48 Hours to Dharamsala (final part)

After depositing my beloved Osprey rucksack & Aunty Marje’s suitcase (a final gift when I realised there no was way on god’s green earth that everything would fit — thank you by the way) with the check in desk, I was ready to run the gauntlet with Indian airport security. Now I’ve read enough forums on places like India Mike to know that Indian airport security makes UK airport security look like little more than a posse of disinterested nightclub bouncers. My confidence evaporated as I approached an intimidating huddle of very earnest looking men standing around the airport security equipment.

If I can give one piece of advice it’s this. The little orange Air India tags the airline gives you (you know the sort — name, address, flight number etc.,) they are not some strange little courtesy; fill them in & attach them to your bags — do not lose them! (you’ll see why shortly) So with the obligatory shoes & belt off I’m left hoisting my cabin luggage onto the conveyor all the while holding up the baggy shorts I’d rather foolishly chosen to wear for the day. After going through the obligatory gate I was asked, by a guy, an armed soldier, if truth be told (no private security firms for the Indians), to assume the usual position for the search. Women were being searched by female officers in a little modesty box with curtains, quite nice too. I tried to quietly mention to the surly fellow the problem with said shorts; he insisted, I obliged and shorts fell to floor in record speed (so pleased I’d put clean undies on; note to self: elasticated waists on trousers / shorts for future reference).

A minor fracas ensued (I’m sure it must have broken some modesty law & I’m worrying about potential international incidents forming). To make matters worse, as I’m stood with my arms spread and shorts on the floor, my bag sets off more lights on the X-ray machine than can be seen on Trafalgar Square’s Christmas Tree. Lots of heated conversations in Hindi that I don’t think even my “Hindi for Beginners” could quite cope with. Shit. What now?

It turns out that Indian airport security classify cigarette lighters up there with guns, shoe bombs and all other sorts of nasties. After a very thorough search, my inocuous (and favourite) Clipper lighter was duly seized as I’m pulling up my shorts and grabbing my belt off the conveyor while trying to recover what little of my dignity was left in front of a growing crowd of fellow travellers. With both of the airline tags on my hand luggage duly stamped, my stupid smile still firmly in place (a strategy I continue to employ), I’m finally through in one piece; even if my dignity is a little frayed around the edges. First stop — smoking room!

The departure lounge was much like departure lounges the world over. Wall-to-wall KFC, MacDonalds, Pizza Hut and Costa Coffee; it’s only when you see the most popular eateries are the dosha places do you even realise you’re in India. The menus for the international chains are dramatically different to the UK versions and, if I’m honest, I’m not in a hurry to have another Costa cappuccino in India.

After stocking up on UK & US magazines (future teaching resources if nothing else) I head to gate forty two for the ten thirty am flight to Gaggal Airport in Dharamsala. I’m at a bit of a loss as to why a five hundred kilometre journey has been scheduled to take two hours. Sixty minutes after the designated take off time (the only late departure on the entire journey) I see why. It’s a propeller plane. I’m not a fan of propeller planes — minibuses with wings for the most part in my experience.

Waiting to get off the bus that ferried us out to said plane, having thought that airport security was behind me, I was surprised to see two more armed soldiers ready to give us one final inspection before allowing us on the plane. While the airline staff checked our boarding passes, the soldiers checked our hand luggage had the little orange tags, filled out and duly stamped at the security gate.

The queuing process became a bit fraught (and we were delayed for another fifteen minutes) when some elderly hippy had a bag with no tag (she’d not attached it securely enough in her opinion). The long and short of it..she was declined boarding and had to go back to security to be rechecked and make new travel arrangements presumably. I felt quite relieved I tied my own tags on securely (being someone with a hard earned reputation for losing things) and was admitted onto the half full plane in readiness for departure.

I wasn’t sorry to say goodbye to Delhi. Maybe I’ll try it again in a season when it’s not akin to a furnace. Settling into the cool plane, Air India suprised again with a delicious snack — a sandwich, salad, water and coffee. (I’ve since learned that being fed, watered and provided alcohol was considered all part of the service on both international and domestic flights in India, it’s only been a few years since they banned alcohol on domestic flights — compared to paying to use the toilet with budget airlines in the UK this makes for an interesting and much more civilised experience.)

Above the clouds the flight north passed easily enough in the cool, well ventilated cabin. On at least two occasions we flew over rainbows that I spied below us, taking this as both very apt (being over the rainbow) and a very good omen. When the clouds broke I could see the brown landscape had given way to a lush green and I broke into the biggest smile in ages when our plane banked for descent and I got my first glimpse of the Himalayas. This is all completely new to me yet it feels somehow familiar and incredibly reassuring. I’d like to get all esoteric about it and say I’m returning to my spiritual home but I suspect it’s my sub-conscious reacting to the months of reading and looking at pictures of Himachal Pradesh, the Indian state in which I was about to land. As we descend and the view improves the contrast between here and Delhi, just a couple of hours away, is dramatic. Brown, arid landscapes have been replaced by green fields and trees that are more than a little reminiscent of Wales.

In fairness to our driver (sorry, Captain), our landing into Gaggal Airport was much smoother than being dumped on the tarmac in Delhi the night before. I use the term ‘Airport’ under caution, I think airfield might be a more accurate description. Quite akin to Fairwood Common, (an airfield not far from Swansea); imagine a bit of tarmac, a utilitarian one story building (no shops) and a fleet of wonky wheeled luggage trolleys & you’re there.

A lovely refreshing drizzle greeted us as we stepped off the plane. Relief was palpable, surrounded by greenery in a much more manageable climate, to be greeted by Rabsel, a Tibetan exile and former monk who is a rep from the NGO where I’ll teaching English to Tibetan exiles for a few months. The contrast between arriving here and Indira Gandhi International was exceptional. Delhi felt like something approaching entering the gates of hell and here the gates to heaven.

If it felt like heaven in the valley I think the waiting taxi was actually set to drive me there. Ten kilometres later, I was 2,000 metres above sea level. The roads would have taxed even the most arduous mountain goat (only saw one on the entire journey — plenty of cows and monkeys but only the one goat, strange that..) Putting quite how high this is into context for the Brits reading this; I’m one and a half times higher than the summit of Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK. Arriving at Ahimsa House, my staging post for the next few days, my journey was complete. I had a very simple but comfortable room with the obligatory portrait of His Holiness above my bed, a comfortable lounge and a killer view.

It’s 2.30pm local time which makes it 8am GMT. So while it wasn’t quite 48 hours to Dharamsala, it was pretty damned close. Next job: time to explore!

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