Tuesday 29th March 2011

The chaotic scenes of Jodhpur station were just a starter for this crazy city.  I had no idea how big the place was before arriving – but there’s over a million inhabitants and most of them are on the street at any given time.

As per usual I pushed past the rickshaw drivers – there’s a completely new style of bigger rickshaw here – certainly taller than those in Delhi and some are extra narrow, presumably because the streets here are also very narrow.

I walked along the relatively quiet main road – shops were just beginning to open their shutters and looked for somewhere for breakfast but decide to push on to find a guest house.  Yogis Guest House sounded good from the book – but is quite a long walk from the station – probably about 2km – so there was plenty of time for the touts of Jodhpur to clock a new white face in town.

The ancient walled city revolves around the clock tower and market area, all very photogenic and it wasn’t long before I had followed the map to a smelly back street full of cows but encouraging painted arrows kept my faith in Yogi.  An arched gateway  led into a tranquil courtyard full of period memorabilia including a 1950s split screen Morris Minor Convertible.  Inside, another courtyard furnished in the same style – old trombones, gramophones, cushions, faded photos – just a fantastic little haven from the streets outside – and painted bright blue – the colour of most of Jodhpur’s buildings.

I checked in for a couple of nights and had breakfast on the roof terrace which is the most perfect location just beneath the imposing walls of the fort and with a view for miles and miles out into the flat plains of Rajasthan.  Altogether an absolutely excellent place.

Mid afternoon it was in the high 30s which takes some getting used to after the cool mountain airs.  Nevertheless I walked up the steep path to the Meherangarh Fort – one of the top ten tourist locations in India.  The climb wasn’t nearly as hard as I had thought, and I was soon paying my 300 rupees entrance fee, after a guard made sure I didn’t join the Indian residents’ queue which would have been 200 rupees cheaper!  The fee entitles you to borrow an audio guide which was actually quite good, but as always it focussed on detail of the exhibits in glass cases, and almost overlooked the most stunning location with views over tens of miles.

At the end of the audio tour I was almost forced into writing in the visitors book before my driving licence, which I had left as deposit for the audio guide, could be returned.  I think the girl finally thought I couldn’t write and so opened a plastic sleeved book holding dozens and dozens of ID cards, in no apparent order.  She thumbed through all the pages twice until finally mine turned up, right in the back page.

There is then no option but to walk all the way round the very nicely laid out souvenir shop. You are not allowed, by means of a security guard, to miss out any of the rooms and finally get accosted at the exit to make sure you had understood how good all the souvenirs were.  Finally let out into a further courtyard full of slippers, carpets, bangles and so forth before having a chance to look into the temple, and the temple souvenir shop.  I don’t know what came over me but I spent 15 pounds in the temple shop, somehow comforted that the profits were for the upkeep of the temple.

By the end of the day the maze of lanes was beginning to make sense and I was relieved to find Yogis again after several hours of wandering.  I wonder if anyone has ever counted the number of shops here!  Tens of thousands would be my guess.

I headed for a recommended eatery but couldn’t find it – a few millimetres on the Rough Guide map can be blocks and blocks on the ground, so I settled for the Fort View Restaurant in the Govinda Hotel near the startion.  Yes you can see the fort from the terrace but nothing compared to Yogis view!

Delhi for one day

Monday 28th March 2011

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.

Manali again

Villages in the Beas Valley above Manali
Saturday 26th March 2011

Its been a beautiful hot day again so made a slow start with a late breakfast at the guest house then about mid day set off for town.

I tried again to find Vashisht this time by walking down to Manali and crossing the river on the rickety bridge, one of a pair which form a one way system over the valley.  They are made of mecano and dont look strong enough for a car to cross, but buses and trucks thunder over.  When they do, theres no room for pedestrians, so you have to cross with pefect timing between the vehicles.

The road out of town is the Manali Leh Highway but is not at all romantic – just a filthy dusty unsurfaced road through a pretty awful series of dusty buildings and very narrow in places.  All along are numbered shops hiring out cheap ski suits for visitors to the snow line and offering packages of ski, snow mobile and parascending.

