Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Thieves in the temple

Maybe it was the fact that after several weeks traveling in India we were getting more used to the controlled chaos, or maybe it was that we were just happy to to be back to civilization after our trip to Kashmir, but we both took to Delhi straight away. Arriving at eight AM after a twelve hour bus ride from Jammu in Kashmir, it felt good to be in a bustling city again, and after the usual bartering with Auto rickshaw drivers trying to cash in on snoozy travelers fresh off the fun bus, we motored our way to our hotel in the Paharganj district.

We only had a few days in Delhi as were heading back to Rajasthan for the second part of the Pushkar Camel Festival which was already underway, so we decided to check out Old Delhi first. If you can conjure up the chaos of central London on a busy Saturday afternoon around Christmas time (not pleasant I know), then you are part way to conceiving just how busy Old Delhi is - chuck in load of cows and dogs, swap Hackney Carriages and red buses for black and yellow three wheeled Autos and bone shaking Victorian cycle rickshaws, and imagine nothing has been cleaned for a about a hundred years, and you start to get the picture. Old Delhi is miracle of the urban world; how it functions is not quite clear, but somehow it does - Chandi Chowk, the long crazily busy main road running from the junction at the Red Fort is a effectively Old Delhi's Oxford Street with a maze of side streets and Bazaars connected to it. Stopping to look at anything is a dangerous game, as even the mildest whiff of interest on your part is tantamount to you wanting to buy. Shopkeepers shout enthusiastically to grab your attention from all sides and for all sorts of products - quite why an Englishman abroad would suddenly need to buy a king size mattress, a load of Tupperware, some industrial detergent an old pram I wasn't sure, but these apparently were items I needed in my life. On reflection, the mattress could have come in handy with some the beds we've been sleeping on, and maybe I could have wheeled it round on the pram, but I'm still reasonably convinced declining to purchase was the right decision on this occasion.

Venturing into the Bazaars is a voyage into the unknown, and frankly we had no idea where they led to or where they came out, so we just wandered, pushed along by the human tide. Inside the tiny network of streets lies total chaos. Although not totally covered, a strange filtered half-light pervades due to the high sided buildings flanking the walkways and the loose wiring hanging down from the dense spiders web of cabling overhead. Small shops trading mostly jewelery or fabrics are packed tightly together with barely any room to move in between, and at points the bazaar came to a total standstill with no-one able to move. Invariably then someone on a motorbike loaded with boxes would appear and try to squeeze down the middle causing further chaos, but somehow it all keeps moving. You get the impression that bar the presence of modern technology, this is probably not far off how it all operated a century ago.

Eventually we emerged onto a main street, and spent the rest of the afternoon looking round the old city with the odd beer in between. Getting lost is not really a problem either as you're never more than ten yards from a rickshaw, so when we'd had enough we headed back to the relative calm of the hotel. That evening we decided to go posh and eat at one Delhi's more stylish restaurants on Connaught Place. We even had a bottle of wine - the first one in a month, which, as Sam pointed out, is probably a new record for me. We'd both heard mixed reports about Delhi but it's really likable place. Yes, it can be dirty and overcrowded and intense, but it has a lot of character and it's certainly unlike any other capital city you're likely to visit.

We spent a couple more days exploring before catching the six thirty AM Shatabdi Express to Pushkar for the Camel Festival. Pushkar is a small but striking Rajasthani desert town that once a year plays host to a huge Camel trading fair combined with a religious festival. We'd been told that the holy lake the town surrounds was "a bit low" this year and that it would likely have a negative effect on the numbers of pilgrims visiting, but this clearly wasn't the case - the town was heaving with a mix of hard looking desert traders, fair people, pilgrims, backpackers and the extraordinary looking Sadhus who'd made the journey. Clearly the festival was an an annual Indian photography highlight too, as I've never seen as many cameras in one place - some with telephoto lenses as long as your forearm. This was looking like fun and were both looking forward to a few days at the weirdest festival we'd been to yet. Unfortunately, things didn't pan out as expected and the following morning while working our way through a crowd leaving a temple, I got my bag stolen which contained my Canon camera, prescription glasses, sunnies, wallet, and all my bank cards - basically everything useful! The whole previous afternoons and evenings pictures were on the camera too and we were now left sans camera for what was probably the best opportunity to get some amazing images we'd have in Northern India...frustrating was not the word. Anyway, we're insured, so it was more a case of frustration than anything, but the police were utterly useless, being by run by a Rajasthani version of Chief Wigam. It was patently obvious that there was zero chance of getting anything back. After a bit of research into getting a new camera it also meant we'd now have to go back to Delhi (before heading onto Jaipur) to buy a new one, and we could also replace fairly easily there the rest of the things that had been stolen. As days go though, it wasn't a good one and I was not a happy traveler that afternoon. Plus, to add insult to injury, we'd missed the moustache competition, which after 3 weeks of growth I was bound to win.

