Category Archives: India

Ladakh, India – 3 weeks on the roof of the sub-continent

India, for most people, is a place to avoid in July and August. Treacherous monsoon rains and oppressive heat and humidity are enough reason alone to keep most visitors away. There is however, one place, in this vast country, where July and August see optimal weather conditions (think blue skies, no humidity and twenty-five degree midday highs). Sharing a border with both Tibet and Pakistan, and comprising the eastern portion of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir in the remote far north of the sub-continent, Ladakh is a region where you could be forgiven for questioning if you are even in India.

Sparsely populated, vast snow-capped mountains, high altitude desert, a seemingly pristine natural environment, and a distinctive Buddhist culture is not the image that people initially conjure up of India. Yet Ladakh is a great example of the diversity that underpins the nation with the most diverse population on Earth. Only in the entire continent of Africa can you find more languages, religious and ethnic groups than in India.

We had come to Ladakh because we wanted to trek. We wanted to explore a part of the mighty Himalayas. We wanted to spend six weeks in pristine mountain air, in the great outdoors, surrounded by some of the most majestic scenery our incredible planet has to offer.

There are two ways into Ladakh. One is by road,via the Leh-Manali (2 days) or Leh-Srinagar (15 hours) highways, both death defying, mind-blowing, terrifying and time consuming options. Or you can fly from New Delhi (2 hours), which is the expensive option. Being the ‘flashpackers’ that we now are, we decided to fly. During our time in Ladakh, both of these roads would be closed at the same time, for over a week each, meaning the only way in-and-out was by air. Internet was also down for almost two weeks, it was liberating to be so disconnected from the outside world and modern life, my only concern being my dearest mother would worry if she hadn’t heard from us for a few days. Cue going to a phone centre, lining up with multiple other young western tourists, all trying to use the one international phone line to leave a message for their mums to let them know they were fine, but cut-off from the outside world. You could be forgiven for feeling like you were back in 1999.

Given my history of altitude difficulties, we allowed ourselves three full days to acclimatise to the 3,500 metre altitude in Leh, the dusty town undergoing something of a tourist boom, that is the capital of Ladakh. This was the view from our hotel balcony.

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On day three we ventured out in search of a trekking agent, to find out more about which treks we wanted to do. There is an abundance of these in and around Leh, and we spent an entire afternoon walking in and out of these deciding who we liked and didn’t like, before settling on The Nomadic Way, who particularly impressed us.

Unfortunately, we had to cancel our first trek on day two as I was becoming stricken with altitude sickness once again at around 4,500 metres. We then completed another smaller, less elevated trek (sleeping no higher than 3,500 metres), before heading to the Pakistani border and the K2-range in the Nubra Valley via Jeep. We wanted to trek for much longer, but alas, my body is weak and cannot handle altitude, even with medicine and acclimatisation time, so our time in Ladakh was cut short to three weeks as we changed our plans accordingly.

Without question, during our three weeks here, we found Ladakh to be one of the most naturally beautiful places we have visited in Asia. Leh itself is nothing to write home about, but the outlying scenery, and distinct Ladakhi culture (which is very closely intertwined with Tibetan) found within the region is is like few others.

Ladakh is a place were gushing crystal clear streams morph into fierce brown rampaging rivers, that then wind their way through high altitude hamlets irrigated by lush green fields which when viewed from up high, are often just small green dots amongst a mass of bleak brown Himalayan desert slopes and snow-capped peaks that every so often pierce into the brilliant blue sky that looms above. Life hasn’t changed much in these parts for centuries, some villages now have electricity, many don’t even have roads. It’s a place where women my age (27) are often not parents of small children, but almost teenagers.

It has been a bastion of relative safety and security, and refuge for the tens of thousands who have escaped from dictatorship and genocide over the border in the last six decades. A place where the Dalai Lama’s portrait is everywhere, and political slogans vilifying and denouncing the occupying regime only a couple of hundred kilometres away are in plain sight, but where people are free to say what they think, worship who they want. A place where many care about their environment, recognise it’s importance to their way of life, and take steps to protect it. It’s a place where most people can only work for four months of the year, and then retreat to their homes for the other eight to escape the biting cold of the Himalayas. This is a place where you can walk down the street after three weeks of being there, and find that you are on first-name terms with most of the local Kashmiri shopkeepers, despite not having bought anything from them. This is a place sometimes known as ‘Little Tibet’, but this is not ‘Little Tibet’, this is Ladakh, by no means is it utopia, but it’s certainly one of our favourite places.

