Pragpur and Mandi

I was a bit sad to bid farewell to McLeod Ganj. But most of all I was sad leaving the spectacular snow-capped mountains. We made our way winding down into the Kangra valley. Pradeep stopped at the impressive looking Kangra Fort. It is of particular significance for me (I studied Classics while at University) because it was first mentioned in Alexander the Great’s war records in the 4th century BCE!

Photo by Stephen Reid

Entrance to Kangra Fort

Photo by Stephen Reid

Steep steps leading to the top of the fort

The ford was built by the Royal Family of Kangra who can trace their origins to the ancient Trigarta Kingdom mentioned in the Mahabharata Epic. So far it’s believed to be the oldest surviving fort in India. Situated on top of a steep hill, the fort looks out over the valley, the snow-capped mountains and the Banganga and Majhi rivers.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The fort is located on the top of a hill with a sheer cliff off the one side

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Two pillars at Kangra Fort

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Entrance gate at the bottom with the snow-capped Himalayas in the background

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Kangra Fort ruins

Photo by Michele Reid

Beautiful door with Lord Ganesha and the goddess Durga carved in stone at Kangra Fort

We pretty much had the whole fort to ourselves, aside from the very friendly man sweeping the leaves in front of the temple and a curious monkey. The day was already getting quite hot, a big difference after the coolness of McLeod Ganj. We hopped back into the car to make our way to the small village of Pragpur.

Pragpur is a heritage village and the buildings are quite unique. We arrived at our very nice hotel for a bit of a rest and some lunch before Pradeep went to show us the country side. Children were walking home from school as we drove along the incredibly narrow village road.

Photo by Michele Reid

Our beautiful hotel in Pragpur

We decided to explore a bit of the village on foot when we returned to our hotel. Armed with our cameras, we were transported to a place which looks unlike anywhere we’ve been in India. Some parts almost look like it could be in Europe. A cobble street took us past wheat fields, beautiful houses, temples and of course, lush bushes of marijuana. Two girls were sitting on a balcony, enjoying the afternoon sun and spotted us. They immediately shouted hello and waved. The people are so beautiful and so incredibly friendly.

Photo by Michele Reid

Narrow stone pathway in Pragpur

Photo by Michele Reid

A beautiful door in the village

Photo by Michele Reid

One of the houses. I thought it looked like a bird

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One of the beautiful private courtyards in Pragpur

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Wheat field

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Friendly girls taking a break and enjoying the view

We returned to our hotel where Hubby cooled down with a quick dip in the tiny but deep swimming pool while I wrote about the day’s events in my diary. Hubby mentioned he wasn’t feeling 100% but thought it was probably nothing. On our way to dinner he realised things weren’t going well and we arrived back in our room just in time. He clearly picked up a stomach bug and was throwing up like it was an Olympic sport. I couldn’t believe a single person could throw up as much as he did that night. Luckily by midnight the worst was over. The meds the doctor gave me in McLeod Ganj were working its magic and he managed to get some sleep. Me on the other hand stayed awake, worried he might get sick again. By the morning he was feeling still a bit worse for wear, but much better.

After a quick breakfast, Pradeep picked us up and stopped at a shed / pharmacy where Hubby could replenish our medical stock. We left the beautiful little town of Pragpur behind and drove towards Mandi. The roads became increasingly worse. After the winter snow there have been quite a few rock falls. The roads were also being broadened and will eventually be tarred. At the moment though, it was mostly single lane, dirt road through mountains. Every now and then I had to close my eyes and pray to the gods as we inched past a truck, hoping we don’t fall down the cliff into the valley below. At one point we had to stop completely as they were actually busy blasting a road through the rocks.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The road

The one advantage of being off the beaten track is you get to see the small villages. All along the mountain valleys, people farm using terraces. In one village, we passed a band as yet another wedding was taking place.

Photo by Michele Reid

Wedding band marching through one of the villages

Photo by Michele Reid

Fruit & Veggie shop sign in one of the small towns

Photo by Michele Reid

The spectacular country side

We arrived in Mandi exhausted after having our lives flash in front of our eyes several times during the journey. Our driver, Pradeep, became my hero, conquering impassable roads, squeezing past trucks in the tiniest of spaces and having the fastest reflexes I have ever seen.

