Overloading with Dragoman from Kathmandu in Nepal to Mumbai in India then making my down south through Goa and Kerala
Met the crew for the India trip this evening. Three of them have been travelling since Calcutta: Mike from California, Kerry a Brit and Lena. Joining along with me are: Elaine and Gwynn a retired British couple, Emma and Rachel from NZ, and Lisa from Sydney. Our tour leader is Kate from Wales and the truck driver is Dutchie from analysts.
It was a bit of a restrained affair the first evening. The guys who'd been on the road skipped the meal and the Kiwi girls did as well saying they were too hung over from the rugby World Cup final the night before. To top it off our tour leader had chosen a vege joint which didn't impress me much after the lack of meat while doing the Everest Base Camp trek.
+02/11/2015Kathmandu to Chitwan
We left Kathmandu early at 7am for Chitwan arriving just after 1pm. Bumpy drive but pretty scenic following the river with the steep hills and terraces.
In Chitwan we had a pretty touristy and boring afternoon. A ride on an Ox cart and looking at some Elephants over a fence while our local guide blabbered away while waiting for the sunset; I don't have much patience for these parts of the tours I'm afraid.
In the evening we sat through a cultural performance. A bit repetitive to be honest but there was a highlight with the Peacock dance; some guy stuffed into a suit that put on a pretty convincing and humorous performance.
+03/11/2015Chitwan National Park
Chitwan National Park, Nepal
In the morning we went on a walking tour that started on a canoe floating downstream where we got a glimpse of a rhino silhouetted on the opposite bank. The two and half hour walk that followed wasn't bad but the most exciting sightings were spotted deer and monkeys.
In the afternoon myself and Lisa chose to go for the extra option of a safari in Chitwan National Park rather than the included drive to the Twenty Thousand Lakes. We saw a several Rhino including a mother and calf swimming across a river, lots of deer, a mongoose, peacock, boar and visited the crocodile centre.
+04/11/2015Sauraha to Gorakhpur
India! We left Sauraha at 7am and crossed the border at Belahiya into Sunauli, India around midday. Passport control didn't take long on either side, then we had an hour to get some lunch and change any Nepalese money we had left.
The India side of the border was much more crowded, noisier and dirtier. Everyone is on their horn as they try to navigate the crowded street and the attacks on the senses are relentless.
There was a queue of trucks for 12.5km on the Indian side of the border as India had an unofficial blockade in place over Nepals new constitution.
In the countryside it was flat fields as far as the eye could see. Much of what was there had been harvested and many of the fields were being burnt off; the smog this created made the early afternoon feel like twilight and the Sun was an orange orb that hung in the sky.
We didn't reach Gorakhpur until 6pm. Our tour leader headed to the Pizza Hut across the road with a couple of others while I joined Mike, Lena and Lisa in search of something more local. We found a small street where locals were filling themselves in grimy little restaurants and joined the crowd finding a table in the back corner of one. Mike and Lena made the choice as they've had a few weeks in India and have more of clue and we enjoyed a lovely meal of Chana (chickpeas) Pratha (bread).
+05/11/2015Gorakhpur to Varanasi
On the truck from 7am until 4pm as we made our way to our first real stop in India, Varanasi. We're staying in a pretty decent hotel here so didn't go far in the evening, got s lovely Tandoori at a local joint with Kerry, Mike and Lena. Early 5am start tomorrow for a trip down the Ganges.
Up at 5am in an attempt to watch the sunrise over the Ganges, we took off in auto-rickshaws in the dark and into a strangely quite city compared to its normal bustle during the day. The boat trip was enjoyable but the haze meant the sunrise was an hour late and not that impressive.
Seeing fires with bodies burning beside the river was certainly strange, especially with people bathing in the polluted water nearby. We saw a women's body - as it was wrapped in red rather than the orange for men - carried down on a platform of bamboo and immersed in the Ganges before family members started pouring water into her mouth to cleanse her.
