After our ridiculous welcome experience (read here) we went to Pahar Ganj by foot without any problem the next day. Well, besides that walking wasn´t so easy for me since I had a small food poisoning. The boss of our overpriced cheating-cooperation hotel recommended and brought us half-raw and old meat the evening before but still promised me its highest quality and convinced me to eat it while calling me brother all the time. At least I had a small fight with them in the end and did not pay for the food – leaving the place barely walking and full of anger with screaming behind me until I was out of sight. Since I had to cure my stomach problems and to do a little planing we stayed in Delhi for 5 days.
We also met some old friend of mine, I met 4 years ago in Amritsar when I was going to Pakistan. His friend and him invited us for lunch the other day – Jackfruit curry – which was very nice.
It was not the easiest to decide where to go – In the north-east (our actual goal) were heavy rains causing landslides already. The direct North in Himachal Pradesh I knew already and Nepal was still a bit far and the monsoon was approaching there as well. In the end we just took a bus to Rishikesh to get used to India a little more, work on the Blog (the Iran posts were still missing) and relax.
We were staying in a very funny hostel in the northern part of Rishikesh, on the eastern riverbanks of Ganga called Laxman Jhula – famous for its Ashrams and the Backpacker infrastructure. We went there by scooter taxi, which was insane. Especially crossing the very long but narrow suspension bridge, full of pedestrians, cows and people pulling extremely overloaded transport carts. Also the narrow lanes packed with people and animals, sometimes with wooden boards as bridges, were really strange to cross by scooter especially with two people including backpacks.
The rates of the hostel were ok, but at the same time the rooms were quite shitty (300 Rupees for a hot and dirty room, but at least with own bathroom – with a cold shower of course). Since it was off-season, nothing was available in the hotel restaurant. After a few minutes we just asked “the guy” if he can tell us what´s available instead of letting us ask for all the stuff which wasn´t available anyways. It turned out to be the laziest staff ever. Even to get mineral water took them days. We still arranged us with them – after we asked for Mango Lassie for quite a while we just bought Mangos ourselves (available for 20 Rupees a kilo just 50 meters down the road) and gave them to the kitchen and so got even cheaper Mango Lassies. We had a nearly private rooftop restaurant with nice music and at least some food, since there was nobody else.
Rishikesh itself was nice to see but nothing really special if you’re not coming for Yoga – what most female travellers are doing there – easy to spot carrying their Yoga mats every day. The forest-covered hills around it, the river banks of the young Ganga river and various nice restaurants offering lots of indian but also indian interpretations of western food are nice as well. Cool Graffiti are spread throughout town but the most interesting ones in the old “Beatles Ashram” are now a tourist attraction and you actually have to pay a high entrance fee to see the half overgrown ruins of the former Ashram… pretty mean in our opinion, so we did not see it.
Our planning was quite hard. Heavy rains and fully booked trains (in india was public holiday at that time) made travelling something between hard and impossible. A guy I met years before in Delhi (we did good business in that time together) wrote me in FB these days, heard about our situation and invited us for fishing and trekking in Kashmir – almost too good to be true.
Since this was a unique possibility, exactly what we wanted to do in the Himalayas and also the climate there used to be quite pleasant in Monsoon, we got a flight from Deradun to Jammu a few days later. It was not only the cheapest option but also the only one – all trains were full for weeks. From Jammu we still had to go through the mountains for more than 500km. We took a shared Jeep with a very crazy driver. On the way we passed two tunnels, one – the longest of Asia probably – just opened 3-4 days earlier, the other one very old, also very long but only one lane and super creepy. The drive was very long (8 instead of 5 hours) and in the end very annoying. They actually stopped every 20 minutes just to smoke some hash together, which was funny in the beginning but annoying in the end and I could imagine even scary for some of the passengers.
When we arrived it was 4 o clock in the morning our friend from Srinagar was not reachable anymore and we intended to stay on the waterfront until sunrise. The driver and leftover passengers did not want us to do that since they considered the area as not save for us at this time. Even after we tried very hardly to convince them we had to stay in the car, trying to take a nap between many other people, only waiting for us. Finally we convinced them after some time when the sun was about to set. Pretty soon Manzoor turned up on a small Shikara (the local word for a small wooden boat). He brought us to his families houseboat on Dal lake and served us a nice and filling up breakfast. After he was telling about his last years, about the land he bought and his big love to smoke, we found him very, very nice and funny.
