Thanks to Steph at Twenty-Something Travel who featured our picture from Kashmir on her excellent travel blog today!
Go check it out at
Thanks to Steph at Twenty-Something Travel who featured our picture from Kashmir on her excellent travel blog today!
Go check it out at
Over the past three weeks we have been shocked and surprised and downright disgusted, but recently we have learnt that some of those things that are ridiculous about India, are also quite endearing. Those things, I will miss as we leave this place for our next destination, and then there are some things I will definitely not miss… Here are some things about India that I will never forget:
The song of the Chai Wallas as you walk past them on a street or in the corridor of a train, singing: Chai chai chai chai chai chai in a monotone, and then they stop and say it once more in a higher pitched question to make sure you didn’t miss out.
The Good Day “Rich Butter Cookies,” a staple snack for Westerners and Indians alike.
The colours of the clothes that the Indian women wear. No matter who it is, from young to old, they wear the brightest and most ornate saris and cloths…and they look beautiful in them, something I could not pull off without looking like a Christmas tree.
The animals, from cows to ponies to donkeys to camels to every kind of mutt you can think of, the animals rule the streets and they never cease to amaze me.
The way the Indian people set up camp in the railway stations and bus stations: they arrive, lay out some blankets, sit/lie down in the middle of the platform, pull out their food and drinks and settle in for the long wait…and there will be a long wait, no matter what time you arrive.
The endless stares from everybody, wherever we go, whatever we do, they stare. From the tiniest two-year-old to the oldest grandmother, men, women, they indignantly stare right into your eyes, and then turn around to have another look, as if you’re an animal in the zoo.
The way many people come up to us and ask for a photograph and then thrust a baby into your arms and say, “smile.” And its not over yet, then its one with the aunty and one with the uncle and one with the little children too.
The plea of the shopkeepers, “Looking is free, no buy, just come inside and look” and then once you step inside and look around (if you dare), they start to bargain, “only Rs100, how much you pay, Rs80, cheap price, no expensive.”
They way the people latch onto English words and use them endlessly. For example:
“German Bakery”: A place that sells croissants and cakes, of any kind.
“English Beer and Wine shop”: If you’re lucky it will sell beer, sometimes only whiskey, and never wine.
“Share Jeep”: Any type of SUV or just a car that you can buy a seat in to travel from one city to another, mostly in the mountains. Note, middle seats are pricier and if you want to have a back seat to yourself, you pay a premium.
How we are pushed aside and pushed in front of in any queue. Whether you’re at the bank, or the airport, don’t bother standing in a queue because some one will just walk in front of you and ignore you.
The way the officials have a system, that they probably don’t understand, but they do it anyway, because it has always been done that way. The worst part is that they won’t tell you what the process is, or why. They will just take your passport (and you later find out that they went to the next door shop to photocopy it), while you stand there mouth gaping, wondering if you should go after them or if they will ever give your passport back.
Lastly, but certainly not least, the one thing I will always remember about India are the smells. From the sweet, cinnamon smell of chai being brewed on the street; to the smell of incense wafting out of a roadside shrine; to the stench of sewerage water running down the gutter…India has the most complex mix of smells of any country I have visited before.
If you start to build a picture of India in your mind from these idiosyncrasies, then I hope that this makes you intrigued enough to visit the place one day. Although a tough place to visit, India has taught us so much about ourselves and the world, an experience we wouldn’t pass up for all the Chai in India
The past couple of days we have been on the move, getting ready for our next move to Thailand. We flew from New Delhi (out of a beautifully clean and sparkly airport) to Kolkata (a not so beautiful and not at all clean airport) and this morning we left Kolkata again to arrive in a pristine clean (well, compared to India anyway) Bangkok this evening. We were sad to leave India after all, but ready to experience a whole new culture in Thailand.