By next morning we were feeling a bit more philosophical about the whole affair and we just decided to get on have a good time, so we headed off to explore the town. The lake being "a bit low" turned out to be a sizable understatement; there was basically no water at all in it except for a large brown puddle in one end, and the result was a huge dry dirt bowl. My suggestion to a shopkeeper we got chatting to that Pushkar should host a monster truck and dirt bike extravaganza in it and call it Flying Sadhus didn't go down well - I decided it was probably best not to try and explain who Evil Knievel was either. Anyhow, the lack of water didn't seem to deter pilgrims heading down en masse to bathe in the temporary man-made pools constructed at the side of it. I have frankly never seen swimming pools looking more rancid, but maybe being full of holy water maybe they were self-chlorinating. Either way, everyone seemed to be having a great time dunking their younger brothers and mother-in-laws all afternoon - it must be quite a sight with the lake full.

One of the other most most fascinating aspects of the festival were the huge numbers of Hindu Holy men; Sadhus and devotees who had made the journey. Mostly they spent the day sat in groups together around the lake with incense laden mini-shrines they had built either talking loudly or meditating silently. Without doubt they are some of the most otherworldly looking people you will ever encounter, and most of them smoked more than Bruce Willis in Die Hard. It became clear why the mammoth telephoto lenses were needed too - travelers attempting to taking close up holiday pictures of them meditating were given a good Hindi bollocking and the old boys could get fairly animated when confronted with a snap-happy tourist. Fair enough though - it can't be easy pondering lifes great questions in the face of an Australian brandishing a cameraphone shouting "give us a smile mate".

From Pushkar we headed back to Delhi again and spent a couple of days re-buying the stolen items. We checked out smart New Delhi and the shiniest shopping mall we'd seen outside of Europe, spent too much money in expensive restaurants, and had a few boozy nights in some seedy bars in the old town - one of which was strangely full of grown men in suits drinking whisky watching The Flintstones. Jaipur turned out to be a flying visit, partly due to having ingested something that took a disliking to us, and what we saw was interesting, but we both felt a little underwhelming. The comedy highlight however was being me getting charged by a moody street cow in the town centre and trying to fend it off with a plastic water bottle which exploded on impact with its head - unleashing the contents all over my T-shirt and face and causing much hilarity to the onlooking locals. A You've Been Framed moment if ever there was one.

Our final stop in Northern India was Agra, for the mighty Taj Mahal. Little needs to be said about this really, as clearly being one of the wonders of the modern world its beauty has been described a million times, but suffice to say it's an awe inspiring sight, a mind blowing piece of architecture and worth every penny of the visit. Finishing with the Taj was a magical end to our tour of the North West and after seven weeks of fairly intensive travelling, we were both pretty excited about reaching the lazy tropical south...

View our pics here


Pushkar, Jaipur & Agra

Friday, 20 November 2009


I've been told numerous occasions that I could "sleep through an earthquake", but living in a country as geologically benign as England it's not the sort of assertion you get to put the test very often, if ever. So, it was with some surprise that we got up for breakfast on final morning of our trip to Kashmir to read in the local English speaking paper that a pretty sizable quake of 6.3 on the Richter scale had rocked the border of Afghanistan at one in the morning and could be felt all the way through the Kashmir Valley where we were staying, five hundred miles away. Obviously we were some distance from the epicentre, but we were told also that it had caused some serious damage and in the area and there had even been some evacuations in some of the towns further north following fears about further aftershocks. Worryingly both of us had slept right through it. I wasn't quite sure how to feel about proving this particular theory correct in this case...

Initially we hadn't planned on heading as far North as Kashmir, but a bit of shonky research on my part meant that if we'd gone to Nepal in January when initially planned we'd have both died of hypothermia as the mountains would be totally snow-covered by then, so this was probably our best opportunity to check out some of the Himalayas before the season ended - Nepal will have to wait for now. On paper, Kashmir is the probably the destination on our travels that presented the most risks, with its history of violent dispute over the state between India and Pakistan, hair-raising (and accident prone) mountain roads, and weather that can close in very quickly. Ironically though, the week we chose to go was probably one of the safer options - Pakistan suffered three appalling and fatal bomb blasts in Lahore and Islamabad from Taliban terrorists - they clearly had far more pressing problems than the Kashmir issue.

Our journey North to Palalgam in the Srinagar region of the Kashmir Valley took about eleven hours by Jeep, and was a stunning, if bumpy drive. Winding our way along the rugged Jammu-Srinagar road cut into the mountain side, barrierless sheer-drops gave way to steely blue glacial rivers crashing along the valley beds. Catching the occasional glimpse of the icy cold far below as the jeep rounded a tight bend was enough to give anyone a bout of vertigo. Even on a road as clearly dangerous and over populated with massive trucks, everyone still drove like there was a medal at the end; and we both went a few shades paler when our driver several times had to abort a failed overtaking on a blind corner at a two thousand feet. Part of the reason for the craziness of the Jammu-Srinagar road is that it's the main service route for supply convoys heading into the valley, and at points whole sections of road cut into the mountain can come to a standstill jammed with trucks travelling in one direction, causing the rest of the traffic to try and belt it down the wrong side of the road at full speed - until they see something else coming and then try and swerve out of their way...fun!

En route we passed the vast and controversial Baglihar Hydro-Electric Dam - a leviathon example of engineering shouldering hundreds of millions of tons of water between the valley walls. Our jeep driver mentioned it had only been open for just over a year, and had while it would undoubtedly solve lot of electrical problems for the region (once everyone was actually properly connected that is), it had been, and continued to be a source of a lot of aggravation. Water levels down river from the Dam had dropped, meaning irrigation for farming was more of a problem than ever and more disturbingly there had been significant displacement of population from villages and towns above the dam where it was flooded, which due to the the poor management and corruption of the authorities in the area was not handled well. The overriding impression was that it wasn't popular with the Kashmiris. Slightly unnerving too for the dams location are the regularity of earthquakes, as we discovered.

