Travels in the Spiti Valley

That was the year people of Lahaul & Spiti and Kinnaur remember for two things. The visit of Dalai Lama, and the flash floods that disconnected them from the world. There probably was a connection, most locals belived that Chinese on the other side of the border had intentionally relesed lot more water from their dams to jeopardize Dalai Lama’s visit. Whatever may be the reason, I also visited Lahaul Spiti the same year.

The plan was to go from Manali to Shimla via Kinnaur and Spiti. Spiti, I had known was the land of perpetually snow capped peaks north of Dalhousie, where I grew up as a kid.

There is a old Buddhist curse that is paraphrased something like “May you be born in the land of high peaks and deep ravines”. Spiti was exactly what the originator was thinking about.

The plan was to all the way from Manali to Shimla via Spiti and Kinnaur.  Just as we entered the Spiti valley, the axle of the bus we were traveling in broke, and with no habitation close we walked off to the next town that was about 4 hours of walk away, We were lucky to be picked up by some Army trucks that were seeking the site of a helicopter crash. In between that and  a late night entry into Kaza, the dusty administrative center of Spiti, I remember only throwing up every 30 minutes, Lying in  the back of an open truck with a mad man driving across the valley and the massive headaches because of Altitude sickness.

In the next few days in the radius of about 100km were some of the most idyllic and beautiful monasteries(Gompas) I had seen. These are well off the touristy Buddhist Gompa circuits of Ladakh and Sikkim( and probably arunachal). These are the monasteries that get very few visitors, and let tourists live in the monastery along with the monks, share the Tsampa at prayers with the few people that turn up. I have not seen this in any of the Ladakhi monasteries.

This was also the first time I was seeing the fortress style Monasteries, and It was really impressive to see the Ki and the Dankar (which is about 7-10 km from the road) Monasteries.

Tabo Monastery despite it simplicity was magical. The Gompa being on flat land,  may be as spectacular as Dankar and Ki, But inside the temple are these almost real life statues of Monks projecting from the walls. How they could make it 1000 years ago I cannot really fathom? Dalai Lama himself expressed his desire to retire here.

We had to return back to Kaza from Kinnaur as we figured the bridge would take a lot more time to be build, but not before we tasted the divine Apricot Whiskey that Kinnauris are proud of. It’s probably a mistake to compare it to the French Cointraeu as Apricots taste  way better than Oranges. It was disappointing because we wanted to go to the Kailash peak, but then we set ourselves up for the gruelling 14 day travel up to Ladakh, that started at Kibber, that dubs itself the highest continously inhabited town in the world. But the story of 2 1/2 men and 2 donkeys I will leave for another day.

Still unencumbered by loads of tourists, Spiti is what Ladakh could have been. Beautiful yet Quaint.

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The fallacy of “worst member of the band”

Lots of people talk about being in a group where people are smarter better than themselves. This probably is better, because you are assumed to be learning from these “smart” people all the time. Besides being too simplistic, it seems to me a fertile fallacy.

Do you remember all the members from Jimi Hendrix experience? which was dominated by Hendrix’s supreme mastery of the electric guitar. Or Cream, which was dominated by Clapton’s genius. But you probably remember all members of the Beatles, which was a much more balanced band. I posit that being the worst or even better member of the band is not good enough.

I am not saying seek out places where there are better people to work with, but that being the sole criteria is unfair for all the people involved and you take more from the “Circle of life” than you are giving back. This will never be sustainable.

Learning for me happens in 2 modes,

Working with people and picking up their tricks, opinions, ideas.

Working privately and following my own thought processes and experiences.

It may vary for different people, for me working privately, deliberately has been the main source of learning. This, I think because I can make mistakes and learn from them and figure out why and never repeat it again or figure out the situations to repeat it again leading to a deeper understanding. Rather than “best member of band” telling you to do certain things in the way he’s figured it. This leads to rapid learning but a much shallower understanding. (think Pair programming vs. Deliberate practice)

I say this with some experience, In the company where I work (Activesphere, for people not in the know), I went from worst member of the band to among the better ones and back to the bottom of the pile. ( I’d like to think not because I was going backwards, but because other people were making faster progress) This transition has taught me amazing lessons that might be subject for another post. The biggest one of course is that you need to be “best in the band” sometimes to figure out how to apply things you’ve learned. And eventually how to get back to the bottom by helping others get better than you. (If that makes any sense)

Bottomline, it seems to is to not worry in terms of worst/best member of the band but seek out what you want to do and what will help you get to learn better, rather than the rather mundane application of “Worst member of the band”

On Travelling Solo

I like traveling solo. Though I have traveled with various groups of varied sizes and shapes to many different places,  traveling alone has by far been most fun, and I have ended up with lot more friends for life.

A lot of people find it hard to travel solo, because of uncertainties associated with it and it feels boring to sit alone at lunch and read a book and watch other people. It does not have to be that way (though you have to be prepared to do it), Lot of my solo travel tends to start and end alone but interspersed with people I meet on the way travel a bit of distance together, and then split up and go our own ways.

