North India - travels in the mountains, Sept 2011

North India itinerary  
By chance the trip alternated between places we liked and places we didn't like. Jammu was just a stopping off point on the way to Kashmir. We loved Srinagar, paddling round the lake and sleeping in a houseboat. In Leh, in Ladakh, we were too ill to enjoy it. We liked Manali, the rural Indian farm village part of it and the cafés etc. in Old Manali travellers' town. We didn't like McLeod Ganj/Dharmsala because it rained a lot and it wasn't as Tibetan as we expected. We loved Shimla, strolling along the Mall with all the happy Indian tourists. We didn't like Mussoorie because the Mall was a racetrack for young men on powerful motorbikes, blaring their horns and driving too fast at crowds of people. We did like Rishikesh and Haridwar for the Ganges riverside ambience and the bathing ghats although the constant honking of motorbikes started to get us down.

Mon 29th Aug. Arrived safely after a very good flight on Jet Airways; drawbacks were miserable stewardesses and a surprisingly tasteless chicken curry (although both were much nicer on the return journey). The very fast, modern and slick metro sped us straight from Delhi airport to New Delhi railway station for 75 Rs each (about 75 Rupees to the pound) where we deposited our bags in the chaotic left-luggage office and hit the ground running. After failing to upgrade our train ticket to coupé class we achieved lots of chores such as mending pairs of glasses and a watch, then went and massively over-ordered a huge lunch at the United Coffee House restaurant; it was delicious but we were forced to give up before we'd nearly finished.

Delhi is so uncomfortable, really hot and sweaty, so we were glad to return to the station to catch the train to the hills. We got the 8:40pm overnight Rajdani express to Jammu and found we had a 2-berth coupé compartment anyway! The ticket included a 5-course dinner served by a young chap in traditional Indian outfit complete with turban. Sheila was trying to sleep but each time another course of the meal came I had to wake her up to show her! We slept well and arrived in Jammu at 6am.

Tue 30th. Our friend Mr A at Lake City Travel in Udaipur had booked us a very nice suite at the Fortune Inn Riviera Hotel in Jammu. We arrived at 6am and they let us check straight in and even gave us a complimentary breakfast. Had a lazy day in our nice room, catching up on some sleep after two nights on a plane and train, and went for a quick trip to the historic Raghunath Mandir temple.

Weds 31st. Next day we were up at the crack of dawn for the shared jeep to Srinagar, but of course once we were there we had to wait another hour and a half for the rest of the people to turn up - we could have stayed in bed! Nevertheless we were at a busy junction and there was plenty to watch with the usual traffic chaos. We booked the three middle seats on the jeep (actually quite a reasonable 4WD, not sure which make) so it was a fairly comfortable 8-hour ride over the spectacular mountains to the green and pleasant Kashmir valley.

Beauty Star houseboat

We tried the Swiss hotel but it was expensive and not good value (having been Lonely Planet's recommendation a few years ago) so we got a 'shikara' (water-taxi) to look at some houseboats on the lake. We liked the first one we tried, 'Young Beauty Star' so much, we stayed there! 1,600 Rs for a magnificent walnut-panelled ensuite bedroom with chandeliers and a bathtub, plus dinner and breakfast, although we subsequently switched to room-only so that we could sample the restaurants around town. Sat and drank a couple of cold Fosters on the houseboat's verandah watching the boats go by before dinner in the dining room.

1st to 5th Sept. Enjoying Srinagar in Kashmir.

Our days typically go something like this: try to ignore the 5am mosque prayer call broadcast on loudspeakers which can last for up to an hour and go back to sleep, get up about 9am and have a bath, get the water-taxi to the shore and have breakfast at Abdullah's tea stall down the promenade opposite the 'floating post office' - four boiled eggs, tea and biscuits for 80p (it's not breaking the bank so far, but don't mention the Kashmiri shawl that the houseboat man is trying to sell Sheila! He started off at 175 pounds and so far is down to 142, we're waiting for the next installment!) Do some chores such as having my shoes repaired by a man sitting by the side of the road (not a random man, an actual shoe-mender) for the vast sum of 20p, then go for long 3 or 4-hour shikara rides (with a man at the back paddling, no motors allowed) ....
Srinagar canal
... under the bridges through the old city and through the 'floating gardens' of yellow water lilies and pink lotus flowers, watching all sorts of aquatic birds diving and swooping and ducks and moorhens paddling.