The weather was closing in and it was drizzling by the time we settled into our room. Hubby, still recovering from the vomit sessions of the night before, decided to have a nap. I settled on the balcony overlooking the Beas River and watched the storm roll into the valley. Thunder bounced off the mountains and a torrential downpour soon sent kids scrambling home from the school across the valley. Hubby woke up (having missed most of the storm) and announced he was feeling much better. Trying to dodge the rain but failing miserably, we got to the restaurant and had a rather average tasting dinner. The kids at the table next to us found us very interesting and kept walking past our table.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The Beas River basking in early morning sunshine after the rain

We returned to our room, freezing. Sadly we couldn’t find the switch to our aircon / heater (the switch was located the next day, outside on the balcony!), neither did we have any hot water, so we had to make do with piling on the few warm clothes we brought with and diving under the blankets. We ended up watching Ultimate Survivor on Discovery Channel, in Hindi!

Mcleod Ganj, home to The Dalai Lama

Photo by Stephen Reid

Truck sporting a beautifully painted Taj Mahal.

We left for Mcleod Ganj early in the morning. The countryside was beautiful and green. I spotted the hills in the distance and immediately got excited (back home the landscape is pretty flat) The roads began to get narrower and more twisting as we headed higher into the mountains. I was crossing my fingers hoping to at least get a glimpse of some snow-capped Himalayan peaks. I know some parts of the Himalayas have had some recent snowfall and some of the mountain passes were still not open.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The green Punjab countryside

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Temple at a rest stop on our way to Mcleod GAnj

Our driver, Pradeep, is originally from Dharamshala and was looking forward to seeing his family again. McLeod Ganj is situated up a very steep path up the mountain from Dharmashala. As the roads are incredibly narrow, walking is the best option to explore the town so we agreed that he spend the next 3 days enjoying some time with his family. As we twisted our way up the mountains I was feeling a bit headachy, but figured it was probably just tiredness. I was too excited about spending 3 days in McLeod Ganj to let a slight headache bother me.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Creative solution for road signs

We followed a very narrow road up an incredibly steep mountain to the town of McLeod Ganj. We managed to stop the car and get our luggage out in the very narrow street without blocking traffic. We were staying at the 8 Auspicious Him View Hotel. Our room was located up a steep (everything here is steep) flight of stairs but had the best feature ever, a balcony looking out over the Himalayan hills and the spectacular Dhauladhar Range.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Mcleod Ganj

The hotel is run by a Tibetan family. The temperature was notably much cooler up here, so much so that I had to put on a warm jersey. Shortly after we plopped ourselves down on the chair on the balcony a knock came from the door. One of the friendly staff members brought us some deliciously hot chai to enjoy. It was just what we needed after the drive here. It was bliss just sitting on the balcony sipping hot chai while gazing over the mountains.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Prayer flags in the countryside with clouds covering the mountains

McLeod Ganj is located about 2082m above sea level. It’s the home to the Tibetan Government in Exile, so the town has all these monks strolling around. I pulled my only scarf out of my bag and rugged up a bit. I had a slight headache, but figured it was the death defying drive up narrow twisting passes on our way here that was to blame.

We took a short stroll up the steepest path I’ve ever walked on, dodging the tiny taxis and tuk-tuks as the roads are too narrow for conventional vehicles. The town is quite laid back and is a great place to volunteer your English skills to newly arrived Tibetan exiles if you’re staying for a bit. Monks were enjoying the sunshine and you could hear laughter coming from the Tibetan school. Small kids were playing, chasing each other around with the spectacular Dhauladhar Range as the backdrop. While we were used to seeing some Buddhist monks in South Africa, we’ve never seen so many in one place. The funniest was watching them checking their email on their iPhones, wearing trendy Adidas sneakers or sandals strolling around town listening to music on their iPods.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Building works in Mcleod Ganj

Photo by Stephen Reid

Street in Mcleod Ganj

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Mcleod Ganj

Photo by Michele Reid

Mcleod Ganj in the rain

Photo by Stephen Reid

Prayer wheels in the town centre

We decided to have lunch at a restaurant solely because it had a rooftop terrace. The sun was nice and warm but the breeze icy, hinting that there might be snow nearby. Unfortunately we couldn’t see anything other than cloud cover but all of a sudden some of the clouds lifted revealing steep mountain peaks covered in snow. Himalayan snow-capped mountain peaks! It was beautiful!

