India

India… The good, the bad, and the downright evil

Well India has provided some of the best and some of the worst experiences of our lives. In some areas the scenery, people and food are among the prettiest, friendliest and tastiest (respectively) we have seen, met or had…in other areas …not the same story. Despite this we covered a lot of the country, saw a lot of sights, places, cities and have some insights that may prove useful to future travellers.

India certainly has a lot positive to be said about it and there are some must see items that make planning a trip very worthwhile. There are also some places that quite frankly are ruined by the people that you are forced to encounter along the way. Our trip was more low budget that some but higher budget than the typical backpacking style holiday.

We spent our money on the food, beer, accommodation and transport…choosing to pay that little bit more for the extra space and comfort and things like private bathrooms. That said…accommodation was generally about $20 a night for both of us and at its cheapest was $10. For not much extra (than our allowance) per day you could plan a very nice Indian sojourn and by paying the little bit extra can avoid some of the shonks that we hit along the way. You will be overpaying for what you get but the extra money takes away some of the headaches and surely that is worth a little more.

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Indian Must dos

With the beauty of hindsight this is where I would go to if I was to plan a short (2-3 week) holiday in India (in no particular order).

Agra – Taj Mahal and the fort…this one is obvious but they truly are that good. I suggest that 2-3 days is about the right amount of time here.

Amritsar – golden temple and the border show. Can be done in a one full day journey if time is tight but the people and food are so nice you will want to stay more.

Aurungabad – Ellora and Ajanta caves…absolutely stunning. Two days is about right. This was the surprise for me, had never heard of them but were the highlight of the trip.

Hampi – absolutely fantastic with so very much to see, need about 2 full days but will want more as the people and place are so good.

Jaipur – this has 3 forts, temples, a palace and all the old city walls and is again worthy of about 3-4 days depending on your schedule and timings. Jaipur is in Rajasthan and most of Rajasthan is pretty similar with forts and palaces etc. They are all different but are also very similar so if time is against you Jaipur would be my pick.

Ooty – the Indian blue mountains (Nilgiris) with a toy train ride to boot. Stunning scenery and clean by Indian standards.

Udaipur – we loved this place. The water and lakes make it very different to the other sights you tend to see. If you come in early in the morning you could see everything in a day and a bit so one overnight would be about right..add an extra night if you want to hit the fort and Jain temples which are a bit of a way out. We stayed for 6 days and enjoyed it all but most people will not have as much time.

The end.

My list would leave out 2 key ones on almost everyone else’s list and they are

Goa – a must for beach goers…we could have skipped it. It was nice and we had a good time but unless you are in dire need of sand and water it could be skipped.

Kerala – the cruise of the back waters was nice and a good treat. Our cruise was probably a bit long and one to two nights would be about right. There are afternoon cruises but you stay in the main channel with all the boat traffic.

Great if you have extra time

Now if you have a little more time available then these are my choices for good second tier spots with nice attractions, people etc

Darjeeling – tea fields, toy trains and the Himalayas on a clear day.
Hyderabad – an Indian city that is really trying to get it right.
Jaisalmer – desert, fort, safari. Nice if you have the time.
Jodhpur – nice place..very Rajasthan with forts and palaces.
Kanyakumari – the southernmost tip at the edge of 3 oceans
Mumbai – beautiful architecture, the gateway to India and Elephanta island.
Pondicherry – the French parts

Nice if you have LOTS of time

Mangalore – still the best food I have eaten in India (just not much to see)
Cochin – a nice afternoon but not too much to see
Trivandrum – good zoo and some nice architecture
Bangalore – not too much going on here

Don’t even bother

Bhubaneswar – caves and temples…not that fantastic and the experience is wrecked by the lying and cheating of what feels like almost everybody in the town. The worst that India has to offer.

I have left New Delhi off this list entirely because my experiences in New Delhi were entirely terrible. I came to Delhi 4 times (including transits) and had an atrocious experience each and every time. I may have been entirely unlucky…or it may well be the worst capital city on the planet, full of lying cheating scoundrels. Alas as New Delhi is a major transport hub you may just have to stop here to get to some of the nicer parts of India. Should you wish to do such a trip then I will let you form your own New Delhi opinion and would be happy to hear it.