After passing through a few Army checkpoints to have our passports, purpose of visit and job (I still can't bring my self to say "unemployed" bizarrely) verified, we finally made it to the Kashmir Valley. The roads leveled off and we headed though endless small towns and villages and fields of crops being harvested. This region of Kashmir is almost 100% Muslim and its people, clearly used to cold winters and a lot of time in the open looked far more rugged and weather beaten than those further South. The small town we were staying in is apparently very popular with Indians for summer holidays, but was quiet when we arrived, being right at the end of the season. It was however one of the most attractive settings for a holiday you could imagine. Flanked by four thousand metre snowcapped mountains, and surrounded by alpine forest, with healthy looking horses grazing in lush green meadows next to fast flowing rivers and streams, we felt like we'd arrived in a real life version of one of those comedy moving pictures depitcting a far flung utopia with glowing waterfalls you get in Eighties Indian restaurants back home.

We stayed in a small basic cottage next to a river owned by a local Muslim family, and for the majority of the week just went on hikes around the valley, read a lot and tried to keep warm! There were no bars being an Islamic area, everything shut at 9pm, and for at least half of the day the electricity would go off (so much for the Dam!). It was already beginning to get pretty cold with some variable weather; temperatures were a few degrees only at night with no heating and snow was starting to fall heavily on the mountain tops. Ramzan our guide on a few of the longer treks told us that in only a month or so there would likely be several feet of snow. Kashmir must look incredible then, but also a pretty bleak place to live too. I asked him what he did during the winter to keep entertained. "Smoke". A man of few words. Clearly the fags in Kashmir actually make you fitter though, as he also told me that only a few months before he'd completed a two and half week trek to Ladakh in Eastern Kashmir with two Swiss brothers who spoke limited English, which is no short distance to cover over some pretty hostile glacial terrain and a pretty sizable language barrier to too... I wondered what kind of entertaining conversations two Swiss brothers and a quiet Kashmiri Muslim would have over the course of two and a half weeks? "Would you like some Chocolate? It's Swiss" "No thank you. Smoke?" "No thanks" "Oh look, a Mountain.."

One afternoon, came across something fairly shocking accoss while we were on a hike through some villages on the way up to the mountains. Walking through the last village before hitting the wilderness proper, it seemed almost like a ghost town, with a few people only dotted around looking sombre. As we left the village a man stood soberly with an automatic rifle stared at us as we walked past. "Policeman" Ramnzan told us. He went on to tell us that two days before, a Tiger had come down into the village in broad daylight, approached a group of small children playing in the street and attacked one; an eight year old boy, slashing him across the neck. The boy died later in the day from the severity of the injury and loss of blood. We must have looked shocked as he immediately assured us attacks on people here were extremely rare, but were not uncommon on horses and livestock, however, these tended to be at night and only when the Tigers were really hungry (on another trek he pointed out an old pony with huge gauge marks on is backside where a Tiger had once had attacked it).

The problem he informed us, was that because weapons are outlawed due to the political conflict, farmers cannot keep guns anymore - the penalties are severe. Twenty years ago he continued, if there were Tiger problems they could fire off warning shots which would usually do the trick, or if there was a single animal that was causing problems they could deal with it. Now farmers can't defend their livestock, (or children occasionally) from rogue animals. For an attack that took place only a few Kilometres from his own kids and home, he seemed extremely philosophical about it though. He told me that he also worked as a tracker too for the big cats in the area. "Tiger has been here for tens of thousands of years, longer than us, and we have killed a lot more of them".

With the colder weather moving in and the "nightlife" graveyard quiet, seven nights was enough for us in Kashmir, on this occasion. A diet of boiled veg, rice and supernoodles, cold showers that took half an hour to warm up from and limited conversation opportunities had, by the end of the week, got us more than a little enthusiastic about the 21st Century delights of our next stop - Delhi. A long haul South for sure, but a capital city with abundance of people, bars, shops that actually stocked things and restaurants that possibly knew how to do more than just boil everything in sight...

Getting the chance to spend the time we did in an environment as epic as Kashmir was an amazing experience and one that we were lucky to have had. Having got a taste for some accessible trekking in Himachal Pradesh and the Kashmir Valley, its really spurred me on to want to tackle some larger treks to Ladakh further East, but this is something that a separate, better organised trip probably calls for. Without doubt it's a fascinating and beautiful region that deserves a return visit. Just need to remember to bring a some thermal pants and decent bottle of whiskey next time...

View our pics here:

Kashmir & Jammu

Friday, 30 October 2009

Singh when you're winning

Our primary reason for visiting the city of Amritsar, I suspect like most foreign travellers, was to see the legendary Harmandir Sahib - the Golden Temple; the most holy shine in the Sikh faith and supposedly one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in all India. We'd heard enthusiastic reports from people we'd met who'd been and were really looking forward to being back in a proper city too after the desert.

