I guess I experienced India as a land of extremes. There is beauty and extreme luxury mixed with extreme poverty. And did we mention the air pollution? The days we were in New Delhi were rated from Extremely Unhealthy to Dangerous. Regrettably Agra (Taj Mahal), Jaipur and even Shimla (mountain area) were rated Extremely Unhealthy. Only when we were high up in the Himalayas (Kaza, Spiti) the air was crystal clear. But all of this later.
We arrived in New Delhi and stayed in the Imperial Hotel. Fantastic 5 star colonial building with superb service. Old fashioned rooms with high ceilings and a tat dated but excellent service and food. We decided on a walk to the ‘shopping area’ despite the bad smelling air. We received our precise directions from the concierge how to walk to the shopping area 20 minutes away and off we went! Furthermore armed with MapMe on the phone, we set out for our walk. Two steps outside the hotel and we are surrounded by people wanting to sell stuff, wanting to drive us, guide us and a tat more disturbing, are following us while explaining that according to them, we are walking into the wrong direction. Several times we are approached by people wanting to take us into a different direction under the pretext/warning that there are demonstrations ahead and that it is not safe to continue. Not sure where they would have taken us and with what purpose, we were glad that we stayed the planned course instead. A tat creepy nonetheless as one guy kept stalking us. Once in the ‘shopping area’ (called Connaught circle) we found refuge in a MacDonalds and had a welcome cold drink soothing our soar throats. We wondered around a little more but we were more or less glad when we made it back the hotel. (Note to self: Do not pursue job opportunities in polluted cities no matter where in the world).
The next day was fantastic. We were treated on a private tour by Sandeep who obviously knew his way around. In the morning we walked around Humayun’s Tomb in the eastern part of Dehli.
Humayun’s tomb is one of the best preserved/ Mughal monuments and was built (read procured) by his widow Hamida Banu Begum, who, 9 years after his demise, commenced the construction of this mausoleum in 1565. Cool fact is Humayun was a direct ascendant from Ghenghis Khan and his family ruled for many generations. His grandson, Shah Jahan was the mastermind behind the Taj Mahal about 100 years later in remembrance of his departed wife, clearly inspired by his grand parents. There are a lot of mixed features in the monuments of this era. Many are dominated by Persian (today Iran) motifs. The domes and symmetry are all inspired by islamic believe. A cool design feature are the four staircases leading up to the tomb. The ‘west’ staircase (facing Mecca) is relatively steeper than the other three (east, south, north). The reason for this design is that people leaving the western staircase will look down when descending the steep staircase in respect for facing Mecca. I love design details like that.
Anyway, the evening was equally a treat. We went to Old Delhi Railway area to a fantastic restaurant inside a small renovated boutique hotel, Haveli Dharampura. It was quite an adventure finding it as this hotel is in a small alleyway and getting there by rickshaw was adventure in itself. We fell in love with this place so much so that we planned staying there on our return from Spiti. As we found out on our return leg, you need to call the hotel a few minutes before arriving at the C gate of the Red Fort and hotel staff will come to pick you and your luggage up as otherwise it is impossible getting there. I hope you like the pics. It gives an idea of the area….
Agra and Jaipur
If you like to enjoy unbelievable luxury and service, stay in Oberoi Agra. One night here costs as much as 40 nights Spiti valley but it was worth every penny. We stayed two nights (why not…) and pampered ourselves silly before setting up for minus 20 degrees in a homestay Himalaya environment where a heater is an optional treat. The Oberoi hotel rooms look out over the Taj Mahal and it is a sight to behold. We recommend two nights in Agra and two nights in Jaipur as there is a lot of time lost commuting between and there is a lot to see in both places (probably more in Jaipur). In Agra we made two Taj visits. the First one in the afternoon with a lot of other people upon our arrival from New Delhi. The second time the next morning at 6.45am as we were told that sunrise is the best to enjoy a golden red shine on the pristine white marble. The hotel arranged the tickets. We woke up early and had a light snack breakfast before a 10 minute walk to the Taj Mahal. So at 6.45am we set out for our second visit only to be disappointed by overcast and air pollution. No sun in sight and instead of a red shine we had a grey-ish fog…..! But there were a lot less people than the prior afternoon and we took some pics without hundreds of people obscuring the views or pushing you away. As explained earlier, the Taj is the burial place of Shah Jahan’s wife. The marble is amazing and I hope you see the details of the flowers in the pics. These are ‘in lays’ of gem stones which means they had to carve out the marble and lay in stone by stone…. Amazing if you see this up close…. The four outside pillars ‘lean out’ by 2.5 degrees…. This was done so that in case of an earthquake, the pillars would fall away from the dome…. Like the construction detail of the west steps in Humayun’s tomb, I love these types of details. In my view, people are not more clever today compared to centuries ago. We just have the benefit of their prior learnings for which we build further.
