To and from Dharamsala

An arduous journey – both ways!

It’s 2am and time to stop for a tea break.  The sleepy roadside teawallah, bundled up against the damp chill, fires up his two-burner stove and puts the tea on. Platters of fried snacks beckon, but I’m not sure how long they’ve been there. In any case, greasy food is not advisable: in a few minutes we’ll be back on the dark road, barreling at high speed up twisty narrow mountain roads in dense fog, Bollywood music cranked to the max, swerving around heavy trucks coming downhill. Read on, and hang on: this is a rough ride…

It was cold and dark, but the roadside teawallah took off his outer wrap for this photo.

Let me back up. After a few days touring Delhi, our plan was to fly to Dharamsala, way up in the foothills of the Himalayas [location]. We made it to the airport in plenty of time for our 1pm flight.  The flight was then delayed until 2pm.  Then, it was cancelled.  Not good – Kingfisher has only one flight per day, and they are the only airline to fly this route. A whole plane load of people get in line to rebook or cancel their tickets. With only five inexperienced ticket agents and only three computers, the crowd gets restless. Chaos begins as the line dissolves and people push tickets in front of the agents, who try to juggle three or four customers at once. 

Hours go by. Meanwhile, a tall Russian woman approaches me, babbling away in Russian and a little English; I finally understand that she wants to borrow my cell phone.  I’m wary, because India is cautious about cellphones, knowing that terrorists and drug dealers use them for dirty business. She makes two calls, in Russian, and she stuffs Rs100 in my hand and disappears.

I learn that the flight has not gone out any of the three days prior, either.  Hmm, do we cancel or rebook for tomorrow?  Either way, where are we going to stay tonight? An American woman tells me that she has been in Delhi airport for 30 hours, waiting on one rebooked flight after another.  Another traveler suggests that we take the overnight train instead. An agent finally rebooks us for the next day, telling us we can call to get a refund any time before the flight. We decide to head for the train station.

The Delhi train station is a crush of people, and highly confusing, but finally I find the tourist-only section, a quiet haven for booking trains.  They tell us that we are not tourists, because we are registered foreign residents (argh! I remember all too well how hard it was to get those papers). Catch-22. John and I push our way through the crowded station to the ticket booth.  We wait in line for 20 minutes, only to be told that we’re too early to book last-minute tickets on the train – at least, I think I’m in the right line for the right train.  Suddenly, my friend Kathy calls from Dharamsala; we were to meet her that afternoon.

After much discussion, and consulting with her Tibetan friends in Dharamsala, we decide to drop the train idea and get a taxi instead. They know a Tibetan-run taxi service in Delhi that specializes in cars to Dharamsala.  We make the arrangements, and hang out in the tourist room at the train station, eating chips for dinner.  A rat comes out to investigate, darting from filing cabinet to the staff desks.  We wait some more. I’m wondering how I could find a hotel if the taxi option falls through. Finally, the taxi arrives at 8pm.

The driver’s name is different than what I was told.  His English is not good, but he looks reassuring.  Nervous, we get in anyway and the taxi begins to crawl through the jammed streets of Delhi.  At the edge of town, more or less, the driver hops out and another driver hops in.  Ah, this is the guy I was told to expect.  We speed off up the highway. At least it’s a nice taxi, a new Toyota Anova minivan. Not bad, for Rs6500 ($130).

For a moment, anyway.  The highway is under construction, and soon we’re stuck in a traffic jam. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcycles, three-wheel autorickshaws, big trucks, construction vehicles, all in the dark and dust and fog.

Did I mention the fog?  Delhi is densely foggy in late December.  No matter to our driver; once we clear the traffic he is off at high speed. I keep my fingers crossed that there are no pedestrians, or bicycles, or parked construction equipment, or cars on the wrong side of the road with no headlights.  Well, actually, we encounter all those and more, at high speed, in the fog, but hey, who needs seatbelts anyway?

At midnight we stop for a late dinner, in a touristy roadside restaurant.  The kids are exhausted, but perk up in time to eat. The driver buys some pirated CDs of peppy Bollywood music from the gift shop, and off we go into the night.

Sitting in the front seat, with Bollywood hits cranking away, and a tunnel of headlights barely penetrating the fog into the unknown ahead, I really can’t sleep. I put my new iPod to good use and pull an all-nighter, marveling at how much trucking activity happens in the middle of the night deep within the Punjab.

At 5:30am, we hurtle through the streets of Dharamsala, just before dawn. Groggy but alive after 9 and a half hours on the road, we bang on the doors of the hotel.  It is cold here in the mountains, not much above freezing.  Our hotel rooms have no heat – which is not uncommon in Dharamsala, the real tourist season is summer – but we’re glad to have a bed.

For several days, I’ve been calling Kingfisher to attempt to cancel our outbound flight – the one we skipped – and to figure out what to do about the return.  We’re in Dharamsala for three days, and the flight from and to Delhi doesn’t fly any of them.  We make the decision to arrange a cab back to Delhi, not wanting to chance our connection on the mythical Dharamsala-Delhi flight.  So, we’re up at 6am and hop into another Toyota minivan for the long trip back.  This time, the trip is all in daylight, and I begin to realize just how precarious those mountain roads were. Twisting and winding through the hills, Andy loses his breakfast. 

The lower foothills are an incredible landscape: all glacial till, these hills are just piles of sand and smooth rocks, carved into loose shifting canyons by seasonal rivers. It’s dry now, and these rivers are but a trickle. The road follows these rivers, frequently under construction, but it’s hard to see how any of it can last for long.

On the return, the landscape was carved by glacial rivers. Here they are slowly digging out the hillside to straighten and widen the road. Dharamsala to Delhi. Himachal Pradesh.

Out of the foothills we leave Himanchal Pradesh and cross the plains of the Punjab. Vast fields of wheat, mustard, and other crops.  Tiny, dusty villages where old men sit to drink their morning tea, and farmers lead their sheep or cattle through town, and children in bright uniforms walk miles to school. We enter Haryana – three states in one day!  I pass the time by taking photos.

Kingfisher airlines calls.  “Where are you sir?  The flight from Dharamsala to Delhi is boarding, and we can only hold the flight a few more minutes.” Argh! The one day in eight that the flight actually goes, and we skip it. Now we’ve paid for both flight and taxi!

As we near Delhi, the roads get better, wider, and more crowded. I’m a little nervous about the time, because we have a flight at 8pm and it’s the last flight to Bangalore today. Traffic slows, and then stops.  It’s late afternoon, I’m hoping the jam will free up soon.  It doesn’t.  We crawl through the kilometers; night falls and the fog starts to settle. I’m not sure which is worse, the fog or the dust from all the construction. We’re surrounded by trucks.  Things are looking bad. If we miss the flight, I wonder, how can we find a hotel?  We pull up to the curb, finally, 40 minutes before flight time – I’m told that 45 minutes is the minimum check-in before we forfeit our seats.  This time, Kingfisher staff do their wonderful best and they whisk us into the terminal, take care of our bags, and… the flight is delayed due to fog.  Groan.  But, at least, we make it home, tired, after 20 hours of travel.

[Epilogue: a week later, after an epic battle with Kingfisher, I have to go to their city ticket office – it has to be the same one where I bought the tickets – and manage to get a full refund, in cash.  So much cash, in fact, I’m almost scared to carry it!]

This post was transferred from MobileMe to WordPress in 2020, with an effort to retain the content as close to the original as possible; I recognize that some comments may now seem dated or some links may now be broken.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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