Sunday, 26 August 2012

Amritsar, India

After some sleep and a hard earned breakfast it was time to explore the first of many cities on the itinerary that have a choice of a temple, a fort or a palace as the main viewing interest. In this case, Amritsar has the Golden Temple, which happens to be the Sikh's most important and revered shrine.

Many people, regardless of religion undertake a pilgrimage to this site where they are afforded bread and board for their troubles.

Getting to the temple is easy, just ask any rickshaw driver to take you there or venture there yourself on foot, most tourist guesthouses are in the vicinity of the temple. Once there, everyone has to take of their shoes and leave them in the storage facility provided before entering the temple grounds via a shallow pool of water so as to cleanse feet upon entry.

Within the grounds the temple takes centre stage, shining in the sunlight and sparkling at night, it looks impressive and beautiful as it stands out from the holy lake that surrounds it. Worshippers come to bathe in the water but if you are just sitting down and soaking up the atmosphere, cross legged is the only way forward so as to show respect.

Inside the temple, there is always a throng of people praying, either alone or as a group, with musicians playing spiritual music accompanied by the chorus of worshippers whose voices echo off the walls of the cramped space within. Incense, offerings and prayer books are all available and people of any religion are welcome to come and pray.

Besides the temple itself, the kitchen and dining hall are a wonder unto themselves. Everyday, hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers come here to help with the preparations, cooking and distribution of food to those who come to the temple. Some 60,000 people a day come to the temple, or so I was told.

As you enter the dining hall building, plates, bowls and cutlery are handed out to each person, who in turn are ushered into the big dining room where they choose a place of their choice to sit down. Volunteers then come round and fill the plates up with food apprpriate for the time.

In the morning, a simple offering of chai and biscuits is available. For lunch, a delicious thali spread of sweet coconut rice, dal and chick peas with chapatis is on offer. The amazing thing about all of this, is that it is free for anyone who wants it, admission to the grounds is free too, the place really is open to everyone.

Of course, donations are more than welcome and for a place like this they are necessary in order to function. However, with the generosity of the volunteers it's not hard to see why this facility is open all year round for everyone.

Kitchen and dining room

Golden Temple by day

Golden Temple by night

Golden Temple at dusk

India -Pakistan border closing ceremony 

The India -Pakistan daily border closing ceremony at Attari - Wagah is also a highlight of Amritsar. With these two countries always at each others throats, it is refreshing and somewhat surreal to see this complete show that goes on. It's pure theatre.

Around 3pm onwards, crowds staart to gather on both sides of the border to take seats in the custom built grandstands for the event, it's that popular. Come 5pm the place is packed to the rafters and all that could be heard from the Indian end was Hindi music, heckling at the Pakistanis, chanting, the national anthem and general noise from the few thousand people who come to witness this strange yet hilarious event.

Proceedings get underway with flag waving, scores of women queuing to run the length of the short section of road to the gates where the borders meet waving their respective flags in the faces of the other nation and much to the joy of the onlooking crowd.

After this, music just blares out of the speakers around the stands, with the women dancing in the road, the men cheering the women on and fiercly singing pro-Indian songs followed by more chanting.

As the festivities come to a close, the crowd's anticipation reaches new levels as the soldiers come out upon instruction and line up. One at a time, the soldiers then proceed to scream at the top of their lungs, do the most over the top salute, turn and power march to the border to meet their Pakistani opposite. Standing directly in front of each other, they then try to out stomp, out salute and out handshake each other before returning to their station.

It's pure Hollywood and the crowd laps it up. One guy was so beside himself that he was just screaming at the top of his lungs, either that or he was just hamming it up like the soldiers.

To conclude, the flags of each nation are lowered and folded away. The soldiers then face their opposites across the border, scream at each other until the crowd starts to join in too. They then stomp around, slam the border gates in each others' faces as hard as physically possible and march back down to the barracks amidst cheers from the galleries. Brilliant.

Indian grandstand

Pakistani grandstand in the distance

Getting pumped

Wave that flag

Marching to the border gate

Marching back

Game face

You can just make out the other side
Calm down

Driving through the hills, Leh to Amritsar

Leh to Manali

Leaving Leh behind was never going to be easy for two reasons. It was a hassle free tourist orientated town, a luxury, and also the fact that it is way up in the hills. This alone made leaving a somewhat arduous task. No motorway to hop on to and travel south, still in the hills so the only way was slow and painful again.

