Monday, 17 October 2011

Life in McLeod Ganj...

So here we are in McLeod Ganj – having escaped the hectic cities for a while we've found a place that seems to have the perfect combination of lots going on yet plenty of time for rest and relaxation. We're staying at the Kunga Guest House – seemingly a firm favourite for backpackers – in a £3 a night room with the most amazing view that will be our home until the end of October.

Unfortunately when agreeing to a shared bathroom we hadn't realised it was also shared with the restaurant upstairs – a little weird and awkward when you go for a shower and there's a queue of customers waiting outside to use the loo! Even so it's worth it for the room and is in a good part of town. We've been warned not to leave our windows open when we're out as chances are we could return to a monkey in our room...

McLeod has a 3 way mix of Indian people, backpackers and Tibetans who have come here to flee the Chinese occupation and follow in the footsteps of the Dalai Lama, who lives just down the hill. The Tibetan community are well established now and there seems to be a never ending choice of caf├ęs and places to eat. Some fully fledged restaurants, others little tea huts on the side of the road.

Of course wanting to support the local people we're fulfilling our duties and are fully embracing both, spending many an hour sipping Chai and working our way through the large number of restaurants available. It would be rude not to when an evening meal for the both of us costs about £2.

As well as an overwhelming amount of food choices, there are also daily talks, film showings and classes to get involved with. We feel really settled into life here and have made some new friends who are around for a while so have decided to stay for at least the next 2 weeks. John's signed up to a cookery course tomorrow where he'll learn to make Momo's – a type of Tibetan dumpling filled with yummy goodness. I'm hoping he'll bring one back for me to try.

Next week we'll be joining thousands of monks, nuns, Tibetans and tourists to attend a series of lectures given by the Dalai Lama in the main temple. I can't quite believe our luck that it has fallen on the time we are here...what a spiritual time we are having! We're going to try and swat up before hand so we can hopefully at least understand a bit of what's going on, otherwise we'll just take cues from others and smile and nod at the right times.

We're also now teaching 'intermediate' English every day, mainly to Tibetan monks. I'm not really sure how it happened – we popped into a voluntary organisation on our first exploration around town and the next thing we know, we were down to start teaching the next day. We've done two lessons so far – both of which seem to have gone well (from our point of view – fingers crossed the students agree). Unfortunately only 5 turned up for today's class – we found out afterwards it was a special Tibetan spring clean day so most of our students were at home or around town in their marigolds.  We're learning that things chop and change quite quickly around here.

From tomorrow I'll also be doing daily individual conversation classes with a monk named Tsering – I'm guessing just drinking more tea and correcting his pronunciation, which I'm sure my dad will find amusing. Apparently he's pretty high up on the monk ladder so here's hoping for some good karma coming my way!

Finally a couple of things on John's behalf...firstly this incredible camper we saw yesterday - surely someone has to be living in it, it's big enough for a family of 10...

And secondly, he's been completely amazed by the plumbing that goes on around here, and it's not hard to see why.....

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Golden Temple

No trains running to our next destination on a Sunday meant taking our first Indian bus journey, which having spent enough bemused time in auto-rickshaws, we'd tried to put off as long as possible. But onward we were heading and so off we set to the Punjab city of Amritsar. The journey which according to our guide book should have taken 7 hours, took only 5 and we soon figured out why - I think the driver must have been late for his tea. Despite the bumps and somewhat tense moments when overtaking into oncoming traffic, it was a great experience and a wonderful way to get a glimpse of rural Indian life. Unfortunately for the guy next to us on the bus who kindly offered us a room in his house, we'd already booked a hotel within stones throw of the Sikh Golden Temple, and so were soon on a cycle rickshaw to our digs for the night.

We knew the Golden Temple was a special place for Sikhs, but hadn't quite realised just how special until we arrived. Turns out we'd rocked into town on the birthday of the 4th Guru Ram Das Ji - the dude who'd built the temple more than 400 years ago. It wasn't just us who'd rocked up either – more than 100,000 Sikhs from all over India were also in Amritsar for the celebrations. And what an incredible celebration it was!!! 

 The Temple in itself is absolutely incredible, but we were blown away by our experience there. As day turned into night, thousands of lights illuminated the buildings and that combined with the amazing colours of Indian dress and the hundreds of candles that had been lit created a mesmerising sight.

We felt a bit awkward at first, gate-crashing such an important occasion, but there was no need to worry – we were literally welcomed with open arms and genuinely felt like people were happy for us to share the experience with them. So many people came over to chat or say hello, ask where we were from and tell us about the temple and their religion. We'd decided it was a safe bet to play the 'we're married' card, and found it worked well until chatting to a 12 year old girl who was ever so concerned that we didn't have a child – her reasoning that although the population of India was going up, the rest of the world was in decline.  Thank goodness my dad wasn't around to get involved in that conversation!

Once again the cameras were out and people wanted their photo taken with us - one guy enthusiastically thrust his baby girl into my arms so she could have her picture taken – unfortunately she didn't seem so keen.

John with his new best friends.

On arrival at the temple we were required to cover our heads (hence John looking like a pirate) and take off our shoes, reluctantly leaving them in surely the world's biggest cloak room holding hundreds of thousands of shoes. We then joined the masses in walking around the temple grounds before picking our spot to watch the incredible firework display. The noise was deafening and fireworks seemed to go on forever – it was a wonderful ending to what had been an amazing occasion.

