Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Vaishno Devi (Katra)

What better way to end our 10 day sojourn to Jammu & Kashmir than with a visit to the Vaishno Devi temple in Katra? Trekking Vaishno Devi, in 1 day, is a serious physical challenge. And for many, including me, it was a highly spiritual experience as well.

Though there were many ways to reach Vaishno Devi (helicopter, pony, Doli - a contraption by which a person is carried by 4 - 6 people, walking, etc.), I was determined to trek. My knee had healed well enough to allow me to do this (you might recall that I tore my meniscus in July). My uncle and aunt preferred the helicopter option, like most of the senior tourists in our group, though they often considered joining the masses and walking. Unfortunately, though, neither were in the physical shape needed to do the arduous trek.

There was also a lot of confusion over which tourists would get the helicopter tickets. First Kesari tours said that everyone who requested a helicopter ride would get it, but later they said that there weren't enough tickets. For many people on the tour, Vaishno Devi was the only reason they came on the trip. And the elderly were seriously concerned that without the helicopter they would miss Vaishno Devi. Fortunately, everyone ultimately got to see Vaishno Devi. Though Kesari could have handled this better, I also think the trip participants complained too much when there were already numerous ways to reach the temple if not by helicopter.

There are 2 routes to Vaishno Devi - the 12.5 km 'short cut' and the 14 km longer route. But in either case, the first 7 km are the same. This is the steepest part of the trek but it is also the most interesting part because there are numerous shops on either side of the path. After these 7 km, you have the option of taking the short cut or you the longer route. Whichever route you take, the festivities die down and the trek becomes more solitary. Gone are the shops and pilgrims are now tired enough that the path becomes quieter. Once you reach the Bhavan or home of Vaishno Devi, you have to leave your personal belongings (i.e. wallet, cell phone, etc.) in a locker. Then you pass through several security checkpoints before reaching the Bhavan. Afterwards, you can head back down or you can continue a few kilometers higher to the Bairo Nath temple. After worshipping there, you can head down to the base, a distance of about 12-13 km.

I started hiking along with the Kesari group at 11:15pm. We started at night so that we could reach the temple early in the morning and avoid lines. Shortly after we started our group spread out and I found myself far ahead of the group with the tour guide and one other tourist. Along the strenuous walk we heard pilgrims chanting praises of the goddess: "Pyar se bolo! Jai Mata Di! - Dil se bolo! Jai Mata Di! - Sare bolo! Jai Mata Di!..." (Say it with love! Praise the Goddess! Say it from your heart! Praise the Goddess! Everyone say it! Praise the Goddess!) These chants kept even the most tired pilgrims marching onwards towards the goal and were a lot of fun. I was amazed at one girl who kept this up for at least 20 minutes during the steepest part of the climb. Also, not everyone, especially the elderly trekkers, could do the trek in 1 day. Along the way we saw people sleeping on benches or in camps with free blankets provided by the management company of Vaishno Devi.

At 2:30am, I reached the temple. As expected there was no line and we were able to go inside to see the deities. Seeing the deities was anticlimactic for me because I didn't see the resemblance of the rocks to the deities. Afterwards, I separated from my companions and took a pony 3km higher to reach the second temple of Bhairo Nath. When I finished visiting this temple it was about 3:30am and I was exhausted. It was now time to go down but I didn't know the way. Was I supposed to go back the way I came or try a new route?

Luckily, another pilgrim saw my confusion and asked two guys around my age to escort me down. One was from UP and the other was a local from Jammu - unfortunately I don't remember either of their names. They spoke a little English so I tried my best to communicate in Hindi. But as the trek went on and we got more tired, my Hindi deteriorated as their English deteriorated. The local had trekked Vaishno Devi more than 20 times and went whenever he felt "a calling" to go. During the first hour of the descent there was a power outage so we had to rely on each other to navigate the steps. I saw a lot of interesting things on the trek but one of the sadder things I saw was 3 homeless kids sleeping under a blanket (we almost stepped on them) in the middle of the path in the hopes of getting a few rupees. No doubt that sleeping on the road was not their idea but they were probably forced to do this by their beggars guild.

The journey down was much tougher than the journey up because of the pressure on our knees. Our Jammu companion developed some possibly serious knee troubles though we all had very sore knees. About halfway down, I stopped to get a soda and some cookies. This gave me a burst of energy - because I hadn't had anything to eat for hours my pace had slowed to a crawl.