The main route out of Leh when heading south is to head to Manali. It is possible to break the trip up and do it over a couple days if you like but this is using public buses and on these mountain roads and passes it's not an altogether safe option, especially with the area prone to landslides during the rains; one happened barely one week ago.

The other options available are either jeep or minibus for another 17 hour ride through the hills. Decided on a minibus this time, the jeep coming to Leh was somewhat bumpy so the minibus can't be any worse. Plus there are retractable seats, travelling in style this time.

2am start to proceedings this time, they would rather start in the dead of night than finish up there which suits me fine. The prospect of potentially getting some sleep while I was at it was also refreshing considering I had been up all day walking and rafting before having to wait until the departure time. Sadly, this was not to be the case.

The driver just motored through all the little villages on his way down through the valley and south, stopping abruptly to pick up stragglers as the minibus was not full from the start. The only relief from all the stop-starting was the seat, it just rocked along with the vehicle as it rocketed through the night.

Come day break all signs of life had been left behind with only the odd nomadic family camped out in the arid wasteland. Roads were not a thing out here, it was just follow the track in the sand which best suited your vehicle. There were tracks erverywhere and when we were really lucky, there was a tiny stretch of tarmac, the only relief from the flying out of seats everyone on board was now experiencing, regardless of the seat's magic.

After a while it was only a matter of time before the minibus decided to generate a problem of it's own, there's no way a vehicle can take that much of a battering without getting upset about it. Needless to say, just as the sun was slowly rising to welcome a beatuiful new day, the engine blew and smoke filled the interior of the minibus.

Once pulled over, the other two minbuses we were leading ground to a halt too and came to help out, good job these boys drive as a convoy or we'd have been in a real pickle. As it the norm, other cars and vans pulled over so their respective owners could bestow their wisdom on us; basically stare at what was happening and bark some random instruction that clearly had no bearing on the situation. As is always the case, they eventually get bored and drive off in their functional vehicle.

Some time later, it seemed only appropriate for one of the tyres to go. Again, being part of a convoy has it's perks as the other vehicles stop to lend assistance. Had we been on out own I can only imagine that we would still be at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.

During the course of the drive, four passes with an elevation of around 4900m minimum are passed, the tallest of which is the Tagland La pass at 5359m which claims to be the second highest road pass in the world after Khardung La.

These passes were all very manageable with roads that clearly had had some loving from those who made them. However the last pass, Rohtang Pass, was nothing short of a thrill ride as we ascended a road prone to mud and landslides until we were shrouded in mist and you couldn't actually see out the window, not for want of trying.

The driver had his head out the window for half of it as he battled with a gear box that was clearly shot and roads that were covered with rocks and other drivers intent on passing when there was actually no where to go but down. To say there were a few heart stopping moments would be an understatement.

As night was settling in, we navigated the Rohtang pass and slowly wound our way down the mountainside through to the quite hillside town of Manali. A popular place for many tourists who want to do some trekking but don't want to go through the hassle of actually getting to the Ladakhi region of Leh, and after that journey of 17 hours holding my breath, who can blame them.

Views of the ever changing landscape at altitude

One of the four passes of high altitude

Buddhist flags by the roadside

How did that rock get under there?

Ascending the Rohtang pass

Getting higher

Don't look down

Manali to Amritsar

After passing out from the sheer exhaustion of the minibus ride down, a 15 hour bus ride to Amristar awaited. It's not even that far again, just a a few hundred kilometers, but separated by mountains, rugged terrain and roads that have no idea of what basic maintenence could posiibly be. Needless to say, it was another long old ride that would last all through the night with a predicted arrival time of 5am.

The going was quick enough to begin with, even with the pot holes the driver just flew along the road running parallel to a river, stopping along the way to pick up more custom and occasionally stopping in local towns where he was somehow able to naviagte the smallest alleys and side roads in order to gain access to the bus stations.

The hills were far less precarious than the previous couple rides, nonetheless the roads were still incredibly windy and took forever to go around. It didn't take long to realise that the bus went one hour in one direction with the river flowing on the left side before we came upon a small bridge and went an hour back the other way, basically after 2 hours we could see the town from where we started across the river.

