Saturday, October 15, 2016

Srinagar, a paradise that chose hell - Kashmir Diary Day 5 - Sept 2016

29th September 2016

The hotel reception informed me that one needs to reach the airport at least 90 minutes before flight, as at times, the x-ray machine is down and physical checks of even check in luggage enforced. Paying heed to the information, reached the airport by 0545 hrs for a 0710 flight from Leh (IXL) to Srinagar (SXR) by GoAir GA-386. Time to say goodbye to Mr. Haq who drove us to the airport. 

On enquiring, the check-in counter clerk told me that the flight was packed, which was very reassuring. Since the same flight then headed to Mumbai, one could not tell how many passengers would get off at Srinagar though. The flight was on time and 45 minutes later we touched down in Srinagar. Nearly 90% of the passengers got off the aircraft, and from what I could make out, the airport too was far from being deserted, inside and outside. It resembled a normal day at any Indian airport including birds flying and shit bombing passengers inside, and baggage being delivered on the wrong belt.

As promised, a man was holding up a Taj Vivanta name card with my name on it. Thankfully, it was a regular local taxi contracted by the hotel and not one with its livery. There was a huge crowd outside, I was told it was for receive pilgrims returning from Haj. As the vehicle moved out of the airport perimeter, I could tell that in just 4 years (the time of my last visit to this city), development had reached its doorsteps. While most shops were shut, general stores were open, people were going about their normal business, and sufficient vehicular (non-military or police)traffic was moving about at even 8.30am. The weather was just right and the city looked good. It was a great decision to stop over in Srinagar. It did not look like a city that was under curfew just over a week back.

The driver, Mr Younus kept informing us of landmarks that we passed, including the residences of the Chief Minister, the leader of the opposition and the leader of the separatist group, all next to each other. How very neighbourly of them to fight with each other?  I avoided any political conversation, least it hurts sensibilities, knowing that Kashmiris are a very emotional lot. I did ask Younus about how the locals felt about tourists? His response was that the people loved to have guests over after all tourism has been the people's bread and butter from time eternal. The 30-minute drive to the hotel was beautiful and nostalgic.     

We reached the gates of the hotel, and it looked like we were entering a high-security facility. Once in the complex, the beautiful gardens and landscaping greeted us. The 6-acre hotel complex sits atop the Kralsangri hills in the middle of what is a heavily wooded mini city forest, and the fencing around is more to keep some of the wild animals that occasionally stray in. The Front Office Manager was waiting to receive us at the entry of the Lobby block. I could have mistaken the property for a "Four Seasons" or a brand in its ilk. But, this was just the lobby block.

Seated in the tea lounge, over a much-needed cup of "Kawaha", we completed our registration formalities. The Manager briefed us on the hotel facilities, places safe to visit, the security details and finally called in the Chef to plan our celebratory Kashmiri dinner for two, to be served on the moonlit deck. It was her birthday and pampering was in order. There were just 4 guest rooms (out of the 48) occupied, which meant there would be no dearth of being pampered. Next came breakfast post which, we were taken to our room. In any other hotel, the 50sqm room would have qualified as a junior suite. Yes, it could give well have been a "Four Seasons". Since we were here just for the day and needed some rest, this room just diminished any notions of stepping out of the property. 

Just as we had settled, we got a call from the front desk informing us that we may - just may - depending on the situation, need to check out a bit earlier than planned the next day. The news from the outside wasn't very good with a partial curfew having being imposed on account of some urgent security reasons. My wife switched on a news channel on TV. There was some major drama being played out of India responding to a ceasefire breach by Pakistan by shelling villages near the Line of Control (LOC). The City was calm. She got a bit worried and thought we had made a big mistake by coming here. I told her to focus on the spa treatment later that afternoon at Lalit hotel next door. A shower and short walk inspecting the property later, it was time for lunch. By the time we got back to the room to get ready to leave for her spa appointment, the news had worsened. It was not Pakistan that had attacked India, but it was Indian soldiers that had gone across the LOC for a hit on the terror camps. 

On one hand, the TV news anchors changed their squeaky concerned voice of a while back to that of Tarzan, chest thumping on the brave attack like they had done it themselves, and on the other, here we were receiving calls of concern from friends and relatives like we were trapped on the other side of the LOC. As a matter of not playing "Die hard", we thought best would be to stay within the confines of the property, as it is, some rest after the four previous days was in order. It wasn't such a bad idea. Before we knew it, we were on the deck that overlooked the lake, enjoying some wine over sunset, followed by a fantastic 5-course dinner. 

