Friday, September 30, 2011

Dalai Lama, Amritsar Golden Temple, Rajasthan,

When I hear about the heat wave in good old Blighty and you are enjoying the same weather has we are in Rajasthan, I know there is justice in this world. I feel a lot less guilty as I sit on the veranda outside my room at Castle Bijaipur, accompanied by the early morning birds' friendly tweets and chirps.

It must be over 10 days since I last updated. In all I was over a month in the Ladakh,  Kashmir Himalayan region and I suppose like everybody who goes there, it will remain with me forever.

After Manali I went to Mcleod Ganj which is where the Dalai Llama lives, along with the government in exile of Tibet. This is a subject I don't know enough about, but in the day that I was there and after various visits to museums and the Temple, I think I know enough now to say that whatever the achievements, successes and opportunities that China makes and offers the world, they will never ever be forgiven for their brutal and heartless occupation and decimation of the Tibetan people. I am sure there is another side to the argument, but I haven't been able to find one.  It seems that the Chinese have a bully instinct that led them to pick on a weak and peace-loving neighbouring  nation so that they could exploit not only the huge mineral reserves in Tibet, but also gain geopolitical territory.
A shot of the main Temple...very quickly erected after the flight from Tibet

Prayer wheels full of thousands of the 'Om Mani Padme Hum' chant

The Dalai Llama's rather humble house

Karma, who sang his ancient Tibeten songs at a concert he organised that day. His Mother and Father were sent to prison when he was 12, and he has heard no more from them. He fled over the Himalayas to India with his saviors. He is 40 now.

I met a lot of Israelis in this area, and enjoyed a very pleasant ride to Mcleod Ganj with Yoav, who I had met on the road from Manali on his Royal Enfield. During this ride, which involved a few stops for sustenance, because of the huge rain downpours and a naughty smoke (my one and only weakening, and only a puff or 2), I started understanding little more as to why there are so many Israelis here.

On the road between and Manali and Daramasala 


On the road between and Manali and Daramasala  

Just before the down pour on the road between and Manali and Daramasala 

In fact there are so many that the local Indians think that Israel is a huge country. After three years for men, and two years for women, of national military service, the youth of Israel explodes around the world and takes as much drugs as they can possibly consume, and just go wild as a huge reaction to the incarceration and much hated restrictions of the military. An estimated 60% on leaving the military will take this route, and you have to really question how this can be good for a nation. Maybe this is just one of the costs they have to bear of being surrounded by other nations who hate them.

I seem to keep loosing things in Mcleod Ganj, first it was my toolkit off the front of the bike which came off just before getting there, and then I lost my helmet. I had a bit of a row with the hotelier about how on earth it could have disappeared from my room. It was rather futile and just had to lump it, driving down to Dharamsala helmet-less to get a new one on my way to Amritsar.

I don't know whether it was coming down from several thousand metres to just a few hundred but I did feel energised as the twisting roads gave way to the dead straight roads of the plains. Batty also enjoyed the lighter challenge.

I was looking forward to a change of scene and the Golden Temple in Amritsar was fantastic to behold. It is the religious and cultural capital/heart of the Sikhism and when I went there at nine o'clock in the morning it was teaming already. The Indians have such faith, and it runs through all that they do.

                            All had to wear these head scarfs, but not the gormless expression...

The surrounding pool was full of these very charmed carp

The lush lush plains of the Punjab slowly gave way to the sands of the Rajasthan desert. My water consumption went up and the fantasy of a crisp cold beer at the end of the days riding returned. I had heard about the golden city from previous trips to Rajasthan so a visit to Jaiselmer was long booked in.

                                             A water hole on the road to Jaiselmer

  A large Havali build by some of the immensely rich Jain merchants, who traded in precious metals and stones, opium and cloth

The Maharajah's bed chamber in the fort

View from Palace in the fort

View from Palace in the fort

View from Palace in the fort

I spent three days there and really enjoyed the beautiful city. I believe it is one of the few castles in the world where much of the population still lives within the castles walls, which gives it a time capture of many long gone centuries. I should have got a hotel in the castle in retrospect, but I was seduced by an early pitch from a guy's hotel just outside the walls.