I will leave the India topic with a few of my favourite moments…

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And my all time favourite moment…was…

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Farewell India…it has been an experience…

 

 

 

 

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The last of India

On our final leg of India we headed back into the mountains to Shimla. To get there we had another one of those monster transits that we are getting so good at. We took a 6.5 hr journey on an interstate bus from Amritsar to Chandigarh then a train to Kalka, crash for a few hrs, before a 7 hr toy train ride starting at 3am to Shimla.

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Jill REALLY wanted to see the Himalayas and get the mountains and snow photo. Mission accomplished. Shimla is a really nice town, especially if you are a mountain goat. It was steeper than Darjeeling but also had a lot more to see and do. We did a stupid thing by catching the lift down the mountainside and walking back up…had we walked down…oh never mind I’m sure you get it.

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Lots of mountain photos later, burning calves and quadriceps we did the 7 hr train journey back to Kalka, a sleep, a train to New Delhi, an afternoon snack, a street fight (verbal), a metro ride, and a 3am flight to Shanghai in China and the end to our Indian odyssey.

A final Indian recap post to follow…then China, Taiwan and Hong Kong here  we come…

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Varanasi and Amritsar

After our monster transits we finally landed in Varanasi. Got into Varanasi in the rain at peak traffic time. The rain turned the streets into muddy torrents in places and given that we were already tired and emotional it was not a fantastic start. We hooked up with an Aussie and a yank (Marita and Tayla) who were on the same flight and at the same hotel, so we shared a cab and later on a meal.

The next morning the rain had stopped and we went exploring the banks of the River Ganges. Varanasi is the oldest inhabited city in India and is known as the spiritual capital of India. We wandered along the River bank watching the Ghats as they emerged from the seemingly never ending series of steps coming up from the River. We hikes taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the city.

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Varanasi adds another dimension to most Indian cities as it has the Panchganga Ghat and the Harishchandra Ghat (where Hindus cremate their dead). These are areas where funeral pyres are built and corpses are brought down, dipped in the holy river, draped in fancy cloth and set alight…for all to see. Needless to say photography here is considered poor form. But we stayed and watched about 6 of these. That evening we joined the girls to celebrate a milestone birthday.

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After Varanasi we took what was to be a simple flight to Delhi then on to Amritsar. Delhi threw us another slap in the face while transiting with a delayed/late plane, missed connection, lost luggage, refunded fare, twice as expensive replacement fare, luggage found but damaged. I swear that New Delhi hates us.

Amritsar was spectacular. The two main things we went there for was to see the Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) and the border show. Both of these lived up to all expectation. The first night we hit the border show which takes place in Wagah (the only road border crossing between India and Pakistan). The village was divided by independence in 1947. Today, the eastern half of the village remains in India while the western half is in Pakistan.

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This ceremony is in essence a pissing competition during the lowering of the flag ceremony. Both nations in full dress uniform, comical marching and high stepping, and something that resembles a war dance. All of this cheered on by hundreds of nationals from each side chanting their own versions of fervour. This really is an experience that cannot be missed if you make it to this part of the world.

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The average Indian we have encountered thus far, all over the country is around five foot six, at the border there was nobody under 6 foot 4. Add to this the big head dress and the attempted psyche out is complete. Sadly the same applied on the other side of the border and every Indian or Pakistani with any sort of height has been hoodwinked into the army and is stationed on one side or the other.

The golden temple is one of the holiest places in the Sikh religion and is without a doubt the cleanest monument in all of India. There is a free restaurant attached where all can eat for free and those who can afford it leave a donation. The Sikhs are renowned for their hospitality and our experience was no different.

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Amritsar is truly a lovely place to spend some time.

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Aurangabad

After an 11 hour train ride we landed in Aurangabad at almost midnight and were due to be met by a hotel driver. We got the normal taxi and tuk tuk onslaught…but no driver. The first guy offered us his taxi for about half of what we were expecting to pay…so after ringing the hotel and finding that no driver was coming we had the dude take us to the hotel…On the way he offered his services for the entire time that we were there…at a really cheap rate.

Aurangabad is the launching point to see the Ellora and the Ajanta caves. Prior to this I had never heard of either of them but having seen them both…wow…bucket list items. Jill had planned the Ajanta trip for day two and I locked in our taxi guy for day one to hit the Ellora Caves.

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The Ellora caves are about 30 kilometres from Aurangabad and are actually a series of over 36 separate religious caves from the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain religions spread out over about 4 kilometres of a mountainside.  These caves are up to 5 storeys high and have been etched as far as 70 meters into the mountainside. Add to this the ornate carvings and etchings throughout and this place is spectacular. Needless to say there was much hiking and many stairs as we zig zagged in and out of the many caves.

