KAMAON’S REGIONAL CAPITAL OF ALMORA, set on the side of a valley at 1600 metres in the Himalayan foothills, was a sight for sore eyes after a journey of over fifty five hours. We had crossed three time zones and entered another world – exchanging cultures as disparate as Mercury and Pluto…
We had departed Kingsford Smith on a wintry but sunny afternoon and were lucky enough to use the north-south runway for a birds eye view over the city. Sydney Harbour glistened and its icons sparkled in invitation of our return. Later we enjoyed an overview of previous trips set out in the South China Sea far below, and passed through Hong Kong in a midnight blur. Continuing across India we caught snatches of sleep here and there with me contorted into prone positions like an Indian rubber man. We arrived at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport at 1:30am and it was already 32 degrees.
After waiting for four hours in the arrival hall with other victims of the night, I slipped into my Punjabi salwar, ditched my travel weary western shirt and we headed for the new Metro. It was most unsettling to find ourselves the ONLY passengers on the subway! We didn’t have to queue to buy tickets, we waited alone on the platform, and took our choice of seats when the shiny new train came along! It was not until we reached Delhi Central and popped out at the railway station with a fresh waft of urine and incense in our nostrils that we were finally in India – larger than life.
IT THRONGED AROUND US AS we shuffled, somewhat overwhelmed, to the ‘cloak room’ to leave our luggage for the day, and then on a grand tour of the station to find the foreigner’s ticket office and witness a fiasco of disorganisation at its sub-continental best. But we emerged triumphant after an hour and a half with two AC sleeper berths on that evening’s Ranikhet Express.
By then the day was well on its way to the expected maximum of 43 degrees and it had been nineteen hours since we had eaten anything, so breakfast was our next priority. A couple of plates of idli sambar, fluffy steamed rice cakes with curry, in Paharganj was a good start, then sweet lassis down on Connaught Place, followed by iced coffee at the well-hidden Indian Coffee House – a decrepit shadow of its former self.
Later we caught up with Soni, cousin of Dave’s work colleague Deepindar, at his phone shop on Middle Circle; had an indulgent 100 rupee thali at the English Dairy Family Veg; and checked out some guesthouses for future reference in between browsing the air-conditioned shops. In our casual observations we noted a few changes to the Delhi we had last visited fourteen years earlier. Most striking was the complete absence of roaming cows and, of course, their excrement. But also the Ambassadors which previously had ruled supreme were now in the minority among the automobile component of the roadways.
The afternoon wore us down, and by 4 o’clock we were so hot and tired that we took the subway to Old Delhi Station at Chadni Chowk to begin the long wait for our departure (luckily the occupants of the ‘ladies carriage’ afforded Dave honorary membership for the short ride!).
A thick haze kept temperatures high and in the sweltering waiting room we found five minutes of bliss when we doused ourselves with a cold water sluice in the lavatory’s wash room, and six hours of supreme discomfort. By the time we were due to head to platform 5 I was ready to succumb to heat stress and fatigue – only the thrill of joining the throng on the platform and the promise of an air-conditioned carriage pulled us from our reverie. We waited with a heaving mass of humanity, the contents of two long-distance trains crammed and seething like boiling blood. Noise from the locomotive added to the rabble, and red clad porters moved through the crush piled high with Samsonite ports and well-to-do families in tow, with even the children looking nonplussed amid the sensational scene.
At 10pm a Kanpur bound train pulled in and relieved some of the congestion, then at 10:20pm our train arrived initiating another round of yelling and scrambling. We shuffled along with the crowd, and will always find it marvelous that amid such chaos we can find amongst the lists of hundreds of names posted at the door of each carriage our own identities in black and white print.
We gratefully climbed aboard the Ranikhet Express, found our much longed for lower and middle berths in ‘3 tier AC’, unfolded our bedding and promptly fell fast asleep. Everybody else did the same and the train moved off into the night with barely a murmur. I was disturbed by nothing, only vaguely aware of movement and the frequent but distant whistle from the locomotive. I slept soundly until 6am, surprised to see light creeping through the window.
WHEN I PEEKED OVER THE side of my bunk to see if Dave was awake we were just arriving in Haldwani (as I found out from a fellow passenger when I went on my scouting mission), and a mere fifteen minutes later we had reached the rail head of Kathgodam. The rail line went as close as possible to the mountains without ascending them. We were still on the plains, but the line and the station were hemmed in by the hills. Percussion musicians and garlands of marigolds welcoming an important rishi added to the atmosphere of the place. But breakfast was just a wish, instead we stood by the roadside uphill from the station waiting for a bus going our way.
It was close to an hour before our calls of “Almora” were heard by a bus that cared, and we squeezed onto an already crowded vehicle. We perched on the spare tyre for most of the three hour ride, winding our way one hundred kilometres up into the foothills of the greatest mountain range on earth, with masala filmi music playing just a little too loudly, and politely smiling at the grating of our knees and elbows with our fellow travellers.
The stretches of road which hadn’t been swallowed up by landslips were quite good, but the going was slow and I found myself looking expectantly for our destination around each bend for the last fifteen kilometres…
ALMORA DIDN’T DISAPPOINT – ARRIVING THERE wasn’t at all daunting and we simply wandered off down The Mall to find Hotel Shikhar “3 star comfort and reasonable tariff”. Five hundred rupees did stretch our budget, but we couldn’t be bothered searching around when we had found a spacious room with a balcony and hazy views of the Kamaon Hills – the promise of food was beckoning. It wasn’t until 11 o’clock that we were able to break our fast of twenty-one hours with an aloo paratha from a nearby dhaba. Then we set to washing off the funk of fifty-five hours – amazingly we needed hot water for our ablutions when just twelve hours before I’d been rinsing my body with water from the refrigerated cooler!
We didn’t have much inclination for activity that day – we bought mangoes and bananas, found a good thali with tandoori roti, sabzi and dal makhania at Hotel Mansrovar in Lala Bazaar, and had a lovely chat over huge chunks of watermelon with 93 year old Shah at the Kailash Guesthouse.
The lazy Sunday Almora was replaced the next day with its normal activity. We didn’t do much more than mooch around the Lala Bazar observing the India which we love most. The bazaar ran along the ridge top from which the town dramatically dropped, and its old wooden shopfronts bore the wares of a time past, like open sacks of grain and lentils, and hand-beaten pots. The population was a mixed bag including Nuwaris, ladies in sarees and salwar kamaaz, self-assured cows and sleeping dogs. This was not a tourist town, the faces in the street were clearly local, and we saw hardly any other foreigners. The only negative was that my appetite had deserted me, and I ate barely more than a sweet “ball mithai”, the local speciality of milk fudge covered with sugar balls.
I was feeling much better the following day, so we decided to make a side trip to Jageshwar in order to see more of the Kamaon Hills in peaceful surrounds. Saying our goodbyes in the lobby of Hotel Shikhar we met Harit, a high government official, also leaving though with much more fanfare than us. After an engaging conversation he gave me a crisp ten rupee note, and told me to keep it forever – for it was blessed!
Finding a bus going our way was easier than finding breakfast. After some initial confusion we found our way through the alleyways which led over the ridge to Dharanaula bus stand, and were soon on our way along the windy mountain road which led to the east. What’s not to enjoy about being surrounded by friendly faces, amid wonderful scenery, dramatic filmi soundtracks (just a little too loud), and a short distance to cover – forty kilometres in two hours – very shanti!
THE CONDUCTOR GAVE US THE thumbs up at the appropriately quaint village of Artola, where we ate a leisurely breakfast of chapatis, aloo mirch, dal and black chana curry before shouldering our bags and walking the last three kilometres to our destination. The quiet road followed a stream through a narrow valley clad in pine and flowering rhododendron forest. The smell cleansed our nostrils and cleared our heads. At the end of the road Jageshwar fit perfectly into the landscape, the seventh century temples sat beside a village of stone and shale houses with a magnificent deodar forest rising all around it.
We found Krishna, whom we’d met in Artola, and followed him to his guesthouse Tara, where 200 rupees bought a comfortable room with a view of the village. We spent a leisurely afternoon having fun with some kids at a tree shaded mandir and visiting the tenth century Dandeshwar temple, located in a forest glen carpeted with green grass and pine needles, and singing with the sound of a babbling brook, cicadas and twittering birds. There were whistling thrush, minivets, redstarts, cuckoos and hoopoes. It was incredibly beautiful. At around 1900 metres in altitude, the summer temperature was perfect, with just enough heat to atomise the fragrance of the pine.
That evening we chatted on our balcony with Maryanna, our Dutch neighbour, watching the full moon and then a thunderstorm erupt over the valley.
A hike in the mountains was an excellent reason to stay for another day, and we were out the door before 6 o’clock the next morning, following Krishnas directions to Vridh Jageshwar, “always the main path, always up”. We climbed four hundred metres over three kilometres out of the deodar forest and through pine and rhododendron to reach a ridge top high above the village. There was an old temple there, and although we could see the mountains climbing away to the north, the snowy peaks of the high summits were still frustratingly invisible through the haze. The route we took was alive with birdlife – as well as woodpeckers, parrots, tree pies and blue flycatchers, we spotted a kalij pheasant and a great barbet. It took one hour to make the climb, but we spent a leisurely four hours returning, napping here and there, inhaling the fresh air and the pine resin being collected in tin cups. Before our final descent we watched from a high vantage above the village a funeral pyre in action in the stream behind the temple – a scene which could have been from a thousand years past.
When we got home I was ravenous, and it was Dave’s turn to be without appetite – he watched in amazement as I downed a plate of rice, three chapatis, two katoris of aloo gourd, one of dal, a plate of cucumber and a bowl of curd, while he made a feeble attempt on a vegetable cheela – which turned out to be a big mistake, as it only served to prolong his suffering at the hands of a microbial demon. My demon was much less voracious.
After plenty of rest and rehydration we deemed ourselves fit for travel the next morning, and so waited with Krishna at his photo shop by the temple for the seemingly unlikely event of a passing bus. As one of the twelve holy jyoti lingams, Jageshwar saw a small but steady stream of pilgrims seeking the blessing of Shiva, and we watched the first stirrings of pooja activity in the beautiful forest setting until the call of the barbets was joined by the honk of our bus which appeared as promised just before 8 o’clock.
We were back in Almora by 10 o’clock, where we stocked up on cash and medicines (just in case the demons required more than starvation to seal their demise) before continuing on our way – now northward to Bageshwar.
The roads wound away from Almora like tentacles along the ridge tops, and our bus staggered off under the weight of so many passengers, with us taking standing positions in its depths. After one and a half hours of weaving down bends along the ridges we stopped for a much-needed break, and shortly after we were both seated in a favourable re-shuffle. So the next two hours were somewhat more comfortable.
BAGESHWAR FOR US WAS MERELY an overnight stop because at 3:30pm it was too late to continue on to Gwaldam, but it turned out to be a great spot. We stumbled into the Annapurna Hotel and were gruffly shown to a riverfront room as an offhand croak of “350 rupees” revealed the tariff. Our bathroom had hot water (in season), but at 975 metres a cold wash was good to refresh with, and once clean we took a stroll around town.
Bageshwar clustered around the Bagnath temple at the confluence of the Sarju and Gomti rivers, a very attractive location. In the laneways old carved wooden shopfronts housed traders selling sarees and cookware, and artisans sitting on cushions forging gold and silver jewellery. The temple was festooned with brass bells, and in front was the burning ghats, active with a funeral ceremony which we watched discretely from above on the opposite bank. The fire burned vigorously as extra wood was added as necessary to finish the job. The undertaker gave the pyre regular prods with a long stick until he was satisfied, then the mourners (a group of about thirty men huddled on the riverbank) were called forward to extinguish the fire, scatter the ashes and wrap the unburnable pelvis in a white cloth before hoisting it into the river. They then all stripped off and bathed together before heading off to make pooja. It was quite an evocative scene.
We woke at five the next morning to the sound of bird call and the rushing Gomti River. We were both feeling good, so we enjoyed an excellent breakfast at a nearby dhaba of samosa chole, samosas bathed in chickpea curry with a sweet red sauce, onions and chillies, washed down with a cardamom chai. Fortified, we then climbed the hill between the rivers for a birds eye view of the town – we were soaring with the pariah kites.
At 7:30am a bus took us from the bus stand at our door, in our general direction up the Gomti River valley. Terraced wheat fields and hamlets shaded by mango trees created a bucolic scene as we bumped along a poorly maintained road, having the wind knocked out of us, for around an hour. We passed the ancient temples of Baijnath on a bend in the river, then in Garur changed our bus for a share jeep going on to Gwaldam. A comically reverberating horn wasn’t going to be enough to get us there safely, so we stopped en route for a priest to pass around prasad and tikka to mark everyones forehead, and were sent off with his bell-clanging blessing.
WE CLIMBED BACK UP TO 1600 metres to reach the large village of Gwaldam laying in the saddle of a pass marking the border between Kamaon and Gharwal. We checked into a ‘delux’ room at the Hotel Trishul – 400 rupees at least bought a geyser and a balcony with a view of the Pindar Valley. Our host Gitoo wasn’t very helpful when it came to suggestions for activities, so we set off to check out our locale, electing a one night stay. The sound of tandoori rotis being slapped out attracted us to Hotel Chandan for a reasonably good 40 rupee thali, then we went for a scenic walk for several kilometres down Roopkund Road, an untrafficked jeep track soft with pine needles. Thunder rumbled overhead and we just made it back with time to spare for chai and some delectable soan papdi at the ‘Mid Point Sweet and Fast Food Centre’ before the storm hit. From our balcony we watched it come across the Pindar Valley, and it struck with surprising force. Hail stones sent us scurrying inside.
It continued into the night and we went to sleep with lightening lighting up the heavens. It was exactly what was needed to clear the skies – Dave was enthusiastically throwing on his clothes at five the next morning, encouraging me to open my eyes. Finally we could see the Himalaya. A short distance down Roopkund Road we found a cracking view of Trisul’s triple peaks soaring to 7120 metres flanked by Nanda Ghunti (6309 metres) and a range of monstrous snow-covered mountains.
Satisfied, and knowing that it would eventually be swallowed again by the haze, we packed our bags and hit the road. We waited at the crossroad with a small group, sipping chai and chatting socially with each other until the bus came – then it was every man for himself. The elderly and infirm were bowled over by the fit and healthy, and those who put up a fight were soon elbowed into submission. Once they’d all crammed inside the doorway as best they could those passengers alighting were then forced to squeeze past this nonsensical human plug. Everyone got a seat anyway and we set off just after 7 o’clock, still checking out the mountains as we disappeared down around the bends to the valley floor.
The bus followed the westerly glacial flow of the Pindari River downstream on a treacherously narrow road, covering the 60 kilometres in just under three hours to Karanprayag, a small town crammed into the confluence with the Alaknanda River. We then changed from the relative safety of our bus to a share jeep driven by a boy unskilled in safe driving practices, who took us on a teeth-clenching ride northwards. This was the way to the most revered and accessible of the ‘char dham‘ and we passed many mendicants, holy men, even a naga baba in all his naked glory, along the scenic route as far as Chamoli, where we were forced to make a pit stop.
The road ahead was apparently blocked by a rock slide and there was nothing to do but wait for it to be cleared. It drew out to four hours before the police gave the thumbs up, and we found another share jeep continuing on to Joshimath. It was slow-going with the traffic back log, but the route was breathtaking, especially at the point of the fresh landslide, and those snow capped mountains now loomed above us.
IT WAS ALMOST DARK WHEN we arrived in Joshimath, a large town clinging to the side of a ravine. We hadn’t intended to stay, but now with little choice, we checked into Charak Guesthouse after some hard negotiating over the room rate – seen as there was no power for the geyser we paid 600 rupees. Our room teetered high above the Badrinath road illuminated with the headlights of pilgrim traffic. Dave ate aloo tikka, I drowned my demon in ‘ORS’, and we went to bed early. There had been no electricity supply anywhere we had been since the storm in Gwaldam – it meant a good nights sleep in quiet darkness, but also no internet, re-charging of phones, and more drastically, no re-charging of the camera battery.
It was raining when we woke and we walked through fresh mudslides in the streets as we searched for onward transport. It was just 5:30am when we were offered a ride to Govindghat with a charter group heading exactly where we were.
The road clung to the side of a narrow gorge for most of the twenty kilometres to Govindghat (1850 metres), a village serviced by a gurdwara able to host five thousand pilgrims in season.
