I’m back in Rishikesh for a month of yoga teacher training, and have arrived a few days early to see (and hear!) Rishikesh in the midst of Diwali.
Diwali is celebrated over five days, with the third day being the main festival. Many homes have rangoli (colored sand decorations) on their doorsteps, and have colored lights strung up on their houses. On the third night, there are also candles put out both in homes and on the water.
I was able to watch some rangoli being made, and henna being applied during some celebrations at a local hostel. And there’s been no shortage of fireworks since I got here, going off all day long, but mostly at night. I rather feel sorry for the animals – it must be terrifying for them.
I’m studying at Shiva Yoga Peeth, which is nearly next door to the ashram I stayed in during my visit in August. Imagine my surprise then, when I checked in with some other women and they showed us our rooms – in that same ashram next door! Sadly, I don’t have a balcony like last time, but the actual rooms are nicer this time around. They’ve definitely spruced up the place!
If you’re interested in what the class entails, click here. I’m including some pictures of the ashram, and the general area, and will include more in later updates.
From Darjeeling I took another very shared jeep to Gangtok with ten other passengers. Actually 11. In the row in front of me there was a cute, perhaps five year old girl who I think had recently learned the word “uncomfortable”. She said it a few times during the trip, with great relish, pronouncing every syllable. I must say it was well-applied. At least unlike her, I didn’t have to sit on anyone’s lap.
We climbed into Sikkhim on winding roads, stopping, starting, speeding up, slowing down, and breathing in diesel exhaust fumes all the while. One poor guy in the back row with me had to lean out the window to be sick. Note to readers: if you’re prone to getting carsick, this is NOT a ride you want to take without lots of Dramamine. I have to admit I was even starting to get a little claustrophobic, and was never so grateful as when I had to get out of the jeep to register as a foreigner at the border.
That being said, the ride was beautiful. A good portion of it was along a river and various bridges crossing over it. Sorry – I couldn’t get pictures. But the scenery was enjoyable.
Gangtok is the capital of Sikkim, and is a small city in the hills. The main thoroughfare is MG Marg, short for Mahatma Gandhi. It’s a pedestrian-only strip lined with shops, restaurants and sweet stalls, and is quite the busy but charming place.
In Sikkhim, foreigners need at least two members to a group and a tour guide to travel to the outer areas, which gets expensive quickly. The solo traveler’s best bet is to allow lots of time and keep checking in with various travel agencies to find groups to join. Well, the time factor played against me, but I did manage to join a couple going to Tsomgo lake.
Tsomgo (pronounced Changmu) lake is 36km northeast of Gangtok and at an elevation of 3780 meters. The lake isn’t very large, but the surrounding mountains, views, and quiet make it worth seeing. Plus if Gangtok isn’t cool enough, it’s much cooler at the lake. It was 7 degrees C when we were there (that’s 45F for the U.S. Readers).
As an added bonus there were yaks. One can even ride a yak, but I was content to see them and to touch their wooly locks as they passed by.
Back in town I wandered up to a park aptly named “The ridge”, in which one has great views of the mountains from either side. Further along, while looking for one monastery, I ended up at another one, but no less beautiful. High on a hill, with colorful murals and prayer flags, Serajhe Dopheling Gonpa sat in serenity. I sat in the meditation hall and watched my breath to the sound of deep toned Tibetan chanting. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.
I arrived in Bagdogra airport and started looking for a shared jeep to Darjeeling. No luck, but I found a friendly couple who offered to take me in their taxi to nearby Siliguri, where the shared jeep stands were.
Sure enough, I quickly found a very shared jeep (ten people plus the driver), and we soon headed through traffic into the forest, and up over hairpin curves into the hills. Temperatures dropped, and the sun slowly set on the horizon casting colorful shadows into the hills behind us. For the first time since I’d left Ladakh, I felt pleasantly cool.
This was the first time I have arrived somewhere at night without a booking, but fortune (or good kamma) was with me. The hotel I had as my first choice had rooms. It’s a budget hotel, and the rooms are a bit musty, but the room I’m in has a big bay window overlooking the mountains. For about $10 a night, it’s just fine.
