A journey of 1000 miles begins with a cash advance
Trip Start May 17, 2010
34Trip End Feb 10, 2012
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Delhi, the second time round, and suddenly the city hangs together. As with a jigsaw, tourist areas, the diplomatic enclave, the parks, the wide political avenues, shanty huts and the rich residential all fit together. I find I like Delhi and can see why those from other countries wish to live here. We spent some time at Vasant Kunj, an area that houses some of the poshest Delhi inhabitants in gated communities and is also, according to the “India Times” the worst crime area of Delhi with three murders committed in the past ten days. According to the paper the “city's elite and fash-frat press on the gas and zoom past” thus ignoring the unpleasant.
“India Times” also informed me that, according to some Planning Commission, an urban Indian spending a penny more than 570 rupees a month, roughly 20 rupees a day (about 34 cents Euro), on his basic wants, cannot be termed poor
In Delhi temperatures were soaring up to 44. The heat was heavy, the mosquitoes biting. Dust and bad tempers were everywhere. It was madness to remain; so being sane we flew to Leh in Ladakh. Literally flew, by Air Indigo (clever name?) about one hour north. We went on holiday to a different world. Up over the Indian plains, the lesser Himalayas, the the Greater Himalayas. Stunning views over mountains untouched by humans, wave after wave of them resembling whipped cream, the untouched snow stretching as far as the eye can see. Landing at Leh the plane descends dramatically, its wings almost brushing the hills as it circles to come in.
Some 180 million years ago where now are the Himalayas was once a vast ocean
Between November and May Ladakh is isolated from the rest of the world, as the access roads are closed, crossing as they do some of the world's highest passes. Until the military airport was built no one could reach Leh, the capital, during those months. Tourism was only permitted in 1974, that added to the isolation. There was once a royal family but they ended their rule back in 1846 after 39 generations. Known as little Tibet, Ladakh is immense and empty, a high altitude desert with the sky seemingly a startling blue every day. India's highest, coldest and driest zone. The winters are long and bitter. The lowest temperature recorded was -49 although -5 is more usual. It has an austere beauty with Leh high above 3,500 metres, surrounded by snow capped mountains and quiet, still, fresh air and fields of barley watered by melt water from the glaciers
The villages are oasis like, dwarfed by the mountains. The green of the oasis comes from the watered fields and the poplars and willow trees. The poplar is used for the rafters of the houses, and support the willow and shrub and mud roofs. A family will often have just five acres of land which passes intact to the eldest son. The second son becomes a monk. It cannot be an easy life with such a brief growing season. Lives must be lived to the rhythms of nature, and here, with the precepts of Buddhism. In summer they work hard in the fields ploughing with a dzo, a hybrid of yak and cow. In winter they stay indoors and drink barley beer and go to monastery festivals.
The mountains are dotted with medieval monasteries, or gompas. Gompa means “solitary retreat” and most monasteries are secluded sanctuaries, generally sited high on a hill. They are collections of buildings, often rising tier upon tier and look more like fortresses. The mud brick walls blend into the landscape. Inside are statues of deities, dark shrines, ancient murals where the robed lamas live lives of piety. Alchi is more shrine than monastery, having white washed mud brick buildings housing frescos and murals from the 12th century, which are rather dark due to years of soot from the butter lamps and lack of light. On the way to Alchi we crossed a river covered with prayer flags where a woman construction worker was mixing cement whilst on her mobile phone
From Leh we drove to Srinagar, capital of Kashmir. By we, I mean us and Ali, our driver. A skinny lad, yet to shave on a regular basis, popping bubble gum continually, and twirling round hairpins with one hand casually on the wheel. Me, a justifiably nervous passenger, just wished him to keep both hands on the wheel, be aware of traffic and keep the bubble gum in his mouth. On the second day we forbade him from driving. Bart took over the wheel after Ali insanely accelerated down an icy hill and to avoid hitting the vehicle in front lurched the car to the side where, fortunately, there was a rough area where they are widening the road
The route from Leh to Srinagar crosses three major passes and goes within 5 km of the Line of Control – the de facto India/Pakistan border near Kargil where we spent one night. Hence a strong military presence. In Kargil we stayed at hotel Caravan Serai where an Indian family arriving just after us were bewildered by the lack of bars and a swimming pool. Apparently the website gives photographs of both. The poor man was wandering around in a bemused haze while his wife just wanted the election results of West Bengal and brought me up to date on the political implications. The hotel might have been lacking a swimming pool but the owner did get up at 2.00am to give us breakfast (omelet and fried eggs)
