Monday, 14 September 2020

Introduction to Moody's Black Notebook Travels


I have two great regrets in my life.  One is eating a chicken sandwich in Varanasi, shortly before flying to Kathmandu.  This gave me the worst food poisoning I have ever experienced, nearly killed me, and meant that I missed a unique opportunity to visit Lhasa before it was turned into a Chinese Disneyland.  The other regret involves three Inter-rail trips that I made in 1979, 1980 and 1981.  They were extraordinarily rich in sights and experiences.  Stupidly, though, I did not keep a travel diary at that time, so all I have are vague, if important, memories of what I saw, thought and felt.

At least I was able to learn from these two huge blunders.  Afterwards, I no longer ate chicken sandwiches in exotic lands, and I kept travel diaries for all my major trips.  The latter took the form of black notebooks, bought from Ryman's, in two formats: one small enough to fit in a pocket, and another, slightly larger, that I kept in the travel bag I used for longer journeys. 

I now have dozens of these notebooks sitting behind me, filled with my illegible scrawl.  I have been meaning to turn them into digital texts for some years, and to bring them into the 21st century, but have never got around to it until now.  I am not transcribing them in any set order, but will place links to them below, as they go online, ordered chronologically.  There is no overall plan, no overall significance.  They are just what they are: quick thoughts jotted down in black notebooks, captured moments of a specific time and place.


1986 India I: Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri
1986 India II: Kashmir
1986 India III: Jaipur, Udaipur
1987 Italy
1988 Venice
1988 Hong Kong, Bali
1988 India: Delhi, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Varanasi
1988 Nepal: Kathmandu, Pokhara
1989 US, New Zealand, Fiji
1990 Egypt I: Cairo, Saqqarah, Giza
1990 Egypt II: Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel
1990 Egypt III: Asyut, Kharga, El Amarna
1990 Egypt IV: Alexandria, Wadi El Natrun, Suez
1992 Indonesia I: Lombok, Bali
1992 Indonesia II: Yogyakarta, Solo, Jakarta
1993 Mexico
1993 Istanbul
1993 Morocco
1994 Sri Lanka
1994 the Danube: Neuburg, Vienna, Budapest
1994 France
1994 Trieste, Ljubljana 
1995 Siena, Bagno Vignoni, Pienza
1995 Stockholm
1996 Torino
1996 Lithuania
1996 Ithaca
1996 Vienna, Venice
1996 Helsinki, Tallinn
1997 Seattle
1999 Weimar, Venice
2014 Riga 
2015 Tbilisi
2017 Bucharest
2017 Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hong Kong
2017 Georgia
2018 Tirana
2018 Armenia
2019 Reykjavik
2019 Moldova
2019 Uzbekistan
2020 Scotland

2020 Scotland

8.9.20 Uig

On the ferry, waiting to sail to Tarbert.  Bright day, odd patches of blue.  Yesterday, rainy, as we drove across from Inverness past Loch Ness, then along the A87 through what was impressive if misty scenery, down to Kyle of Lochalsh.  Flew in to Inverness Sunday – easy travel, ironically.  Few people at Gatwick, plane not too full.  Flight short, but then a two-hour wait to pick up our rental car – lots of people hiring cars, so we had to wait for returns.  Madness.

Back in to Inverness, where we last came four years ago.  Small but pleasant city.  We stay in a fairly luxurious apartment, almost with a view of the river.  A good place to relax before beginning our journey to the West.  Drove across "new" Skye bridge – last time I came, 30 odd years ago, I took the short ferry across.  Bridge fairly unexceptionable.  Certainly easy.  Then drove up to Sligachan Hotel for lunch in Seamus' Bar.  I think I may have stayed here all those years ago.   Raining, so not worth walking anywhere.  Up past Portree to our B&B near Uig.   After large lunch, didn't fancy trek down to Portree for dinner, so had supper of nuts, figs and digestives.  Rather good.

Slept well, then to here early to fill up car at nearby petrol station: not many options on Lewis, so best to start with a full tank.  Quite a big ship, 50-60 cars, lorries.  Reasonable price – only £40 for car and two passengers.

Now in Aird Uig, one of the most isolated and extreme points of Scotland/UK/Europe.  From our room in Seacroft B&B we can see the Atlantic.  Straight ahead of us lies thousands of kilometres of nothing.  We arrived in Harris, in Tarbert.  I love ferries, the sense of voyaging out and beyond.  We looked in Tarbert for somewhere to eat.  The only café there is closed, so we buy ham, cheese and bananas at the local store.  Another weird but satisfying meal.  Then out west, along the southern side of Lewis.  The road narrows to a single track, but with multiple passing places.

Stunning views as the road twists and rises and falls.  We head towards a castle, but never get there: the going too slow, and we are heading in the wrong direction for our lodging.  So back to the (only) main road that runs up to the island's capital, Stornoway.  Landscape magnificent, weather holding up, and barely a vehicle on the road except us.  Reminds me strongly of the Lake District, but much grander, and unspoilt.  I doubt I will go to the Lake District again.  

We pass an amazing double sea loch, with a high mountain between – Seaforth Island, I see from the map.  I'm struck as so often by the chasm between the flat, easy, almost featureless topography of maps and the powerful reality packed with geographical incident that they so feebly represent.

The landscape flattens and we turn off left into the heart of Lewis.  Very boggy here, then more rocky outcrops – and no human habitations.  As we approach Uig, we travel down a high-walled valley: reminds me of Darial Gorge.  Indeed, generally the landscape reminds me of Georgia: majestic, barely touched by humans.  Then to Aird Uig, a few houses at the end of the road/world.  As we are early, we go down to the beach.  The huge pebbles are like rounded rocks – hard to walk on.  It's Cornwall without the sand.  The Atlantic brooding magnificently.

Our rooms spacious, the food high quality, if pricey.  Impressively fast Internet provided wirelessly.A good place to use as base for exploration of this fascinating location.  Although I've known of the Outer Hebrides for 50 years, I never thought to visit them – perhaps they seemed too hard to get to.  In fact, the ferries make it relatively easy.

9.9.20 Aird Uig

A day full of sea, rain and wind – which probably counts as a glorious day up here.  First, out to Ardroil beach/Uig sands - where the famous Lewis chessmen were found.  Huge – makes Polzeath look tiddly.  And that's with the tide in.  There were just four of us on the beach – I wonder how full it is during summer high season.  The car park nearby is reasonably large, suggesting quite a few come, but this beach could never be busy.  On one side, a curious collection of large and small rocks – looked very Martian, reds everywhere, plus a few black boulders.  Back across the swaying grasses to the car, a very characteristic machair landscape.  

Then through the amazing Glen Valtos once more, to Valtos itself, taking the scenic road clockwise around the headland.  To Reef beach – very white and weird, with millions of larger shells indicative of the billions of shell fragments that make up the beach: no sand here.  Must be painful to walk on with bare feet.  A few others on the beach, mostly with dogs.  The view across Loch Rog very fine – better than Ardroil beach, which is bigger but the surroundings less impressive.  

To Uig community shop to buy odds and ends for lunch (huge Scottish breakfast meant that more was unnecessary), then out again along Glen Valtos, and down past the long finger of Loch Rog, up to Callanish to see the (main) stone circle.  Different from Stonehenge, but impressive in its own way.  The sharp standing stones all very different – each one a character.  And the extended cruciform nature of the site is intriguing.  What amazed me most was that there are several hundred such circles in Scotland, which is an astonishing thought.  Also, why go to the trouble of building out here on Lewis, the end of the world?  What possessed people thousands of years ago to put so much effort into an endeavour so far from everything?

Back in Aird Uig, we walk up to the headland, past dozens of army digs, many converted into private houses.  Once, there was an RAF radar station up here, and as well as the accommodation, there are also the foundations of other structures connected with the base.  Most weird is a squat green building, derelict, with tiny crenellations along the top of its sides, like some futuristic Knossos.

