Archive for the ‘India’ Category

Srinagar; All change please

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

(James) The cool night was something of a shock to us (we’ve become far too used to 30+ nights), but was obviously conducive to good sleep as we woke late on our first morning in Srinagar. Sitting down by the nursery having our breakfast we were able to enjoy the fresh, clean air (something of a novelty in India) while we decided what sights we wanted to see during our time here. But before our sightseeing, we had to locate an internet café as we were due to get a report from Donato and Stefano on the state of the Leh-Manali road further north in the Ladakh Valley. The news, however, was not good. Once again, the particularly heavy monsoon, which had travelled much further north this year than usual and which had caused so much of the devastation we had already witnessed on the KKH, had also had a similar effect up in Ladakh. The guys had made it (albeit a fortnight ahead of us) and reported horrendous roads, much of which had been washed away, and which had resulted in extensive damage to both bikes. We also read that the first snows of the winter had now fallen and this would only add to the problems we would face. Our plan had been to ride north to Leh and attempt to cross the Khardung-La pass which, at 5600m, is the highest road in the world. The road’s altitude meant that this, of course, would be the first road to become inaccessible, and with the already poor roads and Em’s leaking fork seal (which I’d noticed upon our arrival), the prospect of making it up to Leh only to have either a mechanical problem or winter set in was not an enticing one, least of all as we’d probably be stuck there until the roads reopened sometime in late July! With this in mind we knew that it might be a tad foolhardy to attempt it and so sadly decided that we should head south again and follow the retreating monsoon towards Rajasthan and the Great Thar desert. I won’t deny that I was particularly disappointed as I’d really wanted to ‘do’ Khardung-La but I knew we were making the right decision, and let’s face it, we’ve already had more than our fair share of mountain challenges!

With the decision made, we were free to enjoy our time in Srinagar. However, any hopes we had of seeing the town and visiting museums, gardens, restaurants and shops (for Em you understand!) were dashed as everything, without exception, was closed, even the schools and other government buildings. The reason, it turns out, was an enforced curfew and strikes that had been going on for almost five months as part of the age old campaign to make Kashmir an independent state. As a result there had been increasing conflict between the Kashmiris and the much hated Indian army which had seen over three hundred people killed in the last few months. What now existed was essentially an occupation by Indian troops who here, just as all along the road from Amritsar, stood on every corner in full riot gear, armed to the teeth and invariably next to some sort of armoured vehicle. It’s hard to get a sense of exactly how many soldiers are in Kashmir at the moment but to give an idea, the news that morning spoke of 200,000 soldiers (presumably just a fraction of the total presence in the region) being moved to a particular town in the area in anticipation of escalating unrest as a result of a legal decision over a land dispute between Muslims and Hindus. (Em: The decision was being made at 3pm on our first day in Srinagar and I was literally waiting for it to all kick off that afternoon… Luckily, we read in the news the next day that, for the moment at least, all remained peaceful.)

With our options severely restricted, we chose to spend our time in Srinagar relaxing and so were limited to walks along the ‘Boulevard’ besides the serene and beautiful Dal lake, but even here it felt like we were walking in a ghost town; the only people out for business (other than the military) being those who worked on the lake either selling vegetables or those offering rides on shikaras (small gondola like lake boats) at rates miles below those advertised – clearly the complete disappearance of all tourists in the region had all but destroyed tourist dependant Srinigar. We had two hopes (‘no’ and ‘bob’) of finding somewhere open to eat in the evenings so as night began to fall we, like the locals, headed ‘home’ and ate what our host family ate.

Before turning in we’d made arrangements with their neighbour to take us out in his shikara in the morning to see the vegetable market out on the lake. Unfortunately the vegetable market started at a very dark 5am and would be all finished by 6:30! Still, true to our word we were in the garden at 5am at the ready and, in the pitch black, stepped (rather gingerly it has to be said) into the waiting shikara where, despite the lack of any light, we made our way, tucked in under warm blankets, silently down the maze of identical looking narrow channels arriving at the market to find it already in full swing. The market is where producers sell to market traders and takes place in a clearing on Dal lake, a significant part of which consists of ‘floating’ islands and homes with vegetable plots on, carved up by narrow channels and linked by raised wooden walkways and small bridges. Both sellers and buyers arrive and deftly manoeuvre the long boats around each other to do business. These boats, like the shikaras, are flat bottomed and have flat pointed ends that rise out of the water. The design allows a single occupant to squat or stand at either end of the boat to row (which they do with a single oar with a heart shaped paddle) something we were convinced would lead to capsize, but which simply lowers the end to near water level. The flat bottomed design means that the boat’s progress through the water is unaffected, although with the other end rising high out of the water the traders had to have eyes in the back of their heads as groups of boats twisted together whilst doing business and there was no shortage and collisions and near misses. We, as the lone tourists, were left alone as even the most deluded trader realised we probably weren’t in the market for lotus roots, although we were tempted by the ridiculously cheap and fresh kashmiri saffron (finest in the world) which showed the dried out stuff sold in the west for what it is, but sadly it’s just not something we were going to carry with us for the rest of the journey. With the market finishing we too made our way, indirectly, back home to our guesthouse for a snooze.

