A new beginning…or is it?

It’s been around 4 months since my last post. I haven’t been slacking on updating my blog, it’s just that I have been taking a break from traveling and frankly I just didn’t feel like writing. I am here to fill in the gaps before writing about my next travels.

When I started backpacking in April 2015 I felt like I could keep traveling forever, it felt so natural at that time. But after 6 brilliant months on the road I felt the need to stop. I’ve spent the last 4 months with my parents in Pune (India). It is the longest I’ve been with them in 8 years and I am glad I got the chance to stay with them longer than the usual 2 weeks a year. It’s also the longest I’ve lived in one place in the last year and a half.

These 4 months have been the exact opposite of my backpacking days. Sleeping in the same bed night after night, the promise of a decent shower, waking up to the same faces, eating home cooked food everyday, not having to figure out how to get from A to B, not answering (or asking) the same Qs about “where are you from? What do you do? How long are you traveling for? etc.” has been fabulous. I’ve also been studying a lot and going for swimming and tennis classes, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I also visited Hyderabad and Goa to see friends I haven’t met for years or one’s I met during my travels. My sister visited us from Germany so there was a lot of family time and a brilliant trip to Goa (second one for me) which included going for drives, eating delicious food, long walks on the beach and then just chilling for a few hours in one of the beach shacks.

But it’s time to move on again. I am not ready to go back to work (at least not full-time) just yet and I’ve been lucky to have spent close to 9 months with friends and family around the globe which meant my money has lasted much longer than I anticipated. I don’t feel like backpacking or taking a trip with the sole intention of sight-seeing/photography either. I feel the need to travel slower, be in one place for a few months, find something meaningful to do (and not just something that will get me free food and accommodation) and then move to the next place.

When I left London in 2014, it felt like I was leaving to “do” something different and that when it’s done I’ll settle down in Germany to live close to my sister. But the 15 months of nomadic living has shifted something in me. Like this journey is no longer about what I do but who I am. I knew this break from “work eat sleep” cycle would change me but I felt I would still go back to the same lifestyle, just as a different person. I don’t see that happening anymore, at least not for the next couple of years.

My life has never been black and white, there’s always been a (massive) gray area and now it feels like the degree of uncertainty has just gone up a levels. It makes me nervous to think of where I will end up but when I think about what I am doing “NOW” I feel extremely calm. There’s nothing I would do differently. So I guess all I have to do is live in the present and be true to myself, which was the whole point of my travels anyways.

This sabbatical was meant to end in a year but 15 months later it feels like the journey has only just begun.

Ladakh

There are loads of attractions in the Ladakh region. Besides the town of Leh and the nearby sights there is Pangong Tso (Tso means lake), Tso Moriri, Nubra valley, Kargil and countless treks. Each of these would require at least an overnight stay.

Pangong Lake

My first excursion outside Leh was to Pangong lake. This lake is situated at 4250mtrs, is 135kms long of which only 25% is in India and the rest is in China. I was joined by 2 of my friends from Pune and another couple from Mumbai with whom we were sharing a cab. We set off on a 5hr drive (which turned into 8hrs). We were excited and chirpy to begin with but got quieter and tired as the day progressed. The roads, though loads better than when I went to the Valley of Flowers (in Uttarakhand), was still bumpy and the high altitude was giving me a headache and making me nauseous. But as with any other drive around Leh, the views were great! Barren mountains with greenery in the valley and ice caped mountains in the background.

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View on the way to Pangong Lake

Or mountains that appear red (due to the soil/minerals perhaps) from one side but when you take a turn looked green from the other side. There were brilliantly funny signs on safe driving (posted by the Indian army) throughout the journey which kept us entertained. Some of my favourite ones were, “If you drive like hell, you’ll get there”, “Driving is risky after whisky”, “Be gently on my curves”, “Don’t be silly on the hilly” and “This is a highway not a runway”.

Himalayan sheep and marmots
Himalayan sheep and marmots

Once at Spangmik, which is one of the villages along the lake, we booked ourselves into a very basic Tibetan homestay, went down to the lake for a few pics before it got dark and returned in time to eat simple but delicious homemade food. The next day i woke up around 5:30 to be by the lake before sunrise as the lake is said to change colours from before sunrise to when the first rays hit the water. Infact, the lake is famed to have 7 different colours based on the time of the day and how sunny/cloudy it is but only the locals can boast of being witness to this as it is not a very common occurrence. We didn’t get to see that many colours because it was extremely cloudy that day but even then the views were spectacular! The lake was brilliantly blue in some areas and clear in the others which gorgeously reflected the multicoloured mountains.

Pangong lake as seen at Spangmik close to day break
Pangong lake as seen at Spangmik close to day break

 

Stunning reflection of the mountains
Stunning reflection of the multi-coloured mountains

Nubra Valley

This valley, which lies to the north of Leh, and is accessible via the Khardungla Pass, is also a high altitude dessert. Situated at around 3000mtrs the valley is famed for it’s delicious apricots and for the sand dunes near at Hunder. It is formed by the joining of the Shyok and Nubra rivers and has a lot of villages on either side of the valley that the visitors are attracted to. I stuck to Diskit and Hunder which are along the Shyok river. Besides the Diskit Gompa, which was my favourite gompa in Ladakh, there’s not much to do in the village.

