woensdag 30 oktober 2013

Stories From Shimla

It took me 22 hours and a night at a shabby hotel in Reckong Peo to get here, but finally... Shimla.
Wait. This is the bus station, but where's the town?

With some help, I figured out that this was the new bus station (really? new? unfinished yes, but new...) and I needed to get from here to the old bus station. By the time I figured this out the gentleman who sat next to me during the trip from Reckong Peo, had apparently decided I needed help (I still did, crowded bus stations are extremely confusing) and starting acting as my interpreter to figure out where I should go next. Within five minutes me and my bag were in a bus (duh) from the new bus station to the old bus station. Thank you kind sir!

So, the old bus station, great. From there it turned out to be a steep (in Shimla the roads go two ways, up and down) twenty minute walk to the centre, Scandal Point. In India there usually are taxis, Riksha's, tuk-tuk's available to cover those nasty distances to your hotel, but Shimla has a traffic-free, pedestrian only centre. You love it once you're settled, but you curse it when you're still carrying that big backpack.

While the Lonely Planet promised porters which would offer to carry my luggage, there was nobody yelling 'sir-sir-please-let-me-carry-your-bag-yes-sir-sir-sir-yes-sir-please-sir'. There was one guy who told me that the hotel I was going to was full, but since that is the oldest trick in the book (they tell you this just to bring you to their hotel), I ignored his remarks and kept on walking. I had a reservation so I was pretty sure I had a room. Pretty sure. That wasn't good enough. In an attempt to make up for things, Lara had offered to make a reservation for me, which he did. But for tomorrow, not today. Today they were totally packed. Sigh... Just keep on breathing and try to remember what the Dalai Lama said about kindness, peaceful things and such... Luckily, they knew a hotel nearby, which had decent rooms available for a decent prize.

And the tout, the one who told me that the hotel was packed? Not only was he speaking the truth, no, in the end he even turned out to work at the hotel! This is so confusing. He should've been telling me a lie and work for a different hotel. Isn't there really any statement you can make about India of which the opposite isn't equally true?

Anyway, all is well that ends well. Time to enjoy Shimla.

Check out Wikipedia for a more correct description of the town, but to me Shimla was the place where the heritage of British colonialism mixes with present - in terms of people, middle and upper class - India. Buildings in the old English style lacking in maintenance, a lot of (relatively) well-off Indians most of whom carried a digital SLR camera, small overfullgeneral stores and Hilfiger/Adidas stores in the same street. Contrary to other Indian cities, the streets here are very clean: there is only a little trash lying around and no cows, so no cowshit! Also, spitting (a terribly annoying habit here) and smoking was prohibit in the centre of town. As mentioned earlier, there's also no traffic here, which means no honking. Wow. I'm impressed. Is this really India?

I only intended to pass through the town, but after Spiti and the long way here, a break was very welcome. The pleasant vibe made Shimla a ideal place to kick back and relax.

Sure, I went to see the Hanuman statue on the hill, but a just a slow stroll, not the Spitian hiking pace. Slowing down also helped me to not trip over the countless monkeys that wander around here, which apparently can become quite aggressive when you have food (Indians generally have a sweet called prasad with them as an offering to the gods, monkeys love it). I carried some small stones just in case, but generally just threatening was enough to clear the way.

While kicking back and relaxing, I also found a perfect place (thanks Lonely Planet!) for breakfast: The Indian Coffee House. They serve a excellent sweet, cacao topped variation on the cappuccino (oddly, they call it an espresso), which together with an omelette and some toast was the perfect way to start the morning. We (me and the people working there) even had our own little routine. Each morning I would order two portions of jam toast and each time I would only be served one. Then, after finishing the toast and my first 'exspresso', I'd order another two pieces and the second time I always got them both, three days on a row. Loved it. Maybe I'm an autist, but those are the little things.

On a side note. You come to India with no change, which is a problem for everyone almost every time you want to buy things (especially the small, cheap stuff). But then you get it and you start saving change. Even more so, you get so fixed on saving change that you don't give it even when you have more than enough and they're (apparently genuinely) running out. You still play the I'm-a-foreigner-and-the-ATM-gave-me-this-500-note-so-please-give me-change card.


Viceregal Lodge, now an Institute of Advanced Studies (Social Sciences!), where you were not allowed to walk on the grass (three guys with whistles made sure everyone knew the grass was off-limits).

Yes, I like sunsets. On the right: Shimla (or at least part of it since the town is strung out across the entire hill for miles)

Below, the Town Hall that looked like a House of Horrors. No maintenance since the British left has resulted in a building that still has it former grandeur, but is slowly degrading.

woensdag 23 oktober 2013

Over The Hills And Far Away or From Spiti With Love

It's quiet here. Really quiet.

