The next few days take us high up the Himalayas, to Mussoorie hill station, through winding rubble mountain roads; single lanes designed (and I use the term loosely) to fit one of a bullcart, motorbike, car or lorry at any one time, but in typical Indian fashion, usually altogether.
The hotel is a typical Indian 3 or 4*. The so-called gym and spa advertised on the net are non-existent. So, it seems, is the quality of service. But at least they try to make amends when I do, on occasion, complain or moan. If you complain in India, about lack of a service that would be expected of any hotel in Europe, you’re (they think discretely but it’s really quite blatant) labelled by staff as ‘high-maintenance.’ On several occasions, staying in the hotels that, as they tell me themselves, aren’t designed for non-Indians or foreign guests, I’m made to feel like a demanding patient. All I wanted is scrambled eggs or cold milk and cereal for breakfast. Or something for dinner that’s actually written on the menu but I’m told is ‘unavailable at this time.’ The funny thing about Indian hotels, at this standard, is that if you visit them off-peak, you get the worst of their service. Their buffet breakfasts aren’t buffet as they openly explain there’d be no point cooking a buffet with so few guests. So, I wonder, why not just say so beforehand and translate it through the travel agent? Surely the hospitality industry is based on an open relationship and communication with guests. Or is that also just a European hype?
Back to Mussoorie, it is certainly a jaw-dropping location at Gun Hill. We arrive late afternoon for a steep climb amidst dramatic drops to Gun Hill viewpoint for a panoramic sunset. Off-season, it’s blissfully deserted; souvenir kiosks are shuttered, beauty spots are empty. Further in, a group of men play Carrom, which I want to join but refrain from fear of embarrassing myself. Overnight, it starts snowing, rather hailing golf-ball sized ice cubes. I’m kept up all night hearing them hurling from the heavens onto our rooftop, convinced the building will buckle. Needless to say, that doesn’t happen. Despite the sleepless night, as an early-morning riser, I jump up at the first sign of dawn and draw back the curtains to stunning surroundings of fresh snow. This high up, I feel closer to heaven.
In the distance a thick layer of mist pours creepily over and through the rolling mountain scenery. I capture some beautiful photographs of the surreal statuesque Himalayas encircling us. The world is quite surreal at this altitude, reminiscent of Machu Picchu in Peru at sunrise.
An experience I’ll always cherish and refer to is when we take a drive through the assault course alleyways, ears popping the entire way down and up, and spot a building hanging off the top of a pointed cliff. It’s a miniature Sydney Opera House.
Inquisition kicks in and I wonder what it could be. The thought of driving past and never realising is unbearable. So we make our way towards it. Eventually, finding the right turning off the right mountain, we find a route up. It’s by foot. We jump out and begin a steep climb up a winding wooded way that wraps around the mountain. It’s a gradual climb to the top. Right at the top, after discarding our shoes, appears the white temple in all it’s grandeur. There is no-one around, not a soul to be seen. It’s quite frightening, eery yet immensely beautiful. The view of the majestic mountains form the top is astounding. I’m quite literally giddy on my feet taking it all in, gasping at the endless mighty scenery. Behind me; a pretty spectacular little temple, called ‘Santoora Devi’. We actually discover it en route to Kempty Falls which, by comparison, IS on the tourist maps.
Kempty Falls isn’t something I’m particularly excited about seeing. But once we come across it, my, is it a sight to behold. To fully appreciate it’s scale, view it from across the valley on the opposite mountain. As with all mountain roads, there are tiny little bays one can park up in for a few minutes to stop and take photographs. It is huge, starting beyond eyesight, falling to a pool and further below to a boating lake. It is seen at staggered altitudes which adds to it’s vastness.
Closer to the falls, skip straight past the Indians swimming in their speedos, sporting hairy chests and donning beer bellies, to the steps yonder. I spot the steep steps right up deep into the forest. I run up like a child into playing fields, as far up as my courage will take me, before realising there could be danger and swiftly turning back. Not before snapping a couple of pictures though! From up here, way past the commercial pools, groups of Indians and tourists boating, it is rather picturesque and wild. I imagine the steps leading upto the mouth of the falls, wishing I could fly up.
Later that afternoon, we make for the Buddhist and Tibetan monastery. Again, the road there seems to be a pedestrian back street, but our car manages to get through. Children are learning outdoors, arms and legs crossed obediently. It’s a wonderfully colourful building and in the distance you can’t fail to notice the girls halls of residence, set in stunning mountainside hotel-like accommodation. Every Buddhist practice is translated in English, which helps give me a deeper understanding of the religion. The main saying is, ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ which is the saying you’re encouraged to repeat for endless blessings. It enters compassion into our hearts and, it’s believed, converts the mind from self-serving thoughts, invoking the spirit of universal compassion. The thought alone speaks volumes towards my beliefs.
This is the first place of many across North India where I come across prayer wheels. One huge drum, housed inside an annexe temple, is the one I’m told to walk around. Prayer wheels contain millions of prayers which are printed on paper and rolled around the centre of wheel. Monks and pilgrims spin the wheels as they pass and pray for the good of all beings. They’re said to bring great luck.
Next to it, on the wall, is a brightly coloured ‘Wheel of Life’ painting. It’s a collection of pictures, the main characteristic of which is the love of colour and graphic. It documents the entire cosmos.
As I tiptoe into the main school building, I quietly observe, tucking myself into the corner of the room, as children are sat at low wooden tables on the floor reading long horizontal paper writings of prayer, chanting them out aloud. They get through hundreds, absolutely focussed, not stopping to notice their surroundings or comings and goings. The focus of the children inspires me to better concentrate on any individual aspect of my life. That’s the fascinating aspect of Buddhism that draws me; it teaches not to pray to a particular God but rather to pray for oneself; to be better as an individual, to consider all living beings and to have compassion. From here-on in, I try to incorporate those elements into my daily life and feel I’ve learnt something.
- Tibetan pilgrims & prayer wheels (slideshare.net)
- The queens of the hills (mahindrahomestays.com)
- Snow Scenes from Sela Pass, Arunachal Pradesh (beontheroad.com)
- Tiger Nest, Bhutan, May 8, 2012 (smallchingbubblybee.com)
- Divine Holidays In Uttrakhand, Divine Yatra to Dev Bhumi (theholidayindia.wordpress.com)