When a Line Meets the Ocean

India

India is the most fascinating yet chaotic place we have ever been fortunate to travel. It has a fortunes worth of hidden treasures around each corner with the stench and filth to accompany it.

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Alappuzha

Alappuzha is in the heart of Kerala’s back waters with many boat trips to choose from. The overnight stays tend to be on large house boats that are really quite luxurious and expensive. We opted for a day trip on a small canoe with three other people and a driver. This allowed us to explore the really narrow passages and gather a true insight into how the local people thrive in these remote back waters and how they continue to develop the small amount of land they have. The overall trip was very pleasant, which included a traditional banana leaf lunch at a local family’s house and time to walk around one of the villages. It cost ₹1,000 each for everything.

We also visited Alappuzha beach but the weather was just abysmal. It was nothing like the beautiful pictures on the internet but I guess the beach gradually transforms as the monsoon season comes to an end.

Maduari

Madurai has to be one of our favorite small cities in India. It is most famous for its Meenakshi Amman Temple that’s covered in bright carvings of Hindu Gods. The temple is most beautiful because of its vibrant colours and inside it has many shrines and the hall of a thousand pillars.

The city itself was very easy to navigate by foot and had many lanes to explore, however we did take a bicycle rickshaw to the Gandhi museum and enjoyed the sights along the way. The gentleman was very enthusiastic about taking us and even with a few missing limbs he did a fantastic job. In fact we couldn’t help but pay him double for being so chivalrous! There are several Gandhi museums throughout India, this one is known for the blood stained loin cloth which Gandhi had worn when he was shot, although people say it is a replica.

We had a great time roaming around the city meeting many friendly people. Damian even got a hair cut by a lovely man for ₹100! Our favorite restaurant in Madurai is Sree Sabarees, the food was super tasty and very cheap with amazingly fast service as they like to get people in and out quickly.

Chennai

After finding ourselves an Aussie mate to go to dinner with we decided to randomly chose the top recommended restaurant on trip advisor. Not such a massive mistake but it was costlier than expected as the restaurant Pan Asian turned out to be in a frigging palace! India’s third largest 5 star hotel, The ITC Grand Chola. We had no idea we were getting dropped off at such a luxurious establishment whilst being completely underdressed for the occasion. Rolling with serendipity we ventured inside through the security scanners and guards. The place was a maze with no indication to there being a restaurant. Eventually we were escorted to the extravagant cigar lounge where we waited for a table to be available in the restaurant. By this point we found ourselves overjoyed by our unexpected circumstances and became delirious over the fact we weren’t eating street food that evening.

The food was one of those 'quality not quantity' dishes, I ordered the tempura prawns on a basket of frosted noodles which tasted delicious and a complete change from what we would normally be eating. The presentation and service was to be expected - impeccable! We all really enjoyed our indulgent evening which was completely off budget and not something we would normally do but it was an awesome surprise that we just embraced. Having said that for a top quality meal with four or so beers it cost approximately £30 each!  

We did visit the Government Museum which was an interesting array of buildings with a gallery and gardens. The vibe of the place was a mixture of neglect and disorganisation within the exhibits. There were a lot of interesting artifacts but it looked as though the place hadn’t been touched since it had been installed. Many of the pieces were decaying and not properly persevered but there was one or two exhibits that were well maintained. Overall it was very intriguing walking around as there were few visitors and very quiet. 

Chennai silks is a great fashion store to visit as the layout is huge and easy to navigate. It has several floors to accommodate for all occasions. The prices were very reasonable with very friendly staff to help you find what you’re looking for and shower you in chai! I bought a luxurious pure silk patterned saree for ₹3,000 to send home as a memento.

Bangalore

Bangalore is the hippest place we have visited in India due to its diversity in bars, restaurants and nightlife. It’s nicknamed the ‘Silicon Valley’ because of its high tech industry and is home to many young professionals and expats. We met many people who were on placements from across the world enjoying the delights of Bangalore and better yet drinks for women were practically free! Most bars and nightclubs never charged for females to enter and drinks just kept unlimitedly flowing! I couldn’t believe my luck considering pretty much everywhere we had travelled previously in the south had been difficult to drink. We did a lot of shopping, cinema and markets and just indulged in the city life. The botanical gardens were a highlight.

