New Delhi Airport

It’s a complicated one, and not for the faint hearted. Apart from one brief encounter with the sprawling metropolis that is New Delhi, I’ve mostly stuck on the inside of the airport, choosing to flit straight out of there while my lungs still had oxygen.

However, if you feel you have sufficient lung capacity then the most popular way to get to your hotel from Delhi airport is by taking a prepaid taxi, the operation of which is overseen by Delhi Traffic Police (thoroughly recommend this method). When exiting the airport, taxi drivers must give their name, number, passgeners’ names and destination to officials at the Delhi Traffic Police.

You’ll find prepaid taxi counters in both the domestic and international arrival areas. At International Terminal 3, there’s a counter inside the terminal and another at the taxi bay outside. It’s best to go to the inside counter so you’re not pounced on by touts. And, it will also give you the opportunity to view the mountain high books of records maintained by the Delhi Traffic Police. They literally have thousands of carbonised books; for each passenger they dutifully write out a receipt and maintain a copy in their carbonised book. As I starred at the huge pile of record books, absoultely reaching the ceiling they were, I wondered if there were several million people taking a taxi every day, or how long they held those books for. Judging by the dust dripping from the top of the piles I think they must be retained for several years; no Data Protection in that office.

After paying the fare at the counter, you’ll be given two receipts, one green and one pink with the taxi number on it. The green receipt is to be given to the driver; but it is of course possible that your driver will try to take both the green and the pink, don’t do it, your driver needs the pink to get paid, and of course it ensures you get to the correct destination. Hand over the pink receipt when you’ve safely arrived.

Varanasi

Where death is celebrated. For Hindi’s being cremated on the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi is the ultimate religious statement, it releases the soul to achieve external salvation. Birds of prey hang in the air, the many stray dogs that roam the lanes all seem to have a bone to gnaw on and orange robed Yogis use the ashes of the dead as a face pack. It’s also the place where dodging the various forms of shit on the floor is an art form beautifully mastered by the locals, while hapless tourist can be seen sliding down the cobbles on shoes full of cow dung.

Despite its slight whiff and the smoke of death hanging in the air, Varanasi manages to have true spirituality, every person is a committed, practising Hindu and that strength of belief encompasses the town. With a population of just over 4 million it has 22,000 temples, now that must be a world record.

Bodhgaya

It’s in the state of Bihar with a population of around 104 million people it’s India’s third most populated state. Around 60% of the population are illiterate, 28% are under the age of 10 and less than 20% of people have access to piped water.

Amongst the devastating poverty are around 10 Buddhist temples, each representing the various different forms of Buddhism. The main temple, Mahabhodi Temple, is a collaboration of the several forms of Buddhism and houses the Buddha Tree, under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. The temple doesn’t allow mobile phones, but cameras are not a problem, but there’s a charge of 100 rupees (around £1). No camera, no worries, 200 rupees and they’ll take a snap and print a copy within 10 minutes. Around 4 million pilgrims go to this temple each year. Everyone is expected to give a donation, I saw 2000 rupees notes being stuffed in the donation box (£20). Between the camera charge, the photo charge and the donations they probably rake in about 6-7 million pounds a year, and that’s a conservative estimate.

I had a chill under the Buddha Tree, the only enlightenment I got was why are there babies and children starving to death outside while pilgrims are bringing in arms full of lilies to worship a tree, and 6-7 million pounds a year could save the life of hundreds of people dying on the streets of Bodhgaya.

Sundarban

A huge mangrove forest laying in the Bay of Bengal. It’s the largest mangrove forest in the world and, so the signs say, the most dangerous delta in the world.

I think it deserves that title as it’s riddled with killer snakes, very angry wild bore, and the Royal Bengal Tigers. The number of tigers residing in the forest is totally unknown, they don’t have a clue. They think there might be 400-500 but no ones ever been brave enough to get right in that forest and hold a head count.

They are also very confused about the number of villagers the tigers eat each year. It seems they have a taste for human flesh because of the cyclones that plague that area, each year there’s fatalities, sometimes in the hundreds.

The number of villagers eaten seems to vary between 10-50 a year depending on who you ask. But the first day I was there an illegal crab fisherman had been dragged into the mangroves by a tiger never to be seen again.

The guides we were with showed us a YouTube video about tigers slipping into villages under the cover of darkness and dragging off sleeping grannies, they managed to stick this on just before bedtime.

Never actually saw one, which I was rather pleased about, except two who had been captured and put in the sin bin for trying to sneak into a village. Sadly there are still revenge killings, so the Government have stumped up for a few rangers who try to grab offending tigers before the villagers chop their balls off.

