Monday, May 25, 2009

In the early morning I woke up on the bus to Dharamshala. We were driving on switchback roads through the mountains, passing through rural areas and tiny towns. It was interesting to watch women going to the well to fetch water, which they carried on their heads back to their homes. By 9am I found myself checked into a hotel in McLeod Ganj, where the balcony from room had a great view of the mountains, and set out to explore the town. We actually weren't nearly as high in the mountains as I expected. The area was forested, and it was still much hotter than I was hoping for, although at least 20 degrees cooler than Delhi, which was still a relief.

McLeod Ganj is a small but bustling Himalayan mountain town, and the current seat of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government, and it had a really strong Tibetan influence. I was surprised to find myself in a town so different from Delhi. I almost felt as though I wasn't in India at all. The shops sold Tibetan goods like thick wool blankets and scarves, the restaurants made Momo, Thenthuk, and traditional Tibetan and Chinese food, and the majority of the residents were clearly of Tibetan rather than Indian heritage. There were also way more western tourists here. I decided to spend the first day exploring the town, and the second hiking. I found a buddhist monastery, which I thought was the Dalai Lama's residence. In the temple I talked for quite a while with a monk there, learning more about how the monastic system works. In the Dalai Lama's complex (it seems he comes out to greet guests on Tues and Sun, so I had just missed seeing him) there was a nice museum about the history of Tibet and the Chinese invasion and occupation. I also caught a photo gallery that's only open 3 days/wk about Tibet's struggle. In the afternoon I decided to do a little hiking toward Dal Lake, apparently a lovely lake in the mountains that was sacred to Buddhism. I was expecting a clear blue lake with snow-capped Himalayan peaks beyond. I set off up the road toward the lake. Although it was only a 4K walk, I was pretty much the only one walking, and cars and motorcycles passing me seemed convinced that I wanted a ride (remember, Indians don't exercise.) When I arrived at the lake, I was disappointed to find a small, muddy pond. Near the pond was a collection of 1950's era carnival rides, including an ancient rusty ferris wheel about 8ft tall that the operator was pushing with his hand, and some of those plastic ponies that kids can sit on that "ride" you put the quarter in, although I think these pre-dated the electric quarter era. It was pretty hilarious.

Day 2-Hiking:
Supposedly there was another town with cold baths and a waterfall 3K up the hill. This was actually super-close, and not a difficult hike at all, so by 10AM I had seen the town and the waterfall, which was pretty small since they haven't had the monsoon rains yet, so I decided to try to keep going toward Triund. Supposedly this was only 7K more, but I wasn't sure how it would be since I had seen adventure travel companies selling 1 and even 2-day "treks to Triund," which made it sound pretty serious, although in theory also worth seeing. I had another night bus to catch at 7:30pm, but decided to walk toward Triund and see how far I got. I figured if it got to be 2-3pm, I would turn around and head back. The first third of the hike was just through the forest, and not very steep at all. Around halfway, I came out above the thicker part of the forest, and the views became outstanding as I walked along really deep valleys. I saw some rain clouds and then heard a bunch of thunder. This looked ominous. I found a large herd of mountain goats with their shepherd which were lazing about and didn't seem concerned, so I felt better. Ahead in the hills I could hear chanting and singing, and I saw a hundred or more people walking together on the trail up ahead. A religious journey, perhaps? I got to a chai shop covered by a blue tarp, where I found the group. Turns out it was about 150 Indian middle school children. They were very curious "which country do I belong?" (USA is the best answer here. America is also okay. For some reason United States has very little recognition in India.) Just as I got to this tarp, it started to pour rain. The goats were wrong. I sat down with a fresh water to wait out what I figured was a brief mountain storm. The guide for the middle schoolers ushered them onward: "Chaleh, chalo"--let's go. They seemed hesitant. Can't say I blame them. About 5 minutes later, the rain slowed down and I started up the mountain again. I made it to Triund, where as I came over the final hill of the hike I found myself on a flat grassy area with a stunning view of the snow-capped Himalayas. Triund was worth seeing, to say the least. It was just 1pm, I had made great time. I figured I'd get some lunch, hang out for 30 min or so, then head back to town to catch my bus. There wasn't actually a town up here, just 3 chai shops under tarps and a bunch of tents set up by various campers and hikers. As I'm eating my lunch, it starts pouring rain again. While waiting it out, I meet a Californian and an Indian doctor, who oddly met while she was his patient in the hospital in Dharamshala (where she was found to have about 3 different bacteria and parasites, and one of which would cause diarrheal illness, in her stool). The rain doesn't let up this time, and it starts to get really cold. For some reason I didn't think to bring the rain jacket I had packed and have been carrying all through India with me on the hike. The wind is really strong, and we watch as the tents start blowing threateningly. Their occupants get up and run for cover at a chai shop. Every few minutes another small group of hikers comes up over the trail, soaking wet, and happily runs into our chai shop. (This is a blue tarp over some sticks in the ground.) I drink chai, mostly for the warmth, and nervously check my watch. A group also has a bus, and they start down the mountain at 3. I decide to hope the storm goes away soon, and keep under the tarp. It actually looks like a death sentence to try to hike down in this weather. It's 4pm, and still storming. Shit. I am never going to make the bus. I also have no warm clothes or camping gear to stay up here with. I might spend the whole night huddled with 20 other people under this chai tarp. Finally, close to 5, the skies clear and we see a huge double rainbow stretching across the Himalayan peaks. It's probably the most beautiful rainbow I've ever seen. I enjoy it for a few minutes, then head down. It was 3hrs up, so I'm hoping for 1-2 down. I'm going as fast as I possibly can, practically jogging, although I figure if I break my ankle, I definitely won't make the bus. This is killer on my knees. I actually made it back into McLeod Ganj at 6:45pm, miraculously with time to pick up my luggage at my hotel, and even get dinner before I catch the bus. As I settle down on my bus, I realize that this had actually been my birthday. What a beautiful way to spend it.

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