A Travellerspoint blog


semi-overcast 18 °C

Our journey to Kullu was short (less than 2 hours!!) and simple and we were soon checked in to one of the few hotels in town. Compared to the calmness of Dharamsala and the beautiful views at Manali, Kullu has very little to offer a tourist save a couple of small temples. Luckily we weren’t there to be tourists, we were there to meet with Virender (a.k.a. Viru), one of the ‘boys’ from the orphanage in Jibhi which Ffion worked in 7 years ago. Viru and his brother Raku were two of the most enthusiastic people Ffion’s group of volunteers from Atlantic College encountered at the 5 schools and orphanages they worked at and Ffion has kept in touch with Raku and, through the wonders of facebook, has also been in contact with Viru for the last few years. Viru took us to a traditional sweet shop and we sampled a few of their milky, nutty (rather sickly) delicacies whilst he told us about his new life working for the Home Guard in Kullu. We were both pleased to hear that he was doing so well for himself, having come from such an unprivileged background, and really hope he’s able to fulfill his dream of getting a place in the police force in the near future. Viru had obviously told all of his friends that he was expecting foreign guests as many people popped into the sweet shop to look at us and to check if Viru had been telling the truth about having friends from other countries! After the sweets we were taken to meet Viru’s friend Tarun who conveniently has a house next to the local snooker hall. We chatted about our lives and professions over takeaway momos (Tibetan dumplings), went for a short walk to see the town’s brown playing field and then played a match of snooker; team Tarun and Viru easily beat the two of us. Although we didn’t spend long in Kullu we had a lovely time and were very grateful to everyone we met for being so generous and open. The next day we were up early to get back on the buses to our most remote destination in India.

Posted by ffionandpatrick 14:10 Archived in India Comments (1)


overcast 15 °C

Our bus ride from Dharamsala to Manali was going to be the longest of our whole trip: an estimated 11 hours in total. We arrived at a chilly Dharamsala bus stop early for the 6am bus and, for the first 6 hours, headed South East and, broadly speaking, downhill to the market town of Mandi. Some of the roads were normal, tarmacked roads whilst others were little more than a gravel path carved out of the side of a mountain that didn’t seem suitable for anything bigger than a quad bike. Despite the bumpy ride we managed to enjoy the magnificent mountain scenery again. From Mandi we went North and mostly uphill through the Kullu Valley. In 2004 Ffion spent almost 3 months in the valley volunteering in schools and orphanages through an organisation called The Kullu Project. Our main reason for returning to the valley on this trip – other than the cool weather and the beautiful scenery – was to revisit some of the people and places Ffion knew back then. She was pleased yet unsurprised to see that very little had changed in the valley until we reached Manali which has transformed its busy main street into a pleasant pedestrian precinct and added a new temple to the market place. When we arrived in Manali we took an auto to Tourist Hotel where Ffion had stayed at when working here and went out for tea where Patrick sampled the Tibetan noodle and meat soup dish called Thentuk. That evening we met and had a brief catch up with Dev Raj, the hotel’s manager who couldn’t believe it was 7 years since Ffion was last in Manali.

Manali is a popular spot for Indian tourists the whole year around but it’s only really busy when Westerners visit during the trekking season. It’s too early for much trekking at the moment as there’s too much snow on the mountains and it was strange to be in a town that was obviously in low season. Several times we tried to order something off a café menu which we were told was not available and even more times we ordered and then saw a young boy being sent to the nearest shop to buy the ingredients. We therefore seemed to spend a lot of our time in Manali sitting in cafes waiting for food to arrive and appreciating the mountain and forest scenery.

