Tuesday, August 23, 2011

India: Corruption chaos

Opinion: In wrangling over a new anti-corruption law, India is missing the forest for the trees.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - August 23, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — Tens of thousands of protesters rallied across India on Monday, as social activist Anna Hazare's indefinite fast against corruption entered its seventh day and the government scrambled for forge a compromise.

But by focusing so narrowly on the nuts and bolts of the bill, the protest leaders, and the politicians they oppose, appear to be missing the forest for the trees.

No law will ever be enough to root out corruption from Indian society. But the mass movement itself — whether it is democratic or anti-democratic — may offer the germ of the broad cultural change needed to accomplish what no supercop could do. That is: Make corruption, which has always been illegal, also socially unacceptable.

The government has already capitulated to Hazare's demand for an anti-corruption law and his insistence that members of his coterie be included in the drafting process — though some objected that this granted undue influence to “representatives” who had never stood for an election. But now that members of parliament have developed a draft bill to create the anti-corruption office, Hazare is again fasting in protest because the government's draft does not grant the ombudsman power over the prime minister or the judiciary.

No doubt there are merits in the arguments of both sides, however wrapped up in the abstractions of “democracy,” and “the constitution,” they may be. But the nuts and bolts of the ombudsman law are immaterial when it comes to its actual purpose. India's weakness has always been in enforcement, not in legislation.

Corruption is so pervasive that the ombudsman's staff would have to be as large as the bureaucracy it is intended to police in order to sort through the reams of complaints it would have to process. And there is precious little to suggest that the regulatory superstructure would be any more inclined to honesty than the bureaucrats it's charged with monitoring — other than the fantasy of officers whose reputations are “above suspicion.”

Yet there is still promise in the Annapalooza under way at New Delhi's Ramlila Ground — which is usually reserved for annual dramatizations of the Hindu epic Ramayana. With the atmosphere of a rock concert crossed with a religious revival, Hazare's movement has encouraged India's much-maligned middle class to engage with the political system — though the crowd thinned with the end of a three-day holiday weekend on Tuesday. And, however na├»ve their us-versus-them formulation — which holds “the politicians” alone responsible for the corruption that plagues the country from top to bottom — Hazare's people have established a beachhead for morality where there was none.

And that could be where the beginning of a solution is to be found.

The “corruption” evoked at Annapalooza is nebulous and generic — drawing no distinction between the bribe accepted by a policeman to overlook a traffic violation, the side payment that an official at the passport office demands before he will process your documents, and the kickback paid by a company in exchange for a government contract (or telecom license). The common citizen is held to be a helpless victim of a grinding system where everybody is on the take, and the reviled politicians are held to be responsible for every link in the chain, as though every bribe ended up in some member of parliament's pocket.

But there is a vast difference between the bribe extorted from a citizen who is only asking for something he is due, like the grain allotted to below poverty line families by the public distribution system, and the bribe paid to jump to the head of the line or to get away with disobeying the law. If you get stopped for a traffic violation, the cop will take less than half the amount you'd have to pay for the official fine. If the building inspector finds a violation, his bribe will miraculously work out to 10 percent of the cost you'd have to pay to get up to code. And if you're compelled to bribe the telecom minister to get a license, well, you can bet the bribe amounts to a lot less than the money it saves you.

Through blurring these distinctions, Hazare has brought India's normally apathetic middle class onto the streets. But he will have to make clear what's really at stake if his mass movement is to have any impact. Passing another law or creating another regulator will be useless unless Hazare — who has made Gandhi his model — can convince his followers to emulate his idol, too. Because the first step in ending corruption will mean waiting in line, following the rules, and paying the fine.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Hollyworld: India in 3D

One savvy Indian entrepreneur bets against MGM, Sony, Disney, Warner Bros ... and, well, just about everybody.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - August 11, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — A few months ago, bargain-basement Bollywood filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt released India's first 3D film, a schlocky teen horror flick called "Haunted."

Against the odds, it was a sleeper hit — but not because of stellar performances or even slick marketing. Its success was due, largely, to one Indian entrepreneur's decision to take on the biggest Hollywood studios in the business.

