Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | October 7, 2012

India: Shimla and the rubbish tip that is the home of the Dalai Lama

Main drag: Shimla has ponies and a bandstand, gazebo-type structure

Dorothy Parker said ‘hell is other people’. Hell is also other people’s noise, especially if you are in the mountains for yoga and spiritual or physical rejuvenation, and there is more aggravation than in Central London. I will be complaining a lot in this post. But there is one miracle.

Shimla

Hill station view: Looking out from Shimla

It’s not all bad, Shimla is quite a revelation. The capital of Himachal Pradesh could be a contender for a Tidy Town award, if they had such a thing in India. No cars in the main town, a smoking-free zone, lots of bins and hardly any rubbish – I was impressed.

The former Viceroy’s Lodge is formidably large and Scottish, its baronial panelling now used as a home for the Institute of Advanced Indian Studies. There is a guided tour, although you can only visit about four rooms. One was used for the Shimla Conference where at least part of the Partition of India was decided.

A narrow gauge toy train weaves its way up the mountains to Shimla, which I intended to investigate, but I got entangled in another plan which meant I was taken there (which was nice) but no railway, a very short visit and a hellishly early departure for Chandigarh which set back my virus recovery and sent me back to bed for a day.

Finally I left Chandigarh for good on a local bus which according to the internet would take 4.5 hours to reach Dharamsala, but in reality took more like eight hours. The internet said the bus would depart at 8.50am. A friend said he would take me to the bus station, but not till 8.30am.

‘It will only take 10 or 15 minutes to drive there,’ he said. Hmmm, so I’d get there five minutes before the bus departed. It can take longer than that just to find the ticket counter.

‘That’s too late,’ I said.

‘It won’t leave on time,’ he replied. ‘This is India.’

We had a small disagreement about that, and in the end we went at 8am. Being India, nothing is predictable. The bus station was reasonably orderly, the counter was right there in the open where almost anyone could find it, despite inaccurate signage, and the bus left at 8.38am.

McLeod Ganj

View from the echo chamber: This is good at least; clouds parting and sun starting to set in the valley

It took all day to reach Dharamsala, and my ultimate destination, McLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama and a full array of hippyish, New Agey pursuits. I quite like that kind of thing; in amongst all the crystals and thangkas I hoped to find someone to give me a decent massage. My neck muscles are even more tortured than the squealing brakes on the Dharamsala bus, which I would not care to test on even a mild descent.

Rinky of Victoria House found me at the bus station so I went with him and the room was quite nice. Sadly the building was  opposite a rather noisy guesthouse and drop off point for locals on motorbikes. When I decided to close the windows to block out their arrivals and departures, I discovered I couldn’t, because the glass was missing. One void had plastic over it, the other had shards in a broken frame. This is a first. No windows means no stay here.

Next morning I awoke with gut pains that largely immobilised me, but I had to move. Luckily there was another guesthouse a short distance away that looked peaceful and had window frames with glass in them.

The second one seemed good: I was told there was one day of building work but then it would be finished. Noise in the afternoon is fine, as long as it is quiet when I need to sleep. By say 11pm.

After a quick lunch I saw The Darjeeling Limited, set largely on an Indian train so I could relate to that. The Cinemaa is in a basement and looking for a handbasin I saw someone’s room – filthy and with moldy carpet. I don’t know how anyone could live like that. I could smell the mold – I’d be ripping up that carpet and spraying everything with hydrochloric acid.

Then I saw a poster about volunteering for English conversation classes with Tibetans so I went and confused a Tibetan man about grammar and tried to teach him the difference in pronunciation between ‘carry’ and ‘curry’. Amazingly enough, he wanted to do it again the next day and invited me for tea and dinner and various other things, but I had to find out about buses.

Peaceful sunny morning: The general area is relieved that the weekend hordes have gone home, although the town is packed with tour groups who have come to see the Dalai Lama

Two travel agents and a trip to the bus stand later and I was sorted there. Sadly the little Himalayan railway I wanted to take from Kangra was not operating. I have very bad luck with trains, when I got on Darjeeling’s Toy Train the second time  for a decent chug up the mountain, we managed to get 2km out of the town of Kurseong before the train broke down and we had to abandon it.

