A Travellerspoint blog

India

Keoladeo Ghana National Park

Excellent bird watching

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Keoladeo Ghana National Park
On our first trip to India, back in 1988, we visited this area, and passed quite close by this park on a group tour. We were offered the opportunity to travel through the reserve in a rickshaw, but unfortunately it was voted in favour of returning to the hotel and an afternoon by the pool by a majority of one – meaning that the rest of us had to follow suit. I always said I wanted to come back here and visit the park properly, which is why we are here now. We started early, arriving at the park gates as it opened at 06:30, just in time to catch the sunrise.

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After uhm-ing and ah-ing about whether or not to take a naturalist guide, we decided that for 150 Rupees and hour (ca £1.50), it was probably worth it. Boy are we glad we did, as Rakesh was really worth the money. Although the rickshaw drivers are very knowledgeable about the birds they see, they will only take you along the main road, whereas the guide take you hiking into the jungle in search of more different species as they know the various habitats.

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The wetlands are now a protected sanctuary under the protection of UNESCO. As well as being a bird watcher's paradise, the reserve protects Bharatpur from frequent floods - if only our government could do something similar for the Somerset Levels back home!. At the time of the Maharajas, this are was primarily used as a waterfowl hunting ground.

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As national parks go, it's not a particularly big reserve at 29km², but the park is a mosaic of wetlands, woodlands and dry grasslands. In addition to the numerous birds, the diverse habitat is also home to 379 species of flora, 50 species of fish, 13 species of snakes (!) 5 species of lizards and 7 species of turtles. We were lucky enough to spot a mongoose, which Prakesh assured us was a very rare sighting.

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We also saw monkeys, nilgai, chital and squirrels, as well as a couple of turtles.

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The Origin of the Name
The name "Keoladeo" comes from an ancient Hindu temple in the sanctuary which is devoted to Lord Shiva; while the Hindi term "Ghana" means dense, thick areas of forest cover.

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The original plan was to stay out for 2-3 hours, but we ended up taking almost five hours, so we totally missed breakfast at the hotel. We did managed to grab some lunch though, some delicious Malai Kofta.

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Back again to the park by 15:00.....

History
The man made and man managed park was created in the mid 17-hundreds when the then Maharaja constructed a dam at the confluence of two rivers, flooding the natural depression transforming it into a shallow wetland ecosystem which became a perfect habitat for an incredible variety of birds. Later the park was used as a hunting ground for the Maharajas of Bharatpur with annual duck shoots in honour of the British Viceroys. It is said that in one shoot alone in 1938, over 4,273 birds were killed by Lord Linlithgow, the then Governor-General of India. A plaque opposite the canteen lists British Viceroys and Indian Generals who came hunting to this park and the number of birds they killed. The last big shoot was held in 1964 but the Maharajah retained shooting rights until 1972.

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In 1976 the area was designated as a bird sanctuary and in 1982 it was established as a national park, with grazing being banned in the park, leading to violent clashes between local farmers and the government. Police opened fire and eight people were killed, apparently tensions still remain high in the area. The absence of grazing is now actually causing the park management problems as vegetation, mainly a perennial aquatic grass, blocks up the channels. In addition, nutrients deposited as dung by the livestock is believed to have supported a considerable numbers of insects. There are still some 700 feral cattle in the park however.

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In 1985 UNESCO added Keoladeo to their Heritage list although I had read that the park is in danger of being removed from the list due to severe drought and lack of maintenance. This was not our experience, however, as we saw quite a bit of work going on, creating new paths and even solar powered recharging points for battery operated vehicles which are due to be introduced to the park. At the moment, tourists are taken around the park by rickshaws.

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Birds
The park is one of the major wintering areas for large numbers of aquatic birds from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China and Siberia. Some 379 species of birds, including the rare Siberian Crane, have been recorded in the park, making it one of the richest bird areas in the world (*the* best according to Sir Peter Scott, and who am I to argue with the great man!). This was the only habitat in the world for the Siberian Crane crane outside Siberia and one of the park's biggest draws for bird watchers – unfortunately the crane has not been seen in Keoladeo recently. There are a number of reasons for this: a) the water from the wetlands being diverted for use by the local farmers; b) hunting in Pakistan during the migration; c) the war in Afghanistan, d) water scarcity affecting the fragile ecosystem.

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After another four hours of bird watching this afternoon, we got back to the hotel just as the sun had gone down and the palace was bathed in a beautiful light.

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By the time we'd had a shower and changed, it was time for dinner, and no time to write the blog, so I apologise that this entry is a couple of days late. The waiter was really sweet and when I asked him for something spicy, he offered a chicken curry from the 'Specials' menu.

Me: “Can I have it spicy please?”
Waiter: “Medium spicy?”
Me: “No, very spicy”
Waiter: “Very spicy?”
Me: “Yes, Indian spicy, not tourist spicy”
Waiter (waiving his flat palm up and down in front of his mouth and breathing heavily): “This spicy?”
Me: “Great!”
Waiter: “Are you sure ma'am?”
Me: “Yes, Indian spicy!”
Waiter (reluctantly): “OK....”

The food came and yes, it was spicy, with my lip tingling as I ate, but I would only say it was a 7-8 on the Grete scale of spiciness. It was very nice all the same.

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Posted by Grete Howard 11:29 Archived in India Comments (0)

Sariska - Bharatpur

No tigers but the Royal Suite made up for it...

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Another safari this morning at 6.30. Inspired by yesterday’s generous tip for finding the tiger, the guide and driver were keen to find another for us today. We set off in search of the mother and cub, who had been seen yesterday afternoon by an English lady travelling on her own. We’d seen her yesterday at the ranger’s hut in the park, but she’d been taken a different direction to us afterwards. She was furious that her guide and driver had spent so much time in the ranger station rather than look for the tiger. When she heard about our sighting she was almost bursting with anger. I am so grateful she is not travelling with us!

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As we headed for the area where the tigress had last been seen, and the excitement rose when we saw some fairly fresh pug marks in the road. Despite hearing the warning calls by the langur and samba, we never did spot the elusive tiger.

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It was still a beautiful morning out, with lots of bird sightings and another crocodile.

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Back to the hotel for a great breakfast of stuffed parantha and curd before checking out and heading towards Bharatpur.

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We both slept a good part of the way, but Shiv woke us for the adorable baby camel, as well as for the baby sheep travelling in baby-slings on the back of donkeys.

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Bharatpur
Bharatpur was once the capital of the Jat Kingdom and was considered to be an impregnable city. The Royal House of Bharatpur traces its history to the eleventh Century AD. Under the able leadership of the Jat warriors the territory of Bharatpur expanded far beyond the original boundaries of the town and the Jats became a power to be reckoned with in this region.

Laxmi Vilas Palace
Now a Heritage Hotel, Laxmi Vilas started life as a Royal Palace back in 1857 and is still home to the Maharaji family. For the last hundred years or more, this was very much where it was all happening in the princely state of Bharatpur, with duck shoots, royal weddings and affairs of the court. Ceremonial rooms in the palace still play host to tradition pujas and other ceremonies. All the best people have stayed here: the Shah of Iran, the Duke of Edinburgh (did I say “best” people?), the King of Nepal, the Shah of Afghan and now the Howards.

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Set amongst a sprawling 50 acres, with a mere 30 bedrooms, Laxmi Vilas oozes sumptuousness and ambience and sports an eclectic and lively fusion of Rajput and Mughal architecture. We are not generally lovers of luxury and opulence, but I came across an offer on line which was too good to refuse. Hence we now find ourselves staying in the Royal Suite of a Royal Palace.

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The public rooms are full of period décor and antique furniture reflecting the rich & varied heritage of the palace. Each of the rooms is unique in its own style to bring back the grandeur of regal Rajasthan in its heyday.

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:08 Archived in India Comments (0)

Jaipur - Sariska

TIGER!

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It was hard to say goodbye to Sabu and his family this morning, but hopefully we will see them all again soon.

This morning we were heading for Sariska Tiger Reserve which is located half way back to Delhi then turn right. Once we were off the main highway, the road was more like I remember from our first visit to Rajasthan in 1988 – single track full of camel and goats….

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We arrived at the Sariska Tiger Heaven Safari Lodge around midday an had enough time before for a swim – until we discovered the pool had been used for the Holi party last night and as a result was purple!

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Shiv too us down to the gates of the reserve, where we climbed aboard an open Jeep with tiered seating for our afternoon safari.

Sariska Tiger Park
Up until it was declared a wildlife reserve in 1955, Sariska was a hunting preserve of the erstwhile Alwar state. In 1978 it was made part of India's Project Tiger scheme and declared a tiger park. In 1985, 35 tigers were reported to live in the reserve, however, by 2004, there were no tigers left, despite 16 being spotted the year before. Poaching was blamed to be one of the major reasons for their disappearance. Three tigers were flown in from Ranthambore in 2008 with two more following in 2010. Recently, two tiger cubs with their tigress mother were spotted in the reserve bringing the total number of tigers to seven with five adults – two males and three females. The relocated tigers are tracked using reconnaissance satellites so that the authorities can keep an eye on them. Despite reading a review on Trip Advisor from last month (February 2014) that a tiger had been spotted by a tourist on a safari in the park; I really didn't expect to see tigers here. My main purpose of visiting was first and foremost the bird life.

