Shimla – A Vertical Barrel of Monkeys

Shimla, the hill station capital of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, was established in 1864 as the summer seat of the British ruling power. The details and signing of Partition took place here in a magnificent building that now houses The India Institute of Advanced Study where scholars do research on the humanities and Social Sciences.
India Institute of Advanced Studies

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Shimla is the most vertical city either of us has ever seen. David announced it was a grade even steeper than Darjeeling where one misstep meant you wouldn’t have to worry about what was for lunch ever again. This city’s fire department has a few non-traditional pieces of equipment that can navigate narrow lanes and steep inclines:

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Row upon row of buildings perch on terraced hillsides one above the other. The climb from bottom to top is so steep that there is actually a series of elevators that deliver you halfway up. These pictures don’t begin to do it justice. You’ll have to use your imagination as well.

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This is a place where rhododendrons grow into 30 foot trees, and monkeys are everywhere. These are animals that demand their personal space (approaching them or staring them in the eye is asking for trouble), but are happy to invade yours if you have something they want. Particularly something shiny.

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While you can see them everywhere in town, the most outstanding place to see them is at The Monkey Temple which is perched on the very top of the highest peak in town. The road up is narrow and rocky and barely one car wide. Gurjeet, our trusty driver grew up in this town and handled the incredibly steep drive up with his usual patience and skill. I tried not to look out the window to see how close to the edge of the precipice we were, or how close to the car going the opposite way. If you think you’ve seen hairpin turns and haven’t been to Shimla, then you actually haven’t seen hairpin turns.

Arriving at the top of the peak Gurjeet cautioned us to leave our glasses in the car and to rent two stout sticks for protection.

We had spotted the monkey statue from down in town. It dominates the peak and its neon orange color is a little hard to miss. Up close, however, it is mind blowingly gigantic.

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As it was a Sunday afternoon crowds of people had gathered at the temple for the free lunch that is served to anyone who would like to join the communal meal. We stood outside the hall where people were eating, and watched the monkeys trying to sneak in, then running off to play when it was clear there wouldn’t be any handouts.

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This particular monkey had grabbed a woman’s shawl, attracted, I guess buy the edging of sequins.

He held onto it, stroking the fabric, like a baby does with a favorite stuffed animal. In time a young man threw a packet of peanuts at the monkey who briefly dropped the shawl in favor of food. As soon as the young man grabbed the shawl and started to run the monkey forgot the peanuts and gave chace. This is where those rented sticks come in handy.

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I have to admit, some of those monkeys are adorable, especially when they are still babies. I’ve hardly even seen anyone have quite as much fun. Click this link to see true monkey business:
Monkeys at play

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But they are downright nasty, and more, when threatened – particularly by someone taking photos.

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Tomorrow (Monday) morning we leave for Chandigahr for a day in India’s most modern city, and then on Tuesday we fly to Mumbai to catch our flight home through London.
David says he knows he’s ready to go home because he’s lost the desire to do research on the places we are visiting. I think I’m just about ready to stop being a tourist. More on that later.

Solang Pass

There are stunning views of snow capped mountains in every direction in Manali. Why we thought that getting an even better up-close and personal view of snow would be a good idea remains a mystery. But our driver said we should go up to “snow point”, an hour north of Manali. The road turned out to be an order of magnitude worse than the road that we used to get to Manali from Mandi. Boulders were on the road from innumerable rockslides, several sections of the road had washed out, the potholes could (and did) break axles, and one-lane sections had to accommodate both directions of travel. In spite of these conditions, we found ourselves in a lemming-like convoy of tourist busses, vans and cars. We knew it was going to be a less-than-ideal experience when we reached the first of the infinite number of shanties lining both sides of the road offering “for hire” full body ski suits, rubber boots, vintage skis, and full length winter coats that looked like they were made of synthetic yak wool and weighed 100 pounds each. In front of each shanty was a hand-painted sign that read “Shop No. 341” or “Shop No. 749” etc. And each item “for hire” prominently displayed the number of the shop that had put it out “for hire”.

The cars, vans and busses reached a point of gridlock about half a mile short of the final destination. Everyone then continued on foot through the slush,including the women in high heels. With very few exceptions, the tourists were from other parts of India, and it appeared that most of them had never seen snow before. There was a circus-like atmosphere at the end of the road that words cannot describe, and that we fled after just a few minutes. Luckily our driver was able to extricate our car from the gridlock and we made our escape. Just in time, we discovered the next morning. A short while after we left, a major rockslide blocked the road and stranded everyone else up on the mountain for more than 4 or 5 hours.