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Having arrived back at the hotel, hot and sweaty, we found ourselves at the next door bar for a refreshing ale…for a few hours. A reasonable meal and a good sleep and we were off on the 120 kilometre drive to the Ajanta caves. The Ajanta caves are a series of 26 caves also carved into the mountainside but with more painted bits than the Ellora caves.

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For the last two days I have been in the front seat of a vehicle, having travelled over 300 kilometres, watching Indian traffic come at me. There are a couple of points that should be made which may help the Indian roads department fix the traffic dramas.

1. Pick which side of the road your country drives on and use it.
2. Lanes…if you use them they work.
3. If you wish to turn…make your way to that side of the road and turn
3a. Do not try to cut across all of the lanes at once.
3b. Do not park perpendicular to the traffic flow and inch across
4. If you choose to overtake…do so when it is safe
4a. To achieve this try looking to see if there is oncoming traffic
4a(i) If you see a bus or truck coming…consider waiting.
4a(ii). See point 1.
5. Motorcycles are a great mode of transport for up to 2 people.
5a. They are not family wagons for 4 and more passengers
5b. They are not utilities nor haulage trucks
5c. Helmets save lives.

There are many more little tips that I could give…but baby steps to start…

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As we drive along almost everywhere in India the driver of whatever form of transport we are using feels the need to point at items and tell us what it is. When passing temples and monuments this can sometimes be useful. At other times it is downright annoying and in the case here it was funny.

While driving through the rural areas the guy was pointing out the crops etc… It went kinda like this… Sugarcane…cotton…corn…chapati… (For those who do not know the chapati is the flat wheat based unleavened bread eaten widely around here). Originally I thought the guy did not know the word for wheat so used chapati instead…fair enough…the next day different driver…the same thing…

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Darjeeling and monster transits

After leaving Aurungabad we found ourselves in the world of a monster transit. A 5:30am cab ride to the airport, a flight to New Delhi, a wait, a flight to Bagdogra, a cab to Siliguri, a really bad sleep and a cab in the morning to take us to Darjeeling…via the Sumendu lake at Mirik. Our opinion of New Delhi has not changed…even on a 3 hour transit…

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The drive to Darjeeling was spectacular passing (surprisingly) tea plantations at every turn. The coolest bit was that for a period we skirted the India – Nepal border with the left side of the road being Nepal and the right being India. Of course we had to step to the Nepal side and got the photos of Nepal behind us. On a clear day it is said that you can see Mount Everest from Darjeeling however I think the number of clear days would be severely limited. The elevation brings with it the onset of clouds and a significant drop in temperature…meaning you are in the midst of misty mountains.

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Alas my trip to Darjeeling was marred by gastro which saw me in bed, sweating, shivering, and generally feeling sore and sorry for myself. As time was tight princess went off to explore on her own. She hit the zoo, the mountaineering institute, governors house, church, and wandered along mall road while supping upon her favourite wonton soup and pork fried momos.

While Darjeeling is technically in India there is nothing Indian about the place. It has the look and feel of Nepal or Tibet. The people are different, so is the religion, as are the clothes and the food. In fact you could hardly find a curry anywhere in town (to the point that Jill overheard Indian tourists complaining about the lack of food options).

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We stayed at the most magnificent guest house. It was very cold and was poorly heated but was fantastic. The staff were lovely and the tap at the door in the evening to provide us with our individual hot water bottles was a great touch. Breakfast was included and the staff could not have been friendlier or more helpful.

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Our exit saw us taking the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway which is a toy train that snakes its way through the mountains. We got onto the Diesel engine rather than the steam engine which in hindsight was a huge mistake. As the train criss-crosses the road and runs through the heart of the towns the train is very heavy on the horn. Something about the pitch or tone of the train horn was like a dog whistle to me causing intense physical pain. As it zig zagged the road I had 3 hours of this sound that had a fingernails on the blackboard style effect on me…

The steepness of the roads mean that they zigzag and snake their way up the very steep mountainsides all through this region. This made the drive down the hill fraught with danger and while on the train on an uphill section we were actually overtaken by a pedestrian as the train hauled itself up as best it could. The steepness has necessitated innovative methods of getting up and down the hills with goods. People here put what seems to be 3 times their body weight on their back supported by a strap across their foreheads and hike the super steep hills in a low oxygen environment.

