Sunday, August 16, 2009

Shimla to Chandigarh

We were looking forward to taking the bus from Sarahan to Shimla, the capital city of Himachal Pradesh. We were officially off the notorious Hindustan-Tibet highway and on paved highway. Should be smooth sailing, right? Wrong! The winding mountain road was barely wide enough for all four wheels. In India paved roads don't mean safety, they mean that the driver can go extra fast. We careened around the twists and turns at break-neck speeds, accelerating into hairpin turns and relying on the breaks to get us out of them. James thought that this leg of the trip was actually the most harrowing, but Antonia thinks he must have been sleeping through the high mountain passes when stones where crumbling beneath our tires, falling into the abyss.

When we finally arrived in Shimla it was obvious that we were back amongst the tourist crowd, both foreign and Indian. The beautiful and historic hill station was the summer home of the British Raj, and is a popular honeymoon destination. It was certainly a departure from the small, remote villages that we had been visiting over the past ten days, but we spent an enjoyable couple of days relaxing and using the conveniences that had become rare luxuries to us (internet! coffee shops!). We had already become such small-town folk that the lights strung out along the hillside from the city at night made us marvel at the size of the huge capital city, actually made up of only 400,000 people.

Shimla is famous for its monkey population. They are everywhere: walking along the sidewalk, crossing electrical wires, and covering the roofs of buildings. They are very cheeky and daring and are not afraid to come right into a crowded street if they spot something that they want. They are extremely clever and have been taught that people will feed them if they are mischevious enough. One fellow tourist was taking a picture of a temple dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey-god, when a monkey jumped up and stole the prescription glasses right off of her face. He refused to give them back until she reluctantly threw him a package of cookies that she happened to have with her. Ransom paid, he dropped the glasses and went for the snack.

We found this monkey enjoying an ice cream cone. We wouldn't be surprised if he snatched it right out of a toddler's hand.
So, in hindsight, Emilie never should have hung her laundry on the balcony. Because while we were all watching a movie in her room, she went out to collect it and noticed that her underwear had been torn. We went out to investigate and that's when we saw a monkey at the end of the long balcony, holding her bright blue salwar pants like they were a great prize. He returned our stare and tightened his grip on them with a determined look on his little face. We chased him but he disappeared with the pants onto the roof of our guesthouse. We were straining to get a glimpse of him when we noticed a flash of blue from the other side of the roof. We ran over only to have the dangling pants snatched out of our reach at the last minute. He was taunting us! He played like this with us for awhile and finally took the pants to the lower roof next door, where we could do nothing but helplessly watch him tear them apart. Other monkeys tried to steal them from him, but he jumped from rooftop to rooftop until we could see scraps of blue strewn across every surrounding roof.

We headed away from the monkey business on the historic Shimla-Kalka toy train. This narrow gauge rail was built in 1898 to traverse the terrain, too hilly for a regular sized rail. The toy train is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although it wasn't the Tinker Town type train that you might be imagining, and it wasn't conducted by an eight year old, it was pretty teeny tiny and the colourful little cars were very cute. And of course, the bridges, tunnels and mountains that the train was able to go through made it the most scenic train trip we have taken.

The toy train took us as far as Kalka, and after a short ride on a regular sized train (how boring!) we were back in the sweltering heat in Chandigarh, the capital city of Punjab and Haryana. This oddity of a city was planned after partition, and designed by architect Le Corbusier. We had never before been to a planned city, and this one could not have been more unlike what we have seen elsewhere in India. Divided into equal 'sectors', the city was meant to be made up of numerous neighbourhoods that could act as self-sufficient, mixed-use entities. The resulting map of Chandigarh is a perfect configuration of identical rectangles, and neighbourhoods are known by their sector number. It was like being in a dystopian novel: we were staying in Sector 22, the bus station was in Sector 17, and the train station was in Sector 14. Chandigarh is sprawling, but with empty, green spaces instead of urban congestion. There were traffic lights that were actually obeyed, and separate lanes for bicycles! It was interesting to see a calm, green Indian city, and Le Corbusier's idea doesn't seem like a bad one, but because there is no centre of activity, the space and sprawl makes the city seem like a suburban nightmare with no redeeming core of bustling activity.

