Monday, December 29, 2008

Lashings of ginger beer

There's something about Sri Lanka that makes us think of a Caribbean island, even though neither of us have ever been to one. It might be the delicious fiery ginger beer we're drinking. The lazy way to describe the country and the people is to say it's like India but with less people. This isn't true and anyway, there isn't anywhere quite like India. The landscape is green and forested and varies with altitude, yet we have only seen a relatively small area. There has been no sign of extreme poverty or squalid slums but people do sometimes beg. The only urgency we have seen is on the buses or trains when a seat becomes vacant. Otherwise there's a fairly laid back feel and people seem to be accustomed to things that we struggle with. Public transport is the test for us. The roads are good but the transport system is crowded and overloaded. Buses fill up with standing passengers for long hot rides and the drivers drive fast and recklessly on straight roads. Actually, they drive fast and recklessly on the winding roads too. Happily there aren't many long rides for us.

It seems only the older folk wear the traditional clothes of sarees for the women and lunghis for the men. Youngsters go for the jeans and t-shirts and long skirts for a modern conservative look. (Lots of t-shirt slogans, such as "Don't walk on the grass - smoke it" or just nonsense in English.) Everyone carries an umbrella - handy for occasional rain and useful as a parasol around midday. In Kandy we also saw them used at night time as people walked under trees full of crows and fruit bats - judging by the excrement on the pavements, rather wise. Sinhalese, like Hungarian, appears to use an inordinate number of syllables and everyone speaks fast - sometimes overhearing a conversation is like listening to horse racing commentary.

Invariably everyone is helpful and friendly to us, and on the coast it is sometimes easy to forget there is a full-scale military battle going on in the north of the country. In Haputale there were many soldiers around, possibly because of a visit by the President to a nearby airbase. On longer bus journeys we have passed through checkpoints where most people have got off the bus to have id checked and bags searched. (We're not sure why not everyone gets off - and the searches seem a bit cursory and futile. We were once searched entering a bus station and again on the bus before leaving, but 200 metres down the road picking up more passengers anyway....)

We've come to the south coast for Christmas to visit one of the quiet beaches just a little beyond the developed coastline closer to Colombo. We find a great little guesthouse in Mirissa run by a friendly couple who obviously think we are underweight judging by the breakfasts they serve. Tellingly, we are their first guests since October - everyone says that this year is bad for business. On the beach there are a few quiet restaurants and hotels and not many people to enjoy the clean sands and big surf that comes crashing in. Gayle is immediately in the water, beyond the big waves, paddling around. The water's as warm as a bathtub. This is our second Christmas away from home and it still feels like funny weather to be having. We meet up with others on their Christmas hols, and celebrate Christmas with beers and fish curries on the beach.

On Boxing Day morning there is a minute's silence in remembrance of the tsunami victims. In the evening candle lanterns are lit on the beach. The following day we visit Galle, which has an old Dutch fort. There are school holidays here and lots of locals on holiday. At the fort gates the armed forces have put on a display of weaponry as part of a recruitment drive - with all the fun of the fair. Inside the fort is quiet, but people promenade along the walls, and young men offer to jump off one of the bastions into the sea below.......for a price, of course. Gayle looks over the wall. "That doesn't look hard." "For three hundred rupees, I'll jump" says a long-haired youth in long shorts that are hanging off his hips. "You're joking - I wouldn't give you that!", she laughs. "Have you come from India?" he asks. "Yes. Why?" "No-one who comes from India gives us any money" he says ruefully.

We've been enjoying the fruit here, especially the bananas. There's lots of varieties including pink ones, but our favourite has been the little fat flavoursome ones that the EU has probably banned in Europe. Perhaps this could be our lazy way of describing the country - a banana republic.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Island of Jewels

For some reason, we seem to become very happy on finding a supermarket in Kandy - obviously something has been wrong. After a couple of days in Sri Lanka we have yet to find any good affordable food - and John, as Gayle knows only too well, travels on his stomach. It is fair to describe Sri Lankan cuisine as a kind of fusion - nuclear fusion - brought about by the obligatory combination of green and red chillies. There is no flavour to rice and curry here - just an explosion in your mouth, followed by watery eyes, snotty nose and hiccups. Eating has become a full-bodied experience - relived several hours later upon moving one's bowels. So what do we buy in the supermarket, you may (or may not) wonder? Lemon Puffs. Fortunately normal service is resumed when we work out what the locals do - snack in some very English-looking bakeries (everything savoury is deep-fried in breadcrumbs and everything sweet is a bit dry and dull) and get take-away lunch 'packets' - a pile of rice, dal and fiery curry wrapped up in plastic and newspaper.

Kandy is described in the guidebook as the "spiritual centre" of Sri Lanka - but I suspect this really may be only true for the Sinhalese majority , who are Buddhists. For in the middle of Kandy, beside a lake, stands the Temple of the Holy Tooth Relic. An orthodontist cult? No, this refers to one of the Buddha's molars, wrapped up in cotton wool and a golden casket and enshrined for the faithful to visit. And they do. But it's three quid a pop for foreign tourists, so we pass on the opportunity. Instead we visit the nearby botannical gardens and take a walk through the nearby countryside, visiting a couple of temples. The Tamils are Hindu, and Sri Lanka also has Muslim and Christian minorities, but the ongoing troubles here are not specifically to do with religion. In the 1950's, in an attempt to break the hold on power by an English-speaking elite, the newly-elected Sinhalese government introduced a 'Sinhala-only' language policy. This chauvinism directly affected the Tamils too, who felt that as a large minority they were being penalised. Now, after a prolonged period of armed struggle, terrorism, ceasefires, failed deals, and Indian intervention the current government have embarked on a new campaign to destroy the LTTE (Tamil Tigers). The army is now fighting to regain territory in the north of the country and the civilians are being caught up between the two forces. We were shocked and surprised to be told that at one temple they were holding a ceremony to pray for the army's success, but then the Buddhist monks here have always been at the forefront of Sinhalese nationalism. At the same time everyone complains about the President and the corruption that enables his family to have hold of many businesses. These are, sadly, echoes of other countries we have passed through.
We journey into the hills to climb one of the higher peaks called Sri Pada or Adam's Peak. This is a pilgrimage site, and there is a very long flight of stairs to the top where a 'footprint' in a rock indicates where Buddha stepped off on his way to Paradise, or where Adam first set foot on leaving Eden, or possibly even Shiva stood here - something for almost everyone then. We set off in the early hours of the morning to arrive at the top for sunrise - an optimistic strategy bearing in mind the weather has been decidely cloudy and rainy in our first week here. We climb with some other tourists and meet ex-pat Sri Lankans and other nationals on their slow way up. Sure enough there's even a shower as we get close to the windy top, but it soon passes and we join more pilgrims who have overnighted at the top. There is a large silver foot beside the temple on the rocky peak - but it's not clear whether it's coming or going, so no clues as to whose it is. The expected sunrise is blocked by clouds but the views are still wonderful. Don't look over the edge - the mountainside is thick with litter.
We amble down for breakfast and head off to Haputale - a small Tamil village in the middle of tea estates just a bit further down the railway line. The trains are delayed though and we wait a long time before we finally set off. The British built the railways and it looks like the trains date from pre-Independence days. Unfortunately there are too many passengers - it's the holiday season here - and we have to stand. A reflection of the times - the Railway Protection Force work their way along checking id and bags. Above a doorway is the picture of a hand grenade and a warning in Sinhalese. We are extremely grateful when someone gives up their seats for us. Despite all the problems, the people here are invariably kind and helpful (rickshaw drivers excluded of course). We have been warned to take care of our bags in Haputale - a typical attitude towards the Tamil people - and completely unwarranted. We arrive in the dark in a squally shower and as we trudge along back country lanes to find our guesthouse we begin to think we have stepped onto the moors at home.

Our days in Haputale are spent recovering from our climb by taking more gentle walks around the countryside. As far as the eye can see there are tea plantations - these are perfect conditions for growing - steep slopes and warm humid weather. The Tamils in these parts were brought here by the British from south India to work the land, and it's tough work. Only women pick the leaves - carrying their harvest in a sack hung on their back from a band around their forehead. The plants are low and sit row upon row on very sharp inclines. The men carry out other jobs around the estates, and everyone lives on site - in small clusters of houses, with rusty corrugated roofs and what looks like fairly basic facilities. However, we see none of the extreme rural poverty that we've seen in India. There are schools and dispensaries dotted around. Everyone smiles and greets us as we wander around one of the estates, originally owned by Sir Thomas Lipton, but since the 1950's in Sri Lankan hands. The estate is enormous and spreads over the hills - it is an impressive sight, and the tea shines luminescently in the sun. From up here we can look out over the low southern plains disappearing in the haze.

