Monday, July 4, 2016

Haridwar

This notorious place. Do anything you want, but never eat a thing from here. They are probably taking all their water from the E-coli filled dirty sacred holy river Ganga. We had no plan to eat at the bank of the river, but it rained and we got trapped near a place and we ate some and the story turns worse.
But before that, we had some nice time walking by the side of the river. We had reached the Haridwar railway station by afternoon. And the Russian would leave for Delhi in the 18:15 Shatabdi Express. He was particular that he goes in an air conditioned train because of what had happened on our journey from Delhi to Dehradun. All of us had something to cover ourselves with, except him. We were in sleeper compartment. He went to his berth like a Russian and we assumed Russians were resistant to cold. Turns out they aren't. They just have excellent warming systems in their place. So, the outside temperatures might go below zero, but inside the homes are warm. And in the morning all of us had woken up from a good night's sleep except him. So he couldn't miss this AC train to Delhi.

But we still had some time to pass before the train would arrive. There were so many police officers deployed in the railway station. Turns out it was indeed a special occasion and we would have cursed ourselves if we had reached there a day later. It was going to be an 'ardh kumbh mela' next day. Means a lot of devotees running to the river. Anyhow, we walked perpendicularly towards the river.

The banks were surprisingly calm. There were a few devotee groups sitting here and there. People dressed like Lord Shiva kept walking by us. The river was mighty, filled to the brim. We walked more than a kilometer like that and took enough photos on the way. After all, the river is a river.

Panorama

We were walking towards a huge Shiva statue. But it was too far for us to walk to and it appeared to be on an island all by itself. Instead we decided to go to this part of the river where they would float lamps on. We were there, but it wasn't time yet for the devotees to come in masses with the lamps. So we decided to check out the shops on the parallel road. This is where it rained and we got charmed into eating thalis and kesari from a dhaba.

When the rain subsided, it was time for the Russian to leave. We dropped him back at the station waving him goodbye. On the way to the station we had nice warm tea at another shop too. And then we came back to the place where the lamps would float.

The lamps had started floating. There was a small mandir on the bank where people would fetch these from. There also was a monkey on its roof trying to steal the bananas offered to the God there being rattled away by the priest. Then there was this set of people standing in the river with water up till their knees. They would use a piece of glass (or transparent plastic?) to look through the surface of the river on to the bottom and pick something from the bottom using their long magnetic stick. Turns out, coins. Look, pick, transfer. Repeat.

We observed them and the floating lamps for a while and then walked around the city. There was a Chinese corner where we had noodles and soup. Night had fallen and that would be our dinner. We then walked to the riverbank again. There were cold seats to sit on. We sat with the breeze hitting us hard and the mighty river tempting me to jump into and die.

After a while, we went back to the railway station. They had a waiting room upstairs. Filled with people though. We spread a newspaper and sat outside. Our train was coming only after midnight. I slowly drifted into sleep.

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Mussoorie

We reached Mussoorie around 4 o'clock. Although we saw the youth hostel on the way we weren't sure if they provided accommodation and it was a bit far from all the places we wanted to trek to. At the bus stand an agent approached us asking if we wanted rooms and then led us to a nearby hotel where we got a large room where the 4 of us could stay. The Russian asked if a room warmer was available. It was, at ₹200 extra. We went for it and that decision was a lifesaver as you will soon come to know.

By then the Sun was going to go down and we didn't want to waste that day by not going anywhere. I calculated the distance to various places we could go to and settled on going to Everest house. The distance could be covered on foot in about an hour said Google Maps. But that hour easily stretched into two. I'll write about how GPS-enabled/dependent our treks were in a later post.

We did get lost once and reached a high-security hotel with dogs that would look like they could rip you apart. But we retraced, walked, and stomped our way forward. At about 800m to Sir George Everest House you reach this cafe called Seagreen. It was really dark by then and so we decided to go to the Everest House first and then go to the cafe on return even though we were really hungry and hadn't had any food (I had promised my travel mates that there were so many restaurants on the way where we could eat from, but turns out the map is different from reality). Here, two dogs joined us on the upward climb.

The climb is steep but there is a clear unpaved path upwards and although it was dark we had enough moonlight to see our way. The dogs - we named them Schwanan (Malayalam for dog) and Hillary. We were so late that the tiny shops on the sides which would sell soft drinks and noodles were closing down one by one. It was still wonderful how there were people running such shops everywhere. Schwanan was leading the way at times and at other times slowing down to catch up with Hillary who was trailing. But I realized that day that these were probably the descendants of those very same dogs which gave Sir George Everest company when he climbed that hill to set up his house on top.

And then we reached the house, quite literally at the top of the hill and at the edge of the land. But to call it a house would be a mistake because all that remained were a few walls which have now been written over with names of couples inside huge ❤ symbols.

And then there was a surprise. There was light! There were the Himalayan mountains far away glistening in red, orange, and all the colours of the setting Sun. The horizon was a rainbow between the starlit dark sky and the snowy white mountains. We were the only people there, the last trekkers of the day. The 4 of us and Schwanan. Hillary had gone away somewhere else.