Our first experience of Amritsar however, was...well, weird. Arriving after a ten hour bus journey, we hadn't bothered to book anywhere on the basis that we might be able to get some decent accommodation if we rocked up and did a bit of haggling. We pulled in to the bus station just before sunrise and grabbed an autorickshaw to the city centre and asked the driver to take us to some decent hotels to check out. "I take you to nice place of my friend" was the response, which generally sets the alarm bells ringing, but being too tired to argue we agreed and hoped Nice Place was indeed a nice place. Naturally, Nice place turned out to be not nice place at all; being down a dark dirty alley, run by one of the living dead and having rooms that looked like something out of Guantanamo Bay. We didn't hang around.

The next Nice Place was still on the grim side but not quite as bad, so we figured we may as well just take it for a half day and move on later - that was until Sam discovered that the shower didn't have a head and fired horizontally out of a hole in the wall at waist height, the sink made a loud nasty gurgling sound of its own accord, and there was what appeared to be a bucket full of crap in the corner by the bed. Argument then ensued with the hotel owner who claimed that there was in fact nothing wrong, and the 400 Rupees we paid him for the half day were not going to be returned.

After some heated words we got our money back and headed out into the misty half light of a city we didn't know to find some where to at least sleep. Amritsar like many Indian cities in the small hours looked pretty much post-apocalyptic, with the poorest of the poor burning fires of plastic and other rubbish by the side of the roads, mangy dogs and stray cows eating out of bins, and people everywhere sleeping on pavements and in doorways. It doesn't matter how many times you see (and smell it) it it still pretty shocking. Anyway, we got our heads down in the end, but learnt a lesson - if you're going to take a chance on accommodation, maybe do it in the middle of the day and not at five AM when you're deprived of sleep and judgement, and every thing has a tendency to look like a scene from a George Romero film...

Anyway, Zombie breakfast meeting aside, Amritsar turned out to be fascinating. We took a rickshaw around the old town to get our bearings and check things out before heading to the Golden Temple, which really is a quite remarkable place. Neither of us are in the slightest bit religious, but both of us agreed that there was something fairly magical about it.

The temple itself is a huge white marble walled complex filled with chambers and a vast kitchen which apparently can (and often does) feed around 100,000 pilgrims and homeless people a day. Inside the walls sits a giant glassy lake with the Golden Temple itself set the centre, looking almost like its floating on the water. Prayer music and tablas echo round the building and people throw themselves on floor in prayer or immerse themselves in the water of the lake which boils with huge orange and gold Koi Carp. Thousands of pilgrims wander around the lake and family photos are taken everywhere in front of the temple. Chai is served at stalls and there's even a changing room for devotees who feel like having more than a paddle. For the centre of a major world religion it seems a fittingly uplifting environment and has none of the austerity and gloom of other holy HQs like the Vatican, which gives the impression of being designed to make one feel small and subservient.

We took a slow walk round chatting randomly to some locals and a few people who'd come from further afield and then headed into the Golden Temple itself, which is entered along an ornate pontoon. Inside, hardcore devotees sit in prayer and scripture is read out by Sikh high priests, while pilgrims throw notes and coins onto a carpet collected in the manner of a blackjack dealer by an elderly man, with what looked like a long blunt sword. We wondered if we were the only people inside the temple who registered the irony of poor people giving all their money to rich people sitting in a building made of solid gold, but thats religion for you... That aside, we both found the Golden Temple an amazing spectacle. It really was hard to believe that twice in the 1980s the temple complex was the scene of full on siege battles.

The first took place in 1984 after Sikh separatists fortified the building and took it over and the army was sent in to sort it out - which they did badly. Tanks were driven into the complex, mortar shells fired and armed soldiers sent into take out the militants, with little respect for the Sikhs holiest building. Many people were killed and injured, the temple was riddled with holes and badly damaged and the handling of the siege by the government was viewed almost universally as an embarrassment and a disaster. The second siege took place in 1988 after separatists had again got away with attempting to fortify the complex for their own use. A police officer was shot in a skirmish and violence erupted again, with snipers sent in to take out the armed separatists who this time barraged themselves inside the actual golden temple with hostages. The hostages were eventually released but the bodies of many more were discovered inside the vaults of the temple later. It all sounded like something from a Hollywood action film, but the effects on the people of Amritsar were very real, with curfews imposed around the city and some dire treatment of innocent suspects during the sieges as the army tried to gather information under pressure. Not once since we have been here have we seen the slightest hint of any tension between religions, but its clear that when things have gone wrong in the past, its been the result of political decisions that have nothing to do with the interests of ordinary people and generally yield the worst results for those with least control over their involvement.

We spent a further day in Amritsar, before heading North again to the state of Himachal Pradesh and the hill town of Mcleod Ganj in the lower Himalayas, home of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Dalai Lamas residence. Traveling through the Punjabi countryside by train it was easy to see why the state has the name the Breadbasket of India; the view outside the window for nearly the entire journey to Pathankot consisted of lush green fields of farmed crops and vegetables interspersed with streams and rivers with Black Buffalo bathing in them. From Pathankot we then caught a packed and rather shaky old public bus to Mcleod Ganj (upper Dharmshala), which snaked its way through some fairly spectacular gorges and mountain roads on the way.

