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Dharamsala Delights
Rating : (4.5)

Kathmandu, Nepal
May 08, 2003 01:06

Pros: unspoilt countryside, cultural
Cons: none

So, I have made it to the second country on my trip. Nepal is a lot like India at first glance - full of people trying to sell me trinkets, handicrafts and various tat that I don't need, or trying to get me into their auto-rickshaws.

I had a couple more days in Manali after my last post on this site. It began to rain a lot which cut down on my hill trekking. Manali was a good place for the number of its bakeries, very much geared to the western market. There were about 6 'German' bakeries, but only one 'English' bakery. We were outnumbered, but our bakery held a strategic position next to the one river crossing, whilst the German bakeries occupied the higher ground overlooking the bridge. We were clearly in danger of being out-baked. Fortunately reinforcements had arrived - an Israeli bakery had opened next to the English. I decided to go to our bakery under cover of twilight to offer moral support and to buy cake. The owner explained that his bakery was actually in no danger - 'We all sell the same stuff', he said, offering me some streudel.

From Manali I took a 10 hour overnight coach journey to Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama of Tibet, his government-in-exile and a lot of Tibetans. It was a bad omen that 5 minutes into the journey we passed another coach, in a highly crumpled state, being pulled out of the river. No idea how many people had been hurt. Nobody else on my coach seemed surprised - bus drivers in India are expected to drive recklessly.

Dharamsala itself was a great place. Not very big, but a good base for walking in the hills. One day I set off to a nearby village, Dharamkot, and walking beyond it found what I thought was unspoilt countryside. Turning a corner I found a cafe with a bored owner (he was Indian, but had decided to call himself Hans) who wanted to play chess with me. After soundly thrashing him he directed me up to a temple on a nearby hill where I could get a good view. After making it there I came across another cafe, this time with a cross-legged figure drinking Coke outside. He said he was Israeli, but had adopted a Hindu name. I had clearly entered The Land Where Everyone Wants To Be From A Different Country. I thought about renaming myself Marvin and pretending to be American, but then remembered that everyone hates Americans. Anyway, the Indo-Israeli told me about a great waterfall about an hour away and I decided to set off. I was very excited, as it did not appear in my guidebook. However, the signs on the path saying 'To the Waterfall and Cafe' led me to believe that I may not have been one of the first people to discover it.

Dharamsala was also a good place to absorb something of the Tibetan and Buddhist culture. Because of the large number of westerners passing through courses were advertised in Buddhist philosophy, meditation, reiki, Ayurvedic massage, 'harmonizing with the moon'(!) and even a 6 day course on 'Israeli belly-dancing' offered by a long-term Isralei resident, Elke. One centre offered 'Vipassana meditation' which involves a stay of 10 days. Participants are required to rise at 4.30am and not to talk or make eye contact with anyone during the 10 days, nor eat after midday. Strangely, I decided not to take this course, although the thought has crossed my mind of opening such a centre in the UK. It seems an easy way to make money - the food bill will be low and nobody who has paid for a course will be able to speak to complain about anything.

It was fascinating to speak to the Tibetans in Dharamsala. Many had left their families to become refugees in India and now will not be able to return without imprisonment. They told me about the things that had been happening in Tibet - China has closed most of the ancient monasteries, monks have been imprisoned and large numbers of Chinese moved in to ensure that the Tibetans are now a minority in their own country. Chinese must be spoken to obtain any half-decent job there and schools only use the Chinese language. However, there were a number of centres that had been created in Dharamsala dedicated to preserving Tibetan culture, particularly the Norbulingka Institute (www.norbulingka.org/)which preserves traditional crafts (painting, metalwork, woodwork for Buddhist temples) as well as providing vocational training and higher education to Tibetan refugees. I was so impressed I signed up as a member! The hotel I stayed in, Chonor House, was run by the Institute and each room is painted in a different Tibetan theme.

In one museum I met a Thai buddhist monk who was on holiday. He asked me where I was from and we got talking on the walk back into town. I tried to make conversation about Buddhism, but the most profound thing I could think of to say at short notice was 'Why do Thai monks wear gold robes and Tibetan monks wear red robes?' He giggled at that, which I took to mean he did not know. He was very concerned to find out whether David Beckham was staying at Manchester United.

I left there determined to make it into Tibet itself, but now that I have arrived in Kathmandu I find that the Nepal-Tibet border (whether by air or overland) has been closed for at least at month due to SARS, even though there are no reported cases of SARS in Tibet at all. This is disappointing, especially as the waiter in my hotel in Dharamsala had given me a present to take to his family in Lhasa. Oh well, it gives me a good excuse to have another round the world trip next year...

I arrived in Kathmandu 4 days later than I planned. I had booked a flight from Dharamsala to Delhi, but twice it was cancelled due to bad weather. Instead it was a 12 hour overnight coach trip and then a wait in Delhi for a few hours for the flight to Nepal. Oddly, ther is a 15 minute time difference between the 2 countries. Why do they bother with that?

I had hoped to include a section on my favourite /least favourite things about India, but I have waffled too much already so this will have to wait!