Wednesday, June 07, 2006

USA trip April 29-May 16 2006 - Part 1

Wow, it sure has been a long time since I wrote any travel posts… not because I haven’t been anywhere but because there doesn’t seem to be enough time to sit down and write. Don’t get me wrong, there’s time to sit down but then I end up doing other stuff – embroidery or watching TV or just reading. It takes some serious self-discipline to actually write – or type, as the case may be.

The US trip – first one for both me and Pete – was absolutely fantastic, if really hectic. Actually, the very fact that we went to so many places, saw so much, did so much AND took so many photos is the major deterrent when it comes to writing it all down (“oh man, it’s going to take AGES to write all this” – and then I end up doing something else just so I don’t have to think about writing). It’s a vicious circle.

But I’ve decided to breach the circle. This travelogue is not going to be a word-for-word, scene-by-scene description of events – I leave that to my brother, who’s doing an excellent, very funny job of it (look up Mine’s going to be more a city-by-city jobbie. Or experience by experience.

Anyway, on with it. The travails I went through before my travels (I kill myself with my laborious wordplay sometimes) are documented here: Luckily it all worked out, and we left Heathrow on 29th April, touching down at

NEW YORK, at the John F Kennedy Airport the same day. There’s something to be said for time zones when you gain a few hours extra of daylight. On the other hand, the bright daylight highlighted the rather sorry state of JFK. It wasn’t the most impressive airport from the inside – in fact, it looked (and felt) rather like Chennai International Airport before the improvements. Not much to be said for the outside either, once we got out of the inside.

I was actually dreading Passport Control, but it turned out a lot less hassle in one way (I expected to be given a body search but that didn’t happen, phew) while getting on Pete’s nerves royally in other ways. After waiting in a rather haphazard queue for over an hour, we finally got to where we could see the passport control officials sitting in their little plastic cubicles. (I was unpleasantly quite shocked that all of them were carrying guns! They weren’t cops – just regular employees at passport control!) Person after person was called and eventually sent on their way.

At first there were about 7-8 officials checking passports and visas. Then, as the throng dwindled down, a couple of them closed up shop and wandered away. And then there were 5. Amma, Pete and I (and a Malay lady) were the very last in the queue. There was an officious lady who directed us to a cubicle but the official just locked up and went away. She then told us to wait at another cubicle - but it turned out that every time we went and stood in front of an official, they would get up, lock their station and walk off – even though we were stood there waiting right in front of them! They totally ignored us even though it was obvious we needed to be officially let through.

This happened three times and finally Pete lost his temper. He stomped up to the officious lady and politely (but forcefully) explained the situation to her. She looked pissed off (but I’m assuming it was with her colleagues, not with us) and went to the last remaining official. HE wasnt happy at being the last working man, but he was nice enough to us. He fingerprinted us, photographed us and finally told us to have a nice stay as he sent us off towards the baggage carousels.

The first thing I noticed out on the road was the size of the cars. Every other car seemed to be half a truck long and about as high – absolutely huge! Coming from a country where the cars are usually little, and even the SUVs seem small in comparison to American cars… well, I was a little shell shocked. Not to mention dwarfed.

In daylight, the part of New York that we were in looked rather grubby. Even the drive to Manhattan wasn’t madly impressive, unless you count the maniac drivers in their monster vehicles. I’ve never seen such a display of outright bad driving outside of Belgium – methinks even the Belgians would be impressed. Yes, India is a country of TERRIBLE drivers, but at least they’re not changing lanes and muscling their way ahead at signals at 60 miles an hour! Frankly, New York traffic terrified me. I’m all admiration for Kumar who has actually driven there and braved the local traffic. I wouldn’t do it for worlds.

The architecture – such as it is – of New York was quite fascinating. The skyscrapers were all properly impressive and some of them even stunningly beautiful in their symmetry and soaring size. Sandwiched between them in odd places, though, were buildings that looked like they’d been transplanted whole from Europe. Gothic spikes, fairy-tale towers, little brick-and-stone constructions – it was a real mish-mash of styles. I guess that’s a legacy of the immigrants who came there in previous centuries.

