INDIA.005: Himalayas + Punjab + Agra

It’s been a busy year (no complaints), so much so that I haven’t had a chance to get through my travel photos from the most recent trip to India (Dec2013-Jan2014) until now. I feel so lucky to be afforded the opportunity to travel to India every year to visit my sister and her family. Honestly, I say this to all my family & friends and I’ll say it again…while my sister is living in that country, GO VISIT. NOW. You will NEVER, EVER get to experience India like you will with her guidance & knowledge. She’s one of us, born & raised in Los Angeles. She’s got an incredible knack for knowing all the perfect things to do & see. Every year, I’m floored by our mini family vacations and every year, we get to travel to different parts of the country. I’ve been to Bangalore, Mysore, Goa, Mumbai, Rajasthan, Kerala & Delhi, to name a few. Her philosophy is that as long as she’s living in India, she might as well try to see as much of her as possible. This year, I was ecstatic because we were heading up to McLeod Ganj, above the town of Dharamsala in the state of Uttar Pradesh at the base of the Himalayas…whaaaaaaaat?!!! Yeah, the HIMALAYAS, lampin’ just 100yards or so from the Dalai Lama’s temple. The opening shot above was taken 1/2 way up the mountain drive to McLeod Ganj. It’s the view the Himalayas get to see every night at sunset.

Let’s back up though. First we had to get up to that part of Uttar Pradesh and it was going to take about 2 days. When I landed in Delhi, I was told we had just about 1 & 1/2 hours to rest, shower, change & pack, because we had to catch the Shatabdi (train) up to Beas, Punjab, that afternoon. Ok, no worries, I had been traveling for 28hrs straight, on no sleep, sitting in the MIDDLE-SEAT from Los Angeles to Tokyo to Singapore (for all my 6’+ folks, you feel my pain – for all those who can physically sit cross-legged in a coach seat, you are clueless to the plights of tall people on planes). Singapore to Delhi was the last leg, spent in an isle seat, so a little relief…phew. Could be worse, it was an international flight, so I had the free scotches flowing & caught up on films via the in-flight entertainment system. At any rate, that hour or so pasts quickly and we bust out the house, on our way to the Delhi train station.

Now, understand something, the traffic in Delhi is MADNESS. Even if I exaggerated beyond the reality to prove a point, you wouldn’t understand it until you witness it for yourself. And, like I said, we were headed to the main train station in Delhi to catch the 4:30PM Shatabdi. We could see the intersection/entrance to the station where cars & taxis pull in for drop-off/pick-up. We could see it, right there in front of us, for a full 20mins, but we got no closer to it sitting in that gridlock, stuck. It was now 4:10PM. My Jeejah (bro-in-law) likes to push it to the edge; my sister is the complete opposite. So, here we go, Preet says we wait 5 more minutes in this nonsense and if we don’t move, we have to get out of the car with all our gear and walk it. Ummm, yeah…we’re sitting in the middle of a 6-lane street, stuffed with cars, people, wild dogs, rickshaws, food carts, buses & trucks on every side. At this point, I’m wondering how are we going to maneuver all these massive suitcases through this thinly weaved path, without getting hit by a vehicle?! Not to mention, its 15mins to departure and we have to navigate through thousands of people & security, climb the stairs and go over the bridge to get to our train. Yeah right, we aren’t catching this train. Jeej is like, lets wait another 15mins, we’ll get into the station. Huh? Dude, train leaves in 15mins, wtf are you talking about?! My sister was like, F that, everyone, out of the car – I’m like, both of y’all are delusional. But, this is India, so shit man, here we go…all four doors open up and we start to run with all of our luggage.

I’m laughing my ass off, trying to fend off all the kulis (luggage helpers is the best way to describe these dudes) who are grabbing my stuff to make some extra cheddar. I’m used to this by now; just hold on to your shit & keep moving. I’m still laughing, because come on man…come on. We’re making progress, getting into the main entrance of the station, but that really doesn’t mean anything because we still need to go through security and the station is crawling with thousands of people…all trying to get on that same train, funneling through ONE “security” gate, just minutes before its scheduled to leave. I said security. HAHAHA, what security?! Dudes are tossing their luggage on the conveyer belt to be scanned and this soldier is sitting there, reading the newspaper, eyes down, letting people walk on through, one on top of the another, like it ain’t no thing. Bags upon bags upon bags are just filing through the “scanner” that the soldier isn’t watching. Ah yes, India. Gotta love all the “security” they have in place. Whatever, we get through, get on the train and find our seats. What a relief, right? No, we weren’t in the clear just yet because we’re traveling with a group of 5 passengers, but we only have 4 tickets. Believe it or not, they take that shit seriously and will ask you to get off the train if you don’t have a ticket. But we’re JATTs, we like to roll the dice. Let’s see what happens. Since we’re traveling with another family, my niece decides to go to the back of the train and play with those kids. Jeej told her to just stay back there when the ticket dude came by; hopefully he won’t notice our 4th ticket is not an 8yr old, but a 42yr old. He didn’t. So, when Mr. Ticket-wala stamped our tickets, my niece came back to our seats. Voila! Crisis averted & we were on our way to Beas.

