Category Archives: India

Days 10, 11, 12 and 13: End of India, Khajuraho and Varanasi!

I’ve fallen a bit behind on my posts so the next couple will be extra long, in an effort to catch-up to my travels!

We had left our brave adventurers (us) in Agra, on our way to Varanasi. We gathered our belongings, waved farewell to the shitty purple orchid Hotel and headed to our train. When we got to the station we had to say goodbye to Kuldeep. He’d been a great driver and I didn’t realise at the time how lucky we were to have met him. We said our farewells (after the mandatory tip) and boarded on our first class train to Khajuraho.

This was the best train experience we had, a first class cabin just for us 2. We could nap through the 8 hour train ride and someone even ran to the station to get us our lunch! Travelling in style.

When we arrived at Khajuraho it was dark and we headed straight to the hotel. This was the best hotel we stayed in during our stay in India, Harmony Hotel, if you’re looking to stay in Khajuraho, this is a great mid range hotel to stay in.

We booked a tuk-tuk for the next day to take us to the temples and we had dinner under the mosquito lamps. We went to bed early and got ready for another day of exploring.

Khajuraho is a great place for a chilled day of sight-seeing. All the temples are easily accessible by tuk-tuk and you can just walk around and see sculptures of voluptuos women and flexible men doing fun things to each other. We had lunch and good espresso at the Raja Cafe, saw the waterfall (not worth it) and then went to see the light and sound show. You can skip the show, unless you want to laugh at some very bad over-the-top voice acting.

We had a train to catch that night so we spent some time lounging in the hotel and then went to the station again. This time we travelled in third class with air conditioning and the experience was very different! We were in a coach with no curtains, stacked three bunks high. I couldn’t clamber in to my middle bunk so I switched places with an Indian girl and climbed in to the top bunk. I wasn’t too sure the chains would hold my sleeping mass so I felt good being the eventual squasher and not the squashed.

We arrived at Varanasi after little sleep and went to the ticket counter to get our tickets to Gorakpur and the Indian border. We ended up spending 2 hours there as there was a change of shift and the new worker had a rather loud disagreement with the lady that was working the morning shift about how she did paperwork… At least that’s what I gathered from 40 minutes of shouting in Hindi and pointing at ledgers and receipts.

We eventually got through that and went looking for our driver, who had left. We were intercepted by a very stoned looking guy that told us to wait there, he’d call the driver to take us to the hotel. This set the tone for our experience with the bunch of dodgy people that operate from the Varanasi Villa Hotel.

We had seen that this hotel was really far away from town and we had tried to change the booking but our travel agent assured us we would have a driver all day long for both days. I turns out there are 2 drivers that work with the hotel but they are shared with all the guests. Everything with this place was not quite what they told you it would be.

For starters the location on Google maps is false. It’s a lot further away from the town, in the middle of a field, you have to walk down a dirt path alley to get to it and there’s no way to leave unless someone comes to pick you up. Once we’d dropped off our bags, we were shepperded to a restaurant which was un by the same group of people. The food was OK but they did try to push the beers a bit too much, which I guess is where they make their real profit.

After dinner, our driver wanted to drop us off at the hotel but we told him we wanted to go in to town so he left and sent the other driver to take us. I had wanted to just wander around the ghats and see some Indian life but that was not to be. We were once again accompanied to see “the ceremony” which is 4 monks doing the evening prayer/blessing to the ganges. It was nice but very crowded and there seemed to be more tourists than locals.

I had hoped to have some free time after the show but alas all my hopes seemed to be shattering that day as we were taken back to the car through the swells of people and traffic and deposited at the hotel for an early night as we had a sunrise boat tour the next day.

Our alarm went off at 5 am and we crawled out of bed to go see the magical Ganges! We were grouped up with 2 other German tourists that were staying at the hotel and taken to the river. The driver offered us tea but we politely declined as we had spent the last 15 minutes talking about the German’s friend who had really bad food poisoning and was being violently sick. We decided to play it safe.

The river tour was a bit of a letdown. We were 12 tourists (many of whom we recognised from last night’s restaurant) taken up and down the river with little ceremony or explanation. It was ok at times but nothing too great. Kind of a perfect metaphor for our time in Varanasi.

We had breakfast at the hotel and after a nap met a Mexican guy who had been also roped into staying at that hotel. He had strangely enough been booked by the same travel agent we had in Delhi. We went to lunch with him to a nice but not too expensive restaurant. We had to insist to our driver not to take us again to that other place. Then we made him take us to Sarnat.

Sarnat is where Buddha first preached his teachings and there are some nice temples and relics. The museum is especially worth it. We had a train to catch that night so we headed back to the hotel and picked up some food along the way.

Our next adventure takes us across the border into Nepal and on to Lumbini, birthplace of Buddha!

Days 8 & 9: Agra, crazy town.