And plenty of birds we did see. Our first stop inside the park was down by a small lake with was teeming with lots of different birds plus a few crocodiles.

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As we continued through the park, we saw lots more birds plus the main mammals in the park: nilgai, chital, sambar, wild boar and squirrels. No sign of tigers.

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With the tigers being tagged, the ranges know approximately where they are at any given time. Number Six was said to be “just over that hill”, so we headed in that direction. No sign. Just as we were turning round to go out of the park, we met a tourist jeep who claimed to have seen him, so the guide told us to “hold on tight” and we set off at break neck speed up the hill. Sure enough, there behind the trees was a tiger.

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When he got up and started walking along, the driver anticipated where he would come out on the road, and he was right.

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We followed the tiger as he strolled along the road for about ten minutes, stopping to sniff a bit here and there and spray the bushes as he went along.

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Around the last bend we spotted a pedestrian in the road ahead. We tried to signal to him to go back, but he was taking no notice of us. Then the tiger spotted him too, and the driver shouted as loud as I have ever heard any man shout – it scared both the man and the tiger. The man ran off and the tiger turned to charge at the noise, but fortunately changed his mind as we were only about 20 metres away at this time, in an open Jeep. The driver slammed the car into reverse, but the tiger jumped back up into the jungle again.

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We followed him from a distance as he made his way through the bushes before we had to rush off to exit the gates before 18:00. What an exciting afternoon!

Back to the lodge for a shower and a drink before dinner – the hotel seems to be running a little low on supplies: they had no Kingfisher and no Coke or Pepsi. Rum really is not the same with Fanta.

I think we must have tipped too well at lunchtime, as we seemed to be getting all sort of extra services this evening: drinks delivered, turn-back service, soup room service? We declined the last two and made our way to dinner as the only two guests in the restaurant again. Afterwards we were invited to what I think was a staff party with drinking and dancing around a bonfire in the hotel grounds. We politely declined and retired to the room to finish the blog and have an early night.

Posted by Grete Howard 09:31 Archived in India Comments (3)

Holi

The most fun I have had with my clothes on for a long time...

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View Colours and Birds of India - India for Holi 2014 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Holi
For many years I have wanted to be in India during the Holi Festival so I was pretty excited about that dream coming true this year. The Hindu festival is celebrated every year at the approach of the Vernal Equinox on the full moon and is named after Holika (see yesterday's entry for an explanation of the story of Holika) and is also known as the “Festival of Colour” or the “Festival of Love”. As well as signifying the victory of good over evil, the festival marks the arrival of spring, end of winter.

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Some families hold religious ceremonies at this time, but for most Holi is more a time for fun, dancing, singing, getting high on bhang and throwing of powder paint and coloured water. The custom of coloured powder and water is affiliated to Krishna, who as a young boy spent much of his time in the company of the young cow-herd girls (called gopis), with his favourite being Radha. One day he questioned his mother about why Radha was so fair and he so dark. His mother suggested he applied colour on Radha's face to see how her complexion would change. This is said to be the beginning of the love legend between the two of them. He was also known to play pranks on the other gopis by throwing coloured powder on them.

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Holi Milan
Holi is a time when people put an end to any hard feelings that might have emerged during the year by hugging each other as friends and covering each other in coloured powder. This tradition is called, 'Holi Milan'. The celebrations are a time of loosening of social restrictions and associated with caste, wealth, sex, and even polite behaviour and social norms. In fact, during the days of Holi, you can get away with almost anything by saying, "don't feel offended, it's Holi”!

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Drinks, specially thandai laced with bhang (marijuana) is also an intrinsic part of the Holi festivity. I had read warnings that as the day goes on, the behaviour of some people can become vulgar and unpleasant, so I figured I'd fit right in! Seriously though, after working for ten years in a nightclub in my youth, I wasn't overly worried about lewd activities and anyway, I figured at my ripe old age I wasn't likely to be the recipient of sexual attraction by young lads and the only improper behaviour I experienced was one young kid grab my boobs.

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At around 10 o’clock the girls we met last night turned up and the Holi celebrations could begin. Armed with a tray of the various colours, we left the house and headed for the street. A few of the local children had already gathered outside, and word must have soon got round about the crazy foreigners, so more and more people arrived. Before long the crowd must have been 50 strong and we were getting more and more colourful with each “Happy Holi” and each smearing of colour that accompanied it.

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Making of the colours
Originally the colours used during the Holi celebrations were home made from flowers of the flame tree, spread out on the ground to dry then ground to a fine powder called gulal or abeer (meaning the colour of the sky at sunset). These trees also had medicinal properties and Holi colours prepared from them were actually beneficial to the skin. Later, other natural plant-derived colours such as turmeric, marigold, pomegranate, beetroot and hibiscus were used and these organic colours were still not generally harmful. Although most of the colours used these days are commercially produced, I have been reassured that they will wash out! Only time will tell, but as I deliberately wore an old top that can be thrown out if need be, it doesn't really matter. What worries me more is the potentially harmful effect of the toxins in some of the industrial dyes manufactured through chemical processes.

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Each colour has different symbolic meaning:
Red - Purity
Green - Vitality
Blue - Calm and sedateness
Yellow - Pious feeling

“Just one photo” was a common refrain as each child wanted to be photographed with one of the foreigners, on his own, with his mates….. PC, Sabu’s father’s cousin was a great photographer, picking up everyone’s cameras and taking pictures for us. He atmosphere was already vibrant when the musicians turned up and brought the party to the next level. Everyone was dancing barefoot on the dirt track, with people waving money over our heads for good luck before paying the players.

Sabu’s mum was dressed in one of her most beautiful outfits, and she almost managed to keep it clean.

Later the band moved inside the basement of Sabu’s place, where we continued the dancing, drinking, easing and partying.

In the evening on this day, people traditionally clean up and sober up, then visit with family. The two girls from Chicago were moving on to Agra this afternoon, and they cleaned up well, but the shower didn’t remove anywhere near all of my colourful face “makeup”. I still have a green forehead and eyebrows and my left cheek looks as if someone smacked me hard!

PC was keen to show us off to his friends and family, so before dinner he took us off to his village some 15 minutes away, where we were paraded like homecoming celebrities, going from house to house drinking chai and lassi. With PC in charge of my camera, every moment of this excursion was captured on camera including the moment I scared the young child as well as the buffalo. I hate to think how many photo were taken, but I was captured in front of the house, on the couch, by the wheat field, in the kitchen……

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We made it back to Sabu’s in time for the tailor who was due at 18:30 – we arrived at 19:30 which would still be classed as ‘being on time’ India time. All my new clothes fitted beautifully – three tops made using one of my existing ones as a pattern, plus an Indian outfit, all made in two days which included Holi! Not bad!

Two of Sabu’s clients from Toronto, Canada, turned up this evening, and we had a very nice evening with them.

Posted by Grete Howard 01:31 Archived in India Comments (2)

Jaipur for Holika

Monkeys and bonfires

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As we have already visited the main tourist sites in Jaipur in the past (albeit a long time ago), I wanted to see something different this time round. I think Sabu despairs of our inability to just sit around and chill with his family while we are here, but I want to see and experience as much as possible when I travel. It really is nothing whatsoever to do with him or his family (as I am sure he knows), I just have such a low boredom level and don't “do” chilling.

Jaipur

The largest city and the capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur is also referred to as Pink City and was India's first planned city. The oirigin of the name “Pink City” dates back to 1876 when the whole city was painted pink in honour of a visit by the then Prince of Wales. The name, as well as the colour, has stuck since.

As there are said to be 3500 temples in Jaipur, it was hard to pick just a couple to see today.

Galtaji Temple

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Galtaji has been a retreat for Hindu ascetics since the early 1500s a while the present temple dates from the 18th century. The site consists of monkey_temple_2.jpgseveral temples set around a natural spring with the waterfalls that create two tiered pools, the upper and lower pool, used for bathing by pilgrims. The main temple is the Temple of Galtaji, built in pink stone, believed to be named after a saint called Galev who practised mediation here. Inside we were shown the main temple and given a mini puja by the caretaker there, involving a mark on the forehead and some string around the wrist for good luck. All for baksheesh of course.

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Initially I felt a little cheated that I hadn’t seen any monkeys, but that was soon to change once we reached the first of the pools. The temple is popularly known as the Monkey Temple after the large tribe of rhesus macaques that live here, who were featured in National Geographic Channel's “Rebel Monkeys” series and "Thar Desert - Sacred Sand" episode of Wildest India Series. No wonder these are monkeys with attitude, fame has obviously gone to their head. One of them attacked me to grab the flower garland I had around my neck.

