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!

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