10.9.20 Port Ness

Sitting in the The Breakwater café, one of the few places open this end of the island, which is bleak, bleak, bleak.  Earlier, drove along "our" road, along the glen, past the stone circles to the broch at Dun Carloway.  Under repair, but an impressive structure nonetheless.  Then on to the blackhouse village at Garenin.  Closed, but we could still walk around it.  Thick thatch held down by rocks tied together, low, squat buildings.  Looked cosy, if rather smokey thanks to the peat fires that burned constantly inside them.  After that, to the big standing stone at Clach an Trushal – 6 metres of rock, vertical.  In the middle of nowhere.  Must have been an effort getting it here.  

A long, desperate drive to here, trying to find something – anything – that would serve us food.  This café has a fantastic location, overlooking the harbour and beach.  Light, and popular by the looks of it.  Afterwards, a quick glance at the port – not a picturesque one, but a rather ugly working one.  Huge concrete walls protecting it from the even higher Atlantic waves.

To the medieval St Moluag's Church, but built on something much older, pagan.  Again: that question – why here?  The church closed, but a bare interior visible through a window.  The external sight is enough: simple but powerful.

Along the road to the Butt of Lewis and its fine lighthouse, unusual in its dark red brickwork.  A charming white-painted house alongside, presumably for the keeper.  Whereas the landscape on the way here was flat, dour and dreary, the cliffs by the lighthouse are splendid – very like Land's End, but a darker-hued rock, with many fragments in the sea, forming a maze of shapes, with the sea surging among them - arguably even more powerful than Cornwall.

11.9.20 Stornoway

The big city, bright lights.  Well, not really.  A couple of streets of shops, a crazy gothic church with a monstrous tower, the place dominated by two ports – the small fishing one, and the larger one for the ferry – why we are here. Weather very blowy – intermittent sun and rain.  Bracing.

Lunch in the cheap and cheerful The Tearoom by the main harbour (and car park).  Pretty minimalist, but ridiculously hard to get in: we had to come back, and even then, were squeezed in on the table of someone coming later on.  Afterwards, to the ferry terminal.  Turns out our ship is much bigger than the one here – far more traffic crossing to Ullapool.  Very smooth journey, even thought the wind was fierce on the streets.  Some dolphins were visible as we drew nearer the mainland.  Scottish highlands emerged from the mists, sun shining intermittently.  Downpours promised for tomorrow…  Then straight out of Ullapool to our hotel, the Dundonell.  

Down Loch Broom, up the hill to Little Loch Broom – strikingly beautiful and unspoilt.  Lots of forestry plantations here, many cut down, looking like the ugly deforestation in Brazil, but without the tropical heat.  Hotel old-fashioned but quaint.  To reach our room, we ascend a long, straight staircase to the third floor – like one of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, but in reverse.  It turns out the higher rooms are built along the hillside – interesting.  Everything rather faded – no mixer taps, water brown from the mountain source.  But atmospheric.  And remember: as for houses, the three most important things for hotels are location, location, location.  And this one certainly has it, with fine views to the loch and mountains.

12.9.20 Inverness

In the Best Western Inverness Palace hotel.  Despite its naff name, it is an old, classic, Victorian hotel – built around 1880, with the best views over the river and the rather unimpressive castle.  From Dundonnell hotel we took the slow scenic route via Gairloch.  Great views out to sea.  Best part was along Loch Maree - long and impressive.  Weather alternating sun and squally rain.  Arrived here at 12.30, too early to register, so around the town for lunch.  Inverness is quite strange: a city that is tiny compared to London, but big for Scotland.  Also full of very odd architecture.  One building on the western bank of the River Ness had a pediment supported by two pairs of pilasters – one flat, the other curved – reaching the full height of the building.  Made me think of San Giorgio Maggiore.  Never seen anything like it in a house.  Nice.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

1986 India III: Jaipur, Udaipur

5.11.86 Delhi

Guy Fawkes' day, and here I am about to leave Kashmir.  As ever, I got to the Tourist Office early for the bus.  But it was no penance to sit out in the early sun, looking at the mountains swathed in haze, or the huge autumnal trees.  The ride out to the airport was uneventful, but did at least bring us close to one of the other girdling walls of the Kashmir vale.  Craggy snow-capped mountains broke through the mist.  Srinagar airport is unspectacular.  The security precautions were.  And with reason: we were to stop off in Amritsar.  I suspect the arrival of the Indian Prime Minister in Srinagar tomorrow may also have added to the situation.

First, we had to show our tickets to get in.  Then we checked in.  Then we were searched in various ways.  The standard X-ray machines and detector, emptying of pockets, explosive detector, and then full rummaging of hand luggage.  To get outside we showed our boundary pass.  Then we had to leave our hand luggage, identify our checked-in luggage.  We were frisked again, and finally allowed on the plane.  Armed men were visible everywhere.  Very impressive.

So was the flight.  As we reared up above the haze level, the Himalayas to the east bared their fangs at us.  Hundreds of miles of glinting, jagged stone, powdered with snow.  They looked like freshly-chipped flints.  It was a huge frozen sea of sharp rocks.  Behind us, the imperious peak of Nanga Parbat – 26,660 feet high – stood out in splendid isolation.  Nun Kun – a mere 23,410 feet – was visible to the left.  

Apart from the rugged beauty of them, it was the scale – the sheer extent of them.  Not just one or two, but hundreds of peaks.  Below us, the valley was mapped out in rivers and fields.  It all looked so peaceful.  Again, the Vale of Kashmir seemed a ridiculous miracle.  I felt that I had been right to go in by land: it felt as if I had achieved Kashmir.  Similarly, it was right to fly out: there was no unwinding of the magic.  Just an enchanted carpet flight away, with the memory untouched.

The contrast of the plain with the hills was startling.  Hundreds of miles of utter flatness.  The relentlessness was made worse by the regular division of the land up into neat squares: the whole thing looked like a crazed Mondrian, or Klee – but in drab, washed-out colours.  Only the huge snaking rivers cut across everything.  Together with the crumbled aggregations of houses that were towns.

After we flew out of Amritsar – after yet more rigours of emptying all the overhead compartments – we flew over that troubled city.  I could clearly make out the Golden Temple in its lake.  Pity I couldn't visit it.  Arriving back at New Delhi, into the liquid heat, was like coming home.  First the Ex-servicemen's bus, then the journey back along Janpath.  I am staying at the Imperial.  Its room are 18 feet high, and huge.  I am sitting at an escritoire, with a fridge, and three-piece suite.  Everything is very comme il faut.  Up betimes tomorrow: 4am.  Aaargh.

6.11.86 Jaipur

Yep, sure was.  I like large echoing hotels early morning.  They are mine.  As are the streets of Delhi.  To Old Delhi station.  As we approach it, passing through the older parts of the town, the streets begin to bustle.  The station itself is quite grand; inside it has 19 tracks, of varying gauges.  The Pink Express to Jaipur is a one-metre gauge: slow and wobbly.

There is something rather sybaritic in flying from Kashmir yesterday, bogging into a five-star hotel, then legging it off on the train into Rajasthan to another five-star hotel. Apart from the appalling hour, I do not feel tired – not in the saggy, weary, drenched way I used to get.  The secret is certainly money (and I have just finished Amis' Money – for me he is now the Amis – and a force to be reckoned with): don't compromise, travel first class, call room service, get your laundry done.

The train journey is about the right length: long enough to give a sense of distance, not too long that it becomes a huge bore.  One problem is the smuts.  I presume we have a real, live steam engine up front. As a result, gouts of smoke and dirt come through the unshuttable windows.  At the end of the journey, I am covered in it.  The land from Delhi to Jaipur is, as ever, totally flat.  Except for a few rocky hills, looking like bleached, prehistoric whales.  The sun is surprisingly slow in climbing above the mists; when it does come, the light hardens and the shadows deepen.

Eventually, we achieve Jaipur, or rather its outskirts, which linger on and on.  Jaipur Junction: so very Raj.  A big crush of people: I am almost tempted to hire a porter, but resist.  A rickshaw tout gets me: his fee sounds reasonable, we walk to his motorcycle.  A curious thing happens along the way: as great lump of a lout comes up and wallops this kid – late teens, say – about the head a couple of times.  He scoots off without protest.  I ask him what is up: he admits that rickshaw touts are not allowed in the station, accepts his cuffing as meet punishment, the quid pro quo.

