The HiVay King group on Facebook, a group dedicated to sharing road conditions and itinerary tips in India, had steered us towards a semi shoddy hotel on Boulevard rd. In this case Semi shoddy was a step up. We had been expecting full shoddy.
The first move the next morning was a trip to the Srinagar airport to become reunited with my baggage. Virgin Atlantic had finally found the bags, shipped them to Delhi, and the team in Delhi had forwarded them onto Srinagar, to await my arrival.
Chris and I caught a cab to the airport and spent an hour standing around until they finally took me into the back so I could prove that I was me and the bags were me too. But, eventually, I had my bags, with my gear!
Boulevard rd is a stretch along an inlet of Lake Dal, in Srinagar, which is famous for the houseboats. The houseboats of Srinagar aren’t like the houseboats Ive seen in North America. They are more like gigantic mobile homes that might or might not be floating. While it is possible that they are in fact sitting on the muddy bottom of the lake, it is sure that they are indeed surrounded by water.
Many are adorned with the intricate Hindi carvings that you see in ancient temples, and many are less detailed and look like giant floating hot dog carts, but it seems that all of them have rooms for rent.
We were walking along the lakefront, checking out the shops selling shawls, dhabas selling fried food, and masked men carrying automatic weapons, when we decided to go for it, and take a Shikara ride.
Shikaras are these banana shaped boats with colorful awnings and a dude with an oar paddling in the back. Rex and I took one boat, Ian, Chris and Simon in another.
The nice thing about these boats is that once you leave the dock you become a magnet for all the hustlers selling the hand carved wooden things, the newly manufactured antique jewelry, and shawls you already looked at on the shore, as well as the houseboat owners that have a deal worked out with the driver. Its basically like a time share tour, but you’re on a boat and cannot escape.
But, we did get approached by a boat selling chicken skewers, and another selling soft drinks and beer. That was allright.
And we got to tour 2 mobile homes, I mean houseboats. A fancy one that had 3 bedrooms, each of which renting for about $60 a night. It looked like a dumping ground for the shiny and glittery stuff that Liberace passed on. The second was much more simple, half the price, and came with an Indian family. It would have been much more fun than the first.
We had found spare paddles on the boats and had a race back to the dock. Rex and I lost by half a length, but that’s probably because Chris stole the good paddle from our boat while we were touring the houseboats. Or was it Ian….?
Once we were back on shore we wandered into the Srinagar Market area to see what sorts of controlled substances could be gotten at the local pharmacies. I was able to find Diamox, for altitude sickness, but nothing else of interest. The other guys scored some sleeping pills that facilitated a good nights rest while camping in the middle of a rocky mining road at high altitude, more on that later.
We also managed to track down one of Srinagar’s two liquor stores. Being a primarily Muslim, and secondarily Hindi community, the whole alcohol thing is strongly discouraged. Very strongly.
The liquor store was basically a combination of a malarial infested swamp, a meth lab, and fight club. Luckily our Tuk tuk drove through the swampy lagoon at the end of the unsigned alley, so we could get to the cages in the courtyard filled with trash and indigents. Chris was able to smoothly negotiate and hand off the money for the beer through the cage that was protecting the liquor from the locals, and the whole experience did not lead me to think that this would be a great time for me to start drinking again. Weird.
The Tuk tuks are kind of fun too. They are not called Tuk tuks, and don’t seem to like it when you insist on calling them Tuk tuks. They are also set up somewhat like a rolling confessional, with security curtains to prevent the unwanted gaze of unbelievers, and the little flappy door to this confessional can only be opened from the outside. They are also not big enough for 3 men. See photos.
After a fun day exploring the wonders of Srinagar, and not riding motorcycles, we packed up our gear and prepared for an early start, we wanted to get beyond Kargil and find a nice camping spot to spend the night on the way to Leh.
After the beating we took on the road into Srinagar, the road to Leh was a cake walk. The Zoji La pass was maintained by the military, and even though there was plenty of snow they managed to keep most of it off the road. We stopped for Tea at a winter park with skiing and snowmobiles. Simon found a small river flowing beneath the snow and proved to us once and for all that Bullets do not float. Im sorry we doubted him. Once in Kargil we found a mechanic to weld up Ians brake pedal so he would have a rear brake and could ride recklessly in the mud and snow.
The camping spot hunting was not as easy as Id hoped, we rode down back roads, through people’s yards, up long hills into remote villages, and alongside the river, but the best we were able to find was an abandoned mining road that probably wouldn’t have any traffic on it. So we lined the bikes up across the road and spread the tents out on the least lumpy of the rocks. Thanks to the exhaustion of a full days ride, and those sleeping pills I mentioned, we made it through the night and woke up ready to complete the ride to Leh.
