Northern India (Part 3)

Day 15: Mussoorie

September 11th

Had already composed the first line of this entry on the walk back from Kempty. It was going to be “Any day in which you stand in a waterfall and laugh from the sheer joy of it has to be a good day.” And today was good – great in parts – until a moment later on that I can’t shift.

I set off for Kempty at 10am. Google said the journey would take four hours each way, so I was expecting to return just before it got dark. The road to Kempty has to traverse the mountains, so it winds down and loops back on itself, under the canopy of trees and out on the edge of enormous drops. In the distance I saw what seemed to be a temple perched on a rocky outcropping.

Views of a distant building on the way to Kempty Falls

Feeling happy to be out on a long journey I listened to music and a few podcasts and tramped along. Just after noon I stopped for a lunch of veg momos at a deserted hotel – the cook was summoned and had obviously been sleeping in one of the rooms. The whole place felt unfinished; I can’t imagine it ever gets too busy.

Eventually I reached the J. W. Mariott hotel and a section of the road that swung back on itself for so long that it must account for about 45 minutes of that predicted journey time. Quite odd to see the facilities of a modern hotel in a divot in the side of a mountain. I took a gamble and headed off on a path that had me scrambling down some scree at a ridiculous angle. The smell of smoke was thick in the air and I passed a hamlet, one house of which seemed to be burning sod and earth for something.

Kempty from the far side of the valley. It still took about an hour to reach from here

Ultimately the path ended up running through a lot of forest before it rejoined the road, and my legs were scratched and stinging. I ended up reaching Kempty at just after 1:30, on one side of an incredibly deep valley that slopes down to the North.

The place has an amusement park vibe to it. It’s clearly a popular tourist stop. Many market stalls line the path down the ropeway, and surround the Falls themselves and the water park – complete with rides – slightly further downriver.

Looking up through the spray from the Falls

I rode the ropeway down to the pool in which the Kempty Falls empty. After paying a few rupees to lock my stuff in one of the lockers that lined the pool, I waded in. Absolutely freezing but pleasant after the heat of the day. I stood under the stinging downpour for a few minutes then retreated to the small lagoon, which was swamped with people. Sat in the water for a while looking at the spray and the torrent from the Falls – which I think are from the Yamuna river – and just had to laugh, both from the spectacle and the force of the freezing rain. Astonishing place, though the amount of trash in the river down from the Falls does ruin it a little. Bottles, bags and paper swirl in eddies round the wooden posts that hold up the walkways.

Before I left I wanted to try a fish foot-spa for the first time, to have the dead skin scoured from my feet, which are unaccustomed to wearing hiking shoes for this long at a time. The fish swarmed the instant I put my feet in, a bizarre sensation a little like having bubbles in a jacuzzi bursting on your skin. Towards the end of the session I felt a sharp pain in my right foot and looked down to see blood in the tank. One of the fish pedicurists had got a little heavy-finned in its approach to the skin around the cut from my sandals. The attendants seemed bemused and handed me some cotton wool, apologising profusely. As I dried off, tried to figure out which of the little bastards had gone for me.

Further down the Kempty Falls

It turned out to be the start of a two hour period of man vs. wild. A golden monkey chased me away as I walked past its overhanging branch, hopping after me as I backed off. Its fangs were bared and it didn’t listen to my protestations that I was moving on, honest.

Later, as I took an alternate route back through a mist-shrouded village, the bottom houses of which were hundreds of feet lower than those at the top, two dogs growled and barked angrily as I scurried by. The journey back, by dint of being mostly uphill, has knackered me. I feel so tired and my feet ache. I also made the mistake of listening to an episode of Casefile about a tourist who was killed and dismembered while on Spring Break, which it turns out is a terrible thing to listen to when on your own in an unfamiliar country.

As I re-entered Mussoorie, the sound of a dog crying broke through the music. I leaned over a railing to see, some 30 feet down a steep, garbage-strewn slope, a puppy struggling and failing to climb back up, and a second brown puppy on a lip above it. It was howling like nothing I’ve ever heard. Tried to spot a way down when a small crowd started gathering. In turn they shook their heads and moved on, until it was only me and two Nepalese men left. I asked if there was a way down, and the elder of the two gestured to his son(?) and said “he’ll go”. But he didn’t, and as the man asked me about plane ticket prices to England, the puppies slipped down the slope and out of view. I walked around a bit and it did look like the slope levelled out further down, but I don’t know. An extremely upsetting experience.

Ghandi marks the end of Mall Road, Mussoorie

Dejected, decided against a beer in the Bavarian-style bar and went to a Tibetan restaurant for supper. After a penang curry, wandered around for a while. Mussoorie definitely bears the marks of being a retreat for colonial Brits in high summer; old Western-styled hotels overlook much of it. Arcades and shops line the streets, which glow through the cloud. Eventually, exhausted, came back to the hotel for an early night.

