Monday, 27 September 2010

Trans Himalaya Motor Expedition

Trans Himalayan Motor Expedition Route Survey
September 2010


To drive 2,500 kms through the Himalayas over some of the highest motorable passes in the world and record the route to create an adventurous journey for individuals to follow during the summer months when the passes are free from snow and ice.


Usual rush to prepare for a trip due to the August Bank Holiday filled every day with social activities leaving the mundane packing preparation on the ‘to do’ list.  At least the visas were sorted and the route/accomodation confirmed with Lokesh, our Indian contact.

2nd September
London to Delhi

A quick once round the breakfast buffet in the BA lounge then onto the 777 for take-off.  Nowadays these flights always seem to leave late but arrive on time or even early as we did today.  In flight tucked into a lamb and spinach curry for lunch, the first of many curries over the next couple of weeks!

The early arrival in Delhi was, not withstanding, landing at the second attempt because of congestion on the runway.  Always a disconcerting experience being able to see the tops of the trees at the end of the runway and then steeply climbing up and away and hearing the landing gear lifted in again.

The new Indira Ghandi airport in Delhi was opened in April this year ready for the Commonwealth Games next month.  It is absolutely huge, very light and airy with a bright and efficient immigration hall.  Difficult to realise that all of these adjectives have been used to describe Delhi airport which has changed beyond all recognition from the manic and frenzied melle of just a year ago on our last visit.  The formalities were completed in a friendly fashion despite all the incoming passengers from London having to complete the landing cards in the immigration hall due to the fact that BA failed to load the documents on the flight – more cost cutting?  Apparently the immigration department, in private rather than state ownership, is now employing personnel from the hotel sector and the effect is most unusual and pleasant.

Lokesh was ready and waiting for us by Costa Coffee with gorgeous welcome garlands and we set off to the Hilton Hotel in downtown Delhi.  This hotel was selected because of the location being close to the main route out of the city we are to take in the morning.  A huge place (not unlike the new airport) and we were shown to our room on the 4th floor overlooking the swimming pool.  Time for a re-arranging of the luggage packed in my most efficient manner into further bags of equipment, photographic, medicines, his and hers clothes and finally the shoe bag!!  Got to bed at about 02.30 having promised to meet Lokesh at 09.00.  Slept in the  most comfortable bed ever!

3rd September
Delhi to Nalagarh

Today dawned with grey skies but it is pretty warm and humid – about 28 degrees and 80%.
Duly met up with Lokesh and the Sales Director of the Hotel who joined us for breakfast, after which we took delivery of the Ford Endeavour that is to be our transport for the next couple of weeks.  It is a three year old diesel with some 130,000 km on the clock but it seems in generally good nick so the luggage was piled in and off we set.  I have to admit to some qualms of nervousness getting into a strange 4x4 in the middle of Delhi to drive out to the main highway.  The expressions on the faces of the hotel concierge, porters and security chaps at me, rather than JB or our Indian companion Lokesh, getting behind the wheel and being given a briefing by the driver on the dashboard instruments was comical – it really isn’t something they see much off, if ever, here.

Anyway, I got us out of the hotel, immediately across a one way four/five lane busy road to the other side to merge with a similarly hectic road and got to the far side within about 100 metres to then turn left.  A baptism of fire that then settled down into the usual routine of eyes doing constant mirror, wing mirror left, wing mirror right, look front, repeated non stop.  Lane discipline is non-existent and everyone believes they have right of way.  Much tooting, accelerating into a gap, braking when you lose the competition for the same place, eyes on 360 degrees revolving and it was just as if I hadn’t been away.

Our route today was relatively simple from a navigation point of view.  The hotel is ideally placed for a simple route out and then it is highway for the majority of the day.  Highway is a term for the major road and bears little or no resemblance to a motorway in the UK.  Traffic volume is generally patchy with sometimes little or no other road users and at other times quite frenetic.   The road surface is pretty OK with a ‘black top’ and where there are roadworks, the small diversions take us along the old roads beside the two lane dual carriage way with bumpy roads and every man for himself on bikes, mopeds, tuk-tuks, cars, lorries and off course, the blinking buses.  These vehicles are an absolute nightmare with crazed drivers in charge of completely unroadworthy buses (term used loosely for the rusted metal, often windowless dented and scratched machines).  They are less colourful than the lorries but make themselves known by the musical horns at a decibel level that health and safety would thoroughly disapprove of!

We travelled north from Delhi on state highway 1 and after a couple of hours ran into a thunder storm that had gathered on the horizon.  Pouring rain reduced visibility and we discovered that the 4x4 windscreen wipers weren’t too efficient but hey-ho, what’s another factor in tricky driving. The time was right to stop for a bite of lunch.

Lokesh took us to a roadside place he was familiar with and we tucked into dhal and a cottage cheese curry served with potato end cheese stuffed breads.  Delicious and washed down with a cup of chai to finish.  The cost of this hot and nourishing grub was 458 rps or a couple of quid per person to you and me.

The thunder storm banged and crashed itself out while we ate and then on to the road again towards Chandigarh and then turn off on the Shimla road before getting to Fort Nalagarh.  The road up to the fort is quite narrow but the final 20 metres up to the Fort reception was a real challenge with the access cobble path only just wide enough for the 4x4 and very very steep.  As I was more concerned about the width of the path I took it too slowly and ran out of oomph just before the top and stalled.  Bugger!!  With much revving and the thing in four wheel drive, I got it up and arrived to a real stink of burnt clutch pad.  This is a worry bearing in mind we are planning to take on some pretty high and windy roads further along the route but not a lot we can do about it now.

The hotel here is one of faded grandeur.  Probably a rather exaggerated description because faded is the foremost attribute.  The position is great, overlooking the town and I am sitting on the terrace, watching the sun go down with a cup of tea while JB and Lokesh plan the day tomorrow, I decided to make a start on this before I forget.  Somewhat surprising to see a couple of large monkeys scamper along the balustrade in front of me, but hey, this is India and nothing is a surprise anymore.        

Evening spent over G&T’s in the most old fashioned bar situated in a drawing room full of 40’s and 50’s nick naks.  There is also a snooker room here as well as badminton court and swimming pool.  Dinner was served in an equally old fashioned dining room, tomato soup followed by curry from the buffet was the offering today.  All tasted very good indeed!

