A Travellerspoint blog

Arrival in Gulabgarh, Paddar

Next day we left for Kisthwar at 6 AM in a share taxi, for the 10-12 hour ride. I had forgotten just how crazy the roads can be in the mountains, and it was in terrible shape in many places due to the almost constant rain over the last two months. There were landslides and boulders in many spots, and par for the course, our driver went far too fast and often passed on blind curves. We finally got to Kisthwar around 4, and decided to push on to Gulabgarh after stopping to eat. It was still another 2&1/2 hours in a different share taxi The road was in even worse shape, and after riding in the front for a while, I asked Tashi to switch places with me because I felt safer in the back. I kept thinking about his older brother dying on this same road ten years earlier.

Tashi told me that his relatives were descendants of Ghengis Khan, although I was never able to confirm this. I wondered how his people could have ended up in such a remote place, through such intimidating terrain, well over a hundred years ago. His village, Kabban is still more than 10K from the nearest road. The road to Gulabgarh was only built in the 90's, and Tashi said it took his father more than 20 days of hard up and down climbing to make it to Kisthwar to purchase salt and rice. I thought it might be interesting to try and tell his family's story, but this proved more difficult then I expected.

Eventually, and thankfully, just as it was getting dark, we made it to town in one piece.

Main street not far from Tashi's house
large_IMG_0058_2.jpg

Gulabgarh is where he now spends most of the summer months, having moved down from his original village 15 or 20 years ago. His boys, age 15 and 17, are in boarding school in Jammu, and his 8 year old daughter attends the Himalayan Culture School, where I will be teaching. Puti, his wife, had just reached Gulabgarh earlier that day from Jammu, where Tashi has started to build a winter home because it is much lower and warmer. In previous winters they have run a simple dry goods shop outside of Agra, along with Tashi’s sister. I never realized what a jack of all trades he has had to be in order to make ends meet.

His house in Gulabgarh is a modest affair, with four cement rooms, furnished with cushions on the floor and a few wooden cabinets and beds.

My messy room
IMG_0705.jpg

There is no hot water because the minimal amount of electricity will not support it, nor will it work the washing machine. When I arrived to the smoky rooms, Puti was brewing up coffee (well instant actually) on a kerosene stove in the middle of the floor. She doesn’t speak English, but having heard Ladakhi again for the first time in many years, I managed to say Julay, which means hello, how are you, similar to namaste in Hindi.

IMG_0638.jpg

His daughter Tsering, a tall girl at 8 years old, who I’m told does speak a bit of English, greeted me a big smile, cute as can be. She did not answer when I asked her name, however.

7BF373B20F3D0E7004F69E395A33D3F7.jpg

The one 20 watt bulb was flickering constantly and barely threw any light. After a time we went over to Puti's sisters house. She had prepared a meal of momos and other things, and Tashi and I chatted away, as we imbibed the local hooch, a kind of wheat wine. There were several other relatives there, though it was very hard to see them in the dim, smoky light. They plied me with more food than I could eat, and kept refilling my glass with the wheat hooch. We discussed the school, along with the foundation that Tashi has helped to set up, Education Access. He wants to encourage more donations so that they can build a dorm and a kitchen. The school now has more than 200 kids, age 4-16, many of whom come from the surrounding mountain villages. He has dedicated himself to trying to keep his community together, while also trying to improve their lives.

In a somewhat drunken haze, I asked him if he felt caught between two worlds? Not an easy question to answer. In spite of the fact that some of his other nine siblings have more formal education, he has clearly been exposed to much more of the world than they. After a time he answered by saying, we are all really of one world, and that everyone should get their fair share from the politicians (ie, the government). A nice sentiment, but I didn’t feel he exactly answered my question.

Finally, exhausted from the days travel, we went back to his house, where I piled on about four heavy blankets to stay warm in the chilly night. The stray dogs barking half the night didn’t help with sleep.

The next day we went over to the school, where I met the teachers, the principal, and spent a few minutes in each class with the kids.

