Category Archives: Travel

Mandi to Naggar

Wednesday 23rd March 2011

The men in the green turbans delivered tea, toast and omelettes for breakfast sitting in the garden, while the sun blazed down and it was only nine o clock.

[singlepic id=14 w=320 h=240 float=left]I passed the rest of the morning wandering round Mandi. As well as the huge double-decker market arranged around the gardens in the square, it rambles on and on into a maze of narrow lanes and another first – amongst the usual shops which line every Indian street there were at least two arms dealers – openly selling guns, ammunition and explosives, and we are still a long way from the North West Frontier territory where this is a well known trade.

I took advantage of the internet café again and then visited the only place in town to exchange some more money, just in case I stayed somewhere more remote for the next few days, the Europa Hotel. Above the door, painted in large letters it read Government Licenced Foreign Exchange, so I went through the dark glass doors into a lobby and asked the man on reception if I could change some money. “No.”

Ah well, that was that then – so I used a cash machine again, this time it had an armed guard with a rifle!

[singlepic id=12 w=320 h=240 float=left]With an hour to spare before noon I took the one challenge that this town offered – a climb to the top. The Rough Guide counted 160 steps but I counted quite a few more before giving up. The view was stupendous from the top and well worth it and it must have been good for the circulation too. Children were playing in the temple at the top, incense burned and drums beat and bells jingled. Very atmospheric.

[singlepic id=13 w=320 h=240 float=left]Back at the hotel I checked out and walked down the hill and over the bridge to the bus station, although I think the actual bus stand itself has been demolished and the buses now just leave from random points along the roadside. So sorry Rough Guide, your excellent vegetarian meals from the bus station café are no more.

[singlepic id=15 w=320 h=240 float=left]It wasn’t difficult to find a bus out of town – Kullu Manali Kullu Manali jabbered the conductor of the first bus to pull in, and so I jumped aboard and for once found both a place to put my bag, and a seat. It was even quite comfortable and so I thought I may even go all the way to Manali but paid to Kullu 75 rs.

Maybe I just got used to the driving after yesterday, but this one seemed to go much faster without quite as many dramas, but it still took 3 hours to reach the chaos of Kullu bus station, maybe 60km away, in the red heat of the afternoon. The people began to change again – most of the older men were now wearing the traditional round caps, and women wearing distinctive heavy dresses held up with highly decorative safety pins.

The road was still mountainous but nowhere near as extreme as yesterday’s journey, and for much of the trip we followed the valley on a slightly lower level. It was quite a surprise to enter a “restricted area” starting with a huge dam which carried the road over the valley and the lake behind went on for miles. It was even more of a surprise to turn off the valley road into a tunnel hewn out of solid rock – both very poorly lit and unlined and we thundered through it at top speed for at least 5 minutes so I guess it was several miles long. In the darkness about half way through, we passed a man in a wide brimmed hat in the darkness. How very strange.

Back outside we immediately entered a small town and swerved into the oncoming traffic to cross the road and pull up for a 10 minute tea break. Half way!

The steep valley sides were lined with temples in many places – and huge roadside dhabas were there to cater for the masses but today they were quiet. Some very spectacular locations clinging to the valley sides, with steep zigzagging stairways and even a totally scary suspension bridge filled with mules. This is the one picture I would love to have brought home, but no way to take it!

As we neared the summit we hit the brakes and kicked up a dust storm out of which a chap with a painted bucket got on and passed a small handful of puffed rice to the driver.

This was our good luck charm for the final climb where the gods had to be appeased with small donations in exchange for more rice krispies.  It worked as we arrived safely.

Approaching Kullu we picked up many more people but I never understand how so many seem to get on the wrong bus, as for every person trying to get on, there is always another one pushing back to get back out.  This bus was probably the busiest I have ever been on as despite being a really long distance bus it was picking up and dropping off all kinds of local people.

There’s also always a really old frail couple who cling on dramatically swaying back out of the open door as the bus moves off, while people grab at their sleeves and drag them back inside. Today they squeezed in and sat on my bag so I couldn’t get it out if I wanted to.

