Day 1 – 4
Today we had a full day visiting a few of the highlights of Delhi. We started with Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque. Everyone braved the 150 steps of the turret to reach the top, for a fantastic view of the delhi skyline. Afterwards we hit the streets of Old Delhi on a cycle-rickshaw, which is a great way to be part of the action without being too involved in the hustle and bustle. The main shopping street – Chandni Chowk – is a great sight, with cows, pedestrians, motorbikes and cycle rickshaws weaving and tucking around each other (actually the cows do what they want and everyone avoids accordingly), and generally creating a good deal of chaos. It was with some relief then that we reached Raj Ghat, the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi, a very simple and serene place, with none of the paraphernalia or propaganda usually associated with memorials of ‘great’ people.
Old Delhi by cycle rickshaw
I was conscious of the fact that Julie and Kim had arrived the late the night before (and it’s very easy to over do India in the first couple days), so after a visit to Quatab Minar, an ancient astronomical observatory, and a aborted shopping attempt – due to some overly smarmy salesmen – we headed back to our hotel in the suburb of Karol Bagh for some rest. Our dinner was a welcome and farewell one, with Judi and John parting from our group. Thanks you two for your company!
I wont even mention the time we had to wake up in order to give ourselves enough time at the regularly chaotic delhi domestic airport before our flight to Pathankot. With some surprise we took off on time, and after an hour so found ourselves looking down on the green fields of Punjab state. It was a relief to know that we were heading into the countryside and the fresh air of the Himalaya. Sudershan, my driver friend from way back, was at the airport to meet us, and away we went toward the mountains. After breakfast and about an hours driving the Dhaladur range of the outer
Himalaya came into view, and it was a sight to behold, with snow capping the higher peaks. Soon enough we were on the last steep stretch before arriving in Mcleod Ganj itself. It was good to be (second) home! We dropped our bags and took a walk through town, to get an orientation, but also for me to say hi to my friends around town and introduce my traveling companions. It was fantastic to see my good friend Prem Sagar, and everyone was impressed by his knowledge and excellent command of English.It was time for our first Tibetan meal, for which it was very important to have momos – stuffed dumplings. By mid-afternoon we were feeling the effect of an early morning rise, so we took it easy for the rest of the day.
View from Mcleod hotel
Today was the real start of our time in Mcleod. First we had breakfast at all of my travellers’ favourite breakfast restaurant (the one with the Special Muesli, for those of you who have been here with me). We then met Paldon-la, a monk friend and occasional guide and great companion, who came with us to the museum of Tibetan exile, a bit of a heart wrenching commemoration of the disastrous impact of the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet, and to the exile which followed. We needed a chai afterwards, just to calm down, but we got talking to Paldon, and the story of his childhood, ordination as a monk, and later exile, was as emotionally moving as the museum. It was very good of him to share his story, and he did it all along with a smile and laugh! We then visited the Dalai Lama’s monastery – Namgyal monastery – to see the gompa and the spin the prayer wheels (with recitations of the mantra Om Mani Padme Aum if we wanted extra merit).
The Dalai Lama is in his residence at the moment, with a gathering of scientists here in town to have some discussion with him. Hopefully in the next few days we will find a spot in the room showing a live feed of the conference. (Richard Gere is also in the conference, which I found about and didn’t tell the group, for which they later chastised me).
After a western health food lunch of nut burgers and salad, the afternoon was left free for everyone to go about their separate ways and activities. After a light dinner, we visited another monk acquaintance of mine, in order for him to deliver an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism teaching. Being a westerner, Graham was able to deliver the information in a way that took into account our western mindset, with all of the particular challenges and afflictions that we face when it comes to matters of the mind. Once we settled into the teaching the questions flowed, and as I looked around, everyone was deep in thought and reflection. It’s been a full first day here, in terms of both time and the emotional and mental energy we have expended.
In the Gompa
Today we headed off to Bir, another Tibetan settlement, about 60 kms from Dharamsala. There are several large monasteries there, all with large and highly decorated gompas (temples). We spent the morning poking around, accompanied by Paldon-la, who is particularly helpful when it comes to getting a door unlocked or giving some background and understanding to the various bewildering manifestations of Tibetan Buddhism.