Diskit Gompa
Diskit Gompa

Hunder on the other hand is where the sand dunes are. These dunes were phenomenal as the sand was bordered by some vegetation and there were pockets of water in the middles of the “dessert”, and all of this surrounded by beautiful mountains. The camel safari was a disappointment as it last not more than 10-12mins.

Double humped (Bactarian) camels and sand dunes at Hunder
Double humped (Bactarian) camels and sand dunes at Hunder

Lamayuru

A village on the Leh-Srinagar high way, Lamayuru is known for it’s monastery and for it’s lunar like, beautifully odd, landscape. This can easily be covered on a day trip but i stopped for some pics on the way from Kargil to Leh.

Moonscape at Lamayuru
Moonscape at Lamayuru

Despite having spent 5 weeks in Ladakh there is still so much i haven’t seen and for which i will surely go back one day. But if you find yourself in the region and have the time then Tso Moriri, the Zanskar region and Turtuk village in Nubra Valley is a must-see.

Ladakh was the highlight of my 6 months of backpacking around SE Asia and India and if you are planning to visit this region then I hope that you enjoy it as mush as I did.

Leh

I don’t know how long ive been thinking of coming to Leh. Perhaps for a couple of years now. But it is quite far from my home town Pune and also from London where i’ve lived for the last 7 years and it always seemed inaccessible at the time. Also, it’s proximity to Kargil reminded me of the Indo-Pak war of 1999 which made me nervous even thinking about a solo trip up north. But once i decided to leave my job in London to go backpacking then Ladakh automatically got added to the bucket list, all my fears invalidated just like that. Infact the only certainly i had when i set off on my trip was visiting Ladakh and this was the only part of my trip that i was willing to plan around.

Ladakh district (now called as the Leh district) is the north east portion of the topmost state in India, Jammu & Kashmir, and Leh is the biggest city of this region. Ladakh literally translates into “Land of high passes”. As with most of my travels, the name of a place resonates with me (for some unknown reason), then i do some minor research about it, look at some pics and decide to go for it. All i knew of Leh was that it is situated at an elevation of 3.5kms and is surrounded by beautiful lakes and rugged desert mountains. As for it’s inhabitants, I hadn’t expected much as a few people who had been there told me how commercial and overpriced the city is and how the locals are money minded and not very friendly.

The first couple of days after i flew in, i religiously heeded the advice about AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). No exertion except perhaps a walk in the town is recommended for the first 24-48hrs. My first impression of Leh was nothing spectacular. All you see is barren mountains around the town with the same coloured houses mostly built of mud bricks. I love colours so Leh felt too dry to look at. But the more time i spent here the more the city grew on me. I started to love the barrenness, the old rustic charm, the countless prayer wheels and prayer flags dotted around the town, the tibetan refugee markets selling gorgeous pashminas, rugs, carpets, jewellery, handicraft etc.

Leh town center with innumerable prayer flags surrounding the mosques.
Leh main bazaar with innumerable prayer flags surrounding the mosques.

And the Ladakhi people are just so warm, it is what makes Leh feel like home to me. One is greeted with smiles and “Julley” which is a local greeting, locals (mostly the older ones) sit by the roads rotating miniature prayer wheels in their hands, the shopowners ask you if you’d like to buy something from them and if you say no they never push you but just smile as you keep walking. i love how (local) men don’t leer at women here. In fact some seem almost shy and won’t even make eye contact for long. Others will look at you but its more a look of curiosity, a look that doesnt make you cringe or question your choice of clothes. I really enjoy walking around the town, simply smiling and calling out Julley to people, and exploring it’s countless markets and cafes. Buddhism seems like the dominant relighion here but there are almost equal number of Muslims too and they seem to live in harmony. I love that there is a big mosque bang in the center of the main bazaar from where you can hear the azaan and if you walk a little away into one of the alleys you hear the buddhist chant of “Om mani padme hum” being played on speakers.

I haven’t been impressed with the food here though. The chinese food almost always lacks the flavour that you would find in restaurants elsewhere in india. The noodle soup of Thukpa varies vastly in taste and quality from cafe to cafe. Only the indian food and momos can be consistenly relied upon. My fav places to eat so far are Chaska Maska near the main bazaar for indian and south indian, Hot Pot on Old Leh road, Wonderland cafe and World Garden Cafe on Changspa road.

Once i realized i would be in Leh for a while i decided to look for a homestay. I wanted to experience the local culture from close up and frankly i’d reached a point where dorms/cheap guesthouses weren’t appealing to me much. Instead of asking travel agents i starting asking locals in cafes and minimarkets for a good home that would be willing to accommodate me and i was lucky to find a loving homestay with extremely caring people. It is the best place i’ve stayed at in my 6months of backpacking. From day 1 I was made to feel like i was part of their family and it is the perfect base for my exploration of Ladakh.

Ladakhis have to face really tough living conditions in the winter. In summer, the direct sunlight is harsh, electricity is intermittent and there is no constant running water. The goverment provides water a few times a week which is stored in tanks and then connected to pipes which provide running water. Hot water is received through geysers or goverment subsidized solar heaters. This is the easy part of the year. The temperature in winter drops to a minimum of -20 and the roads going out of Leh are blocked due to snow that is several feet high. The electricity is even more intermittent as snow plays havoc with the power lines. And of course, there is no running water and if you need to drink some, you first need to break chunks of ice and then melt it. To keep warm the families gather in one room, usually the kitchen, which has a mechanical coal heater. Most of the Ladakhis spend their summer months working in their farms harvesting fruit and vegetables, some of which they sell but the rest is basically cleaned/washed/dried to be used in the winter months from December to April. As the region is cut off from the neighboring areas the locals store enough grains, pulses and dehydrated vegetables to last these harsh 5 months. It is perhaps the shortage of basic things that make people value them even more and every effort is made to minimize waste. For eg, water which was used to wash rice or rinse fruit is stored and then later used to water the plants. Stale bread and rotis are fed to the dogs. Organic waste like pits from fruit or vegetable peels are fed to the cows. It is the harsh living conditions and inconveniences that affects everyone alike and is probably the reason that evokes a deep sense of unity and bond among the locals.

In terms of attractions, most are quite a long drive away from Leh but there’s still enough in and around the town to keep you busy for a good few days. In the town there is Shanti Stupa and the Leh Palace both of which offer different views of Leh and can be covered in a couple of hours each.

Shanti Stupa
Shanti Stupa
Leh as seen from the Leh Palace
Leh as seen from the Leh Palace

To the southeast, there are Shey, Thiksey and Hemis monasteries (also called gompas). Shey monastery, which is also known as the Shey Palace, is ok-ish to look at from the outside and in ruins from the inside. Thiksey monastery, which is the largest monastery in Central Ladakh, is quite impressive inside and out.

Thikse Monastery
Thikse Monastery

Hemis monastery was probably the richest of the monasteries in Ladakh with impressive Buddha statues and lots of murals and wall paintings in the temples. Visiting this gompa during the Hemis Festival would certainly be an event to remember!

Hemis Monastery compound
Hemis Monastery compound

To the southwest of Leh there is Spituk monastery and Hall of Fame museum, further west is Gurudwara Pathar Sahib, Magnetic Hill, Confluence of rivers Indus and Zanskar, and monasteries of Likir and Alchi. I skipped the Spituk gompa and I didn’t feel any of the “vehicle pulling itself uphill” effect at the Magnetic Hill but the rest of the sights are definitely worth a visit in my opinion.

On the ride from Leh to Alchi and Likir
On the ride from Leh to Alchi and Likir
Confluence of 2 rivers, Indus and Zanskar
Confluence of 2 rivers, Indus and Zanskar
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Likir Monastery with the Maitreya statue
Another one taken on the same ride
Another one taken on the same ride
View from behind the Alchi Monastery
View from behind the Alchi Monastery

To the north of Leh is the Khardungla pass which, at a height of 18380ft, is one of the highest motorable passes in the world. I don’t know what I was expecting but being at the pass was actually underwhelming. The surrounding mountains and geography of the area is such that you can’t really see or appreciate how high up you are and the view from the pass left a lot to be desired. But as it was just a stop on the way to Nubra I didn’t feel that I had wasted my time.

I happened to be in town for the week long annual Leh festival. The inauguration parade started an hour early (which is a first!) but it was lovely to see the locals out in their finest traditional garb but it was a small-ish group and the parade passed by in less than 5mins. The polo ground, where most of the functions were held was interesting too. Lot of traditional dances performed by locals dressed in colourful costumes belonging to different cultures (from Ladakhis, Nubra, Tibetan, etc). It was an afternoon well spent.

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The men dance with water-carrying pots on their head

Chilling, to the southwest of Leh, in the Hemis National Park, is an amazing destination for a bike ride. It’s not too far from Leh and the scenery, as usual, was brilliant. I’ve been for countless bike rides in the last 6 months but this one was my favourite! Not only was it in Ladakh but I rode a Royal Enfield 500cc from Leh to Chilling. It was only my second time on this bike but I just fell in love with it! So much so that for the next few weeks all I could think of was buying a bike of my own!

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Quick break on the way to Chilling
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Beautiful mountains with multi-coloured rocks on the way to Chilling

One of the best things to do in Ladakh is to venture out on a bike (or a car if you can’t ride). The view on most of such journeys is beautiful. You’ll pass barren unforgiving mountains which will change to mountains of different hues set against stunning blue skies which will change to different coloured plants growing on an otherwise barren mountain.

Traveling around Leh is a perfect example of when the journey is more beautiful than the destination itself.

 

Kargil

The passengers in the shared cab I took to go from Leh to Kargil were very interesting, all were muslims but with extremely different personalities. When they asked me my name (which is as Muslim as it can get) one of the passengers got super excited resulting in me getting a earful of Quran scriptures quoted (read shouted) at me. I love theological debates but not with people who mave a closed mind and who think their way is the only (right) way and that everybody else ought to feel the same. i listened to that guy to begin with and offered my views which were ignored and then it became such a one sided conversation that i completely lost interest. But he kept going on and on and so I turned my head away to gaze out of the window but even this hint didn’t register with him. I then had to resort to closing my eyes, pretending to be sleepy and then after 10mins of this he finally got the hint. The other passengers also came to my rescue and asked the guy to stop his religious and theoretical rants which nobody else in the cab was understanding either. The other people were really cool though, the type who keep their faith to themselves unless asked to share their experience and who respect the fact that everyone is entitled to follow a spiritual path that resonates most with them.

Stunning mountains as seen while driving to Kargil.
Stunning mountains as seen while driving to Kargil.

After I was dropped off in Kargil (the rest were going to Srinagar) Mushtaq, whose car I came in arranged for a guesthouse by speaking with some locals kids. This guesthouse (Dass Pa guesthouse) turned out to be more like a homestay with an extremely friendly family. The room was big, airy, with a lot of natural light, an attached bathroom and homemade food that was absolutely delicious! The owner’s nephews were extremely sweet guys and one of them, Abbas, was the one i spent a lot of time with. Despite being only 22 he is very well grounded and walking around the town with him was always a treat as he seemed to know everybody (Kargil being a very small town). We never walked 30secs before he was greeted by someone he knew!

Kargil's no-pretence town center
Kargil’s no-pretence town center

There’s not much to see in Kargil. In fact, the small town seems a few decades behind time. I found no wi-fi anywhere except in Roots Café. Most of the people frequent internet cafes that get busy as the kids come back from school. There are many shops for typewriters which frankly I cannot remember seeing anywhere else. There are only a handful of restaurants and dhaba style cafes are a lot more common. I still enjoyed my time there primarily coz of the homestay where i was staying. It was very interesting to hear about the Indo-Pak war of 1999 from people who’ve lived through it and had to do some voluntary service (like taking food and ammunition up to the hills to the soldiers) as part of the war. Most people (including me) thought that the “Kargil” war was fought in and around the town of Kargil but infact it was fought over 150kms of the Kargil district spreading into Drass and as far as the Nubra Valley in Ladakh. Visiting the War Memorial in Drass, from where you can see some of the peaks where the war was fought, and learning more the war was a very humbling experience.

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The highest mountain (the peak right at the back) in the above picture is Tiger Hill. At an elevation of 5307mtrs it is one of the highest peaks in the region and was one of the most important spots during the battle.

Drass is a small town, some 60kms from Kargil, and is one of the regions where the war was fought. It is known to be the second most coldest, remotest and uninhabited places on earth after Siberia. To think how the soldiers must have braved this condition to fight for their nation is unfathomable to me.

War memorial with Tololing (one of the moutains where the Indo- Pak war was fought) in the background
War memorial with Tololing (one of the moutains where the Indo- Pak war was fought) in the background

While in Kargil i also visited the LOC (Line of Control) which divides India and Pakistan. This is not an actual boundary as i had imagined but a very rough outline of it.

India and Pakistan, seen together in one pic
India and Pakistan, seen together in one pic

Everything after the first mountain on the left and the second mountain on the right belongs to Pakistan and the tiny patch of green (which actually looks black in the pic above) seen in between the mountains is actually a Pakistani village. Before visiting the LOC I confirmed that there were no cease fire violations. At the time I thought I was being silly but then i heard of another place (only 8kms from the War Memorial) that was blocked off because of these violations.

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One of the things that (pleasantly) surprised me was the openness of the muslims in Kargil. Unlike Leh which has similar number of Buddhists and Muslims, Kargil is primarily muslim. I remember discussing my backpacking adventure with some locals in Delhi and i was greeted with remarks like “ah, so you are just whiling time away” or “how come you are behaving like the foreigners”. Unfortunately, there are some who will never understand the importance of traveling and will always look at it as a waste of time. But on hearing the reason for me being in Kargil and why i was alone the locals greeted it as an amazing chance to learn and grow. Knowing i am Muslim (and a female) made them happier that i am doing something different and some said they would pray that i get to travel even more. It was also heartening to see girls going to school and a LOT of women working as school teachers. In fact, on the way to Kargil there were many places where men and women were doing roadwork together. Almost all women wore the hijab but it seemed more of a choice (as i discovered when i spoke to a couple of ladies), a habit rather than a rule imposed on them. Despite fears that have been voiced by fellow travelers i found Kargil very safe and open minded. Speaking the local language has definitely proved very useful and having a muslim name meant that i was at the receiving end of caring/loving partiality which i have no complaints about.

Just can't get enough of these multi-hued mountains!
Just can’t get enough of these multi-hued mountains!

Valley of Flowers National Park

I had initially planned to spend a month in Rishikesh just chilling, doing yoga and taking a break from travels but after 3 weeks of doing just that I was beginning to get restless (and lazy). I needed to do something that would wake my body up, so to speak. Sab, who I met in my dorm in Rishikesh and who had spent the same amount of time in the town, felt he needed a change. So after considering a few last-minute options we decided to do the Valley of Flowers trek.

Day1

We set off from our hostel in Rishikesh at 5am, amidst heavy rainfall, to catch the early morning bus to Govindghat. The first half of the journey was spent in a very small but comfortable bus. We stopped only once on this 5hr leg to get breakfast at a street food stall selling Aloo Paratha with Chole curry. We didn’t intend to eat anything but vendors kept shouting out to people to come eat “pretha” and I just couldn’t resist! I managed to convince my fellow travel buddies to eat some as well. For the second half of the journey we changed to a bigger but very old bus with broken seats. The ride in this bus was horribly bumpy. There were so many instances of us flying out of our seats and returning with an uncomfortable and harsh thud. Luckily we hadn’t eaten much on the 11hrs bus ride so we avoided puking episodes (the lady behind me wasn’t so lucky). And there was just 1 toilet break which meant that I had next to no water and was feeling seriously dehydrated by the time we reached our destination. On the plus side, we were in the mountains throughout the journey and the view just never got old! I also had good company in Sab. His friend Kumar had also joined us for the trek. Sab is a very sweet fella, he’s a few years younger than me and is a digital nomad, which is a very interesting and unconventional path for an Indian. We get along really well and are able to tell each other to shut up incase of too much chatter. Once we reached Govindghat, we found a room, had some chai, met up (coincidentally) with another friend whom we had met in Rishikesh, ate our dinner and called it a day.

Day2
Day for the 14km trek from Govindghat to Ghangaria. I was a bit worried while going to bed last night coz I had an upset tummy due to the horribly bumpy and long bus drive. But by morning I was feeling slightly better. I knew that Ghangaria was at a height of 3100mtrs but this was just a number to me. What mattered to me was the distance of 14kms which I knew I could do. Let me tell you, I am not one for an uphill climb of any sort. I am not fit enough and hate being out of breadth which was validated on the trek. I was so very slow! The path was sometimes going uphill, then flat for a bit, then downhill before starting the uphill again and this was too much for me. At the start of the day I was mentally prepared to tough it out but towards the last 4kms my body and my mind were resisting the walk which made it extremely tough. I guess I could have at hired a pony at any point but the pain of giving up would be much worse than the physical and mental pain I was feeling at that time. Finally, I did it in 7hrs, the average time being 5.5 to 6hrs. One of the biggest reasons I could finish the trek was Sab. He is generally fit, is a runner, has done a couple of marathons and has also done the Everest Base Camp trek. But he is also a very easy going and patient guy and he was with me through out day. It was entertaining company and seriously motivating. He had to resort to a lot of tricks to keep me going from grabbing my hand and dragging me along to prodding me in the back with his walking stick to whacking me with it (just the once for which he got told off!) to chanting “Bum Bum Bhole” which is a chant we’d heard from the pilgrims in Rishikesh. (I think the chant means “Hail Vishnu”). This chant was more of an private joke for Sab and me as we’d heard some really stupid versions of this (For Eg, “Laxman Jhula, Bum Bum Bhole” which makes no sense as Laxman Jhula is the suspension bridge in Rishikesh). But when my motivation was running low we created our own (silly) versions of the chant like “Bangalore (where Sab lives) Bum Bum Bhole”, “Pune (where I live) Bum Bum Bhole”, “1234 get on the dance floor” and this kept the mood light and kept me going.
Once we reached Ghangaria we had some chai, found a room and bought a bucket of hot water each to freshen up (you have to pay for hot water as electricity in this village is limited). By the time the shower was done I was feeling really ill. It was seriously cold in the village! My finger tips were numb and were beginning to get a bluish tinge and our breadth was smoking. No running hot water meant washing hands in ice cold water which I absolutely hate. My chest, shoulders and throat felt tight and achy. After a quick dinner a popped a Paracetamol, wore 2 pairs of socks, 2 tops, trousers, a jacket, scarf made of yak wool (thanks Sab!) and gloves (which I had to buy in the village) and went to bed. The warmth from the many layers and the pain killer gave me much needed sleep and I woke up feeling loads better.

Day 3
My initial plan, when I set off from Rishikesh, was to spend 2 days in the Valley of Flowers (VoF) and 1 day at Hemkund Sahib (which is a pilgrimage site for the Sikhs) before doing the 14km back to Govindghat the day after.
But after the trek of the day before, I had changed my mind. I now wanted to spend just one day in the valley and head back to Govindghat on the same day. Ghangaria was too cold and the rooms too dreary to stay any longer. And I was not fit enough to do the 6km uphill climb to Hemkund Sahib.
So on the morning of Day 3, we set off on the 4km trek to the VoF at around 8am. Right at the start, we reached a fork in the path, left was going to the VoF but the right hand path had no signs posted. I wanted to go left but the crowd was going right so Sab thought there’d be a turnoff after the gorgeous waterfall we could see up ahead so we went that way instead.

Gorgeous waterfall with the melting glacier beneath it
Gorgeous waterfall with the melting glacier beneath it

After taking loads of pics & selfies we completely forgot about this fork in the path. We kept going (and going) and were very surprised that that the walk was all uphill. Our hotel manager had told us that the path would flatten out soon but we kept walking thinking that perhaps the local’s version of a “flat route” would be different to ours as they would be very much used to the climb. After 3kms we came to a sign which said Hemkund Sahib was 3kms away (it’s a total of 6km from Ghangaria) which made me think that the VoF is only 1km away as it’s only 4kms from the village. When we stopped for a chai break we asked the owner for confirmation and that’s when we realized the booby we’d made!! We were on our way to Hemkund, oops! But instead of getting angry I just started laughing! I remember telling the guys the night before that there was no way I was walking to Hemkund and if I changed my mind I would take a pony. I don’t believe in coincidences so I think we were just meant to go to Hemkund Sahib. Instead of heading back we decided to keep going all the way up.

View while walking up to Hemkund Sahib
View while walking up to Hemkund Sahib

Very slowly I finished the 6km walk just before 1pm and reached the top at 4300mtrs. Besides the Gurudwara (a place of workship for the Sikhs) there’s also a beautiful glacier lake at the top which remains frozen for 7months of the year. Come summer, the ice begins to melt and the Sikhs arrive to take a dip in the lake they consider to be holy. Although it was cloudy and the mountains not very visible the lake was beautiful.

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Such a peaceful place to finish the 6km uphill climb

We dipped our feet in the cold water and then went to the Gurudwara to pay our respects, chatted with some folks about the significance of that place, ate Prasad (which is a food substance considered to be a religious offering) and delicious Langar (free food offered at the Gurudwara to all worshippers regardless of religion) of khichdi and almond milk before starting the descend.
The day before I was very grumpy. I felt no happiness in having done the 14km trek just relief that it was over. But after the climb to Hemkund Sahib I was so happy to have gone all the way up. It’s a beautiful place, the lake is so very tranquil and the simple but hearty Langar so very nourishing.
By the time I reached the village at 5pm I was ready for another hot bucket shower. My legs were feeling like jelly, my stomach still achy, I hadn’t pee-ed since the morning and I was dehydrated but so proud of myself!

Day4:
The day for the Valley of Flowers, finally! I expected the 4km walk to the valley to be easier than the climb to Hemkund Sahib. In some ways it was but the hike was more of a trek. Most of the path was laid out with stones which meant I had to be very careful where I put my foot as I a have tendency of tripping over my own feet and regularly getting my toes caught in anything that comes in the way. If it wasn’t stones on the path it was a lot of muck. Even before reaching the valley I started seeing some very pretty flowers and then the view just opened up to the gorgeous valley. Another 500m or so (and after just over 2hrs) I was at the start of the VoF.
Just a quick background on me, I love colours! This is reflected in how I dress and even the carefully selected ingredients in my food to give it the max burst of colours. So to be in the valley of flowers, which has over 500 species of flowering plants, was an absolute dream! The flowers don’t blanket the valley but there are colours everywhere.

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Wherever you look you see different flowers against a stunning backdrop of numerous waterfalls and the mighty Himalayan range. If I ever had to pick a venue for my wedding (and if the long trek wasn’t an issue) then VoF would top the list! After taking lots of pictures and selfies, Sab and I sat down to really take in the view.

Who wouldn't want to just sit and take in the view!
Who wouldn’t want to just sit and enjoy the view!

Being surrounded by nature and by a glorious burst of colours, being able to listen to the stream flowing next to you and looking at the Himalayas made the whole trek absolutely worth it!

Such a beautiful view calls for selfies, me thinks.
Such a beautiful view calls for selfies, me thinks.

Before we knew it, it was time to head back. We were also getting extremely hungry and stupidly, we had forgotten to take any food or snacks with us! After reaching the village at 2:30pm, we ate some lunch and took the pony back to Govinghat. Taking the pony gave my legs much needed rest but the pain (and bruises) we felt on our butts at the end  was a whole new story. That night we had a whole new set of aches and pains to contend with!

Day5:
The plan was to catch the 7am cab back to Rishikesh but we were temporarily blocked in due to landslides. We were first given a new time of 9am, then 11am and then around 11:30 we were told it will take a few more hours. So instead of waiting in Govindghat we decided to do a short trip to Badrinath in the opposite direction. Badrinath is one of the prominent villages on the Chota Char Dham hindu pilgrimage.

A typical village in the Himalayas...such colourful houses!
A typical village in the Himalayas…such colourful houses!

The town itself is very pretty but the drive there was horrible. Narrow winding and extremely bumpy roads (due to landslides) meant my stomach (and the contents in it) were going up and down and left and right at the same time and it made my stomach pain so much worse! By the time we got back to Govindghat we were told that the roads have finally opened up but it was too late to get to Rishikesh on the same night. We decided to head to Joshimath which was only 25kms away but it would at least get us out of the landslide area (which was a smart move as that stretch was blocked the next day as well!)

Day6:
No more drama on this journey except the bumpy drive and resulting stomach ache but at least we were taking regular breaks which meant I could drink more water than I had been in the last 5 days. We were finally in Rishikesh by 6pm. Honest to God, it was like coming back home. If I was a weeper I would have cried.

Rishikesh

Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, Rishikesh is a holy town in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. It is one of the holiest places (or so I’ve read) for the Hindus and is the starting point for the “Chota Char Dham” pilgrimage circuit.

My main reason for coming to Rishikesh was that I desperately needed a break from traveling and I wanted to spend this break meditating, doing yoga and studying. I could have easily done this in Thailand but I would need to do a visa run so I decided to head to Motherland instead. After spending 4 days in Delhi I took the overnight bus to Rishikesh.

After just a couple of days in Rishikesh I realized why a lot of travelers end up extending their stay here. For some it’s the spirituality that this place exudes, for some it’s the prospect of learning or improving their yoga and for me, it’s the tranquility this place has to offer. I felt none of the spirituality or the holiness but I was super happy to spend my days just sitting in a café sipping chai while looking at a gorgeous view of the Ganges, the Laxman Jhula (the main suspension bridge in Rishikesh) and the mountains beyond.

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The town itself has a very chilled out vibe and it’s always a joy to walk along the tiny streets (while trying to avoid the dogs, the monkeys, the cows and cow shit) looking at all the options for window shopping. If I’d been a shopper I would have seriously depleted my travel money here! You’ll find a lot of shops selling pretty Indian clothes and countless other jewelry shops selling gemstones and silver jewelry. There’s also a lot of street food here from delicious fresh samosas to jalebis, pakoras, parathas, fried slices of toasty bread (which I promise I didn’t eat, who needs fried carbs!), delicious chole bhature (ok so I did eat bhature which is an Indian style fried bread :-O ) and momos. There are some no-pretense restaurants that offer delicious thalis for less than a dollar!  There’s only one (secret) place in town where you can get beer and chicken but generally meat (or fish) and alcohol are not allowed in Rishikesh but there’s a lot of yummy veggie food to make up for that.

