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A tough few days followed by a dream week in Kashmir

Right where did I leave off….

Monday 16th June…evening…

After a few days of drama which involved illness, riding in an indian ambulance at 4am, a stay for Kirsty in hospital and a couple of days recuperation, we spent our last evening in Manali in a bar eating pizza and watching the world cup whilst everyone else sat smoking joints and getting stoned around us!

Tuesday 17th June

We got up, checked out and jumped on a ropey public bus to Kullu before changing buses and getting another public bus to Mandi. Travelling on proper public buses is a definite adventure….no allocated seats, no rules with regard to how many people can squeeze on the bus and no bus stops! The bus rattled and hurtled along the mountain roads, people flag it down at any point along the road and jump on and off whilst its moving! Meanwhile the driver is chatting on his phone whilst incense sticks burn in front of a statue of Ganesha!
Now Mandi is not a tourist destination and not a very big place, small town really but when travelling through on the night bus to Manali we came through the town at night and it looked amazing, river, beautiful bridges, ghats, amazing temples…so we decided to stop there for 1 night so we could see the town and break up the long bus journey from Manali to Jammu.

So we arrived mid afternoon to Mandi bus station, we jumped in a tuktuk and asked the driver to take us to a guesthouse. He drove us 5 minutes up the road to a building which looked much like a building site. We wandered in, the owner was a scrawny guy who was asleep full clothed outside the office, he woke up, looked at us bleary eyed, stood up, attempted to put his flip-flops on, which took him a good few attempts!
He then unenthusiastically took us through the filthy corridor up some stairs and along a floor where both sides of the building were open to the elements…totally devoid of walls altogether! All the rooms were empty, no one staying at all…it had the air of the making of an indian version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre! Lol
Still we viewed the room and were pleasantly surprised to find a huge room with a big bed, flat screen tv, chairs, table and a huge balcony with a view of the river, mountains, town and temple.

Even so, we decided to try the other guesthouse across the road…we traipsed across the road, by this time in the rain and looked at the rooms in the other guesthouse.
They were tiny rooms, with a cubicle for a bathroom and a door which opened onto a non-existent balcony. We said we would take it and proceeded to open the door and chill out, after 10 minutes we realised there was a wasps nests above our door and there was a swarm of wasps loitering around the open door! It was at this point we decided to change guesthouses and go back to the one with a huge room, balcony, beautiful view and stoned owner!

So we wandered back across the road, woke the bedraggled guy up again and check into the room he had shown us. He proceed to quote us a price which was £5 more than 15 minutes previous when we viewed the room first time! We negotiated it down slightly but he was disinterested. We agreed to disagree and we settled into the room, we had been there for an hour maybe and I decided to have a shower. I wandered into the bathroom, looked at the shower to find just a hole in the wall and no shower head! Ok so next best thing…use bath taps to fill bucket with water and have a good old jug shower! Turned on both bath taps….absolutely no water!

So we let ourselves into the room next door and checked the shower, all good! So I went downstairs and told the owner we were swapping rooms, he didn’t seem surprised or bothered!
Later in the evening we went out to try to find some food but ended up buying biscuits and crisps from a shop next door and watching the world cup whilst devouring our substandard dinner! We went to sleep somewhat fed up and tired of india! Lol

Wednesday 18th June

We woke up still alive, in the half-built hell hole and decided to find somewhere for breakfast. We found some half decent food in a restaurant across the road and then walked down the road to the temple I had seen whilst driving through on the bus the week previous.

The temple almost made up for the hideous hotel! It was a large temple, with a decorated entrance archway, gardens with pot plants, benches and statues and a walkway up to the huge lions head at the front of the temple. The temple is dedicated to Kali who is a somewhat powerful and frightening goddess! One good thing about being in a town with no tourists is that we could wander round the temple alone, no one there, no one selling postcards or useless tat! We walked in the temple, wandered around and upto the room at the top where the sacred deity herself resides! Took a few snaps, wandered back out into the grounds to see the lion and the large statue of Shiva. Pretty cool….

