Quiet the mind and the soul will speak.
Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati
We finally arrived in Rishikesh after a nightmare drive from Delhi, thanks to our taxi driver who was falling asleep at the wheel.
I couldn’t wait to lie down and sleep, it was late and my legs were sore from being bunched up in the taxi for so long. Our room, on the top floor, was clean and spacious and it had beautiful views of the Ganges below.
After a good nights sleep, I woke up feeling excited to be in the world capital of yoga and I couldn’t wait to have a look around!
Rishikesh is a holy city, which lies at the foothills of the Himalayas and it attracts people from all over the world who come to meditate and learn yoga.
We decided to visit Neer Garh falls before venturing into town so we took a taxi to the base of a mountain, then walked 30 minutes up a steep path to the top. The water was icy cold, but I took a quick dip and it was beautiful and refreshing. The views out towards the mountains was spectacular and I felt so blessed to be there.
We walked back down to Yana, who was waiting for us at the bottom, only to find that our taxi was missing. It was a fair distance to walk back to town, so we asked some local boys if they wanted to ride us down on their motorbikes but they wanted too much money.
Luckily Yana had befriended a young guy who offered to take us down to the main road on his motorbike. I wondered what the catch was but gratefully accepted his offer of help anyway. He took Yana down first then mum and I climbed on the back behind him and we rolled down the bumpy dirt path until we reached the bottom. Mum offered to pay him but to my surprise he refused to take the money.
We still needed a ride into town and without asking, Yana’s friend waved out to his mate, who just so happened to be driving past in his jeep, and he stopped to pick us up, along with two other tourists who were also stuck.
The king young man dropped us off near the Lakshman Jhula hanging bridge so we decided to walk across to Swarg Ashram. The busy hanging bridge connects the two areas which are separated by the Ganges and is the main route for motorbikes, cows, monkeys and pedestrians to Swarg Ashram.
A display cabinet full of cakes drew us into a cafe, so we ordered food and drinks and sat upstairs while taking in the breathtaking views of the mountains and Ganges.
Swarg Ashram, which is considered to be the spiritual epicentre of Rishikesh, was full of temples and ashrams. The crowded bazaars were filled with sadhu’s (holy men), cows, monkeys, dogs, horses, street stalls selling the usual Indian fare and shops selling books, Ayurvedic herbal medicines, clothing, handicrafts and tourist trinkets such as jewellery and Tibetan singing bowls.
We walked along a rough path beside the fast-flowing Ganges to see the crumbling Ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, otherwise known as The Beatles Ashram. We had to pay a small fee to enter the dilapidated grounds and inside the abandoned Temple was a shrine for the famous four musicians with walls adorned with their most iconic lyrics and intricate artworks. The place had an eery vibe about it and I tried to imagine what it might have looked like back in 1968 when The Beatles stayed and wrote most of their songs for their White album.
We made our way back to watch the Ganga Aarti, a religious ceremony with singing, chanting, music and the lighting of candles, which is performed each day at sunset along the riverside at Parmath Niketan Ashram.
The live music was beautiful and the sun setting over the Ganges added to the atmosphere. I felt so at peace and humbled to be sitting amongst such authentic souls.
Once again, we had managed to explore the city in one day. Although we had planned on spending 2 days in Rishikesh, we decided to venture up high into the mountains to visit a Hindu temple that had good views of the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, so we pre-booked a taxi for the following day.
We woke up early to meet our taxi driver, who was a young guy that looked like he was in his teens. Considering the ordeal we went through in our last taxi, I was hoping that he would be a good driver as we had a few hours to travel.
He drove off at high-speed and straight away mum had to tell him to slow down. I don’t think he understood her as his English wasn’t very good and he continued to drive fast whilst passing slower vehicles and hurtling around narrow mountainous corners with no safety barriers and sheer drops down to the bottom. He seemed to be enjoying the ride while he sung aloud to his Indian music, which was blasting on the stereo, and he thought our shrieks of nervous laughter meant we were enjoying the ride too. Little did he know that it was a family trait of ours to laugh when we were scared, all I could do was let go and trust that we were not going to crash.
Although the drive was terrifying, the views of the Himalayan mountain range was spectacular.
With our adrenalin pumping, we finally arrived at a little mountain town in Tehri Garhwal, and we were pointed towards the direction of Surkanda Devi Temple, which was at an altitude of 3050 metres.
