Saturday, June 16, 2007

Escape to McLeod Ganj

So, Sarah and I weren't too impressed with Manali. Which is a bit of a surprise because we've talked to several people since who thought it was a wonderful place. Maybe we just weren't in the right headspace. Or, maybe it's just that it too closely resembled home... well, except the streams were choked with Lay's wrappers, and the streets were overrun with Indian tourists.

Apparently, Manali is a popular tourist destination with Indian tourists escaping the heat of the south during the summer. And, and as a result, the streets were clogged with people and the surrounding countryside was clogged with garbage. It also didn't help that our travel agency stuck is in a hotel that was a 30 minute walk from town, all of the walk along a crowded dusty street.

We did have a couple good moments. Like, enjoying some food and a beer on the rooftop of a restaurant overlooking a green, pine-filled valley and roaring whitewater river. But, when were able to make arrangements with the hotel to hop on a bus for Dharamsala, we were happy to be on the road again.

We were booked onto a night bus that evening, and you all know how I enjoy a good night bus. This bus was actually unique to us in that, while we had fairly comfortable reclining seats, there were actually beds above us (where usually there'd be a luggage rack), that other passengers were sleeping.

The bus was supposed to leave a 6pm, but -as usual- we didn't actually get on the road until a quarter to 7. The actual ride went fairly smoothly though. The bus tended to stop every 15 minutes or so to load or unload people, but other that that, the roads were a significant step up from our last couple drives.

Sometime around 3am, I actually started to even doze off... only to be suddenly awoken by a bus attendant: "Dharamsala!" Already?!

Sarah and I then unloaded off the bus with four other tourists. The attendant gave us our bags, then climbed back on the bus. The bus came to life again, and drove off into the darkness, leaving the six of us standing on the corner of an anonymous intersection. It was roughly 3:30, and the city was pitch black.

Four men came wandering up to us. Possibly touts. Possibly cab drivers. Possibly drunk.

"You need hotel?" One asked me.

"We have hotel." I said, showing him my voucher the travel agency gave us. He looked at it carefully for a moment, then handed it back.

"You hotel in Dharamsala. Dharmasala is 14 kilometers that way." He pointed down one of the roads. So, apparently, our bus to Dharamsala thought that it was good enough just to get us within 15 kilometers of Dharamsala and ditch us on a corner in the middle of the night.

In the confusion that followed, it turned out that one of the men was a taxi driver with a jeep. So, the six of us piled into the jeep with him, to drive to Dharamsala. And away we went into the darkness again.

After 15 minutes or so, we arrived in downtown Dharamsala. The other two pairs of tourists actually wanted to continue on to McLeod Ganj. McLoud Ganj is actually another 14 kilometers or so up the road from Dharamsala. While Dharamsala is the larger of the two towns; McLeod Ganj is the actual home of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the more popular tourist location. Dharmasala, on the other hand, is supposed to be fairly unnoteworthy.

It stood to reason then that our useless travel agents would book us in a hotel in Dharamsala. Not McLeod Ganj. I showed our driver the voucher for our hotel.

"Do you know where this hotel is?"

He looked at it long and hard. "This hotel not here. It is 14 kilometers that way." Pointing back the way we came.

"Not in Dharamsala? Not in McLeod Ganj?"

"No. 14 kilometers. Back that way."

At that point I was furious at the travel agents. I looked at Sarah. "Screw that noise. We're going to McLeod Ganj." She nodded in agreement. And, like that, we decided that we were ditching our travel agency and would be following our own path again.

So, the driver fired up his jeep and again, and we began the climb to McLeod Ganj. Like so many of the roads in the Himilayas, the climb from Dharamsala to McLeod Ganj redefines the word "windy." It's a tight series of steeply climbing switchbacks, that would have been nerve wracking to begin with. But, were even more so at 4am, with a driver who's sobriety I still had secret doubts about. But, luckily, we made it to the top of the hill in one piece.

The taxi driver dropped Sarah, the two girls from Quebec and myself off in the town center, then him and the couple drove off to their hotel in the other part of town. The two girls from Quebec introduced themselves at Cleo and Jen, and said they didn't really know where they were going to stay either. Then, as we all stood around trying to decide what to do, another jeep pulled up and a guy jumped out.

"Hi, I'm Phil! How's it going?" The British newcomer announced.

So, now a party of five, we decided to set out in search of a guesthouse. Phil had a rough idea about a neighborhood that was suppsed to have some good guesthouses, so following his lead, we made our way down the streets surrounded by howling packs of dogs. After walking down one street, backtracking and then walking down another, it became obvious that everything in town was closed.

Then, as we stood in the middle of the street, with the sky slowly growning lighter, and the occasional flash of lighting flickering above us, we noticed a man unlocking a door to a pool hall. He offered to let us in, and we presumed he was opening for the day, so we accepted his offer.

As it turned out, he wasn't opening. It also turned out that another poolhall employee was sleeping on the floor. So, as the two of them lay on the floor smoking, our little ragtag group huddled by the window, introducing ourselves and exchanging travel stories.

Soon, we decided that it was late enough that things might begin opening. So, I volenteered to go out and look around a bit more. Unfortunately, it had started raining. But, Phil loaned me his raincoat (mine was packed away), and I headed out into the morning storm. It quickly became apparent that the few guesthouses in that neighborhood were all full, but a little tea stand had opened a block away, so I hurried back to the group and we changed locales.

Soon we were all jammed into the tea stand with another Irish couple, the stands owner, and one very, very large spider (which, when Sarah pointed out to Phil, literally made him squeel as he dove across the table to get away from it).

Having all finished a quick cup of tea, we arranged to climb into a pair of autorickshaws to take us back to another guesthouse the Irish couple had told us about (it was raining even harder at this point). Sarah and I were in one rickshaw, while the other three climbed into the other. Our driver didn't realize at first that we were going to the hostel, so when we told him, he quickly turned around and we zipped back up the street and crashed into it (literally, the driver crashed into the curb in front of the hostel).

It turned out that this hostel had rooms... but very shabby rooms. So, me, Cleo and Jen volenteered to go out looking for better ones. At this point it was really raining. I'm not talking about the wimpy mist that passes for rain in Seattle... this was the type of downpour which soaked any unfortunate soul within seconds.

As we hunted door-to-door, the girls and I found ourselves literally wading up the street, which had become a six inch deep river. Then, at another point, as we climbed a long series of stairs, we had to pass through a literal sheet of water spraying from a clogged drainage pipe.

But, luckily, we found a place with decent rooms. So, we made our way back to where the other too sat warming themselves and sipping tea.

Now in our new guesthouse, we discovered that there were only two rooms available. A guest literally walked down the stairs, announced he wasn't checking out, and our room was gone. So, again, I volunteered to go hunting for another room.

Lucky for me, I found one quick enough. And a better room at that. Next door, up a little secret flight of rough stairs, was another guesthouse. And, to make things better, this one had a corner window with a pretty nice view. Let's check it out, shall we:

We had arrived. And, at a little pass 7am, we finally got to sleep.

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