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India

Incredible India!

So this is going to be a long one, with an EXCESSIVE amount of pictures and endless narrative because we have free internet and a fast connection. (Apologies to those with a slow connection.) India was a bit of a mix for us -- challenging in some ways but overall a place we enjoyed, although in our travels we only scratched the surface of this vast place. We saw some amazing architecture and craftmanship, met some nice folks, and saw some pretty countryside. But we were also bombarded by aggressive folks trying to sell stuff. And tuk-tuk drivers who always wanted to take us to shops to "just look," where invariably we were subjected to a hard sell. We got a little jaded after a while. Plus the pollution and garbage in the streets was disheartening. Our photos are pretty sanitized, like the ad campaign we saw on TV - "Incredible India!" - so we'll give just one that shows the other part of the story that people tend to leave out, but is part of what we encountered most places we went.

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We decided to fly from Kathmandu to Bhadrapur, and then go overland to Darjeeling. Though this meant flying on Yeti Air (which had just had a fatal crash a couple weeks before), and a negative contribution environmentally, taking the bus route overland seemed far worse, as the normal ten hour trip had stretched to twenty, following road wash-outs, and had been described as harrowing even in good conditions. Traffic in Kathmandu had been harrowing enough..so we took to the skies and had some great views of the Himalayas, even managing to see Everest above the clouds. We landed in Bhadrapur in the late afternoon (sweltering and humid) and hired a car to take us across the border and up to Darjeeling. Although it was dark by the time we reached the foothills, we were pretty sure there were some steep drop offs, given the number of switchbacks, but we arrived safely nonetheless. Our driver loved the Eagles, so we got to listen to all their hits, plus ones even worse...We ended up staying in a "hotel," which was part of a Tibetan Institute, founded by the Dalai Lama, whose mission is to preserve Tibetan language and custom. Lots of Tibetan refugees live in the area, as do Nepalis, so the place is a real mix of cultures and peoples. In the morning we got our first real view of the area:

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Darjeeling is spread up and down along the hillsides, and was a peaceful break from Kathmandu. One day we tried going to the Happy Valley tea plantation but it was closed as it was Sunday afternoon. No matter as we meet Flora, who clearly has encountered tourists in such a situation, and invited us to her tea shop for a tasting, and a-testing. We learned a little about tea making and types and then were tested...we pretty much passed. She was quite a character so it was good fun. For all you train geeks (yes, Daphne, this includes you--come on, own it--it's not just your brother and father anymore) we spent a nice afternoon riding the famed narrow gauge Toy Train (non-train geeks google it) from Darjeeling to Ghum, a nearby town. Very entertaining. Here's a shot of Daph by the train:

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When we got to Ghum, we stopped to get the best samosas we had in India from this man:

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Near Ghum was the Yiga Choeling Monastery:

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Later, we checked out the Ghum monastery and shared a far away dance with these kids. (Too bad we don't have a shot of us carefree, wacky tourists dancing "with" them. Picture it if you dare.)

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We timed our visit to coincide with Diwali, the festival of lights, which in Darjeeling, at least, means tons of fireworks all over the place. We had a nice evening watching them, and sort of enduring a small cultural show at a place we went for dinner. After a few days in Darjeeling, we headed down to Siliguri to catch a night train to Varanasi. (Real name: Benares. We were told by some amazing ladies we met later that the British couldn't pronounce Benares, hence Varanasi.) Night train....hmmmm. Would have been better with some Night Train. Yow! Truth is it went fine at first. We met a nice college student, Karma, from Darjeeling, and chatted with him for a bit. We hadn't been able to get a private compartment, nor had we been able to get all the berths together, but Karma graciously switched with us, and even took the top berth. Unfortunately sometime in the middle of the night three guys boarded the train and started yelling at Karma that he was in their berth (we suppose, as this was all in Hindi), and suddenly two of them climbed up and grabbed his pillow and sheet and tried to wrench him out of the berth! Karma changed berths so the tension abated. But then the three guys wouldn't shut up. The whole train is asleeep and they blabbed on and on. Daphne finally got them to shut up--thanks Daph. Needless to say, we didn't have the greatest night's sleep, and the morning was spent trying to guess what station we were at, as they don't have conductors announcing stops, and we didn't have a route map. After a false start, satisfying only because we made a point of waking the three jerks up, we finally got off at the right station, and got a taxi into town.