We were warmly welcomed there by the turbaned guardians, and with shoes removed and heads covered, were offered a nourishing breakfast of chapatis, dal, sweet rice and chai in the large dining hall where everyone sat cross-legged on long rows of straw mats. We were also immediately befriended by Gopinder and his brother-in-law, Bittu, who were about to embark on their annual pilgrimage to Hem Kund.
IN ANOTHER TWO WEEKS THERE would be ten thousand pilgrims per day making the trek, but at 7am we were just four when we set off together in the rain up a very inviting-looking trail in the narrow valley of the Hem Ganga. It was fourteen kilometres to our night halt of Gangharia. The traffic on the path was all local – we passed many horse packs and porters, and the scenery from the outset was spectacular, with forests of spruce, birch and rhododendron and, increasingly as we climbed, snow drifts which we had to cross.
The weather gradually improved, birds twittered and we even spotted a little orange mongoose on the trail. Gopinder had set off with great gusto, setting a cracking pace for the first two hundred metres, then he handed his rucksack over to Bittu and fell to the rear – our fearless leader. He obviously had his annual rituals, and after a stop for Maggi noodles he fell even further behind – we waited for him five hundred metres before Gangharia so that we could arrive together at 12 o’clock.
Gangharia sat at 3050 metres in a deodar forest, a pilgrims village empty for most of the year, and just now springing to life for the start of the season. Again we were welcomed to the Sikh gurdwara, also busy preparing for the coming onslaught. We were fed a wholesome lunch of rice, chapatis, dal, acchar and saag aloo. The blackened kitchen was a great place to keep warm – the temperature plummeted in the afternoon with more rain, and we stood by the fires heating giant steaming cauldrons with everyone wearing traditional Sikh dress – it was like stepping into medieval India.
Our accommodation was basic to say the least. Twelve of us shared a room, sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor with the latrines some distance away behind another building – not ideal for those midnight calls of nature which often accompany temperatures below zero, which we were definitely experiencing.
We were woken by the generator at 4am which automatically turned on a light in every room. Under these conditions it was easy to rise early and although our companions were slow to prepare themselves, we were still away at 6 o’clock after a light breakfast.
The sacred lake of Hem Kund Sahib lay at an altitude of 4330 metres, so we had quite a climb. Gopinder was the first to drop behind, and we’d lost Rajiv and Bittu after about half an hour. The weather was perfect with crystal-clear skies impossibly blue, with snow-covered peaks reaching toward it. We zig-zagged upwards spotting other delights like a couple of monal pheasants, a band of long-haired langurs, and the odd marmot scurrying across the trail.
We left the tree-line at 3500 metres and the snow drifts became more frequent – we could see a few turbaned pilgrims on the trail ahead, and we gasped at where we saw the figures going – the way looked impossibly steep and snow bound. The army had began clearing the lower reaches and in parts the passages they had made through the snow were two metres high, topped with fresh powder from the previous afternoons bad weather. As we got higher we followed a route made of rocks, and at that early hour it was covered in black ice, so the going was slow and slippery. Further across the slope the army were just starting work for the day – twenty soldiers painstakingly clearing the snow with shovels, their calls of inspiration to the pilgrims echoing out.
We reached the lake after two and a half hours of exhilarating climbing, and were blown away by the sight of it. Hem Kund was, of course, frozen with a small area below the huge gurdwara cleared for bathing. A few keen starters were cracking the ice and jumping into the crystal clear water just as we arrived! Not being as devout, we touched a few drops to our foreheads.
We were invited into the kitchen (which was buried like a snow cave) for chai, but declined the offer of a meal, instead spending our hour at the top marvelling at the stupendous scenery. All around the mountains soared – Nilgiri Parbat (6475 metres), Rataban (6165 metres), Ghori Parbat (6708 metres), Hathi Parbat (6727 metres), and the lake lay as if in cradle beneath them with the deep valley of the Hem Ganga scooped away at our feet and a trickle from the lake falling into it.
Inside the temple Dave made his work colleague Deepinder’s fifty dollar donation, and we ate the sugary prasad before the long trek back down. The going was easier than expected because the sun had started to melt the black ice. We paused only to chat with those still slogging their way up, including Rajiv and Bittu, Gopinder, and the only group of ladies on the pilgrimage. There were about twenty devotees in all on that particular day.
We were back in Gangharia by lunchtime, so we had a quick meal of rice and dal, collected our bag, and continued on our way back to Govindghat for the night. It was a huge day – twenty-four kilometres, with a total climb of 1300 metres and a descent of 2400 metres – so by the time we walked through the gates of the gurdwara at 4 o’clock we were wasted.
The incredible-looking guardians standing at the gates with spears kindy pointed us in the direction of the room allocator. This time our room remained thankfully empty. We had a meal, a cold water wash, and were fast asleep by 7:30pm, not rousing until 4:30am when the chanting of prayers began.
We were somewhat more animated at breakfast, chatting with one of the chefs who was sporting a golden bandage on his finger, and showing some of our photos of Hem Kund Sahib, the sight of which evoked some concern from those about to depart.
SEEN AS WE WERE SO close to Badrinath, the fourth of the holy Char Dham, we decided to make a side trip. We didn’t imagine that it would be so difficult to make what looked like an easy twenty-five kilometre journey.
We waited by the roadside above the gurdwara for four and a half hours before a share jeep stopped to offer us a ride, then we travelled only a couple of kilometres before being stopped at one of the control barriers restricting the traffic flow to one way. At least now we were seated and entertained by a procession of vendors peddling chai, namkeen, handwoven blankets and pukka saffron threads.
It took a total of two hours to reach Badrinath. The route was spectacular but perilous, a narrow dirt track gouged into the mountainsides high above the raging Alaknanda River.
Badrinath itself, at 3130 metres, was magnificently located in a bowl beneath a circle of peaks. Nilkanth soared magestically at 6560 metres behind the colourful temple which stood out from the dreary town like a peacock in a garbage dump. Finding a room was our second obstacle of the day, and we were soon wishing we’d gone back to Joshimath instead.
After some fruitless searching, a kindly French couple showed us to Bhumika Tourist Lodge where 1500 rupees for a room was at that point acceptable – at least we had a jaw-dropping view of Nilkanth from our bed. We washed almost everything in our pack, finally re-charged our phone and camera battery, scrubbed ourselves clean in hot water, and staggered off to find food – by now our muscles were beginning to stiffen.
We ate an unremarkable South Indian thali at Saket Restaurant, then wobbled around to the temple where several hundred people were queued up to make darshan with the holy image of Vishnu. The place teemed with pilgrims, the wealthy coming by private car, staying at the Sarovar and being carried around in dholis, the sadhus making the gruelling journey by foot, sleeping in makeshift encampments and begging for alms.
Again we retired early – after a knock on the door from the police asking about our intentions. We were only forty kilometres from the touchy subject of the Tibetan border.
With the morning light our muscles had loosened a little, so we took a walk up the valley to Mana – the last village before the border. Above the village the river raged through a narrow chasm bridged by a large boulder called Bhima which we crossed to return by another more scenic route.
Almost back in town, about half a kilometre before the temple we reached the end of the queue for darshan. Unusually patient, they waited with their pooja trays, barefoot and hopeful of some positive karma to come. As the early morning sun fell on the queue, cries of “Jai surya” rang out, and there was a buzz of excitement when we reached the doorway of the shrine. Bathed in morning sunshine the golden ॐ glinted like a mystical jewel. Below on the ghats pilgrims took group poojas with priests, and further around people bathed in the steaming hot spring which flowed from beneath the temple.
We had a quick breakfast of idli sambar at the trusted Saket Restaurant, then went back to base to pack our things and leave early to avoid the risk of being trapped there.
At the bus stand we lucked onto a share jeep to Joshimath, and were on our way by 9 o’clock. It was a dream run – we didn’t have to wait at any of the one way traffic barriers, and had reached Joshimath by 10:30am, making pleasant conversation with some co-passengers Ramprasad and Punu.
We were on our way again by 11:30, this time on a bus to Chamoli. They were still working on the rock slide site, but it was a much quicker ride and we had reached Chamoli by 2 o’clock. There we made the mistake of taking local advice, jumping on a jeep going to Gopeshwar – it looked good on the map too, but when we got there there was no onward transport to our destination – so we had to back track to Chamoli. It was only ten kilometres, but we wasted two hours of painfully slow travelling time.
We next found a bus to Karanprayag and spent another two hours covering forty-five kilometres, again chatting with new found friends Kabit and his new bride, and Lataka from Mumbai. The skies were hazing up again, and by the time we reached Karanprayag a storm was brewing.
AT 5 O’CLOCK IT WAS TOO late for onward transport and we were forced to spend the night, disappointed at not getting as far as we’d hoped. Geeta Bhawan Lodge provided shelter for 600 rupees, and at just 630 metres altitude a cold water wash was most welcome. Also welcome was fresh milk, curd, and a couple of plates of aloo tikka (fried mashed potato patties with chole, onion, green chilli sauce and curd) – our only meal since the idli sambar that morning.
We sweltered under the fan all night, and from our vantage point above the bridge we could see when the vehicle action started up at 5:30am. We were on a bus bound for Rudraprayag by 6 o’clock, and by 8 o’clock were northbound from there on a share jeep up the valley of the Mandakini River.
It was only 9 o’clock when we reached Guptkashi, and we dared to hope that we would cover the next thirty kilometres to our destination, Gaurikund in good time. But alas, the traffic on the narrow rutted track was jammed in regular gridlocks, and it took a miserable four and a half hours in the back of a jeep crammed with eighteen people (a new record for this trip).
Out of sheer frustration we walked the final kilometre, threading our way through a maze of buses, jeeps, Ambassadors and Marutis, with the throngs of pilgrims heading for the trail to Kedernath.
WE WANTED TO OVERNIGHT IN Gaurikund – a worrying prospect when we caught sight of the place. The tiny village was jammed into a gully – a two metre wide thoroughfare hemmed in by tall shop fronts crookedly piled atop one another. Thousands of people jostled their way up and down, weaving between horses, porters and dholis – a constant stream at all hours. Nevertheless, by 2 o’clock we’d found a room, albeit primitive, in Hotel Kedar – not a very good deal at 1000 rupees. Then we had a rather late breakfast – a thali at a dhaba with front row seats to the passing procession. We were so hungry that even I ate six tandoori rotis!
We spent the afternoon preparing for our hike – scouting for a cloak room to store our bag, buying some supplies and topping up on carbohydrates. We ate the best ever piping hot jalebis at a Tibetan-run dhaba. At 1980 metres the night was chilly, and it rained until the small hours, so we were relieved to see stars when we woke at 4am.
There was already plenty of action in the street and the rooms around us as everyone prepared for the pilgrimage. Outside the scene was mad – the hot spring next to the cloak room was a squirming mass of naked flesh as everyone, male and female, took their ritual bath. It looked ethereal steaming in the half light.
After a quick chai we were at the trailhead at 5 o’clock, jostling through the crowds weighing up their options for the fourteen kilometre climb. Many, like us, simply walked – in family groups helping each other along, some calling out “jai bolegi”, “bam bam bhole” or “jai kedernath”, some just struggling to put one foot in front of the other. Ponies were also a very popular choice, literally thousands of them were lined up champing at the bit. For a more comfortable ride, however, many were choosing dandis – sedan chairs carried by four men, or kandis – a basket to sit in carried by just a single man via a rope over his forehead (only available for the smaller pilgrim). There was also the helicopter option, and after 6 o’clock choppers started roaring up the valley. So there was plenty of traffic on the trail. We were moving with it until the halfway point at Rambara, then against it as we got higher. The dandis came down at a trot and were dangerous to negotiate, as were the ponies which moved quickly and unpredictably – once I was knocked off my feet into the arms of a surprised-looking Rajput. Deepak, a young man from Ludiana kept us company for much of the way, chatting in his self-taught movie-English. Overhead, soaring with the helicopters, were Himalayan griffins, and as we closed in on our destination clouds descended to obscure the peak of Kedarnath, which rose to 6940 metres behind the holiest temple in the Himalaya.
At 3580 metres the temperature dived, and once we’d arrived at the village after three and a half hours, the warmth from our climb soon evaporated. We found a place to stay at Dev Shree Tourist House, and Deepak kindly negotiated the price to an acceptable 800 rupees for us. Then it rained! Our timing was exquisite!
WE ATE A MEAL OF rajma, mixed sabzi, rice and roti which warmed our fingers as well as out stomachs, then set off to explore the amazing place we’d taken ourselves to. The eighth century temple of Kedarnath contained a rock which represented Shiva’s arse as he dove into the earth to escape the Pandavas, but the queue to make darshan with this holy relic was three hours long, so regretfully we passed up the opportunity. Around the stone shikara we promenaded with the devotees, taking photos and people watching. There were plenty of sadhus – some extreme examples covered in ash and sharing chilums of ganja. The rich, the poor, everyone came together to pray and worship.
There was a break in the weather, so we climbed almost up to the glacier at the head of the valley. We saw snow pigeons and masses of wildflowers, but the rain closed in again and we had to abort just short of our target. We spent the remainder of the day making new friends at the temple – we met people from Mumbai to Hyderabad, Baroda to Nagpur. We smiled for photos and learned about the philosophies of Hinduism – we spent over an hour chatting with Siddharta, a monk from West Bengal who warmed our hearts.
We finished the day with hot gulab jamun and spent an uncomfortable night in our cold, damp bed.
So again conditions were not conducive to a sleep in. At 4:30am we were milling with the pilgrims at the already very busy temple, and after a quick chai we were on our way back down to Gaurikund by 5 o’clock.
It was a pretty easy run to Rambara, the halfway point, but after that the upward bound crowds thickened until it was sometimes a struggle just to move forward against the wall of ponies, dandis, kandis, and hikers wielding sharp sticks heading up the trail. For two ponies along the way it was all too much, and they lay in undignified death where they fell on the track. The constant procession of pilgrims reached a chaotic feverpitch at the trail head above Gaurikund, which we arrived at after three hours. By now crusted to the knees with liquified horse shit, we were squeezed through the throng and finally expelled into the lane ways of the village.
We collected our bag and had a good breakfast of idli sambar next to the hot spring where we were implored to jump in – we declined…
That was the easy part of our day. By 9 o’clock we were ready to tackle the problem of getting away from Gaurikund and heading towards our next objective of Gangotri – the third of our Char Dham pilgrimages.
We began by walking past the first traffic jam and eventually hitching a ride for 100 rupees to the helipad – past the remaining traffic impasses and twenty kilometres toward Guptkashi. Then we were lucky – the next jeep to pass stopped for us, and we crammed ourselves into the back compartment, intended for two passengers, but we were seven PLUS our two packs, with one of our number actively vomiting out the window.
In Guptkashi we were lucky again – a bus bound for Rishikesh was set to depart, and at 11 o’clock we took our seats for our next leg as far as Srinagar. The eighty kilometre ride was alarmingly quick at the hands of a driver who blatantly disregarded the roadside safety signs, “don’t race, don’t rally, enjoy the beauty of the valley”, “ACCIDENT BRINGS TEARS – SAFETY BRINGS CHEERS”, “if married, divorce speed”, “HUG YOUR KIDS AT HOME BUT BELT THEM IN THE CAR”.
AT 2 O’CLOCK WE WERE BUNDLED off the bus and abandoned in Srinagar’s main street in a cloud of dust. An inquiry at the bus stand revealed that the next bus to Uttarkashi was at 6:30 the next morning, so a night halt in Srinagar it was.
At just 600 metres above sea level it was a hot and dusty place, and we made good use of the afternoon ahead of us. We checked into Appu Lodge, where 400 rupees bought us a clean palatial suite, then caught up on our laundry, and ate some culinary delights. Our mealtimes had become rather erratic – we decided to call the thali that we had at 3 o’clock ‘lunch’ – tandoori roti, rice, rajma with chana and urad dal, beans curry and pudina chutni. After another load of washing we ate fresh mangoes and kesar pista kulfi, saffron and pistachio ice cream. Then we headed for the sweets shop for narikel kek and malai chop, all covered in silver leaf and cool from the fridge. An evening storm cooled things down a bit, and we slept very comfortably in our lodgings.
