Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Finally back home!!!

It was a very long journey from Amritsar to Kurukshetra. We reached Kurukshetra around 3 pm. Before getting out of the bus, the guide gave us a strict instruction that everyone were to return by 4:30pm. The reason he cited was that our flight was at 2am and so we had to reach Delhi in time. All of us went dispersed and moved in different groups. Jenny and I were together.

I felt insecure in Kurukshetra. We had to walk through a long hall (or was it a waiting shed???) where there were both men and female sanyasis. They were a filthy lot. (I am sorry if I hurt any one’s sentiments.) I felt Captain Jack Sparrow in ‘The Pirates of the Caribbean’ was far cleaner than the sanyasis here. We could find hundreds of Purohits and Pandas sleeping on the floor. There were many women priests too. Many were awake and some sort of fright seized me. I did not go around much. There was a bronze statue of Krishna and Arjuna on a chariot where Krishna is giving upadeshas (advices) to Arjuna.

The Brahma Sarover is the biggest tank in India. It is 1.2 kms long and 640 meters in breadth. The tank looked very clean and I wonder why these sanaysis did not even bother to wash themselves there.

There is an island in the Brahmo Sarover where there is a temple of Sarveshwar Mahadev

The photograph shows the mandir at Kurukshetra. I went there, clicked a few photographs and left the place. We came out and had tea from an eatery. We bought some souvenirs from Kurukshetra. I wanted to buy rudraksham but the Brahmins in our group discouraged that saying they were not original ones. We came back to or bus around 4pm. None of the others had come back after the darshan.

It was very hot. The driver switched on the air conditioner for us. Our driver did not know any other language other than Hindi. Even after 5pm nobody had come. The driver told us that we were the only two people who were always punctual. The guide was getting irritated while I was getting tensed. Around 5:15 everyone arrived and the bus set off to Delhi.

We reached Delhi around 9:30pm. They dropped Jenny and me at their hotel in Delhi. As our flight was delayed, we decided to leave the hotel at 2 am. They gave us a room in the ground floor. After a short nap, we left for the airport. Our flight was delayed again. We had to wait for another two hours before we could check in.

I was still wearing the kara. My luggage showed excess weight of 9 kilos. The man at the counter was a Sikh. He looked and gave me a sweet smile. He did not charge me of any excess luggage. Jenny was teasing me saying that he must have mistaken me for a Sikh. From Delhi Jenny and I were taking different flights. I took the Cochin flight. I boarded the flight and went off to sleep. When the flight touched the runway at Nedumbassery I woke up. I was happy to get back to Kerala after the adventurous trip to Kashmir. Even today, people raise their eyebrows when they hear that we went alone to Kashmir.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

At the Golden Temple

Amritsar is a big city. There are shops, big and small, on either side of the road. Our bus stopped at a hotel which was clean and looked like a three star hotel. We were provided clean rooms and that was indeed a relief. After a wash, I jumped into my bed and fell asleep in no time.

The next morning we woke up early as we had to go to the Golden temple. Our guide asked us to dress up early and that we had to leave by 6:30 am. We left after a cup of coffee from the restaurant.

The bus stopped at the parking place. A number of horse carriages could be seen. We had to take the carriage to go to the Golden Temple.

The carriage stopped around a junction and we had to walk it down to the Golden Temple. There were shops on either side of the road. The road leading to the temple is narrow. In spite of narrow roads there were shops on either side of that narrow road. We entered the temple and we had to leave our footwear in a counter. The guide then told us that we had to keep our heads covered inside the shrine. At the entrance, there was a small place where we had to wash our feet before entering the shrine.

As I entered the shrine a loud voice stopped me. The man was a huge sized Sikh who said something in Hindi looking at me. The guide asked me to cover my head with my dupatta. Though I had covered my head, the dupatta had slipped off. As my hair is very short and silky, the dupatta couldn’t stay intact. After that I was very cautious to see that my dupatta was in place.

