Rishikesh, Jammu, and Manali: Our Attempts to Escape to the Himalayas
Our five days in Rishikesh were very chill and laid back. We arrived in the town around 5:00 AM from our sleepless drive from Agra. The bumpy bus ride didn’t necessarily rock us to sleep and the fully reclined Indian gentleman in front of me successfully reduced my leg room to zero. Legs and knees in the aisle, I counted down each hour until we arrived in Haridwar. Another public bus ride and we landed in Rishikesh. Our first few hours in the town were spent sleeping in the lobby of our hostel as our rooms weren’t ready. When we awoke, we searched for breakfast and a company to take us river rafting. Our original plan was to do a two day rafting adventure. After a quick conversation with a rafting company, we learned that our first day in town was the last day of the rafting season. The river was running high and fast due to the monsoon rains. All rafting companies halt operations in July due to the rains. Exhausted, we took advantage of our timing and signed up to to a twenty six kilometer rafting trip down the Ganges. We were with another group of seven people in their late twenties from New Delhi. Lucky, Jordan, Alex, and I essentially had a boat to ourselves. We had a guide Dave, who was close to our age, and the rafting companies bus driver all in our boat. The bus driver had never been rafting before, so for the final day, the company let him come along for the ride. The river was the fastest river I have ever been in. We did the entire twenty six mile trip in half the time it normally takes. The normally crystal blue water was turned a light brown due to the sediment the river had picked up. Although the rapids were smaller due to the high water level, they were powerful. Paddling into the overhead wall of white water our boat would get nearly vertical before slamming back onto the frothing water. For some of the more mellow rapids, we jumped out of the boat and floated them. At the end of our trip, Dave thanked us and mentioned that it was nice to raft with people who knew how to swim and would actually paddle. From what it sounded like, many of their clients, don’t know how to swim and don’t like to put much effort towards paddling. When a boat of seven people flips and none of the know how to swim a less than ideal situation arises.
After using up my final energy reserves from my two hours night rest, the rest of the day was spent sleeping. The other activity, I couldn’t help signing up for was bungee jumping. Rishikesh has an eighty three meter bungee jump. The bungee platform was about forty five minutes outside Rishikesh on mountain roads that were a few rainstorms away from becoming a landslide. The only thing more exciting than the jump itself was the man who was going before me. It appeared this man was in Rishikesh on vacation from another province in India. When he got to the jump platform the man was obviously petrified. As you walked out to the jump platform there were signs everywhere reading “ two jump attempts”. Initially, confused on what this sign meant, I was right behind the perfect explanation. As the New Zealander running the jump operation, called the “jump master”, counted down the vacationer prepared himself to jump. At the end of the countdown the man about to bungee didn’t fully jump and only made it halfway off the platform. The jump master was forced to grab the jumper’s harness to keep him from tumbling awkwardly off the platform. At this time, the jump master was holding the cowering jumper as the jumper straddled the jump platform. He was completely parallel to the ground below with one leg on top of the platform and another dangling in the free space below. The flat platform was completely in-between his legs. With a groan of frustration, the jump master pulled the jumper up and told him he had one last try and to “not pull that s**t again”. After a swift count, the jumper was off the ledge free falling. The jump itself was amazing. First you free fall down just long enough to question if the bungee is actually attached. Then your speed gradually slows and you begin to accelerate upward at what feels like the same speed you descended. This process repeats itself about three times until you are lowered to the ground. Overcome with adrenaline and excitement your heart is racing for at least ten minutes after and you can’t help but beam with excitement.
The rest of our time in Rishikesh was very relaxing. We hung out, Jordan and Alex frequented the gym, and we snacked at a variety of restaurants. Up until we got to Rishikesh we were going nonstop between the major tourist sights in Northern India. Set in the foothills of the Himalayas, Rishikesh provided the perfect environment to relax in. This town is well known as it is where the Beetles came to study meditation in the late 1960’s. The entire city was built into the hills with the Ganges running through the middle it. Ashrams and Hindu temples were scattered throughout the village and all foreign tourists could be seen either carrying yoga mats or tieing up their dreads. As the birthplace of yoga, many people travel to Rishikesh to become certified yoga instructors. Others take long intensive classes where you eat, sleep, and breath yoga. Although we didn’t do anything as intensive as that, we did take a yoga class every day we were there. We found a studio that accepts walk-in clients. Lucky for us, two of our four days of yoga, we were the only yoga students. This essentially gave us access to a private yoga instructor and for $3.00 each, it was in the budget. Mitra, our yogi, went into extreme detail on how to do the most basic postures correctly. The majority of our first two classes were spent working on basic poses. Mitra would help explain what each individual part of the body should be doing in order to get the full benefit of each position. The type of yoga we did was hatha yoga. This is the most basic type of yoga that focuses on individual positions rather than a quick flow of positions one after another. Although we only had four sessions with Mitra they were enough to get us hooked and a very good foundation to build upon.