The main administration building is done in the Tibetan style, and in fact I was told the Dalai Lama was here a few years ago in order to bless the school.

large_IMG_0047_3.jpg

Although the school is run by a private foundation, Buddhist Heritage, of which Tashi is now the president, it receives most of its funding from the government. There is also another public school for non-buddhist kids up the road a piece, mostly Hindu and a few Muslims. Although Gulabgarh now has a significant number of Buddhists, overall they are a small minority in this part of Jammu, unlike in Ladakh, which is on the other side of the Himalaya Range. One of the classes that is required for all of the students here is Pali, taught by a monk. They are also taught Hindi and Urdu, as well as English. All classes are supposedly taught in English, but as I later found out, most of the kids can understand very little and can speak even less.

That evening, after an unsuccessful attempt to get a sim card which fit in my phone, we sat around Tashi’s mother’s room near a small wood stove on the floor, also used for cooking fried chicken, which we munched on. She is a small, but very energetic woman in her 80’s, who is caring for two of her young grandchildren while they attend the school.

7BF92218B504DE8BB75DEDFC1C8A1A01.jpg

As usual, they served me first, and gave me the best pieces of meat as the honored guest.

It turned out to be quite a family reunion. Tashi’s younger brother was there from his village, in order to visit his two young son’s age 5 and 6, who were being looked after by grandma.

large_IMG_0676.jpg

There was also an aunt from Himachal Pradesh, near Manali, as well as the wife of Tashi’s older brother, the one who had died.

large_IMG_0643.jpg

Puti was there of course, and several other kids. Once again, much arak was consumed, which is what the wheat spirits are called. Everyone was busy talking away, until the aunt started singing in a high sing-song voice. I was told the song was about how nice it is for a family to get together, no matter how fleeting the time, because all of us are only here for a short while. A poignant carpe-diem message, if ever I heard one. Despite not understanding the language, and missing many of the jokes, of which there were many, I felt very welcomed and included.

I left around 10, although the party was in full swing. I managed to drown out the dogs that night with my white noise machine. Just enough electricity to do so. It was another chilly night, but once again the day dawned fair and clear.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:09 Archived in India Tagged people postcards living_abroad Comments (0)

Srinagar, Kashmir

After saying good-bye to Nanette in Mumbai, I left the next morning for Srinagar, where Tashi met me at the airport. A good thing since a policemen accompanied me outside since I couldn't tell him where I was staying. Tashi had already found me a place, aboard a rather funky houseboat, Young Ambassador.

My houseboat was smaller one on the left
IMG_0563.jpg

Whatever fantasies I may have had about Dal Lake were quickly dispatched as Farooz paddled us out to his boat.

large_IMG_0589.jpg

Despite the beauty of the lake, a sewage smell was noticeable and thick algae blooms were everywhere. I guess its been a long time since the British Raj.

A rare moment of sun
large_IMG_0578.jpg

We dropped my backpack, and spent the day wondering around the city in the chilly, rainy weather. It was in total contrast to the weather in the south. This was one of these, be careful what you wish for deals. I noticed that many of the men were still wearing their winter coats, long woolen things, very baggy, so they can keep a charcoal brazier underneath to stay warm. In the evening Tashi dropped me, and went off to stay at an even cheaper place.

large_IMG_0581.jpg

While Farooz made a simple dinner, he talked incessantly about his various family and financial problems. Perhaps this was an attempt to get more money from me? Nabu showed up shortly thereafter, wanting to show me his jewelry. By then, I didn't have the energy to simply chase him away, and foolishly picked out a few pieces that looked marginally interesting. I said I wasn't buying that night, and that he should come back in two days, hoping that I wouldn't still be there.

