Thu 8th Nov - Was due to be on a tour today organised by the Himal-Pradesh tourism department for the rock bottom price of 190 rupees. Problem was that they needed 5 people minimum to run it and there were only two of us, so it was cancelled. Life has a way of turning out for the better sometimes. Decided to join up with the other person, a lovely girl from France to do some of the places together. We hadn't got far and a guy approached us from a local tour company, so we sorted out a few places to see and set off by 'Quali', which is a sort of minivan. Heading out of Shimla eastwards, we headed to 'Kufri'. This was one of India's first ski resorts. Not an attractive place to drive through but the road doesn't get to the main bits. The fun bit was further on towards 'Fagu' where we changed to horseback to make the climb to the top of the hill up a very rock and dusty track. At the top is a temple, but the most interesting feature is that it boasts the world's highest go-kart track! At over 2,400m above sea level, it has a great view of the surrounding valleys and himalayan mountains. Yaks can be hired to carry you around the top which is a bit unusual. In a way it was a bit of a shame as the place felt too touristy and one of the better views was marred by a large communications tower. So, as normal, where there's an opportunity to make money they will.
Anyway, next stop the 'Indira Ghandi wildlife park'. Being so high up it had mountain bears, white leopard, Muntjak, Sambal and some unusual pheasants to name but a few. The bears looked a bit sad as they were stuck in cages with not much to keep them entertained. The leopard just paced up and down.
More walking and a nice time for the rest of the day chilling and chatting before onen had to head off to catch the bus to Delhi. Onen...if you read this, thank you for a really nice day and hope to stay in touch.
I am heading off further north to Manali tommorow, so booked the HPTDC semi-deluxe bus to make sure I had a place as It's Diwali tommorow, one of the most important celebrations in the indian calendar. Fortunately, Shimla's celebrations start at 6pm through to 10pm and the bus leaves at 9:40, so I should get to see most of it before hitting the road. It will be chaos, I can sense it now!
Fri 9th Nov - It is Diwali today and wasn't sure what to expect. Most people will celebrate it within their homes as is traditional, so don't expect much public display. The main thing that has been evident is the shops selling boxes of sweets as they present to each other as a gift. The town hall has been decorated with strings of lights, but their doesn't seem to be much else happening. It was amusing to later in the day see the monkeys ripping the lights off the town hall and use them as ropes, tarzan fashion. One clever monkey even worked out how to unscrew the light bulbs. Problem is he can't have been that clever as he then trid to eat them! This town has a serious monkey problem...thousands of them on the streets, and they get violent, attacking passers by. They like to rip the glasses off peoples faces! If you know what to do and have some peanuts to hand then it's ok. Throw the peanuts at them and they lt go of the glasses. It does make for some funny sights though as they get up to allsorts of monkey business...scuse the pun! Streetside sellers have the biggest problem, especially the fruit stalls. Constantly having to beat off the monkeys wanting a tasty snack.
In the evening, the fireworks started. Lots of bang but no fizz here unfortunately. For the amount of noise going on, we would have had the sky lit up with an umbrella of colour. Here though, there is hardly a sign of fireworks in the sky, mainly firecrackers. The shops started to put out candles in front of their shops as it got dark, which was nice.
Met up with a group of guys that I had seen in a restaurant last night. Here on a microsoft course for many weeks, it's not a bad place for a course....beats places like Bangalore, the usual places for such courses.
Was due to catch the 21:40 bus to Manali from the Interstate bus terminal so arrived in plenty of time to find that the bus wasn't going to run due to it being Diwali. The buggers had knowingly given me the ticket when they knew it wasn't running. Had a few choice words to say about them!
Anyway, had to trudge back to the hotel and stay another night. Thumbed through the checking-in book to find someone else had paid 200 rupees a night less than me so had a go at them and they agreed to only charge me the lower rate. Everyone is trying to rip you off in India! Woke early the following morning and decided to have a go at finding an early bus out. The guy from reception came with me and got my money back from last night's duff bus ticket. Found an alternative deluxe private bus running so took that one, due to arrive at 5pm leaving at 8:30am and really comfortable. The route goes north through some stunning scenery with mountains flanking the road which snakes its way along. Awesome...no other words for it. The further north you go, the more tibetan some of the people start to look. A bit like going to another country really, but no surprise as close to here is Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. More of that later as I am planning to go there soon.
Met up with a guy from Ireland on the bus and decided to check out Manali together. Plenty of digs in the area so didn't take long to sort something.
The temperature is noticeably colder. Snow on the mountains which adds to the attraction of the area as close to Everest here.
