As a writer and introvert, one of my greatest quests over this year of travel is to find quiet places to get away to where I can write, read, and be—without breaking the bank. Here are five places I found during my time in Asia that gave me the space I needed to write, seek silence, and find inspiration.
I stayed at Jirye Art Village outside of Andong, South Korea, for over a week last summer, and it was just the quiet getaway I needed after weeks in the bustling metropolis of Seoul.
The Jirye Art Village is comprised of a series of historical buildings that were rescued from demolition by Korean poet Kim Won-gil. The buildings, built circa 1660, belonged to his family, and in 1990, when they were threatened by a dam being built nearby, Kim managed to get permission to move 10 buildings 200 meters up the mountains to their current position.
An introvert at heart, I could feel myself shutting down. Some quiet time our last morning in Dharamsala and some rejuvenation at the Golden Temple in Amritsar boosted me enough to make it to Rishikesh in one spiritual/mental piece.
And once there, my first thought was “Rishikesh is heaven.”
Rishikesh is considered by many to be the “yoga capital of the world,” and as such, it is unsurprisingly filled with yogis from all over the world and, thus, a considerable number of tourists (for better or worse).
I was sitting in front of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the sun warm on my back, musicians playing and singing hymns before me, on the day I could’ve heard the Dalai Lama speak in Dharamsala.
Three days before, we’d arrived in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan-government-in-exile. While there, we found out that the Dalai Lama was actually in town (a rare occurrence with his packed, worldwide speaking schedule) and that we could sign up the next day to be present for his next public audience.
The only snag was that he would speaking two days later—when our tour was already going to be on the road for Amritsar, a city in northwest India, a half-day’s drive and train ride west of Dharamsala.
Prayer flags trembling in the breeze. The firm, golden gaze of a seated Buddha. Artists’ hands at work, creating something holy. A single sign of imperfection, and hours—days—of labor would be cast aside.
When we arrived at the town that is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile, I expected to be overwhelmed by the place’s holiness. Certainly, numerous pilgrims come from around the world to meditate or engage in in alternative therapies or to try to get a glimpse of the holy man himself. Others simply come to the temple that adjoins his house, offering supplications to Buddha alongside maroon-glad monks with shaved heads.
After the noise and crowds of Delhi, Shimla was a welcome rest. The mountain air. The quiet(er) streets. A chance to take a walk among trees. The stacked shops and stunning views. The old Viceregal Lodge, where the British colonial Viceroy once lived and which later became the summer home of Indian presidents.
I drank it in (and also took in a mediocre Bollywood movie called Banjo that at least had good music). And after a couple days, we moved on to Mandi, also known as the mini-Varanasi for the number of temples it has, corner after corner.
This is what I remember: Shopkeepers standing in open storefronts. Oil sizzling in big, big pans by the sidewalk. Puffs of bread emerging. A tailor looking up as we passed, surrounded by colorful fabrics. An old Raj—a man who should’ve been king if India hadn’t become a fully unified country under one government (post-independence).
We stayed in said Raj’s palace-turned-hotel (The Raj Mahal), and the history stared down at us from the walls—pictures of kings gathered in Delhi, a portrait of his father before him, paintings, black-and-white photos with color added (circa 1935).
And down the streets of Mandi, the temples on every corner. The river. Shiva’s temple watching over—Shiva the destroyer. “He’ll take anything,” our leader said. Shiva does not discriminate. “But we worship Shiva because we know things have to be destroyed for life to be possible. It’s part of the cycle. Destruction and creation.” Continue reading “Thinking of Shiva”→
If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far this journey, it’s that I love train rides. And slow travel, more broadly, but train rides in particular. Keyes and my train ride out West. Multiple trains across Japan and Korea—some slower than others. The 38-hour ride from Bangalore to Agra on the overnight train (top bunk with air conditioning—don’t worry, I didn’t suffer too much).
And then the beauty that was the train ride to Shimla. My tour group (via Intrepid Travel) took a regular train first to Kalka and then transferred to what’s called the “toy train” to Shimla, a hill station (mountain town) north of New Delhi. It’s called a “toy train” because, unlike its other Indian counterparts, it’s a smaller train on a narrow-gauge track that chugs through over a hundred tunnels (and hundreds of bridges) that are of their original design (from the late 1800s).
Shimla is now a honeymooners’ getaway (and a state capital), but it was once the summer home of the British colonial government, when they wanted to escape the heat of the then-capital of Calcutta. It was also where some of the first discussions about independence were held between British and Indian leaders in the mid-1900s. And in many ways, it still reflects the effects of its colonial legacy (check out this article in The Guardianfor an interesting reflection/critique on Shimla’s past and present). Continue reading “Riding the Rails to Shimla”→
After going solo for a few days in Agra (and a solid 24 hours in Delhi), I hit a hard reset and joined a tour group (with Intrepid Travel, which came highly recommended by Nomadic Matt, one of the writers/bloggers who made this round-the-world journey seem infinitely more possible than I initially imagined).
I must say, I had (and still have) mixed feelings about tour groups. For one, I feel it sets a traveler off from the rest of a country and its people in a little, protected bubble. You get tons of stuff taken care of for you, which can be nice, but it comes at the expense of one’s independence—for example, not being able to stay an extra day or two here or taking a side trip there. At the same time, I feel like a traveler can get so much more information about a place or city than when they’re going it alone, when one might only guess what those sculptures above the door mean or why the shopkeepers hang red pepper and lime outside their doors (a thing I actually wouldn’t have noticed without this tour). When I’m solo, I’m so fixated on staying safe, getting from point A to point B, and making all the decisions, I don’t always get the chance to notice things. So, in that regard, a tour can make all the difference.
Anyway, the list goes on—both pros and cons—but I’d have to say, I had a wonderful experience with Intrepid. I joined largely because before I left, I’d read so many travel warnings for solo female travelers I was concerned about going it alone in India. I think I’d be more confident now, but part of that is because I had this great intro to the northern part of India thanks to this tour (and our wonderful tour leader).