Mysore

When we arrived in Mysore the city was preparing for the royal wedding of the Prince which would be held at the Mysore Royal Palace. It was a very exciting time in the city as on the evening of the wedding the palace was lit up and a live feed was displayed on large projector screens of the after party inside.             

The zoo was a great place to wonder around and see lots of different species of animals. It was a nice surprise to see the animals kept in large enclosures and in good conditions. Normally from experience zoos aren’t too great to visit in Asia but this one was kept to a particularly high standard. The craziest thing we saw was Guru the chimpanzee that suffers from alopecia. He was completely bald and looked so much like a human wondering around and parading himself towards spectators. Apparently his condition stems from previous stress or trauma in his life which similarly in humans can induce alopecia. It was extremely unique to see Guru and at passing glance he could be mistaken as a person!

The Jaganmohan Palace has now been restored and converted into an Art Gallery. The gallery has one of the largest collections of artefacts in South India and is a great place to see many different styles of Indian paintings. A large proportion of the gallery has been kept to its original state and has many authentic murals painted on the walls, although many appear to be damaged by damp and the humidity.  

Kunti Betta

Roughly 25km from Mysore there are some rocky hills to explore known locally as Kunti Betta. We caught a cheap local bus from Mysore to the town of Pandavapura and got a tuktuk to drop us by the hills. The area is surrounded by cane fields and in terms of trails you make it up yourself. We began our walk up the largest rocky hill and was instantly approached by a local guy who popped out of the bushes and started gesturing for money and drink. We ignored the guy but he persisted to follow us as we climbed up into the rocks. We managed to create some distance between us and him yet we could still see him walking and searching for us. It was a little bit like hide and seek as we didn’t understand what this guy was after and wasn’t sure how long he was willing to track us down for. In the end we decided not to go back the way we came incase running into him again so we took an adventurous route through some trees down the side of the hill. Everything was fine in the end but it was just a bit of a nuisance when we were expecting a peaceful walk. On the walk back to the bus station we met a local primary school teacher who was on his break and said he wanted to walk back to town with us. All he wanted to do was speak with us in English and ask us about our lives back home. It was really sincere speaking with him as he gave us and insight into the backwards caste system that still exists in India. He told us how he is an educated engineer and has a high level degree, yet he can only get a position of a supply primary school teacher because of the lower caste he was born into.

Mangalore to Delhi

Throwing ourselves in head first to escape the torrential monsoon rain we took a 48hr standard sleeper class train north to Delhi. This was one hell of a journey which to say the least was tedious. I’ll start off by saying standard sleeper class is perfectly comfortable, with a good airflow (no windows just metal bars) and fans. Its particularly good if you get assigned the 'top shelf'. This is the best way to describe the beds as they are stacked and suspended from the wall with a middle shelf that folds down for other passengers to sit on the bottom comfortably during the daytime.

We were fortunate to be surrounded by a friendly Indian family but awkwardly there were 12 of us confined in a tiny space that was only meant to accommodate 8 people. This resulted in us playing a bizarre game of musical ‘beds’ with bags and children perched on any available space and adults sprawled on the hard floor. We soon felt like we needed to take back a bit of control as we had been kindly pushed around. I managed to reclaim my bed which was originally the top shelf (someone must have already known this is prime real estate). Championing this bed means you basically don’t have to move for anyone and you feel like you have a small amount of privacy. Overall the two days felt like a bit of a haze with minimal food (more down to our preference) and lots of reading, it’s an experience that will stick with us, costing a measly ₹850 each!  

Delhi

Lotus Temple

The lotus temple is a great temple to visit as it welcomes all religions. It doesn’t take influence from any religious architecture as it is in the form of a lotus flower with a very similar aesthetic to the Sydney Opera house. Having seen both in their glory you can definitely see the similarities in materials and sculptural formations. The temple is surrounded by beautiful greenery and small pools near the entrance. Inside the space opens up with high arches and wooden benches similar to those in churches or cathedrals. It is a great free place to visit and is easy to reach by the new modern metro just outside of the main city.

Cheese chaplin

This place is definitely worth mentioning as we discovered Cheese Chaplin in an underground basement suggested by a nearby street boutique vender. The restaurant is there to promote their selection of cheeses which is extremely uncommon to see in Delhi. We sat and talked to the owner who takes incredible pride in his produce that is equal to European standard and was absolutely delicious on pizza and in a cheese cake!

