India

In the interests of tidying up the blog and making it a little more logical I have pulled out all of the India posts and have placed them in chronological order so that you can follow along with our love-hate relationship with India as it evolved and re-evolved. To start with I will throw in the map so you can have an idea that we actually covered a fair bit of territory across the country. IMG_0401edited NEW DELHI

Not an auspicious introduction to India. We got off the plane and headed for the ATM then to the hotel. On the advice of all of the travel sites and books they suggest taking the prepaid taxi option to avoid the arguments and dramas of the hawkers etc. so we paid 800 rupees (about $16 and a 100% markup) and got the prepaid cab from the “government tourist travel bureau”. Well that was a disaster.

After taking about 45 mins to do the 15 km drive, the road was blocked off (outside the US embassy) and we had to go to the tourism bureau to check availability of road access while also discussing our future plans in Delhi. Needless to say this was the scam that all the books talk about and the road next to the US embassy is always blocked. The to and fro went on for a bit but we did not not fork over any extra cash or sign up for unwanted services. When enough was enough we got quite snakey with the driver and he backed down and took us to the hotel.

We had in fact driven around it about 4 times but with no context of the world we had just landed in and no GPS to guide us we were at the mercy of this shonk. He had the nerve at the end of all this to ask for a tip to cover the extra distance that he had to cover. He got a mouthful from both of us and no tip. We both got out of the cab mighty annoyed, tired and hungry. After swearing wildly and casting vicious aspersions on an entire nation and it’s people we checked in and headed out for a meal.

After a lengthy walk we found an area and settled in for a feed. We had a mushroom paneer, raita, and a mutton curry with 2 naans and a paratha washed down with 5 kingfisher lagers for about $20. The meal was excellent with the minor exception of the mouse running across the room half way through (actually happened). We headed home, a little calmer, deciding not to damn an entire race on the back of a poor first up impression. A good night’s sleep and the world would commence anew tomorrow.

I woke to find that my wife had spent a not inconsiderable amount of time in the bathroom overnight then we headed down to the included breakfast. Toast, egg (with chilli), conserves and a banana washed down with the sweetest coffee on the planet (undrinkable). Internet access atrocious.

Made the decision to get the HOHO bus (hop-on, hop-off for the uninitiated) which will hit the 26 big tourist sites around town for a single fee. We decided the HOHO bus could wait until tomorrow and headed out and actually had an ok day. We were trying to arrange local SIM cards so we could get our GPS and dodge the shonks. Indian government bureaucracy made getting a SIM a 2-3 day odyssey.

Hopped the metro to Connaught Circus where the world is full of shonks and the “government tourist travel bureau”. There is actually one “government tourist travel bureau” but based on the word of the shonks there are about 70 on Connaught Circus alone. So far we are both massively unimpressed with India, we have held off on posting this for 3 days in a row now as we wish to see the positive in things but after 3 days we have been lied to, cheated and attempted to be conned on about ten occasions. We are hoping that the initial hassles are a New Delhi thing, and that when we get out of the capital we will see the true nature of both the people and the land.

Agra is the next port of call so the Taj Mahal etc may be the saviour of my mental health. I cannot express how disappointed I am at this point. I have Indian friends, neighbours former colleagues and employees and they have all been fantastic. I love the food and the images of the sites look spectacular. This was the leg that I have most been looking forward to. I truly hope that this is a rocky start to what will be a great experience. Can’t decide in which city of the world the honking of horns is worst…New Delhi maybe not #1 but it is up there…certainly in the top 5.

NEW DELHI etc

Well I have found my range in India…expect it all to be totally messed up and on occasion you may be pleasantly surprised. We headed out for the HOHO bus that is due to hit each site every half hour…after waiting over an hour we rang the number and were told “yes five minutes”…20 minutes and about three of Richards finest tirades later we abandoned all hope of the bus and headed for the metro to get to the red fort.

On the way the phone dude rang Jill to tell me my SIM card had been activated and was ready for collection but not for another hour. So after standing on the street corner outside the Nehru museum for 90 mins, waiting for the HOHO bus, I had another 60 mins to kill before I could get my phone connected. We started towards the phone dude but stopped at Indira Gandhi’s house which had been turned into a memorial as it was the site of her assassination. Then off to get the SIM card.

Now in Australia we believe (or at least I did) that in a telecommunications sense India is well advanced, and while all else may not be right the comms would be good. So I was quite surprised to find that they had never seen the iPhone 5 and there was no such thing as a nano SIM card to fit it. I watched the dude take to the SIM card with scissors and a nail file for about 15 minutes before deciding I did not want his bodged up job jammed into my phone, never to be able to be retrieved, thereby wrecking both the sim and my phone. I told him to forget it and that I would once again forego connectivity.

At this point he advised me that the SIM card had 250 rupees of credit transferred to it which I owed him money for. I was about to launch into my 5th or 6th tirade of the morning…shut up…paid him the $4-5 and walked away. On the positive side I have mastered the local tuk tuks and am saving myself much walking in the doing so. Tuk tuk to the metro, metro to the red fort a fort built in the 1600s out of red sandstone and the site where the indian flag was raised for the first time after independence in 1947)….and a great afternoon had by all from that point on.

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The next day we had a cruisy day where I got to fulfil a long held wish of mine. Many years ago my father relayed to me a story where he had a shave from an Indian barber, and he did not have to shave for days afterwards as the man had grabbed and contorted the skin so as to cut off the beard 2 inches underneath the skin. Many years ago I tried it in Australia at a chain hairdressers by the apprentice hairdresser who was the girlfriend of a mate… and it was…surprisingly.. an unmitigated disaster.

