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Friday, August 17, 2012

2 And A Half Months Off! (Part 7)

This series of posts is a day by day account of my two-month-and-a-half trip that begins with a stay in Bangkok, followed by a train ride Amritsar, a bike trip from Leh to Manali and a yoga teacher training in Kullu Valley, the end of the habitable world.

Day 11: The Long Drive to Manali
Yesterday, realizing that it was within our budget to book a taxi to Manali, we got the owner of Hotel Grace to sort one out for us. Unfortunately, when we checked out, the taxi that we booked for eight o'clock hadn't arrived yet. 

Twenty minutes later, a taxi arrived and we were about to put our bags into the trunk when we were told to wait. The receptionist talked to the driver in Punjabi. And then, the taxi driver left and the receptionist told us to wait again.

Another twenty minutes passed and another taxi came. Instead of letting us put our baggage into the car, we were again asked to wait. And, again, loads of talking followed. And, once again, the taxi left.

Around 9:30 AM, the owner and his son came in. Another cab pulled over. And, finally, we got a ride to Manali. The trip to Manali usually takes twelve hours. But, because our newbie driver made a wrong turn, we ended up arriving in our guesthouse around 11:30 PM.

The taxi was 6,200 rupees. We were told that because of huge taxes, they couldn't give us a lower price. The owner of the hotel named three types of taxes. During our ride to Manali, however, we only paid the toll once. And, according to the sign, the toll fee was 500 rupees.

I don't know where the money we paid was going but our arrangement with them was to pay the "taxi company owner" a deposit of 2,000 rupees and then give the cab driver 2,200 rupees for his expenses. The remaining 2,000 rupees should be paid after we've reached our destination. 

The traffic as we were leaving Amritsar.

Ladies picking flowers.


Shades of orange and yellow

Sunset. Taken during one of our stopovers.

Day 12: The Morning After
The night before, when we arrived at 11:30 PM, we walked around in the dark to look for the Eagle Guesthouse. And then, we climbed up some steps with all our bags. It was quite a challenge getting up the steep steps. And, it was a long, rough day for the both of us.

The next day, however, everything just got better. I looked out of the window and saw the beautiful scenery. Outside our window was an apple orchard with yellow and pink fruits and behind it was a magnificent mountain with wisps of clouds. Outside our room was a shared terrace with a view of more green mountains with silver waterfalls slithering on their slopes. And, from the garden below, we had a good view of the river. And, every second, we were accompanied by the sound of its flowing water.

We had an amazing breakfast. My boyfriend had a toasty while I got their shakshuka. Their helpings were very generous. My shakshuka had three eggs and I had a hard time finishing my breakfast. And, the owners and other guests were great company. We were in paradise -- great company and food, wi-fi and a nice room with a comfortable bed in a beautiful location far away from the noise. It was a really nice place to chill before our three-day bike trip to Ladakh. 

For such a fantastic place, we paid a very reasonable amount of 450 rupees per night. So, we decided to stay here for six nights.

The View From Our Window.

The guesthouse dog, Tiger

Day 13: New Manali
We spent the morning in New Manali, buying supplies for our trip to Ladakh. There were loads of shops, stalls and people walking about but it wasn't as intense as Amritsar or Delhi. Better yet, cars and rickshaws weren't allowed in some areas. So, we were able to do our shopping without worrying about getting hit by something. Most of the shop owners don't hard sell so it was quite a pleasant place to shop.

For lunch, we had some delicious mutton curry in our guesthouse. The food was so good there we barely ate elsewhere.

Mutton Curry

Day 14 (AM): Vashisht
Yesterday, I found out that our host, Liet, did yoga in the past and has been trying to go to the ashram in Vashist but hasn't had the time to do so. So, we decided to check it out together.

Shri Hari Yoga Ashram
The yoga ashram is located along the shortcut to Vashisht which is basically a bunch of steps which can be found after a petrol station. It had a beautiful and well-kept garden as well as a fantastic view of the mountains.

The teacher was quite nice. He may look serious at first but you can get a chuckle or two from him while he's helping you with a pose. 

