Monthly Archives: January 2016

9 – Oxford Comma

My last week in Dharamsala flew by quickly, once I established myself a kind of routine.  I would wake early and struggle to leave the warmth of my nest.  I would sleep with the shawl I bought in Delhi wrapped loosely around my head and through the gap above my face I would see my breath turning to vapour above me.  It discourages drastic movements away from the safety of bed.  Eventually though, once I had hurriedly washed and dressed, I would take the half hour walk down into McLeod and stop in for breakfast, usually at the Kunga café or Shambala, since the Snow Lion was now closed for re-painting.  Often I would see someone I knew, or else I would just enjoy my coffee and toast and omelette or banana pancakes in solitary splendour.  After that I might have some kind of errands to run (like buying a hat and woolly bed-socks, haggling for shawls to send to my nearest and dearest, or getting passport photocopies, which you seem to need a lot of here; 3 copies to send a package by post, for example).

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At 1pm I would head to the rooftop of Lha to meet with Kirzin the monk for an hour or so of English tuition.  Kirzin is a kind and gentle soul.  As a young man in Tibet, he and his brother were farmers; tending medicinal plants which grow only at very high altitude.  Forseeing only a life of struggle and unhappiness, he decided to instead take a different path and become a monk (evidently a common choice for Tibetan youths).  We didn’t talk about his flight from his homeland, but talking to many Tibetans over my time in Dharamsala, a common narrative emerges of a difficult and secretive passage through the Himalaya; a journey taking months, with the fear of capture and summary imprisonment or execution by Chinese security forces.  When trying to view the political situation purely from the viewpoint of Tibetans in McLeod, the horizon of credibility is somewhat cloudy and obscure.  In the foreground personal stories of exile and loss are obvious in their authenticity; virtually every Tibetan I spoke to told me of their desire to return home.  But in the distance, wild stories of Tibetan children being stolen and eaten by the Chinese oppressors cannot (I dearly hope) be given credence.  But when all accounts are recounted as definitive articles of belief (and I never met anyone who had firsthand knowledge of these more outrageous atrocities) it makes it a little difficult to know what the truth is.  Somewhere in the middle, I suppose, where it usually is; either way they’ve had a bad time of it.

Anyway, Kirzin now lives in a large monastery in the South of India, near Mysore.  He was taking every opportunity available to him to diligently work on his English, in order that he might communicate his faith to the world.  This was not an evangelical ideal incidentally – he was keen to separate the beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism from the tools (in his words, ‘Buddhist Senses’) which people can use to reduce their suffering and live better, more compassionate lives.  Our sessions were divided more or less equally between existential discussion and reading and comprehension practice, for which Kirzin had a hefty tome published sometime towards the end of the British Raj, I think, which was filled with delightfully anachronistic situations and language; a world of picnics and things being ‘a jolly good show’.  Kirzin had many questions, and I endeavoured to elucidate on those things that weren’t completely irrelevant.  I was reminded of the Vampire Weekend song: “Who gives a **** about an Oxford comma; I climbed to Dharamsala too, I did.  I met the highest lama – his accent sounded fine to me, to me.

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At 2pm it was time for Ingrid’s intermediate French class.  Beginner’s would have probably been more my level, but I muddled through with my seeming wealth of vocabulary and total lack of grammar, covering plurals, accents, quantities and homonyms whilst weaving through a variety of tenses. It was nice to do a bit of learning, and it was surprising to me how much I remembered from GCSE French in the distant past.  Le lapin mange le pain dans le pin!

At 2pm I would find some lunch.  Possibly a 50 rupee thali from the first hole-in-the-wall thali stall on Bhagsu road – a glorious all-you-can-eat-fiesta of rice, daal, curried veg, raw onions and chapattis.  Then some more mooching until 4pm, when it was time for English Conversation class, which would find me cross-legged amidst a circle of six to eight Tibetans between the ages of 13 and 50, trying to communicate, which was sometimes easy and sometimes like getting blood from a stone, but always a lot of fun.  I found it very easy to warm to the Tibetans, who seemed in general to be warm and full of good humour.

