A Travellerspoint blog

Cairo - Pyramids and Sheesha Pipes

Egypt

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I'll skip ahead just a little and start with this photo...

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I saw the Pyramids of Giza!!

Ok, back to the beginning... After so many years of dreaming about it, I am finally in the land of the pharaohs.

During my first evening in Cairo, I sat alone on the hotel's roof top lounge and just enjoyed the seranading calls to prayer echoing from the mosque minarets all around me. I must admit, my eyes welled up a little as it reminded of where I was and how long I'd waited to be here. Luckily Egypt is a sandy and dusty type of place because the old "just got some dust in my eyes" excuse might come in quite handy. For the first day or two, I really couldn't believe I was actually in Egypt... now I must... resist... the urge... for an... "I'm in de-Nile" joke, aargh! Darn it, too late!

I chose to stay in the center of Islamic Cairo which is surrounded by grand mosques and souqs (markets) intertwined with residential areas. What first struck me about Cairo was that almost every building has the same monochromatic dark tan colour. It's hard to tell if this is the colour of the building materials or whether it is just a thick layer of dust coating every surface. Something else I noticed immediately was that every third or fourth building has a top floor which looks either crumbling or half finished but with no signs of any building work going on. It looks like the city was hit by a large earthquake, then everybody started rebuilding but couldn't complete it because the money had ran out.

I spent several hours walking around the old, yet somewhat touristy, suburb of Khan al-Khalili. The area is littered with souqs selling tacky souvenirs such as stuffed toy camels, alabaster pyramids and skimpy belly dancing costumes. Alongside these souvenir stores are the more traditional fabric, spice, silver and gold merchants which give the place a little more respectability. There are also plenty of cafes, some of them entirely populated by local men and others filled mostly by tourists who are perhaps there for their first taste of sheesha (flavoured tabacco water pipe).

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The Mosque of Sayidna Al-Hussein on the edge of Khan al-Khalili in Islamic Cairo

I went inside the great Al-Azhar Mosque and spent a while walking around and taking a few photos. I then took advantage of the quiet atmosphere and sat down outside on the long carpets lining the edges of the central courtyard. There, next to rows of men reading the Qur'an, I sat and read my Lonely Planet (they had their holy book and I had mine).

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The great Al-Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo

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Women walking around inside Al-Azhar mosque

Although the area was busy during the day, at night it really came alive. Buzzing crowds of both young and old people, locals and tourists, swarmed around visiting the mosques, shopping, fending off touts or just sitting in cafes chatting with friends. On the more serious and less touristy spots, gangs of serious looking Egyptian men sat around rickety tables in dimly-lit, no-frills cafes playing backgammon, smoking sheesha and drinking tea. With my night-owl tendencies, I knew straight away that Egypt was going to be my kind of place.

There was no doubt about it, I had arrived in the Middle East and it was absolutely fantastic. Sure, the traffic was still insane, the touts were out in force and the language was completely foreign, but it somehow felt more managable than China or India. I was quite surprised that while I walked around (without my "touristy" satchel), I attracted virtually no stares and most touts left me alone. Perhaps I'll be able to blend in a little better in Egypt - probably thanks to the remnants of my Goa-induced tan.

My hotel room was quite shabby and not nearly as clean as it ought to have been, even for a budget hotel. Within minutes of entering, I spotted a medium sized cockroach surveying the walls, there was a dark and irrecognizable dried-up substance splattered on one of the walls and on a hook behind the bathroom door, there hung an old and slightly stained woman's bathing suit - though it could also have been super-sized underwear, I didn't investigate further. Believe it or not, I somehow didn't care too much about any of this. I think after travelling for this long, I've grown quite tolerant of such things and I was just glad I had somewhere where I could put my pack down as well as sit and cool off under a wobbly ceiling fan.

The next day I went to the Cairo Museum with Halle whom I'd met at the hotel the previous night. Halle is from the US and was taking a short break from her work in Rawanda for an NGO. The museum was amazing and nowhere near as confusing or disorganised as I had read it would be. Photography was strictly forbidden inside so it's hard to describe; but I can say that it was one of the best museums I have ever been to, at least in terms of its contents. Tutankhamun's treasures were of course amazing and they weren't limited to the famous golden death mask, but also his two golden sarcophagi and the large gilded wooden shrines which encased them by fitting each one inside the other. Just as facinating were some black and white photos of these items which were taken as they were found in the tomb chambers back in 1922. By pure chance I had read in the news the day before that DNA of the malaria parasite had been found in samples of Tutankhamun's mummy which means he had most probably died from malaria and not just complications from a severely broken leg as it was previously believed - I felt pretty darn smug when I overheard one of the uninformed tour guides still telling the old the broken leg tale - I felt like leaning over and saying, "He's lying". Another favorite part of mine in the museum was the Animal Mummy room which housed a collection of dusty mummies of crocodiles, cats, dogs, rams, baboons and jackals. I do slightly regret not going in to the Royal Mummy room, but the extra price seemed steep at the time (100 EGP) and visiting the museum a second time was still not out of the question.

Halle was leaving that evening for Sharm El-Sheikh on the Sinai peninsula, but we still had enough time after visiting the museum for a coffee and my first taste of sheesha in a small cafe in Khan al-Khalili. I chose apple flavour sheesha and I have to admit, I now see what all the fuss is about because I quite liked it. It tastes nothing like tabacco and the flavoursome water-cooled smoke not only smells nice, it also almost feels soothing to the lungs (don't worry, I realise in reality it's hardly lung soothing).

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Halle smoking sheesha with me at cafe in Khan al-Khalili

The next day I met Sarah and Sarah - convenient names for someone like me who usually forgets them before the handshake is even over. They are both teachers from the New York (though one of them is currently teaching English in London) and they were in Egypt for a short trip during their holidays. After chatting for a while, we agreed to visit the Pyramids of Giza together the next day. That same evening the hotel's owner invited all of his guests for a party on the hotel's roof top to celebrate his birthday. It turned out to be quite a treat not only because there was lots of free food, including birthday cake, but he'd also organised a traditional Sufi band and dancer to come along and perform. The music and the dancing was quite entrancing and we were quite lucky that we got to see it. The Sufi dancer was basically spinning constantly for about 30 to 40 minutes; I couldn't believe how long he was able to sustain it. The dance reminded me a little of the amazing Whirling Dervishes from Turkey which I really hope to see one day. There was quite a nice mood the whole night with everyone eating, clapping and eventually dancing (yes even me and there wasn't even any alcohol at this party).

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Sufi band and dancer performance at hotel in Cairo

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Some nice light effects caused by the Sufi dancer

Early the next morning we set off on our journey to see the pyramids. We decided to hire a car for the day which would not only take us to Giza, but also Saqqara which has several other ancient monuments and is only about 20 kms south of Giza. I still remember the very first peek we got of the pyramids rising out of the desert (or more precisely, out of the buildings) as we drove down the highway. I remember thinking how incredible it was that this was the same view seen by hundreds of millions of people for over four and a half millenia, albeit with very different foregrounds.

