A Travellerspoint blog


Uleytokpo - Lamayuru – Leh (eventually)

Closed monasteries, impounded by the army and huge landslides

semi-overcast 30 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Initially this morning the road was nice and smooth and new, then turned into a rough dirt track. After a bad dream last night, in which I was pushed off a steep cliff, I felt uncomfortable on the steep sided hair-bend roads this morning. At Khaltsi Police Check Post, the driver took our passports and went off in a truck. After several minutes he came back again and we were on our way.

The old bridge with the new one under construction

One that didn't make it

The next stretch of road saw literally hundreds of army trucks on the move – in the opposite direction! With such a narrow road, which in places was covered by rocks from landslides or part of road having collapsed into the ravine below, it made for slow going.


This does not look like a safe workplace.

It seems improbably that a road could be built in these sorts of landscapes. But it was.

And then the road deteriorated again, with a danger of avalanche. Great!


Most of the road workers we saw in this region were women.


The scenery here has more in common with the lunar landscape than any other place on earth. Being in a complete rain-shadow region, cut off from the monsoon clouds by the Great Himalayas and a host of subsidiary ranges, it is a cold high altitude desert where the wind, water from the minimal winter snows, and chemical reactions within the rocks themselves, have carved a fantastic, sometimes grotesque, landscape. Described as part fantasy, part reality, this is where the powers of nature colluded to furnish a magical chimerical landscape full of extremes: parched desert and shimmering blue lakes, fiery sun and freezing winds, dramatic glaciers and rolling sand dunes - a primeval battleground of the titanic forces which gave birth to the Himalayas.



Lamayuru is one of the most holy sites in Ladakh. Legend has it that around the 1st century BC, at the time of the first (founding) Buddha, Lamayuru Valley used to be a beautiful clear lake, resided over by the King of Nagas (holy serpents) and his retinue. Predictions suggested that the lake would eventually dry up, making way for the construction of a Buddhist monastery. Later, in the 11th century, a crack in the hillside surrounding the lake appeared, said to be formed by a Buddhist scholar who sat for many years in a cave, meditating. Through this crack, the lake started to drain and when all the water was gone, a dead lion was found lying half way down the rocky banks. On the same spot, the first temple of the area was constructed, known as the Sengye Gang (Lion Mound). The temple is known as the “Oldest House of Faith” in Ladakh and is believed to have been wrecked and reconstructed several times.


Lamayuru Monastery belongs to the Kagyupa Order of Buddhism (one of the three Red Hat sects) and houses approximately 150 Buddhist monks. The monastery is made up of a number of shrines and also has one of the finest collection of thangkas (painted and embroidered scrolls), frescoes and carpets in the region.


When we got there, we found the monastery closed because of terrorist attack on Bodhgaya (the holiest place for Buddhists, where the Lord Buddha attained enlightenment), and all the monks at Lamayuru were holding prayers. As we walked around the stupa, turning each prayer wheel for world peace, I found myself welling up at the thought of man's cruelty to man.



Back to Leh we go then. Or so we thought. This really was one of the most incredible roads we've ever been on! Plenty of road works happening to delay our journey and the road surface was of varying quality.


Back at the police check, the driver is not happy, but he did come back and carried on further. But not for long.


Travelling through Khaltse village, everything was closed “because of a problem” the driver explained. When we got to the military camp and check point, all became clear. Following yesterday's terrorist attack, all vehicular movement has ceased between 10:00 and 16:00. We missed it by 20 minutes. So, we were stuck at a military camp for almost six hours, with nothing to do. Mind you, it was better than being caught up in a terrorist attack, That explains all the army trucks we saw earlier! Over the next hour or so, more and more vehicles turned up - the huge Tata trucks, public buses, tourist vehicles, local cars and motorbikes. I am not quite sure what closing the road between 10:00 and 16:00 is going to achieve – I can only think of two possible reasons: 1. sheer hysteria, and 2. they've received some sort of intelligence/information pertaining to this area. The army general explains “it's for your own safety”. Of course, photography was strictly forbidden.


We spent our time sleeping, writing my journal, chatting to other travellers and the army officials, snacking, reading and generally feeling hot, frustrated and bored. Mid-afternoon David wandered over to Mr Officious the too-big-for-his-boots army general to ask what the estimated time of departure was (at one stage it was rumoured we'd have to spend the night there!). His answer was “pwoah” “pardon?” “pwoah”. Shake of head “I don't understand...” One of the locals came to David's rescue and 'translated' the reply to “four”. How to upset someone who's already got an attitude problem!

I was really quite surprised to find a reasonably clean ladies' toilet in the army camp, as I never saw a single female soldier in India.


At around twenty to four, the excitement started to rise, as people began to return to their vehicles. “Gentlemen start your engines!” Horn Please”! As expected, total chaos ensued. Most people were going the opposite direction to us, and trying to turn left out of the compound turned out to be a little problematic. From here the road was quite reasonable and we were making good time. There were a few road works along the way, but nothing major. We should be back in Leh in not time. With the wind in our hair, beautiful scenery all around, no restriction on photography and the open road ahead, life was good again.


Just as we thought we were doing so well, we get stuck in another traffic jam. There are about a dozen or so vehicles in front of us, and a soldier carrying an AK57 rifle (confiscated from Pakistani 'terrorists' in Ladakh he tells us later) goes running down the road. We decide to follow (at a much more leisurely pace, I hasten to add; and minus the gun!) to find out what's going on.


There's been a landslide a few minutes ago, with a huge boulder (and many smaller rocks) tumbling onto the road from the sheer rock face above, probably dislodged by the nearby road works. The rock is too large to move with a bulldozer, so after considerable discussions, dynamite is called for.


Of course, this means that the first 15 or so vehicles in the queue need to be evacuated in case the explosion dislodges more rocks. Trying to turn that many cars on an already narrow road, with a line of vehicles one side of the road and a sheer drop into the river on the other, is not the easiest of manoeuvres.



The explosion is huge, and can be heard several kilometres away! After another 15 minutes or so of clearing the debris, we're on our way, although there is now total bedlam again with two lines of cars (everyone wants to be first!) going down hill and trucks trying to come uphill.

The truck can't quite make it past the rubble.

Clearing away a few rocks for the truck to pass.

The bus is through.

Almost our turn - this is very slow progress!

Still holding the red warning flag from the explosion, a worker stands on the rocks brought down by the avalanche.

We're through! Finally!

For a while the journey was uneventful, despite the worry of seeing skid marks across the road, over the edge and into the ravine below; and the driver frequently taking both his hands off the steering wheel to adjust his sunglasses on the bendy road. The late afternoon light casting long shadows from the craggy mountains and a warm glow over the peaks took my mind off it to some extent.

Shanti Stupa

Finally we reached our hotel and discover that Leh has been in total lock-down over the last two days because of the terrorist attack, with all the monasteries, markets, shops and restaurants closed. We were told that a mini-riot had broken out, with people smashing windows to get to food as they hadn't eaten for two days! Looks like we picked the perfect time to be out of town.

As there was no power, hence no hot water, we decided to pop into town and ring my dad then go for dinner. The first public call box we tried managed to connect me, I could hear my dad say “hello”, but he couldn't hear me and after the initial connection the line went dead. I tried three times before moving on to the next place. The next two places could not be use the phone because of the power cut. Our new mobile phone has not had any credit added to it yet, as the shop has been closed for the last two days! Mr Din (the incredibly kind shop keeper who has been sorting the phone for us) kindly let me use his mobile to ring my dad.

Not having eaten anything (other than a few plain biscuits and some sweets) since breakfast, we were very hungry, so popped to the Chopsticks Noodle Bar for dinner. They informed us that tonight they would only be serving vegetarian food, which was no problem to us. We chose a combination of Chinese, Indian and Tibetan food and it was all very good, but we got surprisingly chilly sitting outside on the rooftop.


Vegetable Skewlarge_Chopsticks..table_Momos.jpg
Fried vegetable momos

Szechuan Chilli Garlic Noodles

Mixed Vegetables with Szechuan Sauce

An interesting drink - salted fresh lime soda.

