India: Rishikesh and Haridwar

Rishikesh
Rishikesh is an eclectic city that attracts an interesting mix of tourists – including yogis, adrenaline junkies, foreigners, and middle-class Indians. The city is located at the foot of the Himalayas and along the banks of the holy Ganges River. It’s the epicentre of India’s yoga scene, with dozens of ashrams and hundreds of yoga instructors. It’s also a huge adventure sports hub, with river rafting, trekking, bungee jumping, and zip-lining all available.

Rishikesh

In early April, the weather is perfect (just when Delhi is getting hot and the hill stations are still cold). We were there for the Easter long-weekend, which we didn’t think would be an event in India, but apparently it is one of their busiest weekends. The streets and hotels were packed with thousands of Indians from Delhi, Punjab, and Haryana. When we got back from our trek, we had a panicked hour while we struggled to find a hotel, but eventually found a great place in the quiet Swiss Cottage neighbourhood.

Rishikesh

We squeezed as much into our time in Rishikesh as possible, but still left wishing we could have spent a few more days. It would have been nice to check ourselves into an ashram, do yoga, and explore the city at a leisurely pace, but we only had a few days with Dan’s tight schedule and the city was too busy with Easter crowds. In our short time, we managed to take a cooking class, raft down the Ganges, and do three yoga classes. When we did find time to wander, the city rewarded us with many interesting temples to explore, really good restaurants (including a cafe with vegan pizza), cute souvenir shops, and great views.

Cooking Masala Class
The cooking class was really good. This was our third cooking class and we got to choose the menu, so we focused on simpler recipes that we would be more likely to cook at home. We learned how to make aloo gobi, baingan bharta, dal fry, parathas, and a simple chutney. After the class, we went and bought a number of the masala spice mixes so we can hopefully replicate the recipes at home.

Rafting the Ganges
River rafting was a blast. The rapids were pretty tame, but we still had fun. We were able to jump out of the boat and float down the river for stretches. It was cold, but not unbearable. We also brought our leftover dyes and played Holi in our boat. It left a real mess, but I was happy our guide and the other tourists in our boat enjoyed it too.

Rishikesh
Rishikesh
One of Rishikesh’s claims to fame is the ashram that The Beatles stayed in while writing the White Album in 1968. It’s now abandoned, but you can bribe the security guard (we paid 50 rupees each) to let you go explore. It’s a cool space, with Beatles-themed graffiti everywhere and funky buildings slowly being taken over by the forest.

India - Haridwar
Haridwar is just downstream from Rishikesh and is one of the 7 most sacred sites to Hindus. We spent a day there checking out the temples and ghats. Skillfully turning away the priests who kept trying to bless us (and ask for money), we made our own aarti ceremony and offered a prayer to Mother Ganga while floating flowers down the river.
India - Haridwar

More pictures on Flickr: Rishikesh and Haridwar.

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India: Chandrashila Trek

Chandrashila Trek
After our failed Singalila trek a few weeks ago, we were a bit nervous to try another one. As we’ve discovered, there’s a lot that can go wrong on a multi-day trek when you’re not feeling 100%. Further complicating things, this time we were traveling with our friend Dan, who only had two days to acclimatize to Indian food and the time change before we launched into our 4-day Chandrashila Trek into the Himalayas of Uttarakhand. Luckily, we all made it through with only minor discomfort and the trek was amazing.

Chandrashila Trek
We hiked through blossoming Rhododendron forests, swam in a lake (well, Dan and the Norwegians swam), had epic views of the high Himalayan peaks, watched a mongoose playing in a tree, visited a Hindu temple, and capped it off with a snowy climb to the top of Chandrashila at over 3500 m.

Chandrashila Trek
Our trek was organized by Red Chilli Adventure, and they did an excellent job. The guides were knowledgeable and fun, the food was plentiful and tasty, and the tents and sleeping bags kept us warm during the frigid nights. We were lucky to have a good group of fellow trekkers, including a pair of Norwegians, two other Canadians, and three French girls. Trekking seems to be a great way to meet the most interesting people from around the world.

Birthplace of the Ganges
Even though it was a 4 day trip, we only had two long hiking days. The first and last days were mostly driving. The roads were some of the best we’ve been on in India, and the views were excellent – Lots of lush valleys and a viewpoint over the start of the Ganges River. If it wasn’t for the motion sickness,the drive would have been completely enjoyable.

Chandrashila Trek
The first day featured only a short 2 km hike to our campsite next to Deorital Lake, which only took 1 hour.

Mongoose
The second day we covered 14 km through beautiful forests with a few great viewpoints. Midday we stumbled upon a mongoose. They can be viscious animals, but this one was just playing in the flowers.

Chandrashila Trek
The third day was the most intense, as we spent 5 hours walking up to a temple, climbing to the mountain peak, and sliding back down. The route was heavily travelled until the temple, after which we had to break trail up to the peak. The views from the peak were spectacular. It was hard work walking in the snow and breathing the thin air, but sliding down was fun and fast.
Chandrashila Trek
Chandrashila Trek

Chandrashila Trek

We got really lucky with weather. We had pouring rain and whiteout conditions, but most of our hiking was in sunny, dry conditions. Our hike on the third day started with drizzle and clouds, but cleared as we neared the peak.

Chandrashila Trek

We were really happy we did the trek. When we were planning our 2 weeks with Dan, we weren’t sure that a trek was a good idea – too much time in one place and too much that could go wrong. But in ended up being a real highlight for all three of us.
Chandrashila Trek

More photos on Flickr: Chandrashila Trek

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India: Kolkata and the Sundarbans

India - Calcutta

Most tourists we meet can’t stand India’s big cities. They are too crowded, polluted, and overwhelming for many Westerners. And yet, for some reason Emily and I have really enjoyed the big cities, and Kolkata was no exception. We loved the grand buildings, efficient metro, tank-like street cars, lean rickshaw pullers, cosmopolitan restaurants, and surprises that awaited us down every street.

India - Calcutta

Some of my favorite parts of the big cities are the market areas. If you can find the right street, you can buy or fix almost anything. In the electronics bazaar, in between the hundreds of mobile repair shops, we found camera lane (that is actually what the locals called it) with dozens of camera stores. A small shop there repaired my camera’s jammed lens for 1100 rupees ($22). I probably overpaid by local standards but was happy to have it fixed and it only took a few hours.

India - Calcutta

The heat and humidity was a bit of a shock after coming from Darjeeling, but a welcome one. Even though there are plenty of shade trees and buildings with verandas that made it possible to avoid the sun, we were drenched in sweat after walking around each day.

Sundarbans

For my birthday, we had lunch at an upscale vegetarian restaurant with good reviews. We didn’t realize it had an unusual prison theme until we arrived and were seated in a locked cell and served by inmates. It was definitely a unique experience, and the food was excellent, especially by prison standards. Sadly no photos as my camera was being repaired.

India - Calcutta

The most memorable part of our time in Kolkata was meeting a local character named Karma. Midway through our trip, Emily and I made a pact to embrace the bizarre situations that presented themselves. Which is how we found ourselves in a taxi after dark, going to a remote residential neighborhood for candle lit rooftop dinner with strangers. Part of my mind was running through the things that could go wrong, but sometimes you have to let go of your fears, and we did have some evidence that Karma wasn’t a serial killer.

India - Calcutta

We had contacted Karma after reading glowing reviews online of his city walking tours. Although he had stopped giving them, he offered to hang out with us and show us the city for free. We spent a day checking out the hidden gems of the city and tasting some excellent street food. Karma is one of the most travelled Indians we’ve met, so he was a great person to talk to about our experiences in India and the questions we had built up over nearly 4 months backpacking (questions about tipping, religious practices, wife wanted ads in newspapers, and the lemons and chilies hanging from doorways). In addition to our mundane questions, we got to hear his views on the challenges India faces, mostly around poverty, corruption, and sexism. We also spent a good time talking with his friend Priya, a lovely Bengali woman, who was just as curious about our lives in Canada as we were about hers in India.

Sundar and

Our 5 days in Kolkata was interspersed with an overnight trip to the river delta south of the city known as the Sundarbans. The area contains a massive protected reserve for the great Bengal Tiger, but sightings are rare and it was too hot when we visited. I didn’t expect to see any wildlife, with the heat and our loud tour group, but we did see spotted deer, wild boar, and giant monitor lizards. We were content to relax on a boat for two days and experience a little piece of rural life.

Sundar and

Sundarbans

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India: Fucking Delhi Pickpockets

Delhi police

The good news first – Daniel Georges has safely arrived in India to accompany us for the last two weeks of our trip. The bad news – he spent most of his first morning in the police station. But it wasn’t his fault.

I had my cellphone pick pocketed after breakfast this morning. I was crossing the street when a group of young men bumped into me pretty hard. I didn’t think much of the incident until a minute later I noticed my phone was gone. Luckily my wallet was in a zippered pocket. The guys were long gone by the time I noticed, and I’m not sure I’d recognize them anyway. I was busy talking to Emily and Dan and trying not to get hit by cars when they bumped into me. We rushed back to the hotel to try and locate the phone and disable it, but by then battery had been removed. These guys were likely pros.

I should have been more careful. We’ve been in India for 3 months without any problems, but last night Emily had her sunglasses stolen from her bag. Delhi, it appears, is teeming with thieves. It’s a shame, because I was starting to like the city.

Filing a police report was an interesting experience. Like most encounters with Indian bureaucracy, it involved a lot of paperwork and waiting. But I was surprised when a police officer said “first we examine crime scene and then we take action. Come”. And we hopped into the back of a police truck for a drive by the intersection. I’m not sure what they learned from that, but it was more than I expected.

I’ve come to rely on my phone a lot, especially the data connection. It sucks to lose it after recently going through a lot of effort to get a new sim card. With only two weeks left, it’s not worth replacing it. We’ll just have to travel the old fashioned way, relying on planning, a notebook, and wifi hotspots (for Emily’s iPad). There is a decent chance the police might recover the phone now that I’ve reported it stolen and given them the IME Number, if this article is to be believed, but I’m not going to get my hopes up.

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India: Crazy Transportation Day

India - Train from Varanasi to Siliguri
So many of our memorable moments in India have occured while traveling between cities. We often travel cheap, so that means a lot of time in shared jeeps, buses, and trains, and a lot of interesting interactions with locals. Our day traveling from the Makaibari Tea Estate to Kolkata was one of the wilder days.

To start, we didn’t have a confirmed train tickets to Kolkata. A week ago we decided to prepone our visit to Kolkata by 2 days when our trek was cut short, but the trains were all sold out. Most trains have a few seats reserved for foreigners like us who plan their trip last minute, but you can only buy them in person at big train stations and Darjeeling doesn’t qualify. Without white privilege on our side, we had to take our chances on the wait list with everyone else. We weren’t sure what our chances were of getting seats. We started out in position 18 and 19 and had moved up to 11 and 12 on the day of the train. We had hoped we would find out the night before if we got tickets, giving us time to execute a backup plan if we were unlucky, but we didn’t find out until 3 pm, a few hours before the train departed. When we got the email and text message notifying us we had seats, we were standing in line at the station trying desperately to book an alternative. We were extremely lucky to get tickets. Our seats were in carriage BEX, a special carriage added to the train for the Eastern Railway Trekking Club but with a few extra seats given to wait list passengers.

Getting to the train station was a bigger adventure than getting the train tickets. After lunch at the tea estate, we flagged down a passing shared jeep heading to Siliguri. There was only one seat left in the back benches, but the money collector jumped out and rode outside, one foot on the bumper and one on the spare tire, with his hands clutched to the roof rack for the rest of the twisting, bumping ride down the mountain. I was worried about him whenever we hit a bump or swerved to avoid another vehicle, but he seemed to be enjoying himself. Shortly after we took the last two seats (facing sideways in the back benches), we picked up two more men who found a way to squeeze in the back next to Emily and I, and firmly sardine us in. It was the most uncomfortable 90 minute ride of my life. We picked up a few more passengers, but luckily they sat on the roof and hung from the back instead of climbing onto our laps. At one point I counted 18 people in/on our jeep, which is normally full and cozy with 10.