The New York subway system is not geared for tourists or amateurs, that’s for sure. First of all, the signs for stops were strange to people who are used to actual names for streets and avenues, instead of numbers (3rd, 5th and so on). The grid system is a thing of wondrous sensible logic – but one has to get used to it first.

Quite apart from sussing that out, we had some serious trouble getting INTO the subway stations. The swipe-your-card thing didn’t work for us very well – at one point, the four of us were on the right side of the turnstile entry while Pete was stuck outside, desperately trying to get in. It was amusing the first time, but the experience soon palled when one or other of us was left outside trying to get in. Or inside, trying to get out. I didn’t notice any fire exits at the stations – the only way to get out was through the turnstiles, and those didn’t allow for a mass panic exodus – I couldn’t help wondering about the mayhem that would be caused if there was a bomb explosion or some other disaster and people had to get out in a hurry. All in all, I didn’t take to the NY subways. (So it’s even possible to forgive my brother for making us walk in three different – and wrong – directions before finally setting off in the fourth direction which by elimination was the right way out!) The subways in Singapore, Paris and London are much more tourist-friendly.

New York by midnight was very nice – the city that never sleeps, isn’t it called? Times Square was lit up like Christmas, with really HUGE neon signs and advertisements and bright lights everywhere. There were loads of snap happy tourists (I admit I was more snap than happy at that time of night, so I didn’t take any photos – luckily my brother did), shops were open, road-side food vendors were selling their wares and in general the streets were very much awake and populated. It certainly was nice to be there and I can only imagine the sort of buzz you’d get from being there around Christmas or New Year’s.

One really cool thing I saw in New York (and for this I do wish I’d got some photos) was a sort of 5-seater cycle. It’s a tourist gimmick and I’m not quite sure how it worked, but basically it was for 4-6 people, all pedalling away while facing in different directions. I’m not sure who would have been the main driver or how the brakes were meant to work – I mean, there were people pedalling with their back to the traffic, others were sitting sideways-on while pedalling. It had to have been legitimate or I’m sure they would not have been allowed to ride in traffic. Whatever, it looked like good fun, and it’s another of the things I’m gonna try the next time I’m in NY!

After two days in New York (I wished we’d had more time there – I wanted to check out a few restaurants and bistros recommended on various food blogs, and I also wanted to meet a couple of blogger friends… but it wasn’t to be, this time), we left for

WASHINGTON DC, which was a 4 hour drive (could have been 3 hours, but felt like 6) in a big car hired by Kumar. Big on the outside, that is. Right then I discovered another thing about American cars. They’re mostly huge on the outside but tiny on the inside and totally uncomfortable to sit in. Talk about bad design! It was meant to be a 7- or 8-seater Ford (cant remember the model) van but the floor was so high up that I was sitting cross-legged. It was either that or have my knees touching my chin. It was the single most uncomfortable car I’ve ever been in. (Kumar discovered this for himself later on in the trip – he actually lay down on the floor of the car, wedging his head by the side of the seat, against the door, in preference to sitting on the seat. He even had a nap in an “L” position! And there are photos to prove it!)

Lunch by the Inner Harbour in Baltimore was nice because of the setting (sailboats, sun shining on little flippy waves and that sort of thing). I wanted to go on the Duck Tour – an amphibious vehicle that does a land and water tour - but we didn’t have the time.

After that we set off for the hotel where we were to stay the night. I wasn’t sure what to expect because the New York hotel had been just about “okay”. But oh my, the Radisson was fantastic. Ultra modern and so comfortable that we were very nearly inclined to just stay there and never mind going out and being touristy! The beds alone were worth that inclination, believe me. The American tendency of making everything the “large economy size” was advantageous in the case of the beds – there were acres of it, soft and inviting and simply lovely. (I might be going on about this rather a lot, but good beds, wherever found, are worth going the extra mile for and worth the extra descriptive sentence or two. Please excuse the mixed metaphor. Rest assured, if I found a good bed anywhere, I would not go an extra mile from it in ANY direction!)

