Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-III (Onto London and beyond!)

On return from Chamonix, we stayed for a day in Grenoble before taking a train to London. I told my hosts that I would return after few weeks for a more thorough visit to French ski resorts and also to go to Austria and Poland where I had been invited.
My friend wanted me to cross the English Channel on a hovercraft. It was supposed to be exciting than a plane trip or taking a ferry. The train from Grenoble brought us to Paris very early in the morning. From Paris there was a special train-fare up to London which included a train journey up to Calais, then hovercraft ride to Dover and from there to London again by train. We bought tickets and boarded the train around eight in the morning. The train was not a fast one and we reached Calais after two hours or so. From here we walked a couple of hundred metres to the place on the beach where the hovercraft was parked. I saw a number of cars driving straight up into the hovercraft.
The hovercraft had seats like an aeroplane and we had lovely view of the sea. However, the hovercraft is very noisy and there are lot of vibrations unlike a plane. We did get some snacks during the journey which lasted about an hour. We disembarked on the beach near Dover. I could see the cliffs of Dover. The travel across the Channel reminded me about the umpteen war movies I had seen about the Second World War. So much fighting and bloodshed had taken place on these beaches on the D-day. The flotilla which had gone across to French coast was massive. All that had gone now and there was peace and serenity. One could see only ferries and hovercraft moving to and fro with people and goods. I wish we too in the sub-continent had over come the mistrust and opened up the borders! However, that possibility may remain a distant dream.
From the beach we had to walk some distance to get the train to London. The train to London reminded me of the chug-chug of Indian Rail! We reached London in the evening and went straight to my friend’s house. The house was cold as it had remained closed. My friend put some coins in a box under stairs to start the central heating on gas. It was interesting to know that the gas company kept the coin box and one could use the gas when needed. They would come to collect the money at the end of every month. The house warmed up soon and we had a quick dinner. I was keen to meet my college days friend Bashir. I phoned him late in the evening and let him know that I had arrived in London. He did not believe it. He asked me where I was staying and wanted to pick me up immediately. I told him that I was with a friend but tired and he should come in the morning.
Next morning at about seven when the daylight had just broken, Bashir rang the bell. I went down to open the door and got a shock! His hair had all gone grey! I was seeing him just after seven years or so. The life in London had been hard for him. He was married and had two daughters. He had grown old quickly. He told my friend that he would like to take me to his home. He had a council flat in Bancroft House on the other side of London. We took almost an hour to each his home. His wife Dilshad was very happy to see me as Bashir had been talking about me all the time. That night we talked almost till early morning. We had spent a lot of time together and meeting in a foreign land after seven years or so we had many stories to tell each other. Bashir told me that I had a permanent home in London and I could relax and plan all my visits to Europe and within England. The first thing was to learn about the mode of transportation. In London the easiest and cheapest is the underground and the red bus. The ideal way is to buy a weekly or monthly pass depending upon one’s plans of stay. So for a start I bought a weekly pass.
Bashir accompanied me for a couple of runs on the bus and on the underground to familiarise me. It is very easy to use the both. One has to know the bus numbers and the nearest underground stations. I felt it to be the best way to move around. Going in a car is getting stuck in traffic. The uppermost thing in my mind apart from sight seeing was to meet my mountaineer friends. Next came in priority people from BBC some of whom I had met in Kashmir. Another task was to visit the British Museum Reading Room and study some references about Kashmir. I was also keen to visit the Outward Bound School at Ullswater in the Lake District. I started with my mountaineer friends. Lord John Hunt, the leader of the first successful Everest Expedition had met me in Darjeeling during the International Mountaineers Meet held in May, 1973.
He had asked me to contact him whenever I happened to visit London. He was delighted to get my call and invited me to Parliament House. He asked to me to meet him at the reception of the Parliament House on a day when the House was not in session. It was a privilege to be shown round the Parliament House by Lord John Hunt. He showed me the place where the Queen sits and the entrance from which she enters. The inside of these houses has been excellently done in traditional style. After taking a round we had tea and snacks. Lord Hunt wanted me to call on Charles Wylie who was then the Chairman of the Outward Bound Trust. Lord Hunt wanted me to see one of the Outward Bound Schools. Accordingly, I gave a call to Charles Wylie who invited me to his office. Lord Hunt too had spoken to him. He told me that I should join one of the Executive Courses in the Ullswater School in the Lake District. The course would be taking place after a few weeks. He called Squadron Leader Lester Davies, the Warden of the School and asked him to reserve a seat for me. The course would be paid for by the Trust. I decided to go round London and meet other friends in the meantime.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-II (Chamonix Mont-Blanc!)