Of course, no road route would be complete without the customary tyre blow out and in the dead of night when the bus pulled in for an unintented pit stop the conclusion was inevitable. One man smacking the tyre until it eventually came off with some gentle persuasuion from someone who actually helped pull it off while 23, yes 23, men stood watching with the most ridiculous air of importance. Someone really needs to teach the guys who drive these vehicles how to change a tyre.

Since the first puncture back on the way to Leh, I have taken a back seat considering when I did try to help out they couldn't understand that I might actually have a clue as to what to do. Silly tourist, don't you know smacking the tyre as hard as you can is the way forward.

Once the dust settled and we were back in motion, it was relatively plain sailing until our arrival in Amritsar. Afforded no sleep though, don't remember the last time I was on a seat that uncomfortable. Needless to say, once a guesthouse was found, sleep was the order of the day.

Following the river

Regular road

Lush countryside
Dark but you get the picture

Wednesday, 22 August 2012


Once accommodation was sorted (hot water!) and the nightmare that was 17 hours on a jeep was overcome, the town of Leh awaited exploration. Set at 3400m or so above sea level, I was really suprised by how hot it was and how burnt I managed to get on the first day. Note to self, wear sun cream, I have three bottles after all. Nothing like travelling light.

The main town consists of the old town where a lot of the population of Leh live, spreading from Leh Palace down and around the polo field (yes, they like polo here) and then further down the valley. Up around the top end of town there are many schools and again housing. Inbetween these areas is the Main Bazaar and its surrounding roads which basically cater to every need of the tourists who flock here between June and August for trekking in the Lakahi and Zanskar ranges.

Had to take it easy the first day so as to get used to the altitude but ended up wandering all over town and seeing most of the sights on offer in Leh, only Shanti Stupa was saved for the following day.

If you're not trekking in the region, the town of Leh has a few things to see. From afar, it is possibe to see some of the attractions: the Shanti Stupa which was built by Japanese monks to promote world peace is on a hill to the west of town, to the north on an even higher crest lies the Tsemo Fort and just below that is the Leh Palace which is modelled after the Potola Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.

There are a couple options to get to the Tsemo Fort: hire a car to drive you or just walk up the various paths that lead that way. Figured I'd get some walking practice in so headed up the man made path which didn't take too long at all. Very soon you were afforded great views of the town and the surrounding mountains and valley. With the sun at its zenith it was a perfect time for sightseeing and it was easy to just sit down and appreciate the views with the wind in your face.

Heading down from here towards the old town, you walk past Leh Palace. It was getting late so didn't bother going in, just walked around the ouhouses and admired the design. With a lick of paint it really would be a miniature version of the Potola Palace. One day I'll get there.

Not to be outdone by these is the Shanti Stupa on the other side of town, a much more gruelling walk up to the top. Even though they're manmade steps, in the heat and with nowhere to hide you had to stop occasionally to catch your breathe. Although seeing the young local children tearing up it and counting the steps was more than a little depessing, especially as I was still catching my breathe and they hardly seemed fazed by the fact they had run up it. Kids.

Stupa Forest

View of Leh

Another view of Leh and its surroundings

More of the city

Arid landscape with flags

Leh valley region

Tsemo Fort through flags

Overlooking the city

Main viewpoint

Leh Palace

Leh's old town
When not checking out the local sights, there are plenty of places to relax and actually hang out in Leh which is a nice change from the usual frantic pace of India. Usually you are more than hinted at to leave an establishment if they see you as loitering around when in fact you are people watching or just plain chilling out, regardles of whether you ordered another chai or not.

Here, sitting in the roof top restaurants for as long as you like is okay, which helps to soak up the atmosphere of this pleasant mountain based town. From here it will be another nightmarish ride down through the mountains to get to lower ground to start touring India's famous forts and palaces.

Trekking in Ladakh

Having spent a couple days in Leh acclimatising, it was time to head out into the hills and get some trekking done. With the Annapurna Circuit trek being my big one, a shorter 3 day/ 2 night trek seemed a good idea to whet my appetite for the outdoors.