Sunset from Young Ambassador
large_A472CF66AF1B8162FE1EE6A715F4B214.jpg

The next day unfortunately, was equally cold and rainy. We hiked up to a Hindu temple on a hill overlooking town,

View of the city from the temple
large_IMG_0568.jpg

and then took a tuk-tuk back to the the tulip gardens, a famous Srinagar site. But then the rain picked up and so we nixed that idea, and sat outside eating ramen noodles in a dhaba, trying to stay warm and dry underneath a plastic tarp. It wasn't easy, but there was nothing else around. Actually, this was a harbinger of things to come, though I didn't know it then. We soon gave up and went back to spend a few hours eating in a somewhat warmer restaurant. After seven years, we had a lot of catching up to do. Finally, when the rain let up, we walked down to the main market. Tashi is still struggling with his trekking business, which I later learned he more or less fell into after hearing about the internet from David and I, some 17 years earlier. He had help from a Swiss guy, who he also met on a trek, who said Tashi could his personal email and password until he eventually learned how to set up one on his own. He would spend hours practicing on a computer in an internet cafe in Jammu, which then cost 60 rupees an hour, a lot of money for him at the time.

Next day saw a big improvement in the weather and we hired a taxi to take us to Gulmarg, India's largest ski area.

large_A479D6949F13937DB364999828489B12.jpg

This has been a very cold and snowy winter for them, as it was for us in upstate New York. The 14,000 foot peak was still covered with snow, some of which was fresh. Even the gondola was still running and the place was packed with Indian tourists coming up to see and touch snow, perhaps for the first time. We passed on the gondola and walked up to mid-station in the tracks of old wooden sleds that were being used to give tourists a ride and make a buck.

large_DFEC7CBCF951D83F06F683A70E2F8BA3.jpg

An hour and a half got us there, but not before we passed two elderly Israeli couples, also walking. A bit of a surprise this. Mid-station was a large flat area, just at tree line, and lots of people were cavorting in the snow, though no skiers, which should have told us something.

large_IMG_0604_2.jpg

A number of dhabas had set up shop on one side, and we stopped for some overpriced chicken and dhal. A cloud moved in and some grappel fell, even as the sun shone.

A476D16C00732E8351CB6F24FD126938.jpg

large_IMG_0612_2.jpg

Tashi and talked about taking another day and renting skis since there was still so much snow. Although the mountain was officially closed, we were told we could ride up and down on the gondola to mid-station, and then hike even higher if we chose.

So next day, also good weather, we went back out even earlier, and met the guy who said he had alpine touring skis. Turns out what he had was 190's, way too long and not in good shape. He took us to another shop, where we eventually rented shorter ones, also in poor condition. I ended up adjusting the bindings myself, since the shop guys obviously had no idea how to do it. After two hours of this, we finally made it onto the gondola and back to mid-station.

You wouldn't know the day was mostly fair from this shot
large_IMG_0618_2.jpg

Rather than hike up we decided to take an easy run back down, but easy was still difficult in the heavily rutted track left by the sleds from the day before. Tashi struggled with the uneven snow, not really ever having learned to ski on modern equipment.

We had these beautiful open woods to ourselves
large_IMG_0598_2.jpg

When we tried to reboard the gondola, but we were told that this was not allowed. Tashi tried to speak to someone he knew at the resort, who said he would intervene on our behalf, but it did no good The guy running the the gondola refused to budge. Once again it seems as though this crazy country is determined to enforce stupid rules, rather than say, traffic regulations, where someone's life might actually be at stake. Hiking up, with the equipment we rented did not seem like an option, and so after another hour of hassling we finally gave up and returned the skis, but not before taking a few pics of Tashi pretending to ski in front of the shop. The day's frustration only increased, when I discovered that I left my new and expensive rain jacket in another taxi that I somehow thought was ours.

Tashi
A473AEC2EEE3A229CEA31F45A4714154.jpg

Pretending to ski
large_IMG_0634.jpg

All in all, despite years of trying to get here, Srinagar was a disappointment. Just another large and dirty Indian city. The surrounding area is stunningly beautiful, as was Gulmarg. Generally it is lush and green, although this spring more white. I'm sure there are some great treks, but this is certainly true in many areas of India that are less dangerous.

Posted by jonshapiro 05:17 Archived in India Tagged snow photography cities_postcards Comments (5)

Mahabalipuram

Our last stop turned out to be one of the best in terms of ruins, particularly the almost 3D reliefs carved out of rock.

