New Delhi

Construction in New Delhi began in 1911 under British rule. It is small enclave within the entire area of Delhi and is completely opposite from Old Delhi which was established by the Mughals centuries ago. Wide boulevards and gardens characterize New Delhi which houses embassies, government and military buildings, temples, the presidents house and some hotels. It is not a residential area and other than some monkeys and the few Pi dogs along the road, street life is largely non-existent. One could be in any European or North American city.

My New Delhi experience began with my driver and guide arguing over the route to take with resulting chaos accompanied by a disembodied voice from the Google maps app instructing us to “when possible make a legal u turn”. As very little of what I have seen of driving techniques on Delhi streets could in any form be called legal it was like an episode from the keystone cops. My seat belt went on pretty early in the trip.

Once the directional challenges were overcome, the day turned out well. The first stop was the Gurudwara Bangladesh Sahib Sikh temple with a healing lake – known as the Sarvovar next to it. Apparently there was a small pox epidemic in the 17th century – which was supposedly healed with water from the lake. Made for some good photo ops in any case.

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We also toured the immense temple kitchen where meals are made to serve to anyone who wants to eat every day.

Following a few more u turns in the middle of traffic and a few short cuts over traffic medians we reached the step well – Agrasen ki Baoli which is a protected monument in India. It is 60 meters long and 15 meters wide and is thought to have been built in the 14th century. Step wells were developed to deal with seasonal fluctuations in the water table which are common in India.

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As carrying water is often women’s work step wells were also traditionally associated with women. Was a wonderful site.

Back into the car 😦 seat belt tight and off we went. Our next destination was the newly constructed Akshardham Hindu temple. Due to security cameras are not allowed inside – which is a shame, however I got a photo from the surrounding motorway. Interesting to show the outlines of the temple – which was stunning inside and out – also the extent of the pollution in Delhi is readily visible from the photo.

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It is the third largest Hindu temple in the world. There are ten gateways to allow the passage of any of the 30 million Hindu Gods, incredible carvings in marble and sandstone. A visit to the toilet at the complex was an experience. It had just been power washed out with soapy water from ceiling to floor – I don’t think I was supposed to be in there as a couple of ladies got very vocal when I was leaving and demanded money – my best deer in the headlights look greeted them as I speedily exited 🙂

OK – back to the car… Seat belt on and away we go. The India gate was next on the Agenda and rapidly appeared….. The Gate is a war memorial dedicated to 70,000 Indian military who have died in 1914-21 – with all the names of the fallen inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe style gate designed by Edwin Lutyens. A black plinth with four eternal flames seven as the tomb of the unknown soldier at the base of the Gate.

There’s that car again…….. Last stop was the the Ghandi Smriti where Ghandi spent the last few months of his life and where he was assassinated. This was a place that I had really wanted to visit. The room were Ghandi slept and ate is perfectly preserved, the events leading up to his death, his writings, his philosophies, photos, and newspaper clippings providing a detailed look at the man, his beliefs and legacy. A short walk in his footsteps (outlined in wood) to the place of his assassination – now covered with a small structure referred to as the Martyrs column – completed a very moving visit.

 

the ride back to the hotel was (surprise!!!) a short one – there will be fingernail marks in the back of the seat in front of me for a while………

I fly home tomorrow, into winter again. This has been an outstanding trip, exhausting, stimulating, thought provoking and unlike anything I have ever encountered. It will take a while to assimilate it. Parts of India have certainly provided a snap shot of where the world is heading if we keep barreling along the same route. This was my first National Geographic G Adventures trip and definitely will not be my last. The upgrades in the trip style over the old classic level of service have been much appreciated particularly in this part of the world. Our CEO was excellent, as were the local guides along the way. A great group of sympatico people on the trip was the icing on the cake – A+ all around.

Until next time — Namaste!

 

 

Udaipur

We arrived in Udaipur, the so called white city, city of the lakes and Venice of the East, and it did not disappoint. The main palaces and other palaces converted into 5 star hotels surround Lake Pichola, a man made lake which is about 21 meters deep. Activities around the lake and on the steps of the ghats varied from personal hygiene to cocktails and coffee, making for some fascinating photo ops. Our day here began with a tour of the Main Palace, continued with some retail therapy and an excellent lunch, then continued with a lake cruise, a dance show highlighting dances unique to Rakasthan and finished with an excellent candlelit dinner by the side of the lake. Quite a day!

There are 4 palaces here of note, the City Palace (winter palace, where the royal family still lives) , the Lake Palace (summer palace for the royal family which is now a five star hotel), the Jag Mandir ( used as a summer and pleasure palace, now a hotel and restaurant) and the Monsoon palace high in the mountains.

Our morning guided walk explored the City Palace and the surrounding areas.

An interesting note regarding the ears of the horses here. War horses have been bred for centuries in Rajasthan and selection has been for a particular ear set, evident in the photo below. This was apparently used as a gun sight during battle when the rider would fire from the horses back at the approaching army. Who knew…..

Following our time in the palace we visited an artists cooperative deep in the city. All art sold in their co-op goes to benefit the 22 families involved in it. The work is incredibly detailed, done with pigments sourced from rocks with the exception of yellow which comes from distilled and dried urine. Brushes are made with camel eyelashes and squirrel tail hairs – would be an interesting process to see how they got these….. Artists work in thirty minute shifts, take a break and then back to work – three hours of painting a day is a normal days work, as eye strain becomes a problem after that. Painting is on silk, wood, marble and paper. A beautiful silk work of art which took two months to complete by the chief artist caught my eye and is now tucked into my ever growing pile of treasures to take home.

Sunset over the lake was outstanding viewed from a slow moving flat bottomed boat which took us in a large circle around the lake.

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Following the hour long dance show

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we headed over to a wonderful lake side restaurant called Tribute, the name referring to the Tribute paid to the famous horse Chetak ridden by the Maharana Pratap in a battle with the Mughals in the 16th century. Although severely wounded, the horse carried his wounded rider to safety before dying of his own wounds. Horse memorabilia was everywhere. The dining terrace along the shores of Pichola lake, candle lit with incense drifting through the air was magic.

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Tomorrow we fly to Delhi for the last day of our group tour and a farewell dinner. I venture into New Delhi on Sunday with a driver and a guide. Plans include visiting the Ghandi Museum, the India gate and the site of Ghandis assassination. Stay tuned….

Jaipur and Jojawar

 

The morning began with a cup of chai tea and an assortment of biscuits before we stepped into our hot air balloon basket and drifted up into the pre dawn Sky outside of Jaipur.

What was to have been a 1 hour flight was cut short at 30 minutes by a hasty descent and landing. A few minutes later as the lightning storm began we understood why. What was not Ok was that the balloon company must have been up to date on the incoming weather and in my opinion exposed the passengers to unsafe conditions in that balloon. I generally do not like to pan anything in this blog but if you go to Jaipur I would avoid doing any type of a balloon flight in the area.

The unexpected landing was in a plowed field and once we were on the ground something quite extraordinary happened. The family whose field it was appeared almost immediately – probably thinking space aliens had landed. The head of the family in his white turban, as well as multiple generations of the family all crowded around us. Our pin wielding Canadian got busy handing out Canadian flag pins and smiles broke out everywhere. One of those moments that define travel for me.

 

We stayed on terra firma for the remainder of the day travelling by jeep up the steep narrow roads to visit the magnificent Amber fort with its mixture of Muslim and Hindu architecture and the Lake Palace. The Amber Fort housed the royalty of Jaipur and our guide regaled us with stories of warrior maharajahs with multiple wives and over three hundred mistresses all housed in the palace. Entertainment pavilions were located in the palace for the ladies.

 

One special building and pavilion was covered with mirrors and precious stones/metal. This building housed the bedrooms of the King and his wives. Another outer Fort and surrounding wall could be seen above the Amber Fort – the wall reminiscent of the Great Wall of China.

Our trip back to Jaipur took us past the Lake Palace built on a rocky island in a man made lake, used by the Maharajah and his wives as a summer palace and a duck hunting spot. The biggest duck blind I have ever seen – definitely equipped with all the modern conveniences of the time.

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A textile factory visit wound up the afternoon – with demos of block printing methods and a visit to the show room which contained hangings, fabrics etc etc. There were absolutely gorgeous wall hangings made from opium bag covers that the shop had purchased from one of the royal houses during an auction. Absolutely stunning – Suffice it to say I got into serious retail trouble and my luggage is getting heavier……

Bollywood films have been on my peripheral awareness but not any more. Our evening was perfect starting off with a hugely entertaining shoot em up Bollywood flick starring Salman Khan. the bad guys were really bad – black hats and all, the good guys really good 🙂 The movie goers were as much fun as the movie – hooting and whistling when the hero escaped yet another impossible situation AK47 blazing and bad guys getting mowed down left right and centre. I still can’t decide if I was watching a Comedy or not – whatever the genre it was hugely entertaining. Our movie experience was followed by a light supper on a third floor restaurant overlooking the night streets.

Jojawar

The village of Jojawar is not often visited by tourists and was a delight. Our hotel was a converted palace owned by local royalty for 300 years. The current owner being the 8th generation of the family. The hotel is stunning, it is hard to beat cocktails on the roof top watching the sunset while the call for prayer comes out from the local mosque.

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After a wonderful dinner in the open air courtyard with heat provided by a brazier, we woke early and headed out for the small holdings surrounding the palace. Our transport was a WW II vintage Chevy truck which required a rolling start to get going other wise it had to be left running. With a roll and a belch of black smoke the engine caught and we were on our way.

The special relationship between the small holders and the palace – economic and agricultural – provided us the opportunity to visit households in a way that was truly special. House hold yards are hammered earth, with small groups of goats, cows and sheep close by the residences. Fields of wheat, chick peas and herbs flourish around the central yards. We also had the opportunity to visit a  temple dedicated to Shivas mother and watch the priest confer blessings. It was a wonderful morning.

 

 

 

Ranthambore NP to Jaipur

A four hour drive from the wilderness of Ramthambore NP to Jaipur – the pink city- passed quickly as we chatted, listened to music and watched the ever changing roadside panorama.

A good part of the drive was spent discussing the idea of arranged marriages in India, as well as different social perceptions of affection that men show in public towards one another. Here in India young men are often seen holding hands or with arms around each other’s shoulders. What in Western countries would be considered a romantic liason – here is looked upon as a couple of good friends expressing that friendship.

Once in Jaipur we proceeded immediately to the old Jaipur city, which is a walled enclave surrounded by the sprawl of the modern Jaipur. Modern Jaipur is a college town as we refer to it in the west. Dozens of colleges, Rajasthan university, technical institutes etc line the main Hwy  into the city. Once through the walls of the old city things change dramatically into the chaos–like nature we are familiar with from old Delhi and Varanasi. The buildings and walls of the old city are all a terra cotta pink colour – the painting done in preparation for the visit of King Edward the 7th in 1903. During that visit he famously remarked – this city is all pink – hence the name pink city. Transportation styles definitely varied along the city streets.

Our first stop was the UNESCO world heritage site the 18th century observatory Jantar Mantar. An extremely knowledgable young man took us on an exploratory tour of this amazing place which was used to calculate time and location to a few seconds accuracy  over three hundred years ago.

Following our time at the observatory our second stop was the Jaipur royal place complex. The Jaipur royal family still live in part of the palace. The royal quest house was where Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip stayed in the early sixties during their visit. After a group photo, we were able to tour part of the quest house which now houses an incredible textile collection. Interior photos are not allowed, however one over zealous young man in another group took a cell phone photo. The resulting confrontation between him and the guards provided some in-tour entertainment. Am not sure exactly what happened to him – he still had not exited the house by the time we left. The guards to the main palace were quite obliging regarding having their photos taken with us – following which we had a look around the rest of the palace and it’s intriguing Islam-Indo architecture before heading for our hotel – a lovely converted heritage home in Jaipur.

Our day ended in a very special way with a bazaar walk and then a wonderful cooking class and dinner with a local family.  We learned how to cook a vegetarian and non-vegetarian dish, as well as were treated to appetizers and other excellent food. All eaten under the moon and stars in a large open air courtyard on the third floor of their home. Magic!

 

Tomorrow we rise before dawn for a hot air balloon ride over Jaipur.

Agra Part 2 and Ranthambore National Park Day 1

Our second stop in Agra was the Agra Fort a more opulent version of the Red Fort in Dehli.  Agra Fort was finished in about 1638 and was the seat of Mughal emperors. The famous Shah Jahan (the builders grandson) is said to have  spent this last years here in prison after being deposed by one of his his own sons. The Fort was also the site of a significant battle in 1857 in the Indian rebellion which ended the reign of the east India company in India and brought the British to power.  We had an excellent local guide whose vast knowledge of the fort added immensely to the experience. One interesting fact was that water from the moat was carried up to the roof of the fort and drained down through the walls to create a cooling function in the hot summers. The water was then collected in a huge central drain and fed back to the moat. As the moat was full of crocodiles, the speculation of what the fort smelt like in the summer is an interesting one. A big thumbs up for modern AC! Once we had finished out tour of the fort we left for Ranthombore NP in Rasjathan province.

