About Mariellen Ward
Mariellen Ward is a freelance travel writer whose personal style is informed by a background in journalism, a dedication to yoga and a passion for sharing the beauty of India's culture and wisdom with the world. She has traveled for about a year altogether in India and publishes an India travel blog, Breathedreamgo.com. Mariellen also writes for magazines and newspapers.
Latest Posts by Mariellen Ward
Mount St. Helens is an active stratovolcano located in Skamania County, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. It is 96 miles south of Seattle, Washington, and 50 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon.
NEAR THE TOP of Mount St. Helens, where the 1980 volcanic eruption blew the top of the mountain off 35 years ago today, the barren rocky landscape was streaked with rivers of hard, black basalt lava flows, and cloaked in thick grey clouds. It was eerie, very calm and there were no visible signs of life.
You could easily mistake this for a devastated region. The May 18, 1980 eruption was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States. Fifty seven people were killed, 250 homes, 47 bridges and many miles of railways and highways were destroyed. But if you saw only death and destruction, you would be missing the real story of Mount St. Helens.
The power of the Mt St. Helens volcanic eruption. Photo taken with Samsung Galaxy S6
The Mt St. Helens hike was a tough and extraordinary experience. Photo taken with Samsung Galaxy S6
I discovered two important things on that mountain, both due to the caring attention and knowledge of our passionate and dedicated guides.
From all of the guides, and especially John Bishop, a botany professor from the University of Washington, I learned to see the new life that is taking root on the mountainside. With his help, I saw tiny plants clinging to the ground, lupins, willow, Indian paintbrush. I saw a lark, a few insects, several waterfalls.
A cairn marks the trail on Mt St Helens. Photo taken with Samsung Galaxy S6
I also saw cairns of rock, made by other hikers. And although the day was overcast and cloudy, the sun shone through just for a moment and I saw the shining turquoise-grey waters of Spirit Lake.
I stopped for a moment, alone, and absorbed the incredible quiet. I suddenly felt the landscape pulsating with life, and began to sense the sacredness of this mountain and this region of the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
Though the volcanic eruption was massively destructive, wiping out the entire ecosystem of the mountain, the Mount St Helens story is not about death and destruction: it’s about transformation and rebirth.
Life is returning to the region, though it is very different than what was here before. This is a story about the resilience of the human spirit, the cycles of nature and the transformative power of life.
A flower blooms on Mt St Helens, a sign of life. Photo taken with Samsung Galaxy S6
The other important thing I learned was about my own resilience. As I was huffing and puffing up the mountain, a lanky mountain steward named Ron, who was with us as a guide, gently taught me to walk with a resting step. He told me that all experienced climbers use this step: you take a second to rest your front leg, and let your weight land on your back leg.
I started to use this step, and coordinate it with yogic breathing. Soon, I fell into a meditative rhythm, and with Ron’s help and encouragement, I caught up to the fast hikers who were way ahead of us. And not only did I catch up, but I was neither sweaty nor out of breath.
At the end of the day, when we were back at the bottom of the mountain, we took the time to say a heartfelt goodbye to our guides, John Bishop, Amy Tanska, volunteer programs director of the Mt St Helens Institute, and volunteer guides Lindsay, Linda and Ron. He told me that he saw how I was transformed, and that after I found my rhythm, I radiated. Much like Mount St Helens, as new life blossoms on the formerly barren mountainsides.
Flowing water, moss and willow trees are signs of life on Mt St Helens. Photo taken with Samsung Galaxy S6
Thanks to Corning Incorporated for giving me the opportunity to be one of only about 200 people who have ever hiked up this particular side of Mount St Helens.
WINTER IN DELHI is sometimes affectionately called Dilli ki Sardi (after a very popular Bollywood song). Locals love the cooler temperatures and the excuse to get out the sweaters and indulge in rich, warming foods. Dishes like sarson ka saag, missi roti, masala chai and gajar ka halwa.
I’ve lived in Delhi on-and-off for 9 years, and spent the past winter in the city, which was recently named “Best Destination For Food/Drink in India” by Lonely Planet India magazine. I concur. Food all over India is great of course, and I especially love dosas in Kerala and Gujarati thali in Ahmedabad.
But Delhi has it all, both in quantity and quality. Here are some of my favourite dishes, street food, sweets, restaurants — plus a suggestion for getting all of this yummy food delivered to your door.
It may not be the definitive guide to Indian food in Delhi, but it is very comprehensive. It also indicates if there is a vegetarian version (V) and whether it’s gluten-free (GF). Enjoy. (Warning: do not read while hungry.)
The South Indian thali at Naivedyam in Hauz Khas
Top 5 favourite dishes of Delhi
- Butter Chicken. I don’t eat meat so I cannot attest to the awesomeness of Butter Chicken in Delhi, but everyone talks about it, so it must be true. Called Murgh Makhani in Hindi.
- Kebabs. Kebabs come in many flavours, some meat and some vegetarian. They are sold all over Delhi in fine restaurants and on street corners. The kebab stalls in Khan Market are inexpensive and well-loved. The best kebabs I’ve had were at Dum Pukht, a very high-end dining room at the gorgeous ITC Maurya Hotel. V
- Parathas. Alas, as someone who has to eat gluten-free, I can no longer enjoy thick, stuffed-bread Parathas. But I used to eat them, on my first few trips to India, so the memory lingers. Paranthe Wali Gali in Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, is the place to go. V
- Sarson Ka Saag and Missi Roti. There are a lot of Punjabis in Delhi, and the rich, filling and delicious food from this culture is one of the main reasons Delhi’s cuisine is world famous. Sarson Ka Saag (made from mustard leaves) is probably the signature dish of Punjabi cuisine. Even if you have to eat gluten-free diet, like me, you can enjoy Missi Roti, which is made from gram flour (though wheat flour is sometimes mixed in, so you must ask). V, GF
TIP: When you see Bollywood stars running through fields of yellow flowers, that’s the mustard fields of Punjab.
Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol in the mustard fields of Punjab
- Dal Makhani. There are many types of dal (lentils), but somehow Delhiites seem to prefer Dal Makhani, made from red kidney beans and whole black lentils. You can get Dal Makhani in dhabas, restaurants, homes and fine restaurants. Well, everywhere. At Bukhara, often cited as India’s best restaurant, they make a dish called Dal Bukhara, which is a lot like Dal Makahni, but only with black (urad) lentils. It’s considered by many to be the best dal in the world, and I can tell you, it is melt-in-the-mouth amazing. V
TIP: Here’s a recipe for Dal Bukhara. Good luck. The secret is in the very, very long cooking time.
Chole Bhatura, a favourite Delhi dish
Top 5 favourite street foods of Delhi
- Chole Bhatura. Spicy chole (chickpeas) and deep fried bread. This is Delhi food at its most calorific, filling, and sensation-exploding … not suitable for gluten-free diets, alas, unless you eat the chole with something else, like rice. V
- Dahi Papdi Chaat. One of my absolute favourite street foods, it’s sweet, tangy, light, filling … all good things. Wheat wafers, moong beans, potatoes, yogurt, chutney, spices and sauce are all layered together in a gooey mess. For those who avoid gluten, have it made without the papdi (wheat wafers). V, GF
- Gol Gappas. These are called Pani Puri in Mumbai, where these treats are equally popular. Little crisp, fried flour balls are filled with a mixture of flavoured water, tamarind chutney, chili, chaat masala, potato, onion and chickpeas. No gluten-free option that I’m aware of. V
- Aloo Tikki. Another one of my favourites, very good for eating when the temperature drops in winter in Delhi. Spicy, pan-friend potato patties, served with chutney. V, GF
- Samosas. Everyone knows samosas, the stand-by Indian snack enjoyed all over Delhi and just about everywhere else on the planet. You can get meat or vegetarian versions, spicy or mild. V
TIP: Old Delhi’s street food is famously good, and sometimes famously unhygienic (have you see the film Delhi Belly?). You can get everything in many of the small, traditional restaurants and cafes of Delhi such as these places — which are just as delicious but much more hygienic: Natraj Dahi Wale Bhalla, Nathu Sweets, Anupama Sweets, Moti Mahal, Bengali Sweets, Haldirams, Evergreen.
I say this every time and I’ll say this again, Delhi is way better than Mumbai in terms of food. Be it street food or fine dining. It is a fact and it’s coming from a Mumbaikar. Except the Gujarati chaat, which is better in Mumbai, Delhi can definitely be called the food capital for me as of now. – Ashrita, Caramel Wings
There’s nothing like a fresh, hot jalebi
Top 5 sweets of Delhi
- Gulab jamun. I always say these little milk dumplings are the reason I gained 15 pounds in India. V, GF
- Gajar ka halwa. Made from the red carrots of India, this dessert is best eaten fresh and warm. V, GF
- Kulfi. Punjabi ice cream. Need I say more? Yes, Pista Kulfi. The pistachio flavour, is a favourite of many. V, GF
- Jalebis. Many Delhiites would live and die for freshly made jalebis. Old Famous Jalebi Wala in Old Delhi is THE place to go. But as long as you are eating them right out of the hot oil, you’re good to go. V
- Rasmalai. Made from fresh cheese and sweet milky sauce, they are light and a little less sweet than many of India’s over-the-top desserts that give you an instant sugar high (and sometimes a headache). V, GF
Tandoori Jhinga at Bukhara. Photo courtesy Andrew Dobson.
Top 10 favourite restaurants in Delhi
- Bukhara. Often called India’s best restaurant. I’ve had the incredible privilege of eating there on several occasions, including the time I stayed at the ITC Maurya Hotel, where Bukhara is located. Most recently I enjoyed a feast with fellow Torontonian Andrew Dobson, which you can read about here.
TIP: Do not miss the Dal Bukara and Tandoori Jhinga (Shrimp).
- Sodabottleopenerwala. This is the new India — hip, fun, and creatively self-referencing. Located in trendy Khan Market, Sodabottleopenerwala is a post-modern take on Mumbai’s iconic Iranian cafes.
- Rajdhani. Going to Rajdhani is an experience. A small army of waiters swarm around your table, spooning never-ending servings of authentic vegetarian Gujarati and Rajasthani cuisine onto your thali (plate). V
- Andhra Bhavan. Eating lunch at this busy canteen in the heart of Delhi is an experience in well-ordered chaos. Political leaders jostle with civil servants and tourists to eat very affordable, very spicy traditional food from Andhra Pradesh. An insider favourite.
- Gulati Restaurant. Delhiites love to stop at a Pandara Road eatery on their way home from socializing, and Gulati’s is the top choice. Open since 1959, it is elegant in a non-fussy way, and serves consistently good north Indian cuisine including kebabs, biryanis and tandoori.
Spice Route, Imperial Hotel,
- Potbelly Rooftop Cafe. Like Sodabottleopenerwala, this place is a fresh, new concept in India, and is located in the newly trendy Shahpur Jat neighbourood of South Delhi. Not easy to find, but worth it. Small rooms with large views and a very good Bihari-inspired cuisine. Affordable, unique and fun.
- Naivedyam. My standby in Hauz Khas, it’s very affordable and will transport you to traditional South India. V
- Saravanna Bhavan. A chain of cheap ‘n cheerful South Indian eateries, there are several in Delhi (though I always eat at the one on Janpath). The food is consistently good, no matter how busy the restaurant is. V
- Spice Route. Voted one of the most beautiful restaurants in the world, this Imperial Hotel classic is also one of the most pricey in Delhi. I ate there once, and have never forgotten the food or the experience.
