fivetospare

Cheng Chin Yuen

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Leh (9th – 23rd May)

It is good to be among Ladakhis and Tibetans once again though I cannot tell one from the other. Shopkeepers here have the wonderful habit of leaving you alone on the pavement and at the eating places, the customer is king once more. ‘Ju-Leh!’ is the universal greeting that almost guarantees a pause and smile from the steady stream of wrinkled and sunburnt folks around. Leh was just waking from her winter hibernation. Many shops and restaurants remained closed and hardly any tourists roamed the streets. Heavy snow on the ingress routes temporarily prevented Coke and Lays from poisoning the city so we had to make do with healthier alternatives like pear juice and dried apple chips. It was ‘paradise’ finally found in tranquil Leh especially with the rugged mountain palisade still untouched by snow melt.

Our travels in and around Leh was made more economical, interesting and inspirational when we befriended Edel, Williz and Kerstin whom we met in Kashmir.

Edel at 55 has been to several countries several times. Not letting the daily grind get in the way of her travels, this positive social worker is the kind of mother who is perfectly OK with her son being a bicycle repairman and a waiter. On one trip to Nepal, she gave her down sleeping bag to her Sherpa after the trek so ‘he will never have to shiver again’. Two mangoes also survived the 6 day trek in her bag over a 4900m pass. I was envious of her new 10MP Sony camera which churned out several great shots.

Williz retired himself at 50 after he realised he was going blind staring at his PC all day long. He hates trekking but some how managed to find Edel on the net to be his travel buddy in India. Two meant a cheaper trip. That’s how open-minded Germans are. With his eccentric streak, you half believe him when he contemplates wearing a diaper to solve his bowel problem. One of his favourite jokes about Singaporeans is the ‘Banana’ one. Yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Most unfortunately, his 80 year old mother passed away in her sleep and he had to catch the first flight home after only 3 days in Leh.

Kerstin is the bubbly, talkative 26 year old Austrian kindergarten teacher. While we had booked of flight tickets into Leh a week before, she chose to just turn up at the airport and try her luck. Of course she got a ticket and it had to be cheaper than what the rest of us paid. She’s in Leh to work on a farm for free and continually amazes us with her arsenal of strange skills. These include making wood whistles from branches, weaving bracelets, pencil drawing and juggling the three clubs which are stashed in her backpack.

At 3550m, Leh could really give you a big headache. So the first two days were spent walking down the characteristic chaos of poplar-lined alleyways that linked Leh’s lime-plastered Tibetan-influenced dwellings together. Our favourite four-table establishment was simply named ‘Tibetan Restaurant’. Here, over a bowl of savoury ‘tomato and vegetable soup’ we met an American lady who having lived in Leh for 10 years, could speak Hindi, Tibetan and Ladakhi. Her American volume, made sure that everyone in that tiny restaurant knew about her linguistic prowess. In one corner sat a Swiss PhD student who is in Leh to visit his ‘adopted’ Tibetan kid whom he has sent money to for his education. It was his fifth time in India. The humble hospitality of the couple who runs the place ensures that it is always full of locals and tourists. You pay as you leave and the bill is never recorded here.

Early the third morning, we hired a jeep for the day to visit the surrounding monasteries. They are all built castle-like on a rocky hill with the main prayer complex at the apex and a clutter of white cubic dwellings on the slopes below it. Beneath the block-like exterior of the main complex is an asymmetrical series of staggered landings, courtyards, prayer halls, libraries, mask halls and monk residences all interconnected by wooden ladders and a web of dark musty corridors that had an earthen scent. One interesting room contained demons so horrible that their faces had to be veiled. The atmospheric ancient nooks where the monks are left to their own study, recitations and prayers probably make the process more meaningful. Buddha statues in the prayer halls are huge and you do get quite a surprise when you step into the second landing and see this oversized head staring out of the windows. The original poplar, brick and plaster remain the main building materials. Temple toilets are dark and smelly. The gap over the long drop is usually too wide to straddle and I suspect the correct procedure is to defecate on the sandy ground and shovel it down afterwards. Explorations ultimately lead to the flat rooftop where unparalleled views of the valley and distant highlands can be enjoyed. Thiksey monastery with its immediate backdrop of scree-slopes is my favourite.

The journey to the sapphire blue Pangong Lake took up the next day. This monster stretches more than a 100 kilometres into China and it took a 5 hour ride over Chang La, a freezing snow-covered 5289m pass to get there. The glare off the snow stung our eyes and compelled us to get clip-on shades when we got back to Leh. Highlights included yaks, a stop-over at a nomad’s parachute tent, massive boulders and exposed domes, a marmot sighting, driving through the snowmelt and dramatic landscapes to big to put into words. At one point the driver decided to race with the jeep in front. This got him a scolding. At other times, he was tailgating, unaffected by the exhaust that was collecting in our vehicle. Again we had to ask him to go slow. Only Edel gave him a tip at the end of the day. Pangong itself was worth the ride. The crystalline water was bluer than the postcards and I regretted not bringing my swimwear. Kerstin got us all skipping stones and dunking durian-sized rocks into the water. An absence of tea-stalls and shelters kept the place peaceful and pristine. We had lunch at the nearest town which was a hour back the way we came. Lunch meant coarse rice, dhal and a small lump of some unidentifiable vegetable. There was no menu or other choice. But it was 70 cents, good and nutritious.

When we thought we were fully acclimatised, we started on our 6-day Spituk-Chiling Trek which climaxed midway over the 4950m Ganda La Pass. It was hardly an epic journey as we walked without load for only 3 to 5 hours a day. The S$60 per person fee got us and entourage of 7 horses and a mule to carry our packs, rations and camping equipment. It felt really strange not carrying my own load but it was much better to have horses rather than porters doing the hard work for me.

The slow pace gave us lots of time to enjoy the landscape at leisure. Here’s a summary of each day:

Day 1

What I had initially thought to be a uniform boring desert mountain landscape turned out to be a wide geological spread. From the continuous rock strata that ran along the highway to the landslide of purple scree to the micro-weathering that turned them into flakes the thickness of a twenty cent coin, rocks here were not just rocks. Kerstin spotted a pink wedge of wriggly clay which she christened ‘ice cream rocks’. There were also rock pillars, protected from the weathering and erosion processes by the resistant cap rock balanced on the peak. In some places, the surrounding rock composed of hundreds of thousands of rounded pebbles and stones ‘glued’ together by finer sediments. Erosion also produced scalloped rock surfaces Although this initial stretch of the trek involved walking on an unpaved mountain road, these many changes in geology kept us going in the heat.

