Last Stop: Leh

Last Stop: Leh

When you arrive in place where everyone from the air hostesses to the guy you book a trek with tells you not to do anything then it would simply be rude not to listen. We had known from the start 4 days would not be anywhere near enough time in this part of India, but we were determined to see it even if it was fleeting. After talking to people it was clear we could have done with at least another month to truly explore but we just decided this was our excuse to come back.

Sitting 3500m above sea level, Leh is an absolutely stunning landscape of desert mountains surrounded by the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas. This made flying in as the sun rose over them such a beautiful sight I couldn’t contain my excitement, which didn’t go down too well with poor Mills who was trying to catch a couple of minutes sleep on the flight. Having had no sleep in over 24 hours and not been in a bed that wasn’t on a moving vehicle for 4 days we were both exhausted by the time we arrived at the hostel and very happy to take everyone’s advice to not do anything (except eat some cake) for the rest of the day.

The terrain in this part of India is totally different to anything we had seen so far: it was more like what I imagined Pakistan to look like. It’s totally stark and barren mountains, the get very little rain here because they are surrounded by the snowy peaks which rise in the background. Our first walk into the main town was spent exclaiming at how beautiful everything was and although I could barely breath doing it, a yoga session on our hostel roof surrounded by these mountains was unreal. The only thing we were slightly disappointed with was the weather: it was far too warm! We’d been very excited for it to be properly chilly, and while it was extremely preferable to the disgusting stickiness of Delhi it was a lot warmer than we anticipated. Murphey’s Law the only day the weather was rubbish was the day we did a trek.

While most people who base themselves in Leh head out to Nurbu Valley or Pangong Tso we had decided we’d be rushing it if we tried so contented ourselves with a small hike from the town of Leh to the nearby village of Saboo. Despite the mini snow storm the walk was perfect: tough enough to feel like we’d earned our dinner but not so bad we weren’t able to chat our way up the inclines. While we spent most of our time reminiscing about the past 7 months we also expended much precious breath exclaiming at the beauty of our surroundings and how incredible it was that this was still part of India.

The trek took us up through the narrow alleys and low tunnels of the old town, past Leh Palace which we refused to go inside of out of principle- it was about 15 times the price for foreigners. The view from up there and then from the fort which was even higher we incredible, despite the weather. In fact I thought the cloud added something to the mountains and they didn’t stay long as by lunch time the blue sky had reappeared and both of us got sunburnt!

Being recently qualified yogis it would have been a waste to not take advantage of the incredible views by pulling a couple of quick poses. I’m quite content with my little tree pose and leave the more complex balances to the extremely strong Milly.

I could harp on about these views all day and was very happy to sit and enjoy our adorable packed lunches surrounded by mountains. It’s most certainly not what you would describe as stereotypically beautiful but we both loved it. Even our little stop off at a random monastery, very unprepared for guests, just added to the whole day. Other than this and a very naughty calf there wasn’t a lot going on in the village of Saboo although they obviously have a highly comprehensive irrigation system- it was the greenest place in the whole area.

Our final morning in Leh was spent at the Hall of Fame military museum. The initial draw of this place had been the assault course although it became very clear when we saw it that we had slightly outgrown it. The museum itself was one of the better ones we had been to although there was far too much information to take in at once. We focused our attention on the history of the region and on its role in the Indo-Pakistan war. There is a huge military presence in Leh due to its proximity to the border and it was very interesting reading the very informative if extremely biased account of the action that took place. I’d be intrigued to cross the border and see what their take on the situation was.

The remainder of our day was spent doing what we do best: eating cake and shopping. Being part of Kashmir, everywhere you look there are beautiful Pashminas and Cashmere jumpers for sale. Unfortunately for my poor Mum who had set her heart on a Pashmina the internet was down the day we went shopping, which meant there were no functioning card machines. It was additionally unfortunate that most of the cash machines were empty, which makes gift shopping rather tricky.

Our time in Leh had been short, sweet and had most definitely left us wanting more. Sat on the flight back to Delhi it suddenly became very real that our time in India was almost at an end and we only had 48 hours before we would be on yet another plane, this time back to the UK. Luckily those 48 hours were spent with some of our favourite people, generally make a nuisance of ourselves in the reception of Madpackers. It wouldn’t have felt to end our trip anywhere else: this was where we started and our trip would have been very different had we spent that first week staying somewhere else. As much as they joked they were happy for us to be finally leaving so there could be some peace and quiet they were sad to see us go really- why else would they have walked us to the taxi…or maybe that was to make sure we actually left…

It’s safe to say a few tears were shed as we took off from Delhi for the final time but there is no way this will be my last trip to India. This country has stolen my heart, broken my heart and put it back together, building me back into a stronger and happier person. In no way was I looking to “find myself” on this journey but I definitely think it has changed me as a person and only for the better. It would be impossible to spend this much time with the spectacular Milly Pumphrey and not come away with a more positive attitude towards life. There is no one else I could have imagined sharing this adventure with and I thank my lucky stars everyday that she came up with this crazy plan.

Someone said to us in Varanasi that India is like a tidal wave: you can stand there and fight it or you can close your eyes and just let the wave take you. Sometimes this can be terrifying but you will find yourself enjoying things a lot more if you just accept the things that can’t be explained and look for the beauty in the surroundings. I was gutted to be leaving but we ended on the highest of highs and now we know there’s so much left to explore this isn’t goodbye, it’s just see you soon.

TOP TIP FOR LEH: 4 weeks is a much better time frame to explore this part of the country. 4 days is just not enough.

TOP TIP FOR INDIA: Visit, explore, fall in love and enjoy the tidal wave. I swear it will be the best decision you ever made.

Advertisements

Let’s Talk About Sex

Let’s Talk About Sex

Well now I’ve got your attention I’d like to apologise for the miscommunication and disappoint many by saying this post isn’t actually about sex at all. It is in fact the latest instalment of our Indian adventure relating to our highly cultural, if extremely hot and fleeting visit to the town of Khajuraho in central India.

We actually spent longer on trains getting to and from this place than we did visiting it but despite the slightly stressful inbound journey it was totally worth it. As Amber was a late (but great) addition to this plan she was unfortunately placed in an entirely separate carriage at the other end of possibly the longest train I have ever seen. This being her first (and I think last) train journey we decided it would be better if we all stuck together. This meant that we’d paid for three beds but were actually only taking up two, and the confusion this caused seemed never ending! I don’t understand why the train staff cared so much; if anyone should have been complaining it should have been Mills and I who barely fit in the beds when we are solo let alone when there are two of us! Eventually they let us be and we attempted to get a least a couple of hours sleep before our day of adventuring.

Smacked in the face by a wall of heat as soon as we left the train, it was hard to believe it was only 7am. After a quick outfit change we were in a rickshaw and whizzing along, grateful for the breeze the moving vehicle provided. This rickshaw turned out to be the best thing that happened all day as the guy was an absolute babe; he took us to all the temple complexes, let us chill in his friends shop for 4 hours, bought us samosas and chai before returning us to the train station so we could catch our overnight train back to Delhi. Plus his rickshaw had wifi so what more could we need?

Our day started with the Southern Group of temples, situated out in random village fields away from the main town. From here we made our way to the Eastern and the Northern complexes before ending with the Western temples because these are the biggest and best preserved Khajuraho has to offer.

We were pleasantly surprised at how well preserved all the temples were- apart from the one they have only recently found, they look as though they were built a couple of years ago rather than a thousand. The sexual sculptures they are famous for were also a lot more subtle than we were expecting and you really had to look hard for them! Thankfully Mr Rickshaw was very helpful in pointing them out. There were also people at the temples who were excited to share their knowledge and I had a lovely conversation with one gentleman about the symbolic representations of Artha, Darma, Karma and Moksha. I was feeling rather smug at this point because I’d actually remembered something of what we’d learnt in Rishikul, while Amber and Milly had scarpered as soon as they saw the rather large mice (possibly rats) appear behind my new friend.

