Thursday, June 30, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XII (Crossing the Iron Curtain-II)

I was taken to the Ambassador’s drawing room where he was waiting for me. He greeted me and asked me when I had come to Warsaw. Over a cup of tea and snacks, I related to him the whole story of my trip to Warsaw to meet the President of Polish Ski Federation Colonel Lipchevisky and the Police harassment on my arrival by train. He smiled and said that back home in India people did not understand the difference between West Europe and East Europe. He said that one should not visit any East European country without first informing the concerned Indian Embassy. He told me even his diplomatic mail was censored. All East European countries were like Police States and KGB was everywhere. Mr Kamatekar told me that even if I had tried to meet the Colonel for a year, I would never be able to get anywhere near to him! According to him, I had taken the right decision by calling on him.
Otherwise, I might have landed in some serious trouble! He called for his Commercial Attaché who soon joined us. The Ambassador asked him to get me room in Grand Hotel and arrange my meeting with the President of the Polish Ski Federation through diplomatic channels. He also advised me to be careful and not to enter into any loose talk. According to him most of the taxi drivers, lift men, and waiters were KGB informers. He also advised not to accept any offers for currency exchange at higher rates. It all seemed very scary! I thanked the Ambassador and bid him good bye. The Commercial Attaché took me in his personal car to the Grand Hotel and said that he would convey me the time of appointment and venue for the meeting later. Incidentally, I had a Polish travel agent friend who too was arriving in Warsaw next day with a group. That day I rested in the hotel till noon as I was tired and did not have any sleep on the train. I was keen to see the Church where the heart of Chopin is supposed to be preserved. However, I could not get in. The church goers were even on the road outside, it being the Sunday Mass. I was surprised to see all the churches full of people! In the afternoon, I went to see the Palace of Culture. It is a huge tall building built by Russians. I also saw some gardens. Warsaw is a nice city. It must have now developed much more?
In the evening the group led by my travel agent friend arrived. They too were staying in Grand Hotel. My friend introduced me to parents staying in Warsaw. They invited me to spend a couple of days with them. It would be a pleasure to stay with a Polish family. The group was leaving back in two days. I promised to shift to the home of my friend’s parents after their departure. Next evening the group had a dinner arranged in the night club Quo Vadis, constructed by the Poles in the basement of the Palace of Culture and Science. It was a lovely dinner and there was a special strip tease show arranged by the night club. It was a strange combination. On top was the Palace of Culture and Science and the Poles had deliberately set up a night club in the basement claiming to have the best strip tease show in Europe! Probably, it was the Polish way of getting at the Russians? Earlier during the day, I had a phone call from the Commercial Attaché informing me about my meeting with the President Polish Ski Federation. Meeting took place in his office. He was very kind but behaved more like a bureaucrat. He informed me that they had a very good ski station in Zako Pane but skiing did not seem as developed as it was in the Western Europe. As I did not have enough time so I could not visit Zako Pane. There did not seem any chance of collaboration with them as had been the case with the French and the Austrians. May be they have now opened up?
Next day I shifted to my friend’s parents’ house. It was in a modest locality and they gave me my friend’s bed room for stay. The father Mr.Zaromsky took me on a sight seeing tour to visit some palaces and gardens. We also had some snacks for lunch. I asked Mr. Zaromsky about life in Poland. According to him it was tough. On my asking about the strong religious beliefs of the people evident from the rush in churches, he smiled and gave an interesting answer. He said that the Poles are definitely religious and have faith but it is not extreme or fundamentalist type. The reason for such strong attendance in churches was the use of religion as a means of resistance to atheistic communist regime of Russia. The religion was the only weapon local people had against the communist onslaught of Russians! This reminded me about the similar situation back home in Kashmir. Here too Kashmiris are not fundamentalist in nature. We have our own brand of Sufi Islam which is less strict and more accommodative. However, local people use religion as a symbol of protest against the so called “Secular” Indian Government!
