India 8 - 'Into Thin Air'

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March 18th 2013
Published: March 20th 2013
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At the temple in McLeod Ganj
India 8 - 'Into thin Air'

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Shimla and Dharamsala

11th March 2013

'Into thin Air'

I guess we don't talk about class these days. It's not considered politically correct to think of others as second class citizens or upper class snobs, is it? As it happens there's only one class; 'Chair Class', on the Himalayan Queen, the five-hour train journey north from Delhi to Kalka where we transfer to the narrow-guage 'Toy Train' on its way up to Shimla. The fertile plains of the lowlands give way to shallow hills, rising to sharp-sided mountains where green hillsides turn to brown as the train winds its way through a hundred dark tunnels and hairpin bends, a diesel these days, chugging away, climbing, ever climbing, ‘I think I can, I think I can,’ through forested slopes of deodar and oak, tiny stations where we stop for a snack, remote hill-towns and steep terraced slopes flecked with almond blossom. But be warned; it's yet another five hours of hard carriage-seats before Shimla comes into view.

The 'Toy Train' to ShimlaThe 'Toy Train' to ShimlaThe 'Toy Train' to Shimla

'I think I can, I think I can......'

It's time for us white-faced Brits to see what the hoity-toity lot were doing in Shimla when they moved the British government into the hills for the summer months in the mid-1800's, to escape the heat of Delhi. The daffodils are just out in the gardens of the rather grand, English Renaissance, Viceregal Lodge right now and a stroll along the Mall reveals band-stands and half-timbered houses of the day, the Town Hall looks much like the Town Hall in any northern English town and is still used for the same purpose, the white, Anglican, Christ Church looks down on a statue of Mahatma Gandhi and there's a hospital, clubs, an ice rink (winter only), a roller-rink and a theatre. Shimla also boasts the world's highest cricket ground and a golf course at Naldehra just outside the city. It's quite clear they set out to build a stylish home-from-home here and lived the life-of-Riley in the process at the British taxpayer's expense as the Empire flourished. The old boarding schools continue to play their part in Indian society now; throngs of well-turned-out uniformed students saunter along the Mall in the afternoon sunshine; students from The Convent of Jesus and Mary (Chelsea), St Bede's College and Bishop Cotton School, enjoying an elite education.

At 8,000ft, the air in Shimla, the capital city of Himachal Pradesh and the British Raj's official summer capital, is somewhat thin. Our legs turned wobbly and breathing came with some difficulty as we climbed the stairs to our penthouse apartment in the Hotel Kapil, clinging precariously to the steep side of the ridge in sight of the snow-topped mountains of the Himalayas. Our balcony commanded the most magnificent view across the deep valley below - and provided an early-morning playground for the rhesus macaque monkeys after their night of merry dancing on the hot-tin-roof above our room! A man appeared at the door of our room at 9 p.m., with a hot water bottle. Janice also told us she thought he said something about 'steaming the sheets' but she wasn't sure. What a lovely thought! Evidently it can become a little cool overnight.

A thick layer of grey dust covers the local cars and everything else, thrown up from the roadside and disruptive road-works on the steep city roads as we head into the countryside, winding our way through hairpin-bends to high-altitude apple orchards and the last traces of winter's snow on verdant terraces. Shimla was deep in snow until a few weeks ago our driver tells us. Our timing could not be more perfect.

An enormous bright orange statue of Hanuman, The Monkey God, looks down on the city from the cedar and spruce slopes of the temple at the top of Jakhu Hill. There are monkeys at the temple too, fleet of foot and finger to snatch your glasses, pick your pockets and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Visitors are encouraged to rent-a-stick for a few rupees from an old man at the foot of the steps, to ward off these rather bad-tempered little beasts! I think Hanuman is there above the city to keep an eye on the well-being of the local population, since Shimla has been declared a 'non-smoking city' in 2010! I'm sure I don't know of any other, though chewing-gum is banned in Singapore, I seem to recall. An elderly Indian lady came to talk to us as we wandered the square. 'Where are you from?' she enquired.

'We're from England,' we told her. 'Where are you from?’

'I live near Heathrow Airport,' she replied. We should have guessed and we shouldn't really be surprised; this is the wedding season here in India after all.


A long taxi ride took us to from Shimla, north to Dharamsala, the present home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. We're staying at the Chonor House in McLeod Ganj, 6km above the lower town of Dharamsala, for a couple of nights, enjoying true Tibetan hospitality in the most delightful of environments, overlooking the Temple and the deep steep-sided valley below. Every wall of Chonor House is embellished with fine hand-painted murals depicting Tibet and its culture, the carpets follow the same trend and the lounge is furnished in spectacular style, designed and produced by the local Norbulingka Institute of Tibetan Culture which we plan to visit whilst here.

