In Ringo's footsteps

Trip Start Aug 16, 2005
Trip End Apr 14, 2006

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Where I stayed
Sant Sewa Ashram Guesthouse, Lahksman Jhula

Flag of India  , Uttarakhand,
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Rishikesh was made famous when the Beatles visited in 1968 to study meditation and then fell out with their guru. Apparently a lot of the songs from the White Album were written here. Ringo famously said he found the town like Butlins and went back to England early!

We stayed in an Ashram right on the banks of the Ganges and next to a temple. The view from the balcony outside our lovely big room was up the river and towards the mountains. It's all very green and scenic and the air smells fresh. There are far fewer cars and therefore less horn use. Although there is still some litter, it is much less prevalent than everywhere else I've been in India. Infact, Rishikesh is my favourite destination so far. However, it is an important religious centre (as it is at the point where the Ganges leaves the mountains and enters the plains) and attracts lots of pligrims. This means that at 6am we were woken by a conch shell being blown and loud bells that went on for 15 minutes. Noooooo!

The town is very westernised and therefore much more chilled than other parts of India. You can go into shops and browse without the shop owner jumping up and shoving potential purchases in your face. This makes an atmosphere much more conducive to buying things, and I've finally acquired some nicer clothes. All the tourist restaurants seem to be jack-of-all-trades offering pizza, pasta, mexican, israeli, chinese, english (I have eaten a 'special' Indian version of mashed potato that was more like porridge), indian, tibetian and continential dishes.

I took 2 yoga lessons at our Ashram with 'Dr Das' - a young supple bodied and gorgeous Indian man with long flowing hair. Unfortunately, he has a droning monotone voice which I'm sure is meant to be relaxing but just amused me. He says things like 'inhale proper deep through your nostriles', 'Coooooome Baaaaaack' (when instructing the class to finish holding a position), and 'Put your the foot on your the thigh'. Having said that, I really enjoyed the classes but you can't really progress much on only 3 hours of yoga practice.

Mandy and I attended an Aarti ceremony at a ghat in the centre of town. Hundreds of pilgrim gather at the river's edge at dusk and make offerings to the Ganges. These are usually flowers, incense and a candle, cradled in leaves which you can buy at stalls that line the beach. At Rishikesh the Ganges is still clean and relatively clear. One man had a plastic bag from which he was sprinkling lots of flowers and petals into the river. Was it absolutely necessary for him to throw the plastic bag in afterwards? I just can't get my head around this aspect of the religion - what they see as a gift to their sacred river actually contributes to its foul polluted state further downstream. Is that really how you should treat something sacred? It baffles me. Still, the sight of the flickering lights bobbing along did look very pretty and the priests did a great job swinging flaming tridents around and chanting.

On our second evening in Rishikesh we met up with Flic and Alex again, who had been joined by Sarah and Simon, 2 other friends from Brighton who have been travelling for 10 months. So, now we are 6, take up whole corners in restaurants, can share the cost of transport and do activities when we want instead of having to wait to join other groups. It's a very different feeling to travelling in a couple.

Being a vegetarian in India is an absolute joy. Rather than having a small section of 'Vegetarian' dishes relegated to an obscure corner of the menu, in India they will have a few options called 'Non Veg'. It's great! Infact whole towns, Rishikesh being one, are meat free. Unfortunately Rishikesh is also alcohol free but we got round this because Flic and Alex bought some bottles of vodka from the UK. We spent most of our 'special water' drinking time on the balcony outside their room. One evening we were sitting overlooking the street down below with a great view of the sun setting over the Ganges. Simon got some music playing and we had a little party going. A monkey walked along the rooftop of the building opposite and sat staring at us, just as 'hey hey we're the monkeys' came on. It was a special moment!

My first white water rafting trip was great fun. Well, I felt elated just after we had got through each rapid, but the moments during them were a different story. I was pretty terrified of falling out. We travelled 25km down a grade 3+ river and went through 9 big rapids. They had names (which struck fear into me on the approach) like the rollercoaster, three blind mice, crossfire, return to sender etc. The largest was called the golf course (because of all the holes - it's preceeded by a smaller rapid called Tee off and followed by the clubhouse). Most of my screaming was due to being dowsed in freezing Ganges water but seeing a wall of white water rearing up infront of the inflatable dingy that I was perched on didn't help. And perched is all that I was. I assumed that we would be strapped in or something, but no. We had to sit on the edge of the boat and lean out to paddle. I soon discovered it was impossible to paddle and hold onto the safety rope. I was at the mercy of the river and luckily it looked after me.