In the afternoon we went to Agra Fort. A huge structure down the river overlooking the Taj. Regrettably a large part of the Fort is closed for renovation but nonetheless it is worth roaming around for a few hours. We took some pics. What impressed was the size of the outer walls…. Just imagine what it must have taken to built these hundreds of years ago…. Impressing structures and architecture.
The next day we set off to Jaipur after our last night of extreme luxury. After a good 5 hour drive we arrived at the Monkey Temple in Jaipur for a late afternoon sunset. It was a 30 minute modest up and down hike and it did not disappoint if you are looking for monkeys. We were explained that there are 4 monkey tribes and about 10,000 monkeys. Not sure if that is true but one thing was clear; monkeys everywhere. We were lucky that someone drove up the mountain with a motorbike handing out bananas (to the monkeys!). We followed him around and took some fun pics and video. My favourite shot is the following…… Who says ‘men cannot multi task’? This guy clearly knows what is important! Food and Sex! Or Sex and Food….? Who cares about the order….. Both options were available! Also her look is priceless…. She did not even bother stopping to eat. Was it as good for you as it was for me? She clearly did not seem to bother.
In Jaipur we stayed in the JW Marriott. Brand new and very reasonably priced and well located on the exit road to New Delhi the next day but otherwise not a recommendation. It lacks atmosphere and the staff was over the top trying to please to the point that they watch every bite you take asking if it is to your liking. After our one night stay, the next day we went sightseeing akin to speed dating. Hence a two night stay in Jaipur is recommendable and I am sure there are more authentic hotels to stay.
First up, Jal Mahal. A summer palace in one of the largest man made lakes in Asia. Clearly only reachable by boat for which we had no time. But certainly a nice place. Regrettably the light did not cooperate so a shot through the air pollution is all we got time for. Racing into town to see Hawa Mahal (Wind Palace). The little windows were the windows for the many concubines to look out on the street but to stay out of view of the public themselves. It is a pretty facade in the middle of a busy street. Make time for a cup of coffee on any of the roof bars opposite. Clearly a photo opportunity and the smarter merchants expect you to buy a cup of coffee from them for the elevated view point!
We then moved into the mountains to the Nahargargh Fort looking out over Jaipur. Great views all around and good for a stroll. You could hike it up from the Nahargargh Palace Hotel. We had lovely modest temperatures although the air pollution put us off any serious outdoor activities. So after walking around the outer walls of the fort, we jumped back in the car and moved over to the Jaigargh Fort. This is probably my favourite fort with its many hidden tunnels and corridors and its famous garden. We were told this fort was built to protect the last and most famous fort below: The Amber (Amer) Fort. We did not sign up for the tour but the two forts are connected via a secret tunnel system which you could walk. The views from Nahargargh are great and you can see the wall complex around the mountains protecting the old city. A striking resemblance of the Great Wall itself. Same concept but much shorter and one can clearly see the outline of the entire structure from high up.
So our last stop was Amber (or Amer) Fort.
Clearly this is the main tourist attraction of Jaipur together with the city palace (which we missed). This is a pretty cool place and you can imagine what life must have been like surrounded by the (city) walls in the old days. A tat too touristy for sure. You could go up to the main gate by elephant. When we drove by at 9am, it was indeed impressive seeing a column of elephants trotting up the mountain to the main gate. It was worthy of a movie scene if they were all dressed up in the traditional garb. However, this is not our scene so we skipped the elephants and later that morning we drove up to the gate via the back alley. We easily strolled over an hour through the different court yards and chambers in this large fort and peeked where possible over the walls enjoying the scenery.
So we rushed Jaipur and you can easily spend two nights or even three here and not get bored. But like New Delhi, be prepared that everyone wants to be your guide and the constant hassle of people approaching you gets tiring from time to time.
Off to Shimla
In the afternoon we tracked back to New Delhi (7 hour drive with Dehli rush hour arrival). Rested for one night as the next day we made a 12 hour drive to Kalka, up north east. We stopped over for dinner at home with Mrs Malik (Sr) in Chandigarh. Chandigarh has an interesting story. Not only is it one of the Indian cities with the highest GDP, it is also one of the cleanest and best designed cities globally. It was one of the early planned/designed cities in post-independent India. It is internationally known for its architecture and urban design.The master plan of the city was prepared by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. In 2015, an article published by BBC named Chandigarh as one of the perfect cities of the world in terms of architecture, cultural growth and modernisation. Who would have thought finding this place in India! And no traffic jams….. Wide boulevards and grid like lay out made this city a breeze to drive through.
