Alok and Ankita’s Wedding

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They tied the knot in Agra, India, in April. We were invited to the festivities. Indian weddings are legendary, days of interesting, lavish events. This was something not to miss.

Two years ago on a trip to northern India with a German tour group, I met Alok. (see previous posts, Intriguing India and more ) He was our guide – affable, knowledgable and fun. He speaks fluent German, as well as English in addition to his native Hindi. Among the many wedding guests were others from his tours.

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The wedding took place in Agra, Alok’s hometown and site of the Taj Mahal, a symbol of love.
We wanted to follow customs, so we sought the advice of friends who had lived and worked in India. They looked over the invitation, a large elaborate card in bright red with gold lettering. Four events. Four different days. Each, we learned, required special attire. I was lucky. My friend Sigrid, a very talented seamstress, had been invited to an Indian wedding in London several years ago. She made two gorgeous outfits, both of a golden fabric that had been purchased in India. Perfect. I could borrow them.

Bob was not so lucky. When we arrived in Delhi, we showed the invitation to the

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Try on at shop, very classy but he never wore the vest.
guide/driver who would take us to Agra. He agreed. Bob needed to go native and wear Indian clothing for the events.  We were whisked off to a classy shop where the salesman, after checking the invitation, convinced us Bob needed at least two Indian outfits. He tried to sell us three, but we stopped at two.

To make sure that we committed no grave faux pas, at our hotel in Agra I asked a receptionist to come to our room and check out our wedding wardrobe. She looked over the invitation and announced that my golden outfits were OK, but would not do for the main event, the actual wedding. For that, a genuine sari was de rigeur. Bob’s newly purchased Indian garb would do, but his shoes would not. He needed Indian foot attire, a type of slipper.

Determined to do it right, we set off to the bazaar the next morning. Bob refused to go for the slippers, but he did acquiesce and purchase a type of loafer. I bought a sari, sapphire blue, but later leaned that I should have gone for a brighter color.

The salesman skillfully wrapped the sari, nothing but a long piece of cloth (saris are from five to nine yards long), around me. No way I could ever master this. “Just google it,” he advised.

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All decked out for the ring ceremony
Festivities kicked off with the ring ceremony. Swathed in golden cloth, and Bob in his dark green sherwani (?), Indian tunic and his new Indian loafers, we set off to a hotel where the event, attended by several hundred guests, was held. As they paraded in, we began to feel very uncomfortable. The men did not wear traditional Indian garb, just basic western street clothes. Most of the women, however, wore colorful saris with their arms festooned in tiers of sparkling bangles.

The groom arrived wearing a business suit, albeit a very smart, stylish one. Bob was not happy, feeling a bit ridiculous in his Indian costume. (I thought he looked cool). I also felt my golden garb was way over the top. So much for the advice of experts!

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As this was a Hindu wedding, no alcohol. There was an assortment of very tasty hors d’oeuvres. Folks mingled around and kept busy with cell phone cameras. There were plenty of photo ops for all, including several professional photographers.

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Ankita and her parents before the cameras
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After the bride arrived, bejewelled and clad in a glamorous sari, ceremonies got under way. There were numerous different rituals: certain ones for the groom, others for the bride, and lots more photo ops.

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We started to leave when the rituals ended — oops, not so soon. Guests were lining up in an adjacent room for a buffet. We joined in – delicious.

The following day Alok invited us and others from his tours to his home. We enjoyed chatting with the guests, mostly Germans, and savoring tasty delicacies, some prepared by Alok’s father. Alok had plenty of beer for his German friends.

