Katy’s Art

Please have a look at Katy’s new art blog – katysart.wordpress.com !

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Chitwan

For two of our three long journeys in Nepal we had opted to fly. For Pokhara to Chitwan the only option is the tourist bus. We managed to book the last two seats which were right at the back. We got on to the wheezing soft sprung bus which looked like an off roader, if that’s possible for a bus. Right at the back we realised that there were six seats crammed into the back row, each large enough for a small child as long as they hadn’t had a big meal recently. Oh dear. It was our good fortune that two of the six went off to sit elsewhere allowing us a bit of room to breathe.

It soon became apparent why the bus looked so rugged when we started along the road. You could hide a small army in some of the potholes on the main roads, and that is on the sections that are tarmac, large parts are just dirt roads. Nepal gets the prize for worst roads. Oddly, there are often big piles of stones or concrete at the side of roads, usually encroaching to make a single lane out of what should be a double lane road, especially in Kathmandu. It’s like they piled up all the materials to pave the roads but then gave up.

Anyway, back to the bus. We had to hold on because potholes hit at speed would often send us flying out of our seats (Katy even hit her head on the roof!). We had to pretend it was just a particularly firm massage for 6 hours.

We arrived in Chitwan having been shaken like a cocktail. Chitwan is a National Park area famous for Rhinos and other wildlife. On arrival at the resort (calling it a ‘resort’ was a stretch, it was a series of thatched chalets) we were given the hard sell for a package to include lots of activities but we weren’t feeling inclined to spend buckets so we eventually managed to escape.

If you look closely you can see that the rhinos are not real. They are part of a mural

If you look closely you can see that the rhinos are not real. They are part of a mural

Early the next morning we had booked an elephant ride into the park. The dawn was thick with mist as the elephant strode through the river to reach the forest. It wasn’t comfortable though, with four people plus the mahout crammed on one elephant. The elephant seemed perfectly happy, but we were sharing with an overweight French couple who took up 80% of the space on the small wooden we were sat in. It didn’t matter too much because we were enjoying the experience so much. We didn’t spot any rhino, but we did see several types of strange looking deer including a huge stag. We also saw a lot of peacocks that had climbed high into the trees.

Elephant trekking in the dawn mist

Elephant trekking in the dawn mist

During the elephant trek

During the elephant trek

The forest

The forest

We didn’t feel we could top our elephant into the dawn mist experience that day so we lazed around for much of the afternoon.

The next day we made our way down to the river for elephant bath time. We expected to see a maybe a few elephants being hosed down by the river but we found one in the river with an English girl falling off its back. “Can you help me?” she pleaded through fits of laughter to the unflinching mahout who was stood on the elephants back. She was clinging on to the elephants neck using a leg and an arm and was losing traction. “I’m definitely stuck! Help me up!” – but no the mahout had other ideas. He said something to his elephant which then began the lumbering process of sitting down which threw the girl still laughing into the river. “I’ve swallowed so much water that I’m probably going to get ill” she giggled. After throwing her in the water the mahout brought the elephant back to the riverbank and we decided that we should have a go too. Katy went first and sat on the elephant while it repeatedly sucked water into its trunk and blasted it out drenching a laughing Katy. The girl who had been for an involuntary swim had made her way out of the river, so her and a friend agreed to look after our stuff and use our camera to take some pictures while Jason joined Katy on the elephant for elephant bath time. It was great fun and elephants love being in the water to play with people – almost as much as we enjoyed it.

Elephant bath time

Elephant bath time

Us on the elephant

Us on the elephant

Being drenched by the elephant

Being drenched by the elephant

The elephant decided to sit down

The elephant decided to sit down

We returned the favour of looking after bags and taking pictures while the English girls had another go on the elephant. It turned out that they had been in Nepal for 3 months doing voluntary work, but of course paying with elephants was the highlight. Soaking wet in some of our last clean clothes we rode our hired bicycles back to the resort.

Once dried and still on a high from elephant bath time we set out on our bikes to explore Sairaha, the village we stayed in to access Chitwan National Park. Away from the street with the resorts, restaurants and tourist tat shops we found it to be a lovely rural farming area with small irrigated fields and Van Goghs hay stacks everywhere along with free roaming livestock.

In the countryside

In the countryside

We spotted an elephant stood under a corrugated iron roof with his mahout snoozing nearby on an old car seat. We left our bikes and headed across the field to ask the mahout if we could say hello to his elephant. Of course we could. The elephant was really jolly flapping its ears and wanting to say hello. We spent a few minutes there and then gave the mahout a tip to say thank you.

Meeting another elephant

Meeting another elephant

Back on our bikes we looped round the village until we reached a road that we recognised as the route from the village to where the elephant treks begin. The elephants live around the village in shelters with corrugated iron roofing like the one we had just visited and are taken each day to the place where the elephant treks begin. Once they gave taken several groups into the forest and back the elephants return home along this road. We were in luck because the last treks of the day were over and it was home time for the elephants and mahouts. A stream of about 30 elephants were making their way home. We were lucky enough to be able to cycle alongside then for much if the way exchanging cries of ‘Namaste’ with the mahouts proudly riding their elephants. We stopped to say hello to a family with loads of kids at the roadside because Katy spied that they had a chicken and a litter of tiny chicks with them. The kids chased the chicks to catch one for Katy to cuddle and nearly caused the chicks to get squished by a passing elephant. They did catch a chick in the end, and yes, Katy enjoyed her cuddle.

An elephant and mahout

An elephant and mahout

Just outside the village some of the elephants had been parked up at the side of the road like lorries at a truck stop while their mahouts drank tea from an adjacent cafe. This was the elephant equivalent of motorway service stations, except the elephants didn’t sit quietly as you would expect of lorries. Two on them set to work in pulling up the fence with their trunks and passing the fence post along the line of parked elephants like some sort of baton.

Cycling alongside

Cycling alongside

Katy cycling along with an elephant

Katy cycling along with an elephant

Katy had a little lamb

Katy had a little lamb

Elephants parked at the chai stop

Elephants parked at the chai stop

Elephants, Katy and a lamb

Elephants, Katy and a lamb

Meanwhile, on the other side of the road Katy had befriended a tiny baby lamb. When we tried to leave it became clear that the lamb was equally attached to Katy because it ran after us, we had to move quickly or it would have followed us all the way home.

Elephants going home.

Elephants going home.

It had been a really fantastic day, we don’t get many chances in life to join in elephant bath time for 80p, say hello to another elephant for 40p and then cycle alongside a long line of elephants on their way home like the dawn patrol in Disneys Jungle book (we got it on DVD from a totally legit seller in Phnom Penh because Katy wanted to watch it at Christmas).

Katy made friends with this puppy

Katy made friends with this puppy

Chitwan was to be our last new place. The next day we boarded a Buddha Air ATR 42 plane to fly back to Kathmandu. We spent our last day shopping in Kathmandu. We brought luggage scales with us so we were able to safely get as close as we dared to the weight limit for our flight home. Kathmandu is great for shopping, we stocked up on DVDs and clothing.

Buddha airlines ATR42

Buddha airlines ATR42

A couple of flights later we touched down in London to end this part of the adventure. We stayed in 37 different places across 8 countries, took 17 flights and had an incredible time.

That’s all for now.

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A Himalayan Adventure

From our Kathmandu hotel we hopped into one of the dilapidated taxis and headed for the domestic terminal at the airport. Before the car had stopped to drop us off, several young men had opened the boot and picked up our bags. When asked what on earth they thought they were doing they replied it was a “free porter service”.

“I don’t believe you. Free porter service my eye, put them down. Now.”

To their credit they did put them down. No doubt the actual porter service required no fee, but a tip decided by them would have been required. Our judgement was backed up nearer the terminal by signs saying “there are no official airport porters” and comically “you do not need to pay to use the trolleys”. To be fair, charging people to use the trolleys that the airport provides seems like a good plan. There was a similar one in the UK a few years back where a parking attendant had been charging drivers £2 a go to park in the car park next to a National Trust Site. The National Trust thought he worked for the council and the council thought he worked for the National Trust. They only realised after he had disappeared with a small fortune that he had no affiliations with either. It’s amazing the authority a high vis jacket can give you.