Leaving Leh we passed through an arid and seemingly barren plateau. Flat and rocky and desert like. There were rugged hills in the distance and the landscape was desolate and austere. The hills were all shades from chocolate brown through purples to yellows. This is countryside to dwarf human activity and I love it
We pass through small oasis like villages. We look down at the river Indus meeting with River Zanskar, the Indus a muddy brown, the Zanskar greenish. We travel through Nimu, all apple orchards and military. The colours around are brilliant and almost too bright – the vivid greens and the intense blue of the sky. We climb mountains for which the phrase hairpin bend was invented. Once all this was just a line on a map, now it takes on life and lives. That I like about travelling; the bringing to actualité the contours and names of a map. At times the route narrows to a canyon, and then a gorge with steep sides. Harsh mountains all around streaked with snow. We are diverted at one stage over mountains, passing “moonland” a strange wind eroded formation of butter yellow rocks, once, many years ago, a lake
Once again there are warning road signs. I think Ladakh wins over Sikkim. Some signs are inexplicable. “The child is father of the man” is one. For what purpose, one wonders is Wordsworth (or Gerald Manley Hopkins) being invoked. Something to do with the young being closer to nature, the older to death; or are they evoking Freud who thought that it was only experiences in childhood that explained susceptibility to later traumas. Most odd. Others are simpler. “Peep. Peep. Don't sleep”. “I love you darling, but not so fast”. And a few kilometres further - “I like you darling, but not so fast”. Presumably he hadn't slowed down and her affection waned. There is the sexist - “Let him drive. Don't gossip.” And the neat - “After whisky. Driving risky.”
This has to be one of the best drives in the world and I urge you all to come
The valley of Kashmir has had people waxing lyrical over the years. “It was like the face of a beloved that one sees in a dream” said Nehru, rather extravagantly. In the midst of the valley lies the capital of Srinagar and the huge Dal Lake. Around Dal Lake many families live by fishing, cultivating vegetables on floating gardens, lodging tourists in houseboats. Dal Lake is known for its houseboats. The first was built back in 1888, and built because the king refused the British permission to build on land. He was suspicious about their motives. Now there are about 500 from the de luxe to category D which just about float
Kashmir has been fought over and many are still wary of coming here. Sadly that has added to its isolation as in the 90s Srinagar was virtually struck off the tourist list because of militant insurgency. And its economy depends upon tourism. Lets just start from 1947 when the king chose to remain independent (under the British it was an autonomous state) but Pakistan invaded within months of partition. About a third of Kashmir remains under Pakistan, although India kept the most valuable parts. Since then two wars have been fought between Pakistan and India. As the vast majority of the population are Muslim Pakistan considers Kashmir should be part of it. I met, in a garden in Srinagar, a group of University students who began talking by saying, slightly aggressively, that they wanted an independent Kashmir belonging to neither India or Pakistan, as if I was somehow responsible for preventing it happening. They said their parents generation felt the same way. But, one wonders, what about security? A small Kashmiri state would be very vulnerable to China.
At Pir Dastgir Sahib, it was a day of celebration. The mosque was full of men and the women had the walls outside to pray at. Nearby is the tomb of Jesus, or not the tomb of Jesus. I refer you back to my first Indian blog where I mention that some believe Jesus survived the crucifixion and travelled to Kashmir
From mosques to the Mughals, and their gardens. In the 17thand 18th centuries the Mughals came in the summer to “paradise on earth”. The gardens are nearly all laid out with terraces going up hills and stone built water channels running through the middle occasionally cascading downwards
From Kashmir briefly back to scorching Delhi; then east towards Nepal
I feel that India for me is a place skimmed over. Maybe it is too large, too many lives, too much to do other than skate on the surface. Perhaps India is not a place to be understood, only accepted. A few last, modern, thoughts on India from a local, a Bombay man on the web. “We live in a nation where rice is 40 rupees a kilo and a sim card is free. Pizza reaches homes faster than ambulances or police. A car loan is 5% but an educational loan 12%. Footwear we wear is sold in air conditioned shops but the vegetables we eat are sold on footpaths. Where we make lemon juices with artificial flavours and dish-wash with real lemons.” We are passing through, we can only accept.