Monthly Archives: May 2013

Bir

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The towns of Bir and Billing provide a destination for paragliders. Every year visitors compete in world championships and enjoy magnificent views as they soar above the Himalayan Dhauladhar mountain range.
Bir is also home to a large Tibetan community which includes several monasteries and a beautiful temple. Strictly speaking it is the village of Chaugin rather than Bir which has become a second home for Tibetan monks and families. The outlying area of Kangra provides good farming land and is characterised by large tea plantations.
I took a short walk around the grounds of the temple, looked in on monks seated in the hall and saw butter lamps being cleaned outside. I then went a little further down the road to the Garden Cafe at Palden house for dinner.

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I was struck by the beauty and serenity of Bir and was keen to stay and explore for a few days. I returned to the Garden Cafe the next day having failed to find accommodation. Another visitor to the cafe; Jessinta directed me to an Eco Village (Namlang Himal) nearby. They provide cheap rooms for ‘volunteers’ in a tumbledown flat above a row of shops.
During my two days at Bir I visited a monastery, spent time sitting with metal craftsmen fashioning religious items and enjoyed time chatting with Jessinta who was engaged in a buddhist course at the temple. We tried walking to the American run Dharmalaya buddhist environmentalist centre but realised it was a lot further away than imagined. However it led us across fields and to bump into a retired Aussie/US real estate manager outside his home. He had set himself up in a rented modern building on farmland to live semi permanently and had settled into the ‘good life’. He had become a vegan and practising buddhist. His sour dough rolls and salad were delicious. He was keen to see my bike as he too had a Surly back in Oz. We arranged to all meet at the Garden Cafe for lunch the next day.
The hot weather continued through the next day. Northern India as a whole was experiencing record breaking temperatures. Once again I visited the temple and took a short stroll past fields of tea. After a local takeaway meal with friends at the flat I retired for the night. Sadly a burglar awoke me in the middle of the night and after a flurry of activity he left empty handed. I was somewhat shaken by the violent encounter and packed to leave the next morning. I was offered alternative secure accommodation at the Tibetan run Palden House. An extra two nights there and then I fled Bir. It was not exactly the personal oasis of peace and calm that I had anticipated. I warned local people about the armed intruder and contacted the British Embassy with a view to creating a few red flags. Some local business people including the French owner of the ‘eco village’ were not exactly enamoured with the idea of involving the local police. Appearances are deceptive. Back on the bike into the heat and dust….

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On the road again.

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The last few days at McLeod Ganj were good fun. An Italian chap called Stefano had moved into the next room and we hit it off quite well and talked for hours. We visited the Lung Ta Japanese restaurant for lunch and took a short hike to St John’s in the Wilderness church. Stefano is a good photographer and shared some great pictures from his trip. On the Sunday Stefano set off for Amritsar. I packed up and left early the next day. In the process of loading my bike some git (and I think I know who) stole my binoculars. Nice. This happened whilst I was paying my hotel bill. The hotel owner gave me some seeds in a small packet to carry and which he said would protect me from danger on the roads.
It was a bloody hot day. The region was experiencing a record breaking heat wave. I rode down towards the plains and turned onto highway 17 east. The road bobbed up and down through the foothills. Occasionally it was through pine forests but consistently it was hard work up through arid rocky ground. I passed Palampur and then the shrine or mandir at Baijnath. The heat of the day got to me. The temperature was in the 40s. I was well hydrated. No amount of stopping helped. My heart pounded on the slightest exertion and started playing jungle rhythms. I realised that it would no longer be wise to cycle during the main part of the day. By late afternoon I found a scruffy hotel just past the turning to Billing and called it a day.

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As has happened on so many occasions with main road hotels I was the only guest. The hotel was made from concrete, barely finished and the room was filthy. I recall reading a little about the Tibetan settlement at Bir so I set off uphill to see what that was all about and see if I could get something half decent for dinner.

The Snow Line

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I took a hike beyond the suburbs and about 9km to Triund. At around 1200m higher than Macleod Ganj it is a good uphill walk over a rocky trail that winds around several hills and through rhododendron forests.

