I worked out last night that, by the time I reach Delhi again next week, I will have traveled about 6,000 miles overland in India. That's an average of just under 100 miles a day, from Bangalore to Rajasthan to Sikkim and back to Rajasthan. It certainly hasn't felt like that distance, but I have arranged for my last couple of weeks to be more relaxed.
Pushkar is one of India's holiest cities. According to legend, it is the only place where Brahma can be worshiped. The town is based around a lake, with a couple of hill-top temples overlooking it. Last time I was here (for a few hours in 2010) the lake was almost dry, but it currently seems to be full.
Pushkar is a center for travelers, and a lovely place to relax. My friend Vicky suggested a guesthouse called Lake View, which turned out to be superb: comfortable, cool rooms and a rooftop patio overlooking the ghats. I've been taking life easily here, walking to the two hill top temples and eating some fantastic food.
Tonight I'm heading to Rishikesh. I'd hoped to take the train, but I don't seem to be rising up the waiting list, so I will probably fall back on the 17 hour coach ride. It could be a long night. Still, Risikesh is likely to be very relaxed, and my friends Caspar and Emily should be already there when I arrive.
But before I set off, I'm going to have a 'Bowl of Joy' at Honey and Spice.
While Delhi has many centuries of history, Calcutta only became important in the 1700s. This means that there are fewer places to visit and, after a couple of days, Dad and I had seen most of the things we wanted to. We generally took things easy and I ate a lot of pasta and pesto.
Dad headed home from Calcutta and I took the train west to Varanasi. I was a little nervous about Varanasi as the city can be a little unrelenting, but things went smoothly. I was lucky I booked ahead as there was a big Shiva festival and the city was pretty much full (one friend had to stay in a guesthouse owner's home).
Varanasi is the most incredible city I've ever seen. It lines a section of the Ganges, with steps (ghats) down to the water. The ghats are filled with temples, holy men, con artists, drug dealers, cricket games and lots of cows. I spent the afternoons promenading, amazed by the sights around me.
Just back from the riverbank is the old city, a maze of narrow streets (but not so narrow people don't insist on riding motorbikes down them). It's very easy to get lost which is sometimes a good thing, and other times not. There are also some less hectic ghats to the North, where there are fewer tourists and fewer people offering boat rides.
I found out that my friends Emily and Caspar, last seen in Udaipur, were also in the city, so we met up and wandered about together for a while. I don't understand Varanasi very well – the city seems so strange and complicated. But it's an amazing place to visit.
I'd decided to book a 12:40am train out of Varanasi, since that meant I would reach Delhi at a sensible time. The downside of this was 2 1/2 hours waiting on the station. Still, the monkey stealing grapes from a fruit seller was entertaining. The journey itself was a drag and I was glad to reach Paharganj in Delhi. Tomorrow I'm off to Pushkar, which should be interesting and restful.
Sikkim proved to be very restful, despite the cold. It also felt very remote, due to the small population, most of whom are perched on the side of mountains. On the Friday Dad and I took a jeep tour of Western Sikkim, the highlight of which was Khecheopalri lake. Legend claims that should a leaf land on the lake's surface, a bird will land to take it away. It was an incredibly peaceful place, prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.
Saturday I went for a hike of about 12 miles to visit the Rani Dhunga, a cave near Pelling. The trek was harder than I anticipated, and I was shocked at my heartrate for most of it. Much to my shame, there were people climbing the same trail with 50kg bags of concrete.
After Sikkim we returned to Darjeeling. The mountains there were still hidden by clouds and we spent much of the time resting. On Tuesday we took shared jeep down from the mountain then an overnight train to Calcutta.
Calcutta is a calmer city than I expected, and fairly easy to get around. So far I've visited the main museum (I am becoming a connisseur of bad taxidermy) and took an epic hike to the sculptor's district, walking back along the banks of the river. I'm here for a couple more nights then I say goodbye to Dad before setting off on my journey back West via Varanasi.
Having been away for so long, I'm missing certain home comforts. I was very glad to find Raj's Spanish Cafe, which serves pasta and pesto. It was so good last night that I'm going to have the same thing again tonight.
The Shimla-Delhi road is as-featured-on-TV, namely on Ice Road Truckers: World's Most Dangerous Highways Season 1. It may well have been a little bit hairy but I had my eyes tightly closed so that I didn't throw up from the constant turns. I was very pleased when we arrived on flat ground.
From Delhi we took a day-trip to Agra, which lived down to its reputation for touts but was still an amazing day. We went intentionally on a Friday, since we didn't want to visit inside the Taj. Instead we went to Fatepur Sikri, an amazing ruined city which surpassed expectations – I actually preferred it to the Taj itself. We took our mandatory view of you-know-what from the Mehtab Bagh across the river, where there were only a few people taking photos.
The 26 hour journey from Dehli to New Jalapguri (the mainline station closest to Darjeeling) turned out to be, in fact, 22 hours including delays. The downside of this was that I started falling ill with a bad cold. We decided to head straight to Darjeeling rather than wait overnight in New Jalpaguri or Kurseong, and arrived a day early.
Sadly Darjeeling is wreathed in clouds, so none of the mountains I remember from my last trip are there. However, it was good to return to Hotel Tranquillity to recuperate, even if the town was very cold. While Darjeeling's temperature is higher than Brighton right now, the hotel doesn't have heating, so we are relying on hot water bottles and many layers of clothes.
From Darjeeling, we took a shared Jeep to Sikkim. The shared jeeps are a little like that game of how many people can you fit in a mini. I think 8-9 people would fit comfortably. At one point we had 14 people (two of them hanging on the back). The road to Sikkim was tiny, a single-track mountainside dirt road in places. By the time we arrived it was raining (the first rain I've seen this year) and the power was out in the hotel. Still it was a relief to reach Pelling after 6 hours of travel, even if it did feel a little like a horror movie.
Today I've visited a couple of beautiful Buddhist monasteries, both of which involved lots of climbing. The mountains nearby put in a brief appearance about 7am, but have been hidden by clouds since. Still, at least it's warmer. I think we're going to spend a few days here, and pray for clear skies.
On January 26th, Dad and I attended the Republic Day Parade. The crowds to reach the enclosures were huge and quite frightening, but once we were sat down everything was peaceful. We saw cultural floats, various regiments (including a camel-mountain bands) and military vehicles, among them the Agni-4 nuclear missile. It was strange to see this and to hear the applause from the crowd.
Next day we set off to Amritsar. While the Golden Temple itself was beautiful and worth seeing, the city itself was busy and noisy, filled with aggressive traffic. We attended the Wagah Border Ceremony which is often recommended because of the pythonesque military drill preceding the closing of the India-Pakistan border. While it was amusing, the trip was 5 hours and seemed a little much. One of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, since I can't see myself repeating it.
It was a relief to set off for the mountains of Shimla. It's cold up here, but the views are incredible. I've been on some great walks, including a climb up to the mountain-top Hanuman temple yesterday. The only downside is that, while there is very little traffic in Shimla, I had an awful run here. I did 3 miles yesterday that felt harder than the previous week's half-marathon. I suspect that is because of the altitude (about 2000m).
Tomorrow we return to Delhi where I will be downloading some more books on to my Kindle ready for the epic 30 hour train ride to the other side of India.