Once inside the airport past the first round of security, we thought for a moment we would be free from hassles. But no, several plain clothed people pretending to be officials came and asked to see our tickets so they could help direct us to the correct airline desk which was less than 10m away. We ignored them and miraculously found our own way to the correct one of four desks in the 20m wide terminal, the one with the “Yeti Airlines” sign, which was a dead giveaway.

There are several small airlines in Nepal which run the tourist routes. Ours was to be just a 20 minute flight to Pokhara which we deemed safer and a better use of time than the 7 hour bus. It was only £25 each. Many flights were being cancelled due to bad weather, mostly ones bound for Lukla which is in the direction of Everest base camp (a 17 day trek which we hadn’t time to do).

Our plane was a tiny twin turboprop Jetstream 41, with about 25 seats. It was lucky we had earplugs because it was rather loud. After pulling up out of Kathmandu the pilot announced we would be flying at just 10,000ft, significantly lower than many of Nepal’s mountains. The mountain we were planning to trek to in Pokhara (more on that later) was taller than we were flying and they refer to it not as a mountain but as a hill. About 10 minutes in we hit cloud or fog which stifled our views of the mountain ranges, we could barely see the ends of the wings. We had to hope that the pilot had a better view because it is often said that pilots don’t mind flying through clouds, except in Nepal because in Nepal the clouds have rocks in them.

As the clouds cleared we could make out mountains above us to the left and seemingly just a few feet below us were houses. All of a sudden we banked steeply to the right and had to hope that none of Pokhara’s residents had installed a new TV aerial on their house. Just when it felt like we were going to plop down in the middle of Pokharan suburbia the houses just beneath us cleared and a runway appeared ready for us to bumpily land.

Once the rotors had stopped we climbed down the steps onto the rain coated tarmac. We could see the terminal shed a few yards away but were still expecting a bus to collect us to take us there. Time and time again we had experienced that airports would insist you boarded a bus from the plane to take you to the terminal, often when you could easily throw a stone from plane to terminal – to stop us wandering off and getting sucked into a jet engine presumably. At Pokhara though we were allowed to make our own way along the few yards to the terminal which was so novel that it felt naughty.

The terminal shed consisted of a small room with 2 benches in it and a wooden counter that was open to the tarmac on the other side which acted as baggage reclaim. After so many flights recently, one of our recurring laughs is to watch people get as close as possible to the baggage reclaim belt regardless of whether there are any bags on it seemingly in a blind panic that if they can’t touch the moving belt with their knees then they will never see their darling luggage again. It would make sense to stand a couple of metres back and let everyone see what is coming then step forwards to claim your bag when it arrives? No, that makes too much sense. Fortunately Jason can usually see over the crowd to spot our bags on the way and can push to the front past the impatient bag collection hopers to collect the bags.

Here in Pokhara it was no different, except that there were only about 20 people on the flight and we could all clearly see the baggage trolley outside through the windows which made up the wall facing the tarmac. This meant we could all clearly see the man unloading the cases 2 by 2 from the trolley and lugging them to the reclaim counter. As is normal in India and Nepal the lifting was being done by one man while several of his colleagues stood around lazily. Anyway, even though we could all see whose bags were up next, the majority of the passengers were involved in a bundle to get their knees against the reclaim counter. Our bags were among the first which meant a good bundle to get them. People at airports tend to fly on autopilot, just like on the tube in London and not really think about things. We’ve been in enough airports to observe this time and time again -next time you are at an airport at baggage reclaim, just watch it happen – you’ll have to allow yourself a smile.

Once in Pokhara town and settled in to our hotel we waited for a gap in the rain to have a look around town and the lake from where on a clear day you can see the Himalayas towering above you. It was cloudy so the view wasn’t at its best but was still impressive.

religious dog

religious dog

Pokhara lake

Pokhara lake

Boats on Pokhara lake

Boats on Pokhara lake

Jason had removed his beloved beard the night before and had decided that now his hair was too long now that he had no beard. So he got it cut at a roadside barber. The beard removal decision was not taken lightly,  but in the end the concern about having a tanned face except where the beard had been was took over and the forthcoming trek was to be the only chance to even it out. He now thinks he looks better with a beard.

Yes that is the road you can see in the mirror. Jason's hair looked too long without a beard

Yes that is the road you can see in the mirror. Jason’s hair looked too long without a beard

The next day we hired a boat to cross the lake, it was paddled by an old lady and was so slow that it often felt as though it wasn’t moving. It was quite far to paddle and took about half an hour and it was starting to rain. We felt a little guilty for the old lady paddler, but the price was high so she should have been paid fairly well. There were loads of boats sitting waiting to be hired and about the same number sitting just below the surface in the shallows never to be hired again. It seemed like a waste to have so many abandoned sunken boats, they must just leave them once they spring a leak.

The very slow boat to the start of the trail

The very slow boat to the start of the trail

Once on the far bank we began up the trail towards the stupa (the World Peace Pagoda) which sits on top of a hill looking over Pokhara. The route was steep and wet but only took about an hour. We reached the top as the thunder and lightning intensified along with the rain. We then had to descend quickly so as not to miss our boat back. The way back was raining harder and the boat moved even slower. We did give the drenched old lady a good tip.

Jason at the World Peace Pagoda above Pokhara

Jason at the World Peace Pagoda above Pokhara

Later on we picked up some trekking poles and more fake North Face gear, this time it was waterproof trousers (inspired by our wet walk to the World Peace Pagoda).

Early the next morning we got in a van and headed to Naya Pul to start our 4 day trek. We got our first glimpses of the epic mountain ranges from the van. Naya Pul was a village that seemed to exist to feed people before and after treks, with loads of little stalls and wooden shack cafes. At the other side of the village we passed the two checkpoints to register we were there and had paid our permits. The trail soon began to head up hill and then returning to the valley to roughly follow the route of an icy blue mountain river which was littered with rocks and boulders.

The trail was wide enough for off road vehicles at the start, but it would have been a tricky drive. The guide pointed at one point down the near vertical edge of the trail to a spot about 20metres down. There was some glass fragments twinkling in the sun and he told us that was the spot a jeep had slipped of the trail last week injuring five and killing one. We were pleased to be on foot. We carried on up hill passing lots of wandering buffalo, cows, dogs and goats to reach our lunch stop. Every hour or two we would pass a cafe or a lodge, mostly quite basic but better than cooking over a camping stove for sure. This trek was what they call a “tea house trek”, meaning we were staying in lodges and not cooking our own food. The food turned out to be rather good – apple pie and custard is a Himalayan specialty.

Passing one of the many waterfalls

Passing one of the many waterfalls

At the start of the trek

At the start of the trek

Mid-afternoon we reached Tikedihunga which marked the bottom of the 4000 steps leading to Ulleri our overnight stopover. They are more just pilled rocks than steps which is why the estimated number varies between guides; usually between 3000 and 8000. It was quite a hard slog with our bags on but we were thankful for our decision to bring walking poles to take some of the strain off the legs.

There was a school at the bottom of the steps and our guide told us that some of the kids live at the top in Ulleri and therefore walk down and up this thigh destroying flight of steps every day – usually in flip flops.

We had opted to have only a guide, most people stump up the extra $15 dollars a day for a porter too but we wanted the challenge of lugging our own stuff. Some of the porters must have been carrying 30 kilos or more and some trekkers had more than one porter. I guess you never know when you’ll need that kitchen sink. I think we would have felt a bit guilty letting someone else do the hard work. We got most of our stuff into one bag for Jason to carry which was about 13 kilos (including lots of warm clothing which we needed).

We did make it to Ulleri and found a very cheap lodge to stay in. It was a flimsy wooden structure with the bedrooms upstairs. The roof in the corridor was tarpaulin but in the rooms the roof was plywood like the wobbly walls. As the sun faded the temperature plummeted so we were pleased to have brought lots of warm clothes. We could be trekking in just a couple of layers if the sun was out but in the dark we had to wear multiple layers. As we ate dinner we heard a faint ringing of bells which got progressively louder and was later accompanied by the sound of hooves on rocks. “Ah, mountain express coming!” exclaimed our guide. A few minutes later 7 or 8 heavily laden ponies, mules and donkeys trotted past to supply the villages on the trail. They were marshalled by a lady in flip flops and being driven up the hill.

On day 2 we began to move higher up and towards Ghorepani, the base for our ascent of Poon Hill. We passed several groups who informed us that the pass out of Ghorepani was blocked by snow. This wouldn’t affect us getting to Ghorepani, but our planned loop route brought us back a different way along the blocked pass. It meant that like the other groups we would be forced to come back the way we came after climbing Poon Hill.

As we climbed higher we began seeing patches of snow on the ground and before long the ground we were covering was carpeted in thick snow. Indra our guide said he had never seen snow here before and that we were in for a tricky climb. He had to take us off the trail sometimes to go off piste through the deep snow to avoid sheet ice on the trail too close to huge drops off the edge.

As we neared Ghorepani we saw a helicopter approaching the summit of Poon Hill. It turned out that someone had fallen and was being rescued. This extra snow had led to 7 casualties that day we later found out. Even equipped with sharp ended walking poles to drive into the ice we still had some trouble keeping our footing at times. We made it to Ghorepani and warmed up in front of a lovely fire at the lodge while we ate apple pie and custard. Outside it was seriously cold.

At the end of Day 2 we reached a snowy Ghorepani

At the end of Day 2 we reached a snowy Ghorepani

Someone had written Nepal in the snow

Someone had written Nepal in the snow

The following morning we got up at 5 to trek up to the summit of Poon Hill in time for sunrise. The snow wasn’t an issue, but the ice was treacherous. Our guide fell over 3 times. After an hour or so of ascent we got to the summit at 3210m to watch a beautiful Himalayan sunrise over the majestic Annapurna range. There were a few clouds shrouding some of the peaks but it was still spectacular.

Katy on the summit with the Annapurna range behind

Katy on the summit with the Annapurna range behind

Summit of Poon Hill at sunrise

Summit of Poon Hill at sunrise

Its colder without a beard

Its colder without a beard

Katy jumping for joy at reaching the summit

Katy jumping for joy at reaching the summit

You have to have a picture with the sign. Rules is rules.

You have to have a picture with the sign. Rules is rules.

The way back to Ghorepani was the hard bit, covering large sections of ice slopes. In places the path had become like a bobsled track so we found it safer and miles more fun to slide down sitting down. The knock off North Face after proof trousers were equal to the task, though we had expected them to be about as waterproof as toilet paper they were actually really good.

After breakfast in Ghorepani we began the long snowy walk down towards Tikedihunga (you’ll remember that was the village at the bottom of the 4000 steps). It was a long day starting with the Poon Hill summit and then descending through the snow to the 4000 steps – but going down them was much easier than the way up. Not long after leaving Ghorepani, the heavens opened and we were pelted with hail stones from all angles. Luckily we managed to refuge in a lodge until it passed; the lodge happened to serve great food.

Another bit of good news for Jason was that even after going down the 4000 steps he had no signs of trouble in his knee following surgery 2 years ago for a snapped cruciate ligament. He wasn’t sure after the injury whether he would be able to do this sort of thing again.

Katy and horses. The white one had odd hair

Katy and horses. The white one had odd hair

That evening Katy found a tiny white Labrador puppy that she played with for ages. If it hadn’t been chained to someone’s house she may well have tried to smuggle it back to the UK.

The final day was a higher paced walk down the more gentle slopes on aching legs back to Naya Pul for the ride back to Pokhara. That evening we splashed out on dinner and spent £5 each on steak. They were huge and perfectly done, just what we needed.

The next morning we got the last two seats on the tourist bus to Chitwan. We left Pokhara having completed an amazing trek in the Himalayas, covering parts of the famous Annapurna circuit -we were achy but felt great for doing it.

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And finally to Nepal

Our final country to visit is Nepal. It has been a long road to get here, particularly for Jason who is 9 years late in getting here having originally been scheduled to come here in 2004 on a World Challenge Expedition only to be redirected to Kyrgyzstan at the last minute because of the Maoist uprising in Nepal. The Maoists have now been suppressed and Nepal has returned to being the trekking Mecca that it once was.

We flew into Kathmandu from Delhi and at the airport there were loads of touts all claiming we could trust them because we weren’t in India anymore and not everyone was trying to rip us off. The problem was that they were definitely trying to rip us off by offering us taxis to town that were just too cheap to be true – they would have taken us to the wrong place to claim commission from unscrupulous hotels. In the end we managed to get a reasonable taxi directly to the hotel. We had been expecting Nepal to be more chilled out than India, and it was as soon as we escaped the airport.

At first glance Nepal looked like a dustier version of India, with even bumpier roads which are not often paved but with much less rubbish on the streets. There is still a lot of rubbish, but here they do seem to make a bit of an effort to sweep it into piles.

Our 1960’s styled hotel was on a quiet road just off one of the busy shopping streets in the Thamel area of Kathmandu. Thamel is the backpacker haven and the streets are lined with shops selling knock-off outdoor gear (mostly North Face branded) or Yaks wool clothing. Throw in a few brass wares shops and you pretty much have the three main shop types in Kathmandu.

Katy in central Kathmandu

Katy in central Kathmandu

It was a nice change to have a little less traffic buzzing around too. We had a quick explore on that first evening and found a good few of the many temples that are all over the place. They tend to be quite small and can be sometimes found in the middle of the road, they are more like shrines than temples. The city has a really nice atmosphere but there are a few alarm bells going off for the future because of the motorbikes. The narrow streets lined with craftsman’s stalls and shops are reminiscent of Hanoi but with fewer bikes. There are quite a few motorbikes here though, and the number is growing – we met a concerned student who was gathering names for a petition for a pedestrianised zone in Thamel. If they don’t curb the proliferation of motorbikes in central Kathmandu, we worry that it will go the way of Hanoi. Having said that, almost everyone we have met has said they found Ho Chi Minh City to be worse than Hanoi for bikes, so perhaps we were in Hanoi at a particularly busy time, as there were roughly double the amount of bikes per street versus Ho Chi Minh City.

We ate a curry that evening, but it wasn’t up to the Indian standard (probably because it wasn’t drenched in oil and cream like in India) – it was still nice though. The masala tea is different here too but we can’t quite work out which spices in the masala are more dominant yet. In the morning we had steak for breakfast. Nepali food is hearty and they are good at steak, its fine to have it for breakfast here.

After the steak we walked down to Durbar Square, the heart of Kathmandu. It is a series of 3 squares which are littered with a huge concentration of World Heritage monuments. In fact, the Kathmandu valley area (which is essentially Kathmandu city and its swallowed satellite towns to form a “Greater Kathmandu” type area) has the world’s largest concentration of World Heritage sites. In Durbar square there were temples galore, mostly in the pagoda style with up to 3 levels. We also liked the little gold Ganesh shrine which you are meant to touch for good luck for a forthcoming journey. On the struts of the pagoda roofs there were many carvings in the wood, some of which you wouldn’t want to show children. The place itself was great though there were a few too many beggars as well as tour guides trying to convince us that we needed a guide. Strangely there was also an abandoned bus in one of the squares. Surrounded by world heritage sites this bus had been there for quite a while judging by its flat tyres  smashed windows and dust layers; it seemed strange that the authorities hadn’t moved it yet. It is the equivalent of having an abandoned bus left parked next to one of the fountains in Trafalgar Square.

Durbar Square temples

Durbar Square temples

It was the done thing to touch this on the nose

It was the done thing to touch this on the nose

Inside a temple on Durbar Square

Inside a temple on Durbar Square

Another shrine off of Durbar Square

Another shrine off of Durbar Square

Jason with the many pigeons in Durbar Square

Jason with the many pigeons in Durbar Square

In Nepal there is also a living Goddess whose house we went to see, unfortunately she wasn’t in. They select a little girl via a questionable selection process to be the living goddess until she reaches puberty, when a new girl is chosen. After that we headed to a cafe for a drink, but we ended up eating more momos than we could have imagined we could eat. Momos are a national specialty and no two places do them the same. They are similar to the Eastern European pierogi – dumplings stuffed with a variety of fillings and then fried or boiled.

The buildings contain many courtyards

The buildings contain many courtyards

Inside the palace

Inside the palace

This gruesome statue was in Durbar Square. He has a severed head in his left hand,

This gruesome statue was in Durbar Square. He has a severed head in his left hand,

When we were able to shuffle out of the cafe we headed along the 3km walk to Swayambunath, a huge stupa overlooking the city. On the way we had to cross the river which was appalling. It was like all the rubbish from the whole city was brought here and it looked more like a landfill site than a river. Also on the way we saw a large dog hanging out of a small upstairs window which looked hilarious. He had his head and paws poking out to observe the street.

Once at the stupa having climbed the steep stairway, Katy decided to do some painting. The stupa was lit up perfectly by the yellow light of the setting sun. While she painted, she had an audience much of the time and also the attention of a couple of Labrador puppies that were wandering about.

Swayambunath

Swayambunath

Swayambunath stupa

Swayambunath stupa

One little girl took a special interest in Katy’s paintings and sat and watched for a while before posing with the finished work for a photo.
The eyes on top of the stupas represent the all seeing eyes of the Buddha (the Buddha was born in Nepal) and the bit that looks like a nose is actually the number “1” which signifies unity. There are stupas like this all over Nepal, but this is one of the biggest and most famous.

Katy painting at Swayambunath with an audience

Katy painting at Swayambunath with an audience

This little girl wanted to see all Katy's pictures

This little girl wanted to see all Katy’s pictures

This little girl took a particular interest in Katy's paintings

This little girl took a particular interest in Katy’s paintings

The next day was Valentine’s Day so in the morning we exchanged the chocolates that we had seen each other buying at the airport before heading to Patan – yet another World Heritage site. Patan is a smaller town which Kathmandu has swallowed, but it has its own Durbar Square which is again full of temples. To get there we opted for a romantic ride in a cyclo, which turned out to be great fun. It was miles further than we had expected so we felt a bit sorry for the driver/cyclist and it wasn’t an easy route. The pot-holed roads really tested both the driver’s skill and our balance in staying in our seats. Several times the road became too steep so we had to jump out and help push up the slope or help lift the vehicle over a mammoth pothole.

The hill is steeper than it looks as Katy pushes the cyclo u

The hill is steeper than it looks as Katy pushes the cyclo u

Patan Durbar Square

Patan Durbar Square

From Patan we made our way to the Central Zoo. This small but popular zoo was a big hit. There were several highlights including the massive hippo at feeding time using its giant mouth like a spade to scoop up huge amounts of food before chewing it down messily and dropping half of it back on to the floor through its flopping cheeks. The other big ticket animals included a couple of rhinos, tigers and bears. The bears were having a good fight with one another. We could get right up close to the animals, sometimes dangerously so – there was a hyena behind a 4ft wall that we reckon it could have gotten over if it had so desired. Also, a thin metal mesh fence is unlikely to stop a determined hippo. There were loads of birds too, the best being the Golden Pheasant.

Hungry hungry hippo

Hungry hungry hippo

From the zoo we taxied over to Bouddha for another stupa. The taxis here are nearly all little Suzuki’s that resemble old Fiat Panda’s – small boxy cars that look about as sturdy and a house of cards but somehow seem to keep going forever along the terrible roads. The stupa at Bouddha is the biggest in Asia. We were advised to arrive just before dusk to avoid the tour groups and sure enough, as we approached there were hundreds of people in tour groups pouring out of the site. As the sun set we circled the stupa a few times with the many pilgrims that were there. The done thing is to circle a few times in a clockwise direction and spin some of the many prayer wheels. The atmosphere was great, with maroon robed monks chanting to themselves as they circled in a half trance and the smell of incense thick in the air. It does obviously get really busy here because there were quite a few police wearing full riot gear waiting in the wings. We ate dinner on the roof of one of the surrounding restaurants and Katy made the mistake of ordering the noodles.

Bouddha

Bouddha

Bouddha panorama

Bouddha panorama

Jason at Boudnath (Bouddha)

Jason at Boudnath (Bouddha)

Katy with the prayer flags

Katy with the prayer flags

Our final day in Kathmandu was somewhat limited because of last night’s noodles that Katy ate so it ended up being a nice slow relaxing day of room service and blogging (which is why the Jaisalmer blog entry was so long). Jason did venture out to buy some fake North Face stuff and some yak wool hats and socks for our upcoming trek from Pokhara.

The next day we boarded a flight to Pokhara.

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Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer was our last place to visit in India; the last month has taken us to some incredible places, with staggering architecture, eye bursting vibrant colours, stupendous food and lovely people. But India had one last treat in store for us in the form of Jaisalmer. Sitting pretty in the middle of the desert, not far from the Pakistan border, Jaisalmer was well worth the extra travelling time to get there.

It was a five hour train ride from Jodhpur and the only train departed at 5.10 am. We were in basic sleeper class, this time it was a bit busier but we still had space to stretch out and snooze for the first half of the journey. For the second half we played Uno (a card game). We had invited the Indian guy sat with us to play too, and then we spent most of the time explaining the rules which was quite painful. Uno seems quite a simple game until you have to explain all the rules across a language barrier. It turned out he was at army college studying communications; Jaisalmer has two purposes, tourism and army. Being so close to Pakistan there is a large military presence here.

At the station, feeling a bit groggy after another early start and tiring Uno game we were relieved to see that our arranged lift to the guesthouse was there waiting. Jaisalmer station is famous for the ferocity of its resident hotel touts. The English couple we had met were not so lucky, their pick-up had not shown up and they were tormented by dozens of touts all asking the same thing, all loudly and all in the way. There wasn’t much we could do to help, but they did eventually get it sorted out after a pretty stressful few minutes.

The guesthouse was great, it was only four months old and in addition to the free station pick up service the place itself was lovely with fort views from the roof and free welcome chai. The whole town is built from sandstone and the narrow streets buzz with dust picked up in the desert breeze and the laughter of kids playing.

The view from the guesthouse.

The view from the guesthouse.

After some masala tea on the roof we set off to see the fort. It was only a few minutes walk from the guesthouse to the fort through the tangled streets.

HDR shot from inside the fort

HDR shot from inside the fort

The only entrance to the fort takes you up hill through several impressive gates. Each is designed to be just after a turn in the road, a design feature intended to stop enemy elephants gaining enough momentum to smash the doors down. The doors are long gone, and unfortunately the bends do not stop the motorbikes and tuk tuks from gaining enough momentum to splat tourists. There’s nothing fun about motorbikes hurtling around the blind corner; we did manage to dodge them all and thankfully the road isn’t very long. Once into the fort proper it really reminded us of Venice; both are regarded as among the best places in the world to get lost, they also share similar networks of narrow streets. There are no canals in Jaisalmer though, but it doesn’t need them, it is one of the world’s biggest forts but it is no cold shell of a monument, it is very much alive and most of it is lived in. Not just by people either, there is something surreal about having to jump into a doorway to avoid the horns of a cow nonchalantly strolling down a golden yellow sandstone alleyway.

Cow in an alley

Cow in an alley

We got quite lost and the relaxed friendly atmosphere was a nice change to the hustle of other places in India. We dined in a cafe atop one of the outer walls with a great view of the sunset over the flat desert. The sunset was trumped by the food, cashew nut curry seems to be a Jaisalmer specialty and the sunset cafe does it best.

Katy painting (photo taken in a silly effect)

Katy painting (photo taken in a silly effect)

Back at the hostel the owner told us he would be putting on a Hindi film each night with English subtitles. On the roof he had set up a projector and screen, and that first night (the only one we caught) we watched “Barfli” which turned out to be really good. Shot in a similar style to French films like Amelie but based in Darjeeling and about a deaf man known as Barfli – well worth a watch.

The next day we had arranged a camel safari in the Thar Desert. We had only paid £10 so we weren’t expecting much, but a camel safari is the top thing to do in Jaisalmer. It’s rude to go to Jaisalmer and not ride a camel. We were picked up in a Bolero (India’s answer to the Land Rover) and whisked into the desert which surrounds the town. First stop was a very old temple which must have been heavily restored because it was in almost as new condition. It was covered in detailed carvings in the sandstone, a lot of buildings in Jaisalmer are decorated similarly, but this one was particularly impressive.

Katy and the temple

Katy and the temple

Impossibly detailed sandstone carvings on the temple, with the impossibly blue sky

Impossibly detailed sandstone carvings on the temple, with the impossibly blue sky

This sandstone carved temple was crazy detailed

This sandstone carved temple was crazy detailed

A few miles further out we arrived at an abandoned and mostly collapsed village. Our driver explained that it had been abandoned (he didn’t know when) because the Maharaja of Jaisalmer had visited and wanted to marry one of the locals. Her parents didn’t approve and the whole town fled in order to escape the persecution of the Maharaja. At least that’s what we think he said, he didn’t really speak English and we don’t speak any Hindi.

Katy climbing a staircase stuck on a wall

Katy climbing a staircase stuck on a wall

The abandoned village

The abandoned village

Back into the Bolero to bounce a little further along the potholed desert road towards Pakistan and we soon spotted some camels sat down at the side of the road. We stopped and the driver pointed to one of the men standing around and said “go with him”. So we did. Without any introductions or formalities of any kind, let alone instructions, he told us to climb on to two of the waiting camels. They were sat down so they weren’t very high. He said something to them (not us, he hadn’t spoken to us other than to say “you get on that one, you get on that one”) and they stood up. When a camel gets up, it does one set of legs at a time starting with the back ones. We weren’t really prepared for the rapidly rising camel rump but both managed to hold on while they stood up. The man began to lead us away from the road and into the desert. Only a few minutes later did we finally find out he was called David. Katy’s camel was “Jeeju” and Jason’s “Bablu”.

Katy rides a camel

Katy rides a camel

Meanwhile, somewhere in the Thar desert

Meanwhile, somewhere in the Thar desert

Shadows in the desert

Shadows in the desert

Katy with Jeju the camel

Katy with Jeju the camel

The desert was made up of scrub land and the occasional sand dune, it was a fantastic experience. It wasn’t overly comfortable and you wouldn’t want to do it for too long; the two hours or so we spent getting further and further into the desert was just about right. Both Jeeju and Bablu had bad breath, really bad breath. Like cows they regurgitate food to re-chew to help digest it. They were doing this a lot, you would hear a loud sploshing gurgling while they brought the food back to their mouths along their long throats and the accompanying smell was less than pleasant.

Us with our tired camels

Us with our tired camels

"What?"

“What?”

We reached a large section of sand dunes and were told the ride was over. The camels laid back down and we dismounted. The camels and David stuck around for a few minutes until our trusty Bolero appeared nearby. We loitered on the dunes to watch the sunset; we spent ages playing one the dunes and taking photos.

Camels crossing the dunes

Camels crossing the dunes

Whooooooooosh

Whooooooooosh

Katy on the dunes at sunset in the Thar desert

Katy on the dunes at sunset in the Thar desert

This photo looks epic (Jason in the distance)

This photo looks epic (Jason in the distance)

Jason at sunset

Jason at sunset

Once the sun had slipped its orange self behind the impossibly wide horizon it was time to get back in the Bolero for a lift to the site for our evening entertainment. We had been promised a “cultural event”, which was £2 extra and included dinner, so again we weren’t expecting much – in fact, our main motivation was that we would get the chance to see the night stars from the desert, far from the lights of the town. We soon arrived at the site which was about an acre in size with a floodlit concrete circle around a fire in the middle. Around the edges of the concrete were cushions and blankets where we were invited to sit. There were about 15 other tourists there, all Indian which we took as a good sign. We were given chai and then the band started playing Indian music. The singer was terrible, but the lyrics (in Hindi) were amusing to the other guests.

There were two women wearing gypsy clothing who did several dances each, of which a couple stand out. The first being the girl who had an absurd ability to bend over backwards and pick things up with her eyes. We could barely watch as she placed a pin into a cup of sand with the point facing up and bent herself over backwards. She lowered her head to the cup and to our horror clamped her eyelid around it to pick it up. This revolting display was repeated several times at different points around the circle, once right in front of us. She must do it every night, but it looks horribly dangerous and wasn’t nice to watch.

The other girl had a talent for carrying things on her head while standing on things. Sounds innocent enough right? She had a large conical hat which looked like a stack of blue teapots balanced on her crown. The gruesome part was under her feet. She started by balancing on the edges of a pan which was as far as it needed to go. Next up was thin strips of metal that looked like a pair of upturned ice skates (ouch). For the finale it looked like she was going to stand on the pan again, but no, it was a different pan which was full of broken glass which was then poured onto a sheet. Somehow she managed to dance on broken glass whilst still balancing the teapot stack on her head.

At the stomach turning cultural event

At the stomach turning cultural event

Please don't slip, please don't slip - gypsy girl picking up a pin in her eye while bent over backwards. How do you find out you can do that?!

Please don’t slip, please don’t slip – gypsy girl picking up a pin in her eye while bent over backwards. How do you find out you can do that?!

With our stomachs well and truly churned it was time for a quick dance around the central fire with all the other guest and the gypsy girls followed by dinner. It was all desert curries made of desert plants which we have never seen before. After dinner it was time to head back to town, but not before we managed to get away from the floodlights for a good look at the stars.

The next day we got up late and headed towards the lake on the outskirts of town. It was really quiet and surrounded by abandoned sandstone buildings which was a bit odd but made it quite a relaxing lake to take a lap of.

The lake on the outskirts of town

The lake on the outskirts of town

From there we headed back through the shopping area of the old town towards the fort. Jason was persuaded that a tailored shirt for £5 was a good idea, so was measured up for a shirt to collect a few hours later. Back in the fort we headed for our favourite sunset cafe to watch sunset again. To our disappointment, the peaceful nature of the cafe was destroyed by a man from Finland talking loudly at two German girls he had befriended. He was one of those people that makes sure everyone in the place can hear them and though he was facing the girls he was talking to, he was actually addressing everyone in the cafe indirectly. He was rather opinionated and pretty ignorant so we bailed as soon as we finished our chai; we tried to ignore it but it was just too loud and too embarrassingly ignorant to tolerate.

The view across the Jain temples from the second rooftop restaurant where we went to escape the rude Fin

The view across the Jain temples from the second rooftop restaurant where we went to escape the rude Fin

We found another restaurant nearby where we had yet another great curry. After dinner we returned to collect Jason’s £5 tailored shirt. It’s a bit short and a bit tight around the shoulders but the fit isn’t awful, it’s just not quite right. The material is also so thin that it’s see-through. £5 poorly spent, it is probably worse quality than the equivalent £5 shirt from Primark back home. Katy still decided to get measured up for a Saree blouse at the same place to collect the next day.

We began our final day by collecting Katy’s saree blouse which turned out a whole lot better than Jason’s shirt. We then walked to see several Havelis for which Jaisalmer is quite famous. The Havelis are essentially big houses with amazingly detailed carvings in their sandstone structures.

The front of one of the Havelis

The front of one of the Havelis

Katy on the roof of a haveli. This photo shows just how much the distant fort dominates the skyline

Katy on the roof of a haveli. This photo shows just how much the distant fort dominates the skyline

Katy and the Jaisalmer skyline

Katy and the Jaisalmer skyline

At lunchtime we were still in town so went and sat down in a local eatery to grab some food. As the waiter came over with the menus we noticed 3 rats sat on top of the stacked Coca-Cola bottles on the cupboard at the back of the room so we thought better of eating there and left.

Our train back to Jodhpur (to catch a flight to Delhi the next day) was late afternoon, so we spent some of the afternoon relaxing at the guesthouse. Whilst painting a picture of the Fort view, Katy befriended a group of kids on an adjacent rooftop. She went down to meet them at street level and it turned out they were a birthday party. Party games followed in the street with Katy playing the part of children’s entertainer.

A similar thing happened later on the busy train back to Jodhpur. In our booth with us were 2 Korean students, 2 Chinese girls and an Indian family of 4 with two young girls. It started when Katy drew a picture of one of the girls and gave it to her as a gift. She seemed happy but her parents seemed overjoyed with it. The little girl returned the favour and drew a picture for Katy which Katy loves. For the rest of the trip we played games and eventually managed to involve everyone in the booth. Katy’s travel cushion was at the centre of it all, being used to play catch and then attached to a bit of string and placed on the top bunk for the little girls to pull the string and watch the cushion land on Dads head, much to their amusement over and over again. The games kept coming until the girls were encouraged by their parents to stand up and sing songs to entertain everyone. Big hits included “twinkle twinkle little star”. The Korean guys then played “Gangnam Style” on one of their phones and to our combined surprise, the Indian family had never heard it before! Even the Chinese girls exclaimed surprise at finding a place in the world where Gangnam Style wasn’t the dominant musical vibe for the last 6 months. It was one of the best train journeys we’ve ever been on, steaming through the arid dusty desert while the light faded while playing games with a group of strangers.

It was late by the time we reached Jodhpur and checked back in to the hotel we had left a few days before. We also had to get up quite early the next day to catch our flight back to Delhi. The train we had been on the night before actually terminated at Delhi, so we could have stayed on all night, but for not a massively larger cost we were able to stay in a comfortable hotel and then catch a flight which arrived in Delhi at about the same time as the train.

Back in Delhi we had time to catch our breath before flying the next day to Nepal. We had both had the thought in the back of our minds that it seemed crazy that we had completed our trip of India without getting the famous Delhi belly. We both had the good sense not to say it out loud because we still had one night left; but just thinking it was apparently enough to curse it. That night one of us (we won’t reveal who, but it wasn’t Jason) woke up at 1am to be make a call on the big white telephone (to be clear, that means to be sick).

We had seen some incredible things in India, tasted the best curries and smelled both the wonderful fragrance of spice and incense as well as the stench of sewage. There are a few observations about India we have made that we’d like to share. We’ll start on a tangent.

Donald Rumsfeld (former US Secretary of State) once said that “as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know “. He wasn’t talking about India, but he could have been.

The “known knowns” are easy. We knew the trains would be busy, we knew there would be lots of traffic and pushy touts. By the time we arrived in India we were fairly used to this and comfortable with these.

The “known unknowns” are things like the Indian head wobble. It’s infectious but even though we were expecting it, we still weren’t really sure of the difference between the head movements for yes and no. We did get the hang of it in the end. Another “known unknown” was the free roaming cows and dogs that are everywhere in India. That is to say we knew it was coming, but it was still unfamiliar and the cows in particular always brought a smile.

The “unknown unknowns” are where it gets fun. We weren’t expecting the complete lack of small denominations of currency in India, but they always expect the customer to have plenty of change. Many times the lowest ranking staff member from a restaurant or guesthouse would be sent on an expedition to break a 1000rs note that we had used to pay for an 800rs bill.

The next “unknown unknown” is social norms, manners and unintentional rudeness. Loud nasal hawking is fine in polite company, as are gutsy full stomach burbs. Spitting is commonplace, and is especially colourful after a long hawking session. It is also just fine for a taxi to stop off at a petrol station for 20 minutes mid journey.

The unintentional insults really made us laugh, for example Jason was told that “your wife is simple” (we told people we were married to avoid problems). What he actually meant was that Katy didn’t have much jewellery on (she doesn’t even have pierced ears). Even better was when a cafe owner complimented Katy on the shawl she was wearing saying “I really like your shawl. That was very fashionable about 15 years ago”. Not intentionally offensive, but funny.

Finally we come to the ridiculous. We have seen them in Thailand, but we weren’t expecting to see any ladyboys in India. We were in a tuk tuk stopped at a Delhi traffic light in heavy traffic after dark when all of a sudden a ladyboy appeared next to us. As they always are, she was very keen on Jason and eventually went off in a sulk when her affections were not reciprocated.

Perhaps our favourite silly moment in Delhi came when we were eating dinner in our hotel. The restaurant had a full length glass frontage out on to the street. Katy looked up and said, “Jason, that man is going to walk straight into the…” – BANG. Sure enough, this middle aged man had seen us in the restaurant and decided he wanted a chat so he had walked over from the street and was so transfixed on us that he didn’t notice the obvious pane of glass in his way. It looked like it hurt but he was not to be deterred or at all embarrassed  He came and sat near us and after finding out that we were married asked Katy if she had any sisters in a thinly veiled attempt to see if he could marry off one of his sons. Fortunately Freya is already engaged and so isn’t available to marry a young Indian Naval officer who got very good grades at school.

The use of car and bike horns is also prolific in India. It can mean all sorts of things, from the short polite “peep” of a slow moving car sneaking up behind you to let you know it is there – to the ear shattering honk of a motorbike passing to say “I’m going far too fast – so you need to move – so I’m holding the horn down as I drive!!!” (which is quite common). It’s also common to use the horn for no real reason other than they feel they should every few seconds or even to say to the vehicles around them who are also stuck in gridlock “Hey, I’m not moving at the moment”. Lorries have signs on the back instructing drivers to “use horn”. It is almost as though the use of the horn on the roads replaces the need to look around you. If someone hasn’t beeped, they aren’t really there. As a result, India’s roads are a mess of buzzing horns which just distract all the drivers so that nobody is really paying any attention to the road.

There are a lot of silly things that happen in India, some frustrating but mostly funny. We took the phrase from the film Blood Diamond where they often say “TIA” meaning “This Is Africa” to explain odd goings on. “TII” became a staple phrase whenever something that just wouldn’t happen at home was going on. We both loved India and can’t wait to come back. Our last stop was to be Nepal.

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To Jodhpur!

For the ride to Jodhpur we had sleeper class train tickets which are about as cheap as you can go before getting to unreserved territory which means bundles and people hanging out of doors like you see on TV program’s about India. Sleeper class was ok, without too many cockroaches and not too crowded either.

Katy prepares to sip Masala Chai on the top bunk of the train (sleeper class)

Katy prepares to sip Masala Chai on the top bunk of the train (sleeper class)

When we arrived it was raining which took some of the dust out of the air for a fresher feel to the town. We rode in another type of Tuk Tuk (taller and thinner whilst being as aerodynamic as a brick) to get to the hotel, though the rain had turned the dirt roads into muddy roads. The only locals that seemed to enjoy the weather were the numerous cows. From the rooftop seating area at the hotel there were great views of the Fort sat high above the city.

Us on the roof in the rain with Mehrangarh Fort in the distance

Us on the roof in the rain with Mehrangarh Fort in the distance

By morning the world had returned to normal; the rain was gone and the dust was back. We made our way up the hills to Jaswant Thada which is the marble memorial to a Maharaja and is described as “a collection of whimsical domes”. It was excellently carved and we enjoyed our time spent wandering around it, or dancing in Katy’s case.

Jaswant Thada - the memorial to a Maharaja

Jaswant Thada – the memorial to a Maharaja

Jason at Jaswant Thada

Jason at Jaswant Thada

From there it was a 1km walk along the road to the Mehrangarh Fort, the one we could see from the hotel. The fort sits on a rocky hill which is 120m above the city. The walls are largely carved from the rock on which the fort sits, so the fort literally emerges from the rocks beneath. On the way in we saw that the audio guide to the fort didn’t cost anything so we went for it. Most places we’ve been have audio guided tours but we figured they would be dull and normally an extra cost. We had been advised that this one was really good and once we got past how silly we looked with the ill-fitting headphones the guide did make some interesting points like the fact that the fort location was previously owned by a recluse who was forced off the land to build the fort, so he cursed the site. To counteract this, the Maharaja took the obvious step of asking someone to volunteer to be buried alive in the foundations to appease the gods. A volunteer was found and is still in an unknown location within the foundations.

Audioguide part 2. Cannonball marks on the walls.

Audioguide part 2. Cannonball marks on the walls.

There were also a couple of literary references from the guide, the first as we passed the impossibly high bastions which inspired Rudyard Kipling to write that the Fort was “the work of angels, fairies and giants…built by titans and coloured by the morning sun…he who walks through it loses sense of being among buildings. It is as though he walked through mountain gorges…” We hear you Rudyard, and we couldn’t have put it better ourselves. This place is incredible and it’s easy to see why it’s regarded as one of the world’s finest forts.

Within the huge fort

Within the huge fort

Then there was the self-immolation hand prints made by the last Maharani’s (Maharaja’s wives) to carry out the Sati ritual of throwing themselves onto their husband’s funeral pyre (in 1843). The haunting hand prints on the wall are just inside the gate. The fort contained bucket loads of beautifully carved stonework buildings and some lovely miniature artworks which were immensely detailed showing the lives of the Maharajas. Within the palace was an area where the women were kept (to keep them away from the men) and were never allowed out in public.

Katy inside the fort. THe orange bits on the walls behind are the self immolation marks of the Maharanis.

Katy inside the fort. THe orange bits on the walls behind are the self immolation marks of the Maharanis.

This is supposedly an idol which is carried on a parade yearly and represents the power of the Maharaja, it was seen as the ultimate war trophy if ever captured. We can see why, because its clearly a robot. Probably programmed for housework or dancing, no wonder they liked it so much. Probably needs charging or something.

This is supposedly an idol which is carried on a parade yearly and represents the power of the Maharaja, it was seen as the ultimate war trophy if ever captured. We can see why, because its clearly a robot. Probably programmed for housework or dancing, no wonder they liked it so much. Probably needs charging or something.

Along the high walls the audio guide said that it was from there that Aldous Huxley wrote “from the bastions of Jodhpur Fort one hears as the gods must hear from Olympus”. The sounds of the city are audible from up there, but not the bike horns and engine rumbles so much as the laughter and singing from the surrounding dwellings because of the way the wind catches the sounds and drags them up the walls.

".from the bastions of the Jodhpur Fort one hears as the gods must hear from Olympus." Alduos Huxley

“.from the bastions of the Jodhpur Fort one hears as the gods must hear from Olympus.” Alduos Huxley

While we were on the walls we met another English couple. They were from Blackpool and are travelling for a year or more and it turned out that we both had bookings on the same carriage of the same train to Jaisalmer.

Katy peeks through stained glass inside Mehrangarh

Katy peeks through stained glass inside Mehrangarh

The walk back to the hotel from the fort took us through some of the old backstreets with many a blue building (Jodhpur is the ‘blue city’). It was about school closing time so there were hundreds of kids on their way home and all of them wanted to say hello to us. The streets all looked very similar and are very hard to navigate. You can’t see enough skyline to navigate by landmarks like the fort, we only had the occasional bit of sunlight to see where the sun was to make our way south east to the hotel. We did find it in the end and getting a bit lost on the way was part of the fun. We had a great curry on the roof while watching the sun set over the fort we had just explored.

Sunset over the fort

Sunset over the fort

The fort at dusk when the lights come on

The fort at dusk when the lights come on

The following morning the hotel owner approached us after breakfast to ask for our help with an email written in English. Someone had lodged a complaint against the hotel in the form of negative feedback on booking.com and he needed to reply. We wrote the reply for him as it was clear that the complainer was just being an idiot. While we worked on the email in his house, his mother came and gave us tea to say thank you. Whilst on a high after our good deed we were buying some art supplies from a nearby store when a little girl came into the shop clutching a 20 rupee note to buy an exercise book. She was clearly excited about the prospect so we paid for the book for her (super generous of us to splash out 25p right?!). Despite the lack of large sums of money involved she was over the moon and couldn’t thank us enough. She even chased us down the road a few minutes later on her battered bike to say thank you some more. We feel it justifies our position of not giving money to kids begging on the streets; giving them money just gives them a reason to be on the street begging and a reason to hassle tourists. This little girl wanted a book for school, which she didn’t ask or expect us to pay for, so we felt good about it.

The girl we bought the book for

The girl we bought the book for

We decided to spend most of the day looking through the busy colourful bazaars. We did wander a bit far though at one point and were mobbed by an army of little kids as we tried to walk past their game of cricket. They were all smiles and hellos but of course there were a couple trying to get into our bags (they failed). The next group were mid-teenagers, one of whom wanted to talk to Katy, she ignored him which embarrassed him (deservedly) and in his embarrassment in front of his friends decided to throw a bit of gravel in our direction. That’s just not cricket, but they ran off after Jason pretended to run at them. We decided that the outer regions of the city were perhaps not the place to spend the day wandering and started to meander back to the centre.

India as it is on TV

India as it is on TV

Back in the centre we found a rooftop restaurant and ordered pancakes. An hour later a half cooked mess arrived which we didn’t eat or pay for. The cutlery that arrived with it looked as though it had been used to stir cow poo. Dirty cutlery is expected in India, but there is a limit. We found the whole episode rather amusing. It may sound like we had a bad day, but we really didn’t, we had a great time.

We eventually dinned back at the hotel with the fort view. We had yet another very early start the next day for our train to Jaisalmer.

Jodhpur had been the first step outside the Golden Triangle of north India (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur is the loop everyone does), though a large number do go to Jodhpur too. We liked it a lot even though there were less big ticket attractions than other places it had more charm. As a bonus it was actually very blue unlike previous places that had claimed to be a certain colour then turn out not to be! We heard various reasons for the blue colour, including to ward off mosquitoes  to cool the buildings, for good luck and to attract tourists!

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Jaipur

After our early morning (5am) train from Agra pulled in to Jaipur station we pushed through the throng to get out through the ludicrously narrow station exit and decided we could walk to our pre-booked hotel. It wasn’t long before we realised it was further and hotter than we thought. On the plus side, our bags are lighter now that we sent some stuff back with Katy’s parents from Sri Lanka.

In the end we took a Tuk Tuk for most of the journey. Our hotel was really nice, newly decorated inside with a lovely garden restaurant which had wild peacocks wandering about. Jaipur seems to have taken the wildlife count up compared to other Indian cities. Despite a 5.5 million human population there are loads of cows, goats, monkeys, peacocks, buffalo, pigs and dogs wandering around, holding up traffic and quite often eating through the piles of rubbish at the roadside (normal for India). Tourists riding camels and painted elephants also cut in among the traffic.

After a nap to compensate for our early start (this is the life), we headed to the Pink City – the area within the original walls which was painted pink in preparation for the visiting Prince of Wales in 1857 if memory serves. Pink is the Indian colour of welcome and the city has been kept painted pink ever since.

Katy dodges a motorbike

Katy dodges a motorbike

Katy buying more material

Katy buying more material

The first thing we noticed was that it wasn’t pink, it was more a terracotta colour, but perhaps in this dusty land pink turns to terracotta very fast.

The streets were lined with bazaars so we set to work buying more stuff we don’t need including bed covers and sarees for Katy’s growing collection. It’s all pretty cheap.

The town centre is a cacophony of vehicle horns and shouts of “yes sir, come see inside my shop”. We ate back at the hotel in the peace and quiet of the garden. The hotel had an excellent kitchen.

The following day we arranged a Tuk Tuk and driver for the whole day for 600 rupees (£7.50ish). It turned out to be one of our most tiring days so far as we were taken to so many places, resulting in a mild case of visual indigestion.

First up was the Sri Laksmi temple, a white marble temple, the best bits were where the marble had been carved so thinly that the sunlight from outside shone through the translucent marble to give the carvings a backlit effect.