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I met a young Cornishman called Ben drinking tea at a cafe on the way up. Together we reached Triund. It is a strip of land covered in grass and large boulders. It extends out towards the Southern plains below and provides awe inspiring views of Dharamsala to the West and part of the snow capped Dhauladhar mountain range to the North.

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My intention was to trek the 60km to the Inderhara Pass. Ben would have liked to join me but was short of time. The next morning it began to rain quite heavily. I reconsidered my options. I was ill equipped: Insufficient warm clothing, no decent boots or trousers and missing my gortex coat lost with my stolen backpack. It is also a ‘rule’ of trekking that one should not trek alone.
Finally the replacement ‘NorthFace’ backpack I was using was rapidly falling apart at the badly sewn seams. On its first outing in turned out to be piece of crap. I had to sew it back together along the way. I was feeling the cold and took shelter in the lodge provided by the Himachal Pradesh forestry commission. I wrapped myself up in blankets. Sitting on the step and watching the rain I decided I should return to McLeod Ganj. Once the rain had eased I stepped out but instead of taking the path down I was curiously compelled to wander uphill behind the building. I climbed a little higher and found the well marked trail leading North. Painted onto a rock were the words: ‘only one hour to snow line’. Encouraged by this I kept on going until I reached the ‘Snow line cafe’. The mountains looked stunning and towered above me. I continued on and stopped at a river before crossing a small thick glacier. It was an idyllic setting and became the high point of my visit to Dharmsala.

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I climbed a little further to @3220metres and reached a small hillside forest decorated with Tibetan prayer flags. I sat for some time and watched a herdsman below leading his herd of goats across the river of thick ice.
I climbed back down and carefully picked my way across the frozen river. I planned to camp again at Triund but once there a chap tried to collar me for an extortionate ‘pitching’ fee. I was not keen to empty my wallet and had just passed so many beautiful places that I could have camped without the expense. I pressed on back down the trail. It was getting late and losing the light. It was a clear starry night. With inadequate space to pitch my tent I slept in my Gortex bivouac on the hillside and at yet another spot marked with a row of fluttering Tibetan prayer flags. The Dhauladher range poked out above the hills behind me and the Kangra valley plain spread out below me like a Google Earth map.
Following breakfast,which I shared with a friendly rook, I made my way back to the suburbs via a trail which led me eventually to the top road and small holdings at upper Dharamkot. From there it was a pleasant walk through the forest and back to McLeod Ganj.

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Dharamsala

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Dharamsala at Kangra consists of several quite different smaller districts: lower Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj, Forsyth Ganj, Dharamkot and Bhagsu. Although all are set closely together around the central forested hill and apex of the Dalai Lama temple they are remarkably unique in character.