Mcleod Ganj (which I thought sounded like some strain of weed grown by a Scottish bloke) turned out to be a cool little town with a sort of alpine Christmassy feel to it. Being home to the Dalai Lama there were lots of Tibetans wandering around which made it feel very relaxed and almost like a different county all together. It was also chock full of foreign tourists; some of whom (mainly Americans) appeared to have gone way over the top with the cold weather gear and were sporting woolly hats, fleeces and mittens - even though it was still about 15 degrees. A few people we'd met in Rajasthan had said they'd ended up staying in Mcleod Ganj much longer than they'd planned and it was easy to see why with its holiday feel and busy bars.

Having done only limited research before we arrived, we hadn't realised that whether the Dalai Lama was in residence or not had a sizable bearing on whether the tiny town was busy or quiet. As it turned out, he was, and, as we discovered the morning after we arrived, there were also about 1200 Taiwanese there to visit him too; 90 of which had booked out in the hotel literally joined to ours and who got up every morning at 5am on the dot to belt out mantras in the hotels function room assisted by a monk on a mike. The first morning it scared the shit out of us....by day four we nearly knew all the words were singing along them in bed. Resistance was futile. The Taiwanese seemed to be everywhere, and moved in large heards too talking up whole roads at a time. Also, each tour group all wore coloured baseball caps giving them a specially moronic look, but they seemed not to care as were clearly far too busy thinking about enlightenment and selling all their possessions, and possibly which mantra they were going to use the next morning to wake us up at five AM...

Being an atheist, I had always thought Buddhism, in a fairly simplistic way I suppose, one of the more sensible religions. From my limited understanding it seems outwardly as if its based fundamentally on living well and in a considered way, respecting other people, and treating them as you would expect to to be treated yourself, but surprisingly, confronted with its devotees in such large numbers concentrated into such a small town, I have to admit that I found the whole thing almost cultish. We took a trip the main temple at the Dalai Lamas complex and there was none of the chatty conversation and friendliness we had encountered at the Golden Temple - in fact we found most people there seemed self interested and almost indifferent. It felt a little like an exclusive club which one needed to be invited to, as opposed to the turn up, get your kit off, jump in the water inclusiveness we'd seen in Amritsar. Overheard conversations in restaurants involved awed talk of things like "needing to be truthful to ones inner self" and "choosing the right path"... it was as if everyone had turned up to a self help workshop expecting to get the secret to eternal life.

Maybe I'm a massive skeptic and become immediately suspicious when confronted with religion that seems to totally absorb the individual, but from experience so far there seems to be something far more real in the basic way Hinduism intertwines with peoples lives in India than the other faiths - plus, Buddhism doesn't have glow in the dark toy Ganeshes riding musical flashing bicycles for sale on every street, which surely should be a fundamental part of any religion...

We spent a total of five days in Mcleod Ganj and I have to say the Dalai Lama did his homework when it came to choosing a location for the Exiled Government; it was a beautiful place to stay. We mainly spent time just relaxing, reading and wandering around the area doing not a lot, and had some entertaining evenings in the bars in the town, one of which was always rammed and had a live band that seemed to have a fetish for smashing out Dire Straights songs very badly. We also went on our first trek, a short walk by Himalayan standards of 25k to Triund which was a 1000m climb from the the town to the summit - a ridge with spectacular views over the valley and villages below. Our plan at the end of the week initially had been to head East through Himachal Pradesh to Manali, then on to Shimla before heading South to Delhi, but having chatted to other travelers the lure of bigger mountains, wilder terrain and maybe some Trout fishing in Kashmir was too strong, and so we booked ourselves a trip further North...

View our pics here:

Amritsar and Mcleod Ganj

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Back in the saddle

Rising out of the desert like a giant medieval sandcastle, the fort town of Jaiasalmer dominates the horizon and can be seen for miles around. An impressive vision of sandstone turrets set on a steep hill that looks constructed more out of functionality than style, it was, as far as we could ascertain, the only thing worth seeing in the main town. The rest of Jaisalmer seemed to be a mess of half built concrete buildings, shabby shops or grubby restaurants, all called either Golden Fort, Golden Palace, Palace Fort, or Golden Fort Palace. We were staying in the rebelliously named Hotel Golden City, which was next to a panel beaters shop and had an inviting cloudy green swimming pool home to some bathing birds. We decided to give swimming a miss.

Having had some much needed sleep, we figured we may as well check out the main attraction and headed into the old fort town. Inside the walls lay a maze of tiny streets, thankfully too small even for rickshaws to squeeze down, and we spent an hour wandering round in relative peace before we found ourselves back where we started. Clearly every one else arriving had the same idea, as we bumped into our Israeli friends from the Hellbus and went for a long lunch and some cold beers. Being a desert town, Camel tours were clearly the staple tourist trade with every second shop and hotel offering them, and we decided that as the main town itself didn't have too much to offer, we may as well book one as we did want to see the desert, and we'd probably provide each other with some cheap entertainment also.

The next morning we headed out by Jeep. Much of the surrounding desert Jaisalmer town was a mix of bush and scrub land, and to get to the desert proper we needed to travel for around an hour. On the way we stopped to visit a couple of small villages that were effectively no more than a few huts and some animals. It had been a very dry year in India so far and the effects of this were clear to see; the small lake which provided water for the villages we saw (and two others) was now no more than dirty puddle. Our driver told us that they were having to walk several Kilometres every day just to get drinking water this year. Further along our journey we passed a truck loaded with a few tons of cut stone driven by a boy, with another half dozen boys on the back. For breaking, loading and transporting this they would only receive 150 rupees between them per day - about two pounds. Its clear to see why tourism related jobs being relatively well paid are the main choice for many, but with English being a pre-requisite for this, and education a luxury that most villagers can't afford, its not even an option for the majority of people living in the rural areas.

