India 2013

We arrived in India after a ten day stay in the UK, where we visited with our families. Paul spent ten days with his Mum, getting her into a new home in Belfast, with a quick trip to Yorkshire to sort out the contents of her house. Kris spent a couple of days with her sister before moving to her Mum's and then returned to Belfast for a couple of nights before we left for Delhi.

Delhi  (May 12 & 13)

Getting out of the cold and damp of the UK was a relief. We arrived in Delhi at 3:30am, to find our car wasn't waiting for us.  We took a taxi and arrived at our hotel without further incident. We stayed at the Imperial Hotel, arguably the best hotel in Delhi and certainly the most elegant, with tons of history as well.

Side entrance to the hotel at night. All very Art Deco in style

Cocktail and Lounge area

Main Corridor from the Lobby

An elegant guest waiting for her Gin & Tonic

We stayed here the last time we were in Delhi,  so we knew what to expect and we weren't disappointed.

Next day, after another mix up with our car,  we took a tour of the city. We started with the Red Fort, built by Shah Jahan in the 16th Century. He also built the Taj Mahal in Agra.

The Main Entrance for the masses. The Shah had his own entrance, now used by the Army.

The Marble Throne, from which Shah Jahan would look down on his subjects and render his judgements

Superb inlay work reminiscent of the Taj Mahal

Next stop was the Gandhi Memorial, where Gandhi was cremated after his assassination in 1948.

The Gandhi Memorial, Delhi.

We stopped briefly at India Gate, erected as a War Memorial for the Indian dead of WW1. There is no memorial for World War II. The gate was closed to the public, so we could only admire and photograph it from a distance.

India Gate, Delhi

Normally, after sightseeing comes shopping, but we were still tired from our previous day of travelling and we really didn't want to go shopping, so we headed back to the hotel for an afternoon nap before eating dinner in the hotel.

Shimla (May 14 & 15)

We had been to Shimla on an earlier trip and had taken the Toy Train which is quite famous and climbs up from the plains into the mountains. However, our Travel Agent had screwed up the reservation for the main line train from Delhi to Kalka, where the toy train starts and our reservations had been cancelled. Shades of our return trip from Macchu Picchu a few years ago, which was similarly cancelled. 

Waiting in Delhi Railway Station as we try and sort out our cancelled reservations (which we never did).

After some persusion, our Delhi driver agree to drive us towards Kalka and our main driver, Ajit, who we hadn't  yet met, drove towards us, to meet us, which we did. Ajit then drove like crazy to catch up with the train at one of the stops along the way. He made it and we joined the train about ninety minutes out of Kalka.

The Toy Train gets ready to depart

The train enters one of 103 tunnels along the line

In front of the locomotive

Approaching Shimla from the train. Those are the foothills of the Himalayas in the distance

In Shimla, we stayed at The Oberoi Cecil, certainly the poshest hotel in Shimla. We had eaten lunch there on our last trip, so we knew what to expect.

The hotel Atrium & Cocktail Lounge. All the rooms open out onto the Atrium

The main Dining Room

Preparing fresh Indian Poppadum & Chapattis for breakfast

Next morning, we started our sightseeing tour at the Viceroy's Residence. The Viceroy was the English official in charge of all India and in the summer, he and his administration moved to Shimla and governed from the Official Residence, also known as The Lodge.

The Viceroy's Residence

While we waited for our tour, we enjoyed the beautiful English Garden surrounding the lodge.

An English Country Garden in India

Indians seem to like to have their photo taken with Europeans. Makes for a nice photo op.

As The Lodge is still in use, only a few rooms are open to the public. The style is described as "Scottish Baronial".

The Grand Staircase

The Main Hall

A lot happened at The Lodge, including many decisions about the future of India and Pakistan after independence from Britain. In this photograph, Nehru (India's first Prime Minister) enjoys a joke with Edwina Mountbatten,  Lord Mountbatten's wife and Nehru's lover. Mountbatten himself doesn't seem to get the joke.

Our next stop was the top of Jakhoo Hill, which is Shimla's highest point. The main purpose was to enjoy the view, but it was hazy and we couldn't see the mountains. At the top of the hill is a giant statue of Hanuman, the Monkey God.

There were also many very agressive real monkeys which had to be discouraged by tapping a stick on the ground.

The road to the top of the hill was under repair so we had a very steep climb up and had to avoid being run over by an asphalt roller on the way down.

But at least she didn't have to get involved in the heavy work!

This is how the roads get fixed in India ! Female equality of a sort !

Dharamsala (May 16 & 17)

Dharamasala was just a small village until 1959 when the Dalai Lama left Tibet in search of refuge after his country was overrun by the Chinese. The British had been here, but it was never as important as Shimla. After the Dalai Lama arrived, a mixture of pilgrims and tourists began to arrive here. It's now something of a backpacker stopover. The mountains provide a spectacular backdrop.

