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India - North

INDIA | Sunday, 19 September 2010 | Views [2173]

Sorry, one more photo ... with monsoon cloud in background

Sorry, one more photo ... with monsoon cloud in background

Amritsar has mainly two attractions to offer: Golden Temple and Indian-Pakistan border ceremony, two totally incomparable events. Being the holiest Sikh’s shrine in India, Golden Temple is truly majestic and beautiful. Time flies fast here and we easily spend couple of hours walking around large square pool with its golden gem in the middle. Large crowds slowly move in clock-wise direction, many devotees take a dip in holy water and we quietly watch with respect. Another scorching hot day and by noon we desperately need to cool down … crazy packed shuttle bus is no relief and by early afternoon we are happy be back in our A/C hotel room. One not-so cold beer from shop below and quick snack should refill our energy (did not really do much!). The rest of day we are going to spend at border crossing. It is hard to describe next few hours … allowed only camera (without cover) and water bottle through security checks, thousands of Indian tourists and few foreigners fill multi-level concrete viewing platforms around 5pm … waiting and sweating in hot afternoon sun is not funny. Boiling hot concrete makes it impossible to sit down, there is absolutely no breeze and more and more people keep coming. Crazy place!!! Finally the masquerade begins … short slogans barked to PA system heat the crowd mad, and crowd shouts back with (probably) pro-indian nationalistic slogans. Then small military squads march from both sides to meet at the gate where they lower flags … jerky march is quite funny with legs kicking so high it looks dangerous, almost dislocating them from hips. By the end of show our shirts are literally dripping with sweat; this must have been the hottest day ever in my life.

