Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Srinagar to Leh. Most challenging/exciting days yet

In the sailing world it is said that you should never take a girlfriend out for her first days sail with you when it is anything other than perfect weather, I think it could be said the same when taking someone on the back of a bike for the first time.

We left at eight in the morning with the expectation of it taking about six or seven hours. My pal Stephan, who I had met in Jammu, had e-mailed to say that it took him about six hours, there was very little on the road and the roads were pretty good. I think Stephan was blessed with a quiet day and a bike that enjoys rough roads. In fairness several other people had said that the road was good and we would not have a problem with it.

All was going well until we met a tailback of traffic, we drove past it ( the beauty of bikes) until we reached the taped off road. After a little confusion it became apparent that there had been a landslip and we would have to wait till it was cleared.

Luckily it was only for about 30 minutes. However this was the end of the tarmac and beginning of the gravel and mud road, it was also the beginning of the steep climb up to the passes before we reached Dras, the second coldest inhabited place on Earth. Changing repeatedly between first and second gear, Batty struggled around countless switchback corners that carried us up a single tracked road that a glance to the un fenced edge had you looking down hundreds and hundreds of deadly metres. This joy was enhanced by trucks trying to over take us around corners and fast appearing on-coming traffic. As a final challenge to that particular section of the road, Batty just ran out of power going up the steepest and roughest bits. Sophie quickly learn when to jump off and even then at times it was not enough and I had to get off as well and run beside Batty slipping the clutch until we got to a flatter stretch. I was dreaming of a 14 tooth sprocket rather than the 16 tooth I had replaced the standard 18 tooth with. The additional weight meant that Batty was carrying something like 35 stone which for a little 10 hp engine is quite a load particularly when going up the Himalayas. Eventually we reached Dras and had lunch.

                                      Shank's pony

We were only halfway and prayed that the road would improve to Kargil. It didn't really and by seven o'clock we arrived at a hotel that we been tipped off about by Walter and his wife who had said hello in Dras, he had done that road two years before on a holiday with some other Dutch pals. The other excitement of the road was hearing small arms gunfire about 10 miles from Kargil. It was right on the Pakistani border but we thought it was just target practice. I was later to learn from some Army officers that I met on their bikes and shared a whiskey with, that it would have been definitely combat in that area….furthermore 4 Pakistan soldiers and one Indian soldier had been killed in the area a week before in an exchange of fire. We worked out that our average speed of the day was 15mph..

We elected to spend a day in Kargil as we were both shattered by the drive. We did go for a 2 hour drive down the Padum road until it switched from tarmac to gravel. What a stunning road, and when it is completely tarmac, it will be one of the roads to ride. Give it five years though.

We set off even earlier for Leh at seven o'clock, again thinking that six or seven hours on much better roads should be about right. We were having a lovely ride and with the new support that we put behind Sophie, her back suffering was a lot less.

We stopped at Lamayuru monastery before lunch for half an hour and started savouring the new atmosphere of Buddhism that I'm afraid to say wins out over Islam, to my mind.

All was going well and we were only an hour or two from Leh, when we came up against another roadblock. Slipping past the traffic and up to the front we discovered that there had been a significant rockfall about two hours earlier and the JCBs and detonator equipment had only just arrived. We hung around for a couple of hours and watched rather entranced as the diggers slowly cleared the way. It got to the last few metres of rubble when something got jammed and the process stopped. At that stage it had been quite a spectacle, and we have met a number of other Western travellers caught up in the jam make it quite fun. It was remarked that in the UK a security tape would have been across the road a mile or so away and nothing to entertain those waiting. The Indian way, although very precarious, did at least prevent frustrations and foster some travelling bonding.

With the news of the now defunct digger we heard from an Army officer that there was an alternative new Road that was about an extra 12 km. He promised us that the road was Tarmac and would not be a problem for us. It was now about six o'clock and we thought it best to take this route. It was rather frustrating that we didn't know two hours earlier, but such is the way here. I was very wary of the time and how the night comes very quickly here. Before long our lights were on and I was breaking one of the few rules the trip, which was never to ride at night. To compound this anxiety, the road quickly changed from tarmac to gravel and the weather changed from a calm into hard squalls. Batty's lights are not that great and it took us about an hour and a half of very slow going, hampered by endless trucks overtaking us and kicking up a fog of dust, to eventually get back onto the main road. A nerve wracking time for my passenger, but to give her every due the only hint was the occasional tensing of her grip as we tiptoed around barely visible corners high up on the mountain face.

