17 September 2014

Week 103 - Mcleod Ganj, Amritsar, Delhi (India)

We had arranged for a taxi to pick us up at 8am for the drive from Shimla to Mcleod Ganj. The roads were windy and we were glad we hadn’t opted for the night bus. After a couple of chai stops, we made it to Mcleod Ganj in just over 7 hours and checked in to our hotel. We were upgraded to a mountain view room and the panorama was stunning. 
View from our room, Mcleod Ganj.
We didn’t waste much time before walking the mile downhill back in to the centre. Mcleod Ganj is a small town and the village below, Gangchen Kyishong, is home to the Tibetan Government in exile and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who claimed asylum in India following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949, (the Dalai Lama left Tibet in 1959). It’s estimated that more than 250,000 refugees crossed the Himalayas to India and in Mcleod Ganj, you can’t walk 50 metres without seeing a monk or a string of prayer flags, the restaurants serve Tibetan food and the shops sell Tibetan handicrafts. Tibetan culture is being repressed in their homeland as they’re forced to assimilate into China, in India, the Tibetan’s are trying to ensure it’s not lost and forgotten. The Tibetan refugees are still fighting for the liberation of Tibet and being there makes you hope more than ever that one day soon it’ll happen. 
Tibetan propaganda, Mcleod Ganj.
Monks on the main street, Mcleod Ganj.
After exploring the shops for a while we stopped for dinner. Discovering it was Dalai Lama day and no Tibetan restaurant was serving meat, we ended up in a Punjab restaurant for Indian. 

Rhys’s allergies were playing up the next day so we delayed our planned day hike and spent the morning at our hotel. We walked in to town for lunch and to visit the Tsuglagkhang complex which comprises the official residence of the Dalai Lama, the Tibet museum and an important temple. As we entered we found groups of monks of all ages, scattered around the Gompa, deep in debate, stomping their feet and clapping their hands to get their points across. We watched for a while before wandering upstairs to visit the temple and stopping at the small museum on our way out. That night we walked back in to town again for a Tibetan meal, lots of dumplings and noodle soup.

The next day we woke to good weather. We laced up our hiking boots and headed out towards Dharamkot, a village not far from our hotel. Having found a dog (Bruno) who we enticed with biscuits and who stayed with us all day, we turned off the main road to an unpaved track, walking up hill to a small temple where we stopped for chai with commanding views of the Dhauladhar Ridge. Continuing, we followed an uneven goat track to Triund, a ridge at 2,855m, where we stopped for more chai as the clouds began to swirl in, obstructing the valley views. On the way down, the rain started and after spending an hour hiding out under cover at a chai stop, we decided to make a break for it. Walking about 18km in total we completed the walk in about 5 hours (without stops). Considering we’d been warned to allow 7-8 hours i’m now feeling a little more hopeful for the Everest trek next week.
The hike to Triund, Mcleod Ganj.
Rhys bribing Bruno, the hike to Triund, Mcleod Ganj.
We left Bruno at the turnoff to his house, sad to say goodbye, and headed back to our room to dry off and relax before walking back into town again for dinner.

We took a bus the following day to Pathankot from Mcleod Ganj,a bumpy, uncomfortable 4.5 hour journey with beautiful valley views to take our mind off it. The bus dropped us at the terminal for the government run buses to Amritsar and we didn’t have to wait long until we were on our way for the final 2.5 hours to our destination. We’d descended from the mountains by this point and were driving through rice paddies and pastures.

Once in Amritsar we jumped straight in a rickshaw to our hotel in the Old City, weaving through chaotic streets and peering into the shopfronts as we went. As it was already getting dark and there’s only so much exploring you can do in India before all the noise and hustle and bustle starts to break your resolve, we opted for a quick dinner at a small vegetarian Indian restaurant, (in the Golden Temple area, all the restaurants are vegetarian to Rhys’s disappointment), peering in at the temple through the archway as we passed, before bed. 

We were primarily in Amritsar to see the Golden Temple and wanted to visit for lunch so were in no rush and treated ourselves to a lay in. We ventured out for a morning coffee before handing in our shoes at the cloakroom, collecting a headscarf to cover our heads during our visit and walking through the shallow foot baths to the entrance. The Golden Temple is Sikhism’s holiest shrine and was full of pilgrims, every Sikhi is supposed to visit and volunteer at the temple for one week in their lifetime. The complex was beautiful and the temple itself glistened in the centre, covered in gilded copper plates (the gold said to weigh 750kg), reflected in the pool of sacred water in which it stands. Priests inside the central temple chant continuously and it’s broadcast throughout the complex.
Storm clouds rolling in at the Golden Temple, Amritsar.
We walked a circuit of the courtyard admiring the temple from all angles of the marble walkway, before reaching the dining hall. In line with the Sikhism central principal of equality, everyone is welcome for a free meal, no matter what religion or nationality. We joined the crowds, collected a tray and cutlery and were led into the hall where we took a seat on the floor in long rows. Before we’d got ourselves comfortable, people began walking the line and depositing scoops of food onto our trays, we had dhal, rice, roti and delicious rice pudding. Considering all the clattering outside it was peaceful and quiet while we ate. The kitchen prepares meals for around 80,000 people a day and they have the process down to a fine art.

Once we’d finished, we rejoined the throng, handing in our used trays to the chaotic and crowded washing up assembly line where literally hundreds of people were passing the trays into huge sinks, ready for the next hungry visitors. It was a great experience.

The sky was beginning to darken as we finished our lunch and we took it as a sign that our visit was over and we should head back to the hotel and as soon as we walked in the door a heavy rain storm hit. We had a couple of hours to while away before it was time to head to the taxi stands for a trip to the Pakistan border.

By 3pm the rain had mostly stopped so we made our way to the taxi stand where we had a ticket for a shared taxi to see the border closing ceremony at Attari. The border is only about 30km from town but with a chai stop and the traffic in Amritsar itself, it took us a while to get there. We parked up and headed off, me and Rhys being filtered into the foreigner queue to enter the border zone. Stupidly we didn’t think to take any ID and Rhys wasn’t carrying his wallet. They let me in on a soggy photocopy of my passport and Rhys somehow managed to get in using my drivers license. We took our seats and waited. 

As closing time drew near the music struck up on the Indian side and the women all clambered down to dance in the road, they looked like they were having a wail of a time. Officials handed girls huge Indian flags that they took turns to run to the Pakistani gate, it was like we’d stumbled upon a party rather than a border ceremony. The whole time, the Pakistani side was still and quiet, we could hear some music drifting over to us from their side but there was no dancing or flag running. 
Crowds on the Indian side of the Pakistani border.
When the ceremony finally started, there was a lot of shouting, drumming, marching and incredibly high leg kicks from both sides of the border. The show was choreographed by both sides together and they mirrored each others actions, considering the difficult relationship between the countries, it was nice to see them collaborating. The gates were opened, the guards performed some stamping and waggling trying to intimidate the other side before the flags were lowered and taken in for the night. Border closed. It was a bizarre sight and very drawn out but interesting to see and it might be the closest we ever get to visiting Pakistan.