The 18-hour bus trip from Manali to Delhi on Tuesday/Wednesday was uncomfortable and uneventful. Once we arrived in Delhi, and felt a bit more confident this time than the last, we had a cup of chai and found an internet café to plan our next move. We had decided that it made sense to head straight to Agra rather than try to find accommodation in Delhi for one night. We soon discovered that there were many trains to Agra each day, but
we had to use the Foreign Tourist Office at the station to book tickets, as all the local seats were apparently already sold. So off we went to this little piece of A/C heaven in the New Delhi Train Station, first floor to be exact. It was a simple task, fill out a form detailing where and when you would like to go, and wait in a queue to speak to a consultant. About an hour later, we had a ticket to Agra and were on our way to find a spot of lunch. The Connaught Place area of Delhi is vibey and full of shops selling everything from bracelets to mangoes. We found a good, clean restaurant and even had our hands hennaed while we waited for our food. Outside the glass doors of the restaurant we watched massive bulls pulling carts full of all sorts of goodies trundle by. By just after 5:30pm we were ready to board the train, and after a brief panic seeing the condition of the train, we found our 2nd class A/C cabin and settled in for the 4-hour journey.
We arrived in Agra around 10pm, and found a taxi to take us straight to the Taj Plaza Hotel. Look out for the prepaid taxis, they have certification and can give you a fixed price according to where you are going. According to Solomon, our taxi driver, in Agra there’s “No hurry, no worry, no chicken curry” and in order to drive, what you need is a good horn, good brakes and a bit of good luck. This is definitely the theme throughout India, where you hoot to say you’re passing somebody, you hoot to say you’re behind someone, you hoot to say you’re in front of someone…you get the point. Solomon also informed us that we had come to Agra at the perfect time, as the Taj Mahal was free to enter all day (normally Rs750/$17/R115 each) on Thursday to commemorate the death day of the the commissioner of the palace, Shar Jehan. Once we got there, the Taj Plaza Hotel was pretty clean, and the staff were friendly, average by our backpacker standards. We couldn’t expect much for Rs400 per night ($9/R60). We even had a view of the Taj from the terrace upstairs, considering the hotel was only 600m from the East Gate, we were quite happy with our online booking, even if it was only available for the first two nights of our stay in Agra.
The following morning we woke up at 5:30am to head to the Taj Mahal when we were told there would be minimal people. Already by 6am, there were rickshaw wallas milling around the streets trying to get us to take a ride down the road to the East Gate. It was a fresh morning, a light sprinkle of rain, and we were excited to see the Taj so we took a brisk walk to wake ourselves up. We arrived at the first gate to be searched and then walked through the courtyard to the main gate. There we had our first sight of the spectacular marble building through the archways of red sandstone.
My first impression of the Taj was just as you would expect, it took my breath away. From the sweeping gardens in front, to the long thin ponds reflecting the Taj in their surfaces, the sight is one to behold. Even the many pictures I have seen of this icon throughout my life cannot convey the beauty of it in real life. There were already people there by the time we got in, and joined by the many tour guides and people willing to take your photo on the bench where Lady Di sat (for a fee), the crowd was growing, even at this early hour. We wandered around the gardens, having a look and a photo from every angle, and even had few (obligatory) photos with the locals. From up close, the translucent white marble of the tomb is
encrusted with millions of semi-precious stones arranged in flower decorations (called Pachi Kari) over the doorways and around the walls. Inside, although pretty dark at this time of the morning, you can run your fingers over the walls and feel the stones under your fingers. Marble latticed (called Jaali) screens surround the two replica coffin-shaped structures, one smaller, for Mumtaz Mahal and one larger, for Shar Jehan himself. Whereas downstairs, lie the actual cenotaphs (coffins) sweating with condensation from the heat of the summer. After a good few hours, we left the Taj, ready for breakfast and to catch up on some much needed sleep.
We awoke that afternoon to the sound of a parade winding its way to the Taj, so we headed out to join the celebrations. Loudspeakers filled the air with singing and young children held reams of coloured material above their heads forming a multi-coloured line snaking along the road. Heading back into the East Gate, we were this time surrounded by thousands of people in stark contrast to the peacefulness of the early morning, but just as enjoyable. The Taj itself had changed colour only slightly to match the midday haze, but the bright colours of the womens saris filled the gardens and made the sight even more spectacular than before. However, before long we had had enough of being jostled around, and T, having had a baby thrust into his arms to have a photograph taken, was ready to leave!
