...images from planet Earth
India: 4 December 2001 - 15 January 2002
I had arrived in India expecting the worst; persistent touts, scams, food poisoning, dirt, polluted cities etc. But India turned out to be my favourite country. The above is there, but it's greatly outweighed by the beauty of India, its culture, its architecture and its warm and friendly people. The atmosphere is like nowhere else I've experienced.
I'd booked a place at the Anoop hotel (220 Rp) in Paharganj in Delhi and a pickup from the airport before I arrived. It was a decent hotel, centrally located with friendly staff. I loved to sit on the rooftop restaurant in the evenings, sipping on a ginger lemon honey tea. Paharganj is a very busy, touristy place, but very interesting. I loved it there. And there's loads of nice food available on the street. I met a couple of people on the internet before I arrived and I met them on the first morning. This helped to me get through the first couple of days, but it really wasn't that bad. I stayed in Delhi for three days, visiting the Red Fort, India Gate, Connaught Place in New Delhi, Lodi Gardens and Isa Khans's tomb, before taking a bus to Ramnagar for Corbett national park where I was for three days. I booked the accommodation and found a driver on arrival. No tigers, but lots of other animals including sambar and spotted deer. The trip took me though the pretty but cold mountain village of Nainital, and Ramnagar itself was a bustling little town I found interesting. Some Kashmiris at a travel agents in Paharganj almost persuaded me to go to Kashmir for a five day trip, but other people (non Kashmiris) were strongly advising me that it's too dangerous. It was also too cold at this time of year. A few weeks later I heard that a tourist had been killed there. I returned to Delhi and spent another two days there. I went to Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, and did a lot of walking, mainly through the crowded streets of Old Delhi. It's a fascinating place to wonder around, if you're in no rush. One of the most interesting aspects of everyday life here things was the heavily crowded streets, where cows, bikes and rickshaws fight for space with pedestrians for space. On the last day I got an autorickshaw to the Mahatma Ghandi museum and the driver suggested a day tour to the Indira Ghandi memorial, Parliament Place and the Bahai (Lotus) temple in South Delhi. This temple is unique in that it is open to all religions to come and pray. It looks pretty good too. It was a good deal, only 250 Rp for the day, but the catch was I had to stop at a couple of souvenir shops on the way back. That happens all the time, there's no obligation to buy anything and the driver gets a voucher whether you buy or not.
That night I caught the overnight train to Jodhpur. The train station was in the central area of town, it wasn't the Jodhpur I expected - blue buildings, quite streets and monkeys. I checked into the Govind Hotel. I didn't like it at all. I stayed there one night and then did a village safari which I booked at the more popular Havelli Guest House, which had excellent views of the fort from the rooftop restaurant. In Jodhpur I went to the fort and the impressive Jaswant Thada memorial. The rest of the time I spent exploring the city, usually with crowds of excited kids following me, wanting to shake hands, ask me questions. Most would run away giggling after shaking my hand, but once I had about 30 kids following me, it was fun. After the village safari I got sick for the first time. It wasn't serious, it lasted just a couple of days, then I took the bus on a gruelling six hour ride to Jaisalmer where I met up with the Scottish couple I met on the village safari.
We stayed at the Residency Centre Point Paying Guest House. Hotels in Jaisalmer are either inside or outside the fort, those inside have smaller rooms and are more expensive but can have nice views. I got an excellent room for just 200 Rp. And there are home cooked meals for 50 Rp. Nearly all the rooms I stayed in in India had an attached bathroom with a western toilet, you won't be paying much less for a room without this, though I heard from an Israeli that he was usually able to bargain down to about 60 Rp simply because he was an Israeli, he claimed. We did a three day camel safari with Ganesh Travels for 400 Rp a day. Many tour operators will talk about different routes available, the less touristy ones being more expensive. We really were in total isolation the whole time on our safari and didn't see any other tourists. It was a proper bush camping experience as well, sleeping out under the stars, cooking on campfires. We went with Ganesh Tours (or something similar sounding) and we paid 400 Rp per day. There's a lot of competition but you should really go by recommendations. I spend a few more days in Jaisalmer. It's a nice city to wonder round in, cleaner and more attractive than Jodhpur. The fort is interesting and it does, as the LP book says, look like something out of a fairytale, a giant sandcastle. Some guest houses throw you out if you don't take the tour offered by them. Don't accept tours from hotels/guest houses as they use a travel agent and take commission. I was allowed back to the same guest house.