My short sojourn behind the Iron Curtain came to an end. Next morning Mr. Zaromsky dropped me at the Warsaw Railway Station to catch a train to Paris. The train journey was mostly uneventful except for some minor surprises. As the train started from Warsaw, four Polish engineers came to sit in the cabin where I was sitting. Some of them could speak German and I started a conversation with them. They too seemed to hate the guts of Russians. They were sure that the situation would change soon for the better. As we reached East Berlin station, a large number of uniformed police officers entered the train. They had sniffer dogs. They searched the whole train. I was told by a fellow passenger that I should change to the next bogie which was going direct to Paris. I raised the window to ask the police officer on the platform about it. He shouted and asked me to close the window and change at the next station. While looking through the window I saw armed soldiers at vantage points. It was a scary situation. Soon the train started and I changed the bogie in the West Berlin station. After the train started, we passed through very green and lush landscape. I raised the window and started filming with my movie camera. Suddenly someone pulled me back. It was a young French girl. She told me that we were passing through communist East Germany and the police could arrest me for filming! I had got my geography wrong! I had thought Communism ended in East Berlin! After it got dark, I fell asleep on the seat. I was suddenly woken up by a policeman. We were passing through Luxembourg. He asked for my passport and then demanded transit visa for Belgium. I told him that I was going to Paris in France and not Belgium. It was a repetition of the Czechoslovakian situation. But he did not demand dollars! Telling me that it being the first time he stamped the transit visa free but asked me to be careful in future. We reached Paris around mid-night and thus ended my crossing of the “Iron Curtain”! I was definitely glad to get out of the Communist part of Europe! Things have now completely changed which I discovered in some of my later travels!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XI (Crossing the Iron Curtain-I)

The train to Warsaw did not start on schedule at 9 pm. We were delayed by an hour and finally the train left the Vienna station around 10 pm. After leaving Vienna, the journey was through the darkness of the night. Due to the lights inside the train cabin, nothing much was visible outside. In the cabin I was sitting near the window and next to me, there was a young couple, very much excited. Probably they were travelling first time to Poland or so. There were some other people, mostly elderly, sitting in the same cabin. After some time we started dozing. Around mid-night I was woken up when the train stopped. We had reached the Czechoslovakian border. A number of uniformed officers from the Police, Immigration, and Customs came in. They were checking the papers and the baggage of passengers. We stopped almost two hours at the border. The checking was very thorough and meticulous. The young couple had lot of arguments with the checking staff. There seemed to be something wrong and they were finally taken off the train.
An officer demanded my passport. He studied it thoroughly and then demanded my Czechoslovakian visa. I told him that I was not going to Czechoslovakia but to Warsaw in Poland. However, he argued that I needed a transit visa and could not cross their territory without a transit visa. He was insisting that I have to go back and get a transit visa. I told him that I was first time travelling to Poland and had been invited by the Polish Ski Federation. He seemed somewhat relenting and asked me if I had dollars. On my saying that I had dollars, he demanded twenty dollars cash. Once I gave these, I was stamped a transit visa and allowed to proceed. I do not know what happened to the young couple? Probably they were sent back?
After the checks were complete, the train restarted towards Warsaw. I too started feeling sleepy like others and dozed off for sometime. As soon as there was light, the train again stopped but this time only for few minutes. We had reached the Polish border. The checking staff came on board the train and it started moving again. The checking was done in the moving train. The Polish staff checked my visa and stamped my entry in the passport. The lady who was stamping the passports asked me how many days I intended to stay in Warsaw. On being told 4 days, she demanded 80 dollars, 20 for each day to be converted into Polish currency. They had a regulation that every tourist had to exchange money for being spent in Poland. Later I came to know that there was process for changing back the unspent Polish money! After an hour or so we again stopped at a small station and a large number of people came in. These included men, women, and children. It seemed to be some sort of a festival? The train was virtually overloaded.
There were people everywhere. An elderly lady came and sat on the seat in front of me. She smiled and I asked her if she spoke English but she replied in negative. Then I asked her in French if she spoke the language, she immediately nodded and answered me in French. This allowed me for the first time to start a conversation with a local person. Incidentally, she was the wife of the first secretary in the Polish embassy in New Delhi. She told me that we had just passed the Church of Black Virgin, an important pilgrimage in Poland. The rush was because of the festival. I had an impression that the people behind the Iron Curtain were all atheists. Communism does not recognize God or religion. Marx had termed religion as the opium of the poor. I asked the lady about this. She translated my question into Polish and spoke loudly to the people present in the cabin who were getting interested in our conversation. They all became excited and took out small crosses to show me that they were all devout Christians! Even small children took out their small crosses to show me these. I was quite surprised but elated to find that the Communism had not diminished their faith! A discussion started about Communism and Russia. It emerged that most of the people hated Russia. Just an hour or so before the arrival at Warsaw station, the lady invited me for a cup of coffee in the restaurant car. We spoke about her stay in India and the conditions in Poland. As I returned to the cabin, the lady to her shock discovered that her coat had been stolen! She was terribly upset. This was for the first time such a thing had happened. However, on arrival in Warsaw we had another surprise. As soon as we descended from the train some Police Officers in uniform came to us. They questioned the lady in Polish and she was taken away. I was asked by some other officers to accompany them in a car. They told me that I was an American spy and had come there to create disturbances. Probably, there must have been some KGB personnel on the train who must have listened to our conversation. They must have reported me to the KGB people. They took me in the car all over Warsaw all the time accusing me of being a spy.
