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Published: June 22nd 2013
To escape from Siliguri required Tatkal (last minute, held-in-check) train tickets that can only be purchased the day before departure. These always go on sale at 10 a.m., although the wise (desperate) start queuing well before 7 a.m. We arrived at a little after six and were still not the first in line. At around 8.30 a.m. officials began compiling lists for order-of-service at each of the three receiving windows; however, they refused to add our name to a list and Ali was not best pleased. We were told something about foreign tourists to which we retorted that the tourist quotas were already full, we’d been informed of this the day before. We needed Tatkal. No, sit with the security guards sir and speak to the superintendent at 10 a.m. We were unconvinced. But, bless them, they were true to their word and even prior to the Tatkal floodgates opening we’d been led upstairs, berths on a Delhi-bound train found and tickets issued. Once again, as foreign tourists, we’d received preferential treatment; it just seems to always be preceded by nail-biting.
The train journey, a hefty fifteen hours or so, was a sweaty test of endurance; it is now seriously
hot in the plains, comfortably over 40C. Sleeper class was mobbed with bodies laid out across every foot of floor space during the night. I’m sure in the old days the transport police and their lathis would have stood for none of this nonsense. At least Delhi’s new Metro was still running on our delayed arrival at 9 p.m. Cheap and efficient, it must be hitting both taxis and rickshaw drivers hard. Paharganj, the backpackers’ ghetto, has changed. We’d read that they’d indiscriminately ripped down guesthouse/restaurant frontages along Main Bazaar to widen the road in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. They had indeed, leaving the once atmospheric narrow street somewhat broader but with one side bordered by ravaged, leprous buildings and the bazaar feel totally lost. If only they’d not wasted their time (few sports fans would have stayed here anyway) and had concentrated their efforts on ensuring the stadia were ready to host events then it might not have been such an embarrassing debacle.
Say what you like about Delhi it is still home to some wonderful cheap eateries and a totally unremarkable-looking roadside joint provided us with a subtly spicy and aromatic chicken curry, sensuously creamy
dhal fry and perfect tandoori rotis at almost midnight.
Local buses to Haridwar, the gateway to Uttarakhand, no longer leave from Kashmiri Gate (we found this out on arrival… surely we’d rather take a luxury tourist bus that still do), they now depart from Anand Vihar (if you have to make the switch between the two bus stations take the Metro rather than a bus as the traffic is hell).
En-route Ali found herself sitting next to an Indian lady who lived in an Ashram on Haridwar’s outskirts. She invited us to visit and outlined a typical day that we could enjoy (endure): 5 a.m., an hours meditation; 6 a.m., two hours of yoga; 8 a.m., breakfast followed by two hours of self-study; lunch at midday; 1p.m., an hours meditation; 2-4 p.m., yoga; 5 p.m., dinner; 6-8 p.m., chanting; 8 p.m., bed. She regarded Ali blankly when asked what time the bar opened – maybe our invitation was rescinded. Five hours later we were amidst the (dry, vegetarian) religious fervor on the banks of the Ganga (River Ganges), site of the yearly Magh Mela
, but constantly busy during yatra
(pilgrimage season: May-October) when each dusk sees Ganga aarti
– the floating of religious offerings (candle-lit banana leaf boats bearing flower petals) from the bathing ghats. The mass reverential launching of the offerings was atmospheric and moving to see, particularly from those individuals who included photographs of deceased family members in their prayer boats. On arrival at the ghats you will be asked to make a donation. To what you are donating is unclear, but as a foreigner it is certainly required. Indeed every five minutes an overly officious official will approach you to ensure that you have ‘donated’. After half-a-dozen or so not particularly polite approaches I took to carrying our receipt in my hand and merely waving it at them as they swooped.
From Haridwar we headed onwards to Rishikesh, once famous for the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Beatle devotees, but now renowned as much for its charas and Israeli clientele as its ashrams.