Come morning we simply strolled across the road to where the Uttarkashi bus was waiting, then sat back to enjoy the ride. It took eight hours to cover the 150 kilometres into the mountains of West Gharwal. Our route took us away from the Alaknanda River and through pine-clad hills, across a hair-raising suspension bridge (with a three tonne limit) over Tehri Jheel, and along roads clinging precariously to the mountainsides. Passing other vehicles was a precise and skilled endeavour – inching past trucks with our wheels a hairs breadth from plunging to the valley floors was somewhat unnerving.
WE FINALLY EMERGED FROM THIS cross-country route at Uttarkashi, a large town on the banks of the Bhagirathi River, as it is known before it unites with the Alaknanda at Deoprayag to become the Ganges. It was pouring with rain when we arrived. We alighted from the bus into a torrential downpour and somehow found ourselves separated by a fast flowing muddy river which was the main road. We scouted for a room as best we could, ending up at Rawat Guesthouse in Hanuman Chowk after negotiating torrents of water which rendered most of the hotels inaccessible.
Once settled we had to brave it again to get food – having not eaten all day, we were starving. We filled up on sticky yellow ‘dal fry’, sabzi, rice, roti, and curd. At 1160 metres the climate was pleasant – we didn’t need the fan to sleep, but the cold water wash was a bit hard to take.
The next morning the sun shone as we went about the business of attaining permits for us to enter Gangotri National Park. Firstly we breakfasted on chana bhatura, then located the District Forestry Office three kilometres out of town, where we waited until the scheduled 10 o’clock opening time. But it turned out to be a holiday and the office was closed. Dejectedly we were heading for the gate when a Russian family turned up and it was deemed too lucrative to pass up so many foreigner entry fees. Doors were knocked upon, people were phoned, the office was opened and we obtained our permits for two days hence.
Fresh fruits were something we weren’t getting enough of in our high altitude exploits, so we nourished ourselves on mangoes, bananas and pomegranates, as well as curd and icy cold milk with 6% fat! Our return custom at the same lunchtime dhaba earned us a grating of panir in our sabzi, and we ended the day with some crunchy pakora after several hours in the Kashiviswanat temple. There we met Sunder, who’d been on our bus the day before, a budding holy man who’d studied for a couple of years in Ballarat. We sat under a tree with he and the old sadhus, obviously looking very picturesque seen as every one of the hundreds of pilgrims passing by snapped our photograph – two of the sadhus wore twenty year old dreadlocks and one carried a menacing-looking spear and a bowl made of a human skull. Together we ate prasad (against our better judgement) and listened to Sunder’s philosophical stirrings.
MOVING ON FROM UTTARKASHI, WE completed our pilgrimage to Gangotri by share jeep the next morning. It was five hours and one hundred scenic kilometres futher up the valley following the ever-diminishing river to the temple dedicated to the goddess Ganga.
Of course the place was busy with pilgrims, and by now we had come to expect the inevitable traffic jam which started five kilometres short of Gangotri. But all the dust and discomfort was soon forgotten as we walked along the path into the village, and found an appealing 300 rupee room at Sudarshan Seva Sadan. The Ganges roared past our window at the Gaurikund waterfall with such force that we could feel the vibration from it, and just a short distance downstream the entire flow of the river thundered through a gorge just four or five metres wide!
The temple itself thronged with crowds of worshippers queuing patiently for darshan, and down by the river most took a ritual dunking in the raging torrent – at 3140 metres, even in the midday sun, this was an extreme sport. Afterwards they squatted on the rocks like cormorants with their dhotis and sarees held out like wings to dry. They then collected holy Ganga water in brass urns which they then had lids soldered on to by coppersmiths at the temple gates. The queue evaporated in the late afternoon, so we too made darshan with the goddess in the temple. She looked silvery and lovely, so I asked her for a successful journey to Gaumukh to see the source of the Ganges.
We were both suffering from a head cold, so we rested as much as possible in between our preparations for the journey. The goods for sale as prasad made good trekking supplies – walnuts and dried fruits, and we consumed plenty of carbohydrates at the ‘Ganga Dairy’ – a thali for lunch and aloo tikka in the evening. Sleep wouldn’t come that night, maybe it was the deafening noise of the river, or the darkness of a moonless night without electricity, or maybe it was just the anticipation of the adventure to come.
IT WAS A THIRTY-SIX KILOMETRE round trip to Gaumukh, the spiritual and physical source of the river Ganges. We set off at 5:30am after a warming chai, following the well-defined trail eastward up the Bhagirathi Valley. Fortunately, the trail rose gently, for we were in no condition for an endurance test, and there was very little traffic – a few ponies and some other hikers. We all moved along together watching the weather deteriorate as we climbed.
At the two kilometres mark the Forestry Department check post wasted half an hour of our time – the staff were abhorrently rude, even aggressive, as they inanely checked Dave’s pack for plastics, biscuits and chocolate (they were very particular about chocolate!). They didn’t check my bag, which was full of water bottles, Parle-G and prasad packets. Nor did they check the Indian group on horseback who happily left a trail of rubbish in their wake.
Shortly after that distraction, the rain began – a light drizzle which stayed with us all the way to our night halt of Bhojbasa. However, the glacial valley was beautiful – now and then we were offered glimpses of the high jagged peaks, and the deodar and birch forests were enchanting. The trail often clung picturesquely to the cliff walls, and we saw a herd of Himalayan bharal. It was like walking to Shang-ri-la, especially when the clouds rolled in around us.
After fourteen kilometres the desolate outpost of Bhojbasa came into view. At 3790 metres it was freezing cold, especially with no sun to warm it. At 10 o’clock we presented ourselves at Lal Babas Ashram and were allocated a cosy tatami-style cell with walls half a metre thick, and lunch – hunks of rice with hot dal ladled over the top.
A stroll to the icy river only made us feel colder, so we spent the afternoon huddled in our cell while the rain pitter-pattered. We were almost asleep when the call came for dinner, but we quickly rallied ourselves as people appeared from all corners of the ashram like rabbits out of a warren. About fifty of us sat together on the concrete floor of the dining hall, which was completely open to the elements on one side. A view of the glacier was a high price to pay for the freezing draught, especially as shoes were forbidden. We prayed as our meal was slapped down in front of us by the ladleful, “jai shree, jai ram, jai jai ram”, repeated countlessly over and over. Everyone ate quickly and loudly then disappeared back into their warren holes to sleep – it was the only place to try and be warm.
Hoping for an early start the next morning, we tentatively stuck our heads out at 4:30am and were shocked to find that it was snowing. As the minutes turned into hours and still it snowed, it became obvious that we would be making no start at all.
At breakfast time in the dining hall an announcement was made that there would be no movement in either direction from Bhojbasa – the trail was impassable and we were trapped. Solemnly we ate our katoris of kala chana as the chirping rooks foraged in what was by then a good ten centimetres of snowfall.
It snowed solidly all morning and, resigned to our confinement, everyone got to know each other. Our Japanese friend Yuka was a bubble of sunshine; a Russian lady, Olga, who was wearing a saree, needed help for her boyfriend Alexi, who had a nasty case of altitude sickess, and we huddled in bed with a party of five Sihk men from Delhi for some hours solving the problems of the world until the signal was given for lunch. We all hunkered together hungrily eating kitcheri, wondering what the afternoon had in store.
The snowfall stopped around midday and everyone went out to enjoy the winter wonderland it had created. Many parties packed up and began the hike back to Gangotri in the dubious conditions, but we went down to the river which now ran like melted chocolate through a world of white. After a walk and some socialising with Olga and Alexi (who was now feeling much better after my prescription), we noticed that the snow was rapidly melting and decided to take a crack at reaching Gaumukh, four kilometres further up the valley.
The sun was shining when we left with Olga in tow, and as we walked the clouds lifted to reveal the spectacular peaks of Bhagarathi (6850 metres) which soared above Gangotri Glacier, and Shivling (6543 metres) to the south. We saw another herd of bharal and, closer to the glacier a rockslide sent huge boulders tumbling down the mountainside – the sound was like explosions breaking the high altitude silence.
Finally at the snout of the glacier at 4000 metres altitude, we were at the source of the Ganges. Muddy glacial run-off gushed from the bottom of the ice to begin its long journey across India to Bangladesh and the sea. We felt elated to be in such a place on such a climatically amazing day.
Having collected our own sample of the holiest of holy mother Ganga water, untainted by even the merest tributary, we walked back on top of the world, passing and chatting with the few other fortunate hikers who also wore smiles as big as ours. We chanted our prayers with more enthusiasm at dinner that night, our number greatly depleted because hikers weren’t permitted to hike up in the dangerous conditions – snow had covered nine kilometres of the trail back to Gangotri.
The sight from the window of our cell the next morning brought joyous relief. At 4:30am the sky was clear, all the snowy peaks were visible, and the air roared with the silence only found in these extreme mountain environments. The ground was frozen solid as we left the ashram at 5 o’clock, and we didn’t see another soul for hours – the entire glacial valley of the Ganges was ours alone to enjoy as the dawn slowly brightened the sky to a mesmerising blue and the first rays of sunshine lit up the high peaks to dazzling white.
After three hours the check post came into view, and we started meeting the upward bound hikers. Many were grumpy, but some were enjoying the beautiful day and wanted to chat with us, the many sadhus offered a laconic “hari, om” as they focused on their spiritual goals.
The unsavoury Forestry Department staff behaved as expected – one even raced after us ludicrously brandishing a lathi when we ignored him barking rudely at us “You! Return permit!”. Tired, cold and hungry, we were in no mood for the likes of him again. Pity to have to begin and end such a great experience on a sour note. We thought of the Israeli travellers whom we’d met in Uttarkashi, with their grapevine instructions on bush bashing permitless around the check post.
BACK AT OUR GUESTHOUSE, the Sudarshan, in Gangotri, a bucket of hot water was able to be produced for our bathing needs, so we elected to stay in Gangotri for the night. With the physical challenges of the past few days on top of the head cold, I was thoroughly exhausted and a rest day was called. Once clean we whiled away the remainder of the day taking short strolls and relaxing.
I went for another darshan in the temple to thank the goddess Ganga for granting my wish beyond all expectation, and we browsed the pooja stalls to buy our own brass urn for our holiest of holy Ganga water. We sat by the river at the bathing ghats watching the pooja rituals and family fun. Children were doused in the icy river water naked – sometimes willingly… Ladies bathed in their petticoats, but changing back into a choli and saree was difficult to achieve whilst maintaining modesty. The men were less self-conscious, striding around in their chaddis unembarrassed, no matter what their physique. We asked ourselves “how far can a man go from the bathing ghats in his chaddis?”, when we followed one unabashed gentleman all the way from the bus stand walking nonchalantly in his underpants until he found a good bathing spot way down past the temple. And nobody gave him a second look!
The following day was another easy one. At 6 o’clock we had already been bundled into a share jeep at the bus stand, and were on our way back to Uttarkashi. Our driver was stoic, skilled at fixing the occasional engine problem and obedient of road rules, “ROADS ARE HILLY – DON’T DRIVE SILLY”, though he did have a habit of taking his hands from the wheel in supplication to the river goddess at certain auspicious locations (like blind bends and narrow bridges). Even with the two thousand metre descent, it still took five hours to reach Uttarkashi. We carried with us five milk urns, and stopped frequently to do business with cowherds along the way. The pure dairy goodness foamed with froth and cream, and we all enjoyed some chai made from it at one such stop. It was probably well homogenised by the time we bounced our way into Uttarkashi.
IN FINE WEATHER CONDITIONS WE were able to look for more comfortable lodgings than on our previous visit, and settled on a 500 rupee room overlooking the bazaar at Hotel Amba. We returned to our tried and proven Hotel Moti Mahal for an indulgent lunch – with our rice and deliciously elastic tandoori roti, we had dal fry and a superb palak paneer, cheese and spinach curry. In the afternoon we ate papaya and mangoes with curd, and sat by the bathing ghats where the icy water of the river cooled the hot summer air.
We finished the day in a sweets shop eating ras malai – our clothing no longer fitted our leaner selves, so this was a delicious attempt at remedying the problem!
After being disturbed at 4am by what sounded like twenty hooligans preparing for a big football match in the room next door, we presented ourselves at the bus stand as instructed for a 7:45am departure. Our bus was bound for Janki Chatti, launching pad for our pilgrimage to Yamunotri – our finale in the char dham.
Our route first followed the river to Dharusu Bend on a road best described as terrifying. We were unfortunately seated on the cliff side of the bus, and could only hold our breath as we lurched across landslides which were crumbling into the river one hundred metres directly below. Shortly after that, we left the Bhagarati River to continue its journey to Mother Ganga, while we diverged up a wide valley to cross a pass taking us to the watershed of the Yamuna.
Just beyond Barkot, where a woman with a screaming child thankfully alighted, we caught sight of the Yamuna River, a clear green thread which we followed upstream to Janki Chatti on a narrow, winding road. It took eight hours to cover the 120 kilometre distance, our bus somehow laboriously hauling itself and us up to 2575 metres.
JANKI CHATTI WAS DISAPPOINTINGLY DISMAL – it was drizzling when we arrived, and we found a muddy pilgrims ghetto of soulless concrete buildings. Although there were quite a few buses at the bus stand, it was less busy than the other char dham sites. Still we walked into a rabble buffeted by ponies and sedan chairs, to try and find a place to stay. Aakashdeep Hotel was the best of a bad bunch – we paid an enterprising Tibetan 850 rupees for what was at least a decent room. The food situation was grim. It was difficult to find a thali, and then it was so awful it was difficult to eat it, even though we were starving after our long, foodless day.
After a good night’s sleep, only disturbed by a cracking thunderstorm at 2am, we woke to a clear sky and the sound of jingling horse bells – an appropriate signal to begin our day. The five kilometre climb up to the temple of Yamunotri involved a steep ascent to 3290 metres, and we set off at 5:30am after the usual chai, which we’d come to accept as all these Northern Indians breakfasted on.
There were very few pilgrims on the trail at that hour, so it was a peaceful and relaxing climb. The dholi-wallahs saw my ultra petite frame as an attractively light load for their baskets, so I was repeatedly implored to utilise their services – but I was feeling very fit. Over the previous two weeks we had covered over one hundred kilometres of hiking, mostly over three thousand metres in altitude, so our muscles and our lugs were strong, and we completed the hike in an hour and twenty minutes – even out-pacing the few horses we saw!
Yamunotri was a world away from Janki Chatti, appealingly tucked into a dark gorge through which the embryonic Yamuna River ran. Upstream it trickled down the sheer mountainside from the snowy ridges above.
The temple was still very quiet, so we made darshan with the goddess Matayamuna, and sprinkled some of the icy, but clear and fresh water from the stream over our heads. A bath in the piping hot spring-fed pools was appealing, but we weren’t equipped with the requisite chaddis and petticoats, so we had to give it a miss. Here they had a peculiar custom of tossing their underpants and sarees into the stream after their bath so the river was littered with colourful rubbish trailing through the water, which the vendors recycled to make little parcels for cooking prasad rice in the boiling spring.
We met some aquaintences – two elderly couples and a family whom we’d shared the previous days bus ride with. And of course we made new friends like Hanee, a very bright thirteen year old just beginning the char dham with his family from Jaipur, and Dev, a poojari, whose conversation ranged from cricket and movies to helping us recite the Yamuna mantra.
This yatra was somehow more intimate than the other dhams, especially in the early morning, when almost everyone travelled by foot. The return down to Janki Chatti was considerably less sedate.
We had a lunchtime thali, and headed back at 11:30am as the crowds had thickened to dangerous crush levels. Ponies struggled on the smooth cobbles of the narrow path and we saw two come to grief, unable to stay upright under their heavy loads. The dandi-wallahs were unstoppable, except when jams caused impact pile-ups. We on foot dodged through the tumult as best we could, while the dholi-wallahs weaved quietly through the melee. The image of one dholi in particular I couldn’t take from my mind – a slight man bent double under the crushing weight of a basket slung from his forehead containing a well-dressed obesely fat man.
In crush zones with precipitous drops we waited for the chaos to pass. Looking ahead and behind, the trail seemed like a living thing pulsing with the activity of pilgrimage. As we walked a sense of achievement slowly dawned upon us – now in visiting the four most holy Hindu temples in the Indian Himalaya we had completed the char dham and treasured the insight it had given us into devotional India.
We were not long back before another thunderstorm struck and a miserable cold drizzle set in for the afternoon. We scouted the quagmired bus stand for some hope of escape for the following day, and ate momos, with an odd curry sauce at a Tibetan dhaba, our first taste of meat since the start of the trip – though what kind of meat we didn’t know. That evening we ran into the only other foreigners we’d seen since leaving Gangotri – Olga and Alexi!