We were so hungry after not really eating all day, that we even had desserts!

Banana Pancakes

Chocolate chilli spring rolls

The power came on while we were there, but they had no wifi, so after we'd eaten we went in search of an internet café. The first one was full, the second one had problems with their connection, but we were third time lucky! I decided not to spend time trying to upload photos to my blog at this stage, as it can take up to several minutes per picture – just as well I didn't, as the power went again about 15 minutes after I logged on! This seems to be the story of this trip! Just as I was logging out, I felt a severe rumbling in my stomach and the floor started to move up and down on me. I knew I was very dehydrated as I didn't dare drink too much this afternoon (what goes in must come out), and now I also had the runs. Great! Just what I wanted for the long journey over the high passes tomorrow!

I downed a litre of water with rehydration powder added and felt a little better, but every time I laid down I started to cough. I seem to be very congested at the moment, wheezing with a rasping cough, and the altitude is not helping. As soon as we went to bed, the power went off again and stayed off most of the night, which meant none of our appliances got charged overnight.

Shouting, slamming of doors, barking dogs, stuffy hotel room, call to prayer at an unearthly hour of the morning – welcome back to civilisation! Give me the fresh air, solitude, wind rustling in the trees and bird song any day!

Posted by Grete Howard 12:20 Archived in India Comments (1)

Leh - Spituk - Alchi - Likir - Uleytokpo

♪♫♫♪♫ Wherever I lay my hat, that's my...monastery ♪♫♫♪♫

sunny 30 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Soon after we went to bed last night the power went out, and didn't come back until 04:35 this morning. I know the exact time as I was awake most of the night, between the barking dogs, the temperature being too hot or too cold, my nose bleeding (I remember the altitude having that affect when we went to Tibet too), feeling congested and waking up gasping for breath and the hard bed, I got very little sleep.

They may look peaceful and docile during the day, but at night they wake up and fight loudly until dawn.

Spituk Monastery

Our first stop this morning was the Spituk Monastery, founded in the 11th century, and initially built as a Red Hat institution, but was taken over by the Yellow Hat sect in the 15th century. The monastery contains 100 monks and a giant statue of Kali. The name "Spituk", means exemplary as it is said that an exemplary religious community would develop here at the Monastery.


I am still very confused about the different types of Buddhism, but the way I see it, Buddhism can broadly be divided into three 'schools' (routes to enlightenment): Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Tantric. Within Tantric Buddhism, there are several sub-schools, including Tibetan Buddhism, which is what is generally practiced in this area. Red Hat and Yellow Hat are further sub-schools of Tibetan Buddhism. However, Red Hat covers three different traditions: Nyingma, Kagyu (which the Drukpa Sect of Hemis Monastery is part of) and Sakya, whereas Yellow Hat only refers to the Gelukpa sect. Confused? Now you know how I feel.... Not that we ever actually saw the monks wearing their hats at any one time.


146 steps up and down before 9 o'clock this morning, we're getting better at this altitude lark. This monastery had plenty of prayer flags all the way up, making it a little different to the others and really very picturesque.


Inside the monastery there were lots and lots of vegetable oil bottles and ugly masks, and no photographs were allowed. The view from the top showed the south western end of Leh, including the runway we landed on a couple of days ago and the valley which the plane approached so dramatically.


We followed a good road out of town, through our first check point when the landscape became much more barren. There was not much other traffic on the road, a few hardy cyclists, the ubiquitous Tata trucks and a convoy of foreign tourists, five to a car the same size as ours (glad we have a private tour!). Today the weather is quite cloudy, which has given us some relief from the stifling heat; but I suppose we must be getting used to it too, as the thermometer still said 30° C but it doesn't feel that hot.

This bit may be flat, but there are many hills ahead...

A Tata driver relaxes on his truck at a check point

Group tourists packed five to a car! Love having our car to ourselves!

Magnetic Hill
A particular stretch of the Nh1 Highway is marked off to denote the 'Magnetic Hill' where mystical forces will 'pull your vehicle uphill, seemingly defying the laws of physics'. Local lore says the mountains have 99% properties of a magnet or that supernatural forces cause this curious phenomenon. It is not the first time we have experienced such an optical illusion but it sure is a bit of harmless fun. Coming this way, it seemed obvious to us that the car was rolling downhill, but when we returned this way the next day, the road did in fact look like it was on an incline.


At the conflux of the Zanskar and Indus Rivers, we stopped for a while to watch the two differently coloured water merge at a bend. There were rafters on the Zanskar River, which looked like a lot of fun - mostly gentle with the odd rapid.


Back into the verdant valley at Nimmu village, with a few 'interesting' bridges and a huge military camp. We then followed the valley on the NH1 before heading up a series of z-bends onto a plateau surrounded by jagged mountains, some with snow-capped peaks.

Basgo Palace


To reach Likir, we turned off the main to onto a rough track that took us up to the site. Trying to get the driver to stop so that we could take a photo from a distance seemed to be a little difficult. He doesn't quite seemed to have grasped the concept of photography yet...


This seemed to be a little off the main tourist route, although there was a group of trekkers there when we arrived, who'd obviously got there on foot. Rather them than me!


Founded in the year 1065 and consisting of a number of shrines inside its complex, this well preserved monastery also houses a 7.6m tall protective deity, wearing a golden armour. Building the monastery like a fort offered sanctuary to local inhabitants during periods of war. The monks here, who presently number around 120, wear Yellow Hats. This is the first place we've actually seen the hats on this trip - sadly the monks weren't wearing them at the time, the hats were just resting on their seats inside the monastery.


There is also a school here at the monastery, housing some 30 students who are taught in Hindi, Sanskrit and English. The name Likir means "The Naga - Encircled", because the monastery is surrounded and guarded by representations of the two great serpent spirits. Lots of sculls on the roof too.


Likir Monastery is the seat of the Ngari Rinpoche, the younger brother of the Dalai Lama. Although he does not permanently reside here, he attends for the more important pujas. There is a picture of him in one of the halls, surrounded by flashing lights. I found this whole monastery a little surreal in fact.


In the Gongchang Temple, a one-man band (monk) created a prayer ceremony, playing the drums, cymbals and chanting.


The museum (no photos inside) was opened up especially for us, as was one of the other halls, with a monk showing us around. It contained the usual paintings of Buddhas, daggers, coins, masks etc, some 500 years old, but my favourite was an 800 year old skull used as a drinking vessel by the lamas. While we were walking around the museum, the monk who let us in was trying out the ringtones on his mobile. As I said, surreal!


On our way down the rough dirt track with its steep hairpin bends we met a brave tourist pedal cyclist making good headway!


Back on the nice asphalt road more hairpin bends took us down through the valley with different coloured scree on each side – from beige, through brown and green to a deep, almost purply red. Around each corner was more huge, rugged and dramatic scenery. My camera was going off like a machine-gun, shooting off pictures though the window every few seconds.


After a short while driving through another verdant valley, we were back in the barren landscape and turned off over a great bridge to head off to yet another monastery, Alchi.


We even saw a game of cricket along the side of the road, on a rare flat piece of ground!


Along the approach road to the monastery were lots of little stupas, in various states of disrepair. Alchi seemed like a rural and poor village, and for ages we were stuck at some roadworks on a bend where there was only enough space for one car to pass the large truck, and between the vehicles passing in both directions, the workers tried to repair the road the best they could. By hand of course – or at least with just a pickaxe.


Despite its humble approach, Alchi was the most touristy of all the monasteries we have visited to date in Ladakh, with the walk from the car park lined with souvenir stalls. I was, however, very pleasantly surprised at how un-pushy the sales people were - they all seemed quite happy with me taking photos of their wares. Mainly religious paraphernalia, there were also some beautiful pieces of jewellery.