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Hospitality at Alok’s family home.
That night a type of cocktail party and buffet hosted by the groom for his family and friends took place on the rooftop of a hotel/restaurant. Bob wore a sports coat, approved by the hotel receptionist. I ignored her advice and did not wear golden outfit number 2… fortunately. This was not a dressy affair. Not all Hindus are teetotalers, we learned. As this was Alok’s event, beer and Indian whiskey were available.

fullsizeoutput_a4dWhen it came time for the wedding, two days later, again I requested assistance from a hotel receptionist. No way could I google “sari” and conquer the wrap. Another helpful young woman came to the rescue and dressed me.  Bob wore the luscious red tunic (sherwani). He rejected the gorgeous vest and matching pants, but the Indian loafers were on his feet.

The wedding began with the “barat,” a raucous parade from the groom’s house to the party venue.

We first joined others at his home where he was seated at a kitchen table being dressed by his mother and others. They sang as they worked. This time he was in full traditional attire, turban and all.

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The parade was incredible, dancing guests following a “band,” lots of horns and drums. Fireworks along the route added more noise. Traffic had to stop. The groom, seated high up in a horse-drawn carriage under a garland festooned canopy,   brought up the rear.

fullsizeoutput_a55All manner of stands offing a wide range of food ringed the huge, open venue space. The bride and groom sat on a stage at one end. A band played. In addition to numerous photographers, the momentous event was captured by drone cameras.

Guests lined up to offer best wishes to the pair, showering them with rose petals. This went on for several hours, but the real wedding ceremony, more Hindu rituals, took place much later and was attended mainly by close family.

We will long remember Alok and Ankita’s wedding,  like no other.  And, just in case we get invited to another Indian wedding,  our wardrobe is ready.

A Word on Indian Weddings

In India, “When a baby girl is born, the family starts saving for her wedding,” said Sunil Kumar Nair, resident manager of the DoubleTree Hilton in Agra where we stayed. “The bride’s family pays for all. The boy gets everything,” he added.

Average cost: $50,000 to $60,000. That accounts for about 200 guests, but it is not uncommon to have many more, up to 2,000 guests with a corresponding price tag. During our stay, many weddings took place at the hotel, outdoors on the lawn in a football field – sized space.

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Wedding venue at our hotel.
And, many weddings that week in April all over Agra, a popular wedding site with its iconic Taj Mahal considered a symbol of love.

Wedding dates are decided by the Hindu calendar. There are two main wedding seasons, we learned, September to February, and April/May. A priest consults the horoscopes of the couple, the positions of the planets and the stars, and fixes the date. Sunil said one year on February 2, a particularly auspicious day, there were 80,000 weddings in Delhi.

Alok and Ankita’s marriage was arranged, as are about 80 percent of marriages in India. It usually starts with a search in the Sunday Times of India: a full page of “Wanted Grooms” and another of “Wanted Brides.” The ads are divided into categories by caste. India has four main castes, and it is important to marry within one’s caste. Both Alok and Ankita are Brahmins.

When a probable match is found, background info, references etc. , are exchanged. If all looks good, the parents meet. If that goes well, the couple meets with the parents. Alok first met Ankita during a stop at a highway restaurant on one of his tours.

Sunil said traditions are changing, and more and more couples are marrying for love. Yet, the arranged system has its merits. According to one source, the divorce rate in India is the lowest in the world.

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Between wedding events, we walked the Taj Mahal nature trail.
After the wedding,  we toured spectacular Rajasthan.  More in coming posts.  Don’t miss out.  If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up, upper right.  Your address is kept private and never shared.

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India’s Big Cats

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Beautiful Bhamsa

Wow! There he was, lounging high up on the rocks. Magnificent. Gorgeous. Bhamsa, a 3-year-old male leopard. On a previous safari in Africa, then one in Sri Lanka, I had hopes of a leopard sighting. No luck. These cats are secretive, elusive.

PHOTO-2018-05-08-15-58-37We were in the rugged countryside near Narlai, a rural village in Rajasthan, India. Just us, a guide and the jeep driver. First we bounced around the back country near our hotel, off roads, into fields, through bush, stopping frequently to scour the landscape. A few peacocks. Antelope. Errant cows. Nary a leopard. I was more than disappointed, certain this would be yet another failed mission.

