Northern India (Part 2)

Day Eight: Jaipur

September 4th

Writing this in a courtyard of the Amber (pronounced ‘am-air’) Palace, which is gorgeous and has some amazing views to the South. Was originally planning to write this entry in a nice shady antechamber out of the sun, until I ducked through the door to discover it was a Historic and Protected Latrine, complete with signage. Will never understand why these are included on tour routes through old buildings, why the designers think ‘visitors will want to see where their ancestors went to shit’, especially as the answer always boils down to ‘hole in the ground’.

The approach to Amber Palace

The palace isn’t what I expected. On the website images it’s all marble, mirrors, and chambers where the royal family would shelter in summer. Those are all here, and spectacular, but in my mind the palace and the fort above it were far from the town below and accessible only via a winding trail. Perhaps that was the case, once. Now, though, the town reaches practically to the door, and a coach park sits at the base of a well-maintained path to the first courtyard, through the Moon Gate.

It’s beautiful inside, though. In the central courtyard, an immaculate garden about the size of a tennis court sits to one side, while a covered room to the other is protected from the elements by more perfect marble columns and a gorgeously tiled mirrored ceiling and walls. You can climb to the battlements and some tower rooms, similarly open to the weather to mitigate the searing heat, in which I sat and thanked god for the hat I’d bought in Agra. A sunburned scalp is no joke.

Jaigarh Fort, on the hill above the palace

Woke feeling a little under the weather, so this is my first stop of three in a relaxed day. Continued the tour of the palace through a tunnel that connects it to the Jaigarh Fort. The tunnel is at first cut into the hill, with bats of all sizes hanging from the roof. In the second part, and above-ground section sandwiched between two walls that trapped heat like a toaster, had two nice moments. Buoyed by the rare solitude, played Laura Marling’s ‘Blackberry Stone’ on my phone and sang along. Everyone in India seems unconcerned to play music or watch videos at full volume in public, but as I’d be thrown off the Tube for trying that, this was a rare treat. 

This passage between the Fort and Palace felt like walking through a toaster

Having failed to find a garden mentioned on the map, walked back to the palace and bumped into an American. Nothing more than pleasantries and mutual concern that our respective taxi drivers had just arbitrarily decided to wait for us to return with the metres running, but it was a nice exchange. 

Before leaving the palace, visited a modern art gallery near the exit, having already run the gauntlet of a series of stalls selling souvenirs. Really liked the works by Swapan Roy, Vinoy Shama, and Madan Meena. 

Second stop of the day was the Jal Mahal, or ‘Water Palace’. It sits in the middle of the Man Sagar lake, beautiful, serene, unreachable, and a complete nightmare to maintain according to Wikipedia. Its location, too, was something of a disappointment. A floating palace should be miles from anywhere, and you should have to answer some riddles to get near it. It shouldn’t be visible through a chain link fence from a concrete tourist trap/coach park. I know it’s just my unrealistic expectations butting up against the realities of tourism again, but there was little to no romance to the experience.

The Jal Mahal, which is a working palace still

The same goes for the third stop of the day, the Pink City bazaars. India’s constant and omnipresent infrastructure has taken away some of the magic of those streets (I imagine). The bazaars, each of which is effectively a district in itself – clothes, books, jewellery etc. – are built within these fantastic pink covered pavements with the roads through the middle, and countless side streets criss-crossing the city block-like structure. The improvements are obviously necessary and ultimately a good thing; it’s all just a distance from what I’d pictured.

Back at the hotel for a relaxed evening. Monsoon struck again, hurling fat raindrops far into the covered walkways of the hotel. Relaxed and considered my route from Dehradun, then bathed and went for supper. A delicious gatta curry (chickpea flour dumplings in a tangy yoghurt sauce) brought back memories of some of the simple meals I loved most while growing up. Writing this on the terrace, I feel as healthy as I have for a long time. Or maybe just as clean as I’ve been since I landed. Never passing up a bath again.

