Archive for June, 2013

Telephone line

June 28, 2013

Communications here at Macazana are unreliable, so we have decided that we must get a telephone landline with broadband. We are now considered to be old hands at this form filling game, we know the ropes, we’ve got all the needful documents. But no! Martin has fallen at the first fence. On his second visit, the eagle-eyed clerk saw that Martin’s recently renewed driving license was out of date. Martin’s second driving license had the old address and is 9 months out of date. There appears to be a random way of picking expiry dates on driving licenses

How much longer is this going to take?

How much longer is this going to take?

and we will have to be more alert in future.
The upshot of course is not only an extra round of visits to the telephone office, but also another bout with the RTO for renewing driving licenses. Martin will probably get fined for having two licenses.

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99 Cannons

June 27, 2013

We met the 99 cannons (or 15 of them at least) at the top of Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable road. These Bullet bikers had nearly reached the end of a journey from the southernmost tip of India, Kanyakumari. They’d been in the saddle for more than three weeks. This is certainly not a journey for the faint-hearted.

The ride wasn’t just for the hell of it – they were promoting Women Empowerment in India. Despite constitutional equality, women in all walks of life are discriminated against and abused.

Our travel plans coincided with theirs and we encountered them on four other occasions as we journeyed to Srinagar.

One of 15 Cannons

One of 15 Cannons

Days 10 11 and 12 – Srinigar

June 27, 2013

After the exertions of the last few days the remainder of the holiday was very relaxed. We watched the lake people going about their water-borne business. Everything you might need day to day came past in shikaras; food, water, alcohol,flowers, laundry service. We kept an eye on the wild life, did a little (unsuccessful) fishing, embroidery, read books, listened to music. Martin took the little shikara out to try and master the navigation of the craft. We took a cruise with Rasheed, a jewellry merchant who had successfully sold us a few items. And that’s about it until a 5.oo am departure on Sunday morning in a reasonably violent and cold storm.

All in all, Srinigar suited us very well but we ditched any ideas of setting up a third clinic there. We don’t do cold, especially in June!

HB Taif

HB Taif

Blog Srinigar HB Taif (27) Blog Srinigar HB Taif (31)_edited-1

Bulbul

Bulbul

Showing off a birthday present.

Showing off a birthday present.

Up North, day 9 – touring Srinagar

June 27, 2013

Rasool is very taken with Martin, so we had breakfast on the Taif the morning, even though we are not staying there till tomorrow.

 

Wood Mosque

Wood Mosque

Then Yousuf, who works for Rasool, took us on a tour of Srinagar. Once you get into the old city, Srinagar looks beautiful again. Well as beautiful as it can be given the shabbiness the accompanies the tendency on Indians not to look after things. Many original buildings are wood, with carved frontages and balconies overhanging the streets and waterways. Every so often you get a view reminiscent of the final scenes of David Lean’s film of A Passage to India.

 

The Khanqah of Shah-I-Hamadan honours the man who converted many of the population in the Kashmir valley to Sufi Islam, when he arrived from Iran in 1372. It’s an ornate, unusual wooden mosque, decorated with coloured wooden carvings and papier-mâché reliefs. We also visited the Jama Masjid, where even as non-Muslims we were allowed to enter and walk round. On important feast Fridays, this mosque can accommodate 33,000 people. Given it sits amidst a crowded bazaar, heaven only knows what the traffic congestion and parking is like.

Blog Srinigar garden (10)_edited-1

After a tour round Dal Lake, we stopped at Nishat Bagh, one of the Mughal gardens that Srinagar is famous for. Even in the rain, it is beautiful, and given the climate here, very recognisable for British gardeners. Magnolias in bloom, borders of Pansies and Hollyhocks, Broom scanning the air. Chinar trees – that’s Maples to Westerners – lining the avenues. They are the official tree of Kashmir. Then there are the roses, set out in classic style beds, either side of the water features that characterise Mughal gardens. And all of this in terraces, down to Dal Lake.