Abruptly the driver turned around, backtracked through the village, on to a major road, racing like police on a chase. Hold on! A sharp turn onto a dirt track through rugged, barren terrain. The chase intensified.

As we approached a range of rocky slopes, the vehicle came to a speedy halt. “There, up there, a leopard.” Leopard? Where? I had a hard time finding him. Those spots and the beige coat blend in with the background. The guide gave me his binoculars. Yes. There he was. Awesome.

fullsizeoutput_9eaWe watched Bhamsa, mesmerized. He stared at us. My Olympus lens was not long enough for photos, but the guide took many with his Canon Power Shot and sent them to me on Whats App.

As we marveled at our leopard, out of nowhere appeared a young man with masala tea (an Indian special with spices), sandwiches and cookies. Also awesome.

We learned that eight leopards make their home in this region which is not on the popular Rajasthan tourist trek. Each leopard has his own territory of about 14 kilometers.

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Life expectancy for leopards is between 15-18 years. They weigh in between 70 -80 kilos, smaller than tigers which can weigh up to 200 kilos.

Bhamsa grew bored watching us, slowly stood up, stretched his long, lean beautiful body and moved on, jumping onto rocks out of our sight.

The excitement, the thrill of viewing wild beasts — be they gorillas, elephants, lions, leopards — in their natural habitat is like no other. I can’t get enough.

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According  to the last census (2014) there are 2,226 tigers in India which has 50 tiger reserves.

India rewarded us – not just with one leopard, but two tigers. We joined a group safari in Ranthambore National Park, a vast wildlife reserve in Rajasthan and home to 68 tigers. This time we were in a jeep with four others, some of whom had been on many tiger safaris and had interesting tales to tell.

On our morning trek we saw the imposing 10th century Ranthambore Fort up on a hillside, as well as the ubiquitous peacocks and antelope. Leopards also make their home in the park, but it is the tigers for which it is known.

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Due to shrinking habitats in India, leopards and tigers sometimes enter villages, killing livestock.  Humans have also been attacked.

After several boring hours, a tiger was spotted. That is, someone spotted a tiger. Again I failed to see it. This feline was sleeping in the brush, well camouflaged. All that was visible was the head. We drove around to another spot for a better view, soon followed by vehicle after vehicle. Word had spread fast.

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We, and at least 12 other vehicles filled with eager eyes, waited and waited. My patience was dwindling. I had seen enough of the tiger’s head. The guide knew best. The tiger would wake up.

It did. He sat up for awhile, taking in the conglomeration of vehicles, perhaps hoping we would disappear. No way. Not concerned, after a bit he headed in our direction, closer and closer. Even my Olympus could handle this. Ranthambore tigers are obviously accustomed to an audience.

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And, not far behind, another stunning tiger. They were brother and sister, 1½ year old cubs, we learned. They paraded by, the female following her brother, remarkably close to the safari jeeps.

Too close for comfort was the tiger which jumped in front of a resident at our lodging, Khem Villas, located in the wilderness on the edge of the park. The gentleman from London decided to take an early morning stroll (5 a.m.) and was standing by the pool when the tiger jumped from a wall. He froze. The tiger went her way. All was well. We later learned that a few days earlier another resident had spotted the tiger drinking at the pond on the property. I was not so lucky, but I was overwhelmed with the footage of the same tiger, a mother with two precious 2-month old cubs dutifully following behind, that had been captured by the hotel motion camera.

According to the staff, the tiger has left the park in search of new territory to protect her babies from a sex-hungry male. The latter are known to kill the cubs of a female if they want to mate. Khem Villas advises residents not to stray from the complex. Barriers are erected at night.