So, Benares was the first real jolt for us in our foray into India. This is one of the holiest places there, due to the Ganges, but also one of the filthiest we saw. Spirituality in the raw. There are daily rituals at the Ganges, and loads of pilgrims (as well as tourists), but the river and city is quite polluted. Our first night we took an evening boat trip to see of the nightly rituals at the temples that lines the banks, and it was quite amazing, especially as this takes place every night.

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The next day we saw the Ganges at "work", washings and cowpies drying:

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Death tourism is alive and well in Benares. Many Indians hope to be cleansed, cremated and then have their ashes scattered in the holy river. So, some travel there, stay in hospices and wait to die. Cremation requires lots of wood. Banyan is favored:

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Walking through the streets it's common to encounter bulls and cows:

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One night we decided to go eat dinner at a fancy place a bit far from where we were staying, and took an auto tuk-tuk, owned by two brothers, Arjun and Uttam. They were quite pleased when we asked if we could try our hand at driving. They said most tourists don't even talk to them. Well, we're kind of crazy that way. Not only do we want to talk, but we want to drive! (Driving in India is a bit different than back home. There's no adherence to traffic lanes, if there are any, and few traffic lights, and fewer that are obeyed. No one uses their mirrors--changing lanes and negotiating roundabouts and intersections is done by easing in, and listening for the warning honkings. Takes a bit of time to get used to, but it does work.)

From Benares we hired a car and driver to go south and west to Khajuraho, and then to Agra. The roads in most parts of India that we travelled, and this was no exception, are in really poor condition. Average speed is around 25 m.p.h. Average vertical rise on each bump around one foot. The drive to Khajuraho took about ten hours, and one flat tire. Our driver Arbinder was great and never flagged. It must be all the paan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paan) he chewed and spat out the window. However, Kahajuraho was worth the effort getting there, as it has so many beautifully and intricately carved Hindu temples. It's known for the erotic carvings (tourists need titty-lation?) but that focus minimizes the place, which has outstanding artistic work. Here are a few shots:

We loved this first one as it shows a sculptor working on an elephant carving that isn't complete:

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There was also a Jain temple complex we visited. This is the oldest religion in India, which has non-violence as one its tenets, and thus, some strict adherents will not eat after dark to ensure they don't ingest insects by mistake--wow! Some also sweep the ground in front of them while walking so as to avoid the little critters. Most temples you visit expect a little contribution, and the Jain ones are no exception:

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Oooops! Looks like the "secret" is out! And you gotta wonder what all those padlocks are about.

We also visited the old village of Khajuraho, away from the tourist strips surrounding the temples, thanks to a couple of kids who just wanted to "show us the real Khajuraho" and practice their English. When will we ever learn? Well, it's actually good that we still get duped a little here and there, because it means we're retaining some of our naivete and openness. What the kids wanted in the end was...baksheesh! Sheesh! However, we all enjoyed walking around the streets there, which were peaceful, and hearing about life there. Plus we got to make a contribution at a temple, the "mayor's" giftshop, and a school. So we decided that made it okay that when the kids asked for baksheesh we didn't give it to them....Rationalization is so great!

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From Khujaraho we headed further west and north, and stopped for an hour or so at Orccha, which was blazing hot as it was a midday. Orccha has a palace-fort complex from the 17th century, which we saw, and some temples, which we didn't. There are three palaces, one of which is the Jahangir Mahal, which comes with an unusual story. Jahangir, one of the Mughal emperors, allied with Orccha, and a palace was built in his honor...it took years to build but Jahangir only stayed one night. Those Mughals had plenty of other nice accomodations...The architecture was a blend of Hindu and Mughal styles, and there are still some frescoes that haven't totally deteriorated--here's one in the Raja Mahal, as well a shot of the Raja Mahal:

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Finally got a shot of a pigment seller's wares:

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We continued on, finally getting on a decent road a couple of hours later on the way to Agra, a place where smog ruled--it was so bad you couldn't see the Taj from fairly nearby it. We visited the usual tourist sites: the Red Fort, the Baby Taj, Fatehpur Sikri (outside of Agra), and, of course, the Taj Mahal. Palace-fort fatigue set in. Plus, we battled many touts and tuk-tuk drivers, sometimes unsuccessfully. That means we visited a carpet shop, a marble shop (we had a good laugh about the idea of buying and lugging around a piece of marble), and some other places escaping memory at this point, thankfully. We held firm and bought nothing, eventually regretting not buying a miniature backgammon set that started out at 1500 rupees, and went down to 200 (a couple bucks), as we walked further and further away from the guy. (From then on we were obessed with getting one, and kept looking for another without success until we got to Udaipur, where we paid 1000 rupees. That's how it goes sometimes.) All of these sites were pretty incredible, but it's too boring (maybe more for us than you) to show all the pics, so here's some of each place.