Having done our usual Lonely Planet check up we got our Dosa fix at Madras Coffee House before making our way to the Western Group of temples. According to our rickshaw driver the reason behind the erotic carvings is due to one Maharajas need to increase his armed forces. Apparently the area of Khajuraho was previously occupied by a large number of Saddus; holy men with no interest in procreation. The Maharaja feared a decline in population so decided to decorate the temples with carvings of people having sex to show the Saddus what they were missing. The carvings are so subtle I’m not sure how effective this plan would have been, but as Milly pointed out what is subtle to us now in an era where sex is used to sell pretty much everything, probably wasn’t subtle back when these temples were built.

In spite of being exceptionally over priced for foreign tourists the Western Complex is beautiful. There was a fair amount of restorative work going on, which Milly somehow managed to get herself involved in, so they are obviously well looked after. The setting is stunning and there are so many carvings on each temple you get a crick in your neck from trying to take them all in. Of course everyone is looking for the raunchy ones but some of the positions they depict look like far more effort than they’re worth! We are convinced this is the real reason so many people in this country practice yoga: it has nothing to do with reaching Samadi (enlightenment) it’s all about being able to do this:

Had it been just a few degrees cooler we would have been able to spend longer taking everything in but as it approached midday the heat became unbearable and we sought refuge in Blue Sky Restaurant (another Lonely Planet recommendation). Not only was the food delicious but we also had an amazing view over the temple complex so we could take them in from beneath the breeze of a fan.

We spent the rest of the afternoon hiding from the heat in Super Mario’s pashmina shop. This is where our rickshaw driver used to work and while we were sad we never got to meet Mr Mario himself, he got a sale out of me which totally emptied my wallet so our AC hunt worked in his favour. We ventured out for about 5 minutes to buy some fruit, which was when it became abundantly clear how few Western tourists were there. A guy pulled up on his motorbike and asked if we knew Pako. I couldn’t believe it! Pako was the guy who sold me a handbag in Rishikesh, who was from Khajuraho and had taken my number in case we needed any help. He was also the guy whose number I had blocked when he started asking me on chai dates…he’d obviously still told his family to look out for us and we stuck out like sore thumbs!

So excited were people here that we’d chosen to visit out of season there is a chance we may have made the local news. At our pre-train chai stop our rickshaw driver introduced us to his ‘riporter’ friend (that’s how it was spelt on his ID badge), who asked if he could write an article about us. We’re still waiting to find out if we made the cut but watch this space as we could soon be Z list celebrities in central India.

Despite taking 5 hours longer than it was meant to, our return train journey went a lot smoother than the outward one, mainly because we all had beds and they were all in the same carriage. This meant we at least got a little sleep, although we arrived back in Delhi to a very upset Baddu who’d got up early to teach us yoga…sorry buddy! At this point our first priority was food as we realised we hadn’t actually eaten in 24 hours. Our second priority was packing for Leh. This turned out to be less stressful than expected although the amount of stuff we seem to have accumulated grows each time we get all our bags together. I’m not going to lie I am a little nervous for our flight home…

Soon the time had come to say goodbye to our most recent travel buddy Amber who was heading off to the mountains for Dharamshala. It did feel really weird saying goodbye after 5 weeks of being together but we were also extremely excited to be escaping the heat of Delhi: 28 degrees at 3 in the morning is not the one. Get me back to the mountains!

TOP TIP FOR KHAJURAHO: Try to visit these incredible temples during the winter. There’s a reason the main tourist season ends in March…

Sweet Pain

Sweet Pain

A rollercoaster is probably the best way to describe my experience of Rishikesh. It was a love/hate relationship that had a greater impact on me than the rest of our time in India had put together. I struggled with a physical injury, with the mental pressure of being in one place for a prolonged period of time after so long on the move, and with being fed information that was not only out of date, but was at times factually incorrect. They do say however, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and I definitely feel like that is true of my time in Rishikesh.

After our traumatic journey we didn’t feel up to much. We didn’t even cafe hop on the first day: instead we cafe sat, choosing to spend 6 hours in Little Buddha where we met Robert. He is a holistic healer, originally from Glasgow, who is genuinely one the most interesting people we’ve met on this trip so far. Not only was he very knowledgable about alternative medicine, he also introduced us to the concept of ‘Angel Numbers’ which have since become my favourite thing. A lot you reading this (including my own father) will roll your eyes at this concept but I think it’s great and it made me feel extremely positive and happy after such a crappy morning. Angel Numbers are number sequences that recur at certain points in your life and represent a message from your angels or the universe. For example, recently I had been waking up at exactly 6:15 every morning and the number combination 615 is a message from my angels. They were fully supportive of my life choices, especially with regards to my career and relationships, which I take to mean ‘you’ve got this and we [your angels] are fully behind you. This may sound crazy but given the number of friends and family who have questioned my most recent life choices it’s good to know the universe at least is on my side.

Our two days of relaxing were over and it was time to head out to Ram Juala, on the other side of Rishikesh from where we had been situated, and check into Rishikul Yogshala. This was to be our home for the next 4 weeks and the place where we would hopefully complete our 200 Hour Teacher Training qualification. To say these 4 weeks were intense is the understatement of the year: our day began at 5:30am and didn’t finish until 7:30pm. We undertook 3 hours of asanas each day, both Hatha and Ashtanga Vinyasa. Additionally we studied Yoga Philosophy, Anatomy, Adjustment and Alignment, Mantras, Mudras and how to teach, in addition to various Pranayama and Meditation techniques. If this was not intense enough, we also had to eat all our meals in silence, which for someone who cannot stand the sound of chewing was going to be a challenge. Is it any wonder by the end of the first week I wanted to bolt?!

Week 1: I’m Not a Yogi Please Get Me Out of Here

“Sweet Pain” is what our yoga teachers jokingly called the pain we would all be experiencing during our first week of training as our bodies slowly got used to the intensity of the course and the amount of exercise, combined with sitting still we were doing throughout the day. I can tell you however, there is nothing sweet about a knee injury that brings you to tears from merely sitting crossed legged for too long. But I am getting ahead of myself; first we had to be initiated.

Although I had absolutely no idea what was going on because the whole ceremony was conducted in Sanskrit (it reminded me a little of the wedding) I felt a sense of excitement if a little trepidation as I really had no idea what to expect over the next few weeks. Despite the overwhelming heat of the room, due to the number of people and the fire burning throughout, I was intrigued to see how the next few weeks would play out.

Despite our 5:30 start, the first Sunday was more theoretical than practical, although it was a little bit of a shock to find out we were actually expected to TEACH a class at the end of the month. Yes, I know I had signed up for a teacher training course and I knew there was a written exam, I never dreamed there’d be a practical exam as well! Having worked out that I had been to a maximum of 20 yoga classes in my life, and knowing very little about the deeper meaning of yoga as a way of life, it’s safe to say I was more than slightly bricking it.

When most people back home think of yoga they think of the asanas, the part of yoga which has been adopted by the West as a great way to keep fit. This is what we did for three hours a day: an hour and a half of Hatha in the morning and an hour and a half of Ashtanga Vinyasa in the afternoon. If you have never had the ‘pleasure’ of experiencing Ashtanga for yourselves, go and check out the Primary Series- this is considered the easy one and we were lucky enough to do this five times a week in 35 degree heat. Why pay for hot yoga when that’s just the daily temperature?!