One of our vehicle mates, a young man from Mumbai, knew more about tigers than the guides. He had been all over India on tiger safaris. I was fascinated with the story of Machli,a famous Ranthambore tiger, “the most photographed tiger in the world” who died at the age of 20 in 2016. She had seven liters of cubs and is legendary for killing a huge crocodile. Google her. There are pictures of the crocodile kill, and her funeral.

Our fascinating 11-day tour of Rajasthan was organized by Wild Frontiers. www.wildfrontiers.co.uk

After returning from India about a month ago, we launched into house sale, a big project which has left me no time for blogging.   We must downsize and hope to move close to the Med. I have missed blogging and have much more to tell about India, and Egypt,  and where we may move.  So stay tuned.

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It will be sad to leave, but now is the time.

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GERMANS ON THE ROAD

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German tour group at the Taj Mahal

Gerlinde trekked for 12 days in northern Myanmar, a region with no roads, only accessible by small plane and requiring special permission to visit. “It was the best trip ever, such an adventure, no tourists. We did not see a white face for five days,” she said.

Erich traveled by camel, through the Jordanian dessert for a week. He camped in a cave used for burials. “It was very romantic. Normal tourists don’t do this,” he said. He recalled other past adventures: Driving from Germany to Iran; being robbed, a knife at his neck, in eastern Turkey.


I wrote this article for the magazine German Life (www.germanlife.com) where it was recently published. As soon as I conquer a new operating system on my computer, I hope to post more on Sri Lanka.


Sepp has climbed mountains in Pakistan, India and Nepal. He and his wife Inge have been to Morocco, Mauritius, Uzbekistan, all European countries, and recently to India for the fourth time.

Annette returned to Rwanda for the fifth time to hike uphill through dense bamboo forests to observe mountain gorillas. “I am addicted,” she explained.

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Annette, far right, on her fifth trip to Rwanda, a trek to see mountain gorillas.

Many Germans, like those mentioned above, are passionate about travel. While the above adventures may not be among the pursuits of the average tourist, Germans are known, not just for their travel lust, but for seeking out exotic destinations and unique experiences…sometimes too unique

Ivy, a staff member at a safari lodge in Botswana, told a horrifying tale of a German couple who were driving through the game park in a rented car which broke down. The husband left his wife and set out on foot to find assistance. His wife stayed in the car and was rescued. He never returned…only his boots were found.

Most tourists visit the game parks with a group and guide, Ivy said, but “the Germans prefer self-drive.”

Comments on German travelers from a travel web site included this from someone who had worked at a resort hotel in Eilat, Israel: “From all the nations that would make our guests (and workers) it seems that the Germans were the most traveled people.”

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In the Myanmar jungle, Gerlinde encountered leeches.

Another comment: “I was recently in South Africa and let me tell you that I think I met more Germans than South Africans. They are everywhere!!” With six weeks of paid vacation per year, Germans have more time to travel than the average American. Travel they do, especially in winter to escape the oppressive, cold and dark days.

Norbert Fiebig, president of the Deutscher Reise Verband, sums it up on the organization web site: “Germans attach great importance to travelling. Most Germans are fascinated by relaxing holidays and discovering cultures and landscapes that are foreign to them.” Blogger Andrew Couch, who writes about Germany, finds “the quality of life idea of having vacation time is deeply a part of German working culture.”

Perhaps Germans are inspired by the country’s literary giant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His Italienische Reise (Italian Journey) is a classic. Für Naturen wie die meine ist eine Reise unschätzbar: Sie belebt, berichtigt, belehrt und bildet, ” he wrote in a letter to Schiller in 1797. “For natures like mine a journey is invaluable; it animates, corrects, instructs and develops.”

Last year I accompanied a German tour group to northern India. Most of the group, like Sepp and Inge, had been to India numerous times, as well as many other countries. They especially like the friendly people in India, the culture, and “last but not least, the good food,” said traveler Rainer.