One reason I travel solo is that I dislike organizing and coordinating trips for other people with me. Traveling is a very personal choice, some people like traveling in comfort, some people want to see every single place in the guidebook. Some people want to just sit in the hotel and relax. Some people need to have a solid and well researched plan. To get people who match your style is hard and if you do know some people having them coordinate the travel time is still harder, something or the other will always come up. This is how I started my first solo trip to Death Valley, my friend just failed to turn up.

I think I needed that experience to get hooked on to the solo travel experience. Once I did, fear and loathing of traveling alone was gone.

I am very idiosyncratic traveler, Think of people that get up early and go exploring a place, eating all sorts of food and going to places on gut feel rather than rating on the guidebook, staying in cheap hotels, and traveling public transport. A backpacker you may say, but I have no hesitation to just sleep off couple of days in an expensive hotel when I am tired.  Traveling alone gives me the flexibility to do that sort of thing. I like a place, I just stay there longer, I don’t like a place I just move to the next place, I don’t have to convince anybody else.

Over time I have found that traveling solo gives me much richer traveling experiences, When traveling with friends, I don’t look to make new acquaintances, just being in part of group is enough, somebody in the group will make the decisions and I just follow. Traveling solo I am constantly looking for information from people and passing information to people about where to go and where not to go, If they wish to share a taxi ride room or breakfasts together. It always seems to give me much more interesting conversations and better understanding of people and the places.

There are problems as well. I find it embarrassing/strange going  solo to beaches and Party places alone. I skipped some of the awesome Istanbul Nightlife and beautiful Hainan Beaches.

You have to be extra prepared if you are traveling Solo on tough hikes and tough areas, like I just ran out of money on our Spiti to Leh hike with no ATM anywhere close, luckily another traveler loaned me some money to reach Leh and return his money.

Try it You may like it as well.

Overworked?

One of the most abused practice of XP has been Sustainable work week. Pretty much everybody agrees it is the right thing to do, but nobody actually does it (or that’s what I’ve seen)
The XP book talks about 40 hrs work week, but most people dub it as Sustainable work pace. This gives people the ability to set their work pace at 50 hrs a week or less or whatever, but it also acknowledges the fact that people are different, and one rule can’t fit all.

I ❤ programming, so I spend a lot of time writing and thinking of writing code, and making myself a better programmer.

IMHO, Writing more code, and spending more time writing code does not make you are better programmer. It is the practice of programming by trying different approaches to a problem and experimenting with tools (and adding to your toolkit or discarding them) that makes you better. The analogy being, driving to work and home does not make you a better driver.

So I definitely do lot more than 40 hrs a week, sometimes 60 hrs a week, not sleeping by the excitement of implementing a faster way of finding Recommendations, or different way of Visualizing an interesting data set, or some silly stupid hack that has no value. I like it that way. Is it sustainable? I’ve been doing this for a long time now and have no intention to reduce it. (I know what you are thinking!!! Yes I am a pretty slow). Is it ideal, heck no. But I believe (and I may be completely wrong on this one) I’ve developed workarounds to deal with the side effects of “Unsustainable pace”

What definitely helps is doing stuff that exerts the body, like running, cycling and playing squash with friends. Fitter people are anecdotally better equipped to deal with mental stresses of work and broken code. And yeah that constant dose of mindless Telugu movies with my wife.

One of the big things that helps me is taking longer breaks from work, like going out traveling for a few weeks or months. Invariably I have come back refreshed and with new and interesting ideas. This trick always works.

What’s your strategy to cope with excess time at work?

Tour of Nilgiris

There are two ways to write about specific events, Right after the event, with lots of anecdotes and details. The other way is to do it a while after, when details fade away and the big things stand clear. Latter is what i am trying to do now.
It’s been a month since we returned from  Tour of Nilgiris (TFN for short) a 8 day cycling tour across a lot of south India. This was my second TFN, as I rode my Giant OCR in the inagural TFN. This time I took my ORBEA Onix. And I am glad to report that I survived whole of the tour, with just sore ass problem, and even bested my Ooty climb time by atleast 3 hrs (Last time I arrived at 6PM, but this time i was in the Hostel by 2.30PM)

The biggest surprise of the tour was how far the Road biking community had come. The first TFN was evenly divided between Mountain Bikers and Roadbikers. This tour was probably 90% Roadbikers. And what bikes they had, some of the most expensive and awesome bikes came to the Tour,  Most of the top riders had bikes in excess of USD 5,000 (not counting the upgrades).  OH my god that beautiful Pinarello Dogma. And fast they were, riding the in excess of 25kmph over distances of 150 km on the hills and the heat. Most early riders would be at the hotel in 6-8 hrs depending on the distances, however this was not the case in the first TFN, most early riders came much later in the afternoon.

Maybe the riders then were not as fast as they are now, but also there was a huge sense of Competition, while earlier it was camaraderie. This did not man there was dearth of camaraderie, Bangalore riders had formed teams to ride as a peloton, so that they could save their legs for the Competitive section.