Still doubtful about the chances of our transport needs being met, we were out the door at 5am the next morning, surprised to be stepping over fifty sleeping Rajasthanis in the hall outside our room. In one of the plastic shacks at the bus stand we found someone selling tickets for the fabled bus to Dehra Doon, and eventually we were directed to a suitably vomit-streaked vehicle with some other punters who roused the sleeping driver and conductor from a peaceful slumber.
We didn’t leave until 6:30am, but at least we were on our way. There were fifteen of us going all the way to Dehra Doon, including six dholis on their way home to Nepal, and one old character who had also been on our bus from Uttarkashi. A multitude of transient passengers filled the aisle in between.
The first thirty kilometres of the one hundred and eighty we had to cover, took three hours, with multiple jams, stand-offs and stale-mates. We already knew how bad the road was as far as Barkot, and it improved only marginally from there as we followed the Yamuna River down valley after valley until it had turned muddy and unattractive. Then we left the Gharwal Hills behind to enter a land of lush mango and teak forests, and finally civilisation.
OUR EYES WERE ON STALKS as we reached the outskirts of town, surveying the shops and eateries, licking our lips in anticipation. When the call came from the conductor “relway station”, all of us Janki Chatti patrons jumped ship and piled onto a city bus bound for the centre of town. After ten hours we all looked exhausted and dishevelled – the city folk smelled of soap and perfume, and eyeballed us as though we did not.
Deciding that the train station area was a good place to base ourselves, we found a room nearby at the Hotel Milan Palace for 500 rupees, and once we’d thrown a few buckets of cold water over ourselves, went out for a stroll through Paltan Bazaar. There were gold shops, tailors for ‘sarees and suitings’, spice emporiums and gadget stores, and as rain began to fall on our heads we took refuge in eateries that we found along the way, gorging ourselves like children in a lolly shop. We had fresh lemon soda, pistachio-flavoured lassi (home-made in terracotta pots), masala dosa, and then sandesh in a sweets shop. We only just had room for the bananas and mangoes which we took home, and we went to bed liking Dehra Doon already. It felt great to be in a big city after so many weeks up in the mountains, even if there were Tatas and buses screaming past our room on busy Gandhi Road, honking angrily at the auto rick-shaws and vikrams.
On our way to breakfast the next morning we were nearly bowled over by a miscreant being chased by a gun toting policeman. They ran around a corner keystone-style with a concerned citizen throwing a paper cup with great force at the villain.
Breakfast was served by a very businesslike chai-wallah in a busy little tea shop. Our five rupees bought much better chai and pastries here. Later, when we were ready to go off exploring, a pre-monsoon downpour struck and we became stranded – first while we were having a second breakfast of paneer paratha, then in a spare parts shop with ‘Rocky’, a friendly Sikh who gave us directions to the Orient Cinema. He even knew the timings, so we quickly bundled ourselves into a passing vikram to spend the remainder of a rainy morning at the movies.
We splashed out on ‘dress circle’ tickets to see ‘Ready’, starring the muscle-bound Salman Khan. It was, of course, a love story with the Indian equivalent of Sylvester Stallone singing and dancing in between beating up the bad guys (who were also singing and dancing) to win the heart of the heroine, with lots of suggestive hip-thrusting, whistling, and gratuitous muscle-rippling. A popcorn-wallah trawled the aisles, mobile phones rang, and now and then the usher shone his torch in everyones face during his regular head counts. Fans whirled on the walls, and to the rear of the theatre air-conditioners kept the dress circle cool. Intermission was announced by the hero urinating into a haystack with the words “pee break” emblazoned across the screen.
It was 2 o’clock by the time we came out and the weather had cleared, so we strolled back through the bazaar feeling hungry. Everyone was chilling out with milkshakes, so we couldn’t resist one either – the rose shake was a lurid pink and tasted deliciously like falooda. Further along Sammaan Restaurant, ‘A House for the Vegetarian’, was a good choice for lunch and we had a splurge – with our fluffy basmati we enjoyed aloo palak, baigan bharta, dal makhani, and the real winner, mushroon masala. It was the best North Indian meal we’d ever eaten, and even with half plates we were bursting at the seams. We had to go home and recompose ourselves for a while.
Venturing out again we found the Ram Rai Darbar, a 350 year old mausoleum built by Aurangzeb for a Sikh guru. We chatted there in the peaceful gardens with the son of the caretaker, Aman, and his friends for some hours, enjoying the beauty of the place, then went off for some more snack-tracking. More lemon sodas quenched our thirst, then we had pista badam ice cream at “Creams’n’dreams”. Across the street at Kumars Sweets everyone was tucking into the special kulfi, and no wonder, for 45 rupees we got a cylinder of pistachio and cardamom kulfi topped with slippery falooda noodles and a ladleful of saffron-flavoured cream…
After another deep and meaningful conversation with Soni, our neighbour down the hall who was from Khajuraho, it was 10pm and way past our bedtime.
The next morning the skies were clear enough for us to see the hills of Mussorie to the north, and the edge of the Doon Valley rising to the south. Although Dehra Doon sat at 700 metres, it didn’t feel like a hill town except for the agreeable climate, which we also savoured.
After our chai we jumped on a city bus sprooking “I-S-B-T” to take us to the interstate bus terminal. The Uttarakhand chapter of our trip was over, and we were now heading for the state of Himachal Pradesh.
Our transaction at the large bus stand was suspiciously easy – we were directed to the appropriate ticket window where we found a bus leaving for Nahan in three minutes time. and we were given preferential treatment with our seating arrangement – up front with the driver and the bus-owning moghul.
Heading west, we took a different route to Vikasnagar through redundant tea estates with crumbling plantation manors, travelling at speeds unknown to us since we got off the plane in Delhi. Rain tumbled down as we reached the state border, marked by a checkpost and the Yamuna River, now wide and barraged for irrigation. We paused at the border town of Poanta Sahib then continued across the valley into improving weather. We passed many Sikh pilgrims on their way to Hem Kund Sahib, flying the diagnostic orange flags of yatris.
WE COULD SEE NAHAN PERCHED on its hilltop location long before we reached it, our bus huffing and puffing up the final stretch to deliver us to our destination after just three hours on the road. Nahan was a pleasant small town of cobbled lane ways shadowed by Raj-era buildings joining quiet chowks where vendors sold fruits and vegetables under sacred bodhi trees. We liked it immediately, and after finding a room at Hotel Hill View we went off to explore.
In our ramblings we found lunch in a dhaba manned by a very fat cook. He specialised in shahi paneer and dal makhani made delicious by way too much ghee, and served with thick stretchy chapatis cooked by expert hands – no wonder he was so fat! We then took home kheer, mangoes, papaya, bananas and curd for an afternoon siesta in our spacious room which even included a geyser for our 400 rupees.
In the afternoon we watched cricket on the maidan, got mobbed by two teams of junior football players, peeked in the doors of the various Maharajas palaces, and enjoyed the view back down over the final throes of the Himalayan foothills to the baking plains. We snacked on aloo tikka with a sweet and tangy tamarind sauce, and crystallised melon on our way home through the tangled streets.
It was not just raining in the morning, but pouring, with thunder and lightening to send us on our way. At 5:45am at the bus stand we were exactly on time to jump on a passing bus to Shimla with “non-stop” legible amongst the Hindi squiggles on the front of the vehicle. But our back seat positions soon proved most undesirable as we were thrown around like rag dolls on the bumpy, windy road, trying vainly to stem the flow of mud coming through our latchless window.
By the time we stopped for breakfast we were ruing the promise of “non-stop”, and were begging for mercy. Breakfast compensated our discomfort – the roadside dhaba at Naina Tikkar dispensed delicious aloo paratha with black chana, curd and cardamom chai. Thereafter things improved. The rain stopped, the mud dried up, the road improved, and our stomachs were full. The ride through the never-ending hills was beautiful, they disappeared to the horizon in ever-lighter shades of blue, with the white peaks of the high ranges visible in the far distance. At Kumarhatti we joined the main road to Shimla, occasionally spotting the toy train as it chugged along the narrow gauge tracks up and up to the colonial hill station.
Shimla was as charming as we remembered it, with its English bungalows and pine woods, and people were unusually kind to us. A helpful bus conductor went out of his way to ensure that we found our way to the correct bus stand, placing us in the care of bystanders, who in turn helped us find the appropriate city bus and then a connection to Rampur.
It had only taken five hours to reach Shimla so we had plenty of time to push on, thus avoiding the accommodation crunch in the summer capital. By noon we were on a sturdy-looking bus with “Shubham Travels” painted across the front, winding our way another 120 kilometres into the mountains.
As we travelled the valleys deepened, criss-crossed with roads connecting fruit orchards and market gardens. We stopped at Narkanda for lunch – a simple thali hit the spot after all our over-indulgence of recent days. Three kinds of dal and a sukhi sabzi, and we were on our way again, sharing our seat with a little girl who fell asleep in Dave’s lap. For the final thirty kilometres we followed the Sutlej River upstream to Rampur, which we reached at 5 o’clock – too late to continue any further.
SO WE COLLECTED OUR DUSTY bag from the luggage compartment and walked on wobbly legs down into the bazaar to find Aalok Guesthouse for our night halt. The geyser didn’t work but it was a good room for 300 rupees, and we had dropped back down from the heights of Narkanda to 1000 metres altitude, so a cold sluicing was in order anyway. The highlights of a mooch around town were the gold shops, the Raja of Bhushurs palace (although plebians weren’t permitted past the front gate), and a very good aloo tikka with a pani puri case crumbled over the top and a drizzle of pudina chutni.
In the morning we found our way up through the maze of the bazaar to the bus stand where the Sarahan bus was just extracting itself from a grid-lock of vehicles. There was no time for chai, we were on our way immediately, rattling up the valley to Jeori. Along the way the bus filled with distinctively-dressed Kinnauri people – the men in brown and green felt caps, and the women in salwar kameez with vests and scarves akin to the Szgany of Europe. We then climbed up sharply to 2300 metres in seventeen very steep kilometres to Sarahan, which sat right above Jeori looking down the valley.
THE SIGHT OF THE BHIMAKALI temple as we arrived impressed not just us – everyone on the bus gave a sigh at its beauty. Built of stone and filigreed wood with a slate roof and golden crown, it was an exotic spectacle amidst the pine trees and apple orchards.
Unfortunately, the temple rest house was full, so we put up at the Hotel Snow View – our 400 rupee room indeed had a view of snowy peaks to the north, but the geyser was a bit dodgy. We checked in at the same time as our neighbour, Sanjeev Kumar, who smiled wryly at our snickers as though the British sitcom was the bane of his life.
Sarahan was a peaceful and relaxing place, and the temple provided a wonderful venue for a quiet afternoon. We made darshan with the image of Durga in the inner sanctum at the top of a tower sealed like a vault, and reached through ornate embossed silver doors. It was like entering the looking glass, making our way through miniature passageways, doors and stairways to find the bloodthirsty silver idol. The courtyards, fragrant with rose bushes, were once the scene of human sacrifice, and one marble image with the head of a lion held a disembowelled baby in its lap.
Behind the temple, a palace of the Bhushur rajas was immaculately maintained and added to the ambience of the village which echoed with the calls of tragopans from the glen in the late afternoon.
This was the first place that we’d seen foreigners in any number – in fact there were more here than we’d seen so far on our entire trip. There were two groups on Enfields and another in a jeep.
We were woken in the morning by flashes of lightening and thunder rolling around us, and by the time we climbed the stairs to the bus stand it was raining heavily. The first bus of the day had its engine running, and the conductor was conducting a pooja over the steering wheel. We climbed aboard to fill our lungs with the heavy fragrant smoke of dhoop as the driver came running from the temple re-belting his pants after a darshan with Maa Bhimakali (the goddess had an aversion to leather). Some finger-snapping devotional music was then cranked up to deafening, and we set off, inching our way down the mountainside.
By 7 o’clock we had plunged back down to Jeori where we changed to a waiting bus to take us to Rekong Peo. It was a spectacular ride up the valley. The road was scraped into a ledge above the gorge through which the Sutlej River flowed. Our co-passengers, the mountainfolk, also heading to Rekong Peo smelled in a way that no amount of dhoop could mask, and our driver had a laugh like a lunatic, with driving skills to match – making the journey more exciting than it needed to be. His frustrations grew as we were unable to pass a flock of several hundred pashmina goats on a particularly perilous stretch, but at least he allowed us to accept the generosity of group of Sikh men who stopped the bus at great personal risk in order to offer everyone a glass of sweet rose water. Luckily the weather improved into a beautiful day, and the only blight was the massive hydro-electricity project going ahead with seemingly no consideration to the environment.
WE HAD REACHED REKONG PEO by 11 o’clock, and with only a samosa under our belts which Dave had procured in a mercy dash at Tilpa, we were hungry, so we took a break for lunch at the busy Punjabi Dhaba. With rajma and mixed sabzi to fortify us, we continued our journey up the mountainside from Rekong Peo to Kalpa.
The idyllic village of Kalpa sat at 2960 metres amid apple and almond orchards, and swathes of ganja rippling in the wind. We found a place to stay at Chini Bungalow, our 450 rupee room had a cracking view of the 6500 metre Kinner-Kailash massif, and the garden terrace had a pukka lawn trimmed with rose bushes. The Sutlej River was now 1000 metres below us, separating us from the snow bound massif on the opposite bank.
Activities in Kalpa were of a relaxing nature. The village had a small gompa and a Vishnu temple built in the Kinnauri style, and there were the orchards and pine forests to walk in, alive with the calls of cuckoos, and fragrant not only with the scent of pine, but the weed-like hemp. After dark the mountains soared into the night sky illuminated by a waxing moon, and the only noise came from the occasional ding of a pooja bell or the chanting of mantras from the gompa.
We established a favourite corner store, run by Prakash, and a cosy little dhaba where we took all our meals with Dinesh, which meant we could avoid the assaulting atmosphere of the Tibetan dhaba which dished up bland bastardisations to an undiscerning Israeli crowd. With these staples in place, we decided to stay for a few days to do some exploring and get permits to cross the ‘inner line’ near the Tibetan border. We set aside a morning for this banal task – first walking down to Rekong Peo via a series of shortcuts, then waiting at the District Magistrates office whilst forms were filled, photos were taken, signatures were flourished, and most importantly, rupees were paid. We also took the opportunity to gather onward travel information, visit the ATM, and have a meal at the Punjabi Dhaba. We downed a couple of bottles of delicious Himachal apple juice and climbed on a crowded bus back up to Kalpa, bearing fifty rupees worth of mangoes and bananas, and a bag from Panditjees Sweets containing laddu and soan papdi – and, of course, our ‘inner line’ permits.
On another day, feeling the need for some exercise, we followed local advice and set off along the old Hindustan-Tibet Highway beyond Kalpa. The further we walked the more beautiful it became, the road turned into a very well constructed trail and we ambled on and on trance-like until we were just above the village of Yushudhar, ten kilometres from Kalpa, and opposite the Baspa Valley. The historical route wound around the cliff faces where we could see not only the river, one thousand metres below, but also Kinner-Kailash rising vertically 4500 metres straight up from it. It was dizzying. We walked through forests of cedar, huge trees gnarled by the winds, providing shade and a mesmerising smell.
After twenty kilometres and six hours with little more than a cracker for breakfast we fell into a thali at Dinesh’s bhojnalaya, surprising even ourselves at the quantity we ate, then finished off with ras gulla before collapsing in our rose garden for the afternoon. In fact Dinesh’s thali with its melon curry was so good that we backed up for more in the evening. He’d just prepared delicious fresh pakora and we finished off with curd and chai.
Beside Rakesh and Dinesh we met some other friendly characters. There was Norbu, a monk from Bhutan on holiday from his studies, who sat on our verandah to chat with us at every chance he got. We met a young man from Iceland, Helena from London, and a Swiss couple who thought Raldang Peak looked like the Materhorn.