And Kullu didn’t really look worth stopping anyway – not the sort of place to linger with baggage, so I stayed on-board to push on up towards Manali, and in particular planning on stopping at Naggar, where the Rough Guide tells us that few visitors bother to stop.  It was pretty busy and pretty hot during the 30 minutes or so which we were there.

The bus finally moved off, but as he was parked in a really strange place, blocking almost every other bus in the bus stand, we made frequent fast but short trips around the area, so it was difficult to get off in case the next one was the start of the next leg of the journey.  Chat masala seller, oranges, ice cream,grapes, beggar – the never ending circle of vendors moving through the bus.  Sales were quite brisk too. It seems nobody can last for more than an hour on bus without 10 rupees worth of spicy chat masala served on a scrap of newspaper with some chopped onion and a squeeze of lemon.  I wonder why nobody comes round selling drinks at all.

With a mass of shouting and hooting and generally jumping forward a foot or two to kick up the dust, we started the final stage of the journey – probably about an hour or so, from Kullu to Patlikuhl where 25 rs later I got out with half of the other passengers.  Usually in such a place, at least one person will look like they are connecting to the “local shared taxi or local bus” but everyone dematerialised in an instant and I was alone amongst the taxis.  Most unusually not one asked if I actually wanted one, or gave the slightest hint that they may be ready to share.

The short trip from Kullu passed many white water rafting businesses – some were open and quite busy looking, lots of old ladies sitting in their porches weaving away to make the famous shawls and pashminas and lots of angora rabbit farms to supply them with the expensive angora wool. Some were open to the public but I’m not sure I would really like to see the conditions inside.

A bus full of people stood over the road, and so I guess this must be it – it was then joined by a quieter second bus and its driver was doing the rounds, banging the tyres with a hammer and getting a solid boing in return. He looked pleased and ignored that most of the tread of one of them had come off in large chunks.  Naggar? Yes.

I hung around for a while, and there were some signs that a shared taxi was getting ready to depart, but nothing immediate.  The bus looked quieter and so I returned to it just as their drivers leapt aboard and started their engines. It was to be a race. The one in front obviously won, as the road was never wide enough to pass, but this didn’t stop us from trying.  We almost made it too, but failed as the other bus pulled out to gain its place again.

We were also fortunate enough to witness one of my favourite driving manoeuvres, carried out to perfection – the swapping of sides of the road with the oncoming traffic.  We did this on a hairpin too.  10/10.  And we overtook a truck as it went round the next hairpin bend, both vehicles parallel before going into the bend, and we got a lead as we both screamed round the corner.  This was advanced driving and oddly felt quite safe.  We got to the top in close second place but the two buses were probably going to race all the way to Manali, so it was far from a foregone conclusion.

So just another dozen bends and we were at Naggar also spelt Nagar and Nagger but always pronounced like nagga.  It was obvious that we had arrived as all the people who had paid 5 rs like me got off. A token offer of help came from a rickshaw driver, and so I asked him how much to the Poonam Mountain Lodge.  50 rs.  No way I said. I can walk it for free.  And so I did.  The fare should have been 5 or 10 rupees at the most. I wish I was better at haggling.

The total distance was about 500 metres – the only problem being that with a bag on my shoulder, the one in three gradient was quite hard going but after completing the course I certainly qualified for my 2 x 10 minutes of aerobic exercise today.

I passed a few locals, totally disinterested in me, but nevertheless I was making a great effort to make it look like I did this sort of thing every day.  When they weren’t looking it was a different story.  At one point I noticed I was breathing rather loudly but covered it up by humming a tune when a local passed me.  I think I got away with it.

[singlepic id=18 w=320 h=240 float=left]At the top it was easy to find the Poonam Mountain Lodge as recommended by the Rough Guide.  It mentions the very helpful host, and they are certainly not wrong there.  With a minimum of fuss I was shown a very nice first floor room with a little balcony, trundled into the kitchen to sign the register, charged 200 /- for my room and offered dinner, which I regret to say that I didn’t take as I was t find somewhere better.