Day Nine: Jaipur – Delhi

September 5th

Few hours spare before I take the train back to Delhi, gateway to the mountainous regions that are the real reason for the trip. On a whim decided to head to Jaipur Central Museum (formerly or also currently the Albert Hall Museum, it’s confusing). Great collection of paintings, lacquered wooden sculptures, and stonework within. Its first curator, a British man who was companion to Sawai Madho “Silver Jars” Singh II, was by most accounts keep to preserve Indian art without Western Influence. It’s a good contrast to that Eton ingrate who fly-tipped the fake doors at Agra Fort. 

The musical instruments section has the largest string instrument I’ve ever seen – a rabab – which is the size of a horse and must have been a bastard for the roadies. 

Kids keep asking to take selfies with me. Don’t know what to make of it.

Decided to walk from the museum to the Pink City again, as I feel like I didn’t give it a fair shake yesterday. I judged it against my expectations of what Lonely Planet called a ‘shopper’s paradise’ and my own preconceptions of what a ‘real’ bazaar looks like. Enjoyed it much more the second time, wandering along the main streets that constitute the most visibly market-like areas, and down some alleys through which endless mopeds and motorcycles race, their riders leaning as much on the horn as the saddle. 

Yesterday I wrote that it was India’s infrastructure improvements taking away some of the touristy appeal, but I think the reality is that India is prioritising function over form. Everything seems geared to achieving minimum viable product, across all areas, and the aesthetics can hang for the moment. It’s why you get wires hanging down and breezeblocks on the roadside, but omnipresent WiFi. It’s a good trade.

So I enjoyed walking the various bazaars. Very glad I went back, as it also allowed me to perfect my new ‘strident’ approach to avoiding the attentions of touts and aggressive tuktuk drivers. The secret is to be as rude as humanly possible in body language, to the point that it would start a fight in a Wetherspoons, while simultaneously smiling manically and repeating ‘nay-nay, dhanyavad’. 

Bumped into a tuktuk driver from the night before, who was today working in a cycle hire shop. As we briefly chatted a man on a moped screamed across the road, and tore across the four lanes of traffic, horn blaring, to stop in front of us. He looked at me and said ‘body massage?’ to which I said no, astonished if impressed at the hustle. Has that ever worked?

Back to the pool at the Mansingh Hotel for a few hours exercise and reading. Other than my worry over the elephants I had a great time in Jaipur. I stole so much toilet paper. 

Bizarre train ride in from Jaipur. There’s no ticketing system to speak of: you board your train, find your allocated seat, and wait for the conductor to check you off his printed list. This time a man was sat in my seat and refused to get out when I asked. Eventually the conductor came along, glanced up at me and then the man in my seat, and asked him “Chris Sutcliffe?”, to which the man impassively responded “Yes” and stared straight ahead. I was almost impressed by his confidence (though not enough to let him sit there for the rest of the five hour journey), even as I fished out my passport. What are the odds of there being another Chris Sutcliffe on that train? Small world.

They brought out a three course meal, with the time allotted to each course being slightly less than the most efficient possible time for physically lifting the food to your mouth and swallowing. Forget chewing. 

I’ve found that, so far, arriving into a train station at night gives the worst impression of the place. On top of my apprehension about returning to Delhi, was therefore very nervous about the slow approach to New Delhi Railway Station, which I’d been warned is very dangerous. However, despite some issues with the non-English speaking taxi driver and my knowledge of Hindi basically being limited to telling tuktuk drivers to bugger off, ended up reaching the hotel relatively easily.

Day 10: Delhi

September 6th

Got to get this memory down before I forget details. Back at the Delhi Pride, the hotel in which I felt so trapped the first two days, but in a much nicer room. After a good day (see below) decided to head over to Pizza Hut six streets over for supper. Instead, saw a sign for the Jade Garden restaurant and, cheered by a better than expected day, decided to go there instead. Up some dark stairs, took a seat on a table overlooking the market below, with the dusty orange light from the windows lending it all a very surreal atmosphere. The crimson Chinese lanterns barely illuminated the dark space, but as my pint of Kingfisher arrived I felt a fierce happiness. This mess of cultures and cuisines is exactly what I’d wanted to experience, and the delicious vegetarian jalfrezi and Black Dog whisky compounded that. When a trance version of ‘Zombie’ by The Cranberries came on, drowning out the muay thai match on the screens, I was delighted.

