Hills of the Himalayas, Golden Temple at Amritsar

Trip Start Feb 26, 2006
Trip End Nov 28, 2006

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Our travels in India, up until Bikaner, had been all about culture, showing us that the country has a rich history and rich architecture to go along with it. When we left Bikaner we left the state of Rajasthan, and things changed drastically...the people, the climate, and especially the landscape. The flat, desert land turned into a mountainous area with many trees and fresh, cool air. We were now in the state of Himachal Pradesh in the very northern region of India. We first visited the capital of the state, Shimla, and found that we were far from being the only tourists. Shimla is considered the honeymoon capital of India and the premiere destination for Indians, so it seemed that nearly everyone there was a tourist. Although Shimla was a nice change of surroundings, our move further north to Manali proved to be even more rewarding in terms of scenery. We went on a short hike outside the town and came across beautiful views of lush green hillsides, rocky valleys dotted with wild flowers, and the snowy Lower Himalayas in the distance. We've done a lot of hiking during our travels, but this was one of the most picturesque.

As we were planning this big trip almost a year ago, one of the reasons we decided to go to India was to visit Dharamsala, the home of the exiled Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government since 1959. After having been to Chinese Tibet, we were curious about whether Dharamsala would be a 'mini-Tibet'. It turned out that Dharamsala was completely different. The monastery and residence of the Dalai Lama was not even remotely close to being the grand Potala Palace in Lhasa. The Tibet Museum really opened our eyes to the things that happened during the invasion of Tibet by China. There are many first hand accounts from people who had been tortured or imprisoned for speaking out. There was definitely no sugar coating. We learned how many of Tibet's temples, monasteries, and religious scriptures were purposely destroyed and how many Tibetans risked their lives crossing the freezing Himalayas to find refuge in Dharamsala. We were even more surprised to learn that many Tibetans today still make the treacherous journey across the Himalayas to escape Chinese occupation - many freeze to death, while others lose fingers/toes or limbs to frostbite. The plight of the Tibetans isn't hidden here as it is in Tibet, and the struggle continues. The Tibetan community and culture is so dominant here that we almost forgot we were in India.

We went on a trek in the area surrounding Dharamsala, walking along the edge of a mountain until we finally reached the ridge. We had views of mountain tops covered in mist and slopes covered with goats. The end point of the trek offered dramatic scenery.

Our last stop before returning to Delhi was Amritsar, near the Pakistani border town of Lahore. Amritsar is famous for being the home of the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest shrine in the world. The Temple was a sight to see - it really is golden, and it sits in the middle of a large pond. As with all Sikh temples, the Golden Temple provides free daily meals to all people (including tourists!). They have a massive kitchen including a fancy chapati bread-making contraption. Free food - sweet! We couldn't pass that up...it was a good change to have authentic Indian food rather than the tourist version. By the way, we were very lucky that we never developed 'Delhi belly' as we had heard many tourists do....I guess we have stomachs of steel from eating so much crap over the last several months!

Though tensions are high between India and Pakistan, at the Amritsar-Lahore border crossing the guards on both sides cooperate for the daily border opening and closing ceremonies. The Indian ceremony is elaborate and has a lot of pomp and circumstance, and the guards really put their all into it - we saw a couple of them practicing before the ceremony by doing crazy high kicks. Hundreds of people attend the ceremonies, and while we were there we saw how patriotic Indians are. So many people wanted to run with the big India flag, and during the ceremony there was a lot of singing and chanting (we think it was the national anthem). It was a great way to end our trip to India.

As we arrived back in Delhi late at night, we saw the air was misty white and smelled funny. We weren't sure what it was at first, but after we heard loud crackling sounds and lights in the sky, we realized that Diwali celebrations had started - the festival of lights (and apparently firecrackers). Indians really like to celebrate, as fireworks littered the streets and the air was thick with smoke. We went to bed at around 2am to the sound of firecrackers and were woken up at 5am to the same sound!
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