After I left Jaipur I went to where most people who come to India only go to. Agra, to see the world famous Taj Mahal, considered to be one of the wonders of the world.
The story behind the Taj Mahal, is perhaps even more impressive than the structure itself. After the ruler’s favorite wife died, the grief-stricken ruler, ordered its construction which took 20,000 people almost working around the clock approximately 20 years to build.
Here is more info on the Taj Mahal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taj_Mahal
After leaving Agra, I continued east towards perhaps India’s most emblematic city, Varanasi. Before I arrived I did not know this, but later learned it is considered the oldest inhabited city in history. With this age, comes rich history, culture, traditions and magic.
“Varanasi” is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”
It was amazing to wander around this chaotic city with street animals everywhere (cows, monkeys, rikshaw drivers). The gahts, or sides of the river are particularly interesting to wander as that is where the people come to bathe in the sacred Ganga (Ganges) River and where people are cremated and have their ashes thrown into the river. All of this while children and people are swimming and shampooing and soaping themselves up next to them. Varanasi is full on, as the smells of burning bodies fill the air near the gahts and you see people carrying dead bodies heading towards the river and huge stacks of wood for the burning of bodies.
I found this video online, which I believe has a good description and images of varanasi, with Morgan Freeman:
Next I went to Delhi, the capital and monster of a city that has around 20 million people in the greater Delhi area, and is perhaps the busiest (that says a lot in India), where you see an endless array of beauty, filth, chaos, and life. I spent around a week in Delhi getting lost on purpose, wandering taking pictures, and taking it all in. It was indeed busy and I even managed to get pick-pocketed for my phone making my way a very crowded intersection, but I enjoyed my time there so I didn’t mind. First time on my trip I had something taken from me, and hopefully it went to help some people in need!
After leaving Delhi, I took a train to another of India’s famous holy cities, Haridwar where I finally took my swim in the fabled Ganga (Ganges in English) river which was very special. We explored with my friend Caroline and her friends before continuing on to Rishikesh, which is considered to be the yoga capital of the world. Unfortunately I had a little case of “Delhi-belly” stomach problem at the beginning of my stay here, but after I felt better and was hosted by my friend Justine, whom I had actually met on my flight to India.
While I was in Rishikesh, a friend wrote me asking me if I knew the Dalai Lama would be giving some talks in Dharamsala in 2 days, and if I wanted to come… This represented a slight change of my plans, and I am glad I went for it. After around 15 hours on an overnight bus and making some new friends on the bus, I arrived in Dharamsala.
It is a town in Northern India where the Dalai Lama lives in exile ever since he had to flee his native Tibet, when China began occupying Tibet in 1959. I had the pleasure of being in the presence of his holiness as he is called, for 3 days and listen to some of his pearls of wisdom that strongly call for Love, Compassion and Kindness. No cameras or phones were allowed inside so no pictures of these days.
Dharamsala is very interesting place as it now has a Tibetan community and above it there are a few villages where I stayed in one, Bhagsu for a month exactly! I spent this month taking a break from traveling and going to a meditation center every day, taking djembe drum lessons, going on hikes, drawing, and hanging out with new friends and others from the trip I ran into in Bhagsu.
I also went to visit the Amritsar, a city famous for its Sikh (this is a religion ) community and famous Golden Temple that is beautiful and is visited by over 100,000 people every day for praying and even eating for free, as this is paid for by dues Sikh people pay as a percentage of their wages. Here is more info on the temple and Sikhism:
When I went to Amritsar, I also went to visit the India-Pakistan border where the guards for each country put on quite the show in a changing of the guards ceremony, which I was surprised to see draws what seems like a few thousand people on each side of the border to express patriotism, but also sadly aggression towards each other. While it was very interesting to see, I regretted taking part in the aggression between two countries that used to be the same.