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We stopped at Kurseong for an overnight before heading back to Siliguri for another overnight (and Jill’s birthday)…The Kurseong to Siliguri section saw us hopping a shared jeep for the 50 kilometre drive down the mountain (for under $3). The shared jeep was in essence the Indian equivalent of a 7 seater landcruiser (the Mahindra) which 12-14 people plus their luggage get jammed into and then you hurtle headlong down the mountain. We were lucky and got only 12 jammed into ours. We stopped at a nice hotel for the darling’s birthday before getting up in the morning for a flight to Kolkata…a wait then another flight to Varanasi.

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Hyderabad

Thank god for Hyderabad…our departing India was lass than auspicious, Kolkata was passable and Bhubaneswar was the worst place on the planet (that we have been to so far). We were seriously reconsidering our next 4-5 weeks finishing off north Eastern India and were thinking of bailing on India entirely.

But along came Hyderabad in the state of and Andhra Pradesh. This is a city that gets it. It is trying. It sees the errors made elsewhere and is actively trying to address them. An intersection has one police officer (rather than 10-15) and he is working (rather than talking or sleeping) as such traffic flows and wrongdoers get punished. The city employs cleaners and provides rubbish bins at semi-regular intervals) and has fines for those who litter. As such the streets are (relatively) clean.

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The waterways have dredges digging out the submerged rubbish of a bygone era. They have nets catching and corralling the new trash additions. The transport department has inspectors pulling over drivers and checking exhaust emissions. All of these things are VERY positive signs of a city that is learning from the mistakes around them. Despite this there is a long way to go but you truly must applaud the intent.

The first day saw us checking-in to a lovely hotel closely followed by Jill’s mandatory exploration expedition. This involved many kilometres of walking (normally around 12-15 but these numbers are in dispute) and exhaustion. This trip was made worst by Jill’s sniffles that delivered to her a blocked nose. Hence the idea of wandering along the lakeside was wonderful to her and saw me literally dry retching at one point (Hyderabad is better but not 100%).

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The next day we hired a driver through the tourist office who took us (in air conditioned comfort) to most of the big sites in town. We hit the Chowmahalla palace, the Laad bazaar, the Golconda fort, Charminar (city gate style thing built in the 1500’s), Mecca Masjid (big mosque), high court, Qutb Shahi tombs, Buddha statue, Hussain Sagar (pond) all in one day. Each one of these were quite wonderful and benefited from the city’s cleanliness policy.

We found many parks that were beautifully clean (only to find that they did not allow people into them). We saw a nice one and tried to enter but were told we had to leave our shoes at the gate (now let’s be serious…I spend my days watching Indians pissing and shitting everywhere and I wear thongs in the shower of my hotel…there is no way I am walking barefoot in an Indian open space). We did not enter but it looked nice.

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Our hotel was full vegetarian and alcohol free. Needless to say for a 3 night stay this proved challenging on both fronts. Jill found the Nilgrisi Kofta and the Haba Bara kebab which she loved and ordered every night along with some butter naan. I mixed it up but essentially a vego restaurant in India did not offer the steak in pepper sauce, washed down by a cold beer, that I was craving. I made do.

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We had to check out at noon on our last day but our train did not leave until 9pm so we found ourselves with time to kill. So we headed to the Nehru zoological park (Zoo). This had little or no write up but was by far the best zoo we have seen with the exception of the Singapore night zoo. The range of animals was good (with all the big ticket items) the pens were spacious, clean and seemed habitat appropriate where needed. You got to be very close to the animals and mostly had unimpeded camera angles. All things considered…excellent.

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Hampi

Ok…we like India again…

Hyderabad healed the wounds…Hampi fixed it all. We arrived at 8:30 after an 11 hour overnight train ride and were met with a tuk tuk driver welcoming us to Hospet and asking if we were headed to Hampi. When asked how much he quoted the local going rate which happens also to be the recommended rate in the 2009 guide (which is about half of everywhere else in India). We found that the hotel had actually sent a driver for us free of charge. We walked outside to the usual onslaught by other drivers… But this time nobody was trying to rip us off…everyone was offering the accepted rate…and everyone was friendly and welcoming. We got into the hotel arranged tuk tuk and immediately came to the realisation that Hampi The is set amongst some spectacular natural beauty.