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It is a sprawling combination of different ethnic groups, businesses and seasonal visitors. The Tibetan settlement at McLeod Ganj with the associated Buddhist temples and monastery dominates the area. BhagsuNag to the East provides a busy and somewhat congested Indian resort. Visitors are attracted to its waterfall. It has an ancient shrine devoted to Shiva and rebuilt following the devastating earthquake of 1905. To the North is the Judaic settlement of Dharamkot. This leafy suburb is infused with therapeutic centres catering for discerning visitors. The roads and buildings are built to a high standard. The atmosphere reminded me a little of Hampstead village in London. It has many beautifully situated ‘trendy’ restaurants and cafes and retains a certain charm that attracts the more discriminating visitor.
On its West side is the Tibetan centre for performing arts, a meditation centre, forest Stupa and regional centre for mountaineering. Forsyth Ganj lies much further to the West and is connected to McLeod Ganj by a busy main road. Along this road lies St Johns Church with its typically British cemetary and where many servicemen and their families are buried. To the rear of the church is a memorial to Lord Elgin who was Viceroy and Commissioner to India.
There is, in my mind, a clear division between the areas in terms of ethnicity and reminded me of certain areas of North London where I used to live. The lower area is predominately and typically mainstream Hindu Indian. Beyond this area and some way up the steep hill McLeod Ganj has been transformed by tourism and the Tibetan community into a modern cosmopolitan world. ‘Little Lhasa’ or ‘Dhasa’ represents the Tibetan government and capital in exile with a matching infrastructure and is an important place for Tibetans everywhere. Monks pass through the streets clutching their prayer beads and the latest smart phones. There are a multitude of hotels, restaurants and shops many with an ‘alternative’ and ethnic theme. It is a good place to eat Japanese or Tibetan food, sip herbal teas and align your chakras before enrolling on a course for meditation and yoga. The resort is the perfect destination for ‘new age’ tourists, pseudo-intellectuals, artists and writers. For the hipster sons and daughters of the well heeled it is also a very cool place to relax with other travellers and smoke a little dope. I also get the impression that for some visitors their main spiritual satisfaction is from bottles. There is a constant stream of wealthy international tourists seeking to awaken their spiritual consciousness and improve their health. There is, naturally, a deeply seated resentment by the indigenous Indian population particularly of the Tibetans.
All of these areas are seasonally transformed into the equivalent of a busy city by rampant tourism and is reflected in escalating values. The road traffic is awful and totally at odds with the small narrow streets of a British 19th century hill station. The temperature is pleasant and offers a relief from the burning heat of the Indian summer.
The surrounding terrain offers excellent opportunities for trekking into the mountain ranges to the North. It is also quite the perfect place to enrol in spiritual or therapeutic courses. Many people find work there as teachers or volunteers. There is a real wealth of local services focussing on most areas of healing and health issues. It is big business and prices have risen rapidly in recent years to meet the increasing demand. General shopping is expensive and items often priced higher than their European equivalents. It seems as if items are loaded with a tourist tax. On the up side there is a good availability of foods and products.
Further afield surrounding forests and mountains provide a wonderful and magical refuge from the human jungle. My room provided a comfortable pied a terre at the fulcrum of McLeod Ganj or Dharamsala. However it was noisy (dogs and car horns), dusty and suffered a little from its busy central position. The countryside beyond the inhabited suburbs of Dharamsala provides real peace and serenity and which is, rather sadly, becoming lost from the whole area with the increased traffic and unbridled development.

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McLeod Ganj

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At McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamsala, two narrow streets run uphill and parallel to each other with a narrow strip of shops, eateries and a temple separating them. At the top end is a junction of six roads including those sandwiching the temple. I found the Green hotel recommended by the big guides. It was full. I was relieved. Their prices are relatively high. But on request they pointed me to the Tashi Khangsar lodge opposite.
The daughter showed me a pokey single room but I asked for better windows. The double room with ‘en suite’ I was shown was what I wanted and had excellent views. At less than £4 a night and a good central position it was a gem of a room. With a little rearrangement and thorough spring cleaning I turned it into yet another ‘students room’.

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The next day I walked down to the departmental offices and library of the Tibetan Government in Exile. The canteen put on an excellent lunchtime buffet.

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Back down at lower Dharamsala I picked up a knockoff Northface backpack, eggs and bells. I tried and failed to source kerosene on the road back up. I needed a permit to buy it from the government outlet.
McLeod Ganj provides, in addition to the town centre temple, a residence for Tensin Gyatso aka HH the Dalai Lama and a major buddhist temple. Next to this and almost opposite a museum of Tibetan artefacts is a monument for Tibetans lost in the struggle against Chinese occupation.

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I revisited the Dalai Lamas temple early the next morning and saw the butter lamps being lit and people prostrating themselves. I returned via a route that passed above the Tibetan centre for advanced studies and which overlooks the plains below.

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Back at the lodge I had the usual boiled eggs and fresh coffee but with the luxury of a local bakers brown bread. It was a good day and had hardly begun.

Passage through Punjab

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From the Ranjit Sagar Dam I worked my way up on the East side of the Ravi river close to Lakhenpur. It was a hot day and high in the 30s. The roadside became thick with tall heavily scented cannabis plants.
From the Dam Colony I cycled past modern colleges and pleasant countryside to the town centre of Pathenkot. I stopped at a small busy junction by Ghandi Chowk. My plan was to find lodgings; stay for a few nights, and get myself well organised for the next part of my trip. I had no specific recommendations for accommodation in Pathenkot. I asked a policemen where the hotels were. He did not have a clue. So I asked him to point me in the direction of the railway station. Once past the rail and bus station I found a fair number of hotels on the main road, some of which were shiny towers of glass and steel. They looked quite swanky. I found a small hostel down a side street. Although a little pricy and unable to negotiate down, the room I got looked out into the street at ground level. I was able to wheel my bike in and even had the luxury of power, hot water an en suite shower room, toilet, TV and cooling systems. It worked out to just under £5 a night to stay at the Preet Guest House.