Afterwards we visited a temple with a huge relief map of India built into the floor. This was followed by a two hour trip to a silk factory were they put the hard sell into us for an hour at the end. Yawn. Most of the girls bought something of course.
The streets were full of cows nosing through the trash heaps for food and wandering across the roads when it took there fancy. Guys urinated at walls along the main roads and people defecated out in the open. The traffic was chaos, the roads full of cars, rickshaws, motorbikes, cycles and pedestrians all doing their own thing and not interested in making things easy for anyone else. They all seem to get there eventually but it's a wonder that we haven't seen any crashes yet, though our rickshaw drivers had to apply the breaks a few times as we came to head to head stops with other traffic. There's a general inefficiency to everything they do in this part of the world it feels, the traffic being just part of that.
In the evening headed out with Emma and Lisa as we had the rickshaws for the day. Our driver took us to the Durga temple rather than the Monkey temple Lisa wanted to see, then down to the Ganges. He was clearly looking for a commission on a boat trip but we weren't that keen which meant we got a cheap price and I suspect he got nothing as he was in a sulk on the way back.
The evening river cruise was much more enjoyable than the morning one. They had a full ceremony going at 6pm with 13 monks up on the bank chanting, ringing bells and waving smoke, candles and fire about. The boats all tied up together in a flotilla at the bank in front so everyone could sit back and take it in.
+07/11/2015Varanasi to Khajuraho
Long day on the truck, about 13 hours including stops. The campsite was nice site but as we arrived after dark most of us opted to pay the extra 400 Rupees to stay in cabins. These turned out to be pretty luxurious affairs for the cost of a pint back home.
The campsites beside the river and the restaurant/bar is built around a huge tree giving a great view.
We had a late start and a bit of a sleep in before the short drive to Khajuraho of an hour or so from our campsite.
Khajuraho was a remarkably quiet and clean site in comparison to everything we've seen so far. The site itself was impressive and reminds you very much of Angkor Wat. Our guide went quite in depth as to what the individual figures covering the temples meant, some quite good stories but you wonder how much was based in reality and how much was made up.
Slight change in plan from the scheduled itinerary, we headed to Orchha to check out the old palace there and knock off a few more miles from the road to Agra.
The palace at Orchha has certainly seen better days but were great fun to clamber around, with narrow stair cases leading to different levels all over the place. Our guide did his best to give us a history lesson but the names meant nothing to me and, I much prefer exploring sights like these myself rather trudging behind a guide as he drones away.
We had our only “camping” experience for this leg of the trip here as well. We set up the tents in the back yard of a local hotel and even went so far as the o cook our own meal even though it turned out there were restaurants nearby. It was quite a nice bonding experience for the group though sitting around the tents that night and sharing a few beers. First time it's really happened as people have typically split up to find a meal in the evening.
We had a late start at 9 and then a 6 hour drive to Agra stopping to grab some Samosas for lunch along the way. Doing today's drive in combination with yesterday's would have been a long day, after our “camping” excursion it's remarkable how much I'm looking to chilling out in this hotel tonight before seeing the Taj Mahal and exploring Agra tomorrow.
Taj Mahal, India
We were up before 6am in order to get a decent position in the queue for the Taj Mahal where the gates opened at 6:30. The first sight I found fairly impressive but not all that incredible; as the light improved though and we explored different angles the place really grew on me. It's a beautiful structure and the symmetry of the whole place is remarkable. The more you study it the more detail you notice. Our guide used a torch when inside to show how detailed the individual flowers inlaid in the wall were, with different petals lighting up at different times as he moved the torch about.
We left just 9 for breakfast on the rooftop of our local guides house. There was western spread but the curry and breads his family had made were delicious and we all got stuck in to them. It was a little strange having spicy food at that time of day but it tasted so good it didn't matter. We were also served the sweet fried honey and sugar loops and a Masala Chai that were both delicious.
