India Pt 2: Out of The City Into Paradise

This post is a continuation of India Part 1: The Golden Triangle (Special Appearance: Kuwait City)

From the Taj Mahal, to amazing Delhi street food, and the camels of Pushkar, Rajasthan, India’s Golden Triangle is a tourist’s dream. It is densely packed with amazing sights ripped right from the pages of history. But to us, it was only the opening act to the real magic of the Indian subcontinent. Stretching across the country is first-rate natural beauty in the form of soaring mountains and endless tropical beaches sprinkled with uninhabited (by humans anyway) islands. After the frenetic pace of Delhi & Cairo, slower days called our names and we returned to nature for what were to be some of the most relaxing of our trip.

1,000 kilometers away from Pushkar in the northern reaches of the country lies an area known simply as “The Hill Stations” in the Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir regions. Overshadowed by the fame of Pakistan’s K2 and Nepal’s Everest the Himachal Pradesh is an area of the Himalaya that seems forgotten by time, but blessed by mother nature. It is relaxation come to life, but first, you’ve got to get there.

This process starts by catching an overnight train to Chandigarh, the major jumping off point for the Indian Himalaya. That proved an uneventful 13-hours tucked into our sleeper car with our 200 best friends. From there, we had tickets on an overnight bus that would climb for another 14-hours up into the furthest reaches of India. The trouble was, the bus station was listed simply as “Chandigarh.” Well…there are about 12 bus stations in Chandigarh. That was a little adventure in itself. After some literal running around, we managed to carve out a few hours to enjoy a wonderfully pleasant city, mostly void of tourist sights, but an enjoyable, highly livable city still.

Finally loaded up on the “delux” (sic) bus, which we’re pretty sure just meant it was guaranteed to have four wheels, we headed up into Himalayan foothills for a restless rodeo of a ride that would give even the strongest stomach some trouble. From rough roads to vertigo inducing goat trails passing themselves off as motorways, we were both thrilled to be off that bus when we arrived in a chilly, cloud covered Reckong Peo, India, 15 hours later.

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Trust when we say, the pleasure of being there was more than worth the pain of the bus ride. The mountains of the Himachal Pradesh are stunning. The communities are beautiful. The people a wonderful blend of Indian, Nepalese, & Chinese ancestry. You are after all only 25-miles as the crow flies from Tibet.

Off the bus but not yet at our final destination we had seven more kilometers on foot to reach Kalpa. A steady rain had been falling since sunrise, but not more than 20-minutes after setting off the rain turned to drizzle and an hour later stopped all together.

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Clouds still covered the valley when we arrived in Kalpa shortly after 9A.M., but they gave way by late morning revealing the city and its guardians in all their splendor.

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That was the view from our hotel balcony for the next four days. So, what else is there to do in this mountain paradise besides stare at that postcard view? Well, blissfully little.

There were two beautiful temples to explore:

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Millions of apples to be eaten all surrounded by perfect little wildflowers:

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Hundreds of miles of roads and trails to trek across:
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Can you spot the goat trail? Oops, in India they’re called “roads”.

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Interesting Buddhist processionals to watch almost every day:

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Warm drinks to be drank and our favorite food, the Nepalese Momo, to be eaten by the dozen.

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In-between we watched movies, wrote blogs, read books, and chatted with the handful of other travelers who had found their way to this remote corner of paradise.

Oh and of course, this sunset to watch every night.

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This was the peaceful India we had hoped to find from day one. While people certainly lived within very modest means, everyone seemed happier here. More fulfilled in their lives. They seemed to have a place in their world and to be quite happy with it. Tourism was something of an afterthought and it was blissful to sink into their world with little more than an extra friendly smile and “namaste” when you’d cross paths.

After four days of this peaceful bliss, we reversed course and returned down the mountain. Or at least we tried to. After a night of fierce storms (we’d forgotten what lightening looked like after 8-years in California…) we were on an early morning bus headed for another famed hill station, Shimla.

After two hours of bumpy downhill sledding, we arrived at a tanker truck blocking the road. Or what was left of the road at least…

The road leading through the valley is in the lower right hand corner. The striations in the lower left are what’s left of the roadbed. For scale, the road was approximately 30 feet above the river.

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This time the road leading away from the slide, in the center left. The pictures were taken from a small dirt track leading across the stream we used to reach a trail on the opposite side.

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In the middle of a picture perfect valley all hell was loosed on this unsuspecting road only a handful of hours before we arrived. The entire hillside above had sheered off under the weight of the drenched mud and buried well over a mile of the track under hundreds of vertical feet of dirt and rock. Two hours later the sound of boulders still working their way loose from a mile above thundered through the valley. The devastation was, in the truest sense of the word, awesome. And to our bus driver, it was just another day on the road. He popped on the bus, told everyone to get off, we had a 7-kilometer walk to hitch up with another bus who who be meeting us beyond the slide. Kate’s quote, “this definitely isn’t ADA compliant.” You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl.