At 5pm the volunteers would meet outside Lha and go for dinner, and sit around drinking tea and then maybe having some more dinner, until maybe 9pm, when things would wind up and I would wrap myself up in everything warm I could find, get out my headtorch and walk back through the cold darkness to Upper Bhagsu.  This sojourn started to wear on me after a while and for the last few days I moved back into town, finding a room in the same guesthouse as Jeremy, once again at the bottom of the 188 steps I had first walked down after getting off the bus from Delhi.

Waiting for momos; Louise, Jeremy, Konrad & Artur

8 – Excursions

The afternoon of the basketball game a few of us hiked up into the woods above Dharamkot to a peaceful spot in the pines hung with prayer flags, and we lit a little campfire.  Jeremy brought his guitar and we had a few songs.  I played a little, and it felt nice.  I forget how much I miss playing the guitar when I don’t have one with me.  Jeremy rocked through a couple of Tenacious D numbers and I played one by Flight of the Conchords – comedy songs were the vibe of the day, seemingly.  It ended with a group attempt on an acapella version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.  Thankfully no one saw fit to record this.  Guitar aside, it was nice to just be in the woods, and to sit in peace and to poke a fire with a stick (which is one of the great pleasures of life).

The following day a bunch of us hired a taxi (an old 4×4 with dodgy brakes and almost no suspension) to take us to the temple to Shiva and it’s hot spring at Tatwani, about 30km away in the Kangra Valley; a land of rice and tea plantations, rickety bridges and roadside monkeys.  It was a rough ride along switchback mountain trails and I felt like kissing the ground when we got there, but it was a lovely spot.  The river bubbled through a passage of large rocks and then opened out into a wide calm area, perfect for skimming stones, which we did for a while.  Jeremy and Pascal had been down here a week earlier and had clear skies and views to the Himalayas on the horizon, but this time it was overcast and a low haze hung over everything.  Still, it was a nice spot to frolic for a while.  Courtney noted my skimming skills with a dry remark about quaint English ponds and period dramas, which wasn’t entirely unfair.

The temple sat on the edge of a small village a hundred metres or so from the river, in the shade of a large Bodhi tree.  Pascal had been chatting to the locals and it turned out we were invited to join them for a feast in celebration of a wedding, which had taken place a few days prior.  Most of the village was there, it seemed.  A ceremony was taking place as we arrived involving the blessing and incensing of a sacrificial goat while two lads frenetically played the drums.  Shortly the goat was led away to his fate, around the back of a low building by the temple where a cooking fire had been lit.  I’ve been off meat since I left England and I had no desire to witness this act, so I joined some others in the temple for a bath.

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From the faded and sulphur-caked maw of a stone lion a spout of hot water poured into a murky looking pool in an open ended chamber of red stone.  I gingerly stripped down to my pants and padded over.  After several days of luke-warm showers in the chilly mountain air, it was bliss to bob around neck-deep in the murky heat of this sacred pool.  Before long there were about ten of us in there, chatting away in a manly way about football and the relative merits of the English, German, French and Brazilian games.  After drying off and dressing, I received a blessing from the priest inside the tiny temple in the form of a tilak of red paste on my forehead.  I emerged from the temple feeling refreshed, if none the wiser for it.

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We sat around in the sun enjoying the atmosphere for an hour or two, but we didn’t stick around for the feast in the end, since we were supposed to be heading to Kangra Fort, another hour or so away along more uncomfortable roads through fantastic gorges with vultures wheeling above.  By the time we got there hunger took precedence and so rather than look around the fort, we ate a thali under the watchful eye of a tribe of monkeys and had a quick look at the rather kitsch family museum of the Katoch dynasty, who trace their lineage back to the Mahabharata and have been fighting off invaders (including Alexander the Great) ever since.

We did get a chance to pop into the Brajeshwari Devi Temple, one of 51 temples in India marking the places where the pieces of Shiva’s first wife, Sati, fell after she was immolated (it’s a long story and I’m not quite sure I follow it so I will spare you the details); the stonework inside the temple was wonderful and contrasted markedly with the reinforced concrete constructions outside, with the steel cables poking out still, seemingly because no one can be bothered removing them.  This lack of care is everywhere I’ve seen so far in India, and I don’t really understand it.  I can see that lack of money and low quality materials means that buildings are often poorly constructed, but almost every building, wall or road I have seen (except for sacred architecture) looks like it has been done with complete disregard for workmanship or for aesthetics.  As I say, I have yet to think of a decent reason why this should be.  Answers on a postcard…

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Anyway, I suppose I don’t really need to understand it, and it was just nice to get out and see something of the local countryside in the company of good people.