After taking in the temple we jumped in a tuktuk and asked to go to the town centre, which is basically a large square-shaped bazaar area with a square sunken garden at the centre.
We jumped out, tried to find a restaurant or anywhere serving food, absolutely nothing of that description….so we made do with a cold drink and an ice cream in the sunken garden. We were literally the only westerners in Mandi…no on spoke english and trying to find a tuktuk to take us back to the guesthouse was a nightmare. We were both on the verge of going to the airport and leaving india there and then! Serious down day…lol. India, however, has a habit of doing that…some days it can be so frustrating it makes you want to scream but others days can be so full of beauty, excitement and fun you forget about the down days! Lol

Anyway we finally found a tuktuk, headed back to the hotel had some snacks and watched a film. We had a nap then popped over the road to get some dinner before going back into the town and waiting for the night bus to Jammu.
The night bus was supposed to leave at 9.30pm and take 8 hours, we sat in a tiny travel office with no toilet or aircon for about 2 hours waiting for the bus. It finally arrived and we jumped on, into seats with the smallest leg room area ever! Every seat was full, people’s blankets and possessions were overflowing into the aisle. The guy in front of me proceeded to push his chair back and drift off to sleep, leaving me with squashed legs for 8 hours!

At one point not long after we left a child a few seats in front of us was sick all over itself, its parents and the blanket covering them, the father got up and banged on the drivers cabin door to ask the driver to stop. The driver was not going to stop for anything and said they would have to sort it out whilst hurtling along mountain roads in the dark!

Thursday 19th  June

So after 8 hours hurtling around narrow windy roads at night and one quick fuel and wee stop at a petrol station we arrived in Jammu at 6am. The sight that greeted us at the bus stop was that of homeless people, lighting a fire in an oil drum and a pack of dogs strolling menacingly around! At this point, leaving India immediately was still at the forefront of our minds! None of this was helping much!
We found a tuktuk driver and asked him to take us to a hotel, the first 3 were definite no goes..there was no way we were staying in any of them! We went to the 4th hotel and just checked in, we had lost the will to live and just wanted aircon and to sleep!

We crashed out for about 4 hours then woke up at 10.30am and decided to head to the Ragunath temple area to find some food. Now I would like to point out Jammu is primarily islamic, been off the tourist trail for 20 years and no one speaks english! It made for a painful and demoralising day!
We found a dhaba, had some food and a cold drink and then headed back out in the 45 degree heat to find another tuktuk. We decided to get everything done on the to do list in one day and leave Jammu the next morning and hope we found some respite in Kashmir!
So the afternoon saw us go to the fort, gardens and the underground aquarium which has an entrance and exit in the style of a huge metal fish head and tail! All a bit odd!
We were literally melting and struggling with heat exhaustion, so we headed back to the hotel and had a nap under the air con.

Early evening we went for a stroll from our hotel past the numerous halal chicken shops displaying their wares and went to the only internet cafe in Jammu! We needed to message home, book a houseboat for Srinagar and check emails. The internet cafe was a small concrete box with 6 computers, no aircon and an inside temperature of over 50 degrees…we planned with military efficiency who was doing what task on the internet and gave ourselves a limit of 10 minutes to get everything done and get outta there before we passed out!

As you can imagine, this did nothing to improve our state of mind! Lol
After the internet cafe we wandered back past the dead chickens and spent 5 minutes explaining to tuktuk drivers we wanted to eat, using the universal sign language for stuffing your face! One tuktuk driver said ‘yes yes get in’, he then drove us down to a travel office where a guy spoke reasonable english, he asked where we wanted to go…we said we just want food, western food! He gave the driver some instructions and off we went..we had no idea where we were going…we headed up onto a dual carriageway a good 15 minutes out of Jammu but eventually like a beautiful urban mirage….a shopping centre appeared on the horizon with huge neon signs for shops, cinema and food! One particular caught my eye…KFC….hooray for the Colonel…..we were beside ourselves with excitement….after a week of being ill and not eating, then 3 days in hell with no food but crisps and building sites for hotels we were at a KFC! What a morale booster, it definitely picked us up! Suddenly india wasnt that bad…all was good in the world…we had a veggie wrap meal and a coke!

The tuktuk driver waited for us, so we jumped back in, thanked him profusely and headed back to the hotel! We had a jug shower, watched a bit of the world cup and crashed out asleep.

Friday 20th June

We woke up with renewed vigour, partly due to the KFC and partly because we were leaving Jammu and going up into the mountains and heading to the cooler climate of Kashmir!
We woke up at 5.15am, checked out and jumped in a shared jeep which was heading to Srinagar. We had to go to the bus stand and wait for other people to join us in the jeep…we sat for hours parked up at 6am in a street in Jammu, homeless people and dogs wandering past…no one came…by 7.15 I decided to just pay the extra for the missing people and have a private jeep take us to Srinagar…we couldn’t take it any more!

