India. For me, visiting had always remained a distant option in my mind. Somewhere that I had no immediate desire to go to, but always knew I would. Somewhere that seemed a challenge for the truly independent traveller and a place that I take my hat off to people who visit as their first big trip abroad. Maybe you have to really want to go there, then it makes for an ideal first trip, as it is such a culturally rich and different place. For me it had never been top of my list, so by the time we arrived I had heard my fair share of horror and good stories. Equally I had met (and have continued to meet whilst we have been here) so many people that come back time and time again. It gets under your skin apparently. I had been before, but I’m slightly ashamed to say it was purely for a Taj Mahal stop. A fly in, fly out, which I’m not alone in doing. At that point in my backpacking ‘career’ (let’s face it, trip after trip have made it almost a career for me just sadly without the earnings!) it’s all I felt up to. I was a nervous wreck, about to embark on my first big trip (that in the end would see me away for nearly two years) so I’m pleased I left it until now to discover India. Together, Dean and I had said from very beginning of our trip planning that we wanted to go. Whatever else got added / chopped from the itinerary, India had to stay.
First I should say that I really think travelling independently in India is very very different than an organised trip (more so than anywhere else I have been). Not better or worse, just different with a few more challenges along the way. I had read in the guide books that although there are regular trains, there are a lot of people to move here so they get booked up far in advance. This was no word of a lie! We learnt a lot from that first journey down to Varanasi. You could potentially buy a ticket on the day, but it presents a level of unpredictability and you may have to stand for your 10 hour journey. Whilst we were happy to ‘rough it’ we had to make sure our belongings were safe (and us!). So we did want we didn’t want to do, (but has worked out for the best) and spent an evening in Varanasi sitting with Pintu from the hotel travel desk planning our trains, and working out ways to get round the obstacles of the fully booked ones. His advice was invaluable and at the end of a very long night we had a plan and tickets for the next 19 days. We basically booked whatever seat option we could get – most were the Indian ‘sleeper class’ – three bunk beds high in big bunk trains, with open windows although we did have the odd a/c train, chair seat only and even one 1st class just for comparison sake! So far I hands down prefer the sleeper class where you are in amongst it with the locals. I had heard plenty of stories of shoes being stolen etc., and men eyeing you up, but hey this in India. What a rollacoaster it was going to be.
Varanasi in itself is a place that divides opinion. I remember talking to two good friends of mine who went together, but have very different memories. One of them said over and over “I loved it” the other said “its stinks… all I remember was the smell”. For us it grew on us and by the time we left we could see why people find it so interesting. The back alleys (mind what you step in) and narrow paths all wind down towards all the Ghats (steps down to the river) along the banks of the Ganges. Despite being one of the most polluted rivers in the World, Hindus consider the city to be one of their seven Holy cities, and therefore come here in droves to wash away their sins in the river as well as cremate their loved ones. It is one of the best people watching spots and is a hard-core introduction to India. For most of the year you can walk along the river taking in the scene and looking at the Ghats and temples that litter the banks. Anyone who has ever been will have some memory of the ‘Burning Ghats’ – the sacred Holy spots along the way where Hindus are cremated. As they are Holy places photography is (rightfully) banned. Don’t get me started about those tourists who tried to be so disrespectful and ignore this…. One of the things to do in Varanasi is to take a boat ride along the Ganges. We did this, dutifully lit a candle and floated it down the river for good karma and set off (at a very slow pace – he even got me to row at one point as he was tired!) to witness what was going on. The act of grief is very private, so I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to see, but before we knew it, we were moored up just in front of the burning Ghat. Here I witnessed something that will never leave me. An image that will stay in my mind longer than any photograph I’ve taken. Sometimes putting your camera down makes you take in what is happening around you and it was almost quite emotional. We watched the men (always the men) walking this body down on a bamboo stretcher (covered in bright coloured fabrics) and dipping it into the water. It was then taken back up and placed on the fire and covered in exactly the right amount of wood (Sandalwood being the best option but also the most expensive). The burning Ghats work 24/7 and never go out. Towards the end of the burning more Ganges river water is splashed over the ashes and with that the body is committed to a life of peace and not reincarnated. As we saw a dog making off with goodness knows what remains, we reminded ourselves that only in India would we see this. There were no tears, no great sense of grief that we saw, but a real sense of doing what was right for your loved one. A nice premise to have.
So with that we bid farewell to Varanasi and headed out essentially in the wrong direction east to Gaya and then onto Bodhgaya where the Mahabodhi Temple lies. This one was for you Tashi (our Tibetan Guide) as we know how much you want to go. I thoroughly enjoyed the train ride out here as a family heading back from their daughter’s wedding bought me chai and we swapped wedding pictures! I am sure they thought my dress was morbid being white – but I still love it!!
