India Challenge

We had just come through Jammu, a city that we had all been looking forward to seeing, we had heard so much about it. This was the temple capital of Kashmir, no more than me as the landscape was starting to flatten out, which meant that I could get off this diesel smoke spewing highway that I have been following for a while now. What a disappointment as I got closer as the road wound down the valley, the horizon disappeared and turned into this black polluted haze, the most polluted city we had seen in the whole of Kashmir really chaotic and just a mayhem of traffic everywhere, long dusty streets wall to wall with people and the rest. I now know what I am going to be in for on this journey, I am going to have to find a way to black all of this out, focus on the beauty that I see and draw inspiration from that instead of letting the other side eat away at me. Taking this into consideration I decided to push on through Jammu and see what the other side of town has to offer. The city was so sprawled down the valley, and I was struggling with my knee so we decided to find a site in the city, I was not going to make it out of this by night fall and a camp site was going to be a near impossibility. Ramveer, the crew driver, introduced us to a new side of India that we had not yet experienced, he managed to find an Ashram, a spiritual centre open to all, a safe haven and place to sleep. We were offered a place to pitch our tents and spend the evening.

As with any country that one travels to there are always the warnings that are dished out to you, be careful of this and that, don’t go here or there and so on it goes. The most common of these warnings is always food and water, no matter where you are traveling. Out of all my trips no warning has ever been this strong on the food and water subject as prior to this India trip. It’s sounded like a no-go zone.

Hamish and I were running into a village and something caught my eye, there was a guy about 25m up a 40m poplar tree. But the strange thing was that he was chopping the top of the tree off. There was a rope attached to the tree 10m above his head. The rope was being held by 4 guys who were pulling on the tree top to try and angle it not to fall on the home below. The tree chopper was dangling there trying to fell it. We could see that this was going to end in tears, so we decided to hang around and se what was going to unfold.

It was only the second day of running, I was really tired, had a few niggles that were bugging me, as well as just trying to mentally adjust to what I was going to be up against every day. Fighting my own internal battles, I decided best to climb into my tent and see what the morning has to offer. Suddenly I awoke in a daze, voices everywhere my tent drenched in a bright light shining into it as if it were daylight. I didn’t really know what was going on, I heard Andy saying something, then Nick. I was still half asleep when I heard someone pulling at my tent saying "Get out! Get out!". I unzipped my tent and stuck my head out zap, straight into a spotlight, once I had focused the next thing I saw was the barrel of an automatic weapon and then I focused on the camouflaged uniforms of a group of soldiers all shouting something. I was still totally confused as I stood up in amongst the soldiers, dust lights and mayhem that was unfolding.

It’s been bad enough trapped on this road, the spine running through Kashmir, every one and everything has to use it. There is just no other route to travel. On either side of the road, there are massive mountains that just rise up and up into the clouds, steep and unforgiving with the main feature being thousand meter high shale landslides that are active everywhere. There are ranges in every direction, that’s the choice one has. The road itself is in bad condition, treacherous, the smoke pollution is unbearable, as for the litter, its astonishing to see the extent of it. But it’s the only route at the moment I have to just stick to this road and admire the scenery and take what happens as it come, and it come in many forms. If you are lucky there is only an apple that’s thrown at you. Then there is the odd blob of the favourite pastime that might float out of a vehicle and smack into you – known as “Gobbing” big lumps from deep in the lungs that spat out of windows, one every now and then tends to find as you pass.

There is a single valley that runs up into northern Kashmir and only road one road heading this way was built called the 1A. This is it, this is where it all happens. I have had the odd day that I have been able to veer off this, into a bit of peace and quiet of a mountain valley, but the rest of the time it’s been this dam stretch of abused asphalt that I have had to deal with as well as every conceivable vehicle that travels it. I think that 40% of the traffic that travels this road is the military and the rest is whatever can be pieced together and made to move forward on its own, it's then classified as a vehicle and it is here, and oh yes, it also has to have enough power to be able to sustain an air horn at full blast all the time.

It’s been a mad day, the start of the run, all the emotion that goes with it. Now it’s out into the mountains for the next 280km as I head down to Jammu. It’s also our last chance to get supplies as we will all be camping along the roads, tracks and wherever we land up at the end of the day. Nick was desperately trying to get the internet setups on our Nokias sorted, but having massive problems as there was a Military block on all devices in this area. The morning run was over and we headed for the market, it was pots, pans. Gas cooking rings, food, plus all the cooking utensils etc. We then went looking for a shop to get some fold up chairs and tables for the evening when we would all meat up and the daily crew set up. I left Andy and the driver to tie all the boxes on the roof and headed of on my search. Twenty minutes later I get a frantic call from Andy. “David they have arrested the driver”

For the past few days I have been staring up at the mountain behind the town at a distinct shape in the mist, the ancient temple of Shankarchaya, and the start of my journey. I had decided before the journey that I was going to wait with the start of the run until I got news from home about the birth of my first grandchild. Tamlin, my daughter and her husband Vaughn have been expecting the birth of their first child any day now. I have now received the news that my grandson has been born. Let the journey begin. “I dedicate this journey to little Loki” The journey can begin.

It was a 5:30 start, pitch dark and really cold as we border our shikara or water taxi. A large portion of the population of Srinagar in Cashmere, live in massive floating homes on Dal Lake so this is the most common form of transport in this area. The previous day I had met a local guy called Dean who had told us about a unique food market, but it was half an hour paddle to get to it. Sounded confusing, but we agreed to go. It was dead quiet as we slowly glided across the lake, steam oozing out of the glass like water surface, in the distance all that we could here was the sound of the chanting rolling over the water surface from the mosque, calling people to prayer. The shikara effortlessly twisting up the narrow channels between the homes, hardly a light on we were paddled into something I think that very few people have experience, a day in the life of a community that we never knew existed, an ancient vibrant culture that has been quietly living in Himalayan foothills for hundreds of years.

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