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Published: October 26th 2012
As the planned Trip to Tibet is cancelled due to the Chinese closing the border to Brits, we decide to go to India a week earlier than planned and spend a few days in Haridwar & Rishikesh – we considered a day or so in Mussoorie but felt this was too ambitious.
We arrive in Delhi – Terminal 3 which is new and impressive and get a pre-paid taxi (Rs350) to our hotel Namaskar India in Karol Bagh (who’d offered free taxi to the city but didn’t show - not totally unexpected as hostel booker previous guests had similar problems). The Airport Express is not working – closed due to maintenance since July’12 – to open – anyone’s guess. Basically the contractors screwed up & now have to redo much of it.
The drive in is good as the roads are pretty good now, till we hit the centre. The traffic chaos is now more managed by traffic lights than before in Delhi. A city which was all Ambassador cars once, now has only a very few – it’s mostly white Maruti Suzukis & larger 4x4s. They are now advertising BMWs, Porches etc – things have changed.
The hotel is basic – a backpackers near the Karol Bagh Metro which is near the centre. We get an apology and 2 free whiskies for the taxi not coming because M speaks Hindi. We even get cold Kingfisher beers @Rs150 a pop – well worth it – which is not on the menu!
We go to Rajiv Chowk – Connaught Place – which now largely a building site with more Metro stations and a lot of building work as the main designer labels are moving in. We have a snack & go the The Imperial for a Rest Room stop – a grand place to be – A/C and great loos – just behave as if you own the place and everyone will say Namaste and let you in. It’s expanded and got more expensive but has a great sense of the Raj about it – well worth a visit.
We check out some hotels for the girls visit in Dec & Jan and find a nice little place called Maan k in Karol Bagh for Rs 2K per night per room inc tax & breakfast. A good deal for Delhi at Xmas time we feel.
Next day we go to Bengali market for a local chat lunch – great Chole Batturas with achar and onions. Then off to see Tony (M’s best friend form school and Uni) at his office to catch up briefly and collect the local SIM card he’s arranged – the security measures in India for getting a SIM are enormous so having a local contact is invaluable – especially as he works for Reliance which is one of the biggest comms firms in India. He’s now retired but been retained as a Consultant with Reliance. We’ll see him and the family with more time when we are back on the 22nd
Since our last trip 4 years ago, the Metro has become very popular with locals – and really does make the city pretty accessible. The only challenge is the “traffic control” getting on and off. Folk don’t believe in waiting so as everyone inside pushes as hard as they can to get off, while outside folk push equally hard to get on. At least they ban food and drink – doesn’t bear thinking about what state you’d be in at the end of the journey if they did
allow food – a tip for Boris maybe!
After our trip to H & R we return to Namaskar India and a much nicer room thanks to M chatting away with the manager and staff. Next stop is Jaisalmer but first we have a day of admin thanks to Tony and his right hand man Shankar (aka Jeeves) who allow us to use their office facilities to load the blogs and print out train tickets etc.
We are picked up by Ashok – Tony’s driver, for a lovely evening with Tony and Parul at their beautiful home, entertained both by Prithika their 7 year old daughter (we last saw her 4 years ago) and their puppy June who loves to chew feet!
After a good long catch up chat over some red and white French & Italian wine respectively, we go to dinner to the Dhaba restaurant at Claridges (at about 10.30 pm driven by Parul in her BMW M3 – she obviously likes speed! We fee sorry for Ashok having to try to keep up with us – he has to follow as he will take us home after the meal). It is very swish very
busy right up to closing at midnight. Dehli-ites obviously like going out late to eat. Afterwards, Tony walks us round to try the local favourite – paan at the best stall (a small table with a large golf umbrella) in Delhi – again packed with punters at midnight. This is a first for C – so lots of challenging photo’s while we try to smile without letting the blood red juice spill out and onto our clothes!! After our farewells Ashok drives us back to the hostel – it’s 12.30 am.