Back at the car we had time for a chai before we were due to meet the driver and leave. 30 minutes later and we were still waiting, as they separate out all the men and women, one of the men in our car had managed to get himself lost. Finally he turned up and, tired, we headed back to Amritsar. 

As it was late and we had a stupidly early start the next day we grabbed sandwiches to eat in the room and quickly popped in to see the temple all lit up at night before bed.
The Golden Temple lit up at night, Amritsar.
The alarm went off at 3:45am and we rolled out of bed, dressed and finished packing to meet our 4am rickshaw to take us to the train station. We were booked on to a Shatabdi train again which is one of the nicer ones that serves breakfast and chai and biscuits. The journey took 6 hours before we arrived back in to Delhi. 

We’d spoken to a few people who had been badly conned on arrival in to Delhi and were half hopping someone would try it but instead we made it back to the hostel without any trouble. We checked in, dropped off our laundry and settled in for a nap. Leaving the room later than afternoon we finished up some shopping on Main Bazaar, sent yet another parcel home and ate Indian food in a roof top restaurant, far above the crazy streets below.

We made the most of our last lay in before Nepal and missed the free hostel breakfast. Instead, we stopped by a roof top cafe for chai before walking to the metro station. We jumped on a train south to visit Humayun’s Tomb. We’ve done so much sightseeing over the last month that another action packed day wasn’t that attractive so instead we decided to pick one site to visit, another Mughal Tomb. Built in the mid 16th century, the red sandstone tomb towers 30m over a small, peaceful park. Away from the crowds of Delhi’s streets, we wandered around visiting some smaller tombs in the grounds before turning to the main tomb, a wonderful display of early Mughal architecture in a style that was later refined and influenced the design of the Taj Mahal.
Humayun's Tomb, Delhi.
After the tomb we headed back to Pahar Ganj where we stopped to grab Rhys a sandwich before hiding from the heat in the room. Leaving Rhys to chill, I wandered out again later for a final tour of Main Bazaar, dodging the cows and the hawkers to buy some hippy PJ’s for our Everest trek. We ended up at the same roof top restaurant as the previous night for our final Indian feast. Food in India has been immense and even though i’m not vegetarian i’ve skipped meat for the majority of meals because the choice for vegetarian food has been amazing and delicious. 

We’ll be ready to leave India to have a break from the chaos and the noise but I can’t wait to come back one day. It’s an incredible country with so much to see, every corner hides something intriguing and colourful. We’ve managed a month without being conned (if you exclude the Pushkar Passport) and Rhys has only been ill once, all up, a success!

10 September 2014

Week 102 - Jaipur, Agra, Delhi, Shimla (India)

The next day in Jaipur was another busy sightseeing day. Ali picked us up again in his autorickshaw, this time without Raja. We’d barely left our street before the rain started and pulled over to discuss whether we were making the right call heading out to Amber. We’d heard fabulous things about the Amber Fort and wanted to see it without getting drenched in the process. Thinking we could see the sky clearing on the outskirts of town we continued and by the time we reached the village the rain had stopped. The fort was huge, we were in awe.
Amber Fort, near Jaipur.
Amber was the ancient capital of Jaipur state until Singh Jai built his new city in 1727. The fort was begun in 1592 and towers over the valley with the village nestled below and the walls and battlements drapped over the surrounding hillsides. After a few photos of the honey coloured facade from the river side, we climbed through the gardens, to the main gate, dodging elephants carrying tourists up the hill. 

We spent the next couple of hours wandering around the fort admiring the courtyards, latticed galleries, mosaics and carved relief panels. As there weren’t many signs we just lost ourselves, exploring tiny little rooms and mazelike corridors. We stopped for coffee and cake before heading back out to the rickshaw, just as the rain blew back in. We ducked into the ticket office to wait out the worst of it, where a strange man asked if he could touch Rhys’s beard (that beard is getting way too much attention!) then made it out to the rickshaw. Although we could see the Jaigarh fort on the hill above Amber, the weather made visiting it a bad idea. If we had longer in Jaipur and blue skies, we would have loved to spent a day walking the walls of Amber, there’s always next time.

After Amber, and with an understanding of why everyone has been raving about the fort, we headed to the Elephant Village, not really knowing where we were going and what to expect. Rhys had a quick go driving the rickshaw on a quiet bit of road and then we turned into a small residential street. We pulled over and walked through a gate into a paddock where there was a beautiful elephant being fed. We wandered over to stroke her and watch, waiting for the manager to arrive. When he did, he started describing all these packages of things we could do with the elephants we weren’t really prepared for and didn’t have the cash for. We ended up giving a small donation before moving on to our next stop of the day, a drive by of the Palace of the Winds, Hawa Mahal.
A visit to the Elephant Village, near Jaipur.
It was a bit of a shame but our rickshaw couldn’t park near the Palace so I just hopped out and took some photos from the middle of the road, not really giving us a chance to admire the five storey, pink sandstone facade. The building was for the ladies of the royal household, where they could watch the city, hidden from view. Sadly we didn’t get a chance to go in to see the views from the roof but as the weather was still poor we were keen to continue on our way.
Hawa Mahal, Palace of the Winds, Jaipur.
Our final stop of the day was at the Albert Hall, housing the Central Museum. The building and museum seem to have poor reputations, both in our guidebooks but there was a decent collection of tribalware, costumes, weaponary, sculptures, coins and wood carvings and although we were pretty tired and just had a quick walk around, we enjoyed it.
The Albert Hall, Jaipur.
We were back at our hotel in the early afternoon, having seen everything we wanted in Jaipur and glad to be out of the rain.

After a beer on the rooftop we jumped in a rickshaw to the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant, a place that was recommended everywhere and where we hoped we’d be able to get Rhys some Western food since he was getting fed up eating Indian every night. We ended up at their second branch and were disappointed with the complete lack of atmosphere, having expected views and quirky furniture. We didn’t stay long and after our meal headed back to the room.

Our train wasn’t until the afternoon the following day so we had the morning to relax and run some chores. We got caught in a downpour when we popped out to get some passport photos for Rhys and spent the rest of the morning on the roof terrace enjoying a late breakfast.

Leaving Jaipur on a 3pm train, we headed to Agra. We’d only heard bad things about Agra, from tourists and Indians alike, so had really low expectations. We arrived after dark and took a rickshaw straight from the train station to our hotel in a gated area out of the centre of town. From the roof terrace of our hotel there were views of the Taj in the distance, strangely not lit up but sitting as a silhouette against the night sky. Even seeing such an iconic building at a distance was enough to get us excited and we ate dinner watching the Taj with lightening flashing in the distance.