 

At this stage perhaps a word should be said about security. Kashmir has had and continues to have communal problems, as it is disputed by India and Pakistan. There is a security presence, although we did not feel it was particularly overwhelming. We understand security is tight at the airport, but we have not experienced that yet. It certainly does not feel a dangerous place to visit.

Not a good time was had by all.

Not a good time was had by all.

 

Some guidebooks still talk about a curfew after 8pm and how it is difficult to get transport after this time, and how the city goes quiet. We had dinner on the Taif last night, returning to land at 9.30pm. It seemed like normal city life to us, so for the time being, there’s no curfew.

 

It seemed like normal city life to us, so for the time being, there’s no curfew.

Up North day 8, part two – finding our way around Srinagar

June 27, 2013

 

Having found a room for a couple of nights at the excellent Hotel Swiss, we did our usual and set out on foot to get our bearings. For once, not a good idea. Distances are quite long and the map in my Kindle Lonely Planet is a weak point. Difficult to read and refer to.

Quality low cost Hotel Swiss

Quality low cost Hotel Swiss

First impressions of Srinagar are not encouraging. In some ways it is any town India, and after the purely of the air in and around Leh, we really noticed the pollution and heat of the reduced altitude. Eventually we did reach our goal of the Houseboat Owners Association. The best place to start viewing houseboats.

As so often, we fell on our feet. We finished up with Rasool and his two boats, the A class Taif and the deluxe New Sherin. We had a choice between the beautifully furnished ‘honeymoon suite’ on the New Sherin – all walnut furniture and Kashmir embroidery on the soft furnishings, or taking both rooms on the Taif and having the boat to ourselves. We chose to have the whole of the Taif.

HB Taif at dawn

HB Taif at dawn

The Taif has its own Shikara, so trips to/from shore and around the lake are all included, as are all meals. Specially for Martin, the Taif also has its own small shikara. Martin loves to row, so every trip on the water we have taken has involved a second paddle, so Martin can help. He is on the water as we speak, practising his steering. Much to everyone else’s amusement. Next stop he’ll be fishing.

Up North day 8, part one – Srinigar

June 24, 2013
Goats overtaking; petrol tankers 1 ft from precipice edge.

Goats overtaking; petrol tankers 1 ft from precipice edge.

An early start was required from Mulbeck, to ensure passage over the Zoji La before it is closed to traffic from our direction at 10am. Although not a high pass by the standards of others we have been over, the road is terrible. It isn’t a road, really, just a track. The goats want to know what the cars and lorries are doing on it.

So at 5am we departed Mulbeck, stopping for breakfast in Drass (the second coldest inhabited place on earth) before heading up the pass.

The scenery is lovely, with the barrenness of Zanskar giving way to meadows and flowers, more reminiscent of Switzerland than India. This of course means lots of livestock on the road, including goats, sheep, ponies and donkeys, moving to summer grazing.

Hold ups on the road can be numerous, as it is only just wide enough for two vehicles to pass. Bear in mind there’s always a sheer drop one side. And no safety barriers.

First we got held because of a river overflowing the road. Motorbikes were being walked through the water by two people at a time and were still struggling to stay upright.

Further up, we encountered a recent avalanche, where the snow had been cut through to clear the road. We finally reached a division into an upper and lower road. We were directed upwards, and promptly ran into a jam. Our driver rather bravely decided to turn round – not easy on a narrow track above a precipice, however we managed it. However we didn’t get very far before getting stuck on a corner with lorries coming the other way. Just when we were wondering how to progress, a herd of goats and sheep arrived, weaving their way round and sometimes under vehicles. So no one was going anywhere until they passed. We did eventually get on to the lower road, and discovered the cause of the chaos. On the lower road a lorry had broken down, blocking the pass for heavy traffic from the Srinagar end. So only light traffic could pass from either way, so all lorries were on the upper road and couldn’t get past each other.