To the Welcom Maringh, a pink edifice in this pink city.  I swan in and book without even asking the price. The room is acceptable, one plus, one minus.  The plus is the piped Indian music -  I am writing this to a sequence of shortish ragas – on the sarangi or sarod, I think.  The downside is that the luggage rack has a cunningly-placed shelf above it: I have now whacked myself twice, painfully.  These Indians are small, obviously – as testified by the low ceilings and doorways of the palaces.  I also whacked my head in one of those today as well.

This was the Hawa Mahal – the Palace of the Winds.  To get there, we passed through the massive pink walls, passed along the seemingly interminable Tiralia Bazaar.  A new element I'd noticed from the train: camels.  I don't think I've been this near to camels before; they look simultaneously pitiable and ridiculous.  Their feet in particular: great shaggy carpet slippers flopping along the road.  Their great stupid eyes with Cindy doll eyelashes; their risible knees, all knobbles, and even worse when sitting down.  They add a new factor to the traffic of bikes, rickshaws et al.: they slow it down even more than bullock carts. Jaipur is also unusual in having newer, bigger motorised rickshaws, as well as bigger motorbike buses.  These are typically Indian: an Enfield with half a bus tacked on the back, holding ten people.  

The Hawa Mahal is a front, designed for ladies of the harem to have a butchers at the bustle below.  Externally it looks like a wall covering from the Royal Festival Hall, or Barbican.  Inside, there is very little – a courtyard, some steps, a few small chambers – hence the bumped head.  Everything is pink.  The view is quite interesting.  Along Johri bazaar, a huge glitter of bikes.  There must be 100 million in India.  I hadn't quite grasped the central importance of bikes.  The bazaars themselves are wide - 18th-century town planning for you – with a unity of design that is quite unusual.   Otherwise the same unbelievable micro economy: I saw two stalls which were selling nothing except battered old battery torches.  People stood on the street with a handful of blotchy apples.  There are more beggars here than I've seen elsewhere, including some lepers with nasty looking injuries.

I walked down Johri bazaar, out through Sanganeri gate towards the zoo.  Then to the museum.  Wonderfully fossilised from Raj times: collections of Mughal paintings mixed with early East India Company stamps, line point drawings of Italian masters, collections of rocks presented by German institutes, national costume, patterns, model animals.  It was the first museum I'd been in with pigeons flying around.  Lots of Indians there, sort of mooning around.  I'm not sure what they made of the faded inscriptions in copper plate.

Foolishly – will I never learn? - I decide to walk back along Mirza Ismail Marg.  Although this is supposedly the main new town street it is indistinguishable from any other.  Like them, it is very long – a good mile and a half.  It is this scale – not the country, but the towns – which gets me.  They just go on for every, and there's nothing there.  I suppose you've got to put 750 million people somewhere.

7.11.86  Jaipur

An unsatisfactory day.  After a rip-off breakfast – 9 Rs. for two pieces of toast – I went in to look at the Palace.  This was a bit tame – nothing spectacular at all.  The first courtyard was large with a number of quite gracious trees.  In the middle was a building housing fabrics and such-like.  Off to one side there was the armoury – very impressive if you're into that sort of thing, I'm sure; certainly a testament to the warlike Rajasthan.  But I dislike guns – the "great equalisers".  Through an archway flanked by two splendid stone elephants.  The courtyard inside was sparer.  In the middle was the public Diwan, chiefly notable for two huge water urns.  Being a devout Hindu, the Maharajah was unable to drink the water when he came to England – the irony – so he brought his own.  So far as I could tell, both he and the Maharani still live in the palace, abutting on to the so-called peacock court.  This had splendid tiled doorways.

Then back to the hotel where I had to clear my room by noon.  I could have stayed until 6pm – for an extra £15; but my feelings toward the hotel were such that I was unwilling to put any more money their way.  So I sat around in the courtyard – the only place that got the sun – reading Mailer's Ancient Evenings.  

I got to the station early to try to fix up my berth.  As ever, the scene was noisy, dirty and bustling.  More troops around – Nepalese judging by their oriental looks.  My train was 40 minutes late, so it was soon time to go to sleep.  I was sharing a compartment with a family of five daughters – all young.  By night this was OK; but the next morning…

8.11.86 Udaipur

I woke up several times during the night.  I was cold and the berth was hard and uncomfortable.  Indians when they travel come well-prepared with sleeping bags and pillows.  But my biggest mistake was underestimating how cold it would get.  By morning I was aching everywhere.  Things were not helped by the little girls.  They had woken up, and proceeded to squeal and cry for the next four hours.  My head was splitting; by the end, I think I would gladly have split theirs.

I knew this was going to be a bad day.  I got to the Laxmi Vila Palace Hotel – full up; then Anand Hotel – also full, though I got the distinct impression he was lying.  The Hill Top also didn't want to know, so I ended up at Lakend Hotel (sic).  Afterwards, I wondered whether my bedraggled appearance may have counted against me: my trousers were stained and dirty, my jacket grubby.  Still, I was feeling in no fit state to argue or look further.  Lakend Hotel it was.

This is very nicely situated looking out at the wrong lake – that is, not the main one.  This is fine, except that inevitably there are lots of mosquitoes.  Worse, my room was on the first floor – too low – and as I subsequently found out, not only did not have air-con, but had gaping hole where the air-con had been.  I could close some windows in front of this, but there were more gaps you could have driven a bug through.

All in all, things were pretty bloody.  I felt awful, the room was 'orrible, and I stood a fair chance of getting eaten to death by mosquitoes.  I noticed in fact that I had been bitten twice anyway, one on each wrist: was I suffering from malaria already?

Trusting to my body, I decided to go to bed for an hour or two.  When I awoke, I tried to get some food, and pretty much failed.  I then went back to sleep for a couple more hours.  In the meantime, I had devised a strategy for dealing with the mosquitoes.  I would jam one of the blankets in the gap between the windows – I had already used a bit of cardboard to wedge them shut.  Then I would stay up fairly late and wait for such mosquitoes as were already in the room to be attracted to the light.  Then I would squidge them.  Another problem I had was lack of fly spray – I had wasted all on the houseboat in Srinagar.  So I had to use manual techniques of towel flicking.

It seemed to work.  A couple came out and were duly dispatched.  As I read on, no more emerged.  Parenthetically, Norman Mailer is proving a godsend.  It is real, unputdownable stuff – I was most surprised.  OK, so it's a rude version of Mary Renault, but it has vision, it has sweep – and it's 700 pages long – just what I need.

9.11.86  Udaipur

Another crazy day.  Most of the time I feel bloody awful.  But it has its compensations.  It puts the rest of the time into relief, and it's good to be reminded what minor misery is.  It also has a certain romantic charm.  As I look out of my window I see triangular hills recede into the distance with nicely stepped haze.  The ground is scrubby, like something out of Piero della Francesca.  With the water in front, I feel like a feverish captive in the Holy Land – or Lebanon, perhaps.  Flecker springs to mind.  The sunrises are beautiful here.  First there is lightening of the sky.  Then gradually the first pinkening of the distant hilltops.  This gradually creeps down on to the lake, a picture of tranquillity.

This morning I staggered down to the City Palace.  Sunday, so it was fully of natives and – kids.  I have decided I hate kids.  It was worth it, though.  This is easily the most impressive pile I've seen.  It is huge and rambling, and the architectural style is more jagged and textured.  There seems to be a very noticeable difference between here and further north.  There are various sections to the museum, the largest being devoted to relics of Rajasthan, and a lot of coloured glass for which the region is evidently famous. Looked pretty tacky to me.  Even the peacock court was rather ho-hum.  As for the weapons…

The best thing about this part of the town was the views out over the lake.  At last I saw the fabulous Lake Palace Hotel: it looked rather dull to me.  A three-storey building covering a small island, with one or two trees sticking out.  It gleamed nicely, though.  The other palace looked far more romantic.  The setting of all this is superb, with hills all around, some with walls along their crests.

There was a small museum of sculpture and inscriptions, which was quaint if only for its air of gentle decay.  It also had superb views over the lake.  The final part of the palace was the best.  It was a huge courtyard with a covered dais placed at one end in the middle.  Again, the architecture was much more interesting than Jaipur, say.  