We did manage some sightseeing though. On day 1 we walked up to the Hadimba temple above the new town. Most Hindu temples we’ve seen have been stone structures with painted carvings around the outside and inside the shrine. Hinduism is a faith with many origins which has subsumed animistic beliefs from remote areas like the Kullu valley where every village has its own temple to its own god which often has no relationship with the Hindu trinity of Shiva, Vishnu and Bramha. It’s therefore not surprising that temples in Kullu look very different from those in other parts of India. The Hadimba temple is made mostly from wood adorned with beautiful small carvings that wouldn’t look out of place on a Scandinavian church. It’s a square structure with a large, pyramid shaped roof. The temple was busy but we did poke out heads inside and saw the two temple caretakers offering sweets to devotees and stoking a small fire in a pit next to the deity (a small, doll shaped creation with a metal face). We enjoyed looking at the temple and smelling the sweet aroma of the deodar trees all around it and we were amused at the number of people with angora rabbits and yaks hanging around waiting for tourists to pay for their photo with a ‘native’ animal.

On our second day we went up to Vashist, a small village a few kilometers North of Manali itself. We visited another two old, wooden temples and saw the thermal baths that were part of one of them. We noticed that the wall surrounding the women’s bath had been extended higher at least twice and, later, when we went for lunch at a café slightly further up the hill we could tell why – before the latest extension you would have been treated to a view into the bath to accompany your chai and samosa! We walked around the village a little and Ffion was pleased to find a waltnut tree that she had been shown 7 years ago by the children from the Vashist orphanage. They told her that the tree played a large role in village life as it was where children were taken on their first birthday for a naming ceremony which involved cutting their hair and eating a sweet paste made from the tree’s walnuts. Later the same day we went to visit the Tibetan part of Manali where there was a monastery and two temples. One housed a huge seated Buddha; downstairs you could only see his body and upstairs you could only see his head which was sticking up through a hole in the floor.

On our final day of sightseeing we walked to Old Manali a few kilometers North on the other side of the river from Vashist. We visited yet another temple which, although the building was fairly modern, housed ancient stones which marked the spot as having been the site of a very old temple several centuries ago. In high season Old Manali is a hippy / druggy / Israeli hang out and it was strange to see so many closed shops and restaurants. For lunch we found a café that had only reopened that week and the waiter was busy repainting some walls when he wasn’t serving us or the handful of other customers. We’d had OK weather most of our time in Manali but that day a storm started at lunchtime and lingered for the rest of the day. We spent several hours in the café drinking tea and playing backgammon before running back to the hotel in a short break in the rain.

The following day it was time to pack up and head off on a remarkably short journey to Kullu, the capital of the Kullu Valley.

Posted by ffionandpatrick 02:53 Archived in India Comments (2)


Tibet in Exile

sunny 15 °C

The massive network that is India's railway system doesn't run much further north than Amritsar so our next onward journey was our first government run bus, travelling into Himachal Pradesh (literally the Himalayan Province) to Dharamsala. The rattly bus took us out of Punjab and gave us our first sights of Indian mountains, which was quite an exciting moment. We wound our way along the Kangra Valley before heading up towards the snow capped peaks on the horizon. The major downside of bus travel is that seemingly short distances take a long time to cover, so our arrival in Dharamsala was under cover of darkness, as we made our way from the bus stand to Macleod Ganj, Dharamsala's upper town, where the centre of Tibet's government in exile is based.

Shortly after the Chinese invasion in 1959 many Tibetans headed over the Himalayas into Nepal and India, including the Dalai Lama, Tibet's political and spiritual leader. The Indian government granted them refuge and gave them the town of Dharamsala as a base, and the majority of Tibetan community in India still live here, with many continuing to make the dangerous border crossing from their homeland to escape intimidation and to seek a better life. This gave the town a greatly different atmosphere to everywhere else we had been, with the heat, dirt and chaos of the plains replaced by (relative) quiet and relaxed people going about their business under the cool gaze of the towering Dhauladhar mountain range.