I reluctantly left Jaisalmer and took a bus to Udaipur. I was met by a rickshaw driver who took me to the Lalghat Guest House which was well recommended in The Book. He said he was the manager of the Ratan Palace and tried to persuade me to stay there. I told him I would have a look if I didn't like the other place. I stayed in Lalghat for two nights. At 250 Rp, it was a bit too pricey so I checked out and went to the Ratan Palace which was much better value at 150 Rp. I ended up staying in Udaipur for six days. I didn't think much of it at first, it didn't seem as interesting as the other cities I'd been to, but it grew on me. The best things about it were the rooftop views of the lake and Jagdish temple. I used to go there at nights, listening to the prayers and singing or just sit at the top of the steps by the entrance watching monkeys being fed and the busy streets below. From Udaipur I did day trips to Ranakpur and Jaisamand Lake (there's not much there). Ranakpur, about four hours away by bus, was excellent. The temples there are by far the most impressive I've seen. I also went to the Monsoon Palace (after which the rickshaw driver persuaded me to go to a festival a few km out of Udaipur), the City Palace, Sunset Point, the rest of the time I walked round town, sat by the lake or on rooftop restaurants enjoying the views, in the evening watching videos at restaurants.
Food was very good in Rajasthan. It's not spicy; it caters for western tourists. I normally eat a lot of meat but there was enough variety to keep me happy with vegetarian food. Butter paneer masala was my favourite. I got sick for the second time in Udaipur, again it wasn't serious, just diarrhoea. I took antibiotics but I don't think it was necessary. It usually passes after a day or two. From Udaipur, I planned to go to Mount Abu for a day but I was cheated by the bus company, I booked my ticket two days in advance and arrived early at the departure point. I waited half an hour before finding out my bus had left without me and that I was being put on an 'extra' bus leaving two hours later. My seat had been given to someone else. This was the first time I got annoyed. I had a go at the guy in the travel agent but got nowhere. I didn't go to Mount Abu because I would only have had an hour there. I later got a refund from the travel agent I bought my ticket from (they're surprisingly good in these situations).
I had a friend in Bombay who invited me to spend new year's eve with her. All trains were fully booked so I had to go by bus, which was a 24 hour journey. I spent just one night and one day there. It was enough. We went to Elephanta Island to see the carvings in the caves. Bombay is huge, very polluted and very western, compared to cities in Rajasthan. It was there I had a beef steak, only the second time I ate meat in a month, and bought CDs from a huge music store. That night, I boarded a train for another 24 hour journey back up to Rajasthan.
My destination was Sawai Madhopur for Ranthambhore national park. The train journey was OK. I actually enjoyed travelling by train. On a second class carriage (I always booked second class), there are eight sections per carriage, each section having seats/beds for eight people. The PVC seats/beds are adequately padded and there's enough space (on the six that go across the carriage, the two that go along the carriage are slightly shorter) to stretch out. The train got a bit crowded towards the end, but it was an interesting experience travelling with the locals. Almost everyone stares at you blatantly for ages, as elsewhere in Rajasthan, but they don't mean to be rude. It's fascination and you need to get used to it. The views from the train were always good too. On arrival I was leapt on by rickshaw wallahs, all wanting to take me to the hotel that pays them commission. I eventually found one that was willing to take me to the Tiger Safari Resort, albeit reluctantly. He took me to his choice of hotel first to show me and, ignoring warning that the Tiger Safari Resort was in a 'not safe' area I told him again I didn't want to stay here. I arrived at the Tiger Safari Resort quite late but managed to get a room and book a safari for tomorrow morning (350 Rp per game drive on a 20 seat canter). The rooms were OK but way too expensive at 650 Rp. I bargained down to 500 but it was still too much compared to other placed I'd stayed in, but this was an expensive area. I did three safaris. We saw lots of wildlife but again no tigers. It was the animal I most wanted to see in the wild but it wasn't going to happen.
