Archive for Travelogue

Day 11: Leh (Pangong Tso)

September 2, 2012

Woke up early in the morning, washed up, and rushed to get to the taxi. We were promised a Scorpio by the tourist guy, but we instead got a Sumo. There was a young couple from Mumbai, and a Mallu woman from Delhi sharing the taxi with me. Once everyone arrived, we hit the road by 6:30 AM. We took the highway towards Manali until we reached Hemis, and from there we headed into the mountains. We were to pass the third highest motorable road in the world, Chang La on this trip. The roads were pretty bad, and the ride was pretty bumpy. Even while sitting in the middle row of the car, it felt like I were in the back. But thankfully I had good company, and we managed to make it a fun ride.

We reached Chang La at around 9:30, where we stopped for breakfast. The place was pretty cold, for it was at 17585 feet above the sea level, and I just had a thin sweater on me. I was shivering like crazy. We went into the small shack and ordered some tea to make us warm. I was initially hesitant, but also ordered some maggi to keep me full during the rest of the drive. The scenery was as beautiful as in the rest of my expeditions. We stopped on the way to see some Yaks and sheep. The day turned out to be very cloudy, and we were hoping for them to clear soon, for the beauty of Pangong is to be seen with clear skies.

We finally reached the lake, Pangong Tso, a little past noon. Our driver was kind enough to take us to the corner of the lake where there were not many tourists. Captain Bhatacharya, a friend of Sanjay’s in Kashmir, had told me that this is one of the best places in the world, and it’s possible to get hypnotized while here. Every word of his turned out to be true!! It was just magical. What we see in 3 Idiots is nothing compared to the actual beauty. The clouds gave way for some bright sunshine, and the lake looked stunningly beautiful. I was absolutely mesmerized by it. I just can’t explain or put it in words. The experience was unbelievable!!


The best place I’ve visited in my life thus far!!

I pulled my jeans up and attempted to step into the water. It was freezing cold. I managed to walk in till my knees, and it got better after a while. I spent quite some time playing in the water while enjoying the surrounding beauty. There was no count on the number of pictures I must have clicked. Every sight looked new and beautiful. The driver gave us two hours to spend by the lake, but we must have spent more than three. The lake changed colors so many times in this time. The blue was just beautiful. I just didn’t feel like leaving the place. Argh, I so wish I could go back now again!!

We somehow managed to drag our asses into one of the restaurants nearby to grab a bite before we headed back. All four of us ordered together for some roti, Paneer Butter Masala and Dal, and the food was pretty decent. When we got out, it got cloudy again, and we spent 30 more minutes by the lake side before we got back into the car.

We were driving back, but my heart was still at Pangong. Man, it’s the best place I’ve been to thus far in my life, and I don’t thing I’ll find anything more beautiful. I was suggested to do a two days one night at Nubra, but I would have so loved to do it here instead.

Tip: Chuck Nubra if you have to, but do spend a night at Pangong. Trust me, it’s totally worth it. There are a few tents nearby which need to be pre-booked in Leh. How ever expensive it is, take it, for you will not regret it!!

We stopped a couple of times on the way back to click some pictures. I guess I ate more than I should have, and because of the bad roads, I felt a little sick mid way through. Thankfully I was fine by the time we reached Leh at around 8:00 PM.

I was to find a shared taxi towards Nubra Valley for the next day, but the people I met in the cab suggested that it was not a worthwhile trip. It would have cost me a little more than 2000 bucks, and the fact that they didn’t make it sound enthralling made me chuck it. I still wanted to go to Khardung La pass, which is one the way to Nubra. Our taxi driver suggested I rent a bike and do it myself. Hmmm.

September 2 happens to be one of my favorite days in the year, and a visit to Pangong made it even more memorable. I realized I’ve been spending quite a lot in the recent past, but to celebrate the day, I headed off to Chopsticks, one of the best restaurants in Leh (I did a little research and found out about all the good places to eat at in Leh). I ordered for Singapore Noodles, hoping it would be something spicy like what we get in Hyderabad, but it turned out to be vermicelli noodles. I was a little disappointed for I wished to have something spicy, but it tasted good nevertheless.

Before I went back to the room, I reached Himalayan Adventures and booked a bike for the next day. They didn’t have the Impulse, so I instead got an Enfield Thunderbird for the same price (Rs. 600/-). I was dead tired by the time I reached the room, and I had a long, beautiful day to blame!! Pangong Tso, I’m gonna come back soon!!

Day 10 : Leh (Magnetic Hill)
Day 12 : Leh (Khardung La)

Day 10: Leh (Magnetic Hill)

September 1, 2012

I woke up late this morning, at around 9:00 AM, for I was told that the Ladakh Festival would start at 11:00 AM. By the time I got out, the celebrations had already begun. Apparently, the official start of the festival was at 11:00, but the festivities, which included a procession of the tribes taking part in the fest, started at 8:00. I still managed to catch a glimpse of this procession while I headed out to the Polo Grounds, where the ceremony was to take place. The place was packed with people, and there was no place to sit. There was still time for the start, so I decided to get out and grab a bite for breakfast. I walked into a small Punjabi Dhaba on the main street, and ordered for Chole Poori. The Chole was yum, but the Poori was very oily. Heavy breakfast I must say!!

