Occupied Srinagar

Most people who come to Srinagar stay on one of the famous houseboats of Dal Lake. Dal Lake sits right in the centre of the city and there are thousands of houseboat owners vying for tourists. Although reportedly calm and peaceful they also are home to some very annoying potential scams. The main one involving the fact that the only way on or off the houseboats is by small rowboats. We decided that we didn't have the energy. We stayed 'on land' as the only guests in a quiet hotel in the tourist district of Srinagar (that was noticeably lacking in tourists). The old streets of Srinagar are lined with beautiful wooden building and balconies but the tourist district is a more modern and polluted section of town. I blame the pollution for the nasty chest colds that both Yann and I developed over the course of our week in the city. On our first morning in town, we sought out an internet cafe to check the local news: one death on the Jammu-Srinagar highway after a grenade was thrown at a convoy carrying politicians and one shooting death of a protester in a crowd denouncing the degradation of a mosque under Indian control. More protests were planned and some locals told us where they would be so that we could stay away. Most locals seemed skeptical to admit that anything was going on, even the woman at the tourist office denied protests were taking place as a protest marched by the heavily guarded office. Despite the seemingly bad news, everyday life in Srinagar seems to go on as if everything was normal. It's hard to escape the feeling of occupation in the city. Makeshift sandbag bunkers and barbed wire litter the scenery. Intimidating crowds of Indian soldiers hang out at every street corner. Kashmiris seem to do a good job going about their daily lives but its impossible to escape the Indian presence and control in the area. Everything from traffic to curfews is decided by the army. One boy proclaimed "even the police are afraid of the army, they don't answer to anybody" and another explained "if ever there was a referendum 10% of people (the corrupt) would vote for Pakistani control, the other 90% would vote for independance". Kashmiris have a visibly different culture from their Indian neighbours. Every morning we purchased hard, flat, pretzel like breads for breakfast, meat is readily available and there aren't so many cows roaming the streets. Most evenings we went to bed to the sound of Islamic spiritual chanting from the mosque next door to our hotel. Locals were happy to let us visit mosques, take photos, while proudly reciting the origins of the buildings, many with Persian influence (and absolutely beautiful). Most women wear a long black tunic with colourful hand embroidery around the collar, younger men sport the usual jeans and t-shirt, but older men wear the two piece white suit and a mandatory vest. Neither Yann nor I could resist getting ourselves Kashmiri vests from a little old tailor who insisted to me that they were unisex, even though I never once spotted a woman wearing one. As you might recall, the reason we were in Srinagar was to catch a bus to Ladakh. When we asked locals about the bus, most responded that it wasn't leaving for another few weeks (the Kashmiri version of solidarity seems to be to keep tourists in Kashmir for as long as the possibly can, even if that means holding them hostage on their houseboat or lying to them about road closures). Even the bus station attendants claimed to not know when the first bus would tackle the two day journey. They recommended we come to see them everyday, because they would start selling tickets as soon as the army gave their approval. We gave ourselves an approximate 10 day waiting period, at which time if there weren't any buses we would turn around and head back the way we came. One evening we spotted another tourist (a rare sighting in the area) and I ran after him to ask him if he had any information about the highway. Our assumption that he was also heading to Ladakh was correct and we exchanged stories over dinner about our lack of information about the highway. Thus began the beginning of our month long journey with German Jochen who decided we seemed to have some idea of what we were doing so we might be a good couple to travel with. Other than sharing the same travel philosophy his mother might possibly worry about him more than Nicole worries about Yann so we had lots to talk about.

We waited only 4 nights in Srinagar before we got the news that we could buy tickets for the first bus ride of the year to Leh, leaving on May 1st. I spent most of the last days in bed sick (this is becoming a pattern) and Yann and Jochen went on some adventures, renting a motorcycle that broke down halfway through their trip, getting harassed by a crazy man, having tea at a hotel owner's mansion, poking a snake with a stick and getting interviewed for local television (really I don't have all the details of this excursion so that's about all the information I can provide). Other than the terribly annoying shikara (rowboat) drivers and the oppressive Indian army, the locals were extremely friendly and seemed genuinely happy to see us visiting their city, even without the tickets to Leh we still would have been happy with our trip to Kashmir, unless we had been hit by a grenade, that would have really sucked.