The drive from Grenoble to Chamonix Mont-Blanc, a distance of about 120 kilometres, takes about two hours. Annecy, the famous town with a beautiful lake is on the way. We started after breakfast. The drive is through beautiful countryside.
Everything looks so artificial! Back home we have everywhere wild landscape which has, unfortunately, been destroyed recently by the greed of the people. The most impressive to me was the motorway as I had been used to narrow and dusty roads back home. My friend was driving over 120 kilometres per hour and I did not feel it in the car. The only indication was the noise of rushing air outside which made me tense. My friend switched on his stereo with loud playing of some music by Chopin and Beethoven. This completely drowned the whistling of the air. We stopped for lunch at a lake side restaurant in Annecy. He ordered a speciality. Fried trout with almonds. The fish had been fried in butter with sliced almonds on top. It had been fried to a brown colour and was very crisp and tasty. It was the most delicious trout I had eaten so far anywhere. In Kashmir, the chefs of the Hospitality Department do prepare trout in butter, small boneless pieces wrapped in paper and cooked in butter. However, there is no match for the Annecy trout! From Annecy we drove along mountains to reach the Chamonix valley in early afternoon. Chamonix at the foot of Mont-Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe is the famous centre for mountaineering and skiing. We drove straight to Hotel Mont Blanc where rooms had been booked for us. But I told Bernard Colomb that I wanted to call on Maurice Herzog, the Mayor of Chamonix who had been waiting for us. The Mayor received us in his office and invited us to a film show about Gaston Rebuffat, the famous mountain guide.
I had already met Rebuffat in the first International Mountaineers Meet in Darjeeling in 1973. In fact, I had taken him along with his wife to Kashmir for few days. He was very happy to see me again and invited me to his house for lunch during my stay in Chamonix. The Rebuffat film was very educative about the French Mountain Guides. Rebuffat was a down to earth mountaineer without any false airs. During his Kashmir visit while going round Thajwas glaciers in Sonamarg, I asked him how we can produce good mountaineers. He told me to bring a hundred young persons for trekking to Sonamarg. According to him, may be 20 look at the snow on top of these mountains. May be five out of them think of going on that snow and according to Rebuffat, those would be our mountaineers. To produce real mountaineers Rebuffat suggested trekking for the youth all over Kashmir Mountains. He always worked like a professional guide and truly loved mountains. At the end of the show, Maurice Herzog introduced me to Sylvain Saudan, the impossible skier. That was my first encounter with him. He wanted to know more about Kashmir Mountains and invited me to his office next morning.
My first meeting with Sylvain was very brief but interesting. He told me that he had made many first descents. Unlike mountaineers who claim first ascents, he claims first descents on skis from the tops of various mountains. He had already skied down Mount McKinley in North America which is about 6,000 metres high. Now, he was looking for a 7,000 metre peak in the Himalaya. I showed him a picture of Nun peak in Ladakh (Suru valley). It is 7135 metres high. He was immediately sold to the idea of skiing down Nun next year! He felt it be his dream mountain! In fact, Sylvain came to Kashmir in 1976 with an expedition to climb and ski down Nun. However, he failed as he had under-estimated the mountain. His failure gave Kashmir more publicity than his success would have given. Entire French press splashed his failure as it was first time that the impossible skier had been beaten by a mountain. In 1977 he came back and successfully climbed and skied down the peak thereby making it a very famous mountain. Subsequently Sylvain became a part of the Kashmir Tourism scene by starting heli-skiing in 1987, which he continues to organise with some breaks in between caused by logistical problems.
