Winding Down: Chandigarh, Delhi and Amsterdam


Chandigarh wasn't a planned stop on our itinerary. It was Antonia who convinced us that we wouldn't regret shortening our time in Delhi in exchange for a day in the Punjabi capital.

The main reason for stopping in Chandigarh was the Nek Chand Garden, which we visited on our first morning in the city. The story is that Nek Chand, a public servant, spent his spare time collecting debris from demolition sites around the city. He used the scrap to build sculptures and figurines and scatter them in a maze of courtyards and walkways, also built from recycled material. His garden, on public land was discovered almost 20 years after Nek Chand had begun his work, and was slated for destruction. A public outcry saved the garden which is now a booming tourist attraction in the state of Punjab. With good reason, as the garden is delightful. Although nothing could quite soothe the effects of the stifling head, the park seemed to provide the best respite we could have hoped for. In the afternoon, we rickshawed between Chandigarh's other tourist attractions, most of them municipal buildings designed by Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Chandigarh is an entirely a planned city, conceptualised by Le Corbusier in the 1950s as a capital for the recently partitioned state of Punjab. The city is divided into rectangular numbered sectors (0.5 mile x 0.75 mile). The result is an organized although somewhat bland city, where even the rickshaws obey traffic signals. It is unlike any of the other cities we'd visited in India, and despite the lack of bustle, was a rather pleasant place to visit even in the 35C heat. After a long day of sight-seeing we treated to the comfort of our double room which the four of us were sharing after a hard-bargaining session with the hotel staff.


Delhi is a terrible place to be in the heat. As our bus from Chandigarh approached the Indian capital, the passengers seemed to get meaner, the odors worse and the heat more oppressive. On the advice of other travelers, we had decided to reside in the Tibetan Colony, away from the city centre. This might have been the best decision we made on our entire trip. In addition to having an amazing restaurant and air-conditioned rooms, the Peace Hotel was a sanctuary from the noise and madness of Delhi. As usual, Yann's anti-air-conditioning policy was in effect. He agreed to have an air-conditioned room on the condition that all four of us share a room, which we did, and its 2 single beds (note that this arrangement was still more expensive than two separate non air-conditioned rooms)

The only disadvantage of staying in the Tibetan Colony is its location. Everyday we had to renegotiate with the rickshaw drivers who would originally refuse to take the four of us in one rickshaw and then proceed to give in to our request a few minutes later. The roughly 10km journey was never comfortable with the four of us piling one on top of each other.

We visited the Delhi sights: Red Fort, Jama Masjid (Great Mosque), Gandhi's Memorial. But my fondest memories of our few days in Delhi are the hours spent negotiating with rickshaw drivers and eating Indian fastfood in the comfort of our Tibetan hotel. This might be an indication that after 2 months in India and Bangladesh, we were all totally exhausted. So our morning visit of Amsterdam, on a stopover between Delhi and Montreal, should be considered all the more impressive. We had an eight hour stopover and we arrived in Amsterdam at 6am. By 7am we were downtown waiting for the first coffee shops to open. In just a few hours we took a boat cruise through the city's canals, strolled the red light district, drank our first real coffee in months, downed Heinekens and ate stroopwafles. We landed in Montreal completely drained, but grateful for an amazing, and pretty hassle-free trip.

Our Last Days in the Indian Hills

The end point of our trip through the Indian Himalayas was Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh province and the most populated city we had visited since leaving the wedding in Kanpur. Shimla is the former summer capital of the British Raj in India and now somewhat of a resort town. A place to escape the impressive heat of the Indian plains. We knew that the few days in Shimla would be the last ones we would enjoy in bearable weather. Even Shimla, sitting at an altitude of over 2000m seemed muggier and hotter than what we would have liked.