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Trek To The Waterfall

I always had envisioned trekking as activity reserved for people who do triathlons, or run up and down Mt Everest in an afternoon. Here in India our form of trekking means a walk in the woods. And that’s how we found ourselves one fine spring afternoon strolling through a nearby, most charming village, past the hot springs and up a gently winding path toward a waterfall.

The little village was built on a steep hillside and probably got its genesis from the hot spring and adjacent temple located in its center. Now it’s got its fair share of a multinational mix of cafes and tea stalls as well as an aging hippie or two. It seems that eating well and continuously is one of the prime activities here. Puppies and new born calves wandered about and children played a game that consisted of throwing a ball and knocking the top off small piles of stones. Women walked by carrying loads of firewood on their backs.

Beyond the village center, where the road ends, there are only narrow winding alleys with houses squeezed onto concrete terraces up and down the hillside. There are no open fields because of the very steep slope of the hillside. Therefore, each family’s cows simply live on the concrete terrace outside the family’s front door. As often as not, that concrete terrace on which the cows live also serves as the roof of the house on terrace below. All the concrete, rebars, gravel and other construction materials get carried to the construction sites on the backs of the villagers, both men and women. And all the cow manure gets removed from the village the same way.

There was always something interesting to look at as we made our way first through narrow streets, down mossy trails set next to meadows and then in the woods until the towering falls came into view. Apple and cherry trees were in bloom and bougainvillea flowed over many of the old concrete dwellings. Spring was in the air, which put a spring into our step until David decided a nap was in order.

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Mandi to Manali

The weather report predicted heavy downpours plus thunder and lightening. Since driving (in this case being driven) on those dangerous roads even in dry weather was not my favorite activity we opted to leave McLeod Ganj a day early and drive the 6 hours to Mandi well before the rains came. We acknowledged that this would mean spending three nights instead of two in a town that barely made it into any of our guide books. We chose to stop there to avoid a 10 hour drive to Manali. Anyway, we figured, how bad could a hotel that called itself a resort and was the number one pick on Trip Advisor be? We could spend two days of predicted bad weather reading and updating the blog.
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In reality the Munish Resort in Mandi wasn’t exactly how it had been hyped on its website. And all those positive comments pushing it to into first place? Perhaps many family members were instructed to sing its praises. Who knows. Lets just say that the third strike was a totally inedible meal of foods taken directly from the freezer and deposited in the deep fryer. Having to stand outside the hotel in the rain to get a wifi connection was number two, and the fact that the hotel had no heat was number one. Once again my darling husband saved the day (three days, in fact), by saying that we should spend one night in Mandi and go to Manali two days early. This, of course meant driving in the rain. Caught between a rock and a hard place I chose the rock. It was the right decision.

We checked out of the Heartbreak Hotel and headed north the next morning knowing that a lovely hotel and a charming town was going to be our next stop.

Along the way we passed miles of tea plantations. We stopped to watch the women harvesting the leaves by hand. It brought a whole new appreciation of each cup of tea that I drink from now on.

Here’s a link to a short video of the workers in the fields:
tea harvesters

Here’s their reaction to seeing themselves on my eye pad:

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There were some unusually pretty sights that took our eyes off the precipitous drops to the valley below:

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There was a welcome committee of sorts as we pulled into Manali:

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Holi – true local color

What do you call a holiday in which both children and adults joyously paint themselves and each other with colored powder? People in India call it Holi but I call it a photographer’s dream come true.

You can read all about the holiday by clicking on this link:
Everything you need to know about Holi

We assumed that Himachal Pradesh (the state in Northern India where Manali is located) celebrated Holi on March 27, just like the rest of India. Therefore we felt no concern about heading out of town the day before. We went to a place called Nagga to visit a lovely wooden castle and an art gallery of the marvelous Russian painter Nicholas Roerich, who painted the mountains surrounding the village.
about Nicholas Roerich

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It was on the road to the castle that we began to see evidence that Holi celebrations had already commenced and that, indeed, this Indian state celebrated a day before the rest of the country.