In the afternoon we had an appointment with Venerable Tenzin Plamo, who is the subject of the book Cave in the Snow, which is a biography and story of her 12 years spent in Buddhist practice in cave in the Himalaya. Ani-la, as she is known, has since ‘revived’ one of the female lineages of Tbetan Buddhism by establishing a nunnery. The buildings of the new nunnery are coming up very quickly, and with a beautiful Himalayan backdrop, it looks the perfect place for the nuns to practice. I had arranged to have an hour of question and answer time with Ani-la, which we were very fortunate to have given how busy she is. What strikes me most about Tenzin Palmo is the clarity and simplicity with which she articulates her understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. She delivers the ideas of the Buddha in a manageable way, understood by westerners, and with their context and particular challenges in mind. Everyone was struck by her piercing eyes, warm presence, and sense of humor. I had a laugh when she was talking about difficult circumstances and the opportunity they present to respond with positive action: “The product of past bad karma is the manure in which to grow a healthy crop of bodhi (good karma)”. Our time ended with ten minutes of meditation, a nice way to bring the talk into practice – down ego, down!
With Ven Tenzin Palmo
Day 5 – 7
This morning we had a ten o’clock appointment with Nawang Lhamo, a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile, and founder of Nyingtob Ling, a home for handicapped Tibetan children. Some of you might have heard of Nyingtob Ling through the cards I sell to raise money for them, or no doubt those of you who have visited with me have not forgotten your visit! It is an amazing home, with 50 children of Tibetan origin who have come from all over India living there with about 15 teachers and nurses and support staff. The children are taught a range of skills depending on their mental and physical capabilities, with the hope that eventually they will be able to return to their family home (if they have one – some of them are orphans). The setting up of the home provided a hitherto unfulfilled function in Tibetan society; previously handicapped children were treated as burdens by their family, with little attempt made to lift them up (as Nawang puts its). In the home they are happy and healthy and in a learning environment where they are loved and valued – it is clear in their faces and behaviour. We spent an hour or so wandering around visiting the classrooms, talking with Nawang about the progress and development of the home, and the challenges it faces. Since my first visit it has grown from a single all purpose building with a roof so low I had to duck to enter, to a comples of dormitories, kitchen and dinning hall, and a clinic. Every time I visit my ‘heart is pinched’, as Nawang puts it. This time I was pleased to be handing over very generous donations made by two of my past travelers, Sam Staley and Deirdre Gibb. Nawang asked repeatedly to thank you both for your generosity. After lunch we visited another charity, a women’s cooperative and health clinic, set up to provide community and health services for the local poor and labouring class. A beautiful mud brick clinic and hospital has been built, along with a community centre where computer literacy and sowing are taught. It is humbling to see how much compassionate work is being done in this area. Now I am sitting having a chai, looking out on Moon peak, all 5000 snow capped meters of it, as the light fades, catching the top of the mountain with pink light as it does so. Tuesday we head off towards the peak, in the hope of getting to a camp half way to the top (though we are cheating a little as we start at 1800 mts in altitude). One day I will climb to the pass and see next valley over, though I have been saying that since I came here first in ’99. One day . . .. For now I am just enjoying being here with some lovely and sensitive people, feeling blessed that we can for a moment ‘look in’ on the work being done by some truly amazing people.
The woman that runs the guest house where we are staying invited us to visit her Tibetan Buddhist teacher, an elderly Rinpoche (high teacher). We totted off with our white greeting scarves, called kutta, not sure what was coming. The Rinpoche spoke on the Four Noble Truths, the major tenants of Buddhism. He had a big presence, and for me generated the type of feeling similar to being in the presence of the Dalai Lama – you could sense the years of study and practice he had undertaken, with his (Tibetan) words flowing freely and his analogies providing insights into the teachings. In the afternoon we were scheduled to visit HH the 17th Karmapa, the head of one of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and the third highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism. However, after the morning’s session, we were all a bit zapped, and didn’t fancy the 30 minute drive down to the Karmapa’s monastery. So instead we lazed around, reading and looking out on the mountains.
