Category Archives: North India

India – Looking back

Experience says:

India with its colourful life, diverse nature and rich culture has a lot to offer to the visitor. From the beaches in Kerala to the Himalayan mountains, from the temples in Madurai to Mumbai’s Bollywood, from yoga to tasty food, India is incredibly rich in experiences.

However, there seems to be an absence of thinking for society as a whole. On one hand the greatest strength is a flexibility that enables life to flow despite  infrastructures completely overcharged by the sheer amount of people. On the other hand, everybody immediately pushes into any available space, often causing system slowdown for all. Ubiqituous garbage and widespread corruption are symptoms of the same malaise.

Quite related is the utmost importance of money. The ‘white tax’ for visitors is just a side effect. The have-nots do everything to get it, the rich want to demonstrate their superiority. Money is so important that intimidating or even killing of wives and brides for money or trafficking of women is a huge problem in some areas.

Related to that, the plainly visible sexism and chauvinism of many Indian men is just appalling, a fact that might not have sprung to my attention so intensely hadn’t I travelled with a female companion.

You can have a great time as a tourist in India, enjoy great food, full moon parties, the safety for travellers. However, should you care once to open a newspaper, you will probably be surprised by the other side of this society. It is this side that does not make me want to go back soon, except maybe for some regions like the Himalayas, where things seemed to be different, at least to me.

Escape says:

Two and a half fascinating months spent in India made me aware of the many intriguing aspects of Indian life, but also the striking cultural differences.

The careless behaviour of heavily polluting nature and the omnipresent greed for money are just some examples. Another one is the unhappy fate of being a woman in India. It was not easy to ignore being stared at and accept the fact that white women are regarded as free and easy.

In India you are never alone. Only money and power can buy you silence and space. The only exception we found was in the Himalaya mountains – from 2,500 meters altitude upwards.

However, also memories of mouth-watering flavours, colourful, loud festivals interwined with the sacred and accomodating Indian people we met on the way will stay with us. The moments shared in a smile or a short conversation made me sensitive to the fact how different our journey might have been had we only spoken at least some basic Hindi.

India is not a place that you can ‘see’, but one that involves all your senses, that forces you to transit from being an onlooker to being a participant, making the experience unforgettably intense.

Posted in India, North India, South India | 2 Comments

Through the Spiti Valley and up north to Ladakh

We left Kalpa with the appetite for more mountains, more scenic views, and higher altitudes. After a brief administrative stop in Reckong Peo (a permit for crossing the ‘inner line’ close to Tibet is required) we got on the bus to Nako, our next destination. The bus ride, considered one of the most adventurous in India, offered beautiful views of the Sangla and Spiti Valleys and the Kailash Range. And while the bus got stuck for a couple of hours due to one of the very common landslides, we still made it to Nako (3,600m) for candle light and cold water, as there was on of the frequent power outages.

We spent a couple of days to get used to the altitude and make some smaller hikes before continuing the journey up the Spiti Valley to Kaza. Again the bus ride offered breathtaking views as the road wound along the valley. Depending on which side you sat on the bus, you would sometimes look down hundreds of metres, and once, at a very narrow passage, a passenger actually got up and walked to the door in case the bus would roll over and fall … but the bus driver, as usual in the mountains and quite contrary to the rest of India, made a solid no-risk job.

Kaza (3,600m) is quite touristy but nicely surrounded by arid mountains, and we enjoyed the wonderful stary sky. From there it was another twelve-hour ride on a public bus to green Manali, honeymoon destination for Indians and well-known backpackers’ hotspot. Fleeing the rain, we decided to venture quickly on towards our final destination in India, Leh in the Ladakh region. This time the ride on a minibus took 21 hours, we crossed multiple passes (the highest at 5,300 meters) and were totally wrecked when we finally made it.

In the middle of mountains, cozy Leh is a hub for trekking and also serious mountaineering. Unfortunately tourism is working its way and the number of big expensive hotels and seasonal tourists is going up as due to the airport the place is no longer only reachable for intrepid backpackers accepting straining bus rides, street-side food stalls and low-cost guesthouses. Still it’s absolutely worth a visit.

Posted in India, North India | 2 Comments

In the land of the eternal snow peaks

Himachal, meaning the land of snow, starts to spread 360 km north of Delhi and amazes with its green valleys, snowy Himalaya peaks and fresh air. We found ourselves in Kalpa, a charming village and legendary winter home of Siva, surrounded by spectacular mountains, forests, criss-crossed with winding streets and steep slopes, where Tibetan and Mongol features are clearly visible.

Our journey from Rishikesh to Kalpa was obviously not without obstacles. As always, it was difficult to find out when and from where the busses depart, as there are no timetables and you get different responses to the same question.

