Amritsar and Dharamsala

Hi everyone! I’ve been a bit behind in my writing here. Our story begins about a week ago, as the Golden Temple Mail train rolled into the station at Amritsar. As usual, there’s a selection of photos here and the rest up on Picasa.

Friday 23/3

After a fairly poor sleep on my second night aboard the train, I arrived in Amritsar just as the sun is rising. The Indian chap in the bunk opposite me who I’d been talking to on the train offers to show me a good place to stay at the Golden Temple, so I follow him past the hordes of touts offering various forms to transport to the temple until we get to the opposite side of the railway station, where there’s a free shuttle bus service. I remember thinking that this is one of the many ways that India is different from back home – there’s no way all of these taxi and rickshaw drivers would be able to operate in competition with a free bus service like that in Australia.

After arriving at the temple, the guy from the train showed me to where dorm accommodation was available and then disappeared off to do his own thing. Like most things at the Golden Temple, the dorms were operated on a “donation requested” basis with no fixed price. It was, well, cosy: I was in the area for non-Indians and there were maybe fifteen beds in a room, arranged so close that they were adjacent to each other. It might as well have been one giant bed. There was a basic bathroom with no shower, just a bucket of water and a tap, and that was about it. But it was clean, and being next to lots of other people made for an instant group of friends.

Backing up a bit to provide some background: the Golden Temple at Amritsar is the most holy place for the Sikhs. It’s absolutely beautiful, surrounded by a lake and made out of a staggering amount of gold. As part of the Sikh openness and generosity, everyone is welcome into the temple to give their respects to god, and free vegetarian meals are available any time between dawn and late evening. The general feeling at the place was impossible for me to describe properly – very peaceful, friendly and open in a way that was very welcome after the relatively high pressure of Mumbai and Goa.

After having a poke around the temple, I went off to see the one other major thing there was to see around Amritsar: the daily closing of the India-Pakistan border at Wagah, about 30km west of town. I went with a group from the hostel and together we witnessed the most bizarre and pompous ceremony I’ve ever seen. People running carrying massive Indian flags a short distance to the border and back, soldiers parading around and looking ridiculous, and then India and Pakistan lowered their flags together and closed both sides of the border gates.

Afterwards, we went out for dinner and drinks and general good times. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was when we managed to cram nine people into a rickshaw between the restaurant and the pub.

Saturday 24/3 – Tuesday 26/3

Saturday was a travel day. I set off to catch the bus to McLeod Ganj (near Dharamsala), up at the base of the Himalayas, and home to the Dalai Lama. The first sight of snow-capped mountains far off in the distance as the bus crawled up the mountain was staggering. Western Australia isn’t exactly known for its mountains or its snow, so this was all new and exciting for me.

The other highlight of the day for me was meeting Erin a.k.a. Ely, a young American woman who defies any attempt at being described briefly. We got chatting while we were waiting for the bus to leave Amritsar and have quickly become good friends – even though she’d seen me at the border ceremony the day before and initially decided that I was somebody she probably wouldn’t like. She’d done her research on the Dalai Lama’s whereabouts and was planning to going to see his teaching on 1st April, something which I fairly quickly decided I wanted to do too. We ended up sharing a hotel room and making plans to travel together for a few days at least.

Monday was fairly laid back. We pottered around McLeod Ganj for a while, taking care of mundane things, and went to see a show by the “Lion Man”, a minor local celebrity. The first part of the show was traditional Tibetan dancing, which was okay. The second part of the show involved audience participation – whether the audience members wanted to or not – and was completely bizarre. At the very least it pushed our boundaries when it came to personal space. The pictures below give a rough idea of what it was like:

After the show, Erin and I met up with Guy, a chap I’d met previously in Varkala. He’d just returned from a couple of days of trekking, and his advice saved us from spending the ridiculous amount of money we’d been considering on a guided tour to where he’d just been to.

On Tuesday, we visited the Buddhist temple – the temple for the Tibetan Buddhists – and tried to find out more about when and where we could see the Dalai Lama, and whether we’d need to register in advance.

Overall, McLeod Ganj was a fantastic place to be. The mountain backdrop was stunning and the substantial Tibetan population made it completely unlike anywhere else in India I’ve been to. There’s also a wide selection of excellent food, including the restaurant of the hotel where we were staying (which did particularly good breakfasts) and a vegetarian Japanese restaurant which served better food than any vegetarian Japanese I’ve had in back home in Australia. The temple, too, had a very special feel to it; different from the Hindu temples scattered around India and very different from the Golden Temple too.