On the way back to the hotel, we popped into the Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel which was right next door to ours, to see if we could say hi to the GM and his wife, who are long lost family of mine. We managed to chat to them for a few minutes but they were, of course, busy so we left our number and headed back to our hotel. After watching the most spectacular storm roll in, we showered and had dinner in the restaurant downstairs. After dinner we got a call from Ali, to ask if we would like to join her for breakfast and catch up. Of course, we accepted and the next morning, headed next door to the Amarvilas to a hearty English breakfast and some freshly squeezed orange juice…heavenly! After a quick tour of the Amarvilas, it was time to go as we had to check out of our hotel and take a rickshaw down to the next hotel we had booked. We settled into the Sai Palace Hotel, this one even closer to the Taj, and organised a tour to Agra Fort for the late afternoon. While we were waiting and enjoying a cold drink in our room, we got another call from Ali this time explaining that their spare room had become available and would we please come and stay with them for the next two nights.
I was so taken aback at their generosity that at first I said that we would stay at the Sai Palace that night as we had already paid and that if it was okay we would come to them the following evening. However, after coming to my senses I realised that this was an opportunity not to be missed, so I phoned Ali back and accepted their kind invitation. Soon after that we got in an auto-rickshaw headed for the Agra Fort.
The fort is located on a site that has been occupied by some form of fortification since the mid 12th century but when King Babar conquered the existing ruler he built an extension to the fortifications. Eventually when his son Akbar took over the throne of the Mughal Empire in he 1500s he started construction of the red sandstone fort that is located on the banks of the Yamuna today. It is really more of a walled city than a military fort and contains all of the imperial residences as well as the Hareem and various other important buildings like the treasury. It is the detail that really catches the eye though and it is something to behold, every wall has detailing on top of it and every pillar and internal area is carved with patterns and murals that makes this place one of the most impressive we have seen in India.
After the fort, we picked up our bags again and headed back to the Amarvilas. We were met at every door by welcoming, friendly staff and cool, air-conned rooms, a far cut above our previous standard of living, and a welcome break from the budget lifestyle of the previous month. We spent the evening catching up with Ali over drinks, and eating divine food, all while admiring the Taj from above. After dinner I relaxed in a hot bubble bath – my indulgence – and T watched the Wimbledon while sipping a whiskey.
Today was another fantastic day… From the delicious room-service breakfast this morning, to a visit to Fatehpur Sikri, to an afternoon lazing by the pool. We are being thoroughly spoilt, so much so that I worry that going back to living on a budget will be harder than before! Getting used to this kind of luxury is pretty easy!
Fatehpur Sikri was built by the Mughal King Akbar in 1571, when he moved the capital of his empire to a new walled city just outside of Agra. It is an incredible architectural wonder, with enormous public spaces, beautifully carved private areas and enormous imposing walls and gateways. It is certainly worth a visit!
This evening we were treated to another fantastic dinner, this time at the Trident hotel, a sister hotel to the Oberoi Amarvilas. I must just say a big thank you to Nigel and Ali Badminton who took us in and spoilt us rotten these past two days. Tomorrow its back to reality, a train to Delhi and a very budget backpackers…but that’s half the adventure right?
India is certainly a land full of opportunity for the traveller, something we have found in our, extremely limited, three weeks here. Our trip North to Jammu and Kashmir took us to Srinigar where we discovered that India wasn’t just hustle and bustle and heat like it was in Mumbai and Delhi but that it was also peaceful, friendly and incredibly hospitable.
The drive from Srinigar to Leh was one that we would prefer to forget, a long deserted stretch that seemed to blend into 18 hours of arse numbingly bad roads and small remote towns that would always have a life saving cup of hot chai. The reward was more than compensatory though because Leh is a place that every traveller to India shouldn’t miss out on and, by the looks of things, most don’t.
When someone says that a place is over touristed its usually a sure thing that we will avoid that place at all costs, Leh (and India) on the other hand is a place that has the most internal tourism that we have seen, the local tourists outnumber the international tourists 50 to 1. And although this still makes a place as small as Leh really busy, it keeps the authenticity that is lost when you visit a place that is overrun with international tourists. In other words, VISIT LEH ITS FANTASTIC!!