Alchi Monastery was very different in other ways too – first of all it was not situated on a hill (there were no steps to climb, yippee!!!!), secondly there were lots of beautifully carved wood around the doors and thirdly, the interior paintings were weathered and blackened by smoke; reminiscent of medieval European churches. Entry to the temples within the complex were through low doors and no photos were allowed inside. With so many temples on one site (one of which was called Lotsa!), our shoes were on and off and on and off and.....


I really struggle with walking with my back bent over like that and then lifting my legs over a high threshold. As far as my back is concerned, it's one of the worst movement I can make. It didn't help that the visiting kids would block the doorway so I often got stuck half way in or out.

The monk selling the tickets for entrance to the Sumtek Temple (at 50/r each - around 40p) - where unfortunately photography was not allowed. I did however buy some post cards, scanned copies of which are below.


Four separate settlements, with monuments dated to different periods, make up the Alchi Gompa (Monastic Complex). Of these four hamlets, Alchi monastery is said to be the oldest and most famous, dating back to the year 1000 AD and containing some of the oldest and best preserved wall paintings in Ladakh.


These local children caused a bit of a sensation with quite a few Indian tourists, and boy did they know how to pose! There was almost something slightly uncomfortable about it...


Turning the prayer wheel at the gompa (monastery). The wheels should always be turned clockwise and the devotees very often recite the Sanskrit mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” It is said that all the teachings of the Buddha are contained in this mantra therefore it can not really be translated into a simple phrase or sentence, although word for word it means something like: “The jewel is in the lotus” or “praise to the jewel in the lotus “. Of course to Tibetan Buddhist, Om Mani Padme Hum means so much more, they believe saying it out loud or silently to oneself (or spinning it around in a Mani wheel) invokes the powerful benevolent attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion.


Not all prayer wheels are custom made and adorned.


Last night we asked the driver (who speaks extremely limited English - although it has to be said that his English is better than my Hindi...) about lunch today – wondering whether we should pack a picnic or if we were stopping somewhere; and he told us we'd stop in Alchi for lunch, so when we got out of the car we asked him if we should have something to eat there before continuing. He dismissed that idea, saying “later”. With a wave of a hand indicating winding roads. That “later” turned out to be the camp where we are staying tonight.

Back on the road..


Back over the bridge...


The road certainly did not improve much...


We saw several of these pulley 'bridges' along the way (basically just a metal cage supported on a wire and pulled from one side to the other by human power), and I would have loved to have had a go, but being unsure of the health and safety issues I never did. I now wish I had.


We then came across a huge army convoy - and of course the road is not really wide enough for two vehicles to pass comfortably, at least not when one of them is a large truck. Not wanting to argue with the army, it was always us who ended up giving way and stopping to let them pass. David counted 31 trucks in total.


At Uley, we entered a verdant valley.


The bridges along this route make a heck of a lot of noise as you pass over them - they are basically just metal plates resting loosely on top of a metal frame.


West Ladakh Camp and Resort
Although not where I thought we were staying, the camp was great! A number of large permanent tents spaced out amongst the trees on a narrow piece of land at the bottom of a steep valley with the ragged, sheer rock face looming threateningly the opposite side of the raging river on one side and the road on the other.


After settling in to our spacious tent – complete with en suite toilet and shower (in an adjacent tent), we were asked if we wanted lunch.

I love the glass basin in the bathroom!

Half an hour later we were seated as the only two people at a table for twenty, with a lovely vegetarian lunch of aloo muttar chapatis, poppadoms, dhal, tomato soup and enough rice to feed a table of twenty.


After a much needed siesta, we settled down on our terrace (table and chairs on the ground outside our tent) with a drink, a few snacks, binoculars and the laptop. We'd brought Duty Free Morgan's Spiced with us from London, but even after three nights in India, the bottles remained unopened – not like us at all! The Diet Coke we bought in Leh spent a few hours chilling nicely in a little nearby stream and hey presto, we have a sundowner!


At dinner there was only us again, it seems like we're the only people staying here. Conversation went as follows:

Us: drinks?
Him: drinks.
Us: what do you have?
Him: Yes
Us: Water? Beer?
Him: Beer.
Us: Yes please
Him: 150 Godfather
Us: 150 Godfather?
Him: Yes
Us: OK


It was quite good beer, and the food was very pleasant too – pasta with tomato sauce, noodles, fried potatoes, vegetable rice. Nothing was particularly spicy though, but we did find a nice green chilli sauce on the table. large_West_Ladak..t_Dinner_1A.jpglarge_West_Ladak..hilli_sauce.jpg
Not sure about having an audience while I eat though.

As soon as I finished my meal, I rushed back to the tent to take some pictures after dark, I just about managed two shots before the power went off. I hung around for a while and as soon as the lights came back on again I jumped up and grabbed the camera but before I could even set up the tripod, the power went out again.


I played with the torch for a while, then we sat in the dark outside the tent watching the stars. With no ambient light around at all, the stars were bright and the sky seemed enormous! A very thoughtful member of staff came over with a battery operated light which he placed on the table. As soon as he was out of sight again, we switched it off to continue watching the stars – no sooner had we looked up at the sky, the power came back on again! The lights went on and off a few more times, and after the fifth time, at around 21:45, we decided to go to bed. I don't think I have even known such complete darkness as it was inside that tent – you couldn't even see your hand two inches in front of your face! If I thought the beds at Namgyal Palace in Leh were hard, they had nothing on these camp beds!


Posted by Grete Howard 13:20 Archived in India Comments (2)

Leh: Shey, Thiksey, Hemis

Red hat, yellow hat, red hat, yellow hat, red hat yellow hat.....

sunny 30 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

We took the laptop to breakfast with us this morning, including the LAN cable, hoping to be able to update the blog, but they are still waiting for an engineer to repair their internet connection. So much for that plan. Breakfast was good though, channa puri, so good in fact that I had three helpings!


On the way to our first monastery, we spotted a large fair in Choglamsar – today is His Holiness the Dalai Lama's birthday, and the Tibetans are celebrating big time! Choglamsar was a piece of land given by the Indian government to Tibetan refugees, who by their own hard work and toil have turned it into an economically independent settlement from a barren landscape full of stones, rocks and sand. In 2007 revered Tibetan leader Dalai Lama had visited this settlement and had given his blessings to the refugees. In August 2010, an unprecedented cloudburst washed away large parts of the settlement and hundreds of people lost their lives.


Shey is the ancient capital of Ladakh and home of the old summer Palace of the kings of Ladakh. Here you can also find the Shey Monastery or Gompa, built in 1655 by the king of Ladakh.


From the car park there was a switchback track leading up to the bottom of the building, with a further 134 steps to take you to the top. The hike was so worth it though, the sight of the white stupa, topped in real gold, against the backdrop of the beautiful blue sky!


Obviously we wanted to see the famous Buddha here, but it seemed that the door was locked. We waited several minutes, and one of the local ladies (who spoke excellent English) said she thought the caretaker had probably gone to the Dalai Lama Festival and wouldn't be back, so we started to make our way back down again. Two-thirds of the way down we met the man with the key, so up we climbed back up a further 83 steps. The Buddha was worth it though.


Shey Monastery
The star attraction here is 12 meter Shakyamuni Buddha statue crafted in gold-plated copper. The seated Buddha is said to be the second largest in the region and attracts devotees from across the world. The icon covers three floors of the monastery, with images of Buddha and his disciples depicted on almost every wall around the statue. Cast in parts in Leh, with copper plates hammered on rock, then transported in pieces to the palace, some 15 kms away, for installation. It is estimated that 5 kg of gold was used for gilding the copper plates. The most important moment in the construction of any Buddha figure is when the eyes are created, as this is considered the moment when the statue can actually "see". For this reason, the artist will paint the Buddha's pupils over his shoulder, with his back to the idol, for no-one would dare to look the Buddha in the eye.


The large bowl of wax with a burning wick in front of the Buddha burns for one year before being replaced. This flame represents divinity and purity and is present in front of all Buddha statues in the Ladakh region.

Just a few minutes later by road, we reached Thiksey Monastery. We stopped for photos at the bottom of the hill, and I was getting quite distressed at the thought of climbing to the top of this monastery – I hadn't recovered from the previous 217 steps yet!