We saw a by the road barber and I stopped in for a haircut and a cut-throat razor shave. At the end when I asked for the bill he answered “as you like”. These are frightening words that you hear quite often here in India, as I am certain that I will pay well over the going local rate but the theory is that you pay what you believe that the service was worth. So I ended up paying around 10 times the going rate (I asked when I got back). But this was still about one third of the Australian price for a haircut alone and I was happy. This was not of the calibre of shave my father received but the experience was great. Bottom line is that if I had been really tight I could have had a shave and a haircut and have had change from a dollar. Either way, I left clipped and happy.

 

We had our first Indian train journey as we did the New Delhi to Agra run. It is about 200 Kms and was to take us about two and a half hours on the super fast train. Five hours later we arrived. As a final parting shot at me for my many tirades New Delhi threw one last curve ball at me before leaving. As we got in the tuk tuk to head to the station we got a flat tyre…while transferring to another tuk tuk I stepped off the gutter to load my bag…foot hit uneven ground…ripped my ankle to shreds… Twisted, swollen and throbbing ankle… New Delhi and I will never be friends.

The India I expected from Day 1…Agra

Safe to say New Delhi and I hate each other.

Arrived in Agra and the world immediately changed. Cab driver was honest, helpful and genuinely pleasant, our accommodation is 100 meters from the east gate of the Taj Mahal and a close walk to a bunch of good eateries. The Taj Mahal is the most expensive attraction at 750 rupees per person to get in. We were thinking that this was overly expensive until we did the conversion and discovered that it was $13.25 each. The ticket office opens at 6am and the gates at 6:30 so we headed off to watch the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. I know many people who have been here to visit the Taj Mahal and every one of them has told me that I must go…the place is amazing…and the photos you have seen don’t do it justice…they were all right…and if you are making a bucket list…what they said. We rocked in at dawn with the early morning mist and hung around watching the building change as the sun rose and the mist burned off. They claim that the best times to see the Taj Mahal is sunrise and sunset…300 meters from our hotel is a rooftop restaurant where you can watch the sun set over the thing and get a great feed.

 

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After the Taj Mahal we headed off to Agra Fort. Now everyone heads to Agra for the taj but the Agra fort loses nothing in comparison. Between the two, we both went snap happy and may have actually taken more photos of these two than we did of the lumps (which is no mean feat). The fort is an incredible sight and is worthy of a trip to Agra just to see it, let alone that pesky taj thing. An interesting element to this was as we walked into the Agra Fort. Through the gates I saw a bird of prey (not sure if eagle or hawk) with a creature in its talons (not sure if squirrel, pigeon or monkey) flying off. for the ensuing 2-3 hours we watched these birds circling and swooping…a fascinating watch.

 

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IMG_20131204_081034We followed this up with a trip to the “baby taj” (Itimad-ud-Daulah the tomb of Mizra Ghiyas Beg, whoever he was), an afternoon of blogging and the evening on aforementioned rooftop watching the sun set over the Taj Mahal. Met 2 Aussie girls and the 4 of us sat on the roof drinking “big juice” and eating curries. For those who did not pick up on it there are many unlicensed restaurants where alcohol can not be served. So we drank “big juice” that happened to be manufactured by kingfisher a company with the same name, as it happens, of a well known local beer company.

All things considered a fantastic day…and what I had hoped India would be like before we arrived.

The next day we slept in and headed over to the Kanir Bazaar. This place is everything that you ever imagined an Indian marketplace would be and more. Block after block of alleys with a shop every 2 meters and the constant buzz of hawkers, horns, horses, dogs, cows etc. One aspect that we have not chatted about is the local wildlife. Coming here I had an expectation of random cow sightings on the streets (which happen every few minutes) but I did not expect the other wildlife that abounds here. Coming from a country without squirrels I was overjoyed to see my first squirrel on arrival. The monkeys are everywhere and the range of beasts of burden covers the gambit.

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Agra to Jaipur…this joint is fantastic

Finally… The India I was hoping for and expecting. Agra shook off the New Delhi blues but Jaipur has made them a distant memory. Had a fantastic 5.5 hr train ride from Agra to Jaipur got to relax and enjoy some really beautiful countryside in a comfortable and hassle free ride. Got off the train and was dreading the usual assault by hawkers, taxi and tuk tuk drivers…and it never came. Got offered a lift to the hotel…asked how much… Got quoted an obvious 100% markup…rejected it and offered the right amount…he added 20…I said the right amount…he agreed. Got in tuk tuk and he took me directly where I wanted with no round trips and no offers of friends shops or tourist bureaus.

Settled in and went for our usual orientation walk. Ran into about 50 tuk tuks offering to take us somewhere. Unlike Delhi and Agra a smile and a wave of the hand was sufficient enough to indicate a lack of interest. We did not get followed down the road for 1-200 meters being asked the usual barrage of questions and statements like…where are you going, where you from, you want bazaar, shopping this way, nothing to see this way, 20 rupees one hour.

Came across a phone store and entered to try and fix the SIM card debacle that was New Delhi. The guy at the shop was awesome and spent 30 mins fixing the problems created by the guy in Delhi. I tried to offer him money for his great service and his response was ” I want one thing…I want a good blessing”. I wished him many blessings and departed fully cashed up and fully connected to the Indian telecommunications network.