[singlepic id=18 w=320 h=240 float=left]Outside was a strange cacophony of drums and wailing horns.  Something was astir, but I obviously didn’t understand anything about the small gathering of musicians who had started to make their way back down the hill.  Remembering I had only just climbed the hill I wasn’t too keen to go back down, so instead I turned and climbed the last few yards and ended up completely stunned by the view back over the valley from the little village centre.  Snow covered peaks lined the sky, soft rays of light threw the most amazing sheen over the side valleys and the smoke from chimneys and small fires all over the hill all contributed to my first true Himalayan sunset for many years. 

[singlepic id=19 w=320 h=240 float=left]The tiny village on top of the hill centres around the Castle, now a HP Tourist hotel with a 15 /- entry charge for non-residents.  The construction is layered stone and wood – a centurie old design to withstand earthquakes, with intricate carvings and quite beautiful.  I sat on the terrace listening to the drumming and noticed that way down below, an icon borne at shoulder level was charging around at shoulder level up to a wall then back again then up to another and the faster the rhythm the more the icon charged around.

“Excuse me” said the only other person in the hotel.  “I can’t help noticing you are watching the ceremony below.  If you want to see, they will come up to the temple on the hill soon.” He went on to explain that this is the goddess Kali’s birthday and she will be paraded through the town between the lower and the upper temple by the men of the village, and then the women will spend and all-night vigil once the men call it a day.

[singlepic id=20 w=320 h=240 float=left]I ate at the hotel restaurant.  Alone of course.  How else, being as there are no guests in the hotel at all tonight.  Some local delicacies to try – Himachal Pulao and Kangra Kadhi were available as specials tonight and I am glad I tried them, as the taste was a whole new experience. Walnuts and fruit baked in the rice, and the Kadhi was heated spiced curd with pakora dumplings.  Totally delicious, and change from £3 again.  The only problem was that the waiter must have had a bad stomach, as he made no secret of it by loudly burping, coughing and drinking lots of water before burping and starting the process again.  He did however give me a big clue about a word which we take for granted.  Kadhi or curry?  It’s the same pronunciation – I will read menus in a whole new light from today.

Just as I wanted to pay came the obligatory power cut and plunged the entire room into darkness.  There was some fumbling at the other end of the room and my bill arrived by torchlight.  Now everywhere I have ever been in India is subject to at least one power cut a day, so I really had to wonder why candles or lanterns are rarely at the ready, even in this top class hotel.  Nevertheless I paid and started to feel the way to the stairs when power was restored.  Burp.  I’m out of here.

Back on the main road, Kali and her followers were in the upper temple so I explored the main road beyond the immediate buildings, in total darkness so I had to be careful not to step over the edge into oblivion but soon reached the level above the temple.  It was unlit but there was frantic drumming and goddesses bobbing around like crazy and suddenly it stopped.  A single voice was screaming and shouting in a total trancelike manner – this seems to be getting pretty serious now.  Its no secret that drugs are farmed in this area and there was certainly signs that someone had taken something!

The drumming had stopped and the voice was calming down, so I turned and headed for home, but something drove me to walk up the lower road towards the temple.  This is a different world from the hotels and souvenir shops above – local shops and cafes were busy but ahead, walking down the road towards me, was the Kali procession.  I set up the camera, started recording, and hoped I wasn’t spotted as I didn’t half feel I was intruding.  A few kids came ahead of the lead horn player.  When he played an eerie noise just like Nellie the elephant screamed out for a few seconds.  Behind him a dozen drummers. Behind them a small crowd around the two deities.  I believe one is Kali and the other her daughter. Gold cloth, bells and cymbals and I didn’t know whether they are supposed to be scary or jolly – but if I had to choose, then scary it is.  Scarier still is the ‘priest’ following.  He is dancing round in a frenzy, stopping to bless or maybe swear at all kinds of things on the way.  Behind him a dozen or two followers.  Many are totally into it, but some stragglers are on their mobile phones!

[singlepic id=21 w=320 h=240 float=left]I was trying to keep on filming as the group had come to a halt just ahead of us and they were drumming up another séance from the holy man.  But unfortunately two kids, left in charge of the local shop, spotted the camera and up came the inevitable “Just one snap”.  Damn – I had to turn it off and switch to flash mode, while they posed outside their shop.  Happy with the results they quickly got back to their duties of putting up the shutters and serving the crunchy remains of today’s (or was it yesterday’s) bread to the salivating dogs on the doorstep.

