Thursday, November 12, 2009


Nek Chand's Rock Garden

After Srinagar, I flew to Jammu, and took the train to the modern city of Chandigarh. A little adventure on the train - couldn't book any seats so I ended up in a 2nd class chair car, sharing a long bench with about 5 other people on an overnight trip. Although uncomfortable and sleepless (I envy some Indians' ability to sleep in nearly any situation), this turned out to be one of the most incredible train rides I've had. You were forced to get to know the people around you, and everyone was so caring and bent over backwards to help each other. This young guy across from me, after putting up a little fuss for letting this poor old grandma share his extremely small sitting space, doted on her the entire trip. He would push others out of the way to give her room, and help hold her stuff. I made friends with a couple of Sikh military guys who were on some special forces in Jammu (also a heavy security area).


Chandigarh is a very unusual Indian city. It was planned by the French architect Le Corbusier in the 1950s as a symbol of the new, post-Independence India and has many aspects of a modern, Western city. There are wide leafy avenues, a grid system, and a lot of malls. It's a strange juxtaposition to see what would look like any major arterial road in LA, lined with trees and grassy parking strips, with bicycle rickshaws and horse-draw carriages driving around.

Open Hand Sculpture - Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier not only designed the city, but also contributed sculptures and architected many of its major buildings. The signature piece by him is the "Open Hand" sculpture, meant to symbolize the new, open, non-corrupt Indian society (though honestly it looks like someone is saying "talk to the hand").

Ned Chand's Rock GardenNek Chand's Rock Garden

Pretty much the only thing I did in Chandigarh besides go to malls was to check out Nek Chand's Rock Garden. Chand, who was a government official, surreptitiously created the garden in his spare time, starting in 1957 and using only garbage and industrial waste. The authorities discovered it in 1975 and it's become a big attraction since then. The garden is huge, and contains thousands and thousands of sculptures of people, animals, gods, and amorphous blobs of concrete and tile. Tori, this is another place I think you would love.



After a 19-hour bus ride, I always ask myself, "where's the angry mob to harass me?" Srinagar did not disappoint. Located in the perma-problem area of Kashmir, Srinagar has had its economy hit pretty hard by the instability, with many tourists avoiding the place due to the potential for violence (though there haven't been any attacks on tourists since the early nineties). So the locals were, um, very eager for our business when we got there. In fact, they mobbed us. As our bus arrived at the parking lot, some of them grabbed the door handles and tried to actually get in the bus. Failing that, they ran alongside the vehicle as it moved forward and parked.

The big draw in Srinagar is to get a houseboat out on Dal Lake. As we got off the bus, Erez and I found ourselves surrounded in a circle of aggressive touts trying to get us to go to their uncle's/brother's/cousin's houseboat. As you can imagine, after the long bus trip, we weren't exactly in peak condition for dealing with this. I think we kept our cool, and just said, "thanks but we are going to get a taxi and go look at houseboats ourselves," which did nothing, and lead to "please leave us alone". Eventually, the mob actually got angry with us for not engaging, and started yelling things like "Get out of Srinagar then!", which was a little creepy.

Our houseboat

We finally made it to a taxi and of course, even he tried to get us to go see his father-in-law's houseboat! It was like in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" when the fleeing characters finally find someone they think is still human, breath a sigh of relief, and then that person lets out the blood-curdling scream to alert the other aliens of their presence. FINE, we'll go see your father's/uncle's houseboat! So we rented a little water taxi to go see it and a few other choices, ending up taking another one.

Our houseboatOur houseboat owner

Our houseboat was sweet - kind of like an auntie's victorian drawing room on the water, and we had the whole thing to ourselves. After our warm welcome to town, we didn't really feel like going to the mainland for the rest of the trip. The man who ran it was friendly but sad, cooked us delicious meals, and evidently played a the best banjo in the area.

Vegetable MarketSrinagar

The lake is one endlessly unfolding photo opportunity, with floating markets, well-dressed ladies floating by, little boat stores pulling up to see if you need anything, and lots of channels in the reeds you can paddle through and get lost in. Erez and I spent quite a bit of time just doing that.


The people reminded me a bit of those in Cambodia - there is a heaviness to them you can see in their eyes, from living through a prolonged period of violence and loss. Though very friendly once you get past the aggressive sales pitch.

After a couple of relaxing days, Erez took off to go to a Vipassana meditation retreat in Delhi, and I stayed on for a little while longer (shopping mostly), eventually flying to Jammu. The Srinagar airport was one of the most locked-down security zones I've ever been to. They search the entire car, inside and out, even underneath, before you are allowed to drive up. I was security scanned a two or three times in the airport itself.