I've not been looking forward to this update...
It's not that I don't like the whole blog thing, I do, but the work that goes into creating these things whilst I'm travelling around is pretty harrowing. But due to popular demand (or should I say guilt) on the most part from my family, here is the latest from my adventures through Asia. Please appreciate it for even as I write this I am suffering! My fingers are numb, I have on my thermals, snow jacket and Kasmiri woollen beanie and I'd much rather be curled up in bed or for that matter on the beach in Australia! Well, it's not that bad...if I look out the window to my left I can see some towering mountains that form the base of the Himalaya and I have a stomach full of delicious Tibetan Momos and Chai. But enough of that...
Unfortunately for me, this is my first blog entry for India. I've been here for over six weeks and a ridiculous amount of stuff has happened. Unfortunately for you, this means it is going to be a really long one, with HEAPS of photos. I'm going to break it down into parts to help me remember, so let's start at the beginning...
We flew into India in the very south at a place called Trivandrum in the state of Kerala. It was here that we'd planned to spend a couple of weeks with Lisa's parents from Sweden who had made a visit to this lovely part of India the previous year. Believe it or not I think Lisa was more nervous about seeing her parents than me as we walked through the exit gates, understandable considering she hadn't seen them in almost 18 months. It was quite surreal to walk out of an airport in India with thousands of people everywhere to a hugely emotional reception, with people I only knew from photos and phone calls. Lisa's parents are an absolute delight! There warm features and wonderful smiles were everything and more I had expected from the photos and phone calls and the time spent with them was a real pleasure.
Kerala beach life.
Just your average roadside elephant parade.
The Keralan backwaters were a real treat, check out the deluxe houseboat! Lisa's parents soaking up the ambience and a friendly backwater face below.
"Bananas anyone, I've got plenty..."
How else do you move an elephant.
"We would be completely happy if you would like to walk with us or talk with us but as we know exactly where we are going and don’t need a guide of any kind there will be no money in it for you. No Baksheesh."
If it sounds harsh it’s not meant to be and most offenders really appreciate it and are happy to have saved wasted time and move on to the next foreigners. I think six months of travelling through Asia builds up a thick skin!
Photo courtesy of Ryan, a guy we met traveling who is not just a good photog but is in the middle of a trip around the world in a 13m yacht!
In the week leading up to our arrival, the Jammu and Kashmir Valley received some of the heaviest snowfalls it had seen in 35 years and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little anxious/ scared. The place was cut off from the rest of India for 7 days due to avalanches and road closures and thousands of people were stranded on the single road linking it with the rest of India. Planes had been grounded and many of the travelers with earlier flights were forced to wait in Delhi for days on end. Thankfully luck was on our side and we flew in to Srinigar with no delay and with blue sky and snow as far as the eye can see.
Kashmiri style (above) and Kashmiri STYLE (below).
Even though I’d expected it I still can’t say that I was quite prepared for the military presence in Kashmir. The airport was overrun with AK wielding men and it didn’t stop there. On the side of the roads, at intersections even atop most buildings was the Indian army, poised and ready for action. It has been like this for the last fifteen years with constant risks posed by Islamic insurgents from Pakistan and within Kashmir and regular battles do take place. All I could think about was how cold the poor guys must get!
They haven't quite embraced snow driving, Austin Powers style U-turn, jam it in, spin the wheels and turn turn turn.
We made it to the base of the mountains in one piece and with a compulsory stop to change into a vehicle with snow chains we were edging ever closer. The stop also allowed me the opportunity to do some clothes shopping that would make any ‘Vinnies’ connoisseur jealous. Somehow, Kashmir and Gulmarg in particular acts as a ‘black-hole’ for ancient ski clothing. Items that would make fashionisters retch on first sight are found here in abundance. To complement my snowboard jacket I’d brought from home I found a great pair of khaki pants with braces that coupled with my gaudy green woolen jumper from Delhi and my considerable beard had me whistling the epic Monty Python tune, "I’m a lumber-jack and I’m OK…"
Arriving in Gulmarg and peering awestruck at the huge mountain that we be our playground for the next ten days was a moment I’ll never forget. Simply stunning! Not so stunning was our hotel in Gulmarg! It was an adventure in itself with no running water, no heating and an interior not unlike a scene from The Shining. What it did have was a simple wood fire stove in the room called a Bakari for warmth that would require regular stuffing and blankets as thick as mattresses to deal with the incredible sub-zero temps. I tell you what though, I wouldn’t have it any other way and it was a third of the price of the central heated options. Lovely staff though and a real sense of comradeship amongst those travelers brave enough to stay there!