At first I was amused but as time passed I started getting scared and panicky. The only thing which came to my mind was somehow to contact the Indian Embassy who could verify my identity. I told the officers to take me to the Indian Embassy but being a Sunday, the told me that the Embassy was closed. As a last resort I told them to take me to the Ambassador’s residence. They drove me through a posh residential area and as soon as I saw the Indian tri-colour fluttering at the door of a building, I was greatly relieved! The moment I pressed the call bell, a servant of the Ambassador came out. I gave him my card. No sooner I did this, the Polish Police Officer wished me a nice stay in Poland, shook my hand, and went away smiling. The Ambassador called me in immediately. Those days Mr. Kamatekar was the Indian Ambassador to Poland.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-X (Skiing in Austria)

After bidding good bye to my friends in Grenoble, I started very early in the morning for onward journey to Austria by Euro-rail. Bartl Neumayr, the Director of the Austrian Ski School called Bundesportheim situated on a glacier in Kitzsteinhorn had invited me for a week’s visit. He had been the Chief Examiner of the Indian National Ski Instructors at Gulmarg. He had asked me to call him whenever I had a chance to visit Europe. I phoned him a couple days before coming to Grenoble from Paris. He informed me that he was conducting a top executives’ programme for a week and I could join it.
Accordingly, I had made train reservation to be in Zell Am See the nearest train station to Kitzsteinhorn in Austria. The train was going through Geneva and Zurich before entering Austria. However, it was not a high speed train and took its own time. I enjoyed the scenery much more than one does while travelling in a high speed train. We stopped in Geneva for half an hour. The travel through Switzerland in a train did give me some glimpses of the countryside. However, I was not very much impressed. Switzerland is like Kashmir on a mini-scale. It is also very much made up. Kashmir has wild and savage beauty of its own. In subsequent trips, I visited Zermatt, the famous resort where Matterhorn stands like a finger jutting out into the sky. I also visited Les Diablerets where I was awarded Merite Alpin for my contribution to rescue in the Himalaya.
After the train entered Austria the landscape started somewhat resembling Kashmir. Especially Tyrol with its valleys, pinnacle peaks, and lakes to a great extent resembles the scenery in Kashmir. It may be more appropriate to compare Kashmir with Tyrol rather than with Switzerland! We reached Zell Am See quite late, almost at mid-night. Once I went out of the station, everything was closed.
After walking some distance I found the entrance of a hotel still open. As the ski season had been over, there were not many people around. The lady sitting at the reception of the hotel agreed to give me a room for the night but there was no food available. Well, I had no choice but to spend the night on an empty stomach. I did have a good sleep as the hotel bed was very comfortable. I got up in the morning around 8 am and went for breakfast to a nearby restaurant. I was feeling quite hungry! After having a good meal, I took the bus to Kaprun, the base station of the funicular train climbing up to Kitzsteinhorn glacier. There was a long queue of tourists but there was a separate entrance for the Ski School. I contacted the in charge and informed him that I had been invited by the Director of the Ski School. He asked me to wait so that he could contact the Director. After about 10 minutes he called me and issued a special free pass for taking the next funicular train. It was an experience to travel on this train which climbs an incline of more than 30 degrees and goes through a long tunnel to come out on the glacier. Some years back, the train was involved in a very tragic accident. It had caught fire while inside the tunnel and over 200 people had died in this mishap.