Reluctantly tearing ourselves away from the beds, we went to an area called Greenbelt, to meet with Kumar’s bosom buddy, his best friend from the age of 5 or thereabouts. The poor guy was recovering from a bad case of the flu (or some such debilitating attack) but was still happy to have us all drop by. He took us on a long(ish) leisurely walk around a nearby lake – a very peaceful, beautiful post with a couple of absolutely gorgeous houses on the far side. After the lovely evening and the walk, the siren song of the beds was too tempting to ignore, so off we went, back to the hotel.

The next day, we set off all gung-ho, ready for a day of museum hopping. My bright and shiny outlook had wilted a bit by the time we got out of the metro station and walked towards the museums – it was such a very hot, blindingly bright day. Exactly the wrong kind of day to be carrying a warm, furry coat.

The Air and Space Museum was nicely air-conditioned and despite the fact that there were lots of people (mainly school kids) around, it still didn’t seem crowded. We were lucky enough to get into the Imax theatre and other places of activity and fun just before the crowds got there. It was good fun. There wasn’t much time after that to look at more museums, so we decided to get on a hop-on hop-off bus tour of DC. We managed to see a few places but since I was to meet up with an old friend of mine (and, as it turned out, his new fiancée), Pete and I got off partway so that we could take the Metro nearest to his home.

After a couple of hours spent with Jason and his fiancée (now his wife, actually) Anuja, during which we incorporated a leisurely walk to his little apartment as well as the obligatory photos outside the White House, we went back to the Smithsonian to meet up with amma, Kumar and Radha. (Cant begin to describe how unimpressive the White House looks, by the way. Buckingham Palace it aint, and even that I found rather bland, actually!)

Then it was back to the hotel for our car, and thence to

ERIE, where Kumar is based. It was a long drive, about 6 hours, and Kumar did all of it. We got to his place around 1.30 in the morning. Although we were all tired and very sleepy, we couldn’t help coming rather wide awake when we saw his house. It even had its own plaque outside, as it was Erie’s oldest building (circa 1828, I think). The inside was impressive – tall ceilings, large rooms, very nice furniture (not indigenous to the house) and a very nearly cavernous cellar. On the whole, most impressive. Around 2.30 am, we finally got to bed, with Kumar dropping heavy hints about an early start so as to get to the Niagara Falls nice and early.

Early start, right! I like a leisurely start to my day, whenever and wherever possible, so we left the house only late in the morning. It was about an hour and a half’s drive to get there, and we made it without any hassle. The best part was that there were no crowds whatsoever at the Falls. We didn’t have to queue for anything!

My brother was extremely blasé about the Niagara Falls, having been there half a dozen times. Kind of understandable, because that’s how I felt about Sentosa Island & Jurong Bird Park when I was in Singapore, and how I feel about Madame Tussaud’s, the Tower and the hop-on hop-off bus tour of London. Been there, been there, been there, been there, been there…. No more! Never again!

Anyway, he was kind enough to suffer through yet another visit to the Falls. I absolutely loved it – it was such a breathtaking experience to see the volume of water that rushed over the rocks. The Maid of the Mist was a lovely experience as well. I know it’s been “done” by millions of Indians and yet it’s still something to write home about. The experience is awesome.

Better yet – because you get REALLY close to the waterfall – is the Cave of the Winds. Kind of a misnomer, because it wasn’t a cave and there were no winds. What it was, was a platform built extremely close to the roaring, rushing falls so that at its closest, you were actually standing under the water. Obviously not enough to get knocked off, but just enough to feel the exhilarating rush. The water was cold, but not freezing. There’s no way I could or would have done that in the winter – it would have been way beyond unbearable in freezing temperatures. Worse, it would not have been an enjoyable experience.

After our Niagara tour, Kumar decided that he wanted to show us the views around Lake Erie, so we headed back, trying to beat the setting sun so as get there with enough light to see by. As it turned out, it was a doddle. Plenty of sunshine, plenty of light.

Lake Erie was amazingly huge – it could well have been a sea, if I hadn’t known better. It actually had a quite substantial sandy beachfront, and were it not for the fact that the water wasn’t salty, I would not have believed it to be an inland lake at all. Even more amazing, it actually freezes right up in the winter. Completely. The entire lake! Man, what a sight THAT would be!

