Thursday, 15 April 2010

So after about 12 days in India, off we headed to Nepal. Our Indian escpades have probably been the best and worst experiences of our trip. Its a country of opposites: extravagant marble and carved wood palaces within view of slums and beggar, big 4W drive trucks being driven by men in suits, surrounded by an army of small skinny men cycling rickshaws or dragging trailors of food behind them. One would walk down the street, and every 20 or so paces the smell of sewerage would be interrupted with the sweet smell of insence. It was a shame we didnt spend more time in India, as we never made it to Jodphur or Pushkar, and the very north and very south are meant to be better than the Rajasthan region.

Anyhoo, we had a train booked at 10pm to whisk us out of agra towards gorahkpur - a 13 or so hour journey. Not so bad we thought assuming the sleeper carriage isnt that full. Famous last words. The train pulled into the station, arms and legs flailing out of windows, and faces pushed against glass - and so began the worst day i have experienced travelling.

After pushng our way through swarms of people and their bags in the already narrow aisle, we eventually found our berth. The train was literally full to bursting. Space under seats and spare buks had already been taken up with bags so our bags had to stay on the seat with us. Within the next hour or so, people started to find their positions - on mats on the floors, propped up between 2 bunks, hanging out of open doors etc. We flipped the bunks down, Emily was on the top, Alec the middle and me the bottom. My bag was at the foot of my bed and my rucksack was my pillow. It was quite a cool night as the fans were all on and the windows were thrown open. We even had our own little audiences. I had 4 women wearing saris sitting on the bunk opposite me. Every so often they would stare at me and frown. Emily had 2 guys watching her on the opposite top bunk, one of which was filming her read with his camera phone. He then went on to download the photos onto his laptop. Where 'photos of blonde white girl reading book on train' have ended up now g-d only knows. Lets just hope they are on some tasteful website :P

However, as the sun started to rise, through 9am, 10am, 11am, the train seemed to stop longer and longer in the stations. This combined with the fact i couldnt stretch out let alone get out of my bunk for fear of stepping on anyone (when i went to the toilet in the toilet I was sure i kicked someone in the face) - also combined with the fact that there was a 3 year old girl who seemed to like running around and whacking her head with a plastic bottle - she then proceeded to jump on it. After 4 hours of cracking plastic, one find themselves very tempted to throw the afoementioned 3 year old girl out of the door. Around midday, the temperature in the train was somewhere above stifling. With repeated long stops in the middle of nowhere, very rarely was there a breeze to flush out the stale air. Sometime around 2ish, after lying on the cramped plastic bunks with minimal movement for about 12 hours now, getting hotter and hotter and running seriously low on water, me and emily went to the toilet. I was then sick and came very close to fainting. My eyesight was blurry and for a few minutes I could so very little. I had never even come close to fainting before so naturally i was a bit freaked. For the next 20 mins i sat by the open door of the train watching the Indian countryside pass me by whilst alec got me some water.

Unknown to us, the seemingly pointless stops had meant we still had 3 more hours left of this awful journey. Alec and emily folded the bunk back down to make the bench, and we sat reading and sweating, mainly sweating. When asked by one of the locals why we didnt go into the air conditioned car, we replied we couldnt afford it. Note to self: listen to the advice of the locals and never go in a sleep car again. After being both physically and mentaly drained from the 15 hour train journey, we EVENTUALLY pulled up on gorakphur. Here we got a 1 hour cab ride to the border town of saunnali, a rickshaw through customs and across the border and were dropped off at a tour place in NEPAL!! It then decided to hail it down. A bad omen or not, it bought the temperature down a couple nof valuable degrees so we were happy. We booked our bus to kathmandu and 10 mins later we boarded. Non airconditioned and leg room that would make even ryanaire shudder, we would be crammed in like this for another 9 hours. The roads were fecking awful. There wasnt a sinlge smooth patch of road between aunali and kathmandu. About 2 inches above my head i was the corner of the lugguage rack so every bump the bus flew over sent me flying into this luggage rack. There were also random bars, poles and loose nails sticking out everywhere to bump and catch yourself on - not ideal when you are being thrown in all directions - even more so when a fat guy who smells of curry insists on resting his head on your shoulder even when you had elbowed him enough times for him to surely get the hint. And for some reason, THROUGHOUT the night the bus driver insisted on playing generic bhangra music at full volume - of course the old bus speakers couldnt handle this volume so a lot of the time it was painful and scratchy to listen to.

