Sunday, June 22, 2008

Adventures in India: The Days of Wine and Roses

After two years of dreaming and one year of planning, I am finally in Dharamsala, India, residence of the Dalai Lama, home of the Tibet government in exile, and one of the great travel destinations of the world.

The trip here took 23 hours, but was not without adventure or highlights. I managed to get a train ticket to Dharamsala in Haridwar. The Indians have the same attitude about waiting in lines as they do about driving: Every man for themselves. After body-blocking some old men and fending off other line-cutters with both arms, I managed to shove my paperwork at the clerk before everyone else pushing around me. A couple minutes later, I had a ticket in hand.

I was told that the train would leave from platform 3, so I crossed to the far side of the station on the elevated crosswalk. There was no train, so I sat down to wait. An elderly Indian man joined me. He was also travelling on the same train. He was heading to Jammu, in the state of Kashmir, to return home to his family after working in Haridwar for a while. We chatted for a while, until he asked someone about our train. It had actually been sitting on platform 1 all the time. "We must hurry," he says, as we ran down the platform, climbed across two tracks, leapt onto platform 1, and jumped onto the first car just as the train was pulling out. I couldn't have planned it any better.

At first the journey went very well. Train travel is very pleasurable, exciting, and romantic. I'm not a train-buff myself, but I do enjoy it (when we are moving anyway). After about an hour, our car was dropped off at a junction station. Then we waited. And waited. And waited. Then waited some more. I eventually figured out that we had been dumped off and another train would pick us up for the rest of the journey. Obviously, they were late (which happens frequently). I watched the baby monkeys play on the idle trains and eat food from the platform. It got dark, and still no activity. I hesitate to leave a train and walk around because you never know when it will leave. Not knowing what was going on was definitely the worst part. People got their dinner, and just hung out. I eventually climbed up in the sleeping berth and rested. Finally, I felt the train jerk as we were hooked up to the connecting train. I haven't been as happy on my trip before or since. At 11:00 PM, after only 6 hours of waiting, we were on our way.

I managed to sleep on and off that night. In the morning I joined my friend from the platform, and we laughed at our misfortune and talked a long while. He had two children and two grandsons. I gave him a set of dominos and a stack of baseball cards to give to them. We exchanged addresses and agreed to write. He wanted me to come visit him, but he lives in Kashmir, and I will not be able to. The trains may be slow, with long delays, but it is one of the best places to meet working Indians and see how they live and travel.

Arriving in Pathankot, I took a local bus that stopped every time someone wanted to get on or off. It was supposed to take three hours, but took five to reach Dharamsala. I did get to know a young Indian boy (about 17) who had worked for a while to pay for two weeks of travel in India. He would eventually reach Calcutta after visiting various places.

The mountain roads were worse than I expected. I had imagined a reasonably decent two lane road most of the way. At times a decent one lane road would have been comforting. When the road is straight, vehicles pass each other by pulling off onto the gravel shoulder. When heading into a blind curve with no shoulder, the bus honks and barrels through. If two vehicles meet on the curves, the smaller on has to back up until they can pass each other. The best advice is to not watch the road ahead, but look out your side window. This isn't much better - most of the time you look down the steep mountain side which drops off at the road's edge. But the driver navigates these roads every day and wants to get home as much as I do. We made it without mishap -there are so many different religions represented on this bus that someone up there must be looking out for us. Accidents are rare, but they do happen.

We arrived into the lower town (1400m) about 3:00 PM, and I caught a shared jeep to the upper town (2400m, also called McLeodganj), only a few km away. It turns out that I could have doubled the cost and halved the time it took to get here by booking a 1st class deluxe bus. I will do this on the way back to Delhi. It is clearly a more sane option, but you do isolate yourself from the people that way.

The town is really amazing. It is built onto the side of a steep forested mountain. I have climbed thousands of steps to get around so far. All roads wind back and forth on incredibly steep grades. The two towns are 1000m apart in elevation, but are only 3 km away via the steep road, or 9 km on the not-so-steep road.

I got a great hotel on the upper part of town (by climbing many stairs and steps). About $2 a night with hot water in buckets. Very clean and probably the best hotel so far. I'm on the 2nd floor, and there are two more floors with rooms above me, then three more balconies above that, all built into the side of the mountain. The view from the upper terrace looks down over the two towns, into river gorges, and over the lush mountain valleys. I probably don't need to say that it is truly fantastic.

There are many western travelers here but, surprisingly, there are as many Asian tourists and pilgrims. Next to me in the hotel is a man about my age with his wife and two young kids. All ages, races, nationalities, backgrounds, and lifestyles converge here. Old hippie expatriates have lived here for years, migrating south in the winter and north again in the summer. A fertile soil for stimulating conversation and exchanging ideas.

So far I have just wandered around town. You can get any type of food here (I had apple pancakes this morning) and it is quite inexpensive. They have classes in yoga, meditation, Tibetan Buddhism, massage, astrology... Probably even advanced skateboarding if you look hard enough. I'll stay a week before moving on, or longer if I'm enjoying myself.

As usual, the more gringos in town, the harder it is to meet people, but I had dinner with some people that I met in Delhi a couple weeks ago. It was great to have some friends again to talk to.

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