Day 16: Mussoorie

September 12th

Storms over Nanda Devi mean my route onwards to the Valley of Flowers is definitely off. Both Anita and the guide in the shop have told me of a flash flood up there a few years ago that unhomed thousands of people, and from which the local economy is still struggling to recover.

Instead, have decided to head South-East to Rishikesh and either pick up rafting or a trek from there.

A typical street in Mussoorie

Means that I had to find more activities for today. Loved the swimming in Jaipur so decided to head down to Mussoorie Jheel, which Rahul had pointed out on the drive from Dehradun and which has ads plastered all over the taxi ranks at either end of Mall Rd. Pictures on the site looked good too; a beautiful green lagoon surrounded by trees and street food stalls.

It wasn’t like that at all. I took a taxi down. The driver and operator both seemed bemused when I asked to spend two hours there. Bad sign. Through the crowded ticket barrier I wandered down some steps, grey-green with age and flora. At one of the rest areas, the “longest zipline in Mussoorie” had drawn a little crowd. I excitedly waited my turn, smiling at the other queuers. Strapped into a crotch-crushing harness and too-small helmet, I launched off the pad and sped through mist-enveloped trees, whooping and hollering. The landing, though rough, deposited me safely on a platform with six or seven previous riders, ready for the second stage.

One kid in a red tshirt, through his friend, asked me to film him jump. At the other end we bodged together a way for me to send it via Bluetooth, and then he vanished without saying thank you.

The lake was really a pond, with no swimming and some grimy paddle boats to rent. Didn’t fancy it. I mooched around, wondering what I was missing. The way to hang-gliding was fenced off for the season, and the stalls around the outside were bare and – if I’m honest – a bit manky. A haunted house seemed to be the star attraction.

Nothing to photograph at the Jheel, so here’s my hotel room complete with astroturfed dining area

Doubt I could have filled 20 minutes there, let alone two hours, so I was a bit bemused by the throngs of delighted attendees who bounded down the steps. I watched them to see where they were going, but failed to spot a secret entrance to the real jheel. After a few minutes spent reclining and swallowing the buyer’s remorse, cut my losses and left.

Back in Mussoorie, had curried yellow dal and rice for lunch then backed to the hotel with every intention of heading out again. Instead I booked my hotel for Rishikesh, researched onward routes and treks, and read. Eventually roused myself with a shower (which floods the bathroom every time) and ran out to a covered stall for some mutton curry.

Mussoorie dal and a pint of Kingfisher. Could have eaten this forever

Despite the trek to Nanda Devi failing to materialise, glad I stopped here. It’s a bizarre little place, a British-era hill station that has transformed itself into a sort of seaside holiday town in the mountains. It (allegedly) has views of the Himalaya proper in the right season. There’s a more relaxed feeling here, and the population is more mixed than the city, with Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan people not really caring about the Englishman gawping in the street.

It’s also helped me realise that the places I’ve seen so far, because they’re easy to reach and more commercial as a result, aren’t especially what I’m looking for from this journey. For the next time, or Vietnam or whatever, I need a motorbike or vehicle of my own.

Day 17: Mussoorie – Rishikesh

September 13th

Had a real sense of privilege earlier this afternoon, as I stood on the bank of the Ganges on a public ghat and watched the ganga aarti ceremony take place. Lit candles, tiny counterparts of the bonfires that lined the Triveni Ghat (where three rivers meet) and dressed in garlands, were gently pushed into the current by worshippers. Meanwhile, forty or so people in dusty orange robes chanted and sang, with one small child taking the lead. After having walked the bank in the pink afterhues of the sunset, it was an amazing experience. The sight, the sound and the heat contributed to making me feel like I was witnessing something meaningful, even if I couldn’t parse it. There’s a sense that, while it’s routine, it’s never rote, and that each ceremony is important. Feel very lucky to have seen it.

Delicate bridges cross the Ganges near Tapovan

Started the day slowly, with a long lie-in at the Beechwood. Feel fully rested again. Eventually went to get my laundry from the lobby and check out. Their card machine is broken and seemingly all the ATMs were out of cash, until one spat out Rs.8000 in Rs.200 notes. After weeks of not having enough small notes, now 40 of the bastards have stretched my trousers out.

An easy, painless taxi to Rishikesh. Talked to the driver for a while; he’d recently moved here and ultimately wants to bring the rest of his family up from Delhi. We passed back through Dehradun and I thought about Tsar and Lara, probably the last dogs I’ll get to pet this trip.