The very reason I have entitled this post “Choc Full” is because of the surprises that India continues to offer up for us. Our jaws practically hit the floor of the Jeep/Taxi when we arrived in the valley leading down to Pangong Tso (lake) on Saturday afternoon, a completely lunar landscape ending in a blue lake with crystal clear water and all of this surrounded by snow capped peaks… it really was surreal. Inx order to reach this small piece of untouched perfection we crossed the Chang-La and at 5360m ASL its one of the highest passes crossable by car… IN THE WORLD (that’s saying something)!
The highest being Kardung La, en route to the Nubra valley, and is just a touch over five and a half Ks above the sea!
I have digressed, sorry! Pangong (like I said before) is perfection, it is a place that shouldn’t really exist in real life and is absolutely awe-inspiring! You really have to see the photos to understand and you really have to visit it to appreciate this! The first thing that blows you away is the sheer size of the place,
and you can really only see 25% of it because the Chinese have increased their border into the area and now “occupy” ¾ of the Lake too! The next is the road sign as you arrive that reminds you of how high up you are, in feet it sounds even more impressive so here goes some imperial boasting, thirteen thousand, four hundred and fifty one feet (hairy ones at that)… the mind boggles!
We stayed in a typical Tibetan “homestay” in a room in somebody’s house and ate and talked into the night with some Israeli guys as well as some bikers from India who were vacationing around Kashmir for a couple of weeks and doing so on their Royal Enfields, madness I tell you considering the state of some of the roads!
Funnily enough, what only consumed two full days of our trip felt as though we had been away from Leh for a week, and we were just 155km away.
So, Mumbai: check, Delhi: check, Leh: check and Pangong Tso: check, we are quickly running out of time and have already modified our itinerary to include Srinagar. One of our new friends that we met up at the Lake nailed it when he said if you’re planning a trip in India always include 10 extra days for travelling time alone! Total tally by the time we get back to Delhi … 104 hours in transit, by the time we reach Kolkata on the way to Thailand it will be more like 110!!
That brings me to our latest surprise, the Leh-Manali highway and our last trip in a “Jeep”, EVER. This little adventure set us back a whopping 1500 rupees each (R230 or $33) and took us 19 hours and 473km all the way to the popular mountain resort town of Manali in Himachal Pradesh. The road was staggeringly beautiful and equally treacherous, a true adventure! On the side, 473km in 19 hours means an average speed of just under 25km/h, not exactly the speediest of trips but you would miss so much if you were going any faster. I’ve popped up some photos to assist with the description of this epic road but I will give a run through of what I remember as well.
To accomplish this two-day journey in a single day we left Leh at 2am on Monday morning. This was perhaps not the smartest of decisions considering we had been up since leaving Pangong earlier that day. Our route took us over (reputably) the world’s second highest vehicular pass called Tanglang-La at 5241m and our new friend Vinay informed us that the road had been swept away and rebuilt since he travelled it with a tour group the day before… not really what we wanted to know Vinay!
The rest wound its way up and over numerous other passes, past Sarchu (a tented night stop for travellers) and down into the Lahaul Valley dotted with small villages and towered over by gigantic peaks! At one stage we drove through some high altitude plains and our driver, in his ultimate wisdom, chose the most difficult soft sand to drive through! Needless to say we got stuck…
But despite this, the Himalayas really have stunned us and have made me want to take Dom to the Drakensberg and show her what SA has to offer! Dom’s just reminded me about the avalanche that we saw coming off a mountain as we drove past hundreds of meters below.
The final hump to cross is called Rhothang-La, it is small in comparison at less than 4000m high but it makes up for this minor issue with THE most stunning beauty!
If this place is not protected at present then it should be. The Northern side is a twisted stretch of road starting in a small village and winds its way ever upward past enormous waterfalls and boulders precariously perched on the edge of the road above us. The total length of the pass is 35km and the second half is certainly the most treacherous. It had rained heavily during the night and our driver and Vinay were noticeably stressed about driving down again. There is a 300m section of the road that is renowned for rock falls and landslides that we had to pass, this made even more dangerous by the saturated condition of the road and mountainside. So with Dom clutching my hand and everybody silenced and holding thumbs our brave driver floored it,
slipping and sliding about on the edge of a precipice and we made it to the end of the avalanche zone with our lives intact as well as our underpants
As if to make up for the moment of terror, the pass opened up into a magical misty pine forest and wound its way back down into the Manali valley.
