Whirl your mind, dazzle your eyes and fall in love with India’s extremes.
Going to India without a plan is my way of travelling. We got to Delhi (and as my friend Herman said it will be) it was total CHAOS. Everyone hoots all the time and not because they are upset but just to tell the other motorists, cyclists, tuck tucks, cows, dogs, horses, camels and pedestrians that they are behind them. They also drive into oncoming traffic, over red lights, cut in front of each other, turn into a street without checking if there is oncoming traffic and during this NOBODY gets upset! They either don’t have side mirrors or they turn them in as the side mirrors will get damaged when passing other cars with only 1 millimeter to spare.
After literally being taken for a ride by the taxi driver we checked into an ugly hotel which did only cost about R160 for the night. We decided to go and explore straight away and the hotel sent a young guy to follow/spy/look after us. We found it very amusing…. A very attractive guy screeched to a halt in an old white Morris and asked us where we were from and will we join him and his English lady friend and Australian uncle for dinner tonight. We said sure and went on sweating, walking, staring, being followed and being ogled at. We then ran into a Canadian guy (David) who was staying at our hotel and we invited him to join us for dinner. Dinner was at Alfa Spice and we had our first taste of utterly addictive, mouth watering Indian food – washed down with an ice cold 750ml Kingfisher beer. Oooooohh! (Total bill R25 per person!) Turns out Mr handsome who invited us to dinner is a travel agent and to cut a long story short – before we hit our “not very luxurious bed” by 02:00 am we had doubled our proposed budget and booked to fly to Kashmir that morning – 5 hours later. We tried to read up about Kashmir in Caroline’s guide book but the book states that as it is such a dangerous place, they are not even going to write about it and they strongly advise travellers to steer clear of Kashmir. According to the Rough Guide in India – Kashmir has become one of the world’s most dangerous geo-political flash points.
The view from the plane on arrival was camouflaged painted buildings. Quite scary… (Oh forgot to tell about the security procedures but might explain later as it is very tedious and I would rather write about Kashmir) As we walked into the arrivals room (only way to describe it as it is quite small) we were met by an attractive Kashmiri airport employee (with waist high trousers – the fashion in India) who new exactly who we were and where we were going to stay. Well we had to go to a separate section, fill out loads of forms and our luggage was bought to us while all the Indians scrambled for their packages, cake tins, bags, old fashion suitcases etc. We were told to sit and wait (well you do a lot of that in India – the saying for that is “India is great and everything is always late” or “No hurry, no worry, have a chicken curry”) – but as nobody is stressed – you just sit back and go with the flow. After a while we were told to follow him and then we walked passed pine trees (just outside the arrivals hall/room) where people where having tea under the trees or just sitting/chatting/waiting. We were told to wait under a tree and after more waiting a very cheerful guy with beautiful teeth and a great smile came to meet us. His name was Faroz and he was from the houseboat we were going to stay. We were told to start walking down the road with him. This we found strange as there was no car in sight and we were carrying our backpacks – so we followed him down the street – watched closely by police/soldiers/security etc. Not because we were a threat – rather because everyone stared at us especially the men….. So after walking a while, Faroz’s cousin Latif (also Ali, the travel agent in Delhi’s cousin) picked us up and drove us to the boat house. Well let me tell you Latif is also great to look at and before you think I thought everyone was good looking you will be right but only in Kashmir – the people there are absolutely drop dead gorgeous with jet black shiny hair, flawless cuppuccino skins and huge dark brown eyes. Well I digress…
Kashmir, like the people is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in the world. As far as Indian standards go it is very clean and consists of loads of waterways framed by the beautiful Himalayas. We had to take a totally kitched up water taxi to the boat house called Dandoo Palace. On the water taxi you lie back on this sofa-like mattress while some poor Indian rows. Arriving at the boat house we were warmly welcomed by Latief/Ali/Faroos’s Father/uncle whatever – his name is Mohammed but he is called Hatchie as he has done the pilgrimage to Mecca. Well Hatchie was so cute and treated us as if he was our father and saying that we already felt part of the extended family only minutes after arriving. That afternoon the Canadian guy, David who we met in Delhi also arrived and we set off with Faroz for trekking on the waterways. We passed through markets, very poor houses, loads of boat houses, lotus flowers, mosques, class rooms with kids repeating phrases from the quran, villages etc. We stopped off at a market and then took a tuk tuk to another village and browsed around. On our way back we had a bit of an incident where soldiers wanted to take off cigarettes – after searching our bags – only because they wanted to smoke it themselves. Faroz then got upset and the soldiers then grabbed him and took him behind a wall and beat him and tore his shirt. I was quite upset and asked one of the locals to help and he went to intervene and then they let him go (minus the cigarettes). It was quite scary but it was the only violent incident we witnessed.
The next morning a driver, Jovic and a young muslim boy called Irvan and Faroz drove us into the mountains. The music (Best of 2006 – obviously Indian) was played at full volume while we overtook trucks on blind corners and drove like maniacs while they shouted “LEGA!” (Enjoy) and the driver felt is was important to leave the steering wheel now and then to do a bit of a disco dance – cars and trucks coming at us head-on did not really break his rhythm.
We raced through small villages, saw woman in colorful saris working in rice fields, passed countless TATA trucks which are all decorated with painted flowers, tinsel etc. When we stopped for petrol soldiers descended on the car wanting to know the most frequently asked question from us: “Where we married”. While driving another group of soldiers ordered the driver to stop the car and we were slightly frightened only to be asked the 2nd most frequently asked question: “Where were we from OR which country was suffering without us? After which comes some reply to do with cricket e.g Ah Hansie Kronje!, Graham Pollack! etc etc.
