The Road to Varanasi
As the sun in India came up, a bicycle rickshaw took us to the border where a mile-long row of lorries were waiting for the enduring Nepalese strike to come to a close. The crossing was smooth, informal and only took a few minutes. We grabbed some bottled water and jumped onto the Varanasi bus, sitting behind the driver where there was room to stretch our legs. He was a friendly guy and proud of his rust bucket of a bus. At one point, T put her foot through a hole in the floor of the bus and a few minutes later the cover fell of the gearbox.
There were a tangle of naked wires above the driver’s head. When the bus broke down, several passengers got out to push and received a small cheer as they re-boarded. We continued maniacally along the road to Varanasi, avoiding oncoming traffic as we consistently overtook. Eventually, we became accustomed to driving techniques in India. At least when you on a sleeper bus you couldn’t see what was going on!
The Persistent Tuk Tuk Driver
Ten hours after we left the border, we arrived in Varanasi – the sacred city on the banks of the Ganges. We were picked up by a rather snazzy tuk tuk. The driver stopped in an alleyway. We were about to jump out and run, when he started to show us his ‘book of recommendations’ and tried to talk us into booking various tours around the city with him. Although sometimes a driver is a necessity, we generally find this type of hard sell off putting. We also like to get our bearings when we arrive in a new city and weigh up our options.
We were dropped us off as close to the Ganges, (where our guesthouse was situated), as possible. There are a mass of alleyways called galis leading to the holy river, where apparently it is impossible not to get lost. Despite, being aware of their reputation, we did attempt to find our way by foot (big mistake!) We were hot, tired and frustrated, so we took a bicycle rickshaw (another big mistake!) The driver didn’t seem to know where the Ganges was! We jumped out after a rather heated exchange. As well as not knowing where he was going, he had a very cocky attitude!
Following the Funeral Procession
We wandered a little more and went into a tiny shop to buy some water. When we came out of the shop, we spotted some men carrying a body along the road chanting as they went. Not good news for the body, but good news for us! If we followed them, surely, they would lead us to the Ganges, where the body would be cremated!
We ran after them, but small as they were, our packs felt heavy and a combination of weariness and heat exhaustion made it difficult to catch up. They were moving pretty quickly considering they were carrying a dead body! The alleyways became denser, but between the gaps in the buildings, we could see the river at last.
The Burning Ghat
We arrived at the ‘burning ghat’ where a man stood telling us not to take photos. The last thing in the world we wanted to do at that precise moment was take photos! We just wanted to find the Ganpati Guesthouse and crash out! He offered to take us to the guesthouse, which it turned out was only a two-minute walk away.
When we got there, we offered him 100 rupees (generously, we thought), but he wanted 500 rupees! We walked up the guesthouse steps, with his demanding shouts ringing in our ears! Never had we been so happy to finally be given the key to our basic, but air-conditioned room!
The Ganpati actually had a lot of character. There was an enclosed brightly coloured courtyard with hammocks, a fountain, murals on the wall and a roof terrace with terrific views over the river.
Life on the Holy River
The following morning, we took a walk along the river, taking in the weird and wonderful sights of Varanasi. There were crowds of pilgrims, women in vibrant saris, brightly attired sadhus, dogs, cows and goats all mingling together. Pilgrims carried out their morning ablutions, as children splashed in the polluted water and the locals washed clothing.
Ganga Aarti – River Worship Ceremony
Even early in the morning, it was hot. When we went out later to get some lunch, the temperature had hit 48 centigrade. There was virtually nothing going on, just a few people sleeping in the shade and the occasional cow wandering by.
In the evening, we hired a boat with guide. A little girl joined us to sell us lotus flower candles which we placed on the river and watched float away. We passed the burning ghat, where bodies were laid out in preparation next to stacks of wood. Apparently, being cremated in Varanasi is highly auspicious for Hindus. Even if the families cannot afford cremation, they will simply throw the body in the river.
Swimming Lessons in the Ganges
A little further along, children were having a swimming lesson as their parents looked on. Meanwhile, a dead water buffalo floated past, brought to our attention by a rather putrid waft in the air. When the sun went down, boats gathered to watch the nightly event of Ganga Aarti, the river worship ceremony. Varanasi is a fascinating place and completely unique. It is understandably not to every one’s taste, but is an experience we feel privileged to have had.
A Plane and Two Buses to Jodhpur
From Varanasi, we flew to Delhi. We waited for about eight hours for a bus to Jaipur, where we would change buses to Udaipur. We arrived in Jaipur at 2.00 am and decided to change our plan and head to Jodhpur simply because we didn’t want to wait for the Udaipur bus which was leaving much later. As it was, we spent a few grim hours at the bus station being pursued by some weirdo before being able to get on the Jodhpur bus!
