A Trip to France and a Wedding

The first thing we noticed as we arrived back in Europe was how clean everything was…no rubbish to be seen anywhere and even though we arrived back on the French Riviera during the busy summer period we found it very quiet and peaceful. The relief of not hearing any honking of horns was wonderful.

As we had been traveling around we had plenty of time to reflect on our lives and where we were living and we had both noticed that we enjoyed our times in and around the mountains very much. Whether it was hiking in the warmer months or snowboarding in the colder ones. We also had very much enjoyed the changing of the seasons and had begun to think about making a move to be able to enjoy all of these aspects. We also felt it was going to be very difficult to stop experiencing new things and so with all this is kind we had identified an area near Lyon, France called Aix Les Bains which we felt might, on paper, tick a few boxes.

We spent a couple of weeks exploring the area and both soon fell in love with the place and while the idea of moving to a foreign country was occasionally an incredibly scary idea the thought of not ever giving it a go might create a feeling of regret in the future. It was certainly easy to accept the idea when eating all the fantastic food, hiking in the breathtaking scenery, soaking up the culture or realizing how close we would be to so many exciting and different countries.

So it’s off to French lessons for us.

In amongst all the baguettes, cheese and wine we also made a trip to Belfast to catch up with Gavin and Ben, two of my flat mates from my time at Edinburgh University. It was a fair few years since we had all seen each other and was an absolutely fantastic long weekend catching back up with the guys and meeting Karen too. Gavin and Karen did a wonderful job of hosting and showed us all the main sights of Belfast and the surrounding areas. While it wasn’t the sort of weather we were used to in the summer months the hikes we enjoyed in the bracing wind and the drizzle helped us recover from the Guinness drinking the nights before.

The main reason we were back in Europe was for my sister Kelly’s wedding and what an event it was. It was fantastic to catch up with my family and then meet Ben’s family too. We had various meals and parties every night from the Wednesday to the Sunday and it was an absolutely fabulous occasion. A lot of organisation must have gone into to such a huge event but I think everyone had a great time and I think they will have some excellent memories. T

Lyon, with not one but two rivers flowing through it.  Such a beautiful city and we had a great week walking around discovering new areas.

Buying all the fresh produce from a market was a great experience and there were so many markets dotted around the city too!

Me enjoying a plat du jour at one of the many restaurants lining the streets.

A typical night time scene in Lyon and the food was delicious.

A view of Aix Les Bains and The Lac du Bourget just a stunningly beautiful area.

The view back across the lake from the other side towards the Alps.

We enjoyed some fantastic walks in the mountains around the area.

Chambery town centre…a typical street.

Nearby Annecy was beautiful but unfortunately we couldn’t even find a place to stay there it was so busy.

A return to Alpe d’Huez was very exciting for both of us and the resort still looks as wonderful as it always did.

Beautiful wildflowers and butterflies accompanied us on our walks around th mountains.

The scenery here is just breathtaking.

We even went clay pigeon shooting! Not sure if I wouldn’t be better off just clubbing any would be adversaries with the butt of the gun judging by how inaccurate I was!

A catch up with the crew from Edinburgh Uni days in Belfast!  The weather was apparently typical for a Belfast summer…changeable!

Unique sights up at the Giant’s Causeway just north of Belfast.

The view from the top of one of our hikes was spectacular.

A typical summers day in Northern Ireland, yes we did dip our feet in the water, yes it was cold!

Safari Number 2

We were going on another safari with Sanjay today and after the success of yesterday we were both pretty excited. We enjoyed the beautiful facilities of the hotel in the morning and then safari in the afternoon. This time we were entering through the same gate but driving further into the park into the next section which was going to be more enclosed with less grassy plains. 

Sanjay picked us up in his trusty Suzuki Jeep but with an extra passenger being his son who was about 3. We both looked at each other imagining all the ways this could go wrong considering we don’t know too many 3 year olds if any that could sit very quietly in a car for 4 hours staking out animals. 

But we thought maybe we are going to be dropping him off before we head out. We did stop off on the way but that was to pick up the mother as well. So instead of an extra spotter we got a wife and child. To make matters worse we were half an hour late in arriving at the gate which meant less time in the park. The next hour or so we drove around the park not really spotting much and just stopping at a watering hole or two, none were very fruitful.

Saying that as we were driving along Tim spotted two sloth bears coming out of the hills and we got to watch them for a while crossing the road to a cooler area of the forest. Apparently this was a very rare sighting. They were pretty amazing with there ridiculously long claws and beautiful long snouts.

We saw lots of deer and a few paw prints of tigers, lots of scratches up trees from the sloth bears climbing up but the elusive Tiger or Leopard was not to be. We drove out of our gate and had a spare fifty or so minutes so we stopped off at the waterhole where all the elephants were yesterday. Apparently one of the Tigers has been frequenting the watering hole late afternoon. Towards the end we heard some warning calls but far into the forest. No big cat sightings for us. 

As we drove back to the hotel we were still a little disappointed in the day but being out in the open in the beautiful surrounds still made for a pretty good adventure. S

Monitor lizard enjoying the coolness of a hole dug by sloth bears getting at termites.

One of the watering holes. As you can see the park is desperate for the monsoon to come.

The sloth bears coming out of the hills.

Crossing the road into more lush forest. Check out the size of their claws!

A beautiful spotted stag.

A lone tusker making his way to the watering hole.


Sunset on the plains.

Corbett National Park

We left Haridwar this morning to travel the 200km to Ramnagar in the usual 40 degree heat. Unfortunately there were no air conditioned busses available and we couldn’t use the “fearing for our lives” excuse and hiring a taxi. The thing is once the bus gets going the wind is slightly cooling, the only irritating thing is that we are actually getting used to a 200km long trip taking over 5 hours!

When we arrived at Ramnagar we had a short taxi trip and walked straight into luxury! We paid the same as you would for the cheapest hotel in Brisbane and had arrived at a wonderful resort. It consisted of a group of separate houses set in an amazing garden next to a river. We felt we had transported ourselves to another world.

We couldn’t believe how nice it was and headed straight to the pool for a cooling swim. We spent the rest of the first afternoon lounging by the pool reading our books and watching the Indians trying to swim. Certainly not a national pastime.

The reason we were here was to go on safari and we had managed to navigate the overly complicated and useless booking system and had arranged two trips with a local guide who was highly recommended. We were very excited at the prospect of potentially seeing a tiger but had asked not to race around a park desperately searching for one rather we would prefer to relax and observe everything the park had to offer.

Luckily our requests were heard and we were picked up by Sanjay our driver/guide and another spotter and headed off into the Corbett Tiger Reserve. We hadn’t been in the park long when we came across our first group of elephants. They are a wonderfully majestic animal and we were able to spend some quality time sat in the jeep watching them casually eating their way through the forest. While we were content our guides had more planned for us and took us out of the dense forested area towards the open plains.

Here in the distance we saw a larger herd of elephants with a “Tusker” or male elephant. He was much larger than the females but certainly not part of the family group and we sat once again watching while he wandered off and then returned to the group of females and young. I don’t know how long we sat watching but it was a breathtakingly beautiful scene.  

In the centre of the plain was a raised viewing platform and we drove over to take our turn in viewing the whole area. The group in front was just getting ready to depart in their jeep when one of the men casually dropped his empty water bottle onto the floor. I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes! Simultaneously Sarah and I jumped up and screamed “pick that up!” He was obviously shocked and while the driver of his jeep ran around to pick up the bottle he made such excuses as to the fact he hadn’t been told not to litter. What a complete idiot. Still I can kind of see his point, why indeed have one small part of India not covered in rubbish? He probably felt strange driving about all day without seeing rubbish strewn everywhere. 

Anyway, while they all looked at us in disbelief as to why we cared we scooted up the platform to gaze out over the plains and enjoy watching 3 jackals making their way furtively from one side to the other. I think I could spend some serious time sitting and watching wildlife.

Our guides then took us back into the forest all the time stopping to point out various types of birds or animal and it was pretty clear that with all these spotted deer and various other prey around any tiger we saw was going to be well fed. Alas though we had no luck with the tiger spotting and returned to the plains where we were able to relax and enjoy the sun going down while watching elephants crossing the road in front of us and then grazing in the grasslands.

At one point though our relaxing day got a little bit too exciting when a mother elephant started crossing the road a little too close to the car for her (and our comfort). Her body language changed in an instant and our driver started to try to slam the jeep into reverse. Now the Indians are quite rightly renown for their terrible driving ability and at this point we were both a little concerned when we stalled! Luckily the elephant decided not to charge and retreated back into the forest with her baby.

I feel I have to mention that safari in India is different to safari elsewhere…obviously. I have already mentioned the littering and while it’s not nearly as bad as elsewhere in the country you still see water bottles and crisp packets dotted about the place. Also the noise factor. Indians don’t seem to do anything quietly and while we were content to sit and quietly wait for an animal the Indian vehicles would pull up right next to us with a screech of brakes and shout over asking what we were waiting for/looking at. Nothing anymore.

The concept of waiting patiently for an animal to appear unharmed by one’s presence is also lost. They would drive the vehicles right up next to the animal and you could almost see them wonder as to why the animal had fled back into the forest.

Still we were lucky with our guides and even though a few times we were part of the noisiest tiger stalking operation known to man we also spent most of our time away from the crowds. One of the many highlights for me was when we were sitting in the middle of the forest having just heard a tiger’s roar with my eyes closed listening for more sounds. While we didn’t hear the tiger again we enjoyed all the wonderful sounds of the birds of the jungle. Truly it was a fantastic day and once we got home we were very excited and looking forward to more fun tomorrow! T

Relaxing in our fabulous resort.

The female elephants on the plains minding the young ones.

While the locals weren’t impressed by the monkeys we still found them fascinating to watch.


After waiting for a little while we were rewarded by his family crossing the road right in front of us.

With big daddy bringing up the rear.

Haridwar

After our lovely few days relaxing in the hills we decided to go check out Haridwar which is supposedly one of five holiest cites in India. Situated on the Ganges just 30kms downriver from Rishikesh we had a pretty uneventful bus journey out of the mountains until we hit the outskirts of Hardiwar and came to a complete standstill. As we have come to expect with the Indians, the traffic jam became a complete free for all which of course only made the situation worse. Sigh.After another hour and a half we finally made it to our accommodation. 

We had come to Haridwar to witness the sacred ganga aarti ceremony at the Har-Ki-Pairi Ghat. It is where the god Vishnu is said to have dropped some divine nectar and left behind a footprint. We had been told that the one in Rishikesh was for the tourists but this was the one you had to see. On the bus into the city the sheer number of people we glimpsed bathing in the Ganges made us think tonight was going to be pretty special.

The river has been diverted to create more manageable flows where steps have been built down into the river to accommodate so many people. Even with the diversions the inlets are still fast flowing and I shudder at how many lives must be lost with so many people entering the water and how poor at swimming they are.

In the afternoon we headed out towards the ghat where the ceremony would take place. The town itself was manic! The streets were filled with shops and cars and people. Back to the hectic India for us! Now I don’t know if it was because we had a break from it all in the mountains for a few days or because we were expecting it but although extremely busy we enjoyed the streets far more than Rishikesh. It definitely didn’t have as many western tourists. A guy who was riding a bicycle was too busy goggling at us that he ran into the car in front of him. It was acutely quite funny.

We headed towards the river and walked the last kilometer along the Ganges watching everyone enjoy bathing in the river. The crowds got thicker and thicker as we got closer to the Ghat and the atmosphere certainly felt reverent. There were holy men walking around offering blessings, for a fee of course.

At the Ghats there were several bridges criss crossing the river and on either side hundreds and hundreds of people were swimming. We didn’t quite know where to stand so we just wandered around watching in awe what was going on around us. We found a good vantage point on a bridge and were approached by a lovely family to have our photo taken and were told that we had a good spot to view the ceremony. 

Soon enough the chanting started and on either side people joined in. The crowd had swelled to thousands now and the atmosphere was amazing. Looking around at all the people in and about the water, flower offerings flowing down the river we realised why people told us to come here instead of the far more sedate ceremony in Rishikesh. 

There was a break in the chanting and then small fires and candles were lit all along the river. This just added to the magic of the place. Soon it was all over and then as people dispersed plates of the fire were passed around and people would touch their hands through the fire and then to their head. From what we could garner from our family, these fires were now holy and you were blessing yourself with the fire. 

We waited a little while for the crowd to disperse but were inundated for requests for photos. My mouth was actually sore from all the smiling we had to do. So we got out of there with the crowds and had a lovely walk back along the river to our hotel. Along the way we came across lots people setting up as if to sleep out along the river. I don’t know if they were there permanently or there just for the night because they made their pilgrimage here to bath in the Ganges. I hope it was the later as there were a lot of them. Haridwar was definitely worth the stop. S

The streets of Haridwar.

There were little shops everywhere selling plastic bottles to collect your own sacred Ganges water. Some people were leaving with buckets of it. We couldn’t figure out if they drank it or just put in on the mantle as a keepsake.

On the other side of the river the buildings all went right up to the river and had their own private ghats. Notice the little boy fishing for metal with his magnet.

People were bathing for kilometres all along the river edge and special barriers had been but in place so people could hold on and not get washed away.

Getting closer to the Har-Ki-Pairi Ghat. As you can see the river has been diverted into a smaller and shallower channel.

Waiting for the ceremony to start.

The sheer number of people in attendance was mind blowing. This happens every night, though the crowds are the busiest between May and July.

The fires being lit and people floating their offerings down the river. There didn’t seem to be a specific time you had to do this so all afternoon offerings were floating by.

The holy fires.


The Ganges by night.

Relaxing in Faku

The plan had been to spend most of our last week enjoying yoga, meditating, relaxing and reflecting on our wonderful time in India. Unfortunately our chosen destination of Rishikesh, although advertised as being perfect for this, was not worth staying in for more than five minutes. So backup plans were hastily drawn up and we were on our way to a small hotel in the hills near Rishikesh.

As we ascended into the hills the temperature dropped and we were soon sat outside our room enjoying a wonderful view over the valley below. To be honest we then spent the next two days sat around a table enjoying the peace and quiet. Problems solved and future adventures planned.

The place was great and our host, Anil was incredibly helpful and we enjoyed plenty of great conversations with him. The rest of the staff couldn’t speak much English but taught us how to play Carom which is a game we will definitely be buying when we return.

We were lucky that our first two nights were during the week and the place was very quiet and peaceful. On our last night the families from Delhi arrived. I am sure that they believe they are being quiet but the noise level went through the roof. There was plenty of shouting and then even more ordering around of staff. We sat and watched in amazement while Anil pumped up the music and they all sat around enjoying their version of a quiet visit to the hills!  

Deciding not to book another night we left on a bus to head towards Haridwar and some more authentic Ganges experiences. T

Pretty great spot for a relax.

Our bungalows.

The view down the valley.


Us waiting for our bus at the end.  It must be noted that there can’t be any advertising regulations in India as not one of the claims made on this sign were true (well maybe you could count toast as a different cuisine)

Rishikesh 

We should have learnt our lesson from McLeod Ganj when it comes to spiritual places in India but we had both set the bar high for our next spiritual encounter. Set on the banks of the Ganges, Rishikesh is a very holy place for Indians with hundreds of thousands coming each year to swim in the Ganges and or lay their loved ones’ ashes or bones to rest in the river. It’s also the yoga capital of the world.

We arrived late afternoon after an uneventful 9 hour drive from Shimla and dropped off our bags and went for a walk for some food. The tourist town is situated on both sides of the river with two pedestrian bridges, one in the north and one in the south. We started walking from the hotel and past several yoga schools and then hit the main hustle near the river. It was nothing like we expected. I don’t want to be rude but Rishikesh was the most disgustingly dirty place we have visited. It was gross and so busy!

We found out that the weekend we arrived was a festival weekend so the crowds were bigger than normal. We found a restaurant overlooking the river and decided to have some food and then head back to our hotel to start the experience of Rishikesh anew after a good nights sleep. 

I had researched some ashrams further along the river for me to do some yoga and had visions of peace and quiet and lush gardens and forest walks. So we headed out in the morning to go and check them out. As we eased closer towards the “spiritual center” things didn’t improve cleanliness wise, in fact I think it got dirtier. By this stage my vision of spending the next week in yoga bliss was being quickly dashed. We arrived at the ashram and it was nothing like we expected. It was packed full of people walking in and out and the rooms were more like a boarding school than a retreat. But we pushed on to the reception to see if we could have a look at the place to see if we wanted to stay. Before we even got that far we were told that there was no availability for weeks so that quashed that idea.

Thoroughly dejected by this stage we walked back to our accommodation along the river, stopping off at other ashrams that quite frankly were shitholes. I even asked a group of western girls along the way where they were doing their yoga and were told they also hadn’t found a suitable place. There was a definite feeling of disappointment from everyone.

Late afternoon we headed back towards the ashram to view the Ganga aarti which is a ceremony where offerings of flowers are floated down the river. The ceremony itself was very busy and we were viewing it from a balcony above. After about 45 mins we got so sick of Indians pushing into us to get a better view that we decided we had seen enough and headed further upstream to send off our flower offering we had purchased. 

We found a relatively calm space to sit with our feet in the Ganges and for the first time we felt the real magic of Rishikesh. There was a cool breeze blowing and across the river a ceremony with drums and chanting was taking place. As we sat watching the river, flower offerings were floating past and the people around us where performing their own little ceremonies and prayers. It was really quite wonderful. The family beside us asked us if we were on a holy holiday and we looked a little confused and told them we had been in India for a while and we wanted to see the Ganges. We found out he and his wife come here for 10 days every year for their holy holiday to pay their respects to the gods. After spending sometime down by the river we headed back to our accommodation feeling we had slightly glimpsed the spirituality of the Ganges. S

The Lakshmi Jhula hanging bridge. Slightly busier than we expected.