The Arab traders who came here for precious gems called this island Serendib - literally lsland of Jewels - but I'm buggered if I can concoct some witty and appropiate sign off using the word serendipity. The heat has gone to my head...........

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Land of coconuts

"You've got a Pakistan visa! You went to Pakistan? What's it like?" The young fella is registering us at the guesthouse and leafing through our passports. "It's great. The people are very friendly." "But don't they all carry AK47's?" The attack in Bombay is still going on. "No! They're just like Indians." "But they want to kill us man." The papers are full of how the attackers came by boat from Karachi. "Most of them just want peace - they can't stand all the bombings and fighting, " I can sense I'm losing this one, he's looking at me sceptically. "And they love watching Indian TV - they watch it all the time," I add. He positively beams. "Really?"

Cochi in Kerala has a history of trade, supplying spices and latterly tea, rubber and coffee. The Chinese, Jews, Portuguese, Dutch and British have all left their imprint on the small town. It sits at the tip of a peninsula, guarding the entrance to a long lagoon. We arrive appropiately by boat, on a small ferry from the mainland, and it's a relief to find it a sleepy little place, with little traffic or noise, and easy to get around. Along the sea front are remnants of old Chinese fishing nets - large unwieldly things that cantilever out over the water - an indication of the early contact with Chinese traders. Around the fort area are scattered a number of well-restored Dutch merchants' houses, and along the dock side, in the shelter of the lagoon, the spice and tea warehouses stand shoulder to shoulder the whole length of the road. There are stagnant canals left over by the Dutch and scattered through the town are temples and churches. There is still a working synagogue here, built in the 1500's, but there are only 11 Jews left. Gayle saw a reference to it in the local paper - there is one young unmarried woman and one eligible batchelor, but the woman says she has no intention of marrying him. The synagogue is mentioned in Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, so we visit to see the blue painted Chinese tiles across the floor which he describes.

Kerala, which means 'Land of Coconuts', has become a popular tourist destination so we're not surprised to find quite a few holidaymakers knocking about. These are distinguished from other Indian travellers by their crisp bright white clothes, short skirts and strappy tops, and a separate wardrobe for dinner. But thanks to them, there is good fresh coffee available and cake - which makes a change from gobi masala and chappattis. We get a very decent room here too - thanks to all the competition - although the friendly fella on the desk never mentioned we would have to share it.

One of the must-do things in Kerala is to rent a houseboat - a large floating rattan affair and cruise the backwaters. Miles of waterways criss-cross the land, linking to the sea and cutting across swathes of farmland. So we opt for the cheap and cheerful ferry from Alleppey to Kottayam - a lovely day return ride that covers the same territory but costs an nth of the price, with a luxurious thali for lunch thrown in. Often we seem to be floating higher than the acres of surrounding paddy fields - many of the channels have built-up dykes on which are perched famers' houses. Coconut palms line every bank. It's a lovely lazy comfortable ride. Nearly everyone we pass by is doing their laundry in the water. There is the usual soaking, rub down with a block of soap and then the vicious thrashing against a flat stone. It looks like an endless process, but judging by the sparkling white lunghis and bright washing lines, it does the trick. Later on we pass several houseboats with Indian couples having a romantic holiday, along with the boat's captain, cook, cook's assistant and houseboy. We wonder what they do about the mosquitoes - it's extremely humid and the towns are infested. One evening we are sitting in a restaurant slapping our legs and scratching all over when the waiter comes round with a small brazier of smoking coals - very atmospheric, but it only kept the buggers at bay for about ten minutes.

Our final stop before we reach Trivandrum to fly to Sri Lanka, is at a small beach resort called Varkala. The lovely sandy beach has been saved by protecting cliffs, which has kept development off it. The cliffs though have a strip of hotels, shops and restaurants that all look the same after a while. But it's not too big a place, and there is talk that the attacks in Bombay have put off some of the usual seasonal holidaymakers. This is a relief, because the beach isn't that big. There's no boozy party scene here - there's a more developed resort just down the coast - so we have nice quiet days and even quieter evenings. Time to tackle our mobile library.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Railway days

We reach Ahmedabad at dusk. We have been on a sweaty train all day, and arrive at dusk, the light murky with pollution, the streets busy at rush hour. The city has been called 'the Manchester of India', because of its role at the centre of India's cotton industry, and like Manchester, the city has passed its boom days far behind. We have only one night and one day here before catching a night train and the only place we want to visit, a textile museum described as one of the best in the world, is closed on Wednesdays. Needless to say, it is Wednesday. As always in such instances we resort to the standard fall back of wandering around the bazaar. There's an old mosque built by Mr. Ahmed himself, and his tomb, which is now surrounded by houses, lines of washng hanging up, and a herd of goats eating anything that doesn't move. At the station that evening we discover that we have moved up the waiting list and now have confirmed berths on The Gujarat Mail to Bombay. We have plenty of time to find our seats and stow and lock our rucksacks. The carriage is open and divided up into sections that sleep six, with two more across the corridor. We have paid extra to go in an air-conditioned carriage, because the next morning we will be changing trains and continuing for another 27 hours to Kerala. Our decision not to stop in Bombay turns out to be a good one in hindsight. As everyone settles down to sleep mobile phones start ringing and we hear occasional English words pop out amongst all the Gujarati, Maharashtri and Hindi. "Bomb blast" gets our full attention. In the morning, we get off with the family from our section at a suburban interchange. It's not yet 6 o'clock, but people are already queuing to buy tickets for the local trains. With perhaps 20 million residents, the trains are always busy, but the ones we take to our next station are mostly quiet - mind you it is early. We have no more information about the bombings, but luckily we meet two young English women who have a mobile phone so that we can ring home. We think about Elke and Axel who were planning to fly home from Bombay in the early hours of the morning. As normal, the policemen at this station are just sitting around scratching themselves and twiddling their lathis - looks like just another day.

Our train to Cochin leaves just before 12. There's an inordinate number of people in our section for six, and after some quick questioning we determine who are actually travelling and who are family seeing them off. The standard ratio is about 1:4. We then engage in the usual what is your profession, where have you been in India. Finally the train whistle goes and we slide away. It's a huge snake of a train, but then they always are - millions upon millions must travel every day across India - and amazingly the whole system seems to work very smoothly. Shortly staff are plying the passengers with tea, coffee, pakora and taking orders for lunch. The third stage of our journey south has begun.

The following day we pick up another English-language daily, but there is only the front page with coverage of the attacks in Bombay and not much new information. In fact very little in the way of facts at all. But in the sports section a double-page spread on how it will affect the cricket! We have time on our hands and read every page. Gayle spots this in an article on state elections: "The second ... phase of Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh saw an estimated 60 per cent turnout on Thursday and was by and large peaceful but for the killing of a BJP candidate and stabbing of a presiding officer." On another page there is a paragraph about the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, campaigning for re-election. Her name is Mayawati, a Dallit, who is being tipped as a possible future prime minister. She will have some help on her campaign trail: "Seven-year-old Simran Bangotra who looks, dresses and addreses rallies exactly like the UP CM, is being brought in to campaign in different parts of Jammu. Party sources say 'Mini' Mayawati is also likely to address public rallies in areas where polls will be held on December 24th."

Looking out of the windows the landscape has changed. Vivid green paddy fields and brightly painted houses tucked in amongst coconut palms. The sea. We are now trundling into Kerala and it looks like a hundred miles from the urban sprawl of Bombay. And the rest.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bom dia

Junagadh is a dusty little pilgrim town to break our journey to Diu. It's the weekend and when we visit the fort on the hill there are many locals also looking around including a young Indian woman from Leicester who gives us a surprised hello. We're hardly on the tourist trail here. There are a few other interesting buildings to see and some great old arches marking the gateways of the old town, but as with many places, everything is decaying rapidly. The streets of the bazaar are full of shops selling all kinds of odds and sods. We have soda and fresh lime juice at a paan seller's stand. He is smearing large green leaves with a reddish paste of betel nut and then adding a concoction of spices for flavor, before folding it into a tidy little wad for the punter, who tucks it inside his mouth. Give it a chew and some time to mush up nicely and soon he'll be gobbing huge amounts of red liquid left, right and centre. Mmmmm, lovely.

We are sitting in a bus station waiting for our ride. A young man sits down next to Gayle. "What is your good name?" "Gayle. What's yours?" "Monty." After the usual which country stuff he points out an old man in the crowd who is wearing a white shirt that, halfway down, breaks into a pleated skirt. He is wearing earrings and chunky silver bracelets and carries a worn wooden stick with coloured bands. "That man is wearing traditional clothes", says Monty. "And why aren't you?" Gayle asks. Monty points to his jeans and t-shirt. "I am fashionable!" he declares.