After dinner I wandered around and met the guy who runs the Cinemaa. I ended up having chai with him in a handicrafts shop full of crystals, then more gut pains were telling me I should get back and go to bed. While laughing at some cows eating rubbish, a young Tibetan guy started talking to me, said he’d show me this massage place and I ended up in his (astoundingly dirty) room while he tried to massage my stomach. I appreciated the thought but he was dripping oil everywhere and I really wanted to get back to my room. The thing that worried me the most was that, given the state of where he was living, I could only hope his hands were cleaner.

He was a strangely intense fellow – he kept telling me to relax and that ‘nothing would happen’, but between the spasms and the blackened bedding I was perching on, it wasn’t easy. Going to the main temple the next day, he asked why I didn’t go to the puja with the Dalai Lama, said he’d massage my stomach more (hmmm) and kissed me on the cheek. I finally went and looked at the massage place in the daytime and it appeared nothing but bacteria had been in there for years.

After the stomach massage I was up late declogging the shower head so more than three tiny streams of water could push their way through. By the time I’d pulled it apart and fixed it, it was about 1am.

Next morning, there were fewer spasms, but there was lots of loud noise from labourers moving things and loads of banging. This was exactly what I didn’t want. So I went out to find out what the guesthouse people understood by one day of building work. They stopped working when I appeared and there was a long discussion about how long this work would take. The owner said it would be done that day and I didn’t believe him, but I suggested he told the builders to get back to what they were doing instead of just staring at me. Then the main banging guy got on his motorbike and sped off.

The towel I had been given smelt strange and was made of some synthetic material that just moved water around, so I asked for another one. I was offered various towels lying around on chairs where the builders were working.

‘I would like a clean one,’ I said. I’m sure the owner thought I was completely neurotic but eventually another stained towel appeared. It also had bits of yellow stuff sticking to it, and a maggot. I went out again to show the owner the maggot.

‘You really need someone to do a better job with the laundry,’ I told him. He seemed to agree. I didn’t ask for another towel, but another one appeared, then the owner wanted me to go to Dharamsala with him for towel shopping. He mentioned prices, so maybe he thought I would buy myself a towel, which I absolutely do not want to do. Too damn bulky.

Walking around McLeod Ganj I was slightly depressed by the noise and the rubbish and the unregulated building that is causing small landslides. The traffic is horrible, and walking on the main roads is fairly unpleasant.

There was more banging in the guesthouse the next day, and the next. But I was past worrying about that. What bothered me far more was that the wretched Dalai Lama was teaching and the town had filled with millions of tour groups. And it was the weekend, so Punjabis and other locals were flocking to McLeod Ganj to hoon around in pointlessly large cars, shout, throw rubbish everywhere and generally behave like they deserved to be pushed off the mountain.

I’d made a new friend, Yakub Ehmed Shalla of the Kundalini ‘esoteric boutique’ (getyakub@yahoo.co.in). it was Yakub’s shop I had chai in the other night, and he also has a large selection of pashminas and rugs and local handicrafts. Plus he is a gem expert, hence all the crystals. If I was any kind of shopper I would probably buy something from him. But mostly we just chat.

He knows about reiki and holistic healing and we discuss many things, including all the things I want to complain about. He basically agreed with everything I say, but he is more relaxed about it. He said when McLeod Ganj becomes really messy, it will be cleaned up, and it will probably get worse before it gets better.

Indian tourists

Everyone hates Indian tourists. The Indians hate them, hoteliers hate them, and now I am getting close to hating them. Indians are not welcome everywhere in their own country. They are banned in many hotels in central Kolkata for example, and when I arrived there I thought this was awful. Now I understand why.

Naturally there are exceptions, but a large percentage of Indian tourists are rude, noisy, dirty and destructive. They travel in packs, leave wreckage in their wake and scream constantly. A perfectly decent room in a guesthouse is ready for renovation after a five or six Indians have been in there upending tables, screeching and making a nuisance of themselves. They are the Keith Moons of the Developing World without the drumming skill.

Case One: About five young guys move into the room next to me. They assured me they were just there to sleep and they would leave early the next morning. Unfortunately this building has horrible acoustics also, and tends to amplify voices. I realised it was reasonably quiet when I arrived because it was reasonably empty.

I asked them nicely not to make too much noise in this echo chamber of a guesthouse as I have not been well and I need to sleep. At 1am they are still shouting at each other. They wake me up at 6am and again at 8am, at which time they are rolling around shrieking with their door open to share their squeals with the world, at which point I got up, marched in there and gave them a bollocking like they have never had in their lives. Their mouths dropped open, and they were much quieter after that. Sadly yelling at them worked much better than being polite.

