December 04, 2006 GMT
Pakistan - part 2

For those of you not familiar with the KKH (Karakoram Highway) here's a little bit of background.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Pakistan and China jointly constructed a road across the mountains following a branch of the Silk Road from Kashgar to Islamabad via the 4730m Khunjerab Pass. It was only in 1986 the Khunjerab Pass was opened to travellers. This engineering feat was completed by approximately 15000 Pakistanis and 20000 Chinese. Conditions were hard and deaths on both sides were extremely high.

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By its very nature the road needs continual maintenance. It is is a huge unending job, landslides, rockfalls, mudslides, and the crumbling slopes continually make the road impassable to traffic.

But oh the scenery, it is jaw droppingly beautiful, this highway bares witness to huge mountain ranges, (the Karakoram, Himalayan and Hindu Kush Mountain Ranges) enormous glaciers, deep ravines and valleys, and then there is continual presence of the mighty Indus River.

Our journey continues, we leave Islamabad and head to Taxilia, of course it is raining, well in fact there are thunderstorms so pull over in a service station to get out the wet weather gear, we are instantly mobbed and invited in for tea. The young man whose family ownes the service station is very interesting, highly educated and his siblings are spread all over the world, Canada, Australia and the US.

Once again there are beautiful trucks and buses everywhere, out comes the camera.

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We head out through some pretty gross little villages, mud and rubbish and animals as far as the eye can see, towards Abbottabad. We call it a day at Mansehra at the reasonably clean (rat free) Karakoram Inn, complete with a good restaurant which is still open. Mansehra is probably about 60 km from the 8 October 2005 Earthquake epicentre, although it is not too badly effected and is home to many NGO and UN offices. In this photo you can see a tent school in the distance.

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Next day onward and upward to Besham, a nice 4 hour ride (120km) through some great scenery and winding roads. We loved the terraced rice fields.

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We cross the Chinese built suspension bridge at Thakot and also our first checkpoint where we once again have to fill out our details so they know where we foreigners are.

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Besham is not an unfriendly town but the people in this area seem to be unanimated and expressionless. There are no smiles or the usual waves. This is the heartland of the Sunni Muslim Religion. These people are staunchly religious and unfortunately seem to have little access to education, nor do they want it. I didn't realise how much teacher I had in me. It is very upsetting to know that many of these children will never attend school, and the girls will have no opportunities. It was also in this region that we saw woman dressed in berkas. Skill gets really upset by the Berkas which he finds really awful especially for what they represent.

We have an interesting stay in Besham at the grotty Palace Midway Hotel. It is here we meet Freba. Of all the people we have met on our travels this girl is one of the most amazing. My only regret is that we could not spend more time with her and I did not take a photo of her.

Freba's story: Freba is from Afghanistan and currently living in Islamabad with her mother and sisters. Her father and brother are in Kabul with one brother studying in the US. Freba works for a German NGO trying to spread the word about Hygiene to this Earthquake affected region. Her job is almost impossible, because she is a women and the people do not want any outside influences. Only the day before we arrived there had been demonstrations in the town against all the NGOs, the leaders/agitators say that the NGO's are trying to take away their religion. More likely these local leaders fear their power base being eroded if locals listen to anyone but them.

Freba was quite adamant that she and her NGO are trying to help as she is herself a Muslim Afgan woman. "All I want is for them to learn a little about hygiene so they do not get ill" she tells us.

We asked Freba about Afghanistan which she told us was really starting to improve especially in Kabul. Life is a lot better now she says. She then told us that she was actively working for women's rights in Afghanistan, and she was the first woman of her country to participate in an Olympic Games. (Athens 2004 in Judo) Since that time she had become a public voice for women in Afghanistan, which at times made her life difficult and dangerous. But throughout all of this her family particularly her father and brothers have whole heartedly supported her. Quite uncommon I would say.

This beautifully spoken, gentle woman is a true humanitarian.