The Himalayan Toy Train

Well it’s spectacular, when it turns up, it chugged into the station 2 hours late. It’s the diesel version that runs from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling, which takes 7 and a half hours. The tracks run through the Himalayas, so the little train twists and turns it’s way up the magnificent mountain range. An amazing feat of engineering. But what’s most incredible is the tracks take it past small Himalayan villages and the tracks literally run in front of villagers’ homes, if I put my hand out of the window I could shake hands with the occupants.

Sadly the little train broke down half way up the Himalayas leaving us all stranded in the dark. But Indian people are extremely kind, and with their help, a van, a Land Rover and many miles of winding tracks we made it to Darjeeling.

Rishikesh

Parmarth Niketan Ashram was interesting, but I couldn’t help thinking ‘donations’ were feathering Guru’s nests.

The Ashram where the Beatles stayed in 1968 is just up the road. It’s now derelict but they spent their time drawing on walls and writing 48 songs, including Let It Be. Fantastic experience, totally loved it.

Haridwar

One of the three most holy spots along the Ganges. The Attai, worship to the Hindu Gods, is a crazy affair!

Dharamkot

A little day trip from McLeodganji, well a major hike, but well worth the blisters.

During the thousand of feet up from McLeodganji to Dharamkot the surrounding smell gradually turns from incense to weed. Dharamkot is hippy central. Known as little Tel Aviv; following national service the Israeli government kindly send their subjects on a free holiday and one of the destinations is Dharamkot. Inevitably some love the way of life and make it their home. A small village encased with coffee shops and chilling hippies.

We then climbed a further 2 thousand feet to Gallu Devi Temple, which was unimpressive particularly as we’d climbed 3 thousand feet to reach the damn thing.

Struggling down the mountain to get back to McLeodganji we happened on a monk who helped us down that long, winding and seemingly never ending mountain.  This was all achieved in 40 degrees of heat and flip flops.  My advice is to prepare better.

An ocean of ibuprofen gel is needed.

Things that crawl

This morning I was picking these up and gently releasing them over the balcony, with monks acknowledging my kindness with a smile. Tonight I’m spraying them with deet and hitting them with The Rosie Project

McLeodganji

After a 14 hour journey and a row with Spicejet about not having enough ID to prove who I am, despite having a passport, driving license, 3 bank cards and a Boots Advantage card, we arrived in the very calm McLeodganji, the home of the Dalai Lama. It’s 6,000 feet up in the air and can only be reached by a narrow track from Dharamsala designed for one medium family sized car, yet the locals manage to fit lorries and buses up it without flinching. One wheel is often dangling over the side of the Himalayas, but they just don’t care. A journey that’s best taken after a couple of banga lassis.

It’s about 1 hour 10 minutes by air from New Delhi to Dharamsala airport.  Spicejet, among other airlines have regular flights; if you’re booking food on the flight, which is doubtful, but if you are, avoid the extra hot curry otherwise at least 45 minutes of the flight will be spent in the loo.  McLeodganji is about 20 minutes drive from Dharamsala airport.   Try to book a taxi ahead of arriving, not that there’s a huge queue, but you may have difficulty getting a taxi.

We stayed at Hotel Norbu House, http://www.hotelnorbuhouse.in/ which is truly a hidden gem, the views are magnificent and the staff just want to make everyones’ stay perfect.  The hotel is very close to Namgyal Monastery (https://www.dalailama.com/) which is where the Dalai Lama resides.  The Dalai Lama gives Teachings during the year; details can be found on his website, and it’s a great idea to try to conincide your visit with a Teaching.  You will need a pass to attend a Teaching.  Ask at your hotel and they’ll direct you to the office in the town where you can get one, you’ll need to take your passport and a passport size photo; and you need to go at least the day before the Teaching is due to take place.

We’ve been to McLeodganji previously, and last time stayed at Ram Yoga House, which is a beautiful experience.  Huge rooms, with balconies, breath taking views, and so relaxing.  The sign on the inside of my bedroom door read:  Please do not smoke in the room, the balcony is large enough to smoke whatever you want:   http://www.ramyogahouse.com/

It might be handy to note that Ram, of Ram Yoga House, has a nephew who is a taxi driver.  His rates are fantastic and it’s about the only time I felt safe passing brightly coloured jugunalts on the wrong side of the road at 70 mph; I’d highly recommend him.

A visit to Namgyai Monastery is of course a must, but McLeodganji must be one of the most layed back places in the entire world.  It’s spiritual, lots of robed monks wandering through the markets, and just relaxation on a plate.  However, be warned, there’s no booze, it’s bring your own!  It feels like ‘little Tibet’, the population of McLeodganji is mostly Tibetan, with their own schools, shops, markets and way of life.  A truly beautiful place to visit, and once you’ve been, I guarantee you’ll want to go back, again and again.