I sat in the sun for a while.  It was amazing what difference a few hundred miles south meant.  The sun's heat felt heavy, a tangible pressure.  I then shuddered my way back through the heat.  But first I went to the Lake Palace Hotel, or at least the land-bound bit.  A boy at the gate assured me it had rooms; the smoothy on the desk assured me otherwise.  Again, I got the distinct impression somebody was telling me porky pies.  What is it? B.O.?

I spent most of the afternoon in bed, and went to bed early, wrapped in a t-shirt, shirt and pullover.  And sweat I certainly did.

10.11.86 and 11.11.86 Delhi

I wake at about 5am, then 6am.  As ever, I try to convince myself I feel much better.  Trying some of my stretching exercises convinces me otherwise.  After breakfast I sit out on the terrace by the lakeside.  It is beautiful – I must be feeling better.  

As well as what look like cormorants or shags or something, there are the most wonderfully-coloured kingfishers I have ever seen.  Their blues flash like lightning – and they're big too.  Just to complete the idyll, the local fishermen are out on the lake.  They ply huge long oars – quite why, I couldn't see at first.  Their nets are pyramidal: what they seem to do is hunt in packs.  They drive the fish into a huddle, using their long oars to beat the water.  Then they drop the nets down vertically, standing on them agilely to push them down.  There follows a lot of obscure poking around, after which they bring back their nets.  I saw a few fairly juicy fish caught in the net; presumably they share them.

Into town to the railway station.  I wanted to confirm my berth for the night, which had been telexed through from Delhi.  As I waited for ages amidst the hordes of Beelzebub's favourites, I could feel in my bones that something was going to be wrong.  And sure enough, come my turn, they couldn't find my name.  After much scrabbling around they did find it – for the 11th – that is, tomorrow.  Great: I had allowed one day's slippage, but I still have to confirm my air ticket.  I don't know whose fault it was – the Indrail ticket clearly says the 10th.  Anyway, I got heavy, saying how I had a flight to catch etc. etc. They said there were no berths, full up.  I hung around.  Eventually, I was asked round the back – usually a good sign.  And after ages sifting and sorting, they eventually came up with something.  I must say that I have never seen an Indian lose his or her temper, or act hot-headedly, apart from the policeman cuffing the boy.  Equally, it is clear that you must never lose your temper either.  

A glutton for punishment, I then went back to the Lake Palace Hotel to go across and have some coffee.  Except that they now had a sign up restricting visits to certain hours – and not now. It's a conspiracy.  Stuff them: who wants to visit a mere Lake Palace when you've stayed in a houseboat in Kashmir?  

To the train without more ado.  As usual, the delays and waiting around.  However, as usual, everything was neatly organised and posted up: names, ages, sex, and berth.  I have been most impressed throughout with this organisational ability.  Their trains my be slow – the so-called Cheetah Express I was about to board took a cool 21 hours to traverse 500 miles – but everything seems under control; even when things go wrong, they are confident of an answer.  Perhaps this is born of 3000 years of civilisation.

I am still feeling yurghish when I board the train.  However, tonight I will be wrapped up: two t-shirts, shirt, jumper and jacket.  My main concern is keeping everyone else awake.  To try to avoid this, I take an unwarranted step – and a paracetamol.  Nobody told me it would taste horrible.

I wake at 5.30am after a couple of coughing crises.  I have been sweating – like a pig – and the mozzies are squealing with blood lust.  I have also anointed myself with anti-mozzie salve – god knows if it does any good: not really testable, is it?  Unfortunately, on waking up, and daring to put my contact lens in – a major worry on dark, dirty, moving trains – breakfasting and generally settling down, there is still a good seven hours of journey left.  Outside the scenery is splendid, if rather monotonous – not entirely flat this time, though.

I finish Ancient Evenings: rather a disappointment.  Perhaps I prefer battles to bonking; in any case, it seemed to fall off, so to speak, after the first half.  An amazing achievement though.  And quite pointless.  The poor man must have utterly immersed himself in the culture.  I was pained to see at the end of the book the telling figures: 1972-1982.  Poor sod.

After that, the rest is silence.  Or rather diddly-dee-dum etc.  Very boring.  But I am feeling better.  Body has finally pulled through – about bloody time.  Just as well, since another family with young kids has joined us.  To being with they are quiet – cunning little bastards.  Later, they turn into clenched balls of screaming will.  My urge to kick the little buggers in the head was only just held in check.  This trip to India has put my family plans back by about four years.  

Back in Delhi.  It's good to be back in this hell-hole of dirt, heat and noise.  To celebrate, I have a really good ding-dong with a rickshaw driver.  30 Rs. he wanted; 15 Rs. I said. 25 Rs. - 15 Rs; 20 Rs. - 15 Rs.  He wouldn't budge, neither would I.  And he kept on queering the pitch with the other drivers.  I told him to go away.  Eventually another driver said 18 Rs., so I thought: sod the other bloke, that's near enough.  

To the Kuwait Airlines office.  On 29th October I had phoned them to confirm my flight.  The bugger than had the audacity to tell me I needed to bowl up in person.  What a cheek.  I told them that I couldn't do this until two days before I left, and got them – vaguely – to promise to keep my seat.  So now I went there to confirm the confirmation.  The offices were located in Barakhamba Road, just off the south-east corner of Connaught Place.  As I tried to enter, a carbine-wielding soldier persuaded me to leave my baggage outside.  I went in.  The first gent I spoke to waved me to another.  He looked supercilious, arrogant.  He kept me waiting some time as he dealt rather curtly with someone. Then when my turn came, he was equally curt, informing me that the check-in time was 3am.  Wot? For a 6am flight?  Presumably they are going to strip search us.

Finally, to the Imperial.  What a haven of civilisation – and the best room service coffee in India.  Toddled off to Connaught Place to buy some tapes and books.  A tape store was most helpful, playing me bits to judge.  The bookshop was very well stocked, including some old UK titles I hadn't seen for years.  Also bought a little study of the divergences of Indian English from British English: very interesting.

12.11.86 Delhi

One day to go.  A morning spent by the pool.  Today is going to be lazy – after all, I've to be up by 1.30am, which will convert to 9pm for the start of my UK day...

1986 India I: Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri
1986 India II: Kashmir

A Partial India

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Moody's Black Notebook Travels

Monday, 6 July 2020

1986 India II: Kashmir

30.10.86 and 31.10.86 Srinagar

Not so much one day as two, since I would be travelling for 27 hours to Srinagar.  The morning, as usual, I took my oddly inappropriate sunbathing trip to the International: at least next time I won't need to pay extra.  Back at the hotel, I eat my first proper meal for two days.

To New Delhi station early to sort out reservations.  My Indrail pass had guaranteed me "a" seat; now I had to get one in particular. This didn't prove problematic.  The train pulled in shortly afterwards.  It was a very long train, and as the carriages went past, I watched out for my number.  The nearest to 753 was 11753.  Unfortunately, a group of soldiers were boarding it as it came in.  Shurely shome mishtake?  I didn't fancy the prospect of 15 hours banged up with squaddies.  With flagging optimism I walked to the head of the train.  The last carriage was 753.  Alas, it was locked.  Not just to hoi polloi like me, but even to the guards.  It took a handy Sikh with a screwdriver to fix it.

The first-class accommodation was spacious but not much else.  The seats were long and hard, the fittings minimal and not totally functioning.  Each seated six, and slept four.  There were two others in there, in the cooler window seats.  To my horror, I saw that one was smoking.  Purgatory.  In fact the cigarette smoker turned out to be a pleasant enough chap, as electrical engineer stationed with the Indian Air Force a little below Jammu.  I grew more worried about the other occupant, who began displaying a choice collection of skin diseases which he itched vigorously.  To slow him down I offered him The Independent to read – it does have its uses.  One of the clues in the crosswords had "haha" as the answer.

Even though the train was nominally an express, its progress was painfully slow.  The distance covered was only 500 km – about as far from London to Edinburgh – but it took 15 hours.  Things were not helped by the long stops at stations.  This gave time for the chaiwallahs to hawk their wares.  All the stations chefs cooking their greasy chapatis and fried rings were nearby too.  The tea comes in thermos flasks; I have no doubt it is safe enough – but the cups certainly aren't.  Despite the slow speed the trains thunder as if they were travelling at 100 mph.

