Sunday, January 15, 2017

Visits to some North Indian tourist spots [Part 2]

Continued from Part 1



Disclaimer: Views expressed here are based on a single visit, so would be lacking a complete perspective. Advice from locals are also included.


When in North India, have a plan for food. Especially if it's tough for you to handle poorly cooked food or food with burnt particles in it.
Most people in the north are accustomed to eating chapathis, rotis, naans and parathas which have black burnt spots on them. They feel it is normal because it is so prevalent there. Burnt spots are actually not a part of the recipe.
See this.
Eating burnt food causes cancer, and other health complications.
Try searching for South Indian restaurants where they take care to cook food properly (Saravana bhavan was one example). Idli's and dosa's early in the morning are a safe bet. Try not to eat from restaurants where the chutney is too watery. You can actually check that by walking up to the kitchen and asking them to show a sample, before you sit at the table.

Your body produces heat via the muscles (which is why you shiver), and having a good amount of nutrition is essential for your muscles. In cold weather, make sure you have full meals which are well cooked and do not have burnt particles in them. Even if you have to eat at an expensive restaurant, it is worth it. Buy fruits too, but only after verifying that they are sufficiently ripe.
You'll notice that it's very tough to find bakeries there. It's always handy to have some bread with you, and if your stomach suffers from having eaten restaurant food, drinking some curd will give relief. You could also buy some steamed rice, buy the curd separately, mix them and have curd rice.
Also, drink water constantly whenever you feel a bit thirsty. Hydration is important during travel.
You'll get 1L mineral water bottles of reputed brands for Rs.20 even from chemist shops. The 2L bottles cost Rs.30, so it's better to buy those. Refuse to pay more than the MRP. Even for soft drinks kept in cold storage. It's illegal and there are shops where you can find it at MRP too. Both in Delhi and Agra. Even at the bus stands.



Shimla and Kufri


Note: I haven't traveled much in Shimla, so these views may be very biased. There would be a lot of other people who would appreciate these places for their beauty, heritage and resources. For a rational mind though, it's the experience that counts, and I didn't like it. These opinions are geared toward the precautions and realities.
These are also two overrated places. Perhaps they were good in the past, but now both places are worth avoiding because:
  • Tourist operators have taken tourism for granted. They will actually insult you and speak to you rudely if you do not accept their services or are not willing to pay the exorbitant amount of money they demand. Lies are also part of the package. You'll be charged Rs.2000+ for a little taxi drive of 12km to around 4 tourist spots. We traveled double the distance for a lesser price at Manali.
  • A friend tells me that people throw stones at people who bring their own vehicles for touring the place. I don't know how far this is true, but given what I saw about the nature of the tourist operators, I would be inclined to believe it.
  • The buildings and alleys are narrow and steep. One hotel area we went to was infested with monkeys.
  • A friend says it isn't worth visiting Shimla for the snow because the crowd is so great that all you see it boot snow. ie: Snow that has been walked upon so much that it's black.
  • Snow also means power cuts and no water supply. See the article from Times of India below.
Click image to see clearly

Perhaps some reasons to visit Shimla would be for the apples, the view, the snow at Kufri and the toy train ride. But given that you can get all of these at other places in India, it might actually be worth skipping Shimla and Kufri altogether. These places are overpriced and the tourist operators just bring a bad name to the place.

Why you should definitely skip the tour operators at Kufri:
If you can get a bus or app based cab or a local friend or a bike which can take you to Kufri, then no problem. Go ahead. Enjoy the view and the snow during winter.
But. There are these few things you have to be aware of:
  • At Kufri, the tourist operators get a commission when you spend a lot of money at certain places, and they take you there for exactly that. Our guide made sure we went out of our route to take us to an ATM where we had the opportunity to withdraw enough of money. While we initially thought of him as an angel, we later realized it was so that he'd get his commission.
  • Definitely avoid Hip Hip Hurray: The tourist guide had so highly recommended this place that we thought it would be a large area full of adventure activities, like Wonderla. It turned out to be an extremely extremely extremely tiny place with a few cramped up amusement activities. You can take part in each of those only once, unlike Wonderla where it is unlimited. And yet, they charge Rs.700 per head. What's worse, if you choose to skip it, they will actually start insulting you. Just avoid the place altogether.
  • Skip the horse ride at the Kufri hill top: This is another place where the tourist guide gets a commission from the horse ride organizers. They'll tell you you have to climb up for 4km and 11k feet height to reach the top, and you won't be able to do so unless you take the horse ride for Rs.500. That seemed dumb to me. If a horse could climb, then so could I. For 10 minutes, we walked up a 45 degree incline huffing and puffing and after that the route was easily walkable at a 20 degree incline. The people walking down congratulated us on not taking the horse ride, as they said the hill top was just 1.5km of a walkable distance away and the organizers had cheated them by offering the ride for Rs.600 per head. They said even Rs.500 was not worth it because the amount you pay is only for the ride up. To ride down, you have to pay more. People who took the horse ride were even complaining they didn't enjoy it. One woman got off the horse out of fear because the hooves of the horse were slipping on the smooth rocks along the path. It didn't seem safe to ride a horse on a sharp incline.


