A Travellerspoint blog

First Class to Amritsar

Amritsar, Punjab, India

sunny 37 °C
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Golden-Temple-2

Golden-Temple-2

I have taken several trains in India and consider myself quite good at it now. I have taken full advantage of the many ways to procure a ticket: Internet, travel agent, booking office and on two occasions “Tatkal” or Tourist Quota. On every train a percentage of tickets are held back for tourists and released 48 hours before travel meaning convenient last minute bookings. For my train to Amritsar I had booked (Tatkal) a first-class non-AC ticket. A private cabin with locking doors and extra wide beds – luxury.

Tine-in-carriage

Tine-in-carriage

Well not quite, trains are often dirty nay filthy, but they would have to invent a new word for the ingrained xxx on this train. Our compartment even came with layers of paan spit halfway up one wall. Luckily I had Tine to share the journey with. I have to say thought it was one of the best night sleep I have had on a train yet. The locked door meant that any worries about the safety of my baggage or person were eradicated.

1st-class-cabin

1st-class-cabin

The Sikh Golden Temple was really beautiful and the setting serene but I didn’t feel as connected to it as I did at the Taj, for example. The ethos is fantastic – everyone is welcome. Tine and I arrived at the temple on the free bus and were directed towards the free accommodation and then given an amazing free breakfast of coconut rice-pudding (the ONLY time I have ever enjoyed rice-pudding) dhal and chapatti.

Tine-at-Golden-Temple

Tine-at-Golden-Temple

We were given a small three-bed room just beside the main dorm provided for foreign travellers. Once our stuff was safely locked away in the lockers and quite smug at our good fortune of not being in the main dorm, we went exploring. On our return three young girls and their copious amount of luggage were strewn all over our beds. Our hearts sank. Mine sank even further when they spoke and turned out to be English and posh, public school types on their “gaap Yaar.” Three beds, five girls – someone was moving into the dorm and Tine and I were pretty sure it wasn’t going to be either of us.

Golden-Temple

Golden-Temple

However, the problem couldn’t be solved there and then because we were all going to see the closing of the India/Pakistan boarder. Tine and I made our way to the taxi where we had been told to report at 3.45pm. The boring half-hour wait was livened up when a fight broke out suddenly between two middle-aged men. Punches were flying left and right, turbans were unravelling and spinning off, passer-bys seemed to pick a side, jump-in and start throwing punches too. When the, clearly, more aggressive of the two picked up a brick and appeared quite keen to use it, the crowd finally made a genuine attempt to break up the fight. When we realised that the brick-welding manic was supposed to be our taxi driver, we quickly found alternative transport.

Indian-border-soldier

Indian-border-soldier

The closing of the border is a bizarre affair. After being segregated by sex and searched, the foreigners were then led off to the VIP section. Like many VIP areas it was disappointing and only distinguished as such by a metal bar. Beyond the gates demarking the border were the Pakistani stands, filled to bursting with patriots, flag-waving and chanting at the tops of their voices. They released enormous bunches of green and white balloons into the air that then floated over into India – antagonising, perhaps, but decidedly non-aggressive.

Pakistan-Balloons

Pakistan-Balloons

It was like being at a football match, but one where you wished you were supporting the other team. India put on a very poor show in comparison. After much waiting (of course), they invited the Indian girls to come down from the stands and run with the Indian flag up to border gates and back - hardly passion-inflaming. The heat was sweltering and boredom was setting in. The party hotted-up a little when pop songs were blared over the speakers and the women and girls were once again encouraged to participate, which they did with gusto.

girl-with-flag

girl-with-flag

Eventually, the ceremony proper finally started. A confusing display of strange comedic marching, high-kicking and pompous leaping. The gates were ferociously wrenched open on both sides, corresponding soldiers hoppety-skipped towards one another, shook hands and then slammed the gates on each other. Apparently not content with that, other soldiers then took their turn to practice their best “John Cleese” moves. The Indian crowd by now were chanting and yelling rousing choruses of “Hindustan – Zindabad” roughly translated to mean “Long-live India”. The flags were eventually lowered to more pomp and not quite ceremony; flags were folded and safely stored away for the next day.