Leaving Kalpa was a little more complicated than our well-made plans envisaged. Up early, hoping to catch the 7am bus to Spiti, we walked down to the bus stand in Rekong Peo with plenty of time to spare, and began making our enquiries with other like-minded punters. Norbu was there with his Australian companions, Toni and her husband Peter (who was blind), and we met Lobsang, a Swiss Buddhist monk from the Coorg in Southern India. But when the bus arrived there was standing room only for the five hour journey – so snap decisions had to be made. Toni inexplicably decided that her group would go to Shimla instead! Poor Norbu looked crestfallen to be going ten hours in the opposite direction to what he was anticipating. And so we said our goodbyes. We and Lobsang decided to wait to chance better prospects on the noon bus to Nako, and he kindly invited us to return to the local monastery where he had been staying to pass the time in some comfort. We reclined on a monastic chaise, eating a good breakfast of aloo paratha and butter tea, enjoying the company of the very charming Lobsang while we waited for the hours to pass.
At 11 o’clock we tried our luck again at the bus stand with more success – we were able to buy tickets, which ensured seats, and at precisely 12 noon our bus pulled out, destined for Nako, ninety kilometres further up the valley. The route closely followed the Sutlej River along another narrow ledge of roadway in the cliffside above the swirling waters. There was little other traffic, and our driver was a true professional who knew the road well and gave side with rational precision.
The landscape changed dramatically as we proceeded – the green of Kinnaur region rapidly disappearing into stark walls of rock like vertical deserts. We stopped for lunch at Spillo where plates of greasy goat momos were the popular choice, and filled our stomachs with meat now for the second time on the trip.
The road continued along in various states of repair with road signs thanking us for our patience, “sorry for – ooh-ahh-ouch – inconvenience regretted”, until we reached the curiously named village of Pooh, where the road improved. The landscape was by now completely barren except for village oases with their irrigated orchards like squares of green patched onto the mountainside.
Beyond Pooh we crossed the Sutlej River for the final time as it gushed down from its watershed on holy Mount Kailash in Tibet. In a cave-like chasm it merged with the River Spiti which we then followed, the chasm broadening suddenly into a wide valley which we zig-zagged up the side of to reach Nako. Six hours of such magnificence passed by in a flash.
THE ONWARD JOURNEY BECKONED WILDLY, but Nako invited a longer stay than just a night halt. Its location was astounding, hidden on a ledge, an oasis of green fed by snow melt amid some of the most remote mountains imaginable. We climbed from the bus gasping in the thin air with the sun still scorching even at 6pm. Together with Lobsang, Dave scouted for a place to stay – with Lopsang resplendent in his flowing monastic robes, and Dave scruffy in a T-shirt they looked an unlikely pair, and we three attracted a few interested stares. But a single room was difficult to find, so we ended up at different places.
Lovon Guesthouse was good for us – for 400 rupees we got a tastefully furnished room with a king-sized bed and a view down the valley. We met Lobsang for a bowl of warming thukpa at the Tibetan Kitchen downstairs. Culturally, we had now left India behind, geographically and ethnically we were in Tibet, and our diet changed accordingly.
Once the sun dipped we all had a quick stroll around the village and retired early as the cold of our 3700 metre elevation took hold. Before we went to sleep the full moon was about to rise over the mountain behind the village, and before its light reached us it somehow lit up the valley below as it shone on the snowy peaks to the west, creating an awesome illumination effect. Stars were twinkling and satellites looked close enough to catch from our freezing rooftop vantage point.
In the morning we were inspired to go for a long walk before breakfast, and headed off at 5 o’clock toward some stupas and a long mane wall on the hillside behind the village. Beyond the stupas we left the oasis and followed the enticing path to Tashigang which rose to a pass marked with prayer flags for a colossal view of the Hanglang Valley in both directions. Even the sounds were inspirational – the Spiti River rushing two thousand metres below, prayer flags flapping in the breeze, and a family of screeching monal pheasants complete with about ten chicks. As always, the onward path looked too good to resist following, and we continued around several ridges until we could see the mountains which marked the Tibetan border and the path stretching away toward them. We saw nobody along the way except a monk meritoriously clearing the path, and a couple of cowherds with their yak-like tzo beasts.
It was an invigorating start to the day, especially for our lungs which worked hard to get enough oxygen for our exertions. Back at the Tibetan Kitchen at 8 o’clock, we downed a huge breakfast of Tibetan bread, omelettes, and ginger tea with Lobsang and a couple of Mexicans, Iris and Chris, mother and son travelling together. We spent the remainder of the morning at the monastery with Lobsang, whose incredible knowledge made for a very enriching experience. As the day after the anniversary of Buddhas enlightenment, it was a special day, and many old ladies looking their wrinkly best added so much to the atmosphere of the main shrine. It was not only filled with ancient murals and stucco idols, but the dim recesses were filled with the chanting of the women and the smell of burning juniper and butter lamps. Lobsang was greatly respected and attracted curious admirers wherever he went – we were all invited to tea (enriched with a little tsampa) in a traditional home nearby, and wound our way through the maze of village lane ways finding other small shrines with yet more murals and footprints of Padmasambhava.
After a couple of plates of (less adventurous) vegetable momos, we spent the afternoon relaxing and getting lost in the village of tightly packed mud brick houses. With all but the elderly women busy in the fields after the spring thaw, the village was very quiet and the only souls we commonly saw were the cows and horses penned with their newborn young.
In the evening we bade a fond farewell to our companion of the past two days – Lobsang was planning an early start for the monastery of Tashigang in the morning, and we were moving on to Tabo.
Our bus wasn’t due until noon, but we were up early anyway for a hike up to an old monastery which we could see in the other direction to our previous day’s escapade. The way was difficult to find through the terraced vegetable plots, green with pea and potato crops, and the pathways changed according to where the irrigation channels were being funnelled, so an obvious-looking path could turn into a field-flooding sluice. It took an hour to find our way up there, and we sat at the door to the dilapidated old monastery next to two rows of impressively housed stupas, watching the clouds swirl around the mountaintops which prevented the monsoon from ever entering the region of Spiti. Across on the other fold of the mountainside we could make out the maroon-clad figure of our Swiss friend making his way up to the pass.
We came down by a different, but equally confounding route, and on finding our Tibetan Kitchen full of smoking Israelis, elected to take our breakfast on our balcony upstairs. In fact we got so comfortable that we stayed there until the bus came, watching the comings and goings, and chatting for a while with Helena, who was our neighbour once again.
We were expecting the worst for our onward journey. The only daily bus service to Tabo and beyond lurched into the village at 12 o’clock, and we flew from our balcony vantage point to join the scramble to climb aboard. But we were very lucky, and the trip was actually a pleasure. Two young guys from Jaipur, Gaurav and his friend, offered us their panoramic seats next to the driver, as well as pleasant conversation which served to distract me from the sublime views dropping away just centimetres from our wheels. The driver remained impassive as he rounded tight corner after corner, where any slip or misjudgement would have sent us into the infinity of a fifteen hundred metre drop. The view out of the front window often displayed no sign of the road as we swung wide to make the turns, and we seemed to be just hurtling toward the abyss.
After an eye-popping descent we reached the nondescript outpost of Chango. There we halted on a bridge where two uniformed men sat at a card table – this was the first permit check post. Our details were carefully entered into a ledger along with the two other foreigners who were on board, while everyone else on the bus waited patiently. In another ten kilometres, at Sumdo, the process was repeated, this time inside an office. Our proximity to the Tibetan border was just a few kilometres, but without so much as a village or side road between the two check posts it was unclear as to what kind of threat we posed.
The road had now dropped us back to river level, and we drove along its banks on a thoroughfare which the river was constantly reclaiming. Scree slopes now ran to the tops of the mountains like rivers of rock.
AFTER ABOUT FIFTY KILOMETRES AND three and a half hours, Tabo Monastery came into view sitting on a broad sandy bank of the Spiti River, surrounded by a village and an oasis of green amid the barren splendour. We pulled into a desolate bus stand, and after again offering our profound thanks to Gaurav, we followed a stream of maroon-clad monks to find the monastery. Next to the main gate, neatly labelled “Tabo Monastery estb. 996AD”, we entered a doorway to the Millennium Monastery Guesthouse, and for a 350 rupee donation were ushered to very comfortable quarters. Our room had the charm of the old mud brick building with its thick walls to keep out the cold, but with a geyser in our bathroom, and a king-sized bed. Over a meal of very good vegetable thukpa (noodles with “home-made spicy”) and sweet curd at the monastery restaurant we decided that a two day stay would be in order.
Our 3280 metre elevation meant that it was a little less chilly when we stepped out the next morning. We had a wander around the sacred enclave of the monastery which was established by Rinchen Zangpo in 996AD. Because rain is so infrequent in the Spiti region, the rammed earth structures had survived over one thousand years in near perfect condition, and its juxtaposition with the modern gompa compound next to it defined the evolution of monastic architecture. Eventually a monk came along with a key, and we were able to look inside the Gsug Lakhang, the assembly hall which was the original building, richly decorated inside by a retinue of Kashmiri artists – the exterior belied nothing of what was inside. Illuminated by only three skylights, it took some minutes for our eyes to adjust to the dimness – first to come into focus were the life-sized seated bodhisatvas seemingly levitating high on the walls, and the four-sided Buddha in the centre of the room. As we looked closer the murals came into view, decorating the entirety of the six metre high walls with a worn Jataka along the base. In the ambulatory behind the altar the artisanship was superb with hundreds of beautifully painted Buddha images and larger representations of bodhisatvas and panditas. Back in the main hall, the colours were now apparent to our dilated pupils – on the walls, and in the richness of the fabrics on the pillars and pulpits. We were standing in a three dimensional mandala with the mystical universe all around us.
We filled the rest of our morning with a walk around Tabo – first up to the hermitage caves on the hillside for a wonderful view over the monastery complex and the valley, then through the fields to the west, bordered by stone walls with doorways. At Anjali’s dhaba we had “best thali in vally”, which didn’t motivate us to try any more thalis in the valley, then went back to the choskhor, where we sat chatting with our Mexican acquaintances, Iris and Chris, and we looked inside the other minor temples, beautiful with more modern six hundred year old murals.
With our evening bowl of thukpa we had a plate of chocolate momos as recommended by Lobsang (you can take the man out of Switzerland…), then went for a stroll down to the helipad, built for the inaugural visit of the Dalai Lama. There we were surprised to see ten novices just running out from the monastery for a game of cricket! Some whipped off their robes to reveal sports shoes, others hitched them up around their waists. Stumps were assembled, shin pads donned, and there was even a maroon helmet for the batsman. After some limbering up the game began, and they were pretty serious – the bowler wasn’t mucking about and the batsman fired at least one six before finally getting clean bowled. Those in the outfield had to deal with the added hazard of human excrement liberally and indiscriminately planted like a minefield. Even Dave, unofficially playing in deep third man, had to be mindful. But a very nice shot which went away for four ended up down by the river somewhere, so pads were doffed and everyone jumped the rock wall to try and find the ball, while we wandered home to the warmth of our nest.
We enjoyed another leisurely stroll the next morning, adding a fortifying bowl of tsampa (barley porridge) to our breakfast menu before heading for the bus stand. There we waited with Helena (who had been our neighbour again!), and Rob and Janelle, a British couple. After an hour or so the locals started turning up and the bus eventually arrived at 9:30am, with plenty of seats available for a comfortable ride.
We were only travelling twenty kilometres down the road. Sichaling was the place we alighted, with Helena, Janelle and Rob spontaneously deciding to follow us. Sichaling was barely a dot on the map, and the road branching up to Dhankar looked somewhat forbidding in the heat of the day, with not so much as a blade of grass for shade. Nevertheless, we were prepared for such a situation, and got out our hats, had a big swig of water, shouldered our bags, and set off up the road which, a sign warned us, was eight kilometres long. The others looked a tad daunted, and went off in the other direction seeking water and/or a taxi…
We didn’t follow the road for long, a series of shortcuts cut the distance considerably, and soon we were high above the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers, gaining our first sight of the ancient Dhankar Monastery perched sublimely on an eerie at 3860 metres, high above the valley floor.
THE FINAL SHORTCUT TOOK US well away from the motorable route and through the lower village, which was as verdant as the monastery’s perch was barren. We reached the monastery’s Yak and Yeti Guesthouse after an hours walk, where our less virtuous friends were already ensconced after commandeering a car. We took a nice big room with a doorway leading to the terrace for 500 rupees – but unfortunately there was no electricity supply. The caretaker, Parul, was a nice guy, and Indian rather than Tibetan, so we chose dal, sabzi and rice to replenish our energy requirements, and ate in the most amazing setting, looking out over the valley with the ancient gompa sitting on its crag in our foreground, and the village spread around the bowl below us. Once well rested we decided that an afternoon walk was in order, and on our way to the trail head a voice called to us from the new monastery – Lobsang had just arrived also, and after catching up over a pot of Earl Grey we went together to Dhankar Tsoh, a high altitude lake set in a basin way up above the village at 4150 metres. It was a stiff thirty minute climb well rewarded by the sight of the tarn, its milky green water supporting a few threads of life – shoals of fish and the odd migratory bird – a lone tern looked bizarrely out of place. The evening light was brilliant as we descended, especially as it played on the ribbons of the Pin River making it look like molten silver.
Our evening repast was overwhelmed first by a lone Israeli with verbal diarrhoea over-determined to distance himself from his ill-mannered countrymen, then by a large group of the said countrymen. Our dinner party broke up quickly as we stumbled over chairs to secure a fast escape.
With such a fantastic drawcard on offer, of course we were back on the trail by 5 o’clock the next morning, heading back up to the lake for sunrise. We climbed to a high point above the lake where we could see the twin peaks of Mane Rung (6593 metres) and the chain of mountains which ran along the other side of the river. Directly below us was the old gompa and the Pin River interweaving with the Spiti. When the sun finally warmed us with its rays we walked back to the lake where the colours were even more breathtaking than the altitude. By the stupa we rekindled a fire lit earlier by a lone figure to appease the lamo, the malevolent spirit of the lake. The fragrance of burning juniper then drifted through the air, and the only sound was of the prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. For the second time we had this remarkable place completely to ourselves.
Back at the Yak and Yeti we ironically watched a magnificent yak parade through the village with a herd of dzo whilst we waited for our breakfast of gobi paratha, then it was off to the old gompa with Lobsang, who kindly showed us around the Unesco treasure. He would be there in his professional capacity as an archaeologist for the next month, with a team of ‘foreign experts’ to determine the feasibility of restoring the monastery – so he knew every dark corner and hidden recess of the ancient buildings, and we were privileged to be taken into parts of the monastery that were usually off limits. We saw twelfth century murals, priceless scriptures and treasured artifacts in shakey rooms supported by time worn wooden beams and floors of wattle and daub. We explored every nook and cranny from the dokhang and the granary to the Dalai Lamas room and the fort of the Nono kings on the very top of the crag. The vertiginous views from unstable balconies which we popped out onto, reminded us of our precipitous location, and a lammergeyer vulture occasionally soared around us on sorties from his nest below.
Our late lunch of dal and chapatis was supplemented by an invaluable gift from Abdul, a friendly Bangalorean. Our eyes sparkled and our mouths watered at the sight of peaches and apricots from Shimla which he bestowed upon us. We savoured every morsel, then ate what was to be Lobsang’s gift to the geshe of the monastery – a block of Swiss chocolate with whole hazelnuts! We spent a lazy afternoon on the terrace, and went to bed with a plan to meet Lobsang the next morning for an excursion to Lalung, a village far up the next side valley.
Together we ate our breakfast parathas with a conversation provoking pickle, and set off with a rather unsubstantial-looking picnic of Tibetan bread and boiled eggs. We headed past the monastery, passing the village yak and all the pashmina goats on their way to pasture, then turned away from the jeep track and followed a goat path up and over the spur into the Lalung Valley. The scenery was, of course, spectacular with rock walls, a meadow full of grazing dzo, and a hamlet tucked high up in a secret cleft. Eventually we rejoined the road, and after two and a half hours of hiking, reached the idyllic village of Lalung.
We went to the gompa at the top of the village where the crusty old abbot allowed us into the assembly hall. It was a comparatively small room, but outrageously decorated with dozens of clay figures. Bodhisatvas, protectors, nymphs and demons completely covered the walls and filled the darkened space with life and colour. The abbot made us tea in his apartments, and we ate our picnic under the thousand year old tree outside the gompa – the only shade we had seen all morning.
The walk back took just two hours. We were tired after our twenty four kilometre round trip, but well-pleased with our outing, even if we were so covered in dust that we tolerated the cold shower without complaint. We asked for extra masala in our evening dal and sabzi, though it didn’t taste any different, then sat on the terrace watching the dzo come home, and the big yak decide where he would spend the night, until the sun dipped behind the mountains and the stars began to appear.