Lake sunset
Exhausted by all this we flop about in the afternoon until it is time for a beer on the houseboat's verandah and more atmospheric shikara rides at dusk around the canals and lakes. Finally, dinner always in the Shamyana restaurant, it's so delicious and the menu is huge so why bother looking for anything else!
Shah Hamdan mosque
One day we went on a tuk-tuk tour of the old city and the mosques; Naqshband, Jamia Masjid, Tomb of the mother of Zain-ul-Abidin, Pathar Masjid (stone mosque), Shah Hamdan mosque which was beautiful with lovely carvings, although we could only admire it through the windows as non-Muslims are not allowed in, followed by breakfast of chickpea shawarmas from a stall by the gate, a walk up to Makhdoom shrine on the hill, then drove across town to the museum in a dusty old maharaja's palace, where the stuffed animals and birds had to be seen to be believed; the mangy bears were particularly horrific. We walked across the river on the new footbridge and had a chai at a roadside stall.
Hilton Kashmir

By now it was really hot so we snoozed and read at the houseboat for a while then had a Fosters on the verandah before going for an hour's ride around looking at the houseboats.

Another day we only just made it back to the houseboat before a tropical thunderstorm rolled down from the mountains, and we sat cozy in our room listening to the rain beating on the roof and windows and having a refreshing Kashmiri tea.

Tue 6th. We gave ourselves six days of this before we forced ourselves to move on - this is probably a record for relaxation, so early in the holiday!

We left Srinagar in a shared jeep, amazingly we ended up with two armchair seats in the middle of the 7-seat Toyota Innova, it was really comfortable, which was lucky because it was a 14-hour journey. The mountain scenery was spectacular and kept us interested all the way. One of our drivers was a bit of a dare-devil which was just as well because at one stage we had to go off-road; the normal road was being repaired and was going to be closed for a couple of hours so our driver thought we'd go for it - we ended up on a really wiggly dirt road with a sheer drop on one side - Sheila was recording a video to tell her mum and dad she loved them and our son to spend our money wisely. In the first town we passed through after the diversion there happened to be some soldiers on parade and they gave us a hearty cheer because we were the first ones who had made it through for quite a while!

Drass coldest place
Not a place to linger! On the way from Srinagar to Kargil.

We arrived very late in Leh and the only hotel rep waiting at the jeep station took us to Tsemo View guest house, a little place up the hill behind the palace, and we got a basic ensuite room for 300 Rs (4 pounds).

7th to 9th. In Leh, a slice of Tibet at 3,500 m (10,500 ft) high (Srinagar was about half that).

They were friendly, helpful people at Tsemo View but we wanted a little more comfort so the next morning we transferred to the more up-market New Royal guest house just down the hill where we stayed in room 101 with polished wooden floors, beamed ceilings and fabulous views of the palace and mountains for Rs 1,000 (14 pounds). Had a nice brunch at Pumpernickel German bakery then had a look at Jigmet and Yak Tail hotels which had very nice rooms and gardens but we decided to stay where we are. At dusk we had a pizza on the rooftop at Il Forno.

Tsemo Gompa
Went on a tour by jeep to some fascinating palaces and gompas (Tibetan temples). First Tsemo gompa up the hill behind the palace, where the resident monk was chanting, clashing cymbals and ringing bells which was most atmospheric.
Thikse Gompa
Then Shey royal palace, Thikse gompa (pictured), Hemis gompa and Stok palace.

Leh is situated at 10,500 feet and by now we were suffering from the breathless, headache-inducing altitude and skin-flaking dry climate as well as an attack of 'Delhi belly', so we just collapsed and didn't do much else in Leh.


Tanglang La Pass
We left Leh at 5:30am on our two-day 'luxury' bus ride but the first day was through rather uninteresting dry desert and mountains, except for the 'second highest pass in the world' at Taglangla.....

... until we arrived at 7:30pm at our overnight accommodation in the chilly tent camp at Keylong (3,350m high). Sheila was shocked to be sleeping in a tent (did I forget to mention it?) but we were both feeling so ill that we had a quick dinner at the tasty buffet and collapsed into our camp beds and prayed it would soon end!

We slept surprisingly well despite the cold and proximity to nature, and set off at 8am for the rest of the journey up to the top of the mountain and down the other side which was wet, slippery, steep and much more interesting. The effects of the altitude sickness had gone and we were much more interested in everything around us. Sheila was up in the front with the bus driver filming the chaos - there were cars. lorries, trucks and buses sliding around on the mud with a sheer drop on one side and a cliff on the other, which was fascinating to watch, if rather scary. Some optimists were even trying to get up the hill on motorbikes, fat chance! Our driver told us that usually they end up in the back of trucks of some friendly drivers.

Manali Sunshine guest house

We arrived in Manali about 4pm and got an autorickshaw to our hotel the Sunshine guest house. It was an lovely old 1930s colonial house (the electrical wiring is clearly original) in pretty grounds and we had a huge room with a dressing room and a bathroom, wooden floors and ceilings. Some might think the drawback was the bucket shower but we were fine with it. Had a nice meal in the Park Balluchi restaurant nearby.

12th to 14th. In Manali, a pleasant travellers' town.

Manali farm house  
Walked down to Manali new town and completed a few chores and had onion masala dhosas for lunch. From there we got a tuk-tuk up to Manu Maharishi Temple at the top of the road (where the Hindu Noah landed his Ark after the flood) and strolled down, branching off on footpaths through the rural village-like part of old Manali, full of fascinating rickety old wooden houses full of hay and cows, then back to the travellers' area with lots of cafés to the bridge over the rushing river.
Hadimba temple Manali
We diverted up the hill to the ancient and very atmospheric Hadimba temple, an attractive wood and stone building looking like a Transylvanian church, in a pine forest. Inside, the inner sanctum is a natural rock cave that the temple is built around.
English wine shop

One evening we went down to Johnson's café in the classy Johnson's hotel and got two takeaway pizzas. We sat in our room by the window eating the delicious pizzas and drinking half the bottle of red wine we bought at an 'English wine shop' way up in the mountains at a tiny tea stop village on the first day of the bus ride.

Other days we went for delicious lunches and dinners of thick tomato and lentil soup and avocado salad or Mexican fajitas at the 'Bee's Knees', our favourite restaurant. The food was absolutely delicious and it was in a lovely garden setting with French Marigold plants the size of bushes. They weren't licensed for alcohol so they kindly let us bring the rest of our bottle of wine and finish it with the meal.

Yak ride

One night Sheila had a ride on a yak which happened to be passing by, no doubt she will carry a picture of it around in her handbag for everyone to see.

Thurs 15th.

rain soaked road

Had a long 12-hour drive with a car and very nice driver through the rain-soaked mountains, crossing waterfalls and rubble with trepidation, until we arrived in Chamba and stayed at hotel City Heart.

Fri 16th. We had a quick look round Chamba in the drizzle, up to the ancient temples and the white 17th-century palace, then back to the hotel for breakfast. Then the rest of the day driving through more pouring rain to McLeod Ganj near Dharmsala, which should have taken 5 hours but took much longer because the road was blocked with a mud and rock slide and we had to wait for the bulldozer to (more or less) clear it. Said goodbye to our really nice driver and checked into India House hotel, with a lovely view over the hills. Had a nice chicken do piaza at 'M' restaurant.

Sat 17th. We had breakfast in a restaurant with a wonderful view over the mountains then walked up and down the streets of McLeod Ganj looking at the shops but even Sheila couldn't find anything she wanted, no matter how hard she tried (she didn't buy the shawl in Srinagar by the way, good sense prevailed).

Temple kitchen
We visited the Dalai Lama's temple, including a look round the kitchens where a team of monks was preparing huge piles of some sort of fried bread.
Monk in McLeod Ganj

Had a very nice lunch at McLlo's on the square watching people come and go. After a quiet afternoon (watching the rain sweep back in) we went back to McLlo's for a couple of beers and Tibetan fried momos for dinner (they're not usually fried but boiled and not nearly so nice).

We didn't like the fast cars and motorbikes rushing up and down the narrow shopping streets with their horns blaring so we decided to move on tomorrow. Next stop Simla, and Sheila is quite pleased because there are no luxury buses going there, only local ones which she has ruled out for a 10-hour journey, so we'll have to go by car.

Sun 18th. Nice breakfast of poached eggs on toast / beans on toast then a dusty 8-hour dive to Shimla with another very good driver, arriving about 4pm. We went to Doegar hotel which sounded good in Lonely Planet but it's currently a building site and Sheila took against it immediately - it could have been the over-decorated room with red curtains with the yellow swags and tails, or the mirrors all over the ceiling and walls (which she said made her bum look big from every conceivable angle) or maybe the balcony with a wonderful view but heavily fortified to keep the monkeys out (or to keep us in?) 

View of Shimla from Hotel Doegar.

19th to 22nd. Relaxing in Shimla.