Indian-crowd

Indian-crowd

The three English girls actually turned out to be very sweet and really quite intrepid themselves. Hannah, Otti and Natalie have been travelling all over India for three months, having passed four A’levels each - with A’s. One of them moved in to the main dorm. The other two managed to effectively cover our room in detritus quicker than even I can. Being 18 they glowed with rude health and enthusiasm that hadn’t quite encompassed all aspects of taking care of themselves. Not mentioning any names, of course, one of them had a birds nest in her hair that only half a bottle of coconut oil and twenty minutes of combing could finally tease out and the other took it very well when I told her that she would have to wash her feet before sharing a bed with me.

Golden-Temple-Fish

Golden-Temple-Fish

But no-time to stop and enjoy the scenery (I will also skip over the fact that I forgot to go inside the temple!) – I have to keep moving if I am to stick to my whistle-stop tour of Northern India. I am leaving soon you see. Have I mentioned that already? So where to next? I am heading to Dharamsala, or more precisely Mcleod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile and hopefully a private audience with the Dalai Lama himself. Oh and Christine my friend from Bundi will be there too – Hurrah!

Posted by saraintrep 23:52 Archived in India Tagged women Comments (0)

Spiritual Enlightenment on an Enfield Bullet

Wonderful Rishikesh, India

sunny 38 °C
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delhi-nstation

delhi-nstation


This is India, where anything is possible. Soon two of the people that I had met in Bundi also wanted to escape the raging heat and head to Rishikesh. This was perfect for me, my last two sleeper trains had seen me in predominantly male carriages and although there were no problems I had still felt uncomfortable. Having travel companions made the experience a much more enjoyable one. Especially the eight hour lay over on Delhi’s famous backpacker boulevard ‘The Paharganj’.

anna-and-denis

anna-and-denis

I discovered that Anna & Denis, my lovely Russian friends from Gokarna, were in Rishikesh. I was very excited to see them again and actually it turned out to be God send in more ways than one when they let me stay on their floor because there was no room at any of the inns.

me-by-ganga

me-by-ganga

What I hadn’t expected was that whilst thousands upon thousands go to Rishikesh for spiritual enlightenment, yoga, meditation, mind-expansion and of course the Kumba Mela, I went to improve my motorbike passenger skills.
Anna & Denis get around India on their ‘Enfield Bullet’ the motorbike of choice for any self-respecting India traveller. I, however, hate bikes. As Anna was taking Hindi lessons Denis and I would go and meet her after for breakfast – on the bike. I understand the principles of being a passenger: Sit still, shut up and go with the flow. All of which I find difficult enough on terra ferma.

sara-sign

sara-sign

Trying to make your body completely relax whilst feeling abject terror is counterintuitive, to put it mildly. Denis has safely driven him and his wife all over this country and I had to put my faith in him. To take my mind off the situation I tried things like “how many goats can you see?” and “how many varieties of magenta can you count?” I even tried closing my eyes but that didn’t work because when I opened them again we were heading towards a reversing bus. I even managed to internalise my shrieks and squawks, or so I thought, Denis said he could still hear me. I felt as though on a rollercoaster when going down hills and the first time couldn’t brave going over Ram Jhula Bridge. I did in the end though.

Ram-jula-bridge

Ram-jula-bridge

My faith was restored in Indian cuisine and I had chicken for the first time since Andaman Islands. I was finally able to make contact with the Ganga River, right by the source in the Himalayas, I bathed my feet and hands in the icy, glacial (clean and disease free) water. I lit anther candle and this time it didn’t fall apart, but floated beautifully away. (Pictures on Anna’s flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/anna_vesna/4458809949/in/photostream/)

rish-shop

rish-shop

I cannot talk about the wonders of the Kumba Mela because I didn’t see any of it. A combination of fatigue, laziness and logistics meant that getting a rickshaw to Haridwar just didn’t happen. I did see some of it on my way to the train station though. Huge campsites set up to house and feed the devoted and the whole town was lit up like a Disney castle, any permanent structure was festooned with colourful, twinkling lights.

