Arriving in Delhi, India was an attack on the senses. Spicy incense mixed with curry sweat and urine singed the nostrils, women in colourful sparkling saris, wandering cows, mangy dogs, and the incessant chorus of rickshaw horns. To combat the heat we resorted to 4 showers a day and lay like limp lettuce leaves under the lazy ceiling fan recovering from jet lag. Though this may sound like purgatory, we both felt an instant affection towards India, the people here struck us as very friendly and the food is amazing.
Before heading out of Delhi we checked out a few sights such as the Red Fort, where to our surprise, the locals were more interested in taking pictures posing with us than the fort itself. Bobby also attempted his first sideways head wobble (which depending on context can mean yes, no, maybe or hello), and received a glowing response of multiple head wobbles in return.....classic.
Our first stop out of Delhi was the cooler hill station town of Shimla. The most interesting thing here was the gangs of cheeky monkeys which roamed the streets causing havoc. When we checked out the hill top temple of Hanuman (Monkey God), we were issued with large sticks to keep the monkeys at bay.
From here we traveled further north to McLeod Ganj, home to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Government in exile. The place was splashed with colourful prayer flags, good Buddhist vibes and was surrounded by pine forests and snow capped Himalayan peaks. It was a moving experience to visit the Tibet Museum, monastery complex and meet some refugees. We were unaware of the extent of the human rights attrocities (including UN acknowledged genocide) which are still taking place in Tibet today by the Chinese Government. Many western countries don't receive the full picture as the info is censored to avoid offending China.
We spent a couple of days hiking through rhododendron forests up to the snowline, overnighting in a small hut. On return we head had a rooftop yoga session to stretch out our sore muscles.
Again heading north we stopped in the small touristy village of Vashisht, near Manali. Here we celebrated Bobby's birthday, swimming in a waterfall, a spot of yoga and feasting on chicken straight out of the tandoor (one of our few non-veg meals of the trip).
Next we set our sights on the far north town of Leh, in Ladakh, Kashmir. The passage to get there is a supposedly 18 hour trip over several high altitude mountain passes including the 2nd highest motorable pass in the world. Our eventful trip commenced in a traffic jam on the first pass, caused by a broken down truck, forcing us to spend the night sleeping in the stationary van. Because of the initial delay, people were in a bit of a rush and taking risks.... we passed 3 freshly overturned trucks on the windy narrow roads. Our next event was that night when we arrived at a swollen ford, blocked again by 2 overloaded trucks stuck in the river bed. Our driver broke the news that we would be spending yet another night in the van. We were saved by a gutsy driver in a 4 wheel drive who navigated a path around the trucks, proving it could be done. We then spend the night in a communal tea house tent at around 5000m. The next morning started off with a bang when Philippa got in an argument with a fellow Israeli passenger who had the audacity to constantly litter out the window into the pristine mountain environment.... hopefully he'll think twice next time.
After our 40 hour epic, we arrived in the stunning high altitude plateau of Leh. Leh was formally part of Tibet, hence has a majority Buddhist community and is dotted with dramatic, ancient monasterys perched precariously atop rocky out crops. Prayer flags, stupas, giant prayer wheels and yaks are also common sights. Our rural guesthouse was a peaceful haven which was our base for the following week as we explored the region. For a couple of days we hired a motorbike and teaming up with a Bombay local also on a bike, shot around the valley taking a closer look at the Gompas. We were fortunate to be present at the Hemis festival, where thousands of devotees flock to an isolated monastery to watch 2 days of music and dance by people in elaborate masked costumes.
Through friends of ours (cheers Joe and Em), we had directions to an isolated valley several local bus rides away from Manali. The final leg of this bus trip was a laugh as we rode atop the bus alongside a local traditional band who enjoyed showing us their strange instruments. Not really knowing what our plan was, we turned up on the doorstep of a jam shop run by a lady named Cinderella. Over a glass of chai it was decided we would head further up the valley to the small isolated village of Tinder located in the ecozone of the Great Himalayan National Park. Our host Dule had set up the only homestay/guesthouse in the village and we were one of his first customers. It was refreshing to spend a few days in this blissful hillside village, overlooking green valleys, rivers and mountains. The village of about 300 was self-sustaining, growing it's own food and it was crazy to see wild dope growing everywhere. At dusk all the old men could be seen on their verandas with their families puffing on chillums and giant bongs.
Dule was keen to get his business up and running and was clearly the entrepreneur of the village. Most nights were spent teaching him English and sharing business ideas, he even offered to go in 50-50 with any custom we brought. We politely refused but helped out where we could; writing a brochure, supplying photos and a business plan. Most days were spent swimming in a crisp water hole, trekking the surrounding area, home to bears and snow leopards which we never got to see.
In theme with our previous bus rides, things didnt go quite to plan as we geared up to leave the valley. Two competing bus companies tried to beat each other out of the station causing a traffic jam and a 10 minute heated argument that nearly came to blows and was finally broken up by the police. Then a race along the narrow cliff top roads ensued, resulting in our bus sliding sideways across the road and crashing into the cliff. Thankfully no one was hurt and we didn't skid the other directions off the 70m drop into the gorge.
We found Indian trains dreamy after our bus experiences and our morning trip to Agra went off without a hitch. In Agra the Taj Mahal and the notorious touts both lived up to the hype. The Taj Mahal was simply sublime and the most impressive man-made structure we have ever seen and the touts were money hungry wolves drooling to pounce on fresh tourist meat. We spent most of the day with our driver, who assured us he was not a tout, sighing in exasperation as he tried to drag us on his commission route. After getting fed up, we ditched him early. We do feel for these guys as life here is pretty hard and they gotta make a buck when they can, but you get sick of all the dishonesty.
After spending the day sweating heavily in the oppressive monsoon heat, we arrived at the Tungla train station to catch our night train to Varanasi. We watched entranced as the tracks moved with scurrying rats. Goats, cows and pigs roamed freely, munching on rubbish and shitting everywhere. Beggars and street kids gazed pleadingly as we ate our dinner at the dodgy restaurant, to whom we later gave a handful of rupees to.
The great mother Ganges river flows through the holy town of Varanasi. It is here that devout Hindus come to cremate their dead to stop the cycle of rebirth, bathe in the sacred waters and pay homage to their Gods (all 36 million of them). We were fortunate enough to arrive on the first and biggest day of a festival celebrating lord Shiva. The streets teemed with over 12,000 electric orange clad devotees, who chanted and collected water in urns from the river. A stroll along the riverside ghats was a surreal experience, where among things there are bodies being burnt in big open fires and deadlocked, painted sadhus (holy men who give up family and possessions in search of enlightenment). The next day we went for a tranquil dawn boat cruise where our informative guide told us a bit of the religious history and also pointed out the dogs on the opposite bank feasting on the remains of a half cremated body. Later that day we also saw half a corpse floating down the river, as strange as it seems, this is a normal sight here. It is also amazing that the people don't suffer ill effects of bathing and drinking this highly polluted water, which is full of raw sewerage.
We love you India, good bye for now.
We are now in Kathmandu, Nepal preparing for a week of hiking in the mountains out of Pokhara. As it's monsoon, it is sure to be a leech-filled affair.
Ciao for now.