Sunday, June 08, 2008

My Favourite Place in the Whole Wide World

"A vacation is like love - anticipated with pleasure, experienced with discomfort, and remembered with nostalgia."

Author unknown

My old English tuition teacher, Auntie June, used to tell a story about how she once gave the essay topic "My Favourite Place" to a class as an assignment and one boy handed in a piece describing how his favourite place in the whole wide world is on top of his girlfriend. He retold a vivid account of how he enjoys fondling, kissing and sucking on her breasts, nibbling her ears, breathing in the scent of her hair, leaving red lustful hickeys on her neck... well, I'm sure you got the colourful picture by now.

I remember being very impressed. Before listening to Auntie June's little story, writing is just these stupid boring chores English teachers set me to do to test how well I can perform up to their Education Board approved standards of grammar, spelling and the ability to string a few stupid words together. It's unimaginative. It's brain dead.

I'm not ashamed to say that a third-rate, pubescence-fueled work of erotica (not even discounting that it was probably intended as a joke, anyway) changed my opinion of that. Words can be compelling and shocking. Words can change the way someone look at things forever. Words can be ridiculously, ridiculously powerful. Take the "My Favourite Place" porno essay for example - it's going to shine out from the tens of thousands of generic takes on that same topic an SPM examiner is going to mark in her lifetime. And that examiner is going to share it with all her colleagues, friends and students - and if luck would have it, with an impressionable young boy like me as well who'd do more have a good chuckle about it.

I think right now, I have the same topic as that guy had; "My Favourite Place". Unlike he, I am not privileged with the allowance of an open interpretation of said topic. I have a specific thing to write about in mind already and no matter how I wrestle it, I don't think I am capable of penning it in a way which is witty, forceful or memorable. Heck, I don't think I can even make it remotely interesting to read.

You see, this is going to be another travelogue, and it's going to be about a place which I love the most in the whole wide world,

McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala.

The reason why it is so hard to write about is because there isn't anything obviously special about it. I kept telling people (over and over again) ever since I got back from McLeod Ganj how much I love the place and that one day, I will must return there - but no matter how hard I think, I can't really say why. I can't really tell you what it has that another place elsewhere does not have better.

I remember arriving in the darkest hours in the morning from Amritsar in a minivan we hired and immediately bunking down in an inn till late in the afternoon because we were all so bushed from the journey. Well, everyone else did. I stayed up and waited for an hour for daybreak to come because I couldn't sleep. I seem to have a knack in being the odd guy out.

At about 6.00 am, I ventured out of the Cherryton Cottage and the Chocolate Log and found myself in mood which quite resembled disappointment. McLeod Ganj looked almost ordinary. The streets and the buildings were commonplace and wouldn't look at all weird even if they were plonked into the middle of a Malaysian suburb. Maybe it's because till then, my vacation till then had me exploring places that looked like this, this and this.

Then, I walked into a stretch out road which wasn't completely surrounded by foliage, shops and houses and I saw this,

The moment I fell in love with Dharamsala.

My first thought was, "How did I get up here?!"

You see, I was asleep throughout the ride and I did not notice our ascent. Nothing I read about Dharamsala gave me an idea at all what to expect and my initial mental picture of the town of McLeod Ganj was, to put it bluntly, 'near sea-level'.

So imagine yourself walking through some bland porridge everytown which looks as if the only chance it can become a vacation hot spot is if an UFO crash-landed smack dab in the middle of the market place - and suddenly find that you're 7000 feet above sea-level and are surrounded by the Himalayan mountain range which looms majestically all around you. It was the awesomest kind of surprise there is.

The view from the other side of town. It was a really, really small darling little town.

Tibetan prayer flags strung outside the Tsulagkhang, the Dalai Lama's temple.

Scampering about on the streets that same morning was some very friendly and painfully cute strays which looked better groomed than the dogs some people own.

I mean, look at this little fella,

So posh.

And this dopey big pup,

I wonder why some stray dogs in mountainous regions look so well-fed and healthy - and massive.

The Tibetans are known to be great environmentalists and animal lovers. Maybe it has something to do with their almost-innate adherence to the teachings of Buddhism, it figuring a big part of their lives. I mean, their state leader is the Dalai Lama and arguably, the current one is one of the greatest humanitarians the world have seen this century. And I'm not saying this because I'm a Buddhist myself. I'm a Theravadin, and if you know what that means, you'd know that what I believe in is intrinsically different from what the Tibetan people practice.

I heard that the Dalai Lama personally meets every single refugee who makes it to Dharamsala from the now China-controlled Tibet.

Triplets! Gosh, people here really like dogs. I can certainly identify with that.