ram-jhula-cow

ram-jhula-cow

However, it is no cooler and the temperatures are reaching late 30’s. It is impossible to go out during the day and time-is-a-ticking, so onwards and upwards or sidewayswards. I have booked myself a first class cabin on the night train to Amritsar...ooooh the luxury!

veg-market

veg-market

Posted by saraintrep 23:17 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Fairytale Forts and Waterfalls

Bundi, Rajasthan, India

sunny 37 °C
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Having been initially revived by the quieter pace of Pushkar I soon succumbed to a weird energy-draining malaise. The effort of waking up and eating breakfast would drive me back to bed for several hours and so on throughout the day. This kept me in Pushkar many days longer than needed.

On my last day in Pushkar I lost my temper, properly and in a very childish way. It was however extremely cathartic and I am sure responsible for my subsequent and enduring good mood. Whilst trying to send a package home and having been messed around by one courier office already, I found an office promising “Rs150 per Kg to Europe”. I enquired after the price of 3Kg and was told “Rs450”. I returned with my package and was then told “Rs1200”. Indignant at the lies and at the continual ploys to get my money off me I lost it. I called the man a liar and then pointed to the zerox-paper poster written in black marker pen, stuck to the door with sellotape. “you are a liar and this poster is a liar too!” With that, I ripped the poster off the door with a righteous flourish. I seem to be mastering turning on my heel and marching out of places.

My intention had been to go to Bundi until I then found out that this is the year of the Purna Kumbh Mela. An extremely holy festival celebrating the Hindu creation myth of an ancient fight between the Gods over a pitcher (Kumbha) containing Amrit – an elixir of immortality. During the battle Lord Vishnu managed to make away with the pitcher but spilt four drops of elixir. They landed at the four places where the festival takes place: Allahabad, Ujjain, Nashik and Haridwar. The ‘Purna Kumbh Mela’ takes place every 12 years, ‘Ardh Kumbh Mela’ every 6 years and ‘Maha Kumbh Mela’ every 144 years. The last one was in 2001and was attended by over 60million people.

This is where my madcap intrepid scheme to see as much as possible during my last three weeks in India was first hatched. The luck of being in India during the Kumbh Mela meant that I should try and see something of this amazing spectacle and also a fabulous way to shoehorn Rishikesh (right next to Haridwar) to my itinerary.

I had it all planned. The festival lasts for three months and thousands of pilgrims, Baba’s, Sadhu’s, Yogi’s and Guru’s flood into Haridwar to bathe away their sins in the Holy Ganga. Over the course of three months there are several important bathing days. I would arrive two days before Sunday 14th (bathing day) leaving enough time to find accommodation before everything became crazy as the pilgrims poured in from all over India. However, ‘Best Laid Plans’ dictated that this was not to be, for some reason the travel agent didn’t bother to book my ticket, so that was the end of that.

I returned to my original plan of Bundi, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Amritsar and Dharamsala before returning to Mumbai for my flight to Thailand. Bundi is described by Lonely Planet as “the Rajasthan of the travel brochures” but not on the typical backpacker trail and with a fairytale castle chucked in for good measure.

On the bus I met Christine from Nice and we were able to fight off staring men, pushy conductors and seat-stealers together. The first day at breakfast a group of six of us banded together to take the trip to the rock paintings and the waterfalls that Bundi is also famous for. Kukki, the very man who discovered the rock painting in 1998 was to be our guide. An enthusiastic amateur archaeologist, he was able to tell us everything we needed to know whilst making us clamber in and out of rock shelters, through dry river-beds and over, what I would describe as ‘rocky mountains’. He showed us how to make paint from stones and water and paintbrushes from bamboo.

