New Year’s Eve – Let’s Party Like It’s 1988!

My favourite New Year’s Eve party occurred on either the 13th or 14th April 1988, from which you may conclude this was not at home in England. I was in the Himalaya, walking the Annapurna Circuit. And my uncertainty about the date is due to the fact I didn’t keep a travel journal in those days. In fact, I’m not even sure exactly where we were staying that night, although I do know we were still heading up towards the high pass, the Thorung La, and that we were still well below the snowline. At the end of the day’s walking we camped, as usual, and while we were eating supper we were informed that we were invited to join in the New Year celebrations in the village close by.

It wasn’t the place in the picture above – it was smaller – but it was definitely what could be described as a little one horse place somewhere rather high up in the Himalaya. The celebrations involved drinking, singing, and dancing. Actually, the celebrations were drinking, singing, and dancing. The drink was chang, which is rice beer, a traditional Tibetan drink, which is drunk on any and all occasions, by everyone. It is cloudy, it doesn’t taste very strong, it’s not very strong, and it slips down easily.

And then there is rakshi, which is a distilled liquor and a whole new level of peril. We were warned about that.

Up where we were, the singing consisted largely – possibly entirely – of folk songs. We were already familiar with at least one of them; when we had been in Kathmandu, the hit of the season was apparently a song called paan ko paat which we heard on radios everywhere – you can find many versions of this on YouTube if you feel curious – and as the chang flowed, so the singing increased in intensity. So too did the dancing – there was what might very loosely be termed a band, consisting of a number of people playing traditional instruments – and we either tried to keep up or stood around drinking and talking with our most hospitable hosts.

I have no photographs of this, sadly, since it was dark and I had no flash on my camera. The only light came from oil lanterns. You’ll just have to imagine a host of Nepalis and half a dozen westerners crammed into a tea house and having a jolly good time.

And then we were informed it was our turn to sing.

They asked us to sing something traditional from whichever countries we came from. I think the others made a reasonable fist of it, although maybe that’s just me assuming that everyone else sings better than me. Which they do. And some of their interpretations of ‘traditional’ may have been rather elastic. And then came the words I had been dreading, the words that sent a frisson of horror through my entire being: ‘Your turn, Mick.’

I must have been drunk, because suddenly I knew that if I had just one more drink I could do it. And so I did. I do at least know quite a few folk songs although I couldn’t remember the words to more than a couple of verses of the one I chose, but no one seemed to mind. On reflection, I suppose no one even really listened.

The rest of the words came to me as I lay in my tent that night, listening to sporadic bursts of singing and shouting – but by then, there was little difference between the two…

Happy New Year, folks.

Coll – A Wee Bit Random (1)

I really thought I had already written a post about Coll, from our first visit there eight years ago, but it seems not. But we were lured back there earlier this year, as we knew we would be, sooner or later, so here’s a few random shots from both this visit and the first one.

I love travelling to an island on a ferry. It is comparatively slow travel and you get a real sense of the distance travelled and the mood of the world you pass through. It takes two hours forty minutes to reach Coll from Oban; not a huge amount of time, but time enough to realise you’re no longer on the mainland.

Arinagour is not the largest capital city in the world. Although it is the main settlement on Coll, it only has a population of around 50. Although the entire population of Coll is only between 150 and 220 permanent residents, depending on which source you consult.

About halfway along the coast on the northern side of the island, there is a bay called Bagh an Trailleich. On our first visit, we walked there hoping to see some seals, but were disappointed. This time, there were about fifty seals on this small island in the bay

Our cottage was five minutes or so walk from the ferry, and having left our bags there we walked the short way to the island community centre, where we knew there would be a Saturday market and we intended to buy a few treats (homemade cakes, jam, and the like) for the week. While we were there, we saw a flyer for a gig by Daimh (pronounced ‘dive’) on the Wednesday evening. All we learned from this flyer was that they are a Scottish folk group and we thought that sounded like a good evening. On the Wednesday evening, we learned they are frequently described as a ‘Scottish Super-group’, and quickly discovered why. It was one of the best concerts I’ve been to. If you fancy a taste of what they do, I recommend this: Daimh live at Celtic Connections

There is just one stretch of dual-carriageway on the island, a length of less than fifty metres, and it’s very difficult to understand why it’s there. There are three main roads on the island, all ‘B’ roads, and this stretch is along the one leading to the hamlet of Sorisdale. As you can see, it’s not the busiest road in the UK, but it may be the shortest stretch of dual carriageway.