The largest flag I’ve ever seen

It was the capper to a day that I’d been dreading but that turned out to be fun. Left the hotel and did a quick trial run of my route to the inter-state bus terminal. All seems simple and straightforward. Like the Metro, it all feels very modern, though the security and bag scanning gates that are everywhere did feel a bit oppressive.

Following that, and as the Metro route took me back through Connaught Place, decided to get out there. Wanted to tell the kind of tout who’d so panicked me on day 3 to sod off, to do a petty exorcism of the feelings of vulnerability I’d struggled to shake until Jaipur. Was passably rude to some touts who approached me – particularly one who tried to tell me H&M was closed when I’d just bought some sandals from there, at who I grinned and held up the bag before walking off – but didn’t really feel much better.

It wasn’t until I ended up exploring an open, labyrinthine office block in search of a passport office that I felt more capable, and more determined to sort everything out.

The park in Connaught Place, significantly friendlier the second time around

After the photos for the Nepalese border were sorted, stopped in at a bar called Teddy Boys to see if my nan would have liked it, named as it is after a trend from her era. She would have hated it. I hated it a bit, too. It was embarrassingly British, with London street signs plastered on the walls. Had a brief Hindi lesson from a friendly waiter, and read my guidebook.

Have decided I can’t do Shimla and beyond without the rest of the trip feeling hideously compressed. By my maths, I’d have to spend every third day travelling, which wouldn’t allow me any time to trek or do any real exploration. Sad to miss the toy railway from Kalka to Shimla, but the area round Mussoorie looks astonishing, and it gives me longer in Nepal.

Despite dreading it, and it being something of an admin day, had a good time in Delhi the second time around. Am excited to go up to Dehradun to start the second leg of the journey. Plus I’ll get to play with two puppies there.

Day 11: Delhi – Dehradun

September 7th

Left the hotel early, despite my trial run yesterday. Bhupi had been texting me, asking me to call him when I was back in Delhi, but I had no desire to take his taxi with the Metro being so cheap, especially as I’d probably have to go to another ‘market’ en route.

At the bus station, no bay number for my bus was showing, so ate a flaky veg pastry and waited. 10 minutes before we were due to leave there still hadn’t been an update. As I stood watching the board and pawing crumbs from my beard, a woman about my own age approached to ask my destination. Short dark hair, tattoos, dungarees, hint of an Australian accent. Very brief chat – she’s heading to Rishikesh for 3 weeks of intensive yoga – before she found and boarded her bus. 

With 2 minutes before my scheduled departure there was still no information. Approached the situation more calmly than I would have a week ago i.e. without screaming and approached a bus that said Dehradun as a destination and matched the ‘Big Pink’ description on my ticket. The conductor waved me on without looking at the ticket and we eventually set off. Watched the scenery for a while as the conductor tried to figure out why we had one too many people on board. Lush, green landscapes dotted with ponds and streams, interrupted by roads with detritus along their sides, and herds of pylons racing into the distance. Passed ads for a water park a few hundred kilometres away. We passed through largely indistinguishable towns, with the usual storefronts selling cement, Pepsi merchandise, and small electronics and food shops.

Around 11:30 the bus stopped at a service station, complete with a Subway and Dominos. As I returned from the bathroom, saw the woman from the bus terminal again, whose bus had just pulled in. Would have liked to have spoken more, but as the service station had about six shops, we kept running into one another and it became a little awkward.

Read Excession and tried, briefly, to sleep. Eventually the coach entered the forest preserve that separates the Uttarakhand region and, tiredness forgotten, I gawped out of the window. Dense forests and jagged ridges of Himalayan foothills stretched out in every direction. The coach, now at a crawl, drove alongside a dry riverbed that was the only break in the incredible setting as far as I could see. Huge groups of golden monkeys lined the road, seeming to co-exist peacefully with the stray dogs that are omnipresent in India, all the way to the outskirts of Dehradun. The man next to me had been asleep the whole journey, and the winding road caused his head to drop onto my shoulder, at which point he woke and looked at me accusingly just as we pulled into the coach stop.

Lush forests along the way to Dehradun

Took a taxi through the city. As the smell of the sudden downpour flooded my tuktuk, I realised it reminded me a little bit of my hometown of Warrington. The feel of it is similar in some indefinable way, although the layout and the shops that line its roads are very different. Honda, Hyundai, and Harley Davidson showrooms tower over tiny streetside restaurant stalls and JOI mobile shops. 

Was deposited outside the Pacific Mall, which looks like it was flown in from England, where my B&B host Anita – a friend’s aunt – picked me up. She’s a very friendly, garrulous lady, and I felt immediately at ease. Her B&B, Willow View, overlooks a cricket ground and, from my terrace, has incredible views of the mountains around. I could see the lights of my next destination Mussoorie halfway up one of them.

Went for a walk. The B&B is right on the edge of a nature reserve, which Anita tells me is protected from any building work (“for maybe 15 years”, she says, knowingly) and I half-hoped I’d see the big cats she’d mentioned. Instead, saw families playing football and otherwise just chatting to one another. Such a relaxing mood to the place.

The view over the cricket ground from Willow View

Played with the two dogs. Tsar, a husky-retriever mix with the body of the former and personality of the latter, is a friendly six year old who brought me his ball to show off. He’s shedding, and I walked away thoroughly covered in fur. Lara, the younger, is a wound-up spring of energy, constantly leaping up to play and climb all over you. Love them both.

From Dehradun looking up towards Mussoorie

An incredible supper with Anita and Mashi. Roti, rice, chicken in an amazing sauce, and a dahl I could have eaten forever. Fun chat with both about travel, over-building in Uttarakhand and the consequences thereof, my plans after Mussoorie, and what makes for a successful relationship. To bed with the rain hammering down on the tin roof over Anita’s plants outside. Feels a lot closer to home than anywhere so far.

Day 12: Dehradun

September 7th

Woke after the best night’s sleep of the trip and immediately went onto the terrace to look at Mussoorie in the overcast morning light. So excited. Listened to the neighbourhood dogs bark at some encroaching monkeys and went to get the monkey stick Anita had given me last night.

Had to crack open the first aid kit for the very first time this trip. In what feels like a final act of spite from Connaught Place, the sandals I bought two days ago have given me a blister.

The river running through Robber’s Cave

After a breakfast of some delicious scrambled eggs and toast, Anita dropped me at the entrance to Robber’s Cave, a local attraction. Have adjusted my expectations a bit and wasn’t too disappointed by exactly how touristy it is. Paid my entrance fee (about 20p) and passed the food stalls and changing rooms on the way to the cave. Put my walking boots in my bag and, barefoot, began wading through a narrow entrance into a cave, the current pushing against me. Inside, it’s an astonishing natural phenomenon. It’s effectively a very narrow gorge, with a powerful stream cutting through the centre, that passes through a series of large caves. There are a few quite violent waterfalls along the way, which require a little bit of climbing to get past. Most people didn’t bother, it seemed, as the crowd thinned considerably past the first fall. 

It’s amazing inside, though slightly ruined by a lot of trash caught in eddies. The cave sections, with forest just visible through cracks in the rocks, are like nothing I’ve ever seen. It was so beautiful, in fact, that I ended up in an impromptu competition with a group of teens to see who could ruin the other’s selfies by being in the background next. We ended up leapfrogging one another a lot, and as I write this perched atop a rock I can see them rounding the bend behind me.

Me and my shadows, just before the cave got really beautiful

Carried on upstream as far as I could. Eventually it opened up and become fully outside, and felt less romantic. Walking along the gorge, hemmed in on all sides by boulders like molars sticking out of some huge jaw, felt a lot more adventurous. Bare feet really started aching from the sharp stones of the riverbed on the way back, so despite the current being with me I took far longer to return. Considered opening up first aid kit for a second time. Had a lemon drink and sat by the entrance watching a man ineffectually fish instead. 