Final day in Delhi for a while – we tidy up, more blog stuff, admin, emails etc and then off to Tony’ office to leave our trekking stuff till June and then to Old Delhi station to catch the train to Jaislamer – Rajhasthan here we come – we’ll be spending about 2.5 months here including time with Sarah & Louise. Haridwar
We leave a bag of trekking stuff at Namaskar India and get a Tuk Tuk to Sarai Rohilla Station Delhi (which is in the back of beyond & pretty basic) to catch the Mussoorie Express – on which Aditya (our contact in Udaipur) has
got us 2 first class sleeping berths. It’s comfortable and we leave at 9.30pm travelling via Moradabad and get to Haridwar early (5.40am) – waking up just in time. The station atmosphere is not what M recalls from his childhood. It’s clean and quiet – no vendors shouting for business.
It’s pleasant so we walk the 1km to our hotel – Alpana via Hostel Bookers. It’s near the centre of things in Ram Ghat – great location but not much else – no breakfast, no A/C (but a good fan), no breakfast or internet @ £24 per night which is outrageous given the prices of things in India – we definitely slipped up here. Anyway it’s time to catch up with lots and chill a bit.
We visit the main Ghat – Har ki Pairi – where all the pilgrims/bathers go. It’s a mini version of Varanasi without the burning ghats and fast flowing water – the Ganges – rushing down from the Himalaya. There are chains all around and under bridges to ensure pilgrims don’t get swept away by the tide. It’s pretty colourful and fun apart from all the folk who come up and want you
to contribute to one cause or another. The place is teaming with pilgrims as it is Navratri – folks have travelled 5 days fom Gujurat by bus to be here and want their pictures taken. People are fascinated by C as she is somewhat of a novelty being white here and also has a knack of taking pictures of people or their kids and showing them the pictures – so they all want a picture with her in it?! M provides the novelty of a foreigner who can speak Hindi which gets a great reaction from most people who then want a picture with him.
The plastic bottles on sale to allow pilgrims to take home Ganga Jul – the Ganges holy water – reminds us of the sale of water containers in Lourdes in France.
We feel sorry for the very young children who have their hair shaved and are then plunged unceremoniously into the raging cold waters of the Ganga while they scream for dear life – interesting form of baptism – they could have warmed the water a bit though!
Also interesting are the many young lads who spend hours panning for gold –
mainly jewellery that the rich pilgrims may have lost in a cold dip. Quite ingenious with powerful magnets attached to long poles. The place has a lot of very disabled people including lepers, the limbless and a variation of people with deformities begging to survive & it’s hard to ignore them.
Lunch is at the Hoshiyar Puri – the best place in town for authentic Indian Vegetarian food that you don’t taste at home – all for Rs 235 which includes the local speciality – Kheer (India Rice Pudding - as it should be).
The rest of the city is bustling – motorised vehicles are banned from part of the main area which helps – only cycle rickshaws are allowed but so are local people on scooters permanently tooting their horns it seems & this makes for interesting traffic in the little alley ways lined with shops & eateries – sweets mostly and chat (snack) stalls.
We witness the evening Aarti at 5.45pm which is quite spectacular just before sunset by the main temple complex. There are plenty of prayers by the priests over the loud speaker. Sections of the area are cut off to more traffic
for safety; there are many volunteer collectors of funds for Ganga Mata & other voluntary organisations. The session finishes on a high with lots of fires lit and singing by the devotees – quite melodious and inspiring. It all finishes by about 6.30 pm.
M reflects on a Karl Marx saying he had to critique negatively at his catechism class (after all it was a catholic school) “Religion is the opium of the people” and somehow in a cynical way this seems to have some merit – even the monks in Bhutan did things by rote.
We can’t help be struck the faith and devotion of the pilgrims who definitely have come on a long and hard journey from all over India for a dip and a blessing to make the whole journey back. We also can’t help feeling that their faith is being tested to the nth degree whilst they are encouraged to give more money in alms to the Temple Volunteers by rabble rousing speeches at the end – this from people who we feel have very little or nothing but their faith to offer.
