From Mountains to Meditation
Wednesday 29th - Tuesday 4th
Getting to Rishikesh was, as it turns out, not so unlike one of Hercules’ labours. There’s no direct bus from Shimla - big surprise - so instead we opted to take a ten-hour bus as far as Haridwar (during the day as nine of them would be spent clinging to narrow, windy mountain roads), then taking a one-hour bus onwards to Rishikesh. Simple, I hear you say.
We walked the steep, thirty-minute descent to Shimla’s old bus station - a chaotic ledge full of buses and diesel fumes - then boarded the twenty-minute shuttle bus down the mountain to the new bus station (because, of course, the bus to Haridwar couldn’t possibly leave from the old one). And then we waited, consuming record-breaking amounts of chai until at last, two hours late, our bus arrived (a ‘local’ bus, something like an English inner-city single-decker, but with less legroom).
The first four hours went smoothly, until the landslide. The road we were on was entirely flanked by recently crumbled cliff, none so recent as the enormous, pristine mound of debris which blocked our path and that of another six vehicles, their passengers grouchily observing the bus-sized boulder in the road and waiting for a JCB. We waited too, until our hero of a driver - who strongly resembled Mr Smee - decided a hairy five-point turn was in order, and spent the next three hours bumping us along a detour (on what the other passengers colourfully referred to as a ‘local’ road, which I will leave to your imagination).
Eventually, now five hours late, we swerved back onto the original road and began uneventfully barrelling towards the bottom of the mountain until, after just over twelve hours of delightful adventure - and a tantalising 33km shy of Haridwar - we veered into a dark lay-by, the driver and conductor promptly disappeared and a bemusingly cheerful passenger casually remarked ‘Ah, puncture’. This would have been less aggravating had our bus to Chandigarh not suffered the same fate five days earlier, followed by the same hour of bumbling, in-depth discussion accompanied by shrugging and pointing while every male passenger gets involved until, miraculously, a tyre has been changed.
Eventually, sixteen hours after leaving Shimla, exhausted and chai-starved, we arrived in Haridwar (it was now nearly 2am and we had long ago given up hope of reaching Rishikesh that night) - to say nothing of the spectacularly horrible bus station-adjacent hotel we slept in (put it this way, Hotel Ashok was just that), and the crowded, steaming bus we had to squeeze onto the next morning which did, to its credit, finally dump us in Rishikesh.
A first glance at our destination left me distraught - the bus station and surrounding streets were no different from those of the crowded, hectic, stereotypically sub-continental cities we had left behind in Rajasthan and the Punjab, offering no sign of the relaxed, peaceful riverside retreat we’d been promised. We hauled ourselves into a tuktuk and gave the name of a guesthouse - then we sped along a lengthy, tree-lined road and, suddenly, there it was.
Talk to the more pretentious western tourists and they will decry Lakshman Jhula as an inauthentic blight on the ‘real’ Rishikesh - but talk to anyone else and they will gush with affection for it. True, it is the traveller hub and, like Udaipur, sports a good deal of craft shops, German bakeries and the like - but it is also the spiritual hub, ten parts holy pilgrimage site to one part backpacker paradise, clustered in two small enclaves either side of a bend in the mighty, rushing Ganges dotted with bright, layered temples and their skyward-stretching spires. Like Varanasi, it meets the holy waters of the river at a series of ghats where people bathe, swim and prey, and the bumpy little streets throng with chanting pilgrims and recently blessed cows who, as ever, seem utterly unimpressed with the whole setup.
Rishikesh quickly flew to the top of our list of favourite places. For one, it was warm - a delicious, sun-speckled, blazing warmth - which, after the cold dampness of the Himalayan towns was the greatest gift a place could give. There was also, daft though it sounds, a real spiritual energy about the town, a kind of contagiously serene vibe - not surprising, when you consider most of its visitors come in search of enlightenment, but nonetheless very pleasant.
We walked to Swarg Ashram, the next little pilgrim-packed hamlet along the riverbank, saw the old ashram where The Beatles stayed in 1968 (now inhabited by sadhu squatters and being gradually reclaimed by forest), and even took a couple of truly fantastic meditation classes - as it turns out, I am a first-rate meditator. After four days we emerged relaxed, rejuvenated and ready to take on the crazy, cosmopolitan gateway to India itself - our last stop, Mumbai.