We arrived in the blue city of Jodhpur and took a pleasantly straightforward tuk tuk ride to Krishna Prakash Heritage Hotel. It was a fabulous place, situated at the foot of the Mehrangarh Fort and decorated very traditionally. There were nooks, crannies and courtyards to explore and old family photographs on the walls of our room. The hotel even had a covered swimming pool.
Jodhpur – The Blue City
The hotel was the type of characterful place that we had wanted to stay while we were in India. It was over our budget, but definitely worth it, and all part of the India experience. To top it off, the restaurant was superb and we experimented with something different off the menu every time we ate there.
We went to the palace, which was situated within the walls of the fort. It was very impressive and there were lovely views of the city from the ramparts. Jodhpur is know as ‘The Blue City’ because of the many buildings which are painted blue. Indeed, the view from the palace was a picturesque sea of blue. We also visited Jaswant Thada, a cenotaph in white marble, from which there was a great view of the fort.
Udaipur – A Lakeside Haven
We decided to go back to Udaipur as we still wanted to see it, and booked an overnight sleeper bus. Leaving Jodhpur at night, we passed a random fire burning in the street with a holy cow standing behind it. Somehow it looked as if the cow was actually standing in the fire – an image exuding a dreamlike quality that could only be seen in India.
Udaipur boasts a palace and the famous Lake Hotel, which at four hundred dollars a night wasn’t really an option for us (unfortunately). The Palace was beautiful and we took a boat trip on the picturesque lake. We also visited a haveli which housed some strange artefacts.
One of the rooms was home to a vast array of handmade puppets, from maharajahs to camels. The puppeteer proudly showed us around, telling us all about them. Elsewhere in the haveli were a selection of sinister looking heads (yes, just heads!), each one having slightly different facial hair and features. A third, rather spooky room was full of dusty saris hanging on headless mannequins.
Jaisalmer – A City within a Fort
Jaisalmer was our next destination. The sleeper bus took fourteen hours, with a change in Jodhpur. By morning, we were in the desert. Before we even got off the bus, a tout had approached us. We had heard they were pretty full on in Jaisalmer to the extent that they board buses at earlier stops to hook the first catch. The big sell here is camel safaris. We managed to make it to our hotel without having signed up for one, despite the pressure. Again, we stayed in a traditional haveli, this time within the fort’s walls.
The fortress was a spectacular sight and within it’s walls was a town consisting of a network of ancient alleyways. Staying in the fort was very atmospheric, and like being transported back in time. Many of the buildings had colourful Ganesha’s painted on their doors. There was a lassi shop which sold lassi’s laced with marijuana (a bhang lassi). Though tempting, we had heard that they sometimes have an averse effect, and with another long bus journey approaching, we regretfully thought it best to abstain. There was also a palace in Jaisalmer, but it wasn’t in the same league as those in Jodhpur and Udaipur.
Bikaner – A Desert City
Bikaner, another desert city, was a pleasant place to stay. It was home to yet another palace, and although we were pretty ‘palaced out’ by then, it was worthy of a visit. We stayed at Desert Winds hotel, where the staff were lovely and the room was actually within our budget for a change.
After two rather manic tuk tuk rides trying to locate our 6.00 pm Amritsar bound bus, we narrowly made it to the bus stop at 5.50 pm. At 7pm the bus left. It was an unpleasant journey, laying on a black nylon fur bed cover, which probably hadn’t been washed for a very long time!
We rolled into Amritsar very early and woke up the grumpy hotel manager, who had been sleeping on a mattress on the reception floor. This happened quite a few times in India. Sometimes, when we were leaving early, we had to step over sleeping bodies and unlock the front door to let ourselves out.
The Stunning Golden Temple
Amritsar is most famous for the magnificent Golden Temple, a sacred place of worship for Sikhs. Because Sikhism is all encompassing, people of all religions are welcome to visit. Before we entered, we had to cover our heads with fetching Golden Temple scarves, which we purchased for ten rupees each. Barefooted, we then passed through a pool of water and the main entrance to the splendour of the temple and surrounding pool.
We walked around the pool as prayers resonated from the surrounding speakers. The sheer size of the temple is difficult to convey. On a daily basis, the restaurant serves 35,000 pilgrims with food. The participants sit on the floor regardless of caste, status, wealth or creed, symbolising the central Sikh doctrine of equality. There are 400 hotel rooms within the temple.
“One Shot Please?”
As often happens at temples and palaces, we were approached by Indians asking for ‘one shot, please?’ It was an odd phenomenon, but everywhere we went, people wanted to have their photos taken with us. As soon as we nodded our agreement, one (or often ten or more!) people would surround us posing for the anticipated photo. Occasionally, we would (not very discreetly) be photographed as we strolled around minding our own business. We put it down to the fact that westerners weren’t a very common sight in much of India, whereas we were accustomed to living in a multicultural society.