We departed Rishikesh to New Delhi as Jordan was taking his adventure to Vietnam. After desperately trying to convince him to stay, our persuasions were a lost cause. This was mostly due to the fact that Jordan was meeting his girlfriend in Vietnam and staying with us would mean ditching her. As sad as we were to lose Jordan, we were equally excited for him to travel Vietnam and experience the same beautiful country we spent a month and a half in. After an hour long tuk tuk ride out of Rishikesh, we arrived at the Haridwar train station to get to Delhi. All the electronic signs at the train station were broken which made finding our train a little more difficult than anticipated. On top of the broken signs, our train number on our ticket was different than the actual train number we were on. Lucky, New Delhi is a pretty popular destination in India and some security guards were able to point us in the right direction. We arrived in New Delhi at 10:00 PM to meet a kind taxi driver who managed to screw us out of a few hundred rupees. He told us he was going to take us on a metered taxi ride where the fare is based per mile and will guarantee you the cheapest possible ride. A few minutes into our ride, Alex noticed the meter was not on and told the driver that he needed to turn the meter on as promised. After a weak attempt to turn on the meter, our driver informed us that it was broken but the ride would only cost 700 rupees. The price should have been 200 rupees max. Infuriated, we argued with the driver but he kept his mouth shut and just kept driving. By this point it was 10:30 PM and our driver had strategically taken us down some sketchy streets on the back roads in New Delhi. Not feeling safe to hop out of the car, we quickly realized that we were getting scammed and there was nothing we could do about it. In the scheme of things we only lost a few dollars each but I just felt like an idiot for falling for that scam.
The next morning we woke up and wished Alex a happy birthday. Lucky for him he got to spend his entire twenty fourth birthday in New Delhi. Our main plan in New Delhi was to buy gear for our treks and book our travel to Srinagar. This is exactly what we did. We booked a train to Jammu and a bus from Jammu to Srinagar. We were able to buy some warmer clothes, trekking boots, water filters, and five days worth of food. Not only were we able to find food suitable for backpacking but we also found peanut butter, which has been nonexistent throughout Asia. One fifth of our food costs went to peanut butter. We also purchased a bunch of pre-packaged Indian food, oatmeal, ramen noodles, nuts, and dried fruit. Although the food is not the lightest it will be delicious and hopefully sustain us for our five days in the Kashmiri Himalayan wilderness.
For Alex’s birthday dinner, we managed to find beef hamburgers, which are extremely difficult to find due to the whole “cows are holy” thing. We bought a cake from one of the oldest bakeries in New Delhi, used a lighter for a candle, and enjoyed the cake in our hotel beds. Jordan departed that night and Alex and I prepared for our trip to Jammu, which is situated ten miles from the Pakistan border. From here our plan was to travel by bus to Srinagar and go hiking through some glacier lakes in the Himalayas. We originally planned to spend less than a day in Jammu. We arrived at 6:00 AM and planned to catch a bus out of the town at 10:00 PM using our purchased ticket from our hotel in New Delhi. We spent most of the day hanging out in our hotel room watching really bad American action films on the tv. There was just nothing in Jammu worth seeing. We were over the whole temple thing and there was a mediocre fort that wasn’t worth the two dollar tuk tuk ride. The sweltering heat and humidity may have also influenced our decision. While we enjoyed our cinematic adventures in our very basic hotel, we initially kept our doors open to allow some airflow in and out of the room. Our non-air conditioned room was one of many situated around an enclosed courtyard. This open area had benches for the hotel residents to hang out on. Being the only white people in the hotel, and probably in Jammu, we naturally attracted some attention. People would walk up to our open door stop and just stare at us. After a few seconds of staring we would say “hello” and with a simple head nod, they would leave. One interesting thing about the locals in India is that they nod to the side, not up and down. I don’t know if it’s just a way for them not to fully commit to anything but no one nods their head up and down. It’s always side to side or just a simple twitch to one side. After about five people got their stares in, we began to get a little annoyed. One man went as far as to walk into our room, walk up along side our bed we were using as our viewing platform, and stared. It was one of the oddest experiences I have had thus far on the trip. After asking if we could help the man he started talking in Hindi or another Indian dialect. I guess he didn’t stare long enough at us to realize that our appearance doesn’t scream “we can understand all Indian dialects.” After trying to explain to him we didn’t understand what he was saying, he finally left. Our door was shut after that. But shutting the door was not enough. One Indian hotel guest opened our door, stared, and shut it. Our door remained shut and locked for the rest of our time in Jammu. After locking the door, we would hear the door shake as people still tried to open it. Super uncomfortable and even more annoyed, we tried to ignore it and watch the tv. The power in Jammu would also go out three to four times a day. The blackouts would last for as short as a few minutes or as long as a few hours. Between the staring, heat, and power outages, we were ready to get out of Jammu.