I’m getting tired now, because remember, middle-seat + tall dude + 28hrs & counting = didn’t sleep. My sister is telling me to fight it – don’t do it Yash, hold out as long as you can. See, the trick to beating jet-lag when you travel to the other side of the world is to stay up until it’s night time in your new destination. Works like a charm. Last year when I met her in Goa, I was literally falling asleep as I was eating the most delicious prawns I’ve ever had in my life; at the table, food in my mouth, falling asleep…seriously. Now, it’s around 6:30PM, the train ride was going to last for 6hrs and I was bobbin’ for apples yo. The next 4hrs or so was a blur, I was in & out, but we finally made it to our destination. We headed to the Radha Soami compound in Beas where we were going to be staying for the next 2 nights. I heard they didn’t allow any technology on the grounds, not even a cellphone, but I’m like, we’re good, we’re rollin’ with VIPs. And you know me, I’m traveling with all my gear, iPad, phone, cameras, lenses, video, all of it. Nope, I was wrong. As we pull into the gate, the security comes into our van with a metal detector to search the car for electronics. Ok, so this was some real security, outside of the fact they didn’t collect my iPad or my iPhone, but they did others….psht, “security”. I was pretty damn hesitant about checking-in my gear, but I honestly had no choice. And at this point, I just wanted a bed, because the next morning we were going into Amritsar to visit Harmandir Sahib, aka The Golden Temple. Finally, I could rest my head & get some shut-eye. What a relief…

Morning comes and we’re on the road to Amritsar, for what can only be explained as the most baller visit I’ve ever had to the Golden Temple. One the members of our vacationing family group happens to be very well connected and had arranged for a private tour of Harmandir Sahib. If you can ever facilitate one of these tours, DO IT. Wow. What a treat. There are no words that can explain the overwhelming feelings of love & pride I have when I step into Harmandir Sahib. As a Sikh, its the holiest place on earth for my people. I am always brought to tears as I walk down the marble stairs and this was no exception. Some how, some way, everyone, no matter what your faith is or what you believe in, should try to visit this temple. It is simply breath-taking.

After spending the day in Amritsar, we booked up to Wagah, the official border crossing between India & Pakistan. Thousands upon thousands of people travel to the border crossing off the Grand Truck Road (affectionately known as GT Road) every night, around sunset, to witness the border’s official closing. It’s been dubbed the “The Beating Retreat” ceremony, or the “lowering of the flags” ceremony, put on by security forces from both sides: the Indian Border Security Force & the Pakistani Rangers. Each side cheers on their country as the guards high-kick strut (and I mean HIGH KICKIN’ like their feet are up past their heads) their way through the changing of the guard and lowering both sides flags in perfect unison. Then, a single bus is allowed to cross from India into Pakistan. Pretty cool, considering the history of conflict that’s historically plagued this region. The best way to describe the whole experience is that it was like a frickin’ MELA; a fair, a full blown outdoor festival. When the show was over, nobody went home. They all just stood out in the streets for hours on end, soaking in the energy from the performance. We missed the beginning of the ceremony, so we had to watch it from behind the stands, negating the VIP tickets we acquired for prime seating, but trust me when I say, that didn’t diminish the experience one bit. If you find yourself at the northern most tip of Punjab (or the southern most tip of Pakistan), then you gotta check out this ceremonious event at the Wagah Border. It’s nuts. Alright, that’s a wrap, it’s been a full day, so it’s time to head back to Beas for sleep, because in the AM, we had a long drive to Dharamsala & McLeod Ganj…woohoo!