With Dal Lake being the key (and only available) attraction, late afternoon found us back out on the water where we got to see everything at its finest, basked in the warm glow of the autumn sun and surrounded on all sides by mountains. It also gave us the chance to get a better look at some of Srinigar’s infamous houseboats, made famous when the Beatles and other such types came here as part of the hippy trail in the 60’s to smoke dope, follow a guru and find ‘enlightenment’ (cynical? moi?) There are some 2000 houseboats on the lake, ranging from downright grotty to absolutely palatial with incredibly ornate and intricate wooded carvings both on the front and throughout the inside. We had thought about staying on one for a couple of nights ourselves, certainly given the lack of tourists we could have negotiated a massive reduction, but in the end had decided against it as our place was nice, our host family was clearly in need of the income and of course, it’s difficult to secure two bikes on a houseboat or anywhere else during a military curfew! That evening we packed and loaded what we could on to the bikes to give us a better chance of getting away early, our hope being that the hellish road back south to Jammu (our intended night stop) might be a little quieter and thus reducing our chances of death, and with little else to do went to bed accompanied by the cacophony that can only occur when thousands of devout, yet tone deaf men work themselves into a frenzy at the dozen Sufi mosques that surrounded us and which I imagine is exactly what it would sound like if the dead were to rise again – needless to say in our now rested state it wasn’t conducive to sleep…

Dicing with death on the road to Kashmir

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

(Emily) Getting out of Amritsar was a sweaty affair, particularly as we’d left at the timely hour of midday – the incessant horn usage was already driving us mad and riding in the stop-start traffic is murder on your clutch hand. We were heading north towards Srinagar, a town in Indian Kashmir popular for the slumbering houseboats on Dal Lake and made famous when the Beatles stayed there in their whole Guru/Sgt Peppers phase. The bigger picture was a large horse-shoe from west to east that would take us into the Himalayas through the Ladakh Valley to Leh, which boasted magnificent scenery and the highest passable (though unpaved) road in the world, then down to Manali. Donato and Stefano had already begun this same route but from the Manali end and we were looking forward to crossing paths with them again at some point. However, for the moment we knew we wouldn’t make it to Srinagar in one day so had earmarked Jammu – about half way from Amritsar – as a potential stop for the night. Reading up about the region of ‘Jammu and the Kashmir Valley’ in Lonely Planet beforehand, I was made a little apprehensive by phrases such as ‘scarred by violence’, ‘foolish to visit without checking the political situation’ and ‘ongoing security risks’. James was quick to remind me that I’d just ridden the KKH and through Pakistan which was probably one of the most volatile regions in the world but hey, that’s not to say I now had a taste for danger!

I can’t really say much about the scenery as we rode toward Jammu (in general very flat land made up of fields of crops) as we had to concentrate so hard on the road; not a minute went by when you didn’t have to make an overtake around a rickshaw, donkey cart, cow or bicycle or when you yourself weren’t overtaken by a crazed car or coach driver, tooting away on their horn and ploughing through as if they owned the road. The worst thing to contend with was vehicles overtaking in the oncoming direction – with complete disregard for anything smaller than them, the public buses would hurtle towards you with no intention of pulling in or slower down. ‘Might is right’ here so, as a smaller vehicle, it’s your obligation to get the hell out of the way even if it means pulling onto the dirt. James’ angry gesturing for them to get back in their lane was fruitless and many drivers just laughed as they went past. So infuriating! Although the pace of many of the vehicles on the road was fast (too fast), our progress was incredibly poor not least because the road always took a route straight through the centre of towns rather than offering a diversion – and there were lots of towns. The last stretch before Jammu was ostensibly dual carriage way but all too often the lanes became two-way traffic as the opposite direction was closed off for repairs (usually without a written warning – the bus fast approaching in the oncoming direction was the clue!!) and, of course, despite being a highway there were still the ubiquitous cows wandering all over the place. We made it into Jammu’s busy streets at about 6pm and it was immediately obvious that we wouldn’t easily be able to find a place to stay amid the unyielding rush-hour congestion. After the first hotel we pulled into quoted 3,700 rupees (pretty much ten times our budget!), we decided to get through town and find somewhere on the exit road – it wasn’t like we wanted to explore Jammu in the morning; it was merely a night-stop.

