There was a strange symmetry to our departure and return to Delhi; both journeys were long, uncomfortable and emotional roller coasters.
We book two taxis to take us and our belongings to the bus depot for our trip to Manali, ‘gateway of the Himalayas’. I am in a taxi with Doug and the traffic is thick and sluggish. After an hour we look at other and say in unison, “We’re going to miss it!” I call Chris in the other car and we agree to get to the nearest tube station and try to run for it. We all have backpacks, folders and rucksacks and it is rush hour. The trains are full and only Doug and Chris manage to squeeze onto one carriage whilst we have to wait for the next train,
“Where we getting off?” Doug yells in the crush.
“Kashmire Gate!” I shout as the doors close.
Elvira, Matt and I squash onto the next train that is so packed a woman floats on her back over us as she is pushed horizontal. Arriving at the other end we streak through the metro to the bus station following pointed fingers as we call out requests for directions, finally getting to a conductor in the depot. I push my ticket at him,
“Which is this bus?” I ask. Chris and Doug are nowhere to be seen.
“Gone” he say, waving his hand dismissively and turns to the next customer. We sink on our bags, soaked with sweat our hearts sinking.
In India, there is something quite amazing about the way people treat total strangers. Looking lost, exhausted and panting, so many people come up to us and try to help. Finally, one man gestures for us to follow him. There on the other side of the station is Chris, who has persuaded the bus to pull to one side to wait for ten minutes. Thanking the kind man, the bus conductor, Chris and everyone around, all five of us clamber aboard euphoric and mildly hysterical, settling into our fourteen-hour overnight journey.
The driving in India is very different to home. Overtaking on blind corners at full speed is the norm in the Himalayas. Suffice to say, that at Elvira was not carsick in the end, and we arrived in Manali for eleven the next morning.
The first thing that hits me in Manali is the cool, fresh air of the Himalayas and my lungs rejoice. Manali is densely filled with guesthouses, restaurants and Indian tourists. We drop our bags at a small hotel where the manager reminds us of faulty towers. Every question you ask sends him into a flurry of worry and the word ‘internet’ makes him put a hand to his forehead in fear, but we are comfortable, have views over the town and tell him we are very happy.
We walk over to Old Manali, which retains older looking houses. Village life appears to continue much as normal behind the shopping street but its hippy, backpacker centre is proclaimed by a sign outside a barber saying “Dreadlocks done here” and we sit in a café playing rave music. Everywhere we are offered weed.
Having booked a taxi to take us up to the Rohtang Pass for the next day we don thermals, scarves and overcoats alongside our art materials. Halfway up there’s a stop for some breakfast and I examine a bright red and yellow temple with prayer flags floating in the wind. As I sit and have a drink a number of youths pile out of a small vehicle and immediately befriend us, “Mat-Tew” they cry as they ask for selfies and I explain “My name is Lottie, not rotti” (like a chapatti), a common and amusing confusion.
At the top of the pass a flurry of snow is falling and the sky is brilliant with dark scudding clouds. Mountains appear and disappear quite suddenly. Each of us jumps out the vehicle and spends the next several hours chilling ourselves as we paint and draw the landscape around us. I make a drawing with my frozen fingers that feels totally unlike myself, but I am pleased with the effort and run back to the car to warm up. We make some other stops on the way down and everyone is elated by the drama and our attempts to capture it.
The following day I join Matthew and Chris for a walk along the river where huge boulders have been deposited and smoothed over many millennia. Little shanty villages have sprung up on the edges of the road and I sit, in what I later realise is a refuse dump, to draw the corrugated roofs and women cleaning out their single roomed dwellings. It’s quiet and aside from the occasional pack of dogs wondering through, very peaceful.
In the mean time Elvira, who headed to Old Manali, has befriended Dean, a multi-lingual friend-collector from Chennai who works for the railway and invites us all for dinner. We sit in his hotel room as he proudly boast his ability to speak all European languages in which he can say “Hello, how are you, thank you, I love you, cheers!”