Darjeeling is a hill town in northern West Bengal. It was named after the local Dorje Ling monastery, which has since moved and changed names. The land was leased by the East India Company (aka, the British) in 1835, and they soon started planting tea and taking vacations there. It continues to be a popular vacation spot, and of course, the tea is known worldwide.
Just as an aside about the tea. I discovered that the Darjeeling tea served here is a lighter tea that almost looks like green tea. It is typically drank without milk, which enables one to really taste the flavor more. Going without milk was a bit of an adjustment, but I got used to it.
The first day I spent wandering about, looking around, going the wrong way and turning around again. It’s a pretty safe city to get lost in, so there was no stress. The next day I woke early to walk down to the taxi stand to get a shared jeep to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise. Even though mornings at Tiger Hill are incredibly crowded, with jeeps thick over the single road honking and spewing diesel fumes, the sunrise was spectacular, and to see the morning alpenglow on Khangchendzonga and its sibling mountains made the trip seem worthwhile to make at least once.
Fueled by a good start to the morning and breakfast, I walked to the Darjeeling Zoo. After the experience at Trivandrum, I was a bit hesitant to visit another zoo here, but was drawn by their having red pandas. I was pleasantly surprised, as this zoo had spacious enclosures for the animals with native vegetation and other enrichments for the animals. Heck, I’d stay in some of the enclosures they had if I had a tent (maybe not in the same ones with bears or Bengal tigers, though). And as for the red pandas, they pretty much topped the cuteness scale.
The zoo was also the home to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which has courses mostly for the military, but select civilians can benefit. It was first directed by Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who with Sir Edmund Hillary, first scaled Everest in 1953. The institute has a mountaineering museum, with interesting displays on the mountains nearby, Everest expeditions, and mountaineering equipment.
I was planning to leave a few days after I came, but I’ve kept extending my stay. I’ve enjoyed spending my time here just looking and walking around, gawping at the views, enjoying Tibetan and other various restaurants, and of course, drinking lots of tea. The road and the mountains beckon though, so tomorrow I’ll head further north by another shared jeep. See you soon!
I arrived at noon, checked into a great (and cheap) guesthouse, had lunch, and then managed to see the town and its main attractions before evening.
Mahaballapuram is a bit like Hampi in the miniature. It’s got giant boulders and ancient caves and architecture, and in addition a beach on the Bay of Bengal. It’s also known as “Backpakistan”, as it’s a popular destination for western tourists near Chennai. True to a tourist town, one can buy plenty of “Om wear”: shirts and pants in bright colors with Om symbols and ganeshas (than I’ve yet to see on someone who lives here). Also available are tourist items from toilet paper to trinkets. No shortage here.
Wandering away from the stores brings one to the archeological sites, which seem much more interesting.
On the beach, there’s the aptly named Shore Temple representing Pallava kingdom architecture. It was built in the 8th century, and per Lonely Planet, “is the earliest free-standing stone temple in Tamil Nadu”.
South of town there are the Five Rathas: monolithic 7th century carved structures devoted to various Hindu gods.
On the west side one will find the majority of structures and carvings. The crown gem is Arjuna’s Penance, carved out on two massive boulders depicting both mythological and mundane scenes.
Back in town, the guest house I picked out was peaceful and tranquil, with basic rooms set around a lovely courtyard filled with trees and jasmine vines. Especially at night, the aroma of jasmine was heavenly.
And this marks the end of my time in Southern India. I’m glad I finally made it here. I would say that the people have been very friendly here as well, and it has had more of a laid back feel to it. Or maybe it’s the sight of all the coconut trees swaying in the wind. But anyway, it’s been an enjoyable visit. Tomorrow I fly back north. Way north. I’ll leave it as a surprise for now. Stay tuned and be well!
Pondicherry, or its pre-colonial name, Puducherry, is like an Indian New Orleans. No small wonder, as it was largely colonized by the French vs the English as many other towns were. So when walking down the streets, there’s a mix of French architecture, coconut trees and other greenery, and lively South Indian colors. Pondicherry is along the Bay of Bengal, and while there’s no big sandy beach, there is a small rocky strip of sand with rocks along the water, and a large walkway where people stroll along in morning and evening time. The adjacent street is blocked off at night as well, making it a merry and peaceful posada.
Here are some pics I took around town.
I managed to get a room in the prized Park Guest House. Run by the Aurobindo ashram, it sits along the shore and all the rooms face the sea, with balconies as well. The balcony made a great place to do morning sun salutations and meditation. And if one could ever get tired of watching the waves, there’s a peaceful garden to admire and walk in as well.
Morning. At first there’s no distinction between water and sky. All is a blue-grey mist that gets lighter with time. Slowly, slowly, the faintest of pale pink appears as the sky lightens. Soon the pink is reflected on the water as the waves roll in. Then suddenly, a sliver of neon pink-orange sun appears above the clouds on the horizon, and rises, reflected on the water, a giant ball of light. And so the day begins.
While there, I spent much time just wandering the streets and admiring the atmosphere. But I did manage to make it to the ashram itself. The ashram was founded by Sri Aurobindo, who developed his own style of yoga which he called “integral yoga”, and by a French woman named Mirra Alfassa, known simply as “The Mother”. Both have passed on, but the tradition remains strong and the ashram is quite an organization with shops, offices, and guest houses all over town. The main ashram is where Sri Aurobindo and “The Mother” are interred, and visitors to the ashram are shepherded around the shrine, to the bookstore, and then to the exit. That’s pretty much it.
As the ashram guesthouse had no wifi, I looked for cafes that had it available. Very few and far between. I went to one cafe who actually told me that they didn’t give out passwords on weekends. What? Seriously? But I didn’t even ask why. I’ve learned not to. Knowing the (usually very odd) reason doesn’t change the fact that I’m not going to get what I want. It’s much easier just to let it go. In the words of Jimmy Buffett, “breathe in, breathe out, move on”. But it was sort of fun trying new places in search of wifi, and even the place that didn’t give the passwords made a great chocolate croissant.
My last evening there was a real treat, as I was able to watch a blood moon rising above the water. As it climbed higher it changed to a bright orange, and appeared like a giant jack-o-lantern. Rising higher, it became ivory, casting a shimmering glow upon the water. And to top it off, a fireworks display right near the guesthouse. It was a great send-off, even though I’m pretty certain it wasn’t just for me.
And for laughs, two last funny pics.
The first: what may be the ugliest dog I’ve seen in India. I saw him on the beach each day I was there. And before you feel too bad for him, I did see him with a female companion, confirming that love certainly is blind.
And last: This poster appeared all over town while I was there. Interest piqued, I looked up the website. Hmmmm.
So this is it. The end of the line, so to speak. You know you’re at an outpost when the railroad lines come in perpendicular to the railway station vs along side of it. This is Kanyakumari, the southernmost point in India (at least, the mainland). It’s where the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea waters all mix together in a beautiful blue horizon. Giant waves roll in and crash among the rocks, sending white foam into the sky. Small sailboats dot the surface of the water as they catch the plentiful winds. Looking out towards the water, it’s a beautiful place.
The land is a bit less memorable.
There’s the Gandhi memorial, which was my favorite. It was erected to house where a portion of his ashes were kept in the town before being released into the sea. It’s a peaceful, open structure, 79 feet tall for each year he was alive. Ind in the ceiling there is a circular hole, through which once a year on his birthday, the light streams directly on the inner memorial shrine.
There’s also the Vivekananda memorial rock and shrine, where one can take a ferry out to the rock where he meditated for several days.
And there’s the 133 foot high statue of Thiruvalluvar, an ancient Tamil poet. Built one foot for each chapter in his classic work, Thirukural.
Last but not least, the temple for the goddess for which the town was named. The Kumari Amman Temple, built for the virgin (kanya) princess (kumari) manifestation of Devi.
And sadly, a billion trinket stalls and more trash and pollution than you could pick up in a month.
Of course, I suppose in the states it would either be a beautiful national park (which I admit was how I pictured it before I got here), or in U.S. capitalist fashion, a trendy spot where one couldn’t visit the beach without spending a fortune in a swanky hotel.
