Initial Impressions from India - The 2014 Version

I usually try to put more organization into these posts but India will just have to come as a string of random impressions. It's been about three weeks now on my return visit to the country and the whole time has been a mishmash of different experiences, sites, and people. I guess it's fitting that it should be this way, though. India is chaos.

I flew into Delhi during Diwali, the festival of lights. It's probably India's most famous festival, notable for the decorations, candles, and oil lamps people put up around their houses. Kids and adults play with fire crackers and consume boatloads of sweets. People party like crazy in the week leading up to the last day (this year it was October 23). Unfortunately, I missed the heavy partying but I did get to see Delhi lit up.

Shots taken at Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, the largest Sikh house of worship in Delhi.

Overall, I spent a week in Delhi at a friend's house. It was plenty of time to get myself re-acclimated to this crazy town.

Tuk-tuks now come with taxi meters. No haggling over price necessary. Now you only haggle over getting them to turn the damn device on.
Walking around just another street of Chandni Chowk, Delhi.
Despite my initial enthusiasm, I was shocked and disappointed when I saw my first full day in the city. The sky is opaque white most of the time and it makes me think Delhi could stand a fighting chance against Beijing as having the most polluted air in the world. This is far worse than the air I recall from 2013. I would have still called it gritty back then but at least the sky was visible.

I had to get out for a quick break and a clean breath so I decided to take an excursion to Shimla in the state of Himachal Pradesh. This is what it looked like out my train window 2 hours outside Delhi:

Delhi smog descending on the countryside
And to my surprise, this is what it looked like in Shimla, my destination city 10 hours North of Delhi by train:

The smog is still here!

But it was a cute little hill station otherwise and I did appreciate getting some time outdoors.

I've never seen so many trees in India before
One of many shopping alleys around town
Onion pakora street food
Shopping for cheap souvenirs. Shimla is a huge tourist destination for North Indians.

An aside, this trip to Shimla was my very first one riding general compartment on a train in India. For those who aren't familiar with general compartment, it's a last minute ticket class which isn't tied to any seat and you just make room for yourself where ever you can. The number of tickets sold have no relation to the number of seats in the car or even to the maximum capacity for travelling safely.
As one of the last people to board, I got prime standing room at the doorway with 7 other guys and a stacked pile of luggage.

Cramped together in general compartment
I had to leave Shimla after just a couple days to find that elusive fresh air. I went further North to a town called Mandi. It's not a tourist town by any means and is most notable for housing 81 temples total inside the city. There were temples on pretty much every street.

Street corner Hindu temple - great for a quick stop on your way to work.
Creepy! The eyes on this god and child are covered in gold gilt
Then it was on to my final stop, a tiny little temple town called Rewalsar. In keeping with my masochistic habit of using the most ghetto mode of transportation India has to offer, I opted to pay less than $1 to take the Indian public bus along the winding, cliff-edged road.

Indian buses are usually decked out like a Hindu shrine in the front. I believe it's because everyone onboard needs to pray to God they'll live through the journey.
In the end, I spent a week being very relaxed and doing very little here. And wouldn't anyone else do the same if their home looked like this?

Some other photos in and around Rewalsar.

Buddhist prayer flags in the wind
Cows are clean and sociable here - they love Rewalsar too

Goat herder coming through
Padmasambhava statue in the cave of Padmasambhava
Shikari Devi Temple - four hours from Rewalsar by car and located on the top of a mountain. It's inaccessibility made me want to see it more!
The trident or trishula, a symbol of Lord Shiva in Hindu religion

I decided to end my excursion in Himachal Pradesh at this point. Winter is coming and I'm a chicken when it comes to uncomfortable weather. I'll come back another time when it warms up, I told myself. And back into the smog of Delhi I retreated. Plans are still unclear at this point but I'll be in Delhi for the foreseeable future working on - among other things - learning basic Hindi and fully destroying the inner walls of my lungs. I'm actually enjoying living a somewhat stationary life here.

Enjoying a Nepalese rock band at the South Asian Bands festival in Delhi