Our first full day in Agra was a Friday and the Taj was closed to tourists, so we decided instead to hire a car and driver to visit Fatehpur Sikri, 40km west of the city. We were joined by another English guy from our hotel and headed out through the rain to the complex. We were caught in traffic and became the centre of attention with groups of people standing at the car window, peering in at us. Finally, we arrived at the fortified ancient city. Our driver dropped us at the rickshaw stand where we jumped in one to take us the last couple of kilometres to the entrance gate. 

Fatehpur Sikri was a short lived capital of the Mughal empire. Built by Akbar, the city was only inhabited for 14 years from 1571 to 1585 before lack of water meant the capital was moved. First, we visited the Jama Masjid mosque, still in use today, which we entered through the huge 54m tall Buland Darwaza (Victory Gate). Inside the courtyard we circled the grand exterior buildings, being bothered at every step by kids and men trying to sell postcards and necklaces - it was the most we’d been hassled since arriving in India. Opposite the main gate we came to the white marble tomb of the saint, Shaikh Salim Chishti, a beautiful building with stunning lattice work stone screens and mother of pearl decorations.
Jama Masjid, Fatehpur Sikri.
Leaving the mosque through a different gate, the Shahi Darwaza (King’s Gate), we walked to the palace complex, where after paying our entrance fee, we entered into a peaceful, hassle free complex. Akbar built three palaces, one for each of his favourite wives, one a Hindu, one a Muslim, and one a Christian. We visited ornamental pools, pavilions, halls and courtyards, marveling at the intricate carvings and the maze of buildings. It wasn’t too busy and the sun had come out so we enjoyed meandering around, taking photos and soaking up the atmosphere.  Back in the car we drove back through another rain storm to the hotel where we holed up in our room for the rest of the day. 
One of the courtyards inside the Fatehpur Sikri palace complex.
Inside the palace complex at Fatehpur Sikri.
We’d organised a rickshaw to collect us from our hotel at 6am the following day, having booked the driver for the whole day to see the sights of Agra. Although booking through our hotel was probably more expensive than arranging each trip as we went, it saved on a lot of hassle haggling every journey and meant we didn’t have to hunt for a rickshaw at 6am in the morning. The driver took us straight to the west gate of the Taj Mahal. We walked to the ticket office and just as we bought our tickets, the rain blew in and we spent 30 minutes hiding in a covered corridor hoping it would stop. 

It ended up drizzling for the entire time we were at the Taj and although that meant no photos with blue skies, it also kept the hordes away and meant we could walk around and enjoy the beauty of the place without fighting our way through streams of visitors - every year there are twice as many people visiting the Taj as that live in Agra itself. We weren’t disappointed, from the moment we stepped through the entry gate to the outer courtyard and were faced with one of the huge 30m red sandstone gates leading to the inner courtyard we were blown away. We wandered through the ornamental gardens following the watercourses, to the Taj itself. Taking off our shoes we climbed the raised marble platform to admire the white marble and carvings inlaid with semi precious stones. We walked through the central cenotaph before completing a lap of the building. 
View of the Taj Mahal, Agra. 
The Taj Mahal, Agra.
The Taj was built during the reign of Shah Jahan as a memorial for his second wide who died in 1631. The complex took 8 years and 20,000 people, from all over the world to build. Not long after, Shah Jahan was over thrown by his son, Aurangzeb and was kept captive in Agra Fort from where he could only gaze at the Taj from his window. 
We left the Taj through the south gate, emerging in the centre of Taj Ganj, the budget traveler centre of Agra, where the workmen who built the Taj set up home hundreds of years previously. We stopped at a roof top restaurant with views of the Taj for a breakfast banana pancake before heading back to meet our driver.

Agra itself was established as the capital in 1501 and fell into Mughal hands in 1526. Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jahan all reigned from Agra before Aurangzeb moved the capital to Delhi in 1638. Although it’s a congested, dirty city, it has some beautiful buildings that were well worth visiting. We asked our driver to take us 10km north, to Sikandra, the sight of Akbar’s Mausoleum. Compared to the crowds at the Taj, the mausoleum was empty. We passed through a beautiful gateway to reach a courtyard, all built from red sandstone with white marble inlays and with antelope and peacocks grazing in the surrounding gardens - it’s crazy to see so many wild peacocks here.
Akbar's Mausoleum, Sikandra, near Agra.
Inside Akbar's Mausoleum, Sikandra, near Agra.
Next, we headed back in to town to the Itimad-ud-Daulah, the Baby Taj, another tomb, this time of a Persian nobleman who was minister to Jehangir and also his father-in-law. It was nothing like the Taj but did have some beautifully intricate carved screens and views over the Yamuna River. A short way away, we asked the rickshaw driver to stop at the Chini-ka-Rauza which was surprisingly quiet, yet another tomb, this one for the minister of Shah Jahan, built in the 1630’s. The tomb was once covered in bright blue mosaics and you can still see patches of the brilliant colours and designs. Beneath the tomb, on the banks of the river, temporary pavilions had been set up for some kind of festival and accompanying feast. We wondered down to watch the buffalo wallowing in the river and to see the people sitting around excitedly while huge cauldrons of food were stirred. 
Itimad-ud-Daulah, the Baby Taj, Agra.
Rhys outside the Itimad-ud-Daulah, the Baby Taj, Agra.
Local boy showing off his buffalo, the riverside, Agra.
Back at the rickshaw, we stopped at the Mehtab Bagh, a riverside park. Rather than paying to go into the park, having already seen similar ornamental gardens at the Taj, we walked along the side to the river front where we had perfect views of the Taj. As the weather had cleared the crowds had descended and we could see queues of people waiting to enter the building.

We had one more stop on our to do list and drove back in to Agra to the imposing Mughal fort. The red sandstone building, on the banks of the Yamuna River, was begun in 1565 by Akbar with the most important additions made by Shah Jahan in his favourite white marble. Initially it was intended for military purposes but Shah Jahan turned it into a palace. Much of the building has been destroyed over the years and the majority is closed and used by the Indian army. Nevertheless, the section that was open for visitors was impressive with towering gates, huge courtyards, rooms covered with mirror mosaics and views out to the Taj. 
Entrance gate to Agra Fort.
By the time we were finished at the fort we were tired and ready to head back to our room. Considering all the negative things we’d heard about Agra we’d enjoyed our stay and saw many incredible buildings. It may not be the kind of city you want to explore on foot but hiring a rickshaw for the day was the perfect way to see all the sights we wanted to visit.

We’d paid for late check out on our room since our train didn’t leave until 9pm. After picking up a Subway on the way back to the room to satisfy Rhys’s Western food cravings, we chilled until the evening. Our rickshaw driver collected us and dropped us at the station. Suddenly there were white people everywhere, the train we had booked was the one used by day trippers from Delhi. The train was delayed 30 minutes and we arrived in Delhi just before midnight. We’d booked into the hostel we’d stayed in during our first visit to Delhi and walked the short distance through Paharganj.

We were up early the next day to head back to the train station for the trip to Kalka. Having not had a full nights sleep we were pretty tired and grouchy. The trip was painless though and we were even served meals and drinks. Once in Kalka, we walked across the station to the Himalayan Queen, a toy train running through the mountains to Shimla.

We’d seen the train on TV before we came away and always thought it would be an experience. We were expecting carriages a little more luxurious and got stuck with seats next to a frosted window restricting the view a little. Rhys moved to sit in the open doorway and after the first hour, the couple sitting with us moved to an empty booth leaving me with an open window and great views. The toy train is a British built narrow gauge railway that takes 5 hours to travel from Kalka to Shimla, passing through 103 tunnels and crossing arched bridges as it slowly creeps it’s way through the mountains hugging the hillsides. The ride didn’t disappoint and the time flew by as we spent the entire time soaking in the views.
Rhys and the toy train on route to Shimla.
The toy train passing over a bridge on the way to Shimla.
Once we reached Shimla we jumped in a taxi to our hotel. As soon as we got there we were a little disappointed, although they’d upgraded us to the honeymoon suite, the room didn’t have a view and the circular bed and mirrors covering every available surface, made it feel a little distasteful. The hotel had great reviews from Indian tourists, I guess we just have different opinions on interior design. We wandered out to find the elevator that ran from the lower road to the pedestrianised Mall and found a better hotel to move to the following day that, although over budget, had stunning valley views that made it worth it. 

As soon as we reached the Mall our impression of Shimla changed, our original hotel was in a local area, in the centre of a crazy bazaar. The Mall is a pedestrianised street lined with decent shops and heritage buildings that make it look like a British high street. Fines are handed out for smoking in public, spitting and littering and plastic bags are banned and along with the altitude of 2,205m and the mountain air, it’s clean and fresh.

Shimla was a sleepy forest village until the British discovered it and decided to turn it into the official summer capital of the Raj, moving the whole government here from Delhi, each year from March to October. The town became India’s premier hill station. The centre of town is based around the Mall and the Ridge, where everyone strolls all day and through the evening, with views of the valleys falling away to either side. We spent our first evening sitting in a western cafe eating delicious pizza, overlooking some amazing British era buildings, the Town Hall and Police Station, that look like they’ve been transported here from home. 
British buildings in the centre of Shimla.
The next day we’d hoped to have a lay in in our extremely tasteful suite. It wasn’t to be. At 7am the water pump started and it sounded like some one was drilling into our head board. We were glad to pack up and leave, walking up the hill to our new hotel. Blown away by the view from our room, we set up camp and ordered a tea set to our room, popping out to a cake shop to buy a selection of chocolate, cream badness and biscuits, how British. We’d heard about the monkeys in Shimla being a little aggressive and sneaking in to open windows and jumped when one without a nose appeared at ours.
View from our bedroom window, Shimla Hotel White.
The clouds drifted in and the rain started just as we were getting ready to walk along the ridge. We waited but the weather didn’t improve so we ducked out and bought umbrellas before walking a few circles of the centre of town. Rhys stopped at a barbers and made the mistake of asking for his beard to be trimmed, the beard he’s been growing for months and was extremely proud of. He came out looking very trim and tidy, and very unhappy, it wasn’t at all what he was after, instead of a hipster beard, he’s now sporting a Dane Bowers/ carpet salesman look. The rain was still falling so we retired to the room, heading out again that evening for dinner. As it was Rhys’s Gramps’s funeral at home, we toasted his life while watching the sun set over the valley below. It was beautiful.
A toast to Rhys's Gramps, sunset from our room, Shimla.
The next day we woke to slightly better weather and decided to make the most of it, heading out to admire the buildings in the centre of town and to try and work out the deal with buses to our next stop, Dharamsala. The bus office was closed so we stopped by a coffee shop with views down the valley. When we found out our only option was 10 hours on a local bus we hunted down the cheapest taxi we could find. At only £35 it seemed more than worth it to us to avoid the hassle.

Afterwards, as the weather was holding out and we still need to wear in our new hiking boots before next week, we decided to walk to the Viceregal Lodge on the outskirts of town. We ended up following a well signposted heritage route that took us passed some beautiful Victorian and mock Tudor buildings. Rhys stopped to try to take a photo of a monkey in the trees and ended up being grabbed and chased, the monkey’s here really are aggressive. We reached the Lodge in no time and were struck with how British it all seemed. The Lodge is more of a Scottish manor house, built as the official residence of the British Viceroys. We wandered around the gardens before joining a short tour to see the inside of the building, now used as the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. It was a beautiful place and well worth the walk.
The Viceregal Lodge, Shimla.
We walked back into town, stopping for Rhys to grab lunch, before heading back to the room. After Rhys’s barber nightmare you would have thought i’d have learned but I stupidly ventured out too and had a similar experience, coming back with a Pat Sharpe mullet, absolutely horrendous.

3 September 2014

Week 101 - Udaipur, Pushkar, Jaipur (India)

We’d arranged an 8am pick up for the drive to Udaipur and were disappointed to be told it had been delayed to 9am. We hung around in our room waiting until it was time to leave and then we had a misunderstanding about how many stops we were going to make along the way. Finally in agreement, we set off. The first part of the journey was through flat scrubland and we alternated between watching the world go by and dozing. 

As the journey progressed the landscape started to turn more green and lush with evidence of the monsoon rains. Our first stop was at Ranakpur, a white, superbly ornate, marble, Jain temple at the base of the Aravalli hills (apparently, the oldest range in the world, predating even the Himalayas). The complex, with the main temple built in 1439, is considered to be one of the finest in Rajasthan and one of the most important in India. We wandered around in awe at the intricacy of the carvings covering every available surface. There are 1,444 pillars in the complex and no two are the same. 
Ranakpur Temple.
Intricate carvings inside Ranakpur Temple.
Continuing along the winding country roads, dodging cows and herds of goats, our driver asked if we were hungry. We stopped at a little place with gorgeous valley views for a buffet lunch. It turned into the most intense meal I think i’ve ever had. The waiter watched over us through every bite, at one point he took a chapatti out of my hand and told me I couldn’t eat it and he’d get fresh ones and then he tried to give me a lesson in how to eat an aubergine, it was all very off putting and I was too scared to eat enough to get anywhere near our moneys worth. 

Back in the car we passed through a heavy rain storm as we followed the hills to Kumbalgarh, a huge stone fort, perched on the hill top with stunning views down into the valleys (all but hidden by the rain clouds). Built in the 15th century, the fort was used by Mewar rulers as a place to retreat in times of danger. It was taken only once in it’s history, when the water supply was poisoned, and then the invaders only managed to hold it for two days. The fort walls stretch 36km making it the second longest wall in the world and it encloses hundreds of temples, palaces and gardens. There was a break in the rain as we arrived and we rushed to the highest point, the Palace of Clouds, to see the view, the wall snaking in to the distance and the cluster of temples and buildings around the gate where we’d entered. We had another downpour just as we reached the top causing us to duck into a building to wait it out and then, when it passed over we hurried back to the bottom before it could start again. We had time for a quick walk around a few of the temples before jumping back in the car. It was a shame our visit was so rushed as it was an incredible sight but at least we got the chance to see it.
View from Palace of Clouds, Kumbalgarh Fort.
Kumbalgarh Fort.
We arrived in to Udaipur just before sunset and walked the rest of the way, down the winding cobblestone streets, to our hostel. It wasn’t until they took us to our room that we realised how close to the lake and palaces we were. We had a corner room with floor to ceiling windows on two sides and could lie in bed watching the giant fruit bats swoop within feet of our room as the sun set over the Lake Palace.
Sunset view from our room in Udaipur.
Udaipur has earned the moniker of‘Rajasthans most romantic city and I can understand why. The City Palace, which our hostel was next to, towers over Lake Pichola, one of four man made lakes, facing the photogenic Lake Palace that seems to float in the middle of the water. The city was founded in 1559 when Udai Singh took flight from the final sacking of Chittorgarh (he was the one who was brought up in Kumbalgarh fort). Although the old town itself is touristy with hundreds of places to stay, eat and shop, it’s easy to disappear into the cobbled backstreets where people perch on doorsteps chatting and the kids run about shouting and playing.

After spending the first night at the hostel, eating on the roof terrace overlooking the lake, we ventured out to explore on our second day. We followed the lake edge, stopping at bathing and dhobi (clothes washing) ghats and taking in the view of the Lake Palace, before crossing a bridge for views of the City Palace. The temperature was bearable and the streets were much quieter than anywhere else we’ve been. We wandered back towards the hostel, buying a heavy rug on the way, where Rhys went to chill in the room while I went to the Bagore-ki-Haveli, a very strange museum. 
The Lake Palace, Udaipur.
The haveli was another former prime ministers mansion, right on the waters edge and although some areas had been beautifully restored, others held bizarre collections of puppets, the worlds biggest turban and sculptures of world landmarks made from polystyrene.

Back at the hostel we hid from the midday sun, heading out again in the early evening for a tuktuk ride to the cable car station. The cable car took us to the summit of a hill with views out over the lake. It was a spectacular sight and we could see a number of the other lakes in the area as well as the City Palace and Lake Palace and Jagmandir Island. Rhys was feeling a bit under the weather so we didn’t actually stay for sunset and headed back to the room. That night, Rhys was feeling worse and stayed in the room while I went out to a roof terrace with views of the lit up City Palace for dinner.

The next day, Rhys was still feeling too unwell to leave the room. I walked over to the City Palace to explore. The palace in Udaipur is Rajasthans largest palace, a conglomeration of buildings created by various maharajas (the City Palace actually comprises 11 palaces), surmounted with balconies, cupolas and towers. I wandered through the museum, through courtyards full of shiny peacock mosaics, rooms covered floor to ceiling with minature paintings and mirror tiles and mazelike passages (built to confuse intruders), passed collections of armory, weapons, silverware and palanquins. It was huge and pretty tiring but I still had a boat trip on Lake Pichola to get a better view of the Lake Palace and to visit Jag Mandir to do. 
View of the Lake Palace from the City Palace, Udaipur.
It was a long walk down to the Palace promenade where I found the boat pier, where after an awkward group photo with me in the middle like a celebrity, I got squeezed into the last seat on a boat heading out on to the lake. We circled the Lake Palace, built in 1754 as the royal summer palace and completely covering the 1.5 hectares of the Jag Niwas island, before stopping at Jag Mandir, the second lake island on which stood another domed palace, built in 1620 (thought to be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal), circled by elephant statues and gardens. I didn’t stay for long before jumping back in the boat back to the City Palace.

By then, it was time to check on Rhys and I walked back to the hostel. After lunch on the roof terrace, overlooking the lake, I spent the next couple of hours going up and down the stairs to try and do the laundry. A quick visit to a nearby miniature painting shop and it was time for dinner. Rhys was starting to feel a little better and decided to join me.

We had an early start the following day, checking out of our amazing corner room before the sun rose to find a tuk tuk to take us the train station. We had a 6 hour journey in an aircon carriage without seats together and with tinted windows restricting our view. Nevertheless, the journey was painless and before we knew it we were in Ajmer. We dropped in to the tourist office at the train station briefly to find out the easiest way to Pushkar and ended up getting a taxi. 

Once in Pushkar, we checked in to our hotel and took some time to freshen up before wandering out to see the town. Much smaller than anywhere else we’ve been so far, Pushkar was also much dirtier, noisier and came with a lot more hassle, surprising since it’s a Hindu pilgrimage town. The stories claim that Brahma dropped a lotus flower on the earth and Pushkar appeared and the lake around which the town is clustered attracts hundreds of people a day to bath in it’s waters. It’s touristy and has a strange Israeli presence, for a not particularly nice town, it seems bizarre that so many Israelis now call this place home, all the restaurants even serve Israeli food. Although it was really interesting to see the hordes of pilgrims hustling along the streets, we were constantly dodging motorbikes with horns blaring, beggars and other people generally trying to make us give them money for nothing, spirituality has been truly commercialised in Pushkar.

It started raining heavily that afternoon and Rhys was still recovering, so we retreated to our hostel roof terrace for pakora whilst watching the tortoises shuffle around and the staff feed the black faced langur monkeys and chase the red bottomed rhesus macaques with sticks. The macaques are a bit aggressive so they’re not welcome but it’s a bit hard to feed one monkey without feeding the other. The monkeys take over the rooftops in the evenings, treating the town as their playground and it’s amusing to watch them swinging about. We had Israeli food at another roof top cafe (oh how I miss hummus) before bed. 

We had a well needed lay in the next day before meeting up with one of the hostel owners cousins who ran a courier service. We’d decided we were carrying too much weight and a parcel home was called for. After climbing on the back of his bike and narrowly missing women and cows, we arrived at his shop and sent another 8kg of souvenirs home, crossing our fingers that it reaches it’s destination.

Next, we decided to walk down to the lake. Pushkar Lake is surrounded by 52 bathing ghats, stairways giving access to the sacred waters to the hordes of pilgrims so they can take ritual baths to cleanse their souls. While in town we thought it only right that we joined in and took part in a puja (prayer). We were separated and sat down with priests on the stairs by the water where the symbolism of each of the flowers, pigments, sugar and rice were explained, before we had to join in with some chanting, washing hands in the lake water and sprinkling it over ourselves, praying for the health of our family and good karma. Rhys said a prayer for his Gramps who passed away this week and threw flower petals in the lake. We made our donation, received our Pushkar passports (a piece of coloured thread around your wrist) and continued on our lap of the lake, returning to our hostel via Sadar Bazaar, the main street, lined with stalls and shops. 
Pushkar Lake.
We wandered out again later that day to visit the 2,000 year old Brahma temple in town, one of only a handful of Brahma temples anywhere (Brahma being the Hindu Lord of Creation), and were caught up in the stampede that pushed up the marble stairs to the main temple. Although visually not very impressive, the piety of the people surrounding us was moving. We didn’t stay long and as we left the rains started to blow in. We escaped to a roof top terrace for lunch before hiding back in our room. We wandered back into town again to a roof top restaurant for dinner.

We had an early afternoon train the following day from Ajmer, so, after a lazy start, we took a taxi from Pushkar to the train station where we dropped our bags in the left luggage room. We took a rickshaw through the windy streets to the end of a pedestrianised area leading to the dargah, the tomb of a Sufi saint, Khhwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti, and a Muslim pilgrimage site. We couldn’t take the camera in so had to take it in turns to wander through the main gate and around the complex. The dargah was built in stages, mostly in the 16th century and was a little haven of peace away from the bustle of the street, with people sitting around, seemingly doing nothing, everywhere. As you walk through the courtyards you come across a mosque, the tomb itself, and two huge iron cauldrons for offerings for the poor. As with the Brahma temple, it wasn’t visually impressive but was an experience to people watch.
Entrance to the Dargah, Ajmer.
Our train left at 3pm and we arrived in Jaipur after dark, taking an autorickshaw to our hotel. We got chatting with the two boys who were driving our autorickshaw and arranged for them to collect us at the hotel the following day for sightseeing. We spent the rest of the evening on the roof terrace.

The boys were waiting for us at 10am as arranged. As we stepped out of the hotel it started to rain, and it pretty much continued on and off for the whole time we were in Jaipur. Jaipur is a very different city to those we’d visited so far, instead of the ancient twisty roads, this city had a more modern feel to it. In 1727, Jai Singh decided to build a new city, moving from the fort at Amber. It was built according to the principles set out in an ancient Hindu architectural treatise, separated into nine rectangular blocks where people of different castes would reside. Later, in 1876, the Maharaja had the entire city painted ‘pink’, earning Jaipur the nickname, the ‘pink city’ (which is definitely more of a terracotta than a pink).

Our first stop, just as the rain started to subside, was at the Jantar Mantar, a peculiar site within the old city walls. Jai Singh was a keen astronomer and built a huge observatory in the centre of the city. As the sun wasn’t out and the instruments only work in sunlight we just walked around the massive structures without a guide, weaving between 27m tall sun dials and instruments for estimating when the monsoon would arrive and the timing of eclipses.
The sun dial in Jantar Mantar, Jaipur.
Next, after Rhys stopped to sit with some snake charmers, we crossed the road to the City Palace, a vast complex of courtyards and buildings. The first courtyard was centred on the Mubarak Mahal (Welcome Palace) which housed a textiles museum and there was another interesting armory museum housed in the former apartments of the wives of the maharaja. We stopped to peer up at the Chandra Mahal, the seven storey residence of the descendants of the maharaja, before continuing into the Pitan Niwas Chowk, the highlight of the palace for me, a courtyard with four beautiful gates representing the four seasons.
Snake charmers, Jaipur.
The City Palace, Jaipur.
Me at one of the gates of Pitan Niwas Chowk, City Palace, Jaipur.
Back at the rickshaw, the rain started again as we rode out of the city walls to the Royal Gaitor, the location of the royal cenotaphs (including that of Jai Singh). Again, just as we arrived the rain stopped and we had the place to ourselves, wandering around the intricately carved monuments to the the soundtrack of peacocks. It was incredibly beautiful.
Me at the Royal Gaitor, Jaipur.
The Royal Gaitor, Jaipur.
We were talked into climbing the hill to the Ganesh temple, against our better judgment. As we made it to the top, where the temple was closed, the rain started again, with one umbrella to share we didn’t stand much of a chance. We squelched back to the rickshaw and agreed we’d make one more stop before heading back to the hotel to dry off.

Our final stop was at Galta and the Surya Mandir, otherwise known as the Monkey Temple. We bought a bag of peanuts at the bottom of the hill before walking up to the temple, with views out over Jaipur. It wasn’t the most beautiful temple but it was worth it to see Rhys reach for the peanuts only to throw them on the floor as he was mobbed by 30 or so aggressive Rhesus Macaques.

Back at the hotel we dried off before retiring to the roof terrace where we ended up chatting to a Welsh couple and a German guy, who we then tagged along with for dinner. We went to a small local eatery with the most amazing BBQ chicken. Rhys had been dying for meat having eaten vegetarian for the past three days and the food was delicious.

27 August 2014

Week 100 - Bangkok, Delhi, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur (Thailand, India)

We had the day free while we waited in hope, with fingers and toes crossed, for our Indian visas to arrive, and decided we should spend it seeing some more of the hundreds of beautiful temples Bangkok has to offer. The city really is quite majestic, nestled in between the shopping malls, skyscrapers, tatty backstreets and traffic jammed roads there are little pockets of white buildings topped with the most beautiful green and gold roofs and adorned with incredibly ornate and sparkly window and door frames. 

After a delicious breakfast pastry in a bakery near our hotel, we set out to our first stop of the day, a giant Buddha statue that we’d seen in passing a week previous. Next, we walked towards a temple complex that we’d noticed from the bus window on our way back from Koh Chang, stopping on the way at a completely different and equally beautiful complex with a towering golden stupa. Wat Ratchanadda, the temple we’d seen from the bus, was huge, after walking through a garden with a buildings dotted around we reached the temple with it’s 37 black, metal spires, signifying the 37 virtues towards enlightenment, rising skyward at each level. From the top of the temple, we spotted the Golden Mount, and wondered how we’d never noticed it before, a golden castle towering over the neighbouring buildings, built on top of a man made, white hill. 
The temple complex Wat Ratchanadda, Bangkok.
After walking to the Golden Mount and feeling suitably cultured for the day, we were starting to flag from the heat and humidity and decided to head back to the hotel. We had time to refresh and recharge before we had to head to the agency in Sukumvit, to see if our passports had turned up in any of the afternoon deliveries (when we called at 3pm they were still being processed but we had to try or face missing our flights the next day and spending £450 on new ones). We got there after a very long taxi journey, where the driver got fed up of the traffic and dropped us at a train station to finish the journey. Our passports still weren’t in and they were unsure whether the embassy was having printing problems and whether they’d even been able to print that day. They suggested we wait around in case there was a final delivery and 10 minutes before the agency shut, our passports arrived. Extremely happy, we headed back across town to the hotel.

Another quick turn around and cursing that we hadn’t even had a chance to use the roof top jacuzzi at our hotel, we were back out to Khao San Road to meet Mario for dinner. We wandered around before finally deciding on a street stall that turned out to be pretty mediocre. As we walked back to Khao San, the rain started and we dived into a bar to wait it out. Leaving the boys to their beers I went to the closest massage parlour for a heavenly foot massage, then as the boys hadn’t finished, I went back for an aggressive back, neck and shoulders massage that seemed to involve a disproportionate amount of elbow. Saying goodbye to Mario, and leaving him still in a quandary over where to go next, with a fast expiring Thai visa, we walked back to the hotel to try to get a decent night sleep before our morning flight. 

The next morning we took a cab to Phaya Thai from where we caught the airport express train, arriving in plenty of time for our flight. After check in, we had an early lunch before it was time to board. The plane landed in Delhi early and the airport formalities went very smoothly. When we got to the arrivals hall, the driver who was supposed to collect us, wasn’t there. As we’d only turned our clocks back an hour we thought he was late, Rhys went to check outside and was barred from coming back in while I worked out the pay phone and called the hostel. Our lift arrived and it turned out we needed to wind our clocks back another 30 minutes. He wasn’t late at all. We settled in the car ready for the drive into Delhi feeling a bit flustered. And then the car broke down in a tunnel on the dual carriage way. The driver managed to start it again but another mile down the road and it broke down again, at traffic lights. The heat was oppressive and everyone was honking their horns angrily while we blocked the road. He tried to start it and even ran off to get more fuel (it wasn’t that), before another guy turned up from nowhere, tried to help him, and then agreed to take us the rest of the way to our hostel.

By the time we found it, down a winding alleyway off of Main Bazaar in Paharganj, we were disgustingly hot and sticky. Turning the aircon up in ou room we cooled off before braving the heat again to explore the backpacker ghetto we were staying in and to grab some dinner. Initial impressions of Delhi were that it wasn’t as dirty or as in-your-face as we’d expected. I think we’ve been to so many cities that we’re abit desensitised and you hear such bad things about Delhi that you expect the worst. 
Market square in Paharganj, Delhi.
Our first evening in Delhi, after dinner on a roof top terrace, we hailed a rickshaw to take us to the Red Fort for the sound and light show. It was the slowest rickshaw in the world. At one point Rhys had to get out and walk as we were over taken by every other rickshaw in the city. Once out of Paharganj we started to understand why people always talk about the congestion, pollution and homeless people of Delhi. The traffic was shocking and there were homeless people curled up asleep tucked into every nook. But it wasn’t all bad and we rolled at snails pace past some beautiful buildings and arches until the walls of the Red Fort loomed. We entered the fort through the Lahore Gate and realised we had the place pretty much to ourselves and 30 minutes until the show started. 

The sandstone fort was constructed between 1638 and 1648 and by the 19th century it was already much dilapidated. Mughal rulers, sapped by civil war had been unable to maintain the fort properly and then, during the First War of Independence in 1857, the British demolished the lesser buildings to make way for barracks and army offices. It’s impressive for it’s scale rather than for detailed craftmanship. After passing through the main gate, you find yourself in a covered shopping arcade called Chatta Chowk, from there we continued to the outdoor seating area for the light show, to listen to the history of the fort while the surrounding buildings were lit up with music playing. I thought it was great but Rhys was struggling with the heat so we left halfway through. Having learnt our lesson about cycle rickshaws we grabbed a autorickshaw to take us back to our hotel to bed.

The next morning we jumped on the metro and headed out to the lavish Akshardham Temple on the outskirts of Delhi, a huge, ornate Hindu Swaminarayan temple, inaugurated in 2005, made of sandstone and white marble. We were in awe as soon as we entered the complex, it’s beautiful with every surface covered with ornate carvings. From the Ten Gates, inviting goodness from the ten principal directions, to the Bhakti Dwar gate of devotion and the Mandir itself, reaching 141ft high and featuring 234 intricately carved pillars, 9 domes and over 20,000 sculpted figures, resting on a plinth carved with 148 life size stone elephants. The complex includes three exhibition halls that you can pay extra to visit. We went in the first, the Hall fo Values, that taught of the life of Bhagwan Swaminarayan through a number of rooms showing films, light and sound shows and robotic figures. I thought it was a great way to make religion accessible to modern generations. Rhys was getting tired from the heat and was ready to go so we skipped the other two exhibitions. After picking up our photos (we couldn’t take a camera in so paid to have some taken)., we headed back to our hotel. We had lunch at another roof top cafe before chilling in our room for a couple of hours to hide from the heat.
Our photo purchase, Akshardham, Delhi.
That night we had a night train booked. Originally, we’d managed to get one bed and one cancellation in AC2 which meant we could both get on the train but didn’t have a second bed confirmed, luckily we got the second bed. We had another slow trip through the Delhi traffic to the Old Delhi Train Station before waiting at the station for an hour for our train to leave. We boarded and settled in to our seats. Rhys had a curtained off bed that was ridiculously skinny and I had an open bed in a group of four with a window. The journey was pretty painless, apart from the man sleeping next to me who snored worse than a rhinocerous with a cold, meaning I got about 3 hours sleep. 

We arrived in Jaisalmer at noon the next day and were met by the hostel for a free transfer. There were another 4 people on our train staying at the same hostel, Dylans Cafe, and we sat on the roof terrace trying to catch the breeze, eating lunch and chatting. It was stifling hot, over 40C and we were grateful to get in to our air con room for a shower.

After a couple of hours we headed back to the roof terrace for a drink with the others, before wandering into the fort. Jaisalmer is like something out of Aladdin, it’s the city you’d draw if someone told you to draw a desert city. There’s a massive fort that towers over the muddle of streets below like a giant sandcastle, with every building made from local sandstone. The first day we walked through the main gate and into the medieval warren of stalls and houses that fill every inch of space around the palace inside the fort wall. The fact that it’s still lived in makes it incredibly atmospheric with women disappearing around corners with their brightly coloured saffron and fushia saris billowing behind them, men riding rusty old bikes with their turbans piled high, cows at every turn and bright embroideries hanging on the walls.
Wandering the streets inside the fort, Jaisalmer.
View from the cafe, Jaisalmer fort.
After a circle of the fort walls, stopping to admire the view of the town below, stretching out to the sandy plains in the distance, with the horizon dotted with wind farms, we found a roof top cafe high above the main gate where we settled for a cold drink while we waited for sunset. That night we ate on our hostel roof terrace and watched the football on TV with the other guests before bed.

