A Travellerspoint blog

Chasing Tigers in Corbett Reserve

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View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

After Rishikesh, we treated ourselves not only to a private car to our next stop but also a stay in the lovely Tiger Camp near Corbett National Park. We had come to find a tiger but we also enjoyed the very pleasant surroundings of the Tiger Camp.  Our fellow guests were wealthy Indian families who seemed to be mostly from Delhi, a very different type of Indian to those we have been seeing on most of the rest of our travels.

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Tiger Camp - a pleasant spot

On arrival on Wednesday afternoon, we were told that there were no more spaces for safaris the next day, our only full day in the place. Eventually it transpired that - as is so often the case in India - a bit of extra money and some dodgy connections led to two spaces materialising miraculously for the "canter safari" the next afternoon. We were in the hunt!

Next afternoon, we were picked up in the safari bus, which we shared with about twelve other Indian tourists. We bumped along the gravel roads inside the park for the whole afternoon, getting very numb bums in the name of finding tigers. 

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The safari bus - not the most comfortable mode of transport we've taken

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But it did take us to the most tranquil spot we have been to in India

We passed through arid woodland and dry riverbeds before eventually hitting the wide grass plains in the Dhikala area, near a very beautiful lake, the foothills of Uttarakhand in the background.  This was definitely the most peaceful and unspoilt part of India we had been in so far - we saw no more than one piece of stray litter on the ground!

Of course, we didn't see any tigers. They're notoriously elusive and people spend days in these places trying to spot one, while we were merely passing through for an afternoon. But it felt good to give it a shot, and we saw a fair amount of other wildlife along the way - the highlight definitely being the elephants.

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Various deer we saw all over the park - even with all this tasty food around, no tigers were eating

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A jackal

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Wart hogs

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A pretty big Indian crocodile

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And the best of all - the elephants

Posted by Grantandhelena 19:19 Archived in India Comments (1)

The Road to Nowhere

Out and about on India's roads and Rishikesh

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View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Until getting to Amritsar, we had managed to avoid India's roads almost entirely by getting train tickets for all the places we wanted to see, and treating ourselves to an internal flight as well. But our luck couldn't hold out forever, and we found we could not get a train space for love nor money to get out of Amritsar. We would have to brave an Indian bus, and therefore the roads of India. You really have to see these to believe them: livestock, pedestrians, bikes, overloaded rickshaws and scooters all amble along either side of the narrow, pot-holed thoroughfares. Cars, jeeps, buses and lorries weave their way through any possible gap in the rest of the traffic, horns blaring as they go. Overtaking into oncoming traffic is the only way Indians like to do things, meaning a journey on India's roads involves: a lot of swerving; bumping over potholes and random, unmarked speed bumps; and moments of butt-clenching fear as you stare down lorries coming straight at you from the other direction. It's a world away from the gentle rumble of an Indian sleeper train carriage...

We got down to Amritsar's bus station by 4:30am on 31 May to make sure to get a space on the AC service to Chandigarh - this would take us half way to our destination of Rishikesh, hopefully by midday. Things seemed to go well at first as we identified the AC bus and got onboard with our bags. Then we waited, and the departure time passed and we waited some more. Finally the driver started the bus and drove it ten metres across the parking lot, where  he parked and walked off. We got out and were told that there was a strike today, so no buses would be leaving.

There are many obvious questions: first and foremost, why did nobody tell us before that a nationwide strike was due to take place today? But we were too busy trying to see if there was some other way to get on the road, rather than having to stay another day in Amritsar. Luckily we bumped into a friendly guy called Jatin, who took us under his wing. He said that a private bus company was still running today and heading for Patiala, his hometown, 50km or so away from  Chandigarh. We decided it was better to move, even if we could only get as far as Patiala, so we jumped onboard. This bus had AC and an old TV upfront which played non-stop Punjabi music hits from local star "Miss Pooja".  As we flew along the relatively good highway, we picked up so many people that the aisles became packed with locals standing and squatting in any space they could find. It was hard to say what was more unpleasant: Miss Pooja's incessant music videos or the press of flesh all around us.

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Grant and Jatin on the bus to Patiala

The conductor on the bus was a cheeky young chap, who took a bit of a friendly interest in Grant. When Grant and Jatin went to get sandwiches for the ride, the conductor insisted Grant buy him one, which seemed a bit odd. 

