Varanasi

The full set of photos is in the usual place.

Delhi: Tuesday 17/4 – Wednesday 18/4

My time in Delhi was just a brief stop-over between when my flight from Leh arrived to when my train to Varanasi left the next morning. My main aim was to post a parcel back home to regain some luggage space – no point carrying around the massive Ladakhi wool coat I bought when I wasn’t expecting any more sub-zero temperatures, nor books that I’d already finished. After that, I spent time eating and catching up on the Internet.

Wednesday morning I went to New Delhi train station, boarded my train, and discovered that nothing had been stolen from me. This made me happy. My ticket to Varanasi was in first-class AC, and I passed the time in a relatively civilised manner with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, watching the Indian countryside roll by as I read about Mexicans and Native Americans being scalped.

Varanasi: Thursday 19/4 – Monday 23/4

The train arrived in Varanasi at the ungodly hour of 6am – which was, to be fair, a slight improvement on the originally scheduled 4:45am. After getting a rickshaw to my guesthouse – and convincing the driver that yes, I really did want to go to the place I asked for and another completely different place that was offering him commission – I had breakfast at the rooftop restaurant and then collapsed for a while in bed.

It was stiflingly hot in Varanasi and almost nowhere was air conditioned, so I took things fairly slowly over the 5 days I spent here. No attempt to see everything or do everything, just soak up what was going on around me. Wandering along the ghats by the river Ganges; watching people doing everything from swimming to playing cricket to offering prayers to trying to convince me to give them money in uncountable ways; watching cremations at the burning ghats; a boat tour along the river; exploring the narrow, colourful, claustrophobic and smelly alleyways of the Old City where I was staying. But also eating food and drinking lassis and reading books and plenty of time for introspection.

By complete chance I had dinner with a lovely English couple one night who’d just flown here from Goa where they’d been doing a two-week ashtanga course at … yep, Purple Valley, exactly where I’d been just over a month ago.

On Tuesday afternoon I shall say farewell to Varanasi. I have tickets for another overnight train, the first leg of my journey to Darjeeling. If all goes according to plan I’ll be pulling into Darjeeling by steam train on Wednesday evening.

I’ve been starting to feel like the end of this journey is in sight, even though it’ll be another two months before I get to Melbourne. But the plan is for two more weeks in India at the most, with Darjeeling being the last place I want to visit before moving on to Nepal, so in some ways I am near an ending, if not the ending. I’ve also been feeling occasionally homesick over the last couple of weeks, sometimes for Australia, sometimes for England. On my first day in Varanasi I found myself reading Banjo Patterson poems and listening to Midnight Oil songs, and realising that it wasn’t really that kind of idealised notion of Australia that I was missing, but all of the people I’ve left behind as I keep moving from place to place.

Advertisements

Ladakh

This post contains a handful of the pictures I took. The rest are up on Picasa.

Sunday 8/4 – Monday 16/4

Ladakh has been a place of extremes for me, both physically and emotionally. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to visit since I saw the documentary Economics of Happiness about a year ago; at the time, I wasn’t expecting it would happen anywhere near this soon. Ladakh’s capital, Leh, is a town of 30,000 people set in a valley 3500 metres above sea level. It’s a frozen desert: nothing is green because nothing grows here, and the surrounding mountains that aren’t covered in snow are just bare rock and gravel. It’s a spectacular and imposing place to be. The altitude has meant that I’m a lot less physically fit than I’m used to being. Even after acclimatising, climbing a flight of stairs – and there are a lot of stairs and slopes in Leh – leaves me feeling out of breath. Internally, I’ve alternated between feeling stuck in a kind of malaise, excitement from being in the mountains, awe from the harshness and isolation and that kind of relaxed contentment that you get from being in a place where there’s nothing that you really need to do each day. Leh is a good place to slow down, at least in the tourist off-season.

I arrived in Delhi airport at 2am on Sunday morning. Erin was already there, sprawled out on a couch in the terminal, watching a movie on one of her electronic gizmos. I hadn’t slept on the bus and was starting to feel a little tired, but there wasn’t really enough time to sleep before our flight. The usual airport procedures of queueing and waiting occupied a fair chunk of the three hours before our flight started boarding. As usual in airports, I succumbed to the allure of overpriced, unhealthy and not particularly tasty food – in this case, a McDonalds breakfast. My stomach made me aware for a few hours afterwards that it would have preferred something different.

