I spent 10 days in Delhi, in the end. I heard from many travellers afterward that they couldn’t get out of Delhi fast enough but I found something about the ever-changing atmosphere of the city oddly endearing; the stark contrast of its neighbourhoods, littered with still standing remnants of empires long fallen, the mix of old and new, privileged and poor, and the general chaos of its many streets and markets. Every day I left the hostel I saw a different face of Delhi, and each one had very little in common with the last. From the high rise buildings of Connaught Place to the littered alleys of Hazrat Nizamuddin, the energetic vendors of Paharganj to the quiet tranquility of Lodi gardens, from a flashing McDonald’s sign to the Mughal grandeur of Humayun’s tomb. . . and all the small places in between, some of which I wouldn’t even be able to tell you the name of.
I spent time wandering the streets with a Dutch photographer who was shooting for Lonely Planet, oggled at Qu’tub Minar with a group of backpackers of assorted nationalities and rocked the dance floor in a bar in the suburbs with a dead cool British chick who had chosen India as her first backpacking destination (brave gal).
I also spent near 3 days at the start of things bed-ridden with ‘Delhi belly’, jet lag and a massive migraine. Never underestimate how strongly a bad chicken tikka masala can kick your ass. Or at least stop it from functioning in a desirable manner.
10 days went by in a flash and, by the time I left Delhi, I felt I was only beginning to scratch the surface of the very basics of India. Actually. . . I still feel that way.
After a truly horrendous 7 hour bus journey that could be a post in an of itself I was suddenly in Rishikesh, my first impression of which was a rickety shack in the middle of nowhere, 6am in the morning. I quickly befriended an Aussie named Blake and, once the two of us realized we had been recommended the same accommodation by friends, we shared an auto-rickshaw to High Bank. After a short stint of trying to discern which of the many Swiss cottages in the area our friends had advised us to stay (Bhandari Swiss cottage? New Bhandari Swiss cottage? Hilltop Swiss Cottage? Places here have a bad habit of opening up venues with VERY similar names once one place gets listed in Lonely Planet in the hopes of cashing in on the recommendation by roping in confused travellers. Let me tell you – it works), we found an epic room with an enviable view for 400 Rs at night (aprox. $8 CAD).
Blake had plans of heading to Parmarth Ashram the next day. About 2 weeks later it became a running joke that tomorrow, tomorrow he’d go. The Swiss Cottage, with its comfy beds, access to hot water and conveniently located restaurants just proved to be too much of a temptation for the poor soul, who had been on the road in India for about 3 months already. Added into the equation was a sudden clique of other travellers with whom we shared many a late night fire, tasty meal and contraband beer (alcohol is ‘forbidden’ in many of the cities considered holy within India).
We also shared a white water rafting trip down the Ganges for which I had, at the cost of another 400 Rs, low expectations. I thought, “this will be short, and mild. Little float down the Ganges, couple spots of passable waves, then done.”
I thought wrong.
After two streaks in which I came damn close to falling out, I was feeling an entirely unexpected adrenaline rush coursing through me. After a milder spot of rapids in which we all jumped out to float down with the current we parked on the rocks for a random spot of chai. Afterward we continued on past the epic suspension bridges of Laxman Jhula and Raman Jhula, over which a steady flow of pedestrians cross to Rishikesh proper, squeezing by cows and weaving motorcycles alike, all the while attempting not to make eye contact with the monkeys hanging out on the cables overhead. Or maybe that’s just me. The last time I stared one down it made like it was going to tear my face off so I’ve been wary of the little bastards since.
Honesty compels me to admit that, for all that, much of the near 3 weeks I was in Rishikesh passed by in a series of trivial frustrations. I had met up with Pete, a New Yorker I’d gotten in contact with over the Couchsurfing project, and the two of us had set about the process of testing out, then purchasing our Enfield Motorbikes. I also spent a stupid amount of time and rupees lining up a 3G internet connection via a USB key. Be warned: ‘Tomorrow’ is a more ambiguous term in India than back in the western world.
Back to the Enfields: this was a large part of why I had ended up in India in general, and Rishikesh in particular. After my farm-stay stint in Norway I was Couchsurfing with a lovely Norwegian named Hans, who had told me of the Enfield Bullet he had stored in Rishikesh. Somewhere along the way, “I’d love to ride a motorcycle through India” became, “I should”, became “I will”.