Shortly after dawn broke, weary but happy, we found ourselves at the base of the mountain. I was planning to bid goodbye to my friends and head back to the hotel. But our Jammu friend insisted that we first have langar (free food for pilgrims). The langar consisted of tea and hard pooris. I was initially apprehensive about taking the langar (was it hygienic?) but I was convinced by my Jammu friend to partake. I was glad I did because the food was actually quite good. The tea came out of a huge bowl and it was a sight to see the tea being served to a crowd of 50 people. Apparently langar happens almost 24 hours a day at Vaishno Devi and the tea is provided free by an Indian tea company.

The langar was an overwhelming experience for me. There we were, tired and dirty from the trek, having langar with people from all walks of life, even the very poor. At langar, everyone was equal - and equally hungry. It was rare to see this kind of equality in India.

Then it was finally time to say good bye to my friends and head home. We bid an emotional goodbye to one another. They remarked that it was only by the grace of the Vaishno Devi that they were able to meet me, a true Indian-American - I guessed that they haven't met many of my kind before. I also expressed my gratitude to them - for guiding me down safely and for showing me Vaishno Devi's great langar. As a last act of kindness, they negotiated a good rate for me to go back to the hotel by auto.

When I arrived at the hotel, I was congratulated by the tour guide and hotel receptionists for being the first from the group to arrive. First to arrive!? It was already 8am! I thanked them and went to sleep. I woke up a few hours later to let my uncle and aunt into the room (they had just arrived from their helicopter ride) and we rested for most of the day.

Vaishno Devi was a special experience for me. Seeing the 3 rock-deities was not a religious or moving experience for me. No, this trek was a special experience because of all the people I met, from all walks of life. That is why walking was so essential for me - I could not have met these people in the helicopter. I will always remember the faces of the poor elderly as they defiantly climbed upwards, sleeping on benches as needed or the poor mothers who walked in cheap slippers while holding babies. With that kind of determination, anyone can reach Vaishno Devi, even if he / she lacks the money for a helicopter, doli, or pony! Jai Mata Di!

P.S. All of my Kashmir trip pictures can be found here:




Sunday, November 23, 2008


Undoubtedly the best part of our Kashmir trip was our 2 days in Pahalgam. Pahalgam can be reached via a picturesque, 3-4 hour drive east from Srinagar on tree-lined highways with saffron fields on both sides of the road. Along the way to Pahalgam, we stopped at the Avantipur ruins, home of a former Vishnu temple. The temple was mostly destroyed in an earthquake yet it is still impressive and is a strong reminder of Kashmir's Hindu past.

When we reached our Hotel Mount View, we were stunned by the view of the valley. The Lidder river was almost dry, but the mountains surrounding the valley were breathtaking. In the afternoon I took an amazing 3 hour horse ride through Pahalgam. Incidentally, my grandmother did the same horseback ride in 1940. Now, I'm the second person in my family to visit Pahalgam and do the horseback ride. Cool!