If there wasn't so much to tell I would leave this entry empty to show how quiet India can be.

Sure, there's the occasional honking in the 'capital' Kaza (elevation 3640m), but there is little reason for honking because there are almost no cars and just a handful of people around. There are rocks though, loads and loads of rocks. And there are mountains. Many mountains. Definitely more mountains than people.

I have to get used to this. It's so quiet.

There's a reason why the Spiti region is so quiet though, you figure that out before you get there. You don't 'just' get to Spiti (at least not in the way Spiti gets to you). There is a road, yes. However, the road leads through the mighty Kunzum La pass, which is truly as Lord of the Rings-ish as it sounds. Rising almost 5000 meters into the air, the pass is home to a landscape that gives you a very good idea of what Mordor (or for those non-LoTRs, the Moon) would look like if you were to see it with your own eyes. Nothing but dust, rocks and high mountains. In ten hours of (hazardous, terrible 'roads') driving you come across maybe three/four villages, with on average five houses. Amazing how so little can make such an impact. Spiti must be Tibetan for complete and utter emptiness.

On the way I la shared a taxi with Peter (aka 'The Cricket Guy'), an Englishman who works for HawkEye and is involved with the implementation of the system in India's favorite sport: Cricket. Being in the middle of nowhere with at least one person who speaks decent English, yay!

Arriving in Kaza after managing our way through Morder, we got a sense of Indian planning. We booked through the same agency and everything seemed to go more or less as planned, until we were dropped at a hotel in Kaza. No one there. After finding some people sleeping somewhere, it became clear that they were not expecting us. Wait, I thought this was booked weeks in advan... It was not. Luckily Peter had the number of a guy called Lara who was supposed to arrange this for us at Kaza. Apparently there had been a week long power cut and he had received no notice of our arrival, but he was on his way right now.

Enter the kind ("no problem-no problem, just tell me, no problem"), but very chaotic Lara. First question he asked: "whaddayouwannado?" Turned out he knew almost as little as the people of the hotel. Luckily Lara did know how to arrange things on the spot and made sure we got more or less what we paid for. For me that included trekking & homestays in some of the villages in the region.

Homestay in the the villages of Spiti, is a back to basics thing. There's no running water (so no showers or flush toilets), there are no chairs or tables, actually there is virtually nothing but a television, a stove, some mats and cooking utensils in these houses mostly made of mud and wood. There's electricity (most of the time), but it's only there for the television and a handful of lamps. The stove burns on (dried) Yak shit and is used for cooking, providing warmth and the continues supply of hot water (for chai tea of course). While the family sleeps in what really is a living room (that's where the stove and the warmth is; smart people), I generally slept along with my guide in another room which consisted of four walls, a ceiling, a floor, two mattresses and some blankets, and a window. It's simple, but it's also all that you need. Anyway after walking for a few hours (elevation 3500-4500m), you're pretty tired, so no complains.

Since the Tibetan language isn't one of my strong points and they rarely spoke a word of English, my guide was crucial in any communication with the families we stayed at. They generally didn't interact too much though, except during breakfasts, lunch and dinner. Apparently, as a guest, you're always hungry no matter how much you ate already. You really have to forcibly decline and actively indicate with gestures that the food was great (it was, best veg momo's I've had in India) but that you're full now. You won't leave these houses hungry as they share whatever they have.

Weather changes quickly in the Himalaya. One day you walk in the sun with just a t-shirt, next day the first snowflakes of the season make their debut in the skies of Spiti. The latter meant that we sort of had to evacuate from the village we where in, as there was no telling how the weather would behave. Good plan, because though the villages and its people are nice, you don't want to get stuck in the middle of the middle of nowhere.

Got a hint of the cultural differences when my guide asked why I wasn't here with my wife. When I told him I wasn't married he seemed genuinely concerned (at my age he already had been married for two years and had his first child). I kindly declined his half-serious offer of letting him finding me a wife here and I assured him I would return in two years with my wife. Oh well, you never know, do you?

If and when I return I'm pretty sure I won't take the bus from Kaza to Reckong Peo again. While the trip from Manali to Kaza with its small decaying roads, relatively high speed and non-existing safety precautions was not risk free (despite the occasional warning of a landslide prone area, from a European safety perspective the entire road was prone to landslides), the trip to Reckong Peo was far worse.