There follows a week of lazy days in Diu, a small island that once was part of the Portugese territories in India. We find a dreary simple little place to stay run by dreary simple little folk, but it's cheap as chips, very quiet and hey, it's handy for the beach. The little town is small, with more decaying buildings, including some grand old Portugese houses tucked away down narrow streets. Up on the hill is a large whitewashed church, now a museum, but there are still a handful of Christian families and a few people who speak Portugese. The town seems to survive on fishing and tourism, boosted by its cheap booze - Gujarat state itself is 'dry'. So there are sometimes a few jolly Indians all drinking beer and then stumbling around on the beach. It's such a small place that within three days we have bumped into probably all the other foreign visitors here, know their hotel, travel itinerary and what they wear on the beach. Amongst them is Heather, who we first met in Ladakh and then in Udaipur. Once again she supplies us with some quality books to add to our mobile library. We also join Axel and Elke, a German couple who arrived on the same bus as us, on the beach each afternoon and in the evening for fish suppers or prawn curries. Elke spent some time studying in Bradford - a remarkable fact. We have conversations about the highs and lows of travelling in India. I had been thinking about what it was that made India such a great place to visit. It's rarely beautiful in the accepted sense, it can't be the filth or the desperate women and children who approach for money, or the consant irritating invitations to take a rickshaw or come into a shop. Perhaps it's the craziness of the streetlife, the mixture of people and faiths, or the uneven blend of First World 'progress' and Third World 'simplicity'. (For those not interested in these reflections, please look away now.) There's an incredible amount of energy and creativity here, possibly driven by poverty and an excess of people, that fascinates. But at the same time there is the large gap between rich and poor, visible every moment of every day, which repulses. It's like a fairground Hall of Mirrors distorted reflection of life in the West. Everything is more colourful, weirder, bigger, bendier, scarier and it's multiplied endlessly into infinity. As Axel observes after about two weeks of their three-week trip, it perhaps isn't the ideal place for a holiday.

Each day we walk through the streets and greet or are greeted by the locals - women sat on doorsteps in the shade, children running around in circles, men ambling along the road. On the dock, skinny barefoot fishermen unload their catch, or load up blocks of ice into polystyrene crates for their next journey. There's a permanent whiff of rotten fish about the place. And there's no hustle and bustle here. A nice long siesta in the heat of the afternoon - perhaps the longest-lasting Portugese influence. It seems a shame to leave, but our train tickets are booked.........

Friday, November 14, 2008

Heading out west

Before we leave Udaipur we try to work out our train tickets to Kerala in a month's time by logging on to Indian Railways' website: The experience is a bit like doing a sudoku puzzle in the dark. The railway system is of course huge in India, and it is now possible to log on and book tickets if you know how. We've picked up tips from other travellers and there are websites that explain how to use this website. Before we dissolve into babbling wrecks we opt instead to do the old-fashioned thing - turn up at the railway station reservations office, fight our way to the window to get a request form to fill-in and then fight our way back to the window and book a ticket. It's all a bit sweaty and unnecessarily violent, but much more satisfying. Mind you, our ticket tells us we are numbers 26 and 27 on the waiting list. "No problem" everyone says.............

Next stop and it's all the fun of the fair at Mount Abu - an old colonial hill station and pilgrimage place on the border with Gujarat. Diwali holidays are continuing apace and the little place is crammed with Indian holidaymakers having a ball. Every building is either a hotel or restaurant or a shop selling tat. It reminds us of Blackpool. We don't feel homesick. We pass on the 'Sheratone Hotel' and 'Holiday In', opting instead for the foreigners' choice, a quiet place with rooms painted asylum green. There's a real hurly-burly bustle on the streets, as extended families parade past the street hawkers and stalls, ice-cream and 'English Wine & Spirits' shops. The crowd is focused at one end of a small lake which has a flotilla of pedalos, row boats and punted gondolas. Along at 'Sunset Point' an eager crowd is already gathering at 4 o'clock to watch the sunset over the plains 1,000 metres below. You can have a horse ride while you wait. There's not many people walking around here, despite the cooler temperature - jeeps and 4WDs whizz past, and for those in the centre who find it all too much of a bother you can hire a man with a trolley to push you to your next destination. The latter appears very popular with overweight Indians. We visit a collection of finely-carved Jain temples. Two are particularly special with marble columns and archways, domes and ceilings, doorframes and walls covered in figures and scenes. Too much for the eyes to take in.

Seeing as most of Gujarat seems to be in Rajasthan, we head for Gujarat, the western corner of India's kite, if you see what I mean. Bhuj was hit by a big earthquake in 2001 and as we wander around we can see where the cracks have been filled in. It's hard to tell what survived and what is new - everything looks a bit scruffy and tatty and well, Indian. But it's all low-key and the centre is a warren of streets that make up the bazaar. It feels more normal than the tourist towns of Rajasthan, and we sense over the days the genuine warmth and hospitality of Indians, as opposed to the artifice and shallowness you come across in the tourist hotspots. And the food is better too.

"I spy with my little eye something beginning with d."
"Yes, your turn"
I spy with my little eye something beginning with n."
"Nose ring"
Yep, your turn."
I spy with my little eye something beginning with c."
"Okay, your go."
I spy with my little eye something beginning with t."
The tin can of a bus rattles along the road through the desert of the Rann of Kutch. We're standing in the aisle, hemmed in, and surrounded by locals from the villages that are dotted around in the scrub. In the distance all we can see are heatwaves and a blurry hill poking up above the salt flats. We are returning from a village close to the border with Pakistan. We've been looking for traditional mud houses that have been decorated. We find only concrete box houses and some plain mud houses - the earthquake might have reached up here? A family invite us in and offer us tea, but before we can reply they produce tatty embroidered clothes and bedspreads in a desperate hard sell. We are obviously not the first tourist in these parts. We say no thank you and leave quickly, and give up our search. Another day we visit a village known for its embroidery. India's biggest product is textiles, and Kutch is known for its tie-dye, batik and block-prints, but especially for its embroidery. There's a shop selling fine work from a collection of villages in the area. It's run by a charity set up by a woman who wanted to help village women affected by drought. The venture looks like a success and the quality of the work is very high - too high for our wallet. Instead we admire the samplers that are exhibited like artworks - stunning large detailed pieces.

On the coast south of Bhuj is Mandvi, an old port where pilgrims would depart to Mecca for the Hajj. They still build wooden cargo boats here that sail the seas around East Africa, the Gulf states and the Arabian Sea. We while away some time sitting with Tony, an English pensioner, at the chai stalls and soda stands that can be found at each junction of the little town. We also taste possibly the best thali in Gujarat. A thali is a traditional Indian meal, usually vegetarian, served up on a stainless steel tray with small dishes of different curries, sauces and dal. There's always rice and chapatis to bulk it out and the Gujaratis are famed for their good thalis. Down the coast sits the maharajah's palace surrounded by trees and close to the sea for the breeze. The building was used in a Bollywood film called 'Lagaan', where a song and a dance is made about the Indians beating the English toffs at cricket. They still do. We use a private beach here - it's quiet, clean and the first time we have swum in the sea since last October. Lovely.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Lighting up

Back to the real India - the pollution-hazed sunshine, streets full of rickshaws, stalls, cows and cow dung, the smell of incense barely masking the whiff of frying samosas and urine, the clamour of horns and bicycle bells, hawkers yells and unsolicited greetings from all and sundry (mostly sundry) as you idle down the street. Actually, this is a slight exaggeration, we never "idle" down the street - this takes years of acclimating, as they say here. There is the joy of discovering other new expressions. My favourites are given in response to a request for directions: "Upside!" "downside!" and, if they're feeling especially perky "backside!"

After a few days in Delhi, letting our senses acclimate, we have been skittling south west through Rajasthan. In Jaipur, the state capital, the preparations for Diwali are in full swing. The bazaars in the old walled town are bedecked with fairy lights, the pavements and roads crawling with shoppers, moving slowly along like ant trails scurrying backwards and forwards. At Diwali, the Festival of Light, it's traditional for everyone to put on new clothes and to clean out the house. The festival also marks the end of harvest time, shopkeepers open up new accounts. It feels like Christmas and New Year rolled into one. Like Christmas, it seems also a festival of shopping too these days, although one cycle rickshaw wallah told us that Diwali is for the rich people, not a festival for the poor. But it is a Hindu festival that everyone here seems to get carried away with. For a country full of temples, mosques and churches, this is still a very material world. Every day we can see people just trying to get by. We read recently that just under half the population survive on 80 rupees a day on average - that's one pound. A kilo of bananas here is 20 rupees. So maybe the cycle rickshaw wallah is right.
We visit Amber Fort nearby, busy with holidaymakers in their new clothes. Rajasthan is littered with forts and palaces like this, set dramatically on hilltops. Before independence the region was a collection of warring kingdoms, rarely invaded by outsiders. Now it's a tourist hotspot, the fort doors all firmly wedged open to the masses. Down in Amber village the streets are scruffy and run down. There's a row of makeshift polythene tents housing a group of families. Children run around half-dressed. The women carry pots to and from the water pump in the centre of the village.

