Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Red Fort, Spice Market & Jama Masjid Mosque in Delhi

May 31st, 2011

I took an overnight bus last night from Manali to Delhi. Pinku convinced me that since I had a plane ticket on June 1st to Goa that I should allow a full day of buffer time in case of delays on the road or the bus breaking down. Prudent advice but in the end I arrived at 6:45am in Delhi and had it been the day of the flight, I would have had plenty of time to get to the airport. Oh well, no matter, there are still sights to see in Delhi and I can put up with the chaos, pollution, people, smells and noise for one day.

The chaos of Delhi:

The guys with the caps offer to clean your ears. In Goa, it was a big scam but I only saw them doing it on foreigners. Here locals take advantage of the "service". I still think it's a scam but even if it wasn't, would you want one of these guys poking something pointy into your ear?!?

The main sight I wanted to visit was the Red Fort. The Red Fort was completed in 1648 and took 10 years to build. I wandered about for over an hour checking out a variety of buildings, some old, some newer. It seemed to me that the front of the fort was quite impregnable but the back...not so much. However I imagine there was some decent moat action in the back which would have been fed by the nearby Yamuna River. There were a couple of small museums, one on war and another on the cultural history. Unfortunately most artifacts had but a label that just said what it was and nothing more.

Heading to the Red Fort:

Riding the rickshaw:

The Red Fort:

Me and my Red Fort (it's a kids' book no?):

Close to the entrance:

Knuffle Bunny at the Red Fort entrance:

The market that's been active since the 1600s:

One of many gorgeous buildings inside the fort (read: I don't remember the name):

"It's just a flesh wound!"

Nice arch action:

The Khas Mahal palace:

Inside the palace:

Leaving the Red Fort, I was approached by a tall Indian asking if I wanted a rickshaw. I kind of did but didn’t want to show my cards all at once. Actually, I really needed some water before I did anything else and this guy helped me locate a vendor. He gave me his pitch, listing off a bunch of sights, many of which didn’t ring any bells in my head. I told him I was interested in seeing the Delhi gate, the big mosque called Jama Masjid and he mentioned the spice market which sounded like it could be a real glimpse into “raw” Delhi. He quoted me 200 rupees ($4.50) for an hour so why not, I could do with sitting down and just watching the world pass by (or I guess technically I would be passing the world by).

Affable Salim is a father of four ranging from 17 years old down to 8. He’s been a bicycle rickshaw driver for 21 years but isn’t originally from Delhi. He was a super friendly and seemingly honest guy. His English wasn’t perfect but quite understandable. He took me back up the main road that leads back towards the subway station. His first stop was the spice market.

Heading to the spice market:

After slowly making our way through the rush hour (or just perhaps every hour in Delhi), he suddenly passed through the dividing median and began to cycle the wrong way down the right hand side of the street. Thankfully at least we were on the curb side of the road, close to many parked vehicles and rickshaws and we weren’t the only ones pedaling down the wrong side of the road. The reason for it: we were pulling up to a rickshaw parking area near to the spice market.

We parked the three wheeler and took off on foot a few blocks down the road. The streets where alive with busy people pushing carts, carrying goods on their heads or briskly walking about. The sounds of vendors yelling out their hot products rang out of most stores which were packed to the brim with goods. Some stores were no wider than 5 feet but probably 20-30 feet in depth. Salim kept stopping me and pointed out various types of spices: coriander, various peppers, ginger and the list went on. Occasionally he’d help himself to a small sample and give it to me to try.

Many spices:

We walked through a small covered market which actually led into an inner courtyard of a three storey one block square building which was the heart of the spice market. He took me through some small hallways and up a few flights of a really dingy concrete stairwell and strangely there were two guys trying to wheel a truck tire up to the top...I couldn’t quite figure out what their plan was for it.

Up on the top floor we had a good view over the city. I could see the Red Fort off in the distance and our next destination of the Jama Masjid mosque (sounds like the name of a Star Wars bounty hunter don’t you think?). Most other buildings were conjoined and stood only about 3 storeys high and many would probably be torn down in a western country but there was also the occasional big, newly constructed building for the finance district or a new apartment complex. In general though, it was far from the prettiest city panorama I’ve seen.

The inner courtyard:

Looking out over Delhi:

Looking towards the Red Fort from the top of the spice market building:

One of the many super narrow stores:

Back in the rickshaw we headed towards Jama Masjid, the biggest mosque in all of India, capable of providing a place of worship to up to 25,000 people at one time! Salim stayed with his bike as I walked in to take a quick look. The mosque was built around the same time as the Red Fort in the mid 1600s by the emperor Shah Janan who also commissioned the Taj Mahal.

I walked up to “Entrance #3” and was greeted by a couple of locals and a sign with a plethora of rules. Salim had mentioned one of them to me which was if you wanted to take photos it was going to cost you 200 rupees ($4.50). Another rule was that shorts were not allowed so I was provided with a lungi by this old man clad in loose fitting, white kurta pyjamas at the entrance, in fact, he put the lungi on me which I was grateful for as I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten it right. He then escorted me along a long, narrow matt that was rolled out across the stone floor of the open area inside the mosque which was used to prevent your feet from burning up from the hot ground. Even at 5:30pm I couldn’t last more than 30 seconds off of the matt.

