Thursday, 29 January 2009

Pushkar to Darjeeling

We got a (chaotic) night bus from Pushkar to Agra, arriving at 5.30am. There was some sort of mix up with our ticket which meant that we ended up in a single berth sleeper for 9 hours with all of our luggage! We dropped our bags at the left luggage office at the station and headed straight to the Taj Mahal for sunrise. Even though its so visited and we felt almost obliged to go, the Taj was breathtaking and well worth the visit. The rest of Agra didn't have much to offer us, it was pretty filfthy and polluted!

That night we got a night train to Varanasi. We stayed here 4 nights. It was a very interesting city, still very busy but built along the Ganges. There are ghats all the way along that pilgrims come to and bathe at, the Ganges water is thought to be very holy, even if it is heavily polluted, they still use it for everything, including drinking, laundry, scattering ashes (sometimes whole bodies) and washing buffaloes! This makes the ghats really interesting to wander and to watch the goings on, especially early in the morning with sunrise. You can really feel how spiritual the place is, even as an outsider. It is definitely one of the more relaxing place we have visited in India. There was a ceremony with lights and music every evening and one evening we took a boat down the river at sunset and lit lotus flowers on the river (trying not to touch any water!). We stayed slightly longer than planned because Alice got sick, but it only lasted 24 hours.

We got a night train from Varanasi to Siliguri in the West Bengal Hills. The train was delayed by 4 hours before we got on it, and we arrived into Siliguri 6 hours later than scheduled. We were pretty knackered after 24 hours of travelling but found a jeep with some Canadians we had been travelling with up to Darjeeling (3 hours away). Due to our train being delayed this meant we didn't arrive in Darjeeling until 11pm and by this time everything was shut. Luckily our jeep driver had a friend with a hotel which turned out to be pretty nice, with wood lined rooms and balcony and hot shower (when requested) for 2.50 each which isnt too bad.

Darjeeling felt like another country with much cooler (often very cold!) weather and no autorickshaws and the people look very different (lots are from Tibet and Nepal) and are much friendlier and give you much less hassle than in all other parts of India we have visited. It has also been very nice to be up in the mountains (Darjeeling is at 2300m) even if clouds obscure most of the views, and to be in the home of tea. This morning we even got up at 4.30 am to get a taxi with an Aussie guy up to Tiger Hill where you can watch the sunrise from a high point looking out over the Himalayas, including Everest and Khanchenjunga, the 3rd highest peak in the world. Unfortunately it was very cloudy but we did manage to see the very top of Khanchenjunga above the clouds, and may have seen Everest but it was probably just a big cloud. It's been nice to explore Darjeeling. The tea is good, we wandered through a plantation, although it wasn't picking season. The food is quite different here but again very tasty!

We head to Nepal tomorrow, taking various jeeps and buses (maybe even a ferry due to bridge damage) to cross the border and get to Kathmandu. It will probably be quite a long journey and Nepal night buses don't have the best reputation for safety but hopefully it will all be worth it!

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Udaipur to Pushkar

We got a night bus from Udaipur to Jodhpur. The bus was an experience! We had a sleeping compartment so we were being thrown around with all our luggage at every pothole (of which there are many on Indian roads!). We got chucked off the bus at 4.45 am in Jodhpur with nowhere booked to stay and 4 tuk tuk drivers shouting at us to give us a ride. So we got dropped off at the clock tower and then walked through the dark, eery streets, empty except for the stray dogs and cows looking for a suitably cheap hotel. Unsurprisingly everywhere was shut! after about an hour we had managed to find our way into the old town and found a hotel that was letting people out so we were able to get in.

Jodhpur wasn't as touristy as we had expected, the guest house owner told us that they were suffering since the mumbai attacks. We had one night in Jodhpur, it was an interesting place to explore with vibrant markets and an impressive fort, but we (mainly Alice!) weren't feeling too great! We got a night train out of Jodhpur to Jaisalmer - the desert! We were picked up from the station by the hotel people and crammed into a jeep. It wasn't very big and there were 10 passengers, one was even hanging off the back. Our luggage was thrown on the roof. After a good sleep we were persuaded to take a camel safari. We had originally decided to wait until Bikaner to do this, but the half day trek running from our hotel that afternoon sounded like exactly what we wanted.