On Sunday morning we walk 300m to train station … next destination will be Jammu if travel package created in Delhi actually works. Well, the train arrives and that is good start. We’ve even got promised seats … and there are two guys waiting for us at Jammu’s station … as promised. So far so good. Jammu leaves neutral impressions, nothing too special but nothing too bad ... just another temple and lots of shops selling pashmina in good price range so Iva buys one for cold oz nights. While having dinner we make unexpected encounter with bunch of happy young guys … obviously amused by our presence they circle around our table for few minutes before they ask: “Where are you from?”, and “How long in India?”. When we answer the ice suddenly brakes and they became very open and friendly … buying drinks (later even more drinks), taking pictures together (later even more pictures) and eventually we had to break free from their sweet (but sticky) attention. From time to time we still get message on Facebook “Wer ar u ser?”. Mid-day flight from Jammu to Srinagar is a little bit scary as plane rattles dodging 5000m peaks; our first preview of Himalayas is very impressive! In both Jammu and Srinagar airports we notice heavy police & military presence … picked-up from the airport (ok, maybe that guy in Delhi was actually proper travel agent and did not just take our money), we learn about curfew imposed by Indian government in Kashmir. Taken directly to Safina houseboat we enjoy cold beer on deck waiting for our boat to start moving … to our surprise all houseboats are fixed and actually never move; the only small shikaras provide transport. Ha, ha ... learning something every day. Boat-owner’s son tries to persuade us to spend 42,000 rupees (~1000 AUD) for a 5 day hike around Gangabal Lakes but we can smell a fish, very rotten fish. Our concerns are confirmed later in the day when helpful manager at Swiss hotel indicates that such trip could be done for less then 20,000 including everything. We move out of Safina and start to organize hike on our own. Deal offered by young guide Feroz sounds fair and on Saturday 3 July we leave Srinagar in a squeaky taxi to Naranag where we join two horsemen and three horses. Food and camping gear is loaded and within few hours we are off to Kasmirian valleys and mountains. Endless green meadows decorated with pine trees, sheep and cows, all lined with snow covered giants at distance remind pictures of Swiss Alps on Milka chocolate. Air gets fresher and crisper as we gain more altitude hour by hour, day by day … the third day we reach our final camp site at Small Gangabal Lake. Fog and low cloud obscure mama nature and few hours of rain finished our day... hot Kashmir chai helped to regain some comfort. Sleeping at 3700m does not pose any problems, by now we are well acclimatised and extra few blankets kept us warm for the whole night. Unzipping tent next morning was plainly unbelievable – under spotlessly blue sky we can see mighty 6200m Hary Mok rising right in front of our tent, tossing its reflection in motionless crystalic turquoise water of Gangabal Lake. Insane scenery! We are going to camp here for one more night - after breakfast our mission is Large Gangabal Lake … walk and scramble around its perimeter. Seemingly easy and short tour takes almost seven hours with many challenging stream crossings on the way; the hardest is lake’s out-flowing river with strong current and freezing water which we need to dare with bare feet. Brrr! Pins and needles can be felt for some time. Back at camp site we hear nice news … horsemen did some serious fishing and tonight we'll have fresh trout for dinner! Deep fried pieces were delicious and we gave Feroz many compliments for his cooking skills. Day 5 arrives and before 9am our contingent starts to move back to Naranag. Taking alternative shortcut proved to be difficult both for horses and us too as loose steep hills were very slippery … we are happy to see river at bottom of the Naranag River valley in late afternoon. We are staying for 2 more days in Srinagar to chill out before our next move and we accept Feroze’s offer to stay on his houseboat. Curfew has been imposed for more then three weeks now, streets are still deserted, all shops are closed and not even buses leave the town. With three other tourists we find a private 4WD heading for Kargil and on Thursday 8th July we leave quiet and depressed Srinagar for good. Initially monotonous road takes sudden dramatic change shortly after Sonamarg village where Kashmir Valley ends and Ladakh range starts with nail biting scenery, ascending through windy and crumbly road to Zoji La pass at 3529m. Hundreds of trucks tend to choke this narrow road every day … our driver is little overzealous to show his skills by overtaking endless line of trucks, and getting uncomfortably close to 200m vertical drop. Several times we ask him to stop this senseless madness despite his assurances of this morning prayers to Allah. After explaining that his gods do not necessarily converse with our goods he eventually stopped and we arrived to Kargil tired but well and alive just before midnight. We swear not to use private jeeps again … other travellers talking highly about Indian bus drivers makes the use of public buses number one choice for future. J&KTDC bungalow rooms ($5/night) are simple, clean and comfy although we lost half of doughnut to a resident mouse overnight … hmm. Not finding Kargil anyhow interesting (also no meat & no booz on Fridays) we book two seats with J&KTDC bus for 85km trip to Parkachik, one third of 240km distance to Padum. Bus is fully loaded with locals, timber planks, bags of veggies, tires and lots of other stuff - inside and on roof too. Scheduled few hours journey took seven hours and with our bums well tenderised we get offloaded at 6pm somewhere in Suru valley. Small sign on roadside points to J&KTDC bungalows so we are not lost after all, and after about 300m gentle uphill walk we can see few young vintage buildings… “Hello, is anyone here?” we call loud, call again, louder, and again … hey, is there anyone here?! ... Yes, someone opens the door. Room is clean, comfy and cheap. Hot masala chai and rice with dal come in nicely. We feel chill drifting down from nearby 7000m giants Nun and Kun as soon as sun goes down. It’s going to be very cold night but with extra 1-2 woollen blankets we should be ok. Crispy morning is bright and sunny, majestic Nun rises above our bungalows while shy Kun is hiding somewhere behind. Told by housekeeper that we can see her from Parkachi La, a pass 300m above the village, there is only one way up, following sheep trail. From bottom of valley the path looks easy, I guess in less then an hour we must be done. Views from Parkachi La (4100m) are simply breathtaking. Serene Nun and Kun rise above the sea of peaks like two guardians, and peaceful Himalayas extend as far as we can see. It is very, very quiet up-here … slow three hours slavery was well worth the effort. Mountains cheat our senses, something what looks easy often turns out to be very difficult, and there is much less of oxygen to burn too. Absolutely alone we enjoy this paradise for about an hour before going back down … suddenly we are overtaken by a villager who seems to have no problems negotiating this difficult terrain and in almost no time he made it down – unbelievable! Tired but happy we sleep one more night in Parkachi and tomorrow we’ll continue to Padum … how? Well, apparently there are no buses between here and Padum but there are many trucks so hitch-hiking seems to be an answer. After breakfast we must walk 2km out of town, then we sit and wait… and wait … and wait longer with not even sound of truck… nothing just mountains, river and us. Then we hear familiar sound of diesel engine and guess what … bus with the same driver from two-days ago is coming! We smile at him, he stops and in minutes we are on the road again having 160km of rough bumpy fun ahead. Why did this bus come when we were told by tourist officers that absolutely no buses continue to Padum? Well, lesson we learned: “Never trust a single answer”, from which a new rule is created: ”Ask five independent people the same question and only if you get five identical answers, it might be true”.  