Welcome to the blog for our round the world trip.

24 October 2007

Return to Rajasthan

Rajasthani Girl, Jaisalmer, India
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
Leaving Uttar Pradesh and re-entering Rajasthan is like going to a different country. Suddenly, the overpopulation seems to fade; people have far more time; the scenery changes towards desert, yet the area appears more agricultural; the roads (and perhaps to a lesser extent, the driving) improve; and the local dress changes. Here, local people are even more colourful than in UP or the north of India. It is not only Sikh men and those in the tourist game who wear turbans: in some areas almost all the men wear turbans, the different styles and colours denoting their historical roots. The women, too, dress differently: more voluminous saris in bright primary colours; chains joining their nose piercing to their ear piercing; thick, solid, silver ankle bands and toe rings to denote married status; and bangles not just on the wrists but all the way from the shoulder downwards. The randomly roaming cows, vast quantities of litter and poverty are still here, but they are diluted down.

After a very long two and a half day drive from Varanasi, we were relieved to arrive in Pushkar. The town is set around a holy lake with lots of bathing ghats around the water’s edge. Despite being there for several days, there were still too many temples in the town for us to be able to count them all. Pushkar’s holy status is somewhat diluted by the number of traveller types who are attracted to it: sunset at the lake draws a crowd of 50 or so every day and is accompanied by drum banging and some very hippified dancing – including a few people who have evidently been here far too long. Surprisingly it has also become a bit of a Jewish hang-out: apparently Pushkar is the place to come and chill out after completing your Israeli military service. So, oddly for the middle of India, there are several Israeli restaurants, signs in Hebrew and even Hebrew overlays on the keyboards in the internet café. Despite the traveller vibe (or perhaps because of it…. though we don’t like to admit that), we really enjoyed our stay in Pushkar and we ended up staying for much longer than we had expected. It is definitely a great place to laze around, watch sunsets over a really pretty lake, do some souvenir shopping (something that we have steered clear of for much of the trip) and eat some really good food (cafes that serve proper toast and proper coffee… hurrah!).

From Pushkar we drove on to Jodhpur, origin of the riding trousers of the same name but also, more interestingly, of an amazing fort. The red sandstone fort towers over the town below and looks really impressive as you drive into town. We found a small haveli where we could stay in the van and eat food in their shaded courtyard (served by women as well as men, which is still a real novelty around here). From there we braved the desert heat to venture out to the fort, which we found to be incredibly well looked after and very interesting. We watched the sun set over the fort and the town from a rocky headland near to one of the many temples and got the bonus of lots of fireworks, as it was an important Hindu festival (although Indian fireworks are rather too orientated towards loud bangs rather than pretty lights for our liking, so it felt akin to observing warfare). Dinner was at a restaurant on the rooftop of the fort next to the cannons: an atmospheric location, lit by candles, in which we enjoyed our vegetarian Rajasthani thalis.

Our next stop was Jaisalmer, right in the middle of the Great Thar Desert. The desert itself is, as you would expect, very arid and incredibly hot but still really colourful, with women carrying terracotta water vessels along the roadside and baskets of crops on their heads. Jaisalmer’s fort is even bigger than the one at Jodhpur and is built of sandstone which has a yellow hue. The fort is surrounded by 99 round battlements (according to the locals at least – Michael pedantically tried to count them but could only find about 60), which make the complex resemble an enormous sandcastle. The rumour doing the rounds it that the whole thing is crumbling away in places (mainly due to water erosion) and it is on the worldwide list of threatened monuments. Inside, the fort is far more like a town than a palace, being made up of lots of inter-twined alleyways, a palace, houses, shops and restaurants. Oh, and an open sewer system, which it is fair to say adds to the “atmosphere”, particularly in the heat. From the fort battlements you can look out towards Pakistan, about 100km away to the west (there is a huge army presence here to guard the border and react in case of heightened hostilities). The highlight of the fort is the Jain temple complex, which contains a series of separate temples, all in intricately carved stone with lots of beautiful arches and figures adorning the walls. The roofs are low and the corridors dark, which lends a strange, slightly Gothic, air to the whole place.