- Dakshin. It’s easy to get affordable South Indian food like dosas and idly’s, but just once, you should try gourmet South Indian food. That’s what this beautiful restaurant in the Sheraton New Delhi Hotel serves. It’s a journey through the cuisine of four South Indian states.
Unlimited vegetarian deliciousness at Rajdhani
Take out / take-away
Delhi is not only famous for food, it’s also famous for traffic. If you don’t feel like going out, Food Panda is a great service in Delhi (and 100 other cities in India) that will deliver food from many of the restaurants in Delhi for no extra charge.
Gulab Jamun: The main reason I gained weight in India
A SIGNIFICANT PERCENTAGE of Canada’s population is of Indian heritage, especially in Vancouver and Toronto. Restaurants, festivals, events, shops, cinemas and even entire neighbourhoods pay homage to India’s rich and colourful culture.
The Vij Empire Experience in Vancouver
Lucky Vancouver gets not one, not two, but three restaurants run by Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala (if you include the food truck, Railway Express). While their flagship Vij’s is a must-do culinary experience in Vancouver — the Indian fusion cuisine is both unique and delicious — my vote for best restaurant in Canada is My Shanti.
Located in a plaza in suburban Surrey, about an hour south of Vancouver, My Shanti serves up an exuberant fanfare of inspired Indian cuisine. The menu is a virtual gastronomic tour of India, and the flavours alone will transport you to the subcontinent, never mind the Bollywoodesque sequins and sari-fabric hangings. I wrote about My Shanti in: Spicy, Wild and Spectacular: My week in Vancouver.
Bhangra beats in the heart of the city
What are the odds: Last summer I was staying at a hotel in downtown Vancouver and heard Bhangra music floating up from the square below. I went down to investigate and stumbled into the heart of the Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration (VIBC), otherwise known as the City of Bhangra Festival. Bhangra is possibly the most joyous music on earth, so I found myself surrounded by a crowd of happy, foot-tapping people.
Bhangra is folk music from the Punjab region of India, so that means you will see lots of turbans, kurtis (flowing tunics) salwar kameez (three piece “suits”) and food! This is the region that gave the world butter chicken, stuffed parathas, jalebis, kulfi, lassis, tandoori cooking and much more deliciousness, so be prepared to feast.
Little India in Toronto
Toronto is home to more than 7 lakh (that’s 700,000) Indo-Canadians. The original “Little India,” also called India Bazaar, is on Gerrard St. E. in the east end of the city. I visit on a regular basis to eat dosas at Udupi Palace, shop for blingy fashions and house wares and buy the latest hits on DVD. Read Top Spots in Toronto’s India Bazaar for my recommendations on where to eat and shop.
More films are made in “Bollywood” — Mumbai, formerly Bombay — than anywhere else in the world, and they find enthusiastic audiences in Canada. From Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) premieres — featuring some of Bollywood’s top stars — to film festivals that celebrate Indian films, there’s a lot of masala films served up here in Canada, especially in Toronto.
Try the Indian International Film Festival Toronto (IIFFT) or the International Film Festival of South Asia, IIFSA (which includes the Punjab International Film Festival, PIFF). You will find yourself immersed in one of India’s favourite cultural pastimes: watching and talking about films. I have written many posts about Indian films in Canada, here’s a selected few:
- Indian cinema shines at TIFF
- The films of Satyajit Ray
- Bright Day at TIFF
- Interview with three Bollywood stars in Toronto
- Deepa Mehta directs Midnight’s Children
- Midnight’s Children: Magic at TIFF
Dancing with Hare Krishnas
You cannot get closer to a taste of India than by throwing yourself into the Festival of India, organized by the Toronto chapter of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Yes, these are the famous “Hare Krishnas” and they know how to throw a party. The Festival of India is an annual extravaganza that takes place each July in Toronto, starting with a parade down Yonge Street on Saturday and then ferrying over to the verdant Toronto Island for the rest of the weekend.
For more than 40 years, people have been flocking to this joyous festival for kirtan music, a free vegetarian feast, an Indian bazaar, cultural seminars and the Yoga Meltdown, Toronto’s largest outdoor, spiritual yoga festival.
Yoga North of Montreal
About an hour’s drive north of Montreal, the Laurentians are known for rolling hills, pastoral beauty, charming villages, and ski resorts. The picturesque region is also home to one of the most authentic slices of Indian culture you will find anywhere in Canada, the Sivananda Yoga Camp. Combining the best of both cultures — the beauty of Canada’s rugged wilderness and the ancient wisdom traditions of India — the Sivananda Yoga Camp offers visitors the opportunity to experience a sanctuary of peace.
Extensive grounds, vegetarian food, a Krishna temple, indoor yoga class rooms, outdoor yoga platforms, private or dormitory rooms, a swimming pool and a sauna are some of the amenities. They also offer workshops, special events and yoga teacher training.
DELHI IS A VAST, teeming megalopolis. It’s the capital of the world’s largest democracy, India, and one of the most historical cities on earth. Old Delhi is a warren of bazaars, New Delhi is a planned city on a grand scale, and suburbs like Gurgaon and Noida sprawl in every direction. Delhi is a city that is daunting to most visitors, and for good reason: it’s huge, traffic-clogged, noisy, polluted … and one of the most interesting and exciting cities you will ever visit.
Love it or hate it, Delhi is where many visitors to India land. Some see Delhi as a necessary evil, but others — like me — have learned to love the city. In my blog post Delhi Guide: My top tips, I pointed out that location really is everything. If you stay in Connaught Place, Pahar Ganj or Karol Bagh — where most of the budget hotels are — you are 14* times less likely to love Delhi than if you stay in a more salubrious area. Keep reading for my top choices for hotels in Delhi.
