Sunday, 28 March 2010

Mcleod Ganj

Named after a former Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, David Mcleod, who established a British garrison here in the mid-1850s, it's now famously the home of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile.
Thursday 25 March: Luckily I get the last available room in the pleasant Om Hotel (there is, of course, no place like Om!) and visit Tse Chok Ling Monastery just below the hotel before exploring the village's twin main streets.
I'd been on a spending spree in Shimla: compact battery charger, immersion heater, tin cup, reading glasses and now I pick out my first
souvenir of the trip, a plain vest - maroon in colour in empathy with the flowing robes of the Buddhist monks.
A dinner of fried mutton momo and locally produced cider makes a welcome change from Indian fare. Momo is a Tibetan dish - like little filo pastry pasties filled with minced lamb - delicious. I'm not going to starve in Tibet.
Friday 26: Dalai Lama temple is top of my list and from the balcony I get my first ever glimpse of the snow-streaked high Himalayas. The temple complex is modern but has prayer wheels, monks quietly chanting mantras and
in the courtyard some debating furiously with much stamping of feet and loud clapping to bring home a point. I'm surprised to realise I've been smiling the whole time - I'm happy to be in such a heart-warming place.
Next is the Tibet Museum. There's not much to see but it
tells the tragic story of the 'liberation' of Tibet during the madness of the 'cultural revolution' and subsequent Chinese repression and atrocities against the people of Tibet. By demolishing monasteries, imprisoning and torturing Buddhists and using financial incentives to flood Tibet with Han Chinese the Beijing Government are effectively making one of the world's more interesting and peace-loving cultures extinct. I return after lunch to see an American documentary Red Flag Over Tibet (1995) which graphically illustrates the same sad theme. The Han influx has made ethnic Tibetans a minority in their own country and Lhasa has been rebuilt, in concrete, glass and steel, Chinese style.
Saturday 27:
Today I visit The Tibetan Library and adjoining temple then later join the Buddhist pilgrims on a clockwise circuit of the Dalai Lama complex. Prayer flags everywhere and I'm delighted to discover little Tsangpa Monastery and a seemingly endless parade of colourful prayer wheels.
Sunday 28: The aptly named St John in the Wilderness church is the last remnant of the Raj here and there is memorial to James Bruce, Earl of Elgin and, Viceroy and Governor General of India.
I'm glad I came to Mcloed before heading over the mountains to Tibet. But I'm not finished with India yet, there are still a handful of places I want to see.
Photos of Mcleod Ganj.
Overnight bus to Shimla, train down to Kalka and on to Delhi for the sleeper train to . . . Bhopal.

Thursday, 25 March 2010


Tuesday 23 March: Charles Kennedy , a Scottish civil servant, first built a summer house in Shimla in 1822 and in 1864 the Raj followed, making Shimla the official summer capital of the British Empire in India. From this lofty ridge, away from the baking hot plains of Delhi, one-fifth of the human race were ruled for nearly a century. Now the state capital of Himachal Pradesh, Shimla is a clean and tidy town with a feel of Scotland about it. The mountain air is fresh and sweet, the centre is quiet and traffic free, my hotel room is spacious, comfortable and good value.
So I stroll down to the plush colonial style Cecil Hotel, built 1925, where Michael Palin stayed when filming Himalaya - don't believe for minute that he was roughing it on a BBC budget. I look around the bar and lounge then continue further out of town to the Scottish Baronial castle of Viceregal Lodge, home of the British Raj until 1939, now an educational institute.
After lunch it's a hike down to, The Glen, a thickly wooded ravine of mostly dark green pines peppered with the scarlet blooms of rhododendron trees. I'm feeling a little homesick after this very Scottish of days so retire to the YMCA, now a government run hotel, and watch the
short-tailed, pink-faced, red-arsed Rhesus Macaques playing noisily on the red tin rooftops. The windows are nailed shut to stop these most indiscriminate of thieves and vandals entering the rooms. The YMCA welcomes all, even women - but not smokers - it's my sort of place.
In fact it's against the law to smoke, spit, drop unbiodegradable litter or use plastic shopping bags anywhere in Shimla. I like Shimla, it has an interesting variety of shops that make it look like an old British high street before the chain stores arrived and made every town centre look the same.
News from Hamish Jameison of Freighter Travel (NZ) cheers me up - I'm no longer homesick - my passage has been booked and a cabin reserved
for the 9 day voyage from Singapore to Freemantle, Australia, on the cargo ship MS MSC Basel for January 2011. The Basel only has two passenger cabins and they are both fully booked for most of 2010.
Wednesday 24: I awake to the noisy drumming of a troupe of Macaques scampering along the rooftops - what a sweet alarm clock.
Pictures of Shimla.
Continuing the Scottish theme I take the eight-hour overnight bus and then local bus to Mcleod Ganj.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The Kalka-Shimla Railway

Monday 22 March: UNESCO World Heritage Site listed and one of the great little mountain railways of India, the 1st class Shivalk Deluxe Express (47th mode of transport) departs Kalka at 5:30 am sharp to wind and twist her way up the steep mountain track through 102 tunnels and over 988 bridges gaining 6,808 feet in altitude on the 4 hour, 60 mile trip. In the tiny carriages the seat-backs tilt forward or back so you can always face forward or sit in family groups if you prefer. Tea and biscuits, a newspaper and breakfast are included in the ticket price, 300 Rupees (about £4.50). As I doze, relax and enjoy the scenery fragments of a poem from my childhood spring to mind:

Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb,
The gradients against her, but she's on time.
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder,
Shoveling white steam over her shoulder.