So it is what it is, and I’ll share some of the pictures I took of the more beautiful aspects.
While I was here, I also visited the Padmanabhapuram Palace. Having admired Keralan architecture, I read about this place and knew I had to visit. It was totally worth a few hours on local buses.
The palace is a classic example of Keralan architecture and is actually a conglomeration of fourteen palaces, some dating back to the mid 16th century. Perhaps it’s the heavy use of wood, but it reminded me of older Japanese structures. Either way, it was a peaceful way to spend the morning.
Trivandrum is the capital of Kerala and close to the beach town of Kovalam, so I split this visit between the two cities.
I started out in Trivandrum with the Museum of History and Heritage, in walking distance of my hotel. The museum walks one through time, starting with stone axes and carvings from 3000 to 1000 BC, and progressing up to 17th century in the form of murals. The building itself is in traditional architecture rich in wood carvings and shady porches. By the time I finished wandering there it was late afternoon and I called it a day. It’s much warmer here in Kerala than in the other places I’ve been recently, so I’m taking it easy.
The next day’s adventure was taking a local bus to Kovalam, and wandering around the town and beach. Kovalam beach is beautiful, and although somewhat touristy, has managed to avoid the blaring music of Goa. The sounds of the waves crashing on the sand, fishermen hauling their nets, and happy vacationers fill the air.
After walking for some time, I decided to rent a chair under an umbrella.
Ahhh…now I could put my feet up, watch the waves, and…
“Madam, you want fresh fruit? Pineapple, mango, papaya….”
No thank you.
“I give you good price”.
“Madam, very fresh, I give you good price, not tourist price”
I ignore the saleswoman, and after a few more tries she goes away. Time to relax.
“Madam, you want scarves? Pure silk, very beautiful, one hundred rupees only.”
No. I don’t want any.
“Look madam, very beautiful, I give you good price”
Within thirty minutes of sitting on the chair, no less than a dozen persistent vendors came up to me selling fruit, scarves, and carved items. I realize it’s how they make their living, but I have to admit I was getting ready to shout “Bugger off!” at the next one that came by. I took that as a cue that relaxing by the sea was not in India’s plan for me that day. Instead, I gave up and walked away. I found a vendor free restaurant in which to have lunch, and then took the bus back. Enough of Kovalam. It really was a beautiful place though.
On the way back I found a Hindu temple and Keralan style building around a water tank. The temple was off limits to non-Hindus, but I enjoyed the views from outside.
For the last trip I went to the zoo in Trivandrum. I had heard that Yann Martel had based his book, “The life of Pi” on the animals here, and later confirmed that he had spent nearly three months at the Trivandrum zoo studying mostly the tigers. Although I was saddened at the cells, er, enclosures that some of the animals and birds were in, it was probably the only time I’ll be six feet away from a tiger and live to talk about it. It was great to be that close, but I wouldn’t go again.
Overall, Kerala was fantastic, filled with coconut trees, peaceful places and great people. I’m now in Kanniyakumari, which is the southern tip of India. You can’t go any farther south from the mainland here unless you swim. More to come….
My original travel plan was to take a week in all the places I visited, adding or subtracting days as I saw fit. But since deciding on the yoga course I’ve had to prioritize and condense said schedule. While I believe the change in plans will be worth it, this is the third place I’ve visited in a row in which I’ve wished I had more time. However, I’m grateful I’ve been able to visit here the last two days.
Alleppey (or it’s pre-colonial name Alappuzha) is famous for its canals and backwaters that run through the region, and the houseboats that float along the major canals. The houseboats seem interesting, yet they’re very plentiful, and also take a toll on the local environment.
A more eco friendly option is the canoe trip, which takes a more intimate course through the smaller canals and villages. It’s more wallet friendly as well: A houseboat runs about 6-7000 rupees a night: about $100. The canoe trip is just under $15. I tried to find a kayaking tour, but none were to be found. This was a lovely alternative, and a day well spent. We had a great guide who did the paddling (although we got to pitch in if we wished to), and provide a wealth of information about the local area. Quietly floating along at a gentle speed past houses, villagers and colorful vegetation was a most relaxing way to spend the day. As an added bonus, we were treated to a Keralan meal, traditionally served on a banana leaf.