A rest day! After so many activities and so much stimulation, everyone was very keen to have the day to do their own thing, which tended to be nothing. I appreciated the chance to catch up on emails and work. The only organised activity for the day was a screening of the documentary ‘Doing Time, Doing Vispassna’. It’s the story of the introduction of the ten day meditation course, Vispassna, into Delhi’s huge and infamous Tihar jail, by the jail’s head warden, a woman called Karin Bedi. Two things are astonishing about this: the fact that there is a woman running India’s largest jail (if you have been here and seen how male-dominated business and government are, you will know what I mean), and the very fact that a meditation course was anywhere near a jail – surely India’s only country in the world where an ancient Buddhist meditation technique could be made available to hardened criminals. The results are amazing, with many of the inmates crying in the arms of their jailors by the end of the ten days. Bedi managed to achieve something remarkable.
Day 8 – 11
We had a drive up the mountain today – to the Tibetan Children’s Village. They have done such an amazing job establishing living and educational facilities for around 3000 children. In all of India the TCV schools educate 20 000 children, many of them orphans, children with only one parent, or kids whose parents have remained in Tibet (and have got their children to India in the hope that they get an education in their native Tibetan language and then have employment opportunities beyond school). My first group toIndia decided to sponsor one of the students, who arrived in India from Tibet before attending TCV. Pema learnt quickly and for the last 18 months has been attending the advanced TCV school in Dehra Dun , about 10 hours from here. I handed over 15 000 Rupees, $450, to cover some of her expenses for the next 12 months. She is coming back to Dharamsala next November for the winter period, so hopefully I can see her then. One of the members of staff was good enough to spare an hour to show us around the school, including the pre-school and crèche, where some babies, often newly arrived from
Tibet or Nepal, are cared for. They are raised in such a loving environment, especially considering TCV is essential an ‘institution’. And they are so cute! Tibetan kids are very robust little things, with a hardy mountain constitution and a merry temperament. Many an ‘oh look at this one’ and ‘aren’t they cute’ was heard from the four women in my care. After pizza (!) for lunch, everyone’s been taking it easy. We are saving our strength for the walk up to the cottages tomorrow, which is some distance toward our ultimate destination – the forest lodge at Triund, 2550 meters in altitude. Day 9 At 6 this morning some of us seeking extra merit sat in on the morning puja (chanting and prayers) of one of the nunneries near to where we are staying. Early in the morning, it’s nice to sit and listen to the nuns, or to meditate to their melodious chanting. The nuns are good enough to serve sweet milky chai to visitors, of which I was good enough to drink Julie’s as her tummy wasn’t feeling up to it. After breakfast we packed up and headed up to Sagar Cottages, a two hour walk into the hills from Dharamsala. The view up here is fantastic, being as it is perched on a saddle overlooking two valleys. The air is still and clean, and there are no cars honking or bus engines groaning. There is some anxiousness about the walk tomorrow, but I have no doubt those who choose to come will handle it well.Day 10 and 11
After too much breakfast, and some fiddling around with packs, donkeys and porters, Linda, Julie x 2, Brian, and myself were nearly ready to set off for Triund. Annette and Kim decided to stay and relax – if they had been staying at any other hotel with any other view, then I would have encouraged them to come with us, but considering how relaxing and enjoyable the cottages are, I was happy for them. Just as we were to start, a most auspicious rain began to fall, so the rain jackets came out and there was some more fiddling with packs and a little apprehension as to whether the right choice had been made by those heading to Triund (at that stage I am sure Kim and Annette were thinking ‘I’ve made the right choice here’). Nevertheless we took off and within 10 minutes the rain had stopped, so really it was just nature bidding us happy journey. As everyone charged ahead with great pace, it became clear that my prediction of the walk taking 6 hours was going to be way off the mark. And so it was that in three and a half hours we reached Triund, without barely a yelp of discomfort or pain or complaint being raised. After a picnic lunch on the green lawn of Triund, the clouds and weather started to set in, so we headed for the warm(er) confines of our very basic hut rooms. Soon enough the rain was upon us, and for the next couple hours it beat down of the tin roof. We all huddled in together under our sleeping bags, a bit like school kids tend to do in the same situation. In the late afternoon, a knock at the door preceded Ashok the cook’s entry with plates of freshly made hot chips and tomato sauce, which you can imagine lasted just slightly longer than it takes to say ‘yum’. Some more chatting and giggling brought us to dinner, which we took in the warm kitchen – there was more dal, sabji (generic term for a vegetable dish), and rice to eat than you could poke a chapatti at. Just after finishing dinner the rain cleared, so we quickly jumped out side and caught the most fantastic view of the range as the sun set.
