Datong: Buddhism on a big scale

View the full set of Datong photos here

We were catching the train out of Beijing so said our goodbyes to Rich (although we were coming back in a couple of weeks – view the TripLine map to see our route) and headed to the supermarket to buy some snacks for the journey. I waited outside with the bags while Sarah went foraging. Rich zipped by on his bike and suggested we get a move on as we didn’t have all that much time to make it to the train station. And so it started. I waited another five minutes for Sarah then headed into the labyrinthine aisles full of noodles in search of her. I was spat out at the checkout where I found Sarah and let her know that we had to get a move on. A quick “wha!?” later and we were doing a fast walk down the pavement to the metro station. Unfortunately in our haste I took us around the circle line in the wrong direction but once we realised it was simpler to just stay on and go the long way around. We transferred to the other line quickly and leapt out at the other end to find, wonder of wonders, an available taxi ejecting the previous passenger. Taxis are as rare as hen’s teeth in Beijing so we captured this guys attention, Sarah miming a train, and hopped in where showing him the train tickets confirmed his charades guessing skills.

He got us to the base of the pedestrian bridge going over the highway to the Beijing West train station. There was construction work underway so we had to skirt on to the road briefly along with the other mass of people trying to get across. We barged our way up the stairs and across the pedestrian bridge, barged our way through the crowds at the security check, then jogged up to our waiting room. Jogging with a large backpack on is not easy but we made it just as the train started boarding, a few minutes late which is apparently quite rare. We drifted along with the crowd and shoved our way through the train, found our seats, heaved bags on to the overhead storage area and collapsed on the quite comfortable seats as we watched the chaos unfold around us. In short time though everyone was seated, or standing if they got cheap tickets, and the journey got underway smoothly.

Across from us sat a husband and wife. He looked as though he had been up all night drinking. He had a red face and could barely keep his eyes open. He spent most of the journey lolling against his long-suffering wife and I think when he tried to begin a conversation with Sarah it was one time she was glad that she couldn’t communicate with a local.  He looked like he was ready for a good, long, rambling conversation. He did give us some red date yoghurt which proved to be a taste sensation, tasting a little like a creamy christmas pudding. We gave him some biscuits in return which he half ate before abandoning and spreading out across his wife for a little nap. At one of the stops Sarah got another passenger popping next to her who kept on trying to talk to her in Chinese. He obviously spoke no English but seemed to have trouble grasping the fact that Sarah couldn’t understand him. Another passenger came along who spoke some English and translated that the man wanted to know where Sarah’s kindle was made. As far as we knew it was made it China – “like everything else” Sarah quipped. The man who had asked the question postulated that it would be a fine day when China came up with the inventions rather than just producing products for other countries. He then went on the make some racist comments about Japanese and English people which the fellow passengers found greatly amusing. Australians didn’t seem significant enough to warrant his hatred.

The train also had sumo baby on board. There must be a child raising theory in China that encourages baby porkers who then put the fat off when they hit their toddler years. There are a lot of pudgy babies but I think the one on the train to Datong took the cake, probably literally. They also have a fashion for young kids which is odd to Western eyes. Rather than using nappies all the kids just have the crutch cut out of the pants, while their bums, like a pair of pork buns, dangle freely. It intrigued Sarah who wanted to know how the parents know when the kid is going to let loose so that they can hold them at a safe distance. Apparently from an early age the parents whistle when the kid is doing a wee and eventually they just about piss on command. It’s great that they do it like this because the environmental impact of Chinese people starting to use nappies would be significant.

The reason for all this train action was to get to Datong which has two incredible sights – the Yungang Grottoes and the Hanging Temple. Before we got there we had to tackle the menu at our very nice hotel. The issue was not language but length, the menu being like a glossy Ikea catalogue for food with page after page of improbable sounding dishes involving shark’s fin, sea cucumber and abalone. We managed to find some dishes palatable to us and the food was excellent, such as the cute corn dumplings shaped like miniature cobs, followed by one of the most blissfully quiet and pleasant rooms we had in our travels. This gleaming hotel with a towering reception would not be our usual choice in these travels due to the cost but in China we got all this for $40 in a website deal.

The following morning we headed out to the Yungang Grottoes which has amazing Buddhist artefacts. In typical Chinese style the entrance to the caves has been over-developed with a huge visitors centre and a walk of a couple of kilometres through a reproduction temple landscape before you finally reach the real deal. The caves are filled with Buddhist statues of all sizes, from two centimetres to 17 metres. In the spare space without a statue there are colourful frescoes filling the walls. There are 53 caves in all, some of which are gob smacking in their majesty. The carvers kindly built holes for the Buddha statues at head level so that they can look out at the landscape.

The Hanging Temple is no less impressive. Located a good hours drive away we had a chance to take a look at China’s new roads up close. They are building a huge number of roads in rural areas but the traffic has not caught up yet. There are a lot of eerily quiet six lane highways with more roads being constructed all the time.

The Hanging Temple is improbably located halfway up a cliff in a site which could only be dictated by religious fervour. It’s great fun climbing up there and clattering all around the wooden structure which has a very sensible one way system and lots of signs warning against smoking or producing any other kind of flame around this building which has been baked dry through the centuries.

On the way home we had the driver drop us near our hotel at the nine dragon wall. Unlike the other attractions this is not AAAAA-rated. The cheaper entry price as a consequence was a blessing but after two of the most amazing places we had seen on the trip, the glazed dragon wall was a bit of a letdown. No matter, we wandered back to the hotel along the wide streets watching new buildings go up everywhere, very satisfied with our Datong excursion.

View the full set of Datong photos here

Beijing – The beating heart of China

See the full set of Beijing photos here

This travelling lark is not all beer and skittles. After an overnight bus from Manali to Delhi and a red-eye flight from Delhi to Hong Kong my body packed it in and gave me a fever, diarrhoea and vomiting for two days, although not before I had some delicious Cantonese food and a wander around the sleek and modern city of Hong Kong, as modern as India is chaotic.

We were in Hong Kong primarily to get a visa for China which for some reason is easier here. On the way through we ate some great food and checked out the temples filled with masses of coiled incense hanging like bells from the ceiling.

Coming off an illness wasn’t the best preparation for heading to the most populous country in the world, renowned for big crowds and lots of spitting. We had a gentle entry to the country by staying with Rich, a friend of Sarah’s, who has been living in Beijing for the past five years. He took us around his favourite restaurants in the hutong where he lives which gave us a taste not only of the wonderful food but the local flavour. China was much more modern and contemporary than we were expecting. New roads with matching new buildings and new shops with the latest trends. It felt as though we were wandering around any of the world’s great cities but with an additional layer of Chinese history sprinkled throughout.