Anyway, we went there for a lovely dinner which was more important, after which we still had a short drive to Kalka to end the long day in our US$ 25 hotel which really lived up to its 25 dollars price tag. So here is where our Himalayan trip starts. The sheets were so dirty that we unpacked our sleeping bags. Yup, we were very very prepared!!
The next day we left at 6 am for the train from Kalka to Shimla. Sharon booked the famous train ride up the mountain which really is a must do. But a view pointers…. There are no different ‘classes’ in this train to chose from so we had a ticket arranged via the Imperial Hotel concierge and hoped for the best. We assumed this may be a little touristy but going up the mountains for a 6 hour train ride must be fun. So arriving at the Kalka train station we were told our train would leave from platform 6 at 7am. It is now 6.35 and on platform 6 there was train with a different train number….. And since we were the only ‘white faces’ we concluded that maybe this is not our train. This train is packed with Indian families and lots of luggage so lets wait and see….. Surely this train leaves the platform soon and our train to Shimla is yet to arrive.
In the meantime the train we are looking at, is filling up fast….. with a lot of people….and luggage. And it gets closer to leaving time….. Doubt creeps in….. Are we on the wrong platform? Did they change it? Or is this our train after all? But why the different number? So going to the locomotive, I asked the train driver who gladly and smilingly confirmed that the train number on the board should be ignored and that Yes, this is the train to Shimla….. So now we are suddenly in a rush finding out our wagon to go to with our 5 pieces of rather heavy luggage…. And needless to say, the train had now filled up with even more people and even more luggage…. We finally found our wagon, pulled 5 pieces of luggage into the overfull cabin and found out that a rather large Indian family had set up camp in and around our designated seats…. After a nice and polite pointing at numbers on seats and tickets, they vacated to another area from which they were soon requested to move again once the rightful ticket holders of these chairs arrived. Long story short, after what seemed to be a game of Chinese Checkers with people, all 30 some people in the carriage had found a seat and the train was rolling out of the station….. As a matter of fact, the trained rolled most of the trip and people were able to get on and off while the train was moving…. This train is not fast moving at all….. Early on in the trip it stopped every six kilometres at small train stations where passengers all went out to stretch their legs and to score breakfast from the vendors on the platforms. Quite a happening event. The train would sound a horn and start rolling again which was a sign for people to get back on board.
The train ride is an experience and all in all it was fun….. It did not take long before there was real sense of community in our carriage. The family sitting opposite and next to us offered us to join their breakfast…. They opened their bags and naan/roti breads, plates, curries and veggies came out…. We politely declined not sure if our stomachs were bullet proof enough yet for this adventure but we appreciated the gesture and hospitality. The ride was fun and the pics give you an idea of what this is like! Also striking is the fact that the train drives with open doors and although not moving fast, falling out would not be a good experience given the depths of the ravines it travels through….. Not the safest of transport but surely worth the thrill!
It occurred to me that further on in the morning the train did no longer stop at every station and in some case just slowed down a little while rolling past platforms. Little did we know that five hours later we were to leave the train while it was rolling through ‘our station’…. It did not stop….. Getting on a rolling train is easy as you can walk/jog and obtain the same speed as the train before stepping up the ladder…. But getting off is a tat different as you require to ‘hit the ground running’….. And if that was not enough of a challenge, trying to do this with five pieces of luggage added a whole new dimension…. We had to organise quick and I saw Sharon with two pieces of ‘hand luggage’ at the ‘front door’. I stood at the ‘other door’ which would land me between the train tracks of upcoming traffic. Standing at opposite doors we looked at each other in disbelieve and I felt the train speeding up….. So with the courage of despair I yelled ‘Jump’ across the carriage and jumped out not knowing if Sharon would follow. I landed between the tracks to the bewilderment of a passenger I just passed at the door. I yelled at him to throw outour suitcases which he luckily complied…. I thought that leading by example was the only way to persuade Sharon to jump, so off I went! As I jumped ‘from the other side’ of the train, I could not see Sharon and had to wait for the entire train to pass in order to see if she jumped and if she had the remaining luggage. After the train passed, which seemed to take an eternity, I was so relieved seeing her on the other side…. And with the two pieces of luggage! She more or less ordered someone to throw the luggage out of the door after she was outside as well…. She could not stop talking about her experience and she was envisaging to do a 007 Bond roll when falling out of the rolling train. Anyway, I would have loved to have seen the look on the faces of the people in the carriage….. Here are these two expats clearly out of place and if that was not strange enough, here they suddenly jumped out of the train shouting at remaining passengers to throw out the suitcases…. I am sure they had a fun story to tell as well!
A great start of things to come!
We are now near Shimla and our guide for the next 6 days shows up. It is 2pm and he advises that we need to arrange our Spiti permits in Shimla. So after a short car ride we end up in a government building with a maze of offices…. Magistrates, Deputy Magistrates, Assistant Magistrates, PA’s to the Assistant Magistrate and a plethora of other offices with people queuing and papers being stamped….. First challenge was finding the right office…. After walking up and down several floors and visiting quite a few offices, we end up leaving the first building and repeated the process in the building next door…. Success!
About office #10 we seemed to have found the correct PA to a Magistrate to issue our permit to go to Spiti. So the officer asks with a voice of total amazement:
“Why do you want to go to Spiti”?
Answer: We like to see the mountains and the snow
Reply: Why don’t you drive up the back of the mountain here? We have snow and mountains here… You are the only foreigners visiting Spiti in the winter…. We don’t even now if the roads are open and please appreciate that the temperature in Spiti is anywhere from minus 10 to minus 25….
Sharon starts to get nervous…. We love places that are not touristy but this seems suddenly all too extreme. Do we really want to go? This guy says that we are the only (foreign) visitors…. What if we get stuck and snowed in? What if we cannot get back in time for our flight next week? There is certainly no internet and most likely no phone signal at all? No-one knows we are here…And we are the only ones… Panic!!
The officer fills out forms and copies are made, stamps, signatures added and our guide is send off to go to another office for more stamps I guess…. We wait and chat with the nice officer and receive a cup of tea…. It is now 4pm-ish and our guide returns with the news that the person he needs next is not in today so we need to come back tomorrow…. Not impressed we walk out where our guide seems to spot the person he needs to see arriving at the building…. So we turn around and get back inside and queue up again…. Another officer, another conversation around ‘why on earth do you want to go to Spiti in the winter’ and another cup of tea….. Five o’clock rolls by and the sun sets and it gets really cold inside the room. People seem to pack up for the day. Our guide returns from another venture around various rooms and again, no success… We finally give up for the day and retreat defeated, only to try again at opening time tomorrow at 10am….
You get the picture for the next day, queue up, questions, sit down and a cup of tea…. Two and a half hours later we finally have the documents with the correct stamps and we set off to Spiti. A two day drive into the Himalayas via Rampur and Tabo where we visit one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in use in the world today dating back to year 996.
The road to Spiti was hazardous. The road shows many scars from landslides and rockfalls marked occasionally by a car wreck alongside the road. We also had to stop from time to time for roadworks as they were widening the roads. They basically use dynamite and blow up the side of the mountain. Then they clear the rubble by shoving it into the ravin below. The clip give you an idea….
After two days driving and a home stay with friendly people along the way, we arrive in Spiti. We immediately drove into Pin Valley to enjoyed the amazing scenery. It had snowed the day before and it did not take long before the driver stopped our bus and advised that he would not go further into the snow filled valley. So we set out on foot for a hike and walked on the road covered in pristine virgin snow. Truly spectacular…. Imagine the scene in the pictures…. The silence, the sound of crisp snow below your boots and the cold super clean and fresh air….. And no one! As in No One around…. And the lack of oxygen! LOL…. An uphill hike makes you realise that you are well above 4km sea level and that the air is thin…. We decide to take the drone out and shot the following clips….
Later that day we arrive at our homestay. For the next three nights. We stay in Kaza with a family in a clay built house. We learn that clay houses are much better than concrete houses as clay keeps warmth in the winter and stays cool in summer. Concrete however is super cold in the winter and we experienced this first hand when we visited our first homestay in Tabo the night before. However, at minus 20 at night everything is cold and we luckily paid extra to enjoy the comfort of a heater in our bedroom. That is of course if there is electricity to power the heater which happens in intervals…. The bathroom is uh, well, uh… frozen…. All water supply is frozen so you do your toilet business in the toilet bowl and ‘flush’ by using a bucket of water (which also freezes over at night….) Warm water comes from a thermos flask so washing yourself is pretty limited and rudimentary. The pictures will give you an idea of what live is like. It is very very basic but all in all, as crude as the conditions were, we loved it and had a great time. Eating happens sitting down on the floor around the wood stove. The food was all vegetarian and great. Roti bread with potatoes, lentils and curries and of course tea….. Lots of tea to stay warm. It is all super cozy and fun for a week. However we realise that this how these people live every day like this.