Stopped at a rooftop bar for a couple of kingfishers (did watch the rats scurrying along the beams for a while) then back to the hotel for possibly the best meal that I have ever had in my life. Believe it or not, it was 100% vegetarian. For the foodies amongst you it was…mushroom palak (mushrooms in a spinach sauce), aloo mattar paneer (potato, peas and cottage cheese in a vegetable gravy, Dahl makhani (black lentils and kidney beans cooked with cream and butter) and my body weight in a range of Indian breads including naans, roti, chapati and paratha. The mushroom palak was the pick of the bunch but you could not find fault with a single element of this meal and we were in hog heaven.

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After a couple of days of doing nothing due to the inevitable gastro hit (Jill) we got back into the swing of things. Hit the City Palace and the Hawa Mahal. The city palace is the home of the maharajah of Rajasthan and is actually in use most of the time (including while we were there). In addition it is regularly used as a set for Bollywood films (including while we were there) so it looked more like a construction site than a palace. There was a weapons museum included as part of the admission that was quite frankly incredible. The range of old weapons and firearms would go close to being unrivalled. Alas there was no photography allowed but Mike H would have been in hog heaven in the museum.

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Jaipur

This place is a must see for any travellers coming to India. Met a lovely couple (living in Sweden) and teamed up to tour the local forts and a few other sites around the place. The hotel had arranged 2 tuk tuks and drivers for our exclusive use for the whole day for the princely sum of 800 rupees ($14.28). This turned into another one of those silly number of photos days as there was no way to take it all in.

We started at the monkey temple (Galwar Bagh) which was “surprisingly” a temple on a hill with lots of monkeys. The temple was unimpressive but there were many monkeys and a pretty good view over Jaipur. The next stop was a photo opportunity at the floating or water palace (Jal Mahal). You cannot get out to the island but it is pretty spectacular either way and is a 5 min stop on the way to or from the three forts of Jaipur which are relatively close to each other and set along the ridge of the mountain. In addition to this is the 27 kilometre defensive wall that was constructed. The Indians love to tell gullible tourists that it is the Great Wall of China and by all accounts the French and yanks are the ones that tend to buy into this.

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The fort run is huge and exhausting to do all in one day and by the end you are suffering from attraction overload so the third of the forts gets a fairly cursory glance. The first thing you hit is the lake at the bottom of the ridge where you look up to the amber fort and palace then across the ridge to the Jaigarh Fort and along the zig zag of walls. This place is truly impressive. The first introduction to this was the snake charmer with his cobra in a basket which evolved into the elephant ride option to climb the hill to the amber fort and palace.

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Once at the Amber fort and palace you find yourself in a building that is more of a maze than a palace. You get awesome views all around and keep popping into random rooms and terraces in this maze of a building. There is no natural flow and everything is sectioned off and the biggest challenge is finding the exit when you are finished. When you get to the side of the fort there is a tunnel offering protected passage between the amber for and the Jaigarh fort which goes for about a kilometre up the hill. Upon exiting the tunnel you have about another kilometre hike up the hill to the entrance to the next fort.

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The Nahargarh fort is the last of the three and is on the opposite side of the same ridge from the others and is the fort that can be seen from down town Jaipur.

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After the huge forts day we had a relatively calm day where we took care of some logistics and on the advice of the couple we spent the day with yesterday we joined them and tried out the movies. Jaipur has a very famous cinema and by all accounts watching a Bollywood flick with the locals is an experience not to be missed. They were right on all counts. The “Raj Mandir” cinema is famous in these parts. The film we saw was “Rambo Rajkumar” which according to the write up was “While the high-octane film is essentially a love story about PYAAR PYAAR PYAAR ya MAAR MAAR MAAR it has all the ingredients of an out-and-out masala potboiler.” If you can work out what that means you are better than I.

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The cinema is quite frankly huge. Watching a Bollywood film amongst the locals is definitely a must do. I saw a Bollywood film on the plane over here and wondered why the entrance of the main characters was always in slow motion and took about 90 seconds. Now I know. The crowd goes wild. They cheer for the goodie, boo at the baddie and wolf whistle at the female star (who seems to always be in slow motion throughout). They sing along with the random acts of singing and dancing that appear without warning and when this combines with the pigeon constantly flying backwards and forwards to its nest in the corner of the screen it is a great time.

Jodhpur

IMG_20131212_163922We left Jaipur (the pink city) at 3am and took the train to Jodhpur (the blue city). We checked into our haveli (private mansion) which is 400 meters from the gates to the Mehrangarh Fort. This fort was built in 1459 and has been under siege on numerous occasions and was never breached or taken. Our rooftop restaurant tables overlooked this. I must say I am loving this rooftop restaurant concept. Almost every place we stay at has had one and the idea of sitting on the roof at sunset with a cold beer and having a feed into the evening is one of the more pleasant ways to while away your time.

Hit the fort (and the palace inside) the next day along with the mausoleum on the other side. The ramparts of the fort are filled with a range of cannons from various would be invaders, that were the spoils from various conflicts over the centuries. For those keeping tally I walked up one side of the mountain, around the top of the mountain, down the other side to the clock tower, then around the bottom of the mountain to make it home.

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Jill (who has long been having a dig at me about my Gray hair) has been away from her products for an extended period. Shall we say that when you don’t dye your hair every few weeks that having gray hair is not an entirely one way street. So we stopped at the local shop and she bought some product and treated herself to a reddish tinge. This has not been seen in the full light of day yet but early signs are that this may be highly entertaining (carrotesque).

