Thursday 17th and Friday 18th March 2011
Welcome to Dharamsala. Or to McLeod Gang to be precise – the upper town which is home to the Dalia Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile. It is therefore a major attraction for both Tibetan monks and buddhists from all over the world, as well as being a travellers centre too and so our western desires are well catered for in most respects anyway.
After leaving New Delhi Station on Thursday night I treated myself to a taxi to Old Delhi station as the bags were just too much to carry. How Ive ended up with such a burden I really don’t know, but I promise to donate most of it to a good cause when I get the opportunity. Meanwhile laden like a Sherpa I was soon speeding – yes speeding – through the Delhi traffic. On the right Paharganj – unchanged since concrete was invented – a sprawling mass of ramshackle buildings mostly unfinsished despite their age – all with a lethal mass of bare wires and randomly lethal metal bars sticking out amongst the neon signs. Buried down deep alleyways are the backpackers hotels but tonight I was not stopping.
Quickly glimpsed the famous Nirulas restaurant in Connaught Place where I remember the relief from the dirt and poverty on my first visit here, splashing out on bacteria free treats in the air conditioned comfort. Not tonight though. I had my train to catch, but more importantly still, my station to find.
The prepaid taxi booking office outside the station had already been a test – you are surrounded by taxi touts before finding it, even when you get there you are told it is closed or shown to a taxi at the front of the rank, yet has nothing to do with the booked taxi system. Inside there were piles of paper slips and I watched while mine was completed in triplicate. One for the seller, one for me and one for my driver. From the mass of drivers around me, one was selected and I paid my 105 rupees for the trip – I never know how the drivers are chosen, as when being taken to my car, it turned out to be absolutely buried ten deep and bumper to bumper. However two or three surrounding cars were pushed backwards and forwards to open up a gap only just big enough for a car to get through. Not quite big enough though, but we pushed through with only a minor bang and scrape
I’m sure the driver had done this trip 1000 times. He accelerated towards every gap – and I mean any gap more than 1mm wider than the car and jammed on the brakes just in time, every time. He cut the engine as we approached major junctions to save petrol, even though it is less than half the price here than we have at home, and then joined the revving engines in anticipation of red lights changing to green, thus burning up any savings he made earlier. He turned to face me whenever the road ahead was clear enough to hurtle unguided and told me that England were winning the cricket quarter finals. I tried to sound impressed enough without encouraging too much more conversation as I would much rather he faced the way the car was going, at least most of the time.
Red Fort on the right – my goodness it is so much bigger than I can remember – thousands and thousands of people to the left – massive avenues and tiny lanes – neon and candle powered lighting – and finally we arrived at an unlit fence, lined with chai stalls and tyre changers operating on truck wheels with their hammers and chisels on a pavement illuminated only by passing cars and the occasional tilley lamp. “Old Delhi Station” declared the driver – he wasn’t wrong but had dropped me at the back gate, by platform 1 (yes inronic) where a train was ready to depart on the unlit platform.
Which is your train please, he asked. Jammu Mail at 20:20. I had inadvertently dropped another cricket link – “Twenty twenty” he beamed and repeated it a dozen times. “Very good twenty twenty cricket sir. Very good!” Well at least we were stopped this time.
In the darkness the train on platform 1 was departing. Another few hundred people joined it by adding themselves to those hanging out of the doors and the police blew whistles and waved sticks. “Train on platform one is now ready to depart” announced the very well spoken station announcer. It sure was and I sure hope mine isn’t as busy as this!
Train 12445 Jammu Mail Platform 12. It was painted onto the departures board in the platform 1 unreserved booking office. A good sign. Up and over the footbridge to the main station and an hour in hand, I searched for food and some sort of confirmation of the platform.
And there it was in huge eye watering neon letters – 12445 Jammu Mail Platform 12. Great – I can relax now, I thought, and found a superb Punjabi Style Thali meal for a pound in a clean enough fast food outlet in the station.
Still with 45 minutes to spare I went to platform 12 where an earlier train was just departing. Quite civilised, this one, with lots of room inside. It let out a blast of noise and started moving, followed by a few people getting back off while it gathered speed. A girl fell out onto the platform and rolled along with the momentum of the fall. Nobody turned to look – not even others who had jumped out with her – but she got up, dusted down and went on her way – just another every day unexplained occurrence in this crazy country.