Having arrived in Chandigarh for an unwanted stopover, due to a police raid no hotel wanted to accommodate us, so in the evening we queued for 2 hours and literally fought for a bus ticket to Shimla, our first destination in the mountains. On the bus at this late hour, Tadbir, a friendly Sikh, offered us to stay at his home in Solan and continue the next morning to the famous former colonial Shimla.

However, we found ourselves right in the middle of the high season and accommodation was ridiculously expensive. Shimla is nowadays the place to be for better-off Indian tourists, especially in June, and we wondered why, as there is nothing to do or to see.

We thus skipped going to the likewise touristy and rainy Dharmsala, home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile, in favour of heading east for the remote Sangla and Spiti Valleys near the Tibetan border. These valleys are among the most scenic in the entire Himalaya, bordered in the south by the impressive peaks of the Kinnaur Kailash Range of around 6000m altitude, which provide an effective barrier to the monsoon rains.

Despite the bumpy 12-hour bus ride with one of the common interruptions due to road conditions, we were quite happy to arrive in Kalpa as we could finally do some trekking and enjoy the great views!

Posted in India, North India | Leave a comment

The quest for spirituality

Rishikesh is a place where spiritual energy runs high, and thousands of pilgrims make their way to the banks of the holy river Ganges to find it. While the big hippie days are certainly over, there are still yoga schools for foreign visitors aplenty, and seemingly every other guy with a long beard looks like a guru.

We came here for a 12-day retreat in an ashram, where you can learn about aspects of Hinduism and spirituality, practice meditation and yoga. The quiet and clean place and the strict daily routine, starting with the morning bell at 4:30 a.m., made the experience complete. An hour of meditation at five in the morning was followed by the first one-hour yoga class. After study time in the library and lunch there was a lecture and discussion with a practising yogi, followed again by yoga and meditation sessions.

While we aren’t early birds, we enjoyed the atmosphere and the yoga and meditation a lot. The fact of being away from busy street life as well as from the constant flow of information and communication had a very relaxing effect. The physical exercise combined with quiet and focused meditation – quite difficult for beginners – made us feel great. It is the concentration of the mind on one thing, idea or thought, on one yoga posture, or just on the breathing, that is a universally valuable capability.

We did not grasp all aspects of reincarnation, karma, or the long and difficult path towards superconsciousness, but got some interesting glimpses. The way of the yogi has to be seen as an entire concept of utmost self-discipline building on the foundation of yama: No harming, no stealing, no lying, no sex, no intoxicants. It further requires ascetic practice, meditation, serenity, silence and solitude.

Social interaction, even with family, or striving for development of society as a whole is not part of the philosophy, which is focused on personal enlightenment as the ultimate goal. The body is merely seen as a mortal hull and food is only required to sustain it, so there is no particular attention to a healthy diet. Yoga postures are meant to exercise full commanding of the physical body, fitness is not a goal in itself. Ultimate control of the breathing process, especially the gap between exhalation and inhalation, opens up a meditative path to total detachment from the ‘normal’ world and thus, eventually, towards spiritual achievement.

Ommmm shanti shanti shanti

Posted in India, North India | Leave a comment

Craving for some cool air in Delhi

Impressed by Agra’s beautiful fort and the Taj Mahal, we continued our road to Delhi, mentally preparing for India’s huge and crowded capital. Despite the heat of more than 40 degrees we visited the Red Fort, dating from the very peak of Mughal power, and the tomb of one of India’s great islamic Mughal rulers, Humayun, which is a smaller antetype of the Taj Mahal. However, both could only be disappointing after the magnificience we’d seen in Agra.

We relaxed in the park at the centre of the three road rings of Connaught Place and went with the very modern Delhi metro to see the Bahaì Lotus Temple. Worried about a potential tooth problem, we went to a recommended trustworthy dentist who said everything was okay after a five-minute examination – lucky day.

In the evening we immersed ourselves in Old Delhi’s vibrant muslim quarter and tried some tasty chicken, mutton and grilled fish. India’s biggest mosque, Jama Masjid, was impressive, floodlit in the dark. However, the male stares, stupid smiles and attempted touching were worse in this part of town.

The next day, we spent ten hours on buses going to Rishikesh, India’s ‘Mekka’ of yoga and meditation. On the way, due to the driver’s stubborness, the bus got litterally stuck in dense traffic. Unfortunately, we stood right on railway tracks, which kept us rather nervous for 20 minutes.

Rishikesh lies on the banks of the holy river Ganges, which is still clean here, and is surrounded by green hills. It is busy with pilgrims, but has cool air and is quite easy going for foreign tourists, who mostly come for practising yoga and meditation in hotels, yoga schools, or one of the ashrams, like we did.

Posted in India, North India | Leave a comment