Referred to in the Lonely Planet as one of 'India's most dramatic mountain roads' and the same books also warns those who take the bus that they may have some tense moments 'as the bus skids around hairpin bends with millimeters to spare'. Regarding the latter statement, the last part is not entirely correct. Generally the bus does indeed skid these hairpins with little to no margins to the edge (over the edge and you're gone, no chance), but you get used to that. After a while you start to 'trust' busdriver and accept his driving like this because he knows what he's doing and you can enjoy the beautiful scenery. But. Then there are the moments that there is an overarching wall of stone, pushing such a large vehicle as a bus not just to, but slightly over the edge. Those are the scary moments that the bus creeps forward centimeter by centimeter and you feel that at least one tire has lost contact with the road. It's a balancing act on a road which even by Indian standards could be labeled as unsafe. I'm perfectly allright with near the edge with high speed, but next time I think I'll avoid the over edge with slow speed, even if that means backtracking. Got some good pictures though!

After a ten hour ride we at Reckong Peo (not a very appealing town) and a short night's sleep later there was another ten hour bustrip towards Shimla. The contrast couldn't have been bigger. More soon!

The way to Kaza (Spiti):

Spiti river:


Pictures Trekking:
Kaza - Langsha - Komick - Dhemu - Dhankar


Dhankar Monastery (below), built upon an ridge that's slowly falling apart. They're actually constructing a new monastery nearby, because this one is getting too dangerous. Second picture may give an indication how worn-down this part of the mountain is and how precarious the situation of the monastery.

Look to the right (Spiti river):

And to the left (more Spiti river. The snow on that mountain was the first of the season, winter was coming):

Unfortunately no pictures from the infamous trip from Kaza to Reckong Peo, but these will follow later, as they're on the digital camera. They're worth the wait though, promise.

vrijdag 18 oktober 2013

The Chronicles of Manali

After correcting myself countless times that it's not Manilla, but Manali, it was time to leave the Dalai Lama (I saw him IRL!) and his wisdom behind in the clouds of McLeod Ganj and face the first of what will become many of ten hour bus travels.

While buses can be extremely crowded in India (there's always room for one more if you're living in a country with 1,3 billion inhabitants!), what was supposed to be my bus was completely empty at the time of departure. That's not very reassuring. After six people spoke an unanimous verdict (without the infamous 'wobble' of the head, which van mean anything, including a clue that they're not sure) that this bus was indeed the bus to Manali, I decided to take the chance.

I wasn't alone for longer than two minutes though, since the bus had hardly left the stand before it picked up a number of passengers who were waiting by the roadside. Why, when and where Indian busses stop is still a mystery to me...

Even with superb views, ten hours is still ten hours and as the road conditions vary from bad to non-existent, you generally have a hard time taking a nap for longer than two minutes. My e-reader was a lifesaver.
So I took the standard bus, unaware there was also a deluxe option which has comfortable chairs, decent suspension and even shows a bollywood movie during the trip! Though the last one, as a German guy told me, wasn't really that much of a plus since they showed the same movie three times. Maximum of maximum volume of course. Maybe I was better off just being tossed from side to side on my bus-for-average-people.
On first sight, (old) Manali is not that interesting. It had nothing of the chaos of Amritsar, nor the Holy vibe of McLeod Ganj. It was rather laid-back, maybe even slightly boring. Little did I know much I would learn to appreciate that laid-back vibe, which also meant that people were more friendly. You can easily spend an hour or two chatting to the guy who organizes your trekking, while being served chai, momo's and other snacks. Here they call it 'no hurrie, no wurrie'. Amen to that.

Not a lot to do here in terms of sight-seeing, except the small Hadimba Temple, which is not nearly as overwhelming as some of the other temples scattered over India. The interesting part here are not the wood carvings or the skulls of goats that are sacrificed here every year (unfortunately only in May), but the way people (all Indians) pray to what - objectively - are just a few small statues in a mini-cave. It creates a unique atmosphere which almost makes you want to crouch down, add some money to the pile and mumble some words in prayer. Impressive.

Apparently Manali is usually much livelier, but since the season is at its end (they know the meaning of 'Winter Is Coming' here) there a only a few tourists left. And with the tourists gone, a number of shopkeepers were also getting ready to leave for 'the south'. Luckily, there are always options for trekking here and so I went back to the kind man who offered my the chai and snacks to arrange a day trek in preparation for my trek in Spiti later that week.

Some basic trekking talk: no word means fast walking, 'slowly' means normal speed, while 'slowly-slowly' means go slow.

Apparently, when during a trek, you see a sheep that has lost it herd and there's no other (non-tourist) person in a hundred meter radius claiming it to be his, the sheep is yours. At least that what my guide figured. Too bad we ran into the real owners on the way down. Mèèh.