About noon when I returned from looking for another guesthouse (pointless now the Dalai Lama is here – see a horrible one called Seven Hills where you have to wait 30 minutes for a hot shower and then pay extra), they were still there and arguing about something, probably something they broke.

Case Two: The next night there is a lot of noise from upstairs so I trotted up to investigate. There are at least four large Punjabis in a room that looks like they have been in there for a month surviving by eating bits of furniture. When they see me, one of them starts talking about black magic. I thought they’d been dabbling in witchcraft, but they’ve been to a bar, got drunk and been beaten up in a fight at a venue called Black Magic.

‘We were in a fight, so we were shouting about that,’ they explained. They are a bit upset about this, so I do a little energy healing work with them to calm them down and help them feel better. They seemed to like this and were very grateful. They were quite sweet really, like large, inebriated Labrador puppies.

‘You are the nicest person we meet here,’ said the drunkest one, which probably isn’t saying much, considering how the people who live here feel about most of the weekend visitors. He then took me to see his jeep and offered to drive me somewhere. It is a mark of my new maturity that I was not even tempted.

Case Three: I was listening to my soothing rain noises on the iPod, but it was competing with an insistent voice that just did not stop. It’s after midnight by now. Some guy with an ugly moustache was lecturing his wife on the balcony a few feet below.

I asked him nicely if he wouldn’t mind lowering his voice a little, and he got very irate, saying things like: ‘Are you telling me I can’t talk to my wife!’ (um, no), shouted ‘I’m not shouting!’ and yelled ‘Go to your room and sleep!’ I only wished I could, but he was keeping me awake.

He refused to lower his voice, saying his friends could sleep through it (they are probably used to tuning him out) and he would ‘talk’ to his wife for another half an hour (poor woman). I can’t imagine he was listing all the nice things he was going to do for her, so I bet she couldn’t wait for the pompous ass to shut up too. He accused me of being drunk and I told him he was a stupid, rude man. I have a feeling his wife enjoyed that.

I was involved with someone like Ugly Moustache Man once. He would just talk and talk on some subject he was interested in, like autobahns or his skin problems, and someone else might get to squeeze out a sentence and then he’d be back on to German roads and psoriasis again.

Honky town

Taking a walk along the Bhagsu Road out of McLeod Ganj the next day, I ambled – honked at all the way – to the next conurbation of Bhagsu, a depressing pile of concrete, dust and cars full of hundreds of squawking daytrippers.

On the way back, I was thinking about how awful Indian tourists are when I met a local with a small jewellery store. Without prompting he launched into a tirade about how awful Indian tourists are, how rudely and noisily they behave, how they steal from him and what a purgatorial experience Sundays are. It doesn’t make them less annoying, but at least I know it’s not just me.

Here’s a tip: Avoid McLeod Ganj and Bahgsu on the weekend, though not of course if you enjoy car horns and litter.

We both agreed these people lack manners and respect for others or the environment. It’s time they grew up and stopped behaving like such self-centred brats. It’s a choice, I have a friend in Kolkata who has nothing and has had about six months’ schooling in his life and his manners are better than 100 of these arrogant, marauding barbarians put together.

Miracle

I was feeling mightily aggravated when I was trying to find guesthouse number three, and then I looked down and realised that in addition to all my other grievances, I had lost something. Most of my jewellery has either disappeared or been stolen, but I’ve managed to retain a ruby ring for 27 years. The setting is nothing special, but rubies are nice. Or were. I looked down and the pink stone was gone. If I was the kind of person to get a firearm and shoot people at the post office, I would probably be ready to do it now.

Instead I just made Marge Simpson grunty noises and trudged back to the echo chamber. That morning I had been all over town, and I tried to accept that the ruby was to be seen no more. I imagined how much worse I’d feel if it was a big chunky diamond, but that didn’t cheer me up that much.  I recalled however, the ring feeling a bit strange earlier – maybe when I was getting dressed. I searched the bed, thinking maybe the ruby fell out while I was tossing and turning and grinding my teeth. No luck. Stomping around grumpily I looked towards the door.  Amazingly enough, guess what was lying there …

Massage

Mitter Singh is good, if you want a vigorous healing massage. He worked on the congested points in my neck and shoulders and loosened them significantly. Mitter Singh can be contacted at Mitter.gasny@gmail.com, and found at the Tashi Choling Monastery, Jogiwara Rd, opp Hotel Akash. After two sessions I was thoroughly prodded and pummelled and and my shoulder muscles were much happier.

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