We slept very well that night, especially with a quilt underneath us to add an element of softness to the mattress, and in the morning motivated Parul to make us an early breakfast so that we could be on our way. We said farewell to Lobsang for the final time – our lamaji placed white scarves around our necks and waved goodbye as we began our descent down the foot track to the main road at Sichaling.
There we waited and waited – first with a couple of itinerant carpet sellers who decided to start walking, then with a crew of road workers inanely collecting piles of rocks and painting them with a lime wash diluted to the point of futility – they ranged in age from elderly to wizened.
After two and a half hours the bus finally rattled along and scooped us up, but we broke down four times in quick succession, the bus finally spluttering out its death throes in the tiny village of Lingti, not even five kilometres from where we’d started. The miniscule dhaba was overwhelmed by this surprise influx, but chef managed a lunchtime serving of rice and dal with black-eye beans, and the local menagerie amused everyone – the donkey ee-oored in the dhaba doorway, and a pashmina kid tried eating everything from a sleeping passengers T-shirt to my white scarf tied around my bag.
After two hours a rescue vehicle arrived from Kaza, and all except the driver piled aboard – he was the proverbial captain staying with the sinking ship. We were in Kaza by 2:30pm – ugly and dirty as it was, it provided our basic requirements – good food, a few supplies, and a transport connection. We ate curd, and cardamom barfi at the Rishu Sweet and Food Corner, bought peanuts and almonds, and took not just any bus, but the bus we’d just arrived on, almost all the way back to where we’d broken down. We crossed a bridge at a desperately isolated fork in the road which we didn’t dare wait at lest the bus didn’t return for us, then headed up the Pin Valley, right opposite Dhankar and our broken bus, which still sat forlornly on the roadside.
The Pin Valley was wildly beautiful, walled in by layers of sedimentary rock being thrust up almost vertically by the sub-continental drift. Snow lay in the upper folds above us, and ice remained unmelted by the roadway.
THE BUS COULDN’T MANAGE THE road as it approached its end, which was a work in progress, so we walked the final kilometre to the village of Mudh (3840 metres) after the two and a half hour ride. We had essentially travelled for ten and a half hours that day to end up barely thirty kilometres from our starting point!
We were busy eyeing off potential hiking excursions as we walked into the village, when we topped a rise and thought we’d instead arrived in the Golan Heights. The situation looked grim, and the 6am bus back to Kaza suddenly looked appealing…
Haas, our host at the Pin Parvati Homestay was clearly delighted at having some non-Israeli patrons, and we were grateful to have our own geyser, which at least limited our exposure.
Nevertheless, determined to make the most of Mudh, we went for a long walk the next morning. The breakfast menu, ranging from felafel and lafka to shakshouka and hoummos, was so unappealing that we opted for chai and oatmeal porridge, which filled our basic requirement for food and gave us the energy to walk ten kilometres further up the Pin Valley toward the Pin Parvati Pass. The valley was filled with green alpine meadows streaked with purple scree slides and patches of yellow wildflowers. We crossed frozen rivers and landslides of shale, and saw snow pigeons, herds of grazing horses and dzo, a caravan of pack animals, and the spore of perhaps a wolf. Eventually we came to an impassable snow melt, and disturbed three lammergeyers from the carcass of a donkey, freshly killed by an unknown predator. Its neck was gouged, there was a trail of blood to where it had fallen, and the vultures were methodically picking the bones. It was so fresh that there was no smell and the lammergeyers circled hungrily waiting for us to move on…
Back in Mudh all was quiet – the population of Tel Aviv had departed and we were now sharing our guesthouse with two families from Delhi and Chandigarh. They were also turning their noses up at the menu, and our choice of vegetable thukpa was a bad one – a promisingly large bowl contained so few noodles that we had to search them out. We were still hungry afterwards and so spent the afternoon topping up at Snow Valley Hotel where Nawang dished up what our stomachs were waiting for – generous plates of spicy chow mien, and a big bowl of thick curd made from dzo milk. Sitting in the warmth of his kitchen sipping ginger tea, we gazed down the valley until the beasts came home – the dzo making their own way to their pens, the goats running everywhere with their sharp-eyed herders chasing them down.
We had no choice but an early start the next morning. The only bus out of Mudh left at 6am, and as we climbed aboard we realised that it was our broken down bus with a new alternator and fan belt. It now purred like a kitten, and we lurched off in a cloud of exhaust fumes as the same conductor laconically sold us another ticket.
Once back in Kaza, we enquired about the bus to Kibber – this time the conductor couldn’t resist a wry smile. Our connection was again the same bus – leaving at 5 o’clock.
Now with eight long hours stretching ahead of us, waiting for a forty-five minute bus ride, we returned to Rishu’s and made the most of the Indian cuisine on offer. We breakfasted on samosa chole, washed down with a good quantity of chai, then a plate of chana puri and curd. We killed some time sitting at the gompa on the hill, until time took away our shade, then moved to the fields below town to sit in the cool under a tree. We exchanged polite “jhule” with passers-by going to take a crap by the river, and a brief chat with Rod from Young, who’d been living in India for so long that he spoke to us in mono-syllables, “youu taake phootoh”, though he did have moments of fluency, “fuckin’ Israelis”…
Eventually we got hungry again. At Rishu’s the boss was on his break and the staff were taking full advantage of the situation, taking it easy and smoking bidis. Of course we were in no rush, and when the boss returned our lassis were smooth, sweet and delicious. We ran into Parul, who was in town for some shopping and a shave, and that tipped the scales for Dave, afraid of being mistaken for an Israeli, he went and bought a razor to shave off his beard.The fruit truck had been in Kaza the previous day, so we could also buy mangoes and bananas – after almost two weeks in Spiti we were fruit starved.
At 5 o’clock we re-massed at the bus stand and took our seats for the long-awaited ride. From an altitude of 3640 metres we climbed up to 4205 metres, passing the awesome sight of Ki Gompa along the way.
KIBBER WAS SUPPOSEDLY THE HIGHEST village in the world with electricity and a motorable road, and we chose Norling Homestay, a traditional building which was the highest place to stay in Kibber! Our 400 rupee room and two picture windows, so we could watch the village activity around us and the surrounding mountain scenery. Considering the altitude, it wasn’t particularly cold in Kibber, it was only the rock-hard mattress which made it difficult to sleep. The weight of our bodies didn’t make the slightest dent in it.
The next morning we ate a Tibetan breakfast of tsampa in the traditional dining room with carpets and low tables, mixing our ground, roasted barley with chai and butter to make a satisfying gruel which put us in good stead for a long walk. We headed up the track toward Parang La, hiking for a couple of hours until we reached the junction of several deep gorges where we climbed to a high point between them. There were snow-capped mountains all around us, and we stood at an elevation of 4510 metres.
Back in the village we decided over a plate of extremely bland chow mien that this wasn’t the place for a sojourn, and that we should leave the next day. We firmed up a plan as a group of elderly Japanese tourists appeared out of nowhere to randomly buy postcards of Goa and Manali, then went for an afternoon stroll.
Curious about where our bus had finished its run, we followed the road beyond Kibber through fields of peas and barley for about three kilometres until it ended abruptly at the lip of a narrow canyon. Chicham, the village on the opposite side was cut off by the hundred metre deep gorge and the only means of access, besides a long and arduous walk, was by a flying fox strung across the abyss. Whilst we sat contemplating the hardships of living in such an isolated place, a man laboriously pulled himself across the chasm, nonchalantly dangling from a basket on a wire like Evel Knievel, then riding off on a motorbike which he had parked on the roadway.
We were back in our room in time for the afternoon stampede, as the livestock population returned from grazing in the high meadows. Donkeys brayed, dzo lumbered, and the goats greeted everyone with a friendly “jhuuleee” as they rumbled down the hillside en masse in a cloud of dust, tripping over each other in their haste to reach home…
A headache knocked me out that evening, and with nothing else to attribute it to, we put it down to the altitude – even though I was taking Diamox. The high altitude was doing strange things to our bodies – we hadn’t been below 3500 metres in the past two weeks and nose bleeds were frequent. We were constantly blowing congealed blood and dirt from each nostril, in the mornings our sink would always look like a scene of slaughter.
My head was still in a vice the next morning, so after our tsampa we set off early down the mountain, walking the six kilometres to Ki Gompa, and I was feeling fine by the time we got there. But alas, there were no rooms available at the inn, and the once daily bus back to Kaza was just groaning around the turning circle. With seconds to spare, we ran for the bus, asking the reception clerk to save us a room for the following night.
DISAPPOINTED, WE FOUND OURSELVES BACK in Kaza waiting out yet another day. At least this time we had a room to rest in. We ran into Janelle and Rob, who were staying at Bodh Guesthouse, being Israeli-free it was highly recommended, even if the bathroom was down the hall. And so we lazed the day away – our most strenuous activity was lunch at Rishu’s, which took well over an hour. The staff were busy helping an electrician stack cable reels up to the ceiling so that he could work on a light bulb. With a plastic chair on top, he looked like some kind of circus balancing act. And at the end of it all our rajma was deliciously creamy, and our sabzi masala had the tang of tamarind and sweetness of caramelised onion. Being Sunday there was actually little choice about where to eat – everything was closed except the fruit and vegetable wallahs and the German bakery.
Planning an early start the next morning, we needed something up our sleeves to snack on before we left, and couldn’t find so much as a packet of Parle-G. Having been warned off the croissants by a French couple we had met in Kibber, “eet ees more like … I don’t know how to say in Eenglish … a brioche”, we resorted to bread rolls from the German Bakery, then found that the town of Kaza had completely sold out of bananas in our absence.
By now we knew that we could do very much on very little, so we set off with confidence at 5:30am to walk the twelve kilometres back to Ki Gompa – we couldn’t bear to wait for the 5pm bus again. Fortunately we weren’t counting on hitching a ride, seen as not even a single vehicle passed us, so the hike was pleasant but taxing on the uphill stretch with our bags.
WE ARRIVED AT THE MONASTERY at 8 o’clock, the sight of it clustered on a cone-like hillock at 4120 metres with a backdrop of barren mountains, renewed us. Once assured that there was a room for us in the guesthouse, we rested over a chai, then, lured by a dirt track that we could see snaking up the hillside, went for what we intended to be a short stroll. After walking some distance the trail continued up and up, and as it steepened it became formed with rock steps and walls. It was way to enticing to resist and we ended up four hundred vertical metres above the monastery at some prayer flags we had seen from below. Along the way we were surprised to meet a group of four Sikh hikers whom we’d met briefly in Kibber – their attempt to hike to Komic had ended in failure. They had lost their way, at one point having to tie their turbans together to make a river crossing, then somehow doubling back to end up on the trail we were now following!
The view from the prayer flags was magnificent, with the valley at our feet, and the gompa a circular dot directly below. The scramble back down was dizzying – descents are often more difficult than ascents, and our lungs were exhausted after our morning exertions.
At the Noryang Guesthouse we were allocated the best room – a bargain at only 300 rupees with a geyser, a view of the gompa, and novice monks pressed to our window shyly talking to us. After another rest and a pukka lunchtime thali, we went off to look at the monastery. Climbing the stairs and entering through the red doors, decorated with embossed brass, a monk called to us, inviting us inside. In the blackened kitchen he poured us tea and showed off the butter sculptures he’d been making, then, with him beckoning us to follow, we negotiated dark passageways and stairwells to the rooftop. There we met Ankush and Siddharta (from Delhi) and together we were shown into the room of the nineteenth incarnation of Rinchen Zongpo, with its library of ancient scriptures, and the stupa hall containing the ashes of the sixteenth century founder of the monastery. In the lokhang, another monk proudly led us through the hall lined with beautiful old thangkas, then insisted on a group photo outside the door…
Later in the afternoon, we twice made a parikrama, a circumambulation around the base of the monastery, pausing to see the afternoon sun turn the Spiti River to silver, and to watch two magnificent Himalayan griffins using thermal wind currents to take them spiralling upwards until they were tiny dots a thousand metres above us.
We ate our evening thukpa in the warmth of the guesthouse dining room, chatting with the French couple Pauline and Celian, who we knew from Kibber, and a pair of Dutch motorcyclists who’d just arrived. The atmosphere was lively as the place filled with monks supplementing their food rations with plates of mutton curry and chicken biryani…
We saw them again at the 7 o’clock pooja the next morning. The head abbot ushered us into the lokhang at the sound of a conch which heralded pooja time. Novices filtered in one by one as we sipped chai from huge bowls, then the chanting began, led by the abbot with a deep-throated baritone, and occasional gong and bell ringing. Periodically they would take a rest and we would all slurp butter tea and tsampa, with the novices easily distracted, and the abbot sending the odd text message. After one and a half hours they were still near the beginning of the thick wooden bound manuscript which they were working through – the novices were given a signal, and ran from the hall as children excused from a chore, and we also took our leave in order to catch the once daily bus back to Kaza.
The ticket-checking wallah didn’t disappoint us on our last Spitian bus ride. We had met this small Kinnuari man on every bus that we had taken since Tabo. Suffering small-penis syndrome, he was a laughing stock amongst the passengers, and a torment to the conductors, like a comic version of Mister Smedley.
IN KAZA WE WEIGHED UP our options for getting ourselves to Manali. The road over the pass out of Spiti had been cleared by the army a week earlier, and buses had been given the green light to use the road three days previously, but the first one to successfully complete the journey had only just arrived that morning – so we opted for the surety of a share jeep, and booked our seats for the two hundred kilometre journey leaving at 6 o’clock the next morning.
That settled, we put our bags down in the same 200 rupee room at Bodh Guesthouse, then ate a late breakfast of tasty mutton momos at the well-patronised Lama Food Centre, an atmospheric dhaba near the bus stand.
The remainder of the day was the same thumb-twiddling bore we’d come to expect of our visits to Kaza – again just waiting out a transport departure.
At 6 o’clock the following morning, we found that our vehicle was a minivan and that the prized front seats that we had booked were dishonourably also sold to someone else. So we left Kaza with long faces and a twelve hour ride ahead of us.
The valley widened further as we travelled northwest, following the route of the river, with our Tibetan driver going to great lengths to circle mane walls and stupas. We passed only two vehicles in the first sixty kilometres to Losar, where we stopped for momos and a police check. The post was in the officers bedroom, and amongst the equipment on his desk was a morse code transmitter!
The next stretch to Kunzum Top was a gentle rise through meadows of wildflowers, becoming desolate again at the 4550 metre pass, marked by flags and chortens which we drove around and stopped to pray at. We drove off honking in obeisance to drop down the other side in a dramatic series of switchbacks.
We carried on along the valley of the Chandra River beneath glaciers crushing their way down high slopes to our lunch stop at Chattru. There the landscape began to green, and before long it was drizzling rain. The road had to be practically re-built every season – snow and landslides destroyed it, and work crews toiled constantly against nature to keep it open for the few months of summer. We drove through snow drifts up to five metres high, sliced in half so that we could pass, gushing their melt across the barely navigable track – all to the strains of the drivers questionable choice of music. He favoured folk tunes from the mother country, all screeching horns and wailing vocals which had everyone reaching for ear plugs.
At Gramphu we joined the Leh road and traffic increased a hundred fold as we zig-zagged up the sheer north face of the pass to Rohtang Top. Now the weather really closed in, with thick cloud and heavy rain turning the 3980 metre pass into a bleak and freezing place, deserving of its name which translated to ‘pile of dead bodies’. The ideal place for a flat tyre. Everybody shivered inside the vehicle while the driver braved the elements to change it, then drove on – into the clouds, swinging the vehicle down hairpin bends with twenty metre visibility – at least we couldn’t see the perilous drop-offs.
At short distance into our descent we came to a halt at the inevitable traffic jam – a landslide area turned into a slippery mud bog from rain and snow melt. When two or more large vehicles met and couldn’t squeeze past each other, the result was kilometres of traffic backed up, facing each other off. And so we waited, with the jam snaking its way down the mountainside below us, and stones rolling ominously down onto the road.
Further along, heavily armed police took control, sending convoys in one direction only, through particularly treacherous sections. Amid all this chaos, Indian tourists flocked on day trips to see the Rohtang La, looking absurd in hired ski suits and ankle length fur coats. From the time that we could first see Manali in the valley below us, it took three and a half hours to actually reach it.