Next up: Spectacular Space-Like Super-remote Spiti!

woensdag 16 oktober 2013

Dharamsala / McCloud Ganj

They know how to spell tourist in McLeod Ganj, especially when the Dalai Lama is in residence, as is the case now. Though not as overflowing as cities like Agra and Varanasi, there is a very noticeable change in the Indian/Foreigner ratio compared to Amritsar. The upside is you can meet people you can actually understand and exchange experiences with, and it's even possible to have a conversation with the taxi/rickshaw driver! No more shady interpreters!

With the Dalai Lama in residence, I couldn't just let the chance go by to attend one of his teachings. To be quite honest, while some others where there listening very intently and taking lots of notes on all the meaningful things he said, I was there just to see the Dalai Lama in person. His teachings are too complicated for a - not even remotely enlightened - spiritual barbarian like me. Did I mention I saw the Dalai Lama though?

Never wander uphill unprepared in McLeod. Not everyone will be lucky enough to come across a person with umbrella just before a monsoon-like rain hits the mountain. Even less likely, is finding a cab five minutes that is willing to take you back down for a reasonable rate. 

So you want to get shaved, but you also want to visit the Shiva temple in Kangra (city not far from McLeod). No problem here. Just sit down, sit still and pray to Lord Shiva that your barber isn't as bloodthirsty as the goddess Kali. 

When asking for directions in India, never trust what one person says, no matter how trustworthy they may look. Made that mistake on my trip to Kangra fort. 'Down this road, cross the old bridge and then the new bridge and you'll find a bus stop', as the kind elderly lady at the fort explained when I asked for the best way to get back to the city, was not as straightforward as may seem. One, there was no busstop. Two, there were no busses. Three, there was nobody around to ask where the hell I was going. Four, I was walking on the side on a semi-highway in India, which is something you normally only do when you have a serious deathwish. It took an hour and a half to find people standing on the side of the road, some 'Kangra? Kangra? Kangra?' and a 20 minute trip in an overcrowded bus to get me back to the city. Best five rupee I ever spend. 

Crazy Indian taxi drivers. On the way to the bus station in Dharamsala (10k downhill) I had a driver who was proudly telling me he had been to Dalhousie yesterday, only returning to McLeod somewhere in the night. 'You see sir I have very red eyes, not enough sleep, just few hours'. Luckily we were not on a steep decent on a hazardous road in terrible condition, which is not filled with similar you-shouldn't-be-driving chauffeurs (yeah, that's sarcasm).

If, after a break at a bus station, your bus is suddenly driving away with your stuff, don't worry. You don't have to heroically jump into the moving vehicle (mine was pretty good, including the almost slipping away part). There's a good chance the driver has just saw a parking spot and is moving the bus there. However, if it's not stopping: run like Forest!

vrijdag 4 oktober 2013

The Assault, The Pothole & The Good Man

So, I'm a bit behind, but the Blogger app wasn't cooperating, as it freezes when I try to upload pictures. Maybe I can add some later, for now here's the third installment!

Amritsar pt. II

There's a good chance you'll meet your best friend here. He'll offer to carry your water bottles, tell you all kinds of stories about things you do not care about and even dismiss any plans you might have for later (because you want to spend the day with your new best friend!). There is, however, also a good chance you won't get rid of him very easily. When 'no' and 'I'm going, goodbye' don't ring a bell with your new companion, walk to your hotel and have the Sikh porter throw him a glance. Works like a charm.

Back home I would never leave the house without my iPod, here I never take it with me. It's not just that your not safe when your not paying attention with your eyes and especially your ears (remember the honking part of the previous entry?), but there's also the fact that you would miss so much when you exclude one of the senses. Allright, the (occasional) smells of urine and cowshit are not my favourites either, but it's part of the assault on the senses that makes this country so unique.

You can't beat the prices in Amritsar: only Rs100 for a real Abidas watch! Wasn't even worth it to take the price further down. I might have done so though, because the little stop watch clocks have no buttons to operate them (they're glued on) and when receiving a shock there is a chance the watch will start running backward. Most of the time it works though.

So after a day and a half in Amritsar it is time to head in the direction of the Himalaya's. However you don't just get from Punjab to Himachal Pradesh, without some remarkable encounters...

Amritsar - Dharamsala (by car)

My driver is a quiet, but honest man with a face as solid as a rock. Most of the time we don't talk and half of the time we do talk, we don't understand the accent of the other (Indian English is a language in itself). Other than that we get along fine. And he means well. When I was declining his offer to eat some of the cashew nuts he kept on offering, he simply told me to hold up my hands and subsequently emptied half the bag in them (while still driving of course). He's a good man.

