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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Intriguing India….. part two

We left Jaisalmar thinking we had seen the most amazing India ever – wrong, it just kept getting better and better. 
We bussed up to Bikaner where we quite by chance ended up staying in a former maharajah’s house… absolutely stunning spot with gorgeous gardens behind huge walls.  Our room was on the second floor with sweeping views of the city.  All this for a mere $20 a night.
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Bikaner was one of the least touristy places we’d been – we were a distinct novelty in the market which was absolutely authentic and a wonderful experience.  Camels and oxen replaced cars here.
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Daunted by the prospect of another bus ride we opted for a private car for our next trip.  Our wonderful driver Bitu took us to his family home en route for an intriguing glimpse into Indian family life. The women (and there were loads of them) remained outside while we had a cup of tea in the main bedroom which doubled as a kitchen.  A rough headcount came up with 14 people living in a two bedroom house with dirt floors and the only running water in the toilet (I hesitate to call it a toilet as it was just a hole in the ground). But they were such happy and friendly people.  Material possessions mean little here.
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Bitu dropped us in Bathinda where our fond memories of nice hotels and friendly Indians went out the window.  This city was truly scruffy.  The only hotel we could find was distinctly grotty, the streets were more filthy than usual and the people incredibly poor.  Next morning we were up at dawn and on the first bus out of there to Amritsar – a city in the north very near the Pakistan border. 
Amritsar was a highlight, especially its astonishing Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion.  It is said that 100kg of gold were used in the building.  This was the site of a bloody uprising in 1984 when Prime Minister Indiri Ghandi ordered troops to remove separatists holed up in the temple.  The resulting exchange saw hundreds of Sikhs killed, many more injured and ultimately cost Ghandi her life when her Sikh bodyguards murdered her in retaliation.
The Temple is surrounded by a sacred lake in which Sikhs bathe.  It’s an incredibly spiritual and peaceful place and it was an amazing experience to spend several hours walking barefoot on the cool marble surrounds.  The adjoining complex feeds up to 30,000 pilgrims a day and we joined the queue that filed into the hall, sat cross legged and were spooned dahl, curry and rice pudding “prison style” from huge buckets into a tin tray.  An uplifting experience all round. 
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We also went to the Pakistan/Indian border for a unique border closing ceremony that happens every sunset.  It’s a huge spectacle involving a series of Monty Pythonesque type marches, singing, blowing of bugles, slamming of the border gates and lowering of the flag.  Each side tries to outdo the other with much shouting and cheering going on.
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From Amritsar we caught the train across the Punjab province to Chandigarh and then a bus to the tiny town of Kalka at the foot of the Himalayas.  The train was fantastic – free meals were served, the seats were reasonably comfy and it wasn’t crowded.  The total cost of the day long trip probably cost as much as a tube ride in London!DSC_0217DSC_0383
Kalka was a rather grubby town with equally grubby hotels.  We checked out four before checking into one we figured was bearable then realised there was no shower….just a bucket and scoop!  We ate at a street stall that night and the food was fantastic – served up from a selection of pots bubbling away on the hotplates.  Next morning we were up at 4am to catch the 5am train which, as is so typical in India, didn’t leave until 9am.  Two rather grumpy and tired travellers!  But the stunning ancient railway route up through the winding Himalayan foothills took our tiredness away – it was a spectacular trip up to Shimla… of India’s so called hill stations.
Tiredness and grumpiness kicked in again when we struggled to find a decent hotel.  Some were absolute dives and we seemed to walk for ages lugging backpacks before we found one.  Then, wouldn’t you know it, the minute we had paid and settled in we looked out the window to see the very hotel recommended by fellow travellers! 
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We moved there the next day.  Shimla was great and it was wonderful to stop for a few days, soak up the mountain air and enjoy this lovely town.  Best of all there was no rubbish – there are fines for littering and so the streets were clean…..unlike the rest of India!
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We opted for a taxi ride back to Kalka and timed our trip to coincide with the train to Delhi, arriving there just on dusk.  The scene at Delhi train station was chaotic – hundreds of tuktuk drivers battling for our custom, touts wanting to sell us hotels and beggars everywhere.  Delhi certainly is a seething mass of humanity…..with some weird sights.
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 At 5am the next morning we took a tuktuk through streets where the only life was the odd cow wandering along and beggars huddled around fires they’d lit from rubbish. Our frustration at Indian transport intensified when our train to Jaipur was cancelled.  The ever present touts were there to hassle and offer outrageously expensive alternatives.  Eventually we teamed up with two other lots of stranded travellers and after much negotiation we booked a private car.  Six of us and the driver squeezed in, backpacks tied on top, and off we set for the most hair raising ride of our lives.  The only consolation was that two of our fellow passengers were medics!
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We’d come to Jaipur for the annual elephant festival, about which we knew absolutely nothing.  It turned out to be a riot of colour.
We’d booked a hotel online.  It was fantastic……large walls to keep out the city noise (the whole of India is incredibly noisy), shady green lawns and gardens where smiling staff brought endless cups of tea, a good restaurant and a crystal clear pool in which to cool off.  The elephant festival was amazing……I will let the photos talk.
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 Afterwards we visited the exclusive Rambagh Palace for a drink which cost more than our hotel room for the night!  Still it was nice to sink into the comfy sofas on the shady verandahs and pretend we were rich and famous for an hour or two!  Rooms here start at $500.
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Next day was Holi, a pretty crazy festival in which Indians go mad throwing coloured paint at anyone who ventures out.  We did briefly, but scarpered back to the hotel when things got a bit messy – Indians, festivals, drugs and alcohol don’t mix and best to stay indoors.
We loved Jaipur – the amazing Palaces of the Wind was a highlight, as was the Jantar Mantar observatory containing ancient sundials and astronomical instruments. We also loved exploring the old walled city.
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We had our best ever meal here at one of the many rooftop restaurants.  Indian food was a surprise on this trip – it’s nothing like Indian food you get in Indian restaurants in other countries….and we never saw butter chicken, tikki marsala or korma on the menu.  In fact we only ever went for vegetable curry and they were delicious.
Next stop was Agra and it was another early start to get to the railway station for the 7am train.  Indian railway stations are a microcosm of life – entire families live, eat, sleep and wash here.  It’s astonishing watching them wake up, ablute beside the tracks before rolling up their sleeping mats, packing their meagre belongings and heading off somewhere for the day.  The poverty really is shocking.
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We’d heard Agra described as the a..hole of India and so we only planned on enough time to visit the spectacular Taj Mahal.  We got up at daybreak to be the first through the gates and it was worthwhile.
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The Taj Mahal was a fitting end to our time in India…it really is an astonishing piece of architecture and it was great to be there early and escape the throngs.  By now we were well and truly over Indian trains, buses and taxis so opted to fly the short distance back to Delhi.  Big mistake……our flight was delayed for four hours and believe me….there’s not a lot to do at Agra Airport!!! 
A few fascinating days exploring Delhi and we were on the plane London bound via Abu Dhabi.  It was here things unravelled with both of us coming down with the dreaded Delhi belly.  Still can’t quite believe we made it to London, but we did and crashed at the closest hotel to Heathrow.  A fantastic month long adventure with indelible memories.


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