Photo by Stephen Reid

Snow covered Dhauladhar Range

Photo by Stephen Reid

The spectacular Dhauladhar Peak

My headache started to get worse during lunch, so we headed back down the hill to our room since we had three days to explore the small town. We enjoyed a bit of the afternoon sun sitting on our balcony. The lush forest are home to thousands of butterflies that feed on the rhododendron flowers, majestic eagles swooping through the Deodar forests and of course, the occasional buffalo grazing.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Sun setting in Mcleod Ganj

The Dhauladhar Range is the outer rim of the Himalayan Mountains. Covered in clouds most of the time, every now and then they peek through showing off their almost vertical sides. The peak right in front of us covered in snow was the Dhauladhar Peak, also known as the Dhauladhar Matterhorn. It’s 4946m high! Because of these mountains McLeod Ganj and the surrounding areas receive two monsoons. It rains quite a bit, almost daily.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Rainbows in Mcleod Ganj

It started to rain and with it the temperature dropped significantly. I also started to feel worse for wear and my headache was pounding away. I decided to head for bed and watched an old James Bond movie on TV. Most bathrooms in India come with a bucket as bucket showers are the norm. They’re a great way for saving water and much needed for travellers to do their washing in. Unfortunately for the first time our bathroom was bucket-less and my headache and now nausea wasn’t going away. Luckily we had a bin which ended up being much needed. Freezing I climbed into bed with the blankets pulled over my head only able to utter ‘hmmm’ noises to respond to Hubby’s questions.

Things got worse quite quickly and before I knew it Hubby was helping me and the bin down the steep staircase to a waiting taxi which our amazing Tibetan hotel manager organised. It was raining and since Pradeep was down the valley in Dharamshala, getting up the mountain in the dark with the big car would have been quite dangerous but would also have taken forever. The taxi was tiny and I filled the whole back seat as I tried to find some sort of lying down position.

This was the strangest ride of my life. A Bollywood hit was blasting over the radio. Funny enough I watched the movie on the airplane a few years back coming or going from South Africa so I immediately recognised it. (for the song you can watch it on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAlBw_RTEZw)

Now imagine this song playing and you’re hurtling down a mountain with sheer drops on the side twisting and turning, bouncing over potholes and then coming to an abrupt stop at what is supposed to be the hospital. We went to McLeod Ganj hospital as it was the closest. Initially we thought the hospital was closed as there weren’t any lights on. Big open windows allowed the icy wind to turn the hospital into an ice cavern. We finally found someone working and Hubby explained the situation. The nurse listened politely before informing us she was going off duty soon, so he would have to wait for the new nurse to arrive and then explain it all to her. I think I wasn’t looking too good because they moved me to the emergency room…which wasn’t exactly the picture of hygiene.

I remember thinking as I lay there freezing and wishing I was already dead that the emergency room is ok, as long as you don’t have an emergency. After what seemed like forever the new nurse on duty arrived and Hubby patiently explained to her how I was feeling (except he left out the part where I wished I was dead). After mumbling a few answers to her questions we got told that they would have to phone the doctor to come down, so more waiting in the icy room.

The doctor finally arrived and she turned out to be a very nice, Tibetan doctor with excellent English. She mentioned injections so I gave Hubby the job of ensuring they were new needles.  We were told that the meds the pharmacist gave us in Delhi were antibiotics, something he must have forgotten to mention! No wonder there are so many drug resistant bugs going around, most of the tourists are unaware they’re taking antibiotics and never finish the course. I was given the option to get rehydrated at the hospital but as it was freezing and I still felt really bad I wasn’t particularly keen to be lying there in the cold attached to a drip for the next few hours.

They gave me some rehydrate and pills and charged us so little. Hubby didn’t have any small notes so told them they could keep the change but they refused. After a few moments searching around they found some change and threw in some meds to make up for the amount outstanding. I have to say after the initial lack of interest from the first nurse, the doctor and other nurse were incredibly friendly and I am so grateful to them. Not to mention I have the best husband in the whole world!

Our taxi driver was still waiting for us and we hurtled back up the mountain at breakneck speed with music blaring. Once we reached our hotel where I got straight into bed and finally got some much needed sleep. I think poor Hubby didn’t sleep very much, because every time I moved during the night he would check up on me to make sure I was ok.

I felt much better the next morning but could only manage some strawberry tea and a slice of the best Tibetan bread for breakfast. For the South Africans reading, the bread tastes a lot like Stok Brood but minus the stok.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Monks preforming an early morning ritual

Armed with a bottle of rehydrate (I can no longer drink anything orange tasting thanks to the amount of rehydrate I had to drink) we decided to explore McLeod Ganj. I shuffled up the incredibly steep path to the town centre where we got to spin the prayer wheels. We had a nice lunch. I had something boring and simple while Hubby enjoyed a delicious smelling briyani. We slowly made our way back down the steep hill where we decided we’d relax for the rest of the afternoon to let me recover. By this time I was fast growing sick of the taste of the rehydrate but what can you do?