Someone is bound to know.

Sorisdale is a former crofting and fishing village at the north east end of the island. There are a couple of modern houses there, but also a number of old cottages with turf or thatched roofs, in various states of repair or disrepair.

And because it’s Scotland, here’s yer Highland coo. Yer’ve met him before.

Sarnath

It’s mid February 2008, and I am in Sarnath.

Formerly a deer park, Sarnath lies 10km outside Varanasi and is the place where the Buddha came after his enlightenment at Bodhgaya, to seek out his former companions who were living there in huts and give his first sermon, on the turning of the Wheel of Dharma. This comprises the Buddha’s path to Enlightenment: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold path and the Middle Way.

This altar is still used by pilgrims for pujas – not just Buddhists, but also Jains, for whom Sarnath is also sacred.

A monastic tradition flourished at Sarnath for over 1500 years after the Buddha. Many monasteries and two great stupas were built, which survived until the end of the 12th century when they were destroyed during the Muslim invasions and not rediscovered until 1834 by a British archaeological team. Amongst these ruins were a stone column 15.25m high with four lions as its capital, erected by the emperor Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism after witnessing the terrible carnage of a war he had unleashed in the 3rd century BC. This capital was adopted as the symbol of the modern Indian republic.

The Dhamekh Stupa. Built in the sixth century, this solid cylindrical tower, 33m high, consists of a stone base with the upper part made of brick, and was virtually the only building to survive the Islamic destruction, perhaps because of its sheer size and bulk. It marks the spot where the Buddha supposedly gave his first sermon. The five former companions, who became his first disciples on hearing him speak, had deserted him when he gave up his ascetic vows. On achieving enlightenment, he determined to follow the ‘Middle Way’, avoiding both luxuries and asceticism. This is the basis of its appeal to me personally – nothing to do with religion, but a sensible lifestyle avoiding extremes, with kindness at its heart. A philosophy of life.

Delicate carvings on the base of the Damekh Stupa.

Just outside the Deer park, there are a number of modern Buddhist monasteries, attracted to the site because of its history. This particular spot was a beautiful peaceful place, but I can’t remember exactly where it was! I think it was outside the Japanese Temple…

Inside the Dharmachakra Japanese monastery

Mulagandhakuti Vihara built by the Mahabodhi Society in 1931

A Scottish Coast to Coast Walk (3)

22nd April 1994

Today the intention is to take it as easy as possible.

Loch Duich

Last night, after a fruitless search for treats I cooked myself some supper and then decided to walk on for another half a dozen miles or so with a view to just leaving a token walk into Kyle of Lochalsh. But I’d already done a good twenty miles already, and it was a really stupid move. Eventually I bivvied just off the side of the road, with the weather closing in rapidly. Clouds were rolling down the mountainsides and coming up the loch. By the time I was in my sleeping bag all hell broke loose. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like it. The wind howled and shrieked and at times it screamed. And the rain that accompanied it absolutely hammered down. It seemed to go on for most of the night and I lay there unable to sleep for the noise.

Castle Eilean Donnan

But by six the rain had stopped and the wind dropped, although it was still having a good old blow. I got up, packed up, then walked a mile or so back up the road to get a photo of Castle Eilean Donnan which I’d passed in semi-darkness the previous evening.

Through the rest of the morning I walked along the side of the loch through alternate rain and sun and constant gusting winds. Or perhaps ‘limped’ would be a better description, since I was now extremely footsore, and perhaps that contributed to a slight sense of let down when I got to Kyle. Still, that was my target and I’ve achieved it in around three and a half days. I will have covered around eighty to eighty five miles and since a lot of it was over steep hills and bog, I’m quite pleased with that.

Looking down Loch Aish towards the Isle of Skye

I think it’s important to state here that even if I still enjoyed the same levels of fitness and stamina I enjoyed almost thirty years ago, and was able to repeat this walk, I would not do it this way.