We spent only about 15 minutes on the top because we were hungry, it was getting cold, it was getting darker, and we had taken enough panoramas and selfies and timer shots. On the way back, we had to intermittently shine a fridge market torch one of us had to make sure there were no snakes or holes. And we did stop here and there to look at the stars and make out random constellations that didn't even exist.

As we had decided we took a break at Seagreen Cafe where we had a large pizza and hot coffee. More importantly they had a room warmer which worked on coal maybe and we took a lot of warmth from it. Working on his tablet was a fellow traveller who was spending some time in North India before flying to Scotland to meet his girlfriend. We waved him goodbye and walked back, trying and failing to hitchhike. On the long way back which felt shorter, the 3 of us who were Malayalis sang some of our boat racing songs to keep us going faster. When we got tired, the Russian taught us his marching songs too. We reached our rooms and slept peacefully with the warmer first on, and then off.

This is where warmth comes from
For next day, I had decided that we would trek to a "Tibetan Buddhist Temple" which looked good in photos on Google Maps. We woke up early, had breakfast and started walking. We weren't even a kilometer down when it started to drizzle slightly. We walked on till the rain got heavier and we had to find shelter in a building on the roadside. As we stood there we tried to find a hike to the temple but unfortunately it was too early in the morning and there were no vehicles going that side. The rain gave in slightly and we continued to walk. checking off landmarks to make sure we were on the right path. But then, all of a sudden there was heavy downpour and our woollen clothes were absorbing all the water like a camel at an oasis. We tried taking cover again, but by then we were so wet and so close to the temple on the map that we decided to brave the rain.

There was ice on the road. It was a hailstorm. There was water everywhere. Our shoes were wet despite our best attempts to not step on water. And the hail was hitting us hard too. Anyhow we reached the Buddhist temple. Like the rain wasn't enough, the temple was closed that morning. We could not go inside, but we could take photos from outside and see the valley. As I was trying to take a picture of the temple, I realized to my horror that my fingers were getting so cold that I could not bend them to click. It was the case with everyone. We were going to die probably while still searching for an open cafe to buy some warmth.
This was everywhere!
But there was a saviour. The language teacher of a Tibetan school there was going to Chandigarh in his car. And after removing all the hailstones from his car's windshield he was willing to drop us back to the city. We jumped in and he turned the AC on to full heat, dropped us near our hotel, and we ran to our rooms after thanking him and wishing him a happy journey. When we reached room we were drenched and shivering. The only warm thing in the room was the warmer and we sat around it warming our clothes and body in turns. The wet socks were fuming. Shoes definitely had to be dried. The room service brought cups of tea and we had bought some bananas on the way. After about an hour we were dry enough to pack up and leave.

We had brunch at a nice warm restaurant just above the bus stand. It was still raining. The Mussoorie Library were Ruskin Bond is known to frequent was right next to us but we were in no mood for reading. The buses to Dehradun are the same buses that come from Dehradun. We waited for about half an hour and got our seats back to Dehradun.

As soon as we reached the bus stand I realized there was a train about to leave from the station - the Dehradun Allahabad Link Express. We ran to the station and made sure the train hadn't left and then ran to the ticket counter which is outside the platform and took tickets and ran back to the train and got in to the general compartment and the train started, all within a span of ten minutes. The compartment was full and the Russian got the taste of general compartment journey and we alighted at Haridwar.

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Dehradun

The Delhi Dehradun express stops for long time at various places and reaches Dehradun by 9 in the morning. We woke up by the time the train reached Haridwar and saw dried Ganga on the way.

At Dehradun railway station, you can walk outside to the Dehradun bus stand where there are half hourly buses to Mussoorie from 6 in the morning to 9 in the night. We walked further, had breakfast, and walked through the market to reach clock tower. From the clock tower a small bus took us to Forest Research Institute at ₹10.

There were a couple of other tourists waiting in the electric cart at the entrance. We quickly bought entry tickets and sat on it. I was at the tail, looking back when the cart went forward. The straight road cut at right angles to several buildings, all in lush green plots.

The cart dropped us at one end of a large, imperial building built of red bricks. This was the Forest Research Institute. Some of the corridors reminded us of Hogwarts.
See?

There were multiple "exhibitions" inside the building. The entry ticket would cover all of them. But the exhibitions were rather the various departments of the Forest Research Institute. For example, there was this pathology exhibition, in which the pathophysiology of all the plant diseases were shown (with pathological specimens just like our medical college). Siviculture exhibition was about cultivating forests and there were tiny models of forests showing how the trees looked at different height. In another room, there were cross sections of 800 year old trees showing tree rings that corresponded to different years in the history. One of these rooms, I heard about cordyceps sinensis which is a fungus that parasitically grows out of worms apparently more expensive than gold and extremely difficult to procure.

A nearby school had come for picnic there and when we got outside the Institute's garden was full of kids playing different games in their own little groups. This is also where our Russian friend saw someone posing in one of the classic Bollywood hero poses and imitated those himself. We started walking back and got on to the electric cart about a minute down the path. Then we took a vehicle back to the Dehradun city back to where we started from.

At the bus stand, there were regular and frequent buses to Mussoorie. All we had to do was stand in queue and reserve seats in the next bus that was going up. The ride is just under a couple of hours but the road is winding and uphill.

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