4th September
Nalagarh to Manali

Heavy rain overnight but a bright and warm morning sent us on our way at 08.25. We are now starting to ascend the Himalayan foothills.

The road to begin with today is ordinary ‘black top’ and we made good progress until we hit the end of a tail back of stationary lorries.  When this situation arises, one does not do the British thing of joining the end of the queue, one changes down gear and starts to overtake in the oncoming lane.  After a km or so we get to near the head of the queue to be told by the odd car coming towards us that there has been a landslide and although there has been a partial clearance, lorries are getting stuck.  We keep going and get by after a stop of just under an hour. Once past, the road which is now narrow, is chocker with the lorries that have got through and these take some overtaking. The road has also broken up so if I say that it took four hours to cover the first 70kms….. and the estimated distance for today is 347km……   

Despite the aggravation of the first few hours, the drive is wonderful.  First we drive along the huge lake, the Govind Sagar (Govind = Lord Krishna and Sagar = lake).  Generally we are above rather than at water level so the views are spectacular.  There are still many lorries on the roads because now is the apple season and there is a market nearby so there is much tooing and froing.  It is possible to tell that it is an apple truck from the fragrance.

Then we follow the Beas river and cross the Bandoh dam which is awesome! The continuing rains have made the river in full spate and once we reach the dam, the sluice gate waters gush down the channel from the dam and create a foaming wave of manic water that seems never ending.  A wonderful sight and great photo shot opportunity – notwithstanding the big signs stating the law, punishable under the Treason Act, for doing so.  We got away unchallenged and hope to be able to leave the country!  

We have a restaurant lunch en-route during a heavy thunder storm.  Lokesh suggests we try scrambled egg marsalla with the usual curry accompaniments of dhal, veg curry and roti bread.  Pretty good but not as good as the roadside dharba yesterday.  Still only cost about £4 for the three of us.

The steep mountain sides and changing terrain make the drive truly appropriate and fitting through Kulu – the Valley of the Gods.  Manali is a popular place in Himachal Pradesh state during the summer season due to the forests, waterfalls, fast flowing rivers and all sorts of adventure activities.

We arrive in Manali after dark at 19.20 and the hotel is most welcome.  Definitely off the regular tourist track and more in the land of backpackers so ‘posh’ hotels are not here.  Generally clean and tidy but the bath water was brown but not worth fussing about it as at least it was hot. 

Post drive debrief in the bar revealed that although there was gin available here, there is no tonic.  Panic sets in for the first time today!  The option of sending someone out to go and buy some was fruitless as we were assured that tonic doesn’t feature in the Himalayas.  So, needs must and a new mixer was called for.  We tried sweet lime soda which although a tad too sweet, did the job and mixed with local gin (powerful stuff and a quarter of the price of Beefeater), was ok for me.  JB decided to try a rum based concoction and didn’t fancy coke as the mixer.  The same sweet lime soda with dark rum on the top produced a visually fantastic drink in the long glass as the two liquids didn’t mix and it tasted pretty ok too.  Now to be known as a Manali Cocktail.  Lokesh had rum and coke but as that was a staple in Cuba, we left that today.

5th September
Manali to Jespa

It has rained heavily again overnight but it is bright and warm this morning.  Probably about 20 degrees.  Didn’t set off as early as intended as we had to go into Manali to raid the ATM’s.  Once done, we did a quick escape on the road to the Rohtang Pass – our first high Himalayan pass.

Bloody hell!!  Almost immediately we start to climb and it is now getting quite hot in the sun.  The road quickly reduces to a single lane and the road surface is non existent.  We actually got on the way just before 10.00 and so there was a fair amount of commercial traffic too – our friends the lorries.

While I talk of the lorries all the time, these are so colourful and driven generally at a rate of knots by skinny little blokes who look as if they should be at school.  They are so unlike the lumpy, ignorant articulated monsters that grace our roads at home.  Despite the inevitable musical horns and black exhaust if you have the misfortune to follow uphill, they drive like demons, far too fast, and are brave as lions when it comes to tackling some of the stretches of road we come across.

As we leave the out of town villages and into the country, the sun is now shining hotly but there is quite a lot of mud on the road.  The answer to my question as to when do landslides occur got the answer of after heavy rain then hot sun.  Bloody hell again!!  There is evidence of this when I query some rocks in the road and as we take the hairpin bend back on ourselves, it is clear where the edge of the road has fallen off. 

Up we go and initially all is well; plenty of hooting before the hairpin bends and there is zero visibility of the downward traffic and the road has improved to a black top.  Then the road starts to lose the tarmac until there is none left at all.  Now it is steep and very muddy and rutted.

Time to give a fuller description of my dear 4x4.  On the flat, absolutely great apart from slow response to acceleration.  Any incline whatsoever, it really struggled – as per the arrival at the Fort on the first day – it just can’t cope and conks out rather than making the gradient.

So imagine the scene – we are now on a single track, steep mud rutted surface and I just cannot get the revs up so the damn machine keeps conking out.  To the side is a drop of I don’t know how many 100m and I have a ‘situation’.  JB is trying to tell me what to do but as I am convinced we are about to die, it doesn’t help.  I have a hissy fit and so JB takes over.  Better he drives us over the cliff than me – he can’t say I told you so!! 

I’m so glad he did! Crikey what a drive but JB drove like the expert he is and I had no fear whatsoever.  Even able to take in the wonderful views despite pauses for stuck lorries, an army truck being winched back onto the road, narrow stretches only just wide enough for the car (let alone lorries that are still on the road).  Only some of the pictures will tell the tale.

Still a day that I wouldn’t have missed for the world. Shingri Glacier is amazing and the Spiti Valley is famous for Yaks and Choru.   We understand that the Rohtang Pass has been impassable for some time, hence the recently reclaimed sections from rocks and debris and missing road edges to some parts making the road only just passable.

The day is longer than expected but we get to our hotel in Jespa as the sun is going down.  It is situated across from wide river that makes a real babble, a sound we can hear from our room overnight.

The hotel is basic but the best there is.  Situated beside the road with nothing else about, we have the place just about to ourselves and our menu is presented hand written to Lokesh and we select the lot - mutton curry (yipee), rice and dahl.  Our starter was a hot and sour vegetable soup and was absolutely delicious.  We bought a bottle of gin in Manali this morning as there is only beer here and mixed with Sprite and the result was perfectly ok.