It all started rather normally. A long 8 hour car drive from Pushkar. I wasn’t looking forward to it but it had to be done in order to get to the highlight of our Indian trip: the Taj Mahal! Esther was very excited and I armed myself with patience for the trip.

As predicted, the trip was long and rather uneventful. As we were approaching Agra we saw droves of people dancing into town behind slow moving pickup trucks. The trucks had huge loudspeakers blaring what can only be described as techno-indian music.

Apparently we had arrived during a big festival day and tonight they had the big bonfire party to destroy the effigy of some villain from an old Indian story. I had 4 different people try to explain it to me and that’s all I got. In any case our driver Kuldeep promised to take us there that night.

We had some food and rested a bit in the hotel. This also allowed us to avoid the part of the festival we’re they cover you in coloured dyes as a “blessing”. That’s a blessing with a very good disguise.

We arrived at the festival and cajoled Kuldeep into joining us. As we are foreigners we got to go into all the VIP areas and wander around freely. I took full advantage of this and wandered as freely as I could. I played the good old tourist card and “did not hear” some requests to not advance into certain areas.

As a result I got really close to some of the pantomime acting and a bit too close to the fireworks. I now proudly display a burn on my lip from the impact of a stray rocket!

All this crazineess wrapped up around midnight and we crawled back to our hotel where we had a few hours before we were due to go see the Taj Mahal. Our hotel was in the middle of nowhere and one of the worst places we stayed in India but it was ok that night for a quick few hours of sleep.

I’ll cut to the chase and just say that the Taj Mahal is one of the most stunning things I have seen. There are few times when a well known landmark has managed to take my breath away. Michaelangelo’s David, Mount Fuji and the Taj Mahal. All the ones I can think of. If you ever have a chance, go see it. At dawn. Amazing

After the Taj Mahal, poor Esther was not feeling well so we spent a day resting at the hotel until sunset. When sunset came around we went to the other side of the river to get another view of the Taj Mahal and to bring out Esther’s secret weapon: the T-rex costume! Suffice it to say she gathered quite a crowd while she danced around in the setting sun.

Later, it was time for beers, shisha and conversations as we said goodbye to our driver Kuldeep. We’ll miss him on our journey but it’s somewhat nice to recover some independence. We had a good night with him but when we returned to the hotel it was time for a bit of misery.

There was a big party going on in the lobby with very loud music until midnight and we also still had no Internet in the hotel. To top it all off, after a night of barely sleeping, we had no hot water and the breakfast was sad,  to put it kindly. With this great mindset we prepared to spend 9 hours on a train on our way to our next destination: Kujaraho!

Days 6 & 7: Pushkar, Lassi(ez)-faire society.

The drive from Jaipur to Pushkar is not long but it is uneventful. It goes on for a while and then after sitting around doing nothing for some time, it is over.

This was a good prelude for what life in Pushkar is like. There’s a lot of sitting around in coffeehouses, drinking their Lassi. It’s quite special as you do get a lot of bhang for your buck. We spent a couple of days of relaxing and lazying around which gave me a lot of time to relax and think.

So I think now is a good time to do a little summary of my thoughts after my first week in India. A lot has happened and I think it will also help me process it all. Let’s start with what I’ve enjoyed so far and what’s gone right.

The things I am enjoying the most so far have been the monuments, the local markets and the normal people. Basically it seems I enjoy any moment when I can forget I’m a big white guy walking around India. It’s great to exchange a smile with a random stranger, take a look at a stall and not get dragged in for a tea and a sales pitch.

I also think that getting a car for this first section has been a good idea so far. We’ve seen a lot more than we would have otherwise and kuldeep is a great driver and guide, though a little stubborn at times. Overall I’m very happy we got him.

The last thing that’s gone very well is my camera/technology setup. Everything is working great and I’ve had no issues so far. The Radpower Filehub works great and I don’t think I’ll ever travel without it again.

Things that I could do without: the constant screams of “Hello, where are you from?” to try and sell you things. Random tuk tuks following you for minutes and strangers “just offering to help” when they clearly have an ulterior motive. It gets old very fast. Also Kuldeep has landed us in a couple of these situations and that was not too appreciated. Though we did end up buying something both times so maybe we did appreciate it?

I also could do without the constant shoes on/off parade. I don’t mind a little barefoot walking but these temples are surrounded by grime and dust and I don’t feel like getting my ugly feet dirty 3 times a day. Also having to leave your bags outside seems ridiculous. I feel very paranoid about leaving my camera anywhere.

Lastly here are a few things that have really surprised me:

  • Cows are not so peaceful. We’ve seen our fair share of cows getting annoyed at people and one even went for Esther!
  • People here litter a lot!
  • Road and speed signs are like short pieces of fiction. They describe an ideal world but nobody can live up to their standards.
  • A road will stretch to fit as many vehicles as want to pass by at the same time.
  • If a vendor, guide, tuk tuk driver, etc. tells you a place is closed, it is probably open.