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Time for some lunch in a very touristy restaurant. Being a greedy so and so, I ordered way too many dishes from the menu: dum aloo Kashmiri, dal maharani, jeera rice, channa masala, boondi rata, bharwan kulcha and banana lassis. Of course we weren’t able to finish it all, but we had a damn good try.

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Getting ready for tomorrow, we stopped at the market to buy some colours throw at new found friends for the Holi festival, as well as a water gun! We are ready to partayyyyy!!!!!!

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We stopped at the Polo Ground on the way back to Sabu’s to find out about the state of this afternoon’s Holi Festival – last year PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ) managed to get the elephant Festival cancelled at the last minute and I knew they'd been fighting for the same this year, but I was hoping they’d carry on with some sort of festival like they did last year. But no. The festival was cancelled by the government with no notice. Shame.

Holika Dahan
As soon as Sabu’s other clients arrived – three girls from US – we set off all together to see the Holika fires.

The night before Holi, bonfires are lit in open spaces and near temples, sometimes with effigies on the top representing Holika. Holika was the evil sister of a demon king who believed he was indestructible and everyone worshipped him as a god. Prahlada, the king's son, however, remained devoted to Vishnu, much to the demon-king's annoyance. After much cruel punishment at the hands of his father, Prahlada was tricked by Holika, his evil aunt,into sitting on a bonfire with her. Holika felt confident this would mean the end of Prahlada, as she was wearing a magic shawl making her immune from the fire. Prahlad, however, chanted the names of God and was saved from the fire. As the fire roared, the shawl flew from Holika and wrapped itself around Prahlada, because she did not know that her powers were only effective if she entered the fire alone. So the evil aunt was the one who perished in the fire, while Prahlada survived. Vishnu immediately appeared and killed the evil king too. This myth has a strong association with the festival of Holi, and even today there is a practice of hurling cow dung into the fire and shouting obscenities at it, as if at Holika.

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The bonfires we saw tonight were symbolic reminders of the victory of good over evil and the fire which burned Holika and ashes from Holi bonfires are thought to bring good luck. As we drove into town we saw the pyres being prepared and dead on 18:30 they were all lit! All around us were huge fires and people in party mood, exchanging greetings of “happy Holi” with all those around. One particular chap was having a long and involved conversation with me – shame I didn’t understand a word he was saying… I then couldn’t get rid of him.

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From there we continued to the Birla Temple and fort for a night time view.

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Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
Last time we came to India, we visited the sister temple in Delhi of the same name and were totally blown away, so wanted to see the version here in Jaipur. This is one of a number of temples built by a modern sect of Hinduism known as the Swaminarayan Hinduism, a form of Vaishnavism.

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The sect was started by Swaminarayan who lived from 1781 to 1830. In 1792 he began a seven year pilgrimage across India culminating in being initiated into the Uddhav Sampraday sect which he later took over the leadership of. He soon came to be regarded as an incarnation of God by his followers and the sect was renamed Swaminarayan Sampraday. Swaminarayan distributed food and drinking water to the poor, opened almshouses and initiated other social service projects including discouraging female infanticide and sati (widow burning). Swaminarayan was against animal sacrifices and is considered a pioneer of education for women in India.

He had followers not only from Hindu denominations, but also from Islam and Zoroastrianism. He built six temples in his lifetime and appointed 500 paramhansas to spread his philosophy. Now there are hundreds of Swaminarayan temples spread over five continents.

Swaminarayan temples, like other Hindu temples, have walkways around the central shrine so that worshippers can circumambulate the main shrine. The main shrine area is then divided by railings. Despite Swaminarayan fighting for the rights of women, men and women are separated in temples to allow full concentration on god. Men do a specified number of prostrations (as decided by themselves). As well as separate sections for men and women, there is also a small area reserved for ascetics and special guests.

Sabu told us no photos were allowed, but as I didn’t see any notices I just carried on taking pictures. No one stopped me. Just as we were leaving a lady came up to us asked if we wanted to do something (when you have asked “pardon” for the fifth time you just nod and say “yes”) for 51 rupees for the two of us. It sounded like a bargain, whatever it was, so we let ourselves be led down to the basement for what turned out to be a puja. Holy water from a small container was to be poured over a gold statue while reciting a verse, then we had the now-familiar wrist bands attached. As we left we were given a small bottle of holy water and a box of a sweet substance which Tasted like crushed nuts with sugar. We also had to walk at least three times around the idol.

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Time to head back to Sabu’s where his mum had prepared dinner for us again.

Posted by Grete Howard 11:35 Archived in India Comments (0)

Delhi - Jaipur

A long day......

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8.30 am seemed like the middle of the night after just a few hours’ sleep, but we had a nice Indian breakfast to get us on the way.

We last came to this part of Rajasthan over 25 years ago, and back then the road was a mere dirt track with trucks playing chicken with the oncoming traffic as no one wanted to drive away from the centre of the road and onto the gravelly verge; the trucks vied for space with donkeys, camels and elephants in those days. We still saw some camel carts today, and also large herds of camels, cows and sheep. Along the road was monkeys, nilgai and a few birds hanging around on the telephone lines such as kingfishers, drongo and the beautiful Indian roller. The trucks are much more modern these days, but they still carry the HORN PLEASE signs – some things never change.

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About half way we stopped for a very nice lunch before continuing to Jaipur. I have to admit I slept a great deal of the way after lunch as we haven’t had much sleep in the last couple of nights.

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Panna Meena ka Kund Step-well


At Amber, we stopped to see the Panna Mena ka Kund Step-well.

I came across details about this step-well quite by accident on line, and thought it would be fun to add to our itinerary as a little side trip on the way from Delhi to Jaipur.

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Stepwells are basically deep wells which are reached by a series of steps. They are fairly common in this part of India and often architecturally grand, with designs dating back at least 600 years. This particular one is much younger, having been constructed in the 16th century at the peak of the stepwell construction era. As well as storing water for drinking and irrigation, the stepwell was probably also used for community gatherings as it will remain cool during the hot summer afternoons. Ramps have been built to ensure drinking facilities for cattle but the water is not potable any more.

Steps are arranged in a criss cross pattern on three of the eight-storey sides, and I was told that you cannot use the same stairs to climb up and down. Unsure of how that works in reality, David did climb down, but it didn’t make any sense

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It was lovely in the late afternoon sun with the play of shadow and sun on the steps, with the backdrop of the spectacular Amber Palace.

From there we drove throw the Pink City, past the beautiful Palace of the Winds to Sabu’s place. His house is down a quiet lane, and it is much bigger than I expected it to be, and very luxurious. Or at least it will be by the time it is finished. It is still very much “work in progress”.

Sabu arranged for a tailor to come and take my measurement and then to a cloth shop to get the materials for him to make me an outfit and copy an existing top.

Back to Sabu’s for dinner with some of his American guests from Miami. By the time they had finished doing their financial transactions, it was 10pm by the time we ate. The food - prepared by Sabu's mum - was delicious, especially the rice pudding dessert.

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Posted by Grete Howard 10:52 Archived in India Comments (2)

Bristol - London - Zurich - Delhi

Back in our beloved India

sunny 34 °C

With thick fog when we left Nailsea, we were concerned that the flight from Heathrow would be delayed, and our fears were confirmed when the plane left over 50 minutes late. With only 65 minutes transfer time in Zurich, it was tight even with the pilot managing to regain 25 minutes along the way. But we made it, just as the gate was closing.

The flight was not the most comfortable I have known, but I still managed to get some four hours of sleep. Arrival in Delhi was incredibly smooth and quick and soon we found ourselves in the hotel room with a drink. Welcome to India.

Posted by Grete Howard 06:40 Archived in India Comments (1)

Srinagar - Mughal Gardens and Dal Lake

Gardens and Lakes

sunny
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After a lazy late start (the only lie-in we've had so far on this trip – we didn't actaully leave the boat until 09:50) and a very nice breakfast of masala omelette and birthday cake – with David being very excited at being offered hot OR cold milk for his corn flakes (that's a first, cold milk has been almost impossible to get here in Ladakh and Kashmir – corn flakes with hot milk is a bit like... erm... porridge) we noticed a dead fish in the lake water just off the boat. I didn't realise the champagne was THAT bad! Poor little thing, but what a way to go!

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Ali, the trusted Shikara paddler (there are only hand paddled boats on the lake, not motorised craft) took us to a different ghat (dock) on the mainland this morning which meant we got to see some different parts of the lake.

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At the ghat Tariq was waiting in his Innova to show us around Srinagar.

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The Mughal Gardens
The famous gardens of Srinagar were the Mughal Emperors' concept of paradise, and still give pleasure to locals and tourists alike. The gardens which are based around the lake, were laid during 16-17th century and back then they numbered was about five hundred but now only a few of these have survived. The layout was broadly taken from the Persian gardens, consisting of three terraces with fountains & lined with Chinar trees. Each of the 3 terraces carried distinct importance, the first one being the public terrace; called the Diwan-e-Aam. The second terrace called the Diwan-e-Khas was accessible only to nobles or guests of the court. And the third & the highest terrace called as “Abode of Love" was reserved for the king and the royal ladies.

Chashmashahi
The first of the beautiful Mughal gardens we visited today, Chashme Shahi Garden (also known as Royal Spring), was founded in 1632 with a length of 108 meters and breadth of 38 meters making it the smallest among the famous Mughal gardens. Tariq was not only our driver, he also acted as a guide and came around the gardens with us. He spoke very good English and was a joy to be with.

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At the second level of the gardens, a photographer took pictures of us dressed in traditional Kashmiri costumes, which we could then collect later at the exit. It was quite hot in the outfits, but we certainly amused the locals!

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The natural springs near the top are said to be hot in winter and cold in summer. One of the things with Tariq, was that he always assumed that we wanted our photo taken everywhere we went, so we probably have more photos of both of us from this one day withTariq than all the other days put together. I suppose having their photo taken in front of various attractions is what Indian tourists do....

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Shalimar Bagh
Mughal garden in front of the Dal lake constructed by Emperor Jahangir in 1619 for his beloved wife Nurjahan, with four terraces, imposing fountains, well laid out manicured gardens, tall trees & fresh mountain air.

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As we were walking along the path by one of the little ponds, I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my leg. The another. At first I thought I'd been bitten, then it dawned on me that the strimmer was spewing out cuttings at the speed of light. They really quite hurt by the time they hit me!

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The gardens were very much 'under reconstruction' and I am sure they will be very nice when they are finished, but...... It didn't seem to put the thousands of Indian tourists off though.

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India is not known for its high standards of Health and Safety, and there were a few areas of these gardens that would probably have been condemned back home.

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Nishat Bagh
Situated on the banks of the Dal Lake, with the Zabarwan Mountains as its backdrop, this 'garden of bliss' was designed in 1633 by Asaf Khan, Nur Jahan's brotherand it is among the largest of the Mughal Gardens. It was also my favourite out of the three we visited today.

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Through the centre of the gardens, ran a little stream, with a series of cascades. Stepping stones and large slabs of rock acting as little 'bridges' allowed you to step from one side to the other, and was also used as props for Indian to photograph each other. And us. Every few yards we were stopped and asked by a group of Indians if they could have their photo taken with us. Initially it was just the brave young lads, then others jumped on the band wagon. We didn't really experience this so much in Ladakh (just on the odd occasion) but we have found it in some of the lesser touristy areas of India in the past.

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It was interesting talking to people in Ladakh about the fact that we were coming to Srinagar after – the opinion seemed to vary between: “Srinagar is so dangerous” and “Srinagar is so romantic”. I can't say I have found it particularly dangerous, not do I find these gardens especially romantic. But each to their own.

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Just as we were leaving, we were given a little rose bud each – for a small baksheesh of course.

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Arts and Crafts Emporium
We really thought we'd got away without having to do any shopping on this trip, but Tariq took us to the Arts & Craft Emporium where the carpets and shawls are mostly made by handicapped people – apparently some 8500 families are being helped by the work in this place. To be fair, the guy who showed us around did not put any great pressure on us to buy – we made it quite clear from the start that we weren't shoppers, but he insisted it “is a pleasure to show you around”.

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He explained that as today was a holiday, all his workers were off, but he was able to show us how each carpet has up to 600 'patterns' (the orange paper on the table), which is not written in Hindu or English, but in 'Carpet Language'. Each pattern is hand drawn completely by freehand, then the colours are added.

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Then of course he started to show us carpets, explaining about the various combinations of silk, cotton and yak wool. This gold and black carpet
This particular gold and black carpet took two people four and a half years to make.

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Because we so obviously weren't going to buy a carpet, the shawls came out, then the tablecloths (at my request). Unfortunately, all the tablecloths were square (and our table is rectangular), otherwise we might have bought something. I couldn't believe the amount of stock they kept – a huge room full of shawls, stacked from floor to ceiling.

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Back to the docks for the shikara ride to the houseboat for lunch, with a bit of bird watching along the way. Ali was always so good at slowing down when we saw something interesting and even turning the shikara around so that I could photograph the birds.

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When Mahmoud asked us yesterday after dinner if the food was OK as far as spiciness goes, I mentioned that I haven't yet found anything that has been too spicy for me, and when he brought our lunch today, he mentioned my 'challenge'. He made the dhal “very very spicy to suit madam” - it was still only a 7-8 on the Grete scale of spiciness, but it sure was delicious! We also had some aloo gobi (at David's request) and rice of course.
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Dal Lake
Later in the afternoon, we got Ali to paddle us around the lake. Affectionately known as “Venice of the East”, the “Kashmiri Venice” or Srinagar's Jewel, Dal lake is spread over 26 km²; partitioned in to four areas by four causeways and a myriad of inter-connecting channels.. The lake is an important source for fishing and water plant harvesting, and is part of a natural wetland which covers 21 km², including the floating gardens with its aquatic plants used as food, fodder and compost. These floating gardens, known as "Rad" in Kashmiri, are full of lotus blossom at this time of year. I loved the relaxing time, just watching the life on the water, with all its inhabitants – tourists, vendors, locals and workers.

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Where the lake opens up at the far end, several fountains are set into the water, and with the late afternoon sun, they created the most vivid and amazing rainbows I have ever seen!

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At this point Ali turned the shikara around and headed back into the sun.

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Taking a different route back to the houseboat, Ali showed us the 'floating market' and shopping district of the lake, with literally hundreds of shops on stilts at the edge of the water or in boats, paddling up alongside your boat, showing you their wares (and getting in my way for photography!).

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Further along, within an area that appears to be a maze of little canals, was the market gardens, where vegetables are grown - an area that was teeming with birds, including penguins. Penguins?

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With the narrow canals, this area seemed particularly busy with tourists, and we found ourselves being photographed constantly. At least this time we didn't have to actually DO anything, just sit there and look...arm... 'western'.

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Back at the houseboat we had a nice long chat with Ajaz, the owner, when the muezzin call to prayer could be heard, and Ajaz stopped mid-sentence with an "excuse me, I have to go for to break the fast". After 16 hours of not eating or drinking in this heat (Ramadan started a few days ago), I am not surprised about the urgency!

This being our last night in India, we had a love curry dinner, followed by half a night's sleep!

Posted by Grete Howard 09:32 Archived in India Comments (1)

Leh - Jammu - Srinagar

♪♫♫♪♫ I'm jammin' in Jammu, I hope you like jammin' too ♪♫♫♪♫

sunny 34 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Not a very good photos to writing ratio in today's blog I'm afraid, as most of the day was spent travelling.

Another early start this morning, leaving the hotel at 06:00 for the five minute drive to the airport. Really today was a day full of Indian bureaucracy – starting with the driver's paper being checked in order for us to even enter the compound of the airport, which is where the driver and the agent left us.

In order to enter the building, our papers were checked and again before all the luggage had to be x-rayed where David and I had to go through separate entrances (women get taken into a curtained cubicle for a pat-down, whereas the men are frisked in public). We were then able to check in at the Air India counter for our flight. For security reasons we were unable to check in all the way to Srinagar, despite the flight from Jammu also being Air India. Next came another security check, again with men and women having separate entrances, where all the carry-on luggage was x-rayed. Despite large notices stating that NO hand luggage was allowed on the plane, we were given the green light to take not just the camera bag as I expected, but also the large rucksacks. Of course, our passports and boarding cards were checked at this stage too. After another pat-down, all the luggage labels on the carry-n plus the boarding card were stamped and little squiggles added.

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We were now through to the departure area, where we had to go outside on to the tarmac to identify our checked in luggage against the luggage tags given at check in. Before we were even able to join the queue at the gate our boarding cards were checked, and at the gate the bag labels were again checked to ensure they'd been stamped, and the labels and the boarding cards were stamped once more. Ten yards later, we went through the same procedure again, with yet another stamp on the labels and boarding card. It was now time to board the sardine bus for the 50 metres to the aircraft.

I was asleep before the plane took of, woke up to take a few photos of the mountains we flew over, then was once again asleep when we landed. I woke up briefly on touch down but went straight back to sleep until it was time to de-plane.

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Collecting the luggage and leaving Jammu airport was painless, but it was when we tried to get back in to the departure lounge to check in for our next flight, that the problems started. It was now 09:00 and we were told we couldn't go in until 10:00. At this stage I really needed the toilet, so I tried to get back into the arrivals lounge, but no chance. Eventually, after a lot of pleading with the army official with the AK47, a very nice man took pity on me and showed us to some sort of VIP lounge where there were nice seats, a fan, a toilet and a snack bar.

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At 10:30 we went back to departures but were told we had to wait another ten minutes. By 10:50 they took pity on us and let us in, checking our tickets and passports of course. Again we went in separately, and I was asked to open my camera bag. A body scan followed and a pat-down. In order to enter the building, and all the luggage had to go through an x-ray. At this stage we were told to put any loose batteries in the check in, but I was told my big rucksack was fine for carry-on. When David's case came through, it was leaking a brown liquid – turns out a can of Diet Coke had burst. The checked in cases were wrapped with a sealing tape around the belly.