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One very pleasant surprise for me was how clean the river Ganga is (its probably coz it’s a fast flowing river) and for this, one of my favourite places to do yoga was by the river. Imagine being in an asana and being able to see the mountains (sometimes upside down coz of the pose you are in) while listening to the flow of the water and feeling the cool breeze on your body!

In Rishikesh I found what I was looking for, a total break from uncertainty and constant travel (and travel research). I was also staying at an amazing guesthouse (called Shiv Shakti Guesthouse which I totally recommend by the way) with really friendly staff who treated me like a friend. I’ve spent a good few hours with them everyday while I helped at the reception due to staff holiday or while sharing a homemade lunch with them.

While in Rishikesh, I had a chance to visit the Garud Chatti waterfall. It’s a small and relatively unknown waterfall but it will always remain special to me coz it’s the first time that I stepped into a fall! It wasn’t something I thought I would do (and so I wasn’t wearing my bathing suit) so I jumped in fully clothed! The cold water and the strong fall gave me a good back massage.

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I also visited the Beatles Ashram which has been shut for the last 18-20yrs.

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The architecture is still beautifully intact and walking in the forest is a bit spooky in a fun way. The fun aspect started ebbing away after I was told about the elephants and tiger spotting (the Ashram falls within the Rajaji National Park). Infact, there was an injured leopard that was found inside one of the caves in the ashram! I am glad I visited but even more glad that I didn’t get eaten alive.

Another major attraction here is the Ganga arti at Parmath Niketan Ashram. It was a wonderful experience to join in the bhajans (devotional songs) and the aarti which happened right next to the river. I felt no spirituality in this process but the devotion/enthusiasm of the attendees was definitely infectious.

After almost 3 weeks of being here I am ready to move on. My mind and body are relaxed enough but I need some physical activity. I could still do treks and walks around here but due to the pilgrimage that’s currently going on there are so many people that even locals usually avoid leaving their homes unless absolutely necessary. So my next stop going to be the Valley of Flowers. The trip to the valley and back will take me 8 days and will involve a lot of uphill climbing. After the inactivity of last month I am sure it’s going to be very tough but it will be worth it in the end (I hope!)

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Delhi

For the last couple of years or so I’d been thinking/dreaming of traveling around India. But in all those “dreams” I was always accompanied by a male companion because traveling alone in India, I thought, was “very unsafe and not worth the risk”. Then I quit my well paid job and my comfortable life in London to just wander around the world. This step gave me the courage to look at India without the lens of fear created by negative media and acknowledge that India too can be traveled solo. Of course, I did some research to back this up and what I found was quite surprising. A 2014 study published figures on rape cases around the world and India didn’t even appear in the top 9 countries with the highest rape cases! Instead other countries, that I deemed safer, like New Zealand, UK, USA and Belgium were on that list. http://www.statisticbrain.com/rape-statistics/ That’s not to say that India is crime and rape free. God knows we have our share of $hit. But no country is completely safe. You have to be careful regardless of where you travel.

Armed with my desire to travel, the knowledge that it’s not as unsafe and of course a lot of time on my hand I decided it was time to take the plunge into my own backyard. My first stop was Delhi. This was unintentional actually. I wanted to go get off that plane and head straight to the train station to go to Rishikesh but I dropped that idea and decided to spend a few days in Delhi to refresh my memories of my first visit around 18yrs ago.

Despite what the statistics in the link above say, the Delhi gang rape case is hard to forget so yes, I was nervous but also extremely excited to be in the national capital. I was feeling so patriotic and felt this surge of pride for my country (which I admit is hard to feel if you live in this madness on a daily basis) but I’ve been away long enough and have traveled around enough to know what a treasure India is despite some major drawbacks like pollution, population and corruption (to name a few).

I arrived in Delhi after a 12hr “midnight to noon” journey from Bangkok which involved a taxi – metro – flight – another flight – bus – walk. When I was on the bus from the Delhi Airport to the New Delhi railway station (where I had booked a hostel) I was observing the activity outside and comparing it to my drive back from Mumbai airport to Pune, when I visit my parents. Delhi was busy and there was a lot of traffic but somehow it wasn’t as frantic as I expected. There was a lot of space between cars and surprisingly there were no bikes/bicycles/cows trying to squeeze in. I didn’t hear a lot of honking. The roads were in a much better condition. I could see a lot of green around. So far I was impressed. My stop arrived, I got off at New Delhi Railway station. And my first impression of Delhi was shattered. My mind was like “If this is the new railway station why the hell does it look so old!” And I realized my mistake. It was the railway station of New Delhi not a new railway station. Duh! After a lot of asking around, trying to figure out who was scamming me and who was not, I bought my platform ticket so I could go through the station and get out on the other side, the alternative was a much longer walk or the auto rickshaws over charging me. I managed to wade my way through the crowd with an 18kg backpack in 35degrees heat to reach my hostel.

After 12hrs of this journey I was exhausted so for the rest of the day I stayed in the hostel and did only the most essential things. Eat aloo paratha and dal makhani!

The next day would mark my first official day of solo travel in India, so I’ll mention it. 16/07/2015.

I started my tour with walking to the biggest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid.

