Thank you southern Asia...

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July 22nd 2013
Published: July 23rd 2013
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Midway through the last blog I’d made the comment that the bus from Srinagar to Leh was none too impressive and that I’d return to that later… Evidently I didn’t. On boarding said bus there’d been an argument, the context of which, it being in Hindi, we were not privilege to. However, at the journey’s end (two days that flashed by in a mesmerizing scenic blur) we were approached by an English-speaking passenger and informed that everyone was going to the ticket office to complain: apparently we had all paid for a “deluxe” bus (i.e. one with reclinable seats), but had had to endure a “C” class ride instead. This was all news to us; we’d booked the cheapest bus available and had expected very little in return. Nevertheless we went along. As everyone packed into the office the rather nervous official immediately picked out Ali and myself and bizarrely stated “it’s only you foreigners that complain about such things”. We gestured towards the 30 local passengers surrounding us. Trying a different tack he stated “That was a new C-class bus, the alternative “deluxe” was an old bus, you should be thankful”. Ahhh, we had an admission that our bus wasn’t “deluxe”, something all the locals had confirmed when booking. Still, no rebate was forthcoming. I announced that maybe the tourist police would like to hear of this deceit; oh, and my back ached – how I’d missed a reclining seat. We all received 25% of our fares back… Such a welcome outcome (post-event) is unlikely anywhere in the world, here in India it struck us as a minor miracle.

Everyone currently in Leh, who’d arrived from Manali, had been forced to come by Jeep (most would have chosen to do so anyway and paid 2000 rps for the privilege) as the buses had yet to start running – the road, particularly over the five mountain passes, not yet suitable for such vehicles. Fortuitously, a day before our intended departure, the first bus arrived. Not so fortuitously, it had arrived ten hours late and was apparently in no fit state to make the return journey; plus, being a Sunday, it could not be fixed until the following day. This provided us with the excuse to attend Hemis’s mask festival (mentioned in the previous blog), whilst we were delighted that the fabled two day ride would cost us only 655 rps (525 to Keylong and 130 to Manali).

Some had said that the road was rather scary and Ali was, admittedly, a little nervous that the journey might resemble the horrific ordeal ten years ago that was the Shimla to Sangla bus ride. No other journey in Asia, nay the world, has ever come close to that sphincter-quivering, gut-churning fourteen hours of terror. Bolivia’s “the world’s most dangerous road”: ha, we ascended that in the rain, at night, without headlights and it was a breeze in comparison. The Sangla ride was performed in an old American school bus, the “road” an endless crumbling mud ledge less than two bus widths wide, the drops sheer and of hundreds of metres. Bizarrely, for such a – then – remote outpost, the number of passing maneuvers necessary was high, way too high and each required the outmost vehicle (seemingly nearly always us) to perform it on three wheels, the fourth hanging out over the void. The local Tibetans vomited constantly from the windows, probably wishing that, like sneezing, vomiting could not be performed with your eyes open. Every hour we stopped at a tiny make-shift shrine, the whole bus decamped and prayed that we’d make it to the next. Ali developed the mother of all headaches: a combination of the whiplashing ride, altitude, perpetual body-tensed stress and constant fear. When we did arrive in Sangla our outpouring of emotion was automatic and immediate with Ali running to and hugging the driver amidst a spew of tearful thanks. I was also keen that this ride would be more serene.

At 4 a.m. we arrived at Leh bus station, deserted except for Tom (a fellow Brit) who was also heading to Manali. A few minutes later we were joined by an Indian tourist – an atypical Indian tourist, for this one had cycled up from Manali. With no previous mountain biking/high altitude experience, respect indeed. The only other passengers were half a dozen locals which meant the bus was almost empty. Our driver was a tall, swarthy and barefoot Kashmiri who exuded an air of arrogant confidence. Dawn was overcast and grey, hardly ideal for mountain travel or viewing; and, having covered the first hour of the road before, we huddled up for a doze. We awoke to a blue sky and constant sway as the driver flung the bus around ascending hairpins. Whilst he seemed somewhat gung-ho, his judgment and precision were flawless; never did he overshoot and have to stop, reverse and re-approach. Over the next hour his doubtless skill filled us with confidence and I was soon flinging myself from open windows on the left to those on the right to snap away at the staggering scenery. Really, already, this was surpassing the road to Leh. Whereas the Srinagar – Leh journey had morphed from the rounded to the jagged, Leh to Manali simply threw up majestic peak after majestic peak. Quite frankly it was draining with no pause for a further snooze or a read, even sandwiches were thrown aside mid-bite in my desperation to capture yet another breathtaking turquoise river bisecting a plunging white-crested canyon.

