28.05.2015 - 14.06.2015 17 °C
What a difference a few days make. In Rajasthan and Punjab you could have fried an egg on a street cows back (maybe slightly religiously offensive), whereas in Kashmir I was surrounded by snow capped mountains with the temperature at a bone chilling 17 degrees. I'd not been this cool since sitting in front of the open mini bar in a Vietnamese hotel in an effort to cool off!
I arrived to the town of Srinagar in Kashmir to be greated by what seemed like half of the Indian army (they are a bit on edge in these parts owing to the proximity to their mates over in Pakistan) but more importantly a bloke holding a sign with my name, surprisingly spelt correctly, who was to take me to a houseboat I'd booked onto. Think a combination of Waterworld (the terrible film), Venice and being in India and that goes some way to describing lake Dal in Srinagar where I spent my first day in Kashmir. The lake was packed with houseboats, shops (both on stilts and on boats selling everything from postcards to beer, although a personal favourite has to be the floating kebab shop) and more gondoliers than rush hour at the Rialto bridge. I don't have the best sea/lake legs though so booked myself onto a 4 day trek into the Kashmiri wilderness starting the next day.
My guide for the trek was India's answer to Bear Gryll's, except this guy didn't have a 5 star hotel to go back to at night, just a cow shed...more on the cow shed shortly. The guy was a one man army, whether it was gathering firewood, setting up camp, helping to make dinner (the other member of the entourage was a personal chef....fancy or what) or rounding up his heard of cows each evening after a days trekking, this guy did it all. The only thing I wasn't convinced by was his knowledge of the local wildlife...whats that bird Mr.Grylls...brown eagle...what are they fishing for...brown trout...what breed of horse is that...brown horse...I see, the Roy Walker catchphrase say what you see method of naming animals, this lot need some colour in their lives. We set up camp in Naranag valley, home to the local gypsy people, not the caravan towing brigade though, these guys were the real deal living in temporary shelters and travelling around with their huge flocks of sheep. I spent the next four days trekking through stunning countryside with Bear and speaking of bears, one evening when the three of us were playing cards (apologies for anyone that visits these parts and is subjected to playing Whist, I taught them and let's just say there may be a Whist equivalent of alcoholics anonymous in Naranag valley soon...they were hooked) he got a phone call saying one of his cows hadn't returned. He sprung into action, leaving the chef and I to play cards....literally until the cows came home. It was only the next morning that Gryllsy said this area was bear infested and they aren't all as friendly as yogi.
Nice shoes Bear.....photography classes can't have been on the curriculum at Shepherd school.
As well as enjoying the scenery I was also a guest of honour at Bears house....I think he was homesick after a few hours everyday, as we dropped by more than once. The first time I was given the grand tour....one half of the house was for people the other half for the cows, although one of the cows must have forgotten the rules...how many times have you had to ask someone is it normal that a cow is in their living room? I was also 'treated' to a cup of salt tea and some home made chapati as well as the offer of gypsy water, which as long as it wasnt cursed or as salty as his tea I didn't mind. The rural dream however was extinguished when I realised the house was connected to the mains electricity....Bear had been summoned to fix the families one light bulb and also ensure the ability to charge the families barrage of mobile phones, including his state of the art smartphone was not compromised. I did wonder why he spent so much time on the phone though...either he was checking in on the cows or he was negotiating his mini bar bill from the 5 star hotel he used in his last survival series. Either way the families priorities were clear, the guy had no socks and terrible shoes, but at least they could watch youtube and upload their cow milking selfies.
After the trek I returned to the relative civilisation of the houseboat for a well earned shower and a days recuperation before heading east to Ladakh...proper mountain country and a chance to test my lungs at high altitude. I was booked to travel in a local share taxi to head to the town of Leh, which on a good run was 12 hours away via winding mountain passes with huge drops to the valleys below ( Those with vertigo be warned). When mixed with the Indian driving style...drive as quickly as possible and only overtake when either a) on a blind corner b) when the road is too narrow or c) when a car is coming the other way, this made for an eventful journey....very eventful in my case. A combination of a 5 hour delay for a landslide, India's answer to lewis Hamilton bending the back wheel and subsequent repairs, his replacement driver who drove so slow I thought it was his first time behind the wheel and the car eventually breaking down completely in the middle of nowhere, meant that when the rescue car finally rolled into Leh, the journey had taken 24 hours instead of 12....I need to stop subjecting myself to these endurance events!
A real highlight of the journey though other than the scenery was the roadside signs designed to focus the drivers attention and remind them that the roads they were driving on were a bit on the dangerous side. Here's my personal favourites in no particular order, courtesy of the Indian border roads organisation...I just wished my driver understood them:
Life is short, road is hard
Go easy on my curves / Be soft on my curves
Driving faster can cause disaster
Safety on road is safe tea at home
A cat has 9 lives but not the one that drives
Drive with care, life has no spare
Three enemies of the road. Liquor, speed and overload - rail must be gutted
After whisky, driving risky
Don't gossip, let him drive
Feel the curves don't hug them
God favours only sane drivers
Faster spells 'disaster' - countdown might have a word on this one...
Leh aka Tibet in India, where most of the residents are in exile from the disputed state of China, was a completely different world to the lush green surroundings of Kashmir. The land was largely barren and mountainous and was dotted with huge Tibetan monastery's. The high altitude also made walking anywhere feel like trying to run the 100 meters through treacle...best to take things a bit slowly. After negotiating a bit of Indian bureaucracy...a permit is needed to visit anywhere, but for this you needed at least two non-Indians to apply together...I managed to book onto a trip to see a lake deep in the Himalayas near the Chinese border. The next day I left with my group feeling safe that there were no dangerous people as we had our permits and weren't strange solo travelling types. Our progress was halted though, believe it or not, by snow...it appears the UK and India at least have in common an inability to cope with the white stuff. Change of plan...see the lake tomorrow and spend the day instead with the local monks at some monasteries....
This chap also tugged on my beard, I'd like to think it was for luck but my real guess is he couldn't believe it was real.
The next day we did make it to the lake, another epic journey over mountains and through valleys. I could also see why this road suffers with snow....at over 5,000 metres at its peak it was a bit on the high side. After 4 days in the mountains it was time to head back to Srinagar (a quick word of thanks to a friend of a friend Nirmal who owned a local hotel I stayed next to and made sure I had a full list of things to do and a stomach full of local curry) and although they say the definition of madness is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result, luckily in my case I proved the men in white coats wrong and made an incident free return trip on the same Leh to Srinagar road. The only hold ups being the various Sheppard's taking their sheep up hill on the road...this lot should enter One man and his dog...they'd clean up.
Back to the Fawlty towers of house boats for three more days in Kashmir. Where you would ask to have dinner at 7:30 then it appears from a different guy at 6, powercuts happen after a gust of wind, let alone a storm, I had to help push the boats apart so they could be re-braced while half the staff slept and I was woken on a regular basis by the same staff members fishing outside my bedroom and probably arguing over who caught the biggest minnow that week. I also did two final trips out into Kashmir, including one to an Indian ski resort...if their driving is anything to go by skiing here would be a real 'experience'.
It was time to leave the north and back through Srinagar airport. Home of the guiness world record for the most pat downs and security checks in a single building and where even a walking stick (not mine as a result of all that treking but an old chaps) needs a security tag....I think the Indians have been watching a few too many James bonds...the next stop Caroline's place, for two final days in India to celebrate her birthday Indian style.
India trip complete it was time to head on to my next destination South Korea, where the North probably is grim in comparison to the South...I'm not falling for that propaganda Kim Jong...