India Part 1 - An extended stay in Himachal Pradesh region

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September 20th 2010
Published: November 16th 2010
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India GateIndia GateIndia Gate

Where Helen was mobbed by many adoring Indian fans

Arriving in Delhi

We hit Delhi on a Friday evening after the fairly short flight from Bangkok. We had our first taste onboard of the Indian mischief and disregard for rules that can lead to the famous chaos, when the Cathay Pacific air stewardess had an incredibly hard time trying to convince an economy cabin full of Indian males to sit down and do up their seat belts. People were sneaking off all through the final descent for toilet breaks or essential conversations with others a few rows away. As we landed and taxied across the runway, the captain continually relayed very emphatic orders that people sit down until we had stopped, only for everyone to stand up as soon as he had finished speaking, in spite of the hostesses standing all around them, almost begging them to SIT DOWN! It was actually hilarious, and even one of the hostesses was trying not to laugh when I caught her eye.

Arrival in Delhi did go very smoothly through the new terminal 3, with the arrivals area, to our surprise, being much more organised than a typical Heathrow terminal. Having anticipated much worse, we had arranged a pickup, who
Sunset colours over McLeod GanjSunset colours over McLeod GanjSunset colours over McLeod Ganj

Once the clouds cleared, the sky and sunset was very pretty over the town
was duly waiting for us and we made it to our homestay with very little effort and stress.
We were only spending one full day in Delhi before flying north towards the Himalayas, so we stayed in a mother and daughter homestay in a quieter suburb to try and ease ourselves into Indian city hubbub. We ventured in to New Delhi for a couple of hours, taking in the area around the main commercial district of Connaught Place and nearby India Gate.

Our first impressions of this area were that it felt a little like a town still not quite finished. Construction apparatus and workmen were everywhere, digging up roads, reconstructing most of Connaught Place, and putting the finishing touches on the brand new metro line that we rode on. Part of this seemed to be the overall manic rush to give the city a facelift in advance of the Commonwealth Games that were starting in a couple of weeks time, but longer term projects also seemed to point towards Delhi still having significant development ongoing.

New Delhi, the area we generally wandered around, is fairly modern by Delhi standards, generally being contructed during the British period of
The crazy "autos" of DelhiThe crazy "autos" of DelhiThe crazy "autos" of Delhi

Their drivers rip you off every time and you arrive at your destination through a cloud of pollution, but they are the only way to travel in India, darling!
rule, when the capital was transferred here from Calcutta. This recent development gives it an airy feel with wide boulevards and large open spaces, particularly around the India Gate area.

Despite the large open spaces, they still seemed to get filled by large numbers of people who in particular thronged around India Gate, an arch built to commemorate those Indians who died during WWI. Huge numbers were milling around here and many seemed very taken by our presence. Some of the teenagers were very keen to take pictures of us on their mobile phones, well when I say us, in particular they were looking for pictures of them posing beside Helen. In the end, I had to say "no more pictures" and rescue her away from their attentions! This was something that happened a lot in China, which at first bemused us - initially we thought they were asking us to take a picture of them, only for us to realise, as they squealed in excitement and clutched us as if in deep affection for the camera, that we were to be the star of the photo, not the cameraman. Must be what some D-list star feels like, maybe?!
A typically chaotic road scene in IndiaA typically chaotic road scene in IndiaA typically chaotic road scene in India

Generally cows have rite of way, it seems


After a day exploring a small part of Delhi (dire first impression according to Helen, not great according to Mike), and a first taste of Indian cuisine in the evening (fabulous first impression from both of us!), we moved on the following morning, flying northwards to Dharamsala in the foothills of the Himalayas. We really decided to travel here on a tip off from some German travellers we met in Thailand who highly recommended it.

We stayed in the village of McLeod Ganj, located just up the hill from the main town of Dharamsala. The town was refreshingly cool after the heat of Delhi, being at an altitude of 1,900m. However, arriving towards the tail end of the monsoon season meant that the spectacular views across the valley below were frequently obscured by thick cloud.

