Rebecca writes from India & Europe

July 30, 2011  |  Comments Off on Rebecca writes from India & Europe  |  by ross  |  Scholars

I’m writing from Delhi where it’s my last day in India (30th June). It’s hard to believe that this part of my trip is almost over – when I started, a month in Japan, and two each in China and India seemed like an eternity. I still remember about two weeks into Japan, where I didn’t quite think I would be able to get there.
Since I wrote last it’s been quite an adventure.

I initially stayed with others from the NGO in a beautiful house in the old town. To get to the house I would walk up the main bazaar to a mosque, turning up into an alley that meandered up the hill to the castle. The alley marked the start of the old town so was lined in either side by traditional Ladakhi houses. The first 50m was shops – a butchers, where if I was lucky, on my morning walks I would confronted by decapitated cow heads poking out of the bins on the street. I would also walk past my milkman, who would make yogurt and cheese daily after he got his milk in the morning, and various cloth makers/dyers and then my tailor. The tailor was quite popular as my clothes had started to wear out a little by this point…

Past the shops was a tap – there are only a few taps in the old town although we were very lucky to have one in our basement. The water runs for a few hours during the day when everyone fills up their buckets and bottles and carries them back home. After the tap, I walk a little further up the hill and come to a stupa, which neighbor’s our house. Walking around the corner to our house, I would pass another neighbor’s cow pen, and generally a few stray cows before making it to the door.

The first level of the house is rarely used by Ladakhi families. It was traditionally used for housing animals in the winter, and I believe for growing food, although I could never figure out how this worked. It also has rooms for waste as Ladakhi people use a composting toilet which is emptied only once a year. The second and third levels are generally a winter and summer level (with a kitchen in each). The lower has few windows and is very internalised so keeps warmer in winter, whilst the upper has many more windows, and often a sunroom or a courtyard. Roke Bano – the house I was staying in, basically followed this pattern, although we used the winter kitchen and kept the summer kitchen as a bedroom (where I stayed for some of my time). My favorite part about the house was the roof; we were just high enough that after climbing up there I could sit and look out over the roofs of the other houses to the Stok range in the Background.

I didn’t stay in the house in Leh although its beauty kept me there for the 2 ½ weeks. There was an issue with a cat, and the cat started vomiting, and food cloths were used for cleaning involving the cat, and I became a little too worried about what would become of my health!  I then moved to a guest house in Sankar which was a gorgeous little semi-rural area up the Valley from the Leh city centre. To get up here I would walk up behind the mosque, and through the bakers’ area where you could get fresh chapati and tea bread. Then up a little bit further to the rural areas, where a paved path walled with mud bricks on both sides, followed one of the many water channels up the hill. I would turn when I got a to a prayer wheel, and wander a little bit further before entering the gate to the house. The fields here were small and terraced as they flowed down the hill and would surround each house – with the entire property bordered by these brick walls. Far from being overbearing, the paths created by these walls would widen and narrow, tended to include the water stream, and often passed patches of trees. They were also quite short before they might break into a road or a less secluded house. The water channels themselves were ingenious – there’s no plumbing, and in the rural areas the water channels criss-cross fields and run by the houses. There’s a main channel that always flows, and each family may have many of their own which run from it, which they either block with material and stones, or release when needed. The family we stayed with in Stok had one running past the house that flowed into a small pipe at one point, which allowed them to do their washing in the creek.

The second project I worked on was measuring up another house, this time in the old town. There’s an old lady who lives just up the path from us and tends to sit outside her house in the afternoons in the sun. She lives by herself, and has become very worried about the cracks in her walls and the way her floor slopes, so working with Arian we measured up her house, recorded the damage, drew everything up and came up with a plan to fix the damage.

I’ll try and be a little briefer in describing between then and now. I should probably add that this second part is written from London, about two weeks after the first. (14th July)

I had a couple of days left in the region before my bus was booked to Manali (the main road route out of Ladakh). There are some beautiful lakes in the region, and so I went overnight to visit Pangong Lake, which is on the border with China. I stayed in a semi homestay-style, with the most interesting part being the tent that the owners used. I think many of the people of that region lead semi-nomadic lives, and have the most incredible ability to made a circular almost teepee style tent seem homely.

