Monkeys, Mudslides and Monsoons – Oh My!

TL;DR for our Northern India Post:

  • Photos from Mussoorie & Rishikesh
  • Favorite Moments: Monkeys(!), Indian food, clown-car cab ride, getting celebrity status for being white, bridges in Rishikesh
  • Walked:
    in India: 156,972 steps / ~78 miles
    in Total: 2,320,750 steps / ~1160 miles

After our month in Turkey, our plan was originally to head to Jordan. A friend had ranked it as one of the most amazing places he’s visited, and it seems like Petra and the Dead Sea are must-sees before you die. Two things derailed this plan:

  1. There was a region-wide terror alert in the Middle East smack dab when we were going to visit. This alone wouldn’t have stopped us, but it did weigh on us a touch.
  2. We were getting sick of mega-hot weather. Our heat endurance had made great strides, but we really felt like we could use a break and Jordan was slated for up to 110 degrees.

So we made the hop from Istanbul over the Middle East into Delhi to start the South Asian part of our journey.

And here we were thwarted a second time. Our plan was to jump from Delhi (HOT!) to Darjeeling for some cool mountain time… But Darjeeling was “having a strike”. Now, a strike in our world means a few dozen folks with signs and bullhorns. In Darjeeling, it means a lot more. It turns out that they were striking for independence from India and had blocked off roads. Food supplies were an issue for the region and tourists were being told not to visit.

Okay, India. But we weren’t giving up yet. The northwestern mountain region of India (Uttarakhand) wasn’t having a strike and it had pretty mountains too, dammit! And it featured the Valley of Flowers. I mean, look at this:

Valley-Of-Flowers

That’s a real place! How could we not visit it?!

Well, I’ll tell you how. While the best time to visit the Valley is during the monsoon season, this season had been punishing and over 300 roads in the region were washed out. People had died. Pilgrims and tourists were being airlifted out because of food shortages. It is considered the country’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami.

Nonetheless, throughout our brief time in India, Alex kept asking folks if the Valley of Flowers could be reached (hoping for a different answer). No go.

But, there we were in Uttarakhand, so we rolled up our sleeves and found two interesting places that we COULD visit– Mussoorie and Rishikesh.

Mussoorie: Monkeys in the Clouds
Mussoorie is a hill station that the British built to escape the Indian heat– and it did the trick for us as well. After a 1-hour flight from Delhi, reaching the town took another 5 hours by car (to cover about 20 km as the crow flies, to give you a sense of how crazy the road was).  It normally takes 2.5 hours but our taxi broke down in the middle of a rainstorm.

We’re kind of glad he DID break down.  His defroster wasn’t working so he was driving through a tiny circle of visibility he occasionally would create with a rag on his windshield.  This is fairly harrowing when there are 7 lanes of traffic on a muddy two lane road.

Here’s a snapshot of the road.  It’s like a normal/straight road that someone picked up, mashed up into a ball, and dropped on the ground.

map

Our (second) taxi dropped us off late at night at the bottom of a driveway in a deluge. “Up there!” our driver said encouragingly, pointing up the steep driveway with a river running down it. We couldn’t see a building, but we didn’t have any better options so we trudged up the hill and (eventually) stomped into the lobby of the hotel, which was a charming-but-older mountain lodge that had once been owned by the local Raj.

This was a good introduction to Mussoorie at the tail end of monsoon season. It was damp. All the time. Our host told us that the next day was the first time they’d seen blue sky in a month. When it wasn’t raining, it was almost always cloudy in the socked-in way that you can only get when you’re 6,000 feet up a mountain.

It turns out that the rain wasn’t so bad with short storms in the afternoon or evening. It was about that time that we got the news that one of our rental properties was having a problem, so we spent a good chunk of every morning chatting with our wonderful parents who were dealing with it on our behalf. Here’s my phone booth:

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This was not the cleanest phone booth. The fact that they had “STD” written on the side did not help.

We did manage to explore Mussoorie plenty and it was delightfully crazy in a way that only India can manage to be. Home to 26,000 people, it offered a mess of shops and restaurants to gawk at. And the views (whenever the clouds broke) were outstanding.

Cloud Break in Mussoorie

But the star of the show turned out to be the monkeys of Mussoorie. These little guys were clearly vermin as far as the locals were concerned, but to us they were pretty novel. There were literally hundreds of them all around the town, with a troop of a dozen or more hanging out in the trees directly next to the lodge where we stayed.

Overexposed but priceless expression
We caught this monkey looking into our window. He was clearly embarrassed.

I made a little compilation video of monkey fun (note: because I used a commercial song as a soundtrack, for some reason Google decided that you can’t watch it on mobile).

We wandered out of town by way of Happy Valley (where 5,000 Tibetan refugees have made their home) towards Kempty Falls. Alex thought she’d seen a sign that said the falls were 5km out of town so our plan was to wander downhill to see them and then hitch a ride back up. It turns out the falls were actually about 15km downhill, but “in for a penny, in for a pound”– we walked the whole way. On the way down, we had to bluff our way through a troop of monkeys on the side of the road who were looking a bit belligerent and mock charging when Alex wanted to take a picture of them. And, perhaps more harrowing, we had to extricate ourselves from no less than 3 groups of Indians who pulled over just to take our picture.

I’m serious. Indian tourists saw us, pulled over their cars and then asked (politely) if they could take our pictures. When we said yes, there’d be 5 minutes worth of photo taking, handing cameras off so the photographer could get photographed with us, handing us BABIES to get THEIR photos with us, etc. It was surreal. If you ever want a taste of celebrity, head to India. They love pictures of tall white folks.

The falls (the original goal of our harrowing journey) weren’t terribly impressive (they were heavily built up with touristy stuff, which were largely empty given that it was off-season).

Thankfully, we were able to grab a “cab” uphill for $1 each. It was a small SUV that the driver managed to clown-car-fill with 9 people inside. They tossed 5 people on the top (!)x and we were off on the windy 15km road back up the hill. Here I am crammed sideways in the cargo area:

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Rishikesh
Feeling like we had to make our Indian visa worthwhile, we then made the dash to Rishikesh, a holy town near the headwaters of the Ganges river. It was (unfortunately) made famous by the Beatles, who visited an Ashram there in the 60s. It was chock full of pilgrims, including folks like this guy:

There were also more monkeys (who hung around the 2 main bridges across the Ganges) and something we’d started to forget about up in the mountains… Sweltering heat. We dutifully tried exploring Rishikesh a few times and managed a few miles early in the morning.

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But even then, the heat and humidity were savage. So we stuck it out for a few days, did some internet work and hopped a night train back to Delhi to get the heck out of there. Onward to cooler climes…

Next stop, Nepal!