The next thing was deciding on how to get back to Washington the next day, to catch the 4pm flight to Seattle. I was not at all keen on 6 hours again in that vehicle of torture aka the Ford van, so Kumar kindly booked tickets on an early morning flight for me, Pete and Radha back to Baltimore. The road trip HAD to be done as the vehicle was hired and needed to be returned. Kumar and amma were to do the road trip, along with our luggage, back to Washington and to Ramaswamy’s house where the rest of their luggage awaited.

Back in Washington after a short flight, the three of us went back to the Smithsonian, this time to the Museum of American Indians which we thought might be interesting and reveal more about the ORIGINAL denizens of America. The building was beautiful inside, cool and air-conditioned. There was a live dance and music performance happening on the ground floor, but to our mystification, it was a Hawaiian hula dance. Why a hula dance, complete with fake grass skirts, in a museum dedicated to the American Indians is anybody’s guess.

The museum was unfortunately a bit disappointing. There were lots of artefacts and things, lots of arrowheads and dolls – but with rather vague descriptions as to time and history. Things that purported to be over 1000 years old were right next to a cheesy modern hard hat painted in “traditional” designs in 1993 by some guy – but why put THAT in a museum??? Is there really so little original work left from the tribes that they have to include whatever junk passes for indigenous art? Still, to be fair, there were some fantastic pieces of extremely intricate beadwork garments on display. As an amateur

Pete thought – and I agree – that it could have been a good chance for the history and culture of the indigenous peoples of America to be propagated, but instead it turned out to be somewhat less of a learning experience and more of propaganda to the tune of “We are all Americans but we still have our own culture and pride and an important role to play in modern America”.

Yeah, right.

Anyway, by the time Pete and I had had a look around (Radha sat down in one of the comfortable sofas that were scattered around and refused to budge), it was time to head to the airport. We were too bummed to bother with public transport so we took a taxi. It was a long ride, but the driver was a polite, dignified gentleman whose previous job profile was as an Afghan diplomat! I dozed pretty much all the way, but Pete had a long chat with him. They became such friends that at the airport, the taxi driver happily took less fare than he was owed (none of us had change), saying he would take it “next time”. What a nice man!

As it turned out, we very nearly missed the flight to Seattle because apparently Pete was on the FBI and CIA “no-fly” list. There was 5 minutes left for the final security check call, and Pete didn’t even have his baggage checked through! After some frantic running around (and dealing with unhelpful people), he managed to convince them that he was a different Peter Edwards, not the criminal that Interpol was on the look out for. We were literally the last persons to board the aircraft – in fact, the steps were wheeled away the moment we set foot in the plane! And then we were on our way to

SEATTLE, Radha’s chosen place of residence. The flight was uneventful enough, and we had a choice of taking the shuttle or one of the limos from the airport to her house. And in honour of our first visit to Seattle, Radha hired a long black stretch limousine. It was fun to actually be inside one of those things instead of on the outside wondering what was on the inside! J Well, there wasn’t that much inside, to be honest. But then, it was still an airport taxi sort of vehicle, not really geared OR set up for five-star luxury or celebrity occupants. Still, it was fun. It must take some getting used to, when it comes to parking a car that’s more than two cars’ length! My new ambition now is to ride in a Hummer limo. I know, I know… Hummer limos are monstrous eyesores. But I still would like to ride in one.

It was about an hour's drive from the airport to Radha's house. And a very nice house it was, too. With a very comfortable high bed in the room allotted to Pete and me. (Ok, I'm obsessive about beds.) But even better than that was her recliner chair - like the ones that Chandler and Joey have in "Friends". (Ok, I'm obsessive about Friends, too.) That to me is the last word in luxury... until something even more luxurious comes along, that is.

I have to say that we didnt do much in Seattle by way of sightseeing. I didnt get to see the Seattle Needle, and apparently Frasier had re-located to San Francisco (although I didnt meet him there either. Yes, ok, I'm obsessive about Frasier too!). What we did do there, in the couple of days available to us, was shop a lot. We spent one day, more or less, shopping for clothes. I didnt get much that I liked, but Pete spent absolutely HOURS and came out with what was an entire new wardrobe of new clothes. He's set for the year, I think.

