It will soon be time to re-pack my bags.
Almost two months have passed since I left India:
A happy time, but one punctuated by seemingly countless hours of train and plane journeys.
Picture taken at Chiswick Railway station, London
Picture taken from the second level of La Tour Eiffel, Paris
Note for Lucille:
This picture was taken in Portugal; 12,000 km from Cochin, I believe.
I have been away again.
Picture taken beside the bar of Cochin Airport’s International Departure lounge.
Picture taken in the transit hall of Dohar airport, Qatar
My bags are packed.
My shoes, which have not seen daylight since they walked the streets of Washington DC, four months ago, have been brought out of storage.
My scarf, in case of cool weather and cooler aeroplane cabins, is readily accessible.
My recollection, from a couple of years back, is that evenings in the Sinai desert can prove difficult to predict…
It had been a holiday of extremes.
Altitude, temperature, bleakness, beauty, exhaustion and spirituality: all had played their parts.
We visited a far-away, alien culture and were greeted with friendly innocence and hospitality.
It was a truly amazing experience which I will never forget.
Main picture taken in Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi. All other pictures taken in Cochin Airport, Delhi and Ladakh.
The Tsomoriri Wetlands provide a winter home to nomadic shepherds.
They spend the milder summer months in the mountain highlands.
We were invited to look into the tents and see their way of life.
This “inspection” made me feel rather uncomfortable: I worried that they felt like mere exhibits.
But what they really thought I will, of course, never know.
On arriving in Tsomoriri the driver and his cook immediately set about trying to find us accommodation.
They returned to the car looking just a little glum, worried that we might not be happy with what was on offer.
It was certainly basic:
no beds; just a mattress upon the floor.
But our experienced carers had wisely brought sleeping-bags, and a gas-fired stove.
While, fortunately for me, the room did have a sofa, of sorts, to sit on.
My life has been relatively privileged so it is no bad thing to experience the simpler life.
And on occasion, I have slept in even more modest style.
Despite the limitations, our cook produced an amazing supper.
But as far as the bathroom facilities were concerned,
a discreet veil of silence might be in order..
We were off to Tsomoriri, a high-altitude lake 15,000 ft above sea level, and over 200 kilometres from Leh.
The problem was finding somewhere to stay.
At this time of year nowhere is open:
the tourist season starts when the climate has improved.
Our tour organisers rose to the challenge by providing us with a cook,
and the hope he might find a local family willing to play host.
So, after an almost indecently early breakfast, we set out once more across the bleak Himalayan landscape,
stopping for hot tea, hot-sulphurous springs and a hot lunch.
After a night in Leh, we set out once more,
this time crossing mountain passes a mere 3 miles above sea-level.
By now, I was positively blasé:
probably the effect of altitude-induced oxygen deprivation.
My eyes were quite painful: I could see almost nothing other than a fierce reflected glare from the snow.
But simultaneously, I felt something bordering on euphoria.
So perhaps it was fortunate that we rapidly descended three thousand feet into less blinding light and just a little more oxygen.
Our destination was Pangong Tso:
a salt lake fed by mountain streams but lacking any outflow;
a lake whose far shore laps against neighbouring China.
Despite its salinity, the extreme altitude means Pangong Tso sits frozen for many months of the year.
A salt lake without a city, and also lacking a Tabernacle Choir!
It was a day of surreal contrasts.
First a morning spent traversing “the world’s highest motorable road” with snow-chains fixed to our wheels,
then lunch in a restaurant staffed by a silent Buddhist monk,
and now an afternoon crossing the Nubra Valley desert – on camel.
I must be honest:
There was no real need to cross the desert, nor hire these beasts of burden.
But bactrian camels have been used to carry travellers across this part of the ancient Silk Route for more than two thousand years.
It was an opportunity I could not refuse!
With almost touching naiveté, I had imagined this would be similar to riding a horse.
I was mistaken:
For a start, there were no stirrups.
And trying to hang on to the animal with only one hand, whilst the other furiously gripped a camera, made the experience even more interesting.
It is surprisingly difficult to take a photograph whilst sitting astride a camel in motion,
but frankly alarming to be on the poor beast when it finally sits down!
So despite being treated with genuine care and concern by our camel-handlers,
(and sadly, “our camel-handlers” is an expression I rarely have the opportunity to use)
it was with a slight sense of relief that we returned to a more familiar form of transport.
The beers we shared at the end of the day were, I think, well deserved.
All bar one of these pictures were taken in the Nubra Valley highland deserts.
Arriving at our lunchtime restaurant, we thought this time there would be no puzzlement.
