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Archive for December, 2013

It’s a stark and cold morning in Srinagar as we load our packs into a poky rickshaw outside Butts Houseboats. Freezing air and two stroke fumes pour into the back. We could have taken a taxi for an extra 200 rupees but we forsake warmth for thrift and stingily opt for a three wheedled ice box instead. We huddle close together under our packs with sleeves pulled down over our hands. There is one last chance to survey Dal Lake before being consumed in the belly of Srinagar’s tight streets.

The central jeep stand is buzzing with activity. Men wrapped in blankets are shouting and chasing cars and rickshaws as they arrive. The street is lined with around 40 long wheelbase jeeps and a few busses all waiting to be filled before departure. One man heavily clad in a woollen blanket is running beside us with one hand clutching our door. He tries to fend off rival touts while introductions and promises of a luxury service are tendered. It’s a scene we have become accustomed to and despite his best attempts several other touts manage to place a hand on our door before coming to a stop. A small scuffle ensues but luxury service prevails for the moment.

Srinagar Jeep stand

Hunting for a car back to Jammu

His account of luxury is certainly subjective. The front seat is torn and there is scant room for two passengers. His highly intuitive competition sense my disapproval. I am led away by another tout who admonishes his rival with viscous personal remarks and doubts regarding his sanity. I often find them amusing and worth indulgence when time is permitting. He appeals to my so called better sense of judgement. The previous tout is apparently a fool, a thief and stupid just for good measure. A man not to be trusted. Apparently none of these men aside from himself are of a credible nature.

Despite the busy scene there are very few vehicles departing. The issue is centred on a desire to sit in the front or middle rows. No one including us wants the nauseating rear jump seats that are positioned sideways. I dismiss several attempts to convince me otherwise. Eventually we find a promising lead with three people already in the middle row. If we take the front seats then we only need two more in the back. The tout must have mental telepathy as he is already carrying our bags across the road. We sit and wait with stubborn steely resolve. Several candidates are led over, but one by one they all walk away unimpressed and take the front seats in yet another empty vehicle. This is like a game of transport poker. Everyone including us expects to be in the front. Across the road luxury car is now full. It’s annoying to watch other cars leaving, so I try to take mathematical comfort in the knowledge that with each departure new arrivals have less options to choose from. It can only be a matter of time. Finally two young Indians with black combat boots and strong stomachs are convinced it is in their best interest to take the remaining back seats. It’s taken the better part of an hour but we are finally able to leave.

Srinangar to Jammu

Waiting to get two more passengers

The road back to Jammu is littered with restaurants, stray dogs and a series of amusing road signs that play off English clichés. Go easy on my curves, Be Mr Late… not the late Mr and if you are married divorce speed. They are prefaced by the word BRO which creates an impression that New Zealanders may have had a hand in their creation. BRO… go SLOW and BRO… the tortoise won the race! It all feels very surreal and the locals (based on their driving) are clearly not convinced. One message they follow dutifully however is the ubiquitous Blow Horn painted on the rear of every truck. I try to fathom why such a request is made. The only explanation I can derive is that the driver has no intention of looking in his mirrors so you better sound your presence or suffer the consequences. Perhaps all this horn blowing is a good idea after all.

Added to this symphony of signage is an unusual but consistent theme of bumper stickers warning men about the dangers of female companionship. No girlfriend… No stress, Beware girls who are too smiley and my personal favourite… Love is a sweet poison! It’s like we have been caught in a convoy of mobile misogynistic messages. Sat by the side of the road is a yellow dog. He scrutinises each passing vehicle with avid attention. I try to understand how he can be so entertained by passing traffic, but then again I am now watching stray dogs and wondering what they are thinking.

Hey where is Fred today? Oh he’s up by the side of the road watching cars again.

A few hours later we conclude that BRO stands for Border Roads Organisation. I much prefer the New Zealand explanation and continue to mentally announce signs and warnings to myself in a thick Auckland accent. Eventually we are enveloped by darkness and high beam lights. It’s getting late by the time we reach Jammu. Sadly room number 41 is not available when we arrive back in Jammu but the owner of the hotel gives us a triple room instead for the same price.