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Getting the rules bent on the Leh-Srinagar Highway

Six hours on the road, thinking we are almost half way to Srinagar and our driver gets the call we hoped he wouldn’t. He gets off the phone, “Sorry, road to Srinagar closed. You must stay in Kargil until further notice”. How we hoped he’d been given the wrong information. Sadly he hadn’t. We told the driver to try and go through anyway. Until we got to a roadblock and were sent back into town, to widespread dismay and grunts of disdain. (The road had only just reopened, having been closed for the past week).  Driving back into town, we formulated a cunning plan.

“There’s nothing to do here right, and we will do almost anything to not have to stay here?”,

“Yes”

“So, lets go and ask to speak to the Police and explain we have a flight to New Delhi tomorrow, politely beg for some empathy, smile a lot, apologise profusely for the inconvenience and say how great India, Ladakh and Kashmir are (which is kind of true, anyway) and hope he’s persuaded enough to let us go through. We do not want to spent the night here.”

To many, it may sound futile. But given the lack of activities here to keep us busy, we figured we may as well try.

Twenty or so minutes later, we found ourselves at the Kargil Police Headquarters. A large, unnattractive bulding, in need of a lick of paint and to be quite frank, demolition. Outside were high walls, a no-parking zone and armed Policeman patrolling the perimeter of the building and gate.

We decided that amongst our shared taxi of five, consisting of Amelia and I, a rather amusing 20 year old Australian who enjoyed regaling us with many stories of how he once dated the daughter of a former Miss Japan with grand plans to eventually become a hotshot lawyer (my stories of once being known as “Dan the Gym Man” can’t compete with that), a 19 year old British gap-year lad looking forward to his upcoming freshers week at university, and a mid-thirty something Israeli lady who appeared to be undergoing some kind of early mid-life crisis on some journey of self-discovery whilst coming across as being neurotic with bipolar tendencies, it was decided that given I was white, NOT a child and male, that I should be the one to try and plead our case. We decided that Amelia should come along too, to flash her eyes and smile when needed and because nobody likes saying no to a white guy, especially in front of his lady. Bizarre logic it may seem, but this was a workable plan.

So out of the car we got, and over to the front gate we went. We were welcomed in and told the Chief was out at the moment, but would be back soon. I then spent the next hour chatting to a Kashmiri Policeman called Ahmed, rifle resting on lap, barrel staring down at my leg centimetres away, talking cricket, football, women and India-Pakistan relations, waiting to plead with the chief of Police to let us through on the supposedly closed road to Srinagar. Once he had enough of talking to me, we were moved into a small, dark room next to the entrance, which wreaked of paint and toxic fumes. Oh how I would hate to ever have to go to an Indian jail. We then chatted to another Indian family from Calcutta for the next half hour who were in the same boat as us, and talked football some more.

Mid-conversation, there was a lot of movement and fuss outside by the gate, the chief had returned. This is what we had been waiting for. We were ushered out of the small dingy room, and very briefly introduced to the chief.  A generous portly middle-aged man, that you wouldn’t want to argue with, he granted us our request without us even asking and told us to be on our way.

“Just drive slowly”, he said.

“Yes certainly Sir, thank you ever so much”, we replied, and then repeated to the next five policemen we walked past, jubilant that we didn’t have to spend the night in Kargil.

Our plan had worked. We were going to Kashmir.

During the proceeding hours we would bear witness to and enjoy, one of the greatest road journeys of this earth. We bumped our way slowly across some of the most glorious natural scenery we have seen on our travels, taking in 4,000 metre mountain passes, Hindu Festivals in the valleys and Himalayan glaciers.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, the Leh-Srinagar Highway.

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50 Faces of India

For once, almost no words. Just pictures of some of the wonderful people we met during our last three weeks in India.