The lower road was not without its adventures. Our driver stopped at one point because there was a landslide starting just above us. Rocks and dust were coming down, but we got past.

Eventually the road improved and we fought our way into Srinagar, past a road-blocking demonstration about water supply, and a toll in a village.

Glad to have made it.10 Mulbeck- Sonamarg blog(6)

The long and winding goat track. Zoji La

The long and winding goat track. Zoji La

Up North day 7- on the road to Mulbeck

June 24, 2013

We said a regretful goodbye to Leh, and set off with a driver, heading for Srinager. We wound our way through the Zanskar range of mountains, which are largely barren, moonscape crags with white-capped peaks behind them.

Camping in the Himalaya

Camping in the Himalaya

We stopped at the monastery at Alchi, a very old establishment combining Indian and Tibetan art. Lots of murals, mandalas and very low entry doors. Atmospheric, too, as long as we timed our entry into each temple just as the Indians were leaving (see earlier comments about noise).

The road is a mix of well-tarmaced and no Tarmac, which can be hard going at times. We were in a Tata Sumo, a big four-wheel drive, which we had hired plus driver for just the two of us. I wouldn’t like to do the journey in a bus.

We finished the first part of our journey at Mulbeck, a pretty valley village where our accommodation for the night was a tent next to a river. Great for star gazing, the Great Bear was directly overhead. Not far from the border with Pakistan.

Mulbeck Children

Mulbeck Children

While eating dessert (bananas and custard, believe it or not), we heard artillery fire. Just like being part of Carry on up the Khyber. We decided to take no notice and go to bed, on the grounds that if Pakistan were invading, there was not much we could do about it.

 

Up North day 6 – white water rafting

June 24, 2013

 

 

And so my birthday present, a white water rafting trip.

 

We deliberately chose a short, beginners course as neither of us had rafted before. Unusually in India the whole operation was professional right down to the safety briefing, but even so the trip was not without incident.

 

We were about 20, divided 8, 7 and 5 in three boats. At least that’s how we started out. Although it is June and daytime temperatures are warm, the water in the Zanskar River is fed from the snow melt, so it is icy. Everyone needed to be fitted with wetsuits, as well as helmets and life jackets, before we could begin.

Wet suit and Rapids

Wet suit and Rapids

Indus meets Zanskar

Indus meets Zanskar

 

We were in the front boat of 5, with a German and an Indian couple. Also with the boats was a kayaker, to help rescue in the unlikely event anyone fell in. Bear in mind this was a beginner’s course. All was going well through the second set of rapids when suddenly the kayaker blew his whistle hard. Our guide looked back and blew, too. We all looked back and boat three, with 8 people, was upside down and everyone was in the water. Some were clinging to the boat, others were stranded upstream, and some people had already been washed downstream to our boat and boat two.

 

Somehow we gathered everyone up, and found all the paddles, too. With some boat redistributions, we were on our way again. Martin wished it had been us who ‘turned turtle’. Strange sense of humour, my husband.

Reason for the raft flipping? The people in the bows are the ones who give the lead to the rest of the paddlers; they have to act promptly to the commands of the ‘pilot’. The two guys in the bows of Raft 3 had been too busy yakking to each other to a) listen to the briefing and b) to busy yakking to each other to hear the commands.

 

The rest of the raft was uneventful, so once we reached the calmer waters of the Indus I went for a swim. The whole thing was great fun and I would like to do it again, perhaps over a longer course.

Oop North day 5 – nearly 3 1/2 miles above sea level.

June 24, 2013

Second day on the Enfield and a trip up the Khardung La. at 5,602m, it is the world’s highest motorable pass. It is 34km from Leh to the top, and according to Lonely Planet you can do the journey up in 1.5 hours.

5,000+ meters

5,000+ meters

Don’t know what they were driving- some kind of rally car- it took us 4 hours up and 3 hours back. To be fair, it’s still early in the summer and come September 90 minutes will be an OK time, plus a bike with a pillion isn’t exactly going to travel at speed anywhere on these roads/tracks.