I dont know how I missed the turning up to Vashist but I did, and kept on walking far too far – changing plans half way to catch the first available bus or rickshaw back to town, or to keep on walking if none came , in search of the elusive bridge which I couldnt find yesterday.

The only buses were going the wrong way and not a single rickshaw came, so I struggled on until well past the Avalanche Research Centre when I found a path down to a very bouncy rickety bridge over the very fast flowing Beas.

The track was a great relief after the horrible busy main road and led into a lovely little village with no main road access – another place where time has stood still and it was most enjoyable wandering around climbing the steep paths between medieval houses, each with its new born calf and mother with tobacco hanging to dry on ornately carved balconies and generations of families going about their daily business of tending to the livestock, weaving or simply sitting talking. What an absolutely beautiful place this is.

Right up to the top is a very rough road indeed which leads back to join the road I walked along yesterday, so I completed the full circle this time – probably 10 or 12 km in total, so I was quite pleased to get back for a rest.

Time to leave Manali I think – although it is tempting just to stay until the end of the week, but I worked out a route to Simla which involves a night bus tomorrow night – booked and paid for at the bus station – 540 rs, to Chandigargh arriving 5am Monday.

Swiftly followed by booking the Himalayan Queen at 12:10 from Kalka to Simla, so the connections will be critical. But then plans are made to be changed!



Old and New Manali

Friday 25th March 2011

Today I decided to stay in one place – well almost.  Superb breakfast in the early morning sunshine set me up for some walking but first caught up with some photo uploading, which I have been unable to do all week.  The guys at the hotel are now getting a bit suspicious that I am using their internet a bit above their normal expecations, but it is the first fast connection all week.

[singlepic id=59 w=320 h=240 float=left]It was a lovely hot morning with a gentle breeze – perfect for trekking, so I took the steep track down the hillside from the hotel, expecting to be able to cross the Beas valley to the village on the other side of the valley, Vashisht.  The walk along the left bank was lovely, but the promised bridge never materialised and so reluctantly I turned round after a mile or so, to head back to the bridge at Old Manali.

[singlepic id=57 w=320 h=240 float=left]Across the valley must be the hospital and I was both alarmed and assured by the appearance of an air ambulance helicopter who made an expert manoeuvre, obviously very well practiced, as it approached at high speed down the valley and turned to land within seconds – a very efficient way of being rescued.  It is still serious snowy conditions only five miles up this valley, and the Rhotang Pass carrying the fabled Manali to Leh road will remain closed until June, which seems quite incredible here in this 30 degree heat.

So although I never got to Vashisht to see the hot springs, it was still a very pleasant few hours walking.  At the bridge I climbed further up the hill and followed the road to the Hadamba Temple which turned out to be very popular.  As it is a major tourist attraction old ladies clutching photos of gods latched onto any Indian tourists, and many were also holding  huge Angora Rabbits which were available for photo opportunities, and seemed overall to be in very good condition with their incredible fluiffy white fur.

[singlepic id=64 w=320 h=240 float=left]But todays star performers were the Yaks – two of them available for photos in the saddle and very popular with the local honeymooners.  I had heard that Manali is Indias number one honeymoon destination and had this confirmed when I got involved in being photographed with the groom of one party.  Indians just love to have their picture taken with a white person, so today I came in joint second place with the rabbits, but the Yaks are just so peaceful and beautiful that they must remain todays number one photographic subject.  I want one!

[singlepic id=65 w=320 h=240 float=left]The Rough Guide recommended a nearby restaurant, Il Forno, for their italian quality pizzas but when I got there it was still closed for the winter – as are so many of the places around here.  I would definitely return for the view alone though.  Further down in town Manali was still uninteresting and with pizza on the brain I went back to Johnsons and had an amazingly good wood fired pizza and another hot spiced apple juice.  This place is exceptional by anyone’s standards!

[singlepic id=70 w=320 h=240 float=left]In the heat of the afternoon sun I imagined the 2 km walk back to Old Manali, especially after all the walking I had already done today, would be hard work but in fact it seemed quite a breeze.  So much so that when I got up the hill to the hotel I kept going and headed right out of town on the trekking route to the next village spurred on by the amazing views in the late afternoon.