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Our very friendly conductor was keen for photos

However, the trade-off for the sandwich later became clear as Mr Conductor served Grant a large cup of chai from his personal flask. When the bus was stopped at a roadblock put up by the strikers, Mr Conductor took Grant and Jatin out to the shaded area by the side of the road, where protestors (all men) were sipping on sweet water served in metal cups from a huge vat, and got a round of sweet water in. That was very nice of him.  

But the best was still to come: as the bus was getting close to Patiala, Mr Conductor beckoned Grant up to the sealed-off driver's area at the front of the bus. Here the driver, Mr Conductor and some other dude (there's always at least one guy in any Indian workplace whose lounging presence cannot be explained) were having some lunch, and Mr Conductor invited Grant to join them. Mr Conductor showed Grant how to prepare a chapati with a pickled lime and ginger, which was very tasty. He then motioned for Grant to take the last chapati from the modest pile back to Helena for her to have some lunch as well. The generosity of the gesture was extremely touching - we can't help but think that sort of generosity to foreigners would rarely take place in Europe.  When we arrived in Patiala, Mr Conductor escorted us through the crowds to find a bus to our next destination, Ambala, and then gave Grant a big man hug when saying goodbye - an emotional farewell!

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Grant hanging out with "the lads" in the bus

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The driver was more keen to pose for this photo than to watch the road

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The modest lunch that the driving crew shared with Grant and Helena

So we were on our way to Ambala, a nearby transport hub, this time in an older non-AC bus. The heat was stifling as it was, of course, over 40 degrees by this point, but we made good time and were in Ambala before 1pm. 

In Ambala, we had to wait in the small, stifling bus station enduring the endless stares of Indians who apparently never get to see foreigners in their bus station. The heat was so intense that we were sweating just sitting and waiting for our next bus, which of course we didn't know for sure would run given all the strike action. We found no-one who could speak enough English to comfirm one way or the other. We drank endless bottles of juice and water, and eventually our next bus did arrive, apparently unaffected by the strikes. Again, this was a non-AC bus and this time we had to ride for five hours to Dehra Dun.  We sweated the whole way. At times we were cramped so tightly into our seats by the weight of other bodies on the bus that we could hardly move.  We stopped in random Indian towns where people stared and so-called holy men tried to guilt-trip money out of us. It was, in short, horrible. Oh, and sweaty.

We finally arrived in Dehra Dun - just 50 km from Rishikesh - at about 7pm. We were knackered, having been on the road since 4:30 that morning, but decided to push on and get to Rishikesh since we had come so far. Another old banger of a bus took us there as night was falling - no AC, of course, and the 50km took over two hours. By this time, Helena was physically sick as we trundled along the twisting roads in the sweltering heat of the night. She seemed to be suffering from heat exhaustion.

When we got to Rishikesh, we had the usual bargaining fiasco with rickshaw drivers and eventually agreed with one to take us to the guesthouse we had booked. Of course, he dropped us in the wrong place, and we ended up wandering the streets of Rishikesh at night without a clue where we were. By this point, Helena was in a really bad way and we had to call our place to come and collect us. Helena was whisked off on one scooter and Grant followed on another. It transpired we had been dropped a good 2 km from our guesthouse by the idiot rickshaw driver, but - even worse-  we could only get a non-AC room in the guesthouse that night. This is bad under normal circumstances; after 18 hours of sweating on the road all day, it was downright unbearable.

After a torrid night of "rest" in the oppressive humidity, Helena was unsurprisingly not any better, and Grant had developed heat exhaustion symptoms as well. At 6am the next day, Grant went out to find a new place with AC, and we got moved by 9am - the place was only 400 metres up the road but we were so weak with exhaustion we had to get a scooter lift up there!

The new hotel owner must have thought we looked like a serious pair of invalids as we practically crawled into the room, bolted the door and turned on the AC. We hardly left the room for three days. It felt incredible that just by sweating constantly for 24 hours we had made ourselves so ill.  We're afraid this bout of illness coloured for the worse our impression of Rishikesh. We stayed five days but most of that time we were nursing ourselves back to strength in our AC prison. When we did venture out, we found a crowded, dirty, smelly, noisy town just like any other in India where we did not want to be, feeling as delicate as we did. Everything seemed to be miles of unhappy trudging along busy roads from our place, and not worth seeing in any case. We had been excited about yoga and cooking courses in Rishikesh; in the end we did none of that and couldn't wait to get the hell out of there. The highs and lows of travel in India!

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Our only photo from Rishikesh: Laxhman Jhula bridge. Just look at how many people and scooters are crammed on that bridge. Exactly where you do not want to be when feeling delicate. Get us out of here!!

