Little Tibet and the Desert

A month has passed since my last escapades in the South. Most of it is a smeary white blur in my memory, much like the fog that engulfed the city during the four coldest weeks of the winter. For a couple of weekends we were captive in Gurgaon. I remember the chilly rickshaw rides and hitchhikes between Kapoors and Hex Tax, desperately trying to make something of the weekend but never managing much more than a film and a takeaway huddled up under a blanket. On weekday nights we hit Delhi harder than ever. I thought perhaps the girls departure and the lack in numbers would deter us from partying so often. On the contrary, the stillness of the house marked by their absence was all the more motivation to go out, but it was never the same. Without the girls we couldn’t get into our favoured spots and most nights finished with a cluster of people staring at each other on the dance floor of AI or Urban Pind.

On a few occasions the fog got so bad at night we couldn’t see a foot in front of us when driving back from Delhi. One night was particularly bad, I recall our driver easing along hugging the side rail of the highway because it was the only visible guide to the whereabouts of the road in the white abyss. We somehow found our way to Sector 43 to drop Ale at Hex Tax South but ended up driving in circles trying to find the complex. Eventually a sign appeared at the passenger window announcing we had arrived at Hex Tax. We didn’t waste any more time looking for Kapoors.

Three weeks of this was sufficient to drive our collective resolve to escape the city once again, planning a weekend in Varanassi. But when the weekend arrived the train was cancelled due to the fog and we were captive again. A vague attempt at some festivities on Republic Day ended up with lunch in a mall in Gurgaon, because nothing was open in Delhi and attempts to catch a glimpse of the parade would have been futile. In the last weekend of January the train was cancelled for a second time. Now, another weekend of the Gurgaon blues was out of the question, so we took the cab we had booked for the train station to find a bus north to Dharamshalah. Lucky for us, there were five empty seats on the next bus out of Delhi that Friday night. Me, Alex, Mari, Bea and Jacek.

A weekend in the mountains was just what was needed to heal the senses and find some respite. After a rocky overnight ride I awoke to the early morning light and fresh mountain breeze of the highlands of Himachal Pradesh. We took a cab through the city of McLeod Ganj and up the hill to the town of Dharamkot. It was early and out of season, so at first glance all the guest houses were closed. However, a brisk walk down the thin path that snaked its away along the mountain edge took us past a lady who directed us to a small guest house that was open for business. After we had settled down our bags and enjoyed a Tibetan Chai looking out over the valley and vertiginous mountainside, we started for the Mountaineering Institute that was recommended in the guidebook. A breakfast of pancakes at the chai shop on the way.

After discovering the Mountaineering Institute was closed for holidays and a brief explore of the forest we decided to head down into the city for Bea to find a hospital to administer her rabies jab (she was bitten by a dog one night recently on the way into U block in the fog). While she was busy with this we took some time to explore the residence of the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet. He wasn’t home, but suffice to say his temple kept us occupied for a while. A small museum took us through the fascinating but saddening story of the Tibetan exile and the plight of a dying civilisation. We spent the afternoon ambling through the markets, stopping for Momo snacks and cake and coffee in rooftop restaurants along the shopping strip. At midday the sun was basking down on our backs and for a while it was warm enough to shed the winter jumpers and catch a tan.

When we were full up on cake and had exhausted the market we bought some food supplies for the planned trek the next day and made our way back up the hill to Dharamkot. Time for a card game and a shot of rum to warm up while the sun was retreating. When we went in search of dinner a villager pointed me towards a pizzeria a 10 minute walk down the track. In the darkness and cold we fumbled and foiled down the dimly lit path, to find the pizzeria closed, the only food outlet in the upper part of the town. Hungry and fatigued we made our way back down the hill to McLeod in search of dinner. We found it in another pizza place along the shopping strip. After dinner we meandered our way back up the hill to get some rest for an early rise the following morning.

Sunday morning we were up by 6:30. We had arranged for the chai shop to open at 7 to fuel us with pancakes and porridge for the day’s hike. But we forgot to allow for Indian time, which has no time, and we were already well into our supplies of bread and spread cheese before the chai man showed up. Nonetheless, when he came we treated ourselves to a warm chai in front of a fire he lit for us before setting out on the footpath. The path into the highland was well trodden but this early in the day free from western hippies and Indian tourists. It was a half day trek to the top where we met the snow line and spent a couple of hours admiring the view, crunching in the snow, eating maggie and sipping chai. A couple of Indian chaps offered a cap of apple vodka to keep warm. Save for them and the chai wala, we were the only people on the mountain top.

By evening we were back in Dharamkot. A good day’s walk left us destroyed, but a shower and a snickers bar provided the requisite boost to pack up and make for the city to book a bus home. At the bottom of the hill we entered the first travel agency we could find. The volvo buses were fully booked but there were three seats left on a bum numbing private bus, two in the drivers cabin, all the way to the Tibetan quarters of Delhi. Half an hour to find dinner, we sidled into the nearest restaurant. Of course, we were waiting for our food right up to the last minute and had to ask for the food to be packed. However, we managed to catch the bus, takeaway momos in our hands, to an audience of depleted faces who had been waiting for us. I was squished at the back with my legs protruding into the isle or my knees resting on the head rest of the chair in front, next to a fat Tibetan whose heavy arms clamped down on my chest whenever he snoozed. I had to shuffle around considerably to get him to move and there was a fowl smell every so often that I can only deduce he was responsible for. Sleep deprived and in desperate need of a shower, we arrived on the outskirts of Delhi around 7 on Monday morning, got a cab home and went to work.

