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Meditating in the Mountains

21st June 2010, Dharamsala
Last time I wrote I was sweating it out in the plains - now I'm enjoying the comfortable climes of the Himalayan Foothills. Happy, smiling Tibetans outnumber aggressive, po-faced Indians; maroon-robed monks roam the streets, chatting on their mobile phones; and playful monkeys frolick amongst the pine trees. Add to that the multitude of cute cafes serving tasty grub, and you'll see why I'm not in a hurry to leave!

The time had come to leave my Orchha palace with its great views, and return to smelly Delhi for a few days before catching a train to Himachel Pradesh. For the first time ever, I was travelling first class; this was not so much from choice as necessity. A week earlier, from Khajuarho, I'd gone online to book my next train tickets and been sent into a panic when I saw that most trains were booked up as far as July. I'd originally been intending to visit Lucknow and a few other places, but saw that my options were extremely limited. After much searching I finally managed to find a couple of seats - one to Delhi, and another to Pathankot in Himachel Pradesh, just three hours by bus from Dharamsala. I was planning to go to HP anyway, so figured I should just hightail it there and forget about the sightseeing along the way.

The first class carriage of the Shatadbi express had wonderfully comfortable reclining seats, and a mostly quiet, calm atmosphere - apart from a couple of families that were sitting two to a seat, talking loudly and throwing rubbish around. I figured they weren't used to travelling first class - talk about the pot calling the kettle black! There were regular announcements as we approached stops, and a little history and sightseeing information on the places too. My lasting impression of first class though is the never-ending supply of food - no wonder higher caste Indians tend to be a tad on the portly side. It began soon after I got on, when I was served with a free bottle of mineral water, and a tray containing a sandwich, a samosa, a cake, a biscuit and tea bags to use with the hot water that followed soon after. Very nice, I thought. After the next stop we got veg soup and bread sticks, with a chaser of tomato soup for those who were interested - well, it's rude to turn down a free feed . . . and after all, if it's included in the ticket, it means I've already paid for it.

Next came dinner - a tray with a container of rice, another of dahl, the spiciest palak paneer (spinach and cheese curry - tastes nicer than it sounds) I've ever had, chapati, curd (yoghurt), and a container of beans in sauce that were absolutely delicious. Now I'd been suffering a little, during my last couple of days in Orchha, with a dodgy stomach, so I knew I was playing with fire here . . . but as I say, I'd already paid for the food in effect, so I really had no option other than to keep on stuffing it down. As I was finishing dinner a waiter came round with a large plate of bananas, and I groaned as I took one, putting it aside for later. After an extended visit to the loo, I returned to my seat in time for ice cream, which I just managed to squeeze in - what a trooper! I fervently hoped that this was it now - we weren't far away from Delhi, surely there couldn't be more food. I was a little confused when a waiter put a silver platter containing sweets and money down in front of me. "Sweets and tips," he explained, so I threw a Rs10 note onto the pile and chose a couple of little sweets that I just had room for.

On arrival at New Delhi Station I heaved my pack onto my back and crossed the road to the familiar Paharganj area, just opposite the station. As I walked up the main bazaar I wondered if I'd somehow got the wrong street - I didn't recognise it. Admittedly when I'd been here with Chris six weeks before there'd been some building work going on - the place had looked a right state at the time . . . but now it looked like a war zone. The fronts of many of the buildings had been demolished, and huge piles of rubble lay in heaps. I carefully picked my way through the debris, returning to the Star Palace Hotel, where I knew the rooms were relatively clean and cheap. The following morning things in the main bazaar looked even worse, as the demolition work continued. They had roped off the worst bit (the first nod to health and safety I've seen in India), where half a hotel was in the process of being knocked down by men with sledgehammers (not a hard hat in sight) who stood several stories up, bashing hell out of the walls around them. Bits of bricks and plaster hit my head as I scurried nervously past.

Three days later I caught an overnight train to Pathankot - back in sleeper class this time, where I belong. On arrival, I caught a bus to Dharamsala, sitting next to a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, who was going to see his family. I thought I'd take advantage of his insider knowledge, and asked him whether he thought Kashmir was currently safe. It's mean to be a beautiful place, but has been a disputed region since the time of Partition, and the cause of much trouble between India and Pakistan. It's still on the FCO no-go list - and the ramification of that is that my insurance will become invalid should I go there - so even if I were to have a totally unrelated mishap, the Insurance company would most likely wash their hands of me. The military man agreed that the state was not safe, as it was very volatile, with civil unrest sparking up at a momentís notice.