Clutching overfull tummies we turned in having promised ourselves an early start in the morning as we have a long run ahead.        

6th September
Jespa to Leh

After a bad nights ‘sleep’ on what was the hardest bed I’ve ever slept on, we were up at 06.00 and eager to get on the road at 07.00 for what we know is a long day ahead.  It is not surprising that the hotel is slightly tatty and lacking in some of the finer comforts because it only opens four months a year for the tourists/backpackers and is otherwise cut off from the rest of the world.  Today is a bright sunny day but I’m grateful for my ski jacket in the early morning chill.

The planned itinerary for the Expedition makes the journey today of approx 5hrs driving to Soka leaving a further 6 hrs the following day to Leh.  Our decision is to do two days drive in one and so have an extra rest day in Leh.

The first three hours gives us a route along the Bhaga Rive towards it’s source and the road hairpins up and up along the now familiar narrow cliff edge roads, sometimes with a hard surface and often on broken rock and potholes. Obviously no kind of Armco or barrier and it was a challenge for this driver to overcome the feeling that at any moment I would bounce over the edge.  We didn’t so I was worrying needlessly!

No mud like the Rohtang Pass but wet in places from the recent rain. The views are awesome and it is difficult to put into words the grandeur of these mountains that surround us.  It is truly a remote area with little obvious signs of wildlife but apparently there are mongoose and Ibex and the birds of prey are huge and sometimes fly below us on the higher tracks.  We see several flocks of sheep and goats being driven down for the winter because by the end of this month, this area will be locked away from the outside world by snow. 

The influence of Buddhism is very evident here together with the facial features and dress of the people.  We stop at a roadside camp for a stretch of legs and some chai and are persuaded to have some lunch of vegetable chop suey by a lovely lady and her granddaughter.  It is a very photogenic place and so out come the cameras and with their permission we snap away.  This is the perfect occasion to bring out the mini photo printer so a couple of the snaps of the ladies are printed which absolutely delights them.  With many smiles and much waving we set off again, fully fortified for a long stint ahead.  The chop suey was delicious by the way.

Now we are motoring through the Zanskar Range through a valley that seems endless still with the constantly changing peaks around us.  Many have snow tops while the lower rock colours and formations change from jagged vicious looking rock to changing sand colours contoured by the wind with a range like the cliffs on the Isle of Wight. We are still at 4,800m on the valley floor!!

Then it is up again to cross the La Chung-La pass at 5,029m or 16,600 ft.  The afternoon light on the hills is fantastic and apart from some time wasted trying to follow local directions to get on the right road to Leh, it was worth it. 

The need to take local advice on the route was because the disaster that hit the region in and around Leh last month with the massive storm and deluge that caused major flooding, wiped out a part of the town and caused many deaths also completely took out some of the road on the most direct route to Leh over the Tanglang La pass which is at 5,325m.  The direction given in the first place was sound in fact but not good for us in the old goat that I know that bloody car as.  The pull in first/second gear is getting less and less and despite trying to get the revs up the darn thing conks out on a standing start on a steep incline and because there was quite deep sand when trying to get up the short but steep sand track to the road and even when JB took over, he couldn’t get the old goat up either (slightly satisfying from my point of view) so we had to retrack some way and take the lorry route. Even four wheel drive didn’t help.  I have been managing ok on the road so far because I have had momentum and mastered changing down to first and gunning the car around the steep sharp bends.  

On we went with some 50kms of reasonably firm hardcore/shale surface with JB at the wheel as we hadn’t changed back from the sand episode.  As we still had over 160kms to go and the sun will be setting in a hour, he decided to get a move on and rally style took over on the downhill stage.  I have sat with JB driving in this style before so while not quite relaxed, am not freaked.  Lokesh however in the back was silent throughout and probably wondering if he would ever see Delhi again! (needs correcting JB)

The sun set as we motored along the last stretch of road into Leh.  The Indus River was to our left and in full spate as it is the end of the glacier melting season as well as the recent rain.  Sometimes we would climb in the usual hairpin fashion when the road could not be cut into the mountainside and then down again to the river.

Darkness fell and although driving in India at night is not generally recommended, there were few other road users and none of the ‘local’ hazards of people, rickshaws, bikes, animals to worry about.   Lorries were the only other users and they are pretty good at moving over for us.  The back of very Indian lorry carries the instruction to ‘Blow Horn’ and ‘Use Dipper At Night’ so that is just what you do and they fairly quickly find a passing place for us to squeeze by.  The other thing was that the road continues to be narrow and sometimes very broken up, the headlights did enough of a good job to see a path ahead.

We get into Leh at 22.20 and the Grand Dragon Hotel is a very welcome sight. A modern but traditional hotel was waiting our arrival so a quick supper of chicken tikka, paneer tikka and vegetable jalfrezi soon put us right followed by a shower and bed!

7th September
Day in Leh

Last night we agreed that today is to be a lazy day so a late breakfast (marsalla omlette and paneer) was followed by JB and Lokesh going to find a garage to get the old goat seen too and a domestic time of laundry, luggage rehash and diary writing for me.  I will get on line later and try and get this out.  It is strange that there is still no mobile connectivity here but the hotel assure us that internet is available.   Today is a bright but cloudy day and I’m looking forward to going for a walk about later. 

JB reports back that although the air and oil filters have been changed, it is probably dodgy fuel that is part cause of the old goat performance and the fact that the car wasn’t designed for a high altitude market and the air intake is insufficient.  The best we can do is add some fuel additive when next filling up and hope for the best.

Into Leh centre which is away from the flood area. A small place with street vendors on the kerb selling their fresh vegetables and the small shops focused on the tourist trade selling the usual mish mash of local clothes, jewellery, books etc. Alongside were the shops for the locals and we had a very satisfactory wander, barter and buy!  It is not for no reason that I pack an extra flat pack bag on these jaunts.  We take a restorative masalla chai on a rooftop restaurant terrace and share a vegetarian Mo Mo and back into the fray. ‘Fray’ being rather an inaccurate description as there are so few tourists here because of the warnings to stay away.  This is proving to be an over cautious warning by the Foreign Office because the area affected by the disaster (which was devastating for the affected area) only struck one small part of the town and washed out the airport.  There is so much of the local infrastructure that depends on tourism that is now suffering badly when it really need not.

