After our tour of the central state of Rajasthan (Taj Mahal-Jaipur-Jodhpur-Udaipur), we went up to north India to spend some time in Rishikesh. This is the birthplace of yoga, and the world's yoga capital, where the Beatles came to spend some time in the 60s. Rishikesh was OK - it was mostly a bunch of tourist vegans and yoga hippies, coming to "find themselves" and that sort of thing. A young woman in a restaurant even had trouble ordering because she was taking a vow of silence, and I found it laughable. However, there are a lot of true spiritual pilgrims, called sadhus: deeply ascetic men who come to Rishikesh to spend some time in the famous ashrams, centers of meditation and spiritual learning. It was interesting to see the contrast between these men - ascetics since boyhood, with nothing to their name, often without shoes on their feet - and the wealthy Californians in man buns who came to spend 400 rupees on "cleansing juice."
Our main goal in coming to Rishikesh was to learn how to ride motorcycles. We both wanted to do a long motorcycle road trip throughout India, but obviously, the first step was to learn how to drive!
We had nightly hour-long lessons with a man we befriended named Pradeep. He taught us how to drive in a big field where kids play soccer; we eventually worked our way up to the road in town, and then the highway. During the day, we tried yoga once (I got close to pulling most of the muscles in my body), rented scooters and explored some nearby waterfalls, and read a few books (I finished Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, re-read Guns, Germs, and Steel, and greatly enjoyed The Goldfinch, which I highly recommend). After two weeks, we had mastered the art of riding motorcycles, and we were off.
Originally we wanted to tour the Spiti Valley - way up in the Himalayas, where some of the world's most ancient buddhist monasteries lay in desert valleys, where you are surrounded by Himalayan mountains on all sides - but after more research, we decided the roads were in too poor of condition, and that it would be too challenging and way too cold for beginner drivers like ourselves. So, we reconsidered our options and opted instead for a three week trip through the state of Uttarakhand. In Hindi, this is known as Dev Bhoomi, the abode of gods, and the entire state is nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. We planned what is essentially a big loop throughout the state, hitting all the major sites. In three weeks, we hit about 15 different cities. I won't tell you about every single small town we stayed in to spend the night in a motel, but I'll tell you about the highlights of the trip.
We spent one night in a place called Auli that has gorgeous views of the Himalayas, including Nanda Devi - the highest peak entirely within India. By the way, there's a fascinating story involving a secret joint CIA-India mission, spying on China, and a lost plutonium device on top of this mountain, well worth the read if you have a few extra minutes.
Auli is one of India's most famous ski resorts, but it was too warm at the time and there was no snow around us. We decided to splurge and spent the night in a luxury tent where we were served delicious mutton curry with views of the entire Himalayan range.
A few days later we found ourselves in Badrinath, an important pilgrimage site for Hindus. Badrinath, along with Gangotri, Yamunotri, and Kedarnath, is one of the four springs of the Ganges, making it an important holy site. Pilgrims come from all over India to visit Badrinath; "they say that all Hindus should visit this site once in their lifetime," a friendly man informed us.
Some pilgrims, however, are too old or too weak to make the journey from the top of the hill, to the bottom where the temple is located. Thus, they hire young men who carry them in baskets so that they may make it to the temple and make offerings.
This town is situated in a valley that is completely surrounded by snowy peaks, so it was really cold up there; we rolled into town ill-prepared with our thin, wind-breaking jackets. So Shelby and I bought thermals, thick gloves, and hats to keep warm. What was amazing is that the sadhus - the ascetics who spend their lives going around India, meditating, visiting different ashrams, and going to the various pilgrimage sites - wore nothing but simple orange robes.
A few minutes drive from Badrinath is Mana village, India's last village before the Tibetan border. There is a 5,000 year old cave here, and Hindus believe it is here that Lord Ganesha wrote the Mahabharata (one of the two great sanskrit epics, the other being the Ramayana). Strolling through the village, we encountered a Hindu mystic covered in ash, who was chanting prayers in this ancient cave. People only live here 6 months out of the year, as the other 6 months they get up to 10 feet of snow. The only people to inhabit this area in the winter is the Indian military, who have the unenviable job of patrolling the Chinese border year-round.
We also went to Munsyari, where we went on a beautiful hike that gave way to more views of the Himalayas. We had a beautiful homestay with rooms giving out to the views of these mountains, and I'll admit we spent an entire day reading and drinking Indian tea, just taking in the views. Can't get enough of the beauty of these mountains!
Uttarakhand is very different from Rajasthan. Rajasthan, a dry desert state, evoked India's royal past: imposing forts, princes, harems, and palace intrigues, soldiers mounted on elephants and hookahs filled with opium. Uttarakhand, the "abode of gods," was lusher, greener, and cooler, more spiritual, and less crowded.
After about three weeks, we made it back to Rishikesh in one piece, with the bike still in order, and greeted Pradeep with pride. It was an adventure of a lifetime: 1,600 kilometers in the foothills of the Himalayas on a Royal Enfield. I'm stealing from an email Shelby sent to her friends: "I can't begin to describe the journey. We battled rough roads: meandering cows, monkeys, goats, and sheep, waterfalls, renowned Indian traffic, landslides, gravel, mud, and hairpin turns in exchange for Himalayan vistas, rides by the Ganges, and views of the Indian countryside [...] We decided that getting to see a place with your own two wheels really encourages true immersions, random stopovers, and freedom to explore."