Saturday, 17 May 2014

North India – into the Himalayas

We moved on from Jaisalmer to Amritsar, somewhere Sam was dying to get too, a place I was hit and miss about. Amritsar is where the Golden Temple is which is a the holiest Sikh pilgrimage site, now I think this was my first problem, I do enjoy seeing temples/places of worship but there is something in me that also feels rather uncomfortable about me visiting, like I don’t believe places like this should be used as a tourist attraction, if that makes sense? I can see why they are and for others it maybe amazing to see a place that means so much to another but there is an air of unease within myself when I am there, it’s like I have entered someone’s house uninvited. However even with all these thoughts it was spectacular to see and did hold a real sense of pure beauty about it, its grand statue was incredible and the place was buzzing with prayer and believers that it did hold a fame of magic around it, with my thinking shifting I could see why this was a place of awe and beauty and I felt rather privileged to have visited somewhere others are dying to see.

That evening we did the standard border parade, which it seemed everyone there was going to do, in my mind I had that it would be a normal border with a few guards and a military style patrol, oh how wrong I was, it was a spectacle even Walt Disney would have been proud of, the ‘wind the crowd up guy’, the theatrical uniforms, the music and dancing, the stalls which everyone was ushered too, the whole thing was a performance that could have been performed at a theme park. The border parade happens every evening when India and Pakistan close the border to each other for the night, somehow this day to day occurrence has become a show in to itself and for two countries that are enemy’s the whole thing felt quite jovial. Sam had this on one of his top things to do so I was pleased we had been able to enjoy it and it had lived up to more than it could have expected, all in all our day in Amritsar was jam packed but full of beauty and hilarity.

The next morning we left early for our bus to McLeod Ganj (Dharamshala), sadly we had to do a bit of a journey as we couldn’t get a direct bus and had to stop off and then get onto a night bus, so with a full day of travel we arrived into the mountains and our breaths were taken away with the beauty in front of us, snow capped mountains, tasty Tibetan street food snug woolen wear, after all that heat we were ready to get wrapped up and enjoy ambling the mountain streets. We had planned 7 days in McLeod but ended staying 10 due to an unexpected meeting with the Dalai Lama, we had chosen a beautiful guesthouse that offered the most spectacular views, we had a top star balcony that overlooked the Kangra Valley and a bed that eventually looked comfy, for £7.70 (a night) we couldn’t complain. Our first day when we arrived it rained down and we bought some new yak woolen scarf’s and nestled into our jackets, we found a café that served cake and tea and I enjoyed an earl grey and delicious slice of chocolate cake, with the rain beating down It really did feel home from home, and you know what, I liked it.
We enjoyed a beautiful thunder storm that night that kept us at our window and eyes ablaze as the whole sky lit up then boomed down upon our heads, it felt magic being in the mountains, the weather felt so fierce and loud and the sky was just amazing to watch, we eventually drifted into our beds in the early hours and woke the next day to bright skies and a spring in our step for exploration.

McLeod is around 1850m above sea level, it’s classed as part of the Himalayan range and although is part of India its population is mainly Tibetan as its where the Tibetans took refuge when China invaded, then occupied Tibet (1950’s), the Dalai Lama escaped the Chinese occupation in 1959 and fled to McLeod taking with him a number of Tibetans, although they are classed as refugees the Indian government welcome the Tibetans and have offered them a place where they can still be who they are and not reform to what the Chinese government wants.

It was refreshing to have new foods to eat, new religion to understand and new conversations to have, we knew with our time there we wanted to do a couple of treks, visit the Buddhist temple complex, hear a talk in the museum and enjoy Bhagsu Falls, we managed all this and more, although some days were spent wandering, eating and indulging in the views around us.