Never mind, important is we sit in half-empty-not-so-comfortable bus ‘flying’ south. Spectacular Pensi La pass (4400m) divides Suru and Zanskar valleys in very dramatic way and our driver stops for few minutes for pictures be taken … speechless we watch artwork of mother nature and only beeping horn brings everyone back to reality. Steep descend from Pensi La holds another surprise in shape of massive Drang Drung glacier, and our driver stops again … photos, horn beeping, let’s go guys, we still have long way to go! Short break at Rungdum is the last stop before arrival to Padum at 9pm. What a day!!! Apart from its picturesque position small and isolated town of Padum (3500m) itself is not very exciting … with exception of Zanskar’s largest Buddhist monastery Karsha Gompa nearby. Perhaps Padum is useful stop-over place for hikers on trek Lamayuru <–-> Darcha, on which we are not (but quite frankly would love to be!). Four days in Padum is more then enough but having only few buses each week, the earliest we can leave is Saturday, and we can choose only from last four tickets available – all in back row. The 240km of unsealed road back to Kargil is no surprise to us; we’ve done it before … but wait … this time we’ll do it in one hit! No bed at Parkachik. We leave Padum at 3am, very soon we come up with new rule: “Never again we’ll take back seats when travelling on unsealed road”. A cyclist helmet would be handy as I hit roof every time bus jumps over a ditch. Using my hands as suspended shock absorbers I have some success to prevent further head injuries … this time bus is full and we can not swap seats. “Hmm, small punishment for nice scenery. If it was perfect I could go insane … “, I am thinking. Suddenly the bus stops in middle of nowhere. Out of window we see the reason … small creek only few days ago has grown into a monster claiming small portion of road. One jeep is stuck right in strong current, spinning its wheels on full throttle but not moving an inch. Warm weather in last few days caused snow to melt faster then usual and many innocent water streams cause havoc to drivers. Few by-standers try to help but can not stand long enough in water near freezing point. Finally someone brings out an old reinforcing wire from broken bridge nearby and with help of other car the submerged jeep is pulled out of raging river … I can’t believe what I see next – a small Suzuki tries to cross this wild water where 4WD jeep just got stuck! Ha,ha … what do you think will happen? Yes, you are right! He is not only stuck on boulders but strong current now moves that small car dangerously close to the edge of road where water falls 3-4m down. I wonder if that was an act of courage or stupidity. Anyway, with help of many guys and the same reinforcing wire they managed to pull him out too. He was lucky this time. Our bus driver looks confident and does not seem to worry a bit … indeed he crossed the monster without a hitch. With no more excitement we arrived to Kargil just before 8pm. Stuck in Kargil for two nights we buy first available front bus seats to Leh. Another 240km of very scenic ride is not so bumpy though still very intimidating, especially around Lamayuru. Now we are truly in Ladakh … landscape resembles dry desert and only distant white peaks remind presence of the highest mountains in the world. Leh is packed with tourists and hotel references we were given turn out to be fruitless – all rooms are full and we need to settle for slightly more expensive hotel at town centre. Main language we hear on streets is French, followed closely by German and Czech (!) … I can not resist to approach a bunch of four Czech speaking ladies … and few days later we leave together (Marcela, Irena, Eva, Olga) for eight day hike to Markha Valley with guide (Kumar) and horses (do not know names). Weather is great, excitement high and energy plentiful – all ingredients we’ll need for 100km loop with two high passes on the way. Starting at Spitu (3500m) the first day we take it easy just following Indus River valley but the second day we have some hard work to do and by 4pm we reach camp site only 400m below Ganda La pass (4970m). It is quite fresh up here; sunset creates splendid shades and colours of range across the valley are fantastic. Dazzling! Day three starts at 6am with another delicious breakfast (Kumar is great cook) and soon we start slow and exhausting climb to Ganda La. Views from the pass with two valleys in opposite directions – one we leave, the other we’ll enter - are very rewarding. “Ok guys, enough of indulging ... we have 15km still to go”, Kumar smiles. “Celo, cello”, he continues in Hindu and we start 1000m descend. Very exhausted we make it to river-side camp just after 5pm and it does not take much effort to convince girls to join us for cold beer while Kumar prepares tasty dinner. Quick wash in river and good night … you can dream about tomorrow. Day five covers about 15km relatively flat terrain, mainly following Markha River with several bare foot crossings. Brrrr! Today’s walk brought many dramatic landscape changes and the camp site by raging river is absolutely beautiful. By now we have reached altitude well above 4000m getting ready and closer to the second pass Gongmaru La (5130m). Day six is little easier with only three hours walk to campsite Namaling (4700m) – never before we have slept in such an altitude and understandably we are quite anxious what this night will be like. Steady drizzle throughout whole day and grey sky makes the day bit gloomy but lots of hot tea and resting inside tent seems to be nice compensation. We celebrate Olga’s birthday with a sip of rum (not good idea to drink too much at these heights) and Kumar made her a cake! What a champion! The night was very cold though breathing was ok, and wake up call at 5am is not pleasant … but nutritious breakfast is ready and our commander-in-charge Kumar makes sure we start walking before 6am. Needles to say that last 400m of elevation from camp to pass were real test of our endurance; unfortunately this time no views from the top but lots of cold wind and fog instead. Without any reason to stay much longer, very proud of ourselves we start 1400m descend with many kilometres to cover before we reach last camp site at Shang Sundo. Kumar bakes farewell cake (how could he bake on LPG stove?), we all talk about past seven days of adventure and fun – we were really good team, including Kumar and two horsemen. Back in Leh we spend together few more days before we say goodbye – girls fly back home and we bought bus tickets (front seats!) to yet another adventurous road Leh-Manali. We’ll definitely see girls again in future. Early morning Tuesday 3rd August we leave Leh on bus for two-day 480km journey to Manali with