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My first glace at the Pyramids of Giza

We finally arrived at the front gates of the pyramids, but not before the driver took us for a detour to a store offering us the hire of a horse or camel for the day. We all politely declined and we departed amicably, I guess you can't blame people for trying to make a living. Once we got our tickets, we passed through the usual metal detector and x-ray machines as we entered the compound in front of the Sphinx. This is where the real hassles started, firstly with a couple of agressive camel touts, one of them even saying, "Alright, F#@k off!" to me after I politely declined. Then it was a group of young Egyptian men pleading and harassing Sarah & Sarah for a photo with them. The young guys, who we unfortunately bumped into again a couple more times along the way, just wouldn't take no for an answer. Luckily they had a friend with them who eventually saw sense and pulled the rest of them away. All of this and we hadn't even walked past the Sphinx yet! Fortunately, the rest of our walk the pyramids was much more relaxed. We were able to forget these hassles and just gaze at the amazing ancient structures with only a few camel touts here and there which were relatively easy to get rid of. I'll skip the historical commentary and just get on with the photos...

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The Shinx in front of the pyramids of Menkaure and Khafre

We made our way anti-clockwise around all three pyramids, starting with the Great Pyramid of Khufu, then the Pyramid of Khafre and finally the smaller Pyramid of Menkaure.

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The Great Pyramid of Khufu

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Up close to the pyramid of Khufu - yes, I actually touched it!

I lost count of all the "jump" and "walking like an Egyptian" photos we took along the way, but it was hilarious and we provided quite a lot of amusement to some of the local and tourist onlookers.

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Yes, we just had to do it... several times!

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At least I think I have the right shaped head for this pose

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Standing in front of the Pyramid of Menkaure with Khafre's in the background - Wow!

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The Pyramid of Khafre - It's the second largest, though because it sits on higher ground, it looks taller than the Great Pyrmaid of Khufu - it's probably my favorite one because of the relatively intact cap

In and around the pyrmaids there are several other monuments like funerary temples and some smaller Queens' pyramids

We were almost on our own by the time we reached Menkaure's pyramid so it was absolutely brilliant. At that point it felt just like how I'd always imagined the pyramids to be like, quiet and with the illusion that they are located in the middle of the desert.

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The view in between the Queens' pyramids next to Menkaure's Pyramid

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Nice shot of a lone camel on top of distant plateu

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Sarah looking at the view from near Menkaure's funerary temple - Ok, so I asked her to pose like that, nobody who's already wearing sunglasses and a hat would voluntarily try to block the sun with their hand

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Us at the end of our loop at Khafre's Valley Temple near the Sphinx

We met up with our driver outside the gates and set off on our way to Saqaara. I must say, in New Zealand the thought of passing another car while other cars are coming the other way would have sent me into a rage, but here (and also in India and China) everyone does it all of the time and I was only half terrified. What's worse is that in Egypt they drive on the right hand side and I was sitting in the front passenger's seat; so to me it felt like I was in the driver's seat but with absolutely no control of the car whatsoever. I think the driver might have noticed as I repeatedly pressed my foot down on the floor of the car where the brake would usually be, though this didn't cause him slow down at all.

We only had a couple of hours to spend at Saqqara because they closed at 4 pm (way too early in my opinion) so we ended up walking around the area quite hastily. The most famous monument at this site is the Step Pyramid of Zoser, which is the oldest pyramid and in fact the supposed to be oldest stone monument in the world. It was in the process of being restored which meant that it was partly surrounded by scafolding. This has been a recurring theme in my travels, the views of a lot of famous buildings and monuments have been shrowded by ugly scafolding which don't make for very good photos.

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The Step Pyramid of Zoser, the oldest stone monument in the world

As we walked past the front of the pyramid, an eager guard waved us towards him and while looking around pretending what he was doing was "against the rules", guided us through the barriers and around the back of the Step Pyramid. We knew some backsheesh (tip/bribe) would be demanded eventually but we were curious so we followed him. He pointed to some small holes on the rock wall of a small building attached to the base of the pyramid. Looking through the hole, you were confronted with the face of a statue staring back at you. This was supposedly a statue of Zoser and later I learned it was common to place a statue of the king in a Seradab (basement) attached to the pyramid that he had been buried in.

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The statue of Zoser in the Step Pyramid's Seradab

From Zoser's Funerary Temple Complex surrounding the pyramid you could see several clusters of pyramids, some nearby and others in the far distance. This area was obviously the true birthplace of Egyptian pyramids and one vast necropolis.

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The distant Bent, Red and Black Pyramids of Dahshur as seen from Zoser's Funerary Temple Complex

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A man and his donkey from Zoser's Funerary Temple Complex

There were dozens of tombs and monuments in the area but we were running out of time so a quick check of our LP revealed that our best bet was to visit the supposedly impressive Mastaba of Ti only a short distance from the Step Pyramid (or so we thought). So we headed out on foot through the desert using the small map in the LP and the small guard post huts on top of some of the hills to guide us.

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Camels in the deserts of Saqqara

We ended up walking for some time through the desert until we reached what we thought was the correct spot marked by a nearby guard post. A man came out of the hut and after we mentioned, "Mastaba of Ti", he unfortunately pointed to a different hill about 1 kilometer away. By then it was nearly 4 pm and there was no way we could have made it there and back before the site closed so we had to turn back.

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Sarah walking up ahead through the desert at Saqqara in our vain attempts to find Mastaba of Ti

We took a slightly different (and faster) route towards the carpark and even though it was only about 5 minutes after 4 pm, we spotted two trucks in the distance full of police men who were howling at us trying to get us to hurry up and get back to the entrance. We had just been walking around in the desert for a couple of hours so not even the sight of them waving guns in the air made us walk any faster, I thought, "What are they going to do, shoot us for being late?". We met our driver near the gang of over zelous police men and even he mentioned that he'd been looking for us. It was amazing how little we cared even though everyone around us was having heart attacks. They could have fired warning shots over our heads and I would have still been smiling - perhaps it was the heat and the lack of food.

When we finally made it back to the hotel it was getting dark and my new companions were also leaving Cairo that evening, but we had enough time for some Koshary and a quick trip to a cafe for some tea and Sheesha.

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My Koshary - it is supposedly Egypt's national dish. It is entirely vegetarian and consists mostly of rice, lentils, pasta with a tomato-cinnamon sauce. It was delicious and nutrituous

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Sarah smoking Sheesha in cafe near Al-Azhar Mosque

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Me smoking Sheesha

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The cafe in a souq near Al-Azhar Mosque

And that was that for Cairo, from then on, I'd be heading south up the Nile to do some serious ancient site explorations.

Lastly, anyone who's read my India blogs might remember the "child clinging to leg" incident in Delhi; well I now have a photo of the event thanks to Roberta who was alert enough to capture the moment. It's now included in my blog entry: "Delhi - What Planet Am I On?"

Posted by joshuag 02:49 Archived in Egypt Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Mumbai - Slumin' It in Bombay

India

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The title of this blog is a little deceiving, I didn't slum it at all in Mumbai. In fact I chose Mumbai as the place for my trip's first splurge. I stayed in a mid-range hotel in the Fort area of South Mumbai. It was the kind of place where there's always a man standing by the elevator ready to open the doors for you and then he rides up with you while doing all the work of pushing the floor buttons (my fingers were a little tired from all the travelling). I even had my grubby 10 kg backpack carried to my room by a helpful porter. There was no holding back on the room service either. At the push of a button (literally), breakfast, dinner and several rounds of fresh lime and sodas were promptly delivered to my room by eager and frieldly staff. Needless to say, I spent a lot on tips at this hotel. It was quite a treat to have a spotless bathroom with a proper shower that wasn't positioned over the toilet, though admittedly the opposite does have its advantages in terms of time saving. Fresh towels were brought up to my room every day and my bed was made for me by the time I returned from my daily outings. The majority of tourists probably take these kinds of things for granted, but for me who has stayed in grubby hostels and budget hotels for more than three months, it was quite a novelty.

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My delicious Tandoori Chicken Tikka in my comfy hotel room, you gotta love room service - I also acquired quite a taste for fresh lime and sodas while in India, very refreshing

Mumbai is definitely different to the rest of India, far more cosmopolitan, the streets are much cleaner and scenes of extreme poverty seem to have been confined to the slum areas. People walk around wearing suits and carrying briefcases while talking on their cell phones. It's obvious there's more money going around here and this is reflected in the cost of living. Hotel and food prices were easily double those in the other places I'd visited in India. Nevertheless, if I had to live in India, Mumbai would be my first choice ...ok perhaps it would be my second choice after Agonda in Goa, but only if I didn't have to work because I wouldn't make a very good taxi driver or sunglasses salesman.

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The refreshingly clean sidewalks of Mumbai

Mumbai is also not really the place for exciting sightseeing unless you are really into colonial style architecture. I think it's also the type of place better enjoyed if you are with other people because it has a more lively bar, club and restaurant scene. I don't have much of a problem going to a bar by myself during the day, especially if they serve food, but at night I'd feel like a seedy tourist out scoping for some action. So I didn't really do much in Mumbai except walk around aimlessly in between plenty of rest, hence this blog is more about photos and my thoughts about India in general.

On day one I spent a few hours walking around the Fort area in south Mumbai. There I looked for a Lonely Planet (LP) for my next destination and even though almost every store I went to had stacks of LPs, the one I was looking for was extremely elusive. I must have gone to over a dozen bookstores and countless other smaller bookstands in the book markets looking for it. The only reason I didn't give up was because there was a whole cluster of bookstores in the area and I kept thinking, "What if it is in that one, but I miss out because I gave up too soon?". I should have probably explained to the confused looking man in the store where I finally found it why I was so happy before I shook his hand with so much gratitude. In one of the small markets I also bought a small pair of hair clippers, well actually it was a beard trimmer but it does the same job. I got it because I'm still shaving my head with a razor and if I let my hair grow for more than three or four days, it becomes so long that I have to spend about an hour doing it and I easily wear out one of my precious 3-bladed razors.

During my walk, I came across the Victoria Terminus Railway station and the Main Post office which are two huge and quite impressive colonial style buildings.

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The Victoria Terminus railway station (aka Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or CST)

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The main post office in Mumbai, like all other impressive buildings in Mumbai, it was hidden behind a row of very large trees

The next day I visited the suburb of Colaba which is very popular with tourists. I felt obliged to visit the Gateway of India as well as Colaba Causeway which is the main drag in the area and has the highest concentration of tourists walking around doing shopping. On the way to Colaba, I walked past Oval Maidan, a huge grassy area in front of the High Court and the University of Mumbai. There were so many cricket games in progress all next to eachother that it was hard to tell where one game ended and the others begun.

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One of the cricket games in progress at Oval Maidan - the large building on the left in the background is the University of Mumbai

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The Gateway of India in Mumbai

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The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, it was still being touched up after the terror attacks of Novermber 2008

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Colourful fruit stand in Colaba Causeway, for some strange reason I liked the fact that the kiwi fruit (bottom right) appeared to be quite popular

I went for a quick bite and a beer in Leopold's Cafe which has been around since 1871 and is one of the most popular tourist hang outs in Mumbai. This is reflected by the armed guards at the doors who checked everyone's bags before entering. In retrospect, this is the type of place I should have avoided because it would be a prime target for terrorists. Not as paranoid as it sounds considering that four days later a German Bakery in Pune 50 kms east of Mumbai, which was also very popular with tourists, was the target of a terrorist bombing which killed 9 and injured 45. I met a German guy at Leopold's who was taking a break from the two girls he was travelling with. His English wasn't very good so the converstation was quite basic but at the same time quite entertaining (think of an Arnold Schwarzenegger type accent).

As I walked out of Leopold's, I ran into boy-Sam whom I'd met at the in Delhi. That's makes it three people from the hostel in Delhi that I've managed to meet up with again in India (I forgot to mention in my Jaipur blog that by pure chance I'd run into Roberta at the hotel I was staying at, but that was only a brief encounter because I was just leaving and she had just arrived). Sam was hanging out with a fellow Brit he'd met in Rajasthan. We ended up going for a quick tour around the Hight Court (supposedly a bit of a tourist attraction) but most of the day's proceedings were over by then and it turned out to be a little bit boring. The only court we saw in session had about ten people sitting around a table looking very angry, we figured it was a divorce hearing. We then hung out at Marine Drive which is a long stretch of road with a wide promenade right next to the waterfront. It's really popular with the locals who go there to sit, chat and watch the sunset. We ended the night with dinner in a restaurant that was really popular with the locals and it was easy to see why, the food was delicious and a real bargain by Mumbai's standards.

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Looking south down Marine Drive at sunset, that's Sam's head poking out on the left of the frame

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Looking north up Marine Drive after sunset, the long promenade was lined from end to end with what must have been thousands of people

On my last day in Mumbai (hence also my last day in India), I took a walk to Chowpatty beach, the only beach in Mumbai. I don't quite know why I did this in the middle of the day under a baking hot sun with no hint shade in sight, especially since there was no hope for a rewarding swim at the end since the sea water around Mumbai is toxic. Actually, by the end I was sweating so much, it looked like I had been for a swim in the ocean. It turned out to be the saddest looking beach I've ever seen. Part of it looked like any normal beach, except there were only a handful of really brave kids out swimming in the waves. Sadly the rest of the beach was strewn with washed up garbage.

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Some people bravely swimming in the toxic waters of Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai

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Turn your head to the right from the scene in the previous photo and you see this rather depressing sight - piles and piles of washed up garbage. Even if I liked seafood, I wouldn't be having any in Mumbai

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A young couple enjoying the view from the north side of Marine Drive near Chowpatty beach

So that was it for Mumbai and India, I was leaving the next day at 6 am so I decided to spend the night at the airport. The waiting lounges had relatively comfortable seats but I was too paranoid to go to sleep, mainly because I was afraid of not waking up in time for my flight and I have grown almost immune to my alarm clock.

So, what did I think of India?

I have to admit, part of the reason I went to India was because I knew it would be a challenge and surviving it would be like earning my stripes as a backpacker. Without a doubt it was challenging and nothing was really easy, especially getting from one place to another, but I have to say I ended up liking it for lots of reasons I couldn't have predicted. First of all, I was awe-struck by the out-of-this-world surroundings both in the cities and the tourist attractions. Initially the filthy crowded streets appear to be so hostile that when you finally get into the thick of things and you realise you're actually quite safe, the relief turns into pure enjoyment. Putting all the garbage to one side (figuratively speaking) I actually started to enjoy the chaos and bustle of the towns and cities. Highlights would have to be Delhi (believe it or not), the Taj Mahal, Udaipur and of course the moon lit turtle hatchings at the beach in Agonda.

