A Travellerspoint blog

February 2010

Mumbai - Slumin' It in Bombay

India

sunny 30 °C
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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

sunny 35 °C
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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

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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)

Delhi - What Planet Am I On?

India

sunny 15 °C
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Excuse the long blog, but I've got a lot to say, besides this is the short version, initially I wrote a full length novel.

Before arriving here, whenever I asked other travellers who had already been to India, what it was like, I always got the same first response, and that was a "just wait and see for yourself" type of smiles. Now that I'm here, I have to agree, there really is nothing anybody can tell you that could prepare you for your first visit to India. I don't quite have the literary skills to describe it myself, but I'll do my best, mostly by using as many photos as possible.

Having left Beijing on a one stopover flight (via Dubai), I arrived in Delhi in the late afternoon. The immigration and customs hall at the Delhi International airport felt almost like a regional bus station as opposed to the international hub that it's supposed to be. It had long, slow moving queues being serenaded by inaudible arrival announcements from the loud PA system, each one prefaced by a chime stolen straight out of the Windows XP sound effects folder (the "you have new email messages" sound from Outlook Express to be exact. I'm not joking). After a long wait, trying my luck in several queues, I eventually got through immigration relatively unscathed. I then proceeded out to the arrivals hall where I could see two exits, one on either side of the building, each one crammed with hoardes of people peering inside. I knew most of them were touts and taxi wallahs waiting to whisk tourists away to a store or hotel that would pay them commision for bringing in customers. Having come from China, I was already well equiped to deal with them, but I was still dreading stepping outside and having to fend them all off. A visit to the ATM, money exchage and prepaid taxi booths were good stops along the way where I could get myself mentally prepared.

I finally headed out of the building with my taxi voucher in hand and into the mercy of the waiting masses. I walked straight to the line of waiting cabs though this didn't deter a handful of "helpful" locals offering to personally summon a taxi for me. I "politely" declined their offers and headed for one of the taxis waiting in the rank while still being followed. Before jumping in, I tried to make sure the driver knew where the suburb was that I was going to, but just asking is hardly a safety measure considering that anyone who stands to make money out of you in India tends to be agreeable even though they may not have a clue about what you are asking them. So I had no alternative but to trust the first driver who appeared somewhat confident.

Before we'd even left the end of the taxi rank, the driver stopped to let an "aquaintance" in through the front passenger's door. This guy turned around and pretended to have a friendly conversation with me. One of the first questions he asked me was if this was my first visit to India, to which I replied, "No, I have been here a couple of times before". I'd heard this is the best answer you can give them because they use this question to measure how suceptible you are to their little tricks. He then begun to inform me that the suburb I was going to was "A very bad bad area" and he was most kind to offer alternatives. I interrupted him by telling him I had already booked a place and had payed a deposit so there was no way I was going anywhere else (which was actually all true). This worked like a charm because he smiled, said "Ok" and got the driver to pull over so he could get out.

Then it was just me and the driver, negotiating our way through insane traffic and some incomprehensible scenes outside of the taxi's windows. If this had been the first destination along my trip, I would have been suffering from a severe case of culture shock right about then, but having just come from China, I was a little prepared for what I was witnessing. Even so, it was still a shock to the system and the only thing that kept my jaw from dropping was the extreme concentration I was using trying to direct the driver to my destination.

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A typical scene on the side of the road in Delhi

The driver ended up having only a vague idea about the suburb I was heading to, though luckily I had done my homework (google maps) and I was able to use a couple of popular landmarks and a nearby bus station to direct him most of the way. Considering most of the streets in Delhi are not sign posted (and those that are, are very poorly done so), it seemed like an absolute miracle that I was able to guide the driver to the entrance to the alley where my hostel was located.

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Another typical scene on the side of the road in Delhi, though this one is actually quite tidy looking

The hostel, called Nirvana, was like an oasis in the middle of all the chaos, and I must confess, just after arriving, the thought of not leaving the front gate again did pass briefly through my head. I ended up meeting lots of really good people in this hostel, almost all of them lone travellers like myself. There was never a shortage of sane friendly people to go out with and explore Delhi. The hostel is owned and managed by Francesco, a young Italian guy, and his business partner who I never met as he was overseas at the time. His main business was actually fast food joint called "Dosa King" that, not surprisingly, sold Dosas, which are a type of savoury crepe originating from the south of India. He was running the hostel as a side business mostly for the love of meeting and hanging out with travellers.

It's quite difficult to find a hostel in India, let alone a good one. To find one with actual dorms that targets young backpackers was a stroke of luck. This hostel had only been open for a few months and I'm sure in no time it will become one of the most popular hostels in India despite it being in south Delhi. The free meal was definitely a bonus to someone like me, brand new to India and extremely nervous about the food (safety-wise). Initially I had only planned on staying three nights in Delhi, but ended up extending it by another two, due mostly to the hostel and the people I met there - otherwise Delhi isn't really the place to hang around for too long when there's so much else to see in the rest of India. I have to add, eating my first meal at the hostel using a fork after ten weeks of only using chopsticks was rather strange, almost like how I've started feeling when I use a pen nowdays after relying so much on a keyboard.

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A cricket game in progress down the alley heading to the hostel

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The front garden of the Nirvana Hostel in Delhi

On the day after I arrived, two of the girls staying at the hostel, Katie (US) and Roberta (Brazil) invited me to join them on a small sight-seeing excursion, to which I gladly accepted. This was to be my first auto ricksaw ride ever, and in a way I'm quite glad it happened in Delhi. The traffic was absolutely insane, road rules are optional (if they exist at all) and you are always buzzing in and out of gaps in the traffic mere centimeters from other cars, trucks and ricksaws. I think the best strategy to adopt is to either close your eyes or to focus out the sides of the ricksaw instead of straight ahead. Though you can't help but peek at the oncoming traffic when the driver goes through a roundabout the wrong way or you hear other people in the ricksaw gasping at the next impending near miss. The dangers aren't as bad as they appear to be though, because everyone drives like a maniac, hence they are predictable, and it's all about predictability - I learnt that in China when I started running across the road, it really caused havoc and confusion amongst the drivers trying to avoid hitting me.

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My first ricksaw ride, somehow a still image doesn't properly portray the hecticness of it all

The first thing I did that day was to hunt down a Lonely Planet guide for India. So far I'd gotten on fine without one in China and Japan, but India is a completely different story. I would have also bought them for China and Japan but I really hate carrying around extra baggage and these books are typically large, heavy and bulky. Unfortunately, the India edition is probably one of the biggest, but I was willing to put up with carrying the equivalent of a brick around with me in exchange for the much needed helpful advice. I bought one at the first bookstore I walked into not knowing how easy they were to find, and it ended up being quite expensive for India, but still cheap in NZ dollars.

Then it was off to Jantar Mantar, an astronomical observatory built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II in 1724. The site consists of several instruments that can take various astronomical and chronological measurements. This was the first place where we noticed there was a huge admission price differential between the locals and foreigners. I believe we payed 200 Rupees each to get in, where locals only had to pay 5 Rupees, that's quite a difference! Though I can't complain because 200 Rupees is still only around NZ$6 and I realise it takes a lot of money to maintain these places but if the prices for the locals was much higher, the vast majority of Indians would not be able to afford to visit their own national treasures.

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Roberta and Katie walk up ahead at the entrance to Jantar Mantar in Delhi

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The instrument known as, Samrat Yantra, which measured the apparent solar time, or local time of a place and the sun's declination

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Me at one of the "windows" of the instrument known as "Ram Yantras", which measured the horizontal and vertical angles of celestial bodies

Right outside the Jantar Mantar site, we walked past a man whose sole trade appeared to be a "fixer of zippers". He sat on a small concrete block and on the ground next to him he had a small bag full of zippers and zipper parts and another bag with a few tools. He wasn't short of business either because a steady stream of customers would appear from out of nowhere needing help with their zipper problems. Coincidently, Roberta had a broken zipper on one of her boots and she jumped at the opportunity to finally having it fixed.

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The "Zipper Man" fixing the zipper on Roberta's boot, in only a couple of minutes it was like brand new again

Soon afterwards we arrived at India Gate, which is a memorial to fallen soldiers from several wars. Unfortunately, it was Independence day in a few days time and the gate was blocked off by police, I guess in defence of possible terrorist attacks. I still managed to get one decent photo of it from behind some police barriers before we moved on to our next destination.

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India Gate, built as a war memorial

On our way to the next sight, we spotted a group of boys playing cricket (not difficult to find in India because you'll always find a game in full swing on every open space large enough for someone to swing a bat). As soon as they saw a camera come out, they abandoned their game and ran over to pose for us.

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Young budding cricket players posing for our cameras, let's just say they weren't shy

Next up on our list was the Old Fort, but just a couple of blocks before that we bumped into a really old Mosque. The place was small, but quite amazing and we didn't have to pay to get in. The mosque and the walls to the compound were crumbling and looked deserted. There was a water well in the courtyard which was being used by some men to wash and even drink from!

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The water well in front of the crumbling compound walls in the background, offers of a free drink from the well were politely declined

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The very old mosque near the Old Fort

Thinking the old mosque was no longer in use, I made the mistake of stepping on the paved floor in front of the door arches with my shoes on, only to be told off by one of the muslim men near the well. It was a good lesson actually, no matter how old, crumbling and abandoned a holy site looks, you should always obey the same etiquette.