I’ve no wish to set records and, really, I did not wish to do so then, but there is a sort of perverse pride that says ‘Look, I can walk thirty miles a day’, although that is not the only reason I covered so much ground each day. It was the middle of summer in Scotland, with very long daylight hours. The temptation to use them to do ‘just another couple of miles’ was too much at times.

Skye from Kyle of Lochalsh

And now I’m in a cheap guest house and about to have a shower and go out to find a café. Or maybe even a pub.

I suspect I’ll sleep well tonight.

A Scottish Coast to Coast Walk (2)

20th June 1994

It rained during the night, but when I emerge from my bivvi in the morning it has eased to an occasional drizzle. Down the valley to the east, the sun is glittering on the trees, while the hilltops are shrouded in cloud. Cotton grass and heather dance around me in the breeze, and it is warm.

Glen Coiltie, looking west.

Through the morning, I work my way further west up Glen Coiltie, the wind slowly increasing in strength and the drizzle turning gradually to heavy rain. When I top a final ridge and begin to head down towards Loch Aslaich the wind positively howls. I plod along and gradually up onto a plateau where the path simply disappears. With the low cloud drifting across at ground level this becomes a good test of my navigational skills.

The weather worsens again. At times I stop just to retreat further into my waterproofs rather like a turtle withdrawing its head into its shell. It is a lovely landscape, desolate and wild, but just too wet and windy to enjoy, never mind even to think of taking any photos.

By the evening I am alongside Loch Beinn a Mheadhoin, after a long, wet, day. For a couple of miles I had been looking for somewhere to camp, but the path was through old pine forest and the ground was several feet deep in fallen logs and branches, all covered in moss and lichen. Eventually I find a spot near a waterfall amongst a few birches at one edge of the lake. It is a lovely spot, but I know what will await me in the morning.

21st April 1994

I unzip my bivvi and immediately a huge cloud of midges descends upon me. I forego breakfast for the moment and pack up as quickly as I can, flapping my arms around ineffectively and swearing my very bestest swears.

Not the best place to camp, beside open water with lots of tree cover

Soon enough, though, I am away from the water and ahead of me snowy peaks rear up above the trees. The thrill is upon me again! As I walk through the morning, the clouds are lowering and thickening again, but for now the rain holds off, for which I am thankful. It had been so wet the previous day the rain had managed to soak everything inside my rucksack. During the night I had gradually brought maps and clothes into my sleeping bag for my body heat to dry out. By the morning probably about half of it was dry.

It is colder than yesterday. The snowline looks to be lower here; I am at about three hundred meters and there are pockets of snow level with me on the mountains nearby. But with the improved weather as well as the scenery, my mood is much better and I am enjoying just being part of the environment. It reminds me of other walks and treks I have done – I keep thinking of Nepal! – and in this mood the miles seem to melt away as I walk. The previous day, at one point I had managed less than five miles in three hours up on the plateau in the atrocious weather, so this day is a huge improvement.

The Five Sisters in the distance and Creag a Chaorainn on the right,

I follow a river for a while, and where the water is moving slowly I can really appreciate how beautifully crystal clear it is, even though it has a deep brown hue from the peat. There are tiny orchids in the grass, although I don’t know their name, but few other flowers just here.

An Tudair on the left and Sgurr na Lapaich on the right

And now I pass a couple of walkers and we stop for a brief chat. These are the first people I have seen since leaving Inverness and although yesterday the weather was so bad that only idiots would have been out in it (or one idiot, anyway), in a world of five and a half billion people, to spend a whole day travelling without seeing another soul from dawn to dusk is an increasing rarity.

River Affric near Athnamulloch. The sheep track is so worn it has almost become a tunnel.

I stop for an early lunch and then soon after I set off again I find the path disappears in a particularly boggy area and, predictably, it begins to rain. I take a compass bearing and step forward cautiously. Half a kilometre later I find the path again and the rain stops. Now I go uphill again, over the Eionngleann (lots of these names sound as though they come from Lord of the Rings), down into a long valley where the weather comes in again, and down to the village of Carn-gorm. The village sits at the head of Loch Duich, which joins Loch Aish and this opens up to the Atlantic Ocean. I’m definitely in Western Scotland now. Now to see if there’s anywhere in the village to get a pizza or something more interesting than what’s left in my rucksack.