The Weird and Wonderful Mata Cave Temple
Our hotel arranged transport to the Indian/Pakistan border to watch the border closing ceremony. On route, we stopped off at the Mata Cave Temple, which couldn’t be more different to the Golden Temple, but was equally fascinating. The temple was more like a fairground attraction. There was a specific route around the temple that took you up and down stairs, through enclaves housing vibrant coloured shrines, tunnels, pools of water and cave like rooms. It was like a house of fun, and you didn’t know what to expect around the next corner. Definitely worth a visit!
The Border Closing Ceremony – One Big Party!
We continued on to the border, and joined the throngs walking to the stadium. It was such a popular event that a stadium had been erected to seat hundreds of spectators. The atmosphere was festive and vendors sold Indian flags, cold drinks and candy floss. We felt as if we were off to a football match instead of a border! Foreigners had a section of their own and we had to go through a security check and show our passports.
The atmosphere in the stadium was charged. Before long, people were queuing up to take turns to run to the border waving large Indian flags as they went. Then the dancing kicked off – crowds ran from the stands to join in as the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack came on over the speakers. It was great fun and you couldn’t help but get caught up with the party atmosphere.
As the party subsided, the border guards started to strut their stuff taunting the Pakistan side of the border with their aggressive stances. The flag was lowered and with a final salute, the border was declared closed for the day. Considering the political situation between the India and Pakistan, it’s a great achievement that the two nations are able to carry out this spectacle on a daily basis.
Chandigarh and the Story of Nek Chand
When we returned to Amritsar, we went to see the Golden Temple at night. It was as busy as ever and looked very beautiful with the lights reflected on the water.
From Amritsar, we got a rather luxurious bus to Chandigarh. It wasn’t really luxurious, but seemed it after some of the buses we had been on lately. Unfortunately, it was only a three-hour journey!
Our main purpose in visiting Chandigarh was to see The Nek Chand Rock Gardens. Nek Chand was a self-taught artist who started to build sculptures from recycled material found on demolition sights around the city. He built illegally on government land and it wasn’t until years later that his fantasy rock garden was discovered. Luckily, it was saved from destruction and the artist was even offered help in the shape of fifty workers, who helped him expand his magical kingdom.
The gardens were an amazing bargain at around twenty rupees for a ticket. We spent the afternoon exploring and were the only westerners there. There was a surprise around every corner and the sculptures were in incredibly large numbers. There were monkeys, elephants, camels and dancers as well as gorges and waterfalls – it was a truly magical place.
The Spiritual City of Rishikesh
Our next destination was Rishikesh, situated at the foot of the Himalayas. We had an unfortunate start to our stay there, when we couldn’t locate the guest house which we had booked. After an extremely lengthy and unfortunate encounter with a tuk tuk driver who pretended to know where he was going, but really didn’t, we found a not terribly nice room to spend the night. We left in the morning and got a slightly better room at a backpackers place nearby. About that time, we both went down with colds. We did manage a couple of trips out, but most of the time was spent in our room (which unfortunately, didn’t have air conditioning).
Rishikesh is another spiritual city by the Ganges and was chock-a-block with pilgrims as we happened to arrive during the holiday season. On the other side of the river was a huge temple which looked like a birthday cake and there was a bridge that connected the two sides. We crossed the bridge – it was an interesting place to take a walk and mingle with the pilgrims, sadhus and westerners who were there to study yoga.
A Spectacular Taxi Ride through the Himalayas
Our health didn’t seem to be improving, so we decided to splash out and hire a taxi to take us up to Shimla in the mountains, where we hoped the cooler air would aid our recovery. Much of the journey was spectacular and followed a river through the mountains. We passed many mountain resorts, where Indian holidaymakers were eating ice cream and enjoying the scenery. While the lowlands were sweltering in the pre-monsoon heat, the air up here was cooler – you could understand why it was a popular place to escape to.
A Slice of Britain in Shimla
Shimla was a British hill station, and remnants of the British occupation are evident – a superfluous amount of post offices, a tiny theatre, colonial buildings and signs. It was a relief to walk freely on the pedestrianised streets. In most of India, it was a constant challenge to avoid being run over by oncoming cars and motorbikes. The notion of sidewalks don’t really exist, except in certain areas of large cities.
The monkey population was high, and you had to watch your back! Appropriately, there was a huge statue of Hanuman, the monkey god protruding from the hillside trees, overlooking the city. We took a walk up there one day and were advised 1) Not to wear glasses because the monkeys would grab them and 2) To take a stick. We didn’t actually need to use the stick, but it did act as a deterrent as the sizeable troop of monkeys were somewhat aggressive!