So I was very relieved when I discovered we would be driving almost to the top. I say almost, as there was still a very steep switchback track and 146 steps to negotiate to reach the monastery. This place seemed much more commercialised than Shey, and they had a nice café where we stopped for a diet coke break, and some spotlessly clean toilets.


Said to be one of the largest and most impressive Gompas (Buddhist monasteries) in Ladakh, this monastery of the Yellow Hat (Gelugpa) sect, whose spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama, is another building noted for its resemblance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa. I have to say this one bears much more of a resemblance to the former official seat of the Dalai Lama than the one in Leh. (Incidentally, I cried when I first saw the Potala Palace from our bedroom window in Lhasa!) This is the most important monastery in Ladakh and governs ten more monasteries under it.


Inside the main hall, the monks were performing a prayer ceremony with drums, cymbals, clarinets and chanting. It was very emotional and we felt so privileged to be part of something so special.


One of the main points of interest in the 12-storey complex is the newer Maitreya (future Buddha – at 15m it is the tallest in Ladakh), built to commemorate Dalai Lama's visit in 1970. The 15th century complex comprises ten temples, an assembly hall, a nunnery as well as residence for over a hundred monks. The walls of the monastery are decorated with colourful murals depicting Buddhas, enlightened beings and goddesses mixed with demons and wrathful spirits. Many characters in Tibetan Buddhist art are not the kind you would want to run into on a dark night.


Legend tells how a monk offering prayer services with a ritual cake some 3 km away, saw the cake being carried off by a crow. When he searched and found the cake in perfect order atop this hillock, he believed it to be an auspicious sign to build a monastery at this place. The name “Thiksey” means “perfect order”, referring to the undamaged cake.

The monastery also houses a school that provides free education (classes include knowledge of Buddhism as well as computer education) to children from poor families as well as providing food and medical assistance to the children.


Reaching Hemis involved a drive along the verdant valley sticking to either side of the river, with lots of military presence. We then set off on a series of hairpin bends into a side valley where there seemed to be nothing except mountains. Suddenly, hidden away in a secret corner of the valley, was the monastery. It was this hidden position at the bottom of a gorge that saved it from being found by invaders.


This monastery is occupied by a different sect, the Drukpa Lineage (Red Hat Sect), and is revered as the largest (and wealthiest) monastic institution in Ladakh (some say all of India) with more than 200 branches and over 1,000 monks in the Himalayan region. It is considered to be an important living monument and heritage of Himalayas and its people. It is also said to be one of the highest monasteries in the world.


I had expected great things from this monastery, reading about it before we arrived, but I found it a bit of an anticlimax. It seemed to be just a couple of main square buildings, and nowhere near as impressive as Shey or Thiksey.


We did visit the museum (no photos allowed) and I am afraid I cannot get excited about paintings and carvings of Buddha after the first 15. There was so much of a muchness in there - however, a couple of items caught my interest: some very scary masks, enormous trumpets calling monks to prayer and a "pup born to female vulture (Really? I would have thought it more likely the vulture had taken the pup from its mother....) which was considered auspicious / good luck.


The prayer hall (again no photos allowed inside) was closed from 13:001 - 14:00, it seemed we timed that rather badly, although we did manage to get a quick glimpse before they all went to lunch.


Refurbishments were taking place at the monastery, and it was fascinating to see them drawing out the outlines for the murals on the walls, all in free-hand of course.


We stopped for lunch in the small restaurant at the bottom of the monastery, with tables spread out under umbrellas amongst the trees. The food was quite pleasant, but the same could not be said about their toilets. A rough stone building, the toilet cubicle was accessed half way up a series of steps and hidden behind a Tibetan style curtain. One earth floored room with a square hole and not a lot else apart from dirt! This was not the time to have the runs!



Back to Leh and the hotel where we took a much needed nap. The 350 steps we did today may not sound like much ( it's about the equivalent of a 17-18 storey building), but when the air is so thin and the temperatures are 30+C, it's another story. Or should that be storey. On the way we passed the Stakna Monastery, perched on a hilltop between the road and the river.


Shanti Stupa
On the way up to the stupa we saw parts of Leh we had not discovered yet – it is much bigger than we first thought!
Constructed by a Japanese Buddhist organisation, the stupa was built to commemorate 2500 years of Buddhism and to promote world peace. It is also known as the Japanese Peace Pagoda. Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi donated the funds for the Shanti Stupa road, the Defence Ministry provided construction materials and the State Government provided timber for the Stupa. Members of all the Ladakhi Buddhist community worked voluntarily for three days, while Buddhist people in Japan and common people from India contributed financial support. It is considered a symbol of Peace, Unity and Buddhist Teaching as well as the ties between the people of Japan and Ladakh. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, inaugurated the Shanti Stupa in 1991 - the Stupa holds the relics of the Buddha at its base, enshrined by the Dalai Lama himself.


The view from the stupa was lovely, all over Leh and beyond as the sun was setting. A loud speaker was playing “om mani padme hom” over and over and over again as you circumambulated the stupa clockwise.


The stupa does get flood lit at night, but we really couldn't be bothered to wait until it got dark, as we still hadn't been able to get in touch with my dad and I wanted to publish a couple of blog entries at least; so we headed back to Leh and our hotel.


While I wrote my blog, David walked up into town to check if we'd heard from my dad via email. We hadn't, so we decided to ring him. We checked with the hotel but international phone calls were not possible from there. After a shower – which has to be carefully organised as there is only hot water between 18:00 and 20:00 - we double checked emails at an internet café in town before deciding to ring my dad from a pay phone. He was fine and we were both pleased to have connected!

As Dreamland Restaurant advertised free wifi, it seemed a good choice for dinner and publishing my blog at the same time. Unfortunately they had no signal tonight. This seems to be the story of this trip! They did have very good food though (we preferred it to the previous night) and offered us beer disguised in a jug and served in tea cups. It was nice to be able to sit on the rooftop terrace and see the floodlit Shanti Stupa in the distance.


Yesterday we bought a cheap Nokia mobile phone and a chap we made friends with in one of the shops was going to get a SIM card for us to save us all the hassle of registering as foreigners (we know all about that from buying a dongle in Mumbai two years ago, so were very grateful for his suggestion.) We called in his shop after dinner and he fitted the SIM for us, but as there is no credit on it yet, we can't actually use it!

Our last stop of the evening was an internet café to plug in my laptop (as that's where I have written the blog) and I finally managed to get the first couple of days in India published. I know several people are waiting anxiously for my updates.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:30 Archived in India Comments (2)

Delhi - Leh

♪♫♪♪♫...Leh, lady Leh...♪♫♪♪♫

sunny 30 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

It was a very early morning start today (3am alarm) as our flight time had changed to 05:45 this morning. David managed to divert a baggage disaster at the check in desk – the clerk was just about to send the bags down the chute when David noticed his case did not have the label on it, the clerk was still sitting on it! Phew, that was close!

Today's pet peeve is airplane etiquette: when you reach your allocated seat, quickly put your bags in the overhead lockers. Surely you realise you are going to want your camera/glasses/book/purse/snacks BEFORE you get to that point? Pack them in a small bag just inside your hand luggage so that you can quickly grab it when you get to your seat. Better still, carry it separately in your hand, that's what I do. Do not spend five minutes standing in the aisle rummaging around all the pockets in your bag with your bum blocking the entrance for all the other passengers behind you. When you have found your stuff, there is no need to carry on standing in the aisle any more, chatting to your mates, completely oblivious to the people trying to squeeze past you to reach their seats. That was today's musings of an inconvenienced co-passenger.

We checked in on line last night to ensure we got a window seat, but the only ones available were over the wings (the plane carried a large French tour group and an English Explore group), but I still managed to get a few photos as we flew over the Himalayas. Daylight was only just breaking as the flight left the plains and entered the Shivalik Hills. At first everything was shrouded in a heavy mist, then the first 'little' peaks started appearing above the clouds, bathed in sunlight. Then more and more peaks come into view, until the whole horizon was jagged; the mist soon magically disappears and you were given magnificent views of the mountains below. This is said to be one of the most spectacular air journeys you can make in India and I would go as far as saying the landing was one of the most spectacular and dramatic we've ever experienced!