The bus ride should have taken around three hours, but it soon became evident that the vehicle had some mechanical problems, and the journey took a couple of hours longer than expected. Once we'd reached Lower Dharamsala, the bus had a further 10km to travel up a winding, steep road to get to McLeod Ganj - which is 500m higher than the lower part of the town. (Dharamsala is the commercial/industrial town; McLeod Ganj - AKA Upper Dharamsala - is where most of the Tibetans and tourists stay; and the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile are situated between the two). Sitting just behind the driver, I noticed in the rear view mirror that he was nodding off - eyes closing, head dropping to his chest. This was particularly worrying as we had a series of tight, hair-pin bends to negotiate; for once I was pleased about all the horn-honking over here, as his head would snap up every time an oncoming vehicle approached. We arrived in one piece, but that last twenty minutes were rather unsettling.

The bus stand resembled a multi-story car park, so I donned my pack and climbed the concrete steps to the top level, which is adjacent to the main square. By now it was after two, but the altitude meant the temperature was comfortably in the 30s. I traipsed around looking for digs finding many of the hotels in my price range fully booked, and others with poor quality rooms for the money. I eventually found a room for Rs500 at the Shambhala Hotel. There's a shared balcony that has views of snow-capped mountains, and a clean bathroom - and I mean properly clean, by Western standards - even the chrome taps are shiny. Anyone who's been to India will know what a rarity this is.

Once settled, I ventured out to have a little look around and get some grub. It had just started to rain, so I did something I have never before done in my life: I bought an umbrella - almost taking someone's eye out as I opened it. I'd read up about McLeod Ganj in my guidebook, so I was expecting the dredlocked cyber-hippies; the Tibetan monks; the noticeboards advertising all manner of courses, Reiki, rebirthing and so on; the stalls selling yak-hair clothing and musical instruments (although the didgeridoos caught me by surprise). What I wasn't expecting was the traffic, which either tears around the narrow streets, or sits bumper to bumper in a honking gridlock; some of the cars are even driven by monks. The funniest thing I saw (other than a tall woman I'm guessing was Israeli wearing leopard-print leggings so tight they were almost see-though - Rod Stewart eat your heart out!) was two cows standing in front of a noticeboard, systematically munching their way through all of the advertisements stuck to it. The cows here seem to have a bit of a paper addiction, as I saw another couple chomping on cardboard. It seems strange as there is so much greenery and vegetation around. Maybe it's the bovine equivalent to a junk-food diet.

When I returned to my room I was taken aback to find hundreds of ants in my lovely clean bathroom. I think there was a nest in the doorframe, and this just happened to be flying-ant day, as there were plenty of winged queens among them. Bleeding typical! And what with the Dali Lama living just down the road and Buddhist monks all over the place, I could hardly kill them - my karma's screwed up enough as it is. I asked the guy in reception to bring a broom to sweep them away, and he also brought that wonderful - but highly toxic - magic chalk that even a cockroach will avoid. Pretty soon my bathroom was back to being sparkling clean and insect free.

Dharamsala is a popular place to study Buddhism, which I've had an interest in for over a decade, so I'd investigated my options before coming here. I considered doing a 10-day retreat, but as there is no contact with the outside world, I decided that would be a waste of my Internet connection (I'm not sure I've got my priorities right here, but there we go). I have, however, signed up to do one in Nepal, so I shall let you know how I get on with ten days of silence (don't laugh!) later on in the year. One of the two meditation centres near here did have a two-day meditation course, which I thought would be a good grounding before the ten-day course - plus assist me in everyday life; help me to control my anger and overcome my materialistic urges. One such urge that has sprung up of late, is an almost uncontrollable desire to get a Royal Enfield Bullet. There's plenty around here, and I keep drooling everytime I see one. It's ages since I had a bike, and the thought of exploring all this wonderful countryside under my own steam is very tempting. I think if I'd have got the year visa I applied for I would have given in to my urge . . . so it's probably for the best that I didn't, considering the state of the roads and standard of driving in India. Oh well, maybe next lifetime.

