Tuesday, September 13, 2011

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.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Back to Delhi for a few meet ups and a new tank for Batty

After a week-ish in lovely but damp, cold and foggy Shimla, I returned to Delhi. It was a 10 hour run and I left at 6am to be sure of making it in daylight. All was pretty as expected until I met Anita.

I stopped for lunch by the road and ordered a mix of spicy delights, pointing at the dishes that took my fancy. The only other people there were a group of twenty-thirty year olds who were having a fun old time.

After awhile one of the girls came over to me and started asking me about what I was up to and where I was going, a process that happens many times a day. Not that I particularly tire of it but when a beauty, who could have stepped off a Bollywood set asks, the story gets all the better and heroic.

The others joined her and they turn out to be brothers and cousins…then out of the blue Anita, as I discovered her name to be, asks if I would take her for a little ride. I thought about it for…no I didn't, I said yes immediately. After much instruction from the brothers about how to get on Batty etc off we went up the road. We had a bit of a chat and I said she was the first Indian girl I had spoken to and that they seem very shy in the main. She asked if I thought she was shy, not very I replied. The chat carried on and she suggested meeting in Delhi and gave me her phone number. Well that could be fun and interesting I said, whilst pinching myself really quite hard.

I dropped her back and just as they were leaving I said that I would call her the next day….big mistake, everyone heard and she looked crest fallen. The brothers turned on her and were obviously started asking her what that meant etc. Oh how I wish I had kept my mouth shut. It was obviously a big faux pas….even the restaurant chap came over and started wiggling his finger at me and gave me a big ticking off in Hindi.

The end of the story is short and predictable, I sent her a text the next day…no reply, I called her the day after and had a very short but friendly conversation whilst she was on a bus. She promised to call back when there was less noise, which she didn't. I convince myself that she had been kept inbounds by her family, or perhaps in reality the prospect of dinner with a middle aged balding Englishman was just not her idea of fun.

Henry Price (of Batty building fame and many others no doubt)  had booked in to the Aster Hotel in the Karol Bagh area in Delhi and I headed there and booked in as well. Henry greeted me with a welcome cold beer. He was in Delhi for a week to meet various Royal Enfield suppliers.

My old/young pal Dhala was also in town that eve and she and I went out for a dinner. She is now taking a lot of trips to India and such like for Wildfrontiers. As as an aside I have much to be thankful to Wildfrontiers and it's owner and founder Jonny Bealby. I have been to India twice, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Georgia with them and it has definitely given me a lot more confidence to do this trip with Batty.
It was lovely to catch up with her and hear all from Battersea over a very good curry. She is of to Kashmir for a 10 day trip, followed by a 2 week Himalayan one, about the time I will be going to Leh, so out paths may yet cross again.
Henry Dhala & Self

The plan had been to sort out the engine tick over speed on Batty, which had never been quite right which Henry did with the help of the Madaan mechanics. The other main plan was to fit a larger tank that had 2 compartments so that the smaller one could have diesel in it for starting and stopping on, and to use the main tank for veg oil that I would switch to once the engine was hot. The idea was to get a much higher veg oil use than the 75% current rate. Annoyingly there had been a mixup and the tank was the wrong size, so will await it somewhere else in a few weeks time.

On Thursday I did get to have an enjoyable and useful couple of hours meeting with Sumeet of PhotoAmbry, who we have some business plans with and it strengthened that relationship.

Henry introduced me  to the very effervescent JC, who supplies Henry various parts. JC took us out for 2 dinners and was a very generous host keeping the nights young by taking us to his favorite street vendors of ice cream and curries….he is a master of them and we had some of the best food I have ever had. Although a very successful business man, he puts quality before show, which I like a lot in him.
Henry, JC and Self.
On Saturday I persuaded Henry to join me for a visit to the Delhi Railway museum, which he had been to before. Although good in parts, was rather run down and lots of the lovely old engines and carriages were on a slow rot.
A Maharajah's bed

My pal the Prince of Wales

After that we went on a visit to the Red Fort in Old Delhi….always a wow.

Sunday was great in that Henry borrowed a bike and we went for a run down to Neenrana Fort (now a Hotel), which is 75 miles away. A stunning place and they do a very good lime soda….my regular tipple nowadays.

The Englishman abroad

Poser 1

Poser 2

The ultimate poser, a passing herdsman

I write from Jammu, which is in the south of Kashmir. In a couple of days time I am meeting Sophie for a couple of weeks touring and trekking, which will be a holiday in the trip. Because of the historical troubles in this area, my new phone will not work, nor can I get a local sim card. It is a way of preventing terrorists getting hold of communication. So I will be off mobile line apart from the odd internet cafe for about a month I imagine.
Yesterday I saw a Yamaha XT 500 bike with all the overland panniers outside a local hotel. I went to inquire and Stephan ( http://stephans-abenteuer.blogspot.com )came down. He was on a 3 month trip from near Hamburg through all the Stans, China, Pakistan and now India. He does a big trip every 2 years having saved holiday from one year, and rolling it onto the next so he gets 12 weeks away from his air traffic controlling job. We supped that eve and swapped and shared tales of the road.