Suddenly you go over the edge with the mountain peaks giving way to a fertile, inhabited plateau, and the plane starts to spiral to lose height, seemingly missing some of the lower peaks by just a few feet with the wing-tips before you land at Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, one of the Highest Airports in the world at 3,256m (10682 ft) above sea level.


Absolute chaos ruled in the terminal building, with two conveyor belts servicing luggage from at least three flights, all at random. Kashmir (and Ladakh by association) is a sensitive area, and foreigners have to register with the police on their arrival. As you step into the terminal building you are given a form to complete, which they collect as you leave the building. Surprisingly efficient and smooth for India.

Indians are masters of bureaucracy and they certainly don't make it easy for visitors to their country. The first point of contact with Indian red tape is the visa application. This being our eighth visit to India, you would have thought they'd store the information on their computers wouldn't you? Oh no, we have to go through the complete process each time. There is an added complication as I have a Norwegian passport, so they needed my address in Norway (!) where I haven't lived for 40 years. On the plus side, the Price of the visa for Norwegian passport holders is less than half that of British citizens.

The name Ladakh means "the land of high passes" and has affectionately been described as "The Broken Moonland", "Little Tibet", the “Land of Endless Discoveries”, the “Roof of the World”, and even known by some as "The last Shangrila". Nestled between Pakistan (or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, depending on which side you are batting for) and Tibet, Ladakh is one of the most remote regions of India, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This high altitude desert (much of it lies at over 3000m and the Himalayas create a rain shadow preventing the monsoon reaching this area) is a part of the Trans-Himalaya as well as the Karakoram mountain ranges . Human habitation is confined to narrow strips of arable land clinging to the glacier rivers and divided from the mountains by sheer walls of rock and ice. Isolation has preserved a historical way of life, dictated by the changing seasons – until the arrival of aeroplanes, this region was only accessible by high mountain passes which were closed for large parts of the winter. An authentic land, like a forgotten moment in time, Ladakh is faithful to ancestral customs where life is characterised by intense spirituality. A mysterious place of myth and legends, set in an enormous and spectacular environment at an unbelievable height and surrounded by dramatic mountains, this is the highland bridge between the earth and the sky!


For nearly 900 years, from the middle of the 10th century, Ladakh was an independent kingdom, its ruling dynasties descending from the kings of old Tibet. By the beginning of the 19th century, the Ladakhi king Tshespal Namgyal was dethroned and exiled to Stok, and the the kingdom was incorporated into the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1846. It still maintains considerable autonomy and relations with Tibet, with the rugged region being home to one of the last undisturbed Tantric Buddhist populations on earth, protected from colonial interference, rampaging Mughals and the ravages of the Cultural Revolution by sheer force of geography. Ladakh is in fact one of the main centres of Tibetan Buddhism outside Tibet. When monasteries were destroyed in Chinese-occupied Tibet, Tibetan Buddhist culture was kept alive in Ladakh. The area was only opened to tourism in 1974.


The Foreigners (Protected Areas) Act requires foreigners to obtain a Protected Areas Permit (PAP) or Inner Line Permit (ILP). For this, you require two photocopies of your passport and Indian visa as well as a completed form. One of the beauties of having an agent arrange your trip for you, is that they take care of that. As soon as we arrived, the guide collected the passports to go and arrange the permits for us.


Theoretically you are supposed to travel in a minimum group of four people and to be accompanied by a liaison officer, but I suppose the local agent has managed to get round that somehow. Despite getting the permit, there are still restrictions on where you enter the area and where you go once you're there. The reasons for the restrictions are said to be twofold: for security reasons (Kashmir is a hotly disputed area) and to protect the culture of the local people from outside influences.

You are required to carry at least six copies of the permit with you when you travel, to show at check points.


Leh, lady Leh...♪♫♪♪♫
Leh is the land of Lamas (the Buddhist Monks, not the animal), located at a crossroads of the old trading routes from Kashgar (on the Silk Road in China – we visited there three years ago), Tibet, and Kashmir. Its importance as a trading town slowed down with the partition of British India, and ended with the closure of the border in 1962 during the Sino-Indian war. We found the town to be small, compact, friendly and akin to a cross between Kathmandu in Nepal and Lhasa in Tibet.


Altitude sickness
As recommended by nearly every website and tour agent I consulted, we have given ourselves 24 hours after arrival to acclimatise to the altitude before doing any sightseeing. Although the altitude here in Leh is not as high as it is in Lhasa (3505m in Leh against 3650 in Lhasa, Tibet, where we had no significant problems when we visited in 2005), I wanted to make sure we followed the sensible guidelines (it's not like us to be sensible, I know) as the only cure for severe altitude sickness is to remove yourself to lower ground. However, it is normal to feel slightly nauseous, light-headed and fatigued as well as having difficulty sleeping for the first 24-48 hours, the symptoms of which can mostly be relieved by taking paracetamol or ibuprofen.

We have been taking Diamox® which is said to cut the time process of acclimatisation by up to 50% by forcing the kidneys to excrete bicarbonate (the base form of carbon dioxide) which re-acidifies the blood and thus balancing the effects of the hyperventilation that occurs at altitude in an attempt to get oxygen. Alcohol (and smoking, which doesn't apply to us) is said to slow down your breathing, which could obviously cause quite a problem at this altitude, so we are staying teetotal, at least for the first few days. Contrary to what many believe, air is not sucked into the lungs but rather it is pushed into the lungs by atmospheric pressure. As altitude increases, barometric pressure decreases and therefore less oxygen is pushed into the lungs. Other physiological changes that naturally occur at altitude include increased heart rate, increased respiratory rate, increased metabolic rate, and sometimes an increase in blood pressure. We have brought a pulse oximeter with us to be able to monitor our blood oxygen levels and pulse as we ascend to ever greater heights... Normal Sp0²for me (at home) is 98-99% and an at rest pulse of 64-65. When we arrived in our room here in Leh, the SP02 was 84 with the BPM (beats per minute) being 106. Apart from feeling out of breath much, much quicker than back home, and a little bit of facial tingling when we stepped off the plane, neither of us have felt any real effects of the altitude. Yet. My roll-on deodorant on the other hand, suffered badly and exploded on me as I tried to apply it. At least my entire left side will not be suffering from smelly perspiration today.


Having three girls half my size carry our luggage up three flights of stairs seemed so wrong when I was struggling to carry myself (and my rather heave camera bag) up to the third floor. Not a bad view from our room though being so high, and we have large opening windows with a small sitting area, making it almost feel like a balcony. The hotel is slightly downhill from the main town, but has lovely grounds with lots of seating areas dotted around outside. I am not sure I would have combined green and pink though...

Great view from the room

Normally we hit the ground running when we travel, so having the luxury of free time on arrival at a destination is new to us, but how to spend it? First of all we took a much needed nap, then tried out the wifi in the hotel lobby. Not working. Walking into town, we found a café advertising wifi, so ordered a lassi and a cake to get in touch with my dad to tell him we'd arrived safely as unfortunately neither of us have any signal on our mobile phone. Although the wifi was working fine – I could send and receive mail via Facebook for instance – my iPhone suddenly decided the email accounts (gmail, Outlook and Yahoo) all needed a password, which it then didn't accept. So still unable to contact my dad.

Chocolate brownie cake and sweet lassi - just so that we can use the wifi!

Our next choice was to use a PC at a proper internet café, but even that proved to be complicated, as Outlook needed to confirm it was us (because we'd never logged on in this place before apparently), and could either send a text to our mobile (not much good with no signal), or an email to our other registered account, gmail. That was fine, except we had the same problem getting into gmail! Eventually we managed to get round it by answering some security questions and got our security code for Outlook so that we could email my dad. Why does everything have to be so complicated? We even have two dongles – a British Vodafone one, which of course doesn't work here as there is no signal, and an Indian Tata Photon Plus which has been de-activated as I haven't used it since we were in India two years ago.
More walking around, more café stops for cold drinks, more photos, then back to the room to write my blog. In the evening we walked back up to town to go for dinner, taking the laptop with us to use the wifi in the café we found earlier with the good signal. Guess what? The battery on the laptop was dead! We seemed to be doomed with this blog here in Leh.

