Friday, July 29, 2005

Kashmir, India (Pakistan??)

So my first day excursion is a tour of Srinagar, home of Nageen Lake. Bashir, general manager of the houseboat, accompanies me and our driver and we begin by taking a peek at a large white-domed Mosk capable of holding 65,000 devotees.
A quick drive brought us to Shalimar Garden which was designed and built by the builder of the Taj Mahal for his wife. A similar garden named Nihalt was visited nearby as we strolled thru each garden.
Now Bashir is from a little village of Kashmir and their claim to fame are their Kashmir rugs. They have formed a corporation of rug families and they have an office here which if I'm interested Bashir would like to show me. Why not. "So that's how you make them, oh yes, very nice, stunning. How much!?!?" Good luck selling those $500 throw rugs. Gotta go! Thank you for the tour.

My next pleasure was the Golden Temple (Hindu-no gold!). They don't allow Muslims into the temple area so I climb a significant amount of steps alone and at the apex I'm greeted by a very small temple. It's about the size of a walkin closet. Eight or so Hindus at a time crambed in the tiny chamber aglow with flashing color lights, making offerings to a small round boulder which I suppose represents their diety. Outside I spent a few minutes trying to get close for pics to some interesting lizards which I later was told are very dangerous.
Drove around Old Town. Stopped at another Mosk and went inside to discover a huge area of prayer. Drove around New Town.
Zoomed in on the Old Castle, currently occupied by the Border Patrol Army. Which by the way has a huge presence around these parts. While entering into Kashmir on the bus I had to wonder what I was getting into. Apparently relations between India and Pakistan are good right now, but it's not the most relaxed atmosphere.
Interesting side note: three years ago, three tourists were kidnapped and killed. Before that they had a nice little tourist trade going, but then it crashed. So now things have calmed down and people are just starting to return. The result is that they were, at least to me, parionoid and overprotective. They barely let me out of their site. Kind of felt like house arrest with travel rights.
Anyway, I finished the evening like I would all my evenings there, with a nice vegetarian Indian dinner. Simple and delicious: rice, bean dish, curry veggie and Kashmir Tea.

Next morning after breakfast we're driving out 100km east for 3 hours to the Sonmarg Glacier Valley. After meeting my guide I meet my pony. Not the finest example of a horse, but they recomended it. We leave the majestic Sindh River behind us as we ascend towards the glacier. After a short trek (really I don't see the need for a pony) we arrived at the bottom of the glacier where some locals are riding wooden sleds down a hill of ice. The area is a base camp where you can stock up on things before heading on a trek or just sip on some tea with lunch.
Later Manzool and Bashir took me for a ride into town and a look at some property he would like to buy? Next they took me to a realator to talk business which I mostly meditated during and which concluded with the realators toking on their hooka. BTW- Marijuana grows like a weed here. Everywhere.
After dropping of a couple of hitching neighbors I figured this adventaurus jaunt through town was over, but I was wrong. Apparently it's Darien's and Ajaz's (from Dehli bus trip) birthday and they've invited us to join them. Wishing them Happy Birthdays we enjoyed birthday cake and juice. I spare Darien the age question, but find out that Ajaz is only 16. Everyone is very lively and having a great time. The females are all gathered together, young and old, beating drums and singing songs. Now they are dancing and they want me to dance, American Style. I respond that I'm really not much of a dancer and without American Music it's really quite impossible. They are rather playfully persistent however and eventually I relent to a little jumping around.
We are just cooling down from the dance when the dinner bell rings. On to the houseboat and a long thin table cloth is laid on the floor in an L configuration to accomadate all the guests. The woman and children are eating in the adjoining room. A beautiful young woman brings around a glistening water urn and collection bowl to cleanse our hands. The men all eat traditionally 4 to a large plate and all share. Darien and I have our own plates. She opts for utensils, I prefer the local custom of using your god given hands. And it's fun!

Next on the docket is a lazy Shikara ride on the lakes of Srinagar. At 11am Yacoob, my Shikara captain, loads me into the skiff and we are off. Yacoob paddles us, gliding silently while I snap pics of water lillies (Lotuses aren't in bloom yet), the floating gardens and fishermen. We reach the quiet calmness of Dal Lake and stop for a swim. The water is warm but seems considerably less buoyant. We are at 8000 ft. and you can feel it. While drying out we make our way to a small island. A small park with a floating restaurant and locals trying on Classic Kashmir Costume and taking pictures. Other Indian tourists start pulling up and as we are having lunch you can pick between three different indian stereos competing for the same sonic space. Quickly the din dies down and we nap in the boat for half an hour. After a cup of tea to wake up we make for the return trip. Half way back his paddle broke, but apparently he had a spare, so no worries. That night some curious boys who all seem to want to be doctors sat with me in the garden bombarding me with questions. The night is greeted with the muslim prayers broadcasted over PA's for the fifth and final time of the day.

The following morning we leave on another 100km drive destined for Pahalgam, home of the Lidder River Valley. Also home of the Holy (Hindu)Cave and also Yatra. A holiday where thousands will come on pligrimage to camp for two days and it starts tomorrow. This time no pony, I go it alone. Finally on my own, if only for 3 hours, I enjoy a nice hike along the river to the quieter areas. Boots off, roll up the pants, dip my feet into the cool clean Lidder River, lounging on smooth rock, soaking up rays cooled by the breeze and misting water element. Nice!

A short drive in the jeep brought us to a nice spot on the river for lunch. Taking in the scenery and food, I was pleasantly greeted by many little curious faces. A group of young school boys came by to bathe. After a quick dip and some frolicking they all got dressed and sat down to watch me eat. Quite amusing. I finished my food and started making faces to entertain them.
On the way home we got caught in some traffic due to a truck accident. I'm really suprised they don't have alot more!
My last two days at Nigeen Lake were pretty quiet. Nothing to do but relax, but on the last day I did see something pretty interesting. They were going to have a party for 500 the next day and I got to watch them preparing for the feast. Ten feet of fire, cooking large pots of food, cooks scurring to and fro, butchers trimming and mincing, and the spectacle of slaughtering 12 sheep!

Around 8am the next morning I was on a cramped mini bus saying goodbye to the Muslims and what is more or less actually Pakistan and I'm off to Jammu. My destination is Dharmasala but after 8hours my ass hurt I didn't feel like continuing on even if there was a bus then, which there wasn't. So I took cover for the night at the Ram Singh Hotel. A horrible place. The kind where you are afraid to touch anything!
Somehow thru all the confusion I managed to catch the bus in the morning to Pathankot passing thru Yud. A small Indian town renowned for it's sweets. Didn't try. From there transferred to the bus for Dharamsala which is where I figured I'd stay. But a Polish guy and two American girls said they were going to Mcleod Ganj. It's actually where the Dalai Lama resides and it happens to be his birthday in two days. What timing!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

India- the early days

I step out of the airconditioned airport into the thick Indian air. HOLY HOT PLATE! I think the literal translation of India is "A-Sauna!"A few days prior I learned that the temerature reached a record tying 46C (115F). Luckily today it's a mere 43C (109F)!!

On the suggestion of a stewardess I took a prepaid taxi from the Ghandi Airport to the Main Bazaar/Bus station. Next realization: if you think that driving in Italy is crazy you've never been to India!! The rules are as follows: __none_____________.In fact, I believe the only prerequisite for obtaining a driver's license is the ability to honk the horn. Which they do incessantly! No joke. They use there horns so much you'd think that the horn is what powers the car! Want to make a million bucks. Or 43 million Rupees? Invest heavily in automobile replacement horns! They probably have to replace them more often than petrol.

Somehow I made it alive to the Main Bazaar. Walked thru it a bit and found a place stay. No A/C, but a shower,toilet,tv, and one hell of a kicking ceiling fan.Went out for walk and quickly me Ravi, a "college student";) On alert for the scam I allowed him to walk with me. He told me about Dehli and suggested that I buy some of what they call "travel clothes", a traditional Indian cotton top and bottom so I would fit in. Yeah, OK. Like with the right clothes I'll blend right in here! And I'm not paying your boss 1000 rps for something I'm sure I could get for 400. Next he showed me an underground bizarre which was nice and cool.
But soon we were once again commenting on the extreme heat to which he suggested I spend as little time in Dehli as possible. I really couldn't agree more. I've only been here an hour and I'm ready to split this armpit. He offers to take me to a "Government Tourist Office". Well I'm now sure he's on a payroll, but I have got to get out of here somehow. On thing is for sure. Without prior experience or some well prepared research, navigating India is no easy task. The system is like nothing I've come across. That is if there is a system? I'm not quite sure yet. Even though English is pretty prevalent I feel much more lost here than anywhere in Europe.So at the travel agent I wound up agreeing to pay a much too big a chunk of cash to spend an "all inclusive" week on a houseboat in Kashmir, northern India. At that point I would have sold my soul to the devil for nothing more than an expedient trip straight to the somewhat more tolerable and temperate environment of Hell!!
Later that night I passed a guy spread eagle on his face who looked to be dead. This triggered a memory flash of the hospital when I noticed that in addition to the Emergency Room it had a "Casualty Room". This was possibly why. So I spent a sweltering night waiting for the morn of my escape....
They told me to be at the office at 11am so I was there at 10:15. It turns out that the bus doesn't leave until 12:30. At 12:30 me and the 3 Koreans making the trip with me are taken to the bus stop. Which actually leaves at 1pm! But Wait! Now we are stopping at another bus station to pick up more passengers and the bus really doesn't leave till 3pm! And when we ask what time the bus arrives all we get in reply is, "in the morning".
Well 27 hours later we arrived! Definately my longest, hairiest, scariest bus ride ever! All the roads are of course barely wide enough on each side for one vehicle. People constantly are passing so there is always someone gunning straight at you. And 80% of the vehicles are busses or mackin' trucks. I thought for sure once or twice we were in for it!
On the bus I had met Darien (Ireland) and her young Indian companion, Ajaz. He turns out to be a relative of the Magestic Houseboat owners where I am to stay. This is increbibly fortunate because he was able to guide me to my driver through a incredibly ravenous horde of guys looking for business. So, Manzool drove me in his little black Hyundai to the houseboat on Nigeen Lake, made me feel welcome and made me some delicious Kashmir tea.
I was thoroughly enjoying sipping on the tea and then the sales pitch came. Well yes, a 10-11 day trek in the Himalaya's sounds wonderful, but at $1350 it's a little (Lot)out of my budget, sorry.
I had just finished a nice breakfast of omellet, bread/butter,jam and tea when Manzool started selling again. If the big trek is too much we have smaller treks also. Still not buying. In the end I wind up agreeing again to a much too expensive package of four day trips in and around the area. The first of which starts this very same day. But my time is short so I'll leave it cliff hanger for now......