Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Final Adventure - 19th Stop: Varanasi

Varanasi was absolutely nuts! It was just so different to anything we've seen before, and had more character and uniqueness than you could shake a stick at! Not only is it considered the holiest city in Hinduism and Jainism, but it is also one of the oldest cities in the world. It's one of those places where there aren't really many sights to speak of, you just have to throw yourself into the mix of everyday life, absorb it all and hope you come out the other side in one piece.

Originally, we were meant to arrive at 8:30am with a full day in Varanasi ahead of us, but as it turned out, we eventually pulled into town at 6pm, with a full day on the train behind us, which kinda derailed our plans a bit. We had only scheduled two and a bit days here in total and that was one gone already. Still, we had been very lucky in our time in India up til now, and our tight schedule had proved to be quite robust, so we were due a day of uncertainty.

After arriving in town, we got a tuk-tuk from the station towards the banks of the Ganges, but because of the layout of the city, there's only so far you can go before you have to make your way on foot. It gave us a truly authentic introduction to what Varanasi was all about though, as we made our way through the busy streets and down intricate alleyways, amidst a seemingly endless stream of funeral processions. This was no sombre affair however, in fact, you've never seen a celebration like it! People come from all over to cremate their bereaved here, so death is very much a part of everyday life.

Looking back now on our first night in town - as we wandered aimlessly around looking for our guesthouse, sweaty and disheveled, and bumbling through a series of processions - we were actually walking through someone's funeral! I think it would be generally frowned upon if a couple of Indian backpackers did the same thing at an Irish burial...

Even though we had one day less than we had planned here, we still made the most of things, getting up at dawn the following morning for a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges.

We've been on a fair few boat tours in our time, but nowhere else in the world will you get such an uncensored view of humanity and such an insight into daily life. They use the Ganges here for everything a river could possibly be used for (and even a few things it should never be used for!). From scattering the ashes of the deceased, to washing your laundry; taking a bath or just a spiritual cleanse, the Ganges has got it all!

Even the animals aren't afraid to take a dip! Needless to say, we did not.

You'd even see (and I shudder just typing it) the odd corpse floating in the water. The vast majority of bodies here are cremated, but there are five categories of people who cannot be burned, namely: children, pregnant women, sufferers of leprosy or smallpox, holy men and those who died from a snake bite. These people are floated out onto the river and then sunk to the bottom with rocks. But sometimes they come loose and... well, you can imagine the rest.

Back to our time here, as I said earlier, there's nothing in particular to see, so it's just a case of strolling along the river's edge and just experiencing the craziness of it all. The only place we really went out of our way to visit was a famous little lassi shop called Blue Lassi, which serves up a huge selection of the traditional Indian yoghurty drink.

It was really delicious, even though it probably looks more like water scooped from the Ganges!

We also paid a visit to the two cremation ghats where the burnings are carried out (sure, what else would you be doing on a Thursday evening?!). It's quite a sobering experience to see the bodies (even though they were wrapped up), burning on the pyres. And of course, after being in the fire for a while, the outer wrapping also burns away so you see an actual person there. It’s one of those things that you don’t want to see, yet you can’t look away. It's hard to tell what's more polluted here, the water or the air. In most places in India you wouldn't know what you were breathing in. Here, it's more a case of who!

We also saw our favourite shrine ever! Now people here worship many gods, with multiple limbs, animal heads, pretty strange looking characters, but check out this shrine to some sort of amorphous blob!

I presume it was a proper statue at one time and it has since melted or eroded or something, but seriously… just look at it! Ever since, whenever we're feeling down, we just think of that shrine and it always makes us smile. Now that's a God worth believing in!

We also saw a goat wearing a shirt, so it was a pretty memorable day overall.

All that was left was to make a video diary...

...and that was the end of our time in India! I can’t think of a more fitting place to conclude things.

It’s was a bit of a bittersweet farewell as we absolutely loved our 5 and a bit weeks here, but part of us was just glad that we made it out in one piece! In all of our travels over the past 3+ years, this was the country I was most anxious about from a safety point of view, even more so than North Korea! We’d always be quite alert in every country we visit anyway, but here, I was always switched on to what was going on around us; from surrounding footsteps, to people slowing their pace and gazes from the corner of my eye. I always felt like I had to be on guard. Even in some situations where I felt a bit unsafe, I’d play out in my head what I would do if we were attacked. It’s a good thing nothing did happen as I probably would have been too busy daydreaming about it to actually defend myself in real life!

But make it out we did, and even though India has many bad things about it, and some huge problems in its society, the good things far outweigh the bad, and it's definitely up there in our list of favourite countries. For now, it was into Nepal and the simple task of climbing (on) Mount Everest!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Final Adventure - 18th Stop: New Delhi

We entered New Delhi, the nation's capital and our second last stop, rather tentatively. India is a country with a big reputation, both good and bad, and so far we were lucky enough to have experienced a lot more of the former than the latter. But this was due to be our biggest test yet. We had expected Bangalore to be manic - it wasn't. We thought Mumbai would be absolute mayhem - not at all. Surely, New Delhi would live up to our expectations of  'crazy India'...? 

Well, on the whole - no! It was actually quite alright. It's never a place I'd like to live, and there's a few spots that I'd never like to see again, but overall it was relatively pleasant.

A couple of factors helped in that respect -  the fact that they have a pretty good metro system here, so we didn't have to deal with insane traffic or shifty rickshaw drivers was a major plus. We also found ourselves an amazing restaurant on our first night in town (Metropolis), so just ate dinner there every day. No "Delhi Belly" for us!

I know some people when they travel, never eat in the same place twice, just to experience different options, but we’re the complete opposite - if we find a good thing, we hold on to it! We've had enough bad meals on the road to appreciate a good place when we find it, and this one was delicious! I guess it's handy that we love Indian food as it’s obviously a lot easier to find good local restaurants here than Western ones. And besides, eating regional cuisine is part and parcel of travelling. It just makes life a whole easier when the food is actually really great!

But there's a lot more to New Delhi than just good food and avoiding people! On our first day in town, we were quite busy; visiting the Islamic tower of Qutab Minar, the Lodi Gardens and then over to Humayun's Tomb.

Humayun's Tomb was probably the best of the three, but they were all worth a visit. It was like a big, brown Taj Mahal, just less crowded, and not shrouded in fog!

The next day, we went to our second Gandhi museum of the trip (you'd think one would be enough, and it definitely was. There's only so much you can learn about someone!) This place was a bit better than the first one in Mumbai though, especially as it was in the place where he was killed. They even had marked out the footprints of his final walk up to the very place he was shot.

Next we headed to the Red Fort where we had planned to see a couple of things in the area, but after our journey there, we quickly reassessed our schedule.

As I mentioned earlier, New Delhi had been a lot less chaotic than we were expecting, but here we were plunged into the mayhem we had anticipated - an ocean of people, toing and froing, coming and going, calling and clawing at you to get your attention and/or money. It felt like being in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, only less safe! So once we arrived at the Fort, we decided to just bail out as fast as we could. I guess it was good to see that part of life here, but the smallest of doses was fine with us.

Red Fort itself was nothing that special anyway. We didn't even go inside as we had heard that it was quite run down and shabby, and from the outside, it was nothing that we hadn't seen before.

We moved on from there to a much nicer and quieter part of the city to visit Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, our first ever Sikh Temple. We had been to religious sites before where we had to wear sarongs, or cover up our knees and shoulders, but here we had to pop on a couple of bandannas and go for more of a pirate look.

And I have to say, we do look pretty Sikh!

And that was almost that for New Delhi, we just had to catch our ride out of town. Indian trains had been great to us, and that night we were due to board our last ever one, all the way to Varanasi. For the occasion, we even splashed out and went first class, best to go out in style! But as we reached the station, we found that the train had been delayed by a whole 6 hours! Ultimate dose! Luckily, we were staying just 5 minutes from the station, so we were able to limp back to the hotel, and ask for a room until our new departure time of 2am. We made it through the passing hours and more importantly, made it safely back to the station (up until now, we had avoided walking the streets at night), and in the end it was worth the wait, as we had our own little cabin to ourselves, where we made our latest video diary:

There are usually four beds in a cabin, but there was a small little half-cabin at the end with only two beds that we were fortunate enough to be assigned to (probably because we were the only whities on board). So, with a private cabin to ourselves on a late night train, we did what any young couple would...

...used the bed sheets to dress up as Gandhi!

And not just Gandhi himself, we also have his two Irish cousins: 

                       Mahatma Geansaí                        Mo Hata, Mo Geansaí

Certainly a journey well spent! Next stop, and last stop - Varanasi!

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Final Adventure - 17th Stop: Agra

So, we saw the Taj Mahal - surprise! You can't come to India and not, really. It's like popping over to China and not seeing the Great Wall, or visiting Manila and having a wonderful time; it's just not possible! We actual saw the Taj (that's what the cool kids call it for short) on three different occasions, or rather, saw it twice and didn't see it at all once, but I'll explain that one later. And like the Great Wall, it's one of those places where you fear that because it's so famous, it'll never live up to your preconceived expectations, but then it totally does!

We had one day in town, and one day was all it took. Agra isn't really the kind of place you want to spend a lot of time. In fact, it's a dump - and by that, I don't just mean it's not a nice city, I mean it’s quite literally a rubbish dump that seems to have evolved into a somewhat habitable area. In most, if not all cities in India, there’s an awful lot of litter and pollution, but here there seems to be more rubbish than actual solid ground.

In our original plan, we were hoping to get a driver here from Jaipur and hit up two more stops on the way: Fatehpur Sikri and the stepwell at Abhaneri (which would have unintentionally been our second visit to a filming location from The Dark Knight Rises), but alas, it was too expensive so we had to just go straight from A to B by train. Here’s what we could’ve seen:

I’m sure we’ll be back in India again some time in the future though, so all is not lost. We could easily visit again for the same amount of time, with a completely new itinerary and have an equally incredible time. I guess it's testament to that fact, the way in which we can just sweep aside the two amazing sights above, and not give it a second thought.

The train ride here was great too. It was our first time travelling in the AC Chair Carriage, so different experience from the sleepers, but a fun one! We even got free food and drink. It was like being on a plane!

As well as the mini-breakfast, we were also treated to a slice of drama, as a passenger and a group of officials were having a, rather heated, shouting match. We, of course, didn't understand a word of it, so I can't fill you in on the outcome. It’s times like these, more than any other, that I wish I spoke foreign languages. Never mind asking for directions or reading menus, I want to know what people are screaming at each other!

The only other thing worth seeing in town, and our first stop of the day, was Agra Fort, which was quite nice and a bit different to the countless other forts we've seen recently; a lot more red and chunky.

It also supplied us with our first sneak preview of the Taj Mahal which could be seen in the distance.

Afterwards, we travelled to Mehtab Bagh to get an even closer glimpse. It's a nice, quiet park on the other side of the river, and will provide you with the absolute best views of the Taj, outside of actually visiting the grounds themselves. (We were saving that for sunrise the following morning). It's surprisingly uncrowded too. I'd imagine most people visiting Agra would just be on organised package tours, so they'd go straight for the Taj, and then ship out again, leaving this lovely spot relatively untouched.

And also a nice, secluded location to make our next video diary:

In other news, I was shat on again, twice! All in the space of a few seconds. Before this trip, I had never been pooped on in my life, and now, it has happened 6 times in the last 6 weeks. I can’t live the rest of my days with that kind of ratio! And of those 6 occasions, 4 have been double whammies. I don’t know what I've done to offend birds in this part of the world, but there’s definitely something going on. I mean, Aisling hasn't received a single aerial attack, not one, and she’s been right beside me for the entire trip! It’s actually come to the stage now where I’m hoping my own girlfriend will be shat on just to restore some balance and to set my mind at ease that there isn't some sort of avian conspiracy against me!

The next morning came the moment of truth. We had been getting closer and closer, but now we were going to see it face to face. We got up early, made our way there, got our tickets (750 Rupees for foreigners, a mere 20 Rupees for Indians), all ready for a majestic, once in a lifetime sunrise, aaaaaand... nothing but fog. And I don't just mean the sun was obscured, you could barely even see 10 feet in front of you.

And it wasn't just foggy, it was absolutely freezing too! What the hell, India?! We even spent about an hour and a half inside the building itself, just because it was slightly warmer than outside! We also tried to wait out the fog in the hopes that it would pass, but finally had to throw in the towel. It was still a worthwhile visit, and it's an incredible building close up - perfectly pristine and with intricate detail, it's just a shame that we didn't get to see it in its full glory. 

Still, at least we got a proper eyeful the day before, so things could've worked out a lot worse. Imagine coming all the way here and not getting to see it at all. Quite an Agra-vating experience, I'd say...

And despite the fog, I still had to get the standard Taj Mahal picture. Every tourist that comes here does the same clichéd pose of pinching the tip of the dome, just like pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It's tacky, but well, 'When in Rome...'

It's like a rite of passage, and the weather conditions weren't going to stop me getting my photo too!

Boom! Nailed it.