The Indian film industry — until recently a "single genre" business of epic song-and-dance family tearjerkers — has never been much for costly special effects. But as Hollywood's biggest guns put their muscle behind 3D and Indian producers began pushing the envelope with films like Bollywood's "Krrish" and Tamil cinema's "Robot," Sanjay Gaikwad saw the glimmer of an opportunity for a cheap, Indian-made rival to Hollywood's 3D technology..

"In Hollywood, when they create the movies their main revenue comes from North America and they look at territories like India as incidental business, so the critical mass [for 3D] was coming from somewhere else," Gaikwad said.

"But in India, the kind of response that 3D content got was phenomenal, so obviously there was a lot of interest generated among Indian movie producers."

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the number of 3D releases in India has increased steadily over the past two years. Globally, eight of the top 20 grossing films in the first eight months of 2010 were 3D, compared with only three in 2009 and one in 2008, and the consultancy believes that the trend is set to continue despite risk of weak films diluting audience interest.

Meanwhile, 3D has already emerged as the biggest driver for Gaikwad's other business — the digitalizing of cinema screens.

As CEO of Mumbai-based UFO Moviez, Gaikwad had already revolutionized India's film distribution business by convincing thousands of single-screen theater owners in the hinterland to convert to digital — creating his own, cheaper alternative to the technology being promoted by Hollywood's Digital Cinema Initiatives, a virtual cartel comprising Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 20th Century Fox, Universal Studios, The Walt Disney Company and Warner Bros.

So, when he saw James Cameron's "Avatar" fill multiplexes with audiences ready to pay a 25 percent premium for 3D, it was like deja vu.

"When we started our digital cinema business in 2005, we knew that when everything got digitized moving to 3D would be much easier than during the analog days," said Gaikwad.

"Eventually, it was proven when Hollywood studios started releasing a large number of 3D movies over the last two, two-and-a-half years. That is the time we realized 3D is here to say."

Ten years ago, Gaikwad convinced theater owners to convert to digital so they could download new releases instantaneously — filling seats by beating local pirates to the punch. But with 3D, it was a tougher sell.

Apart from a handful of multiplexes in metropolitan cities, Indian movie theaters earn 90 percent or more of their revenue from Indian films — not Hollywood blockbusters like "Avatar." After a decade of effort by DCI, the Hollywood cartel had only managed to sign up 76 theaters.

Meanwhile, until this year, no Indian had ever made a 3D film, and as long as only a handful of big city screens had the technology to show them, they weren't about to start, either.

"Unless you have that critical mass, you can't spend that additional budget for 3D content, and if you don't have any 3D content then people are not interested in investing in 3D infrastructure, so it was becoming like a chicken and egg story," said Gaikwad. "That is the time we decided to do something different."

To bridge the gap, Gaikwad's UFO Moviez spent a year-and-a-half creating its own 3D technology, which doesn't require a silver screen and costs about a third of what Hollywood's DCI 3D technology costs to install. Then, because the DCI agreement meant that he wouldn't be able to show films produced by the big seven Hollywood studios, he approached Indian cinema owners and offered to give them his 3D projectors for free, in exchange for a modest cut of the proceeds for upcoming movies — at 10-15 rupees per ticket.

"The capital cost is borne by UFO, whether it is changing the screen from the white screen to silver screen or by putting this 3D box and the additional projector," Gaikwad said. "Only when 3D movies are played do we recover our costs. That is how we started aggressively going into the market."

The bet is already paying off — at least in terms of expansion.

Currently, UFO Moviez has inked deals to install its 3D projectors in 200 Indian cinema halls, and Gaikwad says they will be up and running in 500 theaters by March 2012. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. UFO Moviez has tapped around $60 million in financing from Providence Private Equity. And with a planned investment of around $20 million, UFO is targeting 1,500 screens by the end of next year, ready to cash in on a wave of new Indian 3D content.

Ten made-in-India 3D films are reportedly slated for release this year, and according to the Bollywood rumor mill — "Haunted" made a big enough splash that the upcoming 3D films may well include the third installment of the blockbuster "Dhoom" franchise ("Dhoom 3 in 3D") and superstar Shah Rukh Khan's much anticipated superhero film "Ra.One."

The company will recoup its costs after just 10-12 Indian 3D releases. But can UFO Moviez go head to head against the DCI cartel and make money? Yes and no, says Gaikwad.

