We sailed out of the Delhi madness on a clean(ish) air conditioned train headed for the northern town of Rishikesh. We were very excited about our first journey on the famous Indian Railway and it didn’t disappoint: on time; food served; comfy seats; and the perfect blend of Indian organised chaos.
Rishikesh is in the foothills of the Himalayas and at the start of the River Ganges. The town itself is not much, but the life along the riverbank is really quite magical. This is where the Beatles escaped to in the 70s to ‘find themselves’ and write most of The White Album. Though the Ashram they stayed at is in ruins now, the area is still full of ashrams, aveydic pharmacies, massage shops, bead stalls, yoga classes, basically everything you need to find yourself and live as a true hippy.
We spent five days wandering along the Ganges, exploring the temples, ashrams and the curry menus in the local restaurants. In fact, Angela had the best curry of her life – a vegetable Jalfrezi in Beatles themed 60’s Cafe if you are interested.
We also partook in some light finding ourselves activities including evening meditation sessions with a very peaceful German named Eva. Unfortunately, as it takes approximately 4.5 seconds for me to fall asleep normally and quicker if I am lying down (as we were in the meditation sessions), I took relaxation quite literally and was completely mortified when I woke myself up snoring during our second session.
Cows feature heavily in Rishikesh and, as we are finding, in much of India. They pootle about the narrow streets munching on bits and bobs, standing in the middle of heavy traffic or on the bridges seemingly without a care in the world.
Avoiding the many aggressive monkeys which swing through the town whilst trying to catch a perfect photograph of them also took up a fair wedge of our time. As did trying to figure out if the 60 year old American lady in our hostel was really heavily pregnant or had some other mysterious ailment. We tried a number of leading questions, but left none the wiser.
Getting around the supposedly pedestrian streets was a real adventure: huge huddles of families; slow moving long haired holy men; aforementioned cows and monkeys; and motorbikes all battle for space on the winding streets and on the two suspension bridges. Nothing like a traffic jam made up of a huge cow, ten hippies, 20 grandmas, a couple of men selling postcards, and five motorbikes, to wonder about just how much a bridge can handle. Turns out it’s quite a lot.
However, it was here that the Indian friendliness we had encountered in Delhi stepped up a gear. What would often start as a shy boy asking for a photo with us, would end up as four generations of a family blocking the road to cram into the photograph. It’s still the Diwali holidays, so we met people from all over India. My favourite was a gang of little old ladies from Gujarat in bejewelled saris who were thrilled to meet us, stroking our hands, smiling so wide and fascinated with Angela’s tattoo. The attention was occasionally overwhelming, with people approaching us every 10 minutes or so, but so wonderful to be welcomed so warmly and to make people smile just simply by being there.
One of the highlights of Rishikesh was attending a Hindu ceremony called Ganga Arti on the banks of the river. It involved singing, clapping, music and some pretty awesome hand cymbal playing. It was very moving to watch the sun set on the river as floral offerings were carried away by the Ganges and it was a perfect introduction to what we would find at our next destination: Varanasi.