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Published: March 6th 2010
Feb. 27 -- we went up to the snowline this morning. We didn't know what to expect as we were told to buy blankets and warm clothes. All the way up there are shops renting ski suits, equipment and boots, even fur coats, with salesmen calling out that it is "compulsory" to hire ski clothes or we wouldn't be allowed into the site. We withstood the pressure and arrived at the Solang Valley Ski Resort to blazing sunshine and blue skies. There were many Indian families enjoying themselves. The site offered all the usual entertainments -- mule and yak rides, ski mobiles, ski lessons, paragliding, etc. The ski lift wasn't in operation so the season must be over. We took a long walk on a side road through a winter wonderland -- and not cold at all, even quite warm. We were mostly alone, except for the occasional snow mobile or Tibetan road workers that would pop up out of nowhere from time to time. Their villages often seemed to be way up in the least accessible part of the mountains, with no roads that I could see.
Indian tourists don't usually leave the main site, so once again we
found ourselves alone in stunning scenery. We walked a few hours there and back. There are many waterfalls, the snow is melting. There was a lot of snow on the ground around where we are staying. After a few days of warm weather, it is almost all gone. After Solang we drove to Kothi which is the last place you can visit before the Rohtung Pass which is closed until spring. Nothing much there -- just a lot of snow. We walked along the deserted road past beautiful scenery and more waterfalls. The sun shone all day and even though the air was cool and crisp, the sun was hot and we didn't even need our jackets.
In the evening we walked down to the town to change some money. It is 2.5 kms down the mountain and I can attest to that fact because it was so cold in the rickshaw on the way back up that I felt every meter deep in my bones. We decided to find somewhere else to eat, having finally given up on our hotel. We had delicious trout from a fish farm around here. In the middle of our meal the bar/restaurant
turned into a disco with a DJ playing Indian pop music. It was Saturday night -- we didn't even know -- our party days are long gone. The young Indians were all doing these energetic dance routines that you see in Bollywood movies. It was fun -- and I quite like the music too. We were rescued from "We're going to Ibiza" and "Boom, boom, boom, let's do it in my room" and other well known pub classics. Well known? Well yes, sort of. I know these songs because during our time here some young rickshaw drivers have decided that this is the type of music that best suits us. Once you hear these songs they become embedded in your skull and can only be dislodged by a Tibetan cafe that only has one song which is played over and over again and by the time you leave you are practically singing along in Tibetan -- and will be for many days afterwards.
We are going back to Delhi tomorrow -- we will be driving back over 2 days with an overnight stop. Our driver wants us to take the same route back as we came on and we
want to take a different route that involves another 100 kms and about another 3 hours on the time. The driver is determined that we overnight in Chandigarh. Evidently we agreed to drive exactly the same route both ways -- that can't be because I have to admit that I made no preparation for this part of the trip and didn't even look at the map until we got here. There have been a lot of phone calls back and forth between the driver and his agent, and of course, I haven't been able to reach mine. I want to drive back via Shimla and down to Chandigarh in an area where it is warmer and where spring has started.
Well we woke up on the day of departure to thunder storms and rain and thinking ourselves very lucky that we had had good weather we decided to go quietly and not make a fuss, so we left Manali for the drive home along the route the driver wanted. After a few hours, as we drove out of the high mountains and into the valley, the weather cleared up. The driver actually showed some initiative for the first time
and decided, without consulting us (well, he couldn't, could he?), that we would drive out by the place we were unable to reach the day before. This is a long, windy mountain road with beautiful views on a clear day. But it wasn't a clear day -- it was pouring with rain, very misty, with zero visibility and really cold. (the driver wouldn't turn on the heating and then when he did, it didn't work (how can the heating in a car not work?))
So we spent the night in Chandigarh in a nice hotel (30 percent discount for off season), along the fast food/restaurant/bar strip. Many families out celebrating Holi and many single men at the bottle shops. There is a lot of drinking in the north -- the rest of India is fairly dry. Maybe that is why they have so many rhyming road signs, e.g. "Do not die like fools, obey the traffic rules." The traffic in Chandigarh seemed to be very orderly, many new cars -- not banged up like all the cars in Delhi. Modern restaurants, bars and shops, with young people dressed in western clothes, jeans, etc.
Our driver drove like a
bat out of hell on the journey from Chandigarh to Delhi -- up until that point he had been driving almost excruciatingly slow. Slow or fast, he didn't make toilet stops, tea stops, stops for nice views -- he just mindlessly drove and drove. We enjoyed our time in Manali but I'm glad we didn't have a driver for the rest of our trip.
The Sikhs too are celebrating a holiday. Over the last week we have seen many groups of young men, with orange turbans and flags, riding motor bikes on a road trip, visiting different shrines. We have seen the police chase them out of towns -- they are considered trouble makers -- the local version of Hell's Angels, even though they all seemed nice enough and we didn't even see any dangerous driving or speeding. Most of the young Sikhs have cut their hair short and just wrapped orange scarves around their heads as a turban for the holiday. On the return journey they were also returning, thousands and thousands of them jammed into every possible mode of transport, wagons being pulled by horses, oxen, tractors and buses, trucks, rickshaws, cars, bikes. We were given little
paper plates of spicy beans at one temple.
Getting free food in India makes me uncomfortable -- even though most people seem quite well fed these days, they may have no money but I don't see starving people. Many Indians have told me that there are many charity organizations and everybody can get fed at the temple. They tell me that the beggars are just lazy. They tell us not to give them money -- that they don't want to work, that it is easier for them to beg. Difficult to know, street vendors and simple people tell me this too. I still give to beggars but really there aren't nearly as many as there used to be. Maybe I give a false impression about India -- maybe there are places where it is not like that at all -- but I see new roads, bridges, and electricity, Delhi has a very clean, efficient, new light rail system, schools and colleges being built everywhere, big construction projects, less beggars and a big middle class with a lot of buying power -- it seems to me that India has made huge strides forward.
While updating this blog I read
some of the other blogs about India. People said it was desperately poor, dirty, stinking, disgusting -- could it be the same place? I was almost shocked. I know it is like that sometimes but I see less and less of it -- I am comparing to 26 years ago, and believe me, it is much better now. I also have a tendency to only see what I want to see. Not a bad thing -- if I see something unpleasant approaching, I just avert my eyes. In general, it is helpful to avoid eye contact. Eye contact can be taken as agreement to all sorts of things. But when you do make eye contact it can be very rewarding -- I am thinking of the beggar in Old Delhi, with the crippled legs and arms, riding a little skateboard around, with the big, beautiful smile -- always smiling -- who wanted to draw us a picture with his foot -- he was learning to paint with his foot -- always cheerful, always smiling with a glow in his eyes -- the unbeatable spirit of India.
So this is the end of our trip to India. India -- amazing,
incredible, wonderful, surprising, colorful, relevant irrelevant, a big country with many different people, vistas, smells, foods, climes -- sometimes exasperating, sometimes difficult, but never, ever boring!
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