The day before the course began, I hiked up to the Tushito centre to register. The road was very steep - the centre sits a further 300m above McLeod Ganj - and I had to keep stopping on the way, but I guess it'll be good practise for the treks I hope to do in Ladakh. When I arrived, I found that the office was shut, with a note that said "back at 1:30" pinned to the door. The ascent having nearly killed me, there was no way I was walking all the way back down, so I decided to enjoy the smell of the pine trees and watch the kites soaring overhead. I followed a path that led out of the centre and was signed Dharamkot, and came out onto a concrete road with view into a peaceful valley, where a number of houses and guesthouses nestled between the pine trees. I strolled happily along a number of paths, watching rhesus macaque monkeys groom each other, and generally enjoying the great outdoors, before returning to the centre and signing up for the course.

I struggled up the hill for 0830 the next morning, where I began two days of sitting cross-legged and concentrating on my breathing. There was a fair bit of Buddhist philosophy thrown in, along with some useful tips on how to avoid dosing off while meditation, and quietening the mind from distractions. We did some walking meditation too - which must look to the untrained eye as if one has lost the plot entirely, and gone into slow motion. It was surprising how much calmer I felt at the end of the second day. Religious aspects aside, meditation is meant to improve concentration - although it was a little demoralising though to hear that to get a perfectly trained mind requires between 50,000 and 100,000 hours of meditation . . . and then you have to keep up the practise, or you'll lose the clarity. I have to say that put me off a bit. Still, I'm sure the ten-day course in Nepal will be an experience.

Other than meditating, I've spent my time here either walking or chilling out - it's a great place to do both. I'd heard about a trek to Truind, which is close to snow-capped mountains. I set off at seven one morning, and my journey began in typical Serena fashion; I got lost. After making the steep climb to Tushito, and on to the chai shop that overlooks Dharamkot, I decided that it was too early to stop for a cuppa, and set off along the road which, I thought, was the way to Triund. I wasn't put off when it started heading downwards, thinking that it would soon begin to climb . . . but a quarter of an hour later I turned a corner and saw Lower Dharamsala ahead of me - I was definitely on the wrong road. So back up the hill I went, stopping for chai and directions, and continued my journey at eight, along a rough road that I'd not even noticed before. The way was lined with pine trees, and inclined gently. Lovely, I thought, a pleasant 9km hike - should be no effort at all for a postie, even if I have been a tad lazy of late. I came to a place where the road forked; the wider road continued onwards, while a smaller, rougher, steeper path doubled back the way I had come. I deliberated for a while, then continued on the wider track. Fortunately I met a man just around the corner, and checked with him that I was heading the right way - predictably I wasn't! I really do have the worst sense of direction.

So I retraced my steps, and started puffing up the steeper path. Behind me I could hear the shrill voices of a group of loud Americans - there goes the serenity, I thought. I upped the pace a little, to try to escape the noise and listen to nature instead. Then in front of me a pair of Indian men emerged from the woods; they were of the staring variety, and stopped to watch me pass. A little later they overtook me as I paused to enjoy and photograph the view, then they stopped ahead, staring consistently for several minutes. My internal drama queen took over, reminding me of all the warnings about solo trekking (basically, don't do it). I'm sure they were harmless, but I became unnerved; the noisy Americans seemed the lesser of two evils, so I waited for them to catch me up and walked with them, the Indian men losing interest as the group appeared, and finally moving on.

Half an hour later I came upon a chai shop, so I paused for a drink and a rest, checking with the owner which direction to go from there. I went the way he said, following the relatively wide, gravely track as it continued upwards. Then I reached another junction. The main track turned back on itself, but ahead was a very rocky, steep path . . . or maybe a dry waterway, I wasn't sure which. I figured I'd follow it a way, see if it became more path-like around the corner. It didn't, so I convinced myself it was the wrong way and retraced my steps, congratulating myself on spotting my error. I began to follow the much more civilised path that I'd been on originally; it was wider, easier underfoot, and the incline was nice and gentle. Around the corner I saw two white girls been led by a young Indian guide, and double-checked that I'd got it right - wrong! Another about turn, and I was back on the incredibly rocky, steeper track. Fortunately there was no more forks in the track, so it was plain sailing from there on . . . well, as far as direction goes, anyway.

