Wednesday, June 07, 2006

MacLeodganj Trip: In the beginning

When the Bhanoti trip got scrapped, I was pretty much resigned to waiting for tyhe monsoons and getting back to the Sahyadris... until M's mail turnbed up. I hadn't known she was even here... and things start moving. Most people can't make it, unfortunately - leaves is always the biggest issue - but we got 4.
For a long time we were wondering where to go, whether to do Valley of Flowers, or one of the more popular glaciers, etc... and finally settled on Macleodganj, the Tibetan government-in-exile... they call it 'Little Lhasa'. And where we go from there was open-ended.
The preparations went on intermittently for nearly 3 weeks - tickets, flights, bookings, itineraries, leaves... and suddenly it's Wednesday and time to go.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

MacLeodganj Trip: Day 1, Part 1: Mum-Del

Mumbai gave us the classic send-off; how could it not? Pouring rain, flooded roads, traffic jams, howling wind, and dirty ankle-deep water. Reach airport soaked to the skin. Promptly head for the loo and change. Air Deccan is surprisingly only 30 mins late. That 30 mins goes in spreading out wet clothes all over waiting lounge to dry, stealing toilet paper from the stalls to dry the shoes, and calculating potential courses of action to catch the train. It leaves at 9:30 from NDLS; NDLS is 45 mins on a good day from Palam. So we need to be out of the airport and in cab by 8:15 latest. Which looks very unlikely; so we're running scenarios, alternates like a gambler watching his credit limit steadily dwindling while he waits for that one combination to come through that'll let him walk home with it all.
Takeoff at 7. We have someone called Captain Cook at the helm; and the capt introduces us to a new feature of this airline, called 'orbiting'.
No, it's not a spaceplane. It just means we go round and round Delhi and assorted smaller towns while the aisle fills up with bits of gnawed nails. People are getting so frantic they're switching on their cells already; the plane fills with the celestial music of 'no network' signals.

MacLeodganj Trip: Day 1, Part 2: Del-Pathankot

Get out of the airport by 9:15. NDLS scrapped; no way in hell we can make it. Plan B is a small place called Shakurbasti where the train will stop for precisely 1.5 mins... 40 mins from now. And no cabbie knows where it is.
Finally find someone who has a reasonable level of confidence that he can find it, pack up and go. Wow, it's the slowest cab in Delhi!

10 pm - Reach approximate area, station nowhere to be seen. Spend 10 mins circling around looking for station and making plan C. Finally find station way down completely deserted nondescript gully. There's a rickety 3-foot-wide, really long overbridge leading to Platform 2 where the Dauladhar Express is supposed to arrive; and as we climb up, we see, nearly 500 m away, a slowly moving train. And realize it's slowing down.


Reach platform just as train is beginning to pull out, and with perfect synchronization, all 4 of us pile into 4 different bogeys. including S who's in General and therefore cut off from us, and being trapped in General at 10:30 at night in a Delhi-outbound train is no basket of fun. Hutch makes roaming revenue while we try to keep her calm. SK stays back and M and I head up to the AC. Switch across at Bahadurgarh. TC aghast at finding us boarding after 2 stations. M has also managed to get adopted by an elderly ex-cop along the way, who escorts us to the TC, gets doors opened into the AC, etc.S and SK join us at Rohtak at 11:15.
Finally get 2 berths, and sleep in shifts. There's no bedding, and around midnight I find myself staring longingly at the mattress a 5-year-old kid has been sleeping on... but the little white angel on my right shoulder wins the argument, at least for tonight. For some reason, I dream of a whole street of Lebanese restaurants. not the food, but just the places. Names. Tables. Tablecloths. Waiters. Kitchens. I have no idea why. Is this symbolic of something?

Finally fall asleep with a huge sense of achievement. We made it, finally, in spite of everything; leave, money, time, health, monsoons, delayed flights, missed trains, slow cabs, cancelled reservations... we're in, and we're on our way.

MacLeodganj Trip: Day 2, Part ?: MacL

MacL is a very small, compact town, around the size of Andheri Station. You can walk across it in 5 mins (one way; the reverse is all uphill). There's a chorten in the center, between two parallel roads that join and split into 3 at the end. One goes down to the Tsuglagkhang Complex, which is essentially the Monastery, the Tibetan history museum, etc, and then continues onwards out of the town into Dharamsala. The other heads onwards to Jogibara village and the Dalai Lama's residence. At the other end, the roads combine at the city square, from where One heads off for the Church and the other heads for Bhagsu. That's it. And in this much space is one of the most incredibly charming little towns I've ever seen.
I want to come back here to live, man. The place is so different from anywhere else I've ever experienced... I thought I'd want to settle down in Goa, but this is it. I'm a mountain person, through and through.

Lunch at the Snow Lion, with momos and tofu thenthuk. My first original Tibetan dish, and I like. I like.
For some reason, everyone is avidly watching Rudraksh on TV (yeah, the hindi movie, Sunil Shetty, Isha K, etc) with such concentration it makes for a very relaxed meal. Actually, it's all like that. Nobody will come and ask you if you want anything else. Nobody will give you the bill before you ask for it. Every transaction is accmpanied with a little bow and a smile. People thank you for tips.
We go through the complex, doing the kora, and the museum. Tibet was occupied by China between 1949 and 1951, and a lot of it's traditions, history, and way of life systematically wiped out in the Cultural Revolution. The Dalai Lama was forced to escape; the Panchem Lama, the next in the heirarchy, was 'disappeared' and replaced by the Chinese. There's a very strong resentment of all things chinese here; a lot of shops advertise that they sell non-chinese goods. There are 'Free Tibet' posters and stickers everywhere. There's a sense of being in a different country, but not a whole one; it's like an egg, waiting to be reborn.
Everything's here, but compact, compressed. Essence.

Sit at the Tenyang cafe with M and watch the sun go down over an amazing hot freshly-baked pancake and darjeeling tea. Take a walk around the town once S and SK catch up. Little monks practicing the traditional debate, with the clap and the stamp. Extremely healthy, well-fed mountain dogs.

Dinner - we tried the Gakyi but it's no longer Israeli. Decide to head for the McLlo instead. It's an ok place, but obviously very tourist-focused, not really local. Pierce Brosnan once ate here (and judging by the amount of plates in fron of him, ate enough for 4 people) and that photo now adorns the wall and every menu card. Wander around some more, and head back to Bhagsu. End the day with apple pie at one of the 3 German Bakeries around our hotel.

MacLeodganj Trip: Day 2, Part ?: Bhagsu Nag

Arrive at Pathankot, which is the main access point for reaching most places in Himachal. Wash up on the station - man, I never realized how much I missed the feel of that cold water in the morning after the journey. There's some things flying just cannot replace, and this'll always be one. Early mornings on a station - smells, sounds...

Catch a cab for Macleodganj, stop for the best paratha I have ever had at a place called Delhi Darbar in Nurpur. Tie shoes on the luggage rack to dry off. Hope it doesn't look too politcal.

Reach Macleodganj after a 3-hour drive with lateral-thought games. We aren't staying here, though; we've opted for a village called Bhagsunag, around 2 km from MacLeodganj. More credit to M for finding it; she'd put some serious research into the trip. Check into the Meghavan, wash up, head down to the town.

It's a beautiful walk; slightly crowded, but fairly peaceful, and lots of other walkers. Note - Indians are a minority. MacL has a majority Tibetan population, and Bhagsu is the main foreign-backpacker hangout; so it's mostly Israeli and Eurpoean. So there's the usual associated torist industry - Enfields, junk jewellery, souvenirs, saperas with Euro-american accents, etc.

