Turkey to Georgia Day 1

Thursday 6th December 2012

It’s far too long since I wrote anything, so once again I’m writing some memories of a recent trip before they fade away for ever. A quick weeks travelling before Christmas, roughly based on Turkey, was the plan but a little research from our favourite website, www.seat61.com, opened up a whole new possibility – how about crossing from Turkey into the Caucasus and discover another country, or indeed two, as Georgia and Armenia both share borders with Turkey, even though only one is currently open.

So tonight, Thursday 6th December, we started the week of travel with a night flight to Istanbul from Stansted, and once again set off with a bundle of railway timetables and little other information about the destination.

It was only because of this that we discovered Pegasus Airlines, www.flypgs.com, who I guess are the Turkish version of Ryanair. They were actually very good indeed, just like Ryanair with lots of options to make you spend more and more during the booking, but seemingly a bit more customer friendly, quite happy to accept our passports as proof of checking in online, and printing out a new boarding pass to include the checked baggage. Even better, at Stansted the flight to Istanbul at 23:30 was the last of the day, so the airport was totally deserted, the flight was only half full and we we actually encouraged to carry our bags onboard instead of going ahead with checking in!

Sitting in an empty airport is quite disconcerting and as the shops and bars were almost all closed, we sat in Wetherspoons, ensuring we kept the other two customers in sight at all times, and that we were close to a departures screen. The others drank up and so we followed and off to the Gate we went, allowing Wetherspons to close up and go home while we quite excitedly sat in our prebooked emergency exit seats (£22 each!) and thanked ourselves for having a nightcap before the flight and therefore saving on the seemingly quite expensive bar prices.

Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen airport for breakfast
This was to be the first of five nights onboard planes and trains so it was essential to get some sleep, so lights out and hoping for the best, I actually think I stayed awake but there again it all seemed over very quickly and before we knew it we were desending in the first light of dawn catching a marvellous view of Istanbul as we landed at the cities second airport Sabiha Gökçen, which turned out to be brand new (2009) and winner of the Worlds Best Airport 2010 as voted by Budget Carriers.

With bags in hand we purchased our ‘visas’ at the Visa desk just before passport control for a hefty £10 each, but at least got a nice coloured sticker in our passports. We then looked at the vast line of passport desks all of which said ‘Air Crew’, ‘Diplomats’ or ‘Turkish Citizens only’. A minutes wait proved that any desk will do – welcome to the slightly disorganised world of Turkey! Passing by the deserted baggage halls and enormous Duty Free Arrival shops we walked upto the automatic glass doors which slid open and a new country beckoned.

There was a considerable choice of very attractive catering outlets, which wouldn’t be amiss in a western high street and we enjoyed late and croissants while trying to work out how expensive things were going to be in Turkey, since airport prices are hardly the best way to judge a country, but were very pleased to get almost the bank rate of 2.9 Turkish Lire to the pound, and no commission payable anywhere which itself was very uplifting and over breakfast we pondered just how much money travellers are conned out of during the process of exchanging their currency for another. As it happens, we were to find Georgia and Armenia just as good with very little difference in the buying and selling rate and with a huge choice of money changers in every city, the rates were themselves most competitive.

It was hard to remember that we had gone through a five hour flight, two hour time difference from the UK and the first night of the trip was already over.

Delhi to Dubai to London

Dubai Airport

Friday 1st April 2011

Delhi Airport
Delhi Airport

Delhi airport is enormous and very well organised  – a far cry from the old place – and after a couple of very relaxing hours in the Business Class Lounge the flight was called for departure about 15:30 for a 16:15 departure.  It wasn’t too far to the gate but the whole airport seemed deserted with an absolutely enormous duty free shop and some rather smart Indian souvenir shops, with one fronting a health spa.  Deserted.

Emirates flight 517 to Dubai was actually quite good today – the staff almost worked as a team, and the senior cabin crew member was English, which gave a nice homely feel to the trip.  Most importantly everyone received a full service and yet we had an hour to relax after the meal service, which is a total difference to the outbound flight where we were almost landing before all the trays were cleared in.  Both this and the outbound flight were both 100% full – it is just the crew that make the difference.

I was handed a Business Class priority passport queue pass when we disembarked – very nice touch – and went off to explore Dubai, as I had allowed an 8 hour connection to go and have a look around before my flight to London at 02:30.

My verdict on Dubai  – its not for me. In fact I hope I never have to set foot in the place again.  I took the Red Line metro from the airport to one of the interchange stations where I thought I would try the Green Line as far as Dubai Creek – so much the star of Michael Palin’s Round the World in 80 Days.  After going up to street level and back twice I realised that the Green Line hasn’t been completed yet although it appears on all the transport maps without even a mention that it isnt open.

