Half a day in Kargil, North India

It’s not the greatest endorsement for a town when your guide puts a phone call through to his mother only for her to advise him to leave the place immediately. That’s what happened when I was in Kargil in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir last year.

CoffeeGulmargOther things happened during my 16-hour stay. A war nearly broke out. Mind you, I knew that was on the cards before I arrived. The previous day I’d wandered into a cafe in Gulmarg near Srinagar, ordered a coffee (Nescape 3-in-1 served in a heart-covered cardboard cup), and unfolded a copy of The Times of India to discover the front-page headline, “After 14 years, Pakistan opens its guns in Kargil”.

So why did I still go? Well, if you want to get from Srinagar to the former Tibetan kingdom of Ladakh (and I did), you have to go to Kargil. It’s the midway point on the only road. Plus, my guide said he had no concerns at all about continuing our journey as planned. (Clearly the apple fell a long way from the tree…)

In the end, everything was fine; in fact, Kargil – which is no stranger to armed conflict – proved to be in a relatively mellow mood, despite the skirmishes a couple of kilometres away on the disputed border. It was a perfect afternoon, too, and while my stroll through the streets threw up plenty of reminders of the region’s problems, the town actually grew on me.

Will I be booking myself and my family into a Kargil hotel for a two-week stay any time soon? Dear god no! But there are worse places. (Dras, just down the road, for starters. Yikes.)

Here are some pics.

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Travel: more memorable moments of 2013

A second installment of the travel moments that have stuck in my head the most from last year. (Click photos to zoom.)

6. El Nido, the Philippines
04PhilippinesOn Snake Island

Our family trip to El Nido didn’t all go smoothly (I’m looking at you, box jellyfish; yeah, you who decided that my three-year-old daughter’s thigh was the perfect landing pad for your tentacles) but it’s hard to deny that this part of the Philippines is completely stunning. Takes a bit of getting to, but worth it. Snake Island isn’t named after snakes but after a spit of sand that snakes its way for 500 metres from the island to the mainland of Palawan. You take a boat here and then you just kind of laze about. Happy days.

7. Fukuura Island, Japan
On the shore of Matsushima Bay06Japan

Journeying through the area devastated by Japan’s 2011 tsunami is a disquieting thing. Personal snapshots of the destruction, already sepia-tinged as the years start to tick by, can be found sticky-taped to the front windows of businesses that were destroyed and have been rebuilt. The bridge in this photo was one of the few lucky structures in gorgeous Matsushima Bay not to have been washed away. It leads to a beautifully peaceful island of simple paths among towering pines. Continue reading

Travel: memorable moments of 2013

Oops, I’m late with this. Anyway, here goes. (Click photos to zoom.)

1. Srinagar, Kashmir
At the floating market on Dal Lake01Kashmir

I have to say that the timing of my Kashmir/North India trip wasn’t great. On the day I arrived in Srinagar, five Indian soldiers were shot dead on the disputed border with Pakistan about 60km away. So the place was under curfew, armies were mobilising, tourists were advised to avoid going anywhere near the Old City, and everyone seemed a bit … jumpy. Everyone except the farmers on Dal Lake, that is. They just wanted to sell their pumpkins and smoke a few early-morning cigs.

2. Vientiane, Laos
02LaosAt Wat Si Saket

I made my first visit to the Laotian capital in 2013, and while it doesn’t have the same soporific charm of Luang Prabang, it’s still got a great vibe: beautiful Buddhist wats like the one where this picture was taken, French-style cafes selling baguettes and espressos, interesting colonial architecture, and bars with cold Beerlao and great sunset views over the Mekong. You couldn’t ask for much more, really. (You could if you were my wife; you could ask for great shops. And it has those too, apparently.) Continue reading

And the 10 best albums of 2013 are …

Albums2013… probably not these, above. Well, they might be. Who would know? Who am I to judge?

Any “best of” list is, of course, completely arbitrary (“worst of” lists, on the other hand, are highly scientific), so you can take from my own list what you will. I have to say there wasn’t an album that smashed it out of the park for me this year.* Plenty of good stuff, but nothing I’d choose to have with me if I were stuck on a desert island, like Paul’s Boutique or Revolver (or a distress radiobeacon).

Anyway, here goes. Continue reading

I’m no poet (don’t you know it?)

On the steps of Haguro-sanFallen autumn leaves
illuminating the steps
of Haguro-san

These three lines constitute what is known in the biz as “bad haiku”. There’s plenty of this stuff around. In fact, entire blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds are dedicated to inferior attempts at recreating the famous, age-old literary art form of Japan. (E.g., “How to Write Bad Haiku”; “‘Worst Haiku Ever’ Contest Results!”; “Horrible Haiku”.) Here’s an example of a haiku poem I found on one of those sites:

Try writing haiku
without counting syllables
using your fingers

Bad? Perhaps. But very, very true. I wonder if Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), Japan’s best-known haiku master, also counted syllables on his fingers? I bet he did but tried to hide it under his yukata. Continue reading

Monk-ey Business

If you enjoy a clockwise twirl (I think the technical word is “circumambulation”) around a Buddhist monastery, make a beeline for the town of Leh. This former capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, is awash in gompas and stupas and potbellied fellows in saffron- and tumeric-coloured robes. You’ll be om-mani-padme-humming in no time.

Here are some photos and a video from my hike up to Namgyal Tsemo Monastery, perched on a dusty crag above Leh. There’s a ruined fort up there, too (hence the “Castle” sign in the first photo). Great atmosphere, astonishing views, interesting monastic knickknacks – well worth the lung-busting climb. And for 20 rupees (30 Aussie cents), it’s a bargain. (The group of dreadlocked backpackers who arrived just after me and glared at the monk like he was a used car salesman when they heard the entry fee would probably disagree. How’s the karma going, fellas?)

Scrambling up the scree to Tsemo fort and monastery

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The Great Sarlacc Debate*

Hiking trail - Sintra, Portugal

Hiking trail – Sintra, Portugal

(*Not really. Just some photos of flowers.)

I noticed this comment on a photography website recently: “Taking good quality pictures of flowers can seem intimidating.”

I agree. It’s perhaps not as intimidating as crossing the road in Saigon or teeing off in front of a golf course pro when you’ve lied about your handicap. But yes, when it comes to taking photos, going florid can be torrid.

My solution to the problem is to just point and click and hope for the best. This tends to remove any of the abject terror otherwise associated with the hobby of plant photography.

Continue reading