As well as the theory and the asanas we were also taught cleansing techniques, which actually do help with breathing. Only being able to breathe through the nose when it is blocked makes life quite challenging so cleaning out those passages is a useful past-time for any aspiring yogi. Unfortunately the processes are a little unpleasant, although as the weeks went on I did rather enjoy the Jala Nati (pouring warm salty water up one nostril for it to come out the other) but there was no way in HELL I would be putting a rubber tube up my nose and pulling it out of my throat!

As we reached halfway through the first week I began to feel more and more frustrated with my body, the teaching and the whole experience of school so far. I wasn’t enjoying it. In fact I’d go so far as to say I was hating it and that was upsetting me even more because not only had we invested a lot of money into this experience, it was also a substantial amount of time out of a trip I had so far loved.

Looking back I think I had perhaps subconsciously been hoping for a slightly more spiritual experience than Rishikul offers, mainly because of the type of Yoga they base their teachings upon. I’m definitely more of a Karma Yoga type gal- what you give out to the universe you get back, whereas Rishikul is based on Raj yoga, emphasising the importance of wisdom and meditation. My main issue with this is that the “wisdom” we were being supplied with was not only a little outdated, but some of it was just factually incorrect. It also didn’t help that our teacher, lovely as he was, did not have a strong enough grasp of English to convey such complex topics and make them not only understandable but relatable to a 21st Century lifestyle. From doing my own research there are plenty of concepts which I will try to incorporate into my daily life, but the way he spoke a lot of the time made me feel like I needed to give up everything and move to a cave in the mountains in order to ever reach enlightenment.

Don’t get me wrong there were some classes I enjoyed; mantra class was great because we actually got to understand the meanings behind the mantras we were expected to chant at the beginning and end of each class. Although the sessions where we chanted whilst walking around in a circle did make me feel as though I had joined a cult, it was good to actually be given an explanation of these Sanskrit verses.

It’s possible I would have been able to cope better with the theory had I not been in so much physical pain caused by my stupid knee injury I got from sitting. Turns out having ones legs crossed for half an hour when you already have bad knees isn’t the best idea. It also turns out that a lot of postures in Yoga, particularly Ashtanga Vinyasa require strong knees. After two days of really struggling and a particularly frustrating session where I felt as though I couldn’t do any of the postures without causing myself considerable pain, I broke down and spent a good 15 minutes lying on my yoga mat trying (and failing) not to cry. I was totally overwhelmed by the whole experience, I was in a lot of pain and at that point I would rather have been anywhere else in the world apart from that yoga hall. At this point it was looking extremely likely that I would pack the whole thing in and leave because there was no way I could carry on feeling like that for another 3 weeks…

Week 2: Another One Bites the Dust…

And it actually wasn’t me. Sadly, having already lost the lovely Julia in week one due to the pressure the course was putting on her back, we lost the equally lovely Heinrick, who had been mine and Milly’s first friend on the course. Unfortunately for him the course wasn’t what he expected and he decided it was better for him to bow out than push himself to a point of no return.

I am happy to report that after a chat with my parents, a day off with my lovely fellow students, a visit to the incredible Beatles Ashram and a Vegan Reese’s Ball from Pumpernickel Bakery I was feeling a lot more positive about the course and life in general. The Beatles Ashram is where the Beatles (obviously) spent time during the 1960s, studying the art of transcendental meditation and supposedly wrote part of The White Album. It’s such a beautiful place no wonder they felt their creative juices flowing!

We all agreed it was such a shame the place has been left to fall into disrepair as it would be an incredible place to practice yoga; the little beehive rooms are absolutely adorable. Plus the setting makes it the perfect spot for meditation. It was a little hot for this when we were there however, so we spent our time exploring the abandoned buildings, admiring the art work and murals as well as (of course) practicing some of those good old yoga poses.

On our return to Ram Jhula we ended up having dinner with Jade and Kiara and I think it was this conversation that turned my experience around. These two girls are not only fantastic at asanas, they are also wonderful people who helped me realise that I was not the only one who wasn’t having quite the experience I had expected. Obviously I realised the whole group wasn’t on an incredible spiritual journey but it was nice to talk to people and realised they were also finding it a little difficult to adapt their expectations to the reality of what was more like yoga boot camp than an enlightening experience.

I headed into the Monday with a new sense of positivity. I ignored the Dr’s advice and continued to practice Ashtanga, although I no longer felt bad about doing the modifications, knowing I shouldn’t really be doing it at all. Ibuprofen helped bring down the inflammation in my knee and the introduction of Adjustment and Alignment classes meant I was more confident in the modifications I should use to protect my dodgy joints and reduce the impact of my hyper-extension. It was obvious it would take more than three weeks to correct years of wrong practice but I had to start somewhere. When the pain lessened and I stopped worrying, everything just became more enjoyable and it was hard not to have a laugh when we were lucky enough to have such a great group of people all going through it together.

As well as Sundays we also got Wednesdays off but school would often organise a group excursion. During week 1 it was a visit to a Sikh temple, while week 2 was a sunrise trip to a temple of a mountain. When our alarm went off at 4:30am Mills really wasn’t feeling it and I wasn’t fussed enough to go without her so I enjoyed a couple of hours more in bed before a great self practice session where I had the entire yoga studio to myself. It also gave me time to mentally prepare myself for my Emotional Blockage Treatment, although the whole experience was so traumatic I don’t think any amount of yoga and meditation could have prepared me for it!

It was one of the weirdest things I have ever put my body through, but after the initial shock had worn off I genuinely think it has helped me. While it started off as rather a pleasant foot massage, the further up the legs he moved the more my hands started to tingle and by the time he reached my lower back I was totally unable to move them and I was screaming and crying. He physically had to turn me onto my back as I was unable to move and by the time he reached my chest half my face was paralysed and I had a tingling sensation in my stomach and legs. I was also still bawling my eyes out which is easier said than done when you can’t feel your face! It took me a good half an hour to regain feeling in my hands and the rest of the day to get back to normal, although the next day I felt fresh as a daisy and as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, which in a way it had. Apparently the pain in my hands was due to my habit of holding onto things and the pain intensified in my chest because my heart chakra is blocked. Whether you believe in this stuff or not it does make a lot of sense because I do have a habit of taking things personally and there is a reason why 2018 is the year of self love and friendship…

Week 3: Rafting Rafting We Went Rafting!

Although this was the week where everything started to get real; we were over halfway through, our practical and written exams were fast approaching and we were almost finished with our Pranayama and Hatha classes, this was probably my favourite week of the course. Being on top of my knee pain meant I was able to see the progression in my asanas, which in turn was allowing the parts of the theory I just couldn’t comprehend to wash over me.

The best news that week was finding out that we had one less lesson of Philosophy than normal because we had a session of Dance Yoga. This was a much needed break from the seriousness of lessons and although we totally butchered the dance we had a great time doing it. Our teacher was so elegant and made it look so graceful, a feat which none of us were really able to master but he did say the main point of it was to laugh and have fun and we certainly managed that.

Even Mr Ashtanga seemed to have noticed the 15 hours plus of asanas we were doing a week had taken its toll on our bodies and gave us a much needed restorative session. This was an absolute dream, even though he still felt the need to push me in directions my body was unwilling to go- he refused to accept until the bitter end that while my flexibility with my legs together may have improved dramatically, when they are apart it is a whole different story! In spite of this we all felt so much better after an hour and a half of stretching. We were lucky that our visit from the local wildlife came earlier on in the week because there is nothing relaxing about having a troop of monkeys invade your classroom! Thankfully they too responded to Mr Ashtanga’s authority and scarpered the minute he approached.

In terms of school, the highlight of the week was definitely Pranayama on the beach, with the breeze coming off the Ganga and the occasional dog running over to make everyone jump. It’s so much easier to breathe away from the stuffiness of the yoga school and I wish we’d gone down there more often because my poor blocked ears hurt a lot less being outside. Plus we got to have tea and biscuits with a Saddu in his cave, where he took selfies with us on his brand new smart phone…only in India!

