India 2016 Trip Day 16: The Road to Dharamshala: A Scenic Drive You’ll Never Forget

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With the weather still as foggy as ever in Jammu, we embark the following morning on the seven hour journey to Dharmshala. Before we leave Jammu, our driver stops by a dry fruits and clothing shop, where, presumably, he’ll receive some type of small commission from the store if we end up purchasing a lot of stuff. And we do. We walk out with several Kashmiri silken sarees, silk shirts, some sweaters for dad, and a stole/scarf for me.

The journey may be long, but the road to Dharmshala does not disappoint. After some time, we pass from the state of Jammu into Punjab, where flat, green fields of lush crops await us. Punjab is known to be one of the areas of India with the most fertile agricultural land, and it’s a beauty to take in. The roads are also of superior quality compared to most places in India, perhaps due in part to relative economic progress of Punjab compared to much of the rest of the country. We stop at a roadside dhaba (hole-in the wall restaurant), and while the food is just alright, the lassi and homemade yogurt (known as dahi) is on point. Punjabi-made lassi is a frothy, sweet (or salty, if you choose) concoction that I cannot refuse.

Afterwards, we find ourselves quickly in the state of Himachal Pradesh, which was until a decade or so ago still part of the state of Punjab. Here, the landscape transforms from flat fields into a never-ending series of valleys, mountains and gorges, seemingly scattered from top to brim with dozens of varieties banana, eucalyptus, teak and other kinds of trees that I can’t even fathom. I thought the view in Jammu was breathtaking, but this is on another level. As we near closer to Dharamshala, I notice an almost alarming number of military cantonments and signs glorifying the strength of soldiers – presumably set up for the Dalai Llama’s protection from China. I get that the Dalai is one on of the top public enemies of the Chinese state, but still, the glorification of military culture and violence seems to contradict Buddhist teachings…

We wind up, and up, and UP the mountain until we finally make it to Dharamashala. Among the usual milieu of Indian tourists, I see plenty of Western tourists sporting massive backpacks and Buddhist devotees draped in red and gold robes here as well, some trekking up the mountain by foot instead of going by car. It’s madness in the immediate vicinity, among a chaos of cars, motorcycles, peoples and narrow alleyways, flanked on both side by merchants hawking their touristy souvenirs. There’s a small Hindu temple that we quickly visit, but the main attraction here is, of course, the Dalai Llama’s temple and home.

There’s a lovely open courtyard that looks onto a massive chair draped in gold, where the Dalai Llama presumably sits when he gives public appearances. The entire area is shrouded in fog and with remarkably few tourists in temple, peacefully conducive to meditative thought and prayer. As a human rights activist, being here takes on a double meaning for me when I consider all that the Dalai Llama has done to promote social justice and peace. We take some touristy photos at some Buddhist prayer wheels. On the wheels are enshrined sacred words of the Avolokesvitara, and if you turn the wheel once, it’s supposed to bring you merit and fortune equivalent to the words inscribed on the wheel.

We take off our shoes and enter the temple, wherein lies another more massive golden chair where again, the Dalai Llama likely sits during public prayer. On the sides of the temple are ancient Buddhist texts locked up in a shelf, as well as statues of the Buddhist avatar of compassion – a many-headed female looking deity – and of an Indian leader who helped to spread Buddhism. In the center of the temple lies the magnificent, golden Buddha statue, to which people offer their prayers, and next to which the Buddhist priests managing the temple place offerings of milk, oil and other food items. On the walls are also written various Buddhist teachings, such as the principle of dharma, which is somewhat of a complex subject, but boils down to the importance of doing ones duty and hard work and having merit in strong character, rather than conducting rituals and paying money. We pray and bask in the eminent aura of the temple. As we exit, I see a painting of Tibetan rulers on the wall of the temple and on the priest’s desk at the entrance area a small ‘Free Tibet’ sticker.

We walk across the courtyard to the Dalai Llama’s home, a yellowish compound with a green entrance overlooking the gate. It’s not open to the public now, and although we had little chance of seeing the Dalai Llama anyway, it seems we have no chance now. As the friendly Tibetan guards at the entrance tell us, the Dalai Llama went to bed at 5 pm today in preparation for an early departure to Ladakh tomorrow.

We purchase a few small tokens from some of the touristy shops, and while I briefly think the shopkeeper is ripping me off and that I should haggle, it’s quickly becoming darker, and we still have a twenty kilometer ride to our hotel on a narrow road. So I let it slide. Oh, how little did we know.

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Our travel agent did not book the hotel in Dharmshala itself, but twenty kilometers away, and our driver doesn’t know where the hotel is located. In between intermittent GPS; the dark night; narrow, unfamiliar roads; signs leading to the hotel with misleading arrows; and asking random strangers for directions for more than an hour, we finally make our way to a rather unpaved road with no lights. There, we manage the most unpleasant, bumpy ride of our life for ten minutes – thanks to our driver’s skillful maneuvering – and at last, get to the hotel. We’re all tired and grumpy by the time we get there, least of all when we find out that there’s no Wifi. While we eat dinner, it’s evident that many parts of the hotel are in moderate states of disrepair. While the architecture of the hotel is beautiful (the owners are both architects), the rooms are spacious and cozy, and the mountaintop location is gorgeous, the experience of getting there still leaves something to be desired.

In the morning we get off to a late start, but rise in a better mood, spirits buoyed by the mesmerizing views of the green mountaintops enmeshed in fog. We set off for Chamunda, Jawalamukhi and Kangra (more on that in the next blog post).

