It’s as though the city moves too fast for cleanliness, one bottle leaves the floor as another takes it place. The floor providing a constant food source, the city is a restaurant to cow, dog and beggar alike and the air lays thick not with the spices and incense you dream about but with Rickshaw fumes and stale urine. These streets are unapologetic, there is no fashion show or facade for the tourists they all desperately heckle at. I respect it. The honesty. Unrelenting like the truth you want to know but can’t quite handle.
Up in the north the terrain changes, the faces change, the atitude shifts as if the entire state has looked down at the rest of the country taken a chill pill and kindly declined it’s offer of insanity.
Rolling hills give way to towering mountains, hidden mainly to us by post monsoon clouds, as if disguising their beauty, reserving only for the early morning water carriers, monks stealing glances as they hurry on to prayer and me the traveller who can’t quite break the 6am work pattern. The hill stations here seem a little more developed than Nepal, the roads actually exist for one and the pot holes don’t resemble small ravines and sink holes, the bus drivers still maintain their daredevil flare and their blissful ignorance to the brakes but fear not their knowledge of the nationwide language of the horn is fully fledged unlike their awareness of personal space. As we left our first sleeper and bus journey and embarked on the local bus journey to Mcleod Ganj we were already overwhelmed at our surroundings, well mainly the monkeys but also the surroundings. Stale garbage replaced by greenery, flat roads replaced by ever climbing winding roads.
The places we visited in Northern India were nothing quite like anywhere else, the identity was somehow blurred into a stoic perfection of Tibeten, Nepalese and Indian. The vibe, to quote a guy in Agra is “way more hippy, from all the smoking”, he may well be right.
Hippy though it is Mcleod Ganj, and its laid back residents, is also home to the Dalai Lama and a huge host of monks, his temple sits light and airy on a cliff side. We took the afternoon to walk round and take in the serene stillness of the temple… Turns out the temple is not quiet! Monks gather in prayers and practice around the courtyard and they clap, my ignorance has not yet been undone, I have no idea why they do this but they do it often and with gusto.
We strolled through paths laden with prayer flags and monkeys to yet more temples beneath. Mel, ever in search of the perfect picture, practically stalked an aged monk up the hill only for him to turn round last minute, leading to a comical if not ‘be there’ moment.
It was from here we embarked on what can only be named ‘deluxe bus ride from hell’, from this title I hope you rightly presume there was nothing ‘deluxe’ about this bus, the aircon was an open door and the blanket was when the person in front reclined their archaic chair so much it touched your legs.
At various sporadic stops along the way brought the new adventure of dark toilet trips, this is what led to our first real ‘scare’ in India. Now I don’t want to scare monger, almost everyone we have met on our trip have been nothing but friendly and kind but this guy followed Mel into the toilet, practically chased her back to the bus and then stood secreted in the dark shadows of two buses and stared. Like really stared, the kind where you can’t see their eyes but it almost burns through you. Lesson learnt ALWAYS take company, this my friends is why girls go to the toilet in pairs!
To move swiftly on Shimla passed in a semi blur of short walks, 10p samosas and bad films as I tried to recover from my illness I previously mentioned. Tucked away up in the mountains was perfect, sultry sunsets and monkey watching surrounded by pine forests almost made up for not being able to eat a damn thing!
On one such walk we found a gorgeous temple with a lovely keeper, who tried his best in his broken English to explain to us about Shiva and the statues and then so caringly gave us sweets and bananas… Faith in people restored!
Venturing into Shimla on the last day made us realise everything we’d been missing out on, victoriana style architecture scattered between typical Indian housing pressed into cramped streets which gave way to beautiful open squares, resembling England, if England had 40degree heat and monkeys!
But in truth my favourite part of the North was leaving, not because I didn’t love it, but because we were leaving on the toy train and I was practically giddy.
There’s something so nostalgic about the whole journey and ours was only enhanced by the veterans we were sharing our carriage with singing traditional Indian songs as we tucked into our Thali dinner and watched the sky turn from Blue to black.
Before we embarked I couldn’t help but think of my Grandad who passed away in June and how I would of loved to share this story with him. And so I did, standing there on that platform I shared every excited thought with him, wishing him here won’t make it happen but right then I had him right beside me.