Delhi airport is enormous and very well organised – a far cry from the old place – and after a couple of very relaxing hours in the Business Class Lounge the flight was called for departure about 15:30 for a 16:15 departure. It wasn’t too far to the gate but the whole airport seemed deserted with an absolutely enormous duty free shop and some rather smart Indian souvenir shops, with one fronting a health spa. Deserted.
Emirates flight 517 to Dubai was actually quite good today – the staff almost worked as a team, and the senior cabin crew member was English, which gave a nice homely feel to the trip. Most importantly everyone received a full service and yet we had an hour to relax after the meal service, which is a total difference to the outbound flight where we were almost landing before all the trays were cleared in. Both this and the outbound flight were both 100% full – it is just the crew that make the difference.
I was handed a Business Class priority passport queue pass when we disembarked – very nice touch – and went off to explore Dubai, as I had allowed an 8 hour connection to go and have a look around before my flight to London at 02:30.
My verdict on Dubai – its not for me. In fact I hope I never have to set foot in the place again. I took the Red Line metro from the airport to one of the interchange stations where I thought I would try the Green Line as far as Dubai Creek – so much the star of Michael Palin’s Round the World in 80 Days. After going up to street level and back twice I realised that the Green Line hasn’t been completed yet although it appears on all the transport maps without even a mention that it isnt open.
Luckily I bought a day ticket for public transport otherwise I would have been forever wondering if I had the right ticket for the next part of the trip. Most rides are paid by Oyster card equivalent – a contactless smart card which is used to enter and exit the station. The brand new metro seemed excellent at first, but it soon became obvious that it is far too small to cope with the demand. I tried to stay on for a ride to Dubai Marina, but it was far too busy so I was pleased to be able to get off at Dubai Mall which I had also heard of. Two other things of note about the Dubai Metro. It is driver-less and despite being absolutley mobbed, there are very few hand rails inside so presumably everyone has to hold everyone else upright. Oh yes and third – it has a Gold Class which is by individual ticket only but at least you can get a seat, and another carriage is for women only – something which also features on the buses. How different things can be from one country to another.
The one high point, if I can call it that, was to realise that Dubai Mall is also the location of the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building, which stands out against the otherwise normal high rise area. It is a breathtaking sight – probably worth the metro trip just to see it. As for going up to the observation deck? No chance. When I checked online a couple of days ago the first tickets available were for Saturday unless you wanted to turn up unreserved and pay 400 Dirhams – thats almost 70 pounds. No thanks! I just can not believe how busy Dubai is – maybe due to it being Friday but I can’t help thinking what is must have been like here before the Metro.
The metro station is nowhere close to the Mall – theres a so called shuttle bus which I took expecting it to be a couple of minutes trip. It dropped off under the Mall – which I took a quick look inside. I don’t know if its just because it was Friday but the place was packed tight with people all wandering around. It may be the World’s biggest shopping mall but it was awful so I went back to the shuttle bus which joined a 3 lane highway for a 45 minute traffic jam back to the metro station. I probably don’t need to describe how happy that made me feel.
So 3 hours after starting out I was back at the airport with a mere 5 hours to kill. I passed a couple of hours in the Emirates Transit passengers’ restaurant where all econonomy class passengers with connecting fights can get a free meal. Quite a nice touch but some people were behaving like animals shovelling down platefuls of food and leaving the remains scattered all over the place. Not surprising therefore that they wanted to throw everyone out at 1am to have a clean up.
Dubai’s duty free shops appeared to be amazing on first inspection but they are just full of the same tat sold world over at hugely inflated prices. Apart from tobacco, the spirits were no different in price from the UK supermarket special offers – certainly not anything here to make me want to spend any of my dirhams.
And so I passed the final hour wandering to the gate and making sure that I didnt fall asleep and miss it.
The 777-300 was completely 100% full so all hope of a spare seat or two was out of the question. I was not impressed with the seat pitch either. My legs were touching the seat in front, but there is some clever mechanism which allows the seats to recline without hitting the person behind – they slide forwards as well as tilting, so it wasn’t quite as bad as I was fearing as well as seeming to be softer than those on the Airbus A380.
I stuck my Dont Disturb sticker on, so I missed the meals – a chicken roll and a muffin after take off and an omelette or scrambled egg hot breakfast – with all the trimmings – very nice looking too. I guess I dozed for a couple of hours but as we came up over Turkey there was 90 minutes of turbulence which made it almost imporssible to go back to sleep especially sitting in the back. Staring at the screen 3 hours 50 minutes until arrival, 3 hours 49 minutes until arrival, 3 hours 48 …. and trying to block out the muffled sounds of sick bags being used.