Right about now, I should say that my Jeejah is a frickin’ G. He LOVES to drive…and driving in India is no small task. The other families with us on vacation had drivers. Not us, we had Jeej and he was the head navigator. Think of a hunter who licks his finger, puts it in the air to figure out the direction of the wind and that’s how he can navigate through India. Lick his finger, put in the air and be like, ok, we’re going this way. And this drive was long & difficult, because in the state of Uttar Pradesh, they have put ZERO into the infrastructure – put more plainly, the roads are BUSTED. I want to say that day of driving was approximately 8hrs, but honestly, I don’t remember (could’ve been more like 10hrs)…needless to say, it was a brutal day of driving (and yet, unbeknownst to us, the worst drive was to still days away). Before we were about to make the final climb up the hill, we gathered at a hotel restaurant at the base for a meal. Hunger & thirst satiated, we were ready for the final haul up the twisting mountain road. At this point we split the cars up; all the wifeys & kids went with the driver and all the fellaz packed in with the Jeej. Up we go. About 1/2 way up the hill, Jeej is like, we need to pull over. I think we’re stopping because of the view, so I grab my camera & capture the sunset shot you see above at the opening of this blog. Jeej walks out of the car to the side of the road and pukes. Damn. Food poisoning. The other dudes in the car have no frickin’ clue how to drive in India and I would probably kill us all if I tried, so Jeej just gets back in the car and then proceeds to drive for another 2-3hrs up this hill, like a BOSS. We check into our mountain hotel, he grabs the keys to my room & passes the F out. Well done Jeej, well done. We made it! We’re in McLeod Ganj, Himalayas behind us, just a stones throw from the exiled Tibetan Parliament and the Dalai Lama‘s temple! I mean, WHOA. The next 3-4 days were euphoric. We went on mountain hikes, toured the Dalai Lama’s temple, visited the Tibetan libraries, spent time exploring their arts & crafts, grubbed down on some yummy Punjabi food (because, quite frankly, Tibetan food is bland and I needed some sustenance, ya hear!) and enjoyed several tall Kingfishers  New Years Eve was spent in McLeod Ganj and the following morning, we bid farewell to our mountain getaway to head back down towards Hoshiarpur, Punjab.

The drive was estimated to be approximately 4hrs. It took nearly 9. Without a doubt, the most painful ride I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. Winding down the mountain, the roads were literal craters. Like I mentioned before, Uttar Pradesh might have the worst roads in the entire country. It was bad…unbelievably bad. The amazing views, obviously, helped soothe the bumpage we experienced on our way down the roads guarded by legions of monkeys (remember what I said last year, don’t fuck with the monkeys in India). It took a while, but we finally made it to the citrus farm we were staying at for the night. And in true JATT fashion, my Jeej’s best friend & cohort, Jang Sangha (remember, the Potato Prince of Punjab, from last year’s blog about PUNJAB?!), rolls up, baller’d out in custom fits, smelling like a million bucks, holding a box that says, I kid you not, “DUNKIN’ DONUTS – JALANDHAR”!!! Come on now, come on. Only Punjabis will understand what a mind-fuck it is to see that on a box, the words Jalandhar and Dunkin’ Donust together, but believe it y’all, Dunkin’ Donuts has successfully penetrated the Indian market and they are killin’ it out there. It’s like crack to people, even my Jeej & niece have to sneak it from my sister, because she’s rather enraged by its existence in India. She’s a PhD in Public Health, naturally she ain’t cool with them being there. Comedy. Anyways, yeah, we’re on a citrus farm and this Jatt rolls up with some donuts. And I got a bottle of scotch. Perfection.

The sun sets, into our tents we go for a good night’s rest, because in the AM, we were headed back down to Anandpur Sahib and then Chandigarh, to catch the evening Shatabdi back to Delhi. I should probably mention that it hasn’t even been a week since we landed in India. Yeah, not even a week. I sleep like a rock, wake up super early and decide to take a walk on the citrus farms, with my headphones on, listening to my favorite track, “Orchestrate”, from my most recent LP release, 1973. The roads are quiet, baron. I meet a local kinoo (its like an orange) farmer on my walk; we talk about his family for a few minutes, then he goes about his business. In between Jalandhar & Hoshiarpur, there’s a tiny village where my Nanaji (Mom’s dad) is from. He lost his entire immediately family at a young age and was raised by his auntie in that village. I don’t know what came over me, but as I walked the farm in the early morning light, listening to the track that best describes my entire life, I started to cry – yes, I tend to tear up quite a bit in India…can’t help it, the place just moves me. I wasn’t born in India. I’ve only visited it a total of 6 times in my entire 41yrs. Los Angeles is my home. But still, when I’m in Punjab, I feel a deep, emotional connection to the land, simply for the fact that my parents are from there. Somehow, in that moment, with that song playing, walking the farms my grandfather grew up on as a child, I was brought to tears. I stopped walking and decided to watch the sunrise. As I stood there, I cried for about 15mins straight, listening to the song on repeat. I wasn’t sad. It was kind of inexplicable, but I felt like, in that moment, I was with my grandfather. He was there. He was walking those roads with me, showing me his home. It was fucking incredible.

When I got back to the camp, the car was packed, we said farewell to our fellow travelers and pushed off back down south towards Chandigarh. On the way, we decided to make a quick stop in the city of Anandpur Sahib, which, to me, quite frankly, is the holiest place for my community. Why? Because the Khalsa was created there. The famed Punj Pyare were formed. I get why everyone feels Harmandir Sahib is our holiest temple, but to me, personally, Anandpur Sahib is THE spot. Our intention was to make a quick stop to pay our respects at the gurdwara (temple) and continue on to Chandigarh. We were in for quite a surprise, because since the last time any of us had visited this city, a new museum had erected not a mile down the road from the temple, a museum dedicated to Sikhism.