Below our hotel they’re busy building a new home or hotel. It was fascinating watching them as most of the work is done manually. The men dig the foundations and place the dirt in baskets which women then place on their heads and carry away.

On our final day we decided to visit Tsuglagkhang, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s temple and residence. Unfortunately he was away until November travelling overseas. But I was incredibly fortunate to have met him before in the strangest of places. My family moved to the USA many years ago for a year and a bit. It was the first time I ever went on an airplane and the first time I left South Africa. At the airport I was sad to say goodbye to friends and family and incredibly nervous about flying and the idea of living in a strange country. My mom and I noticed some Buddhist monks sitting a bit away, but didn’t take much notice.

I decided to go and buy a magazine to take my mind off things and visited the small shop (this was before Cape Town Airport’s massive revamp). On my way back from the shop I was wiping some tears away when this tiny man smiled at me and told me it was going to be ok. I think I smiled back, I can’t remember, but it was only until we were about to board the plane that my mom and I realised that he was the Dalai Lama! But he was right, it was ok and I had an amazing, unforgettable experience and met some amazing people I’m still friends with.

Hubby and I walked up yet another incredibly steep hill to the entrance of the temple. Most motorbike and car drivers keep their engines off as they free wheel down the hill so you have to be alert and ready to jump out of the way of any silent oncoming traffic. We decided to walk along The Kora, a path around the temple which pilgrims walk. It’s supposed to represent the ancient Lingkhor path which circles the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The Kora is a miniature version of the Lingkhor path. On the one side of the path is the Himalayan Ceder and Oak forest filled with prayer flags and occasional views down the valley. The other side has stacked white painted stones and mani stones. The mani stones are painted in bright colours and have Om Mani Padme Hum engraved in them. It’s the mantra of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara. The Dalai Lama is the current incarnation of Avalokitesvara.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Me walking along the Kora

Pilgrims repeat mantras as they finger their prayer beads or spin small prayer wheels. It’s quite peaceful, a rare find in India.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Stones with Om Mani Padme Hum engraved on them

After our walk we entered the temple. We visited the museum which has amazing photos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s crossing from Tibet into India back in 1959 during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. There are stories of some of the Tibetans who fled into India, most of them incredibly heartbreaking. People were killed, monasteries burnt down and families risked everything and lost so much crossing over the icy snow-capped mountains as they fled into India.

We visited the small temple where statues of the Shakyamuni Buddha, Avalokitesvara and Padmasambhava are housed. Hubby remained outside and took a photo of the Sakyamuni Buddha as cameras aren’t allowed within the temple. I left my shoes with him and went inside. Monks were busy chanting and it really was quite a magical.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Statue of Sakyamuni Buddha

Photo by Stephen Reid

Prayer wheels

This marked our last day in Mcleod Ganj and for the next three days we would basically just be driving and staying overnight at places as we make our way down the mountains to Rishikesh. Yes, the city where The Beatles allegedly wrote part of The White Album. Our journey was fast coming to an end but there were still a few adventures in store for us.

Amritsar

I spent the whole flight to Delhi with my head in Hubby’s lap. It’s quite difficult in a small plane with 3 seats on either side. I think the guy next to me was just hoping I didn’t get sick on him. By the time we reached Delhi I wanted to collapse. We had to wait for our counter to open to book in and since we were travelling to Amritsar we had to go via the International terminal as security is stricter there.

I refused to eat anything, the thought of food wasn’t a pleasant experience and for days after this we would refer to Varanasi as ‘the place that shall not be mentioned’, as all I could think of was that body floating in the water and the raw sewage being pumped into it and I must have touched or eaten something that came into contact with that water. The most comfortable position I decided was to lie down on the floor in the airport and use our suitcases as makeshift pillows while Hubby went in search of the medical centre. I draped my dupatta (long scarf) over my head to shut out some of the light. A lovely French couple kept an eye on me while Hubby went in search of some much needed meds. Somehow, I thought, that if Pradeep (our wonderful driver who took us from Delhi to Khujaraho) was there with us in Varanasi, I wouldn’t have gotten sick. I know, but at that point most of my thoughts weren’t making sense. Luckily Hubby arrived with a lucky dip of pills from the medical centre and some water.

We finally reached Amritsar at about 6 that evening. It was incredibly windy when we landed. We got our luggage but there wasn’t anyone to meet us at the arrival lounge. Worried, we stepped outside and saw a huge smile and arms waving at us. It was Pradeep! He drove all the way from Khajuraho to Amritsar in 2 days! I was so happy to see him. Feeling a bit better and my spirits cheered on by a familiar face, I was looking forward to the next leg of our journey.