Our main trek we did was Triund Hill, we climbed from 1850m – 2900m, we were able to do the trek alone which was amazing, as with my knees I knew my pace would be slow and it allowed me to plod, my favorite way of trekking. The trek took us from McLeod – Dharamakot, where we had a delicious breakfast getting us ready for the trek ahead, as we set off all pumped and ready we were amazed at the beautiful prayer flags in front of us and the ease of the wind around the hills, after 30minutes we asked someone the way and they informed us ‘you’re going the wrong way’ grumble, we took ourselves back and realized we had just walked straight past the uphill climb to start the trek, oops, we took a positive from it though and were pleased we had seen the amazing prayer flags and seen a part of Dharamakot we would have missed if we had gone straight onto Triund. We then started the ascent and the sweat started, basically from the start to end it was an incline, there was no letting go, 4hrs of uphill climb, we stopped at beautiful tea shops on a couple of occasions and enjoyed looking at how far we had climbed (not looking at how far we had to go), the sites around were of true beauty and looking at all the little villages nestled into the mountains felt incredibly serene, I couldn’t believe how high we were up and how proud I was to be challenging myself to such a arduous climb. I can’t deny I went all the way without a moan and there was a point where I stated to Sam ‘no more, I can’t do it’ but with his cheerful smile, sweaty kiss,  good words and hand in hand he encouraged me on and I couldn’t thank him more when we reached the top I welled with tears, it was beauty beyond thinking, the snow capped mountains lay directly in my vision, we sat for some time just taking in the mountain air and being chuffed at our achievement, we drank chai, chatted with others and took the mandatory pictures before making the decent downhill. That night we both slept with smiles on our faces, it felt special achieving something so large and knowing I didn’t give up but carried on right to the end, and what an end it was.

We used the next few days to relax, recover and read planning what other delights McLeod had in store for us, on one of our bumbles down to the Buddhist temple complex we spotted a poster stating the Dalai Lama was holding a receiving ceremony that Saturday in McLeod, we couldn’t believe our luck, Sam had stated he hoped to meet him but I had laughed at the remark never believing an opportunity like this would or could arise. The poster informed us to take our passports and register the Dalai Lama office, then turn up on Saturday, we couldn’t believe it could be so easy but it was, once we registered we were told to be in line for 7am and the line would go as planned. Our next day was a bit of a haze, filled with excitement we rang our parents and informed them what would be happening, much to my mother’s disbelief (and ours really), it just didn’t feel real, we speculated about what it would be like and how the day would go, if he would speak to us, shake our hand or just bless us, it all just felt an excited dream.
On the Friday we went to the Tibetan Museum and went to a talk on the missing Panchem Lama, it was really interesting and due to it being the Panchem Lama birthday there was a lot of awareness talks and information sharing occurring in the museum. The Panchem Lama is like the son of the Dalai Lama and China have stolen him and replaced him with their own Panchem Lama, due to China wanting Tibetans to stop believing in the Dalai Lama and pushing their own beliefs onto the Tibetan population. The afternoon was so informative and afterwards we had chai and biscuits with a few of the speakers and others listening, we got talking to one women who moved to McLeod from American some 14yrs ago and one conversation led to another and we started talking about the meeting with the Dalai Lama, she informed us he hadn’t done something like he was tomorrow for around 20yrs, so we were very lucky, she told us we had good karma and her warming smile and interesting talks just got us more prepped for the big day.

Saturday came around and we joined the long line of people arriving to meet his high holiness, the queue was hyped with excitement and you could see the smiling faces of a long line of tourists and locals, the line moved quite quickly and we soon found ourselves in the main hall, there was around 2-3k people, a lot more then I imagined they thought they would have sign up and my guess was the receiving line wasn’t to happen as expected. After some time we were informed that they only expected around 500 but 2500 had signed up therefore meaning the proceedings had changed and instead of a receiving line, group photos would be taken then a talk. We were grouped into different countries, ours being a brilliant mix of different countries (as organization went a bit hay wire), when he came out from his home it was magical, the swarms of people left there photo group to get a glimpse but I decided to wait until he came over our side so instead of a stolen glace I could see him in his whole. After around 15 minutes, he came tottering over, smiling, happy and full of jubilation, he had around 5 body guards and stumbled into the middle of our group, reaching for hands and sharing smiles, my body filled with warmth I haven’t felt before when meeting someone and it was just this heightened sense of overwhelmed happiness. I looked at Sam and his eyes had welled, there was such a strong sense of spirituality in the room and people were awe struck at how laid back the whole event was and how the Dalai Lama just took it all in his stride. Our photos were taken in such a quick shot and it was time for him to move on, but wow, that feeling, that magic of him standing right in front of me will never leave me and it days like this that reminded me the importance of travel, new experiences and looking into the hearts of others.

The talk after was about the importance of making peace through our actions and not through prayer, I think this is an element a I love Buddhism so much as that even though its classed as a religion it is more of a teaching and I think the essence of learning rather than preaching is so important, something I feel this talk really opened my eyes and ears too. A lot of what was being said really rang home to my learning I have just completed back home around feminism and sharing the message and I think the power of sharing thoughts and feelings is so important as it spreads the word and allows it to be brought to the surface. The talk last around 30mins and was just inspirational, there were laughs, tears and just a lot of very happy listeners. When he finished and left he walked straight past Sam and I, it felt a welcome goodbye and I couldn’t have been more thankful for the experience had.

