Tuesday 22nd March 2011
A day behind now I’m trying to recall the trip from Dharamsala.
I decided to leave after waking up early to the sound of a broom sweeping the path outside. I haven’t mentioned the path yet as I was trying to make McLeod Ganj sound nice, at least while I was there. However the darker side lies below the main road, where my room is clean enough but an open sewer catches all the waste from the levels above right while other piles of rotting things continue to rot. A broom therefore isn’t really going to make a great deal of difference, but on and on it went. I looked at the watch – 06:50 – so I jumped in the shower and headed up for breakfast. It was slightly cool at this time of day but out on the terrace as soon as the sun rays hit us the warmth returned and banana pancakes with tea (truly delicious with honey in both) served a fitting reminder to travellers hangouts world over.
I needed some change – but nowhere was open so I used my first Indian Cash Machine – very nice too – easier and quicker than at home. Notably they don’t retain the card and leap into life when a card is inserted then removed. Welcome Mr Beveridge it said –you don’t get that at home!
I also took advantage of the early start with a 50/- shave. And it was a very good one too – although I thought he would never stop when brushing lather into lather for the hundredth time.
Back to checkout – it’s a great system in many hotels here by the way – you simply keep the room till ready to leave, and as long as you checkout by mid-day then they tot up the number of nights and charge as you leave. Three nights – that’s 1800 rupees please. And that’s that. Free again.
Down at the bus stand there’s no sign of a bus. Back to the main road there’s two American women – the bus will be here at 9 they told me, but a jeep was ready to depart so I jumped in. So did they, because their monk told them to. What? Yes they had a monk in charge of them – I rather think he wasn’t being totally naïve, as they kept telling him how grateful they were and that they would pay him handsomely for helping them. We compared notes of how we had got here – they had taken a taxi from Pathankot and asked how much my bus was. 102/- plus 10 – that’s 112/-. They had paid 1400 for their taxi. I think the monk could expect quite a bonus.
As all the buses here have hindi signs and no English, I walked to the bus stand to ask for the Kangra bus – which was just leaving – I banged on the side and the door flew open – they are never going to leave with another passenger to pick up. The fare to Kangra was 12 rupees. Very cheap I thought, but after passing Kangra Airport and reaching the junction outside town, the ticket man came again. Kangra he said and pointed out of the window. Railway Station said I, staying on board. Fifteen rupees said he. I couldn’t imagine the distance to the town being further than Daramshalla but paid up regardless, and it was indeed another half hour or so. I thought we were going to arrive at some other station, or even a station, but when we came in to the modern Kangra Bus Stand I was completely lost. No sign of anything at all let alone a station, just the usual muddle of shops and food places. And of course a rickshaw or ten. Accustomed to being hassled by taxis and rickshaws I expected one to come hurtling up, but no. Nothing. They didn’t move an inch. But I had an hour (more than I had expected) to find the train, and decided I really needed some help to get there, so I approached them. Railway Station thirty rupees. Twenty? No thirty. My bargaining isn’t getting any better. Ok thirty.
And off we went, probably 2 km before turning into a steep side road and going down towards the valley. Out into open countryside now and still no sign of a station. Screech. Stop. Railway station sir. 80 rupees.
That was two shocks in rapid succession. I looked for a station. There was a bus stop and a shop. Station? Yes 80 rupees.
I gave him 30 as suggested when I started the journey but it was not to be. 80 rupees. Not 30. I had no real leg to stand on as I suppose they could have said 80 when I thought it was 30. Anyway for about 4 km and 15 minutes I thought 30 was a bit of alright, yet 80 was far too much. The rate is something like 2 rupees per km so ten times that just isn’t right. But for the sake of a pound I was not going to miss the train.
Talking of which I wonder where it was? There were some other shops – in fact a path lined with shops, just off the main road. I followed, coming to a bridge over the river – which I crossed. More little shops and then there it was. Kangra Mandi Station – not Kangra main station, which was probably just where the bus dropped me off – but most likely this was actially the closest. Nomatter – I felt quite satisfied and waited for the train. A grubby little hatch with IN OUT signs, a timetable and fares list was painted on the wall, and a little open sided waiting room with a slowly gathering crowd of waitees.
Ticket window will open 30 minutes before departure of train, and will close 5 minutes before. It was getting very close to 11:10, scheduled departure time. A small scrum was starting to form. I joined it. The station master appeared, counted the people in the waiting room and wrote the total down on the back of his hand. The grubby board behind the window shuffled around and the scrum tightened. Tickets were on sale. I hardly dared believe that the fare was going to be 7 rupees, as per the painted board, last updated two years ago. Baijnath please. What? Baijnath. Oh – its Buy-Nat OK! 7 rupees sir. How on earth was this train making enough when I was going to get a three hour ride for 10 pence.
