Roaming around India

The quest for enlightenment

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Taj Mahal - the most iconic symbol of India.

India is a large county with diverse geography, climate and religions. It gave birth to quite a few religions, most famous among them Buddhism and Hinduism. Everything in India is about spirituality and purification. That's probably why so many westerners go there in search of something more than an expensive car and the latest iPhone. I am not sure if they find anything though.

Visiting India is a full-on experience. No story can prepare you for the moment you walk out of the airport door. For most people it's a love-hate relationship. Despite the challenges, India is a rewarding place like no other and I always think about my next trip to this fascinating country.

Buddha was born, roamed and died in a relatively small area of NE India. The most important Buddhist sites can be visited easily in a few days. Bodhgaya, probably the focus of Buddhist visitors, is where Buddha attained enlightenment. Near Varanasi, is the place where he gave his first sermon after being enlightened.

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The tree under which Buddha supposedly attained englightment some 2500 years ago.

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In Bodhgaya, there are temples from all Buddhist countries and monks of all kinds. Monks love phones (this photo was taken in 2008) and prefer not to walk.

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Meditating in the main complex in Bodhgaya. Wondering how far he got along history englightment path.

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Quintessential Varanasi - pilgrims and tourists oblivious to the dead body floating nearby. On the subsequent trip to Varanasi, I saw a corpse of a newborn baby floating by. Un-burnt body parts can also be seen floating down the river.

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Sarnath, the place where Buddha gave his first sermon after the enlightenment.

Varanasi, on the other hand, is one of the most important sites for Hindus. Pilgrims come here from all over India to bath and drink the holy Ganges water. Elderly come here in the hope of dying while in Varanasi, therefore earning the right to be cremated here.

Standing by the pyre and listening to the crackling sounds of the human flash burn, seeing fat drop from fingers and how the remaining, un-burnt body parts are pushed into the river is an experience not to be missed.

You are not supposed to take photos of the ceremony as the aggressive "untouchables" that operate the crematorium will warn you. But for a tip (to them) they will take you to a nice vantage point to take photos of their customers being burnt.

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Police car in Varanasi.

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Varanasi - the city older than time.

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Erotic stone carvings at Khajuraho.

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Traveling musicians.

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Overloaded is such an understatement.

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Have to have head covered to enter a Sikh temple.

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Taj Mahal at sunrise.

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Holi festival is celebrated by putting colorful powder on other people's faces. It's a particularly long and wild party time in NE India

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Even elephants' asses get colored.

India is a very popular destination among backpackers. There are backpacker's enclaves scattered around India, where strangely dressed youngsters hand out for months at a time.

Others go to India in search of something more than material things that the west promotes and pushes. There are ashrams all over India. Some of them may be genuinely interested in promoting self-growth. But many are just commercial businesses bent on making as much money as possible.

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East meets west - camels and Pink Floyd in Pushkar, backpacker's hub.

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Monkey enjoying people watching (actually crazy backpacker watching).

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Taking a break from crowds on Andaman islands.

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Visiting beaches is easy on a rented motorcycle.

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With very few people to pollute, waters around Andaman islands are clear.

After almost a month of train and bus travel around India, I was ready for a break. There are these big islands between India and Thailand, Andaman islands. They are not easy to get to and even less easy to get around. I booked an airplane ticket and flew there for a week of vacation from India.

Once back on the mainland, I took a 48 hr train from Mumbai to Chennai where a Royal Enfield was waiting for me. I didn't have much riding experience, even where people ride on the right side of the road. Looking back, I am not sure it was a good idea to learn to ride motorcycles in India, but I survived (barely).

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Back on the mainland - when in India, do what Indians do, hang by the side of the train door.

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Got this hog in Chennai and rode it down to the southernmost point of the Indian subcontinent and then up to the Indian Himalayas.

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Kerala - taking a house boat tour of the backwaters.

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Met this dude in the highlands above Kochi. He sold all his worldly possessions and came to India to travel around - ON FOOT. This is all he had. He said that the biggest danger were not tigers or snakes, but wild elephants. He had to be off the road by dark.

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Tropical highlands are perfect for tea and coffee growing. This one is not far from Kochi. As the road climbs up, the temperatures drop and it is pleasant at first, but quickly becomes uncomfortably cold.

I rode the bike from Chennai, down to the southernmost point of India and up to Mumbai. There, I put it on an overnight train north to save time. It was already getting uncomfortably hot in the deserts of Rajastan. Riding in the desert at 40+ deg , breathing hot air and fighting Indian drivers can be quite taxing. So I headed up into the mountains. I spent a few days in Dharamsala, the seat of Tibetan government and Dalai Lama, who I actually saw coming out of a building next to my hotel.

Then I explored some beautiful valleys on the way to Manali. Unfortunately Rohtang pass out of Manali, towards Leh was still snowed in. So I had to go further east and explore valleys boyond Shimla, one of the more famous British hill stations. A narrow-gauge train still carries passengers to Shimla.

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Going on a family vacation.

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Morning coffee at my guesthouse.

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I thought scenes like this one were Hollywood exaggeration.

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Another roof-top chill-out place.

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Golden temple - Sikh's holiest place.