After breakfast we headed to a limestone shop where we were shown how detailed the work is to inlay the stones. I was tempted to buy an Elephant as a souvenir but the prices were rather steep unless you were willing to accept tiny or badly put together pieces. While I found the better examples impressive they didn't warrant the cost in my eyes.
Next we headed to the red fort where our guide ran us through a history lesson that I failed to follow. It also provided a distant view of the Taj Mahal in the distance across the river. The midday heat was beating down at this point and we enjoyed a break at the hotel that allowed us to recharge for the afternoon.
In the afternoon we visited a jewel shop where some of the girls spent ridiculous cash on rings. This turned out pretty well as we all got free drinks at the time and an invitation to spend Diwali with the owners family that night.
After the jewellery stop we headed across the river to get the evening view of the Taj Mahal before having a group dinner.
The last stop was the Jewel shop owners for Diwali which was a blast. He put on drinks as the neighbour lit up the street with colourful lights and fireworks. After the family had done their prayers they let of a huge display in the street culminating in a box of 130 rockets. Really fun and special way to spend the evening.
Fatehpur Sikri, India
We had a reasonably late start and headed an hour or so out of Agra to Fatehpur Sikri. It's an impressive sight but somewhat lacking after the Taj Mahal and our guide took a little too long for my to describe everything, though there was normally shade nearby to escape the heat. The grounds were thick with touts selling all kinds of worthless trinkets and who were annoyingly persistent. The site itself isn't anywhere near as majestic as it would have been when in use but enough remains for you to imagine what it would have been like.
We had a longish drive to Jaipur that got dramatic when a bike pulled out in front of Dutchie and, even though he slammed on the breaks and swerved he couldn't avoid clipping the backend spilling the three onboard onto the road. Since Mike has paramedic experience from working as a fireman he jumped out with Dutchie and Kate to see if he could help but they weren't interested. The driver and a lady were hurt and in shock but no really serious injuries were apparent so we moved on before the crowd grew too big.
We got to Jaipur late as a consequence but the hotel was an impressive structure - a converted palace apparently - and Diwali celebrations were kicking off. There was a rooftop terrace that gave an impressive view over the entire city and I spent the evening with Kerry, Rachel and Dutchie drinking and enjoying the ongoing fireworks that just kept exploding over the city for hours.
We visited the Amber Palace in the morning. It seemed like quite a cool spot but it was hot and our guide was a real talker. It wasn't a great start as at his suggestion we took a jeep ride rather than walking up and it was a painfully slow process that we eventually abandoned. The ride back down was almost as bad and my patience evaporated in the midday heat.
We grabbed lunch at a street stall that was rather good then headed to the ancient observatory were our guide proceeded to give us astronomy and astrology lessons under the beating sun. Once that tortuous exercise was over we headed across to the City Palace to look at an assortment of crap. Rachel and Emma made the right call heading back to the hotel after lunch.
+14/11/2015Jaipur to Delhi
We left Jaipur at 7:30 as Kate thought there was a risk of roadworks but the roads were great and we got into Delhi before 2pm.
First impressions are of a much more modern and even cleaner city than the ones we've encountered so far and also that the beggars are a lot more aggressive in trying to get your attention physically grabbing at you as you pass.
We jumped on the metro and headed to the mosque where a charge of 300 rupees meant we nearly all left our cameras outside as we don't really need more photos of temples at this point. It's an open air mosque and a fairly impressive structure but I wasn't fussed to have no photos.
We went to the markets afterwards for a two hour tour around them but as it's a Sunday there wasn't much going on. Certainly made it easier to walk around but there wasn't much to see or explore either.
We had lunch in a local restaurant and visited a Jain then a Sikh temple. The Sikhs put on free food for whoever is willing to line up and apparently make some 80,000 chapatis in a day.
The metro was a bit more crowded as we headed back to the hotel in the afternoon but is air conned which makes it more manageable than the tube in London.