When I came back to the ground, it was got worse. More people had pooled in, and there was not enough place even to stand. Knowing that loads of people are going to be turn up, it was inexplicable of the authorities not to make enough arrangements. The sun was up and scorching, and people had no other option but to sit on the ground in the heat. The CM  of Jammu and Kashmir had come as the chief guest, and the ceremony started off with never-ending speeches. I was getting restless standing in the heat, sweating all over. Finally, post noon, the celebrations had begun with a couple of tribal dances. I didn’t enjoy them much for my patience had already waned by then. So, after seeing a couple more performances, I left. (Apparently there was some good stuff immediately after I left, especially a dance by school children).

On the way back to the room, I walked into Western Tibet Explorers (tourist agency) to see if I could find a shared taxi to Pangong Tso for the next day. He said he had a couple at the moment, and would confirm on the same by evening. I reached the room, took the bike and decided to head off towards Alchi Monastery on the way back to Kargil.

This ride was amazing. I already passed by this road a couple of days ago while coming from Kargil to Leh, but the experience of driving a bike was priceless. The ghat roads, the sangam of Zanskar and Indus, view points, etc. were all magnificent. Driving by the Magnetic Hill was awesome. Then I came onto a stretch of road where there was not a single soul in sight; just a road leading to nowhere, surrounded by mountains on either side. Trust me when I say this, driving on this road was one of the best experiences in my life (till now; things would soon change). I absolutely loved it!!


If there is a road leading to heaven, this must be it!!

It was a long drive to Alchi and I had to drive into the interiors of a small village before finally reaching the monastery. I already had enough of the monasteries the previous day, but I  was visiting Alchi just for the ride, to pass time. The monastery was really small, and pretty old. Again, the doors were being opened as I entered for there were no people. Once out, there was a small German Bakery nearby which sold various kinds of cookies. I got tempted and bought a couple of them. They turned out to be so hard that even if I tried cracking them with a rock, I wouldn’t succeed. Fun!!

I thoroughly enjoyed my ride back to Leh. I had all the time in the world, and nothing to do once back in Leh, so I drove really slow. I wanted to get lost, but it was a straight road :(. I reached the city at around 6:00 in the evening.

I returned the bike, went back to the room and watched some TV. At around 8:00 PM, I went to the tourist guy, and he confirmed on the trip. There were three other people to share the taxi, and so it would cost me Rs. 1600/- (The prices to all the tourist destinations nearby are fixed. So the more people you are, the cheaper the trip would get). Once done, I asked the guy  to suggest a good restaurant nearby, and he led me to World Garden Cafe on the Changspa road.

It was a short walk to this place from the market. It was a garden restaurant, and I sat in one of the corners. Their menu had quite a lot to offer. I asked the waiter to help me choose, and he suggested I go for the Vegetable Lasagna. I also ordered for some Lassi to beat the dry weather. The Lasagna was served in about 15 minutes, and it was one of the best I’ve had. Cheesy and creamy, it was scrumptious. The Lassi was thick and yum.

I headed back to the room after a delicious meal, watched some TV and finally called it a day. I had to get out by 6:00 the next morning for the taxi.

Day 9 : Leh (Monasteries)
Day 11: Leh (Pangong Tso)

Day 9: Leh (Monasteries)

August 31, 2012

I woke up around 8:00, washed up (the only disadvantage of my room was that it didn’t have running hot water; the guy would bring a bucket in the morning when asked for), and went to meet the German couple, hoping that they’ve decided to come along with me. But they had other plans (they wanted to go on a 10 day hiking trip, and see the town later if they had time). I was kinda disappointed, and started enquiring on how to reach monasteries by bus. That is when the Indus Guest House guy suggested I rent a bike instead, and roam around the place. This was definitely more enticing than the bus, and was way cheaper than the taxi. Now, I had a new plan in mind.

I decided to rent a bike for 2 days, go visit the monasteries on the first day, enjoy the Ladakh Festival in the morning of the second day, and then go visit more monasteries. So I went looking for a bike. I was told that an Enfield would cost 1000 bucks, while I could get other bikes starting at 600. I thought I’d rent a Yamaha FZ (for it’s my bike back home, and am comfortable with it). There’s a street full of motorcycle rent shops near J & K Bank in the main market, but there was only one guy with FZ’s. I tried the couple of bikes he had, and both were in terrible condition (no brakes on one, drag on the other, both with broken clutch and brake levers). So I went into another shop (Himalayan Adventures) and he offered me a Bullet. I took off on the test drive, but wasn’t so comfortable with it. Bullet is a heavy bike and I didn’t wanna test it on unknown roads without having ridden it in the past, so I asked for something else, and he offered me an Avenger. I got lost in Leh while on the test drive, but somehow managed to get back. I decided to take it for it seemed to be in good condition. He asked for 700 and I bargained to 600. While I was talking to the main guy, the helper was tuning the bike and managed to break the gear lever. They tried fixing it for a quite a while, but were unable to. While they were doing this, I walked into a restaurant nearby and had yummy Aloo Paratha for breakfast. It was already past 10:00 AM, and it looked like it was gonna take longer for them to fix the Avenger, so I asked for an alternative, Hero Impulse. He said 700 again, and I managed to get it for 600, again :D. It was a relatively new bike and didn’t need a test drive. I took the helmet, enquired a little about the routes to the monasteries, and finally hit the road. Oh no, actually, I first submitted my PAN card at a tourist center for the permit before I it the road.