No check-in until 11:15 apparently, but when we were finally able to, it was very fast and efficient, almost casual. At this stage we were unable to carry on through security yet, as the notice board only stated “check in”. So we hung around for over half an hour until the board changed to “security check”. Men and woman separate of course, and the carry-on bags as well as my hat had to go through the x-ray. Another body scan and pat down. I was asked to open my rucksack as they found a couple of AA batteries in a little fan I had with me. They were confiscated. The insect bite cream (which I was told was “not permitted”) however, was placed back into the rucksack, buried deep in other stuff, with a huge grin. At this stage there was no sign of David, so I assumed he'd been sent back to check in with a bag or something that wasn't permitted as carry on (we did see several people being turned away with bags much smaller than ours. It was definitely a case of 'if your face fits'). Eventually he turned up, having been delayed by the number of men in the queue before him. Next came the luggage identification. My boarding card was checked as I left the building, the tags were checked against the luggage on the tarmac (and squiggles added – it seems they do a brisk trade of squiggles in the Indian airports), and my boarding card was re-checked by the same official before I was allowed back into the building.

When the flight finally departed (we were delayed 45 minutes), the boarding cards and luggage labels were checked and stamped at the gate, and just outside we went through another body scan and pat down and check/stamp of the boarding card – men and women separate of course. The boarding cards were again checked at the bottom of the steps to the plane. By the time we actually sat down in the plane, my boarding card had been checked 7 times, the hand luggage had been x-rayed 4 times and I'd been through 4 body scans and pat downs. To be sure to be sure.

When I got to my seat I discovered someone already sitting in my seat (I had the window seat) but as it made no difference to me, I let him sit there. He was the same chap that had tried to jump the queue at check in and been sent to the end of the line by another angry passenger. I got my own back though - as soon as we landed in Srinagar he started to get up well before the plane had even stopped, let alone the seatbelt sign switched off; and he was so keen to get out of his seat before anyone had even started to move along the aisle. I deliberately stayed in my seat until the very last minute when everyone else had left the plane. By this time I could see him getting more and more impatient. Revenge is so sweet.

On entering the arrivals hall, we were immediately given a foreigner registration form – they weren't doing a brisk trade in the forms, we were the only westerners on the flight so I suppose we did stick out like sore thumbs. When handing in the form near the exit of the hall, we were told we'd filled it in wrong – it seems despite being part of Jammu and Kashmir state, Ladakh is not really considered Kashmir. Oh well.

Outside the hall we saw a man with a sign saying “Mr David” and we wondered if that might be us, until we saw another sign with “Mr Grete”. That was definitely us. We were led to a mini-bus which was quite hard to get in to, especially as I seem to have injured my wrist at some stage today, not being able to put any weight on it. The large bags were just placed on top of the vehicle – not secured down in any way - and we were off through the awful traffic in Srinagar. Every few hundred yards, were armed police or soldiers with AK47s. I thought there was a lot of police and army presence in Ladakh, but it was nothing compared with here. Srinagar has a totally different feel to Leh, the people are not as open or immediately friendly, but we didn't experience any hostility either. It's a very Muslim town and there were lots of women with the full veil on the streets.

Srinagar
Srinagar, famous for its gardens, is the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state. The history of Srinagar is said to date back some 2000 years, but it has 'only' been the capital of Kashmir for just over 1000 years. The city is very proud of its nine old bridges spanning the Jhelum River, connecting the two parts of the city. The name Srinagar literally means 'the city of wealth & abundance' in Sanskrit.

Unfortunately, for a number of years, this predominantly Muslim area has been in conflict and as a result, Kashmir featured on the Foreign Office's “Don’t go there” list, meaning it was out of bounds for tourists (at least if you wanted to be sensible and for the insurance to cover you. To this day it is only Ladakh, Srinagar and Jammu within the Kashmir region that is considered “safe” by the FCO). Although Sinagar city has become a safer destination in the last few years, the streets are still lined with armed soldiers. Any valued building is protected by a sandbag bunker and razor wire. In February, three people were killed and over 50 others (including 23 policemen), were injured in clashes between protesters and law enforcing agencies in the wake of the hanging of Afzal Guru who was convicted of the 2001 Parliament attack . I suppose the rape and murder of the young British girl on a houseboat on Dal Lake in the city in April this year, did nothing for the reputation of Srinagar as a safe destination.

Srinagar is at an altitude of only 1600 m above sea level, and it is a bit of a relief to be able to breath easily again.

At one of the many ghats (docks) on the side of the lake, we were greeted by Mahmoud, who is to be our 'butler' for the next few days. Mahmoud was sweet natured, extremely helpful and kind, and he assisted us in transferring us and the luggage to a little paddle boat (a little like the gondolas in Venice) called shikara for the transfer to our houseboat.

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The transfer was reasonably quick - our houseboat appeared to be moored on a little island just off shore, the opposite side to the ghat. We got our first glimpse of life on the lake - people, birds and boats.

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Black bellied tern
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Little Egret

Houseboats
Our main reason (actually, our only reason if I am honest) for travelling to Srinagar, was to stay on one of the elegant houseboats which the city is famous for. I remember seeing pictures of these ornate floating hotels in brochures back in the 1980s and hoping one day to have the pleasure to stay in one. Many of the intricately carved houseboats were built in the early 1900s for the Raj as summer retreats from the heat of the Indian plains. Others later became home to these people after they were denied land grants in the state. An idea that started from constructing small boats was later revolutionised with transforming these boats into spacious modern styled floating hotels. Houseboats are all made of the finest cedar wood with intricate walnut wood carvings, panelled walls and tiled baths. The houseboats do not actually float free around the lake, but are anchored off-shore, and are accessible either by road, or by a short "Shikara" boat ride (gondola-like taxi boats). The whole shoreline of the lake (15.5km / 8.6 miles) is lined with decorated houseboats.

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Our boat has two bedrooms, and we debated long and hard before booking if we should pay a small additional sum and book the whole boat to ourselves. Sharing – mostly likely to be an Indian family as domestic tourists far outnumber foreign visitors – could be fun and educational if our cohabitants spoke English and were the social, friendly types, but could equally be highly embarrassing as has been the case in the past with Indian tourists staring, giggling and wanting their photo taken with you every five minutes. In the end we settled for a bit of privacy, especially as today is David's birthday. We also decided we may very well be feeling totally antisocial ourselves by this stage, or in need of total relaxation after a week at high altitude.

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The boat was a little bit of luxury at the end of the trip, as not only did we have two bedrooms to ourselves, there was also a fine dining area and a lounge cum sitting room, a large front seated balcony, and a small kitchenette. The boat also had a 24 hour power back up (albeit at reduced power, not always enough to work the fan), modern plumbing and clean water supply, plus of course Mahmoud and his two helpers who would cook and take care of us during your entire stay. There was also a small shikara (paddle boat) that was “placed under our command” to take us out into the open lake or across to the mainland.

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When we arrived, Mahmoud brought coffee and home made cakes. I have become really hooked on the Indian milky coffee, which is really unlike me as I am not keen on milk in anything usually. It must be the sweetness of it - I am sure it has tons of sugar in it!

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We spent the afternoon lazing on the balcony at the front of the boat, watching life go by on the lake, with shikaras ferrying tourists around, traders with their wares and locals going about their daily business.

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From the balcony we could see a wide variety of birds passing by, including the magnificent Brahmany Kite and even a Kingfisher stopped by.

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Later we opened a small bottle of champagne I'd brought with me from Bristol to celebrate David's birthday. Imagine our horror when we realised that the champagne had actually gone off and tasted like vinegar. That is just so typical, as I'd managed to secretly carry it all the way from home and then having to pour it into the lake.

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As the champagne was off we moved on to the Duty Free Morgan's Spiced. We were one Diet Coke short (as it had split open on the first flight this morning), but not to worry - there are lots of shops floating by, you just have to signal and they'll bring you their wares to your houseboat. Also, as soon as he realised we wanted Diet Cokes, Mahmoud managed to get us some more to put in the fridge for tomorrow.

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We were just relaxing nicely when a young Australian couple turned up, back from their day trip, and walking on to our boat. As I thought we had the houseboat to ourselves, I was rather surprised to find there were actually THREE rooms on the boat and the Australians were in the one right at the back. They were no trouble at all though, in fact they were really sweet and kept themselves to themselves even more than we did.

We stayed outside on the deck until after the sun had gone down.

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Mahmoud arranged dinner at a time to suit us, and we had complete carte blanche as to what we wanted to eat, making it very difficult to choose. In the end we settled for a most delicious spicy roast chicken (probably the best roast chicken I have ever had), with some roast potatoes, mutton in curry sauce, vegetable curry and rice (with a bit of prompting from Mahmoud); followed by a chocolate birthday cake complete with candles!