On the roof at The Rose in Hauz Khas Village
Hotels in Delhi
In a post I wrote about Delhi My top tips, I wrote: “My top Delhi tip is to stay away from the hustle and bustle. Stay instead in the leafy, upscale neighbourhoods of central New Delhi, South Delhi, or Mehrauli. Look for accommodation in home stays, guesthouses, or small boutique hotels. There are lots to choose from and more coming up every day.”
I took my own advice in Delhi over the past year and stayed in several accommodations located in South Delhi that I would recommend to anyone — and that includes solo female travelers.
I recommend searching these neighbourhoods: Hauz Khas, Green Park, Greater Kailash and Kailash Colony, Panchsheel, Lodhi, Jorbagh, Safdarjung Enclave, South Extension, Sunder Nagar, Malvya Nagar, Saket, Vasant Vihar, Vasant Kunj, Mehrauli, Defence Colony, Lajpat Nagar, New Friends Colony.
Back garden entrance to my lovely flat in South Delhi
FlipKey: A room of my own
Over the past nine years that I have been traveling to India, I have stayed with friends — a Punjabi family — in their home in South Delhi. But this year due to changing circumstances, I stayed in a number of different places, and in self-contained apartments.
“Find the perfect place to stay for your trip, and get great value along with the space, privacy and amenities of home.”
Loved making tea in my flat
Veg stand outside my Airbnb apartment in South Delhi
Airbnb: All the comforts of home
Airbnb is another great choice for booking unique accommodations with all the comforts of home. In Delhi there are more than 1,000 listings, from a room to an entire house (and lots more listings all over India, especially Goa).
On Airbnb, you can search using many different criteria, from a map to room type to price, and you can also check availability. You can contact the host, and check out their profiles, and make sure they are verified; and you can read reviews by other guests — which I highly recommend!
The rooftop of my Airbnb apartment in South Delhi
You stay in a real person’s home, and if you connect with the person, you make a friend. Having a friend in a foreign city — especially a city like Delhi, that is so big and overwhelming — is worth its weight in gold.
My lovely living room at The Rose
The Rose: Perfect by any other name
The Rose is an inside secret and I am loathe to tell anyone about it … but I must as it deserves good business. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind place, in a superb location.
The Rose is a guest house with 12 rooms, designed by a French man with exquisite taste, and right smack inside trendy Hauz Khas Village. All of the rooms overlook the forest behind Hauz Khas Village, so you get to wake up to greenery, birds and the sound of a cricket bat as local children play in the forest.
Tastefully designed bedroom at The Rose
I stayed at The Rose for two blissful days at the end of my recent seventh-month trip to India. After all the running around, staying with friends, travelling, hustle and bustle of Delhi … I just needed some peace and quiet, some down time, some me time. And I got it at The Rose.
The rooftop of The Rose in Hauz Khas Village
There is something very light, feminine and intimate about The Rose. I’m not surprised it is a favourite of women and solo female travelers. There are four categories of room, all good, but different sizes. I had the second-highest category and I loved my suite. It had a large living room, a luxurious bathroom and a separate walk-in closet, which is basically unheard of in a guesthouse.
There’s also a charming ground-floor restaurant and of course, right when you walk out the door, you’re in Hauz Khas with all it’s charming, twisty lanes chock-a-block with bistros, bars and boutiques.
Common areas at Thikana are anything but common
Thikana: Delhi’s ideal guesthouse
I wrote about Thikana before, without doubt one of the leading guesthouses in Delhi, in every way. Beautifully decorated, well located, safe, clean and run by friendly, helpful and efficient people — what more could you ask for? Thikana is located in a very posh area — Gulmohar Park, near Hauz Khas and Green Park in South Delhi — and it’s lovely.
Thikana owners Sheetal and Atul are not only friendly and helpful, they have done a masterful job turning a large, elegant family home into a luxurious and comfortable guesthouse. There are many good reasons to stay here, but the best one is that you become part of the family.
The park across the street from my flat
The City’s Best Hotels
Delhi has more outstanding 5-star hotels than any city in India, and this is the place to splash out. Even if you take overnight trains, stay in small guest houses and rough it on the road, Delhi is the place to seek some comfort and luxury, if only for a night or two. These are some of my top choices for providing a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle. Your body and spirit will revive!
- ITC Maurya is where world leaders like Barack Obama stay when in Delhi, and Bukhara, one of the hotel’s restaurants, is regularly voted the best restaurant in India. Is that enough reason for you? I wrote about my stay at ITC Maurya in 24 hours in hotel heaven.
- Red Maple is a cross between a guest house and a small boutique hotel. It is very comfortable, with very high standards of cleanliness and amenities.
- The Imperial is a grand, old Raj-era hotel that has been completely refurbished, and gleams and shines like new. It’s location on Janpath near Connaught Place is ideal, and one of the hotel’s restaurants, Spice Route, is superb: it has been voted one of the world’s most beautiful restaurants. I always stop for tea at least once while in Delhi, to soak up the atmosphere.
- Claridges is a good, comfortable choice if you are on a stricter budget. It’s located in South Delhi, has expansive grounds and lots of amenities including good restaurants.
- The Park is centrally located and very sleek. Fun place for a night out.
- Hyatt Regency is another favourite, I love the pool and the expansive lobby.
- Taj Hotels and Oberoi are always good of course, you can’t go wrong. I especially like the Taj Mansingh, which is in central Delhi and is known for its elegant coffee shop.
SIDDHARTHA GAUTAMA was a prince in India more than 2,500 years ago. He lived in a city called Kapilavatthu in the foothills of the Himalayas and was a protected youth, never allowed to venture beyond the palace walls. But one day, curiosity drove him out, into the streets and the market, where he saw the realities of life: sickness, old age, death.
This was enough experience for him to realize he wanted to be free from suffering, and to help others find a way to be free, too. He left his family and became a wandering ascetic, looking for answers. Eventually he gained Nirvana, or enlightenment, under a Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, on the full moon of the month of Vaisakh.