Coming soon: hiking up a mountain and sleeping in a cave…

Photos from Mumbai

Hi everyone! I’m currently in Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama, after having briefly visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar. With any luck, I should get a chance to see the Dalai Lama in the next few days. I’ll get around to writing up the full story there later. For now, here are some photos from a few days ago in Mumbai. The full set of photos is on Picasa; here are a few highlights:

Three Days in Mumbai and the Golden Temple Mail Train

Hello again! This is yet another instalment coming to you from an Indian Railways sleeper carriage. As I write this, it’s Thursday night and I’m on the Golden Temple Mail train, taking me the 2000 km from Mumbai on the central west coast of India to Amritsar in the north-west, not far from the Pakistan border, and home to the Golden Temple – the most holy of Sikh temples. It turns out that Indian ‘mail’ trains do actually carry the post, with one of the carriages decorated in “Railway Mail Service” livery and piled haphazardly with letters and parcels. There’s just one carriage between me and the locomotive, and the entire journey has featured the constant background of the diesel engine and very frequent sounding of the horn. By “very frequent” I mean that on some occasions it feels like it’s on more often than it’s off, and going more than a few minutes without hearing it would be quite unusual. Fortunately, it’s actually quite a nice sound, at least compared to the vehicle horns that provide the usual background soundtrack to Indian cities. The train has are a couple of different horns with clear, distinct notes. Sometimes the driver sounds one of them, sometimes the other, sometimes alternates between them to make a kind of a tune, and sometimes both at the same time as a chord. It feels – especially at night – like we’re hurtling head-first towards an unknown frontier. Our expected arrival time is a bit before dawn, which should just enhance this slightly surreal feeling.

The last few days in Mumbai have been a lot of fun, although I’m honestly quite glad to be leaving the place behind. It’s been less dauntingly crowded than I was expecting, but it smelled even more Indian than the rest of India, and everything was even more horrendously expensive than Goa, although still cheaper than most Western cities. My arrival in Mumbai could hardly have been better, at least. Stepped off my train at Mumbai CST (formerly the Victoria Terminus) late on Sunday night, out through the grandiose gothic architecture (which I barely noticed in my tiredness), and caught a cab to my hotel. Met up with Gabriela who was inexplicably full of energy when I mostly just felt like sleeping and went to Leopold’s Cafe for beer and food and conversation.

The next few days were spent doing pretty cliched touristy things, but that didn’t make them any less enjoyable. On Monday we had a dosa for breakfast in a small local restaurant near our hotel, then went for a wander around Colaba, the central Mumbai area where we were staying. Caught a local metro train a couple of stops and walked along the coast from Chowpatty Beach to Malabar Hill. The Mumbai beach is absolutely filthy, smells terrible and is covered in litter. The surrounding areas had some very impressive buildings, old and new, although many were in quite bad condition or even looked abandoned. The end of the walk took us to a sacred Hindu site called Banganga Tank, a small reservoir with a wooden pole in it which – according to Hindu mythology – was thrown by Lord Ram and pierces into the centre of the Earth. My favourite part of the visit was seeing local kids playing cricket on the edge of the thank, thus combining two of the religions of India (cricket and Hinduism) with both the extreme wealth and extreme poverty of Mumbai evident very close by. Then we went to see a Bollywood film called London Paris New York, which was in a mix of Hindi and English, but fortunately the plot was obvious enough that this wasn’t a problem. Definite “so bad it’s good” material; without the Bollywood songs it would just have been dreadful. In the evening we had dinner and watched the sunset in a pizza restaurant overlooking the bay, and found a swanky bar where we paid about $10 each for a gin and tonic, more than I think I’ve ever paid for one before. But I can now say I’ve drunk Bombay Sapphire in Bombay.

On Tuesday, we went to Elephanta Island and saw monkeys and Hindu rock carvings. It was quite impressive in a way my photos don’t really do any justice to. We got back quite late and hadn’t had lunch, and ended up in a super expensive restaurant where I had the best pasta I’ve had in a long time – not just since arriving in India. We had a three-course meal which set us back about $20 each, which sounds cheap compared to home but is staggeringly expensive compared to local Indian places where, even in Mumbai, you can have a decent meal for less than $2.

Afterwards we caught up with Richard, who I’d met previously in Varkala and now happened to be in Mumbai. He and Gabriela got along splendidly, and after having dinner together we ended up talking and walking along the bay for several hours. Well, to clarify: Richard had dinner, but after the massive late lunch, I only took a few bites of mine, and Gabriela stuck to drinking gin. In the end, we all said our goodbyes and there was much sadness as we got ready to go off in different directions the next day.

