Mountain to Mountain, Temple to Sky

April 21, 2010

It took some time for a plan to condense from the mountain air and what remained of my trip.  I did nothing noteworthy on the first day other then get here and I covered that part in the last entry.  That isn't to say that catching up on email and sending resumes is not important.  It just doesn't say much about India.  WiFi was handy when it worked well, which wasn't very often.  Much of the time, I think it would have more efficient to trek down to an Internet café.

Image of Dall Lake

Amongst being lazy and taking care of business, I managed a couple of “walks” on the second and third day.  These are routes too short and wimpy to qualify as “treks”.  Views were better than from town but I can't overlook that the Dal Lake hike would be more worthwhile if there were actually water in Dal Lake.

The fourth day was a wash, almost literally.  It rained, sweeping away any notion of starting a multi-day organized hike.  But in the mist and damp, clouds of vague answers condensed to clear reality:  An organized trek was not going to work.  They guide only pre-arranged groups and I do not have the sort of social skills required to pull together a team from yet unmet strangers on short notice.

Image of me and the mountains

That left an ambitious solo hike to the snow line.  Depending on the source this was anywhere from one to three days.  I would have to make do with one.

At 7:50am, with significant trepidation but enough Internet backing to make me believe that it was possible (though, hiking solo is almost certainly not advisable), I set out for Triund.  Triund is 9 kilometers from town and, at 2900 meters, is 1200 meters closer to the sky.  And Triund is not the snow line.

Despite navigational errors that make me lose time in the village of Dramkot, I made it to Tirund in 3.5 hours.  Along the way, I climbed over rocks, delighted in the rhododendron forests riot of color and passed numerous chai stalls.  Packing food and water was clearly not as important as I had been lead to believe.

At the top, I found hot food, vendors renting sleeping bags and tents, and, of course, massively better views of the same mountain I had seen from McLeod Ganj.  Given time and a toothbrush, I could easily have spent the night.

Image of snow

But I wanted to reach the snow and that meant going further.  Some 300 meters further up and 30 minutes short of my mandatory turn-around time, I reached the snow line.  There was another chai stall, more offers to rent tents and sleeping bags.  But there was no snow.  I pushed on toward the glacier.  Now, I hadn't read anyone claiming to have hiked to the glacier and back in one day but damnit!, I wanted my snow!

About twenty minutes later, I realized there was no way I was going to reach the glacier in time to turn back.  Again, the notion of spending the night came up.  But if I did that, I wouldn't have time to go to Kashmir and I did not want to hang around McLeod Ganj for several more days.  I settled for a moderate patch of snow on the hill side just over the ridge from the “Snow Line”.

Image of rhododendron clump

Despite better navigation and having gravity on my side, the return wasn't all that much faster than the climb up.  Lots of tricky footing kept the pace way down, but I still finished before darkness set in.  I was tired but victorious.

But there was no time for a rest day.  The next morning, I caught a 9:30am bus from Dharamsala to Jammu.  It was a close call.  The shuttle from McLeod Ganj was a lot slower than I expected.  The conductor seemed surprised that I hadn't purchased a ticket before boarding but I wasn't willing to take a chance with a bus that was ready to go.

Jammu might be within the borders of “Jammu and Kashmir”, but it's as hot as Delhi and nowhere near the mountains.  There were three of us foreigners that arrived from Dharamsala bound for Srinagar.  We all decided we didn't want to stay in Jammu and opted for the overnight bus leaving at 8:00pm.

Now, this was no ordinary bus.

Oh, wait.  That's exactly what it was: an Ordinary.  These are the kind of overstuffed junk heaps  I laugh at but don't generally use them for anything but short hops.  I've never heard of one going overnight.

I survived mostly because one person in a front seat was willing to swap places with me.  There was  negative available leg room in my assigned location.

Image of Shikras on Dal Lake

Twelve hours of heat, cold, and thin seats later, we arrived in Srinagar.  The Israeli girl disappeared in the first rickshaw.  We never saw her again.  That left myself and mainland Chinese guy to team up to share one of Srinagar's famous houseboats.