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Ulli, Jeremy, Konrad, Me, Courtney & Pascal

7 – Shooting Hoops

School was out on the weekend. Artur had mentioned there was a basketball court halfway down the hill towards Dharamsala proper, next to the Tibetan central administration complex, and pretty soon a plan was forming to head down there at 8 o’clock on Saturday morning with whichever of the Tibetan students was interested and have a little game.  So at 07:30 I dragged myself out from under the covers and set out into the cold, cloudless morning.

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I picked up some chai and Tibetan bread in the square and made it to Lha more or less on time.  It was a good mix of teachers (Jeremy, Artur, Pascal, Konrad and myself) and about 10 or so students.  Walking down to the court I was talking to Rigsu; a mountaineering instructor from Lahaul in the far northeast of Himachal Pradesh.  He was wintering in McLeod Ganj, since he had been travelling around India and had no way of reaching his home due to all the passes being closed for another couple of months (and no planes going there). He was making use of his time by learning German at Lha, since many of his clients come from Germany.

One end of the court was already occupied by a group of Tibetans in basketball jerseys, playing three on three.  They looked like they meant business.  We set up shop at the far end and had a little practice.  I fluked a lay-up and one or two others managed to sink a couple of baskets, but our warm-ups didn’t look all that promising.  The playing surface was good though, and it was a beautiful day with the Dhauladar mountains as a backdrop and eagles wheeling overhead.  I can’t think of anywhere better for a game.   We milled around in slight disarray for a while, then the Tibetans at the far end issued a challenge.  Full court, five-a side, 40 minute game.  It was on.

 

A whistle blew and the next couple of minutes were lost in a frenzy of running back and forth with no plan and not much success.  I used to play three on three in Hyde Park in Leeds with my university flat-mates, but that was a pretty relaxed affair, and I have no idea what the difference is between a point guard and a forward-centre.  Our opponents on the other hand looked like they were playing together every weekend at least, and for the first few minutes it looked like we were going to be annihilated.

Before long though, a couple of nice reverses and a bit more time in possession started to even things out a bit, and once we got into the swing of it, we weren’t half bad.  We tagged in and out, there being an abundance of substitutes, which was just as well.  Playing full-court is hard work anyway, but I’m sure the altitude had an effect too.

 

At about 30 minutes we were trailing by 10 points, but some strong defence and good counters saw us back into the game; two points (one basket) down with 20 seconds on the clock.  They were on the attack and we had everyone back to stop them.  A shot rebounded and I managed to win the scramble to pick it up.  I heard the umpire call ‘5 seconds’ and I hared up the court.  They were all over me, but I wasn’t to be stopped.  I dropped my shoulder and shimmied round one player and started my layup.  One step, two, then I was up in the air. The ball released, back-spinning from my hands and I watched it rebound from the backboard, then bounce on the hoop, once, twice, then sadly teeter and fall to the ground.  The whistle went, and that was that. I had blown my shot at glory.

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Still, losing by one basket was a pretty good result, and the pain of defeat was lessened by the fact that the students had brought lunch!  Tibetan bread, chappati, and potato and tomato curry.  Deelish.

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6 -Volunteers

After I had lunch the first time with Ulli and Jenny I took a long and circuitous walk back down to McLeod, through the backwaters of Upper Bhagsu and Upper Dharamkot; places that have never known the passage of anything on wheels, but where eagles and monkeys are common.  Actually, that’s a point: I have seen eagles every single day since I got to this place; sometimes soaring on thermals high above, other times just sitting in a tree not more than 30 feet away.  That’s pretty awesome.

