The Shatabdi Express
The Shatabdi Express is one of India's more famous express trains, leaving Delhi for points north and south. The Indian railway system is humongous, and apparently the railway employs two _million_ people in one capacity or another. Think of that payroll nightmare.
My trunk could barely fit between in the narrow aisle of the train, and so I had to squeeze it through each row of seats. In sunch with the day I was having, I enter the front of the coach, and my seat was in the third to last row. Finally getting there, hoisting my bag to the luggage compartment, barely missing a double hernia, I settled in for a comfortable ride to Haridwar, about 3 1/2 hours north of Delhi.
To my good fortune, sat next to two very talkative ladies, one a professor at Delhi University and another a lawyer. For an hour and a half they filled me up with a pantload of useful information, on where to go and not go, where to buy things (apparently Delhi is the place), and who to make arrangements with. This is exactly the kind of scenario I was looking for - someone in the native land who knew the score, at this moment in time, so I could make an informed judgment on how to best spend my time.
Originally I was going to book a big itinerary journey through my travel agent, Barbara Sansone of Spirit of India in Mill Valley, CA (who is on this list), but after talking to so many experienced travellers, I was convinced to book a smaller itinerary, and make plans for your next few stops along the way. I did put my travel agent through a lot, but I felt I couldn't make an informed decision until I got here. And there are an uncountable number of travel agents and agencies in every city in India, apparently, for you to choose from. Asking around to find the most reputable one is important.
So my two lady friends and I had a wonderful conversation about all subjects, while the train whisked through mile after mile of sugar can plantation Uttar Pradesh's cash crop. The train is not new, in fact it reminded me of the old Long Island Railroad commuter trains, circa 1960, with the yellow windows from dirt and grime. But they served you tea and a good breakfast, (as only the Brits would have it!) and the bathroom was actually passable, perhaps for the reason that it simply dumped onto the railroad tracks, thus avoiding any smelly old septic tanks.
As we entered Haridwar station one of the ladies told me, "you have three minutes to get off this train and that's it. Then it pulls off for Dehra Dun". Ok, off to the races, but no problem.
Once in Haridwar, the same kind of scene emerged when I walked out of the station, but this time I had some food in me and was more alert. A bunch of guys came up yelling Taxi? Where you go, Joe? Hello friend, where's your destination, and so on. I said I want a taxi to Rishikesh, and again had to play Where's Waldo, to find the guy who was the official dude. One guy pointed left and said curtly "Taxi stand". Ah, found the dude. So I walked to the taxi stand with my dwindling entourage and got a taxi. The taxi driver spoke little English, and was asking something about some guy next to him, and I finally figured out they were asking if he could bum a ride. The driver said, "my friend", so that was cool.
Being away from the big city, I could feel the energy was much more relaxed and laid back. People were more friendly, saying hi just for the sake of it, like all good country folks worldwide. They actually say "Hallow" for Hello. The were a whole mess of cattle along the road, with whom we played a fast paced cat and mouse game. Cattle are not the brightest animals, but they're smart enough to avoid getting hit.
Along the way, approaching Rishikesh, I could finally see the foothills of the Himalayas - sharply rising tree lined mountainous foothills from the valley where Rishikesh lies. My hotel, Hotel Ganga Kinares, sits right on the Ganges River, and I have a mondo good view of the foothills looking down upon "Gangaji" (when people say Gangaji around here, they're talking about the real old lady, not the Advaitic teacher with the white hair) from my hotel window.
My hotel puts on a good face, trying to be upscale, and the rooms, though large with great views, remind of the seedy kind of places that are near bus stations downtown. Remember, though that this area is (surprisingly) semi- tropical and (more surprisingly) very hot and humid - mold has a tendency to grow anywhere. But just so long as I don't wake up to scorpions and 5 inch spiders on my body, it's fine with me. This is actually one of the more upscale places in Rishikesh - it's all relative. Someone said you can judge the quality of an mid-scale Indian hotel by the number of blood and bug-squash stains near the bed. I count only one, so no problem.
One of the best things about this hotel is that it is very, very quiet, off the beaten path of the central Rishikesh business district, which I came to find, in my first walk around town, to be an old, grimy, dirty place. Someone told me that Rishikesh is beautiful, but this is ugly as downtown Delhi. Certainly the beauty resides in the landscape around town.