The dawn flight from Delhi to Leh was only an hour long, but spectacularly beautiful. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see a lot of it, because I had my eyes shut and was trying to will my body to keep the McDonalds inside, at least until we arrived in Leh. Flying from near sea level to an altitude of 3500m affects almost everybody, and in my case it was immediate. I walked unsteadily down the steps from the aeroplane to the tarmac and staggered through the terminal to collect my luggage, feeling the whole time in danger of fainting, and in danger of covering the airport in half-digested McDonalds.

While I was still feeling light-headed, Erin directed the taxi driver to the hotel that she’d picked out – the only one which the Lonely Planet mentioned was open all year round rather than just in the peak season of summer. I had another one in mind which supposedly had hot water on tap and wireless Internet, but I couldn’t remember the name and was dazed enough that it was easier to just go with the flow. By the time we’d checked into the guest house I was feeling much better, but Erin was feeling the effects of the altitude badly. She went to bed and didn’t emerge until dinner time. Meanwhile, I went for a walk into town, learning my way around Leh by getting horribly lost, and found that almost everything was still closed at this time of year.

Water is a precious resource in Ladakh in much the same way that it is in the most remote regions of outback Australia. Every winter in Leh, the water pipes freeze and, supposedly, thaw out again around April. It turns out that we’d arrived just a little bit before running water was available in our guest house. Initially, water was available by filling up buckets only. If we wanted to take a shower, we could ask the staff for some hot water. A couple of days after we arrived, there was running water in the common bathroom (for rooms which didn’t have en suite). Other pipes had been damaged during the winter and there was no running water in the rooms.

Over the following few days, we took a fairly leisurely approach to sight-seeing around Leh. On Monday, Erin was still feeling the effects of altitude quite strongly – and to be honest, I wasn’t quite back to normal either – but we walked up to the abandoned Leh Palace and even climbed to the top level. There’s a nearby fort as well, but I was feeling tired enough by then that more climbing was the last thing I wanted to do. Leh Palace also triggered my fear of heights for the first time in years, something which stayed with me for the following few days.

The next day, we had planned to catch the bus to Thiksay monastery – about 20km from Leh – then walk for a few kilometres to nearby Shey Palace. I woke up feeling absolutely miserable, and upon reaching the monastery and seeing that it was built on the side of a steep hill, decided I wasn’t up to climbing it. Erin and I split up: I spent a while trying to meditate outside the monastery while she went inside. After a while, I set off for Shey Palace on my own and had a bit of a look around. It was similar but less impressive than Leh Palace. I only got about half-way up before completely freaking out about the height when I looked down, so decided to wander back down and flagged down a cab heading back to Leh.

On Wednesday morning I awoke to sound of a new arrival in the guest house: an Irish chap named Garrett. He turned out to be a pretty cool guy, although in the morning he was pretty knackered, having just flown here straight from Ireland. We had breakfast together and then he went to his room to collapse for a while. Surprisingly, by dinner time he was full of life, and the three of us had dinner together at the dubiously-apostrophied Friend’s Corner, which was – according to some people we met on the street – the best restaurant in town for Tibetan momos. It was a really good meal. In fact, we ordered enough that I think it could probably be described as a feast. The spinach and cheese momos were made with yak cheese and fresh-looking spinach, fried to the point of deliciously unhealthy crispiness and served with hot sauce and soy sauce. We also had temok, a kind of Tibetan soup served with steamed bread: also very tasty. None of us finished our meal, though Garrett came remarkably close. The waiter was also an absolutely hilarious guy, making the experience even better than it already would have been. I’d never before seen a waiter enjoying his job so much.

Thursday was Erin’s last day in Ladakh, and our last day of an travelling together. We went up to Khardung-La Pass, notable for being the highest motorable road in the world at 5600 metres. Our aim was to wander around in fresh snow. It did not disappoint. Unfortunately, I was, once again, feeling a bit depressed when I first got up, and stayed that way for most of the morning. The road began as a fairly normal mountain road like you might find through hills back in Australia, but quickly moved to being a narrow ribbon of tarmac winding through the snow-covered mountains. Everywhere was white. It was snowing on and off on the way up, providing me with my first ever experiences walking through soft, deep snow. There was even a tiny snack shop on the top – according to the sign, the highest cafeteria in the world – serving a very welcome meal of Maggi 2-minute noodles with sweet, spiced instant coffee.

