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Friday, December 19, 2008


Getting to Rishikesh

The map on the back of the Hotel White House brochure has been quite helpful for finding my way around Dehradun. I've found most of the landmarks. However I didn't find the railway station. I'm thinking that perhaps the map is not to scale and I simply did not walk far enough.

But it seems I might not need the railway station after all. A website for one of the guesthouses in Rishikesh says there is a bus direct from Dehradun. If I get the train, I still need to get a bus or taxi from Hardiwar. The bus option sounds better. I ask the White House manager about it. He says there is a regular bus—a good one—and that if I walk to the Parade Ground I can pick up an auto that will take me to the bus station for five or ten rupees.

The following morning I'm checking out and when he sees my bags decides that walking to the Parade Ground is not such a good idea. He says he'll send one of his staff to bring an auto back for me and it'll cost 80-100 rupees to get to the bus station. I seem to be missing something here. Last night he's talking 5-10 rupees. Now it's 80-100. It won't break me but that's a big difference. It turns out there are two kinds of autos. Some are like your personal three-wheel taxi and go where you say. The others are like three-wheel minibuses that hold about eight people. They follow a set route—they are the cheap ones. As I said the bus is not to scale. The bus station looks like it is a block or two past the railway but it's actually seven or eight k's, hence the price.

OK. Now I understand. He sends one of his staff out to find my personal three-wheel taxi but the guy comes back five minutes later quoting 160 rupees for the fare. The manager is not going to lose face over this. He sends another guy out who returns with an auto that'll do it for 110 rupees. I accept.

The journey is both fascinating and horrible. Fascinating because of all the sights—people and places, mainly people. This is one of those National Geographic occasions because despite my years of travel I'm seeing what previously I've only seen in books and docos. When I see unusual characters in a book, I assume they are one-offs but half the people we pass could be in National Geographic. On the other hand, the bigger autos—usually the minibuses—are noisy and belch horrible fumes. I'm glad I'm wearing a cloth hat. I use it as a makeshift gas mask for the whole journey.

Apparently the auto can't drive right into the bus station. He stops outside and points to where I should be able to get my bus. After lugging my bags to where the buses wait I am told no, and someone points to where there are one or two buses back out in the street. I try one, cross the street, try another and then the next says 'yes' they go to Rishikesh.

This bus is old. The ones I used to joke about in Cambodia look modern compared to this but I don't care, so long as it gets me to Rishikesh and so long as I can get the weight of these bags off my body, I'll be happy.

Five minutes later we're on our way. It takes quite a while to clear Dehradun and until we do, there are people everywhere heading this way and that along the side of the road reminding me that India is indeed the second most populous country in the world.

We pass through some smaller (but still busy) towns on the way; some forest and it too is busy—monkeys seem to be lined along the roadside to watch cars go by; and also we go over some hilly country before we reach Rishikesh.

I have been given instructions by a friend of a friend who lives in Rishikesh. 'Walk down the road to the corner and catch an auto. Tell them you want to go to the second bridge at Laxman Jhula. It will cost you five or ten rupees.'

The bus pulls over to the side and before it backs into the station (just a vacant lot) there are auto drivers waiting to latch on to each and every passenger. I wait until the driver has backed in before I carry my bags off the bus. One auto driver has seen this foreigner with too much luggage and is waiting patiently. I tell him where I want to go. He quotes me 80 rupees.

I realise that the autos at the corner that charge 5-10 rupees are the minibus type but I don't know which way to go and with all these bags I'm reluctant to head in the wrong direction. I tell this driver what I've been told and ask where I catch these autos. He tells me it's about 2 k away and waves vaguely in no specific direction.

I try to call my friend's friend but there's no answer. Another auto driver turns up and also quotes me 80 rupees. I try the friend's friend's other number. Still no answer. I offer the driver 50 rupees but he knows I'm stuck and won't budge.

I try the first number again. Still no answer. Finally I agree to go with this driver for 80 rupees. This is not a lot of money but I think it's a reasonable assumption that if I was an Indian I'd be charged less. I resent being charged more based on race.

He grabs my big bag and puts it in his auto which is one of the bigger type but I've got it to myself. He lifts the seat up and starts the motor with a rope, the way any Australian of my age would remember we used to start motor mowers years ago. It starts put-putting straight away. I'm intrigued by this motor. What is it? Diesel? Two stroke? I ask him what sort of motor it is. All I get from him is 'six hp'.

We head off down the road. After about 100 metres we turn and there are all the autos parked—the ones that would have taken me for about 5 or 10 rupees.

As we drive through the town I am not impressed. This is supposed to be a 'holy' town but it's just as busy, noisy, dirty and polluted as Dehradun.

We travel quite a distance and eventually reach the river—the holy Ganga. By now it is not quite so busy and there are patches of beauty in the countryside.

Eventually he stops in a place that is busy and has no beauty—not to my eyes anyway. This is it? He says it is. Then where is the bridge? Just down there. He gives another of his vague waves. 'I want to go to the bridge,' I say.

He gets his rope out and starts up again and takes me several hundred metres down the hill that I wouldn't like to have been walking with these bags. Eventually he says he can't go any further. I still can't see the bridge. He waves 'Over there. Just one minute. One second.'

I try again to ring my friend's friend. Still no answer. I pay the 80 rupees—the ride really was worth it—and the driver helps me load my pack onto my back and I walk off in the direction he'd been waving.

After about 50 metres I see the bridge. But which is the guesthouse that's been recommended? I have no way of knowing. Alongside a temple there are two guys with a stall selling jewellery. One says 'Are you looking for a room?' I'm wary of touts but I really want to get rid of this load. I take a look.

It's on the second floor, which is actually the roof. It's tiny—more a cell than a room. But it's clean, has it's own bathroom with hot water and has good security. Half the roof is a terrace with 180 degree views of the Ganga, the bridge and the surrounding hills. All things considered, it's not too bad. I ask the price and for India it is amazingly cheap. I take it.

I dump my bag and go off to get some lunch. As I walk back I feel the warm sun. I'm enjoying this environment. For India it's relatively quiet. It's not unpleasant. Perhaps I'll like it here.

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