"Founded in the 7th century by the Pallavas sovereigns south of Madras, the harbour of Mahabalipuram traded with the distant kingdoms of South-East Asia: Kambuja (Cambodia) and Shrivijaya (Malaysia, Sumatra, Java) and with the empire of Champa (Annam). But the fame of its role as a harbour has been transferred to its rock sanctuaries and Brahmin temples which were constructed or decorated at Mahabalipuram between 630 and 728." http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/249

Our original intent was to go to the ruins yesterday after we arrived, but the heat acted as a soporific, and we fell asleep until 6 PM. By then, it was too dark. We awoke early the next morning, and got there before the heat of mid-day. Considering their age, they are in pristine condition, and in many respects, they are the equal of anything we have seen thus far. The shallow caves are carved out of solid rock, as are the relief figures of Hindu Gods, animals, demons, etc. And to think that they did it all with hammers and chisels.

Arjuna's penance, was the most incredible of the lot. It is described as follows:

"This magnificent relief, carved in the mid-seventh century, measures approximately 30m (100ft) long by 15m (45ft) high. The subject is either Arjuna's Penance or the Descent of the Ganges, or possibly both. In additive cultures like India's, logical alternatives are often conceptualized as "both-and" rather than "either-or."

Arjuna's Penance is a story from the Mahabharata of how Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers, performed severe austerities in order to obtain Shiva's weapon. The idea, which pervades Hindu philosophy, is that one could obtain, by self-mortification, enough power even to overcome the gods. In order to protect themselves, the gods would grant the petition of any ascetic who threatened their supremacy in this way - a kind of spiritual blackmail, or "give to get." (This meaning of the word "penance," by the way, is specific to Hinduism. Unlike the Catholic rite of penance, it is performed to gain power, not to expiate sin.)" (www.art-and-archaeology.com/india/mamallapuram/ap01.html)

I found this explanation quite interesting, assuming you can believe the internet

"The Ganges story is of the same kind, in which the sage Bhagiratha performs austerities in order to bring the Ganges down to earth. Shiva had to consent to break her fall in his hair, because otherwise its force would be too great for the earth to contain.

The symbolism of the relief supports either story. Furthermore, both stories were interpreted in a manner flattering to the Pallavas; the heroic Arjuna as a symbol of the rulers, and the Ganges as a symbol of their purifying power."

It was impossible to capture the whole relief with my camera. Here are some details.

large_IMG_0502.jpg

large_12100138023C7502887FA9F08CFE7391.jpg

large_IMG_0505.jpg

120E66BFFAF32E4E665A240F1E7610F9.jpgIMG_0504.jpg

The rock sanctuaries were also impressive. And they too had intricate bas reliefs.

large_1216DA2FEF29FD5FFF7E6003EB99F552.jpg

large_12193225AF16A529027C23C2ACFD8F36.jpg

large_IMG_0539.jpg

large_12141DB5F08BC130810B95A51B5BF05C.jpg

There were still other temples and statues.

large_1474F0C6CBCB7025E4B48687D293DBD9.jpg

1215A106B1EED3A0B7B1A595BADEAA31.jpg

As well as Krishna's butterball.

large_121D88D8C693B41B934A36E8D8322850.jpg

Mahabalipuram is still home to many rock carvers, who sell ornate, and often huge rock statues. Of course they have the benefit of electric tools, but perhaps they are related to the ancient Pallavas? The shopkeepers on the other hand, all seem to be Kashmiris. Like the Chinese, they are the businessmen. They come down for the winter and spring months, and most will head back up in the next few weeks, as will I. We considered buying a large statue of Shiva and Parvati dancing together, but we don't really have a place to put it, and so we opted for a much smaller one of Parvati.

The town at sunset, from a rooftop beer garden
large_121C9040989A767BA6AD9DB60D657911.jpg

Our trip is rapidly winding to a close, at least Nanette's portion of it. Tomorrow we taxi to Madras (Chennai), and then fly to Mumbai, where Nanette flies back home after lunch with Pramilla. I will stay the night and then fly on to Srinigar in Kashmir, to meet Tashi. The next part of the journey promises to be very different than the first half, as well as much cooler, which I am really looking forward to.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:18 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites buildings_postcards Comments (1)

Pondicherry

Taken over by the French in 1674, and briefly occupied by both the Dutch and the British, Pondy was not formally reunited with India until 1962. We stayed in the old French quarter near the sea, which has many old houses, a number of which have been renovated, but with the rest in various states of disrepair. Nonetheless the whole area has a certain charm, and a vaguely French air about it. There were even several French restaurants as well as Italian and Vietnamese, but we opted to stay with Indian food.