After the meal, I snuck back into the car to stay warm. Erin popped her head in to say she’d decided to climb to the top of the nearby hill, and I grumpily ignored her. After a few minutes I decided that climbing the hill might actually be fun, so I went after her and – surprisingly – caught up to her. Wandering up through the snow completely reversed my foul mood. We got a bit over half way up when a couple of the Indian Army officers back down the slope whistled and signalled for us to come down. We did, but not before taking a few photos of each other.

On the drive back down, I took a few photos which completely fail to capture the beauty of being in the mountains.

In the evening, we ate traditional Ladakhi food at our guest house. It was pretty tasty and predominantly consisted of carbohydrates: a kind of stew with noodles and potatoes in a mildly spiced, bright yellow sauce made from milk and butter. Afterwards we sat around, talking and playing cards, and eventually said goodbye to Erin.

Friday was a day for relaxing, reading and planning my next adventure: trekking. April is really a bit early to go trekking in Ladakh – most routes are still impassable – but that didn’t deter me. Salim, one of the guest house employees, got in touch with a trekking guide friend of his to see if anything was possible in the three days I had left in Ladakh. There were a couple of options, with the most interesting (and cheaper) being from Spituk to Stok. This trek would involve crossing Stok-La pass – climbing to just over 4900 metres – and staying in homestays at the tiny villages of Zingchen and Rombuk. I was promised snow.

Saturday morning, I met with the guide, Manzoor, and we set off early in the morning – although, fortunately, not too early. The first day of the trek was a fairly short hike from Spituk to the village of Zingchen, mostly following the course of the Indus River. It was a little bit disappointing because the entire road was along a road; fortunately, there was almost no traffic. Three hours into the trek, we started seeing patches of snow along the side of the road and near the river.

Zingchen turned out to be a tiny village of two – maybe three – households. We stayed in a homestay, wherein I learned some important Ladakhi customs: it is not permissible to have just one cup of tea. Two is grudgingly okay if it’s breakfast time and you’re about to leave to go trekking, but in the evening, it is important to drink cup after cup. Those who know me will understand what a hardship this was. Likewise, there was no getting away with just a single helping of dinner. I was also offered a glass or three of tsang, the locally-brewed wine. Despite its unusual colour, it was actually very tasty. I slept well that night.

On Sunday, we left the road behind and started along a trail designed for humans and the preferred four-leg-drive transport of the area, donkeys. The terrain was increasingly barren, with forlorn-looking trees giving way to patches of dry, spiky grass which reminded me of the spinifex you see the desert regions of Australia. After less than three hours on the road, we arrived at a village named Rombuk. Rombuk was a bit larger than Zingchen – maybe half a dozen houses – and looked relatively well set up for tourism, with four of the houses having big signs up announcing that homestays were possible. There was even a small shop.

We arrived quite early at Rombuk, and after finishing Shantaram, the only reading material I’d brought with me, I oollapsed in bed for a while. After dinner, Manzoor wanted to turn on the telly to see the IPL cricket results – it turned out that the team he supported had just lost a match. Afterwards we sat and watched a game of 20-20 between Bangalore and Rajasthan Royals. Despite not really being into cricket, and knowing nothing about Indian cricket at all, I found it quite entertaining – much faster paced than interminable test matches. I was also surprised to find that the Indian teams had quite a few Australian players, and even one of the commentators was an Aussie.

Monday morning we set off early. We were the first trekkers to attempt Stok-La this year, and it would be easier to pass early in the morning. Manzoor told me that we had eight hours of hiking ahead of us – five hours up, three hours down. Soon after we set off, it started snowing gently. As we got closer to Stok-La, the path was getting increasingly treacherous. Manzoor had brought a trekking pole for each of us, and this was the first time I’d ever used one. I was pretty nervous going up through the steep snow, despite reassurances that this was easy. After a while – perhaps half-way up – it got to a point where I wasn’t really comfortable going further. The snow was getting heavier and visibility was getting worse. Manzoor thought we’d be able to get a little bit further, at least, but we weren’t anywhere near prepared enough to make it over the pass. We decided to turn back.