Even though the communists ruined many of Beijing’s ancient treasures, such as the city gates and walls, they didn’t dare touch the Forbidden City, which remains the iconic heart of the city, just north of the expansive Tiananmen Square. The Forbidden City is what you picture when thinking of ancient Chinese architecture: the gold glazed tile roof, the eaves turned up into dragon heads, giant drums, bronze dragon turtles, moats filled with goldfish, dragon thrones and bronze urns filled with water in case of fire. It feels endless as you march through the massive courtyards filled with tourists.  The Chinese tour group is especially loud, led as it is by a miked up person carrying a portable speaker.  Tour groups seem to be by far the most popular way to travel for domestic tourists so you end up with tour leaders yelling at each other with amplification.  The novelty wears off fast.  The Forbidden City now holds various museums, among them the excellent calligraphy museum that showcases that most artistic of writing styles and its transition through the centuries.

We visited the 798 Art District, a former factory zone outside the centre of the city which has slowly been turned into gallery spaces.  Chinese art and artists have become internationally renowned in recent years and the art we saw was vibrant and interesting and modern, a microcosm of the characteristics that define modern China.

There is a downside to all the progress in China. It is going through a modern day industrial revolution and on some days it has the pollution to match. London’s renowned pea-soupers have been reincarnated here. When we arrived it was almost 40 degrees and you could barely see buildings a block away through the mists of pollution. It was sticky, grimy and thoroughly unpleasant, but as a purchaser of cheap Chinese goods I can hardly criticise them too much for shouldering the burden of the Western world’s manufacturing. China has done well economically but there is a heavy environmental price which they are beginning to grapple with. After doing a loop through other places in China and coming back to Beijing the skies were gloriously clear, so it comes and goes in mysterious ways.  We were very happy to have the chance to see it in all its blue sky glory as well.

Rich is a Great Wall nut and kindly took us walking on a remote section of the wall on a perfect sunny day. There is obviously a lot of Great Wall but most tourists visit the sections near Beijing that have been restored. We walked along some of the original wall, joining it as it snaked over hills and through gullies. It was truly a surreal experience to be walking along such an ancient structure and seeing the attention that went into building the arrow slots and curves. The towers are crumbling but still holding up remarkably well given the harsh climate of hot summers with dusty winds and freezing winters. We spent the night in one of the sturdier towers, climbing into it and rolling out our sleeping mats, then watching the sunset from the roof. It was an unforgettable experience. The next morning we could see clearly the terrace marks in the hills now overgrown with bush. This was an idea of Mao’s to try and use every available space as farmland. A pity he didn’t think through that some places just aren’t good for growing crops.

Back in Beijing we went to the Temple of Heaven park which has several impressive structures, the most amazing being the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests which is “a triple-eaved purplish-blue umbrella roof mounted on a three-tiered marble terrace” all assembled with nary a nail in sight. Maybe a photo would describe it better.

The bright blue skies also presented a great opportunity to visit Jingshan Park, one of the higher points in Beijing, albeit artificially constructed in the Ming Dynasty.  The views were incredible, especially given the contrast with the polluted skies on our arrival.  The Forbidden City is the heart of Beijing and being this high you can see how the city radiates outwards with key arterial roads carefully planned for maximum feng shui benefits.

The sightseeing wasn’t over yet.  We still had the Confucian temple and Lama temple to see.  The Confucian temple is a strange idea in my eyes, taking a secular set of principles and worshipping them with musical performances and incense.  It is an old set of beliefs which seems to have built up over time into something approaching a religion.  Confucianism has its roots in education.  Confucius was a scholar and teacher who valued learning highly.  The Confucian temple is located next to the imperial academy which records those who passed the rigorous exam on stone tablets.

The Lama temple is a set of buildings dedicated to the worship of Tibetan Buddhism.  It was reputedly saved during the cultural revolution by Zhou Enlai, the charismatic international face of communist China for many years.  The Lama temple now sucks up enormous amounts of incense and did not enlighten us any more on the concepts behind Tibetan Buddhism.  It is very pretty though.

No visit to Beijing would be complete without a gawk at the old Olympic sites, especially topical as the London Olympics on the horizon.  As you would expect the metro lines up there are very slick and disgorge you on to a vast area which has the bird’s nest stadium lit in communist red and the water cube, such a cool design, glimmering away.  The area in between is full of people selling little kites that stretch up into the sky and proved too tempting as stocking stuffers for Sarah to resist.

That’s the sightseeing done but we couldn’t leave Beijing without a shoutout to Rich and all the great restaurants he took as to, from Peking Duck to dumplings, noodles, food from the far west and down near the Vietnamese border.  It was all sublime.  The century eggs are in acquired taste probably more suited to blue cheese fans but the general standard and variety of food in Beijing must make it one of the best eat cities  in the world.  Dining on the sidewalk at little plastic tables and throwing the bones in the gutter felt like a very Chinese experience.  The cleanup crews sweep through the city at night leaving it spick and span in the morning, well as clean as a big city can get, anyway.  Thanks again to Rick for having us to stay, showing us around Beijing and giving us so much guidance in planning our China itinerary.

This post captures our two visits to Beijing, in between which was a loop around the inland.  When we got back to Beijing we high-tailed out of there on the high speed train, getting up to 310km/h consistently.  Did I mention that China is modern?

I’ll end the post with two of the best dog photos we took all trip, another hat tip to Beijing style.

See the full set of Beijing photos here

Delhi, India: An end to our Indian dalliance

View all our photos of Delhi here

When we arrived back at the place where we began our Indian travels, Delhi, we mopped up the remaining sightseeing activities. Top of our list was a city tour led by former street kids with an organisation that provides health, housing and education to thousands of kids living on the street in the capital. They showed us the makeshift school at New Delhi Station where kids get an hour or two of education each day on a voluntary basis. If they want more help they need to go to a shelter. The shelters are practical concrete buildings with dormitory accommodation, a kitchen and classrooms, and daily schedules posted on the notice boards which include regular meditation sessions in between other more expected activities.

The shelters and organisation provide a great service but we still found it heart-breaking, meeting little kids estranged from their families, through being orphaned, abandoned, escaping abuse or even just because they became separated from their parents while visiting the big city and don’t know where they live. The other interesting part of the tour was when they showed us a wall in an alley with religious figures painted on it from all the main world religions. These figures are not there to be worshipped but are a successful effort to stop people pissing on the wall, India being such a religious country that no-one would dare offend the Gods like that. Apparently they tried signs (like we saw in Africa) saying ‘Please do not urinate on this wall’ but to naught. The religious iconography is much more effective.

We went to Qutb Minar in southern Delhi which has ruins from the first city of Delhi (there are seven) in the Islamic Mughul style. The geometric beauty is as elegant as the other amazing sights in the area. There is a truly enormous tower which has to be seen to comprehend. The other ruins did not captivate us for long on this broiling hot day so after posing for a few more photos with domestic tourists we were off again. The other sight we stopped in to see was the old observatory built in 1724 which is massive in scale and no doubt was more useful when Delhi skies were pollution-free.