We descended into Shimla on what would be out last "scary mountain bus ride". The view is one of a thousands of colourful homes clinging to the mountainside with the cities prominent historic colonial buildings looking down on them. These historic buildings, most noticeable the bright yellow Christ Church sit along what is known as "The Ridge", a wide road running on the very top of city. The Ridge is the heart of Shimla's tourist district. It is lined with restaurants, hotels, gift shops and packed with visitors. Shimla is a disorienting maze of steep, criss-crossing streets and staircases. Our climb from the bus station up to The Ridge was endless, especially since Yann had somehow gotten control of the map. We were so tired by the end of the climb, that we followed a hotel tout to his "great cheap rooms". Surprisingly, they actually ended up being "great cheap rooms" with clean bedding, hot showers and even televisions. After dropping our backpacks, we immediately went into veg mode. Our sight-seeing in Shimla was limited to anything that we could see from the Ridge, as we couldn't bring ourselves to do anything that would involve a climb. My main task in Shimla was going to be doing laundry. But our clothes were absolutely filthy, and even with the hot water in the hotel, I wasn't able to get them very clean. But my efforts went completely to waste when I decided to hang the clothes to dry on the balcony of the hotel. When I went to check on their progress, I noticed that someone had been tampering with my underwear! As I vocalized this, "hey I think someone's been tampering with my underwear" I heard a hiss and turned to see an ugly monkey holding my turquoise pants.

The next ten minutes were a blur of my yelling and chasing the monkey along the balcony. I was joined by James, Yann and Antonia and we all watched as the monkey hopped from roof to roof with his turquoise streamer flying behind him. Other monkeys attempted to get in on the turquoise pant action, but this monkey was highly defensive of his winnings. He came back to the hotel to taunt us, by dangling the pants right above our heads from the roof above. The incident ended with the pants being ripped into pieces, with the tattered turquoise shreds scattered on the neighbouring roof tops. We consequently opted out of a hike to Shimla's "monkey temple".

We left Shimla by "toy train". One of three narrow-gauge mountain railways of India, the Shimla-Kalka railway was built by the British to connect Shimla to the regular India rails system. It is a beautiful train ride, through the lush scenery forests of the Himalayan foothills, crossing almost 850 bridges and passing through over a hundred tunnels. The train moves so slowly that doors are left open, and passengers can jump on and off the train when it slows down. At one point we even stalled on a steep incline. Most of the passengers got off the train and joked about pushing it up the hill, which seemed like alarmingly insightful commentary. Arriving at the Kalka train station in mid-afternoon was a shock. We had no onward ticket, the heat was stifling and the crowds were pushy. I dove into the ticket line and fought my way to the front shamelessly exploiting the "ladies first" rule in effect at Indian railway offices. Within a few minutes we had tickets to Chandigarh and we were running to catch our train. We were back in India.

Temples and Traditions of Kinnaur

We left behind in Nako, the barren, scenery that characterised the Spiti Valley. As we dropped in altitude, we were greeted by green alpine forests, that probably seemed that much lusher after an absence vegetation. We were even greeted by light showers as we entered the Kinnauri village of Kalpa in the early evening. We decided to stay two nights at a small family guest house a short climb above the village centre. We were in serious need of rest in order to recover from the bus rides and Kalpa seemed to offer a lovely setting for doing nothing.