The next day was pretty great, we had lunch at an ancient monastery, found a section of road with new pavement and were able to reach and maintain speeds above 50 mph andwe didn’t have any mechanical issues. The Lamayuru monastery was like a semi functional tourist attraction with full time residents. It is located on super steep bluffs overlooking a farming valley, has a decent restaurant and seems to specialize in No Photo signage. We were fortunate in our timing in that our full price tickets allowed us to experience the mid renovation stage of remodeling whereby local paid workers, all women, repainted the exterior walls by vigorously flinging buckets of paint at them and leaning out upper floor windows to pour the paint down the walls. I think the fling technology was much more effective.
We made it to Leh by late afternoon. Found a hotel downtown that met all of our standards of semi shoddiness, and even got to wander Leh a little before collapsing in exhaustion.
By the way, one indicator of Semi-shoddy and below is that we would all sleep in our sleeping bags on top of the beds, rather than under the covers on the bed. I probably don’t need to explain why.
Leh is an interesting town, the size of town doesn’t seem like it can possibly support that many knick knack shops and Guest Stay hotels. Its like a small town, population around 20,000, had converted every open space into a retail spot to unload manufactured things on tourists. Perhaps we were there so early in the season that we couldn’t see the source for all these customers, but how many trekkers and weekend Buddhists can there possibly be in this small town? Tourism and the local military base seem to be the only industries and the locals have become very organized. Well, except for the civic authorities. Someone with decision making authority had the brilliant idea of tearing up the streets in the downtown tourist area and replacing them with open sewers, unmarked pits, and piles of rusty detritus that might have been part of the infrastructure, or maybe would someday become this. Boards with nails sticking out, random lengths of rebar, household trash. The good stuff. It was like an obstacle course where the losers all get tetanus shots.
In the morning we all had our assignments. Simon, Chris and Ian were to go find Mohan the mechanic and attempt to repair the general damage to their bikes, Rex was doing something important, and I was off to acquire the Inner Line Permits so we could get into the highly protected Nubra Valley.
Nubra Valley is a protected region that occupies the border with China and Pakistan. The Northern end of the valley is the town of Turtuk which is interesting because it had been blocked to tourists from 1947 to 2010. It’s the village for the Balti tribe, they have their own language, which is only spoken, not written. And all foreign tourists need an Inner Line permit if they want to cross over the Khardung La pass into the Nubra Valley.
The instructions I found for Inner Line permits were simply to bring a passport to the DC office in Leh. (District Commissioner?)
The DC office was a small building amongst a government complex on the edge of downtown Leh. There were a dozen foreigners, a dozen locals, and a handful of people behind a counter, all looking equally confused. Everyone seemed to be watching one specific person, a guy in no sort of uniform, who was on the outside of the counter and seemed slightly less confused than the folks behind the counter. I guess I asked the right question. Others were telling him that they needed passes, that they had clients that needed passes, but no one had asked how to actually get these passes. I interrupted everyone and simply asked ‘How can I get 5 passes to Nubra for myself and four friends?’
This was something he could deal with, so he arranged all of us into something of an audience and began to explain to all of us how the new system worked.
This was day two of a whole new system to apply for Inner Line permits. First, the tourist needed to go to a specific website that does not appear on any internet search, and is not linked to from any official, or non official website. Then they need to fill out a form that includes all their personal details, including their passport and visa numbers, current addresses and current occupations. Then they will select a Tour Guide from a list of about 50 available Guides on a drop down menu. Then click submit.
There is no information on any of these guides. Who they are, what they specialize in, or how to contact them. There are no further instructions. Of the dozen locals, most of them were guides. I hollered out- ‘Who is a guide, and how much is a pass?’ Once of them spoke English and responded that they were in fact a guide, and it was 600 r per person, roughly $10.
Then the supervisor sat me down at his computer where I used my group’s info to create 5 different applications, showing all the guides how to enter the info and how to make sure that their company was the one selected by each client. I needed to help them with several more before everyone seemed to have a solid grasp on the new system.
Then we had to go to a different office across town, to print out the official passes, but their internet was down, so the guide wound up taking care of it on his own bringing the passes to our hotel later that day. It’s a good thing that we had written that day off as a down day and didn’t really plan to get any riding done.
While the guys were at Mohan’s shop, waiting for the repairs to be complete, Simon found a print shop and used the manager’s computer to create a new design, now known as Happy Mountain. We all agree that it embodies 3 rounded mountain peaks with a happy face in the taller, central peak. Some skeptics may suggest that it also resembles male reproductive organs, but we assure you that this is entirely Freudian and advise counseling. He must have printed over one hundred of these bold yellow stickers, because they are basically everywhere in downtown Leh. All of our bikes and helmets, naturally. The display windows of our hotels and nearby shops, passing SUVs that we felt put too much energy into their horns, etc….
All in all, a successful day. We got the Inner Line permits, the Happy Mountain stickers and the bikes were tuned and ready to go.