Uttarakhand is a state in Northern India and one of the few to border Nepal. It sells itself as a state for adventure, for hiking, for pilgrims, Yoga, for becoming one with nature and an epicentre of Hinduism. Rocking up on the Yoga express from Delhi, an overnight trundle through a slice of the north, I was excited.
We had come to Uttarakhand not for adventure, but for some time to wind down, to immerse ourselves in culture, in the mountains and to spend our days lazing around and enjoying life. The reality was different. I have been to many, if not most States in India and I have never experienced such dishonesty, such blatant scams and such disgusting, dirty, potholed streets anywhere else. Haridwar has to be in for one of the dirtiest cities in the entire sub-continent. Litter strewn streets flowing over into a brown, septic looking Ganges. It is unfathomable to see people bathing in Ma Ganga, almost certain to get some disease or other. Every single person we met in Haridwar tried to rip us off, and not just scam us by a little, it was hardcore scamming. Our hotel for example ‘Le Central’ a decent hotel with 8.5 on booking.com tried to charge us almost 4 times the going rate for a taxi to Rishikesh, and with a smile. Getting around the city was near impossible as drivers would quote extortionate fares and then refuse to take us for less. We had planned two days in Haridwar but left after just one night.
Moving upstate to Rishikesh was no different. Made famous by the Beatles who came to drop acid and meditate, now a hot bed of self-righteous tourists all coming to inflate their egos and drive home the all vegetarian, no alcohol drug fuelled lifestyle we should all live by. The entire city is dry, but markets sell marijuana paraphernalia. In actual fact, if you do want a drink, simply ask a rickshaw driver to take you to the wine shop in Raiwala about half an hour away. They don’t care, anything for a couple hundred rupees.
We stayed in Laxman Jhula which is the second bridge and very picturesque. It is actually quite beautiful. The bridge crossing the Ganges is teeming with monkeys (one of which punched me in the head as I tried to take a selfie with it). Rolling green mountains add to the ambience and if you was stood with ear plugs in, and time was paused, you really would be in a gorgeous place. But, as India goes, add motor bikes, constant horns, jeeps trying to break the land speed records and some of the poorest food hygiene we have found anywhere in india and you have a dirty, noisy, busy, and at times stupidly dangerous place. Ignorance in Rishikesh is at the extreme. Middle aged Europeans who think world travel was invented just for them stroll the streets as though they are Maharajah and younger tourists all grow beards, get tattoos they will regret and hum Hari Krishna whilst drinking a latte. Rishikesh is arrogant in the extreme, almost obscene.
The great thing about Rishikesh is that every guy seems to be called Yogi something or other. With anyone that can touch their toes proclaiming to be yoga experts you are never far away from someone more than happy to bend you over or force a headstand. One thing I really did like and respect Rishikesh for was the fact that many people we asked for things such as Yoga, or gifts or massages would simply say “pay what you like”. I like that. Not because it is an opportunity to get things for nothing, but because it forces good service and as a result ensures relevant payment. One such example was a man my daughters got to know, and like. It would have been criminal to come to Rishikesh, home of yoga and not have them do some yoga. We found a great place, just below the huge temple near the bridge called Yoga Vini. At 35 years old Vini claims to have been practising yoga for over 60 years. I instantly liked him, the girls thought he was brilliant. Tentative, patient and understanding, he gave them a 2 hour introduction to yoga at a pace that they found perfect and in a manner they really connected with. I literally dropped them off for the daily 11am beginner daily session, with 500 rupees total. After the session Yoga Vini took just 200 rupees off them. A real indication of the honesty and generosity of the man. He comes with our complete recommendation.
Other than practising yoga on the roof of our guesthouse, walking the streets getting punched by monkeys (I actually got head-butted by a cow too) our time in Rishikesh was spent relaxing. Or trying to.
I had intended to travel further north to the hill station and cool summer retreat of Musoorie. This placed us near to Dehradun for our return train to Delhi, but gave us an opportunity to experience a little more of India we hadn’t previously. By the time we were due to go, I had just had enough of Uttarkahand and opted to get one night in Dehradun, then bail the next day. Taxi prices to Dehradun ranged from 1250 to 1800 rupees (£12.50 – £18) and so naturally we took the cheaper option, which had us at our hotel within 90 minutes. I had planned a western day, we would check in, drop our bags, head to the cinema and notch up a KFC for lunch. However, our hotel had other ideas.
We had booked in at North Star Residency, Dehradun. After check in we were shown to our family room which was a small double bed that was wall to wall in the tiny box room. Returning to reception I explained that we had booked a family room with two large beds in it. As the scumbag, rat looking owner sneered at me a bull shit story, I quickly realised the scam we had walked straight into. It goes like this, and is a classic. Hotels claim to have a room that will accommodate you, they charge a premium for things like family rooms and when you turn up expecting your room, you are given some story about how through some misunderstanding or another your room isn’t available. But guess what. There is a room available for you, which is completely unsuitable and chargeable at the same rate. The key to this scam however is aggression, and it rolled out in a text book manner. Back at reception there were eight guys all standing around me, the owner was pushy without being aggressive, as he realised I was onto him the aggression started. Not letting me speak, hissing as he told me I was at fault for not responding to messages he knows he never even sent. It is as predictable as it is boring. As we left the hotel I heard the manager bravely shout something to me in a language I didn’t speak. I ignored it and with four kids in tow, in 32-degree heat and near 100% humidity walked the streets trying to find another hotel.
It would be easy to get frustrated by North Star Residency, Dehradun. But It is pretty much what we have experienced from the day we mistakenly set foot in the state of Utterkarhand. It is how things go, it is the way of life. A dirty, stinking hotbed of deceit served up with a smile. A horrible place, filled with dishonest people and the worst place I have ever been in the whole of India and one of the worst places I have ever been anywhere on earth.
As the train pulled out of Dehradun headed back to Delhi, I never thought I would look forward to Delhi as much as I did. And as the last tree of Uttarkarhand passed by the window, I promised myself I would never step foot in that state again.