It was a 14 hour day by the time we found a hotel. The two days on the road to Leh from Srinagar would probably count as the hardest two biking days of my life (so far possibly). To have subjected Sophie to that ordeal is not something I would have done knowing what I now know, and nor would I think she would want to do it. However, hard and as exhausting as it was, Mother Nature rewarded us with absolutely amazing scenery and a sense of achievement that would not been possible without the pain.

Srinagar, Kashmir. 27th Aug - 6th Sept

About 10 years ago, I came on holiday for the first time with WildFrontiers. The destination was Rajestan and it was a fantastic holiday, with great people who I'm still in touch with now. One of the local guides was called Ratan Singh and he was a great man not only in his knowledge of India but also his good humour. I distinctly remember during the course of many conversations that he described Kashmir as heaven on earth. This nestled in my mind and imagination ever since so meeting Sophie in Kashmir seemed like a perfect holiday to have within this vegibike trip.

I got to Srinagar a day before Sophie arrived. She had done a lot of research on trip advisor.com and booked us stay on a houseboat run by a certain Mr Butts. I think he must be a bit of a legend, along with the houseboats that he runs. In the main part of the Dal Lake nearest the town, there are literally thousands of house boats that have varying reputations, and it is a bit of a lottery if you do not have recommendations or prior knowledge of them. However Butt's Clermont House Boats are well away from the crowd, moored on private property and very well run. Mr Butts himself is a great character that varies between a fussing father and a bit of a showoff when it comes to him name dropping all his famous guests. They include George Harrison, endless American and British ambassadors and of course Michael Palin.

Much to my joy, not only did Sophie bring herself, but also a bottle of delicious claret, some slow gin, a fine pork pie, a slab of Denhay Cheddar and some pickle. Great treats and did not last long.

Please note that all the good photos on these next few posts are taken by Sophie.

We spent one night there, and booked a further three for when we returned from a five-day trek. So peaceful, delightful service and a place of immediate relaxation.  Batty was allowed to stay in their garage which was a kindness and a relief.

I mentioned Hassan before in Shimla. After his yarns about the delights of the Kashmir mountains and the treks that he organises, I had booked a trek with him. He came to pick us up mid-morning and took us to a village called Aru where we got out and climbed for four or five hours up to our first nights camp. We had been slightly under the impression that we were going to be alone on this trip, however what I hadn't understood, or in fact ever been told, was that Hassan and many guides like him link into an already existing local camping and packhorse system and you become part of a ready-made tour run by somebody else. As it was there were about six others, four Israeli who left the next morning and then there was Vid and Annie who we got to know over the next few days..
Shepherds moving down from the high ground...chickens and all

My faithful 20 year old boots finally give up the ghost

Camp on the river plain

Vid and H discussing a vital matter no doubt

Shepherds Huts

Some say that this was not a dignified way to cross a river?

Shepherd kids

A great shot of how and where the shepherds live at 4000m

Supper time

This chap and his family welcomed us in for tea. he owns 2000 sheep and 100 cattle, promising a good dowry for his daughter 

Tarsar Lake

It had rained a lot the previous few days and there was concern about whether it would clear enough for us to carry on. Luckily the morning broke fine and we set off from the Lidderwat Valley (2000m) where we had stayed for the Tarsar Lake (4000M) 14 km up. It was quite a climb for this saddle fit, but not really walking fit fellow but did not find it as impossible as I had feared, and very thankful that I had stopped smoking.

We had a bit of a clarification with Hassan on the way up as despite his muddled efforts to say what we were doing over the next few days, it was even less clear now that we were there. Eventually we got out of him that we were camping in the same place again before moving on to another spot and spending two nights there before returning to spend a night with with his family in a village an hour or two away. We had thought that the trek would involve the camp being broken every night and then the pack horses follow us to set up camp as we covered the route. I was a bit grumpy about this but there was precious little we could do and it was in a stunning place. There was no hint of modern man, no phones, no vehicles, no aeroplanes, no TV etc. We were many hours away in a mountain wilderness that was sometimes like a big scale Highlands of Scotland and other times an Alpine elder brother.