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German tourists in Dharamsala, India

Our Indian guide, Rajesh Mendiratta, has been leading German tour groups for 25 years. He started out in the tourist industry working in a hotel. German guests complained that the

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Tour guides Alok and Raj

guides did not speak good German, he recalled. He decided to learn the language, studied at the Goethe Institute in India and became a guide mainly for Germans.

The Germans are interested in learning about everything. They are very correct people. They are appreciative,” he said.

Most in our group knew Raj from previous trips. He has visited some of them in Germany. “They invite me in their homes. I value their friendship,” he said.

For the second portion of our trip, a younger Indian guide, Alok Tripathi, took over. Like many Indians he speaks English, but he decided to learn German and focus on German tourists because “there is too much competition with English.”

He agrees with Raj and has found that “Germans want to learn everything, the culture; traditions…Americans just want to shop.” Yet, Americans get a plus for tips. They are more generous, he said.

According to Raj, Germans rank as the number one nationality visiting India. “They saved us,” he said, referring to the slump in tourism 10 years ago when other nationalities, including the British who had been at the top, cut back on travel to India. Germans kept coming.

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Germans visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, where heads must be covered.

While Germans love India, it is not their favorite foreign destination. That distinction goes to Spain, followed by Greece and Italy. “Greece is currently having the strongest growth with booking plus of 41 percent compared to last summer,” said Susanne Stünckel, a spokesperson for TUI Deutschland, the largest leisure, travel and tourism company in the world.

Long-distance destinations such as the U.S., Mexico, South America, Canada, Indonesia and the Seychelles, are also “growing rapidly,” she said.  New York is the German favorite in the U.S., followed by Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco.

More Germans, like those previously mentioned, are venturing off the beaten track, Stünckel noted, “moving more and more into exotic destinations with increasing travel experience.”

One such place is Iran, which travel agent Bettina Rohleder in Karlsruhe termed “very popular.” Travelers, including Gerlinde who visited Iran with a guide,  find the country friendly and fascinating.

Yet Germany is considered the most popular overall destination of Germans who are happy with short travel distances, the close proximity of attractions, and being able to speak the same language.

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The Black Forest, above, is popular for “Wandern” (hiking), a favorite German pastime.

Hiking in Bavaria, swimming in the Baltic Sea, culture and history in Berlin – it’s the variety that people love,’’ said Karl Born, professor of tourism management at the Harz University of Applied Sciences in Saxony-Anhalt.

Hamburg is tops for culture this year with the recent opening of the Elbphilharmonie, the city’s new concert hall acclaimed as one of the largest and most acoustically advanced concert halls in the world. The glassy construction resembling a hoisted sail was designed by Herzon & de Meuron and is attracting visitors from around the world — not just Germany.

According to the German National Tourist Board (GNTB), culture is the number one drawing card (75%) for visits to the country, followed by the outdoors and countryside. Whatever the motivation, more and more international tourists are joining the Germans to experience the wonders of Deutschland. The nation’s tourism numbers have been up consistently for the past six to seven years.

Germany’s reputation as a stable, safe and affluent nation has boosted its status as an attractive travel destination in recent years, especially as tourists increasingly find themselves in the crosshairs of international terrorists,” notes Deutsche Welle, the country’s international broadcaster.

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Germany’s number one attraction:  Neuschwanstein Castle

With 35 million international visitors in 2015, Germany placed eighth in world tourism rankings by the United Nations World Tourism Organization. France took top honors that year with 84.5 million visitors. Most foreign visitors to Germany come from the neighboring Netherlands, followed by Switzerland, with the U.S. in third place.

The top attraction in the country: Neuschwanstein Castle. Other favorites are the Berlin Wall,

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Wilma at the Taj Mahal.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Heidelberg Castle, the Cologne Cathedral and the Romantic Road. Berlin is the most popular city, followed by Munich.

“Germany is full of attractions,” says my friend Wilma who lives in Darmstadt. “I like the Rhine. I like Bavaria and the mountains. I like the cities, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg. There are so many old and interesting things. Germany would be the best country for travel if it weren’t for the weather.”