Now, I had only rode a camel once before, several years ago in Tangiers, and for about ten minutes, but I had pretty much decided then that it wasn't really something I really wanted to do again. Whilst camels are undoubtedly admirable examples of evolutions power of adaption to environment, they are also probably one of the ugliest mammals on four legs and don't generally do much to endear themselves, so I was hoping that seeing as we were spending all afternoon sitting on two of them, maybe by some chance we might get a couple of well mannered ones. Sam was in luck anyway. Hers was a steady big old boy called Johnny Walker - two time winner of the Jaisalmer annual camel safari race. Mine was called Rocket - two year old winner of bugger all and apparently named Rocket because of his tendency to leg it "when car get too near". Well chuffed. Anyway, much to Sams disappointment we only saw one car all afternoon so I didn't get to experience the full power of Rockets autophobia...

We ended up spending an amazing day out in the Thar desert; traveling for miles with no one around but the occasional goat and vultures overhead, and stopping to cook lunch on an open fire in the shade of a tree and share some chai with a Shepherd who came and sat with us. Ramesh, our guide turned out to be a pretty good cook too, building a fire then knocking up an decent vegetable curry, dals and Chapatis from scratch. I told him so too but he responded "No. Cooking is woman work. Men go to the desert". When I told him about my brothers culinary experiments and his applying to be on Masterchef on the TV back home he looked at me like I was mental. We changed the subject to Camels. After lunch we trekked on in the blazing heat, stopping only to get water from a well for dinner later, which was again cooked from scratch along with more chai. Sitting in the evening sun in the silence of the desert we could easily have stayed over night as Ramesh had tents packed with him on the camels, but we had a train to catch...

We left Jaisalmer the next morning, heading North again by second class carriage to Bikaner - another desert town in North West Rajasthan on our way to Amritsar in Punjab. En route it got pretty windy and we literally had to baton down the hatches a few times due to the amount of sand from the desert blowing through the windows. Somehow though it still seemed to get everywhere. At points, it must have looked like train full of terrorists with bad coughs going on holiday; with everyone in the carriage, including us with scarfs tied round our heads and only eyes or sun glasses poking through. Still, the "sandstorm" proved to be an entertaining talking point and we spent most of the rest of the journey chatting to a couple of guys opposite us about everything from Bollywood to farming equipment, to why Indians brains are better suited to working in the computer industry...

There sadly isn't really much to say about Bikaner to be honest, we were effectively passing through for one night so saw little of the town except the outside of the main fort and the market. I can tell you however that it is dusty, smelled overwhelmingly of eggs pretty much the whole time, everyone seemed to want to sell us mattresses, none of the rickshaw drivers have any idea where they were going and its incredibly difficult to get a straight answer about anything. We did however have the privilege of staying in the "21st Maharajahs cousins, brother in laws" residence which was a comfortable if slightly crazy (in a good way) place with a house pug dog as pet and rooms full of weird pictures and photos, vintage wine bottles (sadly empty) dodgy taxidermy and quirky, dusty curiosities he'd collected from all over India. Seeing as I find bad taxidermy and pugs both entertaining, it proved to be a winner...

Next stop Amritsar!

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Jaisalmer, The Thar Desert and Bikaner

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Strangers in the night

Last night was, without doubt, one of the most surreal nights the two of us have had in some time. After a pretty straightforward train journey from Mumbai to Udaipur comprising a seated carriage first, then an overnight sleeper from Gujarat with two nice guys heading up to Rajasthan on business, we expected the coach to Jalsaimer to be not too dissimilar. How wrong we were. Boarding the bus to Jaisalmer with us were half a dozen other western travelers, none of whom had ever taken an Indian sleeper coach; but the picture on the ticket clearly depicted a smartish Volvo bus which looked fine. When the bus acutally arrived and we boarded, it was pretty clear we were in for an interesting twelve hours however. The driver appeared to be mute and the coach was being managed by a bossy twelve year old. In addition, the coach which also was about twenty years old basically consisted of a row of scruffy seats either side, some with springs sticking out, above which there were what can only be described as cupboards for sleeping compartments. All of us had booked the sleeper tickets, meaning we had to take the cupboard option as opposed to grabbing a reclining seat which looked infinitely more preferable, loose spings and all. Things kicked off in the first ten minutes when an Israeli guy at the back climbed into his cupbaord to discover it was soaking wet inside and that "someone had pissed in it"...an argument ensued for 10 mins before the pre-pubescant bus manager finally conceded that the guy didn't have to sleep in it. As it turned out, our new Israeli travel companion was a Calculus professor from Tel Aviv and a very bright guy. Arguing with a small boy with fascist tendencies over a piss-stained mattress really must have been a new intellectual high for him.