After our busy day we decide to have dinner in and, as it is a Tuesday, join Lokesh in selecting a vegetarian dinner.  A starter of fried baby corn followed by cauliflower tikka and vegetable kebab with hot mint sauce then panner and spinach with potato and pea curry did the job.  That was about an hour ago and I still feel rather full!

Next job is to get this out to some of my nearest and dearest so here we go ………………..

8th September
Day in Leh

I suppose we should do some culture as we are in an area so steeped in Buddhism with monasteries and stupas at every turn.  Last night we decided that today we must take a trip out to one of the most famous places, the Hemis Monastery situated about 30 mins drive away. 

Breakfast was taken at 08.30 with JB opting for a variation on the marsalla omelette theme with puri and aloo goobi.  The puri are thin flat breads, deep fried so they puff up and served piping hot and taste delicious when used to scoop up aloo goobi the spicy potato curry and thick gravy.  Very traditional and a taste extravaganza.

Today Lokesh has arranged for his local guide to be available for us and this meant we get a driver too.  Overnight one of the tyres has gone down on the old goat, so that was changed in the hotel car park.  We got it repaired on the way to drop the car back to the garage for a wash and clean inside and out while we went in the chauffeur driven car and headed out to Hemis.

The route takes us back along the road we came into Leh two days ago in the dark.  It is also the area where most evidence of the flooding is seen with banks of sludge bulldozed to the side of the road and in one place a lorry still jammed into the side of a house where the powerful surge had stuffed it.  The power of the water and debris had in some places forced itself through shop metal roller garage type doors and completely wrecked the contents and left a legacy of sludge.

The Godsend was that there is a huge Indian army presence in this area so immediately the disaster struck they were mobilised and have done/are doing a massive and efficient clean up operation.  It is a sobering illustration of the awful might of nature and how powerless man is against such a force.

On a happier theme, Hemis monastery is as usual for a monastery,  perched on a cliff and is a fine example of its type. Hemis was founded under the direct patronage of members of the ruling Namgyal dynasty and our guide was most informative and made the visit interesting.  One overriding memory will be a kitten that attached itself to us and miaowed incessantly during the visit.  We each had a prayer/wish by spinning  a huge prayer wheel in the courtyard and also spun each prayer wheel in a line of about twenty much smaller ones.       

The decision was made to not make any other monastery visits today and headed the 45mins or so back into Leh where we stopped for a Tibetan style lunch in a back street.  Not quite sure of the names of the various dishes but as it was not to be the main meal of the day, we had some steamed veg dumplings served with a wicked hot chilli dip and a type of deep fried cheese and chilli sandwich.  We dispensed with the driver before lunch knowing that the walk back to the hotel through the streets would be good for us.

‘By happy chance’ that meant we were to pass a shop that had interested me yesterday with jewellery and also  fabrics of many sorts from cushion covers to silk bedcover sets.  I had bartered for a silk cushion cover yesterday (got it down to 100 rps – about £1.40) and said I would call in again to look at his gold/stones which he had assured me were the finest in Leh.    

The jewellery he showed ranged from tat to really much better quality gold and gems.  After much discussion I came away with a rather lovely piece purchased for me by JB and then we went to his other shop because I expressed interest in a matching bracelet.  This meant he now had the ‘assistance’ of further shop keepers and it was all rather jolly.  I did find a bracelet I wanted and got stuck into the bartering.  Lokesh had previously given me a tip that prices were often increased four fold to tourists so I started at a ridiculous low price and got the thing for just under 25% of his original asking price.    Very satisfying now I’m the very proud owner of a gorgeous matching set.  All of this included a cup of chai while negotiations were under way and agreement that we would send people to him next year.

Next on the retail agenda was to look at buying one of the beautifully carved and painted coffee tables that are seen in this part of Kashmir.  Lokesh called on his local friend George to come and help us with this purchase as this was from a locals shop rather than a touristy establishment.  The deal was done and now we have a well wrapped table to travel with us and get home.  It does ‘flat pack’ in that the legs are hinged and fold under so hopefully it will get back in one piece.

We went to celebrate with George in a local hotel with cups of chai and pakoras to snack.  Packoras are fresh vegetables deep fried tempura style and served with a spicy dip.  All very excellent.  Funniest moment was JB nipping off to the loo and after some time we could hear the distant banging on a door and concluded that he was locked in!  Everyone jumped into action with hints and tips on how to open the door. 

Afterwards JB said it was a real ‘Mr Bean’ scenario with first a wobbly loo seat, difficult to get hold of loo roll then spurting water from the tap capped by being unable to turn the key in the lock.  He eventually emerged laughing so everyone relaxed and we headed back to the Grand Dragon Ladakh.

Tonight we dined ‘a deux’ as Lokesh has gone out for the evening with George so we stayed in and had yet another Indian feast.  Tomorrow we get on the road again and we are both ready to move on.

9th September
Leh to Kargil   

This morning dawned rather grey but not too cold.  On the road just before 09.00 and set out for Kargil and the promise of a pass with 22 loops – hairpin bends.  This number of loops is not that unusual to get over/around a mountain but these are in quite close proximity so were something to look forward to.

The first part of the journey was on reasonable roads and there were quite a few on-coming trucks carrying banners ‘Leh Relief from Punjab’.   These were an additional factor when dealing with the steep, single track often unmade roads cut out of the mountainside.

Another new factor is the Indian Army.  As winter is closing in and the majority of the roads we are travelling on now will become impassable from mid October onwards, there is much movement of men and supplies up to Srinagar on the Pakistan border.  There are conveys of army trucks, hundreds at a time, crawling along and causing huge queues, particularly in the villages en-route.  One reason is that although the roads are pretty ropey generally, the village streets tend to have massive potholes and restricted width so bottle necks are common, especially as the oncoming lorries seldom give way so all slows to a snails pace or stop.

My mission therefore is to overtake.  It is actually relatively easy with the formula of hooting loudly, pulling out to indicate overtaking and waiting for them to make room.  It inevitably means the passing is on rough ground and teeth rattling for my passengers.  I reckon I must have overtaken about one hundred trucks and while a big number were passed as they regrouped after a pass, it was quite an achievement.