While I found this week the most enjoyable I know for some of us it began to be a little stressful. A lot of people were sick, our bodies were run down and the schedule for teaching had been posted so people were beginning to worry a little about the upcoming assessments. That is why a day on the river, playing in the rapids was exactly what we all needed. I don’t think the rapids are particularly difficult in terms of grading but they were certain all scary enough to elicit constant screaming from our boat. We laughed, screamed and serenaded our guide with wonderful renditions of Rip Tide and some classic Spice Girls. I’m not sure how much he appreciated it but we had a great time and came away from the day feeling refreshed and ready to take on the rest of the week, if a little sore from all that paddling!

Week 4: It’s The Final Countdown

Teaching turned out to be a lot less stressful than I had anticipated. In no way am I saying my lesson went perfectly- there is so much I can improve on and I know I am a a long way off from calling myself a yoga teacher but I did find I really enjoyed it and everyone was very positive in their feedback and constructive criticism.

We had been split into two groups, so sadly I didn’t get to see Milly’s lesson but I was glad I was only the third person to go in our group because Celine and Ash set the bar high and the standard only got better as the classes went on. Everyone’s classes were so different: Ash did yoga rehab for people with knee injuries (result for me); Celine focused on Vata excess; Gabby did Ashtanga; Miranda and Marine did kids yoga which was amazing; Rosi did a lovely beginners class with an incredible meditation; Vivianne had some postures in there I am definitely going to steal and I focused on balance and stability. Everyone smashed it!

Getting through everyone meant we had to teach on Sunday but that also meant I had the whole day to celebrate being done (well almost but the written exam was a whole 3 days away). When you are staying in a town where alcohol is not readily available the best way to celebrate is with food. We started at the fruit salad place Marine had introduced us all to; it may not look like much from the outside but my God they do the BEST fruit salad smoothie breakfast bowls I have ever had! Plus you get to eat them sat by the Ganga watching the world go by whilst fending off the cows trying to sample your breakfast- what could be better!?

This was then followed by a hot yet hilarious cooking demonstration where Deepa told us stories about her brothers failed cooking attempts and made making chapatti look like a form of art! We made chickpea curry, poori and the flat rice with peanuts we all devour every time it is available for breakfast. Apparently it’s full of protein so all those second helpings were totally fine!

I spent the rest of the day without Milly (very stressful) because she stayed at school to practice her lesson, so Amber and I ate our way around Laxman Jhula before her Mili and my Milly joined us for dinner. It did mean we missed out on the full moon meditation but we had such a lovely evening enjoying the food, the view and the very attractive waiter at Cafe Royal before an interesting walk home. Apparently when the sun goes down Indian men think it’s socially acceptable to expose themselves at the side of the road. Not sure I agree with that and I was glad there were 4 of us making this return journey. We ended the day on the roof looking up at the full moon, enjoying being present and grateful for where we were in the world.

Being a shortened final week with a slightly different schedule the time absolutely flew by. Our final meditation took place on the beach during a lightening storm which was absolutely sunning! Yes I know I should have had my eyes closed as we were there for meditation but sat next to the Ganga under a purple sky, with forked lightening striking over the mountains having my eyes closed seemed like a waste.

After 4 weeks together we had all formed a really strong bond, perfectly encapsulated on the morning of Kristina’s birthday where we all gathered on our balcony to sing and munch on chocolate cake. We all went out for dinner that night which was lovely although I feel like the poor restaurant owner was slightly overwhelmed when the 16 of us descended on him clamouring to be fed.

Wednesday was exam day. The exam I had done very little prep for bar the 2 hours before the exam itself. Given this lack of preparation I was pleased with the amount I was able to retain and was able to answer the 20 questions required. No rest for the wicked though as 15 minutes after the exam we had our final Ashtanga Vinyasa class. Unlucky for us it was the day of the sandstorm which meant no electricity, leading to the sweatiest session yet! Despite this, I felt amazing once we were done and I was pleased to see at least some improvements- my sleeping turtle is coming on great. There are some postures I’m not sure I’ll EVER be able to do but as Celine said they would never have been invented had these people just had access to a TV!

Our hard work was rewarded with a party in the dining area, complete with disco lights and loud music. The staff really went for it and it was obvious from their moves this was their favourite night of the month! As fun as it was to let our hair down and celebrate being finished we were all so shattered we took the power failure at 9pm as a sign we should go to bed in preparation for our final beach yoga session in the morning. Reunited with our Hatha teacher (everyone’s favourite) we had a great time down by the Ganga surrounded by dogs and cows, who added to the challenge of performing the postures because there was always the chance you could trip over them!

Dressed all in white (not a flattering colour on anyone who doesn’t have a tan) we participated in the closing ceremony, which was just as long if nowhere near as hot as the opening one. The teachers all gave a little speech, which were very sweet and emphasised this course was simply the beginning of the journey and how there are no endings only transitions, without which we wouldn’t be able to grow. One by one we received our certificates, declaring us (technically) qualified yoga teachers. 4 weeks of blood, sweat, tears and chatarangas we were free to go our separate ways, taking what we had learned and begin to apply it to our everyday lives. As much as I struggled I definitely think this experience has made me stronger as a person and I’m so grateful for the amazing group we were fortunate enough to be with. They were what made this part of the trip and I coulnd’t have done it without them!

Final Days of Freedom

Having only 2 days off a week and normally being too tired to do much more than cafe hop we were excited to see what Rishikesh had to offer. While packing had revealed the amount of stuff we had managed to accumulate over the course of a month, our move to the hostel was less traumatic because there were 6 of us in a 6 bed dorm so it felt more like a sleepover than anything. Plus it meant we were safe, at least at night, from the creepy guy who seemed to think he’d met me in Pushkar and think it was a good idea to chat Amber up by discussing his erectile function. Not exactly the best start for her solo trip!

You’d think after a month we’d have had enough of yoga but we were all keen to try a few different, less traditional styles. We spent a morning in the mountains, on a rooftop learning the art of Kundlaini. Having never done this before I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be an amazing combination of asanas and pranayama, ending with the most amazing meditation which left us all feeling like we were floating for the next couple of hours. Unfortunately our Hatha yoga class wasn’t quite such a peaceful experience as it involved holding poses for prolonged periods, which was not pleasurable for my poor, sore body! The teacher was also extremely patronising, which wasn’t what I needed at all. Thankfully we followed this session with some Osho mediation which is dance meditation, where you close your eyes and move around to the music for almost an hour, ending with shavasana. At first it felt a little odd and I was a tad self conscious before I remembered everyone had their eyes closed and were all doing the same thing anyway.

For our final morning Milly and I decided to try something totally different: jewellery making. I don’t think we will ever make it in the silversmith profession but we had a really great time doing it. I think we frustrated our teacher a little with our incompetence but we had a giggle doing it and we got to play with fire.

All too soon it was time to say goodbye. It did feel as though we’d spent the past 4 days saying goodbye as everyone off the course had left at different times but this final farewell was the hardest of all. It was also bittersweet because as much as I would miss the people, I was ready to move on to our next adventure. Plus we had our third musketeer Amber joining us for the delightful bus ride back to our home away from home in Delhi. Madpackers, take 5.

TOP TIP FOR 200 HOUR TTC: A problem shared is a problem halved. The chances are the frustrations you have are the same as plenty of other people on the course. These guys are your family for the month so talk to them because they are the ones who make this experience.