We stopped in a village at the foot of the mountains to have lunch by the river, overlooking beautiful gypsy homes made from wood.
After the delicious lunch we started our 3 day trek. Wow, it was tuff. We had 3 ponies – packed with our backpacks, water, tents, and sleeping bags. We walked – actually rather climbed and climbed and climbed and when we asked Irvan how far do we still need to go he says – “Not far”. When we ask the pony/mountain boy something he can only reply “No problem” – never mind what the question is. We passed a few gypsy’s who walked up the mountain as if they were taking a Sunday stroll. We stopped off in a little shelter thing to have pink noonchai (chai made with salt, milk and bicarbonate of soda – awful) and chapatti’s with a gypsy family. We then set off once again to our destination in light rain and by now Caroline and David where getting altitude headaches – we climbed 2000 meters on the first day! – starting at about 2300 meters above sea level. At last we arrived at our camp as it was nearly getting dark. The main man – Abdul welcomed us into the little shelter thing with warm chai which we sipped while he started cooking dinner on a kerosene stove and open fire. Where the chicken came from or how long it had been out of a fridge was debatable but the food was delicious even after we saw Abdul wipe the plates with a very very dirty rag which he kept tucked between his dirty bare feet. The mountain men sat around smoking their water pipe and looking content with life. As the mountains were covered in snow it was freezing cold and there where no mattresses for Caroline and I and our canvas tent could not close properly. Luckily we had the pony blankets (quite stinky) to keep us warm. Needless to say we didn’t sleep very well with our bones drilling into the mountain and an ice cold wind sweeping into the tent.
The next morning we woke up quite stiff after the climbing of the previous day and a bit of an altitude hangover. And no it was not from alcohol as that is strictly forbidden. We then walked/bolder bashed/climbed to the most beautiful lake where the Irish guys who where staying in the mountain for five days was trying to fly fish. The reflection of the snow in the mirrored lake was absolutely beautiful. Caroline and I sat and watched shepherds minding their large flocks of sheep and cashmere goats and gypsy families trek with a caravan of horses, donkeys, children and all their possessions.
That evening we made a huge fire after dinner and sat around trying to get warm while the Irish smoked dope and we chatted and the mountain boys danced and played music.
The next morning after breakfast we watched the gypsy families who arrived the previous day, pack up their whole camp and set off to their next destination – only to set up camp again elsewhere that evening. It reminded me of something out of the bible times – donkeys, horses, children, woman carrying babies in satchels on their backs, weather beaten men rounding up sheep….
We then gathered our tired bodies and set off for our trek down the mountain. David was sick and we climbed down with difficulty while the mountain boys skip down. Exhausted and gatvol we arrived in the village for lunch at the pony boy’s uncle who was also one of the mountain boy’s father and the brother of one of the older men up in the mountain. As you can gather – everyone is related. Well his wife and 3 daughters were absolutely beautiful and we went to join the woman in the simple kitchen as was probably expected of us. The woman straight away told us that we were now their sisters while boiling more tea and making chapattis on the open fire (no stove, fridges or mod con gadgets).
After feeling rested the driver Jovic arrived and we raced home with music blaring, overtaking cars, dancing, joking and shouting “Lega!”. We stopped for tea in one of the villages and they took David to a very dodgy doctor who gave him medicine and the bill of R5.
That night, as we were now part of Latief and Hathi’s family we were to stay in their home – no more en suite room in the overly kitch Dandoo Palace (they probably need our room for other paying guests – not that we were not paying guests). We later found out that the family are the mafia of Srenegar and one of the most wealthy families in the area. The next morning we went sight seeing in Srenegar and surroundings and then were dropped off at the airport. The intense security checks started about two kilometers from the airport building and lasted one whole hour. By the time we were sitting on the plane – I was nearly close to tears, I am not sure if it was from sadness of leaving the most beautiful place on earth or the stress of strict security we had to endure before boarding.
When we arrived back in Delhi we heard that a few tourists where blown up in a bus attack three days before we arrived in Srenegar, the paper yesterday mentioned hand grenade attacks a few days ago and two people were killed and 24 wounded since this weekend after security forces opened fire on crowds…..
I won’t bore you with further details of our trip as it would have been another few pages but nothing can be compared to our unforgettable experience in the Kashmir and the Himalayas. From Deli we hired a driver and drove to the Taj Mahal, Japhor with elephants walking in the streets and the Amber Palace set on the hill, Pushkar where we went on camel rides into the dessert and watched two weddings processions while walking the narrow market streets, in Udaipour – the most romantic city in India, we visited temples and palaces and had dinner on rooftop restaurants. All this in the sweltering heat. We then set off to Ahmebad were we flew to Mumbai. We went to the infamous Leipold’s (the popular bar in the book Shantaram) for lunch and dinner. We watched a cricket match on the oval,saw another Bollywood blockbuster and went to the theatre. We were in Mumbai for only one night……
Well, if I think back to India I see woman wrapped in saffron sari’s, tall slender men draped in white linen and large bright orange turbans – all with ready smiles on their peaceful faces. I can smell the spices, paan, “Body Shop” mangos, I hear the hustle and bustle of the traffic and markets but also experience the calmness of the snow covered mountains. I think I am in love…..
An inscription on the wall at the Taj read: An immortal teardrop on the cheek of time…