Kashmir and Leh

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June 13th 2010
Published: June 13th 2010
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In order to get to Srinagar, one must first go to Jammu, a place that had not received flattering reviews from those I’d spoken to who had been. We jumped on the local bus at Dharamsala, for what should have been a 5 hour bus journey, but as is so often the case in these matters it turned out to be more like 8 hours, after the bus scraped a car that some fool had parked right in the middle of the street and we took an off-road diversion through a dusty quarry. So a little later than expected we arrived in Jammu, hot and eager to get on. The bus station in Jammu is not a nice place; there’s no pavement and its basically a main road, furthermore, the gutters are piled high with rotting waste, which stinks. A helpful tout pointed in the direction of his bus to Srinagar (the only one, he assured us) and we booked our seats for the 12 hour journey for R400 which was very reasonable. At some stage in the morning the bus passed through a large tunnel in the mountains and we had a brief panoramic view of the Kashmir Valley in all its glory at sunrise, beautiful! It was still a good few hours to Srinagar from here, but the military presence from this point was immense, pillboxes containing heavy machine gunners on the entrance to every settlement, army barracks at regular intervals, and a large number of soldiers heavily armed on patrols at the side of the road, some with metal detectors presumably scanning for bombs.

Rather unexpectedly and unhelpfully, the bus dropped us off at some random place 13km from Srinagar, and we were immediately surrounded by touts offering this that and the other, and every single one of them offering ‘good price’. If I could have a fiver for every time someone has offered me ‘good price’ I’d be a rich man indeed. That said we did need to find somewhere to stay so we headed off with an enthusiastic dude to check out his houseboat. Upon arriving at the water we jumped on a Shikara and we were peacefully paddled along Lake Dal to the boat. Srinagar and Lake Dal are amazing, there was perfect blue sky and snow capped mountains in the distance. Initially we arrived at what can only be described as a floating palace, a covered with ornate wooden carvings and the sort of beautifully carved furniture normally seen in stately homes. After a good chat with the friendly owner we talked about budgets (after an excellent breakfast of Kashmiri bread and large quantities of Kashmiri tea). Eventually we moved to a slightly less palatial vessel, but very nice all the same and took some rest. For the next day and a half we lived very comfortably, and the home cooked food we were given was incredibly tasty, perhaps the best food I’ve had in all of India. Sitting on the terrace by the water, with the mountains in the background relaxing with tea was amazing and exactly what was needed after a long journey. A friend had described the place to me as being like having died and gone to heaven, and I can certainly see what he was getting at, its paradise. Also, to make things even better there’s a boat selling beer and other essentials that comes by every so often.

The next day was much busier as the day after we were planning to go to Leh, and there’s much to be seen in Srinagar. Our man on the boat sorted us out with a driver to take us to all the main sights, which for us was perfect as we were very limited on time, though its not so easy to go off on your own, and some people do feel a little babysat when they come to Kashmir. Srinagar is very different from all the other towns I’ve visited in India, one thing that is particularly nice is that there isn’t rubbish and shit all over the street and it doesn’t smell. Also the old town has some amazing carved wooden buildings. We were taken to some really spectacular mosques built in the 1300s, and also visited some beautiful old gardens. Our driver turned out to be abit of a legend, as he dealt with all the people trying to sell us stuff we didn’t want and introduced us to some really nice food.