Our last great Indian adventure was going to the post office to lighten our packs by mailing our accumulated souvenirs and gifts home. A seemingly simple task, this was made more difficult by the post office not having any boxes for sale. We had to take our taxi to a market area where a gentlemen helped us get some boxes from an off licence. When Sarah offered him a small payment he said “What do you think I am, a beggar? Give me double that!”. Driving back to the post office there were women in saris riding side-saddle on scooters and people drinking from bottles without letting it touch their lips as saliva is considered polluting in the Hindi faith. The post office is so old school that they have staff members to sew up your parcel for security. They take a large piece of muslin cloth, wrap your parcel in it, then literally take a needle and thick thread to sew it up tight along all the seams while you watch, making it look like a delivery for Dr Frankenstein. We got stuck behind another traveller with two huge bags he was sending home to France after a year studying Hindi in Delhi, so he could brief us on the bureaucratic steps required but still the whole process took a couple of hours.

And with that we escaped on the red-eye to Hong Kong, but not before an ill-judged pineapple juice with ice at the airport gave me a kick in the guts and a bad fever for the next few days.

View all our photos of Delhi here

Manali, India: Wandering with the livestock

While it is true, beloved reader, that you don’t experience our travels with all your senses, this is in part a blessing. While you don’t smell the incense burned in the 4WD every morning before driving through northern India’s Spiti Valley, you are also spared the ass-numbing drive over terribly rocky mountain roads and the delays for road clearing that leave you sitting in the baking heat in a traffic jam. We got out of the Spiti Valley after a two day drive. This was followed by overnighting in Rampur, a town with very little to recommend it, from where we continued to the north, passing through the lovely Jalori pass which was filled with flowering trees and lush vegetation.

The drive was not without incident. Our hired driver Chandasekar accidentally locked the keys in the car at one of the stops. This would have been a bigger problem if the car wasn’t so easy to break into, which then made us thankful that all our belongings hadn’t been ripped off at some point. Other than that it was the usual sights on Indian roads: cows eating milk cartons from roadside rubbish tips, a holy man selling bananas by a bridge and a sign telling us that this was an ‘accidental prone area’ which had fallen down and couldn’t get up.

Manali is in a nice setting surrounded by mountains and next to the tremendous, rushing Beas River. The calming effect of the natural scenery is undone by the torrents of domestic tourists from further south who pack the roads with traffic jams and crowd the footpaths around the clock. Manali is anything but a peaceful city. The only way to escape the clamour is by going to a moderately expensive restaurant to have some good food. The food in general in India is pretty good but there is only so much curry you can eat. Manali caters to the foreign backpacker and domestic honeymoon markets, so offered some welcome variety including fresh river trout, Korean and nachos. The service in some Indian restaurants in the sticks was odd as well. Rather than us giving our order, or even pointing at the menu, we were supplied with pen and paper with which to write our own order down which was then taken to the kitchen for decryption. The most revelatory part of an Indian meal was after eating when fennel seeds and sugar crystals are put out to freshen the breath. They are brilliant for this and leave your mouth tasting much better than the packaged mint that you’d get back in Australia.

We had a bit of a rest in Manali and contemplated heading further north to the moonscape lands of Ladakh, but two more days sitting down in a shared jeep or bus motoring on crap roads and going over the highest pass in the world did not seem attractive at that point in time. The overnight accommodation for the two day trip was known as the ‘ Vomit Hilton’ for its tendency to invoke altitude sickness. Instead we did a three day hike in the surrounding mountains, which was lovely. It was just us and the guide, an experienced mountain man who seemed to glide up the mountain twice as fast as us, even though he didn’t seem to be moving any more quickly. It was miserable weather at the start of the walk, constant rain and mist joined us along with the cows heading for higher ground. Even in the remote mountains you can’t get away from people in India. There were goat herds camped high up in the mountains huddling around their fire as the sodden sheep and goats watched us go by. One shepherd seemed in very jolly spirits as he sang away in the distance; our guide advised us that he was drunk and this wasn’t so unusual for the shepherds in the hills. Which seemed pretty sensible, given the weather and tendency for sheep to mostly stand about.

We camped that night in a permanent camp usually used by school kids on excursion. Our arrival seemed unexpected and the staff were turned out of the dining tent by the guide who proceeded to borrow our camera to take photos of the dirty kitchen and poorly constructed tents. We found one dry tent at least and with about three sleeping bags each taken from the large pile in camp we retired for the day at around 4pm, willing ourselves to be warm. Dinner was passable and the fire was even better as the skies cleared a little in the evening. The chef was stoned which seemed to make his explanation of Tibetan Buddhism more comprehensible. After asking me what my good name was, he regaled us with his philosophical musings on religion, economic migration of Nepalis to India, fatherhood and Buddhism. He also introduced us to the two young Nepali men working with him, who didn’t speak English, but smiled a few times.

The next day was fine and our goal was high altitude sacred Lake Bhrigu. In the morning Sarah made friends with a goat who had spent the night sheltering in the toilet tent. They got on famously but the goat had to go and rejoin its own kind eventually. There had been fresh snowfall overnight on the path we were to take but in the meantime the scenery was gorgeous with brightly coloured wildflowers carpeting the grassy mountainside. Photos do not do justice to the colours. We reached the snowline and it soon became apparent that my indoor/outdoor city versatile slip on shoes did not have a hope in hell of walking on snow. I slipped and slid on relatively flat bits of snow so when our guide took us to a snowy ridge and warned us not to slip here as we could slide right down to the bottom of the gully, I baulked. It seemed foolish to continue so I hid by the tree line further down with a herd of wild horses enjoying the grass while Sarah soldiered on upward to the lake at an elevation of 4300m. She seemed to under the mistaken impression that I was disappointed not to be walking for three hours through snow to see a little lake. She seemed to enjoy it and completed the journey faster than our guide expected, although most of this was about 150m behind him, stopping to catch her breath every five steps.

That night in another camp the cook made vegetable curry, rice, pappadams, mashed potato and a superb desert, halwa (a baked sponge with sultanas). All this using just two camp stoves. At night there was the usual sound of goats wandering through camp and then the dogs kicked up a ruckus. In the morning our guide said he thought they had come across a bear during the night.

Once we got back down to the horn-blaring civilisation of town, we had the joys of an overnight bus to look forward to. Being the height of high season, Manali had proven difficult to leave. Ideally we would have liked to catch a plane out but both airlines servicing the area were in major difficulties. Air India was having an industrial dispute with its pilots and Kingfisher Airlines was on the brink of bankruptcy and had already had planes impounded at Heathrow. Trains were not that much quicker as we had to travel by road quite a distance to get to a station, and they were all full anyway. So the overnight bus to Delhi it was, with the last available seats right at the back.

But we can’t leave Manali without a few photos of Sarah posing with fluffy animals.  Yaks seem to have nice personalities hiding behind their neatly combed fringe and carefully placed hooves.  For some reason there are women renting out hugs with fat rabbits.  The rabbits are fat because they are carried everywhere lest they make a break for it into the hills.

To be fair, the journey was much better than we expected – although our expectations were very low, and included visions of being awake and vomiting all night. There was lots of leg room and the seats reclined a long way. We were just grateful that we had travel sickness medication as the road was windy for a good five hours and people all around us were looking green. One woman politely threw up right after I removed my shoes but I assume that wasn’t the cause. We made it back to Delhi in one piece and grateful once again for the calm atmosphere of Master Guesthouse.