A few months ago a psychotic/sadhu aquantaince of mine went on an Andrew Cohen retreat here in Rishikesh (posters of Andrew Cohen all over Rishikesh), and said that the rocks sing of spiritual force. Personally I wouldn't say 'sing', but the palpable, easily felt current of peace and joy runs through this town like the Ganges through the foothills. It's presence is everywhere, from Haridwar to here in Rishikesh, and certainly helps in washing away stress from any travelling hassles.
But much to my disappointment, the main streets of Rishikesh, Haridwar Marg ("path") and LaksmanJoule Marg, are like Delhi, noisy polluted and dirty. But again, I don't mind it that much, because of the presence of the spiritual force riding underneath the chaos. There are many more auto-rickshaws here, darting about, and this is the way to get around, for 2 to 10 rupees, depending on where you're going (and if you're rich white boy like me).
Looking over the map, I can see that though there are many ashrams and temples on this side of the river, the place to be for retreat is on the other side in the 'Swarg' Ashram area. There are two ways to get there, by boat, which supposedly is very auspicious, and one of two foot suspension bridge (modern, made of metal, very safe, but they still rock and roll). The main bridge is called LaksmanJhula (literally Laksman Bridge). Laksman, for you Ramayana deprived, is the brother of Lord Rama, who apparently escaped from his evil chasers by crossing the footbridge here millenia ago. The other RamJhula, is where the Sivananda Yoga center is.
Rishikesh, made famous by the Beatles stay at the Maharishi retreat facility, almost right across from my hotel, is one helluva spiritual roadshow and supermarket. On one level, there's a superficialness about it, but then there is also real sadhana going on here also, or it wouldn't feel like such a spiritually empowered place. It would be a good place for certain stages of spiritual practice, the force here is definitely conducive to practice, and there is an ashram for almost every aspect of Samkhya/Yoga based Hindu spirituality. And let me tell you, there are the coolest looking sadhus here I've ever seen, from the Naga Baba, matted hair variety, to the bald-headed saffron robe type, to the long hair and beard and complete forehead tilak style, just to name a few.
Now, maybe a while back, I would be so impressed by this, but what is in really going on here? Are some of these guys playing the part because is the path of least resistance, or just a devious way to beg, or are they real practitioners? Of course, it's hard to judge by a glance, as I try to make contact with many of them (which isn't that hard because many of them stare at me with my shaved head and Mark McGwire like moustache-goatee look). Some of them, you look them in the eye, and yes, clarity. But no matter, they just look like just what you would imagine a sadhu would look like.
The first destination of my first excursion was the Neelam Restaurant, run by one Mr. Singh, a most wonderful man, who is very warm, kind, helpful and friendly. Walking down main street full of smoke belching busses, taxis and motor scooters, I notice the enormous presence of so many animals: cows, pigs, burros, oxen, dogs, monkeys, horses, it's like the entire barnyard is on main street, which just adds to the fun of driving.
And it is hot - hey, I went north, shouldn't it be cooler? Well, it's not so much the heat but the 100% humidity with the 90 degree heat. And main street (Haridwar Marg) is noisy, wild and polluted, and I discover Rishikesh is a whole lot bigger than I thought. So I jump on my first auto-rickshaw, and get taken for a few more rupees than I should have. The key here, especially with travel is to PRE-NEGOTIATE, and forget about the taxi meter. Tell them where you are going and than ask "Kitnah?" ("how many/much"), and they'll tell you in English. So far, if I do that, I don't get enormously ripped off, relatively speaking.
I tell you, it is difficult when you don't know the native language and even more so if you don't know the (Devanagari) writing script - it is interesting though, it is syllable based, which seems more compact than western style. Everyday I learn one or two important words to make my life easier.
Neelams, like most places, looks like an old seedy hole in the wall, and a place where I would think twice if I was back in the states. But Lonely Planet gave it a great recommendation, and they were right, it was fantastic food, the best so far in India. Whoda thunk it, this little place on a side street in Rishikesh. It even serves spaghetti dishes only an Italian would ever order. Phil Bob Briggs gives it 5 stars, check it out if you're ever in Rishikesh.