Our logistic train, led by two brothers overtook us at our lunch stop. We wondered if the four of us really needed so much equipment. Paema, our Tibetan guide cum cook carried our lunch of omelette chapatti sandwiches, fruit and chocolate in his day pack. This was to be repeated for our next 6 lunches.

By mid-afternoon we reached our campsite and had plenty of time to rest and chat while Paema and the horsemen set up the tents and cooking tent. It was uncomfortable Raj-style luxury camping where the money we paid ensured that we need not participate in the camping chores. Our job was just to walk and have a good time. Once the horses were unloaded, they rolled about happily in the sand to cool themselves down. They also paired up, faced each other and scratched each other’s neck with their teeth. We helped to pitch the tents and went about our business of lying in the shade and sipping tea for the rest of the afternoon. The only wild-life we saw was a magpie chasing a rodent.

It is idle times like these that I regretted not having my guitar with me. Everyone else had something to pass the time with. In Kerstin’s case, she had a variety of things to do. By dinner, she had made Paema a friendship band and was showing the horsemen how to make a whistle from a branch. At 26, this talkative Austrian had lots of life and energy in her…enough energy to carry 3 juggling clubs all the way from Goa. We all called it pony abuse.

Karen has taken up cartooning and has been capturing the scenes on her scrapbook. I do it a little faster with my camera.

Edel and I spent most of our time talking to Paema in the kitchen tent and we found out that the trekking company pays him only 250Rs a day for leading the trek. That’s S$9 out of the S$240 the four of us pay per day. The ponymen (so called even though there were no ponies) earn 350Rs each since they have to make the return trek on foot while we take the jeep back to Leh. Tibetans are also not allowed to own any land and must apply for a permit when they travel. These terms are still far better than a life of persecution in Tibet and Paema is grateful to India for taking him and his family in. We talk about the mountains the 45 year old has climbed and all the treks he has led in the region. Particularly enticing is the Zanskar River Trek, made in winter, walking on the frozen water for 21 days. The Lamayura-XXX trek that goes over 9 high altitude passes in 10 days with 5 to 8 hours of hiking a day is certainly more of a challenge.

Paema’s cooking kept us gaining weight on this trek. Dinner was a 6 to 7 course carefully calculated celebration starting with a soup going through several vegetarian dishes and ending with black tea. It got better as the days went by, cumulating in a 10 course finale on the last night. You wouldn’t expect custard, tuna momos (wanton), vegetarian pizza, thukpa (handmade noodles), saffron rice and fried noodles on a camping trip. The only dish we didn’t devour was the eggplant mush. With the horses, camping became luxurious.

Day 2

With only 3 hours of walking for the day, we had lots of time to explore Rumbak, a valley village of 7 families in as many houses. The village pharmacist tells us that the main health problem here is high blood pressure as the local Ladakhis drink too much salt with their butter tea. The access road terminated at the first campsite and the nearest hospital in Leh is a 6 hour walk away, that’s if you’re fit. Old folks had to be carried to the access road in an emergency. Babies are delivered at home where there is no heating and poor hygiene conditions. Every family has lost at least one baby to infant mortality.

I got invited by the village oldest man for a cup of Chang. At 77, he has no problems climbing ladders to the rooftop where the barley flavoured alcohol flowed freely from a dodgy looking plastic container that may have once contained engine oil. From the vantage point of his 3 storey plaster and stone mansion we could see the entire valley below us. It was a great deal of land for 7 families. Paema later told me that these folks were very wealthy. They had sheep, yak, buffalo, horses, cows, plenty of food and money from the campsites they maintain. The fee for each tent was 100Rs. His massive house contained a stable-sty-barn at the bottom for the animals in winter, a spacious kitchen cum living room in the middle and about 4 rooms at the top. Electricity for lighting came from solar panels sponsored by government. Outside every house is a mummified goat’s head presumably a warding against evil. One of the horsemen with me chose to end his stomach problems with 3 glasses of diluted whisky. The next morning, he told us that through the night, he visited the loo 7 times.

Day 3

Another short walk to the next campsite at 4400m. It is cold but a marmot (large furry golden squirrel-rat-beaver like animal) and a herd of 30 Blue sheep kept me occupied. The Blue sheep were supposedly blue at the chest but the patches there looked black. How they thundered from one side of the valley to the next was amazing! The steep slippery scree slopes did not slow them down or break a hoof. A couple reared and rammed their large goofy horns head-on in play or a tussle for power. It was cold enough to have ice on the ground so Paema cooked up noodle soup to keep us warm and happy. The thick noodles were hand-rolled from flour. The air is getting thinner and Karen is getting a headache.

Day 4

After what seemed to be a never-ending stretch of uphill slog, we reached the Ganda La Pass. The horses had overtaken us and Karen gallantly rejected a ride despite her AMS and laborious breathing. Paema thoughtfully had one horse saddled just in case. The broad magnificent views of the grounds we’ve covered and the passage to our destination was interrupted briefly by a snow drizzle. After a quick group photo, during which I lost my towel to the howling winds, we happily began on the gentle descent to another village. This time there were only 2 houses here. Edel revealed that she barely made the pass by breaking the final stretch into shorter ‘stone to stone’ checkpoints. At 55, it must have felt quite good to be at 4950m.

At our campsite, we met another group of 10 Mumbai trekkers. These garang group, ranging from the middle-aged to teenagers chose to carrying their own packs. Despite this, they still had 16 horses to carry the rest of the gear. They were doing the same trek but in the other direction. Later, we found out that they were going on to climb the 6250m Stok Kangri.

Day 5

This stretch to the village of Skiu, offered the most variations in geology. The different rock types coloured the mountains in alternating bands of jade, brown and purple. We walked along a stream that wound between steep gorges and a particularly impressive rocky razorback from which orange scree slid for a stretch of 150m. The shifting shadows on the large planes of rock were also good causes of amusement for me.

Skiu was the largest and perhaps the most prosperous village on the trek. We got invited to join the farmers during their break from the ploughing session and were fed butter tea, Chang (again dispensed from a dubious container), a heavy round-bread and a milky lime-flavoured vegetable mush which we tried to enjoy on the freshly ploughed soil. Karen and I were probably their source of entertainment and there was loads of laughter as grandpas, grannies, men, women, children and toddlers ate together. I ask the bubbly 17 year old girl that invited us to tea where her father was and she said, ‘He died, Chang always drinking’.