Meanwhile, our driver was making excellent time. Occasionally he would pull the bus up, look ahead to a series of switchbacks that simply joined the parallel road beneath us and then roll us over the edge, bouncing over the scree until we joined the road once again, thereby saving five miles and twenty minutes. At one point we faced a great queue of vehicles – jeeps, tankers, trucks – that were waiting, on both sides of the river, for a bridge to be repaired. He stood up, looking out of the left-hand-side of the bus across the ravine, then reversed fifty metres, surfed the bus down the embankment and surged it through the white water. The waiting drivers had, without exception, scrambled out of their vehicles to view the contemptuous spectacle. I almost expected a round of applause as we nonchalantly pulled back on the road, by-passing the hold-up, and continued on our way. As I looked back I saw an emboldened four-wheel-drive attempting the same maneuver. Our driver was already focused on the road ahead.

Several canyons were studded with clusters of monolithic spires (that I failed to capture on film) whilst in others the fast flowing rivers had eroded their rocky thoroughfares to resemble corridors punctuated with bas-reliefs of towering striated columns. And so we proceeded from one superlative to the next, traversing four mountain passes including Taglang La, at 5359m the 2nd highest road pass in world. Twelve hours later (with no scary bits) we arrived in Keylong on time; the only disappointment being that the bus would stop here for the night and we’d have to switch both bus and (probably) driver in the morning for the second leg. If ever there was a frustrated, talented, would-be bare-footed rally driver…

Although I’m sure he paid little attention to such trivia, the roads in Ladakh province are lined with magnificent signs warning against speeding and drink-driving. Here are some favourites: “Better to be Mr. late than Mr. never”; “Drinking whiskey makes driving risky”; “I love you, but not so fast”; “Life is a journey, finish it” and tenderly “BRO: (border road organization, but ignore this) be gentle on my curves”.

Also, whilst I digress, a recent observation… Lays Crisps must now be the most omnipresent in the world, but what surprises me is their price here in India. Even ignoring samosas, pakora/pagoda and their like, India has some of the finest fried snacks in the world: namkeen being superior (and healthier given their additional nuts/lentils) versions of our potato crisps (ok, chips for any American out there). Yet, here they are cheaper than almost anywhere in the world – they were (not unreasonably) downright expensive in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka etc… I am also, currently, bemoaning the rise (eminence) of Coca Cola and Pepsi in India where once their own indigenous (and not totally unpalatable) Campa Cola and Limca ruled (the proud patriotic stance against infiltration has long since been rescinded – indeed Limca is now owned by Coca Cola).

During our overnight stop in Keylong (really rather pretty) we had seen England – miraculously – trounce South Africa in the Champions Trophy, thereby making the final. We had also witnessed Indian bias in its most blatant, unselfconscious form: our new Indian cyclist friend managing to shed 100 rps off the room prices quoted to us (because he was Indian) and similarly obtaining 10 rps off beer from the local wine shop (after suspecting we’d been overcharged we sent tea-total him thereafter… because he was Indian).

Six a.m. and day two of our journey got off to a poor start. Given the recent lousy weather (now broken) and the number of people grounded in Keylong (headed north to Leh) our bus/driver had returned to Leh. A bus heading towards Manali would, supposedly, materialize in several hours. As you do in India under such circumstances, we sat and drank chai.