We were up early the next day to beat the heat. Before heading back in to the fort area we wove our way through the maze like streets, being pointed the way by lots of happy locals, until we reached the Nathmal-ki-Havali (haveli being the Hindi word for ‘mansion’). We didn’t go in, just admired the carved exterior with a shop keeper pointing out differences between the left and right wings, carved by two brothers in competition. Our next stop was the Patwa-ki-Haveli with five interlinking buildings, built in the early 19th century by five Jain brothers who were jewellery merchants. We went in one of the privately owned sections for a pretty rubbish tour but spectacular views from the roof. We had one more haveli to visit, the Salim Singh-ki-Haveli, built 300 years ago and home to one of the Jaisalmer prime ministers. The building was a beautiful shape and the guide who showed us around (and who still lived there in the lower stories) was really informative.
View of the fort from Patwa-ki-Haveli, Jaisalmer.
Passageways within the fort, Jaisalmer.
Salim Singh-ki-Haveli, Jaisalmer.
After exploring the havelis, we headed back into the fort where we stopped for a cold drink at another roof top cafe, before following the signs to the Jain Temples, an interconnecting complex of seven temples dating from the 12th to 16th centuries. The carvings were beautiful, with every inch of surface looking like honey coloured lace, and you could easily find quiet corners to admire the artisans work in peace with the scent of sandalwood swirling around. It was midday by the time we emerged so we took a slow walk back to the hostel to hide from the heat.
Inside the Jain temples, Jaisalmer.
That afternoon we’d booked on to a camel safari. We were picked up in a jeep with another English guy, and drove out into the scrub of the Great Thar Desert. Our first stop was at an oasis, not that pretty but cool to see how little lakes can crop up in the middle of somewhere so incredibly hot and dry (you can go seven years in Jaisalmer with no rain and while we were there, temperatures were in the low 40C’s every day and it wasn’t even the height of summer). Next, we drove to a small fort. Again, it wasn’t really mind blowing and we were more taken by the ruins of an abandoned village lying in it’s shadow. 

Finally, we drove to camel point, where our camels and a dutch couple were waiting. We mounted our trusty steeds and strode out, caravan style, into the plains. I thought mine (i’m pretty sure it was called Noggin) was grumpy, but it had nothing on Rhys’s, Sala, the grumpiest camel you could ever imagine. We spent about two hours riding through the desert, spotting deer and mouse/rat things and birds, before we arrived at the sand dunes. There was no one else (one other jeep appeared in the distance later) and there and not a piece of litter in sight. Climbing down from our camels, we wandered through the dunes, taking photos and enjoying the view. It’s not like the Sahara with dunes as far as the eye can see but rather a small patch of dunes among the plains. 
Our camels being grumpy, Jaisalmer.
Me, enjoying a beer on the sand dunes, Jaisalmer.
Rhys on the sand dunes, Jaisalmer.
We stayed for sunset before dinner cooked on the camp fire, then our jeep took us back to Jaisalmer in time for bed. Many people stay out but we were keen for a good nights sleep in our comfy air con room. Driving home with two Indians and Indian music blaring, dodging cows and goats, was one of those experiences where the memory will always make you smile.

The next morning we were up early again to dodge the sun and walked to the palace within the fort. There was an audio guide so I said goodbye to Rhys at the gate who whizzed around before having baked beans in a roof top cafe while I absorbed the information from the tour. It wasn’t as pretty a building as the havelis and temples from the previous day but was interesting to see. 
The palace within the Jaisalmer fort.
We treated ourselves to a relaxed lunch in one of the posher heritage hotels in town before spending some time to cool down in our room, preparing for our evening train. We took a tuktuk to the station and found our seats in the sleeper class carriage, the cheapest carriage with open windows instead of air con and triple bunks. Luckily we had seats together by the window and, for the start of the journey, the train was empty and we whiled away the last hours of sunlight watching the desert landscape roll pass and talking to people who appeared at our window when we pulled in to stations. So far, we have a really good impression of Indian people, they’re very warm and welcoming, they’re keen to speak English and to say hello and they don’t generally want anything in return.
Rural train station on route to Jodhpur.
As the train passed through more stations we stopped to pick up more and more people until there were at least two people to each bunk and ten of us in our little carriage meant for six. The journey took 6 hours and with very numb bums, we were happy when we pulled in to Jodhpur at around 11pm. Then we had the fun of fighting our way off the train, climbing over whole extended families sprawled in the aisles and then tackling the station platforms that had entire villages camped out on them. In the main building of the station and in the forecourt, it looked like a refugee camp with people curled up asleep in every available space. I have no idea why they were there.

We found a tuktuk straight away to take us to our hotel and, having warned the hotel we’d be arriving on the train, they’d stayed up late to let us in. The room was fantastic with a four poster bed although the water was off and the first thing you want after a 6 hour non-aircon train journey through the desert, is a shower. We freshened up as best we could with bottled water and fell into bed.

We had a lay in before breakfast on the roof of our hotel. As we’d arrived in the dark we hadn’t realised just how close we were to the fort. Once we’d climbed to the roof terrace we were faced with the huge, solid walls of the fort towering over us and ate breakfast in awe with a Rudyard Kipling quote from 1899 running through my head “the work of angels, fairies and giants”. The old town of Jodhpur is a 16th century muddle of blue painted cube buildings, earning Jodhpur the name ‘The Blue City’. The views from our roof terrace were spectacular.
The fort, Jodhpur.
After breakfast we were excited to wander up to the fort and after a sweaty climb, through fly filled, cobble stone, cow filled, maze like streets, we paid our entry and collected our audio tours. The fort dwarfs the city, with walls that reach up to 120m tall and has a proud history having never fallen to invaders. We wandered a third of the way around before Rhys got fed up with the guide and just wanted to admire the buildings. We took off our headphones and walked around the rest of the site, wishing more of it was open to the public and having photos taken with locals. It didn’t impress us as much as Jaisalmer although the collection of palanquins and royal cradles were cool to see, and we didn’t spend long before heading back to our room to escape the heat.
The palace within Jodhpur fort.
Jodhpur, the Blue City.
We ended up staying in our room for longer than we’d intended and only went out again at about 5pm. We walked to the clock tower and through the Sadar Market, enjoying watching the local people going about their business with stacks of brightly coloured fabrics and tables of fresh produce. We stopped for a makhania lassi, a super thick and sweet yoghurt, flavoured with saffron at a little local cafe where we were the main attraction. On the way back to our hotel, we saw a beautiful piece of fabric and spent ages looking through piles and piles of embroidery before buying a throw. We found a roof top restaurant for a delicious vegetarian dinner (yes, Rhys ate, and enjoyed, vegetarian) and listened to the mosques call to prayer bouncing around the old town.
The clock tower, Jodhpur.
So far, we love India, it is hot and tiring and can be dirty and smelly but the colours here are just that little bit brighter than anywhere else.