The road into the hills

“THERE IS A road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa.”

These are the opening lines of Alan Paton’s beautiful book, Cry the Beloved Country, and no sooner had I read them than I knew at once I had to read on, and that this book and I would become close friends. I was born in Africa, and spent my early childhood there, but this is not the reason these words spoke to me so. No, rather it was their simple and poetic invitation to roam and wander, to experience the freedom of the road. They are a call to movement, to reaching higher places and more open spaces.

From Dharamsala too, a road runs up into the hills. It climbs to Dharamkot and the oddly named Macleod Ganj, home to the Dalai Lama. The road is narrow and steep, sometimes unnervingly so, and in places the concrete surface is worn. Roadusers are many and varied – taxis, rickshaws, private cars, motorcycles and other vehicles all vie for space, and their driving is a mixture of what seems like recklessness and nonchalance, (or perhaps it is just confidence). All pass each other with little room to spare, but the rickshaw drivers in particular seem to have a sixth sense, knowing exactly the dimensions of their machine, how tightly it can turn, and whether or not there is just time to nip into a small space, (and they seem to use these skills of judgment without ever slowing down). And yet, pedestrians, pack horses or mules (carrying perhaps bricks or sand for construction), donkeys, the odd cow, dogs and even the occasional monkey also use the road, merrily and with no apparent concern for their safety.

The road winds up through forested slopes, and where bends are sharp, and the ground on the lower side falls away, a fall seems just seconds away. The view, then, is mainly of conifers, but when there are breaks in the trees, the scenery is a far cry from what Alan Paton describes. The hillsides are dotted with concrete, with more buildings being added every year, and from a distance the houses, hotels, and centers of every description, (ayurvedic, spiritual, healing), look like stacks of boxes. Their redeeming feature is the bright and multiple colours they are painted – vivid blue or cobalt, reddish pinks, an arrray of greens, pastel shades, or whatever takes their owners’ fancy. As you arrive in Dharamkot, you reach the Himalaya Tea Shop with its sky blue shopfront, and from there you can go the short way down into the village. There, the streets are narrow and disorganized, and the place is crammed with backpackers, many of which are Israelis, who, having completed three years of military service, come to enjoy sweet freedom. There are shops of course, selling trinkets, clothes, singing bowls, precious stones, Indian sweets, cosmetics, and there are general stores. There are tour operators, money changers and a Western Union. There are also the shoe shiners and repairers (though to reduce their work to just this would unfair, since anything that can be sewn or glued they will happily look at). Each has his own patch, no doubt as legitimate as a shop with walls and a roof, and I doubt they would ever encroach on each other’s territory.

Since cars mostly cannot pass, people get around on scooters or motorbikes, which they use indiscriminately, even for short distances, though in all logic they would be better off on foot. And there is a whole strip of restaurants, mostly more expensive than Indian eateries because they cater almost entirely to tourists. Some of these places serve very passable fare, and there is one that even offers, “Wooden oven pizzas.” Presumably it is an oven which will only serve once, though what kind of pizza might emerge from such an experiment one wonders.

But above the lively streets, higher up the slopes, there is upper Dharamkot, a quieter part of the village, where the air is cleaner and tourists find less entertainment, save paths to walk. Beyond, a few houses, reached by dirt tracks, stand scattered around. From these, there is no road into the hills, only the vastness of the Himalayas.

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