Tabo: The mountains are my god

View more photos from Kalpa to Tabo, Tabo, Tabo to Kaza and the towns of Kaza, Kibber and Kee monastery.

Our speed on this journey was woefully slow thanks to the poor condition of the roads. If we saw that a town was 60 kilometres away we thought “that should only take about three hours”. As we crawled higher into the rocky mountains we saw the sobering sight of female road gangs working on the roads, clearing rubble and laying tar on the few bitumen stretches. A lot of the women came from Nepal to work in the summer and many others were lower caste Indian women, there with their babies who they nursed during breaks. They all wore kerchiefs over their face to keep out the relentless dust from the traffic. The sun was baking with very little shade apart from makeshift camps. One of the saddest sights in India was seeing one of these women breast-feeding her baby next to the road and gently stroking its cheek as the traffic trundled by, raising dust.

The rough condition of the roads extends to the bridges. While there are some new ones, most of them are single lane timber numbers which clatter and crack as you drive over them – sounding like they will send you plunging into the rushing river at any moment. One bridge had a guard to prevent more than one truck going on at a time, and almost all had Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags strung along their beams. This doesn’t inspire confidence but they all held up for one more load when we crossed over them.

There is nothing like a big whack of nature to put you in your place. Some people like to contemplate the endless ocean, the rolling sands of desert or the distant stars on a clear night. I prefer mountains surging out of the earth to give me some perspective. They make the horizon smaller but tower above you magisterially exposing the rock sediments that have formed over millennia. The valleys hewn by glaciers and rivers are another reminder of the age of the earth, which has come into this shape over timescales that stop your breath when you think of it.

One stretch of road on the hillside wound back on itself so many times, and was so steep, that looking back on it was like an optical illusion, some kind of M. C. Escher sketch where it seems that nothing should connect but somehow it still does. The landscape was entirely rocky by this stage, there were even patches of ground that appeared as though boulders were being grown on a farm, yet even here we kept passing orchards by the river, carefully tended to grow beans and apples even in this high altitude desert.

We took a detour to a pretty little village off the main road which houses a 500 year old monk mummy. It was found during excavations for the road, the crew claiming that it spurted blood when they hit it with shovels. It is now kept in a glass case with a monk’s habit on and is thought to be a lama.

We stayed the night at Tabo which has an amazing 1000+ year old monastery made from mud. Inside its rooms, the walls and ceiling are completely covered with colourful thangkas images of Buddha and the Tibetan gods. The designs look very fresh and contemporary but no photos are allowed so they will have to live in our memory.  The rooms are kept quite dark to prevent them from fading. Sarah asked our guide, Anjaan, to explain a bit more about the Buddhist Gods but we got about as far as past, present and future Buddha, medicine Buddha, bodhisattvas and demons before realising we weren’t going to reach enlightenment in a five minute conversation. Although Buddhism has the aura of simplicity in the West, in practice the Tibetan brand has thousands of Gods and stories, temples and worship rituals, and fearsome protectors, whereas we are more likely to think of meditation and peacefulness. The Buddhists here also eat meat regularly. They say they need it because of the cold and the harsh climate. The Dalai Lama strongly discourages the practice but has accepted that locals persist, with their own interpretation of the scriptures – it’s ok to eat meat as long as they don’t do the killing (i.e. buy it from non-Buddhist butchers / farmers). We were surprised to see a young kid launch a decent kick at a baby donkey which seemed incongruous with loving kindness to all sentient beings, but maybe that says more about little boys than Buddhism.

We did a tour of monasteries in the area which all have more amazing settings than buildings. The monastery is high on a precipice, the kind of place that would have a castle in other parts of the world. The view is unreal. A valley with an opal blue river running through it is surrounded by high mountains. The second highest mountain in Spiti is 6500 metres and the town of Tabo is nearly 4000 metres high. The altitude makes the sky a deep rich blue and the mountains look like rocky cutouts against it, some with a sprinkling of snow. The monastery has a nice sun room that Sarah was quite taken with, just a clear sheet of plastic over the small inner courtyard at the top of some rickety stairs. The shrine is very simple with a medium sized statue of the Buddha which receives offerings.

Down another valley two rivers meet. One river is light blue in colour and it is joined by a dark grey river full of mud and silt from the mountains. They don’t mix immediately but travel next to each other for some way, half the river blue and the other half this dark grey mixture until eventually they combine and rush into another larger river further down the valley. If you follow the dual river you reach another monastery. Most of the monks were five hours away playing a cricket tournament on the day we visited, too far for us to travel and see them – more’s the pity. This monastery is also surrounded by beautiful mountains and contains the scriptures in scroll form neatly packed against the wall.

The last monastery we looked at was called Kee and was perhaps the most spectacular setting of all, located the furthest north in the Spiti valley. The monks were having their service and all chanting in the main hall as we took our tour past them. The young boys stared at us with curiosity and didn’t seem to be very deep in meditation but everyone chanted all the same. On top of the prayer hall you can walk on the roof, which was an incredible setting with mountains all around, some solar panels (which makes a lot of sense), and some totems for which receive offerings in the event of a bad storm. The Dalai Lama stayed here and his bed is kept neat and ready should he return.

After the monastery we went to Kibber, one of the highest villages in Asia at 4300 metres high. You really feel the effects of the altitude up here and although we had been taking diamox and acclimatising slowly it was still an effort to walk around. The village has prettily-coloured houses with solar panels, and two stories to house the family and its livestock in winter. The buildings have flat roofs that locals have to shovel snow off in winter. When I asked why they didn’t build sloping roofs that you see on buildings in other alpine areas our guide said that then they wouldn’t have anywhere to store their hay. Seems like an odd reason to me but I guess it keeps them busy. They had baby yaks in a field grazing with the cows. They seem like peaceful creatures but they have to be looked after so that the snow leopards don’t get them.

View more photos from Kalpa to TaboTaboTabo to Kaza and the towns of Kaza, Kibber and Kee monastery.

Rakcham: The end of the road

We drove towards the Sangla valley, through dry hill country filled with gum trees and burning-off, making it smell just like an Australian summer. We found eucalypts in almost every country we visited and while the locals don’t always appreciate their water-guzzling ways, the trees seem to thrive, growing tall very quickly. In this valley there was a lot of terrace farming underway. As we travelled on, the sky clouded over and we started driving along a waterway that would turn into the Spiti River. The land around here is much rockier and there was evidence of huge chunks of rock splitting away from the mountain and into the river below. It thundered along in the canyon below us, all roiling and turbid as it brought soil down from the high Spiti valley.