The pair of devilish beasts that pulled the plough looked like a buffalo-yak cross breed. They had menacing horns and were controlled by a single wooden ring that went through all four nostrils. A man who whipped the beasts with a long cane steered the plough, another scattered the barley in the furrows, two ladies covered the furrows by swinging a small changkol side to side and finally, the ground was levelled with a rake. It was back-breaking work but the rhythm, synchronised movements, community spirit and songs kept these hardy folk going.

The last campsite was a muddy disappointment. We camped here because the availability of hay for the horses which the horsemen bought from the farmers. Paema dished out a 10 course finale dinner which was followed by some singing by the campfire. It turned out that one of the horsemen sang really willingly and soulfully. Kerstin and Edel belted out some children songs including one about a horse galloping. Karen and I sang a much appreciated Majullah Singapura.

On that cold and windswept night, a faulty fly (of the tent) zip prompted Karen to ease her bladder in the tiny triangular space between the fly and inner-sheet of the tent giving birth to the first tent with an attached toilet. I slept soundly even though the sacred space was just half a metre above my head.

Day 6

The barren landscape on the last day wasn’t first class but we got to see how roads were cut into the mountainside. In a couple of years a highway will link Skiu to Leh changing the lives of the villagers forever. But for now, it was still a 5 hour walk over a final 3900m pass to the nearest road at Chiling. As Paema had pointed out the day before, the final pass seemed intimidating but we were lunching at the top in less than half an hour. It might have been easier for me if Karen hadn’t forgotten her pouch at a rest stop a little earlier on. I had to retrace the steep path to the lookout point to retrieve her valuables. That’s how the story usually goes with most boyfriends.

The trek concludes with a 30m trolley ride across the swift Zanskar River. We bid farewell to our horseman, gave him his tip and took our turns in the trolley. Five straight nights joking about Edel snapping the trolley cable and drowning in the river came to an uneventful end and we had none of her expensive clothing and equipment. The trolley had to be pulled across and that few seconds earned the locals 100Rs per tourist and 250Rs for the baggage.

We visited the Phyang and Spituk monasteries on the way back. Phyang seemed older but Spituk was architecturally more interesting and had a commanding view of the Leh Valley. A sacred room on a rocky outcrop at the top of the temple contained the diabolical Cham masks used in the Losar dances. There was no electricity and the gloom made the dusty masks appear even more supernatural.

While we were away, the snow melted over the connecting passes and Leh came to life. Thanks to global warming, it was a record early melt. It was time to move on even though there was still so much to see. You can’t have it all so Lamayura, Tsomoriri, the Zanskar, Dhanu and Nabra valleys have to wait for the next trip. I had one more bout of busy bowels and vomiting before saying goodbye to Edel and Kerstin and braving the 19 hour jeep ride to Manali.

Leh to Manali

This 19 hour road epic was worth every minute starting at 3.30am till 10.30pm. It was our first time travelling with 4 Korean girls who spent the breaks in the ride touching up their immaculate makeup. They also shared their vast amounts of food freely. In their seven days in Leh, the three teachers and one fashion designer did not explore the areas out of town and chose to spend their time teaching the cook in their (and our) favourite restaurant how to cook proper Korean food which they later added to the menu. Always shaded from the sun, these fair maidens are not to be meddled with and proved ferocious and blunt when it came to bargaining. When one man decided to intervene on our hunt for the jeep to Manali the fashion designer quipped, ‘And who are you? This is not your business. Please go away. Do not disturb us.’

The scenery on this 475km leg is awesome if you can keep awake. On the high plateaus, hundreds of yak and sheep grazed on the plains waiting for the next nomadic migration. The plains then suddenly fall away to a canyon at Phang and here we saw Cappadocia like rock pillars, arches, snow fields and frozen lakes and waterfalls. It’s just too much, too beautiful and too impossible to describe and photograph. The 10am breakfast in a parachute tent, was followed by lunch only at 4.30pm. Along the way, we passed many travellers on motorbikes going the other way and in summer serious mountain-bikers tour from Manali to Leh to Srinagar in one month.

We were all in awe of our young driver who drove cheerfully for almost a total of 17 hours! What stamina and skill to negotiate the countless bends, muddy ruts and slopes! I didn’t know that 19 hours was a respectable timing. Hiro, another garang Japanese girl who arrived later told me her driver took almost 24 hours and had to take a two hour nap in the middle.

Kashing In (1st May to 9th May)

Luck and Karen found us a private taxi to Srinagar when we reached Jammu after all local transports have left early in the morning for the 7 hour journey that covered 274 kilometres. Paying just less than double the market rate for a shared jeep, we found ourselves on plastic seat wrappings in a brand new Marauti. The car had to be sent to Srinagar that day and we clocked enough karma to chance upon the delivery guy.

Before we could enjoy the mountain landscape, a long series of army camps with their façade of sandbag bunkers, barbed wire-fences, road-blockages, machine gun posts, bullet-proof vested patrols and large vehicle parks reminded us of the instability that is entwined with the dramatic landscape. Beer bottles coupled on the barbed wire provided the alarm for the guards at the watch towers and the ‘dragon’s teeth’ lying in wait by the roadside checkpoints would shred tyres with a tug from a rope. Oil drums placed in the middle of the lanes forced drivers to decelerate and zig-zag their way up to the check point. As tourists unfamiliar to the strong military presence and heavy fortifications, we felt a little uneasy, intimidated and above all pity for the poor dude who has to stand alone in the sandbag bunkers baking under the zinc-roofing imprisoned behind the veil of grenade nets. We have never seen so many army camps in one area.

As our tiny Marauti wove along the mountain roads, the rural goodness of the countryside soon returned. The ranges in this initial phase of the ride were really crowded in such that the distant view was a magnificent gridlocked layers of fading peaks and ridges. The thin vegetation also exposed the slanted, bent and gnarled grand strata in this maze of rock. It was for me to date the most scenic ride in India. For Karen the winding road soon took its groggy toll. Still even in this remote region, nature is not left alone to her wonders and someone had decided to add a huge dam and a gigantic advertising mural (at least 70m X 100m) painted onto what would be an impressive escarpment.

The journey out of Jammu was in some parts stalled by huge convoys of mutton taking their stroll to the feeding pastures. The stream of 300 or so sheep and goat, all unpleasantly head-marked with a spray of red paint, would part as they approached our car devouring all edible greens by the roadside. The goats have corkscrew horns and a long draping coat. One billy was walking on two legs, humping the female in front of him. Only 2 or 3 shepherds (and their dog) controlled the entire highway horde. In the car, we could smell the fragrant mutton walking outside and it smelled exactly like the curry mutton chops we had for lunch at a roadside dhaba a little later at 4 o’clock.