Alas I have lost my iPhone…either nicked or fell out of my pocket…bloody stupid and very annoying. Luckily I had the spare sim, and Apple have this on line facility that you can wipe the content if it is lost, which I have done. The iPhone is a grt tool and I often write my blog on it either as a dinner companion or in bed when I wake up. It also has a kindle and iBook application, a phrase book for Hindi, a currency converter etc etc I am missing it. Now to begin the claim rigmarole, what joy.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Shimla 15th/16th August.

Happy Independence Day India.

Quite a good place to be to see these celebrations, lots of marching police, army, cadets and brass bands and speeches about how India has changed and developed in the 64 years since the Brits left. It was in Hindi, but Hassan said it was positive and no anx against the British.

It was a cold and wet day, which has been the way of things here - even had to get a fleece from Batty. As everything was pretty shut up, it gave time to plan the Himalayas and Kashmir some more, and finish reading the adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What a great book, that I had missed so far in life. I have a load of 'classics' lined up in the e-book library. Not only is this trip a perfect opportunity to read more than ever before, but between Kindle and iBooks a lot of classics are free to read.
Went to a film showing of a locally made film in the town hall. It was about this very remote Himalayan village called Malana. It is famed for it's own form of democracy that has worked for centries, and which now has been ruined by the government forcing them to vote in general elections etc. The villagers have become divided between the two main political parties, which in turn has divided the community.
It is also famed for growing some of the best hashish in the world. 20 years ago I would have been up there in a flash for a forgotten week or 10. Now I get very paranoid if I smoke any, a result of an over indulgent decade 20 years ago.

16th Shimla

Went on a good long walk today with Hassan. We took a local bus about 5 miles to the foot of a hill and took the path to the top.
For some reason I had to have a photo of a bus driver. On the road they are the kings and humble bikers are very respectful.

At the Temple (name to be advised..) sporting a new tee shirt with logo, by the very kind hand of my pal Chele, who makes such things at http://www.quaysidegroup.com/

Not a very revealing or flattering pic of the temple complex

There was a Hindu temple there and I was ushered in to have a form of blessing, a red dot on my forehead (a tikka), and a spoonful of holy rice to eat. After this we were invited to eat with everyone there. This involved sitting along a strip of carpet in a hall. There were probably about 30 ish of us there and I, the only westerner. Paper plates were handed out and then these young guys, I suppose they were trainee monks, almost ran up and down the line dolloping out rice and 5 other curries  and dhals. It was delicious and is a free for anyone and everyone there. It is such a sound social way of helping those who need it in an entirely equitable environment. Those who wished to could place a contribution in a discreet box.

Shimla, 12 Aug

Shimla is a lovely hilltop town that cascades down the very steep hill on all sides and kept almost as if the Brits had moved out only yesterday, rather than 60+ years ago. It is also kept very clean, with litter almost nonexistent, unlike elsewhere in India that I have been to.
Staying in a v tired large hotel Gulmarg for a couple of nights, rather weird in that the beds are round and mirrors adorn the ceilings. If it is meant to be a temple of love, I fear it falls sort,  by my measure at least.
I have a new pal called Hassan, who started chatting to me in a non-toutish way,  he does, however, have an interest in a hotel with a far better view and a less 'big' hotel formality I am assurred. So I guess I will move there. The only trouble is that to move less than a mile it will involve a 30 min journey going around the cordoned off from traffic hill top centre. This is really a blessing that makes the place special and a delight to visit. A legacy from Empire apparently.  For over a 100 years this small town housed the British Raj government from April to October when Calcutta or latterly Delhi was too hot. In effect this meant 1/5 of the then world's population was controlled from a place the size of a small country English town.
View from the Gulmarg window, I was rained on most days and it was fog bound a good deal of the time, mores the pitty.

Jakhu Temple, A very steep 30 minute walk up from the centre.

The Centre, known as the Mall

The town flowing down the hill

A very English Church, full of memorials plaques of Brits in Imperial days 

It is Independence Day on the 15th Aug and the town has completely filled up up for the weekend for the holiday. Lovely to witness the Indians at play and I believe there will be processions and much celebration. The trouble for budget conscious travelers is that the room prices has rocketed. After nearly  a day of searching for a reasonable room, the Mayur hotel eventually gave me one at double my budget. It was a shocker in terms of the bed being damp, because of monsoon rather than anything else, I hasten to add, no view and generally horridly run down. I had meant to stay at Hassan's place but Batty could not get up the hills on the approach.
I caught up with Hassan later that day and he had re-sold the room for that night but said I could move in the next night. I did what I hoped I would not have to do, which is to leave Batty a mile or so down the hill in a manned car park. With  fingers crossed, I put the newly acquired bike cover on and padlocked it closed, chained her to a steel girder and put the alarmed disk lock on and hoped all would be well.