The people in India have a sort of innocence about them which is really quite nice. I met so many friendly people there and some of the random things some of them said to me had me walking around with a silly grin on my face. Any visitor to India would immediately notice that best friends (guys) of all ages like to sit or walk down the street with their arms around eachother, sometimes even holding hands. It's kind of sweet in a way because it reminds you of what little kids are like in the west before they are corrupted by prejudices and social stigmas. The ironic thing is that homosexuality is supposedly still illegal in India.

Oh, and of course the food was delicious - even my small stint at being vegetarian was filled with culinary delights

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Best friends walking down the street holding hands

About the only thing I didn't like, was the garbage strewn everywhere. It's understandable that most people in India are struggling just to survive so recycling or finding a rubbish bin is hardly a priority, but it was still sad to see even relatively wealthy people discarding their rubbish on to the footpath or out their car windows - not that the government or city officials help matters because finding a rubbish bin in public places is almost impossible. Buying tickets at train stations was also quite torturous and just like in China, queue jumpers were rampant; however, I did like that train stations usually had a special ticket window for "Foreign Tourists and Freedom Fighters" (I liked to pretend I was a member the latter category).

Yes, there are the touts and persitent ricksaw drivers, but they are just trying to make a living so I never felt I could get angry with them, I just tried to be as polite as possible and this usually worked better at getting rid of them as opposed to just ignoring them. In fact a couple of times when I did completely ignore persistent ricksaw drivers or rudely dismissed them somehow, they would leave angry whilst yelling things in Hindi that you knew weren't exactly friendly. These kinds of experiences left a bad taste in my mouth and if I were to do this for the remainder of trip I would end up hating every last minute. The hard part was finding that perfect tone and response that would end things quickly and amicably, without encouraging them in to a long discussion. When you put things into persepctive, this type of annoyance is quite tame with what you have to watch out for in developed countries; at least in India violent crime (terrorism aside) is very rare.

Alas, the Indian leg of my trip is over and I'm still alive and my sense of humor is still intact. Several other travellers have told me that if I can handle India, I can handle anywhere which is really encouraging.

So here I go again, on to my next country!

Posted by joshuag 07:05 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Goa - Thank Goa for Agonda

India

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Late in the evening on my last night in Udaipur I was in a travel agency/cyber-cafe checking emails and I started chatting with the guy who worked there. After I told him that I was not looking forward to the train trip I was taking the next day to Goa via Mumbai, he asked if I'd considered flying there instead. The plane tickets were far more expensive (but still cheap in NZ$) so I pondered for a while, "Should I sit on a warm sunny beach in a matter of a few hours, or on a train for the the best part of three days, and possibly next to another squat toilet?" It was an agonising decision, but I went with ...BEACH! The travel agent was really good and in a matter of minutes he had organised my plane tickets and even a taxi to the airport the next morning.

By the next afternoon, I had landed in Goa, the tiny beach studded province on the south west coast of India. The province is divided into three main regions, the north which is supposed to be where you go for shopping, water sports and trance parties at the beach. There's the central part which is Goa's cultural centre and then there's the south which is supposed to be calm, peaceful and more laid back. I had decided to head to the south so I could just take it easy and relax in a less crowded beach. I also wanted to avoid the hoardes of try-hard hippies and the young kiddies on holiday from Europe as well as all the touts and other annoyances that come along with it.

Even after landing in Goa, I still didn't have any definite plans on exactly where to go, but I'd been in touch with Katie who I'd met in Delhi and she recommended Agonda, this is where she was staying at the time with her friend Elizabeth who she'd met up with in Mumbai. Agonda is a small, quiet fishing settlement in the south of Goa. The vast majority of accomodation there comes in the form of beach huts and there's only one road running through it which is sparsely populated with small stores, cyber cafes and a few restaurants. It sounded perfect, so I set off on a series of taxi and bus rides to get there.

For the first time on my whole trip, I got really angry with someone and ended up yelling at them - it was bound to happen eventually. The buses that traverse between the small towns of Goa are small and rickety and most have signs with only the final destination in English, the rest is all in Hindi. I had no choice but to ask the drivers and their little helpers if their bus was going to Agonda. The guy from the first bus I tried said (after a brief pause), "Yes, yes, Agonda, get in, get in". I wasn't too confident after his initial hesitation so I asked, "Are you sure you go to Agonda?", he said, "Yes yes, quick, get in", so I jumped on board and we were off. We ended up stopping at nearly every small town in the south of Goa and after over an hour we stopped in Chaudi and everybody got off except me. They then told me, "Last stop, get off here". Although Chaudi is only about 12 kilometers from Agonda, this meant I'd have to catch a taxi or ricksaw the rest of the way. They had obviously lied to me just to get me on board. I can't quite remember the exact phrase I used as I hopped off the bus but it included words like "cheats", "liars" and a couple of expletives I shouldn't be repeating in this blog. Reactions from the men ranged from sheepish to bemused looks on their faces. In reality it may be that no buses go directly to Agonda and the only way to get there is by bus then a taxi, but the fact they had deceived me into thinking their bus was stopping in Agonda really pissed me off. It didn't take long for me to get over it though because I reminded myself where I was and soon I'd be at the beach sipping cocktails.

Luckily, the place where Katie was staying had a space available and I managed to book a beach hut there for a few days. It didn't take long before I found Katie sitting at the front of her beach hut enjoying the warm evening. It was good to catch up with a familiar face after not really meeting many people since I left Delhi. Soon after I arrived, Katie, her friend Elizabeth and I headed to the attached restaurant for a few drinks.

Later that night, the bar man walked over to us and told us the turtles were hatching. I had read in the Lonely Planet that some beaches in Goa were the place where the rare Olive Ridley sea turtles sometimes lay their eggs, but I was sceptical about his claims. It was a full moon that night and you could see silhouettes of people standing on the beach in front of us with small torches pointed towards the ground. We raced over to find them looking inside a small square enclosure made out of poles and thin netting. Within minutes the ground was alive with wriggling turtles digging their way out of the sand. Eventually seven of them had emerged and were now crawling around in the enclosure looking for a way out. A large crowd from all the surrounding beach huts had gathered around it. The men with torches were conservation officials and weren't letting anyone take photos. The men made a smooth ramp in the sand leading towards the ocean and then finally lifted the net to let the little turtles begin their journey out to sea.

After a while, all became quiet and the majority of the crowd had returned to their huts leaving just a few of us sitting around the now empty enclosure talking about how incredible it was that we got to witness the hatching. Too bad for the people who left because all of a sudden one of the conservation officials pointed his torch inside the enclosure again and we saw a mad flurry of activity. Dozens of little turtle legs and heads were poking out of the sand trying to wriggle their way out. This time, one of the conservation officials had brought over a camera and started taking phtos and we were told we could take photos also.

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Dozens of Oliver Ridley sea turtles emerging from the sand - WOW!

When it looked like all the turtles had emerged from the sand, the officials began transferring them over to a large plastic bucket. Initially it seemed to me like they were interfering with nature, but I think it was probably the right thing to do because there were several dogs running around the beach and some of them had hungry looks in their eyes as they attempted to dig their way into the enclosures. We were all allowed to get involved and place the turtles in to the bucket (while keeping count) which was quite amazing.

Katie and Elizabeth got to carry the bucket closer to the shore where we placed them all back on the sand so they could resume their (now shorter) journey into the ocean. Their instincts kicked in straight away and they followed the sounds of the crashing surf. Some of them were gently picked up by the calm waves which then carried them out to sea never to be seen again. Others had a rather ungraceful entry, being smashed up the beach on to their backs by a rolling wave before recovering for another attempt.

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The turtles making their way towards the crashing ocean waves

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One of the turtles reaching the ocean - Go little fella!

I believe by the end of the night the official count was 122, although I know it was actually 123 because at one point I had transferred two in one hand but I forgot about that when I tallied them up. Oh well, at least I under reported, perhaps 122 was just below the critical threshold which would somehow lead to increased conservation funding from the government ...or perhaps not. Besides, there are so many predators out there that within minutes of entering the ocean, half of them had probably already become midnight snacks.

It was quite an incredible experience and I really couldn't believe how lucky I was to have stumbled on this scene, talk about being at the right place at the right time.

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Madhu beach huts where I stayed for four nights in Agonda, unfortunately I wasn't in one that faced the sea, I was in the row of huts just behind these

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My bed in the beach hut, simple room but I had a mosquito net so that's all that mattered

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Madhu beach huts and the attached restaurant on the left

The food at the Madhu Beach huts restaurant was absolutely delicious, even people who were staying in other places walked down the beach to eat there. I ended my vegetarian-while-in-India vow in that restaurant because Katie had eaten chicken there a few days before and she had no problems.

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A few drinks at Madhu beach huts - I must have said something really funny, again

During the day, the beach was really quiet and uncrowded, there were never be more than 20 people out sun bathing or in the water at any one time along our little stretch of beach. The water was amazing, so warm that you could stay in it for as long as you wanted, though you knew it was time to get out when your fingers and toes started turning into prunes. On some days you'd spot a few dolphins swimming around not far from shore, sometimes you'd even catch sight of one leaping out of the water and high into the air - now paradise was complete.

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Katie and Elizabeth sitting on the deck chairs enjoying the sunset

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A beautiful sunset in Agonda

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The warm glow just after sunset

Katie and Elizabeth only stayed for another night since they had already been there a few days and they were heading for Hampi in Karnataka Province just east of Goa. I wasn't ready to leave yet and hankered down for a few more days. I ended up moving to the beach huts next door to Madhu for the rest of my time there just so I could get a hut facing the beach. There's nothing like waking up, opening the door to your hut and seeing the ocean crashing on the beach in front of you.

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View from in front of my beach hut at Sami Beach Huts where I stayed for three nights

The rest of my time in Agonda can be summarized by the following: swimming, relaxing, eating, drinking, sunbathing and walking along the beach, so here are some photos.

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A sunbathing cow

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Small fishing boat at sunset

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Another brilliant sunset in Agonda

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Funny sign on telephone box outside cyber-cafe - You gotta love the "HERE" written at the bottom by hand, makes you wonder, did they look at it after they had printed it out and then asked themselves, "Is that too vague?" - Credit goes to Katie who noticed it first

I really didn't want to leave, but I had a plane to catch in a few days and I wanted to visit Mumbai before I left India, so I packed up my sandy clothes and sun screen and left Agonda with a nice new tan.

Hopefully I'll get to stay at the beach plenty more times by the time my journey ends.

Namaste

Posted by joshuag 07:19 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Jaipur and Udaipur - Faded Pink City and the Lake Palaces

India

sunny 20 °C
View Around the world on joshuag's travel map.

While waiting on the platform at Agra station for my train to Jaipur in Rajasthan, I heard a voice from behind me say, "Ah, a fellow Kiwi". I turned around to find a scruffy looking guy with a long beard and long hair tied back in a pony tail. He must have seen the NZ flag sewn on my backpack. His name was Justin and apparently he had been travelling around the world for about three years, and it showed. He had a serious, yet relaxed, look on his face, almost like he'd seen it all before, though he did admit that India was still a bit of a shock to him. What really impressed me was his backpack. Whenever somebody sees my backpack they always say, "Is that it!?". I'm quite proud to be carrying a small 40 L backpack that weighs around 10 kgs and that I can take onboard with me as carry-on luggage. But this guy had a bag that must have been between 15 and 20 L. What's more, he had a sleeping bag in it! I didn't ask what else he had in there, but I imagine it was probably just his tootbrush and passport. He was the first Kiwi I'd met since the very first night of my trip when I landed in Tokyo.

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Train platforms at Agra Cantt Railway station, what you can't see in this photo is the cat-sized rats wandering around the tracks and the odd cow or two meandering on the platform

On that train I met a friendly Indian guy called Rahul. He lives and works in Dholpur, about 60 kms south of Agra. He was travelling to Bharatpur to meet a friend, then on to Jaipur the next day to meet his girlfriend - he was very quick to point out he and his girlfriend will be sleeping in separate rooms. We had an interesting conversation about travelling, arranged marriages, cricket (of course) and his favourite movies, which included all six of the "American Pie" series and the horror "Hostel" - he told me to becareful should I go backpacking in Slovakia ...I think he was joking.

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Rahul whom I met on the train to Jaipur, he liked this photo so much that he asked me to email it to him

Jaipur ened up being a bit of a disaster in terms of sightseeing, mostly because I think Jaipur is overrated and I underestimated the length of one of my walks which wasted a whole day. The touts there were the worst I'd come across in India and the city was even filthier and smellier than Delhi. I took a trip to the so called "Pink City" (which ended up being more like the "Faded Orange City"), then I thought I'd challenge myself to long climb to Nahargarh (Tiger Fort) a fort palace perched on the edge of one of the surrounding hills. I ended up walking for hours through a maze of small streets in the outer suburbs of Jaipur trying to find the start of the path. I asked countless people for directions but they were typically vague and most contradicted eachother.

Even though there were still a few ricksaw wallahs hassling me for rides along the way, I was stopped by lots of ordinary people in the little back streets, most of them really friendly who just wanted to say hello or have their photo taken. It felt like the real India in some ways.

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Some kids who wanted their photo taken

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This could have been the "National Geographic" photo from my trip to India, but I didn't use a flash

I haven't really talked about the cows much yet, which is surprising because that was one of the first startling sights any visitor experiences in India (along with the extreme poverty). I got so used to seeing cows roaming the streets in the middle of the city, that I forgot how strange it was. As most people know, cows are sacred in most parts of India, this means they are free to roam the streets, even on busy roads in the middle of the cities, including Delhi. People just drive around them, sometimes politely tooting their horns and the docile cows continue their slow meander without battering an eye lid. The only danger they really pose, is a slap in the face by a tail soaked in cow shit as you are walking past (I should know, I've had several close calls).

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Holy Cow! Taken within the Pink City in Jaipur with the Ajmer Gate in the background

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A bull wandering the streets of the Pink City in Jaipur

Of course it's not just cows that you'll find sharing the parks, roads and footpaths with the locals. Depending on where you are, you'll also find pigs, horses, donkeys, goats, camels, elephants, monkeys, chipmunks, cats and of course stray dogs. Stray dogs are so numerous that you'll find one down almost every street you walk down, they'll usually be by the side of the road scavanging for food in piles of garbage.