Driver number two and his bus were to prove no match for their formers and now, after the delay, the bus was swamped. Sadly (luckily, due to the restricted movement) leg two was no visual match for leg one - that was until we had almost scaled the last mountain pass where suddenly there was an unbroken 180 degree vista of mountains, valleys, rivers, waterfalls and gullies. Just as I was cursing my wrong-side position and the bus was straining to gain traction up another steep hairpin there was an almighty hiss, the engine died, the driver revved, but the bus rolled backwards. Behind us, we all knew, was a very big drop. In the split second between panic and action the handbrake caught and the bus halted. Seconds later almost everyone had alighted – save for several old dears who were indifferent to all the fuss, were obviously quite comfortable and were staying put, thank you very much. The less trusting passengers were either crouching on their haunches a safe distance away, sucking on a beedi and looking prepared for a lengthy wait, were lined-up urinating whilst admiring the view, or busy milling about offering the driver advice on how to fix the malady. Midway through its turning arc the crippled bus pretty much blocked the whole road, not that this prevented an assemblage of traffic squeezing by, indifferent to our plight. I say indifferent: two tankers stopped for a chat with the driver, whilst a Jeep of Indian tourists pulled-up briefly to photograph both the great panorama and our stricken bus before heading onwards. Apparently there was no mobile reception at our current elevation and the bus was without tools. Maybe the tanker drivers would inform someone of our status? After an hour a truck pulled up and our driver borrowed a monstrous wrench, disappeared under the bus, emerged greasily, returned the spanner and asked everyone to re-board. Who was he kidding? Evidence of forward, powered motion was required before the skeptical Brits would re-embark. Sure enough that is just what happened; we’d lost our rally driver and gained a mechanic.

We’d been puzzled how the journey to Manali (barely 100 km away from Keylong) could possibly take almost eight hours. On arrival at the last pass, Rohtang La, we realized why: it was mobbed with thousands of Punjabi day-trippers who’d come up from Manali. The plateau of the pass was covered with a multitude of Indians gamely enjoying the packed ice and gravel that represented, to many, their first experience of snow. Vendors hired out full length fur coats with their recipients resembling Russian oligarchs; others posed wearing skis on tiny patches of almost convincing piste; snow mobiles buzzed passed yak-riding tourists; whilst the less firm were pushed around on bath-chair sleighs. It was some spectacle. Below and winding up the road it was gridlock, in many places only single file being possible and any movement was periodic. The fifteen kilometres down to Manali took a frustrating three hours.

Manali itself is a dichotomy: below, New Manali is a proper town, a noisy heaving mass of Indian tourists, hotels, Punjabi dabars and tat vendors; higher up the hill, dotting and branching off the one leading road, Old Manali is a grotto of backpacker guesthouses, mainly western eateries, internet cafes and Indian memorabilia shops; neither is particularly pleasant. However, ascend to the very top of Old Manali or deviate way off the ascending road along woodland paths and you’ll rapidly find yourself in rural Himachal: mazes of shady lanes with beautiful traditional wooden houses bearing intricately carved balconies, below which well-fed cows and goats lounge contentedly in courtyards of golden haystacks and drying fodder, with women chatting as they chaff grain. There are also, wonderfully, some small guesthouses. Flowing violently down the hillside is the river, a spectacular cauldron of white water cascading over boulders – just don’t be foolish enough to chill your beer bottles in it. No, they didn’t float off – we’re not that careless, but some did fill with an unappetizing black sediment. Meanwhile the air carries a constant sweet scent, care of the wild marijuana that grows absolutely everywhere.

If Manali has a pervading aroma then the Parvati valley positively stinks: like a Kumbh Mela for skunks with gland problems. Several dozen tourists have gone missing here since the mid-1990s, thought to have either become excessively involved in the drug trade or to have fallen victim to the deceptively confusing and treacherous mountains.

The town of Jari lies near the head of the valley and above it is the tiny hamlet of Mateura Jari: a charmingly quiet location from which to walk the surrounding hills. Surprisingly, given its elevated position, Mateura Jari was home to lots of irritating house flies. However, these proved ridiculously easy to kill – the blatantly stoned insects seemingly indifferent to the advancing flip-flop.