Eionngleann
Looking North West down Gleann Lichd, my route down to Carn-gorm

A Scottish Coast to Coast Walk(1)

Click on map to enlarge

18th June 1994

My coach got into Inverness at 8.10pm after almost twelve hours on the road, and I was more than ready to begin walking. With over two hours of daylight left, I aimed to get well clear of the city and find a good spot to camp for the night. I grabbed a bag of chips from a chippy, then followed the Caledonian Canal southwest for about four miles, left it and climbed a little more to the west to find somewhere to sleep. I filled my water bottle from a stream, then wandered into a little wood and got out my bivvi tent and settled down for the night, black clouds heading slowly towards me as I did so.

Altourie – rain clouds coming in from the west. Torr Mor in Foreground

19th June 1994

This morning is dry and bright, but quite windy. I boiled some water for coffee and set off as soon as I could, intending to make the most of the good weather. Today I intend to cover quite a few miles on side roads which I hope will be carrying very little traffic and so get a substantial fraction of the journey under my belt before the weather gets any worse. This is Scotland, after all. I‘m expecting rain. It should also break me in gently, being easier ground than much I expect to have to walk. So, I’m aiming for Urquhart Castle, which overlooks Loch Ness and will be a slight diversion from my route but I just fancy having a look at it, and from there I can leave the road and follow the river southwest through Glen Coiltie before turning further towards the west.

As soon as I set off, I was walking straight into the teeth of a strong wind. Long distance footpaths are usually walked from west to east, at least in Britain, and there is a strong argument for that; we get the majority of our weather from the west, so by doing that we have the wind (and whatever it brings with it) at our backs. I’m walking it in the opposite direction not just because I am naturally perverse – or not only for that reason, anyway – but because the more interesting and exciting scenery will be on the west side of the country, and hence my destination. Walking from west to east I feel I would arrive at my destination with a certain amount of disappointment, with all due respect to Inverness which is a delightful city, but I’m after the spectacular wilderness.

So, into the teeth of a strong wind. It is not long, though, before I am walking through Abriachen Forest and I stop for a rest sheltered from the wind.

Abriachen Forest

I rather think Abriachen Forest has changed a little since I passed through there in 1994. I remember it as a dark wood of densely planted conifers, typical of the conifer woodlands planted in the middle to late twentieth century with the intention of producing the maximum possible yield of wood. The trees allow so little light through that other than the trees themselves – Douglas Fir and Sitka Spruce, typically – these plantations (forest is the wrong word) house very little life. But in 1998 the community of Abriachen (a small village) purchased 540 hectares of the woodland and since then have been improving it – thinning the trees, reintroducing native species and creating footpaths and trails.

But on the edge of the forest, and beside the road, there are a multitude of flowers: vetches, Ladies smock, and violets, particularly catch my eye. I draw away from the forest and I am back amongst a more natural landscape, with banks of pepperminty smelling gorse, occasional rowan trees in blossom and heather beginning to flower.

In places, the ground is bright with cotton grass

Now, for the first time, as I leave the road and walk uphill along a track towards the farm of Achpopuli, I get my first good view of large snow-covered mountains to he west. Once past the farm, I am on a supposed footpath heading up towards a saddle between two hill crests but the ground is extremely boggy and proves to be a taste of much of the rest of the route. My feet sink about six inches into either water or soft moss and heather, slowing my progress significantly. But then I m over, and down to a small loch where I stop to refill my water bottle and have a wash. I am surprised by how warm the water is, and I brave a quick dip as well as a shave.

Loch Glanaidh

On, then, to Urquhart Castle and then a little further out of my way to visit Divach falls, a waterfall with a drop of about a hundred feet. And near the bottom, primroses were still out.

Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness

Following a track up Glen Coiltie looking for a suitable spot to make my camp and cook supper I am walking through old forest, such a contrast to the plantation I walked through earlier. The trees are so covered in mosses and lichen it seems at times almost a wonder they are still alive. The path winds up and down and left and right and feels at times like a high mountain trail. Far below I hear the roar of the river, and for almost the first time that day feel I am absolutely in my element.