Tip: Make sure you test the bike before you rent it. Do not take it even if you are wee bit uncomfortable. Also make sure that the bike has a yellow registration board (taxi). It is less likely that the cops will catch you if it’s yellow. Finally, ask the guy how much mileage the bike will give you, so you have an idea on how much gas you’ll require. And do bargain on the prices. 

My first stop was Shey Palace, located on the Manali highway, about 14 kms from Leh. I reached the place around 11:00 AM, parked my bike, bought a ticket for 20 bucks and started climbing the stairs up. And by the time I reached the top (about 50 steps), I was as good as dead. I didn’t have altitude sickness, thank you, but the altitude was definitely taking a toll on my body. I had to sit and recoup all my energy before I could walk in and enjoy (really??) Shey. As I already mentioned, there is nothing much to see in a monastery (which makes one wonder why I decided to spend a day on them!!). There are a couple of rooms with paintings and Buddhist artifacts, and then in the end, one room with a large statue of Buddha (pretty much the same in all monasteries). There is also a dark room full of diyas. I took some pictures, sat for a while on the top, and then got out after an hour.

Next stop, Thikse Monastery, 5 kms from Shey. The 3 Idiots school was on the way, but I somehow missed it. Thikse was bigger than Shey, and crowded. It had an entry fee of 30 bucks. The walk up the hill made me pant again, and once in, it was pretty much the same sight. It was a little more colorful, had more rooms, lots of space, and a better view of the surroundings though. There was also a museum, which had artifacts of the ancient Buddhist era.

I then headed off towards Stakna Gompa, 8 kms from Thikse. If it wasn’t for the road sign, I wouldn’t have noticed this monastery. It was comparatively small, totally deserted, and had free entry. There was a long drive up hill, and I noticed that I was the only visitor at that moment of time. All the rooms were closed, and were being opened by an elderly monk as I walked in. It look less than 10 minutes to wrap up the place.

Hemis Monastery was the farthest of all, 20 kms from Stakna and about 50 kms from Leh, and the largest of them all. It is located quite deep in the mountains. The ride up to the monastery was quite an adventure in itself because of the zig zag narrow roads. The entry fee was 50 bucks this time. Again the same old stuff. The monks kept dancing in the main yard for a long time, which was fun to watch. This one had a huge museum with more artifacts than Thikse.

Once done, I decided to call it a day with the monasteries. I was tired of looking at the same stuff (which I didn’t understand a thing about). It was almost 4:00 PM, and I was hungry, so stopped at a small dhaba on the way back from Hemis. I had a Thali with unlimited roti, Rajma, Aloo Gobhi and Dal. The food was finger licking good. Met a couple of guys here who were suggesting I ride a bike even to Pangong Tso and Nubra Valley, but only if I could find more biking partners. That was something to be thought about.

Now, it was time for an adventure – time to get lost. The Himalayan Adventures guy had told me that there was a parallel road from Stakna to Leh, which had a better view than NH1, and also passed through Stok Monastery. So in search of this road, I went back to Stakna, and instead of taking a right, I took a left, onto the road leading back to Hemis. The road signs pointed Hemis, but having forgot that I just got back from Hemis, I kept riding. This road was pathetic for it was full of swamps and open drains. And I kept riding in all this like an idiot. I almost fell into one of the swamps, but kept going. It was not until I drove more than half way did I realize that I had already been to Hemis!! 😛 I turned around, and drove back through the same swamps all over again to finally reach Leh at around 6:00 PM 😀

I was told that Santi Stupa in Leh provided a beautiful panoramic view of the city during sunset. Driving through the chill in the air, I reached the place right on time. And boy was it beautiful. I could see the entire place from up here, and the sun setting made the mountains shine gold in color. I took loads of pictures and then headed down to the small cafe to have some Butter Tea. While I was enjoying my tea, the Blue moon rose. It was just amazing to see the sun set on one side behind the mountains while the full moon rose from the other. Magical!!

It was time to call it a day, but not before I had some dinner. I also had to collect my permit. It was ready by the time I reached the tourist guy, and was for 5 days, to Pangong and Nubra. I then headed to Tenzin Dickey, this time to taste their Thukpa. The place which was packed at around the same time yesterday was empty today. It took quite a while for the Thukpa to be served, and I thought it was alright. It was the first time I was gonna order for it 😛

Once done, I headed back to the room, and crashed!!

Day 8 : Kargil – Leh
Day 10 : Leh (Magnetic Hill)

Day 8: Kargil – Leh

August 30, 2012

Woke up in the morning at around 7:00 AM, and rushed to the taxi stand. For some reason, I had a fear that the taxi fellow would leave us and go (cheat us), but I was totally wrong. Most of the locals here survive on tourism, and it’s their bread and butter. So for that reason, everyone (almost everyone) here is honest, friendly and usually don’t cheat tourists. My bad.