The organization of the Tour has certainly gone to the next level. The first year, We would reach the end and find our Bags have not arrived, food not ready and shoddy conditions at the hotel.  One of the worst thing from riders perspective coming in after hours of hard ride, is not having clean cloths to wear after a cold shower and not having some food ( I don’t mean energy bars) to eat. The recovery for the next day’s ride has to start immediately. This year the organization was impeccable. We would arrive early to the hotel and find the bags were already in the room, food in place, and above average hotels to stay at.

Also different was the planning and communication from the organizers, I do not believe in the whole tour anybody missed a turn or went the wrong way. The markings on the roads were impeccable, and support stations and vehicle support were great as well.

The Tour definitely has become harder since the first edition, that probably explains the drop in number of Mountain Bikes entering the tour. It’s a Road Bike tour and even though it sounds hash, there is no reason for Mountain bikers to enter TFN. Maybe the have fun the few days there are downhills and bad roads, but most of the 900km are tarred roads that offer no respite to the heavy MountainBikes.  The tour is also getting faster, most riders train rigorously for TFN and the riding speeds are on average higher (thanks also to the super awesome bikes)

There is one final change, Of the 10 people I hung out with Cycling wise, 5 were CEOs  or Head of their Organizations. It may be too early to call Cycling the new Golf, but there definitely seemed to be a lot more successful people( and  a loser among them), at the TFN.

TFN is evolving, and has come a long way since it started 4 years ago, and it could soon be the preeminent Tour in India the sort of Tour de France of India.

Most Beautiful Mosque in the world

Two things triggered this blog. One the continuing Violence In Syria and Two the arrival of an Iranian friend to Bangalore. They took me back to the My travels in Middle East a  year or so ago.

If you travel around Middle east, one question that you will keep encountering especially with travelers are their thoughts on the most impressive or beautiful mosque in the world. And since Mecca is incomparable, and not accessible to most travelers, the choice boils down to the following three

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

From istanbul

The LotfAllah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran

From Esfahan

Ummaiyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.
(Unfortunately, I have not uploaded the pictures Damascus yet)

Most people I met also rate it in the order I have mentioned above.

Blue mosque, inspired  by Hagia Sophia, the masterpiece of Byzantine Architecture,  which it stands opposite to in Istanbul is something else. You see a series of symmetrical layered domes, But most people come there not pray, but to have their photograph taken. I am not so fond of such places.

I have a special liking for Lotfallah Mosque in Isfahan, because Isfahan is probably the most beautiful big city in the world. Those lazy  and lavish Tea Shops ( Iranians take their tea very seriously), Succulent Kebabs, and Fabulous Faloodas. I also have a fond memory of this mosque because the day I visited, a middle aged Flutist stood in the middle of the mosque and played the most haunting tune, and the music echoed in those beautifully painted mosaic tile walls like never I have heard before(It also ended dramatically, as music is not tolerated much in Iran, and he made a quick getaway as the Guards came looking.)

Damascus was the last city I visited (between Isfahan, Istanbul and Damascus) and there I found the mosque I think is the most fascinating and beautiful.  You access this mosque via a large marketplace whose tin roofs have holes that were caused by French Aircraft fire, It leaves you with a eerie feeling as shafts of light  come through it. At the end of the Market you see a Mosque, that does not look like a mosque, But once you leave your shoes behind go inside you can see the difference. It is beautiful not only because it has gold paintings of what paradise looks like for Islamic scholars, and the white courtyard and grand interiors, but because this is a living mosque. People still come to pray here. Children play in the courtyard as their parents sit and pray. I came to this mosque over and over again in my 7 day stay in Damascus, and felt completely at peace, despite the people. This place comes alive for Friday prayers, as you see an outpouring of faith like I’d never seen before.

If all the violence in Syria stops, make this the place to go when you are looking for a nice off the beaten path vacation and good food.

On Reading Fast

I have been reading books ever since I was a kid. Unlike now, I wasn’t very picky about books, so anything that came my way was slurped up. As a kid I do remember my short term memory was horrible, but my long term memory was brilliant, I can still remember the characters and themes from Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge from 20 years ago. This book had a big influence on me at that time.

Anyways, where I was heading was, even when i was finishing up a book a day I realized I was a slow reader compared to my brother and other people at school.

And over the next decades unconsciously or consciously I tried to read books faster. It was also influenced by the (may I say, American) Accelerated Learning schemes that tell you that your success in life depends on how fast you read. Instead of reading words read sentences, and instead of reading sentences read paragraphs, blah blah blah.

Unfortunately, most of us do not have photographic memory, and unless you are reading Hardy Boys, there are nuances in the words, metaphors in the story and characterizations that you will likely miss. Over time I realized that reading fast was the  reason, I had no memory of what I was reading, or understanding, I just read a novel for the sake of story, missing the bigger points and metaphors.

Now a days I find myself taking weeks to finish a book, that I would probably finish in a day. I also tend to read books for a couple of hours before moving on, instead of trying to finish it in one or two sittings. This gives me more time to mull about the content, and sometimes do some research on the sidelines as well. I am no longer unhappy with my reading pace, and find myself enjoying the process of reading a lot more.