The next 14km were hard going. It is Tarmac road up to the permit check but rough surfacing beyond. Lots of pot holes, bits of road washed away, and ice-melt streams. Plus we got stopped for an hour just short of the top, for blasting a way through a rockfall or something, which rather messed up our acclimatisation by forcing us to spend more time at altitude than we wanted.

New jacket and an hour delay

New jacket and an hour delay

We made it, and stayed long enough for two cups of tea before heading down.

If anything the journey down was harder, especially for me pillion. Our Enfield at home has a back rest, whereas the hire bike did not. Two sore hands from gripping the back of the bike were the result. Very pleased to be back on the Tarmac.

One scary moment on the descent when the brakes did not bite properly as we traversed some road rubble. A few wobbles but we stayed upright. Thrilled and exhausted to be back in Leh.

Made it.

Made it.

Whose stupid idea?

June 24, 2013

Up North day 4, part one – monastery hopping in the Indus Valley

We have hired an Enfield for the day, to make our way East of Leh, along the Indus Valley. There’s a good Tarmac road and the valley contains two of the areas most important monasteries, Thikse and Hemis.

Martin, Bullet and Thikse Monastery

Martin, Bullet and Thikse Monastery

But first there’s a problem. Our home Enfield is old, with the gear change on the right. The hire bike is new and the gear change is on the left. Martin goes for a fairly lengthy test drive before deciding he can cope and letting me get on board.

Off we trundle, first stop Thikse. It is arguably Ladakh’s most easily recognised monastery, really a monastic village, with school, restaurant, hotel and a monastery, all clinging to an East-facing crag. The main chamber has a 14m high Buddha, impressive and colourful, but not as atmospheric as the smaller, older Protectors’ Temple and the one used for most pujas.

Buddha

Buddha

I have wanted to see Thikse since I first came to India. While not disappointed, the spirituality of the temples is spoilt for me because, despite all the signs asking for silence, Indian visitors do not turn their mobile phones off and keep talking loudly to each other even when in the temples. I think I must just accept that, unlike Buddhism, Hinduism is not a quiet religion. No doubt the Dalai Lama would have something to say about practicing tolerance and patience!

On to Hemis, beautifully situated across the opposite side of the Indus, at the end of a wooded valley. Less famous (and therefore quieter than Thikse), it never the less has its own 8m high Buddha and an attractively painted central courtyard. It is best known as the monastery where papers were discovered that suggest Jesus spent some time before beginning his ministery in Kashmir, and that his teachings were influenced by Buddhism.

Hemis is worth a visit for the setting – very peaceful.

Up North day 4, part two – whose stupid idea was this?

To reach Thikse then travel on to Hemis, we used the main Indus Valley road, which runs north of the river. At Kazu we crossed the Indus, as Hemis is on the south bank. We had noticed on the map that there was a smaller road running along the south bank of the rivers, so we decided to use this to retrace our steps and see some more villages. Not one of our better decisions.

Desert and Oases- The Indus Valley

Desert and Oases- The Indus Valley

Yak Yak

Yak Yak

The road was OK to start with, but then it began to deteriorate, big pot holes and areas where all the Tarmac had been swept away but snow melt. We coped for a while, but the bike handling was increasingly tricky. Eventually, we were confronted with a stretch of water. It did not look too deep and we could see a path through, so we rode through. Made it – phew. Perhaps not. A short distance further on there was more water. Only this time it was deeper and we could not see what we were riding over. Nothing ventured, we rode in. We got wet! But cold water is just, well, cold water. Wemade it to Stackna, where there is a very narrow, rickety bridge back to the main road. I think if you walked across this bridge, you would not ride across it. But we did and we have the film to prove it.

All that remains to be said is that Martin’s bike handling is excellent. And six hour as a pillion is at the limit of my stamina.