So the flight was OK – I can’t blame Emirates for the weather , and the service was quite good – with excellent inflight entertainment too. But the long day starting in Delhi and ending at Heathrow with such an anticlimax in Dubai meant this didnt turn out to be the grand finale to the trip which I had hoped for.
Never mind. With 420 rupees left over and a six month visa there’s always a chance for another try!
I decided to keep my room for another night, as the train to Delhi wasn’t due to depart until 22:30, but of course I didn’t want to stay the whole night. This threw Yogis Guest House into a state of confusion as they wanted to charge me half price for staying after checkout time, but they wanted to add this to the three nights which I was prepared to pay for.
They were simply unable to grasp the concept that I had only stayed two nights, yet was prepared to pay for three. Over and over again. Frantic phonecalls to try to find the boss. After twenty minutes I had to switch to being in charge again. I wrote down on a sheet of paper Tuesday Night 800 rupees, Wednesday Night 800 rupees, Thursday Night 800 rupees. Total 2400 rupees. OK?
Yes sir. Then you pay only half price for today. 2800 rupees.
Oh for goodness sake it is only Thurdsday day time today…
… finally they gave in, but were totally convinced I was trying to con them. I therefore insisted on written receipt which caused another ten minutes of mayhem while they refused and even told me it was illegal. I waited patiently until the necessary form was completed in triplicate.
Out in the heat of the night, I walked down to the station, leaving just long enough to find the Midtown restaurant which I had failed to locate a couple of nights ago. Finally I found it – the Rough Guide makes it look like it is on the road outside the station, but instead it is actually on a main wide road directly opposite the station. A good find it was too – very clean with promises of all vegetables being washed in purified water etc.
Back to the station then – the train 14060 Jaisalmer to Delhi Express was the longest train I have ever seen. At least 24 carriages. A dozen were arleady standing on platform 1 about half a mile away – these were the carriages starting from Jodhpur while the rest of the train had arrived on platform 3 before being taken away and brought back into platform 1. Thanks the the new LED displays which mark the location of each carriage, I was happy that things were going to work out OK, but it was about 10:45pm before carriage HA1 appeared at its allocated space.
HA1 is a good carriage number. It designates a split first 1AC and 2AC carriage, with three compartments in First, and twenty berths in 2AC, and despite looking like a typical wreck, this one was only a year old, according to the builder’s plate. Unlike the rest of the train which was either sleeper or second unreserved, and therefore very busy, this carriage was a little cool calm oasis, where most of the other beds were already occupied and everyone was asleep.
I made up my bunk and climbed in and slept all the way until Delhi with vague recollections of stopping at Jaipur at 5am.
We came in to Old Delhi station on Platform 1 which is where I first came in to the station two weeks ago. Other Europeans in the train were convinced this couldnt possibly be Delhi, and so remained sitting, but I knew the way, up over the enormous footbridge and onwards to the main station at the far side, where I collected my bag from the Cloak Room and headed for breakfast.
The final leg of the journey was starting – a rickshaw to New Delhi Station to catch the Airport Express Metro back to the airport. A quick security scan before being allowed into the station, 80 rupees fare paid and within 30 minutes of arriving at New Delhi Metro, I was at the airport. My blue token was rejected by the exit machine though so there was a minor crisis in which I was required to go to Customer Services who wanted to see the printed ticket issued alongside the blue plastic chip, which I had fortunately retained. They were able to tally the token to the printout and therefore let me through but it just goes to show that in India, never throw anything away.
Delhi Airport is immaculately presented – I had treated myself to a Business Class upgrade as far as Dubai which gave me access to the brand new Emirates lounge with as much free food and drink as I could manage, and comfortable chairs with wifi. And so here I am sitting for the last hour before the flight departs.
Continuing my journey from Manali to Rajasthan I have already mentioned arriving at some unearthly hour of the morning in the concrete jungle of Chandigarh on the bus from Manali. My neighbour from the bus had advised me that the railway station was 5km from the bus stand and that the local rate for a rickshaw would be 100 rupees – obviously with no other options I had to pay this, but it seems a bit steep when the last 10 hours on the bus had cost only 540.
Sure enough the rickshaw drivers stampeded into the crowd of disembarking passengers and of course I ignored them as usual. A few followed but soon gave up, so I was free to try my haggling again. I picked on one quieter driver and beat the price down from 200 to 100 quite easily, just walking away dropped 50 rupees from the price, so off we went. First though we had to wake a family of three – mother, father and baby who were asleep in the rickshaw – so sorry I am for disturbing your night!