Never mind the weather, Germany was number one in the U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Countries” index.

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Adventures – and a CRASH — in Kashmir

kash.34“More beautiful than the heaven.” So wrote Sanskrit poet Kalidasa of the Kashmir Valley.

It is a beauty with spectacular mountain vistas (when the clouds disappear), sparkling lakes, surging streams, gorgeous gardens and dense forests.

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Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, has several magnificent gardens.

Sadly political violence has scarred this wonderland for many years, keeping tourists away from what was once a popular destination. For the most part, calm has returned and travelers are trickling back.

(UPDATE:  Unfortunately violence has erupted in Kashmir this summer.  The calm we enjoyed is no more:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/21/opinion/kashmir-in-crisis.html?action=click&contentCollection=Asia%20Pacific&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article )

I visited in April with a tour group from Germany. I am a mountain person and had longed to see the grandiose Himalayan peaks which are said to outclass the Alps. But,  weather was not on our side. While visiting Kashmir we had some rain and mainly very cloudy skies and not many glorious views of towering, snow capped peaks.

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Srinagar’s Dal Lake — and  clouds

What I missed in mountain scenery I gained in people experiences. We had a tight schedule on this 16-day visit to northern India with almost no time on our own – except in Kashmir where I was able to leave the group and explore.

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Friendly folks I met

A hike was scheduled on the slopes above the town of Pahalgam, a mountain resort and trekking base. The group was slow. Many decided to ride horses rather than walk. I left them behind and forged ahead. My solitary walk was not that solitary. Other hikers (Indian tourists) approached and started conversations: a 70-year old from Calcutta, a young woman who had just returned from four years in upstate New York where she pursued bio-tech research, a family with several children in tow. Many wanted their picture taken with me – not too many tall blondes in northern India. It was fun and delightful.

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Many Indian tourists, and many in our group, preferred to visit the mts. on horseback.  Men at left are horse owners who drive a hard bargain for a ride on one of their mounts.

So too was my solo hike from our hotel outside of the town – until the CRASH. We had a free afternoon. I set off down the main road, narrow and nasty, then crossed a foot bridge over the Lidder River. A gentleman kash.bapproached, Jeelani, an English-speaking Kashmiri with a group who were having a picnic nearby. He invited me to join his friends. I figured if I did, I would be obliged to eat. My stomach was not in great shape, so I politely declined.

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I was invited to join this picnic.
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Father and daughter at picnic.

Jeelani wanted to show me a tiny temple/mosque nearby where, he said, people had been worshiping for 400 years. (Kashmir is mainly Muslim.) We chatted. I took photos — of the mosque, the scenery, the picnickers — then continued back. After crossing the bridge, I tripped over a fat cable and came down hard on the pavement, my face smashing against the cement. Blood. Pain. Two men ahead heard the collision and came to my assistance. I was more worried about my precious camera than my face. Fortunately the camera still worked. Praise be Canon!. I am a klutz and have fallen too many times with this camera. (My husband calls me “Crash.”) Miraculously the trusty Canon survives.

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At the top of the path I crashed.

My face fared less well. The nice rescuers offered me a ride to my hotel, to a hospital. I opted to hike back. At the hotel, I asked for ice. I must have frightened the desk clerk who also suggested I go to the hospital… I could not imagine a hospital in the boondocks of Kashmir.

I was lucky. We had a doctor in our tour group. He said he did not think my nose was broken. My teeth were probably OK.   Best treatment: ice and pain medication.

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Selfie shorly after crash –much worse the next day.

It was not that painful, but I was a sight with a lip that turned purple and looked worse than those fat lips you can buy for Halloween.  Makeup helped cover up the marks on the battered and also swollen nose, but nothing could help the deformed lip. I got used to stares during the rest of the journey.