Once on top of the hill, you'll have to pay an additional Rs.10 to enter an area where you pay Rs.50 if you want to get photographed with a Yak. Rs.50 for 5 shots with an air gun with which you shoot plastic bottles 20 feet away. You get to dress up in traditional attire and get photographed for a fee. You get some less than impressive mountain views and some makeshift stalls where you get cooked Maggi for Rs.60 (price for a packet is actually Rs.10).

Since we decided to skip the expensive Hip Hip Hurray and horse rides because we could see we were being cheated, our tour guide actually had the cheek to ask us "If you didn't have money to spend, why did you come here".

This is the reality of Shimla and Kufri.
You'll find snow and adventure for less than half the price and with zero insults and plenty of hospitality at other places in India. Go there instead.



Manali

The experience of being to Manali was better than Shimla, Kufri and Mussourie. Although at this time of the year many of the trees had shed their leaves, the people of Manali had not shed their hospitality. Everyone we met were warm, hospitable and very helpful.

Freshening up: If you haven't booked a hotel, you can freshen up at one of the government latrines. It's maintained reasonably clean, and you can get hot water from a geyser. It's Rs.10 for number1, Rs.20 for number2 and Rs.20 for bath. There's a separate wash basin with freezing water during winters. For women, the costs are lesser, and the caretaker there is polite and helpful.

Food at Manali: Unfortunately this sucks even in Manali. Restaurants; even the posh one I went to (hotel Kunzum) had food that wasn't cooked fully. The waiter there was however kind enough to seat me near a room heater which was a huge relief from the freezing cold.

Entertainment: New year sees a stage being setup at the main chowk at Manali, near the bus stand where drama, magic shows, songs and street plays are hosted. They also provide a public fire source near the stage where you can warm your hands.

Market: The goods here are reasonably priced (woolen clothing though is priced a bit more than Mussourie, but you can bargain), and you can get fruits, shoes, jackets etc. of good quality for a reasonable price. But make sure you bargain and are ready to walk off if you feel the price isn't right.

Tours: Taxi operators are willing to take you around for Rs.1500 with no receipt (which was far cheaper than Shimla, because in Manali they take you much farther distances). The operators were very polite and gave us a generous helping of whatever other information we needed to know about the place. You can visit places like Solang valley etc. A visit to the friendship peak though, needs more preparation and more than one day.

Solang

Food at Solang: At the adventure spot where paragliding is held, try to eat only the Maggi served there. I ordered rice and rajma and had to return it because it was full of large burnt pieces. The cook was cheeky enough to tell me it was tadka. They don't really care about the food they cook because they know you'll eat bad food anyway.

Paragliding: Rs.700 for the short and safer version. Rs.3000 for the one which launches you from much higher up. You use the cable car ride to reach the top of a hill where your paragliding guide and his friends hurriedly lay the parachute on the ground and within a few minutes, without any apparent safety checks, they ask you to run and the guide and you get launched into the air. For some people the ride is smooth. For others they oscillate in the air at such angles that we thought they would fall to the ground. We heard of a case where the parachute got caught onto something during launch and both the guide and the tourist got very badly injured. A colleague told me (of his experience, where) the string of the parachute got cut before they started, and the guide simply tied the cut strings into a knot and proceeded with the paragliding. Dangerous and a complete disregard for safety. We skipped it.



Cable car ride: At Rs.650 per head this is a tad expensive, but is a world class product and is a nice experience. You get to go up and come back down with that one ticket (unlike Kufri where the horse ride of Rs.600 was just for the way up). You might find the seats a bit dusty. We inferred it was from the paragliders who land on their bottom on the mud and then use the cable car to go up.



Skiing: After it snows, there is also skiing available at Manali, but I think you have to get trained for a few days before you actually attempt it.

Spring water: There was a place we were taken to where people said they got fresh spring water which they drank directly. Never drink water from such sources. The places where this water flows from can be infested with rodents and insects which do all their stuff in the water.

From Wulffmorgenthaler (now Wumo)

I'd recommend Manali. Nice adventure activities, good people. Reasonable rates. The food can improve though. Try to go during the season when you can get apples for very cheap prices.