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Before the day was over we had both been initiated:

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Dateline: McCleod Ganj minus the Dalai Lama

Having spent a short period of time in Upper Dharamsala (also called McLeod Ganj), I have begun to appreciate the feelings of some first time visitors to Provincetown. They get off the ferry or emerge from their cars and are greeted by all manner of craziness. Drag queens, designer pups dressed in designer doggie outfits, clowns on unicycles, street musicians both great and terrible, to name a very few of the sights. In McLeod Ganj it’s monkeys, cows (holding up traffic in the center of town and/or eating out of dumpsters). It’s hippies from all places on the age and nationality spectrum, many with dreds bumping to their waists. It’s monks (both male and female) with shaved heads wearing hiking boots. It’s gorgeous Tibetan children and their equally gorgeous mothers and fathers. It’s got yoga and reiki classes, places to learn Hindi and locate your chakras. It’s got both fast and slow food. You can ommmm along with both private chanting coaches or go to the temple and join in the chanting with others.

It’s also the exceedingly alarming and appalling attitude toward garbage and trash – cascades of it flowing downhill, piling up along the street and tossed onto the roadsides and hiking paths. One would think the Dalai Lama would use his influence to remind people that cleanliness (at least in many places on earth) is close to Godliness. By the way, we will have to wait until the Dalai Lama returns to the US to actually see him. Even though David dropped him a note inviting him to lunch we didn’t get a sighting, or a reply.

This is a village basically stuck with glue and prayers (and typically questionable Indian building practices: “We don’t need no stinkin’ blueprints”) onto the sides of impossibly steep mountains. Construction goes on around the clock, with women carrying enormous loads of building materials in baskets on their heads and men mixing cement by hand. in 1905 there was a catastrophic earthquake that basically leveled the town and killed many thousands.
1905 earthquake

Perhaps conventional wisdom here has the earth getting it out of its system once and for all – or that the afterlife is a fine destination. Myself, I looked for an escape route in every building we entered, not that it would be any help at all.

When we first arrived in McLeod Ganj all we could see was the trash, but by the 2nd day, except for the most egregious instances, we found ourselves overlooking it – thus becoming part of the problem. But not that we ever tossed anything out on the street.

When we set off from Amritsar across the plains (flat as well-starched bed sheets), toward the distant Himalayas, David advised me that we were entering a very different India. He described when, during his month-long trip with Sam 6 years before, the relief of leaving the intolerable heat and chaos of Delhi and Agra to arrive at the heavenly peace and tranquility of Buddhist Darjeeling. He was absolutely right – it was exactly like arriving in another country. That first glimpse of the Himalayas, viewed from afar, is jaw dropping. I would guess that even the most jaded world traveler is overcome with awe at the sight of those soaring snow capped peaks. As we began the narrow, contorted upward climb, we once again (for the thousandth time) told the our skillful, patient driver Gurjeet, how thankful we were to have him behind the wheel. Sharing the road (vying for space, more like it) and navigating hairpin turn after hairpin turn with barreling buses, motor cycles, farm equipment, and overloaded trucks (not to mention meandering cows, stray dogs and a goat or two) takes a skill set that only someone with unlimited patience and years of experience on these roads would have. David acknowledged that the sheer drop-offs to the valley a thousand feet below equaled those he and Sam had seen in Sikkim.

This is an exceedingly friendly place with very little hustle to buy stuff. Before the Dalai Lama took up residence here, the place had been a tiny, quiet, and forgotten village. Now, monks and backpackers constitute the largest part of the population. The monks exude an aura of quiet tranquility. The backpackers exude an aura of the 1970s. It’s a small enough town that after the first few days we would pass people we knew. We frequented the same small restaurant for breakfast and lunch (and to use their speedy wifi). We were in fine mellow moods. Perhaps that’s one reason why it was here that we offloaded many rupees to buy a fine piece of silver jewelry for me and a very handsome suede jacket for the Maharaja.

The simple act of walking up and down the steep village streets gave us quite a workout. (Actually, we thought the streets in McLeod Ganj were steep only until we reached Shimla, where the streets are STEEP! But that’s a topic for a later day.) I was surprised that neither of us seemed to be affected by the altitude which was close to 7,000 feet above sea level. We considered doing a day-long hike to the snow line because one of the websites about trekking in the area described the most popular long walk as one that “even your fifty year old parents can do.” But we opted for a less challenging walk up to a much overhyped waterfall. Seems the waterfall has falling water only when the mountain snow melts or during the monsoon. We decided to put off trekking until we reached Manali where the hiking is supposed to be excellent even for those pushing way past 50.