Next day is yet another glorious days ride to Chilas, the scenery just gets better and better and the road gets worse and worse. It is this section of road which apparently suffers most from landslides, fortunately we didn't come across any this day but we did encounter many animals.

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We arrive in Chilas where we stayed at the Chilas Inn, complete with beautiful gardens. We really enjoy our stay here.

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An early start next day as it is a 5 hour ride to Karimabad via Gilgit. All we can say is look at the photos. We had great sunshine and a wonderful days ride. A highlight of the day was our first view of Nanga Parbat, eighth highest mountain in the world at 8126m. We also catch a glimpse of Rakaposhi (mountain peak) shrouded in cloud.

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We arrive at Karimabad/Hunza and run into Marcus and John who are returning to Gilgit, only a quick chat as its getting late and then off to find a hotel. As Winter approaches many of the hotels and shops are closing. We end up at the Hilltop Hotel which has amazing views and a pleasant garden but it is very, very cold and the hot water is intermittent. Not really their fault as the power supply is very unreliable, sometimes in winter it can go off for weeks at a time. They do have their own generator (supplied by a foreign government) which helps. We end up having three blankets on our bed and sleeping in our thermals complete with beanie. But my oh my, you cannot beat the scenery, it is absolutely breathtaking.

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We spend three nights and each day wandering the village, chatting with it's inhabitants, especially the beautiful children.

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We also visit the Fort which is 780 years old.

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Our guide is a lovely young man complete with an economics degree but also a love for his Hunza history so we have a lovely afternoon. Sadly he tells us that only two hours ago the last Queen of Hunza passed away at the age of 96. Her funeral will be tomorrow.

The family (rulers of Hunza Province) lived in the fort up until 1945 and then moved to newer quarters in Karimabad.

When the Pakistani government daned that Hunza was no longer a separate province but part of Pakistan, the family became only figure heads with no say at all within the Pakistani government.

You cannot help but love this village, the people, the scenery and the way they live their lives. This branch of the Muslim religion is known as Ismali. Their leader the Aga Khan (Imam number 49) is a progressive man. The first thing you notice about this region compered to the South, are the people's faces, they are happy and animated. There are women in public and they do not all wear scarves. They are allowed to pray with the men in a community hall called a jamaat khana. Prayer is seen as a personal matter. The children all attend school and Hunza has one of the highest literacy rates in Pakistan. They also have basic health facilities and a little more infrastructure. And they seem to genuinely love the tourists.

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Before we start the return journey to Islamabad we head North without making it to the Khunjerab Pass, it is too late in the season and the road is far too icy. We pass the village of Pasu

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where we meet this lovely man herding his Yaks.

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and actually get as far as Sost before turning around.

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But for Skill, to have travelled even this much of the famous KKH has been the realisation of a 10 year dream. And you can see why.

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We return to Gilgit and stay a couple of days where we catch up with Marcus again. The weather has closed in and we are not keen to travel in the rain. So the bikes stay put at the friendly Madina Guest House.

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Marcus tells us about his visit to Fairy Meadows (cabins/camp high in the mountains near Nanga Parbat) and his desire to return. In the end we hatch a plan with 4 other travellers (including Patrick and Sophie our Dutch cycling friends from Iran who have turned up in Gilgit) to get to Fairy Meadows. Marcus, Skill and I ride to Raikot Bridge.

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while Patrick and Sophie, Kevin and Caroline hitch a ride on the back of a 4WD Ute.

Marcus then bravely rides his bike up the incredibly steep and dangerous track to the village and organises a jeep to come back down to collect us all. We leave our bike in a lock up at the Bridge as its too difficult to ride this road with pillion and luggage.

The trip up in the jeep is indescribable. The track is only just wide enough for one vehicle and there is a sheer vertical drop into the valley of well over 400 metres. I am absolutely terrified as are most of our crew, what have we done? Most decide there and then to walk down!