Nonetheless, it was a rewarding experience. In Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir on Dal Lake, I took off shopping on my own. I made several purchases at the Kashmir Gift Store where I had a fascinating conversation with shop owner, Nazir.

First, a bit of background. India’s northernmost state, Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), is bordered by Pakistan and China. Until the early 19th century it was a collection of distinct regions under Sikh rule. The British defeated the Sikhs in 1846, and in ensuing years the region chose to join India. An India-Pakistan conflict has simmered and boiled since 1947.

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On the road to Pahalgam

Today the region is divided amongst three countries (Pakistan, China and India) and entangled in a territorial dispute. The major conflict is between India and Pakistan, each believing that it should control the entire region. A great number of Kashmiris, however, want independence.

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Kashmir is noted for its handicrafts, especially carpets.

In 1989, following rigged elections, militant groups took up arms to free Kashmir from India. Since then, some 30,000 have died in the fighting. Violence in the region has subsided and the once thriving tourist industry is on the rebound. (See above Update — violence has returned). However, during our visit security was tight following an incident in which Indian soldiers shot four Kashmiris who protested the alleged rape of a Kashmiri girl by the solders. We were stopped at road blocks. Armed soldiers were seen along the roads and in Srinagar. There was a three-day strike when all shops and businesses were closed in protest.

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Gulmarg is India’s premier ski resort.  Not many skiers in April, but lots of mt. visitors at this Kashmiri playground.

The inhabitants of J&K belong to three religions, with Kashmir being mainly Muslim, Jammu mainly Hindu, and the Ladakhis in the east divided almost equally between Buddhists and Muslims. Although Indians will tell you they are not prejudiced against Muslims or Kashmiris, I sensed the opposite. Most of the Kashmiris I spoke to want independence.

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Dal Lake with its numerous channels is often called the Venice of the East.

“We want our freedom,” said a young man working on the houseboat/hotel where we stayed in Srinagar. “We are proud of Kashmir,” Jeelani announced. “We want our independence. We have water resources. India uses our resources for its power.”

Nazir, the shop keeper, has a different, perhaps more realistic, view. “Kashmir is surrounded by three nuclear powers. It is impossible for us to be independent,” he said. “We need the protection of India… Yet people should be given the right to decide.”

As Lonely Planet states, “the issue of Kashmir remains intractable…it needs brave souls to resolve this issue.”

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“We want Kashmir to be the Switzerland of Asia.We don’t want bloodshed,” says shop owner Nazir.

Nazir told me the Muslims in Kashmir practice Sufism. They are not fundamentalists, nor violent. “This is a beautiful place. We want Kashmir to be the Switzerland of Asia. We don’t want bloodshed. No one should be killed in my land…The military should be on the borders, not in the cities.”

Almost as rewarding as my encounters with Kashmiris were the visits and sights in this place “more beautiful than the heaven.” … Fewer clouds would have made it even better.

Scroll down for more photos.

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Touring Dal Lake in style aboard a shikara, the gondola-like craft which ply the waters.

 

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Houseboats on Dal Lake. Kashmir’s rulers forbid the British to own land in this vacation paradise, so they built houseboats which now serve as hotels.
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Boats laden with souvenirs/food come by, offering convenient shopping.
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Gardeners are kept hard at work.
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On the road to Srinagar, visit to the ruins of a Hindu temple dating from the ninth century.
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Not much business for these toboggan renters on the Gulmarg slopes.

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makereadNo time for a new recipe this time, but see column at right for a list of many tasty concoctions. New recipe coming soon.

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INDIA’S “LITTLE TIBET”

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Photo at Tibet Museum in Dharamsala

They trudged, climbed over the rugged, mighty Himalayas, scrambling over rocks, through snow and ice, at night. A group of 28, including 10 children, they set out from their homeland, Tibet, to escape the severe Chinese regime which has occupied their country since 1950.

