I hate night buses as much as I love night trains, this one was no real improvement although there were only 4 non-gentiles. The bus was more than half empty at the prescribed departure time which always worries me in the third world as it gives them an excuse to cancel the journey but this time they proceeded and I managed to get a double seat to myself with a free double seat in front. We stopped at some small town after a couple of hours where more people got on including an Israeli couple taking the free seat from in front and trying to recline the seats into my lap. I managed to retain my double seat so coped with the lack of knee room by sitting sideways.
At some point during the night, I think I'd just fallen asleep, it started to rain and I was woken by the bus boy trying to close the window. He needn't have bothered as the whole bus leaked dramatically and water poured in through every window. I managed to keep out of the bulk of it by moving to my second seat but people all over the bus were scrambling to find a drier place to sit. I'd just returned to something resembling sleep when I was woken up again by the bus boy, this time shouting "Dharamsala, Dharamsala!" It was only 4:20am! When very few people got off I figured that the bus was actually going to drive all the way up to McLeod saving the local bus or rickshaw ride. It was still raging a storm all the way up the hill and when finally dumped into the square before 5am everyone took shelter in the very small covered bus stand area where an enterprising local has set up an all night tea shack.
I guessed that was far too early to attempt to get a room in the quiet hotel I normally use so I hung around in the shack chatting with the local cripples and beggars until 6am and then went to the hotel. The main gate was open but reception was closed and I had to wait around for another hour until someone arrived to give me a room.
I really dislike McLeod Ganj now, it is no longer a nice place, the usual suspects, over development, too many tourists, particularly Indian day-trippers who a few years ago didn't even seam to know the place existed and Israelis who are replacing Manali with McLeod. But the main reason is the traffic, the streets here are too narrow for the amount of taxis, rickshaws, jeeps and motorbikes that now throng the centre, all with the belief that they have right of way and the right to travel at motorway speeds at all times and the Indian penchant for loud and continuous horning. So why do I come here and why do I stay? Well, as much as I hate the town I love the hills and the walks around here. Every morning I head off into the hills for a day of beautiful peaceful scenery and small chai stop lunches. Every evening as I walk back to my hotel I almost cry when I first hear the horns approaching.
Unfortunately the weather has been fairly dismal on this visit, actually it's fairly dismal on every visit but the rain has been more frequent than usual this week. We have been getting heavy rain for a few hours in the morning then a late afternoon thunderstorm followed by nights of more thunder and heavy rain. On Thursday I walked up to the Shiva temple on a small shelf an hours walk above town. There used to be a man making chai at the temple, last time I came here the chai man had built a cafe, now there are two cafe's and a couple of guest houses. This place is a good decision point as three separate trails head off from there; what was once a 'secret' waterfall but is now well signposted; a peak with another shiva temple and lots of Tibetan prayer flags; and the main route to Triund and the range of mountains beyond. As the rain had lasted a long time on Thursday morning I was fairly late setting out and decided that that was far enough for the day as more rain was likely. I got halfway back before the heavens opened and I reappeared in town in drowned rat disguise.
Yesterday (Friday) I left earlier and decided to walk to the waterfall but as I was following the trail I came to a new village and decided that if they were building houses along the route I didn't want to go that way so returned to Shiva. I then headed up the route to Triund. It's a good three hour trek up to Triund and with the heavy cloud and mist I was never going to get a good view so knew I wouldn't walk all the way to the top. I decided to go by the pedometer and walk until I'd covered 10000 steps to make the day a 20000 stepper, however when I passed 10ks (kilosteps) I was convinced that there was another cafe close by so continued for a while, but I never reached it. The weather started closing in again and I turned for home. It rained for a while but with all my water-sensitive items in my daypack and the daypack under my waterproof, I managed to come through the other side unscathed. By the time I got to the ridge just above Shiva the mist and rain had blown over and the views were clearing. I stopped at the second Shiva cafe for an omelet and masala chai before deciding to climb the prayer-flag peak. Getting started was the hardest part as I couldn't find a track up from the track that wound round to the back of it. Eventually I backtracked to a goat trail near the start of the track and headed up. I got to the second Shiva temple approximately halfway to the top when once again the weather became dubious and I failed to reach the day's third destination. I had some difficulty retracing my steps down in the thickening cloud but once I hit Shiva I motored down the hill. I was convinced I was in for my second drenching in two days as the forest became deeply, ominously dark and real heavy artillery thunder sounded above. Somehow I got back to town in time to do some quick essential shopping, but forgot alcohol, and back to my hotel five minutes before the rain started.