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Some of the local cows and pigs resting and rummaging on the side of the road in Jaipur

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One of the main streets in Jaipur, the Nahargarh fort can be seen in the background on top of the hill

Eventually I did reach the start of the 2 km zigzagging footpath at the base of the hill leading to Nahargarh, but after about 200 meters, I looked at what I still had to do and decided to give up. I was already sweating, exhausted and dehydrated because I had already been walking for a few hours in the searing heat and my water had run out so it was probably quite sensible.

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One of the views of Jaipur from the footpath heading to Nahargarh fort

Just as I started heading down I was met by a crowd of seven boys (probably in their late teens) and they turned into a real hassle to deal with. They wanted their photo taken as if their life depended on it. As they tried to get a look at the photos I'd taken of them, they crowded around, cornering me up against a wall. They then wanted to get a photo of me with them but by that stage I already had a bad feeling about them and was not about to relinquish my camera, so I made some crazy excuse about why I didn't want my photo to be taken, against my religion, blah blah blah. They didn't understand and kept on asking and then out of the blue I heard one of them say, "Give me a hundred Rupees". I gave him a dirty look instead and burst my way out of the crowd. A couple of them laughed as if it were a joke so I think he was just being an idiot, plus he didn't ask me again. Nevertheless I started heading down the hill pretty quickly while being followed by a couple of them asking me if I could send them the photos I'd just taken. I pretended I didn't have a pen and paper so that I didn't have to open my satchel in front of them. He then asked me for my email address so he could write to me and I could reply with photos attached. I think he suspected I was never going to do it when he started making me promise that I would send them. Hopefully whoever owns "chingatumadre@hotmail.com" doesn't get annoyed I used his or her email address. I'll include their photo here for shaming purposes only.

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The little punks who annoyed me on the path up to Nahargarh fort in Jaipur, the podgy looking guy third from the right with his arms up in the air was the one that asked me for money, you can tell he's trouble just by looking at him

By the time I'd walked down the hill and through the streets of the disappointing Pink City, it was after 4 pm and most of the other tourist sights in Jaipur were closed or about to close. I was walking towards the City Palace when a friendly older man who spoke perfect English started chatting with me. After he found out I was from New Zealand we talked about cricket for a while (my knowledge of cricket really got stretched). I think the only reason most Indians know about New Zealand is because we play cricket, which I must admit is always a good conversation starter. He suggested I go to across the road to a market's roof top which supposedly had good views of the city. I had given up on seeing anymore sights in Jaipur anyway so I headed up the stairs. The view was quite mediocre to say the least and I wasn't particularly impressed though I did bump into a young boy and his father flying some kites. The father let me fly his kite for a while, but I didn't hold on to it for long fearing I'd loose it, lucky because less than ten seconds after I handed it back to him, the string broke and the kite was set free.

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Father and son flying kites on a Jaipur rooftop

There seems to be some sort of kite flying craze happening in Jaipur. Hoardes of children and sometimes adults can be seen standing on the street or roof tops flying kites. If you look up at the sky, you'll see dozens of them floating high up above the city. If you focus a little closer at the trees and power lines, you'll find several of them tangled amongst the branches or wires. Every single tree has at least a couple of kites embedded in its branches, sometimes there are so many they look like giant christmas trees. Who ever is selling kites in Jaipur must be making an absolute killing.

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The view from market rooftop, you can see the Iswari Minar Swarga Sal (Heaven Piercing Minaret) and on the top right the red kite that I flew

As I was about to walk down from the roof, another "friendly" local stopped me for a chat. He said he wanted to practice his English with me but I wasn't in the mood to be used as a free English tutor at the time so I didn't contribute much to the conversation and I hinted to him that I was meeting friends for dinner at my hotel. Didn't stop him from talking though, and then he started warning me about the various "Gem Scams" that occur quite often in Japur. In the same breath, he said, "My family owns a gem store, would you like to come and see it?" - he seemed genuinely surprised that I had declined his offer.

To be honest, I wasn't much impressed with Jaipur. I really wonder why it's part of the so-called "Golden Triangle" of tourist destinations along with Delhi and Agra. In retrospect I would have skipped this grotty little town altogether and gone somewhere else in Rajasthan. My next destination was Udaipur, also in Rajasthan, which appeared to be much more promising.

My overnight train journey from Jaipur to Udaipur was probably the worst I'd ever been on. All of the 1st class tickets had been sold out so I had bought a sleeper class ticket. The sleeper class basically gives you a bench with a hard rubber mat on it, no bedding, no curtains and no air-con. My "bed" was about 1.5 meters long (too short even for me). It was right at the end of the carridge right next to, and parallel to the aisle. There was no door at the very end of the carridge so I had full view of the area where the toilets were as well as the narrow accordion-like join between the carridges. It was freezing cold, smelly and extremely loud which resulted in a really uncomfortable and sleepless night. What made it worse was that the guy who was in the bunk bed above me, decided he could sit at the end of my bunk without asking, even going as far as grunting at me while motioning me to move my legs out of the way so he could sit down. Eventually he climbed up to his bunk and I was able to stretch out a little. Everyone sleeps with their clothes and shoes on in this class which only got me thinking about all the dirty shoes that had trapsed through the disgusting floors of the squat toilets, then made their way back on to the mat I was currently lying on (putting my anti-germ neurosis aside, you have to admit that it is quite disgusting). I ended up leaning against my uncomfortable backpack most of the night counting down the hours. Somehow I ended up nodding off in the late hours of the morning only to be awakened by someone tapping me on the arm. I looked up to find a line of people who were staring down at me as they stood in the aisle ready to get off the train. We had arrived in Udaipur and I couldn't have been any more glad.

As soon as I got to my hotel, I had a shower and went straight to bed, which has become a bit of a common theme after many of my train trips. The whole point of me taking overnight trains was to try and save on one night's accomodation as well as not to waste too much time travelling during the day, but this strategy doesn't seem to be working very well because I never end up sleeping very well on trains. I spent the rest of that day at the hotel, sleeping, eating at the roof top restaurant, catching up on my blog and performing some precision surgery on my Lonely Planet.

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My India Lonely Planet before surgery

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My India Lonely Planet after a successful operation to remove excess chapters

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The view from the roof top restaurant at my hotel in Udaipur

Once I got out and about over the next few days, I decided I quite liked Udaipur. It is surrounded by small hills and lakes which give the city a different feel to the rest of the places I visited in India. The only drawback is that it's very touristy, but this also has some advantages. Shop owners seem to take pride in the areas in front of their stores so the narrow little streets are relatively clean and there was no shortage of good restaurants and cafes to find decent food in.

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The view of the narrow streets of Udaipur from my hotel window

The view from my hotel window on the fourth floor included, parts of Lake Pichola (undoubtedly Udaipur's proud center piece), at least two temples and the roof top domes from the nearby City Palace and Museum.

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The temple directly across the road from my hotel

My biggest excursion in Udaipur was to the huge City Palace and Museum located on the east bank of Lake Pichola which was only a short walk from my hotel.

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The Tripolia Gate at the entrance to the Palace Museum

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Some of the towers and balconies on the city side of the City Palace taken from the courtyard near the entrance

Like so many other palaces and forts in India, Udaipur's City Palace is a conglomeration of buildings (Mahals) added by various maharajas throughout the centuries. Even though the architecture styles of each contribution remained relatively consistent, the internal decorations varied greatly from one part to the next, which was good because it's a big palace and it would have been a tad boring if it was all the same. I ended up going just at the right time because a couple of huge tour groups had just entered the palace and because I was taking my time, I was soon walking around almost by myself. I won't bore you with any more history lessons so instead here are some of the photos I took.