As we went back down – which was initially even more terrifying for me than the way up – we looked behind us and saw the mountains covered in cloud and falling snow. Very glad to not be up there any more! Walking down, we saw mountain goats and yaks by the side of the trail … no photos, unfortunately. At Rombuk, we called and arranged for a taxi to meet us at Zingchen. And so the trek ended.

Back in Leh, I found out that the road to Srinagar was not yet open as the rumours before I left suggested it might have been. There had been an avalanche two days previously, and it would take another couple of weeks before the road was clear. This meant that I’d missed out on my opportunity to see Kashmir on this trip. But, tomorrow morning: flight to Delhi, and the day after, a first-class train ride to Varanasi.

For my final dinner in Leh, I went back yet again to our favourite cafe, Friend’s Corner, and was served once again by my favourite waiter. I was so incredibly hungry after the trekking that I ordered three dishes and finished maybe 2.5 of them. Gluttony is a fantastic thing. At the end I told the waiter – whose name I forgot to ask – that today was my last day in Ladakh. He made me promise to come back to Ladakh next year. And I’d really love to return, although next year seems unlikely given my university plans.

Come Tuesday morning, I was on an aeroplane once again, looking down at the same amazing view as I’d seen on the way into Leh and wishing I could stay there for longer.

Agra (Taj Mahal) and Jaipur

Wednesday 4/4

I woke up at around 7am after an uneasy sleep, the bus cruising along a six-lane freeway through the suburbs of Delhi. About half an hour later the bus dropped us off at what the conductor said would be the bus station but was actually just a quiet road nearby. But it didn’t matter, we were near a metro station where we could catch a train to New Delhi and then a long distance train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.

“Doors will open on the right hand side. Mind the gap.” The Delhi metro felt like someone transplanted the London underground to India, made it cleaner and nicer looking, less crowded and air conditioned. Even the English-language announcements were in a British voice, complete with information on changing for other lines or overground stations.

We get our tickets and a quick breakfast at New Delhi station and go off to catch the 11:30 train to Agra. Somewhere in the rush to find the right platform and carriage, my iPhone disappeared. When I set off, it was in my pocket – foolishly, in retrospect, in one of the non-velcro pockets where anyone could reach their hand in to grab it without me noticing. When I sat down on the train, it was nowhere to be found. I think, after having recently seen the Dalai Lama, that this may be the world sending me a personal message about non-attachment to physical possessions. On the other hand, losing my phone means losing my music, losing convenient access to my electronic Lonely Planet, losing the convenience of internet access wherever I go and losing my best – in some cases only – way of contacting people I’ve met on my travels through India.

Our train arrived at Agra in the early evening, and both of us were feeling pretty knackered. The rickshaw driver that our hotel provided to pick us up was friendly and opportunistic, offering us a whole day of his services for Rs.650, starting from sunrise to look out over the Taj Mahal, ending after we’d seen the Taj Mahal at sunset, and with a heap of other things during the day. We took him up on this offer, and arranged to meet him at 5:45am outside the hotel the next day.

After checking into the hotel, we discovered that they had a truly wonderful side benefit: free wireless Internet. Fairly standard in a lot of countries, this is perhaps the third time in India where I’ve had it. This was great for taking care of mundane things like letting people know my phone had been stolen, attempting to wipe it remotely (although the phone was uncontactable by the time I got to Agra so had probably already been wiped by its, er, new owner), and booking train tickets.

Thursday 5/4

We got up super-early for our sunrise date with the Taj Mahal. It was, to be honest, a bit underwhelming. We looked out at the Taj from the other side of the river, with a barbed wire fence and a lot of rubbish between us and the river. At least it was a fairly secluded location.

After the Taj at sunrise, we stopped for a quick breakfast of poori and then onto the “Baby Taj”, the tomb of a nobleman which predates the Taj Mahal, but done in a similar style. I really enjoyed it – we had the place to ourselves and the architecture was absolutely beautiful.

Next stop on our tourist itinerary was Agra Fort. Highlights included the audio guide, which explained the history of the Mughal empire, voiced by an Indian gentleman doing a surprisingly good approximation of Received Pronunciation English.

After this, our rickshaw driver took us to a couple of stops we didn’t ask for but likely earned him a nice fat commission: a carpet factory and a shop selling marble handicrafts. Both Erin and I fell sucker for their sales tactics and bought presents for people from both places.