It went on for a few days. We had a lot of chatting, nice food and a good time on the houseboat. He announced that we only gonna hike in the mountains together if we stay longer, so we decided to stay 3-4 weeks. We agreed to help him and stay in his new hotel in the small town of Harvan on the eastern side of Dal lake which was still under construction. I could write a lot about all the craziness of Manzoor, incapable to listen, driving around without a plan through the overcrowded streets of Srinagar to buy things but in the end leaving again for unknown reasons, causing countless and senseless waiting times, building a hotel without any idea and about the annoying part which obviously kicked in… But let’s make it short:
After weeks, we were trying to help him, stayed in a room just with a carpet, only with a small water place 3 floors further down, preparing our own food on a shitty gas cooker and a lot of wasted time, Manzoor returned from an important business trip from Delhi, where he suddenly went after two weeks. In the meantime we installed his hot water supplies together with the plumbers, cleaned his garden, watered and planted plants, hung up curtains and did some experiments with concrete and waterlily leafs – what we stopped due to missing of any reaction about it.
At least we got to know some very nice people in the beautiful town of Harvan but lets mention that separate, since they don´t deserve to be mixed with the negative part which follows now. After his return he suddenly was fully into the trekking idea which was also in our behalf since we already made clear that if there would not be any trekking now we would have to leave the place. Untill then we wether saw nor did things in Kashmir apart all the shopping and wasting time around his hopeless hotel construction. And it was not even enjoyable to stay in a construction site, especially if there is not any appreciation for your tries and helps.
Unfortunately he again pushed it and pushed it into the future and when we finally started (a Belgian couple he met in a bar joined us suddenly) it all turned out to be a big scam. He did not only rip us off (I even knew that the price he was asking for was to high but did not want to leave the place without trekking after so many wasted days and hoped that he will waste a lot of money in unnecessary service at least) but also just did not organize anything. He still tried to tell us made up stories to and tried to outsource his obvious incapability. He even separated us all the time, trying to give us bad feelings about each other. But when he left the camp in Naranag on the second day (Yes, the “guide” really just left the place) we started to have a whole day conversation with e Belgian couple which was very nice and we decided that we either have to fix everything with him now and make it all clear or try to get our money back and leave. Of course he came back with a lot of new stories and there was a lot of thinking and negotiating. He then again tried to push all the mistakes on us and even insulted us and accused us of using him, staying in his luxury hotel while making him pay for everything while the Belgian did not even have a proper tent or shoes (which he was supposed to get for the money) for a high altitude Himalaya hike. We just mentioned that Manzoor not only borrowed money from us every day before which we did not get back, even to invite the Belgian couple very “generously” for dinner, but also stole all our cigarettes as soon as we left the room several times, while we were still believing in the good. It just got clear that there is no hope. All the negotiation turned more into a fight and got very heated while at least 15-20 more people got involved (manly locals and indian tourists). In the end we were happy that nobody was hurt and while the Belgians left the place really scared and in a very bad mental condition we nearly crashed from overstressing as well. A group of young Kashmiri guys turned up which tried to help. But even they got to their breaking point quite fast, due to the complete different views they got from us and Manzoors lies and also because we were not capable of trusting anybody anymore. Finally one of the guys became active and opened Manzoors tent and took at least all the food WE! bought, his shitty gas cooker and some plates. After we emptied half the tent it turned out that did not even have enough food. In the evening he came back to us begging for some chicken and vegetables, which I gave to him – still kind of regret that. We got around half our money back from him – but only with the manpower of several nice Kashmiri guys and used it to join them at least for a 4-5 days short tour to Gangabal. When everything calmed down suddenly the Belgian couple came back to tell us that we are in big danger of getting robbed and probably raped and should leave the place as soon as possible (a lot of crazy people and rumors started to roam around the village – most probabyl to still make money out of us). This did not make the whole thing easier. Alina got very scared when the Belgians left very fast again, while I at least trusted the young guys we met – also if it was hard to trust anybody anymore. But I just did not want to accept that my sense of human trustworthiness was gone. And this was good!