McLeod is a lovely little town in which to spend a few days. The 2 main streets wind their way up the hill to a small main square and a Tibetan temple. The streets have many cozy little backpacker orientated cafes in which to chill out over a coffee and a homemade brownie (which were the most amazing we
Snow peaks towering in the distance over ManaliSnow peaks towering in the distance over ManaliSnow peaks towering in the distance over Manali

As if trying to tempt us towards them!
have ever tasted by the way). This became an even more promising prospect during the frequent showers that curtailed our walking in the hills surrounding town.

The single most defining aspect of the town is the fact that it is home to the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan government in exile. Once again, similarly to western China, we were surrounded by red robed Tibetan monks, prayer wheels and incense in the air.

Following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949, many Tibetans fled across the border (and of course the Himalaya mountains themselves) and into India. This stream of refugees became a wave when the Dalai Lama himself and the Tibetan government came to India on a temporary basis in 1959, his Holiness being followed by droves of devoted followers. The Dalai Lama's temporary exile to Dharamsala in India continues to this day, while the Chinese continue to occupy his homeland. The concentration of Tibetan monks wandering around the town give it a very otherwordly, mystical feel, that sort of makes you hold your breath and feel the change of energy.

While in town we explored the Tibetan museum, which tells their history vividly through photographs and first hand accounts. The story is heart-rendingly tragic, undoubtedly, and we couldn't help but feel huge sympathy and admiration for the courageous Tibetans, overpowered but unbowed, driven out of their particularly beautiful and rugged homeland by the machine that is the Chinese military.

We were inevitably getting a biased view in McLeod, however, which triggered our interest in asking people about it, and reading a little more on the subject. We've only scratched the surface so far, and certainly don't know the half of it, but there are of course two sides to every story. Despite the harshness that we know the Chinese are capable of, it is clearly something of a modern western fantasy (fuelled by the likes of Richard Gere) that all Tibetans are gentle monks. They themselves have a violent history towards their own people, and had only the most rudimentary, if any, education and medical care and so on, until the Chinese came along. It makes for fascinating, albeit distressing, recent history, particularly as we have been among the people involved on both sides so much lately.

Tibetan influence extends to most parts of life in McLeod these days, with schools and monasteries having
Narrow streets of VashistNarrow streets of VashistNarrow streets of Vashist

Although probably wide enough for Indians to drive a motorbike down!
been built to accommodate the influx. The main monastery in town is a bit of a 1970's concrete monstrosity from the outside. However, when we went inside we found it to be incredibly atmospheric. Red robed monks of all ages sit on the floor of its inner sanctum in meditation or prayer, while all around this sit hundreds of regular Tibetans, spinning prayer wheels, chanting mantras or in deep conversations with those around them. Many also complete clockwise circuits of the temple, spinning prayer wheels as they go.

Moving East to Manali

The whole chilled out atmosphere of the town felt very far removed from anything we had expected in India and we really did feel very at home during our time in McLeod. It would have been really nice to go walking for a bit in the area if the weather had dried up a bit. Still, we consoled ourselves with the thought that there would be plenty of walking opportunities in the next part of our trip as we moved across to the next valley to the east and the town of Manali.

Manali is in many ways located very similarly to McLeod. It
Village scene in Vashist, Himachal PradeshVillage scene in Vashist, Himachal PradeshVillage scene in Vashist, Himachal Pradesh

Not unlike a London commuter village, but with fewer BMW's
is also at the head of a valley (The Kullu Valley), with a similar altitude and climate to McLeod. The added advantage we had in Manali was that the weather cleared during our stay due to the monsoon coming to an end, allowing stunning views of some of the snow capped peaks surrounding the town. This really whetted our appetite to get out and explore the area around town - those increasingly tempting mountains.