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Angel on wall in small terrace

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A couple sitting near the window across one of the small courtyards

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The intricate tile work with inlaid gems on one of the balcony windows at the Chini Mahal

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Doorway leading out to courtyard from one of the Palace rooms

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A peaceful courtyard garden at the Bari Mahal

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A girl (looking at me suspiciously) standing at the edge of the Bari Mahal garden

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The intricate archways on one of the small towers

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My reflection in one of the mirrors at the Moti Mahal

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The large pavilion at the center of one of the courtyards

Just as I was leaving the City Palace near the palace's gate, I walked past a small tailor shop where I saw an old man who looked hard at work sitting next to an ancient looking foot-powered sewing machine. It looked almost like it was staged for tourists but he was doing actual tailoring work so it was hard to tell. He nodded with an unsurprised look on his face when I asked if I could take his photo which probably meant he was quite used to it.

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Man inside tailors, near exit to the City Palace in Udaipur - turned out to be my favorite photo of the day

On another walk that I took to the other side of Lake Pichola, I got some photos of the City Palace as it sits on the east bank of the lake.

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The City Palace and Museum from the west side of Lake Pichola

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Some dogs and a cow dozing in the blistering heat during my walk on the west side of Lake Pichola

After each of my walks, I always stopped by at Cafe Namaste which sold various yummy bakery treats and very decent coffee.

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Assorted bakery goodies and excellent coffee from Cafe Namaste, I may have got a bit carried away

While sitting in Cafe Namaste I always got plenty of entertainment from the mini traffic jams which developed right in front of the cafe. The streets in the center of Udaipur are so narrow that maybe two cars can fit on the same bit of road but only if they are both small and they squeeze right up to the shop entrances. Despite of this, people would barge in trying to find gaps even though it was clear it was going to end in a stalemate. They would all then sit there motionless tooting their horns at each other for a couple of minutes until someone finally relented and backed out of the way.

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Murual discouraging crime painted on wall next to temple across the road from my hotel - Forget real CCTV cameras, God is watching.

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The steps leading to Jagdish Temple in the center of Udaipur

On my last day, I took a longer walk around the shores to the south east side of Lake Pichola. From there I could get a better view of Udaipur's most famous locations, the Lake Palace and Jagmandir Palace each one located on separate nearby islands. The Lake Palace was one of the shoot locations for the James Bond film, Octopussy and to this day this is still being exploited by the countless rooftop restaurants dotted around Udaipur which advertise nightly screenings of the movie. The Lake Palace has been converted into a luxury hotel and Jagmandir Palace has become a museum which can only be visited if the lake level is not too low.

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Jagmandir Palace on Jagmandir Island in Udaipur

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Jagmandir Palace background framed by a huge oak tree growing near the lake shore

And so my brief stop in Rajasthan ended. I think I ended up skipping some of the best parts in the province because of the little time I had left in India, but these were the desert regions and I've got plenty of other deserts to visit throughout the rest of my trip so I wasn't too disappointed.

From this point on, I would be heading much further south so that should be the end of the "cold" part of my trip, which is quite a relief because I've been craving some decent hot weather which I would have experienced had I not left New Zealand at the very beginning of the summer.

Over and out.

Posted by joshuag 16:26 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Agra - The Majestic Taj

India

sunny 15 °C
View Around the world on joshuag's travel map.

My train from Delhi to Agra in the Uttar Pradesh province was half an hour late, but I was one of the fortunate ones, I heard several announcements over the station's PA for trains that were running as much as 28 hours behind schedule... the end of these announcements always ended with a monotone, "...We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause". My train crawled so slowly most of the way, you could have jumped off, walked along beside it for a while and then jumped back on using the same door. Apparently the problem was that the train conductors rely a lot on their sight to avoid collisions (hence the apalling safety record) and that night visibility was only a few meters due to the heavy fog. At one point we stopped at a deserted platform for over an hour.

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Delayed at a foggy train platform somewhere between Delhi and Agra

While we were stopped at this platform, I started playing a game on my ipod. After about 15 minutes, I heard a knock on the window but all I could see outside was pitch black darkness. I held my hands around my eyes and pressed against the window only to find a large group of young Indian guys crowded up to the window, smiling from ear to ear. They looked absolutely fascinated and must have been standing there for a while spectating. They tried to have a conversation with me, but the glass was too thick and I couldn't hear a word of what they were saying, not that this little problem stopped them from trying. They must have been travelling on the same train because soon afterwards the train started moving and they scampered like rabbits back to their carridge.

The four hour journey ended up taking ten, so we arrived in Agra at 4 am to a relatively empty train station by Indian standards. Of course there was the usual welcoming committee of ricksaw wallahs offering their services. I asked a few of them if they knew where my hotel was, but none of them did (or at least they pretended they didn't) so they of course offered me with some helpful alternatives. I knew the hotel I was going to was only about a kilometer from the station so I gave up and decided to walk. Once on the main road out of the station, things got extremely quiet and the heavy fog along with the typically dim orange street lights of India gave the place a spooky kind of glow. It was hard to make out anything more than 20 meters away which was probably a good thing because it meant that I too had become invisible to others.

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A curious cow peering at me through the fog at 4 am as I walked to my hotel in Agra

In the absence of street signs, I had to rely on the vague map of Agra from my Lonely Planet (LP) - I would like to mention now, if there's something about the LP's that I don't like (apart from their bulkiness), is their maps, sometimes they are just not very accurate or detailed enough, especially for someone like me with a terrible sense of direction. It took me what seemed like an eternity to find my hotel, which was tucked away in a small side street which I walked through by sheer accident. I was met at the reception by a grumpy and sleepy looking man, who after asking me for my name, responded with, "Yes, we waited", then lifted a small sign from behind the counter that read, "Joshua - Rose Home Stay", meaning that he'd sent a driver to the station to pick me up. I shrugged my shoulders, laughed and asked him how I could possibly have any control on the train schedules. You'd think a local would be well aware of how frequently trains are late in India.

To say my room at the hotel lacked character is an understatement. It was a scene straight out of East Germany during the cold war (or so I imagine), with light yellow and lime green painted walls and an incredibly ugly orange coloured headboard on the bed. The room was absolutely freezing and the AC didn't work, the shower I decided to take just to warm up, turned cold after only a couple of minutes. The bed only had a bottom sheet with stains on it and the blankets provided were made of coarse and scratchy fibers. This ended up being the bleakest, most depressing hotel room I've ever been in. I stood there for a long time staring at the bed contemplating whether I should ask to change rooms or just check out immediately so I could get the hell out of there, but by this stage it was already about 6:00 am and I was absolutely exhausted after having not slept on the train not to mention my little excursion in the fog. So I decided to unpack my sleeping bag liner (that I brought with me to use as an emergency sheet on occasions such as these) and I hopped into bed wearing socks and my thermal underwear. My plan was to catch a few hours of sleep until check-out time later the same morning after which I could try to find another hotel for the next night.