In Siliguri, we extracted ourselves from the human compression chamber and climbed into the back of a shared rickshaw to the train station. It was surprisingly comfortable by comparison, with only 6 passengers squeezing in. Every time someone left our driver would wait and troll around for someone new to take her place. Standard practice in India, but I think one of the passengers got annoyed with the frequent delays. At least I assume that was the gist of the 30 minute angry Hindi yelling match that ensued between him and the driver. The passenger was literally frothing at the mouth and spitting red beetlenut on my pants. The driver was freaking out and spent more time looking back at us then at the road ahead. The other passengers were either amused or annoyed by the argument, but didn’t say much. Eventually the irate passenger jumped out of our moving rickshaw and our angry driver swerved over to confront him. I assumed it was going to turn into a fist fight, but they just yelled at each other for another few minutes and shockingly the irate passenger paid the 20 rupee fair and we drove off, our driver still cursing, but with no one responding.

Train to Calcutta
Good thing we had five hours to sit around in the train station and calm down after all that excitement. Just another day traveling in India.

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India: Darjeeling

India - Darjeeling Tiger Hill
Darjeeling is the famed British hill station and tea plantation centre. It is also a good base for trekking in the Himalayas and exploring Sikkim. As such, our time in town was split into three visits and by the last one we had finally got a feel for the city that vexed us on our first visits.

India - Darjeeling
We arrived in Darjeeling in the back of a shared jeep that winded up bumpy switchbacks and made me motion sick. We then spent an hour wandering hopelessly lost with our big packs on, trying to find the Vodafone store (to get a new simcard) and our hotel. Navigating in Darjeeling is extremely difficult. Maps fail to show the elevation or hidden staircases that connect the twisting streets. Even asking for directions, it felt like we were sent in circles, going up and down hills.

India - Darjeeling

Darjeeling is a fascinating town. It is perched on the top of a mountain, at over 2000 meters above sea level. It’s cleaner than the rest of India and many of the upper streets, like The Mall, are car-free. Local porters, with stooped backs and heavy loads strapped to their foreheads, are a common sight as they deliver packages to businesses.
India - Darjeeling

Even though the British are long gone, Darjeeling revels in Western culture more than anywhere else we’ve been in India. We heard more 80s soft rock than Bollywood tunes and the main shopping strip features a Glenary’s bakery, Frank Ross Chemist Shop, and Oxford book store, all of which look preserved from the 1950’s.

India - Darjeeling Tiger Hill
Darjeeling has amazing views of the neighbouring Himalayan mountains, especially Kanchengjunga (3rd highest in the world). Our guide book recommended getting up at 4 am and taking a shared taxi to the top of Tiger Hill to get an amazing view of the sun rising over the mountain. It seemed awfully early, but we set an alarm anyway. We layered up as best as we could (we didn’t pack a lot of warm clothing) and tried to leave our hotel. The doors and gates were locked tight and we couldn’t wake anyone with knocking. We thought of going back to bed, but instead decided to break out of our hotel. From an inner courtyard, we found a spiked gate that we were able to climb over without killing ourselves and escape onto the street. An hour later, after many Eagles and Bon Jovi tunes, we arrived at Tiger Hill which was packed with tourists. However, the sunrise views were epic as promised. At the time we didn’t realize how lucky we were, but every other day we spent in Darjeeling was cloudy and the mountains were impossible to see.

India - Darjeeling

The cool temperatures and mountain views were originally what attracted the British to the area. They loved coming here in the summer when temperatures in Kolkata were over 40 C. But in March, it feels more freezing than refreshing, and after our dawn adventure we realized we lacked the proper clothing for the mountains, especially for trekking. We spent our first day shopping for wool socks, sweaters, scarves, and mitts. We probably went a little overboard and now a third of my pack is taken up by a heavy fleece sweater and thermal underwear that will be useless in Kolkata and Delhi, but I might get to use them again when we visit the mountains north of Delhi in a few weeks.