 

India 2016 Trip Days 14-15: In Jammu, Mind the Monkeys

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With our hustle-and-bustle Varanasi trip over, we make our way over to the next bump in our journey: the northern Indian state of Jammu, specifically the city of Katra. On both legs of the flight, I’m beset by a stomach bug, headaches and nausea, so I spend most of the day forcibly lugging myself and my baggage around airport terminals. Woe is me and my poor immune system. But on the Delhi to Jammu leg of our flight, I somehow score an entire row to myself, so I take full advantage and curl up sleeping like a baby.

We disembark from the plane in Jammu, where we meet up with our driver, Vijay, who will take us to Katra and accompany us on the remainder of our trip. On the way to Katra is highly majestic – and illuminating – car ride, filled in equal measure with army barracks and lush green, mountainous landscapes. I’m at once enthralled by the natural splendor of the area, and also unsettled by the numerous soldiers, gun shops and roadside replicas of tanks that we pass. I’m sure there are reasons for this heavy armory, such as being located close to the border with Pakistan, with whom India has tense relations and also due to the conflicted political situation in Kashmir. Yet it still seems like a uncomfortable bit of a glorification of militarization to me. And oh, how could I forget the monkeys! We spot a few gloriously cute monkey moms and their babes sitting by the side of the road. But they’re not only cute…more on that later.

We make only one stop at a temple (ironically, I’m thanking God that we’re not visiting any more temples today) on the way to Katra. When we get to the hotel, I fall into a blissful, much-needed ten or eleven hour sleep. And then we’re off to Vaishno Devi!

Vaishno Devi, located atop a mountain, is a temple that honors Mata Di, the goddess representing a combination of three other deities: Lakshmi, Paravati and Saraswati. Containing the strength and powers of these three goddesses, Mata Di killed an evil demon, whose name I cannot remember, but I think is Bhairov? Anyway, this place is a sacred pilgrimage site for many Indians who journey from all across the country to make it here. We fly over in stellar style, via helicopter, taking in the awe-inspiring aerial view of tree-lined mountains.

From there, it’s a brisk 45 minute walk, mostly downhill, to the temple. On the way, we soak in the breathtaking scenery, and also attempt to avoid the monkeys. While they’re cute from afar, in places like Vaishno Devi where the monkeys are accustomed to humans, you need to be wary at all times of a monkey snatching your bag or purse in search of sweet treats. Mom has a close call when a monkey frightens her, and she drops a simple paper bag of cloth offerings for the Mata Di. The monkey runs away, but not before ripping the bag open in search of food. Along the way, pilgrims walking to the temple shout ‘Jai Mata Di! Jai!’ a holy call to Mata Di. There’s a wonderful sense of community among those making this ‘yatra’ or pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi, which I’ve never really personally felt in a Hindu temple before. I find it to be refreshing.

The temple itself is a confusing mix of different locker areas where one can store personal belongings (only offerings to Mata Di are permitted inside the inner sanctum of the temple), bathing ghats, minor temples within the larger temple complex, and finally, a narrow tunnel that leads to a teeny-tiny cave where the statue of Mata Di is held. There, where we can make our five-second offerings before the next person in line has their turn. For me and most people, I think most of the experience of visiting Vaishno Devi comes from the journey of getting to and from the temple, rather than the temple itself.

We make our way back to the helipad area, but as we walk there, we grow worried by the increasing fog. By the time we make it there, the area is completely surrounded by fog, and they’ve shut down the helicopter operations for safety purposes. We wait and hope that they resume the rides, but after nearly two hours of waiting, we decide (after some shameful nudging on my part) to make the 3-4 hour trek down the mountain. It’s all downhill, the weather is refreshingly cool for this time of year, and the views are spectacular, so it wouldn’t be that bad. Except for the aforementioned monkey dodging. And did I not mention the horses? No, I guess not. For those unable or unwilling to climb up and/or down the mountain/purchase a helicopter ticket, you can also opt to ride either a horse, pony, or dholi. If you ride a dholi, that means you sit in a cart and are carried by four men up and/or down the mountain. From Western sensibilities, this might seem like a gross form of human labor. And while to some extent that’s true, these dholis also allow elderly and/or disabled individuals who would not otherwise be able to make this pilgrimage to get to the temple. Halfway down, we hire a dholi to carry Vijaya Grandma, as the walking is starting to wear on her feet..all of us are exhausted, really. Going down the constantly steep incline of the mountain is brutal and quickly wears you down.

Back to the horses: you can ride either a pony or horse, depending on your age and size. A horse trainer remains at the back of the horse, guiding it and up and down the steep mountain, and occasionally, whipping the horse if it runs too fast or too quickly. For the record: I do not condone horse whipping. I do, however, despise walking in front of a galloping horse. The horses turn what would otherwise be a fairly pleasant walk into a game of hopscotch, stepping from one side of the road to the other and looking back and forth in order to dodge horses coming from both sides. Not to mention that you also have to manage to look down as well in order to dodge the horse doo-doo.

As we reach the end of the hike, we also find a splendid blend of Hindu religiosity and capitalistic fervor. Here, countless shopkeepers hawk low-quality wares, including photos and model replicas of Mata Di, as well as ceremonial areas replete with cheesy fountains and photo booths, where you can combine your prayer with a family photo opportunity.

With that, we hire a small taxicab or auto-rickshaw (“auto” for short) and head back to the hotel for dinner, some shopping, and rest. What a day!

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