The main thing I was looking forward to in Manali is that it has a Tibetan colony, the nearest I will get to Tibet for the moment. Also has some Tibetan buddist Gompas (monastery) and a Stupa (monument), so should be different to anywhere I have been so far. After check-in went walkabout. The town has a great feel to it. Lots going on with shops and street vendors, but not in your face like the southern towns. Got a laid back and safe feel to it too. Found a superb restaurant serving tibetan food. Took a gamble on what to eat and ended up with great food. One of the main ingredients of tibetan menus is momos, which are filled dumplings. They also have various noodle based dishes which aren't too spicy and really tasty. Mop it up with 'steamed bread', a rather bland doughy mixture. What is also prominent up here is dried fruit of a really diverse variety, so time to stock up on healthy snacks.
Sun 11th Nov - Time to explore today so after breakfast, headed up the east bank to Vashisht. This route goes past a tibetan colony, where the folk live in shed-like housing with most awesome of views. The distant mountains were covered in snow and saw a massive condor flying past to its nest high in the trees. Vishisht itself isn't much to rave over other than a really bright buddist temple set high in the trees, prayer flags waving in the breeze. A really colourful sight. Climbed up to it and was shown inside by young monk who must have only been 14yrs old. A major fan of the dalai lama as his photos adornd the walls along with gold buddha statues.
Back into town and a tuk-tuk ride upto Manali old town. The top of town is like stepping back in time. Beautifully quaint tibetan style houses surrounding a communal courtyard and farm area. Apple trees, cattle, buildings and roofs made from wooden slates, smoke from fires, stacks of straw out to dry and groups of women in their wonderfully colourful clothing sitting and chatting. Absolutely loved it, a magic atmosphere that takes you back in time to when life was simple. Their houses were ornately painted with gold designs around the doors and the doors were very low and to enter would have to stoop down. The women agreed to a photo shoot so got some lovely photos that I will cherish. There was also the local 'laundry'. A stone pyramid next to a water pump. Women sat outside washing the clothes and chatting away. Yet another lasting image! This part of india is so different than anywhere else i've seen that it is captivating. Could spend longer here but want to get over to Dharamsala soon.
Walked back to town and diverted to the 'Hadimba temple' with yet another stunning view. On the way in to the temple you get the opportunity to sit on a yak and have your photo taken whilst holding an angora rabbit, which are common around here. A bit touristy that bit. The temple itself dates back to 1553 (aka the Dhungri temple). The 3-tier wood and stone design is ornately carved on the oujtside with dancing scenes and decorated with the horns of bulls and ibex. Animal sacrifices are held here in May for the Dhungri Mela. Went inside and watched the pilgrims making their offerings In a very smoky atmosphere for a while. It is very relaxing to watch ceremonies like this. Whilst I am not religious, I do believe that everyone has the born right to believe what they chose. The experience is very fulfilling.
Mon 12th Nov - on a 1 day return trip to 'Rhotang La' pass today. This is a pass that carves it was towards Leh in Ladakh through part of the himalaya mountains. The pass is at a height of 3955m above sea level and will be the highest place on land that I have ever been. The journey is only 53km from Manali but it goes through some incredibly rough terrain, so takes about 3hours. There were 6 of us booked onto the trip, myself and Mark who I have spent the last couple of days travelling with, a couple of guys from Kerala region and a couple from Bangalore. The scenery en-route rates as the most stunning I have ever seen. Due to the altitude I had decided to take a Diamox tablet to alleviate the possible effects of AMS (Acute Mountain Syndrome). This can be a debilitating problem above about 3000m so I had got some on prescription before I left the UK. Basically, the bodies ability to absorb oxygen from the air you breathe changes with height as the air becomes more rarified. People can get seriously ill fast if not resolved. It is a low risk at this altitude but I didn't want to take any risks.
Also en-route we stopped to hire salopettes, boots and skis as there would be snow up top. There is a significant presence of tibetan culture In this area, so it was interesting to see tibetan hikers with the most unusual form of hiking clobber I have ever seen. Spiked hats with pointy ear flaps, a sarong type of skirt and fur waist coat. Tough people the tibetans!
Another point of note was the philosphical sign boards along the way aimed at drivers....on the bend, go slow friend....beter be mr late than never....drive slow, live long....horn is to honk, please do it on my curves.