From Sawai Madhopur I took a train to Kota where got straight on a bus to Bundi. The book said this was a quiet little town with lots of appeal, and it was. Not many tourists here and it turned out to be one of the nicest towns in India. I checked into the Haveli Braj Bhushanjee, run by ancestors of the former prime ministers of Bundi, as recommended in The Book again. I bargained down from 350 Rp to 250. It was nice there but I had to check out the following day because a large group was arriving. I then checked into the Kishan Niwas hotel, where a rickshaw wallah had wanted to take me. This was excellent value, 100 Rp. The room was basic but adequate and the owner was very friendly and hospitable. The guy's mum stayed there and she used to cook the food. It really felt like a family environment. In Bundi I visited Bundi Palace, some of the town's old tanks (wells) and the colourful markets. At sunset I loved sitting by Nawal Sagar (a tank, or artificial lake) watching the reflection of Bundi Palace in the water. The colours were amazing and for me, the scene epitomised Rajasthan. I have a photo of this but it doesn't do it justice. The streets of Bundi were quite clean, peaceful with kids happiy playing outside. They were flying their kites in preparation for the festival on the 14 January. Here, the dogs and cows in the streets were joined by pigs, all doing their bit to clean up the streets (cows don't know when to stop; they often eat scraps of paper and even plastic bags.
From Bundi I took a bus to Ajmer where I caught a connecting bus to Pushkar. I didn't initially plan to go to Pushkar; I was put off by the hippie scene. I was glad I did. It's the smallest town I went to and it was therefore very intimate, everyone seemed to know everyone. The lake is very picturesque and it was nice just to sit at the ghats. The worst thing about Pushkar though, is the hassle you get from the people who hang around the ghats offering you flowers to throw in the lake for 'good luck' or try to sell you 'passports' and bands you wear round your wrist. I saw arguments break out with people who fell for the scam where they would be asked to pay out large sums of money (I heard $200 was one asking price). It's annoying that you can't walk down to the ghats in peace. I confronted one guy and told him it's wrong to exploit his religion for money. I eventually found a ghat which I had almost to myself. The touts that hang around arriving buses in Pushkar are the worst I saw in India. I was surrounded by about 20 people at one point. It wasn't so bad, I saw the funny side, and I did didn't know where to stay so I needed their help. I narrowed it down to two then decided on the Kanaya Guest House. This was the best value room I'd stayed in in India and probably the nicest, it was only 100 Rp, the intense competition meant I could get it for even less. One morning I got up early to walk up the hill to Savitri temple. It took about an hour to walk up. I watched the sun rise, but it was too hazy and polluted to get a decent view. It was still nice up there and I could make out the beginning of the vast desert surrounding the small town. I took my time walking down, watching the troops of langurs and the bright green parrots in the trees.
From Pushkar I went on to Japiur, the state capital. I didn't really want to stay here but it was necessary to break up the journey. I stayed for one night. The rickshaw driver who picked me up from the bus station offered me a day tour to the Amber fort and other places such as the Observatory and Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) for 200 Rp. It was well worth it. Afterwards I walked along one of the many long orange streets. I didn't like Jaipur at all. I think coming from much nicer places in Rajasthan had something to do with not liking it. It was the only place I went to where, in one area, the stench of urine was unbearable as people relieved themselves openly in busy streets.
The next day I took the afternoon train to Agra where I would also be spending one day. My first couple of hours in Agra were a nightmare. I don't normally get angry but I did then for the second time in a few weeks. I asked my rickshaw wallah to take me to Hotel Host. A first he was reluctant to take me, saying it was a Muslim area and that it was unsafe. I ignored his recommendation of the Agra Hotel and he agreed to take me to the Hotel Host. After 10 minutes he had stopped at the Agra Hotel, telling me how nice it was. I was quite annoyed. I got out the rickshaw, expecting him to agree to take me to the other hotel but he was happy to lose business rather than take me to the hotel of my choice. So I walked on dark road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere in a random direction. I eventually found a cycle rickshaw and spent about five minutes explaining to him where I wanted to go, his English wasn't very good and I wasn't sure if he understood. After ten minutes he dropped me off somewhere and I soon realised it was because the Hotel Host was too far to go by rickshaw. So I waited for another rickshaw. Two hours after I arrived at the station I managed to check into the Hotel Host. An OK place run with a view of the Taj from the rooftop. I agreed for the cycle rickshaw wallah to be my transport the following day. Before the Taj we stopped briefly at Himud-ud-Daulah, sometimes known as mini Taj, a similar architectural style. On the way, the rickshaw wallah stopped at a marble shop for me to have a look. Another no-obligation visit for which the wallah gets 10 Rp. I had heard that you shouldn't buy from these shops (in The Book) because you pay extra if you buy anything to cover the cost for paying the wallah, but he only got 10 Rp for it. I didn't think I would but I ended up buying a marble plate. The wallah received this before I had made the purchase so it doesn't make any difference whether you buy or not. Entry to the Taj Mahal was 750 Rp at the time. Extortionate, but you can't not go. Needless to say it was very impressive, unfortunately there was scaffolding down one corner which didn't do much to improve the photos. The inside of the Taj is probably the best thing about it. There's an eerie echo inside, and a howling wind sound. The inlays in the marblework are amazing too, much more intricate than those on the outside. I stayed there for a few hours, waiting for sunset. It was then that I discovered the 'photo scam'. People come up to you suggesting and showing you supposedly good points from which to take photos, then demand money. I walked back to the Hotel Host.