Dubai Airport
Dubai Airport

Luckily I bought a day ticket for public transport otherwise I would have been forever wondering if I had the right ticket for the next part of the trip.  Most rides are paid by Oyster card equivalent – a contactless smart card which is used to enter and exit the station. The brand new metro seemed excellent at first,  but it soon became obvious that it is far too small to cope with the demand.  I tried to stay on for a ride to Dubai Marina, but it was far too busy so I was pleased to be able to get off at Dubai Mall which I had also heard of.  Two other things of note about the Dubai Metro.  It is driver-less and despite being absolutley mobbed, there are very few hand rails inside so presumably everyone has to hold everyone else upright.  Oh yes and  third – it has a Gold Class which is by individual ticket only but at least you can get a seat, and another carriage is for women only – something which also features on the buses. How different things can be from one country to another.

Burj Khalifa Dubai - Worlds tallest building
Burj Khalifa Dubai - Worlds tallest building

The one high point, if I can call it that, was to realise that Dubai Mall is also the location of the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building, which stands out against the otherwise normal high rise area.  It is a breathtaking sight – probably worth the metro trip just to see it.  As for going up to the observation deck?  No chance.  When I checked online a couple of days ago the first tickets available were for Saturday unless you wanted to turn up unreserved and pay 400 Dirhams – thats almost 70 pounds.  No thanks!  I just can not believe how busy Dubai is – maybe due to it being Friday but I can’t help thinking what is must have been like here before the Metro.

The metro station is nowhere close to the Mall – theres a so called shuttle bus which I took expecting it to be a couple of minutes trip.  It dropped off under the Mall – which I took a quick look inside.  I don’t know if its just because it was Friday but the place was packed tight with people all wandering around.  It may be the World’s biggest shopping mall but it was awful so I went back to the shuttle bus which joined a 3 lane highway for a 45 minute traffic jam back to the metro station.  I probably don’t need to describe how happy that made me feel.

So 3 hours after starting out I was back at the airport with a mere 5 hours to kill.  I passed a couple of hours in the Emirates Transit passengers’ restaurant where all econonomy class passengers with connecting fights can get a free meal.  Quite a nice touch but some people were behaving like animals shovelling down platefuls of food and leaving the remains scattered all over the place.  Not surprising therefore that they wanted to throw everyone out at 1am to have a clean up.

Dubai’s duty free shops appeared to be amazing on first inspection but they are just full of the same tat sold world over at hugely inflated prices.  Apart from tobacco, the spirits were no different in price from the UK supermarket special offers – certainly not anything here to make me want to spend any of my dirhams.

And so I passed the final hour wandering to the gate and making sure that I didnt fall asleep and miss it.

The 777-300 was completely 100% full so all hope of a spare seat or two was out of the question.  I was not impressed with the seat pitch either.  My legs were touching the seat in front, but there is some clever mechanism which allows the seats to recline without hitting the person behind – they slide forwards as well as tilting, so it wasn’t quite as bad as I was fearing as well as seeming to be softer than those on the Airbus A380.

I stuck my Dont Disturb sticker on, so I missed the meals – a chicken roll and a muffin after take off and an omelette or scrambled egg hot breakfast – with all the trimmings – very nice looking too.  I guess I dozed for a couple of hours but as we came up over Turkey there was 90 minutes of turbulence which made it almost imporssible to go back to sleep especially sitting in the back.  Staring at the screen 3 hours 50 minutes until arrival, 3 hours 49 minutes until arrival, 3 hours 48 …. and trying to block out the muffled sounds of sick bags being used.

So the flight was OK – I can’t blame Emirates for the weather , and the service was quite good – with excellent inflight entertainment too.  But the long day starting in Delhi and ending at Heathrow with such an anticlimax in Dubai meant this didnt turn out to be the grand finale to the trip which I had hoped for.

Never mind.  With 420 rupees left over and a six month visa there’s always a chance for another try!

Jodhpur to Delhi

Jodhpur Station

Thursday 31st March 2011

Me at the Midtown Restaurant Jodhpur

I decided to keep my room for another night, as the train to Delhi wasn’t due to depart until 22:30, but of course I didn’t want to stay the whole night.  This threw Yogis Guest House into a state of confusion as they wanted to charge me half price for staying after checkout time, but they wanted to add this to the three nights which I was prepared to pay for.

They were simply unable to grasp the concept that I had only stayed two nights, yet was prepared to pay for three.  Over and over again.  Frantic phonecalls to try to find the boss.  After twenty minutes I had to  switch to being in charge again.  I wrote down on a sheet of paper Tuesday Night 800 rupees, Wednesday Night 800 rupees, Thursday Night 800 rupees.  Total 2400 rupees.  OK?

Yes sir.  Then you pay only half price for today. 2800 rupees.

Oh for goodness sake it is only Thurdsday day time today…

… finally they gave in, but were totally convinced I was trying to con them.  I therefore insisted on written receipt which caused another ten minutes of mayhem while they refused and even told me it was illegal. I waited patiently until the necessary form was completed in triplicate.

