The world’s best kept secret…


Friday 23rd July 2010

Hello all,
After my rather rushed email last time I thought I would try for something slightly more interesting!

My trip to Srinagar in north-western Kashmir got cancelled. Two days before I was due to leave I met a friend at a party who had just come back from there and said things were heating up again. Lots of fighting in the streets, military everywhere, a couple of civilians had been shot last week and an almost 24-7 curfew, meaning you can’t really leave your hotel room anyway.
Not exactly my idea of a holiday!

However, I managed to get half of my ticket refunded, and on the advice of a friend booked a flight up to Leh, in the Ladakh region of eastern Kashmir instead. Ladakh is a predominantly Tibetan region, which was essentially it’s own kingdom until it was annexed and became part of Kashmir state, but it’s not generally considered to be a part of Kashmir from a cultural point of view. It has been almost completely un-affected by the Kashmiri conflict, and apart from the heavy military presence is very quiet and calm and peaceful.

I managed to get a few nice photos as we flew in, but it wasn’t until we dropped below the cloud line coming in to land that the view just blew my mind. Unfortunately that was the exact moment we were told we couldn’t take any more pictures, as there were tons of military bases in view, and they don’t love tourists photographing their stuff. However I can assure you that the view was literally breathtaking and spectacular and unlike anything I have ever seen before in my life. Huge mountains reared up so close you could see the different strata (stratae?) running through the rocks and snow-capped peaks stretched off as far as the eye could see. It was also a bit dizzying as we banked extremely sharply to land in a fairly narrow valley – not for the faint-hearted, but worth every penny and probably a lot more!

I spent the first day or so resting and pottering about town gently – if you fly in you have to rest for at least 24 hours to adjust to the altitude (Leh is at 3500 metres). Today I went on a half day tour to the major local sights, the temples and palace ruins and stupas up on the hills. The views from there were stupendous – words really don’t do justice to the visual assault on your eyes and brain. As I sat up on the hills I literally struggled to drag my eyes away from the view – the phrase “a feast for the eyes” suddenly meant something to me – as if my eyes were drinking it all in and couldn’t get enough. I suddenly realised why India and Pakistan have been to war three times over this little piece of earth – it’s practically paradise. (I know, I know, there’s a bit more to it than that, but give me some poetic license here!). I mean seriously, if there is a God, this is where he would live.

So naturally, as I stumbled back down the hill in awe of all this magnificence, I saw the most hilarious thing I’ve seen in months that kept me smiling all afternoon. An extremely skinny old man, (and I mean he looked at least 70, if not 80), clearly a tourist (and by that I’m trying to say that he was white in the most PC way possible), with a big white beard, was standing by the road admiring the view, wearing full cycling gear – helmet, lycra shorts, knee-pads etc, and holding a UNICYCLE.

Really.
I’m not kidding.

An elderly gentleman travelling by unicycle around Kashmir has to be one of the most random, hilarious and bizarre things I have ever seen in my life. If God lives here, I bet he has a hell of a sense of humour too. (Or maybe that WAS God? If I was a deity, I would probably take the form of an elderly man and unicycle my way around the himalayas just for a laugh too).

So, after pondering all this beauty, and whether or not I had just seen God, I went to a cafe for lunch and had to drag my eyes off the view outside for a few minutes in order to properly appreciate the view inside – the 7 hot frenchmen sitting two tables away!

Leh is a very chilled out town – it’s full of tourists, but not at all the worse for it, like some places I have been to. Everyone is walking around calm and happy, and everyone is nice and friendly, so it’s hard not to walk around with a smile on your face too! It’s a tiny small town, so you frequently bump into the same people over and over again – the nice Swiss couple who took a photo of me, the South African family who got chatting to me at breakfast, (I must say I was surprised by how many families are here with small children – mostly french, dutch or Belgian, but the kids seem to be loving it, so why not I suppose?) and of course, God, who sailed past me again in town this afternoon on his unicycle, holding a large watermelon in both hands as he pedalled.

All in all, I adore this place and I’m sorry I haven’t got longer here. I am SO glad that my trip to Srinagar got cancelled, as I never would have thought to come here otherwise, and I think it honestly might be my favourite place on earth so far. Of all the countries and places I have been to, I’ve never felt more awestruck or amazed by the sheer beauty and magnificence of a place before. In fact, I think I might have fallen in love with it.
Kashmir is the world’s best kept secret.

I will of course upload some photos once I’m back in Delhi, but I don’t think the photos will even begin to capture the feeling of being here. I would love to come back here again and spend more time exploring the area, as well as going to Srinagar another time. In fact, I have just today realised what my life’s dream is – the number one top thing I want to do before I die. There are a lot of people here travelling around Kashmir by motorbike, and apparently the roads and mountain passes are some of the most beautiful and amazing in the world – and best seen by motorbike! I would LOVE to bike across Kashmir, from Manali to Leh, and then across to Srinagar and back down. You can rent a big old Royal Enfield Bullet to do it with – lovely old bikes, with plenty of space for luggage and things. Unfortunately I’m not nearly proficient enough to drive a big bike like that across a mountain range by myself, so clearly I will have to find a gorgeous bike-riding boyfriend to accompany me ASAP – or failing that a good friend who knows about bikes!

This is now my new number-one thing to do before I die, life’s dream, etc etc. It did mean shunting “make out with a hot fireman” down to the number 2 spot, but I’m fairly sure I can achieve both before I die if I really put my mind to it. All the other things I had on my “bucket list” have paled in importance in comparison with biking through Kashmir. So, my dear friends and family, please keep your eyes peeled, as this is what I would like for Christmas/future birthdays etc:

1 gorgeous and sexy boyfriend, competent on bikes, (both driving and maintenance), interesting and with lots of chat (he’ll need it if he’s going to be trapped on a bike with no one but me for days on end!), nice, funny, etc.

Please send by first class post to my Suffolk address for immediate travelling/boyfriend duties and commencement of happy ending.

It’s not too much to ask is it? Obviously I will be doing my best to find one such hunk in amongst all the gorgeous frenchies and other europeans already straddling their Enfields up here, but many of them sadly appear to have girlfriends already, or else be travelling in intimidatingly beautiful packs that in my current podgy state I couldn’t possibly approach (although gazing, sighing and dribbling from afar is of course allowed). Those of you who I count as good friends should consider it your duty as a good friend to keep a look out for suitable men, and to send them in my direction.

Well, that’s about it for now I suppose. I’ve got another little excursion planned for tomorrow to a village just outside of Leh, and then at silly o’clock on Monday morning I’ve got a 2-day bus journey down to Manali, through some dizzying mountain passes (the highest one is over 5000 metres). Although naturally if I do in fact find Mr Perfect between now and Monday morning I may opt to ride off into the sunset with him instead.

Hope you’re all well, and busy planning your own trips to Ladakh as we speak,

tons of love
Kashmir-Lovin’ Maya
(soon to be found on the back of an Enfield roaring off into the sunset with my arms around a gorgeous hunk of Hot (French/German/Spanish/Kashmiri/insert your chosen nationality here) Guy)

xxx

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