I honestly had never heard of Rishikesh until Shambhala, but when a new friend told me “if there’s one place you go in India, go to Rishikesh” I knew it had to be added to my itinerary. I planned to spend a few days after Kwaz left chilling out there, but as soon as I told her that she expressed that she would also like to see it, so we changed around our plan to start in Rishikesh instead. Somehow I had completely forgotten Kwaz’s yoga passion; of course she should also go to Rishikesh.
I can’t imagine a better way to have begun our India adventures. Rishikesh is a picturesque, relaxed town in the foothills of the Himalayas that is centered around yoga, meditation, ayurvedic massages, vegetarian food, and outdoor excursions. It is on both sides of the Ganga river, so crossing a narrow pedestrian bridge is part of the daily routine. It’s also routine to share this bridge with monkeys, cows, and motorbikes. In fact monkeys and cows, as well as dogs, share the whole town with people, so you always have to be sure you don’t have anything in your hand that the aggressive monkeys will want to grab. One even tried to take food through a restaurant window one night. They’re actually kind of evil.
We made the best of our limited time in Rishikesh with a zen day, an active day, and an unfortunately wet and freezing day.
The day we arrived was the wet and freezing day. The overnight bus dropped us off before most guesthouses were even open, which didn’t really matter since we’d happened to overlap with the International Yoga Festival, so almost everywhere was completely full. Uh oh. For well over an hour in a constant dreary rain we walked up and down the small hillside streets, back and forth across the bridge, carrying all of our now-soaked possessions on our backs, looking for somewhere, anywhere, that had a bed, hot shower, and place to lay our stuff out to dry. In all my traveling and not-booking-in-advance experience, this is probably the worst time I’ve had trying to find a room. We had nearly given up when a very kind man told us actually yes he might have space for us, come back at noon to know for sure. This glimmer of hope kept us warm, along with a few pots of Masala chai tea and some porridge, as we hid inside Oasis Cafe until 12.
When we returned our new favorite person in Rishikesh greeted us with a big smile; we had a room. Thank god. The rest of the afternoon we scoped out town in the continuing bad weather, getting the lay of the land and information on activities for the coming days. Kwaz bought some colorful scarves. Town seemed quiet all day and even quieter after 6 pm when seemingly everything closed. That was fine with us, we planned to start the next day with some early yoga.
Our second day in Rishikesh felt like the definition of what a day in Rishikesh should be. We started with 9:00 am Sattva yoga, a type of yoga that was developed in Rishikesh and is described as follows: “In Sanskrit Sattva means whole, complete, truth, balance… A Sattva Yoga Journey is a journey into Self through asana, vinyasa, kriya, pranayama, free movement, and laya. Every class is unique and set to music and has a theme – flowing and shifting energy in the body, mind and spirit.” This sounded interesting, and it was, as well as challenging and freeing for the spirit and the body. A combination of yoga and meditation to the soundtrack of didgeridoos and drums – I couldn’t help but think of Shambhala once the music started – I loved it.
We came out of the hour and a half class relaxed and centered and ready for the day, which had decided to reward us with sun and blue skies. We celebrated this fortunate weather shift with brunch at Ganga Beach Restaurant, located on the riverbank looking out to the bridge and town above. Healthy fruit, muesli, and curd with chai tea and a beautiful view; we could get used to this life. Kwaz went to another yoga class (apparently pretty hard compared to the States) while I wandered around town. I discovered that Rishikesh is actually bustling when the weather is nice. It is also apparently a town that functions between 11 and 6, a fact I attribute to everyone starting their mornings in yoga classes and having to go to sleep early for the next morning’s routine. Kwaz and I met up again that afternoon for our ayurvedic massages.
Ayurvedic massage was another new massage style for me; it is an oil full-body massage dominated by repetitive rubbing of the limbs and back, complete with an oil head massage that left us looking stunning (sarcasm). After the hour was up, we may not have looked great, but we felt great. We returned to Oasis for a delicious and cheap Indian meal and more Masala chai. Did I mentioned Rishikesh has a ban on alcohol? There’s none allowed in town at all. So we drank tea the whole time. Lots and lots of chai tea.
Our last day in Rishikesh started early – 5:20 to be exact. We had signed up for a sunrise hike and despite the tired and cold (my feet were numb for at least an hour) it was a fantastic decision. We were up on the top of a mountain by the time the sun appeared over the ridged skyline; snow-capped Himalaya peaks were visible in the distance and we could see the shadow of the temple beside us at the top looming over the city of Rishikesh below. Our guide Pramod told us the legend of the temples in the mountains and took us inside, where we were all blessed, before leading us a down to our delicious breakfast of aloo parantha, nutella and bananas, watermelon, tomatoes and cucumbers, and chai tea. Then it was time to climb down.
The 6 hour downhill hike was gorgeous, and Pramod’s continued anecdotes were fascinating. We learned everything from the crops that are grown in this area to the story behind Holi to modern-day marriages in the mountain villages. For anyone who is looking to go for a hike in Rishikesh, or really any travel services, check out TrektIndia, I highly recommend them. Not only did they lead us on a great day hike but they helped us book transportation from Rishikesh to Jaipur and Jaipur to Agra, something that is surprisingly hard to do in India and will get a separate bitching post from me at some point in the near future.
We left Rishikesh on a night bus bound for Jaipur for Holi (another story that will be in the bus-bitching post), sad to say goodbye to a town that we had fallen for. What started out as a tough trek through the cold rain ended in a beautiful stay in a relaxing town. I’m incredibly happy we decided to start our time in India there; it was the perfect calm before the crazy storm that is the rest of North India. It introduced us to the contrasts of India – such as the experience of exiting our relaxing massage into the crazy motorcycle- and animal-congested loud streets – that we would soon discover only escalated as the cities got bigger.
So thanks friend who told me to go there. I will now be like you and tell everyone else who is going to India to go to Rishikesh. A zen atmosphere and beautiful surroundings are waiting for you there.