Radha was obliging enough to drive me around to food shops where I browsed for things not available in the UK. In Uwajimaya, an oriental food store, I got a few spices and sauces and dried lotus stems and things like that. In a Mexican grocery store, I stocked up on strange dried herbs and lots of different kinds of dried chilies. I havent got around to using most of them yet, but it's only a matter of time. I also tried out what was called "guava candy" - but it wasnt really candy, it was exactly like the aam papad - dried pressed mango that you get in India. Except, of course, that it was guava papad. It was scrumptious, sweet and a bit sour at the same time. I wish I'd brought back some to the UK!

I also went to a Trader Joe's. It was sort of disappointing after all I'd read about it in various food blogs. But only because most of the items available couldnt have been transported back to the UK... Trader Joe's is best for people who live locally. Sigh.

Oops, this is my travel blog, not my food blog.

Some of the shopping we did was for the party we were having in celebration of my mother's 60th birthday. In fact, the whole trip was planned for and around that event, with Radha inviting her friends over. It was a sort of pot-luck party, with each guest bringing along one item. It was good fun, with great food, and I had a gala time with all the little kids.

Again, there wasnt enough time for sight-seeing or trying out the various eateries and restaurants for which Seattle is famous. (It's another matter that I might not have been able to find much to eat, being vegetarian.) But one place we DID go to - and long-time residents of the US might groan at this - was a Krispy Kreme outlet. Oh my god, I've never had such melt-in-the-mouth doughnuts EVER! Every one of them was a revelation of fresh sweet warm softness. Those doughnuts are to die for. I could have eaten them all day despite my distinct lack of a sweet tooth. I really WISH Krispy Kreme would open outlets in the UK, like McDonalds, Burger King & KFC. And of course Starbucks.

After that hectic weekend, we were off early Monday morning to

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK. Of course, we had to fly to Salt Lake City first. When I looked out at the countryside, I couldnt help thinking of all the Westerns I'd read and trying to imagine what it must have been like in the times of cowboys and outlaws and shootouts in saloons. (I tried not to think about the Mormons, though it would have been kinda nice to visit the Mormon temple.)

Directly from Salt Lake City's airport, we went to the RV (Recreational Vehicle, to the uninitiated) centre, where we hired ourselves one of those large vehicles, ready for the 400-mile drive to Yellowstone Park. It was all exciting, especially as neither Radha or Kumar had ever driven anything as big as a large bus! It was a first for everybody... and we had a 400-mile drive, first-timers all.

For Pete especially, the sheer staggering size of the US was driven in yet again - I mean, in the UK, it's a 400-mile drive from Shrewsbury to the Scottish Highlands, and that covers nearly 3/4 of the country's length. And here we were, ready to cover the same distance merely to GET to the National Park from the nearest RV centre!

Staggering, I tell ya.

After a long drive, with Radha and Kumar taking turns to drive the RV, we reached the RV camp quite late at night - 11 pm or thereabouts. It was very quiet and still, but since Radha had phoned ahead to the camp manager, she was awake. Very quietly, we hooked up the RV to the electricity and water outlets and, once everything was fixed and ready, went to sleep.

We were in Yellowstone Park at exactly the right time of year - yet again, it was timed to perfection. The season hadnt quite begun yet, and the Park wasnt fully open. The weather was perfect, the hordes of tourists hadnt descended on the area and there was peace and calm all around. Apparently during high season, there are actual traffic jams on the roads inside Yellowstone - brr! I doubt we would have had as good a time with more traffic and people to contend with.

Yellowstone Park is huge and only a very small section of it has been "civilised" - I mean, laid out with roads and signs and things. The best way to see it, of course, is by hiking or climbing. But for the more comfortably-minded, driving around in a car is much the preferred method. The views are fantastic, the sheer scale of the mountains is breath-taking.

We saw lots of bison (or buffalo) - usually on the road, blocking our way. With typical bovine stupidity, they would amble across till they were in the middle of the road, then stop and just stand there. Maybe they forgot what they were gonna do, maybe they were waiting for inspiration to strike. But since you're not allowed to honk the car horn or otherwise disturb the wildlife on purpose, all we could do was wait and hope that they would move on. It IS exciting to see wild animals close up, but there's only so long that you can sustain the excitement of looking at a somnolent shaggy cow. Or bull.

