We had arranged for a taxi to pick us up at 8am for the drive from Shimla to Mcleod Ganj. The roads were windy and we were glad we hadn’t opted for the night bus. After a couple of chai stops, we made it to Mcleod Ganj in just over 7 hours and checked in to our hotel. We were upgraded to a mountain view room and the panorama was stunning.
|View from our room, Mcleod Ganj.|
We didn’t waste much time before walking the mile downhill back in to the centre. Mcleod Ganj is a small town and the village below, Gangchen Kyishong, is home to the Tibetan Government in exile and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who claimed asylum in India following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949, (the Dalai Lama left Tibet in 1959). It’s estimated that more than 250,000 refugees crossed the Himalayas to India and in Mcleod Ganj, you can’t walk 50 metres without seeing a monk or a string of prayer flags, the restaurants serve Tibetan food and the shops sell Tibetan handicrafts. Tibetan culture is being repressed in their homeland as they’re forced to assimilate into China, in India, the Tibetan’s are trying to ensure it’s not lost and forgotten. The Tibetan refugees are still fighting for the liberation of Tibet and being there makes you hope more than ever that one day soon it’ll happen.
|Tibetan propaganda, Mcleod Ganj.|
|Monks on the main street, Mcleod Ganj.|
After exploring the shops for a while we stopped for dinner. Discovering it was Dalai Lama day and no Tibetan restaurant was serving meat, we ended up in a Punjab restaurant for Indian.
Rhys’s allergies were playing up the next day so we delayed our planned day hike and spent the morning at our hotel. We walked in to town for lunch and to visit the Tsuglagkhang complex which comprises the official residence of the Dalai Lama, the Tibet museum and an important temple. As we entered we found groups of monks of all ages, scattered around the Gompa, deep in debate, stomping their feet and clapping their hands to get their points across. We watched for a while before wandering upstairs to visit the temple and stopping at the small museum on our way out. That night we walked back in to town again for a Tibetan meal, lots of dumplings and noodle soup.
The next day we woke to good weather. We laced up our hiking boots and headed out towards Dharamkot, a village not far from our hotel. Having found a dog (Bruno) who we enticed with biscuits and who stayed with us all day, we turned off the main road to an unpaved track, walking up hill to a small temple where we stopped for chai with commanding views of the Dhauladhar Ridge. Continuing, we followed an uneven goat track to Triund, a ridge at 2,855m, where we stopped for more chai as the clouds began to swirl in, obstructing the valley views. On the way down, the rain started and after spending an hour hiding out under cover at a chai stop, we decided to make a break for it. Walking about 18km in total we completed the walk in about 5 hours (without stops). Considering we’d been warned to allow 7-8 hours i’m now feeling a little more hopeful for the Everest trek next week.
|The hike to Triund, Mcleod Ganj.|
|Rhys bribing Bruno, the hike to Triund, Mcleod Ganj.|
We left Bruno at the turnoff to his house, sad to say goodbye, and headed back to our room to dry off and relax before walking back into town again for dinner.
We took a bus the following day to Pathankot from Mcleod Ganj,a bumpy, uncomfortable 4.5 hour journey with beautiful valley views to take our mind off it. The bus dropped us at the terminal for the government run buses to Amritsar and we didn’t have to wait long until we were on our way for the final 2.5 hours to our destination. We’d descended from the mountains by this point and were driving through rice paddies and pastures.
Once in Amritsar we jumped straight in a rickshaw to our hotel in the Old City, weaving through chaotic streets and peering into the shopfronts as we went. As it was already getting dark and there’s only so much exploring you can do in India before all the noise and hustle and bustle starts to break your resolve, we opted for a quick dinner at a small vegetarian Indian restaurant, (in the Golden Temple area, all the restaurants are vegetarian to Rhys’s disappointment), peering in at the temple through the archway as we passed, before bed.
We were primarily in Amritsar to see the Golden Temple and wanted to visit for lunch so were in no rush and treated ourselves to a lay in. We ventured out for a morning coffee before handing in our shoes at the cloakroom, collecting a headscarf to cover our heads during our visit and walking through the shallow foot baths to the entrance. The Golden Temple is Sikhism’s holiest shrine and was full of pilgrims, every Sikhi is supposed to visit and volunteer at the temple for one week in their lifetime. The complex was beautiful and the temple itself glistened in the centre, covered in gilded copper plates (the gold said to weigh 750kg), reflected in the pool of sacred water in which it stands. Priests inside the central temple chant continuously and it’s broadcast throughout the complex.
|Storm clouds rolling in at the Golden Temple, Amritsar.|
We walked a circuit of the courtyard admiring the temple from all angles of the marble walkway, before reaching the dining hall. In line with the Sikhism central principal of equality, everyone is welcome for a free meal, no matter what religion or nationality. We joined the crowds, collected a tray and cutlery and were led into the hall where we took a seat on the floor in long rows. Before we’d got ourselves comfortable, people began walking the line and depositing scoops of food onto our trays, we had dhal, rice, roti and delicious rice pudding. Considering all the clattering outside it was peaceful and quiet while we ate. The kitchen prepares meals for around 80,000 people a day and they have the process down to a fine art.
