Tag Archives: Must-do

Escape to Manali

The constant and endless movement around the country that had once excited and inspired me was starting to make me grow weary. Apart from a few longer stays in places like Mamallapuram, Pushkar, Hampi and of course the Vipassana retreat I had barely stopped moving in the past 4 and a half months. The summer in the south was slowly creeping north and making itself known with the mercury regularly hitting 47 degrees in Varanasi when I decided I was done with the Indian summer. The Himalayas were calling my name and I dragged me and my sweat-soaked shirt into the travel agent and pleaded for a train ticket north. The agent told me there was one ticket left but it was in the more expensive AC carriage – like I was going to choose anything else at this stage.

Beautiful old houses of Manali

Beautiful old houses of Manali

I stopped in Rishikesh (more to come on this shortly) and met up with some friends I’d met in Pushkar and spent a week exploring the Ganges, the waterfalls and The Beatles Ashram, it was cooler but still a little toasty – roll on the Himalayas.

Before I managed to completely escape the chaos, India had one more surprise in store for me and that was the trip from Rishikesh to Manali. It all faded away like a bad nightmare when I rolled into Manali.

My friends from Rishikesh had arrived the day before and I sent them a message as I got off the bus – ‘Brew some coffee, I’m 5 minutes away’. Sure enough, they greeted me with hugs and coffee and I relaxed into Old Manali.

Old Manali is a cliche mountain town only this time a little different. Where most cliches leave you feeling a little lacklustre through expectations, Manali exceeded all of mine and I knew I wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon.

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The surrounding mountains are covered with pine forests that only give way to the snow line at the top, the rivers at the bottom and the waterfalls that connect the two. The mornings and afternoons are cold enough to warrant a beanie, scarf and hot coffee while the days are warm enough to consider a dip in the icy melt-water.

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While Manali lends itself to the peace and quiet it would be hard to get through a trip here without doing at least one of the adventure sports on offer. I took a few days out of my calendar of R & R and went rock-climbing.

The trekking around Manali is world-class and even if you don’t choose to go on the multi-day treks that are offered everywhere there’s plenty of treks that you can do by yourself (the companies and guides will tell you this isn’t possible but a bit of exploration will prove them wrong). After rock-climbing with the guys at Himalayan Caravan I had a chat with them about potential treks and they gave me plenty of ideas on where to go, they also gave me their mobile number incase I got lost. Walking in any direction will take you somewhere pretty special.

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Three months of vegetarianism would also come to an end in Manali. The Lamb burgers at Shiva Garden Cafe were just too good to pass up for $3. Manali may just have the best western style food in all of India as well as delicious Indian, Tibetan, Nepalese and Chinese dishes. Although being a melting-pot of tourists it was still possible to find some cheaper restaurants ($1 dollar momos became a staple).

The rest of my days there were spent reading, writing, fishing, hiking and sitting in the hot springs in between catching up with the constant flow of travellers through the town.

A spot of early morning fishing.

A spot of early morning fishing.

Eventually the time would come where I would have to re-pack my bags that had exploded across my room and make my way to Srinagar, Kashmir in preparation for an 8 day trek. I had made a lot of friends in the town and left knowing I would be back one day.

Have you taken a break from travel before? Where did you stop and relax?

The Beatles Ashram in Rishikesh

Rishikesh was a little known village on the bank of the Ganges River in India’s north until early 1968 when a visit by The Beatles propelled Rishikesh into the western limelight. While in Rishikesh The Beatles stayed at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi‘s ashram and undertook a course of transcendental meditation. The Beatles wrote over 40 compositions at the ashram, many of which went onto be released on The White Album later that year.

The ashram closed in 1997 and has since fallen into a state of disrepair but that hasn’t stopped it being a major drawcard for tourists even if entry is illegal and punishable by a 5000 rupee ($100) fine. The ashram is surrounded by a stone wall that holds signs warning you of the potential fine but abandoned buildings with such a history just hold too much temptation for the signs to be taken seriously so off we went looking for a low point in the wall to jump over.