I woke up early the next morning to find Sheila already packing, she said one night in a tart's boudoir was enough and we had to go and find somewhere else to stay. We checked out when the building work started up again and walked down the Mall to Clarke's hotel, a heritage hotel since 1898, and treated ourselves to a bit of luxury. Clarke's was Mr Oberoi's first hotel (he now owns a big chain of super-deluxe hotels all over the world).

Clarkes hotel
They showed us various rooms but Sheila got what she wanted in the end, the best room in the place, which wasn't on offer at first - the double-aspect room 47 with a view of the hills on one side and the world coming and going up and down the Mall on the other.

It was a premium suite with interior sprung mattress, feather pillows and white sheets and towels (not grey!), a bath tub with bubbles overflowing onto the floor several times a day, tea and coffee-making facilities, beds turned down at night, I could go on and on... all the things we have not been getting anywhere else! The staff all wore uniforms and fancy turbans. We stayed there for four nights and paid with a huge wedge of rupees; worth every penny though.

After our usual wallow in a real bathtub and a morning cup of tea Sheila was dragged away from the luxurious room at Clarke's and we had a very nice breakfast of special dhosa (Sheila) and boiled eggs and butter toast (me) at the Indian Coffee House, or went up the Mall to Baljee's for a very nice brunch of masala dhosa (Sheila) and sausage, egg and chips! (me). One day we had lunch at Embassy restaurant which was quite unusual and had a great view but was rather expensive, and other days lunches of chicken do piaza, channa dhal and salad bits at Ashiana restaurant in a big round room with a chandelier, watching the world come and go along the Ridge outside.

We strolled up and down the Mall and the Ridge quite a lot, the blissfully pedestrian-only promenading main streets of Shimla, enjoying the sunshine and the peace and quiet of a traffic-free environment ...

Shimla market
... and wandered through the busy, noisy Middle Bazaar and fruit and veg market enjoying the hustle and bustle of it all.
Shimla knife sharpener

Did lots of little chores like getting shoes mended (India is very hard on shoes), glasses mended again, clothes dry cleaned, brown paper bags bought (for winter storage of daffodil bulbs apparently), and so on. Sheila had a very good pedicure (or 'paddycure' as it was advertised) for £2 while I had a honey cappuccino at the 'Honey Hut'.

We went on a taxi tour to the impressive Vice-Regal lodge and saw the 'partition table' where the partition of India and Pakistan was agreed in 1947. Stopped briefly at the Oberoi Cecil hotel ...

Chapslee house
... then went to Chapslee House where the actual Maharaja treated us to tea on the lawn before we were shown round all the wonderful old rooms in his homestay, full of original furnishings and fittings.

In the evenings we had dinner at Guptajee's vegetarian restaurant just down some steps opposite the police station or went back to Baljee's for delicious sheek kebab and another masala dhosa, or more often we had a 'picnics' in our room with bottles of Sula red and white Zin from the bottle shop (a third of the price of wine in the hotel bar but still about 12 pounds) and packets of crisps and peanuts, sometimes after a 'first course' of samosas and chai at a little stall on the Mall.

Fri 23rd.

Shimla toy train
Reluctantly we checked out of Clarke's, went down the hill in the lift and got a taxi to the railway station to get the Himalayan Queen 'toy train'. We trundled down the mountain for five hours or so, stopping for samosas for lunch at a station on the way.

Then we caught the connecting train at Kalka for the half-hour ride in comfortable chair class to Chandigarh. Got a tuk-tuk to Devyadeep hotel which was (relatively) cheap and cheerful (1,550 Rs) then went and had the most tasty chicken tikka at Jullunder restaurant round the corner, washed down with a couple of ice-cold Fosters.

Sat 24th. She's worn me down about getting trains and buses from A to B, so at 9am we set off in our chauffeur-driven Indica to Mussoorie arriving about 3pm.

Padmini Nivas
Stayed at the Padmina Nivas hotel, another heritage establishment built in 1840 for a British Colonel.

Just as we were admiring the view the clouds rolled in and obscured it and the rain came pouring down. We sat cozily in our room listening to the rain pounding on the corrugated-iron roof. When the rain abated we went for a walk up and down the Mall and had a delicious crispy Szechuan lamb and stir-fried vegs at the Tavern. The Mall here is supposed to be pedestrianised but the police don't seem to monitor it like in Shimla and the cars and motorbikes come and go as they please, making noise and terrorizing pedestrians.

Sun 25th.