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Anyway, that evening I was eating Thukpa (a delicious Tibetan noodle soup) at the Snow Lion (again), when I got drawn into conversation with a table of people who were all volunteering at Lha – a local charity organisation where they taught English (or French), largely to Tibetan refugees.  They were a friendly bunch.  We chatted through the evening and at some point someone suggested I should come along to one of their language classes to have a look, and maybe drop into an English conversation class too.  It seemed like a good idea.

When I started thinking about coming to India, I had thought about coming to McLeod Ganj for a month and teaching English, but somehow that plan had gone by the wayside.  Now here I was and it seemed like fate might be giving me a gentle prod back in that direction.

Over the last week I have seen a lot of this little crew of volunteers.  We often bump into each other in the street (McLeod Ganj not being a particularly big place), or eating thali at a little hole in the wall place on the Bhagsu road. It took me a couple of days to get round to going, but I eventually made an appearance at Lha, and I’ve been showing up regularly since then. At 5pm, after English conversation class, people usually meet up and go and find something to eat.  This is usually followed up with a walk to another eaterie for a second dinner.  Food is a common preoccupation that cuts across all barriers of culture and language, and there is an ongoing quest to find the finest momos in town (momos being Tibetan steamed dumplings filled with either vegetables or mutton).

It’s nice to find a network.  There are probably twelve or thirteen people in this group of volunteers, about half of whom I’ve been getting to know pretty well.  The two Americans are Courtney and Jeremy.  Courtney is an undergraduate carrying out an ethnographic survey of Tibetan refugees and their attitudes, as well as teaching English at Lha.  She already has a year in China and a semester in London under her belt and she will no doubt be running the US State Department within about five years.  She has a dry sense of humour which I appreciate, and is a good listener.

Back home in DC, 24 year old Jeremy taught the general education diploma to people who never made it though high school.  He is a keen snowboarder and I think he’s planning to become a boarding instructor when he eventually goes back home.  He teaches English at Lha with the same laid-back calm as he does most things.  He plays the guitar and he likes to eat.  A few days ago at lunchtime I watched Jeremy eat three Thalis in about 15 minutes then follow that up with a chocolate chip cookie.  It was no big deal.

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Jeremy’s English class

Like me, Konrad helps out with English conversation class.  A Polish Australian from Perth, he is a blond-haired surfer with an easy manner, a quick laugh and massive amounts of charisma.  He also has excellent massage karma, managing to receive regular massages from several recipients over the last few days.  He’s a cool dude.  Good basketball player too.

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Konrad tearing it up

The French teachers are Pascal, Artur, Ingrid and Fabien.  Pascal has been in town for three months and is in no hurry to leave.  He is a quiet and generous-spirited man, keen to gain insights from and to put into practice the Buddhist principles he spends much of his time reflecting on.  He pronounces the word ‘awesome’ ‘ow-some’, which causes general hilarity.  Artur from Belgium is also a Buddhist.  He has a dry wit, a gift for languages and a thirst for decent coffee.  Ingrid and Fabien have been undertaking a massage course (and have found a willing guinea-pig in Konrad).  They both come from southern France (Nimes and Toulouse).  I’ve started attending Ingrid’s class in beginners’ French, which she leads with great enthusiasm.

Actually, enthusiasm is something shared in abundance by all of these people.  For the food, for teaching, for experiencing all that this funny little town and the country to which it belongs have to offer.  It is something I admire, especially on days when my own energy is at a low ebb. Like yesterday.  I woke up tired, and when I eventually dragged myself out of bed and into town I found I was grumpy and out of sorts.  I bumped into Courtney in the Green Hotel café and moaned at her over breakfast (probably not what she needed, but cathartic for me).  I had an appointment to meet with a Tibetan Monk on the rooftop of Lha and spend an hour teaching him English.  I wasn’t really in the mood, but I muddled through.  Afterwards I met Ingrid coming down the street and she hauled me into her French class.  A cheerful hour of plurals, accents and vocabulary helped lift me from my funk a little, then on Jogiwara Rd I bumped into Fabien with an Argentine lady named Azul.  He invited me to join them for tea, as they had 40 minutes before an appointment with his massage teacher.  He showed me pictures of the room they were working in and asked if I wanted to come along tomorrow to a practice session they were planning, using Konrad as a model (I figured ‘why not?’).  Then it was 5 o’clock and it was time to meet whoever was around and make a plan for dinner.  So there was Jeremy, Pascal, Ingrid and another Pascal (who I met yesterday), and a suggestion that we try the Bhutanese food at the Coffee Meal Restaurant behind the Shambala hotel, before which there was time for a game of ping-pong in a community centre down the road.