A few days previously we had waitlisted two train berths in an AC2 carriage from Jammu to Rishikesh. AC stands for Air Conditioned but also affords the luxury of linen and a curtain to provide some privacy. 2 means 2nd class or 2 tier. It might be an appropriate time to explain some options and the difficulties involved in booking trains in India.

AC1 is as you may have guessed Air Conditioned 1st Class. They have two and four berth cabins with doors that lock, but are generally rare. The usual top class of travel is AC2 with bays of four followed by AC3 or Air Conditioned 3rd class. Unlike AC2 these are bays of six with three tiers of seats/beds generally more narrow but still with bedding and a curtain. Then there is sleeper class which has the same configuration as AC3 but provides no bedding, no curtains, open windows and a reduced level of cleanliness and security. Following this is Chair Class. This is normally offered on day time trains but some night trains as well. There is EC First Chair or executive chair with AC and seat numbers, followed by CC or chair class, generally four to a row with an overhead luggage rack that most locals use as a bed and finally Unreserved seating with no seat numbers, hard benches and prison yard rules.

Jammu Railway Station

Waiting for our train

To add to this confusion is a non-centralised reservation and quota system. When booking from a third party travel agent or train station only a certain number of seats are sold. If you book from the station of departure you have a better chance but priority is always given to passengers travelling a greater distance regardless of who books first. Then there is an emergency allocation that can be booked 24 hours before your journey but only at the station of departure. This usually involves waiting in a long line with people pushing in, all desperate to snap up a few seats that are sold each morning. Tourists stand little chance but persistent and hardy specimens have been known to prevail. Finally there is the tourist allocation that can only be booked at the station of departure, but you go to a separate counter and as one agent explained… tourists are too lazy to book their own tickets… if you go down there in person you have a fair chance. I can’t be certain what his definition of fair is but I am betting it’s not in accordance with my own.

Currently we are waitlisted 3 and 4 there is only 12 hours to go before departure. We take a trip out to the station for some clarification and positive reinforcement. There is the usual battle in order to be served. Queue jumpers and interrupters are abundant. I use my forearms to block such men from attacking my flanks. The news is not good, we are still 3 and 4 on the waitlist. I ask the all-time stupid question of what will happen if the waitlist does not clear. Ridiculous really but it was more aimed at looking for other options. The ticket seller declines to offer alternative arrangements and instead reprimands me for my lack of faith. You must be more positive. If you are being positive it will be no problem.

I try to arrest all negativity and channel positive thoughts. Theoretically I can go where and when I want simply based on faith and belief. I wonder what part of the quota that falls under. With a few uncertain hours to spare we make our way to the Domino’s Pizza in Jammu. I am happy to discover that it has Wi-Fi, but then completely dumbfounded by the staff response when I ask for the password. We have no Wi-Fi. I show him the network that says Dominos. This is for staff only. I can accept differences in culture and ways of doing things, but surely this falls deep into the pit of the most stupid, irrational and moronic policies I have ever encountered.

But you’re supposed to be working, why would you need to have Wi-Fi access.  I on the other hand am a customer with free time. Don’t you think it would be a better arrangement if your patrons had the access and the staff worked?

He shrugs his shoulders with a gormless grin, unable to even offer a response. Utterly disgusted I walk out. It really doesn’t achieve much as now I have no pizza and no internet and all this negative energy must be seriously threatening my waitlisted tickets.

We return to the station an hour before departure. Our waitlist has been cleared. I would like to think I somehow created a positive aura but cynical doubts and arguments in fast food restaurants suggest otherwise. Our Guru Ticket-Master on the other hand seems pleased with his predictions and scribbles on our tickets 44 and 45. We are just relieved to be confirmed, finding alternative arrangements at 10pm would have required more positive energy than I could muster.