We drove along with the Beas river pumping full of melted glacier right next to us, and through a couple of the picturesque mountain villages in the region. Palchan looked like something out of the Lord of the Rings with workers repairing a pipeline by torchlight! And finally we had reached Manali, bought some beers (priorities) and found a guesthouse to stay the night. A hot shower and some dinner saw us through to bed, something we hadn’t seen in about 40 hours!
From the very beginning of our planning to come to India, we had in our minds a picture of Lake Pangong that our friend Amandine had shown us. This is what drove us hundreds of kilometres North to Ladakh, and to the town of Leh. It has been quite a trek, from Delhi to Srinigar – a nice but quite unnecessary stop – and then the looong drive from Srinigar to Leh. The final stretch to Pangong Tso will be another 5-hour 4×4 trip tomorrow morning and then we start the whole journey back to Delhi on Sunday! In hindsight, it may have been wiser, and cheaper, to book a return flight to Leh from Delhi in advance. Saying that though, we wouldn’t change what we did for anything – we have seen places we didn’t even know existed, and travelled roads that we will never forget!! It has been quite the adventure, to say the least
As much of a mission as it has been, it was worth it to see the town of Leh. If I had to describe the town in one word it would be to say it is “mellow.” The atmosphere here, although meteorologically thin and dry, is very peaceful and relaxed and the people are happy and friendly, maybe because of the large population of Buddhist Monks. Due to the town being virtually uninhabitable in the winter, the people migrate for the summer months
from all over India and also come from Tibet and Nepal. This makes the town contrast with the other Indian cities that we have visited and many of the people here have oriental features although still Indian by birth. The most notable thing is that there are a lot more European tourists here. Whether it is the cooler climate or the friendly people, there are more tourists here than anywhere we have seen in India (granted, we haven’t seen Goa/Kerala and the South of India yet). However, although most people would say that a lot of tourists is a bad thing, the tourists here are very different to those you may find on the beaches in the South. These tourists are here to blend in, not to be loud and demanding, but rather to meditate, go trekking and generally enjoy the local culture. In actual fact, we don’t fit in here at all!
Most people who come here from Europe and America spend a few weeks or months here in Ladakh and go trekking into the Himalayas for days or weeks at a time, before coming back to Leh to refuel. They all wear loose fitting colourful clothes, hippy style, and most have dreadlocks in their hair. Not unlike someone you would find frequenting the outdoor music festivals in Cape Town. And they definitely don’t carry their cameras around on their shoulders ready for an opportunity to jump out at them, like we do
This mixture of people makes the town quite modern and mostly caters to these trekkers. There are five types of shops:
- Internet cafes: full of people like us, keeping in touch with home.
- Souvenir shops: selling pashminas, Tibettan jewellery, sculptures and Kashmiri crafts.
- Trekking/Tour agencies: organising treks and putting like-minded people together to fill tours.
- Trekking equipment stores: making sure that you can get everything you need to go trekking right here in Leh.
- Corner shops: selling everything from Pepsi to Maggi (any type of 2-minute noodles) to all types of beauty products. You name it, they have it.
Of course then, there are restaurants and guesthouses in between, but it is quite fascinating that these businesses survive considering how saturated the market is. Going back to my economics theory, supply definitely exceeds the demand here! Be that as it may, the people are not starving and we haven’t seen anyone here that doesn’t have a home to go to at the end of the day.
For that reason, and maybe a few others, Leh is really safe. The people are honest and very trusting, if you don’t have the correct change, don’t worry, just come back and pay later. In contrast to the big cities in India, here we can walk around freely at 10pm without worrying about crime or anything like that, just as long as you don’t mind dodging late night jeeps, wandering packs of dogs and the occasional cow.