Qutub Minar

Is the tallest brick minaret in the world measuring 73 metres. Its situated in a large complex that’s pleasant to walk around. It cost ₹500 per person to enter.

Red Fort

It cost ₹1,000 each to enter The Red Fort which occupies a huge area of land that you can wonder freely. The main attraction is the beautiful craftsmanship of marble, similar to the techniques used for the Taj Mahal.

Old Delhi

Wondering through the streets of old Delhi is possibly one of the most visually mind numbing experiences to encounter in India. It was difficult to concentrate on anything as our bodies were having a sensory overload! So many smells and people busing about, at one point we could see a man riding an elephant in the middle of the road and then in a blink on an eye they seemed to meld into the madness as if never there! 

Akshardham

This modern landmark was opened to the public in 2005 in homage to traditional Indian culture. The main monument in centrally place in the grounds that has been intricately carved from pink sandstone displaying historical myths. This outstanding piece of craftsmanship utilises traditional techniques that can be seen throughout many iconic pieces of architecture in India, yet because of its contemporary stance it emphasises the importance and brilliance of its artistry.

The complex has several exhibits that focuses on Swaminarayan, the central figure in a modern branch of Hinduism. His life and values are portrayed through a movie that was specially commissioned for the complex to recount a seven-year pilgrimage made by Swaminarayan during his teenage years throughout India. Along with The Hall of Values section that consists of robotic mannequins that form a narrative of incidents that are believed to have occurred in Swaminarayan’s life. Finally, there is a mini indoor boat ride that takes a journey through time highlighting historical figures and achievements in India. This was probably one of the most informative landmarks we visited in Delhi and was superb for that reason! No photography is allowed in the complex.

Manali

Manali couldn’t have presented its charm to us at a better time! After five days in Delhi we were ready for some peace and quiet in the foot hills of the Himalayas. Being in the northern district of Himachal Pradesh it was far enough away from the hustle and bustle of most Indian cities. Manali is a beautiful spot to chill out and relax, allowing time to merge between the old and new town. In the old town there were a lot of tourists, coffee shops and stalls to buy handicrafts. New Manali is not too dissimilar but more pedestrianised with the many shops, restaurants and market stalls that sell a variety of useful things for a cheap price. We bought our hiking boots and bits of clothing in preparation for our trekking in Ladakh. I had the pleasure of spending my birthday in New Manali indulging in the wonders of Johnson Lodge & Spa resort. We booked the ‘Romance’ spa treatment package which was fantastic, such an amazing way to unwind and relax. They also served the best western cuisine which was a very much needed break from rice, curry and chapatti!

Solang Valley

Only a 45 minute local bus ride from new Manali station, Solang Valley is a great place to enjoy a variety of activities from zorbing to paragliding. We would have liked to have done both but zorbing wasn’t on so we went for paragliding instead. It cost ₹3,000 per person to paraglide with a professional for around 15 minutes. The length of the experience depends on how strong the wind thermals are and how well the pilot can control the parachute. The whole process was extremely quick as there were so many paragliding pilots waiting to take people up and down. Included in the price was a cable car journey to the top of the valley where the paragliding starts.

Manali To Leh

The road from Manali to Leh is only open roughly 4 months a year during the summer due to how dangerous it can be. It took us 20 hours in a small traveler and kept us on our toes the entire journey! The mountain roads are constantly under reconstruction due to frequent landslides and weathering but the views you get are spectacular. The highway reaches an altitude of over 5,000m when you pass through Khardung La. It’s one of the world’s highest motorable passes.

Leh

Leh is a Himalayan city situated on a 3,500m plato in the Ladakh region. Its main attractions are the old Palace at its centre and Shanti Stupa. The Buddhist stupa has a fantastic view from the top overlooking the town and nearby mountains. Climbing up the many steps to the top can be grueling when you haven’t had time to aclimatise. We did it the day after arriving so we felt a little dizzy and out of breath on the way up.

Our time spent in Leh was to mainly plan some trekking routes and to aclimatise before hand. When doing so we found a fab café called the Hidden North which sold really tasty cheap food. We practically lived in there as it was close to our hotel and had a good internet connection.

Markah Valley Trek

The Markah Valley trek took us a total of 8 days with one day to climb up Reponi Malai Ri. It can be achieved in 5 days if you walk consistently for 5/6hrs a day. We walked at quite a relaxed pace having plenty of time to stop along the way in the Himalayan villages. We didn’t hire a guide as we only carried small backpacks and used a guide book and map which were more than adequate to follow.

Day 1 - We took a taxi to Zinchan for ₹1,000 along the jeep road from Leh as we didn’t fancy walking the same route again. It was a very easy day taking 2hrs to reach Yurutse, as we wanted to go over the Ganda La pass (4,900m) to Shingo the next day. In Yurutse there was one rather large homestay where we met quite a few trekkers and guides.

Day 2 - Walking up to the pass seemed to take forever as it is a very gradual incline of nearly 900m. Along the trail we saw many marmots teetering around and huge birds of prey soaring above. It is recommended as one of the best places in the world to see a variety of unique birds that live at such high altitudes. When reaching the top of the pass we had a spectacular view of the Stok and Zanskar mountian range and the valley below. Damian even scrambled up to the peak of Ganda La Ri to have an even higher vantage of the arid mountain range. Shingo was just at the bottom of the valley and was an easy decent from the pass. It took us roughly 7hrs from Yurtse to Shingo.

Day 3 - Our next destination was Sara which was a rather long day as we decided we wanted to go further than Skyu. While having lunch in Skyu we saw a monastery built up high in the mountain that appeared to be crumbling away. The rest of the day consisted of a route along a jeep road, a forest trail and arid up and down pathways. A highlight was meeting a lovely crazy local guy selling drinks!

Day 4 - This was a very short day to Markah and was perfect timing as the weather changed for the worse as we arrived.  In the late afternoon once the weather had cleared we walked up to the old fort and monastery which overlooked the surrounding village. The fort was interesting to explore as you could see the remnants of doorways and cordoned off spaces people would have used before it was abandoned.

Day 5 - Another relatively easy day to reach Hankar and this was the first view we had of the huge Kang Yatse (6,400m) as we traversed up high along the edge of the valley. When arriving at Hankar we found a brilliant and secluded homestay with a traditional solar heated shower!

Day 6 - From Hankar to Nimaling we passed another fort nestled high in the mountains. This day was slightly more strenuous than the previous few days as there is a steep yet gradual climb to reach Nimaling plateau which resides at around 4,700m. Along the trail we saw many cute mountain mice and as we reached the plateau there was beautiful lake with stunning views of the surrounding mountains and of course Kang Yatse in the distance.

Day 7 - After reaching Nimaling base camp and being so close to the surrounding mountain peaks we decided to take a day to climb up Reponi Malai Ri. This 6,000m peak is one of few accessible mountains in the Himalayas that you don’t need to pay a penny to climb. Its situated on the opposite side of the glacier to Kang Yatse and overlooks the Nimaling campsite. We began walking directly up the steep incline towards Kang Yatse base camp and soon after reached a plateau that was deceptive. The path was still on a steady incline until we met a ridge line that overlooked the glacier and the entire valley below. At this moment we began to scramble up the rocky west face of the mountain. This was an exhausting climb as the rocks were loose and kept falling beneath our feet. It took maybe 2hrs to reach the top ridge line where we became somewhat dizzy from exhaustion and being at an altitude of 5,800m! We could see the mountain peak not far from us roughly a 1km away but as we both weren’t feeling too good and we were running out of time we decide to take in the views and head back down along the ridge way. The entire hike took us 7hrs, 5hrs to get up and just 2hrs down. If we had been more prepared and walked the ridge line from the bottom to the top then we could have probably reach the peak in the same amount of time. Unfortunately we made up our own route and spent a good part of our journey scrambling rocks and avoiding near death! Having said that we made it back in one piece and thoroughly enjoyed our little adventure.