We then headed over to the Old Fort which happend to be hosting some type of concert that night.

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The entrance to the Old Fort in Delhi

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Building in Old Fort

The walls to the fort looked impressive, though it was quite hard to get good photos because most of it was hidden behind lots of trees and shrubs. Not to mention certain areas were blocked off because of the concert that was about to commence. You needed separate tickets to stay and watch the concert so we were kicked out at closing time by some roaming security guards.

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Some of the crumbling walls to the Old Fort

By this stage light was fading and we decided to head back to the hostel on yet another white knucke ride on an auto ricksaw. It took at least an hour to get there in heavy traffic and even though we'd been there already, it was still difficult to find due to the lack of street signs and because every street in Delhi looks exactly the same. At least our driver knew where the suburb was so it was just up to us to look out for our exact street (in the dark!).

The next day Francesco from the hostel, joined us on that day's sight-seeing trip. Francesco himself was quite new to Delhi and had been so busy running the hostel, that he had only gone out on one occasion to do sight-seeing himself. He offered to take us there in the hostel's mini van (driven by one of his helpful workers). Soon there were nine of us from the hostel going along for this trip (not including the driver) and we all had to cram in to the small van. It was a little crowded, but somehow it didn't feel as illegal in India, though ironically we did get a "ticket" for overloading - when I say ticket, I believe it was actually a small fee paid directly to the officer who then let us proceed just the way we were.

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Us in the mini van, from left to right, Michael (Sweden), Sam (UK), Katie (US), Roberta (Brazil), Sam (Australia), Me and Francesco the hostel owner from Italy. Nick (US) was too tall to sit in the back and got to sit in the front seat - he became the official inside-the-van photographer. Jon (US) must have been tucked in on the far left because he's missing in action in this photo. All of us had travelled to India alone.

Our first stop was the Red Fort, a much more impressive fort than the Old Fort we had visited the day before. Many of the buildings in this fort were added at different times by different rulers and it showed because they were built in different styles, some from red sandstone and others from marble.

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The Lahore Gate behind the smaller gate in the foreground at the entrance to the Red Fort in Delhi

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Some buildings inside the Red Fort

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Some marble archways on some of the buildings inside the Red Fort

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A red sandstone building in the middle of an empty pond - it would have been really amazing looking had the pond been full

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Our little group near the bazaar heading out of the Red Fort, from left to right, Me, Jon, Katie, Francesco, Michael, Sam and Sam (yes there were two Sams, one male and one female so in conversation we always had to prefix with "boy" or "girl" to avoid confusion) Photographed by Nick once again.

After the Red Fort, we went hunting for food. Believe it or not, we ended up going to McDonalds, not only because some of us were still a bit nervous about the food and that area was full of untrustworthy looking "street food", but also because we were a little curious about what appeared in the menu of the world's largest burger chain in a predominantly vegeterian country. Not surprisingly, there were no beef burgers, but there were chicken burgers and a seemingly popular "McVeggie". I opted for the latter because I still didn't know what to expect with the chicken meat over here and had previously decided to become a temporary vegetarian during my entire stay in India. The vege-burger wasn't too bad actually, not the most flavoursome, but it cured my hunger. Boy-Sam was feeling really brave and ended up buying something from a street stall right next to McDonalds, it was also right next to some public urinals, which by "public" I mean the most minimum of barriers and by "urinals" I mean up against the wall.

We headed about a block away to the Jama Masjid Bazaar which leads you on to the Jama Masjid Mosque. This Bazaar and Mosque offered some of the most surreal sights of the day. The place was absolutely packed with people, most of them men, which probably explains why a couple of the girls in our group ended up being pinched and/or groped during our walk. There were two long lanes of stalls selling almost anything you can think of and I was on the look out for some jandals (NZ speak for flip-flops) though I never found any there in the end.

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Walking along the Jama Masjid Bazaar, the Mosque is in the background

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The very surreal scene as I headed up the steps towards the Jama Masjid Mosque

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The bazaar looking back from the steps up to the mosque

Francesco ended up having a big argument with the men standing at the gates of the mosque because they were trying to charge us to get in, meanwhile, local Indians were walking in and out undisturbed. They eventually changed their story from an "entry fee" to "camera fee". The fee was 200 Rupees just to take a couple of photos inside the mosque, none of us payed and we just left our cameras with the driver (actually mine was in my pocket and he never checked me). The inside wasn't anything particularly special anyway, it was the outside area around the bazaar that ended up being more interesting for me.

After we waded our way back through the bazaar crowds, we crammed back in the van and headed to Humayun's Tomb. The site doesn't just hold one tomb, but a couple as well at least one mosque and a few other buildings, but it was Humayun's Tomb that was the most impressive. The first building we visited was Isa Kahn's tomb near the entrance to the site.

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The small gateway to Isa Kahn's Tomb and Mosque

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Isa Kahn's Tomb, you could climb up to the roof area, but only up some trecherous steps in pitch black darkness

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The setting sun and Isa Kahn's Mosque, opposite his tomb

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A father leading his son towards the Isa Kahn Mosque

Next was the impressive tomb of Humayun, a huge red sandstone building with some resemblance to the Taj Mahal... but not quite as big or as striking

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The spectacular, Humayun's Tomb

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Inside Humayun's Tomb

I thought the above photo looked better without the flash with the reflecting marble sarcophagi. Plus after turning on the flash I captured someone who was suddenly standing in front of me which gave me a huge fright, it became even creepier when, with big wide crazy eyes, he asked me in broken English, "Tony Blair, prime minister Britain? Bush president US?". This guy was definitely on something. I replied, "Ah, umm... not anymore!" and got out of there as quickly as possible. Apparently he'd done the same thing to Katie and Roberta.

At the very end of the day, Francesco took us to his "Dosa King" street stall. It was my first (and probably last) taste of street food in India. I figured it was safe because Francesco owned it and he had eaten there many times without any problems. Plus he told us the bulk of the food preparation was done off-site and very hygenically.

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My Masala Dosa being prepared, don't worry, he washed his hands ...I'm sure he washed his hands. I didn't spot the two guys giving me the evil eye (on the far left and the far right) until I reviewed my photos for this blog

After such a long day sight-seeing, it was nice to get back to the free meal and a beer at the hostel, followed by a game of cards or two.

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Jon, Roberta and Sam during one of our card games at Nirvana hostel

The next day, Jon, Sam, Sam, Roberta, Katie and I decided to go for another excursion to another bazaar, but we didn't realise it was closed until we got there. As we started walking to get something to eat, two little boys came out of nowhere begging for money. There was an older boy and a much younger one who was really little. As soon as the little one spotted girl-Sam, he chased after her, eventually catching her and latching on to her leg with his arms. She managed to get away from him briefly, before he caught up with her again and latching on to her leg even harder using both his arms and legs. She was shaking her leg and telling him to let go, but all he did was just start to giggle. The rest of us were partly in shock, partly in hysterics, and partly a little nervous. A small crowd of amused onlookers was starting to gather and girl-Sam suspecting this was a way to distract us while the little boy's accomplices went on a pick-pocketing and bag-snatching spree, started walking away with the child still attached. The little boy was almost pulling her pants down and he was so tiny she didn't know how to pull him off without hurting him. I realised that enough was enough and headed over to pry the kid off her leg. I pulled his arms free but for a while he still had his legs wrapped around her ankle, then I think girl-Sam managed to pry his legs off and once free she started running. I'm still holding the boy in the air so I put him down on the side of the footpath and followed the rest of our group who were by that stage making a hasty retreat across the road. Luckily, none of our bags or wallets went missing and we all survived to travel another day. I was too surprised to even think about taking my camera out at the time but Roberta was quick to the mark.

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Child clinging to girl-Sam's leg (photo kindly provided by Roberta)

We did finally make it to the restaurant we were heading to, a place called "Banana Leaf" which was mentioned in the Lonely Planet, hence we thought must have been safe enough. I had an onion and tomato Uttappam which turned out to be a little tasteless on it's own, but the sauces provided ended up saving it.

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My onion and tomato Uttappam from Banana Leaf

Lunch was followed by a trip to the underground Palika Bazaar located in the center of Delhi. It is a bizzare bazaar (ha ha) which twists and turns around like one huge subterranean labyrinth. Most of us were in search for specific items like shoes, shoals, socks or sandals. I ended up buying some nice decent quality jandals (flip-flops) from one of the countless shoe stores, though something tells me they weren't really licenced by "Puma".

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Entrance to the underground Palika Bazaar (forgot to take photos inside)

That was pretty much it for my introduction to India. Most of the gang left the hostel the next day, except for girl-Sam, Jon and I. Of course me being me, I'd left everything to the last minute and still hadn't sorted out any accomodation or train tickets to my next destination. So I spent the day relaxing and doing a bit of planning on the net, reading my Lonely Planet and paying a visit to a small travel agents through which I could book train tickets. The next afternoon, I left the comfortable nest I'd grown accustomed to and leapt into the wild, yet again on my own.

Heading to the New Delhi Railway station, I spotted a beggar knocking on car windows for money. Silly me decided to try to take a sneaky photo.

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...Oh oh, do you think he saw me?

Namaste

Posted by joshuag 08:26 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

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