A few us headed on a local tour to Okhla slum to get an idea of what life there is like. A bit voyueristic maybe but we were told before starting that cameras weren't allowed as it would be too intrusive and it was more experiencing how people live there. The maximum size they allow in group is five so we had to split into two groups each with a guide to show us around.
Apparently some 45,000 people live in only 18 acres and on average there are ten people in each small home. The slum itself is some 35 years and was much more permanent than I'd been expecting. All the dwellings were made of brick and they had electricity and the roof tops were peppered with satellite dishes. The government owns the land which makes Okhla a slum but families own their own houses and many are rented out. Water is shipped in by tanker truck and each household has to fill containers daily to have access to water.
The kids seemed to love our visit, laughing and waving at us wherever we went while the adults viewed us with apparent indifference. It was an interesting trip and while I had a few doubts about whether it was right to go along beforehand in the end I found it a worthwhile experience.
Long day on the truck today. We left at 6am and arrived in Bikaner after 7pm.
Karni Mata, India
We headed south of Bikaner to Karni Mata, the Rat Temple. It's a strange place where rats are fed and protected and crawl all over the temple, sometimes fighting the pigeons for food. You have to go in barefoot and floors are covered in rat piss and shit. It's not the most enjoyable experience I've gone through.
We stopped at a roadside restaurant and had a nice spicy Dal for lunch before driving the rest of the afternoon to Jaisalmer. Beautiful sunset and a much clearer evening with no sign of the smog we've put up with the last couple of weeks.
We did a morning tour around Jaisalmer checking out the lake and then the old fort that sits above the town and is still populated.
In the afternoon we headed out to the Thar Desert and our camel ride. The camel ride started out easy enough but ended about as painfully as I remember other such encounters being. The desert experience was somewhat marred by the fact we followed a dirt road in most of the way and that there was a big wind farm nearby with glowing red lights at the night.
The night was sleeping outside under the stars after having a few beers around the campfire. Really nice night and when the moon set the stars were spectacular.
We got up to watch the sunrise in the desert then mounted our camels for a fairly agonising ride back out. Dismounting was a challenge in itself trying to swing my leg back over the saddle.
We visited some deserted village on the way back where our guide spun story about it had been cursed. It wasn't the most convincing tale I've ever heard.
Back in Jaisalmer we all crashed for a few hours before heading back into the fort area to pick up some souvenirs and wander around the maze of streets.
We left Jaisalmer reasonably early and stopped at the Sambhali Trust for some kind of weird interaction with some local kids. I didn't really understand what the trust was for but they had volunteers from Germany and regular tourist stops each month. The lunch was good though. The girls got some Henna then we were on our way. The kids got some biscuits as well.
We got into Jodphur in the evening and after encountering a bridge that was too low for us to pass under, backed down the main road with the help of the local police until we could turn down a side road we could fit down.
The “homestay” is actually quite a modern house and rather comfy. Some of the best accommodation we've had. The owner actually lives outside the gated commune with his family. It's a lovely spot though with a brilliant rooftop view of the Palace.
We headed up to the Umaid Bhawan Palace that was just up the hill from the Villa we were staying in. It's a fairly recent structure being constructed in 1925 but makes an impressive mark on the skyline. The museum was average but it made for a nice start to the day.
Next we headed to the Mehrangarh Fort which is a towering edifice on a hill overlooking the town. Really impressive and you can understand why it was never successfully invaded in over 400 years. The walls towered above everything and the palace inside was fantastic to wander around. We had audio guides for this rather than a local guide so could stroll around at our own pace.
We had lunch on a rooftop restaurant near the spice market that offered fantastic views of the fort on one side and the market on the other.