I moved closer to Kali and watched in awe, the power of the drums was second only to the power of the holy man who spoke to the sound of a bell, after the drums had reached a crescendo then stopped.  I don’t know if he was speaking the words of the holy scriptures or his own making, but the crowd were absolutely riding on every word – every now and then he said something which was repeated by some of the crowd – more in the way of agreeing with him rather than repeating it in a chant.  His language was totally meaningless to me, but his words were strangely compelling and totally magical.  He talked in a frail voice which left me wishing I understood the words but I felt like I was watching something from journey to the centre of the earth, where I was about to be discovered at any time and thrown into the pot.  I was however not even noticed by most of the people, other than the women and children who were smiling and watching both me and the procession from the edges.

Suddenly one of the Kalis started jumping around again.  It circled the procession and dived into a courtyard alongside, momentarily stopping at a doorway before returning to the priest.  Drumming started and Kali lurched to the side again, this time the entire crowd followed to the same doorway.  This was powerful stuff – spine chilling to be honest, but not frightening.  The priest spoke again, the bells chimed and the group re-formed on the road.  Nellie the elephant let out a huge roar and off they went again.  Right outside my Guest House they stopped again, but not for long – just enough time for two more deities to come rushing down the other road before Nellie announced they were off again.

Into the distance went the drumming.  It’s still going on now as I sit on my veranda and write this.

Last night I saw the bad side of alcohol, as whilst seriously thinking I would like a beer with my meal, an adjacent table of rich young Indians drank shot after shot of whisky and became louder and louder.  I saw no reason to join in and gave in to temptation.

Tonight though, it’s only 9pm and there’s nothing open now except for a shop selling local pashminas and the English Wine Store.  OK  so I gave in tonight and bought a small bottle of Old Monk Rum – well it seems kind of appropriate that I should be on at least one illegal substance.  Illegal only in so far as it’s a pure veg building here adjacent to a temple.  Hope Kali doesn’t come to get me – but I don’t think its her temple so I should be OK!

Dharamsala to Mandi

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.

