Taking buses up the Himalayas

The first post of a new blog series about going up the Himalayas mainly on Indian public transport buses. Taken from a travel journal written 20 years ago.

11th March 2001  |a hotel on the banks of the Ganges | Rishikesh | India

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Arrived by public bus from Delhi in Rishikesh at 3pm. Outside the hotel the sign stated:

  • 12 rooms
  • 24 hour hot water 
  • rooftop restaurant 
  • complaint book

It’s a nice enough place the Hotel Rajdeep though. The small moustachioed receptionist can’t quite make me out. Looks desi but sounds like a gora I’m sure he thinks.

I had missed my train from Delhi. Served me right. My punishment was enduring a 150 mile bus ride from Delhi to Rishikesh sat cramped for 5 hours, with knees touching the front seat, sitting slightly diagonally to avoid touching other people.

Only my mini disc player provided some respite with a collection of late 20th century Brit Pop. Blur, Oasis, The Verve, each album burned via a laptop on to minidiscs before I’d left London.

It was the time of the year when Indian faces become orange, red, blue and purple and no one bats a colourful eyelid

Beside me sat two pilgrims, a father and son, their heads shaved except for a mouse-tail at the back, one a mini-me of the other. They unlocked their metal tiffin containers and picked at chapattis out of a newspaper in diligent mindful silence. 

My face was bright orange. Others on the bus were purple-faced, some blue, some red. Many Indians take on different colours at this time of year. It doesn’t even raise an eyebrow in offices, hospitals, law courts around the land. People just walk around multi-coloured and no one cares.

This was just after holi, India’s festival of colours, where dyes are thrown around and smeared and squirted on people mostly in affection. It’s a great leveller. After a day of serious holi playing on Delhi rooftops with the Luthras, I was orange like an oompa loompa. Not even my cousin’s attempts to dissolve the industrial strength dye from my face with cotton wool dipped in nail varnish remover had worked.

(Author’s note: never ever remove holi dyes from your face with nail varnish remover. Just don’t. It can be likened to stage-one flaying.)

Planning my route up the Himalayas

I wanted to visit a thousand year old Tibetan monastery in a high altitude desert by the Chinese border; I started planning my trip on that cramped bus, thumbing through a Lonely Planet guide.

My lifestyle in those years enabled me to have extended time off work; I was a contractor, working for a few months and then having time off; as soon as my contract was up, I’d dust off my backpack, buy an air-ticket to somewhere exciting. Some call this time period between jobs ‘unemployment’. I just called it living the life of Riley. India, where a little money goes a long way, and a short time appears longer, was ideal.

I planned a route from the Garwhal Himalayas to the hill station of Shimla, up the Spiti Valley to Kinnaur, to Rekong Peo, the winter abode of Lord Shiva, to Kaza, Ki and Kibber, some of the highest permanently settled places on earth, to my end goal, ancient mud brick monasteries on the Tibetan Plateau in India, via what was then one of the most treacherous routes in the world, the Old Hindustan-Tibet Road. It was my good fortune that the mudslide season hadn’t quite started. In any event, Indian state transport buses would have attempted to go there regardless.

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Rishikesh, holy town, holiday town

Rishikesh is a pretty riverside town in the Himalayan foothills. It’s both holy and touristy at the same time, a cross between Blackpool and Lourdes as one writer described it.

(For non UK readers: think of Blackpool as Cancun, but colder and wetter, with tripe and pork scratchings. If you don’t know what tripe and pork scratchings are just know you don’t want these).

The Ganges is cold and clear here, just emerging from the mountains, its meltwaters froth over a series of rapids and flow under a suspension bridge called Lakshman Jhula

An eclectic mix of people visit Rishikesh. Western backpackers curious about eastern mysticism, Delhiites wanting some respite, westerners dressing as Indians, ash-smeared holymen in fiery saffron robes, bikers on growling Royal Enfields and hawkers pretending to be holymen.

Some call it the yoga capital of the world, it’s dotted with huge temples and ashrams where people practice yoga and take courses on meditation, posture and breathing.

The Beatles really did come here

It was hard to believe that The Beatles came to this sleepy place in 1968 at the height of their fame to follow a holyman, called Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who they had seen in, of all places, Bangor in Wales. It was a major media event. The Beatles gave up drugs for meditation and their western suits and page boy hair cuts, for colourful and flowing Indian dress and long hair and beards. They lived in bungalows on a 14 acre ashram of forests, flower beds and vegetable gardens. Being superstars they were allowed special treatment in the form of mattresses and toilets that worked. Cynthia and John Lennon were even able able to have an electric fire and some chairs.

Ringo Starr called it it a sort of spiritual Butlins (a British family holiday camp). John Lennon was the most cynical and was forever looking for ‘the answer’ and he even patted the Maharishi on the head saying ‘there’s a good little guru‘. But it was George Harrison who was said to be the most advanced in his spiritualism, something that would stay with him for this whole life; John Lennon said the way he was going he’d be flying a magic carpet by the age of 40.

Their stay in Rishikesh ended in a bad way after they suspected the guru of sexual misconduct with one of their entourage; the guru accused the Beatles of taking drugs. When the guru asked why they were leaving Lennon replied, ‘well if you’re so cosmic you’ll know why.’

The Beatles’ time in Rishikesh was their most creative period; they wrote 48 songs, mostly for the White Album, and their big legacy from Rishikesh was to make the west aware of eastern spiritualism.

(Note: for over 30 years the Beatles ashram in Rishikesh became derelict but in 2015, 14 years after my visit, the ashram reopened.)

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The next day I went down to the neighbouring holy town of Haridwar and took a very ropey cable car from its main hill. I guess if a town is that religious, no one cares about these details. Every time it wobbled I thought my time was up but it was good preparation for my forthcoming bus trips. I went white water rafting on the Ganges, upstream where the river banks glittered with white sand, where the rapids were gentle and, once I jumped in, the waters were refreshing and cool.

I took a walk along the Ganges and beside some bushes I met a saffron-robed holyman, a sadhu. He said he would sing me a song for a coin. I was expecting some holy mantra, or an ancient Sanskrit mantra that might invoke good luck from the gods acred chanting. Instead he sang ‘Yellow bird up high in banana tree’.

The main dipping place for pilgrims are at the steps in Rishikesh called Triveni Ghat; here devotees immerse themselves in the river, holding on to chains. A dip here is said to cleanse all sins and guarantee salvation.

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An evening by the Ganges

I found an internet cafe in the centre of town and sat in a booth watching a screen loading slowly, pixel row by pixel row. This was the era of dial up modem. It was I.T. with a long screech. (Dial up was a great teacher of patience). I sent some emails and and looked up hiking options.

The famous restaurant in Rishikesh is Chotiwala next to the Ram Jhula bridge where I ate a dosa. It’s busy and unfussy and completely recognisable due to a fat, over made-up bald man sitting outside. He pretends to be a statue and sits there all day. Great job if you can get it.

In the evening I sat by the Ganges watching the boatmen ferry people across the mercurial ripples of the great river. Solo travel has its benefits but in India you’re never really alone. There are simply too many interruptions. A child came up to me to look my minidisc and suddenly I was surrounded by eight children all passing it around listening to late 90s Brit Pop. They appeared to enjoy it. Even Jarvis Cocker. When the kids went away serenity prevailed once more. I watched the orange sky above the west bank, silhouettes moving on the river, to the sound of the lapping waves of the Ganges.

I got back to the hotel at 10pm; I got to sleep at 2.30am. It was either the excitement of the prospect of a trek up the Himalayas or the Bollywood disco at the wedding reception downstairs. 

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This was the first post in the blog series ‘Taking buses up the Himalayas’, first published in January 2020 on heyloons.com