+23/11/2015Ranakpur Jain Temple
In the morning we drove out to Ranakpur Jain Temple. This is a really impressive building but I wasn't in the mood for it or the audio guide about Jainism. This was made worse when the security guard at the entrance said my camera ticket only covered my camera and I'd have to leave my phone at the ticket desk. What's the point in that policy? And why single me out, everyone else got in fine? Really topped my mood off when you add the heat and no food into the mix. Still the detail and size of the temple were amazing. It's made of white stone and the carvings and statues that covered the pillars and domes were beautiful.
The canteen at the temple complex wasn't serving food so we didn't get lunch until 3pm at a resort up the road. Decidedly average affair but badly needed.
We got into Udaipur in the evening and had to park the truck across town then get a tuk-tuk ride to our hotel near the lake. The view from the rooftop restaurant was lovely and all the hotels seem to have them.
We have two days to ourselves in Udaipur so I finished off my book in the morning before crossing the lake and exploring the other side. I lunched on one of the many rooftop bars back on the side I'm staying then headed to the City Palace.
The City Palace is hard to get a good photo of from the outside as there are too many other buildings in the way and few good angles. The inside was full of paintings and exhibits but I found the rooms themselves more interesting and enjoyed following the winding passage ways through the maze of corridors.
I went to a cooking class with Lisa and Nicola in the morning/early afternoon. It was at the guys house and we jumped on the back of a couple of motorbikes to get out there. It was a really fun experience, with his family as an audience, though I didn't take notes as both the girls did.
The base of most dishes are from seven core spices: Garam Masala, Salt, Tumeric, Anise, Cumin, Chile and Coriander. We were shown an assortment of ten dishes: three breads, Kichadi Rice (a Byrani), Paneer Butter Masala, Aloo Ghobi, Basan Ghuta, Masala Chai, Veg Pakora and Gulab Jamun for desert. All tasted good though I found nothing spectacular.
In the afternoon I headed up to the Monsoon Palace with Dutchie which is meant to offer spectacular views. Unfortunately it was so smoggy that the views were extremely limited.
We left Udaipur early the day before and camped in a hotel ground just North of Mandu. Another early start got us into Mandu fairly early and we had a guide take us around some of the ruins. A pretty well kept ground and quite an extensive site though not the most spectacular ruins I've ever been to.
We had an actual wild campsite in the evening by the side of the lake. It was a nice setting and a good change from a hotel ground.
We'd packed the camp site by 6am and were on the road not long after. In the afternoon we reached Ajanta and visited the caves. Our guide seemed quite good but it was boiling hot and I was soaked in sweat in no time. As such I had no tolerance for standing around listening and suffered my way through the afternoon.
The Ajanta Caves were actually really impressive built into the side of the cliff a horseshoe curve on the river. They're made up of old Bhuddist and Hindu temples, some built early BC.
In the evening we camped behind a petrol station near Fariq's brothers restaurant.
Another chatty guide and a plethora of trinket sellers at Ellora but as we'd arrived before midday it wasn't as unbearably hot as Ajanta. The insides of the caves weren't as impressive as the ones at Ajanta but the structures were larger and the most impressive was a temple that had been carved entirely out of the rock as a standalone structure.
We had the afternoon free and after three nights of camping made the most out of the showers and took the opportunity to just relax and do nothing.
The last stop on the Dragoman tour. The approach into town across the bridge was quite impressive and as we got further in it got more and more chaotic.
We had dinner at Leopald Cafe which featured heavily in Shantaram which I'd read on the first leg of the trip.
My full day in Mumbai I took pretty easy. In the morning went for a walk with Mike around the coastline for a bit before crossing over to the other side to see the Gateway of India and completing a loop down the opposite shoreline.
The afternoon I lazed about before catching up with Dutchie, Kate, Nocola and Lena for Pizza and some last farewells.
I took the train from Mumbai CST to Thivim down in Goa. I'd booked Sleeper class so had an upper bunk to sleep in on the 700km trip that cost me a whopping £4. The train was scheduled for a 7:10 start so it was an unwelcome early start to the day and left about 15min late. No air con but three fans on the ceiling kept the air moving.
I shared the berth with an 88 year old Indian guy and his family. Nice group though I ended up sleeping almost the entire trip, something about trains puts me right to sleep. There was the occasional view but for the most it was the blackness of tunnels and the steeps sides of the banks beside the track, interspersed with the occasional spectacular view from a bridge.
The train got into Thivim over an hour late but getting a taxi was straight forward if a bit pricey. The place I'm staying is right on the beach and while it's dark now it looks promising. Splashed out on a Lobster for dinner because well, why not?
I walked up the beach to Arambol which was the destination I originally had in mind. It turned out to be a bit more built up and touristy than Mandrem so I lucked out with the right choice there.
The rest of the day I just enjoyed the beach and filled out.
I'd moved accommodation to a quieter location off the beach that wasn't far from my original spot. It was also more on the Ashvem side of Mandrem so I took the opportunity to head south this time and explore Ashvem and pass down to the inlet.
Ashvem was more built up than Arambol though not, to the same extend I suspect, as the resorts further south. Still the restaurants were more permanent and the beaches covered with beach chairs and echoing to the beats of the music the sound systems were pumping out. There was quite a Russian influence as well with much of the signage and menus being in Russian. It was all nice enough and I get the appeal it holds for some people but it's not so much my thing. In general the whole beach scene isn't something that holds my attention for long.
Still I had a nice long walk down to the south end before turning back.
Bored with the beach I decided to explore Mandrem. It was a Sunday which didn't help but I understand why people stick to the beach. It was a bit warm to walk comfortably but I felt a need to stretch my legs so persisted. I managed a decent loop through Mandrem, then stopped off in Ashvem for a late lunch overlooking the sea.
+08/12/2015Goa to Kerala by train
The train was over an hour late leaving from Thivim in Goa but managed to arrive in Cochin down in Kerala more than half an hour early. Some 900km in 15 hours. Since it was an over night train I slept a great portion of it after a long day waiting, where the highlight was a tepid beer by the beach.
Kochi/Cochin itself is not exactly what I was expecting; a bit smaller and lacking in tourist comforts. I've got a week to spend here, with a decent bit of that set aside for some study, but I suspect it may get a bit quiet. A boat trip into the water lands south of here is meant to be the highlight but that will only fill a day.
There's an apparent alcohol ban in Kerala which isn't ideal and means my beer was served in a teapot.
Finally got around to exploring Kochi/Cochin but there's not a great deal to see. Checked out the Dutch Palace - which did have some impressively painted walls inside, then the Jewish Synagogue which was unremarkable. I actually bought a couple of souvenirs here which are junk but that I like; a colourfully painted paper mache Elephant and a little metal statue of Ganesh.
I had a bite to eat by the port then walked around the coast to the Chinese fishing nets at the north end. I suspect these are kept more for the tourists than any practical use but a couple of them were in action at the time and make an impressive scene.
I decided to escape Kochi for a bit by joining a two day tour to the tea plantations around Munnar. The tour itself is a bit gimmicky with stops to watch Elephants getting washed, a visit to a spice garden and average waterfalls. The scenery around Munnar made up for it though, first steep hills covered in lush forest then the tree plantations. The final stop of the day was Top Station, the highest point that's meant to have spectacular views but unfortunately the clouds had come in so all we saw was mist.
The next morning we headed out to a tea museum/factory before having a half hour to explore Munnar itself. The town was nothing special but the tea factory was interesting.
Took a day trip out into the Kerala Backwaters as I'd heard a lot of good things about them, specifically around the house boats however which are for the overnight stays.
The day trip was ok, a nice way to pass the day but rather slow and sedentary; I fell asleep for half the morning! It wasn't helped by having 20 of us packed into a boat either but after lunch half the group took the option to go in smaller boats through some smaller channels which allowed those of us that stayed on the larger covered boat to stretch out.