These are a few thoughts and impressions from Pushkar. Next stop Agra and the Taj Mahal!!!

Days 4 and 5: Jaipur!

We knew that it was going to be a long drive to Jaipur from Delhi. Nobody enjoys the prospect of 5 hours in the car but we steeled up for the task and left early in the morning so as to get there by lunch time. The road to Jaipur has 2 clearly defined sections: before you reach Rajastan and after. The roads in Rajastan are a lot better than in the state of Delhi. However, apart from the heat, it was a rather uneventful drive.

To start our Jaipur visit we went to the Amber Fort. This is a beautiful fort, perched high up in the Hills above Jaipur. It has great views of the wall that runs along the top of Jaipur’s hills but is a bit of a climb to get to. You can take an elephant up to the top but we preferred to walk. As it as a festival day, there were hordes of people there to visit the local temple but the fort itself was not extremely crowded.

After visiting the fort we took a drive along the lake to see the water temple and then we went to our hotel. We unpacked and decided we wanted to eat kebabs so we struck out into town in search of a place called “The Kabab Shop”.

Our hotel was a bit outside town so we had to brave the roads and highways at night to get to the food place. Esther is either getting better at walking among traffic or she’s becoming a better actress as I only heard her screaming once, maybe twice, in the whole journey.

The kebabs were delicious and well worth the walk there and back again. Back at our hotel I fought wiith the wifi for a while and then gave up and went to bed.

The next day we also got an early start and went to see Albert’s house. This building was constructed to honour the visit of Prince Albert to India in the late 19th century and is now a museum. As it was World tourism day, all entries were free to museums and attractions so we just walked in.

This building is now a museum where they display anything they can get their hands on. It had weapons, pottery, textiles, paintings, reproductions of Greek statues and even a mummy in the basement! Not sure if it’s worth a visit or not.

After that we went to see the city palace and the jantar mantar.The city Palace is rather impressive and boasts the world’s biggest silver object. 2 jars weighing 345kg each! Apart from that it has some beautiful courtyards with stunning doors and curious guards that are happy for you to take their photo and then whisper “Tip” while standing under the “No Tipping” sign. No tips were given though advice was freely dispensed.

After a brief walk through the blazing heat of the jantar mantar, we joined kuldeep for some traditional Indian thali. Though all vegetarian, it was really nice and having a beer with it also helped a lot.

As the heat was rising we retreated to a coffeeshop for espresso and air conditioning. In there we had another of our inevitable photo sessions with the locals and then ventured into the beauty of the Hawa Mahal.

This place is definitely worth a visit as the architecture is stunning and it is also full of small corners were you can retreat for a bit of peace and quiet. This is a quality not to be underestimated in a city as crazy as Jaipur. After the Hawa Majal we ventured into the local markets in search of trousers for Esther.

This took a long time and a lot of meandering through fun streets filled with the usual assortment of vehicles, people and this time also pigs! We asked Kuldeep later if people ate those pigs and he answered “No, those are street pigs”. Apparently the local fauna includes stray pigs.

Once the shopping was done, we got nicely lost in the side streets heading to the city palace and were accosted by hordes of children screaming “Photo!!!” and “Chewing Gum!!”. We took their photo, gave them a print and some gum and they were gone in a second. Leaving behind a crying 1 year old toddler that we were not very sure what to do with. Luckily an adult was on hand to take the baby and we scampered away down a side street that seemed to lead to where we wanted to go.

Back in the safety of our car, we headed to the Tiger fort to see the sunset. This fort is really high up in the hills and you would need some sort of vehicle to get here. It is most definitely worth it. Not only is the fort beautiful but also the views are spectacular. I’d also recommend paying the 200 rupee fee to get into the opa restaurant to see the sunset. You get a free drink with the entrance and the views are hard to beat.

As the day came to a close we headed back to Jaipur and asked Kuldeep to drop us close to the kebab place for dinner. “Close” was 2 kms away and we had quite a walk to the kebab shop and then to the hotel. In the end we got there safely after a bit more screaming from Esther. She now uses the screaming therapeutically to give her strength. It is mutating into half scream, half roar.

We fought with the Internet a bit, and then slept peacefully until the next day.

Day 3: Rest day, relatively speaking…

So, today was supposed to be a day of rest. We had been told that everything worth seeing was closed on Mondays in Delhi so we had decided to take the day slowly, maybe go out for a stroll but generally just have lazy day. Sometimes the best laid plans just don’t stick.

The beginning of the day was as planned. Woke up late, had another cold shower, a slow breakfast and we left the hotel by 10:30 or so, on our way to the Gurudwara Sikh temple. The heat started to build and we had to walk along some main roads, avoiding tuk tuks, husslers, cars, more husslers and the occasional suicidal bicycle. We ended up taking refuge in a cathedral as it was cool in there and nobody followed us in.

We then made it to the Gurudwara and once again had to remove our shoes. I’m not the biggest fan of removing my shoes and exposing my big ugly feet but it seems like you have to do that everywhere here. At least this place was clean and fresh. It was rather beautiful as well.

After there, our plan was to head to Jantar Mantar, an 18th century building designed to measure the movement of the stars. Once we got there and saw there was no shade anywhere, we took a detour to a nearby air conditioned coffee shop. By this time I looked like I had taken part in a wet t-shirt competition and lost with great embarrassment.

We gave up on the sunny Jantar Mantar and went in search of food. We had a hankering for western food so we ended up in Pizza hut! It’s amazing how much they can do with only chicken. Chicken Salami, chicken meatballs, chicken suasage, chicken tikka, and many more Instead of the meat lover’s pizza it was literally called the chicken lover’s pizza. I quickly professed my avian love and scoffed down all that fowl goodness.

After pizza we both agreed that the Jantar Mantar was beyond our capacity so we set out in search of a local well called Agrasen ki baoli. It was kind of hidden down a pathway but well worth the find.

It was quiet and beautiful but so not worth the 108 steps to get to the bottom. We spent a good hour there just chilling and recuperating.

Once our batteries were full we hatched our final plan of the day: do some shopping for toiletries and then retreat to the hotel. It all seemed to be going off without a hitch until our map showed us there was a park in the middle of the area we were walking through.

We quickly ditched the plan and headed for the park. It was all for naught as the park was closed but we did manage to get even hotter and see more people standing around markets, apparently not buying anything. We went back to the original plan, got some soap and gel as well as some snacks and headed for the hotel. This was the toughest stretch. The road offered no shade and it was way too hot for two people accustomed to Irish weather.

After taking a wrong turn or two, stopping for coffee, avoiding more tuk turk’s, husslers, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, acrobatic children and other dangers of the city, we finally arrived at the hotel! Our “day of rest” consisted of around 9kms walking in 36 degree heat. I’m glad we don’t take too many days off!

Day 2: Delhicious

After waking from our self-induced coma of 12 hours, we steeled ourselves for another day of intense sightseeing. Our morning shower was cold (not by choice) and our breakfast was simple (kind of by choice). We met Kuldeep at 10 am and off we went into the streets of Delhi.

We seem to have the local gathering spot for children just outside our hotel and there were already a dozen of them running amok when we left in the morning. I suspect this is because out street is the only one with no tarmac and therefore has almost no traffic.

Our first stop in the morning was the famous red fort. This place is huge! The towering walls were impressive and as we had to walk around a big part of it to get to the entrance, we got a good image of what it might be like to approach this imposing fortress as an invader. Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t want to be one.

The complex on the inside was also very beautiful. It reminded me of parts of Iran with the waterways and decorations. It is very clear to see how the Mogul rulers of India were inspired by Persian styles.

After the red fort, we ventured into the craziness of the Sunday bazaar. It was extremely packed and we were accosted on all sides by beggars, tuk tuk drivers, guides and other tourist vultures. We were also somewhat paranoid about our belongings so we sped through (relatively speaking) on our way to our lunch spot, Karim’s.

Karim’s is a little restaurant off a side road near the Jamal Masjid mosque. It is a great place to eat mutton and after 3 days of only chicken, I could do with the change.

Once our stomachs were full, we moved on to the Jamal Masjid mosque. We paid the tourist tax and got covered in a piece of cloth and charged for it too. Apart from that little inconvenience, the mosque is well worth a visit. It’s a great place to sit around and meet some locals. You will also get to take a lot of selfies with a lot of people. This place is almost as bad as China!

After a while at the mosque it was time to brave the bazaar again to go in search of our car. This was a crazy walk. We dodged people, cars, tuk tuks, motorcycles, mud and dogs just to get to the main road. I almost lost Esther at a certain point but we made it through in the end. Crossing the road was fun and Esther is actually crossing with almost no screaming by now!

Once we got to the car, we went to the Shrine of Mahatma Ghandi which was not that great and then on to the best sight of the day: Humayun’s tomb!

If you could only see one thing in Delhi, I’d recommend this place. It served as a template for the Taj Mahal and is absolutely stunning. I’d recommending coming here and spending a long while walking around and enjoying the various mausoleums. I’d also recommend carrying some spare water as there are no vendors around and it can get rather hot. Also, avoid friendly security guards offering to explain what the monuments are. They are, once again, just after your money and really have very little to offer when it comes to actual information.

To round off the day we did a little clothes shopping and ate some delicious Indian food at a restaurant near the hotel. Then a good night’s sleep to get ready for day 3!