Bhagsu and Dharamkot

Sunday 20th and Monday 21st March

Still here in McLeod Gang. Sorry if that a bit boring but its been really nice to chill out here without rushing off somewhere else all the time.
Sunday was Holi, not quite as crazy as I thought it may be, but it was really good to see everyone enjoying themselves. The food at Nicks Italian, the restaurant in the guest house where I am staying, is most excellent, so I have been eating there or the Green Hotel next door and haven’t had a bad meal yet. What’s even better is that all the food is pure vegetarian, based on Tibetan cooking but with loads of other dishes too, many of which have home made pasta as the base, and everything is really natural and fresh. A detox diet without having to make any effort at all, but I have done without alcohol, fizzy soft drinks, added salt, added sugar, coffee – all without really trying.
Last night’s meal was the most lovely cream of pumpkin soup, a spinach and cheese lasagne with home made cheese, cinnamon carrot cake and ginger tea, washed down with mineral water and change from 3 pounds.
Home made cakes are the order of the day – Nicks also make lemon cheesecake which is out of this world. Most luxuries of the west are available here so in common with most travellers bases, although alcohol isn’t widely served except in two or three bars and of course from the little kiosks on most street corners. These have been serving industrial quantities for Holi, and today the evidence of empty whisky bottles lies on most road sides and paths.
Sadly this is true even on the steep path from nearby Bhagsu beteen the temple and waterfall which was absolutely mobbed with it being Sunday and Holi too. Families and huge groups all with one thing in common – passing time on a really nice sunny day after Saturday night’s thunderstorm cleared the air.
The road past my guest house is far too narrow for two way traffic, but today it was verging on the ridiculous as hundreds of cars, bikes, taxis and rickshaws squeezed single file along its length. All of them on their way to Bhagsu of course, so I decided it would make a good afternoon out too, but walked. Not a very energetic walk, but more than I am normally accustomed to, as I finished the climb up the waterfall path by following the signs to the Shiva café, up a very steep rocky path right to the top of the waterfalls and left most of the crowds behind. So if I had any guilt about the number of cakes on the menu, then this was a good way to burn the calories off.
The views from the top were tremendous. I think the well known trek to Triund ends up more or less above us, but starts around the valley in the other neighbourng village, Dharamkot. The wild rhodedenron bushes are everywhere, many in flower although I think this is still a bit early to see them at their best.
Monday was similar to Sunday except I slept in till 11:30, so quickly caught up with a lovely breakfast out on the terrace as usual. Today was even hotter and sunnier – the snow covered peaks had no cloud cover at all today.
So encouraged by yesterdays walk I took the other road up to Dharamkot. This is much more strenuous as it climbs above McLeod Ganj rather than following the contours around to the next valley. Passing monkeys galore in the trees, I was pleased to find refreshments in the Himalaya Tearoom, at the point where all roads to Dharamkot join. This seems a really laid back place, unlike the rather brash Bhagsu which is geared up for day trippers to the temple and the waterfall. Tea stop over, I followed the high road as it climbed around the valley side, higher and higher, ending up probably 1000 feet above the town and in another world.
Gone were the tourists – in were the local farmers, tending their steep stepped plots, with cattle and goats housed in almost every home. It could have been five hundred years ago, except that these houses now all have electricity thanks to the ugly and horrendously unsafe looking overhead lines everywhere. I guess I’d have to climb a bit higher to reach true isolation then.
Rather than walking back to find the road, I walked more or less directly down the hill, following a path which sometimes looked like it was a main thoroughfare and other times almost went through peoples houses, and before long I had arrived in Bhagsu, completing the circle, from where its an easy mile or so back to McLeod Ganj.
I was quite pleased with myself with todays walk – certainly much more energetic even than yesterdays, and only a step away from starting a proper trek. However it was clear that my exertions would mean nothing to the locals, who of course have to do this walk every time they leave their homes.
Nevertheless I was pleased enough to celebrate with a ginger, honey and lemon tea and a slice of carrot cake. Yumm!
Showered and cleaned, ready for dinner, I am now sitting in Jimmys Italian having a delicious pepperoni pizza – first meat of the trip – and very good it is too! And as everywhere starts to close at 9pm, that’s the end of another day.

A relaxing day in McLeod Ganj

Saturday 19th March 2011

I think todays blog is going to be a bit shorter – “thank goodness” I here you say.  Mainly because for the first time I’ve had a chance to unwind and take in the spectacular views and do very little else.

Breakfast of cheese omelette and tea on the terrace was followed, sadly, by having to check out of my hotel as they are full for the weekend.  I would gladly have stayed on, but finding a room elsewhere wasn’t a problem at all, and for 600/- im quite pleased to be saving a little money at the expense of not having a spectacular mountain view from my window.

At lunch I met up with the Americans and spent the rest of the day lounging on a restaurant terrace taking advantage of the free wifi to catch up on the world news – and it wasn’t good to learn that Japan is now on a higher than ever radiation warning while UK, USA and France were preparing to attack Libya to enforce a so called No Fly Zone. Up here in the mountains it all seems so far away.  Another lemon cheesecake?  Yes please!

By tea time, as the sun went down, town became very active in the lead up to Holi which is celebrated here today and the rest of India tomorrow, and the alcohol shops seemed to be doing a roaring trade.  However as the sun went down, lightening flashed all around the mountains and it was pretty obvious that the evening was going to be washed out.

Wet and cold in fact – the lightening circled us for a couple of hours, bringing thunder, hail and of course rain.  Very heavy rain, but not unexpected as this is one of the wettest places in India.  The sparking electrical junction boxes along the main road finally gave in to their soaking and the whole town plunged into darkness, so I dashed out into the rain and back to my room for an early night.  Hopefully the storm will clear away the clouds and we will have a brighter start to tomorrow.

Delhi to Dharamsala

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.

Dinner thali before the train trip

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!

Jammu Mail gets ready to depart from Old Delhi

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.