We find a rather apt Birthday gift for Satish –
which he’ll have to wait for till we meet him again in Jan’13. M also tries the local Rabri – at the People’s Place recommended by The World Famous Prakash Lok – the main man for Lassi – simply awesome for both sweet & drink.
Haridwar seems to M as a microcosm of Northern India (However, Vegetarian & dry!!). There are very few if any foreign tourists here and the town isn’t geared up for them either – very few internet places etc.
As a result, we have more free time, take lots more pictures in the sun, enjoy some great street food (fresh pakoras) before negotiating with a Tuk Tuk driver to take us the 30 kms (1 hour) to Rishikesh for Rs 300 into the centre. Rishikesh
It’s an hour’s drive from Haridwar to Rishikesh. The road isn’t too bad but there are a few bumpy bits & lots of sleeping policemen. On the way out we realise that Haridwar is pretty spread out and at the edge of the town has quite a few informal shanty villages. We then come across an “Elephant Zone” which includes road signs with Elephants on it and
says that “Elephants have right of way over all traffic” – shame we didn’t see any. At about the half way point we have to switch from the Tuk Tuk to a local Vikram – seemed dodgy but we got to town ok and asked to be left at Ram Jhula which is across the way from where we are going to stay.
We take the local Ferry across the river which flows here more sedately than at Haridwar (that’s because it is dammed & the flow managed we discovered on the way out) – Rs 10 each to cross or 15 return – a bargain. We make our way 150 metres to The Parmarth Niketan – one of the many local Ashrams which we decide to try never having been in one. It’s Rs 600 for a garden view room or Rs 1000 per day for a river facing room. All meals and yoga are included. Wow – after Haridwar what a steal!!
The rooms are basic with fan, cooler fan, clean and tidy – for the price we can’t complain. However the design of the accommodation is like walking into a set of Slade Prison (the
communal area) in Porridge and expecting Norman Stanley Fletcher to pop out any minute with Godber at his side and Mr McKey hollering at them!! The food is vegetarian – mainly Dal Bhat for lunch & dinner. The grounds are no smoking & swearing, curfew at 10pm.
Our first impressions of Rishikesh are that it’s like Haridwar without the intense religious feel, less noisy, a whole lot less people but a whole lot more foreigners – they make up the maximum of people at meal time. It’s a really chilled out place where someone could come for a while and really sort themselves out on very little money – we suspect a lot do and some stay on for an alternative life of prayer & spirituality – both young & old. One thing that strikes us in general though is how unfriendly people seem (the locals in the Ashram especially including the young students – who seem scared to say anything or have their pictures taken, no one says Namaste as in Haridwar unless they want some money!) and also the foreigners who hardly say hi or Namaste – very odd for such a chilled out place.
Ashram does their own hours long ceremonies and prayers with TV cameras trained on the main speakers (and at the evening Aarti on the main singer – who welcomed us at reception and registered us in) and we feel everything is pretty well stage managed for “God TV”.
We venture to the Lakshman Jhula area of town (2 kms gentle walk along the river) which is supposed to be the main spot – other than the narrow suspension bridge which seems to cater for cattle, people, monkeys and beeping motor bike all at once – there’s not much to rave about. The Temple is pretty unimpressive.
Talking of motor bikes what is amazing is that in H & R the number of Royal Enfield Bullets – of varying styles, which sound like Harley Davidsons) around owned by most folk. We are told that they cost circa $3K US – which is amazingly cheap & M decides that the dream of owning a Harley is off and he’ll swap for a Royal Enfield if only he can ship it home easily. There are a number of Royal Enfield Tours inc one in Ladhak on offer and there is a
special area in Delhi where they are traded second hand. One to note for the future.
The other nice thing to do here is walk along the “beach” (riverside) which many locals do with picnics. There’s a nice cool breeze. The river is low in places and many family picnic or swim here. This is also the main run for what purports to be “White Water Rafting” – it’s actually more like 10 men in an inflatable boat slowly gliding down the smooth river at walking speed! Hordes of locals, stuffed into speeding Mahindra Jeeps are taken to a spot where they are put in motorboats akin to those use in the D Day landing to have quick speed thrill on the Ganga before going home after the religious activities are over. The other activity in R is yoga – of every type and everywhere together with Ayurvedic massage & treatments (relatively cheap!).