Before leaving Chamonix I visited two more institutions. The first was the French National ski School (ENSA) and the second was the French Military High-Altitude School (EHM). The military school is to train army personnel in serving at high-altitudes. This school also trains the French Gendarme in mountain rescue. We have in Gulmarg a similar military school known as HAWS. The Commandant of the military school received me and pinned a badge on my shirt. He already knew about the Gulmarg School and they had some exchange visits. The Director of the National Ski School received me in his office and we had a discussion about an exchange programme between Gulmarg and Chamonix. He was willing to propose this project to his ministry of sports in Paris which controlled the school. He asked me to contact Monsieur Grospeillet, Assistant Director in charge of such programmes in the Ministry of Youth and Sports in Paris. This I did during my second visit to Paris and we had an exchange programme in place for over a decade. About half a dozen instructors from Gulmarg visited Chamonix for undergoing training in the National School for periods ranging from one to three months. In return we had half a dozen French Professors of skiing supposed to be the experts in the field, visit Gulmarg every year to impart training to locals. The exchange programme got shelved after my departure from Gulmarg and the subsequent outbreak of militancy. Recently, some instructors from Gulmarg have approached me to help them in restarting the programme.
Apart from these job related interactions, there were two other visits which I was keen to undertake. First was to take a ride in the cable car going over Mont Blanc from France to Italy and the other was to visit the restaurant on top of Aiguilles du Midi. The first one could not materialise due to bad weather over Mont Blanc forcing temporary closure of the cable car. However, the other visit was most exciting and rewarding. Aiguilles du Midi is a rock formation jutting like a needle into the sky. Aiguille in French means a needle. The French have taken a cable car to the top of the needle and built a panoramic restaurant on top of it. The ride to the top going along the rock face is not only thrilling but sometimes scary. People with weak hearts are not allowed to take the ride. From the top one has lovely views of entire Mont Blanc massif and Chamonix. We had lunch in the centrally heated restaurant. I wished we too had such decent facilities in umpteen similar spots we have in Kashmir! Thus ended my first visit to Chamonix, the hub of mountaineering in Europe. I visited the place over half a dozen times in subsequent years. In the next episode I will be describing my first visit to London where I spent couple of weeks before returning to France.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-I (Paris and beyond!)

The first chance to go abroad came to me in 1975, two years after my appointment in the State Tourism Department. One of my mountaineer friends Captain M S Kohli, the leader of the successful Indian Everest Expedition was appointed as Manager Tourism in Air India.
He knew that I had been appointed as the in charge of the Adventure Tourism Wing in the State Tourism Department. I was keen to familiarise myself with the working of various adventure institutions in Europe. My mountaineer friends from different parts of Europe were eager that I should visit them as their guest. There was only one handicap. To and fro air ticket. I approached Captain Kohli and he readily agreed to provide me a complimentary ticket to London, Paris, and Rome. As my French friends were very keen for me to visit them first, so I decided to take a flight direct to Paris. It was early April and Europe is still cold at this time. We landed at Paris Airport and the whole atmosphere appeared bleak and dull. However, inside the Airport it was warm and cosy. My friend, who had flown from London, had been waiting and we took a bus to Paris centre to reach the hotel. I could not sleep during the flight and took a nap for couple of hours. My next stop was Grenoble and my friend had tried to get two train tickets but it was impossible to get these because of Easter holidays. After taking a hot shower and a good meal, I decided to visit Mr. D Boris, the Air India Manager for France. Captain Kohli had given me an introduction for any assistance. I had also met him briefly during his visit to Kashmir when he had sponsored a group of 25 French media persons.
He was delighted to receive me in Paris and offered a cup of coffee. According to him the visit of French journalists had given a big publicity boost to Kashmir. They had extensively reported on the beauty of the valley and its people. He was confident that the number of French visitors to the valley will get a fillip. In fact, in subsequent years the French constituted the highest number of foreign visitors both to Kashmir and Ladakh. I informed Mr. Boris that I intended to visit some French Ski and Mountain resorts and was on way to Grenoble. However, it was not possible to get a train ticket due to Easter holidays. He called one of his officers called Monsieur Magrey and asked him to help us in getting the tickets. Magrey was a thin and short person which reminded me of our own tourist officer Mir Sahab who was almost identical to him physically and was also the person for such assignments. Magrey accompanied us to the travel agency across the road. He asked the manager there to get us two train tickets to Grenoble. The manager checked his computer and said all trains were full and it was impossible to get a ticket. Magrey told him that he was an expert and knew very well how to fiddle with the machine. He told him that I had come from Kashmir and it was essential for me to go to Grenoble. The manager did something with his machine and produced two tickets. I was surprised and asked him how he had got these. He told me that he had booked us first from Paris to Lyon and then extended from there to Grenoble. He surely knew how to fiddle with the machine!
