Our lack of planning train rides ahead of time lead us to Chandigarh for the day, after a night train from Jodhpur. We read in Lonely Planet and heard from others that Chandigarh is a breath of fresh air because it is India’s first planned city. It was touted to be clean, organized, and simply lovely. We arrived in the city and our first impression was that everything seemed huge and spread out. It sort of was as if you arrived in Columbia, Maryland (near our hometown) on a train and someone told you to find your way around. The city is divided into sectors and really the only way to tell a taxi or tuk-tuk driver where you want to go is by telling them the sector. Luckily, Lonely Planet came to the rescue for this one and we headed to sector 17 where it seemed we could find some breakfast. We first wandered around trying to find a guesthouse that would let us shower and store our bags for some rupees. This request was baffling to each guesthouse we asked (there seemed to only be about three, really expensive, guesthouses in Chandigarh). If we were in one of the smaller cities in Rajasthan, we bet it would have taken all of two minutes to find a place willing to take our money for an hour of their services.
After being rejected, we took off on foot to see if we could find some breakfast. The town was noticeably cleaner and quieter than other parts of India, although that might not be saying much. We didn’t see as many cows in the streets, so I’m sure the lack of animal deification all over the ground accounted for some of the impression that it was a tidier Indian city. As we walked around, we realized three things: (1) We desperately needed to find a place to keep our backpacks for the day. (2) This city was far too large to navigate on foot. (3) Nothing seemed to be open yet (it was after 8am). To solve issue #1, we happened to stumble upon a local bus station that had 24 hour bag storage for 9 rupees (that is about 30 cents). We hastily locked our bags to a rack in the storage room using our handy pac safe chains and set off to solve issue #2. Lonely Planet had so kindly informed us of where we could rent bicycles to get around easier from the tourist office in sector 17. We waited for it to open and learned they in fact do not rent bicycles. I’ll take this time to mention that although Lonely Planet is indispensable in some aspects, it tends to be horribly incorrect about 30% of the time. Once again rejected, we hopped into a biking tuk-tuk with a driver that had to be jacked up on something that was much stronger than coffee. He pedaled his butt off to get us to another sector to try to find a bakery that promised to have good breakfast. During the ride, we realized this place, although orderly, was completely lacking in character. Every sector was nearly identical and had the same shops. Once again, sort of like Columbia (another planned city) with about 3 Staples office supply stores within a mile of each other. After several minutes of watching our driver twitch and aimlessly pedal around the sector in search of our much needed breakfast joint, we decided to get off, cut our losses, and try to find it on foot. After 20 minutes of walking, asking people, and being pointed in about four completely different directions (this is the Indian way, even if they don’t know where you want to go, they wave you in at least one direction rather than admitting they don’t know), we found our Chandigarhan breakfast haven. A nice little chain run by an Australian dude who thankfully had a big, delicious menu and a clean bathroom complete with soap, toilet paper, and paper towels! John ordered a veggie omelette, I ordered a breakfast sandwich, and we happily recovered from a long train ride and a morning of full of utter confusion.
The rest of the day in Chandigarh was nice, although we decided one day was plenty. We had to take busses and tuk-tuks everywhere. Our first stop was a lake on the edge of town followed by a tour through the The Rock Garden of Chandigarh. The rock garden is basically a creation of Nek Chand who envisioned of a park with structures made of different types of trash: electric outlets, tiles, bottles, glasses, etc. A recycling project, so to speak. It is supposedly the second most visited site in India after the Taj Mahal. It was a really cool place to see and a nice way to see the trash of India going to an artsy use rather than flooding the streets and rivers as it usually does. We were the only foreigners in the exhibit which meant we were surrounded by families and other groups asking to take our photos and shouting, “Where are you from?!” When our celebrity photo shoot was over, we exited and found our way to a microbrewery on the outside of town. That’s right folks, a microbrewery in India! John sampled an IPA, I tried a wheat and we split a pineapple beer, which was surprisingly delicious and refreshing. Quesadillas were on the menu and we thoroughly enjoyed that alongside our beverages. At least Chandigarh was proving to have some tasty treats for us.