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When we finally arrive at the village (I thank Allah) we meet our shotgun toting guides and then start our 2 and a half hour treck UP the mountain to the camp. If someone had told me that I would be trekking in the Western Himalayas during twilight into the pitch black evening I would have told them not to be crazy. As we walk along we can hear avalanches on the mountain We are like the seven dwarfs all with our headlights, it is hard work but at the same time exhilarating. Up and up we go reaching the snow line which we trek through for half an hour. We arrive at about 7pm, tierd but excited, light a fire to warm the very basic cabin and our guides prepare our dinner.

We are all pretty weary so bunk down as soon as dinner is finished. In the morning this is what we can see from our bed. Dawn over the eighth highest peak in the world. Not something we will ever forget.

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Out of bed and we are witness to an avalanche coming in a huge wave down the mountain, in the distance of course.

We spend an idyllic day in this majestic setting, chatting, eating and reveling in our good fortune having such a place all to ourselves - oh and trying to keep warm.

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In the afternoon the guides tell us they are off to hunt down our dinner. They return a couple of hours later with "Mountain Chickens" which they turn into a scrumptious soup and curry.

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Marcus and Patrick inspired by their success take the shotgun and go on their own expedition. It is a fruitless one but they are very excited to have fired a gun for the first time in their lives. They both confess they could not have shot a living creature anyway.

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Once again we witness a spectacular sunset over the "Killer Mountain" so called because of the number of people killed trying to climb it. No doubt this is due to its sheer, near vertical sides so steep that little snow sticks, giving its name Nanga Parbat meaning naked mountain.

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Next morning we leave and hike down the mountain to the village.

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Once back at the village Marcus rides down, Kevin bales out and catches a lift on an overloaded, log laden jeep while Patrick, Sophie, Caroline, Skill and I start the 15km journey down.

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Skill and I both have trouble with our boots and are sliding forward in them, at one point I do the old stumble trip thing and really hurt my big toe. (I later learn it is broken)

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And Skill has shin splints, and there is still only 10 kilometres to go! By the time we reach the bottom we have walked more than 20 strenuous kilometres and over 2000m vertical. We are absolutely wrecked, keeping in mind we have done little exercise for eight months.

We say Goodbye to Patrick and Sophie and Caroline as they hitch a ride with some goat herders in their jeep back to Gilgit.

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We repack the bike and make the 80 minute ride back to Chilas breaking our golden rule and arriving just after dark. We opt for the upmarket Shangri-La Resort, the promise of hot water and room service is too much to resist. We are absolutely exhausted and take full advantage of this little bit of luxury.

In the morning I can barley move and have a great deal of trouble getting on the bike. I say to Skill "Next time I decide to walk 20 kms down a mountain remind me I am over 40, not a bloody 20 year old!"

We ride back to Besham often stopping to admire one of the many suspension bridges and the Indus. Later in the day we are stopped twice by landslides, the KKH workers are quickly on the job clearing a path through the rocks and dirt.

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Being gluttons for punishment we stay in the same place as before, at least we have hot water and the food is passable.

Next day it is shorter ride to Mansehra through lots of earthquake ravaged areas. A lot of villages are still tent villages.

I also get out the camera to take photos (sorry they are blurred) of the overloaded vehicles, which are an essential part of KKH. No truck, car, van, bus or autorickshaw is ever too full. There is always room for more cargo or passengers.

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We have an early finish and stay at the Karakoram Hotel in Mansehra again. Next morning the skys have cleared and there are glorious views to the snow capped mountains.

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A short day back to Islamabad, but for some reason the traffic is more dreadful than normal, we witness three accidents. In Islamabad we do the rounds of the hotels, we are ready to give up and pay the fortune they want for a semi decent room when we happen upon a guest house which is a better option for us.

We are also early enough to pick up our passports from the Indian Embassy. We are all ready to do battle with the security police at the entrance to the Embassy Enclave but they just wave us through. We cannot work them out. Passports collected we venture out to the Marriott for take away beers and all is good in the world.