At 9pm we made up the beds.  This simply meant pushing down the back of the bottom seat.  The bunks were hard but roomy.  It brought back memories of long nights travelling through Europe with Interrail tickets.  Particularly when the cold began to bite.  I was definitely cold.  Even with a jacket, jumper, t-shirt and girdling money belt, I was definitely cold.

I woke about 4.30am.  The sky was still dark.  By now, as the landscape emerged, it proved to be very different from that surrounding Delhi.  It was rolling and with plenty of vegetation.  It was also much colder.  We arrived at the railhead in Jammu 30 minutes behind schedule.  I had visions of being stranded in a place with little to recommend it except as a springboard for the Kashmir valley.  But Indians are not a rigorous lot; many coaches had waited for the train before setting off.

I bought a 60 Rs. "super" ticket.  This was partly with the aid of a lad who had obviously fixed on me as one of the few decent prospects off the train.  He followed me onto the bus, and produced the inevitable album of photos of houseboats.  I told him I wasn't interested, but the combination of his salesmanship and the fact that I would be arriving in Srinagar in the dark and – as he stressed – cold, with nowhere to stay, suggested it would be useful as a fallback at least.  We haggled over the price, and then haggled over the deposit.  True to my second-hand car-dealing family background, I was very loath to hand money over sight unseen.  However, it was only £6, the conductor seemed to vouch for him.  What the hell, let's risk it.

As we set off, I was confident that this was the last I would see of my money.  Although the bus was super, it was hard to tell.  It had armrests.  But at least it was relatively uncrowded.  The road out of Jammu was dull, but gradually I noticed its prime characteristic: up.

To begin with, the landscape was lush and rolling.  The road was wide enough for two vehicles – just.  Our driver was yet another maniacal Sikh.  He seemed hell-bent on pushing his – our – luck.  But then with a 12-hour drive ahead of him, he was in no mood to get stuck behind lorries.

Of these, there were many.  Apart from flights, this is the only route into Kashmir, and it is heavily used.  The lorries are brightly-decorated, and all bear in English "public carrier".  It is worth noting that all number plates use Roman characters.  They depend on the area – for example, in Delhi, they begin with "D".  I was confused by the occurrence of plates with "USA" in Agra: I thought perhaps relations were better than I imagined.  But "U" is for Uttar Pradesh

Along the way to Srinagar, there were innumerable roadside cafés – transport cafés, no less.  There were also larger villages, but even these were mostly one-street affairs.  It was noticeable as we went on that hookahs started appearing on the streets.  As we drove on, the vegetation gradually changed.  It became more scrub-like and the ground rougher.  Still we climbed, hour after hour; the bus never got out of second or occasionally third gear at the most.

From the cold start, the day had warmed considerably.  The sun's rays were strong and palpably hot.  Its light began to carve deep shadows in the twisting hills.  The road we followed hugged every bend of the mountains.  Often across huge valleys you could see the white ribbon we would take.  Each swing back was across a strategic bridge – "photographs forbidden".  Soon the vista behind us was an unending succession of dusty hills and valleys disappearing into the heat haze.  We had been travelling for half the day, and were now in the middle of nowhere, but a wild and beautiful nowhere.

We finally made it over the pass – at over 3000 metres altitude – and began a descent into the next major set of valleys.  After snaking round a few of them, we picked up the course of the Chenab river.  This was a huge jade-coloured giant, surging some 1500 feet below us.  The gorge was magnificent, surrounded by mountains.  It all looked so familiar.  It was like the Lake District – but five times bigger.  It was the same with the perspective of the hills as they shouldered each other, the perspective changing as we wound our way.

Further on, we started coming across cultivated areas, laid out in the characteristic terraced form.  It looked like pictures of Tibet or South-East Asia.  Some terraces clung to almost sheer faces.  One small village lay in a concave bowl down such a mountainside.  As we passed it, it lay in deep shadow, as it must do for half the day.  The river at this point was bending wildly.  Classical oxbow stuff, except that it was twisting around 1000 foot high outcrops of craggy rock.

Eventually, we proceeded upstream along a tributary, leaving the main river to join one of the five rivers in the Punjab before hitting the sea at Karachi.  This soon scaled down, and a sizeable valley floor developed.  The terraces evened out into neat fields with mud walls.  Some were flooded and looked planted with rice.  Noticeable were dwellings which looked like huge mud beehives.  There were other buildings which already were in a noticeably different style from the other Indian villages.

Along the way from Jammu we had every so often passed groups mending the road.  Sometimes, they were simply rebuilding the excellent stone barriers.  These were not a solid wall, but about four feet long, with both ends painted white for easy visibility.  From the outside, they were faced with stones and blended in well, hiding the road.  This benign paternalism was also evident with a steady series of "beacons", all in English, on a yellow background.  In little rhyming couplets, they admonished drivers to drive slowly, live long, stay awake and keep calm.  They were like the product of a very keen and slightly deranged copywriter who had been ordered to produce hundreds of the things.  Driven to the limits of banality, they achieved a kind of touching homeliness.  I looked forward eagerly each time to reading new ones.  Also noticeable along the way were the people walking.  Since they were miles from anyway, they took on a kind of visionary quality as they performed their mysterious odyssey.  

We had begun going up quite steadily for some time.  We had left behind the tributary, which had dwindled to a mere stream.  Now we were high among the barren rocks again.  The sun was beginning to sink in the sky, and its softening light turned the huge peaks around us into visions of velvety softness.

We passed through Banihal, on the way to the final pass.  I was struck how the trees had suddenly become autumnal.  India of the plains had been out of time, but here there were trees which stood like huge red and gold flames.  One tree just outside Banihal reminded me of the great chestnut by King's College chapel.  It stood perfect in its perfectly-varied autumn hues.

Finally, we come to the Jawahar Tunnel.  This is 2500 metres long.  It is totally dark inside.  As our driver gingerly pushed his way through, water dripped from the roof and sloshed under the wheels.  There seemed no light at the end of the tunnel.  Eventually, there was – the rear light of a lorry.  After this anti-climax, we soon made our way out into the Kashmir valley.  I cannot claim that the instant we were out there was a sense of liberation, or of having achieved our goal.  But as we descended and the valley took shape before our eyes, this did begin to happen.

The valley of Kashmir is enormous.  It spread out before us in width and length.  Along the latter, the ranges of mountains hemmed it in.  Not just one range, but two or three, the most distant covered with snow for the first time in our journey.  This snow was beginning to turn gentle pink as the sun sank behind the hills on the other side of the valley.  To the north, the end of the valley was lost in haze; but from our elevation we could see the perfectly flat valley floor with the winding river Jhelum.

Once we had descended to the floor – still some 1600 metres high – we moved on more rapidly.  As we passed houses and villages, it was clear that we were in a different world.  The houses used a lot of wood, particularly in their facings, and were often thatched.  They looked more Central Asian, not Indian sub-continent.  And the villages were different: there were trees growing alongside shops; everything appeared orderly and clam.

It looked strangely familiar.  The peasants in their long dark smocks looked like something out of Breughel.  And so did the villages.  Dusk was falling, and fires were being lit by the side of the road, and in shops and homes.  It was not just cold now, but bitter.  As we passed through villages we saw scenes from Adam Elsheimer.  And the fields and roads themselves wore a familiar aspect.  Lining the roads were rows and rows of arrow-straight silver birches.  Their golden foliage shot up with them like jets of water.  The fields were orderly and flat – just like Holland.  And the whole landscape – peasants, villages, fields and roads - fitted together with a sense of déjà vu: Kashmir was the Low Countries, crazily and beautifully placed in the Himalayas.  

The valley was now ringed with salmon pinks and real Tiepolo clouds that hung over the blushing crests of the mountains.  We rattled on through the darkening night, and finally began making our way through the outskirts of a big town.  Just as I was beginning to think this must be Srinagar, and wondering what would happen about the houseboat, the bus stopped briefly and a man leapt on.  This was nothing unusual because the Sikh driver had stopped before to let on fellow Sikhs and members of the armed forces.  But this new passenger made straight for me.  He identified himself as the boy's father, and said we should get off here.