Wednesday was my last day in Mumbai, in which I slept in and spent a while reading Shantaram in various cafes around the city. My copy of Shantaram came cheap from a roadside vendor, complete with the author’s name misspelled on the title page and occasional pages missing or out of order. Then I went to Mumbai CST again to catch the train I’m now on. But when I got there and double-checked my ticket, it turns out my train was due to depart from Mumbai Central Station. I’d become just aware enough of Mumbai’s train network to know that CST actually stands for Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, and double-checking the train network map at the station, Mumbai Central was somewhere completely different. Luckily I’d arrived a couple of hours before my train was due to depart, so I managed to get to the correct station on time.

And now this post ends pretty much as it began, with me on a train hurtling northwards through the gloomy night, accompanied by the sounds of the diesel engine and horns and a carriage full of people doing their thing.

Two weeks at a yoga retreat

G’day again, loyal readers who haven’t given up on me after the two-week hiatus and any new readers who met me recently in Goa. I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon from the train to Mumbai, which has been yet another fairly pleasant experience travelling second-class sleeper across India. This morning has seen a fairly abrupt change to my diet, from the healthy and fresh mostly-vegan food served at Purple Valley Yoga for the past two weeks to a masala dosai for breakfast, some kind of super-sweet nut and coconut snack and of samosas, sandwiches and chai bought on the train. I’m guessing it’ll be back to curry three times a day for me soon.

As usual, photos from the last couple of weeks are on Picasa, and a few highlights below.

When I arrive in Mumbai tonight, I’m hoping to meet up with Gabriela who I met at the yoga retreat. With any luck, we’ll find a nice bar where we can have a Bombay Sapphire in Bombay. (Yesterday was St Patrick’s Day and I completely forgot to drink any Guinness, or indeed any beer at all, so I’m clearly out of practice when it comes alcohol consumption.)

So for the last two weeks I’ve been doing an ashtanga yoga course at the Purple Valley Yoga Retreat in Goa. It’s been pretty intense and exhausting: most days we’ve had two three-hour sessions. Any notion of yoga being a nice, relaxing activity have been banished from my mind. As expected, I was more or less the closest to a complete beginner in the group, having only done a tiny bit of yoga before, and had never tried ashtanga, which has its own independent culture and customs. For example, when I went to Mysore near the start of my travels through India, I was aware that there was quite a lot of yoga going on there. But it’s the birthplace of ashtanga yoga, so for people who are immersed in ashtanga, Mysore is almost a holy city to make pilgrimages to.

Fortunately, there were a couple of others at a similar level; as Keryn put it, we were the yoga kindergarten group. There were quite a lot of intermediate students (who looked like they were really good to me but were far too modest to ever describe themselves like that) and also a lot of crazy-good yogis, including a few yoga teachers.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the retreat was the people there – and I’m not just saying that because it was about 90% female. There were a handful of us, mostly from Commonwealth countries (England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and of course me from Australia) who got along really well. Easily the people I’ve got along with best on my travels through India so far. It almost makes me sad to be heading to Melbourne rather than England at the end of my travels. Some of the others were already talking about meeting up again in a few months’ time, but it’s not really practical for me to just pop over to Edinburgh or Surrey or Dublin on a whim.

The food also deserves a mention, because it was fantastic and completely unlike what I’ve mostly been eating in India (usually Indian food, or in more touristy areas, expensive and low-quality Western food). Every meal was an eat-until-you-explode buffet, entirely vegetarian, mostly vegan, and with a substantial proportion of raw food. Lots of salads and fresh vegetables that I’d normally be a bit uncertain about eating in India. It was good enough that I picked up copies of the recipe books that the two cooks had written.

The yoga course ended up being a little bit too intense for me, but I enjoyed it, and feel like I’ve learned a lot. I certainly plan to keep up the ashtanga practice, maybe even doing a little bit on my own a few days a week while I’m travelling. But after the first week, it felt like I’d hit my physical limits and was just constant exhausted. I’m fairly certain that I’ve developed strength in muscles I didn’t even realise I had. The instructor, Chuck Miller, put an emphasis on going slowly and correctly (which involves a lot of things that I would never have picked up from just looking at other people doing the poses) rather than just doing something that looks a bit like what you’re supposed to do, not trying to push too hard, being careful to avoid injuries to the back and knees, and other such things. I also liked a lot of his talk about yoga philosophy.

On the other hand, it would have been nice if the morning classes had been separated into beginners and experienced groups. It was very difficult to follow the deconstructed-and-reconstructed-in-detail version of the ashtanga primary series when you didn’t know what it was supposed to be like normally, and on the days where we did Mysore practice (working through the series at your own pace with the instructor occasionally interrupting to correct or adjust you) I felt quite lost. I was also pretty much the least flexible person there, which was a little bit frustrating at times, but probably more of a problem in my own mind than in reality.

