Chaos and tranquility in India

The Ganges river near Rishikesh, India

24 September 2011

“That’s it, no more Chinese food!”, was the primary collective thought that Jenn and I had when boarding our flight from Beijing to New Delhi. It’s not that you can’t get good food in China but as two inexperienced travelers who have learned everything they know about Chinese cuisine from ordering chicken chow mein from the local take away, we were out of our depth. The other shared thought we had was one of trepidation of being thrown into the chaos of India after the relative order of China. We were bracing ourselves for being mobbed by taxi drivers at the airport, immediately having to cut a deal and get to the hotel we’d booked rather than the hotel the driver wanted us to go to. Other than that we were excited about going to a new country and raring to put the traveling skills we had learned so far to the test.

We arrived at 9pm and made for the prepaid taxi booth. This was a better alternative than being surrounded by prospective taxi drivers especially when you have no idea what the going rate should be. At the prepaid booth you tell the nice man where you want to go and pay him the fixed fair to go there. He then gives you a ticket which you give to your allocated driver when you get to your destination. He can then take this ticket back to the booth to get paid. Very civilised.

And it worked. Within minutes we were in an old Ambassador taxi cab speeding through the outskirts of Delhi with our luggage slung on the roof tied down by a flimsy piece of string. Cars and auto-rickshaws were weaving side to side between undefined lanes of traffic to the sound of almost continuous honking. We arrived at the hotel and were happy to hear that they were still serving dinner. It was a meal I will remember for a long time. The subtle flavours and spices were just so pleasant to taste after being somewhat deprived of a range of flavours in China.

We woke early and headed into the craziness of Delhi. We got an autorickshaw (aka auto or tuk-tuk) to the nearest metro station and traveled in the morning rush hour towards New Delhi Railway station. We planned to use the famous Indian railways to travel around North India but they are so popular that you will struggle to get a seat unless you book a few weeks in advance. We had already booked our first train from Delhi to Haridwar  but the website we used was now not working so we needed to book the other trains in person. Our plan for north India was to travel to Haridwar and Rishikesh around 200km north of Delhi. Then we would get a train back to Delhi and on to Agra. From there we would travel to Jaipur, then on to explore part of Rajistan then down to the hill station of Mt Abu finally finishing in Mumbai.

The train system in India is a little hard to get your head around. It has 8 different classes of travel although not all are available on each train. The higher classes give you more room and air-conditioning, the lower classes are a bit of a free for all but you have the opportunity of meeting a more interesting collection of ordinary Indians. As we were knew to this and a bit apprehensive we were aiming for the 1st, 2nd or 3rd classes. If there are no tickets left for your train of choice then you can buy one of an allocation of waiting list (RAC) tickets which allow you to board the train but you’re not guarenteed a seat unless someone cancels or doesn’t show up. If there are no waiting list tickets left then you can go on the waiting list for the waiting list but you can’t get on the train unless people cancel and you get promoted to the first waiting list. This is a great website that explains it all.

Luckily for us there is a special tourist train ticket bureau at New Delhi station to guide us through this minefield. The trick was to actually find it. We were hassled by touts at the station pretending to be ticket inspectors. They would tell us that the bureau had closed or burned down and we should follow them to a private travel agent. We always said no and got shouted at a few times. Eventually we found the official bureau on the upper floor. We managed to book tickets for all our trains but only because helpfully there is a special tourist quota. Even then, on some days the only train with seats available left at around 6am. So with 5 tickets booked including three leaving at 6am we went to catch our train to Haridwar. Our train, however, was leaving from a station on the other side of the city so we had to get a taxi there.

There is absolutely no problem finding a cab in India. We were mobbed by auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers all shouting to come with them and announcing how much they would charge us. Usually you agree a price before but we didn’t know how much it should be so we went with a taxi driver offering to use his meter. As we drove the meter raced up much faster than it should. After 5 minutes in heavy traffic the meter said we had gone 10km. But we got where we wanted and it was still very cheap compared to London taxis.

A dosa

We had time for an excellent lunch of dosas at a restaurant by the station. A dosa is a large slightly crispy pancake with a thick spicy vegetable mix inside served with a selection of sauces. We were quite shocked by how cheap it was at less than a pound. Full, we went off to catch our train.

The train left bang on time. There was a piece of paper on each carriage with a list of the names of all the passangers in that carriage. It was welcoming to see our names written on there. As we boarded the train we met a couple of American guys also on their way to Rishikesh which is a 20 minute taxi ride from Haridwar. The seats were comfortable and could fold up into bunks for sleeping even though this wasn’t an overnight train.

Relaxing on the train

Every few minutes someone comes through the carriage selling tea or tomato soup, crisps or biscuits, shouting out what they are selling with enthusiasm. The tea is very sweet and sold in small cups for 5 rupees.

I walked through the carriage past the other passengers, many whole families, some chatting, some stretching out in their bunks. It was exciting to be amongst people from a country so new to us. I went to the end of the carriage where the doors to the train were. They were wide open with people standing or sitting looking out onto the ever changing landscape that switches between countryside and town. From farm workers in fields of corn, rice and sugar cane to street traders, men pushing carts bundled up high with goods or others just sitting amongst the debris of old buildings lining the tracks.

One man who was standing by the door looking out asked me where I was from. “England”, I said, and I was surprised to learn that he had lived for many years in London but had now returned to his native country. “Hold on tight”, he said as he moved inside and let me stand right by the doorway. It was a feeling of freedom to be standing there with the warm wind in my face as we passed through the Indian countryside. They wouldn’t let you do this on a British train, I thought.

The landscape got greener as we traveled north towards the very beginnings of the foothills of the Himalayas. After five hours we arrived at the medium sized town of Haridwar. A Hindu holy town on the Ganges river. We now had to travel the 25km to Rishikesh our first main destination in India. We asked the two Americans we had met earlier if they wanted to share a cab and a few minutes later the four of us were standing outside the station getting mobbed by auto-rickshaw drivers. We agreed a rate and jumped in.

The Indian auto-rickshaw is small three wheeled vehicle with the driver at the front steering using handlebars like a motorbike rather than steering wheel. The back can seat either two passengers or four on the larger autos. There is a roof but the sides are open and this is the beauty of traveling in them, ‘natural air conditioning’, as one driver put it. You’re not insulated from the world like in a car but right there, able to see, hear and smell the surroundings.

And in this manner, as the sun slowly began to go down, we were carried on an exhilarating ride through rural India. As the wind rushed through the open windows we could smell an intoxicating mix of wood smoke, incense, eucalyptus trees and the delightful aroma of food being cooked. The narrow streets had autos, motorbikes, cars, horse drawn carts, ox carts and donkeys carrying huge loads, all maneuvering this way and that to get through. The beeping of horns was a constant noise along with the revving of bikes and autos. We passed through several towns along the way where the streets were lined with energetic stallholders selling fruit or popcorn amongst a throng of people passing by, men and women working or carrying heavy loads, or just chatting, a mass of humanity all out on the streets. The Americans whooped with delight at the stunning temples we passed as we bumped along at high speed. We just couldn’t help smiling as we were hit by India full in the face.

We saw many cows standing peacefully by the side of the road or sometimes right in the middle of the road, islands of tranquility in a sea of chaos. Monkeys played along the curbs of the road trying to steel fruit from the stallholders. After an hour and exhausted by our trip we entered Rishikesh and then went on to a smaller settlement to the north of the town by the Ganges river, a very mystical town and a place of pilgrimage for Hindus from all over India. We were pointed in the direction of a suspension bridge and continued on foot over the mighty Ganges which was black in the darkness. On the other side is the area known as Swargashram where we were staying. We phoned up our hosts and they sent someone out to show us to our accommodation. We said goodbye to our companions and walked along narrow lanes and small passageways between houses and dodging cows in the darkness until we arrived.

Why had we come all this way? Well, we had signed up for a six day yoga course. It was Jenn’s idea which I was happy to go along with but a bit worried as it would be my first time doing yoga. To me, spending a week at one of the world centres of yoga seemed like a rather advanced starting point for someone who can’t even touch their toes but I was prepared to give it a go. We had a dinner of great tasting vegetarian curry and went to bed early as we were scheduled to start at 6.30am.

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