After a supremely unsuccessful sojourn on the plains, in my fifth week in India I ran away to the mountains. More specifically, the Himalayas: probably the most famous mountains in the world. Obviously I was very excited.
First stop: Shimla
Shimla is a Raj-era hill station which was the capital of British India during the summer. All of the Empire people in their silly thick trousers and frocks would head to the hills to avoid the heat of the plains below. I got there by bus from the bus station in Chandigarh. It cost ₹130.
We had some trouble finding somewhere to stay. It was high season and so everywhere was very expensive. We were looking for somewhere for less than ₹300 for a double bed, which we intended to share between three of us in one and two in the other. I know, we could have gotten a double bed each for £3 a night but when you’re somewhere so cheap it becomes a kind of fixation. The search basically ruined the trip and two of our party actually went home the very same day.
We eventually found this really excellent hotel and we ended up with the room on the top floor. The view was incredible:
It was very cloudy and rainy in Shimla. This was a relief after the heat of the plains but I actually got really ill that very afternoon. I had a fever and I decided to stay in the room and recover. I bought some chocolate and watched Hulk with Eric Bana and Hindi subtitles. For dinner I ate palak paneer for the first time in my life. This literally changed my life and now I eat it all the time.
The next morning I was right as rain and we headed up to the Monkey Temple (real name, Jakhoo). It’s a really steep climb and my buddies were not, like, super into it. Fortunately a dog came to help us on our way and we got to the top eventually.
It’s called the Monkey Temple because there’s a giant statute of a monkey at the front. However, it could just as easily be called that because there are monkeys everywhere! On the walk up, on the steps in, in the temple, in the room where you leave your shoes. They also steal everything: the aforementioned shoes, cameras in hands, even the glasses off a person’s face. You can rent a monkey stick for about ₹10 but we figured we’d be fine.
A word from the wise: rent the monkey stick. They nearly stole my phone, I fought them off and got a huge scratch for my trouble (hello rabies). Overall, good fun. Not to be missed.
Afterwards, we headed into town for photos and sightseeing and lunch. We got some delicious fried fish which a passing stranger paid for because he liked us and we let him take a photo with us. In India, you can pay for things with photos. I have no idea what they do with the photos afterwards and I’m not sure I want to know.
The plan was to head on to Manali that evening, getting the night bus and avoiding paying for a bed for a night. However, there was some issue with the buses and we couldn’t get a ticket for anywhere except Chandigarh. We went back into the city (ticket, approximately ₹260), got caught in a flood, the tuk tuk broke down, everything was drenched, we had to run away from a scary motorcycle guy: it was a lot of evening.
Next stop: Manali
The next day we reconvened in the evening and got the night bus to Manali. We arrived at about 5am, got lost, and eventually walked up the mountain to find a hotel that had been recommended to us. The Apple View Guesthouse was really great, although a little out of the way so we didn’t meet any other travellers there.
Manali is an odd one. At the bottom of the mountain is all fancy hotels and proper restaurants. It’s where Indian newlyweds come on their honeymoons. At the top of the mountain is a sort of pretend European traveller paradise with hash hostels and endless shops selling baggy trousers and brightly coloured jumpers. I want to go back so so so badly.
The scenery is absolutely incredible. We walked through apple orchards and pine woods and down wide rushing rivers. We also went to a village about 40 minutes away that had a temple with a hot spring for bathing it. It was delightful but with hindsight I wish I’d had the courage to get fully naked.
One of my favourite things about Old Manali (the traveller paradise) was the internet issue. There appeared to be only one method of getting signal up the mountain. When that method was broken, there was no internet. That also meant the ATMs didn’t work, much to the dismay of the long line of Europeans trying to get more cash to buy that definitely so unique owl necklace.
After Manali one of the three of us left (she had to go home) and the two of us left over (myself and a Ukrainian) headed on to Dharamshala or, more specifically…
Final stop: McLeod Ganj
i.e. the temporary capital of Tibet. It’s also where the Dalai Lama lives, but he was away while I was there.
Typically, the Ukrainian and I arrived in the middle of the night (ok, about 3am). We’d had quite a difficult journey, sniping at each other the whole time and we couldn’t get any sleep. We met an Israeli guy at Dharamshala where the bus dropped us and we all got a taxi up the hill together. After that, he seemed to have a plan and wandered off, leaving us in the main square with absolutely no idea of where to go. Eventually, some guy found us and took us to a weird guesthouse up the road and we collapsed in a heap in a big double bed.
The next day was very rainy. We went to this lovely Tibetan cafe and had thick chocolate pancakes for breakfast (yum) and then hit up the temple. There were lots of people there and I wasn’t really sure what to do or where we were allowed to go most of the time. Also, with it being so new, there weren’t any of the things I really love about temples: aged wood, old paintings, a slightly musty smell. You also weren’t allowed to take photos. It had good prayer wheels though.
After that, we wandered around a bit and found a path with lots of these brightly coloured flags. I think the purpose is that the flags are printed with holy texts or prayers. Every time the wind blows it’s like the prayer is being said (same with every time you spin a prayer wheel). One the flag is all frayed and the ink has faded you use the flags to make blankets, I think. I don’t really know. You should ask someone.
Despite meeting a friendly monk and a very unfriendly monkey on our walk, it was clear the Ukrainian wasn’t enjoying herself. That evening she decided to go back to Chandigarh, which was fine by me because I had a plan.
Just up the mountain was a Vipassana location where I could go for a free, 10 day, silent meditation course. For me it wasn’t even an option not to go. The next course was due to start in two days which felt like perfect. I spent that night in the weird guesthouse since we’d already paid and watched old Agatha Christie dramatisations on my phone.
The next day I ate more chocolate pancakes and went for a walk. On my way I found several more monks, dozens of horses and an army base. I also went to try and find this place recommended by my guidebook. It said I could tell them my exact birth moment and they would make me a sort of prophecy thing. However, I couldn’t find it. I also couldn’t find the famous church, St. John in the Wilderness. Sometimes such things just don’t happen.
I also bought a towel since the meditation place said they wouldn’t have any. I hadn’t brought one with me since I only had a small backpack. The towel cost ₹250! Trust me, that is a lot for a towel in India. The women knew she was the only towel seller open at that time so there wasn’t much room for negotiation. It’s a bright green towel and I still have it: it’s the first towel I ever bought for myself.
That night I had a pizza with plenty of cheese. I knew the meditation place would be all porridge and vegetables so I wanted to splash out. Unfortunately, because it’s a place filled with Tibetan monks nowhere really sells meat foods. For desert I had chocolate cake and milk.
That night I was staying in the Tibetan Embassy hotel because it was the cheapest around and so nice. Room service, TV, big bed all to myself (actually, I just looked over my photos and it is nowhere near as plush as I remember…). I watched like three movies all at once because I hate adverts and I can’t remember any of them.Incidentally, Indian adverts are creepy. Every advert is either for skin whitening projects or for marriage services. It’s very weird: sort it out, India!
The next day I went for a final chocolate pancake (seriously, I cannot recommend them highly enough) and walked up the mountain to the meditation place. I ate peanut butter toast and then entered into the strange world of Vipassana… which I will tell you about next time.
I’ve been looking through my photos to remind me of some of the details and I want to upload every single one of them but I’m very wary of my storage limit so I’ve complied my favourites into a massive collage. Enjoy!
Sorry they’re all a bit blurry, a software malfunction I think.
Until next time x