When we finally did get going, the driver clearly thought that he was in the Canonball Run, averaging about 85mph along some of the worst roads you can imagine. Any suspension that may once been in place had long since gone, and attempting to grab any kip inside the compartment could only be likened to trying to sleep in horizontal wardrobe while being dragged over a cattle grid and pelted with stones. For 12 hours. Eventually we gave up and climbed down into some free seats below, which turned out to to be a little less brutal. Anyway, at some point we must have drifted off as I woke up to the sound of "Chai, Chai, Coffee, Coffee". Getting off the bus bleary-eyed to grab a drink, I was confronted by a donkey trying to get on the bus, surrounded by interested looking pigs. The service stop was some sort of rural farm with cows chickens, pigs, goats and donkeys all surrounding the bus and hoards of Indians guys relieving themselves in the road. It was pitch black other than the the Chai stall which was belting out Bangra (and also boasted a huge selection of DVDs for sale for some reason).

Back on board things had got even weirder with one of the cows heads now through the coach window and the Isreali guy laughing hysterically and feeding it from a bag of crisps and a packet of Oreos while his girlfriend shouted at him for wasting their food. Later he produced a large knife and a Pineapple and walked round the bus handing out roughly cut chunks to confused Indians and the driver, to whom he shouted sarcastically "try some please! Its recommended in the Lonely Planet!" At one point we the bus had at least double its capacity and we actually watched as four guys climbed out of a compartment made only just comfortably for two. Trains, it seems, are civilized affairs compared to buses...

Anyway, previous to this we had spent a fantastic 4 days in Udaipur; our first stop in Rajasthan. After the hustle and bustle and urban sprawl of Mumbai we were glad to escape to somewhere more rural. Constructed predominantly around the North of lake Pichola, Udaipurs old town is a jumble of buildings set along small busy streets and alleyways that wind their way back from the lake shore. The view of the lake is dominated by two main features; the City Palace with sits atop the towns highest point over looking the water and is impressive in its scale and architecture, and the Lake Palace on Jagniwas Island - which as every rickshaw driver loves to remind you, featured in Octopussy (the not-very-good James Bond with Roger Moore in). There is in fact a bar in the old town which has a sign outside it saying "Roof garden! Nightly showings of Octopussy". Their staff turnover must be very high.

We landed on our feet with our hotel in Udaipur - a really cool busy little bohemian place with about fifteen rooms over four floors, of which we appeared to have got one of the best on the top floor; colourful and spacious, with a big four poster bed and sliding glass doors opened onto 180 degree views over the lake and city. The morning we arrived we sat and watched for half an hour as a huge hawk soared around the top of the hotel, riding the thermals from the buildings and some times getting as close as twenty feet from our balcony. The owners clearly took pride in making sure it was an interesting place to stay -vthere were lots of little terraces with comfy outdoor beds, a good bar on top and a pair of tortoises (the large one thought it was a dog I think) which wandered around amiably. Based in Hanuman Ghat on the quieter North West side of the lake, it was a great base to explore the city and we easily could have stayed longer. Udaipur is not a big city - certainly you can get around very easily to all the main points of interest by rickshaw, but we spent most of our time on foot - and while you do inevitably get hassled to buy local crafts it was worth it, as we found lots of quirky little places we otherwise wouldn't have. As wth much of India it would appear, the real pleasure is not traipsing round temple to fort but watching whats happening on the street.

We did the trips to the City Palace (including the very kitsch "Worlds largest Collection of Ganeshes") and the Jain temples and took a ride out to the surrounding areas to see some of the sites of Udaipurs historical battles and some local tribal houses which our driver informed us several times bizarrely were built from "stone and semen" (later we realised Cement!), but I think what we both enjoyed most were the afternoons on the banks of the lake chatting to the guys in the cafes and watching people doing what they do. Invariably, there is always something going on. It's already very easy to see how seductive the lifestyle can be here for people with time on thier hands.

Food being a big part of traveling, we were keen to check out the local grub too. Rajasthani menus tend to be pretty similar from restaurant to restaurant; there are maybe a dozen to twenty different dishes, breads and rices that appear regularly everywhere you go, with the real difference in being how well these are prepared and produced. The Tandoor we've had so far has been excellent in general and we've been really taken by some of the simple vegetable masalas. Sam has developed a love of Stuffed Parathas, and I've got a taste for Banana Lassi in the morning. Kingfisher too is ubiquitous. Its almost to beer here what Hoover is to vacuum cleaners, but being good lager we haven't minded too much! So far, other than Tandoor meat we've stayed pretty much vegetarian, which following close behind the carnivores paradise that was Tuscany may not be a bad thing. We haven't eaten in any of the higher end hotels yet, and while interested to see how the food differs, there is still more than enough to keep exploring at the budget end. Street food has, as we were told been pretty good too, we've had some really interesting snacks and sweets - and a few weird ones...

Although we felt that 4 days was probably enough to see what we wanted of Udaipur and get a feel for the place, it would have been very easy to stay for a few more. We met some nice people, and spent some brilliant lazy afternoons watching the sky turn crazy colours as the sun set over the lake, but there is lots to see before we head south in mid November. So, from Udaipur we headed North West, to the desert city of Jaisalmer via our comedy twelve hour bus journey...

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India 2 - Udaipur

Sunday, 4 October 2009

What a difference a day makes...

