New Delhi and the North-west
After returning from our journey across the desert, we had already booked our train to leave Jaisalmer the following day. Fortunatly the train didn't leave till 16:15 on the 18/06/05, so we were able to rest our bodies from the camal rides. After catching a tuk tuk to the train station we boarded the train to Delhi, and arrived 20 hours later as we had been delayed en-route by an hour.
We were pleased to get off the train and soon were fixed up in a guesthouse in the main backpackers area of Delhi. The area is our worst place, full of tuk tuks, tourists, restaurants at expensive prices, and fruit juices costing a pound equivalant and even watered down, we are used to paying around 10 pence for the same drink, but we guess there are others who will pay these prices.
Delhi has been hard work and we agree with the people who say that you don't come to India for a relaxing holiday, as you spend your time haggling, arguing and just getting run over and this is day in, day out. We are relieved that we are only spending a week here, and Gilbs even more relieved as then he won't get shouted at by B, who has to remain silent for most of the time otherwise we could be done for murder!
We have been out and about, as we had to get visas for Nepal, which has been done and we visited connaught place which is having building work of the metro, so again was very dusty and not particularly pleasant. Our favourite place in Delhi is the coffee shops with air conditioning and warm coffee with newspapers to read.
We were up early and caught the Taj Express down to Agra. We arrived at just past 11:00 and after grabbing a quick breakfast we set off for a trip around the Taj Mahal. To be honest we had better vibes off other sites like Angkor Wat, but that could be just because of the amount of hassle you go through just to get in to the Taj.
Once we had spent an hour there, we were able to relax more and had a nice time walking around the gardens and admiring the handy work of the Taj Mahal itself.
The gateways around the Taj have inscriptions of the Quran in Arabic. The central Taj structure is constructed of semi-translucent white marble, which has flowers carved inside and inlaid with thousands of semi precious stones. The sight is impressive.
The next sight we went to was Agra fort. The fort is constructed of Red Sandstone, and within the ramparts there are many rooms that you can wander around though many have been damaged with graffiti, but some of the palaces have been protected and you can see the same kind of intricate work with the inlaid stones into the marble. You can also get a good view of the Taj Mahal here, which is situated further down the river.
Overall the day went well and we boarded the Taj Express back to Delhi. Express isn't a word we would use for the train as we didn't get back in till just before 23:00 and a quick dinner consisting of bread and crisps ended the evening.
We were dreading the train journey up to Amritsar today, after spending many hours on the trains’ uncomfortable wooden seats, but we were in for a nice surprise. The coach was air conditioned and to a degree which wasn't bone chilling and you were also entitled to tea and coffee, a vegetable meal and a mango Juice. A good change from normal train services, although you still have to pay for it in the ticket price.
B was sat next to an Iraqi gentlemen whose second question was "How do you feel on the war in Iraq" not an easy question when you are surrounded by a couple of Americans, yourself is British and he doesn't agree with the war. Amazing that a nice smile can always cool the conflict, luckily.
Once we arrived in Amritsar we had a short walk till we found a reasonable guesthouse. Some of the attractions that you can do are visit the Closing of the Border ceremony with Pakistan, which we did in the evening.
This ceremony is hugely popular on both sides and involves the Indian and Pakistani military. They meet at the border and with a show of m pure theater they perform, with machismo, pride and posturing. The grandstands have been built to provide seating for the amount of people that actually turn up to shout and cheer their side on.
The start is done with a bellow from the guardhouse, and then a squad stomps out into the road. The gates are flung open, and the commanding officers march up to each other and perform an amazing brief handshake and salute. The flags are then lowered and marched back to the guardhouse with much pomp and the gates are then closed and the ceremony is then complete. All of this was done in sweltering heat and our clothes were literally wringing wet after.
The other attraction in Amritsar is the Golden temple. This is the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. The architecture in the complex is a blend of Hindu and Muslim styles. The golden dome represents an inverted lotus flower, which is said to symbolise Sikhism’s concerns with the world today.
We left Amritsar by early train we thought 06:10, until we arrived at the train station to be told that it was delayed until 08:30. Finally we managed to board the train which was nowhere as nice as the one we had caught up here previously and the air conditioning carriage was freezing!
We were trying to make it to Shimla, but after having the first delay we just wanted to make it to Kalka and by 14:00 we were not sure if we were going to manage this as the train we had to catch was delayed again by 2 hours.
After noticing that there was a dead body just wrapped in sheets on our platform and seeing a little girl with 6 toes, we began to feel that the day was starting to take an unrealistic feel to it and this was finally rounded off when we eventually got on the train, only to be told as it started moving that the train was going to Amritsar and not Kalka!!!!!! So jumped off a moving train... we know.