I didn’t realise we had to walk 3 kilometres up a steep path that wound around the mountainside so Yana decided to stay behind.
At the beginning of the path, hopeful locals with their horses offered to take us up by horseback. We considered paying but we decided to save our money and walk which on hindsight was probably the wrong decision!
We ended up climbing for what seemed like forever and the higher up we went the dizzier we became. We seemed to be running out of breath and mum was feeling nauseated.
We were obviously suffering the effects of altitude sickness but we were both determined to reach the top despite our symptoms, so we continued to coax each other on.
After having to sit down every so often we finally made it to the top, exhausted! We took off our shoes before walking the final steps up to the temple where we were greeted by the glistening white snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, and suddenly all the dizziness, nausea and breathlessness was worth it.
I felt a special kind of energy up there that words here cannot describe. It was a breathtakingly beautiful place that had a spiritual aura about it, and I sat taking it all in before descending back down. One Indian lady was hysterically running around the Temple screaming and when we asked one of the locals what she was doing we were told one of the Hindu Gods had entered her body.
We managed to walk back down a lot faster and we drove on towards Mussorie, a popular mountainside town, which is perched 2 kilometres high up on a ridge. We stopped for lunch at a Tibetan run restaurant where we feasted on delicious potato and cheese momos before driving back down to Rishikesh for the night.
Rishikesh had so far been my favourite place that I had visited in India and I would have liked to have spent more time there but we had to leave. We had planned on heading deep into the mountains to Himachal Pradesh. For some reason I was strangely drawn to the Himalayas and later in the trip I would find out why.
We woke at 4am and got a taxi to Kalka train station where we caught a toy train to Shimla. It was also Yana’s 17th birthday and we had planned on doing something special for her that day to celebrate.
Once at the station, I was taken aback by all the homeless families who were sleeping on the concrete floor. Mothers with their young babies, children and their fathers. As it became light, the railway staff moved them along and I wondered where they would go. What would they do with themselves? What would they eat? My heart sank, as I knew there was nothing out there for them. There was no government welfare, Salvation Army or food banks like back in New Zealand.
We sleepily boarded the small toy train and took naps in between looking out the window at the views.
The narrow, scenic railway line travelled around the mountainside, passing over 864 bridges and 102 tunnels along the way, providing dramatic views of local villages and the mountains.
Five hours later we arrived in Shimla, a popular mountain resort for Indian honeymooners and vacationers, and we caught a taxi to our guest house.
The hotel was nice and homely and it had lovely mountain views but our room downstairs was freezing. We weren’t used to feeling so cold, but being up high meant the temperature dropped significantly.
We walked towards town for lunch, to celebrate Yana’s birthday but we couldn’t find a restaurant anywhere so we stopped at a bakery and bought samosas, cake and ice-cream and attempted to sit down on the sidewalk before quickly moving on to avoid the cheeky monkeys who were hassling us for our food.
Yana was unhappy as so far it hadn’t been much of a birthday and she was tired, so we decided to try find her a birthday present and ended up walking down the path to the lower bazaars.
Shimla seemed to have a division of classes. The upper bazaars were filled with holiday-makers who obviously had money and upmarket shops selling expensive mobile phones and designer clothing, and the lower bazaars were filled with street stalls selling home-grown produce and cheap clothing.
I had never seen such a blatant divide between the rich and poor in my life. The paths of the upper bazaars were some of the cleanest that I had seen in India, it was illegal to spit or litter, there was a strong police force keeping watch and beggars were banned from the area. In the lower bazaars, there were a lot of beggars and frail elderly men who were acting as porters, struggling up steep concrete steps carrying heavy loads as big as themselves on their backs to the people in the upper bazaars. I knew they wouldn’t be paid much and I felt so sorry for them.
Seeing this inequality made me feel angry but there was nothing I could do.
We never did find a present for Yana, nor did we find a restaurant despite me asking an annoyed looking guard if the President’s house was a restaurant when we were walking back to our hotel, where I was suddenly startled by a monkey who had jumped out of nowhere and tried to rip the pack off my back. I screamed out in fright and it luckily scurried away. Even the monkeys up there were not as friendly.
It was cold and I felt disappointed. I didn’t enjoy being in Shimla and I couldn’t wait to leave.