Rishikesh

Triveni ghat (Ganga, Yammuna and Saraswati rivers meet here)

Honestly, this is a boring place for people who aren't into religion. There's a small tempo style bus that'll take you to Rishikesh in 1.5 hours from Dehradun ISBT (Inter State Bus Terminal). Once you reach the bus stand, you could approach an auto rickshaw terminal where they give you a bill for a tourist ride to spots in Rishikesh. We were charged Rs.520 which we felt was too much.
Anyway, the auto driver loyally took us to spots like the Lakshman jhula etc. and my co travellers got to dip their feet in the Ganga river and bring back some Ganga jal which they had been taught was holy water. You also get to see the temple which was the founding center for Rishikesh as a religious pilgrimage spot. There's also a Banyan tree there which is actually 3 trees joined together.
The auto driver takes you to a place, and promises to come back in some time, once you are done visiting the spot. In one case he took so long to come back, we thought he cheated us. He came soon enough though. Turns out he didn't expect us to return so early and had gone for lunch. Many of the other temples looked like apartments that were converted into a temple.

Rishikesh is apparently not a good spot for shopping. The auto driver told us everything is priced 3 or 4 times more than usual because of being a tourist spot.

Everyone we met, recommended doing water rafting in Rishikesh, and I even overheard a girl saying "Bahut maza aaya water rafting karke" (she had a lot of fun rafting). Might have been nice to do it, though later a colleague mentioned how his raft turned upside down, all of them ended up in the water and were luckily saved. Apparently you have to sign a declaration stating that you know what danger you are getting into. All it would take is for you to slam your head onto a rock or get impaled by an underwater piece of wood wedged between rocks. There's also bungee jumping at Rishikesh.

Rishikesh as a place was crowded and narrow. A bit suffocating. Some places have a lot of monkeys, but the monkeys didn't harm us. Plenty of foreigners. Plenty of police around. Still, it didn't feel like a safe place to be in.



Chandigarh

This was one beautiful city. Neat, wide roads, plenty of trees all around and plenty of open space. You get excellent quality curd there. The food wasn't very impressive though, and a tad expensive for what it was.

Auto rickshaws don't have a meter, and charge a reasonable fixed rate. The locals are aware of the rate and the rickshaw driver didn't charge us extra even though he knew we were not locals. He was willing to stop at multiple places when we wanted to buy things in between and gave us a cartload of information about whatever we wanted to know about the city. Very hospitable.

Make sure you visit the market at Sector 19. You'll get branded clothing for 1/3rd of the MRP, because they are manufactured just a little distance away in Ludhiana. A classmate of mine with his own clothing manufacturing business says that you can bargain even at the fixed price shops in this market, and you are actually expected to bargain. When you start walking away they'll come to you with a lower price. Buy as much as you can from Chandigarh. Woolens, jeans, pyjamas, shoes...whatever clothing items you need. Also note that there are different quality of woolen clothing available. Learn to identify it.

It's worth visiting Chandigarh to buy clothing before you go to the colder places like Manali and Shimla. It's also a good place to do some shopping to buy things for taking back home.

The International airport: You need to make sure you aren't taken to the old airport at Chandigarh. Go to the Chandigarh International Airport, which the elderly Ola taxi driver told us is not actually in Chandigarh, but in Mohali. Throughout the ride he told us about the Sikh religion, the generosity of Gurudwaras, the culture in Punjab where if there's an accident on the road, no vehicle would go forward until the accident victim was helped. He also recommended we try the Makkey di roti, Sarson da saag, lassi and the parathas of Punjab. To which I mentioned that I developed stomach problems after eating burnt parathas and roti's for the past few days. To this he said that parathas will be well cooked and not burnt if they are cooked properly.
This is what inspired my question on Seasoned Advice where I got it confirmed.

Be aware though, that Chandigarh airport sees a few flight cancellations during winter because of the fog. As of 2017, they haven't yet upgraded to CAT III. Might be better to book a flight from Delhi.


Accommodation: When booking a hotel, make sure you get a place in one of the sectors, which are the well planned, neat areas. If you get a room in an industrial phase instead, you'll end up in what our taxi driver referred to as a 'third class area' with potholes and filth. This is one of the problems of booking a budget hotel with Oyo. I've written to Oyo about also mentioning the locality type along with pictures of the room.


Misc

You could also try a trip to Dhanaulti, Chopta or Auli. Nice places with a lesser crowd and plenty of clean snow during winter. If springtime, visit the valley of flowers.

Wishing you a good trip to North India. Hospitable people, nice places (but recently, horrible food). Hope my bunch of tips and info would be of help. Do let me know in the comments.

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