If its only 5km then it felt more as we sped down wide and desserted concrete avenues, each one joined to the next by a roundabout exactly 800 metres or 1200 metres apart, according to whether going north or west, such is the geometric layout of le Corbusier’s wildy un-Indian idea of the ideal living space.
The first real sign of life was closer to the station where a few lonely people were walking to work. The station was also concrete and quite well organised, with the familiar smell of the groups who had slept in the open all night. I had an hour to kill before the arrival of the Kangra Shatabdi so there was nothing to do but check my name on the charts – all present and correct – and sit to wait, with the ever growing crowd.
Shatabdi’s are the premium trains – when I was last here there was only one route served – Delhi to Agra – but now they are much more common. The premium price includes a meal, but I was actually quite impressed to receive a litre bottle of mineral water, choice of newspapers, morning tea and biscuits, mango juice and then a hot breakfast with another tea.
The seating is 2 + 3 with about 100 seats per carriage, or 80 in First Class, and up to 20 carriages that’s almost 2,000 breakfasts to serve – but each carriage had a staff of three, plus a catering manager onboard, in addition to the other few dozen members of the train crew. My fellow passengers were on their weekly commute to Delhi – out on Monday morning and back on Friday night.
The three hours to Delhi flew by and I was soon in the queue to leave my bag for the day in the quaintly called Cloakroom on Platform 1. I was still there an hour later, such is the performance to leave a bag. For each person a form has to be completed with name, address, mobile phone, ticket number and number of bags. I got number of bags wrong – I should have put “1 bag” and not just “1”. Once the initial form inspection is out of the way, the bag is inspected to make sure it can be locked. Tick. Then you have to sign the form before it is passed to the computer operator, who painstaikinly copies a version of what you put into the computer, which then prints out a ticket on a jumble sale dot maitrix printer, which chewed up the card as it came out. The number of the ticket is then written in yellow wax crayon onto the bag before the passenger has to take it into the shelving area and choose a place to put it. I put it right up on the top – about 8 feet from the ground, thinking most indians are a good deal small than me and would be less likely to touch it at this height.
Free from baggage, I ventured back to the streets of Delhi and couldn’t think what to do to pass the day – it was now 10:30 am, and my next train left at 21:55. The heat was incredible after the cooler mountain air – stifling in fact, when combined with the relentless traffic fumes.
I headed for an old favourite for a cuppa – Nirulas in CP – Connaught Place. I can remember the cool relief from the streets about 12 years ago and was somewhat taken aback to discover it is now a fast food place – burgers and ice creams along with some indian foods. I must say that my strawberry milk shake with ice cream went down a treat, but it wasnt what I’d expected. I wandered on around the enormous circle of Connaught Place and decided to check out another old favourite – Ringos Guest House – delighted to report it is still there and identical externally – no sign of even a coat of paint for the last 20 years.
Altogether this part of New Delhi is awful and I needed to get off the streets, so headed for the old travellers favourite – Paharganj – which is also unchanged in years. The decaying concrete frontage of cheap shops leads into a labyrinth of side streets full of internet cafes, cheap hotels and guest houses.
I sat in the cool haven of the Ajay Guest House which has a large courtyard deep inside with a German Bakery, internet cafe and some shops – and it made a very pleasant place to sit and pass the time of day, out of the heat, and with internet for laptops at 25 rupees for the first hour and 10 per hour thereafter it was a real bargain. The food and drink was not so great though. The worst cup of tea so far, and a cinnamon roll baked several days ago I think.
I was determined not to carry my bag around Rajasthan but in its current location at New Delhi Station I would have to return here, which could be a problem if my arrival at Old Delhi station on Friday was delayed, so wearily I checked it out from the cloakroom – thankfully a much less administrative process, and headed for the other side of the station for a rickshaw to Old Delhi. Looking at the map you could be forgiven for thinking it is walkable, but unusually, the rickshaw meter was running, and we clocked up 7.6 km for 60 rupees. Not bad!
It wasn’t his day, my rickshaw driver. He thought he had bagged his catch of the day when I turned up but his first problem was me insisting on paying the fixed rate at the taxi and rickshaw office. 55 for me, and 5 for my bag. We set off into the traffic and I smiled as we went through a red light as if it was perfectly acceptable. No it isn’t, according to the policeman who stopped us. Lots of paperwork was generated for the 100 rupees fine, which the driver showed me later, looking for sympathy. I told him it was very cheap compared to the same offence in England and this confused him. I loved the description of the offence written by the policeman. “Red Light Jump” – one of those lovely uses of English in the Indian way.
