Saturday, February 23, 2008


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.

Our time in Kerala was spent mostly enjoying the regions beaches. We stayed directly on the beach in Kovolam and had the pleasure of unpacking our bags as we would be there, in the one spot, for over ten days... a record for our travels! I managed to add to my growing list of 'countries surfed in' with some fun sessions out the front in the surprisingly clean and warm Arabian Sea. The west coast of southern India has big potential for surfing but good luck trying to get around with a surfboard unless you buy a car or driver for your stay.

Something I hadn't expected here came in the form of an impromptu ocean rescue that unfolded just as we were enjoying a rum-and-coke and Uno session at sunset on our balcony. As the sun was setting and the rum was flowing, we'd noticed a figure bobbing up and down on the ocean around two-hundred metres offshore. As it became darker the concern in me grew. There was speculation it was just a coconut or a floating bouy but my gut told me it was more. Strapping on my head torch, grabbing my board and with heart racing I paddled into the dark to solve the mystery. To my relief there was no CPR required but my negotiation skills were seriously tested! No coconut, no bouy but one hell of a stubborn Russian! A middle aged Russian woman with next to no English appeared in my torchlight with a blank, Vodka quenched expression. With my best ocean charade skills I tried to explain to her the rules regarding swimming after dark in Kerala (the rule is: no one in the water after sunset) and the commotion that was unfolding on the beach because of her. Time passed, the commotion grew, but eventually I coaxed her in. The mob on the beach had amassed to include police, locals and tourists alike and they were thankfully more interested in scolding her than appraising me so I took the cue and left her to learn her lesson.

Kerala beach life.

Just your average roadside elephant parade.

It was a real treat staying with Lisa's parents, seafood dinners instead of Dal, taxi-driven day trips instead of sweaty and slow buses, rooms with a view instead of rooms without a loo not to mention nightly games of Yahtzee and many hours of great company. The climax of our stay with the parents in Kerala came with a lovely cruise of the Keralan backwaters in a beautiful houseboat converted from an old rice barge. Hundreds of these houseboats exist on the expanses of flooded coastal lagoons that spill throughout central Kerala and taking a "chill pill" and soaking up the ambience is a must-do activity.

Don't ask...the idea is if the children of a family in peril (financial, well-being) put themselves through this torture, the burden will be lifted from the victim.

Realising that we hadn't really faced any difficulty in travelling India yet we said our farewells to the parents and embarked on our next phase of travelling, gritty, dirty, cheap India. We visited Kochi in Kerala, soaking up the Portugese heritage and the huge Chinese fishing nets that hang spider-web like over the ocean attempting to snare even the smallest fish naive enough to drift too close. With a farewell to Kerala and a deep breath we took a bumpy 14 hour train to the supposed paradise land of Goa but never really found it. We found beaches (that weren't so paradise like) and a ridiculous number of aged, worn out, self destructing hippies that were clinging to something that had vanished a long time ago. For those of you who may have visited Goa and found it something like a 'paradise' then you can put my attitude down to a life spent on Australian beaches and a trip that has visited the beaches of Thailand and Indonesia etc. Perhaps my attitude would have been a little different if I didn't have to see 50yr old Russian men practising yoga on the beach in g-strings...

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.

Our next stop was a place called Hampi and it was an absolute treat. Being a little templed out after 5 months in Asia I wasn't really that excited about Hampi but we had been reccommended by many people to go there. Getting there was a nightmare (about time we had some Indian adversity), an overnight bus ride that felt more like a night spent in a pinball machine and then the rude news on arrival that we would not be dropped in Hampi, let alone seeing it, as the Indian President would be arriving in two days and the whole place was closed! Realising the Indian trait of exaggeration and the likelihood of a scam to make us stay in some other town we waved off the claims and went for it anyway. The bad news was that yes, the town was in security shut down and we wouldn't be visiting it for three days, the good news was that thanks to an almighty morning of adventure, we found ourselves in a tiny little village by a quaint stream and in one of our favourite places of the trip so far.

"Bananas anyone, I've got plenty..."

How else do you move an elephant.

The morning saw us pair up with two friends travelling together, Beatrice from Sweden and Stefano from French-Switzerland. Two Tuk-tuks, a bamboo raft, a long walk and a brief bus ride later and we were in some place we didn't plan on being in. To our rescue came Anand, a beautiful specimen of a man who led us to our paradise in waiting. Now when we say paradise, it's a contextual thing... on one hand it sounds like hell eg. imagine you're shown to a room made of mud, with a concrete slab as the only feature in the room apart from the barren earth floor. Your bed, that is, mattress, looks like thirty rabid dogs have been sharing it for a year. You ask if there is a bathroom or toilet, "sorry, no toilet, no shower, no water. We have river though and toilet is just behind those rocks over there". If that's not bad enough there is literally thousands of mosquitoes swarming in the room...