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Pathenkot is a thriving busy market town. It has a modern high street and where I wasted much time trying to get a new data plan for my phone, but the heart of the place is in the old town centre. I had to walk a little distance along the busy Gurdaspur road to get back there. Roads pan out around a statue of Ghandi. To Ghandi’s right is the entrance to a large walled market area for fruit and vegetables. The residential area behind that and extending North is a maze of passageways and includes a small temple. Close by is a small workshop for creating religious statues.

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A great discovery was the local lassi shop in the narrow passageway behind Ghandis left shoulder. It is not difficult to find as in the heat of the day it attracts a crowd of people waving money or drinking lassi. The owner crushed ice in a large mixer on his counter and added curd or yoghurt. The curd was brought in large cakes by a boy or runner who piled them high at the other end if the counter. The lassi was served in large steel goblets with a big slice of soft curd crust on top. A taste of heaven! The second day I visited the stall I had two. I will now forever be looking for those delicious lassis being served behind Ghandi’s back.
I visited two temples close to the centre. One was very busy and I sat and drank complimentary tea with the two guys running the tea and milk sweets stall at the entrance. Saddus sat by a side wall in the shade of a large tree with huge matted tendrils hanging from its limbs. One Saddu’s hair had exactly the same appearance. I was told they only sat there on certain days of the week and moved on to other spots. The second and quieter temple stood to the East of the centre in a slightly built up area surrounded by fields of towering cannabis. I could not help myself and walked into one to briefly disappear.
The large pictures on the wall of the entrance to Sai’s Bliss temple were particularly cool.

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I took an early morning walk past the bus and railway stations where the Saddus collect. I saw newspapers being sorted and folded for delivery by bike.
Ever since first seeing a large three wheeler vehicle in West Nepal I have been fascinated by their look and design. There are a lot in use in Pathenkot and spotted a line of them at the bus station.

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They are great looking vehicles that appeal to me a little like steam punk art:

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I managed to buy supplies and some replacement (better) glasses. All was relatively cheap. A search to buy real coffee of any kind drew a blank and had to grab a small jar of (yeuk) Nescafé.
I decided to drop the idea of visiting the golden temple at Amritsar and focussed instead on reaching the cooler hills of Himachel Pradesh. The daily temperature in Punjab was heading for the mid thirties and quite uncomfortable. With an early start I figured I could make good progress towards the hill station and home to Tibetans in exile of McLeod Ganj or little Lhasa. I ate a good meal of rice, veg and roti bread in an eatery opposite the bus station which I washed down with a fizzy fresh lemonade from a street stall I had used the night before.

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After breakfast I head East along the Dalhousie road. It didn’t take too long before I crossed the bridge over the Chakki river and into Himachal Pradesh. Very quickly I was climbing through green hills past monkeys and goats. I ate up the miles and a few samosas for lunch. It became increasingly hard work as the hills rolled up and down until finally, and after a full days cycling, I arrived at the typically Indian town of lower Dharmsala.
The climb to McLeod Ganj was a little steeper than I expected. Nobody cycles up. It is practically impossible. I tried and had to dismount regularly and catch my breath. It had been an extraordinary day and had travelled over 80 kilometres. I surprised myself by arriving a day earlier than I expected at the home town of the Dalai Lama.

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Jammu (2)

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Dropping down from Patni Top tested my brakes. Traffic made it a little more difficult as I tend to move a little quicker and am forced to brake too much. .Roadworks and an overturned lorry allowed me to slip past queues and have the road to myself. The village of Kud has many shops selling Indian sweets to tourists and I stopped for a selection. The traffic caught me up but then a major bottleneck in the village allowed me once again to get ahead of the pack. I enjoyed the ride down but stopped at an Hindu shrine to devour the sweets I had just bought and restore some energy from my climb.
It had become a lot hotter on this Southern stretch of Jammu. The vegetation more sparse, less green and much is given over to cereal production.