When it came it quickly moved through the gears, passing through 'rain', 'heavy rain', 'downpour' and on to 'torrential' and then found a few more gears I never knew existed each of them with an overdrive option. It rains here often and it rains here hard but it was soon obvious that this was going to be something special. It didn't take long before the smell indicated that the sewerage system had been swamped and people were out trying to unblock drains and runoff channels. I stood outside my room in the shade of the balcony formed by the floor above until the wind picked up and started driving the rain straight at me. I moved around the corner of the building hiding just inside a corridor still watching in awe as the intensity of the rain increased when it should have been wearing itself out. The locals were all out watching too, many of them still running around doing running repairs as things began to wash away. All the time the thunderstorm had been impressive, this was still daytime yet the flashes were bright enough to make you flinch.
Then I saw, felt and heard the biggest, loudest and most frightening bolt of lightening that I ever wish to experience. I heard it first, and I know that should be against the laws of nature but I heard the lightening not the thunder. It was a terrible, electric, zinging sizzle as if the sky was being rent apart, followed by a blinding flash of light by which point I had involuntarily cowered further down the corridor, instantly followed by the earsplitting crash of the thunder and all the power going out, I thought the world had ended. I think that was the second loudest thing I've ever heard after an F16 taking off 50m away. I never saw the fork of lightening and I don't know where it hit, I guess either the roof of the building I was in or just behind it. With my heart still in my mouth and still swimming in adrenaline I looked around expecting to see a smoldering tree or damaged building but nothing was obvious. I continued to watch the storm but remained further down my corridor of safety.
By now the storm had been going for well over an hour and didn't show any signs of diminishing, at least the sewage smell had now gone, presumably washed most of the way down to Dharamsala. I was starting to get hungry but there was no way you could go out in that. 7pm came and went and the night started to close in but still the rain lashed and the thunder boomed all around. At 8pm it was still going with all the intensity it had started with like a perpetual rain machine, I was starving and starting to worry about everywhere closing up for the night as the power was spending more time off than on. I'm actually impressed that they kept managing to restore the power after every hit, there must have been a very overworked and brave employee flicking the switches in the system somewhere. The nearest restaurant to my room is about a 20 second run away and it's a decent restaurant so I got waterproofed up and got ready to use any lull in the storm. No lull was forthcoming so I just had to go for it. I was expecting to get very wet very quickly with the rain but I forgot to include the narrow alleys and broken drains pouring unavoidable torrents into them. By the time I hit the main street only 50m away I was waterlogged. The street was a scene of flooded chaos, stallholders were stranded under ineffectual tarpaulins and debris and produce littered the road. I didn't think I could get much wetter (I was wrong) so detoured up the main street to the square to see if the grog shop was still standing and still serving. If I thought my street was bad then the square was straight off CNN or BBC World. You have to remember that this is a hilly area and there aren't really any flat surfaces - there is over 1500m more mountain above McLeod and much of it converges on the square, certainly the water run-off was, the square was a 6" deep fast flowing river running diagonally away from me and down the street parallel to mine. I often tell people that I once saw, among other debris, a scooter wash down the hill here in a similar storm, in recent years I've come to doubt my own memory but seeing this I believe myself again.
The booze shop was on the other side of this river and there was nothing else to do but run through it, my boots were swamped and filled up with water but I got my nightcap. I would have loved to get some photographs of the scenes but sensibly I left my camera behind lest it never work again. I ran back down my street and into the restaurant, the power was off again and people in there were eating or drinking by candlelight but all stopped to watch me flow over the threshold. I guess anyone who had been in there when it had started was still in there now and most people in town would have probably stayed at their hotel restaurants if they had them. It was pitch black outside now and only the flashes of lightning or headlights of intrepid cars showed glimpses of what the weather was doing. The power came back on and I ordered a beer while I waited for my meal. A group at a table behind mine decided they had been there long enough and asked the waiter if he could order them a taxi to Bagsu, the Israeli settlement further along the ridge. He came back to tell them they couldn't get a cab as there was now no road to Bagsu, or at least part of it had washed away. There was a very loud bang outside and the power went once more, I'm not sure if it was a direct lightning strike or whether the cables had touched with the weight of water or a stream had bridged them. Each time I got a glimpse outside the rain if anything seamed even heavier and I could see the water level rising in the gutter, eventually the point came where the gutter couldn't cope any more and this street too became a river. When I finished my dinner I didn't bother trying to wait for a lull, I just paid up and strolled through the river, down the alley through the torrents and got back to strip everything off and hung it up not to dry.
Today I haven't ventured far, I can't afford to get drowned again, I'm rapidly running out of dry clothing and my room is starting to resemble a Chinese laundry with a speciality in socks. My boots are awful, I've gone through two more pairs of socks today and I think I might be in danger of trench foot. When I get down to my last set of dry clothes then I know it's time to go home.