August 20, 2015

To the mountains ! part I

The last weeks are here. Leaving the desert and Jaisamer behind me, I hop on a train back to Delhi. The trip is 24 hours long and I haven't booked a seat, because I'm a maniac, and also because I don't like to pay for things. I end up sitting next to the open door, watching the plains fly by. Indians gather around me, curious, and ask about my cameras and my trip. I answer in the best hindi I can manage, but soon the conversation is dropped. I stay there a while, with two young men and a very old woman. From the rags they wear and the scars and burns covering their skin, it's not hard to guess that they are beggars. During the time I am next to them, they almost never speak, but they often smile and point at my hair, my face, my clothes, and I smile back. From time to time they open a small soap box filled with strong smelling glue, which they pour on a dirty cloth before sucking on it, like a childrens toy. I watch them with the most humility I can manage, but their life, for me, is hard to imagine. I remember feeling guilty that the contents of my bag could feed them for a year. Feeling guilty that I was born where I was, and that for that birth I am granted health, safety and wealth, while they merely survive out there. They smile, I smile, I share my water and bread with them, I take pictures when they ask me to. Small way of changing things, I know.

After a very, very long night of sitting on the floor of the train, exchanging jokes, cigarettes and opium with the men in my carriage, I finally reach Delhi. I just have time to sneak in a hotel to wash my face in a bathroom sink, and I'm off again. On a night bus that takes me north, to Dharamsala. I remember sitting at the back of the rickshaw, being wowed at the craziness of Delhi again, and for once, being wowed at myself – you're fucking doing it, I keep thinking – speaking a different tongue, arguing, moving everyday, holding your own – goddammit, you're getting good at this.

What most people who haven't been there don't know is that people going to Dharamsala don't actually go to Dharamsala, which is a fairly ugly industrial mountain town. Instead they go to McLeod Ganj, a small village a few miles further, lost among the pine trees. McLeod Ganj, where the Dalai Lama established a tibetan government in 1950, after his exile from Tibet. Around 60 000 tibetans in exile now live in the area. The village is crowded, but beautiful. Momos (the delicious tibetan dumplings) are cooking on ever corner, and the tibetans are nothing less than adorable. We spend a fair deal of time in the Tsuglagkhang, the dalai lama's temple. We learn that he is in residence, and just knowing that he is close makes the experience that much deeper. This is my first contact with tibetan buddhism and the peace radiating from this place moves me to tears. We spend days walking in the hills around, speaking english with the monks, or chilling on the terrasse, watching prey birds fly above the valley. A bit less than a week, and it's time to leave. The road ahead is long – we're going to Ladakh, at the far edge of the country.

Reaching Ladakh by road is almost impossible at this time of year, as the region is snowed in 10 months out of 12 – but by a turn of fate, the road just opened a few days ago, and to us, a week of buses sounds much more fun (and far, far cheaper) than a short flight. The morning of our departure, I meet Pi (a friend from the desert – you'll hear more about him) at the bus station. On the bus that takes us to Jammu, we meet two other french people, C and O, with whom we become friends instantly. They're going to Ladakh too, and from then on the two of us become the four of us. It's that simple.

At the end of the first day, we reach busy Jammu, which has to be the ugliest place on earth. The bus station is a total chaos, but I still manage to find a bus leaving early in the morning for Srinagar, in the Kashmir province. After a few takes, we find a hotel that takes in foreigners (you'll laugh, but it was actually difficult for security reasons). Already the atmosphere is different – people look at us with open curiosity, we don't see any other westerners, and there are a few too many armories for my taste.

The next morning, we get to the bus station at 5am to secure four seats on the only public bus that goes to Srinagar. We got our seats, and then waited four hours for the station to unclog and the bus to leave. It was not fun. The only road to Kashmir is gorgeous, but as it has just opened, the trafic is absolutely insane. Story of the day : the road is open only in one direction, and all the merchandises trucks are taking it – just one car going the wrong way and the whole line stops. That's a hundred thousands trucks, all standing still, waiting for the one car to go through. We decide to find it all funny – the incessant pausing, the two hours wait, the broken bus, the smelly chickens that sit in the alley of the bus. It's all worth it, because at the end of the day, we open the windows and the cold air is blissful. It's been a while since I've been in a cold place, and it is delightful. As the bus go up and up in the mountains, I smile like a little kid. We're going to Ladakh, I keep saying to Pi, and he smiles without pausing in his reading. Night comes and we're still driving. We'll reach Srinagar in the dark.

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