It was starting to get late and somewhat concerning that our driver Chandashekar (spelling uncertain) had to ask directions to our hotel. Soon enough night collapsed around us and we were still driving on up an incredibly narrow mountain road with a cliff on one side and what we presumed was a steep drop on the other. From our current position it just looked like a black void. Unbeknownst to us at the time, Chandashekar had been driving since about 5am that morning as he had a distance to travel before picking us up. In light of that he did wonders to get us there safely. I think it helped that there was something wrong with his chassis that made him drive slower than the tiny hatchbacks who kept overtaking us on the rough dirt roads.  We didn’t mind the slow pace. –  Better slow than rolling into a valley.

We made it to the hotel which had been organised for us by the eco-tour company we’d planned the week of travel with. The unheated room and dirty dining room didn’t endear us to the place but when we woke in the morning and pulled back the curtain the view literally made me say “Wow!”

From there we wandered up to the road for about two hours to the little village of Chitkul which has one of the most picturesque settings in the world. Apart from a few passing 4WDs crammed full of Indian families visiting from more southern, hotter climes, there was only the sound of goat bells, locals washing laundry in the alpine river, and wind. Sarah wandered away through the village, intrigued by the presence of deeply traditional ways married with some modern touches (like the pay TV satellite dish). I waited where it wasn’t too busy near their little wooden temple where the fringe of wooden chimes clanked in the wind and nursed the blister coming up on my heel which by the end of the day looked like a puffy naan bread. On the walk back to Rakccham we met a Japanese backpacker looking to hitch a ride. He had no chance in the domestic tourist jeeps, filled to the brim with mum, dad, aunties, uncles, grandparents, children and cousins but passed us later, waving from the back of a farmer’s truck.

Back at the car Chandashekar discovered a slow leak in one of the tyres and despite this being a Sunday afternoon in a tiny village we found a mechanic sitting and waiting who changed the tyre and patched up the spare, all for a few dollars. On we went to a different hotel in Kalpa with an even better view than the first, surrounded by peaks and apple orchards, with the sounds of Buddhist chanting from nearby temples echoing in the valley. After overnighting here it was on towards Spiti proper.

Shimla, India: Oh I do like to be beside the mountains

Full set of Shimla photos

We arrived in the faux English town of Shimla, former colonial capital in summer, after having our fill of being stuck in the tiny hatchback taxi and driving at 30km/h along sickness-inducing windy roads, so getting lost looking for the hotel was not our ideal scenario. The accommodation we booked into was outside town and in this mountainous terrain one false turn can be hard to recover from. The taxi driver talked to the hotel owner on the phone but was not happy with the directions so he stopped every five minutes to ask uncomprehending pedestrians the way. At last we found a mechanic who seemed to know what he was talking about and we twisted our way downhill into a traffic jam as ludicrously oversized vehicles attempted to pass on the narrow roads.

When we finally arrived the view was fantastic. The guesthouse is a huge sprawling mansion with the family living in a wing upstairs and the guest rooms in a separate section below overlooking the valley beneath its balcony. We got settled in while the taxi driver argued with the laconic B&B owner about how crap his directions were. The B&B owner had an odd manner about him. Perhaps it was because of his long dank hair and unsmiling face but Sarah was initially worried that he was going to murder us in our sleep. This fear proved unfounded and we had a nice dinner and engaging conversation with him.

The B&B is a true family enterprise and eating in the dining room (there being no other restaurants nearby) is like popping round to someone’s house, albeit someone very wealthy. There is an unending feast supplied by the servants, all the vegetarian food you can eat with piping hot chappatis landing on your sideplate until you beg for mercy. The house was built by the father, a retired civil servant, and then the son decided that it might be a good idea to turn all the surplus rooms into a B&B. He dealt with bookings, in between serious bouts of online gaming that kept him up late (perfect for overnight reservations from Europe). His father sat with us and talked about Hinduism. He has a guru (the guru even has his own a room in the house) and a dedicated meditation room in a turret which he kindly let Sarah use, advising her to keep the door closed in case monkeys in the garden came along. He talked to us about astral travel and visions he achieved through meditation, his spiritual journey in finding his gurus, and previous lives. In the West we would start to think he was a little unhinged but in India religion is much more closely entwined with daily life, and such talk is not unusual. He did not see any conflict between his religious beliefs and his role in public office, but rather saw the former as central to his being a good and ethical bureaucrat.

The town of Shimla looks like it has been transported here from the English countryside. There are mock tudor buildings, pillboxes and a blessed car-free mall to wander along. The houses look a bit ramshackle now and are adorned with monkeys who scramble around, confusing the illusion further. A couple of monkeys shimmied down a long pole leaving their mate at the top, precariously balancing but too scared to go down himself. Sarah was advised not to go jogging in the area because the dogs and monkeys might chase her.

We had to head into town to get a permit for visiting Himachal Pradesh, the province that contains the Spiti valley, a high altitude desert in the Himalayas. A permit is required as this area is right next to Tibet and the government is sensitive about who visits. Getting anything official done in India is not a simple process. We found the office ok. It was in a sprawling complex split over several buildings and levels on the hillside. When we got to the main office we were told to go somewhere else to fill out our forms. We were given a guide to show us where to go, obviously nowhere near the office we were in. Once the forms we filled out we headed back to the office and told to come back in a few hours. When we returned to the office we were once again sent to the other office to pay, then came back up and waited to see the magistrate who signed our forms, then back to the office for some more waiting, back to the magistrate for checking and we were on our way. It was simpler than we were expecting and to be fair everyone was very helpful.

The offices were partly so busy because voting was underway in the local elections. Posters for the communist party candidates lined the streets and given conditions for the workers they must get some traction. We preferred this poster advertising an upcoming movie.

To get to the old town of Shimla most people leave their car behind and get two elevators called The Lift which take you uphill and into the faux English part of town. Enterprising locals wait at the exit to the last lift with baby strollers for the families who can’t fit them in the lift. The strollers come complete with little electronic keyboards to keep the kids amused.

On our last morning we were waiting for our driver to pick us up and head into the Spiti valley, a high altitude desert in the Himalayas. This being India, he was late. When he finally arrived we got in his clunky old 4WD with a small fire extinguisher on the dash so faded from the sun that it was pink, making it look like the kind of fire extinguisher Barbie would have as an accessory. As he turned up the volume on his Hindi pop music, we headed into the hills once again.

Full set of Shimla photos

Rewalsar, India: Relaxing with the religions

Full set of photos for the road to Rewalsar and the town of Rewalsar itself

We picked up a slightly calmer driver in Mcleodganj who drove us to Shimla via Rewalsar. It was a revelation to be in a car that was not constantly honking, although others amply supplied the deficit. Once you get down from the foothills of Dharamshala the drive is fairly straight and hot. We stopped in at a couple of Hindu temples along the way whose names might be lost to the mists of time as I didn’t write them down, and there are a shitload of temples in India. The first one was part temple, part themepark, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. There was some drumming, chanting and dancing taking place in one of the rooms in front of a large idol. The men in the room were quite keen for Sarah to come in and join them but she demurred. In another large room with a shrine people were lined up to make offerings of food and cash, and beyond them was the lake with oversized statues of various Hindu gods. It was a trial by fire to get to them sans shoes on the blisteringly hot concrete outside, but worth it for the view of the Indian families in the tiny lake on crowded little paddle boats doing a tour of the statues down there. No doubt it was a holy pond fed by the nearby holy river.

