Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Leh to Srinagar

Ok, I know! I said I’d never do it, but here I am on the road from Leh through Kargil to Srinagar.  I am doing this because my friend Carol’s perfect new house-warming gift is in Mcleod Ganj.  I didn’t buy it while I was there before because of the rain.  It is only sold on sunny days.  Also, I missed the Dali Lama’s previous teachings so maybe during this visit; I can gain at least a drop of his wisdom.  It will also give me a chance to see my friend Wangchuk again.  McLeod Ganj can be very complicated to get to from Ladakh, so this overland route seemed the best travel choice. (We will see.)

 It was supposed to be a leisurely little drive to Srinagar in a vehicle described as a luxuriously comfortable car.   My idea of a luxury car is a Cadillac or Mercedes limo with over stuffed velveteen seats, a window between the driver and the passengers’ areas, a flowerpot, a carafe of champagne and petit fours.  (Of course, I have yet to see a Cadillac in India, and have seen only one Mercedes during any of my travels throughout the country, although Chevrolets are quite popular here).  The car turned out to be a quite new, perfectly acceptable four-wheel drive six-seater Toyota.  Although Nazir Budoo, my friend, and I had the middle seats, my body felt battered and my back was aching and racked with pain after the first two hours.  This trip that was suppose to take 12 hours and ended up to be fifteen.  This was influenced by tea stops, and buying out of a whole village’s Ladakhi turnips (“they’re very tasty you know” I was told and, “only 12 rupees here instead of 20 in Leh.”), and we carried away bushels. We also stopped on a grassy knoll by a river bank and out came a five tier Tiffin box filled with a lovely lunch of chicken curry, vegetables, and kashmiri bread that Nazir had made for everyone on the trip the evening before. After lunch we still had half way to go, and upon our arrival in Srinagar I felt like a damaged, cruelly treated rag doll that had been left limp in a corner no longer loved or cherished by its owner.      
The road went through two mountain passes, and moonscape landscapes; actually some of the mountains have the look of an elephant’s skin, some the moon’s surface, while others are shale-like, some with craggy, jagged peaks and some as smooth as a new baby’s bottom. This goes on for miles with some of the road paved, and parts covered with small rocks, sand, and gravel.  Besides the quality of the road surface, the road itself has more circuitous curves and switchbacks, bumps and grinding gears than a whore on a Saturday night.   The mountain hues are a cacophony of colors. Lavenders, soft greens, ginger, clay, sand, and grey tease the eye and makes one swallow hard at the very majesty of this rare unusual landscape. Having traveled throughout Ladakh visiting monasteries, it is exactly what I had expected, an unbelievably uncomfortable ride. 

My five traveling companions were five Kashmiri men who unlike the Nepali bus drivers who could listen to that screechingly high-pitched female singing, i.e. Indian movie music for six to eight hours at a time, these guys played Kashmiri music which is delightful but frenetic.  Occanisonally one or more would sing along and once in a while one even added exotic arm dance movements.  The music was played for almost the whole 15 hours. Their music and antics were really quite entertaining and passed the time, But after the first two hours, I wanted to scream shut that darn thing off!  For me, who prefers quiet classical music, NPR, or an occasional little Buddhist chanting, this had become damn wearing.  I have always hated elevator music but could really have used some at this point.

On the way we passed through dreary little villages with the locals wrapped in blankets, long sweeping wool coats and other winter attire; dressed against the chilly weather.  What must they do during the really cold weather of the winter; like  - 34 Celsius?  Not go out?  But some one has to feed the livestock and do the basic chores.  Get the water from the pump outside.  These are questions that whirled around in my head and, again I thought there but for fate go I.  Thank heavens I could just pass through these rather dreary villages of squat, square little houses with straw fodder on their roofs for heat and livestock, rather then be forced to live here a lifetime as a daily participant.  One village, Drass, India, we passed through had a sign, “second coldest place in the world.”  Seems the temps went down to  -60 digresses Celsius, once.  I am sure once was enough.  It was be too cold for my vitals even as we drove, and I was in a warm Chevrolet six seater.   

It was pitch dark when we reached the second high pass and for eight Klms the road became bumpy gravel, with large boulders, and the largest, longest ruts we had experienced on the whole road, NH 1, and they made the drive shear hell.  Across the valley below was a river and on the other side was landscape that is reputed to look much like Switzerland.  But in the pitch black I could not see.  Later talking to Peter and Claire, who covered the same area in the daytime, they said that in some parts in looked like Switzerland and in others more like the Rocky Mountains.  No matter, they said, it was jaw dropping beautiful.   At eleven P.M. we arrived at Sunflower Houseboat, where I was ushered into a room with a private bath (and bath tub), which had the look of a worn out Arabian nights movie set.  It was lavishly decorated with a cornucopia of bright colored prints, a tall mirrored old-fashioned carved head board at the end of the bed, an old dressing table, a brocade covered chair and small seat, and a shower with incredibly hot water.  “Heaven, I’m heaven” I started humming, as I took my shower then snuggled into my cozy bed. 

The next day, Nazir organized a trip by boat through the canals to the most extraordinary store, which was really in a house.  There I saw Kashmiri rugs and beautiful vases with a paper Mache lacquer finish being made.  If I were richer, I would have walked away with at least two or three rugs, but actually the experience of learning about the making of the rugs and seeing this wonderful workshop was a real pleasure I shall not soon forget.

 The first night was incredibly cold but after I got some extra blankets the second night, I was toasty warm.  But ‘hell,’ I had to get up at 4:30 A.M. for the vegetable market, and Claire, Peter and I sat on deck and waited for the elderly boatman, who did not arrive until 5:20.  Truth be known, Peter snuck off back to bed, while Claire and I, wrapped in heavy blankets, lay on the deck cushions on guard for the arrival of the old man and his boat. 