So we're here... and goddam is it hot! The first thing that hits you in Mumbai is the heat. Mumbai is seriously humid. Like being wrapped in a hot damp blanket from the minute you leave the airport. Everyone who's ever been to Mumbai tells you that its big, smelly, dirty and fairly intense, and from the first twenty minutes in the cab on the way to the hotel, we were both pretty sure that everyone was right. The road we took from the airport was a fairly stark introduction to Indian city life, with rubbish and dogs everywhere and, as our eyes accustomed to the dark outside, people, sleeping on the sides of the roads in amongst it too. We were both pretty happy to get to the hotel and clearly a drink was in order!

Located in a somewhat strange position alongside a half built overhead train track or flyover (we couldn't quite tell), The Midland hotel is a fairly modest affair which belies its grand description on the website (not surprising considering "Mumbai Plumbing Center" 100 yards away was basically a shed), but the room was cool and clean and the staff were friendly and more than happy to point us in the direction of a beer at 2am. The "Bar" turned out to be down an alley with some more dogs and a moody looking security guard with a nitestick outside, and as the porter led us through the dark with his torch, we both wondered whether in fact we did actually really want a drink at all. Two large kingfishers in however, and all was fine. It was just us, 3 drunk guys in suits, the owner and some vintage Bollywood on vintage wooden telly, but a few jokes and some snacks did the job, and we were ready to crash.

Now, Aircon, it seems varies wildly in its definition and quality in India. While the nice chap who picked us up from the airport had in his car what I would consider to be Aircon, the room at the Midland had more what I would consider to be a cross between an early prototype fridge freezer and Harrier Jump Jet - which at times during the night sounded like it was going to take off. By the time we'd finally got some sleep we were both woken by the sound of "the morning", which in Mumbai is...car horns. Like the Italians, Indians are clearly of the opinion that the horn is the most important feature on a car. Even after the hour long taxi ride into Colaba in Mumbais old town we were still not quite sure whether the driver was using the horn for any particular reason or whether he just liked hearing the sound of it every 6 seconds...

Driving into central Mumbai is an experience in itself. God only knows what kind of loon would attempt it in a hire car. Tellingly, a large number of the taxis have no wing mirrors. 3 lane carriageways hold 5 lanes of cars with adjacent vehicles literally so close at times we were practically touching. It is crazy - cars, taxis, buses, autorickshaws and bovine led carts all jostle for position and yet no one lost their temper or appeared to even prang another vehicle. On route our driver, who we named Flyover King (on account of his excitement about telling the name and build date of every flyover we passed) got pulled over by the police and hassled for several notes, which he assured us is more than normal for them to do randomly if they decide they fancy some extra pocket money. Already we were getting the impression that Mumbai ranked fairly high on the crazy scale, and this was compounded only further by the bizarre visual spectacle of watching it litterally emerge from the smog on the other side of the bay like a ghost city as our taxi made its way accross the Sealink bridge onto the peninsula...

On arrival to our hotel in Colaba (which thankfully had aircon that didn't sound like it was built by Lockhead Martin), we decided to head out and do some exploring. Almost immediately you're in the thick of it; stalls of every kind and guys trying to grab your attention. We decided to head for some food and a drink to acclimatise. The guide books all list the main bars in the area, but one seems to be the most popular; Leopolds - this appears to be in no small measure due to the exposure it got from featuring heavily in Shantaram - the famous novel based predominantly in Mumbai. We heard several people mention the books name and clearly the waiters play on its notoriety with tourists too. Sam pointed out that it was nothing like in reality the way it was described in the book, but then its clear that's the case with Mumbai as a whole! We sank some beers, got some useful info from the chatty waiters, watched a man on a stall play football with a live rat then headed off to check out the bay and its sites.

Twenty four hours and two very tasty (and ridiculously cheap) meals later at some of the small local cateens off Colaba Causeways side streets, and we were starting to settle into things a little more. We'd sorted our Indian SIM cards and managed to navigate the booking of our tickets to Udaipur at Victoria Station, so decided to head off for another walkabout and a Thali at a interesting smelling little cafe we'd passed earlier, which turned out to be excellent - and even better they said they would make us up a Thali lunchbox for our train journey the next day.

Mumbais old town, whilst being a fascinating place for people watching if you can grab a quiet(ish) spot and containing some interesting architecture, is not particularly somewhere you'd want to spend all day wandering round. This is due in part simply to the humidity and to also the sheer density of people everywhere you turn. As a tourist in a town where everyone wants your money and navigating your way through busy streets with cars that have little to no regard to traffic signs, it can be a bit full on. Thankfully, there are lots of interesting cafes, bars and restaurants to punctuate things, although cold beer was not on the menu today as it's Gandhi's birthday and hence a national holiday where alcohol is not served as a mark of respect. We found this out after heading into Cafe Mondegar (another of Mumbais famous bars), so ordered a Coke. A beer would have been good after a few hours wandering the city, but it was worth it to see the looks of total disbelief on the faces of the party of Aussy lads who piled on to the table next to us and ordered 4 pitchers of Kingfisher only to be told not only did they not serve any beer today, all the off licences in the city were shut too and they would have to wait until tomorrow. They didn't cry, but I think they wanted to.

So, Mumbai has been a real eyeopener and a fascinating introduction to urban India. As a first destination its undoubtedly on the more challenging side of things - particularly the slum areas, but definitely worth it. Tomorrow we leave for Udaipur via Ahmedabad and get our first taste of the legendary Indian railways...

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India 1 - Mumbai