My hotel is perfectly nice and very clean, and I know I’ll sleep well here. The balcony just overlooks the Ganges. Based on research last night I dropped my bag and wandered along the river in search of Red Chilli Adventures straight away to enquire about trekking and rafting. The walk along to Tapovan – the effective centre of Rishikesh – took about 40 minutes, and reminded me why I’d stopped wearing jeans when not in the mountains.

The river, with its slightly salty smell, is beautiful just from its sheer size and obvious power. There were plenty of bathers, from the respectful older people cleansing themselves by being dunked backwards to the kids who were bombing in and ignoring the signs warning about the current. The Rham Jhula and Laxman Jhula bridges, both very fragile-looking, are gorgeous between the forested hills and the water, colourful and elegant.

After a walk along the road – no other walkers, plenty of jeeps and vikrams – arrived at Tapovan. It’s definitely the place for backpackers, and my hotel now feels very far away from the action.

Rishikesh is the yoga capital of Uttarakhand, and it has a reputation as somewhere to come to meditate and top up your reserves of calm. The Beatles famously came here to do just that – I think it’s probably where that scene from Walk Hard is set.

Red Chilli looks very pro, although unfortunately they don’t seem to offer treks shorter than 8 days. Leafing through the brochures put me bizarrely in mind of doing the same in Shenmue.

Doubly bad news, though, is that the river is too rough after the rains, so there’s no rafting until the 16th at the earliest. That, and the fact that few other trekkers are around to split costs, puts me in something of a dilemma: extend my stay here and hope the trek fills up and drops the cost to a palatable one, or cut my losses on Sunday. Tricky one.

An Eat, Pray, Love mural in a café in Tapowan

Went to a café for a milkshake. Delighted to discover that it becomes a disco after dark and more importantly has free WiFi. Killed a few hours there chatting to friends before admitting defeat – only a few travellers had braved the steep ladder to the roof for the disco, and none seemed especially keen to chat.

The hotel restaurant – on the roof, with views over the dark river – has an item called the ‘Big Power Sandwich’. Fuck yes.

Day 18: Rishikesh

September 14th

Really fantastic day. So good, in fact, that even though my plans to join a trek have fallen through again, have decided to extend my stay here, albeit with a change of hotels to one in Tapowan closer to the action. After a disrupted night’s sleep for no reason I could identify, it was a much better day than I deserved.

After a late breakfast of four slices of toast, set out along the bank to Tapowan and Red Chilli to try my luck negotiating a shorter trek for cheaper. No joy, and am wary of the other outlets based on some horror show reviews. Instead, I set out on the 7km walk to Neer Garh waterfall. The views, my mood, and some music all combined to make me feel better than I have in ages, and I approached the climb in a v positive way despite it beginning to rain.

The Ganges from the bottom of the climb up to Neer Garh

The lower pools of the falls are all full of teens and the odd family playing and taking photos – so many selfie sticks – but further up the exhausting slope I found a quiet pool between two falls. Took off my boots – which have been an absolute godsend so far this trip – and clambered down some smooth boulders in the water. Complete solitude, cool water, and a view unlike any I’ve seen before. Could have stayed there for hours. Left after a while and climbed to the limit of where the public can visit to another busy pool, before descending well-satisfied.

The view up from my private pool

I was starving, but rather than take the short route back the way I’d arrived, did a far longer journey via a bridge across the Ganges. Only the view from the bridge itself was really spectacular, and I had to hurry past a troupe of boisterous monkeys, but very glad I took the long way round. For what I think is the first time this trip I felt the joy of setting out with a destination in mind and only a vague idea of how to reach it. Happy to have felt that again; was worried I’d be too nervous a traveller to try doing it.

Eventually I reached the outskirts of the town again, and decided to take my chance to fully submerge myself in the river. Its torrent is supposed to cleanse you of sins – which is nice – and the thundering current is incredible up close. I waded in and squatted down ungracefully. Washed myself and dipped my head under the water, though I don’t think I was ever completely submerged, with my back and shoulders out constantly. Didn’t feel lighter or more shriven afterwards but maybe it takes a while to start working, like whitening toothpaste.

Here though, was also the only low point of the day. Two or three small groups of travellers, all younger than me, were on the beach laughing and relaxing. For the first time since the Golden Triangle I felt lonely. As they gradually left the beach I let it get the better of me, and sat on a rock with my legs in the river, feeling quietly homesick.

Moved on in search of food and found the Ganges Café just upriver of the Laxman Jhula. Once on the WiFi the loneliness receded as I spoke to my loved ones. Noll has received the flowers I’d arranged to be delivered halfway through the trip (and which they’d already delivered once before I’d even left England, ruining the surprise) which cheered me up. I just needed that lifeline and don’t think I’m strong enough to do an entire solo trip without the wonders of WhatsApp.

The Ganges, just before sunset

As the sun waned and smoke from the ceremonies hung over the river, I read Michael Palin’s ‘Around The World In 80 Days’ and the joy slowly returned. My hero and one of the reasons I want to travel also felt homesick and let circumstances get him down, but it didn’t kill his wanderlust.

Had a mixed platter and some black tea as I read. Watched fellow travellers eat pasta enviously. Had decided by this point to have one more night here – maybe more, depending on the rafting – and after a fun walk back among the market stalls and via The Beatles’ Ashram, booked a hotel in Tapowan for tomorrow night.

Haven’t found myself in India yet, despite my fears that I’d come back an unbearable prick. Suspect it’s not going to happen. I have learned though that I need to let things go and stop beating myself up for not living up to standards I’ve arbitrarily imposed on myself. I’m not a good traveller yet but I’ll get there. And I’ll eat the pasta tomorrow.

Day 19: Rishikesh

September 15th

Halfway through the trip now and new experiences are still presenting themselves. My card didn’t work at checkout this morning and, rather than let me walk to an ATM on my own, the staff insisted I clamber onto the back of a porter’s moped, for the first time in my life. This turned out to be the definition of deep end, as the traffic, potholes and general warren-like nature of the streets round Adarsh Gram made for a very hairy ride. By the end though, was quite enjoying it.

A market, just on the other side of the Laxman Jhula

After I’d paid and politely reclaimed my passport, had a second new transport experience as I jumped into a vikram – a shared rickshaw that ferries people the length of the town ad nauseam – to the Ganges View hotel. It seems nice, although the piercing, nasal voice of an American girl two tables over is straining my mood a little.

Decided to get a massage, as based on conversations with other travellers it seems that it’s illegal to leave without getting one here. On the way, I heard yelling up ahead. A dog had a piglet in its mouth, and was running through the market. Four men were throwing rocks at it until it eventually dropped the piglet and scarpered. The pig was bleeding heavily from its back, though could stand if unsteadily. Between that, two girls having what sounded like a horrendous break-up argument in English in the street, and a loud disagreement over payment in the spa, didn’t feel especially relaxed as I sat in the waiting room.

Significantly less relaxed after the massage. For whatever reason I’d assumed it was going to be conducted by a soothing woman, and not the man from the lobby who’d so recently been in a shouting match with a couple. I lay down in the dark room, listening to the massages going on in neighbouring compartments, and had oil tipped on me until the masseur decided to put his entire body weight on my calf. Unbelievably painful. He asked if the pressure was OK and I said “yeah, great,” not wanting to let the side down.

The rest of the hour was among the least calming experiences of my life as he, grunting with exertion, set about mauling me, while I stared at the ground with wide eyes in appalled horror at the agonies being inflicted on me. Effectively ended up paying £15 to let someone beat me up for an hour.

A monkey enjoying an ice cream. Did not chase me, 10/10 monkey

I left feeling great, though I suspect I actually just feel normal now and it’s only comparatively great. Kept thinking about the man who kept repeating ‘more weight‘ as he got crushed to death. Could really use a cold beer now.

Later, could really use a cold shower as all the pent-up lust comes back after two weeks of complete absence, as a crowd of English women with cut glass accents do yoga on the balcony of the café. I honestly think I was just too stressed from travelling to even get relaxed enough to think about it until now. Lonely Planet didn’t mention that. Try to put it all out of my mind with a disgusting tomato juice and chips and salsa in the Little Buddha Café, where the ceilings are low and the clientele very definitely high.

Went back to the Ganges Café for tea, which feels like a cheat, to try the pizza/pasta. It was alright. Read and checked my lifelines than had a black tea and walked back to the hotel. Halfway across the Laxman Jhula I heard a local tell his friend in English that the bridge is all but condemned, and vehicles are banned due to ever-more urgent weight restrictions. Sure enough, an enormous skull sign at the far end confirms that a) the bridge is going, and probably soon, and b) that I’m blind for having missed it so many times. To bed early as I’m getting up to take advantage of the yoga on the roof at 6.

This bridge is coming down sooner rather than later. A man stopped me to offer me a beer on it, so it’s not a wholly dry town if you know where to go

The lights in my room flicker ominously every few minutes, and outside I hear the chanting from the Hare Krishna crowd. My legs still ache from the massage this afternoon and the air con keeps spitting on me. I think I love Rishikesh. It’s so relaxed; you pass monks and worshippers just enjoying their lives and stretched out on benches along every path. Every sunset here has been unreal. Will be sad to leave.

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