We had dinner in one of the recommended restaurants called Summer Harvest, which serves local Kashmiri and Tibetan food. We ordered a selection of dishes to satisfy our curiosity, but found it exceeded our appetite.

Summer Harvest Restaurant

Chicken Kanti

Steamed mutton momos with spicy dipping sauce

Rogan Josh

Despite no alcohol touching my lips, I still felt drunk this evening and retired to bed early. I went into a deep sleep, but it didn't last as the bed was so hard I woke up every 15-20 minutes having to turn to stop my hip hurting. It was also very warm, so eventually we opened the windows – the only sound outside at midnight was the dogs barking.

Posted by Grete Howard 09:39 Archived in India Comments (2)

Delhi - Qutb Minar - Akshardham Temple

The leaning tower of Delhi and Taj Mahal's rival

sunny 36 °C
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More red tape at Delhi Airport, with a landing card to complete as well as a customs declaration. That was the only resemblance to the old Delhi Airport we knew and did not love. What a change! The airport is now voted the 2nd best in the world (after Changi), and I can see why! Superb – modern, spacious, clean, well organised.....

Delhi was nowhere near as hot as we had feared, with a temperature of a mere 36 °C. No idea what the 'real feel' was though. As we exited the terminal, we expected either Sabu our his driver to wait there to pick us up, but they were nowhere to be seen. We walked up and down the long line of expectant drivers with their placards bearing the names of arriving passengers and stopped to phone Sabu, when I spotted him outside the glass doors, waving frantically. It was great to see him again after four years! After lots of hugs and greetings, a traditionally clad older gentleman smiled broadly at me and grasped my hand, and a glimmer of recognition went through my mind, but it took a few seconds for me to realise it was Sabu's dad! What a wonderful surprise: Sabu had brought his mum and dad up from Dagri in Rajasthan to join us for the day in Delhi. I felt so honoured, especially as it was his mum's first time in the capital and the first time she'd travelled on an airconditioned train. Such a humbling experience to see these sights through their eyes. We met Sabu's parent four years ago when we were invited to stay with Sabu in his family home in a small village in Rajasthan.


With basically just half a day in Delhi, we tried to fit in a bit of sightseeing we'd missed on our previous two visits to the Indian capital. I had three places I wanted to try and fit in: Qutb Minar, Humayun's Tomb and Akshardham Temple. As Qutb Minar was closest to the airport, it seemed natural to start there.

Qutb Minar
Qutb Minar is a huge pillar made of fluted red sandstone and marble and is believed to be a minaret, watchtower or victory tower - construction was begun by Prithviraj who won Delhi from the Rajputs in 1192. The 72.5 metre tall tower is covered with intricate carvings and verses from the Qur'an and comprises several cylindrical shafts, separated by balconies carried on muqarnas (those little stalactite-like corbels so often featured in Islamic architecture). The structure tapers from a 15m diameter at the base to just 2.5m at the top.



The minar has been damaged by lightning and earthquakes on several occasions but each time it was reinstated and renovated by the rulers at the time, although it now leans just over 60 cm to one side.


379 steep steps lead to the top, and the view from the summit is said to be awesome. However, after a stampede during a school trip in 1979 resulted in a number of deaths, the inside of the tower has been closed to visitors.

The tower is surrounded by several other ancient and medieval structures and ruins, collectively known as Qutb complex, including the Might of Islam Mosque, the first mosque built in India. According the an inscription over the mosque's eastern gate, the complex was built with material obtained from demolishing 27 idolatrous temples - thought to refer to Brahman Hindu temples.




A 7m high iron pillar stands in the courtyard of the mosque and it is believed that if you encircle it with your arms while standing with your back to it, your wish will be fulfilled. Unfortunately, because of the corrosive qualities of sweat, the pillar is now surrounded by a fence. Considering its age though, the lack of corrosion is remarkable and is thought to be a combination of several factors, including the type of iron used (high corrosion-resistance wrought iron), the local climatic conditions, and frequent anointment with ghee.


The whole complex is now a UNESCO Heritage site.


As we've found with many other tourist sites in India, tourists are as much of attraction as the site itself. This time it wasn't just us: Sabu's mum and dad caused as much of a stir with their colourful and traditional Rajasthani clothing as we did, and they were frequently photographed too.


After checking in to the rather luxurious five star Metropolitan Hotel (Sabu's mum's first time for that too, and even the elevator was a new experience for her (other than on a trolley in the hospital), we went for a lovely (and very late) lunch at Connaught Place.



Got to love the mustache!

My plan for the afternoon was to visit Hamayun's Tomb, but I figured by this stage we wouldn't have time to visit both that and Akshardham Temple, so I suggested we'd skip the tomb and go for the temple as I knew Sabu was very keen on that. Boy, am I glad we did!

Akshardham Temple

I'd seen pictures of the complex and thought it looked quite spectacular, and I was right. Pictures, however, cannot to the place justice. The temple is a little bit out of the way, and you approach it on a flyover, from which you can see the scale of the complex, which is billed as “displaying millennia of traditional Hindu and Indian culture, spirituality, and architecture”. I would add riches and opulence to that too. In my opinion, it rivals The Taj Mahal!


The large central temple is crafted entirely of stone (with no support from steel or concrete) and features a blend of architectural styles from across India with 234 ornately carved pillars, nine domes, 148 scale sized elephants and 20,000 other statues. To enter the temple is free, but you are not allowed to carry ANYTHING in there with you – no mobile phones, no cameras, no bags, no food or drinks. You are thoroughly security checked on your way in, including a pat down.

large_Akshardham_Post_Card_2.jpg large_Akshardham_Post_Card_3.jpg

I suffered terribly without my camera, it was like my right arm had been cut off, but once the shaking, sweating, twitching and hyperventilation had stopped, I went completely cold turkey and found it remarkably liberating. I confess that I see things in a different way when I don't carry a camera, and you have more time to really appreciate your surroundings and soak up the atmosphere. The intricate carving details, the gold friezes, the sheer opulence of the place, the other people... Despite being extremely popular with domestic tourists, we saw no other non-Indians at all there. At the heart of the complex, you can remove your shoes and enter the temple – walking on the painted white lines to avoid burning your feet on the scorching stones – to admire the jewel in the crown. The amount of gold, marble and carvings was mind-blowing.

large_Akshardham_Post_Card_5.jpg large_Akshardham_Post_Card_4.jpg

Despite having trouble walking, Sabu's mum did very well, and we had a couple of professional photos taken of all of us as a reminder of the occasion. I also bought a few post cards to show everyone what it looked like as I will have no photos of my own. The pictures here are those cards scanned in when I got home.


After a quick shower we all enjoyed dinner in the hotel to celebrate David's birthday. It also happened to be our lovely waiter's birthday on the same day, so double celebrations! Then to bed for a very short night. Shame, as the beds were extremely comfortable by Indian standards.

The two birthday boys

Posted by Grete Howard 09:22 Archived in India Comments (3)

Bristol - London - Delhi

♪♫♫♪♫ I'm leaving on a jet plane ♪♫♫♪♫

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

Indian bureaucracy is alive and well and living at Heathrow airport. Our documents were checked before we were even allowed to join the check in queue and obviously again at the check-in desk. At the gate three members of staff were walking around the seated travellers checking the boarding cards and at the gate when my boarding card was put through their computer, it said I'd already boarded.... more problems. Ten metres later another official checks the boarding cards again, as well as just as we enter the plane from the tunnel, and finally inside the plane itself.


Air India offered plenty of legroom and good food, but why, oh why did we have to be seated right in front of the spoiled brat with the high pitch screech and unlimited energy? We finally managed to get 3-4 hours snooze after she exhausted herself.