Reading back over all of this, I can’t help but think that the me of two months ago – or perhaps even two weeks ago – would be shocked at how I got so obsessively absorbed into yoga like this. Being constantly around other people who have been doing it regularly for a while, it just seemed completely normal. It’ll be interesting to see how long it lasts…

Udupi, Gokarna and Goa

(subtitle: You’ll Never Never Know-a If You Never Never Goa)

Hi all! It’s been a bit longer than intended since my last update. At the moment I’m at a yoga retreat near Anjuna in Goa. I’ll be here for another couple of weeks, spending around six hours a day doing yoga.

But my last update left you all on my last day in Varkala, Wednesday 22nd, about a week and a half ago. I was about to catch the overnight train to Mangalore and then Udupi. Travelling second-class sleeper turned out to be a pretty cool experience. It was nowhere near as grotty or hardcore as various people on the internet made it out to be. In fact, the only real concern I had was that the bunks were really hard, so I woke up the next morning with a mild back ache. Thursday afternoon I arrived in Udupi.

I should probably mention at this point that while I was in Varkala, I came down with a really bad cold. Bad to the point that my ears got so blocked up that one morning when I went to have a shower, I felt really dizzy, collapsed, and vomited into the toilet. Normally I would have only bothered staying in Udupi for one night, but since I still wasn’t feeling great, I decided to stay for two.

Udupi is, as far as I can tell, notable for two things: a temple to Krishna which brings many Hindus there on pilgrimages every year, and really good food. It is supposedly the birthplace of the masala dosa, and the restaurants there serve up really nice thalis – unlike other places I’ve been to, there was usually a choice of thali available. It was definitely a pleasant change from Varkala’s beach-side “multi-cuisine” restaurants, i.e. expensive and mediocre Western food. In Udupi they serve both types of food, South and North Indian.

So besides visiting the temple and eating, I spend most of my time in Udupi sleeping in and reading. Eventually it was time to catch the train and the bus go up the coast to Gokarna, a beach town just south of Goa. Everyone I met had raved about it, but I would rate it as not as nice as either Varkala or Goa. It did feel marginally more “authentic” and popular with domestic tourists as well as foreigners. My cheap “beach hut” (actually a room in a largeish building) was very basic, with cold showers and squat toilets in a separate building. It was also quite cheap.

Unfortunately, while my cold had mostly cleared up in Gokarna, my health took a turn for the worse – came down with food poisoning, I suspect from the salad I had alongside my meal in my first night in Gokarna. For about $3 I visited the local doctor and got the usual course of anti-biotics and pro-biotics and anti-diarrhoea tablets which fixed me up after a few days, but it meant that my time in Gokarna wasn’t particularly fun.

On Wednesday, I left Gokarna and went a bit further up the coast to Goa, where I stayed for four nights in Anjuna. While waiting for the train, I had the chance to observe a couple of uniquely Indian things. One was what I like to think of as Indian-style road trains – long freight trains carrying trucks. Apparently this is called “roll-on roll-off” transport and is unique to Konkan Railway (Mumbai – Goa – Mangalore along the coast), saving trucks a lot of time because the coastal highways are so congested. The other was a few dozen locals waiting for their train, crowded around the small television screen, completely transfixed by the cricket. It continues to amaze me how cricket-obsessed this country is.

Goa is, for some reason, immensely popular with Russian visitors – and, of course, international visitors in general. The beach areas are covered with shops and wandering merchants selling cheap, overpriced trinkets. They generally have amazingly aggressive sales pitches if you dare to even make eye contact with them. But the beach itself is fairly nice, I guess. Anjuna is normally a bit of a party town, but I arrived in the lead up to local elections, and the sale of alcohol in Goa was completely banned until the following Monday (tomorrow, at the time of writing). If there was much late-night partying going on, it wasn’t anywhere I could see.

Yesterday – Saturday – I arrived at Purple Valley Yoga Retreat in Assagao, just outside Anjuna, where I’ll be for the next couple of weeks. I probably won’t post much here until near the end of that time. After that, I’ll be zooming up to the far North of India: I have train tickets booked up to Mumbai and then Amritsar, at which point I’ll have to decide whether I want to venture into Kashmir or go touring around Rajasthan.

By complete coincidence, I ended up having dinner on Friday night with a group of ashtanga yoga students and their teacher. They’d heard of the instructor taking the course I’m doing right now and reckoned he was excellent. Based on the single three-hour session I’ve had so far, I’d be inclined to agree! The next session begins in half an hour’s time…