On our impromptu hike we passed the northbound buses passengers with whom we were swapping rides, marveled a little longer at the beautiful destruction and made our way, finally, 12-hours later to the famed hill station, Shimla (also spelled, Simla). When the British ruled in India they would physically pack up their administrative capital and move it to Shimla every summer to escape the stifling Delhi heat. Much more accessible than the outer reaches of the Himachal, Shimla seems like a booming city after our short few days in Kalpa.

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The Cathedral in Shimla is beautiful, we had an amazing breakfast at one of the original Indian Coffee Houses, the markets bustle, and the weather is wonderfully crisp at night and warm in the day. That said, it was funny to classify both Shimla & Kalpa as “Hill Stations.” The pace of life couldn’t have been more different and we were happy to have only slated a single full day in town.

Travel days come and go around here pretty often and they’re mostly unremarkable. But this day wasn’t any ol’ travel day. The train linking Shimla to Chandigarh is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on rails, eat your heart out Sheldon Cooper! Winding through impossible terrain and amazing scenery The Himalayan Queen isn’t the most comfortable ride in the world, but it’s certainly one of the most beautiful.

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The next morning brought more conventional transportation back to our lives with a late morning flight to Goa. It’s almost inconceivable you’re even on the same planet any longer, much less in the same country as you step into the steamy night air of tropical Goa. Soaring snow capped peaks are replaced by dense jungle and apple orchards by sandy beach bars.

Goa is India’s smallest state, but hosts the densest population of tourists. Europeans and Asians, especially Israelis and Russians, flock to Goa’s beaches every winter for full moon parties, water sports, and endless winter sunshine. Not that we don’t love company, but we were thankful to arrive a full two months before most of the crowds descended. That would turn out to be a double edged sword. However from the beginning that meant being greeted by mostly desolate stretches of sand and quiet beach bars that if you closed your eyes might almost pass for a Baja beach shack.

While our soaring views were gone, we had great little jungle hut!

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For the first two days we did little other than explore the beaches and the surrounding area of Palolem.

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At night we’d tuck into our humble abode, read, enjoy the insanely delicious bottle of Paul John Indian Single Malt whiskey we’d procured, or hang out at the restaurant adjoining our little shack.

After two days of our five in Goa had passed, we started thinking we’d arrived a little too early. Not only were the hoards of tourists not present, neither were many of the locals. Many of the activities we were looking forward to didn’t start for weeks or months, there was enough of a threat of monsoon every day to make venturing too far from basecamp unwise, some restaurants weren’t open, and generally the place felt even sleepier than we find ideal. Thankfully, we found a little fun with our new friend, Chef Rahul.

For five months we talked about doing a cooking class. Everyone here knows how much we love to eat, Kate loves to bake, and Grant loves to cook. Luckily, we connected with Rahul, a local restaurateur who filled in dead time in the offseason by teaching cooking classes.

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Having only even eaten Indian food a handful of times before arriving three weeks earlier, there was much to learn. We learned about the variety of Indian spices and spice mixtures, that Indians don’t use curry powder (hint: it’s a lack-luster shortcut to the real blend of spices they use), made three dishes, masala milk tea, and Kate even got to make dough for chapatis.

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Notice the change of aprons? We started one night, but had to finish the next day after power in the village went out. Two attempts at making Indian gravy for the price of one, sweet!

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The food Rahul guided us through was delicious and the meal we settled into at the class’s completion was worth the price alone.

Our last day in Palolem was more of the same only this time heading to a more southern beach where we let time melt with the sun into the horizon. Could Goa have been a little more exciting, certainly. Are we going to complain about 4-days of tropical beach lounging? Negative ghost rider.

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Our last 24-hours in country were spent waiting out another torrential rain storm, enjoying a last meal of tandoori chicken, naan, & Kingfisher beer, and lastly a brief two hour walk through a former Portuguese colonial city and its rotting architectural gems. The jungle does nasty things to brick.

Some airport food, a good laugh at Air Asia’s baggage rules, and a proper cup of coffee and we were back again aboard an overnight flight, out of India and off to Bangkok.

India is hard to summarize. The frequent refrain is: “You either love or hate India.” We’re not sure that’s true of us. Parts of India were pure magic. Parts looked like hell on earth for their inhabitants. We saw amazing acts of kindness and we saw fistfights and police beating innocent citizens with batons. Parts were the epitome of peace and parts were chaos of the highest order. Only of this are we certain, no other country has challenged our preconceived notions as much as India. No country made us question humanity as much as India. Few countries left us with as many happy memories, beautiful pictures, and bigger questions than India and we’re thankful for our time there for those things.

Mr & Mrs Trading Paradises

Filed From: Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar

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