At this point it was mid-afternoon and we were starving. Our driver helpfully took us to what must have been the most expensive restaurant in town. At least it was air conditioned. We ordered a ridiculous amount of food and gorged ourselves, eating as much of it as we could until we were both stuffed.

After a quick stop-over at the hotel, we were on the road again, this time to see the inside of the Taj Mahal in time for sunset. It was insanely crowded, although at least our ridiculous overpriced tickets (Rs.750 for foreigners vs Rs.20 for Indians) entitled us to jump all of queues. It was, to be honest, a little bit underwhelming. We barely got to look at the inside because there were so many people, at we were shepherded through fairly quickly.

When we got back to the hotel, I looked into train tickets from Agra to Jaipur for the next morning. The only tickets available were either at 5:10am or later in the afternoon. I was keen for the super-early start despite having had hardly any sleep for the previous two nights, but Erin still wasn’t feeling well and eventually decided to pass on Jaipur altogether, staying in Agra an extra night.

Friday 6/4

Woke up at 4am, feeling with death warmed up. Discovered that contrary to my best intentions the night before, I’d fallen asleep with the lights on. My bag was unpacked, I hadn’t had a shower and I still needed to be ready in about half an hour to check out of the hotel and find a rickshaw to take me to the railway station. Against all expectations, I was out of there by 4:35 and in a rickshaw by 4:40, making to the train station just as the announcement over the PA informed me that my train had started boarding. I dozed a little on the train and finally arrived in Jaipur at 9:30am, feeling tired, hungry and a little disoriented.

Fighting off hordes of rickshaw drivers desperate for business, I walked in the general direction that appeared in the Lonely Planet to have a number of cheapish hotels. The one that sounded most appealing to me appeared to not exist any more, but over the road was a cheap restaurant where I had breakfast while watching the cricket on Channel Ten. Yes, that Channel Ten, complete with Australian-accented commentary – although the Indian version seemed to be a channel dedicated to sports only (possibly cricket only) and had local Indian adverts.

I picked a hotel at random; by complete chance, the first place I went to had an air conditioned room for Rs.600 per night. That was good enough for me. On a roll now, I dumped my luggage and went to the bus station to investigate bus tickets to Delhi for the following evening. I was first told “buses every 10 minutes, no need to book” but after enquiring more specifically about air conditioned buses, it turned out there were only a few per day, and I did need to get tickets in advance. So I did. Mission accomplished, I went back to the hotel and collapsed in the air conditioning for a couple of hours to avoid the hottest part of the day.

You may be noticing a certain theme recently, specifically my love of air conditioning. It’s been about 40C outside now we’re no longer in the mountains, and while I’m familiar with such temperatures in Perth, that doesn’t mean I enjoy being outside in it.

When I was rested and ready to venture outside again, I went for a rather indulgently priced but mediocre lunch at an Italian restaurant. The garlic bread was okay, the pasta was decent but overcooked, and the Indian red wine that I had was absolutely dreadful – especially considering it cost close to what you’d pay for an acceptable glass of wine in a restaurant in London.

Later in the afternoon, I went for a walk around the Pink City, the original walled portion of Jaipur. It was okay but after I while I found the bazaars quite claustrophobic, especially when I had no intention of actually buying anything. After getting a little bit lost, and then un-lost again (despite no longer having GPS or Google Maps to aid me), I had dinner and collapsed in bed.

Overall, my impression of Jaipur so for has not been positive: smelly, busy, expensive and full of people wanting to take my money for one thing or another. Arguably most of these things are true of India as a whole, but other places I’ve been to in India have had plenty of positive things to more than make up for these downsides.

Saturday 7/4

First sleep-in in a while! Very welcome. I even did a little bit of yoga in the morning, for the first time since leaving Purple Valley almost a month ago. Then I went for breakfast at a rooftop restaurant overlooking Jaipur city, including a decent pot of coffee. I felt alive!

Today’s sightseeing mission: Amber Fort, a little way out of Jaipur town. It was okay … I think I’m already feeling a bit jaded about impressive old forts and palaces after Agra. Kind of glad I hadn’t locked in a longer trip through Rajasthan.