Definitely the best ten pence I ever spent – we ambled along at 10 miles an hour top speed, against the Himalayan backdrop. I had a seat but on the inside. A friendly old man with bright orange hair brylcremed down beckoned me over. In India you are our guest. You must always be given the best seat and you must ask if you are not offered. It is your right. Without our tourist guests we would be very much poorer. Welcome. Well that was nice – he made way for me to sit at the window for the rest of the trip and offered a non stop commentary as we went along. The trouble is that whilst I could understand what he was referring to – building, mountain, blue flower, bird, temple, field, person etc., I couldn’t really understand anything that followed and so I got a running list of the blatantly obvious – river, bridge, cow without learning anything at all.
As the miles went by he introduced me to many other passengers. I heard the word UK time and time again, midst a stream of Hindi. Gentle waves and smiles from all round the carriage. I smiled and waved back. Whenever someone got up to leave I then had to shake their hand. What lovely people. Not least when my friend got up to leave at Palampur. He returned to shake hands at the train window. I managed to catch him on video walking up the camera again, and saying “I am not beautiful” or something like.
But how nice that the old chap facing me then suddenly piped up – you will come to my house and you will be my honoured guest. When we get to my station I will have my car pick you up and you may stay as long as you wish. And he really meant it. I was almost even tempted – I do wonder what would have happened if I had said yes, but as we approached his station he realised that I was not going to follow him. More hand shaking. I felt a bit humbled and the closest I had ever been to the real Indian people, and just how nice they were.
A load of school kids got on – rather than got in – the train. More of them remained hanging outside the train than inside despite being shouted at by the resident policeman from the next carriage. He was nowhere to be seen for the rest of the trip. We passed an amazing looking funfair with all kinds of groups of unusually dressed people around the edges and some very unusual rides. Father Ted’s Craggy Island fun fair was possibly modelled on a similar scene.
Approaching our destination at Baijnath we screeched to a halt at a red signal a few hundred yards short of the station, and people began to get out. More and more – like some alternative station – but as they walked along the tracks we started moving again and beat them to the platform – just. Another train was all lined up ready to depart.
Baijnath was a model station, with rest rooms and a holiday home spanning a whole area of town. To exit we had to climb up a narrow stairway to the main road where a very clean and orderly shopping street spread out in both directions. I wandered the wrong way as usual, but it was very interesting to see a clean – well relatively- Indian street with some very pleasant looking shops selling new stuff – lots and lots of shoes but also lots of wool and coloured materials which I haven’t seen elsewhere.
I guessed the direction and waited until a bus came. It wasn’t long- this is after all the place where there is a bus to anywhere within minutes. I sneaked a look at the Rough Guide – Mandi seemed to be the best place. A fraction of an inch on the map in a straight line, it looked about an hour.
The first bus said they only went to Baijnath Bus Stand but in 3 minutes a bus would come direct to Mandi. And 2 minutes 58 seconds later, it did. Quite nice at first it took us into Baijnath and shuddered to a halt while we were bombarded with vendors. It got busy, as only to be expected and then set off with a lot of horn blaring and shouting while we collected another dozen. Someone outside was carrying an old man in a turban and the bus doors flew open while they tried to lift him up the steps but he didn’t seem to want to come, so he was lowered back into the arms of his helper and we moved on. We finally left town and to my surprise started to climb a steep road. Hmmm. Mountains don’t show up on my maps – so it was to be a bit hilly then?
Hilly wasn’t actually the first worry. We joined a traffic jam after some ten minutes, single file through road works. Well ahead and to my horror, I could see a real land slide taking place. Boulders and soil and trees coming crashing down the hillside just ahead of us. The road was far too narrow to turn around, traffic was backed up behind and there was no oncoming traffic, stuck to the other side of the landslide. Our conductor walked ahead and disappeared into the distance, and as rocks kept tumbling down I couldn’t help but wonder how often traffic is hit by these boulders which line all mountain roads in these parts. I was sure we were going to be there for a long time but our driver, very gentle until now, suddenly got the devil in him and revving the engine hard, we pulled out to the very edge and overtook the entire traffic jam ahead of us. The conductor appeared out of a dust storm and jumped in – a bulldozer was busy scraping the biggest rocks off the road and we just sailed straight through into a blind wall of dust. If any time I had wished I wasn’t where I was, then this was it. Very fortunately no further rocks fell while we were passing through – it hadn’t been a totally uncontrolled land slide – for about 5 miles the road was under reconstruction and therefore the dust and bumps continued. A small white car followed us and overtook us. In conditions approaching zero visibility our driver overtook him again, but in the Indian way this car simply gave way and we swerved back in before any oncoming traffic had a chance to move in our direction. We were on the way again – but presumably to make up for the 30 minutes or so which we had been stationary, the driver continued to throw the bus round like a rally car and I’m sure he grew a pair of horns.