In a farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes . . .

It's a tale about a steam train travelling from London to Scotland and each verse is best recited at an ever increasing pace to fully appreciate the author's intent - the rhythm of a train, and that's all I can remember - not even the title or poets name.
Finally we arrive and are greeted by hoards of luggage coolies at Shimla's little station. I avoid them and head straight for the tourist office where a nice little man gives me a map of Shimla and recommends a hotel high up on The Ridge in the centre of town. I happily walk but get out-of-breath quickly, I'm 7,234 feet above sea level (for the benefit of Joe Boyle and others that's one and a half times Ben Nevis) and realise this is my first ever sight of the foothills of the greatest mountain range in the world, the Himalaya.
Kalka to Shimla photos on the
Shivalk Deluxe Express and Shimla to Kalka photos on the Himalayan Queen Express.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Back to Delhi

Wednesday 17 March: Never a dull moment on the Goa Express sleeper to Delhi - three elegant ladies in saris shimmy along the corridor and solicit money by clapping their hands aggressively in the faces of the male passengers. Most pay up, not with coins, but with real valuable paper money. I look closer and see stubble - they are male transvestites swearing curses on those who don't contribute. Thankfully they ignore foreigners (sorry guys, no photos).
Saturday 20: I walk to Lakshmi Narayan a great red and yellow trifle of a building inaugrated by Gandhi in 1938 as a temple for all castes, Jantar Mantar is the oldest of Maharajah Jai Singh's five astronomical observatories in India and take the Metro to the magnificent Akshardhan Temple (tight security, body searches and no cameras allowed inside) around which the Commonwealth Games are being held in October. The whole of central Delhi is a building site and I'll be truly surprised if they complete both new Metro lines and all the new stadiums before the Games. Sunday 21 morning: Government tourist bus to Delhi's five storey icon, Qutub Minar or Victory Tower, and on to the marble petaled Lotus Temple or Bahai House of Worship where all faiths are welcome to pray or meditate in silence.
9:40pm Howth Delhi Kalka Mail sleeper to Kalka for the 5:30 am narrow-gauge train up to Shimla hill station, the British Raj's former summer capital.
Delhi photos this time around.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Goa: Benaulim

Saturday 13 February: Decided to make an extended pit-stop in Goa for some essential maintenance and to get fitter before heading north to trek in Nepal. With a broad flat sandy-beach stretching for miles Benaulim (pronounced 'Ben-know-limb' - otherwise you might end up in Palolem) is an ideal place for running - first real training I've done since Lake Bled, Slovenia in July 2009.
Thursday 18: Oral check-up and teeth polish for 500 rupees (about £6.50) at Dr Hubert Gomes surgery, a popular dentist with ex-pats in Margao (check out his price list).
Tuesday 23: Hero Honda motorcycle taxi (46th mode of transport) to and from Margao (or Madgoan) Station to reserve train tickets to Delhi and on to Shimla hill station in mid-March.
Saturday 6: With ten days to wait before my train leaves for Delhi and unable to exercise I scour the village shops, guesthouses and hotels for something to read. Eventually I select two volumes from the limited choice available: Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island (Britain) where I started this journey, and Michael Palin's Himalaya, where I'm headed next. I finish Bill's lazily edited (surprising as he trained as a proof reader) notes in hours. He does make amusing observations on the British condition many of which I agree with and, yes, we do like to run ourselves and our country down. Not me - the British worked wonders in India, not least, introducing a fine railway network now the world's largest employer. Himalaya is far more informative and fascinating, clearly the work of a whole editorial team.
Saturday 13 March: Desperate for more reading material I eventually find a battered copy of Bill Bryson's Down Under - great as I'm preparing a rough Australia itinerary for early 2011. Next to it is Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster, set in China. This will be good to read before I get to Tibet and Yunnan. With 500 pages printed in smaller type than Bill's book I hope to enjoy this on my 30-hour train ride to Delhi leaving Tuesday.
Pictures of Benaulim and Clova.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Goa: Candolim and Fort Aguada

Wednesday 3 March: The rusting hulk of the River Princess stuck fast on a sand bar in 2000 adds an interesting water feature to the otherwise narrow eroded beach at Candolim. Very much package holiday ville I look around Fort Aguada and the lighthouse, give the 'Binge & Bonk Bar' a miss (I'm more of a bonk and binge man myself!), and head back to Benaulim. It's hotter here now especially in the afternoon and going for a swim in the sea is like jumping into a warm bathtub.
Photos of Candolim.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Old Goa and Panjim

Wednesday 24 February: Day trip to see the churches of Old Goa, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, which are pretty much all that remain of Goa's former capital. Once larger than Lisbon or Rome it was plagued by malaria and cholera, and the capital was moved downstream to the healthier coastal waters at Panjim. Se Cathedral is the largest church in Asia and the Basilica of Bom (baby) Jesus holds the gruesome remains of St Francis Xavier.
Friday 26: Day in Goa's modern capital, Panjim or Panaji, with its vast variety sea and river craft, wedding cake of a church, simple Portuguese lighthouse and a great thali lunch.

Monday 1 March: Until today still enjoying daily barefoot runs along Benaulim beach my steps only cushioned by the soft sand, warm surf and froth of the Arabian Sea, followed by a swim - magical. Disaster, pulled a muscle near the end of a run and had to hobble 3 miles back to the hotel which only made it worse.
Photos of Old Goa and Panjim.