We arrived at Mrs Bandari’s Guesthouse in the military cantonment as the sun was setting. I was still so happy that Pradeep was going to be with us for the rest of our holiday. I instantly liked Mrs Bandari’s. It reminded us of staying with family in Kimberly / Maggagong in the Northern Cape in South Africa when we were little. The beds were rock hard but I was so tired that it didn’t put me off. The incredibly friendly staff made us some yummy dinner before we turned in.

I woke up feeling much better. Yay! It was a good thing as we had some sightseeing to do including the Wagah Border ceremony. It rained during the night and the morning was quite cool. It made for a nice break after the heat in Varanasi. We had our breakfast outside in the beautiful gardens listening to the birds before meeting Pradeep and our guide.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple

Our first stop was Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple. We walked through the busy market before checking in our shoes. You have to remove your shoes and wash your hands before entering the complex. You also clean your feet walking through a pool of water as you enter. You have to cover your head (the men too) if you want to enter the temple.

Photo by Stephen Reid

A very peaceful place with so many wonderful and friendly people

Guru Ram Das (the fourth Sikh Guru) started the construction of the gurdwara (temple) and it was completed by Guru Arjan Dev. Guru Arjan Dev completed the Sikh holy scripture and placed it within the gurdwara.
The Golden Temple was rebuilt in 1764 by Maharaja Jassa Singh Ahluwalia. Maharaja Ranjit Singh added the gold plating and marble between 1718 and 1783. Our guide told us that there is about 750kg of gold leaf on the gurdwara.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Golden Temple which houses the Holy Book during the day

It was really beautiful. The people were very friendly and everyone wanted to know where we were from. We visited the world famous kitchens (complete with chapati machine!). The volunteers feed about 50,000 people a day (easily double that number if it’s a special holy day). The meals are completely free of charge. Anyone can visit the temple and kitchen, no matter what religion you are. Volunteers also come from all walks of life.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The Chapati machine in action

We decided not to see the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh Holy Scripture). The line was incredibly long and we would probably have waited at least an hour. Our guide wanted to try and sneak us to the front of the queue as we were tourists but we refused. It would have been great to see the Guru Granth Sahib but I could never skip the queue. It means far more to all the pilgrims standing in line for over an hour and we felt it was wrong of us to jump the queue just because we were tourists.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The beautiful Golden Temple

After our visit to the Golden Temple, we visited Jallianwala Bagh public garden. It’s a beautiful garden only accessible through a narrow lane. Unfortunately this peaceful garden was the site of what’s known as the Amritsar Massacre.

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The market outside the Golden Temple complex

Brigadier-General Reginald EH Dyer of the British Raj suspected a major insurrection was happening. There was a lot of unrest going on throughout India as people became more upset with British Raj rule and the gathering of more than 4 people were banned. About 1500 Hindus, Muslim and Sikhs were meeting in the gardens. An hour after the meeting started, Brigadier-General Dyer and 90 soldiers arrived and shouted for the crowd to disperse, but the soldiers were blocking the exit. He ordered the troops to start shooting into the densest part of the crowd, including at the women and children. People tried to get out of the way but the exit was blocked. Some, in their desperation, jumped into the well. It’s estimated that about 1000 people died that day with many more injured. Brigadier-General Dyer was forced to retire but became a hero for some with connections to the British Raj.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The memorial at Jallianwala Bagh

Our guide lightened things up by taking us to a tailor. They quickly measured both Hubby and myself and promised us we’d have a new work shirt and salwar kameez waiting for us later in the day. We stopped for some yummy food before returning to our guesthouse so I could get some rest and rehydrate. We would be heading off to the border between Pakistan and India later that afternoon.

Photo by Michele Reid

The Punjab countryside

The drive to Wagah border was relatively quick and the road quite good. We were told to bring our passports and cameras but to leave all bags behind as they don’t allow any bags inside. The female army officer who checked me as we entered complimented me on my salwar kameez (one I bought many years ago in South Africa) and told me to enjoy the ceremony. The people are just so friendly!

