Leaving the patchwork of rice and wheat fields of the Indian plains behind us, our next couple of days would take us into the foothills of the Himalayas. Our driver, Mr Singh, just laughs when we tell him that our GPS shows that the 230km to Shimla will take about three hours. “Six hours”, he says, “with lunch, more”. We inch our way across a mountain pass that is in the process of being widened into four lanes. From what I can observe, it is a disaster in the making. Large sections of the completed lanes are covered in mountains of debris from fresh landslides and are now completely impassable. The retaining walls, built from hand shaped rock, are all to the same height and without any footing regardless of the steepness or size of the mountain that is behind it. Little streams cut through under these new walls that have no provision for drainage. Heavily laden trucks, busses and cars snake through the construction work while scores of women carry buckets full of cement on their heads to the work areas. Some of the roadside shops and restaurants had their front sections demolished to make way for progress, but the remaining halves are still open for business, accessed by make-shift ladders and walkways placed over ditches and amongst protruding steel and electric cables.
Mr Singh safely delivers us to our accommodation in Shimla, a homestay with a friendly family, but an absolute dump otherwise. We find the silver lining we are now desperately looking for only the next day as we explore the area. Shimla, a historical British “hill station”, is rich in history that helped shaped India’s independence from colonial rule. It is set on the ridgelines of a number of steep hills with colourful multi-level buildings cascading down the forested valley sides. Apart from the historical sites, the main Mall, an open shopping and restaurant street on one of the ridges, is the key attraction. We enjoy wandering around the area at sunset, watching the colour of the buildings change and being part of the pleasant night time atmosphere.
After another six endless hours on the road we reach our next stop, Dharamsala. Our accommodation, a mountainside cottage some distance outside the city, is fantastic. Our host is wonderful and after sharing a beer together, we have laid out a plan for an action packed two days in the area. Five o’clock the next morning we set off to McCleod Ganj, starting our day with a steep 6km uphill hike to Triund in the hope of catching a glimpse of the majestic Himalayan peaks in the distance. Reaching the top, we have parathas that our friendly housekeepers prepared earlier the morning and drink cups of chai as the clouds roll in and out in front of the peaks.
After a hearty Tibetan lunch of steamed momos back down in the town, we continue our cultural education as we visit the Tibetan displacement museum on our way to the temple of the Dalai Lama. The history is touching. McCloud Ganj is filled with cultural and spiritual tourists. The temple people flock to, holds very little for the senses, but the ideas and philosophies are powerful.
The next city we visit is also a centre of spiritual tourism for many. Mr. Singh come into his own in Amritsar, the city of the Golden Temple. Here he takes on the role as our personal city guide. We have a fascinating evening walking along the people filled, white marble promenades and admiring the gold covered structure set in the middle of a large reflective bathing pool. With the help of our expert guide, we get to experience the activities that take place right in the centre of the temple. Thousands of devout worshippers come to pay their respects, some sit down to meditate on the reading.
The next day we drive to the border between India and Pakistan (about 30km outside the city) to witness the Wagah Border flag lowering ceremony. The daily event draws huge crowds and we have to wait three hours in the VIP line to get through the gates. The separate gents and ladies lines for non-foreigners are even longer. The event resembles a large sporting match, complete with spectator filled grandstands, snack vendors and the voice of an MC announcing the order of activities. The difference, however, is that no ball passes from one team to another. All eyes are focused on the sharply uniformed border guards and their very theatrical marching and kick saluting, opening of the “border gate”, waving of fists and retrieving of the flag. This process takes about 45 minutes and every step is reciprocated by similarly theatrical activities on the Pakistani side of the border. Once the flag is folded and safely in the hands of the most senior presiding officer, the crowd roars into a cheer.
Our six day road trip comes to an end early the next morning when we board the train for Delhi. We can’t help to feel sad, as this is our last train for our time in India. We have experienced so much. Mr. Singh sees us off and takes excellent care of us right to the last minute. He refuses to leave until our train rolls out of the station. Thank you India! We are richer for sharing time with you.
– Jarik –