The entrance to Jama Masjid:

The main mosque:

Do you like my garb?

My guide did not speak any English and instead of speaking in Hindi or some other local language, he chose to grunt in a Neanderthal like technique to convey his message. I was amazed at how much I picked up from this basic form of communication. He pointed out places where I “should” take a photograph such as some clocks in a little foyer that indicate the multiple times to worship each day (not a photo I really needed to take!). I got a bit concerned as my battery was getting low so I wanted to choose my shots wisely but thankfully it survived the twenty minutes that we circumambulated the inner perimeter of the mosque.

The pulpit and looking out at the mosque grounds:

Chaos just outside the south gate towards the Muslim quarter:

More chaos towards the Red Fort:

Nice silhouette:

My old, mumbling but communicative tour guide of the mosque:

On leaving my guide extended his hand, obviously looking for a tip. Having paid the 200 rupees for permission to take photos (whereas it’s otherwise free admission) coupled with the fact we weren’t together for that long, nor did he speak English, I pulled out 50 rupees for him. He wasn’t impressed and wanted more so I doubled it to 100. Still not happy he held up two fingers but I stood fast at the 100, I felt that was enough.

Finding Salim again, he suggested we head through the Muslim district a bit but I was getting tired so I suggested we just hit the Delhi Gate and then to the subway station. A compromise was that we would be riding through some of the market areas on tight lanes (too narrow for a car) en route to the Delhi Gate. We passed through sections where it seemed that only one product was for sale in the myriad of shops: the glasses (spectacles) area, the bracelet section, only shoes then only saris, etc. Makes it easy to shop I guess, provided you know where the section you want is. It was a bumpy ride and I have to admit I, or my butt, was about done with the bicycle rickshaw mode of transportation at this point.

I was under the false impression thanks to maps back at the Red Fort that the Delhi Gate was part of the existing fort so I didn’t think it was far away but in fact the Delhi Gate was one of the entrances of the outer wall, most of which no longer exists in modern Delhi. So poor Salim pedaled and pedaled blocks in the wrong direction to the metro station so that I could snap all of 2 or 3 pictures of a brick entrance that is surrounded by busy streets.

The Delhi Gate (wasn't that a movie title?!?):

At the metro, after two hours of touring around and not the initially agreed upon one, I bid adieu to Salim and thanked him for his services. I was happy that we did cover quite a bit of ground and different aspects of Delhi in a short time....I feel that I can check Delhi off my list.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Tandem Paragliding with Ajay

May 28th, 2011

A few weeks ago when Manu took me to Solang Valley, the small ski resort and mini-adventure park in the summer, I ran into a world class paragliding pilot, Ajay Kumar, whom I had met in Nepal four years before. This guy has won the Indian Nationals before so despite my recovering back injury I felt safe in going for a tandem flight with him.

I texted him the night before, having just returned from the Bhrigu Lake trek with legs of jelly, and he replied that he would call me at 7am the next morning to see if it’s flyable. 7am! Wow, that’s an early start.

Sure enough, he called me at 7am and I was to meet him on the other side of the bridge from Manali. So I got ready and headed down to the bridge that separates Old Manali from Manali. Normally there are many rickshaws plying for your business but at this time of day, but could I find a rickshaw? Of course not! I began to jog along the road knowing that time was short. It was the first time that I ran since my paragliding accident and I was quite pleasantly surprised that it didn’t hurt at all. I passed a couple of Indians with their metal carriers of massage oil and I recognized one guy, Ram, who had given me a slightly unsolicited massage the week before. I said “Namaste” but I couldn’t help but laugh, with another incident of misplaced Indian sales pitches when a third massage guy faintly offered me a massage as I jogged by! Yeah, a guy running by, early in the morning, not in jogging clothes, must have time for a massage! There’s no way that he’s in a rush!

After a couple of ATM attempts to get some money, I crossed the bridge and waited for only five or ten minutes before a red Toyota barrelled up to my spot on the far side of the span. I hopped in with the other four Indians in the vehicle. Quite quickly I recognized Manu, a tandem pilot that I met back in Goa. We headed towards Snow Point and I was impressed by Ajay’s Formula 1 type driving as we weaved in and out of traffic. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was thwarted with actually reaching Snow Point due to congestion when Pascal, Charlotte and I were on motorbikes. This time, with a combination of driving and hiking, we made it to the “promised land”.

Promised Land? Hmm...if your idea of promised land is comprised of a parking lot of white tourist vehicles, loads of garbage, redundant road side vendors of food and water, many snow curious Indians who make their way to their destination by car, horse, foot and even sadly these small push karts with lazy people getting pushed that just plug up the road. As we rounded one corner I saw what the main attractions were: inner tubes sliding down gentle snow slopes, carved out and decorated heart shapes in snow banks for your romantic photo op, horse rides, ATVing down a creek and short paragliding flights. Many of the vehicles parked at Snow Point doubled as mini-kitchens serving up their veg and non-veg dishes.