As you can imagine, the people here is some of the nicest you'd ever met. Unlike in the other parts of India I've been to, I felt that I didn't really need to be worried of being ripped off here. The prices quoted to me always felt reasonable, instead of the usual "highway robbery specials" that I'm faced with elsewhere that always made me gasp in disbelief (audibly). That's really how a vacation should be like. I know how some people just love the thrill of beating down some merchant's bluff and bragging about it afterwards, but that's just not for me. And if you're like me, you'd love Dharamsala too.

Besides, you won't feel very proud of yourself even if you bargained successfully against refugees whose homeland was invaded by the Evil Chinese.

A Tibetan woman with a gold tooth demonstrating her knitting skillz outside her shop.

You can't throw a stone in any direction without hitting a maroon-robed monk or nun in McLeod Ganj.

I'd talk more about the depressing subject of the Tibetan exile and my views on it in another post but now, I want to focus of the happy bits. Like food!

There is seriously no short of good eats in McLeod Ganj and they range anywhere from traditional Tibetan fares and hawker food like the ubiquitous momo to pizzas and pastas to even Japanese, Thai and Korean cuisine! For someone like me who've had Indian food and faux-Chinese food which taste Indian for the past 6 months, I thought that I have died and gone to food nirvana.

The Japanese vegan restaurant Lung Ta (a name which means 'wind horse' and had religious connotations) is an especial traveler favourite, and it has my vote. And surprisingly, it is managed by a bona fide Japanese family who I imagine fell in love with Dharamsala and decided to live there for good. That's a common occurrence hereabouts. The nice lady who runs the Cherryton Cottage and Chocolate Log, for example, used to be an literature lecturer at some university before she quit her day job and settled in McLeod Ganj too to open her own backpacker's inn and cafe. There's just this prevailing sense of peace, wholesomeness and harmony in the place which just makes you walk around with a happy, contented silly smile on your face all day long.

I got sidetracked there. Back to the food we go!

I had my first onigiri ever there. 10 points to whomever spotted it in this picture first.

Vegan udon.

And imagine eating all that in a place like this. I want to go back there now :(

One of the waitresses in Lung Ta , a pony-tailed Japanese girl who I imagine to be in her early twenties, is quite possibly one of the most beautiful women I've ever met. When she was taking our order, she bent forward and rested her arms on our table in an 'unintentionally provocative way' (how's that for euphemism?). Poor Joon Keat who was sitting face to face with her instantly lost his ability to speak and his will to live, and couldn't even stutter out what he wanted.

Regrettably, I don't have a picture of her to show you guys. So if you want to see her for yourself, you know where to find her.

Also, I wouldn't even know that there's an authentic Korean restaurant in McLeod Ganj if the nice lady who ran Cherryton Cottage didn't put me in the wise about it. It's practically criminal of the Lonely Planet Guide of India for not listing it!

Ramen! Ramen!

Some chicken dish which took an hour to prepare, and was worth every bloody minute of the wait.

Anyhow, I didn't sink all of my time just prancing about town. On the second day, I took a short hike up a rocky trail to the Bhagsu waterfall with Joon Keat.

A very round monkey I spotted on the hike.

There's this really interesting thing which happened on the way and I doubt anyone would seriously believe me. At the leg of the hike where the trail started to run uphill, we came to a small little outpost housing a temple and several shops, and I met a strange spotty stray there which came sniffing after me, but in a solemn, restrained manner - unlike the slobbery, overbearing friendliness I usually get. As a joke, I demanded that it to lead the way to the waterfall.

And it did just that. It trotted a few steps ahead of us and every few seconds, it would look back at us as if to see if we're really following it. And when it reaches a bend or a turning, it would just stand there patiently waiting for us to catch up to it!

I'm seriously not bullshitting you.

Halfway up, another stray - a bigger black one - joined the spotted dog and they both played guide to us,

Looking to see if Joon Keat is following around a corner.

And yes, they actually did lead us up the right path to the waterfall!

The rock pool of the Bhagsu waterfall.

The waterfall itself isn't particularly big or impressive, but the water is as clear as polished crystal. It was fed exclusively by snowmelt and I could see every pebble in the pool's bottom. I took off my shoes to stand in the shallow rock pool but I couldn't stay in it for more than a few seconds at a time before I had to leap out of the burning cold to rub some life into my toes.

Unlike most waterfalls I've been to, Bhagsu does receive a lot of visitors and on that particular morning, the only other people we saw was a couple of Indian rocker guys who have just finished their morning dip (it's a medical miracle they survived it). After they left, we had it all to ourselves for the rest of the time we were there. It's a very serene piece of real estate there, up in the Himalaya range. It's perpetually shaded, being a cul-de-sac surrounded by the rocky mountains and it is comfortably chilly even in the noons. If you're into meditation or yoga, you'd want to sit there all day long. If dipping your pimply legs into the icy pond and then immediately pulling them out while squealing like a schoolgirl is your thing, you'd want to sit there all day long too.