So we have spent the last couple of days wandering around the fort and the town, plus taking a 45km drive out to visit the nearby sand dunes. Here we were able to romp around in the sand and marvel at the number of rich Indian tourists who make it out here – all trying to land the money shot of a sunset camel photo. We have also really enjoyed relaxing at Fifu's Guest House, outside which we have parked the van. It is just outside the town, beautifully decorated and has a fantastic roof terrace with big stone seats covered in cushions - perfect for lazing, supping a few Kingfishers and looking at the picture postcard view of the fort on the horizon.

14 October 2007

Completing the Golden Triangle

Elephant Mother, Amber
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.

After visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra, we headed towards Rajasthan and the “Pink City” of Jaipur. The highlight for us all was the City Palace, which has marble elephants to greet you at the entrance; guards strikingly dressed in a uniform of white jackets and bright red turbans; intricate doorways carved beautifully with peacocks; and a civilised café where enjoyed coffee and cake. Apparently the whole place is owned by the local Maharaja, who is one of Prince Charles’ polo chums, so it is not all that surprising that it is one of the best kept and best presented places we have been so far in India. In contrast, some of the other buildings in the city are really run down: they clearly could be fantastic if they were restored or even just better looked after, but there seems to be little or no prospect of that.

We spent an evening at a Rajasthani complex outside the city – set up to replicate a “traditional” village for Indian and foreign tourists, but with the addition of a mini-fairground and maze as well as elephant and camel rides (we even persuaded my mum to take a short ride on a brightly painted elephant). There was a restaurant on the site which provided a traditional Rajasthani dinner. This involved sitting on the floor, wearing a turban and eating a variety of different curries from dishes made of pressed banana leaves.

The following day we took a trip out to Amber, a few kilometres north of Jaipur, to see the fort, the lake palace and one of the dullest visitor attractions we have been to yet: a large cannon which would be the biggest in the world if only Russia didn’t have a bigger one. Thankfully, the Amber Fort was more impressive. We approached via our second elephant ride in two days, though mum still looked a little unconvinced about whether that is her preferred mode of transport. Michael had become a little elephant obsessed and our guide obligingly took us to go and visit the local baby elephant. I’m not sure what the animal welfare activists would have to say about it all, but there is no denying that being carried by a brightly painted elephant up to a sandstone fort perched on a hilltop in Rajasthan feels like a quintessential Indian experience.

We completed the well trodden tourist route of the Golden Triangle (Delhi – Agra – Jaipur) by heading into Delhi city centre. Having experienced the ring road on our way to Agra, which had been pretty miserable with horrendous traffic and far too many people, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. However, the city centre has some beautiful sights, including Rajghat, a serene memorial located on the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation, which is a little oasis among the smog and car horns. In old Delhi we visited Jama Masjid, a large sandstone mosque which closely resembles the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, but being in India rather than in Pakistan it has its fair share of women and far more white tourists than you would find in Lahore. Heading south we then arrived in New Delhi, where the long colonial Mall leads from the India Gate (a large war memorial similar to L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris) for a couple of kilometres up to the impressive Presidential Palace complex, with well kept gardens and more ornate sandstone buildings. The continuing theme from Lahore to Delhi seems to be that the buildings built either by the Mughals or the British are by far the most impressive.

There are some very large modern shopping malls being built on the outskirts of Delhi, in amongst all the poverty. There is such a contrast between the beggars on the street on the one hand, and the air-conditioned centres full of high-end clothes shops and well heeled locals on the other. It is all quite difficult to deal with, really. We have been approached by huge numbers of people asking for money, food or drink. They inevitably see white people as cash-cows and it is difficult to know what to do for the best. One filthy, raggedly dressed little girl followed us several times to our van and in the end we gave her some chocolate cookies. She looked ridiculously overexcited and ran after us so that she could carry on waving and beaming at us ages after we had started to drive away. The trouble is that then the next day she was back, with lots of her friends in tow, all wanting more cookies. We have regularly ended up walking along with children clinging onto our legs or people constantly prodding us, and the van windows are smeared in endless greasy handprints where people repeatedly bang on the windows at traffic lights.

On Sunday we sadly waved goodbye to my mum (rather prematurely as we weren’t even allowed to accompany her into Delhi airport – the security is very strict, right down to a sniper perched on sand bags outside the front door). It now feels pretty empty in the van as we had got used to having an extra passenger over the past few weeks – although Michael is relieved that we can start listening to the Foo Fighters again instead of Frank Sinatra and Norah Jones on repeat play. Along with my mum, we have also waved goodbye to our more luxurious lifestyle of hotels and coffee shops. We are now fully submerged back into the camper van lifestyle, parking in car parks and garage forecourts when needs be. Oh, the glamour.