Apprehension in the auspicious rain
Dinner in the kitchen
After the rain
The next morning we woke very early, sleep being a little hard to come by on account of the tabletops posing as beds that constituted our place of (un)rest. It was soon forgotten, however, as we tucked into scrambled eggs, rice pudding, porridge, toast, fruit, and more than one cup of steaming hot chai. I then proceeded to convince the doubtful ones of the merit of walking up to the snowline, as I knew it was within everyone’s ability and was very much worth the effort. A couple hours of walking later, there we were in the snow with the full range standing in front of us. What is it about snow capped mountains that captures our attention so? After a snow ball fight and a photo session, we headed back down to Triund and lunch, before descending all the way back to the cottages. Never has such a basic hotel been so greatly appreciated – it was warm showers all around. The women then enjoyed a massage from a Tibetan masseuse I had arranged to come post-walk. Boy did she hit the sore spot! There were warm and relaxed glows on every face.
In front of Mun peak .
Day 12 – 16
Our last day in this mountain paradise started with a late and lingering breakfast. We took the hair-raising jeep ride down the hill to Dharamsala, where we met Paldon monk for a good bye lunch. With our departure time upon us, Annette spied some baby clothes, and that was the end of a prompt departure – no problem though, as I had factored in just such a last minute flurry. (To Annette’s daughter – I hope Annette has added my suggested baby’s names to the list: start with and A and just go from there). A few hours of driving brought us to Pathankot station, where our train arrived and departed with minute accuracy. For Kim and Julie this was there first big train adventure, and both took it very well (except for the bit that everyone stumbles on – the locking of bags – which seems excessive and causes varying degrees of alarm, but is really just a common sense precaution). We dined on veg pulou, bananas, nuts and homemade chocolate, before settling in for a few hours sleep before our5 am Delhi arrival.
Day 13 Our driver Naveen met us without fuss amidst the rush of Delhi train station at its busiest. After the obligatory negotiation with porters – in which you suggest a reasonable price and they double it, and then refuse to bargain or leave you alone – we hit the road and made good time to reach Agra by midday. In the afternoon I left the group in the trusted hands of local guide Vineet, who took the group to Agra Fort. Agra Fort is a great preamble to the Taj, as it gives a taste, including some distant views (as does our hotel and the top floor revolving – and creaking – restaurant. With a little taste here and a little taste there, everyone is hungry to actually visit the Taj tomorrow at dawn. No visit to Agra is complete without the offer to see ‘some carpets and handicrafts’. I had forewarned the group of this offer to shop, which is a complete ruse in this town as far as I am concerned – I encouraged them to express tiredness and therefore escape the messy though secretive business of guides and 30% commissions. Our plan is to attack the shops of Jaipur, free of intermediaries, and with the same fervor that we did Pondicherry two weeks ago. Jaipur: prepare! Day 14 We were up and at the Taj by 6am, in time to see the sunrise light striking the white marble dome. What’s to say that hasn’t already been said about the Taj?I will just leave it to the photos.
Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil – Ganhi’s three monkeys
After breakfast and some more Taj viewing from the the revolving restaurant at the top of our hotel, we set off for Jaipur. With a visit to the deserted Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri en route, the drive took most of the day. The group couldn’t decide if I was serious about our Jaipur hotel having a pool, but all was revealed on arrival – a fantastic little heritage hotel, complete with pool, rooftop restaurant with dancing and live music, and beautifully decorated rooms. After the basic hotel of Dharamsala and ‘tabletop’ bed of Triund, it was absolute luxury.
