Friday, 21 March 2014

Cold, Pain, Illness, all amongst Beauty


Not starting with any of these, instead my first mistake… booking two tickets too close together and relying on the Indian rail system to be punctual, but these others were soon to come. I was heading to the hill station of Shimla on the UNESCO World Heritage train from Kalka (six hours north of New Delhi). After realizing my first train to Kalka was already late, I jumped on the local bus, which quality made doors slammed open and close as we constantly braked and tried to pick up speed.  Running through the platforms I managed to make the train with three minutes to spare. Then of course it was delayed, making my mad dash completely in vain. Oh well, I made it and was about to wind the foothills of the Himalayas through pitch black tunnels, over decrepit looking bridges, less than a foot away from the edge. Coated in alpine forests, streams trickling down through a path formed over years, whole villages built into the slanted canvas of the land, I couldn’t keep my head inside the train unable to really capture the natural beauty of it all in a photo. For these six hours I was at peace forgetting the world around me and that I had nowhere to go once we reached Shimla.
   
Hanging off the side of the train
 
           It was dark when we arrived and without a reservation to simply get a rickshaw to, I hiked a kilometer or so uphill into town with about an extra fifty pounds on my back fending off porters and touts. No I didn’t want to carry my stuff, but I wanted to pay them less, and with my lack of trust in the touts saying anything to get you to their hotel for commission, they followed me all the way to town not taking ‘I have a reservation’ for an answer. They must have called bullshit because, well they were right, I had nowhere to go. Ducking into the first guesthouse I saw to lose the annoying voices over my shoulder, it turned out to be a cheap place and with good reason I found out later. Going to bed I could see my breath. I had to sleep fully clothed with my winter coat and all the blankets provided on what seemed like a slab of stone. Claiming they had hot water was also a definite lie.
After a numbing shower and relocating my testicles, I headed up about one thousand steep steps to the Jakhu Temple (built for Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god), not realizing how out of shape I was until about half way. Panting in the cold air, refusing my legs the right to collapse, I stuttered up the rest of the way. Meeting a local on the way up, he took me into the temple explaining the story behind it, showing me the proper way to pray. Afterwards the priest dotted my forehead with paint, poured a teaspoon of water in my hands, which I pretended to drink avoiding it like the plague and some sort of sweet. Before I had a chance to eat it, as I walked around the top mesmerized by the view the rhesus macaques stealthily approached. Creeping in they started jumping at me. I found this fun at first, lifting it just out of the grasp each time, like a bullfighter, until one decided to jump and hang on to me, swatting at it. It wasn’t giving up unless I dropped it for him. Relentless, just like the touts and porters. 

Evening came, and with it my bus further north to Manali, what I hoped would be an unforgettable snowboarding experience laced with charas. Well it was definitely a day I won’t forget. A windy road like a giant snake slithering through the mountains, barely wide enough to pass oncoming traffic without pulling over most of the time. I had full trust in the bus driver that we wouldn’t drive off the side tumbling down as I tried to sleep. Suddenly we were at a standstill in a storm of furious honking. I came to learn that a goods carrier truck took one of the many sharp turns to quick and was now on its side blocking most of the road. After ill-fated attempts to tow the truck out of the way with what they had to work with, the bus driver decided he had waited long enough and went to squeeze through. If I knew he was going for it coming inches from the edge, I would have gotten off considering I had a front row window seat if we went down. Barely making it through, I checked my pants before settling back into the sleep for a few more hours.
Awakened in Manali at six in the morning by the movement of the bus being emptied and a sore throat, exhausted and grouchy, I jumped in the first rickshaw I saw to take me to my guesthouse. The stunned driver not being able to find my hotel took me to some random place claiming it was the one I asked for. Arguing a bit, but coughing and unable to walk further I took the room, crashing until early afternoon. With my head in a cloud when I woke unable to breathe well, looking outside to see snow, I thought to myself, ‘what the hell am I doing’. I escaped the brutal Canadian winter to travel to India back into the cold and snow.  
Aloo Tikki
The day came to conquer the mountains, or in actuality get conquered near the brink of death. The bus brought me to Solang Nullah, the ski rsort just north of Manali, at 8:30 as per recommended, only to learn the lift doesn’t start until 10:30 and no public toilets were open, and that cup of chai got the system going. Duck walking out into the bush surrounding the area, picking amongst the many outhouses, I returned to barter for some equipment rentals. Boots that looked shredded from some of the wild dogs here, and a scratched board that well could have been worse. It’s alive, the lift creaks to a start. Not thinking twice I went to the top for the first time on a snowboard in five or six years. With the snow beginning to melt, the frequent rain falls, it was some of the worst conditions I’ve been on. Wet, chunky, layers of ice in spots, no fresh powder and snowmobile tracks ravaging the slopes, I went for it. Worst idea I’ve had in a little while, and my mind festers a lot of them. About half way down the mountain I caught an edge on a snowmobile track sending me flying, knocking the wind out of me and seriously injuring my back. As I sat in the wet snow, in immense pain freezing my ass thinking it over, I really didn’t know what I expected. Catching my breath, I forced my way to the bottom and called it a very short day, the pain so fierce it was making me feel nauseous. Next time, maybe I’ll start on the small hill again.
Useless and unable to dress myself without the utmost difficulty for about two days, I smoked my pain away into a state of complete relaxation with the charas (hash) conveniently provided by the guest house manager, loaded up on munchies and passed in and out of sleep until I built up the strength to haul myself to the bus station, and finally leave the snow-capped breathtaking mountains. One way ticket back to the heat, escaping the snow for the second time where I could comfortably heal.