"The Hollywood Content has a [different] audience profile, whereas we still see 90 percent [revenue] from Bollywood movies and there's a large number of single screen theaters," Gaikwad said.

"Obviously, the single-screen theaters cannot afford the technology which is recommended by Hollywood studios so they are looking at the most cost effective without any compromise on quality. That is the solution which we have provided."

At the same time, though, UFO Moviez has cracked the window for Hollywood filmmakers who haven't pledged their souls to DCI to get their 3D films into more theaters across India, and the makers of movies like "Drive Angry," "Sanctum," and the "Nutcracker" have already leapt at the opportunity.

"Barring those seven studios, the other independent movies which come out of Hollywood are getting released on the UFO platform whether in 2D or 3D," Gaikwad said.

Of course, with only one film in the can, it's hard to say for sure if Gaikwad's 3D bet will pay off. He could sink or swim on the basis of a few terrible 3D movies, and Indian producers are notorious for their hit-or-flop, scattershot approach to the business. But the results from "Haunted" suggest that 3D could give an added boost to future genre-breakers in the vein of "Krrish" and "Robot."

An otherwise unimpressive film with C-list stars, "Haunted" had the biggest box office opening of any horror film to date in India, grossing around $3 million and nearly doubling its producers' investment. Meanwhile, theater owners reaped the benefits not only through packed houses but also through charging a 25-30 percent premium for tickets. Overall, 3D screen revenue was five times that of 2D screen theaters.

"Three to five years down the line, when we reach a critical mass of 1,500 to 2,000 theaters equipped with 3D, at least 5 percent of the content, or 100 films in Hindi and regional languages, will be released in 3D. At least 10 to 15 will do really serious business."

By that time, Hollywood may well have changed its tune.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Will the US lose Pakistan to China?

Analysis: Why India's biggest fear could offer salvation.

Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - August 8, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — With a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan on the horizon, India has been caught between cheering Washington's moves to rein in Pakistan's military and bewailing the possible fallout if America "loses" Pakistan to China.

Unlike the United States, which can take its guns and go home, India will have to deal with the fallout of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistani radicalism for the next decade.

A resurgent Taliban and the return of a radical Islamic regime in Kabul could create a new safe haven for anti-Indian terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba — the Pakistan-based terrorist organization responsible for the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai.

Some analysts fear that even as Islamabad works to bring the Taliban on board for a peace deal in Afghanistan, the Taliban leadership may help broker a settlement between Pakistan and various domestic terrorist groups like the Tehrik-i-Taliban, uniting the various jihadi organizations to focus on India, according to Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly.

Realistically, the United States won't cut and run in 2014, but it will reduce its presence and convert its counterinsurgency operations into "counterterrorism plus," says Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies.

The recent move to freeze $800 billion in military aid to Pakistan is probably as much a signal to Congress that the State Department knows what it's doing than an indicator of any real plans to change horses midstream.

But let's play what if.

Despite concerns about China's rising influence in the region, losing Pakistan — an unlikely, if not impossibly bold maneuver — could be the most profitable move Washington has made in the War on Terror since Sept. 11. And India could benefit even more than the United States.

The conventional wisdom in New Delhi is that China uses Pakistan as a tool to thwart India's rise as a regional power, while Beijing sees the growing strategic partnership between India and the United States as part of a broader effort to prevent China from developing interests any further afield.

But even though there is more than a little truth in those perceptions, the United States may have an opportunity to create a paradigm shift in the politics of the region with a change in the way it views Pakistan — paradoxically gaining influence by ceding power.

For 50 years, America has endeavored to create a strong, democratic ally in Pakistan by doling out billions of dollars in economic and military aid, only to watch with horror as it emerged as one of the most virulently anti-American countries in the world and a covert sponsor of terror, Lawrence Wright argued convincingly in a recent issue of the New Yorker.

Because aid flows through the military establishment and the Inter-services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), it seems, American cash has empowered a shadowy regime of spooks and soldiers at the expense of the legitimate civilian government. But that's not the only compelling case for turning off the tap now, as Islamabad attempts to extort a dominant role for Pakistan in post-war Afghanistan.

Washington could save billions of dollars a year and stick Beijing with the bill at a single stroke, even as it alleviates Chinese fears of containment or encirclement by granting it equal responsibility for guaranteeing security in its own backyard.