Mind, we also saw lots of elk. Boring deer, really. But at least they werent on the road. We saw a coyote, too. And a wolf. Which also, strangely enough, was in the middle of the road. It actually looked like a normal Alsatian dog, because it was wearing a collar. But since nobody goes to Yellowstone Park to look at a domestic canine, we decided that it was a wolf that had been "collared" for scientific head-count purposes. The darn thing trotted along the central line on the road almost as if it was taking a sobriety test, making it impossible for cars on both sides of the road to progress along. Eventually, after we had all taken photos, it loped off to the side, and we could all carry on driving in search of MORE wildlife and wild views. You'd think the animals would have learnt to stay off the roads, considering the hundreds of miles of forest and wilderness available to them! (This is called irony.)

Oh, talking about views... Yellowstone is one of those places that you have to see to believe. Words cant describe it and photographs show only a fraction of what we saw. The waterfalls we came across were ginormous, and so fantastically placed that from every angle they were perfect for picture postcard photography. Kind of like the Taj Mahal - it was difficult to take a bad picture.

What I would have loved to see in the way of wild animals was a grizzly bear, but unfortunately those were not wandering around in herds. We DID stop by the roadside at one beautiful viewpoint, to be told in hushed tones by the other people that "there's a grizzly over there". "Over there" turned out to be at the furthest point of naked eyesight. We didnt have binoculars so we couldnt tell for sure if it was an animal, or if the vaunted grizzly was really only a distant bush masquerading as one. In any case, after straining our eyes and trying to get a closer look via our cameras' "zoom" facility to no avail, we moved on.

It was probably only a bison, anyway.

As it turned out, we didnt see any grizzlies. Nor did any grizzlies see us, I guess. Just as well.

Two of the most vivid experiences of Yellowstone were, for me, Old Faithful geyser and the enormous Yellowstone Lake. The park has lots of areas of hot springs, geysers, sulphur pools and mud pools, much like New Zealand. Old Faithful is, of course, THE most well-known geyser. We had to wait nearly an hour (which time we whiled away by dozing through two interesting documentaries in the shop-cum-office area). There seemed to be quite a lot of false starts and spurts but eventually Old Faithful lived up to her name, putting up quite a show of scalding water and steam that shot up into the air.

Not only are there volcanic pools, but bacteria that can live in the scalding, sulphurous, acid waters and are being studied by scientists to see how life developed. Nobody is allowed to step off the raised paths onto the ground for two very good reasons: One, it would compromise the bacterial mat and 2. One could end up sinking into a pool of corrosive acid.

I have to admit at this point that I DID compromise the evolution of these bacteria - but not on purpose. An extra strong gust of icy wind whipped my beautiful red leather beret (bought as a souvenir in New York) off my head on to the ground a few feet away. Alas, I couldnt retrieve it because of the two reasons stated above. So with a heavy heart, I abandoned my beret to the tender mercies of the hot sulphurous waters and the bacteria. I wonder how they will incorporate my beret into their evolution... and what the scientists will think when they come across leathery red bacteria...

The second unforgettable sight in Yellowstone was the vast frozen Yellowstone lake that we came across more or less by accident. We'd hired a car that day (thinking the RV was too big to drive around everywhere) and taken a wrong turning somewhere after a set of bubbling sulphurous mud pools. When we came across a sign for "Yellowstone Lake", it was a choice between carrying on that way or turning back the way we had come. Luckily we decided to carry on, although Kumar thought it couldnt be much of a tourist attraction. We werent sure if it was a loop road, or whether it led away, or how far, from our RV. Still, we carried on.

And what a fortunate choice that turned out to be! Once past a Ranger Station on our right (brand new buildings, and a new service station coming up as well), all we saw was a vast sheet of ice on the left - Lake Yellowstone was still frozen solid. Towards the edge, near the beach, the ice was fairly thin and translucent, but further back, it was an opaque white. The lake stretched to the horizon, with a semi-circle of snow-covered mountains at the furthest. Puffs of steam could be seen here and there on the far side, from the hot springs and mud pools. It was an amazing, awe-inspiring, completely unexpected sight.