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We head to the Thar desert next when we are off to Jaisalmer (the golden city) where we will stay at the “desert moon guest house”.

Jaisalmer

We hit Jaisalmer which is a town in north Western India near the Pakistan border. This place is possibly the most tourist oriented place we have been since landing in India. The prices of everything in the town are 2-5 times more than everywhere else we have been (this means that dinner for 2 with beers is about $30). The main attraction is the fort in the centre of town but there are also a bunch of desert related activities available such as camel safaris, jeep safaris and dirt biking etc. The key thing that we have noticed though is the regular returning of fighter jets as they patrol the India/Pakistan border. On our drive to the desert we passed the base and we now know that this is the home of the “Border Bayonettes”.

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Directly opposite our hotel is sunset point. This is a mausoleum area where everyone heads at sunset to watch the sun go down over the desert…which of course we did too. The hotel is owned by a kiwi woman and her husband who also run camel safaris…so we headed off on a 5 hr camel ride through the desert. Jill was really looking forward to this as it is a full moon and the concept of the stars, camels, desert and moon just seemed to be ringing her bells for some reason.

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As we drove in we hit a checkpoint where we had to pay 20 rupees to keep going. The dude told us that we had just crossed the Pakistani border and that was the fee. Some of you may have remembered the Great Wall comment and the gullible tourists who bought it…well I bought this one…I entered into a chat with Jill about not needing visas and that you could just bribe the guard at the gate. It was about 2 hrs before it dawned on me that I had joined the ranks of the gullible tourists. Alas it was a windy day that whipped up the sand and the sunset and moon were both partially obscured by sand.

Now let’s talk about camels. This was my first camel ride. I know others who have been on them and every story that I have heard has not been complimentary. They were right. Having seen a bunch of old movies I knew that the Arab kings had harems, and these harems were protected by eunuchs. Having never knowingly met a eunuch I wondered how they managed to find so many. After having my first camel ride the answer is obvious. The motion of a camel and the anatomy of males do not react well with each other. The first 10 minutes were possibly the most uncomfortable I had been ever. After the ten minute mark my anatomy decided to rearrange itself to possibly my armpits and was no longer in the saddle firing line. What seemed like an eternity later the ride was over and we settled down to watch the sun set over the sand dunes.

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While lazing on the dunes we relaxed to the soothing sound of Indian tourists in 4WD jeeps blasting over the dunes throwing empty beer bottles and general rubbish in what was, at one time, a pristine environment. The killer was as we ground our way through the desert my dude driving the camel was texting and talking on the phone most of the way…when we turned a corner a random guy on foot offered us beers from a carpet bag over his shoulder (kinda shattered the middle of the desert concept). We chatted to our guides who told us that the foreign tourists are great but the locals treat the environment as their own personal trash cans.

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As we sat waiting for the sun to go down we got into a conversation about the location of the Pakistani border. To try and check our location we tried google thinking we would get a 3G signal. As it happened Jill was able to pull up the local wifi signal from the camping spot run by one of the big 5 star hotels. The whole middle of nowhere notion completely shattered we watched the sun disappear behind a cloud of dust and went back to the hotel.

Our movements are slowing as we near Christmas as the transport options are full. After Jaisalmer we returned to Jaipur for a night and then off to Udaipur where we will be on Christmas Day. While I love curries I am hoping to have a traditional ham and turkey style Christmas meal but our googling is not yielding results, even at the 5 star hotels, at this stage. Jill has e-mailed a couple of them but the customer service over here has seen no responses.

 Udaipur

Arrived in Udaipur and settled in to a fantastic guest house right on the lake overlooking people washing themselves and their clothes in the lake. We could see the palace, the temples, the water, the gates all from our balcony.

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The coffee is great and we got into a chat with the manager who was trying to upsell us to another room or another hotel (that he happens to also own). We hit our first lost in translation…the man was telling us his other hotel has cows and mangoes. Now Jill loves a mango daiquiri so we showed interest and described how her Christmas tradition was to drink mango daiquiris. He gave us a very strange look…we talked in opposite directions for a few minutes before he showed me a photo of a mongoose. We quickly clarified that Jill does not in fact drink mongoose. The man was full of character and asked if we knew what India stood for. Which we did not. The answer was…

I’ll
Never
Do
It
Again.

From this time on…all was good…the other gem he pulled out was that “in India everything is possible…but nothing is available”. We did the Christmas run around to find a suitable venue and after that did the tourist thing hitting the main sights. The palace and museum were great but were massively overcrowded (it is peak season) which detracted from the overall experience. The lake palace is now a 5 star hotel that you cannot go to unless you pay the $1000 per night…given that we can see it from our rooftop and we are paying under $10 per night…we are fine not going in…we saw the insides the night we watched Octopussy anyway.

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We watched the movie (Octopussy) and apart from some general filth and dodgy wiring the rest of the town looks pretty much as it did in the movie…ignore the fact that the movie showed the Taj Mahal which is so far away it is not funny (650+ Kms). We wandered up to sunset point near the cable car and the boat cruise set off point. When we worked out that the boat cruise was at a 1000% markup for tourists for the 20 minute ride that goes around the lake palace and past our joint we decided not to bother.

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We did the 90 km each way day trip out from Udaipur to see the Kumbhalgarh Fort and then across to the Ranakpur Jain temple. It was a full day but a great one. The fort (as they tend to be) was pretty amazing with many a happy snap taken and the Jain temple was incredible with over 1400 marble columns all individually carved. The one at Ranakpur is (arguably) the best of them all but either way it was pretty darn good.