I had decided to see what the boat was like.  It would have been foolish not to have tried one.  So we commandeered a rickshaw which took us a short way to Boulevard Road.  Here the man hallo'd across to the dimly-visible houseboats, and a fragile, spoon-like boat – a shikara – came out, piloted by another son.  Unsteadily, I mounted, and was borne silently away.  I realised that my options were few at that moment.

From what I could see on the outside, the houseboat looked like something off the Mississippi, all balustrades and fancy fretwork.  Mounting the steps on to the small veranda, we went through a pair of sliding doors into the living room.  By the dim electric lights this looked like a Victorian parlour.  The furniture was dark and heavy, the coverings chintzy.  In the middle of the room was a small stove, its chimney leading up to the roof, and then out of the window.  The ceiling was elaborately decorated with wood.  After the living room came the dining room, also taking up the full width of the boat.  This too was all heavy furniture, and silver in cabinets.  The light now was even dimmer.  As the owner explained, electricity was very unreliable here.

I was happier with Mr Abdul Aziz now.  His boat looked reasonable, even picturesque.  When he had bounded on to the coach in his loud check jacket and Islamic moustache he looked the typical spiv.  I realise now he is simply a very active entrepreneur.  He has six boats, a carpet and antique shop and possibly much more.  He is always prepared to sell you something, and usually to haggle.  In appearance he looks like a more pushy version of Lionel Jeffries.

Beyond the dining room was the kitchen.  Aziz explained that all meals were included in the 225 Rs., and he was the servant – the official server being on holiday.  Then came the two bedrooms, one with two single beds, and one double.  Both had attached bathrooms – not exactly spotless, but functional.

In the end, I chose the double bed room because it was self-contained.  A meal would be fixed for me, then a shower, some heat in my stove, then bed.  The food turned out to be generous though unexciting.  It was "ship" – a dish I was to grow accustomed to.  The tea was good though, and was to prove the mainstay of my diet.  My shower was warm enough; the bad news was that so cold were the mornings it was not worth heating the water: ergo, no shave or shower.  Ugh.

But worse was to follow.  As a normal precaution I spray the room before I sleep in it.  This I did.  But as I began preparations for going to bed, I heard a curious pinging sound, irregular, but increasing in rapidity.  Something fell from the roof: it was an insect, a kind of silverfish.  They obviously lived in the wooden roof; the fly spray had affected them too.  They dropped all over the place by their tens, possibly hundreds.  They were wriggling in their death agonies.  I could hardly go to sleep with them coming down, so I decided to leave a time 10xT, where T was some arbitrary half-life for them to fall off the ceiling.  By 10 o'clock they were down (sic) to one every 15 seconds.  Time for bed.  

This was large and comfortable.  It was also well endowed with covers.  With a healthy fire in the stove, I deemed one superfluous, and shut down the fire.  I would regret this the next morning…

1.11.86 Srinagar

The next morning I awoke early – and frozen.  It was bitter like an English December.  The blankets kept most of me warm, but my head and face were chilled and I had lost a lot of heat.  Jumping out of bed was a mistake, but one made easier by the fact that I wasn't going to shave and shower; straight into clothes and to hell with it.  I had hoped for an early start, but Kashmiris don't do it this way, evidently.  9-10 o'clock was when they started according to Mr Aziz.  He was not impressed by my requests for breakfast at 8 am.

In the meanwhile, I wandered the freezing boat, unable to do anything.  Boats have a definite feel all to themselves.  The imperceptible sway, only noticeable through the lamps' slow swing; the creaks alerting you to every movement aboard; the effect of water.  Especially the light on water.  Later in the day, the sunlight bounced up onto the ceiling, and dappled it playfully.  It reminded me of Venice, the Forestiera Valdesana, the sound of Mozart from across the water.

Intoxicated by my success in arriving at the fabled Srinagar (anagram: Sangri-ra), I was emboldened to try a quick dash across to Leh.  This meant a plane – by road, it was two days there is you were lucky.  It also meant warmer clothes.  Srinagar was bad enough, but Leh was worse.  I was tempted by a panchul, the characteristic smock-cum-overcoat worn here by all and sundry – including Mr Aziz this morning, looking quite ethnic against yesterday's city slickness.    Immediately, he offered to get one made for 220 Rs.  Later, one of his many friends came by on his shikara.  He was a tailor and brought swatches of cloth.  He quoted 500 to 1000 Rs., which I soon punctured.  We left it that I would go into Srinagar and find out if there were any flights.

By now, the sun was high over the hill which stood behind Boulevard Road.  On top were a Buddhist temple, and TV tower.  When I arrived yesterday, all I could see were bright unnatural twinklings high in the sky.  This was in addition to the countless stars visible in the crystal-clear air.  

Early morning there is a smokey mist which hangs a few inches off the water, floating over the lily leaves which surround the boat.  Fish ripples break the surface from time to time.  As the sun rises, there is a warm red glow along the top of the hill.  Surrounding mountains are just hazy blurs in the morning mist; they will not become fully visible until this afternoon.  From the boathouse's roof you can watch the sun rise, its rays slanting down through the mist at an even sharper angle.  There are a few lonely shikaras out at this time, paddling through the cold water.

I went into the Air India office at the tourist complex.  As ever, things are much more spread out than I imagine.  After queuing twice for half an hour, I found that there were flights in, on Tuesday, but none out.  Leh would have to wait until next time.  I decided to try to fly out to Delhi on Wednesday, giving me an extra day here.  I came back for the usual "ship" dish for lunch, brought by the ever-courteous Mr Aziz, along his precarious walkway, which led back to his boat, wife and kitchen.  Afterwards, I sunbathed on the roof.  Even in just my shorts I was hot: the sun was incredibly fierce.  The contrast with the night was extraordinary.

In the afternoon, I decided that since the lake lay at the heart of the town I should get to know it better.  After the usual haggling – helped by the complete absence of competing tourists – I hired an elegant white shikara for an hour or two.  This had a canopy, and a huge bed/sofa as well as several other seats; certainly more of a Bucintoro than my houseboat shikara, which is like a long shallow spoon.  Like punts, there are two modes of paddling: at the front and at the back.  Most people use the hunkered position.  Both men and women ply them, and they are used for every imaginable use.  Like rickshaws, they tend to be laden to the point of implausibility, with vegetables towering up unstably.  One was even shipping water, so great was its load.  The paddler calmly scraped it out as he went.

My white vision glided effortlessly along past rows of houseboats with touchingly English names like "Cutty Sark", "Rover", "Golden Fleece" and "Jacqueline".  They seemed built to roughly the same plan.  Apparently the number has gone up dramatically since 1947, and they are popular with Indian honeymooners.  My oarsman wanted to give me the full guide bit and sit facing me.  I dissuaded him – partly so that I could look at the mountains.  These now stood forth in impressive clarity.  They were like a huge wall encircling the lake and valley.  It was easy to believe that this huge freak of geography was really some Shangri-La.

As we turned into the lake, it became clear that Dal Lake is not so much a lake as a lagoon, like Venice.  I had always been sceptical of this comparison: the houseboats looked as much like something from Holland, say.  But passing along the back of whole villages set on the muddy islands on the lake I was immediately reminded of Torcello.  These were cities in the making, living communities with their characteristic wooden housing.

We took a left turning through a narrow channel surrounded on both sides by trees and fields of vegetables.  It looked just like the upper reaches of the Granta.  We passed a few huts.  From one of them a woman emerged, and spoke with the man.  Then we moved on to a huge field of floating lilies.  The water was completely still, and broken only by the great leaves.  The sun was reflected in it and turned the water to gold where it touched it.  In the far distance the great fort loomed like something out of a Kurosawa epic.  We hovered for a minutes, in one of those timeless floating worlds which lilies somehow evoke.  And then my little man made a suggestion.  The lady he had talked to was his wife.  He lived in one of the huts.  He was inviting me back for a cup of Kashmir tea.  Now, this presented me with a problem.  I know that hospitality up here is sacred; yet drinking tea in those conditions was chancing my arm, somewhat.  I used even circumlocution I knew in the Queen's English, but to no avail.

