Grem and Teej - on their way (back)

Wednesday, 2 August 2006


For part three of the golden triangle we arrived under cover of darkness and awoke the next morning to heat but no rain! A great start, we thought, as we headed towards the old (or pink, but it was actually red) walled city, Gremelin enticed by the prospect of hours and hours of shopping in the local bazaars.

We picked our way through the backstreets of Jaipur’s old quarter as the afternoon heated up and visited the intricately decorated City Palace, and the almost Gaudi-esque Hawa Mahal but only realised our true reason for visiting Jaipur when we stumbled upon this…

I mean I knew I was famous, but my own festival?!

I was firmly brought back down to earth back via the medium of intense shopping - I don’t think I’ll ever see so many shoes, bangles or so much silver jewellery in one afternoon again, or at least I hope not.

The antidote? A visit to the completely unexpected but charmingly kitsch revolving restaurant of Jaipur. We arrived on the 14th floor at the circular dining area admiring the stupendous views of the city and surrounding landscape but were disappointed to note the world was not in fact spinning as hoped. We sat down to a great meal and all of sudden there was a grinding noise and the floor started moving – my first rotating culinary experience!

The less famous Rajashtani city of Udaipur was a welcome relief from the fascinating but exasperatingly hectic state capital and we got away from the over friendly insects!

The centrepiece of the city is Lake Pichola around which are dotted ghats, havelis, temples and another City Palace. Feeling decidedly less stressed it was great to be able to wander around the winding backstreets without feeling hassled at every turn.

With captivating stark white architecture at every turn and a lavish hotel island poised in the middle of the lake, this city is truly serene and charming and deserves its title as Rajashtan’s most romantic city.

We even learnt how the members of the local legal profession travel around in Udaipur – no BMWs or Mercedes for these members of the Indian Bar!

After a refreshing few days we head south to the cosmopolitan chaos that will be Mumbai.

Friday, 28 July 2006

What monsoon?

It was once described as ‘a teardrop on the face of eternity’ – well there were plenty of tears falling on the Taj Mahal yesterday when we visited. A rainstorm unlike any I’ve ever witnessed. It was disappointing, but did not take away the awe felt when we took our first glimpse. It truly is beautiful – smaller than most people imagine but so perfectly formed, flawlessly symmetrical, delicately exquisite. Luckily as we were heading back the rain ceased and we could admire it umbrella-free, without getting drenched. Actually we already were, but we could forget that for a moment.

Shockingly, we learnt that some British imperialist once tried to auction the Taj Mahal for its marble! Thankfully it was saved from destruction…

We’d hired an auto-rickshaw for the day, and as the heavens re-opened we were tempted to call it a day after the first stop. But after a revitalising lunch we persevered and continued to the massive red sandstone Agra Fort, where we wandered around and took in the hazy view.

Third stop was the Baby Taj – Itimad-ud-Daulah – an ancient Persian tomb pre-dating the Taj but featuring very similar design elements and intricate marble inlay work.

Finally we stopped over the river for an uninterrupted view of the Taj from behind. Simply stunning.

Tonight we head into Rajasthan, to Jaipur, by train. Until then…

Some holy places

I was still recovering from a nasty bout of Delhi Belly when we left for Haridwar, and to make matters worse the pollution had started to affect me and I was coming down with a pretty nasty respiratory something or other. Or maybe it was just a cold. But either way I felt pretty rotten in Haridwar. But we were still amazed. Haridwar is located where the fast-flowing Ganges emerges from the Himalayas and is a very holy town for Hindus.

We happened to be there during the weekend of Swamgi, a yearly festival during which young men from all over the country make the pilgrimage here to collect water from the Holy Mother Ganga to take back to their villages. Needless to say the town was swarming with tens of thousands of people and we felt lost in the hoards of orange-clad devotees. It felt like we were the only foreigners in the whole place, and to make matters worse, half the people there had never left their small village so many had never seen a camera and certainly not a young white female. Oh yes, there was some staring. We wandered along the river banks mingling with the crowds and watching them bathe in the ghats.

We headed to Rishikesh, a small town nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, where we encountered several hundred more pilgrims. We’d heard so many great things about Rishikesh, and I’d really been looking forward to some yoga and chill out time in the yoga capital of the world. And I’d convinced Teej to stay on an ashram!

But first impressions were not so great. The narrow streets were so full of people and cows that it was a fight to get anywhere. It was muddy, dirty and quite frankly, for such a holy place, it was full of nasty characters. I was followed continuously by a very sleazy man, we were harassed for money every five minutes from everyone, not just beggars and sadhus, and I was groped by a passing cyclist. I know these are all regular occurrences in India, but in one of the holiest towns during a religious festival?!

I spent the next two days in bed with a fever and emerged to a nicer, more peaceful and more beautiful Rishikesh. The pilgrims had gone home and the ashram was beginning to feel more how I’d imagined it. We attended the evening aarti ceremony on the ghat – an evening worship of the Ganges. All the boys who live on the ashram come down onto the steps in their saffron robes and sit with their guru, HH Pujya Swami Chidanana Saraswatji, as they chant their prayer songs to the beat of the tabla. We sat with some lovely old ladies who gave us petals to throw in the water as they clapped and danced. Everyone lit candles to float down the Ganges, but mine was pulled under the current almost immediately.

After the ceremony we were lucky enough to attend an audience with HH Pujya Swami and we heard him speak the most beautiful words about peace. I have never seen a man so calm and serene, and just a few moments with him were inspiring. It was then I felt sad to be leaving Rishikesh.

Wednesday, 19 July 2006

Indian summer

No sooner had we arrived in Delhi than we experienced what the Indian monsoon is all about. I hadn’t appreciated the full meaning of a ‘downpour’ until now and our puny English rain is not a patch on this. The streets were like rivers and as we attempted to navigate our way downstream we were watched by sheltering bystanders evidently amused at our astonishment.

It’s all a little bit like Glastonbury really, only with less mud and more cows freely roaming the streets. These holy bovine drifters were also taking refuge under anything available and, which is their right here, often nudging people out of the way as they did so.

And then came the heat. The combination of temperatures around 37 Celsius and vast pools of water created a monumental sauna resulting in levels of humidity I have never before endured. So what better way to tackle it by doing some sightseeing (!!). After wandering around the Red Fort grounds in somewhat of a daze and heading onto the chaotic main thoroughfare of Old Delhi we were grateful for a break in the air conditioned mecca that was McDonalds. This stop was all part of the sightseeing of course as we were intrigued to see the usual Maccers’ menu minus beef. The ingenious replacements consisted of the Chicken Maharaja Mac and the McAloo Tikki Burger!

We also took in the impressive Jama Masjid mosque and the next day the serene Gurdwara Bangla Sahib Sikh temple as well as the national museum featuring some stunning miniature Indian paintings, a crazy selection of old sitars and other musical instruments and a fascinating section of ancient weaponry and armour.

We’re heading north to spiritual Haridwar next to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and so Grem can get in touch with herself and do some yoga while I sit about and do nothing!

Sunday, 16 July 2006

And the rains came

Our first impression of Nepal was rain. The day before we crossed the border we descended over 2,000metres in just over an hour! As we passed through the clouds we realised just how wet the next couple of months are going to be. On the plus side it was warm again!

As we crossed over into Nepal we were informed that there had been a landslide and that we would have to carry our bags across it and change bus on the other side. It was pretty amazing how much of the mountain had given way – thankfully we weren’t underneath it at the time – but it was only after we had lugged all our belongings over that we stopped to appreciate the view!

We spent a couple of days recuperating in Dhulikhel at a lovely hotel set on the hillside with the Himalayas as our backdrop. Unfortunately the mist shrouded the view, but that didn’t stop us enjoying the chance to do absolutely nothing but sit on the balcony and read. We did take a walk down to a nearby Newari village, Parnauti, where I made a little friend who followed our group until we got back on the bus!

We arrived in Kathmandu in time to celebrate my birthday (and the last night of our Intrepid trip). I made the most of the good food, wine and of course fantastic shopping, much to Tim’s delight, which made the whole ‘quarter of a century’ ordeal very bearable.

Our week in Kathmandu has been a chance to prepare for India, get things sorted and recover from the exhausting time we spent in Tibet. We also took the opportunity to visit the Dashenkali temple to witness the sacrificial offerings to the bloodthirsty Hindu goddess, Kali. Twice a week, Hindus bring their male goats, chickens, sheep and pigs to have their throats slit and their heads chopped off! It was pretty gruesome but non-Hindus can only watch from above, so we didn’t get too close to the action.

We took a trip to the monkey temple to watch them pick each others’ nits, and wandered among the ancient temples of Durbar Square, where we sat and watched the world go by, met elaborately painted sadhus and were harassed by touts and tour guides!

Unfortunately the monsoon season makes trekking in the Himalayas dangerous and pointless as you can rarely see the peaks. So we’ve put off a visit to Pokhara and a trek through the Annapurna range for another holiday!