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After dinner we went back out on the balcony for some time after dark, just watching the lights on all the houseboats reflecting in the lake.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:34 Archived in India Comments (2)

Leh - Khardung La - Leh

Higher than high!

sunny 27 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After the problems I encountered at Chang La Pass, I was advised not to undertake today's journey to Khardung La Pass. But being defiant, I drank lots of water with electrolytes overnight and took some Diamox and set off with the driver this morning.

As we started to climb towards the pass, the view of Leh Palace was amazing. How bloody difficult is it to understand “can you stop for a photo please?”
“Stop?”
“Yes please”
“Now?”
“Yes please”
Driver carries on...
“Can you stop please?”
“Today?”
“Yes, NOW”
Finally got through to him that I wanted to stop for a photo.

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Leh Palace

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Shanti Stupa

Today's journey to Khardung La is only actually 39 kilometers each way, but we climb over 2000 metres in that distance. Look at the road snaking its way up the mountains in these photos:

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At a viewpoint the driver stopped (voluntarily) for us to take some photos.

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Our trusty driver

Today's road leads to Nubra Valley and on towards the Pakistani border, so we had to show our passports and Special Permit at the 2nd police check (at the first, just the driver's papers were necessary) at Pullu. We also picked up a soldier at this point.

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Loved the motorbike with prayer flags!

The road to Khardung La was not as memorable itself as yesterday's, this is wider and less scary. The scenery is not as spectacular either, very barren with just the odd yak for company. As we climbed higher, the road got wider – a lot of construction work is going on, the plan is to widen the road to two car width and cover it with tarmac. You wouldn't think it would be possible to build a road at all here, let alone a wide tarmaced one. You've got to admire the engineers!

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Look at that road:

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As we climbed higher, my face started to tingle and I could feel the air was thinner to breathe in. I tried to practice the breathing method my dad was taught for his COPD – breathe in slowly through the nose, then out again even slower through the mouth, puckering your lips as if you are going to whistle. It seemed to do the trick. I was also drinking plenty of water with rehydration salts – better to endure the awful toilets than Acute Mountain Sickness!

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We've come a long way!

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When I said the road wasn't so scary......

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Ever upwards...

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Suddenly, without warning, we reached Khardung La. I don't know what I expected – some sort of pomp and circumstance? A fanfare? Whatever it was, initially K-Top as it is known, was a bit of an anticlimax. The place was quite dirty on the one side of the road, with a shrine on the other. From an aesthetic point of view, Chang La was much more pleasing.

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Khardung La Pass
Loftier than Everest base camp and the highest motorable road in the world, Khardung La Pass (K-top as it is popularly called) is 5,602 above sea level (18,380ft) – Everest Base Camp is a mere 5,364m.

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Let's put some perspective into the altitude of this place:
Khardung La Pass 5602
Everest Base Camp 5364
Vinson (highest peak in Antarctica) 4892
Mount Blanc (highest peak in Europe) 4810
Matterhorn 4478
Mount Elbert (highest peak in the Rockies) 4401
Galdhøpiggen (highest mountain in Norway) 2469
Kosciuszco (highest peak in Australia) 2228
Ben Nevis (highest peak in the UK) 1344

In other words, Khardung La Pass is higher than all of Europe, Australia and Antarctica; in USA, only Mount McKinley is higher, in Canada only Mount Logan stands taller, and Kilimanjaro is the only peak in Africa which exceeds Khardung La's elevation, but only by 189m. This place has some serious altitude!

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Helicopter circling above

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Built in 1976, the road was opened to motor vehicles in 1988 is maintained by the Border Roads Organisation - the pass is strategically important to India as it is used to carry supplies to the disputed Siachen Glacier area. Khardong La is also historically important as it lies on the major caravan route from Leh to Kashgar in Central Asia. About 10,000 horses and camels used to take the route annually, and a small population of Bactrian camels are still around – I was hoping to catch a glimpse of one but no such luck. During World War II there was an attempt to transfer war material to China through this route.

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One day last summer army and police had to rescue more than 400 people – tourists, labourers and locals - from the pass as a result of landslides triggered by heavy rain. They were stranded in sub-zero temperatures when a 10km stretch of road was cut off by landslides, trapping 150 cars.

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We were warned not to stay at the pass for any more than half an hour or so due to the thin air and lack of oxygen, and to take warm clothing as the temperatures drops drastically at this altitude, especially with the wind chill factor. I do remember that from the high altitude passes in Tibet.
My tingling face had by this time turned into pins and needles and spread down my neck, shoulders and arms, with the worst affected area being my fingertips. I felt very light-headed and my brain felt like it was rattling around in my head. It all got very much worse after squatting down in the disgusting toilet.

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The temple at the top (I wonder if this is the world's highest temple?) is a working shrine with a Ganesha idol where worshippers are requested to "pray for our brave soldiers and for the peace and longevity of our nation".

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Prayer flags
Each colour represents an element: blue (sky/space), white (wind/air), red (fire), green (water) and yellow (earth). Their purpose is for wind to blow prayers of harmony and happiness into the world.

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Time to make that journey back to Leh..

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Coming down we met a whole load of pedal cyclists – I take my hat off to them, the gradient may not be much as the road traverses the mountain, but they still climb a total of over 2,000 metres or 6800 feet. That's no mean achievement. Some companies in Leh offer a service where they drive you and the bikes to the top and you cycle back down. That sounds more like my kind of thing, although I not sure how safe I would feel on these roads.

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The car carries the bikes and riders to the top and they cycle back down again. Neat idea!

What do you do if the only road back to Leh is closed? Move the bollards of course.

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Get your ass off this road!

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Last stop of the day at Gompha Viewpoint with great views over the valley and Leh.

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The atmospheric pressure at altitude played havoc with David's water bottle.

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Today's main scare: coming down on a narrower stretch of road, with sand spreading in from the sides, we met a Jeep coming the other way. The driver braked hard, and started to skid towards the edge. Nothing happened, but it was a tense moment. We made it back to the 'lowlands' and Leh safe and sound though, even in time for a late lunch.

For lunch we tried out the hugely popular Gesmo Restaurant and their yak cheese pizza. We even bought some yak cheese to take back home with us.

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Mint, lemon and ginger juice - very refreshing!

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Yak cheese pizza at the front and Gesmo special in the back (chicken, boiled egg, oregano and sausage)

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Cutting the yak cheese for us to take away.

From there we went over to Mr Din's shop to pick up the mask he'd got for in especially for us. I have never known anyone so trusting: “you don't have to pay me now, you can pay me later”. “But we leave tomorrow morning”. “Yes, but you will be coming back to India in a couple of years' time?” Needless to say, we did pay him.

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Mr Din, the most helpful shopkeeper we've ever met on our travels. Check out their shop near the Dreamlands Hotel (DIN BROTHERS JEWELLERY).

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The ganesha mask fits in beautifully amongst all our other masks at home

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David tries on one of the beautifully soft pashiminas in Mr Din's shop.

After all the dusty roads, my shoes were looking a real mess, so I stopped to have them cleaned by a sweet shoe-shine boy from Rajasthan who'd come to Leh to escape the heat from the Indian plains.

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He did a very thorough job and my shoes looked immaculate afterwards - just in time for tomorrow's flight.

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Before we left home I made a list of restaurants we wanted to try out while we were in Leh, and this evening we went to Lamayuru. Next door to Gesmo, it was totally empty while we had lunch, whereas by this evening it was really busy, with people being turned away. The food was good but service was so-so.

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The biggest surprise was the Kashmiri Naan (centre) - stuffed with mixed melons! Clockwise from top left: peas pilau, gulab jamun, chicken do pyaza, chicken seekh kebab.

After dinner I went back to the room to update the blog, but found that the internet wasn't working. Typical!

Posted by Grete Howard 04:47 Archived in India Comments (1)

Pangong Lake - Changla Pass - Leh

What goes up must come down...

sunny 27 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I had been rather worried about sleeping at this altitude (4,350m / 14,270ft) as this is another first, but I needn’t have worried – I had the best sleep I've had since we arrived in Ladakh! David, on the other hand, had the worst sleep. All the other mornings I have been awake by 04:00 at the latest, but this morning I slept in until 06:00 and missed an amazing sunrise apparently.

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I may not have seen the sunrise, but at least I can say I was up with the lark.
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Horned lark at the water's edge

The weather was totally different this morning: no wind and brilliant sunshine with particularly deep, clear blue skies - probably due to the thin, clean air.

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After a nice and spicy breakfast of aloo puri, we drove down to a little promontory further down the lake for photos.

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Today the lake was a beautiful iridescent blue with some stunning reflections in the clear, still water. The iridescent, hypnotic blue of the lake against the bleak brown, towering mountains was dazzling!

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We didn't see as many birds in this area as we had hoped for, but there were some black-headed gulls circling above the lake.

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Strangely enough, we could both feel the altitude more today than we did yesterday, with laboured breathing and taking little baby steps so that we didn't get totally out of breath.