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At the Red Fort we posed on one of the thrones, and an Indian tourist asked us to take a picture for him. We agreed, of course, but made him pose, just like Will had to...that's just how we roll sometimes:

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To get to the Taj and the Baby Taj, we had to cross this bridge. Typical tuk-tuk traffic:

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Here's the Baby Taj. Smaller but beautiful in its own right.

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By the time we got to Fatehpur Sikri, we were a little tired of people pretending to want to show us sites for free, take us places promising no shopping detours, etc., and resolved to ignore anyone who approached...but this guy was a "student," who promised he didn't want any money, that he was just a volunteer at a holy place (there'a mosque there.) So we agreed. Actually he was quite nice but at the end he happened to pass his "uncle's" blanket arrayed with sandstone carvings just so we could see that artisans today continue the heritage. Okay, we did buy a little candle holder. It wasn't too heavy either, considering it was...STONE, AAAAHHHHHH! This is a jali in the mosque complex at Fatehpur, carved from one piece of stone. Amazing craftmanship:

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The Taj Mahal. A tribute to love. What can we say? It is magnificent, much larger than it looks in photos, and was glowing in the late-afternoon sun. It was worth going there even though we were almost crushed by crowds when we made the stupid decision to go into the mausoleum chamber. You've seen the photos of the Taj, but probably not the crowds. This photo only hints at the hordes there:

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The final Mahal is one you won't have seen before:

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This is how they served toast at our hotel. We dubbed the creation "Toast Mahal." Lovely, isn't it? A tribute to the short-lived usefulness of carbs.

From Agra we took a day train to Jaipur, which was uneventful, which is where we spent the last few days with Daphne before she headed back home to her ever-lovin' man, Carlos, enclosed showers, and her plasma TV. Jaipur was also pretty smoggy, and just as touristy as Agra, but touts were slightly less aggressive. All the Indians we met seem to agree that Agra is the worst in that regard. Japiur had a great astronomical instruments site--the Jantar Mantar--which was built by Maharaja Jai Singh II in the early 1700s. This is an outdoors site consisting of various pieces, like sun dials and horoscope instruments, some of which are quite large.

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Jaipur has its own share of palace-fort wonders. Here's the Amber Fort, and a shot of a detail from the Sheesh (mirror) Mahal there, which must have been breath-taking orginally:

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In Jaipur, the guide we hired for the day only fooled us into visiting a "guru"...whose office was in the back of a jewelry shop. Didn't buy anything though, not even the crystal the "guru" said would solve so many problems. Later that night we met a tuk-tuk driver, Ali G...yes, that was really what he decided to call himself, who was quite a cut-up. He didn't want us to pay for the tuk-tuk ride but just to buy him a beer. He was such a character we agreed, and busted a gut with him as they say. He told us a joke about a guy who got a cobra up his rear...well, we'll spare you this one. We related all the fun we'd had with various tuk-tuk drivers wanting us to go to shops and "just look" etc. and he laughed along with us.

The next day we said goodbye to Daphne as she headed off by train to Delhi where she would catch her flight back home, and then we made arrangments for our last couple of weeks in India. We decided we would stay in Rajasthan, and head down to Ranthambhore, a wildlife preserve, to get away from city life, and maybe see a tiger and other animals we don't get to see in the U.S., 'cause they're all extinct back home. We had a pretty good time there, though some bone-jolting rides in the safari vehicles, which are large trucks that have seats in them, and bounce like crazy, especially towards the back. We spent some time with a couple of Indian women who were in their nineties and had some great stories to tell. And we did actually see a tiger once, but it was too far away and moving too quickly for a photo--nonetheless, exciting. Other than the tiger, we managed to see a hyena (we have a shot of its ass as it's walking away, but didn't think it worth posting) and sloth-bear, which are rarely seen, loads of deer and antelope, and, of course, langurs, which were everywhere we went in India. They pose really well, no? (Don't want baksheesh either!)

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It was nice and peaceful in Ranthambhore and we rested up a couple of days there, getting over some colds, our first since leaving home. Bundi was our next stop, as we made our way to Udaipur. Bundi is still not overly touristy, but that probably won't last too long, as they're working on changing that. Plus, it's in Lonely Planet as a good place to go...

