It’s 7am at Chandigargh train station and there’s a Delhi born, neuro-scientist from Texas sitting next to me explaining the nutritional value of every category of food. I’ve just spent most of a 12 hour train journey running back and forward to the toilet to get sick and I’m too weak to flee the onslaught of dietary advice. Attempting to overcompensate for the weight I lost in Jaipur while ill, I ate and drank too much before getting on the front sleeper carriage. The contents of my stomach moves from side to side the whole way along with the movement of the rickety carriage and every time I come back from the toilet there’s a different Indian in my ‘bed’ who has to be swiftly ejected. It’s around 40 degrees and as I sit in the train station all I can think about is finding a nearby hotel to lay my head and recover but the nuero-scientist continues in his Texan drawl, “Wheat’ll give you 300 calories per 24 grams, rice….you’re talkin’ 200 per 24 grams…”. As he writes all this in my notebook I’m wondering where the fuck I’m going to get the energy to deal with the tuk-tuk drivers outside the train station and get to the nearest hotel. Eventually the Texan rushes off to jump on his train and another passer-by stops to ask if I’m OK. This helpful chap negotiates with a tuk-tuk driver outside to bring me to an overpriced hotel but an hour later while lying in an air-conditioned room I’m just relieved to be resting in peace.I spend the rest of the day in bed sleeping and when I wake up thoughts of somehow making it to Delhi and jumping on the first flight home are on my mind but luckily I snap out of such folly and arrange to meet up with a friend of a friend in Chandigargh the next day who has arranged for me to stay with his mates. The next day I get a short tuk-tuk ride to the two room student apartment where I’m to spend the next five days either in bed or browsing the internet (I venture out into the 40 degree heat occasionally for food). My first thought when I entered the apartment was the lack of space but the accommodating Seikh students ensure my stay is a comfortable one and allow me the space to regain my strength.
I never get to explore the grid like structure of Chandigargh, capital of both Punjab and Haryana states. A planned city designed by a French architect in the 1950s, it was designed as a fitting urban environment for its strategic location in the newly independent India. My original plan was to get to know this strange city a bit more, as well as the Punjab, which is a majority Seikh state, and visit the holiest shrine in Seikhdom, the Golden Temple in Amritsar near the Pakistan border. Unfortunately, the day before I plan to go I hear the temperature in Amritsar is 48 degrees and decide it’s best to head north to Dharamsala in the mountains of Himichal Pradesh.
After a relatively painless 10 hour journey I take a taxi from the town to the focal point of McLeodGanj where most of the Tibetan culture and tourist attractions are centred, and soon find a decent ensuite room. With the cool mountain air and relaxed atmosphere I feel instantly better as I explore the town that evening and have dinner in one of the many Tibetan cafes. It’s the first time I’ve had Tibetan food and I’m not disappointed…it’s a welcome change from the usual Indian fare I’ve lived off for the past 3 months. It’s strange to suddenly be surrounded by so much Tibetan culture in India; most of the people here are exiles from the homeland who have come to the place where the Dalai Lama has had his government in exile for over 50 years. The maroon robes of the monks and traditional dress of the woman are part of the scenery here…their mannerisms and outlook are in stark contrast to many Indians who treat foreigners with a type of clumsy disdain and take a much more materialistic attitude to life. One morning while coming out of a shop I’m greeted by a monk who asks me if I’d like to have a tea with him in a nearby café, so he can practice his English. I readily accept and spend the next hour and a half chatting with him. Kalsang fled Tibet 14 years ago when he was 19 and after some pleasantries talks about the brutality of the Chinese regime he witnessed and the hardships he faced in crossing the Himalayas into Nepal where he spent a few years before coming to Dharamsala. There is not a trace of bitterness in him and his sense of calm and content shines through despite his longing for something better for his homeland. His favourite topic of conversation though, is Buddhist philosophy and he recites passages from the Dalai Lama’s (of which he calls “his holiness”) writings. At one point the conversation steers towards politics and he is curious to know why I think the US and Obama are a negative influence in the world…he listens doubtfully but isn’t sure how to respond to such a damning view of the world’s superpower. Nevertheless, I come away from the chat uplifted and feeling lucky to have met such an interesting chap who spends much of his time meditating and studying Buddhist scripts.
While spending 3 days in McLeodGanj I begin to tire of the tourist vibe and move to the quieter environs of Upper Bhagsu, a village 3km walk uphill. I stay in a rustic family guesthouse for the rest of the week and although it’s quiet, there are still many tourist cafes in nearby Bhagsu and an abundance of new age hippy types (who ooze a grey pseudo-spirituality) and endless Israelis, none of which I talk to for more than 10 seconds. I go back to McLeodGanj at least once a day, mainly to enjoy the food in the Tibetan restaurants. On one of these regular visits I bump into Nikita, a young German with a Russian name, who I worked with on a farm near the Black Sea coast in Turkey. He’s been following roughly the same route as me over the past 7 months, so we hang out for a while, exchanging travel stories. I also meet a Québécoise girl who did the same Vipassana course as I and recognise a few English backpackers who stayed at the same guesthouse in Tamil Nadu…it’s seems all travellers in India are converging in Dharamsala at this time of year to escape the heat of the plains. One day while sitting in a café I get talking to an Irish fella, the first compatriot I’ve met since November last year. David from the Kildare, near the Dublin border, is a traveller in his 30s with a lot of experience of seeing the world. Having done a 4 year stint teaching English in Korea, he’s now exploring this part of Asia before continuing his journey to S.E Asia and later Brazil. He also plans on spending a month or so in the Indian Himalayas and is heading towards Ladakh. He convinces me that the best way to travel to Leh is via the Kasmiri capital Shrinigar, so I decide to go with him before the monsoon hits Dharamsala. On the morning we leave, the heavens open and as I walk the 3km to McLeodGanj and get soaked through from the driving rain, there’s a massive relief that I left a week earlier than I’d planned.