So last resort was a local train that left at 18:30 and we arrived in Kalka at 21:30 in a desperate search for food and a bed, which thankfully we managed to find with no weird circumstances!
After a brief nights stay in Kalka, we were up at 04:30 to catch a train to Shimla which was up over the Shimla Mountains. To do this you had to catch one of the Narrow gauge trains which are often referred to as Toy trains as they are a lot smaller than the standard trains found in India. We believe that they use narrow gauge trains as they have to travel around quite sharp corners which wouldn't be possible on the large trains.
The train journey took around 5 hours and we arrived in Shimla in the afternoon and realised quickly that this town is going to be hard work, as you have to walk up hill and down hill for everything there is hardly any flat parts. Training for Everest we think.
The one great difference about Shimla is the temperature. Years ago the Indian Government used to pack its bags from Kolkata and migrate 2000km to this town, I guess now they have air conditioning in Delhi. There has been quite a lot of rain and the town gets many tourists, Indians who are on honeymoon, Indians escaping the heat and others.
The amount of fruit is staggering that you can obtain up here, Plums, Bananas, Nectarines, Oranges, Apples, Mangos and Damsons and every night we would pick up a variety of fruit for around 50 pence.
We managed to catch a fantastic sunset in the course of staying in Shimla and our first glimpses of the snow capped peaks of the Himalayers.
We have actually cheated on the website as we stayed in a place called Dehra Dun prior to arriving here but that was mainly to recover from the 9 hour mountain bus journey out of Shimla. Its something that we find hard to get used to, traveling through the twisty roads in the mountains, you either have a sheer drop on one side or are just staring at a cliff face on the other, although its reassuring to know that many of the Indians traveling on these routes also seem to suffer from the motion sickness, so its not just a tourist thing.
Our arrival in Janki Chatti also consisted of some pretty heavy journey time, leaving Dehra Dun at 6am after trying to figure out what bus we were meant to be catching. Most of the bus signs are in Hindi, so you have to ask around and as Indians don't like to admit they don't know, they tend to make up which bus goes where. It takes several attempts and chasing of buses before you are sure you are going in the right direction!
The first bus took us to a junction high in the mountains, where we then had to change into a Shared Jeep, these leave when they are full or over full and tend to pick people up on the way, its never our prefered form of travel but it was only for an hour till the next town, where we then got another bus. It couldn't take us all the way to the town due to landslides across the roads. The rest of the journey was by jeep again as many of the roads had collapsed and others had reverted to rivers of mud. We were glad to actually make it up to Janki Chatti, but also worried if we were going to make it back down!
Our elevation currently was just around 3500m at Janki Chatti and the reason for traveling up this way is that its one of the holy places to visit as the source of one of the major rivers in India. Every year thousands of people pilgrimage to the 4 main sources of the rivers up in the Himalayers and as it was the season we thought we would like to enjoy the experience.
The walk up to Yamunotri is only 6Km from Janki Chatti but you walk through an elevation of 1000m ending up at 4421m above sea level. The walk was twisty but had such great scenery that you enjoyed stopping and catching your breath. We were also part of the attraction and having our photo taken with some of the families traveling up to the temple at the top.
Near the temple in the town there are hot springs which eminate from the ground and provide bathing pools for the indians to do their sacred bathing. We decided to scramble up the path a little more and check out the glaciers which were the sources of the freezing water.
Traveling up to these places was also interesting for the forms of transport that others chose. We were content with feet, but you had the choice of traveling by Donkey, or in a basket as the man places the strap on top of his head and you sit facing backwards as he slowly steps up the hill, or for ultimate luxury you could get a pole chair, which is a chair literally stapled to 2 poles and you have four bearers who will then walk you up the hill, and jog back down!
After an enjoyable walk at Yamunotri and eating wild strawberries, we were looking forward to visiting the most holy place up in the Himalayers at the start of the River Ganges. The journey started on the 9th July by catching a shared jeep back down from Janki Chatti to the buses which could then take us around the mountains to Gangotri. Unfortuantely the bus we had decided to catch took an average of 9 hours to complete this journey and we decided to do a stop-over in Uttarkashi (1158m), as we definately didn't want to be on the windy roads in the dark.
The following morning it was a quick 5 hour journey up the mountains to an elevation of 3042m to reach Gangotri. This town receives the majority of the pilgrims and long before even reaching the town we had already passed many who choose to walk the 72 km up the mountains to the town. The aim is for them is to bath in the sacred river and to collect bottles of the water to return home. We were staying opposite the temple and it was quite a sight to see young and old, bathing in these freezing waters.
There are also a couple of nice walks that you can do in the mountains around the town and for one of the afternoons we went scrambling around in the Alpine forest around the back of Gangotri and seeing the mountains spread out before you made you feel like you were on a film set - almost unreal.