The Long Road to Srinagar

Buying bus tickets to Srinagar wasn't possible from the small McLeod Ganj bus stand, but we were able to get a direct bus to Jammu (Jammu and Kashmir province's winter capital) from where we could apparently "easily" get to Srinagar. At the McLeod Ganj bus stand we were introduced to an old Ladkhi monk who spoke neither Hindi nor English but seemed extremely happy to have travel companions to Jammu (I found out our day of departure why he was so happy when his Tibetan monk friend, challenging my preconceived notions about Buddhist monks, warned us to "be careful in Kashmir, 99% of Indians are thieves"). We agreed to meet the Ladakhi monk the next morning to travel together, we promised his fellow monk that we would take good care of him, although we weren't given any instructions on how to do so.

We met the Ladakhi monk early the next morning in the town centre and found a taxi that would take us to the bus stand. We discovered that the monk was carrying two large hockeybag-sized sacks, which as far as we could tell were containing bricks. Yann and I carried them, loaded them onto the roof of the taxi and then paid for our three places in the taxi. As the three of us waited for the bus to Jammu, the monk pulled out his bus and plane tickets from under his robes and handed them to me for safe keeping. He was more and more becoming our responsibility.

The bus ride from McLeod Ganj to Jammu lasted about 7 hours. The Ladakhi monk and I shared a bench and Yann shared one with a talkative local teenager. The monk held my hand for most of the ride, despite the opressive heat and shared his stale Tibetan bread with Yann and I. Meanwhile, Yann had to buy him water and food, because he didn't seem to be doing it himself.

We arrived in Jammu fairly early in the afternoon and felt confident that we would be able to hop on a night bus to Srinagar. Unfortunately there was someone preventing us from doing that: an old, lost, scared-looking monk. We lugged his bags of bricks to the waiting area of the bus station and waited, and waited, and waited. We had understood that he had a friend coming to meet him at the station and that he was catching a plane to Ladakh in two days time, but no one seemed to have showed up for him. He and Yann set off to search for his friend in the sprawling bus station while I sat on the floor guarding all of our luggage. I quickly became surrounded by a large crowd who had encircled me and seemed to find me interesting. A considerate shopkeeper would disperse my fan club by yelling and swatting his broom in the air, but almost immediately after his attempts to free me, the crowd would reconvene.

After two hours at the bus station, it became quite clear that no one was coming to pick up the Ladakhi monk. Yann and I concluded that we would have to find a hotel room and stay two days in Jammu until the monk's flight home. As we tried desperately to extract any piece of information from him, the monk sprang, headed to a rickshaw driver and managed to communicate to him, in his broken Hindi, that he needed to find another Ladakhi. The well-informed driver managed to come up with Ladakh House, a small community centre/boarding house for Ladakhis in Jammu. There might still be hope! The monk and I hopped into the rickshaw, leaving Yann with the bags. When we arrived at Ladakh House I spotted the crimson robes of another monk through the gates and felt unbelievable relief. I left the monk, took a public bus back to the bus station (for one tenth the price of the rickshaw) and found Yann. We loaded the bricks onto a new rickshaw and raced back to Ladakh House to drop them off. The two monks were waiting for us at the gates, hugs were exchanged and invitations to their home monasteries extended, no money was exchanged however, despite Yann and I having spent nearly half our daily budget trying to get our monk to safe place. Damn him for being so cute and old! Back at the bus station, now late in the afternoon, we decided to leave Jammu despite our exhaustion. When we approached the ticket counter we were told by various people that there were no more buses to Srinagar, that night, or maybe even the next day. Of course, no one talking to us actually worked for the bus company, but they all seemed to be able to tell us more than the employees themselves. Suspicious. Typical.

The explanation we finally accepted was that the road was open to traffic in only one direction, we had missed the last day's bus to Srinagar so we had to wait a full day before the road would be open in our direction again. If you spent even 5 minutes at the Jammu bus station you would understand why this was extremely depressing. If you spent even 5 minutes in India you would understand why we didn't believe what we were being told about road closures. As we stood, trying to figure out our next move we noticed two young Kashmiri men that had been on the same bus with us from McLeod Ganj. We took the opportunity to ask them about the road closures. According to them, although there were no buses leaving for Srinagar, private vehicles were still able to make the journey. The two of them would be leaving late in the evening and were looking for other passengers to fill a jeep.