The next Hindu temple was much older and more classic in style with stone buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in South East Asia. People brought in flower garlands to place on the cow statue. Despite washing our feet before entering, the stone ground was baking our feet and after I loitered in the shade while Sarah joined another Indian family for their holiday snaps, then we took our leave and continued the journey.

In the temples we noticed a phenomenon common across the parts of India we travelled in. Older men with greying hair dye it to stop the white hair peeping out, but they defeat the purpose of not drawing attention to themselves by dying the offending hair orange. As soon as you see anyone with orange hair you can tell they’re a bit older.

Although we had a much safer driver, this time Sarah didn’t make it easy for him. As she was saying, “It must be difficult to drive on these roads with all the distractions” she was bending forward from the back seat to rummage in her bag on the front seat, retrieve some snacks and offer some nuts to him, adding more distractions to his long list. The most dangerous vehicle on the road is the garishly coloured long-haul trucks that barrel through tight mountain roads, careening blindly around corners like brightly painted Hindu statues on wheels, emblazoned with signs such as “Oh god save me”. Despite the excess of honking already, these trucks have “Use horn when passing” painted on their rear which is conflict with the signs on walls in cities begging people to honk less.

In many ways India is human powered. In Delhi a house across the road from where we were staying was being demolished, but not with bulldozers. Four or five guys had sledgehammers and were systematically destroying it, carrying the rubble out in baskets. On a particularly stubborn bit of ceiling, or floor – depending on your perspective, they had two guys alternating blows of the sledgehammer, all in weather more suited to lying very still with a cold drink. You see this everywhere at the side of the road, gangs of people applying human numbers to jobs that would be done in developed countries with machines. Porters will carry huge loads strapped to their back or head – one guy I saw was carrying a massive water tank strapped to his forehead. However, there was one piece of local technology we’d never seen before: the co-operative shovel. With this piece of kit one person operates the shovel as normal but a second person tugs on a rope attached near the head of the shovel and assists in pulling the laden end.

Our destination that night, after winding our way through the mountain roads, was Rewalsar, easily the most tranquil place we stayed in India. Although a small town it has a big religious presence with the central lake being holy to Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus. The lake is seething with holy fish who just about leap on shore to convince you to give them a bit of food. They are menacing with their gaping mouths but probably what an angler’s wet dream looks like.

Walking around the lake you encounter quite sinister looking monkeys as well who stare with baleful eyes. We were warned not to make eye contact as they can attack. They didn’t look vicious from the window of our room in the monastery where we had a great view of the giant bell we hoped would not be rung at an ungodly hour in the morning, and the giant Buddha statue staring serenely into space. The monkeys had a nifty route they travelled from the monastery roof onto the bannister of the stairs which they slid down backyards before leaping over to the other roof. After our 5am giant bell wake up call, we noticed one monkey on the ledge outside our window was quietly being groomed by another and looking very satisfied by the experience.

It was in here in Rewalsar that Sarah started her ‘sleeping dog’ series of photos. Sarah just loves the peacefulness of sleeping dogs with their slack jaws leaking drool and paws curled up under their heads – and India meets her demands and more. The dogs seem to rest up during the daylight hours so that they have enough energy to roam the streets at night barking madly. You see them again the next day completely exhausted from the night excursions, lying in doorways or in the middle of the road, totally out to the world until night falls again.

We visited a Buddhist holy site nearby the next day, a cave where some serious meditation had been conducted in the past. We followed suit and spent five minutes merging with the darkness in the cave, centering ourselves before heading back out into the Indian road traffic.

Full set of photos for the road to Rewalsar and the town of Rewalsar itself

Mcleodganj: Hanging with the hippies

Full set of Mcleodganj photos here

From Amritsar we switched from ordeal by train to taxi. There are not as many train options to head into the mountains and a car taking us to Mcleodganj was reasonably priced – but where the train at least glides smoothly through the landscape, the roads in India take chaos to a new level. Our driver, a kid barely out of his teens, had a compulsive twitch which caused him to honk the horn at least every ten seconds. He honked if there was a cow standing next to the road, he honked when he was passing a car, he honked going around a corner in the road, he honked when there was oncoming traffic, he honked if there was a Sikh on a motorcycle with their long beard parted in two by the wind, he honked when there were pedestrians and he honked if 10 seconds had passed since his last honk. To be fair a lot of these honks were good practice but most weren’t and in a five hour journey filled with enough distractions already, this became aggravating. It didn’t help that as soon as we got to some small hills he turned the air-con off under the pretence of giving more power to the car but really to save petrol. As the temperature climbed faster than the incline, Sarah asked a few times for the AC to be put on, but he assured her this wasn’t possible. His grumpiness extended when we drove through the winding hills of Dharamshala to the town of Mcleodganj above and hit a huge traffic jam on the narrow roads on the outskirts of town, which was incongruous for such a small place known mainly for housing the Dalai Lama. It transpired that we had inadvertently timed our visit to arrive not only in peak tourist season for the cooler mountain area but on a long weekend on which the Indian Premier League T20 cricket was in town for a match between the Delhi Daredevils and the Kings XI Punjab. The town ground to a halt as the tiny roundabout in the centre became almost permanently clogged and the tiny mountain roads which could only just fit two cars had traffic snaked back for five kilometres. Sarah briefly entertained getting tickets for the match but there was a snowflakes chance in hell. Instead she used her limited knowledge of cricket gleaned from eight years with me to enjoy the goodwill of the locals who were pleased to know we were Australian, especially with Adam Gilchrist playing for the Kings.

In the jam we abandoned our current taxi for an even smaller local one and sat in the traffic for a while longer, watching the trendy hippies and local monks trying to look peaceful walking through the crammed traffic, before eventually getting through the bottle neck and up to our destination in Upper Bhagsu, the small village above Mcleodganj (which you will remember is above Dharamshala). Strictly speaking we were in a little village above Upper Bhagsu which is about as upper as you can get without camping. It would have been a blissfully quiet spot if not for the Israeli backpackers preparing their Shabat feast in the kitchen adjoining our room and then being told off by management for the noise and grumblingly doing the washing up after midnight. Still, the views are amazing and the goats and ponies jangling by the window in the morning gave the place a nice feeling.

Upper Bhagsu and nearby Dharamkot retain the rural charm and pockets of Tibetan Buddhist community that Dharamsala and Macleodganj must have had originally. Sarah enjoyed walking the winding stone paths through small farms and pine trees to go to her daily meditation class. She met a British girl whose father is highly ranked in the UK Buddhist scene and had been meditating since she was 12. Her psychology thesis looked at the effect of regular meditation on anxiety, depression and other negative mental states and found, as many scientific studies have done, a positive impact. Sarah also spent an afternoon with some other tourists and a group of Tibetan political refugees in an open conversation class to practice English. She found this interesting, as the politics around Tibetan independence and people’s stories of escape were discussed, and people-to-people connections formed, but wondered at the shallowness of tourists’ understanding of the political situation – including her own.