One major hold-up of just over an hour was when roadworks stopped the whole cavalcade moving forward.  Annoyingly we were only about four vehicles from the road block but there was nothing that could be done other than wait for the bulldozer to clear the rocks and debris from the latest road widening project where part of the mountain side had been dynamited.  We were held on a ledge above the Indus river (steep drop of a hundred metres or so) and watched the scene develop. 

The taxi in front of us was carrying eight or so Sikhs who were having fun with distance stone throwing across the river.  The fact that one chap was taking a cricket kind of run up to the cliff edge before releasing the stone gave me heart failure but he survived!

Otherwise, many of the army personnel wandered past to inspect the hold-up with the usual smiles and incredulity seeing a woman at the wheel.  My only dilemma was that as time went on I needed a pee and there really was nowhere to go!  Much concentration on my behalf on anything other than the rushing water below and men constantly turning in towards the mountainside to relieve themselves - lucky whatnots!!

Once we got going I managed to get past the slow vehicles ahead and opened a gap big enough to nip out, have a quick pee and jump back in the car again before the convoy caught up!  Formula One type pit stop!

We got to a point where the option was to take a detour to Alchi Monastery, one of the most interesting in Ladakh, rich in paintings from the 12th and 13th centuries that were not exposed to light for a couple of hundred years so are well preserved and in excellent condition.  Because of the road traffic today we decided to mark the turning but not visit.  Later on at our debrief of the day, this was regretted but is a must on the next visit.

The scenery today is again magnificent.  The colours of the mountain sides have a palette from grey, green, black and sand.  Sometimes there are the vertical stalagmite type rock clusters and others are loose sand carved by the wind and rain.

We decided to stop and have lunch at Lamayuru, 2.5 km off the road, and had a pretty natty stir fry, dahl and trimmings for the usual 480 rps.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that the lunch diversion took about an hour so when we got back onto the main route, the convoy was passing through.  Here we go again!  Toot toot, pull out, look for the turn right indicator then take to the rough and overtake.  I will dream of overtaking tonight.

The 22 loops were a pleasure to drive and the old goat behaved pretty well with the benefit of the cosmetic surgery in Leh and the higher grade diesel with fuel additive.  We were ahead of the troops at this point and took full advantage of it.  

Even so, it was a very long day and we arrived in Kargil at 19.20.  This is a very muslim town and was the centre of a shelling by the Pakistan army in 1999 from a ridge above.  Relief came when the Indians took the shelling posts and have remained there ever since to protect the town.  For this reason there is a high military presence here.

Our hotel this evening is the road house ‘Hotel D’Zojila Baroo’.  A big welcome but no beer!  Fortunately they had sprite so Lokesh produced the clandestine bottle of gin so we went down to dinner with glasses of ‘sprite’ to accompany our veg soup, mutton curry, etc etc ; you get the idea by now.  Our rooms are basic to say the least but clean and the bathroom is a plumbing miracle!  Suffice to say the usage was best kept to a minimum and as we are planning a dawn start tomorrow, didn’t really matter.

10th September
Kargil to Srinagar

This may have been the most basic of accommodations last night but the service was impeccable with a morning pot of tea delivered to the room on the dot of 04.30.  We left at 05.10 for two reasons.  Firstly we wanted to stay ahead of yesterday’s convoy and also there is a second convoy that leaves a point two hours into the journey at 07.30 so again we wanted to be ahead of that.

There was little or no traffic as we headed away from Kargil under a starlight sky.  It was going to be a gorgeous day.  As the sun came up over the mountain range the clear air made visibility excellent and the surrounding mountains revealed their beauty in the most stunning fashion.  It is such a privilege to experience this.  To begin with we started to climb and did some hill hugging roads at a reasonable speed because the very few oncoming vehicles headlights gave notice of their presence around the blind corners.  This good progress got us to Drass at about 07.15 and as we passed by the army camp we could see the drivers gathered in a square being briefed by a red turbaned officer.  There were hundreds of army trucks waiting to set off so thank goodness we have them behind us.

The Drass river flows beside us in the valley below as we make good progress with varying roads from respectable black top to rocky, rutted, water filled potholes.  One incident today on such an unmade ledge, carved into the mountainside, happened when travelling behind a couple of loaded  fuel tankers, (all small orange Indian Oil trucks labelled Highly Inflammable that belch black exhaust), and rounding a blind corner with a rock overhanging. The lead tanker meet a relief lorry coming in the other direction.  Impasse!  Engine off and wait for something to happen.  In the end, the lorry managed to back down enough to leave a small passing space so we moved on.  I don’t know how long that lorry had to stay there for because the head of the army convoy was now stacking up behind us.

The intention was to stop of a breakfast on route but there is nowhere on our route so we plough on.  

Now we turn our minds to the next destination, Srinagar.  This is again a predominantly Muslim town that has been in the headlines in the last months due to political unrest that has turned violent.  It has been difficult to get a rational explanation as to the cause of this but now understand that it goes something like this:

The region of Jammu and Kashmir has a democratically elected local Government.  The law enforcement is through a local police force and then there is a heavy contingent of Indian Army based in the town on defence duties focused on the border.  It seems that local population want an independent Kashmir and in their protests to local government last month, sentiment overflowed and turned violent when the army shot some of the protestors.   As a result, the Indian Army is now not wanted in the town.   Now a para military force has been drafted in who are instructed to shoot on sight of unrest.

 An immediate solution seems unlikely because Kashmir will not be given independence just now and the Indian Army is unlikely to be moved out of the town.  This is no doubt why the general advice is to avoid this area just now but as the route we plan must go through the town and as the unrest is focused on internal affairs, we decide to continue according to our itinerary.

Our accomodation tonight is on a house boat on Dal Lake on the outskirts of town.  We are met at a small jetty just beyond the Duke Hotel by one of Lokesh’s team; the luggage unloaded and car parked.

We all then embark on our Shikara across the lake to be greeted by our host Abdul Kaddir.  The shikara is a brightly coloured yellow punt with a covered centre part laid out with comfy cushions to lie on while being rowed across the hundred metres or so to our destination.  No sooner had we set off than another shikara pulled along side, occupied by a chap and several small trunks.  Fabulous!  Another jewellery salesman!  In the ten minute ride he established our nationality, spoke glowingly of the English and tried to interest me in his wares.  I was steadfast in my refusal to be interested, although he did have some good things.