Over dinner Yann and I debated whether or not it was a good idea to set out in the middle of the night with perfect strangers, on a treacherous highway through Kashmir, possibly defying army orders. We came to the puzzling conclusion that it was a very wise idea. After some negotiating with our jeep driver, we set out in a full jeep, towards Srinagar, now several hours after the sun had set. Before leaving the city we had one last stop at the local wine shop. Luckily, Yann and I had withheld payment for the ride until arrival in Srinagar, so we were able to instruct our driver that we wouldn't continue if he was planning on drinking. After some highly unconvincing arguments from him and the younger passengers we were able to get a promise of sobriety. In the back of our heads was the fact that a bus had flipped off the same highway earlier in the week killing most of its passengers. We agreed that at least one of us should be awake at all times, to watch the road and to make sure the driver didn't decide to tap into his stash that he had conveniently placed under his seat.

Only a few minutes out of Jammu, our driver pulled off the main highway, down an unlit gravel road through the countryside, even passing over dried up riverbeds. Nervous Emilie concluded that we were driven out to the middle of nowhere to be robbed and abandoned. Calm Emilie concluded that we were avoiding an army checkpoint preventing travel from Jammu to Srinagar. I was reassured after a few minutes when we looked back to see a whole stream of lights coming down the same road, a convoy of jeeps and trucks travelling the same well-known, checkpoint-avoiding route. I was nonetheless relieved to be back on the highway an hour later, a whole 13km from Jammu.

The rest of the ride was equally painful, with Yann and I working to stay awake. I proved to be rather useless, with Yann getting about one hour of sleep in the fifteen hour journey. Our driver was obviously drowsy, often swerving, but he was also obviously more macho than drowsy, so there was no question of taking a break, despite our offers. At about 3a.m., the driver and friends had decided to pull out the beers. Yann climbed onto the roof of the jeep and began unstrapping our bags. This led to a heated argument between me, the driver and the two young men who had recruited us for the ride. We prevented the driver from getting anything save for a few swigs and we were able to continue with the ride, but we probably offended their sense of manliness. The rest of the night was filled with large oncoming trucks, hairpin turns and lots of unnecessary passing and speeding. By 5a.m. we had reached the mouth of a long tunnel controlled by the army. The tunnel opened only at 8a.m., making us question our drivers motives for our speedy arrival there, he probably planned on getting into the beer, but Yann stayed up with the boys until the tunnel opened, while I got to sleep in the jeep. We were in downtown Srinagar by noon, we exited the jeep into a sea of hungry Kashmiri rickshaw drivers, what a relief.

Free Tibet Tourism

The Indian heat proved to be too much for us, we left with me in a quasi-panic and we were determined not to stop until we had reached a cooler climate. The trip to the mountains involved nearly 24 hours of travel, through four provinces on four different buses. Our bus ride ended in McLeod Ganj, with a cool climate but otherwise uninteresting if it weren't the residence of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan community.

McLeod Ganj is somewhat of a Tibetan Disneyland, every other shop selling Free Tibet merchandise, but it is also a major source of information and publicisation of the Tibetan cause. There are museums, libraries, schools, workshops, and daily documentary screenings. Some of the testimonies by refugees, most having crossed the Himalayas on foot, are incredibly moving. A monk described fleeing China after refusing to denounce the Dalai Lama during a Chinese "re-education campaign". By the time he was brought in front of the Dalai Lama, he had lost both his legs and hands to frostbite and remembers nothing of his meeting because he wept through the whole thing. Our visit happened to coincide with the 18th birthday of the 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet. The Panchen Lama is the second highest spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, after the Dalai Lama. After being appointed Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama he was abducted, along with his family, by the Chinese government. He was 5 years old at the time and has never been seen since. The Tibetan community organised a whole series of activities in honour of the Panchen Lama's birthday including marches and even a run. The school children all participated in the run, but it was the women in full Tibetan dresses running though town that really impressed the crowds. We spent most of our time in McLeod Ganj recovering from our two weeks in Rajasthan, eating Western style food, reading and watching movies at the local mini cinemas (complete with bootlegged new releases). Each morning began with a pot of "strong black coffee" accompanied by a bowl of muesli for me and a plate of chips and beans for Yann. One morning we noticed a small article in the local newspaper announcing that the highway from Srinagar to Leh had opened unusually early due to the hard snow-clearing work of the Indian military. Why did we care? Leh is the capital of Ladakh, a remote, mountainous region in Northern India (bordered by Tibet and Pakistan) that is only accesible by road for about 4 months of the year. We had concluded earlier that we wouldn't be able to make it there because we were just a little bit too early in the year. This news meant that we could get there within a week, the only downside was that the highway passes through Kashmir, brushing up against the line of control (there is one other route to Leh, but there was no hope of that one being open). Dangers are of course exaggerated by foreign governments, but downplayed by locals, making it impossible to really ever know whats going on, we decided to side with the locals.