I have to say that Rishikesh was totally forgettable: a larger, more-touristy (even more Indians than Israelis), traffic-clogged, horn-blowing, version of Omkarishwar, without the charm or views. The local food was extremely limited in variety and, unusual for an all-vegetarian destination, of poor quality; Ali started with the
shits, our first in seven months in India. Even the Ganga was hardly sacred with a constant stream of inflatables filled with screeching white-water-rafters floating on by. On the up-side we found and stayed at an amazing guesthouse, Ankit
(Lakshman Jhula area, on the left-hand-side near the top of the descent towards the bridge). It only has two or three rooms above the unassuming family’s house, that are huge, airy and immaculate, with marble floors and wrap-around windows, soft double beds with fluffy pillows, massive cool and shaded (essential as this time of year) balconies with comfy seating, not to mention unlimited (unnecessary) hot water, all for 350rps (or less, we didn’t have the heart to bargain). Maybe the best value-for-money Indian guesthouse of the 80 or so we’ve stayed in on this trip.
In keeping with our alcohol-free (ok, not quite, we had brought several bottles of rum with us), vegetable-fuelled, supposedly healthy states I bought some mangos (currently in season and truly golden nectar). As we re-crossed the narrow suspension bridge back to our side of the river, and in full view of several hundred amused Indian tourists, I was mugged by an unlikely pairing of dacoits.
Hanuman approached at speed from the rear, ripped my bag of mangos and snatched one. As I spun to see what on earth was happening his partner in crime, Boonshee, nudged me aside with her head and rapidly gulped down the remaining fruit. I was gob-smacked, in five seconds I’d been fleeced by a monkey and a cow.
Ali’s guts were still dicey and prudence necessitated several Lomotil before we set off on the 15 hour bus journey to Dharamsala (20 rps back into Rishikesh town, 32 rps to Haridwar an hour away and 460 rps on a local bus; or, 1000 rps direct from Rishikesh by tourist bus: a no-brainer, saving us almost a 1000 rps for two). Admittedly the local bus could have been a rough overnight ride, but luck was on our side and we picked up the prime seats behind the driver that enabled Ali to actually lie down for much of the way.
Not so fortuitously we arrived in Dharamsala at 3.15 a.m. (why does transport only arrive early when it is pre-dawn?). Prior to bedding down on a bench we were approached by a most excitable dog: lots of tail-wagging and leg-nuzzling.
Foolishly I stroked the apparently friendly beast, making it positively delirious with joy (?): rolling over exposing its belly, jumping up and mouthing my arms and legs. Before I could extricate myself I noticed various blemishes on my skin and a couple of semi-scratches. Had it broken the skin? Ali was immediately considering rabies jabs. Feeling rather foolish I was a tadge concerned myself, but was pretty sure that no saliva had made its way into my body. I did, however, make a mental note to see if the hound was still alive on our departure (not that I could do much about it then if it wasn’t).
At 8 a.m., after a rather good nap, the first bus up to McLeod Ganj finally departed, climbing up through pine forest to the hilltop sprawl that is also home to the Dalai Lama’s official residence, the Tsuglagkhang complex (pleasant temples with monks doing what they do; he wasn’t currently at home). McLeod Ganj has all the usual western hangout establishments, but with a strong, gentle, Tibetan influence (not surprisingly) and it was immediately preferable to Rishikesh. Om Guesthouse
, the cheapest listed in LP
, was full, it also presented a rather
cold welcome and had signs stating “Strictly no alcohol permitted on the premises”. We found a cheapie catering to Indian tourists (The Himalayan Paradise Hotel
– a wondrous misnomer) that had the benefits of being the sole room (more a suite really) on the top floor, with a balcony overlooking the valley from on-high (and white peaks behind the hills beyond) as well as a couple of old over-stuffed armchairs that could be brought out to enjoy the view. On the downside we did have to insist on new bedding (that already present had obviously been in residence for some time) and Ali spent thirty minutes cleaning the room/bathroom before she was happy with it; whilst water, any water, was touch-and-go (according to the ‘management’ the reason few people stay). There was also a reason as to why ours was the only room on the top floor – it being spliced into a giant snooker/pool hall (oh, the constant temptation) whose errant cue balls could occasionally be heard ricocheting across the marble floor. Our balcony (wow, this is sounding less and less appealing) also had a heavy duty wire grill sealing it to the roof above. Initially we thought this
was due to the abundance of extremely bold eagles that would literally skim passed us and, we presumed, have found a plate of take-away pakora too tempting to refuse. Instead, so we were told, the grill was to prevent the ‘bad-boys’ who played with cues from climbing across and ransacking our room… We did, however, have a pair of eagles nesting atop a pine tree literally in front of us.