Once he arrived, it was about an hour misty ride to the market in the Shirikara (boat) as the old man paddled from behind, and we sat on comfy colorful cushions wrapped in our blankets against the morning cold. Upon our arrival, long skinny hand paddled skiffs swirled around among each other, full of mostly green vegetables, flowers, saffron, chilies, and Mr. Delicious. His boat had two very large green metal boxes full of chocolate, coconut honey and almond cookies, chocolate nut bars that were really fudge, round lemon, coconut, vanilla, and chocolate balls, all as his sign says, Delicious.  Mrs. Fields, move over, there is a new kid on the block and he has unbelievably Mr. Delicious Cookies.  One could get very fat on these fair tasties and not even care, they are so, well delicious.  

The vegetable market closed about eight A.M. but we left early, and headed back to our tucker tucks to catch up on some well-needed sleep.  The rest of my day was spent taking a two-hour walk along the waterfront and the back road, a stop at the Internet and writing this blog.  Tomorrow morning at seven, Claire, Peter and I will ride off into the sunrise down the big road to the city of Jammu. There we will each catch buses to our different destinations, they to Amritsar, the Golden Temple and the changing of the guard at the Pakistani/Indian border, and I back to McLeod Ganj.

What Happened Next? 

After a tearful good bye with Nazir, not quite, but we were all sad to leave each other.  Peter, Claire and I boarded a hired car, arranged by Nazir – I must say that if you ever decide to go to Srinagar, Sunflower Houseboats is the way to go.  They have an excellent reputation, have been in business for three generations, and the service is excellent.  Look on line or in the section The Best of the Best, for more info, but I digress.  

On the route from Srinagar to Jammu, at least the road was paved, although it too was a winding ride bordering a river, which meant lost of curves and some scary moments.  Claire and I were thankful for good old Vomiford to stave off nausea, while iron stomached Peter muscled through without a whimper, even doing a little reading as we went.  Along the route, we were delighted to see the goat herders squiring massive numbers of goats down the mountain, much like the Swiss do with their cows, heading to their winter grazing areas near Jammu.  During the ride, cadres of soldiers were stationed at measured distances along some of the route, in the country and in some of the villages.  There are some places within the state, with hotbeds of independence rebels, and maybe this was one.  I know that in the past buses had stopped traveling because of these individuals.  Yet the ecomony must be good as there is building everywhere.  We passed many shops that sold only cricket bats.  The more south we traveled the many monkeys lined the road. 

There were also numerous groups of nomads.  Yes, you read correctly, there a many nomads in India.  A family caravan of people, pack horses, occasional goats or a cow, and big, furry, healthy looking muscular dogs on leashes; like migrant workers around the world, they follow the work and the weather.  A number of years ago, I saw a group of nomads, who were actually performers. This merry troop walked along with their goat riding on the back of one of their horses, like a standard bearer for the group, the goat stood nobly on the horse’s back as they meandered forward toward their next destination.

During the ride, I shared my train catalogue with Peter and we all decided to take trains instead of buses to our different destinations.  Peter and Claire to Amristar, and I to McLeod Ganj.   After seeing the Jammu bus station, which can only be described as a ‘hell on wheels’ for three innocent westerns to traverse, we realized the train was an excellent choice.  Upon our arrival at the train station we found our respective trains with the help of a foreign tourist office employee, and after entering three different buildings, we finally got our tickets.  My train to Chukii Bank was leaving almost immediately so Peter raced back to the car and got my luggage, while their train was not until 9:30 in the evening.  So our driver invited them to a marvelously gigantic Indian dinner at his house. 

Upon boarding the train, I found my traveling companions were five very strangely behaving men.  I decided the very obese one, who paid off the conductor for something was the leader of this motley crew, a Sikh, a big burly man who I would not like to tangle with night or day was the enforcer, a ‘suit’ who must have be the front man or their accountant, and two flunkies, who were young boorish and took all the orders they were given.  They all had orange sodas, in which they added whiskey.  Shaking their closed soda pop bottles gave the liquor and the soda a good mix, and then they swigged it down. After that some of them looked glassy eyed, somewhat aggressive.  Captain Hook and his hordes seemed like gentle giants next to these guys.  And they were real.  They talked among themselves, and although it was obvious they spoke English, particularly the two head honchos, they only spoke to me in sign language.  They directed their ‘go fors’ to help me with my bags, but as I wasn’t really sure my bags would get off the train (Chukii Bank is a very short stop), I declined their offer. Did the Indian mafia, or a Bagger King and his peons surround me?  I didn’t know, but I was certainly glad, I was not going to spend the night with these goons. 

I arrived in Chukii Bank  (don’t you love that place name – it just rolls of the tongue) at around 8PM.  I got a taxi for about $30 bucks (1500 rupees) and headed for McLeod Ganj.  We arrived around 11 PM and found everything closed except for the two restaurants that serve liquor.  Taking a chance, we drove up the hill above the temple to Pema Thang, my favorite guesthouse and miraculously the office was opened.  The desk clerk, Tenzin (named after the Dali Lama – by the Dali Lama) said we have no rooms.  Then my waiter friend, Sandwich, yes that is his name, seems it’s a very famous name in Burma, the home of his grandfather, popped out of the back office, gave me a welcoming hug and all of a sudden they found they had one room just for me.  How good is that? So I am here to hear the four-day teachings of his holiness, See Wangchuk, and get Carol’s present, which is only sold on sunny days, and what does it do on my first day here, during the dry season, it rains torrents.  Carol at least I tried!

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