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Hampi is a UNESCO listed heritage site and is stunning. The area was the site of the former Vijayanagara Empire which existed between the 13th and 17th centuries. It has buried temples, palaces and the town infrastructure that goes with having an entire civilisation. So far they have only uncovered about 50% of it and there are those that believe that it will rival Angkor Wat in Cambodia in both size and significance. Hampi however is a tiny town of about 16,000 and is spotless. The entire town is in some way employed by the tourist trade and they respect this and work together to ensure that the revenue stream stays strong. Very civilised. No shonks, no rip off merchants, in fact you must check in at the police station on arrival. There are big signs out the front with free call numbers if you feel you have been ripped off or badly done by.

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The town is in the midst of a boulder desert and is surrounded by temples, palaces and some pretty spectacular natural scenery. Sadly it is also vego and alcohol free (but the town 3 km away is not). Our tuk tuk driver from the train station offered us his services for the remainder of the day to see all of the sites. His rate was excellent, as was his English, as was (as we later found out) his knowledge of the local area history. We took him up on this and after checking in at the hotel and the police station we were off.

We headed to the Vittala temple, Achyutaraya temple, elephant stables, lotus mahal, hanuman temple, queens bath, Virupaksha temple, underground shiva temple, zenana enclosure and the sule bazaar. All of these temples and the natural beauty of the area meant that we had a big photo day again.

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A good night’s sleep and we were off exploring on the other side of the River. Our morning started by watching the local elephant have a bath and a frolic down by the River…a very pleasant way to start he day. We hid through the heat of the day and went for a sunset walk through the Virupaksha temple which was about a kilometre away. Then we headed across the River on the ferry to eat non veg food and drink beers.  Alas the last ferry goes at 6pm and we landed at 5:45. We knew this and by negotiation, and for an extra fee, the ferry dude will wait and take you back. Rather than the motorised ferry that got you there, you go back in an upside down fruit basket covered in a tarpaulin. We had our meals and beers and headed back at the prearranged time only to find an empty and pitch black riverbank.

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We rang the dudes phone number, we yelled his name, we whistled we searched by the glow of our phones…crickets…10 minutes later and just as we decided to forge the River there was the subtle splash of an oar in the water. It was our dude…I have no idea why he did not answer to our yells etc…but he didn’t. We hopped in our upturned (leaky) fruit basket and off home we went. We arrived mildly moist but considerably dryer than we would have been had we waded.

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An all day bicycle hire here is 50 rupees (about 95 cents) and the scooter or motorbike hire is 200 rupees from when you wake up until 6pm. We settled on the scooters and motorbikes for the next day…until we found out all of the add on costs…petrol, safe bikes, brakes, mileage, maps…we took a tuk tuk and away we went to see the 4 temples and the lake on the other side of the River (monkey temple, anjanadri hill, Durga temple, and the ranganatha temple).

The lake has apparently been the site of many alcohol related deaths over the years, as drunks go swimming and are unable to climb up the mossy rocks on the banks and therefore drown. The obvious Indian solution to this is to paint big signs on the rocks saying that there are crocodiles in the lake. For those reading the blog this place is a must see for both India and generally. It is fantastic.

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Bhubaneswar

Ok…before we get too far into this it must be said up front that the lonely planet guide describes this place as only one for the “intrepid” traveller. Some may say that India is for the intrepid traveller. So if this place gets a special mention then god help us for what was to follow.

Our introduction was the usual onslaught by taxis and tuk tuks outside the railway station. We are getting pretty good at this so are well equipped for such chaos and the overcharging attempts. We know well before we get off the train, where our place is, how far away it is and we have an idea of what we should be paying per kilometre.

IMG_0556This joint started with a tuk tuk driver who started at a 500% overcharge and a 200% lie on how far away it was. When caught out in the lie he looked sheepish and came back with a better offer. We then advised him he was a lying swine and that because of that he would not receive one rupee of our money. We found another guy who witnessed this charade and headed for our hotel.

Our place was rated highly for Indians but would not get the same rating by western standards. We were given the flash room. The sheets were filthy, as was the bathroom sink, no toilet paper, no toilet seat, no ass gun (a fantastic invention used widely around these parts), no shower, no soap, no towels, no hot water, footprints on the toilet and to cap it all off a floating turd in the bowl. Sadly it was still better than the joint near the airport in Calcutta.