The next day we returned to the temple to see it in a different light.  Almost immediately after arriving we were swept to one side by a group of wise Sikh men sat crossed-legged and pondering life.  They invited us to join them and enthusiastically recalled tales from the temple.  We learnt so much just from the 20 minutes we spent sat with them and came away feeling enriched, although  John had a small case of beard envy which was felt all the more when he asked one of the men why they grew their beards so long.  "You are a sheep, I am a lion" was the man's sobering reply.

Another astonishing event from our time in the Punjab was our visit to the Pakistan border, to witness the 'closing of the border' ceremony that apparently takes place every single day.  Locals and tourists had arrived by the coach-load to see the spectacle before them, where crowds and officials on both the Indian and Pakistani sides competed with great gusto to be the loudest and proudest.  We sat back in amazement watching things unfold before us, as guards from each side marched to the central gates like something straight out of the Ministry of Silly Walks.  

After about an hour of performance, the flags were finally lowered and the gates closed for the evening.

After an 8 hour journey by train and bus, we have finally arrived at our next destination - Mcleod Ganj.  A renowned traveller hangout in the Himalayan foot hills and home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government in exile, this peaceful hillside town is going to be our home for at least the next few days.   

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Happy Daze......

Hello from as far east as i have ever been (John)!  I write this from Chandagarh, 4:30hrs (by train) north of Delhi, and 5 days after our arrival there.  As the Lonely Planet puts it, "with its tenacious touts and crush of mechanical and human traffic, Delhi can be downright confronting and confounding for the first time visitor".  This i think we can agree on.

We were staying in the Paharganj area of Delhi (in the very regal Hotel Namaskar), which I'm led to believe is the most bonkers and intense area for a visitor to be in, but a good start for backpackers to congregate.  That said, with our Tangier bootcamp training back in June, we now walk tall (well, as tall as we can being 5 ft somethings...) and avoid eye contact and thereby pretty much avoid all hassles.  It doesnt stop you being approached, but it avoids most shennanigans.

We were picked up from the airport by a Mr Sanjay, a fine fellow who drove as if we were banger racing and going for gold.  We even hit a motorbike on our left side (Woa! wa was that? he said with a head turn).  He should get some bloody wing mirrors then we thought. All together, It was a fun, bracing, and enjoyable introduction to  semi structured chaos. (Laura disagrees and was totally terrified by the whole experience).  The traffic is absolutely fascinating to just watch.  A roundabout seems to have very different rules. I havnt seen any accidents though so something must be working, and i sort of admire the carefree spirit on show, where a honking horn is rarely in anger, its just an announcement that theyre coming up fast from behind so you better brace yourself.

The smells, the noise, the heat, and all of the other environmental senses and feelings were quite overpowering.  So what with jetlag and all that, we slept quite a bit. "Delhi is a good place for that", a nice American lady from Maine we shared a lunch with said.  Two nights there and some not so intrepid exploring later, we took a train northwards, to Chandigarh, a logical stop on our route north.

I've only been on one so far, but the train was excellent.  There's a man to sell you samosas, another to
sell you veg byryani, one more to sell you a sandwich, one with crisps, another to offer tea and coffee around, another to mop the ailse floor, and another to check your ticket. Jobs for everyone! I saw a long freight train pass by with open sided trailer carriages, hauling what must have been about 500 tractors, all neatly facing sideways with their head lamps for eyes.  I've just seen on telly 5 minutes ago (from our poshy hotel with AC) an advert for a tractor! Their campaign must be working!

We also rode past a lot of slums coming out of Delhi, huge areas of coloured tarpaulin tented housing, makeshift shelter and head high rubbish piles with children playing ontop, which was a more sobering sight.

We're getting more and more used to things now, as would happen, and feel on the whole more comfortable   Chandagarh seems a fascinating place, being designed bottom up in the 50's / 60's by French architect Le Corbusier and is "an expression of the nations faith in the future".  Its laid out, ominously, into Sectors (we are staying in Sector 22, Sector 17 is shopping etc), grid like, with a lot of concrete but also a huge ammount of park land and leisure areas.  A 40 acre rose garden for example.  It is apparently Indias cleanest and greenest city.  We've found some fantastic food, and covered some ground in the autorickshaws.

It has a very famous rock garden, made entirely of waste product and recycled bits of anything you can name, looking absolutely incredible and is truly inspiring.  Started by a Nepalese man in 1958, his single handed vision and creation now attracts 5000 people a DAY.  So many, that the government thought, 'hey, what he's doing is on stolen land, but its bloody amazing.  instead of tearing it down, lets give him 50 guys to help him finish it off'. He is 80 something now, and still designing.  Laura says its the best attraction she has ever visited, and also the best 20p entree fee!!  I agreed.

The most bizarre and funny thing was that we were like minor celebrities for the day - at least 10 different groups of people wanted their photos taken with us!  All felt very strange but we were happy to oblige where we could. 

Where's Wally?! stop Amritsar and the Golden Temple - a very holy place in the Punjab for Sikhs with apparently over 750kg of gold in it! (I'm a sucker for facts)  As usual, more photos available here on flickr:  PHOTOS!   Catch you then!!!!