Delhi to Dalai
McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh
Prior to departure from Delhi (modern big city civilization; "swimmin' pools, movie stars") to McLeod Ganj (herbal tea hippy hill station) I went in for The Best Pedicure in the World. For 100Rs (about $2.50 US), Vinay restores my feet to their original colour, that of uncooked chapatti dough. It was weird having a guy work on my feet, and I have never seen an Indian man with dyed pink hair, but I had to admit he put a lot of upper body strength into scrubbing off about a year's worth of dead skin.
A tummy full of Coconut Rava Dosa, fresh lime soda (sweet), chocolate burfi and Madras style coffee from the dakshina (South Indian) joint next door completed my temporary farewell to the lowlands. I'm headed for the Himachal hills where it's roti, not dosa; chai in tiny glasses, not coffee in stainless steel tumblers; and wool shawls, not breezy cotton blouses.
Finding the HPTDC (Himachal Pradesh Tourist Development Corporation) bus on Connaught Place wasn't easy. They say that it leaves from the Chandralok Building on Janpath, but if you pull into the building lot with all your luggage, the bus is actually in a lane behind the building, and there is no through road. You will have to cart your luggage down to the bus itself. Good luck getting your auto driver to get back in the auto and find the correct back entrance - it's not gonna happen.
Why a bus to see the Dalai Lama, you ask? Why not the train or plane? McLeod Ganj, like a lot of Himachal, is too mountainous for train access. I think there's a helipad a few miles away for emergencies and Richard Gere.
A very important factor is getting a booking early enough to get in the front of the bus. They always tell the seat number over the phone; high numbers (up to 35) indicate a back seat. You do NOT want to be in the bumpy back seat going over these mountainous roads. It's not like the highways. Plus, there are spine-jolting speed bump sequences (ridges in a row) designed to slow vehicles down and you really feel each and every one in the back.
At the literal opposite end of the undesirable bus seats we have the Cabin. Sounds nice, right? The Cabin is the seat they only give you when all the other conceivable, actual seats are taken. It means you sit up in the front driving compartment with the driver, his co-horts and so on. If you get the far corner it could be okay, but in January I was crammed up behind the driver's reclining seat and kept my knees in my chest for the whole way.
In order to stay awake, the driver usually puffs beedis (cheap smelly cigarettes) and blares Hindi film music. Your options are to keep the window open and let the smoke out, but then catch pneumonia and a sore throat in the constant rush of cool mountain night air. Or, you could keep the window closed and choke on beedi smoke. Last January I opted for a combination - cracking the window, and covering my head with my shawl to block out smoke and the noise of the film music.
It's 400Rs for the 12-hour ride, but don't expect to hit the road at 5.30 boarding time. Like everything in India there is more than meets the eye. Sure, boarding time is 5.30 pm. But you won't really be getting anywhere till about 8pm.
First, we have to go all the way to Tibet Colony (half hour in the wrong direction) to pick up the majority of our passengers, Tibetans and Western Tibet freaks, then wait for them to load up the luggage. That adds about an hour. Then we double back and go north to the highway. Getting out of Delhi is an ordeal, the most frustrating part - sitting in trafffic, lurching forward then stopping again and so on....through all the sprawl and ugly highway stuff till we get to the freeway. On the freeway it's smooth sailing most of the way. Just as things seem to be getting under way - at about 8pm - it's time for the dinner stop.
Did I sayTibet Colony was "first"? Sorry, that's not first. First, we have to have a rigorous checking of tickets to ensure each seat is occupied by the person specified on the ticket. International airports should have such thorough security checks, it would solve a lot of problems.
At about 2 in the morning, we get to a really horrible part in the ride (it's too dark to see much) on twisty, hairpin up and down roads. Again, this is a lot more fun if you are not in the back. Sometimes it seems like constant up and down. there was a point at which I was sure I was going to puke (in fact a kid a few seats in front did puke, or it sounded like it). Fortunately at this point we made a tea stop and I got some breath mints to calm my stomach.
The high points of the bus trip were the fat Tibetan nun who was harbouring a tiny Lhasa Apso in her Lhap and the delicious paneer naan at the bhajan-blaring dhaba. Literal high points came about every 10 minutes or so when we'd hit a bump and I was jolted into the air (everyone else seemed to weigh a lot more so they remained earthbound, but waif that I am I got picked up and slammed down each time).
Prior to takeoff, a large Spanish contingent had a saucy skirmish with the TD (Ticket Deity) as they had decided to play musical seats and spunkily refused to sit in their originally assigned places. "Mira! Mira!" (look, look!) "Uno dos tres quatros cinquos." TD: "You listen to me." Spaniel: "No, you listen to ME." The TD had obviously mistaken the spirited Spaniards for demure Dutch or guilty postcolonial Brits and thought he could order them around. (Obviously never heard of the Spanish Inquisition.) The Latins won the day and remained unmoved. Badges? we don't need no stinkin badges.
What confuses the international visitor is that things in India absolutely must go the way they are written on paper, with all kinds of dire threats otherwise - heads will roll if you don't sit in the original seat! - unless of course that would be to the visitor's advantage, in which case new rules are made up on a whim out of thin air, never explained and the written version suddenly becomes "not possible." There is never any notice I've been able to detect regarding when the rules apply and when they are chucked out the window. The rules seem to apply all the time, 24 hours a day, until they suddenly don't. Or vice versa (they never apply until they do, at which point they emerge ironclad from nowhere). The nice Spanish family with their kids get harassed for unorthodox seatery; how come the TD didn't get upset about the drunk guy passed out under my feet in the back row?
The Magic Bus pulled into McLlo Square at 7 am. I am just now emerging from my sleepy cocoon. Paljor Gakhyil guesthouse is next-door neighbors with Kailwood; up the same long staircase, clean, quiet, bucket hot water, mouldy pillow smell, 135Rs. ("Bucket hot water"means there is no running hot water; you have to ask the "boy" to boil water in the kitchen and deliver the bucket to your door. Cost: 10 Rs, or about 25 cents.)
At 7am there are no chai stands open, just one Himachali girl and her elderly mother, sitting on a milk crate by the roadside with a butane stove, crusty aluminum pan and a few glasses. The girl's dark almond eyes, smooth ebony hair pulled away from her face, and golden nose ornament reminded me so much of their Nepali cousins.
McLeod is overcast, breezy and cool, with dark blue rainclouds looming. I've been here 24 hours and still haven't seen His Holiness - I'm still in recovery mode.
Astrological forecast: The Mercury Retrograde, with its 3 weeks of communication breakdowns and misunderstandings, ends tomorrow (26 March).
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