Another nice difference that we found in Chandigarh was an indoor, air-conditioned grocery store, where we shopped for picnic supplies before heading to Nek Chand's Fantasy Rock Garden. Nek Chand was a road inspector during the reconceptualization of Chandigarh, which naturally involved a lot of demolition of what was already established there. Seeing the waste that was created, he began collecting it and making it into artwork. This consisted mostly of statues, figurines and mosaics made of ceramics, pottery and things like broken bangles. He quietly worked on expanding his secret little world of creatures for eighteen years before his work was discovered and eventually turned into a public space. He still has an office inside the park and has continued to expand it ever since.

We spent a lovely morning exploring the forty-acre rock garden, which is a unique mix of nature park, playground, art gallery and amusement park. It reminded us of an Alice in Wonderland world, where we had no idea what was around every turn. Following the path along the park, you stumble upon walls made of tiny clay pots, concealing fields full of charming figures made from bangles. A narrow stone passageway will unexpectedly open up to an idyllic enclave with waterfalls, butterflies and dragonflies of seemingly unnatural colours darting everywhere. If you don't look closely you will miss a meticulous ceramic village on top of some rocks, or a stone staircase beside a waterfall that is impossible to get to, and doesn't lead anywhere. Near the end of the journey, the park opens up to a large mosaicked theatre area, with silly mirrors, swings attached to a huge rock sculpture, and a camel dressed in bells and bright colours giving rides to children. The rock garden was so fun, so whimsical, and truly wonderful: literally full of wonders!

After our picnic of sandwiches, we hired a cycle-rickshaw to take us to visit Chandigarh's High Court, also designed by Le Corbusier. This turned out to be a mistake, as the High Court was about two steps down the road, and closed. Luckily, though, the High Court Museum was open, and it was very interesting to see original plans for the city, models of the courtrooms, prints of Le Corbusier's tapestries, and some interesting artefacts from Punjab's judicial history. A very kind and eager curator was on hand to give us a tour and proudly display a copy of the Indian Constitution. Outside we visited Le Corbusier's famous Open Hand statue, and walked around the courthouse for as long as we could stand the heat. Then it was time to head for Delhi and the last leg of our adventure.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Eastern Himachal Pradesh - part II

Once at the bottom of the mountain from Dhankar, we waited on the highway for the bus. Soon we hailed down a van, which luckily happened to be driven by a monk who belonged to the monastery at our next destination. He graciously offered to take us with him and we clamboured into the back of the van for the ride toward Tabo.

At Tabo we checked into the monastery guesthouse. Being very tired and hungry from all of the climbing that we had done over the last couple of days, we were looking forward to a rest, but it was not to be. The Buddhist museum in the monastery was about to close and not reopen until after our departure. So, we stumbled through the rare and beautiful artefacts, hoping that our bleary eyes were registering something for posterity.

The next morning we woke up at 5:30 am for puja. Tabo's was a disappointment after coming from Dhankar. There were more tourists in attendance than monks, and the monks did not seem to have the same gusto in their chanting. In both puja ceremonies, though, our favourite part was picking out the monks who were fast asleep. They would wake up after awhile with a big yawn that was incorporated as inconspicuously as possible into the ongoing chant.

After a breakfast of thick and filling Tibetan bread, we explored the dark rooms of the Tabo gompa using our headlamps. Established in 996 A.D., it houses some of the finest Indo-Tibetan art in the world and is protected by UNESCO. The several temples that we visited in the complex were indeed very beautiful, with thousand year old paintings illuminating the walls that are now warped from the passage of time. The main temple is full of large statues of Buddha, gods and demons, which form a massive three-dimensional mandala.