MacLeodganj Trip: Day 3, Part 1: Bhagsu - Triund

Triund - the meeting of the three paths - is a camping ground on the top of a ridge next to Moon Peak. It's where you can look at the wall of the snow-capped Himalayas looming up on one side, and the Dharamsala valley on the other. And that's where we're going.
Early Sunday morning. Nip in the air. been years since I smelt the dew. We start walking at 7 am; after having convinced everyone to be awake at 6:30, we are for once and the first time during the entire journey, on time. The trip upwards is accompanied by SK choosing Lord of the Rings as a suitable topic of conversation for the long trip upwards (or possibly one that would last long enough) so as we walk, every few minutes the mountain breeze carries snatches of words, phrases up to us from the couple below. "Gandalf the Grey..." "Boromir..." "The Ring-bearer..." "Evil Eye of Sauron..." "Mordor..." "hobbits..." "Elves are a very evolved species..." which went on for several hours, giving the walk a slightly mythic, unreal quality.
At the halfway point between Macleodganj and Triund is the 'oldest' chai shop, proudly advertising the fact. There was also a dreamcatcher hung up outside it; the first one I've seen. It looked like a gift from a tourist; none of the other shops sported anything like it or even near it.
It took us nearly four hours to walk up the nine km; frequent stops, hot ginger tea, photo breaks, rest breaks, water breaks... and finally we're at Triund.
It's a flat expanse of green, with three chai shops, a forest bungalow, a hut, and a couple of tents. Lots of ghurals roaming around, and mountain sheperding dogs. We spread out a blanket on the ground, and in the slightly chilly mist (the sun was gone behind clouds now) it was radiating heat. I don't know how. Almost too hot to sit on, and unbearably delicious.
M was completely taken with a baby goat and spent several happy minutes with it, letting it go only very reluctantly.
Had Rice, dal, and an omelette each; I swear food is so good when you're tired and cold, it's incredible. I could have eaten this for the rest of my life. S and SK decide to head back to Bhagsu; M and I want to try the glacier, now that we're here. It's an area called the Laka Got, which our guide calls 'Ilaka' for some reason. (btw - guys, meet Raju Kumar, the best guide I've had so far in the last three years of trekking; and you have to look him up when you're there)

MacLeodganj Trip: Day 3, Part 2: Triund - Laka Got

We start climbing up. It's tough, and gets tougher. M continues to be completely unfazed while I rapidly descend into the gasping-for-stops phase - I swear this is the toughest girl I've ever known, part from the coolest - and for the next three hours, while the clouds get more and more ominous, lightning crackles, and the wind rises, we learn the unique hill-people definition of 'downhill' and 'five minutes'. 'Downlhill' is any uphill slope not steep enough to make you (them) gasp. '5 minutes' is half an hour. Just like the Calcutta 10 minutes is actually 2 and the Mumbai 2 mins is actually ten.

Brief storm; drizzle, frozen in that temperature to perfect lenses of ice that turn to water on hitting you. In a few minutes, we're soaked. Now, the wind starts to pick up. But we've come too far now to turn back... ever had that feeling when you know you're going to regret this really seriously in the morning, but for now, it's something you just have to say / do / try.

There's a pause. A kind of hush. and we walk over a rise and see the glacier in front of us. At first it's just dirty snow, but gets whiter and whiter as we walk up. And suddenly we aren't tired anymore. Raju says it would take four hours to reach the peak; but again, that's by his standards. If we were to try it, we'd die halfway.
Ski down. And I discover I'm a natural.
Though I'm still the only person who lands on his ass...

Come back over the rise, and suddenly the storm comes back with a vengeance, and it's the complete works this time. No more sleet, no more rain. It's tiny frozen chunks of ice howling in horizontally on a wind strong enough to fly you off the edge if you spread your arms out. You have to keep your back to it, or the flying ice will blind you; and even then, you can hear it machine-gunning your 'cheater hood in a continuous chatter.
My hands quickly go completely numb; I can't use them to hold anything. Drop the bottle, shove them as much as I can in my pockets and keep walking, hunched down. The next morning I'll discover where I've stripped the skin off the nail line on my fingers getting them past the denim, but right now I can't feel anything at all.

Reach the Snow Line Cafe. It's front has been sealed off with a blue plastic tarp, banging and billowing in the wind. We have to get in by lying down on the ground, squeezing our heads in, and wriggling the rest of us up.
Inside, there are five people sitting; all hill people, bundled up, watching the storm. When we breathe out, it vapours more thickly than I've ever seen even in the Allahabad winters; and I realize we're soaked to the skin as well when we go beyond shivering to complete full-body shaking. Down a couple of cups of tea, most of whose heat goes to my hands. Get enough sensation for a while to click off some snaps. An hour later the ice stops; I tell M that we have to leave now, while there's still some light. If we're still here at dark, we won't be able to go down, and staying on the Snow Line in wet clothes will be complete, straightforward, suicide.
M is pretty far gone by now with the cold, but she still gets up and starts walking. And continues. For the next two hours, one foot after another, all the way back to Triund.

Raju tells me later that he had never seen anyone get up and do that walk back even in good weather, in the state she was in; he's never seen anyone with as much guts as her.
And I agree.

We also met another interesting person while chilling at the Snow Line - Mr. Jayprakash Sharma. He's been in Allahabad, running a business near AU; he's had a clothes shop in Panjim; and now he's here. Parallel lives...

There's a campfire going in Triund, and though the smoke gets in my eyes and makes me choke, blinded, I still stand practically in it. Some warmth comes back after a while. M has opted for a change and rolling up in blankets; I still try to dry off before heading back to the hut.

Images - the fire gusting in the wind, sparks heading off into the complete dark. Steam coming off my clothes. Shaking hands, hot chai. A group of Tibetan girls telling us 'Everyone comes from below to above.' (points at the peak) 'We've come from above to below!' This is accompanied by a lot of laughs. A group of college kids with an older mustached gent surround the fire, where they keep tempting him with cigarettes. A Punjabi auntie busily rounds up the younger members back to their tents. And above it all, the dead silence of a recently-passed storm, and the living darkness that comes when you're in completely open country with no streetlights, no habitation all around.
M woke up once briefly, around 2 am, and went out to wartch the stars. I missed that chance.
But... there's always that to look forward to, next time.

MacLeodganj Trip: Day 4: MacL

Woke up at, in spite of all expectations, 7 AM. Put clothes on assorted rocks to dry and sat in the sun. Ahhhh warrrm sun mmmm.

Finally start moving an hour later, head up to the prayersite. There are dead trees completely covered with prayer flags; the effect is disturbingly like an overdressed Blair Witch Project, in spite of the sun and the brightness. Maybe it was the silence, and the emptiness. The backpackers had left and the tourists hadn't yet arrived, so it was just us, and the three chai shops. I want to spend more time here. I want to live here for a while. If this is what Triund is like, what must Tibet be? I know why they call it 'Roof of the World'; now I'm beginning to feel why, as well.

Long, hot tired walk back. Very quiet, nobody was really in much of a mood to talk. Walked down through Dharamkot, and realized the place is full of backpackers who've permanently settled. Lotus Cafe. Hans' Cafe. Claus'. Posters advertising all the stuff people come for - Meditation, Yoga, Reiki, Enfield rentals... and the stuff that they discover - Tibetan cooking classes, learning to speak Hindi / Tibetan... and the stuff they didn't expect which is therefore in hot demand, like European hairdressers.

Headed straight for the 3rd German Bakery where I ate the best lasagna carbonara of my life. Hunger might make beans taste sweeter but I swear this was the best tasting dish I've ever eaten, period. Everything else has been Italian for the Indians. This was Italian for the Italians.

Again, part of the unique nature of this place asserted itself as usual; while we ate, 2 sadhus came and changed their earnings into notes. They also blessed the owner, the waiters, the restaurant, the customers, and random passer-by's. This involved a lot of muttering, psychotic glares, waving of hands and peackock feathers, and at least four languages.
Zonk out in the hotel for an hour, then leisurely walk around Bhagsu. Leisurely because anything above an octegenarian walk makes parts of my body scream like Neve Campbell doing her debut. There were Gore-Tex jackets at 2.5K. INR. Not bad, huh? I just hope they were genuine. Would be worth going back just for that.
Om Hotel. Hot ginger lemon honey tea and chocolate pancakes. And the Lonely Planet-recommended cookies. 3 monks sitting with deadly serious expressions at a table, with a Coke, a Pepsi, and a Fanta in front of them, lost in silent grim contemplation. It's now 9:30 and most of the eateries are closed; Lung-Ta, a Japanese restaurant is supposed to be open till 11 but apparently isn't. But we do find another new place called Dokebi further downhill; this is a private house that's been converted to a restaurant, so there's books on the walls (actually, a lot of restaurants here have bookshelves), boardgames on the sideboard, a giant fireplace, rock collections, a largescreen TV (thankfully switched off) and a beautiful DVD and CD collection. It's a Korean restaurant; it's also the first place in Bhagsu-MacLeodganj that has a queue to get in, and boy it's worth it. The ambience was amazing and the food was even better. My first taste of Korean food and it rocks. Never imagined seaweed could taste this great. This was also, incidentally, the first complete meal I ate with chopsticks, including the rice. A complete Discovery Travel & Living experience.

Incidentally, another Movie Moment - M caught a fly with her chopsticks. Haven't seen that happen anywhere outside Karate Kid II.

MacLeodganj Trip: Day 5, Part 1: MacL

Last day - have to see the waterfall at least, so went up to the Shiva Cafe past a cold-spring pool with a group of Tibetan girls swimming in it. Have I mentioned that the fitness levels of these people also means they have bodies to literally die for? Would have walked off the edge of the trail into the river if I'd given into temptation... sigh.
Find the Shiva Cafe, and also find 20 semi-naked men bathing in the rock pool in front of it. What is it about waterfalls which brings out the Mandakini instinct in everyone?