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Marijuana garden in a remote village in Himalayan foothills. Israeli backpackers LOVE this place. Come here and stay for months, stoned 24/7.

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Had to rent a ski suit to climb up into the mountains above Manali. Unfortunately, there was still a lot of snow and the pass was still closed at the end of May.

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On Shimla train.

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Sarahan village in the foothills of the Himalayas.

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Pilgrims on the way to Yamanotri do not need to walk, just need money to pay someone to carry them.

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Evening prayer in Haridwar.

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Only the wheels peak below the load.

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Parting with my trusty Enfield at Delhi train station.

Seven Sister States of Northeastern India

Northeastern part of India is not on tourist maps and it's easy to overlook it. Had it not been for a lady from Mizoram sitting on a flight next to me and telling me about her state I probably would have never gone to this part of the world. But I am glad I did.

One can take train or bus from Kolkata, but it's much easier to fly to Guwahati, the gateway to 7 sister states of NE India. While on the plane, I read about the Naga headhunter warriors living in the mountais around Mon, a remote district of Nagaland, near the border with Myanmar.

Nagaland was off limits to tourists for many years. Only recently has it opened more. Infrastructure is still very poor. Even though distances are not that great, getting around is slow and painful. They use fairly large jeeps and stuff them with people.

I enjoyed my stay in Mon, with some of the most amazing temperatures I've ever experienced. However, it was time to move on. One full day or sitting in a jeep got me to Mokokchung, a city half way between Mon and the state capital Kohima. The weather is perfect here too, not hot, not cold, just right.

Nagas like to build their houses perched on steep hills affording amazing views of the valley and other hills. Nagas are very gentle, warm, albeit little shy people. I cherished my Nagaland experience

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Visiting, once fierce, Naga headhunters in remote Mon.

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Each rock behind me marks a head brought to the village.

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This is how opium is enjoyed, the traditional way.

Kohima, Nagaland's capital is a big city spread over a number of hills. There is a big annual Naga fair held nearby in December. From what I heard, it's a riot and I hope to visit it one day.

After a couple of days in Kohima, it was time to continue to Manipur and its capital Imphal. I was warned by virtually everyone to be careful in Imphal. I'm not sure what happens at night and what it is like, but during the day, it's a normal, safe city. Manipuri take Holi festival to a whole new level. The festivities go on for a week, unlike the rest of India, where things wind down after 2-3 days.

Another grueling 12 hour ride at the back of a jeep got me to Silchar. Only after I got to Silchar did I find out that the route I took is dangerous due to guerrilla activities and most people fly instead.

After all the bone-jarring roads I've been on, I decided to fly out of Mizoram. I hope road infrastructure in this part of India improves next time and I get to do more overland travel.

Sikkim

Next place to visit was Sikkim, a special state in the north of India, at the border with China. Famous hill station of Darjeeling is the jump off point to visit Sikkim, for which a special permit is needed. I got the permit easily, following directions found on the internet.

With a rented motorcycle, I headed through tea plantations deeper into the mountains. I rode almost all the roads I could in Sikkim. I wanted to go deeper into the mountains, but those were restricted areas off limits to foreigners.

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Chillig in Darjeeling.

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Riding in Sikkim mountains.

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This is Buddhist land - prayer flags everywhere.

I had an amazing experience in the mountains of Sikkim. While I was riding along a steep ravine, I decided to make a break for a few minutes and enjoy the view. I put my camera bag on the rock and sat next to it. When I was done soaking up the view, I just got up and left the camera bag behind, with not only my camera and lenses but also my motorcycle papers, passport and permits. I did not realize what I had done will 45 min later. I rushed back like maniac, but the bag was gone, of course.

Who took it and what direction did the car go in? I had no clue where to go or what to do. After cursing for a few minutes, there wasn't much I could do but continue riding in the original direction. A few minutes later, I came across a creek crossing where I had to slow down and saw a big truck parked. Inside the truck, two kids waving at me.

Could it be that they had my camera? I stopped and gestured taking pics and they nodded. A boy came out and brought my camera bag.

I could not believe both the bad and good luck I had that day. I was so lucky that those two boys were the ones who noticed my bag and took it. I gave the boy about $300 which was roughly 10% of what the value of the gear was. Both the boys and I were happy. They were gonna take the bag to the police station. I probably would have never seen it if they did make it to the police station. I could not believe how innocent, pure and honest these two poor boys were. While I had many amazing encounters over the years, this was by far the most humbling one. I felt so little compared to my saviors.

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One of the boys who returned the camera and his truck behind.

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And prayer wheels to turn.

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The train leaving Darjeeling station.

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Aboard a non-AC train. Trains are not only the most comfortable and fun way to travel around India, but also the most rewarding in terms of meeting people and seeing how Indians live.

With a few days to spare, I decided to head to my favorite city - Varanasi. One can never be bored there. I did not regret the decision. Varanasi is always fun.

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Young boys at Ganges river.

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Holy cow.

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Another pilgrim in Varanasi.

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So happy together.

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Varanasi alley scene.

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There is a prayer ceremony every evening in Varanasi.

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Varanasi has become a magnet for tourists, especially the ones with big lenses.