The Ski School building is just in front of the funicular station. Bartl Neumayr, the Director had been waiting for me. He was happy that I had made it to Kitzsteinhorn. I was allotted a guest room with a nice view and was introduced to the Executive Group which had been invited for a weeklong course. The School was centrally heated and the facilities inside were like a five star hotel. I was impressed by the meticulously clean atmosphere. These people knew how to create excellent facilities at such odd and difficult places and also maintained these in reasonably good condition. There were immense possibilities of skiing in Kitzsteinhorn. There is a cable car going right to the top of the mountain and the skiing run goes for a short distance through a short tunnel which opens up on the glacier. I stuck to easy slopes near the school. During our stay we were taken to some ski equipment manufacturing factories and on the last day a special farewell dinner was organised. It was a wonderful stay for which I thanked Bartl Neumayr. I also had the good fortune of meeting in person Dr. Kruken Hauser, the father of skiing in Austria and Karl Shranz, the downhill champion! During my meeting with the Director, he offered to train some of our instructors and during subsequent years three of our instructors from Gulmarg, Rashid Bakshi, Nazir Bhat, and Aziz Wani came here for a longer duration as the guests of Austrian Government.
While at the Bundessportheim I had contacted Professor Heinrich Harrer, the famous teacher of Dalai Lama. I had met him in Darjeeling during the International mountaineers’ Meet in May, 1973. His book “Seven Years in Tibet” has been made into a movie also. Professor Harrer told me that he lives in a chalet in Kitzbuhel which was on my way to Vienna where I was next scheduled to go to catch a train to Poland. He asked me to have lunch with him. An instructor from the Ski School dropped me at the Railway Station and I was picked up by Professor Harrer at the Kitzbuhel Station. His wife was glad to see me. She was very gentle. Inside of the chalet was like a monastery, full of Tibetan artefacts and wall hangings.
Professor Harrer was keen to visit Ladakh which had been recently opened to foreign tourists. We talked about Ladakh and his days in Tibet. He did visit Ladakh a number of times and we met there also. After lunch he dropped me back at the Railway station to catch the train to Vienna. I reached Vienna around 6 pm and the train to Warsaw was supposed to leave at 9 pm. I tried to get a berth but these were all booked. So I got a seat reserved and went out to have round of Vienna on a tram. In spite of the darkness I could visualise Vienna as a traditional city with lot of greenery. This quality of maintaining heritage and traditions is common in most of the famous European cities like Paris, Rome, and Lisbon and many other smaller cities. However, in Austria they have maintained the typical village outlook in most of their ski resorts. I came back to the Railway station around 8 pm and took my seat in the train which was already on the platform. I was looking forward to crossing the famous “Iron Curtain”!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sun City goes to Dogs!

Srinagar, the Sun City is at present virtually in shambles. It has not only literally but practically gone to Dogs! The 2000 year old city is something one should have been proud of. Only few decades back Srinagar used to be the capital of “Paradise on Earth” but not now. Description of Srinagar especially its gardens, popular avenues, chinars, the Bund walkway, and the shimmering waters of Dal Lake given in some of the earlier travelogues seems like a dream. A dream now gone sour! It is not a proud moment for a Kashmiri when his capital city, probably one of the oldest in the world is rated as the 4th dirtiest city in India. To know the difference between the Srinagar of yester years and now, it is interesting to quote some extracts from some old travelogues of Europeans. Margaret Cotter Morison in her book “A lonely summer in Kashmir” written in 1904 says, “Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir and the only big town in the country, is a place full of life and picturesqueness, which captivates the visitor by its novelty and perpetually amuses him by the many quaint similarities to places seen before. With the polo-ground, tennis-courts, and smartly dressed ladies, one might think oneself in an ordinary Indian station; at the Residency garden-parties, where croquet is played on the softest of lawns, and strawberries and cream dispensed under cool spreading trees, any one would think himself at a country house in England; on the river above the town, where house-boats are crowded close together for over a mile, the sight recalls Henley a few days before the regatta; a row down the town where houses and temples line the banks, where gracefully carved wooden balconies overhang the water, where men and women loiter chattering on the steps, and half the population lives in boats, brings back faint memories of Venice. But a visit to the Dhal Lake, with its willow-lined water canals and unique floating gardens, or a stiff climb up the hill, called the Takht-i-Suleiman, to obtain a panoramic view of the city, so green in spring-time, with grass growing thickly on all the roofs; and lastly, the perpetual swarm of merchants round one's boat thrusting themselves and their goods in at the window repeating their never ceasing cry of :"Only see, lady, only see ; don't buy, Mem-sahib " these are suggestive of Srinagar, and only Srinagar, for their like is seen in no other part of the earth”.