Our street sign in Tamil, English, and French
large_0E4F4B36DC43E16566C92095B24D979B.jpg

Our Street, partially renovated
large_IMG_0498.jpg

Another street, this one in even better shape
large_IMG_0486.jpg

The restaurant scene
large_IMG_0489.jpg

In the evening, Nanette and I walked on the promenade facing the sea, and stopped for mushroom dosas in a very local place. In addition to the promenade, the adjoining road was closed to traffic on Saturday night, and there was an endless parade of Indians of all ages, strolling along the wide boulevard. In the middle was a large statue of Gandhi, which kids were using as a kind of slide. It seemed to us that Gandhi, looking very much like Ben Kingsley, was smiling down on the scene below. It was a great place to rollerblade, and no sooner had I said this, then two kids showed up who were doing exactly that. We walked back to our guesthouse accompanied by the sounds of a police band sitting opposite Gandhi, and dressed to look like French gendarmes.

Promenade in the morning
large_IMG_0494.jpg

In the morning we had breakfast at our guesthouse, Les Hibiscus,

large_IMG_0484.jpg

and got started talking to Monia, a French traveler in her 30's, who has been teaching in India for the last four years. She was actually born and raised in Belgium, and didn't move to Paris until she was about 18. Her parents, if you can call them that, more or less abdicated all responsibility for both her and her younger, autistic brother. As a result she was in charge at a very early age. Her parents hardly worked, content to reap the benefits of the Belgium social services system. Luckily that system provided well for her brother, and he is now living in a program for adult,severely autistic persons. Monia was an excellent student, and for a while was training to be a neurosurgeon and paying for it herself. In the end, she was forced to drop out because of having to earn money to take care of her brother. She did manage to finish her undergraduate degree in psychology. Unable to get a job in that field, she found an IT position in a bank ,where she worked for several years. She didn't like it, and eventually moved to Kerala to take a job as a French teacher. She has also managed to travel extensively in South America and other places. In a few months she is moving back to Mumbai, where she has a much better job.

IMG_0482.jpg


She came with us on a visit to Auroville, the communalistic community based on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, and the Mother, a French woman who helped to start the place in 1968. The only place they really let us see, and that only from the outside, was a large gold dome, that is their meditation hall.

large_IMG_0483.jpg

The residents houses, gardens, and schools, which we were more interested in, were more or less off limits to visitors. To some degree this is understandable, though I can't think of any reason why they should tell you this in advance.

Returning in the heat of mid-day, we showered and then went off to a veg meal in what, thankfully, turned out to be an air conditioned restaurant. Afterwords we went to sample the pastry and coffee at Baker Street, Indian owned and run, but French trained despite the British name. By far the best pastry, well really the only pastry since the start of our trip, but it really was excellent, and there was ac to boot. We spent most of the afternoon talking to our new travel bud, before returning once again for one of our many daily showers. Later we went out to LeClub with Monia for beer and pizza. The day passed by too quickly, and we said our goodbyes the next morning before heading out to our next destination.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:57 Archived in India Tagged people buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (0)

Tranquebar

After three days of furious temple gazing, we were more than ready for Tranquebar. This small town by the Indian Ocean began as a Danish trading port in the 1620's. The old Dutch Fort is still standing, a tawny stucco and brick building just by the sea, looking very much like the Moroccan forts on the hill sides of the Atlas Mountains. The Danes eventually sold the place to the Brits, and it remained with them until Indian gained Independence in1947.

large_IMG_0398.jpg

large_D9107B67D6D58991A8FA977782AD9659.jpg

We are staying in the old commissioners house, also dating from the 17th century. This house, with it's two foot thick walls managed to survive the tsunami, which killed 800 people here in tranquil Tranquebar. It was not tranquil on that fateful day.