Despite not getting to see the sunrise (or anything at all), we did use our early morning to get a headstart on our trip to Delhi. It was the only journey that we hadn't booked in advance, as we weren't sure what time we'd be finished in Agra, and we just figured it was so close and such an oft travelled path that there would be loads of transport options available. And there were, but they were all full up. So, we had to just squeeze aboard a local bus and endure the 5 and a half hours of what should have been a 3 hour journey. Oh well, it’s probably a fitting entrance to the mayhem of Delhi.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Final Adventure - 16th Stop: Jaipur

Give me a Jaisalmer! JAI-SALMER!
Give me a Jodhpur! JODH-PUR!
Put 'em together and what do you get?! JAI-PUR!

And just like that opening, our time here was both laboured and regretable. Even though it may be a nominal mixture of our two previous destinations, it really wasn't a patch on either, and quite frankly, let down the, otherwise flawless, province of Rajasthan. Shame on you, Jaipur!

A lot of that can probably be chalked up to this being more of a big city, so it didn't really have the charm or character of some of our previous stops. It wasn't terrible, but our expectations had been rising gradually from place to place, and this was our first destination in a long time that simply failed to wow us. There were a couple of nice sights in and around India's 'Pink City' (another Rajasthani, colour-coded nickname), but on the whole, it was largely forgettable.

And worst of all, it wasn't even pink! Terracotta if anything. They couldn't even get that much right!

After another lovely train journey, we pulled into town at the, much-too-early, time of 4:30am, and got a rickshaw to our hotel. We had to wake someone up on at the front desk on arrival, and he grumpily checked us in, cursing us for having the gall to actually expect him to do his job. He did give us a room though, which we were glad of considering our early entrance, but that was probably just to get rid of us while he dozed off again. So, we went upstairs and everyone resumed their night's sleep.

When we rose again, we got a rickshaw into the city centre, and after a fruitless search for a nice restaurant, we had to opt for a meatless one instead. In fact, most restaurants that we've encountered in Rajasthan have been vegetarian, much to our disappointment, though this one was actually lovely! (LMB - nicest restaurant in town). We also slightly plunged ourselves into the unknown and ordered Kulfa - a traditional Indian dessert, and it was actually one of the nicest dishes we had on the entire trip!

It's like ice-cream but more dense, and infused with saffron and other such exotic sounding things.

The staff were also great and one of the waiters even showed us how to use the after dinner refreshments that you get with the bill. We've seen this in a few places and even in our local Indian restaurant in Hong Kong, but never understood what it was. It just looked like a bunch of herbs and salt. Do you sniff it, rub it on yourself, what? 

But we were instructed to take a small handful of the two mixed together and just lob it in your gob. And, it was great! Just like a blackjack bar!

After lunch, we visited a few of Jaipur's main attractions, including the Hawa Mahal (as seen in the first photo) and, the delightfully named, Jantar Mantar (just say it out loud, it’s really fun!).

And not just a bunch of random, stairways to nowhere either! Built in the early 18th century, it's actually a highly precise, astronomical observatory, with various instruments and devices to measure and survey things like constellations, planetary orbits and other such phenomena that are equally out-of-this-world. It's also home to the world's largest sundial which is accurate to an incredible two seconds!

Later that afternoon, we also visited Iswari Minar Swarga Sal, also known as the, much catchier, Heaven Piercing Minaret. In fact, I can tell you exactly what time we got there - it was 4:36pm, (it closes at 4:30pm and the guard was just locking up when we arrived). But we slipped him a sneaky 50 Rupees and he let us in for 10 minutes to see the view from the top.

There are, of course, a lot of downsides to things not working as they should in India, but I guess there are some upsides too. After all, if this was Germany, we would never have reached the top of that tower!

On our final day, we went on a small day trip to Amber Fort which, strangely out of sync with the rest of Rajasthan, actually isn't named for its colour, but rather because it's located in the town of Amber. And the funny thing is, Amber Fort is in fact amber! A lot more so than Jaipur is pink anyway...

This was billed as one of the top forts in the whole of India (and we had seen a lot at this stage!), but being honest, it wasn't really all that. Maybe the problem was we had seen so many and had reached maximum capacity, but trying to look at things objectively, I'm still leaning towards mediocrity. It was big, but that's about all it had going for it, and (as Aisling reassures me) size isn't everything anyway...

We also walked up (via an underground and overground passageway) to Jaigarh Fort which sits on a hilltop overlooking Amber Fort. It's certainly not as nice as the latter, but it does have better views, so worth a visit in its own right. It was also the scene of our latest video diary:

And that was the end of our, mostly unmemorable, time in Jaipur. The next morning we boarded our first ever seated train in India, for the short ride to Agra. (I already posted the photo to Facebook of our visit to the Taj Mahal, so there's that surprise ruined! If you read this blog for the suspense, then I'm sure you'll be sorely disappointed...).