Tuesday 13 November 2012

Delhi Encounter #2: Pickpockets and Skyfall

9th-14th November 2012

Despite being the least deserving, Delhi is the only place we’ve visited on this trip to be given a second chance. For some reason we’d given ourselves a full five days more to spend in the place. We briefly considered holing up in our hotel for the duration but sense prevailed and we decided to give it another go. Who knows, maybe last time we were just unlucky…

It seems that even when Delhi gets things right it gets them wrong. We’d booked a first-class cabin for the sleeper train from Jodhpur. The cabin was fairly big and pretty clean if you don’t mind the odd mouse. We also set off on time which was nice. Even better, we actually arrived in Delhi early. This is usually a good thing but we were meant to arrive at 5.30 am and at 5 am we were awoken by the guards knocking on our door announcing that we were nearly there. By ‘nearly there’ they meant ‘already arrived’ as less than 30 seconds later the train come to a stop. Cue a mad, sleepy scramble to gather our stuff (and wits) and get off the train.

Our hotel had sent a driver to pick us up and by about 9 am they’d managed to clear a room for us so we managed to catch up on lost sleep pretty quickly. Days one and two were spent exploring the local area, Karol Bagh (still mental, but less mental than where we stayed last time) and doing a bit of light shopping along the Main Bazaar. It was all fairly relaxing – even the overly persistent rickshaw drivers weren’t being too annoying. So, on our third day we thought we’d visit a couple of the sights, the Red Fort and Jama Masjid.

We took the metro to Chandni Chowk and to get to the fort we had to fight our way along the bazaar. With Diwali being just around the corner, it was packed. We emerged from the other end hot and bothered but in one piece only for a rogue bicycle to take a chunk out of Karen’s shin. Gritting our teeth we soldiered on.

The Red Fort looks very grand from the outside and we considered going in but after the past couple of weeks we were a bit forted-out so we decided just to take a couple of snaps and go to the mosque instead.

The Red Fort
This is where things started to get nasty. To get to the mosque we had to walk down Meena Bazaar, packed to the gills with stalls and people. As with any large crowd, there was lots of shoving and jostling but about half-way along we both suddenly became aware that the same few men had been keeping pace with us. They’d been taking it in turns to push in front of us then suddenly stop to either answer a phantom text message or pretend to peruse a stall. Each time this caused the crowd around us to bunch and, during the subsequent jostling, their accomplices were attempting to rifle through my bag. Sure enough, as soon as we stopped and checked we found the bag half-opened. Luckily all the valuables were in my pockets (thank you wallet-on-a-chain) and nothing was missing. The most they would have got was a half-used wet-wipe.

A bit rattled, we made our way to the mosque, took off our shoes (as you do) and walked towards the entrance. Our way was suddenly blocked by a group of very aggressive young men who insisted that we had to pay 300 rupees each for our ‘cameras’. We knew that entry was free and although we had a camera, we had no intention of using it, so refused and tried to walk on. They continued to physically bar our progress although none of them had any official uniforms or ID cards and other tourists were being waved through while this was going on. I don't know why they took a particular dislike to us but judging from similar travellers’ experiences I’ve since read on TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet, this kind of extortion is common at Jama Masjid. The experience left a really bad taste in the mouth – it’s easily the most uncomfortable and unwelcome I’ve felt anywhere in Asia, and that includes these guys in Vietnam.

Remember us?
We abandoned the sightseeing for the day and took refuge in our hotel room.

The next day we decided to we needed a bit of insulation so we took ourselves off to a nice clean shopping mall and went to see the new James Bond movie - Skyfall. Sadly it didn't live up to the hype. Bond may be back but that’s only true in the literal sense. The dialogue was stilted and the story unbelievable. Now, that’s true for all Bond movies, but what was missing was the sheer joie-de-vivre and chutzpah that usually accompanies the silliness. (English, French and Yiddish in one sentence - Sugoi!) I want my Bond movies to say to me, “I know this is ridiculous, but just go with it and let’s all have some fun!”

Skyfall tries to take itself a bit too seriously and for me it didn’t really work. Also, like last time, the cinema’s aircon was set to January in Novosibirsk.

So, after four days, my opinion of Delhi was still at pretty low ebb. But it did have one last trick up it’s sleeve – the Lotus Temple.

The Baha'i Lotus Temple
Looks like a lotus!
Finally, a place I can unequivocally recommend – free to get in, almost spotlessly clean, well-organised – it’s an oasis of calm amidst the madness. We spent a pleasant hour enjoying the views and the sweet, sweet silence inside the temple itself. (No talking allowed – it’s heaven!)

And so, for the first time in six months, that brings this blog right up to the present moment. I’m writing this in our hotel room listening to the first fireworks of Diwali explode around us. It’s been an amazing six months – we’ve seen and done so much and some of it hasn’t really sunk in yet -  but I think we’re both finally ready to come home.

Do keep checking the blog as in the next week or so I’m planning to put together some of our favourite bits and closing thoughts: a highlights package for those of you that haven’t managed to read all 90 posts! (Shame on you.)