Once up at the pass, there was an option to get a donkey for the final 3km to the top or walk. At 600 rupees for the donkeys I walked! Funny thing was that we beat the people to the top who took the donkey option. I suspect that the diamox had something to do with it as it seemed fairly effortless. Fortunately, I am also fairly fit. The snow wasn't as good as we had been lead to believe but managed to body slide on the compacted snow instead. The peace and quiet on top of the mountain was wonderful, just taking in the awesome views. This was definitely one of the highlights of my travels so far. Supposed to meet back at the jeep at 3pm for the return trip to Manali as Mark and me were off to Dharamsala on the overnight sleeper bus leaving at 6pm. One of the kerala guys wasn't listening when told this and came back an hour late! The trip back was scary in parts as the driver had to pull out all stops to get us back in time. 5:58pm we got back to the bus station. How's that for cutting it fine! Have learnt the art of using overnight transport to keep the cost down. In this particular case 350 rupees for the 10 hour journey and should arrive about 4am. Not great arriving at that silly hour but you get used to it.
Tue 13th Nov - The bus dropped us off at 2:20am in a completely unknown place 10km from Dharamshala. A taxi was waiting to take us to Dhar. This bit hadn't been explained as we had booked a sleeper berth all the way to Dhar, so very annoyed about that. Another scam! There were 6 of us fortunately, so not alone to sort it out. We all wanted to go to a place called McLeod Ganj, about 1km north of Dhar and the driver initially refused to take us there so had an argument with him. Sorted it though. The climb into Ganj is very steep and the taxi couldn't make it with us all and our baggage, so he had to take us the last stretch in two groups. This is now sometime after 3am and freezing! Finally got there and none of us had any digs booked, so had to trusge around waking up guesthouses and hotels to check for space. 4:30am got somewhere dearer than wanted but a bed! Collapsed into bed to sleep it off. This type of travelling is a pain, but an experience!
McLeod Ganj is the home town of his holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the tibetan government in exile. China invaded Tibet in 1949. By 1959 they had illegally occupied the whole of Tibet. The Dalai lama escaped into exile into India followed by 85,000 refugees. There is still a steady stream of tibetans leaving Tibet over the mountains, so the colonies in northern india keep growing. The figure is now in the order of 111,000 refugees in various neighbouring countries. Over the period of China's occupation, they killed 1.2 million tibetans and destroyed 6000 ancient religious and cultural monuments.
The Dalai doesn't do many personal audiences unfortunately, other than for tibetan refugees. Something to do with his busy schedule running his government and world matters and stuff!
I read the book 'Art of happiness' which was generally about his principles of approaching problems that we face in our lives. I was lucky enough to have a great friend who gave me the book to read when I was going through a lot of trauma in my life. What he says is all common sense, but reading it made me think a lot.
Tue 13th Nov - Off to see if the Dalai lama is at home! His residence (the photang), is part of the 'Tsuglagkhang complex' close to town. Shame is he set off to Japan today, so won't get to see him after all. In reality you have to apply 1 month in advance and fill in forms with lots of personal information, especially the reason why you want to see him. Had a chat to the guard on the gate instead. It was close!
The complex houses many things. The tibetan museum has a haunting sound playing constantly whilst you walk around displays documenting the attrocities perpetrated by the chinese. Very heart braking what they went through.
The 'Nyamgal Gompa', which is the main monastery, filled with stunning tributes to the buddhist faith. One of the great treats of the visit happens in the afternoon, when the monks appear and begin to debate with geat animation. Lots of action as they put their argument to another buddhist. To conclude their point, they stamp their foot and slap their hands together in great style. Seeing many dozens of them in action is an incredible sight, bedecked in their red robes and sandals. At about 3:20pm a bell started to ring calling them to prayer. They all stopped debating and sat down around the boss who started to chant. They all copy in harmony and the sound makes the hair stand up (if you have any). For about half an hour or so, they go through various chants both spoken and sung. The effect is very tranquil. Many pilgrims come to this monastery as it is a major site in the tibetan world since the destruction of their homeland. They follow a circuit clockwise around the Gompa and spin the prayer wheels whilst doing so. I did the circuit myself....not from a religious point of view but when in Rome as they say! Prayer wheels are cylinders engraved with script. The perimeter of the building is surrounded with them.
Lunch was in the Nyamgal café in the complex, with tibetan style food. I had 'Thukpa' which is a kind of noodle soup. Nice stuff.
In the evening, a real travellers institution....a place called 'Lhamo's croissant' on Bhagsu road. On tuesdays they serve a tibetan momo (filled dumplings) platter with soup followed by a film during which they serve fresh butter popcorn. Tonight's movie was Michael Palin's 'Himalaya'. Seen it many times but how apropriate. When I last saw it I was still dreaming of coming to these kind of places. Now of course it has become reality, and it was great to watch it and see places i've been....Shimla, Manali, Rhotang La, etc and also a sneak preview of some places I will be going to over the next few days...Pakistan (Wagah)/India(Atilla) border crossing, the Golden temple at Amritsar to name a couple. More of that later.