The searing Rajastani desert heat bearing down on us drove us to the waterfall. Actually the driver drove us there but our moaning made him get there faster. More clambering (slipping) over rocks nearly made me grumpy but I contained my emotions and, fully dressed, slid into the deep pool at the bottom of the waterfall. I cannot say I enjoyed the experience, the water was algae-green and (apparently only to me) smelt like pond. I immediately swam to the ledge under the cascading water and sat there in the ‘rain’ watching the rainbows dance over the water.

The Brahmin-blue houses of Bundi are certainly picturesque and sunset from the fort was magical. I spent one of my best days in India doing nothing much in Bundi.

Posted by saraintrep 07:38 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Pushkar is Lovely.

sunny
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Pushkar is lovely. Although its streets are jam-packed with tourist shops and it is nigh impossible to get a decent Indian meal at a decent Indian price, it is charming, calm and vibrant. It is also just what I needed. Pushkar has revived me and my fraying nerves.

It is a traveller hot-spot and I can see why people get caught here. Picturesque winding streets surround the ghats, leading down to the holy lake. However, at the moment there is no holy lake – but no one can quite agree why. Apparently the lake was stinking out the surrounding countryside and had to be drained. If given half a chance ‘guides’ or priests will drag you down the ghats and help you perform a puja for your family. You get to throw flowers into the water whilst repeating “luck for my father, mother, brother, sister. Promotion for my father, mother etc” A big red tikka (symbolic dot painted on the forehead) is smeared over your third eye and then money is demanded. I apparently did not give a satisfying amount and consequently ruined my karma and that of my family – sorry folks!

In the short time I’ve been here, I have met so many people. Lots of very interesting women travelling alone (we are a fascinating bunch). I have spent every night having such a good time. Well almost every evening...I have never been keen on sitting around listening to someone sing along to a guitar. I found myself sitting (crossed-legged of course) in a sari adorned tent with the ubiquitous scatter cushions, listening to a fairly talented couple performing. At times, it felt like I was as at a Manson Family love-in, as everyone turned their rapturous faces towards the couple and sang along. I can only ever mildly enjoy something like that – it will never be my ‘thing’. The evening took a further nosedive when we had to go round the group saying our names, home towns and ages. Why oh why? My skin was crawling with the horror and if I could have ran out, believe me, I would have. As we went round, with everyone dutifully intoning their particulars, it, of course, turned out that everyone else was under 26. I am even sure I heard a gasp when I said 31. They even introduced Eternal Flame by the Bangles as “and now for an old one...” An old one half the group had never heard of!
I have met a couple of people here who are just starting out on their trips, they are all fresh-faced and filled with anticipation and nerves. Just like I was. It occurred to me that I have been away for almost five months. Apart from it having gone so quickly, it means that I am nearly half-way through my trip. I was a little freaked out by this; I simply can’t understand where the time has gone. I started feeling nostalgic for the beginning, when I as running on nervous energy and something like fear – but in a good way. I was feeling down because everyone talks about the six month peak, or as we, in the travelling community all it: “the half-way point”. After which, you are moving towards the end. Like somehow, maybe the best has already gone, it is no longer shiny and new, but familiar and expected. And if the next six months go as quickly, I will be back in dreary London (sorry London/ers) before I know it.

But then it hit me... I have been doing this travelling shtick for almost five months now. I am a pro, a seasoned expert, an old hand. The feeling at the beginning was great; everything was heightened, exciting, new, otherworldly and unexpected. Now that has been replaced with an ease, not just in my surroundings but within me. I am sure of myself in the situations I get into. I know my position, my rights and how to get what I want. It doesn’t always work but that is normal, that’s fine. When meeting new people I feel much more relaxed, not continuously concerned with everyone else but comfortable with what I want and doing that. So yes, my leaving date is looming but it is still really far away. I have a lot of time left for new adventures, new countries, cultures and (most importantly) new food.

I will stay in India for now. There is still so much to see and experience and, I am sure, several scrapes to get out of. Not least, is trying to organise getting back to Bombay, for my flight, but not actually having to spend a single night there. I am building up trepidation for SE Asia. I am so excited about a new country. Some people only get to travel for six months, or three weeks. I am so lucky, I have got six months left.

