Friday, March 7, 2014

Week 9: Kashmir-the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

     Alternate titles for this entry could be: "The 6 Days of Travel for 2 Days of Activity" or "OMG It's Freaking Cold Up Here" or "What the Hell More Could Possibly Go Wrong?" or "Alyssa Sucks at Skiing" or even "Bro, Secure Your Chickens."  But I went with "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" because of the bits of good fun and hilarity hidden between aggravation and bad luck.
     I don't even know where to begin with this trip. Nothing went right, starting from the first tuk-tuk we hailed to bring us to the metro. So I suppose I will begin at that point on Friday night.  We left the house Friday around 6pm to take the metro into Delhi, eat dinner, then catch out 11:45pm train up to Jammu. We all piled into the first tuk-tuk, drove along for a little while, then all of a sudden he pulled over and made us get out. We were told to get into a different tuk-tuk, which was odd but hey we didnt have to pay any more so it was alright. After this one drove for a little while, he pulled over and made us get into yet another one! Slight annoyance, but no harm done. It had been raining in Faridabad, so we had to drive through quite a bit of flooded road....which splashed water up into the engine and stopped this new new tuk-tuk. The driver managed to get us out though, and we eventually reached the metro.  We check what lines we need, get on the metro...then are told to get off at the next stop because they are closing that one down for the day.  So we walk out of the station, back around, and get on the next one going where we needed it to. Dinner was at a Mexican restaurant in Khan Market, then we had the BEST dessert ever at an ice cream shop and bakery down the road. We got back on the metro and made it to the train without complication, then off we went!
     For the 3 of us girls, the 14-hour train ride was boring and long, but otherwise fine. For Sam, though, it was a lot worse. His shoes were stolen at some point during the trip, causing him to walk barefoot on the train and slip in vomit on the way to the bathroom. He had to borrow my shoes and awkwardly walk half in them to the bathroom once I came down to his compartment to see how things were going and hear about the theft.  The train dumped us in Jammu mid-afternoon Saturday, where we excitedly bounced over to the bus stand to start the next leg of our journey: the short trek up to Srinagar. The excitement was short-lived though as we soon discovered this "short" trek to Srinagar would be about 9 hours by taxi or about 12 by public bus.  We determined we didnt mind arriving in the wee hours of the morning, but even the idea of getting to Srinagar late was shot down upon being informed that traffic only goes one way each day! And of course today just happened to be the day that traffic LEFT Srinagar to come to Jammu, forcing us into a hotel for the night. We went on the hunt for a room and settled on a lovely hotel with the building still under construction, paint peeling off the walls, and water that randomly turned on in the middle of the night. We dumped our bags, Sam found some "best quality" cheap sandals, then we walked to an internet cafe to contact our other smarter friends who flew in the morning before to let them know we would be delayed.
     The next morning, we were up at 4:30am to catch our arranged 5am taxi. We get in the lobby and wait...and wait... until a family of 7 comes down around 5:30 telling us they are also riding in the taxi to Srinagar. Great.  We get fed up of waiting and start worrying about the fact that not everyone and their luggage will fit in this taxi, so we stop the next one that comes by who agrees to take us for 800 rupees a piece.  Of course to actually be on our way at this point would be too optimistic.  The taxi driver asks us if we can take on more passengers, so we agree that yes these 2 men in question are able to ride in the front seat because we are nice and it doesnt affect how much room we have in the back.  The driver stops at a hotel to pick the guy up, who has about 10 boxes of chickens! He tries to load them in the backseat/trunk space with Samantha but we say hell no to that and the chickens end up secured to the roof after much maneuvering. Finally the car gets on its way, but we are stopped by traffic only a few kilometers in. Seems everyone wants to get up North.  This driving for a few kilometers then stopping for 15 minutes continued throughout the trip, though the stops got less frequent the farther North we traveled.  The scenery was second to none: gorgeous green mountains with valleys and rivers appeared, followed by the enormous snowy mountains and white-coated pine trees reminding you of a winter wonderland.  It would have been nice to relax and enjoy this first glimpse of the Himalayas, but that was rather difficult due to the fact our driver had a bad case of road rage and decided that a great time to get stoned was while  speeding around sharp mountainous turns and overtaking cars on the narrow road.  Our only source of amusement were the road signs:  Border Roads Organization (BRO) had posted multiple signs warning against speeding and reminding drivers of safety. Every sign started with BRO then had on it a saying such as "Speed Thrills but Kills" "Speed is a Knife That Takes a Life" "Peep Peep Don't Sleep" "Drink Whisky Drive Risky" etc. We thought it was way too hilarious to read the signs by emphasizing Bro, then continuing in our best cheesy slogan voice.  What turned out to be the opposite of amusing was the fact that stoned driver decided to try and renegotiate the price of the taxi multiple times throughout the trip. He tried pleading the case that there were empty seats and we needed to pay 5,000 rupees rather than the 3200 that was agreed upon, and even went so far as to start crying and pull over in a traffic jam to have some young (and super attractive, by the way) guys come try and translate for him.  Obviously we did not back down. 13 hours later, we rejoiced at our arrival in Srinagar and set off for the next task: getting another taxi up to Gulmarg. This same taxi driver offered to drive us to Gulmarg but we very emphatically declined. After trying to find a bus up there and being told none were running, we went price hunting for a taxi and were informed that we could get a taxi to Tanmarg but not quite all the way to Gulmarg since we needed a taxi with chains on the wheels to get up the mountain. Discouraged and annoyed that we STILL wouldnt be able to get to Gulmarg, we found a reasonable taxi to Tanmarg then tried to find a hotel for the night.  In a huge stroke of luck, though, as we were walking to check the prices at one hotel, we found a taxi driver who said he could take us up to Gulmarg right then! So off we went up the snowy mountain and finally arrived in the little ski village. In another stroke of luck, we happened to pass a Canadian Heliski employee who recommended a good affordable hotel, which happened to be the same hotel our friends were staying in! However, this hotel had no central heat, the space heater only worked every now and then for a few minutes at a time, and the stove heater in the room was useless since the staff couldnt make a fire. The fire-making attempt was actually entertainment in itself: the staff (who we are pretty sure smoked weed if not participated in other recreational drugs) literally just doused large logs in kerosene inside the stove then lit it. No kindling at all. And when that burned out, they just put in more kerosene. The pipe that went into the wall to take the smoke out was evidently blocked since the room got super smoky. So we were left with burning eyes and a room just as cold as it was before the fire-making attempt.  Luckily, we had an electric blanket on the bed, so when all 4 of us squished into the one queen-sized bed to sleep, the 2 in the middle actually ended up sweating during the night.