Took a short tuktuk ride to the Forest Research Institute, the little vehicle screaming in protest the entire time, and paid 10 rupees to enter. Almost immediately went the wrong way, and was caught short by a stomach issue for the first time this trip. Best not to dwell.

The Forest Research Institute. If not heaven, pretty close to it

Sat in the sun and read. Felt like I should have explored more but the area was so beautiful and I was knackered after the Robber’s Cave, so I fell asleep instead. Eventually woke and spent a few hours reading (finished the book, the fourth so far this trip) and wandered a bit. In addition to the research areas where they’re trying to increase the yields of crops and grow bamboo more swiftly it seems like the institute is also the site of people’s houses and a recycling centre. As it’s Sunday, it all feels very deserted. The insects are insanely loud. 

Took my shoes off to examine new pains. In addition to the blister on my right foot, a toe on my left foot is turning black from a particularly bad stubbing in the cave.

‘Explored’ Pacific Mall in search of a first for Anita and left with some felt flower thing. Am hoping she doesn’t take it as an insult. Should have found a Government Wine & Beer Shop – the only shop I’ve seen with consistent queues – and got some wine. Next time.

Out for supper with Anita’s family. More fun chats about the state of the UK (they correctly think Brexit is insanity, as has everyone else I’ve spoken to), the changing face of Dehradun, their family, and food tips. Arpy very kindly gave me a contact’s number in Mussoorie. Met their dog Peach, a 10 year old pointer their son met as a stray on the streets of Delhi and rescued. When I told Noll she asked if I’d cried at the story. I didn’t, but it was a close run thing. Again, I blame the whisky.

Pace of life feels less manic here and, though it gradually felt less like Warrington, it’s been my favourite stop so far. 

Day 13: Dehradun – Mussoorie

September 8th

Last breakfast with Anita and Mashi, who have both been incredibly welcoming while I’ve been here. Worried I was gorging myself at breakfast, but it turned out to be 100% necessary later on. Accidentally kept my taxi driver waiting for an hour as I said goodbye to the family and the dogs. Anita says Tsar has a history of instinctually knowing when friends are leaving and he put his great head down sadly as I left. I’ll miss them; there’s something so comforting about having dogs around.

In the car, straight onto the winding roads up to Mussoori. The views are insane. Huge mountains, climbing ever higher, wearing the cloud layer like a cape. Thick forests mostly without the scars of roads, and streams that occasionally flowed across our path. The taxi driver – Rahul 3 – I would kindly call a fucking maniac, as he overtook buses and jeeps on blind corners. His reassurance that he does it all the time actually did very little to calm me down. 

Through the clouds to Mussoorie

He dropped me at Ganhdi Chowk, the far West end of the main road of Mussoorie, called the Mall. Once there I headed further West to where the map said my hotel was. It wasn’t. Asking at another local hotel provoked an aggressive reaction from the man behind the counter, who seemed to have something against in general and me in particular. 

Eventually found an address that put the hotel way East and further down the mountain, so I traipsed the length of the Mall with its many inviting hotels, restaurants and resting areas, and down a steep path. By the end, with the weight of my backpack, was completely knackered. Hotel wasn’t there either. No sign of it in what felt like quite a bad area. Asking around produced no help. 

Loaded up again to take a longer but shallower route back to the top. Exhausting work, but made it in about 40 minutes. Surprised by how calm I was. In this exact scenario in Delhi on the first day I had panic rising off my like steam. This time, I just set my sights on a hotel recommended by Lonely Planet and set off. Found it and checked in for two nights no problem. This should give me long enough to find a trek to the Valley of Flowers, even if I have to stay here a few days longer.

Wandered along the Camel’s Back Walk. Beautifully laid out on the other side of the hill to the Mall, with vertiginous views down to the North. It’s named that as a peak across the way looks like a camel’s back, and after I squinted for a while I decided I probably just don’t know what a camel looks like.

As ever, there’s no solitude, though, and I felt fairly self conscious. After arriving back at Ghandi Chowk, got some cash out and went to the local Costa equivalent – Cafe Coffee Day – where some programming oversight let me use the WiFi without having an Indian mobile number. Turns out my first choice hotel had burnt down but was still mistakenly listed.

