Annapurna Circuit, Nepal – 5: A Life Less Lived?

It could have happened.

Everybody needs a challenge.

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Sunset on Everest and Nuptse from Tengboche, Nepal.

Well, most do. I guess there are a few people who are so content with their lot they have no wish to stray out of the round of their day to day life, but I think they must make up a tiny minority.

And while it is a great achievement to be satisfied with your life, and not to constantly want a more expensive car, or clothes or jewellery, we all need something to strive for, otherwise we tend to stagnate.

Even the most altruistic, who might strive to eradicate poverty, or bring justice where there is none, need a more personal challenge sometimes.

For some it might be speed – the need to have a go on a fast motor cycle or racing car somewhere. Maybe to try a bungee jump. To feel the adrenaline surge that comes with the mixture of excitement and fear.

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On Lake Dal, Srinagar, Kashmir, India.

For others it might be the very opposite. Many of us need the opportunity to spend time away from the 21st century. Those of us who do not like the noise and speed and intensity of our modern life, need to find respite in places like the mountains, or deserts, or somewhere else remote from modern life. Woodlands at night, perhaps, or a windswept beach on an island. The challenge is frequently to find these places or to access them. Perhaps even to make the time to do so.

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Monks on their way to morning Puja, Bodhgaya, India.

Those are the sort of places I need, and where I often feel I can do my best creative work. The only places I feel I can really relax.

And the reason I had to walk the Annapurna Circuit.

Just while putting together this set of posts, at times I have looked around the room at the photographs of the Annapurnas, the maps, then at my rucksack in the corner, and felt an almost irresistible urge to just…go.

This sense of adventure is frequently in conflict with the other strands of my life, though, because (like most people) my lack of money and the demands of work and family, and other commitments, prevent me just scooting off for a week or month away whenever I feel like it.

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A track through fields and woods a mile or so from where I live.

But I have always tried to take the opportunity to go off to these places when I could, as I reasoned that I couldn’t know how long I would still be able to.

What made me determined to do this was a missed opportunity when I was working temporarily in Peru. I knew that when I finished my six week stint and returned to UK, I might no longer have a job. So when I was offered the chance to stay on for a week to visit Cuzco and Machu Pichu with friends I declined, even though it would only have cost about a hundred dollars for the whole trip. And I regretted it ever afterwards.

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Little Adam’s Peak, Ella, Sri Lanka.

I have no intention of looking back on my life later and wishing I had done these things when I had the opportunity.

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Ladakh 3

 

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The Wheel of Life, Tibetan Buddhist wall painting, Thikse Gompa. The Wheel represents the cycle of being, the various realms of existence, and the three poisons (desire, ignorance and hatred).

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View of the Stok Mountains, Part of the Himalaya Range, above farms and poplars on the edge of Leh, Ladakh.

From my diary, Friday 15th April 2005:

Outside, my hosts are planting their potatoes, today. It’s been fascinating watching over the last week, as they’ve dug over the whole vegetable garden (about an acre), then divided it up into a total of about fifty smallish and four large plots, all neatly divided with earth walls, between which are carefully dug channels to the stream that runs along the side.

Then, over the last couple of days, half of the plots have had compost dug in and the channels opened one by one to flood each plot for a set time, then closed and the water allowed to soak into the earth.

The first of the large plots is now being planted with potatoes, presumably saved from last year’s crop, and some more digging is commencing at the far end of the garden, where so far there are no small plots.

I’ve just noticed what’s happening at the far end of the garden. It’s going to be one huge potato patch. Dad is digging, Mum is planting, whilst Granny is sorting the potatoes ready for planting. The little girl is happily employed in making mud-pies, like small children anywhere in the world under these circumstances!

 

The monastery at Thikse, Ladakh. Virtually the whole of the hill is covered in buildings belonging to the monastery, whilst the Gompa or temple crowns the top. Founded in the fifteenth century by monks of the Gelugpa, or ‘yellow hat’ school of Tibetan Buddhism, to which the Dalai Lamas belong.

Wednesday 13th April 2005:

12.45 and I’m sitting on a rock in hot sunshine at the foot of Thikse Gompa. The bus ride here was remarkable. Where else in India would you find that they don’t bother charging anyone for just going a couple of stops, or that they’d wait a few minutes whilst a passenger nipped off the bus to buy some bread? All along here, passed all this desert scenery, so similar to Oman. And so many fairy-tale castles and palaces and the like hanging precariously to the tops of cliffs. 

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Building at Thikse Gompa.

If it is so beautiful now, in winter, then what must it be like in the other seasons? I’d dearly love to come back to see! And after all the heat, dust and pollution in Delhi, well, need I say more? I’ve not even been asked once for baksheesh, either. 