All tourist vehicles (whether they have it or not) will plaster an ‘All India Tourist Permit’ in the sun-shade portion of the windscreen. It was obvious that we weren’t in one but on all three occasions when we were stopped to have our passport checked, the soldiers greeted our driver like their long lost brother and waved us on even though we couldn’t answer the ‘What was your Calcutta flight number?’ question. (Eh brother, 3 months is a long time to remember 2 letters and 3 digits!) Well, to his credit, our driver was a nice fellow who didn’t blast us with the Hindi Top Ten and who gave lifts to other soldiers and an old lady and her daughter. He also helped us to find a cheapo place in the rain. He warned us that all houseboat owners were ‘cheatermans!’ He was also Hindu like the soldiers in Kashmir. Kashmir is 95% Muslim and the security force trying to contain and control them is predominantly Hindu. ‘They do not trust us. They think that we are all terrorists,’ one university undergrad told me later. Most of the Hindus that once lived in Srinagar (Kashmir’s main city) were relocated to Jammu.

After finally leaving Jammu at the other end of a 2574m tunnel, we emerge on the other side of the mountain overlooking the Kashmir Valley. A billboard quickly welcomes us to ‘Paradise on Earth’. After emerging from the darkness to the expansive views of the long lush valley enclosed by snow peaks on all sides, the effect was cinematic and for a moment, you are too mesmerised to remember that you are in a region rattled since 1947 (and reaching its peak in 1989). Since 1989, it is estimated that 60,000 people have lost their lives in this ‘Paradise’. The longer we stayed in Kashmir, it seems that ‘Paradise Lost’ would be a more appropriate welcome. But for those precious initial minutes as the car descended into the massive misty valley, it did feel quite close to paradise.

There is definitely a deforestation problem in Kashmir. Willows are felled in the name of India’s cultural unifier to make thousands of baseball bats that are stacked up in square pillars by the road to dry. Some of these bats unsurprisingly find their way into the spurts of violence here.

Srinagar finally appears after the last 15 kilometres in the valley that is getting more hazy as we approach its tourist heart - Dal Lake. Darkness fell with the rain and we paid the driver and thanked him for his patience in finding a guesthouse that was in our budget range. ‘Houseboat is cheaterman,’ he issues his final warning as he took the money. It was the word of a Kashmiri against the recommendation of our guidebook. Of course we went with the Lonely Planet.

The next morning, the touts were already waiting for us. Two guys waited patiently for us to finish our cookies and buns at a breakfast stand before approaching us. In all normal circumstances, we would have gone on our own and we did. But Kashmiri touts aren’t your normal touts. One of them decided to get on our tuk tuk to ‘help’ us find a houseboat on Dal Lake. We had no obligations and he would pay for the Shikara (local gondola) ride. Dal Lake is huge and there are more than 400 houseboats on it. So we decided to make an exception and allowed ourselves to be touted to take advantage of a free boat-ride which would otherwise cost 100Rs an hour. Interestingly the LP doesn’t have any houseboat recommendations.

The Shikara ride was pleasant and we did find a suitable houseboat after 3 or 4 stops. The offer was 3000Rs per day full board. The room would cost 1500 without the meals which we naturally went without knowing that there was no way we could spend more than 1000Rs in town even if we pigged out at every meal. It took more than 10 minutes of resistance to get the room-only deal! Kashmiri pushiness was getting to me. Just when you thought the dust had settled, Mr Tout asked me to pay the boatman. I gave the tout a lashing despite his seniority in age, reminding him of this ‘offer’ barely an hour ago. This is one of the trials of travelling in India. Sometimes, talking ‘nicely’ just doesn’t work…or takes way too long to work. The boatman did a great deal of paddling and the soft-hearted tourist would pay. But after 3 months in India, we had drawn our own lines and stuck by them most of the time.

I told Mr Tout to pay the boatman from the commission he would receive from the houseboat owner.

‘I earn no money. We brothers.’

That’s the gift of India. With the right attitude, for every incident that pisses you off, there are more than enough that will make you chuckle or burst out in laughter.

The three nights on the houseboat was peaceful except for the occasional trekking or boat-trip sell. I guess 1500Rs was a good deal for the huge ‘Deluxe Class A’ houseboat all to ourselves. The carvings on the wood panelling were nice and the room was the biggest and most comfortable we ever had. There was even a full sized bath tub in the toilet! Most of all the isolated spot where the houseboat was moored gave us the silence after the hectic town excursions. The mostly misty mornings gave us a window of only 15 minutes to admire the calm lake in its mountain amphitheatre before the horizon was clouded. This we witnessed from the roof of the houseboat. As promised, shuttles to and from the pier was free, hassle free, soothing and brought back memories of our beloved Inle Lake in Myanmar. (btw Inle still wins hands down!) Still it was not possible to spend an entire day rotting on a luxury floating home.

According to the houseboat owner’s hippy son, Dal Lake four months ago had giant pines in them. They were sucking up too much water so the government ordered them to be chopped down to the stumps. Paradise Lost would definitely be it.

Despite the dense concentration of houseboats, the water in the lake is remarkably clean and clear. Littering is uncommon and human waste are contained and subsequently collected in a mesh bag beneath the boats to be disposed off later.

You are better off taking a motor-rickshaw down the long boulevard fringing Dal Lake into town. If the exhaust doesn’t kill you, you will probably end up spending a long time in jail anyway after you kill some of the Shikara touts. The pavement across from the touts is breeched by several dozen slip roads and set at a height designed to destroy your knee caps. When the tourist flow (Indian tourists far outnumber foreign ones.) is heavy, we took our chances with the tout route.

Tout 1 : ‘HELLO! YOU WANT SHIKARA??’

Me : ‘no’

Tout 1 : ‘YES?? We go now?’

Me : ‘Which part of NO do you not understand?’

Tout 2 : ‘Where is your good country?’

Me : ‘Singapore’

Tout 2 : ‘You sure??’

Me : ‘You are asking me if I’m sure of which country I’m from??’

Such is the exasperation.

Facing the lake is also a series of hotels-turned-fortresses. What once were prime tourist lodging are now depressing homes to the various regiments which looked really out of sync with the serenity of the area. Just a couple of weeks before, a grenade attack injured around 20 people, many of them local tourists. Later, when we were in Delhi, there was another attack which left 7 foreigners wounded. Kashmir relies mainly on tourism and some extremist group is trying their best to undermine that.