The Dalai Lama's rather unimpressive "Palace" and the adjoining temple are the main attractions for pilgrims and tourists alike.

Kris had never seen prayer wheels before. She thought they were drums. Here she seems to find their function amusing.

Many Tibetans have died fighting the chinese, or have killed themselves in protest. This is a memorial and statue in their honour.

Our next stop was the Norbulingka Institute. The Institute was founded to ensure that the traditional skills and crafts brought from Tibet are not lost. Its based on the original summer palace of the Dalai Lama in Tibet, built around a beautiful garden with workshops for the various crafts around the edge of the garden.

Garden at the Norbuligka Institute

Artists at work

Our final stop was the inevitable English Style Church, St John in The Wilderness built in 1852. It was badly damaged in an earthquake in 1905 but was repaired and is still used to this day.

St John in The Wilderness, Dharamsala

Amritsar ( May 18 & 19)

We left the cool of the hills and headed back down to the heat of the city - over 100 degrees at the height of summer. Our destination was Amritsar, the center of the Sikh religion and at the center of the city, The Golden Temple.

As we drove, the mountains were always a sight to behold and reminded us we were in the foothills of the Himalayas.

We also took the opportunity to take some photos with Ajit, our driver.

After checking, we went to see The Golden Temple as dusk fell. We were impressed!

The Golden Temple, the holiest place of the Sikh religion,  at night

Perhaps even more remarkable is that the Temple feeds EVERYONE who walks in the door - rich and poor - young and old. Admittedly, it isn't gourmet dining but a free meal is a free meal. They serve food round the clock and serve on avergage 70,000 people per day - over 100,000 on a busy day. It is a food factory !

Food is cooked on an industrial scale

Served (seated on the floor) from buckets

And then it all has to be washed up - by hand. No dishwashers here !

Everyone wanted to have their picture taken with us. I think they must have thought we were celebrities. Here Kris had a baby thrust in her arms - not something she's very comfortable holding !

Next day, we went back to see the Golden Temple in daylight, with a guide this time.

The Golden Temple in the middle of a large tank of Holy Water

Gleaming white marble inside the Golden Temple area

Keeping everyone in order with a gentle prod of their spears were the Sikh guards

From the wondrous and beautiful Golden Temple, we went to the location of the 1919 Amritsar Massacre, when General Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on an unarmed crowd of 15,000 to 20,000. After the shooting stopped, there were at least 379 known dead, although estimates in excess of 1,000 are widely believed. 

The Monument at Jallianwallah Bagh (now a garden) in the shape of a bullet

An eternal flame burns in memory of those who died in the massacre

Our last tourist destination was the "Beating of the Retreat" at the Indian - Pakistani border. At one time, this ritual closing of the border at sunset may have been a real exhibition of bravado and a show of determination on both sides, but now it has become a show, with large audiences on both side of the border cheering on their home side. The atmosphere better resembles a football match than any real show of force.

The Indian crowd gets ready to cheer for their "team".

The Indian soldiers have great hats

Exaggerated marching ("silly walks" really) are an important part of the ceremony

Finally, the Indians (in red) and the Pakistanis (in black) lower their flags, salute and close the gates for another night.

Jammu (May 20th)

We were supposed to travel from Amritsar to Jammu by train and we actually boarded the train, but our seats were reserved in a sleeper car and all the curtains were drawn so people could sleep. We didn't even have window seats, so we decided not to bother and went by car instead.

We stayed at another "Heritage" hotel, the "Hari Newas" but it seemed like a modern hotel to us. It was fine, if a little ordinary. Next to the hotel was a Palace, now a museum, but it was closed because it was a holiday.

Amar Mahal Palace Museum, next to our hotel in Jammu

We also went for a quick tour of the "sights" in Jammu, but as Jammu is most famous for it's many temples, which didn't interest us a great deal, we didn't see very much.  A highlight was supposed be an underground aquarium, but once you've seen one aquarium, you've pretty much seen them  all. We did spend some time in a nice garden with some interesting water features.

Municipal Garden, Jammu

Srinagar, Kashmir (May 21 to May 24)

After Jammu, we started a very long (ten hour) drive to Srinagar in Kashmir, the primary reason for our trip to India. Because the security situation in Kashmir is still very tense, our driver wanted to get there before dark and we agreed. The road winds up and down the sides of mountain valleys, is very narrow and VERY busy.  At the moment, it's the only way into Srinagar other than by air, so everything comes along this road.

This is pretty typical. You can just see the road cutting across the center of the picture.

You can see how narrow the road is. What you don't see are all the trucks. There are blocks of stone at the side of the road, but no barriers.

After about seven hours of driving, we emerged from a long tunnel to see the  Kashmir Valley below.