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Reluctantly we left the gorgeous lake behind and head up through the hills again, although I suppose 'hills' is a bit of an understatement (and probably even an insult) for some of the world's highest mountains.

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You gotta love that road snaking its way up the mountainside!

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This is what happens if you don't heed the Border Road Organisation's warnings!

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Not many public toilets on this stretch of road.

The road took us though a dry, almost desert-like area.

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Many of the roads across the pass looked very temporary structures, although I guess they were not.

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Maybe one day when they have finished the improvements, all the roads will look as smooth as this.

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It seemed a different type of scenery awaited us behind every bend.

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Road works ahead

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For a while we followed this dried up river bed.

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The cascading torrents of water have obviously at some stage brought down some huge boulders.

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After a while the dry rocks gave way to marshland.

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We stopped for a while again where we saw the marmot yesterday, and today a couple of them they hung around long enough for me to take a few photos.

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Our driver may have been young and attractive (and very vain), but I felt very confident with him at all times.

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How many times does a man need to adjust his sunglasses?

In this more verdant and arable area, horses, yaks and sheep were seen grazing along the side of the road. It's a tough life here for people and animals.

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More road improvement works on the way.

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The scenery here was harsh, with austere and unforgiving looking mountains looming over a narrow strip of land for grazing, later huge boulders lined the valley and what I can only assume were lime deposits were visible on the green flats.

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As on the journey to Pangong Tso yesterday, the scenery was dramatic and varied.

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More road works, but I think the workers had a sense of humour here...

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Huge army camps.

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The driver takes both hands off the steering wheel again - at least it was a straight stretch of road this time.

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Men on their way to help out at the roadworks.

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And then the road deteriorated again.

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We followed the river again for a while.

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I wonder if the river water ever fills the entire width of this river bed?

Around each bend was a new surprise, including a landslide being cleared away by a large digger, and just as we were passing, a big boulder rolled down the hill just in front of the car.

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There was still snow on the ground in places. Fortunately we didn't encounter any snowfall on the way - these already treacherous roads would become lethal!

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It was getting colder and colder as we climbed higher and higher through avalanche-risk areas on roads that left a lot to be desired.

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At this altitude, streams and puddles sport a thin coating of ice.

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Up until now, the traffic has been scarce - one of the benefits of starting out early. However, now that it is nearing lunchtime, we are beginning to meet vehicles coming the opposite direction. Passing can be hazardous and time consuming.

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Chang La Pass
Before we knew it we were at the top of the Chang La pass again.

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"Loom mum, no hands!"

Yesterday we both felt fine here, today was a different story. While David noticed the thin air more than yesterday, I was feeling pretty bad, very dizzy and rather vacant. I panicked when I got back to the car and was sure I'd left my camera bag in the café but it was not there when I went back for it. Of course, I found that I'd left it in the car all along. Doh! I was really struggling to breathe and almost passed out at one stage. My SP02 was 78 while David's dropped as low as 74. With hindsight, I really should have gone to the First Aid centre, but one of the symptoms of Acute Altitude Sickness is the inability to think straight!

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Even the dogs are finding the atitude tiring!

Not good, and they don't recommend that you stay for any longer than 20 minutes at this altitude, so we headed straight to the cafeteria for some Maggi.

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As you can probably see from my photo, I don't look quite 'with it'.

Maggi
Having read about the “world's highest cafeteria” serving great Maggie, I was keen to try it. We've seen adverts for Maggie in various parts of the world but never really got to the bottom of what it is...

Apart from having an aunt by that name (and I don't think she has been anywhere near the Himalayas), to me the name Maggi is synonymous with a soy like sauce and stock cubes, and I felt pretty sure that the neither were worthy of culinary suggestions for visitors to the area. Having seen Maggi adverts all over Asia, West Africa and now India, we learned that the German company brought out some bouillon noodles some years ago which now have a large worldwide following, especially in India where Maggi instant noodles are a said to be “favourite for a quick meal at any time, from dorm rooms of colleges to late-night cooking in home kitchens”. It is so popular that many people in India simply call noodles 'Maggi'. So that explains it – in other words they are a local version of Pot Noodles. While no gourmet lunch, it filled a spot and I did feel some better afterwards.

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From here there is only one way: down!

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If you look carefully over on the right hand side, you can see a car that didn't quite make the bend.

Travelling down the narrow, winding roads, we were unlucky enough to met an army convoy of trucks coming the opposite direction. The driver managed to take a short-cut along an unpaved road to avoid further army vehicles.

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I didn't even see the smaller road that leads off down a steeper section on the left on this picture.

It was a narrow lane and quite steep in places.

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It worked and by the time we re-joined the main road later, all the army trucks had passed.

A traffic jam due to road works in Choglamsar (just outside Leh) gave me a chance to study local life.

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The hotel manager in Leh greeted us with the words: “the internet is working!”. So here we are! Also, the phone that Mr Din got us is now working so I was able to ring my dad from the room! Result! This blogging lark sure is time consuming – it took me three hours this evening to get the blog up to date until yesterday – and that's without including photos to one of the days (since added). I suppose it doesn't help that the internet is so slow and so unreliable here.

Thinking about it this evening, it now makes sense why I suffered so much more today at the pass than yesterday – lack of fluids! I deliberately didn't drink much on the way back as I really didn't want to have to use those toilets again. That would explain why I felt the altitude more today.

Tibetan Kitchen
This evening we tried out another of the recommended restaurants: The Tibetan Kitchen. It was round the back of the main drag, with a huge outside seating area as well as an indoor restaurant. It seemed to be very popular with tour groups, as two large groups of people arrived after we did.

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We ordered something called Sabagleb - the menu left us none the wiser as to what it was, so we asked the waiter. He called it 'stuffed bread', but I would personally describe it like a spring roll pie. David had cheese and vegetable, whereas I chose the chicken. They were very nice.

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Posted by Grete Howard 12:38 Archived in India Comments (1)

Leh - Changla Pass - Pangong Lake

With my feet in the lake and my head in the clouds

semi-overcast 17 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I was awake from 03:00 this morning with congestion and generally feeling unwell. We scored a first at breakfast (in a day of firsts) – getting cold (rather than hot) milk for cornflakes! As we were waiting for the driver to turn up, I got chatting to a chap in reception who was also going to Pangong Lake today with his family, and I was sharing with him my concern about the altitude. His reply did not allay my concerns any at all: “I'm a doctor and I am concerned too”. Great!

In Delhi, Sabu was telling us that warning signs act as an invitation to Indians rather than a restriction, and I noticed that with our driver this morning with a police stop NO ENTRY sign. Not just our driver but it seemed most other people went straight through! I also thought it was very sweet that he drove around one of the huge prayer wheels on the side of the road – clockwise of course – possibly to pray for a safe journey across the mountains today?

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Just before we started the climb, we had to check in with the police, with our Restricted Area Permit and passports. Then the fun began. Initially the road was quite smooth, tarmaced even, although the edges were uneven. It was barely wider than one vehicle, thankfully there was not too much traffic at that stage, as 99% of the time there were no barriers, just the occasional string of prayer flags and the odd memorial to those who didn't make it. Great views though.

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Chemdey Monastery

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As we climbed higher we began to notice the thinner air, in the breathing and in the ears. After a while the road deteriorated, and I have seen smoother dried-up riverbeds. The sign stating “Avalanche Danger, do not travel through between 10:00 and 14:00 (I didn't realise rolling stones had such strict timetable!) and do not stop vehicle. The only reason I could read the sign was because we were stopped right by it. Oh, and the time was 10:20.

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The road, and the accompanying view, was totally mind blowing. Words cannot describe it and pictures would not do it justice. This is truly a road trip of a lifetime and there was more, much more, to come!

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Not sure I like being so close to the crumbly edge.

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I loved looking back down to see how far we have come from the valley floor.

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We saw some yaks at one of the cultivated plateaus, and as we climbed higher, the little mountain streams tumbling over the rocks and into the road formed icicles where it touched the cooler stone. After a few kilometers we started to meet vehicles coming the other way, and almost without fail they would wave, gesture or make a V sign as if we all belonged to some secret exclusive club. In several places we had to ford rivers as they tumbled over the road – this journey is best undertaken in the morning, as the sun melts the glaciers later in the day, increasing the torrent of the rivers and often making the fords impossible to cross. One of the vehicles which didn't quite make the sharp, narrow hairpin bends was left halfway down the ravine as a sober reminder to drivers to take it easy.

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The one thing that surprised me the most, was the blanket of purple flowers at this altitude.

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Chang La Pass
At an altitude of 5,360m (17,590ft) above sea level, this is the third highest motorable pass in the world, and the highest altitude we've ever been to date. Our previous “record” was 5,220 m at the Gyantsola Pass in Tibet in 2005.

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We measured our SP02 at the summit and found it was dangerously low - the norm should be between 93 and 99.

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The pass is said to be named after the sadhu (an ascetic, wandering monk ) Changla Baba, to whom the pass temple is dedicated; although this is hotly disputed because directly translated Chang La comes out as “Pass towards the South”.