The following day Skill heads out to the Post Office to collect our mail my sister has sent while I do the mountains of washing. He is gone for hours. When he arrives back he explains that nobody actually knew where the Poste Restante mail was kept and sent him from one Post Office to the next until he finally ended up in Rawapindi 15 km away.

As chance would have it he happened to bump into (literally) the equivalent of "The Post Master General" for Islamabad/Rawapindi area who was none to pleased with his underlings incompetence so he told Skill to follow his car back to Islamabad which he did, he then sat in a huge office drinking tea with this man while his staff ran in circles to track down our letter. Finally after 4 hours, success.

That afternoon we go to get on the bike and it won't start (the first bike glitch in 8 months), so the guys at the guest house take Skill to the battery shop where they put it on the charger overnight. Next morning the battery has not taken a charge and is deemed to be dead so we purchase a new one.

As I said the first glitch in eight months and the battery is good enough to die on us in a major centre where we have access to facilities, you can't ask for more than that.

We spend 2 more nights in Islamabad just catching up with jobs, bike washing and bike oil change and fortifying ourselves for the journey to the border.

It is a long days ride to Wagh, we get completely lost in Lahore, but arrive just in time to check into the passable Wagh PTDC Hotel before heading to the famous border closing ceremony. This is where the Pakistani and Indian Armies in all their pageantry try to outmarch, outyell, and outscowl and outstamp each other. It is absolutely hilarious. Hundreds of people from both sides of the border come each night to watch this event. They have even built grandstands to house the spectators.

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We enjoy the spectacle before an early night. Tomorrow we leave Pakistan and it will be onto India and the ancient Seik city of Amritsar.

I would be lying if I said Pakistan is an easy country to travel in. It is not.

Every day is a challenge, the traffic mayhem, the rubbish, the dirty hotels, the lack of facilities and the sometimes non existent infrastructure. The way women are not seen in public and are completely dominated by a male run society. But in my opinion it is a SAFE country to travel in and truly worth the effort. Our KKH experience will be a highlight of our entire journey.

Pakistan is in a troubled part of the world, and is bordered by some of the most dangerous and turbulent regions in the world, Kashmir and Afghanistan. Life for Pakistan's citizens is difficult

It is a poor country and most people do not have a lot, but what they do have, they will happily and willingly share with you. They are very honest, kind, gentle and giving people. We NEVER felt unsafe or threatened, quite the opposite, and the authorities were beyond reproach. The vast majority of these people want, what we in the West want, a peaceful existence, prosperity and a better way of life for their children.

Lets hope they can achieve it.

Cheers and Chai


Quote for the week: "If you don't know where you are going, any road will lead you there" - Unknown

PS Below is the latest Australian DFAT Travel Advice for Pakistan, which was updated after we had entered Pakistan.

While I do not recommend flouting DFAT warnings sometimes it is far better to make educated and informed decisions on the ground. Our best source of knowledge came from other travellers who had just made the journey, thanks to Raoul and Dave and Rose for their advice.

Our other rule of thumb for travelling, is to stay away from Western Hotels (which we can't afford anyway) and not eat in Western take aways. (Although we did have Pizza Hut Pizza, sometimes you just got to have beer and pizza)

Australian DFAT Warning: Thursday Nov 23 20:55 AEDT

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) says militants may
be planning an attack on Australians within the Pakistani city of
Peshawar.

The threat is reported in the department's latest Pakistan travel
advisory.

"Recent reports suggest that terrorists are planning attacks against
Western, including Australian, individuals and interests in Peshawar,"
the warning says.

Peshawar, on the edge of the Khyber Pass, is the financial capital of
Pakistan's troubled north-western frontier. DFAT has long urged
Australians to take extra precautions in the city.

The advisory also warns of the possibility of an attack outside
Peshawar.

"Recent credible reporting indicates a potential terrorist threat
against Western hotels in Islamabad," the warning says.

"If you do decide to travel to Pakistan, you should exercise extreme
caution.

"We continue to receive reports that terrorists are planning attacks
against a range of targets, including places frequented by foreigners."

