Flagstaff is noted to be the world's first "International Dark Sky City". Laksar Junction holds no such official distinction, but is the darkest city we have ever experienced.
We only went to Laksar to catch a train. The India Railways system is fickle and there is no way to buy tickets for train connections. You have to know which trains go from where to where in order to plan your trip. Being unable to find a train from Rishikesh to Pathankot I did some Internet research and found that our best route was Laksar to Chakki Bank station. Laksar is a mere 30 KM from Haridwar and to me, that seemed a skip in the park. But we started in Rishikesh, another 20 KM away. Through a series of unfortunate events that don't warrant time re-hashing (never believe an Indian when he says "this is absolutely 100% sir") we were hosed on a private car to the wrong station and left with only two truly shitty auto-rickshaws to bargain with for the journey.
After an hour and a half of banging about the countryside and watching a lovely sunset we were dropped in Laksar, the "dark (omit sky)city". Laksar Junction station was described as the biggest station in the state. It was built in 1866 and doesn't look to have been renovated since. Since the station didn't look inviting we decided to look for toilet paper and have a bite to eat. We wandered briefly through a very dark and crowded marketplace while clearly being followed by a few boys. We stopped every few shops and asked for "toilet paper" but no one seemed to have heard of this mysterious substance. We finally heard whispers of a "toilet roll" 5 shops up and on the left. We counted up 5 and were sent back three shops on the right. When we asked for toilet paper the shopkeeper answered with a blank stare. Finally, another man behind the counter reached up high on a shelf and Eureka!!!, he pulled down a very yellow, old and dusty roll of toilet paper. We paid a full 30 rupees for this relic and then set off for dinner. Since there was not a single "sanitary" looking place in town, we opted for "alloo tikki" (potato pancakes) from a street vendor. These were served to us as "burgers" on rolls with lettuce and tomato. Alloo Tikki is usually a good safe bet for street food since it is fried. Adding a roll and fresh condiments looked a bit risky, but this was the only game in town. We said a prayer and went to picnic in the station.
Our train was due at 8:00 PM, but the station itself was dark. Several families seemed to live there. There was no place to sit and enjoy our dinner so we headed for the platform. We were again followed (across a dark bridge)until we found ourselves on a dark platform with just a few very dim lights overhead. For the next hour and a half (the train was late) we sat on a cold, dark bench and were eyed by cold dark men with cold dark eyes and who were spitting cold, dark tobacco juice on the cold dark floor.
Relieved to be on the train, but a bit surprised at how crowded 2 tier AC sleeper class was in comparison to our "first class" experience we set the alarm and settled in for the overnight trip.
I awoke in the morning and went to find out how long it would be until we arrived in Chakki Bank. After wandering the car to both ends I found a man who seemed to be indicating that our station was one hour away, I headed back to our car only to find out that we had passed our station some time ago. A nice and helpful attendant said "didn't you set your alarm?, we walked through and announced that station an hour ago". I indicated that I had indeed set the alarm and that I had looked for help and never saw anyone announcing a station. I also noted that the train was running more than an hour late when we got on, and that there was no way of knowing when we would arrive at our station. The nice man wagged a finger at me and said "sir, this train is 100% on time! 365 days a year! this train is never late!". After some negotiation, the nice and helpful man suggested that we stay on the train until the end of the line in Jammu where we could catch a bus to our final destination in Dharmashala. This was a minor change in plan, but not too inconvenient. And since we were way under budget on our travels, we opted for a private car at a whopping 2500 rupees ($50) for the six hour drive through the mountains.
After a brief stop at India's "largest underground aquarium" (we couldn't resist), a display that looked not dissimilar from a very, very, old pet-store, we hit the road toward Dharmashala, our "city of light".
Pink House is a small hotel run by two very nice Kashmiri brothers. It is perched on a hillside with great views of the Himalayas and each room has a private balcony. After the hustle, bustle, and previous night's darkness we were were very pleased to check in to this bright pink and lovely place. Our room was sparkling clean and impeccable. Hot ginger, honey lemon tea was brought. We crashed and awoke in time to climb the 125 steps up from the hotel to the main road to explore Dharmashala some before sunset.
Dharmashala is not like the rest of India. It is the home of the Dalai Lama and the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile. The ride to get there is long and steep. When people give you directions there they either say go "up, up, up" or "down, down, down". There is a sense of peace there that defies just the location. There is less crowding and far less honking. The population is a diverse mix of Buddhist, Siek, Muslim and Christian. There are no touts! None. Not one person approached us to sell us anything we weren't looking for. There are two beggars. The guy with the club feet and one other lady. There are wonderful restaurants on every corner that sell a very diverse mix of Tibetan, Indian, Chinese, pizza and German baked goods. Most everyone speaks English there and most everyone smiles almost all the time. People greet each other warmly with "namaste" and make eye contact. I receive many spontaneous compliments on my beard there. Shopkeepers remember us as we walk by and say hello, but there is no hard sell. Tibetan shopkeepers generally ask about two thirds the price of Indian shops, but there is no hassle or haggling.