After the fort, I went to a shopping mall with an iStore – an Indian chain which resembles the Apple stores in other countries, but not actually run by Apple. My goal: to see if I could get a replacement iPhone, or maybe an iPod Touch, for cheap while I was in India. Unfortunately, the prices were about 30% higher than back home in Australia – no wonder Apple products don’t seem particularly prominent in India. I did, however, have a hot chocolate at a Costa Coffee. Not because I particularly wanted a hot chocolate, but because I was enjoying the air conditioning in the shopping mall, and because it seemed to bizarre to see an English cafe chain with a presence in India.

By this time it was mid-afternoon, time for me to have one last meal before my bus to Delhi. Late lunch or early dinner, I’m not sure what it was. I sat in the restaurant for almost two hours, going through photos and catching up on writing this blog. The highlight, I think, was when my cup of tea was brought out. As I raised my cup of tea to my lips and the waiter interjected, “Sir! Sugar is separate!” as if to save me from the indignity of drinking unsugared tea – the way I’d normally have tea back home. Indians do love their sugary hot drinks.

And now this post finishes as it began, with our intrepid hero on a night bus to Delhi. My flight to Leh leaves at 5:40am tomorrow. Stay tuned for the next episode, a visit to the isolated region of Ladakh, so far up in the Himalayas that the roads there are still covered in snow.

More Photos

As usual, the full set of photos are up on Picasa, with just a few highlights included above.

Rewalsar and the Dalai Lama

Friday 30/3 – Tuesday 3/4

We got up early on Friday morning and prepared to say goodbye to McLeod Ganj. I’d really enjoyed being in the area, and especially the several wonderful restaurants we’d found – including the one attached to the hotel we stayed at, where I’d got my first ever taste of Tibetan food. But the Dalai Lama was going to be giving a teaching a few hundred kilometres away, in the town of Rewalsar. It took three buses and a rickshaw to get there, and when we arrived it was already dark. As we climbed up the hill to Rewalsar, I started noticing a lot of Australian trees and plants – gum trees of course, but also bottlebrushes, banksias and wattles. How completely surreal to be seeing the Dalai Lama surrounded by Australian vegetation!

Our first stop was a hotel recommended in our guidebook. We got there and they had one room left for the night, but nothing available at all for the following two nights when His Holiness would be visiting. We were pretty exhausted, so took the room, had dinner in a nearby cafe, and collapsed into bed.

The following morning we started asking around at the nearby hotels and guest houses to see if any had rooms available for the next few nights. We were pretty much laughed at – other people coming here had arranged it weeks or months in advance, not as a spur of the moment decision. One of the guest house owners said he knew someone willing to rent out her spare room. He checked up on that for us and it turned out to still be available. For Rs.1000 per night we stayed in an Indian family’s children’s bedroom.

We’d heard a variety of different accounts about what would be happening and when. The Dalai Lama’s security office in McLeod Ganj had said that he’d be inaugurating a temple on Sunday and giving a teaching on Monday. The teaching, at least, would be a free for all – just turn up in the morning and you could go. Everything else was uncertain. We walked up to the biggest Buddhist temple in town, the one on top of a hill with a massive statue of Buddha on top, looking down over the lake. They told us that as of half an hour before we arrived, the temple inauguration ceremony wouldn’t be taking place there, but at a different temple on the other side of the lake.

We went to the other temple, and one of the monks there ushered us towards the eating area. It was lunch time, and we were hungry, but it still seemed wrong to eat the food that we were offered. But there was no easy way to turn it down, even though the signs up everywhere said “for invited guests only”. It was a very tasty lunch, even though completely undeserved.

After lunch, we asked at the office about attending the following day’s inauguration ceremony. They seemed a bit surprised that the ceremony was happening there – I guess they’d learned only recently too – and a little bit unsure of what was going on. They told us that the ceremony was for invited guests only. Guest passes were difficult – if not impossible – to get. After talking for a while and asking a few different monks, one eventually said he’d see what he could do, and disappeared. A few minutes later, he returned with a guest pass. Our hero! And also, I think, a testament to Erin’s ability to sweet-talk people. It probably also helped that she’s very pretty and “it’s my birthday tomorrow and it would make me the happiest person in the world to see the Dalai Lama on my birthday” is a rather good story to be able to tell.

The monk’s name was Sangay. He was from Bhutan, though now lived in the Himalayan part of India, and had just completed his masters degree in Buddhist studies. He was also very friendly – not at all dinstant in the way I’d imagine a monk to be – and we ended up seeing him quite a bit while we were in Rewalsar.