Who needs good cricket stumps when you have cow poo and sticks...
Faces of Hampi

Paradise version: You’ve had a shit of a day trying to get a place to stay, you’ve just come from Goa which was swarming with middle aged package tourists practicing yoga in g-strings, you look out at the scene before you and suddenly the dirt floor and dog bed mattress seem just fine. Surrounded by peculiar shaped boulders and shady trees a couple of rustic huts sit peacefully awaiting our arrival. Nestled amongst the rice fields and peanut plantations and only a stones throw from a bubbling stream. There is a small hut near by which can serve as a restaurant should we need it and anything else we need can be found in the village nearby titled Hanuman-Hally, after the God Hanuman. On further enquiry we find we are only the second foreigners to ever stay there. And the price…$3 a night.

Showering in our 'bathroom' and lazing by the riverside.

Our paradise in the peanut fields and Lisa pondering.

We stayed for a week, showering in the stream, chilling in the hammocks Stefan and Bea brought with, eating with local families and exploring the alien-esque landscape that is Hampi. The mountains all comprise thousands of red granite boulders arranged in a way that I can only presume have even the most competent geologist scratching their heads. And the clusters of mountains go on for miles and miles luring your exploratory dark side. One of the most spectacular things about the area is the contrast in colours formed between the red rocks and the lush green plantations that thrive due to the ancient irrigation channels zig-zagging through the mountains. If not for this it would be a barren Mars-like scene not unlike the Devil’s Marbles in Australia. And if that’s not all there are hundreds of temples and ruins dating from the fourteenth century scattered amongst and atop the mountains, hence the important visit from the President that thankfully chose our path for us.

Regretfully we moved on from Hampi with the harsh realisation that it would be our last taste of warm weather for a while. The news had been awash with stories regarding the ‘North Indian Cold Snap’ with Delhi, Bombay and the entire north reaching record low temperatures. Time to dive deep into the bottom of my pack and retrieve the thermals that had been hibernating for the last four months and trade in my trusty flip-flops (the only shoes I owned). To get to Kashmir required an overnight stop in Delhi to connect flights and a chance to do some mad shopping before the sub-zero mountains. Fearing Delhi to be a colder version of hell on earth we were pleasantly surprised to have nothing but nice things to say about it on our first (12 hour only) meeting. We shopped for all the things we needed, didn’t get ripped off, tried some new food, didn’t get mugged and even met a group of lovely older men who insisted on buying us tea and soup before being our personal escorts on our shopping adventure. From other traveler’s tales we’ve heard I think we got lucky.
The generosity of others in India and their motivations can be a very difficult thing to gauge. On this night for example, after being bought tea and soup and being escorted around one of the busiest and most dangerous parts of Delhi by a lovely older man and after a quick glance into Lisa’s eyes, I offered him some money for his troubles. The look in his eyes was akin to that if I’d told him his son was a thief. He was so shocked and offended that it took me a full five minutes of consoling and explaining to get him back on-side. I explained to him as I will to you that it is such an incredibly hard thing to gauge. So many people in India expect and in fact survive on the practice of ‘Baksheesh’. Baksheesh can be explained as a tip in some cases, people can beg for baksheesh, it is any sort of offering for a service no matter how little or large. Many times in this trip Lisa and I have been faced with a difficult situation when someone who insisted that they were accompanying us and talking to us out of friendship, have asked for baksheesh. So much so that we have now adopted a fool-proof method of thwarting would be ‘baksheeshers’ whereby we stop the ‘offender’, look him or her in the eyes and repeat the following:

"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!

Yep...there was a lot of snow! Lisa surveying the mountain with a warm cup of Kashmiri Khawa.

Taking a well deserved rest at 4000m asl.

The next morning was a big day for me…the day my dream of snowboarding in the Himalaya was to come true. It was exciting to meet our friends Erin and Jason from Australia at the airport and exchange stories from home and both our travels. The four of us were linked from the Australian snow season and had arranged the trip to Kashmir over the last 6-8 months. Flying into the capital of Kashmir, Srinigar we got our first glimpse of the huge mountains and the ridiculous amount of snow that was covering them!

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!

Shredding some lines and sharing some time with the local military.

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.

The Top! K2 is somewhere over my right shoulder.

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.

The trek to the top. The mountains are HUGE!

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!

Our houseboat that felt more like a night at Grandma and Grandpa's house!

Can you spot the non-Kashmiri?

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.

Dal Lake.

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'