Taking the cheapest public bus from Shimla to Haridwar in hindsight probably wasn’t the best idea we’ve ever had. Sitting around the bus station before the sun had even come up we waited and waited and were beginning to worry we had missed the bus when all of a sudden it came trundling around the corner. Stashing our bags under the back seats, we set about trying to find the least uncomfortable seats for the ten hour journey ahead but no matter where we chose to sit, sleeping was impossible. The journey took us cross-country, through small towns and villages, winding around unpaved mountain roads at speed, avoiding the sheer drops by inches. Our bearded, turban sporting driver knew the road well and we were thankful because looking out the front window you couldn’t see more than ten metres in front due to the dense fog that had materialised out of nowhere. Rattling and rolling along the roads we were taking the journey better than most of the local passengers, some of whom were hanging out the windows leaving their breakfast on the road behind. An unexpected stop had to be made to clean the mess from the side of the bus and also to de-vomit our bags which had been on the floor for the journey until now. Continuing on, we could see from the road signs that we were getting closer.
As we neared our destination, we were regularly passing groups of men walking barefoot along the side of the road in bright orange clothing carrying sticks adorned in glitter, tinsel and pictures of the Hindu God Shiva. Tractors pulled converted trailers packed out with men in the same attire, screaming at the top of their lungs to the Indian music blaring from the massive speakers latched to the trailers.
Wondering what the hell was going on we finally rolled into a field in the holy city of Haridwar, we were five kilometers away from where we had expected the bus to pull in, it had been a memorable journey for all the wrong reasons and the fun wasn’t over yet!
A crowd of fifteen or so men gathered around us when we reached the road to negotiate with the cycle rickshaw drivers. Taking photos, pointing at us, all eyes glued to Noelle and generally making us feel a tad uncomfortable. Agreeing on a rate for the short trip we got going as quickly as we could but after no time at all the rickshaw came to a sudden halt at the city centre. Unknown to us the Shivaratri Festival was in full swing in Haridwar and would be continuing for the next week or so. Pilgrims come to Haridwar from all over India, most walking for five to ten days from Delhi. They come on pilgrimage to collect water from the holy Ganges river to bring back to their home town and make an offering at the Shiva temples in their homes on the seventeenth of July. Festivities continue over a few weeks and many of the pilgrims are from small towns and villages where tourists don’t visit so we were a novelty to say the least and people were picking their jaws up off the floor as we walked by.
Since the streets were closed to traffic we began the four kilometre walk, with all our bags, towards our guesthouse at the other side of town. We shared the streets with some seventeen million pilgrims and it was like nothing we had ever experienced. The only comparison I can make is to a match day back home but times a thousand. Groups of overly excited men were walking by singing, shouting and blowing horns as loud as they could. People ran up to us wanting to shake hands, say hello and talk to us and when we obliged it was followed by a round of laughter and congratulations for the brave soul of the group who had dared to approach ‘the foreigners’. We had no choice but to keep moving, anytime we stopped we were swarmed and it was with our last ounce of energy that we finally reached our guesthouse. Worn out from the walk up through the mad crowd we dropped our bags to our room but with only one night in Haridwar to see the Ganga Aarti ceremony we had no option but to suck it up and head back out into the mosh pit that was the streets of Haridwar.
Indian holy men, known as babas or saddhus were everywhere smoking charas from chillums on the side of the street, cows were strolling around without a care in the world, honking motorbikes with up to four passengers were flying by, pigs were casually going though the piles of rubbish along the sides of the streets and on top of all this, the streets were jam-packed beyond belief, personal space was something we were having none of here. The Ganga, as the locals call it, was lined on both sides by ghats and people hung onto chains attached to the banks as they bathed to stop themselves from being swept away by the strong river. Some brave swimming teenage pilgrims went whizzing by us, outside the chained off area, propelled only by the strong currents and at the speed they were going it wouldn’t be long before they reached Bangladesh. All along the banks of the river people had set up shop for the night, sleeping on the ground to be as near as possible to the holy Ganga. Every second person had plastic containers hung around their neck full of the holy rivers water, bicycles and motorbikes were being washed with the river water to bless them and bring them good luck. Small make-shift stalls were set up selling everything from paper to lie on, to snacks and we passed a dozen or so young boys offering permanent tattoos to people with what looked like a homemade tattooing kit. Sanitation standards were definitely not up to any kind of standard here and it seemed crazy that this was even allowed to go on but as we were quickly learning, in India anything can happen.
Everywhere I looked was another great photo waiting to be taken but if we stopped moving for a split second a crowd of people gathered around us instantly staring at us. At one point being followed by a small crowd, a police officer had to step in and tell our newly acquired followers to back off. By now, it was becoming dark fast and we reached the Har-ki-Paira (The footstep of God) Ghat just in time for the famous Ganga Aarti ceremony held every evening to worship the river. The crowd kicked off with singing and chanting, a rhythmic ringing of bells began and large torches on the other side of the river were lit as the sun finished setting. The river became dotted with small lights here and there as worshipers sent leaf baskets down the river, each containing a single candle and purple lotus petals, we too took part in the candle lighting much to the delight of the crowd that gathered to watch us practice the Indian custom. After the ceremony was over, again we tried to take photos from the bridge but police told us to “no photos” because of the disturbance it was causing on the bridge due to all the people stopping to take pictures of us taking pictures. We battled back the rammed streets towards our hotel and happily stepped inside for a few hour out of the madness of the Shivaratri Festival, as tomorrow it would be onto the neighbouring holy town of Rishikesh.
The next morning we woke and made our way to the bus stand to catch the thirty minute bus to Rishikesh where we would be staying in an ashram on the banks of the Ganges. The thirty minute journey ended up taking a total of ten hours, due to traffic restrictions for the Shivaratri and us having to walk an incredible amount with all our bags. Our ordeal began as soon as we left the hotel; a cycle rickshaw took us to the bus stand where we were once again surrounded by a bright orange crowd. Enquiring about the bus to Rishikesh was a nightmare, auto-rickshaw rivers insisted there was no bus and we should go with them instead, bus drivers told us there was no bus and so did everybody else we asked. It was as if there was some great conspiracy against us getting on a bus to Rishikesh but knowing that this was all lies we stuck to our guns and continued to search for the bus to Rishikesh.
Out of nowhere a smartly dressed guy with big sunglasses and very good English approached us and explained what was going on. There was a bus to Rishikesh but it was leaving from the other side of town due to the Shivaratri festival. He and his brother were a shining light in an otherwise incredibly frustrating morning, they not only haggled with the rickshaw driver on our behalf but they came with us on the rickshaw, walked us the next leg through the crowds and brought us all the way to the temporary bus stand on the other side of town and refused to accept so much as a bottle of water in return. We waited with our guardian angels at the side of the road for the bus to arrive. Word must have gotten out we were here as people slowly started to appear around us just standing and staring at us. There were twenty or more people around us when a tan-uniformed policeman came through the crowd, “what happened” he asked us, “nothing, we’re just waiting for the bus”, he looked at us with disbelief, “come with me” he said. We were then hidden away from public view in a sheltered tea shack and told to wait here for the bus. When it finally arrived there was a frenzy as people tried to squash on. Electing to sit on the roof was the best decision we made, the breeze was a welcome relief from the hot afternoon weather and we finally had some space from the maddening crowd. As we drove away from Haridwar on the roof of the bus, dodging the overhanging trees, we hoped that Rishikesh would be a bit, if not a lot, calmer, we’d just have to wait and see.