Little Britain

Little Britain

It has become abundantly clear on this trip that not so deep down Milly and I are very much middle aged women, who love nothing more than a good dose of culture washed down with a cuppa. After yet another horrific bus journey that cuppa had to be a coffee as we were in desperate need of caffeine in order to function for at least part of the day. While the sign on the windows of the bus station warning people they were glass windows did make me chuckle, my mood changed quickly during our attempts to secure a taxi to our hotel. Never have we struggled so much to get someone to take us anywhere when we haven’t even argued over price! If it hadn’t been for the Indian girl who came over to help us out I think they would have made us walk to several kilometres into Shimla!

Apparently all it takes to revitalise us after zero hours sleep is a small nap, a good cup of coffee and a plate of waffles. If ever you find yourself in Shimla make sure you check out Wake and Bake cafe; we basically moved in for the two days we stayed in Shimla but the food was so good I have no regrets about not being more adventurous with our restaurant choices.

Shimla is centred around Scandal Point, so called because it was the site where Maharaja Patila Bhupinder Singh eloped with the daughter of a Viceroy back in 1882. From here the two main streets, the Mall and the Ridge run, made up of mock Tudor buildings and charismatic shops. Being Monday everything was closed so we decided to head on up to the Jakhu Temple to see the 33m statue of Hanuman the Monkey up close and personal. As it was also Easter we thought we had better pop into the Church to see what had been going on over the weekend. The flowers up the aisle were still fresh giving it a beautiful smell rather than the musty, unused whiff churches often have. It was also the first time I have ever seen a Hindi translation of the Bible- obviously it makes sense they exist and they are certainly a lot thinner in Hindi but it was still a bit weird to see.

The route up to Jakhu Temple is marked by a sign giving you an indication of how fit you are in relation to the time it takes you to make it to the temple and your age. Thankfully after all our trekking we were at the optimum level of fitness and that was with a little stop off at a cute book cafe where they offer jobs to individuals serving life sentences at the local prison. An interesting concept and delicious biscuits!

The Jakhu Temple, otherwise known as the Monkey Temple, is also home to hundreds of real monkeys causing mayhem (as usual). In their defence they do have to put up with a lot of provocation and temptations from the locals who think it’s hilarious to both feed them and poke at them with sticks. No wonder they end up having their shoes stolen! Our preferred method of dealing with them is to look down and continue on our way, much like the way we dealt with a group of 16 year old boys who thought it would be fun to heckle us all the way back down the hill. It’s such fun being female!

Other than our early night curled up in bed with a large bar of chocolate and the original Sense and Sensibility (who can resist a bit of old school Alan Rickman), the best part about our visit to Shimla was running into Jeff, our friend from Delhi who’d been the only one brave enough to try the super spicy dishes in Delhi. Apart from his shock at our ability to consume quite so much food, we had a really fun day with him exploring the history of the town topped off with a highly traumatic taxi ride to the bus station!

As the site of the government for the summer months, Shimla holds a highly important place in the creation of India as the country we know today. Having had the ‘pleasure’ of experiencing Delhi during the heat of spring, let alone summer, I totally understand why they moved the government up to the mountains for so long! It’s difficult to breathe in the heat of the capital let alone concentrate on running the country.

Half an hour from Scandal Point, passing the crumbling pink train station and a couple of fancy looking hotels, we reached the Viceregal Lodge. Completed in 1888 it was the home of government until WWII and bears a great resemblance to a Scottish Manor House. Not surprising really given the initial Viceroy to take up residence here was Lord Dufferin and his highly put upon wife, who coincidentally Milly had studied as part of her dissertation. From the snippets of her journals, which were posted around the entrance hall, Lady Dufferin wasn’t as much of a fan of India as we are but then she probably didn’t have much of an opportunity to explore.

The house is now the home of the University of Humanities, therefore the only way to see it is by guided tour. The spectacular ballroom can only be viewed through the glass doors as it is now home to the library but all three of us agreed it would be a very cool place to come and study. Jeff was a little disappointed at not being able to play pool on the infamous pool table but we did get to see the table where the first draft of the document securing Indian independence was signed. It may not have been much to look at but in terms of importance it takes some beating.

After a delightful wander around the grounds where we discussed at length the pros of the royal family, we returned to the Mall with the intention of visiting the Gaity Theatre. Due to the Communist Rally taking place we had to take a slight detour; despite being rather tame it is still interesting to see yet more evidence of the spread of Communism in the country which has always prided itself on being the world’s largest democracy.

After banging on about it for two days I was so happy we did manage to fit in a trip to the Gaity Theatre, even if it was just to meet the lovely man who does the tours. He was so passionate and knowledgeable about every aspect of the theatre, we forgave him for forgetting the name of the third Shakespeare play which had not been performed there. Amongst the famous faces who had trodden the boards in this little theatre were Rudyard Kipling and the brother of Felicity Kendal, whose theatre company had held residency here for many years. After falling nearly into a state of disrepair the theatre has been lovingly restored to its former glory and still puts on performances today. They were currently between productions, which is why there were three guys hand sanding the stage! Their poor fingers must have been in bits by the time they were finished.

After a day filled with food, history and people watching it was time for us to head to the bus station in what turned out to be rather an eventful taxi journey. All of our stuff wouldn’t fit in the boot so the driver decided it would be a good idea to put Milly and Jeff’s bags on the roof without tying them on with anything. Given the twists and turns in the road combined with the speed of the driving, Jeff and I spent the duration of the trip with our arms out the window gripping onto the bags to prevent them flying down the mountainside!

We parted ways at the station and went in search of our respective buses. While Jeff had treated himself to a little bit of luxury, Milly and I were horrified to discover we had inadvertently booked onto a public bus. Not a government bus, just a regular public bus like the ones we had travelled on quite happily up the East coast. The only difference here was we had been hoping for some sort of sleep but that was out of the question. One side of my butt was hanging off the seat, while the part that was on it went totally numb before we’d even left the station. It was on this journey we hit possibly the longest traffic jam I have ever had the misfortune to witness. What I thought was a truck stop turned out to be a line of close to 300 trucks that went on for miles. We still have no idea what caused the jam and I don’t know how much help the men with sticks were but I was quite grateful for our crazy bus driver. There were points where I thought his risk taking might result in our death but if he hadn’t taken those risks there is a high chance we would still be sat in that traffic jam.

Arriving in Haridwar exhausted and itchy from the swarm of mosquito bites, we had to board a second bus to take us to Rishikesh where our rickshaw driver immediately tried to rip us off. Having had an email from the hostel telling us how much we should be charged we were in no mood for any crap and told the driver as much. Unfortunately our arrival at the hostel was far from what we expected given the reviews and the room was not only dirty but tiny and hot. In terms of first impressions this was hardly encouraging given Rishikesh was going to be our home for the next 5 weeks. As they say however, things can only get better…

TOP TIP FOR SHIMLA: Be aware what you’re getting yourself into when booking a bus and don’t be fooled by the ease of the process unless you are prepared for a sleepless night combined with an extremely numb bum!

That’s What Makes You Beautiful

That’s What Makes You Beautiful

Home to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government-in-exile, a paradise for hikers and yoga lovers and a haven for foodies, Dharamshala was the next stop on our Northern adventure. The thing is, when people say they are going to Dharamshala, no one actually stays there. They go to McLeod Ganj, which is where the Dalai Lama is based, Bhagsu, which is where all the yoga is or Dharamkot, which is where all the money gets spent on pretty things. Out of necessity rather than choice we ended up staying in all three places, because everywhere seemed to be full due to the fact it was both Passover and a Hindu festival.

There were a few stressful moments involving accommodation, starting from the moment we got out of the taxi at 4am and spent 20 minutes wandering around aimlessly attempting to find our unsigned hostel. We then spent a desperate evening trying to find somewhere else to stay for the next few nights before we finally stumbled across the absolutely gem that is McLeod Ganj homestay. Genuinely one of the best places we have stayed, mainly due to the incredible owner who may just be one of the most helpful and chilled out humans we have encountered on this trip. Our final location was a totally undocumented stay at a newly opened for the season guesthouse in Dharamkot, where the manager totally forgot we were even there.

