Saturday, 26 November 2011

Omnivorous Mountain Meanderings

A pickle man and his wares.
Posting images is so tedious. I'll tentatively consider adding more in the future....

I'm slamming back palmfuls of tart, dried pomegranate seeds, grateful to be settled in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh for the coming days.

After meeting Vadim in Delhi, we headed back to Rishikesh for a few days of yoga and relaxation. I'd been scoping out teachers for the previous six weeks and settled on Iyengar instruction in the mornings and Ashtanga vinyasa in the evenings. It was a nice balance and I was glad to keep up an intensive yoga schedule. Vadim joined me for four of the classes and proved to be a far more adept yogi than he'd previously let on. We've even discussed doing teacher training certification for him and additional training for me on the chance that we find a mutually pleasing teacher in southern India. Yoga classes in Rishikesh are intimate and cheap. I felt lucky to get one-on-one attention from skilled instructors for about $4 per class. Awesome instruction aside, though, I was ready to get out of Rishikesh, so we booked a rafting trip and then tickets out of the holy city.
Against all advice, we've opted to head north, deeper into the icy Himalayan range rather than meandering south to the beaches like most sane vacationers. The trip to Shimla took 3 days of bus and train rides, with overnight stopovers in some dives that make our current hamlet all the more pristine in comparison. We spent one night in Ambala, an industrial town, where we were the hotel proprietor's first foreign guests. To celebrate our patronage, Rajesh set us up in his personal room on the ground floor, abruptly relocating his peeved wife to a guest room upstairs. It was an awkward albeit generous offer that we cringingly accepted. He also set us up with a delicious in-room dinner. (I ate fish and didn't feel a twinge of guilt. More animal indulgences to come.) Our host joined us for dinner, which was fine, as he'd already been so accommodating. He proceeded, however, to get very drunk and made us increasingly uncomfortable as he refused to leave and let us sleep. The bizarre night culminated with the host insisting, at 11 p.m., that Vadim race Jussi, a 17-year-old employee of the hotel whom the host referred to as both “simple” and his “servant”. The entire experience felt creepy, especially upon sober reflection the next morning.

Toy train
The next day, we took two trains, the second a toy train that winds its way through the mountains. It reminds me a lot of the Silverton train in Colorado. The views were spectacular. We passed through a Ponderosa, agave, and prickly pear forest, a landscape I'd never expected to see outside of Arizona. It made me homesick for the high desert. This region is less densely peopled than the other areas I've visited, something I'm glad of. We stopped off in Solan to visit a brewery and distillery established by an Englishman in the 19th century. Alas, the brewery was closed when we arrived and the town ended up being a letdown. While seeking a room, several hotels turned us down immediately or offered rates more than three times what we're willing to pay, leading us to suspect a racism we'd not previously encountered. Solan was obviously more upwardly-mobile than the parts of India I've seen so far. Some of the giveaways of this wealth were a Western-style florist and a pet food store. People were unfriendly and suspicious. After an hour of climbing up and down steep alleys and staircases, packs in tow, we found a place for the night. To assuage the stress and disappointment of Solan, we headed to a bar for dinner. It was grungy and depressing. The drinking culture in India seems to be limited to drunks, so I think my imbibing will be nearly as limited as it was in Rishikesh. It's not a pleasant scene.
Relentless beggars.
Everything improved the next day as we headed deeper into the mountains and gained elevation, with Shimla, at 7000', as our ultimate goal. The toy train was 3 hours late, but we didn't mind the delay as we befriended Guillermo from Argentina at the station. He's a hardcore, long-term traveler, funding his developing country adventures with a house sublet in South America. He lacks any of the pretense I've come to expect of other backpackers. He's curious and mellow and was a welcome relief after the egos of Rishikesh. He too was headed to Shimla and suggested we stay at his planned hotel, scoring us a cheap room in the process. The room has hot water (!), is clean by Indian standards and is only $3.30 each per night. Sure, my pee steams and I can see my breath, but that's why we have blankets and coats.

Shimla, let me praise thee. First off, there's no traffic of any kind other than pedestrian allowed in the town center. The absence of both honking and the constant anxiety of checking for marauding vehicles and bikes provides a relief I didn't realize I craved. It's clean and quiet. The streets are paved and nearly cow-free, nearly negating any desire I have to bathe. It's weird how the urge towards cleanliness for me is predicated on sweat and not time away from a shower. Shimla is also steep, built on the side of a cliff, like Bisbee or Jerome, for the Arizona crowd reading. It's a series of bazaars (alleyways, really) connected by stairs and slopes too steep to pass any U.S. ADA regulations. The state of Himachal Pradesh bans plastic, so it's exceptionally neat here. The populace is wealthy by Indian standards, though the prices of goods and services aren't consequently inflated to match the pocketbooks of its tourists. In many ways Shimla's feel and architecture remind me of a cush Colorado mining town cum tourist destination, having been contemporaneously constructed by the Brits in the 19th century. People are laid back and not desperate for foreign money the way they've been in other cities. We just finished having breakfast with our hotelier in a coffee house that could pass for a 1950s men's club, what with its wood paneling, brown vinyl booths, and professorially clad Indian men discussing what I can only imagine are heady topics like economics and politics. I adore Shimla. It's trite, but India is so multifaceted. Shimla is a far cry from the sweaty, desperate, grimy towns I've come to expect. I'm ashamed of how much I'm reveling in the English influence.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving. Vadim'd been sneakily stowing away a bag of turkey jerky for the occasion. I ate it and it was just as I'd remembered meat. I didn't stop there. I ordered fish for dinner and reluctantly then greedily sampled both Vadim's mutton and his brain masala. I'm comfortable eating meat here because it seems culturally relevant and also because I know India doesn't (yet) employ the same factory farming system as the U.S. We spent much of the day with Guillermo and we topped off the evening with a trip to Shimla's discotheque, where no music played and we were the only customers. It was a lovely Thanksgiving.

And, oh yeah! I'll be way out of touch as I'm spending the next week trekking in the Himalayas. Uh huh. 7 days and 6 nights through the Kinnaur Valley, hiking and climbing all day and spending each night in various ancient, tiny Buddhist/Hindu villages where the inhabitants are reputed to be half god, half man. The trip is at the high end of our respective budgets at $25 per day, but how could anyone pass up this experience? We'll finish the week with a detour to high altitude hot springs. Everything keeps getting better and better!


  1. OH,Jordan, I love your commentary on the passing scene, your astute observations of the people and culture you see, and your fearless approach to new experiences. Please don't freeze your nose or toes in the high Himalayas. Vadim sounds like an ideal traveling companion. I'm so glad he's there with you. Tell him I said Hi. Whoever thought that the treatment toward women traveling alone in India would be so sexist? Did you read "White Tiger" before you left here? Such a vivid portrayal of a life of poverty in India. Your mother told us about your long telephone conversation the other night. We miss you and love to read about your adventures! Nana and Papa

  2. When/if you are craving a more western drinking experience check into a hostel in a city. There will either be a bar in it (ideal), or the other travelers or employees will tell you where the best drinking places are.

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