projected overnight sleep at Keylong. We had no idea what was going to follow … Crossing the second highest motor-able pass in the world Taglang La (5328m) is pretty cool and the scenery is again very nail biting. Regardless of many trucks rolled down in gorges and deep valleys (I counted 9! ... trucks, not valleys!) we feel surprisingly calm having full confidence in skills of our bus driver. Leh-Manali road has reputation of the second world’s most dangerous road whereas the winner is in Bolivia near La Paz (road to Coroico). Several years ago the Bolivian road was closed for general transport which makes Leh-Manali number 1! Well, it truly deserves it! Back to our journey … It is sunny and warm day and by mid afternoon we cross Barlacha La, there is lot of snow everywhere and melting fast. Road on the other side of pass becomes very muddy and slippery; soon we see large convoy of trucks standing in line and not moving. Our bus overtakes them all and then stops. Wow! How we can cross this angry monster! Impossible even for large trucks or buses. Furious river has washed away large part of road and without any heavy machinery to fix it, no one can get to the other side. Why authorities do not build bridges over streams is beyond our comprehension, this must happen year after year and this is the main supply road to Leh! Well, decision comes soon … tonight we’ll sleep here in bus and tomorrow … god knows. Not comfortable at all, but somehow sunrise did not take infinite time to come and next morning a backhoe tractor attempts to move large boulders to partially restore the road. Despite overnight drizzly rain water subsided due to cooler temps with snow melting much slower. Somewhat clumsy operator tries his best but our bus driver gets progressively restless … he wants to go! “Everyone on bus”, he shouts and with full throttle we are the first vehicle to cross. Our hearts have sunk deep and everyone on bus is very still. Heavy silence is replaced with cheering and clapping after we safely make it to the other side. Yuppie! Hurray! Relieved we come to Darcha where we eat first time in 24 hours, then continue through even more dramatic Rohtang La pass to Manali. Next morning we learn about disaster which struck Leh last night – heavy rain caused monstrous flash floods, washing one part of town away and filling the other with mud. Newspapers claim up to 200 people died and town has been cut off – communication towers collapsed, airport flooded and roads to Kargil or Manali now closed. We were miraculously lucky to leave Leh on the last bus. Manali (2600m) is pleasant small town with hippie overtone, marijuana being the most abundant plant everywhere we look. Surrounded with forested hills and silver lined with lively but not out of control Beas River we understand its popularity amongst travellers. Easily we spend few days here, strolling around markets or sipping coffee on river’s bank. Fog is never too far away but daily temps would be easily in pleasant high twenties. Round daily trip to Parvati Valley is exciting only to the point where fog permanently turns into rain, hmm monsoon at its full extent, and from now the sun will be rare as saffron. We leave Manali on yet another toy train (how many different trains we’ve been on!) with stop at Ambala from where we catch direct train to Agra. Everyone knows Taj Mahal; we have seen many pictures in travel magazines … and now it stands in front of our eyes in its full splendid beauty. Reality is even more impressive, this architectonic gem is definitely worth visiting though Agra town itself is not anyhow attractive. Gates open just before 6am and we feel privileged to admire its glory at sunrise and soak up its tranquil atmosphere. We can see Taj Mahal from almost every roof top restaurant, having breakfast, dinner or just cold beer in this hot and humid weather. Few days of Agra is enough, on Tuesday we catch overnight train to Kajuraho … what is in Kajuraho?  Kama Sutra temples! Many well preserved and beautiful temples … with many naughty erotic sculptures carved in sandstone. With hired old bikes it still takes many hours to visit three main temple groups and by mid afternoon we finish on our beds in AC hotel room … this tropical humid weather is killing us. We quite like laid back Kajuraho with few nice restaurants and hotels … very happy in Casa Di William guesthouse. Our next destination is famous Varanasi. Ooo…Haaa! Full on! It is a bit too much of India condensed to such a small space … on way from train station we are stuck in heavy traffic filling our lungs with thick fumes, our ears are deafened with honking and our eyes try to scan this crazy place … after four months travelling in India we are overwhelmed. At least we manage to get reasonably priced AC room at Laxmi guesthouse to escape extreme humidity; only few hundred meters from main Dasaswamedh Ghat it is in convenient location… or inconvenient as we discovered later. This weekend is Shiva Lord festival and live bands tent was erected below our windows … pretty loud musical night changed to pretty loud prayers at about 4am. After almost sleepless night we explore few other ghats with aim to find the one with public cremations taking place 24/7. Wrapped in cloth, dead bodies on bamboo stretchers are firstly dipped in holy Ganges, then placed on a big pile of firewood and set alight. Amount of wood is weighted by outcast doms according to size of body so it can burn completely. We watch at least ten fires going simultaneously - seeing limbs and heads licked by flames is quite disturbing picture and thick smoke with ashes in air does not make this river side crematorium a preferred picnic spot. Bodies seem to be cremated completely leaving no signs of skeletons to our surprise, remaining ashes seem to washed off to Ganges with rain. Huge numbers of Indian tourists and pilgrims come here to wash away their sins in Ganges River taking multiple dips in murky brown water with E.Coli bacteria count apparently at 1,500,000 (Recreational water limit = 500). Regardless of almost obsessively frequent hand washing, on the second day we both get severe intestinal pain with diarrhoea. Not very well we leave Varanasi (from Mughal Serai station) by overnight train to Darjeeling, and not without small drama … as many times before also today we have train tickets issued in ‘Waiting List’ status, hopping that just before departure the ‘Waiting List’ status would turn into real seats …. Oops! Not this time! Effectively we enter train without valid tickets after an assurance from conductor “I’ll see you later to fix this”… for $12 fine it turned out ok after all. Darjeeling is foggy and rainy. Strongly resembling Shimla we suddenly know this trip is a waste of time but change from hot and humid plains to cooler hills is somewhat comforting. With conveniently free wi-fi at hotel Dekeling we catch up with internet work, or we kill time at local cinema screening the latest Hollywood fantas-magor The Inception with Leonardo Di Caprio. Having only few days left of Indian visa we board last train to Kolkata where, being scarred of on-internet reported incidence of bed bugs throughout Kolkata, we’ve pre-booked *** hotel Bodhi Tree. Expensive, but bed bugs free and with probably the softest bed in whole India! Small symbolic farewell with India came from Tom Parker National Geographic TV show crew in streets of Kolkata … Tom was making a documentary about rickshaw pullers and we gladly participated in one hour shooting … hmm, we are now TV stars!