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We jumped in and split the costs with a Dutch lady and her French husband. He was a mad keen photographer who was hellbent to get photos of the oxen drawn water wheels. For those of us who grew up in the either the 20th century or civilisation it is a bunch of paint tins on a chain dipping into a well and emptying into a trough all being powered by a couple of oxen getting dizzy. We found a few of these and he got his photos. For a small fee I managed to get Jill driving the oxen around in circles.

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Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to friends and family alike. Know that we are missing you all and would love to have been able to spend this time with you.

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We are spending Christmas in Udaipur, India and have been hunting furiously for a venue that will offer something like our idea of what a Christmas should be. We have failed but we came across a special Christmas Eve function at some of the flash hotels. The flashiest of these is in the middle of town, atop the hill, in the palace. For a small fee (and a limb) we got ourselves an invitation. Now my mother, as she always does, sent me a sum of money to be spent spoiling myself for Christmas. This year it did just that so thanks mum. We got the tickets to the Christmas Eve ball, on the pool deck, at the Shiv Niwas Palace.

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Needless to say our backpacking attire did not exactly include formal wear. So we went shopping. This was possibly a good thing as some of our original items were getting a touch aromatic and were in need of replacement. We settled on neat casual…Indian style. Safe to say that for the cost of our splurge tickets we could have stayed at our dodgy little hotel for almost a month. Instead we opted for the all you can eat, all you can drink Christmas Eve gala ball at the palace.

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The place was spectacular…as was the food. We ate, drank, chatted and generally had a fantastic night. So much so that Jill claims it to have been her best Christmas ever. We got to have our turkey…along with almost anything else that you can imagine. We steered clear of the Indian food as we have eaten nothing else for about a month now. While I like eating Indian food I also love the variety of being able to have different things.

A couple of things that you need to know about Udaipur to give context to our evening…the James Bond movie Octopussy was filmed here with the evil baddie having her hideout/headquarters in the middle of the lake (images to follow in the Udaipur post). Prior to finding the evil baddie…James Bond, as he does, seduced a Bond girl by a pool. This was the pool that we sat beside having our Christmas feast. As this movie is the big claim to fame of Udaipur, almost every rooftop restaurant plays this movie nightly between 7-9 pm. We will be heading to one of these tonight to refresh ourselves on the movie and to see the sights of the city that we are bouncing around in. For those that own the movie there is an oval shaped pool with a fountain on one side. We had the table directly adjacent to the fountain.

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The evening was all about excesses with a list of experiences too long to list (but included floating ice sculptures and flower petals on almost every unattended surface) suffice to say we had a great time. One of the attendees at the function was actually the Maharana (local king) and his family, there was also a lesser Bollywood star who had apparently made it big in the UK and had come back and bought up most of Udaipur.

Missing you all…thinking of you… Hope that you all have a great Christmas.

Mumbai – Bombay

Was kinda dreading this one after the New Delhi experience…our first foray back into the big city. My fears were totally unfounded and Mumbai is a delight. There are sights everywhere you look. The architecture is amazing and according to wiki blends Gothic, Victorian, Art Deco, Indo-Saracenic and contemporary architectural styles. Not really sure what all this means being an artistic heathen but every time you turn around another amazing looking building appears.

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We did the wander on a Sunday when everything was shut and everyone had the day off. This had the nett effect of clearing every automobile and other form of transport (see Jill’s planes, trains and automobiles section) off the roads so that you could walk along normally manic streets in relative peace. Combine with this the fact that all the side streets became makeshift cricket pitches meant that nobody was driving anywhere and the entire city became a giant series of cricket games. The cars that were out and about were immaculate classic vehicles to be admired and envied even if you a not a car enthusiast.

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Mumbai is very expensive compared to everywhere else we have been so far but it is also a lot cleaner and with less cows. We did the wander again not on a Sunday and got hit with the normal state that is Mumbai. That state is hectic. We ambled along the Back Bay which is the inlet between Mumbai and the Arabian Sea, taking you past places like Nariman Point and Chowpatty Beach. A little further around the point is the suburb of Colaba which is an area that is home to the famous Gateway of India and the iconic Taj Mahal hotel and the launching point for the Elephanta Caves where we spent New Year’s Day.

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Chowpatty beach is the 200 meter stretch of sand that the Indian authorities actually clean. The remaining 5 km stretch along the waterfront was polluted and toxic and even on a 30+ degree day there was almost nobody within 30 meters of the actual water. From here we headed over to the Dhobi Ghat which is the laundromat of Bombay. It is basically a bunch of open air concrete tubs where thousands upon thousands of people beat, bash and scrape the laundry of an entire city clean. Having seen this we decided to wait until our next stop for a laundry run.

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We had headed to the Gateway of India on the 31st of December but it was feral with tourists both domestic and foreign. We decided to try again early the next day (first ferry to Elephanta Island at 9am) which was the greatest idea we have had. The morning run was quiet, calm and we actually were up before most of the touts etc.. We checked out the caves and returned at about 2pm to find all hell breaking loose. As we were leaving an almost full boat was waiting for the last few people to load before departure. It was pretty full and we were in no hurry so decided to wait for the next boat…while we were waiting an arrival boat turned up and was about to depart empty…I gestured…he nodded…and we got on…leaving the full boat on the dock and us having the whole boat to ourselves.