Morning, I was up early. With a cup of hot coffee in hand, I sat out on the balcony to enjoy the sereneness around. I could not imagine that this City was strife struck. The soft sound of prayers emanating from the many mosques just made the moment more ethereal. I wondered why I was here? Was it early signs of madness or some kind of death wish to do something silly? Then, how was I to know that the Indian forces would choose the very day of my arrival as the D-day for a strike? Or that of all the days in the week one should avoid arriving or departing from Srinagar on a Friday? In a way, it did not matter. I was just meant to be here, to enjoy these moments of heaven in a Paradise that had chosen to convert to hell.

Breakfast at 0900 hrs, the service was just wonderful. The Kashmiri lad serving us told us of how he loved Mumbai and I told him maybe we should swap places. The Manager came up to us a bit concerned. The police had started barricading streets and requested us, in the interest of safety for ourselves and the driver braving it to the airport to hurry up. He was very apologetic to rush us, but he had no choice. With an enjoyable stay and heavy heart, we left. 

One could sense the tension on the street. Strict and frequent checks on the road; restricted traffic movement of men and machines, no shops open. Yes, the situation could go anyway as the day progressed. In the forty minutes from the hotel to the airport, numerous calls from friends. Irritating a wee bit, but touching too. Good to have such people in our lives. The scene at the airport, pretty much the same as the previous day, crowded, except much more people waiting outside to receive returning pilgrims. Security at this airport is much higher as is the presence of uniformed men and women, but all, very courteous and polite, not afraid to smile and wish back greetings as they went about doing their job dedicatedly. 

It was a long wait for our 3 pm flight back. Fortunately, there was shopping to keep the irritation of wife in check. Did we enjoy our mini adventure? But of course. Would we do it again? But of course, and encourage others too, to follow suit.  

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Idiots guide to Pangong Lake- Kashmir Diary Day 4 - Sept 2016

28th Septemeber
0600 hrs I was up. After a quick loo call, stepped out to the balcony with a cup of coffee. The air was crisp and cold, tempting me to spike my drink with something headier. Had it not been for the journey, I would have. Post checking emails and messages, posting the previous day pictures on social media sites, did a final bag check based on my cross examination of Arjun. 

Image result for leh to pangong lake road mapNo good loos on the way, so pack a roll of toilet paper, bacterial sanitizer, soap, anti-diarrheal medicines, motion sickness medicines, dry snacks including chocolate bars. I knew that 30 km of the road from Leh to Karu was great. Rest of the 120 km was "not bad" or at least not as bad as the Khardungla - Nubra road. I must confess that I hadn't done my homework as well as I usually do to be confident. My belly was sending out mixed signals, worrisome actually. 

By 0730 hrs we were both ready for the trip and breakfast. Had to stay light, so picked up whatever appeared to conform. Fruits and juice and a bit of cheese. After consuming it, I thought... just thought that it was possibly a big mistake. The waiting staff having discovered that we were off to Pangong, packed up a hamper from the breakfast buffet as we had hardly touched anything at all. The thoughtfulness more than the hospitality at this hotel really touched my heart. At 5 minutes to 8, I got a call, it was Arjun, he was outside. Now, that worry was ticked off from my list. 

"All good?" I asked. He nodded and said I should speak to "Haqqa" as Haq was addressed locally. Haq inquired if we slept well and well rested, and if there was anything that needed to be done while we were on the trip. I told him we should have dinner together and he was happy to accept. On our way, the first 30 minutes was a repeat of last evening, so I went into a light doze mode. We had to stop at Karu for submitting the permit. Arjun said that it  was the last stop where one could find a decent loo. What I assumed was a 5 minute procedural stop, turned out to be a wait of 20 minutes. Arjun was nowhere to be seen. When he showed up, I asked why the wait and he said something about the road ahead being blocked for traffic until 0900 hrs. I called his bluff as I saw other vehicles proceeding and he too got in, though a bit reluctantly. Haq would hear of this, I don't like being lied to. 