Other than the mountain scenery, Kalpa's main attraction is its temple. A collection of intricatally carved wooden buildings, built in the traditional Kinnauri style. This style is marked by its “balagad” shaped roofs and carvings depicting the natural environment. Of particular intrigue were the very well-endowed male animals, whose images occupied a large portion of our camera's memory card space. From the building eaves hang hundreds of delicate chimes that eerily resonate when the wind blows. Our second day in Kalpa happened to coincide with an annual celebration of the village deity. This celebration was marked by a procession through the streets of Kalpa by village's men. As we ate on a hotel patio we heard the beating of drums and the sound of trumpets which is actually what led us to catch a glimpse of the large black item, the village deity, as it was carried up towards the temple, the procession's ending point. The stream of green-capped men followed the deity, in a state of alcohol-induced gaiety. I was drawn into the festivities and followed the procession into the temple. I left the others to settled the bill while I entered the temple grounds. A group of men had already begin performing a ceremonial dance with the deity, while the village band accompanied them. Although very welcoming, the men were becoming increasingly rowdy, and were particularly enamoured by the presence of lone foreign woman. Even once Yann had joined me I had the feeling that the presence of foreigners was somewhat of an unwelcome distraction. So we quietly left the temple heading towards the outskirts of the village to wait for the sunset.
Despite our distance, we could hear the loud, monotone chanting emanating from the temple celebrations. The chants seemed to call on the clouds to lift, revealing for the first time since our arrival in Kalpa, the snow-capped peaks of the sacred Kinner Kailash mountain range that were actually surrounding us. We watched until the last sliver of light had disappeared from the sky. We headed for bed expecting that the village men would continue their celebrations throughout the night. From Kalpa, we took a small detour from the main highway to visit Sarahan, location of the Bhimakali Temple. A multi-story construction of alternating layers of timber and stone whose original construction dates back over 800 years. As a temple honouring the local manifestation of the blood-thirsty goddess Kali, it has been a site of sacrifice for hundreds of years. Apparently even human sacrifices as recently as the 1800s. It seems a strange contrast from the beauty of the temple and its surroundings. Unbelievably, we had the temple entirely to ourselves. We stayed in the temple guest house, as possibly its only guests, with a balcony looking over the courtyard entrance to the temple. The architectural wonder was ours to explore and admire without any distraction.

Nako - "Land of Fairy Tales and Fantasies"

Tabo marked the end of our trip through the Spiti Valley, we would now be passing through the Kinnaur Valley. Our inner-line permits that we had patiently applied for in Kaza were now necessary as we traveled within ten kilometers of the Indian-Tibetan border. At the highway checkpoint, we watched as a poor foreigner was detained for traveling without a permit. They seemed to be discussing whether to send him back from where he came, and he was distraught. Even though the nearest permit office was less than 100km away, on this highway this could represent an entire day of travel, on possibly the world's scariest roads. Had it been Yann being sent back, this might have necessitated a helicopter evacuation. His nerves were getting shakier and shakier as we climbed towards the town of Nako, where we would be stopping. We had discovered that the only thing keeping Yann together on mountain bus rides had been his MP3 player. I had managed to forget mine on the train and drop Yann's out a bus window. All I could do was hold Yann's hand, which didn't work wonders but was all we had. But Nako's precarious location, afforded it simply breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. Sitting within a few kilometers of the barren Western Tibetan frontier, the village of Nako is centered around the small but sacred Nako lake. The narrow alleys of Nako are lined with prayer wheels, crumbling chortens and piles of Mani stones. Livestock or gardens are enclosed by stone walls and roofs are piled high with kindling and hay. Fancier homes are adorned with intricately carved wooden door frames. Prayer flags criss-cross the village. We had some trouble finding accomodation in Nako. There didn't seem to be many tourists around but many of the small guest houses claimed to be full. The larger, newly constructed hotels in the village's centre were large and obtrusive and uglified the charming village. We weren't keen on using them. The four of us ended up in a basement room of a restaurant, using the bathrooms of the guest house next door (which conveniently locked its doors after dinner, making for interesting nighttime bathroom runs).

The villagers, both men and women, sported the traditional Kinnauri wool cap with its bright green flap and appeared from the surrounding hills carrying crops on their backs. An elderly man who we passed on the road stopped to proclaim his love of Kinnaur. Packs of small children played together as their parents disappeared for the long summer days in the fields. We spent an afternoon walking the hills surrounding Nako, taking in the views and wondering if the foot trails led into Tibet. Chortens, Mani walls and prayer flags dotted the landscape, the blue sky reflected into the crystal clear Nako lake. We did a pretty good job of taking advantage of the village's tranquility without thinking too much about our upcoming bus ride and the contiunation of our trip. With a little bit more time we would have stayed longer, and would have had even more trouble leaving than we already did.

"At last they entered a world within a world - a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains...
'Surely the Gods live here', said Kim, beaten down by the silence and the appalling sweep of dispersal of the cloud-shadows after rain. 'This is no place for men!'"

- From Kim, by Rudyard Kipling