Our main reason for coming to Manali however, was to give us access to the Ladakh region further to the north and the Himalayan mountains proper, where we were hoping to reach the mountain town of Leh. The journey to this remote corner of India is a 2 day drive from Manali through the lower Himalaya range, over some exceedingly high passes, including the second highest motorable pass in the world, and some stunning scenery. However due to the high altitudes on this journey, the road is only officially open for 4 months of the year, closing on 15th September each year (just as we were arriving in town as it happens). Although most years, if snowfall permits, it unofficially remains open for a further
Mountains visible during our short walk near ManaliMountains visible during our short walk near ManaliMountains visible during our short walk near Manali

This was as close as we got to them unfortunately....on this trip.
month to private transport before the snowfalls become too deep and Leh is cut off from Manali until the following late spring. We got ourselves well settled in to the lovely town of Old Manali in a very nice guesthouse to spend a few days before attempting the journey.

Old Manali is really a one street hippie town with a few restaurants, lots of clothes and souvenir shops and a few travel agencies. There are also a few "German bakeries" which serve delicious pastries and cakes, that we were tempted by certainly more than once too often.

We found the people in Manali to be incredibly friendly also. On chatting to some of them we found that the majority of people working in Manali seem to be Nepalese, who have come to India to get work. We also found that at the time we were there, many of them were preparing to leave. When the road to Leh fully closes and the snow comes to Manali itself, the town really shuts down. Most restaurants close and people move out. In an odd quirk though, this closed season in Manali coincides with the high season in Goa. Therefore, most
McLeod Ganj townMcLeod Ganj townMcLeod Ganj town

Many Tibetan houses built into the steep hillside in Northern India
Manali restaurants and their Nepalese staff relocate to Goa and their sister restaurants for the winter, returning to Manali during the summer. There was a real end of season feel to Manali as everyone prepared for this move, often via Nepal to visit family first.

So everything was well set up for us to spend a few days in Manali, before moving on to Leh. But as is usually the case with all the best plans, the unexpected intervened, in this case Mike's splitting headaches which had developed over a couple of days in town. Cutting a long story over a number of grim days short, numerous hospital visits and a big needle injected into the back, viral meningitis was diagnosed. This necessitated just over a week in bed in the dark, with no reading, no internet, no TV and trying to avoid any kind of mental stimulus. Although this was incredibly frustrating, the headaches were so severe that I really couldn't do anything anyway.

Gradually things did improve and the headaches gradually went away, slowly giving me my energy and desire to do anything at all back. However, by the time I was feeling better, after over
Snow covered mountains above ManaliSnow covered mountains above ManaliSnow covered mountains above Manali

Tantalisingly close enough to almost touch
2 weeks spent in Manali, it was too late in the season to move north towards Leh, as the passes were becoming snowed over and impassable, so we had to shelve plans to visit here until another time. This was a real disappointment as we were really looking forward to going there, but hey, it will still be there next time!

One of the advantages of spending so long in Manali was that it gave us the chance to try lots of the real Indian food we had been so looking forward to. We have found since being here that the Indian food we get at home only in some ways resembles what the real thing is like. In particular we have found most restaurants to be completely vegetarian (and alcohol free for that matter as well). There is a particular reliance in dishes of lentils, cheese and potatoes as the core ingredients. Also, in these northern areas, hot spices are not used to the same level as at home. Spice is predominantly used only for flavour, but with a large number of spices being used to give deep and complex flavours. Generally curries here have a mild spice level, not like the fiery endurance event that some curries are to eat at home.

Overall our Indian food experiences have not disappointed with some absolutely delicious dishes. We frequently leave restaurants vowing to order fewer dishes the next time, although we always seem to forget this in our eagerness to try all the variety of tantalising dishes on offer!

During Mike's period in bed, Helen did manage to get out for a day to do some walking and mountain biking further up the valley, which was studded with apple harvesters. I usually associate being far from home with being in Latin America, where the seasons are opposite to ours - and yet this time, the seasons are the same, which feels strange. It was a gorgeous autumnal day in September, and the valley was awash with men lugging big wicker baskets heaving with lush apples (which are so good, should you get the chance to buy Manali apples!).

As Mike recovered, we did a 'tester' walk up another valley, along a forrested valley side, which afforded some stunning views of the nearby snowcapped peaks that we had hoped to cross to the north. All went well and Mike's energy seemed to be gradually returning, so it was time to move on from Manali and explore another part of India, sure in the knowledge that we will be back to explore this area of India that we are aching to get to know...


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