The teacher is a Hatha yoga instructor. And, the Intermediate and Advanced class at eight o'clock began with some pranayama, followed by some forward folds and back bends and ended with a hanging headstand. The hanging headstand he made us do had three variations. First, our legs were in an upavistha konasana (wide legged pose) position. Next, we were asked to do a baddha konasana. For both variations, the teacher pushed us as close to the wall as possible. And, the third one was quite a stretch. He asked us to do a baddha konasana again. This time, our shins were on top of the rope. And, while we were holding on to the rope with our legs, he gave us a nice stretch away from the wall. He did this around three times before he moved on to the next person. It was a very nice opening experience.

Inside the Ashram.

The View From the Ashram's Garden

The view as we were walking back to New Manali.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

2 Months And A Half Off (Part 6)

This series of posts is a day by day account of my two-month-and-a-half trip that begins with a stay in Bangkok, followed by a train ride Amritsar, a bike trip from Leh to Manali and a yoga teacher training in Kullu Valley, the end of the habitable world.

Day 9: Amritsar
After coming home late from Agra, it was a challenge to pack our bags to catch an early train to Amritsar. Luckily, we didn't have to share our seats in the train with anyone. We were able to book two chair seats which means we have our own chairs on the train. And, they were comfortable. Sockets for charging phones and other electronics were also available by the window.

After getting out of the train and doing some haggling, we got an auto-rickshaw to the Grace Hotel. We read in the Lonely Planet that it was a budget accommodation that had a limited rooftop view of the Golden Temple so we decided to check it out.

The Grace Hotel (Amritsar)

When we arrived at the reception area, we saw that the hotel rates posted by the desk were twice the rates that were indicated in our outdated Lonely Planet: 1,500 Rs. for a standard room and around 2,500 Rs. for a double room.

After some haggling, we managed to get a room for 1,000 rupees per night. For a dingy and grimy room, the rate was a bit too high. It was hot and we were tired - We couldn't be bothered to carry our bags around, looking for another place to stay. So, we took the room.

The room we got had two small windows and an a/c. It was supposed to have a TV but it was broken during the time of our stay. We also had wi-fi. Aside from the grime and ants, what I couldn't stand about the room was the number of times I woke up because the A/C's turned off and the room's become too hot. Apparently, there was a master switch outside the room. And, when the people in the hallway or in the adjacent room turn on some lights, they make the mistake of turning off the power in our room. This happened more than once during our stay.

The hotel's rooftop was filled with rubble. Worse, it had a huge brick wall blocking the view of the temple. So, I had to climb one of the ladders leaning on the temple. And, from there, I got a limited view of the Golden temple.

The nice chai man opposite our hotel

The limited view of the Golden Temple


Day 10 (AM): The Golden Temple Area
The one thing that some travelers may not appreciate when staying in this area is that smoking and drinking are prohibited here. You'll have to take an auto-rickshaw to get to a bar. Also, they don't serve non-vegetarian meals in this area.


The area is filled with Jutti shops. The displays of colorful Punjabi footwear were really nice to look at. But, looks aren't everything. And, you might have to spend some time trying on different pairs of shoes in different shops to get one that fits you. In order to get good prices, you should have change, patience and good haggling skills. I've had so many experiences wherein I managed to get the price as low as 150 rupees but because I gave them 200 rupees, I ended up being told that the agreed price was actually 170 rupees.

I liked the Amritsar Punjabi Jutti (Ram Building Opp. Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar) because the shoemaker there has lined the insoles of his shoes with soft leather or synthetic suede, making them more comfortable. Also, he's made some backless juttis with an elastic strap that would keep it from falling off. 


It was the most unlikely place to find a Domino's pizza place. So, we decided to check it out. They had a selection of vegetarian pizzas, crusts and desserts. We got a magherita with a thin whole wheat crust and another one with a cheesy burst crust. The thin whole wheat crust reminded me of chapatti and the cheesy burst crust was like cheese parantha. It was actually a good mix of Italian, Indian and vegetarian.
Breakfast time in Amritsar can be a challenge. Every single place we went to was full. We found an unoccupied table in Zaika. Unfortunately, everyone was too busy to serve us. It took us around twenty minutes to get served. The paranthas here were worth the wait. And, the owner was considerate enough to apologize for not being able to serve us immediately.

The Golden Temple

Also known as Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple is the spiritual center for the Sikh religion. It attracts thousands of visitors everyday. 