Again the big negative to McLeod Ganj was the dearth of good local food. Yes, there were several great shacks for snacks and chai, but tasty Indian cuisine was hard to find. The place recommended to us - I won’t even name it – was both expensive and poor in the extreme. Here they advertised cooking lessons (including dozas) and we were very tempted until we ate there – indeed I considered offering some culinary advice myself as I cook better Indian than they.
Across from McLeod Ganj sits Bhagsu that is busier and less tasteful than the former; set slightly higher is Dharamkot that is more peaceful, scenic and tranquil. The latter is the
in-vogue hangout. Here signs are predominantly in Hebrew and western/Israeli eateries are all
that are available. It is also three kilometres back to the nearest wine shop necessitating warm beers (if you carry them up) or restaurant prices if you don’t. Buying several bottles of the reasonably priced and palatable plum wine from below might be the ideal compromise for lushes.
About ten kilometres away is a glacier that Matt had recommended going to see, but we were solely in relax mode and across six days all we did was peruse the local back streets, read, sup some plum wine and chill. Oh, and, totally bizarrely, we did – on the back of Terzani’s excellent climax to “A Fortune Teller Told Me”- consider engaging in some meditation (the yearning was fleeting, but still lingers in the background).
To reach Kashmir’s capital Srinagar you must first take a bus to Jammu (the twin capital of Kashmir and Jammu State). To our surprise there were other westerners on board: Ester, a confident young girl from the Netherlands and an English/Spanish couple who, although Caucasian, are practicing Sikhs. We all decided to continue straight on to Srinagar and killed the five hours wait before the departure of the night bus in a bar; well,
Ali, me and Ester did. It materialized that the bus was a sleeper although we’d all plumped for the cheaper reclining seats. Nevertheless, it was extremely comfortable. On the outskirts of Srinagar the bus was stopped by police and refused permission to proceed further – apparently there was some sort of protest occurring in town. Fortunately, local buses were allowed onwards and we were soon greeted by the touts at Dal Gate, the foot of the lake.
Along the western margins of Dal Gate are a mass of guesthouses linked by rickety planked walkways over the water. Many are both poor and expensive. John’s Friend Guesthouse
(500 rps w/b, 400 rps wo/b, excellent dorm at less than 200 rps: all high season prices) is a notable exception: spotless, airy rooms on the ground floor of the new veranda-ed building (the top floor can’t be completed until the bribes for development have been officially accepted) lead to the enclosed garden, whose array of fruit trees and climbing roses are lovingly tended by the delightful old father of the Muslim family owners. In the eyes of the middle brother, his father is the gateway to heaven whilst his mother is heaven
itself. This rather sweet view is one of his less eccentric as he was to regale us with tales of wicked genies (spirits) that lurk everywhere in these parts (and seem particularly fond of possessing Australian women visitors) as well as some more worrying conspiracy theories relating to America, Israel and Islam. His older brother Johnna, who runs the guesthouse, is far more down to earth and unless you are a susceptible Aussie female your stay is guaranteed to be a pleasure.
One huge plus to staying here is the availability of small punt-like shakiras (boats) that can be taken out on your own (30 rps/hr) to explore the maze of canals and backwaters to the west of the main body of the lake. From the shallow dock fronting the guesthouse you paddle along tortuous narrow waterways, ducking under walkways and low bridges as you weave between waterside houses and shacks to emerge on the broader canals that are lined with wondrous tottering top-heavy, Tudor-like, wooden residences. Sparkling side channels enveloped within overhanging trees may lead to silent lotus-clogged mill ponds dive-bombed by turquoise kingfishers, dead-ends (where residents will insist you join them for a cup of tea –
and maybe show you their loom/pashmina stock - before they direct you onwards) or open into one of the main bodies of the majestic Raj houseboat-lined lakes. In the backwaters are the shikiras of local traders, whilst on the main lakes grand canopied shakiras ferry tourists to-and-from their house boats or merely take them on pleasure cruises. Under old stone bridges hawks roost and men of all ages fish from any vantage point with simple poles and bobbers. On a clear day, from Nagin Lake, you may also be blessed with the distant white peaks reflected in its still waters. Bisecting the lake is a dyke that leads from the eastern shore to the fertile, marshy, floating gardens and their villages before finally emerging on the west bank at Hasanabad and Srinagar’s old city. On this walk we witnessed a man stringing-up, slaughtering and then skinning a goat, although we didn’t receive a dinner invitation.