This event is celebrated every year on Buddha Purnima.
All that we are is the result of what we have thought. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him. ~ Gautama Buddha
Today on Buddha Purnima, Breathedreamgo is celebrating this great spiritual leader with a photo essay from Andrew Adams. These photos were all taken during the Buddhist Conclave in September 2014, which was a three-day event held in India to highlight the Buddhist history of Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Varanasi.
Buddhist Conclave 2014 in India, opening ceremony.
The Buddhist Conclave 2014 opened with a spiritual ceremony under the Bodhgaya Tree, followed by an opening night ceremony with beautiful cultural performances. Lectures by political leaders, tourism industry professionals and Buddhist scholars followed the next day, along with a Tourism and Trade Fair. It was hosted by Bihar and Uttar Pradesh governments for increasing tourism between Buddhist countries.
About 120 delegates from 32 countries were escorted to various Buddhist historical sites including Bodhgaya temple, Sarnath, and a special evening aarti on the River Ganga in Varanasi.
All photos are by Andrew Adams Photography who is a Canadian photographer who excels at capturing “the magic moment”.
Buddhist Conclave 2014 in India, opening ceremony.
Buddhist Conclave 2014 in India, opening ceremony.
Monks at the Buddhist Conclave 2014 in India.
Monks at the Buddhist Conclave 2014 in India.
Monks at the Buddhist Conclave 2014 in India.
Contemplative monk at temple during the Buddhist Conclave 2014 in India.
Monks at the Buddhist Conclave 2014 in India.
Monk at the Buddhist Conclave 2014 in India.
Monk at the Buddhist Conclave 2014 in India.
Buddhist Conclave 2014 in India. The Ganga Aarti at Varanasi, India.
Imagine walking and trekking among the Himalayas, the mightiest mountain range on earth. Fascinating and daunting, wreathed in religious mythology and mountaineering lore, the Himalayas are without a doubt one of the most spiritually exciting, wildly adventurous, spectacularly beautiful and deeply serene places on earth.
While mountaineers and the spiritually inclined have long been drawn to the Himalayas, you do not have to be an athlete or an ascetic to enjoy being among these mighty massifs. I was invited by Walk to the Himalayas (WTH) to stay at their Kosi Valley Retreat in Simkholi, in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, and experience adventure among the Himalayas. I found it exciting, vigorous, relaxing and accessible.
Nanda Devi, highest peak in Kumaon, is on the right
Shivraj, the resident guide at Kosi Valley Retreat, picked me up at Kathgodam train station and escorted me to Simkholi. It was a long drive along twisting and narrow mountain roads, with sometimes a sheer drop only inches away. Up and up we went, into the foothills of the Himalayas, known here as the Sivaliks. Finally, around one curve, I saw the famous white peaks in the distance and had my first glimpse of Nanda Devi, known to be beautiful from any angle, like the goddess she is. This mountain is Kumaon’s highest peak, at 7,756 metres, and also one of the most mystical.
When we arrived at Kosi Valley Retreat (KVR), it was love at first sight. The website describes it as being surrounded by, “towering ancient trees, enchanting chorus of forest birds, mystical flowing river and dense forest.” And it is.
KVR is a lodge made of stone and wood, with stylish rooms, set on serene grounds in a pleasant valley. It is clean and comfortable, without being stiflingly luxurious. The food is delicious and healthy, the staff extremely friendly and helpful and best of all, it’s immersed in the peace and beauty of nature.
Activities at Kosi Valley Retreat
- Mountain biking
- Bird watching
- Village walk
- Bajinath Temple trek
- Climbing the Burma Bridge
KVR is owned and run by Siddhartha and Latika of Walk to the Himalayas (WTH), an outdoor adventure company that specializes in trekking and outdoor adventure in the Himalayas. And that’s what makes a stay at Kosi Valley so special and rewarding. Not only are three meals a day included, but a wide variety of activities that introduce visitors to the beauty of the Himalayas.
The “Golden Valley”
The Golden Valley
On my first morning at Kosi Valley Retreat, I woke up to the sound of birds and sat in the morning sun on my balcony overlooking the Kosi River and the forest until it was time for a jungle walk. With Shivraj, we walked through the forest and spotted two magpies, an owl, several eagles, three people from the village leading oxen over extremely narrow rocky ledges, a waterfall and some scorpion plants.
Shivraj explained that scorpion plants cause an intense feeling, like an electrical shock, and village people use them to treat muscle and joint pain. I touched one very lightly with my finger and it tingled in a peculiar way for many hours.
Back at the lodge, I ate a hearty and healthy breakfast of rhododendron juice (a local specialty), masala omelette, poha (spiced, flattened rice) and fruit. Every meal at Kosi Valley was fresh, filling and delicious, sourced largely from local ingredients. Chef Himmat Singh is from a nearby Kumaon village and knows how to cook local specialties, like a distinctive dal (lentils) dish that is loaded with flavour.
Every day, Shivraj and I set out for adventures, and came back for delicious meals. I explored the local temples, walked along the banks of the river, climbed a mountain to watch the sunset, cycled the rolling road and went for a walk through the nearby villages. We were invited for tea at one village home by the woman of the house, and met a sprightly 85-year-old lady named Parvati.
Women from the village. Parvati, right, is 85 years old.
Hill people in India are known for being honest, hard-working and friendly. Generally, people travel with a higher degree of trust and safety in the hills than anywhere else. The people I met in Simkholi and the nearby villages seem to fit this profile. They work hard and smile easily. In fact, I heard that handsome cricketer M.S. Dhoni is from Kumaon, and sure enough, I saw a lot of people who look a bit like him.
