I set out from Delhi early in the morning having arrived the previous evening. It had been 15 years since I had last been in India so I was expecting to see that some big changes had taken place over that time.We made our way out of Delhi in the rush hour traffic of a Friday morning through some of the busiest roads I’ve seen. Delhi seemed to spread for miles and miles but eventually we emerged into the plains of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with a population of over 190 million. Looking out of the car window, the land was totally flat, as far the eye could see were fields of sugar cane, barley and rice. We were heading north-east, with the Himalayas as our target.
Occasionally we would pass through incredibly busy market towns, packed with roadside stalls selling a massive range of goods ranging from fruit and vegetables to household goods, bicycle parts, car parts, cement and steel tubing. The driver expertly negotiated his way through these towns, avoiding swerving trucks, cars, taxis, cyclists, moped riders, rickshaws, mating cows, lost goats, pariah dogs and wandering pedestrians.It is fair to say that during this drive I was almost speechless with culture shock and jetlag having only been in London the previous morning. On many occasions I found myself rubbing my eyes, not only to ward off jetlag but to check that I was actually seeing clearly. The sights, sounds and smells of these towns are seared into my memory and it will be a long time before I forget the experience.
As we drove further into Uttar Pradesh, the roads became very bumpy and the traffic became congested with rattling vehicles of every kind pushing on to the city of Dehradun. It was very rare to see a vehicle that was not full to the brim with people and animals and I felt rather spoilt in the front seat of a comfortable car.It was interesting to see the religious diversity of the state change as we drove further and further into the plains of the state. Hindu temples and shrines were ever present in the market towns, but I noticed that mosques and a very noticeable and devout Muslim population became much more common the further we drove from Delhi. Around 18% of the population of Uttar Pradesh follow Islam.Finally, after an 8.5 hour drive we came to the end of Uttar Pradesh, passed through Saharanpur, a busy market city and crossed the border into Uttarakhand (Uttaranchal), arriving in Dehradun late in the evening. By this point I was feeling exhausted, ready for cold beer, some food and a good sleep.
Another early start saw us climbing into the lush, forested foothills of the Himalayas on the outskirts of Dehradun before arriving in Rishikesh for a brief stopover to pick up our guide for the rest of the trip north into the Himalayas proper. Small monkeys lined the road into Rishikesh, obviously hopeful of some scraps of food from the many tourists who visit here from Delhi. Construction of a large highway to replace the country roads was underway when we passed, so I’m sure it won’t be long before Rishikesh is even more firmly established as a tourist hotspot.
After a quick bite to eat in an Iskon temple (home to Hare Krishna followers), we jumped back in the car to begin the full day’s drive. Rishikesh is a holy city for Hindus and is famous for its yoga ashrams and schools, on the outskirts of the town. We passed many of these as we drove out of the town along the banks of the Ganges to head into the hills.
Rishikesh is also the beginning of the Char Dam pilgrimage route for pilgrims heading towards Badrinath, the end of the route a few hundred kilometres further into the Himalayas. Dressed in simple robes and carrying their bedding and necessities, they walk the entire distance, relying on the generosity of the residents of the mountain villages and towns that they pass through on their way up.It was impossible not to feel humbled by their devotion, the mountain roads are tough and treacherous and the sun was high in the sky, beating down on the pilgrims as they trudged up the mountains.
The roads rapidly became very bumpy as we reached the banks of the River Ganges. In the Himalayan foothills, the river is ideal for whitewater rafting trips so the road was lined with rafting companies and guesthouses for intrepid foreign and native backpackers and weekenders from Delhi. As we climbed, the road became increasingly treacherous, with sheer drops of hundreds of feet, just inches away from the edges of the cliff roads.
The driver clearly had pretensions of rally driving fame, as we screeched around terrifyingly sharp corners and overtook lorries and trucks blindly, honking the horn all the way. I clung to the handle above the window and hoped for the best. On a number of our descents, the smell of burning brake pads filled the car, a smell that I’ll forever associate with this trip. The signs painted on the rock walls of the roads provided some light relief to this white-knuckle ride – a particular favourite was “No race, no rally, enjoy the beauty of the valley” and the much used “better late than never” which took on a much more ominous meaning than usual in these surroundings.
As the hills became steeper, the scenery became more and more breathtaking, the towns on the banks of the river clung to the mountainsides, as if only a small nudge would cause them to topple down like dominoes into the rushing river below. We took occasional breaks to fill ourselves with roti breads, rice and dhal and to make sure that the driver was fully energised for the drive ahead with strong sugary coffee and tea.
Eventually, at 10,000ft we reached one of the farms where our peppermint leaves are grown and farmed, on the banks of the River Alaknanda. The growing season for peppermint is slightly later in the year, planting had only just begun in the nursery but I was able to see the fields where the plants are grown.
The peppermint is first planted in a nursery and then transplanted to a proper field until it reaches maturity.
I was able to visit a local smallholder who grows and sells her peppermint to our supplier, who, after a sweaty stomp up the hill to reach her house, gave us rose petal squash, made from roses grown in her garden. It was delicious and extremely refreshing. After another 8 hour drive, it was nice to just pause and take in the beauty of the surroundings.
That night we stayed in a guest house right next to the roaring river Alaknanda. After all the fresh air and driving, and with the river bubbling in the background I slept soundly, ready for a full day the next day.
Next in the series – Part 2 – Back to the plains for Chamomile, Cornflowers and Lemongrass.