A Journey Through Northern India

A Journey Through Northern India

arrived in India
one morning in May,
and the overwhelming capital crashed over us like a wave. Speaking
to locals, our plans to stay in the city for a few days were
affectionately laughed at. We were advised to “do Delhi
in a day and then make a swift exit, so we booked a cheap flight to
Srinagar in Kashmir on impulse.


It’s not a state the British Foreign Office recommend travelling
to – particularly given recent clashes between Indian forces and
Kashmiri separatists – but things were more peaceful at the time.
It was surprisingly cool and we were welcomed onto a houseboat on
the Dal Lake with steaming cups of kahwah, a green tea infused with
cardamom, cinnamon and saffron. It’s a magical place, with entire
communities living on platforms built in the centre of the

The following morning, we began a day-long Jeep-ride deep into
the Himalayas, stopping at roadside restaurants, or dhabas, for
piping-hot vegetable samosas and sweet, sticky jalebis. In three
days, we’d gone from a bustling, dry capital, to verdant slopes and
snowy peaks via a cool, breezy lake. As night fell, we ate
vegetarian curry in our tent, cooked on the spot by Amin, our
Sherpa. For pudding, we devoured juicy mangoes, tearing the skin
with our hands and eating the flesh straight off the stone.

The next couple of days were spent hiking across the foothills
of the mountains with our nomadic guide and reliable donkey. All of
the seasons were delivered within an eight-hour trek: intense
sunshine, cutting winds and the crunch of snow underfoot. We passed
makeshift houses, where women and children beckoned with fresh
chapatis and spicy chai. These are herding families, who arrive in
the mountains with their cattle every spring, heading to green
pastures revealed beneath the thaw. They re-build their houses –
wiped out by winter weather each year.


It took nearly 40 hours from the Himalayas to India’s “spiritual
capital” of
. The journey included a bumpy drive along hairpin
mountain bends and an extremely delayed overnight train. At the
other end, we found ourselves in a new, scorching hot world.
Vehicles can’t enter the city’s winding alleys, so finding our
hotel felt like searching for the centre of a maze – one that was
alternately scented with potent incense and cow dung. Often, we’d
turn down a street only to find a huge white beast blocking our way
and would have to find another route.

Wandering along the River Ganges at the edge of the old city, we
passed a burning ghat, where over 200 bodies are ceremoniously
cremated each day. Nearby hospices mean that Hindus from all over
the country travel to Varanasi when they are nearing the end of
their life, so that their bodies can be burned on the river as soon
as they pass away. Some families bring their deceased on
to do the same, while others bring ashes to scatter them
in the water. It’s the most sacred funeral ritual in Hinduism, and
you can tell by the number of people who gather here.

We took a rowing boat out at dawn and watched Varanasi come
alive along the riverbanks. Pilgrims travel hundreds of miles to
bathe here. Children splashed and laughed in the shallows, while
others solemnly sunk themselves beneath the surface. That
afternoon, we had cooking and yoga lessons with a local family,
learning how to make a fried Indian snack called pakoras, as well
as simply how to breathe properly. The giggling daughters hennaed
flowers all over our hands and piled bangles onto our wrists. That
evening, we sat on the steps of the main ghat and were soon
surrounded by others doing the same, as hundreds arrived to watch
Gange Aarti, a ritual to Shiva. Five Brahmans danced with fire
while chanting mantra and we were engulfed by heady incense, all
our senses entranced by the ceremony. At the end, locals sent tea
lights and flowers floating across the water.


Jaipur seemed to have yet another identity. We’d heard
fantastical tales of patterned textiles, ornate trinkets and
fragrant food – and the bazaars did not disappoint. Intense colours
left imprints on our eyes. We went to Hawa Mahal, a paradigm of
Jaipur’s Hindu architecture and famous pink stone and made a
mandatory visit to the Amber Fort, a monumental palace sitting
above a lake and surrounded by sandy peaks.

We also visited Jantar Mantar, an astrological garden in which
Maharaja Jai Singh II built huge contraptions to measure the
movements of the heavenly bodies. The observatory houses the
world’s largest stone sundial, which can measure time to an
accuracy of two seconds.


Following a night back in Delhi, we took the bus to the Le
Corbusier-designed city of Chandigargh. Turbo winds whistling
through the windows made my face numb as I watched the scenery
transform: rice fields morphed into townships and built-up areas
filled with dhabas and garages, then back again. A highlight of
Chandigargh’s is the 25-acre Rock Garden. From about 1951, a road
inspector called Nek Chand carried piles of rubbish and debris from
the building of the city into a wooded area, where he built himself
a secret kingdom. He never expected his miniature world of
figurines and murals to be discovered – let alone become one of the
most popular tourist attractions in India.


Our penultimate stop was Amritsar, home to the holiest site of
worship in Sikhism: The Golden Temple. All day, every day,
volunteers cook meals in the
temple’s kitchen, which are dished out to pilgrims and visitors of
all nationalities and faiths who line up outside. Travellers can
stay in nearby hostels who rely on donations in designated boxes.
One evening, we took a group taxi to Wagah to watch the famous
Attari border closing ceremony. Each day, a host of military
traditions (including some seriously high kicks) take place before
the lowering of the Pakistani and Indian flags. Hundreds of people
on the Indian side of the border waved flags and cheered at the top
of their lungs.


Our final days were spent relaxing back in the mountains in
Dharamsala. Thinking back to the days in Srinagar, it felt as
though we’d come full circle. The air was cool and fresh. We walked
to the Bhangsu waterfall and visited the Dalai Lama’s temple,
Tsuglag Khang. In 1959, India’s Prime Minister allowed him and
other Tibetan exiles to take refuge here. We marvelled at the
incredible debating style of Buddhist monks, who step towards their
interlocutor, clapping emphatically when making an important

I thought about them as we ran through a monsoon to catch the
12-hour coach back to Delhi. They were so different from all the
other people we’d met along the way: Hindus, Muslims, Bahā’is,
Sikhs and Buddhists; shepherds, Sherpas, families and
entrepreneurs. We’d seen Brahmans, burials and military routines,
and experienced dry heat, humidity, snow, rain and sun. To this
day, I still can’t quite believe how diverse a nation India is; in
three weeks, I felt like I’d travelled a whole globe of its

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