Many say that Kashmir (namely Srinagar) is tout hell, we’d disagree. There are many salesmen and touts, but they are easily placated and tranquility is never far away. After two days at Jonna’s we were told that we’d have to vacate our room –
it had been pre-booked by Indian tourists. It materialized that they paid 2200 rps (more than four times what we were charged) and were happy to do so.
Obtaining traditional Kashmiri food in Kashmir is no easy (cheap) matter, most restaurants, bizarrely, being Punjabi dhabas. Nevertheless, with the aid of Simon’s (Italian, but Kashmiri resident for nigh on five years) and Jonna’s recommendations we ate wonderful lamb kebabs at Kyam Chowk and splurged on such Wazwan delicacies as Mutton Yakhni (hunks of mutton in a rich, slightly sour, yoghurt-based sauce) and Mutton Rosta (delicate meatballs in a thick tomato sauce) at the Mughal Darba
restaurant. In addition, our bemoaning of the lack of authentic Kashmiri restaurants resulted in Jonna, very kindly, preparing a meal for us himself.
One day Simon informed us of a sufi concert being held in a graveyard. Intrigued, we ventured along later that afternoon. Abutting the sprawling graveyard were several houses and we were immediately ushered into one and up and out onto a balcony-like ledge overlooking the festivities. We were then plied with cups of salt milk-tea – an acquired taste. Below, sat on mats, the current performer was singing and playing the
harmonium, percussion accompaniment provided by a man tapping on the sides of a metal water jug with his ringed fingers. Huddled around them were a throng of men and boys. Other viewers watched perched atop gravestones or sprawled on the surrounding grassy slopes. Meanwhile, the women hurried about preparing food. Also in attendance were a number of hijra (transvestites) who appeared to be charged with ensuring audience participation. Various men were literally hauled up by the cross-dressers and forced to dance. Somewhat later we were sitting among the crowd when one particularly persistent hijra decided it was time for the westerners to demonstrate some moves. Ali was adamant that she was not going to oblige and so attention moved to me. This lady-man displayed not inconsiderable strength and in a few seconds had dragged me forwards as the assembled crowd hooted and cheered – there was no way I was going to avoid the inevitable. Previous dancers had employed a curious combination of hip shimmies with Egyptian-like hand gesticulations; into this mix I added some rapid foot movements, some trance air-drawing and a few leaping twirls – which, it has to be said, was rather well received. My first and
last performance at what was not actually a sufi music festival but a circumcision party. Really, we had gatecrashed a foreskin-removal celebration.
Srinagar to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, takes two days by local bus, with an overnight stop mid-way at Kargil. It is a journey of breath-taking beauty, amazingly outdone – apparently – by our forthcoming passage from Leh down to Manali. The bus wasn’t up to much, of which more later. The route begins by passing through alpine-like valleys, with neck-craningly steep green hillsides shielding white peaks behind. Further east the lush vertigous foreground is replaced with surreal rounded rock formations that resemble colossal, rotund, russet beasts partially submerged within the earth, their ravines great creases and wrinkles in the hairless hides. Juxtaposed beyond lie jagged, ochre, maw-like mountains their faces scaled with rows of shark’s teeth and further still, steaming in the late afternoon sunlight, are wind-blown peaks of monstrous frost fangs, dazzling like cathedral-sized shards of glass.
Ascending to the 3529m Zoji La (pass) tarmac gives way to a crumbling earth and gravel road etched into the mountain side. We were apparently the only bus among the sturdy trucks, Jeeps and, most numerous of
all, Indian Oil tankers that all bear kerosene. The latter snake up the remorseless zig-zagging tiers like a stream of white termites. However, this steady trundle was abruptly halted and a four hour wait ensued as the army bulldozers set about clearing a landslide up ahead. Finally mobile again we passed through the village of Drass whose claim to fame is being the second coldest place on earth – it once recorded a temperature of -60C. At 11 p.m. we entered Kargil and the bus’s occupants scurried off to find a guesthouse for the night. Ali and I stayed aboard with the driver and spread out over the vacated seats for a cozy night’s sleep. I say a night’s sleep; at 3 a.m. the driver was up brewing tea and playing the muezzin’s call to prayer over the bus’s stereo system. By six the bus was once again full with everyone sat bolt upright, their legs jammed against the non-reclinable seat in front and off we set. If anything the scenery became even more spectacular as we entered into the Buddhist province of Ladakh: the low, near mountains bearing a pastel pallate of undulating strata, crested with stegosaurus-plated ridges, whilst
the white peaks behind crowded ever closer.