The causeway to Hari Mandir is of marble. There is a big tank called Sarovar which is said to be fed by an underground spring. The causeway encircles the Harimandir and the tank. Hundreds of pilgrims come here every day. There were Sikhs at regular intervals holding a long javelin sort of thing. They are supposed to keep watch of the temple. It was very colourful to see Sikhs wearing colourful turbans. It was a long walk from the clock tower to Hari Mandir. The entire region is clean and the atmosphere serene and pious. Photography is prohibited at the shrine.

The temple is made of gold. There were Sikhs inside the temple with their holy book, the Granth Sahib on a raised platform. There is a canopy above this. They wave a fan like thing called the ‘chaur’. It is treated with very much respect. I did not enter the gurudwara. I stood outside the shrine and watched it. It is a three storied building. I went around the other places.

Food was served at places. I heard a man saying that anyone could go to their dining hall for food. Jenny and I found a place where they were serving a kind of burfi rich in ghee. I had a pinch of what Jenny took from him. It was tasty.

We came out of the shrine and staright went for shopping. I bought the three K’s of the Sikhs. Though there are five K’s I could only buy three. The five K’s are

1. Kesh – The uncut hair of the Sikhs. (I always keep my hair very short)
2. Kanga – A wooden comb. I bought it though I don’t wear it.
3. Kara - An iron bangle. I bought it and wore it.
4. Kachera – It was an innerwear for men. It is worn by the Sikh soldiers. I didn’t buy it,coz it was of no use to me.
5. Kripan – A small dagger worn by Sikhs. I bought the original kripan. There were Kripans imported from China which was relatively cheaper.

The Sikhs also had a kind of bangle with beads. They said it was used for prayers. I bought it too. We came out of the building and walked straight to Jallianwalah Bagh. We had to walk in between two buildings which was a very narrow lane.

Very frankly, there was nothing much to see here except for the martyr’s well where many people fell when Gen. Dyre opened fire on 20,000 people on 1919 and a memorial built in memory of the massacred people.

The main street is a typical Indian town with lots of people and unhygienic surroundings. I saw big pots of curd outside many shops. They sold lassi which was a sweetened curd.

After breakfast we left Amritsar for Kurukshetra

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Women are indeed a weaker sex!!!

Since we had reached early that evening, Jenny and I decided to go to exploring the Dal Lake region. There were shops all around the lake. We went to a Punjabi restaurant for dinner. We met the same family from Pondicherry at the restaurant. We had dinner together. We decided to go shopping. There was a shop attached to this restaurant. As it was a Punjabi shop I decided to try my luck to find ready made kurtas for my size. The salesman happily showed me good embroidered kurtas. He was particular that I had to try it out and he showed me the trial room and kept on pestering me to try it on. I have the habit of looking around before entering any room. The main reason is that I am scared of cockroaches and spiders. This was a small room under the staircase. There were a number of steel cupboards with mirrors. Since it was night I scanned the place. I entered the room and as I started to change, I noticed there was a small hole on the wall. I looked closely and realized there was a lens of the camera. I jumped out of the room and told Jenny that I didn’t want the kurta. She looked at me puzzled and asked,

“Xina, what is wrong?”

I am not sure if my face showed the fright.

“Come, we’ll go,” I turned and walked off and she followed me.

The salesman was talking to me in Hindi and I in my broken Hindi told him that I didn’t want it. Jenny was all confused. She kept on asking me why I was not buying the kurta. As I got out of the shop, I told her that there was a camera in the changing room. We were not in a position to create a scene as it was an alien land with an alien language. Above that, anything could happen to us if we were to create a problem.

I thanked my stars for protecting me from the biggest danger. I cannot imagine what would have happened if I didn’t notice it. My pictures or video would have been in the internet. Imagine students seeing their teacher's video or photograph!!! I was terribly disturbed and Jenny tried consoling me. This was one bad experience I had to undergo in that beautiful valley.

