Monday, September 24, 2007


After 10 days or so you start acclimating. You expect nothing to work. You don't accept any piece of information without getting four independent verifications. If you are in any kind of tourist area you expect to be hassled by virtually every person you pass.

The actual headquarters of the Delai Lama turned out to be the stupidest Tibetan temple I've ever seen: An ugly yellow concrete block building with no 'vibe', hardly any Tibetan imagery of any kind, and with a sign where you are supposed to leave your shoes that said, 'Make sure that no one steals your shoes'.

Dharmsala stayed disturbingly damp. We left it at 10 the next morning on an 'ordinary' bus which, actually, wasn't that uncomfortable on a four hour journey. Then another four hour journey up another hill to get to Dalhousie, our fourth hill station, at 8 pm. Being lazy, I went to the closest hotel to the bus dropoff, which also happened to be the most expensive in town.

Great grounds, okay room, horrible food in the restaurant. The next morning, after the mist was clearing and we had determined that, although nothing incredibly special, Dalhousie was still the best we had been to, we hired a cab to take us down to Chamba, some 50 clicks away.

We started out amonst the pines at 6500 feet, wandering along the crest in and out of rain. Once we started going downhill the sun came out and the terrain started getting Ecuadorian, with terraced fields amongst the very steep and verdantly farmed hillsides.

Chamba is at about 2,000 feet and has a few mediocre temples. However, it also gets very few tourists, so that for once we had the opportunity to walk around unmolested. Like most Third World countries famous for hassling tourists, the 'real' people in Chamba were friendly and polite. And it was probably more prosperous than most of the other places we've been passing through.

But, still, you have to understand that the infrastructure of India is by and large almost worst than that of West Africa. Yes, they have electricity. But the roads are a horrible potholed mess, most of the housing looks like the aftermath of a war in a country that was dirt poor to begin with, creature comforts are often not available even if you've got the money, and the total disregard of the monied classes for the poor has to be seen to be believed.

Not that I've seen that many of the monied classes anyway. I've read that enclaves exist, and I'm anxious to see them, but so far...

We went back up to Dalhousie, where I had to concluded that most of the Dalhousians were pretty genuinely friendly, also. Then it was time for bed and another ordinary bus at 7:30 the next morning.

We got to Amritsar by about 2:30, and the temperature was in the 90s. Although the Punjab was traditionally one of the most prosperous areas of India, Amritsar was another dirty mess. An incompetent rickshaw driver couldn't even find the Golden Temple, Amritsar's one tourist draw, and we had to start walking. After 300 meters Maureen was totally wiped, so we went into an AC hotel and got a room.

I then left her there and took a rickshaw to the train station, where I successfully stood in line and got the proper tickets for our next destination. Returning, Mo and I walked the quarter mile or so to the Golden Temple around dusk.

The Golden Temple is the 'Vatican' of the Sikh religion, and once we took off our shoes, ritually washed, and started our circumambulation of the temple, we were able to partake of the meditative spirit. I got great pictures of the sun going down over the reflecting pool, and then, later, of the moon shining over it. For the first time in India we had a tourist experience that was worth experiencing.

Maureen just had to be bicycle rickshawed over to the Pizza Hut on the other side of town, which, given how crappy the rest of the town is, was kind of a surreal experience. Then back to the hotel, up at 6 am, and over to the train station.

We were now going to Jaisalmer, which involved taking the train back to Delhi and getting another one for the overnight to the far end of Rajasthan, which is where Jaisalmer is. I bought '2AC' tickets, which are the classiest ones.

The ride was not all that classy, however, and in general the 'berths' aren't even up to 2nd class standards in Mongolia. It did have AC, however. So, although we kept being misdirected at the Delhi station, and although I had to hassle for about an hour on the next train so that Maureen could get a lower berth, all in all it was a hell of a lot better than the bus.

So now we're in Jaisalmer, which is supposed to be a 'fairy tale castle/fort right out of the Arabian nights'. Not exactly. But it is kind of cool, what with us staying in a centuries old building on the edge of the centuries old fort. And it's all made out of this sandstone that is perfect for carving, so that amidst all the usual ugly junk are incredibly crennilated balustrades, etc.

Of course, as is almost always the case, there's a lot less to see than the tour books pretend. So tomorrow am we're off again, this time to Jodhpur, where we get to wear really baggy trousers.


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