Next up was the Albert Hall, a museum based in an old building. We decided that the contents sounded too dull to warrant the 300 rupee entrance fee so we just had a look at the building and moved on.

The Albert Hall - the little girl was crossing the road to come and ask for money

The Albert Hall – the little girl was crossing the road to come and ask for money

Hawa Mahal is one of Jaipur’s most famous landmarks, but today we would only see it from the inside, the famous frontage faces a different street which we planned to view another time. Inside the palace was a tangle of quirky, highly decorated rooms strung together by thin corridors and open courtyards. It was here that we first thought of Escher paintings, it was like being in one. Jaipur’s famous forts and palaces all seemed to echo this.

Katy inside the Hawa Mahal

Katy inside the Hawa Mahal

Jason inside the Hawa Mahal

Jason inside the Hawa Mahal

Our next destination was the City Palace, the highlight of which was the armoury, not just because of the assortment of killing devices but because it was housed in the most fancifully decorated rooms of the palace. Hugely detailed artworks including mirrors and coloured glass covered the ceiling.

Marble man rides elephant

Marble man rides elephant

Just opposite was the observatory. This was about as Escher as it gets. There were loads of structures built a long time ago for making measurements from the sky, mostly around accurate time keeping (we think).

The Escher like instruments in the Jantar Mantar observatory

The Escher like instruments in the Jantar Mantar observatory

That was the morning completed. We convinced the driver to ferry us all the way back to the hotel to pick up all the stuff we bought the day before and then onwards to the post office – it would be our last chance in Jaipur to do this. The inefficiency of the place was staggering and all in it took over an hour to post our parcel. There were four guys employed to wrap up the parcel (though only one was doing anything). He wrapped it up in white cotton and then hand stitched it closed and sealed it with candle wax. It took ages but it looked cool. The next stage was worse, again with most of the staff sat around chatting while one or two did all the work. The Indians don’t really do queues. They do bundles instead. If you get your face into the window where the staff member who isn’t currently sending a text message is sat first, you get served next. All tactics are legit, elbow use is encouraged. We didn’t fare too badly in the queue, but the parcel did cost £25 to send (it was about 2kg though).

Us near the Amber Fort

Us near the Amber Fort

After our authentic Indian post office experience we were taken to the Amber Fort a few kilometres outside Jaipur. On the way we passed several decorated elephants. This large fort sits on top of a hill and inside is yet more Escher type architecture along with beautifully patterned paintings. The only drawback from the visit was the amount of people taking pictures of us. Often young men would take pictures of Katy without asking, so we did our bit to help the current upsurge in India to promote women’s rights and getting men to respect women by telling them off. The vast majority of people do ask, and usually want a picture with the both of us. The request of “please one photo” is usually a porky pie, they take 10, one of us with each member of the group, but that’s ok. Being a celebrity would soon get annoying though, we wouldn’t want this every day.

Jason in the Amber Fort

Jason in the Amber Fort

Inside the Amber Fort

Inside the Amber Fort

Katy sat in an alcove

Katy sat in an alcove

This part of the fort was so Escher-like the battlement walls and two domes were at 45 degree angles.Honest.

This part of the fort was so Escher-like the battlement walls and two domes were at 45 degree angles.Honest.

On the way back after exploring the fort we stopped to take a photo of the water palace and then our driver asked if he could take us a jewellery shop. He claimed that if he brings them enough people that his family get given free clothes at festival times. We didn’t believe him but we liked him so we agreed but made it clear that we wouldn’t buy anything. True to our word we spent 5 minutes in the shop listening to how the jewellery is made and then bailed, it was easier than we expected and actually quite interesting.

the Water Palace

the Water Palace

Next he took us through some narrow streets lined with waving children and women washing clothes in buckets to a place where several elephants lived. We met a 30 year old female who had been painted in bright colours. Being a bit elephant obsessed since Thailand we of course checked our handy list of whether the animal is healthy. Eating – yes, lots of poo nearby – yes, ears flapping often – yes. Despite being chained up, she did seem quite happy and was happy for us to say hello.

Us with the elephant

Us with the elephant

Elephant encounter over we agreed to go to another shop (perhaps we were just grateful he had taken us to meet the elephant). This time a material shop, our previous no buying conditions applied here too. We were shown loads of bed covers of varying qualities. They claimed some took 3 months to make and are made by villagers when the rains don’t come so they can’t farm. They were paid 50 rupees for a day’s work, so we worked out the shop had made a significant mark up. We did buy one of the cheaper ones (made in the attached factory), the rest were nice, but out of our price range.

That concluded our tour for that day, we had had an excellent day, albeit a tiring one. Katy had a nasty cold developing so we decided to start later the next day, but booked the same driver to show us the other things we wanted to see.

After a lie in Katy had shaken of the worst of her cold and we rode the Tuk Tuk to a part of town seemingly populated by cows, monkeys and kids trying to sell stuff. We were told that to reach the monkey temple we had to take the path up the hill. Once we had shaken off the beggars living under the tarpaulins at the path side, we began our ascent. There were loads of reportedly aggressive monkeys, one kid even offered his services to protect us from the monkeys (for a fee) – we declined. The monkeys weren’t aggressive towards us and there were loads of baby monkeys monkeying around. At the top of the hill we found a temple surrounded by monkeys which we assumed was the monkey temple. It later turned out that we were wrong, the actual monkey temple was down the other side of the hill (obscured by mist). We didn’t go back later, maybe next time.

Monkey Rides Pig

Monkey Rides Pig

On the way back down towards the Tuk Tuk the cows were charging up the hill following food being dropped from the back of a motorbike. The monkeys got involved too. People say that cows cannot descend stairs, so we felt relatively safe that the slightly irate bull was up a flight of stone steps on a raised platform. We looked around a few moments later to see him safely negotiating the last step. Myth dispelled. We did safely avoid the bull, the cows and the monkeys to get back to our Tuk Tuk.

The bull that came down the stairs

The bull that came down the stairs

Jaigarh Fort was the next stop, just further up the hill from the Amber Fort we visited the day before. The road to Jaigarh Fort wraps 11km around the other side of the hill which is why we hadn’t been the day before.

This one was less palace and more fort. We had a great time exploring and being silly. Our favourite game was to spot a tourist taking a video – you know the sort, the ones that have the camera recording literally all day from the breakfast table onwards (not an exaggeration). Once a target was spotted we would stand nearby and take a short video ourselves before proclaiming loudly “Well, that’s gonna be a boring video that we’ll never watch”. Should sound good if they do ever watch the video back. It was fun and also massively hypocritical – we have taken thousands of photos and (short) videos, most of which we’ll barely see again. We realise that for many people, the actual filming of the video or the taking of a photo is the fun part, but we still like our game. Like an audio version of photo bombing (which we have also done).

Katy wore a Saree

Katy wore a Saree

At Jaigarh Fort they were rolling out the red carpet for a corporate function

At Jaigarh Fort they were rolling out the red carpet for a corporate function

Views from the Jaigarh Fort

Views from the Jaigarh Fort

Our next stop was another walled palace. We walked along the extensive walls to look down at the city of Jaipur through the mist. There must have been hundreds of kites being flown, some at ludicrous heights (maybe two or three hundred metres up). The palace part looked dull from the outside but was beautiful on the inside with murals over many walls.

Jason inside Nahargarh Palace

Jason inside Nahargarh Palace

Our penultimate stop was the frontage of the Hawa Mahal. We didn’t stay long and the photos we took were poor because we were tired and hungry by then. Our last stop was the Pearl Palace Hotel for their restaurant on the roof as recommended by our friend Catherine. The food was excellent in a really nice setting – thanks Catherine.

Hawa Mahal frontage. The lattice covered windows were so ladies of the court could watch the city go by away from the eyes of the men.

Hawa Mahal frontage. The lattice covered windows were so ladies of the court could watch the city go by away from the eyes of the men.

That’s about it for Jaipur, it had been busy but we had seen some great stuff and eaten some fabulous food.

The next day we had a cheap train ticket onwards to Jodhpur.

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