As we sped out of Rishikesh on the morning of 6 May in the private car we had treated ourselves to, unable to face any more buses, we could not help but think that the only way from here was up!

Posted by Grantandhelena 05:52 Archived in India Comments (2)

Sikh and you shall find

Amritsar and the Golden Temple

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View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.


There was something different about Amritsar from the very beginning. The airport was immaculate, the taxi into town unusually expensive and there was far less rubbish and homeless people in the streets than we had seen elsewhere. Amritsar felt comparatively wealthy.  We had come to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple, Sikhism's most holy site - attracting millions of visitors per year - but our visit made us more curious about Sikhs themselves. How can the Sikh capital of India look so different from the rest of the country? 

To get to Amritsar from Jodhpur we decided to splash out on our first internal flights in India. The experience was pleasant, with a short stopover for lunch in Delhi, but by the time we landed in Amritsar Grant had contracted Delhi belly. The source - a dodgy Big Maharaja burger from McDonalds in Delhi airport. The irony was not lost on us after all the dodgy food we have been putting away throughout India for the last three weeks. When we had installed ourselves in the hotel room, Helena tried to lighten up the mood by asking "Are you feeling Sikh?", which at least she found funny. Luckily there was a pharmacy next door with an excellent owner, who after having asked Helena a few questions, came up with some miraculous pills. The next day, Grant was as good as new.

Still keen to take it easy, we decided to postpone the main attraction to the following day and ventured to the Hindu Mata temple instead. We didn't really have any expectations to talk about but this turned out to be one of the more special temples we've been too.  It reminded us more like a House of Fun ("Lustiga huset") at a funfair, where you had to walk a circuit around a large building, up and down stairs, through rooms full of mirrors, past statues of Shiva and other gods as well as plenty of photos of Mata herself. It was all incredibly kitsch, full of garish decorations and unlike any temple we've ever seen before. 

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Temple... House of Fun? Surely it can be both!

There were even a couple of caves, some of which we had to crawl through. The difference to the Japanese temples couldn't have been any bigger! What more adds to the difference to Japanese temples is the fact that temples are much more alive here - they really are places of worship. At one moment when we were stuck in a particularly sacred cave, pressed between masses of pilgrims, people started chanting about Mata in unison around us.

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In of the caves, people chanting songs about Mata

At the end of the tour, there is also a model of a cow udder you can touch, signifying sperm - this is a temple where women go and pray to get pregnant. For the record, we didn't touch the udder, but surely, when the day comes, walking the full circuit and making a donation will count for something?

The next day we decided to first visit the Hindu response to the Sikh Golden Temple, the Sri Durgiana Temple, also known as the "Silver Temple". It was nice but we had a distinct feeling that this was nothing compared to the real thing. It would turn out we were right.

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The Sri Durgiana temple. It's nice and all but it's not a patch on the Golden Temple

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On the way to the Golden Temple, our rickshaw needed more air in the tyres

Arriving outside the Golden Temple, we were met by hussling crowds of people. We deposited our flip flops as shoes are not allowed inside, Grant purchased a scarf as your head needs to be covered, and in we went.

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Our first view of the Golden Temple

The Golden Temple is situated in a lake, surrounded by beautiful marble buildings. The place is immaculately clean, with volunteers constantly cleaning the floor. We started walking around the lake, just taking it all in. There was lovely music playing through loudspeakers and we were asking ourselves whether this was a recording or played live, and if so, where were the musicians. We would eventually find out the answer.

We saw lots of men getting into the holy water for a swim, women could go in too, but in special bath houses. The water looked a lot fresher than in Varanasi.

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The Golden Temple - quite something

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People going for a swim

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Head covered, as required

Eventually we arrived at the walkway to the Golden Temple itself. One of the attractive things with Sikhism is that it is very inclusive and open to all religions, and hence its most sacred place was open to us, too. Looking a bit lost outside, we were approached by a man asking if he could help. We asked if we should bring anything with us to the temple and he pointed us to a place saying that "You can buy something small for 20 rupees". Not being sure what that thing was, we bought it from a counter: it looked like some kind of couscous-honey mix covered in leaves on a large metal platter. We started queuing and advanced very slowly through the dense crowd on the 60 metre walkway. Suddenly Helena felt like she was going to faint, something that has never happened before. We left the queue to get some air outside. And here the madness started. 

