I am now in Shimla, which is a quaint old ex-colonial hill station in Himachal Pradesh, complete with old wooden beamed buildings, shops selling tweeds and 'gentleman's clubs'. It is quite high, so gets very chilly in the shade and is freezing at night. This morning the hair oil I bought here had frozen solid! I am glad of my warm clothing and is a bit of a novelty to be cold in India after the heat I have experienced for so long.
It is incredibly steep here and has the only town centre in India that is fully pedestrianised. This means that the town is full of porters bent double carrying fridges, beds etc. However, I think I nearly killed my porter with the weight of my rucksack, which I think probably weighs more than I do!
It is wonderful to wake up every morning to see the snow capped Himalayas in the distance and they look so magical, that it is making me really excited about going to Nepal.
I travelled on the 'Viceroy's toy train' to get here from Kalka. This is a tiny little diesal train with a few carriages that has not really changed since it was built in 1903 and takes six hours to snake its way slowly up and around the hills. At each station the driver has to jump out to get tokens to open up the next section of track. Apparently it is normally quiet, but I was travelling on Easter weekend and it was as busy as a city train during rush hour with people hanging out of the carriages and squeezing in just in time to avoid being hit by one of the many tunnels on the route. The Indian tourists cheered every time we went through a tunnel and their enthusiasm did not dissipate despite there being 103 tunnels during the six hours!
Since my last journal entry from Calcutta, I have travelled across the north of India. I caught a plane back to Delhi and was reminded why I had not really liked India when I first arrived.
I think that Delhi must be the worst introduction to this country that you could possibly find. You could barely see the city through all the pollution from the plane and I hit Monday morning rushhour at its best! India has experienced an early pre-monsoon heatwave and it was over 40 degrees and absolutely unbearable. I had a thumping headache for two days and was drenched in sweat. I took refuge in the airconditioned cafes, museums and went to see the latest Bollywood blockbuster called Namaste London. It was hilariously innaccurate about the English and goes someway to explaining why Indians have such strange views about foreigners eg. lots of army major types and everybody plastered on a night out.
I was relieved to leave Delhi on a luxury nightbus. However, was not so relieved when we spent three hours driving around Delhi dropping and then collecting passengers before setting off on the eight hour journey to Rishikesh in Uttaranchal. When I first boarded the bus, I thought that the reason for the forty five degree positioning of my seat was due to the bus being parked on the curb. However, it was just the angle of my seat and I spent the entire night in this position trying not to roll onto my male neighbour (not that he would probably have minded in the slightest!)
I arrived in Rishikesh and went to my hotel in an area called Swarg Ashram in recognition of the number of ashrams based there. I was planning on going to the Sivananda Ashram which was meant to be really good for yoga. However, when I visited and saw the regime that I would be expected to adhere to, I changed my mind very quickly. You have to get up at 5.30am for 'silent meditation', followed by chanting, chanting, a little bit of yoga, eating in silence (to be at one with your food!)...oh, and some more chanting until 9.30pm. So really, it was never going to happen!
Rishikesh is set around the Ganges and has two narrow metal bridges that connect each side. Walking across them with my heavy rucksack on my back was like trying to walk across a bouncy castle and I found myself being propelled off the ground at each step.
I did not really like the town at all and could not work out why it was that everyone else seemed to be loving it and I did not. The other guests in my hotel had either just finished a yoga course, or were about to start one and asked me to join them for the evening chanting on the roof terrace outside my room! When I said it was not really my sort of thing, they looked at my as though I had just admitted to being a serial killer or a cannibal! Every night I had to try and go to sleep listening to them chanting 'Hare Krisha, Krishna, Krishna" with their tambourines! I realised that I am not a hippy and shaving my head, wearing a bindi and no shoes is not my idea of a good time!
Instead I spent a couple of days hiking around the nice scenery surrounding it and that was very pretty in the woods and the hills. On one afternoon I walked into an area that had caution signs for wild elephant. I had already seen loads of monkeys and deer. However, suddenly there was a deer that shot across the road and a noise coming from the woodland. I froze not knowing what to do and just listened. However, the crashing of undergrowth grew louder and I could hear loud munching, so set off running back down the lane and did not dare venture there again!
I left to go to Mussorie and met some nice like minded travellers on the bus. Quite a relief after feeling like I was the only sane person in Rishikesh. I ended up spending a couple of days with a nice Aussie girl and it was good to chat and have a laugh about our experiences here.
The journey involved a couple of buses, including one up the narrow hairpin bends to the town. The driver was obviously living out his Formula 1 fantasies, tearing around the bends leaning almost horizontally and furiously turning the steering wheel!
I loved Mussorie, which is a really pretty quaint hill station with nice buildings, a glimpse of the Himalayas in the distance and nice places to go walking around the town. It has a cable car to get to the top for nice views of the surrounding area and on one day I walked for miles up and around the hills (I'm trying to get fit in preparation for trekking in Nepal!)
I then travelled to Chandigarh in the Punjab region. As I had found the recent buses to be reliable, I made the fatal mistake of assuming something in India and thought that catching a bus at 9am for a 45 minute journey would get me to where I needed to be for a 10.30 connecting bus and would give me the afternoon in Chandigarh to see its sights! You would think after four months here, I would know better.
At 9.25 the bus driver decided to join all us passengers who had packed into the bus before 9. He announced that he needed to wait for his co-staff who had not arrived. However, at 9.50am he decided to leave and twenty minutes later we picked up the conductor en route! He did not even look embarressed as the entire bus glared at him!
Therefore, I missed my connecting bus, had two hours wait in the bus station and then caught another bus. I may have had perhaps an hour to explore Chandigarh, but then suddenly the bus skidded and there was a sound of scraping metal and we had got a puncture. This minor event did not stop the bus and we continued on at about two miles and hour with the deafening scraping for about an hour until we reached a garage. We all stood around the tyre like anxious relatives around a sick person and were relieved when it was repaired. I finally reached Chandigarh at 7pm - I should have got there around 2pm!!
However, the journey to Shimla was pleasant and I have been able to relax again here! So am feeling strong for the 10 hour bus journey to Manali tommorow and whatever surprises it will bring!