I had an excellent 'godi wallah' (a.k.a. pony man) to lead me through the ride. When I wanted to go fast, he ran beside the pony to get it to go faster. When the terrain become treacherous, he guided the pony so that I never fell (one person in the group did fall on the horse ride and she did sustain minor injuries). Unfortunately he couldn't speak any Hindi (only Kashmiri), but that was a small price to pay for great service.
The views along the ride were incredible. We came upon a beautiful clearing known as 'Little Switzerland'. Halfway through the journey we reached a point where we could see the entire Kashmir valley. We stared right at the Lidder River as it snaked through mountains to Srinagar. This is the true beauty of Kashmir, I felt. The remainder of the journey took me through a small village which afforded me the chance to see more poor villagers going through the hard routines of daily life.
After Pahalgam we left for Katra in Jammu and passed by a cricket bat factory along the way. But that is for the next blog.
Final thoughts on Kashmir:
  1. Kashmir is safe for tourists. When I was in Pahalgam, I chatted with 3 members of the J&K police. They said that the Kashmir is many times safer than it was 5 years ago. Militancy in the valley has largely declined, thanks to the efforts of the J&K police, the army, and the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force). We didn't face a single dangerous moment in our time in Kashmir. Yes, from 1989 till about 2002, Kashmir was unsafe (for Hindus more than anyone else). But for all the time before that and for the last 5-6 years, it has been safe.
  2. Still, be prepared for annoyances. The next tour group after ours had a much less enjoyable trip because of election-related protests in Srinagar and surrounding areas. Also, there is an abundance (read too much) military in the state and thus too many checkpoints. The locals are weary of the military presence and I don't blame them. Despite the large improvements in safety, everyone is wary of everyone else. Nowadays, the violent terrorist militancy has been replaced by a largely peaceful ''Azadi'' (freedom) movement which stems from the people. This movement ebbs and flows - it picked up in 2008 with the Amarnath controversy and picked up again around election time. At these times it's best not to go to Kashmir.
  3. The scenery is beautiful but it's not what makes Kashmir unique. I have seen just as good scenery, if not better, in California, Vermont, Switzerland, New Zealand, etc. What does make Kashmir unique is the people, culture, and political situation. All of this provides Kashmir with a mystique that none of the afore mentioned places have (though those places do have their own auras). However, Kashmir can be an excellent and affordable destination for you if you live in India. For instance, I paid only 450 Rs (about $10) for my 3-hour horseback ride. This could have easily been 5-10x more expensive in the Western world.
  4. The best months to go to Kashmir are June-September. If you can visit Kargil and Leh during your trip, then even better. You will enjoy Kashmir more if you are in good physical shape because of the horseback rides, treks, and high altitudes.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Srinagar & Gulmarg

On our first day in Srinagar, we visited the Mughal gardens: Shalimar Bagh, Nisha Bagh, and Nashim Bagh. While peaceful and serene, the gardens were not in bloom in early November and thus not in their full splendor. The rest of the day was spent shopping at shawl emporiums and similar stores. I bought quite a few shawls. For those of you who like shawls, I suggest you buy them in Kashmir (situation permitting): the shawl prices in Srinagar are 30-40% less than in major cities in India.

On our second day, we travelled 4 hours west to Gulmarg, "Meadow of Flowers" and Kashmir's most famous hill station. Gulmarg has 2 gondolas which take tourists up the main mountain in the village. The gondolas are unfortunately not well maintained and we abruptly stopped several times while using them (not a pleasant feeling). Secondly, we had to contend with a lot of pushing and shoving just to get into the Gondola. Ah, poor infrastructure and a lack of civility exhibited by tourists, two problems common throughout India, also plaugue Gulmarg.

In any case, the first gondola takes passengers up to 2,600 m. The second gondola takes passengers from this point to Afarwat Peak at 4,200 m. At 4,200 m, it is difficult to breathe and a bit cold. There was a little snow / ice on the mountain: nothing extraordinary, but it gave many of the Indian tourists their first glimpse of snow. Kashmiri ''guides'' were offering cheap sleigh rides but I passed on this because there wasn't enough snow for it to be fun. One Kashmiri guide offered to take me to the top of the mountain from where I would be able to see the Line of Control. But Aathish, our tour guide, thought that this was a scam and that you couldn't see the LOC from the top of the mountain - if so, he said, everyone would have gone there. So I too declined. But now I regret my decision because it probably would have been possible to at least see a bit of the LOC. I might not have seen any fences or army patrols, but the guide might have said something like, "You see that mountain way over there? Yes? Well, that's in PoK." To which I would have said, "Ahh. Ok, let's go down - it's too cold and it's too hard to breathe up here!"

My aunt and I were discussing the infrastructure issues with Gulmarg and what could be done about them. Gulmarg is in a beautiful place and has a lot of potential. We thought that if the gondola and ski resort were privatized (say by the Ambani group) it could really be turned into a tourist paradise. They could offer great services and charge high prices, thus enabling them to offer even better services. But then we felt that Kashmiris would never allow a large private enterprise like this to come into their state. In fact in Srinagar we didn't see any of the big chain stores that you see in the rest of India - clearly they are being kept out. Kashmiri cities are 10 years behind other cities in India. Fortunately, with the abatement of the militancy in Gulmarg, the city has a chance to improve its infrastructure.

We spent the remainder of our time in Srinagar sight seeing and shopping. We took a boat ride on Dal Lake and visited Dal Lake's floating market. We also visited the Shankaracharya temple, which, because of its location on a high hill, affords a great view of Srinagar. The temple was peaceful and well worth the numerous, steep steps that visitors need to climb in order to reach it. We faced no trouble with the authorities and the weather was nice, though cold in the mornings and night.