It is a small town and we have actually seen most of it in just the few days that we have been here. For the first couple of days we took it really easy as just walking up a flight of stairs left us breathless, but after many slow walks up to the Main Bazaar, we slowly started to acclimatise to the very thin, 3500m high air. Eventually we were “fit” enough to walk ALL the way to the top of the town to the Leh palace, only about 2km from our guesthouse but on a hill, so quite a challenge. The palace is not what you would call beautiful, from the outside anyway, but the words majestic and fascinating definitely come to mind. From up close, it is massive, and it would certainly have been quite a feat to build up there on the hill in the 1600’s. The view from up there is fantastic, with the 6000m plus Stok Khangri mountain covered in snow in the background and the “colourful” town of Leh in the foreground, it makes for a very pretty picture.
Surrounding the palace is the old town made up of little square mud-brick houses, which seem deserted at first, but with a closer look you find the old woman washing her clothes outside on the step, and another sitting in the doorway knitting thick socks to sell to trekkers. The doors and windows are only just tall enough for me to fit through, some even smaller, and the walls are crumbling in places giving them a charm that no decorator could plan. Coming down through little dusty passageways we found a massive tree, the Sacred Tree planted by a Guru many years ago “to bring greenery to highest deserts and into the hearts of the people.” It seems to have done its job well.
This morning at 2am we checked into a small guest house in the town of Leh in Ladakh (in the Himalayas… seriously) after arriving at our “pre-booked” guest house to find it closed up for the night, not surprising you might say, but we still needed a place to sleep after 18 hours in the back of a Toyota Venture en-route from Srinigar. again, “hours…Shmours” you might say… those were the most insane hours we have spent traveling anywhere! The best way to explain it is to show you…
We couldn’t take many more photos after this, partly because we were already pretty tired and also because it got dark and we were still bouncing up and down on those incredible roads. A journey we don’t want to remember but will never forget
Post on Leh tomorrow, its fantastic here! Relaxing, enjoying the views of the surrounding mountains and finding it pretty hard to breathe at 3500m!
So despite the fact that we never intended to end up here in Kashmir, Srinigar has been really relaxing and quite a change from the dense, hard life we saw in Delhi and Mumbai.
We were seriously apprehensive at first, and when we arrived we were almost too scared to leave our room…but we soon realised that the people are friendly and happy and most of them are only too pleased to meet a foreigner, and they always ask if we like Kashmir. We have been stared at, asked to stand with the family and have a photo, chatted to in every shop and on every street and even made a ‘friend’ in a young student named Waseem, who took our email address with a promise of “learning everything about each other.”
We haven’t been out that much; we have been enjoying the hospitality of our hosts Ashraf and Laura, at Jeelani Guesthouse. We ate meals together with the other guests, an older American lady and an older German man. In the evenings, we read or watched one of the old movie reruns on TV.
On Saturday we spent the afternoon on the Nageen and Dal lakes on a Shikara (like a Gondola but with a roof).
We were rowed along the serene lake by a guide who spoke pretty fluent English, and was generally a really happy person. He made us tea with Cardamon and Cinnamon by boiling water on a little gas burner on the back of the small boat. It was a fantastic afternoon, we watched the locals enjoying a swim and saw the villages on the islands in the middle of the lake. The villagers grow vegetables in ‘floating gardens’ around the islands. The gardens can be reached only by shikara and the vegetables are sold every morning at the market. Every so often someone would row along next to us and ask how we are, where are we from and ask if we would like to buy flowers or see the precious stones that he is selling. What I enjoyed was that they were not pushy, just opportunists! We stopped off at Nishrat Bagh, the Moghul gardens, where thousands of Indian’s were enjoying their Saturday afternoon, kids playing in the water and big families sitting and taking photos in the manicured gardens.
On Sunday we decided to take a walk down to the market near the local mosque, Hazratbal. It was not far from our guesthouse and we managed to find it pretty easily. Quite close to the market is also the University of Kashmir, where it is popular to study business or engineering – they even do “Short Courses in Mechatronics”?! We spent an hour or so walking through the market and even bought a couple of Kashmiri handicrafts; their specialty is delicately painted papier-mâché elephants and bells.