We stayed in the hotel white with an annex attached to our room. It was a bit like a convalescent home with tired old carpet and armchairs, but it was comfortable and the views were lovely. We spent many an afternoon playing gin rummy and drinking Indian rum (which was pretty good and conveniently cheap!) By the time we left Shimla for Manali, we were feeling better – the convalescent home had served its purpose.
A Backpacker’s Enclave
Another scenic road trip and we arrived in Manali. We headed straight for Old Manali to find somewhere to stay. Old Manali was a shock – it was full of western backpackers. We hadn’t seen so many since Thamel in Nepal. Most of them seemed to be from Israel. There were signs in Hebrew and the building next to our hotel was completely taken over by Orthodox Jews. We knew that people came to Manali to enjoy the cheap and plentiful supply of marijuana (it was growing wild around the town), but never found out why it was such a popular hangout spot for Israelis specifically.
Chilling Out in Old Manali
The laidback town was scenically situated on a hill by a raging river, and was full of the usual backpacker facilities. For the time we were there, we made full use of the excellent bakeries and restaurants available. We had a great view of the snow-capped mountains from our balcony and nearby was a lovely National Park which we walked through to reach downtown Manali. There were lots of hikes to do in the immediate vicinity. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Manali and it was the most relaxing place we had experienced in India to date.
A Hair-Raising Road Trip to Ladakh
Our next Himalayan destination was Leh in Ladakh. We had booked seats on a minibus for the twenty-hour journey on the classic Manali-Leh highway. We left at 2am in the driving rain. The bus made its way up into the mountains, speeding round hairpin bends in the rain and mist. Somehow we swerved oncoming lorries that were thundering towards us in the dark.
The pot smoking driver was requested to slow down by a girl behind us, and was told to ‘go to sleep’. She replied that she couldn’t sleep while she was scared. Meanwhile, T was throwing up, leaning out of the open window in the pouring rain. ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it’, she said. We had been on the road for an hour.
As it grew light, we stopped at a desolate spot, where there was a checkpoint and small cafe that sold drinks, snacks, woolly hats and scarves. It was freezing. T managed a few sips of coffee and someone kindly gave her a travel sickness pill, and we set off again. As we continued, and the sun came up, the sheer beauty of the landscape became apparent – snow- capped mountains, desert like scenery and sculpted rock formations. We drove through the runoff from waterfalls formed by snow melt and occasionally went off track.
The Second Highest Road in the World
At one point, the van got stuck in a ditch and we all had to vacate it while it was dug out. Some of the road was smooth, and then we would suddenly find ourselves bumping along over rough ground. The road was full of classic travel images. We stopped regularly at parachute cafes – windswept, bleak places on the top of the world.
The highway is only open four and a half months of the year, as at other times snow makes it impossible to pass. On the highway, we drove through five mountain passes. The highest is Tanglang La at 5,328m (17480 feet), the second highest road in the world, the first being Khardung La near Leh.
A Taste of Tibet in Leh
We rolled into Leh at about 10pm, not surprisingly with altitude headaches, and booked into the Hotel Antelope.
When we woke the next morning, we discovered the hotel was situated directly below Leh Palace, the building that dominates the town. The palace is built in the same style as Tibet’s Potala Palace, and was constructed during the same period. We fell in love with Leh immediately. The people were friendly and there were an array of hikes to amazing stupas with prayer flags fluttering overhead.
There were Buddhist monks, giant prayer wheels, great restaurants and lovely trinkets to buy. Snow-capped mountains surrounded the town and the sky was a deep blue. We haven’t yet been to Tibet, but it felt more Tibetan than Indian. There was a big backpacker scene, but Leh retained its special charm and magic.
A Cancelled Flight
Finally, it was time to leave Leh. We took a taxi to the tiny airport and sat, waiting for our flight to be called. Everyone else boarded an earlier flight, and we thought it odd that nobody else was arriving. Indeed, we were the only people there who didn’t work at the airport. It was then that a woman came over and told us that there were no more flights that day! We couldn’t believe it! We went to see the airport manager who said that we had been sent an email and a text informing us that the flight had been changed to another day. All we had received was an email confirming the time and date of the original flight. We were not happy.
Back to Leh and finally…..home!
We had to go back into town and check into another hotel. Then we spent the day trying to obtain a large amount of cash to book a flight for the next day and change the connecting flights that we had missed and try to call home.
Although, we did eventually get a refund on the flights, we still had to pay more than twice as much for the new flights and also pay to change the international flight that we had missed!
We felt pretty fed up and thought we would drown our sorrows with cocktails and dinner at our favourite restaurant in Leh. Unsurprisingly, given the luck that we had that day it was a Buddhist spiritual day and we weren’t able to purchase alcohol!
We flew off successfully the next morning, flying over the spectacular snow-covered Himalayas. We had been travelling for nearly five months through Sri Lanka, Nepal and India and it had been an amazing trip. Now it was time to plan the next one!