I think if Mcleodganj was ever a peaceful escape, all that has long gone. It is now jam-packed with hippies, or trendy people pretending to be hippies, or ferals with little feral children. Shops sell all the accoutrements you could ever need to look the part and the tourists wear the worst clothes you could imagine. I’m not sure if they think they’re fitting in but the conservatively dressed locals are not impressed by their shoddy appearance. Wading through this swill can be a depressing experience so after an intriguing quick look at the main Buddhist temple in town, where the birthday party for the Dalai Lama is held, we headed for the hills on a long walk up.

Joining us for the hike, although uninvited, was a German Shephard cross called Tiger or Rocky, depending who we asked on the trail. Whatever his name he was obviously well known on the walk and accompanied us the whole way for an omelette Sarah bought him for lunch at the top. Unfortunately Tiger was a complete coward so when we encountered groups of dogs walking down the hill Tiger would hide behind us for protection as the other dogs surrounded him (and therefore us) to growl and bark menacingly at him. It made for some awkward situations with Sarah yelling at me to give her a water bottle to spray them with and me yelling at her to just abandon Tiger and move away (I didn’t know that she got pinned into a bush by some loose thread from her backpack – sorry honey!). Tiger obviously knew the path well as when we made a couple of wrong turns he gave us a funny look. Sarah was impressed with this, but I think a bark and running in the correct direction would have been more useful.

The hike was fantastic, going steeply uphill into the Himalayas until we had an amazing view of the mountains.

At the end of the climb, back in Dharamkot village, Tiger flopped down on a pile of gravel in someone’s yard. We weren’t trespassing. The way you get to the guesthouse is along these little dirt goat tracks through people’s front and backyards, delicately avoiding the shit from the animals that they keep, including cows. On our arrival, the guesthouse owner stood on his roof and directed us through his neighbours’ yards by hand gestures. So when Tiger flopped down on someone’s gravel we gave him a scolding and insisted that he follow us. Little did we know that Tiger lived at this house. His owner gave us a smile, if a little bemused, and called him into the house while we gave an embarrassed smile and moved on.

We inspected a fair trade clothing factory while in town. It’s a strange link. Sarah went to primary school with Ben Cubby, now an environment reporter with the Sydney Morning Herald. Ben’s older brother, Rory, moved to India about a decade ago and worked with his now-wife Francis who was starting a fair trade clothing company called Eternal Creation. They have a small factory in Dharmshala staffed by Tibetan refugees and Indian and Bangladeshi tailors. They buy the cloth locally and it’s cut and made into the finished product in the factory, all at a fair wage for the workers. We picked up a couple of nice items and recommend their clothing range.

On our last night we headed to a little Tibetan restaurant for dinner and had momos, thukpa and Tibetan bread. Sarah had learned that most Tibetans are not vegetarian in her conversation class with Tibetan refugees, despite being Buddhist, mainly due to the extreme cold in Tibet. But we continued our experiment with vegetarianism in India, finding the variety and flavour a pleasant surprise.

Full set of Mcleodganj photos here

Amritsar, India: Golden Town

Head here for more photos and videos of Amritsar

Turkey was great fun and easy to travel in.  This does not make for particularly interesting reading. Drama and suffering make much more compelling topics for art.  There are not many successful artistic depictions of happiness, so while Turkey was a good experience, writing about it was tough to make engaging.  And I know that you, beloved reader, while wishing us all the best, can no doubt stand only so much reportage of how excellent a time we’re having and a small part of you, I’m sure, wishes in a secret schadenfreude way to hear about our trials and travails as well.  India stepped up to solve this problem.  From other travellers’ tales we knew India would have its challenges so it was partly with trepidation and partly with excitement for some good blog fodder that we started our travels.

Delhi was disappointingly smooth-going in the beginning and it was only the train back from Agra (where we were cooked on the platform waiting hours for our train) which gave us a hint of the tribulations to come.  Agra was just a side trip before we got back on the train in Delhi to travel to northern India to escape the summer heat. Amritsar was to be the first northern stop, the morning after getting back to Delhi.  At least that was the plan.

We arrived at Delhi station early in the morning, on time and with our foreigners’ first class tickets in hand, ready to go but unsure which entrance to use.  The Delhi train station is a sensory overload with lots of people: beggars asking for money, porters wanting to take your bags and other confused people wandering aimlessly.  We were operating on limited sleep after a long day the day before so you have to cut us some slack.  We were pointed in the direction of an official looking guy (he had a white shirt anyway) standing in front of a security guard.  He took a look at our tickets and said that they were wait listed.  Wait listing means that you’re on a list to get a ticket if enough people ahead of you cancel.  This is a common practice in India where millions people travel the system every day, seats are booked up 3 weeks in advance, and people buy more train tickets than they need to ensure they have a means to travel.  They then give them up at the last minute for a partial refund.  Wait listed people then get reallocated these tickets.

This was the first we had heard about being wait listed but the guy pointed out the WS printed on the ticket and said this showed that we were on the list and couldn’t go onto the platform without paying a 2000 rupee fine.  Sarah said we weren’t paying the fine, and was cursing under her breath the guy at the foreign tourist bureau who sold us all our tickets as we were led upstairs towards the bureau to try and sort out the problem.

On the way we bumped into another man coming down the stairs who said that the bureau wasn’t open but we could pay the fine to him.  This seemed suspicious to us and we again refused to pay.  We were then told that we wouldn’t be able to get on the train and would have to deal with the police if we tried to get on.  I took our bags through the security check onto the platform while Sarah went to talk to the duty manager, a third guy who quite convincingly told her that we did not have tickets for this train and would have to travel to another office nearby via an official government taxi in order to get some train tickets. There was talk of another train in a couple of hours but we’d have to move fast. She grabbed me and the bags back off the platform, we headed for the taxi and the duty manager told us how much it should be then negotiated on our behalf when the driver wanted more.

So off we went in a dilapidated taxi with two guys in the front, only to be driven to what looked like a commercial tourism agency.  The one guy who spoke English seemed pretty keen for us both to go into this place but there was no way I was going to leave our bags in the boot with the driver.  Sarah went in and of course there were no train tickets but there were plenty of expensive flights to Kashmir or chauffeured cars offered instead.  Sarah said she’d have to talk it over with me and asked the travel agent for his card, which he said he didn’t have, or a mobile number which he said he wasn’t allowed to give out. ‘That’s odd’, she thought. Sarah got back into the taxi with a list of options that all sounded pretty bad and we asked the taxi guys to take us back to our hotel so that we could think it over and research further on the net – as by this stage we had missed the train we were meant to catch that morning.  It started to get even more weird then.