We started off a little late from Kargil, it was almost 9:00 by the time we got out.  I struggled in the back seat of the Scorpio as my legs wouldn’t fit, but I had no option. The ride was a little bumpy initially, but got better as we traveled. The scenery around was awesome. A little after we started off, we stopped at a small town, which was pretty much the start of Tibetan region.

And then two hours later, we reached Lamayuru monastery. The taxi guy had told us that we have 10 minutes to look at it, but I convinced him for 30 minutes. I was hoping to see a lot at the monastery, this being the first I’ve visited, but there really wasn’t anything much. People who are interested in Buddhism or Buddhist culture might find the place interesting. I roamed about, clicked some pictures and got out in 15 minutes. 😀

There was a landslide on the road from Lamayuru, so we had to take an alternate mud road, 30 kms longer than the regular road. Though this part of the journey was a little tiring, the view from here was breath-taking. The roads were like snakes on hills. Stunningly beautiful.

We stopped for lunch in a small town about 60 kms from Leh. I was hungry, but skeptical about eating. After contemplating about it for a while, I had Aloo Mattar, Roti and rice at a Punjabi Dhaba. The food was decent, nothing great.

The ride got better once we left this town. The roads were newly laid, and the surroundings just got better. We passed through the point where the Zanskar and Indus merged, then passed through a straight road surrounded by mountains on either side, and the magnetic hill, before we finally reached Leh at around 4:00 PM. I thought the place was quite hot. It was very dry, and there was this uneasy feeling once we stopped. It took a while to get adjusted.

The German couple wanted to stay at this place called Indus Guest House at Malpak, near the main market. Lonely Planet said that they have rooms starting from Rs. 300//-, so I decided to give it a try. I did try to look for a couch here as well, but it didn’t work out. We walked quite a distance before we finally found it. They had rooms starting from 400, but this room was already occupied. The best he could offer was at 700. The guest house was very good, rooms neat and spacious, they had free wi-fi too, but 700 was a lot for me. I was planning to stay in Leh for a week, so it really didn’t work out. They suggested I try in the guest house adjacent to theirs (I don’t remember the name), and I did. They showed me a room for 400, and I checked in. The room was alright, but was very dusty, and seemed unused for a long time. Hoping to find something better, I walked out and tried looking a little more. (The German couple took a room at Indus for Rs. 1200/-)

I walked into a couple of nearby guest houses and none had a room for less than 600. I then walked into this place called Lung-Se-Jung a little off Fort Road, right next to Rafica Guest House. These guys offered me a better room with a TV for 400 bucks. So I went to the other place, took my bag, told them I had found something else and moved out. I had already checked in here, but since I didn’t use the room, they let me go without any issues.

I settled down in my room at Lung-Se-Jung, and after a while set off on a stroll in the town. It was time for sunset and there was nice chill in the air. Probably because I took the route from Kargil, I really didn’t feel sick or anything, but I was breathing a little heavy, atleast for the first hour or so. I was also tired from the ride.

Before I started on the trip, I planned which cities to go to, but I didn’t do any homework on what all to see at these places. So I walked into one of the tourist operators, and informed them of my ignorance about Leh. The guy explained to me on what all there is to be done in and around the town. He first asked me how long I was gonna be thee, and I said a week. So the trekking trips were out, for they usually last for atleast 10 days. He suggested that I visit the monasteries on one day, visit Pangong Tso on another, head to Nubra Valley for a two days-one night trip, and go rafting another day. This sounded awesome. I was told that I would need to obtain an Inner Line Permit to visit Pangong or Nubra Valley. I assumed this permit was only foreigners, but it turned out that even Indians need it, and it costs Rs. 500/-. You will need an ID proof, and it takes a day.

PS: A single foreign tourist cannot obtain a permit by himself. He/she will have to group with someone in order to get one. So, make friends, not enemies. 😛

So I decided to start with the monasteries the next day. I dropped into another tourist center and found out how to go about it. They suggested I take a taxi to visit the four monasteries nearby – Shey, Thiksey, Hemis and Spituk. I was informed that a taxi would cost me Rs. 2400/- irrespective of the number of people travelling. I was hoping to convince the German couple to join me on the same, so that it would bring my expense down to 800. They weren’t sure on what they wanted to do yet, and said that they would inform me in the morning. The other alternative I had in mind, in case these guys wouldn’t join me, was to take the bus (there’s no direct bus to the monasteries though).

On the way back to the room, I found this Tibetan vegetarian kitchen called Tenzin Dickey. The fact that it was all vegetarian pulled me in. The joint was packed, with just one empty table in the corner, where I sat. There was only one waitress, and she was running all around the place. It took close to 15 minutes before she came upto me and told me that Momos were all that were available. I’ve had Momos a couple of times in Hyderabad, but never really liked them. Since there was no other alternate, decided to try them, fried. The same girl who told me that only Momos were available, took orders for Noodle Soups from other tables, which pissed me off a bit. Anyways, while I was waiting, an elderly foreign gentleman walked in and asked if he could share the table with me. We made small talk, and he told me he was from Ireland and has been visiting Leh for the last 22 years, every year, for atleast a month (with the exception of 1 year in between). I thought that was just awesome!! He was a very nice guy, and helped me understand the place a little better. The Momos arrived in the mean time., and were alright. I wasn’t too happy with them for they were bland, so I added a lot of chilli sauce to make them taste better. After a so so meal, it was time to head back to the room.