Away from the noise and bright lights of Jaipur, Bundi is an oasis of calm. That is until the evening of Diwali proper, when the narrow lanes echo and boom with fire crackers and bangers and the sky is lit up with fireworks. The womenfolk in this little town open up the doors to their homes and emerge onto the streets carrying trays of oil lamps. Window ledges, roof parapets and door thresholds are dotted with these lamps and the women carry more to the various shrines and temples around the old town. It's a simple but magical effect re-enacting Rama's return to his kingdom after exile, the lights welcoming him back.
Bundi's a peaceful town with the requisite fort and a palace decorated with murals of the life of the raja. The twisting streets below are full of brightly painted crumbling old houses.
Cows wander around, leaving huge mounds of dung that get collected up, dried and used for fuel. Now and again we come across a step well - an elaborately-built structure that enabled people to walk down to the water, rather than just use a bucket. Sadly, most are now full of rubbish and shit and the best, which has been restored, is closed off to prevent it going the way of the others. We experience another theft here, from our guesthouse room. We are shocked, particularly because it occurs right in front of our eyes as we're sat on our bed having a mid-afternoon siesta. The robber is quick and efficient - sneaking in through the balcony door carelessly left open, sticks his head up, grabs the bag on the bed and runs out as we shout out in protest/fright/surprise. The cheeky monkey - stole our last banana.
On our way to to Udaipur we stop off in Chittor. A rickshaw driver offers us a ridiculously cheap too-good-to-be-true price to take us to the budget guesthouse just inside the fort walls. On the way he stops to explain that actually the guesthouse has been closed for four years now and wouldn't we like to stay at a nicer hotel in town? We insist we go to the guesthouse. It does appear to be closed. But we ignore the sad driver, who has lost his hotel commission, and decide to look around the ruined fort's temples, towers and palaces. Then it's down to the bus stand, pick up the last two seats (back seat - a bum deal) on the state-run battle bus to Udaipur.
Ahhhh, Udaipur, the jewel in the crown of Rajasthan - a lake, a palace and a hundred and one hotels all with a roof terrace to capture the view of, er, a hundred and one roof terraces, oh and the Lake Palace Hotel which seems to float on the water. Octopussy was filmed here. You can watch the Bond film any night at any of the hotels - or every night at ours. We're staying at the Hanuman Ghat Hotel. It's cheap and cheerful, but the staff are a right bunch of monkeys. We came here the last time we were in India and it has got a little busier - but then everyone is still enjoying their Diwali holidays. On the lakeside there are ghats, or steps, where local women do their laundry and have a quick wash themselves. From a distance the lake looks very pretty, but close up it's like all still water in India - a fetid dirty pool with green scum on the surface. This may sum India up - looks great if you don't get too close.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Laid low

Back in Leh we can refuel on good Indian and Tibetan food and fill any cracks with cake. The days are definitely colder now and we both have heavy colds. If the sun is not out it's not so pleasant. The town is preparing for winter. The trekking agencies are closing, people heading to Goa (where else?) for work. It dawns on me that for the last week I've only removed my hat to shower. Our second trek stalls on the first day. There are inauspicious signs from the start. Snow-filled clouds and sharp winds are putting us off. It is Gayle's turn to slip on a river crossing - soaked from her boots to her waist. Finally we turn around. It's just too cold and we can't face 15 hours at a time in our tent. And as I keep reminding Gayle, my sleeping bag just doesn't have all the feathers it used to. The lure of Leh and its creature comforts draws us back. One afternoon a monstrous noise accompanied by drumming alerts us to a wedding. There's a huge marquee set up in a yard filled with locals, many in traditional clothes, sipping tea, adding money to a pile in a suitcase (receipt issued), and sitting in apparent oblivion to the squealing cacophony of the house band, which consists of three drummers and two men playing snake-charmers pipes. Judging by the sound, they are obviously all sober. On Friday afternoon we spot a team of polo players riding through town, so we follow them to the polo ground - a rectangle of flat sand with some concrete stands to sit and watch. There's a crowd of disinterested and bored men, a few women wrapped up against the cold. A band, possibly the same one as the wedding of the day before, breaks out into a jaunty riff now and again, for no apparent reason. An announcer commentates on all the action over the tannoy, sometimes breaking into English, but totally incomprehensible nonetheless. The polo players seem to be riding very small ponies, and the teams are obviously mismatched - one side looking very smart and fully-equipped, the others like they've just been plucked out of the crowd. It is indeed a one-sided affair - the snooties thrash the scruffs and the crowd only cheer once, with irony, when the scruffs finally get a goal.
We visit a couple more gompas, one at the village of Spituk, down by the banks of the Indus. The men are ploughing their fields with dzo, a crossbreed of cow and yak. As they pace back and forth across the earth their voices ring out in song. We seem to be lost in time, witness to an ancient autumnal ritual. By the river there are three men digging a trench. Well, one man is digging, as they only have one spade between them, but a second is helping by tugging on a rope ingeniously attached to the spade. The third is sat on his haunches watching. The next day we return to the polo ground in the expectation of seeing an exhibition of folkloric dancing, so I am delighted instead to find a football match about to begin. Spituk United are playing a cup match. The crowd are once again hardly enlivened by the spectacle, but there seems to be some support for the local team, who run out 3 - nil winners after a dodgy start. No-one shows any problem with playing at 3500 metres above sea-level. I get out of breath climbing up onto the stands.
We know it's time to leave when the laundry freezes on the balcony overnight and our favourite restaurant is talking about closing up and going to guess where. Yep, Goa.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Getting high

Feeling acclimatised we venture off for a five-day trek, morale boosted by a rucksack full of Cadbury's Dairy Milk and a huge block of Dutch Gouda (made by a real Dutchman in Srinagar). We begin at the inevitable gompa, in Lamayuru, and trek over three passes to reach the Zanskar river. Once we leave the newly-built roads, we get a taste of traditional Ladakhi village life. The flat-roofed houses are topped with bundles of recently-harvested hay. The locals sing as they winnow their barley, tossing the stalks into the air with pitchforks. The grains are toasted and then ground into flour and often eaten simply mixed with water. We camp the first night beside a tiny watermill, fed by a channel run off the river. The next day I put my feet twice into the same river at crossings - probably the result of too many chicken masalas in Leh.
The walking isn't so strenuous until we reach the big passes. We find ourselves walking the same stages as a young Belgian couple, Ellen and Pieter, and a German group with ponies, cooks, and guides. Thankfully we can camp well apart. The early days of sunshine give way to mixed weather, including light snow a couple of nights, and it's fre
ezing at night. Pieter and Ellen show us how to make a campfire - our first - and we burn about half a ton of dead wood for the luxury of continuous pots of hot tea. The fresh snow on the mountain tops make the views from the high passes rather special. It's a great feeling to be sat up high after an hour of huffing and puffing uphill and get these huge panoramic vistas. We are enjoying it so much that we plan another trek before we finish the first.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Gompa madness

Leh was the capital of the Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh before it was annexed by Kashmiri kings in the 1840's. The region is littered with ruined forts and gompas (monasteries), some over 1,000 years old and the people remain predominantly Buddhist. Leh itself is a quiet little town - at least it is now at the end of the season. As we walk around there are plenty of shops, restaurants and hotels that have already closed for the year. Winding lanes take us away from the centre and past dry-stone walls, traditional houses and dry fields already harvested. The leaves on the plane and willow trees are golden, starting to fall, and the huge sky is a vivid blue. It's warm in the sunshine and a bit nippy in the evenings - perfect for us.
The town sits at 3500 metres so we are feeling the altitude a bit and spend a few days visiting gompas and old palaces in the Indus valley. It's not long before we're in a stupa stupour. The monasteries are invariably perched defensively on a hill with long flights of stairs winding between the monks' houses before you finally reach the temple at the top. We are rewarded with good views but sometimes locked doors too!
There are plenty of monks and quite a few nuns on the streets of Leh. Maroon robes are offset with bright orange tank tops, red woollen beanies, matching fleeces, and occasionally wrap-around sunglasses or fake red Crocs. At the gompas themselves there seems to be little activity outside of prayer times. Young novices mucking about. An old monk repeating his mantra and clicking his rosary. Some local villagers doing repairs. Sleeping dogs. The silence would drive me nuts.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