So we left and headed up into Kashmir…an area closed to the west for 20 years and still heavily fortified and armed. There are checkpoints every kilometre with army, police or paratroopers stationed! Razor wire wrapped around everything but wow beautiful scenery, no wonder it’s called the Secret Eden of India!
We spent 10 hours winding along mountain roads with India on one side of the valley and Pakistan on the other, the traffic was terrible we got stuck 3 times for a total of 2 hours. Lorries and army trucks fighting for room to manoeuvre around the narrow roads whilst avoiding huge jutting pieces of mountain poking out across the road and the sheer drop the other side!
We had to have the windows open as this was the jeeps natural aircon! The only problem with this was the sheer amount of fumes we were inhaling…we ended up with a headache from mild carbon monoxide poisoning and have shorted our lives by a few years I am sure!

We stopped for a wee, drink, ice cream and upon removing my sunglasses discovered my face was black from exhaust and I had wonderful white circles around my eyes from the sunglasses! A good look I must say!
Finally we pulled into Srinagar, got dropped off at ghat number 9 and jumped in a shikara (small wooden boat) for the transfer to the houseboat.

The houseboat was like a slice of heaven! Mohammed and his family welcomed us like old friends, we checked in, dumped our bags and had a cold drink and sat out on the decking taking in the view of the lake, mountains and houseboats! It dawned on us we were in Kashmir……
Mohammed provided us with some home cooked dinner, vegetable curry and rice, we devoured it, showered and crashed out in bed!

Saturday 21st June

We awoke after the best nights sleep we had had in ages, the birds were singing, the water lapping against the side of the boat, people bustling about in neighbouring houseboats.

We had breakfast and chilled out until lunchtime, the peace and tranquility was amazing! We couldn’t believe how cool, peaceful and beautiful our surroundings were!
We took a shikara over to the town and had some lunch in a Tibetan restaurant, popped into a supermarket and bought rations before returning on a shikara back to the houseboat for a peaceful evening.

Sunday 22nd June

We had breakfast then spent an hour looking at jewellery…there are numerous salesmen on the lake who travel from houseboat to houseboat selling everything you could need from drinks, food, cigarettes, toilet roll, shower gel, biscuits, chocolate, kebabs, jewellery, walnut joinery items, pashminas and much more!
The jewellery salesman sat in our lounge and spread his wares out on the table. Kirsty treated herself to some earrings but there was nothing I fancied. i had my eye on a lapis lazuli bracelet another jewellery salesman had shown me the day before.
At 11am we jumped in a shikara for a 4 hour trip around the backwaters and lake with Farooq. He was hilarious but soooo sleazy! Made for an entertaining trip listening to him attempting to chat us up, he had 2 lines….’oh that’s amazing’ or ‘oh thats cool’! That was pretty much the extent of his conversational skills! Lol

During the 4 hour ride we saw traditional wooden kashmiri style houses, ducks, moorhens, vegetable gardens, floating gardens and hundreds of houseboats. We went to a papier-mache workshop and learnt about this ancient kashmiri specialism. We then headed out to the open lake where Kirsty and Farooq jumped in and had a swim before Farooq gave Kirsty some rowing lessons! Pretty sure Farooq enjoyed this more than Kirsty…judging from the photos I managed to obtain! Lol

We had a nap in the afternoon, then read and sat out on the decking until a walnut salesman came along trying to sell us walnut carved boxes and fruit bowls. I was tempted to buy a backgammon board but the only one he had was tiny, so I instructed him to go away and source me a larger board.
We had our home cooked dinner and then sat out taking in the beautiful lights reflecting on the water and the dark silhouette of the mountains in the distance!

Monday 23rd June

We had to get up early, had breakfast at 7.30am and then we jumped into a shikara and headed over to the town to pick up our car and driver who was going to take us to Naranag in the mountains (Himalayas) to see ancient temples and gypsy villages.
We wandered along a mountain path, came across some ancient temples and a pool, we then wandered a bit further and ended up at the river edge in a gypsy village, one guy invited us into his small mud and timber house to sit on the floor with him, his wife and children and they shared their chai and chapatti with us. We spent 40 minutes or so eating, drinking and chatting the them before saying our goodbyes and heading off further along the mountain path. We met loads of people on route and ended up leaving Naranag with 2 new friends…Tahseen and Aaqib! Our little helpers who helped us cross streams without getting our feet wet! Lol

We walked back with Tahseen and Aaqib and then went to the only restaurant for some lunch. We had rice and a veg curry and ordered a bottle of Pepsi to share, the guy gave us the pepsi, i proceeded to open it to find it was already almost open and totally flat! We called him over and explained the pepsi was flat and could we have another one, to which his reply was that we would have to pay for it because we had opened it! I told him to take it away and get us a new one, well that never happened, he just did the pepsi back up, minus the amount I had poured into my cup and placed it back on display for the next person to buy! Lol

We headed back in the car and spent the evening with home cooked veg curry and the silence!