Coming out of the north end of town, we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves riding through lush greenery. Near the last police checkpoint (commonplace in this region) on the edge of town were the gated entrances to two rather plush looking resorts… two plush for us so again we carried on. We were confident we would find somewhere soon as there had been a hotel or guesthouse every couple of miles or so on the route so far. The road started to climb – the beginning of our ascent into the mountains that sat between us and the Kashmir Valley – and we were excited to spot monkeys sitting boldly by the side of the road in large numbers (they did put us off the possibility of camping, mind you!) Dusk fell making it even harder to spot potential accommodation; it was clear from the winding, climbing nature of the road that we were in the hills but surreal not to be able to see any of our surroundings. I was nervous about riding in the dark in India (a definite no-no) but at least we were able to anticipate the trucks coming round corners by their headlights (shame the cows don’t have lights – three times James nearly rode right into one; he’s so often looking in his mirrors to check I’m ok!) It was 50km and an hour and a half later when we finally spotted a hotel, by which time we were hungry and exhausted but at least not too sweaty in the cooler mountain air. It looked ok from the outside but was unfortunately a complete hole, still, we couldn’t afford to be picky with nothing else in the offing. James was looking forward to a beer/curry combo, something which had eluded him so far in India and Pakistan, and was excited to see that the ‘restaurant’ had a ‘bar’ but, somewhat inevitably considering the dive we were at, the food was sub-standard and the beer far too strong. There was nothing else to do but retire to our skanky room where we discovered towels so grotty they should be immediately incinerated and cobwebs and grime lurking in every corner. We got our silk liners out (the sheets were dirty) and tried to get some sleep amid the squalor.

Getting back on the road the next morning, we were pleased to find that we were surrounded by the same sort of lush vegetation that we’d had lower down on the KKH, except this time with tarmac so all the better. However, the driving was a whole lots worse and the muttered expletives were soon flying as we were constantly nearly wiped out by trucks coming two abreast around sharp corners – when they want to overtake, they overtake no matter what. Coming through one of the inhabited areas (not a town or a village but a few shack-type shops lining the road), James was actually nudged in the panniers by one car – they’re just so desperate to get ahead of you, even if it’s quite clear that a massive truck in front is blocking further progress. The BRO (Border Roads Organisation) who are responsible for maintaining the roads in this region seem to have decided that placing warning signs every km is the way to tackle the problem (there are some absolute classics: ‘After whiskey, driving risky’, ‘Don’t gossip, let him drive’ and my personal favourite, ‘Don’t be silly in the hilly’) but what they really need are traffic police enforcing the road laws. Anyway, the result of all the craziness was that the riding was far from enjoyable despite the fantastic scenery and wildlife (in addition to the monkeys, we had magnificent kites and vultures flying parallel with us at times) and we were both thinking that if the driving continued to be like this all over India, we wouldn’t be sticking around for long.

We entered Kashmir (‘high security zone, your co-operation is solicited’) and the road wound higher and higher to culminate in a pass through a tunnel before descending down into the Kashmir Valley. Again, beautiful scenery, but the combination of traffic and sheer drops meant we were still too wary to look around much. There had been a noticeable military presence as we’d ridden through the Jammu area but now… oh my god. I have honestly never seen so many army troops. Every bus and truck that went by was full of soldiers, all kitted up and ready for action, and there were checkpoints and bases every couple of miles. I think we must have passed several hundred army trucks as we rode to Srinagar, most of which were heading the other way – that gave us some small comfort but I did think that that something major must be kicking off somewhere to require this many soldiers. We had hoped that the road down into the valley would be quieter as we were now in a more remote area of the country but the mayhem continued. At least with the road now straighter, we were not caught up and overtaken by trucks and buses but the 4x4s started to really piss us off, especially when coming at you in your lane in the opposite direction and flashing their lights as if you’re the one in the wrong! (Police vehicles were among the worst culprits!) So many times we were forced to leave the tarmac and ride on the dirt. For the first time on the whole trip, we were feeling really angry with other drivers – normally you just go with the flow but this was so reckless and irresponsible it made our blood boil.