More importantly, granting China that responsibility would likely compel Beijing to take a leadership role in managing and reforming Pakistan, rather than stirring up trouble with the confidence that the U.S. is riding herd. It would also address a simple reality: China already exerts more influence over Pakistan than the United States.

"I don't think the Americans have done enough to reach out to China," said Fair. "I don't think they've done enough to reach out to Saudi Arabia. They have a lot more influence than we do."

Moreover, paranoid fears aside, Beijing has repeatedly shown it has no interest in pushing Pakistan over the brink. In 1999, the Chinese thwarted Gen. Pervez Musharraf by refusing to support him in the Kargil War against India, for instance. Likewise, it was Beijing (not Washington) that induced the Pakistani government to send troops in to root out Islamic militants barricaded in the Lal Masjid in 2007.

And, most recently, when Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani sought a Chinese pledge of support following Washington's decision to freeze $800 billion in military aid, Beijing maintained a studied silence.

"It is Pakistan that wants China more than China wants Pakistan," said Suba Chandran, director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Neither the United States nor India can match China when it comes to playing hardball with Pakistan's military establishment. But both strategic partners could do a great deal more to promote Pakistan's civilian institutions if they focused on trade, according to Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council.

For instance, by expanding so-called "reconstruction opportunity zones" — where manufacturers enjoy preferential tariffs for exports to the United States — America could reduce the need for humanitarian aid at the same time it strengthens its economic ties with civilian Pakistanis. Similarly, removing various roadblocks could boost trade between India and Pakistan from today's $2 billion to $42 billion a year — creating a strong, new economic impetus for peace that might well spill over into Afghanistan.

"The pressure will grow on the military establishments to tone down their rhetoric and stop talking to each other as adversaries as the two countries economies are increasingly going to be linked," Nawaz said.

Meanwhile, said Chandran, a comparable increase in Sino-Indian trade promises to make China and India economic partners in the upcoming "Asian Century."

If, that is, China and India can resolve a niggling border dispute and Washington can convince Beijing that the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership is not part of a secret plan to keep China down.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Cold Comfort

Soft adventure in Ladakh may be harder than it sounds

JASON OVERDORF
Outlook Traveler - Aug. 1, 2011

From the high ridge overlooking Khaltse, a tiny village some 100 kilometres from Leh along the road to Kargil, I stopped in the shadow of a towering boulder to gaze down on the peaceful Lamayuru monastery, set amid the sweeping, khaki-coloured rocks known as ‘the moonland’. Panting in the thin air, with sweat dripping down my back despite Ladakh’s dry climate, I let all thoughts of Delhi and deadlines drift away, listening to nothing but the sound of the wind. This is what I’m here for, I thought. Solitude. Silence. Peace. All of which are growing ever harder to find, even in the remote fastness of Ladakh.

On a last-minute, five-day blitztour, this day hike from Khaltse to Wanla was the closest I’d come to the big empty desert, and I felt my chest swell with desire for more. I’d hoped to tap the new market for so-called ‘soft adventure’ to knock the carbon monoxide out of my lungs and wipe the monsoon grease off my skin. But I’d had to scale back my plans when I landed in Leh, and the thin air reminded me that those lungs I was so keen to overhaul had aged ten years since my first visit. It would take at least two days for my body to adjust to the height, warned Milind Bhide, the 45-year-old owner of Countryside Adventure Holidays, who’d come from Mumbai to shepherd me through the trip. No matter how fit you think you are, 3,500 metres in altitude will kick your ass—even on a supposed ‘comfort trek’.

“Altitude-wise, all the treks in Ladakh are moderate to tough,” Milind told me on my first day in Leh. You don’t need to be an elite marathoner to survive a walk in the mountains, of course. But working out in the gym for 45 minutes three or four times a week was no preparation at all for four hours of hiking to 4,000 metres or more—the minimum standard set for most comfort treks. Without time to acclimatise, it would be better for me to travel by jeep. However, Milind assured me that we could still map out an itinerary that would get us off the well-worn path and incorporate a little adventure.

That was welcome news.