A few miles kilometers after you hit the highroad (20-80 mph, bad state, a lot of small to very large potholes) there's a sign warning for pedestrians crossing. Really? You need a sign for that? Look ahead and tell me who is not crossing the road. They should've put signs everywhere if they're even remotely serious about warning drivers. But then again, nobody pays any attention to them anyway. There's a flow and you go with it or get out of the way.

When passing through a village/inhabited area, you don't reduce your speed. You honk and keep honking. If the road conditions allow it, go even faster and don't stop honking.

I get why they call India a developing country: construction is going on everywhere. Or, at least the material is there. Most of the times the work seems to have stalled at some point. And that point was long ago. Just like a lot of things here, at some point you stop to wonder why, you just accept it as part of the scenery.

My driver has a police siren as a ultimate warning to other vehicles he is serious about them having to get out of his way. Just in case honking, going at them with full speed and flashing your lights isn't enough to get the message across. Costs rs2500 a month (paid to police) but it works like a hot knife through ghee (Indian butter).

Have an empty bottle, wrapper or any other type of thrash? Open a window and just throw it out. Problem solved.

Driving against the flow of traffic is quite normal, also on the highway. You can do it by car, by motorbike or by bike, but please do stay on right side, which is your left side. Dogs, horses and especially cows can do as they please, though brakes are only actively used for the last one.

The Golden rule at the train crossing: if you can crawl under the poles you do it, no matter whether you're on food, on a bike carrying a load, or on a heavy motorbike. Also, it's perfectly acceptable to wait in both sides of the road, thereby blocking the other side's passing, which blocks our passing. But it works out, every time. It just seems to be the Indian way of doing things.

Remarkable. Where Punjab ends, the hills begin. You don't need a roadsign to tell you you're in Himachal Pradesh. The first monkeys have made an appearance as well. And there are more cows here, which in far better shape than those in the cities. These are well fed cows, feeding off the green in HP and which are not trying to digest plastic and other rubbish. Even the dogs are in better shape.

I got the parts 'my taxi not allowed in Dharamsala' and 'I get you other cab, yes?'. Thank you kind sir, I forgot your good name, but I won't forget your person that easy.

More soon!

dinsdag 1 oktober 2013

Impressions of Amritsar

Part I

There's no system in these installments yet since I have to rush a bit for my trip to Dharamsala! More soon if there's WiFi there!

Touts in Amritsar are unlike any I've met before in India.
"Sir, sir! I'm from foreign currency collection, you have foreign currency?"
- Yes
"Can I have it?"
- No
*Boy goes away*
Why aren't they all like that all over India! I love Amritsar!

Also, buying stuff here is more pleasant than what I remember from Jaipur, Agra, Delhi or Varanasi. Sellers here don't interpret one look as a 'You want this Sir?!', some even seem a bit reluctant to get out of that comfy chair and accept your money. Major improvement!

Overall, the lack of tourists has surprised me. Amritsar may not be as know as the cities named above, but I didn't expect to be able to roam the narrow streets of the city for hours and not come across a single long haired, backpack wearing, wearing-Indian-clothes-ridiculous-looking Westerner in search of his or her spiritual enlightenment. Another plus for Amritsar. Fun fact: the only place I went where I met the aforementioned kind of people within five minutes of arrival was in a restaurant I picked from the Lonely Planet.

Downside, the less tourists around the less people seem to speak English. Riksha - the cycle type are more common than the auto type - drivers have trouble even understanding the English numbers, which makes bargaining difficult if not impossible without an interpreter. Luckily, random people are very happy to help, though success is not always guaranteed. I better pick up some Hindi phrases (though not very useful here, people speak Punjabi, which the ever ignorant me thought was more of an accent. It's not.)

Cows may be holy in India, other animals definitely aren't. Streetdogs with broken legs or half their skulls torn open are not uncommon due to the hazardous traffic. I understand it's not a top priority in a country that has so many people living in poverty, but you somehow can't help but wish they would've had a better life.

Talking about traffic, I've realized there's a major misunderstanding among most Western people about the possible dangers they may face in India. Touts may 'rob' you of your money, bacteria may make you sick,  but it's the traffic that can be lethal.

The only thing more annoying than vehicles that honk constantly, are those that that don't honk at all. You get so used to the honking that you don't expect them.

As in other Indian cities shops are everywhere. There are all kinds of shops, though most of the shops who sell exactly the same wares tend to cuddle up in one (part of the) street. It surprises me every single time and I'm getting a headache trying to figure out the logic. May I should just - in the words of this English band that also has a connection to India - let it be...