We went back, and immediately threw the whole household into commotion.  I could imagine his wife saying "how could you bring back guests when the house is in such a mess, and I have nothing in the cupboard?" She was dressed in a pink pyjama-style outfit.  Like many of the Kashmiri women, she had a distinctly gypsy cast about her.  The house consisted of two square rooms, each about ten feet by ten feet.  The living room had two straw mats, a radio, a light bulb and a framed picture of the man's brothers.  Nothing else.  Some cushions were hastily found for me.  I offered to take my shoes off as they had done, but they demurred.  Ensconced as the guest of honour (a power failure just hit half of Srinagar: very pretty to see the town turn blind – I'm back to lamp power again, more anon…) the babies were wheeled in, first his one-year-old son, and then his three-year-old daughter.  She was a bonny little thing, and wore some ridiculously squeaky shoes.  Other kids also appeared, but the Mrs was busy bustling in the kitchen and hardly showed herself.  His mother and sister were also around.

When the tea appeared, it was as I feared: in a cup that would not have passed muster in the greasiest of greasy spoons.  A least it was hot...perhaps all the nasties would be killed.  In the cause of improved international relations I drank.  Sweet and rather sickly but quite nice.  His tea looked even worse: pink with big leaves.  He insisted it had salt in it.  Then came worse, the biscuits.  Tea was one thing, but biscuits… My mind raced through all the possible avenues for germs.  It was terrible to contemplate.  I bit the bullet and the biscuit – which was crumbly and had poppy seeds on top.  I was unable to eat more than a couple of bites, and feebly put it in my bag "for later".  They also gave me a sort of pancake which followed the biscuit.  I did drink most of the tea.

I felt very bad.  Their kind of hospitality obviously meant a lot to them, and I was unable to appreciate fully.  I just hope I did the bare minimum.  I thanked his pretty lady wife – who seemed almost embarrassed by my thanks, and beat a retreat.  The little girl waved me off.  Interestingly, the man was very reluctant to tell me his wife's name.  Obviously, they are quite strict Muslims.  Although the experience had been a trifle delicate, I was grateful that it had occurred.  It gave me a chance to see close up these fine people.  I was also humbled by their generosity: they who had almost nothing giving to me who had almost everything.  I felt so powerless confronted by this gulf. 

We went on in the graceful shikara, past the floating gardens which gave this region its name.  Little vegetable patches were doing just that: floating in the water, a mass of mud and roots.  The produce, almost inevitably, looked excellent.  We made our way back through some of the shops – mostly carpets, artefacts etc – which abutted on the river in these backwaters.  There was a strange odour of peaches – which I later identified as the sweet stench of decay.  At the insistence of Ali I visited his brother's carpet and knick-knack shop.  And upset and utterly dumbfounded them by resisting their every effort – even of credit.  But it seems folly to me, to go back laden with such "souvenirs" – what a giveaway.  If memories are not enough, then too bad.  And who really want Buddhist artefacts all over the house – unless you are a Buddhist?  It just ends up as sad detritus.  Then there were the presents.  Jewellery, etc. – but how many times have we been given a little gift, and felt guilty because we hated its squat ugliness or inappropriateness?  Taste is not something that travels well.

As we rounded towards the Boulevard, I could see the other side of the houseboats, those facing into the floating gardens.  The sun was low and blood-coloured, and reminded me of sunsets in Venice.  The ranks of boats looked like palazzi on the Grand Canal.  When I got back to my houseboat, which was called "Manila", the air was cold.  A warm shower – my one allowed per day – was welcome.  Food was, yes, ship.  That evening I asked for a fire in the sitting room stove so that I could try to make up the time I was behind in these writings.  It is as I feared: the writing is beginning to take over my days.  Like Tristram Shandy's father, I cannot keep up with events.  I am renewed in my opinion that anyone who can keep a diary is either leading a boring life, writing boring entries, or cheating somewhere.

Because the lights were so unreliable Mr Aziz had lit a splendid oil lamp.  He and his family had gone off to visit neighbours and celebrate Diwali – both Saturday and Monday are festivals.  Almost immediately the lights dimmed completely, leaving me with the excellent light of the lamp.  Slowly the elements assembled themselves: the sturdy desk, the lamplight, the stove roaring away, giving out its thick heat with a slightly acidic atmosphere, the water lapping outside.  I felt extraordinarily Chekhovian.  As if I were in my dacha at the end of summer, by the lake's margin, with the stove burning to take off the evening's chill.  Even the fireworks outside seemed like something out of Uncle Vanya or The Seagull.  Kashmir seems to be subtly polymorphous.  Lulled by these thoughts I went to bed with another fire roaring in my bedroom.

2.11.86 Srinagar

Again I woke early; again I woke cold – even though I had wrapped up warmer.  I still found it hard to reconcile the hard heat of day with the numbing cold of the night.  It was if Kashmir subsumed summer and winter in its own special season.  One consolation is that I am less sad about not making it to Ladakh: there is really cold.

As I watched the sun creep over the mountains, three electric-blue kingfishers swooped over the water like fighter planes carrying out a low-level attack.  The day before, I had seen eagles in the floating gardens.  The multiplicity of animal life here is amazing; pity I am not better able to appreciate it.  Parenthetically, the hanging birds of prey who stack over the burning plains correspond exactly to my images of India derived from Paul Scott.  They were particularly ominous around the ghostly Fatehpur Sikri.

To the India Airways office again.  It turns out that the seat I thought I had is only on the waiting list: 54th for one flight, 4th for another.  I have to go again tomorrow to find out slightly less non-definitively.  Otherwise it's the old 27-hour slog back.    It's not that I find this totally appalling – I do and don't – it's just that having won Shangri-La in this way it would be nice to retain it by magically flying out of the kingdom.  Perhaps it is just the train journey I can't face.

Then for a brief walk round the town centre.  Once again, I am amazed by the distances.  The main market is huge and bustling.  I reach the wonderfully-named Jhelum river.  From one rather precarious bridge I can see another with hordes passing over it.  Below on the river, yet more houseboats, but not for tourists.

The architecture is very striking.  As I noted on the way in, the Kashmiris are keen on their wood: even the meanest shops and homes have carved panels.  In Srinagar I also noticed wood beams combined with brick à la Tudor style.  I presume this elegant architecture is partly a response to the harsh winters: the make-do shanty towns of Delhi and the surrounding villages would hardly do here.  I remain constantly amazed at how pervasive the English language is – even where there is no touristic need.  It is a slightly surreal experience to move through a kingdom locked in by mountains adjoining the Himalayas, not a million miles from Samarkand, Tibet or Afghanistan, without any difficulty or even sense of strain, thanks to all this English.

After lunch – not ship – I decided to hire a bicycle for a ride round the lake.  I was charged the princely sum of 2 Rs./hour.  But then the beast I got was probably not worth any more.  Nothing was either centric or in kilter.  The brakes were nominal, the tyres distinctly ropey.  As I risked my life among the insane drivers I began wondering what the hell I was doing.  I also wondered what would happen if the beast broke down in the middle of nowhere.  I decided to be circumspect, and "just" cut across the causeway over the lake.  Once more, the maps deceived me.

I went out along the Boulevard, past Nehru park, and towards the Oberoi Palace hotel.  The road ran along the shore of the lake; on the other side was a single row of evenly-spaced silver birches, their leaves a jet of gold as before.  Once again, I experienced a curious dislocation, for all the world this was just like some French countryside – even the weather felt right: autumnal with a warming sun but cool air.

Past the Oberoi and the new Centaur hotel, I was more or less on my own.  Great – provided the bike held out.  Out on the lake, groups of simplest shikaras were collecting weed using poles.  The groups they made on the water, with the sparsely populated floating garden villages behind, made them almost copybook Guardis.  The stillness and peace this radiated was identical.

As I went on, the curtain of the mountains gradually emerged from the haze, which was thicker than yesterday.  I was glad that drivers almost inevitably honked their deafening horns.  I understood now what this meant - it said: "by the way, old chap, I'm coming up behind you, so do watch out".  They are not at all: "get out of the way you great oaf…"

I never made it round the causeway.  Distances defeated me again.  There were also roadworks on it which would have done in my poor tyres.  I went as far as the Nishant Gardens, which were well stocked with locals and visitors.  On the way back, things felt even more autumnal – a kind of Himalayan hyper-autumnality.  The great fort loomed in the distance, the mountains reared up behind me, the Guardi-esque shikaras toiled away.  And just to complete my disorientation, a double-decker bus – made by Leyland – roared past.  I have no idea how they got it here.  Miracles will never cease.