Once again, there was no fan in the room. I watched some TV, and slowly drifted off into sleep.

PS: I’ve listed a few places to stay at on the Experience page 🙂

Day 7 : Srinagar – Kargil
Day 9 : Leh (Monasteries)

Day 7: Srinagar – Kargil

August 29, 2012

I had to wake up early and get ready by 6:30 AM, for I was supposed to report at the taxi stand before 7:00. Sanjay was kind enough to drop me off at the stand and it took a while before the taxi hit the road. Only three of us had made prior reservation in the taxi, and were charged Rs. 800/- for it. The rest came in the morning and got seats for Rs. 700/-.

Tip: Though there is a difference of 100 bucks, I’d suggest reserving a seat before itself, for you get your preferred seat. There are also times when you might not be able to find any taxis in the morning.

Tip: For people heading towards Leh, there are two travel options. One is to take a taxi to Kargil, spend a night, and then take a taxi to Leh the next morning. The other option is to cover the 400 odd kms on the same day. This would be a really long ride, and isn’t suggested for people wanting to enjoy the scenery through the way. These taxis start at around 5:00 in the morning and reach around 9:00 in the night. Both the options cost pretty much about the same, close to 1500 bucks. The stopover at Kargil gives you more time to acclimatized to the high altitudes and prevents altitude sickness.

I reserved a window seat in the middle row of the Tata Sumo, and it was very comfortable. I had the company of a German couple, a school teacher from Srinagar who works in Kargil, and a couple of other guys. The driver also happened to be a friendly guy.

Once we got out of Srinagar, the landscapes started getting better and better. The whole journey was an absolute delight. The landscapes were full of greenery just outside the city, but as we headed towards Ladakh region, everything turned brown, and there was the dryness we could feel in the air. We first passed through Sonmarg, another scenic tourist spot near Srinagar. People were telling us that we might find snow here, but we found nothing. Mid way through, we cam across the road, or rather a pass (for there was no real road) which leads to Amarnath. It was an amazing view. Then we headed off towards Drass, the second highest inhabitable region in the world. I was expecting this place to be freaking cold, but it wasn’t.  We stopped here for lunch, but I skipped a meal. The ride was a little more than 200 kms long, and we passed through valleys and plains for about 8 hours before we finally reached Kargil at around 3:00 PM. Once we were near Kargil, I don’t know why, but for some reason I could see an Indian flag waving on every mountain peak I looked at. It just felt great :).

Kargil was a very small town. Sanjay had informed me that there is really nothing to do in Kargil, so suggested I try to head of to Lamayuru monestry directly and spend the night there. So I enquired at the taxi stand if anyone would be willing to take me to Lamayuru. Even the German couple was interested, and there were also an Israeli couple who wanted to spend the night at Lamayuru. The distance from Kargil to Leh is about 200 kms, and Lamayuru is mid way through, at 100 kms. No taxi was willing to cover this distance unless we paid them the fare upto Leh. So we dropped the idea and decided to spend the night at Kargil instead.

The German couple found a guest house through Lonely Planet and dropped in there. This place was too expensive for me, so I instead looked a little more and found this guy on the streets who offered me a room for 300. I bargained and got it for 250. It was a pretty decent room. Just no hot water, and though the weather wasn’t cold, the water was freezing.

Once I dropped the luggage in the room, I headed back to the taxi stand to book a taxi for the next day, to Leh. We (me and the German guy) spoke to a couple of guys, and finally made a deal where I got a seat on the back on a Scorpio for 600 bucks, while the Germans got seats on middle row for 700 each. It was a bad decision to go for the back seat, but there were no more middle seats left :(.

I headed back to the room, crashed on the bed, and didn’t get up until it was almost 8:00 PM. It was initially difficult for me to sleep for there was no fan in the room (and I can’t sleep without a fan, or something else making some kinda sound), but I was yearning for some good sleep, so it didn’t matter after a while.

I got out and decided to go find some food. I hadn’t had anything substantial throughout the day (I just had a packet of chips and some tea), so was hungry. I’ve read quite a lot about it being very difficult to find vegetarian food in Kargil. Some sites even went to the extent of saying there is no vegetarian food in Kargil. So all I was hoping for was some maggi. But wait, I roamed around a little, and towards the end of the street, I found this Punjabi Vaishno Dhaba which serves pure vegetarian food (So for all you fold out there who said it’s not possible, in your face :P). The place was decent enough, and there was an elderly Sardarji serving hot food. There was chawal (rice) with either Rajma, Aloo Soya or Dal. I asked for some Rajma Chawal. It wasn’t the best I’ve had, but food nevertheless. It filled me good enough.

On my way back to the room, I headed into a cybercafe, which charged Rs. 60/- for an hour of internet. I sat for 30 minutes, checked my mail, facebooked a little, and then went back to the room. I watched couple of episodes of The Newsroom before calling it a day.

