May 2016 Travel Report: A Month in North India
After a fairly quiet April, most of which was spent relaxing / writing on a paradise island in Thailand as well as a quick return to Singapore, I headed to India for what could potentially be my last big solo adventure. I started in the heat and chaos of Delhi and then ventured further north, into the desolate, deserted regions of Spiti and Kinnaur, high in the Himalayas.
I had expected Delhi to be an extreme and jarring entry to India, but instead I found it to be pretty similar to Kathmandu and Colombo, the only other big south Asian cities that I’d previously visited. The streets were crowded, the rickshaw touts were persistent and you could never describe it as “clean”, but Delhi is a fun place to explore, especially if you’re into ancient architecture. I visited the Red Fort and Jamma Masjid (Friday Mosque) in Old Delhi, as well as Humayuns’ Tomb and Qutb Minar. I’d recommend all of them, especially Qutb Minar. Construction started in the late 12th century AD and it eventually grew to 73 metres, making it the tallest brick minaret (tower) in the world. There are also lots of other ruins and tombs scattered around the complex.
My exploration of Old Delhi took me through tightly packed streets, both on foot and by rickshaw. I ate at a tiny “hole in the wall” restaurant and watched as life in Delhi unfolded before me. There are some great sights in Old Delhi. The Red Fort is a huge collection of historic pavilions, palaces and gates and Jamma Masjid, with its exotic minarets and domes, is worth checking out, assuming you don’t mind searing your feet on the boiling concrete.
Hanumans’ tomb is one of Delhi’s must see sights — it’s kind of like a smaller, red version of the Taj Mahal (without the crowds).
The Toy Train to Shimla
From Delhi I headed to Shimla, the former summer capital of British India. The final few hours of the voyage was on the UNESCO listed toy train, which winds its way around mountain tracks, through tunnels and over lots of bridges (600 to be precise). The scenery would have been more impressive if it wasn’t so hazy — recent forest fires have wreaked havoc on the air quality in these parts. Shimla itself wasn’t particularly interesting. It was packed with local holiday makers and the haze convinced me to push on quicker than I had planned.
I’ve seen my share of snow-capped mountains over the last couple of years but that didn’t stop me from being blown away by what Kinnaur had to offer. My first port of call was Kalpa, a small village loomed over by a string of mountains (Kinnaur Kailash). It’s very rare to be this close to giants like these without going on a multi-day trek — I’d urge anyone visiting the Indian Himalayas to visit Kalpa.
Next up was Chitkul, a treacherous 4 hour bus ride from Kalpa. These are some of the most dangerous roads in the world and it was one of the few journeys where I actually feared for my life. Chitkul is only around 40 kilometres from the border with Tibet and is surrounded by awesome scenery.
My final stop in Kinnaur was a little town called Nako. Nako is close to the border with Spiti and it’s a great place to break up the journey towards Tabo and Kaza. The ancient stone houses, wandering livestock and complete lack of other tourists made Nako a special place to explore, and of course the scenery was amazing.
If you’re into breathtaking mountain scenes (partly due to the altitude, but mostly because of the beauty), Tibetan culture and solitude (in May at least), Spiti is your dream holiday destination. There are world class day hikes, tiny, historic villages and monasteries clinging to rocky hills surrounded by mountains and splintered rivers.
I started off in Tabo (after a grim 3 hour standing bus ride from Nako), and then visited the incredibly scenic Dankhar Monastery (pictured below, and at the top of this post). From there it was on to Kaza, the biggest town in Spiti. For the next week or so I visited the nearby villages of Kibber, Mudh and also Ki Monastery.
The Pin Valley was my personal Spiti highlight. From Mudh, a small village with great views in all directions, I hiked along a rough road full of rocks (from landslides) and even some small sections of snow. I saw two farmers shortly after leaving Mudh but after that I was all alone in a vast valley of pink and purple rocks, a winding, turquoise river and scores of snow-capped mountains.
Another recommend day hike is the 4 – 5 hour round trip walk from Kibber to Tashigang. This is one of the greenest areas of Spiti and it also features a few psychedelically coloured ponds / lakes / springs (I’m not sure exactly what they are).
Ki Monastery was another Spiti highlight. The uniform white box buildings and the incredible views makes it a great day trip destination, or you can stay overnight in the monastery and hang out with the monks. I only stayed for lunch but it was still a nice experience. Spiti and Kinnaur are really special regions. I met lots of cool people (both locals and foreigners), and saw some of the world’s most dramatic vistas — go there if you get the chance!
I’ll be writing posts about these places in Kinnaur and Spiti (in fact, I’ve already written most of them), so stay tuned for more in-depth information about this beautiful part of north India.
There is a road connecting Spiti to Manali, but I didn’t fancy sticking around for (at least) another week for it to open. I went back the long way and the 9 hour trip from Rampur to Kullu (close to Manali) was probably my worst ever travel experience. I had to stand on a completely packed bus for 5 – 6 hours and after that I got to sit on half a seat for another 4 hours (which was only marginally more comfortable). I’ll be writing a post about that journey soon. As for Manali…it was a pretty big comedown from the highs of Spiti and Kinnaur. It’s a hectic tourist town mainly frequented by holidaying Indians and hippy Israelis. It was nice to finally get (half) decent Wi-Fi and I guess it was an OK place to relax for a while after a busy few weeks in Kinnaur and Spiti.
The plan for June
I’ll soon be heading back to the heat and hassle of the “real India”. I’m planning on visiting Varanasi, Agra and Rajasthan, which people keep warning me against due to the oppressive temperatures (possibly as high as 50 degrees). You can read all about it next month, assuming I haven’t melted by then.
Have you been to north India? How was your experience? Let me know in the comments below.