Went for a 12-15 km hike to find the tourist bureau and a good feed…failed on both counts. Everywhere we passed the kitchen was an outdoor fire using a 44 gallon drum full of brown water for cooking, drinking and washing dishes. Now I am not afraid of street foods but really…there is a limit as to how far even I will go. Got home and negotiated with the owner for a car to take us around to a bunch of sights the next day starting at 10 am.

10 am came and we headed downstairs to find the owner and the driver in discussion over the route and destinations. Paid the agreed upon price and he ran through the list…this differed greatly from last night’s agreement. We fixed that bit and he tells us we will need to pay extra for parking at each spot…ok…he then asks if we want an ac car or a non ac car…ac obviously…500 extra…and it started.

I have been with Jill for over 13 years now and even I have not copped a tirade like this one. She started ripping in to this dodgy lying money grubbing owner like nothing you have ever seen. After 3 minutes the owner rolled over and agreed to everything as per last night…but Jill was venting…I grabbed back the money and called him a lying cheating bastard…but Jill was in the zone. Another minute later the driver scarpered…another minute and the cleaners were bolting…one more and the neighbours were gingerly peeking around the door to see what the commotion was…

By the end the owner was a whimpering mess in the corner saying “yes ma’am I am sorry” over and over. We got in the car and had a lovely day with a great driver having seen temples, caves and the zoo and all for the price that had been negotiated and agreed upon the day earlier. The only other drama was a shonk that tried to get money off Jill as a donation to see the free temple. Jill was on fire…not sure exactly what happened there… By the time I had taken 2 photos the dude was nowhere to be seen and no money had changed hands.

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At the moment we are struggling with the dual nature of India. Most of the people are honest, genuine, caring and a pleasure to be around. However the bad experiences tend to stick in your mind more than the good ones. This country has an abundance of lying, cheating, rip off merchants, and a range of poor rubbish and toilet habits which destroys it for the others.

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On out walk to the tourist office on the first day we walked past a group of kids playing cricket…they packed up the game and ran over to us cheering and yelling just to shake our hands and say hello…15 minutes later a woman who had just bought a meal from a street vendor saw Jill’s white face, hid her meal behind her back and begged for money.

I think that India may be breaking my bride. She has seen the benefits of breaking out the “Angry White Woman” and is doing it with ever increasing regularity. Added to this she has embraced the title of Ma’am and is referring to herself as such even while talking to me and often in the third person. Phrases like “Don’t annoy Ma’am” or “Ma’am is not happy” seem to be more regular and frequent. Lets hope a new location with less shonks brings her back.

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Calcutta-Kolkata

IMG_20140128_164603Having had a terrible night in transit here prior to heading to China we were kinda dreading coming back to Kolkata. The hotel near the airport was 100% uninhabitable (this was the ring of urine around the base of the toilet as some were not convinced). Landing at midnight and being unable to check into our hotel until after noon we decided to stay at the airport for another 7 hours yet again. The sun came up and we hopped a cab to the accommodation a little concerned after our first effort.

The journey there took us past some of the filthiest most atrocious slums and poverty I have ever seen. Needless to say we tend not to take photos of such things. We arrived at our very nice guest house and the staff let us into an absolutely great room…early. A sleep got us good again and off we went. Kolkata is simultaneously one of the richest and poorest cities in all of India. The divide between the two is palpable and depending upon which suburb you are in the poverty and filth is entirely in your face or the lavishness of colonial times reign supreme.

We walked through a slum area to find that they were using a bulldozer to clear the trash so that new construction could happen. This resulted in about 500 crows and 20 or so dogs picking through the freshly moved trash for any food morsels that may exist. Added to this there were about 25 Kites (birds of prey) circling and swooping on the dislodged and displaced rats as the bulldozer did its work. Fascinating to watch until we got set upon by beggars and had to move on.

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The British sectors of Calcutta are magnificent. The shops, restaurants and market stalls are good too. There are segments of the city where the is an active effort to keep things clean and tidy which is really encouraging to see. The rest of the place is filthy and dirty and the rubbish bin and toilet for all Indians. We hit the museum, the Victoria memorial, St Paul’s cathedral, the clock tower, South Park cemetery, Eden gardens cricket ground and a bunch of mosques and old buildings etc…

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The metro is efficient and cheap, we came across our first western style shopping mall that would put most westfields to shame as it was so nice. The most fun bit is watching some of the Indians trying to traverse an escalator for what, I had to guess, was for their first time. The modern guys were normal but the old, young and the less educated caused massive backlogs as they freaked getting on…and did not clear the other end causing pile ups and all sorts of dramas.

