Monday, January 14, 2008

A Passage to India

After the excesses of Christmas I met with Matt and Ian at Heathrow airport on Thursday evening to fly to Delhi and start a 17 day trip of sightseeing to India. After months of copious planning we were excited to be seeing the world’s seventh largest country with a population of 1.1 billion, its culture, its ruins and wildlife (and of course to do some cycling if an opportunity presented itself). The fourth member of the party Gary, an old Cardiff university friend, was due to meet us on the Saturday having flown from Darwin, Northern Australia where he now lives.

We arrived early on the Friday bamboozled by the early morning rush hour: All sorts of cars, rickshaws, cycles and ambassador taxis were madly trying to get ahead of each other and squeeze through impossible gaps in the traffic dodging cows, dogs, people and even the odd elephant in the attempt to get into Delhi. The rules of the road were simple - no rules! Just drive as fast as possible, break hard, blow your horn constantly and hope to get to your destination in one piece (similar to the TCA riding style)! Feeling a bit shaken up we eventually got to our hotel in the Paharganj Bazaar area.

Not being daunted, we decided to go straight to New Delhi Railway Station to get tickets for weeks ahead, part of our plan. However it is not easy being a Westerner in the streets of Delhi: After dicing with death crossing a road in front of the station, we could not get anywhere near the ticket office through being mobbed by masses of people, ricksaw drivers, tourist touts, street kids and sadly beggars despite being there being three of us. It was a draining experience. Help though was at hand, or so we thought. An official looking ticket collector said that he liked the UK and would take us to the official Tourist Office (instead of checking tickets?).

We got into a ricksaw and whizzed off to Connaught Place where we were taken to the Tourist office - Exotic Travel (recognised by the Gov.t of India - Dept of Tourism!), a non-public agency. We had walked straight into a scam! Things were made worse because I had hit my head, rather badly, getting out of the ricksaw and my head was streaming with blood rendering me a bit dizzy. Much to the amusement of the boys I received prompt Indian-style first aid comprising a fragrant ‘Duck‘ toilet cleaner as disinfectant and a big white tissue attached to the top of my head with office white adhesive labels. Finally we managed to hire a large taxi for four of us with driver available all day at just over £12 a day including petrol and unlimited mileage.

Using the taxi service, we saw all the sights in Delhi on Saturday and Sunday, The Raj Path (the centre piece of Lutyens Imperial New Delhi), the Red Fort (an imposing sandstone fort of the Moghul era), Jami Masjid (third largest mosque in the world closed to women), Hazrat Nizamudin (an intimidating old muslim part of the city) and Quith Minar (a fluted red sandstone tower with sacred arabic inscriptions) more like a factory chimney in our opinion. We also went to a “local employment site”.. another scam: Ian and I got duped into going and it turned out to be a carpet shop. Matt was not happy. After drinking cups of tea Ian and I scurried out and the Carpet sellers turned on Matt for putting us off from buying. What friendship!


Humayan’s tomb, a Moghul emperor mausoleum
constructed in 1564 and made of red sandstone,
inlaid with black and white marble.


By now we were getting into the our stride, getting up early to make the most of our days (Sort of 9am-ish) and on New Years Eve we left Delhi to get to Agra to see the Taj and the Red Fort. Our Taxi driver Shanka, though first took us to the great Moghul Emperor Akbar’s Mausoleum at Sikandra and the great deer park. After the busle and noise of Delhi, this serene and quiet oasis was welcome.

Moghul Emperor’s Mausoleum at Sikandra

In the afternoon, we visited the Taj Mahal. Despite the crowds and hype, this wonder of the world lives up to expectations. We stayed there until dusk seeing the different colour changes as the light diminished from white to cream to pearl to grey. Apparently the different colours supposedly reflect the different moods of women (sadly we had no women with us to put this theory into practice though). The palace was completed in 1653 by the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan to enshrine his wife Arjumamand Bann Begum who died shortly after giving birth to her 14th child (Al and Trudy something to aim for?)! Poignantly he himself was overthrown by his son and interned at the Red Fort overlooking the Taj and the mausoleum of his favourite wife.

Ian, Matt and Jon by The Taj Mahal

On our return to the hotel a slight problem arose in that Matt and Ian found that they were sharing a double bed. However we had no choice and I can assure you that the beds were wider than ours in the UK so do’t be worried. By now it was becoming exceedingly cold and actually it felt rather like a cold winters night in Blighty. Apparently, Northern India was experiencing above average cold temperatures but we still wrapped ourselves in most of our clothes - in Gary’s case everything he had. We had our New Years day dinner on the roof terrace overlooking Agra and huddled around some coal fires with some Australian girls who sadly had no sense of humour and, much to the annoyance of Matt, had drunk the last of kingfisher beer on the premises! The night was close to being a disaster but not giving up, and after some fraught and tense exchanges, the waiter agreed to go out and get some more beer !

Matt and Gary's rooftop New Year's Eve

On New Years day we saw the Red Fort(another one!) followed the one overlooking the Taj and then Fatepur Sikri, the great imperial capital of the great Moghul emperor Akbar, built between 1569 and 1585. It was the biggest historical set of buildings we had so far seen. We soon discovered the reason for this: Mr Akbar had three hundred wives!

Later we arrived at Bharatpur, at the Birders Inn and another problem with a hotel. Ian had booked through an internet travel site who had accepted his money but not booked the hotel! We stayed elsewhere the first night and this time Gary and I had to make do with a double bed, and stayed at the Birders Inn the next two nights where, to our relief we were all furnished with single beds. Despite this we only ate at the Birders on the first night after which we realised it had a rather stuffy family atmosphere. Not to be intimidated, Gary decided to wheel off some jokes of highest crudity and offence (not humour I am afraid) - to all sexes races and genders the world knows - which soon had the desired effect. Clearance of the restaurant apart from us. It was a Champion as Gary would say impersonating the type of person sharing a bed with another of the same sex. Eventually we had to finish our drinks in our rooms!

Gary and Jon's nightcap

On Wednesday, we arrived our usual early time and promptly arranged for a guide to take us round Kaleodo National Park. No Siberial Cranes there now but 'wow!' what birds, Sarus Cranes, Jabiru, Grey Hornbill, Spotted Owlet, Collared Scops Owl, Grey Nightjar, Brown crake, Long-tailed and Bay-backed Shrikes, Egyptian vultures, White-naped Woodpecker, White-throated kingfisher, Greater Coucal, Oriental Magpie Robin, to name a few. Another highlights included a massive Python snake and we managed to get on our bikes around the various lakes and marshes seeing the birds (below).


The following day, we were even more adventurous taking a boat trip around huge reservoir and by now the boys were eagerly spotting birds. Gary thought he saw a white crane but it turned out to be a large white bag, and then Matt started discussing the varities of “Tomtits“ thoroughly confusing our guide (They were not in the bird guide) Lots more birds though, including Asian Openbill, Glossy Ibis and Slender-Billed Vulture.

Our boat trip on the reservoir: Name those birds

Now over half way through our trip, on the 5th January, the Saturday we started off from our Safari Hotel at Ramthambourne National Park and a 5 o'clock wake up gave us a shock. It was also exceeding cold and we wrapped ourselves all in our bed rugs to keep warm. We were in an open top canter bus and soon realised the bumpy tracks were not good for dodgy bottoms. We went Safaring in the morning and afternoon and trumped with 3 Tigers. Great views although the guide would not let us get any closer (something to do with our safety.) This was definitely another highlight of the trip seeing the colours and size of these beasts. We were extremely lucky and realised that some people had been at the hotel for some days and not seen then. As well as the Tigers we saw deer, antelope, mongooses, crocs, turtles as well as birds, For birders, Crested Serpent Eagle, Red-necked Falcon, Coppersmith Barbet and Pin-tailed Green Pigeon were highlights.

Grrrrrrrrrrrrr....!

Unfortunately it soon became evident that I was the only one without Delhi Belly and was the last man standing, an accolade later regretted. It was clear by now that “Throne King” Matt was spending even more time than usual in the toilets - which is saying something. (This is expensive if you have to go toilets during the day as you have give a tip every time on the road).

After Ranthambourne National Park we travelled up to Jaipur known as the Pink City rather appropriate for us now as the Indians could not understand where our girlfriends were! (Not to mention the double beds we had at hotels). In the rough guide it looked no distance and Shanka said it was only just over 200 miles. We soon realised that it was going to take all day because there were just rough tracks many through fields but we eventually arrived safely.

Despite seeing the Amber Fort, our stop at Jaipur was really a staging post for Delhi and our final stop on the trip, Varansi, an ancient Holly Hindu City overlooking the Ganges. In Hindu religion, anyone who dies here receives instant enlightenment so may old people came, many poor and on the streets, came here to die. There are of course many cremations from the ghats on the river as well.

We arrived by train early on Tuesday to a crowd of taxi drivers and hotel touts at the platform. We took refuge in a breakfast bar and took a run for it towards a ricksaw and driver who did not look a crook waiting to rip us off. The drivers and touts though followed and surrounded us shouting and gesticulating for business. After a stand-off and us telling then to shut it, we realised that we had to go with a dodgy taxi driver and hotel tout as ricksaws were not allowed to take us. Despite us telling him, the hotel tout proceeded to take us to his hotel and not ours. We got left stranded in a dark alleyway, soiled with excrement and with a dead dog - probably the worst low we had on out trip. However, we headed downwards towards the river looking for our riverside hotel with a terrace dodging cows, beggars and touts. We found it and booked in but found hotel rule 7 prohibited alcohol. Obviously worried, Matt got me later to get my bins to scan the roof top terraces of other hotels to find other supplies but to no avail: Alcohol was banned in Varanasi.

During the three days we visited ghats where some of the cremations took place as well as visited the Red Fort, yet another one! We did the usual tourist trip of boating up and down the Ganges which is meant to be best at dawn but we did not quite mange that (the Ganges after sunrise was as horrible as the city, with even more dead things in it). At Sarnath, outside the city, we saw a cluster of Budhist ruins and temples where its founder Siddarttha Gautama, the awakened one, give his first sermon in the sixth century bc. From here back to Varanasi, we set up a “Clarkson Challenge” between Ian and I in one ricksaw and Gary and Matt in another to get back quickest. The experience is far better than a play station! (It was a dead heat)

We returned back to Delhi on a high having seen everything we wanted, not having fallen out with each other, suffered beer shortages, scams, beggars, bowel eruptions and double beds and got back to the UK on Sunday 14th January.

(Posted by: Jon)

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2 Comments:

At 8:35 pm, February 07, 2008, Blogger TCA said...

Brilliant Jon, a riveting read and some truly spectacular pictures. Well worth the wait!

Al

 
At 9:41 pm, February 12, 2008, Anonymous spm said...

The birds names are:

Dave and Gloria, Beaky and Susan, Whitey and Blacky, Fred and Ginger, Margaret and Dennis, Charles and Camilla, Sven and no one knows her name, Eric and Ernie, Elton and his mate.

or have I misunderstood the question?

 

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