We left our shoes in a storage area outside the complex. And, from there we walked bare foot into the temple. Once, a lady on a motorbike decided to drive on the mats that were laid out to lead people to the temple, almost running over bare toes.

By the complex entrance, we washed our feet in a small pool before we walked inside. The structure was beautiful but it wasn't that impressive. The attraction here is more of the absorption of the unique culture of the sikhs rather than the structure itself.

Around the complex, there were people sitting or sleeping on the floor. In the temple, there was a huge crowd of people making it impossible to go in. Some of the devotees crouched by the  pool to splash themselves with water. There was also a crowd of male devotees bathing in another area of the pool. We also passed some glorified sikhs in full attire. One of them had a huge turban on his head.

This is the biggest turban I've ever seen.

Day 10 (PM): The India-Pakistan Border
Everyday, loads of people head to the India-Pakistan Border to watch the border closing ceremony which starts at 6 PM and ends at around 6:45 PM. 

To get to the border, we booked a shared jeep with our hotel. We paid 125 rupees each for a ride to the border town. We were quite lucky to be picked up from our hotel since most of the people we rode with had to find their way to our hotel, which was the pick up point.

Since we were picked up around 2:30 PM and we arrived at the border at around 3:30 PM -- a bit too early for the ceremony. We were only allowed to bring our cameras and money so we didn't have much to entertain ourselves with during the wait. Bags aren't allowed in the border.

As we made our way to the ceremony, we were inspected twice. Whatever food we brought with us was thrown into the bin. Once, we were in the same queue as the locals. The second time around, we were in the foreigners' queue. There's a place allotted for foreigners in the ceremony area. And, unless you don't have plans of taking pictures or you have zoom lens, you might as well come in late to get a seat close to the action.


The march.

The kick.

2 Months And A Half Off! (Part 5)

This series of posts is a day by day account of my two-month-and-a-half trip that begins with a stay in Bangkok, followed by a train ride Amritsar, a bike trip from Leh to Manali and a yoga teacher training in Kullu Valley, the end of the habitable world.

Day 8: Agra
The train station was crawling with people and flies. The stench of urine mixed with the scent of incense and samosas filled the air. The non-stop droning of announcements punctuated by a comical tone filled our ears.

When the train arrived, everyone rushed to the open doors, pushing their way in. It was absolute chaos. I found it silly because an allotted seat number is given to each passenger. But, when we got to our occupied seats, I realized what the fuss is about. Seats get stolen all the time. And, claiming your seat can be quite a hassle!

We reached Agra five hours later. Outside the station, we found a booth for prepaid taxis. On it was a chart with the destinations and prices. The most expensive package in the list was an air conditioned taxi that will take you to all the tourist spots in Agra and back to the train station. Both of us were not keen on rushing from one spot to another or wasting time looking for our taxi driver, so we decided to take a non-air conditioned taxi to the west gate of the Taj Mahal for 150 rupees.

The Taj Mahal (Agra)
The Taj Mahal is a masterpiece of love. It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died after giving birth to their FOURTEENTH child. This white marble mausoleum is admired because of its beauty and symmetry. A very popular tourist attraction, the area was filled with swarms of locals and foreigners.

The entrance rate for foreigners is much higher than the local's. It's around 750 rupees. This includes a bottle of  water, a pair of shoe covers and a VIP treatment (sort of).  Foreign tourists a separate queue and are given priority in entering the building. They are also not required to remove their shoes when the enter the mausoleum which was quite a relief since the shoe racks tend to be disorganized and we even saw some flip flops thrown into the gutter.

The way in.

My first glimpse of the Taj

The Taj Mahal and all its admirers.

Before heading to the Agra Fort, we went to the Host Hotel for a bite. Even though it was raining, we headed to their rooftop where we had a view of the Taj Mahal and monkeys moving from one rooftop to another.

Maybe we didn't really need to pay much for a view of the Taj.

A family of monkeys.

The Agra Fort
Shah Jahan was imprisoned in this walled city by his son after he was overthrown. In a marble tower facing the Taj Mahal, he spent the last of his days staring at the structure where his wife was buried. 

The details are made of semi-precious stones.

Our 5-hour train ride home was horrible. We were seated by the aisle and the passengers who sat beside us kept pushing us off our seats. In India, that is the difference between getting a train seat and a chair.