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A long queue in which we lasted long, but not long enough

The only bathroom available was outside the temple complex, so we went outside, with our "prasad", a honey-couscous mix. Grant, who was carrying it, was stopped, told that this could NOT be carried outside the temple, as it was holy. We explained the situation and they understood, but the third person, a woman, who stopped us said that Helena could go, but Grant should stay where he was, just outside the temple. While Helena was away, easily ten people told Grant not to put the thing down on the ground and to take it back to the temple. 

When Helena got back, this is what we set out to do. Back in, and not keen to stand in that queue again, we tried to find another way to dispose of our prasad, this having turned into something of a comedy act now. Unsurprisingly it turned out that nobody wanted to touch it, even the guys who had sold it to us - they all pointed us to the Golden Temple. Luckily, one of the guards proved incredibly understanding and directed us to the fast track lane out to the temple. We were almost dancing our way out there. When we had come to the entrance to the temple, skipping the entire queue, we handed our prasad to the men occupying themselves with it, thinking "That's that!". By now it surely doesn't surprise anybody that it wasn't. The man merely took our prasad and put it in a smaller leaf bowl and gave it back to us. We could only accept helplessly and enter the temple.

Never have we been more happy to have been "forced" to do anything. The temple, much bigger than we had realised, was incredibly beautiful inside. No photos we're afraid as it was not allowed. The first thing we saw when we entered was the source of the beautiful music - a three man group singing, playing hand-pumped keyboards and tabla. Around them and around the temple sat groups of people, in their holiest site.

We had a look around, taken by the beauty of the place, before we headed back out. Still with our prasad in hand. When we had come to end of the walkway, we thought that, now, now we would at last be freed of this. We handed it to the guy sitting at the end, who had a huge vat of prasad he collected from all pilgrims, who took the bowl and then scooped more couscous on it! Seeing the look of shock in our faces, he signalled that we should eat it. And so we did. And it didn't taste too bad.

The Golden Temple is famous for feeding all the pilgrims - and tourists - who come to visit. Having heard so much about how impressive the process of the feeding and not least the preparations are, we went for a look. The food is free, but donations are appreciated, so we paid some money and went in. Immediately we were handed plates and cutlery and put in a line. Suddenly the doors to a hall, the hall as it would turn out, opened, and along with all the other people we were directed to seats on the floor. After a while, men came with buckets serving us dal and chapatis. Not feeling 100 per cent yet, Helena was slow to finish her food, and an Indian woman sitting close by pointed out that Helena had to finish it, as it was -well you will have guessed by now -holy.

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The Guru-Ka-Langar, where we along with hundreds of others, were served dal and chapati

After our meal, we went to have a look at the kitchen, a wonder in itself. There are a number of volunteers helping with all parts of the preparations. We especially enjoyed watching the chapatis being turned out.

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The Golden Temple kitchen, cooks for 60,000 people per day!

On the way, we passed people helping with other parts of the process, peeling, chopping, washing up.

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Lots of volunteers

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Let's hope these guys help with the washing up at home too

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These guys were keen to be in a photo...

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..and so were these two

We were back at the temple at night and it looked, if possible, even more magical then. The queue of pilgrims waiting to catch a glimpse of the interior was still just as long as when we had been in it - an incredibly popular site, clearly.

 The Golden Temple and Amritsar were definitely a highlight of our trip, despite not being able to enjoy as much Punjabi food as we would have liked! 

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The Golden Temple by night

Posted by Grantandhelena 08:58 Archived in India Comments (1)

The Best of Enemies

India-Pakistan border closing ceremony near Amritsar

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View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

 

List the most tense cross-border relations you can think of around the globe, and India/Pakistan will almost certainly be in the top three.  The opportunity to watch Indian and Pakistani soldiers "squaring off" at the border post near Amritsar was therefore too good for us to miss. In fact, this daily ceremony has become so popular that bus loads of tourists on both sides of the border fill out grandstands every day to get a view of the action. Last Wednesday we were among them.

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Mounted Indian soldiers fight to control the crowds of Indian and foreign tourists that have come to watch the border ceremony

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The stands are packed and the nationalist sentiment at fever pitch

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Non-Indians get a special seat. Not sure Pakistanis qualify for this area, though!

There must have been 10,000 Indians on our side of the dividing gates, packed like sardines, waving flags and chanting nationalistic songs as they waited for the ceremony to begin. The crowd was pumped up further by a carefully selected medley of Indian hits blasted out over loudspeakers - the most popular being the closing number from the film "Slumdog Millionaire". 

On the Pakistani side, things were distinctly lower key and the stands less crowded. People looked the same as on the Indian side except that the men tended to wear more traditional dress, and women were conspicuously confined to a separate seating area. However, when the Pakistani side's sound system started belting out its national classics, the crowd became far more animated, encouraged further by a mascot in a Pakistan T-shirt waving a huge Pakistan flag in the area below the stands.