The traffic jam into Snow Point:

The insanity of Snow Point:

So many cars...

We ourselves took advantage of one of these make shift kitchens and got a healthy sized breakfast of rice with dal and beans (still not my idea of a breakfast but I needed something to fill my fuel tank). After Ajay made multiple attempts to find a taxi that would take the two of us higher but in the end he used a jeep that the company he works for owns and another guy came with us to drive the truck back down.

The Rohtang Pass still isn’t completely open due to snow higher up and they are trying to fix it up from the spring thaw. We actually reached the barrier preventing vehicles from going any farther but after a quick chat with some guys in a big snow removal tractor, we lifted the gate and headed up. What a bumpy road. I was in the backseat holding on to both handles above the windows and still managed to have my head hit the roof!

Higher up on the Rohtang Pass:

We got out at the takeoff point which really was no more than a steep slope off to the side of the road. We waited for the conditions to improve a bit, analyzing which clouds were creating which shadows and where the lift was going to be. I learned quite a bit from Ajay throughout this flight about thermal flying and also some aspects of tandem flying.

Getting the wing ready:

About to launch:

Soon we were off and began to climb almost immediately. My job as the passenger was to weight shift in the direction that we were turning...pretty easy to do. Of course I also had to snap some pics and I tried to glean as much paragliding knowledge out of this excellent pilot.

We reached cloud base above Snow Point and began to cross over it, skirting along sides of the clouds. We searched for thermals along the ridge heading south and were soon over the area that I had hiked up just four days before on the Bhrigu Lake trek. From the air it looked a lot easier!

In flight:

In the first thermal:

Snow point is now far below:

Looking down the valley towards Manali:

By the clouds:

Getting close to the snowy terrain:

Where we trekked to Bhrigu Lake:

Not happy with the ratty thermals there, Ajay decided to cut to the west, across a valley towards Solang Valley. We lost a fair amount of height getting there and not too much lift was to be found so he opted to go to Solang Valley, our landing zone, with a fair amount of height so we could try a little bit of acrobatics...cool!

He instructed me that I would be told three commands: left, right, centre. I was to fling my body in the appropriate direction so as to help with the acro manoeuvres. We would be trying some big wingovers and asymmetric spirals and who knows what else.

“3, 2, 1...okay left! Now right! Left! Centre!” Ajay yelled out. We began ripping around and I became quite focussed on his commands as I was having a tough time hearing him. I do recall at one point seeing our wing and nothing but ground around it. We weren’t inverted, but not too far from it. Being a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I loved this portion of the flight.

Two happy fliers:

Starting to head across the valley:

We came into land at the crazy gong show of a place, Solang Valley. Crazy because there’s just so much going on...many pilots just learning, many tandems, kids get pulled up in a paraglider by men with ropes below, the zorb balls and then just a whole lot of people just standing around in the best spot to land. You know that if you sit there long enough, you’re bound to see someone screw up and sure enough we saw a tandem pilot wrap his wing around some old ski lift lines. Thankfully he had landed already so no injuries.

On the ground with the post-acro smile:

A tandem wing wrapped around some cables:

I thanked Ajay for the 45 minute flight and was still sporting a grin from the acro for some time...

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Trekking to Bhrigu Lake – Day 3

May 27th, 2011

My night’s sleep was better than the previous one but I was still looking forward to a proper bed tonight. I woke up before anyone else and peeking out the tent flap I was greeted by a grey world with clouds scraping along the tops of the mountains across the valley. Behind me they were closer and ominously threatening rain at any time. Thankfully I took care of nature’s early morning call before the skies began to open up.

The foggy morning:

Pascal and I snoozed on and off a little longer in the tent before our breakfast appeared. We packed up under drizzly conditions and set off to the south, in a slightly downward path. We were essentially hiking down into low valley clouds. I enjoyed the misty vistas (that must be the name of some retirement condos somewhere!) but my knees and quads weren’t terribly happy with the constant downhill treading.

Heading out:

The porters descending into the woods:

Some feral horses:

A campsite we passed through...I heard some people in one tent so I guess they were trying to sleep the rainy weather away:

Now a herd of goats...

It only took us a couple of hours, maybe a bit more, to descend down into Vashisht, just a hundred or two meters above the valley floor. Both Pascal and I were really feeling the last half an hour of hiking. I felt like I lost control of my legs but I just had to trust that they knew the task at hand.

The group in the mist:

The porters and Ronny on a break:

This porter passed by us carrying four backpacks...and he wasn't young either!


A glimpse of Jogni Falls:

Reaching Vashisht, how can one resist the option of soaking in a hot spring? Well Pascal and I couldn’t. The men’s pool was quite a bit busier than my last visit and there sure were a lot more suspicious jetsam (or is it flotsam?) in the water but who cares, surely we’re dirtier than the water we’re about to plunge into.

Our first view of the valley below:

The final descent:

After our soak, it was back to Old Manali. We were both exhausted, but quite happy, great little trek!