India then Bust.

Trip Start Mar 09, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Sunday, March 9, 2008

Prepare yourselves for a shock. This was our final blog! That's the good news; the bad news is we'll be visiting in person soon. You have been warned!

India. Some people declared we'd either love it or hate it but it's not that simple. This is the most breathtaking country we've visited on this trip and that's because we've watched as the Taj Mahal emerged from the morning mists in its glorious perfection and it's because we've gasped and turned away in horror at the sight of a once pretty woman who, whatever the cause, had been left with only half a face.

We arrived at Delhi airport in the evening and were unprepared for the cold. I thought we'd got off at the wrong stop! Our taxi took us to our hotel in Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, where we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of Bollywood. Because the narrow lane where our hotel was situated was not wide enough for vehicles we had to push our way through a crowd of sightseers, cross a security cordon and walk the last 100 yards or so with our packpacks through a throng of cameras, lighting engineers, soundmen and the odd actor or two. But nothing seems quite real in Delhi anyway. Having reached the relative safety of our room we decided we weren't really hungry and stayed put till morning!

The following day we organised a car with driver to take us around and about for the next 21 days before seeing something of Delhi itself and soaking up the atmosphere. We particularly enjoyed our visit to Humayun's Tomb (almost a mini Taj Mahal) and Ghandi's Smriti where Mahatma Ghandi spent his last few weeks and which depicts the footsteps he took towards the temple before being shot by an assassin. There's also a really wonderful interactive museum where you can play with various installations to make patterns of light and music, all with an uplifting message somewhere of course.

At night we bravely walked to a local restaurant through the narrow passages and dimly lit lanes. I say "bravely", not because of any personal danger but because of our exposure to the reality of life for Delhi's poverty stricken. This is a level of poverty I don't think we'd witnessed before, certainly not on such a large scale. As we were returning to our hotel a young girl of about 9 or 10 asked for money because she was hungry. We walked on. As we passed a banana stall she pointed and rubbed her stomach. I had to do something and Dave gave me 5 rupees which bought 5 bananas. As I passed the bananas to her I was suddenly enveloped in a crowd of street children all fighting over the fruit. Those who were unlucky pleaded with me to buy more but I had no more change and Dave was by now some distance ahead and shaking his head. The children were treated roughly by men who thought they were coming to my aid and one landed heavily on her back in the street after being pushed and shoved. A difficult situation and I don't know what the answer is. It was only minutes later that we turned into a lane where homeless people lay under thin blankets at the side of the road. Some had lit fires trying to fight off the bitter cold. It was at one of these fires that we saw the profile of the pretty woman who called out "Hello!" to Dave. She then turned fully towards us and we saw her terrible injuries, perhaps someone had thrown acid at her or it may have been the result of some awful disfiguring disease. Does acid melt bone as well as skin?

For the next 21 days we were more insulated from such confrontations by the presence of Raghu our driver and the Tata Indigo we drove around in. Dave insisted the car was now a Jaguar and lamented the fact. First stop of the 3 week itinerary was Agra and the Taj Mahal. I was a little apprehensive as I did have quite high expectations and well, there are a few photos around showing what it looks like, so maybe I'd be left feeling a little flat? Well, it knocked my socks off!! We awed and ahhd at sunset from across the river and stood in reverent silence at sunrise the following morning as we watched the light play on the marble. But don't take my word for it, visit it, now!! Spare time too for a visit to Agra fort which is splendid and ironically is where the king Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal for his beloved wife Mumtaz was imprisoned by his tyrant son.

From Agra we travelled into Rajasthan towards Jaipur. Travelling by car did not diminish the sensory overload and we noted some of the means of transporting goods; bicycle, lorry, trishaw, car, bus, home-made and illegal car, tractor, buffalo, camel, horse, mule, elephant and of course people. All could be seen within a short distance. And while we're in the mood for lists, here's a selection of photo opportunities that whizzed past the window. Lines of old wooden fruit carts loaded with beautifully arranged colourful fruits; stalls making and displaying religious wreaths and garlands of flowers; men lazing on charpoys as women in beautiful saris sat and sifted grain through a riddle; huge rubbish dumps with pigs, cows and people all rooting hopefully through them; a wedding procession complete with groom astride a white horse with a small boy sitting in front of him while bearers surrounded them with ornate lanterns. The whole was lead by an elephant followed by 4 camels and a uniformed brass band. All were beautifully dressed, even the camels looked handsome. "Enough!" I hear you cry, "Get on with the story!"

Along the way to Jaipur we stopped at atmospheric Fatehpur Sikri, once the capital of the Mughal Empire but deserted because of the lack of drinking water and a really worthwhile bird sanctuary at Keoladeo Ghana National Park.

In Jaipur, the pink city, we visited an observatory like no other you'll ever see. Set in an open space, Jantar Mantar was begun in 1728 and is full of weird looking astronomical instruments which help produce horoscopes and the biggest sundial in the world which is accurate to within 2 seconds. Of course the City Palace is the main attraction in Jaipur and it is special with an impressive and vast complex of courtyards, gardens and palaces. We particularly remember the sight of Sawai Madho Sing 1's clothing in the costume museum. He weighed 250K and measured 1.2m round his middle. Also a pair of exquisite silver jars, at 1.6m tall the largest silver objects in the world, in which the Maharaja Madho Singh 11, (a very devout Hindu) shipped water from the Ganges to England when he attended Edward V11's coronation. Our guide said that for the return to India he had them filled with malt whisky but I think he was embellishing the story for our sake!

From the City Palace to Amber fort set high on a hill and of a gorgeous reddish-pink colour. It was founded in 1592 and had been the capital before it was abandoned in favour of Jaipur. Again, absolutely breathtaking craftsmanship and of particular interest to Dave was the intricately designed harem. Secret passages gave the Maharaja access to any of his Maharanis or numerous concubines without them knowing who had been the chosen one.

Onward to PushKar, a place I hadn't heard of before but which is a Hindu pilgrimage centre because of its very ancient and almost unique Brahma temple. It also has a lake with sacred ghats, one of which, Ghandi Ghat, has Ghandi's ashes sprinkled at it. This bit is embarrassing. We visited the lake, surrounding desert and temple by camel cart complete with rugs, cushions and draped curtains. We were more photographed than the temple I think. Apart from the obvious bad taste of the cart we were unfortunately reclining at just below camel -bum level and as most of you know they suffer constantly from flatulence with the occasional follow through. A dangerous journey.

Gorgeous Udaipur was our next destination for 2 whole nights. Every country seems to have its 'Venice' and this is India's. Beautiful sunsets over the lakes, an intriguing old town, the largest palace in Rajasthan built by 22 successive kings and a car museum meant a super visit. We had thought we might treat ourselves here and stay at the exclusive hotel on one of the islands but that was before we discovered that lunch there was more than we would pay for accommodation and we decided 'exclusive' really didn't include us! The poshest we got was an enjoyable evening of Indian music, dance and puppetry at Bagore-ki haveli. One woman managed to dance with great grace with 10 pots balanced on her head.
On our way to Ranakpur we revisited the Saheliyon-ki-bata gardens which were designed for the women of the palace and had very impressive fountains that had unfortunately not been spouting the first time we went. Raghu organised a wee man to run ahead and switch them on for us this time!

The Chaturmukha Jain temple of Ranakpur tirtha was a complete and very welcome surprise. This Jain temple is another marble masterpiece, this time because of the most exquisite carvings. Every inch is carved and every carving is different but the whole is truly magnificent. One of the 'guards' on duty decided we needed to have our education broadened and kept sidling up to us whispering about the "outdoor Kama Sutra" and he would then usher us in the direction of small but graphic scenes carved on some of the pillars. That young man has an unhealthy obsession!

In Jodhpur we checked into a really quirky hotel called Newton's Manor. It's full of antiques and collectables including a very realistic and horrid stuffed cat nestled on a chaise-longue. We were staying a bit out from the centre of town as usual as Raghu, quite understandably, hates driving and finding his way round the maze of narrow, congested streets which were never intended for 4 wheels. He did drop us off near the picturesque old quarter and we went in search of adventure and found Aladdin's cave. Another parcel was to follow Jaipur's magic carpet through the skies and land on poor Sandra's doorstep. Oh, the scarves and cushion covers we have to show you!!

Apart from shopping we managed to spend at least 4 hours at the mesmerising fort and nearby cenotaphs. We used the excellent audio guide at the fort which has excerpts taken from eye witness accounts of life within the palace walls. I then spent a whole hour waiting for a flippin' astrologer, Mr Sharma, who was a complete waste of time and money. Yes, I should have known but I thought it might be fun. He told me I had a quick and violent temper (maybe that was after the 'reading') was domineering (who me?), had been very ambitious when young but had now become more realistic and had an intolerance to spicy foods. Rubbish...bring on the chillies! Unfortunately when it came to the future he wasn't saying anything at all. I think a bit of self-knowledge might have been gained over the last 54 years , certainly I now know not to visit palm readers.

Believe it or not Dave and I found ourselves aboard another couple of camels in Khuri near Jaiselmer. This time we were actually riding the camel and not the cart and it was much more fun. Sunset in the desert was so peaceful. We could see hordes of tourists on another hill but all we had was a herd of antelopes. One of the camel drivers was a young lad who came from a small desert village and we visited the community on our way out. It was a really enjoyable experience and the people were charming and welcomed us into their homes which although starkly simple were spotlessly clean. How difficult that must be in the desert.

We stayed in a thatched mud hut within a compound which was very similar to the homes we had seen earlier in the village. In the evening a bonfire was lit in the courtyard and we were seated on a bench at a table, wrapped in blankets against the bitter cold. Under a ceiling of bright stars we ate a wonderful dinner as a troupe of gypsies performed traditional music and songs for us. It was very special.

In Jaiselmer itself we visited the fort which encloses the old quarter. The whole area is in danger of collapse, especially those buildings perched on the edge of the cliff. Unfortunately we weren't able to visit the Jain temples as they were closed but we did visit a couple of havelis which are the old, beautifully decorated rich merchants and noblemen's houses. Jaiselmer, Bikaner and Mandawa, our next stops, with their lovely forts or havelis, are little more than pleasant blurs now and it's such shame. I think maybe we tried to see too much and maybe too much of the same sort of thing. This may sound unforgivable and I'm sorry but all the forts, temples and palaces were becoming just a bit interchangeable. But I must just tell you about the polite enquiry people made of us in Mandawa. With a smile they would ask, "And which is the saddened country that suffers from your absence?" so much nicer than, "Where are you from?"

Another interchangeable aspect was the perishing rooftop restaurants our hotels invariably had. As we shivered and froze, wrapped in as many layers of clothing we could muster, the waiters would say, "But you're from Scotland, surely you're used to the cold." They couldn't quite grasp that In Scotland in winter we tend to stay indoors and put the heating on not sit on an open rooftop to eat dinner! So we headed north to the snow.

How could I, I forgot to mention our skin-crawling visit to the Karni Mata Temple at Deshnok. If I tell you it's more commonly known as the Rat Temple you might understand why it wasn't my favourite place. Just too many sacred rats on every surface for me in my stocking-feet, thanks. Ahhggg.

Amritsar lifted our spirits, it's that sort of place. The Golden Temple is amazing. Arguably not quite as intrinsically beautiful as the Taj but endowed with such a sense of peace and tranquillity despite its bloody past. Raghu is Sikh so he was excited about our visit. Inside the precincts of Sri Harmandar Sahib complex everyone is respectful and many of the worshippers wanted to welcome us as obvious strangers. We even queued to gain entry to the temple itself and admire its wonderful decorations but we drew the line at ritual bathing in the sacred tank. Did you know (here she goes again) that every Sikh temple has a community kitchen open to everyone regardless of religion, caste, creed or nationality and its open 24 hours every day?

While in Amritsar we visited the Pakistan/Indian border crossing at Attari for the border closing ceremony. What a display of well synchronised animosity it was watched by large numbers of cheering spectators from huge grandstands set up on both sides of the ornate border gates. Between the 2 sets of gates the flagpoles lie and each country's border guards, dressed in differently coloured but equally flamboyant uniforms, march with high kicks the Tillers would have been proud of and try to out-fierce their opposite numbers. I know the troubles between the 2 countries are real but this is a bit of fun enjoyed by all.

From Amritsar to Chandigarh and on the way a visit to The Rock Garden, a surreal landscape with sculptures made from junk, the brainchild of a roads inspector. Chandigarh is called India's most modern city but unfortunately it reminds me too much of Milton Keynes, apart from the Rock Garden which I loved. The city was designed by Corbusier and I expect in its day it was very innovative. Much is made of the wide roads and grid system but it left me cold. The Corbusier concrete and multi coloured High Court building is distinctive but didn't touch me in any way. Maybe we didn't give it long enough but it just wasn't the India we were looking for.

On the road to Shimla we came across more and more snow and our Dave started talking about skiing once again but it just wasn't going to happen. It was good to see the hills again after vast expanses of flat fields or flat desert landscapes. When we stopped for a pony trek at Kufli Dave rebelled and refused to get out of the car which left Raghu and me to make our way by sturdy pony through slush and ice to the "ski slope" and temple. The ski slope wasn't really and the temple priest was in combat fatigues which I found odd. Raghu enjoyed himself though.

Shimla too was a disappointment. Maybe it was having to spend another night in our sleeping bag liners because the sheets and pillows weren't too clean but we felt a bit travel weary all of a sudden. The centre of Shimla is perched on top of a hill and there are some very interesting colonial buildings but we didn't like the feel of the place and so were not sorry to head off for Haridwar.

Poor Raghu faced another rebellion when we decided we really wanted to stay at The Haveli Hari Ganga (a wee treat), in the centre of the old town. What a job he had manoeuvring the car through the bazaar! He was not a happy bunny. We were though when we saw our room with its balcony directly overlooking the Ganges, crisp clean sheets and an electric heater too! Next morning after sitting on our balcony and watching bathers at the ghats we wandered beside the Ganges and saw barbers giving children their first haircuts because this is such a holy place.
A funny story: Dave gave me the slip and headed off to the bazaar and a hat stall to try on yet another hat. "It's too small, have you a larger one?" he asked. The stallholder immediately grabbed the hat from him and put in on his own head before declaring "No it isn't! Look it fits"

A quick visit to Rishikesh which the Beatles made popular in the late 60s and which is another 'feel good' place like Haridwar. I spent time talking to a man about rudraksha nuts and learned how many 'mouths' would be best for my arthritis. We also walked by the river, fed the fish and gathered pebbles. Ommmm.

Now for something completely different...a tiger chase. We wanted to see tigers in the wild so stayed a couple of nights at Solluna in Corbett National Tiger Reserve. We were in the jeep at 0430 and spent hours in the cold pre dawn searching for the damn things but no joy. That might have had something to do with the hundreds of other people in their vehicles who had the same idea. We did see 2 herds of wild elephants though, the second herd with many youngsters in its midst, and, 3 kinds of deer.

We parted company with Raghu back in Delhi and let him get back to his wife and child. We spent a couple of days back in the capital visiting the sites we'd missed on our previous visit. We particularly enjoyed the Handicrafts Museum and the National Museum although doing both in one day was quite exhausting. This time we used the metro too and it was easy peasy.

Off again, this time by plane to Goa and its capital Panjim or Panaji. This is a lovely town with many Portuguese buildings left from its colonial past. Really enjoyed our visit to a nearby spice farm which had a super tour and an excellent lunch! From Panjim we booked our tour to Hampi and travelled there by train under the guidance of Sijo. Hampi was wonderful, yes, more temples and palaces but these were "Same, same but different". The mellow light on the stone was gorgeous and the view at sunset from the hilltop temple worth the climb. We also met our very first temple elephant who takes donations in his trunk before passing them to his Mahout. The elephant then gently lowers its trunk over the top of the donator's head and gives what seems to be a blessing. Bless! Oh, I also got a sharp head-butt on my butt from a holy calf that thought I ought to feed it something.

Dreaming of a golden Goan beach we headed back to Margao train station. The 7 hour train journey eventually took 15 hours and our search for the perfect beach was delayed as we settled for the closest at Colva. After a couple of nights we felt strong enough to taxi south to Patnem where we found "Home" which made a wonderful retreat for a glorious sun-kissed week.

I'm writing this epic from our hotel room in Mumbai before we catch the 0330 flight to Frankfurt and then London. Although very excited at the prospect of our return we've managed to take in a few sights here, a very different city from Delhi. But I think I'll tell you about that when I see you.

A parting gift. Be sure to click on this last picture.

Lots of love to you all

Dave and Joyce
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