Since I first came here in 2002, the number of travellers visiting Ladakh has grown dramatically—from around 10,000 to some 80,000 tourists a year—and I noted the signs of the boom everywhere. Leh’s bustling market, once the sole purview of Israeli hippies and gap-year backpackers, now teemed with Indian travellers on package tours. Checklist sites like the Shey Palace and Thiksey monastery, which I first visited virtually alone ten years ago, were now surrounded by Sumos and Safaris and crawling with camera-toting tourists. Don’t get me wrong. Ladakh is still amazing. But the message is clear. Go now, before the Leh Bazaar gets any closer to the Shimla mall, and be prepared for long drives and a little sweat if you want to find your own piece of emptiness.

On our first ‘real’ day of travelling, for instance—not counting a day spent acclimatising in Leh—photographer Parth Sanyal and I woke at 5am to make the long drive up to the region’s second highest pass, on the road to Manali, before the light became too harsh for the camera. And by the time we returned—visiting the monasteries at Hemis, Stukla and Thiksey on the way back to the small village of Sabu, a few kilometres from Leh—it was nearly eight o’clock. The next day we were up at six for a day hike from Sabu to Leh and then a six-hour road journey over the world’s highest motorable pass at Khardung La and down into the Nubra Valley to see the sweeping sand dunes and two-humped Bactrian camels before sunset. And again the next morning we were up at dawn for the drive back to Khardung La, cycling down the winding road to Leh, and another five hours by jeep to the trekking hub of Temisgam.
To make sure we avoided the tourist conveyor belt, Milind had thoughtfully arranged for us to stay in quaint, tranquil surroundings each night. In Sabu, for instance, we stayed in the same cosy tents enjoyed by Aamir Khan and the prime minister’s daughter (on separate occasions!) at the lovely Ladakh Sarai. Similarly, in Nubra, we slept between a bubbling brook and a vegetable garden at the Organic Retreat, while in Temisgam we enjoyed some of the best vegetarian food I have ever eaten, at the Namra Hotel—a little Tibetan-style gem built to match the monastery on the hill above.

Meanwhile, the long journeys were as exhilarating as they were exhausting. Ladakh’s forbidding landscape is not for everyone—after four or five beers, a Slovenian friend cursed it as nothing but brown, brown, brown—but for me this is only the difference between what eighteenth-century climbers like John Dennis and Joseph Addison described as the beautiful and the sublime. The stark contrast of khaki and copper rocks jutting into the brilliant, cloudless sky sings like the call to adventure. Anything but monotonous, in a certain slant of light the rocks take on infinite patterns: the branches of a tree seeming to grow up the side of the mountain, the stretched faces of the moai statues of Easter Island, the spires of a thousand cathedrals. And there is a primal, muscular majesty—something more than the inviting beauty of a pretty meadow—in the narrow palette of slate, khaki, copper, black and gold.

Amid this bleak landscape, the tiny villages, each with its own monastery, are teardrops of green nestled in the stone. On our first long drive, we stopped at a solitary farmhouse beside the Manali-Leh highway, where mustard was flowering yellow in the fields, and watched a young Ladakhi woman working in the field with a baby strapped to her back. I am not a religious person. But with the silver-leaved poplar trees swinging in the wind, and a mountain stream tumbling down the rocks, it was easy to fantasise a life for myself here of tranquil self-reflection (however out of character).

I ordinarily have no time for cathedrals, temples and mosques. But in Ladakh I had no complaints about visiting two or three monasteries a day—from the bustling throng of Hemis, where a special prayer ceremony had drawn hundreds of locals in yak-wool robes and turquoise jewellery, to the white wedding cake of Thiksey, reminiscent of Lhasa’s Potala Palace in design. Perhaps it’s the contrast between these silent, idyllic refuges and the bleak proof of the earth’s tremendous power that surrounds them; nowhere is the upheaval from the crash of continents more plainly seen.

At no time was the evidence of this power more dramatic than on my first brief day hike from Sabu to Leh. From the small stupa overlooking the village, we followed the destructive path of the floodwaters from last year’s cloudburst into the mountains, where the torrent had carved a deep ravine, sending great boulders spinning down into Sabu, washing out a bridge and destroying the homes of several families. The flash flood had left behind a dry riverbed as flat and smooth as a highway, but even here the altitude starved my lungs of air and Parth—a two-pack-a-day smoker who prefers paranthas to press-ups—turned back before we’d even started uphill.