The train journey to Grenoble was a new experience. France has some of the fastest and sleekest trains called tgv (train a grande vitesse) or a high-speed train. These are better than aeroplanes. The speeds exceed 300 kilometres per hour. However, one does not notice the speed while sitting in a train. There is no noise like the ding dong of Indian trains. There is a continuous whistle like sound. One notices the speed only by looking at the railing guarding the track. The distant landscape looks normal. In the restaurant car we had some coffee. The coffee in the cup hardly moved due to the speed of the train! One only swayed sometimes while walking in the corridor. The landscape was very green with large farms on either side. My first visit to Europe was giving me strange feelings. I was missing the jostling crowds, the variety of transport especially the two wheelers, the noise and so on. Everything seemed so quiet and orderly. We reached Grenoble in the afternoon. Bernard Colomb, the ski expert was waiting for us at the station. He was glad to see me and took us to our hotel. It was small 25 room hotel. The entire hotel was being managed by a middle aged couple. It was a bed and breakfast hotel. The wife was serving breakfast to the guests while as the husband was sitting at the reception. I was amazed to see just these two people operating a 25 room hotel. Back home there would be more than ten people or so running around and still the service would not be what these people were providing. They just had a part time maid to clean the rooms and vacuum the floors etc. I wish we too had such enterprising people in Kashmir! The only instance I recall was of the Hotel Highland Park in Gulmarg when Benjie Nedou was still alive. Before going to Europe I was always pleading for the public sector to run various facilities including hotels etc. However, my very first visit completely changed my thinking and I became an ardent supporter of the private sector. Margaret Thatcher has spoken the truth that the government has no business to be in business!
After checking in the hotel I was taken to meet Pierre Montaz, the President of the ski lift company. He had sent a team for surveying possibilities of skiing in Kashmir. He was glad that I had been able to visit France. He informed me that they had arranged my visits to some ski areas to get a feel of the sport in Europe. In the evening, my guide took me to a hill top restaurant for dinner. It was supposed to be the best restaurant in the town. Bernard Colomb told me that he would pick us up next morning after breakfast for going to Chamonix Mont-Blanc. I was very keen to meet my several mountaineer friends like Maurice Herzog and Gaston Rebuffat. Incidentally, Maurice Herzog was the Mayor of Chamonix. My introduction to Europe had been quite rewarding. As I could speak French, I got along quite well. The French are very touchy about their language. If one speaks the language, they become very friendly and open up freely!

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Gulmarg Nostalgia-XV (Reminiscing the people-II)

I am closing the series about Gulmarg by describing some more interesting personalities I met during my stay there. Firstly, there were the principals of the ski school. These included Colonel Narinder Kumar (the everester), Colonel VPS Chauhan popularly known as Veeru, Commandant YC Khanna, Commandant Ahuja, and Rattan Kotwal. Colonel Kumar was the toughest of the lot.
A very well known mountaineer, he introduced mountaineering in what was basically a ski school. He renamed the school as the Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering. He was more inclined to army side and in fact, subsequently he became the Commandant of the High Altitude Warfare School. Thus he had a much longer tenure in Gulmarg than anybody else. His wife Mirdula, was a very good host in Gulmarg and his daughter Saleja, an excellent skier. He worked very hard for promoting skiing in the country. Colonel Chauhan or Veeru was a paratrooper but more civilian than a soldier. Veeru had been known to me earlier also. It was a very polished and civilised family. He was fun loving and we had many jaunts together in Gulmarg during his tenure. Being from Gorakhpur and from a Rajput family, he had a strong aristocratic streak. Commandant Khanna and Commandant Ahuja were from paramilitary forces on deputation. The only civilian was Rattan Kotwal who used to be a Director in the Ministry of Tourism in Delhi. He also belonged to the valley. There were two other people from the Army who impressed me. One was Colonel DN Tankha who was the Commandant of the High Altitude Warfare School when I came up to Gulmarg and the other was Colonel Zorawar Singh, Commandant of the Dogra battalion stationed in Gulmarg. Colonel Tankha was a very positive officer and he initiated the training of local village boys in skiing. In fact, his products are on several jobs in Gulmarg at the present moment. Colonel Zorawar popularly known as Zorro was a loveable personality. He would mix with every body and was always at our beck and call for any assistance which we needed off and on from them. I remained in contact with Colonel Tankha after he left Gulmarg as he was a member of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and was also associated with Himalayan Car Rally. However, I lost all contact with Zorro once he was posted out of Gulmarg.