Walked the steep slope up to Gun Hill, the topmost peak of Mussoorie. In my head it was like Calton Hill in Edinburgh, wide and desolate and possibly some old ruins. After 15 minutes of climbing in silence, the sounds of the town lost below me in the cloud, I saw a sign that said ‘Haunted House – 50ft’. The very last thing I’d expected was a funfair on a 6000+ft peak. Wandered, bemused, through a little fair complete with skill games and food stalls, then queued for the cable car back down which Anita had warned me against using. Some teens were antagonising their friend who was obviously afraid of heights and, as I watched, he kicked at one, missed, and hit another square in the stomach. A nice, cross-culture session of laughter and grinning.

A troupe of monkeys on the climb up Gun Hill

Afterwards, went to The Tavern in Picture Palace for three beers and a chicken kebab meal. So far Mussoorie seems fun, if more like a major town than I’d expected, with arcades and tons of hotels. Fixed my sleeping bag, drank as much water as I had, and am now settling for sleep. Will think of the huge forests, mist-covered trees disappearing into cloud, and the bottomless valleys, as I fall asleep tonight. That, or whichever episode of Limmy’s Show I downloaded while at Coffee Day.

Day 14: Mussoorie

September 9th

Terrible night’s sleep. Between a dog’s constant barking, a clock relentlessly and mockingly chiming the hours, a very loud call to prayer, and mosquitoes, I didn’t drop off til 4 at the earliest. Woke at 8 with a bad back, many new bites, and a rash on my arm and leg to keep an eye on given the dengue fever outbreak in Uttarakhand. 

Did an hour’s work then forced myself out of the door. Went to the wrong branch of Wildcraft to see about a trek, so decided to carry on up to Landour and maybe Sister’s Bazaar. Other than the cloud rolling through the streets and the steep slopes, the area past Picture Palace feels like ever other commercial district I’ve been to so far. 

The eponymous Camel’s Back (apparently)

Stopped at the Mudcup Cafe on the way up and had the second major miscommunication of the trip, where instead of black tea with milk I was brought a huge glass of milk on its own. Cheered me up quite a bit. The mural outside depicts all the peaks visible from the cafe – Ganotri to my next destination of Nanda Devi – or that would be visible if I hadn’t come at the tail end of the monsoon season. Still, if I’d come then I might have had to sleep outside last night, which would have been a marked improvement from my actual sleeping arrangement. 

Went in search of the other tour organisers recommended by Lonely Planet, only to find they’d moved to a stall in the market… which was permanently closed. Went to one I’d noticed instead the day before, and was told to come back this evening when they’d assessed if it would be possible to do the trek later in the week. Decided to do a trek on my own up to a waterfall tomorrow – and also to change hotel. The trek should take 10 hours and I wouldn’t be in a frame of mind to do it with only four hours sleep again. New hotel is much nicer, though lugging my backpack along the Mall again was a chore.

God rays blaze down on Mussoorie

In the evening, went for a walk to find some toiletries. Mussoorie reminds me of a seaside town – there’s attractions lining the streets, gaudy monuments, and more arcades than I’ve ever seen in one place all over the shop. Think I saw an original Tekken 3 cabinet.

It’s a very relaxed town at the moment, though I get the impression everyone is waiting for the season to begin in earnest. The rickshaw riders at either end of the town currently seem resigned to having very little business and for some reason I see most of them pushing rather than riding their fares along the Mall. In evenings thick cloud will billow along the streets without warning, giving the lights in the distance a Gaussian look, and will sometimes be so thick it’s like being in Silent Hill – albeit a Silent Hill full of people hawking momos and carved trinkets. 

Bad news: A storm I’d been keeping an eye on over Nanda Devi is about to intensify, and the trekking company has said they won’t take me solo with a storm inbound. Need to rethink.

Part three can be found here.

2 thoughts on “Northern India (Part 2)

    1. Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. I loved it in the end, and any issues were my own fault for being unprepared. I’d go back in a heartbeat.


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