I loved this peaceful valley, alive with prosperous villages, friendly people, bountiful crops, a clean river, rolling mountains, chattering birds and crisp, fresh air. I began to think of it as a “Golden Valley,” almost idyllic, and astonishingly clean. In the valley, it reminded me of Ireland, and in the mountains, of Switzerland.
Getting ready to watch the sunset from a mountaintop perch in the Himalayas
The mystique of the Himalayas
While at Kosi Valley Retreat, I felt my being open up to the atmosphere of Kumaon. I breathed the exhilarating, earthy scent of fresh mountain air, redolent of pine needles, distant snow, glacial streams. I listened to the sounds of Himalayan birds and the Kosi River as it tumbled over rocks and boulders. I felt the peaceful vibrations and basked in the serenity of the natural environment. I walked among the hills, forests, fields and villages. It was a blissful week and I felt completely refreshed by the end of it.
There is crystal clarity to the air and a mystical quality to the atmosphere of the Himalayas that is uplifting and peaceful at the same time. No wonder so many sages, babas, yogis and sadhus have been drawn here. In fact, this region is known as the Dev Bhoomi, land of the gods. The region is also extremely bio-diverse, rich in flora and fauna, with many pristine forested areas filled with birds and mammals. You can experience the power of nature here, in all its glory.
A hidden temple among the hills of Kumaon
Kosi Valley Retreat and the Walk to the Himalayas activities and itineraries are designed to capture the spirit of this special place. They make a region of the world — that might be daunting to some — accessible and available. If you have ever dreamed of seeing the mighty Himalayas and walking among the deodar trees, listening to the songs of the distinctive birds, and breathing the pine-scented air, contact the wonderful people at Walk to the Himalayas. They made it happen for me, and they can do the same for you. You may never be the same.
Thanks so much to Siddhartha, Latika, Shivraj, Himmat, Kundan, Deeraj, Indrani and everyone at Kosi Valley Retreat for hosting me and taking care of me.
Shivraj, Himmat, Indrani, Deeraj, Kundun and my driver, staff of Kosi Valley Retreat
Driving oxen over the mountains of Kumaon
Women carrying firewood from the forest of Kumaon
The rice terraces of Kumaon
The Kosi Valley Retreat as seen from above
Shivraj demonstrating his technique on the Burma Bridge
A room at the Kosi Valley Retreat
IT’S A RARE RAINY DAY in March at Aurovalley Ashram and I’m listening for the sound of silence. I can hear silence in the sound of tiny drops of water landing on the earth. I can hear silence in the bright flowers that sway with happiness in the light breeze. I can hear silence in the moving joy of the butterflies, unheeding the gentle rain. I can hear silence in the chirps of the sparrows, the songs of the parakeets, the shrieks of the peacocks. I can hear silence in the mighty thick pastiches of clouds.
In nature, silence is the manifest of the divine. There is never a sound out of place. Even with the roar of a waterfall or the rumble of thunder, you can be alone with yourself. The silence and the sound are as one. They envelope you with their inner stillness, their spontaneous expression.
Silence is a necessity for discovering yourself. But in today’s world, silence is becoming a rare and treasured luxury. Silence is one of the characteristics of nature and of profoundly peaceful spiritual centres, like Aurovalley Ashram — and the reason people are drawn to these sacred places.
On the lawn at Aurovalley Ashram
Here at Aurovalley Ashram in the Garwhal region of Uttarakhand, India, the silence is profoundly peaceful. Surrounded by the Shivaliks, the foothills of the Himalayas, Rajaji National Park, meadows of wild basil and grazing cows, rich farmland and a gentle tributary of the Ganga (Ganges) River, there is little to break the spell.
Since childhood at our family cottage on a lake in central Ontario, Canada, I have loved to be alone in a summery, natural environment. I have distinct memories of paddling the big, wood canoe to the shallow edges of the bay, and dreamily watching the undulating seaweed, darting crayfish and flashing minnows. I lost myself, my sense of time and space, as I immersed in the natural world, becoming one with it if only for a moment.
Those moments were laced with eternity, and very similar to what I find at Aurovalley Ashram. Spiritual peace is akin to the carefree innocence of childhood, in many ways, and the sunny flower-filled meadows of this valley, through which the Ganga runs, remind me of those cottage meadows of my youth.
Flowers at Aurovalley Ashram.
Then, as now, I have loved to soak up the silence of nature. Today, it is probably the most luxurious “commodity” as our world becomes increasingly crowded, industrialized and noisy. Silence is one of the reasons Aurovalley Ashram founder Swami Brahmdev (Swamiji) created this heaven-on-earth.
“Silence is the nature of the divine, it is the expression of your soul,” Swamiji says. “Wherever there is silence, there is soul, there is divine, there is presence. Life expresses itself in silence.”
Silence is a fragrance of soul.
Swamiji recommends that people who come to Aurovalley Ashram experiment with silence. He says, “Watch nature, see how nature expresses herself in silence. Make an effort to be silent and see what happens. Something will awaken in you. Life will become clear, simple. Only in silence can you discover yourself.”
At Aurovalley Ashram, and many other ashrams and spiritual centres, you can actively pursue a silent retreat. You can wear a badge indicating that you are in silence for a day, a week or even longer.
Swamiji explains that most of the time, we are reacting. Reactions are mostly negative, and a waste of energy. If you look at nature, it does not react. Nature expresses her divinity. If we, too, are silent, we can learn to spontaneously express ourselves. “Silence is your true nature.”
On the World Temple roof, Aurovalley Ashram, India
My experiments with silence
I tried the silent experiment for a day at the ashram. I actually found it a relief. I was given permission to be in my own little world — an introvert’s idea of bliss.
Slowly, over the course of the day, I began to see the world differently. Human noises became almost unbearable, while the sounds of nature became much more joyful.
By late afternoon, everything began to take on a different dimension, as if I was entering an altered state — or a truer way of seeing. I noticed things I had never noticed before.