Mandala painted onto roof of entrance to Shanti Stupa, Leh. The Shanti Stupa, or Japanese Peace Pagoda, is one of more than 70 built around the world by the Japanese Buddhist Nipponzan Myohoji Organisation, which was run by Fujii Guruji. They were built to promote world peace.

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The River Indus at Choglamsar . The Indus originates in Tibet, near Lake Mansarovar – a lake sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists – and after flowing through Northern Kashmir, including Ladakh, passes into, and flows the length of, Pakistan, to the Arabian Sea. So, ironically, the river that gave its name to the state of India, flows mainly through Pakistan.

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Trees on the edge of Leh. Trees are highly important to Ladakhis – they provide timber for building, fuel, food in the form of walnuts and apricots, and fodder for animals. In all of Ladakh, the only trees that grow are willow, poplar, walnut and apricot.

Visit to Kashmir

I fell in love with Kashmir.

It was 1989, and I had come to India to have a closer look. A year before, I had flown to Delhi and the same day taken the bus to Kathmandu to go trekking in Nepal.

This meant that I had a lot of hours sitting and watching Northern India go past the windows of the bus, and this had piqued my interest and convinced me I should go and have a proper look.

So I arrived and, a couple of days later, took the bus up to Srinagar, a journey of 24 hours. In those days, I never kept a travel journal, which is something I regret now. It makes it difficult to piece together the details and leaves me, at best, with impressions and, of course, a number of photographs.

The photos, though, were taken on a cheap camera, and I did not take many.

But I had a week in Srinagar and although I did not venture far afield from there, I loved what I saw of the valley with its gardens, Lake Dal with its confusion of meandering paths through fields and grass, naturally, the houseboats on the lake and also the shakiras, the sampan-like boats used by the fishermen and the traders on the lake.

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Shakira on Lake Dal

I found a houseboat when I arrived, managing to resist ending up in a hotel in town that was being pressed on me by a fellow on the bus. I seem to remember I found my houseboat by going to the lake, hiring a shakira and asking the boatman to take me to the first of a long line of moored houseboats, where I asked if there was a room. I think at the second or third I struck lucky.

I keep trying to remember the name of my houseboat.

Occasionally, during their waking day, a dreamer will catch a glimpse, a snapshot – no, not even that; perhaps no more than a hint, a flavour of a previous night’s dream. Something akin to catching a scent on the breeze that is gone before it is even realised that it was there. That is the best way I can describe the teasing hint I may get of the name of that boat. I think ‘Ah, yes, it began with ‘S’…no, wait, it didn’t, but there was definitely an ‘S’ in it somewhere. Perhaps…’ then it has gone.

But it was my own floating palace for a week. A marvel of beautifully carved wood, a magnificent bedroom and living room all to myself, and a fellow who lived on board (not the owner, I gathered) who cooked my meals. When I wasn’t ashore exploring, I sat on the deck and read.

I remember the Shalimar Gardens, and that there were at least one or two more; masses of flowers, large lawns, trees…I wandered around there with the high mountains towering above us.

And, there was the beginning of the agitation. At that point, I knew next to nothing of India’s history or politics, and although I could detect the tensions, I was unaware of what they comprised. Once or twice, there were isolated gunshots in the distance, especially at night. ‘Bandits’, said my fellow on board, rather too casually. I came across a mass demonstration outside a mosque in town, with either the police or the army, I’ve no idea which, a very heavy presence. There was a lot of shouting, and the atmosphere was hostile enough for me to make myself scarce fairly quickly.

But I personally encountered nothing but politeness and good humour, and other than the underlying tensions, despite getting ripped off now and again in shops (it was Kashmir, and I was a tourist!), I felt comfortable and happy there. When I left the valley to return to Delhi and thence further afield, it was with the thought I would return again one day.

Regrettably, though, each time I have returned, it has not been considered a safe destination.

Perhaps, though…perhaps…one day…

The Kashmir Issue

I posted a little while back that I had prepared a rather contentious post.

This is it.

Of course, I realise I risk being shot down in flames over this post. An Englishman blogging on what he thinks might be the solution to an incredibly difficult problem in the Sub-continent. So I will put on my tin hat, duck behind the sandbags, and press ‘Publish’.

As always, I welcome your comments. In fact, it is probably pointless my posting this unless there is a conversation. But, please, keep it polite.

Obviously, I am not the only person to have thought of this idea. Indeed, I read about it a long time ago, when these various options were being discussed to the backdrop of bombs and bullets.

Plus ca change.