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After the one hour cruise we were waiting to dock we watched the local tourists load the earlier boat…this involved people (literally) launching themselves from the dock onto the boat to be one of the first aboard to get a seat. Once full the boat kept loading with people pushing and shoving so that the entire vessel looked like a sardine tin. We watched on in awe…laughing…but knowing that we were next.

Our turn. The boat pulled in and the dock was jammed with hundreds of people all needing to be on our boat. I took position and launched prior to a full docking as I knew what was coming. Jill who was right on my hip got caught in the counter launch…and the next thing I heard was my darling bride screaming “back off”. I turned to see her stuck on the entrance to the boat as Indians tried to trample her while attempting to board. I was about to come to the rescue only to find the bride holding her own, punching and pushing back the surging crowd with a face and a tone of voice usually only reserved for me (husbands you know what I mean). The sea of people parted and she calmly stepped off.

The other magic thing that Mumbai did was to introduce us to Thali. For the uninitiated this is a tray with about 9 dishes on it for a fixed price. They will continue to fill everything until you say stop. This includes the rice the breads and all of the elements…We have decided that we like Thali…

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Goa

I don’t know what country we are in but we have certainly left India entirely. This is the beach holiday destination for India and quite frankly it is like entering an totally different world. There is nothing to see here other than beaches and other tourists. The state of Goa is exempt from taxes and therefore everything is cheap. Despite this it is the richest region in India with average wages 2.5 times higher than elsewhere and the infrastructure like roads and bridges etc are far better than anywhere we have been so far. I don’t know how this is achieved but it is working. We hit the most bizarre bridge experience on our way to our accommodation but I will leave it for Jill in her planes trains section.

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It is hot. We are here in winter and it is seriously hot and it will continue to get hotter as we head south. At the moment it is only possible to walk for about 15 minutes before being soaked in sweat and seeking a shady respite. The daily highs are well into the mid 30’s and it is winter. I have no idea what or how bad the  summer gets but the winter is more than enough for my Canberra acclimatised bones.

Goa stretches for 100 kilometres but in reality it is a few big towns and a series of pockets of businesses spread across the region. Every 2 kilometres or so you pop up onto a different pocket which generally contain about 3-6 hotels/hostels, 6 bars and 5 restaurants along with 3 motorbike hire joints and 12 tourist stalls. This is added to every third pocket or so with a “juice bar” which are the busiest businesses in town. They openly advertise as juice and more. The bikes are a choice of scooters or some beautiful classically styled Enfield motorcycles (just for KAT).

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Goa is fantastic if you can handle it and embrace it for what it offers, without buying in and checking out. The place is full of people who entered a juice bar and are still here 2-40 years later. Old hippies abound and the younger generation is full of Jonny Depp wannabes who got their first taste of hash, checked out, and are still here 5 years on. The most common activity is to drink and get baked every night and then to zone out on the beach, sleeping it off, in the afternoons. This would be ok if everyone had not hired scooters or motorbikes to get between the various pockets and were riding either stoned or drunk.

That said, if you can handle the atmosphere and not buy into the hippie garbage the place is great. The pockets are set amidst green leafy hillsides, each one being a short walk to the beach. The beaches are as clean as India can offer, and most of us would be willing to enter the water, while still having the uniquely Indian traits (cows between the flags). If you were bored of laying on the beach I am certain that you could find a 3 day old frisbee (they are a bit moist if you get them any earlier). The food is cheap and diverse, with an effort needing to be made to find a curry. The beer is VERY cheap and plentiful and the hotels are clean and cheap. There are top of the line options but they tend to be fake, expensive and full of Russians. In a land of bikinis and sarongs, the Russians pack the little black dress and stripper heels.

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Jill and I were discussing this place and came to the conclusion that there are certain people in our lives that would absolutely love it and would know the balance to keep, while there are others that we know who if they turned up here we may never see them again. I will not name names but will allow each of you to determine your likely path. For those of you able to cope it would be a great joint holiday destination whereby about 10 people all turn up to the same area and have joint but separate holidays. However if you were in any way impressionable there is a real possibility that you could find yourself in a bar, a decade on, with dreadlocks, fewer brain cells and no real idea of how you got here.

Mangalore

 

Once again there is not too much tourism-wise to be seen here but from a culinary perspective this place is heaven. Mangalore is one of the main southern port cities on the Indian west coast on the Arabian Sea. It is a seaside city and is far from the dirt and filth of the north and as such the waters are clean and the seafood is good. It is one of the few places where non-vegetarian is common and the options available for us carnivores are spectacular.

It is still incredibly hot with mid 30’s temperatures daily but we are in a nice air conditioned room and we can time our excursions to miss the heat of the day. Rajasthan in the north was full of tourist sites like palaces and forts etc however the south seems to be more of an unspoiled natural place. The skies are clearer, the air is beautifully breathable, the water is cleaner, the streets are neat and everything just seems better…except there is nothing really touristy to see.

Our first foray into the food of mangalore was the Lalith bar and restaurant where we had a great lunch of pomfret (a local fish) and a ghee roast chicken. I am not exactly sure that this fits within my post heart attack diet but it was magnificent.

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We got back to our hotel where we have a restaurant that specialises in Kebabs. It is essentially a buffet however in addition, each table has a hole in the centre which they fill with a square box filled with coals upon which all sorts of goodies are placed and grilled. Needless to say I picked the non-veg option and we feasted upon prawns, mutton, fish, chicken…all washed down with kingfisher beer. The buffet had a range of options to be grazed upon and the meat on a stick man kept turning up asking which go the above list we wanted more of. While I am a huge thali fan… I remain a carnivore and charred meat on a stick is the best.

