I regret not publishing a blog post every day up till now on my trip, but I failed to account for the lack of reliable Wi-Fi in certain regions of India so today’s post will have to capture about 7 days worth of adventuring!
I could write a novel about what I’ve seen and experienced so far but I’ll start from the top and keep it as brief as possible.
I landed in Delhi on July 5th at about 10:30am. My plan was to commute to my hotel near Connaught Place where I was to meet my friend Vini and make plans from there.
I hopped on the metro at the airport and took it all the way to New Delhi station. I was impressed by how modern and clean was the metro system itself. The train glided along the tracks smoothly and the seats were very comfortable and spacious.
When I got out at New Delhi station, the culture shock kicked in instantly. And intensely.
This being my first time traveling outside of North America, my sheltered perspective amplified every small observation into overdrive.
The first thing I saw was a long row of homeless people lying on the ground in the blazing heat. There were children, adults, seniors and a number of them were missing limbs. I crossed the street and nearly got hit by about 10 vehicles.
I was immediately targeted and approached by auto-rickshaw drivers trying to solicit my business. Thankfully, Vini had forewarned me about this and suggested that a rickshaw from New Delhi station to our hotel shouldn’t cost more than about 50 rupees.
I was offered a ride for 350 rupees.
I managed to haggle the price down to 150 rupees. When the driver stepped on the accelerator, I instantly went into a state of simultaneous panic and amusement. I had heard about the driving in India but I could not comprehend how a flow of traffic could be that chaotic and yet so orderly. Every square inch of the roads were consumed by a vehicle, a cow, or a person jumping aside from a honking vehicle.
I loved the city immediately.
The driver took me for a bit of a ride and dropped me off somewhere that wasn’t my hotel. He said he couldn’t drop me straight at the hotel as the street was inaccessible by car. To make matters better, my phone was completely dead so I couldn’t navigate myself with a map. Here goes nothing, I thought.
I managed to make it to the hotel with the help of a few locals on the street. When I finally arrived to the hotel and saw Vini’s familiar face, it was like finding an oasis of water in a dessert! (In retrospect, I have no idea why I felt so overwhelmed on the way to the hotel… I guess it was a combination of thirst, culture shock and the persistent soliciting on the street.)
Vini and I went out for a bite to eat at a nearby restaurant called Krishna Café. It was a rooftop restaurant and provided a great view of the market area. The food was delicious and cheap. So, so cheap. About $3 CAD for a filling and homemade vegetarian feast. Here’s a photo I snapped from the restaurant:
After lunch, we went on to explore New Delhi by foot. We only had 2 days in the city before we had to fly out to Leh, so we figured we’d hit up all of the main tourist attractions.
We visited Jantar Mantar, an 18th-century astronomy complex. It was pretty cool, take a look at the photo below:
We walked around the markets and I pondered how businesses operate in this environment. There were countless merchants selling the exact same things, at the exact same price points, in virtually identical facilities.
How much does rent cost for a storefront in a New Delhi market? How much do these stores do in sales? What makes a competitor win in this marketplace?
We proceeded to check out India Gate. It was an impressive sight. Take a look at the photo below.
Vini and I returned to the hotel and fell asleep early. Surprisingly I didn’t experience any jetlag whatsoever.
The next day, we visited Old Delhi. I had thought New Delhi, near our hotel, felt crowded…. well, Old Delhi made New Delhi feel like farmland in comparison.
We visited the Red Fort. It wasn’t just a clever name — the attraction was a vast, red-colored army fort. It was beautiful.
On our way into the fort, we stopped into an art shop where a friendly man was selling meticulously detailed original paintings. These paintings featured Indian imagery and they were painted on postcards and the backs of book pages, such that you could see the Hindi calligraphy on the backside of the piece.
The shop owner sat us down and told us that his family had been in business in this location for about 150 years.
“With art, it’s the expression that counts,” he repeatedly told us.
He was a good salesman. We were sold. We each bought a piece of art to bring back to our families.
After leaving Red Fort, we took a bicycle-rickshaw (not sure what the technical term is..?) around Old Delhi. We passed by a gorgeous Mosque but unfortunately I was wearing shorts and forgot to bring full-length pants and thus we couldn’t enter for a tour.
We decided to grab lunch at a nearby hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Karim’s. I ordered a chicken curry dish and it burned my mouth off but it was friggin’ delicious. The meat fell right off the bone.