He didn’t know what he’d be missing. Although we were only a short distance from Leh, after a few minutes of huffing and puffing, Milind and I might as well have been hundreds of miles from the nearest plug point. As we walked, my body seemed to adjust to the altitude a little more with each step, so that when we crested the last jagged ridge and looked down on the Leh Palace and the dotted green of guesthouse kitchen gardens, I felt ready for four hours and 4,000 metres.

Sadly, that was not to be. A five-day trip to Ladakh requires tough choices, and well-rested Parth and I had many hours ahead of us.

Dropping Milind at his office in Leh, we barrelled on for Khardung La, where I put some of my newfound energy to work scrambling up the rocks above the tiny monastery for a better view of the glacier, using the prayer flags as guy-wires. And then we plunged down into the Nubra Valley, where the terrain changed abruptly from jagged, slate-coloured rock to sweeping sand dunes and blue-green seabuckthorn bushes along the Shyok river. A few miles outside Diskit, the tiny village that is the centre of activity in the valley, the river swelled to a wide, shallow lake in a broad alpine meadow. A pony herd was grazing in the wet, marshy grass, and the still, clear water reflected the snowcapped peaks in the distance like a mirror.

With the sun setting, we roared through Diskit to Hunder, where we joined the horde of Indian and foreign tourists queuing up for rides on the region’s famous Bactrian camels (now critically endangered in the wild). Though I would probably give the camel rides a pass next time, after a day in the mountains, alone on the winding road, the commonplace hilarity of tourists being tourists was unexpectedly welcome. A busload of Ladakhi kids—in the valley for a school camping trip—sat patiently on the sand, laughing when a shaggy camel pissed a steaming protest against the working conditions on an American girl’s sandals, and smiling at a Punjabi woman’s startled screams when her camel lurched see-saw fashion to its feet. Finally, when everybody else had sloped off to their guesthouses, the camel pullers announced that it was time for the school kids to ride, and the 150-bucks-for-ten-minutes tourist trap was instantly transformed by their unfiltered enthusiasm.

From that point on, the trip just kept getting better.

The next day, Milind met us at Khardung La with a pickup truckload of mountain bikes, so that we could cycle down the winding road from the pass into Leh, a trip of about forty kilometres. Parth remained steadfast in his no exercise policy, this time on professional grounds (he had to take our snaps). But Milind had been selling the ‘ride up, cycle down’ package for some time without having tried it himself and one of his friends, Kim, was in town from Manali, so he’d decided to give it a whirl.

Unlike trekking, which requires youth or fitness, no matter how easy the route, I soon discovered that the only requirement for downhill cycling is a bit of nerve. The first few kilometres down are rutted with potholes, so you have to keep an eye on your speed to avoid taking a tumble, but the only muscles you need are the ones that squeeze the handbrakes. Really. If I’d wanted to, I could have made it all the way to Leh without cranking the pedals once, but around halfway to the checkpoint at South Pullu, when the road turned to pristine blacktop, I couldn’t resist amping it up a bit. In no time, I was clocking sixty kilometres an hour, my full concentration focused on squeezing those brakes in time to lean into the next hairpin. I don’t think you could find a speed freak anywhere who’d object to this sort of soft adventure.

The highlight of the journey, though, was still to come. After forging on toward Kargil, past where the Indus meets the Zanskar river, we spent the night in the lovely, remote town of Temisgam and set off for Lamayuru at first light. Though we didn’t have to sweat to get there, this area was devoid of tourists, apart from a handful of foreigners making the five-day trek from Khaltse to Chilling, because all the Indian groups follow the Three Idiots route to Pangong lake, in the opposite direction. We wound up the jalebi road to Lamayuru without seeing a soul. In the distance, the monastery looked like a vision set amid a fantasy landscape—waves of white sand that look like cake frosting turned with a knife. No one else was visiting the monastery, either, and only when Milind and I took our first rest break on our short hike from Khaltse to Wanla did we run across any other tourists: a father and son from Britain trekking behind two heavily laden donkeys.

It wasn’t exactly an expedition, I reflected as I looked down on the moonland below. But unlike most adventures—chiefly enjoyed in retrospect, according to the ever so wise Bilbo Baggins—I found myself wishing it could go on just one more day.