Day 6: Srinagar (Gulmarg)

August 29, 2012

Woke up at around 7:00 AM, washed up, had breakfast and got out at around 8:30. My leg was better by now, so decided to take a trip to Gulmarg. I took a bus to the main bus stop at Batmaloo and got into a bus going to Tangmarg. There are no direct buses or sharing taxis to Gulmarg, so you need to take one to Tangmarg, which is about 15 kms away from Gulmarg (If you are renting a full taxi, then it’s a different story). The bus I got into was empty, so I had to wait for almost an hour for it to get full. And even when it did, it was moving at snail’s pace, stopping every 5 minutes to get more passengers. It took close to 3 hours to cover a 56 kms stretch. I immediately got a sharing taxi to finally Gulmarg at around 1:00 PM.

Tip: Never get into a bus from Srinagar to Tangmarg. Instead, take a sharing taxi which costs you only 20 bucks more than the bus, Rs. 55/-, and covers the journey in an hour. I realized this on my way back!!

Gulmarg was very different from Srinagar. It was cold, foggy, and there was a slight mist in the air. Since Srinagar was so hot, I didn’t carry a sweater on this day and it was freaking cold (How dumb was I not to carry wool while travelling to a hill station!!). While I was walking around enjoying the beauty of the place, a guy approached me with an offer to take me around the place on a pony. There were fixed prices listed on a board, which said an hour of ride would cost me 300 bucks, and 200 more for every hour thereafter. This guy gave me a deal of taking me around the place, the Gondolas, wait while I go up the hill and come back, and the return journey for 500. I bargained and got it for 400. I should have done better!!

Tip: Bargain as much as possible. Start from about 40% of quoted price and settle around 60%. I met a family of 4 who got a similar deal for 250 bucks each!! 🙁

The pony ride was super fun. I got a young guy, a little stout, brown in color. There was an elderly guide with me all through out, showing me places, and controlling the pony. He showed me the place where all the movies were shot, took me to a children’s park, and finally to the point where the Gondolas take off. There are two stages for the Gondolas at Gulmarg, and the second stage was closed on this particular day because of the foggy weather. The first stage costs 300 and the second one costs 200, and I took one for the first stage. The ride up took about 15 minutes, and was fun. The view from the top of the mountain was even better. The fog gave way to clear skies and I started feeling better as well. I took a lot of pictures, and then walked up to a restaurant to have late lunch. He said their special dish was Kashmiri Pulao, which cost a whopping 180 bucks. After a 15 minute wait, he served me some crappy rice, flavored with maggi masala. Disgusting it was!! What was I thinking!!

I took the Gondola back to reach down, and then pony ride back to the taxi stand. Paid the elderly gentleman a tip, and headed off towards Tangmarg. This time, took a taxi, and I was in Srinagar in an hour, by 6:00 PM. I had planned to leave to Kargil the next day, so went to the taxi stand to book my seat for the next morning. I paid Rs. 800 /- for the middle seat in a Tata Sumo. Then I walked to Dal Lake for the Shikara ride. The sun was already setting, and it was a wrong time for it, but since I was travelling the next day, I had no other option. They have fixed prices for the ride, but I bargained with a guy to show me around as much as possible in 30 minutes for Rs. 150/-. The Shikara I got into was very comforting. We went around different paths, but it got dark for me to really see stuff. I just enjoyed the ride.

Once done, I walked around the lake for a long time. Sanjay was supposed to pick me up and head for dinner. A friend of his, a gentleman from the armed forces joined us, and we went to a Chinese place called Lhasa near Dal Lake. I ordered an American Chopsuey, while Sanjay and his friend opted for some non-veg stuff. The meal was very good, and this gentleman gave me an insight into how the army survives in cold regions such as Siachen Glacier. The description was just amazing and too good to believe. After a night well spent, we headed back to the house and I crashed in the bed.

Day 5: Srinagar

August 27, 2012

After a good night sleep, I was up at and ready by around 8:00 AM. Sanjay made some kinda cheese for breakfast (which tasted pretty good), and then dropped me off in the city. I planned to see the city on this day, starting of with the Shankaracharya Temple, which is top of a hill. Sanjay suggested that I trek up the hill instead of taking an auto. So I started off on what I thought would be a 15-20 minutes climb, but soon realized that it was a huge scramble. It took all my effort, and close to one and half hour to reach the summit.  The sun was up mid way through which made the trek tougher. After a security check, there were about 300 more steps to reach the temple. I was as good as dead after my first visit for the day. The temple was small and nice, and I had a great view of city from the top.

The climb down was a cake walk after the tough clamber. I came down, and immediately got into a local bus towards Nishat Gardens (Mughal garden). The garden was beautiful and to an extent, well maintained. I found a nice spot and spent some time here to regain all the lost energy. I also happened to buy a tourism book on Kashmir, and planned the rest of my day.

I got out past noon and took a bus to reach a Muslim shrine, Hazrat Bal. This shrine is in the older part of the city, next to NIT Srinagar and University of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the place wasn’t as great as I expected, and was mostly under renovation. So I roamed about the streets, and decided to head towards Hari Parbat Fort.But not until I went there did I realize that the fort is not pen to general public. So I continued walking the streets and reached Jamia Masjid. I wanted to walk more, but the sun was scorching, so I took the bus and headed back into the main city.

Tip: Don’t plan your day based on the Tourist guide!! Two of the three places I went to were closed or under renovation. Ask people for suggestions and tips before you reach any place.

