India 1998: Down

As we continued our tour bus descent out of Ladakh, following the shelf-like, dirt roads and stopping to wait for repairs en route, the temperature warmed a little and the mountainsides became greener, whilst also gaining humidity. Pockets of cloud hugged the hillsides and hung in the air. But there were also remnants of snow clinging to shady rock faces, grimy with road dirt and fume deposits.

In a valley with a gushing river tumbling over rocks was the De Lai Llama’s residence, allegedly, modest, elegant and spare. Opportunistic sellers of warm socks and prayer flags were dotted around the villa, their stalls canvas tents.

One spot had become a shrine dedicated to lovers, where couples came to be photographed having taken marriage vows, framed in front of an elaborate heart.

P1000861

We came to Manali and the ‘Highland’ hotel-an unappealing travelodge-style building made from white concrete, but with views down the misty valley. Manali was damply humid and thronged with backpackers, its shopping areas bustling, its streets and entrances occupied by stray dogs. There were myriad ‘health’ shops touting remedial medicines for all kinds of ailments, the town having a reputation as a health spa. We took advantage of the ‘hot baths’, donning our swimming gear and piling into a steaming pool with fellow tour members.

In a back street we encountered a hairy, white yak, and extraordinary beast with alarming curved horns and long, flowing white hair, looking like a creature from a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. But while the yak was saddled and available for rides we declined the offer.

Next day our bus continued on downwards until the steeply plunging sides of the valleys petered out into hillsides. Husband had been missing coffee, a beverage that had been lacking from our diet for many days, so at our morning rest stop we asked for a cup each, a request that was met with a glass of hot, sweet milk. Several attempts and glasses later we gave up and had tea.

P1000867

For our last night’s stop before returning to Delhi we got to stay in unaccustomed luxury in a beautiful hotel called ‘Timbertrail’, which boasted magnificent views over the surrounding, wooded hills and a sun terrace with a swimming pool. The sun emerged and by now the temperatures were warm enough for a dip, plus some relaxing on a sun-lounger.

The next day’s travel was by train, on down to Delhi. Trains in India are a delight, with a gentile, 50s ambience. Uniformed staff walked the carriages, serving meals on trays. No sawdust sandwiches and plastic-wrapped flapjacks here-but pristine crockery and cutlery and a freshly prepared curry.

And so back to Delhi, to our original hotel.

We planned to go out for a meal together, our entire group with Adrian, who’d been our excellent guide and good-natured companion throughout the adventure, coaxing, explaining, planning and keeping everyone on track and happy.

This was India’s national day, their Independence Day. Delhi was closed. In our hotel, quiet as the grave, there were no bar facilities, no leisure facilities, no facilities. The swimming pool had been drained.

We had a day to kill before our flight back to the UK. We had a desultory walk in the nearby streets, which were deserted. Our fellow tourers lolled around in the lounge area, although when one or two began to play cards they were prohibited from such a frivolous activity by members of staff.

This, then was the mother of all anti-climaxes. Adrian succeeded in finding a restaurant that was open. We went there. We ate a meal [alcohol-free]. We slept, rose, got our flights. A strange ending. But the entire escapade made memories to last a lifetime.

New York 1997. Part 5. The Walk to Canada.

During the [albeit sketchy, pre-internet] innocent planning of our New York trip I’d felt sure that Buffalo would be the ideal stopover point for visiting Niagara. It turned out that nobody else ever did this. No single person stayed at Buffalo in order to take a trip to the falls. Except for we two-Husband and myself. We’d made an error.

But we were prepared to make the best of things. After all-we’d overcome the hurdle of having to forego our vehicle [see Part 1], we’d find a way to mitigate this current crisis.

Evening in Buffalo and the streets were deserted, a few pieces of garbage blowing around in a stiff breeze and some tumbleweed rolling down the road in contemptuous abandon. As we approached what could be the centre of town there were cinemas, bars and restaurants, but patronised by no one. We saw no more than 2 or 3 others in the town. We walked on and selected a bar, part of a luxurious hotel complex. You could be forgiven for thinking we’d walked into a dystopian future world where unwitting tourists were lured by aliens to be consumed later.

There were 2 couples in the otherwise empty bar. We ordered beers and watched the TV screen, where ice-skating was being shown. Husband intimated that he’d prefer to watch paint dry. Then 2 men entered and we got chatting. ‘So how come you 2 ended up in a place like this?’ one asked. My thoughts exactly. We explained and I asked why the town was empty and quiet. He shrugged. ‘Used to be a boomtown, but it’s all old industry and now it’s died’. His wife was Scottish and they’d be visiting Scotland in the fall.

We left the bar and walked back up the dead street, now neon-lit but no more lively for it. En route there was the sound of a rock band playing, practising perhaps? A crumbling, stucco-fronted house held the sign ‘The Roxy’ over its porch. The windows were dark. It was a club. Inside was a strobe-lit disco floor [empty] and a bar with a few noisy teenagers [mostly girls] and a loud, blond, gum-chewing barmaid. The girls shouted and argued-mostly for display purposes. We returned to The Lenox, having judged Buffalo to be a sad place.

Next morning we rose quickly and went down to reception. The receptionist rang us a cab and we grabbed a coffee. Back at the bus depot we had time for a ‘biscuit’ filled with bacon, egg and cheese and more coffee. We climbed on to the Niagara bus, which pulled out and went swinging and lurching off to the falls. The one hour drive was unremarkable, although I always enjoy riding through foreign suburbs where the more trivial, domestic aspects of life are played out. There were pastel-coloured timber homes, porches with swing seats, screen doors and all the sights we are familiar with from watching movies.