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Another restaurant that we have in our hotel is the seafood one. This serves a lunchtime thali we discussed this and Jill chose the crab and I chose the prawn thali and we were to share. Until….We found something better…We headed to the Gajalee seafood restaurant high on the hill in mangalore. It is safe to say that by Indian standards that this place is expensive. By Australian standards however…our first point of order, after swilling half of an incredibly cold beer (did I mention it is hot here), was to head to the row boat at the front of the restaurant to choose which of the live crabs that we intended to eat. I asked the type of crab and was told it was a rock crab however it looked like one of Australia’s best muddies.

Crab chosen it was down to examining the menu proper. I must mention the crab was not compulsory…but it was for us. You could order any type of meat, fish or veg dish that you would like. We chose the garlic/pepper crab and accompanied it with chilli prawns with some naan and a roti and we were in bliss. To date mangalore has had the best range and quality of food since hitting India. Each region has its specialty but mangalore seems to do it all.

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Fort Cochin

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We found a few little tourist things in Fort Cochin (not an actual fort just a suburb) and some bars and restaurants. The Chinese fishing nets were interesting and there were a series of churches etc. It is still hot here and we were hiking in the heat of the day towards the basilica. Now having grown up with private schools I have been to my fair share of religious institutions and know that in terms of rankings they go: chapel, church, cathedral, basilica. Having climbed St Peters basilica in Rome, I had an idea of what to expect…oh was I wrong.

Clearly the rankings do not count here in India. After hiking like idiots in the heat we arrived at the basilica which was smaller than and about as impressive as a local scout hall in a small country town. Needless to say I had an opinion, as sweat poured down my beleaguered brow standing outside the footy dressing shed that was the basilica. While walking away we passed about 6 more churches…all of which were significantly better than the basilica.

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The choice for lunch was written up in the lonely planet as the pick and was called the Dal Roti. It’s good write up was well earned and well deserved. We were introduced to a new thing which was the “Kati Roll”. This was in essence a kebab (the type that you drunkenly order at 3am on your way home) made with buttery Indian bread rather than the normal burrito/lavash style bread…and it was magnificent. I had the chicken, Jill had the curried prawns and we shared. A table of yank girls, at the next table, were expertly guided through the menu by the very personable and helpful owner and all the food that appeared looked sensational and seemed to be fully appreciated.

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The main reason for heading down here was the fact that Jill had booked a houseboat to cruise the Kerala backwaters for three days before heading for the southernmost tip of India (Kanyakumari) via Thiruvananthapuram. The houseboat was a thing we saw while watching the pilots guide to India and we thought it was a must do. It involves the two of us and three staff with all the food and drink (non alcoholic) that you can handle. It also involved stops through the day to buy essentials like beer and fresh seafood.

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You jump off the boat with chef in tow and select live prawns and crabs while asking him what he could do with that…if he suggested something good you bought it…if not you made him either come up with a better option or walked away from the prawns etc.. We walked away from the first one as they were asking more for their prawns (per kilo) than you would pay for top Aussie tiger prawns. As we were about to leave the captain said we could get beer here too…so I ordered the 3 cold ones that they had (Bavarian beer) only to find that they were non alcoholic beer. Upon noticing this we returned them quickly and drove the boat away.

Kerala is clearly the rice bowl of India with each side of the River spilling out into mammoth rice paddies for hectare after hectare. The land level is lower than the River and at the appropriate times they open gates and flood the fields. All transport around the region is by water, with the exception of a 4 foot wide gravel path along the bank. This has seen the accumulation of many new photos for addition to Jill’s planes, trains section of the blog. Particularly as brick barge, construction canoe, de-weeding dredge, farmer’s flock, fishing fleet, grocer’s galleon, holidayer’s houseboats, kelp ketch, laundry launch, and school sloop (see what I did there with the alliteration…it is in alphabetic order too… And some of you think I just spew forth random garbage…a lot of work goes into these ramblings) all compete for the same stretch of water. (Now be honest…how many of you went back to check if my alphabetising was correct).

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Possibly the greatest thing that we saw in our three days of lazing was the trip past the duck farm. A solitary man in a dug out canoe was herding a flock of baby ducks as they swam up the River. We were heading in the opposite direction as we ploughed towards this mass of organised quackery. To give perspective to this, the flock was swimming about 20 ducks abreast to form a 2-4 meter wide strip. This was repeated row after row forming a ribbon of ducklings that stretched over 70 meters long and 3 meters wide and meandered its way upstream. All of this controlled by alone man in a canoe at the back, slapping his paddle on the water. I have no idea of how many ducklings there were, but it was many thousands.

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The Deep South

Having prised ourselves off the houseboat we continued our journey south to Thiruvananthapuram (also known as Trivendrum). We checked into the best ranked home stay on trip advisor. It was great…we arrived in the heat of the day, hot, sweaty and a little dehydrated. Were met by the owner who took us through our room and then we settled with the other guests…in the sitting room, in the breeze, under the fans with a cool beverage. We felt very colonial. The gang staying there was lovely and we chatted, shared stories and (headed out with Simon and Ann a Brit couple riding bicycles around India) shared meals.