The Old City with its tangle of wood-and-brick anti-earthquake houses has the most character. These relics usually go up to 3 or 4 floors up, testimony to the ingenuity of the architects of the past. We visited the Khanqah-e-Molla mosque, one of the oldest in Kashmir, made using similar materials without the onion domes and minarets we are used to. The carpeted interior is covered with shiny Arabic inlays and marble and it would be nice if non-Muslims could go in and have a peep. Even Muslim women were forbidden entry and had to pray by the main door or in a separate chamber round the back. There is a huge gold medallion hung above the doorway and the men grab onto the supporting chains as they emerge from the prayer hall. Two doormen asked me for donations. I might have left a token if we were permitted inside.

The Jama Masjid was one we could enter after a brief frisk from the guards. This giant with its high walls looks more like a maximum security prison and can accommodate 30,000 people. The forest of pillars here are most impressive feature in the otherwise plain mosque. At the main altar, I was approached by an old man and his younger friend who were so appalled that I did not believe in any God that they took it upon themselves to sit us down and try to get me to embrace Islam. Soon, the usual arguments became circular, they were getting more agitated and I was getting nowhere. Some dudes are in too deep they forget how to listen. Eventually, the bearded old man tried to use his age as leverage but I told him, much to his suppressed displeasure, that sometimes he needed to listen to the young. I snuffed out the conversation as diplomatically as I could and got away from there before more fanatics decide to have a go at determining my religion. People here are a little hardcore for my liking. The touts by the lake should come here more often.

The Old City also has the largest concentration of women in sinister burkhas. Even their eyes are behind a black mesh lattice shaped like two large teardrops. Barred from employment, they are primarily housekeepers who walk a little behind their hubbies like docile wives should…so it seems. A widely publicised sex scandal involving some high officials, policemen and some Muslim women was uncovered just after we left Kashmir and these housewives became more than desperate. They became violent, took to the streets in protest, threw rocks at the police, razed the mama-san’s house to the ground and burnt her things. It was weird to watch these women let it all out on national TV. During the saga, there was a 3 day strike and all shopkeepers were advised to ‘shutter up’. The burkha contingent then banded into the ‘Moral Brigade’ and went around town ‘advising’ couples on appropriate behaviour. I think when four black shrouds come up to you, stop your tea session and start scolding, you do keep deathly still and take the tirade in stride.

We realised we had enough when the guy we stopped for directions asked us in return if we had read the Koran. ‘You have not read the Koran?’ He almost cried. ‘You should read the Koran. It is a very good book!’

The ski-slopes and picnic grounds of Gulmarg was our brief reprieve from the heavy pollution, touting and religious zealots of Srinagar. The tourist bus soon found itself in the good company of pine trees and mountains that were crested with a generous blob of snow. Through the episodic breaks in the vegetation, we could see the immense valley fading into the late morning mist. The only flaws in the landscape were the glares from fresh zinc rooftops. At the halfway break, we were hijacked by a tout who offered to help us find accommodation at our rock-bottom prices. It was once again a ‘no obligations’ kind of thing.

Geography presents Gulmarg really well. Emerging from a pass through the dividing ridge, you leave the Kashmir Valley behind you and are smacked with the panorama of a gigantic snow covered ridge that runs along the entire valley. A golf course bordered by a buffer of pine trees, occupies most of the valley floor and the dark green grass goes really well with the backdrop of white. All the hotels look expensive so we decide to go with our tout. That was how we landed ourselves in Hotel Cityview which was a steal at 250Rs. Straddling the dividing ridge, we could have breakfast in the open with the Kashmir Valley on our left and Gulmarg on our right. Our room was illuminated by a single bulb and the toilet window was actually a sizable hole in the wall that threatened our private moments and let the freezing winds in. It couldn’t be shuttered so we improvised with a table cloth. Our room was clean, comfortable and best of all away from the noisy areas.

True to his word, our hotel tout didn’t demand a commission and did find us a decent place for a very reasonable price. But his helpfulness soon evolved into a hard sell for his guiding services, promising us wonderful treks, visits to his house and isolated picnic spots away from the tourist areas. It took too many ‘no thank yous’ and ‘I will call you if I need your services’ to rid ourselves of him. I refused to give him anything when he finally gave up and asked for his tip. ‘You give me something if you are happy?’ The thing is 10 eternal minutes ago I was happy. It was probably a good way to teach past and present tense since the emotive involvement was so great. So I gave him a little scolding. The owners of Hotel Cityview however, provided excellent hassle-free service. Hassled service in its numerous forms is one of India’s finest ironies.

On one of our morning walks, we stumbled upon what we thought was a regular cake of black cow dung. As we approached the lump, the fat black pixels came to life and took to the sky, buzzing in angry at the disruption to their breakfast feast. Those brave ones that remained behind became the chips of the gigantic chocolate chip cookie. It was strangely exciting to watch the brown cookie turn dark after we had passed.

There are dozens of horses in Gulmarg and these ferry hundreds of fat local tourists too lazy to walk the flat 1.5 km stretch from the car park to the gondola station. Here, if you are come after 11am, you will queue ages for a ticket and then eons for to finally get into the gondola (cable car equivalent) that will take you up to the ski-fields on the shoulder of the massive ridge that flanks Gulmarg Valley. It is an exciting ten minute ride. In true Singaporean spirit, we were one of the first ten in line for the tickets. The ticket office opened at 10am as stipulated but started to leisurely issue tickets only at 10.30am so being in the top ten meant that I got my ticket at 11am…only one hour after opening time. Not a problem. At least they had a security guy at the front to put the queue jumpers back at their rightful end. The long wait must have made the ride up more memorable.

The glare of the huge ski-field was painful so we looked mainly at the ground or the sky to avoid snow-blindness. We had 30 minutes of peace before the main bulk of the tourists arrived to fill the tea houses. To prevent overcrowding, there was a two hour limit to our ticket failing which we had to either pay a fine or walk back down. Sleds-men earned a living by pulling tourists up the snow slopes, setting them off, running after them and hauling the deadweight up again. Old men were bent backed dragging fat Mumbai ladies on their sleds. It is a pride-swallowing job, but there was money in it.

Most of the local tourists were dressed for the sub-zeroes, overkilled with thick coats, gloves, scarves, beanies and rubber boots. Soon they were sweating beneath all those layers.

The queue was ridiculously long when we got back down and I felt sorry for them. Many of them were just here for the day and did not have the option of an early queue. It was a long punishing wait in the sun. There was also a VIP who bypassed everyone and had four armed guards to carry his picnic baskets.

