Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Himalayas, Here I Come!

Well, I've been off the train now for a little while and in the town of McLeod Ganj, home of the Dali Lama and at edge of the Himalayas!

After the first night on the train I was beginning to figure out how everything worked, and getting the hang of the whole thing. Although there isn't much to figure out really, you just sit there. And sit there. And sit there. But it's not that bad, I wasn't even really getting bored, it was actually pretty relaxing most of the time. My only real complaint is about the food. Breakfasts were small and overpriced, and lunch and dinner were basically the same thing every day, and it wasn't very good... Rice, dhal, veg/chicken curry, chapatti, curd and water. Oh well, it got the job done.

Most of the ride I spent sitting in my seat reading, looking out the window or using my computer, but a few times a day I'd go stand or sit by the door (when the space wasn't taken by someone else, as it often was) with my feet hanging out and just watch the scenery go by.

Speaking of the scenery, while it was nice, and it was interesting to watch the vegetation change as I got further and further north, in all honesty there was never a great deal to look at. Other than passing through small towns which I enjoyed, mostly what I saw was just flat flat flat farm land. From time to time there would be some nice looking hills, and the occasional river, but we were never passing through forests, chugging along a river or winding through any mountains.

Sunset over a rice paddy on the second night. I guess besides looking pretty, sunsets are a good way through photos to indicate the passage of time, haha.

The one thing I did see on a daily basis that kept me interested was military hardware. Probably two to three times a day I saw trains loaded with tanks, trucks, jeeps or artillery. Interestingly enough many of them seemed to be headed south, away from Pakistan and the Kashmir area where all the action is. I'm no tank expert, I've only seen a few shows on the History Channel and whatnot, but most all of the tanks looked to me like 70s era Soviet units (this photo was the most modern tank I saw). The kind of tanks so obsolete that an American tank could take them out from 3 miles away without ever being seen. One thing I saw that I found amusing was that since soldiers were on the trains as well, many of them had used the barrel of the tanks as a support to put a tent on, and they would hang out in the shade it created, haha.

While the food through India Rail wasn't all that great, there were other options as well. Especially at larger stops, people would jump aboard the train, or sell through the open windows, all sorts of food, a service I partook in once or twice with great satisfaction. People would also come on board selling other totally useless junk, but none of them were pushy at all so that was nice.

Sunset over a small town on the third and final night of the ride of the ride. The nights were easy enough; people were generally quiet, the sheets were clean and the fold-down bed was comfortable enough. I lucked out on my seat a bit. The way the car is setup is that on one side of the isle there is a berth with 6 bunks, three levels on both sides. On the other side of the isle, there is just two total. That meant that come night time, I could pull the curtains closed, and have my own tiny little 'room' complete with my own window and an outlet. A much more private situation than sharing one with five other people.

That night something unusual happened: my wireless internet actually worked at a reasonable speed for the first time EVER. It is advertised as being up to 3.1Mbps (in the major cities where the infrastructure is in place of course) but I did a few tests and the typical speed I got over the entire month was .09Mbps! It would take about a minute to open a new page, Skype was impossible and made posting my blog a chore every time. Anyways, while the train was passing through Delhi, I figured if the speed was going to be decent anywhere it would be here, and sure enough I got a blazing .5Mbps!

This still isn't a lot, but it was finally enough to use Skype and I took advantage of the opportunity. Right away I started calling family members to say hello, and got a hold of my dad, both grandmothers, my great aunt and an uncle. I tried calling a few other people, but naturally not everyone was home. I was probably disturbing other passengers on the train because I was up until 1:30am talking, but whatever, because of the time difference between India and the States, and given the problems I'd had getting a decent connection it was the only time I could call people, and it was very nice to get a chance to talk to a few people. Indians generally take family seriously, so I'm sure they would all understand, haha.

The next morning had arrived, the last day of the ride, and the train had already covered over 3000km. As we got farther and farther north I saw the first signs of mountains in the area; wide, rocky, mostly dry river beds. They reminded me of the kind of outflow areas you see at the base of glaciers in Alaska, and no doubt when the winter snow is melting in the Himalayas, these areas turn into major water features. We began passing over more rivers, another sign we were getting near the source.

If you squint, you can see it! On the horizon, above the trees you can see snow capped mountains! It was rather hazy out, and they are a long ways off, but what you are seeing there is about as good a view as I was able to get myself. That said, this was my first sighting of snow since being back in the states last winter, so the first glimpse of snow got me excited! I came to this part of India (and now to Nepal) to see the mountains, and finally it is happening.

In the afternoon, I finally arrived in Jamu, 3700km from where I started at the very southern tip of India! The train trip was over, and totally worth it. On the train I met Philip, a guy from Kerala. He studied journalism in school and is headed north to work as a journalist, going up to Srinagar for a few months. We got to chatting, and he offered to help me out. Always looking to make new friends on the road I said yes of course, and we hopped into an auto to find a room to share. For some reason (“due to the security situation here”) it took a little bit of effort to find a room that would take an Indian and a foreigner but it ended up not being a problem.

