After visiting the enchanting temple to Lord Shiva high up in the dense green forest near Pauri in remote Uttarakhand, we met a slightly crazy looking old man ranting in our direction.
I hoped we might avoid him but failed, however as if to teach me not to be judgemental it turned out he was ranting in a friendly way just trying to see if we needed help, he then told us to be careful as he had recently seen a tiger just over there in those thick trees. We weren’t sure we heard him right so dismissed it. We cut through the forest back to the track leading towards Pauri, it was an isolated route but we met a group of ladies returning to another village after visiting the markets. In broken English they also warned us not to still be here after dark due to the Tigers. This was not ideal considering the sun was setting and we had a long way to go still, the old man was right it seemed: we shouldn’t have been here.
After the hustle and bustle of Delhi we had detoured North into the sacred sites and mountains of Uttarakhand. This is where the holy Ganges begins it epic journey south collecting pollution on its way and where many of Hinduism’s most revered shrines have pilgrimages to.
We caught the train towards Haridwar, on which we met a platoon of soldiers returning after completing their final training.
They were happy to be finished and were singing a range of songs quite loudly, but they were friendly, fuelled not with alcohol like they would be in the UK but by home cooking. At almost every station the train stopped at they picked up a tinfoil food parcel from a relative of one of the group. After chatting to some of them I was offered a few tasty snacks and learnt about life in the Indian military. The structure and training of the Indian military seems very closely matched to that of the UK, not that I know much about it! It was a very friendly train although one old chap got on and promptly dropped my bag in the floor from the luggage rack because it was in his way, this resulted in literally everyone else try to help put it somewhere else!
The train was about two hours delayed when we rolled into Haridwar and we had made two new friends in Dan and Rita who seemed to be the only other foreign tourists on the train.
We had a hotel in mind when we arrived but searching for it in Haridwar provided harder than we imagined, we also picked up a hunched over old man who kept mumbling that this was the cheapest hotel in town, he seemed to earn commission from all hotels bar our one! He picked us up again when we left the hotel to venture out for food later. After a good meal the town was already shutting down for the night so we left exploring until the next day.
Haridwar is regarded as one of the seven holiest places (Sapta Puri) to Hindus. According to the Samudra manthan, Haridwar along with Ujjain, Nashik and Prayag (Allahabad) is one of four sites where drops of Amrit, the elixir of immortality, accidentally spilled over from the pitcher while being carried by the celestial bird Garuda.
It is home to many temples and several ghats. A ghat is a stretch of the river for bathing and Har Ki Pauri is the most famous, literally, “Har” means “Lord Shiva” who is the god according to shaivite Rishav school of Hindu theology, “Ki” means “of” and “Pauri” means “steps”. Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu are believed to have visited the Brahmakund in Har Ki Pauri in the Vedic times. It is believed that it is precise spot where the Ganges leaves the mountains and enters the plains.
We explored the city’s temples and wandered the river taking in the colourful colours and avoiding the hordes of beggars some dressed as Sadhus.
Each evening at sunset priests perform Ganga Aarti here, when lights are set amongst flowers in small boats on the water to drift downstream. A large number of people gather on both banks of river Ganges to sing its praises. Aarti’s are a magnificent spectacle.
We left Haridwar in search of some of India’s finest wildlife and there are two parks nearby, both home to Tigers, elephants and many other amazing species.
Rajaji is nearest and was where we ventured, Jim Corbett park is a little further afield but home to lots of Tigers. Ironically Jim Corbett was initially a Tiger hunter but it was his later conservation efforts that earned him recognition as the namee of India’s very first national nature reserve.
We haggled hard to get a cheap Tuk Tuk out to Rajaji and Chilla where there were shared jeeps into the park. We arrived in the sunshine of midday. We tried to arrange accommodation near the park but the forest cabins are run by the park and need to be booked sometime in advance, the resort down the road had some cheap dorm beds so we opted to stay there. Outside the main gate a Dutch couple were waiting for other tourists to share a Jeep so we agreed to join them in an hour or so when the park opened up again. I grabbed some lunch and met one of India’s most famous artists, well that’s what he told me. He interpreted nature and fused it with humans as his inspiration behind some pretty weird pictures. He was super friendly and we talked for ages about my bike ride, nature and photography.
Finally the Jeeps appeared and we loaded up with our bags we rushed to get in and it turned out we hugely overpaid on the fixed standard fee! Nevermind, we set off on the standard route that the Jeeps take, we saw tracks of Leopards, Elephants and Tigers but other than spotted deer, Samba deer, wild boar and monkeys we just saw lots of interesting birds.
It was fun but it soon became apparent that visiting the park as the last jeep later in the afternoon was a waste of time. We hassled the driver to overtake and going first certainly helped.