The road condition was getting progressively worse, as was my mood. I could see road works being carried out, but that many patches of diversion and lots of mud and dust in the air. Normally, one would roll up the windows and turn on the air-con or heater as the case maybe, but in this vehicle, it was busted. Moreover, the sun rays had become strong enough to sting through the clothes. Some 10km and 20 minutes later we reached the village of Sakti. At this rate, I thought it would take longer than 5 hours to get to our destination. At Sakti, right enough, the road to Pangong was shut and the traffic was diverted to an alternate route. I say route because it was nothing but a dirt track going up hill. Windows had to be kept shut. If there was a meter to measure my angst, trust me, it would have been hovering around the danger mark. Fortunately, we were climbing and the temperature inside soon became bearable. 10 km and 30 minutes later, we were joined back to the Pangong Rd. This stretch looked well tarred and full of hope. I asked Arjun if the road from here on would resemble this surface? He responded saying mountain roads are quite unpredictable. Unlike the two days earlier, he wasn't in much of a talking mood. Maybe, bored of us, just as I was of the scenery outside. Nothing that was so exceptional for me to take pains to shoot. 

22 km and 45 minutes later, we reached the military camp of Zingral. Arjun stopped the vehicle and ran to the loo. 15 minutes later he reappeared looking sick. Bad stomach he said. His disappearance at Karu could now be explained too. I gave him a tablet and asked if I should drive. He said, once we start the down hill track, he would let me drive. I discovered why soon enough. A km away, it was Khardungla all over again for the next 45 minutes covering the 12 km to Chang La (Altitude 17,500 ft 5,360 m), the supposed second highest motorable pass in India, if not the world. The climb is steep and the area an avalanche zone. That explains Mr. Arjun's "mountain roads are unpredictable" statement. Already behind time (it was 1130 hrs now), and still at half way mark (75km from Leh)I egged Arjun to drive on. There were patches of snow slush on the road, remnants the ice and snow that had slid down from a bit higher up. 

Arjun drove another 35 km to Durbuk, from there, I took over. There was some 45 Km of driving left, with me at the wheel 1 hr 15 min max. The road was narrow, bad in parts, but that's exactly what an SUV is born to tackle. The test of the pudding was Arjun falling asleep on the rear seat. My wife would have failed me in a driving test. She kept yelling at me to be careful, reminding us we have kids at home. I told her to focus on the scenery ahead and take some pictures. The landscape had changed and we were in what resembled a cross a cross between the Grand Canyon and Mars. We passed through a 100 mt stretch that had just been bulldozed after being shut by an avalanche a day or two earlier.

At 1300 hrs, it was visible. Pangong Tso. My foot became heavier on the pedal and no amount of jumps and bumps could wake the baby called Arjun slumbering behind. 

Finally, we made it. Spectacular is all what I could say. One has to be an idiot to this journey, but then it's worth it. Now we had to psyche ourselves to endure the 5 hours back. 

A billion pictures, pee in an open to sky lav, maggi noodles and ginger lemon tea later, we hit the road. One could pitch a tent and explore the entirety of the lake. But that is for the serious adventurer. I could only set my clock backwards to take me back to Leh. Fortunately, the medicine and sleep had revived Arjun and he was back to his jovial self. 

The way back was just the same, except that I switched places with Arjun in the sick bay. The altitude at Chang la got me and I puked the morning fruit juice and tea that had been the cause of it. Besides that adventure, and stopping for 15 minutes on the road to act as good Samaritans to a car suffering a flat wheel, the journey was uneventful. We made it back in 4 1/2 hours. Yippee! And, Arjun was rewarded for the same. 

An early dinner with Haq recounting our adventure completed,  we were tired and wanted to just sleep. Next morning was a flight to Srinagar, and the situation there, was reported to be too far from normal. But the hotel had called and informed us that a car would be waiting to pick us up. So it could not be as bad as being talked about - right? 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Going Gompa (Shey Thiksey Hemis) - Kashmir Diary Day 3 - Sept 2016

Day 3 

27th September 2016  No WiFi and no phone connectivity except BSNL in Hunder.

I was up by 0530hrs, woken up by the prayer calls emanating from the army camp not too far away. Sleep had been sound and I did feel well rested. The Sun had not risen, but would anytime; so I stepped out for some dark light photography; unsure if either of the equipment in my possession would be of any use. 

It was cold outside. Thankfully the air was still, and the sky clear. Got some decent shots of what I was after, and felt at peace... for a good 30 minutes, until I looked at the watch.

It was 0615 hrs now, and no sign of Arjun or the Mahindra XUV. where on earth was he? there was no way to get in touch with him too. 