Before leaving Leh we’d run into some guys that we’d crossed paths with on the Goecha La trek. They’d just left the Parvati valley and had spent time with Kevin our super fit French Sherpa of pink codpiece fame. He had been holed up at the tiny community of Gargi, perched high in the hills above the hot springs resort of Manikaran. We decided to head along to see if he was still around. The Parvati river, home to trout and mahseer, thunders through the narrow steep-sided valley. A few kilometres shy of Manikaran is Kasol, the main traveler (Israeli) hang-out in the valley. It lacks any character and we were not tempted to investigate. Manikaran itself is rather tatty, the river banks just outside of town are strewn with litter, but it does have personality. The temples and shrines are well visited by Hindus and Sikhs, the hot springs (many belching and hissing uncontrolled from the hillsides) similarly. We asked directions to Gargi and were simply told “up”. And so we climbed for over an hour, mostly on faint paths, but often on barely imagined tracks. Strangely we passed no one, the few homes encountered were empty and we soon realized that we must be way off route. With no idea of how to reach Gargi and finding no one around to ask, feeling hot, sweaty and having convinced ourselves that Kevin had surely long since departed, we retraced our steps back down towards town. We were waiting on the bus to return to Jari when Ali was tapped on the shoulder; it was Kevin, briefly down from the mountainside for supplies.

It materializes that there are two routes up to Gargi: a precipitous hour’s climb or a rather less challenging hour-and-a-half along the ridge. Nestled amidst the clouds, and staring down the throat of the valley from on-high, the tiny village is well worth the trek. A laid back vibe doesn’t come close to describing Teku’s whose partially re-modeled guesthouse is as welcoming (“shanti shanti”) and chilled (“full-power chillum”) as they come. The downstairs is still a shell, but upstairs the small dorm and two private rooms catch the sunlight all day and have astounding views (when the clouds part). The toilet is anywhere a discrete distance from the house and Teku’s clientele are definitely not the sort to use toilet paper. Washing is performed under a tap (drinkable water) situated midway between guesthouse and the family house where all meals are taken. These are simple, but ample and tasty, and are eaten on the matted floor of their atmospheric, wood stove-heated, kitchen. A bed and three meals a day will set you back less than $3; no wonder most visitors tend to be long-stayers. As well as Kevin there was a hippy French girl who’d now been residing in the Parvati valley for almost a year and a heavily tattooed, one-armed Italian whose amiable character belied his menacing cosa nostran appearance. Laden with a full pack he had fallen on his way up to Gargi, a mishap that had resulted in a deep gash to his face. Fortunately Teku knows his way around traditional medicines and had packed the wound with a paste made from mustard oil and turmeric. Apparently it had stung like hell, but the wound did seem to be closing-up nicely.

We spent an extremely relaxing 24 hours before heading back to Mateura Jari. What we’d imagined would be a gentle stroll down to Manikaran turned into a somewhat surreal four hour hike: we missed the path and were soon lost in the hills. Dwellings were clearly visible below us, but the vegetation seemed to conspire to prevent us from reaching them. Doubling back yet again on a narrow ledge, Ali stood on what she thought was the grassy margin of the path - it wasn’t - and she disappeared over the edge. Fortunately she dropped only five feet before becoming entangled in cliff-side undergrowth; another point on the trail and she might not have been so lucky. These hills really do have an eerie enchanted feel to them and tranquil paradise can quickly turn sour if you don’t keep your wits about you.

With time running out before our departure from India we pushed on to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple (Sikhism’s most holy place of worship: beautiful and serene) and to witness the pantomime that is the ceremonial daily border-closure at Wagah. Although we’d heard rave reviews of the latter we were unimpressed. The soldiers’ provocative goose-stepping bravado as they march towards and face-off with their Pakistani equivalents was mildly entertaining, but the marshaling of the crowds was tediously overzealous, and the view of the actual ceremony totally obscured. Most of the crowds present on the Indian side of the border are local tourists and they take their pleasure in dancing to Bollywood anthems and displays of patriotism (and Pakistani-baiting) with flag waving, the singing of patriotic songs and chanting (“Hindusthan, Hindusthan” being particularly popular).