We sped on, not quite so fast this time and soon got embedded in the Old Delhi traffic – it was amazing that despite solid traffic everwhere, we continued to make progress. We passed a hospital – “My mother is in hospital” announced the driver. Not sure what to say in return, he explained she was having an eye operation. “My father dead”. Oh I see. Errr…. the vote for sympathy was building.
I handed him the pre-paid taxi slip, grabbed my bag and left him at Old Delhi station. I think he realised quite soon that he wasn’t getting any sympathy or extra money – there are a lot of more needy people here than a rickshaw driver even on a bad day.
I had a couple of hours which soon passed – nothing in an Indian station happens quickly, and the train was on the platform well over an hour before departure. I had another good Thali at the station restaurant, bought some provisions in an almost total repeat of my first train trip from here, and made my way to Platform 16 where my 1st Class compartment awaited.
1AC is the best class of travel on ordinary trains, in which you actually get a compartment with a door, and either two or four beds. I was very pleasantly surprised by how comfortable it was – especially as I was in the two bed coupe and according to the documentation plastered on the train side, I was to be alone!
There were only 10 1AC placed on this train, and there were 3 vacant – which is very strange as this train was compeltely overbooked to the extent that there were no more tickets being sold, even waiting list. I bought a Taktal ticket – the second wave of ticket sales – which is released at 8am on the day before travel. I’m now wondering if I might manage to get an upgrade on the way back, which is also completely full in 1AC! I am so glad I chose 1AC as I got a superb night’s sleep – the lower bunk is by the window and is huge – better than the upper one for space and view. I could of course choose either.
Through the night we were an hour late – but after the last station before Jodhpur we miraculously caught up and arrived only 15 minutes behind. So here I was in Rajasthan.
Well there’s not a lot to report about yesterday (Sunday) except to say how sorry I am that I left the peace and calm of Old Manali to be writing this in the Ajay Cafe – a little haven from the heat and chaos of Paharganj in New Delhi.
I took the night bus to Chandigarh last night – leaving at 19:30 and arriving at 05:30. At least it arrived in a bus station – apparently there are several and this is the Sector 43 bus station which roughly translated means in the middle of nowhere. I had no choice but to take a rickshaw – there were no other means of transport at 5:30 this morning – and very glad I was to be leaving Chandigarh, which roughly translated means Milton Keynes, so soon after arriving. But more of that later – on the Monday page!
After the routine late breakfast I wandered around town for a couple of hours in the afternoon, had lunch and a shave (oops – I just saw this stranger in a mirror in bad need of a tidy up so I treated him to a 40/- shave in Old Manali!) and then sat in the late afternoon sunshine at the Guest House before walking slowly back down to Manali for the last time, but not without going to say goodbye to my Yak. Im not sure how much it will cost to have it delivered to Newbury though so this could be a last farewell.
Stopped at Johnsons for a last chance of a hot spiced apple juice and a pizza, then took my place on the Semi-Delux A/C bus. At least this meant getting a seat to myself, even if my neighbour kept encroaching on it.
This is the first night bus I have taken for a while and it was certainly a good idea to get out of the mountains overnight. We retraced the route through to Mandi where we stopped at 11pm at a roadside restaurant who had laid of a special Bus Meal for 120 rupees. Had I known, I wouldnt have eaten earlier, as this meal looked very good value – self service all freshly cooked specially for our arrival. It is very notable that the 7 hour trip from Mandi to Manali in local buses took only 3.5 hours on the non stop version.
Its impossible to say how much sleep I got on this bumpiest of bumpy rides – but it can be measured in minutes, not hours. Every now and then the bus stopped at an unlit bus station for a few minutes, and once we even pulled in to the roadside for 15 minutes. The descent from Mandi was another stunning road and I can remember the final descent to the flat plains which was very unusal as suddenly the mountains had gone and we could see for miles.
I hate to think how busy this part of the road gets in daytime as through the night we were nose to tail all the way down and so it confirmed what I good idea to do this at night had been.
The rest of the trip was uneventful – the driver who drove us all the way for over ten hours was actually one of the best I’ve had so far and the final 40 km or so was over very quickly on what amounts to a toll motorway – at least in part – quite unusual for India.
So back to Delhi – right now I wish I was back up in the lovely peaceful Kullu Valley!
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.
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.
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.
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.