In keeping with the spirit of the area we decided to take our time over seeing what was on offer and experiencing the Tibetan culture available to sample. On our first day we went to the Dalai Lama's monastery and temple complex, circumambulating the central area in traditional Buddhist fashion and spinning the golden prayer wheels to 'send out' prayers in all directions. We then walked to the nearby village of Bhagsu, taking in the dramatic scenery looking up into the high mountains and down towards the valley below. From the road we could see the cricket stadium in Dharamsala, one of the most picturesque venues in the world, although unfortunately there was no live sport on while we were there. In Bhagsu we found an unusual temple, which seemed more like someone's barn than the home of a god, certainly in comparison to the ornate and sometimes garish temples in previous cities. The centre of the temple was a bare courtyard and around the edges were a few small, dark rooms. Inside one was a small deity decorated with red cloth and next to it a fire pit. Bizarrely for such a cool area we found a large open air swimming pool just next to the temple which we think belonged to a nearby hotel.

The following morning we went to the Tibetan Museum, located in the main monastery complex. The museum was small but densely packed with information about the Tibetan experience at the hands of the Chinese and the struggles that they find in leaving their homes to come to India. Some of the examples of human rights abuses and policies pursued by the Chinese government are atrocious and genuinely shocking, and the lengths to which Tibetans will go to to escape speak of how terrible life can become in Tibet. We read first hand accounts from refugees who had been placed under surveillance by the Chinese government simply for handing out leaflets about Budhism and others who had been forced to have their legs amputated after catching frostbite on their long journeys over the Himalays. In the afternoon we went for another walk in the direction of Bhagsu, this time continuing through the village and up to a waterfall tucked away in a steep valley a couple of kilometres beyond the temple. The stiff uphill climb was worth it both for the feeling of the fresh mountain air and the views back down the valley.

On our third day we went for another short walk round to the church of St John in the Wilderness, around a kilometre out of Macleod Ganj in the opposite direction to Bhagsu. The church was well hidden in the forest and when we got to the locked doors we could see that the church had probably not been in use for some time. Next to it we found a large monument to a colonial administrator who had died in Macleod Ganj and a few graves for the children of British government and army officials. That evening we went for a cookery lesson, specifically in the art of making momos, traditional Tibetan dumplings. Our teacher Sangye was very clear with his instructions and we learned by observing and copying, eventually coming out with a pretty accurate and tasty likeness of mixed veg, spinach and cheese, potato, and chocolate momos. He told us that the first three were traditional Tibetan recipes but that his family would turn their noses up at his new invention of momos filled with cocoa powder and sugar. Tibetans prefer to make sweet momos from tsampa, a ground roast barley flour that is used in many of their dishes.

Many of the other travellers we met in Dharamsala were spending an extended time there to assist the Tibetan community in some volunteering capacity or other. We decided to contribute to this a little in the short time we spent there by spending a morning helping at an English speaking class for Tibetan refugees. Rather than the conversational setting we had expected it turned out to be at a much higher standard, with the participants debating whether factories were good or bad. The philosophical approach that many of the Tibetans took was very interesting, many thinking along the lines of 'what would the Buddha think / how would the Buddha react to factories?'. The number of these projects and the number of volunteers willing to help is certainly giving the Tibetans assistance in building a life in Dharamsala.

Buddhism is a central part of the Tibetan community and on our final morning we walked down the hill to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives to sit in on a lecture given by one of the monks from the Buddhist monastery. We were under the impression that the talks would be suitable for visitors coming for a one off introductory experience, but after an hour of in depth analysis of the life of an eighth century Buddhist devotee we realised that the class was part of a series of talks given to those who had a greater understanding than we did.

We spent an amount of the rest of our time simply admiring the stunning views and enjoying some homemade cakes from our hostel, whose portions were enough to make a full meal! After 5 highly enjoyable days, our onward journey began again at 5am as we got on our second state bus to make a twelve hour journey to Manali.