Pakistan is considered an ally in the so-called war on terror, but its
porous border with Afghanistan has been problematic in the fight
against Islamist militants.

The last major attack on Western interests in Pakistan was the March 2
bombing of the US consulate which killed four people including a US
diplomat.

The overall level of advice from DFAT for Pakistan remains unchanged at
"reconsider your need for travel" while areas bordering India and
Afghanistan are listed as "do not travel".

"We strongly advise you not to travel to Baluchistan, the
federally-administered tribal areas, and areas adjacent to Pakistan's borders with
Afghanistan and India ... due to the volatile security environment.

"If you are in these areas you should consider leaving."

Posted by John Skillington at 07:50 AM GMT
December 31, 2006 GMT
India - part 1

Disaster has struck, the letters z, x, a, s and e have died on the collapsible keyboard so you will have to be patient and forgive typos and worse than usual spelling in this blog as it will be a tedious process until we get a new keyboard, anyway here goes.

Well it's another day and another border crossing, Pakistani Customs are right outside the hotel so we venture over, they totally ignore us as they are far too busy going through a German Hippie/Yogi's luggage, scanning his walnut barrel as a potential bomb threat. Eventually they get us to bring our panniers in and start to go through them but quickly get bored with that and don't even check the tank bag or the tubes on the bike. Giving us the all clear they wave us on. We go to the next checkpoint and sign documents and then get to the last point where they tell us we don't have an immigration stamp to leave.

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Ok turn around and back to the immigration office beside the customs office (where they failed to mention we needed another stamp). Finally we leave Pakistan and enter India. After 3 checkpoints, toing and froing, handing over passports and the carnet countless times we are welcomed to India. All that took 3 and a half hours.

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While we are waiting to cross we watch the antics of the ant like workers on both sides of the border, the Pakistani team dressed in orange continuously take bags of potatoes to the gate where they meet the blue Indian team bringing dried fruit to the gate, they then swap commodities and snake their way back to their respective trucks who take the produce away. But never once do they set even a toe over that magical border line.

Onward to Amritsar where our first job is to find a bank and moneychanger. The bank part is easy but trying to find a moneychanger is proving difficult.

As fate would have it living beside the bank is an Indian motorcycle enthusiast called Karan who takes Skill to the money changer on his bike then kindly guides us to to Mrs Bhanderi's Guest House.

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This place is quite expensive by Indian standards but after the hotels in Pakistan it is pure heaven, a spotless room, reliable hot water, crisp clean ironed sheets, a wonderful all day menu and internet access.

We sit in the sun in the beautiful gardens, watching the playful squirrels and drink a beer or two, or maybe it was three. What a nice easy entry to India.

That night we have roast pork, roast potato and veggies with gravy. The simple things in life bring such pleasure.

The following day we take a bicycle rickshaw with a young man to the Golden Temple. This is the Sikhs' most holy shrine and to visit everyone must remove their shoes and cover their heads, even men.

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After entering the complex which also serves as a military memorial we make our way to the bridge which leads to the Golden Temple across Amrit Sarvor (Pool of Nectar). Apparently the dome of the Temple is gilded with 750 kg of gold and inside the temple there are four priests who keep up a continual chant from the Sikh Holy book. Despite the huge crowds it is restful and we spend a few hours just wandering.

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After leaving the Temple, we head to the Jallianwalla Bagh Park which commemorates the 2000 Indians who were killed or maimed here when the British authorities indiscriminately opened fire on 20 000 unarmed peaceful demonstrators. Historically it is believed this incident spear headed by Ghandi's program of Civil Disobedience led to "everyday" Indians increasing demands on the British to leave India.

Next day is a long ride to McLeod Ganj where we get our first taste of the Indian's penchant for suicidal driving practices not dissimilar to Pakistan except with more horn blowing, verbal abuse and hand gesturing.