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As the area became increasingly populated and given over to private land it was difficult to find a place to camp. However I found a little spot next to the road which was hidden well enough to avoid excessive local interest.
At this point of my journey I had to consider wether I should visit Jammu itself. Detailed as the ‘city of temples’ the guidebooks are less than impressed I decided that I should cut the corner and keep moving Southwards towards the more temperate climate and hills of Himachal Pradesh. The other consideration was a visit to the Golden Temple at Amritsar and left this thought for when I reached Punjab.
It was a good nights sleep although a return to the fight against mosquitos and which I had forgotten about for some time.
My route took me through Udhampur and East towards Dharamkot, Parnala and Mahampur. The journey through the dry mountain range was quite beautiful. Camping is tricky on such a mountain road with little space next to the road. But I did find somewhere and was so arid and thorny it seemed like I was in Mexico. I punctured my thermarest sleeping mat on a thorn that pushed through the bottom of the tent and despite my efforts with additional layers to prevent it.

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I cycled past spectacular lakes and finally arrived at the Ranjit Sagar Dam which is the gateway into the state of Punjab. I stopped at a busy row of tea stands and chatted with a young engineering student that was helping a relative out with his shop. Sadly whilst distracted in conversation my Eastpak backpack disappeared. This was a nuisance as contained some useful bits of kit; torches and trusty penknife, my raincoat, an e-reader, a little money and some personal items. A little disappointing and a low point for my trip but my documents were safe. It could have been worse. There had been a number of tourist coaches and vehicles that had parked whilst I had chatted and so entirely possible that it had been quickly lifted with my noticing.

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It was a very hot day and losing the backpack took a little weight off my back. Beyond the dam I encountered a checkpoint manned by smartly dressed turbaned police. I reported my loss, they took my telephone number and I cycled over the border into the state of Punjab. Next stop Pathankot!

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..and Jammu.

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In contrast to the fertile valley of south Kashmir, Jammu is a primarily mountainous state. My cycle ride took me past spectacular scenery. High mountain passes and rivers that carved deeply into the rocks; it was a wonderful experience. Traffic was fine too and not too busy. I considered a room in Banihal but it cost more than I expected and it was a little early to stop. I ploughed on and found the perfect spot to camp high on a ridge with views to die for. This is what cycle touring is all about!

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As I packed to leave an Indian army patrol of three soldiers arrived and I showed them some of my kit. Their detail was to keep watch from the ridge. I was actually surprised when I found it that there wasn’t already some kind of post there as, a rule, all the best spots are usually already taken by the military.
My journey South along Highway 1A continued through the mountains of Jammu. I descended down close to the Chenab river but then climbed again at Patnitop. It was a big climb and had been warned earlier to expect a 25 km rise. It became too late and I was very tired. Finally I camped in a forest and left the rest of the climb to the next day.
Jammu is wonderful and has an alpine quality and perfect climate. It was a truly inspiring cycle ride. I felt that my decision to ride South rather than East to Leh had been a good one.

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Following breakfast of coffee and boiled eggs I continued my climb. I appeared to be as high as any of the surrounding mountains. I stopped for mid morning tea at a roadside cafe that also provided a stop and grazing for herdsmen and their horses. The saddles on the lead horses are often covered in very old fabrics with beautiful designs.

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Fuelled with tea I set about tackling the hill. Gradually I scaled the gradient until, and at last, I reached the top (2,024 metres) at Patni and a police checkpoint. Once again and as with reaching the kathmandu valley rim (1,500 metres) from Naubise, I felt a real sense of achievement. I chatted with a friendly policeman who insisted on taking my photo with my camera.

From here there was only one way. I knew it was going to be a long way down.

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Kashmir…

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I cycled South out of Srinagar along the Kashmir valley and past Indian military bases. The scenery was not too inspiring along the 1A highway. It is fairly commercial and dotted with modern concrete Indian houses. I stopped to look at the ruins of a temple devoted to Shiva and built by King Avantisvarman just over a thousand years ago

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The highway is being widened and rebuilt and it felt like a repetition of my experience in post conflict northern Sri Lanka. No doubt both areas will have great roads within the next few years. Meanwhile the main routes are under construction and the combination of that and heavy traffic does not make for great cycling.

