For the past 10 days, I was fortunate enough to get a bit of time off because a number of people from my organization went to a conference held in another state. Since I did not set time aside at the end of the trip for traveling, I decided now was the time to do it. I asked for advice from some people about where to go in this massive country with such a wide variety of topography. Having been living in the desert region of India for about a month and a half, it was time to head for colder weather, and where better to do it than the Himalayas, the mountain range infamous for having the largest mountain on the planet. Also, thanks to my coordinator and other friends, I had the skeleton of a plan for where I would go.
On Wednesday evening, October 10, I hopped on the Mewar Express, which runs Udaipur to New Delhi in 12 hours. I wanted my first overnight train experience to be positive, so I paid a little extra for the 3-Tier AC class, which means there are fewer people coming through offering/yelling chai or samosas, we are given sheets, and there are six beds to a compartment (bottom, middle, and top of one wall). It was very comfortable, and one of my fellow riders offered to look into places for me to stay in Amritsar and gave me suggestions about what I should do since the time between trains in Delhi was 8 hours. This led to my first lesson from this trip. When you travel alone, you have to be able to rely on others and do quick character assessments of people. Of course, it is important to keep a certain level of awareness or doubt in your mind, especially when they start asking for things in return. In India, there are people called touts who frequent the train and bus stations offering “help” to tourists when in actually they usually lead them to whatever hotels have agreed to give them a commission, which are almost always more expensive than average.
First overnight train ride. I think Wes Anderson stole the font for his movies from Indian trains.
I arrived at the Nuzamuddin Train Station early in the morning and went straight to my next bus station in New Delhi. 8 hours later, I got on to my train from New Delhi to Chandigarh. First stop of the trip. Chandigarh was India’s first planned city after independence and was planned by Le Corbusier, a French architect who the city into a grid with many “Sectors”. On the train, I met a very nice Siikh man who was traveling with his sister and her two kids. He gave me some suggestions about what to do and where to go in Chandigarh.
The next morning I wanted to figure out the best way to get to my next destination, Shimla. This ended up taking all morning (thanks to a very confusing bus system with stations in several different Sectors) but finally discovered where I needed to be the next morning. I went off to the famous Rock Garden of Chandigarh. It was constructed by Nek Chand who did so illegally but eventually was supported by the local government to finish the project. It was quite an amazing collection of rocks, sculptures, and man-made waterfalls. Within the garden, I met a group of 4 local students who were attending university, and I talked with them for quite a while because they had an English test coming up and wanted to practice. Though this did not give me a chance to practice my Hindi, we had a good time walking around the Garden and exchanging information about one another’s culture.
Rock People in the Chandigarh Rock Garden
Man-made Waterfall in the Chandigarh Rock Garden
(Got a few pictures taken with a couple of Siikh guys who asked. Indian people really like taking pictures with foreigners, and foreigners enjoy feeling like they are a celebrity, so win-win situation)
After the Garden, went and quickly saw the Open Hand Monument, also designed by Le Courbusier. The significance of the Open Hand is to represent peace and unity.
The next morning I woke up, had breakfast at the hotel, and went to catch my bus to Shimla, a hill station. I jumped on the bus, which ended up being pretty exciting. Traveling up to Shimla was incredible; the views of the valleys, low-peaks, and apple orchards were amazing. Thanks to our driver, who I can only describe as a Siikh Santa Clause due to his massive beard and jovial nature, I had no trouble staying awake because he was driving as wildly possible. I may have been paranoid, but I’m almost positive after every time they did a death-defying pass on those narrow mountain roads, they looked back at me to see how worried I looked. 6 hours later, I arrived in Shimla and took a walk around the very steep streets of the town. There are only two or three drivable streets in Shimla; stairs are the main method of getting from here to there, which means everyone from Shimla is in very good shape because it can be very tiring to go from one side of town to the next even as a somewhat-fit 22-year old.
The city of Shimla.
Shimla at Sunset
Two men carrying a massive rucksack full of supplies to one of the shops a ways up the hill in Shimla.
It turned out there wasn’t very much to do in Shimla besides walking along the Mall Road and going to the Monkey Temple. There are some treks, but most of them are a ways from the city and take several days with proper gear. Fortunately, I did manage to meet a group of travelers who I ended up hanging out with for a couple of days. They introduced me to Tibetan food, specifically Momos (Veg-stuffed dumplings) and Thukpa (Noodle Soup with Veg). Momos went on to become a staple of the trip and my future eating habits. Also, we went ventured off on random roads and explored the town as much as possible.
A tender moment between baby and parent monkey. This picture instigated a near-monkey attack on myself.
It was election time in Himachal Pradesh and the Communists were winning as far as campaigning goes.
After taking a couple relaxing days in Shimla with the group, Andrew (recently graduated British master’s student) and I set off on a very bumpy 10-hour bus ride for Dharamshala/McLeod Ganj (It is basically one city, Dharamshala, but it is split into two for some reason. McLeod Ganj is about 10 km from Dharamshala proper), home to the exiled Tibetan government, many Tibetan refugees, and the Dalai Lama.