It isn't a rally

We leave James hard at work and take a nightbus to Manali, another touristy town, set in a wide green and forrested valley. The area is famous for marijuana and stoned Israelis but the peak season is over, the local cafes with Bob Marley or Bob Dylan murals are closing up, the shops selling the usual hippy clothes and their staff are following the tourists to Goa. We are still waiting to see if the roads north will be cleared of snow and wander around visiting the local Buddhist and Hindu temples, meeting Indian tourists doing the same thing. Manali, like some other towns, has banned the use of polythene bags, so all the shops use paper bags. There are also press adverts informing everyone of the ban on public smoking that comes into force in India at the beginning of October. The times, as one Bob says, they are a-changing.
The road to Leh is re-opened and we take an empty minibus on the 17-hour journey across the Himalaya to Ladakh. We set off at 2am and cross the first high pass in the dark. The road is a crumbling mess and it's impossible to doze. We rattle past the ghosts of Tata trucks parked up along the roadside and chase jeeps taking the same route. After a couple of 'tea and pee' stops we start the climb to the second pass at 4950 metres. We are soon zig-zagging up a road walled with fresh snow. The sun has risen and the surrounding whiteness is dazzling. Descending the other side, the landscape has become barren mountain scenery - a wild desolate place with snowy peaks, shallow winding rivers and endless shades of brown. There are roadwork teams of southern Indians labouring to improve the worn-out road - members of the Border Roads Organisation. Their road safety signs keep us entertained:
after drinking whisky driving is risky
driving faster causes disaster

More hairpin bends as we ascend to 5060 metres before leaving the tarmac and crossing a sandy plateau. There are occasional herds of sheep and the tents of nomads but it's imossible to imagine how either survive in this high-altitude wilderness. We bounce and buck over a fractured road and crawl up to the final pass at 5300 metres just as the sun is starting to dip. In twilight we wind down into a gorge of vivid red rock before finally emerging into the Indus valley. The road follows the river to Leh and we are entreated by further signs:
it isn't a rally enjoy the valley
safety on the road means safe tea at home

Our driver drops us off, looking none the worse for wear after a gruelling drive and we are welcomed with a hot flask of safe tea at our guesthouse.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


The weather's getting better here in McLeod Ganj, but ironically early snow and heavy rain has closed roads further north and south. There's a few more tourists about and a sense of excitement as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is to give a series of teachings. There are suedeheaded nuns from Korea filling our hotel and many Westerners seeking the Four Noble Truths and following the Eightfold Path to Nirvana.
There are about 120,000 Tibetan refugees living in India, in settlements like McLeod Ganj. Many have escaped Tibet by crossing the Himalayan passes, usually on foot, to escape detection by the Chinese. Some arrive suffering from frostbite, some are sent back by India. There are many who have escaped after being held as political prisoners, usually for demonstrating vocally but peacefully for an independent Tibet. There are numerous accounts of beatings and torture whilst in captivity. And the Tibetan government-in-exile has been trying for years to negotiate with the Chinese government for some sort of autonomy and cultural freedom. The Dalai Lama has adopted a pragmatic approach. He realises that the Chinese will never surrender their claim to Tibet, but he hopes that by peaceful protest and support from the international community an agreement may be struck with China. But the young Tibetans are tiring of this approach and frustrated by China's arrogant intransigence. Meanwhile the 6 million Tibetans that still live in their country are outnumbered by Han Chinese who have been moved in. It's a process familiar to the Muslim Uighur people in the west of China, but the Tibetans have a higher international profile. Its hard to imagine China giving way.

Our friend James is busy setting up a website for a new business venture - running guided tours in Pakistan and Afghanistan ( The routes and ideas he has sound fine until we switch on the news and hear about the huge bomb at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. But James has been in Afghanistan and Pakistan and enjoyed his time there a lot. He looks and sounds sane to us, but who knows? Each evening we meet to seek nirvana in A Taste of India - a great little restaurant with fabulous food. We are eating our way to Enlightenment.
an enlightening chocolate brownie

Monday, September 22, 2008

Feeling the spirit

"That is a very lovely Pakistani costume you are wearing, sir". The smiling Indian customs officer doesn't want to look in our bags, but makes me feel a little self-conscious in my shalwar kameez, and after the usual form filling we enter India for the first time in 10 years. Well, okay, apart from five days in July to get our Pakistan visa. We head straight to Amritsar which is spiritual home of the Sikhs. It might be an illusion but the Indian Punjab looks wealthier than its Pakistani counterpart. Our guidebook says that 60% of India's wheat and 40% of it's rice is grown in the state, thanks to the plentiful rivers coming from Tibet and the Himalaya.
The city centre is full of pilgrims and a smattering of national and foreign tourists who come to visit the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' most holy place. The temple complex is busy and well-organised, with accommodation and dining halls, a garden and shops which surround the tank (or Lake of Nectar, which is how Amritsar translates) in which the temple picturesquely sits. Pilgrims walk around the lake stopping to pray, the men sometimes taking a ritual bath, and many queue to enter the ornate gilded temple in the centre. There is the constant drone of men reciting the words of the holy scriptures in a sing-song accompanied by tabla and harmonium. It's rather soothing. The whole atmosphere is relaxed and reflective.
Outside on the streets it's a different story. There is the usual bustle, street vendors and touts, cycle rickshaws and motorbikes, beggars asking for alms, traffic police waving and whistling pointlessly. There is food available to us - no more Ramazan to contend with - delicious vegetarian Indian dishes and ice-cream shakes. We take a cycle rickshaw at one point, but immediately regret it. Our rickshaw wallah is an old man and he struggles to carry us far on the flat. We get out early and walk, vowing never to use one again. Two minutes later we get an offer we can't refuse and we're back on a perch, rattling along with everyone else. Wherever we go, we are approached by rickshaw wallahs, including one man in a beard, print dress and heels, looking like Klinger from M*A*S*H.............
We take a couple of local buses northwards to Dharamsala. The roads are busy with all kinds of traffic - our first bus driver seems determined to take priority and blasts his airhorn with gay abandon to clear a path through - donkey carts, rickshaws, mopeds, trucks, minibuses, pedestrians, cyclists, water buffalo and cars. Its not a dull ride, and we have fun spotting signs as we pass like the company called Alchemist Ltd. and the 'Mushroom Training Centre'. The second bus climbs gradually along tree-lined ridges up to Dharamsala. We carry on up to McLeod Ganj, the village above where there's a collection of hotels and restaurants and a temple complex next to the Dalai Lama's residence. This is the home of the Tibetan government in exile and the focus for the thousands of Tibetans now living here. His Holiness is regrettably not here to receive us, but James our long-time travelling companion is. He helps us locate our inner energies and reinvigorates our chakras by taking us to a bar to celebrate our reunion with a gin and Limca.

The next day we are feeling the spirit, but a cup of tea perks us up. We prowl the narrow streets and dodge the buddhist monks and nuns in their burgundy robes, checking out the tourist shops and stalls and perusing menus offering not only Tibetan and Indian food, but Italian, Mexican and Thai too. The place has a musty damp air and it rains
frequently in the afternoons, but the climate is fresh and comfortable. Signs advertise Reiki, Tai Chi, Regression Therapy, Massage, Hindi lessons. There is the sound of drums and tuneless cymbals clashing, mantra music at a cd stall, the click of carrom being played obsessively by young men. At the temple complex we circumnambulate in a clockwise direction. In one of the shrines we recognise offerings of dried nuts, digestive biscuits, Happy Cow processed cheese as essential trekking food - presumably all the pilgrims had to give. The wallpaper is covered in the most graphic, gory and colourful illustrations I've seen for a while. There is a photo portrait of His Holiness looking, with his large tinted glasses, like a benevolent gangster mafia boss. The monks in the courtyards putter about or gather to discuss and debate forcefully and ritually the most intricate and complex matters of philosophical thought and opinion. I caught one arguing "...Capello needs to revert to 4-4-2 if he's to get the best out of Gerrard."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Terror, fasting and feasting