India - Darjeeling
India - Darjeeling
Darjeeling has a great little zoo and mountaineering museum. The zoo is home to many endangered local animals, like red pandas, snow leopards, and Himalayan wolves, and is famous for its breeding and conservation programs. They also have a majestic Bengal tiger. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute museum is co-located with the zoo and has a fascinating exhibit on Everest expeditions, including a lot of info about Tenzing Norgay, the sherpa that summited Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary.
India - Darjeeling

For our 3 year wedding anniversary, we splurged a little and got a room at the Little Tibet boutique resort. It was worth it for the romantic dinner, modern washroom with little soaps and lotions, and a comfy heated bed. You know we’ve been traveling for too long and staying in budget accommodation when free shampoo gets us excited.
India - Darjeeling

India - Darjeeling
A trip to Darjeeling wouldn’t be complete without a stop at a tea plantation, so we spent a day and night at a homestay at the Makaibari tea estate. We took the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway toy train down to Kurseong, which is as far as the train currently runs since a landslide wiped out the tracks further down the mountain in 2010. The train is slower than taking a jeep but a much more pleasant ride. Unfortunately my camera lens jammed during the train ride, so I only have a few cellphone photos from the tea estate. It’s a beautiful place. We went on a factory tour and learned how tea is made and what the difference between black, green, oolong, and white tea is – they’re all made from the same leaves but go through different rolling and fermenting steps. But the most informative and interesting part was staying in the home of a local family. Our host, Bomaka, cooked us meals and we spent time chatting with her and her kids about our lives and theirs. I even spent an hour helping her son with his computer science homework. I loved it.
India - Makabari Tea Estate
India - Makabari Tea Estate

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India: Sikkim

India - Pelling, Sikkim
Sikkim is a small Indian province between Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan with some spectacular Himalayan mountains. We spent 5 days enjoying the unique culture, eating momos, visiting Buddhist monasteries, enjoying the mountain views when it was sunny, and drinking millet beer when it was thundering and hailing outside.

India - Pelling, Sikkim
We expected it to be cold and snowy but the temperatures were warmer than Darjeeling, probably because the places we visited were at lower elevations. We did a tour of the towns in West Sikkim, spending time in Pelling, Yuksom, and Tashiding.

India - Yuksom, Sikkim

We liked Sikkim. The weather in March wasn’t great, but when it was clear there were great views of the towering Himalayan mountains like Kanchenjunga. The food and culture are very different from the rest of India, with strong Nepalese influences. The main tourist attractions are the Buddhist monasteries that seem to occupy the top of every peak and trekking. We didn’t do any overnight treks, but spent most of our time walking to monasteries and other sites. There is a hike between Yuksom and Tashiding that passes by three monasteries and takes 5 hours that is apparently worth doing. You can send your luggage by jeep so all you have to carry is a day bag. Unfortunately, we didn’t find out about it until we arrived in Tashiding. Although that might have been for the best, as it thundered and hailed while we would have been hiking.
India - Tashiding, Sikim

India - Tashiding, Sikim

India - Tashiding, Sikim

India - Yuksom, Sikkim
Traveling around Sikkim was an adventure in itself. There aren’t any trains and few buses. The main mode of transportation is shared jeeps that drive between the towns. Some have schedules, but most just wait until they are full (10 passengers plus the driver) before leaving. The roads are steep and bumpy and even though the distances between most towns is less than 30 km, it took hours to get anywhere. Traveling between Darjeeling and Pelling involved 3 shared jeeps.

India - Sikkim
Getting into Sikkim
Foreigners need permits to enter Sikkim, which we were able to get in Darjeeling. It is free but time consuming to get. First we had to show our passport and fill out a form at the Foreign Registry office near the clock tower. Then we had to walk 20 minutes across town to the District Magistrate Office and get our passport stamped and get an official entry permit. The office is only open Monday-Friday until 4 pm and we showed up with 2 minutes to spare on Friday afternoon. Our guidebook said we needed extra passport-sized photos, but no one asked for them. Our entry permit allowed us access to the main southern towns of Sikkim for 15 days. For more you have to get another permit in Gangtok. Upon entering Sikkim near Jorethang, we had to show our passports and entry permit at a border check.

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