We had planned to come to this northern city on the way back down from Ladakh via bus, however lingering snow kept the road shut, and Jay was suffering with altitude sickness, so we chose to fly back to Delhi. We had another day in Leh on the way, returning to our favourite vegan cafe for more smoothies, cakes and thali, and visiting the palace which we hadn’t had time for previously. We also spent 10 minutes in the most horrifying guest house with dirty sheets, cigarette butts on the floor and a shared bathroom that has never been cleaned. Needless to say we didn’t stay there and instead went back to the relative comfort of the guest house we’d previously used in Leh (for a whopping extra £1 per night).
After another night in Delhi, we then had to travel north again to get to Chandigarh. Our first stop was a pretty grim hotel with the truly bizarre feature of a motorbike in the hallway. While we were waiting to check out in the morning someone came and turned on the engine and just left it running there!
Chandigarh is a fascinating modern city built in the 50s, very much the Milton Keynes of north India. It’s built on a grid system with numbered sectors separated by big roundabouts. And finally some cycle paths which we hadn’t yet seen anywhere else. These made it feel much safer to walk around, although at one point we did have to dodge a motorbike coming at us on the cycle path! There is also a network of parks, built on different themes, that run through the city to encourage health and wellbeing.
The next day we were picked up by our first Servas host of the trip. Servas (sorry for the website) is an international organisation set up after the second world war to spread peace through cultural exchange. Hosts offer their time as guides, and accommodation if they are able. It definitely means you get to have a more personal tour than as a regular tourist; we went to a remote park late at night and ate at a restaurant that we would never have been to on our own. There was also a lot of shaking hands and posing for photos with various friends of our host who obviously wanted to show us off!
The highlight of the trip was the Chandigarh rock garden, built by a government official called Nek Chand in secret on some protected land during the late 50s as the construction of the city was being completed. He created sculptures from industrial and household waste, and placed them over a site that covered 12 acres before it was discovered 18 years after he started. The authorities threatened to demolish it, but there was a public outcry and they decided to keep it, and even gave him a salary and staff to expand and maintain the site. Now he is regarded as a creative genius, and there are references in the signage to the trauma he suffered following Partition. The garden itself is amazing, and we didn’t have nearly enough time to explore it (also the midday heat kept us hiding in the shade!). Definitely worth opening these pics full size to look at the details.
We ended our brief trip to Chandigarh on our first sleeper bus. The vehicle itself was reasonably comfortable with properly reclining seats and air conditioning. However it seems the Indian style of driving – using your horn to alert other drivers that you are over/under-taking, or just generally whenever the mood takes you – doesn’t end at night, and so there is little hope of sleeping for any length of time. Also no buses/coaches have toilets, so it’s a case of holding on until the next stop. Maeve managed a few fitful hours of sleep, but Jay mostly stayed up worrying about his bladder and watching an amazing thunderstorm play out.