Out in the heat of the night, I walked down to the station, leaving just long enough to find the Midtown restaurant which I had failed to locate a couple of nights ago.  Finally I found it – the Rough Guide makes it look like it is on the road outside the station, but instead it is actually on a main wide road directly opposite the station.  A good find it was too – very clean with promises of all vegetables being washed in purified water etc.

Jodhpur Station
Jodhpur Station

Back to the station then – the train 14060 Jaisalmer to Delhi Express was the longest train I have ever seen.  At least 24 carriages.  A dozen were arleady standing on platform 1 about half a mile away – these were the carriages starting from Jodhpur while the rest of the train had arrived on platform 3 before being taken away and brought back into platform 1.  Thanks the the new LED displays which mark the location of each carriage, I was happy that things were going to work out OK, but it was about 10:45pm before carriage HA1 appeared at its allocated space.

HA1 is a good carriage number.  It designates a split first 1AC and 2AC carriage, with three compartments in First, and twenty berths in 2AC, and despite looking like a typical wreck, this one was only a year old, according to the builder’s plate.  Unlike the rest of the train which was either sleeper or second unreserved, and therefore very busy, this carriage was a little cool calm oasis, where most of the other beds were already occupied and everyone was asleep.

2AC Carriage, Indian Railways

I made up my bunk and climbed in and slept all the way until Delhi with vague recollections of stopping at Jaipur at 5am.

We came in to Old Delhi station on Platform 1 which is where I first came in to the station two weeks ago.  Other Europeans in the train were convinced this couldnt possibly be Delhi, and so remained sitting,  but I knew the way, up over the enormous footbridge and onwards to the main station at the far side, where I collected my bag from the Cloak Room and headed for breakfast.

The final leg of the journey was starting – a rickshaw to New Delhi Station to catch the Airport Express Metro back to the airport.  A quick security scan before being allowed into the station, 80 rupees fare paid and within 30 minutes of arriving at New Delhi Metro, I was at the airport.  My blue token was rejected by the exit machine though so there was a minor crisis in which I was required to go to Customer Services who wanted to see the printed ticket issued alongside the blue plastic chip, which I had fortunately retained.  They were able to tally the token to the printout and therefore let me through but it just goes to show that in India, never throw anything away.

Delhi Airport is immaculately presented – I had treated myself to a Business Class upgrade as far as Dubai which gave me access to the brand new Emirates lounge with as much free food and drink as I could manage, and comfortable chairs with wifi. And so here I am sitting for the last hour before the flight departs.

Jodphur days 2 and 3

Wednesday 30th and Thursday 31st March 2011

Theres not much more to say about Jodhpur – its an incredibly busy place with motor bikes, rickshaws and horse carts everywhere, with the occasional camel thrown in.  Traffic at busy road junctions is a nightmare and pollution everywhere.

The side streets are as dirty as I have seen anywhere with open sewers and even open toilets at the road side.  You can tell Im not over-impressed with the place, yet, like Marrakech, it has a timeless charm about it too. 

Most of the other sights are out of town and in the heat I couldn’t really be bothered to trail miles and miles to see more of the same, and so I have simply settled down to relax in the guest house with the occasional stroll around the surrounding markets.

It is incredible but at 6pm I am now packing my bags and getting ready to head for the station where I will be catching the 22:30 Jaisalmer Delhi Express, due to arrive tomorrow morning at 11:05.   Thereafter to the airport and to home, via Dubai.


Tuesday 29th March 2011

The chaotic scenes of Jodhpur station were just a starter for this crazy city.  I had no idea how big the place was before arriving – but there’s over a million inhabitants and most of them are on the street at any given time.

As per usual I pushed past the rickshaw drivers – there’s a completely new style of bigger rickshaw here – certainly taller than those in Delhi and some are extra narrow, presumably because the streets here are also very narrow.

I walked along the relatively quiet main road – shops were just beginning to open their shutters and looked for somewhere for breakfast but decide to push on to find a guest house.  Yogis Guest House sounded good from the book – but is quite a long walk from the station – probably about 2km – so there was plenty of time for the touts of Jodhpur to clock a new white face in town.

The ancient walled city revolves around the clock tower and market area, all very photogenic and it wasn’t long before I had followed the map to a smelly back street full of cows but encouraging painted arrows kept my faith in Yogi.  An arched gateway  led into a tranquil courtyard full of period memorabilia including a 1950s split screen Morris Minor Convertible.  Inside, another courtyard furnished in the same style – old trombones, gramophones, cushions, faded photos – just a fantastic little haven from the streets outside – and painted bright blue – the colour of most of Jodhpur’s buildings.

I checked in for a couple of nights and had breakfast on the roof terrace which is the most perfect location just beneath the imposing walls of the fort and with a view for miles and miles out into the flat plains of Rajasthan.  Altogether an absolutely excellent place.