Posted by Grete Howard 09:19 Archived in India Comments (0)

Goa to Mumbai

Goa, Goa, gone.

sunny 38 °C
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Having spent two weeks living exclusively on Indian food with no stomach problems whatsoever, ironically we found that eating Western food for a day in Goa gave us both runny diarrhea - just what we don't want for a long journey home.

The ever-helpful staff at Amarya Shamiyana kindly let us use the room until it was time to leave, and they all turned out to wave us goodbye.

Madesh managed to get lost for a last time trying to get out of Ashvem beach, but we had plenty of spare time to get to the airport for our domestic flight from Goa to Mumbai. Just as well. Having overtaken countless trucks, cars, cows, auto-rickshaws, buses and whatever else for the last two weeks, Madesh was stopped by the police on his very last journey with us - for overtaking on a bridge - and fined Rs 500/-.

The GoAir plane was late arriving at Goa, delaying our departure by half an hour. I think GoAir is India's answer to Ryan Air - a cheap, no-frills airline with absolutely no legroom and the only food offered was a Pot Noodle. At a cost of course. Half way through the 50 minute flight the pilot announced that there was a problem at Mumbai Airport - they were trying to re-calibrate the landing equipment (have they tried rebooting?), so we ended up circling (along with numerous other planes) over the Mumbai skyline and the Arabian Sea for nearly 3/4 of an hour.

Finally back on the ground, the cases were ready and waiting when we reached the terminal building, and a man with the now very familiar 'Mrs Grete' sign was waiting to whisk us off to an airport hotel for a few hours rest before the next part of the journey.

We grabbed a bite to eat in the café, where the bored waiter was desperate for someone to talk to, in-between coughing up half his lungs and probably even some of his stomach lining, spitting it out loudly just around the corner in the direction of the kitchen.

Posted by Grete Howard 00:40 Archived in India Comments (0)


Beach bellies and chocolate overload.

sunny 38 °C
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It seemed a good idea to finish with some chill time at a luxury resort on a beautiful beach, but by lunchtime we'd confirmed what we knew all along – we are not beach people. What on earth do people do on a beach all day?


We'd walked to the shops, bought some post cards, walked along the whole length of the beach, taken several photos, watched other tourists strut their somewhat ample bodies around in rather skimpy swimwear (and not just on the beach, also in the restaurants, shops and along the road, which to me is totally inappropriate in a conservative country like India), we'd had a beer and some snacks, written all said post cards, and it was still only lunchtime. Back to the luxury of our tent, the most comfortable bed we've ever had in India, and an afternoon siesta.

My legs are in a bit of a state, covered in bruises from the rafting and bites from my own stupidity (not putting insect repellent on until it was too late at sunset last night), and they are now itching like mad.

In the afternoon we met up with Madesh (our very cute driver) quite by accident, and for the first time since he picked us up at Bangalore Airport some ten days ago, we actually had a (sort of) conversation with him. Up until now, most of his conversation has been limited to 'yes maam', but today he was very chatty. His English is extremely limited and pronunciation leaves a lot to be desired (still way better than my Hindi!), but we managed to ascertain that he is 25 years old (a mere babe in arms, but an extremely good driver for his age) and got married to his sweetheart two months ago who he'd known for five years and been in love with for four. He proudly showed us her photo, and she was suitably attractive.

Amarya Shamiyana is located next to the reputed best French restaurant in Goa, but unfortunately it was still closed last night (it is right at the start of the season here in Goa). We were told this morning, however, that it would be open tonight, so we immediately got the hotel to book us a table. I did feel rather special when we walked in to the restaurant (which was completely full by 20:00) to be greeted by the manageress: “Grete yes?” Fame at last!

The food lived up to my expectations, the rare tuna in sesame seeds and soy sauce with wasabi mash was to die for, but the crowning glory was the dessert. I have never seen anything like it! Named 'Chocolate Thali', it was a typical Indian thali style metal plate with several small bowls containing a selection of no less than nine different chocolate desserts: chocolate mousse, hot chocolate fondant, chocolate crisps, white chocolate soup, a creamy chocolate drink, chocolate cake, chocolate covered almonds, chocolate ice cream and chocolate covered strawberries. Talk about chocolate overload! I'd had a craving for chocolate for a few days, and I've certainly satisfied that craving for months to come!


Posted by Grete Howard 22:04 Archived in India Comments (0)

Dandeli to Goa

The best birthday ever?

sunny 32 °C
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I was awake at 05:00, sitting on the veranda watching the jungle come to life (no sunrise this morning) - the mist over the water, the birds waking up with their various early morning calls, the frog chorus, the drops from the morning dew falling like bullets on the large leaves of the teak trees, the cacophony of the hornbills as they fly low over the water in twos and threes, the fish eagle (probably the same one as yesterday) landing on the branch just outside our tree house to do his early morning preening, huge white butterflies fluttering elegantly and peacefully amongst the foliage, the colourful river fish jumping out of the water to catch a tasty morsel of an unsuspecting fly. And of course the ever present roar of the rapids. Can life get any better than this?

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Yes it can. After a strong black coffee, one of the naturalist guides took us for a two-hour bird watching walk through the jungle, pointing out the sunbirds, drongos, bee eaters, bulbuls and various other birds along the way, as well as the monkeys and flying squirrels. The only downside to the walk was that the lodge's two dogs decided to come along for the fun, but got into a bit of a scrap with one of the local dogs, which then turned nasty as they went for the jugular. Using my trekking pole, we finally managed to break them up, but not before the pole got rather bent and out of shape.

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After my favourite breakfast of masala dosa and mango juice (the chef is very obliging, and the food just kept coming and coming – scrambled eggs, toast and marmalade, omelette, more dosas, rice – anything you could possibly want was available); the guide paddled us along the river in search of more birds. At the small island in the middle of the river, we de-boated and made our way, scrambling across huge boulders, to a small
rockpool with a natural jacuzzi. Heavenly!


We were told the journey to Goa would take around three hours, but they hadn't counted on Madesh getting hopelessly lost. To be fair, he did ask directions, again and again and again, but after an hour and a half of driving back and forth, up and down, my patience was wearing a little thin when we finally spotted the sign for Amarya Shamiyana, our home for the next two nights. And what a home it is! Huge air-conditioned tents in their own secluded area with a veranda; sandy front yard; plenty of seating (two settees, a bean bag and a writing desk inside; a table and chair and two deck chairs in the yard, two sunbeds and a table and chairs on the covered veranda); super king sized bed, shower and toilet. And service to match the price tag. Nothing is too much trouble. Madam wants Bacardi Breezers? We'll go out and buy some. Anything else madam wants? Just ask. Oh, and I was presented with a large bunch of red roses on arrival, as a certain travel agent had told them it was my birthday.


After watching the somewhat disappointing sunset over Ashvem beach – said to be one of Goa's best beaches – we settled down in the privacy of
our suite and made the most of the butler service, with drinks, snacks and later a romantic candle-lit dinner.


Posted by Grete Howard 20:01 Archived in India Comments (0)

Dandeli Wildlife Park

Rapids, rodents and relaxation.

sunny 23 °C
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One of the benefits of staying in a tree house with only three walls, is being able to see the sunrise without getting out of bed. More pale and interesting rather than dramatic and colourful, it was still worth waking up for.

Sometimes the best decisions are made on a whim; until we arrived yesterday and were offered some activities for this morning, we hadn't even considered white water rafting. Kali River is a very popular place for rafting, and three lads in our boat had driven 400 kilometres from Hyderabad this morning (setting off at 03:00) just for the fun of it for a few hours, before driving back!

After a few safety instructions, we headed for our first rapid, which was also the steepest. We certainly got a lot of upper body exercise with the paddling, and the knee muscles from getting down into the raft when hitting the rapids and back up again as soon as we reach the bottom. The river ends in a dam some kilometres downstream, and once or twice a month they let some water out, making the water level drop dramatically and rendering the rapids unraftable. Having noticed the sudden water level drop, we had to get a move on to beat the clock.