“Ask me any European language!” he cries, “Make it difficult!”
“Bosnian” I say quickly and he frowns discontentedly. He manages Serbian.
The following day we take several public busses towards our homestay near Banjar to a village called Gushaini. One bus is so delightfully orange inside and plays loud music. I love public busses in India and in present company I understand myself to be quite alone in this. I enjoy their energy; the rocking, swerving motions, the crush, the music and the way people jump on and off at a run, and as I stare out the open window I’m very happy. The destination is the Tirthan Valley and its relative solitude is booked for four nights. Naresh, our host, awaits our arrival and loads our belongings into a small cage attached to a rope across the river. Elvira and I clamber in and fly across. There’s no bridge and in the mornings we watch children pulling themselves over on their way to school.
The valley is beautiful and calm, but with the noticeable success of tourism slightly marring the edges of the road with concrete skeletons of buildings and large signs advertising guesthouses. Our little homestay sits in front of a much older balconied building that seems to be in the Kullu style. People sit on the wooden balconies in the middle of the day resting and chatting in the shade. Little paths run up and down all over the village and women carrying huge bushels of grass and cuttings up and down alongside cows, dogs and children. I immediately discover a large shrine above many of the houses that belongs to a tiny little old man with no teeth called Udayram. Whilst drawing the lovely turquoise (my favourite colour) shrine he come and sits by me watching and continually chatting to me despite protests of “Hindi nahi”. Finally, he points over his shoulder, grabs my breast with one hand, and makes rocking baby motions. The action was so casual and devoid of lechery I sit stunned for moment before finishing my drawing and heading back down the mountain, Udayram still chatting away to me.
Our host has two sweet and very awkward younger brothers who smile a lot and cook all our meals several hours after we ask for them. On Diwali we meet more of his family and they invite us into their house where we eat sweets and grin at each other as neither side can speak more than a few sentences of English or Hindi. Earlier that day we had walked to the local village to buy fireworks and other necessities and add our contributions to their supply of “crackers” that litters the roof of our house. The children scream with absolute delight at the sparklers and fountains and bombs go off all over the place. Even the four-year-old is lighting them and jumping around with joy. After a bomb goes off in Matt’s hand, Doug gets a spark down the back of his shirt, a firework cuts Elvira’s leg and Chris gets tinnitus, the cache is eventually emptied and we retire for the night our retinas ablaze and our ears ringing.
Our four nights are over all too quickly and soon we rise at 4am, crossing the river cage in the dark, to catch the bus to Shimla at 5 o’clock. It’s a long and rather brutal journey but we arrive in Shimla in the early afternoon. My grandfather was born here and though I never knew him I’ve always been interested to visit.
Shimla is such a peculiar place. The top of the town has a road called the Ridge, which reminds one of a Victorian seaside promenade with pagodas, iron lampposts and the weirdest array of semi-English architecture. It's also very Indian and I love the lower bazaars that twist around the hills in a motley, crumbling way and wish we had more time here to draw. We all settle into the India Coffee House, an establishment that feels like it’s been there forever, and order masses of food and drink. Doug goes a little insane over a cheese sandwich.
Alas, our time in Shimla is short and aside from a short wonder around the town in the morning we head to the train station for the Shimla-Kalka railway, the famous toy train built in 1898 to get the British to their summer capital. We walk to the station along the tracks and buy lots of snacks for our journey. The seats seem to be made for small children, but the views are magnificent and I can’t take my eyes off the horizon.
Sadly, our re-entry into Delhi was not triumphant. Our connection at Kalka becomes a little disastrous as we get onto the wrong Delhi train and the surly and extremely unhelpful conductor throws us off at Chandigarh. However, this is not before a man, overhearing our plight, rings a friend in the city to order us a taxi back to Delhi. He continually rings us to check we are okay and are in the right taxi. We finally return to calm Sanskriti at 1am, relieved. All I can say is that people have gone out of their way to help us at every turn in India and their generosity and kindness has always amazed me.
Tomorrow, Modinagar and teaching with IIFA.
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