Afterwards, I went back to the room, completely over the moon about what had just happened. Erin was off at an Internet cafe, soaking up the internet. Sangay called, saying that the programme for tomorrow had been cancelled. The inauguration might be the next day, might be the day after. Everything was uncertain.

That evening, at dinner, Erin somehow ended up talking to another monk, named Sandup (?). He was from Ladakh, which was very exciting because I had been planning to going to Ladakh in a few weeks, after visiting Jammu and Srinagar (Kashmir). After dinner, Erin announced that this had been a sign, and she wanted to go to Ladakh now too. We booked flights that night, leaving from Delhi and a little bit earlier than originally planned because the flights from Srinagar were all booked out and Erin didn’t have enough time left in her itinerary to go there (nor, I think, was she particularly enthused about visiting there rather than other nearby places).

Not quite sure what happened on Sunday. Erin was in a pretty bad mood, despite – or perhaps because – of it being her birthday. I wasn’t amazingly chipper either, having just a day previously been expecting to meet the Dalai Lama then.

On Monday, we got up early, and arrived at the teaching a bit before 6am. It didn’t start until 8am, but there were already a lot of people there. Erin and I managed to get separated, and Erin had the FM radio that we were planning to share to listen to the English translation, so once the pre-teaching chanting of Om Mani Padme Hum was over and His Holiness began talking, I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said. It was still amazingly exciting just being there and seeing the Dalai Lama. After a little while – maybe half an hour or so – I decided to leave, because it was crowded and not particularly comfortable and I couldn’t actually understand what was being said.

I was feeling in a very contemplating mood, and had originally thought I’d go and find a quiet spot to sit by the lake and meditate, but there were no quiet spots – people were everywhere. Instead I went back to our usual cafe and had a spot of brekkie. I ended up writing a long stream of consciousness about myself and my thoughts about Buddhism and the way I interact with the world and how recent experiences had affected me. I’d written about 1500 words when an Australian woman sat down opposite me and we got talking as we ate breakfast. Similar to me, she’d been at the teaching but didn’t have any way of hearing the translation so had left early.

After breakfast, I went back to the room briefly. No sign of Erin but I figured I’d bump into her at the inauguration. I went back down to the lake just as the teaching was ending, and followed the crowd up to the temple. I waited for a little while outside the entrance, expecting Erin to appear, then went inside where I was once again treated to an absolutely delicious lunch that I didn’t feel completely comfortable taking. At least this time I had a badge confirming me as an invited guest, although when I got there and realised how small the event was, and noticing that there were only three other Westerners present, I realised just how big a favour Sangay had done us in giving us the badges. After the ceremony – where I was just on the outside of the fairly small temple which the Dalai Lama was in the middle of – I left the temple in a small procession, ending with His Holiness piling into his car. In case you ever wondered what car the Dalai Lama was driven around in, it’s a Toyota station wagon.

When I got back to the room, Erin was waiting there. She’d thought that the inauguration ceremony was on the following day, so had come straight back from the teaching. But she had, however, caught the English translation of it, which I was more than a little jealous of. Just after I got there, Sangay called Erin, asking where she’d been, and told her that there’d be more stuff going on at the temple soon. So we finished packing up our stuff, moved it to a room in the guest house whose owner had found us the last-minute accomodation, and went up to the temple again.

At the temple we were treated to a performance of traditional Bhutanese singing and dancing. Then, by complete chance, Erin got talking to Sangay’s cousin, Jamil. Afterwards, we went out for dinner with Sangay … a pleasant end to a long, surreal day.

Tuesday was our final day in Rewalsar. We took care of some mundane things, booked our overnight bus tickets to Delhi, said goodbye to Sangay and had a lunch/dinner at Lotus Lake Hotel, where we’d spent our very first night in town. For the first time in a few days, they had their full menu available rather than the reduced “too many people are coming here so they can all eat the same thing” menu they’d provided. Cheese momos! I was happy. Tibetan food had been a pleasant relief from the constant fried greasiness of Indian food. Even the weather seemed to be saying goodbye to the Dalai Lama, with thunder and lightning off in the distance.

Then we took a cab to Mandi, and on the way it started to rain. It was the same fantastic feeling – and smell – that you get anywhere when it hasn’t rained for months and suddenly the heavens opened. We sat undercover just outside a travel agency and waited for the bus to come. It was delayed for an hour but eventually we made it. Somehow I managed to sleep better than expected on the bus, because at some point I lost track of time and consciousness of anything, and suddenly it was Wednesday morning.