Here are some McLeod Ganj photos;20130324-193456.jpg20130324-193614.jpg20130324-193627.jpg
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The next photo shows part of the McLeod Ganj water distribution system. Does the Dalai Lama’s influence keep the pipes from bursting winter. Or do all the pipes get replaced every spring?

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Pakistani Border Crossing

Amritsar. How am I supposed to think about this place? Is it the first place in India in all of my four visits where I have felt unwelcome and uncomfortable with a sense of underlying hostility? Or is it a place where people were understanding and patient as we encountered unique experiences with them? Or both?

We came to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs. We went to see the temple on our own the afternoon we arrived in the city. We went back the next day with a guide. Lora has written about the extraordinary difference in the two visits.

A side note about the Golden Temple. In 1984 it was occupied by a group of Sikh separatists. Indira Gandhi ordered the army to attack when the separatists refused to leave the temple. At least 350 Sikhs and 70 soldiers were killed and the temple was badly damaged. Four months later, Gandhi was gunned down in her garden by her two Sikh bodyguards. I asked our guide if the Sikhs had ever forgiven Gandhi for ordering the troops to attack the temple. “No, never!”

The other attraction in Amritsar is the Attari border crossing between India and Pakistan. A number of years ago the two countries initiated bus and train service through the crossing as a symbolic step toward improving their relations. Late every afternoon there is a ceremony at the crossing when the flags are lowered. So we drove to the crossing, 20 km. west of the city, to see the ceremony. I expected to witness something designed to promote good feelings between the two countries’ people. I encountered the opposite.

We found ourselves in a mass of people who had come to see the ceremony. According to our guide, an average of 15,000 show up every weekday, and many more on weekends. These numbers are probably exaggerated, but in any event they refer only to the people on the Indian side of the border, almost all of whom were Indian tourists, not foreigners.

The parking area is a good distance from the actual crossing, and vendors fill the road that people have to walk, selling everything from popcorn to trinkets to clothing and everything else that an Indian tourist visiting a border crossing ceremony might be induced to buy. When we finally reached the crossing, foreigners who showed their passports were directed to a separate bleacher in a prime location to observe the ceremony. The only observer area closer to the crossing gate than the foreigners’ bleacher was the VIP seating for dignitaries, politicians and families of the soldiers in the ceremony. The masses were in bleachers on the far side of the foreigners’ area.

The first image one gets on entering the viewing area is of the soldiers, members of an elite Special Borders Force. Aside from the ability to work up a great scowl to impress the crowd with their ferocity, the prime requirement for the soldiers seems to be their height. The shortest of them could not have been less than 6′ 2″. Adding to the drama of their height was their headware. Essentially, the headware is something akin to a rooster’s comb. Except in this case, it is 12″ high pleated fan, worthy (according to Lora) of being in the Mikado. So the average height of the soldiers in full regalia must have been around 7′ 6″.

The soldiers were just hanging around in front of the crossing gate, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Suddenly a man emerged from the group and ran out to face the crowd of spectators. His height made it clear he was one of the soldiers but he was wearing a white Nike running suit. He carried a wireless microphone and was the Special Borders Force’s version of the Dallas Cowboys “cowgirl” cheerleaders. Jumping up and down with upraised, waving arms, and moving back and forth along the length of the bleachers, he led the crowd in patriotic cheers, whipping them up into a higher and higher decibel range. Every once in a while he stopped, and we could hear the same thing coming over from the Pakistani side. It was as if we were at a soccer game between Manchester United and Liverpool, with two frenzied mobs of fans taunting each other as strenuously as possible.

The ceremony began when the crowd was sufficiently whipped up. It turned out to be a comical, but for me, disturbing pageant. The NBA-height, scowling soldiers in their Gilbert and Sullivan headware goose-stepped back and forth. The goose stepping was extreme, with each soldier almost kicking himself in the face. At the same time, the cheerleader kept jumping up and down in front of the crowd, leading them in patriotic cheers that kept everyone whipped up. My words don’t do justice to the scene; you’ll have to watch Lora’s videos: click here:
Flag Runners

As the ceremony drew to a close, the border gate opened and an Indian soldier and a Pakistani soldier approached each other to engage in an exaggerated ceremonial handshake at the demarcation line. Then all the Indian and Pakistani flags were slowly lowered, very carefully at the same pace so neither was ever lower than the other; the Indian and Pakistani soldiers did some goose-stepping in the other’s face; the gate was closed; and the soldiers goose-stepped their flags back to quarters for the night. Throughout all of this, the cheerleader and the crowd kept up their feverish chant of patriotic slogans.