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Men on the Pakistani side looking distinctly indifferent

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Pakistani women in the lady's stand

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Pakistani hits and a waving flag soon got the opposition crowd kick started

During the build up to the ceremony actually beginning, there was plenty to keep the Indian crowd entertained, apart from singing songs and taunting the Pakistanis. Spectators could take turns to run up to the border gate with giant Indian flags, cheered on by the crowd. The ladies of the audience were encouraged to come down to the parade ground to dance together to the Indian hits blaring out over the speakers. This was a carefully stage-managed message to Pakistan: "Your women are confined to a separate stand; our Indian women are liberated enough to dance on the parade ground if they please". Having seen the lot of most Indian women over the last three weeks, we at least were not convinced by the spin, but it made for amusing viewing as the sari-clad Indian ladies danced their hearts out below us.

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People were fighting for the honour of running up to the gates with the Indian flag - the woman on the right pushed herself a bit too hard and took a tumble for the cause

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The liberated ladies of India enjoy an "impromptu" dance on the parade ground

The Indian soldiers played a brilliant Jekyll and Hyde role in all this: now pumping their hands in the air to get the crowd jumping to the music, now blowing their whistles and telling spectators to sit down and be quiet; now pulling women out of the crowd to come to the parade ground and dance, now forming a barrier to stop the dancing women advancing too close towards the border line. These guys clearly revel in their role as players in what feels like a sporting event, and enjoy just as much as the crowd the nationalist fervour of the proceedings.

As the start of proceedings approached, the Indian soldiers began to preen themselves and practice their most outrageous goose steps. We could see the Pakistani rival soldiers getting themselves into their mental zone on the other side as well.  The sound of bugles on both sides marked the start of proceedings: two furious looking female Indian soldiers stormed down the path to the border gate, half running as they went, and then goose stepped around at the gate, taking up positions either side.  Once again, the fact that female soldiers led the Indian charge is no coincidence - these are some of the only female soldiers we have seen in this country but the message to Pakistan's all-male border guards is clearly an important bit of one-upmanship to the Indians.

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The only two female soldiers in the Indian army?

The female soldiers were followed by various goose-stepping, angry-looking Indian soldiers who lined up on either side of the Indian gate. Meanwhile, on the Pakistani side their soldiers were also gathering, presumably in their own comical goose stepping way. 

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The incredible soldiers' outfits on the Indian side

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The Pakistanis scrub up not badly themselves

Suddenly, the gates were flung open and we could see the green-suited Pakistani soldiers squaring off on their side against the tan and red Indian soldiers on our side. Now the real show could begin, as pairs of Pakistani and Indian guards quick marched at each other, just stopping short of crossing the border before turning 90 degrees and goose stepping in unison in different directions. They would then face off and sometimes raise their arms as if to reach for their weapons... before purposely adjusting the position of their plumed bonnets and returning their hands to their sides. This was great entertainment and the crowd was loving it.  During this diplomatic dance the only two people actually guarding the border were the two machine-gun wielding, sunglass-clad special forces guys who lined up about a metre from each other on either side of the border line wearing their best grimaces.

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And they're off - some seriously quick marching...

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.... some ridiculous goose stepping...

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... and some comical adjusting of the plumed headgear...

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But mostly just standing to attention and looking pretty!

The main part of the ceremony was the lowering of the Indian and Pakistani flags by the border guards - to be done strictly in unison so that neither flag descends before the other. Thankfully they managed it. After that, it was time for the commanding officers of each side to shake hands - something they quickly did three times in an extremely firm manner - and then the gates were slammed shut as each side's soldiers goose stepped back to base, carrying the flag like a sacred parchment. Another day of business closed at the India/Pakistan border.

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Careful coordination of the flag lowering to ensure neither side is embarrassed by having its national colours lowered first

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The firmest of handshakes - nice to see them smiling at least!

The entertainment did not end there as there was time for everyone to have photos with their favourite border guards after the ceremony. The Indian army clearly runs some kind of beauty pageant for these posts - we had never seen such tall, strapping Indians before!