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Day 8 - After two nights in Nimaling we started early to reach the Kongmaru la pass (5274m). For us this was the most effortless of the three passes, mainly because we were better acclimatised and had previously been to 5,800m. Once at the top we had a great view of Kang and the surrounding peaks but the view from Reponi Malai was more impressive due to there being an unobscured view of the mountains. The decent down from the pass was very steep and drops rapidly then continues steadily down to Shang Sumdo. Much of the trail follows a stream that runs down through the valley with some very interesting coloured rock formations. When we reached Shang Sumdo we met another hiker who we shared a truck with for ₹150 per person which was about a 30km ride to Leh.

Overall the Markah Valley trail is a fantastic way to experience hiking through some of the driest parts of the Himalayas. Due to it being situated on a high plateau in the rain shadow, it is protected from the monsoon which causes its dessert conditions. The landscape is barren yet it’s so incredible to witness the wildlife and communities of people that thrive in this part of the world.

 

Amritsar

We caught a cheap flight from Leh to Amritsar with a short stop in Srinagar. We would have loved to have spent some time in Srinagar but unfotunatly the city was experiencing political issues and wasn’t deemed safe. When we arrived in Amritsar there was a significant cultural difference due to the state of Punjab having the highest population of people that follow the Sikh religion. The appearance of many consisted of wearing a turban to take care of lengths of uncut hair, a dagger ranging in various lengths, a wooden comb and an iron bracelet. These form a part of the five Ks to represent the ideals of Sikhism. There were not many tourists there at the time and there were a lot of renovations happening in the area but we were made to feel very accepted and welcomed by locals.

The Harmandir Sahib (Golden temple) is one of the holiest places for Sikhs to visit. We went during the daytime and needed to cover our heads and remove our shoes. The place itself was very intriguing with many devotees bathing in the waters surrounding the temple and free food was being offered to all. The architectural qualities are a beautiful combination of Hindu and Islamic style and when up close to the main temple you can see the sheer amount of gold it took to cover the building. It’s a truly stunning temple you can spend hours admiring.

I think we got lucky when visiting the temple as for the rest of our time in Amritsar, when it rained it poured! 

We took a night bus from Amritsar to Jaipur which is what I can only describe and imagine it’s like to sleep in a fish tank. Surrounded by huge glass panels that slide open either side, one covered by a curtain and the other directly to the outside. The bed itself was a plump piece of fabric that was covered in stains and grease which had a rancid smell. We used our backpacks as pillows and my sarong as a blanket to distract our minds from what we were really being rhythmically rocked around on. To say the least it was an uncomfortable journey with the only upside being that we could stretch our legs flat out (just about) which I suppose is a bonus compared the cramped seater buses.

Jaipur

Our journey through Rajasthan began in Jaipur ‘The Pink City’ which was manic with lots of monkeys. We found a recommended hostel online called Hathroi Palace Guest House that was a bit of a letdown as they were all Namaste and no substance. There weren’t very transparent with their pricing of food and rooms as we spoke to someone on the phone who said ₹600, then when we arrived 10 minutes later it was ₹800! They were really quite devious when we tried to pay as they wanted us to pay the total bill at the end of our stay. This resulted in an argument as we were told one price and charged anther so we weren’t happy with their service.

On a positive note, the location was perfect as it was near two excellent high quality rooftop restaurants. The Peacock and Kalyan Rooftop restaurants both had beautiful outdoor décor and cheap food for its level of standard ranging from Western to Indian cuisine.

The Amber Fort is located high on a hill outside of the main city. The beautiful architecture runs throughout the complex including the mirror palace that glints with coloured glass in the daylight. Opposite the main part of the fort there is a very long staircase leading to the top of a section of ‘The Great Wall’. This was far quieter and had a more panoramic view of the area. 

Nahargarh Fort had an amazing view of the city with a pleasant windey walk to the top. We were told that there was a great bar/restaurant that you can watch the sunset from free of charge as long as you buy something to eat or drink. Although when we arrived there was a guy holding a sign that said ₹500 entry, we watched an Indian family walk right past him without paying so we did the same but he refused to let us go past without paying. It was frustrating as we had been told beforehand that we shouldn’t have to pay and it was more the principle than the money so we watched from one of the other outside areas.

We visited Jantar Mantar which was fascinating to learn about how these brass and stone instruments can be used for measuring time, predicting eclipses and tracking the location of major stars as the earth orbits around the sun. It is a really interesting place to walk around and as the sun peers through the clouds you can see the shadows the instruments create for readings.