The tourist season is just beginning and there were a few more people about to meet, which makes for more chats...all be they fleeting. On the second day and went off on a camel safari. A massively ambitious description for was a ride on a camel for two hours, which eventually emerged out of the  green (rains had just stopped) desert shrub onto a small area of sand dunes. Jonny Walker, as my camel was named, hated me and giggled nervously for the whole trip. I was 30 hands high, astride this fidgeting and newly broken camel and expected to enjoy it. I have not lost my temper much on this trip, but the next day I gave my host who had introduced the 'Safari', piece of my mind. The only pleasure was being accompanied by lovely Fabiana from Argentina. She was riding the altogether lower, calmer and nicer natured Mr Rocket.

I tried to kiss and make up with Johnny Walker, but no joy...he gave me a look with a clear meaning.

Three nights at Bijaipur (I have been here 3 times now over 10 years and it feels like a home in Rajasthan...introduced by WF) has meant some peace and quiet in amongst the tranquility and very good management of the castle. I have done a lot of work and caught up on a fair amount of admin before heading to Mumbai on Saturday.

I met a group  of delightful ladies at Bijaipur who had joined Debbie Kindness of on one of her amazing sounding trips. She was certainly getting 10 out of 10 from her group.
Debbie very kindly has given me a great contact for Nepal, which I appreciate a grt deal.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

14th to 17th Sept. Leh to Manali, 3 days ride, tents, rain, new friends and around every corner another jaw dropping majestic scene.

I had planned to head for Manali, which is about 500kms south of Leh, and then turn left into the Spitti Valley, which would have been another 3 days driving through what sounds to be amazing scenery. Plans changed as I approached Manali, it had started raining in the evening of the second day and I woke to more rain on the third, and I thought I had to get to 'civilisation'.

Leaving Leh, the road runs over the second highest pass in the world, Taglangla at 5350m on my GPS. It runs across high desserts, up and down beautiful valleys. Mostly heavily pitted, rutted gravel and sand roads, with about 25% tarmac, which is such a blessed relief, particularly for my road tryes…more on that later. The road is only open for about 4 months a year, so maintenance will never be up to date, despite the thousands of workers busying away.

Some intrepid Brits on holiday and cycling from Shimla to Leh

There are no hotels as such on the first leg, but clever locals have developed a couple of these tented hotel villages. You arrive and get swamped by offers. Selection was lucky dip for me at Pang, having no gauge or reference, and went with the first tent on the right.

Comfy tent although it was so cold that I slept with nearly all my clothes on and under 2 duvets that were more like mattresses

Pretty soon after my arrival, there was a great roar as the Aspen riders turned up. 14 guys aged between thier mid twenties and mid forties, who are on a 17 day tour of Ladakh on their much loved Enfields. I did not get to meet them all, but they were all great enthusiasts for the ride and with diverse backgrounds as Educators to the National shooting Champion, from polo team owner to former golf professional and national coach. They welcomed me into their group and stood me dinner that eve. Unfortunately one of their members was suffering from Altitude sickness (these mountains are all between 4 and 5000 mtrs) and was put on oxygen at the local military clinic.

The Aspen Riders

I set off early the next day, crossed a few well known high passes, drove some non stop amazing roads and reached Kyelang mid afternoon in the rain.

One of my favourite shots...road worker's transport
One of many road snakes...the most was 22 corners, if the sign was to be believed.
About the only wildlife I saw apart from the odd gerbil

Nothing worked in Kyelang, no electricity, no mobile phone network and no internet across the whole town….weird, but apparently it was more often the case than not, I was told by a charming Sikh fellow who I had breakfast with. He was a hydro electricity engineer working on a local project. Luckily the electricity came back early evening.

Kyelang was my 'turn left or right' decision place. Either to Spitti Valley or to Manali.
I only have 6 weeks left in India before my visa runs out and what with the rain, I thought I had better get heading south and turned to Manali.

The rain got heavier and heavier as I climbed Rohtang. I had heard people mention this place in rather hushed tones and with some reverence….well the climb up was ok-ish, largely driving through streams of water as the rain water gushed off the mountain. On occasion it was so deep that the exhaust was covered, and I listened to that lovely bubbling sound as we bounced along hidden rocks under the water. My new waterproof trousers were not, and as the climb continued the rain changed to sleet, it was getting decidedly cold and I was mostly wet through. Sadly with the low cloud/fog, there was little to see, I imagine it must be beautiful on a clear day. It did cross my mind that there were no other bikes about, which was odd as one had been always passing bikes every hour or so over the last few days.