Until then it’s sayonara, zai jian, etc. etc. and we're looking forward to seeing you all again very soon!

Current location: Delhi until tomorrow
Next stop: home

Rhapsody In Blue

6th-9th November

Having already visited the Pink City it seemed only fair that we also pay a visit to the Blue City – Jodhpur. Things were slightly different this time as we’d booked into a homestay in a small village about 30km south of the city (Chhotaram Prajapat's Homestay). We arrived late – at about 11pm – and were picked up from the station by the owner Chhotu and his father. Despite the late hour, when we arrived at the guesthouse his mother and wife greeted us with hot chai, friendship bracelets and bindis. The perfect welcome!

You know when you've been bindied
Our rooms looked like mud huts (although they were sturdily built) and had been hand-decorated by Chhotu’s mother. It was surprisingly cold in the countryside so we were glad of some extra blankets – good practice for coming home to the Scottish winter!

Mudhut-style rooms
Diwali decorations
The next day we spent relaxing around their house. Electricity is reserved for lights and the lone computer (which I had to clean of viruses before we used it – it was riddled!) but there’s none for cooking, nor any gas, so all our meals were cooked over a cow-dung fire. The food was delicious – simple vegetable curries, freshly prepared each day, served with millet chapattis and spicy pickle. I think it was some of the best food we’ve had in India.

The kitchen
Having lunch with Chhotu's family
Making millet-flour chapattis
That evening Chhotu’s younger brother took us on a walk around the village and up the local hill to watch the sunset.

Chhotu's brother Omprakash choosing ringtones
View across Rajahstan
The next day was similarly relaxing but in the afternoon we went on a ‘village safari’. It was…interesting.

First we met a woman who could magically remove parasites and dirt from people’s ears and teeth by gently sucking on a small metal tube. She demonstrated on a couple of her kids…Behold this empty metal tube! Watch as I place it against my son’s ear and gently suck! Marvel as I blow the extracted ‘dirt’ and ‘worms’ into this bowl…! It was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen - basically a grown woman gobbing into a bucket. I was asked if I would I like to try it .Er, no.

Our next stop was better - a visit to a Bishnoi village. The Bishnois are a sort of conservationist religion - the original tree-huggers. We got shown how to wrap a turban (and try one on) and then then took part in a traditional opium ceremony. Of course, we didn’t inhale.

Who said I've got a big head?
Preparing the drugs
Finally, after stopping by a lake to see some cranes, we came the highlight of the tour, a demonstration of how to make a clay pot.

On our last day, before we caught the sleeper train back to Delhi, we took a tour of the main tourist spots in Jodhpur city – Umaid Bhavan Palace, Jaswant Thada mausoleum, and Mehrangarh Fort. All three are very well presented on top of the hills surrounding the city.

The palace was only built in the early 20th century. It’s main claim to fame is that the internal furnishings, originally ordered from London, were sunk by a U-boat before they got to India. Instead, the Maharajah got a Polish chap (who knew a few things about interior design and Art Deco styling) to knock up some replacements! Unfortunately only a third of the palace is open to the public. One of the remaining thirds is still occupied by royals and the other third is a top-class hotel. Apparently Naomi Campbell was hosting a party there when we visited. Our invite must have got lost in the post.

Hi Naomi (third window from the right)
Much more interesting were the mausoleum – quite pretty in itself but also a good spot for the best views of the fort – and the fort itself. The fort was particularly well preserved and free audio guides were available which enhanced the tour somewhat. We also had spectacular vistas of the Blue City. The blue paint on the walls was originally a sign of wealth, but subsequently caught on with the general populace, no doubt helped by the claim that the blue colour helped repel mosquitoes – sounds like somebody knew a thing or two about marketing!

Jaswant Thada mausoleum
The majestic Mehrangarh Fort
Panorama of Jodhpur
The Blue City
More blueness viewed from the fort
Finally, we had a bit of spare time so we finished our afternoon off with a pleasant stroll in the 'Monkey Garden'. I don't know much about it other than Chhotu said it would be nice and full of monkeys - correct on both counts.

Just chillin'
Monkey Garden monuments
And then it was time to say goodbye to Jodhpur. We had a wonderful time there, in a large part because of the welcome we received from Chhotu and his family. They really made sure we had a special time.

Chhotu (second from right) and family
Next up, Delhi – the revenge!

Current location: Delhi until tomorrow
Next stop: home

Sunday 11 November 2012

Pretty In Pink

2nd-5th November 2012

If you were paying attention, you may have picked up from my last post that I was glad to leave Agra. Being organised types, we’d booked all our Indian trains over a month ago so we didn’t have to worry about getting a ticket and were looking forward to a pleasant few hours relaxing on the way to Jaipur. Mr Singh from our homestay gave us a lift to the station and we were off!

Or not.

When we got into the station we found our 5pm train was already estimated to be 3½ hours late. One hour later it slipped to 4½ hours. Suddenly our 10pm arrival in Jaipur was looking more like 3am (or later) and our first day there was likely to be a write-off. Time to check out the alternatives.

This is where India comes into its own. A quick enquiry outside the station and I managed to get a good price for a taxi (£45 for a 4 hour drive). Imagine pitching up at Edinburgh Waverley and asking for a taxi to Birmingham! Luckily we also found a fellow traveller who was willing to split the fare (Katherine from Oz). We all crammed into the Nissan Micra-sized ‘taxi’ and 5 hours and one chai break later we arrived in Jaipur.

Well rested, we were up early to explore the Pink City, so-called because of the salmon pink paint that covers a lot of the city’s buildings. Apparently it was originally done in 1876 to hide the poor quality construction materials from a visiting dignitary – the then Prince of Wales and soon to be King Edward VII.

First view of the Pink City
Despite warnings in the guide book about the crowds and pollution, we found Jaipur to be much nicer than either Delhi or Agra. In contrast to Agra in particular, Jaipur felt more like a functioning city with it’s own identity. There’s clearly more to it than just the monuments.

But if it’s monuments you’re after then it doesn’t disappoint. There’s loads to choose from but our first stop – and my favourite monument so far in Asia – was Jantar Mantar: the Royal Observatory. It’s a collection of giant instruments designed to measure and predict the movement of heavenly bodies. The crowning glory is the magnificent Samrat Yantra a huge 27m high sundial that is supposedly accurate to two seconds - true in theory, just not in practice. Walking among the instruments was like being in a land of giants. Fantastic!

(In the interests of balance I have to admit that Karen wasn’t nearly as impressed as I was. Must be a boy thing.)

No idea what this does but it looks the business
Same thing but with bits missing! Love it!
Something to do with the zodiac - I should have got the audio guide...
Samrat Yantra - how big is your clock?
At the third stroke it will be a quarter to April
The inspiration for "Stairway To Heaven"
Right beside the observatory is the City Palace. Karen’s experience was soured slightly when she was stung by a wasp as I bought our tickets. A nearby Indian gentleman, who I’ve no doubt was only trying to help, claimed it was only a butterfly. A butterfly with a huge stinger that looked like a wasp perhaps…

Entrance to the palace
What's an Indian urn? Answers on a postcard.
On our second day we walked out to the Water Palace (Jal Mahal) via the Palace of the Winds (Hawa Mahal). Hawa Mahal is the iconic image of Jaipur, originally part of the City Palace and designed to allow the ladies of the court to observe the goings-on in the city without being seen.

Hawa Mahal
Just north of the city centre, Jal Mahal is a palace built in the middle of a lake. No idea why, maybe the Maharajah loved mosquitoes. Anyway it’s very pretty.

Jal Mahal
Another view of Jal Mahal
The day’s wanderings also led us to a couple of new food experiences. First some delicious, cold lassi from Lassi Wala on the MI Road, served the traditional way in clay cups.

The Lassi Wala crew. Looking cool.
A nice lassi
We’d also noticed lots of street vendors selling what looked like small green peppers or chillies. Intrigued, we decided to try them.

I thought they tasted like young coconuts but Karen guessed right: they were Indian water chestnuts! Delicious and refreshing, especially when washed down with a fresh pomegranate (not pictured – we ate it too quickly).

Indian water chestnuts
Inside view
When we arrived at the Water Palace – a five-mile walk from our hotel – we were quite thirsty so we treated ourselves to a refreshing cup of fresh sugar cane juice. The Indian version is served with some crushed lime and a little salt/spice mix at the bottom of the glass. The lime I like, but you can keep the salt and spices.

Looks like mud but tastes good
Not fancying the walk back, we caught a rickshaw back to town. Our driver tried his best to divert us to the bazaars but we resisted. He did take us round the corner to see where they were painting the elephants, supposedly to be ready for Diwali, but I suspect it’s just for the tourists.

Bet he feels silly
On our final day we had another late train to catch (this time, thankfully, it was on schedule) so we spent the day visiting the Amber, an abandoned city 10km or so north of the city – the round-trip rickshaw cost about 350 rupees.

Similar to Fatehpur Sikri, it had the usual collection of courtyards, audience chambers, balconies, walkways and alcoves. It was fairly well preserved and unusually, most areas were open for exploration rather than blocked to the public. It’s hilltop location and surrounding walls made for some striking views from the upper levels.

Snake charmers on the path up to Amber
Palace gardens
What can you see from there?
City mosque (with school trip)
Close-up of the colourful uniforms
Yoga practice
Mosque and gardens
Secret passage from the Amber up to the nearby Jaigarh fort
Amber with Jaigarh fort in the distance
Having taken a strong dislike to Delhi and being less than enamoured with Agra (the Taj Mahal and our Sikh hosts aside), I’m pleased to say that I really enjoyed Jaipur. The place has a nice buzz about it (apart from the wasps) and there’s lots to see including some real gems. I'm glad I went and I’d be happy to go back.

Next stop Jodhpur!

Current location: Delhi until 14th November
Next stop: home