Mid afternoon it was in the high 30s which takes some getting used to after the cool mountain airs.  Nevertheless I walked up the steep path to the Meherangarh Fort – one of the top ten tourist locations in India.  The climb wasn’t nearly as hard as I had thought, and I was soon paying my 300 rupees entrance fee, after a guard made sure I didn’t join the Indian residents’ queue which would have been 200 rupees cheaper!  The fee entitles you to borrow an audio guide which was actually quite good, but as always it focussed on detail of the exhibits in glass cases, and almost overlooked the most stunning location with views over tens of miles.

At the end of the audio tour I was almost forced into writing in the visitors book before my driving licence, which I had left as deposit for the audio guide, could be returned.  I think the girl finally thought I couldn’t write and so opened a plastic sleeved book holding dozens and dozens of ID cards, in no apparent order.  She thumbed through all the pages twice until finally mine turned up, right in the back page.

There is then no option but to walk all the way round the very nicely laid out souvenir shop. You are not allowed, by means of a security guard, to miss out any of the rooms and finally get accosted at the exit to make sure you had understood how good all the souvenirs were.  Finally let out into a further courtyard full of slippers, carpets, bangles and so forth before having a chance to look into the temple, and the temple souvenir shop.  I don’t know what came over me but I spent 15 pounds in the temple shop, somehow comforted that the profits were for the upkeep of the temple.

By the end of the day the maze of lanes was beginning to make sense and I was relieved to find Yogis again after several hours of wandering.  I wonder if anyone has ever counted the number of shops here!  Tens of thousands would be my guess.

I headed for a recommended eatery but couldn’t find it – a few millimetres on the Rough Guide map can be blocks and blocks on the ground, so I settled for the Fort View Restaurant in the Govinda Hotel near the startion.  Yes you can see the fort from the terrace but nothing compared to Yogis view!

Delhi for one day

Monday 28th March 2011

Continuing my journey from Manali to Rajasthan I have already mentioned arriving at some unearthly hour of the morning in the concrete jungle of Chandigarh on the bus from Manali. My neighbour from the bus had advised me that the railway station was 5km from the bus stand and that the local rate for a rickshaw would be 100 rupees – obviously with no other options I had to pay this, but it seems a bit steep when the last 10 hours on the bus had cost only 540.

Sure enough the rickshaw drivers stampeded into the crowd of disembarking passengers and of course I ignored them as usual.  A few followed but soon gave up, so I was free to try my haggling again.  I picked on one quieter driver and beat the price down from 200 to 100 quite easily, just walking away dropped 50 rupees from the price, so off we went.  First though we had to wake a family of three – mother, father and baby who were asleep in the rickshaw – so sorry I am for disturbing your night!

If its only 5km then it felt more as we sped down wide and desserted concrete avenues, each one joined to the next by a roundabout exactly 800 metres or 1200 metres apart, according to whether going north or west, such is the geometric layout of le Corbusier’s wildy un-Indian idea of the ideal living space.

The first real sign of life was closer to the station where a few lonely people were walking to work.  The station was also concrete and quite well organised, with the familiar smell of the groups who had slept in the open all night.  I had an hour to kill before the arrival of the Kangra Shatabdi so there was nothing to do but check my name on the charts – all present and correct – and sit to wait, with the ever growing crowd.

Shatabdi’s are the premium trains – when I was last here there was only one route served – Delhi to Agra – but now they are much more common. The premium price includes a meal, but I was actually quite impressed to receive a litre bottle of mineral water, choice of newspapers, morning tea and biscuits, mango juice and then a hot breakfast with another tea.

The seating is 2 + 3 with about 100 seats per carriage, or 80 in First Class, and up to 20 carriages that’s almost 2,000 breakfasts to serve – but each carriage had a staff of three, plus a catering manager onboard, in addition to the other few dozen members of the train crew.  My fellow passengers were on their weekly commute to Delhi – out on Monday morning and back on Friday night.

The three hours to Delhi flew by and I was soon in the queue to leave my bag for the day in the quaintly called Cloakroom on Platform 1.  I was still there an hour later, such is the performance to leave a bag.  For each person a form has to be completed with name, address, mobile phone, ticket number and number of bags.  I got number of bags wrong – I should have put “1 bag” and not just “1”.  Once the initial form inspection is out of the way, the bag is inspected to make sure it can be locked.  Tick.  Then you have to sign the form before it is passed to the computer operator, who painstaikinly copies a version of what you put into the computer, which then prints out a ticket on a  jumble sale dot maitrix printer, which chewed up the card as it came out.  The number of the ticket is then written in yellow wax crayon onto the bag before the passenger has to take it into the shelving area and choose a place to put it.  I put it right up on the top – about 8 feet from the ground, thinking most indians are a good deal small than me and would be less likely to touch it at this height.

Free from baggage, I ventured back to the streets of Delhi and couldn’t think what to do to pass the day – it was now 10:30 am, and my next train left at 21:55.  The heat was incredible after the cooler mountain air – stifling in fact, when combined with the relentless traffic fumes.