An early morning thunderstorm brought rain to McLeod Ganj, just in time for the opening address at the temple celebrating the 54th year of the Tibetan National Uprising when Tibet stood defiantly against Chinese occupation and remembering the many who have sacrificed their lives in the cause. The long peaceful struggle will continue. The address was closely followed by a parade of thousands of supporters and monks, a colourful serpent threading its way downhill to Dharamsala amid much waving of Tibetan flags, banners and meaningful placards; ‘Free Tibet’, ‘Rise up Tibetans’, ‘Freedom is our Right - Tibet is our Destiny’, ‘Save Tibet’, and ‘Tibet is Burning’. It’s a powerful message; they have lost their homeland, but who’s listening to their plight? A quiet meditative walk through the Temple of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama complex reveals the image of Shakamuni Buddha and a multitude of spinning Mani Prayer wheels; Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum……….

It came as a welcome release for my stomach to be relieved from the constant bombardment of Indian spices. Our ever polite ‘waiter in training’ brought our Tibetan/Chinese food to the table with nervous hands each day, understanding little of our demands and even less of our English humour. Everything revolves around Tibet in McLeod Ganj. Tibetans man the busy street stalls, enjoying our banter and laughing with us, ladies in their traditional multi-coloured aprons, always polite and ever friendly. Locals eat at roadside stalls watching with interest as we pass amongst other inquisitive tourists; the back-packers, the tattooed, the lip-pierced and those in more traditional western attire. All our hotel staff are from Tibet; Dorma, the ever-smiling receptionist with sparkling dark eyes and our diligent waiters and porters all making us so welcome. There are large numbers of Tibetan exiles here and indeed across India, but this is their true home-away-from-home whilst they wait for a life they long to remember. The majority of Indian’s appear to live in the lower town away from the Tibetan influence, but many work up the hill in McLeod Ganj; women side-by-side with the men and donkeys on the building sites, mixing cement and carrying ballast and steel reinforcement rods, trying desperately to hold the whole of India together.

The Norbulingka Institute of Tibetan Culture welcomed us with flags of five colours depicting the elements, waterfalls, koi ponds and tranquil gardens bedecked with cherry blossom. The Institute is dedicated to preserving Tibetan tradition and culture and seeks to create an international awareness of Tibetan values and their expression in art and literature. With the help of an English speaking guide we toured the artisan’s workshops, enthralled by the painstaking workmanship of masters and their students; Thangka paintings (scroll paintings) in incredibly fine detail, appliqué worked with such adept fingers, coppersmith’s hammers on religious statues, wood-carving, weaving, and the most wonderful box painting imaginable. The gift shop, which helps to fund this project, is irresistible, an Aladdin’s cave of sheer delight! (The proof is in the suitcase)

There’s a nagging feeling deep inside right now. We’re coming close to the end of the book of India when all will finally be revealed. This latest brush with Tibet has set the mind reeling; from the slums of Mumbai to the dazzling colours and culture of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. Rich man, poor man, beggar man….... and now the final chapter of our journey, the Punjab, the land of the Sikh and that constant counting of days; the last chance to snatch a few more delights from the chocolate-box before we leave India behind. Come and share those last moments with us.

For my little brother, Mike's, take on our five-weeks in India, go to: Keep Smiling

David and Janice

The Grey-haired-nomads


Shimla; Hotel Kapil - Great service and welcoming.

Dharamsala; Chonor House, McLeod Ganj – Tibetan and spectacular!

Scroll down for more pictures – and don’t forget to watch the panorama slide-show at the top!

Additional photos below
Photos: 46, Displayed: 28


A table-top in our hotelA table-top in our hotel
A table-top in our hotel

Work by the Norbulingka Institute

In McLeod Ganj
The Himalayan QueenThe Himalayan Queen
The Himalayan Queen

Delhi to Kalka
A little help from our portersA little help from our porters
A little help from our porters

Our luggage joining the train in Delhi
From the train (2)From the train (2)
From the train (2)

Fertile valleys
Apple orchardsApple orchards
Apple orchards

In the last of the snow

21st March 2013

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21st March 2013

Well done, another great blog
Looks like you've really enjoyed your time in India. We've enjoyed following along. Humor is often lost in translation.
21st March 2013

Humor lost in translation!
Hi Dave and Merry-Jo, Mike had to continuously remind me that they will invariably miss the point - sometimes on purpose. I even have problems with my humour in England! Hopefully you'll enjoy the next one as I sign off from this amazing experience. We have to go back. David
3rd January 2014

Ah... what a lovely read. You have followed some of my journey when I lived in China - In April this year, I will also visit Shimla and Dharamsala. Your story has made it a little more exciting. Tracey :)

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