The hotel manager at our second Srinagar hotel, Hotel New Park, explained to me that the way Kesari Tours was showing us Kashmir was only one way of seeing Kashmir (and probably not the best way). Indian tourists, he explained, generally focus on pleasures and shopping in Kashmir. Western tourists, however, usually focus on off-the-beaten path adventures. For example, while we took SUVs to the base of the Shankaracharya temple and climbed the steps from there, Western tourists would have hiked the entire distance that the SUVs covered and then climbed the steps. The manager was once a part of the Indian Mountaineering society and also leads several day treks from Srinagar along rivers and lakes into the Kashmiri wilderness.

Where can I sign up?! I told him that my mindset and interests were much more similar to that of the Western tourist and that I wanted outdoor adventures. If / when I come back to Kashmir, it will be an outdoors-focused trip. That is where the real Kashmir is, I think.

Monday, November 17, 2008

NH1-A to Srinagar

There are 2 ways to get to Srinagar from 'India'. You can fly into Srinagar or you can drive up the NH1-A from Jammu. We did the 2nd. 

I think it's true what they say: the NH1-A is more dangerous than any terrorist operating in Kashmir. Jammu to Srinagar on the NH1-A is only 259 km but because of the treacherous roads, the journey took us 12 hours. About 75% of all the vehicles on this road are either buses, military vehicles, or commercial trucks. The rest are normal passenger cars. 

The journey is slow for several reasons: one-lane road with 2-way traffic, the abundance of oversized vehicles, windy mountainous roads, and numerous military checkpoints. Most of the checkpoints passed us through without any problems. That was one of the biggest advantages of traveling with Kesari tours: the military knows the tourist group and typically doesn't hassle them. The tourists passed the time by singing antakshari (a singing game in which you start a new song based upon the last letter of the last song) but since I don't know Hindi or Marati songs, I went up to the front of the bus and hung out with the bus driver and conductor. 

Had the scenery been stunning as I had heard it to be, I wouldn't have minded all the hassles of traveling up this highway. But unfortunately, it wasn't. The mountains were barren and the Jhelum river was almost dry. November is not the ideal season for Kashmir, though we did get our fair share of beauty in Phelgaum. 

At 8pm, we arrived in Srinagar. It was eerie: cold and deserted. Everything closes early in Kashmir we were told. Still, closed shops at 8pm are not common in India, and Indians are not used to such quiet. For me, however, the stillness of Srinagar was a welcome change to the chaos of Delhi / Gurgaon. 

We arrived in our houseboats on Dal lake shortly after coming into the city. There is no central heating in the house boats and it was about 5 C outside, so we went to bed with all of our warm clothes on. We also got the houseboat caretaker to light the fireplace in our room. Tired after a long journey, we went to sleep, eager to see what Dal Lake and Srinagar looked like in the daytime. 

Monday, November 10, 2008

White Tiger

I recently read White Tiger which won the 2008 Man Booker prize. I thought the book was great but some Indians in India are upset because the book shows India in a bad light. Here is my response:

If there are 'inaccuracies' in the book, I'd like to see this reviewer point them out. Because to me, the book was spot on and very good.

And I don't think this book just plays to the 'western' audience, in the end Adiga says that 'the white man is finished. the world will belong to the brown and yellow people (aka indians and chinese).' If anything it plays to the Chinese audience as China is praised numerous times. The book also displays the niavete of NRIs and Indian Americans / Westerners who are too slow to match wits with sharp, battle-tested Indians.

Everything the book says about the servant and master class, corruption, bribery, etc. is accurate according to what I've seen. Yes, the book highlights the negative aspects of India and not the positive aspects - but that is intentional. Why does it need to highilght the positive aspects? There are tons of other books that already do that. This is not supposed to be a 'fair critique' of Indian life, it's a fictional story told through the eyes of a servant and it reflects the servant's opinions.

As an Indian-American who loves America, I would have no problem if a book came out that was highly critical of the US - as long as the book was accurate. My feelings won't be hurt. In fact, I am more critical about America than most people I know. And I wouldn't ask for the book to show both 'positives and negatives' - that's not the point of fiction; that's the point of non-fiction. And this book is fiction.

White Tiger is well-deserving of the Booker prize and a great read.