Kashmir willow has a reputation for producing some of the worlds finest cricket bats. Large numbers of shops and small factories lined the road. At first I thought I was looking at wooden pallets piled high. Then I realised that it was wood being seasoned and matured prior to being made into cricket bats. I saw bats being hand made in workshops and the road itself ran through forests of willow trees.

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I left the main highway and into the bustling city of Anantag. I made a little circle of the centre and cycled through the main market. I found a good road that ran South shadowing the river Jhelum and past many small Kashmiri villages and farms. It now looked and felt like the green and lovely Kashmir that I had hoped for.

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I planned to camp in a good looking spot by a river (above) with an amazing view of a mountain range. But I quickly became a focus of attention for local people.
Many Kashmiri men, some on their way home from work, stopped to stand, chat and look. As some left more would arrive. Finally, and after all had left, another group of (pleasant enough) younger guys stopped by. I answered their questions and they decided that it would be a good spot to sit, socialise and smoke for the evening. Friendly enough and good people but I quickly made my apologies and moved on. It was a little frustrating for me as I was tired and simply wanted to make a hot drink and meal, tuck up into my tent with a peaceful view of the river and mountains…and sleep. The light was fading fast but I moved quickly. The road climbed a little and wound around steep hills. I found a suitable spot on the River Jhelum to pitch my tent.

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The following morning became quite wet. I stopped during a downpour and enjoyed some of the best round flat Kashmiri bread I had eaten.

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My ride then took me to the most southern end of the valley and I began climbing. Once again the weather stalled my journey and I stopped at a shelter with a long view of the valley as it took a beating from the rain.

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I arrived at the last place on the road to view the valley and enjoyed Kashmiri kahwar (tea) with some of the guys that were selling fur hats to the passing Indian tourists. It looked like more rain but I was reassured that I would be fine as the Jawahar tunnel was a short way away.

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Before I could enter the 2.5 km tunnel I had to have an interview and show my documents. I was told that I did not need lights in my bike as the tunnel is ‘well lit’. I popped a rear light on at the entrance and cycled into the narrow tunnel. It was dark. There was lighting at points but not that great. I was cycling through water and my wheels skidded on mud. I wobbled and thought I would soon fall off. I used my camping headlamp to find my way. It was so narrow that I had to stop at passing places to let traffic past. It was both scary and thrilling. It was an adventure and a feeling of joy and achievement to emerge at the other end. I cannot imagine many (sane) people cycling through this tunnel. It carried me into the state of Jammu.

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Srinagar

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Kashmir is a sensitive area following many years of violence between national forces and insurgents.
Like Jaffna in Sri Lanka there remains a large military presence or ‘security force’. This is reflected in special considerations for traffic. It is possible to bring hand luggage on an incoming flight but not permitted on an outward journey which suited me fine.
On arrival I had to fill in an elaborate form registering my stay. I became a little stuck on providing a local address. I looked on my phone for one if the places I had bookmarked on the Internet. My mobile phone connection was dead even though I had an Indian sim. Apparently, and as another security measure, prepaid accounts do not work. After a brief chat with a police official who conferred with a colleague I was told it was mandatory. But then, and somewhat quietly, I was waved through.
Happily the bike had survived the baggage handlers. Hooray! I put everything back together with the usual audience and then joyfully exited the arrival terminal. Immediately past the doors another policeman took my details and was a little frustrated that I had no forwarding address. At the same time I had touts for house boats talking at me. It felt like a set up. Once I established that I was actually talking to a policeman and that these guys were not his friends I was able to slip away on my bike into the blazing sunshine.
The road from the airport ran nicely downhill and I set out to find the lakeside hostels. I was taken aback by the wonderful view of the snow capped mountain ranges which sandwiched Srinagar.
My ride to find Dal Lake became my first, albeit unintentional, tour of Srinagar. My route led me to the Jama Masjid mosque with its fine spired towers. Architectually quite unlike any mosque I had seen before and although modern, it would not have looked out of place in Nepal.
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Turning back towards the lake I was presented with a inspiring view of the Ladakh mountain range.

