The reality of our trip hit me when we left our beloved B & B in Delhi to catch the train to Amritsar. Its nearly six hours on the train - the Shatbadi Express. Now the express trains that I have encountered are either the Gatwick or Heathrow express and I am glad Gav is on the ball when we get to the station as I am having problems rationalising "express" with what rolls into the platform. Nonetheless we are reliably informed that it is the Shatbadi Express and so we board. I try and sleep through the 6 hours and Gav makes friend's with a 16 year old - Tanmay who is also en route to the Golden Temple in Amritsar for some luck on his Board exams...Good luck Tanmay!!! Gav and Tanmay talk about everything from politics to music to religion, he is very well informed and as well as proposing an import-export business invites Gavin to see more of Delhi. We've made another friend and look forward to meeting up with Tanmay when we return to Delhi.
We arrive in Amritsar in the afternoon and our first impression is shock at the poverty. We are quickly whisked off to our guesthouse - Mrs Bhandhari's Guesthouse where we spend the rest of the afternoon chilling in the beautiful grounds. The guesthouse was first opened by Mrs Bhandhari Snr back in the day and has been taken over by Mrs Bhandhari Jnr since her mother passed away in 2007 at the ripe old age of 102!!!
We are up very early the next day for our visit to the Golden Temple. Our ride is powered by a lawn mower engine and is possibly the ricketiest rickshaw in Punjab if not the whole of India driven by Krishan and his friend. The road to the temple is via the back streets and again we are shocked by what we see. Before we have time to process this we make our way to the temple entrance and are immediately awestruck as we catch the first sight of the magnificant Golden Temple. Its beauty truly takes your breathe away and in the early morning light is looks like a fire in the middle of the lake.
As we walk round the atmosphere in the temple is peaceful almost hypnotic with the sounds of the tablas, harmonium and soft bhagans despite the activity - cleaning (the temple is immaculate), people (mostly men) bathing in the lake that surrounds the temple, cooking and so on. Again the thoughts about India that don't quite make sense come to the fore as I see the equality of all men on this side of the temple and the inequality on the other side.
Krishan awaits us with his trusty(?) ride back to the guesthouse and as we make our way back I am shocked when I see a man, now how can I put this...uhmmm..."self loving" may be the most appropriate term. Now this is another thing, it really is not uncommon for men to play "shuffle ball" as you chat about the price of something or another. Where is one supposed to look?
Anyway, after breakfast we spot Mrs Bhandhari and her friend Greda and go over for a chat. One gets the feeling of a great sense of history at the guesthouse and the chats with Mrs Bhadhari Jnr do not disappoint. She is a jolly lady who brings India to life with her many stories.
In the afternoon we go to the Wagha Border Ceremony, the closing of the India-Pakistan border has turned into a bit of an event with many hundreds of people attending every day. There is a carnival atmosphere with the lots of loud music, ladies dancing bhangra as well as flag running. The two sides (India-Pakistan) try and out-do each other in a peacock display with the above as well as the soldiers seeing who can hold their breathe for the longest, the elaborate marching as well as twirling of moustaches!!!! It is crazy weird but we have a great time and I think both Gav and I feel slightly emotional as we plead allegiance to the Indian side....Mahtha ki!! Zindabad!
The next day is an early morning drive from Punjab to Himachal Pradesh, both of us are feeling a little under the weather...Delhi belly has arrived as a result of a Paneer Pizza from Dominos (you gotta try!!) the night before. Sunglasses on, water bottles at the ready and off we go for a ride that turns out to be hellish beyond belief. Now the best way to describe the roads would be to say you know how Hinduism is about respect for your fellow man? Well, that doesn't apply to the roads. There are no speed limits, it is not uncommon for a riskshaw to overtake a bus at the same as as a car overtaking a rickshaw and if you just look in front of you, exactly the same is happening on the other side. Our driver was particularly bad and we had near misses more than a dozen times.
Although a little flustered, we arrived to our cottage in a tea plantation on the Himalayas. The setting is tranquil beyond words, the only hooting is from the birds and other wild life around us. We settled in for the evening full of anticipation for the exploration of this region over the next few days....
(OK Gav is taking over now as my fingers hurt!)
We are up and ready to go....first stop is Sobha Singh's gallery which is a tiny room with some beautiful oil paintings of various indian icons, Ghandi etc. The work is truly inspiring and its nice to think that there have been unknown artists like him working in india for years. Next stop is the Andretta pottery shop, where they also hold pottery lessons for local children. Arun, our bedi smoking host lets us have a go and we create some decent attempts at pottery. Seeing that its our first try, I think we did quite well. Washing our hands is a bit of a conundrum as there doesn't seem to be a sink anywhere, but Arun soon clears that up, pointing out that we have to go down the hill to a stream! It's a really lovely little pool of crystal clear water with dragon flies buzzing around. Amazing!
Next we headed off to a hindu Temple, very old and simple but so beautiful. Loads of monkeys dotted about that pretty much kept themselves to themselves.
We then head off to the sherbaling monastery where the monks in training learn their trade. It's beautiful and serene, loads of old women potter about chanting mantras and the monk's canteen serves the best Momos this side of Tibet! (more photos to follow, they're on the other camera!)
On the drive back we spot a clearing that is just calling out to us. The sun is high in the sky just in front of us, the Himalayas to our right and we decide to sit and watch the sun go down over Himachal Pradesh. It is a moment we will always remember, the image is undescribable and we truly feel blessed to be able to have seen this with our own eyes...
When we return to the cottage we meet Alan and his friend Subadrha. Alan is a proffessor of asian studies at coventry university and Subadrha lives in Kolkatta. Alan is a fountain of knowledge about India and we talk late into the night. The conversation gets onto Mauritius and he is able to shed some light on my ancestry. He says that most indians came over as indentured labour after the indian poppy crop failed. The british cultivated poppies in India for export of opium to China and indians were forced to farm it. After the crops failed poverty struck the regions of Varanasi to Kolkatta and Indians were shipped off to Mauritius to tend the Sugar Cane fields, Britains newest fad export to London. Indians from Tamil Nadu were brought over as Clerks or Book-keepers as they tended to be more educated and excelled at mathematics. Alan recommends a book called Sea of Poppies by Amitav Gosht, I am determined to find it tomorrow....
The next morning we head to Mcleodganj through Dharmshala, the residence of the Dalai Lama and general hippie fest! The town is crazy, hippie clothing, hippie food, hippies everywhere! We do some shopping (I find Sea of Poppies and Neeta gets some self teaching Hindi books as well as some weird indian comics) then head to the complex which houses the temple and the residence of the Dalai Lama. He's not there but the temple alone is worth it. Three walls are covered entirely with amazing murals depicting the transformation of Bhudda and the wheel of time. We cant imagine how long it must have taken to paint it, but it must have been forever!
We head home after McLeod for a well needed rest.
Today we have an easy day hanging out in Palumpur organising onward travel to Rajasthan....
We'll update again after Rajasthan and keep checking the blog as we might add more photos from Hmachal Pradesh if we get the chance. BYE BYE