Everyone is looking up into the morning sky. It's a beautiful sunny day, we're waiting for two more people to fill our jeep, and there's a buzzing sound in the air. Finally we spot it - an American drone? - flying high above us. "Looking for Osama", someone says. We have said goodbye to Jules and we're heading south from Chitral with Jef and Els to Peshawar, which is getting a reputation for bombings and trouble with the local Taliban. We have thought twice before embarking on this journey because of the potential danger passing through areas where there has been fighting between the army and militants, but in theory there should be no problems.
The jeep heads southwards and begins climbing the Lowari pass on a dirt road of about 40 switchbacks. It's full of trucks and at one point we have to dodge rocks and debris which is being swept into our path by a mindless road crew above us. The view from the pass is stunning - a green sweep down to the plains of Peshawar. Quite a few of us transfer to a minibus with a mad driver for the next stage of the journey. The fear of meeting armed men in black turbans is soon forgotten as our driver seems intent on his own personal jihad on the roads. An expletive is
muttered as he overtakes an already overtaking van on a bend in the face of an oncoming bus. It's enough to lead to a reoccurance of the old bowel trouble. As we descend the heat also increases, and what with a few close shaves, we are all sweating freely. Thankfully it seems our driver is blessed, and we arrive in Peshawar just in time for iftar. The streets are not so busy at this time of the day, as everyone is sitting poised in front of food waiting to tuck in. In fact Peshawar seems a fairly sane place and we enjoy walking around the old city's back streets crowded with street vendors and shoppers. We even come across some women - in the streets full of women's clothes of course. However, the heat is tiresome and we try to be discreet when we sneak a drink.
Our bus to Lahore is a Daewoo. There's fully-functioning air-con, comfortable seats, lots of legroom and a hostess. It feels like we're in a spaceship after all our other journeys here. Mind you, the fare is astronomical (for Pakistan). Lahore is obscenely humid and we stumble along the busy roads and through the street markets in a fug of sweat and deafening horn blasts.
The evening scenes are the best - there's almost a festive air as everyone eats their evening meal and then goes shopping. My favourite stall is a wig
seller. He has false moustaches and there's a young man trying on an awful piece that makes him look like an asian David Cassidy. And, at last, we seem to be in a Pakistani city where women are out in numbers. Despite the heat, we are enjoying our last days in Pakistan.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A steep and relentless walk in the Hindu Kush

We want to head north and cross a high pass into the next valley. Everyone seems surprised that we don't have a guide, but our route description seems very simple and clear, if not blunt about the 1300 metre ascent which is "steep and relentless". As we leave Guru a man accosts us. He wants us to register - it turns out he is the local 'Border Police'. He has no uniform, but is recruited locally to keep an eye on the border, we assume. He seemed surprised to see us, and back at his post we fill in the usual school book with our personal details and invented professions. A man lies huddled in a blanket on a charpoy trying to sleep. Another man appears and asks us if we want a guide. We say no, but then he explains that actually, the police want us to take a guide. And he is one. He is paid by the community so his services are free of charge. We say yes.

The walking is pleasant as we head up through tiny hamlets in the early morning light, but already it is warm. Our route turns sharply up a dry river bed and into a shady gorge where the path becomes "steep and relentless". Our guide is patient - we are lugging our backpacks with us and he carries nothing. We learn he is Muslim, and is fasting, but he tells us that he'll drink if it is necessary. The whole day we don't see him drink anything. Near the top our path peters out and the final hour is a slog almost straight uphill. I get a twinge of vertigo looking behind me. The pass is hidden slightly by forest but we get glimpses of the next valley 900 metres below. The path down turns out be as steep as the one up, and we are very glad to arrive at our guesthouse. We still have no idea why a guide needed to accompany us.The next day we walk up to the next village, which is a Nuristani village. A young man here explains that his people came about a hundred years ago, from Afghanistan. The Nuristanis were known as the Red Kafirs, unbelievers, and the king decided in the 1890's to forcibly convert them. It was Islam or the river. Some fled over the passes and settled next to the Kalash, who were known as the Black Kafirs. Ironically the Nuristanis are now Muslim. Lower down we visit the Kalash museum, part of a complex which includes a school, hospital, library and meeting space. It was built by a Greek NGO. We still see Kalash women, easy to spot in their traditional clothes, but this valley seems more mixed and more touristed, not as friendly. The Kalash hamlets are set away from the road.

We take the jeep track to walk to the next Kalash valley of Rumbur. On the way I'm hailed by a man on the other side of the valley. He waves me over but I don't move and he finally runs down to cross a bridge and up to the track. He wants to know if I know any Pakistanis in England. I tell him yes, my best friend's family are from Pakistan. "What's your friend's name?" "Imran Khan." He smiles then - he thinks I'm taking the mickey. "Do you know Saeed Abbas?" he asks. "Er, no" and I try to explain that there are lots of Pakistanis in England and I don't know them all. Finally, after handshaking, smiles and a touch of the hand over the heart, he lets me go.

British government aid, for a cause close to my heart
In Rumbur we stay at Engineer Khan's house. His wife makes good food and he makes good wine. A Frenchman showed him how to. Here we meet Jef and Els, a young Belgian couple we first met back in Passu. It's funny to meet up again so far from Hunza. Engineer Khan is a fan of Zardari, who has just been elected President, and dismisses the allegations of corruption and gangsterism. Someone else has a theory that Pakistan will always support its leader, provided they are strong. Once they appear weak, they will talk them down. At the moment it seems everyone is giving 'Mr. Ten Percent' the benefit of the doubt, in the hope that he can reverse the conflict and bombings.

Friday, September 12, 2008

It's all Greek to me

We're off to Birir with Jules, a friend we first met over a month ago, to visit the Kalash valleys, just southwest of Chitral. We get dropped off at a bridge over the main valley and set ourselves to walk the dirt track to the village, but almost immediately we get a ride from a cargo jeep. The road is rotten and we start to think the walking would be easier as we're jerked and thrown side to side. The Birir valley is a narrow valley that climbs slowly westwards towards the Afghan border. It is one of three valleys settled by the Kalash people, a group that legend says are derived from some remnants of Alexander the Great's army. The people have a pagan religion, many have fair skin or blue or green eyes, and they have tried to maintain their language and culture. Many ethnographers point out that the language has no connection with Greek and suggest the people are caucasians left isolated at some point in the past. These days they have a threatened culture - in recent years their isolation has ended with the building of roads, and the valleys are filling with Muslims, some converts from the Kalash.

There's only one Kalash guesthouse in Guru, a floor to sleep on in a traditional house built of dry stone walls and wood. The kitchen is open on one-side to the world, and the flat roof serves as the terrace for the house above. The family are very welcoming, we are given green tea on the tiny veranda, and we look out over a side stream which is being used by the village for laundry. No Surf or Brite, just a flat rock, plenty of water and a lot of bashing with a short wooden stick. The women and girls are wearing their traditional black dresses and decorative headresses, but the men now wear shalwar kameez. I get a funny feeling sitting here, wondering how good it can be for us to come and visit these communities, to look at the people and, hopefully, take photographs, like a human zoo. Wondering whether this too can have an adverse effect on the culture. Alauddin asks if he can come with us on a walk around the village which is spread out amongst fields of maize - he asks in a way that we cannot refuse, but it is the best thing he could have done. He is able to lead us around, introduce us to families, translate, and show us the important buildings: schools and the halls used for celebrating festivals. We are invited to take tea. There are few men around, mainly women and lots of little children, many covered in dirt. The village looks poor. Alauddin, who is Kalash but has a muslim name ("It's better for me"), takes us to his house and treats us to some home-made wine. It's a bit sharp. There are grapes and walnuts coming into season, and the village has watchmen to stop anyone picking the fruits too soon. Back at the guesthouse we meet Irfan, the owner, who is the village councillor and has been to Chitral for business. He tells us it is very important for their children to have a good education. But when we ask what will the children do with this education, he replies that he hopes they will return to the village and help improve it. It seems improbable to us, and possibly the ultimate irony - that by creating educational opportunities for the youth, NGO's who have funded schools may actually speed up the break up of the community.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Places and Faces

The welcome back at the Madina Guesthouse in Gilgit is typically warm. It's one of the best run hostels we've stayed in, with a large staff of friendly helpful and attentive young men. The place is an oasis. We have come to collect our deposited baggage and head west to Chitral, but we're lured to stay by the presence of Celine and David, good friends we met here a while before. We also meet Marthein, whom we last saw on a bus leaving Kerman in Iran at the end of February. He's still as enthusiastic and talkative as ever. There's also Wasim, from London, whose parents are from Pakistan - this is his first visit - and Irene from Bradford, a larger than life character, who claims to have travelled around India in a Pink Panther suit. We are definitely on some kind of a Gringo Trail here - there are so few roads that we inevitably meet people again or meet others that we've heard about - and there's a strange community of travellers passing through Pakistan.

There's a man at the tailor's shop who helps to translate my request for a shalwar kameez. He asks us if we speak Urdu, and when we say no, he asks us why not? The tailor is measuring me up very briskly: chest, neck, arms, legs. We reply "Because so many Pakistanis speak such good English." The tailor asks something and the man translates "He wants to know - would you like one phucket or two phuckets?" "Two would be fine thanks......."