We headed off the next morning to the zoo which was surprisingly much better than I imagined. They were largely in open pens and in good condition. The exception to this was the big cats that were jammed into cages with concrete floors. It seemed as though there was a fair bit of construction going on so hopefully they are working to address the cage situation…one open style pen was finished and housed the lions. The up side to this was that we arrived at feeding time so got to experience lions, tigers and cheetahs crunching fresh chicken carcasses. The sounds made as their powerful jaws splintered the bones of the chickens was something to behold. the other standout to this was the exceptional hedge art that was on display at the entrance.

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As per previous posts…it is hot here. We arrived at the zoo at 9am and hung around until about 11 and wandered out. Now the zoo was a leisurely stroll, largely in the shade and with a light breeze. By the time I had walked out there was not one dry section left on my shirt. I had a moist bandana to cool me off but in the shade and the breeze I still managed to sweat my way through a shirt in under 2 hours. So much so I stopped on the side of the road, bought a new shirt, stripped off and changed while a bunch of Indians stared at my Canberra tan.

The next journey that we had was the hunt for the Manjadikuru seeds. Now my family know these well as they are the seed pods with the carved elephants in them. For the rest of you the Manjadikuru seed is hollowed out and filled with small carved bone in the shape of elephants. The seed itself is about the size of a pea…it has a carved elephant shaped cap and inside is a number of elephants. The number and quality of elephants depends entirely upon when you bought the seed. If it was bought in the last few years there are 4 elephants of poor quality, a few years before that you could get 12 of better quality within a single seed. I grew up with one purchased by my grandparents that had 100 carved elephants of excellent quality within (I believe my mother still has this in a jewellery box somewhere). Due to generations of busted eyes these are no longer available as the carvers have been banned from doing such fine work.

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The next stop was to Kanyakumari which is the southernmost tip of India. As you stand on the point you look out over the Vivekananda Rock Memorial and Thiruvalluvar Statue which dominate the southern tip however the key thing is the intersection of the three water bodies. The Bay of Bengal to the east, laccadive sea to the south and the Arabian Sea to the west.

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The hotel that we stayed at was perfectly located, although a little bizarre. The urinal cakes in the shower drain and the cartoon mural on the bathroom door (of Japanese anime characters) were a touch odd. That evening we headed to the rooftop to watch the sun set over the Arabian Sea…the next morning we were on the same rooftop to watch it rise over the Bay of Bengal. This is a pretty nice concept any way you look at it.

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For the facebookers amongst you this has been seen. For the others this cute little fella was what turned up when I ordered a Kebab from a Kanyakumari restaurant. The image does not do it justice so I will break it down for you. The base is a mix of capsicum, cabbage, pineapple carrot, a lemon wedge, onion, cucumber and tomato. Our little friend is a curried chicken kebab (off the stick) covered in an unsweetened meringue (fluffy texture) underneath a tube of spun sugar. The eyes were grapes. This was wrong on every level.

Pondicherry

Having hit the bottom we started our journey north. The first port of call was Pondicherry which is simultaneously both the best and worst Indian city that we have been in. Unlike most of the places this joint was colonised by the French rather than the Brits. The French know how to develop a city…especially a seaside esplanade…wide streets, tree lined avenues and fantastic architecture. It is a calm and relaxing place to be…at 6pm each night they ban all motor traffic from the esplanade and the next 3 parallel streets and it turns into a pedestrian paradise. Add to this that it is about 8 degrees cooler than the south with a brilliant sea breeze that makes it a cool and wonderful place to spend time.IMG_20140118_111555

Further to the city the French influence continues strongly up to today. This translates to awesome bakeries, cafés, restaurants, real cheese and real coffee. China had no cheese at all and India has paneer or crappy singles slices wrapped in plastic…cheese is heaven…Brie, blue, Edam and many more…combine this with fresh baguettes and an almond croissant or two and this place rocks. The restaurants are a mix of Indian, French, Italian and the ‘odds and sods’ ones that you generally find around the place. A standout is the steak that pops up on the odd menu or two.

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As I mentioned this place is both the best and worst…as no cars are allowed into the last 3 streets before the beach the tuk tuk drivers stalk the third street waiting fo ramblers to finish their afternoon/evening walk. As they wait nature inevitably calls…being India…it leaves when it has to…our hotel was on the third street in and at no time did we leave or enter the hotel without seeing at least two people peeing in the stagnant gutters. Needless to say this has an effect upon the aroma of the area.

Now let’s not be silly here…we have been in India since late November so we are no stranger to the open drains and the smells but this place adds a new dimension. Jill was amused that they called one of the open drains the Rue de Petite Canal. Sadly there is the Grand Canal that runs through the middle of the joint. I titled this Rue de Poopoo. It was disgusting, every time I walked past it I was involuntarily dry retching and Jill was not a lot better. There was a heap of local restaurants along the street of the Rue de Poopoo which we did not go near.

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The French quarter of town is the bit right by the water (in the 3 block zone and away from Rue de Poopoo) and is known as white town. In here there are any number of great restaurants and the odd juice bar (Kerala style). In all Pondicherry is great if you can keep away from Le Canal O’Crap.

Bangalore

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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Nilgiri Mountains

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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Calcutta – Kolkata

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.

IMG_20140128_164603This 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.

Having 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.

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.

Bhubaneswar may not be the A$$hole of the world…but you can see it from here.

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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Aurungabad

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.

Varanasi

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

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.

Shimla

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…

India an overview

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 paying 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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

One thought on “India

  1. KAT

    Agree. The picture of the ducks was my favourite too.

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