An hour before we were supposed to board our bus, we double checked our ticket to find out that our hotel booked it for the wrong day. Our bus ticket set us to depart the next night. Unable to change our bus ticket we were graced with the opportunity to spend another day in beautiful Jammu. The next day was spent doing the same thing we did the day before. We watched tv in between blackouts, ate ice cream to cool us off, and tried to ignore the stares. We were stared at while walking the streets, eating in restaurants, and any other time we were in the open. Throughout our travels, we have drawn some glances but nothing like we experienced in Jammu, it was really odd. A few hours before we were supposed to leave to Srinagar, we met a kid who was close to our age. He owned and managed apple orchards from a town just outside of Srinagar. He was in Jammu as he and his family got into a fight over him living with his girlfriend. Growing up as a devout Muslim, moving in with a girlfriend before marriage was pretty frowned upon. We met him outside our room and invited I’m inside to hang out. We began explaining our travel plans to him. When we told him we were leaving to Srinagar, his eyes got wide and a look of concern came over his face. He followed his concerned expression with a stern “no your not.” All roads in and out of Srinagar were just closed off, a curfew was imposed, and all cell service and internet was shut down. We were told the Indian government physically cut cables to stop communications. Not one hundred percent sure if the physical cutting was true, but it was a rumor going around.
The day before this conversation we heard about riots going on in Srinagar. The riots began on Eid al-Fitr, which is the last day of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. Protests in Kashmir, a Muslim majority state where Srinagar is located, are fairly common. The ownership of the land has been disputed between India and Pakistan ever since India was given independence from Pakistan. In very simple and general terms, the Muslims in Kashmir want to be a part of Pakistan as it is a Muslim majority country. They feel oppressed by the Indian government and believe they are not treated fairly by their Hindu dominated country. This was at least the opinion expressed by our newly found Muslim friend in Jammu. We spoke to some other Hindi locals from Mumbai at an internet cafe to get their side of the story. They were planning on going to Srinagar to trek as well, but the riots stopped them too. They saw the land up there as Indian land and the main pro-Pakistani separatists group, Hizbul Mujahideen, as a terrorist organization. This belief is shared by India, the European Union, and the United States who all categorize Hizbul Mujahideen as a terrorist organization. Hizbul Mujahideen’s promotion and use of violence in the area has earned them this distinction. We never discussed Hizbul Mujahideen with our friend we met at the hotel. Our discussions were the opinions of our friend about the feeling of the general population of Kashmir. We never got the feeling that he supported either side of the fight. He mainly just sad that no one has been able to come to a peaceful agreement after all this time.
Our original thought was that the riots would blow over and everything would be fine after the Islamic holiday. These riots went in the opposite direction than we expected. The riots were set into motion after the Indian army killed Burhan Wani. Wani was the leader of Hizbul Mujahideen. Wani died at the age of 22 and was the group’s main recruiter, using social media to gain recruits. His death sparked outrage by Hizbul Mujahideen supporters and riots ensued. We turned on the news an hour before our supposed departure to learn of the restrictions imposed in Srinagar. With twelve dead and over two hundred injured from the riots, Srinagar immediately dropped off our destination list. We asked our hotel for suggestions of what to do and they informed us that we would not be going to Srinagar. Our best option was to go try and get a refund for our ticket. After scrambling around the city and a call to our travel agent, that booked the bus ticket, our refund is supposedly waiting for us in New Delhi. Who know if we will ever see that money again, but losing ten dollars seemed to be a better option than bussing into the middle of violent civil unrest.