Then Kumar had a brainwave - he suggested that we go back with the car to the RV and come back with it, hopefully in time to take photos of what would most certainly be a spectacular sunset. The reason for returning the car being, of course, that the RV was a lot more comfortable and even if got late, at least some of us could get some sleep even if the RV was moving. This seemed like a good idea, so we raced back to the caravan park, saying rude things to the few bison that dared to get in our way and slow us down.

The decision to let Pete handle the RV on the way back to Yellowstone Lake was unanimous - we had only an hour or so to get there if we wanted to catch the sunset. Although Radha and Kumar had both proved very good at driving the monstrous RV, neither of them were quite comfortable with the idea of hurling it around the fairly narrow, twisty roads. Pete was the only one of us with experience in driving large vehicles over narrow roads at unsuitable speeds. Back at home in England, he's very used to driving the Range Rover with a large trailer attached - so an RV would more or less be the same length (if not the width). It was quite awesome to be in the RV at that point, and believe me, we were all belted in as he hurtled the RV onwards at speeds somewhat in excess - like 3 times - of the maximum speed limit (If any cops are reading this - I'm lying like a rug, officer.)

As it happened, despite Pete's speediest efforts, we didnt make it back to the lake in time for the sunset. (It was another matter that the sunset was in the opposite direction.) But we went onwards regardless, because that was The Plan. Once we got there, Kumar decided that he wanted to stay overnight so as to see the sunrise the next day. There was some argument about whether it was legal to park the RV there, and if it was safe, and whether we would run the batteries down by having the heating on all night, and so on. I have to say that Kumar made the most impassioned pleas for staying on, getting all poetic ("Just imagine, you're standing there with a cup of coffee in your hand, watching the sun rise over the mountains, watching as the sky lightens to pink, as the first rays of the sun hit the frozen lake" etc ad nauseam). I know I gave in just so that he would stop babbling like an out-of-control travel agent!

My main reservation about staying there was perhaps meeting a grizzly or even a bad-tempered bison in the dark (while on the short walk to the toilet, for instance). For all that we hadnt seen any grizzly bears, I couldnt stop imagining a particularly sore-headed, hungry bear behind every bush as it got dark. It didnt help that I'd read a book about really grisly grizzly attacks, day and night, on unsuspecting people who were out walking or even in tents. I mean, just because I couldnt see or smell a grizzly didnt mean that any passing hungry bear couldnt see or smell ME! I knew for a fact that bison had been around, because of the lavishly large droppings that that had been deposited here and there. One, I might mention, rather close to the toilet cubicles. Anyway, I decided I would venture out only in broad daylight. The last of the intrepid adventurers, me.

To give Kumar his due, he really was enthusiastic about the whole thing, making up for any shortfall in the levels of enthusiasm in the rest of us. He got up at around 4am the next day (if he slept at all, that is) and was out in the cold pre-dawn darkness fiddling with his tripod and camera, getting everything just right. By about 5.30 we were all out there, shivering quietly but marvelling at how utterly eerie the lake and mountains looked. Everything was an intense blue, much like looking through a blue filter - the photos will attest to that.

The sun was quite tardy in rising, and we amused ourselves by betting on exactly which valley the sun would appear from. Eventually, extremely reluctantly, the sun made its first appearance over the mountains at around 6.30. Coincidentally, exactly at that moment, there was a huge "CRRACK" - the ice at the forefront of the lake, where it wasnt very thick, was breaking up. Even as we watched, cracks zigzagged their way almost quicker than the eye could follow. It was stunning. I dont know if it was sheer coincidence or whether the sun's warmth caused the cracking. If it was the latter, all I can say is that any change in temperature was totally imperceptible to us.

The sunrise itself was pretty - more pastels than anything else, not as spectacular as some I've seen. Perhaps because there wasnt enough pollution (dust, etc) in the atmosphere? Whatever, it definitely was worth the trouble of getting up early and I guess we have Kumar alone to thank for the experience - so, thanks, Gopes!

The rest of the travelogue will follow in the next post.