The final stretch into Srinagar was actually very lovely (traffic aside) – autumn was setting in and the golden leaves and harvest activity made us think of home (James: nice to experience autumn safe in the knowledge that winter won’t be following shortly after!) Rather incongruous to these scenes of nature were the soldiers that almost constantly lined the road – every fifty metres was another vehicle with a manned heavy machine gun on top or a group of soldiers standing in the trees or a platoon on patrol walking along the road. It was a great relief when we reached the outskirts of Srinagar though this in itself soon turned into a bit of a nightmare as, rather than the sleepy lake town we had been expecting, it turned out to be busy, noisy and hard to navigate (didn’t help that as usual we didn’t actually have a specific place to aim for). I had a serious case of ‘clutch claw’ and my left hand had all but given up on me. Not only that, but the huge number of armed soldiers, many in full riot gear, who lined the streets were making me feel increasingly uneasy. What the hell had we gotten ourselves in the middle of? We eventually found a quieter road leading down to the lake which had lots of guesthouses on and, third time lucky (one place turned us away even though the tout had said it was empty – apparently the owner didn’t want to be held responsible if anything happened to a tourist… rather ominous, methinks!), we booked into the Goodwill Guesthouse. The place was run by a lovely Muslim family and was also a nursery so the house was surrounded by plants and flowers. It was very basic but clean and welcoming and they were certainly pleased to be getting some business – we were pretty much the only tourists in town. We settled in for the evening (we were advised not to go out after dark), enjoying a tray of simple, home-cooked food in our room whilst the uplifting chanting of the Sufi Muslims worshipping resonated from the surrounding mosques.

‘Sikhing’ out the Golden Temple

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

(Emily) So, India. Still feeling regretful to have left Pakistan, we crossed to the Indian side of the Wagah border and began the inevitable paperwork merry-go-round that we’d become so used to. The officials were notably more abrupt, it has to be said. Having entered our details into several log books (yet another border post that hasn’t clocked on to the idea of computer data storage…), they weren’t at all fussed about having a look through our baggage but were pretty thorough on the carnet front (the carnet is essentially a temporary import/export licence for the bike and most countries from now on are signed up to the scheme… read more in our planning section if you’re really that interested!) They proceeded to check our documents against the bikes; first looking to see if the number-plate tallied (easy-peasy) but then moving on to the more difficult task of marrying up the chassis and engine numbers, both in fairly hard to access places on the bikes. In Pakistan (our first carnet country) they’d taken our word for it but here they were not going to be defeated. By the time it had taken three of them to peer in at the under-carriage at various angles and finally locate the inscription, we were itching to go – it was soooo hot and James had a killer headache. Not to be; they declared there was a mismatch. What? The fifteen-digit number on the bike was missing one of its zeros when compared with the number on the carnet. Cue lots of umming, ahhing and tutting. (‘For heaven’s sake,’ I felt like saying, ‘what exactly are you going to do – not let us in?!) After eking it out for a bit (power trip, much?) they did, inevitably, let us through and we whizzed off into country number 19 as hoards of colourful spectators began to arrive for the evening border closing ceremony. It was tempting to stay and witness the spectacle from ‘the other side’ but Amritsar and a cold shower was decidedly more appealing!

It was strange to now be riding in what was essentially the same landscape as we’d had for the last few days in Pakistan (it was only a hop over the border, after all) but seeing clues all around us of a different country and culture. The turbans of Sikhs and women wrapped in colourful saris replaced the shawled heads and shalwar-kamiz of the Muslim Pakistanis; miniature Hindu shrines were dotted along the road as opposed to the minarets of mosques piercing the sky; and, although the driving in Pakistan had left a lot to be desired, we now had to cope with the ubiquitous roaming ‘sacred’ cows that frequently chose the middle of the highway as a great spot for a doze. This, coupled with the fact that the Indian approach to over-taking is a whole new level of kamikaze, made for two very fatigued and sweaty bikers that rolled into Amritsar that evening. The traffic in town was even crazier but, at the low speed dictated by the sheer volume of vehicles on the road (and those damn cows again), it was a craziness you could grin at and simply shrug to each other at the madness of it all. Map-less and hotel-less, we followed signs to the Golden Temple, Amritsar’s main tourist attraction, as a default option. The ring-road around the temple complex was mayhem and we pulled in to the side between an auto-rickshaw and a horse-drawn cart to take stock. The idea was to do a recce of surrounding hotels but after asking at the one directly opposite from where we’d stopped and finding it a bit over budget (£25 as opposed to the fiver we’d had in our minds for India!), the idea of going back into the mele was, well, no longer an option really! (Sometimes we look at each other and just know the score!) It was a really nice place actually, tucked away off the road and within a minute’s walk of the Golden Temple, so at least we weren’t paying over the odds for a rat hole!