Having deposited mum at the airport, we took the van in for a service at the VW garage in Delhi (the first one we have seen for a very long time). We were a little nervous about how good it would be, but we needn’t have worried. Kashyap Enterprises is a proper VW outfit which sells vehicles at an enormous mark-up to Indian pop stars, diplomats and the like (European vehicles are apparently the thing to have out here, at least if you are rich and famous such you can afford the incredible 120% import tax). We arrived to find that we had fallen on our feet: Karsten and Ronny had just been sent out on secondment from Germany and were in their element when they found out that we had driven all the way from Britain. The usual Volkswagen efficiency kicked in and before we knew it we had been given drinks, a place to stay in the van overnight, a lift into town, and a full service without any problems at all. In Europe this might not seem surprising, but out here it seems incredible and we couldn’t believe our luck. They also insisted on taking our photo so that they can run a piece about us in the local paper!

From there we drove through Uttar Pradesh, which is the most heavily populated state in India, with 170 million people - more than the whole of Pakistan (which felt pretty overpopulated to us in places). The problems of severe overpopulation are evident everywhere, with serious poverty in many places. The road-side slums here make even the houses around Delhi look positively luxurious. Here the shacks sit atop huge refuse landfills and are made up of little more than a few sticks with bits of rubbish balanced on top as shelter against the sun and the rain. I’m not sure that we will ever get used to that side of India. Nor am I sure that we will ever get used to the standards of driving, but that rant is for another time….

We are now in Varanasi, a city on the banks of the Ganges where Hindu pilgrims go to bathe in the holy waters. The river bank is a surprisingly serene place to spend some time. People go to the Ghats to bathe; do their laundry; pray; give offerings of food, flowers and candles into the river; or meditate. Given that they do all those things in the same water as the large numbers of oxen use to drink and wash, the Ganges is filthy, so we opted out of joining the locals for a swim. That Ghats are a really colourful place, full of women bathing in vivid saris; holy men with orange robes and painted faces; and garlands or dishes or brightly coloured flowers. Last night we watched sunset and fireworks at the river (there is a large Muslim community here and yesterday was the end of Ramadan, so they have fireworks to mark Eid). Today we took a boat ride along the river at sunrise, when most of the activity takes place at the river. It is a very lively and interesting scene, with lots going on at every turn. We also saw where the Hindus cremate their dead at the special “burning Ghats”, before throwing the ashes into the river. Apparently, pregnant women, children and holy men are exempt, so their bodies are thrown into the river with rocks tied to them so that they sink. There are tales of bodies failing to sink and instead being spotted floating on the water by passing boats, but thankfully we managed to avoid the sight of a floating dead body before breakfast!

05 October 2007

From the Indian hills to the Taj Mahal

McLeod Ganj, in northern India, nestles amongst lush green hills with a fantastic view out southwards over the plain below. We spent a couple of days there, wandering the narrow streets with their arrays of Tibetan tit-bits (McLeod Ganj, and more generally the district of Dharamsala, is one of a number of refuges in India for Tibetans fleeing the Chinese occupation) and doing lots of monk-spotting. The monks all look pretty happy and striking in their bright orange and red robes as they wander the streets with shaven heads. Despite standing outside his heavily guarded front door for a good twenty minutes, however, we failed to get a reception with or even a glimpse of the Dalai Lama. Disappointing.

Continuing the hill-station theme, we moved on (via a tortuous nine hour drive) to the town of Shimla, which used to be the British summer capital – a welcome relief from the scorching heat of the plains. For the first time in a long while it was on with the jumpers and shoes in the evening; a very refreshing change. The town is full of middle class Indian tourists happily promenading up and down the main ridge in front of a long high street full of strangely English looking timber framed buildings. Coming here is a stark contrast with the Pakistani hill stations, which appeared far more run down and lacking in facilities. We enjoyed a stay at the renovated Cecil Hotel, a huge white and green affair that looks down on the whole of Shimla. The cavernous five storey high atrium here, with polished wooden floors and green leather chairs, made an excellent place to watch India win the Twenty20 World Cup – we didn’t let on to anyone that we were secretly supporting Pakistan.