After lunch, we hopped on a rickshaw back to the hotel. We passed by a street that was peppered with liquor stores and people drinking on the sidewalks.
By now it was probably around 7:00pm on July 6th and we had to be at the Delhi airport by 9:30pm to greet our friend, Matt, who was joining us for our 5:00am flight to Leh the following morning. Our plan was to meet him and take turns sleeping in the airport rather than renting a hotel room for a few hours of sleep.
Vini and I took a cab to the arrivals terminal and tried to enter the airport only to be met with a sobering “No” by the guards holding AK-47’s when we asked if we could enter the terminal to find our friend.
Luckily, Matt stepped outside just moments later so everything was okay.
We stepped to the information kiosk to ask how we should proceed to the departures terminal to check in and rest up. Naturally, the kiosk attendant promptly told us that this was not allowed and that he knew a really nice hotel just a few minutes away… and he had the hotel owner on speed dial…. and the hotel was quite expensive……
We sensed that we were about to get ripped off so we said “no thanks” and proceeded to take a shuttle bus to the domestic departures terminal.
We walked into the terminal with ease and saw numerous travelers sleeping on the lobby seats. We found a corner of the lobby and I passed out for an hour or two while Matt somehow stayed awake following a direct flight from Toronto to New Delhi (this is the trip of no jetlag, apparently…)
After a few hours, we boarded our flight to Leh. I had absolutely no idea what to expect as it was Vini’s initiative (thank you, Vini!!) to visit Leh before my girlfriend’s arrival in India.
Little did I know I was about to step into the most scenic and culturally interesting regionthat I could possibly imagine…
On the airplane, I was seated next to a white German man who went on to tell me that he lives in Delhi and operates a coffee shop in Leh. I could have probed him on that for the full duration of the flight but I left it at that because I was still sleepy.
I asked Vini to wake me up when we could see mountains from the plane (this would be my first time ever seeing mountains in my memory) and dosed off for another hour or so.
Vini nudged me awake and I looked out the window.
“Ho-ly shit,” I muttered.
Words truly can’t describe the breathtaking sensation of seeing the Himalayas spanning as far as the eye can see. The snowy caps on the high mountains, the infinitely unique formations in the rock faces, the vegetation and rivers….
I was a big city brat before coming on this trip but I think I might be converted to an outdoorsy guy.
We landed and were greeted by a driver who was to take us to our home stay about 15 minutes from the airport. He grabbed our 3 backpacks, tossed them on the top of his van, didn’t strap them on, and we were off to the races.
We stayed at a quaint guest house called Tsetan Guest House (named after the place’s manager, Tsetan). This place had rave reviews on Hostel World and I can now see why.
The guest house consisted of a central dining room and kitchen area with traditional decor and padded floors along the inside perimeter of the dining room walls. There were a few guest rooms in this central building, and there were a few adjacent buildings containing more guest rooms.
Tying the whole complex together was a delightful courtyard area with seating and tables in front of the central building. In this courtyard we met people from South Africa, Israel, England, United States, New Zealand, and everywhere else you could think of.
Surrounding the guest house were mountainous landscapes and trees. This place was paradise.
But these romantic descriptions wouldn’t be felt on my arrival day in the city – I had to pay my dues by getting altitude sickness first!
Fast-forward 24 hours of tossing and turning and nausea and headaches and I woke up to this view out of our room’s window:
The photo doesn’t do it justice.
On our second day in Leh, I was feeling much better so we decided to do a tour of 3 nearby Bhuddist monasteries.
I wish I had taken specific notes of each monastery’s distinct features because the day trip has already melded into a slightly vague blur.
Here are some of the key points to hopefully paint a picture of the experience:
- In each of the temples, there were highly-detailed “prayer wheels” painted beautifully that were to be rotated clockwise as a spiritual practice
- There were Bhuddist monks meditating and playing traditional percussion instruments inside the temples
- Humongous statues of Bhudda had been constructed in each of the temples and these were multiple floor levels in height. These statues were immaculately crafted and maintained.
- Local cars drove along the streets with bumper stickers along the lines of: “Alone but happy”.
- In general, these establishments conveyed the fascinating influence of Tibetan culture on the northern Indian communities. I don’t know much about either of these cultures or histories but I am VERY eager to learn more after this trip.