We had fun but vowed to return in the morning and catch the first jeep into the park. It all worked so well, we had our own jeep and squeezed into the front. At the first corner we saw a huge Jackal-Hyena type animal, we saw way more deer and then we followed super fresh Tiger tracks for ages, we were at one point following fresh Tiger, Leopard and Elephant prints all new since yesterday evening. We smelt Tigers we were that close but non appeared out in the open. We saw Vultures flying, Crested Serpent Eagles, fresh bear dung and prints an animal that I don’t know existed here. It was a lot better in the morning but we saw no Elephants.
We returned to Haridwar and jumped on a bus to Rishikesh, this is were the Beatles came to chill out and find themselves during the 1960s. It is sold as he global centre for Yoga and spirituality however, Indians ever being the businessmen have turned the place into a commercial tourist centre of spirituality. It felt depressingly sold out and souless, western cafes and huge prices for staying in ‘Genuine’ Ashrams. It was a shame as it must have been incredible back in the 1960s. All this tourist development and money making is down the road at Lakshman Jhula and Ram Jhula, however the actual town of Rishikesh is quite an interesting and genuine feeling place. It has a couple of great restaurants and we struggled to find a hotel here, we ended up staying at the quirky Indian centre for traditional dance which was right next to the Ghats and water front.
The manager was super friendly and told us to look out for Elephants drinking on the other side of the river. We got up early to look out from our balcony the next morning and while we didn’t see an Elephant we saw a large, long but low slung creature walk across the stony banks and swim across a stretch of water in the dull dawn light, before disappearing into trees. It was the size of a large cat and could have been a Tiger but when we later saw two more similar shapes we assumed that they were Leopards.
We watched the Aarti here in the evening and it was an atmospheric evening, the flower boats with candles were 30p so we bought a few to float along the river, just for the kids at the end to try and fish them out again. Well until an old man chased after them!
We then got on another shoddy looking bus and headed up into the mountains following the Ganges gorge to a town called Srinagar, however the hotels we found were closed or pretty rough so we walked down the street to catch a shared jeep up to the hill town of Pauri.
The road to Srinagar was incredibly scary, while unlike Nepal it was well surfaced, it was precariously cut into a cliff high straight above the river for long stretches. On the corners the road was so narrow the bus hung over the edge and on a couple of occasions we met another bus or jeep and skidded to a halt just in time before the unprotected cliff precipice. Luckily we didn’t need to reverse or manoeuvre along the scariest narrow off camber sections. We were also very lucky because the tyre exploded along a flat section of road, the tyres here are normally bald ones which have a strip of tread glued back on so not too surprising. It is illegal in most countries to do this but here I guess it is environmentally friendly, if not a safe option on these roads, oh and the brakes failed later on, needing a guy to hit things with a hammer underneath. Altogether it was probably a journey closer to oblivion than I care to think about. For the next road to Pauri we took a jeep and it was fine, that was to be the last local bus we used.
Pauri is a bit like Darjeeling perched high on a ridge with some stunning views. Our hotel room had sunrise views across the Himalayas. The hotel owner also gave us a full itinerary to explore the surrounding traditional villages and some hikes up to temples and stunning viewpoints. Catching a shared Jeep out to a small village called Siku was easy. In the village we climbed up to both temples and explored the paddies and forest park.
A highlight was meeting a friendly retired chap who lived there and arranged some lunch for us. We then tried to get back in a shared Jeep, no one would take us without charging loads for an entire Jeep. This was ridiculous so we decided to start out on the 35km walk home and hope they changed their mind…… they called our bluff and didn’t so we suddenly panicked but kept walking. This was a bit silly as it was so far to walk, we decided we might as well try hitch hiking. We stuck a thumb out and the second Jeep to pass stopped and picked us up! It was a road contractor working on improving the roads out here in the steep mountains. He chatted a while in broken English and given it was a company car he wouldn’t take any money so we got a free ride back towards Pauri. We stopped short so we could walk home via two more remote temples and the highest cricket stadium in Asia!
We stepped up the pace after being warned about Tigers in the area but luckily we never saw one, just lots of errie abandoned buildings with Tiger shsped shadows. We finally arrived at the cricket stadium with a match in full swing and we were safely back in civilisation! It was a lesson that not all wild places are truly tamed!
This was the point when our journey home to England started. We caught a shared Jeep down the Ganges to the Ghats and holy temple of the intriguing and sacred town of Devaprayag, a town on a river confluence. The murky brown Ganges and crystal clear Bhagirathi merged in a interesting combination of swirls and currents all made obvious by the contrasting waters. We had a random free guided tour of the temple and all the holy shrines in this picture perfect town by a chap who seemed content on practising English and showing off his town.
The road to Rishikesh was still a bit scary but way better in a jeep, we then hoped on a bus to Delhi and our trip was at an end, with flights booked home to England for the next day.