P1000356

At the falls bus station all went according to the new plan and we deposited our luggage in a locker before walking the 4 blocks down to the Niagara river. Then there was a modest sign: Pedestrian Walkway to Canada. Through some gardens there was a visitor centre which provided a map. There were tantalising glimpses of the river but as yet, no falls. Here the flow was fast and foamed into rapids, separating past small islands and rushing along, a dim roar in the background.

P1000344

We walked down towards the American Falls and there was a sudden cut-off point where the river appeared to stop in mid-air. Moments later the American Falls were in sight, water roaring fiercely over a precipice in billowing clouds of spray and creating a sunlight rainbow. We were awestruck, although once the Canadian Falls, the ‘horseshoe falls’ came into view the American Falls were forgotten. A few hundred yards down the road a semi-circular tract plummeting over a cliff. We’d need to cross a bridge to Canada to see properly. Our Amtrak train would leave at 1.30pm. We’d have time.

P1000348

We spent time looking from different viewpoints, cameras in hand, then walked back, crossed the bridge, through a turnstile, into Canadian customs for a passport stamp before setting foot on Canadian soil, with an increasingly dramatic view of both sets of falls.

Eventually we reached a place at the top of the horseshoe falls where the Niagara river thundered over the cliff in a pale green arc of froth and fell in a billowing spray below. Small sightseeing boats chugged, ant-like into the spray, carrying blue plastic-covered sight-seers.

P1000355

We lingered as long as we dared, until time ran out and we needed to get our bus, then our train, but we felt euphoric to have made the effort. We arrived to the bus depot with 5 minutes to spare, retrieved the luggage and boarded the bus to Buffalo station, where we had an hour to wait, there being nothing but a water tap and the surly ticket clerk.

We were to return to New York, retracing our route before we could set off once more to execute the final part of the plan-to Boston!

New York 1997. Part 4.

P1000306

Tuesday. Train to Buffalo day. After an early start and with a scaled down bag of packed items we went to Penn Station and boarded the Amtrak train, impressively huge, silver and sleek with wide comfortable armchair seats. A small dining car sold snacks-good enough for a breakfast of coffee, bagels and cream cheese.

The journey out from New York was the most diverting part, it transpired as what followed was hours of attractive but not dynamic scenery. Tiredness and monotony led to some gentle skirmishing [if you’ve followed from the start you’ll know that the relationship was in its infancy].

At intervals the train stopped. Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, towns heard of in some way and now in context. Some passengers were travelling direct to Niagara; a few heading on to Toronto. We alighted at Buffalo, expecting to go straight to ‘Tourist Information’ and being disillusioned. Buffalo Station had nothing more than a ticket office-and a tiny one at that. One railway official remained as the train chugged off in the direction of Niagara. He looked at his watch. ‘Aaahm about to close up at fooour!’ he announced. We’d still to find accommodation and the bus station, for getting to Niagara next day.

P1000308

The buildings of Buffalo reared up in a menacing, unwelcoming way as the railroad man pointed vaguely in the direction of the bus station and suggested The Radisson or The Hilton in response to enquiries. We heaved our bags across the road and walked the few blocks to the bus station, where the wall-mounted schedule was incomprehensible. Braving the disdain of the ticket clerk we were none the wiser. I threw myself at his mercy. ‘We’re English’ I told him. ‘We’re all a bit dim. Please would you help explain this?’ He softened. ‘Sure. You go get schedule 40 and I’ll show you.’ I sighed. A cold sore had begun its ominous tingle at the corner of my mouth.

P1000307

Now we had to tackle the hotel problem. The transit police suggested the Hotel Lenox and that we’d need a cab [of course] to get there. The driver spent the entire journey earnestly trying to persuade us to take his cab direct to Niagara. ‘You can get a motel down there for 30 dollars and give me 30 dollars-that’s less than you’ll spend at the Lenox’. He laboured his point several times, until Husband gently persuaded him otherwise. ‘We’ll stay here now,’ he replied, ‘we like looking at places so we’ll have a look at Buffalo’, at which the driver capitulated and suggested a restaurant-‘The Anchor’, home of the famous ‘Buffalo wings’. Who knew?

The Lenox was once grand but now a decadent pile skulking in front of the Holiday Inn. The room was adequate.

Buffalo was not the tourist Mecca I’d expected. We debated our options, with this town seeming less hospitable by the minute. A connection to Boston, the next destination, was impossible. I suggested a flight, but there was no reply from any of the freephone numbers we called for ticket agencies. Maybe reception could help? The receptionist seemed invigorated by the challenge- a small, pale, bespectacled girl, offering the phone, finding numbers.

We were introduced to ‘Mr Pellegrino’, the hotelier, an effusive character who extolled the virtues of the Anchor Bar. ‘Tell them Mr Pellegrino sent you!’ and gave us a card. He was a portly ex-cop.

The travel research was not going well. Only one airline flew direct from Buffalo to Boston and the ticket was $301.

P1000309

We went out to find The Anchor, a red brick pub standing alone on a corner. The sun was still warm and the evening crisp and clear, the beer excellent. Here in the quiet gloom of the restaurant 3 mountainous men were consuming gargantuan meals while a family in the corner were setting into a banquet, with plates covering the whole table. A nearby couple appeared to be eating the entire menu of food. We were surrounded by eating machines-dwarfed by them. But the famous, spicy chicken wings were very good and following the meal we decided to look at the town…