18th - 27th August
The shortage of open border crossings between Pakistan and India means our first port of call in India is Amritsar, 60km from Lahore. We arrive at the media-friendly, ceremonial border crossing early to ensure we miss the queues – although no need. We are the only people passing through the border this morning, which doesn’t open until the boss arrives, at 10 o’clock.
That said, it is a good thing we did. It takes us an hour to leave the Pakistani side, principally due to a power failure, meaning our passports can’t be entered into the proudly installed new computer system. Eventually, though, formalities are completed and we drive the 80 or so metres to the Indian side.
No air-conditioning here to protect us from the sweltering heat of the Punjab plains, or indeed from the utterly incomprehensible Indian bureaucracy. We spend an hour being shipped from one self-important official to another, filling in all manner of unimportant (to us anyway) forms relating to swine flu, Carnets, customs declarations, visas, etc… Finally a particularly overbearing Sikh official requests we empty the entire contents of our car onto the Customs desk for declaration – we reply, politely but firmly, that they are more than welcome to undertake this task themselves, but we shall have nothing to do with it. A swift illustration of the interior of our car settles the matter, and they concede its better that we just take back our collect our passports and be on our way. Thankfully, no-one else seems to be crossing today, otherwise it may have been dark before we reached Amritsar.
Amritsar is an extraordinary city to find one’s self in after the relative peace and quiet of Northern Pakistan. Like most sizeable Indian cities, it is swelteringly hot and bestows a permanent assault on the olfactory and aural senses gratis. It is deafening and stinking. Besides this, it is the holiest Sikh city in India, home to the revered and architecturally captivating Golden Temple, plus a host of other no less extraordinary sights courtesy of the Hindus.
We have already decided to stay just one night here before escaping to the relative cool of the mountains in Kashmir. That evening, in the company of two rather shifty looking but highly likeable Sikhs (friends of Bilal, Charlie’s old friend from Kashmir and our host for the next week or so), we embark upon an emotionally and visually exhausting tour of the city.
The Golden Temple is a sight to behold, best viewed in the early morning or late evening. The complex comprises an outer, whitewashed and highly decorated colonnade, within which lies a square lake full of holy water and very large fish. In the middle of the lake lies the Golden Temple – which is just that, a sizeable, ornate temple decorated entirely with gold. The place is heaving with Sikhs – it is evening prayers – and holy Sikh enchantments boom from hidden loudspeakers. Everywhere, bodies are being immersed into the rather less than clean holy water, and a heaving queue is jostling clockwise around the lake, every worshipper waiting their turn to enter the Temple and offer up their prayers and rather peculiar ghee pudding which is purchased within the complex. Luckily, in the company of our Sikh friends, we are au fait as to what to do, and take our turn. Charlie buys some of said pudding, which, after it is ceremonially cut in half and (half) returned to me in the temple, leaves rather a quandary – do I just hang on to this soggy mess for the rest of the evening, or can I surreptitiously use it as fish food? Eating the stuff is not an option, although we both try a bit, to be sure… Luckily our Sikh friends are on hand again; one suggesting he could take it home to his sister, who is very partial of the stuff. Phew – religious faux pas averted!
As we leave, we are invited to join the post prayers dinner in the halls adjacent to the temple – every night, an astonishingly formidable operation takes place here by which between 10,000 and 30,000 worshippers are fed, for free, by the temple authorities. More out of curiosity than the need for a free supper, we accept – probably the last thing our stomachs needed.
Such a thing as a free supper?
Since leaving Moscow, we have ensured that nearly all of our meals have come from local markets, restaurants, or similar, likewise for the past fortnight or so we have been introducing ourselves to local tap water, the idea being to gradually build up our immune system in readiness for India. But as we sit cross-legged in the vast dining hall, waiting for our metal plates to be filled from the buckets of dal and rice being doled out, we’re not quite sure if we’ve done enough…
Supper is surprisingly good, though, and we leave replete and impressed. Our final stop on our tour is the Ranbireshwas temple, a Hindu temple directly copied from a far larger one in Jammu. If we had been struggling to get to grips with the intricacies of the Sikhs, we are totally flummoxed by the Hindus. The place appears to have been designed by an architect on a combination of speed and LSD, and leaves us speechless as we walk, climb, crawl and wade through its myriad of tunnels, grottoes and peculiar hallways, all adorned with extraordinary, colourful and sometimes downright scary gods and goddesses.
Emotionally overloaded, we head back to our hotel courtesy of our friendly Sikhs and their rickshaw – in desperate need of some peace, quiet, sleep and some cool mountain air.
Escaping the plains
The next day, fully refreshed, we drive 12 ½ hours north to Srinagar, capital of Kashmir. We had expected this journey to take us a few days, but driven by a mutual determination to leave the relentless August heat of the plains behind us, we cover it in one. The road takes us through the welcoming, verdant foothills of the Pir Panjal, then, painstakingly slowly, through the narrow, pine covered defile of the Sindh gorge. The road is good but endlessly windy, clotted by Indian trucks and never-ending army convoys, all moving at around 20km/h and thus requiring constant overtaking in order to make any progress at all. Finally, we arrive in Srinagar, in the dark, at 9.30pm, exhausted and in need of food.
We have arranged to stay with Bilal on his houseboat for a week on Lake Nageen for some welcome respite from driving. Mightily relieved, we arrive on the boat and settle down to much needed gin & tonics and some excellent home cooked Kashmiri food.