Next morning we were leaving Srinagar. So we had to pack up our bags and get ready. We left for Pahalgam. As it was not cold in the mornings I went out as usual. The journey to Pahalgam was very scenic. There was a river flowing on the one side of the road. Tourists could be seen on the sides of the road stopping by the river. It is from here that Hindu devotees went for Amarnath Yatras.

As we got out of the bus, there was a slight drizzle and the chilly wind made me shiver. I knew I could not withstand the cold without a sweater or a shawl. I pulled out a shawl from my suitcase and covered myself. Still I was shivering and could feel my jaws grinding against each other. We straight away got into a restaurant and ordered for hot tea. We also had our breakfast from there. By then I was feeling quite okay and could move. We walked down the valley. The lush grassland was beautiful. We went around shopping for the typical Kashmiri stuff. I bought a few chains and Kashmiri handicrafts for my daughter and myself.

We then went around the town. We wanted to have quaha before we left Kashmir valley. We asked a shopkeeper, from whom we bought almonds about quaha. He said he would make for us. Though we refused, he said we were his guests and rang up his wife and gave her instructions. Though we were feeling bad, he kept on talking to us and was very happy to learn that we were from Kerala. Finally our quaha arrived and he was very happy to see us enjoy the quaha.

The Kashmiris are nice people. There may be terrorism but the majority of them are good and very hospitable unlike us. They are sad that the media has always been rude to them by giving unwanted importance to the trivial problems there. One can see the army and police all around the place. Though initially I was a bit scared, I got used to it in course of time.

The Border Road Organisation (BRO) maintains the roads all over the Kashmir Valley. The signboards are indeed humorous and thought provoking. There were many signboards but a few that I managed to take down was

“Simplicity is the peak of civilization”

“Be gentle on my curves”…..This was a classic signboard by the BRO.

From Pahalgam we left for Kud. On the way the bus stopped at Patnitop. Willows were seen in plenty. We reached Kud in the evening. It was a great disappointment to find our hotel room. It was not at all clean. The door was not safe. The lamps did not work. Bed sheets were dirty. We complained that we wanted the bed sheets changed and the receptionist said he could send a boy.

Jenny and I went out for dinner. The place was not at all clean. The roads were narrow and big trucks moved up and down. The people there were mainly the labour class and so their behaviour was unrefined. We went to an over crowded restaurant for dinner. There they were frying fresh jellebies. I bought some to give my family members. The soan papadi was excellent. It was crisp and it melted into my mouth. It was indeed yummy!!!

By the time we got back, it was time to go to bed. I changed into my night wear. It was a deep pink knee length one piece night dress. Jenny wanted the sheets changed. I called for the boy. When he came with the sheets I opened the door for him. He raped me with his looks. He came in and on purpose he rubbed against me. While going out again he did the same. He came back knocking saying he wanted to replace the bulb. I asked Jenny to deal with that man and I went into the blanket. I realized that women were indeed a weaker sex when compared to men. In many places even if you wanted to react to sexual violence it was not possible. In a strange land with strange people and an alien language, a woman is totally helpless. I spent a sleepless night. I wanted to get back to my family.

Next morning, after breakfast we left to Wagah Border. It was a long journey from Kud.

The bus stopped near a shop and the guide told us we could buy cricket bats from the shop. He said the cricket bats were made in J&K state and it was very cheap. The children jumped out and their parents followed them. They came back as proud owners of the big bats and tiny bats.

The NH 1A highway was indeed excellent. When we reached Lakhanpur, the guide told us we were out of J&K state.

I got hold of my mobile phone. For nearly a week I was depending on the public call office to keep in touch with my family. Once we reached the town, both my dead phones became active. I immediately called home. Then I sent sms to my friends. I started feeling good. Jenny was telling me that my face was beaming with joy.

There were vast stretches of agricultural land on either sides of the highway. In the middle of the road laburnum was in full bloom. The NH 47 in Kerala is not even one-fourth the size of the Punjab- Haryana’s NH 1A. There were neither pot holes nor any traffic blocks. The journey was a very smooth one. The best thing about this highway was there were petrol bunks at regular intervals and toilet facilities were available at all these filling stations.