We lost our hearts in Kashmir, then it got complicated

Lush green mountain valleys, snow capped peaks, slopes that descend into dense pine forest as far as the eye can see. This is Kashmir. Without question, one of the most naturally beautiful places I have seen, our journey there taking in what is surely one of the most spectacular roads on this earth.

After three weeks of high altitude desert in Ladakh the greenery of Kashmir offered a much appreciated change of scenery to the barren landscapes across the eastern side of the Leh-Srinagar highway.

Arriving to Srinagar late at night, we arrived to our accommodation – a rustic, yet charming little houseboat that didn’t appear to have changed all too much since the days of the British Empire. Houseboats are the place to stay in Srinagar, and are a novel experience. Possessing an abundance of character, history and charm, once you were on board you felt as though you had stepped back in time to a different age. Our hosts, a local family, had been running a boat here since 1820. Their great-great-great grandfather (or something of the like) had started out in the trade back then, the business blooming in the area as foreigners were forbidden from staying on land. In place of colonial officials and British Generals seeking solace from inhospitable Indian summers who would stay for weeks and months on end, predominantly Indian tourists and a few intrepid westerners make the trip nowadays for a few nights at most.

Srinagar is famed for it’s local gardens, despite gardening not being high up on my list of interests, it’s one of the ‘the things to do’ around the city, and the gardens did not disappoint. Likewise for the nearby Dal Lake, we had a thoroughly enjoyable day boating around relaxing on the lake. We quite liked the idea of heading out into Kashmir, but the areas outside of Srinagar had been badly affected by landslides, unseasonal rains (for the area) and the FCO advised against all travel outside of Srinagar.

People we spoke to were all jovial, friendly, always asking us what we thought about Kashmir, and generally made us feel very welcome. We were loving Kashmir and Srinagar at this point.

Things took a minor turn on day two, when our houseboat hosts advised us to change our plans to visit the old part of town in the morning, because of a general strike that had been called for the day. We laughed, as there had been a general strike in Ladakh about three days earlier, that had wrought havoc on everybodys plans. The comparisons end there. In Ladakh the strike was supposedly in protest at the damage Indian tourists were doing to the local environment, dropping litter, behaving irresponsibly – it was actually quite nice to see a region and local people defending their environment and seeking sustainable tourism. In Srinagar, a quick google search revealed that the strike, and anticipated trouble were in response to the burning of the ISIS flag by Hindu nationalists somewhere in Srinagar two days previously. The ISIS flag contains holy scriptures, apparently the strike was called to protest the burning of the scriptures on the flag, not the actual flag itself. It was all very complicated.

The same google search revealed that ISIS flags had since been hoisted outside the very mosque we were supposed to be visiting that day, barely 24 hours previously, and that grenades had been thrown into local shops less than 2km from where we were staying as well. Suddenly our newfound love of Kashmir was becoming slightly tainted.

Later on that day, another grenade attack was reported on a police checkpoint outside the city. This time a local vendor was killed. Still, we had seen nothing to feel threatened or in any danger, all our experiences and interactions were positive. Srinagar was the most militarised city either of us have ever been in, but it felt calm and safe – we were told it’s much better now than it has been for a long time, and having since read about the recent past, during which tens of thousands were killed, few could argue with that assertion.

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On our third day, we went out to the lake and ate lunch in a posh five-star hotel. In the afternoon, we retired to our houseboat, and chilled out reading books. At about 5pm, we heard multiple loud explosions, very close to us. Nobody else batted an eyelid, and life continued as normal, so we didn’t think about it too much. Later, we found out that there had been a protest about 400 metres from where we were, directed at local police, who were being accused of the extra-judicial killing of a 16 year old school boy whose throat had been cut, and body had been pulled from the river we were staying on, barely 200 metres down from us, that same afternoon. Local people were angry, the explosions were actually tear gas being fired to disperse the protestors when things started to turn nasty. We weren’t feeling quite so in love with Srinagar by now.

