Saturday 10 August – Walking down the main boulevard around Dal Lake the next morning in search of an open shop turned into quite a mission and a headache. The relentless pestering to stay on houseboats or take a rickshaw every 100 metres or less becomes a bit annoying and the forced smile began to tire. Our search for a coffee was unfruitful, as nearly everything was closed for Eid. Even a rickshaw ride out of town didn’t help. We couldn’t find anywhere open, the driver offered us tea at his place which was sweet, but Paul really needed food so we just went back to the boulevard.
After not eating for the past 5 days or so, it was the one time Paul really needed to get something. He ended up with a soggy vegetarian burger for breakfast from the only place open, I passed.
Paul had still not really recovered so we took it easy in Srinagar over the next few days and really only strolled around the Lake. We had wanted to stay on a houseboat but decided against it as Paul was still a delicate petal. So we enjoyed a gentle three hour shikara ride around the Lake that was just as good. It was so peaceful once away from the constant traffic on the road which loops the lake. Sellers approach the boat offering their goods, maybe this was the opportunity for food? Nope, just snacks or candle holders. Slowly drifting through the back rivers we saw the vegetables gardens which are farmed in the lake, it’s really weird seeing cucumbers growing above the lake. We tried some lotus nuts that grow in the floating garden courtesy of our shikara captain who picked them for us. There was an offer to do some jet skiing, which is done on a piece of wooden door but actually floats. On the way back, we passed by the floating market where there was seemingly more amenities actually open then there was on the main land. Barbers, shops, pharmacies, and of course tourist trinkets.
Then onto lunch. Paul had by now visibly lost some weight and wanted to attempt to eat but still with a dodgy stomach he opted for the onion salad and I went for a green salad. The first sign it wasn’t going to be up to much was that there were no drinks available except tap water. Then the food came.
Paul got a plate of chopped up onion – that was it. The waiter just served it like it was completely normal too. I thought it was hilarious, Paul wasn’t quite so amused after not having eaten a meal for nearly a week, and my green salad wasn’t much better with the only green thing being a chilli. It proved harder to get food in this large town than it was out in the hill camps.
Lots of firecrackers were being set off in celebration of Eid, which could easily be mistaken for the fire of a gun, adding to the odd feeling in this town. The stray dogs are the other things which go off at night, all guarding their own little patch of land or bin. They must fend off impostors as we heard a yelps of the poor mite which must have dared enter the forbidden territory of another stray.
There was an uncomfortable feeling the whole time we were in Srinagar. It’s a tourism town but there are barely any westerners around and it felt like something could erupt at anytime. The streets are lined with armed Indian Army officers, and there was some bad news reported every day we were there, each time the violence and numbers killed escalating. Whilst walking along the lake one day, we saw an argument erupt over a small collision between a bike and car, and realised how the tension could escalate, particularly if those involved were of differing sides on where this area should stand. With the uncomfortable feeling and being positively assured we weren’t going to get a good feed, we left after three days.
Monday 12 August – before we left, we were informed by the extremely nice hotel manager that there were problems in kishtwar and a curfew had been imposed,and there was potential for demonstrations in Jammu. Though due the distance we had to cover to get back to Delhi in the remaining time we had little choice but to head in that direction.
It was the first time it happened with this bike and figured it may have been because it had been stationary for a few days, but when it came time to leave the bike would not start. So we fell back onto the trusty push start and it worked a treat. A quick fill up at the petrol station and we were off again.
It seemed to take forever to get out of Srinagar. The army presence holds everything up further with frequent stop and search points. Even schools were very heavily guarded and once again it was spot the sniper on the rooftop or in the trees. It took us about and an hour and half before we were back on the highway.
Going wrong was not what you want when you have a 300km journey ahead but that was exactly what happened. We went massively out of our way and headed up a road which was almost as north as Srinagar – where we started. It added over an hour to our journey. It was scenic though as we were back in the alpine region. The guys at the riverside cafe we stopped at to wallow in our self pity, ensured we got the standard Indian misunderstanding when ordering and we got two of everything rather than the one. At this point we turned around to head back the way we came taking the opportunity to stop at a mechanics to finally get the chain sorted properly.
Successfully back on track, we stopped at the last police check point just before passing through a long tunnel. This was the 2nd tunnel we’d encountered in India and I don’t feel safe at all when we are in them. They’re more like disused mine shafts than safe passages through a mountain. They’re not lit which adds to the anguish, plus the wheel started to wobble as we went over what was probably an oil spill in the centre of the dark whole.
It was pretty scenic when we emerged the other side huge valleys and monkeys lingering but now we’d been spoilt for the past two weeks we were a bit unappreciative of what we were seeing as we had seen the best of the best.
Paul’s eyes often let him down when it comes to signs, and they did so when he pulled directly upto a military base camp gate asking to go through as he thought it was a road. I was confused as to what he was doing but thought he might have seen a police check point so I didn’t say anything. But no it definitely was a military base and we were turned away by a menacing looking guy.
We knew we wouldn’t make it to Jammu so made a decision to stop at Patnitop a little hill town with a huge hydropower station that looked like something out of James Bond, (apparently it cost over 1 billion dollars to build). Unsure of what lay ahead, if anything, we stopped at the first place we saw.
The scraggy looking little man was very nice but his rooms made it into the top 5 worst places we’ve stayed. All was well at first, the sheets smelt a little musky and the remains of someone’s sweet corn hung on a peg but it was clean enough. But then, as I sat on the bed something scattered across the floor under the bed and exited to a place we didn’t dare open – the bedside drawer!
There was a tin roof and we could instantly hear something tinkering around – a mixture between the mice and pigeons. With no other choice we ordered food from this place, surprisingly the dal was quite nice and the little man delivered it to our room. Paul again managed to eat nothing, and went to sleep early as he was still ill.
I somehow connected to someone’s internet and saw an email from the shipping agent in Dubai – he had good news. Thai airways would take it and it was only £100 extra rather than the £500 Singapore airlines wanted. We just needed to pay so he would ship it before we get to Bangkok. I had no chance on the connection I was on but he was demanding instant payment. It would just have to wait – there was 5 days before he would actually be sending it.
The night was a completely interrupted sleep with the constant fear of the mice (hopefully not rats) making an appearance from the drawer. Paul woke at every sound as his head was next to the drawer, and made me flash the torch to search for the vermin. We never saw anything again but the fear was there.