I headed for an old favourite for a cuppa – Nirulas in CP – Connaught Place.  I can remember the cool relief from the streets about 12 years ago and was somewhat taken aback to discover it is now a fast food place – burgers and ice creams along with some indian foods.  I must say that my strawberry milk shake with ice cream went down a treat, but it wasnt what I’d expected. I wandered on around the enormous circle of Connaught Place and decided to check out another old favourite – Ringos Guest House – delighted to report it is still there and identical externally – no sign of even a coat of paint for the last 20 years.

Altogether this part of New Delhi is awful and I needed to get off the streets, so headed for the old travellers favourite – Paharganj – which is also unchanged in years.  The decaying concrete frontage of cheap shops leads into a labyrinth of side streets full of internet cafes, cheap hotels and guest houses.

I sat in the cool haven of the Ajay Guest House which has a large courtyard deep inside with a German Bakery, internet cafe and some shops – and it made a very pleasant place to sit and pass the time of day, out of the heat, and with internet for laptops at 25 rupees for the first hour and 10 per hour thereafter it was a real bargain.  The food and drink was not so great though.  The worst cup of tea so far, and a cinnamon roll baked several days ago I think.

I was determined not to carry my bag around Rajasthan but in its current location at New Delhi Station I would have to return here, which could be a problem if my arrival at Old Delhi station on Friday was delayed, so wearily I checked it out from the cloakroom – thankfully a much less administrative process, and headed for the other side of the station for a rickshaw to Old Delhi.  Looking at the map you could be forgiven for thinking it is walkable, but unusually, the rickshaw meter was running, and we clocked up 7.6 km for 60 rupees.  Not bad! 

It wasn’t his day, my rickshaw driver.  He thought he had bagged his catch of the day when I turned up but his first problem was me insisting on paying the fixed rate at the taxi and rickshaw office.  55 for me, and 5 for my bag.  We set off into the traffic and I smiled as we went through a red light as if it was perfectly acceptable.  No it isn’t, according to the policeman who stopped us.  Lots of paperwork was generated for the 100 rupees fine, which the driver showed me later, looking for sympathy.  I told him it was very cheap compared to the same offence in England and this confused him.  I loved the description of the offence written by the policeman.  “Red Light Jump” – one of those lovely uses of English in the Indian way.

We sped on, not quite so fast this time and soon got embedded in the Old Delhi traffic – it was amazing that despite solid traffic everwhere, we continued to make progress.  We passed a hospital – “My mother is in hospital” announced the driver.  Not sure what to say in return, he explained she was having an eye operation.  “My father dead”.  Oh I see.  Errr…. the vote for sympathy was building.

I handed him the pre-paid taxi slip, grabbed my bag and left him at Old Delhi station.  I think he realised quite soon that he wasn’t getting any sympathy or extra money – there are a lot of more needy people here than a rickshaw driver even on a bad day.

I had a couple of hours which soon passed – nothing in an Indian station happens quickly, and the train was on the platform well over an hour before departure.  I had another good Thali at the station restaurant, bought some provisions in an almost total repeat of my first train trip from here, and made my way to Platform 16 where my 1st Class compartment awaited.

1AC is the best class of travel on ordinary trains, in which you actually get a compartment with a door, and either two or four beds.  I was very pleasantly surprised by how comfortable it was – especially as I was in the two bed coupe and according to the documentation plastered on the train side, I was to be alone!

There were only 10 1AC placed on this train, and there were 3 vacant – which is very strange as this train was compeltely overbooked to the extent that there were no more tickets being sold, even waiting list.  I bought a Taktal ticket – the second wave of ticket sales – which is released at 8am on the day before travel.  I’m now wondering if I might manage to get an upgrade on the way back, which is also completely full in 1AC!  I am so glad I chose 1AC as I got a superb night’s sleep – the lower bunk is by the window and is huge – better than the upper one for space and view.  I could of course choose either.

Through the night we were an hour late – but after the last station before Jodhpur we miraculously caught up and arrived only 15 minutes behind.  So here I was in Rajasthan.

Manali again

Villages in the Beas Valley above Manali
Saturday 26th March 2011

Its been a beautiful hot day again so made a slow start with a late breakfast at the guest house then about mid day set off for town.

I tried again to find Vashisht this time by walking down to Manali and crossing the river on the rickety bridge, one of a pair which form a one way system over the valley.  They are made of mecano and dont look strong enough for a car to cross, but buses and trucks thunder over.  When they do, theres no room for pedestrians, so you have to cross with pefect timing between the vehicles.

The road out of town is the Manali Leh Highway but is not at all romantic – just a filthy dusty unsurfaced road through a pretty awful series of dusty buildings and very narrow in places.  All along are numbered shops hiring out cheap ski suits for visitors to the snow line and offering packages of ski, snow mobile and parascending.