Amristar itself is a pleasant city, the old town a warren of winding streets hiding all manner of craftsmen, tradesmen and vendors. Round the corner from Tourist Guesthouse (an easy walk from the bus or train stations; listed by LP, but still offering decent, reasonably-priced rooms – 400rps with bathroom) is a local legend of a tea house (unnamed); this is only open until lunchtime and has usually sold out of its excellent snacks (samosas, kachori - a round samosa-like pastry, and toast swimming in butter) well before then with clientele spilling out onto the street from 5.30 a.m. Another Amristar notable is the famous fried fish (presumably carp). Not surprisingly this is far cheaper from road-side stalls where it is still fresh and delicious.

With ten days remaining before our flights back to the UK we had just enough time to make a bee-line to Bhilwara in Rajesthan and visit our friend Ashok whom we’d met some months before on our way to Kolkata. Luck was with us as there were five remaining berths on the train to Ajmer. The next day we were greeted by Ashok at Bhilwara bus station and were soon at his home and meeting his delightful family: Pinky his wife and Chinu and Monu, his sons. Although we had planned on staying for just one or two nights they would not hear of it and before we knew it the best part of a week had passed in their delightful company. We visited local temples, waterfalls and swimming holes, met the other members of the extended family, played cricket, frisbee and cards, took day trips including one to Bundi where we were reunited with Krishna the master chai-wallah, ate splendidly at the hands of Pinky, and tears were shed all-round when we really did have to leave. Their hospitality and generosity were beyond words. We really do have family now in India and cannot wait to host them back in Britain.

On our return to Delhi we finally caught up with monsoon and Main Bazaar in Parah Ganj was regularly transformed into a muddy stream with local ragamuffin
children enjoying street showers under the water cascading down from overflow pipes.

And then we were aboard good old Aeroflot. It seems that they have a new fleet of airplanes and both those we had the pleasure of flying on had functioning seat belts and carpets (presumably hiding seat fastenings firmly bolted to the fuselage) – how things have changed in 25 years. On the down side (unlike our last experience where our intended induction to the mile-high-club was thwarted by being presented with a 2-litre bottle of wine) – and I’m tempted to say, peevishly-shoddily – they were dry flights.
Hence it was a sober re-entry back into Britain after almost six years away (four working in the States). Our 582 days on the road has flown by and even the sunny weather awaiting us failed to brighten our spirits. Still, we have every intention of embarking on a rather more bijoux (6 month) trip to Central America in December where we will embarrass ourselves once again with our feeble Spanish and attempt to avoid our previous Latin American faux pas of frequenting guesthouses that were fronts for cocaine dealerships or brothels and narrowly surviving spiked drinks in a back street dive. Well, the latter at least.

This has been an extraordinary trip; not so many new countries (indeed only five), but we have now thoroughly scoured some of our previously favourite Asian destinations. It hasn't been one of our rowdiest or most boistrous adventures, but it has been one of making - we hope - lasting friendships. Southern Asia really does have a special place in our hearts and we are so grateful for the way it received us again.

Additional photos below
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23rd July 2013

I've so enjoyed your fantastic photos (these mountain shots may be my faves) and adventures. I've loved your trekking exploits, meetings with locals (so sweet with Ashok), road journeys, descriptions and digressions (the drinking and driving ones would be useful here in Bolivia). Also loved Ali in sari and with painted hands--great the way you two dive into the culture! Looking forward to your explorations of Britain (exotic to us Americans) until your Central American journey. Cheers!
24th July 2013

Tara, Many thanks for your kind comments. It is strange to be back again, particularly as little ever changes after having been away. I can't imagine us doing much blogging from here, but we'll have plenty of time on our hands now to follow other Travelbloggers' exploits. Best wishes, Andy and Ali.

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