Our host speaks a little English and explains many of the things we eat. It all comes from his land/garden. Some of the things are dried or pickled over time well before the winter started. He explains that he (and most others people) work six months per year on the land in the valley and the other six months are winter where not much seems to happen.
Kaza village is a ‘one street’ deal with little shops selling either food or clothes. Walking ‘to and from’ the main street is interesting. There are dogs everywhere and we were explained that different groups live in different areas. The dogs are all super friendly to people in search of food and cuddles but super competitive among each other. It also means that everywhere you go there is dog poo and….. yes there are places where people seem to poo as well…. Remember, there is no water and clearly we saw someone squat in a ‘quiet’ place behind a row of houses. We can only imagine what the smell must be once the snow and ice melts…. Probably not the place too visit in a wet spring so wait for summer!
The next two days were sightseeing. We visited monasteries (pic above), villages and paid a visit to the highest postoffice on the planet at 4.4km above sea-level. Spiti is mind-blowingly pretty. The clear blue sky surely helped but life in the Himalayas is hard. We experienced first hand what living here feels like and saw the people going about their business. It is interesting and I am sure that over time I will reflect on this type of life versus the life I am accustomed to. I am not advocating that the Himalayan life style is for me but still….. There is a pureness and honesty about it which I cannot find back in our fast paced rich city lifestyles. And the beauty….. It is raw and you realise that this place is super unforgiving given the bitter cold temperatures and totally frozen environment. No central heating and no running water with intermittent power outages. This is a different life. We saw people taking advantage of the sun and wash their clothes with water pumped from the non frozen village water-well. This water source is shared by all. Some to do their washing, some bringing their yak, donkeys and goats from the mountains. Young and old are all busy doing something.
Here some of our pics and experiences…..
Six days later we are back in Delhi! We stay near Old Delhi Train station for a day and a half in Haveli as described above before flying back to the UK. This is not an area where we see many tourists either but this is a ‘must do’ excursion if you ever go to New Delhi. Narrow streets and real local street life! And guess what, we stumbled across a wedding and I was asked to join in the dance while the crowd was waiting for the bride and groom to appear. All in a day!! We had a laugh and I am sure that the locals had an even greater laugh seeing this white guy trying to keep up! Will create a link to see it......
A great way to end our 2 weeks in India.
We enjoyed the extreme luxury of the Imperial Hotel and even more exclusivity in the Oberoi Agra. Saw incredibly beauty at the Taj Mahal. Enjoyed the forts in Jaipur. We shared a train cabin ‘Indian Style’ and had to jump off a moving train with our luggage. Queued for many hours for our Spiti permits and had nice chats with the people working here. Drove a mountain road which was a thrill in its own right. Saw unbelievable beauty. Looked in disbelieve that roadworks were aided with dynamite while onlookers stand by and take pictures. Saw the most beautiful mountains covered in snow. Had the honour to sit in on a Buddhist ceremony in one of the monasteries. Lived like people do in Kaza and posted cards from the highest post office in the world (not sure if any of them will ever make their intended destination!).
So Yes, India is a must do and two weeks will not do it any justice. Take your time if you go for the touristy ‘triangle’ Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and don’t rush it. If you go ‘cheap’ appreciate that hygiene is relative and we were so happy having brought our own sleeping bags. Bring charcoal pills as your tummy will get an upset at some point (don’t use Immodium as it may cause issues if you have a more serious underlying problem). Be prepared being hassled and make sure you know where you are going as otherwise it is easy to get confused or intimidated. Do visit Old Delhi Railway area. It is really different and it shows a super cool side of the city. Make sure what ever you order for drinking is opened at your table and that it comes from a sealed bottle. Stay away from local ice cubes and appreciate that anything cooked is better than anything raw. So salad lovers, be warned. Your green leaves may not be as clean as you would have liked. But overall, enjoy this super vibrant and busy place. Don’t complain….. You are in India. It is different so be prepared for what it is and roll with it! And yup, if you ever have time and you are in no rush, make the trip to Spiti. Reflecting on my life I appreciate the riches I have enjoyed in my 26 AIG career. But as I grow older, I am obsessed with the time and more specifically the lack of time. It is an irreplaceable commodity. You never get it back. Having only had 20 holidays in a year for most of my life, I begin to see that taking a year off is priceless. I would never have driven a few thousand kilometres across India for days and stay at home with strangers while sleeping in my sleeping bag. I would not have made the time for that….. I wish if you read this that you promise yourself to make time for the things that are important to you. Your family, spouse, kids, friends and the places you always wanted to visit. Time is a luxury and experiences which stick in your mind are priceless and no ‘thousand dollar hotel’ can compete with it. I am writing this with a smile as I realise I am very very lucky to have experienced Spiti in the winter…….