Kerala has a beach as well, that is a much quieter affair with just a few restaurants and ice cream stands, and no blasting music.
Those are the main attractions of Alleppey. It’s a tropical town that says “Relax, slow down, and don’t take tension”. Definitely worth visiting for a week or even much longer.
My sightseeing in Coonoor started off with the Highfield Tea Company. The HTC is on a plantation in Coonoor, and is open to the public. Tea was imported here to India by the English in the 1800’s so that they wouldn’t have to buy it from China, and could instead make the inhabitants of India grow it for them for a much cheaper price. Hmmm.
The tea plant, Camelia sinensis, grows naturally as a tree when left to its own devices. It’s kept in shrub form (sort of like a bonsai) to make it easier to harvest the leaves. All teas, whether white, green, oolong, or black, come from the same variety of plant. The difference lies in the part of the plant that is used: the very central smallest part of the shoot for white, young lighter leaves for green, and older leaves for black. Oolong is made by oxidizing the leaves. The finer teas are sold as loose leaf, and the more inferior generally are sold for use as powder or in tea bags. Most of the masala chai in India is the latter version, processed by the CTC method: cutting, tearing, and crushing the leaves. Mixed with the right blend of spices though, it still makes some tasty tea.
Most of the tea produced in this region is bought by the big tea companies, but there is still available for local buyers, or tourists.
After the tea plantation, I visited some scenic lookouts and Sims park in the town of Coonoor. Lots of beautiful scenery, and nice quiet places to just sit and be.
Which was a good thing, because the next day I discovered what a Tatkal train reservation was. I had seen it at train stations and wondered. Now I know. A Tatkal ticket is a last-minute, day before the journey ticket for those of us who fail (or choose not to) plan. Here’s how it works:
One arrives the day before the journey at 0745 to get a numbered request for the ticket, elbowing the rest of the crowd for one’s place in line. But the ticket isn’t given then. Oh no. One has to return 2-3 hours later to actually buy the ticket, this time in an orderly queue by number. Don’t ask me why. But thankfully, the effort paid off, and I managed to get a ticket for the Nilgiri Mountain Railway on the downhill trip to Mettupulayam.
The NMR is a famous narrow gage railway and is a UNESCO heritage site. It was featured in the Bollywood movie song “Chayya chayya“, in which the crew danced on top of the moving train. For more info on the railway, click here. Click on the title of the song for the YouTube video. For those who are curious, no, I didn’t see anyone dancing on the train. Just spectacular scenery. Enjoy.
Before I end this post, I’d like to give a hearty recommendation to the folks at Sun Valley Homestay. They’ve gone the extra mile to help me around as a solo traveler, the room has been great, and the food so incredible that it deserves its own future post. If you ever come to Coonoor, I would highly suggest staying here!
I arrived in Coonoor late this morning after more adventures on a “sleeper” bus. We took off from Bangalore last night, stopped who-knows-where for a sleep break, and then changed from the sleeper bus to a minibus at 0600. This ended up being a good thing, as I was then wide awake enough to see the herds of deer and a peacock as we drove through Mudumalai Tiger Preserve (sorry, no tiger sightings). We then lumbered up the side of a hill through hairpin turns to Ooty, where we were booted off the minibus.
“But my ticket was for Coonoor!”
“This is last stop. Take local bus over there. Don’t forget your luggage.”
So I took the local bus after asking several people which of the ten buses it was, got a rickshaw, and arrived at Sun Valley Homestay.
Wow. With only a minor splurge, I decided on this place for three nights. I ended up with a very large, clean room with amazing views! See the video from the balcony here.
Then I was whisked off to the restaurant where I was treated to a fantastic South Indian breakfast. I’ll post some food descriptions soon, as the food is great here and is worth sharing about.
And then spent the rest of the day wandering around the tea plantation, and enjoying the views while relaxing on the balcony.
Tomorrow I’ll venture back into the town of Coonoor to visit a few sites, but I must say this place has been totally worth the trip here.
And while not restful, in hindsight, the trip was sort of fun too.