Then I finally ventured up to an area that I had been looking forward to, Kashmir! I didn’t know much about this area at all, besides hearing that it was a potentially dangerous area because it had religious and political tension between India and Pakistan. When I arrived I saw absolute beauty in the landscapes and people and learned that much like Catalan people in Spain and France want Independence, Kashmir wants the same. They don’t identify themselves as neither Indian nor Pakistan.
As luck or lack there of should have it, while I was in the capital of Kashmir, Srinagar, when a separatist militant was killed by the Indian army in an operation in the south of the state. Very sadly, this led to protests that escalated to people throwing stones at police and army which in turn led to these people getting shot. Creating a downward spiral of more protests and rock throwing and deaths, with up to 66 people being killed and many more injured. Here is more info about Kashmir and these incidents:
However, I never felt in danger the days and was blown away by the natural beauty in Kashmir, but we did have to leave at night because during the days roads were closed.
From Srinagar I went to Kargil and then to Padum, the capital of Zanskar Valley and this area was perhaps my favorite place I visited.
It was absolutely stunning, and doesn’t get many tourists and the people are very friendly.
I enjoyed a week of solitude with hikes, reading, meditating, drawing, practicing my drum and loving life.
One day I decided to walk to Karsha, a village 2 hours away and on the way back I decided to hitch-hike and was blessed to be picked up by some locals celebrating a wedding that invited me join them, which of course I accepted. We drove around and other villagers would be waiting for the caravan with offerings of food for the celebration so we would all get out and they would do a blessing of the food ritual and then we all ate and there was some music and dancing it was amazing.
While in Padum I met a nice local guy who told me about a trek I could do to Phuktal Gompa, a Buddhist monastery in a valley around 6 hours away in the mountains so I went on my own on this stunning hike and I arrived as it got dark and asked the monks if I could stay the night at the monastery. At first they said no, but this Colombian charmed his way into spending the night and was even blessed to be invited to their morning prayers.
Afer reluctantly leaving Padum and the Zanskar valley, I went to Leh.
Leh is in the state of Ladakh, famous for the Himalayan Mountain range and spectacular high altitude arid landscapes. I spent almost 2 weeks around Leh with a few excursions to nearby lakes.
One day we decided to go with some friends on a 2 day trip to nearby Pangong Lake, which I fell in love with and didn’t want to leave. It is on the border with China and around 25% is in India and the rest is in China and specifically with the Tibet region of China. This made me believe this was part of the magic and beauty with this place. To think it was connected to such a beautiful place with amazing energy.
My friends had to go back, but I stayed and was lucky to meet another group of friends to enjoy this place with. It was beyond spectacular and looked different every day under different weather.
When I finally did go back, I wasn’t in the mood to take the local bus or pay for a ride back, but opted for hitchhiking back and was lucky to be picked up by amazing group of guys from Kargil (Kashmir).
I had been wanting to do some motorbiking in the North of India as it is stunning, but was a bit nervous as the terrain is so steep and severe, that it needs to be done on big motorbikes, and I only had ridden medium sized bikes…So in Leh, I rented a motorbike and with my great friend Eran riding passenger and some friends we decided to ride to another beautiful lake ,Tso Moriri for a few days. It was an absolutely beautiful road along the Himalayan Mountains on the way there and was really fun and exciting driving this big 500cc motorbike on crazy roads, dirt paths, mud, sand, river crossings and even passed a part that was 5.328 meters…that’s higher than the Everest Base Camp!
And then I made it down to Delhi to finish my time in India, which is hard to do. I grew quite attached to this amazing country in my 5 months here. India is so massive and diverse that it can be several different countries with how different it can be from region to region.
India is the most vibrant country I have ever been to with energy that seems to pulsate and burst out in the food, the people, the streets with their chaos (especially the honking of vehicle horns, that drives me crazy!) and animals almost everywhere. Indian people are lovely and the food is amazing and varied, and life in India is quite affordable. I think I managed to live for around $10 dollars a day most of it.
It is such a magical place that I now understand why people keep going back to India. I am sure I will return and encourage you to go!