Joon Keat doling out Tiger biscuits as reward for out intrepid canine cicerones. See the shop behind him? I really like how the whole thing was built by just stacking flat mountain rocks without any mortar. So quaint.

I'm wondering if the dogs regularly lead backpackers up to the waterfall in exchange for a bit of whatever lunches they usually bring with them. The dogs actually lazed about waiting for us to finish with whatever human business us humans came to do and then led us down the trail again.

We actually met a group of hikers coming down from the mountains with four dogs in tow!

A bird shaped bush I saw from the waterfall.

Joon Keat's Lassie moment.

Aside the fact that the spotted dog either understood English, or in a freaky coincidence, decided in its doggy mind to do the thing I asked it to do, it also stares into the distant a lot, as if it's enjoying the scenery. You can see in the picture above that Joon Keat actually managed to sidle up close beside the pup to camwhore with it while it continued staring absentmindedly at some faraway thing or other.

And while I'm at it, Joon Keat is one big man-whore, I tell you,

A shrine-like niche built along the trekking trail in which countless camwhores have posed in various positions of deep meditation and furtive masturbation.

It's a shame that soon after we arrived back in McLeod Ganj, we had to leave the place. We only planned to spend two days there because from what we could find out about Dharamsala, there isn't really much to see there at all. There's about a dozen other hikes I wished I could have gone on, including one to the Dal Lake and another two-day return trek through boulder fields and rhododendron forests to Triund, but I would have to chalk them up into the next trip I plan to make there.

I was the architect of the routes and stops we make throughout the whole North Indian backpacking escapade and this is clearly a BIG oversight on my part. Part of me wish that I have cut out Agra and the Taj Mahal and put the big fat waste of time I spent there into Dharamsala (I'll elaborate on that in my Agra post). I ought to have done more research and reading into it instead of just dismissing it as "a nice place to see Tibetan culture and nothing much else". And would you believe that it was originally planned as a day stop? I feel like knifing myself.

There's just something about falling in love with a place that's almost like falling in love with a girl. I can try give reasons and make excuses for it, but they won't really explain why. I always liked the phrase "there's just something about her" because it doesn't narrow what I feel about a person down to a few piddling criteria that just cheapens my love for that someone.

Dharamsala isn't superlative when you pit it against all the other places I've been to. Some might actually find the town to be quite gray and dull. There's no big, impressive monuments there to gawk at. There's no local history of interest there that extend further back than the last century. Sure, it has a bit of awesome landscape but so do the hundreds of other towns and cities that were built along the sprawling Himalayan mountain range.

But I'm in love with that place and I felt happy being there.

And that's all that matters, right?


P.S. I took a rock out of the pool and brought it back with me. It's now a paperweight on my desk. One day, I hope to put it back.

Found a place he wants to die in,
k0k s3n w4i


Vincent said...

we even planned to skip dharamsala to go leh, but luckily we did not make the mistake. haha...
really a good place where we have to recommend people to go.

sinye said...

yes,i do remember ms.june told that story to our class as well..

tibet,a place i will go one day..=)

nyrac said...

"found a place he wants to die in".

good for you. i have yet to find mine.

fuolornis said...

i hv to agree that i was dumbstrucked when she took my order

aiks... my gf is seeing this comment too. gtg. cya

gaL said...

Tibet huh? Looks very amazing. Wait till i got the money. haha.

senorita.. said...

not only Tibet, all the places you showed seem amazing... must get the money..! lol

Jen said...

sigh all i can do is just close my eyes and imagine.

k0k s3n w4i said...

vincent: OMG, wait till i show u some of the pictures i found of Leh! it's a whole diff planet altogether

sinye: I wan to go Tibet too but it ain't safe. especially this year. you were in tuesday class huh :D?

nyrac: there there, you wun really care after ur dead anyway xD

fuolornis: my gf's reading this post too. luckily i got off light haha

gal: well, the place i went to is dharamsala. it's in india actually. tibet is now under chinese rule and hundreds of thousands of tibetans were forced to leave their homeland due to the harshness and brutality of the bloody chinese.

senorita: y is everyone mistaking the place in this post for tibet? anyhow, tibet wud be the last place the dalai lama wud be at now :( poor man

jen: it's not that expensive to travel thru india. very budget friendly (some hotels charge as low as RM20 per night - or lower if u dun mind the even more spartan guesthouses). I think u'd enjoy a trip like this. lots of budgeting and cash balancing involved :)

senorita.. said...

ooh sorry... ok ok not Tibet

gal misled me.. =P


sinye said...'s not tibet..ahahha..sorry for mistaken it..wahhahaha..

ya,i was in tuesday class with chiew, tan and andre..
i miss ms june. she's the nicest english teacher ever!

when will u be coming back for posting in GH melaka?