Posted by ffionandpatrick 09:02 Archived in India Comments (1)


City of Sikhs

sunny 27 °C

An hour 8 train journey out of Delhi through the 'breadbasket' of India saw us enter the Punjab and arrive at the Sikh holy city of Amritsar. En route we had an interesting chat with a man who claimed he was a university lecturer and who was very keen to discuss our favourite authors. His, he told us several times, was Shakespear. When he found out that we were engaged he wanted to know whether it was an arranged marriage or a love marriage and he said that, in India, love marriages only happen in Mumbai and occasionally Delhi. On leaving the station at Amritsar we were met by the usual throng of rickshaw drivers and after a cycle rickshaw ride across to the old city we eventually checked into our hotel, just around the corner from the Golden Temple.

Our first morning was mostly taken up with trying to find somewhere to change travellers' cheques. Once we had sorted this we headed for the Temple complete with appropriate headwear (Patrick had to buy a fetching orange temple branded headscarf). The Temple is a whole complex, set around a large water tank. It is mostly made of white marble with the exception of the Harmandir in the centre, which is made of gold, giving the temple its name. We entered by the north gate and joined the crowds of Sikh pilgrims and other tourists walking around the pool on the carpeted walkway. There are a number of shrines and stops around the edges, with men reciting the Sikh holy book (the Guru Granth Sahib) constantly. There are also hymns and prayers from the centre of the Harmandir played on loudspeakers around the whole complex, which adds to the impressively religious atmosphere. We saw the old tree where marriages are arranged and women who want baby boys hang ribbons (despite the authorities attempts to discourage this practice), and the building at one end which was heavily shelled by the Indian troops during a Punjabi uprising in the 1980s. It is now completely rebuilt and if we hadn't read the guide book and worked out the relative position to the other buildings we would have never known it had suffered almost complete destruction. A trip to the Golden Temple is always supposed to include the act of eating together as the Sikhs believe this makes everyone equal so we made our way to the giant canteen for lunch. It is an amazingly efficient process that feeds hundreds if not thousands of people at great speed every day. You are given your freshly washed utensils on the way in, your food in the large dining hall and then hand over the used dishes to the army of washers-up who start the production line again. As well as being cheap and quick, our meal of dal, rice, chapattis, veg curry and a sweet rice pudding dish was one of the most tasty thalis we had yet had. The only issue was the speed of eating required, meaning we had to wolf down our food and didn't get a chance to finish everything off. When we had made our way out of the lunch hall we went round to the museum of the temple, a long hall filled with paintings and photographs of eminent Sikhs, some in portrait form and others in slightly crudely drawn pictures of brutal executions at the hands of various Indian rulers over the centuries. After a quick rest up at our hotel, we returned to the temple in the evening to visit the Harmandir itself when the crowds had died down a little (or so we thought). In fact as we made our way into the inner most part of the Temple complex, we found ourselves in the midst of a large praying crowd. We think we had managed to time our trip to the golden Harmandir at one of the most important parts of the day where prayers were being said to each of the 10 Gurus who set up the Sikh religion before the ceremony where the Guru Granth Sahib gets taken from the Harmandir to another building to be 'put to bed' for the evening. The temple was full of people standing, sitting, praying and prostrating themselves in the direction of the holy men reciting the prayers, and even the tabla and harmonium music accompaniment had stopped. This was quite an experience.

The following morning we visited the Jallianwala Bagh, a public garden closed in by city centre houses where British General Dyer presided over a massacre a crowd of unarmed men, women and children in 1919. There was a narrow alleyway into the open space where some tried to flee and a large well where others died, and there are numerous buildings around the perimeter that have been left with the bullet hole marks in as a memorial to the dead. Unfortunately as with a number of Indian monuments the relentless flow of Indians rushing to get in, get a picture and get out slightly spoiled the poignant messages on the display boards. After lunch we went on a trip to the India-Pakistan border closing ceremony at Wagha, some 30km away from Amritsar. The bizarre and pompous ceremony involves crowds of Indians and Pakistanis taking their places in stadium style seating around the road either side of the border, being bombarded with loud music to dance to and shouting slogans, a bit like a sports match. There is a small section which is reserved for tourists to observe from close quarters which we were sat in. After the initial party atmosphere has finished there is the parade of soldiers in fancy turbans with large moustaches who high step their way to the gates, prance around and look aggressive at their counterparts on the other side. They exaggeratedly shake hands, lower their flags and after some more high stepping and shouting return to their barracks, while the gates are closed for the night. It was a highly amusing spectacle and unlike anything we've ever seen before.