In all of India I have never felt as welcome as what I did when in McLeod, the smiles on people’s faces, the daily hellos from locals, knitting with the women on the street and talking about wool, eating the most delicious street food (momos), dining on pumpkin pie and caramel lattes in my favorite café, eating at the same restaurant four nights in a row, the whole place just made me feel so comfortable and Sam and I both agreed it would be a place we were sad to leave but would definitely come back too many times again. 

We left the following day and heading on an early morning bus to Manali, Manali was totally different to McLeod and although we enjoyed it didn’t feel near as beautiful or community based and it did feel more like we had arrived at a skiing/activity town rather than a place people lived. The beautiful snow capped mountains had buildings upon buildings on top of each other and it felt more like a construction site with all the work being carried out. Besides all this though we did get on one amazing trek to Solong Valley and although the end result was as amazing as Triund, the walk there was really special and was a brilliant trek to undertake. We chose to take the route through the forest rather than the road and enjoyed trekking through a number of apple orchards, sadly the apples weren’t in bloom but the trees had started to flower and it was just amazing being so far up and all these incredible fruit trees around us. We came across a beautiful waterfall and used it to bathe our faces and cool down, we also managed to get stuck on the wrong side of the river, thinking we could take a short cut and sadly couldn’t, it was great to explore though and see the locals working away and watch the fast flowing currents. When we came to the end of our trek we found a nice grassy knowl and enjoyed the sun before catching the last bus home.
We enjoyed an amazing day down by the river the following day, the sun come out so we took advantage and went for a dip in the mountain water, and we found a sandy nook and spent the day, reading, relaxing and enjoying the scenery that surrounded us. Our second trek was sadly cancelled because of me falling ill, so a day of bed rest and sleep took over as Sam planned our last week in India.

We knew we had to be in Rishikesh for the Saturday as our long awaited reunion with Ben and Claire was to take place, we were filled with nerves and excitement at the prospect of seeing them both after a year and a half. It felt weird as even though we have spoke over the last few years when they were in Oz, it was just the sense of seeing them and maybe those nerves were just pure excitement. When we saw them it felt we were all overwhelmed with emotion and group hugged on the side of the road spreading the love and holding each other with sheer delight to be in each others company again.

The next four days were filled with a highlight of our trip so far, we spent pretty much every moment with each other, talking, listening, hearing of each others adventures and experiences over the last years and filling each other in on tales of home and plans for when back.

We used our time in Rishikesh well and felt it was a perfect setting (apart from the lack of alcohol for a glass of vino or a beer), we explored abandoned ashrams, swam in the clear blue ganges, losing hours of time in cafes, drinking numerous amounts of tea and coffee, swimming in waterfalls, eating tasty food and shared travelling tips and do's and dont's, Rishikesh held an awe of beauty and peacefulness about it and it was brilliant for wandering around aimlessly enjoying each other’s company and being in each other’s presence. We even managed a few sneaky drinks on the beach before being asked to go home by the police, oops. All in all we couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend our last few days and I felt our relationships hadn’t just strengthened but had grown also at this sense of newness about us all, we have all grown and changed and it felt great to still have that sameness when together, I always feel it’s the element of true friendship.

We said our goodbyes on our last night, knowing it wouldn’t be long before we saw each again but still feeling sad the last four days had passed like a flash, it started with a group hug and ended with one, our loves were said and it was time to head to Delhi for our last India stop.

We got an early bus the next morning and arrived in Delhi for the cricket, with no time to stop and think we dropped our bags off and headed straight to the cricket. I am not a big sports fan and cricket is certainly not one sport I love but Sam was dying to go as he had followed the IPL whilst being in India, it was a fun atmosphere and I actually found myself enjoying the four hours we spent there, sadly the Delhi dare devils lost but I so learnt cricket is not like football and you cheer for the runs not for your team. We headed back to the hotel that night and had news of some very exciting news back home, making me miss the homelands but being reminded of how important this adventure is now, the news left us falling asleep with happy hearts and big smiles knowing we were on our journey and what a journey it was.

We used our next day well and did our last bit of shopping, sent our last post and headed to the airport ready for the next 24hrs to Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia. With India at an end I felt relived but also sad; my body was ready for cleanliness and some sort of order, rather than the manic times of Indian ways. The first 3 months of the trip have been beautiful in every way and however challenging India didn’t throw as many curveballs as I expected, I left knowing it would be a place that will always be in my heart and will always be a place I travel back too, now there is just more places I will want to visit and those 3wk holidays will become a bit more crammed. 

Link for North India pictures: