Saturday, April 29, 2006

A Wee Detour - Burma

Yes, after much brain-numbing whisky-aided first-night discussion on what to do with our few months in Asia, Dave and I found ourselves not heading to the south of India, nor to the north but instead to Burma (Myanmar).

This is the same Dave who I travelled with through South America for 3 and a half months. Known to others as Dingo, Dangerous, Trigger or other names he is informing me that he does not wish published.

To cut a long story short he arrived home after 6 months in the Americas and broke the revelation to GF and family that he was off again to India - and here he is. Judge for yourself whether it is a good idea that we are off for another 3 and a half months together - the before and after South America passport pictures should give you the answer!!

So we have spent 1 of the last 7 days with a farewell to the lovely Christina, 4 arranging visas/flights/trains by day and chilling out with crazily inspiring more than marginally hippy random music ensembles through the night (thanks especially to Ram whose amazing story I will not repeat here) and the last two on a train.

That said train took 38 hours from Delhi to Calcutta over two days in sweltering UP and was hot (at times significantly above 40 degrees), smelly, not helped by minor stomach issues (Indian train toilets are top-notch) but all in all not that bad. The countryside is beautiful as you gain sight of innumerable villages and people through the endless plains of UP up until the comparably shocking lushness of West Bengal. After 2 months in the hot, dry planes of north India I found a smile on my face on encountering such greenery. Even the people look decidedly different.

So hear we are in Calcutta, a city of over 13 million people, well publicised poverty, culture and much more. 2 short days before we fly to Burma on Monday. I just can not wait. Ever since I first heard backpacker tales of the wonderful experiences to be had in that country some 4 years back I have yearned to travel there. And there we go...


So a final bus journey took us out of Rajasthan that had treated us so well. Onto Agra we rolled.

The minor mishap of my exceedingly late realisation that the the Taj was closed on Fridays meant that we were a bit rushed to see all the other sights of the city in a short afternoon, but a wicked and oh-so-speedy rickshaw driver made sure it was even better in a spin. The Fort was impressive but poorly on show on the inside, the Baby Taj fantastic and the journey through the streets and across the rickety mad bridge crazy. A manic rainstorm that obscured our view of the city within seconds added some more excitement and allowed us the rare sight of a relatively unpolluted view of the Taj Mahal.

The time spent staring at the wonder from across the river at sunset and the hours in the complex from sunrise the next day where one of those rare experiences that will stay with you for good. Similar to my lack of explanation of a certain South American wonder, I do not try here to offer much explanation of just how startling, romantic, remarkable and just downright beautiful the Taj Mahal is. If one could specify specific wonders of the world it would be one.

Many thoughts surround the sacrifice it took to build the monument, the enlightened drawing together of religions and cultures that it encompasses and the shaming of it undertaken by a famous Brit, but I feel it is optimal to say no more than to recommend everyone who can see it for themselves does and takes from it what it invariably gives - wonder, amazement and for me hope.

See the photos and do the math, but with the knowledge that it is numerous times more impressive then any photo could express.


Then onwards we went to Delhi, woke up Dave, had a final walk around the main bazaars and sights of Delhi (Chris decided she had finally had enough of the staring), watched the sunset over India Gate, had a few beers and went to the airport.

I find it hard to sum up just how good the last couple of weeks have been. Fantastic goes some way to covering it. A long sad goodbye and then back off to a pub to start new plans. The way of things...

Glorious Rajasthan with a Greek

I have spent the last two undeniably lovely weeks traveling around Rajasthan with Christina. Arguably India’s most evocative state more then lived up to its fame and I could not have asked for better company to experience it with. Simply delightful.

I had spent some time planning and booking up tickets for this couple of weeks but we could not have been more lucky with the places we stayed, the people we met and the sights and things we saw.

One possible exception was Christina’s flight being cancelled stranding her in Kuwait until she “urged” them to put her on a flight to Bombay before connection and very later arrival. She was calm and composed throughout but I have to admit I lost my rag a bit when informed that I was not allowed to enter the building to find out from the airline what the situation was on a girl stuck in the middle-east. The bureaucracy in India can be simply infuriating and a more forceful approach seems to be the only one that works in certain situations. I had to make them take me all the way to the head of security for the airport before I could find out the information required. This is just one example of the struggles I had. I can tell you it feels like banging your head against a brick-wall and you lose patience with those all around who try and shaft you (one in particular would certainly not try and con me again), but I shall move on as this is a tale of positives.


There are innumerable nicer places then Delhi, so after only a few hours we jumped on an overnight train to Jodhpur in the centre of Rajasthan.

Jodhpur is dominated by the impressive Meherangarh Fort, quite a striking sight with the pale blue houses (mozzie deterrent) of the old town nestling beneath it - hence the ‘blue city’. The highlights of the place were undoubtedly two-fold.

Firstly the fort itself. It is wonderfully preserved and has an informative tour that puts other similar sights in this country to shame. The Maharaja appears to be at the forefront of this achievement and should be very proud. We learned many things about the intricately decorated palace and massive ramparts protecting at the summit of a steep hill. I was fascinated by the context of kingly politics and struck by the breathtaking views and magical walk-up from the old-town.

Secondly our room. I have been quite tight when it comes to my cash since I have been here so the idea of spending nearly 5 pounds each on a room was a shock, but my word was it worth it. This came straight out of a movie – a veritable Al Capone suite. You go through the entrance hall into the vast expanse of a period decorated master bedroom of a 500 year old Haveli (mansion house). Simply wow!

Walks around the hussle and bussle of the windy narrow streets, Chris trying on her first Sari (I still have to wait for my first fitting) and a ‘village safari’ were pleasant and interesting activities to fill our time when we were not chilling in the friendly Singhvi Haveli over an excellent laasi. Of great interest was watching an old tribal man and his opium drinking rituals (drunk in a similar way to alcohol at home - the west’s enforcements of our own views on others does niggle somewhat).


On we went via another overnight train journey (really quite comfortable though girls taking the top-bunk comes highly recommended to stop excessive staring and poking) to the desert city of Jaisalmer, as close to Pakistan as anywhere else.

The fort looks like a giant sand-castle sticking out of the Thar desert for the reason that that is essentially what it is. It is a giant sand-stone construction surrounded and containing numerous sand-stone buildings. The only thing to spoil the view was the large wind-farm nearby – an enviable scheme, but when you have the whole Thar desert in front of you I ask why on earth spoil this particularly majestic view… not a time for a rant.

It was great to wonder around the old houses, Jain temples and the palace itself, all within the mighty walls slowly sinking because of water-problems. Like many things in Rajasthan I imagine a little nicer than in the peak season.

The highlight was though our top-notch 2 day camel trek. So much fun and not too many sores to show for it. This was very different to the one I undertook in the Taklamakan - thankfully this time we had something close to a saddle and means of communication with the guide. Further, the experience was all the more interesting for the small villages and wildlife doing their best to live off the land.

Really beautiful stark country is better from camel-back, especially when you take control of your own reins and make the stubborn but not as smelly as other times things move about. I know Chris in particular enjoyed the latter rocky cactus strewn landscape after spending the hottest hours hiding from a small sandstorm underneath a sheet.

The guides were simply great, cooking awesome food (washing plates in sand) and rummaging up some fireworks Chris had purchased for my birthday. So it is we spent the night of my 24th out under the full moon with fireworks scaring all around and only each over, a ragged dog and a multitude of dung beetles for company – marvelous.

Chris was very good with the non-remtore existence of multiple species of snake and scorpion.


Another overnight train and long bus ride later we arrived at this very special place. Out of the dessert and into the hills we rolled into a place to which I must return.

As soon as we walked out onto the balcony of our very special room I astounded by the mesmerically romantic view encompassing bright-white palaces and haveli’s reflected in sparkling Lake Pichola, with majestic green dotted hills behind. Something else.

Most of our 4 or so days here were spent wandering the charming streets full of delightfully welcoming people both within and outside the tourist district, and lounging in roof top balconies spellbound by the views.

A wonderful day's horse-ride around the local countryside was a definite highlight. Chris got to ride a horse for the first time and I was allowed to full gallop on the fastest horse I have ever ridden with far more experienced riders. There really is nothing quite like going at full pelt hanging on for dear life while being pummeled by stones kicked up by the horse in front. The quaint small villages we passed were delightful and the views simply spectacular. A place I could spend weeks and weeks.

One must not forget the most impressive palace complex I have visited in India. The Rana’s of Mewar had a magnificent history well laid out here and expressed by the abundance and variety of palaces. Perhaps the most famous is the lake-palace - as seen full of lycra-clad women in Octopussy (yes we did watch it here) - but the main palace beside the lake is seriously impressive, covered in such intricate detail throughout the section we were allowed to see.

We also spent quite a bit of time in the markets and at tailors. A generally good experience except for one tailor who obviously thought we were fools – when we left after a long-drawn out negotiation to seek nicer people we did not part on great terms. This brings up an important point. I do no think it is wrong to be tight with your money in this country, especially when it comes to people who just see you as a dollar sign. I am no more the western stereotype then the guy in front of me is the Indian. That is why I have no qualms in watching every rupee with such people, whereas I will happily give a big tip to a person who is friendly and treats you with respect as another human being. Such things should be mutual. On the counter though, the actions of many Westerners when travelling in India and an unhelpful portrayal in the Indian media make a negative view of such people understandable if not particularly acceptable. It is thought-provoking that it rarely seems to be the bottom rung that treats you in such a poor way.

On one such a shopping trip a rather large grey waddling object with tusks walked towards us and it was our chance – Hati riding time! A half hour ride around the streets aboard the largest elephant I have ever seen was not only amazing fun but says a lot about India. Firstly that you can randomly pick up such a ride, and secondly that it does not seem odd to anyone that it is happening. Hati Hati Hati….the elephant even takes sugar cane tax from stores it passes

I must not forget to mention that we met up with Paul and Fanella again and had a lovely night on the beers with some Aussies. A sort of latterly bday drink with great company.


Yet another overnight train and we arrived in the not so nice town of Sawai Modhupur. Luckily for it, it has the glories of Ranthambhore on its door step.

At 6am the next morning we took a 3 and a half hour canter safari through the park that more than lived up to expectations. The park is similarly beautiful to Corbett but much much drier. Beyond the imposing fort lies an increasingly sparsely tread area that runs up into the far hills, sprinkled with wildlife packed water holes. Amongst many things we saw crocs (which I know Chris loved), sambar, hare, cheetal, langur monkeys jumping all about like gymnasts (rather dodgily conjured by revving of the engine), numerous birds including beautiful storks, dancing peacocks, and.... just wait for it…..TIGER.

After a wonderful few hours being spoiled by an abundance of wildlife we rushed across to the other side of the park based on a tip-off and after a bit of searching found a back end that belonged to an 8 and a half foot tigress. Fortunately it was connected to the front-half of her behind as she slept half covered from view by some foliage. A wonderful sight from around 10 meters away (hard to tell in such excitement).

I really want to put it across how amazing it is to witness one of these animals even if it is sleeping (and yes we could see it breathing). It really makes your heart skip a beat.

I just could not believe the ignorant Brits in our truck whining at the guide for not "producing" tigers when he is searching for signals(“we have deer at home” I quote), and then to cap off their rudeness and stupidity they complain about not seeing enough of the tiger and wish him to make her move. Do you really want a nearly 9 foot tiger on your hands that is pissed of because it has been woken by some foolish apes? I did not - fortunately the beautiful beast was allowed to sleep!!

So we left the park exhilarated and happy, specifically thanking the fantastic guide. Spurred on by Chris’s ever diminishing time, the comparable unfriendliness of the town (I showed my displeasure to the hotel man trying to shaft me as we arrived in the middle of the night) and the fact we could not stay in the park, we took random decisive action and cancelled our train tickets for the next day to Agra and jumped on a train to Jaipur.


I had not originally planned to return to Jaipur as, along with the other Golden triangle destinations, it is as far as I know more full of con-artists and unfriendly persons then anywhere else in this delightful country. It does though have some impressive sights so we gave it a chance.
Unfortunately, on the first morning it lived up to its reputation among travelers. After much negotiation I agreed to visit a single shop for 10 minutes with no purchase if a rickshaw driver would take us around town to complete a number of errands (I know those of you who have been in this situation will be screeching never do such a thing, but when you know what to expect the whole thing can be quite fun - and we were very clear of the agreement). So errands completed, we went to his artist shop and spend nearly twice the agreed time seeing the handiwork and actually buying a particularly beautiful item (hati, tiger, horse and camel all displayed – the story of the 2 weeks) – hence significantly more than completing our side of the bargain. The problem, I believe, was that I bargained the item down to street prices (as later acknowledged by similar items we found) leaving only minimal profit. The rickshaw drivers make their money out of a percentage of sales or a single fee for the visit. This greedy man was obviously not happy with his cut as his demeanour changed from bubbly and friendly to downright nasty saying he disliked Brits and refusing to drive us back into town as agreed. I told him what I thought of him without once being rude and left on significantly higher moral ground. In a country of karma I fear for the little man.

On arrival back into the town we strolled around the pink palace – not so pink nowadays due to the pollution – and were suitably impressed by the marvelous Janta Manar. The observatory is so much better with guided explanation and we were able learn about the importance of astrology to the people, and marvel at the detail and scope of the complex from the small planned models to one of the largest sundials in the world – it is huge.

Then by bus (no rickshaws thank you very much) again onto the Amber Fort. To me much more impressive then the later achievements at Japiur (though one Maharaja after the move to Jaipur did reportedly have 108 wives – a startlingly impressive but significantly more daunting an achievement). Again a guide really added to the experience explaining many of the large and smaller charming details of the multi-extended palace rides above the picturesque valley below.

That I only realized at the last minute that the Taj Mahal was not open on Fridays (Chris’s penultimate day) did not even put a dampener on things for as with most problems it was sortable with little fuss and worked out like a treat.

Onto Uttar Pradesh and Agra. Finally I shall see the Taj and with appropriate company as well. As fitting sn ending as I can imagine for 2 great great weeks

Note: Congratulations to anyone that actually finished reading this blog!!! A few mistakes I am sure as costs too much to correct them in Burma.
Note to self: Try not to rabbit on quite so!!

A Breath of Fresh Air in Tiger Country

After 5 great, hot and sweaty weeks through the India’s northern plains I was bursting to go somewhere to chill out and regain my energies for Chris’s visit. I admit a beach is currently high on my agenda but I thankfully veered towards Corbett National Park (Uttaranchal) about 10 hours north from Delhi via a smelly rickety bus that passes through increasingly verdant farm land.

There was a nice surprise before I left with Thilo obtaining a 40 degrees C plus (about 104 ish F) temperature and reasonably violent stomach problems from our farewell dinner. This led to a nutty day driving around to see doctors and eventually putting him on a drip so that he could fly. Standards of hospitals throughout much of India are remarked to be poor but I would recommend Apollo in Delhi to anyone here – they were great. Just about got the boy on a plane, but this meant I missed the train to the park for a second time. This made me even more determined to get there.

After a journey made far more pleasant by good local company, I clocked in to Corbett and had the most wonderful 4 days.

The park is based in a valley between a set of densely wooded hills to the south and the Himalayan foot hills to the north. Much of it is straight out of the Jungle Book with monkeys, deer, snakes, birds etc crawling up and around the forest, but this place also has a Savannah type valley in the centre stocked with herds of elephant dear, crocodiles in the rivers and reservoir and perhaps most evocatively the elusive tiger.

Most people do not even catch a glimpse of a TIGER ( I met a lady who had never seen one in 15 visits) but I will cut a long story short and say I had THREE SIGHTINGS. One of them very brief in the forest (but a glimpse). The other two of a large male bathing himself in a river and stalking into the long grass were something else. After sitting on a watch tower for 9 hours over two days I was rewarded (some patience but mostly luck) with one of the best sights of my life – in the breathtakingly peaceful scenery the most majestic of animals. I have rarely ever been so excited. And then he came back again and words can not describe how that made me and the Brits I was with feel. Later that night, surrounded by the noise of the jungle, we drunk the bottle of whisky I sneaked into the park and toasted a more than memorable occasion.

Waking at the break of dawn to crash through the dense jungle on elephant back in search of big cats, the aroma of wild flowers and ganga wafting up as foliage is crushed by the beast's mighty feat. Dazzling bird-life, with circa 600 species seen in the park - we were fortunate enough to have the first spotting in about 10 years of the eagle-owl. Add to all this long-chats with local guides and wildlife enthusiasts over a good daal, sunsets and sunrises to die for and you get some idea of how magical this place is.

Reading Jim Corbett’s The Man Eaters of Kumaon added substantially to the whole experience, giving context and understanding to the area and wildlife all around. You catch yourself trying to track tigers and leopards by monkey and deer calls. It does not take a genius to guess this is not a skill that comes overnight but it is surprising how quickly the mind and senses adapt to new more base environments. Anyone who reads the exploits of the amazing Mr Corbett will find it hard to doubt the power of instinct below the surface. The elusive 6th sense or something similar was not doubted by a man who owed his life to it many a time.

The nearest thing to a negative from my stay came when I found myself having to lecture an Indian man about throwing rubbish in the park. To many it may seem like a minor thing but after he so generously offered me a beer he simply chucked the metal cap out of the jeep. Maybe this would not have struck me so much if the rest of India was not so dirty and this place so virgin clean. It is an astoundingly beautiful and rare remaining paradise. When traveling I would not normally criticize a local for what they do in their country but this seemingly small act provoked me to the extent that I could not help myself and I do not regret it as such places are here for the whole of mankind and more importantly the wildlife that lives there. If you treat such a place with such disdain you should not be there. As with many things here I believe education is the key.

A minor blip in a wonderful time in a wondrous place.

There are a few places on this planet where after visiting you can not help but feel a small part of you will always be there – for me this is one.

Note: Two ginger things to spot. More difficult is the not-so-sizeable ginger dot in the middle of the first picture - a tigger I swear, the second the oh-so-dodgy now extinct beard!!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Bye Bye Thilo

Sorry it is a BIT late but this is a little'un to say goodbye and cheers to good old Thilo (pushing 30). An absolutely awesome 5 weeks spend at weddings, cricket, festivals, temples, castles, pubs, palaces and more cricket. A great laugh and I'm sure I'll catch up with him at the next viable Lord's Test if not before.

Note: The lower photo is perhaps my favourite from the aforementioned period. This guy tried to sell us these pair of growth devices based on the latest computer, electronic and blah blah blah technology. And for only a snip at 995 rups (about $27). We suitably made a bit of a joke of the joke and he was not very happy - as you can see!

Cricket - Jaipur - CHAOS!!!

Fulfilling my dream of following England abroad at Mohali came nowhere near to quenching my thirst for “going on tour” and so it was that I told Thilo that I would be leaving him for a couple of days to catch the first ODI in Delhi - not so bad for him because my replacement would be a pretty German lass who came down from Delhi to see the Taj Mahal with him - that he is a romantic scoundrel one can have no doubt.

As it happens, Thilo's replacement was also a German lass, called Steffi (top picture). A lovely girl who to my total surprise decided to join me after a short conversation on a bus to Agra. Within an hour of arrival in that most bothersome of Indian cities she had packed her stuff and joined me on a train north. A very delayed journey that ended with us walking around the ghost-town that Delhi is in the middle of the night trying to find a place to stay.

The cricket did not disappoint. The only blight on an otherwise great day was that England threw the game away. For the majority of the match we had the luxury of watching a thoroughly good performance that relatively quietened the local crowd. I say relatively because a 45,000 plus bowl of incredibly excited Indians is not a quiet place. I found the whole experience enthralling and great fun despite a certain amount of English bashing banter from the eventually victorious home fans.

I was in the slightly strange position of sitting with 3 girls who had never been to a match before - not your normal company for such occasions it is true. There were also a group of English lads who we met up in Mohali and the aftermath of the match was spent downing our not so sorrowful sorrows in the closest thing we could find to an English pub in Delhi - Pegasus. Genuinely good beer to my shock!

The next morning I raced (not so fast as I had beer-drag) down to Jaipur, jumping on the first bus leaving at a reasonable hour (2pm). I then announced to Thilo that I was leaving him again to go to the second match at Faridabad about 36 hours later. Not the nicest thing to say it is true, but he is a big boy and I had addiction in my veins.

So it was that we saw the sights of Jaipur. The Amber Palace was particularly impressive with spectacular views of the surrounding valleys and the Great Wall of China’esque defensive walls winding along sharp ridges. The meteorological park was also impressive, but apart from that I did not find Jaipur a place that especially stood out. Maybe I have been spoiled but the place is just too crowded and over-touristy. The Rajastan Day celebrations were though amusing with the fleeting presence of Charles and Camilla, plenty of Hatis (elephants - we were like little wide-eyed boys staring at the truly huge wonderful creatures) and general chaos. The Maharajah’s antique car collection were not so impressive in the dark - Indian time management at its best.

Paul and Fanella (2 nice Brits met first time on a train from Varanasi and again randomly here) decided to lose their international cricketing wings and come along to Faridabad (wherever in the hell that was) and at the last moment Thilo too decided it was a damn good use of his penultimate day in India.

So back to Delhi, a bit of sleep and back south again to the not so worthwhile sights endowed or beautiful Faridabad. Really an industrial outer outer suburb of Delhi.

Compared to the relatively organised outing in Delhi what ensued was utter chaos. An occasion that despite the enjoyment it facilitated convinced me that the Delhi 2016 Olympic Dream will probably have to stay just that for a little while longer - a "dream". The phrase “piss-up in a brewery comes to mind”. Total chaos!!!

Let me try and some it up. After having to pay 500% of the price to get tickets, we were allowed past the huge ramshackle lines to enter an already over-full stadium to sit in the cheap-seats. That means walking in as the only foreigners in sight to jeer and cheer. The slightest wave or movement as we walk past and hundreds of fans react with gusto - I NEVER wish for celebrity.

The queues outside were never dealt with as somehow the tickets have been double sold ("somehow" I imagine involved a lot of people making a lot of money). This is just a small example of the madness and total lack of organisation. On a 40 degrees plus day no water was sold in the stadium and the only barely available source of liquid was a tiny amount of Pepsi attained mostly through dodgy police. When the break eventually came and thousands rushed to the gates to exit and fluid-up, they kept the gates closed and people literally fought there way out through a 40 cm gap in the locked door. People acted like caged animals, pushing, pinching fighting there way to the front. Fanella got touched to an extent that she was in tears and who could blame her. The only other Brits in our section had phones nicked and decided not to return to the dangerous chaos after the break. For those who have memories of the dark days of English football and related disasters this was no laughing matter.

I have to admit that you find yourself pushing past the chaos refusing for it to get in your way. You can do this because as a foreigner you get some privilege - something I would usually hate to take advantage of but here it is just the rational position to take. It is just different and unless you see these situations and madness I doubt you can understand the actions that people take - I certainly am only getting some idea at present. You learn so much about how others act as individuals and as crowds and about how you can, do and should react. Invaluable experiences.

As the game went on the people trying to get in became more frantic and kids climbed high up surrounding trees and attempted to leap across to the top tier of the ground and haul themselves in. Not an easy or remotely safe task in itself, but made even less so when chased by army and police hammering them with 8ft poles until they dropped. No surprise then with such actions and literal running riots where police on horses chased the crowds, whacking them with canes, that the national papers reported many injuries the next day.

I choose not to talk about the toilets - especially the ladies!

So yes it was utter mad chaos, but yes it was also a fantastic experience. Never have I seen so many people so excited about a sporting event. I do have issues with the way some locals support their side but that problem comes everywhere to some extent - you can not expect Lords. To be the only Brits surrounded on all sides by thousands of crazy supporters and to be able to stand up and vocally support your team is a real buzz and fun. So much great banter ensued and except for one very strange guy who seemed insistent on hitting on Paul and looking back to Fanella with a look of "he is mine now" (see photo) the people were generally great.

A nutty nutty, crazy crazy, mad experience. A sign that the people have many times the passion levels required to host top-level international events but possibly not the organisation at current. If something similar happened in England I believe it would be headline news all over the world. Here it is barely noticed.

Oh and England threw it away again..... in our hands despite having half our players injured and we just could not turn the screw. That though was less than half the story!

A Flourish of Fortifications

On leaving the countryside, Thilo’s fast dwindling time necessitated some hard-core sightseeing and this we did with avengence, seeing more magnificent forts, temples, mosques and palaces in a five day period then many see in a lifetime.

From the stunning forest surroundings of the fortified palaces and temples of Orchra, to the imposing hill-top fort at Gwaliar and the showy Maharajah’s palace - complete with absurd family memorabilia, two of the largest chandeliers in the world (3 and a half tons each – it is said a 1.5km ramp was built so that they could test the structural strength of the dining room roof with 8 elephants) and a literal drinks train that delivers your whisky et al.. to you at dinner - to the pristinely preserved grand mosque and palace at Fatehpur Sikri with its charming Hiran Minar complete with stone tusks jutting out, believed to be built to commemorate Akbar’s favourite elephant and offering wonderful views of the borderland of UP with Rajastan. More great sights then it is possible to fully take in in such a limited time.

Saying that, it was one of those great periods of travel when you bound with energy from one place to another on dirty smelly bumpy buses and end up at a final destination (unfortunately - due to the nasty tourist industry- this detination was Agra) a little bit dazed but thoroughly happy with the bucket load of memories that you have collected in such a short space of time.

This is the advantage and disadvantage of traveling with someone who has much less time then yourself. It is true that you can not take the time you would ideally like to get a real feel for your surroundings, but at the same time left to my own devices I would probably still be in Varanasi bonging drums - and that would be far less efficient as Thilo would be sure to acknowledge. A great few days of flurry!

For your info the pictures are bottom to top from Orchra, Gwaliar Fort, a rather interesting statue from the Maharaja’s Palace (a deity at play I believe), and the Jami Masjid (Friday Mosque) from Fatehpur Sikri.

Kinky Kujaraho

We rocked into Kujaraho for a really interesting 3 days amongst the exceedingly impressive set of circa thousand year old Hindu and Jain temples made famous by their often raunchy sculptures.

And yes, some of the more sexual sculptures are fun and illuminated a certain level of frustration in my German colleague and myself. To just concentrate on these multiple images of beautiful women and associated scenes would not though do anything close to justice to these quite magnificent temples.

There are some marked similarities to the Angkor temples and indeed impressed me to a level that exceeds nearly all that I have seen outside of those Cambodian legends in terms of architectural beauty and design. Achieving perhaps the height of Indian design for their era, they especially impress for the exquisite detail in sculpture from the pinnacle of the towers to the most dark inner recesses of the sanctum - quite astonishing.

Alongside the temple viewing came a few beers and fascinating conversation with various people. Long debates late into the darkness with an interesting American called Robert particularly stick out - ummm, who are the most influential figures of the second millennium A.D. - one to ponder over and over (oh and I actually managed to hold conversations with the Spaniards in their native tongue which surprised me).

Perhaps the highlight for me was cycling through tiny picturesque villages to far out temples as our final day drew to a close. Waves from little kids, water-buffalo and my first ever sighting of a mongoose where all special, but sitting on the temple steps aghast at the stark beauty of the sun disappearing behind the hills in an array of colours surely will stay with me longest. A place recommended to all!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Varansi - India in the Raw

Thilo and I spent a full week in the almost indescribable extremity of humanity that is Varanasi. Arguably the most sacred of the 7 holy Hindu cities, it is a place like no other I have experienced or thought I would experience.

Like most Indian cities I have to so far witnessed, it sprawls out from the centre in the usual polluted, over-crowded, and dirty way, with fascinating activity everywhere. It is though the old centre that is of key interest. It coils around the western bank of the mighty Ganga (Ganges) with a maze of tiny ancient crazy streets sprawling behind the numerous ghats (essentially stairs into water) that stretch as far as the eye can see, invading the sacred water.

I have been trying to think how best to describe this truly mad place and the best I can come up with is to describe what you see on a normal days journey from Shanti Guesthouse by the river to the main street. You wander between multi story crumbling buildings (half of them seemingly temples) in streets no wider than a couple of metres which meander each and every direction every few metres. In these streets are hundreds of alive people buying, selling, cooking, chanting, begging, praying, dying and a few very less alive people being carried down in procession on stretchers to be cremated and their remains dropped in the Ganga. You literally have to jump out the way of these walking rituals as the family chant away. Add to this bikes, motor-bikes, mice, monkeys, rats, dogs everywhere and perhaps most importantly numerous holy cow. Some of these are relatively similar to the cows back home, but others are huge with protruding horns and others are quite literally buffalo. Try to picture what this means. You have to dodge and weave deadly cow horns, motorized vehicles, the dead and everything else in the middle of shit-strewn alleys, rancid smells and a whole furore of noise – I loved it!!

There is a high military presence everywhere (the political and religious tension is very high in this town as shown through 2 bombs that went off the week before we arrived), which combined with being taken to watch human bodies melt in the flames of small pires in the open, tendered by the untouchables with the ribs for men and hips for women eventually being chucked in the Ganga as the only remaining part of the mortal body – images I will carry with me to my dying day – mean that your emotions should naturally be at there edges. Though, the comparable serenity of our guesthouse with spectacular views over the river and the bone-scattered flood plain beyond, cricket everywhere, a few yoga sessions (thank you Michelle) and drum “lessons” allowed me to be in a very relaxed state of mind in all the chaos.

We spent much time up and down the river by foot, along the ghats or on row-boats witnessing religious ceremonies involving fiery gold cobra heads, bathing, washing, kids playing cricket, cow-cleaning, burning and even a crazy ashen-clad holy man overlooking all from his skull-thrown and only marginally distracted by his mobile. In this place the temples are the biggest drug-dealers.

One particular image that sticks is of untouchable children (the lowest caste who to many are so dirty and low that they are literally untouchable and the only people who can carry out the burning) walking home with some charred wood from the cremation carried over their heads rapped in the bright red funeral cloth with gold tassels (see second picture). Their biggest payment is the charred remains covered in drippage from the fat and much else. As is so often said and I have copied - this is India in the raw!!

Day-trips to the ruined fort, bath and mosque of Islamic kings at Jaunpur and the ancient Buddhist temple and stuppa at Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon, added a beautiful context to the baptism of fire into Hinduism at Varanasi. I have never seen so many things with so many arms, heads and appendages being prayed to in my life. The Hindu pantheon is a lot to get your head around but I am giving it a good go.

So to conclude Varanasi is where they burn the dead and put them in the Ganga and then dogs eat the remains of the bodies, cows impale you in tiny ancient streets, people bathe in the same water and so much more indescribable craziness... a lot to get your head around. I will return before this trip is out!!!

P.s. it is said mosquitos will not bite you if you wash in Ganga water - a quite simply terrifying thought!