The entrance to The Beatles ashram

The entrance to The Beatles Ashram

The second I got inside I felt as though I’d been taken back in time, the complex was huge and slowly being reclaimed by the jungle. The glass windows had been smashed and graffiti marked some of the buildings. Despite the damage it was very surreal to be inside this huge complex. I let my imagination wander as we entered the different rooms and meditation pods, it was easy to picture The Beatles walking around in between meditations or John and Paul writing tracks together in the now over-grown gardens. We excitedly speculated over which Beatle would have stayed where and later found out that Lennon’s room and meditation cell was rumoured to be building No.9 (one of the buildings pictured below) and supposedly where he got the inspiration for the repetition of the number in Revolution 9.
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The main meditation pods are housed in a huge building with over 100 separate rooms, most of them had their walls and ceilings covered in the river rock and they seemed like beautiful places for meditation.

The entry to the meditation pods

The entry to the meditation pods

The real highlight of the ashram is the meeting hall which has become a guerrilla art installation – The Beatles Cathedral Gallery. Every wall and most of the floor of the huge room was covered in murals, lyrics, quotes and poems as a tribute to The Beatles and other spiritual teachers. Perhaps it was the mixture of spirituality expressed in modern day art in a derelict building with a history of housing the greatest musical talents of all time that gave this place its electric atmosphere.

The Beatles Cathedral Gallery

The Beatles Cathedral Gallery

The Beatles Cathedral Gallery

The Beatles Cathedral Gallery

It was a truly amazing experience that I won’t be able to do justice with my writing or photo’s. The fact that it’s all a big secret and we weren’t really meant to be there definitely added to the allure of this place. Get here and see it before the nature and time completely reclaim it.

theboywander

 

Desert Days in Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer, India’s gateway to the Thar Desert sits in Western Rajasthan about 130km’s east of the Pakistani border, it’s India’s capital for camel safaris. Stepping off the bus you are engulfed and a little overwhelmed by two things – the stifling heat and hot winds rolling in off the Thar Desert and Jaisalmer’s touts, rickshaw drivers and camel safari operators, given that it’s off-season both the heat and the people are as pressing as ever. It’s a whirlwind of people offering cheap rooms and cheap safaris and just 22 hours later I found myself on a camel 70 kilometres outside of Jaisalmer with a Polish couple, our guides Hokum and Salem, and our camel convoy – Johnny Boy, Sonia, Mr. Bean and Papu.

Johnny Boy and I

Johnny Boy and I

 

Camel Safari in Rajasthan

The camel convoy


The camel safaris have long been considered a must do of India (like Hampi) and I can now see why.  The days start early with chai, eggs and toast around the campfire. As the sun peaks it’s head over the horizon we began to pack the camels for the long day ahead. After loading them up with 75 litres of water and all our other rations for the 2 nights in the desert we make our way out into the blistering sun – I should hardly complain I make the journey on the back of the camel and apart from keeping myself on the camel there’s not much I have to do for the next few hours. At around 11 o clock, after 3 hours of riding we stop under the shade of a tree and cook lunch – this is more for our sake than the camels.

‘Camel Kitchen’ – a few pots and pans over a campfire – as the drivers call it cooks up a delicious mixed veg masala with endless chapati’s as well as the obligatory chai (it happens to be the best chai in India). We eat more or less the same meals for lunch and dinner on the 3 days and there was no complaining there – the food was tasty, filling and endless. All of us except the camels followed this up by a nap under the tree.

Camel Kitchen - serving up India's finest Chai

Camel Kitchen – serving up India’s finest Chai

We rest and let the camels wander for a few hours while the sun is at it’s most extreme then our turbans go back on and we venture off in search of a campsite by sunrise. It’s worth noting that for some reason fluoro pink and orange turbans are somewhat of a ‘thing’ out here, even among some of the locals.  The days end in much the same way they start, with chai and dinner as the sun goes down this time over Pakistani border. The air instantly cools and we spend the nights sitting around the campfire drinking desert whisky, telling stories and listening to Salem’s renditions on classic songs. If you’ve never heard an Indian camel driver belt out ‘Hotel Camelfornia’ while playing the water container as a tabla then I seriously suggest you book your camel safari today.

Our camp for the night

Our camp for the night

The long day in the sun and desert whisky take its toll and I retire to bed, a blanket on top of a nearby sand dune. As the campfire burns out the cosmic light show comes to life. The Milky Way spans the sky and I can’t remember the last time I had seen this many stars. As I lay there I remember reading that there are more stars in the universe than all the grains of sand on this Earth and lying in the middle of 200,000 square kilometres of sandy desert is a timely reminder of just how small we are.

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This escape from the chaos of India was exactly what I needed. It was an amazing way to tick off another item on My Bucket List.

Have you done a Camel Safari or a trip into the desert somewhere? What was your experience like?

theboywander