There's an early bus to Mastuj that takes us over the Shandur Pass. The journey is ten hours, not bad considering most of the road is a dirt track. The dust swirls through the bus, coating us in fine brown powder, which we shake off at the chai stops. On the way down off the pass the bus slows to pick up schoolchildren and shepherds to give them a free ride home. The ticket man is constanly chattering and joking with everyone, jumping off the bus to shoo a cow out of the road, calling out to villagers working in the fields. He is immaculate, and resembles George Clooney a la Errol Flynn in 'O Brother Where Art Thou?' At sunset we arrive in Mastuj, a small picturesque village at the confluence of two rivers. We stay at Jafar's place. He's not there but his father sorts us out, before sitting down with another old man to smoke a joint. Finally Jafar returns late from Chitral, inebriated and maudlin. He pays some drunken compliments to the Swiss woman who is also here and then tells us about his unhappy marriage, saying "Pakistani men are not bad but the trouble with Pakistani women is they always complain about us" before passing out in the spare room.
Gayle phones home

Ramazan is starting. Thankfully only the grandfather of the family is fasting, and we can get breakfast in the morning. Wandering round the old fort, used by the British, we are invited to sit with an old man in the shade of walnut trees who is dressed and talks like an old English gentleman. He's 95. We talk a little and a servant brings us apples. The man eats with us. I ask if he is a Sunni or Ismaili (the latter do not fast). He smiles and tells us he's 'an Internationalist', before going on to tell us the story of the women buried alive in Waziristan for refusing to comply with their arranged marriages. He shakes his head in dumb incomprehension. It's another world.

We are starting to think that Pakistan is more of an idea than a country. We are now in the North Western Frontier Province, and like the Northern Areas there is a sense of detachment from the government and the rest of the country. The main town here is Chitral, served by only two roads, both of which are closed for 5 months each winter. We arrive here at midday and are grateful for a hotel with a garden where we can sit out and cook our own food, seeing as no restaurant is open. Towards the end of the day the bustle in the streets rises a couple of notches as men complete their last minute shopping for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daily fast. We meet Jamil, a true Pakistan People's Party supporter, who blames General Zia for the islamification of the country, and the creation of the mujahadeen to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir - he sees how it has back-fired on the country. The unrest in the tribal areas has spilled into neighbouring regions. He is very positive that Zardari can negotiate a settlement rather than try and use force. His optimism seems remarkable in our eyes.

Ramazan date seller

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hunza Hang Out

Sloths apparently hang from trees for up to a week at a time before descending to empty their bowels. And whilst Haider's Inn in Karimabad could be described as our tree, the similarity ends there. We have returned to our favourite place where there is not much to do but read and enjoy the views. There are others here who find other recreational delights such as doing their laundry and smoking hashish (never the other way round). Here I celebrate my birthday with a walk up to a high view point, above a neighbouring village, where we dine on chicken jalfrezi. As always, as we wander around, there are groups of men sat around scratching their balls, whilst the women are kept busy in the fields or carrying stuff to and fro. We pass a school where the young teacher is describing something in English to a group sat out on the veranda. There are other children around, running errands, fetching water, helping with the harvest or just milling around. Nearly everyone says hello. On the way back down through the village we leave the jeep track and take an ancient and very steep staircase that winds down through a maze of terraced fields, water courses, fruit trees and kitchen gardens. The stairs must be as old as the village, worn smooth and shiny. The villagers are rewarded with fantastic views.
After a few days of this we return to Gilgit one more time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wakhi stuff

Back to Gilgit, our home in the North, for a quick feed, launder and Olympics update. Gayle is amused to see the staff engrossed in the Women's Marathon - an event run by women in what looks like their underwear. Then we're off to Passu, further north along the Karakoram Highway. We spend a few days in the area doing day walks. The villages are small and pretty - each house surrounded by its fields. Higher up, or across the river, are more fields, like a village extension, where potatoes and hay is being grown. The people here are Wakhi - Tajik in origin - who arrived here from the Wakhan 'corridor', the finger of Afghanistan that separates Pakistan from Tajikistan. It's not uncommon to see fair-haired children or blue-eyed adults. Most of these communities are Ismaili, and signposts proclaim the Aga Khan Foundation's investment in local schools. It seems that everyone speaks some English, and no-one is shy to show it. The villages seem fairly prosperous for such a remote place.
Glaciers cut down from the high peaks pushing rubble and dirt and spewing ice cold grey water into the main valley. There are dramatic white spires, ice walls and rock faces all around. We attempt a small peak of just over 4000 metres, above a lake. As we climb we realise we are walking in sand. A giant sand hill. Two steps up and one step back. Eventually we reach a saddle and surrender to the view. It's still glorious.
Our favourite walk is to cross the Hunza river by two steel cable suspension bridges. They stretch across the main valley, connecting villagers to their fields. There are strips of wood to step onto to cross the bridges, but these seem to be strategically placed so far apart as to induce a sense of fear and thrill in equal parts. Or inequal parts, in my case. In the fields folk are harvesting the grass for winter feed for their animals. Two young women wave us over and invite us for a cup of tea. In the corner of their field is a pot sat on three stones. They quickly get a fire going and produce all the ingredients for milky chai. We laugh when we see the salt. They unfold a cloth with their lunch of bread and apples and invite us to share it - we have only biscuits to offer. Jamila is married with two children and her younger sister is now at college in Gilgit. What will she do when she finishes college? Get married and have lots of children, she says, laughing. Gayle asks "Wouldn't you like to study to be a teacher?" The harvesting is hard work done by hand with sickles in the hot sun. As we pass through other fields we are offered more tea. Everyone points us in the right direction - the second bridge that goes to their village, Husseini. It is another picturesque village full of inquisitive children, one of whom literally runs across the bridge that takes us ten minutes to navigate. We reach the main road and decide to wait for a ride back to Passu. Finally a minibus pulls up. It is full but there's space on the back. I always thought it'd be fun to ride on the back, and we hop on. But then a gallant gentleman invites Gayle to take his seat, and he climbs on the back instead. It's a 15 minute ride to Passu but it's the most exhausting thing I've done in ages - literally hanging on with all my might to stop from sliding off as the bus rounds the bends. There are five of us hanging on, but the others are just chatting away nonchalantly as if they were sat over cups of tea. So, what do you reckon to Musharraf resigning then? Did you see the Chinese workcamps up by Sost? How's the family?
The Karakoram Highway is proudly signposted as the 'Eighth Wonder of the World', and in some places it seems like a miracle it exists. It is frequently subjected to landslides and rockfall, and although the road is not in great nick, the road diggers keep it clear. And now the Chinese have offered to widen and improve it, all the way from the border to south of Gilgit. Our guesthouse is going to lose a metre of garden and five trees. It's for Gwadar, the owner explains. Gwadar is a port on the south-western coast of Pakistan. The Chinese have spent $250 million on developing it, and the KKH is the first part of a very long road all the way from the Chinese border down to the port. With a wider road they will be able to drive their huge trucks, instead of the smaller picturesque Pakistani trucks. This port is closer to west China than Shanghai is.

The weather takes a turn for the worse as we head north up to the Chapursan valley. This valley runs east-west in parallel to the Wakhan corridor. There are passes over the Hindu Kush into Afghanistan and China, but they have been closed this year by the Pakistani army. We settle for a rough jeep ride up to Zood Khun where there's a simple guesthouse. But our plan of a couple nights walking and camping are squished by rain and freezing winds. The surrounding mountains disappear in thick cloud and we are reminded of Scotland. This is another area of Wakhi people, who live here all year round in quite harsh conditions. At 3500 metres there are few trees, and the crops are fed by glacial water redirected to the villages. At dawn on a clear morning we take a jeep back to the KKH. It's an old 16-seater Toyota and we're all jammed tight as the driver carefully drives the rough track back down through the valley. At one point he has to change a tyre. A bit of the wheel falls off and he just brushes it to the side of the road. I take the opportunity to count up - there are 27 of us in total, inside and out. Back in Sost, the last town before the Chinese border, we catch a minibus southwards.

sunrise in Zood Khun

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Where are you going?

This is a common question in Pakistan, usually asked as we stand around in some dusty parking lot or a litter-strewn back alley looking rather bewildered and bemused. Sometimes the answer is nowhere. The irony of travellers who cannot get anywhere. We are in Skardu, capital of Baltistan, once part of a Tibetan kingdom, but now a sidearm of the Northern Areas. We're trying to get to Shigar, only 20 miles away, but it may as well be the moon. A helpful man takes us to a jeep parked outside a row of shuttered shops. There's no-one around but he indicates us to wait. So we do. Fortunately we have Monday's newspaper to share. Here we can read about the impeachment of the President, ongoing military action in FATA (the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan), the Olympics, and an article about child labour which states that according to official figures only 55% of children attend primary school, 18% middle and 10% secondary. After a while a man walks up, salaams, and asks us where we are going. We explain we want the public jeep to Shigar (everyone assumes we want to hire a jeep privately). He takes us to another shop where they invite us to take a seat - there'll be a jeep at 10 o'clock. The young men chat to us for a bit, ask us what we think of Musharraf. They speak English, their third language. Balti is the local language, and most will speak Urdu with Pakistanis from outside the region. There are about 15 distinct languages in the Northern Areas alone.

