So to Nepal....!
McLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government in exile, is another beautiful Himalayan foothill town. We spent five nights here relaxing, doing a bit of yoga, walking up and down A LOT of hills, learning about Buddhism and Tibet, and a massive highlight - hearing the Dalai Lama speak!
Amazingly we'd just turned up a couple of days before he was due home to give three days of teachings - what are the chances?! Some people must plan their trip around getting to see him but we just rocked up, got our Lama passes, and got straight in - bloody brilliant! It was a fantastic experience and we even got right into the whole thing by watching Seven Years in Tibet the night before and making friends with a lovely Tibetan lady who then took us home for her mother to make us tsampa, a special Tibetan dish! It felt like we were actually IN Tibet, very cool.
We easily could have spent longer here, as with Manali, but unfortunately (or fortunately?) had to keep moving. So after a fantastically tasty Tibetan feast on our last night we prepared ourselves for the journey to Amritsar, home of the Sikh's holiest site - the Golden Temple.
We knew the journey was going to be a bit different as we were getting a public bus from McLeod to Pathankot where we would change to another bus to Amritsar. We'd bumped into some TOLFA girls who'd warned us we might have to put our own luggage on the roof which it turned out we did. So up we scrambled onto the roof of the most filthiest bus, somehow managed to yank our HUGE packs onto the roof, tied them on, then scrambled down in fear of our lives with the bus about to move at any second. Now, McLeod is up in the clouds and the mountain roads aren't the most securely paved in the world so we just had to sit and pray the bags would be there at the end. Also, neither of us are the tallest girls in the world, and while going through the 'getting bags from ground to roof' palava a TALL PERSON (male, western) stood by watching saying 'good for you girls' - tall people please take note that this is almost a sure way to get a smack.
Arriving in Pathankot we (again, stupidly, as we're in India) assumed it would be the end of the line. But oh no. With a shout of 'get up get up hurry hurry' and a point at the roof we had about 30 seconds to clamber up, untie the bags, and get back off. I felt like I was in the crystal maze or something! It was all very exciting! I ran up first but there was a huge tyre blocking our bags, the engine was revving, Lauren followed me up and got screamed at to 'move the tyre!!!' at which point her amazing strength of a bear came into play and she pulled it straight off. I untied the bags, we practically threw them down onto the driver, them jumped off. By the time I looked round the bus had gone. But we'd made it! We were covered in dirt, sweaty, hungry, thirsty, but still laughing. It was all so surreal!
At this point it was what felt about 40 degrees with the midday heat hitting us hard after that nice clear mountain air. We walked about five minutes to the next bus stand where we were so hungry we had our first real try of street food which felt like the best meal in the world. Even with black hands from the dirt! Luckily the next bus had a hold so we chucked our bags in there and settled for a few hours to Amritsar.
We were only in Amritsar for a couple of days, to visit the Golden Temple and to see the border closing ceremony between India and Pakistan. The Golden Temple is absolutely beautiful. I can't say enough about the beauty of it, and think for me it equals that of the Taj. It was packed from daybreak to sunset, and is a working temple with more than 60,000 visitors a day and also a kitchen feeding that amount of people each day too. We were again in many photos though this time people took to throwing their babies at us to hold in the photos too. Seriously, if they knew me they would not do that, I think I nearly dropped a couple and I'm sure the children will look at these photos in the future and ask 'who's the weirdo in the bright orange bandana sweating like a pig?'. I should just say, the orange bandana was not a fashion statement, everyone has to cover their heads as Sikh religion dictates and these were what we're sold for tourists. Nice.
The Attari/Wagah border ceremony was SO much fun. It's a ceremony where India and Pakistan both try to outdo each other in pomp, dress, stamping, headgear and bellowing, it's hilarious. As foreigners we got almost front row seats which was great, it was very Month Python with the kicking and stamping, I loved it! It was almost like a football game with each countries supporters on each side of the gate, cheering, playing music, dancing in the stands (well maybe not a football game but similar!)
From there we had a loooooong 24 hour train journey half way across the country to Varanasi which I was so excited about. I couldn't wait to get out on the Ganges and see all the Ghats and the craziness. The journey was surprisingly okay, we'd booked third class AC so we each had a bed with blankets supplied and air con. It went pretty quick as of course everyone was intrigued by us so we had lots of chats, lots of photos, had food shared with us, it was really quite nice. It Is pretty mental to think though that in 24 hours we were still only half way across India. It really does make you realise how vast the country is on a journey like that.
Unfortunately Varanasi was not quite so nice. We were expecting dirty and smelly, but as soon as we got there we felt uneasy, there wasn't a nice feeling about it. Even the dogs were angry and the cows moody with my first cow headbutt as we walked past with our backpacks through the sweltering packed maze of the old city.
We were supposed to stay three nights but after just one night and a day we were ready to sort our tickets out for moving on. It was a real shame. We ended up just staying for two nights and leaving early on the third day. We didn't get out on the river as despite many many boatmen saying they were going out and even after accepting the price of one guy and sitting there for 20 minutes, no one was boating as apparently the river was too high. So we only got to see the Ghat we were near which was still fantastic and crazy with some sights to be seen including an evening ceremony but not really what we wanted.
We left Varanasi feeling a bit let down, which having spoke to a couple of travellers since, also felt the same. Maybe I'd give it another chance at another time of year but I'm not sure if it would really be somewhere I'd be desperate to get back to. It really was a shame as it was our last Indian destination before Nepal so a bit sad to leave on a downer but we'll be back in a few weeks with new Indian spirit I'm sure. For now, onward to Pokhara where we should arrive this evening in front of the mighty Annapurna range where we'll be trekking very soon!!