Once we’d finished, we rejoined the throng, handing in our used trays to the chaotic and crowded washing up assembly line where literally hundreds of people were passing the trays into huge sinks, ready for the next hungry visitors. It was a great experience.
The sky was beginning to darken as we finished our lunch and we took it as a sign that our visit was over and we should head back to the hotel and as soon as we walked in the door a heavy rain storm hit. We had a couple of hours to while away before it was time to head to the taxi stands for a trip to the Pakistan border.
By 3pm the rain had mostly stopped so we made our way to the taxi stand where we had a ticket for a shared taxi to see the border closing ceremony at Attari. The border is only about 30km from town but with a chai stop and the traffic in Amritsar itself, it took us a while to get there. We parked up and headed off, me and Rhys being filtered into the foreigner queue to enter the border zone. Stupidly we didn’t think to take any ID and Rhys wasn’t carrying his wallet. They let me in on a soggy photocopy of my passport and Rhys somehow managed to get in using my drivers license. We took our seats and waited.
As closing time drew near the music struck up on the Indian side and the women all clambered down to dance in the road, they looked like they were having a wail of a time. Officials handed girls huge Indian flags that they took turns to run to the Pakistani gate, it was like we’d stumbled upon a party rather than a border ceremony. The whole time, the Pakistani side was still and quiet, we could hear some music drifting over to us from their side but there was no dancing or flag running.
|Crowds on the Indian side of the Pakistani border.|
When the ceremony finally started, there was a lot of shouting, drumming, marching and incredibly high leg kicks from both sides of the border. The show was choreographed by both sides together and they mirrored each others actions, considering the difficult relationship between the countries, it was nice to see them collaborating. The gates were opened, the guards performed some stamping and waggling trying to intimidate the other side before the flags were lowered and taken in for the night. Border closed. It was a bizarre sight and very drawn out but interesting to see and it might be the closest we ever get to visiting Pakistan.
Back at the car we had time for a chai before we were due to meet the driver and leave. 30 minutes later and we were still waiting, as they separate out all the men and women, one of the men in our car had managed to get himself lost. Finally he turned up and, tired, we headed back to Amritsar.
As it was late and we had a stupidly early start the next day we grabbed sandwiches to eat in the room and quickly popped in to see the temple all lit up at night before bed.
|The Golden Temple lit up at night, Amritsar.|
The alarm went off at 3:45am and we rolled out of bed, dressed and finished packing to meet our 4am rickshaw to take us to the train station. We were booked on to a Shatabdi train again which is one of the nicer ones that serves breakfast and chai and biscuits. The journey took 6 hours before we arrived back in to Delhi.
We’d spoken to a few people who had been badly conned on arrival in to Delhi and were half hopping someone would try it but instead we made it back to the hostel without any trouble. We checked in, dropped off our laundry and settled in for a nap. Leaving the room later than afternoon we finished up some shopping on Main Bazaar, sent yet another parcel home and ate Indian food in a roof top restaurant, far above the crazy streets below.
We made the most of our last lay in before Nepal and missed the free hostel breakfast. Instead, we stopped by a roof top cafe for chai before walking to the metro station. We jumped on a train south to visit Humayun’s Tomb. We’ve done so much sightseeing over the last month that another action packed day wasn’t that attractive so instead we decided to pick one site to visit, another Mughal Tomb. Built in the mid 16th century, the red sandstone tomb towers 30m over a small, peaceful park. Away from the crowds of Delhi’s streets, we wandered around visiting some smaller tombs in the grounds before turning to the main tomb, a wonderful display of early Mughal architecture in a style that was later refined and influenced the design of the Taj Mahal.
|Humayun's Tomb, Delhi.|
After the tomb we headed back to Pahar Ganj where we stopped to grab Rhys a sandwich before hiding from the heat in the room. Leaving Rhys to chill, I wandered out again later for a final tour of Main Bazaar, dodging the cows and the hawkers to buy some hippy PJ’s for our Everest trek. We ended up at the same roof top restaurant as the previous night for our final Indian feast. Food in India has been immense and even though i’m not vegetarian i’ve skipped meat for the majority of meals because the choice for vegetarian food has been amazing and delicious.
We’ll be ready to leave India to have a break from the chaos and the noise but I can’t wait to come back one day. It’s an incredible country with so much to see, every corner hides something intriguing and colourful. We’ve managed a month without being conned (if you exclude the Pushkar Passport) and Rhys has only been ill once, all up, a success!