The Valley of Kashmir

We were all pleased and relieved.

Watching our antics with a degree of quiet amusement was a local man (a shepherd possibly) who had a wonderful face.

What a great face! He must have seen a lot in his lifetime.

Then on to Srinagar and our houseboat. The houseboats of Srinagar are legendary. They were started by the British, who were not allowed to own land in Kashmir. They are found on two lakes in Srinagar, but the best known and the one with the most houseboats, is Dal Lake. They vary from sad and run down to luxurious. Ours was the latter.

Kris looks out over Dal Lake

The interiors are pretty extravagant. Note the crystal chandeliers! This is our bedroom.

Lounge area - lots of chandeliers

And the dining room.

The porch area at the front of the boat

Although the houseboats are moored to land, or in this case to an island, they can only be reached using a ferry boat known as a Shikara. They hold up to four people (maybe six at a pinch) plus luggage and are hand powered using a paddle. No powerboats are allowed.

A Shikara crossing Lake Dal.

Shikaras are also used for transporting goods and even vegetation around the lake.

A flower seller peddles his wares to other shikara occupants and to the houseboat guests.

Smaller shikaras are used as local transport for people and goods

Shikaras crowd along the waterfront waiting for customers

In the afternoon, we took a tour of the city. It's best known landmarks are the many gardens built by the Moguls in the 17th century.

They are very pretty and many have interesting water features, but to be honest, they are very similar in style and layout and it's difficult to tell one from another.

The Indian Tourists ( at least the young ones) were fascinated by Kristine's hat & sunglasses ("goggles" they called them) and wanted to have their picture taken wearing them. Very strange!

An Indian tourist wearing Kristine's hat & glasses

Paul promised his sister to give a small amount of money to a begging girl to make up for something she didn't do years ago. Promise kept and it makes for an appealing photo.

A local girl begging for money

Our last stop of the day was the biggest mosque in Srinagar. Kashmir is predominantly Muslim. Most mosques tend to be fairly plain, as they are more working buildings than decorative, but this one had many wooden columns and a nice ceiling.

The Jamia Masjid Mosque, Srinagar, Kashmir

Our second full day in Kasmir was spent on an excursion to Pahalgam. Pahalgam is a town about three hours drive from Srinagar, but much higher up in the mountains and much prettier. Along the way, we passed several flocks of  regular and Pashmina sheep, which provide the wool for Pashmina shawls. The Pashmina sheep are very distinctive.

Pashmina sheep being driven along the road

The scenery was very "alpine" and the heat was causing the snow to melt, producing impressive waterfalls and rapids.

Ajit did like to get into the picture

At the head of one valley was a small glacier and the tourists (all Indian) were having a wonderful time playing in the snow.

Again, Ajit was mugging for the camera.

Lower down, a game of cricket was being played and on our way back to Srinagar, we stopped at a bat factory, to see how cricket bats are made. It's a major industry in the area.

Fast ball coming!

Stacks of rough cut wood drying before being shaped into cricket bats

Partly completed cricket bats

Our final full day in Kashmir (May 24) was supposed to be spent on an excursion to Gulmarg, which in the winter is a major ski resort. In the summer, the ski lift, a Gondola Ride, is a major attraction. We had bought our tickets in advance, but when we arrived at the base of the lift, it was such a mob scene that after about thirty minutes, we abandoned the attempt and left.

We went back to our last hotel, The Lalit Grand Palace and spent a relaxing day in our room and around the hotel.

The gardens of the hotel from our bedroom window.

The next day (May 25) was goodbye to India. After a short flight to  Delhi, we stayed for a few hours in a large hotel near the airport, before flying back to Manchester on May 26th.

Postscript 1

(Or so I thought, when I wrote those fateful words two days ago in the comfort of the Lalit Hotel. In fact, we went to Srinagar airport as planned and said goodbye to Ajit who set off back to Delhi - a thirty hour non-stop drive. Our Spicejet flight was then subject to a series of delays and was eventually cancelled about 6:30 in the evening. We were essentially abandoned. 

First we had to find a place to stay as the airline would do nothing to help us. The Lalit and the other good hotel in Srinagar, the Taj, were both full. We finished up in a crummy hotel called The Broadway, which we hated.  Not only that but they charged us an arm and a leg.  We spent three hours online rebooking all of our arrangements, at considerable expense and then dozed for a few hours until it was time to go back to the airport to see if our flight would operate the next day as we had been promised. After more delays and uncertainty, I'm happy to report the flight did take off almost 24 hours late. As I write this, we are staying at the spectacular Leela Kempinski, a few miles from Delhi airport. If all goes well, we will be leaving here at 2:00am  tomorrow, to catch our flight back to the UK,  24 hours later than planned.)

Postscript 2

All went as planned and we arrived back in the UK exactly one day later than originally planned.