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I fear there is only one solution that is practical in the long term, but I strongly doubt that the governments of India or Pakistan would have the courage to implement it. For the whole of Kashmir to remain in Indian hands will mean a continuation of the devastating armed conflict in progress at present, with no prospect of it ever ending, plus the ever-present prospect of it escalating into something much more serious. But for it to pass entirely into Pakistani hands would be considered out of the question by the huge majority of the Indian population, and certainly by the whole of the political class.

No, the only prospect of peace that I see is for the state of Kashmir to be partitioned in much the same way as India herself was in 1947. The areas of Muslim majority such as the Vale of Kashmir would need to be ceded to Pakistan, and the remaining ones would remain part of India. Pakistan and the insurgents would need to agree to give up all claims to these areas. This would need to be achieved by negotiation in good faith with goodwill on both sides, both conscious of the risks and the monumental steps they are taking to finally establish permanent peace, and to restore prosperity to a troubled part of the sub-continent. And upon resolution, all parties would need to declare very publicly that this was a solution agreeable to all, and give it their blessing.

It is not as though there is no precedent to that arrangement. After all, both the Punjab and Bengal were divided this way at independence, and although it was strongly resented by some, it was also generally viewed as the only practical solution. And it is what should have happened to Kashmir, then.

If the difficulties in the way of this solution are huge, then so too are the incentives for success. It goes without saying that the loss of life and the devastation caused by the troubles are highly undesirable in the first place, and then there is the massive drain in resources to both sides by keeping huge forces established on either side of the border. With the prospect of peace, then agriculture, industry and tourism could return to normal with major benefits for everyone involved. Lastly, with the removal of the ‘Kashmir Issue’ as a friction between them, it is possible that both sides might finally come to the sort of mutual respect, collaboration, and friendship envisioned back in 1947. Even if the attempt were to end in failure, then the goodwill generated by the attempt could be a positive that might spill over into other areas of India / Pakistan relations.

The alternative solution, sometimes mooted, of an independent Kashmir under UN jurisdiction, appears an unworkable ideal. The state itself is too divided for this to work, and both Indian and Pakistani players would still covert the whole country. It is unlikely that conflict would cease under these conditions; it would be more likely to simply escalate. The small state would forever be reliant on the UN for security, leading to a constant financial drain on the organisation. The peacekeepers, too, would inevitably become military targets raising the risk of  new frictions arising.

I believe that the option of doing nothing is one that must be finally put aside. At present the situation is one where a resented and hated military presence governs within its own borders through fear and the threat of violence, That is not a situation that is likely to ever change to trust. The population are never going to learn to love their rulers that way. The only option in that situation is the eternal continuation of the status quo.

But it lies within the power of the regional players to solve this crisis once and for all, and it is essential that the attempt is made.

Himalayan Foothills

I am going offline for a few days, since I need a bit of a break, so I will leave you with a selection of photographs from the Himalayan Foothills, Northern India. When I log on again in a few days, I’ll catch up with everyone’s blogs and comments.

By ‘Foothills’ I mean the ranges of hills and smaller mountains that guard the approach to the Himalaya proper, where the big beasties rise up to heights of over 8000m with permanent ice and snow cover. The old Raj hill stations such as Nainital and Darjeeling were built at heights of around 2000m – high by UK standards, but certainly not by Himalayan ones.

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Naini Tal, Nainital Town, Northern India. Morning Light. Nainital lake, (‘naina’ is Sanskrit for eye and ‘tal’ means lake) in Hindu mythology, is one of the emerald green eyes of Sati, Shiva’s wife. This was my first view of it after getting off of the overnight bus from Delhi.

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Gadhar Kunkyop Ling Gompa, Nainital. Unlike many other Himalayan towns, Nainital has no sizeable Tibetan population, and this Monastery, perched high to the North East, overlooking the lake, is the only one in Nainital and home to just seven monks.

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Morning mist, Nainital.

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A sea of prayer flags on Observatory Hill, Darjeeling. Darjeeling, unlike Nainital, has a large Tibetan population and many Gompas both in the town and the surrounding hills. Observatory Hill is the site of the original temple of Dorje Ling, long destroyed, but after which the town was named, once the British had persuaded the then ruler of the area, the Chogyal of Sikkim, to lease them the land to build a hill station. The hill is now home to a Hindu shrine, with the British built church of Saint Andrew close-by.

But no Gompa.

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The ‘Toy Train’ stopped outside Samten Choling Gompa at Ghoom, near Darjeeling. This train runs for 51 miles from Siliguri to Darjeeling, rising a total of just over 7000 ft. It has numerous steep gradients and sharp curves, including the famous one at ‘Agony Point’ – originally the loop there was a diameter of only 59.5 ft and the train literally overhung the mountainside as it rounded the curve. All in all, quite a remarkable engineering feat and deservedly a World Heritage site.