The Kullu Valley was a riot of green. Strikingly lush and beautiful, we saw forests of trees for the first time in two weeks.
THE TOWNSHIP OF MANALI ALSO came as a shock to our senses. From the high altitude wilderness of Spiti, were we were now back in the maelstrom of India. Blasting horns, jostling crowds, colour, noise, smells, visual overload.
The contents of our minivan were spilled out and swallowed whole within seconds of our arrival. We grabbed our bag and launched ourselves into the whirlpool of The Mall. Ignoring offers of rickshaws, shawls and fairy floss, we headed for the sanctuary of the first hotel we came across, and were relieved to find a room straight off. Hotel Chandra Bhaga had it all. Friendly Kewal behind the desk slowed us to a fourth floor suite which we couldn’t say no to. With a little negotiating, 630 rupees bought us a fully furnished room with television, a balcony, a geyser, and even toiletries and a soft bed with clean sheets! It was positively luxurious when compared to our previous nights lodging in a rammed earth cottage with hay stacks on the roof. We were also back in the land of telecommunications, able to again send texts and check e-mail after two weeks off the air.
Having not eaten all day through the fear of a long bus ride on an unsettled stomach can induce, I was beyond hungry. Watching Dave eat a scrumptious-looking thali featuring a baigan aloo masala whilst I sipped forlornly on a Coke was a particularly low point of my day. Manali was a food bonanza. When we had visited fifteen years earlier, it was mid-winter, but now in summer time it was all happening. Nevertheless, feeling fragile, I opted for a simple thali in the busy Manali Sweets bhojnalaya in a nearby alleyway. We were photographed by local tourists as we ate, smiling in between mouthfuls of urid beans and chapatis.
Things were less frenetic when we stepped out at 7 o’clock the next morning. Instead of cold and dry, the air was cool and fresh at 1900 metres, as we sipped chai in The Mall recognising landmarks from the Manali we’d visited so long ago. We bought fresh fruit – bananas, mangoes and local pears, and after a breakfast of chana poori, set off for the Hadimba Mandir, a beautiful wooden temple set in the deodar woods above town. Inside, a rock used for ritual slaughter channelled blood into the mouth of the goddess Hadimba, outside we smiled for the cameras, outdoing the angora rabbits, combed-up yaks, and traditional Kullu costume dress-ups as subject material.
Strolling back through town, a browse in the local handloom co-operation turned up some very nice purchases. Rupa, the doe-eyed assistant at the Bhuttico store, had shawls spread from end to end of the counter as we assayed the finest quality angoras and home-spun wool, all coloured only by the animals themselves. For 1500 rupees I bought a hand-woven pashmina shawl, and a woolen loi blanket for 800 rupees.
Happy with our splurge, we decided to do lunch at Johnson’s, one of Manali’s finest restaurants. Under a canopy beyond the rose garden and lawn I dined on woodfired Himalayan trout with almond sauce and minted vegetables, while Dave enjoyed the masala pork. Bul-buls twittered in the mulberry and apricot trees as a rain shower gave us reason to linger after our meal.
We mooched the afternoon away promenading along The Mall, sticky-beaking down alleyways and snacking on spicy paneer pakora with a sweet tangy sauce.
Quite comfortable in our lodgings and surroundings, we decided to stay another day in Manali – shopping, eating and creating an itinerary for the upcoming week. A chai-wallah made us an omelette for breakfast, then we picked the brain of the railway booking office clerk who seemed to have committed the India Rail timetable to memory. After some more shopping at the Bodh weavers co-operative turned up an attractive yak wool scarf, we had a delicious lunch at Beas Punjabi Dhaba, a tiny eatery which was so popular that we had to wait for a seat. We had been craving bhindi masala and it didn’t disappoint, especially served with rajma and mushroom masala. We finished off in Atithi Sweets with something we’d never tried – chilled rabri with cashews, almonds, pistachios and sultanas was tooth-decayingly sweet and thigh-fatteningly creamy – after one spoonful we ordered an extra plate…
We were ready to move on the next day. Kewal was disappointed at our departure (it wasn’t easy to find punters for the fourth floor rooms), but we keenly presented ourselves at the bus stand, picking up the 6:30am service for Dharamsala as far as Mandi.
The sky was clear and the mountains were visible in all their alpine glory as we rolled out of town to follow the swollen Beas River down the Kullu Valley. Orchards of apples and stone fruit lined the way, with roadside stalls selling fresh produce amongst thick forests of ganja. At the village of Aut the valley narrowed and we dropped down through a tunnel for several kilometres to emerge in a gorge which time seemed to have forgotten. It was filled with strange palm trees and the Beas ran calm and deep – it was almost as if a dinosaur might appear at the next bend.
We had reached Mandi by 10:30am, and smoothly found a bus going on to Rewalsar. From Mandi’s 700 metre elevation we climbed back up to 1360 metres to the peaceful village nestled around a sacred lake. We drove through typical hill country, with rice fields, banana and mango trees, and insects droning the sound of the jungle – it was far removed from where we’d started the day.
REWALSAR WAS HOME TO A community of Buddhists, three monasteries and a gigantic golden statue of a seated Padmasambhava gave an extra air of tranquility to an already seductive place. We put up at the Himachal Tourist Inn, a colonial-era stone cottage where low season tariff meant we paid just 330 rupees for our character-filled time-worn suite.
Circumambulating the lake was the main activity in Rewalsar. The jade green water teemed with carp, and at the fish feeding ghats the shallows boiled with them – much to the delight of the Hindu and Sikh pilgrims who also revered this holy place. Up on the giant Padmasambhava platform we milled with a group of Vietnamese pilgrims who’d been in Dharamsala for the Dalai Lama’s teachings. And just when we thought we’d eaten our last momo, we were dished up a couple of platefuls of very good vegetarian ones with a bowl of curry soup, and a big dairy cow watching us intently through the doorway. We were happy to be back in the land of plenty, where a good meal could be had for just 30 rupees, and mangoes and papayas were abundant and cheap – an entire kilo cost only 30 rupees.
We planned an excursion for the following day, to give us an excuse to stay longer. After seeking advice from the innkeeper, we headed off up into the hills behind the golden Padmasambhava. Two dogs joined us on our hike, staying close at heel for the one and a half hour climb to the temple of Naina Devi, way up at 1900 metres. In the sultry foothills we perspired in the humid air, and our four-legged friends panted heavily keeping up to our well-oxygenated lungs.
At the temple we sat for over an hour, chatting with the chowkidar, Santram, enjoying the view which took in the terraced slopes, forested hills, and the valley far below picturesquely filled with a sea of cloud.
We took the more circuitous route back down – our dogs electing to return alone via the shortcut after an incident with a water buffalo, while we continued through the bucolic scenery of Sarkidhar to the lake of Kunt Bhayo (a name which we didn’t care to ask directions to!), and back along the road to Rewalsar.
Our seventeen kilometre round trip earned us a repeat of the generous thali we’d eaten the day before, finished off by a serendipitously placed kulfi-wallah – he made the ice cream on the spot, fresh and creamy for just 10 rupees.
An afternoon parikrama of the lake took us several relaxing hours. First we met Sonam, an elderly gent selling religious paraphernalia whom we’d met in Nako three weeks previously. We caught up on old times and I bought a string of turquoise prayer beads. Next we stopped for a plate of curd, then paused for some people-watching at the fish-feeding ghats. Monkeys and dogs vied for the scraps, the dogs relying on the guile of big, sad eyes, the monkeys resorting to theft and the element of surprise. Further along, an impassioned game of football being played on the muddy field adjacent to the gurdwara had drawn a large and excited crowd, an old monk sitting next to us thumbing prayer beads couldn’t hold back an outraged cry of “handball, handball!!”.
The afternoon thunderstorm eventually drove us homeward, ambling along with the Tibetan ladies in their colourful aprons twirling prayer wheels and smacking their lips at the sight of our momos, which we couldn’t resist for one last time.
Before we left in the morning we made a couple of circuits of the lake with the health conscious and the pious, muttering mantras as they walked. The Sikh pilgrims went defiantly in the wrong direction, and we sat for some time eating a breakfast of aloo paratha and chai from a cart which we’d also patronised the day before.
THE 8AM ‘GUPTA COACH’ TOOK us back down to Mandi. For the one and a half hour trip we sat with Tashi, a monk who’d fled Tibet three years earlier, now going home to Dharamsala. We were dropped off in the centre of town by the attractive sunken garden, lined with two levels of market shops. We made a bee-line for the old Raj Mahal palace of Joginder Sen, but it was full, so we ended up across the square in a 330 rupee room at the somewhat less impressive Evening Plaza Hotel.
We filled the rest of the morning exploring some of the town. We found five hundred year old temples down along the river and sprinkled through the alleyways woven behind the palace. In the bazaar we bought lychees and mangoes, and at the Ashoka Dhaba we ate bharta, aloo gobi and chicken curry spooned from the bubbling cauldron in the doorway.
To escape the afternoon heat we went to see a film – we sought out the local ‘cinema hall’, asking directions along the way to find the Kusum Theatre standing like a derelict memory of a bygone era. The film we saw, ‘Chalo Dilhi’, was a release from April and there were only about twenty movie-goers in the fan-cooled hall which seated seven hundred. Our balcony seats gave great vantage, but the projection lamp was rather feeble, and cobwebs hung in front of it from the ceiling. The plot was easy to follow, with parallels to real-life India. A comedy of errors saw the heroine (played by Lara Dutta) and a lovable slob somehow go from boarding a plane to Delhi, to reaching their destination by any means. A surprise cameo by Akshay Kumar kept everyone’s attention right to the end, and as the credits rolled we walked out into the streets feeling like we were still surrounded by the film.
The streets were busy in the evening. We did some strolling and snack-tracking, declining a surreptitious offer of “manali?” with our pakoras, and cooling off with some cashew and kishmish ice cream in the sunken garden.
We slept under the novelty of a fan, and in the morning climbed the stairs to Tarna Hill before the heat of the day. There were no other worshippers at the Kali temple at that early hour so I made darshan with the fearsome goddess, offering her a freshly slain ant with my rupees to request her favour.
Back in the market square, we had a big breakfast of chana bhatura, then mooched the day away visiting Boothnath temple, poking around the palace, and sitting by the river at the Hanuman rock.
Determined to have some brush with royalty, we lunched at the Raj Mahal on the lawn in the palace gardens. Under the shade of a mango tree we dined appropriately on Moghul cuisine – mutton rogan josh and navratan korma, the richness absorbed by fragrant basmati rice and thick wedges of naan. We sat in over-sized cast iron chairs, padded with big red cushions for some hours, lingering over fresh lime sodas like bara sahibs – and all for just five hundred rupees.
After more mooching, chatting, and autograph signing (!!!) in the sunken garden, we finished the day in the same dhaba we’d started it in, with plates of curd and gulab jamun.
The following day, we left Manali behind, jumping on a bus heading northward into the hills. We had intended to get down in Jogindernagar, but decided to continue on to Palampur, one hundred kilometres away at a pleasant altitude of 1250 metres.
THE SURROUNDING COUNTRYSIDE WAS GREEN and rolling, with tea estates carefully manicured by teams of pluckers. By 11 o’clock we’d settled ourselves into a crusty 500 rupee room with a lovely view at the Pines Hotel, then set off to explore our new neighbourhood.
Back down the road at the Kittu Estate, we purchased fresh, organic tea leaves from a kiosk in the tea gardens – two hundred grams of gift wrapped ‘tippy black’ went for 150 rupees.
After a very good thali with urid beans, fried gobi and matar masala at Friends Hotel, we popped a couple of nimbu sodas, and walked through the tea plantations beyond the Hotel Teabud to Neugal Cafe. To avoid the traffic, we traipsed through the camellia bushes where possible, checking out the orange pekoe tips and stray blossoms.
We returned to our nest, arms laden with shopping spoils – more tea (number one grade Kangra), curd, bananas, plums, and almond cookies.
Breakfast the next morning looked doomed to be parathas, but we persevered in our search, and Rattan Sweets saved the day, serving us delicious, balloon-sized pooris with chana and aloo. We then hiked beyond the Neugal cafe down to the Saurabh Van Vihar, the forested gorge watered by the crystal clear River Bandla. There were mongooses, ringnecks and Alexandrine parrots in the tea gardens, and an overnight shower cleared the air for a view of the Dhaula Dhar mountain range. We found alternative routes back, the most enjoyable along an aquaduct through the jungle, whose vegetation gave a false sense of security about the sheer drop into gorge below. The only incident was with a monkey behaving like a troll, and that was resolved with a handful of rocks.
We were exhausted when we got back to town – pooris may well taste great, but they are not part of a healthy well-balanced diet – so we re-charged with some saffron badam milk. And bought some more tea leaves for good measure – Kangra Valley second grade…
Pre-monsoonal rain and thunderstorms meant that we enjoyed the now stupendous view from our room for most of the afternoon. We were lucky to get in a short walk down to the tea factory, where the air was fragrant with fermenting leaves, but the traffic was frightful, and we caught a bus back before the next downpour struck.
THE FOLLOWING DAY WAS DEDICATED to The Journey. The destination was Pathankot, a place which we had no desire to visit, but the means was by narrow gauge railway, one of only five in India, along the Kangra Valley line.
We started by catching a bus a few kilometres to the station at Mirinda, which looked like a functioning museum. Pretty as a picture, with manicured gardens and neatly painted labels on everything from the pay schedule to the ‘parcel go-down’. Out tickets for the one hundred and twenty six kilometre journey cost 20 rupees each.
The toy train came honking along right on time at 8 o’clock, and the resident dogs were rudely roused from their places of slumber in the ensuing scramble for the carriage doors, which were already brimming with passengers.
It was several hours before the two of us were comfortably seated together with our belongings. The ride was downhill all the way to the plains, with brakes squealing on the steep inclines, horn honking at cows, people and motorcycles, and carriage rooking to the locomotion. The potentially spectacular views were clouded out, so we had to content ourselves with the passing scenery and goings on inside our carriage. There was an interesting altercation between an embarking passenger and the guard when she stopped the train by screaming her lungs out. She had been so slow to board that the train began creeping off with half of her party still on the platform. The guard came at her with his flag unfurled, and she made the mistake of abusing him – he ordered her from the train with her long-suffering nephew apologising prolifically on her behalf. The guard relented and auntie turned to find the entire carriage having a good laugh at her expense as she then defiantly demanded a seat from each passenger she passed…
The only other light moments of the trip were when we passed through tunnels – whistling and yelling into the darkness was a source of great mirth. Otherwise, everyone on board looked so moribund we wondered as to their reasons for taking the six hour train ride, when the same journey could be made by bus in four hours. Maybe it was auntie’s bad vibe, or her nephews non-stop inane conversation directed at anybody who couldn’t escape him – but he finally met his match in an old turbaned gent who settled himself on his Globite bag in the aisle and out-talked him with a charm that had all the ladies smiling.
A friendly vendor saved us from starvation with some chana namkeen at midday, and rain cooled the air as we entered the state of Punjab, and finally hit the plains.
PATHANKOT, WITH A LAYER OF mud, was worse than we had imagined. It was a truly awful place, with nothing to recommend it. We found a room at Hotel Parag and a meal at the nearby Sharma Bhojna Bandar. The mixed sabzi, laccha and matar paneer was delicious, and the proprietor, who was in stiff but amicable competition with his neighbour, Vaisha, asked us with genuine puzzlement, “Why have you come to Pathankot – there is nothing here…”. Even the local transport looked hellish. Along with the cycle and auto-rickshaws were an army of tempos, run-down three-wheelers looking as angry as something from Mad Max.
Fortunately, the day was almost over anyway, so we bought some mangoes, pomegranates and a couple of tall glasses of falooda with rice noodles, sultanas, rose syrup, two flavours of ice cream, a thin custard and slivered almonds, before retiring for the evening. Jets from the local airbase, “the bravest of the brave”, stopped buzzing our hotel in time for a good night sleep, and we didn’t stir until a cow mooing loudly under our window heralded the dawn.
Pathankot didn’t look any better in the fresh light of morning, but we did find an excellent breakfast at a streetside cart with a mobile tandoori oven. It wasn’t just that the tandoori aloo paratha served with chana, curd, onion and mint chutni were absolutely the best we’d tasted, but sitting with working class men on wooden benches over fly-infested squalor, under glamorous Bollywood movie posters, was an atmosphere which couldn’t be contrived. A symbiotic relationship with an adjacent chai-wallah made our breakfast complete, and we finished off the last of our mangoes back in our room as we packed.