Red Hot Heat in the Blue and Golden Cities

Jodhpur is a major tourist draw for two reasons 1- It has a giant fort, 2- It's blue! The absolutely enormous Meharangarh Fort sits right in the middle of the city perched on a hilltop, surrounded in by a maze of blue homes. The Brahmin-blue was once used to indicate the presence of inhabitants of the highest caste, strictly religious and thus vegetarian, this way nothing unholy could enter their homes. For some reason, the blue view is really captivating and it falls on our list of India's "must sees", no matter how loud, dirty and polluted the rest of the city is.
The 40+ temperature of Jodhpur was a major shock to the system. The heat of mid-day proved unbearable for me, and I spent most of our time in Jodhpur sweating in our hotel room. At night, with absolutely no breeze and barely a temperature drop, we spent most of our time tossing and turning leaving giant puddles of sweat where we had previously lay. I even took to having cold showers in the middle of the night to cool myself down. Then, I started not being able to handle much food, Jodhpur would be the begining of a 10 day bread and water stint.

In a strategic heat avoiding manoeuver we woke up for sunset to hike up to the Meharangarh Fort only to find that it only opened at 9 am. Considering by that time the morning cool is already distant, it frustrated us slightly. The fort is equipped with an audio tour guide which was actually a lovely treat. We were the first visitors of the day and we often arrived to find the guards neglecting their duty, including one who showed us his bag full of opium and took back his offer of sharing some when we looked surprised (we weren't offended, just genuinely surprised). Opium is actually extremely commonly used in Rajasthan, often taken to celebrate births, weddings or other celbrations (we learned this from our audioguides before encountering the guard).
After three quasi-sleepness nights in Jodhpur we chose to head even further into the Thar Desert to the sandstone city of Jasailmer. Jasailmer is much smaller than Jodhpur and really seems to sprout right out of the desert. Its charm is inescapable, narrow alleyways and the beautiful golden sandstone Jasailmer Fort. A veritable sand castle! I pried myself from the bed/bathroom to visit the fort, but I remained on my bread and water diet. I attempted light Indian food one night, this resulted in the simultaneous blockage of two of three drains in the bathroom, not a pretty picture. I was completely exhausted, having lost almost 4kg in 2 weeks, but I was determined to have the full Jasailmer experience, this included a desert camel safari. We originally had planned an overnight in the desert, but with no signs of improvement on my part we opted for the "sunset package". This consists of a jeep ride to a small village 50km from Jasailmer, a two hour camel ride to the Khuri sand dunes to watch the sunset and back, dinner in the village and a jeep ride back to the hotel.

When we arrived in Barna village to pick up our camels, it was after 4pm and Yann's thermometer read 44 C. The usual crowd of children greeted us, faces and hair completely encrusted in sand and full of energy despite the heat. We found our huge camels and young guides on the outskirts of the village ready for the trip. Camels are hilarious, gigantic beasts, their legs are so skinny you think they are going to snap at the joints. Mounting a camel is much easier than a horse, as they kneel down to the ground to let you on, its really amazing and watching Yann mount and dismount his camel was a hilarious ordeal! Our trip to the dune was peaceful (minus our guide impressing us with his knowledge of John Denver and Aqua tunes), we crossed a few shepherds, other than that we were completely alone. In the two our trip we saw peacocks, antelope, desert foxes, lizards and a hare and we sat on the dunes for the sunset, finally getting a reprieve from the heat. We arrived back at the village after what seemed like an eternity. Camels are no horses, they are excrutiatingly uncomfortable on the backside, and we were extremely grateful that we didn't have to get back on them again, although happy that we had given it a try.