Monthly Archives: June 2011

In the land of the eternal snow peaks

Himachal, meaning the land of snow, starts to spread 360 km north of Delhi and amazes with its green valleys, snowy Himalaya peaks and fresh air. We found ourselves in Kalpa, a charming village and legendary winter home of Siva, surrounded by spectacular mountains, forests, criss-crossed with winding streets and steep slopes, where Tibetan and Mongol features are clearly visible.

Our journey from Rishikesh to Kalpa was obviously not without obstacles. As always, it was difficult to find out when and from where the busses depart, as there are no timetables and you get different responses to the same question.

Having arrived in Chandigarh for an unwanted stopover, due to a police raid no hotel wanted to accommodate us, so in the evening we queued for 2 hours and literally fought for a bus ticket to Shimla, our first destination in the mountains. On the bus at this late hour, Tadbir, a friendly Sikh, offered us to stay at his home in Solan and continue the next morning to the famous former colonial Shimla.

However, we found ourselves right in the middle of the high season and accommodation was ridiculously expensive. Shimla is nowadays the place to be for better-off Indian tourists, especially in June, and we wondered why, as there is nothing to do or to see.

We thus skipped going to the likewise touristy and rainy Dharmsala, home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile, in favour of heading east for the remote Sangla and Spiti Valleys near the Tibetan border. These valleys are among the most scenic in the entire Himalaya, bordered in the south by the impressive peaks of the Kinnaur Kailash Range of around 6000m altitude, which provide an effective barrier to the monsoon rains.

Despite the bumpy 12-hour bus ride with one of the common interruptions due to road conditions, we were quite happy to arrive in Kalpa as we could finally do some trekking and enjoy the great views!

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The quest for spirituality

Rishikesh is a place where spiritual energy runs high, and thousands of pilgrims make their way to the banks of the holy river Ganges to find it. While the big hippie days are certainly over, there are still yoga schools for foreign visitors aplenty, and seemingly every other guy with a long beard looks like a guru.

We came here for a 12-day retreat in an ashram, where you can learn about aspects of Hinduism and spirituality, practice meditation and yoga. The quiet and clean place and the strict daily routine, starting with the morning bell at 4:30 a.m., made the experience complete. An hour of meditation at five in the morning was followed by the first one-hour yoga class. After study time in the library and lunch there was a lecture and discussion with a practising yogi, followed again by yoga and meditation sessions.

While we aren’t early birds, we enjoyed the atmosphere and the yoga and meditation a lot. The fact of being away from busy street life as well as from the constant flow of information and communication had a very relaxing effect. The physical exercise combined with quiet and focused meditation – quite difficult for beginners – made us feel great. It is the concentration of the mind on one thing, idea or thought, on one yoga posture, or just on the breathing, that is a universally valuable capability.

We did not grasp all aspects of reincarnation, karma, or the long and difficult path towards superconsciousness, but got some interesting glimpses. The way of the yogi has to be seen as an entire concept of utmost self-discipline building on the foundation of yama: No harming, no stealing, no lying, no sex, no intoxicants. It further requires ascetic practice, meditation, serenity, silence and solitude.

Social interaction, even with family, or striving for development of society as a whole is not part of the philosophy, which is focused on personal enlightenment as the ultimate goal. The body is merely seen as a mortal hull and food is only required to sustain it, so there is no particular attention to a healthy diet. Yoga postures are meant to exercise full commanding of the physical body, fitness is not a goal in itself. Ultimate control of the breathing process, especially the gap between exhalation and inhalation, opens up a meditative path to total detachment from the ‘normal’ world and thus, eventually, towards spiritual achievement.

Ommmm shanti shanti shanti

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Craving for some cool air in Delhi

Impressed by Agra’s beautiful fort and the Taj Mahal, we continued our road to Delhi, mentally preparing for India’s huge and crowded capital. Despite the heat of more than 40 degrees we visited the Red Fort, dating from the very peak of Mughal power, and the tomb of one of India’s great islamic Mughal rulers, Humayun, which is a smaller antetype of the Taj Mahal. However, both could only be disappointing after the magnificience we’d seen in Agra.

We relaxed in the park at the centre of the three road rings of Connaught Place and went with the very modern Delhi metro to see the Bahaì Lotus Temple. Worried about a potential tooth problem, we went to a recommended trustworthy dentist who said everything was okay after a five-minute examination – lucky day.

In the evening we immersed ourselves in Old Delhi’s vibrant muslim quarter and tried some tasty chicken, mutton and grilled fish. India’s biggest mosque, Jama Masjid, was impressive, floodlit in the dark. However, the male stares, stupid smiles and attempted touching were worse in this part of town.

The next day, we spent ten hours on buses going to Rishikesh, India’s ‘Mekka’ of yoga and meditation. On the way, due to the driver’s stubborness, the bus got litterally stuck in dense traffic. Unfortunately, we stood right on railway tracks, which kept us rather nervous for 20 minutes.

Rishikesh lies on the banks of the holy river Ganges, which is still clean here, and is surrounded by green hills. It is busy with pilgrims, but has cool air and is quite easy going for foreign tourists, who mostly come for practising yoga and meditation in hotels, yoga schools, or one of the ashrams, like we did.

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From travelling to tourism – the Taj appreciated

We gradually move into Northern India, and things are changing. Visiting Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat, then Udaipur and Jaipur in Rajastan, and finally Agra, city of India’s most important tourist site, makes it a path from travelling to tourism.

In Ahmedabad we were the only white faces around, and blankly being stared at before getting in touch with a local guide who showed us the city from hidden fascinating perspectives which turned this into a good experience.

The city of Udaipur has beautiful palaces but in the old town a simple local restaurant is impossible to find and the visitors have to eat in proper isolation from the locals (and their prices, of course), having the benefit of Pizzas and Hamburgers on the menu. Unfortunately it is also the tourists themselves who have established this situation by asking for food they know, I guess? Here, also the shouts like ‘hello’, ‘yesss’, ‘excuse me’, ‘sir’ in order to sell anything from paintings to guided tours become much more frequent and very annoying, and you feel nothing but a walking ATM.

In Jaipur, tourists even more than usually become prey for pushy auto rikshaw drivers who feel fully entitled to ask three times the normal price. This concept of a ‘tax for whites’ is partly caused by tourists who insensibly throw around their money without caring much about where they are, but also sanctioned by the tourism administration all around India who asks entrance fees to monuments from foreigners which are four to 40 (!) times the fee asked from Indians. While this might seem justified by the difference in income in most cases, we wonder if that is the right mindset in terms of attitude towards visitors and appreciation of sites by Indians.

If the idea of travelling is to get in touch with local people, learn about their normal lives, their ambitions, their view of the world, you are wrong in places like Agra or Jaipur. Take a bunch of nice photos – and there are truly amazing sights – ignore all the shouts, avoid the worst ripp-offs, and move on from tourism to travelling again.

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