large_D9073957F705355CFC6005985639C8B0.jpg

The remains of other brick walls jut directly into the water in front of us.

large_D9117FD5F10DE430CDF9340C3FAF1481.jpg

Somehow, the old lamp posts leading up to the beach are still here, as well as several other large buildings with walls as thick as the commissioners house.

large_IMG_0395.jpg

In the rest of the town, there are much smaller houses with tile roofs and low doorways, also obviously quite old. Some of these are slowly being rebuilt or renovated after the flood. A number of NGO's have been active here, helping to rebuild. Around town there is much hammering and sawing going on. There are also small lanes of thatched roof houses that have obviously been built more recently, with goats and chickens here and there, eating whatever they can find. This was, and is, a poor town of fishermen, most of whom probably barely eek out a living.

large_IMG_0426.jpg

large_D90C9440FC143B5D76CEE9F0273AB257.jpg

Despite the poverty and the destruction, the town has a relaxed and charming atmosphere, with a near constant sultry breeze that takes the edge off the relentless sun. Unlike in Kannur, the sea is gentle here, or has been, with small waves and little undertow. Perhaps for this reason, we see more Indians in the water, though almost all are fully clothed, and seem to prefer the safety of swimming within the old brick walls,where even the small waves are absent. The locals are very friendly, smiling and saying hello,and even asking for us to take their picture.

large_IMG_0425.jpg

Moods can change quickly at this age
D908619EC35D22B1CF3CA1A9D953348C.jpgIMG_0411.jpg

We were told that our hotel had just been renovated and opened the day before the great wave. They rebuilt once again, and fortunately managed to preserve the character of the old place. Our room, Princess Louise, with its 25 foot ceilings and windows almost as high, is a study in green. Our old brass canopy bed, felt like it might collapse as we made love this afternoon.

"The Bungalow," as it is called, a relative splurge, is the only upscale place in town, and seemingly has the only restaurant, which unfortunately is not particularly good. An interesting mix of people are staying here, including several Indians from the states, a doctoral student from London, with her Tamil translator, who is doing research on how people were effected by the tsunami. There is also a British couple, our age, whom we sat with last night for dinner, as they proceeded to fight about the spiciness of the food. George is an old India hand, and went to boarding school in an Indian hill town, while his father served in the military in India. He comes back every year for several months, and seems to feel quite at home, although his wife clearly does not.


The Bungalow has a wide veranda which overlooks the sea. Sitting here and looking out at the many fishing boats, I am reminded of other beach vacations in the Caribbean.

large_IMG_0428.jpg

Even the small palms and Norfolk pines are similar. I can almost picture one of the English commissioners, sitting in a wicker chair similar to the one I am now in, sipping a gin and tonic, and discussing trade with the Nawab of Tamil Nadu. Perhaps it was the same Nawab, or his relative, who encouraged the Danes to set up shop here before the Brits arrived.

large_IMG_0441.jpg

View from the veranda
large_D902091990E91317382F1E2AE6078364.jpg

As the breeze picks up there are small whitecaps. Several Muslim women, all in black, are standing near the beach, and a group of Indian men, all in white, are walking on one of the brick walls heading toward the water. There is an ice cream cart, Arun,parked nearby, and another one selling fresh oj. Other women in brightly colored saris walk by in groups. Opposite the old fort on the other side of the veranda, is a small Hindu temple, recently painted and repaired.

These women in pink and yellow shawls were enjoying the sea view
large_D912B50B9A71DB409788BE7FF5885F89.jpg

Despite what happened here some 10 years ago, there is nothing depressing about the place, even with all the destruction that is still present. Life clearly goes on, and it may be that one day Tranquebar will regain much of what it lost. The people here seem quite irrepressible.

Looking up at the sky inside the fort
large_IMG_0448.jpg

Posted by jonshapiro 09:00 Tagged buildings people children photography Comments (1)

(Entries 31 - 35 of 178) « Page .. 2 3 4 5 6 [7] 8 9 10 11 12 .. »