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Of all the passes in Ladakh, Chang La is said to be the steepest and due to bad roads at the final ascent it is also the toughest. No wonder they call it The Mighty Chang La. We didn't feel the effects of the altitude as much as we expected here, apart from feeling a little dizzy when bending down to crouch over the disgusting toilet, I was fine.

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David was very excited to have his picture taken astride a Royal Enfield which belonged to a biker from Mumbai.

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The pass is run by the Indian Army who offer visitors a free cup of tea at the top. David accepted their hospitality, whereas I was too busy running around taking photos.

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It's all downhill from here! Starting the descent, we had frozen glaciers one side of the road and a sheer drop the other. This area is part of the Ladakh Mountain Range which again is a segment of the Karakoram Mountain Range.

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This journey is best undertaken in the morning, as by mid-afternoon glacial meltwater could cause fords like this to swell up and become impassable.

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As we descended further, we caught up with and followed a river with its weak rapids and grazing horses on its banks.

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The road is really popular with motorcyclists, as most winding mountain roads throughout the world are.

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Because of the problems with glacial meltwater creating impassable fords on the road in the afternoons, bridges are being constructed in several places on this road.

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More road works

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Or just a bad road?

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Some decent road for a while

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Surrounded by stunning scenery.

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Time to descend further to the next plateau.

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Amazing road snaking its way down the steep mountainside.

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At Tangtse Police Check we had to fill in a book ourselves and a little later pay an entrance fee to the national park of 10 rupees per person (ca 12p).

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On this trip, David and I have been playing Road Sign Bingo. This part of India is well known for its sometimes amusing, often corny and always appropriate safety signs alongside the roads, and I have been trying to photograph as many of them as I can. Often I don't spot them until it is too late, and I don't always manage to focus the camera in time if we are going too fast – I only get half a point for an out-of focus sign (which to be fair most of them are). I can't wait to get home to check out my collection! I am still missing the “Accidents don't happen, they are caused”, though.

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When I got home I discovered there is a website devoted entirely to these amusing road signs

A couple of times in the last few days my camera has had an error message something to the effect of the lens not talking to the camera body, and the lens having come loose. This baffled me until I discovered that my knuckle often rests on the lens release button, and when I think I am focusing, I am actually unscrewing the lens. This afternoon, as I was hanging out of the window taking pictures of the ravine below, I suddenly found myself with the camera lens in one hand and the body in the other. Oops. Fortunately I had a good hold of both.

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The area around Pangong Lake is famous for its pashmina goats (the best wool comes from the chest), and we saw lots of them grazing along the side of the road.

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I also knew this area is home to marmots, and I had no sooner uttered the words “I want to see a marmot” before one popped his little head up from the burrow. By the time I had changed into the long zoom lens, he'd gone underground again. Also seen along this stretch of road are yaks, horses, cows and wild donkeys.

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I never expected there to be such varied scenery - from the majestic snow-capped mountains; to the barren brown scree-sided peaks; there were areas of fine sand – some of which was blowing across the road, making for treacherous conditions for bikers in particular; there was marshland; a silted up lake; as well as huge boulders and smaller rocks making up a moraine.

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Suddenly, in the distance, we got our first view of the lake (with a sign along the side of the road stating the bleedin' obvious: FIRST VIEW OF LAKE!).

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Later there were women washing clothes in the river.

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Still snaking our way down the side of the mountain.

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Before long we got a great view of the lake, stretching out beneath us.

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At this stage we were still travelling on a road clinging to a fairly steep hillside above the lake. I was busy hanging out of the window photographing the lake below when we suddenly went over the edge of the road. In a split second a number of thoughts went through my mind and I gasped loudly. The other two laughed, as I hadn't seen the turn-off from the main road towards the lake. It was one scary moment though!

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The road – if you can call it that – from the turn off to the camp was challenging to say the least. It was a bone-rattling drive over what was basically a rocky beach where vehicles had compacted the rocks a little in a certain area to form a kind of track. Finally we arrived at camp, shaken, not stirred, with a sense of relief – until we realised we have to do it all again in reverse tomorrow!

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Pangong Lake
Pangong Lake is an endorheic lake (a body of water that does not flow into the sea) situated at an altitude of 4,350m (14,270ft) above sea level. It is reputed to be the world's highest brackish lake, although I could not find any evidence to back this up. Two streams feed the lake from the Indian side, forming marshes and wetlands at the edges. 134 km long, and 5 km wide at its broadest point, the lake extends from India to Tibet, with 60% of it being in Tibet, which is today under China's rule, some of it in disputed territory. The “Line of Actual Control” passes through the lake - a section controlled by China but claimed by India. Pangong is still a delicate border point, with incursions from the Chinese side being common. In fact, when we got back to Leh again, we heard rumours that the Chinese had been making unpleasant stirrings in the area in the last few days.

I later read this in an on-line paper: "The Dragon is at it again. On two days last week, Chinese troops -- estimated by sources at as many as 100 -- crossed the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh carrying banners asking India to vacate "occupied" territory "

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In summer, the surface temperature of the lake can reach 19 °C (it certainly wasn't that warm today!), but the water will freeze completely in winter (despite being salty), and is devoid of any micro-vegetation. The mirror-calm water is cold, clear, and extremely salty, holding sufficient quantity of lime to form a calcareous deposit, which cements the pebbles together in patches of concrete on its bank. It is believed that there is a large amount of minerals in the basin of the lake, which result from the melting of the snow. We could see gulls skimming the surface of the water and the lake acts as an important breeding ground for a variety of birds including a number of migratory species, such as the Bar-headed Goose and Brahmini Ducks. Some varieties of scrubs and perennial herbs grow in the marshes around the lake. The region around the lake supports a number of species of wildlife too, including the kiang (wild ass) and the marmot, both of which we saw on the way here.

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Although this area is today a high-altitude desert, Ladakh was once covered by an extensive lake system, a few of which remain today, the grandest of all being the 604km² Pangong Tso. The name translates as “Long, narrow, enchanted lake”, and enchanted it certainly is. It would have been awesome to go out in a boat on the tranquil waters of the lake, but for security reasons, India does not permit boating (the boats you see in the picture belong to the Indian Army)

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Water Mark Camp
The camp was a collection of pre-erected tents in a single row, near the water's edge. The paths were quite uneven, so I am really glad I wore my hiking boots today.

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Not a bad setting for a camp.

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A glacier-fed river ran through the camp – it was almost dry when we arrived but quite full by the evening, with the sun having melted the ice on the glacier. OK, it was still not exactly a raging torrent, but we could see a marked difference as the day went on.

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The tents were on a raised concrete platform and were reasonably roomy, with two beds and a small table, and ample room for the luggage. On a further raised platform was the attached toilet and basin. Outside was a small 'balcony' with two chairs overlooking the lake. The lake was beautiful, but not as blue as I expected it to be. Maybe the gloomy weather had something to do with that.

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Storm clouds on the horizon

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It was incredibly windy – all the tents had been anchored down using huge rocks – even inside our tents they'd placed a rock to stop the whole side of the tent blowing in. This rock promptly fell on my leg and grazed it, and later we found the wind was so strong the canvas was being torn by the rock too.

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A nice lunch materialised, consisting of a buffet, with paneer masala (very tasty!), aloo, rice, chapatis and poppadoms, plus a dessert they called something like “sibea” which looked like vermicelli to me.

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After lunch we decided to have a siesta – we were both tired, dehydrated and grumpy – and we both woke up feeling much more positive an hour or so later. We walked around the area near the camp, photographing the scenery and generally taking in the atmosphere. The late afternoon sun was casting long shadows and giving a magical, charming and almost supernatural ambiance. I love the light this time of day.

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When we arrived this afternoon, we were the only ones here, but by the time dinner was served, the place was full. Apart from two Malaysians and us, the rest were all Indian tourists – some had come in a group of nine, with the girls coming by car with everyone's luggage and the boys on hired Royal Enfield Bullet motorbikes.

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The sun made a half-hearted attempt at a sunset, and had to give way to more dark storm clouds and the was even some precipitation in the air during the evening. Nothing came of it though, at least not by the lake.

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After a very nice dinner of mushroom muttar, dahl and egg curry, with the usual rice, chapatis and poppadums. It was all very tasty and we shared a table with a lovely young man from Bangalore.

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After dinner I got my tripod out and attempted a few times exposures of the tents at night, but I found the wind and cold too much after a short while - the wind because it made everything move, including the tents, flags and even some of the poles; and the cold because I didn't have a wind proof jacket. The photographic results were not as good as I would have hoped.

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Despite wearing all my clothes (including thermal pants and top plus a fleece, hat and gloves) and being covered with a thick quilt and a blanket; I was cold in bed. When I finally managed to get warm, and stopped panicking that I couldn't breathe, I went in to a deep sleep. The temperature dropped to +7 °C overnight inside the tent.

Posted by Grete Howard 12:35 Archived in India Comments (1)

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