The descent started as a relief, quite smooth and with very little traffic. This was not to last. Tarmac turned to mud…deep mud, above the base of my panniers sometimes, which meant pushing Batty through it…she could not do it all by herself, it was very hard going. Then there was the traffic jams. A single track, muddy road 4000metres up the side of a mountain with the occasional passing place is fine when there is little traffic, but not on the day I crossed…it seemed every lorry, bus and army truck in the district was crossing that day and the co-ordination was zero. I persuaded an army officer to get a little wet and organise 3 trucks to reverse a 100mtrs back to a passing point, another to edge 1 metre forward, and bingo we could all start moving again after sitting for an hour. With the lorry drivers fretting about the risk of landslips (which were apparent all around) the only blessing was that the fog meant one could not see over the edge of the road…we were high up and it would have wobbled me I am sure.

There are 8km of this sort of condition. I would have really struggled going up, rather than down.

A mini glacier bridge near the top

Nearly there, going down below the clouds and a welcome return to some greenscape and all tarmac roads

It was during the stop start of the traffic fiasco, that I noticed the front brake was getting spongy…a quick pump of it restored it for a while, but not for long and soon I was on Batty's good engine braking and the rear…not ideal. How I did not come off I do not know. I am no great biker, and what with my stupidly smooth road tyres, I deserved to take a tumble, but luck was with me and by late afternoon I was in a Manali hotel thawing out. There was 8km of that mud, and it was as good a work out that I had for years.

The next day broke very fine and I took Batty for a service.

- new clutch plates
- new chain and new rear sproket
- new brake pads all round
- replaced broken wheel spoke
- more welding of the rear frame holding the pillion seat and mudguard
- fixed a slow puncture in the rear tyre.

these were the jobs…it took most of the day, and the price of a Himalayan crossing from Srinegar to Manali in terms of the bike repair was about £40-50, 3/4 of which were for parts.

3 brothers who did a good job and were good spirited.
The Enfield Club, Vashist Chok, Rotang Road, Manali. -9816058420
I was happy and confident using them as their tools were all in order and well set out, unlike a lot of mechanics here. Also the chain came off the rear sprocket right outside their shop, so my hands were sort of tied. I had been on my way to a much recommended chap called Anu.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lovely Leh, Ain't no mountain high enough

The next day was very gentle, we upgraded ourselves from the good but simple Barath guesthouse, to the more comfortable Omasilia Hotel, did a little shopping for new boots and had a hilarious hour watching the Polo contest. Brilliant horseman and polo players on tiny little ponies, which were little more than 13 hands but as strong an animals twice their size.

Leh is a great town at 3500metres (which allows for very little strenuous activity for quite a few days until acclimatised) and is full of adventurous types from all over the world (apart from Britain). In particular it is full of hundreds of Royal Enfields...far more than any other bike. Their riders are by and large guys and a few girls who hire them for a few weeks and tour around some of the worlds' most exciting and beautiful roads. A bit of an Enfield Mecca really.

One day we made a short trip to the  Drukpa Monastry at Hemis, which is famed for its position both naturally and in terms of wealth and intellect. 

Suddenly, and all too quickly Sophie was on her way to the airport and the two-week holiday, or should I call it adventure, was at an end.  Traveling with another certainly adds to the experience and it has been great fun doing so with such good and game company.

11th Sept
To re-adjust to just Batty and I being by ourselves again, we went off to climb the highest road in the world. The Khardung La pass seems to vary slightly in its height depending on who you believe, but my Garmin said 5376, with 4.6 m accuracy variance. There is also some dispute as to whether it is actually the highest road, but I think it probably is in terms of allowing vehicles such as Batty to navigate.

I was worried if Batty would be able to get up there with so little oxygen and the steepness of the climb, but there was no need as she did it with seeming ease. It is a great feeling being at a height that is 3/5ths the height of Everest and four times higher than the highest point in Britain.

The top box rack had fractured in 2 places on the road to Kargil and had it fixed there, however I was not very attentive and the angle of the top box was such that it partially masked the rear brake light, so the 12th was a day of getting that fixed and starting to up date this journal.

I bumped in to Dhala and her Wildfrontier clients today and am joining them for supper tonight, before making an early start south tomorrow.