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During our stay there was an important Sikh festival, celebrating the birth of the religion's founder, that was fun to watch as the processions went by:

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Will met these guys who wanted their photo taken, so we feel we should share it with the world...

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It's a small city...that also has a fort-palace complex. Here's a shot of it from the streets below it:

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Our time there also coincided with Bundi festival, created to promote tourism, and that was a kind of wacky. It started out by the Palace gates with various dignitaries making pujas (offerings), and groups of dancers and drummers. From there a long procession of floats interspersed with dancers and drummers, some camels and horses, and an elephant, went through the streets of Bundi. The noise was deafening as each of the groups blared their own music, but it added to whole experience. Some of the floats had "scenes" of events we are ignorant of. There was one that had a mechanical papier-mache dog that lifted its leg and peed on a dead guy underneath him. Clearly a bad guy, but we never found out who. (It's hard to see the pee in the photo otherwise we'd put it in, as we liked it a lot.) Will took this photo of some Rajasthani costumed drummers outside the palace gates and had to give them money for it...so you're going to look at them now so we get our money's worth:

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Here are more shots of the festival:

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We did take a little tour with a guy from the hotel we stayed at, and saw the fort-palace as well as one of the 50 or so step-wells Bundi has. These are deep wells with "steps" that circle down, which were built by the Maharajas so commoners could have easy access to water. The one we saw was the biggest and very impressive.

From Bundi we continued south and west to Bassi, and stayed in a modest, restored fort palace. Sounds grander than it was, but it was quiet, and it had an enclosed shower. From there we visited...another fort-palace complex at nearby Chittaurgarh. Fort-palace fatigue should seem more than understandable by now. There were two large towers there, in addition to a complex of buildings in not so great condition spread over an area, on a plateau overlooking Chittaurgarh. We especially liked the detail of the woman peeking out from above and looking down.

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After Bassi, we had a really crazy taxi driver who took us to Ranakpur, a quiet area with another nature preserve, that is north and west of Udaipur. The driver alternated between loud, gaping yawns, deep-felt sighs, and looking at us and laughing while he asked if everything was okay. Probably because he nearly killed us a couple of times. He asked for a photo to be taken of him and for some reason got all serious for it.

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Ranakpur and the area around is bucolic, quiet and hilly, and is an area we would definitely go back to. We got a tour of the local animal preserve by our hotel owner who also happened to be the preserve manager. Alas, no leopards were spotted that day. We saw some Jain temples there, one of which was spectacular as it had hundreds of uniquely carved columns inside:

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There are many small stepwells around the area of Ranakpur, that farmers use for agriculture, typically with cows and waterwheels:

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Yikes! This is long. That's what happens when we have free and easy internet access. Conciseness goes out the door. Getting near the end though. Whew!

Our next to last stop was Udaipur, a city built around several man-made lakes. This is where the Lake Palace is, which is where most people want to stay. We didn't as it was tooooo expensive. This is it, where we didn't stay, and how it looked at night from our hotel:

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Nice, huh? This is also where Octopussy was filmed, which for some reason remains a plug for many places in town, who advertise nightly showings of it. We wanted to go, but somehow never did. Roger Moore's mug has lost some of it's luster for us.

There is a city palace...which we did go and see. The rooms have various displays, often with life-size photo cardboard cut-outs of historical figures. We liked this sign inside quite a bit; it's everyone's favorite Hindu god:

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To finish with Udaipur, here's sunset from our hotel. Ooooh!:

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Our last stop was Mumbai. We left 48 hours before the killings and hostage-taking and so count ourselves very lucky. We stayed in the area where it all took place, and visited a few of the places targeted. We have no other comment than to wonder how we can make the world a different place, so people don't feel they have to resort to violence to be heard. (Thanks Arundhati Roy.)

On a lighter note, we giggled at this item on the menu at our hotel. If someone can figure out what it means, let us know.

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We actually kind of liked Mumbai. It's a big city, with lots of traffic but has a good feeling to it. We won't give the blow-by-blow of what we did, but we finally did get to the cinema for a flick. Not Bollywood (ridiculous aren't we?), as the new James Bond one was there, and having missed Octopussy, we had to see it. Wasn't so hot. But you do get reserved seats which was cool, and we all stood for the Indian national anthem before the show. We did go to the house where Gandhi lived when he was there, which has been turned into a kind of museum, and felt spiritually renewed there. Given the recent violence, it seems appropriate that we ended our travels in India with his plea to Hitler to reconsider his ultimate course of action.

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See you in Thailand!

Posted by cleichter 21:34 Archived in India

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