 

Driving and walking through rural and urban areas these last few days has slowly revealed the complexities of fully functioning societies operating within societies. What first appeared as chaos to my uneducated western eye has now begun to make sense. Human, canine, bovine and porcine societies operating both within and in compliment to each other. (Rats just make my trigger finger itch, so will omit them). India is young, the energy pulses wherever you go. Life often is short and brutal for both people and animals, however it is also vibrant and filled with a sense of the future. Our evening forays take us past a multitude of cooking fires surrounded by family groups, compounds with children and animals, definite groups with a sense of belonging and inclusion.

India is a land of contrasts, rich and poor, urban and rural, Hindu and Sikh – the list goes on and on. There is a huge amount of wealth in this country, it is by no means a third world country as often portrayed by the media, but an economic power house. It is also a land of youth – young people are everywhere – many disenfranchised, and herein lies the problem. A problem shared by all other countries in the world as populations explode and the limits of economic growth are reached.

We have now passed from Central India into the Province of Rajasthan. The contrast in the rural areas (particularly in the current dry season) is startling – due to mainly to a higher water table. A greater level of prosperity is everywhere, larger groups of animals, bustling produce markets, fields of wheat, chick peas and mustard everywhere. Community wells are common.

Our journey to Ranthambore National Park was long but interesting, including stops for roasted peanuts by the roadside,

 

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the usual traffic jams and a lot of bumpy roads…. Our last hour or so to our destination was lined with cooking fires and families settling in for the night. Our hotel is lovely located just outside the park boundary with all rooms facing inwards to a garden area and the requisite huge hotel vegetable garden behind.

Ranthambore National Park.

The park is a wildlife reserve that covers approximately 400 sq km and is home to two species of deer, crocodiles, leopard and the animal I was most hoping to see – the Tiger. It was the hunting area of the British and elite in the past during which time the large population of tigers in India was reduced to a handful of survivors. Some of the old rock hunting blinds used during the driven shoots still exist. Due to their protected status tigers are making a comeback and 64 currently live within the park boarders. The park also contains Ranthambore Fort and on the ridge line overlooking the park and  the temple of  the elephant God Manesh Gandir.  A site of worship for local people.

Two  game drives today completed a wonderful day.  My lucky hat didn’t generate a tiger in the morning drive which started before sunrise in very cold temperatures. fortunately  the hotel staff were kind enough to give us blankets before we set off in our open safari Vehicle. We did see  spotted deer and sambhar deer, as well as many birds and a very large tiger footprint the size of a small dinner plate in the dust beside the road.

 

 

The  absolute prize was the sunrise turning the lakes and valleys gold and red as it cut through the morning mist. Our trip back to the hotel after safari was a slow process navigating roads choked with pilgrims on their way to the temple of Manesh. Lots of happy faces, smiles and waves exchanged between temple goers and the safari vehicle occupants.

We set again after an excellent lunch. More stunning beauty, sambhar deer feeding on water lilies (they seem to fill the moose niche here), birds, spotted deer, monkeys….

 

 

And then -YES – two tiger cubs on a far ridge in the long dried grass waiting for their mother to return from the hunt. They were about 500 yds away but our lenses could just pick them out as they sat up waiting for the mother. My lucky hat is batting 100%!

Wonderful wonderful  day! Topped off with a stunning sunset as we travelled home to the lodge. Tomorrow we leave for Jaipur the Pink City.

Khajuraho to Agra -buses, trains and a lot of bumpy roads

An early morning departure began our 16 hour trek to Agra – and a trek it was. Our first stop was the palace of  Orcha:Jahangir Mahal and the surrounding town and buildings. The sandstone palaces are interesting as the court lived above in the airy rooms while the armoury and soldiers lived in the subterranean parts of the palace.

 

The palace location on an island in the Betwa River ensured exposure to breezes to help keep the complex cool. Some beautiful interior art has survived.  The entrance to the complex garlanded by holy men and their wannabes plus the usual traffic chaos enlivened by the narrow arches on some roadways.

 

The cenotaphs of the rulers were centred around a beautiful garden area, the entrance complete with the resident cow delegation.

 

 

Following the palace we switched gears and visited a paper factor on the outskirts of Orcha. A very inspiring NGO which produces paper out of recycled cloth scraps, providing employment to women in need. In addition, the women are taught reading, writing, some basic mathematics and some rudimentary English. The process itslf is fascinating – in short,  cloth minced up, treated with alum to form a sludge then screened to remove the water, layered between cloth, dried, ironed and then cut.

The result is beautiful heavy parchment quality paper. After a visit which ended way too soon – on the road again

to the train station to board our train for Agra and the Taj Mahal.

My first experience in an Indian train station did not disappoint :-). Pre-arranged porters greeted us and led us into the utter chaos of the train station – it seemed like a mini version of street life – the only animal missing was a cow – and I am sure there was one some where.  During our wait on the platform (the train was delayed 2 hours) everyone from very persistent beggars to commuters approached us. One lovely young man was talking via Skype to his wife and children, he positioned the camera to include our group and pretty soon we were all waving at each other – one Canadian member of our group was handing out little Canadian flag pins which were immediately proudly put on their jacket by the recipients.

Trains are packed! And I am glad we traveled in first class. The second class carriages had people hanging out the windows and doors and stacked two three deep inside. People trying to board when others were trying to get off. The trains stop for 1-5 minutes at the stations so speed is of the essence 🙂 After an eventful evening we reached our hotel in Agra at midnight and prepared to leave at 5:45 am for the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal 

Our specific  plan for the TM was to get a photo of all group members individually on the Princess Diana bench before anyone else was in the area. Seeing as 100,000 people often visit the site daily, this was a challenge which required some proper planning and execution. Our early departure ensured we were first at the entrance gate – the hour and 1/2 before the gates opened was passed drinking chai tea, chatting and people watching. When the gates opened we had our route planned to the Princess Diana bench and our plan to get there. Running is not allowed on the site – amazing how fast you can walk if you need to 🙂 Three gates open at the same time in different areas of the complex so the competition is fierce 😀 And…….. We did it!!!!!!!

Magic is the only way to describe being on the grounds watching the wispy fog turn to gold and slowly dissipate  as the sun rose over the white monument of love the Shah Jahan built for his wife Mumtaz Mahal. 20,000 workers took 12 years to build this amazing structure which should be on everyone’s list to see. If you go, go as early as you can. By the time we left at 9:30 the site was resembling Disneyland on a bad day. More to come…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Varanasi Day 3 and Khajuraho

What a wonderful day! An early morning wake up call took us through empty streets to  a drop off point about a 10 min walk from the Ganges. The walk down through the foggy streets just waking  up and getting ready for the day was magic. Cooking fires being lit, stalls opening, people and dogs stretching and the occasional sleepy cow to dodge in the road. The Ghats on the shore of the river were alive when we arrived. Holy men (or wanna bees) , hustlers, buskers, sellers of every piece of junk imaginable, hand massagers, tea sellers, bell ringers and more crowded the steps.

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We enjoyed a cup of chai tea while watching yoga practitioners as well as the bathers in the Ganges engage in their purification swims, before heading down to our boat in the thick fog.

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Although the sunrise was absent , we were serenaded by two young men on the sitar and drums with a morning Ragga as our boat drifted quietly through the fog.

The morning ended far too soon as we headed to the Varansai airport for our noon flight to Khajuraho. The flight went seamlessly and we landed in clear skies, no pollution, 26 degree centigrade temps and a gentle breeze. Time for sandals 🙂

Khajuraho is home to the western temple complex. UNESCO World heritage site – parts of which are 1600 years old. Although most have been looted, one well preserved temple remains and others are equally impressive.

The main claim to fame are the erotic sculptures found on the outside of the temples depicting the Kama Sutra. Based on what we saw the models were either the most flexible people that ever existed or the sculptors had imbibed on a hefty dose of the local hallucinogen while completing their work. The temples themselves are gorgeous, as are parts of the interiors which are illuminated by cleverly placed openings in the walls.

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Our time there with our excellent local guide passed way too quickly. We ended the day with a group shot and then headed back to the hotel.

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An early night is planned as we leave for Agra and the Taj Mahal tomorrow.