McLeod Ganj is the Dalai Lama's home. In 1949 the Chinese forcibly took over Tibet and in 1959 the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fearing for his life and those of his people trekked over the Himalayas to McLeod Ganj where he was granted political asylum and also later, the exiled Tibetan Government. This area has become the headquarters for the 40 years plus struggle to free Tibet. China refuses any attempts at negotiation and freeing Tibet seems a long way off, if an impossible outcome for these people.

Before coming here many other travellers told us "Oh McLeod Ganj is so touristy" to which I responded "Good", because after Pakistan we were quite happy to be tourists in a touristy place.

However on arrival I was ready to revise my opinion as the road we needed to take to our chosen hotel was blocked by several buses who needed to reverse (unknown to us at the time, reversing lights on buses are non existent) And then there was an officious little whistle blowing Indian yelling at us saying we needed to reverse our 400 plus kg motorcycle up the hill. I get off and push the bike and we park where he indicates. Within a minute he is back blowing his whistle and yelling at us again to move.

On our whole journey I have not "lost it" once but after five hours on the bike and no lunch, today was going to be it. After grabbing his whistle and telling this man that I was going to surgically implant his whistle where the sun don't shine and then getting ready to batter him around the head with a Lonely Planet he backed off.

We were then able to make our way to the wonderful Pema Thang Guesthouse where the Tibetan owners and their staff welcomed us wholeheartedly, although everyone had to sit on the bike and have their photos taken before we could unpack.

We spent a lovely evening with two other Aussie travellers and enjoyed a truly memorable Tibetan meal and glorious sunset.

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Next day we walked the streets chatting to the Tibetan monks and nuns, and then took the road out to Bhagsu village before heading back to the Guesthouse for afternoon cake and coffee, what a luxury.

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The next four days continued in the same pattern. Of course we visited the Tsuglagkhang Complex, which consists of the Dalai Lama's home, the Namgyal Gompa and the Tsuglagkhang, the central chapel and the most important Bhudist monument outside Tibet. The building itself is a very modest one, but a peaceful, calm and holy atmosphere prevails. We are even lucky enough to catch a glimpse of his Holiness.

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We visit the Tibet Museum which tells the heart wrenching story of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the Tibetans ongoing struggle for freedom. You cannot help but be moved, angry, and affronted.

We then let our hair down and go souvenir shopping, not something we often do. We make a pretty good job of it and have to post the parcel home, but not before this man has sewn us a calico postage bag.

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We really get a giggle out of the peace loving Tibetans at the guesthouse, every living creature is sacred with the notable exception of the MONKEY. Every day there is the open sport of trying to shoot he monkeys with a pellet gun. They are obviously a real menace and we were warned to keep our doors locked because of them.

We ended up staying for two extra days (than planned) because the weather really closes in, rain, hail, thunder, lightning and snow on the mountains. The snow on the mountains brings the "GOOD" monkeys down. They are beautiful with long white coats and lovely gentle faces. These guys definitely do not receive the pellet gun treatment.

While we enjoyed McLeod Ganj it is not without its social problems, violence is quite common, as are the drug related issues. While we were there, there was quite a serious attack on a Western tourist.

Finally the weather clears and we make a move, heading towards Mandi, knowing it will be a slow ride through the mountains. On leaving McLeod Ganj I cannot help but get a giggle out of these two billboards posted near each other. Somehow one doesn't seem to complement the other.

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A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

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Army man be a winner for life.

As the journey continues we come across huge crowds of people gathered around a cliff edge, yes, the latest tourist attraction is the bus that went over the edge that morning killing 18 people. You think that perhaps this would make them a little more cautious but not more than 3 kms away we meet two buses trying to overtake a truck at the same time on a blind corner. They just do not get it.

Despite the traffic it is a pretty days ride through the valleys. We make it to Mandi where hotel options are not looking good. We try for a resort on the outskirts of town but they are full and they then direct us to the "Balleydue Hotel" 5 km further on.

