21.05.2014 - 02.06.2014
The train ride from Agra to Delhi is an easy 3 hours but finding a seat proved to be more difficult than expected. We had unreserved tickets again and walked through 8-10 train cars to finally find a spot on a bench wide enough to fit our expanding waistlines and backsides (all the naans and butter curries were beginning to show on the scale!). The people who had reserved seats on the benches were very nice to let us squeeze in so we tried to take as little space as possible, which meant we would be drenched in seconds from the heat and lack of air. Thankfully, we had Kindle to keep us distracted. I think it is fair to say that it is my most valuable possession because I would not be able to endure all the long train/bus/car journeys without it.
The advice we received from friends who had traveled to India was to avoid Delhi if possible or only transit through if need be. There are some nice sights to see in the city but we had seen enough palaces, temples, forts and mosques and were keen to be in more natural environments again. So the plan was to apply for a Vietnam visa which we would need a month later, book our next train and get out. Things didn't exactly go according to plan.
First, the Vietnam Embassy didn't accept visa applications after 12pm (it was 3pm when we arrived) and second, by the time we had lunch, checked into our hotel and arrived at Connaught Place (popular city center spot with many shops and services), the tourist information bureau had closed for the day. We would have a busy morning the next day!
The inevitable tuk-tuk ride & selfie:
The visa application process went smoothly and our passports would be waiting for us upon our return to Delhi 10 days later. Things took a dramatically different turn when we attempted to book a train to Rishikesh, a spiritual city on the banks of the Ganges also known as the yoga capital of the world. In an effort not to relive the unpleasant experience, I'll just say that we fell into a tour agency trap (yes, despite the many warnings online and in the Lonely Planet) and even though a service was provided (we read horror stories of people who paid and got nothing in return), it was well below expectation for the price we paid. Luckily the destinations we picked for our 10-day tour of northern India were incredibly beautiful but we found ourselves constantly thinking about the kind of hotel we would end up in at the next stop or worse, if there would even be a reservation. That definitely put a a bit of a damper on our experience but I guess it could have been much worse.
To avoid if you are ever in Delhi:
H-47 Inner Circle, Connaught Place, New Delhi
The reason we fell into the trap is the misleading sign which says it is part of the Department of Tourism and even has a smaller sign that says DTTDC which stands for Delhi Tourism and Transportation Development Corporation. It's all a fraud. It's not until we looked at the carbon copy receipt that we realized we had just signed a contract with Diamond Tours because the original didn't mention anything about Diamond Tours, it just said Department of Tourism. Yes, we should have known better but it's simply exhausting to suspect absolutely everyone, especially when they go through so much effort to deceive. This was just one of the million tourist scams in Delhi and another good reason to avoid this city.
So on with the good stuff. We flew to Leh early the next morning which is in Ladakh or "land of high passes" in Ladakhi. It is a region of India in the state of Jammu and Kashmir that lies between the Kunlun mountain range in the north and the main Great Himalayas to the south. The few roads that lead to Leh are actually closed during the winter months and were just starting to open up. Having heard about the suicidal bus drivers and the perilous mountain roads, we decided not to take any chances and fly.
What a view!
The sudden drop in temperature was absolute bliss and we quickly realized as we drove through the city to get to our hotel, that the pace in Leh was much more laid back. Ladakh is one of the most sparsely populated regions in Jammu and Kashmir and its culture and history are closely related to that of Tibet. Many Tibetan refugees settled in Ladakh to escape Chinese oppression and persecution and almost half the Ladakhis are Tibetan Buddhist. The rest are mainly Shia Muslims.
We really enjoyed walking around the city despite the lack of oxygen at an altitude of 3,500m. The view was simply breathtaking!
The streets of Leh:
View from the Palace:
We booked a mountain bike tour for the next day which consisted of going to the top of Mount Khardung-la in a 4x4 and cycling down the mountain back to Leh.
What an amazing experience. It was fun, exhilarating and the views were nothing short of spectacular.
We rented a cool Royal Enfield motorcycle the next day to explore the area further and we loved every minute of it.
Issy lost among thousands of prayer flags - can you see me?
We were back in Leh in time for our transfer to Srinagar, the State's capital near the border with Pakistan. Most people get around in "shared jeeps" due to the road conditions which often require a 4x4. So off we went, cramped with 7 other people for the next 11 hours. The only redeeming factor to both the crazy driving and tight quarters was the scenery.