And somewhere along the line of all these little encounters with these bright, engaged individuals, my personal gloom finally accepted the inevitable, and retired for the day, defeated.

5 – Busy Doing Nothing

On my second day in McLeod Ganj I was at a loose end. I had decided that the cold in my room was just too much.  I wanted running water, (preferably hot) and I wanted insulated walls.  So I paid for my night’s stay and I carried my gear back up the 150 steps to Jogiwara Rd, and I shortly found myself checked in to a hotel on the Temple Road.  It had a television and a bathroom and a balcony high above the valley.  More to the point, it wasn’t like stepping into a refrigerator.  It was somewhat over my budget, at 1,000 rupees, but I figured for one or two nights that wasn’t the end of the world.

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View from the balcony!

I had breakfast once again at the Snow Lion, then set off walking, taking the Bhagsu road in the hopes that I might find something good to look at and a nice place to sit for a while.  The road, paved and potholed in some places and dirt track in others, traversed a steep ridge above the valley, curving round to the village of Bhagsu after a little less than a mile.

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Lower Bhagsu is a concrete scramble of half built guesthouses where construction seems to have stopped.  I followed the road as it climbed ever more steeply up into the hills, until it came to an abrupt end next to a pile of rubble.  Listless, I sat down and wondered what on earth I was doing here, wandering around on my own in India, looking at nothing in particular.

Before coming out here, I had started to think about places I wanted to see, and, reflecting on my pilgrimage to Santiago, I had been thinking it might be interesting as a point of focus, to travel to places of pilgrimage in India.  To Varanasi and Haridwar on the Ganges, Mount Girnar in Gujarat, Bodhgaya where the Buddha found his tree, and to Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.  But now I was here, I felt completely without purpose.  I was not on pilgrimage; I was just mooching around in a place almost totally alien to me and which I did not understand in the slightest.

So, as in uffish thought I sat, a rikshaw groaned its way up the hill towards me and disgorged a tall European man next to the pile of rubble across from which I sat.  They had a terse exchange and the rikshaw drove away, leaving the man looking less than delighted, next to a pile of luggage.

I asked him how he was doing and he came over and sat down.  His name was Ulli.  He was an actor and dancer from Germany.  He had been teaching drama in Delhi for a week.  He had just arrived that morning with an American girl whom he had met in Goa and they were staying at a guest house a friend had recommended in Upper Bhagsu.  We talked about the relative merits of travelling alone or in company, then he asked me if I would like to join them for lunch.  So I helped Ulli carry his luggage (and Jenny the American’s too) away from the road and along a rocky path (not so much a path as a way cleared of thorns) a few hundred yards to the seclusion of the Trimurti Garden.  Ulli woke Jenny from her slumber (they had been on the overnight bus from Delhi) and we shortly set ourselves up at a table in the sun, where we ate thali and drank cold filtered water.

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I liked it here, and I liked Ulli and Jenny very much.  We ate and chatted for a couple of hours, and then I asked Rohid, our genial host, if he had a room.  He showed me to a little many-windowed suntrap with a little bed and blankets, and to the outdoor shower and toilets, and told me it was 200 rupees a night (250 with a heater).  I said I would take it, but starting tomorrow, since I had already booked into my 1000 rupee hotel and given them some of my clothes to wash.

That was a few days ago, and I been here since, gradually slowing down.  It is a strange thing having nothing to do.  I’ve had periods of intense boredom and frustration over the last couple of days.  Moments of real anxiety and loneliness, too.  The WiFi went down yesterday, and has not recovered.  There are dogs here (a motley crew of dusty Labradors and mongrels who spend most of the time sleeping or madly barking and capering around the bottom of a tree in which a large grey monkey has taken to sitting) and a cat named Lily.  I’ve eaten lunch with Ulli and Jenny and we’ve had long conversations about everything under the sun, but for the most part I am alone.  I play with the dogs, I walk around exploring Upper Bhagsu and Upper Dharamkot, which for the most part are devoid of roads.  There are a handful of guesthouses and cafes but they are closed for the winter, so there’s really nothing going on.