Next morning, we asked our houseboat hosts if it was safe for us to take a little walk, as we didn’t want to spend all day sat on the boat, doing nothing. They said town was calm now, and that we should walk up along the river, as it’s a nice little walk. So we did. A couple of hundred metres up, we found an entire area with shopfronts and buildings daubed, chillingly, and simply, with ‘ISIS’. It appeared to have been written by the same individual(s), but what surprised me (perhaps naively, I don’t know), was that no effort was being made to clean peoples shopfronts and houses of this graffiti. I know if somebody graffitis something unsavoury on property in the UK, or China, for that matter, efforts are made to clean it up. That wasn’t happening here.

Anyway, we carried on walking. Suddenly a military helicopter whizzed overhead, and I saw at least a dozen, maybe twenty, (I didn’t count, it happened so quickly) heavily armed soldiers, running towards us in formation, guns at the ready, less than fifty metres away. My heart raced, partly in excitement, the little boy in me felt like I was an extra in a Hollywood movie. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of being a soldier or policeman. Then the mature adult within me, took stock of reality and thought, “Shit, this is well dodgy”. I glanced around hurriedly, there was no imminent threat around us, there was a main road, barely five metres away, with armed police standing guard. The group of soldiers turned away from us, and stormed down an alleyway. We promptly climbed up a short block of stairs and made it to the road.

“Excuse us officer, is it safe for us to be here? Where is it safe for us to go?”

“Sorry Sir and Madam, this area is now under strict curfew. If you walk that way (down the main road) it is much safer and there should not be any problems.”

Naturally, we followed his instructions and encountered no problems. Despite obvious hostilities between locals and the authorities, nobody gave us any problems and people continued to be warm and welcoming to us. Both police and locals, I lost count of how many hands I ended up shaking. All were at pains to express that people had no problem with foreign tourists.

We made it back to our houseboat safely, and relaxed there for the afternoon. We have no idea if anything else happened that day, we saw or heard no more, but we had seen enough to know that this was probably the dodgiest place we have been to, during five years in Asia. It wasn’t that we felt under threat, or in any danger, it was more the risk of getting caught up in something nasty, which given events of the previous days, was more than plausible.

Srinagar is a place that has had huge issues, and is doing well to start getting back on to its feet again after a brutal and long insurgency. We knew before going that it could be prone to unrest. Tourists are starting to arrive in numbers, and there is ‘relative’ hope on the horizon for a better future. However, stumbling across areas where ISIS graffiti is daubed so brazenly, seemingly so close to the heart of the city, was enough to make us want to leave. This is a new phenomenon, and hasn’t been seen before in Kashmir.

Despite most people seeming friendly, there remained a lot of stares. Staring is part and parcel of being a white person walking the streets of smaller Asian cities, but sometimes here it felt different.

I cannot (and do not want to) imagine that any of the local people we interacted with here would support an organisation such as ISIS, regardless of how oppressed they may or may not have felt under Indian rule. On the other hand, most the businesses did go on strike, because an ISIS flag was burned, so one does wonder…

But the people we met were just like us, merely wanting to get on with their lives, better themselves, and make an honest living.

Seeing the sign of an organisation that vows to exterminate all non Sunni Muslims, intent on dragging the world back to the Dark Ages, who operate with a barbarity of which would make many Nazi’s squirm, would be enough to cause concern among most tourists, and rational local people as well.

Did we enjoy our time in Srinagar?

Yes and no.

Would we advise foreigners visit?

Probably not, unless you are switched on, well informed and keep up to date on the security situation as it is very fluid and effectively a tinderbox that could go up at any time. Some would say ignorance is bliss, but somewhere like Srinagar, I would suggest that ignorance is stupidity and dangerous.

To the people of Srinagar, if any of you read this, I am confident you recognise that support for ISIS is bad for business and that you also are appalled that any good Muslim could support them, and that you will actively challenge such sympathies if or when you learn of them.

One day we would like to return and do Kashmir’s Great Lakes Trek. It looks incredible. Sadly, I can’t imagine that will be anytime soon.

Note – We were in Srinagar from July 23rd to 28th, 2015.

The UK Foreign Office says travel to Srinagar is okay, but not the areas around it in surrounding Kashmir. See the latest advice, here.