What a destination!  When we approach the Royal Alexandra, one of many houseboats lined up across the water, on the landing stage is Abdul and his team of staff.  The houseboat is a sight to behold.  Intricately carved walnut façade and interior furnished in fabulous highly polished dark wood.  Into the drawing room, through to the dining room and then a corridor to four double room suites and a master suite at the end.  That’s what we have been given. There are fresh flowers throughout and all is spic and span.

Our master suite is a most spacious room with massive king-size bed, a TV that works (BBC Sport  = oh joy) and wonders will never cease, a bath!  Carpeted throughout and wood lined, it is rather lovely in an Indian fashion.    

Lunch is served immediately – tomato soup followed by mutton curry, two veg curries, rice and dahl.  Followed by fresh watermelon then chai, the early start caught up and I headed to the luxury of a siesta while the men talked tactics for our meeting later this afternoon with prominent Kashmiri ministers.

Three hours solid sleep did the job and I was woken up to the news that the meeting had been confirmed for 17.30 so we got ready and were met on the land side by L’s local representative and off we went to the Royal Springs Golf Club.  Security was intense on entry to the club and the entourage of security vehicles and staff was pretty impressive.

This was because the Chief Minister of Kashmir, Omar Addula,  was walking in the grounds with his family and an introduction was made and a short conversation followed on the purpose of the visit and he pledged the help of his team to assist in the success of the project.  Pretty damn useful.

We then sat down to a formal meeting with the Minister for Tourism, Nasir and the Director for Tourism, Farooq Shah.  The local representative, Nasir Shah, also joined us as JB explained the project in hand and the assistance we needed on the launch at the WTM (World Travel Market) in London in November.  It was a most convivial meeting and agreement was reached that they would support both the launch of the product at WTM and also help with a separate promotion in London.

The hospitality during the meeting was rather weird because being Ramadam, which means they fast from dawn to dusk, the Minister, Director and Nasir were not eating and as we were served water, hot appetizers and tea, they had nothing and watched us eat, apologising for being unable to join us.  The food was delicious.        

As JB expressed an interest in golf, when the Minister left us, he ordered a buggy to drive him (and L and me) perched on the back, around the course in the fading daylight.  A promise to play on his next visit was given so methinks he will be back.

Back ‘home’ to our lovely houseboat.  Needless to say there is no alcohol on board given the majority Muslim population.  However the ever resourceful Abdul spotted our desperation (we have all but finished the gin) and found us a half full bottle of whisky of an unheard of Indian brand.  With a drop of water and some pepper poppadoms, the standard pre dinner tit bit, it goes down well.  Life is pretty jolly good!

Dinner tonight is veg soup, chicken curry on the bone, rice, curried cauliflower and green beans, dahl of course followed by a kind of caramel cream.  A real gutbuster but we have decided that the spice/heat level is probably aimed at the less enthusiastic curry eater so, although delicious, we have asked Abdul to increase the heat levels tomorrow and to go authentically Kashmiri.

A nearly solid night sleep – awoken only at about four to hear some beasty scrabbling about overhead in a rather rodent type of way.  Where is Spot when you need her!  JB put paid to the racket by standing on the bed and giving a couple of judicious thwacks to the ceiling with my hairbrush and all went quiet.

11th September
Day in Srinagar

Today is Eid, the celebration of the brand new moon that ends the 30 days of fasting for Muslims. 

It is probably not ideal that we are spending the anniversary of 9/11 in a militant Muslim town while in the middle of nowhere in the USA when there is a crazy Yankee minister advocating the burning of the Koran. 

The early morning calls to prayer started just after the monster on the roof ran off so sleep was fitful until our ‘bed tea’, served by Abdul at 08.30.  Because of Eid, Abdul needed to go to prayers early and breakfast was arranged for 10.30 and so the Masalla omelettes were eagerly awaited.  It’s a bit shocking to say we were hungry after the feast the night before but that’s the way it is.

As we breakfast there is a bit of a crowd processing along the road on the mainland side, shouting and blowing horns but it was aimed at the police building opposite and had no impact on us at all.  A generally lazy morning in the hot sunshine was made just fantastic when we went for a shikara trip around the lake.

Fully expecting something rather boring, this proved to be the high point of the day. We stepped from our houseboat onto the shikara and off we went.   Being paddled along with the other lake users going about their business of visiting relatives and returning from the mosque, all in the very best finery and clothes, especially the women, was wonderful. The children were in high spirits, either being of an age to be in their own shikaras or being paddled by a ‘gondolier’.     

The photo opportunities were many and varied with JB and L clicking away and collecting a great selection of pictures.  A difficult sequence of pics to get was to follow one of the eagles swoop into the water for fish but this remained impossible.  Still, a great sight to see. 

For me, the best bit was the return of the marine jewellery salesman who pulled alongside, the same chap as yesterday, to try his luck again. He is very charming and before I know it I am now the proud owner of a black necklace (quartz possibly) and lots of gifts for the girls in our families.  I bartered hard and impressed Lokesh with securing my purchases for just under 25% of his starting prices.  I love a bargain!

Back to Royal Alexandra and lunch was waiting.  We hear that the planned outing this afternoon into Srinagar city centre is not to take place because the local guide feels there may be trouble there.  However it is a lovely day and we agree to take in some of the gardens that border Dal Lake. JB wanted to visit the Pari Mahal which was actually a Library from the Mughal times.  So it is over to the mainland.  On the way up the hill to the palace we pass through a security checkpoint because the Chief Minister’s house is just beyond.  While waiting to be checked, a motorbike hurtled through the zig zag of the checkpoint ridden by two young lads, who didn’t stop.  Immediately one of the soldiers  reached for his rifle and started to aim.  A checkpoint official rushed up and pushed the gun aside and spoke rapidly, pushing the soldier and prevented firing.  This isn’t such a lightweight problem round here after all.

The Pari Mahal was built by Prince Dara Shikoh, Emperor Shah Jahan's eldest son, for his teacher is either a library or school of astrology depending on who you listen to. It is sirted high above the city of Srinagar and is a favourite spot for a day out.

Below the Parai Mahal are the Cheshma Gardens which are one of the smaller gardens in Srinagar but have the advantage of being a source of spring water which has, according to legend, healing qualities. After that we visited the Nishat Gardens which are much much larger and at Lake level.  I can’t remember the names at this moment but the flowers were really luscious and old fashioned like marigolds, dahlias, huge salvia, some roses and other plants that seem to thrive on the soil here and grow taller and broader than I have seen at home.

As today is a holiday, there are very many families enjoying the gardens, walking around or sitting in groups while the children charge about in high spirits. We are stopped for a chat by some young lads in their early 20’s probably, who were interested to see us obviously tourists, and wondered where we were from.  JB got into a discussion with them and it transpired that the group leader was studying English literature and was extremely well read.  It is at odds with the scene just witnessed with the soldier and proves the point that there is more than one facet to any situation.  It seems to be the minority as usual that spoil life for the rest.

We head back to base and discuss the situation.  We are due to leave tomorrow anyway but the increasingly volatile situation means the soon the better.  Another early start is therefore planned to get on the road by 06.00 sharp tomorrow.

Nothing for it then but to take on more whisky on the verandah as the sun goes down.  Another of those ‘aren’t I lucky’ moments.  Dinner of chicken soup, mutton curry, rice, dahl, squash curry, aubergine curry followed by caramel crème, Indian style, makes the need to have breakfast in the morning unnecessary!  Clutching a very full tummy I go and pack for our early morning departure.

No beasties on the roof tonight and a solid sleep of some 5 hours.

12th September
Srinagar to Amritsar         

Up at just before 05.00 and on the mainland by 05.45.  Small hiccup finding the keyholder to the secure car park opposite to get the car out but on the road just after 06.00. 

It is spooky driving through the streets with few people about other that soldiers who are every where.  JB is driving this morning as he wants to take responsibility for negotiating any trouble hotspots we might come across.  This means I am in charge of the GPS and drawing the tulip diagrams and apparently did a good job so I may have been promoted from driver status.

The roads are good and we get to the Jawar Tunnel through the mountain in an hour and a half – considerably less than the two hour estimated time.  That was the good news .  Having bypassed a long queue trailing down the mountain, we discover that the tunnel is actually closed at the moment for a security check, so we lose the half hour gained on the road. JB and Lokesh go and talk to locals and it seems right that we leave now.

The tunnel opened and through the dark, dank, single lane bore we went.  This is some 2.5 km long and seemed to take forever and I was relieved to see daylight on the other side as we then started our descent.  There is a lot of lorry traffic this morning so the usual toot toot, pull out, get the revs up and round we go starts. With JB at the wheel the manoeuvres are tighter than ever and he is harder on the horn than me so we get along at a fair old pace.  All very well but when we get to a landslide, there is nothing to do but sit and wait.  This hold up was only about 40 mins and some 10 of that was waiting for an upcoming army convoy to pass as they were given priority on the single lane that had been cleared. 

It is also clear that the slow puncture that was suspected on the nearside rear wheel has worsened so a tyre place is sought and pressures done again.  We decide to continue rather than change the wheel which proves to be the right decision as it lasts.

Once down from the higher altitude, the old goat is behaving much better so we bowl along ok.  The itinerary plans an overnight stop at Patnitop but as it is only about four hours drive and the hotel is rather ropey, we decide that this should be a breakfast stop (as we did) and then press on for Amritsar.  The good news for us is that we will therefore reach Delhi a day early so I can see a little more of the city which I am interested to do.

The Patnitop hotel is situated on the edge of a hill at about 2,500 metres and has a rather alpine feel to it with pine trees and steep hillsides.  It is obviously an Indian focused hotel with signs in the grounds requesting ‘Kindly Do Not Spit’ and one of the house rules on the board outside being that clothes are not to be washed in the bath.  Fair enough.

Back on the road, Lokesh receives a couple of phone calls to check our whereabouts as there is now a full curfew in Srinagar – we seem to have had a lucky escape and got out with only hours to spare.

We get going again just before 13.00 and head for Amritsar.  This makes for a long overall drive with some 440 kms covered today.  Amritsar is reached after sunset and as JB is still driving, I get to grips with recording the route in to the hotel.  Traffic is always dreadful here and the construction of a new flyover is still underway.  We get to the hotel Ista Spa in a fairly straight line and check in.

The opportunity to visit the Golden Temple again is too good to be missed for me.  Both JB and L have been many times but suggest we go late to see the ceremony where the ‘book’ is removed from the temple overnight to allow cleaning to be done and as JB hasn’t seen this before either, we gird our loins to leave at 21.30 as the temple closes for admissions at 22.00. 

This means we have two hours to kill so as there is a brand new shopping mall built next door to this hotel, off we go to explore.  The Alpha One complex is so new that some parts are still not occupied and being prepared.  There is great excitement from many children dashing about and as it has three floors, the escalators seemed to be a new experience for some.  Funny how something we take so much for granted can be such a source of wonder.

Nothing to see there really so we adjourned to the bar for a reviving G&T before setting out to the Temple. 

The first sight of the Golden Temple at night once through the outer gates is breathtaking.  Illuminated so it stands out from the quadrangle buildings and rising from the still waters surrounding it, the gold glows and it looks truly as if it is in a pool of nectar. 

The palanquin that is used to transport the holy book is girded with floors and with much ceremony is carried into the Temple by Sikhs.  We manage to get into a queue that that follows it in but are not allowed to stay as we are not Sikh.  By the time we have walked back to the main concourse, the thing is processing back amid much trumpeting and prayers from the crowd who walk backward to keep pace with the palanquin.   All rather frenzied rather than religious to my mind but I am not Sikh.

Back to the hotel in a tuk-tuk, a supper from the restaurant that is about to close, then bed.  It has been a long day.

13th September
Amritsar to Delhi 

A good sleep and breakfast means that by the time JB and L have been shown around the hotel and the tyre pressures are checked again, we don’t get on the road ‘til about 11.00. The BBC world news now features the Shrinaga action which is worsening. The first part of the drive is on pretty good roads but due to the very many stretches of road construction, the diversions that run alongside the works are usually single lane and dodgy surfaces.

I am back at the wheel and there is the odd huff and tut from my left when I’m not aggressive enough in passing the slow stuff.

A stop at a roadside haveli recommended by Lokesh was a welcome break and retail opportunity for me!  This time locally made shoes caught my eye and at a cost of less than a fiver for a pair of pretty leather sandals, what’s a girl to do?  Several pairs made it back to the car.

On the road again and the amount of car traffic has increased as we near Delhi.  There is now some rain and there have obviously been some downpours earlier from the huge puddles on the road.  It is annoying that our late start means it is nightfall before we reach the outskirts of Delhi.

Darkness brings additional hazards.  One was a fallen tree into the fast lane of the three lane highway that I avoided only due to the sudden swerve by the car in front that I copied without checking the reason for it, thank goodness.  It was so dark that the tree just wasn’t visible.  Another was when passing slow stuff on the inside lane when I hit a huge puddle that threw water all over the windscreen and reduced all visibility.  I know not to hit the brakes under such a circumstance but got the fright of my life to emerge from the cascading water to find a slow moving tractor with trailer full of passenger right in front of me.  A swerve by me into the middle lane meant we all survived but not something I care to repeat.

Once on the outskirts of Delhi at about 20.30 the traffic ground to a halt and we slowly struggled into town, eventually reaching the ShangriLa Hotel at about 22.00. 

The Sikh driver, Mr Singh, who is the driver of the old goat usually and who has been driving the car since new,  was waiting for us at the hotel and looked so relieved to see his car returned in one piece. It was not quite an emotional parting with the old goat but the mud and dust caked on the vehicle made a good image of what we have just done.  I meant to take a photo but forgot.  Bother.   Check in took ages and so it was over to Lokesh who did sort it for us.  Eventually got to our room which is fine and has a bath which makes it ok with me.  Down for a quick supper before the restaurant closed, after having to insist on service due to the ages taken to check in then to bed and crashed out, exhausted!

14th September
Day in Delhi 

No rest for the wicked!  Lokesh has fixed an early meeting here at the hotel with LPTI Managing Director and owner of the company,  Arjun Sharma, who is most interested to hear about the expedition and the potential for development.  He explained that this is a market he wants to create and we have a solid 90 mins of constructive chat.  We part on the promise of meeting in London prior to the WTM in November.

We get breakfast in the Club lounge on the 19th floor and for the first time I go for the porridge which has been on offer throughout the journey and it is delicious with honey.  Followed by masalla omelette, I’m ready for my day.

We accept an invitation from Lokesh to meet him this evening for dinner and he will send a car from us at 19.30.  A bit of sightseeing is now called for.

A tuk tuk driver offered to take us up the road to our first destination, Connaught Place, the original centre of Lutyens New Delhi.  The tuk tuk driver must have been unlicensed or something because rather than heading straight up the road, we disappeared down side streets and criss-crossed                          
several roads.  Once we got to a main road with people about, we jumped out and left him so that was 10 rps he missed out on. 

Scrutinising the map and finding our whereabouts, a helpful local lady stopped and gave directions. This proved to be typical of ‘assistance’ offered whether wanted or not.  After a while it got a bit tedious and with the constant hassles to ‘’come and see my shop’’ the streets were not a pleasure.

Connaught Place was a mess!  There is no way that it will be ready for the Commonwealth Games next month.  Most pavements are still up with puddles and mud everywhere.  It is also very hot and humid and just wandering along brings on a sweat. 

A quick once around the very tatty Janta Manta ( a remarkable series of structure that combine astrology and astronomy) and then a visit to some Government Emporiums for some gifts to take home and we were done so grabbed a tuk tuk and headed back to the hotel.

Now I have a little time on my side so a visit to the spa in the hotel basement means I can have a pedicure and back/shoulder/neck massage and still be ready for our outing at 19.30.  Real bliss.  It is only the second pedicure I’ve ever had in my life and despite the tickles, the result looks great.  The massage was good too.  I remarked to my masseur afterwards that my shoulders had been tight from driving and she replied, ‘’Madam, your back was like a stone’’ so I think the indulgence was not wasted.

Mr Singh came to pick us up at 19.30 and you wouldn’t recognise the old goat, clean and shiny now.  He explains that he loves this car and has chosen not to work while we were away rather than drive any other car.  Lokesh met us at a restaurant, Laissez Fare, which is popular with the various Embassy staff in the area as well as the local.  We get to meet his wife Roma for the first time and she is as lovely and as kind as he is. Today is a Lokesh day which means as it is Tuesday again, he eats vegetarian and so we do too.  He does the ordering which brings a mix of tandoori type baked veg followed by a paneer curry, veg and dahl plus rice.  JB has a sticky Gulab Jamun for pud which is very very sweet.

It is a sign of L’s kindness that he has brought along a farewell gift for us.  Darjeeling tea for me and an Indian cookbook for JB. Both presents very much appreciated and we are rather sad to part with them at the end of the evening but at least we will get together again in London in November.

Still haven’t done the packing due to my time in the spa earlier so the full unpack and repack commences.  Our flight at 08.15 in the morning means a wakeup call at 05.00 to leave at 05.30.

15th September
Delhi to London 

All goes according to plan and we get to the airport and ready to go on time.  The departure formalities at Delhi are nowhere near as slick as arrivals/immigration.  Much security in evidence but not sure how effective it is as focus seems to be on wrong things.  The flight leaves on time and we are told we are on a brand new aircraft, a 777, which is very clean and shiny I must say. In flight meal is chicken biriani with chilli gravy which concludes a trip entirely eating Indian food.  This includes the porridge which is an Indian staple breakfast dish.

This last part of my diary is written in flight and I am sorry to be leaving Incredible India and the journey of a lifetime behind me.

Some interesting facts and figures:
Time and distance, including stops for lunch, sightseeing, roadblocks, landslides and photo opportunities.

Delhi to Nalagah:      297km - 7 hours
Nalagah to Manali:    264km - 11 hours
Manali to Jespa:        140km - 8 hours
Jespa to Leh:             445km - 14 hours
Leh to Kargil:            223km - 9 hours
Kargil to Srinagar:     209km - 8.30 hours
Srinagar to Amritsar: 466km - 13 hours
Amritsar to Delhi:      453km - 10 hours

One night at all stops apart from Leh (three nights) and Srinagar (two nights)

We crossed five major passes and three more minor ones. The highest point was around 5100metres (16,700ft)