Lots of people on Platform 12 but time to buy a chai and some snacks before leaving. As I did so a young American asked if I was waiting for the Jammu Mail but he had been told it would be platform 12. We looked together at the huge neon signs above – Platform 12 it was. I took hold of the biggest boiling hot chai, burning its way though the paper cup and brim full, with a straw sticking out of the foamy milky froth. Also in this hand a carrier bag with my “Cheeky Monkeys” and my “Veg Puff”. It takes almost as much courage to order these things without feeling a complete twat that they might as well be completely foreign words. Nevertheless my order is read back – on chai, one veg puff one cheeky monkeys. 51 rupees sir.
My provisions for the trip were complete.
In the other hand my bag which now weighed so much I could hardly lift it and over my shoulder my computer and cameras, Rough Guide and water. I realised I wasn’t exactly in the best of states to be searching for my space on the train, especially when in the distance, on Platform 10, the Jammu Mail was getting ready to depart.
Bloody hell – boiling chai in hand I climbed the footbridge with another 1000 people and read the electronic display at the top of the stairs down to platform 10. Indian trains are usually 20 coaches long, each with its own number, but not necessarily in a logical order. My coach was A3. The display read SV,SB, S9,S8,S7,S6,S5,S4,S3,S2,S1,A1,S10,S11,S12 etc. A3 was consipicous by not being there.
Not to worry – I started scanning though the names list, printed up on page after page of dot matrix printout on the Chart beside the train. They were not in any particular order, except by coach, and some people had conveniently torn off the bit with their name on it which may have helped them but left many others unsure of their PNR status. Coach A3 was an Airconditioned sleeper with two levels – therefore is known as AC2. The only AC2 list was for coach A1 and I wasn’t on it.
Well if it wasn’t A1 then I must be further down the train. I walked down 10 more coaches – all sleeper class – the lowest possible on this train and all were totally packed. I was trying not to spill my tea, at least it wasn’t quite so hot now, as I made my way back to the other end of the train. I took another look at the booking charts and there I was Michael BEVERIDG (you have to assume a train name of up to 15 characters, but it must be close enough to survive comparison to your passport name). Place 12 SU. Coach A3.
One final look for coach A3 was successful. It was simply added on beyond the coaches which were on the overhead display – the display was just not long enough to show them all. And as I boarded, Jamal my new American friend, his mother and his sister were also just discovering that the train had moved from platform 12 and were in just as much a fluster as me.
We climbed in and it hooted, although in a much more muffled way, as the engine was about ¼ of a mile away. The Jammu Mail had departed on time. Nobody jumped off, as far as I could tell.
Bed 12 was vacant. Big enough to hold a pile of blankets, pillows, my bag, my other bag, my water bottle, veg puff and cheeky monkeys. Where I was supposed to fit was not my most immediate worry – I sat and finished my tea with the Americans and we introduced ourselves.
Jamal had been teaching English, voluntarily in a Delhi slum where he had lived for the last 4 months without any income. During that time he hadn’t left the slum at all and had eaten fruit and vegetables, but no meat or bread. His biggest treat of the day was a box of chocolate filled croissants and banana bread all tied up with a ribbon – a present from his mum.
Mum and sister had flown in to join him on a trip to Dharamsala. Not your average American tourists I hasten to add. Mum lived in a Buddhist monastery in the south of france. I should have taken the hint with a son named Jamal! They wondered if I would like to share a taxi and so I immediately changed my plans and accepted.
This was now my second night without any real sleep and so I climbed (yes climbed) into the bed amongst my bags and things and somehow slept for 8 hours. Mike its 6:30 came an American voice outside my curtain. Almost on time we pulled in to dusty Pathankot station, anticipating a mass of hungry taxi drivers fighrting over our business. There were a few taxis, many of which could possibly make it to the outskirts of town without falling apart, and only a token interest in touting for business. The town was just waking up as we decided to head for the bus station to check out the alternatives. It only just dawned on me that the journey ahead was to be 150 kilometers and therefore upwards of three or four more hours of travelling.
My bag had by now worn its way through part of my shoulder blade and was therefore more or less part of me. The bus station wasn’t that far, nor was it very busy when we arrived. This of course is the land where some signs are in English but most are in Hindi so it took a bit of double checking to prove to our complete satisfaction that there would be a bus to Dharamsala at 08:35. The prior one was at 07:15. It was now 07:20. Oops.
We ate breakfast of chocolate croissants, banana bread and cheeky monkeys. Quite an international spread.
The bus wasn’t nearly as bad as we had feared – busy but not packed and padded seats with legroom. We ducked and dived in and out of the towns traffic, through mile after mile of Army Encampments, or rather Cantonments, with lovely slogans like “Country First” painted at the gateposts.