Decided to just get a guide for the three days, cheap enough and just makes things hassle free, plus there's nothing wrong with being lazy once in a while.

Day 1: Leh (3400m) to Urutze (4150m)

This first day was a breeze, just the thing to get you in the spirit of things and make you think you never lost any of that fitness you ever had. Started with a meandering drive from Leh to Zingchen, a small area where there is the odd guesthouse/ place to get some tea and the start of many treks into the Markha Valley range.

The walk was only about 4 hours the first day, negotiating small streams and gently easing into a walking style that suited you accompanied with the odd stop for photos and all important chai (milk tea) stops. By the time we were warmed up though, we had reached Urutze and that was it for the day. Literally one local's house which is used as a home stay for many trekkers, with dorm rooms on the roof, tents and smaller rooms adjacent to the main sitting room.

Road to Zingchen

Valley through the hills

Pack horses carrying supplies

More rocky terrain

Approaching the homestay at Urutze

Homestay at sunset

Day 2: Urutze (4150m) via Kanda La Pass (4900m) to Skui (3450m)

This was a dog of a day, nothing like the gentle warm up of yesterday. Started with a simple breakfast of butter and jam on chapati, a real stimulant and energy boosting meal. Needless to say the going was tough from the start, unlike the first day where it was a slow and gentle pace with hardly any noticeable increase in altitude, this day was just a brutal assault when we had to go 800m up to reach the pass and then 1500m down to the village of Skui at the end of the valley.

Going up was slow. After about 30 minutes we reached a local encampment where porters and guides were tending to the equipment they were hauling up for their respective clients who had gone on ahead by this stage. From here on it was just up.

Looking back was depressing for the longest time because the tent in the encampment never seemed to shrink in size, whenever you turned around it was just there swamping your view. Eventually, we rounded a corner so we knew progress was being made but still, the track just went up and up with no respite, no flat sections at all.

After what seemed an eternity, four hours, we reached the top of Kanda - La Pass and our max altitude of 4900m. As usual with these passes, there were Buddhist prayer flags and chortens erected by the locals which always look beautiful in the stiff peak breezes.

Going down was horrendous. Not sure if it was the blazing heat from the sun where there was no escape or the sudden change in altitude but my body wasn't having any of it and pretty soon my going was seriously slow, I had a crushing headache and everytime I looked up the end was never nearer. In short I was having a nightmare and was really struggling.

Managed to force some water in me and get a little more hydrated and but even still, by the time we reached Skui I was totally drained and what should have taken around six hours was more like nine hours.

Lying in a bed I was able to get some rest and after a few bowls of soup and Indian staples of dal and rice I was feeling much better. Couple that with a decent enough nights rest and come the morning I was a whole person again.

View from behind as we climbed to the pass

View up to the pass

More paths up
View from the pass

View down the valley from the pass


Day 3: Skui (3950m) to Leh (3400m) via Chiling (3400m) and the Zanskar River

Having pretty much passed out and gotten some sleep, I was feeling much better about things today. That, and the fact it was a doddle walk to where we were getting picked up to go rafting  as well. The walking was a relaxing pace and there was minimal to no change in altitude during the walk so maintaining a steady rate was easy enough.

From Chilling we were organised into groups for the rafting. It's just about the season for it here and apparently the rapids are Grade 3 so there would be some excitement on the water but nothing too crazy. Grade 4 or 5 rafting somewhere else maybe later.

Once everyone was kitted out and the safety precedures had been shouted out, everyone got in their respective boats and began the 28km journey downstream to the little village of Nimu. Halfway along we had a ten minute break, not sure what for, before finishing off the ride. There was an all you can eat lunch organised at the end and with a belly full of grub after a fun day outdoors I was feeling much better.

More green now at lower altitude

Suddenly the green disappeared again

The barren lanscape we're used to while crossing the river in a crate

Boats on the Zanskar

Posing during our 10 minute break

Shot of the group
There's plenty of trekking available in the Ladakh region with excursions ranging from solo to group, arranged to self planned and all with varying degrees of length and difficulty. Unfortunately, with only a short amount of time planned for the region due to my future Nepal commitments, I only saw a small amount of what Ladakh has to offer. However, with more time I would love to have explored more of this unique and picturesque area.