The village was even more interesting without the distraction of carrying my bag and as expected the locals simply ignore the intrusion, which they are obviously so accustomed to – the season hasnt really started yet but it must have a huge impact on their lives when the summer invasion of western tourist with their music and Enfields roaring all night.  Even now there are a few bikes roaring around but there are sheds full of Enfields ready to unleash any week now.

[singlepic id=69 w=320 h=240 float=left]I returned to watch the sunset over the mountains from the hotel, took advantage of the good broadband to skype home and then sat down in the hotel restaurant, where I still am, for a very good and exceptionally filling meal.

The end of another lovely day and the start of my last week, although it has dawned on me that I am not compelled to return on the flight which I have booked, such is the benefit of travelling with a scheduled airline!  Having said that, I probably will but if anything comes up in the next few days which requires a little flexibitily, then I may take advantage!

Good night for now though.

[singlepic id=64 w=320 h=240 float=left]

Naggar to Manali (Old Manali)

Thursday 24th March 2011

[singlepic id=9 w=320 h=240 float=left]Looking forward to breakfast this morning I was greeted by the host and shown to a table on the balcony where the menu was already in place.  He put on an apron and returned with the order book. Cheese omelette – no cheese.  OK plain omelette.  Sorry not possible. Pancake?  This will take much time.  OK toast.  Toast with honey?

30 minutes later four slices of dry toast arrived and the tiniest scraping of honey you could imagine, just enough to cover the bottom of a little dish.  It’s not like cheese, eggs and honey are unavailable – there are shops here!  Nevertheless I thanked him and worked out a way to cover four slices with approximately 1 gram of honey per slice.

The Rough Guide describes this as an excellent restaurant – but of course I’m probably the first guest all year, so I forgive them on this occasion.

Suitably refreshed (hmmm) I took a walk up the hill and discovered the Roerisch Museum – a new name to me in art, but apparently Nicholas Roerisch was quite a well known explorer, author, peace campaigner and artist from the 1920s when his travel journals cover an exploration of India, right through the North West frontier into Tibet and Mongolia.  I read some snippets from his log, describing how they had to draw in the as yet unknown mountain ranges on their map as they discovered them.  All very humbling as my trip is quite the opposite – simply a tourist on the tourist trail.

The Museum in his old house was a delight. “Maximum 20 persons danger of building collapse”, said the signs on the staircase.  Outside an ancient car stood in its garage – what a wonderful life he must have had here with a view from his garden over the valley to the mountains on the other side and the excitement of travelling to undiscovered very foreign lands.  His paintings were very interesting too, but disappointingly small – I guess he did them on the road during his travels and so kept them portable.  I didn’t have time to get to grips with the other members of his family – poet and philosopher.  So shallow I am.

So I parted with 300 rupees for a dvd showing his works of art with soothing background music – a bit of a steep price but it’s the first souvenir I’ve bought for ages and I felt I may get in the mood for more, plus the fact that it is likely to be unobtainable anywhere else.

Back down the hill again I checked out and made the 10 minute walk back to Naggar Chowk and the bus stop where a little green bus was getting ready to depart.  I jumped on and it crawled along picking up random people every few seconds.  Obviously everyone knew it wasn’t due to leave yet and calmly carried on what they were doing until it got close enough for them to get on.

The road ahead was of course very twisty through tiny villages – much more interesting than the more main road on the left bank yesterday, and true to form the driver suddenly changed from a careful and considerate one into a monster almost running down a pack of mules which were taking the full width of the road.

Thanks to the last minute burst of speed we were soon entering Manali – surprised to pass the Holiday Inn – but this was an indication of the type of town Manali has become.  I’m afraid to say after much planning and excitement, Manali turned out to be a bit of a let down.  The mountains are the star of the show, but from the town they can’t be seen in their full glory.  The bus station leads directly onto the main street – The Mall – which is traffic free and relatively clean by Indian standards – full of holiday makers passing the time of day.  It is lined with restaurants and hotels of all types, with ice cream and popcorn, scary clowns and a Charlie Chaplin who hadn’t quite got his act together yet – but to all intents this is just a miniature Blackpool in the mountains.