Which is condensing about 9 months into one sentence but, unfortunately, when you’re a little shit and leave off blogging for 3 weeks, that’s about as much as you can elaborate without making your blog into a novella.
Pete’s Thunderbird (which, no matter how much he tries to call it ‘blue’ is a rather fabulous shade of purple) and my Bullet Electra (another longer story summed up in one sentence: Hans’ bike was unfortunately a bad fit for me so I ended up, technically, buying then immediately trading it in for a different model) were due for a test drive before we hit the road proper with them. After staring at several maps in the hopes that some path would illuminate itself to us, we decided to hit the mountain roads for Uttarkashi with the optimistic hope we could check out the source of the Ganges at the Gaumukh Glacier in Gangotri, despite it being entirely the wrong season to trek there.
Spoiler: We couldn’t.
Also optimistically, we purchased a GPS unit which, through a creative drilling technique on the bike shop’s part, we were able to mount between my handlebars. I say we purchased it optimistically because the idea of anything working consistently, accurately and reliably in India is, not to paint a poor image of the country, somewhat naive.
The GPS functioned very well in telling us where we were, and less accurately in how we should go about reaching our next destination. After we got turned around on, ironically, a roundabout in New Tehri, we backtracked to Chamba to spend the night. The next day saw us reach our destination in Uttarkashi, albeit via some truly atrocious dirt roads. Precarious cliff drop-offs edged them, so we made slow time across. I took a spill at one point, skidding out in the dust as distressed locals came running up to help me right poor Hrithik (I may have named my bike after the Bollywood star. Who, once again, is here).
One moment stands out in my mind above all others: As we cleared one of the many hairpin turns on the road north I brought the bike to stop. Something, several things, several LARGE things, were sitting in the road ahead. Vultures.
I had never seen a vulture before, except possibly sitting on a branch in some sterile zoo. We pulled to the side, and pondered what the likely reaction of the carnivorous birds would be to us driving by. We were spared the deliberation, however, as another vehicle came us behind us and passed by. As it cleared the stretch of road where the volt was clustered, the vultures took flight, soaring through and above the valley to our side.
Their wingspan exceeded the stretch of my arms and then some. I have before never witnessed such a large bird in flight. As they circled overhead I had no words, no thoughts; I was simply awestruck by the ease and grace with which these massive creatures soared around us. Nature, like this, fills me with a sense of wonder which must be akin to what the religious feel upon entering one of the many temples I had already wandered through. But whereas walking through a temple leaves me with, at most, a sense of some respect for architecture, this. . .
. . .my heart felt very full.
In Uttarkashi we found out the road to Gangotri had just opened, but the trekking trail to Gaumukh remained closed. We opted instead to spend a day trekking within the area, viewing the first peaks of the Himalayas from over the treetops of the surrounding hills. At a lake a Baba invited us in for tea and awkward Hinglish conversation.
Heading up to the trek also saw the start of our education on motorcycle maintenance (which is less zen than book titles would have you believe): Sheila (Pete’s Thunderbird) snapped her clutch cable. A rather vital component, unfortunately. More fortunately, however, is that we were on a hill. The upper part of one.
With just two two short stints of pushing we coasted into town for the repair, for which we were only mildly ripped off. The next day was the journey home (home at the time being Rishikesh), where Sheila acted up again, piercing her back tire in a town little more than a chai shop along the road. I drove ahead, finding a shop just a kilometre away, repaired and drove the new tire back to Pete, who had made friends with the entire village in my absence.
The town waved us off and we continued on to Rishikesh, arriving in the dead of night to find all of High Bank booked out. Thankfully, people we’d befriended negotiated a bed for us . A couple mattresses were dragged into a room in need of painting, and we were set up for the evening, a proper room awaiting us the next day.
Our final days in Rishikesh saw us clear up the last details with the bikes, and get everything else in order for our grand departure: Laundry was cleaned, packs were sorted, tanks were filled and an (almost) accurate set of tools for further repairs was purchased.
Then we were off. Direction: Vrindavan, for Holi, India’s Spring ‘color festival’.