With all this moving around you would think we’d refrain from returning to the same place over and over again. We did branch out a little bit but of course we did end up with favourites: Chilli Beans for breakfast and Bhagsu Cake Hello to the King (see photo); Singh Corner for pre-Yoga jasmine tea and post-Yoga peanut butter Bhagsu cake (I mean it would be rude not to try the cake the place is named for) and Bhodi Greens in Dharamkot which served the most amazing vegetarian and vegan food: their pancakes and smoothies were actually to die for!

Don’t worry though, this time we actually earned all the food we ate! In fact we threw ourselves straight into the yoga and went to our first ever Ashtanga session the day we arrived. If you’ve never heard of Ashtanga Yoga before then count yourselves lucky because it is intense! Tying yourself literally in a knot is hard at the best of times but after an overnight bus journey and zero sleep it is basically impossible! We did however, see a marked improvement in the second class we attempted but we still preferred the slightly less intense Hatha classes we attended in the morning. The best part about all these classes was the end; after the frustration of still not being able to do a headstand (I got halfway up one day but got so over excited I fell before I could think about straightening my legs), we got to hang upside down from the the trapezes set up for the acro-yoga classes. As weird as it sounds hanging upside down is surprisingly soothing, until your face turns purple and you know it’s time to come back to child’s pose.

As well as yoga there are plenty of trekking routes around Dharamshala and most defiantly no snow except on the very tops of the mountains! In fact it was rather warm and our wrong turn and steep climb from Bhagsu made us both turn into slightly sweaty tomatoes. Despite the highly unnecessary comment from an American about how we’d obviously forgotten the sun cream we weren’t actually burnt. So thanks for the concern mate but you would be this colour too if you’d gone the hard way and walked vertically up the side of a hill most people drive up!

Taking wrong turns became a bit of a theme on this part of our trip, and while both turned out well in the end it did just prove that more popular routes tend to be popular because they are easier and tracks marked in a dead end on a map actually are dead ends in real life.

Dharamkot Waterfall (not actually in Dharamkot) was our first trekking adventure but we never actually made it because it turned out to be a lot further away than we expected. It was very hot, we were running low on water and were very aware of how much downhill there was; as we learnt the hard way during our Everest Base Camp trek, what goes down must come up. Instead we settled with reaching the beautiful river and the glittery pink rocks before retracing our steps, pleased with our solid 20km ramble and grateful the river had been a lot more impressive than Dal Lake, which in all fairness the Lonely Planet does describe as distinctly underwhelming. Luckily we chose to go in the morning when the weather was clear and we were able to get stunning views of the White Mountain, which had clouded over by our return.

As previously mentioned, we also took the slightly unconventional route on our way from Bhagsu to Triund hill; the most popular hike in the area. With that in mind we had no idea why there weren’t more people but also why the path was quite so steep. We even started to question our trekking abilities and think that maybe the sexist man in the shop was correct: maybe we weren’t good trekkers after all and it would take us 5 hours…All lies. We are in fact a lot fitter than we give ourselves credit for, which was made abundantly clear as soon as we met the main path and found all the people. Turns out we’d gone the short/steep cut while everyone else had enjoyed a lovely easy sloping path that twisted around the edge of the mountain. As soon as we hit this part of the trek we paced it up, not just because we generally do walk quite fast but also in an attempt to get away from the confusing mix of One Direction, Eminem and Punjabi tunes being blasted at us from all sides. I’m sad to say we failed and the jumble of music continued all the way to the top and well into the early hours of the morning.

Just over 3 hours after setting off we were sitting in our pre-set up tent contemplating how the rest of the evening was going to play out. A young guy had appeared out of nowhere to show us to our tent- he had definitely been told to look out for the white girls and that is in no way me being racist. It is simply a fact that we were the only Western tourists who had decided to come up on this particular evening. Once I’d got over the disappointment of not being able to put the tents up ourselves we went off in search of food before settling down to watch the sunset. Obviously we were a bit of a novelty but I quite enjoyed our little photo shoot (for once) and as the mountains started to turn pink I was looking forward to a peaceful night in our cosy little tent. Sadly it was not to be.

As the beautiful full moon rose, out came the bottles of rum and vodka and the volume on the speakers was cranked up. In all fairness we knew everyone was up here to celebrate a big festival, we just forgot how noisy Indian festival celebrations can get.

At 4am the music and singing finally stopped and our hopes of getting up to watch the sunrise over the mountains before trekking up to the snow line were gone. We were both extremely tired and achey so after a mini breakfast decided to head straight back down the mountain and look for a home for our final night. We decided we’d seen snow before and knew with a couple more hours sleep we could have made it so what was the point forcing ourselves? Bypassing a lot of very hungover Indians and powered on by the dulcet tones of One Direction, we sped down the hill in an hour and a half towards the delicious food awaiting us.

In addition to the trekking and yoga, the main draw for Dharamshala, or more specifically McLeod Ganj, is the presence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Milly and I were gutted to find out we’d missed the ‘Thank You India” celebrations and the opportunity to hear the Dalai Lama speak. We did however, hear from a friend that the lack of translation made it quite distressing to be in the presence of such a great man and orator without being able to understand what he was saying. Still it must have been a pretty special experience simply to be in his presence.

Despite missing the man himself we did take part in the Lend a Hand to Tibet campaign, which was being held at the Dalai Lama’s temple complex. This simply involved drawing around our hands, decorating them and writing a message of support for the people of Tibet. I’m not sure how much impact this will have on the militaristic tactics used by the Chinese government but at least we were able to show our support in one of the few ways we could.

The Tibet Museum is also on this site and is a must visit when in the area. It’s an extremely interesting, if harrowing experience, and a way of learning about the issues which I personally feel need far more attention from global media and international governments than it currently receives. I am very aware of the influence of the Chinese government and there is a strong chance I will be barred from the country after writing this, but what is happening in Tibet is appalling. It’s a systematic destruction of an entire culture under the label of ‘liberation’, although what they were being liberated from I’m not entirely sure! The fact that people feel so desperate they have resorted to the practice of self-immolation to get their political point across must give some indication of the severity of the situation. It baffles me how a government, no matter how influential, can be allowed to get away with this. Yes I am well aware of the negative impact the British have had on many countries throughout the years, but don’t worry I come down hard on that too. What’s happening to Tibet is happening now and more action needs to be taken before an entire way of life is completely destroyed.

Political rant over. Time in Dharamshala over. Time to hit the road for another seated overnight bus to Shimla. As with every other activity we seem to have done in Dharamshala old school One Direction was the soundtrack to our taxi ride to the station- I feel the taxi driver regretted that decision once we started singing! Our great mood was fairly short lived after another horrendous bus journey which involved bracing ones legs against the seat in front to prevent being thrown on the floor. Some people had obviously mastered the knack of this whilst being asleep because the grumbling snores of those contended souls mocked us the whole sleepless night.

TOP TIP FOR DHARAMSHALA: Check the calendar to see what festivals are going on at your chosen time of visiting because finding a place to stay can be an unexpected nightmare!

She’ll Be Sliding Down the Mountain When She Comes

She’ll Be Sliding Down the Mountain When She Comes

Having survived our 26 hours from Kathmandu to Delhi, we were now pros at the seated sleeper bus (so much for never getting one of those again!) Unfortunately, as comfortable as they make the seated sleeper you will never get a proper nights sleep on one, especially if there are poorly kids on board. Still, at least there was great view while we brushed our teeth!

Lack of sleep on the bus meant our first couple of nights in Manali we were really looking forward to a nice long kip. Unfortunately for us we got stuck in a room with two of the loudest snorers I have ever met (and I’ve shared a room with my mother!) I have come to the conclusion, after spending the past 5 1/2 months sleeping in dormitories, that if you snore you should not be allowed to sleep in a shared room. It’s just not fair on other people because snoring is the one sound that’s impossible to tune out as there is no rhythm to it. Either that or travel with someone who will wake you up to give the rest of the room a chance to sleep.

Running off very little sleep we were slightly grateful that for the first two days it rained. Solidly. All day. This meant there was nothing we could do except eat our way through Old and New Manali and plan the remainder of our time in India. I know what you’re thinking: I said we were heading North to walk off all the food we’d consumed in Delhi and we did…eventually. But why would we go for a walk in the pouring, freezing rain? If we wanted to do that we could have stayed at home. Instead we sampled the delicious breakfasts of Drifters and consumed delightful red wine in Cafe 1947. We also had to visit The Corner House, in New Manali, because this is the name of the restaurant I work at back home and it would have been wrong not to check out the Indian counter part. Their cuisine was a little more pan-Asian orientated than our own but their brownies certainly gave us a run for our money. Where this place really shone was the presence of a log burning fire, which I was placed in front of by a very concerned waiter who caught sight of my dripping legs and insisted I sit right in front of it to dry out. To say I steamed is not an exaggeration.

After two days of eating and organising the sun finally came out and allowed us to go exploring. The lovely people at Zostel gave us a map with a number of recommended walks on it, which we decided to combine. The aim was to visit Jogni waterfall then continue on to Solang Valley. However we couldn’t work out how to get through the army camp and didn’t fancy having to make our way through a barbed wire compound, so turned back. We did make it to the waterfall which, as with most of the waterfalls we have found in India, turned out to be more of a trickle than a flow but it was beautiful none the less. If you ignored the pair of underpants floating in the plunge pool that is!

The walk was awesome, taking us through several villages, a lot like Old Manali, without the tourist shops. The old houses are built on stilts to make space for the animals to live underneath and there’s women everywhere, chattering over their washing while the men are generally not doing a lot. Typical! We obviously enjoyed our surroundings a little too much as there were several occasions where we ended up walking in completely the wrong direction. Not that it mattered too much as it just meant we saw more of village life and walked off a few extra mouthfuls of cake. By the time we returned to the hostel we’d walked a solid 20km through beautiful orchards, surrounded by mountains and rivers in the glorious sunshine so were feeling pretty good about our day. Sadly that glorious sunshine had been a little stronger than I thought and had given me a glorious sunburn, which I was only to add to the next day.

This was the day we really went for it: a guided hike up Patalsu Peak (4200m), with an altitude climb of 2000m through a lot of fresh snow. Our guide was great and very patient with my excessive clumsiness, which was only exacerbated by the amount of snow. Trekking through snow makes everything 5 times more difficult than walking on solid ground, as with every step there is the chance your foot will sink several feet. The way to counter this goes against everything I have ever been taught about walking; you have to stick your toes in the snow to stop yourself sinking and that is so bad for my knees it’s a wonder I was able to make it up as far as I did!

Despite the physical difficulty, walking through the fresh, untouched snow was absolutely beautiful. We were accompanied the whole way, not only by our guide, but two dogs we christened Kim and Kanye because they were such posers! Apparently they like to attach themselves to groups of trekkers because it means they can go for a nice long walk without running the risk of being attacked by Snow Leopards, which can still be found in these mountains. I would love to say we were fortunate enough to have caught a glimpse of one of these elusive creatures but I think our laughter as we slipped and stumbled our way down (and when I say we, I mean me) would have scared any creature away.

There is a small chance we forgot about the impact of alcohol when trekking at altitude and may or may not have had two glasses of wine the night before this trek. I certainly remembered when we hit just over 3000m as my head started to spin and I felt extremely sick. I was determined to make it though, until the dizziness caused me to lose my footing and I slid several metres down the only part of the mountain not covered in snow! Not only did that mean I was covered in mud, it was also really painful and a tiny bit scary as I couldn’t stop myself sliding. Even our delicious homemade sandwiches couldn’t stop the nausea and dizziness, so we had to call it quits 300m from the summit. Not that is was really that bad as the views from here were absolutely stunning. There’s something about snow that just makes things even more magical. We had also made it further than the couple our guide had brought the week before so we could take that as a small victory.

It was coming down that my clumsiness truly came out and I spent the majority of time on my backside laughing hysterically at the whole situation. There must be something in the air in Manali but we spent a lot of our six days in hysterics! There is a knack to walking downhill in snow, the same way there is a knack to walking up. On the way down it’s all about digging in the heels and there were moments where I thought I had it. I got into a great rhythm but then all of a sudden there I was, back on my arse, laughing in the snow. Our guide told me “not to lose my body” which I think was a polite way of saying please stop being so clumsy! Sadly in recent years I seem to have developed centre of gravity issues, for which I blame my height- fingers crossed the yoga will help fix this! In my defence even he struggled on several occasions and watching him and Milly walk was like something out of a Monty Python sketch, as all of a sudden they would just slump to one side as their foot sank, which would set off my laughter and inevitably lead to me falling over. A great time was had by all!

We followed our day of hiking by a day of car excursions, starting off at Jana waterfall, which was once again a mere dribble down the mountainside. The real draw of this place is the traditional thali they serve (yes more food), which was possibly the best we’ve had in India, apart from the one in Gujarat. It was full of things we’ve never had before, like Siddu. This is a very bread-y dumpling which they recommend you dip in ghee (clarified butter).

We chose to avoid this but relished everything else, especially the rice pudding which completed the ensemble. So much for this part of the trip not being about food!

From the waterfall we headed to Naggar where we visited yet another random castle/museum. We thought we were done with places like this but apparently not. The “museum” consisted of one room of random wax dummies and 8 broken stone statues. Luckily the views were spectacular but we could have got those from the cafe next door, without paying the 30 rupees entry fee.

The final stop on our random road trip was a little temple, dedicated to a goddess of wisdom and presided over by a totally stunning woman with the most hypnotic eyes, which were the reason we actually gave money to this one!

From here we went straight back to Old Manali, which was sad as we had bypassed our trip to the trout farm which had been what we were both most looking forward to. Apparently it was closed, as most things in India seem to be on Mondays, which meant no trout tasting. Trout is a delicacy of Manali and they serve the most incredible trout curries as well as fish and chips, which I know is extremely stereotypical and English but at the same time incredibly delicious.

Our little road trip signalled the end of our 6 days in Manali, which made my heart very sad because I had totally fallen in love with this ramshackle little place, but my wallet was extremely grateful. My budget had gone out the window at the sight of all the beautiful jewellery and the presence of handmade, fleece line flannels, which is already my favourite item of clothing. Thankfully for my wallet, the call of Dharamshala and a visit to the Dalai Lama was stronger than the call of the jewellery shops (but only just).The only thing standing in our way was the bus journey, as sleeper buses don’t seem to be a thing in this part of the world so back to the seated sleeper we went. Oh the joy!

TOP TIP FOR MANALI: Beware your inner magpie as all the shiny shops will throw your budget out the window and your wallet into despair!

Delhi Belly

Delhi Belly

The city of Delhi, or more specifically Madpackers Hostel, has become our home away from home since being in India. Not only is it where we keep our excess baggage but it’s the base we return to both out of necessity (it’s a huge transport hub) and our love for the guys who work there, without whom we’d still be sat on the platform at Vadodara station confused as to whether we should get on the train or not!