Hassan took me for a 10 k trek around, up and down local beauty spots that was fun and fit making. We finished by going to the Viceregal Lodge. Just like a Scottish lodge and the place of historical discussions, like Independence and Partition.


The Viceregal Lodge

One of my many cousins in Shimla

Looking down on the Mall area

Friday, August 12, 2011

11th August on road to Shimla

This visa thing has had me cornered and it seems that leaving for a couple of weeks to go to Nepal could be a problem and in the worst case have to stay for 60 days before returning. If I was on a formal tour, then it would be easy as there are bookings and flights as proof, but I would be subject to the discretion of the immigration officers at the borders. It may have been fine, but after some dilly dallying decided to 'do' Nepal in December.
It took a couple of days, of and on, to find this out, and by the end I was all city-ed out and headed for the hills north of Delhi.

I have noticed a lot of male hair dying going on here. It is either jet black, that shows the gray very quickly, or it is a sort of henna colour which has a lot of Donal Trump like characters cycling their rickshaws and the like. Will try and snap some examples of these fine chaps.

It is a long days ride to Shimla that I did over 2. Most was through the mighty plains surrounding Delhi, that look to be largely down to rice and wheat. Beautifully lush in this rainy season.

It may be down to Batty's homecoming (all but her engine was made in India), the speed of Indian roads being almost exactly in equilibrium with her pace, the now perfect clutch and gear setup, or the mustard seed oil in her tank, but Batty is going so well and is a joy to be riding here. That is until I could not get up a slop to a hotel that I wanted to stay at. It was very very steep, but plans to lower the gearing for 2 up are essential.

Some snaps on the road to Shimla, you can understand my spirits lifting as I rode through this scape.

9th & 10th August, Delhi

These 2 days have been all about getting Batty serviced and seeing if I can get my Indian adjusted so that I can go to Nepal for a few weeks and then return to India. By chance I noticed, in the smallest of type on the visa, that you cannot return to India for 2 months if you leave. This is apparently a way of stopping people staying for the 6 months, popping over the border and getting another 6 months visa and popping back again. A pain but just one of those things.
Bombay Hair cutters...good barbers, who tried to rip me off by charging 10x the agreed price for an additional face massage and treatment...we settled on 4x...aaaargh

I had been for a bit of a recce to this  area called Karol Bagh on Sunday. It is the home of all things motor vehicle in Delhi and where there are a lot of Royal Enfield mechanics and sales. Not knowing where to start I asked a couple of policemen, who were on Royal Enfields, who they thought would service the bike well. They immediately suggested Madaan Motors, as did another chap I had asked, so felt pretty confident. I was greeted by Sohan Lal Maddaan, the 79 year old founder of the business, and immediately put my mind at rest about sorting Batty out. Particularly once we had established that we knew someone in common. Non other than Henry Price, who had built Batty.  I gave him a long list of things to be done and left her to their tender care.

The Madaan mechanics hard at Batty's clutch

I went off to the FRRO office to see about the visa. After an hours wait in line I was told that I had to have a letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs, which was closed for the day when I got there.

Back at Madaan's I met Shan Lal's son Arun, who had Henry on the line and we chatted about the service that Madaan were doing and his visit to Delhi next week.

Returning a few hours later and after a few finishing touches, rode off on a refreshed Batty. They had put a whole new clutch assembly in and the difference was amazing.

Delhi, 7th & 8th August

I was so looking forward to coming back to India, made all the sweeter after an almost enforced incarceration in the hotel in oven like Dubai.

Hopefully I will be in India and Nepal into December.

It is the monsoon season, which is quite a violent word for what is largely seen by locals as a time of celebration for the rains that will nourish the year ahead. Apart from a light drizzle, it has not actually rained on me in 4 days, although there has been some heavier rains at night.

I am going to stop talking about the import and export rigmarole that is involved on this trip, but will section it off for other travelers who may find it useful. Apart from it being a rather boring subject, I fear that the trip account could revolve too much around these rather painful collisions with red tape and authority.

Because I arrived on a Friday night, I had to wait for the Monday to retrieve Batty.  I had pre-booked a hotel room using www.laterooms.com, which I had used for Dubai as well. Seemingly good discounts, but in Delhi's case there were no windows in the room. At first I was rather pissed off, but then I realized the advantage was peace, quiet and very dark....to the extent that both nights there I slept for 10 hours, which has not happened for years.
Did lots of rickshawing around, which always makes me happy. I have been here twice before and the last time was about 4 years ago. Each time the air has got all the more cleaner, as they have come down heavily on polluting trucks and converting taxis and rickshaws to LPG. They also have an underground system that was fledgling last time, but now is very efficient, new and as crowded as the London one. The run out to the airport on took just 20 mins.

Getting back into right handed eating etc. And enjoying delicious currys from local street stalls. One thing I have noticed is the periferation of Chinese food stalls next to the Indian ones, which I am sure were hardly here before. Am yet to see how they compare with the mighty New City Noodle along Battersea Park Road. Probably the best in London, and the home of our weekly company lunch.