The museum is called Virasat-e-Khalsa. It took me back for a second, as we pulled into the parking lot, because it looked like the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. No joke. The stone architecture, the surrounding bodies of water, the gardens. All of it was just impressive. The inside, even more so. We took the guided tour which walks you through the entire history of the Sikh religion. And only 1/2 of the museum was open. You enter through quite a vivid, audio/visual display of Punjabi & Sikh culture, then into the guided museum tour. But across the way, they are building a library, which wasn’t open to the public just yet. Sikhs or anyone interested in the Sikh religion/culture, this is a MUST SEE. After a couple hours, we continued south to Chandigarh, where we had a quick pit stop for some traditional punjabi saag (mustard greens & spinach) and makki roti (corn tortillas)…in the winter time, this is the meal you want to have. Warms the tummy. Wash it down with a nice beer, pure heaven  An hour or so later, we were on the train, headed back to Delhi and straight to bed…the next day was going to be long, we needed to rest up.

The next morning marks 8 days that we’ve been in India thus far. Yes, in only 8 days we’d been to Delhi, Beas, Amritsar, Wagah Border, Dharamsala, McLeog Ganj, Hoshiarpur, Anandpur Sahib, Chandigarh and then back to Delhi. EIGHT. DAYS. Why the madness? Well, one of my sister’s high school friends from back home came out on this trip with us and she somehow thought it was clever to plan an 8-day trip to India. People, take my advice, if you’re ever going to travel to India, give yourself 2-3 weeks. Seriously, you’ll get a slice in a week if you stay in one spot, but you really need a few weeks to see more of the country & soak in the culture. At any rate, this was day 8 and she was headed back to the states, but wanted to see the Taj Mahal before she left. No problem, my sister is kind of a gangsta when it comes to going places, so up we are by 7:30AM, on the highway headed to the Taj Mahal, which is about a 3 & 1/2 hour drive up a brand new expressway, in the city of Agra. If it weren’t for that expressway, there’s a solid chance this part of the trip would not have materialized. But it did, we made it to the Taj!

Only, there was one small problem, it was a Friday and the Taj Mahal closes down every Friday, allowing only Muslims in to pray. Ok, slight hiccup, but the girl is actually a Muslim, so at the very least, she can go check it out, while me & my sis hang outside. But you see, India, with all its vast culture, religions, people and advancements, is, well, still India, so only MALE Muslims were allowed into the Taj Mahal for prayers on Fridays. Yes. Believe it. I know its 2014, but that country is still backwards as hell. Don’t get me started, its infuriating to say the least. Whatever, there’s still the Agra Fort to see, so we latch up with a local tour guide and walk through the palace where Shah Jahan‘s own son imprisoned him until his death in a room with a view of the Taj, forcing him to spend his last days looking upon the tomb he had built in memory of his 3rd wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Read up on the history, its quite a fascinatingly-epic story. And even though we didn’t get to see the Taj up close, we did get to see it from another angle I’ve always heard about, but never visited. You see, Shah Jahan was actually building ANOTHER Taj Mahal, across the water. Identical in structure, but this one would be built with all black marble. Only, it never got past the foundation. Whenever I had been to the Taj in the past, the tour guides would point across the water to the moon gardens and say, that’s where the foundation sits for the 2nd Taj. And now, we were actually standing right in the middle of that foundation, staring back at the Taj. Kind of awesome how limitations can open up new perspectives for you and it was quite a treat to be able to see the Taj from that angle. Alright, so Preet’s friend got her checklist done. She wanted to go to the Himalayas and she wanted to see the Taj Mahal. Done & done. Back in the car to book back to Delhi to get her to the airport by 7:30PM.

WOW. What an insane week. I have to say it again, all that I just wrote about happened in only EIGHT DAYS. I still had a month to go for my trip and it was basically all loungin’ from there on out  Tabla lessons with my guru’s nephew, $6-full-body-2hr massages every week, eating all the aloo paranthas my tummy could handle, live music events, visiting family, roaming local art galleries, watching my niece take violin lessons, going for long walks solo, talking to the locals, celebrating Lohri…you know, basically, the good life. If you read my previous posts, then you know that I even got hired by Harley Davidson to cover photography & video for the 2nd Annual India Bike Week in Goa. Yeah baby, GOA. Life isn’t just good, life is fucking outstanding.

What a treat. What an experience. What a journey. What a life. Until the next time we meet again India, I bid you a fond farewell…

Yash Dhillon