We came home and fell asleep pretty early as our plan for the next day was to drive to Nubra Valley and Turtek to explore the culture and, equally as importantly, to ride camels in the sand dunes.
This drive turned out to be long. Like, really long. But it was absolutely incredible and a must-do for any tourists in this part of India. The drive was a total of about 9 hours or so from Leh to the northernmost village in India, Turtuk. It involved us passing the highest motorable road in the world, which was pretty neat!
We drove around winding, narrow mountain roads that could barely accommodate two cars’ width. The car’s horn was king on this mountain. Around every blind turn, cars were expected to honk their horns to let their presence be known.
Our driver was a humble man who turned on a variety of Bhuddist chants in the car. The music was terrific and featured traditional instrumentation and intriguingly long phrasings. Some of these traditional chants would drone on for what felt like a half an hour or more.
Within a 9 hour drive, we experienced a huge variety of landscapes. Forests, rivers, rocky versus sandy mountain faces, dark brown rivers, sand dunes…
And we saw a lot of wildlife. Mostly cows, stray dogs, and donkeys. We exhausted every “ass” pun you could possibly conceive of during that drive.
We stopped off at a village for lunch. The menu offered fried rice plates, chow mein, and “momo’s” (these are basically deep fried dumplings as far as I understand… they were tasty!)
We eventually made it to Nubra Valley where we stopped off to see the most amazing Bhudda statue I had seen to date:
We continued driving for another few hours and eventually arrived in Turtek, at the northern tip of India. It was already pretty late, maybe around 8:00pm or so, so we had resigned to taking it easy near our home stay which we had stumbled across.
The owners of the home stay offered to take us for a brief tour around the area including a visit to the museum. They could speak very little English so we were lucky to have our newfound backpacker friend, Ani, along for the ride to help with translation.
We walked through the paths of the village and saw young Muslim children everywhere. Women were carrying heavy loads of grass and bagged products all over the place. Families were filling water buckets from streams and carrying them back to their homes.
This village, we were told, was firmly resistant to modernization and capitalism. Its residents valued sustainable living with a passion. Technological developments, such as Wi-Fi access, were met with suspicion and avoided.
We were brought to the museum which was hosted in a history-rich royal home. Our museum tour guide was a member of the royal family. He taught us all about the history and religious conflicts in the area with a heavily detailed family tree style diagram painted on the wall.
We returned back to our home stay, had a late dinner and went to bed. We had to be on the road again at 7:00am the next morning if we wanted to leave enough time to ride camels in the sand dunes!
The following day can be summarized with just that: we rode on camels in the sand dunes.
It was so fun. Camels are adorable creatures. We paid 200 rupees ($4 CAD) for a 15-minute ride on the camels. My camel tripped up slightly while I was riding it. Too much butter paneer, I guess.
Here’s a view of the sand dunes:
And a cute photo of the camels for good measure:
We got home at a reasonable hour and spent the afternoon in the market. Matt and Vini splurged on pashmina scarves and their process of finding a trustworthy pashmina vendor was hilarious in itself.
Since 100% pashmina scarves are apparently only produced in the Ladakh region, the market was filled with pushy salesmen trying to hustle pashminas.
We stopped into a bunch of shops and each merchant would show off their unique gimmick for demonstrating their pashminas’ purity. Some merchants would perform a “water test” whereby they drop a bead of water on the scarf and state that if it doesn’t soak into the material, then it must be pure pashmina. Others would engage us with a “fire test” where they would quite literally light their garments on fire to show how quickly the flame stops burning…. which apparently means pure pashmina?
We eventually found this sweet, kind soul of a shop owner and proceeded to buy a bunch of products from him. Here we are with him in his shop:
The next day was not too exciting. We went on a brief hike just outside of Leh and each did our own thing in the afternoon (catching up on emails, shopping, sightseeing, etc.)
It’s now midnight and we’re leaving for the Leh airport at 5:30am tomorrow morning to head back to Delhi to meet my girlfriend, Avi, and her mom. We’ll be congregating in Delhi airport and taking a drive up to Chandigarh to visit Avi’s mom’s hometown.
I have a feeling it’s going to be a very special experience to witness her family’s hometown first-hand. I can’t wait to continue this eye-opening journey!
But for now I should get some shut-eye.
Thanks for reading and I’ll make an effort to update this blog more regularly going forward!