Our plans changed and we were forced to stay a third day in Jammu to catch our newly booked bus to Manali. Our last day in Jammu was spent hanging out flipping between the news and movies on our fifteen inch hotel tv just like our previous two days. We talked to our friend some more and discussed everything from differences in our cultures to current technology. During our discussion, the topic of eating beef came up. As I’ve stated before, cows are holy in Hinduism so beef is hard to come by in India. Apparently, this isn’t the case in Kashmir. Due to its Muslim majority, beef is fairly common, at least this is what our friend told us. He then asked us if we ate beef and of course we said yes. With a puzzled look on his face, he was surprised by our answer. His confusion came from his knowledge that only Muslims ate beef. Since we weren’t Muslims, how could we eat beef? After explaining that beef is one of the most popular types of meats in the United States, he was still hesitant to believe us. A little bit shocked by this new found knowledge the topic of conversation changed. I’m still not sure if he believed us. A few hours before our departure, our friend insisted that we go get some beer. Thrown off by that fact that a devout Muslim wanted to get beers with us, we didn’t question it and went to go buy beer. Our friend did not want to be seen by anyone while he was around any alcohol. The ruled out any bar in town and Alex and I walked into one of the street wine shops to get the beers. These wine shops are the only place you can buy alcohol in the province. Our friend stayed across the street while Alex and I purchased the beers. He was always checking his surroundings to make sure he did not recognize anyone around. We walked back to our room and our friend explained that if anyone recognized him and saw him drinking, they would never speak to him again. There was also a good chance his parents would be informed and he would essentially be disowned from his family. As a risk I would not personally take, I was surprised he was the one who initially brought up the idea of getting beers. But it was his choice to drink and it definitely was not his first beer. After the beers, we said bye to our friend and set off to our bus to Manali.
Manali is located in Himachal Pradesh and is a hill town northeast of Jammu. After a 13 hour bus ride we arrived in Manali. Set 6,726 feet in the Himalayan foothills, Manali is one of most popular tourist destinations in India. Whether you are looking to trek, ski, rock climb, or paraglide Manali has it all. The town is also known for producing the best hash in the world. Normally facts like this can go unnoticed, but it was impossible to ignore here. Marijuana grows like a weed in Manali and the surrounding areas. About as common as an ordinary fern in Seattle, everywhere you walked you would see marijuana plants. We even saw a school bus parked in a field of weed. The most ironic sight was a patch of weed growing next to a “Say No to Drugs” sign on the highway. Aside from weed growing everywhere, the environment in Manali is very similar to the Pacific Northwest. Evergreen trees cover just about every piece of undeveloped land. The town of Manali is made up mostly of hotels and shops so any true Himalayan culture has been lost to the tourist industry.
Our first day in Manali we went on a hike searching for a waterfall. Although we found several waterfalls we failed to find the one we initially set out to find. Our hike turned into a wander through the hills. Hiking through apple orchards and pine forests, we encountered one of the largest snakes I have ever seen. Over three feet long and thicker than a quarter, this snake was quite startling to run across. After the snake encounter, we climbed straight up a hill following a small path that zig zagged up over one thousand feet. Unfortunately, the path did not lead to a waterfall but rather a giant field of weed. Trying to find the trail through shoulder high pot plants, was something I never thought I would experience and I couldn’t help but laugh at our situation. The trail seemed to stop at the weed field so we turned around and began our descent. During our mornings in Manali, we frequented a coffee shop. Our last two days there we ran into an Israeli nuclear engineer who was beyond fascinating. She was traveling India after obtaining her masters in nuclear engineering and her stories and knowledge entertained Alex and I for hours. These were really the highlights of Manali. We didn’t partake in many paid activities as we were saving our money for Leh. The rest of our time was spent wandering for food, preparing for our treks at the gym, and researching our plans for the last few months of our journey. We plan to spend our last month in India in Leh and maybe go back to the Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand if the monsoon passes and we have time. Although the drive to Leh takes two days and goes over a 17,480 foot pass I can’t wait to get into the Himalayas and experience the beauty they have to offer.