I dont know how I missed the turning up to Vashist but I did, and kept on walking far too far – changing plans half way to catch the first available bus or rickshaw back to town, or to keep on walking if none came , in search of the elusive bridge which I couldnt find yesterday.

The only buses were going the wrong way and not a single rickshaw came, so I struggled on until well past the Avalanche Research Centre when I found a path down to a very bouncy rickety bridge over the very fast flowing Beas.

The track was a great relief after the horrible busy main road and led into a lovely little village with no main road access – another place where time has stood still and it was most enjoyable wandering around climbing the steep paths between medieval houses, each with its new born calf and mother with tobacco hanging to dry on ornately carved balconies and generations of families going about their daily business of tending to the livestock, weaving or simply sitting talking. What an absolutely beautiful place this is.

Right up to the top is a very rough road indeed which leads back to join the road I walked along yesterday, so I completed the full circle this time – probably 10 or 12 km in total, so I was quite pleased to get back for a rest.

Time to leave Manali I think – although it is tempting just to stay until the end of the week, but I worked out a route to Simla which involves a night bus tomorrow night – booked and paid for at the bus station – 540 rs, to Chandigargh arriving 5am Monday.

Swiftly followed by booking the Himalayan Queen at 12:10 from Kalka to Simla, so the connections will be critical. But then plans are made to be changed!



Leaving Manali

Me and my Yak

Me and my Yak
Me and my Yak
Sunday 27th March 2011

Planning the next stage of the trip from Old Manali
Planning the next stage of the trip from Old Manali

Well there’s not a lot to report about yesterday (Sunday) except to say how sorry I am that I left the peace and calm of Old Manali to be writing this in the Ajay Cafe – a little haven from the heat and chaos of Paharganj in New Delhi.

I took the night bus to Chandigarh last night – leaving at 19:30 and arriving at 05:30.  At least it arrived in a bus station – apparently there are several and this is the Sector 43 bus station which roughly translated means in the middle of nowhere.  I had no choice but to take a rickshaw – there were no other means of transport at 5:30 this morning – and very glad I was to be leaving Chandigarh, which roughly translated means Milton Keynes, so soon after arriving.  But more of that later – on the Monday page!

After the routine late breakfast I wandered around town for a couple of hours in the afternoon, had lunch and a shave (oops – I just saw this stranger in a mirror in bad need of a tidy up so I treated him to a 40/- shave in Old Manali!) and then sat in the late afternoon sunshine at the Guest House before walking slowly back down to Manali for the last time, but not without going to say goodbye to my Yak. Im not sure how much it will cost to have it delivered to Newbury though so this could be a last farewell.

Stopped at Johnsons for a last chance of a hot spiced apple juice and a pizza, then took my place on the Semi-Delux A/C bus.  At least this meant getting a seat to myself, even if my neighbour kept encroaching on it.

This is the first night bus I have taken for a while and it was certainly a good idea to get out of the mountains overnight.  We retraced the route through to Mandi where we stopped at 11pm at a roadside restaurant who had laid of a special Bus Meal for 120 rupees.  Had I known, I wouldnt have eaten earlier, as this meal looked very good value – self service all freshly cooked specially for our arrival.  It is very notable that the 7 hour trip from Mandi to Manali in local buses took only 3.5 hours on the non stop version.

Its impossible to say how much sleep I got on this bumpiest of bumpy rides – but it can be measured in minutes, not hours.  Every now and then the bus stopped at an unlit bus station for a few minutes, and once we even pulled in to the roadside for 15 minutes.  The descent from Mandi was another stunning road and I can remember the final descent to the flat plains which was very unusal as suddenly the mountains had gone and we could see for miles.

I hate to think how busy this part of the road gets in daytime as through the night we were nose to tail all the way down and so it confirmed what I good idea to do this at night had been.

The rest of the trip was uneventful – the driver who drove us all the way for over ten hours was actually one of the best I’ve had so far and the final 40 km or so was over very quickly on what amounts to a toll motorway – at least in part – quite unusual for India.

So back to Delhi – right now I wish I was back up in the lovely peaceful Kullu Valley!

Old and New Manali

Friday 25th March 2011

Today I decided to stay in one place – well almost.  Superb breakfast in the early morning sunshine set me up for some walking but first caught up with some photo uploading, which I have been unable to do all week.  The guys at the hotel are now getting a bit suspicious that I am using their internet a bit above their normal expecations, but it is the first fast connection all week.

[singlepic id=59 w=320 h=240 float=left]It was a lovely hot morning with a gentle breeze – perfect for trekking, so I took the steep track down the hillside from the hotel, expecting to be able to cross the Beas valley to the village on the other side of the valley, Vashisht.  The walk along the left bank was lovely, but the promised bridge never materialised and so reluctantly I turned round after a mile or so, to head back to the bridge at Old Manali.