We arrived in fairly high spirits considering we’d been sat on a bus for 26 hours and dropped in the middle of nowhere on the edge of a construction site. This was probably because we’d mentally prepared ourselves for the journey to last for 32 hours and involve livestock, neither of which had been true. After another hour in a taxi we were finally “home” for our fourth visit and most certainly not our last. This one however, was certainly the most food orientated, which is impressive considering last time we came it was for a wedding with free food!

For Milly and I no trip to Madpackers is complete without at least one trip to Brown Box Cafe. Since they opened just for us on Diwali we have felt a special kind of connection to them, helped by the fact that they serve the most amazing chocolate mud pies in the whole world. Bold statement I know but trust me they are not to be missed.

For the majority of our stay in India we have been vegetarian, because on many occasions this is all that is available. I have however, consciously been avoiding chicken as the way they are kept makes me a little sad and uncomfortable. Unfortunately I also love food and trying local delicacies so when Baddu offered to take us for chicken and promised me it came straight from the farm I knew he was chatting crap but I couldn’t say no! My willpower failed me and to be perfectly honest the food was so delicious I didn’t regret my decision- sorry chickens!

Rajinder Ka Dhaba should be visited by everyone going to Delhi but I would suggest finding yourself a Baddu ( I challenge you to find a person who gets more excited by chicken than this man) to help with the rather over complicated ordering process. Never before have I consumed so much chicken, cooked in so many different ways in one meal: spicy pickled chicken, tandoor, chicken patties and skewers drizzled in cheese accompanied by super thin rotis. Totally delicious! I also don’t remember ever having eaten off broken down scooters converted into tables before, but it all added to the experience.

By the time the chicken was done we were all pretty full, but as Milly always says dessert just slips down the side, especially Indian desserts which are so drizzled in sugar syrup they literally do slide down. Plus there was coconut ice on offer and nowhere makes coconut ice like India.

We may have been to Delhi 4 times but we’ve never before been able to go on the Delhi Belly Tour…until now. Saying we were excited is an understatement: 6 whole hours of walking around Delhi eating food. I mean it was pretty much our idea of heaven. Plus we’d been on a tour with Baddu before in Jodhpur so we know he’s great.

Delhi Belly starts in Charwi Bazaar, which at 8:30 in the morning is misleadingly quiet. By the time we arrived we had been awake for 2 hours so our main concern was where our first food stop would be. It turned out to be down a narrow alleyway at Lotan food stall, which sold Chola Kulche; chickpeas cooked in herbs and spices with bread (the Kulche). Only one of our number was brave enough to try the ‘rocket’ (super spicy), and that was Jeff, from now on dubbed the man with a cast iron mouth because that dish was hot! Even the medium spice packed a punch and it was probably a good thing we’d not been on this tour at the start of our trip or Milly would have been in tears at the first plate of food.

Approximately 10 minutes later we were stood around a small table at Shyam Sweets eating our second breakfast, which consisted of Bedmi Poori (puffy bread) with Sabji, a spicy chickpea and potato curry. This was followed by my new favourite thing: Nagori, a crispy hollow biscuit you punch a hole in and fill with the sweet Halwa. I was very restrained because I knew we still had several hours of eating to go but if we hadn’t I could have stayed there all day and just eaten those.

From Chawri Bazaar we made our way through the narrow streets, slowly starting to fill with people, rickshaws and motorbikes, to the main road and the old Town Hall. This used to be fronted by a statue of Queen Victoria, which has since been replaced by Swami Shradhanand, an Indian educationist and missionary so probably a more fitting figure than that of a dead British monarch. As interesting as I found this information it was very uncomfortable for me to listen to it because there were a lot of pigeons hanging around eating their breakfast. Yes everyone thought I was weird but everyone is afraid of something, I just happen to have a weird one.

Our walk took us towards Fateh Puri, a meeting point between several of the main bazaars including the spice market. It is also a ‘labour chowk’ where people can go to fulfil their DIY needs. These labourers sit on the roadside with taps or hammers or paint brushes in front of them advertising their skills- highly convenient to have them all in one place!

I think it’s safe to say that Milly and I have done our best to fully embrace the Indian culture, especially where food is concerned but sadly the one thing we cannot get into is chai. I hate milky, sweet tea which is basically what chai is but its’s such an integral part of the Indian culture, I’m sad we haven’t fallen in love with it as so many people do. Still, if it is piping hot and part of the experience we can occasionally be persuaded. Sat on the roof in the centre of Old Delhi, with a 360 degree view of the city (despite the smog), asking Baddu and Aman questions about everything from the population to religion, it would have been rude not to sip away on a chai.

Finally I found out why people feed pigeons: it’s because it’s part of the Hindu culture to give to those in need and because pigeons live so closely to humans it is seen as a positive action to keep them fed. I totally disagree with this and believe they should all be culled but that’s my fear talking! We also learnt that despite having a population of 17 million, very few of those people are actually from Delhi. Most of them come from the surrounding towns and villages in search of work and live in large buildings. These places have large communal kitchens but apparently lack bathroom facilities which Milly found out to her cost when she walked straight through a large pile of human poo, the very pile she had all warned us about on our way up. I know I shouldn’t have but I almost wet myself from laughing!

Still recovering from laughter we arrived at Chaina Ram back in Fateh Puri where we consumed with gusto their famous samosas followed by more Indian sweets. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Kesar Karachi Halwa, which had the same texture as Turkish Delight but with nuts in, but the kaju barfi is my absolute favourite and I am so glad we finally know what it’s called. This cashew, sweet deliciousness is not to be missed on any trip to a sweet shop.

In the time it had taken us to consume all of this food Old Delhi had woken up and the teeny tiny streets were now full of people, cows, motorbikes, rickshaws and carts. Walking through these streets you have to have your wits about you as the moment you lose concentration you run the risk of being hit by any one of the above modes of transport: pedestrians are very much bottom of the pecking order! The house of acclaimed Indian poet Mirza Assadulah Khan Galib provided a little respite from the crazy, even more so as it was technically closed so we were the only visitors. Baddu’s powers of persuasion are legendary!

With Baddu in full flow we continued our historic education through even narrower and more chaotic lanes to Naughara or ‘9 Houses’. This quiet little street made up of beautiful old houses and a woman doing her ironing outside her front door. Of course along the way we’d stopped off for a bowl of spicy potatoes but by this point I was so full and aware we still had the main lunch to come I couldn’t finish my plate. I left it in the the hope a cow would pick it up and give me some good karma. Considering we were about the visit the Shwetamber Jain Temple, a 2500 year old building at the end of Naughara, it was probably good I left it because they made us wash before entering so I definitely couldn’t have taken that in.

Our final stop on this incredible food journey was Parawthe Wala on Paranthe Wali Pali, a food lane since 1987. It was here I thought my stomach was actually going to explode because I ate so many paranthas it was a little bit ridiculous. We had aloo (potato), tomato and lady finger paranthas all cooked fresh and delicious with spicy curries but the best by far was the sweet banana. It was literally a banana pasty and despite my stomach being full to bursting I could not stop eating it. After all the food I should probably have stopped eating for a week but we still had one more thing to try: Naan Khatayi. These buttery biscuits were the perfect end to a day of eating , or they would have been had Milly and Baddu not started talking about ice cream in their rickshaw, which meant we all had to stop for ice cream. Needless to say we collapsed into a food coma on our return to Madpackers and only moved when it was time to catch our bus.

It was time to say goodbye to Delhi for another couple of months and hit the road going north to Manali. We were very excited to finally be heading to this part of India which everyone had been raving about. It was time to slow the pace and start burning off all the food we’d just eaten! Trekking and yoga: it was time to get zen.

TOP TIP FOR THE DELHI BELLY TOUR: Watch where you put your feet. You never know what might be lurking on the ground and you don’t want to follow in Milly’s (smelly) footsteps.