I was starving so had a pretty good breakfast and a quick email check torn between going up to Old Manali or Vashisht on opposite sides of the valley.

[singlepic id=10 w=320 h=240 float=left]I took a rickshaw to Old Manali as it seemed to be a long way – 50 rupees – but this only carried me as far as the bridge over the river.  I was beginning to think I had failed the rickshaw test again, but this seems to be about the going rate – roughly half the official taxi charge for the same trip.  I began to walk up the hill looking for landmarks from the Rough Guide and it got steeper and steeper.  I seemed to be coping better than yesterday, although it got steeper and steeper and rather concerningly it appeared to be a non-descript concrete dump on a steep hill – evidence of travellers shops with stripy trousers and embroidered hats but nothing of any great interest.

[singlepic id=11 w=320 h=240 float=left]I had chosen three places from the book which sounded like possible places to stay but as always after locating the first I decided to continue in case there was a better one.  To cut a long story short I couldn’t find it, and ended up on a path out of town.  Well out of town – and very steep indeed as it followed the valley side.  With the bag on my shoulder I was almost out into trecking territory before I realised I was not going to find it and suddenly I realised what an incredibly beautiful part of the world I was in again.  The scenery is magnificent and the buildings in the upper and centre parts of Old Manali are scenes from medieval times.  Locals in their distinctive costumes tending to their cattle, weaving, washing, spinning wool – all totally ignoring the white guy with a bag on his shoulder and a book in his hand.  I’m sure they are quite accustomed to it now.  I had probably walked about 2 km from the bridge by now and was getting quite ready to get rid of the luggage again.

I checked in to the Dragon guest house – and got a lovely room for 600 rupees (I bartered it down from 700 very easily so could probably have got it for a good deal less).

The rest of the afternoon I spent walking back to Manali and trying to find something nice to say about it – but I can’t.  The so called Model Town behind the Mall is such a dump that words fail me – filthy hotels and dhabas galore, but so dirty even by Indian standards.  So the only thing of any interest is the Mall, as far as I can see.  I treated myself to an Ice Cream Float in a very interesting and clean shop in which all the food and drinks were based on honey. Mine was a fizzy mint drink with a pool of honey in the bottom of the glass, an ice cube and a straw.  Where is the ice cream? I was handed the straw which had been on my plate.  Where is the ice cream please?  Yes.  The manager came running over.  Did you want it with ice cream – I explained that when it said an ice cream float with honey ice cream, I had kind of expected it, so my drink was taken away and returned with the necessary additional ball of ice cream.  Very odd.  The papers were full of doom and gloom so I didn’t read too much detail, and the cricket semi finals were on the television – I still can’t remember who is playing today!  But the honey idea is actually rather good – they even have chips with a honey dip and a whole range of take away honey too – a new brand in the making perhaps?

Finally to end the day I gave in to temptation and went into Johnsons, the rather swishy and quite attractive timber built hotel which seems to be the place to be seen.  I ordered a hot home made apple juice with spices and mint and it was superb – a huge steaming glass of deliciously spiced juice.  So nice that I decided to eat dinner there despite the higher prices than I would normally pay but treated myself to an wood oven baked trout, fresh from the river, with almond sauce which again was totally beyond my expectations although on reflection I think for five pounds it should have been good when this would pay for a dozen cheap meals down in the Model Town.

By now it was dark as I overheard a very stressed German businessman phoning his colleagues and complaining how hard he was having to work to get his company organised, and casually mentioned that two of his workers had died in an avalanche yesterday.  It sure is a hard country.

In darkness I walked back up the road to Old Manali – its not such a bad walk at all, and finished the night in our local restaurant in the hotel with banana and chocolate crepes with a glass of ginger honey and lemon tea.  It has a great atmosphere and lovely people running it – I think I quite like Manali after all, but only the Old town.

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.