 

Observations:

Indian man …

… is proud to be an Indian

… is never wrong and knows all answers. Even if he does not, he’ll make it up in such convincing way that we have no doubts he is right – big mistake!

… is very confident. About everything. Never takes any advice.

… hates to be proven wrong. Never do that!

… can urinate wherever he wants. Even few meters from rail track directly facing passengers

… is funny and likes joking. Nothing is a problem. Everything is possible in India. I agree.

… hibernate the most of year. Mostly in horizontal (rickshaw or taxi) or sitting (watching TV) position

… does not know concept of ‘respect’

… is chauvinistic and thinks only about sex and money

 

 

What we liked:

… hot colors, especially in the south and Rajastan

… delicious food, Goa had the best

… warm and friendly people, maybe sometimes getting bit too close for our comfort but never dangerous. Never felt any threat.

… beautiful and diverse temples with rich cultural inheritance (Hampi, Ellora and Ajanta, Kajuraho, Taj Mahal etc.)

… awesome landscape at Himalayan ranges

… good variety of accommodation at budget level

… well working train booking system. We used www.cleartrip.com

  

What we did not like:

… gross human pollution everywhere. In some places it looks like one large public toilet. You can see it, you can smell it.

… endless crowds of people were sometimes intimidating

… constant honking without any apparent reasons with subtle message “Get out of my way!”

… fast and furious driving. No respect for others.

… pushing forward, jumping queues, people are strong opportunists

… males' dominance in public         

 

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