Click on these links to check out the action at the border:
Strutting
Border action

When we rejoined our guide, he asked if we liked the ceremony. Lora said she thought it was a case of “men acting like boys.” I said that it seemed intended to encourage continued strained relations between the two countries, not to nurture friendship. Our guide was taken aback and pointed out that the two sides had shaken hands.

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Amritsar: Sinister and Sublime

Today the northern Punjabi city of Amritsar, with it’s long and bloody history of unrest, repression and uprising, boasts two big tourist draws: it shares a border with Pakistan (see below for David’s take on the daily pageant that goes on there), in addition it is the location of Sikhism’s holiest shrine: The Golden Temple.
href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harmandir_Sahib”>The Golden Temple
We arrived by plane from Delhi and we were immediately struck by how absolutely flat and fertile the land appeared. It was as if we had landed in Kansas – wheat fields, which I automatically assumed were rice paddies due to their emerald green color. The road from the airport was lined with sprawling convention-center like buildings fronted with long covered walkways hung with waving metallic streamers that glinted painfully in the blazing sunlight. They looked a bit like giant car dealerships, but with empty parking lots and had names like Paradise Farm and Sublime Fantasy Farm. Given that they were separated by fields of cows I assumed they were dairy farms, but in fact are wedding venues. Apparently tying the knot at one of these places is the dream of every middle class Indian bride-to-be.
We had arranged a guide to take us around the city the next day, but decided after checking into the hotel (a five star Hyatt that should serve as the model for every other Hyatt – in fact every other hotel – in the world), to strike out on our own to see the old city.
When we travel we always dress appropriately and try hard to neither stand out too much as foreigners nor in any way to show disrespect for the local culture. I never wear shorts or sleeveless tops. I typically wear either long pants or an ankle length skirt and always have my arms completely covered. I often bring a long scarf in case I need to cover my head in a temple or shrine. David as well wears long pants and long sleeved shirts. We keep our voices low and you’ll not find us clambering off a tour bus behind a guide with a flag or megaphone. We’ve certainly been in places where western people are not so common and we get curious looks, but they are almost always followed by a smile and a greeting. Not so that first afternoon in Amritsar. People stared at us blatantly and then nudged the people with them to look as well, as if to say, “Hey, check out those weirdos.” The hard looks I got from men with and without beards and turbans were particularly disturbing. Perhaps it was the daily headlines about escalating violence against women in India, but the aggressive, leering stares of the men made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. David couldn’t help noticing it as well. We went into the Golden Temple complex as far as the pool that surrounds the temple itself. However, after experiencing the unwelcoming stares of the people, joining the long, slow moving line to get into the Golden Temple itself would mean spending more time in what now felt like a hostile environment. Therefore, we called it quits and made our way back to the hotel.
The next morning when our guide met us in the hotel lobby we expressed reluctance to return to the old town explaining how it was the only time during this long trip that we felt uncomfortable and unwelcome. Young, bright and fluent in English, Harry was fresh out of college where he had gotten his degree in tourism. While he was a Sikh, he had neither long hair or a beard. He didn’t wear a turban. He tried to explain that people here weren’t used to seeing westerners. We pointed out that one look around the hotel lobby discredited that excuse. “Well,” he said, you’ll be fine with me and I will make sure you get a first class visit to my city.” So I put on my albeit thin disguise

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And David covered his head as per the rules of the Golden Temple:

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We still haven’t figured out what exactly accounted for the vastly different experience we had, but it was amazing and wonderful. Perhaps we were more relaxed following in the wake of our 6’2″ guide who knew everyone and everything. He breezed us through the process of checking out shoes, washing our hands and feet and entering the temple grounds. Even though he had angered his father by cutting his hair and refusing to wear a turban, he was still an obviously, serious devout Sikh, bowing, touching the ground and reciting prayers as we moved through the complex.
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First we visited the kitchen which prepares free meals to the tens of thousands of pilgrims who visit who visit every day. The operation is mind-boggling. Both by hand as well as automated.

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Click on these links for video:
Feeding the faithful
feeding the faithful continued

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