I don’t know how long I’ll stay here.  Maybe two or three more days, maybe longer.  Ulli is helping to run a contact improvisation festival in Goa in a week or so and I think he will head back to Delhi to catch a plane in a few days.  Jenny will stay longer, I think.  She left her home in Washington DC in the early Autumn, going first to Hawaii, then to Japan and on to India, where she has been for some time, travelling in Uttar Pradesh and the south.  She is working on her memoirs and writing a blog about her journey through life and the things she learns along the way.  This quiet little place suits her well as a place to do some writing and to take stock, before she moves on to a friend’s house in Pune, Maharashtra.

I’ve been thinking about where I will go next.  My brief experience of Delhi has served as a caution about the north (south of the Himalayas that is).  By all accounts the level of hassle and stress is, if anything, compounded in Agra and Rajasthan, and right now I’m not sure that is what I need.  The south sounds more relaxed, and I could do with some tropical heat.  So I am entertaining the thought of heading west from here to Amritsar and from there catching a plane to Goa.  Then on to Hampi and exploring Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, before working my way back north again, by which time I will be a bit more seasoned and better equipped to cope with the mayhem.

We’ll see.  Right now I’m just taking it a day at a time.

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4 – Dharamsala

I awoke in a tangle of blankets, still wearing all of my clothes from the day before, and my first action was to quickly rifle through my pack for my long-johns and merino base layer, which I hurriedly donned, followed by the clothes in which I had slept and the blanket I had kept wrapped around my shoulders during the bus journey.  Padding to the balcony door (I had the luxury of two doors and thinking about it both opened onto the same walkway, it’s just that this bit had a view) I could see that it was a perfect day.  High above me the mountain Triund was clad in snow and lit pinkish by the morning sun.  Closer a succession of tree-covered ridges brought the view downwards to a local panorama of ramshackle concrete buildings and the comings and goings of dogs and donkeys.

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With nowhere in the room to secure my pack, I packed everything of value into my little daysack and set off up the long flight of concrete steps I had come down in the morning.  It was still morning, incidentally, and whilst those three hours of sleep had made a world of difference, it was not enough.  I needed coffee.  Up the steps and along Jogiwara Rd I found the Snow Lion café; a friendly little Tibetan-run place with lots of books and comfy seats.  Sitting there eating a concoction of puffed wheat, cereal flakes, fruit, curd and honey, and drinking a very nice cup of coffee I overheard two tables of western tourists discussing joining forces and going for a walk.  After some hesitation, I decided to ask if they minded me tagging along, which they seemed cool with, much to my relief.  Being alone is all very well but after a few days of not really meeting anyone, I was keen for some company.  Besides, a walk sounded like a very good idea, especially this one, which would take us up onto a high ridge forming part of the foothills of Triund.  We set off in the direction of the taxi stand to take us the first few kilometres to the Gallu Devi Temple and introduced ourselves.  Fred and Flo were two Italians from German-speaking alpine country, while Antonietta and Fernando came from Mexico City.

The Italians were catching a bus to Delhi at 6pm, while the Mexicans were off to Rishikesh at 7.  Just enough time, then, to make the strenuous climb of 900m to the mountain meadow overlooking the Dhauladar mountains of the western Himalaya, at 2850m metres above sea level.  That’s not very high by Himalayan standards, but I could feel the effects of the altitude in my dizziness and shortness of breath as I slogged my way to the top.  The alpinist Italians were in a hurry and I lost sight of them quite quickly, while Fernando was more my pace and Antonietta brought up the rear.  I almost gave up at one stage, but pride gave me a second wind and I made it to the top in pretty good shape, helped out by a cup of chai and a snickers bar outside a little hut halfway up.  It was strange, less than 24 hours after having been in the muggy smog of Delhi, to be here in the mountains with snow on the ground and eagles drifting on thermals above me.  Strange but so very good.