Michael BEVERIDG confirmed place

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.

The train!

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.

Tea stop on the way to DharamsalaThe 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.

McLeod Ganj

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.

Dubai to Delhi

Thursday 18th March 2011

Well I guess this is day two already after a hot and dry night on the plane. So much for Economy – this is the Business!  Yes I got upgraded with not only Business Class on the next flight to Delhi, but full access to the Emirates Lounge in Dubai.  Doesn’t sound much – after all I have been in, and indeed been responsible for provisioning, business class lounges in the past.  However to discvover that this one runs half the entire length of the terminal on the upper story with at least a dozen different service points all offering an incredible reange of hot and cold breakfasts – its a totally different world – and it is very busy this morning.

There is of course free wifi and hundreds of charging points, showers and health spa (the only extra).  But the food – the quality is superb – is the star of the show and a delicious plate of South Indian idli and sambar was just the ticket to recover from last night.

I felt really awful coming in here though, as I had met a really nice chap on the flight who was on his way to Sydney to meet up with his Australian girlfriend, where he would then spend the rest of his life. Emigrating without ever having been to Australia is a fairly big step, and he was totally bewildered by the size of Dubai airport, asked if I wanted to join him for some breakfast and then had to say goodbye as I toddled off up the stairs.  Best of luck if by some bizarre chance you are reading this – I really hope it all works out in Oz.  Oh yes – and his father runs a boat yard in Rugby, fitting out narrowboats. What an incredibly small world!

The emirates crew were also very professional and one in particular, a South African guy called Ronaldo, seemed such a genuinely interested person that we all ended up shaking hands as we left the plane. He also chatted in Aafrikans to our South African neighbours who had been visiting Crufts, and were Bull Terrier breeders back home in Capetown. What an interesting flight it turned out to be.

 

Emirates A330 departing from Dubai

With the three hour wait over the Delhi flight was about to depart – this time in an older Airbus 330 which left from a coaching stand absolutely miles away from the terminal.  Business Class certianly didnt exist on the bus but the sight of the enormous leather armchairs was most welcome as we boarded.

Compared with the A380 this is a small plane and quite old fashioned – and completely full.  The crew started off quite efficiently, serving us with champagne or soft drinks as we sat down, but with a full cabin of 42 passengers they began to fall apart when it came to serving drinks and food.  Everyone got what they wanted, but some were very annoyed about the delay in serving – and when you think how much some of these people had paid, they certianly had a point.

 However the demands of some of these passengers were verging on the unreasonable and made me realise that whilst I like my comforts and expect a lot, I hope I never turn into the sort of person who formed the majority of the people in this cabin.  Mostly Indian, mostly quite old and mostly very demanding from not being able to cope with fastening their seat belt to wanting continuous refills of their drinks.

Lobster and Caviar for lunch!

My meal was Lobster and Caviar followed by Sea Bream and was quite nice, but proves that all the money in the world cant really buy an exceptional meal onboard.  I would quite honestly rather have had something less fancy but nicer.

I left the flight thinking that most of the passengers were spoilt brats, but do agree that this crew were making a mess of the service.  However the plane got its own back, as when we landed all the business class trollies flew open and spilt the entire contents of most of the 42 used meal trays, glasses, soup bowls and contents all over the crew and floor.  The noise of breaking glass was quite incredible and the galley floor ended up awash with spilt wine, soup and equipment.  The crew were so busy ducking from the flying bottles that they didnt notice that two passengers had got out of their seats while the plane was still running at over 100 miles an hour, to close the overhead lockers which had burst open.  A messy end to a messy flight and whilst I really enjoyed my huge seat I feel the overall experience onboard could have matched that of the lounge if only they hadnt tried too hard.

There was a short delay in allowing us off due to sweeping up the mess, but I got off first (as usual!) into the amazing world of the new Delhi airport which is of world class quality.  We Business Class passengers even had our own passport desks (although there was no check to see if anyone had taken advantage) and within ten minutes of landing I was collecting my priorty labelled Business Class bag and heading out of the airport.