Trekking to Triund

The pictures in this entry are a few selected highlights; the full set is up on Picasa.

Tuesday 27/3 – Thursday 29/3

Erin and I set off on our hike to Triund late Tuesday morning after taking care of a bunch of mundane things. We’d been told it was only a 5 hour hike, and people who are really keen leave early and do it as a day trip. Our pace was pretty leisurely, including a very long stop for lunch and conversation over several cups of tea.

As we hiked further up the hill, the forest thinned out and we started to catch sight of occasional patches of snow or ice. Then came the snow-covered stretches of the path For me, having never climbed mountains with this kind of altitude or in this climate before, it was an incredibly exciting experience. I think I was periodically stopping and staring at the scenery in the distance and exclaiming how amazed I was to be up in the Himalayas like this. Fortunately, Erin was almost as dizzily excited as I was. As we got near Triund – altitude around 2900m, or 900m higher than our starting point in McLeod Ganj – I started to feel distinctly short of breath. I’m putting this down to the altitude rather than my lack of fitness…

We finally arrived at our destination about an hour before sunset. Triund isn’t really much of a town. In fact, it’s barely a settlement at all. There are a couple of guest houses and a few huts selling chai, food and other necessities. We’d been told that it was possible to camp overnight in a nearby cave, and that we could rent sleeping bags and blankets from Sunil’s hut. This sounded like a great idea to me, and Erin was easily talked into it as well – or perhaps even really wanted to do it herself.

As it turned out, two of the three huts were run by (different) Sunils, but the first one we tried was the right one for hiring camping supplies. Erin carried the sleeping bags and mattresses up to the cave – which was further away than I’d initially guessed, probably about 20 minutes walk uphill – while I waited for some food to carry up there along with the blankets. When I got up to the cave, I was in a foul mood and our aloo paratha had some bonus dirt from when I dropped it. Because it was almost dark by the time I set off, I didn’t notice the more obvious trail up to the cave, and ended up taking a route that involved some scrambling up the the side of the hill using all four limbs.

Meanwhile, Erin had been being absolutely amazing, collecting firewood and kindling so that we could keep warm. Unfortunately, efforts to get the fire going were unsuccessful – the kindling burnt out before it lit properly. But we almost had a camp fire.

Neither of us slept very well that night. We woke up in the morning to a fantastic view. Unfortunately, Erin also woke up with a cold. She suggested staying another night in Triund – it was beautiful and, compared to everywhere else I’d been to in India, peaceful, quiet and isolated. But not in the cave. We headed down the hill from the cave to the huts, returned all of the gear to Sunil and got ourselves a room in a guest house.

Just as we were having our post-breakfast cuppa, it started snowing. There’s something really wonderful about drinking tea, looking out on the snow falling outside and the view to mountains and villages surrounding us.

Further up from Triund, it was supposedly possible to trek to further up the hill, past the cave, and over a ridge to the snow line. Feeling surprisingly good after the 9km trek the previous day, and being excited about all things snow, I was pretty keen to try this. Erin, feeling unwell, was not so much. So I decided to go up there on my own. I only got about 15 minutes beyond the cave, though. Eventually I reached a narrow snow-covered path with a steep drop on one side and steep slope upwards on the other. I was a bit nervous about crossing it but there were footprints through the snow so I followed it further. After a short while, the footprints in the snow turned left and started going directly up the slope. This seemed a little bit too precarious for my liking, so I turned back. The way down was a bit hair-raising and I felt a bit like I’d escaped a horrible death.

We spent the rest of the day chilling out, talking to other travellers who were on the mountain and eating food at Sunil’s. Sunil was a really impressive cook – the food he prepared was all very simple, but very tasty. Considering he was a one-man operation with a very limited kitchen in an isolated area with no vehicle access, no electricity, not even running water, he did a really good job of turning out a lot of meals quite quickly.

The next morning, we had one final breakfast and a cup of tea, and then took the alternative route back down to McLeod Ganj, via Bhagsu waterfall. We checked back in to the same hotel we’d been staying at previously, grabbed our stuff from their storage room and had a very, very welcome hot shower for the first time in there days.