We were initially heading down a main road towards Delhi, but when we branched off to head northwards, the scenery made a dramatic change with a backdrop of snow covered peaks and bus changed into permanent second gear hill climbing mode.
Hairpins going up are best tackled at full revs otherwise the bus stalls, so we certainly felt some G forces as the front of the bus started heading left while the back was still finishing going right. Corners are also a really good place to overtake, since the road is a bit wider there and so we often headed two abreast towards anything coming down. But in the true Indian way, the whole experience wasn’t in the slightest bit scary, apart from to the American mum who seemed to have communicated secretly with Jamal. “We can ask the hotel to book us a taxi for the way back”.
During the final stages of any journey I usually refer to the Rough Guide to see what lies ahead. I find that I don’t take anything in until I get close to the destination, or even after leaving, when Rough Guide sometimes forms the guide to what I just missed. Therefore a little advance planning sometimes helps.
The Americans had actually already booked their hotel and were concerned that I hadn’t. In fact they had conveniently booked two hotels – one was recommended to them after the other was booked, yet they had been unable to get through by phone to cancel the first. It sounded like a great idea that I then took one of their rooms, particularly since they had convinced me that it was going to be really hard to get one on arrival.
The Rough Guide map showed it too, so finding it should have been easy. But it then dawned on us that Dharamsala was in fact the generic name to the area, as well as being the town of Dharamsala while the Dalai Lama, followers and hangers on actually resided in McLeod Ganj – the upper town. On the map (not to scale) it appeared walkable. Our Indian travelling companions though it was 30km, and we settled for expecting it to be 10km. Actually its 9km along and 1km up, in vertical sense.
So we stayed on the same bus for another 40 minutes while it carried up the constant hairpins which led us to the final bus station of the trip. Another 10 rupees too. It was difficult to get our bearings when we arrived as we expected to being going through somewhere and then getting off, not just getting off. It turned out that we were exactly where we expected on the map, but had bypasswed the town by means of taking the Cantonment Road rather than the steep road, thus explaining why all the public taxis here, which use the steep road, are actually four by fours.
McLeod Ganj is just great. The Buddist temple at the lower end of town pumps out amplified chanting and groaning several times a day while the upper town is wall to wall restaurants and coffee shops and of course hotels. My room turned out not to be what we expected. I reported t the next door coffee shop as instructed by Rough Guide. Most of these establishments, escpecially when listed in Rough Guide are not run by elderly gentlemen in a tweed jacket and walking cane. I said I thought he was expecting me or at least an American family and he said he was not. He asked why I though this, and I showed him the Rough Guide. He showed me the rooms next door amonst the shell of a building site. Indeed this was my place but I have disposed of it. These people must stop using my name. I can not have them using my name…..
I thanked him and left, taking a quick look into the building site next door where there probably was a room booked for Mr Mike but it was deserted and somehow I felt I could do better so went back up the steep hill into town.
It was time to lose my bag though – I could carry it no more and so I took a room at the first place I found -a Tibetan run hotel with a private terrace and hot shower. 1000 rupees – its quite a lot but thankful for anywhere I filled in the 20 questions for the guest register and checked in. Things must be getting a bit more relaxed here,as you no longer are required to provide Fathers Name.
The view was stunning down thousands of feet to the valley below. A ball would roll all the way back to Dharamsala. The morning had been cool. The bus trip got hotter and hotter. Now I had to hide from the sun, such was the change in temperature.
I walked through town exploring and eating. Tea – local tea 20 rupees, Assam tea 40. Milk tea 15. Darejeeling.. Herb.. Honey tea. Popular with the monks, honey tea. I stuck with milk tea. Nice.
The rest of the day flew by. I tried to Skype home with pretty bad results, watched the tea time traffic jam when all the monks leave the temple at once and head for coffee shops where its so strange to see them using their laptops with wifi. But many of them are on a major trip too – this isn’t their home, but a pilgrimage place.
It also turns out to be the first day of Losar on Saturday – that’s the Tibetan New Year which lasts for a month and is marked by the full moon. IN addition it is also Holi, the Hindu festival of colour, starting on Sunday, where I can look forward to being plastered with coloured dye. Yes all over. People are already starting to throw the coloured powder at each other, or dyed water. At least its water and dye here and not dung like some places use.
So with the evening drawing in, my three days without sleeping in a bed were taking their toll and I went back to have the best ever nights sleep. Quite an exceptional day.