On one very pleasant walk to an isolated valley, we saw an American lady posing with two soldiers. A third was taking the photograph. She was wearing one of their helmets and brandishing one of their AK47s. It’s possible in India, not possible in Singapore. On the way back a man gave us a lift into town and offered to give us a ride back to Srinagar the next morning. We politely refused as we weren’t quite sure what we wanted to do the next morning but it is moments like these that moderate our judgements on the local folks.

At a fraction of the tourist price, we caught the local bus back to Srinagar. It took three change of buses and almost 2 hours longer but got us more in touch with the local scene. The first step up the second bus was about a metre off the ground without any side railings but the old folks were fit enough to pull themselves onboard. Men offered their seats to ladies especially to those in a burkha. A blind man and his wife got up and seats were instantaneously vacated. We were driving though a blizzard of kapok during the last hour and that made the journey really special. Nearing the end, the ride took us past slum encampments that brought back memories of Kolkata’s street dwellings. Rag-tent colonies and shack archipelagos floating on a swamp of fetid sewerage always ring the bell of reality. Go read Shantaram for a glorious insight into slum community.

At the recommendation of Edel and Willie, our German friends we met on the ride to Gulmarg, we checked into Hotel Heavenly Canal. Despite its somewhat unappealing name, the view of the houseboats from the long waterfront veranda is excellent. As Willie puts it ‘You feel like you are on a houseboat’ without spending 1500Rs. If only the management would wind down on the selling of Kashmiri shawls, carpets and boat tours when we just want to enjoy the view, the stay would be perfect. They even slapped us with a 10% service charge on our final bill even after ripping a hole in Edel’s trekking pants!

A 5.00am Shikara ride to the floating market is worth the wake. Being wholesalers, these feisty men in their vege-laden boats are not interested in tourists like us who tried in vain to buy two tomatoes. In the disorganised flotilla of a hundred or so wooden canoes, I saw only one woman. For one intense emotional hour, the skull-capped men haggle, argue, shout, exaggerate, snatch loose vegetables, snatch back lost turnips, weigh their produce, transfer their load and count their money. Before sunrise, the drama is over and the boats disperse into the marsh mazes.

Much to Karen’s delight, the treacherous mountain road to Leh was snow-blocked and impassable for an indeterminable number of days. So we had to fly, shortening 2 days of exciting perilous driving over some amazing landscape into a 35 minute plane-ride. It was our first internal flight and cost me 87 USD each. It was worth it for two reasons.

The first was a chance to see the Srinagar airport which could be well-mistaken for a military airbase. Before we could even see the main terminal, we had all our baggage X-rayed and ourselves frisked. It wasn’t a ‘go-through-the-motion’ kind of frisk. There were always enough AK47s around to fill us with bullets if there was a ‘problem’. We then got back into our taxi and drove on to the main building where we were quarantined till the armed security personnel checked our passports and tickets. Then came the second round of X-raying and frisking. Batteries were not allowed in out hand-luggage. By now the plane was scheduled to fly in half an hour. No one seemed to be worried. We were finally checked in and issued our boarding pass with which we could claim some food and coffee from a snack counter. One final series of X-raying and frisking made that number three in this stronghold of concrete and barbed wire. Karen lost her AAA mp3 player battery to the authorities here. It could find its way into a pilot’s eye I guess. We finally learnt that the flight was delayed due to poor weather conditions. I have never felt so safe before a flight.

The Leh landing gives you the feeling that you are crashing into the mountains. Through the airplane windows, white peaks were rapidly ascending. We were so close to the mountains that you could see the rock faces, talus slopes and at times the plane’s shadow clearly. When we finally got out of the plane, it was into a brown basin of desert with mountains all around us. Security levels weren’t astronomical and we were not antagonised by roguish taxi drivers. If fact no one bugged us at all. We knew that Leh would be our favourite place in India.

Amritsar (28th April – 1st May 2006)

Amritsar didn’t really get off to a good start when the trishaw rider cursed us loudly for not paying him 10 rupees more than the agreed 20. It was a tough ride through the pollution and we got off and walked when the gradient got too steep for him to cycle. I would have paid him a tip if he hadn’t demanded it first. Such are the minor hassles of traveling in India. A Sikh man came up to us to help resolve the conflict, speaking kindly to the wallah who shouted ‘You Go!’ after a while. So we went. At least someone came to our aid almost immediately.

Amritsar is the holy city of the Sikhs with the Golden Temple as her religious heart pulsating with the prayers of thousands of pilgrims. They trickle in at every hour of the day, even those very wee ones, where some one I know well religiously goes to wee. Besides the beauty of the Golden Temple, which erupts from the middle of a placid pond larger than a football field, I like the soundness of the Sikh philosophy dictated by the 10 Gurus. Guru Nanak was the first up and one of the first things he did was to abolish the caste system*. Next was to recognize and respect all religions. He also emphasized the importance of hard work. Try finding a Sikh beggar in India! The last Guru wisely said that there would not be any more after him to add to the numerous rules in the four very thick and big holy books. Everyday, these sacred text are read, chanted and broadcast in the Golden Temple from 4.30am to 10.30pm. Before the chanting, the marble floor of the temple is given a scrub with cow’s milk. The Golden Temple is accessible only by a causeway where the queue is well regulated in a circuit by the temple guards. You tend to listen to them. They have gruff voices and carry swords, spears and daggers to emphasize the point. Guns are for whims and sticks or lathis for the police. Fearless Indian aunties with some mysterious inborn immunity, still shovel and push the second the barriers are lowered.

*The Caste System – Think of this as a rather inflexible hereditary specialisation of labour. If your dad was a cobbler, you will be a cobbler. You will not step on the shadow of a dude from higher caste, say a priest. The priest’s son will go to the village RI. You will not go to school. Your shack will be downstream from his house so you will get the honour of seeing his shit bobbing past your laundry area. Wander into the temple at his prayer time and you get lead poured down your ears. The lowest class shouldn’t even be seen, smelt or touched thus earning them the ‘Untouchables’ category. It’s quite unlike the gun-slinging heros in the 1987 movie. Read Rohinton Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’ to get a little insight into the ‘salted vegetable life’ of these people who make up roughly 14 percent of India’s population. That’s just 60 million folks by the way.

The Temple of Gold

Most pilgrims buy some offerings of a sweet paste and flowers before they hit the causeway. These come directly proportional to the size of your donation at the ‘offering counters’ near the start of the causeway. The cash registers at separate booths seem to ensure that your donation does not end up as baksheesh in the wrong pockets. Sensibly, these are collected and recycled before entering the golden chamber where they are exchanged for a handful of sweets which take the form of tiny popcorn. Before entering the dazzling sanctum, the pilgrims get down on their hands and knees and bow their foreheads to the marble floor.

In the heart of the temple are a tabla-harmonium duo, the four holy book readers and a couple of singers responsible for the live broadcast. All have proud beards and a turban to match. Not everyone is allowed the honour of reading the books. You have first got to be a temple member and then wait in a 10 to 12 year queue. The stars of the day are surrounded by pilgrims baking under the tungsten bulbs of the chandeliers. The chamber is packed and we have just enough time for the ‘golden-ness’ of the temple to sear itself in our memories before being ushered out to the rear of the temple. Here the faith overcomes all laws governing personal hygiene. The pilgrims walk down to the water’s edge and gulp a handful of the greenish water. I guess its ok because hundreds of fat fish survive in the pond and the bathing takes place only at its edges. There are also plenty of toilets in the temple hostels.

Temple-rary Lodgings

We are staying in Ram Das Niwas, one of the four huge 3-storey pilgrim hostels in the temple compound. It is donation-based and full of life which bustles excitedly from 4am to well past midnight. There is no silent mode. The temple is rich (and organised) enough to own a fleet of buses to ferry incoming pilgrims from the train station for free. Many are happy simply to be here and sleep out in the open in the central courtyard. Foreign travelers are all quarantined in a corner dormitory equipped with lockers and one bathroom. I am thankful for this. Many pilgrims are very inquisitive and interested in us. The 15th “Hello, Where from? How do you like this place? How are you feeling? Can you take a snap with us? Etc” can be mentally grinding. There is also a formidable Sikh bouncer outside our quarters 24/7. He holds a spear with one hand and his beard in the other. He effective plays the dual role of ensuring our safety during our stay and ‘extracting’ our donations before we depart. Their colour is saffron and blue, saffron being the clolour of martyrs which the Sikh history is full of. Just across our dorm is a noticeboard with mugshots of thieves who were caught stealing. They hold a placard with their names scribbled on it. All of them, young and old look extremely glum. At least they are alive. The Amritsar massacre site is less than 400 metres away and the Temple itself was razed and rebuilt several times.

Here I met a Canadian who has been travelling for 4 years flying only twice in this period. He’s finally going home in December to attend his sister’s wedding. He could never understand why his sister chose to get married during winter where outside temperatures are cold enough to freeze all exiting pee instantly. The other amazing fellow I met is Yuya, a Jap who found himself stuck in Katmandu when the problems started. The strikes paralyzed all outward bound transport so our man bought a bicycle and pedaled to Delhi. ‘Bicycle not very good!’ He said to me, pointing to the raffia reinforcements he had to make to the seat and mud-guards. Yuya has been on the go for 2 years, leaving Japan on his birthday which fell on the day we met in Amritsar. Being a cook by former profession, he is one of the rare Japanese travellers who fondly remembers dishes like laksa, nasi lemak, bak kut teh, satay and chicken rice. Our love for food and bicycles made us fast friends and he invited me to visit him in Hokkaido in 2008. By then he would have opened his guesthouse and restaurant. His bicycle is going to take him through Pakistan and China in his remaining months of travel. We talked late into the night in quiet voices drunk on the nostalgia of good food back home while the rest slept despite the unceasing and often noisy pilgrim arrivals.

Feeding Time

On our first night, we had dinner in the Free Kitchen, a corner building the size of our average neighbourhood community club. I am impressed again by the system. At the first station, we are handed a steel plate with 4 partitions, then a bowl at the next and finally a teaspoon at the last before we enter the dining hall where everyone is seated in neat rows on the floor. Dinner is chapatti, spiced rice, an unsightly but tasty lentil stew and a bowl of water. Sikh men and young boys serve the food from buckets and refills are unlimited. One man tells us that there is a chapatti-making machine that churns out 600 chapattis a minute! We later got to see the monster which occupied a large part of the kitchen with its network of chapatti-laden conveyor belts. Cleaners sweep and mop the marble floor between the hungry human waves. A French lady I met earlier told me that the temple feeds 50,000 people daily. Whatever the correct figure, it is a sizable hungry crowd which perhaps explains the relatively beggar-free streets. It was nice to eat with a couple of hundred other people, all momentarily equalized by a meal on the floor. The bowl was for the water that was poured from watering cans. Dinner goes down quickly and the next batch is soon lined up and ready. The second night saw the same dinner minus the spiced rice. Fearing that the next would be even one dish less, we didn’t make a hat-trick of free dinners. We found out later that a pickle dish was added to the original fare that night*!

*The night I missed the third Free Kitchen dinner, I ate a mutton curry which the rest of my stomach didn’t really welcome. By the time I realised that I had to let it all out, I was on a 5.5 hour bus-ride to Jammu. Of course there was no toilet on the bus. There were no shops along the highway. I wasn’t quite ready to offer my fellow passengers their first glimpse of my Singaporean backside so I crammed my butt cheeks together and pinched my tummy. It seemed to stop the rush…for another painfully long 15 minutes during which we still hadn’t arrived. The sludgy situation is getting a bit out of butt. I took out one of the more sturdy plastic bags I had. I looked to the rear of the bus. It was quite full. I would definitely be seen and smelt if the molten mutton was ejected behind seat number 40. Some fervent pilgrim must have been on the same vehicle as just then, when all hope of saving face was lost, the bus drew up at the shoulder. A man got off. There was a row of shops. I ran off the bus into the nearest shop. It was a tiny Dhaba (eatery) with no one but the boss who shouted ‘NO TOILET!’ when I shouted ‘TOILET!?!’ The floodgates were bursting as I ran and exploded between the last row of tables. There were 4 tables in the Dhaba (That means 2 very short rows). The poor owner decrescendoed a heartwrenching ‘NOOOOOOOOooooooooo…’ (Something like the screaming hero who falls off a cliff in the movies) while my bag began to fill up fast catching every blob and drop. If you are experienced enough, you would know that the blobs actually came faster than the drops in times like these. It was one of the most memorable and satisfying shitting episodes ever! After the final wipes, I returned smiling to a bus full of shocked Indians after apologizing to the owner who was graciously forgiving after a quick look to the rear of his Dhaba. It was a clean job. It was only after two less dramatic purges in a much more condusive area was the serial shitting finally over.

Washing Up

The washing of the utensils is done by heaps of volunteers organised over four long troughs. The efficient specialisation of labour (sorting, clearing the leftover bits, rinsing, soaping, scrubbing, final rinsing, drying and stacking) is clangy and continuous and the thousands of utensils are towed to the distribution points in large crates to the start of the feeding cycle where newcomers are already bowing their heads at the doorstep in gratitude.

Our 3-night stay in the temple compound exposed us to the open hospitality of the Sikhs. Housing and feeding us and the thousands of others truly seemed to be their pride and pleasure. The pathway leading up to the Free Kitchen is lined with beggars and the homeless. Hostel accommodation is donation-based and there is no entry fee to the Golden Temple that provides the much needed tranquility from the traffic tragedy outside.

Attari

The other spectacle that draws tourists to Amritsar is the border ceremony at Attari, 45km to the west at the India-Pakistan checkpoint. Hooking up with Monica and Marylyn at the Niwas, we shared a mini-van to the daily episode. Crammed in with the four of us were four more Indian tourists and it took two running starts to get us moving. True to Indian tolerance, none of us complained about the squeeze and the sweat. There was no smell. Contrary to all the cruel things being said about the legendary Indian smell, I have not got a whiff on all my long and countless journeys on overcrowded buses and trains in the past 4 months! Neither did the Indian couple who had ‘cho-ped’ the front seats punched the driver when he unceremoniously asked them to relinquish their seats for the two Caucasian women. Such is the tolerance level in India and basically that is how 1 billion of them live together.

We didn’t get very far before we were stopped by a Sikh cop. A flurry of heated Hindi exchanges did nothing to help us understand the situation until the driver pointed to his seatbelt and waved his hand in the air as if to say, ‘Oh Come ON, WHO in India wears a seatbelt! Look at that guy there and there and there and there and there and there! (as the countless cars overtook us with their angry honking)’ The cop was insistent and soon our driver stepped out of the van for further negotiations. I expected a full blown argument at this ‘injustice’. It is true that drivers and seatbelts have absolutely nothing to do with each other in India. It’s the same with helmets and motorbikes. Riding an Enfield Bullet (local version of a Harley) with a helmet on would be deemed a disgrace! Somewhere in the middle of those few seconds of dramatic bickering, a note was swiftly passed to the cop who made it disappear at such a speed that I had to check with Karen that I was not imagining the transaction. So the driver’s getting out of the van was to facilitate this sleight of hand! I wondered if the cop had enough time to check the denomination of the note. With 8 pairs of tourist eyes staring, he had to be quick. The baksheesh (or bribe) got us released immediately with what appeared to be a stern verbal warning from the cop followed by the submissive pretense of draping the limp seat belt over his shoulder on our driver’s part. Cops after all had to be given some surface measure of respect in public. The driver gave us all a knowing smile and a shrug that said ‘Well, my unlucky day, there goes 5% of my earnings from you blokes, let’s get on with the bloody journey!’ Needless to say, the seatbelt was returned to its rightful position a few hundred meters onwards.

The Attari border closing ceremony is a playful good-natured nationalistic rave attended daily by a crowd of about 4000 with Indians taking up the vast majority. There are permanent concrete grandstands for the ceremony where the cheering, screaming, flag-waving rowdy mess of young and old show how proud they are to be part of Hindustan. At the Pakistani end, the grandstand is smaller and not so grand. It is also subdivided to separate the sexes. The turnout is unflattering and the conservative crowd is only half as wild. It was good to be on the Indian side.

At the center of the ceremony were the soldiers from the Border Security Force whose main criteria for enlistment is probably height. All of them were at least a towering 1.85 meters! Unlike many of the other soldiers, they looked fit, wore their immaculate uniforms smartly, had no pot-bellies and wore a look that matched their macho motto – ‘Duty Unto Death’. They were the military elite who did dangerous time at the volatile border. They were also the ones activated to restore order during Indira’s State of Emergency. They were also they giants in charge of this comical ceremony made taller by the red fans on their headgear.

To close the border for the day, these BSF men and their Pakistani counterparts go through a half hour routine just to close the gates and lower the flags. Mirroring each other, a group of 7 men execute a precise marching drill at turbo speed. Their long legs make them move at surreal speeds. When they come to attention, their legs kick up to face level (surpassing the antics of the Russian and German WW2 armies) and then stamp down with such unnecessary force that would surely hurt all the joints in their legs. Facial expressions range from sulky to overly serious to angry to scowling all aimed at intimidating the fellow across the border. The rapturous audience was treated to forceful rifle drills, the playing of a small bugle and an elaborate exchange of salutes before the ropes from the respective flagstaffs were untwined, crossed and the flags diagonally lowered in synchrony. The flags and colours were swiftly folded, unnaturally borne in outstretched arms and forced marched to their holding rooms. This exaggerated display of movement and false aggression by India’s finest soldiers is more comic than imperious and it is almost unbelievable that they perform this vigorous charade twice a day, everyday.

The performance today may have been a watered down a notch. In the past, the guards used to make funny faces and lewd postures (like showing their bums, unexposed) at one another to ‘antagonize’ each other all the name of good humour…so the VCDs in the tout stands shows. It is heartening to know that India-Pakistan relations are at present the best ever.

The audience join in the fanfare with flag relays up and down to the Pakistani gate and loud cheerings of ‘Hindustan! Zindabad’ (Motheland Forever!) They seem to have only one cheer though. The majority just make a lot of noise and wave little plastic flags of India bought from the touts that line the road to the border as men, women and aunties do their runs with a giant flag of India. After the flag has been kept, bhangra dancing starts on the street and the crowd from both grandstands surge towards the closed gates like long lost friends to wave and take photos of each other. When you see a scene like this you wonder how the two nations can ever be at war.

The conversation we had with Monica and Marylyn on the way back was hilarious. Monica told us about the time Angelina Jolie came to stay at the hotel she was working in. She had to provide room service and pretend that she didn’t know who the superstar was. More important was the discovery that Jolie was nowhere as tall as Lara Croft and certainly nowhere as big. She also did tip. Marylyn has been traveling and working for 4 years and told us about her stint as a videographer in China. She coined the term ‘sweatshop cinema’ after seeing how the filmmakers and actors exploit the Chinese with 18 hour days and comparatively meager meals and pay packets. They are paid 5 USD per day while the rates in the States are 10 USD per hour. She was particularly impressed with the industry of the Chinese people. ‘They work 18 hour days and you can call them at the 18th hour and they will still come running.’ The only two actors who treated the Chinese with respect were Collin Chou (Seraph, Oracle’s bodyguard in The Matrix) and a Jap actor. She also talked about actresses who were so self-conscious that they constantly sought confidence from others and they would not give interviews without make up on. Stardom has made them forgot the fact that they were actually more beautiful before the makeup.