Photo by Stephen Reid

Come early if you want a seat

We showed our passports and were told to go to the VIP seating area. If you don’t bring your passport you have to arrive very early as there was no seating left in the stands any more. We squeezed our way into the VIP seating, grateful for a spot. The super VIP seating has the best view as it’s close to the border gate but it seems that it’s reserved for government officials.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The border between India and Pakistan

The Indian side was getting excited as some popular Bollywood songs began to play. Women filled the Grand Trunk Road (the road we mostly followed all the way from Delhi to Khujaraho and then again in Amritsar) and began to dance. A foreign guy got told off by the army guards when he wanted to join. After the women, it was the kids turn to show their dance skills. Things were strangely quiet over on the Pakistani side with the men and women segregated. There was no singing and especially no dancing.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Women dancing before the border ceremony

The army guards wear the most ornate headdresses, it’s quite impressive. A big shout off happens where both side shouts slogans to say that their country is the best before a trumpet sounds the beginning of the ceremony. The Pakistani side does exactly the same as the Indian side.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Indian flags

On both sides guards march at super speed towards the gates where they do a sequence of foot stomping that will remind any Monty Python fan of the ‘Ministry of Funny Walks’ sketch. It’s hysterical but at the same time amazing. They kick so high they touch their headdresses! There’s a lot of glaring at each other while guys with machine guns guard the border. But it’s all show.

Photo by Stephen Reid

High speed marching

Photo by Stephen Reid

Indian border guard

The two flags are lowered at exactly the same time. There’s the briefest of handshakes between the Pakistani and India guards before the gates are slammed shut.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The Pakistani side of the border

Once the flag has been returned and after some more foot stomping the ceremony is finished. People go to the border gate to pose for a photo and some guards even pose for photos with families. They’re all smiles now and don’t look nearly as intimidating as they did 5 minutes ago.

I was feeling much better and celebrated with a Kingfisher beer at dinner that night. We had an early start ahead of us as we were heading into the mountains!

I woke up feeling ok, not great but not too bad. I took some of the pills we picked up at Delhi airport at the pharmacy before we headed towards to the mountains to McLeod Ganj, home of His Holiness, The Dalai Lama.

Holy Varanasi

Photo by Stephen Reid

Holy man on the banks of the Ganga

Photo by Stephen Reid

Varanasi

The Lonely Planet Guide Book says Varanasi takes no prisoners, and boy is it true. We arrived at the modern but small Varanasi airport late in the afternoon. I nervously waited at the bag carousel but luckily our luggage made it. We were greeted by our travel representative and stepped out into the hot, muggy Varanasi air. The scenery started off quite rural with buffaloes grazing in fields but quickly changed to busy, congested city. After the relatively peace and quiet of the small towns of Orchha and Khajuraho, we were back into the chaos and cacophony of a big city.

Our driver stopped along a busy street. We would have to make the rest of the journey to our hotel on foot. It’s situated right on the banks of the Ganga through a labyrinth of narrow alleyways that make up the old city. Our hotel sent two very nice young guys who helped us with our bags and guided us through a myriad of obstacles dodging cow patties, dodgy stagnant water and litter. We stayed in Chowki Ghat and you had to walk through a food stall to get to Kedareswar Guesthouse’s entrance. We were led up a very narrow and incredibly steep stairway to the top of the building where our room was. We immediately switched the air-conditioner on but it seemed to struggle a bit in the humidity. Outside our room huge terrace provided us with beautiful views over the river and ghats.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Boat building along the Ganga

Photo by Stephen Reid

Buffalo relaxing on the river bank

Photo by Stephen Reid

Cooling off in the sacred Ganga

At dinner time we strolled down to the ghats and had dinner at a nearby restaurant. The area close to the river is considered an alcohol free zone but we were more than happy with our ice cold Pepsi’s. We listened to the evening Aarti nearby while watching people place little floating candles in the river from the banks and boats. After dinner we headed back to the mosquito free and cool interiors of our room. I then converted our large en-suite bathroom to a laundry but the humidity wasn’t really helping anything dry.

Photo by Michele Reid

Women having an early evening chat

We woke up really early and met our guide who was taking us on a sunrise boat ride on the Ganga. The river was a hive of activity with flower sellers, pilgrims and priests getting ready for morning puja.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Sunrise over the Ganga

Photo by Stephen Reid

Advertising is everywhere, even on the boats

Photo by Stephen Reid

Flower seller on the banks of the Ganga at sunrise

Photo by Stephen Reid

Early morning puja

Photo by Stephen Reid

Early morning on the river banks

We made our way through the crowds to one of the many boats and hopped into the rickety boat. I tried to ignore the slushing sound of water in the bottom of the boat (underneath the foot rest). The boatman then slowly started rowing us downstream. Pilgrims and families taking a morning dip in the Ganga and priests performing the morning Aarti slowly drifted by.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Morning Ganga Aarti