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Time to pose for photos after the gates close

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Grant and grimacing Indian special forces guy

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Helena with preened Indian border guard - possibly the tallest Indian we have ever seen

The irony of this daily display of aggressive military jingoism by two of the world's few nuclear powers is that it can only function on the basis of very good cross-border cooperation. This is highly skilled theatre, which requires careful coordination and practice by each side to pull off the mirrored goose stepping and all the other melodrama that forms part of the display. It is therefore no coincidence that the display is near Amritsar at a part of the border where relations are good and there are many cross-border friendships and family ties.  This kind of display could never work in Kashmir, or even Rajasthan where there are real border disputes between these two Asian giants. As long as the display keeps going (and it has run since 1959), we will know that things are ok between the two countries.

Of course, you can wonder how healthy it is for crowds of Pakistanis and Indians to gather each day at the border and cheer their soldiers on as they feign aggression to each other. But then, it's really no worse than the sentiments that accompany any cricket match between these two countries, or indeed any big sporting fixture between most countries. So we think it's best to just enjoy the pantomime for what it is, and cross our fingers that the show keeps running!

Posted by Grantandhelena 02:30 Archived in India Comments (3)

In the land of kings and hawkers

Rajasthan

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View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Rajasthan. This (together with Taj Mahal) is most likely what you think of when you think of  "Incredible India", even if you might not be aware of it. Rajasthan means "the land of kings" and consequently it is full of previous maharajas' palaces and forts, each more impressive than the last. Majarajas, forts, deserts, bazaars... It can all be found here.

We had planned to visit two towns in Rajasthan, Jaipur, the capital, and Jodhpur. We took an overnight train from Varanasi and arrived before noon the following day in Jaipur. When we had told people in Varanasi that we were going to Jaipur, they looked at us with pity and said "But it's so hot there!". Knowing that it was well above 40 degrees in Varanasi, we didn't really see what the fuss was about. According to the forecasts, Jaipur would be around the same temperature, if not one or two degrees cooler. 

Well, one or two degrees in either direction doesn't really matter. The point in Jaipur is that, unlike Varanasi, there are no alleys where you can escape the heat. If you're out, you're out. You want to see the main sights? Get ready to sweat.  So we did, covered up in long sleeves and scarfs and sun hats and just about coped.

There are actually a number of benefits of the heat. Firstly, the sights are less busy and sometimes we could even find ourselves almost alone. Secondly, the heat gets to the hawkers too. Not only are there less of them, but they are also, if anything, less persistent than usual... At least that is what we would like to think. That being said, we don't want to create an illusion of the hawkers not being annoying. Rajasthan has got the worst and most annoying we've experienced in India (probably anywhere) so far. "No", no matter how it is said, quietly, loudly, with or without eye contact, friendly, angrily, is not understood. When we say "no", they hear, "Please ask me what country I am from", so they will then ask "Hello, which country? Madam, Sir? Yes please, Madam!!! Hello??". The only thing that might work is to ignore them altogether, but even that often doesn't work. "Madam? Hello, Madam?? Yes, please Madam?! Sir?? No speak English, Sir?" 

Eventually they might tire, mumble something in Hindi and bugger off. Every time it feels like a small step for mankind, but a bloody huge step for us. Imagine this, every time you leave your hotel. You can't let it get to you because than you might end up hurting someone (we do outsize most people here) so we try to be zen about it. Which works, sometimes.

Luckily, the sights in Rajasthan are, without a doubt, worth the hassle. 

Jaipur

Jaipur is full of bazaars selling beautiful saris, bangles, scarfs, textiles etc... Grant has a theory that the reason girls like India so much is that it's all about dressing up (for girls at least) and there might be some truth in that. In the Jaipur bazaars, however, they are very used to tourists with cash to spend so you are less likely to get a good deal here than in many other places. 

More generally, Rajasthan feels very different to the other parts of India we have been in. It is much drier here, sights are kept clean and tidy, people look Middle Eastern, or rather, "Mughal", and the sound of Islamic prayers float across the cities at regular intervals during the day. It is funny that having been in the Bhuddist mountains of Darjeeling and the Hindu holy city of Varanasi we are now in a very mixed territory, with Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and Christians living together. Rajasthan is also a centre of spices, as we discovered at lunch in Jaipur on our first day; after taking one bite of the particularly spicy curry Grant began hiccuping loudly and uncontrollably, prompting the waiter to bring over a glass of water which he deposited with a sympathetic smile! 

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A bit too much of this in Grant's food

In the pressing heat, we were keen to save our energy for the sights rather than shopping, and ventured to the Old City and the City Palace.

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The New Gate into Jaipur

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If you urgently need a chapati

Well into the City Palace, we started to look around. Beautiful, of course, but little did we know that we would see far more impressive buildings in Rajasthan! 

