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.

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.