Experience had taught us the custom of being taken first to a bedroom.
But Ladakh still managed to surprise us:
We were welcomed by a Buddhist monk.
Quite what his role was, I never understood.
He appeared to do little other than sit at the reception desk, smiling in silence.
But, while maintaining that silence, somehow the monk summoned our hotel’s owner.
Again, we were shown first to a bedroom where, after a chance to wash and make ourselves comfortable, tea was served.
Feeling relaxed and refreshed, we wandered down to the dining room to take lunch.
Then sat outside for a few minutes, luxuriating in the gentle warmth of spring sunshine.
We descend from a morning high above the snow-line, to noon in a very different world.
This is the Nubra Valley, where all is fiercely arid yet almost bizarrely colourful.
Pictures taken during our descent to the Nubra Valley, Ladakh
From Tingmosgang to Basgo,
a centuries-old monastic fort complex, built of mud rather than stone.
Though Norvo, our driver, had seen it all many times before,
many, many times before..
Initially, arriving back at our guest-house, we failed to notice there was no electric power.
But as the darkness grew ever denser, it became very apparent.
Not only were we unable to read, the temperature had begun to plummet.
There was little to do other than listen to our anxious host attempting to start his petrol-powered generator.
Once light was regained, he invited us to join his family in “the kitchen”: a large, gloriously warm room, heated by a wood-stove.
Suddenly, we were en famille with four generations of Ladakhis:
the owner’s grandmother with her beads and prayer-wheel, oblivious to our presence and perpetually focused on another world;
his mother supervising the cooking; his wife serving us hot and delicious food;
the host himself, along with his brother, joining us for supper;
the youngest generation, fluent in English and busy on the internet.
All of us, seated on mats and cushions.
The room warm and welcoming, but without even a single chair.
When the meal finished, a gas-stove was taken up to our bedroom.
The generator continued to give lighting for almost another hour – but there was only ice-cold water for washing.
We disconnected the stove’s gas cylinder, turned off the light switches, then buried ourselves under several layers of thick blankets..
At seven o’clock the next morning we were awoken with a large pot of hot Tibetan tea: an infusion of tea-leaves, butter, sugar and salt.
Thirty minutes later, a single bucket of hot water arrived.
Though the bathroom was so desperately cold that we could only stand on its freezing floor if wearing shoes, it was finally our chance to wash!
After shamefully hasty ablutions, and having dressed as quickly as possible, the warm kitchen again awaited us,
along with an amazing breakfast of freshly cooked, hot pitta breads, butter, local apricot jam and steaming cups of coffee.
Pictures taken in the Namra Guesthouse, Tingmosgang, Ladakh.
The day’s touring was almost done.
We had visited two monasteries, passed through alien landscapes and taken lunch in an exotic Ladakhi home.
But still we had no idea where the night would be spent.
As our car drove away from the last monastery, it seemed we might be retracing our path.
After an hour or so, I began to make sense of our itinerary.
We were returning to the house where we had lunched.
Suddenly I understood why the owner had first shown us a bedroom – though the explanation for its remarkable, bordering on louche, décor was maybe a matter best left unresolved.
The sun sets late in the Himalayas:
great altitude gives longer hours of daylight.
With the evening still bright, we began to explore the village in which we would stay.
Music could be heard drifting up the hill and, wondering if it might signify a local wedding, we followed the Tibetan melodies until reaching a roadside field, to find instead an archery competition was underway.
A very beautiful young woman smiled sweetly, offering us hot tea and savoury snacks as we watched the men taking turns to shoot a bullseye.
When an interval was reached, the competitors retrieved their arrows, then the entire company moved into a tent where local barley-beer and rum were served.
We happily accepted several glasses of the beer, but unsure of the strength of their liquor, we declined it.
A second round of archery followed, in which we were also invited to try our hand with bow and arrow.
Once more, but this time with the well-being of the local population foremost in our minds, we politely declined!
It had been an amazing and beautiful day.
But the surprises were not yet finished:
a fascinating evening meal still awaited us…
Pictures taken in Tingmosgang, Ladakh.
Having satisfied our lust for lunch, we travelled on.
Through a series of seemingly unending tight winding bends, the road steadily climbed into a dramatically different landscape.
All villages and traces of vegetation were left behind. The only features were those of dry, sandstone rocks, weathered into bizarre unearthly forms.
An accident or breakdown here would leave you feeling very vulnerable.
It is an eerie, beautiful and desperately lonely place.
“O moon in the velvet heavens,
your light shines far.
You roam throughout the whole world,
gazing into human dwellings.
O moon, stay a while,
tell me where my beloved is!