Before I'd set off, I'd compared altitudes of McLeod Ganj (1770m) and Triund (2900m), so it really shouldn't have been such a surprise to me that the walk was a steady uphill climb, but somehow it was. I definitely wasn't expecting the track to be so rough. In some places the surface was like a super shiny slate, that was slippery to walk on; in other parts there were jagged rocks sticking out of the ground, along with a few gnarled tree roots, just perfect for tripping over. The last half a kilometre was like very steep, uneven steps, which twisted and turned as they rapidly ascended the mountainside. I was pretty much out of breath the whole way, despite frequent stops to take photos - over four hours of panting and sweating, and not in a good way! The was some respite, in the form of two tiny tea shops, perched on the steep slopes - affording fabulous views down onto Dharamsala, way off in the distance, and up to the snowy mountain peaks. Considering their location, and the effort involved in getting supplies to the shops, I didn't begrudge the higher price of a cup of chai.

The views really were super all the way along - and kept getting better the higher I went. I felt this instant gratification was only fair - the terrain grew trickier, the incline steeper, the air thinner . . . and the scenery improved with every step. It made it all worthwhile. I have to admit, that had I known how tough the hike would be, I probably wouldn't have done it - which would have meant I'd have missed out big time, so I'm very glad I didn't know. It has made me keen to do some more trekking in Ladakh . . . and of course there's Nepal coming up; I don't think I'll be able to avoid trekking there. Still not sure I'm up to the Annapurna Circuit though - three weeks of walking seems a bit much to me - a bit of a busman's holiday too.

Anyhow, at 1215 I reached my target, and arrived exhausted but happy at Triund - which is basically a sprawling, grassy campsite on the summit of the hill. There were three large, plastic shelters containing chai-stalls cum shops cum restaurants. I selected one and collapsed outside it, facing the snowy mountaintops - which unfortunately had become obscured by clouds - and ordered a chai, and omelette and toast for breakfast. They brought me a blanket and I lay back on it, enjoying the views and the smug feeling of having made the ascent in one piece, taking off my boots and airing my tired feet. The sun went behind a cloud, and I shivered, putting my jumper on - then once it emerged again the air felt very warm. After I'd eaten I hopped up to take a few pictures - and nearly collapsed. My legs had totally seized up, and attempts to stretch them resulted in painful cramps. I lay back down and took it easy a while longer.

I'd been trying to decide all the way up as to whether or not to stay the night at Triund - you can hire tents from the chai shops, and it is possible from there to hike for another couple of hours and reach the snow line. I looked up at the mountains, towering high above, noting that the only way up was much steeper than the climb I'd already experienced. I figured I knew my limits, and decided to return that day. After a rest of an hour or so I began my descent, encouraging those I met for the first half hour by telling them they'd nearly made it - after that I thought it best to simply say hello, rather than tell them they still had the hardest part ahead of them. The journey down was most pleasant, and not as scary as I was expecting. There were only a couple of places where I cowered from the drop at the side of the path, clinging to the rocks on the other side as I picked my way down. I met fewer people coming down, and was able to enjoy the birdsong, and feel at one with nature. It was all very peaceful . . . until I turned one corner and heard the dull roar of traffic and horns drifting up from Dharamsala.

The following day I could hardly move - I was so glad I hadn't stayed the night up the mountain, as I think the return journey would have been most uncomfortable. Strangely it was my neck that was most stiff - I guess it was a combination of having my heavy camera hanging off of it, and looking down for most of the trek to try and minimise tripping. I took it easy that day and the next, working on my pictures and websites. I've got a new search facility for my stock photographs (over 8000 and counting) which you can have a play around with here, if you like www.photographersdirect.com/serenity. It means I'll be posting less pictures on pbase, but I'll include links where you can have a look at more, if you have the time and the inclination (I'm thinking of you here Jackie, and those long, dull nightshifts!).

I'm still very much enjoying Dharamsala - it's so laid back I keep forgetting I'm in India. There are loads of cool cafes serving great food, with comfy terraces where you can enjoy the views. I'm beginning to think about moving on - although I'm in no hurry. I want to go to Leh in Ladakh - which is technically in Kashmir, but even the foreign office agrees it's safe there. There's a road from Manali - a journey that takes two days, and is meant to be spectacular, if a little dicey - it's still blocked my snow at the moment though. Iím planning to head to a little town called Manikaran from here, which has hot springs, then on to the hippie-hangout of Manali to await the opening of the pass to Leh.

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