The new Delhi metro airport branch has been open for only three weeks or so, and for 80 rupees whisked me and about 10 other people into the centre of town within 20 minutes.  With 8 or 10 carriages, a staff of thousands, this train could have carried over a thousand people – presumably word has still got to get around that it exists. 

All I have to do now is find an exit and check my train reservations.  Wait a minute – BUMP!!! – whats that?  Thats the sound of me coming down to earth and arriving in Delhi of course!! And its just as chaotic as ever.

Newbury to Dubai

Wednesday 17th March 2011

Emirates A380 ready to depart from Heathrow

Seat 80B rocks!

Where am I? What the hell am I doing here?

Its like a dream. This morning I woke up to bad karma – a neighbouring boater had died in his sleep and the police were everywhere. Just after I left to catch the express bus to Heathrow airport, the M4 – that’s the main motorway from the west of England to Heathrow, was completely blocked with a serious accident. Libya is at war with itself and after Egypt and Tunisia are still reeling from Twitter powered revolution, Bahrain has stamped hard on its people with tanks and guns this morning. Japan was recovering from the worst earthquake in recent history, tsunami soaked nuclear power stations were threatening to contaminate not only Japan but the rest of the world and the guy in seat 80B is cutting his arm off with a second rate blunt penknife.

Well actually I’m the guy in seat 80B on the Emirates Flight Ek4 from London to Dubai and I’m watching the film 127 Hours in which the self-amputation forms the key story line. The rest of the above is sadly true and god only knows what’s going to happen in Japan. Dubai, and Delhi, as far as I know right now, are still intact and as my plane(s) will be landing at both of those airports in the near future I really hope it stays that way!

80B turns out to be a fabulous seat on the Airbus A380. Its an emergency exit seat with unlimited legroom, unlimited good company from surrounding passengers and crew and thus far unlimited wine. Gruner Vertlinger 2008 no less. My goodness if Emirates serve this in Economy then I cant wait to find out what they serve in Business Class – or upstairs as we say, here on the A380.

Emirates so far has been a very positive experience. The Airbus is nothing short of incredible in size and comfort but the lounge at Heathrow was also brand new with a grandstand view of the aircraft loading and comfortable seating including workstations with power sockets and free newspapers in both recognisable and unrecognisable script.

Looking around, there certainly wasnt even a hundred people so we were treated to more spare seats than I could ever have imagined, and sitting facing the crew during take-off, they confirmed that this was an unusually quiet night, after their last flight of 405 passengers. My fellow passenger – I say this even though he was sitting in the row behind – suddenly annonced that he had never been on a long haul flight before but nevertheless was on a one way ticket to a new life, emigrating to Australia, which suddenly put my two week trip to seek out a new experience in India into perspective.

So seat 80B is right beside the emergency exit at the front of the rear cabin, downstairs on the A380. It has no seat 80A and so theres a huge space to the left and row 79 is in a different part of the plane. To the right 80C is empty – apart from my bags and discarded empty wine bottles. Our friendly crew recommend moving back to claim an empty row each before takeoff, but somehow it seems absolutely fine here as the menus are handout out – roast chicken or lamb tonight.

And 1000+ channels of entertainment out of which I managed to listen to Michael Palin – Emirates guest of the month – followed by the odd snippet of the Kings Speech (not my cup of tea) before setting down with dinner, another Gruner Vertlinger, and 127 Hours.

127 hours is a true story of sheer hell stuck alone down a crevice without water, before finally removing his arm and climbing back to humanity. The underlying theme seems even more eerie. “You didn’t tell anyone where you were going? How will anyone find you if you didn’t tell anyone where you were going? You can’t be a missing person if nobody knows you are missing!!!”

Crikey here I am on a flight to Delhi, onward reservation to Srinagar via Jammu, in Kashmir – and nobody really knows of my semi-serious plans to actually go there. If I don’t then I stand to lose 35 pounds – 20 pounds for a flight from Jammu into Srinagar and 15 pounds for an overnight train into Jammu from Delhi. Several familuy and friends know of my arrival in Delhi but only Gavin knows of the next few steps – mainly because last night I had to get up at 02:25 am (8:00 in India) to make a rail reservation on a fully booked train from Delhi. Well fully booked in advance terms, but in the crazy Indian way, hundreds of extra seats/berths are released at 8am on the day before the day before travel. These seats, known as th Taktal quota, are more expensive than the regular unobtainable seats, and dissappear fast – as demonstrated when the Indian Railways booking site visibly died under the pressure of thousands of hopeful customers booking at the last minute.

