Love and compassion are the true religions to me. But to develop this, we do not need to believe in any religion.
Dalai Lama X1V
We begun our 7 hour journey from Shimla, our longest car ride yet, to our final destination in the North. Daramshala is most famously known as the home of the 14th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile.
The car ride, which was always a gamble in India, went smoothly and I enjoyed the sights along the way. I saw glimpses of village life in the small mountain towns, the air was fresh and the sky was a lot clearer than down in the plains.
I felt a strange pull to the Himalayas and the feeling seemed to intensify the further North we drove. Was my soul trying to tell me something? Perhaps in Nepal I would find out.
We arrived in McLeod Ganj, in Upper Dharamshala, and we checked into our Tibetan run hotel a few hours before night-fall. The staff were friendly and courteous and I was really looking forward to seeing our room, which was the most expensive on our trip.
It had spectacular views of the Himalayas but it didn’t live up to my expectations and was nowhere as good as some of the other places we had stayed in for half the price.
We had 2 days to explore, so we set off to find some food and came across a quaint little Japanese-Tibetan run restaurant, which seemed popular with the locals. We sat at a table surrounded by monks, ordered their special and feasted on miso soup, rice and salad, then walked towards the busy market place where I shopped for clothes and jewellery before it got dark. The market stalls sold the usual bits and pieces including Tibetan Buddhist souvenirs and cashmere ponchos.
The following day we visited the Tsuglagkhang Complex, which houses the official residence of the Dalai Lama. It was fascinating to watch all the maroon robed monks going about their daily duties within the complex while crowds of tourists were looking on.
I could see why Dharamshala was such a popular tourist hang-out. It had the beauty of the mountains, the Dalai Lama and a strong Tibetan community, which was a nice change in India.
It was also our final destination in the North and I was sad to think our Indian adventure was drawing to an end. We soon had to make our way back to Delhi where we would travel on to Nepal.
Luckily Dharamshala was small and easy to get around by foot and 2 days was enough to see all the sights we wanted. My lungs were filled with fresh mountain air and I was ready to visit a notoriously noisy and polluted city next.
On our final day we awoke in the dark, something that we all had become accustomed to, and caught a taxi to Pathankot station where we boarded a train to Amritsar.
Three hours later we arrived in the home of India’s holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple. The hyperactive streets were the busiest I’d seen yet and I was overwhelmed by the deafening traffic noise and pollution, a stark contrast to Dharamshala.
We checked into our hotel, which was luckily set back from the main road, and our room was comfortable and quiet but it had no windows which was unfortunate for mum who suffers from claustrophobia.
We caught a rickshaw into town and as we were walking down the busy road towards the Golden Temple a man approached us and asked if we wanted to visit the Attari and Wagah (Pakistan) border in a shared taxi. We decided to go, so we paid him a deposit and organized to meet him in an hour.
Instead of going to the famous Temple we diverted towards a park nearby to kill time while we waited. Jallianwala Bagh was a historic park that commemorates the 1900 Indian protesters who were shot, wounded and killed by British soldiers and we just so happened to be there on the 13th of April, the same day that the massacre took place in 1919, so the park was busy with official commemorations.
We sat on the grass in the shade and all of a sudden people started lining up to take our photo. I felt like a monkey in a zoo and we ended up leaving soon after but everywhere we went we had the same problem. Men, woman and children were stopping us to take photos with their family members.
I suddenly knew what celebrities must go through on a daily basis and I didn’t really like it!
After making a quick beeline for the exit, we met with the man who took our deposit only to realise our money had paid for a rickshaw, along with nine other locals, instead of a shared taxi. We all managed to squish in like sardines, but mum and I had to sit at the front on either side of the driver, our buttocks barely fitting on the seat, with our legs dangling off the sides. I only hoped I wouldn’t nod off and fall out as I was so tired from waking at 4am. The gods must have been on my side as an hour later we made it safely to the Border to watch the ceremony.
Hundreds of people crammed into the grandstands to watch the display of military showmanship between India and Pakistan. Spontaneous anthem chanting, rounds of applause and Bollywood style dancing in the street added to the carnival like mood before the Indian guards, with their oiled moustaches and over the top uniforms, stomped their feet high, beat their chests and marched down the road towards the border gates in a pompous attempt to outdo each other on the other side, which at times bordered on comedy.
Remarkably, the ceremony is held every night, it’s official purpose being to lower the national flag and formally close the border for the evening and although highly Nationalistic, It was entertaining to watch.
We left early to avoid the crowds and crammed back into the rickshaw that took us back into town. We were so hungry we ended up eating spicy paneer burgers and french fries at McDonald’s before being followed by two sweet boys riding their bicycles alongside our cycle rickshaw, who were fascinated by us ‘westerners’. We asked our driver to stop and we gave them some New Zealand coins before heading off towards our hotel.
The next day we visited the Golden Temple before catching a train to Delhi. The complex surrounding the beautiful Temple was crowded with people and we had to wear head-scarfs and walk barefoot through a pool of water to enter.
Inside, a huge water tank called the pool of nectar surrounded the mesmerizing golden building, which floated atop of the pool at the end of a long causeway. The pool itself attracts pilgrims from all over the world who would come to bathe in it’s sacred waters which is said to have healing powers.
We sat on the steps at the water’s edge and watched as men with turbans and long facial hair ceremoniously bathed in the water. It was hot that day and I would have loved to dip my feet in to cool down but woman weren’t allowed to touch the water, something that my headstrong daughter found hard to understand.
We spent the rest of the day observing all the busyness around us, then when it was time to leave, we caught a rickshaw to the train station for what would be our final train ride in India.
We had now become quite efficient at catching trains so we were a lot more relaxed and not needing to arrive so early, and I had even been eating the train food without getting sick.
We arrived back to the sticky heat of Delhi and drove past what appeared to be a dead man with twisted limbs who was lying face down in the middle of a busy road. Cars were driving past without stopping and I didn’t quite know what to do as our nonchalant taxi driver continued on, like everybody else, as if nothing had happened.
I went to sleep that night with images of the poor naked man lying face down in a pool of blood and I hoped that his body would at least be laid to rest away from the hectic streets of Delhi. But for all the poverty, pollution and lack of government support the people seemed happy.
What did this say about our Western culture?
We arrived late at our hotel and I tried to book a taxi to the airport for our early morning flight to Nepal, but the man at the desk tried to overcharge us so the friendly hotel porter agreed to walk with us in the morning to find a taxi.
We woke extra early and met with the hotel porter who led us towards the nearest street that would have taxis while shooing away a pack of scary looking street dogs who had started circling around us and growling.
We couldn’t find any taxis but we did find a man asleep inside his rickshaw so the porter woke him up and asked if he would take us to the airport. He agreed and we negotiated a price; which was much less than what the man at the front desk of our hotel had tried to charge us, so we crammed in with our packs on our laps and took off down the dark alleyway with the dogs chasing us and nipping at our legs which were dangling outside.
Thankfully I reached the airport with my legs still attached, and with butterflies and full of excitement, I waited to board our flight to Nepal.