When you are brought to such a special place it is very easy to forgive one's once trusted guide his economies with the actualité. Maybe they get away with it every time.

The next day we walked gently up for about five hours through a beautiful valley and camp was made by the river. Annie and Vid regaled us with their tales of 17 previous Himalayan treks amongst many other anecdotes of life. They have spent the last 2 1/2 years doing different treks over different parts of the mountain range and reckon that they had another year to go before the task was done. They were both retired, he as a US accident and emergency doctor and she from teaching. I think he was the first person I've ever met who was at Woodstock and was very candid about how at the time the medical profession was actively encouraging and then monitoring the use of LSD and cannabis in their young doctors. I rather got the impression that it was an experiment he thoroughly enjoyed being part of. Anyway they were having a fantastic retirement and keeping themselves exceptionally fit, easily seeing this writer in their wake.

The next day we headed off from camp up to the Kolohol Glacier (3000m)whose river we had been following for the last couple of days. We had lunch there before heading back. It seems that the standard fare for luncheon is 2 boiled eggs and two boiled potatoes….Seemingly not very inspiring, but surprisingly delicious and fulfilling, right up until you see the guides and bearers tucking into curry and rice.

We were being chased by the rain clouds a fair amount of the time, but luckily intended to rain at night and not so much during the day. One night we were woken to a very heavy downpour that went on for hours and hours. We were camped in a floodplain and my over active imagination had us all being swept away by a burst river. My suggestion of putting on our clothes in preparation for evacuation was not well met and countered with the suggestion of going outside and have a look at the river. Luckily there were then some torches being shown around which led me to conclude that our guides were making sure everything was safe. The next morning it turned out that the guides had not been out of their tent, nor have they been remotely worried or even woken by the torrential rain. The torches must have been from the shepherds looking out for their flocks apparently.

At the end of this stunning and fun few days trek and after a night in a very nice hotel called the Himalayan in Pahalagam we went to spend the night at Hassan's family home. It was great to see life off the tourist trail and in a quiet and vibrant village in the heart of the Kashmir Valley. It is so rich and abundant in terms of crops and relatively easy survival, you can understand why it has been fought over throughout history.

                                               Hassan with his mother and sister 

Their rice crop nearly ready for harvest
Going native

We were treated to probably the best dinner I have had in India by his mother and sister and were given the main room as a bedroom, which was rather spoiling, but in tune with the generous manner in which we have been welcomed.

Back to Gulam Butts' houseboats, where we explored the old town of Srinagar (with top guide called Rashid, of River Songs Kashmir ,  welcome.kashmir@gmail.com), the Dal Lake and generally had a near perfect a few days. By chance on the afternoon before we left we were introduced to Julian Evans, the  Deputy British High Commissioner and his various colleagues having tea at Butts Clermont. They were visiting Srinagar and Kashmir on a bit of a fact-finding mission. Currently the Foreign Office advice is to not visit Kashmir and if you do, only stick to the main cities. That is why we have hardly seen any Brits here, bonkers when the rest of the world is enjoying this heavenly place and it seems a little ridiculous from the experience we have had. It is true that it is one of the most militarised areas in the world, but the fight for independence and with neighbours is pretty quiet at the moment and it is certainly not a fight being raised against tourists. It was an interesting conversation and they were fascinated by the vegibike journey, wishing me every success and offering any support I might need both in India and around the world via his connections in the FO. Something rather useful to have up one's sleeve.

Our sitting room

Riverside view of Old town Srinegar

Kingfisher snapping

Old town

Cotton tread merchant

Old Town

ours was the one in the middle

These are from the early morning veg lake market. Too early for me, but Sophie made it...

Lake fishermen

Amazing water lillies

Lassa, probably the best lake guide there is...such a charming man. Never went to school and cannot read or write, yet can name every bird and fauna there is and speaks English as if he was brought up in the Royal court 

During the course of our trek, Sophie had said that she wanted to come with me to Leh, which is about 450 km. She had been to Leh three or four times before and would be a great guide for this newby. However this did involve signing up to being a pillion on Batty. Other than a few short jaunts in London, she had never been on a bike for any significant time. I changed the sprocket on the front of the chain to lower the gearing significantly, praying that it would be enough to carry us both over the high passes that awaited us.