Our journey here from Gilgit was the best one we've had so far. A strangely half-full minibus ride along another requisite hair-raising road that follows the Indus through a narrow high gorge. The river is a churning boiling brew of muddy brown chai, cutting it's way through the mountains. The road was built by the army at the same time as the KKH, giving easier access to a rather remote and isolated part of the region. We emerged into an open wide flat valley where the river quietly meanders in large loops, from side to side. The landscape is typically dry and barren and monotone grey, but now and again there are orchards and woods and small oases of green when we pass through a village. Skardu itself is a charmless town, an endless strip of car workshops, grocers, tailors, tea stalls and a smattering of souvenir shops. It has an airstrip and is used as the jumping-off point for climbers and trekkers visiting the Big Mountains - K2 Broad Peak, the Gasherbrums and Masherbrum. Walking down the street you'd think that they had never seen a woman before - the men stare at Gayle incessantly. There are no local women visible.

This is in sharp contrast to Khaplu, a large village further down the valley. We visit with intentions of going on to another village, but a combination of bad weather and apathy put us off. Instead we find a hotel high above the village with great views and awful food. We won't be recommending the mutton curry leastways. It's a big place that looks deserted but for a clutch of listless staff and us. We go for a wander around Khaplu - it seems to be all uphill or downhill - and after an initial feeling that the people are a little unfriendly suddenly get accosted by an old man who wants to talk, followed by a young woman carrying a basket of apricots who starts chattering away to Gayle in Balti. There's an old wooden mosque, one of the first in the region, and the local royal residence, a crumbling old building being renovated by the Agha Khan Foundation. At one point we feel like the Pied Piper, with a gaggle of cheeky little boys following us, all parroting "What is your name?" Karim, a young student on a field trip from Canada, kindly shows us around the fort. He left Karachi when he was 17 to go to study in Montreal, and it's his first time in the Northern Areas. He is trying to decide whether to stay in Canada or return to Pakistan when his studies are finished. Back at the hotel we meet a woman who has returned - after studying in New York. She is also an architect, about to start work on the conservation of Old Lahore, and she invites us to get in touch when we get to her city. It's rare to meet Pakistanis from the south up here - it could be another country.

Back in the shop, waiting for our jeep, the subject turns to Kashmir. What do we think? Mmm. What do you think? we counter. One young man suggests that the Northern Areas joins up with Kashmir and forms an independent state. There are flags for sale in the main street - it is Independence Day tomorrow - but somehow we can't imagine the people here getting carried away with any celebration. It's 61 years since Pakistan was formed and still the country is dominated either by an over-resourced military, or by one rich family (the Bhuttos) or another (the Sharifs). It's 11 o'clock. We give up waiting for a ride. We can always find something else to do.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Pakora Pass

It seems every journey out of Gilgit is difficult. We are sat on sacks of flour, in the open back of a jeep, along with 16 other people. Admittedly, this includes children, but still, as Betty Everett says, it's getting mighty crowded. We are going to Upper Naltar in late afternoon, and at least we get some breeze as the jeep trundles along. We stop for water for the leaky radiator and for the sweating passengers, and at one point for a small boy to climb a tree and pick grapes off a vine, to share with everyone. Halfway up a hill a tyre blows out. The driver changes it without fuss in fifteen minutes. We arrive in the village and spend a night there before beginning our trek up the valley and over the Pakora Pass. There are five days walking - the first three are short, allowing us to climb slowly and acclimatise and enjoy the fresh alpine scenery. There are summer settlements up the valley, where shepherds and their families squat in simple dry-stone houses with turf roofs. Their goats, sheep and cows roam the higher slopes each day. It is a strange but common phenomenon to climb up a dry barren rocky valley to emerge into wide verdant forrested scenery higher up - the reverse of what we are accustomed to. On our second day we are caught by a group of three trekkers and their guide and porter. We know two of the tourists, Jules and Jason and the guide, Saeef, from our Gilgit guesthouse. This helps a bit because it turns out we are walking the same stages each day and we are unsure of the etiquette in such situations. We are in theory trekking independently with a route description and a large scale map, but in practice we can just follow their group and guide. We camp at the same places, but try to keep a respectful distance. John is suffering from diahorrea, so a respectful distance is vital. The walk takes us to a high camp at 4200 metres and then we cross the pass at 4700m the next day in what we call "Scottish" weather. There's no snow on the pass, and the glacier that begins on the other side is icy and slippery in the wet. Saeef and the porter get us across to the rocky morraine to one side and then we descend down a very different landscape. Glaciers falling from surrounding peaks stretch across the landscape and merge in the valley. We have to cross lower down, but this is not difficult - it is fairly flat, the ice ridged by hundreds of channels of meltwater. No crevasses. It's still a thrill but we now realise why our guidebook says you don't need a guide - it is fairly straight forward. The day ends dry and with us camped on a patch of grass close by more shepherds, above the river which emerges from the glacier. The valley is narrower and more hostile as we descend the next day - the path is another unbelievable construction on a rocky barren cliff face. We prefer to walk more slowly than the others and eventually arrive in Pakora, a green oasis of a village, hot and tired.
As we walk through the village we are accosted by a group of women picking apricots from their trees. They invite us into their garden and we take a rest in the shade. They are sisters and Nahida speaks good English. They ask if we'd like tea and they take us through a gate and into a walled garden. We sit down in a shady outbuilding which has two bedrooms and a dining area. Nahida's husband, Ghalib, a teacher, joins us and invites us to stay the night. We accept. Saeef turns up - the group are camping in a field next door - and we chat a while. After a shower and more tea, Ghalib takes us for a walk around the village. It's very pretty, with each house set amongst its own fields, with maize growing high, and walnut, fig, mulberry and apricot trees in full leaf. We meet Mumtaz, another teacher, who also sings and runs a small shop. We drink pop and move on, bumping into one of Ghalib's students, who invites us in for tea. Once again we enter another traditional house and get to meet more women. This is another Ismaili community and the women are not covered. They are extracting the edible kernel from apricot seeds.
After calling in on the campers we return to the family house. Most of the women are out and it is quiet. We go back to our room to take a rest before dinner and discover that someone has rifled through our rucksacks. It's a shock to us. We soon realise a couple of small things are missing - earphones and alarm clock - and suspect one of the children, and we tell Ghalib what has happened. His reaction is a bit odd, possibly unsurprised, and we ask if he can recover our things. While he is gone, a good while, we decide we can't stay, and pack ready to camp. The women return and we explain the problem to Nahida. She looks horrified. We explain that we don't want to know who did it, but we really want our things back. Otherwise we will have to report the theft to the police. This is over the top, but it produces a response. We soon hear screaming from the house and raised voices. It is dark now. The earphones are found by Nahida hidden in the room next to us, but no clock. We shoulder our packs, and despite all their apologies and ministrations to stay, leave. We can smell the dinner cooking as we walk away.
We join the others camping. Everyone is asleep but Saeef, to whom we explain our predicament. We pitch our tent and Nahida reappears with our clock. Her husband is too embarrassed to come. She is so apologetic and begs us to return. We know that by leaving we are not forgiving this petty crime, and therefore bringing shame on the family. Worse, Saeef, a guide from Gilgit, is witness to it all. We thank her but say that we are sleeping in our tent. We can't go back. We suspect her younger brother, but the family are blaming a smaller boy "who is a little bit crazy" - perhaps a way to salvage their izzat, their family pride. Just as we are going to sleep three of the women return with dinner. Saeef tells us that if we refuse to eat it they will get upset. I've had enough, but Gayle goes out and tucks in with Saeef, to help assuage the women. It is 11 o'clock.
On the early morning journey back to Gilgit we talk about the whole crazy situation. Some things didn't feel right. They were a very hospitable and typically friendly family. Ghalib was very liberal and wanted to talk and ask our opinions of Pakistan, to explain some of the culture. But when we went out for a walk he did ask if we had anything valuable in our rucksacks, like a camera, to bring it along. At the time, this didn't flick any switch, but afterwards it seemed very peculiar. And although we upset the family by leaving, we felt this was the only way to put pressure on the little bugger who had stolen our things. It might have worked, but it felt like the women in the house were doing their utmost to protect him, or the family as a whole. Who knows? Ah well - we intend to still send them the photos we took in their garden and to thank them for their hospitality. We don't know what else to do.