Thursday 16th February
Today we headed for the hills. Like the guru in Kim we marched north (well, we took mini-buses!) our stride lengthening with ever view of the snow capped hills. The Himalayas! First we had to leave Amritsar, preferably uncoffined. This was not easy as cars, lorries an coaches see no problem in travelling the wrong way down dual carriageways. This adds to the excitement of travel certainly, but has much the same effect as curry on the constitution! The picture below is on a dual carriageway!
At last we hit open country and travelled through rich fields of rice and wheat. Soon we were crossing large rivers, their beds already dry in some cases and waiting for the rains in April or May. The nearer we got to the hills the more water was flowing.
We stopped for lunch just before we really started climbing. The last thing I needed was more food, so I went for a walk, back to a bridge we had crossed just before. There were infact 3 bridges, a train bridge, the modern one we had driven over built in 2010, and a much older one between them which had chunks missing out of it. Clearer the river in full spate had destroyed much of it. What had caught my eye was the deepish gorge formed downstream of the bridges. Some serious erosion had taken place. I took pictures from the bridge and then wandered down onto the floodplain, past a water buffalo farm. People were living under the bridge in what looked like abject poverty.
Back at the restaurant I had a small plate of delicious, light, crispy vegetable pakoras, just to stave off the hunger pains until this evening. Then we set off again and started to climb. The road looped in hairpin bends up the mountain side and drivers on both sides saw no problem in overtaking on these bends as long as they sounded their horns. I began to think the pakoras may have been a bad idea!
As the road narrowed even further it was clear that it was the end of the school day, so vying for space on an already crowded raid were crocodiles of children, the lucky ones presumably, making it home for tea. The technique for making progress is to play chicken. You aim at the car coming the other way and at the last moment swing onto th small verge or squeeze through a narrow gap, sounding your horn all the while. Pedestrians have to have quick reactions and presumably a great deal of insurance.
As we got higher the views, of course got better, the road got narrower and to give added interest a deep storm drain appeared on the downstream side of the road…..except there wasn’t a downstream side if you see what I mean. Our driver continued to swing us uphill at breakneck speed and into a military zone. Here there were helpful messages for drivers like ‘ Drive slowly and enjoy the scenery. Drive fast and join the scenery.’ Clearly our driver couldn’t read. Still he was extremely good and got us to our hotel, which is in a spectacular location, perched on a hillside.
Below is the view from our balcony. It is noticeably colder here. It is 5.45 as I write and I am sitting on the balcony in a fleece and thinking of going in. Christine is off for a hot stone massage…whatever that is. I hope she doesn’t get shingles!
Friday the 17th February
The internet connection was so poor at McLeodganj I have had to wait until Shimla to post.
Thursday night was interesting as I woke up suddenly to the sound of Christine’s alarm. Not surprising, but it still looked very dark. I thought I’d be lazy and wait for the second call. When that went off I aroused Christine, “Come on dear, time to get up” I called. Christine was not happy, “are you sure?” She checked the phone. It was 1.05. I was not flavour of the month. it appears that I had dreamt the alarm went ……twice! How weird is that.
When the real alarm did go, we got up, breakfasted and headed out to the church of St John in the Wilderness, built by the English in 1852 out of grey granite. Set amongst pine trees a more dismal building it is hard to imagine. Inside a plaques to various English officers in the Goorkah (sic) regiment who met untimely ends. One was killed by a bear, and one, rather poignantly was killed on the ever of his marriage. The latter was 25 and the plaque was put up by his fiancée. In the churchyard is a massive tomb to Lord Elgin, the son of the famous one. Fittingly his memorial is in marble.
We drive into the centre of McLeodganj and parked to walk to the Tsuglagkhang Complex, which is the residence of the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan Centre is very moving, charting the history of Tibet and in particular what has happened since the Chinese took control in 1959. It is the story of a slow genocide. Many thousands have been killed, imprisoned and tortured. Monasteries have been destroyed and the culture of the Tibetan people brutally suppressed. The Tibetans continue to protest. The last self-immolation was in 2015. Somehow the plight if these brave people has disappeared from the news, but we should all be concerned by what has happened to them.
A short walk from there brought us to the Namgyal Monastery and Tsuglagkhang Temple which faces the Dalai Lama’s residence. Monkeys ran along the metal rafters of the modern covered meeting area. I took my shoes off and went into the first of two temples and looked at the large golden statue of the Buddha. Bizarrely he seemed to be surrounded by packets of biscuits and chocolates, as indeed did other figures. These are apparently the preferred offerings if the pilgrims. I put my shoes back on and headed for the toilets which afforded a superb view of the Himalayas and would rate highly on our ‘100 best places for a pee with a view list’. ( I know we need to get lives!)
I walked to the next temple past lines of prayer wheels and was vaguely aware of some odd looks from fellow visitors. Inside the second temple amongst the digestives and chocolate fingers I visited each shrine only to be told off with a flick of the fingers and a frown by a monk. Then enlightenment came up in me. All circumambulation in a Buddhist temple must be clockwise. I had been travelling in the wrong direction. I trust Lord Buddha will forgive me! I sat for a while and watched some devotees practise yoga and realised that those of us who practise in Bradfield St George Village Hall need to raise our game.
Another short spell in the mini-buses and we arrived just outside Dharmasala where we visited the Norbulingka Institute, where Tibetan traditional skills are being preserved and taught. It is a beautiful place and we wandered around a variety of workshops, watching craftsman carving in wood and painting on cloth. The temple was being repaired so the Buddha was under a dust sheet which was rather disappointing.
We ate a very good lunch on the roof terrace of the restaurant there and returned to our hotel – a tortuous drive of over an hour. Christine and I decided on a walk to stretch our legs and because we had spotted a film crew setting up on the road a short way from the hotel. It was a pleasant walk up and down mountain roads and paths. We got occasional glimpses of the filming from above. There was no attempt to stop the traffic nor indeed nosy pedestrians , so we wandered back through the set up. The sun was going down and the view down the valley was stunning. The young man who was being filmed was taking a break so we asked him what was being filmed. He told us it was a T.V. series. He looked every inch a film star and contrasted rather well with the walking haystack that passed by as we talked. Bent double under it was a more typical representation of the Indian population. Perhaps, if he was lucky, he might enjoy the film stars performance in the weeks ahead.
Shimla tomorrow and Northern India 3.