Howard revolving restaurant
We had breakfast in the grand old dining room at Padmini Nivas, then walked around and got a cycle-rickshaw to Howard's revolving restaurant (no charge for revolving!) and had a nice egg curry for lunch. The restaurant revolved nicely for the first half of the meal before a power cut stopped it in its tracks.

Had tea at another heritage hotel, Kasmanda Palace, sitting on the terrace in the sunshine, until the mist and clouds rolled in. After watching the F1 Grand Prix on TV and nipping out to collect the laundry, we had a light dinner in our grand dining room.

As well as the motorbikes our other pet hate is the mangy wild dogs that sleep all day and bark all night. Our hotel has a resident dog which is well-kept but is still allowed to bark all night - it is now a wet dog after Sheila threw a bucket of water over it last night, it will be getting the same again tonight if it starts. It gave her a great deal of pleasure.

Mon 26th. After breakfast we got a comfy old Ambassador taxi for the 3-hour drive to Rishikesh.

We went to the Hotel Ishan near Lakshman bridge and got a room with its own yoga room and a great view over the river Ganges to the colourful temples on the other side.

Had lunch in the restaurant of our hotel, then in the evening strolled over the bridge and round the streets on the east side of the river, and had a very nice dinner at Little Buddha café, with Ganges views of course. We're down at a mere 350 metres altitude now, more or less the first time we've been below 2,000m and we're really feeling the heat (some people are never satisfied!).

Tues 27th. After breakfast at the hotel we had a long walk round the interesting bits of Rishikesh. We crossed Lakshman Jhula bridge and walked down the east side of the river to Ram Jhula, the other bridge.

Ganges ferry
There's not much on the west side so we came back across the Ganges on the ferry and walked through Swarg Ashram district, stopping for an early lunch of soup at the Green Italy restaurant.
Bathing ghat
We then paddled in the sacred (and very fast-flowing) Ganges at Parmarth Niketan Ashram's bathing ghat and had a walk round the Ashram with its well-kept gardens, sacred trees and statues depicting scenes from Hindu mythology.

We carried on down the road, not quite as far as the Ashram where the Beatles stayed in 1968 (which is now in ruins) and came back by the quieter riverside path, where I had an unexpectedly Yul Brynner-style haircut in an upmarket shack by the side of the road. We stopped for a late lunch of deliciously thick and cold fresh mango juice and some Nachos with salad at Ganga Beach restaurant just opposite our hotel on the river. We went back there for dinner and had some nice veg curries.

All the noises in India seem to be getting to us. There was a noise in the hotel dining room that Sheila thought was someone popping chewing gum but it turned out to be the air conditioner - I said it's just as well because I don't have to go and slap their face! All the pipping motorbikes are getting us down and the more affordable the bikes become the more there are and the more annoying it becomes - we've noticed the difference since we started coming to India six years ago. They've got very loud horns and they expect you to jump out of the way, but we make a point of not moving. I have been known to chase the worst offenders down the road and remonstrate with them in a not-too-friendly fashion!

Weds 28th. Got a car to the holy city of Haridwar and stayed at the Bhaj-Govindam hotel with a lovely private garden beside the Ganges.

We walked down to the town and through the bustling markets and the fascinating riverside bathing ghats where pilgrims come to wash away all their sins in the sacred river.
We went back there at 6pm to see the evening ceremony at the ancient Har-ki-Pauri temple where huge crowds of people light candles on little leaf baskets of flowers and set them adrift on the river.

Sheila did one with lotus flowers and candles and said prayers for her people. Had dinner sitting in the garden at Bhaj Govindam.

Thurs 29th to Sat 1st Oct. The 5-minute wait for our taxi is now 20 minutes, we're going to have to kick some serious butt soon (we're getting quite grumpy in our old age!) Eventually we had a very good drive to Delhi with an excellent driver, and checked into the Swati hotel at Karol Bagh where they remembered us from our previous stays, which was nice. Went to a suitcase repair shop to get the suitcases mended and washed (they have had a hard trip) and did some more chores in Delhi including picking up the eight bottles of Sula Dindori red wine we'd ordered and another pedicure for Sheila - even with two showers a day she can't keep her feet clean. We had lunch at the United Coffee House on Connaught Place again and very tasty dinners at our favourite Crossroads restaurant just round the corner from the Swati Hotel. Got a nice old Ambassador taxi with an extremely pleasant Sikh driver to the airport, then we flew home. The eight bottles of wine all survived the journey!

To see our other travels, click here ...... globe