[singlepic id=57 w=320 h=240 float=left]Across the valley must be the hospital and I was both alarmed and assured by the appearance of an air ambulance helicopter who made an expert manoeuvre, obviously very well practiced, as it approached at high speed down the valley and turned to land within seconds – a very efficient way of being rescued.  It is still serious snowy conditions only five miles up this valley, and the Rhotang Pass carrying the fabled Manali to Leh road will remain closed until June, which seems quite incredible here in this 30 degree heat.

So although I never got to Vashisht to see the hot springs, it was still a very pleasant few hours walking.  At the bridge I climbed further up the hill and followed the road to the Hadamba Temple which turned out to be very popular.  As it is a major tourist attraction old ladies clutching photos of gods latched onto any Indian tourists, and many were also holding  huge Angora Rabbits which were available for photo opportunities, and seemed overall to be in very good condition with their incredible fluiffy white fur.

[singlepic id=64 w=320 h=240 float=left]But todays star performers were the Yaks – two of them available for photos in the saddle and very popular with the local honeymooners.  I had heard that Manali is Indias number one honeymoon destination and had this confirmed when I got involved in being photographed with the groom of one party.  Indians just love to have their picture taken with a white person, so today I came in joint second place with the rabbits, but the Yaks are just so peaceful and beautiful that they must remain todays number one photographic subject.  I want one!

[singlepic id=65 w=320 h=240 float=left]The Rough Guide recommended a nearby restaurant, Il Forno, for their italian quality pizzas but when I got there it was still closed for the winter – as are so many of the places around here.  I would definitely return for the view alone though.  Further down in town Manali was still uninteresting and with pizza on the brain I went back to Johnsons and had an amazingly good wood fired pizza and another hot spiced apple juice.  This place is exceptional by anyone’s standards!

[singlepic id=70 w=320 h=240 float=left]In the heat of the afternoon sun I imagined the 2 km walk back to Old Manali, especially after all the walking I had already done today, would be hard work but in fact it seemed quite a breeze.  So much so that when I got up the hill to the hotel I kept going and headed right out of town on the trekking route to the next village spurred on by the amazing views in the late afternoon.

The village was even more interesting without the distraction of carrying my bag and as expected the locals simply ignore the intrusion, which they are obviously so accustomed to – the season hasnt really started yet but it must have a huge impact on their lives when the summer invasion of western tourist with their music and Enfields roaring all night.  Even now there are a few bikes roaring around but there are sheds full of Enfields ready to unleash any week now.

[singlepic id=69 w=320 h=240 float=left]I returned to watch the sunset over the mountains from the hotel, took advantage of the good broadband to skype home and then sat down in the hotel restaurant, where I still am, for a very good and exceptionally filling meal.

The end of another lovely day and the start of my last week, although it has dawned on me that I am not compelled to return on the flight which I have booked, such is the benefit of travelling with a scheduled airline!  Having said that, I probably will but if anything comes up in the next few days which requires a little flexibitily, then I may take advantage!

Good night for now though.

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Naggar to Manali (Old Manali)

Thursday 24th March 2011

[singlepic id=9 w=320 h=240 float=left]Looking forward to breakfast this morning I was greeted by the host and shown to a table on the balcony where the menu was already in place.  He put on an apron and returned with the order book. Cheese omelette – no cheese.  OK plain omelette.  Sorry not possible. Pancake?  This will take much time.  OK toast.  Toast with honey?

30 minutes later four slices of dry toast arrived and the tiniest scraping of honey you could imagine, just enough to cover the bottom of a little dish.  It’s not like cheese, eggs and honey are unavailable – there are shops here!  Nevertheless I thanked him and worked out a way to cover four slices with approximately 1 gram of honey per slice.

The Rough Guide describes this as an excellent restaurant – but of course I’m probably the first guest all year, so I forgive them on this occasion.

Suitably refreshed (hmmm) I took a walk up the hill and discovered the Roerisch Museum – a new name to me in art, but apparently Nicholas Roerisch was quite a well known explorer, author, peace campaigner and artist from the 1920s when his travel journals cover an exploration of India, right through the North West frontier into Tibet and Mongolia.  I read some snippets from his log, describing how they had to draw in the as yet unknown mountain ranges on their map as they discovered them.  All very humbling as my trip is quite the opposite – simply a tourist on the tourist trail.

The Museum in his old house was a delight. “Maximum 20 persons danger of building collapse”, said the signs on the staircase.  Outside an ancient car stood in its garage – what a wonderful life he must have had here with a view from his garden over the valley to the mountains on the other side and the excitement of travelling to undiscovered very foreign lands.  His paintings were very interesting too, but disappointingly small – I guess he did them on the road during his travels and so kept them portable.  I didn’t have time to get to grips with the other members of his family – poet and philosopher.  So shallow I am.

So I parted with 300 rupees for a dvd showing his works of art with soothing background music – a bit of a steep price but it’s the first souvenir I’ve bought for ages and I felt I may get in the mood for more, plus the fact that it is likely to be unobtainable anywhere else.