It was almost 4:00 PM and I still didn’t have lunch, so decided to head to Vishnu Dhaba. On the way, I twisted my ankle really bad :(. Struggling, I somehow reached the Dhaba, and had Kashmiri Pulao, which tasted decent (I expected something better). Once done, I started walking next to the Dal gate towards Chashmashahi with the sprained ankle. It was almost dark by now, and by the time I reached the hut, it was 7:00 PM. Sanjay had guests at home, and after a while, we headed off to dinner together.

We went to this authentic Kashmiri restaurant (I don’t remember the name of the place) near Lal Chowk. Sanjay and his friends had some good non-veg food, while I had Tomato Paneer and Sunflower Stem in Yogurt gravy. The Tomato Paneer was spicy and yum, while the Sunflower Stem curry tasted very different. The stem was very good, crunchy, but the gravy was too sour. I also had a Kashmiri Naan, which wasn’t so great. We ended our meal with ice-cream on our way back. Once home, I was dead tired, and went straight to bed.

Day 4: Amritsar – Jammu – Srinagar

August 26, 2012

We reached Amritsar station a little after midnight. I thanked Mr. Bali for his courtesy in hosting me before he left. The BTI Jat Express (#19225) to Jammu was scheduled to arrive and leave at 1:10 AM, but it didn’t come in until 2:00. There was not much place to sit on the platform, so I struggled standing with the bag on my shoulders for about 2 hours until the train arrived. This train was very neat compared to the Garib Rath. I got onto my upper berth, and slept like a baby.

The train reached Jammu at 6:00 in the morning, 45 minutes before its scheduled arrival (I couldn’t figure out what’s with the Indian trains arriving before time. Big surprise!!). I washed up a bit, and got out of the station to take a bus or taxi to Srinagar (There is nothing much to see in and around Jammu, so I was heading straight to Srinagar). It was almost 7:00 by the time I reached the bus stand, and was told that buses to Srinagar would leave from another stand at 7:00, and there was no way that I could make it. They suggested I take a shared taxi from the other stand instead. So I got into a local bus to reach this other stand. Half way through, at a signal, a couple of guys got into the bus, offering a taxi to Srinagar. He said that there’s a front seat available on a Tavera and costs Rs. 500/-. Without thinking much, I got off the bus (which I shouldn’t have). The Tavera was fine, and I did get the front seat, yes, but the taxi was empty, so we had to wait for more than hour for it to get full. This wait was an absolute unnecessary waste of time. I so wished I didn’t get off the bus. To add to this, my phone wouldn’t work as well!!

Tip: Never get off a bus even if taxi guys approach you with a great deal. You’ll find more taxis at the bus stand than in the middle of the road!!

The drive from Jammu to Srinagar is 294 kms, and I was told it told it takes close to 8 hours by taxi. We started at around 8:30, and so I was hoping to reach Srinagar at around 5:00 PM (alas!!). The drive was very straining for the roads were in bad shape, but the scenery was beautiful. We passed through Udhampur, Patnitop, Banihal and Anantnag before we finally reached Srinagar past 7:00 PM. The view at Patnitop was the best. I was tired and exhausted with the ride by the time we reached, and thankfully, my host at Srinagar, Sanjay, came to pick me up from the taxi stand. Sanjay happens to be one of the best guys I’ve met on the trip. He lived in a two bedroom hut near Chashmashahi gardens, and offered me one of the bedrooms. I freshened up, and we went out to the city to buy ourselves some food. We went to Vishnu Dhaba near Dal Gate, and brought home Shahi Panner, Dum Aloo and Roti. The food tasted pretty good, but was very oily. We had a nice little conversation and planned on my sightseeing for the next day before I hit the bed.

Tip: Prepaid sim phones from other states do not work in Jammu and Kashmir, so make sure you carry a postpaid connection. Tata Docomo sucks big time (I say that with experience). Cellone (BSNL) has the best network in the state, and is the only network in places like Kargil. Airtel and Aircel are the other options (Vodafone works on Aircel network).

Day 3: Amritsar

August 25, 2012

I woke up at around 8:00, washed myself and went down for breakfast. Mrs. Bali had made yummy Aloo Parathas. I stuffed myself and then headed out to the Golden Temple. It was raining, and I got into a covered cycle rickshaw. Though I was covered, the guy was getting drenched, and rode through small by-lanes for about 3 kms, and we finally reached. He charged 40 bucks, but I so felt like giving him more. It stopped raining by the time I reached the temple. I bought a scarf to cover my head for 10 bucks (It’s compulsory for men and woman to cover their heads while in the temple), put my shoes in the counter, and walked into the temple. It was a beautiful sight. The temple is in the center of a water pool, and there’s an entrance on one side. I sat inside the temple for about an hour, got out, had the yummy prasad, and then headed off towards Jallianwala Bagh, which is right text to the temple. The sun was up by then, it got unbelievably hot. There’s nothing much to see at Jallianwala Bagh but for the bullet shots on the walls, and the well people jumped into to save themselves. I could help the tears in my eyes. There is a small museum, and an A/V room where they show the film on the massacre. Saw the film, cursed the British and got out.