Jama Masjid as seen from inside the courtyard.
Jama Masjid as seen from inside the courtyard.
Old Delhi as seen from the mosque, far away from the madness below.
Old Delhi as seen from the mosque, far away from the madness below.
Courtyard of the mosque, the city beyond and the Red Fort in the background, seen from the top of the minaret of Jama Masjid
Courtyard of the mosque, the city beyond and the Red Fort in the background, seen from the top of the minaret of Jama Masjid.

From the Jama Masjid I went to the “super impressive from the outside but ok-ish on the inside” Red Fort.

At the entrance to the fort
At the entrance to the fort
Beautiful arches
Beautiful arches
Forgot what the building is called but the carvings on the walls and the arches were impressive.
Forgot what the building is called but the carvings on the walls and the arches were impressive.

My last stop was Chandni Chowk which is the oldest and the busiest market in old Delhi. I wasn’t interested in the market but an alley called “Paranthe wali gali” (Street of Paranthas). It was only my love for Paranthas that motivated me to go to such a busy market.

All of the 7km walk that day, in the Delhi heat mind you, was on small and extremely busy streets. Walking on the road trying to avoid bumping into other pedestrians, avoiding being hit by bicycles or bikes, ignoring auto rickshaws and cycle rickshaws, and trying not to step onto street dogs was a mission but also quite amusing.

One thing that really surprised me was that most of the people on the street were men! Where were the (rest of the) women?? I was dressed in a full sleeves cotton shirt and a knee length skirt and I remembered thinking, no more skirts in Delhi. I’ve never enjoyed being stared at. The other weird bit was that not every local realized I was Indian. This was a first and I don’t know how I feel about it. At one point, as I was about to take the stairs that would lead to a bridge that I needed to cross, a guy came running to me and he said, “mam, where are you going?” I replied “Jama Masjid” and he said “Please take a rickshaw, that bridge is not safe and foreigners are not allowed on that bridge”. When I told him I was Indian he said “ok, then you can go on that bridge”. I was surprised for so many reasons! Was my safety not as important because I am Indian? Or am I less likely to be harassed if I am Indian? And why do these people not realize I am Indian? It probably doesn’t matter that much but after that, I started asking questions/directions in Hindi. It was easier to get by speaking the local language anyways. It was all a bit overwhelming. It was like my first day of my backpacking trip, in Hanoi. I was constantly in a “flight or fight” mode. I didn’t bother getting my fancy camera out coz I feared it will attract more attention. My sole focus was getting to my destination. And there was a regular stream of “just breathe” chants going on in my head. I guess I was having a culture shock in my own country.

Bart, a Dutch traveler I met in my hostel, who’s been traveling in India for 4 months on his beloved Hero Honda motorbike, joined me on the second day and we spent the day sight seeing on his bike. It was during this ride that I realized that the day before I was in Old Delhi. New Delhi, even though just as hectic, is bigger with wider and well paved roads, a lot of green around, is much cleaner and in general less overwhelming. I was heartened to see this side of the city.

We started the day with Connaught Place (CP) which, I later read, is the “former location of the headquarters of the British rule.” It is also the largest financial, commercial and business center in New Delhi. The businesses on CP are arranged in 3 concentric circles with a park in the middle and is very confusing to get around for a first timer. Alternating streets of one-way traffic meant that we went around the circle many times before we found the shop that we were looking for. It was a fun (and easy) way to see CP so I was not complaining.

From there it was on to India Gate which is a war memorial built for the 82,000 British Indian Army soldiers who lost their lives in World War 1 and the Third Anglo Afghan War.

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We then made our way to the Akshardham temple which is the largest Hindu temple in the world measuring 356ft long, 316ft wide and 141ft high and featuring over 20,000 sculpted figures. I expected it to be just one structure but it was actually a complex covering 32 acres of land! Most of the buildings had exquisite, detailed carvings and the green lawns and the big ponds made the atmosphere very tranquil. Unfortunately cameras and mobile phones were not allowed inside so I have just one picture taken from the parking lot.

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There were 3 exhibitions that gave the viewers an insight to Indian values and heritage and also to the life and works of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who is considered an incarnation of God.

On the down side, the Akshardham is not an active temple (at least it didn’t seem like it). It’s more of a tourist attraction. The exhibitions, although good, were more like a theme park adventure than anything else. Its more appropriate to call this a monument instead of a temple. But the amount of work put into building this complex is very obvious. The whole thing took 5 years and 11,000 workers to finish!

Another thing I witnessed this day is how Indians react to Westerners or “Phirangi” as we call them. When on foot, we didn’t go 15mins without someone approaching Bart to greet him, shake his hand, talk to him, take a picture with him or just to say hello. It was extremely entertaining to witness this side of my own people who in general our not very good at starting conversations with strangers from their own country. Some credit goes to Bart as well as he is an extremely calm guy. I mean, he actually enjoys riding a motorbike in India! He has a ready smile which I’m sure also attracts people to come forth and talk to him. On the down side (everything seems to have a downside in India LOL), a lot of people who realized that I am an Indian, would talk only to me and that too in Hindi. I would reply in Hindi if they didn’t speak any English but I met some guys at my hostel who spoke good English and still chose to talk in Hindi (when Bart was around) despite me responding in English every time. Isolating people in conversations, however unintentional, is something that just does not go down well with me. I’ve been on the receiving end of this and know exactly how it feels.

So that was my first few days in Delhi. There’s a lot more to see and do here but it will have to wait for when I come back in a month’s time. As the Dutch say (Bart told me this so don’t hold me to it) “The City isn’t going anywhere”.