The taxi driver hemmed and hawed and then said we should just go to a coffee shop up the road. Does it have free wi-fi?  Yes, yes, of course.  So we drove a short distance up the road to find the coffee shop not open.  Now we insisted on going back to the hotel but they claimed that this taxi didn’t go to that area so we got our bags out while the guy who spoke English got on the phone to someone. Handing it over to Sarah, she found that the travel agent from the first place was on the line – evidently the taxi driver was allowed to have his mobile number. He asked why we weren’t going to the coffee shop, she said it was closed and wasn’t sure why she was put on the phone to him, and hung up. Shortly another taxi pulled up with another two guys in it who agreed to take us to our guesthouse. We got in but as we drove, they started to claim they didn’t know the address or area (despite there being a clear map on our hotel brochure). It started to feel like The Truman Show at this point, with us trying to escape the set. As we passed another travel agent they offered to stop as it was a much better travel agent with a bigger computer who is sure to have train tickets.  So we got out, planning to flag down another taxi to our hotel, but Sarah thought it worth one more try for train tickets, and went inside.  I had an argument with the taxi driver who said that his taxi didn’t go to the area our hotel was in, so I got all our bags out and bid them farewell.

In the meantime Sarah was talking to this new travel agent so we sat down to see what he had to say. No, there were no train tickets and air travel would be very expensive.  When Sarah explained how we ended up here he asked to see our tickets.  No, no, he said.  WS means window seat so these are valid seats.  Who told you otherwise?  Sarah snarled out, “some fucking asshole at the train station”, then her eyes filled with tears.  We had long missed the train by now, there didn’t seem to be any tickets to get out of Delhi, we were both exhausted and the itinerary that Sarah had spent months planning seemed to be unravelling.  Sarah went outside to punch a few walls while I chatted with the travel agent who now seemed startled into decency and was trying to be helpful.  These scammers wasted our morning, made us miss the train and all they got for it was about $5 in taxi fares.  The latest travel agent told us that there were later trains to Delhi and our best bet would be to go back to station and ask the tourist bureau about new tickets.  We reluctantly accepted his offer of a free car ride back to the station, slightly distrustful now of taxi rides, but we got back to the station and headed to the now-open ticket office for foreigners.

We talked to the old white-haired lady at the reception of the bureau, the guru of Indian Rail who seemed to have the timetable stored in her head for instant recall and just used the ageing computer terminal to confirm her memory.  She said we could get tickets on the 1pm train and a refund on the tickets for the train we had missed.  So we got back in the line for tickets and sitting behind the counter was the same man we purchased tickets from last time.  He seemed incredulous that we would think we didn’t have valid tickets but they were very kind and gave us our money and some new tickets.  They also recommended that we report the offence to the rail police.

It took us a good 30 minutes to find the rail police but by this stage we had time to kill.  Sarah went in to file a report and could not have found more disinterest in her case.  She told the story to a gathered group of policemen and then finally to a woman who seemed to be in charge who said, “What is the crime here exactly?  Did you lose any money?  Could you identify the men involved?”.  Sarah, looking at the Indian guy next to her writing out his own police report on the theft of his passport and laptop, admitted there’d been nothing lost except time, and couldn’t identify the scammers, so accepted a cup of tea and we left it at that.  Ahead of us were more hours of waiting on the train platform, this time so crowded that we could barely find a place to sit down, where we sweltered and fumed.

The tickets on the new train got us individual seats that were comfortable enough in their ramshackle state and air-conditioning that barely kept the worst of the heat at bay.  We pulled into Amritsar at 10pm, the end of another very long day, and were picked up at the station by the hotel’s car to be deposited like a couple of wilted leaves at Mrs Bhandari’s Guesthouse which has rooms that look like former military barracks and hard mattresses and pillows to match.  The legendary Mrs Bhandari is long gone but her descendants carry on the hotel.  There are articles about Mrs Bhandari on the wall saying that as a girl she used to visit what is now Pakistan to go shopping.  She lived through a tumultuous age here on the Pakistani border and would have seen Partition first hand.

Our main reason for visiting Amritsar was to see the Golden Temple which is the holiest place to Sikhs.  A condition of entry is that you cover your head.  Wearing a cap is not acceptable for some reason but there are discarded head clothes at the entrance so I popped this bright orange head gear on. I got a few admiring comments only to discover later that I had it on the wrong way around.  Thank you to the family from Kolkata who pointed this out.

The temple is spectacular.  It is not massive but they have created a lovely setting.  Every surface seems to be white marble, apart from the golden-plated domes on top.  As you enter the large courtyard you can see the temple at the end of the causeway in the middle of a holy lake filled with holy carp and holy nectar (the water).  This water is considered holy for bathing in and is also used to wash the causeway regularly.  There is always a crowd waiting to get in the temple so we lined up for 45 minutes and went through a couple of wash cycles on the causeway as these big Sikh guys dragged buckets of water up from the lake and wiped down the surface with towels.  Inside the temple the Sikh holy book is fanned constantly, musicians play and the book is read by a constant cycle of participants. As one musician leaves, another takes his place. It had an interesting atmosphere of sacred awe and intimate community at the same time – in the halls around the centre where the holy book and music are contained, people prostrated themselves, read their own scriptures, nursed children, lay and slept, sang together with the musicians or just swayed with the music. Outsiders or non-believers are welcome and  we were smiled at often.   Anyone is free to wander around but we were on a tight schedule so there was only time for the free lunch.

Part of the Sikh religion demands charity to all and they take this seriously at the Golden Temple where they have enormous kitchens to give a free meal to anyone at the temple.  Although we are not exactly poor we wanted to see how it all worked so we went in to the communal dining hall, which is just a huge room with mats on the floor where everyone sits together cross-legged.  You get a metal plate and spoon on your way in, then servers wander up and down the lines dishing out daal, chappatis, water and rice pudding until you can’t take any more.  The kitchens downstairs have massive pots staffed by rotating volunteers, there are automatic and manual chappati-making production lines and the washing up is a site to behold.

We were on a tight schedule because the other favourite activity in Amritsar is the daily ceremony for the closing of the border between India and Pakistan.  This might not sound like the most interesting activity but it has somehow developed into this huge spectacle attracting thousands of spectators every day.  I guess anything in a country of over a billion people can gather a crowd, but it really was an entertaining ceremony.  On one side are thousands of screaming Indians and on the other a slightly smaller crowd of chanting Pakistanis.  India has an emcee for the occasion, a tall moustachioed fellow in a sparkling white tracksuit with the Indian flag printed on it.  He led chants in Hindi, that we assumed was something like “India” / “Is the best!” “India” / “Is the best!”.  They also played the latest Bollywood songs and the girls and mothers in the crowd needed little encouragement to come down from the bleachers and dance.  When it was time to get serious the guards in chaps and brightly coloured fan hats brought out their best silly walks and with incredibly serious faces stomped their way up and down to the border gate.  Eventually the flags start coming down with great pomp and they are marched away into the base as the gate was clanged shut for the night, and the crowds cheerfully dispersed.

We went back to the Golden Temple that night to see the closing ceremony where they carry the holy book down the causeway to great fanfare.  It’s a spectacular sight.

Head here for more photos and videos of Amritsar