The next morning we awoke to blue skies and one of the greatest sights a snowboarder could dream of. The snow was amazing! The mountain had received about 12 feet in the week leading to our arrival and then the sky cleared for 4 days of blue sky bliss. After getting our rental gear organised we went straight to the top to take in the awesome scene before us. The gondola here is the highest ski gondola in the world, stepping out at 3950m. A further 300m walk to the top of Mount Apherwat brings you up to around 4100m, a walk that takes around an hour due to the lack of oxygen! Standing on the peak of the mountain at over 4100 metres and looking out across the Himalaya to some of the highest mountains in the world including K2 and into Pakistan and even China, amazing. And then the best part...flying down the beast to the valley below, 5000 feet away...straight down!
There is so much terrain there with over ten valleys within walking distance from the gondola and some runs up to 17km in length if you’re feeling adventurous. And it’s all off-piste powder, no groomed runs…zip! We met some great people there and had some awesome days. A group of us even pitched in to build a jump over a road, which acted as my first ever ‘road gap’, meaning we jumped over it. We stopped traffic first!
Khawa is the best. Dal Lake below.
The Kashmiris are such friendly people and so attuned to the life up there, walking or sledging around in there huge, poncho like Ferran’s with their very own heater underneath, the ‘winter-wife as they call it. After we completed the 17km run one day and were being taxied back to our hotel I enquired as to who cleared the road of snow, noticing that it didn’t look machined. It turns out that the 8km stretch of road was dug out entirely by hand by a couple of hundred locals who, working for the government for what I expect to be a pittance of a wage, completed the removal of ten feet of snow in a mere 3 days!
We left Gulmarg reluctantly but with my snowboarding thirst well and truly quenched and Lisa’s skills exponentially heightened despite a bad crash that meant she missed the last two days. We spent a couple of days in Srinigar, opting, against our budget to spend the nights on a houseboat on the mountain-lined Dal Lake. It is basically sacrilege to come to Kashmir and not spend some time on these legacies of the British who used the valley as a playground back in the day. Ours was a huge relic of a thing complete with antique furniture and ye old novels that haven't been read in eons. Quite an experience but something perhaps more suited to summer! Exploring Srinigar was very exciting, the people seemed genuinely happy that we were there to see the town and them. Everywhere we went there was free Khawa (Kashmiri tea), invitations for lunch, demands that when we return to Kashmir we must come and stay with them for free and all round pleasant experiences. So unlike the image painted by authorities to distract you from visiting. I think that one day was a highlight sight-seeing day on our trip to date.
The trip down from the valley to Jammu was not so pleasant. It was always going to be stressful as the road is considered to be one of the most dangerous in India, and yeah…I was stressed. Figuring that a share 4WD would be safer and quicker than a bus we paid up and strapped in (actually there were no seatbelts, sorry Mum). The eleven hours of stress included a burn out clutch, flat tyre, we witnessed around four accidents including an overturned truck and a bus off the road and had so many "Oh my God" moments when we came within in inches of the side of the road which in some cases had a 500m drop on one side! As it is the only road into the valley there are thousands upon thousands of trucks bringing in supplies and each wants to arrive before the other, not a good combo. Couple that with no roadwork, a crazy driver and one of the most land-slide prone areas in India and yeah...that means stress. If that didn't make things bad I had the horrible experience of witnessing a man being hit by a car within minutes of arriving in Jammu, a sight that will sadly be planted in my brain for a long time.
Focus in on this photo and you will see the line of trucks and the rockslides everywhere. The Jammu-Srinigar highway was scary as hell.
We escaped Jammu after one day and have spent the last four in Dharamsala which is in Himachal Pradesh state at the base of the Himalaya. It feels like a slice of Tibet in India and is the base for both the Tibetan Government in exile and the home of the Dalai Lama. We went to a teaching of his a few days ago and have really enjoyed the feeling here, the Tibetans are alot calmer than the Indians and it's quite a sight to see thousands of devotees swarming around the town in their red robes.
Our next stop will be Amritsar near the Pakistan border then it's on to our last month throughout Rajastan before Lisa and I part, she's off to Sweden while I go surfing in Sri Lanka for a month. It's a hard life!
I hope you are all well and enjoyed reading my latest news, you'll hear from me again in another month (give or take).
Me and my 'winter wife'