We were driven out to the desert in a jeep and stopped at a couple of local shools and villages on the way. The benefit of being in the jeep was that you could get far away from all the touristy places. We were dropped off by some camels (we were with an Aussie couple and a Dutch girl as well) and we rode for an hour and a half through the desert scrubs and dunes. It was fun but a bit bumpy and neither of us were envious of the people who had booked 7 days on a camel trek! We stopped at some secuded dunes for sunset. It was very peaceful and beautiful, and nice to be away from other people! we had dinner cooked for us and we ate round a camp fire before we were driven back to the hotel. It was a lovely evening.

The next day we explored Jaisalmer and its fort before heading on another night train to Bikaner, also in the desert but further north. The train was freezing, the desert was hot in the day but very cold at night. We stayed in a very nice hotel in Bikaner. On the first day we checked out the town and the old city and ate some good and different street food (which may have been the cause of our illness a couple of days later - but it tasted good!). The next day we followed Eddie's wishes and took a bus 30km to Karni Mata temple, famous because it is full of rats. They are looked after and encouraged as it is thought that a God called Yama had turned the storytellers into rats. Unfortunately, as it was a temple, you still had to take your shoes off, and walk amidst the rats and their droppings. and there were a lot of rats! luckily, admission was free. We got the bus back and went to the fort in Bikaner, and had a yummy dinner at a streetside restaurant.

We got another night train from Bikaner to Jaipur. We then got a train (3 hours) from Jaipur to Ajmer and got a local (very crowded) bus to Pushkar, a Hindu holy pilgrim town. By this time the food we had eaten had caught up with us (in particular Eddie!) and we ended up staying here for 4 nights, twice as long as we had planned. The town is fairly peaceful though, and tuk tuk free! Its in the mountains so the surroundings are beautiful. On the 2nd day we climbed a big hill/ mountain to visit a temple. We nearly didn't make it up due to a particularly vicious monkey and when we did make it up we didn't stay long due to Eddie's nausea. The next couple of days were fairly chilled out while we had some recovery time, but we think we are over the worst now. We get a night bus to Agra tomorrow to see the Taj Mahal and then a night train on to Varanasi.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Mumbai to Udaipur

We've been in India for a week now and it still seems as chaotic as when we first landed. We were jammy enough to get our flight upgraded twice so we were flying business class with our club world bed seats, complimentary champagne, wine, smoothies, unlimited use of the club world kitchen, and 3 course meal etc. Not a bad way to start and at least we weren't too sleepy when we arrived in Mumbai.

Mumbai was a great way to start in India. It was much hotter than we thought it would be in Winter - close to 30 degrees. We had a nice but basic hotel 2 minutes from the Taj Mahal palace, where the terrorists attacked, it is a very nice building but now surrounded by armed police and still not fully open. Unfortunately it was still popular enough not to be offering rooms out cheaply! We had a few days wondering around and exploring the city. Can't believe how good the food is here - and so cheap too. Mumbai started to get a bit tiring as its such a big city and wherever you walked you were constantly being hassled by street sellers and followed by beggars (but spose this is just part of Indian life, especially in tourist areas). Highlights of Mumbai were: walking along Chowpatty beach at sunset, banganga(?!) tank a pedestrian area with temples and very few tourists, very serene!, elephanta island which we got a boat out too and then walked around caves with carved pillars and statues. And of course the food.

From Mumbai we got a night train to Ahmedabad. There weren't any seats available in any of the air conditioned coaches so we had sleeper class tickets which was good because you get to travel with just locals and the Indian train service is a very interesting experience. Ahmedabad wasn't the nicest of places! We had to book into a really cheap hotel in order to leave our bags somewhere for the day. It was pretty horrible, Alice would have cried if we had to stay there overnight! One good part of Ahmedabad was Ghandi's ashram, a really interesting place, Ed's got a new hero! As one of the men sitting outside told us: there's nothing to see in Ahmedabad!

We got a night train out of Ahmedabad to Udaipur. A guy on the train told us it was Asia's third most beautiful city. Don't know if that is true but if it is we can understand why. There's a lake with a couple of islands with palaces (1 of which has been turned into a luxury hotel where part of Octopussy was filmed - Udaipur's claim to fame!) in it, and lots of palaces and temples throughout the city. It is a lot more relaxing than Mumbai or Ahmedabad but it is very touristy, but only really in the central area. We went for a walk to look for a local place to eat away from all the tourists. It took some finding through the narrow streets with street names all in Hindi and narrowly avoiding being hit by tuk tuks and mopeds, but the food was really good. We had thali which is an Indian all you can eat meal, for 70 pence!

We head to Jodhpur by night bus tomorrow (sadly no trains do this route!).