That night I caught the overnight train to my final Indian destination, Varanasi. If I thought the hassle in Agra was bad, I hadn't seen anything yet. Once I told the rickshaw wallahs where I wanted to go (the Vishnu Guest House, - it was highly recommended in The Book) they told me they knew better places. Again they used the same old lines; it's unsafe there, it's a Muslim area. I was happy to check out other places but I didn't like their aggressive attitude. I had difficulty finding a rickshaw that would take me, I thought I'd have to walk. One guy kept asking me, 'do you want a cheap place or a good place?'. I walked away from him too. I eventually found a Nepalese guy who said he would take me, though he insisted it would be full and if it was, he would take me to his place. On the way he told me how Nepalese guys are friendly. Surprisingly, he dropped me off at the Vishnu Guest House as requested. As he had said, it did appear to be full, a guy there confirmed it, but something didn't look right, it was a dump, very basic, not the sort of place that The Book would recommend. Then I saw the name of the ghat this place was at. Although this was the Vishnu Guest House, it wasn't THE Vishnu Guest House. The one I wanted was at Panday ghat. Disgusted, I stormed off, the rickshaw wallah chasing after me, angry himself that I hadn't fallen for the scam. I shouldn't have paid him the full amount but I did. I asked people for directions to Panday ghat, the wallah still following me, pleading. Meandering through the tiny maze of backstreets, I eventually found the real Vishnu Guest House. I took a room there for 150 Rp, but I didn't think much of the place considering it was so highly recommended. The staff were unfriendly, the food was terrible, the service was bad. It seems that a good write up in The Book makes the owners think they no longer have to bother about maintaining standards. And the worst thing was that the entry in The Book for the Vishnu Guest House had not been updated in the new version. I wrote to LP about this, saying that they should not recommend one place so highly above the others, as they will get most of the business, which isn't fair. There are many nice places in Varanasi (I heard from other people) which aren't in the book, but most people, like I did, will head straight for the Vishnu Guest House which is overpriced and unpleasant. The view of the Ganges was good though, that's about it.
If Bundi epitomised Rajasthan, the view at the Ganges at Varanasi, for me, epitomises India as a whole. In the right light and the right amount of mist, the scene by the river can be postcard perfect, and look like it might have done several hundred years ago. Unfortunately, when I was there the morning fog was so thick I couldn't even see the river from the guest house overlookimg it. We went for, a boat ride once it cleared up, but my then, the warm morning light had gone. It's about 40 Rp for an hour's ride on the river. You can go in any direction you want, most people go down to the burning ghats and back up. It's a surreal site. There are about 200 cremations every day and it goes on 24 hours a day. That's for those who can afford it, those who can't just have the body dumped in the river. Luckily, we were there on 14 January which was a festival day. Thousands of people had gathered to bathe in the holy water. It was an amazing site. I originally planned to spend four days here, but after two days I was ready to leave Varanasi and ready to leave India. After six weeks I had had enough. Apart from the river and ghats, I didn't think much of Varanasi. It didn't have the character of the Rajasthan towns. I booked a ticket to Sonauli on the India Nepal border. You can get a ticket right through to Pokhara which is cheaper, but I had heard bad stories about it and it seemed a bit dodgy. Private buses only leave three times a week (if there are enough people booked) and this didn't suit my plans so I took a government bus for 135 Rp. Government buses usually rattle and look like they're going to fall apart and the seats are quite hard, but otherwise aren't too bad. Arrived in Sonauli after 11 hours after a big hold up in Gorakhpur.