After we got our room at a place called 'McDollar', and painted with red and yellow like the burger place, we set off walking. This particular shot is of an area across the Tawi river from where we were staying, but on the opposing hillside is this cool fort which for some reason had a ferris wheel, a nice garden, and a really cool looking white temple with stairs into the river. The temple has massive figures of Ganesha and other religious symbols, painted in pastel colors and probably 30 feet tall. I wish we had time to go over for a closer look.

This is a gun store. One of many. I found this very strange. Jamu is the first place in India I've seen such stores, but what makes this strange is the town is seriously militarized. “Due to the situation with Kashmir” or something, it's all a little vague. But Literally everywhere you look, you see armed soldiers standing about keeping watch. Many areas are closed off with barbed wire, checkpoints are at points along the road (though they seemed to have no effect on traffic flow, no checking was actually being done) and little barbed wire and sandbag outposts are strewn about the town. I didn't feel comfortable taking photos of the operations, so this gun shop will have to stand in. I looked into two of them, and interestingly enough most of the firearms they were selling were old-style shotguns; mostly side-by-side 12-gauge, but a few bolt action rifles as well. I didn't see any pistols other than an airgun. But anyways, the military was certainly out in force (looking for Pakistanis or something?? Remember, someone down south told me they are all terrorists!) and given the various restrictions in the area I found gun shops very surprising.

The mission Philip and I were really on was figuring out how to take the bus to our respective destinations the next morning, Philip heading to Srinagar and me going to Mcleod Ganj.

The reason I am headed there of course is because it is the home of the Dali Lama, and the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile. I hadn't really put much thought into heading there until I saw in the papers that the Dali Lama was stepping down as a political leader and that a conference would be taking place in Mcleod Ganj. Not only that but that the Dali Lama himself would be there of course, and that on the 19th he is doing a public 'teaching'. The prospect of seeing the Dali Lama speaking in his adopted home in India, after such an announcement obviously has me very interested, so that is the plan.

Figuring out the bus situation was classic crazy India. Since there is very little organization, and because information is never centralized, finding a bus was a challenge. Philip did all the talking really, I just stood by laughing at the madness of it all. We talked to probably a dozen different people, all giving different information about weather a bus is available to go from here in Jamu to Darmsala (the transportation hub just south of Mcleod Ganj). Some said there was no public bus, some said there was no private bus, some said there was a night bus, others in the morning. Some said I had to go to another town and transfer, and the whole time we seemed to have an audience, probably because I was the only foreigner around. This is another situation where I didn't get good photos, and words can't really describe it. The sun was setting, buses were everywhere, people were yelling, families were sitting on their piles of belongings, old men hobbled about. It is probably the place so far in India that has felt the most different to me. The people here are look different from anywhere else I've been. Old men with turbans and beards died red, a mixture of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs so many people who obviously live very far from the modern world.

I can't say we really solved the bus situation, but we had a vague idea of what to do the next day, and that we did believe in fact that there really was a direct bus to where I needed to go. With that (not really) settled, we headed back towards the room through the bazaar. It is a slightly intense area of shops selling lots of cashmere and silk, nuts and cellphones. And of course there are the armed soldiers everywhere.

Philip and I went to grab a bite of food, some tasty Tibetan mumus, and on the way back towards the room I was approached by a local who wanted to chat. He asked where I was from and my name, standard fare, and as we kept talking a crowd began to gather. Before I knew it I had more than 20 people watching me as I tried to talk to three locals at once, who were asking me about America, about Islam, the power of the English language, about all kinds of things. Everyone wanted to know my name and shake my hand. It was intense, but I was enjoying it, because I think these kinds of cross-cultural exchanges are very valuable. After maybe 5 minutes (I'm really not sure) an armed soldier came up to me and said “Now is not the time to be talking about such things” (meaning religion, which I was certainly not the one to have brought it up) and I got the message right away. It was strange, because almost the whole time I had another armed soldier in my 'audience' and he was telling me that the fear and danger of terrorism in Kashmir was mostly “propaganda.” Anyways, the second soldier was friendly, but I realized it was seriously time for me to go. Talk about an interesting experience...

Once we had made our 'escape' we headed up the hill and through the narrow streets in search of some tea. Once we found some, we sat down to drink and again people were coming up to me and saying hello. It's pretty clear this town doesn't get many foreigners, and I couldn't help but thing it would be an amazing place to spend a month in learning more about it and it's people. Anyways, we went back to the room for a bit, I finally bathed after three nights on the train, we went back out for some food and called it a night.

