After nearly ten years, I made it back to India! This time, I’m exploring north of Delhi, including the Himachal Pradesh and Utter Pradesh. The cows are still here! So are the affectionate dogs, miniature cups of chai and delicious samosa vendors along the street. So many years later…a little smarter, a little taller (I think) and a bit more travel savvy. Much has changed since I was a mere 23-yr-old student, taking off to explore the great wide-world out there with my best friend from university. My dear India matched that growth step-by-step when India added tons of new infrastructure during the ’10 Commonwealth Games.. I almost didn’t recognize many hot spots from my old stomping ground. (no complaints!)

The city metro is up and running through Delhi – oh, the blessed, blessed Metro! Memories of being tackled by taxi touts on my 2005 trip made me cringe in fear as I exited Delhi’s new airport platforms, and I had to prepare myself for to relentless, “auto rickshaw, ma’am, ride miss?” I nearly kissed the pavement when I discovered that I could now take the train from the airport straight into the squalid bliss of the Main Bazaar and Hotel New King! The touts are now held at bay by an extremely large fence, and I gleefully skipped off, clutching my plastic Metro token and climbed aboard the train. The signs were readable. The train was clean, and the stops were clearly marked. I. Was. Amazed.

Sadly, though I got off at the correct stop, I did get lost in the Main Bazaar. I perhaps forgot that it was indeed a huge, unorganized Bazaar and struggled vainly to find my hotel among the hidden passageways and alleys. I should have said, “The hell with it,” and taken a rickshaw, but I was stubborn and decided to tackle the “only a five minute walk” myself. That is how long the hotel had promised it would take me.

Uh – – – no. Instead, I was pointed around in circles and offered many forms of illicit drugs, some bananas, and a haircut by a man welling a large kitchen knife before I finally stumbled into the dire depths of the Hotel New King. Adul, the kind receptionist, grabbed my backpack and led me to my dank, single room, complete with dripping faucet and flickering overhead lights. I believe it was used as the workers’ rest area for the bed looked recently used and rather rumpled. Too tired to complain or change hotels, I thought it would suffice for the night and I quickly collapsed on top of my clean sleeping bag carefully laid out on top of the used bedding. I’ve never had a problem with jet lag until I turned thirty, and I am still trying to acclimate to the time change. What else can I except in my 30’s?

Since my time was in India was limited to a mere four weeks, I decided to take a two-week tour through the Himachal Pradesh with Intrepid. Following my tour, I’ll travel to Utter Pradesh myself and then on to Nepal.  I don’t normally partake in tours of any kind. However, I wanted to see a lot of places in a short amount of time. Why not give Intrepid a try?

Shimla was our first stop and we boarded a first class train at 7 a.m. the following morning. Mind you, I have never taken first class anything so I happily sank back into my somewhat cushioned seat and sipped a tepid instant coffee. As we chugged out of Delhi and tucked into our complimentary breakfast, the city slums rose on either side of our carriage. Though I had seen the slums on previous trips, it is always disheartening to see such impoverished living conditions…and very confronting. Children, oblivious to their situation, ran around, flying kites in the same polluted fields that served as a communal toilet to the villages.

We all sat quietly and watched as the villages got smaller and smaller, eventually fading into the background behind us. City scape gave way to patchwork fields of wheat and greener pastures. Eventually, the fields gave way to rolling hills and tiny villages popped up in the valley. We switched from our 1st class train in Kalka to a much smaller, quaint “Toy Train” for the final stretch towards Shimla. The toy train is a 2 foot, 6 inch narrow gauge railway and is considered a UNESCO World Heritage list.

At an elevation of 2,500 meters, Shimla was COLD! I had to wear my thermals and my fleece even when I was under two large blankets. The town itself was pleasant and I don’t believe that I saw another Western tourist the entire time. Shimla was settled by the British shortly after the first Anglo-Gurkha war and became the summer capital of British India in 1864. We spent two days exploring the town and drinking lots of masala chai to keep warm.

Mandi was our next stop on our way through Himachal Pradesh. We stayed with the King of Mandi in the Raj Mahal Hotel – yes, the King has his own hotel complete with a polished, though tired, dining room where he shared his meals with us. Bless his sweet little heart, but the King had a knack for telling jokes, especially those of the “unclean” variety. I stuck my foot in my mouth when I mentioned that I knew some great ones, picked up from my years as a bartender. His majesty then made it his priority to convince me to share my jokes; however, I was NOT going to tell naughty jokes to an Indian King. I did tell him that I would email them to him at a later date.

Dharamshala is next! I can’t wait!