No matter how hot and bothered you are, you still need to put on a smile when they come and ask for photos. Especially when they’re kids.

Footbridge you say. Surely that means it’s okay for scooters and cows.

The mighty Ganges!

All along the river there were stairs leading down for people to bathe.

Holy men.

The Ashram. In the photo it looks a lot more tranquil that it actually was.

More scenes of people washing in the Ganges. We knew the Indians had cast iron stomachs but when you see them drink the Ganges water you really know they do, or the reason why they have cast iron stomachs.

Ram Jhula footbridge.

Tim tentatively taking a dip. The temp was freezing! Which we should of realised considering it comes from the Himalayas but when your sweating in 40 degrees you automaticly think the water will be bath water.  

Ladies selling some fruit I couldn’t place. Very similar to a fig I think.

The streets of Rishikesh. 

The Ganga aarti ceremony.

Ready to launch our offering.


Watching the offerings flow past with the locals.

Shimla

Stretching and winding along a ridge the 12 km sprawl of Shimla was created by the British as a place to escape the summer heat. Our guest house was about 4km out of the centre and had superb views from the balcony (from the bed really) back across the valley to the town itself.

Our room in the guest house backed onto a communal living room in which, unfortunately, our neighbours decided to have dinner at midnight and then we were awoken at 7am by an overly keen waiter wanting to serve us breakfast. I am sure the sight of me half awake and half dressed asking what he wanted has probably scarred him for life.

Shimla as a town was very busy and full of hustle and bustle. The accommodation was very expensive too so we decided to cut our time here short and try and see everything in the one day. We caught a taxi into the centre of town and started our explorations.

The Main Street in Shimla is called the Mall and is pedestrianised which in India was a fantastic change. The street ran along the ridge of Shimla and in between the buildings we were able to enjoy wonderful views down over the green valleys below. Even though there were loads of people it was actually quite relaxing and pleasant and we were able to enjoy a couple of hours walking up and down the ridge.

There were three or four hills around the town and they each seemed to have a temple on top. The most famous temple was Jakhu Temple or Monkey Temple as it was more commonly known and obviously we decided to hike up and have a look. I had read that on the way up to Monkey Temple the local monkeys were pretty fearless in their robberies of tourists. We were not to carry food or have loose clothing and our sunglasses had to be hidden away.

At the bottom of the path up there was a man renting out sticks so I decided to rent one. He was very professional. He had a bucket of sticks and I could hire one for 10 rupees but had to leave a 40 rupee deposit! Would you believe it I actually got a receipt! Next to the man with the sticks was a sign stating how long it should take you to hike up the mountain to the temple. There were various times listed and next to them how fit you were if you achieved said time. Most people would casually ignore such a sign, avoid glancing at a watch and carry on at a leisurely pace up the path.

Not for us though, I had hoped Sarah hadn’t seen it but alas no. We checked the time and set off up the path. We were both pretty exhausted by the time we got to the top but luckily we made it in the best time listed so we were both happy. At the top the monkeys circled around looking for their chance to pounce but they avoided us no doubt due to my rented monkey thrashing device. The Monkey temple was dominated by a huge 40ft high pink monkey figurine. However the surrounding trees meant that the views weren’t actually that spectacular but we enjoyed the cool breeze and rested a while before our descent.

Our plan had been to do some hiking around the surrounds of Shimla but it was all a bit too busy and expensive so we decided against it. The reason it’s so busy and expensive is that it is school holiday time in Delhi so everyone traipses up into the hills to escape the heat and enjoy some peace and quiet. It’s amusing as the constant honking of horns and chatter of people is still very prevalent here and neither of us thought it much of a reprieve noise wise. But certainly the cooling temperatures and the brisk breezes up in the mountains are, even for us, a most welcome change from the stifling heat further south.

It has been fun visiting Shimla but it wasn’t the relaxing place we were looking for to stop and spend some time reflecting on our Indian experiences…the search continues. T

The view of Shimla from our balcony was spectacular to say the least.

The top of the ridge in the middle of town.  

The ladies carrying concrete with the backdrop of Shimla town.  

The roads winded there way around the hills.

Ready for some monkey thrashing.

The gigantic Monkey at the top of Jakhu Temple.

Some shots of the streets of Shimla.  It was really nice wandering around without the constant threat of being run over.

Glimpses of the valleys around Shimla.  All in all a very beautiful area.


The view from our balcony was pretty amazing in the evening too!