Dhuri, Punjab

The Rough Guide to India contains a mere 17 pages on the two states of Punjab and Haryana, compared to 77 on Tamil Nadu and a whopping 109 on Rajasthan. In that short section, it covers only two places, Chandigarh (which technically isn’t in either state) and Amritsar, dismissively stating that “there is little of tourist interest in the two states” other than the Rock Garden and the Golden Temple.

I thought it seemed a bit of a shame to rule out the whole region just because of a lack of tourist spectacles, especially when it has such a strong cultural identity. I was keen to experience the Punjab for myself, and was already considering going off piste and looking for a couchsurfing contact in the middle of nowhere, when a better option was presented: my couchsurfing friend in Chandigarh suggested that I go and stay with his parents at his family home in Dhuri, a small town (a mere 50,000) in rural Punjab some 130km from the state capital.

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Chandigarh and Pinjore

So, with the damaged Royal Enfield Bullet packed up and transported off to Delhi, I abandoned plans for venturing further into Himachal Pradesh, and took the Kalka-Shimla Railway back down to Chandigarh.

At the station, I wasn’t sure which window to use: reserved or unreserved tickets? On the basis that I only had 15 minutes before the train, waiting on the platform, was due to leave, the queue for reserved tickets was much longer, and the two Europeans I spoke to in that queue were buying tickets for another day (and another railway line entirely), I went to the almost queueless unreserved window.

The man behind the counter was the same one I’d spoken to the night before, who’d said a first class ticket was Rs245 and I could buy it on the day. This morning, however, he told me there was no first class. Instead, I could buy a basic ticket for Rs40. Imagine, Britons, a six hour rail journey (London to Dundee, say) with tickets available on the day for 40p.

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The best aspect of couchsurfing isn’t financial, but social. Free accommodation does help to stretch the travelling budget, but what’s far more valuable, especially for a solo traveller, is the way it makes it easy to meet people in the areas you’re visiting, see their homes, meet their friends and family, and get a feel for their lives. There’s also the bonus of getting their advice on the best places to visit.

Couchsurfing caters specifically to this by allowing people to arrange to meet just for coffee, or food, or for sightseeing, even if they’re not surfing/hosting together.

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I liked Nainital, particularly the cooler climate, so much that I decided my next destination after Haridwar would be Mussoorie, another hill station where the British used to retreat from the heat of the Indian plain to the more temperate climate of the Himalayan foothills.

The journey from Haridwar wasn’t too long, and the winding road up into the hills from Dehradun to Mussoorie was beautiful, even through it was shrouded in mist when I first went up it. You could still see the wooded ravines, the rapids and waterfalls of the mountain streams (in one place falling directly onto the road) and great mossy cliffs rising all around and dropping away into the fog.

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Nainital is a hill station, one of the small towns just a short trip up into the Sivalik foothills of the Himalayas, either founded by the British (like Lansdowne, Mussoorie and Dalhousie) or expanded from a native village (like the Raj’s summer capital, Shimla, and Nainital), and used as an escape from the oppressive heat of the Indian plains. As well as being cool, refreshing, quiet and relaxing, Nainital’s USP is its beautiful setting around a small mountain lake.

I’m not actually staying in Nainital itself. My first Couchsurfing host, Bobby, owns a small organic farm in the valley about 20km south of the town. For the first day, I just relaxed on the farm, recovering from the previous day’s journey, and also visited the nearby town of Haldwani to catch up on emails and the blog. Just a small increase in altitude from the plain made a big difference to the temperature, taking the edge off. The constant noise and bustle was much reduced, too, and the scenery… well, take a look: Continue reading

Fourth day in Delhi: the inevitable

The fourth day in Delhi was fairly uneventful. I’d been intending to go to Moradabad and stay with a couchsurfer to break the journey to Nainital, but he wasn’t responding to calls and texts, so I decided to go directly to Nainital the following day instead. Also, having spent the first few days hovering around a healthy 3-5, I plummeted to a 7, combined with a mild stomach ache. So I spent the morning in, feeling sorry for myself. By the afternoon I was a bit better, and went to meet another CS, Tanveer, who is from Srinagar in Kashmir, but studies photography in Delhi and works in a hotel on Connaught Place. We sat in the cool, air-conditioned lobby of his hotel and looked at his photos of Srinagar and other places in Kashmir. It all looks very beautiful. He kindly offered to let me stay with his family if I go to Srinagar.

In the evening, we went out to visit some family friends, and discussed travel plans. Apparently the Valley of Flowers is closed due to the monsoon floods. I was strongly urged to consider going to Leh, riding there from Manali then across to Srinagar, completing a loop via Jammu and Amritsar.