Very early (5am) the next morning we had to get up to take the long drive to Leh, its almost 500km though some very high mountains as you have to cross the Great Himalaya Range to get to the world’s highest desert in Ladakh. Sadly, we’d not managed to get bus reservations so we had to take a shared jeep the departed at 6 am, we had a very nice breakfast on the shikara on the lake on the way to the bus stop and then jumped in the jeep and sped off towards the mountains. Our driver was careful but fast and assured us we’d be there by 8 in the evening, which we didn’t really believe at the time, but turned out to be about right (later on I heard of people that had been stuck in the jeep for 30 hours!). We gradually climbed up into the mountains, and soon we were surrounded by snow and glaciers as the bumpy road wound its way into the mighty mountains. At one point at the steepest part of the pass two busses tried to inch past each other on a bend with a sheer drop down the mountain on one side. It was at this point that I decided the extra money spent on a jeep had been well worth it! This caused a rather large traffic jam, and a stout officer with a big gun (he also looked abit like Fidel Castro) plodded off to sort it out and within 10 minutes we were off on our way again. On the way the side of the road is decorated with some mildly amusing signs persuading drivers to be more careful, some of my favourites included; ‘Don’t be silly on the hilly,’ ‘Better to be Mr Late than late Mr,’ and ‘After whisky life is more risky.’ Once we climbed high on the road we had to go through a glacier, it was spectacular as the road was cut through solid ice, and as we drove through the bumpy road there was a 10 metre wall of ice and snow on each side, and the grin on the driver following us stretched from one ear to the other. Next we passed through a miserable looking place called Dras which claims to be the second coldest inhabited place in the world, after a temperature of minus 60 was recorded there some years ago. Quite why anyone in their right mind would want to live there is beyond me. Next up was the half way point, a town called Kargil which is very close to the line of control with Pakistan, and the site of the 1999 altercation between India and Pakistan. Eventually we managed to convince our unrelenting driver to stop for some food, at an ancient Buddhist establishment, where I sadly saw the worst toilet I have seen on the trip, terrible. By this point the highest mountains were behind us and we were in a Desert, the land is so barren but at the same time dramatic and spectacular, some of the rock formations are so colourful, with purples, blues and greens, as well as the usual shades of brown and grey.

Eventually, we arrived in Leh, tired and sore after all the bumps, it was also very cold. The next morning it also snowed. Leh is at an altitude of 3500m and when I first arrived I felt really light headed, being at such altitudes is very much like being incredibly unfit, even a small walk up a small hill is an effort. The first few days we took it easy so as not to get the dreaded AMS. The I was ill for the first time in India after a dodgy chicken curry. Leh is a great place, there’s not the constant hassle of many Indian towns and there are more chilled out Buddhists about. One day we headed up to Leh Palace which is a smaller replica of the great palace in Lhasa. The views from the palace are amazing as on one side of the valley there is a spectacular mountain range, the highest peak on it is 6200 (Mont Blanc is about 4500m, and Ben Nevis is a pathetic 1344m), and at the bottom of the valley the great Indus river makes its way towards Pakistan.

The plan from Leh was to return to Manali, spend a few days there before heading off to Nepal. However, this would be dependent on the Rohtang Pass opening, which I’d hoped would be open by this point. It wasn’t. So a few more days were spent in Leh taking it easy and waiting for the road. One day we took a taxi to some of the Buddhist monasteries in the valley, some of which were beautiful. Eventually, I resigned myself to the fact that if I was to make it to Kathmandu in time to meet Arthur I’d have to go back via Srinagar.

So the epic journey to Kathmandu began. At 14:30 I jumped on a jeep which set off the Srinagar, this time it took 18 hours and after not much sleep we arrived in Srinagar at 9 am. We immediately took the 9:30 local bus to Jammu, which arrived at 21:00. I then got on the 21:30 night bus and by 14:00 the next day I was in Delhi, very tired. After a nights rest in Delhi and a trip to the Red Fort and India’s biggest mosque I jumped on the night train to Varanasi. In Varanasi it was very hot, but I managed to find a good guest house with an excellent roof terrace where I bumped into some friends I’d met in Mumbai a month earlier which was a bonus. We had a look round town, where we saw a snake charmer! That evening went on a boat trip on the Ganges so see the spectacular Ghats (most built by various Marharajas). The next morning, I took the local bus at 9am to the border, said goodbye to India and walked into Nepal where it was too late to go any further so I stayed there. I was up at 06:30 the next morning to take the local bus to Kathmandu (by this point I was feeling pretty ill after a dodgy Thali in Varanasi). I arrived in Kathmandu, six days after having left Leh very tired and feeling quite ill. Bye for now.


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