Actually if I properly work it out it is more like seven – so I will shut up now and let you all get back your jobs. I am going back out on to the hot, buzzy market where I am haggling down the price of silk scarves in one shop, picking up a new salwar kameez I just had made at the tailors at another and then I am going to get a Thali, a proper one, at an Indian place I found well off the main drag.

Posted by saraintrep 23:21 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Happy? Holi from Jaipur


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Today has just been one of those days.

I was woken up at 6.30am by the hotel staff shouting to one another, the sound of furniture being dragged around and very loud banging. Since I was paying a kings ransom of Rs800 per night, at least double what I normally pay, I was not impressed. I went in search of another hotel.

Just round the corner I found a small guesthouse with a huge room, double bed, TV and bathroom with hot water, all for Rs450. I returned to my room, packed and went to check out. I have never encountered 24hr check out before, but in India it exists. It means that you have to check out at the time you checked in - even if that time was 4.00am. I had checked-in at 8.00am. However, behind the reception desk was a huge sign “Check out time 12.00pm. By order of Jaipur Authority”. I had naively assumed the sign was correct and that check-out was at 12.00pm! This led to a big row with the reception clerk when I refused to pay for a third night and ultimately with me handing over Rs1600, stating “if you want to call the police, then call them but I am leaving now” and stalking out the front door with as much dignity as one can muster whilst wearing a 12kg rucksack and a bulging day pack on the front.

Today, March 1st, is Holi, India’s famous festival of colours and not a day to be enjoyed alone. Groups of revellers take to the streets daubing each other with brightly coloured powders or “playing Holi”. I have not met anyone since I left the Andamans and as I have been city-hopping, seeing six places in ten days, there has been no time to meet anyone. So I would be spending Holi alone.

I tried to get lunch, but every shop, restaurant, kiosk, street stall was closed – in fact all India seemed shut today. I finally found a restaurant serving lunch and had my first bad meal since arriving here, paying over the odds for the privilege.

I really wanted to get some photos of the festivities and jumping into a rickshaw I went to the centre of town. There are foreigners here and I thought I might be able to find some people to play with. The streets were weirdly quiet and only a few groups of boys, on bikes, were out throwing colour at each other. I got out of the rickshaw and began walking down the main tourist bazaars. People did approach and wish me “happy Holi” and paint me etc. However, there was an undertone with quite a few drunks and silly teenage boys. And Indian teenage boys are incredibly frustrated.

Two boys came over and were painting me and asking me to take their photo, one tried to hug me and as I pushed him away, he managed to grope me. Today was not my lucky day, but it was his – I had my camera in my right hand, so I was only able to hit him with my much weaker left hand. He ran back to his rickshaw but I must have thumped him about ten times before he got there. I hope it hurt him as much as my arm is still aching now!
Deciding that I had had enough “fun” I returned to my room. I tried to wash the colour off – but it is really hard to remove and my ears and neck are still stained red/neon pink. Then my washing line wouldn’t stay up so I couldn’t dry my washing. I finally found a shop open where I could top-up my phone credit but after trying five times it still wouldn’t work. And so it went on all day.

Now I am sitting in total darkness. Just waiting, for over an hour, for the electricity to come back on.
Today has frustrated me so much I have been seriously considering leaving India. I have been here nearly five months and I have loved so much of it, but the north is very different to the south. I seem have lost my sense of humour with rickshaw drivers and people trying to rip me off. I feel angry, defensive and aggressive when dealing with these situations. I am so used to them now; perhaps the ennui has set in. I expect and know someone is trying to con me. I have stopped haggling; I simply don’t bother any more. I will only give my money to the man who gives me an honest price from the out set – not everyone is trying to rip off the tourists.

I am going to Pushkar. Apparently calm and oh-so-Zen, it’s a perfect place to retreat to. If I can’t shake off this mood – who knows? I could be in South-East Asia sooner than I thought.

Posted by saraintrep 11:44 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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