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These guys happily posed for a photo, and of course wanted some rupees afterwards

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Inside the City Palace

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Nobody's home

Next stop in the Old City was Hawa Mahal, the Palace of the Winds. It was constructed in 1799 by the incumbent maharaja in order to let the ladies of the royal household, living in Purdah, get a view of city life. The palace does indeed offer great views.
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Hawa Mahal

At the Amber Fort, just outsider Jaipur,  we could choose between taking a jeep, riding an elephant or walking up the hill to the fort.  It didn't look very far and we decided to walk it. On the way up we could see the invariably Western tourists having their ride up on these amazing animals, ruined by hawkers walking alongside every step of the way, trying to sell various types of crap. Walking up, we were almost left alone, even if we had to dodge some particularly huge piles of elephant dung.

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The Amber Fort

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You could opt for taking an elephant up...

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...but we walked

The Amber Fort was constructed for the Rajput Maharajas in 1592 and abandoned by the family in 1727 when the incumbent maharaja realised that that the surroundings were becoming too small and the city needed to be moved, to what today is Jaipur. 

The Amber Fort was just magnificent. As we arrived in the first courtyard there was live music - a type of drums - playing, which obviously is very touristy but still contributed to a great ambiance, especially when you add in the elephants. It was like we had moved back in time! 

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The Divan-i-Aam, The Hall of Public Audience

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Inside the palace

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The Ganesh Pol, entry to the third courtyard and the maharaja's apartments

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Third courtyard, in the background the Jai Mandir, Hall of Victory

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The Hall of Victory, originally Belgian glass was used!

We can't get enough of the beautiful details of these palaces. It's obvious that no expenses have been spared building them and there is beauty everywhere.  It is this architecture that puts Rajasthan at the top of every tourist's India itinerary.

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Details from around the palace

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And at last, the end and an escape from the heat. Our first visit to the Indian Starbuck's equivalent, "Cafe Coffee Day"

Now, although we weren't planning to do any shopping, Helena decided that it would be a shame to be in Jaipur without looking at bangles and we went to a nice shop where we were the only non-Indians in the place. While Helena bargained hard over some bangles, the other men in the shop did their best to convince Grant to get a pair of camel skin slippers. Not having a need for camel skin slippers, Grant politely declined.

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Shopping in Jaipur - bangles for the lady...

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... And camel skin shoes for the gentleman

Jodhpur - the blue city

From Jaipur we took our first day time train. While waiting for the train on the platform, Helena experienced some success. As late as that same morning we had discussed how few Indian women we had talked to since arriving in India. Men approach us all the time, and the hotels and shops are almost exclusively "manned" by men. We see women everywhere of course, dressed in beautiful, colourful saris, but we don't know anything about what they are thinking. As a rule we try to ask women for directions as it generally means less hassle and we otherwise never would talk to them.

And then, on a platform in Jaipur, it happened. A handsome woman with two children started chatting to Helena. Having ignored numerous invitations to conversations ("Which country?") in the last hour, this was one that was not going to be ignored. When Helena told her, "you know, you are the first Indian woman who has started a conversation with me since we arrived", she wasn't at all surprised. "Ah, but I've spent ten years in Singapore, that's why I am very friendly". She proudly told us that her daughter was going to school in Warwick in England in the autumn and we wished them all best of luck, very happy to have spoken to a nice Indian woman.

With Helena's birthday coming up, we had booked a nicer hotel outside the city in Jodhpur as a special treat. When we arrived at Devi Bhawan it felt like we were in paradise. The place was simply perfect: clean, spacious, beautiful, with friendly staff (all men needless to say), good restaurant, and a nice pool - a few days of luxury for us backpackers. We had booked no less than three nights here, to make sure we had enough time just to enjoy ourselves.

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Our hotel...

The first stop on the Jodhpur tourist circuit was the amazing Mehrangarh Fort, one of the most impressive sights we have seen in India, if not the whole trip. It is so elaborate and beautiful, over the top at times, but then again, that is what you expect of a majaraja's home, is it not?

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Mehrangarh Fort

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Enemies tried to seige the fort with elephants and canons (see holes in the wall) but the Mehrangarh Fort never fell

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"The Pleasure Room", yes that's what they called it. In here the maharaja's ladies would "dance" all night, the audio guide told us

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Inside the fort

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The maharaja's bedroom

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More views from inside the fort

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View of Jodhpur - the blue city

Down the road from the fort is the Jaswant Thada, another beautiful building, built in "marble so fine that it is almost transparent".  

