In this desire to blast through things and get them over with, I've lost all drive to finish recounting what I've done, and I don't think anybody much cares anyways. Additionally, things have gotten busier with Rotary farewells, making preparations for my departure, and my own goodbyes. Nonetheless, I set a task for myself, and even if I'm the only looking at what I wrote, I know that I will probably appreciate this when I look back in a few months, or a few years, or whenever. There are three things left - short stops on the tour, Holi (the best festival not named Diwali), and my recent visits to India's grandest cities, Mumbai and New Delhi. I'm starting this on May 2nd - the goal is to have it posted by Friday the 6th. I'll do the tour here, the rest of it next week, and then I'll probably put something together two or three days before I leave.
The Taj Mahal
So we went to the Taj Mahal, which is located in the city of Agra. The Taj Mahal, of course, needs no introduction - it is one of the most recognizable edifices in the world. The effect of the Taj Mahal, with all of the hype surrounding it, is pretty stunning. We got up at about 6 to see it, because the crowds get pretty nuts later in the day, and we had a long drive ahead of us. Even though we sort of beat the crowd, it was still very busy, and we had to stand in line to get through security, which was tight by the way. The line was totally worth it, because I found a fellow Minnesotan in India! This was the first time this has happened. I was stoked.
It does take your breath away - when you pass through the surrounding complex, you eventually come to a big, old gate that is pretty impressive in itself. And then you look through it, and there it is, almost like a picture in the distance. There's something about the color and type of stone that was used in the Taj Mahal that makes it seems kind of hazy and mystical. It's pretty fantastic.
Unfortunately for us, it was raining (which is unbelievable - it NEVER rains in India at this time of year), but that didn't really pose much of a problem. The Taj Mahal is gorgeous and breathtaking, and in person it absolutely lives up to it's hype. There aren't even very many annoying hawkers in the area. There are many reasons why everyone should come to India - the Taj Mahal is decidedly one of them.
We also went to Delhi, but I'll talk about Delhi later. Dharamshala is the general name for a collective of small villages located at the roots of the Himalayas. I don't mean to overstate things (although I going to do just that), but this was something like my favorite place ever. By far the most difficult things to deal with in a big city in India, for me personally, have been the noise, bustling activity, and the lack of surrounding natural beauty. Dharamshala is a magnificent antithesis to Surat (which I should mention that I do not loathe or anything, but it does present some difficulties for me). I mean, the Himalayas are RIGHT THERE. You see them for hours driving from the nearest train station to the town we were staying in.
Besides the striking, overwhelming visual of the world's most famous mountain chain in the background, the various small villages are small but cluttered, and generally clean. Although there are certainly pleasant hotels, cafes, homes and restaurants to be found in the area, it is not an especially developed zone. The roads aren't great, and you're always right next door to the mountains, and there are thick forests covering the area. We were not at all prepared for the climate. We should have been, probably, because once you get up to the mountains, it's obviously cold, and we knew where we were going on the trip. So we had to go into town and buy winter gear right away. There wasn't snow in the village, but it was still pretty cold, kind of MN November temperatures, though I don't have any statistics to back that conjecture up.
Our hotel was located in a village with nothing but a bunch of small houses. There was a larger town, McLeod Ganj, located about a half hour's walk through the woods away from the hotel. Besides it's hilarious Scottish/Indian name, McLeod Ganj is an awesome village with a bunch of fine restaurants, cafes, and markets. We actually had quite a need to peruse these markets, since we were all without proper winter wear. It is also a fascinating cross section of peoples. There are Indians in this part of the country, but not many. Cold is not appreciated by most people here, which I can understand, though I disagree. There is also a minority of curious ex-pats and a handful of tourists there. You meet the coolest people here. We met this guy from Cincinnati, a retired inner-city English teacher who had come here to live out his days. We also met a girl from New York state, about 24 or 25, who had left America after completing college to become a Tibetan pop star. I'm not even kidding. She showed us videos and a sizable Facebook fan club.
Tibet is the predominant influencing cultural factor in Dharamsala. I would say at least 70% of the population, if not more, is made up of displaced Tibetans. This is a whole new culture for me. I know next to nothing about Tibet, other than that they are fighting for independence from China and that the Dalai Lama is their political leader. He would live there if his government wasn't exiled. Guess where he lives now? McLeod Ganj. We went to his main temple, the Tsuglag Khang.
I don't really mean to get political here, but talking to some of these Tibetans, you hear horrible, incredible stories about the atrocities committed against their peoples by the Chinese government. There was a guy who walks around with hand in a sling - it was shot and he had to escape, crossing the mountains into Dharamshala without any surgery on the arm. It's dead now, he can't use it. There are people who have no idea where their sons and daughters are. The American/Tibetan pop star was once captured by the Chinese for taking part in a peaceful protest (fortunately, she had a contingency plan with the American embassy to keep her out of prison for too long). If there were ever people who don't deserve this kind of persecution, it's the Tibetans. They are the most friendly, peaceful people you could possibly meet. I am very behind the Free Tibet movement now.
Through the retired American teacher that we met, we found this young Tibetan man named Gyeltsin, who had, in a typical Dharamshala story, escaped to India over the Himalayas. He told us that they had to only move at night so the Chinese wouldn't see them. Imagine crossing the Himalayas, of all places, in these circumstances. Incredible story. Anyways, he took us up to a Tibetan school in a village further up the mountain and showed us a traditional Tibetan culture show, with music, singing and dancing.
The way we had found this guy was from asking the American if he knew anyone that could take us on a hike. Gyeltsin was the guy. So the next day, he took myself and six others on a hike. The plan was to go to the snow line, but once we got there, we decided to keep going. It gets to be basically a winter scene very quickly. This was not an easy hike - it took us almost an entire day to get up and down, and it was physically taxing. This was a Himalaya that we were climbing - perhaps an outer, baby Himalaya, but a Himalaya nonetheless. Beyond that I finally got my snow fix, this was pretty much the best thing ever. I've been craving this kind of raw, outdoorsy adventure the whole year, and while it was just a taste of the Himalayas, it was still enough for me. I know for a fact that sometime in my life I will come back and explore this part of the world more closely. It's like no place I've ever been.
At no other time this year was it more apparent to me how incredibly diverse the cultures, peoples, and climates are in India. Within the two-week stretch, I rode a camel into a vast desert and I hiked up one of the baby Himalayas in a blizzard. Best trip ever.