We all felt the need to do some training for our forthcoming trek, so set off to walk up to Jungapuri Temple on top of a hill behind Rishikesh. We had been told that it was a three and a half hour ascent and that we should start early to avoid the heat of the day. Running late as usual, we set off at 9am and it was already scorching. The start of the walk was through very pleasant hillside with a crystal clear tinkling stream (a rare sight in India), waterfalls on the other side of the valley, shade from mature trees and families of black-faced langur monkeys gambling about. But as the sun rose in the sky and it got hotter, the vegetation got smaller and we got a bit lost. Back on track the path started to zig zag steeply up the hill. Shade was harder and harder to find and our water was going down quickly. After 3 hours we seemed to be nearing the top, only to round a corner and see a tiny temple in the distance on a hill towering above our false summit. We slogged on and on. We passed through some very rural villages perched on the steep side of the mountain with lush terraced farmland. We were soon looking down on most of the other peaks in the area. As we got nearer the 'temple' we could see that it was a modern white building with a satelite dish - maybe it was actually the residence of a drug baron...?

Finally we arrived at a little shop below the temple and fell into it to buy water. Going through the entrance gateway we were dismayed to see hundreds of steps stetching up before us! Indians who had arrived in taxis and on motorbikes skipped up the steps overtaking us. We could hardly muster the energy hobble up them but arrived exhausted but happy, after 5 hours of climbing, to the temple itself. It wasn't a very exciting building but on the other side of the compound we looked out to a panorama of mountains, hairpin-bend roads and tiny settlements, stretching into the distance. On a clear day you can see the Himalayas proper from this viewpoint. At mid afternoon on a hazy day we thought we could just make out some cloud-shaped cloud-coloured objects on the horizon that might possibly be the fabled mountain range, but we'll never know for sure.

We walked down the road a few kilometres and caught a bus back to Rishikesh. The road clung to the edge of cliffs and hairpinned back down to the plains. Trucks and other buses forced our vehicle to pull into ditches or swing nerve-rackingly close to the edge. Lots of signs warn drivers to slow down but they have a very strange way of doing it. Here are some for your amusement: 'speed thrills but kills', 'if you are married, divorce speed' and 'drive slowly and enjoy the beautiful nation'.

The next day we discovered we had done a 1300m ascent and felt marginally better about finding it such a slog. We had actually climbed the the height of Ben Nevis.

Our last afternoon in Rishikesh was spent on one of the river beaches away from the town - I never thought I'd be able to wear a bikini in India, but here I was! The sand was very soft and fine with sparkly bits in it. At the river's edge it turned to sludgy mud that I thought felt really nice but Sarah said was slimy. We all sunbathed, paddled and read in the hot afternoon, and soon enough it was too good to be true. A trio of young locals were circling and staring. Us girls covered up and the bravest youth came in for the kill and struck up a conversation with Alex about David Beckham. After that they wouldn't go away and I had an awkward moment trying to put my trousers back on whilst my friends gallantly tried to shield me from the ever gawping eyes. Nothing is private in India.

On the way back to Delhi we had a few hours to kill in Haridwar - another important pilgrammage site on the Ganges. The town is busy, dusty and confusing and we made our way towards a cable car which runs up to a temple on top of a hill. When we got there the sign announced 'ropeway to the Gods' and we looked forward to escaping above the busy town for some peaceful views and contemplation. It was not to be! On arriving at the top we found we were in a complex surrounded by chicken wire, heaving with pilgrims, crowded with shops selling prasad (offerings to the deity) and blasted by competing distorted whining Indian music coming from each of the stalls. Not quite sure why we had come all the way up here, we found an exit and escaped from the claustrophobic compound onto an outcrop of rock from which we could appreciate the view over the famous ghats.

A word about the sweeping in this country. It is very dusty and dirty, but the roads seem to be continuously swept. Always you can see or hear someone sweeping in the street. However, the problem is that they seem to sweep things into piles but then don't move the piles anywhere. Shop keepers on either side of a street sweep towards the centre of the road, but then the traffic drives through the rubbish and it all gets spread around again. As a pedestrian you are constantly having clouds of dust swept into your legs and having to step over piles of previously swept dirt.

We caught a train back to Delhi where we would spend a couple of days before heading to the Eastern Himalayas.
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ng2560 on

Very interesting analysis

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