Over a million Tibetans perished in the mass genocide which followed the occupation. In 1959, the 14th Dali Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, led his people into exile. Since then some 100,000 Tibetans, like the group mentioned above, have made this arduous journey to escape Chinese persecution.

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Kalsang escaped from Tibet over the Himalayas in 2006.

During the treacherous 36-day trek, “one of my friends died, two were lost,” Kalsang, who fled in 2006, tells me. He was lucky. “Since 2008, the borders are heavily controlled.”

Kalsang now works as a guide at the Norbulingka Institute, a trust under the chairmanship of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people. The Institute, which is dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture, is headquartered in Dharamsala in northern India, the center of the Tibetan government in exile.

A visit to the town, a former British hill station perched high on a steep slope under the shadow of the snow-capped Dhauladhar mountain range, is fascinating, if not heart breaking. Several thousand Tibetan exiles, including the Dali Lama, live in the town, most in McLeodGanj, the upper part of the town where the institute and the Dali Lama’s home are located. The stories of escape and hope are astonishing, tragic.

“We have hope. One day we will go back,” a young woman said.

The institute sits on a hillside surrounded by lush vegetation and

Monk at Norbulingka Institute
Monk at Norbulingka Institute

blossoms. Strings of small, colorful prayer flags add a festive note. Well-fed, friendly dogs wander about. In contrast to the dusty, dirty, noisy, rundown surroundings, it seems like a tiny paradise.

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At the Norbulingka Institute, Tibetan refugees learn traditional  crafts.

Our tour group visited the Dali Lama’s Buddhist temple. Although at the time His Holiness was in residence, he was not seeing visitors, we were told. We visited workshops where young Tibetans in exile were learning and practicing traditional Tibetan crafts, (scroll painting, embroidery, metalwork, wood carving etc.) Many of their works are for sale at the institute gift shop.

We met many younger Tibetans at the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV). dhar.10The Dali Lama directed that a center be established for the thousands of orphans and destitute children ravaged by war. Today 1,700 Tibetan children live and study at this village. Most have been smuggled over the mountains from Tibet where the Tibetan culture and language are suppressed, where parents see no hope, no future for their children.  They pay for their children’s escape to freedom, knowing they may never see them again.

The children in the village live in small, family groups with foster parents. They are taught both the Tibetan language and English. There are four other villages for Tibetan children, as well as schools and vocational centers in India, under the umbrella of TCV.dha.4a

A visit to remote Dharamsala is an undertaking. Our group of 12 had to abandon our small bus and ride in three four-wheel drive vehicles for the climb over skinny, scary roads to the shabby town of ugly structures and tacky souvenir shops – but with a breathtaking backdrop, when visible. Having been intrigued about the fabulous Himalayas for years, I was eager for some to-die-for views and photo opps. Not to be. If and when the clouds vanished, it was only for seconds. These mountains have mastered hide and seek, excelling at hiding.

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Views of the Himalayas like this were rare and lasted only seconds.

The Tibet Museum in the town is the place to learn more about Tibet, the Chinese occupation and the present situation. Documentation and photographs detail the invasion, treacherous escapes, human rights abuses and present-day realities.

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Main street in Dharamsala

The town’s bazaar, a collection of shops and stalls along the steep main street, is the place to bargain for souvenirs: jewelry, trinkets, scarves and more.

Dharamsala is popular as a center for meditation, yoga and other esoteric retreats. It also attracts those interested in serious mountain trekking and rock climbing.

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Construction site in Dharamsala

A writer in the Guardian called the town, known as “Little Tibet,”  a “unique place with its mix of Indian hill people, Tibetan exiles and ‘spiritual’ tourists.” It is well worth the effort to visit this unique and alluring place, to experience first-hand the plight and tragedy of Tibet.

For more on the Tibetan Children’s Village, see www.tcv.org.in

Tibetan Children's Village
Tibetan Children’s Village

 

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Indian construction worker

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Cows are at home on Dharamsala’s main street.