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Jaswant Thada

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Dog cooling off in the water outside Jaswant Thada. Can't blame him

As for the birthday dinner, we went to a lovely rooftop restaurant called Indique, located at one of the posh hotels in the old city, with a view of the Mehrangarh Fort. The food and service was excellent. They also managed, following Grant's secret plotting, organise a delicious chocolate birthday cake after dinner. Delicious as it was, we weren't able to finish it ourselves and offered some to an Aussie-English couple at the next table, who were on their four month honeymoon, who happily accepted.

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What more could you possibly ask for on your birthday?

The Singh dynasty of Jodhpur are still around and the current maharaja's family lives in a huge palace, Umaid Bhawan, on the outskirts of town, which also serves as a heritage hotel. We went the following day to have a look at the museum part. Before entering the palace, we had to pass quite a rigorous safety control, which is mot uncommon for the sights in India (albeit the strictness of the controls vary a great deal). The fear of terrorist attacks here is wide spread; there are several religious extremist groups operating here. (When filling out your Indian visa application, you have to specify whether your father was born in Pakistan or not, indicating that there are particular concerns as regards India's neighbour. We also note that in every Indian newspaper we have read, there will always be a story about "Pak" problems, painting the neighbour and rival in a bad light.) Having passed the security control and in the process of getting our tickets,  Grant was making a joke to Helena, reading out the cost of entry tickets: "Indians 50 rupees, foreigners 100 rupees"and then his own, made-up addition, "and Pakistanis, 500 rupees". The guy selling the tickets burst out laughing too, having overheard Grant's politically incorrect remarks. Good thing the guy shared Grant's sense of humour!

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The incredibly opulent Umaid Bhawan palace - built over 15 years starting in 1929 and containing 365 bedrooms. The place was too long for our wide angle lens

While being impressed by the sheer size of the place, the museum itself wasn't much to write home about. We only saw a tiny part of the palace where we could look at family photos and some expensive exhibits. We were however amazed by the wealth of the family, and the money spent on extravagant luxury. Every country has its income differences, but nowhere are they as manifest as in India. 

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The museum was kept clean at least

More lassis and a famous omelette

Hardly a day passes in India without us having lassis, and Rajasthan would prove no different. Again following the Lonely Planet's advice, we went to two popular and well known places in Jaipur and Jodhpur respectively.

Lassiwala in Jaipur is literally a hole in the wall serving lassis. They only come in one flavour "plain", but there is nothing plain about them. We  could easily understand the long queue as well as all the Lassiwala copycats next door!

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So many Lassiwalas, but there is only one original

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Very good lassi indeed

Jodhpur also has its lassi institution, the Shri Mishrilal Hotel.  We decided to take a seat in the busy establishment one lunchtime. Just like like Lassiwala, we were the only foreigners and our presence caused quite a stir. We sat next to a student and his grandfather who started chatting to us, very interested to hear about how we liked in India. Our answers seemed to please them. We asked them what they did and the grandfather turned out to be an advocate and indeed was wearing the same type of pin striped trousers you see on British advocates. 

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Enjoying yet another lassi in Jodhpur

The lassi here  was really thick, almost like drinking cake doe. It was really tasty, albeit on the sweet side and again we could see the reason behind the place's popularity with the locals. Following our new friends' advice, we also tried the rabri which is made of sweet, boiled milk (unlike lassi which is made of curd). When trying to order two, the waiter first said no, saying we would like the lassis better. When we insisted he reluctantly agreed to bring us one half glass to share, as he was so sure we wouldn't like it. In Helena's case, he wasn't completely off the mark, as this thing turned out to be incredibly sweet. Grant on the other hand contemplated ordering another, that's how much he enjoyed it. Instead, he decided to have a wet shave, which went very well!

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Grant enjoying a wet shave i Jodhpur

We also tried another Jodhpur delicacy, namely the omelette made by "The omelette man". This is another example of how Lonely Planet can make a restaurant or shop etc. Following a mention in the Lonely Planet a few years back about the tasty omelettes at this street stall, the Omelette Man got famous  - and very busy - overnight, and is now selling over a thousand eggs-worth of omelettes from his tiny stall every day! We opted for the cheese masala omelette and were not disappointed.

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The Omelette Man

Rajasthan turned out to meet our expectations and then some. We had a really pleasant few days here despite the heat which, in fact, turned out to bring a few benefits. It was also nice to treat ourselves to some rare  luxury, and we felt incredibly relaxed and happy when we left our nice hotel and Jodhpur, continuing our Indian adventure.

Posted by Grantandhelena 00:20 Archived in India Comments (3)

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