H R Pirie in her book "Kashmir, the land of streams and solitude” narrating journey on Jhelum River writes, “There are other roads in Kashmir; roads like colonnades between serried ranks of poplar trees, the tall, slim, silvery pillars of the beautiful populous alba, or the sombre stateliness of the dark poplars of Lombardy…….but the road par excellence of Kashmir is the River, the Veth as the Kashmiris call it, which is an abbreviation of Vitasta, its Sanskrit name, the fabulous Hydaspes of the classic historians. Up and down the wide and placid river go the flat-bottomed, slow-moving boats of the country—the wide grain-barges, the doongas with their roofs and sides of matting, the deep-laden market boats, and the little fishing-boats………….. It is with a dream-like feeling one goes up the wide, calm river; following its thousand windings, one passes in and out of all varieties of climate, sunshine, and shadow chasing each other through the day.”
The descriptions of Srinagar and the journey on the River seem out of this world. Where have these gone? Destroyed by the greed of the people and the apathy of the rulers! What does Srinagar of today look like? Mounds of stinking garbage strewn in every nook and corner. Dug up roads, overflowing drains, coverless manholes, and swarms of wild and vicious dogs prowling everywhere! The famous River Veth is like a sewer taking in sewerage from all the towns and villages on its banks. The view from the world renowned boulevard is more disheartening. One gets the stink of a dying water body. It is more so in hot weather. Lake is in its last throes of death. So far no one has been really able to arrest its further deterioration. The reasons for these disasters are many. The first is the edifice of corruption on which the state runs. The departments concerned with the maintenance of the character of the city and keeping it clean are doing just the opposite. There is absolutely no accountability. There is a free for all atmosphere prevalent everywhere. One department is paving the roads and the other one is digging these up! There is no co-ordination. The only thing that makes things move is underhand money. Municipal Corporation, Urban Development Department, Public Health Engineering, Power Department, and so on ensure the upkeep of the VVIP and VIP areas. All civic facilities are to be provided here on top priority. Rest does not matter.
We cannot blame the Government only. We ourselves have become islands. Every individual behaves as if he alone lives in a neighbourhood. This is especially true of the posh colonies of the city. People keep their homes neat and clean within their own premises but are least bothered about what happens to environment in the immediate neighbourhood. One can see mounds of trash and garbage lying on the roadside in some of the most famous colonies and this does not seem to have any effect on the people living there. They seem to have got used to it and consider it part of the landscape. Again the internal roads in some colonies are so narrow that two vehicles coming in opposite direction cannot pass each other. The people instead of leaving couple of feet of their own land to make wider roads are in contrast usurping the state land on one or the other pretext. In some areas, the drains stink so much that one has to cover one’s nose with a handkerchief to pass the area. It is difficult to understand how people living in these areas have got used to the awful stink? Each for himself. There is no joint effort to set the services right. Everybody thinks of his own interests as if others do not exist! A typical “Island mentality” full of obsession and totally self-centred. The most pathetic attitude is from the intellectuals and well reputed members of the civil society. They appear totally unconcerned and insensitive, lost in their own make believe world! A typical answer is “Why should I bother?” and ultimately no one bothers while the entire society goes into shambles. There does not appear an easy way out of this mess. The way things are going ahead we may soon reach the first position in the list of the dirtiest cities. Instead of a welcome sign at the Airport, we should put the Latin saying supposed to be at the entrance of hell which says, “All ye who enter here abandon all hope!”

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-IX (French Ski Resorts)

After having tasted the moveable feast of Hemingway for few days, I returned once again to Grenoble by train. Pierre Montaz wanted me to see some more ski resorts of France. His son Christian Montaz had come to receive me. This time I stayed with Pierre Montaz and not in a hotel. It was a loveable experience to stay with a French family. They had planned my visits to a number of ski resorts but most of these were daylong trips. We first visited Val D’isere which is a huge ski area. I was surprised to see thousands of people skiing in all directions.
