If you’ve read my Delhi (part one) post you will know how eager I was to leave the chaotic, noisy, polluted city behind me and escape to Rishikesh, a peaceful haven at the foot of the Himalayas that was to become ‘home’ for the next 5-6 weeks. Blisssssssss…..
To get there though would be my first experience of Indian trains, and I’d heard a lot of horror stories. Plus knowing what I’m like, I’m bound to make a hash of it. Even getting a seat proved a ‘learning experience’. Due to booking my ticket online just a few days before travelling, the seat I thought I’d booked successfully was actually on the wait list. I knew the system, but the 2am jet lag and anxious mess I’d become from wanting to change my original ticket to Varanasi, meant I didn’t pay attention to the fact it was waitlisted and there were quite a few people ahead of me. And I still didn’t realise this until the night before! All I could do was sit tight until the final confirmed seats were published at 8am on the day of travel, whereby I learned my seat was not confirmed. What to do? What to do? I needed to leave Delhi and find the mountains! Today! The hostel offered me an overnight bus (no thanks!) and then took me to a local travel agency who tired to offer me a ticket for an un-resevered seat in a non-AC third class carriage for Rs700. I knew I was being swindled and could do better. Had heard plenty about travel agencies ripping off tourists as well as the nightmare of third class non-AC un-reserved seat tickets, which are packed with people sitting on one another and hanging out the door… not ideal for first time travel let alone with several heavy bags I’d like to keep with me at all times! Had also heard about the official booking office in the main train station where you can get last minute tickets using the Foreign Quota (at a little more cost, but even so…) so I rushed there with the time ticking away in the back of my mind and got myself a very lovely reserved seat in second class AC for just under Rs700! So glad I persevered!
Finding my train was also another issue. A porter offered to help me with my bags but I declined, convinced I could work this out myself. Except five minutes later, still standing on platform 1 wondering where on earth I needed to go for my train (the departures board was a bit iffy and hard to understand – plus it was saying the train was delayed…on and off). So I hunted down the same porter who proceeded to save my life. Taking my rather heavy pull-along case he navigated us up many steps to cross all the way over to platform 12 (!!!) and then walked what felt like two miles along the platform to reach my carriage – such a long train. He found my seat and then, with some huffing and seating, hoisted my case up on to his head to prepare himself to get it in the overhead storage space. So thankful he was there to do that because I sure as hell wouldn’t have managed it! I gave him a well earned Rs100 (he definitely deserved more) and then immediately squabbled with an Indian woman who wanted my seat for her husband so they could sit together. No biggie. I took a seat opposite and hoped no-one would come to claim it, and found myself next to a couple from Shanghai. I was to discover they were also disembarking at Haridwar and they kindly helped me lift my bag back down. Thank goodness. Was also grateful they were there to help work out when to get off the train (and also thanks to GoogleMaps, once again) as all the signs were in Hindi. The funny things about the train ride were: rows of eyes watching me above the seats that quickly looked away when I caught them, watching everyone tuck into their foil-wrapped meals and sucking on countless sweets, the constant call out of ‘chai, chai, chai’ from the vendors walking up and down the aisles.
Arriving in Haridwar in the evening meant I had to get a taxi to Rishikesh, about a 50 minute drive away, as buses had stopped running. I was slightly panicked as it was everything I’d read not to do: travel alone at night, even in taxis. Especially in taxis. But also the thought of riding for an hour in a tuktuk was not appealing either. And I’m glad I didn’t as the roads were still badly damaged most of the way due to the recent monsoons which made for a bumpy in the taxi. A tuktuk would have landed me in hospital I’m sure.
On arrival at the beautiful and well positioned Live Free hostel, surrounded by mountains and overlooking the town, I was greeted by a large group of people sat on the terrace, which, although I just wanted to have a shower and go to bed, was actually really nice and set the tone for my new adventure. This is when I discovered that I’d inadvertently booked myself into a mixed dorm (rather than all-female) and whilst I was a bit unsure about this at first, it proved to be a great ‘mistake’ as I’d landed myself into a group of new friends who were both welcoming and protective – plus they had a lot of knowledge about the area and recommendations of Things to See and Do. Indeed these lovely folk became my new brothers and sisters for the next 6 days (and for life I hope) and really made my introduction to India the best I could have hoped for. Some of them were Indian and it was so interesting to hear about their culture and customs as well as learn some rather handy tips.