Tuesday 24th June

We had a lazy start to the day and late morning decided to head over to the Mughal gardens, amazingly immaculate gardens with 7 terraces and a garden of Babylon style water feature down the middle!

We sat for a while in the gardens and got hassled for photographs, after a while we got fed up and headed over to a restaurant for some lunch.
After lunch we headed over to the houseboat and had a lazy afternoon, early evening a pashmina salesman appeared in the boat so we had a quick browse of his wares before sending him away and having some dinner.

After dinner we were introduced to Turk who was staying in the other houseboat for 2 nights, he had booked to go on a trip the next day to Sonamarg and as we were thinking of doing the same we joined forces to make it slightly cheaper for all of us.
We sat chatting to Turk for a few hours before heading to bed.

Wednesday 25th June

We were up relatively early, has breakfast and headed over to our car and driver in a shikara. The drive was a good few hours to Sonamarg but finally we arrived in a landscape similar to that of Austria or Switzerland! Rolling green pastures, snow-capped mountains, horses, goats, forest, glaciers! Amazing….in the himalayas…..wooooo

We had the choice of getting a jeep through the mountains up to the glacier, riding a horse or walking. We opted for walking…..we wandered over the rolling green pastures, joined the footpath where we dodged horses and horse shit, wandered alongside the fast flowing mountain river passing small glaciers. After a 2 hour walk we eventually ended up at the large glacier, where there was something to see in all directions! Snow topped mountains one way, rolling green fields with horses grazing another, forest another, the river with horses parked up and men selling chai and corn on the cob cooked on a bbq with salt and lemon juice! We opted to avoid the overpopulated main glacier and found our own! Turk helped us cross boggy grassy areas and rivers by climbing over fallen trees.

We then climbed up the slippery glacier and proceeded to have a snowball fight in 20 degree heat! All a bit surreal and random!
We pratted around on the glacier for 20 minutes before sliding back down it on our arses and spending 2 hours strolling back to find the car.
We got a bit lost on the way back and used Turk as a scout, sending him up sheer climbs to be a look out from the top! Eventually after asking a few horsemen and following the jeeps on the road we made it back to the car, shattered and a bit sunburnt! Lol

The drive back was quiet, Turk fell asleep in the front and Kirsty and I listened to music whilst watching the Kashmir landscape pass us by!
Once back on the houseboat we had dinner, chatted to Turk for a bit and then crashed out!

Thursday 26th June

Today was a total lazy day after our Himalayan expedition the day before! We had a lie in, had breakfast, went back to bed until lunch. Then we got a shikara over to a restaurant for lunch, did some ration shopping in the supermarket then headed back and chilled on the houseboat for the remainder of the day. Loving the floating paradise!

Friday 27th June

Again we had a lay in this morning, then just before lunch we headed out to visit a hindi temple on top of a hill. We got a tuktuk most of the way and just had to climb the last 150 steps. There wasn’t much to see, we weren’t allowed cameras or phones, they had to stay down with the tuktuk driver. We climbed up onto the top of the temple, rang lots of bells and climbed back down again! Still it’s another temple on the templerun count!

After that we headed to Lal Chowk for some lunch, somewhat difficult on a friday as everyone is at the mosque so most places are closed. Still we found a place called Solomon’s garden BBQ, we sat outside in a garden and had a kathi roll before heading off to the Srinagar Museum, which is a small place surround by razor wire, you have to navigate a maze of razor wire and pass armed personnel to enter. Its got some stone statues from temples in Kashmir, old parchments, books and korans, fabrics, papier-mache, walnut wood products and a room full of stuffed animals! The main attraction being a huge tiger, to be fair the taxidermy skills left a lot to be desired and some of the animals were in very unnatural poses but it was kind of cool and quirky!

After the museum we headed back to the houseboat, had dinner and then had a visit from Tahseen and Aaqib who popped over to say hi and bring some gifts for us.
Once they had left we packed our bags ready for the off the next morning.

Saturday 28th June

Up at 9, had breakfast and checked out. Said our goodbyes to Mohammed and the boys and jumped on a shikara and headed over to the car to go to the airport.
We drove to the airport, got stopped before the airport to scan our bags and show passports and flight booking, we then got to Srinagar airport and scanned our bags again, then had to fill out a departure form, then check in, then scan our bags again, then go and locate our bag with security and get it checked. I have never had my bags scanned so much but I suppose when flying from Kashmir to Delhi you have to!

Kirsty and I waited in the departure lounge together, however, she was heading to Kochi via Mumbai to stay with Chendu for 10 days and I was heading to Delhi.