We reached Wagah Border around 3 pm. We had a cup of coffee from one of the eateries. We walked up to the border. It is a long walk from the parking area to the border.

Some problem had occurred to my camera and I had to take photographs with my mobile phones. As we walked we saw Pakistan territory. It was a nice feeling to see their territory. It was very hot and there was no much crowd at the time we arrived.

We sat on one the steps of the gallery. It was very hot that I felt that my bottom was getting baked. We did not have an umbrella. All of a sudden there was a surge of people and the place became crowded.

There were people from various strata and their patriotism could be seen.

The other side of the gate is Pakistan and even there people came to watch the ceremony

The soldiers warned the people not to shout slogans against Pakistan. They asked the mob to behave decently. I could see soldiers with a head dress similar to the ones worn by the waiters at the Indian Coffee House.

The Wagah Border ceremony began just before sunset. The Border Security Force organizes the ceremony. It is called the ‘lowering of the flag’ ceremony. I had never seen soldiers parade. The orderly and stately parade was a sight indeed!!! Even on the other side Pakistani soldiers have the same ceremony. Both sides have rigorous marching. At sunset the gates are opened and the flags lowered and folded. The soldiers of both sides shake hands and finally the gate is locked. This parade is a routine everyday.

After the parade we walked to the parking area where our bus was parked. It was already getting late. The bus set off to Amritsar.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I was thoroughly disappointed

The next morning I woke up early, dressed up and was ready to go downstairs. We were told to have breakfast and go to the bus which was parked on the main road. We went to the same restaurant where we went for dinner. To be on the safer side, we had toast for breakfast. The tea was excellent. I don’t like tea, but since I was in Kashmir I decided to have tea. Different flavours of tea were available. I decided to drink tea till I left Srinagar. I liked the tea that was served in Kashmir.

We had to walk through a lane to reach the bus that was parked on the side of the Dal Lake. The lane leading to the Dal Lake was filthy. There was a big dustbin, like the ones we have in Kerala, and we had to cover our nose while passing that way. There was waste strewn all over the road. For the first time I saw the houseboats on the Dal Lake. There were a number of house boats on the lake. Though according to the itinerary we were to go to Gulmarg it was rescheduled. Our guide told us that the army men took their families to Gulmarg on Sunday and so the place would be crowded.
Our guide, Mr.Jain told us that we could visit the Shalimar and Nishath Gardens and in the afternoon we could go for a shikara ride at the Dal Lake.

Our guide told us that there was a temple called Sankaracharya Temple and it was a place where he mediated. The Guide told us that we had to pay an extra amount to see that place. As it was a Sunday, my friend Jenny did not want to go to a temple, instead she wanted to go to a church. Our group members went to the temple. Our guide hired an autorikshaw for us to go to a near by church. The auto driver was a handsome young guy who happily spoke to us in Hindi. He kept telling us it was a beautiful place and he would take us around Srinagar. Since we were to reach with an hour to join our group, we politely refused his offer.

The church a small one and there were people scattered here and there. I prayed for some time and got out. It had a lovely garden in front and flowers were really big and nice. We came out of the church and took some photographs. Our rickshaw driver happily posed for us for a photograph. He told us that his engagement was over. He wanted to take us to his house for a cup of tea. We politely told him that we had to get back in time and we were happy that he offered us the cup of tea. He then took us to J&K Handloom shop. He told us that clothes were cheaper here. We bought a few Kashmir Silk saris and embroidered churidhars.

We reached near Dal Lake and our group was waiting for us. There were armed soliders and we asked them if they could pose for us and they did. We soon left for Nishat Gardens.
Nishat and Shalimar Gardens are also known as the Mughal Gardens. The Mughal rulers developed Kashmir as their summer resort to enjoy the salubrious climate. One can see the Himalyan range just behind the garden. The gardens were in full bloom and the roses were really big. I have never seen such big roses. There were flowers of various hues and varieties.

After visiting the gardens we went out shopping. There were almonds and walnuts in plenty. I bought a few kilos of each to gift relatives. Saffron was also available but it was very expensive. I bought a few grams of saffron too. We had lunch and then we went for the shikar ride. This is a part of the shikars on the Dal Lake.

The trip to the Dal Lake was a memorable one. There were four of us in a shikar. The family from Pondicherry joined us. The shikar wallah was a friendly person. He kept explaining to us about each thing on the lake. He showed us the floating garden on the lake. The most interesting thing was that there were floating shops. The shops were in boats and we could buy things from these boats. They followed the shikars to sell their wares. They had the unique Kashmiri trinkets. I bought a few trinkets for my daughter.
There was also a floating restaurant at the Dal Lake in Char Chinar It was a houseboat and here is the picture of it.

There was a big silver kettle at the restaurant

This restaurant is parked next to the Char Chinar. Char Chinar is an island in the Dal Lake. There are four chinar tree here and people relax under these chinar trees. I took a leaf from the chinar tree to keep it as a memoir of our trip to Kashmir.

The shikarwallah also showed us the Hazratbal Shrine on the western shore of The Dal Lake. After our shikar ride we thanked our shikarwallah and came out. Our day’s sight seeing was over. We did a bit of shopping.

The next morning we set off to Gulmarg. Though we had enough woolen clothing, the Guide said it was not enough and we could get woolen clothing and shoes on rent. It was a 55 kms ride by bus. We could see snow clad mountains. I cannot tell you how happy I felt. Never in my life have I experienced snow.

The very feeling of going to the snow was like a dream come true. The roads were curvy with wonderful scenery.

We reached a small little village were there was a array of shops. It was here that we had to borrow jackets and gum boots. Very truthfully saying I was against the idea of borrowing coats and shoes. I felt it was an unhygienic thing to do. The guide told me that the climate in Gulmarg was unpredictable. It would sometimes be too cold that we may not be able to withstand the low temperature. Finally I gave in and borrowed the woolen jacket and gum boots with socks. I was feeling very uncomfortable.

When we reached Gulmarg, a whole lot of people (Khodawallah according to our guide) crowded our bus asking if we wanted a pony ride. Before alighting he told us that we had to be very careful about our handbags and our belongings as there were chances of pick pocketing. It was a very long walk from the bus stop to the cable car. The cable car was called the Gulmarg Gondola. Gulmarg is in Kongdoor Mountain.

There was a long queue to enter the cable car. It was more than half an hour wait. Finally we got into the cable car and started our way on top of the Kongdoor Mountain. We passed through a small settlement. The houses (huts) were quite different here. All huts had flat roof and it was plastered with clay

I guess it was constructed this way to protect them from the extreme cold. Probably it acted as insulation for the people.

When we got out of the cable car and went closer to the snow, it was a terrible disappointment. It was not the white snow that I had expected. The snow was a muddy colour, polluted by the people. Moss could be seen in the snow. We had to bargain with the sledge walah. The condition was that he could pull one person up the mountain and bring him/her back. We agreed for a ride for Rs.200 each. We had to sit with folded legs on the sledge and the man pulled us up. It was really a big strain for them to pull us up. I told him that I would walk up the mountain and he just had to bring me down. Coming down the sledge was even for funny. The sledge walah sat in front and I had to sit behind him with my legs over his thighs. We came down the mountain. It was indeed a real disappointment visiting Gulmarg. Over that it was too hot that we pulled out our jackets to find that we were drenched in sweat.

We went to a restaurant to have our lunch. The menu is as follows:

Maybe because we were teachers we noticed mistakes in the menu.

In the evening we went to our bus. Before getting into the bus, Jenny and myself went to a restaurant and had tea. When the owner knew that we had come from Kerala, he told us that we had to taste their special tea called Quaha (I’m not sure about the spelling). It was the yummiest beverage that I have had so far. It had a special flavour. It could have been a loss if I hadn’t heard about it or tasted it. In the evening we came back to our bus and reached our hotel at around 7pm after a hectic day. (To be contd...)