Leh sits in a partially green, poplar- and apricot-planted, bowl surrounded by sandy hills, military outposts and white summits. A Lhasa-style monastery clings to the hillside overlooking old town. Here Buddhism is the dominant religion and giant ornate prayer wheels and crumbling white gompas are dotted throughout town. On arrival there were few tourists in evidence, although this would change rapidly over the coming days as the first buses were able to penetrate the snow-choked passes and make the journey up from Manali. To the northwest of town the Changspa Road area is mass of guesthouses, western-orientated restaurants and Tibetan handicraft emporia. However, the old town contains a maze of alleyways with Tibetan momo and noodle eateries, a wonderful street occupied by ancient old bakeries whose tandoors churn out rounds of Tibetan bread (4 rps a pop) and nearby, in the evening, kebab stalls set-up. Up by our guesthouse (Namgyal
: cheap, clean and friendly – spotless shared loos with hot water mandi) on the peaceful eastern fringe of town is a polo ground that also hosts concerts. It is an easy place to lounge for a few days. The greeting Julley is
ubiquitous and is used equally for thank you, hello and goodbye; it is automatic yet heartfelt and always warmly received. With it, Ladakh ranks alongside Nepal (namaste) and Laos (sabai dee) for its universal welcome.
We finally met up again with Avi who also had two young Dutch girls in tow and several evenings were spent in bemused amazement at his luck/skill in Yaniv. We all headed off for an overnight visit to mountain-fringed and surreally blue Pangong Lake whose beauty just about justified the fairly arduous eight hour bus journey there (you also require an in-line permit due to its proximity to the Tibetan border that, with conservation fees and agent commission , works out at almost 500 rps). Cheaper day excursions abound to nearby towns with impressive monasteries of their own (e.g. Thisky), whilst we attended a colourful, if tourist infested, mask festival at Hemis’s.
Avi, a new Indian/Canadian chum “H”, Dutch Emma and ourselves attempted an unescorted two day/night trek from Zingchen to Stok, crossing the 4920m Ganda La. We reached our first overnight stop at Rumbak, a charming farming village amidst the mountains, that sports
several homestays – not overly cheap, but an authentic insight into harsh Ladakh rural living. Rumbak is also within a snow leopard conservancy, although sightings are only common in the winter (October-February) when you’d have to fly into Leh (all roads in/out closed) and snow hike from there. Immediately upon arrival the clouds closed in and a constant drizzle ensued. The surrounding peaks could no longer be seen and a guideless ascent over the pass the next day was inadvisable as well as ascetically pointless. And so we spent another night in the village, not such a hardship given the excellent food and availability of Chang (homemade barley beer). Just prior to bed we were called upon to extricate Mum, the sturdy, ruddy-faced, matriarch of our homestay family, from an elders meeting as the pregnant cow had just calved; she was required to make calf soup. Fortunately this did not entail making a soup from the new born, nor from the afterbirth (that we might be offered to sample), but instead a nourishing milk-based broth with which to revive the mother and to encourage her own milk production. Sadly, dawn was to prove equally grey, cold and overcast. We were
assured that – given care – we could make it over the pass, but exercise aside there was little point and so we retraced our steps and headed back to Leh.
Yet again I’ve rambled, but there have been a fair few destinations in the past month or so. The northwest of India has always eluded us before having been in the midst of troubles whenever we’ve previously visited. I’d thought that this sixth extended time in India might have been our last, but I’m delighted to say that we’re smitten with the States of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu/Kashmir (plus we’ve not seen the best of Uttarakhand as yet). There is so much more trekking (Zanskar, JK; the valley of the flowers, Uttarakhand; Spiti Valley, HP) to be done and wondrous hangouts to experience that we’ll definitely be back.
The next blog – less than a month to go before a return sojourn to the UK – will surely be our last for a while… Please look at all the photos on this blog (something like 120) as it really has been a picturesque few weeks.
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