There are dozens of lifts on every side. The three small ski lifts and just one Gondola of Gulmarg seem like a joke when one thinks of French ski resorts! On way to Val D’isere we visited Val Thorens and La Plagne. Val Thorens is a very attractive ski resort. It gives you a very good ambiance for pure skiing. In contrast, La Plagne is very monotonous with concrete blocks. Everything was inside these huge blocks. Even the Gondola starts from within the blocks! France has dozens of ski resorts. During my first trip I visited Chamonix. On my second trip I visited Tigne, Plagne, Val D’isere, Villar de lan, les Deux Alpes, Chartreuse, and Val Thorens. During my subsequent visits to France I had the opportunity of seeing more resorts like Avorriaz, Meribel, Les Arc, and Megeve. All these resorts are very well organised in regard to basic infrastructure and facilities for skiing. For me it was a totally new experience. We visited small resorts which reminded me of Gulmarg like the Villar de lan in Vercors and Chartreuse. The resorts of Les Arc were huge on different levels. Most of the resorts have maintained the traditional architecture.
However, the newer ones are on modern lines with multi-storey concrete buildings. In most cases they have tried to camouflage the concrete with wood panelling. Most of the resorts have elected mayors to oversee the development on planned lines. There is no question of haphazard construction as is the norm in our resorts. Apart from top class centrally heated accommodation, the resorts have ample opportunities for entertainment and recreation. Those days most of the resorts had sufficient snow. People would stay in the villages down in the valleys and only some ski lifts were taken up into high mountains.
However, over the years the snowline has been receding and people are now going up both for skiing as well as staying. Most of the new ski resorts have been built up in higher altitudes. In spite of this, the snow has been playing truant and the latest craze with these resorts is the provision of facilities for making artificial snow. We saw this in operation in 1986 in Meribel resort. There is a huge complex like a power station at the base of a few kilometre long slopes. From inside the complex resembles a power house with huge compressors and pumps. We were taken to the control room where an engineer was sitting in front of a computer. He explained that they have laid underground pipes on two sides of these kilometre long slopes with nozzles pointing out after every 10 metres or so. The water is cooled and compressed and then sprayed through these nozzles onto the slopes. It forms into snow flakes and the slopes get covered with real snow. The engineer told us that he inputs instructions into the computer such as 1 meter of snow of certain consistency covered on top with 2 to 3 centimetres of powder and goes to sleep. In the morning entire slope along with the trees on the side are covered with snow. The whole set up had cost the resort an enormous amount probably few million dollars. When I asked the engineer why they were spending so much money? He responded that if they do not have snow on December 1st when the ski season starts, they will lose millions of dollars. So they had ensured that even if God fails them, the machines will not fail! They are committed to their clients for starting the skiing season in the resort on December 1st, every year!
The most important aspect of these ski resorts which impressed me was the total participation of the private sector and involvement of the local population in most of the activities. I had quite a few encounters in this regard with the locals. In Deux Alpes the local mayor invited me for lunch. He informed me that most of the hotels and ski lifts were owned by the local villagers. Their involvement with skiing had an interesting background. There are two villages on two sides of a long meadow with high slopes on two sides. Some years back a team of British skiers had come here for cross country skiing. They surveyed the whole area and told the locals that they owned a gold mine as regards possibilities of skiing. The two villages joined and started with small chalets and a couple of ski lifts. Now the place is one of the most prestigious ski resorts! All due to the active participation of the local villagers.
The other instance was our lunch in Chartreuse. It is a very small resort deep in pine forests. There is a beautiful restaurant constructed in the form of a traditional chalet. My guide Bernard Colomb knew the lady who owns the restaurant. She was very happy to see us but before she could give us lunch, she had a rush of tourists. She was single handed catering to all. Seeing the rush, Bernard and I decided to extend a helping hand to her. We assisted her in serving over two dozen customers which took about an hour. After that we three had lunch. It was a delight to see how local people were totally involved in running tourist facilities. The same needs to be encouraged in our own resorts especially Gulmarg where most of the properties are owned by outsiders and local villagers had been mostly working as menial staff. In recent times there have been some changes and the locals have built some small hotels. They need to be facilitated and helped in setting up various facilities for the benefits to percolate locally!
After visiting these resorts I decided to move ahead to Austria and Poland where I had been invited by various people connected with skiing. I purchased a 15 day euro rail pass to go to Austria and Poland and finally to Paris.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-VIII (Paris, a “Moveable Feast”-II!)

An interesting tour is along the River Seine in a boat in the evening. One can have dinner on the boat and go under the bridges of Seine. There are house boats moored along the banks of the River but these are totally different from our house boats. However, some are very luxuriously furnished inside.