Leaving Ladakh I had the most stunningly beautiful and terrifyingly horrible bus trip of my life. Between three landslides and a crazy driver careening around mountainside corners in the dark, I have never been more grateful to get off a form of transport in my life. However being in the desolate landscape of 3500m, it was the most beautiful thing to slowly find ourselves back in grass, trees and waterfalls and forest. After 22 hours we finally arrived in Manali, which my transit point and few days to recoup before moving on to Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh.
I had a couple of days In Chandigarh, finding it both a beautiful and bizarre place. One of the most bizarre Indian experiences I have had was going through the confused and overly bureaucratic process of getting into the secretariat, only for the rooftop army men to offer me their machine guns to pose for photos. The city itself was interesting to explore although I haven’t quite been able to form an opinion. I never felt entirely at ease wandering around Indian cities (Ladakh was an exception) and this was the same in Chandigarh. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to think about why – maybe the lack of women walking around, the strong class distinctions, the rubbish, the way you feel very much like an outsider. I was sure it has something to do with the built environment too, but how I don’t know.

From Chandigarh I went through Delhi to Neemrana which is a small village with a beautiful fort-palace you can stay at. This was my end to India and it was simply amazing. The Palace was beautiful, a bit labyrinthine such that I never understood how the building worked as a whole.  The highlight of Neemrana was the jeweler down the road – he hijacked us on our way in and took us around the town, and to the stepwell on the outskirts of town. I hadn’t heard of India’s stepwells before researching India for my travels. They are numerous in Rajasthan and the one in Neemrana is like an inverted arcaded building that descends in nine narrowing levels into the ground until one reaches the well at the bottom. The top level is one room deep, and was used by traders for accommodation as they travelled through the area.

Now it just sits unassumingly in ruins, in a beautiful contrast to the immaculately restored forts and palaces I more often came across.

The jeweler then said we could come to his place for dinner, and I finally found myself in an Indian house (that wasn’t a friend’s apartment). His house followed the principles that Maldev had told me – very little heavy furniture, and no such thing as a bedroom. There was a bed, which differing members of the family would sleep on at any given night, otherwise there were two couches. The house had 6 rooms set around a central “lounge room” – a kitchen, bathroom, and the room with the bed. The remaining three rooms of the house were used as shop fronts and a prayer room. Privacy just wasn’t a concept, or the idea that any member of the family needed their own individual space.  Dinner was lovely as well, and we got to sit and look through all their wedding photos, complete with horses and headdress.

From Neemrana I travelled back to Delhi, and flew into London. I’ve been a little bit quiet here and am having a much needed rest and reflect. I did go to Oxford where I met a very kind man called Mike, who works for Kevin McCloud’s Hab Oakus. I was doing a little research a while ago when I came across their work, which is along the lines of what I would love to find myself doing. Mike took an hour to sit with me on the way to a meeting, chatting to me about who Hab Oakus is, what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. They’ve just finished the first project in the last few days, meaning its testing time for them, and a very interesting time for me to be able to learn about them!  (

To finish this email, I´m writing from Innsbruck and it’s about 2 weeks later from when I just wrote (28/07). I don´t have too much time with the computer, so I’ll be a little more brief!

After leaving London I flew from Manchester to Zurich, to begin the hunt for Peter Zumthor´s buildings. What I had planned to be a slow meander through Graubünden was very much hastened by the welcome appearance of a friend who also wanted to see these buildings, but on a much tighter timeframe. We travelled to mountainous Chur, where we visited all of his buildings in the region, including the Therme Vals which was incredible to see in real life and left me utterly in love (and very relaxed). I then travelled by myself to Dornbirn, to see the Zumtobel Lichforum, and was spoilt by being put up in a luxurious hotel for the night. I was given an AMAZING tour of the light forum (I had absolutely no idea how technical and advanced lighting is, nor how much they can mess with it and perception!) after which my guide helped me with some buildings to see in the area and gave me a gift of a book on the Kunsthaus Bregenz, and also the architecture in the area.

I went on to Lindau for a couple of days which is on Lake Constance and about 8km into Germany. It´s right near Bregenz where I wanted to visit Zumthor`s Kunsthaus Bregenz. This was a building I spent a lot of time looking at last year and was absolutely fascinated to see in real life. It’s undeniably beautiful, and was a great way to finish off my time looking at Zumthor’s work. I have absolutely no idea how to piece together my thoughts on his work – the buildings are simply amazing in their materiality, but very austere in terms of their relation to public space and there was something I found a little disconcerting about being near some of them. I’m going to think about this a little more and try and piece together my thoughts before I say any more.

I have finally decided what to do with my extra time I allowed in Europe! Tomorrow I get a train down to Venice, after which I plan to spend three weeks in Italy, followed by two in Spain before I fly back home on the 8th of September!

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