Silence is the birthplace of your soul.
I walked around the grounds of the ashram to try and take “photos of silence” and saw flowers in a new way, as more detailed and individualistic. I also used my telephoto lens to shoot them, and came up with a new (for me) photography style.
During evening meditation, I felt myself sinking down into the depths, as if diving in the ocean. I thought of the Marabar Caves and the timeless echo from the book A Passage to India.
After dark, I walked on the roof of the World Temple, and saw lights on the distant hill tops that I had never seen before.
Speech is silver, silence is golden.
I saw an illumination, an undulating sense of the world as a living organism. I fell in love with creation. I was punch drunk with love as I danced on the roof, the stars twinkling above, devotional music from a nearby temple wafting on the breeze and the warm spring evening enveloping me with tenderness.
In the silent chamber of my inner being I sensed a spiritual truth often lost in the rush and din of everyday life. I sensed the pulsing oneness of creation, and myself as part of it, alive and flowing, moving, breathing together … on a silent rooftop in north India.
Sunrise at Aurovalley Ashram, India
GENDER INEQUALITY ISSUES and several high-profile rape cases have distorted the perception of India in the media. The result is that some potential travelers are choosing to bypass India in favour of less infamous destinations. As a long-time traveler to India, I think this is unfortunate. I know many, many travelers, including lots of female solo travelers, who love to travel in India.
Without taking away from the brutality of these incidents and need for societal change, India is much, much more. It is a fascinating, life-changing travel destination. And, like me, many, many travelers to India will tell you it was their most memorable, most transformative, and most remarkable trip. Here, some of them share their stories.
1. Carefree spirit
Andrew Adams is a travel, wedding, and lifestyle photojournalist with a passion for South Asian Culture.
I love travel in India because…I have learned to appreciate the simple things in life. This little boy with his rucksack slung over his shoulder, is a great reminder. It was my first trip to India, it got off to a rough start, I was sick, run down, and new to India. This brief encounter, his carefree spirit, completely changed my outlook that day and set the tone for many more wonderful adventures to follow!
Amy Gigi Alexander is a traveler, writer, explorer, and believer in goodness.
I love travel in India because : in a small village, on the edge of nothing, I found myself on a rooftop with dozens of women in their best saris, holding their babies, waiting in line to have me take their photo for the first time. And months later, when I returned, we all sat on that same rooftop, giggling over the photos I had brought them until it was dark outside. Sisterhood.
Amy Gigi Alexander
3. Storytelling stones
Anuradha Goyal is the author IndiTales – a travel blog from India.
Where else would I find even stones telling stories and telling them since ages, creating a continuous civilization for us.
4. A billion smiles
Prasad NP, better known as desi Traveler is a travel writer and photographer who wishes he could travel more than what he does now.
I love travel in India because it is a land of a billion smiles.
Prasad NP, desi Traveller
Prasad NP, desi Traveller
5. God in a cow
Nisha Jha is a passionate traveler, keen observer and a student of life. Loves Street food and dancing in the rain. She blogs at Lemonicks where she writes about her sweet & sour stories of her journeys.
I love travel in India because … Only in India I get to see physical evidence that God is omnipresent and in every form; be it a stone, a tree, a cow, a person possessed by spirits, the small shrine in the middle of crossroads or even autorickshaw meter!
6. One minute friend
Kim Hammer travels India and Indonesia to hand-select textiles and other artisan-made objects of beauty.
I love traveling in India for what I call my #ekminutedost, my “one minute friend!” A mid-winter visit to a Buddhist-run school in Leh, Ladakh becomes a cultural exchange and offering of kindness.
7. A learning experience
Jeremy Parkinson is a 43 year old Radio Producer/Presenter from Auckland, New Zealand.
I love travel in India because every visit is different, every experience unique. Travelling as a family showed us the value of shared experience. India taught us about each other, and about cultures vastly different from our own. When our youngest is a little older, we will be back.
8. Peace and adventure
Rachel Jones is an American who left a career in nursing to live on the beaches on Goa, India two years ago where she is now a Thai masseuse, candle-maker, and travel writer at her award winning website Hippie in Heels.
I love travel in India because each day you step outside is an adventure. You can’t guess what awaits you. But, at the same time, India has wide-open quiet spaces that many don’t travel to. You can find your peace in nature. You can have it all in India!
Rachel Jones, Hippie in Heels
9. Spontaneous celebrations
IndiaLens is a senior IAS officer who loves travel and photography.
I love to travel in india because here it’s a celebration always. It’s full of colour and diversity. It’s like a mountain valley in spring when the land explodes with life in myriads of hues and colours. The beauty of India lies in the spontaneous, un-manicured experiences you get while travelling.
10. Nowhere like it
Nicholas Kenrick is a keen travel photographer. He has traveled the world many times, and his camera is his way of remembering the amazing experiences that he is grateful to receive.
I love travel in India because there is simply nowhere like it … the people and the culture and the food and the ancient history … I love how my friends call me ‘ Uncle ‘ and I love the respect shown to elders . I love Bollywood movies and the songs; I heard them so many times from a cheap radio at every corner or shop or chai stall. I love the train network and the service and the tiffin tins and the cries of the vendors … and I love how India is called Mother.
11. Diversity and connection
Supriya Seghal is still deciding which city to call home; travelling for more than 250 days in an year can do that to you! Though, if there was a city she would want to park herself forever in, it would be Varanasi.
I love travel in India because there is no country which encapsulates diversity so perfectly. As the only non-local audience at a village, located deep in the inland forests of Bekal in Kerala, I feel equally connected to a Theyyam artist imbibing the role of Goddess Bhagvathi, as anyone else in the village. We are distanced by nothing. Not language, caste, creed or regionality.
12. Eternal, inexplicable
Danielle Winter is from New Zealand, currently lives in Germany and calls New York City and India home. Her art emanates from the photos she takes while on pilgrimage in India.
I love travelling to India
Because in her quiet and in her chaos
I find a depth of experience that is unparalleled,
because in this vastly entangled place the inexplicable happens,
I find myself small, yet eternal
and while marveling at the ingenious joyful response to life that is the essence of this mystical land and her people,
I discover that same response awakening in me.
13. Home and family
Gaurav Bhatnagar is a Software Engineer turned professional Travel Writer. He writes at The Spunky Traveler about Rural and Responsible Travel, and is an entrepreneur at The Folk Tales.
I love travelling in India because wherever I go, I can find a family and a home.
14. Soulful simplicity
Because the simplicity and quietness of rural life is striking and unpretentious. And in villages across India, I’m in awe of expert yet humble artisans, soulfully engaged in arts that have been passed down from generation to generation over thousands of years.
15. Anything can happen
I love travel in India because anything can happen. A quick lunch with friends in a Jaisalmer restaurant can be transformed into a two hour session of watching black and white Bollywood movies with Jake, the restaurant’s owner, and listening to the stories of his life while tears of lost memories rolled down his cheeks.
16. Sensory overload
I love travel in India because… You never know what adventures you will find – or more like, will find you — when you head out in the morning. No matter whether it’s a street market, festival, temple, or something else, you do know that your day will be filled with sensory overload of colours, humanity, sounds and smells.
I love to travel in India because it is my country and it is incredibly colourful!
18. Modern and traditional
I love to travel in India because of its mix of traditional and modern cultures. In India one can find festivals and communities that remain authentic, while at the same time its modern cities offer world-class food, art and accommodations.
I love India because of the relationships India has afforded me. My experience has been and continues to be one where the relationships I have established are educational, collaborative, humorous, familiar, friendly and most important based on a mutual respect. The joy, support and insight I have learned from these relationships has not only enhanced my relationship with India, but has been the basis of my personal growth.
Melanie, Mystical India
20. Colours and sounds
Janice Waugh is founder of Solo Traveler, the blog for those who love or long to travel alone.
I love India for the colours and sounds. Here I was sitting on a rooftop cafe and heard the chatter of the women. I popped my head over the edge to see this beautiful domestic scene.
21. Celebrations and adventure
We love travel in India because each day was a new adventure. Every destination opened our eyes to new experiences and there always seemed to be a celebration wherever we went.
Dave Bouskill, ThePlanetD
22. Loving hospitality
Shivya Nath runs the award-winning travel blog, The Shooting Star, which documents her solo and experiential journeys across the globe. She aims to inspire her readers to step out of their comfort zone and live like the locals.
I love traveling in India because where else in the world will strangers invite you into their homes and lives with so much love that you never want to leave?
23. Smiles and laughter
Andrea Rees is a professional photographer since 2003, mom and traveller. Seeker of cultural experiences. Founder of The Heart of a Woman Project, a women’s mobile photography development initiative in South Africa. She aims to capture life and the world mostly with her iPhone lens.
I love travel in India because an iPhone picture can inspire smiles, laughter and connections.
24. Charm of diversity
Renuka is an Indian travel blogger at Voyager For Life. She loves to travel, write and take photographs. She believes travel is a better way to live.
I love travel in India because it’s a charming country – the people are so friendly, there are colors in every nook and cranny, there’s beauty, there’s peace as well as chaos, there are quirks and subtle nuances in every city that bring a smile on my face.
Renuka, Voyager for Life
25. Feeling of eternity
Didem is an award-winning journalist who originally hails from Turkey, but currently divides her time between England and Malawi. In her last visit to India, she spent over 200 hours in sleeper trains discovering the country from north to south, and she recalls this as one of the best things that happened to her. She blogs at ReadWrite Travel.
I love India because of the glimpse of eternity that I get to sneak when I am in India. Being surrounded by a magnificent history, I feel that I am just an insignificant human being whose worries and worldly troubles don’t matter. I find this incredibly liberating and empowering. The river Ganges will keep flowing whatever happens. Oh, I also love India because I met my husband there!
26. Unexpected around every corner
My name is Elenora, I am from Australia. I have been to India five times and going again soon. I love it to pieces.
I love India because there’s always something magic and unexpected around every corner.
27. New discoveries every day
Siddhartha is a traveler, story teller and a video blogger, who derives his energy from the phenomenal people he meets on his journeys. He hopes to bring people of the world together by inspiring them to travel more.
I love travel in India because it’s such an unpredictable place, there is always a surprise at every street corner; all you have to do is take that turn! Even though I am from India, I discover something new every single day!
28. The soul of the world
Mariellen Ward is a long-time India traveller, travel writer, yoga student, dreamer and publisher of Breathedreamgo. Her happy place is standing in the open doorway of an Indian train with a warm breeze blowing and a sunny landscape gliding past.
I love travel in India because it restores your faith in magic and the wonders of the universe. As my yoga teacher said, India is the soul of the world.
29. Reaching new heights
Rutavi Mehta is a travel aficionado where she has travelled to more than 1,500 destinations. She loves exploring new places, meeting new people, learning their stories and most importantly, venturing into the unknown.
I love travel in India because each place, each moment, each culture and each person has a story. The uniqueness from north to south, gives a traveller variation of landscape, food, culture. Travelling in India as a solo woman is a great experience because people love to see women reaching new heights and they are very supportive. My tag line for India travel is: “Breathe the mud and connect over mud.”
30. Centuries of secrets
Lakshmi Sharath is a media professional, travel blogger and writer who has been blogging for a decade now. She blogs at LakshmiSharath.
I love India because of the secrets it hides in a street corner or a highway like a 1,000 year old capital town of Gangaikondacholapuam that has vanished off the face of the earth but for this incomplete massive temple.