Chandigarh was our next stop – an experimental Indian town that would be best matched with Milton Keynes. It is based on a grid system similar to that utilised in Islamabad and was created by the Indians as a new capital for the Punjab region when Lahore was ceded to Pakistan. Rather then develop a standard Indian city – ie cramped and dirty – they employed some an architect who went by the bizarre moniker of “Le Corbusier” to come up with a better plan. He decided on the overall theme and designed many of the buildings, basing his ideas on concepts such as the Golden Ratio and that a city should be like a biological organism. Whilst this all sounds very lovely and interesting (and parts of it are – Chandigarh is very green and the traffic system runs almost perfectly on excellent roads), the town suffers from being built primarily in the 60s, so there is way too much concrete. We hired a driver who proudly showed us the revered High Court and Assembly Buildings, but it’s hard to be enthusiastic when one is an enormous concrete cuboid and the other was inspired by a cooling tower (I kid you not, it’s actually written in the architecture museum). Next to these monsters is a sculpture park that was developed on the sly by one of the road builders in Chandigarh: he made models of people, animals and the like out of rubbish – mainly broken porcelain. Once Le Corbusier had disappeared from the scene and other people were allowed to have an opinion, Ned Chand opened his displays to a public that I imagine, rather like us, didn’t quite know what to say. Still if you want to see peacocks made of children’s bangles, walls of electric plug sockets and men made from smashed up toilets, then Chandigarh is your place.

Further south we rejoined the main tourist trail at Delhi, Indian capital and home to about 12 million people (I’m not sure how they count them though, given the chaos and the number of people in shacks or on the streets). What a place – without a doubt the largest, smelliest, busiest, filthiest and craziest city of our trip so far. In fact, all we actually had to do on this visit was drive around the ring road, but this took two and a half hours, one small collision, one near marriage break up and a lots of panicking from BJ. As night fell we eventually got to the airport (the main international one, totally unsignposted until you are driving through the front gate) and decide that the only way to get to where we wanted to be was to put Helen in a taxi and try to follow that as closely as possible – me watching out for donkeys, autorickshaws, bikes, beggars, cows, children, dogs and people driving the wrong way down the road, whilst BJ tried to watch the taxi that was disappearing off into the distance with Helen.

We moved on from Delhi to Agra the next day and things calmed down slightly. We rolled into Agra just as sun was setting and had our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal across the river – it looked stunning, one of those views that takes your breath away, lit up by deep sunlight. As it was late, we left visiting the Taj to the next day and satisfied ourselves with some curry and air-conditioning. The food in India has been almost without exception excellent and we have settled into a routine of paneer (cheese) curry, mixed vegetables, raita and fresh roti (similar to chapattis in Britain). The hotels in Agra are stretched fairly along the Mall so that each can offer a ‘Taj View’ from its rooms, although this is from a distance of about 2km. The next day we jumped into another rickety auto rickshaw and headed over to the East Gate of the Taj Mahal. We suffered the rather unfair pricing strategy (Indians $1, Foreigners $20) before entering the main grounds. The building is beautiful, spectacular and actually far larger than I had imagined. It is hard to be enamoured by the organisation of the place, though. There are, as is the case in so many places in this country, just far, far too many people and it was all a bit overwhelming – so many tourists and all of them fighting for the various ‘money shot’ photos. At the end of the canals that look so serene and beautiful in the photos we found a bevy of people all fighting and jostling, trying to insert their relative into the correct place for the dream shot. As you then proceed through the immaculate gardens there is a central pedestal with some benches that Princess Di sat on for a photo when she visited. Barbara had designs on a similar photo but it proved impossible: they closed the place down for Princess Di, but for some reason we didn’t get the same treatment and trying to persuade the fifty or so people who were on the platform ruining our shot to move out of the way proved too much. We took some photos, traipsed around the inside of the mausoleum and returned exhausted to the hotel bar.

The next morning I went to search for a different side to the monument, catching another auto rickshaw to take me round to the other side of the river at five o’clock in the morning, in time for sun rise. The view from the other side of the river with the building reflected in the water is beautiful; you will have seen it in lots of photos and I didn’t have to share it with anyone. That is until the local villagers all started to wake up and wander down to the riverside to complete their morning routine all in sight of everyone. For me, that moment summed up all of the contradictions of India that we have experienced so far: I was standing in front of a beautiful picture-postcard view, which makes a stunning photo opportunity, but I had to trudge around in rubbish and human waste just to be there. Strange that they never show you that bit in the colourful photos in all the guidebooks....