Our week here partially serves its purpose, although the peace and quiet is mightily disturbed by the onset of Ramadan – a noisy affair in any Islamic state but more so on a lake surrounded by dozens upon dozens of mosques, surrounded in turn by dozens of picturesque mountains. Every night during the month of Ramadan, the mosques are on full, high volume duty from 1am onwards, instructing the devout to get up and eat before sunrise.
They are certainly effective. For one night, this represents an interesting insight into the Islamic world during their holy month. For a week, as non-Muslims, it becomes rather tiresome, especially as the prayers do not let up much during the day.
Added to this rather unexpected inconvenience (the start of Ramadan is decided by the rising of the moon, hence not even Muslims know exactly when it will start each year, until a committee decides that on a particular night they can see the new moon in the sky) we, not unexpectedly, succumb to our free Sikh supper from Amritsar. Happily, we have enough antibiotics to supply a small hospital, so a day and a night’s severe discomfort each is all we have to endure.
Happily, the weather is good, the scenery picturesque, the lake warm and the wildlife bountiful and entertaining. A few admin issues and minor repairs to the car aside, we spend a happy few days sunbathing, swimming in the lake, avoiding touts (the Kashmiris are wily and persistent businessmen) and watching multitudes of kingfishers diving and fishing all around us.
A rescue mission
Variety is provided one afternoon as we are returning to our houseboat across Nagin Lake in our little shikara (small Kashmiri wooden rowing boat). We here an English ‘Hello!’ across the lake. Initially suspecting more saffron touts, we ignore it, but when another cry brings ‘Do you speak English?’ in a very English accent, we turn around. A young couple is waving at us rather urgently from the deck of a nearby houseboat. ‘We might need your help!’ comes the next plea, as we start to row over.
Kate and Tim are a charming couple, on university vacation and just arrived in India for a months touring. It turns out they have fallen victim to a corrupt local houseboat owner (there are several) who, having lured them here from Delhi on a cheap package deal, is now demanding £500 from them for a trek they don’t wish to do. It appears that just as we happened to be rowing past, said owner threatened to hit them unless they signed up immediately.
After a brief discussion, a rescue mission is embarked upon: we load them, plus their baggage, into the boat (the only exit from their houseboat without having to edge pass the angry owner on the gangway). They are highly grateful, especially as we are in the envious position of having (a) a spare room and (b) an honest and exceptionally kind houseboat proprietor.
However, as we row full speed across the lake, we are followed by their ‘captors’ – who arrive at our boat shortly after us. They are decidedly unpleasant people, but after some diplomacy by the ever helpful Bilal, and some direct, stern words on the treatment of Western tourists from Charlie, they depart, grumbling and muttering, but peaceful.
During our stay on the houseboat Bilal mentions the possibility of fishing in the Satsaran Valley: home to the ruins of an ancient Hindu temple, delightful scenery and an apparently abundant trout stream. We eagerly agree to this fine idea, and after Tim and Kate’s two day stopover, we head east through the Kashmir Vale for a day and a night’s fishing and hiking.
It is a mighty relief to finally get some proper peace and quiet. The locals in the valley are Kashmiri gypsies and hence not overly religious; not a mosque (or a beeping car horn for that matter) to be heard. Apparently we are staying in a local family’s house, in a kind of homestay arrangement. After Kyrgyzstan, we have high hopes…
They are, however, quite the filthiest people we have ever come across. In our view, a fundamental lack of basic personal hygiene is excusable only in extreme situations, principally where there is no clean water supply, or no money to provide any form of sanitation or plumbing.
Here, these people have both – a delightful, crystal clear mountain river on their doorstep, and enough money from crops sewn on fertile lands to build themselves sizeable, two-storey concrete houses. Yet they appear never to have washed in their lives; we are surrounded by indescribably grubby children and are thankful that Bilal has bought his entire cooking apparatus (and food) with him to prepare our meals. Our bedroom for the night is quite the most putrid lair we have ever set eyes upon. Luckily, we have our full bedding equipment in the car and can set a little oasis of cleanliness, as we tiptoe amongst the filth.
Fish, at last!
All is forgiven though, for the fishing. To our delight, the evening brings us a trout each, caught in the most picturesque surroundings. The larger of them makes a fine starter for supper, although the local method of cooking seems to involve deep-frying all flavour out of these delicate morsels. A 5am start in the morning is well worth it and brings us three more, which we inform Bilal and his cooking assistant that we will cook ourselves ‘the English Way’ – i.e. lightly fried, and whole. They are delicious, and in good spirits we hastily pack our bags and head back to the relative cleanliness and civilization of our houseboat on Nagin Lake, some two hours away.
After eight days here, we decide we are overdue being back on the road again, and with fond farewells, head east to the treacherous roads, high passes and Buddhist gompas of Ladakh.
It is worth noting we have said nothing of the security situation in Kashmir. There is a simple reason for this: there is little to say. Certainly the Indian Army is present across the region, in large numbers, however their presence is neither intimidatory nor encroaching. The atmosphere throughout Kashmir is entirely relaxed, as we found in Pakistan: one would find it impossible to believe that less than a decade ago, this picturesque region was nearly the setting for the world’s first all-out war between two nuclear powers.
India - Amritsar & Kashmir
18th - 27th August