Being slightly born again Buddhists, we wanted to head out to see the big temple in Bodhgaya which is so important within the Buddhist faith. We had seen its image all over Tibet, and it was then we decided to go. This is where Buddha obtained enlightenment, meaning he was not reincarnated (a theme going on here!). The main temple itself is absolutely beautiful, and inside contains what I called ‘bedazzled Buddha’ – Buddha’s image with almost a halo of diamonds. We were back to seeing lots of Tibetans walking the kora (circuit around the temple) and we loved it. Monks were prostrating everywhere and chanting their mantras and yak butter milk was burning. It was a magical place and one that we spent many an hour in. In the roads surrounding the temple several countries have built their own monasteries, so we visited the Bhutanese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Tibetan and Chinese ones. All very different in style and are a reflection of their host countries approach to Buddhism. A fantastic couple of days! It was also here that I found the best carrot cake in the World (to date – obviously research goes on!). I’ll get to food in a bit, but needless to say this was my one non-Indian treat!
We had to pass back through Varanasi, but then headed west towards Lucknow. Perhaps we were tired, perhaps we were hot, but I can honestly say I struggled to find anyone who was particularly pleasant. Normally you get one person on a train that looks out for you, on this journey I slept like a baby, but Dean (on the lower bunk) awoke on more than one occasion to see a group of men staring at me. I think his foot was strategically poised should the need arise, but fortunately they moved on! Lucknow has many amazing buildings, and the ruins of what was once a British base (and was the location of the siege in 1857 resulting in much loss of life). We spent the whole day exploring and we were thoroughly impressed with the architecture, just I’m sorry to say not the people. For us the people tend to make or break a place. It has been hard going at times in India, but there are so many lovely folk here (just not many in Lucknow!). India is actually helping my fear of ‘dead things’, although I saw that many dead animals in this city that it was here I started my count…… Dean wondered why I was risking life and limb to cross the road (and back again) and remained blissfully unaware of the ‘sleeping’ cat nearby. Why do I just seem to spot these things?!?! Life at times seems cheaper here, and animals are no exception.
Lucknow was just brief stop before we headed on to Jaipur. We had heard lots of good things about the city and we were not disappointed. I wonder if people like it as straight away it is more organised. Yes there are still the cows, dogs, beeping horns, crazy road crossings etc. but there is a bit more order with the grid-system of streets, high street restaurant names and swanky hotels. As well as this, there are some World-famous sights and it really does earn its reputation as one of India’s finest cities (in my limited opinion).
We spent the first day exploring the old city inside the pink walls. We walked and walked and went in the City Palace, Jantar Mantar (the still-working observatory which was almost like a sculpture park and was cool), Royal Albert Hall Museum (the building was the best bit!), up the mignonette and finally into the Hawa Mahal. This honeycomb like structure was built with lots of very small concealed windows for the ladies to look down on the road below. It was fascinating!
The next day we went out to the Amber Fort – wow what a site. I am pleased and proud to say this time we did not climb on an elephant and had not regrets. As the poor girls trudged up the hill we walked by our own steam (with me talking to every Nellie in sight!). We explored the fort with it opulent courtyards and buildings. We then headed out to the less popular Jaigarh Fort which had less to see but was wonderful as it was so quiet and it afforded spectacular views over Amber Fort. Finally we visited the Nahargarh Fort and then stopped at the Water Palace on the way back into town (an amazing palace partly submerged in the middle of a lake!).
We had a tuk tuk driver for the day who was fabulous and I asked him if we could squeeze one more sight in. He was happy to oblige and Dean was pleased I had. He took us out to the Royal Gaitor – the cenotaphs built by the Royalty of the region and it was amazing. The buildings sparkled in the twilight sun and made for a fitting end to our stay here.
Our comments about food always seem popular, so it is worth me adding a line or two in about how we are going here! Dean thinks I have become a ‘little spice monster’ as I am liking hotter and hotter foods. We have tried to continue eating our ‘street food’ although naturally we apply a bit more caution. Some of my favourite snacks are Samosas. I’m not that keen on them back home, but here they are a plump puff of pastried spicy veg and potato and they are just amazing. At 5 rupees (5p) each they are a bargain!
Generally speaking I have one rule, if its veggie I’ll try it. Veg Thalis are still a favourite of mine, but I have been trying all sorts of curries, mopping up the yummy sauce with roti. I am really really enjoying the food, something I wasn’t sure I would say. For someone who has a reputation for being a little bit fussy, I think it’s fair to say I have taken to it like a duck to water.
As I write this I am sitting in the sun waiting to go out on our afternoon tiger safari. By the time you read it of course we will know if we spotted them or not. People ask where we find the time to blog. Sometimes it’s written on our phone during a night journey, or others times like this when we had a bit of down time. As its winter the pool is empty, so this is just as good a way of sitting (you know I can’t sit still for long!). More will follow later on about our India journey, but this is just the beginning….
I must admit, I can now see why it gets under your skin……