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The introduction of trams and the man pulled tana rickshaws into the normal traffic chaos added a whole new element of complexity which I am sure Jill will elaborate on in her planes trains section.

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End of India…phase one

Our last week or so in India has been one of extreme transits and short stays in multiple locations. The end of phase one occurred as Jill really wanted to be in China for Chinese New Year. So from Pondicherry we did a 9.5 hour train trip to get to Bangalore. Bangalore is a big city with all of the usual bits of temples, churches, architecture etc. we had a nice day wandering around parks, gardens, the tipu palace, the lake, all capped off with afternoon beers and a meal at a pub called ‘Plan B’. The Canberra crew will know the significance of this.

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From here we took a 7 hour train ride to Coimbatore which was little more than a transit stop with a meal and a few hours sleep. This flowed on to a 1 hour ride to Metupalaiyam where we met up with the Nilgiri Railway which was a 5 hour train ride through the Nilgiri mountains to the town of Ooty. Now this can best be described as a toy train trip and it was fantastic. The 5 hours are essentially a 50 km climb on a steam powered locomotive using a rack and pin setup to be able to climb the steep sections. The journey goes through the middle of the Nilgiri mountains which greatly resemble Australia’s Blue mountains, west of Sydney. This journey stops frequently to fill the steam engine with water and is utterly charming.

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As an aside I learned from my mother that this is the part of the world where she grew up. I knew she was born in India and knew my grandfather was in the British army and there were some moves. But throughout this journey she has been dropping little family history gems in the random e-mails that pop into my inbox. She apparently grew up in a town called Wellington and was schooled at Coonoor…both of these the little toy train went through. Quite frankly this is the cleanest part of all of India (but will not be for much longer). Despite the locals taking pride in the area…and big signs in the train and all around…the Indian tourists continue to use the world as their own personal garbage bin. (I think I will have to do a sideline rant on the attitudes of the Indians attitude towards cleanliness, hygiene, the toilet and rubbish).

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The entire area up the Nilgiri mountains is fantastic and is one of the nicer parts of the world. Blue mountain views, a steam train, low level clouds intermittently, tea plantations, the lake and people who take pride in the local area all combine to make it a great place to escape to for a few days. The highest peak of the range is Dodddabetta peak which is higher than mount kosciuszko and the surrounding area was the home for a rogue tiger that had killed 12 people and at least one cow in recent times. Sadly about 3 days before we got there they found and killed it. The parks people tried with tranquilliser guns but as the locals were losing money as their shops could not open…(excerpt from newspaper)…On Wednesday, hundreds of them ventured into the forest armed with sickles, logs and iron bars to kill the tiger. Though officials from forest, revenue and police managed to convince them that such adventurism would only hamper the experts’ efforts, the pressure seems to have weighed heavy on the hunting party which shot to kill, not capture, when it was finally spotted in the evening.

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After a night in Ooty we did the reverse journey down the hill on the train followed by an overnight train ride to Chennai which in all was over 17 hours of train commuting. A nap, a meal, a shower, a sleep… then a flight to Calcutta, had a nap and a meal planned but hit the filthiest hotel on the planet near the Kolkata airport so we opted to sit in the airport for 7 hours rather than stay in such filth…then a flight to Kunming in China.

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This hotel was something to behold…we had to cross one of India’s many open sewerage drains along with a seething mud pit just to get into the property…upon arrival I noticed the grey pillow cases and commented to Jill…she turned them over to find that this was the clean side as the other side had drool stains and god knows what else…the sheets were dirty….at this point it was time for a proper inspection of the joint…the one inch yellow ring of baked in urine around the toilet was the clincher…Jill hit rampage mode and all but dragged the manager up by his ear…

He made stupid faces and suggested that it would be better with a new pillowcase…and then it started…those that know Jill well will not need an explanation and those that don’t I’m sure can understand what followed…I even weighed in from time to time when it seemed the process was stalling…but in reality Jill was well in control…needless to say we did not stay, got our money refunded, blacklisted the place through the Indian WOTIF equivalent, listed them on trip advisor as the filthiest hovel on the planet and returned to the airport to sit and wait for 7 hours for an overnight flight to China.

All in all quite therapeutic.

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