North India delights

The past couple of weeks seemed to have flown by as we covered the rest of our North India route. After Ladakh we were back in Delhi for a night where we visited the famous Lotus Temple and the not so famous Toilet museum. Time magazine had rated the toilet museum as the world’s third weirdest museum and it didn’t disappoint. It was really small but contained loads of history, various toilets and amusing historical anecdotes.

We’d booked a night train to take us to Amritsar, about 30 kilometres from the Pakistan border and home to the Golden Temple, the most sacred site for Sikhs and one they should visit at least once in their lives. Our train was delayed by three hours, but not late, a train can only be considered late if it is delayed by five hours or more apparently! When the train eventually arrived and we found our beds it was a cozy experience, with 6 bunk beds squeezed into a space about the size of our kitchen. It was more comfortable than I had expected but I didn’t get much sleep thanks to the man snoring all night from the top bunk. The Golden Temple was such a beautiful serene place to visit. It was a very short stroll from our homestay and we ended up visiting it three times, at different times of the day. Each time of course we got asked for endless selfies but we met and chatted to one lovely family early one morning who ended up treating us to coffee and telling us what they really thought of India! We have kept in touch and Rubal is planning on studying medicine in England. He tells me he will come and live with us when he does so and Joe has promised to cook him a roast chicken dinner.

Rubal and his sisters – whoever took the photo chopped half of Joey out!

Amritsar and the Golden Temple was a great place to meet lots of Indians, most of whom wanted to practice their English with us and ask questions, not sure we were the best people to practice English on, but we’re happy to chat! Likewise it gave us an amazing opportunity to find out more about the country and what the locals think. This is one of my favourite things to do, to stop and chat and ask questions.

The Golden Temple

The highlight of Amritsar though had to be going to the border of Pakistan to watch the daily lowering of the flag ceremony. Ever since I had read about this I had been keen to go. We caught the tourist bus there which was full of locals and one other westerner. Upon arrival you go through security and are filtered off into the ‘foreigners gallery’. The crowd get warmed up by Indian women being invited down to the stadium who then take it in turns to run up and down whilst brandishing huge flags. The music gets turned up and they all gather in a large crowd basically looking like they are clubbing to Bollywood music.

Then the border guards are bought out and take it in turns to march in the most elaborate fashion towards the Pakistani border whilst kicking their legs as high as they will go (these men are pretty much doing the standing splits). Then it’s the turn of the Pakistani guards, it’s all done with straight faces but in a good natured manner. Finally the two flags are lowered in perfect unison. What struck us what the passion and intensity that these two nations were showing. Having earlier heard from several different people about how corrupt they found their country it was nice to see the respect and love for India.

Border Guard doing the standing splits

After Amritsar our plan was to head back north to Shimla, which is where the British used to head to escape the heat of the summers. To get there we needed to first head to Chandigarh for an overnight stop. Chandigarh is home to a ‘rock garden’ which was designed and single handily constructed by Nek Chand. It’s hard to describe what this is actually like but I would start by saying it’s a surrealist’s fantasy crossed with Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and one of my nightmares! Chand constructed this in secret from rubble created when villages were destroyed to make way for the city of Chandigarh. The garden consists of statues, amphitheatres and huge swings. There’s also a weird rag doll museum. One day the government discovered Chand’s secret garden which had been built on forest land and threatened to destroy it, but thankfully they realised the worth of what he had created and instead gave him the resources to carry on his work. No photos will ever do this place justice so I will just implore you all to go.

Rock Garden in Chandigarh

It was really hot in Chandigarh which we had been getting used but for some reason I was really struggling in the heat and wasn’t able to find any relief in the shade. The plan had been to visit a lake which was a short walk from the gardens and then head into the city for the Rose garden. I was really struggling and not feeling my usual perky self. I asked Joey if he would mind if we caught a tuk tuk back to the city so I could try and find some air con. We arrived back, I walked about 100 metres and promptly threw up in the middle of the street in front of a restaurant which had been highly recommended to us! I was absolutely mortified, felt so ill and just burst into tears. It’s inevitable when travelling that you will become ill but I’d always hoped for the privacy of our guesthouse rather than a busy street for this to happen. The first time being ill is always the worst and it’s during those moments when I’m being my most melodramatic and feeling that I might actually die that I want to come home. We booked an Uber to take us back to the guesthouse and I spent the afternoon being ill in the privacy of the bathroom.

The guesthouse where we were staying couldn’t do enough for us. They bought a kettle to our room so I could have boiled water and later on bought me some plain rice to eat as well as checking on me regularly.