After the dusty drive back to Amritsar, we had a tasty thali tea in a small dhaba, packed up and prepared ourselves for the journey into the mountains the following day.

Posted by ffionandpatrick 02:06 Archived in India Comments (1)


The Pink City

sunny 32 °C

The train journey from Jodhpur to Jaipur was the shortest and most straight forward of any so far, taking a little under 6 hours and arriving late in the afternoon. We checked in to our hotel, which was definitely the most well appointed so far with a price to match due to short notice and the Holi festival coming up a few days later. As we were still feeling a little under the weather we had a small Western tea and went to bed early.

On our first full day we headed into the city to see some of the sites. Jaipur is one corner of the so-called Golden Triangle (with Delhi and Agra), due in part to the colour of many of its walls in the old city. They are fading shades of pink, made so by the Maharaja who built the city, Jai Singh. Unfortunately it seems little more than a rough paint job to imitate the red sandstone of the older forts at the other points of the Triangle and now looked quite faded. Our first stop was the City Palace, the centre of the old city and residence of the Maharajas, now mostly filled with museums of various parts of Jaipur's history. The first courtyard and building housed a collection of textiles, Rajasthan's most famous export, and included some of the outfits of the globally successful Jaipur polo team of the 1930s (who apparently went unbeaten in all competitions for several years), and some enormous pjamas for a particularly large Maharaja of the 19th century. In another part of the complex was a workshop for local artists and craftsmen, selling miniature paintings and sculptures, and in another, the obligatory collection of 19th century weaponry, designed to do gruesome things to anyone who resisted rajput rule. Through an ornate archway we found the most decorated of the courtyards with different coloured painted and carved doors each decorated to represent a different season. Here, we saw a crew of stage hands putting together a set for an upcoming Bollywood shoot - the City Palace is regularly used as the backdrop for palatial scenes. At the end of our tour we felt that given the size and location, this palace did not meet the same levels of grandeur as Udaipur and Jodhpur, but also that had we come here first it may have made more of an impression. We negotiated a relatively expensive rickshaw home to enjoy the comfort of our a/c room. That evening we treated ourselves to a visit to the local Pizza Hut. We were pleased with the standard and the prices on the menu but were shocked when the bill came and the extra taxes made it almost as expensive as a pizza back home.

The following day we went back in to the pink city to the most recognisable place in Jaipur, the Hawa Mahel or Palace of the Winds. Built by the Maharaja for his harem, it makes plentiful use of the 'purdah' screens for the women to move around and see the world below without themselves being 'exposed' to the male eye. The palace is a gradually rising series of courtyards, designed to channel the winds of Jaipur upwards to the higher apartments and keep the occupants cool from the heat of the day. The effect was noticeable from the top floors, though after climbing up, the breezes were certainly a needed coolant! The top floors also gave a great view out across the old city, with the City Palace, Jantar Mantar (Observatory) in the foreground and the steep hills with small forts looking down on the city below. After making our way back down, we went to the personal temple of the Maharajas where, as it was the eve of Holi, we saw a complex show of music and dance involving people dressed as gods swirling around, clad in peacock feathers and a good deal of face paint. You have to take your shoes off before going into any temple and unfortunately while we were inside watching the show, Patrick's sandals were taken from the bench where we'd left them. Apparently this is good luck and, luckily, a man who works at the temple offered his shoes to make up for it.

After a quick lunch at our hotel we headed back to the station for the afternoon train to the national capital, Delhi.

Posted by ffionandpatrick 04:45 Archived in India Comments (2)

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