February 24, 2003 GMT
Safaris and sadhus

Rishikesh stands on the banks of the Ganges, where the river still has the cleanliness and vigour of a mountain stream. On my drenched arrival, it was a startling turquoise, but it soon became a silty brown after the heavy rains.


In the hills above Rishikesh

In the hills above Rishikesh


As in Varanasi, the Ganges makes Rishikesh a site of Hindu pilgrimage, and its auspicious setting of an impressive valley has no doubt contributed to the profusion of temples and ashrams. It draws not only Hindus but plenty of foreigners in search of the spiritual, so there is more than the usual quota of Westerners bedecked in full sadhu regalia, complete with bare feet, wild hair and staring eyes. The place is filled with people wearing a beatific smile, having found enlightenment (or at least smoked it).

With scant regard for its Hindu roots, a cottage industry of all things alternative has sprung up. In search of a good novel, I found the bookshops stocking little but teachings of the yogis, books on crystals, and such gems as 'The Celestine Prophecy' and 'Emotional Intelligence'. Call me spiritually barren if you will, but I just don't get it. What's more, somehow I don't feel I'm missing out.

As I sat on a delightful terrace in the late afternoon sun, looking across the deep valley, I would gladly have been sipping a beer, were not Rishikesh a declared alcohol-free, vegetarian zone. I could see one rooftop where a group of earnest Westerners, with that studied alternative look to their garb, walked very slowly in pigeon steps for half an hour, presumably as a meditative aid. On another, flexible girls practised their yoga. I can't help feeling that there ought to have been a road-block on the way in, which would have picked me out as an unsuitable addition to the community and sent me packing. Perhaps I'm just bitter that I don't fit in.

On my earlier return from Agra to Delhi, I spent a couple of days having a series of minor bike niggles seen to, and a front disc brake fitted. After experiencing (or rather, not experiencing) the famed weakness of the front drum, it seemed clear that the expense of the new disc kit could be worth it. So far, I'm pleased and can now stop on a moderate hill without rolling backwards. In fact, I almost feel I could join the ancient Ambassador cars that amusingly have 'Keep Distance - Power Brake' (or, just as often, 'Keep Distence - Power Break') emblazoned on their boot, presumably to warn other road users of their awesome stopping power. The bike hasn't fared so well of late - piston troubles already, burning oil like a two-stroke. Must be all those quality Indian parts.

Paperwork arrangements took a near fatal blow, so Bernard and I arranged a rendezvous to take stock at Corbett National Park, a day's ride from Delhi. This is a peaceful haven where Indian/foreigner dual-pricing has reached an art-form, but somehow I don't rail against it as I did in the past. This must be a consequence of now having a budget that puts me mildly above the backpacker breadline. I know my days of true grit are over. This was made clear to me when asked, by a couple of the legions of young South Koreans here, how much I was paying for a room. Admitting to four dollars, there were intakes of breath and an incredulous 'Wow'. Let's face it, I've gone soft.


Taking the ecological travel option

Taking the ecological travel option


Anyway, I digress. Our jeep and driver weren't really so expensive. We spent a night in the reserve - a term taken to heart by the tigers, who showed a good deal of it. Still, our spottings from jeep and elephant included four sorts of deer, boar, wild elephants, some birds (ornithologists despair), crocodiles, allegories and a malapropism or two. A well worthwhile visit, if only for the exhilarating ride through the forest, which is the first fresh thing I've smelled in India, but maybe that's just because I wasn't wearing my biking boots.

Since then, I've been up in Mussourie, a hill station first developed by the British as a relief from the summer heat, and used as their summer capital. The decaying church and lamp-post stumps bear witness to the British presence, but it now caters to Indian tourists, in particular Delhi urbanites. The setting is spectacular, strung out along a high ridge with views far out over the plain to the south, and to the Himalayas to the north.

This was where George Everest (of mountain fame) set up home at the culmination of the Great Arc - an extraordinary trigonometrical survey that, through great hardship and loss of life, triangulated all the way from the southern tip of the country. It allowed accurate mapping of India and, when it reached this point, accurate determination of the heights of the Himalayas, and contemporary praise hailed it as man's greatest scientific achievement. To a large extent, the mapping helped to define India as an entity, in a way that it hadn't existed before in the minds of its people. The headquarters of the survey is still situated in the town below, where apparently they will still correct your pronunciation - George pronounced it Eave-rest.

Sadly, apart from its setting, Mussoorie is pitifully tacky. An air of Blackpool in the clouds, right down to the candyfloss salesmen. It has a similar hunkered down, wintry feel to it at the moment with half the shops closed and the few people wrapped up to defend themselves from the cold that still maintains patches of snow. Compounded by hail and powercuts, it feels like time to get back to Delhi.

Posted by James Whyte at February 24, 2003 04:37 PM GMT
 


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