It’s nice to be back on a train after so many months. I have to think for a few moments as to when we last heard that familiar sound of wheels tap dancing on tracks. I trace our journey all the way back to late July in Uzbekistan when we were in a race to reach Pakistan before our visa expired. At the time we were frustrated and concerned but I think of that time fondly now. I lie down pull the curtain across and listen to the railway lullaby.

DSC08002

I am woken early in the morning by a Chai Walla yelling in our carriage. I have no idea what time it is but there is a glow in the eastern sky. I take a small cup of chai for 7 INR or around 15 cents. It’s not very large about six or seven sips but often all you need. The chai is heavily flavoured with masala which is a mixture of cardamom, ginger, pepper and cinnamon.  By the time we reach Rishikesh its gone 10 in the morning. We are surrounded by mountains covered in dense forest and jungle. They are not as high as those we left behind in Kashmir, more rolling foothills that guard the huge Himalayas to the north. The Ganges River is blue. It flows out of the Himalayas through the valley fresh and young over a series of rapids.

Three kilometres beyond the main town of Rishikesh is a sprawl of Ashrams, Yoga studios, cheap hotels and tourist restaurants. The city was made famous in the late 60’s when the Beatles visited and stayed at an Ashram for several weeks. According to history or folklore a large part of The White Album was conceived here during their visit.

Ganges River Rishikesh

Ganges River Rishikesh

The village is still in the shade of the surrounding hills and being whipped by a cool breeze that prevails every morning. Emma finds a decent enough room for 500 INR with a balcony overlooking the Ganges but despite the physical beauty I am feeling a little uneasy about my present surroundings. This is a spiritual place, an epicentre for Guru’s and devoted followers of which I am certainly not. I prefer to take my tuition from railway ticket dispensers.

The main street is lined with shops selling multi coloured stripped cotton clothing and tastefully rundown rustic cafes. The patrons are anaesthetised in a cocktail of smart phones, reggae music and Nutella chocolate pancakes. Shoes have been abandoned and a look of poverty carefully crafted. The locals are happy to accept their money but seem unimpressed by their poor imitations. As one man explained, we do not chose to walk in bare feet, this is because we are poor… but these people are not poor, why then do they walk without shoes.

The old Beatles Ashram

The old Beatles Ashram

Situated below our hotel is a small shop. The owner like most Indians has a persistent nature when it comes to soliciting clients. We decline his services (which range from ear cleaning to palm reading) on a polite and regular basis but this serves as no deterrent. The Indian shop keeper adopts a machine gun approach when doing business. Spray potential patrons with persistence and you’re sure to get a kill. If you have no need for a tattoo they can always remove a corn. No corns on your feet… then let me offer you some oil sir to ensure they don’t develop. Reasoning and objections are futile, they simply use logic and a proliferation of products against you. This approach can at times be bothersome but in this case we anticipate his daily assaults with humorous anticipation.

Our Shopkeeper with the biggest Bindi I have ever seen

Our Shopkeeper with the biggest Bindi I have ever seen

Our situation is rescued a couple of days later when we discover a small hotel 2km upstream. Hidden in natural rainforest by the banks of the holy river it is an idyllic place to linger. We are fortunate to meet Chuck who is taking a short break in between leading bicycle tours in Rajasthan. He has been coming here for several years and prefers tranquillity over tie-dye. Each afternoon Emma and Chuck take a yoga class and then some meditation by the river. It’s a perfect setting for quiet reflection. Away from all the trinket shops and dreadlocks, I feel like we are in India again.

The Yoga Crew

The Yoga Crew

During our time here we receive an invite to a friend’s wedding in Mumbai. It’s an exciting prospect and fits in with our plans to head south. A little sooner than we had expected but the chance to witness a genuine Indian wedding is too good to pass up. We decide to take a route south via Delhi and Rajasthan through Jaipur, Pushkar and Udaipur before linking to Mumbai. The only issue is we have to do it in 12 days. The race against time is back on…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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