The problem with this was the road went higher and higher, more and more hairpin bends, and rarely was the surfaced road, if it was surfaced at all, wide enough for anything except us. Once again though, despite driving like a demon, the Indian traffic just seems to melt away and the fastest vehicle gets a path through all other obstacles. Every now and then someone wanted off or on, and from maximum speed to a complete stop could be achieved within only a few seconds. Mental note that if ever following an Indian bus then expect it to stop on the spot without any warning at all.
I gave up worrying about the driving which seemed to be slightly better again, and laughed while a lady tried to get off. She split her back of things all over the floor and got shouted at – with the bus door still open the conductor shouted the driver to continue and we zoomed off while she gathered all her bits and pieces. He whistled to stop and the driver hit the brakes. Out she got and he threw her bag down after her. We zoomed off again and the door slammed.
Wait a minute though. Never mind all that. Look at that scenery!! We were thousands of feet above the valley floor with thousands more feet above us, right up to the peaks beyond the snow line. If this was a documentary – the music would reach a crescendo at this point. You will just have to imagine it as I have no words to do justice.
Three hours into this journey we were at last descending, giving the driver even more ability to go fast round the bends. The distance to Mandi was at last into single figures – I really don’t know how Indian distances are measured, as these buses hurtle along at breakneck speed yet only achieve about 20 km per hour in real distance terms. I wonder if the distances on the signs are as the crow flies, whereas the road goes many times further. Who knows.
Four hours on a bloody bus again – the last hour was really bad. I was in the window seat, with two others outside me. The tiny ladies who had been there before were replaced by much bigger men and I was more and more squashed against the window, the bolts which held the back door in place and the seat in front. To make things worse there were now maybe 40 people standing too. In railway terms I believe we were reaching super high density crush ratio.
If I put my shoulder out of the window it risked being torn off by passing traffic, so I settled for being wedged inside, at an angle. I had new back pains which I have never felt before. Somehow we got there without any permanent damage.
On the way we did pass one very sobering view. A pile of metal sheets on the roadside. At the bottom were four brake drums, on the top the remains of a roof rack. This 1 metre tall stack of metal was actually the remains of a totally crushed bus.
Mandi has a spectacular entrance. The city is surrounded by a wide river and the main stream can be crossed by a footbridge as the road is on the opposite bank – so most people got off the bus to walk over. We then drove another mile or so before crossing the bridge to the other bank and backtracking towards the town centre. It was easy to find the main square – just following the people across the one way bridge takes you straight into the centre of town. It was a nice surprise to find that this town actually does have a centre, around a sunken square garden, lined on two levels by hundreds of tiny shops selling all kinds of things.
On the North side is a huge timber building – presumably a castle of sorts, now housing official buildings, and just to the side is a welcome sign – Raj Mahal Palace Hotel – as recommended by Rough Guide. I was willing to pay anything they asked just to put down my bag – but 900 plus 10% luxury tax seemed like a bargain for entering the days of the Raj.
The room was certainly faded in line with the whole hotel, which seemed to go on for ever beyond its lovely lawns and garden courtyard. Very smart staff in green suits and green turbans were everywhere and served in a very starchy old fashioned manner. My passport was copied – no messing about having to fill forms in – and I had the key to my room within minutes. Result!
I wandered through town, had a quick internet session – 10’- and then returned to the hotel for dinner. I had my hand on the door leading to the bar/restaurant when a greenie came up and held it shut. Restaurant please follow me sir – and took me down passage ways into the bowels of the hotel. A door was opened leading into a room capable of housing 1000 diners, if there had been any furniture in it of course. Down a slope were maybe 10 tables. Some children were playing and the noise echoed back up to the door. Perhaps you like the Bar/Restaurant – and we tracked back to where I originally held the handle of the door leading there. This time I was allowed to open it. Six tables lined the wall. Cricket was on TV and the air was thick with smoke from the other guest.
The plastic table cloth did no justice at all to the quality of the food. I can honestly say it was fit for a palace. I had Paneer Tawa Masala, Vegetable Biryani and a nan. There was enough for three. The paneer was cooked on tandoor, then in sauce. I don’t think I am exaggerating to say there was almost a kilo of it on the plate. The rice dish was bigger than any serving of rice or biryani I have ever seen, and interestingly was almost identical to the way our new restaurant in Newbury serves it – dry and highly spiced with no sauce. Nice to see that such an old hotel should be modelling its food on my home town in the UK.
That feast cost a princely £4 including taxes which are added to all luxury hotel bills, plus 20 paise for something else which I am not sure about at all.
So although I had promised myself a beer tonight, I ate so much that I couldn’t face the thought of it when the chance came. I went back to my room and slept like a log.