The most interesting personality of Gulmarg on all counts was Colonel Benjie Nedou, the owner of Hotel Highland Park. In fact, he was an institution in himself and I would have liked to devote a full article on him. May be I will write it sometime later. However, at present his personality merits somewhat longer mention. Benjie had been an officer in the Guards Regiment. He had western upbringing and was in all respects like a European in his tastes and working. This was probably because of his grand father having been an Austrian. Even though he was very modern in taste, yet he was God fearing and had strong faith and would invariably hold some religious ceremonies. He was truly very neat and clean man with a military discipline in all his affairs. He had started the Highland Park hotel in just one hut and now the Hotel has almost 50 rooms and suites in the form of Chalets. Benjie combined all the western comforts with the native heating in winter. The Hotel used to be very cosy during winter with the use of local cast iron fire-wood stoves. He had got these stoves designed specially for the Hotel and there would be no smoke at all. The wood used was chopped into small pieces and the suction in the pipes was such that it would burn without giving any smoke into the rooms. Most of the western tourists preferred this type of heating as it would give them the opportunity to smell burning pine which they missed these days in Europe! The bath rooms had running hot and cold water, a luxury in frozen Gulmarg! The Dinning Room and the main Lounge were very aesthetically decorated and were quite functional especially in winter. It was very enjoyable to stay in the lounge around the warm stoves and chat with friends. Benjie had meticulously put various decoration pieces in appropriate places. He would ensure that the entire premises were spick and span. Benjie had excellent staff and workers whom he had himself selected. He would look after them well. As a matter of principle to benefit the local community, he would buy most of his provisions from the local villages. In that respect, he was greatly contributing to local economy. Regarding his weakness for cleanliness, he once told me that he invariably used to dine in the hotel kitchen itself once or twice a week. He would go there without any notice and ask to be served food there. This ensured that the cooks and other staff kept the kitchen clean. He had great regard for me and would invite me to all the functions and events held in the Hotel from time to time. Benjie’s wife Minoo was a great help to him. However, his son Freddie was a contrast. He was more of a fun and thrill loving fellow. An ace skier, he would often ski down from the top of Afarwatt Mountain. The most hardworking hand Benjie had in the staff was Aziz Bhat. He would be always running after the staff like a Military Commander and would ensure that everything functioned perfectly. Benjie was truly an asset for Gulmarg both in winter and summer. After his death, the Hotel has not been able to maintain the standards fixed by him. His grand daughter Ayesha is now managing the Hotel.
There were two more people who need a mention in my account. One was Nund Bab, a spiritual person. He was like a mendicant wearing a long robe and carrying a long leather whip. Benjie had great regard for him and he would visit the Hotel off and on and would be received there with honour. He would also pay a visit to my hut off and on. The local people had strong faith in his spiritual powers. One day he visited my office in Srinagar during summer. One of my instructors made fun of him. Next morning we came to know that the home of the instructor in Srinagar had caught fire in the night and had been completely gutted! The other person was Shaban Guru, a milk man who had a temporary hut behind the Hotel Highland Park. He used to have his flocks in Gulmarg and would make excellent butter and cottage cheese. Both the items were a treat in Gulmarg. He too has passed away. Let me close the Gulmarg Nostalgia stories with the mention that Gulmarg produces excellent strawberries from the strawberry valley. We used to consume these in great numbers. Next week I will start relating some adventures which I had during my travels abroad!