Finally we arrive, not, at the Balleydue but the Valley View Hotel (obviously our ears are not yet tuned to the Indian accent) which is in the middle of nowhere but lovely. Just as we are unpacking another Aussie/New Zealand couple turn up. Shane and Sheryl are are lovely couple living here in India while Shane is on a 6 month work contract. Shane also has a passion for motorcycles. And as the conversation continues we learn he worked with a friend of ours in Oz. What do they say about six degrees of separation. We have a great night and thank them for their company, it was so nice to have someone to share a few drinks with.

Next day we are late getting away and it takes us 5 hours to do 120 km, the traffic is horrible but we make it to Chandigrah unscathed but finding our way in proved difficult. We stop at every roundabout and ask the traffic police for directions to Sector 22, after taking a very indirect route we find the area we need and a hotel.

Next day we visit the Nek Chandra Rock Garden This garden was created by a Roads Inspector who used all the recycled items he found to create a fantasy world. Apparently the story goes that no one knew it was there for many years and when it was discovered people were amazed. The authorities then let him keep on creating. He is now a world famous artist.

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We leave Chandigrah just before lunch and head towards Pehowa in the Heryana Province famous for its Basmati Rice. We then stay at a state run hotel run by Basil Fawlty, complete with our own Indian reincarnation of Manuel. Not a particularly great hotel but we survived and did not get food poisoning which was a plus. Next day a short ride to Hisar where we stay in another state run Hotel, fortunately up a peg or two from the previous evening. I sit in the sun by the lake, (apparently a local tourist attraction) in reality it was a muddy old dam full of rubbish but the Indians were still out in their pedalos having a great old time. Skill could not resist the lure of cable TV and sat in the room watching motor sport.

The traffic in India is indescribable. There are no rules and no visible police to enforce the rules.

On the roads a hierarchy of might exists, the lowest being pedestrians, followed by bicycles, motorcycles, cars, trucks and finally the buses. The only thing that trumps a bus is a cow. The buses stop for nothing and push everything in their wake off the roads.

Besides the woeful drivers you have to take into consideration the tractors, carts, donkeys, camels, horses and goats. I find the traffic and riding conditions very confronting and must say it is not that enjoyable for me but Skill takes it all in his stride.

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Next day is a long ride to Bikaner, this journey along unsigned and unused roads takes us through spectacular desert scenery, and we can also finally do 100 km an hour. Skill lets out a sigh of contentment as he puts the bike into sixth gear for the first time in India We pass untouristed villages of tea drinking men, brightly sari clad women, grubby waif like children playing cricket, camels and their herders, goats, donkeys and desert ruins.

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Arriving in Bikaner we find Bhairon Villas our chosen hotel easily with no one hassling us. This glorious hotel is in an old Haveli. The Havelis were built by the rich and are entered from the streets through huge gates or archways, to central courtyards. Inside there are usually restful gardens and the rooms are richly decorated as is definitely the case with our room.

We open the double wooden windows and look out at the Junagarah Fort. What a find???

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We spend the next day touring the fort gaping at the scenery. Our guide is a man who is obviously very jaded. We get a racing commentary that we cannot understand and exasperated sighs if, God forbid, we should want to stop and look at something with more than a cursory glance. Despite this we had fun and found the place really interesting. Check out the don't sniff sign

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In the afternoon Harsh (our host and owner of the family Haveli) comes to find us and tells us he is going to his cousins wedding party where the groom will perform part of a historic symbolic procession where he rides off to fetch his bride. There will also be traditional dancers and music. Would we like to watch?

This sounds wonderful. They fetch us at 5.30pm and we figure we will stand at the gate and watch. I start to get nervous when Harsh appears dressed in an elegant traditional suit

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and we hop in the car with two other travellers Oliver and Monica. (Monica is a beautiful and exuberant Spanish girl who is appropriately dressed in a sari) I get even more nervous when we arrive at Lalgarh Palace and there are the most extravagantly dressed women in fabulous saris and ornate jewelry. The men are splendidly dressed in brightly coloured turbans, jodhpurs and other traditional clothes, most are sporting swords. And finally there are highly decorated animals everywhere including an elephant.