Chuck in favor of, get this, an eating joint named 'No Name Cafe'. Somebody had really gotten frustrated with the effort of coming up with an original name for this one... and there's a lot of creativity floating around. No Name Cafe. Pink and White Hotel. Last Chance Teashop. Green Hotel.
There's a couple of cave-huts filled with chunks of dark shale that visitors have painted on; a neolithic art gallery. And this really gave the sense of the place... silent, empty, sound of the waterfall and the river, a chai-shop, and messages. Anonymous, undated, just words and images, colors and expressions.
Rock philosophy, in more ways than one.
Today's the day, the one that counts. Live it.
I'm not young enough to know everything...
One world at a time
Don't seek to follow in the footsteps of the old; seek what they sought.
You come here for beauty. Don't make it ugly.
and last of all...
Time Stops Here.
On the way back, past the cold spring... the Tibetan girls were gone, and instead there were forty-five boisterously yelling Punjus. Sheesh.

Spent the next few hours soaking up the town while M headed for church. The Net speeds these guys have rocks; it looks like a dial-up but streams like IP-TV. All the netcafes advertise Skype. Haven't seen that level of tech-savvy in Bandra west, even.

Roadside breakfast, and join M at Nick's Italian Kitchen. Too full to eat but I'd have loved to... Italian has always been a major weakness of mine and now has become doubly more so.
There was a small handwritten note stuck on the bulletin board, from an american girl named Katherine. She was heading up to Leh in a few days' time, and wanted some company. Her email was given. Look at everything implicit in that little piece of paper about the life, man - trust levels, tech, freedom, the whole lifestyle of being able to do exactly what you want, whenever you want...
No rules. No schedules. No deadlines. No teammates.
Just you and your wanderlust.

Went to the Dip Tse-Chonling monastery. This is the real thing, the other was too touristy. Far from the town, at the bottom of a killingly steep climb (at least in our condition), a small clean bright building in the middle of complete greenery. No tourists. Just the silence, and the monks. Looked a little like a Shaolin temple; the classic courtyard, the curled roof, the walls.
This monastery is a replica of the original Tse-Chonling monastery near Lhasa that had been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution when the Chinese had invaded Tibet. There are artefacts here that had been carried from the original site and installed here; most poignant being the stones with '1897' on them, the date when the original had been built. There's a Kalachakra mandala on the wall; it represents the Wheel of Time, but is actually more; it is supposed to be Time, encompassing everything. The basic philosophy is oriented around understanding cycles; the planetary cycle, one's own biological cycles, and controlling the energies linking the two that make you, the biological being, at one with the cosmos. (Apologies if I got anything wrong here; please correct me if there's something I missed)

Go to the Chololate Log (finally) after missing it for the last 3 days; little raised covered terrace in the middle of thick foliage, it looks out on the hillside on the quietest part of town. People sitting in ones (at most twos) and quietly reading, having coffee.

Classic Sunday Morning Breakfast scene.

Have our last Tibetan lunch at the Snow Lion - veg kothays - buy up some souvenirs, and head back for Pathankot. It's a somewhat depressing journey; everyone is tired, quiet, the dusk is coming on, and the mountains are falling further and further behind, except for one hauntingly beautiful image of a pair of brilliant white birds keeping pace with our car along the ravine, glowing in the last rays of the sun against the rushing dark brown of water & earth.

MacLeodganj Trip: Day 5 & 6: Pathankot-Del

Reach Pathankot and stuff myself with reshmi kabab and parathas. (When in Rome... but I have seriously started losing my fondness for the deep-fried sizzly stuff.)
As usual, tickets are not confirmed. Another round of TT-juggling, forcibly occupying berths wherever we can get them and collapsing. Last conscious input is of a portly gent plaintively asking,
"How can to people be given the same berth?"
He trots off to find the TC and I drift off into unconsciousness, let the next incident happen when it does. And so the story continues...

Sitting here, watching the landscape skim past, I'm wondering... is this something I can do for the rest of my life? I know I'm not going to be stuck to an 8 am - 9 pm office job with a cell permanently glued to my ear.
I don't want a fixed address.
Sitting here is freedom. Sitting here is an escape.
Sitting here is life, waiting for the next station, waiting for the next adventure.



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