That week saw a changing tide at the Kapoors. On Monday morning the fog was notably absent, I could see colour in the sky and for the first time in a while I didn’t fear the cold getting out of bed. It felt like the temperature shifted ten degrees in a matter of days. Moreover, the Kapoors family gained one. Anna, our new recruit from Iceland, arrived on Sunday night. Suddenly Gurgaon was tolerable again.

Last weekend I skipped off work early afternoon on Friday for a trip to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. We were a group of seven; Steven (Atlanta), Michi (Germany), Aline (Brazil), Helen (Germany), Etelka (Hungry) and Salome (France). In the rush to get to the train station some confusion led to the driver taking us to New Delhi only after I discovered the tickets were for Old Delhi. We saved the day by hopping on the metro to Chandi Chowk and jumping on the train a couple of minutes before it left. It is always like this. No matter how you plan things there is always a last minute rush or panic.

Despite my experience of travel in India I am still yet to become accustomed to the busy, sweaty, noisy interior of an Indian train at the beginning of its journey. I found my seat and tried to claim as much of it as possible, but people would come and go and I grew tired of stretching my legs to reserve my space. However, after a couple of hours and a dozen stops, the melee of bustle and scurry subsided and there was just a group of overexcited guys playing cards to contend with. When I grew tired of reading I staked out my bed and woke the following morning to views of the Rajasthani desert.

We alighted in Jaisalmer Saturday afternoon and found our pickup to take us into town. We spent an hour or so negotiating the price of a two day camel safari with the various agents, ensuring they would take us off the beaten track and away from the other tourists. After we agreed on a package and a price, we took lunch in a restaurant and readied ourselves for two days in the desert. A jeep took us and our gear an hour out of town to meet our camels and guides. I volunteered to take a disconcertingly noisy camel who went by the name of Visra, since no one else was willing to brave him.

Once we got going Visra settled down and we spent the rest of the day getting acquainted with our camels and admiring the desert scenery. One of the guides, Achu, dedicated me with the name Eurie (I never asked why), and so it went that Eurie and Visra and nine other camels and riders rode alone in the desert and the basking sun. There was not much more to it than that, passing through a couple of villages on our way and stopping before sunset to setup camp on a sand dune. I wandered down to a nearby village with it in mind that we might procure a goat or sheep for dinner, but Achu assured me he could find better quality the following day. After dinner we sat around a camp fire bantering back and forth with Achu and Karim and the other guides, on anything and everything that came to mind. In spite of the warmth of the day, it was chilly in the night so we wrapped up warm and slept under a starry, unpolluted night sky.

I woke on Sunday morning with a chai in hand and a view of the desert sun rise. Porridge and scrambled egg, masala style for breakfast, while we waited for the guides to gather the camels that had scattered about the vicinity of our camp during the night. The rest of the day was more of the same, stopping off at villages as we rode and getting more acquainted with our camels. Me and Visra did some bonding and by midday I learned how to get him trotting faster with a kick and some encouraging noises. There were all kinds of tut-tuts and assorted noises as we tried to take command of our camels and imitate the guides. At the lunch spot one of the guides turned up with a goat for our dinner and we watched it being slaughtered halal style and prepared for cooking in the evening.

Before sunset that evening we pitched up in a large sand june with smoothly crafted hills rising and falling without a single footprint. We then spent the rest of the daylight running around in the sand and spoiling that very image. I walked the perimeter of the junes and observed a lone straw house in the distance while we waited for the sun to sink behind the yellow horizon and for dinner to be served. All the goat broth we could handle and Japati. After dinner around the camp fire a man from a nearby village came to play us some music. The guides got a bit excited and started dancing and singing around the fire while we cheered them on. I was a too jaded to join them, but it was a jovial specticle. This night the cloud cover was thick and there wasn’t a star or moon in sight. The only light came from the fire and when that burned out the desert became a bottomless pitch black.

Monday morning marked the end of the safari as we packed up and waited for the jeep to arrive. Time running away with us, we piled in the jeep when it appeared and watched the guides count their tips and mount their camels for the next ride. We were too late to catch the bus we had booked for Jodhpur, but Chandra the benevolent agent was able to book us on a bus an hour later. This gave us time to wander the streets of Jaisalmer, exploring some back alleys and stocking up on food from the market.

The bus rolled up in Jodhpur around 4:30 and we caught a couple of autos to the main market. We wandered through the bustling streets and found the route up to the infamous fort. A ten minute walk up the winding road and we discovered the fort was closed. We were an hour or two behind schedule because of the late pickup in the desert, but determined to make use of what little time we had. The guards were good enough to let us a little way into the fort where we could look down on the “blue city,” so called because of the indigo colour every other house is decorated. It made for a pleasant few hours, sufficient to absorb the fray of flurry around the Mehrangarh fort. Then back on the rickshaw and the train home. Another clash with time as we waited for our cheese toasties a street away from the station, but time was on our side in the end. New Delhi Station arrived early Tuesday morning, back to Gurgaon in a cab and off to work we go.

Back at Kapoors our newest addition was present. I greeted Kelly from Colombia over breakfast and we caught up on the rickshaw ride to work. Finally, there are some girls about the house again. A three day week at work for me and off to Manali on Thursday night. Friday is another I-don’t-know-what religious festival, so thank you Hinduism for the day off. The FRRO finally came through with my visa extension and I am legal again, four and a half months in the making. The Kapoors are alive and the travel spirit is back. I am complete!

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