Not content with this, I decided to take a shikara back from Dal Gate, going round the back of the houseboats.  Now tourist are pretty rare beasts at this stage of the season, and saying that I wanted a shikara had the oarsmen wetting themselves.  I chose a little boy and his simple boat (a) because I am a sentimentalist (b) it was cheaper and (c) I wanted to have a go myself.  Which I did for most of the way.  As I thought, shikaras are just like punts in that you apply impulsion lop-sidedly, yet somehow must keep in a straight line.  This I failed signally to do.  I frequently had to cheat by changing sides.  Eventually I sussed a modus operandi:  you plunge straight in, then twist out at the end to cancel out the torque.  It usually worked, but was not the graceful movement of everyone else.  Also, like a punt I soon managed to deluge myself by a few hasty movements.  By the time we arrived back at the Manila I was cold, tired and wet.  But at least I had tried.

And at least I have caught up with myself, god by praised.  And now my arm aches, and my head hurts.  Bedtime soon.

3.11.86 Srinagar

Yes, cold again; but at least I'm leaving the houseboat today.  I have really enjoyed the atmosphere, the smells and sounds of this boat.  Despite the privations.  Unfortunately, things were rather spoilt by Mr. Aziz putting on his entrepreneur's hat: he insisted the three days I said I would stay excluded the first night.  And that I therefore had to pay him four nights regardless.  We argued and haggled and eventually settled on a midway compromise.  I was going to give him 50 Rp. Extra… and then he had the temerity to ask me to visit his brother's bloody carpet shop.  On your shikara, mate.

The Broadway Hotel is relatively cheap – 330 Rs. - including breakfast, and warm.  I sat out in the sun and had lunch – one of the best meals I've had in India, a really light vegetable curry.  After lunch to the Air India office again.  Success at last: I'm on the Wednesday flight – I think.  Only trouble is, it goes via Amritsar…

Later that afternoon, I climb Shankaracharya Hill, a 1000-foot beast which lies behind Broadway.  I took the ascent quite quickly in order to watch the sunset.  I was quite breathless, presumably due to the altitude here: it's like starting from the top of Ben Nevis.  It was rush hour below, and all the honks and blares so beloved of Indians gradually became little toy noises.  The sun was still quite high over the mountain range to the west, out towards Afghanistan. As I rose up the hill, the lake hove into view.  To the south, the great Jhelum could be seen snaking through the city.  The fort rose up behind the town, though its impressiveness was diminished somewhat as I rose above it.  Strangely, the air was clearing as the sun sank.  Gradually the encircling mountains were becoming visible to the north and west.  As the wood fires were being lit towards evening, their smoke formed powdery patches.

I did not reach the absolute top, which is occupied by the TV tower for Kashmir.  Its generator gave out a huge roar; mercifully, it stopped when I got to the top.   The plan of the lake became clear.  Much of it was not water, but the floating gardens.  The serried ranks of houseboats looked like aerial pictures of London docklands during their hey-day.  The shikaras moved like pond skaters.

As the sun sank lower and grew redder, the smoke was tinged with blue.  The mountains to the east were starting to glow as the shadows lengthened on them.  A huge darkness was creeping across the plain as only the tips of the trees were in light.  The silver birches looked unreal, like an architect's model trees dotted over the plain.

I could feel the air grow colder as the last rays emerged from behind the mountain.  It reminded me of Venice where there was the same contrast in temperature in and out of the sun.  Just as the sun disappeared, the full rim of mountains were visible at last.  Two clouds hovered over the mountain top where the sun had vanished.  As it sank further, out of sight, their shadows raked upwards with a kind of Baroque artificiality.  I could grasp now the Kashmir valley in one glance, and could appreciate a new how improbable it was.

As I made my way down, the valley darkened before me and became a huge cauldron of boiling mists.  At ground level, I was accosted by someone.  I said "no thanks" reflexively, assuming he was trying to sell me something.  In fact he only wanted to know the time.  It is unfortunate that constant touting sours the atmosphere.  It was even more unfortunate that my mistake gave him an opening to strike up a conversation. This he did, ending up with an invitation to dine with his family – and to take back a letter for him.  My hackles rose.  I was being railroaded – possibly with kindness, but railroaded nonetheless.  My second-hand car salesman pedigree also made me chary of taking packages (the lights went again – and several times more: glad I wasn't in the lift.  Strange to watch the whole town plunged into darkness and then back again): drugs? Secret information?  No thanks, squire.  And yet one is reluctant to rebuff what are probably honest overtures.

I rewarded myself with some tea when I got back.  This was Kashmiri kahwa tea – green tea with slivers of almonds, served with sugar.  Precisely what my shikara man gave me, in fact.  Nice – I've just had some more.

More aggro in the restaurant.  This bod comes up from nowhere, shakes my hand and says he'd like to talk to me after dinner.  Reluctantly, I agree – again, it is hard to refuse.  I agree to look for him in the bar.  I do, and he is not there.  I go to bed.  20 minutes later, the bastard rings me – so he has my room number – and asks me to come down and talk to him for "half an hour, or an hour". Forget it, sunshine.  Then he suggests breakfast together.  I say I may seem him after dinner the next day.  But it is hard to give foreigners the brush off: subtleties fail, and they can ignore rudeness.  Pah.

4.11.86 Srinagar

My last day in Kashmir.  I have very ambivalent feelings about leaving.  I know that I must leave for the memories to ripen and fructify, so that the place doesn't go stale.  And yet.  It really is paradoxical.  I go out for a stroll in the city.  The morning is crisp and fresh – really autumnal before the crazy heat builds up.  The low sun catches all the birches and broad-leafed trees in their russets and golds.  The air feels sharp and clear, though it is hazy as ever.

On the river, walking along the Bund, is feels even more like England, like Cambridge: the paths, autumn trees, the mud and the water – could be the Backs but for the scale.  The poorer streets that back on to the river are amazing – like some medieval village, fossilised.  I walk round to the two bridges, and buy a tape of what I hope is Kashmiri music.  In its crudely printed cover and TDK it has all the hallmarks of a home-made or pirated version.  

I haggled with a  rickshaw driver – it becomes a point of principle – to take me to the Jami Masjid – another bleedin' mosque.  He takes me through the back roads, and it is a very long way.  The streets are full of appalling pot-holes.  It looks even more like a medieval film set.  The mosque is a bit different in that it has a set of cedarwood pillars supporting the roof.  This causes it to burn down every few years.  But it is impressive, especially the four giant trees used in the entrance.  It gives an idea of what biblical or heroic halls must have looked like – and felt like.

I was now in the heart of the real Srinagar, with few concessions to tourists.  So when it came to haggling with rickshaw riders, the boot was on the other foot.  They weren't interested in a long ride to Hotel Broadway.  First it was 30 Rs., then 20 Rs., I offered 10 Rs.  No go.  After half an hour of searching for alternative supplies, I gave in.  Humiliating – but educative.

Back round the swimming pool for some more ultraviolet.  I also tried the other Kashmiri tea - noon chai.  This turned out to be what my shikara host had.  It was pale pink, made with milk – and salt.  It was really rather horrible.  It also vaguely reminded me of something, but luckily I couldn't remember what.

I decided to round off my time in Kashmir with another trip on the lake: water, after all, is the essence of Srinagar.  Haggling once more, I hired a shikara for a slow, two-hour trip round the main lake.  The perfect serenity of the water and the mountains was marred only by the occasional motor boat (sic), the shikara peddlers, and the children after baksheesh – flinging lotus blossoms into my boat as a Kashmiri inertia sell.  Further out, the water was so clear it was like riding on air above swaying weeds and grasses.  The mountains were reflected and hung on themselves.  The harmony of elements – water, earth and air – and the placid motion added up to an unforgettable experience.  I must come back.  To paraphrase: if there is paradise on earth, it is only Kashmir.

1986 India I: Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri
1986 India III: Jaipur, Udaipur

A Partial India

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