After the bustle of Varanasi I was looking forward to retreating to a higher, quieter altitude. The famous Rishakesh (thanks mainly to the Beatles) is a haven(?) for all things yoga and meditation. Such a haven that there’s likely to be more soul searching Westerners there at any one time than Indians.
An extremely crowded 20 hour train took us to Haridwar, where we had an extremely early morning breakfast (the waiter was still asleep on the table at the back), before embarking on an extremely rickety bus. Surprised we even made it there at all, we were greeted by the rushing blue waters of the Ganges, and a monkey laden wire bridge that seperated us from Lauxman Jhula – the part of town we were to stay in. About to jump into our usual quest to find cheap accomodation we were sidelined by a woman in the middle of her morning prayers who insisted we checked out her rooms. Fairly standard rooms and at a reasonable price we told her that we’d have a quick walk around and likely be back. She wouldn’t take no for an answer and at each comment from us she’d drop her already low prices even lower. In the end we agreed to stay just so she wouldn’t drop the price any lower – it was already at $3 for a double room, with private bathroom and internet.
Unless you’re into yoga, meditation or trekking there’s not a lot else to do in Rishakesh. My yoga stint was enough to last me for a while, meditation was something we were keen to try later on, and it was the wrong season for trekking as winter was starting to kick off and we were inexperienced mountaineers to say the least. We opted instead for moving on towards the old summer capital of British India – Shimla, making an overnight stop in ‘The City Beautiful’ (as Chandigarh is comically known) before another series of train swapping, and general confusion ensued. We made it just in time to catch the toy train to Shimla. The train line between Kalka and Shimla was opened in 1903 and still utilises the old (and tiny) trains. A series of switch backs and tunnels navigates the often steep terrain, making for an incredibly scenic and picturesque journey – that is, provided you have one of the few seats available to take in the view. We, of course, did not, and spent the entire seven hours sitting on our packs in the aisles, shuffling around to avoid the suspicious liquid that was moving out from under the toilet wall and into the aisle towards us…
Once there, we hiked to what must have been the furthest guesthouse in the entire town, and then on to find something to eat. The rapid change in temperature sent us in search of warmer clothes as I was already getting sick. We paid $3 for some incredibly fashionable woollen jumpers and the atrocious things that would become affectionately known by Angelo as his ‘activity pants’. Our few days here were spent wandering through the bazaars, and avoiding the monkeys which are infamously pesky here. It is a danger to eat out in the open or carry food in your bags as they will gang up on you and steal your shit. Walking back to the guesthouse alone one afternoon, I got stuck in an alleyway as the path was blocked by monkeys. A local man and his broom came to my rescue as I was borderline shitting my pants that I would be attacked for the fruit I had in my backpack. Packing our things the next morning we left the door open and one of the monkeys actually came into our room. It took a lot of persuasion and loud noises to get him out.
We spent the day filling in time before our next move to Dharamsala. On top of the hill stands a giant statue of Hanuman on the site of the Hanuman (Monkey) temple. Naturally we went. And Naturally we were shitting our pants at the number of monkeys there. I mean, if they actually hand you a stick at the bottom of the hill (“for monkey safety”) it’s a bad sign, right? I watched as a man let a monkey check his pockets for food, and another monkey steal a womans scarf. There was no way in hell those rabid things would be coming near me – my stick was put to good use!
It was a very cold bus ride to Dharamsala, especially since there is always at least one person on the bus who insists on keeping their window open for spitting purposes. It was even colder at 5:30am as we waited outside for the town to wake up and sipped chai next to a street fire with a bunch of jeep drivers. Our prayers were answered when a man approached us offering refuge with a decent view of the mountains and valley, and a hot shower. Dharmasala, you’re not bad.