Today we found a lift into the town of Srinigar and walked around the shops and bought some supplies for our trip to Leh. We were surprised to see how modern and global it is, even in comparison to what we saw of Mumbai and Delhi. There seems to be more English signage and people are willing to speak English to us.
This evening we visited the Pari Mahal – the Angel Palace or Fairy Abode . It is right up in the mountain and boasts incredible views of the Dal lake. The “palace” itself is a stone-built fort with four or five levels of gardens, each with a more spectacular view than the last. There were many tourists and we found ourselves chatting with a few people about cricket or about South Africa and where we are from.
One of the highlights of this place has been watching the sun setting over the lake. The orange sun and the reflection of the shikaras on the lake really is a breath-taking sight.
Tomorrow morning we move on to Leh, we will be sharing a Jeep with some other tourists and will drive via Kargil and arrive in Leh in the late evening. We have been told that the scenery is fantastic and although it will be another long drive, it will all be worth it when we get to Ladakh!
Delhi, albeit a really short stay this time round, was as hot and busy as we could have ever imagined. Not humid like Bombay but just as dirty, busy and generally mad as India has been for the duration of our 5 day stay so far. If you’re looking for a relaxing holiday then India is not for you but if you want a holiday that will be, minute-by-minute, the most interesting and rewarding experience then travel away an do it with an open mind, an open heart and big wide eyes!
We soon found out that the hostel that we’d booked was 25km outside of the city and given that we wanted to get up to Leh as soon as possible, we went to a tourism bureau and booked ourselves into a local hotel for the night and also the transport and accommodation to Leh.
The original plan to get to Leh didn’t really exist, we just knew that it was a fair distance from Delhi and we figured it wouldn’t be too much of an issue to get a train there… Wrong! Leh is located in the foothills of the Himalayas, the tallest mountain range in the world with awe inspiring summits including Everest and K2 (of Vertical Limit fame), and that means that its extremely high up. And further, the pass that takes you there via Manali is closed because of snow for 6 months of the year and this meant a 26-hour bus to Srinagar… TWENTY-SIX!!!!
And the most unexpected 26 hours ever, it was incredibly hot for most of the journey (distance wise) passing remote truck stops on the highway selling everything from fresh produce to cigarettes and motor spares, and continuously swapping sides of the road due to the massive road works. India seems to be developing at an incredible rate, we know that this is true but you really see it in action when you travel around the country. The development is also happening in an entirely Indian way, there’s no such thing as globalisation here!
Still reeling from our “out of body” experience with Delhi Belly, we shied away from the local food at the lunch stop and rather snacked on the McVities digestives that we’d bought in Delhi the day before. They are best thing if you just need something plain to eat and seem to be available all over the world.
There were a number of other tourists traveling to Srinagar with us on the bus but mostly locals and we chatted to them as well as quizzed the locals about the route we were taking and if it was safe to be in Kashmir. It turns out that despite all the trouble of the past that has given the region such a bad reputation, the people are amazingly kind, generous and helpful. They also love to have tourists visit their part of the world as it means that they can show others (like us) how great it really is. This made the journey far more interesting than some of our previous bus journeys around Europe… but maybe we just weren’t trying hard enough then.
But… by far the most exciting part of the whole journey was crossing the pass between Jammu and Srinagar.
An absolutely astounding stretch of road that was less than a third of the total distance covered but took nearly half the total time. We crept up steep sections of the road by night with cars passing left and right, always on their horns (this is how drivers communicate with each other) and then barrelled head first down the hills and around bends where we became the ones passing the thousands of brightly coloured and decorated lorries carrying goods between the big city and far off Jammu and Kashmir.
Thank goodness it was dark for most of the journey up because then at least we were already committed to the downward journey in the morning that opened our eyes wide with thrill!
We finally reached the Kashmiri border and had to prove that we had a place to stay in Srinagar, but then it was just an hour to lunch and then another hour and a half to the bus station in the city. FINALLY!