Live dance at our restaurant
With a full day of sightseeing and shopping on the agenda, we decided to start early and avoid the heat. We started with Amber Palace, the old centre of power for the principality of Jaipur. The group was quite taken by the palace, but also by our Rajput guide Narji – 6″2 and the royal warrior blood very evident in his posture, speech and big presence. After the fort we went on to the City
Palace and Jai Singh’s astronomy park. The sightseeing was thoroughly enjoyed, but towards the end minds started to turn to the impending shopping blitz. We had a list a page long, and we thought we would start in the bazaar, but within 5 minutes a most persistent tout had latched on to us, insisting we visit his shop, which we had no intention of doing simply because he was so insistent! We moved on to the pots and pans market, followed by the bangle market, and finally the wedding paraphernalia market there was lots of looking but not so much buying, as its so busy it’s hard to stop and give due consideration for a purchase. We moved on to the more manageable environment of the handicrafts emporium. Shopping took us to the end of the day, and after a quick shower headed straight back out on the road to Choki Dhani, a recreated Rajasthani village. The ‘village’ has dancers, musicians, museums etc, but the highlight for my lady friends was undoubtedly the henna design woman. That just topped the day off.
not so gentle head massage
We ummed and ahhed about whether to stay in Jaipur for the morning and then head straight to Delhi airport for our flight, or to leave early and hit Delhi for some more shopping – and of course the latter prevailed. There were still some presents to tick off the list – salwaar kameez, cricket caps, and books. I even found ten minutes to duck off and get a nice linen shirt, the fever clearly spreading. After a good three hours hard on the cards, went back to the room we had taken for the day, to have a shower, complete final packing, and have our last dinner. Before we knew it we were on our way to the airport and the end of our time together. Here were a few of the groups highlight’s (and challenges):
Annette: Taj and rickshaw ride in Old Delhi; street life – weddings, markets, sarees on the women. Seeing a cow eat grass in nature (as opposed to plastic in the city).
Kim: early morning arrival Old Delhi station and ‘the colour everywhere’. Excellent drivers. Lincoln’s ability to arrange spunky guides. Ability of Indians to cram into a vehicle.
Julie: Kulfi (Indian ice cream), the snow and snowline at 3100 meters in altitude. Seeing Tenzin Palmo.
Linda: smiles on the faces and friendliness, gentleness of the people. Breathtaking scenery of Himalaya. Goats going up the hill for the summer. Stray dogs curled up asleep looking contented.
Challenges:Julie: hard bed and traffic, toilet and learning to squat. Kim: sensory onslaught. Linda: hard bed and basic Dharamsala hotel. Annette: hearing the story of Tibet and the exile
North India Trip with India Unbound
Our trips always focus on giving the very best of experience when it comes to India tour packages. With a North India tour you can expect a wide diversity in the images you will see around you. Our founding partners started by being tourists themselves so they know exactly what will appeal to Westerners touring India for the first time. The forts, palaces and the myriad shopping streets give a very different feel every time you visit with bikes, people, carts and animals all jostling for a space on the tightly packed roads. Here you will find the cheapest and costly keepsakes all stacked together. This scenery stuck in your mindis what will keep reminding you of the incredible Delhi tour you had taken.
Your Itinerary, Your Choice
Our Delhi tours package offer you the luxury of choosing between fixed departure tours and assisted tours. In fixed tours you will be travelling in the best of accommodations with private buses chartered for your convenience. Your group will be following a fixed schedule with stops at every place we think you will love to visit. On the other hand our assisted independent tour is aimed at the adventurous spirit in you. Here we will be pre-booking all the facilities including the travel and stay. But you will follow your own rhythm and speed. You can patiently follow your own instincts and take your own time exploring and discovering everything that the capital state of India has to offer. Both these plans appeal to our guests, and we have welcomed back a number of them wishing to undertake the trip again.