Back down the hill again I checked out and made the 10 minute walk back to Naggar Chowk and the bus stop where a little green bus was getting ready to depart.  I jumped on and it crawled along picking up random people every few seconds.  Obviously everyone knew it wasn’t due to leave yet and calmly carried on what they were doing until it got close enough for them to get on.

The road ahead was of course very twisty through tiny villages – much more interesting than the more main road on the left bank yesterday, and true to form the driver suddenly changed from a careful and considerate one into a monster almost running down a pack of mules which were taking the full width of the road.

Thanks to the last minute burst of speed we were soon entering Manali – surprised to pass the Holiday Inn – but this was an indication of the type of town Manali has become.  I’m afraid to say after much planning and excitement, Manali turned out to be a bit of a let down.  The mountains are the star of the show, but from the town they can’t be seen in their full glory.  The bus station leads directly onto the main street – The Mall – which is traffic free and relatively clean by Indian standards – full of holiday makers passing the time of day.  It is lined with restaurants and hotels of all types, with ice cream and popcorn, scary clowns and a Charlie Chaplin who hadn’t quite got his act together yet – but to all intents this is just a miniature Blackpool in the mountains.

I was starving so had a pretty good breakfast and a quick email check torn between going up to Old Manali or Vashisht on opposite sides of the valley.

[singlepic id=10 w=320 h=240 float=left]I took a rickshaw to Old Manali as it seemed to be a long way – 50 rupees – but this only carried me as far as the bridge over the river.  I was beginning to think I had failed the rickshaw test again, but this seems to be about the going rate – roughly half the official taxi charge for the same trip.  I began to walk up the hill looking for landmarks from the Rough Guide and it got steeper and steeper.  I seemed to be coping better than yesterday, although it got steeper and steeper and rather concerningly it appeared to be a non-descript concrete dump on a steep hill – evidence of travellers shops with stripy trousers and embroidered hats but nothing of any great interest.

[singlepic id=11 w=320 h=240 float=left]I had chosen three places from the book which sounded like possible places to stay but as always after locating the first I decided to continue in case there was a better one.  To cut a long story short I couldn’t find it, and ended up on a path out of town.  Well out of town – and very steep indeed as it followed the valley side.  With the bag on my shoulder I was almost out into trecking territory before I realised I was not going to find it and suddenly I realised what an incredibly beautiful part of the world I was in again.  The scenery is magnificent and the buildings in the upper and centre parts of Old Manali are scenes from medieval times.  Locals in their distinctive costumes tending to their cattle, weaving, washing, spinning wool – all totally ignoring the white guy with a bag on his shoulder and a book in his hand.  I’m sure they are quite accustomed to it now.  I had probably walked about 2 km from the bridge by now and was getting quite ready to get rid of the luggage again.

I checked in to the Dragon guest house – and got a lovely room for 600 rupees (I bartered it down from 700 very easily so could probably have got it for a good deal less).

The rest of the afternoon I spent walking back to Manali and trying to find something nice to say about it – but I can’t.  The so called Model Town behind the Mall is such a dump that words fail me – filthy hotels and dhabas galore, but so dirty even by Indian standards.  So the only thing of any interest is the Mall, as far as I can see.  I treated myself to an Ice Cream Float in a very interesting and clean shop in which all the food and drinks were based on honey. Mine was a fizzy mint drink with a pool of honey in the bottom of the glass, an ice cube and a straw.  Where is the ice cream? I was handed the straw which had been on my plate.  Where is the ice cream please?  Yes.  The manager came running over.  Did you want it with ice cream – I explained that when it said an ice cream float with honey ice cream, I had kind of expected it, so my drink was taken away and returned with the necessary additional ball of ice cream.  Very odd.  The papers were full of doom and gloom so I didn’t read too much detail, and the cricket semi finals were on the television – I still can’t remember who is playing today!  But the honey idea is actually rather good – they even have chips with a honey dip and a whole range of take away honey too – a new brand in the making perhaps?

Finally to end the day I gave in to temptation and went into Johnsons, the rather swishy and quite attractive timber built hotel which seems to be the place to be seen.  I ordered a hot home made apple juice with spices and mint and it was superb – a huge steaming glass of deliciously spiced juice.  So nice that I decided to eat dinner there despite the higher prices than I would normally pay but treated myself to an wood oven baked trout, fresh from the river, with almond sauce which again was totally beyond my expectations although on reflection I think for five pounds it should have been good when this would pay for a dozen cheap meals down in the Model Town.

By now it was dark as I overheard a very stressed German businessman phoning his colleagues and complaining how hard he was having to work to get his company organised, and casually mentioned that two of his workers had died in an avalanche yesterday.  It sure is a hard country.

In darkness I walked back up the road to Old Manali – its not such a bad walk at all, and finished the night in our local restaurant in the hotel with banana and chocolate crepes with a glass of ginger honey and lemon tea.  It has a great atmosphere and lovely people running it – I think I quite like Manali after all, but only the Old town.