At the bus stand we found a likely suspect heading our way – the conductor, impeccably groomed in a pink turban, yelled something barely intelligible, which translated to “Jalandhar” when he was pressed.
On our way by 9 o’clock, we left Pathankot behind, along with our last glimpse of the mighty Himalaya, which disappeared into the haze as we sped off along a quasi-freeway to the tunes of foot-tapping Punjabi bhangra.
We could have made good time on the one hundred kilometre distance if only we didn’t keep making prolonged stops to collect and round up passengers in each town we passed through. Along the open road we raced with no less than five different horn sounds as though to speak a language with the other traffic – one for “Is it safe to pass??”, another for “I’m coming anyway!!”, and one each for intimidating cyclists, motorbikes and cars. After taking on the contents of a broken down bus, our conductor was finally satisfied, and we continued uninterrupted until we reached the outskirts of Jalandhar, and were surprised to find ourselves along with twenty other stunned-looking passengers, standing on the side of the highway while our unruffled conductor flagged down another bus to take us all into the city. It had taken us almost four hours to reach Jalandhar, with several progress reports texted to Deepinder’s father, Jaggi, who was meeting us at the bus stand.
JALANDHAR WAS A LARGE AND prosperous city of one million people. The bus stand itself was bigger than most of the villages and towns we’d visited in Spiti, and when we eventually found the enquiry counter we were easily identified by the clerk, and ushered into a private, air-conditioned office where Jaggi had been patiently awaiting our arrival. As a former employee at the bus stand, he was afforded royal treatment, and we sipped refreshments before driving home to Friends Colony a short distance away. It felt very strange to be in a big city again, and even stranger to sit in the familiar space of a car, but to be dodging cycle rickshaws; passing flashy stores, but having to prise begging children from the car door.
We were greeted at home by Deepinder’s mamee and neighbour Indoo, who made us feel most welcome. Allocated a large, comfortable room in the rather luxurious four bedroom townhouse we got acquainted with our hosts over morning tea, then an enormous lunch which had involved hours of preparation. Dal, masala chicken, aloo gobi and a devine homemade pickle was finished off with cashew kishmish ice cream – obviously a favourite with Jaggi…
While the sun blazed the heat of a Punjab summer outside, we napped away in the marbled interior of the house – no-one dared venture out until the cool of evening.
After our huge lunch we would have been content to skip dinner, but Jaggi had other ideas. We all bundled into the car for a drive to Haveli, a restaurant complex on the other side of the city. Every kind of Indian cuisine was there, and even our hosts seemed bemused about where to start. Pani puri was experience as well as flavours – we stood in a half circle around the wallah as each puri was prepared for instant dispatch. Crisp puris exactly mouth-sized were cracked open at the top and dipped into icy vats of spicy liquid – one flavoured with green chilli and mint, the other red chilli and tamarind – the puri was then popped whole into our mouths with jaws opened snake-like to accommodate success. The puri then exploded flavour when crushed, the skill being not to allow any liquid to escape as cheeks bulged and eyes popped. We then moved on for masala dosa and kulfi before heading home, so full that we were unable to sleep all night.
We vowed to eat as little as possible the next day – a difficult, fruitless and optionless hope when a guest in a Punjabi home.
WE WERE ALL UP EARLY as instructed for the drive from Jalandhar to Rupnagar and the ancestral family home one hundred kilometres away. We were there by 9 o’clock being greeted warmly by Jaggi’s elderly mother and his brothers family. Bhai was enormously fat, and with his turban, beard, and up-turned moustache he looked exactly like a maharaja, especially when in his reclined eating position. His wife was a wonderful hostess, catering to everyone’s comfort with effortless grace. Their daughter, Niki, was happy and bubbly, and Bibi always wore a smile on her beautiful old face, surrounded as she was by everyone she loved.
Breakfast was the first major production of the day – there was halwa, chana, aloo, curd and mango chutni to go with pooris, which as the second round of eating began, I helped Sujee (one of the staff) to prepare in the kitchen. My rolling skills did improve under her patient guidance until I was producing passable pooris , even if they weren’t perfectly round.
The day continued as periods of preening, eating and resting in order to make space for more food. For the menfolk, grooming was frequent, almost obsessional. I suppose because of the heat, their turbans were often being removed, retied or replaced, and hair was being recombed, left uncovered and then returbaned, while beards were rolled and tied into a bandage until tamed to satisfaction.
Niki took me for a walk to a neighbours house in order for a gift to be bestowed. Admittedly, my salwar kameez was looking fairly worn out by this stage of its hard life, so Artee, the local tailor, was commissioned to make me a new one. Hopefully before my waistline measurements increased too much!
Lunch preparations began early. Jaggi had gone to collect Deepinder from the station and, for them, not having seen their son (Dave’s workmate) for two years, excitement was mounting. By the time he arrived around midday, a smorgasbord of dishes had been prepared, and after the teary greetings were complete, the feasting began again. Mutton curry, aloo gobi, two kinds of dal, raita, jeera rice and paneer suspended in a thick gravy enriched with white butter.
Keeping cool was the main obsession of the afternoon, fruits and nimbu pani were passed around, with everyone sucking on tangy jamuns as the entire contents of Deepinder’s bag was distributed to discerning and appreciative recipients.
Later, five of us went for an excursion – Niki’s brother Jaisant, who had arrived with Deepinder, drove Jaggi’s car for a white-knuckle ride to Anandpur Sahib. We whizzed down the freeway with trucks and cars driving on the wrong side, and shot under railway boom gates with bells clanging and lights flashing, to reach one of the holiest of Sikh holies. A large complex of exotic-looking white spires and domes, marked the birthplace of Sikhism. In the main shrine, where a band of raga musicians played, we viewed the swords and weaponry of Guru Gobind Singh, the scene telecast live on a twenty-four hour television channel. We took ghee-loaded prasad, then returned after a stop near home at the Sutlej barage, the river here looking vastly different from where we’d last seen it in Kinnaur as it joined with the River Spiti.
In our three hour absence, little did we suspect, another feast had been prepared. It was late, and having already declined numerous offers of mithai and jalebis, I had fallen asleep on the chaise longue dreaming that I had escaped any further indulgences – how wrong I was.
I was awoken by Niki smilingly telling me it was dinner time, and was shooed into Bhai’s bedroom for one final act of gluttony. A picnic was spread across the bed in front of a picturesquely prone Bhai, while everyone sat around in chairs helping themselves to the banquet. There was no saying “no”. Course after course was lovingly placed onto our plates, no matter how much we protested. Tandoori chicken, paneer kebabs, stuffed chillies and mushrooms with mint raita and onion masala. Corn roll, chow mien, chicken curry, subzi masala and ghee-smeared chapatis. Our taste buds overrode our brains as we relented to sweet mutterings of “You must try!” and “Is it not good?” as succulent morsels were plopped onto our groaning plates.
Before we could go to bed there was much discussion about the sleeping arrangement. With only two air-conditioned rooms in the three storey mansion, it was a matter of great concern that we would be in the fan-cooled room adjacent to the rear garden. After desperate assurances that we would be perfectly comfortable, we were finally allowed to sleep.
IN THE MORNING, WHEN I appeared in my new kameez it was scrutinised to satisfaction as we packed for departure. We just had time for a few family photographs before heading to the station for our early morning train to Delhi. Thankfully, we were too early for breakfast as we bade fond farewells to the family, and adieu to Deepinder, whom we would soon see again in Sydney.
An AC chair car in the Shatabdi Express was like a time capsule, in six hours delivering us from the loving arms of Rupnagar, to the stinking, throbbing whirlwind of Delhi. New Delhi Station still hummed with excitement to our travel-worn eyes. Speakers announced a stream of train delays on the Howrah line due to the previous days horrific crash at Kanpur, so passenger encampments were building up. We made our way without fuss to Tooti Chowk at the far end of Paharganj, to Hotel Rak, which offered us the same 550 rupee room overlooking the chowk which we’d reconnoitred two months before, so we happily settled ourselves in, then went off to do what we had come for – eating and shopping.
It was 2 o’clock by the time we swung open the doors of Hotel Saravana Bhawan for the Tamil thali that we’d been promising ourselves for some weeks. There were no less than ten katoris on each plate, filled with southern delights like avial, sambar, rasam, pachadi and payasam. We licked our fingers and moved on to the business end of the day which involved introducing ourselves to Delhi’s public transport system. More of a challenge than expected, but eventually we found a most helpful conductor and were on our way, sitting in a breezy bus with “LOOK UNDER YOUR SEAT. THERE COULD BE A BOMB. RAISE ALARM.” stencilled on the back of each seat. Two bus rides and some walking later, we were in Greater Kailash, beginning our assault on Delhi’s markets, and after spending 7000 rupees AND finding a bus to take us home, we declared the day a success. It was almost 10 o’clock when we collapsed into our bed.
This rather frenetic day set the theme for the remainder of the week we spent in Delhi. We did establish a kind of chaotic routine, which the extreme heat and bamboozling city bus network served to thwart.
EACH MORNING WE WERE WOKEN by pooja bells from the small temple next door, before a stroll to the fruit wallahs and Om Dairy, easily identifiable by the giant milk urns and creamy stink of sour milk. We stood with the locals who carried milk cans ready for filling, to receive our daily dose of curd, scooped from a bid clay bowl. Down the road, chana poori with mint chutni and onion was also good – for just 15 rupees we ate in the street, standing at tall tables with everyone from street vendors to businessmen, while rickshaws loaded with up to fifteen noisy kindergarten students staggered past.
Next would come a burst of shopping activity – our reward for negotiating the bus system, which even the locals couldn’t utilise smoothly.
Sarojini Nagar was relatively easy to get to on just one bus, but more difficult squeezing back on for the return trip with all our shopping spoils after another 5000 rupees bought mostly clothing and shoes for Dave, but we also burdened ourselves with four thali plates and twelve katoris right at the start of the day.
Because it was so close by, Connaught Circus was our preferred shopping venue, and we wandered the colonnaded circles and radials, periodically taking refuge from the furnace-like heat in the air-conditioned shops. Half an hour in the icy interior of Cafe Coffee Day, sucking on a kokum jahtka realigned the planets. But our best find was our old favourite, Keventer’s. It took us two days to find this stalwart, a hole-in-the-wall shop dispensing the best milk shakes ever, as testified by the crowd of happy customers standing on the footpath sucking coloured milk from glass bottles. Also good on the outer circle was Hyderabadi Biryani House, which had us promising ourselves a trip to Hyderabad.
My forty-fourth birthday was a memorable one. After our routine curd and fruits, we had a second breakfast of idli, ootapam and southern coffee at the Indian Coffee House, where the regular patrons sat reading newspapers looking like part of the furniture. Our usual pattern of eating and shopping continued with Dave being so loaded down with goods by the time we got home, it was really like all my birthdays had come at once! As well as creams, lotions, handmade soaps and agarbathis, was a leather purse, a Raj-era etching print, and a silver stool which I’d had my eye on two months before! We went to great lengths to lunch on fine Keralan cuisine, seeking out a restaurant in Haus Khas – a four and a half hour round trip to the attractive southern suburb. The restaurant, named Gunpowder, overlooked a tank in the deer park, filled with psychedelic lime green water and honking white swans. We dined on ‘toddy shop meen fish curry’ and an exquisite vegetable korma thickened with ground cashews, as peacocks called loudly from the nearby forest.
Khan market was an upmarket shopping village, attractive for its easy accessibility on bus 161, as well as its boutique-style shops. We really just went along for a browse, but we didn’t leave empty handed. Another short bus ride away, just off Tolstoy Marg, we managed to track down Kerala House and had lunch in the staff canteen. Our noses led us to a fenced off section of the underground carpark, where tables were filled with swarthy Keralans tucking into a great value thali. Our appearance came as a mild surprise, but we proved our worthiness to join in, eating our ‘fish fry’ and sambar with as much gusto as everyone else. Walking distance from there we found the Bengali market off Barakumba Road, which was a collection of fabulous sweets shops centred around a quiet chowk. At Nathu’s we bought a selection of delicasies, some over 700 rupees per kilo, from the vast refrigerated cabinets. Best was the kaju phool, three flavours of cashew paste in a ball covered with silver leaf. And humble peanut candy was taken to new heights with Nathu’s gulab chiki, cashews and rose petals set in toffee…
For a change of activity we got ourselves out to Nizam Ud Din’s shrine in time for evening prayers, and were amazed at the scene which met us. The entire neighbourhood was abuzz with devotees, all wearing long white kurtas and scull caps. We enjoyed a snack of spicy grilled chicken with rumali roti, then plunged into the crowds entering the shrine. The marbled interior courtyard was liberally littered with pink rose petals, and quwali musicians sat in the centre singing the praises of god to anyone who cared to listen. We sat with them, transfixed, for an hour or so, watching the goings-on as a punkah-wallah tried to keep everyone cool, and some Sufi women endured self-harming devotional trances. We were even more stunned by the bus ride home – delivered door to door in a quirk of fate, which also included an evening circuit around India Gate and the houses of parliament looking not only majestic in the hazy half light, but also extra secure with well-armed soldiers posted everywhere around these vulnerable locations since the previous days deadly bomb attacks in Mumbai.
Even though we stayed in Paharganj, we didn’t spend much quality time there. We barely glanced in the shops of tat patrolled by sleazy salesmen and whispering ganja sellers. Our only major purchase was in a steel ware shop in Nehru Bazaar, where we were caught by the only monsoonal downpour of the week. People rejoiced in the street, allowing the rain to drench them while we pondered over tumblers, cannisters and trays, deftly retrieved by a nimble employee from every hidden corner of the tiny shop.
Each day we were back in our room in time for the evening pooja, which was raucous with percussion instruments beating the sound of religious joy as we stacked up our shopping on an ever-growing heap which eventually had to be packed for the journey Home. Two extra bags were called for as we wondered about their durability and the weight of all that metalware, deciding that we had better quit our shopping habits and take it easy for our last day in Delhi.
To remove ourselves from temptation, we went to the Rivoli Cinema on Connaught Circus for the morning session of ‘Zendigi Na Milegi Dobara’. This was a little different from our cinema experience in Mandi – the air-conditioned hall was comfortable and well patronised, with ushers offering Pepsi and pop-corn a-la-carte. The film started with Hrithik Hoshan, who played a character suitably named Arjun, seen as he looked as beautiful as the warrior god with his aquiline nose, wavy hair and rippling muscles. The music was great, the dance scenes fun, and the story-line easy to follow – though we missed out on the one-liners which brought the house down. The uncle across the aisle seemed to find everything hilarious, which set everybody else off. When the film was over, we had a late lunch at the English Dairy Restaurant, closing the circle for our first and last meal in India.
By the time we strolled home, washed and finished our packing it was 6 o’clock, and time to head to the airport. Looking critically at our piles of luggage, we opted for a taxi – for only 100 rupees more than struggling to the Metro plus employing a rickshaw and a porter, the choice was simple. So we cruised through the evening warmth as the tooters rather than the tooted at, wondering when we’d ever be back in that great city.
At the check-in counter we were a whisper away from overload disaster – our usual twelve kilos had swollen to thirty-six kilos!
OUR OVERNIGHT FLIGHT TO HONG KONG culminated in an awesome banking pass over the metropolis laid out beneath us – our reward for a sleepless night. After grinding our way through immigration, we had eight hours of free time until our connection, so we jumped on a double-decker to Causeway Bay to feel the pulse of a city that we love. Culture-shocked, we squeezed through a throng of Indonesian maids, suddenly linguistically fluent and literate in the vernacular around us. Yum cha was our objective and at East Lake Restaurant we savoured every delicate morsel, sipping tea between dumplings, rolls, buns and congee, melting with the flavours of prawns, fresh shitake mushrooms, pork, water chestnuts and beancurd skin.
Back out on the street, we made a pass through Jardine’s Bazaar, taste testing egg tarts whenever we passed a bakery – the best were fresh from the oven, scorching our tongues with crumbling pastry and soft, eggy custard.
On our way back to the airport we broke our journey at the Citigate Outlets complex, and emerged from the Sunday mayhem with a pair of petite jeans which made the stop worthwhile.
After that whirlwind stopover, we were back on another overnight flight before we knew it, winging our way Home to a new life, a new adventure, and something we had thought of each night at bedtime – a brand new King Koil Ultra Plush pillow-top mattress…