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Druk Sangak Gompa, a large Buddhist monastery on the edge of Darjeeling, West Bengal. A fairly new gompa, it was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1992.

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Not Chelmsford, UK, but Darjeeling, West Bengal). Many of the old British hill stations, such as Darjeeling, still retain much of their colonial character.

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A clash of cultures! And what a clash. East meets west, with brass band in the park meeting the Indian Himalaya, courtesy of the Darjeeling Police Band. The band played in a bandstand on the Chowrasta, the open square at the top of Darjeeling, close to Observatory Hill. In the days of the Raj, this would, no doubt, have been familiar to all who lived there. Close your eyes and think of England…

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Tea pickers, Darjeeling. Think of Darjeeling, think of tea. In the hills surrounding Darjeeling are numerous tea estates, where the job of tea picking, sorting, drying and packing goes on much as it has done for the last 150 years.

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Buddhist painting on rock wall, by open air shrine, Darjeeling. As well as the larger gompas, you come across small shrines and gompas unexpectedly around odd corners everywhere.

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Prayer Lags in Yumthang Valley, Northern Sikkim. This is as far north in Sikkim that you are allowed to travel, just a few miles south and west of Tibet. Everybody is still very touchy about borders.

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Crossing a bridge in the Yumthang valley. It should be safe, considering the number of prayer flags!

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Unnamed 6000m peaks overlooking the Yumthang Valley. We asked our guide the names of these peaks, only to be disparagingly told ‘They don’t have names. They’re less than 6000m tall.

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And more prayer flags…

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Young monks on a hillside, Phodong Gompa, Sikkim.

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Monastery wall painting, Lachung Gompa, Northern Sikkim. Lachung Gompa is about 2km above Lachung village, at a height of about 3000m. It is not a ‘working’ gompa, the monks living down in the village rather than at the gompa, so it is generally kept locked and only used on festivals and full moon days.

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Monastery door, Tharpa Choling Gompa, Kalimpong, W.B. Kalimpong, not far from Darjeeling, but 1000 metres lower, has also a large Tibetan population.

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Statue of Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara), Durpin Gompa, Kalimpong, West Bengal. Chenrezig (Tibetan) or Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva (a being who has partly or completely attained the state of enlightenment) of compassion. The well-known mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ is dedicated to him.

Kalimpong market:

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I watched this gentleman for some time before I approached and asked for a photo. he was rapidly serving a succession of customers at great speed, making up little paper screws of spices and powders at a tremendous rate…

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…whereas this gentleman served his customers at a more leisurely pace, as if he had all the time in the world.

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This gentleman was delighted to be photographed with his fine collection of Kukris. As I prepared to take the photo, he picked up a kukri and brandished it with a none too convincing snarl, to the obvious amusement of most of the people around him.

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This stall-holder seemed to find it hilarious that I should want to photograph her.

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This lady, on the other hand, was delighted to be photographed; volunteering eagerly when a lady on a nearby stall refused.

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The Katherine Graham Memorial Chapel, in the grounds of the Dr Graham School and home, Kalimpong. Built in 1925, it looks to have materialised straight out of the Scottish Highlands. Dr Graham was a Scottish missionary, and built the home and school originally to educate the children of local tea estate workers. It now has a far broader intake.

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Lake Dal, Srinagar, Kashmir. Unfortunately, it is still probably unwise to visit most of Kashmir, and things will probably remain this way for some considerable time to come. A pity, because this really is a most beautiful part of India and Pakistan. I took these photos in 1989, a very short while before the area became off-limits to tourists.

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Panorama – Lake Dal, Srinagar, Kashmir). In the distance is the Hazratbal Mosque, a comparatively modern mosque, enshrining a hair of the prophet.

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Hindu shrine. Near the shore of Lake Dal in Kashmir.

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Houseboats around the shore of Lake Dal, Shrinagar, Kashmir. In the nineteenth century, the British, who first developed Srinagar as a hill station to get away from the stifling heat of the Indian Plains in the summer, found that the then Maharajah refused to sell them land to build houses. The solution? They built boats to live on…great, elaborate, ornate carved and decorated houseboats. These same boats, with many more recent editions, now function as floating hotels to tourists. The majority are moored not on the actual shore, but a little way off, often on the edge of small islands. This gives the local shakira (a type of small boat unique to Lake Dal) owners a chance to clean up, as a taxi service.

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Shakira moored on Lake Dal.

India – My First Time (2)

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.

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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.