That afternoon we left for the village of Nako, which turned out to be the most beautiful village we visited on the whole trip. Small and nestled on top of a large valley, its narrow, winding streets were filled with as much Buddhist imagery as could possibly fit into the little town. Prayer flags adorned every stone entryway and villagers stopped every few steps to turn makeshift prayer wheels fashioned from wood, leather and old paint cans. We had to always make sure that we were veering left on the road so that we were properly honouring the mani walls that sprung up wherever there was enough space. These are walls made of flat stones engraved with prayers and piled on top of each other. Walking a complete circuit clockwise - half on your way to work, for example, and the other way back - is the equivalent of saying each prayer in the mani wall.

We took a short hike up the dry and dusty mountain above Nako to view the town from afar, and to visit the various prayer flags and stupas that are scattered above it. Here we saw the longest mani wall that we have ever seen, and it was wonderful to explore these monuments by ourselves on the rugged terrain. Archways hiding intricate murals and stone stupas with nothing around them but arid land seemed to exist just in case a wandering soul happened upon them in need of a spiritual respite.

We then caught another scary bus, this one with a driver who never honked as he was going around blind turns on the edges of cliffs, despite numerous signs urging him to do so. Several times we broke sharply when he was surprised by another vehicle at the last moment. We wound our way down to around 2,000 metres. Although we were now much lower than we had been for the past week, the scenery was perhaps even more beautiful because of the vegetation that could flourish, and the clouds that were caught up in the trees, beneath the peaks. We found our way to Kalpa, a small town of slate-roof houses in the midst of the lush blue and green mountains, snow-capped peaks, and clouds.

We explored the village and its main temple, which boasted beautiful wood carvings and lots of depictions of animals in kama sutra positions (!!!), set against the mountain backdrop. When the rain started we huddled into a small tea shop for some of the best chai of our entire trip, and watched some toddler boys - without any apparent adult supervision for the day - play in the rain.

That afternoon we felt like playing cards in our hotel room, but decided that we needed to be good travelers, taking every advantage to explore and experience. We decided to catch a bus that went up the mountain to another small town. We knew that we would have to walk back down, but we had been told that it was a nice hour-long hike downhill. So, we waved down a bus heading up and settled in for another periless ride winding up the mountainside. This turned out to be one of the more unsettling rides we experienced, with gravel roads as narrow as the bus being the only thing to protect us from plummetting straight down for miles. There seemed to be no place to 'hike' down other than this road, and we were all silently sizing up how we would walk back. When the bus made it to the summit we all looked at each other and understood what we had each been thinking: there is no way we're getting off this bus and walking down this road. The bus driver and conductor thought it was hilarious when the foreigners paid for another ride right back down without even getting off the bus, and we couldn't believe that we had chosen to take this dangerous ride without even having seen anything at our destination.

That night we were having dinner when all of a sudden we spotted a large procession making its way through the village streets. We left our meals and ran after the throngs of people playing music and carrying huge images of deities through the village toward the temple. We learned that this was a celebration in honour of the gods that are said to protect Kalpa. We also quickly learned that it was an occasion marked by the consumption of large quantities of apple wine, the local specialty. We followed the procession into the temple courtyard where we were offered 'apple juice' poured liberally out of teapots. It was apparent from the behaviour of some of the men that the party had been going on for quite some time, so we declined the invitation to join in the fun and headed home.

Our next destination was the town of Sarahan, renowned for its ancient Bhimakali temple. This large temple is devoted to Kali, goddess of destruction, and for that reason it was the site of ritual human sacrifices until the 18th century, and remains the location of occasional animal sacrifices.

We stayed in the temple guesthouse, which overlooked the platform reserved for human sacrifice. The temple was very beautiful, and of course set amongst gorgeous, lush mountains, but it had some of the most interesting and portentous imagery we have seen. The Hindu gods that we have become familiar with, usually in serene poses and with contented expressions, were depicted ferociously crushing animals and ripping humans apart.

We used our day to explore the temple and walk around the surrounding apple orchards. During this walk Antonia found not one but two four-leaved clovers. Sarahan also had some of the most delicious food. We enjoyed samosas, pakoras and sweets for lunch at a cute little chaat shop, and this Tibetan soup for dinner was divine and cost less than a dollar:

This cow also seemed to be enjoying a delicious dinner when we came across him in Nako: