Stayed in Shanti Lodge in Varanasi for 3 nights, a popular backpacker haunt with prison cell-like rooms (only worse in some cases) but with a sociable roof-top terrace overlooking the Ganges. Checked in at the same time as an Aussie girl, Chrissy, so hung out on and off with her for a few days.
I'd been building up Varanasi in my head for a while after reading lots about it and seeing a prog or two featuring it, but in the end I'm not sure it lived up to it. I enjoyed my time there, but it was no life-changing, earth-moving experience. Looking back, I think as it was my first place in India from Nepal, I was still acclimatizing to full-on India after the laidback, friendly, relatively clean Nepal, and I also developed a stinker of a cold while I was there, so perhaps these factors affected my experience.
Found Varanasi, well at least inland from the ghats, crowded and pretty filthy. Very in your face after Nepal. Down by the ghats at sunrise and sunset was where I found the city at it's spiritual best, people bathing and praying by the holy Ganges. The famed ghats are a real experience to wander along, abound with colours and activity, every afternoon and early evening there would be a load of kids flying and dueling with their kites, reminded me of the film kite runner. Took a sunset boat ride down the Ganges which was cool and a good way to take it in.
The burning ghats are one of the most famous aspects of Varanasi. Hindus believe if they are burnt on wooden pyres by the Ganges at Varanasi they will break the cycle of death and rebirth. The pyres make an eerie spectacle, and are a 24 hour affair, with a regular stream of bodies being marched down the streets of the old city to the waters edge for cremation. Some of the grimmer aspects include half burnt bodies of the poor floating along in the Ganges, who couldn't afford enough wood to do the job properly… When I was there though, it all just seemed to make sense, that's the way they do things…
Arrived on another overnight sleeper, tuk-tuk to another Shanti Lodge, and like the last place, bagged myself a dubious room in a hotel with a good roof-top view, this time overlooking the Taj. Made for an awesome view to have breakfast too once I'd dumped my bags. Went and checked out Agra Fort early afternoon, big impressive place, built and added too over many generations. Good views of the Taj in the distance, and checked out the area of the palace where Shah Jahan, the creator of the palace, was imprisoned in the palace by his son once he'd overthrown him. To be fair, his son sorted the Shah out with a sweet little view of the Taj for his last 8 years!
After the Fort, went and checked out the Taj Mahal itself, the reason everyone hits Agra. Slowly made my way through the grounds, taking the obligatory photos, chatting to a few foreigners and folk alike. Made my way right up to the Taj, had a look around inside, all very nice. Best part of my time there was finding a quietish part in the grounds to watch the sun slowly go down over the Taj. Whilst I was relaxing there, I was asked to pose with 4 Indian boys in turn for photos by the Taj - like I was some English football star or something - who could blame them…
The Taj Mahal I figure is one of those places you have to do if you're in that part of India… I was thinking of skipping Agra but then thought I probably should pay a visit… in the end it hit my expectations of being just a nice building and that was about it, it's beauty didn't blow me off my feet like many of the guide books suggest. So that was that.
Ranthambore National Park
Felt like getting out of the cities and seeing a different side of India, so hit Ranthambore National Park for a couple of nights. It's supposed to be the best place in Rajasthan to spot Tigers, but since the BBC spend up to a year and a half there filming at a time, I didn't go there expecting to see one in a just a day. Hoping, yes!
Went out for a morning safari in a canter, which is like a minibus with no sides, and takes about 20 people out into the park. Our route was in zone 5 of the park, which was pretty disappointing in all honesty, not very scenic and wildlife was pretty limited. Afternoon open-top jeep ride, however, although costing a lot more, was a whole lot better. It was driven by an Jimmy-Floyd-Hasseilbank look-a-like, complete with pearl earings, of the like I've only seen my late Nan wear. Riding shotgun was our female guide, who could have been straight off Meet The Kumars.
The afternoon safari was in zone 4 of the park, and the scenery was awesome - just like the scenery you see on wildlife docs, if not better. As well as the scenery, we saw crocs, antelopes, buffalo, a range of different deer, wild boar, monkeys, eagles etc….but no tiger. As a few vehicles were filing out to leave the park, there was a massive commotion as a tiger was walking along the track in front of us, bus since there were a few vehicles in front of us, despite all the drivers jostling for a sight, we didn't get to see it before it shot off into the undergrowth. Still, was wicked seeing the sun going down over a scenic zone of the park, that had a bit of a Jungle Book feel to it.
Whilst staying near the park met a German couple at my hotel - Michael looking EXACTLY like Lemmy from Motorhead, only 20 years younger and without the moles. Good guy. Whilst his wife was dieing of Delhi belly, we drank beer and talked about tigers, his job as a travel writer (f**ker!), the war (naturally) etc…
Pushkar and the Camel Fair has been one of the highlights of my time in India so far. Stayed at an awesome family run lodge called Milkman that I couldn't recommend enough. I guess it's like a very big house…really chilled out, well run place by friendly owners, loads of places to chill out, hammocks strung about, plants everywhere, a grassed roof-top garden, another great chill pad on another bit of roof-top with beds and sofas…. Met a really good bunch of people there too, probably the most social place I've stayed at. Norweigans, Danes, Dutch, a kiwi lad, a few other English people…we all got along and hung out.
The spectacle of the Camel Fair made our time there (3 days/nights), along with Milkman too. Once a year for the full-moon at the end of Oct, Camel Men, tribesmen, traders etc come out of the desert to trade, and to a lesser extent race, camels in what is the largest camel fair in the world. I've always liked the romance of the desert and that way of life which is why it particularly appealed. A lot of my time in India to date was spent in touristy areas, where you're not sure if everything's completely natural. But the camel men and their clans were here to trade, so wandering round the makeshift camps they'd set up on the edge of town, we were seeing the real deal.
As well as the camel trading there were a whole load of stalls set up, attractions and a fair. There were such events as moustache and turban tying competitions (!), and the Locals Vs Visitors Kabadi match that Mike (kiwi lad) and I got roped in to. After a brief, and frankly pretty poor, explanation of the rules, we got it on! A few hundred gathered to watch in the main showground, cheering every time the locals wrestled one of us Visitors to the floor. We got a few cheers too though and it was all in good spirit. Bloody hard work in the Indian sun, but great fun! Although we must have finished up losers, we were presented trophies in front of a load of gathered press cameras and video cameras, it was all a bit surreal.
Other highlights included the spiritual walk one morning, with thousands of pilgrims and visitors following a load throng of sadhus (holy men) around a route round town that took in various holy sites - so much colour and noise. Also got up at 5am one morning to climb a hill and see the sun rise over Pushkar, and that evening climbed an even higher hill/mountain, to see the sun set. Was pretty epic.
Hooked up with Joel in Pushkar who I'd go on to travel with or the next 10 days or so, and Karina joined us a couple of days later for the rest of the trip too.
Left Pushkar for Udaipur with Joel on a bus that took most of the day, driving through the arid, dry, dusty conditions that characterises Rajasthan. With it's impressive lake, 'fairy-tale views' and fine palaces, Udaipur is regarded as India's most romantic town. I don't know about romantic, bit it was certainly very picturesque, and pleasantly a lot calmer and cleaner than most of the places I'd been so far.
Went and checked out the City Palace while I was there and took in some Indian history, watched James Bond: Octop**** (filmed extensively in Udaipur) in a roof-top restaurant over dinner, saw some traditional Rajasthani dancing accompanied by some wicked drumming. But I guess in the end, after some rave reviews, I found the town a bit boring. Perhaps it was always going to be after all the action we'd just left at the Camel Fair, and leaving the good group of people we'd been knocking around with. After 3 nights in Udaipur, we hooked up with Karina (Canadian/German girl I'd met earlier in Varanasi) and the three of us got the 'sleeper' (!!) bus to Jodhpur.
Arrived very early, about 4am. Got a few hours kip on a hotel roof-top once the calls to prayer ringing round town had piped down. Walked round the bazaars, chilled out, then walked up to the fort in the scorching afternoon. Can't remember ever taking an audio tour before, but heard the one of the fort was particularly good and it didn't disappoint, was good to get some history and background to what I was seeing. Section on the royals opium habits especially interesting! Saw the 'blue city' in all it's glory from the fort walls (many of the city's buildings are painted blue), then chilled for the rest of the evening before the sleeper train out of there to Jaisalmer.
Jaisalmer & Camel Safari
From when I first started looking into India, Jaisalmer was right up there on the places I wanted to go. It's a golden city that rises out of the Thar desert, with the giant fort and many of the buildings made of yellowy gold sandstone. We got a real desert feel even before we'd got off the train - I awoke on the sleeper train with sand blowing through the windows and a dusting of sand over our carriage - we were in the desert.
Arrived about 5am and found some pretty sweet accommodation at Jeet Mahal, just outside the fort entrance, again run by a friendly and welcoming family. Spent the rest of the day investigating camel safaris and having a nose round town. Jaaislamer had a good vibe about it, there was less hassle from the locals and shop-owners as other places, it seemed more relaxed and easy going. I had my first hair cut of the trip there too in a ramshackle, back-street barber, it was like steeping back in time to what I imagine it was like getting your hair cut in the 40's or 50's. The old boy that did it had no English, but was full of character and did a cracking job. Haggled him to 30 rupes from 50 before getting in the chair, but in the end I gave him 40 anyway. Joel, Karina and I met an Aussie girl, Talia, and the four of us booked up on a 2 day/1 night camel safari setting off the next day.