We discover or should we say rediscover the joys of Talcum powder which is ideal in the Indian heat. Makes you wonder why we ever lost interest in it.
Travelling back we get a Vikram again – with the same switch over routine –
obviously the local cartels in operation. The guy tries to drop us at the edge of H town but M soon persuades him that we aren’t to be scammed! As we have 5 hours to fill before our train leaves at 11-15pm, we try our luck at Alpana to see if we can leave the bags with them while we wonder around. Fortunately they are happy to accommodate us so we head off for more aarti pics, rabri, lassi and finally another awesome dinner at Hoshiyar Puri with two Kheers this time.
H station is crammed with folks heading back and C is gobsmacked at the scrummage for the sleeper carriages – when the earlier Doon Express train leaves, folk are literally hanging onto the door in the hope of getting in. In contrast, we find our private 2 berth cabin (a coupe to you) and settle in for a good night sleep arriving at Delhi (Sarai Rohilla) at 8-30 in the morning even though it took an 1hr to do the 10 min journey from Old Delhi station where most people got off.
One thing we discover is that photography is good business where pilgrims congregate –
in H & R, there are teams of photographers with Nikons (no Canons) slung on their shoulders offering to and taking pictures of the pilgrims taking a dip or at the Aarti & then giving them a print a few minutes later. Three guys got into a really heated argument about whether one of the guys had a better lens that the one on M’s Nikon camera – they didn’t realise he understood their whole conversation! Traveller Tips
Cold bottled water Rs 15 in H; 2 litres for Rs 25 at the right shop in Rishikesh; Only a few banks and ATMs; In H - watch the folk who claim funds from you – say you gave to the last one & they will go away. Be firm and say no to the various people begging including healthy looking Sadhus – who only seem to come over to foreign tourists we noted! In H - the main centre of action is a walkable - 1 km max from the railway station
H & R are booze free zones so come prepared.
We found only 1 Internet place by the station in H; Rishikesh has a lot
more – Rs 20 per hour. Shop around for STD calls home (range Rs 5 to 15 per minute).Skype (some charge for at Rs30 per hour).
If you want a day trip to Rishikesh from H – take a shared Tuk Tuk (Vikrams) for Rs 30 a seat each way. Or for a Tuk Tuk Rs 300 should do it one way. Beware the Tuk Tuk guys
– especially those that hang around outside your hotel then offer you a trip to the centre of Delhi or Connaught place for Rs 10 or 20 – they will only take you to a Tourist Centre or a Shop for commission and tell you that you are at the start of Connaught Place when in fact you are miles from it. They also say various roads are closed so you can’t get any closer – refuse to pay unless they drop you off where you want if you do jump in – but save yourself the hassle – avoid them – say no thanks and walk away. Food & Drink Haridwar
- Try Hoshiyar Puri for great Indian vegetarian food (made in Ghee so the cholesterol count will
go up!) but a limited menu and their Special Kheer is simply the best, even C agrees and she’s an Ambrosia addict;
Prakash Lok for awesome Lassi Rs 30 small & Rs 40 large – more like thick shake & very cold.
People’s place for Rabri (Rs 20 for a small helping).
Lots of eateries by the main ghat – good value and tasty. There are plenty of Street Food vendors – some very good – stick with where the locals go. Rishikesh
Pyramid Café – pretty good & reasonable with great views & lovely setting.
There are some reasonable café’s with views over the Ganga and a large pilgrim’s restaurant that does awesome samosas, cachories (one of the best around & only Rs 5 each) and a good coconut barfi. Delhi
Khan Cha Cha – great snacks (tandoori wraps a speciality) – in Kahn Market & now in Connaught place by the Odeon cinema
Nizam’s Kathi Kebab’s – Connaught Place – great food and great value.
Claridges Dhaba – for an expensive bash to impress
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