Shimla to Agra, Including McLeod Ganj and Amritsar
Sorry its taken a bit longer to put this entry up, i've tried a few times but i've had 2 powercuts and some dodgy net connections. This time, at last it worked!
I'm in Udaipur at the minute, but i'll probably just cover that off on my next entry, which will probably be just before I leave India for Bali next week. I came to Udaipur 2 days ago from Agra, I promised I wasn't going to gloat about my trip or where I am, but 2 days ago this was the view from my Hotel:
The magnificent Taj Mahal in Agra. I can honestly say the pictures don’t do it justice at all, up close it really is an incredible sight, truly one of the wonders of the world and one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. It was built and completed in 1653 by The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (or should I say 20,000 of his ‘employees’), in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal who died during childbirth of their 14th child at the age of 39, the poor woman must’ve been knackered! In all seriousness though, if this is what he built in her memory I can only imagine how beautiful she was herself.
After it was completed things didn’t go so well for the old romantic, he was overthrown by his son allegedly because he wanted to build a black replica across the river for himself, which could have bankrupted the Mughal Empire. So he spent the last 8 years of his life in a cell at Agra Fort overlooking his stunning tribute. Apparently, he had one of the best views of the Taj during his stay, I’m sure that made everything alright then.
Since my last entry, when I was in Shimla, it’s been an eventful 10 days. I left Shimla for McLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Govt. in exile. I thought I’d surprise his holiness with the visit, but he called my bluff and went to Dublin at the invitation of his friend and Derry man, Richard Moore. I didn’t mind too much, Richard’s story is pretty incredible and probably warrants the friendship of the great man. He was shot and blinded by a rubber bullet during the troubles in Northern Ireland, but went on to find and befriend the soldier who shot him, a real beacon of light for friendship and reconciliation if ever there was one I reckon.
Ok so the Dalai Lama wasn’t about, but even so I have to say McLeod Ganj is one of the coolest places I’ve ever been to. When I arrived it was dark and pissing down, so I just got to my hotel, got a feed and went to sleep after the long journey. When I woke up the next morning and opened my curtains I had the biggest smile my whole trip so far. At last the snowcapped peaks I was looking for right there in front of and way, way above me. I was so happy I even done a wee dance, luckily no one was about to see that though!
Aside from the natural beauty of McLeod Ganj and the laidback nature of the little town in the hills, the other main feature of the place is the plight of the many Tibetan’s living in exile here. I can honestly say I have never met a group of people more kind, gentle and genuinely friendly as the Tibetan’s. A people rich in history, tradition and warm sentiment and certainly not deserving of the treatment they receive at the hands of the Chinese Government, who are at this very moment essentially trying to wipe out the Tibetan way of life by moving Han-Chinese to Tibet, who already outnumber the 6 million Tibetans bravely residing in their occupied homeland.
While in McLeod I had the pleasure to meet some of the ex-political prisoners during English conversational classes. I was invited by a crazy Celtic fan from Glasgow called Steve, who was really passionate about these guys. So much so that on our last day with them we sang You’ll Never Walk Alone, partly because I’m a Liverpool fan and Steve’s a Celtic fan and the Tibetans we chatted to, including a Buddhist monk were football mad, but also because we felt the meaning of the song wouldn’t be lost on these amazing guys with equally amazing stories. To thank us and to wish us luck on our onward journeys they presented us in the traditional Tibetan way, with white scarves and warm embraces. It was a really emotional moment and one I’ll keep with me the rest of my days. I would love to show some pictures but was asked not to take any to ensure the safety of the ex-prisoners. I can only presume the Chinese don’t know they are in McLeod, and it should certainly stay that way I think.
I had 7 fantastic nights in that wonderful town, but time is always a-ticking so I had to move on. Next stop Amritsar and the Golden Temple, home to the Sikh religion. The journey was another 7 hours on a bus, not too bad in all, and it actually gave better views of the whole snowcapped mountain range behind McLeod, but the bus was too bumpy so I didn’t get anymore pictures. Also, I met a fella from Tipperary in Ireland with the same first AND second name as me! Apart from my Dad and Grandfather I’ve only ever met 1 other person in my life with my first name Edmund, never mind both so that was pretty bizarre.
When I arrived in Amritsar there was the usual hustle and bustle at the station, but I’d booked a hotel ahead this time, something I’m learning to do more and more here. So bish, bosh, bash I got a motor rickshaw, got checked in and had a nice snooze. As the Aussies say ‘Too Easy Mayte’!
Once I was rested I met with the other Eddie and 2 nice Americans, Jenny and Aaron and we headed to the border with Pakistan to watch the border closing ceremony at Wagah. This without a doubt is a highlight of any trip here. You sit in a grandstand on the Indian side while just across the road the Pakistani’s also sit in their grandstand with the border wall in between. On each side there’s cheerleaders and huge sound systems whipping the crowds into a passionate frenzy that cumulates with soldiers on each side doing the ministry of funny walks sketch from Monty Python, taking the flags down and doing the quickest handshake and salute, before slamming the gates on each side shut for the night.
The next day I had to get a train to Agra via Delhi (15 hours), but not until the evening. So obviously just to kill time I took a wander round the Golden Temple, not because I wanted to or anything like. I have to say though when I got there I was astonished not just by the beauty of the central Temple, which is covered in Gold plates, but also the surrounding walls and serenity within the entire site. Now I’m not religious but it did give me a pretty nice feeling walking around and seeing the pilgrims’ devotion to something higher. One of the things that make Sikhs so special is that they are inclusive with everyone no matter what religion, colour or creed. An example of this is the food hall within the temple, said to feed 60,000 to 80,000 people A DAY, FOR FREE! It doesn’t matter whether you’re a pilgrim, a tourist or simply hungry, everyone is welcome. Its open 24 hours a day and has been for a very, very longtime! They even provide dorms for free, although they do accept donations of any amount, which isn’t a lot to ask really.
I spent a few hours there in the day and then went back again at night for a different view before my train left, and wasn’t disappointed at all. So after another walk around the temple I went and collected my bags and caught the sleeper train (complete with bed) to Delhi and then on to Agra, and here I am. Well I hope that wasn’t too long and boring. I’m off next to Udaipur in Rajasthan, The Land of the Kings no less. Udaipur is where they filmed the bond movie Octopussy, and it’s supposed to be very nice, so it should be interesting. As usual I’ll get all the dirt and some more pictures up next week wrapping up my time here in India. As always thanks for travelling with me.
All the best.