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I say to Harsh, "Harsh exactly who is it that is getting married?". "My cousin the Maharaja of Bikaner. The King."

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Oh my God and we are dressed in our daggy travel clothes, I hadn't even done my hair. I cannot begin to describe the splendor of the occasion, or how uncomfortable we felt in our ordinary clothes. But no one seemed to care, in fact we are invited to stay.

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We watch the parade where the Maharaja rides his elephant off to fetch his bride to be. In reality he does a loop around the Palace and returns by car.

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We join in the festivities, the firebreathers, the traditionally costumed dancers performing acts of contortionism, dancing on broken glass and picking up money with their eyes.

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Then it is time to eat a huge feast and then men partake at the bar. It was truly amazing and will be one of the highlights of our time in India.

On the way back to the Villas Harsh tells us we cannot leave as the wedding reception will be in two nights time and we must attend, which we do, this time we are dressed a little more appropriately. Thankfully as Skill pulls celebratory status and is interviewed by TV India on his impressions of the Royal Wedding. Apparently they are impressed with his enthusiasm and tell him he will be beamed around Indian televisions in a Royal Wedding piece the following evening. The reception is huge, over thousand people and takes on a more fair like atmosphere, outdoors with marquees, buffet meals, and fireworks.

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Harsh and his family are the most generous and hospitable people, they find out it is Skill's birthday and spoil him with drinks and dinner, then Harsh insists we stay on one more night so we can have a belated celebration. Monica makes mojhitas, Harsh provides music, food and drinks, and we enjoy a great evening.

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I should make some mention of the wonderful Monica, a terrific girl who spends eight months of every year travelling. She works for four months in Manorca every year selling the traditional tribal jewelry she buys on her travels. She was such a great girl and so much fun. One of our days in Bikaner we went off to the beauty parlour and treated ourselves to a three hour facial, neck and back massage along with a hair treatment and head massage all for the Princely sum of 300 Rupees, less than $10.00 AUD. It was heavenly.

We are really sad to say Goodbye to these wonderful people, it feels like we are leaving family. But leave we do and enjoy a four hour ride through the desert to Jaisalmer, a town on the Pakistan India border, our hotel takes some finding but after three quarters of an hour we find it tucked away in a back street. We settle ourselves down in the most touristed hotel we have stayed in so far. It is here we meet Jana and Paul a Czech Canadian couple with an insatiable quest for life. In their late sixties they climb mountains, scuba dive, paraglide and travel the world. They are great company, as are Chris and Alida from British Colombia.

Our time in Jaisalmer was spent exploring the fort, once we could get past the Camel Safari touts, persistent shopkeepers, musicians and children chanting, "one pen, rupee, rupee". The people and sights are truly amazing.

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We wander aimlessly taking it all in and spend a good deal of time discussing the all victorious Australian Cricket team. Ricky Ponting is God and according to reliable sources at Hari Om's Silver Studio, should he wish to become an Indian citizen he would easily be elected Prime Minister. Unless Sachin Tendulkar was the opposition candidate, even then it would be a close contest.

Jaisalmer's fort is a living fort where the towns people still live and trade. Unfortunately due to the tourist explosion and over population the fort is in serious peril. The aging plumbing system cannot cope with the increased quantities of water and it is affecting the rubble foundations.

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Every evening is spent on the hotel rooftop, having a few beers (which are billed as special cold coffee to get around Rajasthan's licensing laws) watching the sun slowly sink on the desert and the lights on the fort begin to glow. Life is good.

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After all the travelling we have done I thought we were prepared for most contingencies but nothing can prepare you for India, it is the most frustrating, infuriating place on earth and just when you are sure you really hate it and want to leave something bizarre and magical will happen and it will suck you back in. As they say anything and everything is possible in India. We will continue to enjoy.

Cheers and Beers

Quote for the Week: Travel is more than the seeing of sights; It is a change that goes on deep and permanent in the ideas of living.

Posted by John Skillington at 08:42 AM GMT
 
 

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