Eventually I make camp in a small hollow just below Carn a Bhainne. There is a low ridge towards the west which should shelter me from the worst of the wind. After I have eaten, I sit with a mug of tea looking across the river towards a snow pocket that is probably a couple of hundred meters higher than where I am.

A Day in Ladakh (2)

I’ve posted (and re-posted) a few times over the years about my trip to Ladakh in 2005. So here’s another extract from my journal for one of the days I spent there.

For those not in the know, Ladakh is high in the Indian Himalaya to the west of Tibet, with which it shares many characteristics, not only of geography but also the ethnic makeup of its people. In fact, since the Chinese invasion of Tibet, it is frequently said that Ladakh is more Tibetan than Tibet. The climate is not dissimilar, either, and although I visited in April that is still well before the main tourist season, and I don’t recall seeing any other tourists during my stay there.

Sunday 10th April 2005

I slept well. No alarms during the night! (I had had a very bad headache the previous night which I put down to altitude sickness) Then up at 6.30 to a fresh snowfall – just a sprinkling of powder on the ground. The skies are clear, though, and the Stok Mountains look wonderful in the sunshine. In fact, they’re going to get photographed right now.

I go out for breakfast and it’s quite mild. Soon last night’s snow has already gone. A few shops are slowly opening – no internet as yet, but I’ll mooch this morning. I’m sure that I can find something.

To use the internet, I need to find a place that is both open and with a generator. This looks as though it might take some time! Never mind, I’ve got a woollen scarf from the Ladakhi Women’s co-op, so a good start to the day.

As well as the scarf I also bought a bag of the dried apricots (organic, ‘solar-dried‘) Ladakh is famous for, and at last a singing bowl. I’m sure I paid more than necessary, but he came down RS 200/-, so what the heck. I think we were both happy with the deal. And it’s a nicer one than any I saw in Bodhgaya.

After a Ladakhi lunch of apricots, apple juice and water, – not that I suppose for one moment that is what a Ladakhi might have for lunch, only that it is all locally produced – I headed north past the Shanti Stupa towards the first line of hills. Reached there at 1.15pm and stopped there for a breather. Silence, apart from the pounding of the blood in my head. Absolute silence. After a few minutes the call of the muezzin drifts up from Leh, from the Jama Masjid. Then a few bird calls from the crags. Perfect peace. A perfect desert landscape, with pockets of snow. I’m sitting on a boulder, warmed by the sun, my feet in patches of fresh snow.

1.50 and I am at the col. A lot higher than the fort at Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, with a fantastic view north up the valley towards the Kardang-la.

2.45 and I am at what appears to be the highest point. There is another peak some way to the west, but this one has a cairn, walls and prayer flags, so I’m taking it to be the highest. At a rough guess, I’ve climbed about seven to eight hundred metres. The views are out of this world. More side valleys to the north and I’m up in the snow here. On the northern sides it is quite thick and I am feeling quite light-headed. It was worth coming to Ladakh just for this alone! Stunning!

Very reluctant to start heading down, but a few flakes of snow convince me that it’s time to go.

Down to the road just before 4.00, then head up the road to have a look at what appears to be a half reconstructed fort. When I get there, there is nothing to indicate what it is, just a sign warning people that it is of historic interest, so don’t go knocking it over. I guess that it might be Tisseru Stupa, although it does not really look that much like a stupa to me.

I then head back to the guesthouse, feeling a bit weary. Wander out into town and end up eating thukpa in a Tibetan restaurant.

Back again for the evening. It’s getting cold!

Looking at my map, there is a peak a couple of kilometres north of Leh, marked at 4150m. It’s in the right place and is about the right height, so I’m bagging it.

Return To Tengboche…

…but not literally, unfortunately. I did say I would re-post another travel post from some while back, so here it is.

Four years ago I wrote four short posts about Tengboche. Here I’ve combined them into a single post and added some extra pictures and text to give a little more information about this lovely place.

Tengboche is a monastery complex and a couple of trekking lodges at 3860m on the route up to Everest Base Camp from Lukla, in Nepal. It sits high above the waters of the Dudh Khosi, the rapidly flowing river than runs alongside much of the Everest Trail.

The monastery complex. On arrival in the afternoon, the clouds are low. This seems to be the pattern most days – clear mornings and then the clouds coming in early afternoon. In a general sense, weather patterns in the Himalaya – certainly in some parts, and probably at certain times of the year – can be quite predictable. When I trekked the Annapurna Circuit, for example, we were told one evening that around ten o’clock the next morning there would be strong winds blowing in the valley we were to follow, because that was what happened every day. And blow they did. At ten o’clock.

From inside the monastery grounds. The monastery is a Tibetan Buddhist complex, liberally decorated with the pictures, statues, and symbols to be found in every such place.

Roof decoration
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Inside Tengboche monastery following a puja (ceremony).

Rightly or wrongly, I don’t like taking photographs of pujas in monasteries. It feels intrusive and bad mannered. I would feel the same in a church, mosque or temple. This has nothing to do with any beliefs of my own, but is born of simple respect.

I noted in my diary: We have just sat in on a chanting puja, but my meditation failed dismally. I was completely unable to concentrate on my breath as all that I could think of were my freezing feet!

It was blooming cold!

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This view must have been photographed so many times, but how fantastic is it? Sunset on Everest (left) and Nuptse (right), photographed from Tengboche. This was taken on my third visit; the other two times the clouds failed to clear in the evening, so this was an unexpected treat.

212a

And this is the same view in the morning – but with the addition of Ama Dablam on the right of the picture. Ama Dablam is possibly my favourite mountain; the classic ‘mountain-shaped’ mountain, similar to the Matterhorn.

Close-up of window showing the dawn chorus orchestra.

We were awoken in the mornings by the harsh notes of conch shells and the clashing of symbols. This was part of the morning puja, rather than a summons for coffee and porridge. It does make for an excellent alarm call, though.

Hindoostan

Reading my blogging friend Arv’s latest (excellent) blog on Jaipur, I was reminded that the area that is now the state of Rajasthan was originally called Rajpoot, the area comprising a mix of princely states. This sent me to look at an old encyclopaedia I have – volume two of the 1848 / 1849 Chambers Encyclopaedia. Things were rather different back then, in the days of the British Raj – a complex history I won’t go into here, especially since I know a number of my readers are already familiar with it. But from that volume, here is the map of India, or Hindoostan as it was usually known by the West, although it was occasionally referred to as India and sometimes as the East Indies.

Obviously, the countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh were still part of this country as this was long before Independence. Indeed, this was even before the First War of Indian Independence, also referred to as the Indian Mutiny, in 1857.

There is a lot that can be learned from old encyclopaedias, especially about the attitudes the west had towards other parts of the world, which make for uncomfortable reading today. But again, I don’t propose to go into that now, rather just leave this map here for interest.

But for anyone who has ever struggled with the conversion rates of currency when they have travelled, this extract might bring a wry smile. The circulating medium of India consists of gold and silver coins, paper-money and cowries. The most common silver currency is the new coinage of Calcutta…Cowries are small shells which, not being depreciable by imitation, form a good medium for buying and selling among the lower classes. Their value varies in different places. The following is their value in Calcutta:-4 cowries 1 gunda; 20 gundas 1 pon; 32 pons one current rupee, 0r 2s. sterling (2560 cowries); 10 current rupees £1 sterling. The sicca rupee is 16 per cent less in value than the current rupee, which is an imaginary coin. The Bombay rupee is valued at 2s. 3d.; a pagoda is 8s.

Good luck trying that one in your head in the marketplace.

India – My First Time 2 (reblog)

The second and final part of an early travel post:

A few more photographs from 1989 (my apologies for the quality of some of them – all I had with me was a very cheap camera):

After a few days in Delhi, I went to Srinagar, in Kashmir. I took the bus that went through Jammu, and 24 hours after leaving I was deposited in Srinagar.

On the way, I did one of the most stupid things I have ever done in India.

The bus was packed. I think that I was the only westerner on the bus, but I liked it that way. On a 24 hour bus trip, it is pretty well impossible to ignore your neighbours for the entire journey, and so I spent much of the time chatting with the chap sitting next to me, and the ones across the aisle. When the bus halted to allow us to get some food, we sat at the side of the road together munching on the samosas, pakoras and newspaper twists full of nuts that we had bought.

When it started up again, we chatted long into the night before falling asleep.

And at the first stop just after dawn, at another cluster of roadside stalls for breakfast, I joined them at the broken water pipe beside the road where we all brushed our teeth.

Maybe if I had spent longer than just a few days in India by then, the consequences would not have been so violent. But as it was, my stomach had clearly not yet adjusted to Indian bacteria.

And maybe if I had spent longer in India I would have realised that it was not a clever thing to do in the first place.

IMG

In Srinagar, I stayed on a houseboat on Lake Dal. I no longer remember what it was called, but I was the only guest, and I had the place to myself. These wonderful floating mini-palaces are a relic of the days of British India, when the local Prince refused to allow the British to purchase land to build houses. They got around this by causing the construction of houseboats to stay on, instead. Made from wood, beautifully carved, and furnished opulently throughout, they seemed to me to be unspeakable luxury after my 24 hour bus journey.

The rapidly multiplying bacteria in my stomach, though, were clearly in a hurry to join all of their friends in the Lake. But for someone feeling poorly and reluctant to stray too far from a bathroom for a few days, the houseboat could not have been better. I had my meals cooked for me, and any little treats I fancied I could buy from one of the many shikaras that continually paddled up to the houseboat. These little boats, which also acted as water taxis, sold chocolate, flowers, fruit and vegetables, cigarettes, snacks, flowers, newspapers and yet more flowers.

I passed much of that time on the deck or on the roof reading, or chatting with the folks around me on the nearby boats or on the shikaras.

After a few days I recovered enough to explore the area a little. I walked many of the paths around the lake, which is a more complex shape than the visitor first realises. I would frequently find myself on causeways or small spurs of land sticking far out into the lake. I wandered around the Shalimar and Nishat gardens, and I walked up the long, winding path to the Shankaracharya Temple, on the hill of the same name.

This was March, 1989, and even someone as unobservant as me could not fail to spot the signs of unrest. Once or twice in the evenings I heard what might be shots or small explosions in the distance, which my host casually dismissed as ‘bandits’. On one occasion, walking through Srinagar I found the road blocked outside a mosque, where there was lots of shouting and a large police presence; although on reflection, I have seen much the same thing outside the rail ticket reservation office in Kolkata, and perhaps I should not make too much of it as an incident.

It was only a few short weeks later, however, that the insurgency began in earnest. For a long time there would be very few further visitors to the lovely Vale of Kashmir.

After a week, I returned to Delhi and then headed immediately to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. I chartered a car and driver, because I wanted to also visit Fatehpur Sikri on the way.

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Fatehpur Sikri was built by the emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century. His intention was to create a new capital city that honoured a Sufi Saint whose blessing the emperor believed had given him a male heir. This site was chosen, as it was close to the dwelling of the saint. Unfortunately, the area suffered from water shortages, and the city was abandoned shortly after the emperor died, after only 13 years occupation.

There remains the magnificent, well preserved, fortified city that I wanted to wander around for a few hours. Inside, there were a few stalls selling souvenirs and drinks, and a number of other visitors looking around, but generally there was an impression of peace and emptiness. I have not been back since, but I believe that it is now far more crowded, and that there are far more touts and hawkers on the site.

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Performing bears at the side of the road. The cruel practice of dancing bears was made illegal in India in 1972, but was certainly still common in 1989. These ones were at the side of the road not far from Fatehpur Sikri, on my way to Agra.

In Agra itself, I visited the Taj Mahal.

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There are plenty of people who will tell you that it is over-hyped, and that there are many greater buildings in the world. It is possible, also, that some of these people have actually been to Agra.

It may be that there are some buildings that are more impressive, but how can you measure such things?

My first sight of it, as I walked through the gateway, made me catch my breath and stop still. For a moment, I could not believe how lovely it was. I then spent a long time wandering around the site, and I still think it one of the most beautiful and magnificent buildings that I have ever seen. I watched the afternoon light fade and die, and the sun go down, and the building seemed to glow and shimmer and almost float before me.

I left when they threw us all out at dusk, knowing that I had just seen something very special.