Despite being the most touristy location of my trip, McLeod Ganj was the favorite. There is a very relaxed, Zen vibe to the city. Buddhist monks who live in one of the several monasteries around the area are always going about town or walking through many of the trails accessible around the city. They intermingle with tourists who come to learn more about Buddhism; I met several people who were about to enter into a 10-day intensive course on Buddhism where they are not allowed to speak to anyone and meditate for hours on end.
Everyday, the monks at Tsuglagkhang have discussions about Buddhism and life. When one of them is about to make a strong point, the monk claps his hand together. There was a courtyard of monks doing this.
Andrew and I visited the monastery where the Dalai Lama usually resides, Tsuglagkhang. (He was on tour in the US, unfortunately). There was a very good museum on the history of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, which detailed all of the brutalities and cultural genocide the Chinese have and still are inflicted upon the people of Tibet, including the capture and continued possession of the Panchen Lama (the chosen successor to the Dalai Lama) at the age of 6 (He is now 23). It’s truly terrible; however, the Tibetans who have been able to escape the country, traveling through the Himalayas usually with limited supplies, are still actively raising awareness about the occupation and advocating for independence from the Chinese. Tibetans are primarily a non-violent community, which is why the Chinese have been able to successfully possess the country for so long with limited resistance.
Lots of Prayer Flags all over the mountains in the area.
The next day, Andrew and I decided to hike to Triund, a small base camp located at about 2800 meters above sea level. Two German high school students had told us there was a waterfall on the way that was not to be missed, so we added an extra 6 KM off the path and hiked to the waterfall where we had lunch at the waterfall café. Anyway, after enjoying some chai and omelets, we headed back to the trail to Triund. The remainder of the hike was about 9 km, primarily at a very steep ascent. It took a couple stops along the way, but eventually we dragged ourselves up the stairway of stones to the top. Total amount hiked that day was between 16-18 km and 1500 m additional altitude in about 4-5 hours. But it was definitely worth it. Here’s why.
It turned out Triund was basically a camping site with a guesthouse and three other general supply/restaurant shacks. To make hiking easier, Andrew and I had brought limited supplies, which turned out to be a mistake because the Himalayas do get cold at night. Specifically, I only had a t-shirt, rain jacket, athletic shorts, and a Tibetan shawl, which was crucial.
The sun went down around 6:30, and the cold came very quickly. Fortunately, we had found a place run by a guy named Sunil who offered to let us stay in his store with sleeping bags with support (by support, I mean there were blankets thrown over a pile of stone), but he did have very good veg chow mein. He started a fire at sundown, and a group of travelers gathered and around to keep warm. A group of young, local shepherds and Sunil began singing Punjabi traditional and pop songs late into the night. Eventually, I hopped onto the stones, put the sleeping bag on, and “slept”.
After about a maximum of non-consecutive two hours of sleep, I woke up to the sunrise over the mountains. Andrew and I decided we were ready to get back to McLeod Ganj. The hike down only took 2 hours, though it was pretty rough on the knees since we were basically descending down a massive stone staircase.
My last planned destination was Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple (A massive Siikh Temple) and the India/Pakistan border. The bus from Dharamshala left at 5:00 AM and to get there from McLeod Ganj there was a bus that left at 3:30 AM. I woke up at 2:45 to walk to the bus station and realized my hostel locks the gate every night until morning. Since I had to get back by Monday morning, visiting Amritsar was not going to be possible. I found out there was a Volvo bus to New Delhi that left at 6:00 PM that evening, so I decided to take that. Spent the day wandering around McLeod Ganj drinking coffee and eating momos then bid Andrew adieu and started my long journey back.
I arrived in Delhi at 5:00 AM and discovered the bus station was not open (of course), but found a rickshaw driver that claimed to run a private bus that would take me direct to Udaipur from New Delhi. Anything and anyone is kind of questionable at 5:00 AM, especially when you are an exhausted solo traveler, but I went anyway because I was pretty desperate to get back. Got on the bus and was eventually told that despite the claim that this bus would go directly to Udaipur, it was in fact going to Jaipur (about 10 hour drive from Udaipur). I didn’t think it would be too much of an issue since I would still be able to get to Udaipur by Monday morning and make it to work without any issues, except for the only sleep I’d had for the past 36 hours was on a bus. I stayed on the bus until the last stop, and they had arranged for a tout to take me someplace to wait until my bus left at 9:30 PM (it was about 3:00PM at this point). After spending 6 hours in Jaipur with people who were constantly trying to sell me stuff all the while claiming not to, I was definitely ready to get back to Udaipur. I finally got to see my first Udaipur sunrise over one of the lakes as the bus was coming into town. It was amazing and was a great ending to a very memorable trip.