Prince, one of our dear friends from the time in Harvan turned up in the evening. He was shocked by the situation but was good in calming everything down finally. We had dinner with our new trekking companions , slept in our tent and recovered.
Early in the morning the next day we started trekking. Weather was good in the beginning but it was very hard for Alina, who never went to high altitudes before and she hated me already after 30 minutes. On half way we met a German guy coming back who´s only idea was to demotivate Alina by telling here that it will be to hard for her – still hate him therefore. When it started to rain on around 3400m she really wanted to stay behind in a small mountain hut but with all tact I could raise I could finally convince her to continue – she even got the only available rain jacket while the rest of us used these improvised fancy hats.
We had to cross several meadows and it got quite exhausting, especially because everybody expected to reach the campsite after the next hill but there was another one to come, again and again and again… Finally we did it and reached our campsite in the evening. We had a beautiful kitchen/living room tent thanks to our new friends and had a at least similarly beautiful dinner with them.
There is no doubt that the lion is the king of the jungle – but wolves do not perform in circus.
The place on the shore of a glacial lake on the eastern foot of Mount Harmukh (a massive and stunning mountain) was a perfect camping location.
Most probably that´s why it was much busier than we expected it to be. Even quite some local mountain inhabitants were there just to stay for the weekend. They were nice but did not really do anything else but watching us most of the time. I remember the mornings when we woke up, brushing our teeth while a dozen guys with crossed arms were staring at us from 1,5m distance without speaking any words… creepy.
We did some small day hikes on our own the next days, went to Gangabal, the far bigger glacial lake a little bit north and to a nice small peak with an even nicer panorama – Alinas highest peak with 3866m! Also we visited another group of super friendly Kashmiri guys we met before for dinner, camping on the other side of the lake. The landscape in the area was just incredible and really worth climbing up the really steep slopes.
We really had lots of fun up there with our new Kashmiri friends, they really let it turn out perfectly. Nearly impossible that so much shit can turn out that good in the end. Unfortunately their time was quite limited and we had to leave after only 3 days again. The way down was a little sad but rewarded us with beautiful landscapes and nature, this time in good weather as well.
Still we spend a night in Naranag with them again and then went back to our lovely neighbourhood in Harwan. Prince invited us to his home for our last days in Kashmir. His family accommodated us in very lovely way. They served us very good food and gave us back all the hospitality typical for Kashmir and even more, which we really started to forget about due to the former experiences. Prince also showed us some places around Harvan, including a very interesting shrine with even more interesting people. Also we visited some places around like Pari Mahal with Monin. Most of the time we relaxed a lot in Prince hotel around Shalimar garden and had enjoyed our nearly regular but finally Manzoor free life in Harwan.
The most we enjoyed the time with the Doc. He was an elderly Kashmiri in his 70s, returned to his homeland after he worked as a doctor in the USA for 29 years. He had so many interesting stories and funny ones as well. His view of the world was really reflected and refreshing from all the resignation or extremism we heard and felt before. He actually gave up his life in the US after 9.11. due to the scary change in atmosphere there, to find his peace in a small hut in the mountains for his final chapter of life – even though there is occupation and war going on by the way… Although I did not mention it until now, the indian occupation is nowadays even more present then the time when I was there in 2012. Nearly every second balcony is occupied by a soldier and even in tourist sites the army has their camps.
|Random facts & thoughts:
After the young Kashmiri Burhan Wani (22) was killed last year by security forces the situation seems to have finally turned worse again. His martyrdom leaded to protest marches every week, leading to clashes with the indian army on a regular base now. Even in the time we were there, several people got killed. Many people are speaking proudly about their fight with stones against the well equipped indian forces. It feels like it would become a lot easier for extremists to convince people, which get quite extreme themselves due to so much oppression and killing in the streets, to follow their questionable ways. Back in 2012 it seemed so much more peaceful and people seemed happy to be on the indian instead of the Pakistani side of Kashmir. But probably they just needed a voice like the one of Wani and his death as a tipping point, to rise their resistance again. Anyways it seems that the young Burhan Wani, which was considered to be a terrorist by the indian government, is now more dangerous for them, than he was alive. How a rise of extremism influenced by foreign fighters would influence the still quite wide-spread Sufism in the country is hard to say. I just had the feeling that it was a good time to see the Kashmir how it is today, since it is not easy to predict what will happen in the near future, while separation thoughts and sympathies with extremists from the Pakistani mountains seem to increase. I just hope the best for my friends out there and some smarter political measures by the indian government.
Not only military presence seems to have increased but also measures which the indian government takes. While we nearly got used to it every saturday, when protests are rising in Srinagar, on the anniversary of Burhan Wani´s death mobile network and internet was shut down for more than 4 days. We were quite lost in that time, being in our lonely room in the construction site, without any idea what is happening. Especially when they also shut down electricity on the significant days and times. Still I even had some nice talks with indian soldiers, looking like post apocalyptic fighters, sometimes full of crazy protections, shields, cage-helmets carrying assault rifles, shotguns and granade-launchers in the streets of villages. Since soldiers come from many different cultural backgrounds and regions there are many different headdresses apart from helmets, like all kinds of different turbans. I would love to share these fashion with you but unfortunately soldiers are mostly sensitive to cameras. Just in the mountains where they only were for training their mood was relaxed and more open – how you can see on the following picture.
On our last evening in Kashmir we were invited to a sufi party. It was a very special occasion and Alina was the only woman allowed at most of the ceremonies. We announced that we have to leave in the evening since we had to catch a flight to Amritsar the next morning to finally meet our friend Meeru further down south but we were not really allowed to. The “Guru” just rejected and made us eating, and listening to beautiful traditional live music (with Santoor and drums) for hours and hours. The dinner was the traditional Wazwan, a core element of the Kashmiri muslim cuisine, identity ans culture. Traditionally the nearly sacred meal has 36 courses which were recently reduced to a much smaller number, to avoid people plunge themselves into debts to fulfill self-imposed cultural expectations. The meal, basically a food ritual, started with hand washing wherefore the tash-t-nari, a huge metal jug and basin was brought to all the guests. Usually 4 people are sitting around one big plate with plenty of rice which is gradually topped by – in our case – 9 different main dishes – 7 of them containing meat. We got a plate just for the two of us. After the 8th course we were close to surfeit but then the Goshtaba came – a huge meatball in cream sauce – which is often served on weddings. We tried to resist but just got told that this dish is especially good for digestion :-D.
The last part of the happening was the most unusual and special one. A gruop of musicians was sitting in the middle of a room, singing and playing traditional instruments. The whole ceremony took around 12 hours – 6pm to 6am. The musicians sang verses from Koran – as far as I can understand, while there was lots of persian music in the afternoon. The singer also had a reader which was whispering all the verses simultaneously in his ear when the singers memory seemed to lose power after 7-8 hours of singing. A lot of cigarettes were smoked and from time to time some biscuits came up but most of the time huge amounts of Hashish were consumed in a Jejeer (a water pipe quite similar to a Huka/Shisha) especially of the highest ranking persons in the room. The whole feeling coming up in my body was very strange but interesting, something between meditational trance and craziness. If you want to see a part of it please watch this:
The melody is still in my head now and every few days i catch myself whistling it – nearly 3 month afterwards. All the ceremony followed a strict chain of events which was repeating itself over and over – as well as the melody. After every (i think) 30 minutes the singers and listeners got a small tea break. Once it was a very sweet Kashmiri chai with cinnamon, cardamom and saffron, the second time it was the salty Chai (very common in Kashmir) and the third time a completely black, super bitter concentrate of what so ever which tasted nearly like poison while one cup made you awake like a full night of sleep again. All that underlined by the extreme THC consumption made me crash in the end in a room where Alina was lying already for some time. After just one hour we got awakened since we had to leave, pack and go to the airport… In this surreal condition we left Kashmir finally but we were also sad to leave our new friends which really saved our impression of their lovely country and made it an unforgetable experience after all. After passing 5 security checks to get out of the super militarised zone and taking some group photos with the police officers we were going back to India!