How this website even gets through a single day when you discover that 14 million people per day travel on Indian Railways, many of whom pay for waiting list tickets and then have to be refunded when they fail to get confirmed bookings – or they can voluntarily cancel their plans, or offer to be upgraded or downgraded or simply bribe someone in the old style. It accepts all kinds of payment as long as you live in India or at least have an Indian bank account or credit card, but shamelessly declares that international credit cards will not be suitable for the payment gateways. In true Indian style this is not quite the end of the story – and once you know to select the ICICI Visa/Mastercard option (one wrong click and you have to start the entire booking process again) then Nirvana is only a couple of clicks and a wing and a prayer away, even with an International card.

I digress. Seat 80B is getting a bit uncomfortable now, but I really prefer to remain seated upright rather than reclined – much to the relief of the person sitting behind who remains able to see his 1000+ channels of entertainment without touching it with his nose.

So I guess, Dubai time, we are now already into the second day of my trip. I promise to keep at least someone informed of my travel plans – hey Gavin – and hope someone will keep me informed if Japanese exports of the radioactive kind should ever be spotted winging their way towards Kashmir.

Kashmir has enough negative vibes this week – whether police shooting terrorist leaders or the new official policy poisoning wild dogs, or even the army digging out 600 or so of the travellers who ventured up the roads into the snow this week. Yes its all happening again in Srinagar. So maybe I will pick up my flight from Jammu, or maybe I will forego the 20 pounds fare and head south to Pathankot and thereafter Mcleodgang which should be altogether much less of a worry.

But one thing’s certain. With two current train reservations from Delhi to Jammu tomorrow night, one of which is still well into the waiting list category, but one of which is confirmed, I will be heading jammu -wards tomorrow.

Getting ready for India

Busy planning at the library

Welcome to the first post for four years!

Four years ago I was “obliged” to give up blogging from Globetrotter, the narrowboat which has been home for the last seven years.  But now I am back, mainly to start a travel blog for my latest solo trip to India, which will start in only three days time.

I may well bring back the old pages too, but all in good time, as my priorities are planning two weeks travelling, which has so far involved many hours on the web in the hands of Indian Railways and their incredible booking system on top of many hours trying out various combinations of flights, mainly with Emirates whose prices have been among the lowest when dealing direct with airlines rather than booking through an agency.

Last trip to India was in the snows just before Christmas, but it was a bit of a soft option package holiday with Thomson to Goa.  Whilst we spent most daytimes out in “real” India, we were definitely living in a bit of a bubble in a brand new 3 star hotel in Candolim, which was all very comfortable and nice, to the exent that when our flight home was delayed by 62 hours due to the snow in Gatwick just before Christmas, Thomson holidays simply extended our holiday by three days and let us continue in the same room with the added benefit of half board thrown in too.  No complaints there, but I left Goa feeling like I had missed an opportunity to see anything new, although it has to be said that North Goa has changed a lot in the twelve years since I was last there.

At the last minute, just before I booked, I couldn’t resist checking Thomson’s website again; with impeccable timing they knocked 60 pounds off the price I would have paid with them last week, making a flight-only fare to Goa direct from Gatwick only 381 pounds (which is actually a lie on their behalf, as you have to add 40 pounds more to take a bag, unless you can live for a fortnight within your 5kg cabin baggage allowance) but even so £421 direct to Goa isnt a bad price.  It would however have been hard to resist turning left towards the beaches instead of turning right towards India.

With this sudden opportunity to go it alone for a couple of weeks I have jumped at the chance, and this time plan to push the boundaries a  bit, and so have started the process with a return flight to Delhi from London with Emirates, an overnight train to Jammu and a flight up to Srinagar, even though its a bit early in the year to be heading to Kashmir.  Lets see what happens!