We boarded our flights and headed off back to civilisation. Was missing the peace of Kashmir and the houseboat already!

My flight was short and awful, hit a huge area of bad weather, the plane was shaken from side to side and dropped in turbulence patches for about 10 minutes. The rest of the journey was slightly bumpy so was thankful when we landed and I was alive! Not the best flight when you don’t like flying.

I waited for my bag, got a taxi to my hotel and spent the evening chilling.

Sunday 29th June

I got up at 8am, put my laundry in, had free breakfast then went back to bed.

At lunchtime I went down to the bakery for a light lunch, then spent the afternoon watching films, listening to music and pampering myself!

7pm I went down to dinner and had an eat all you like oriental buffet, it was amazing!
Spent the rest if the night sorting out courchsurfing for turkey and chatting to Aaqib.

Monday 30th June

I had an hour-long sports massage this morning, violent but good for my muscles! Must say I am now covered in bruises! Ankur came over and picked me up early afternoon, we went to his house and spent the day doing DIY…firstly we installed his surround sound system, then we spent hours hanging a picture. I didn’t think I would find someone more precise than my dad! Christ…it was painful but highly amusing.

His mum and sister came back from work so I met them and then we headed out for dinner. After dinner we had some rum and watched the football.

Tuesday 1st July

Ankur picked me up at lunchtime and we popped to the shops before heading over to his to test the new surround sound system and watch Avatar and Life of Pi in 3D! Two films I have never seen and two of his favourite films. Both very good films, he was pleased to hear.  He dropped me back early evening and I did riveting chores like washing and tidying the room.

Wednesday 2nd July

Ankur picked me up at 9am and we headed over to the car garage to take his car for a service. The garage confirmed the car wouldn’t be ready until 6pm, so we decided to pop into a shopping centre for a wander around the shops and a drink.

The first shop we entered, Ankur spent about 2 hours trying on almost everything in the shop! Hilarious….my job was to give me honest opinion on the clothes and help him narrow it down to just a few items.  2 hours, 1 pair of jeans, 2 shirts and a t-shirt later we left. We had a quick browse around M & S and then went for a drink. We then had lunch, went to the canon camera shop where Ankur splashed out on a new camera then headed to another clothes shop where Ankur picked out 20 items of clothing and then did a catwalk for me in the changing rooms! Lol. Again My job was to give my honest opinion on what he was trying on.

Believe it or not shopping with Ankur passed the whole day and we ended up wandering back over to the garage for 6pm to get the car.

We drove back to the hotel and went for some dinner followed by rum & football.

Thursday 3rd July

Total lazy day, did nothing but nap, watch films and read….definitely needed after yesterdays shopping! Lol

Friday 4th July

Another lazy day planning for future travels, Ankur came by in the evening and we watched football with rum until 4am.

Saturday 5th July

Spent the day chatting to friends, watching films, sorting couchsurfing options for turkey and napping!

Ankur came over in the evening and we watched football with a bit more rum! Lol

Sunday 6th July

Today I got up at 11.30am! Lol…missed my free breakfast…damn…spent the day doing more planning for turkey, skyping and facetiming friends. Also arranged my turkish e-visa so relatively productive also.

Ordered room service for dinner and noshed whilst composing this masterpiece!

Tomorrow will see me check out from here and head over to Delhi airport in the early evening for a quick flight to Mumbai! I will meet Kirsty in Mumbai airport then we have 7 hours in mumbai airport overnight before our 4am flight to Istanbul via Doha.

Well I didn’t anticipate coming back to India so soon, but glad I did. Had an amazing time travelling with Kirsty around the north of india…taking in the mentalness of Amritsar, the buddhist haven of Mcleodganj and Dharamsala, the hippy cannabis Manali, the desperate times in Mandi and Jammu and our amazing time in Srinagar and Kashmir.

Also my fun times in Delhi…never again will I moan at my friends for dragging me around the shops for hours…..they surely can’t shop for as long as Ankur! Lololol

Thanks must go out to Kamal, Manali Hospital, the tuktuk driver in Jammu who took us to KFC, Mohammed and his boys on the houseboat, Turk, Tahseen, Aaqib and Ankur for making the last 6 weeks amazing, unforgettable and hilarious. Oh and of course, thanks goes to Kirsty for her amazing company!

So Europe here we come….making a slow return to the UK over the next few months, taking in couchsurfing, hostels, mosques, bazaars, ruins, mountains, lakes, big stone heads, greek ferry rides, greek islands, a re-visit to Athens, more ancient greek ruins, bus journeys, interrailing, Rome, ancient roman cities, a volcano, Venice and of course a plate of cheval in france!

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