O tell him, silver moon, that my arms enfold him,
in the hope that for at least a moment he will dream of me.
Shine on him, wherever he may be,
and tell him of the one who awaits him here!
If a human soul should dream of me, may he still remember me on awaking;
O moon, do not fade away!
(Translation: Paula Kennedy)
Pictures taken in Ladakh
I am a man of variable mobility.
My lack of physical, or mental, exercise would challenge any personal trainer!
Aware of how little energy I expend, I try to control what I eat:
a difficult task when Dalila, my cook, spends several creative hours every morning in our kitchen; her production-line of tasty temptations.
Because of this, except when playing host, I neither take lunch, nor miss it.
But travelling makes me hungry: on holiday, everything and anything goes!
After our visit to Likir Monastery, thoughts of food began to float into my mind, though it was difficult to see where we would find it.
We appeared to be travelling through the proverbial middle of nowhere.
Norvo, our driver, knew better.
He left the main road and began following a narrow track up into an isolated mountain village.
The car stopped outside the gates of the smartest building around.
We were obviously expected.
The owner excitedly welcomed us then, rather disconcertingly, led the way upstairs to a dazzling and somewhat over-exotic double-bedroom.
Robin and I were not quite sure what to do.
Reasonably confident this was just a lunch-stop, and that a long drive was planned for the afternoon, we used the bathroom’s pristine facilities then sat and waited. Perhaps our meal was to be served on the small bedside tables?
After a few minutes, our beaming host reappeared and asked if we would like to come down.
He proudly ushered us into the very splendid dinning room pictured above.
There were no chairs. Instead, colourful mattresses, bolsters and cushions lay along three sides of the room.
The gorgeously enamelled table-tops were at knee-height.
Variable mobility or not, we would eat while seated only inches from the floor.
The meal was extremely generous and delicious. And, although being entirely meat-free, proved of great interest to the household kitten.
Having used the bedroom facilities once more, we thanked the owner and left.
After breakfast we met up again with Mukesh, the driver who had waited patiently for us at Delhi airport.
Although Delhi was just our stop-over and we have both been there before, as with any vast and ancient city there is always plenty more to see. We had decided to spend the first day of our holiday just enjoying the pleasures of exploring the capital.
Our plan was to begin by visiting Chandni Chowk, the centuries-old market area, based around a very narrow and bustling street from which countless shop-lined alleyways and bazaars emerge.
But as Mukesh explained, during market hours the road was practically impassable by car. It was better that he take us to the Red Fort from where we could hire a bicycle-rickshaw, which could more easily navigate this byzantine maze of shopping opportunities.
Our first task was to find a suitable rickshaw cyclist and negotiate the rate.
Between us, Robin and I must weigh a combined total of about 150 kg (330 lbs). Many of the drivers looked far too old or frail to pedal such a load.
Mukesh carefully selected a younger cyclist: slight in build but with extremely hefty thighs which, despite his being very modestly dressed, visibly bulged through the legs of his trousers.
Just as carefully, to avoid distressing any reader of a sensitive disposition, I have cropped this picture to save you from the unnerving sight of such rippling leg muscles..
Our cyclist-driver also acted as a guide, pointing out buildings of interest, while gently guiding his rickshaw through the narrow streets, passing shop-keepers, tea-rooms and a small army of fellow cycle-rickshaws
It’s an amazing and exhilarating way to take a closer look at the city.
Having decided to head for the extreme north of India, our journey from Kerala entailed an inevitable stop-over in Delhi.
Due to bad weather, the plane from Cochin was running two hours late: we landed at Delhi airport after midnight.
Fortunately, the driver appointed to meet us was still standing patiently outside the arrivals hall. Rather touchingly, he held a placard bearing just my first and middle names .
Shortly after one o’clock in the morning, we were delivered to our hotel.
Formalities such as showing passports and signing-in were mercifully postponed until morning. We were guided to our room, asked when we would breakfast, then left to sleep,
“perchance to dream…”
Picture of a bicycle-rickshaw and its rider taken in Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi.
I have been home for less than a month but this afternoon saw young Anu packing my bags once more.
one of Kerala’s two biggest Hindu festivals.
Festivals, I’ve promised he can enjoy with his family.
I shall enjoy it too – but not in Kerala.
When Anu goes home,
I go on my Indian travels.
Charlie, my agent, has been busy;
Robin, my travel-buddy, is ready.
Flights, cars, drivers, hotels, and perhaps even tents, are booked and confirmed.
Taking an auto-rickshaw to the mainland with Anu: my houseboy, “second pair of legs” and helping hand.