From January - July 2010, we are roaming the Indian Subcontinent (and beyond, as it turned out)...

...during that period, this blog page is the temporary home of

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Guns, Goats, and Carpets

Kashmir, our home since the last update. We left cold Ladakh, and headed west, somehow hitching a ride in a completely empty bus for several hours. That spat us out in Kargil, a town that saw Tibetan Buddhists swapped for Muslims.

That very night, we got the last seats on a bus heading down into Kashmir. Our "seats" consisted of a narrow bench located directly - that is, inches - behind the driver. Great views, but incredibly uncomfortable. We had no backrests; instead, some uncomfortable bars. I had a cabinet located just to the left of my skull. The road was terrible. The journey lasted some nine or ten hours through the night, crossing a sketchy pass that remains closed (snowed in) for most of the year.

An hour out of Kargil, for a while we closely paralleled the Line of Control with Pakistan. It's safe now, but road signs ("SKILL X WILL X DRILL = KILL" and "WARNING: YOUR MOVEMENT IS UNDER SURVEILLANCE OF THE ENEMY" [Pakistan]) hinted at past problems - the neighboring country was on the hillside just above the dark valley to the north.

Sleep was pretty much out of the question. Each time I/we nodded off, one of the roads heavy jolts banged our heads/backs into metal bars behind us and that damn cabinet on my left side. It was like losing a fight. We emerged from that journey with bruises, literally.

But what a journey! Curves, mountains, and dark. A road that clung to cliffsides and inspired gasps at times. Snow drifts 1.5 times the height of the bus carved away to make way for traffic. A constant drizzle (thankfully, not freezing). The whole time, me peering over the driver's left shoulder, and Rebecca the right - a bird's eye view of all the scary drops awaiting us if anything went wrong.

And after hours and hours of toiling upwards to the snowy pass, we descended into the Kashmir Valley. It was like crossing from Afghanistan (most of Ladakh looks like any photo you've ever seen of that country) and dropping into Switzerland: green, stone cottages, constant hairpin turns, a deep valley framed by tall mountains, shepherds and goatherds and ponies and horses slowing traffic, stone cottages and green, hand-tended fields. If it weren't for the long beards and the skullcaps of the men here, it would have seemed a rustic, faded glimpse of Old Europe.

[A sobering footnote: a day or two after we crossed, a snowstorm closed the pass, stranding some people for several days. Two were killed in an avalanche that destroyed part of this tortuous road.]

OK, so we ended up in Srinagar. It was awful. Rain. And incessant shouts and hassle: houseboats! rickshaws! beggars! shikaras (Venetian gondola-esque boat rides)! baksheesh! carpet and pashmina shawl emporiums! a sh$%load of Indian tourists! Those things aside, the city is not bad. It has a spectacular setting, located on Dal Lake and surrounded by Mughal Gardens and snow-capped peaks. And a fantastic climate, being a mile high in elevation.

Little did we know then, Srinagar would be our longest stop in any city on this entire trip.

We'd long wanted a Kashmiri silk carpet, and this was the place to find them. Negotiating the shops was an experience: sleaze, lies, mostly evil salesmen, "escapes," and free tea (and Kashmiri "kahwa" - cardamom, cinnamon, and saffron tea) and biscuits. But during the eight days it took us to seal a deal, we became experts in assessing quality of these carpets. And along the way, we had many interesting meetings, ate fresh trout (from one salesman that turned bad), had food from a wedding feast (at one of Kashmir's most prominent and wealthy families). We got driven around old parts of Srinagar and saw winding lanes and mosques that we never would otherwise have seen, and saw factories, and carpets washed/clipped by hand. Fascinating...

We ended with two carpets. An expensive time (about the same as what we've spent during our WHOLE time in India), but we are thrilled with these eventual additions to our eventual home in Vancouver....eventually.

Meanwhile, that rain that had initiated our first days in Srinagar had turned to sun, making the past week a wonderful, warm, sunny one. Aside from the guns and soldiers that roam the streets of now-calm Srinagar, it is a reasonably welcoming place. Like on all extended visits to a place, we have our favorite dhabas (eateries) where we are welcomed once or twice each day with big big smiles and eat our favorite curries and chais.

We had planned to leave Kashmir immediately after completing our carpet purchase, but part of our final deal was that we were offered a night on our salesman's family's luxury houseboat (a five-star floating hotel - three rooms only - full of carved walnut, sumptuous decor, and a stunning lakeside location). OK, for this...we will stay another day! We did. It was amazing. A four-poster bed, a wonderfully soft and warm feather duvet, a private chef, and a veranda facing the lake and the mountains to the east.

OK, after this, we leave Srinagar. But no: stuck again. We met a friendly American woman and end up the next day on the houseboat she was staying at. A shikara ride through the canals of Old Srinagar, a lot of socializing, a completely new (and water-based) look at the city that we've now been in for twelve days.