Desperate need to stretch our legs - first of only 3 stops during the 9-hour ride to Srinagar:
3rd and final stop before starting the roughest part of the journey:
It was getting dark and the pictures didn't come out well but past those gates were blocks of ice 10-15 feet high through which a narrow road was carved. One way traffic only and luckily, on that day, it was open for East to West traffic :
Our travel agent in Delhi who calls himself John for the tourists, had arranged for another agent (presumably a good friend/connection in Srinagar where he is from) to pick us up and take us to the Rose Inn hotel (per our voucher). We arrived late and he apparently didn't expect us until the following day so he took us to someone's house where we spent the night. Feeling very uncomfortable with the set-up, we woke up early the next day and asked when we would be taken to the Rose Inn. "After breakfast" he said. Ok good, at least we weren't staying there another night. When we had researched the Rose Inn online, it looked decent enough with views of the city's famous Dal lake, wifi and walking distance to some of the sights. Instead we pulled into another "homestay" and were greeted by the agent's younger brother, Ali. There were no signs that showed we had arrived at the Rose Inn and it didn't look anything like what we had seen on the website. When I asked Ali what the name of the guesthouse was, he responded: "the Rose Inn". After explaining to them that it wasn't exactly what we were expecting and that we thought we would be closer to the lake, we were told that the family owns a chain of Rose Inn hotels and the one we saw online was mainly used for "domestic tourists". Ali said that the house we were in was reserved for foreigners. Not happy with that bogus answer and basically feeling manipulated and deceived from the moment we arrived, we decided to cut short our stay in Srinagar and leave the next day on the overnight bus to Manali which the agent agreed to arrange. So we decided to spend the day on a Shikara, a type of wooden boat found in Jammu and Kashmir. Despite the uncomfortable start to the day, we managed to relax and enjoy the tour.
Dal Lake house boats:
The happiness was short-lived as we found these babies hidden at the back of the house when we got back.
Sure enough, a quick Google search of Asif Guesthouse returned a picture of the house we were in. Not exactly the Rose Inn or any mention of a chain. When asked for an explanation for all the lies, Ali (who was passed out on the floor in front of the tv wearing his sunglasses) lost his temper, told us we were bad tourists (Marie, sound familiar??), always questioning everything and ordered us to pack our stuff because he was taking us to the Rose Inn. This was turning into a very bad day.
When we arrived at the Rose Inn, we learned that it was indeed owned by the family but was fully booked. I just kept wondering why they had felt the need to lie and deceive. We explained our point of view and the manager of the third family hotel offered to take us in. He gave us lift to his hotel which was 20km outside the city and tried to lighten the mood on the way. He succeeded with me but Greg was having none of it. Fair enough. The hotel was being renovated and it didn't look like there was anyone else there but the manager and his staff were very hospitable. Although when we asked when we would be picked up the next day to catch the shared jeep to Jammu where we would then hop on an overnight bus to Manali, he answered 7, 7:30, 8 or 8:30. Hmmmm...ok, thanks I guess? Naturally, we went to bed quite upset with the turn of events and hoping we would be able to get out of there the next day.
We were surprised when Ali picked us up the next morning at 8am. Whatever his motivation for being there, probably fearing a horrible review on Trip Advisor, we were just thankful we were one step closer to being on our way to Manali.
Once, again we were crammed into an SUV with little or no wiggle room for 11 hours. We only covered 350km but a massive traffic jam half way through the journey delayed us by about 3 hours. The progress is fairly slow to begin with because of the winding moutain roads, but the traffic jam just about killed our spirits.
The usual Indian road chaos - surely there's no good reason for all these vehicles to be stopped, there must be a way through this empty lane - uh...it's the oncoming traffic lane and the reason it's empty is because geniuses like you are blocking it and making the traffic jam even worse! Breathe Issy, breathe.
We arrived in Jammu just in time to catch our overnight bus to Manali. No rest for the wicked. Another exhausting journey and 18 hours later, we finally arrived in Manali. Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh. One last hurdle and we would be completely free of Diamond Tours - John had booked a hotel that was a bit far from Old Manali, where we wanted to be but after some yelling on the phone, more blatant lies from John and some trickery on our side (we had to!) he reluctantly agreed to book us into the hotel of our choice. The relief was tremendous and we spent the next 5 days relaxing, enjoying the scenery and doing some of the many fun activities around Manali.
The beautiful mountain yak:
Our 13km trek to Solang Nala, north of Manali:
We thought we had arrived at an amusement park - people and animals everywhere, food stalls, games, zorbing balls and paragliders trying to land without crashing into anyone or anything:
Cable car up the mountain to check out the paragliders:
After watching them for a while we decided it looked like way too much fun to miss. We booked it as soon as we got back but were unlucky with the weather and got rained out 2 days later:
The 13km trek back:
Canyoning and rock climbing were great fun 2 days later:
Greg somehow thought it might be easier to climb with his back to the wall...
Greg keeping himself entertained through the bad weather:
Our tour had come to an end and we slowly made our way to the bus station through the woods:
Back to Delhi we went on another overnight bus, picked up our passports at the Vietnam embassy, and took a taxi to Cyber City just outside New Delhi to meet our friend Vikash who recently left Cayman to work for KPMG in the outskirts of Delhi. It was great to catch up with Vikash who treated us to an amazing lunch and kindly offered to drive us to the airport for our flight to Kathmandu, Nepal.
We are back in Hanoi after 2 days of trekking in Sapa (northeastern Vietnam) and about to take an overnight bus to Dong Hoi near Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park. Our next update will be on Nepal.
Greg and Issy