We got up early and set off on the pilgrims final walk to the physical source of the River Ganges at Gaumukh (Cows Mouth) 18km up from Gangotri. We had already decided that we probably would have to stay over one evening and thus took a small bag with emergency supplies if required!
The walk wasn't that inspiring as you could see the path stretching out infront of you upwards in to the distance, but the weather made it more interesting by raining, thick fog, or sunny and sometimes all three at once!
We arrived at Bhojbasa, which is the last place where there are lodgings where you can stay around 13:30 and from here it was another 4Km. When we arrived at Gaumukh it was a shame but the fog had closed right in, so you couldn't see the glaciers or peaks around you, but you had the opportunity to watch the pilgrims pour the holy water over themselves. We actually declined this part of the pilgrimage!
When we returned to Bhojbasa where we had decided to stay, the fog lifted and we got the opportunity to see the tremendous peaks rising above Gaumukh - amazing.
We left Gaumukh the following day walking back down the 19km to the hotel, checking out and then onto a bus to Uttarkashi. We spent 1 night again here and caught a bus early in the morning. This bus took us to Tehri around 11:00 and then we got straight onto another bus to Srinagar. This bus seemed to take ages but this could be because we were sat at opposite ends of the bus. When we eventually got off this bus we grabbed a quick lunch and then had to take a smaller bus around to Rudraprayag. The journey was eventful as we had to pass through at least 3 landslides that had to be cleared before the lorries and busses could pass through. We caught one more bus that day which again was delayed with landslides and as we were just catching up on time we got a puncture and we arrived in the dark to Joshimath after a long day of traveling.
We stayed an extra day in Joshimath before leaving in the fog and misty rain and walked to the top of town to catch a share taxi to Govind Ghat, a journey which should have taken about an hour but ended up as three, as there was yet another landslide which had to be cleared. Once we arrived in Govind Ghat we hired a pony to carry our larger bags up the 13km trail to Ghangaria. The first 9km were OK and then the heavens opened and we, and our bags, literally got drenched. It didn't stop raining for the next 4km which made the steep path like a riverbed - not enjoyable.
The following day after a damp night's sleep we went to try and see what we had come up here for. This area is known as the Valley of Flowers and has a wide variety of different mountain flowers running alongside the river. But it was not to be as another landslide had taken the path that led into the valley and plus it was still raining. So we went for a vertical climb again past a large waterfall until it got too wet to continue.
Even though the weather wasn't on our side we still enjoyed the environment we were in and managed to get some pictures of the wild mountain flowers growing in the region.
As the weather was getting us down and we had no dry clothes to wear we decided to leave the Valley of Flowers and walk back the 13km down to Govind Ghat and join the throng of people trying to get on busses back to Joshimath. We managed to make it back to Joshimath quicker than we made it up there and from there we caught another bus to Karnaprayag which got us in at 17:00 and we had to spend the night here before catching a bus the following day to Almora.
The journey to Almora started at 09:00 and we arrived at 19:30 after rescuing a lorry who had slipped off the road. We both are relieved that in a couple of days we'll be out of the mountain roads.
We left Almora early in the morning and caught a share taxi to Bhowali which only took an hour and then we caught a very packed bus for 20 minutes up to Nainital. Nainital is another hill station which is based around a lake. This attractive lake is one of the emerald green eyes of Shiva's wife as her body was scattered across India.
We stayed in a fairly nice hotel - a treat from Gilb - called Palace Belvedere, which was formerly the Palace of the Raja of Awagarh and we had a room with a great view of the lake when the mist isn't covering it.
We left Nainital by bus heading for Haldwani where we would catch the overnight train to Lucknow. The train left at 22:12 and we arrived in Lucknow just after 06:00. We grabbed a tuk-tuk up to our hotel and caught up on some sleep.
Lucknow is quite good for restaurants and coffee shops and many of our last Indian Rupees were spent drinking coffees and playing Chinese Chess. We used Lucknow to catch up on the internet, and we went out for a belated birthday meal at the Taj Residency where we had our first taste of meat and wine for 4 months.
On our final day in Lucknow we went, in the evening, to Bara Imambara, a labyrinth which has 4 huge rooms and is four stories high with passages that just enter from the ceilings into these rooms so you have to be careful which passage you choose to go down. There was one stage where we got completely lost. In the same location there was also a bottomless well that you could visit, but it was starting to get dark and we could hear the bats in the lower parts getting ready to fly out for the night.
We took the train out of Lucknow leaving at 04:00 to Gorakhpur (this was the most expensive train ticket which we bought but was the only seats available) traveling in air-con 2-tier. From Gorakhpur its a 3-hour bus journey to the Nepalese border.
See you in Nepal.