     We awoke Monday morning excited to actually experience Kashmir and do what we came to do: ski! After breakfast at the hotel restaurant (they actually had some breakfast food, surprisingly) the 7 of us headed over to the mountain to rent ski gear and start the day.  Morgan, Samantha, Abi, and I stayed at the beginners teaching hill, but the 3 boys went over to the ski lift/gondola to go up to the big slopes.  Skiing is definitely different.  Its not so terrible when the hill isnt steep because you can stop fairly easily and keep some control. Samantha and I didnt do too terribly, but Morgan decided she was done after once down the hill since she couldnt stop and wasnt very interested in skiing in the first place. Morgan went up to join Abi (who didnt want to ski again), and Samantha and I went down the hill a few more times, starting higher and higher each time until we did it from the very top. Then we went zorbing! They had one zorb ball at the end of the hill, so we asked about the price then decided we definitely wanted to do it. They dragged the ball to the top of the hill, strapped us in, then down we went! It was a lot of fun.  We decided then that we were done with our little skiing excursion and went to meet everyone for lunch at the top of the first lift. After lunch, the boys went up again but us girls took the gondola/lift back down with 2 Kashmiri guys who were singing and dancing and rocking it back and forth. The walk back to the hotel seemed to never end, and it was snowing so hard the entire time. We finally made it though, warmed up, waited for the boys, then we all had dinner at the hotel restaurant again. It was quite a trial finding something to eat since almost everything on the menu was not available. They didnt have any of the Kashmiri dishes, they couldnt make any of the meals with meat, and they had no cheese. Only a few breakfast items, some soups, and some of the Chinese dishes were able to be ordered.

     Tuesday came, and Sam and I got up to ski but Morgan and Samantha decided to stay in bed. I was going to stay in bed too, but Sam convinced me the day before that even though I wasnt very good he could definitely teach me. I hate giving up on things and was excited at the idea of getting better at skiing. The morning started out great, with a delicious breakfast at a local restaurant where we got fried eggs on Kashmiri bread. We headed over to the ski rental, got our gear, and I felt pretty good. That was, of course, until we got to the top of the lift and I realized what a horrible idea it was. The mountain wasnt too steep at this part, but it was way too steep for a beginner with the grace of a broken-winged butterfly.  For every thing I got right, I crashed and burned to even it out. I managed to turn and stop a few times, but I also managed to fall and be unable to pull myself up. It was awful.  Snow got into everything. I realized exactly how little arm and leg strength I have, especially in my left knee. Sam was a great teacher, I just could not make my legs move how I needed them too. After my 10th fall and us only being a few feet down the mountain, I had to give up. My limbs were like jelly, I was upset, and I was holding him back from actually being able to ski. I hired one of the guys with sleds to take me down the rest of the way, which was almost as miserable and not something worth writing about. I returned my skis, got my shoes back, and started on the walk back to the hotel freezing my butt off. When I got back to the room, I had to completely change because EVERYTHING was cold and soaked all the way through: all 4 shirts, both pairs of leggings, jeans, and the undergarments. It was so incredibly cold and took me so long to warm up again. Us girls cuddled in bed for warmth and waited for Sam to get back, then went out in the little village to check out the shops and walk around. We ended up finding one where I got a few gifts for people, but there wasnt very much in the area so we walked back to the hotel and built a snowman! He was awesome and we were quite proud of our little Lumpy. For dinner, we went back to that same restaurant Sam and I ate at for breakfast, then went to find an internet cafe so we could get new train tickets back home. We should have left that morning to make it in time for our original train, but there was 10 inches of snow making it unsafe to go down the mountain and we only had one day in Kashmir so all the travel wouldnt have been worth it.

     Wednesday we did have to leave though, but the trip back went much smoother than the trip up. Well, after we got down the mountain and after the check out fiasco. My phone somehow disappeared between when we left the room to walk down to the lobby and when I walked back up to the room to get it. After tearing the room apart I figured I may have just packed it without realizing, but later that turned out not to be the case.  The hotel owner also decided to put some of the food from the other room on our tab, which took more arguing for him to realize we were not responsible for their food and its the hotel's fault for not charging them correctly. We decided to take the public bus to Tanmarg to save money, but it was a little sketchy as to whether the bus would make it or not.  It got stuck multiple times in slippery snowy holes, and when it moved over bumpy areas (basically everywhere on the mountain) it rocked back and forth and bounced so badly. But we did make it to Tanmarg and got a bus no problem from Tanmarg to Srinagar.  Now, our original plan was to find a bus in Srinagar that went down to Jammu. But when stopping in Srinagar, we realized we got off at a stop we didnt want to and were not sure how to get to the tourist stop with all the taxis and buses. Since we were at a bus stand, we figured we would find our way from there and ask around. A seemingly nice guy told us we could hop on a certain small bus with him and it would take us to the pantha chowk bus stand which is where he said we wanted to go. So we did. An hour later we get off at this stop and realize yet again it was not where we wanted to go. This man asked what we needed and we told him we wanted to get to Jammu, so then he told us he knew of another bus we could get on to go to the railway station to get past the one way tunnel to go to Jammu.  Suddenly, as we are talking and walking past a crowd of men, the men start yelling at him and it seems like there is going to be a fight! We just backed away and kind of looked at each other.  The man pushes past them so we follow, but one of the men from the crowd stops us saying "Do not go with this man! He will kill you! He kills people!" .... We quit that plan, and luckily an actually-nice man from the bus who was chatting with me sees me and comes over.  I tell him we want to get to Jammu and he tells us we need to leave now so we can get past the one way tunnel since tomorrow traffic will be opposite and coming towards Srinagar.  We follow him over to a taxi, who charges us 200 rupees less a piece to get to Jammu.  We get in, play some human tetris to get comfortable, then off we went on the agonizing drive through the twists and turns.  This trip, though, we were actually able to relax and enjoy the view since our driver was very good and not on drugs.  Since we left late in the afternoon, almost no one was on the road. so the trip ended up actually taking the estimated 9 hours rather than 13, placing us in Jammu at 1am. Which meant we had to get a hotel...ugh.  The tuk-tuk driver who picked us up from where the taxi dropped us off took us to our old hotel, but they didnt have rooms. We walked next door but the tuk-tuk driver followed us in and started talking to the men at the desk who then gave us a ridiculous price for the room.  The tuk-tuk driver was just trying to make a cut of the money because he brought us here, so we yelled goodbye at him and told him to leave as we walked to the next hotel, who also charged too much.  The driver was still waiting outside when we went to walk to the next hotel that was around the corner, so we told him again to leave and he finally drove off...around the corner. We saw him walking out of the hotel we were about to go to as soon as we rounded the corner so we just turned around and went back, hoping to find more in a different direction.  About that time, a different driver passed us who said he knew a good hotel for 700 rupees so we got in with him and agreed that we would only pay him to take us there if the room was actually 700 like he said.  And it wasnt. But we were able to argue until it became 700, much to the driver's dismay.  As soon as we reached the hotel room, I removed everything from my bags to try and find my phone, but it wasnt there. That's when I remembered: I had put one of my scarves under the covers to warm it up before we left, but I forgot to grab it when we walked to the lobby to check out. And when I went back up to get my phone, we tore the bed apart and neither the scarf nor the phone was there.  So between leaving the room and walking back up, a staff member must have taken them both. I have quite a few names to call them, but none appropriate to write here.
     Thursday saw a leisurely morning, an adventure to find wifi to change our train tickets (again) so we could leave before midnight, then lunch at a pizza place.  I am never having pizza from a restaurant here stomach was dying as we waited for the train.  But the train arrived on time, got to Delhi on time, and we made it back to the house 8:30am Friday morning after a week of travel.

I am quite excited for the calm weekend approaching.

Much love,

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