The next thing that we had to deal with was the touts… These are the men who, in order to make a bit of profit, will attempt to lead you astray by telling you that they are there to collect you from the hotel in which you are staying. They aren’t, and they will just take you somewhere else that will charge you again for something that you may have already paid for. You have to be very careful to find someone trustworthy enough to help you out and in our case this was the local tourism “police.” I put police in inverted commas because they really are just a form of tourism standard that is there to help India’s tourism ministry move forward and away from the chaos that these touts create. However, in hindsight (only) its quite fun to watch ten guys tell you that they are in fact the one who is taking you to your desired location.
It turns out that our ever-reliable tourism bureau in Delhi had (on purpose or by mistake, we’ll never know) told our guesthouse that we were arriving the following day, great for our fragile states after a long journey. But finally after much ado we arrived at the place and had a sleep. It turned out to be a great evening spent talking about travel and India and South Africa with the owners and other guests. We all ate together, sitting in the lounge on the carpet with Ashraf and his wife and enjoyed a non-spicy meal of mutton stew and rice.
India is a place that is really difficult to relax into, but if you fight it, you will definitely come off second best!
Everybody (including us) thinks that they are invincible, you expect to be able to eat and what you would like to… but you’re NOT… we found out the hard way!
After sussing out the best looking, air-conditioned restaurant in Mumbai the last thing we were expecting was to get sick! Three hours later we were both in such a state it was truly unbearable. No matter how hard I try I can’t remember feeling that sick before! It was such a surprise because we were being so careful about washing with filtered water and making sure we ate nothing with a high water content like tomatoes or cucumber, and everything cooked. However, it turns out even cooked food like Butter Chicken or Tikka Masala has tomatoes in it, which made us completely sick within 4 hours. We literally went from perfectly healthy to full blown stomach flu within half an hour.
Some tips on how to survive the dreaded ‘Delhi-Belly’ or ‘Mumbai-Belly’ in our case:
1. Wash your hands with disinfectant every time you use the toilet.
2. Buy a coconut from the street and drink the coconut water, its good for dehydration and also settles the stomach.
3. Buy Electral hydration salts (15 Rupees per packet from any Chemist/Druggist) and pour one packet into 1 litre of mineral water. Sip it slowly and regularly, as much as possible.
4. Buy Domstal tablets (±32 Rupees for 10 tablets) and take them twice a day for vomiting.
5. Buy Aciloc 150 (±8 Rupees for 15 tablets) and take 3 times a day or as needed for diarrhea.
6. Make sure you do all of this as soon as you start to feel sick, because if you wait too long like we did (granted it was in the middle of the night and we were unprepared), you will have to visit a doctor to get an injection to speed up the recovery process.
7. In Mumbai we can recommend Dr. Maya Ballani, Veena Tower, Opposite Colaba Post Office. (Tel: +91 2215 2985) – she is friendly and fluent in English. It costs approximately 500 Rupees per person including injections and prescription medicine.
8. Lastly… sleep, sleep, sleep. It’s the best thing you can do for your body to recover and regain energy.
As terrible as it was to experience, we are on the mend and very excited to continue our trip North to Srinagar and on to Leh. Delhi is about 40 degrees and unbearable at the moment so we booked a bus North as soon as we arrived and another to Leh from Srinagar. The India Tourism Bureau is great (although I was quite sceptical at first) and if you book through them you get a far better rate than the tourist prices that hostels put up on the internet.
So Mumbai was wet, Delhi is HOT and apparently Srinigar is beautiful. Here’s to third time lucky!
Today was such a visual day in Mumbai, on a local bus tour of the peninsula, that we decided it would be better to show you what we saw than to explain it to you! So here goes:
We started near the Gateway of India (which we photographed yesterday), enormous and full of people as all places are here:
Food that they sell on the streets:
Chowpati beach, quiet on a rainy Monday:
The hanging garden-unfortunately our tour was in Hindu so we had no idea why it is called that….but check this link for more info:
The amazing market at the Maharaxmi Temple:
View of the Chatrapati Sivaji Terminal from the taxi ride home:
Dinner at a local place, more curry and butter naan!
Hope you enjoyed seeing a little of what we are seeing here, tomorrow we go to Delhi on the Radjhani, 15 hours on the train so will get online again on Wednesday hopefully!