Photo by Stephen Reid

Morning Ganga Aarti

Along the way we passed beautiful buildings and old palaces. Our guide told us that Varanasi was originally called Kashi in the Rigveda. It was then renamed Banaras by the Mughals and then renamed Varanasi by the ‘Britishers’ (still love that word!) Our guide seemed to think the name Varanasi comes from two rivers that flow into the Ganga in Varanasi, the Varuna and Assi Rivers.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Varanasi in the morning

Photo by Stephen Reid

Temple on the river banks

It was already incredibly humid as the sun started to peak out through the clouds. A few people were out swimming and squirting water from their mouths. Others were drinking it. The Ganga is one of the most sacred rivers in India and is the embodiment of the Goddess Ganga. Her decent to Earth from Heaven is cushioned by the God Shiva, whose matted hair breaks her fall. Varanasi is also a sacred city for Shiva and all along the winding alleyways you’ll find Shiva lingams. The Ganga is believed to pure and has purifying powers. Bathing in the Ganga’s waters will wipe away the sins of a lifetime. It is also considered a vehicle of ascent from Earth to Heaven and it’s believed that those who die in Varanasi are cremated here and immersed in the river obtain moksha or salvation.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Kedareswar Bed & Breakfast where we stayed

Photo by Stephen Reid

Laundry time!

Unfortunately the river is also incredibly polluted. The city of Varanasi pumps 200 million litres of raw, untreated sewage into the river each day. For water to be safe for bathing there should be 500 faecal coliform bacteria per 100ml. Before the ghats in Varanasi the level is 120 times that and after the city it’s 60,000 to 1.5 million per 100ml.

As we got closer to Harish Chandra Ghat, the oldest cremation ghat in Varanasi, I noticed something white drifting in the water. I suddenly realised it was a body! Not sure if Hubby saw it, I didn’t want to point it out as I felt that might be a bit disrespectful. Hubby later told me he also noticed the body but didn’t want to say anything in case I didn’t see it.

At Harish Chandra people were attending to the cremation fires. A man was standing on one of the boats with a small, white wrapped bundle in his hands. He tied it to a big rock and threw it in the river. Our guide told us that the bundle would have been the body of a baby. There are certain instances when a person can’t be cremated. These include if you’re a child under the age of 8 years, a pregnant woman, if you were bitten by a Cobra or if you had leprosy. People who are too poor to afford cremation also sometimes place bodies in the river.

We turned around and made our way back up the river to Manikarnika Ghat, which is the main cremation ghat. Piles of different types of wood are stacked up in the alleyways near the ghat.

I made my way out of the boat back onto firm land and began exploring the labyrinths that make up the old city. Varanasi is also known as the city of temples and I can see why. There are shrines and temples dotted all over the place. We decided not to visit the Vishwanath temple. It’s a site that is somewhat controversial as a mosque used to be on the site. Hindus argue a temple used to stand there before the mosque. Security around the temple is incredible with armed Indian Army guards everywhere. Foreigners aren’t allowed inside the temple and we had to leave our cameras with one of the shopkeepers outside the complex if we wanted to see the outside. I felt it wasn’t worth the risk and effort as there’s so much else to see in Varanasi.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Horses dressed up for a wedding ceremony

Photo by Stephen Reid

Narrow alleys close to the ghats

Photo by Michele Reid

One of the many Shiva lingams in Varanasi

Photo by Michele Reid

Embroidery by hand – working on saris in one of the shops near our B&B

Photo by Stephen Reid

The vegetable shop near our B&B

The presence of the army and the early morning foot traffic (cars can’t fit in the narrow lanes, but unfortunately motorbikes can) seemed to spook a rather large buffalo. Hubby was walking in front of me and all of a sudden stepped back (onto my exposed toes!) and the buffalo came charging past. One of its horns managed to bruise my shoulder. Who needs the running of the bulls in Pamplona when you can experience that and so much more in Varanasi?