I probably could have managed a better deal with better research but where we stayed wasn't too far off the mark, I don't think.  The trouble, though, is the houseboats just aren't that great.  They are, more accurately, barges.  They are parked, nearly bumper to bumper, in a floating city out there on the lake.  It is like staying in a hotel where the only way to leave your room in to hail a taxi.  I suppose there is romance from using a fancy, chauffeured canoe for basic transportation.  However, this is lost on two straight guys with barely a language in common.  After one night, we moved to a shore based hotel.

Shalimar Bagh Mughal garden, Srinagar

I did go on a shikara tour because I did want to get out on the lake and see beyond the next row of houseboats.  It was about as sleazy as I expected and I didn't really see much that wasn't visible from shore.  The one exception is, what appeared to be ospreys.  Next day, I went looking for them from the more stable platform of dry land.  I saw a few in the sky but only two hit the water.  Maybe it was just the time.

The breathtaking views never really materialized.  The near hills were snow free and the distant, dusted peaks, were barely visible through the haze.  The scenes from the bus trip back to Jammu were more impressive, but McLeod Ganj is a superior Himalayan experience.  Mugal gardens sufficed filled the final day but did little to change my estimation.

Image of Golden Temple, Amritsar

The daytime trip back to Jammu wasn't as quick as I had hoped or was told.  I arrived at about 5:30pm and connected to a 6:00 then 6:30 and finally 6:45 bus to Amritsar.  Arriving after midnight resulted in a crummy hotel and little sleep but it worked.  I made it to the fabled Golden Temple at dawn.  It's neat, being gold and all, but I am not as wowed by it as some.  Since it is a building held in high regard in India, of course the Golden Temple has been compared with the Taj Mahal.  But it is a poor comparison.  The Golden Temple is tiny compared to the Taj and there is none of the legendary symmetry of Shah Jahan's masterpiece.  The ornately decorated interior does, however, compare favorably with the tomb deep inside the Taj Mahal.

And the last train ride brings me back to Delhi.  Like the first, I am traveling AC Chair car.  It is comfy and cool, all that Delhi is not.

Understatement.  Delhi was hot, hot, hot and the swamp cooler in my hotel room didn't work.  The bed was fine though, which is more than I can say for Amritsar or Srinagar.  Still, I had a mission and it wasn't very likely that I would oversleep.

That mission was Qutb Minar.  It's a relic from a Delhi older than Old Delhi and includes an iron artifact some 1500 years old.  On the first pass, I noted that Qutb Minar was a pain to get to so gave it a pass.

On the second pass, my intro to the Delhi Metro, I noticed that there was a Metro went straight there.  Neat, but not neat enough to want to spend another day in the oven.

Finally, on the last day, it was just something to do.  It would still be hot, hotter even than pass two, but it wasn't like I had a better idea.  It was a simple enough plan so, aside from some sweat, what could go wrong.

So, in late morning, I trekked to the Metro station, trekked back to hotel to return my key, and finally made it back to ticket.  There I was informed that the reason the ticket cost was omitted was because the Qutb Minar Metro station hadn't actually been built yet.  Or anywhere close.

The Book mentioned a bus from Krish Bhawan but didn't waste space on useless details like where or even what Krish Bhawan was.

Too late in the afternoon, I found myself at Krish Bhawan.  It seems to be a bazaar.  I never found the bus.

I never found a bus to the airport either but more expensive means prevailed.  I was confronted with five enormous queues just to get inside.  I think this is a result of the ash cloud over Europe rather than Indian style business as usual.  I slipped into the international terminal at 11:00pm, one hour short of the 180 day maximum stay allowed for a tourist visa.

Twenty-two hours to fly half way around the world.  I've actually traveled for longer periods within India.  I don't think it was even until the layover in Korea that it started to sink in that this path was “out”.  At journey's end, I would not be in India anymore.

I still don't know what happens next.  There is a stack of cruft to take care of but beyond that is more uncertainty.  No job waiting, no interviews in queue.  Leads but limited substance.  Too much like before.  Madagascar is still out there but I will need to find manageable airfare in a short time or wait another year.