Between each set of rapids, were stretches of calm water, where we were able to relax a little and enjoy the scenery – watching the Brahmeny Kites, cormorants, darters and very rare fish eagle; the latter making the guide very excited. Apparently there are crocodiles in the river, but no rafters have ever been eaten. Yet. Now they tell us! A 12-year old boy was killed a couple of years ago, but that was 'by accident'. OK. They later found his body, minus one hand, so assumed the crocodile hadn't killed for food, but because he'd been disturbed.

The hotel manager assured us we'd get wet, and he wasn't joking! Water splashed over the raft in each of the rapids, and in the last one, we went back for seconds and thirds, letting the turbulence push us back into the
rapid, with the water gushing over us, completely engulfing the raft and filling it with water. Although a reasonably safe and extremely fun thing to do in an inflatable raft, this activity has claimed the life of more than one kayaker in the past.

We were amazed to find that the tissues I'd placed inside a zip-lock bag and put in my trouser pocket, were still completely dry after all this soaking. Such great inventions zip lock bags, although no match for the rodent who'd somehow found my supply of Bombay mix in my luggage back at the tree house, making a huge mess in the process.

Although dripping wet, we soon dried off on the back of the pick up for the hour return drive to the lodge. The wind and the dust doesn't do a great deal for your hair style though.


We were greeted with the message that the hot water was ready for us to freshen up before lunch, and I have to say I'm impressed with not just the heat of the water, but also the water pressure and the flushing toilet half way up a tree.

A very leisurely afternoon was spent on our veranda, watching a large troupe of black langur monkeys move through the resort. Apparently it is quite unusual for the langurs to be around this area, partly because of the dogs (who were nowhere to be seen this afternoon), and partly because they are so weary of humans. Feeding on berries and leaves, the mothers would pick up their babies and jump from branch to branch, swinging by their tails, picking nits from each other's backs. They provided hours of amusement.


I never thought I'd be going to bed in the Indian jungle wearing jeans and a fleece, and covered with three blankets. I was determined not to be cold tonight!

Posted by Grete Howard 19:23 Archived in India Comments (0)

Badami to Dandeli

More steps to be taken

semi-overcast 23 °C
View Indian Caves and Temples Tour 2011 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Badami - the last of the cave temples on this trip! Yippie! There are four cave temples here, all hewn out of sand stone in the late 6th and 7th centuries on the precipice of a hill. The four cave temples represent the secular nature of rulers then, with tolerance and a religious following that inclines towards Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.


These were nowhere as commercialised as the others we have been to on this trip, but they were quite special. 236 steps up, and the same number down again, before driving across the small town, along some pretty interesting narrow lanes to one of the oldest temples in the region, Malegiti Shivalaya which is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple is constructed out of stone on the summit of a rocky hill within the ruins of a huge fort. The 7th century fort encompasses a large granary, an underground chamber which must have served as a treasury or private audience hall, double fortification walls and many other architectural marvels. The 326 steps to the top snaked their way thrown steep, narrow gorges not unlike the siq at Petra. This place was truly magical and quickly became one of the main highlights of the trip for me. There was something so peaceful, mystical and adventurous about this place, with the deep chasms and crevices, fantastic views over the town with the sound of the dhobi wallahs (washer ladies) hitting the laundry against the steps of the water tank carrying all the way to the top.


After 562 steps in the Indian heat, I was glad to sit down for a few hours in the air-conditioned car for the drive to Dandeli. Once we'd reached Dandeli town, it was a matter of finding our resort. Many other places advertised their resorts on huge posters along the side of the road, but not ours. If in doubt, ask someone. Then someone else. Then turn around and travel 30 kms in the opposite direction down winding country roads flanked both sides by hectares of teak forest, interspersed by huge fields of sugar cane. Finally we see the sign for Hornbill River Resort, and turn off the main road down a dirt track until we find the accommodation, spread over a gentle slope down towards the Kali River. Our room is the one nearest the river, perched some 30 feet up a tree! A large room overhanging the water, open to the elements (with pull down mosquito blinds), overlooking the rapids. Having a pre-dinner drink of local Indian rum, we sit and watch the hornbills soar over the river as dusk falls. Heaven.


I did wonder if taking a night time jungle walk after two large rums was a good idea, but perhaps it gave me the extra confidence to walk along paths where I may otherwise have been concerned about taking steps not being able to see where I was placing my feet. The jungle was very dark and very quiet, save for the noise of the nocturnal animals. I didn't expect to see many large animals – although bison and barking deer do come here during the rainy season – but we did see some flying squirrels, various insects, spiders and lizards. On leaving the forest for the clearing, the guide carefully picked the leeches off our shoes and clothing.

I didn't expect the temperature to drop quite so dramatically at night – it must have been around 8 C overnight. We'd left the mosquito blinds up, so were open to the elements on one side overlooking the river. The two resident dogs keep any monkeys away, so all you have to worry about in the night is various insects. We did hear a gecko barking, but we never did see him. A couple of flying squirrels scuttled across our roof, and a spider and various other small insects dropped by in the night, but we saw surprisingly few mosquitoes.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:45 Archived in India Comments (2)

Hospet to Badami

Aihole and Pattadakal

sunny 34 °C
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Nothing disturbed my sleep last night – not the trains whistling every couple of hours, the wedding party, the renovation workers who were still hammering and sawing when I went to bed at 23:00, the super-noisy A\C, or the cars hooting all night! I slept through it all!

The road to Badami was mostly under construction, with miles and miles of road works and diversions. It'll be nice when it's finished. Along the way we stopped at a goat and sheep market, and later a vegetable market, before arriving at Aihole around lunchtime.

Goat_Market.jpg Vegetable_Market.jpg

Aihole was the first capital of the early Chalukyas, who built over 125 temples in various styles. Chaluhya was an Indian royal dynasty that ruled large parts of southern and central India between the 6th and the 12th centuries, and the ruined capital of Aihole dates back to the beginning of their rule.


The temples are spread around a large area, with monuments dotted between houses, rocks and the gravel road, some of which are in use by the locals as meeting places or somewhere to dry their laundry. The main site was incredibly peaceful, with just us and a group of photography mad technical students from Bangalore on a weekend break. Not to forget the two-dozen grass-cutters of course – ladies crouching over the lawn clipping the tufts with knives. A lawnmower would have done the job in an hour, these ladies probably take three days or more. Maybe this is an idea for a job creation scheme for the British youth?


You really have to have eyes in all directions on the roads in India, and fortunately for one young girl, Madesh does. Cycling on the left hand side of the road, she suddenly decided to veer across the road to the other side, without looking. With a screech of tires, the car came to an almost standstill before the impact, so no real harm was done. One very shaken girl, a little less rubber on our tires, a couple of small scratches in the paintwork, and a lot of shouting from the village elders.

In contrast to the tranquillity of Aihole, the nearby monuments of Pattadakal were pure pandemonium. When the Bollywood music wasn't blaring out at full volume, there appeared to be a local version of X-Factor, with a number of talentless wannabes belting out their renditions of some unknown number that sounded more like a pig being tortured than song. To add insult to injury, a group of pesky and persistent kids arrived, demanding pens, sweets and money, insisting on standing in front of the camera whenever I tried to photograph one of the monuments. Saying no, ignoring, shouting, smacking, and not even the Howard glare seemed to get rid of them, so when the official came along with his big stick and said a few choice words that made them run off at the speed of light, I could have kissed him! Those are the most irritating children we have come across on the entire trip; most have been curious but totally charming.

Pattadakal_2.jpg Pattadakal_1.jpg

The 8th century monuments at Pattadakal were designated a UNESCO Heritage Site status in 1987, and are better seen from a distance rather than close-up. Built from the softer sandstone, the carvings haven't fared as well over time as some others. I never thought I'd find myself being a carvings-snob!

We have now arrived in Badami – a scruffy hotel in a scruffy town.


Posted by Grete Howard 03:44 Archived in India Comments (0)

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