The cows are still here! So are the affectionate dogs, miniature cups of chai and delicious samosa vendors along the street. Ahoy, India! Here I am again, nearly seven years later; a little smarter, a little taller (I think) and a bit more travel savvy. Much has changed since I was a mere 23 yr old student, taking off to explore the great wide world out there with my best friend from university. Dear India has matched that growth and change step by step.
The city metro is up and running through Delhi - blessed, blessed Metro! I nearly kissed the pavement when I discovered that I could take the train straight from the outskirts of Delhi, right into the squalid bliss of the Main Bazaar and Hotel New King! Memories of being tackled by taxi and rickshaw touts on our arrival in 2005 made me cringe in fear as I exited the shiny new airport platforms and I had to prepare myself for "autorickshaw ma'am, ride miss?" Thankfully, the touts are now held at bay by an extremely large fence so I gleefully skipped off, clutching my plastic Metro token and climbed aboard.
Sadly, I did get lost
in the Main Bazaar as I struggled to find my hotel amongst the nearly hidden passageways and alleys. I should have just taken a rickshaw but I was stubborn and decided to tackle the promised "five minute walk" myself. 5 minutes my foot! Instead, I was guided around in circles, offered several illicit drugs, some bananas and a haircut before I finally stumbled into the dire depths of the Hotel New King. Adul, the kind receptionist, grabbed my backpack and led me to my dank, single room, complete with dripping faucet and flickering overhead lights. I believe it was used as the workers' rest area for the bed looked recently used and rather rumpled. Too tired to complain or change hotels, I thought it would suffice for the night and I quickly collapsed on top of my clean sleeping bag carefully laid out on top of the used bedding. Searching for food was not an option so a box of raisins and bad Bollywood kept me company till the wee hours of morning. I've never had a problem with jet lag until now and I am still trying to acclimate to the time change.
As my time was in
India was limited, I decided to take a tour through the northern Himachal Pradesh area. I wanted to do Utter Pradesh myself but Intrepid would lead me through my first two weeks. Intrepid is an Australian based company who specializes in small group tours. My friend did a similar trip last year and raved about the company - why not give it a try? I met up with the group of seven and our plucky guide, DJ, the following morning and we were given a quick introduction to our tour.
Shimla was our first stop and we boarded a first class train at 7 a.m. the following morning. Mind you, I have never taken first class anything so I happily sank back into my somewhat cushioned seat and sipped a tepid instant coffee. As we chugged out of Delhi and tucked into our complimentary breakfast, the city slums rose on either side of our carriage. Though I had seen the slums on previous trips, it is always disheartening to see such impoverished living conditions...and very confronting. Children, oblivious to their situation, ran around, flying kites in the same polluted fields that served as a communal toilet to the villages.
We all sat quietly and watched as the villages got smaller and smaller, eventually fading into the background behind us. Cityscape gave way to patchwork fields of wheat and greener pastures. Eventually, the fields gave way to rolling hills and tiny villages popped up in the valley. We switched from our 1st class train in Kalka to a much smaller, quaint "Toy Train" for the final stretch towards Shimla. The toy train is a 2 foot, 6 inch narrow gauge railway and is considered a UNESCO World Heritage list.
At an elevation of 2,500 meters, Shimla was COLD! I had to wear my thermals and my fleece even when I was under two large blankets. The town itself was pleasant and I don't believe that I saw another Western tourist the entire time. Shimla was settled by the British shortly after the first Anglo-Gurkha war and became the summer capital of British India in 1864. We spent two days exploring the town and drinking lots of masala chai to keep warm.
Mandi was our next stop on our way through Himachal Pradesh. We stayed with the King of Mandi in the Raj Mahal Hotel - yes, the King
has his own hotel complete with a polished, though tired, dining room where he shared his meals with us. Bless his sweet little heart, but the King had a knack for telling jokes, especially those of the "unclean" variety. I stuck my foot in my mouth when I mentioned that I knew some great ones, picked up from my years as a bartender. His majesty then made it his priority to convince me to share my jokes; however, I was NOT going to tell naughty jokes to an Indian King. I did tell him that I would email them to him at a later date.
Dharamshala is next!
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