After a near-solid three days of travel from Jaisalmer, I’m in McLeod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government in exile, way up in Himachal Pradesh. For the first time since I came to India, it’s been raining, cold, and cloudy. It’s great, after the furnace of Rajasthan, where the mid-afternoon air was like constantly opening an oven door in your face!
I left Jaisalmer in a hurry, sprinting to catch the bus on the back of a scooter, after a mix-up with bus times. After a brief stay in Bikaner, there was just enough time for a quick trip to the Karni Mata temple at Deshnok, the famous temple where the souls of the dead are supposed to come back as rats. The rats are everywhere, some dead, some scraggy looking, all very well fed with prasad (sacred food from the shrine) and milk. Because it’s a temple, however, you have to go in bare feet – so after coming out, you have feet encrusted with dried rats pee and food – thank goodness for Wet Wipes. Quite apart from the rats, one of the most impressive sights was huge vats of food being prepared for devotees (and the rats) in the temple. See the photo album for some pics from Deshnok.
After leaving Bikaner and Deshnok, I got the train up to Kalka, and had about half-an-hour spare to get a chai (served in a terracotta cup which you then smash on the ground – more environmentally friendly than plastic), and catch the Viceroy’s Toy Train from Kalka to Shimla. The fare is an absurdly cheap Rs.20 (about 25p) – not bad for the best train ride I’ve ever taken! The train wound its way up through the foothills of the Himalayas to Shimla, wrapping itself around the sides of hills, chugging over bridges, leaning over huge drops and passing through so many tunnels I lost count, all the while teetering on a narrow-gauge track. As we got higher, the views got more impressive, until you gave up expressing yourself properly and just said “whhooooaaaaaa….” all the time.
It was a fun journey, as a procession of holidaying Indians in the carriage came up for chats, and I was entertained by a young girl on holiday with her grandfather. She spoke no English, I spoke no Hindi (and the Hindi for “I do not speak English” is ‘Mein nahin Hindi bol sakta hun’!), but she still gave me some of her biscuits and tried to teach me to whistle with my fingers. I can’t, so just kept making farting, spluttering noises that had her in stitches. I’m a class act with the ladies, me.
I don’t know what I expected from Shimla – I suppose a quaint town untouched by modernisation, with some old English charm, seeing as this is where the British used to come for summer when the rest of India got too hot. There was a very English looking church, some timber-framed houses that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Lavenham or York, and a wide street where people spend the evenings walking. The rest of Shimla however is modern India crowbarred in and added on – Chinese and Indian restaurants, ATM machines, a chaotic, filthy bus stand, Dominos Pizza and a Starbucks-like coffee shop, Barista. This being a hill town, however, everything looked like it was perching, struggling to hold on to the firm bit of ground it had got, for fear of disappearing into the trees rolling hundreds of feet down the hills.
The bus journey from Shimla to Dharamsala is ten hours long, and frankly it’s too late in the day, and I’d spent enough time on buses, to I decided to cheat and get a taxi. Roughly thirty-five quid buys you a comfortable, marginally quicker taxi ride from Shimla all the way to McLeod Ganj. Unfortunately, the standard rules of Indian driving still apply here in Himachal Pradesh, even though most of the roads through the mountains have a 300-foot drop off one side, and there are more corners than straight bits of road – so some of the ride was hairy. This was despite one of my two (yes, two) drivers assuring me that we were going slow and safe. Before my mum freaks out about taking dangerous forms of transport, it’s worth adding that on the way to Dharamsala, we saw no crashed taxis, and two crashed buses.
So finally, after a very steep climb in the taxi from Dharamsala to McLeod Ganj, I’m here, at my final destination in India, for my last two weeks. My guest house room has a stupefying view out over the mountains. There are masses of massive hills to walk, a pilgrimage to the nearby village of Bhagsu to get a banoffee pie I’ve been told is the best there is, and lots of Tibetan history to absorb. There are more Tibetans here than Indians, changing the feel of the place, as well as Buddhist monks everywhere in bergundy robes, and a fair amount of Westerners. It seems, above all, chilled out.
Today is the first day of Holi, a Hindu festival marked by the throwing of water and coloured powder. People all over town are running around with bags of powder paint, giggling and panting like kids that have eaten too much sugar, covered from head to foot in a crust of muddy colour. I just managed to get to the Internet cafe a new shade of green, red and pink, after getting a few facefulls.
I’ve uploaded some more pics to the photo album, more to come…