All the facilities are connected with the main city systems at mooring sites. Nothing goes inside Seine like our boats on Dal! Going down River Seine on a boat is a feast. This reminded me about Ernest Hemingway’s book about Paris titled “A Moveable Feast”! He mentions that any body that stays for sometime in Paris carries the taste of the feast that Paris is, all his life everywhere. Paris truly has a flavour unlike other cities. During my tenure in the Tourism Department I had the opportunity of visiting and staying in Paris almost a dozen times. I made many friends there. One of these, Cecile Giuliani, had a designer show room and had met me in Gulmarg. I had the opportunity of visiting her house boat. It is like a luxurious flat but all the lines are connected to the city systems through flexible pipes. We could have same system for house boats on the Dal Lake, the owners of which are accused of polluting the Lake by dumping all their waste in it! However, our main city too is without a scientific system of wastage collection and its disposal. In that regard we are still in the Middle Ages!
The other landmark I visited was the church of Notre Dame. It is a very impressive building. The Notre Dame de Paris stands on the site of Paris' first Christian church, Saint Etienne basilica, which was itself built on the site of a Roman temple to Jupiter. Construction on the current cathedral began in 1163, during the reign of Louis VII. The Notre Dame is the most popular monument in Paris and in all of France, beating even the Eiffel Tower with 13 million visitors each year. But the famous cathedral is also an active Catholic church, a place of pilgrimage, and the focal point for Catholicism in France - religious events of national significance still take place here. An interesting picnic spot is the gardens of Tuileries. Many people visit these gardens. The most noticeable and attractive feature of Paris is the Cafes on the foot paths. These are almost everywhere and people enjoy sitting there all the time. Some of these on Champs Elysee are open 24-hours. In one of these cafes in the Champs Elysee area where my friend took me for dinner, we had smoked fish, the taste of which still lingers in my mouth!
There are many other sights in Paris which one can visit. However, one of the more impressive ones is outside Paris. It is the Palace and Gardens of Versailles. My friend took me there in his car. There was lot of rush and we took sometime in finding a parking place. These gardens are supposed to be from the time of Louis-XIV and were designed by Andre de Notre. These cover 800 hectares of land and there is also a palace called the Chateaux de Versailles. We are proud of our Mughal Gardens and are trying to get these included in the world heritage list but the Versailles Gardens have their own unique style. In 1979 these gardens and the palace were inscribed in the UNESCO heritage list. It is a real pleasure to walk through these beautifully manicured gardens. I was stuck by the standard of maintenance of these gardens in spite of the massive crowds. In comparison our gardens are in shambles, and falling apart everywhere. Especially the outer walls and even the pavilions inside some of the gardens are in bad shape. At present there are many agencies engaged in restoring these gardens but one is not sure whether these can be restored to the pristine glory of the past years?
Side by side with sight seeing, I continued to meet old friends and also make new ones. Boris, the Air India Manager in Paris invited me for dinner to an Indian restaurant. He told me that I had enough of French food and it was time to revive my Indian taste. Rather, he himself was fond of the Indian food. He also wanted me to meet an explorer and anthropologist, Michel Peissel. We had dinner at Mayur Restaurant and the Indian food was excellent. Boris introduced me to Michel Peissel who had extensively travelled in the Himalaya and wanted to explore Ladakh now. He had written a number of books and wanted to write one on Zanskar. Subsequently, Michel visited Kashmir and wrote the book which was later on made into a four part TV programme telecast worldwide by the BBC TV under the title of “Zanskar, the last place on Earth”. This series gave a lot of publicity to Ladakh and Zanskar.
Talking of people, though I had many friends in Paris during my frequent visits, yet the most lasting was my friendship with two diplomats who had served in India. The first one was Serge Boidevaix who was Ambassador to India. I had met him through the British High Commissioner, Sir Robert Wade Gerry and we had gone trekking together in Kashmir. He finally became the French Foreign Secretary and once received me in his formal office. I paid many visits to his house in Paris. Because of him, I got three year multiple gratis visit visas a number of times. The other person was Michel Galas who had served as the Counsel General in the French Embassy in New Delhi. He was fond of hunting and visited Kashmir many times. I also visited his home in Paris a number of times. He could speak fluent Hindi. He had served in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. His weakness was black mushrooms and every time I visited him, I would take these as a gift! During my visits abroad, Paris has been the most frequented place for me and as Hemingway says in his novel, the moveable feast continues to be nostalgia for me!