On a stroll through the neighborhood I immersed in dense traffic composed of bullock carts, horse carriages, hand-pulled rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, motor rickshaws, buses, cars and countless pedestrians. The crowded lanes were fringed by numerous shacks in all sizes where vendors offered everything from snacks to garments. Put a lot of noise and odors to this picture and you get an idea of a typical indian street. My first hours in New Delhi were as impressive as I have always imagined.
I stayed only for a little while in the bustling city before a bus took me to Dharamsala, an old Hill Station at the lower foothills of the Himalayan Range. My girlfriend arrived a month prior and had already spent some time at McLeod Ganj working on her ability not to speak in a meditation center. As residence of Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, and the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, McLeod Ganj is dominated by Tibetan refugees who fled from Tibet under Chinese oppression. The town is also known as Little Lhasa where Indian and Tibetan culture coexists in an interesting mixture.
For us it was the gateway for a multiple day trek to Kareri Lake, a fresh water source for shepherds nestled below Minkiani Pass at around 3000 mamsl. It took us two days to find our way through mountain villages, lonely valleys and dense forests until we finally reached the partly frozen lake in complete solitude. We pitched our tent on lush grass right beside the water where we spent several hours soaking up the majestic views of the snowcapped Dhauladhar Range. Next morning we woke up to the sound of the nearby creek and squinted at the sunrise. The contrast to New Delhi couldn’t have been bigger.
We felt comfortable in the mountains and decided to spend more time in the state of Himachal Pradesh. The strenuous 18 hour trip to Kullu Valley was demanding for our backsides but we were greeted by blue skies and sunshine. The Orchards House in the old town of Manali turned out to be the ideal accommodation. Only accessible by foot and surrounded by fruit gardens and old farm houses it felt like a little oasis compared to the noisy streets further down the valley. Every evening locals gathered at the main square and chatted about this and that while children played soccer. Walking along the narrow alleys and observing the native lifestyle was the biggest attraction for me. Most houses were separated in two sections and tiled with stone. The stables at the ground floor provided room for one or two skinny cows whereas the living rooms were situated above. The lack of pasture near houses forces the owners to gather grass in huge baskets at the meadows and carry it to the village in order to feed the animals. We did another hike up to the snow line which was rewarded with an extraordinary view and a windy night. Soaked to our bones we returned to the village where we once again appreciated the rich indian/tibetan cuisine.
The next stop on the list was Rishikesh in the state of Uttarakhand, the Mecca for yogis and the like. At an elevation around 400 mamsl the fresh mountain air was abruptly replaced by humid subtropical heat. Strenuous yoga sessions, refreshing baths in the Ganges and countless delicious meals dictated a lazy rhythm we gladly accepted. With all the colors and interesting faces on the streets it was easy to lose our sense of time. Nevertheless at one point we had to leave for Delhi to catch our return flight back to Europe.
I don’t really know why it took me so long to visit the vast subcontinent of India, but I have the vague feeling I was not ready before. And there will be a next time. After all we saw only a tiny part of the country, but at least we tried to look closely.
For this is what we do. Put one foot forward and then the other. Lift our eyes to the snarl and smile of the world once more. Think. Act. Feel. Add our little consequence to the tides of good and evil that flood and drain the world. Gregory David Roberts, 2003, Shantaram (pp. 933), Scribe Publications