An hour jeep ride pout into the desert to the desert to meet our camels and camel handlers/guides, then we set off - me on my trusty stead Padam (Paddy as I dubbed him). Along with the 4 of us, there was also a French couple and 2 Mexican girls. Although their standard of English varied, the 5 or 6 guides that came with us were all good guys too. For the two days we'd trek from 8 or 9 till 12ish, have lunch and sleep/chill in the shade in the hottest part of the day for a few hours, then get on the camels again till 5ish. Best aspect of the trip was the night in the desert on the dunes; evening round the campfire and night sleeping under the stars. Worse aspects were the food and the f*cking sore arse riding the camels created!
Got back to Jaisalmer about 5/6 ish on day 2 of the trek, pizza (had to be some home comforts after the tripe they served up in the desert!) and a beer, and saw first football since being away - Spurs V Sunderland - in hotel room. Got me thinking about Utd V Chelsea the next day (but alas I couldn't find it) ! Crashed before up at 5am ish again for bus to Bikaner.
Connection town on the way to Amritsar. Took a bus out to Deshnok to Karni Mata Temple - 'Rat Temple' - one of India's weirder attractions. Rats - allegedly reincarnated storytellers - roam everywhere and are considered holy rodents. It's considered auspicious if rats scamper over your feet - I accidentally trod on ones tail for a while pinning it to the floor, not sure how that's going to affect my future fortunes… Didn't really see much else of town… passed out in the train station for a while as the pace of our traveling and lack of sleep hit me. Got the 2am sleeper train to a connection town to Amritsar.
After messing up on our travel plans a bit, made it into Amritsar about 2.30pm. Was only to be a flying visit unfortunately as I had to make it Delhi for a couple of days before catching a flight to Goa. Made a bee-line straight to the Golden Temple complex, helpful Sike Tourist Office guy pointed us in the right direction, and I found my free accommodation for the night in a temple dorm, before catching a jeep at the last minute to the dusk India-Pakistan border closing ceremony, about 35km out of town.
The border ceremony was quite an experience. After being ushered to our VIP seats (by virtue of our foreign-tourist status) closer to the action, we took our place and waited for the action to begin. To our left were the border gates, and to our right was a massive stand, seating a few thousand patriotic Indians (I guess mainly tourists too). The place was buzzing with excitement and national fervour, much singing, chanting and flag-waving, trying (successfully) to out-do their Pakistani counterparts on the other side. The ceremony itself was conjured up images of Monty Pythons Ministry of Funny Walks - soldiers dressed with elaborate plumage would take turn to do a funny walk down the road in front of us to the border gates, do a few turns and salutes, gesticulate to the Pakistani soldiers doing roughly the same on the other side, then they'd march back down the road again. After this went on for a while, the flags of both countries were lowered and the gates were slammed shut for the final time for the night.
Jeep back to the temple complex, hooked up with a few other travelers, then headed for a free dinner in the giant dining hall (after getting a local to afix my turban, covering your head being a condition of entry). These Sikhs really know how to treat people… For a free meal, dinner was great. The thali like food was refillable, I especially liked the sweet rice dish, the 3 helpings going down rather well! Post dinner, went into the Golden Temple area itself - a massive square lake that surrounds the temple in the centre. I wouldn't get to see the temple in the day, but it was such an impressive sight at night it didn't seem to matter. Was very peaceful and relaxed by the lake too, in stark contrast to the mayhem of Amritsar town. Crossed the footbridge to the temple in the middle of the lake, entered the heart of the temple to see 3 bearded old boys singing, playing a classical Indian organ and the tabla. They were wicked too, their music was really chilled out, just the ticket! The tabla player was great, man those boys are good. Got a free desert type dish on exiting the temple (could it get any better?) then went back to the dorm to crash, before getting up at 4am for the express train to Delhi.
Currently in Delhi, leave at 7 tomorrow to catch my flight to Goa. Have left Joel and Karina and just me and my bag again. Keep meaning to add some more of my thoughts, perceptions etc of what I've seen of India I've seen so far, rather than a list of events that I just seem to have managed so far. But then again, perhaps it's better to do this at the end of my stay in India, when I can reflect on my whole time here. Also, the need for a thali and beer are bloody good reasons to put this off too.
I guess I need to include what I'm feeling and how I'm adjusting to this whole traveling malarkey. Until internet rates lower that'll be the preserve of my journal for now, although I'll try and a bit of that in the next update too. I'm loving it, anyway, that'll do for now.
In terms of future plans, I fly out to Thailand 23rd Nov, and looking further ahead, I'm currently investigating a Spanish language and home-stay combination so I can really get the most out of my time in South America.