The time came to take a tuk-tuk back to the main area of Chandigarh to catch our bus to Mcleod Ganj. It took us a while to negotiate a ride back to town, but when we did, it was a crazy ride! A young guy, probably low 20’s, drove us at a ridiculously fast pace while weaving in and out of cars, other tuk-tuks, and busses. If it meant he had to go against traffic to make it 10 seconds earlier, he sure would. All the while he was blasting some sort of interesting mix of Hindi hip hop mixed with traditional Indian vocal sounds. We held on for dear life and were quite pleased to arrive in one piece at the bus station to retrieve our backpacks. Little did we know, we were in for the ride of our lives in just a few short hours. That tuk-tuk ride was nothing.
After grabbing a final meal at the same breakfast bakery, we took yet ANOTHER tuk-tuk to a gas station across from the long distance bus station. We’re not sure why we didn’t go to the bus station, but people were scattered all over the grass in front of the gas station waiting for their night busses to various places. Ours was supposed to arrive around 11pm and as 11 came and went, we got more and more anxious with every passing bus. Luckily, we found a nice man who was waiting for the same bus and he called the bus company and told us it would be there shortly. As the bus approached, the driver called the man back and told him we needed to walk about 50 meters down the street to get on. We did as we were told and the bus never came to a complete stop as we got on. We scrambled in, trying to hold onto our bags and keep our shoes on. Apparently there were some cops down the street seeking bribes from bus drivers by threatening to ticket them for picking up at a location separate from the bus station, so our driver was not-so-subtly trying to avoid this. As usual, our designated seat numbers were taken, but a friendly man moved so we could sit together. The bus was relatively comfortable and the seats reclined enough to be able to sleep. We settled in for what was supposed to be a 7 hour ride through the night into the Indian Himalayas.
There are few things that we experienced on this 9-month journey that were as terrifying or strangely exhilarating as the bus ride from Chandigarh to Mcleod Ganj. It all started out comfortable with some blankets, our travel pillows, and the all important ear plugs. We easily drifted off to sleep on the long, straight road out of Chandigarh. I woke up around 1:30am as my body was being tossed around like a rag doll. I couldn’t stay in my seat. I was either flopping over onto John or being squished into the window involuntarily. I looked out the window to discover that we were on an incredibly windy, dirt road and we were surrounded by cliffs and mountains. The moon was nearly full so the visibility was surprisingly good for the middle of the night. We were tearing up the mountain in a very large Volvo bus at speeds I can’t even explain…okay, I’ll try: 100 kmph. The driver was whipping the bus around corners faster than my parents old dog used to eat leftovers…which is ridiculously fast. As I’m beginning to conjure up images of a cow standing around every corner, ready to wreck our world, John starts to wake up. We both acknowledge that the current situation is the most dire we have been in to date and neither of us could gather up the courage to go back to sleep in case these were the last few minutes or hours of our lives. I don’t know if I have painted the picture clear enough. These “roads” are dirt, full of potholes, and barely big enough for one bus to fit in one direction. They were also snaking up the mountain with constant turns on cliffs hundreds of meters high. No, there aren’t any guard rails. This is India, people. The chances of another vehicle approaching us in the opposite direction or a person or animal being in the road are very high. John mentioned that he wasn’t sure if he was more scared or impressed at the driver’s ability, which admittedly was rather impressive. It was as if he had driven this thousands of times and could now do so with a blindfold. A small consolation, but not enough to calm me down. It was one of those times when your life literally flashes before your eyes. I was reflecting on my life, how happy I was that I got to spend it the way I have for the past 28 years, how lucky I have been to have a wonderful family and caring friends, and I thought about everyone back home who would be extremely mad at us for taking a bus in India…into the mountains…at night.
The tossing and turning went on until 4am when we arrived in what appeared to be a town. To our great surprise, this town was Dharamsala! The town only a few kilometers from Mcleod Ganj (aka upper Dharamsala). We weren’t supposed to arrive here until 6am! Our driver shed at least 2 hours off of that journey. Crazy. We appreciated the early arrival but don’t appreciate the 7 years it took off our lives. Mcleod Ganj was just about 20 minutes away, so we stayed on the bus until we got to the bus station just outside of town. We walked to our guesthouse while admiring the charming, silent streets of Mcleod Ganj. We had to wake up the guesthouse owner to get into our room which came complete with an amazing view of the Indian Himalayas from our comfortable balcony. We immediately went to sleep to make up for the lack of sleep on the bus while our eyes were glued to the window, praying to arrive alive. Trust us folks, Mcleod Ganj is in every way worth each second of anxiety caused by that bus ride. It quickly became our favorite place in India and one of our favorite places of the entire trip.