I ended up sleeping like a baby for a few hours until my alarm woke me up 15 minutes before check out. In what seemed like a complete blur, I had checked out, jumped on a ricksaw and arrived at a hotel recommended by LP, much closer to the center of town. Thankfully they had a room for me and I was able to breathe a big sigh of relief. This hotel was much better, it had a large peaceful courtyard restaurant and the hot water was plentiful.

After a hot shower and a big breakfast, I felt alive again which was handy considering I had a big tour planned for that day. I set off on the 1 km walk to Agra Fort, considered the most important fort in India due to the number of Mughal Emperors who lived there. It houses several palaces, halls and mosques which were added throughout the centuries by the different rulers. From the towers and balconies facing the Yamuna river, you can get (somewhat hazy) views of the Taj Mahal. Supposedly, Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb who imprisoned him in Agra Fort not long after the Taj's completion. Shah Jahan spent the last years of his life in one of the marble towers which had an excellent views of the Taj.

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The entrance path over the mote bridge to Agra Fort

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Cheeky monkeys on mote bridge of Agra Fort

The buildings inside Agra Fort were very impressive, though the most impressive mosque, Moti Masjid, was under renovations and closed to the public.

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The white marble minarets (towers) of the Moti Masjid mosque in the background, taken from the steps of Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audiences)

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The Anguri Bagh garden with the white marble Musamman Burj (octagonal tower) and Khas Mahal (palace) in the background

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The view across the Yamuna River with the Musamman Burj (white marble octagonal tower) on the right, if you look really closely in the background you can get a first peek at the Taj Mahal through the haze

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The walls of Agra Fort and the Yamuna River as seen from the edge of the Kash Mahal

I could have spent more time wandering around the Fort, but I really couldn't wait to see Agra's (and possibly India's) most famous attraction, so I headed out of the gate ready to take the short 2 km walk along Shahjahan Park. As soon as I'd crossed the bridge over the mote, a ricksaw driver walked up and offered me a ride there. I figured my legs did hurt a little so why not go for a quick ride. When he said, "Indian helicopter", I didn't quite know what he meant, but I soon discovered this was what they call leg powered cycle ricksaws (as opposed to auto ricksaws, the CNG fueled motorized ricksaws that I had been using in India up to that point). They cycle ricksaws are much slower and less comfortable, but since it was only 2 km away, I figured why not and jumped on board. The poor guy must have been in his 50's or 60's and he struggled a bit going up hill, at one point hopping off to push it. I felt so bad for him that I wanted to jump off and help, but I figured he must do it all the time and he probably would have thought I was more weird rather than helpful. Instead I payed him double the amount that we had agreed which was undoubtedly a much better way of helping him out. Not surprisingly, after receiving such a helthy tip, he eagerly offered to wait for me outside the Taj so he could give me a ride back to my hotel, but I didn't want to worry about someone waiting outside for me for some unknown period of time so I politely declined his offer.

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The view from my "Indian Helicopter" along Sahjahan Park, I could have walked there faster, but the driver was a real battler

I entered through the West Gate, which I heard was usually crowded with tour groups, but being in the late afternoon, the queues were small and I got through relatively easy. The admission price for foreigners was 750 Rupees (NZ$23), by far the highest admission price I payed in India (locals pay 20 Rupees). I've heard many complain about the cost, but by the end I personally thought it was definitely well worth it.

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The main internal gate to the Taj Mahal complex taken from the outer courtyard

So, I took a deep breath and walked through the internal main gateway. What I saw on the other side has to be the most impressive building I have ever seen. Never used the word majestic to describe anything before, but the Taj thoroughly deserves it. Perhaps it was because I'd heard a lot of hype about the Taj and I had subconsciously played it down so that I wouldn't be disappointed. If you haven't visited the Taj yet but you plan to one day and want to be just as impressed as I was, then perhaps you should stop reading the rest of this blog because this will probably be a spoiler for you.

I think the real reason I was so impressed, was because it was so symmetrical and more importantly, it is much, much larger than I had ever imagined.

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The Taj Mahal from just inside the front gateway

In the above photo, the people seen standing towards the end of the pond are actually standing on a large marble platform in the middle of the garden which is not the actual base of the Taj. There is another pond of the same length on the other side of this central platform and if you look closely at the bottom of the Taj's front archway, there is another group of people a little higher up which appear to be about 1 mm tall, that's how colossal this building really is.

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A portrait view of the Taj Mahal from the central marble platform

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Me on the bench in front of the inner gateway - I got this one taken for my mum who made a joke before I left NZ about me doing a Princess Diana pose on a bench in front of the Taj (though she sat on a different bench and she had her legs closed, but I thought it was close enough)

It was crowded, but never so much that I had to wait long to get a photo or two from the best vantage points, nor was it difficult to move away from the crowds and sit at the edge of a platform or in the garden where you could just appreciate the building in relative peace. I must have sat and gazed at it for a couple of hours from various locations, just letting it all soak in.

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Side view of the Taj from the east side

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View of the sunset over the mosque on the west side of the Taj's platform

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The pink glow of the Taj at sunset taken from the west side

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One of the four 40 meter tall minarets

I was very surprised to find out you could walk inside and wander through the various internal chambers, including the central dome which housed the (false) tombs of Mumtaz Mahal (for whom the Taj was built), and the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan (Mumtaz's husband and builer of the Taj). When I say "false", I mean that these are just the ornamental tombs - the real ones are locked away in the basement below the main chaimber and cannot be viewed, I kind of like this fact because it makes the real hidden tombs a little mysterious. It was supposed to be strictly no photos inside the main tomb chamber, but flashes were going off from all directions and no guards were complaining so I took the opportunity to take a quick snap too, though later I heard a guard yelling at people so he must have been out having a cigarette when I walked through.

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The false tombs of Shah Jahan (left) and Mumtaz Mahal (right) in the main chamber

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One of the four outer ornamental chambers

As I was walking through the empty ornamental chambers, it dawned on me about how utterly impractical this huge building was. All the money, effort and labour used to build something that was always meant to be empty, except for a small marble tomb, which wasn't even a real tomb, is just absolutely crazy. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad it was built simply because it's amazing to look at. But the reasons behind its existence don't really impress me and to me were just a vulgar display of Shah Jahan's uncontrolled narcissism. But then again, you could say that about a lot of other buildings and monuments around the world created for no practical purpose whatsoever, and if it weren't for these disgusting displays of self-obsession, the world would be quite a boring place and all you'd see in this blog is pictures of me in front of bus stops.

Anyway, I digress ...by the time I walked back towards the entrance the sun was setting fast and the Taj had an amazing pink glow to it.

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The pink Taj, this photo, taken from the garden, would have come out even better had it not been so hazy

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The ornamental garden around the Taj Mahal

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The sun setting behind the West Gate taken from the outer courtyard

I left the Taj Mahal complex and headed to the Taj Ganj area to find dinner, but I didn't find any reliable looking restaurants so decided to head back to the hotel which was supposed to serve decent food.

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The streets around Taj Ganj in Agra

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Dinner in the courtyard at the hotel

The next day I left Agra headed for the Rajasthan province. I really liked the two attractions I visited in Agra, but the city itself is nothing to write home (or on a blog) about. I think if it wasn't for the Fort and the Taj, this city would be a mere blip on the radar. Instead it is full of ricksaw wallahs and cheap looking hotels.

Well, that's it for this edition.
Namaste!

Posted by joshuag 08:11 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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