After a very yummy breakfast on the terrace and some delicious chai at our hotel, we decided to head out to Sarnath where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon. Our guide originally wanted to take us to the University first with Sarnath later in the afternoon, but it was so hot and humid already I didn’t like the idea of walking around in the sun in the heat of the day.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Buddhist temple in Sarnath

Photo by Stephen Reid

Inside the temple

Photo by Michele Reid

Prayer flags in Sarnath

We arrived at Sarnath and visited the Buddhist temple. It’s a relatively new temple as most of the original monastery was raised to the ground by the mughals. The temple has beautifully painted murals depicting the life of the Buddha. After visiting the temple we headed for the monastery ruins. Unfortunately all the buildings have been raised to the ground but from the foundations it gives you an idea of how big the Buddhist community must have been back then.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Ruins of the Buddhist monastery in Sarnath

Photo by Stephen Reid

The last remaining Stupa in Sarnath

We visited the archaeological museum which houses some spectacular finds including beautifully carved Buddha statues, Hindu statues, amazing stonework and implements from ancient history which people would have used. It was also wonderful to be out of the hot sun.

We then made our way back to Varanasi where we stopped at some weavers. Varanasi is very popular for many reasons, but one of them is for the beautiful Banarasi silk sarees. Many women dream of owning one, especially for their wedding day. They are beautifully decorated with zari (metal thread which were originally gold). Many of the old sarees no longer exist as they were burnt to retrieve the gold.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The looms the beautiful pieces are made on

Photo by Stephen Reid

Weaving like this is becoming a dying trade in Varanasi

Besides weaving sarees, they also do scarves and wall hangings. These days they don’t weave the intricate sarees anymore which is quite sad. There are only a few weavers left who can weave these and the younger generation aren’t interested to learn the skill. You can still buy silk sarees but they’re no longer done in the old styles. They’re done with more simple designs and on more modern machines. The intricate patterns are weaved on an old wooden frame and looks incredibly complicated.

Photo by Stephen Reid

One of the many beautiful pieces made on the handlooms

After lunch I was exhausted. It has been a long, hot muggy day, so we headed back through the labyrinth to our air-conditioned room. The air-conditioner was seriously struggling in the heat but I only needed to step into the bathroom to realise just how hot and muggy it was without it!

Our guide was meeting us later that night to take us to the evening Ganga Aarti. Hubby had a nice nap and I wrote down a few observations in my travel diary when we got interrupted by what sounded like one huge party. I thought it was probably some western kids having a big party in one of the hostels a few buildings down. Hubby decided to get up and investigate and quickly called me to come have a look.

It wasn’t a party but a wedding procession, Varanasi style. The bride and her family were cruising down the river in one of the big boats while a smaller one next to it had some serious speakers and a generator to run the sound system.

Things didn’t cool down as we made our way to the evening Ganga Aarti held at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Our guide suggested sitting with the other foreigners on one of the nearby hotel terraces but even though their entry fee was incredibly cheap, we decided to sit with the locals. I wanted to really experience the Aarti and be part of it, not just be an observer.

We arrived early and squeezed into a spot quite close to the front. I sat next to two very lovely aunties who complimented me on wearing my salwar kameez. Behind us sat a group of women with recently shaved heads. They shaved their heads as they were on pilgrimage in Varanasi. They still looked beautiful with their glistening gold nose studs, colourful sarees and bangles.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Evening Aarti

The Aarti starts with some devotional songs played over loud speakers and everyone singing and clapping along. Next the priests perform the Aarti involving several movements and then repeating them with different items (e.g. incense, fire and smoke). I found myself strangely moved by the mass of people who each night comes to participate in this ritual and it was one of my highlights.

As we walked towards the restaurant (we haven’t had supper yet and by this time my stomach was growling) our guide explained to us the meaning behind each of the movements. He then went to collect some Ganga water to pour over his head when a woman stepping out of one of the boats slipped and fell into the river, handbag and all. I don’t know if she was more upset about having fallen into the river or having gotten her handbag soaked.

We got back to our room only to find out that some people in a building next to us were celebrating a harvest festival. Funnily enough I recognised a few of the Bollywood songs. It wasn’t long though until we had a power failure (they’re regular, it’s strange when you don’t have one). Sad for us because that meant we only had a fan powered by the generator and no air-conditioning. The party was halted for all of 5 minutes and then the generator kicked in.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The alley in front of our B&B at night

Photo by Stephen Reid

The sweet shop

I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like I’ve been to a seriously big party. I hoped it was just fatigue and rolled over to get more sleep.

We had a nice breakfast on the terrace with chai and lemon sugar pancakes overlooking the Ganga. We were saying goodbye to Ma Ganga and the pilgrims and heading up north to Amritsar and the Pakistani border.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Sunrise in Varanasi

By the time we reached the airport and settled down to wait for our flight I realised something was wrong. I was not feeling my bright eyed and bushy-tailed self. My happy tummy was replaced by a gnawing monster eating away at my insides. I did manage to buy myself a book on the more popular Hindu myths at the bookshop before we boarded the plane.