This spring I spend almost all of my yearly holiday in Nepal (meeting my sister in Kathmandu who lives and works there since June 2011) and India. About my wonderful experience in Kathmandu I will write another time, today I like to share my love for India! Travelling two weeks in this incredible fascinating country I realized that India is much more than great tasty food (Samosa, Tikka Masala, Mango Lassi, Chai etc.), Shah Rukh Khan/Bollywood, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa and Taj Mahal I complete fell into love with India, its very friendly and helpful – yes very curious too – people, culture and magnificent landscape.
Please enjoy reading my travel journal; I thought posting it today is the best way to celebrate Happy Independence Day, INDIA
Golden Triangle Tour (Delhi-Agra-Pushkar-Jaipur-Delhi)
First I wanted to travel that week on my own but as everybody was very much concerned regarding my safety I choose a tour and set off with Banshi, my driver. After arrival in Delhi I woke up the next morning complete speechless. So when ever someone askwd what has happened to my voice I answered “India makes me speechless – in all its meaning”.
First a short (well rather quick) sightseeing tour of Delhi, most impressively is the Qutub Minar, made of red sandstone and marble and 72.5m high, originally build in 1193 as victory tower by Qutab-ud-din Aibak immediately after the defeat of Delhi’s last Hindu kingdom. Also a quick stop at the India Gate, modelled after the Arc de Triumphe in Paris, a memorial of 1WW and “central meeting point of Delhi” and visit the very beautiful and peaceful Jama Masjid Mosque.
The drive to Agra is quick as we could use the new highway. Agra is famous for its Red Fort and of course the most well known site in all of The India: Taj Mahal. The Red Fort can only be visited 25% of its actual size, but it’s impressive to think that the King, his ministers, families have ruled from here many hundred years ago.
The next morning I get up early and went to the Taj Mahal at sunrise. Of course I was not the only one. It’s fascinating; we all know this building and its story but actually standing in front of it has still something magical. This mausoleum made by white marble is one of the finest example of Mughal architecture, a style that combines elements from Islamic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Indian architectural. It was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. As he spent too much money to build this timeless symbol of love, his son has imprisoned this father on the site so that he could finish his building. When Shah Jahan died he was buried next to his beloved wife. Fascinating is that the Taj Mahal is a fully symmetric building but regarding where and how far away from the building you stand it looks complete different. The changing of the colours when the sun goes up and travels its way to sunset is just marvellous and as Muslims do not depicting Allah this change of colours is a symbol for their Gods mercy.
When we left Agra I realized a large amount of people walking along the street. Banshi explained me that these are Hindu on the way to a holy temple, 200km from Agra and if they walk they gain good Karma. Elderly couples, whole families, groups of young men and girls – thousands are on pilgrim. Every few km there are tents where they can rest, get food and water.
Pushkar is a lovey small town and famous for its Brahma temple, lake, ghats, and bazaar. The word ‘Pushkar’ means lotus flower, which is said to be the seat of Brahma, one of the Hindu holy trinity, who is worshipped as the creator of this world. The legend has it that the demon Vajra Nabha killed Brahma’s children, he in turn struck him with his weapon, a lotus flower. Vajra Nabha died with the impact, and the petals of the lotus fell at three places. One of them is Pushkar, where it gave birth to a lake. Brahma is supposed to have performed sacrifice at this lake on Kartik Purnima (the full moon day of the Kartik month (generally in the month of November)), hallowing the place. Though Brahma is considered to be the creator of the world, Pushkar is the only temple of this important deity in the whole world. This is also considered as Adi Teerth or Teertharaj meaning ancient holy place or the most important of holy places respectively.
I stay at the very comfortable lovely White House Hotel – and can warmly recommend it. As soon as you enter this little hotel everybody there makes you feeling very welcome and the organic food which is served at the top roof restaurant is just amazing! Unfortunately we arrive at night and I have to leave to Jaipur the next day so I spend only a couple of hours in this lovely peaceful place, visiting the temple, strolling through the bazaar and offering flowers and sweets to the Gods at the little lake.
Then we have a long hot drive to Jaipur. First we have a look at the incredible observatory Jantar Mantar, a collection of architectural astronomical instruments, built by Maharaja (King) Jai Singh II at his then new capital of Jaipur between 1727 and 1734. It is modelled after the one that he had built for him at the Mughal capital of Delhi. He had constructed a total of five such facilities at different locations, including the ones at Delhi and Jaipur. The Jaipur observatory is the largest and best preserved of these. It has been inscribed on the World Heritage List as “an expression of the astronomical skills and cosmological concepts of the court of a scholarly prince at the end of the Mughal period”.
Further we go to visit the city palace. Still today a part of the palace is used as home for the royal family of Jaipur. Jaipur is famous for its beautiful paintings, jewellery and textile. As the very famous Hawa Mahal (Palace of the winds) is under renovation I can’t visit and see nothing more than a huge construction bamboo frame. In the evening Banshi and I drive to the Water Palace and then I have a typical Rajasthan dinner – oh how much I love Indian food!
The next morning we drive to the Amber Fort where I seem to be the only one not riding on an elephant but walking up to the Fort. It’s pretty hot and the souvenir sellers are a plague but I ignore them and use my “tunnel stare” that helps. The Amber Fort is huge and is divided into four main sections each with its own entry gate and courtyard and was built by Raja Man Singh I in the 16th century. It’s difficult to describe it’s just a very beautiful place but packed with tourists. I liked best the very magnificent Sheesh Maha (Palace of mirrors), which is made of white marble, its walls are completely covered with inlaid mirrors and coloured glass and exquisite paintings of cypresses and floral motifs. I walk thought the corridor and rooms where the harem once has been and the ladies were waiting behind thick walls to be called and amuse the king. It must have been very boring sitting around well hidden from the world.
After the visit of the Amber Fort we drive back to Delhi where my Golden Triangle Tour ends. I quickly check in the hotel and take the taxi to pick up my sister from the airport. Together we will spend the next 12 days touring Himachal Pradesh and finish our tour in Amritsar.
Himachal Pradesh and Amritsar-Tour with my sister Renate
We take the train from Delhi to Chandrigarh and are surprised how easy we find our train. As soon as we have taken our seats Chai, breakfast and more chai was served, all included in the price. At arrival in Chandrigarh we are picked up by our guide Tsering and driver Horshia Singh and hit the road towards Shimla. Unfortunately we don’t see much of this very British-like village. Over night we stay in an empty ice cold guesthouse a few km outside of Shimla. Supplied with extra blanket, hot water bottle and electric heater we were able to sleep.
The next morning we begin our long drive to Kalpa, Kinnaur Valley. It seems like there is in all of HP only curvy roads, it’s very relaxing and I enjoy the passing landscape, small villages and little towns. Sutlej river who runs through Kinnaur Valley is today the source for many big Hydropower Stations. The road along the river is a bumpy road along Hydropower Stations, Block of flats settlements for the workers and army quarters. Finally (after 9h drive) we reach our destination: Kalpa. We stay at Kinnaur Villa and get the room under the roof – a wooden cosy nest. By arrival there are many young man making chapatti. As we get informed it’s a film crew from Bombay, shooting “Highway Nr. 1” a road movie and will shoot tomorrow in Spiti. As the dining room is ice cold we quickly eat our diner and go to sleep.
As we wake up, the sun is shining and we can see the Kinnaur Kailash, what a majestic mountain, all covered in snow. After breakfast we walk down into the village and visit the Buddhist temple, the priest extra opens the temple for us and explains the different statues and paintings.
As we can’t visit the Tibetan Villages we make a short stop in a vey tiny lovely village.
In the later afternoon we reach Sangla, where we will stay for 2 nights at the Banjara Retreat Hotel. We get a very beautiful big room and like always, extra blankets and a heater. Evening tea is served and soon the oven in the dining hall is lit and guests and owner sit around the fire, drinking chai and talking. Dinner is served – very nice Indian food.
In the morning we drive to Chirkul (3450m) the last village before the Tibetan/Chinese border. In summer a busy spot, all the guesthouses over crowded, now in spring a sleepy village. We go on a short walk.
Before lunch we drive to the tiny steep village of Kamru. We climb up the small path and make a stop at the temple and than climb up to the Fort which is closed, but the view is breath-taking. It’s a lovely village and the wooden houses and temple is magnificent work of great craftsmen. Even if I am bit out of breath it was worth climbing up here.
After lunch we enjoy a lazy afternoon as it’s raining outside. Well packed in blankets and drinking lots of hot chai we relax, talk and read. In summer this must be a very busy place – and certainly much warmer than now.
An other long day on the road awaits us, from Sangla to the beautiful treasure of Himachal Pradesh, the well hidden Tirthan Valley.
We drive through the Kullu along a small road, in Switzerland that would be a woodsmen road but here in India this is the National road and it’s a miracle how trucks, busses and cars can pass without scratching. The road gets more natural and there is a moment when my heart nearly stands still – the road has vanished and left only mud, we have to pass like all the others cars too but as we don’t have a 4wheeler our driver – who is the most excellent driver – had some problems to pass this tricky piece of “road”. When we reached the pick of Jalori Pass (3600m) we made a short brake but as is was snowing and the way down was as muddy as the way up so we continued our journey quickly.
After a short tea stop we reached Tirthan Valley – the last of all valleys as it seams to be for us. It gets dark and when we realize that we will reach our accommodation tonight only by passing a river in a cable car (well in Switzerland a transport box) we didn’t feel very comfortable. But being welcome by three curious dogs at what turned out to be paradise for us – was it worth to come here. Raju Barthi’s Guest House (Homestay) is the most peaceful loveliest amazing place I ever have stayed.
The first time my sister and I feel like having a time out. We could easily stay here for a couple of days.
The room, well a whole apartment with veranda in an old wooden house is a dream. Quickly we pack out as dinner is served soon. In front of the open fire we meet the other guests, a family from Bangalore and an elderly lady from Delhi. We have a wonderful time and the grilled trout is super tasty and the rest of the food amazing too. Raju (the father) has decided to build a guesthouse (well rather homestay) on his land about 20 years ago and his two sons and nephew do run it today (they are the front team), Raju comes in the morning to great the guests and give some advice for walks and his wife is the secret force in the kitchen. It’s all in all a family run guest house and you feel this every step you go. It’s a pleasure to walk through the orchard (apple, peaches, pears, cherries, apricot, plums) and down to the river. A path leads you to the nearby village of Gushaini (also the doorway to the Himalayan National Park) and as soon as you intend to go on a walk be sure that at least 2 of the 4 dogs will come with you.
Too soon we have to leave this paradise, the cable car sets us over the river and we drive another 9 hours to Bir, near Dharamsala.
We were thinking of skipping the rest of the tour and stay at Tirthan Valley but then we would love to see Dharamsala where my sister stayed a couple of weeks in 1999 and meet a friend in Amritsar. The landscape becomes more sweet but also more cultivated, the villages become little towns and the amount of people on the streets increases, we are definitely living the very rural and remote area of HP.
As our accommodation in Dharamsala (Norling Guesthouse at Norlingka Institute) was booked out for tonight the tour operator arranged a night at the Deer Park Institute in Bi, which is a busy village, and the Deer Park Institute (established by H.H. the Dalai Lama as a center of research of all religions) is next to the paragliding business the main reason why western tourists come here.
After breakfast we leave for Dharamsala, well MacLeod Gangji, but first we stop at Norling Guesthouse for check in and have a look at the temple and the little Tibetan culture museum. Norlingka was the Dalai Lamas summer residence in Lasha (Tibet) and was rebuild here in India 1:1.
We deposit our suitcases and leave for MacLeod Gangji, where the Dalai Lama lives (well he’s right now in Switzerland), the Tibetan Exile Government has its centre of “power” and most Tibetan refugees live. It’s a more or less Tibetan city. As it’s Sunday everything is closed and so our sightseeing program is over pretty quick.
We visit the magnificent temple and listen to the monks debating in the courtyard. Than we walk around the little lake, visit the monastery and go for shopping. By accident we find this very nice café “Moon Peak” where we have dinner and at night we drive back to our guest house.
It’s our last day of the tour and today we drive to Amritsar (Punjab) and leave the beautiful state of Himachal Pradesh behind us. The curves become less and soon we are on a straight road (lot’s of road work’s going on) towards Amritsar, it also gets hotter.
After a 6h drive we arrive in Amritsar where we meet a friend. We have to make a decision, as it would be also the time to drive to the border and have a look at the famous border ceremony which takes place every time around sunset but we decide to stay in town and visit the Jallianwala-Bagh-massacre memorial site and the very famous Golden Temple.
On Sunday, 13 April 1919, Brigadier General Dyer was convinced of a major insurrection and thus he banned all meetings. On hearing that a meeting of 15,000 to 20,000 people including women, children and the elderly had assembled at Jallianwala Bagh, Dyer went with fifty Gurkha riflemen to a raised bank and ordered them to shoot at the crowd. As the only way out was blocked by the soldiers, most people jumped into the well, which was filled with water and drown. Still today it’s not clear how innocent have died. The memorial place is a peaceful place.
At the Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) we leave our shoes outside and cover our hair before we enter. The Sikh religion is a “new” one, established about 500 years ago and probably one of the most open religion I know as they do respect and welcome people from all religions. In Sikh society everybody is equal therefore there is no cast system and the volunteering in the name of God has a long tradition. Uncountable volunteers make sure that everyday thousands of pilgrims and visitors are welcome, giving drinking water, food (the kitchen is amazing and the system to feed thousands of people every day 24h for free makes me speechless, what a fantastic organisation), lead to the temple, storage their shoes, guard the masses etc. The fist steps down the stairs and I can feel the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of this temple. It’s a magic place, full of joy and beauty. As soon as people see us they ask for photographs, because there was the Sikh new-year yesterday many people came from their Punjabi villages (where there hardly meet tourists) to Amristar and second reason might be that I was wearing a Punjabi dress (Kurta) and my sister is very tall and has blond hair. So I have no idea on how many photographs we are taken by people we don’t know and shown to strangers somewhere in a Punjabi village. We walk slowly around and soak in the special unique atmosphere. And suddenly I am remembered the scene from Rab Na Bani Di Jodi with Shah Rukh Khan and Anushka Sharma.
The Golden Temple, shines in the sunlight beautifully, we sit down for a while and just enjoy that magnificent view.
There were a lot of beautiful and fascinating experiences which I have just written about but there were also things hard to believe and to understand. Like the poor families in Delhi who have absolute nothing and live in self made tends next to the highway or the little children who try to sell flowers and other goods at red lights, bagging for money and following you even if you don’t intent do give them something. The second thing that made me sad was the garbage problem everywhere in rivers, down boards, on fields and streets (even if I must say that I was surprised how clean Delhi is). There is no waste management at all, waste separation and recycling, probably till the people realise that all the garbage that lies in rivers and on fields goes back to the ground water to their tap water in their bodies and cause illness.
But after all I fell in love with India and its people and would like to go back to India, maybe next summer to Ladakh (Leh), Kashmir and Spiti and in winter to Mumbai, Goa and the south, Kerala, Chennai. There is so much more to discover.
Thank you India and its people for this amazing wonderful experience!