My travelling companion was up too and joined me outside. Mr Habib and family, as promised had risen, and had our breakfast ready. Tea, toast and eggs consumed,(moderate intake), bags ready, and bill paid; a princely Rs 2,500 for the food and stay; we awaited our transporter. I must say that at this price point, Habib Guest House is a steal, especially for the warm hospitality that is thrown in for free. At 0655 hrs we could hear an SUV engine and a dust cloud headed our way.

'Sorry for the delay, met my family after very long, so slept a bit late.' I was annoyed, but we were on a holiday. No point spoiling it with an argument in the morning which would not change anything. I instructed Arjun that we would make up for the time lost by driving non-stop to Leh, barring technical halts if required to relieve oneself or tea to keep awake on the road. Having spent 5 hours on a road the day before, that simulated aircraft turbulence for some 2 hours, I was too aware of the journey today. I wanted to be in Leh before noon. Some 4 hours and a million pictures later, we were there. Had we started when we should have, we could have taken a short halt at the Diskit Monastery, the oldest in Nubra, dating back to the 14th Century. Sadly, it was not meant to be. What I discovered along the way was that the same road and landscape can look and feel so different at different times. 

By 1130hrs, we were at the "Grand Dragon" hotel. The room was being serviced, so we were asked by the manager to have some breakfast. Luxury suits us just fine and both wife and I were sporting a smile at being looked after. The room was large and well appointed. Shower, now which one of us would attack it first? It was large enough for two and so we did. Clean and refreshed, there was no sign of tiredness. We took a walk around the property with a "selfie" motive. Arjun would be back at 1600hrs for the second part of our journey on this day. Back in the room, we connected on to the WiFi to download emails and upload pics. We had been disconnected with the rest of our world for more than 24 hrs and needed to inform home that we were safe and alive. Haq called to check if we were fine and comfortable at this hotel.   

1600hrs, our boy was at the hotel porch. Obviously, my morning glare must have done the trick. I had limited time and each minute was precious and paid for. The afternoon was to be spent visiting Gompas (Monasteries) in the vicinity of Leh. The largest and most famous is campus is that of the Hemis Gompa. Had we come here a week earlier, we could have been a part of the great Naropa Festival that was celebrating its 1000th year. No wonder the monks look jaded. The road to Hemis some 45 km from Leh was a delight. We passed the Shey Monastery & Palace (15km from Leh)and Thiksey monastery (19 km from Leh)on our way, deciding to stop for a visit, time and sunlight permitting. Along the way, one could spot several Gompas, every small village has one. 

Hemis Gompa, in many ways, resembles a smaller version of the grand monastery in Lhasa Tibet. Even so, it is beautiful and serene. Just sitting there hearing the monks chant singularly or collectively is a memory that will sit fresh in my mind forever. Photographing monks in prayer and or the Buddha statues inside, without permission, is prohibited, but that did seem to deter many of the visitors.  

Having spent our time in absorbing the purity here, we were too overwhelmed to visit Thiksey, other than photographing it from the outside. Which is what we did, as also the Shey Palace. I guess natural structures appeal more than man-made, no matter how ancient they may be. Add to that the fact that there was limited time and body fatigue slowly creeping up. By 1900hrs we were on our way back to Leh just 30 minutes away. Wife had done her statutory trinket shopping at the Tibetan refugee markets along the way, as i spent time shooting landmarks. 

I asked Arjun how the road to Pangong lake was? It was our journey for the next day. Five hours one way, 150 km, road condition fair; that is, not as bad as the one to Nubra. The trouble was that we were going to return the same day. I was already regretting it, but then, Pangong was the highlight of Ladhak and our trip. How could I think of even missing it? 

Somehow, seeing a city, however small, seems to energise a person from a city. No sooner we entered Leh, saw the bustle in the markets, wife wanted to be a part of it. Having had nothing for lunch, the sight of kebab vendors on the road got our bellies growling. The solution, a walk on the vehicle free mall road to inspect the local bazaar while street food hopping. By 2100hrs we were back at the hotel. I thought we would have to pack up early, but then a comfort call from Haq changed it all. 'You can start by 8am and be back by 8pm or earlier,' he said. That allowed us time for a drink before a brilliant but light dinner by the grill warming us in the chill, on the restaurant's deck outside. 

Image result for all is well 3 idiots
Something inside me told me "Aal izz not well, aal izz not well."  

Whatever, it was, it was time to catch a good 7 hours of deep sleep.