With these guys I hiked up to the nearby Neer Ghar Waterfall, a stunning river running down the mountainside with pools every so often where people go to swim and hang out.
We went to the evening Aarti at Triveni Ghat, one of the best places to see the Aarti, which is a fire/lamp ceremony to give thanks and appreciation to the Ganga Ma (Tip: this is the proper name for the Ganges. Will win you extra points if you show you know this when talking with any Indian friends). The ceremony was beautiful with lots of melodic chanting, building up to a crescendo which ultimately brought me to tears. After everything I had been learning about the culture, faith, humanity and spending time with some incredibly beautiful souls from all over the world I was just moved inside to another dimension I hadn’t expected. For me, this was the first taste of India stirring something inside of me. And it was wonderful.
I’d also arrived during Navrati, which is a 9-10 day festival of celebration, a great time to be in India! There are two myths associated with it but it is ultimately about celebrating victory over evil. There were nightly stage shows with dancing and singing competitions and it felt really special to be in the audience for this. I particularly liked the Bollywood style evening where I could practice a few moves as instructed by my more experienced peers! On the last day of the festival we returned to Triveni Ghat to watch the celebrations of one of the associated myths, where Lord Ram won the war with Ravana in Sri Lanka to bring back Sita to India. It is celebrated widely and involves fireworks and burning of three massive effigies. This also became my first witnessing of the lack of health and safety in India… Whilst trying to light the fire inside of one of the effigies, several firecrackers that produce ear-blasting bangs were inadvertently set off and several of the guys came running out holding their ears. The entire audience started pointed at them whilst laughing hysterically – hilarious!
As for Rishikesh itself. Well, I know ‘Love’ isn’t supposed to be part of this journey until I reach Bali, but in love with this special, incredible town, I fell deeply. It is as chaotic and noisy as Delhi, and crossing the bridge was taking a chance with your life. But there was a more relaxed approach, people were very friendly and welcoming, there was an underlying sense of community and kindness. What was also interesting, was learning that Rishikesh is attracting more Indian tourists than Westerners these days, even in the area I was staying in, Tapovan, which is famous for the backpacker community. Having started out as a quiet town with a scattering of ashrams, it started attracting Westerners seeking spirituality and/or a break from the stresses of modern life. To this day is a haven for mediation and yoga seekers (it is considered the yoga capital of the world) as well as art, music and dance. And I can see why. Today, it is believed there are over 300 yoga teacher training schools. The town almost doesn’t seem big enough for those alone! But I can easily believe it.
It’s probably easier to let the images of Rishikesh speak for themselves (more to follow in Part Two). All I can out into words is… orange monkeys ready to attack for food, white monkeys peaceful and timid, scooters (and cars, buses, trucks) beeping furiously, dogs, cows and bulls meandering the streets, sometimes pigs, Sadhus and babas glowing in orange robes, the turquoise Ganga Ma snaking through the town, mountains, waterfalls, organic and Ayurvedic shops, a wealth of cafes, beautiful sunsets, chilling out, hitchhiking a lift in an open truck, yummy samosas and masala chai, evening Aartis, temples, yoga, mediation, ashrams, the smell of incense (sometimes cow pats), working donkeys weighed down with bags of stones, a sense of wonder, peace, gratitude, community, kindness, love.
I ended up staying in Rishikesh for seven weeks. The first week in a hostel, then to an ashram to complete a 200hr (4 week) yoga teacher training course, then another two weeks where I also completed my Reiki Level 2 training. Will write about all this in separate posts along with a whole post dedicated to the majorly impressive vegan dining options! Its easy to get well fed in Rishikesh!
Next stop: Delhi (2nd try!)