Srinagar turned into a saga. Safe if at times unsettling (all Western embassies still advise against coming here so there are few white faces around). A chance to savour some final moments in a cool climate before descending into the steaming plains of north India in summer. It was an unlikely "longest stop" for us, but it was good.

We leave here in an hour. Jammu - our next destination - was 46C/114F yesterday. So much for pleasant climate...but that is just a quick stop. Our exit from India is just around the corner now, but we've quite a way to travel before then...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ladakh = Little Tibet

Ley was not "closed," of course. The day after our previous update we flew from Delhi to Leh, tucked deeply into the western Himalaya. It was a stunning flight-voyage...from the plains to a blindingly white crumpled mountainscape, ending in a high altitude valley.

And wow, what a change from India! Rosy cheeks, smiles smiles smiles, warm hearty authentic hello's (here in Ladakh: "joolay!" - conveniently, this same greeting also means goodbye, thank you, you're welcome, and how's it going). No beggars, no hassles. The people of this part of the world are ethnically Tibetan, and this is the heart of the region of Ladakh. It didn't feel like India at all. What's more, the heat and haze of the lowlands was swapped for brilliantly blue, sunny skies, and refreshingly cool weather.

Speaking of that weather, after exiting Nepal many weeks ago, we'd posted our shoes and all of our warm-weather gear to Leh, so that (a) we wouldn't have to lug it all over steaming northern India, and (b) we'd be equipped for the cold once more. A cunning plan. In theory. However, our f-ing package was lost by Indian Post. Snow-capped mountains all around, nippy weather...and us wearing flip-flops and t-shirts. This wasn't really ideal.

We persevered. And bought yak-wool socks (and me a pair of Chinese-made shoes that began to self-destruct within two days).

One of the first things we did was rent a motorcycle and tour up and down the Indus Valley. We chose a Yamaha over the more-romantic Enfield (having owned an Enfield seven years ago I knew full well that it's outward appeal is countered by a dismal tendency for breakdowns). The trip was fantastic: mountains, parched terrain, flowering apricot trees, people driving zhos (beasts of burden, like a cow-yak mix) through terraced fields...and gompas (Tibetan monasteries) perched on hilltops or burrowed against vertical hillsides. Tibet doesn't "do" monasteries that aren't spectacularly located it seems. Within those dimly-lit gompas, bright paintings of heaven and hell and dragons and bodhisattvas, gilded and cracked giant Buddhas, smoke and candles and drums and chanted prayers.

Meals were traditional - momos (stuffed dumplings), temok (steamed heavy dumplings), thukpa (heavy noodles in a soup)...if you haven't noticed, it's all various combinations of wheat noodles/dumplings/broth. Starchy, hearty stuff complemented by our stash of dried apricots and nuts.

Accommodation varied widely but was always interesting. One night we stayed with a monk at a monastery; most nights we stayed at simple family homestays, eating meals together with our hosts. Often we were offered a dozen cups of tea per day: milk tea, Kashmiri tea, (traditional) butter tea. Our "homes": red/white mud-brick structures, dirt floors, rustic kitchens/dining rooms with plates, pots, ladles, and neatly-stacked copper and brass pots. Animals housed in the lower section of the house. Cow pats (for fuel) drying atop walls, stacked/bundled hay lying on rooftops, ladders connecting the rabbit-warren structures within a family compound, Tibetan prayer flags hanging everywhere. Sleeping was on rug-covered thin mattresses that doubled as floor/sitting cushions during the day (not too clean), with dusty pillows and heavy duvets that you hoped were free of bedbugs.

It was very peaceful. Most nights, the silence was broken only by donkey bellows and the odd dog or rooster.

Other than the motorcycle trip, we did some hitchhiking (once with four monks) and several days of hiking through spectacular country in snow leopard country (but we saw neither them nor the elusive yeti). We helped one family flood their field in preparation for barley and vegetable planting. Tough life here: long hard winters with little contact with the outside world. Cut off by road from the rest of India for upwards of 2/3 of the year.

For the most part, we saw no tourists. It was great to meet so many genuine people, to trust and smile at them without having to wonder (as in the rest of India) how they were about to try to screw you over. The Ladakhi-Tibetan people won our hearts.

Our last stop during just over two weeks in the region was in the village of Lamayuru, a seemingly four-dimensional construct beneath a monastery that looked as if it were about to topple off an eroded hilltop. A vertical maze of crumbling homes, tangled stairways, mud and hay and steep footpaths.


After a pair of nights in that final destination, we walked to the "highway" and waited for transport - heading West. We were cold, and it was time to descend a bit.

Our final thought on yeah, the sloping dirt floor toilets weren't ideal, but as you're squatting over a concave, gaping hole below and trying not to fall in, you can at least look out a windowless opening and see 6000m+ snow-capped peaks.