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The Italians were long gone, but I walked down with Antonietta and Fernando, swapping stories and talking about films and books.  Antonietta is an English teacher, finishing her masters in Comparative Literature with a thesis on gothic literature and horror films, while Fernando is an architect.  They had been travelling in India for a month and a half and were flying home from Delhi in a week.  I liked them a lot, and we chatted all the way back down to McLeod Ganj, where we went for something to eat (with their other two travelling companions – a German and an Australian) before they all caught their overnight bus to Rishikesh.

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As for me, I wandered back to the Snow Lion for some Chamomile tea before returning to my icy room.  At the top of the long concrete stairway, I felt a push in the small of my back, almost knocking me over.  I turned round at find two local canines, quite literally dogging my heels.  I asked them what they thought they were about, accosting me like that, but they ignored my protestations and stalked me insistently down the steps, eventually giving up about half way down. At the bottom I was met by a large Alsatian who tried to invite himself into my room and had to be discouraged with a sharp word.  I’ve never known such hassley dogs, though at least they stopped short of trying to take me to the ‘government tourist office’.  A power-outage put paid to my plan of doing a bit of reading, so I blindly assembled a nest of blankets and though the dogs had set to howling and barking the night away outside, it wasn’t long before I was fast asleep.

3 – To the Himalaya

With Delhi not really endearing itself to me, I laid low for most of my last day there, except for a foray into Paharganj to purchase a woolen blanket in preparation for my journey north.  In a final ridiculous episode I got into a tuctuc, having agreed a destination and price, but having taken me across the busy Qutub Road he then started prattling on about the Government Office, which is tuctuc-driver code for ‘I am about to waste 2 hours of your life’.  So out I got and made it there by cycle rikshaw, which was hair-raising in rush hour traffic, and very slow.

So I found my bus stop; pillar no.9 down the road from RK Ashram Metro station.  There was a confused rambling about what bus was going where, but after a cursory inspection of my ticket I was ushered on board a battered-looking Volvo, and after a lot of dithering, we set off on our 14 hour drive to Dharamsala.

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An hour later we stopped on the verge of an 8-lane carriageway in the dark and I was ushered off the bus, along with three or four others.  No explanation given.  Shortly after that our bus drove away, leaving us standing there with our baggage in the stygian gloom of the smog-filled Delhi night.  Behind us on top of a building was a floodlit statue of Jesus with the legend ‘Jesus, Save Us’.  Well, quite.

We did not have to wait long for deliverance, thankfully, and the presence of about 15 Buddhist monks on the new bus gave me some assurance that this one would see me to my intended destination. We drove for hours through the murky night alongside miles and miles of incomplete construction work with workers using hand tools to build motorways and overpasses.  Around midnight we stopped for a dinner break at a roadside pitstop.  I shuffled to the conveniences and then bought a glass of chai and a masala dosa (a pancake with a filling of onion and spices, served in a metal tray with a couple of sauces to dip into).  As I stood eating I chatted to a friendly Tibetan named Tenzing. It was nice to talk to someone in a way not related to procuring services.  Back on the I tried to sleep but the best I could so was a slight reduction in conscious activity.  It was a long night.

We finally reached McLeod Ganj a little before 6am.  I have an aversion to anyone approaching me as I get off a bus or a train, so I ignored the flurry of guesthouse touts and taxi drivers and walked straight past them up the hill.  Being so early, however, and with the sun not yet risen, there was nothing open and no one around, except for one man in the square who asked me if I needed a guest house.  I said no but after wandering for a couple of minutes and noticing how cold it was here, I returned to the square and told the man I would take a look.

Down the street and down a long flight of a hundred or so concrete steps, he led me to his guesthouse.  I had a moment of unease, but then as we descended I caught a glimpse of the sunrise touching on a towering mountain-peak high above us and I suddenly felt good about this.  I paused to take this in and he looked at me and smiled.

‘That is Triund.’ he said.

The room, when we got there, was bare, but with a kind of balcony facing the mountain, and a couple of heavy looking blankets.  For 400 rupees it seemed like a decent enough deal so I shook his hand, closed the door and buried myself in blankets where sleep came fast.