They were having a blood donation camp in the garden outside, and I decided to donate. They took a liter of blood, gave me Frooti and biscuits. For some reason, my blood didn’t clot, and kept oozing out from the bandage. That created quite a scare for it was still the third day of my trip. They put more bandages on it, and it kinda stopped. I headed back to the temple with my hand folded, for the Langar (every Gurudwara serves food to people all day for free, irrespective of your caste, creed or sex). I am not used to squatting on the floor, but somehow managed to. They served dal, roti, and sweet. I heard a lot about the Langer being awesome, so my expectations were pretty high, and sadly, I was disappointed. Nevertheless, it was decent food. I had booked a taxi at the prepaid taxi counter just outside the temple to go to the Wagah border earlier in the day, which was supposed to leave at 3:30 PM. It was still 2:00, so I sat in the temple premises to while away time. The blood finally clotted by now, and I was relieved.

I got out to take the taxi at 3:30 PM, and went to the taxi stand. The prepaid tax guy, who charged Rs. 120/- for the trip put me into a local taxi guy who charged Rs. 100/-. And moreover, the taxi was packed with 11 people, so my legs pretty much were dead by the time I reached Wagah. He dropped us of near the border, and we had to walk about a kilometer to the stands. We reached at around 5:00, and the place was already full by then. After struggling for about an hour, I somehow manged to reach the top stand. The ceremony started around, and lasted for 20 minutes. Honestly, I was very disappointed with the whole thing. The whole entire show looked like school children showing their might and power in front of each other. To make it worse, people on the Indian side would scream “Hindustan Zindabad” (hail India), and the crowd on other side would scream “Pakistan Zindabad” (hail Pakistan). And then there will be atleast 1 loser on both sides who would scream “Hindustan/Pakistan Murdabad” (death to India/Pakistan). I couldn’t believe that these were the same guys with whom we together fought for independence 65 years ago. If it for me, I would have screamed “Politicians Murdabad” (death to politicians), for they not only torn down my country into two parts, but created an unnecessary rift between us. According to me, the Wagah Border ceremony is a sad moment, for me, and for both the countries.

It was 9:00 PM by the time we reached Golden Temple. I went back in once again, to see the temple shine in moon light. I wanted to have dinner outside, but Mrs. Bali said she would arrange dinner. So I headed home, but on the way, had an Amritsari Kulfi. Mrs. Bali had made Aloo Gobi, Kadhi and Jeera Rice for dinner. The mal wasn’t as great as the previous night, but yummy nevertheless. Me and Mr. Bali had a long conversation before he dropped me off at the station for my Jammu at midnight.

Day 2: Delhi – Amritsar

August 24, 2012

I reached Delhi at around 9:00 in the morning (earlier than scheduled). My next train to Amritsar was at 2:00 PM. The plan was to get fresh at the waiting room at the New Delhi railway station, but the state of affairs in the waiting room were pathetic. They had two rooms, and both of them were packed, and neither of them had proper toilet facilities. The only good thing about them were that they were air-conditioned. But that didn’t matter at that moment for I badly needed to use a restroom. So I got out of the station and decided to find a room to use for about an hour. It had rained in Delhi, so the roads were all muddy, and it terribly hot and humid. In the heat, I walked out of the station into Paharganj with my huge backpack. I walked and walked, into small lanes, but couldn’t find any for a decent price. Everyone would ask for a full day rent, nearly 400 bucks. Finally, in a small sub-lane, I found a room for Rs. 150/-. I didn’t even see the room, but paid for it. While walking up, I see a guy talking an odd-looking girl into one of the rooms. I cursed my luck, closed my eyes and walked into the room allotted to me. It was a hole. The fan wasn’t working, but the loo was alright. I was drenched in sweat by now. I washed up, and hurried out of the room in 30 mins.

It was still 11:00 and I had 3 hours to waste. So i decided to find an AC restaurant and go sit there. I took a rickshaw to Connaught Place, roamed about a bit till I found Haldirams restaurant and settled there. I ordered a Chole Batura and Kesar Pista Faluda, and sat there for more than 2 hours. The food was finger licking good btw. I then headed off to the station, this time on foot. I reached the platform, and waited for the Garib Rath (#12203) to Amritsar. Rain started pouring heavily. I got into the train, and I can’t tell you how filthy it was. Thanks to the rain, the already dirty compartment became muddy. I had an upper berth, so climbed up to get away from the filth. Slowly the train started getting empty and that’s when I came down. It reached Amritsar at 8:30 PM, again ahead of the scheduled arrival time. I now was in Punjab, land of five rivers. I took a cycle rickshaw to my CouchSurfing host’s place. I was to stay with Mr. and Mrs. Parbodh Bali, and elderly couple near Celebrity Mall on Batala Road. They lived in a duplex house in a quiet residential area, and I was given a room on the first floor. They were very nice people, and Mrs. Bali made awesome Punjabi dinner for me – Paneer Burji, Chole and Pulkas. Heavenly. Me and Mr. Bali had a nice little conversation and planned my day in Amritsar before I hit the bed.

Tip: CouchSurfing is this amazing portal where people share homes with strangers for free, on mutual trust basis. If you happen to have an empty room in you house, you could do the same. Visit www.couchsurfing.org to learn more and become a member today!!