Freshly showered (ah, can’t beat it), I was excited to realise that my days of covering up were over and, although I would obviously still dress respectfully, I could put on a t-shirt and have my hair out – freedom! We walked over to the Golden Temple and, leaving our shoes free of charge at the depot and donning an orange bandana each (ah, so the hair emancipation was short-lived!), went through the marble arch of the main entrance to be greeted by what really is a majestic sight. The Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, rises out of the middle of a huge rectangular pool, its reflection shimmering majestically in the gently rippling water. Around the pool, visitors and pilgrims can view the temple from a white marble walkway, or enter the temple itself via a causeway, known as Guru’s Bridge. It was early evening with the dusky light particularly flattering to the whole scene and the atmosphere enhanced by the rhythmic murmur of priests chanting from the Guru Granth sahib (Sikh holy book) over the loudspeakers. The complex was thronging with people who, rather than shuffling along piously, were talking and laughing whilst others sat quietly at the water’s edge, immersed in private prayer. There were even people bathing in the water! We liked the lively, harmonious atmosphere which suggested that people were taking joy in their faith and welcoming others to join them, irrespective of religion. As we wandered round, we got the familiar ‘hello, how are you?’ from children and had people come up to shake our hands and take photos of us – turns out India isn’t so immune to foreigners after all.

Our lie-in the next morning made the decision for us about whether we should stay another day (so easily done!) and we used the opportunity to get a few jobs done. The post office came up trumps and we were able to send our faulty intercom equipment back to the UK with minimal fuss and cost; there were even packaging stalls set up outside that got your parcel all ready for you. Comedy moment when the guy behind the counter asked James what and where the package was going: ‘To England, I’m returning it to its maker,’ he answered, turning round for an aside to me, ‘Obviously not THE maker!’ and finding himself talking to a Hindu and a couple of Sikh guys as I had opted to sit down while waiting! We then got a bicycle taxi (not for the faint-hearted) to the ‘main shopping street’ where we were hoping to get hold of a road map for India but were thwarted at every turn – the best they could come up with were school atlases from the 1980s! (Don’t think we’re being presumptuous rich westerners here – it was a reasonable request when we were amongst shops selling flash mobile phones, ray-bans (real and fake) and flat screen TVs). The noise, dirt and smell of the main thoroughfare got the better of us after a while and we took a rickshaw to see the ‘Mata Temple’ which commemorates Lal Devi, a Hindu woman born in the 1920’s who has become a modern day saint. The shrine was, we have to be honest, hilarious and we were fairly bewildered as a labyrinth of paths took us around the temple through tunnels, low ceilinged caves and water features, and past plastic models of various deities in an assortment of shapes and sizes. Back in the main room, a model of the bespectacled Lal Devi herself takes pride of place, alongside many photos and illuminated images of her on the walls. Apparently, she revealed herself to be something ‘special’ when was just an infant. Throughout her life, she only ate dried fruit and nuts and never ate voluntarily, only when food was offered to her (James: sounds more like a fussy eater to me!)

That afternoon we went back to the Golden Temple to see it in the daylight – no less spectacular, though I preferred the chilled out ambience in the evening. We got caught up in a mass floor cleaning operation and were impressed to see how everyone worked together to wash the marble walkway that surrounded the temple pool: a row of people would line the water’s edge, dipping buckets into the pool which were then passed in a chain along the width of the walkway and emptied whilst yet more people followed behind with reed brushes, sweeping the waste water into outlet grills. There were even boys with ‘squeegee’ type things bringing up the rear to make sure the surface wasn’t left slippery. The group moved along seamlessly so that in no time, the whole walkway had been cleaned to perfection. Another show of the Sikh sense of community was manifested in the huge communal ‘dining room’ where all are welcome to a small plate of free food; the kitchens can apparently cater for up to 40,000 pilgrims and visitors each day! We didn’t partake – our stomachs were in need of a whole lot more – and went to have a vegetarian (most food here is) curry at a local restaurant. The food wasn’t bad but certainly nothing on Pakistan so far!