had a blazing fire and ice-cold gin, a restaurant with savory lamb dishes and great breads, a pool that was therapeutic, and staff who, like so many lucky enough to have jobs in India, appeared to take a personal interest in guests.

In the garden of the hotel, en route to the gazebo, I came across two monkeys on the path.  I clapped my hands to shoo them away.  They stayed put.  To add to it, a much larger monkey appeared, and not quite grinning, bared its teeth and leaned back as if to pounce.

I ran.

Back in the room of the hotel, I should have heeded the sign and broadened its application: “Please keep the windows closed during the day to safeguard your belongings from monkeys.”

Two other confrontations with monkeys took place.

Once walking past a school for the deaf near Wildflower, a huge Himalayan Macaque, darker than the rhesus we’d seen before, chased my wife for a bit before retreating and after having made his territorial point.

Another time we woke to the sound of half a dozen monkeys on the roof of the cottage: Screeching and pounding, they were agitated because they were being pursued by The Monkey Man.

What do monkeys want?  Food, warmth, love, security, companionship, decent but not too aggressive IRA growth, bananas – things we all want, but they also want to be left alone.

Me, too.

©Scott Haas

Violet Hill, the property we rented, is available by contacting:

Anita Gurnani, Format Travel,

Or: Mr. Prabdip Singh: 011-91-09815442233.

Wildflower Hall:


And don’t think the monkeys want to be your new best friends.  They can be very aggressive!

Published in indulge

The northernmost point a tourist can visit in India is in the village of Panamik, in the Nubra Valley in Ladakh. We have just driven three kilometres further.

There is a festival going on in Ladakh and everybody is drunk. Even the policemen who work at the checkpoint did not bother to show up for work today, so we happily drove past Panamik and arrived in another village three kilometres further north. Here, a group of merrily drunk local men quickly gather around the Royal Enfield motorbike we’re traveling on and invite us to join the festivities. However, the owner of what seems to be the only shop in the village thinks we should turn back — it is a sensitive border area and we’ll be in trouble for coming here.

Published in inhale

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