We’d booked a taxi for 4.30am the next morning to drive us to Kalka, 45 minutes away to catch the narrow gauge ‘toy train’ to Shimla. I’d been looking forward to this and from what I saw it was picturesque, just a pity I spent most of the time sleeping!

We’d booked a hotel in the town centre of Shimla and to be honest I didn’t have high expectations for it. Accommodation seemed to be mediocre and close to the action or good and several kilometres away. Nonetheless I was looking forward to checking in and resting.

Of course there was zero chance of this happening. What actually happened is that we turned up and were greeted by the worst hotel we have ever had the misfortune to step into. The staircase leading up to the room was grim, the floor sticky, the walls marked with goodness only knows what and plug sockets hung loose from the wall. The toilet didn’t flush, there was a full ashtray and I would definitely bet that day’s budget on the sheets not being clean. So we did something that we’d never done before and immediately left and went to hunt for something else. Town centre accommodation didn’t seem that great so we found a step for me to slump on as I still wasn’t feeling that great and just booked a well rated homestay on booking.com

It was several kilometres outside of Shimla so we called an Ola and immediately made our way there. This turned out to be an excellent move as Akash and his family were so welcoming to us and our last minute arrival, making us lunch and feel so welcome. They laughed when we told them where we had come from and looked after us as a member of their own family for the time we were there. We had to take taxis to the town to see the famous monkey temple (and a monkey running down the hill with someone’s glasses in his hand!) but it was worth it. Especially when it came to Joey’s turn to be ill. He had it worse than me and we were in for a rough night. Again Akash and his dad were amazing, looking after us. I went for breakfast whilst Joey was sleeping and spent an hour chatting to them about life in England and life in India. They had been watching BBC news and were intrigued about the current Brexit situation and couldn’t quite get their heads around the idea that the country as a whole hadn’t actually elected Boris.

They owned a couple of cows which provided the milk I had been enjoying at breakfast and Akash’s dad took me for a walk to meet the cows whilst Joey slept. They were kept at his family’s house and it was a privilege to go and meet his mother, father and brother. Although they could not speak much English it was a pure delight to go and be treated to their hospitality and see the land they owned and were so obviously proud of.

Not every day that you get to see where your food comes from

Akash and his family were the perfect homestay hosts, messaging us after we had left to check we had arrived safely at our next destination. Plus they had a great dog, Pepsi, who totally stole our hearts!

We caught a bus to Manali further up in the foothills of the Himalayas. What we thought would be a straightforward bus journey turned into us having to catch three different buses! Halfway through our journey we were bundled off our relatively comfy, if somewhat dusty, bus and onto one with benches for seats and spent two hours crammed together with our rucksacks on our laps! Then we were ushered off that bus, made to walk 300 metres across a bridge to another bus to continue our journey. The road got very very bumpy at this point and was obviously still under construction. We absolutely howled with laughter as we were thrown out of our seats several times. It’ll be a great road once it’s finished!

It was getting dark by the time we arrived in Manali and we’d booked a hostel which we knew was a little hard to find. The tuk tuk struggled to climb the hill leading to it and at one point the driver threw us both out and struggled up the hill with our luggage whilst we were left to walk on ourselves and hope that he didn’t intend to go too far with our worldly goods!

We bumped into a guy who pointed us to the set of steps at which we had been told our hostel was a two minute walk from. These steps were steep, wet and slippery, non uniform and covered in cow and horse manure. Definitely not a delightful two minute walk when you have 15kg on your back. We passed a natural spring and it didn’t take long for me to turn native by gathering drinking water from here daily and washing my mug there.

It was worth the climb though as the views were amazing. We spent 6 nights here exploring the old town, temples and waterfalls. Our favourite part was the village of Vashisht which had hot springs. I was super excited about this as it was likely to be the nearest I would get to a bath anytime soon. There were separate areas for men and women and I went prepared for modest India with my tankini and a cover up to wear. Only to my surprise everyone was topless! This certainly wasn’t the conservative country I’d gotten used to. Never have I felt more British and prudish then the prospect of having to get undressed in front of a bunch of strangers, but when in India….

Manali

Manali was certainly an experience with the cliche of the fragrance of stoned backpackers hanging thick in the air. We enjoyed our time here and our currently fighting fit and ready to head to the touristy state of Rajasthan. For those who don’t know we have a Facebook page (Meandering Maxwells) and Instagram accounts (@meandering_maxwells for me and @methodmaxwell for Joey) where hopefully you can find more photos.

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