We spend four lovely days in Dharmashala. We eat wonderful food and hike in the mountains.
We visit the Tibetan Children's Village, where 2,000 refugee kids live, but it is vacation and there are few people there. We Hike up a mountain and through a village to a wonderful waterfall with a cafe above.
We meet nice local people there and play backgammon. We visit the Norbulinga Institute, which is dedicated to preserving Tibetan arts and culture. Amanda peers through the keyhole of the Dalai Lama's bedroom at the Institute (he hasn't stayed there for years).
I have heard that at the Tibetan National Museum there is a sculpture of Potala Palace(the Dalai Lama's residence in Tibet)that has been crafted out of yak butter. Another absurdist holy grail! We seek it, hear rumors, but alas when we get to the museum it is closed for renovation. We tell them that we are only there to see the yak butter sculpture and initially get blank stares. Then, a light comes on! Why yes, there is a sculpture of Potala palace! Would you like to see it? We follow the nice man to the office of a bureaucrat, and lo and behold, on a dusty shelf high in the corner of her office is this:
. The nice man confirms that it is indeed made of yak butter (mixed with paraffin). We give the nice man the slip on the way out and sneak into the closed museum to see other wonders, like a temple made of string and a huge sand mandala.
Amanda discovers that her favorite dish is Dum Aloo Kashmiri. We return to the restaurant for a final taste of these potato dumplings smothered in curry and butter before our final bus ride back to Delhi. We have left a bag at our first hotel and made reservations to pick it up at 0700 on our day of departure. We'll check in then and keep the room until about 4PM when we need to leave to deliver Amanda to the airport for her flight to Goa. I have hired a private car for the day as my flight is not until 11:30 PM. and I don't want to have to manage several trips to the airport and around town with all of our things.
As we depart Dharmashala we note how calm and skillful our driver is. The mountain roads are very tight and take great skill to negotiate. We just wish that the man in the front seat with the turban on would stop hollering while our driver is concentrating. Some time later I look up to see the driver leaving the bus and the man in the turban taking the wheel! Apparently the first guy was a local specialist hired just to get down from the mountain. The crazy dude in the turban is our real driver and our worst nightmare. He drives like the demon child of my grandmother and a New York City cabbie. He speeds up only to slam on the brakes at the last moment. He passes everything regardless of whether there is space to. He rants and screams and jabbers away for hours. Instead of our 06:00 arrival time, the bus gets to Delhi at 04:30.
We take a cab to our hotel and a sleepy security guard wakes the desk man from his blanket on the floor. There is no room available, but there should be one at 07:00 as arranged. No worries.....we understand, we'll just sleep here in the lobby and you can wake us when the room is ready. Ahem.....no sooner than when we make ourselves comfortable, the desk man has arranged for a room at their "sister hotel" just a block away. We are escorted to a very nice room in a nicer hotel than the original and instructed to come back to our original place at 08:00.
In the morning we are invited to stay in the nicer hotel at no additional cost. Our bag is brought from the original hotel and we spend the morning packing and preparing for our respective trips.
We visit the Red Fort and stop for lunch at a 200 year old restaurant where we dine with a lovely father and daughter on some famous parathas. Our final auto-rickshaw driver wins the prize as the happiest in India and with the best head wobble!
I drop Amanda at the airport and take a tour of Delhi. I meet the real "Sandeep" after being driven around by an impostor all day (I had arranged the car through an internet referral. Sandeep was rumored to be the best cabbie in Delhi). Finally I grab one last, delicious 120 rupee ($2.40) meal before boarding the plane for my 24 hours journey home.
At first glance, working at 7:00 PM on the day of my return (at 3PM) would seem a crazy notion. But Delhi is exactly 12 hours off from Flagstaff, and that puts me right in the zone for my night shift. Besides this, going back to work immediately means I can get a full 36 hours in this week.
I assure you, that this is the best jet lag prevention scheme ever. I'm now on day three and still feel better than average for a night shift. Perhaps this is because I've been on this time-zone for a few weeks now. The only issue is that after jumping back in with both feet India just seems like a dream.
A direct flight from Newark to Delhi is like time travel. You go from India's crazy streets with camels and cows and real live bobble headed drivers. You fast forward to home, right where you left from. It's a bit surreal.
Amanda is in Goa enjoying the beach. She's happy to be travelling again and looks forward to our next adventure!!!! We just have to decide... Croatia or Montenegro?