In the morning we woke up to get to the bus stand by 8am. As we walked through the streets, I was a bit surprised by how few shops were open, I guess they sleep in here in Jammu! Of the many scenes I saw on my way to the bus stand, this was just one of many. I guess this is a good example of how different this town can be, horse drawn carts are not the norm as cars and motos dominate, but they are not an uncommon sight at all, nor is that kind of dress.

When we got to the bus stand, unlike what we were told the previous day, the direct bus to Darmsala was in fact a myth, and I got a bus to Pathankot instead, where I'd then get a bus to Darmsala. No big deal. While waiting for the bus to leave, Philip and I got some breakfast at a local place. I guess I'm still naive, but I assumed with an Indian with me I'd be fairly safe from being ripped off. I was wrong. After we ate, they told us our breakfast would be 200 rupees!! I knew this was total bullshit, that it should cost 60 at most, but I guess some shop owners don't care if you are American or Indian, if you are not from the area you will likely be taken advantage of. I was pretty mad, and initially refused to pay, 100% prepared to make a total scene, but I didn't want to subject Philip to that.... 

At this point Philip and I split up.  He was very helpful, friendly, and generous.  The same as every new Indian friend I've made on the road, and his companionship and kindness more than makes up for the others who have taken advantage of me, haha. Thank you so much Philip for everything and safe travels.

Anyways, I got on the bus, which cost just 62 rupees for a 4+ hour ride. I sat in the very front, which I quickly realized might not be the best idea. After about a half dozen near misses with head-on collisions, I realized I was the crumple zone. At one point we were within probably 6 inches from hitting another bus, but then again that is just every day driving out here.

Here is an example of the militarization of the area I was in, which I was trying to explain earlier. In the middle of the road is a tank, and a sign that says “Nations Pride... Neighbors Envy. Welcome to Jammu.”

Now here is something that totally tripped me out. As I was on the bus with the window open for some fresh air, as it was rather hot out, I got a huge, unmistakeable will of the smell of marijuana. I couldn't imagine someone was smoking on the bus, but I looked out the window and realized the entire roadside was covered in marijuana plants! Nearly every bit of green in this photo is marijuana, two or three different types. I have no idea if this was the kind that would actually be potent enough to smoke or if it was more like the type that is used for simple hemp fibers and has no psychoactive effects, but I know this region is famous for marijuana and it was sure strange to see all along the road like that. Out here it certainly lives up to the name 'weed' because it sure grows like one.

On this bus ride, I left the state of Jammu & Kashmir which I was in for oh such a brief moment, and moved into the state of Himachal Pradesh. Before crossing the boarder (where naturally the bus was just waved through) it stopped along with seemingly every other bus and truck. Right away, we were swarmed by people selling food and other junk and I bought some grub. I don't know the name of these little fried doughy bits, but served in a newspaper cone, slathered in sauce, and only costing 10 rupees, it was money well spent. I also got some equally delicious oranges through the window of the buss before heading back on the road.

Once the bus from Pathankot arrived in Darmsala, I still had a third bus to catch to get to McLeod Ganj, but it was a 10 rupee and 10km ride, no big deal. The ride up was quite nice, finally after a month and a half here in India I was getting out of the flat lands and into the hills and towards the mountains! Also, I had entered the first proper forest I've seen here which also had me very excited. The town of McLeod Ganj is a truly beautiful place, a small town on top of a ridge over a mile high, and sitting at the base of the Dhauladhar Range which is up to 18,000 feet high and connected to the Himalayas. The HIMALAYAS! I made it! These are actually the snowy mountains I saw from the train the other day, now here I am at the base of them! I found a pretty nice room in town for 250 rupees, said 'hi' to a few other travelers, and went out in search of dinner.

I went in search of a place to eat dinner, have a beer and enjoy the view, and I found a place that didn't disappoint. Unfortunately I forget the name right now, but it is right near the main junction, the 'beer and wine bar'. The food I got was quite good, and the view was fantastic. This is Dhauladhar peak, at over 18,000 feet, looming high above the town.

And here is the sunset from the roof as I ate dinner. Simply fantastic. This was one of those moments when I just start grinning and laughing, just about how awesome the trip is, how beautiful it is here, how much fun I'm having, how fortunate I am, how happy I am, everything. It's just this overwhelming feeling that hits me sometimes out here and I absolutely love it.

The plan for the next few days looks amazing. Today I met a German guy named Elmar and we are having breakfast. Then I'm going to register to see the Dali Lama speak in a few days and explore town and the temples, maybe check out a waterfall or something. The next day Elmar and I, along with another American guy I've yet to meet are going to do a day hike up to the snow, the day after that I'll see the Dali Lama speak here in his adopted home town, and the day after that I'll be headed to Manali, an even more mountainous town. It's all just too cool, I can't help but smile and laugh.