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Oddly my unplanned route then took me through the communities that lived in wooden houses on stilts on Dal Lake.
I was directed further into this water world town until finally I reached a long path that stretched eastwards across the middle of the lake.

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I was presented with my first real view of the magnificent Dal Lake

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Finding accommodation was not an easy task. I worked my way along the Boulevard and circled the main tourist area with its multitude of houseboats and floating palaces.
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I settled on a room in a cheaply constructed lakeside hostel and which had one room set aside that combined a lending library with a crafts shop.

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I set out to find better, more secure, accommodation and get my bearings.
Dal Lake is wonderful although its natural beauty is somewhat spoilt by excessive tourism.

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I found the Humza hotel on Old Gagribal Road which runs parallel to the lakeside Promenade. It was reasonably priced and offered secure, private accommodation with a pleasant secluded garden and ‘wifi’.

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Behind the hotel is the forested Shankaracharya Hill and I climbed it for views of the lake and surroundings.

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I cycled to Ganderbal on the Leh road. It was a great ride over 40kms total that went through old Srinagar city to the West of Dal Lake and North reaching the Indus River. I took a slightly different route on my return following the Indus River for a short while and then visited the villages on the high road to the East of Dal lake. It was fun to stop at a local fair with Kashmiri families and I gave a talk to a crowd of children about my bicycle and journey.
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Another day and following a circuit of the lake I visited the Tulip Garden situated on the East side. During March and April the blooming tulips are a big draw for visiting Indian tourists. I must say I was less than impressed but the combination of mountains and flowers is very attractive. I also had a pleasant lunch of samosas and a flat bread with a sweet yellow filling provided by a local village food stall.
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One highlight of my stay was a visit to the Sikh temple in old Srinagar. I was invited in to view and covered my head accordingly.
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I regularly ate at a kebab stall at the Western end of the old Gagribal road. It was incredibly cheap and very good. The street itself seemed as if it had been there forever and had many small wooden ‘lockups’ with artisan and shopkeepers plying their trades. At one I bought a live chicken by weight which was killed and skinned before my eyes. It was the freshest chicken I have ever bought. Another shop provided me with cheese and lassi drinks on a daily basis.
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I had arrived at Srinagar with the intention to cycle to the remote city of Leh to the East. The road is a spectacular route that cuts through the Himalayas. However the road and which is the highest in the world, is subject to weather conditions. It is closed for most of the year. It was cleared and opened early this year. However a major snowfall (over 10m) made the road impassable to all. I moved to ‘plan B’ and decided to cycle South through the Kashmir valley.
Although not exhaustive I did manage to visit many parts of Srinagar and enjoyed the generous welcome provided by many local people and made some good friends. The lakes with their Shikaras (water taxis) are very beautiful and are the star attraction of any visit to Srinagar. Despite this I am not sure I would revisit as the city itself is not too attractive and the tourist areas too commercially developed to suit the tastes of the (mostly) Bengali tourists. I only saw one other ‘westerner’ during my stay and despite a calm peaceful atmosphere it would appear Kashmir still has a reputation as a potential hot spot for ethnic violence. I could see comparisons with Northern Sri Lanka. Both have beautiful scenery and warm friendly people. They are now peaceful and beyond the previous problems that plagued them. There remains, naturally, many people who cannot forget the terrible crimes committed against them and their families. I talked at length with people badly affected by the violence. Large numbers of armed soldiers everywhere do not help the process and are a bitter reminder. But both areas remain in the grip of more than a little nervousness by their respective governments and military forces are keen to do a job. Hopefully time will heal and the soldiers will be replaced by tourists with credit cards rather than guns.

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I thought I could just head towards Leh ‘for the hell of it’ and regardless of the road closure. But after procrastinating for far too long I finally decided to hit the road South. This had, in itself, some attraction. The Kashmir valley has a reputation as the garden of heaven. Also the wifi had died at my hotel. The mains electricity then failed following a transformer fusing in the street which left only basic lighting. Hot water then became hit and miss. Everything was going down the pan. These factors contributed to my decision to get my act together and get back on the road to pastures new…