Just to summarise - over the past 3 days we have eaten little, slept little, showered little/none, are covered in bruises and are generally pissed off with life. The minute we got to kathmandu at 6am, we slep through till lunch time, got up, had lunch at which point I came down with a fever so went to bed early....

The silver lining though, is the everest trek has been booked. 16th april, me and alec are on our way to the everest base camp :D.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

From the research we have done, the 'sleeper carriage' of an indian train is one of the lowest classes on board - one up from carriages of wooden benches of unreserved seating which bus loads of indians race to reach even before the train has stopped at the station.

Far from the over crowded and stifling conditions we had imagined, it was actually one of the more pleasant journeys. Each berth had 6 beds in it (2 walls of 3 bunks), which folded down into seats. We had the windows open and the fans blasting so all in all it was a pleasant night - all the bags were securely fastened to random bits of metal, padlocks and chains galore just to be on the safe side.

The train pulled into Udaipur at 6am and we got a taxi to our hotel. The hotel was owned by a dutch couple. It had all the quintessential stained glass windows, arches and carved pillars. It even had a garden with a small fountain. It was walled by the large palace which as far as we know is one of the biggest in india. After a short nap we went exploring. I walked round some temples, weaved through traffic and avoided cow mess on the pavements. This city really is the jewel of our india trip. It is incredibley hilly, and comprised of a labyrinth of narrow alleys and congested roads. During the heat of the day a lot of the shutters are down, however into the evening the lights shine brightly on the saris and metal work in the windows, galleries show their work in the street, and glass and stone sculptures are neatly displayed in windows.

The main part of my first day was exploring the large palace. I paid the usual ten times more than a local, and in i went. One of the strangest buildings I have been in - although obviously modernised in recent years for tourists, it was no different to the streets of the small city. Made of of oddly shaped rooms generously decorated with mirrors, stained glass and marble carvings. Narrow and winding corridors and staircases gave perfect views of the Pichola Lake, around which the town had grown. It was also in this palace I realised how ridiculously small the world was. I was walking round the palace on my own, and wanted a picture in front of one of the views. I asked a small group of girls to take my photo. After asking what how old they were (expecting them to say they were at, or had just left uni), they said they were all early 30's. Slightly shocked, the conversation took a turn towards jobs. It turned out that 2 of them came from north London and occasionally frequented the stanmore Wetherspoons for a spot of breakfast on a saturday morning (a much disliked shift that I so often had). So anyway, to cut the story short, in the past I had personally cooked the breakfasts of these random girls i met in a palace in a small town in India. Strange times.

Anyhoo i diverge. The next day we did a cooking course (another one) and learnt how to cook chapatis, korma, a paneer kofte and some other general niceties. Assuming I can find the mahoosive selection of spices needed, I will give everything a go.

Then came the evening activity - me. I dont know how many people have noticed, but my hair is receeding EVER so slightly. I always said that if it gets any worse it will be easier to just shave the whole thing off. We discussed that it would be best to do it on these travels, as if it looks awful it will grow back LONG before i get home. So armed with a few 20p disposable razors, a beard trimmer that had a charged life of 5 mins, some nail scissors and a jaunty mirror, we began hacking off my long browny locks. We got the bulk of it off with the shaver, covered my head with shampoo and with emilys help (alec had the job of photographically documenting the event) we hacked me bald. Within the space of about half an hour I very soon looked like a bowling ball. It didnt look entirely awful, so me thinks its a look i might keep for a while.

Next day we boarded another sleeper train bound for agra. After shlapping around for an hur or so in the heat of the day (over 43 degrees, the hottest place yet), we eventually found an air conditioned hostel right near the taj mahal west gate. In all honesty, there really isnt much in agra except the taj mahal. It has all the bad bits of jaipur yet seemed to lack the charm. We have very quickly grown used to the fact that when you leave the hostel, to your right is a street full of Indians trying to lure you into buying a cushion cover, and on your left is 2 cows mounting eachother in the middle of the road surrounded by hooting rickshaws - the little things one will miss when they go back to jolly old London/anywhere else in the world.

Up at the unhealthy time of 6am, we thought we would beat the crowds to the taj mahal. It turns out the rest of India had the same idea. We queued up in the 'foriegners queue' which the admission charge was 750 rupees - about 11 quid, whereas locals admission was only 20 rupees - 30p. We understand that obviously they can get away with charging westerners a bit more, but more than 10 quid more is slightly taking the piss. Especially as if a similar thing happened in the UK people would be up in arms. 'Entry to the tower of London: UK passport holders - 3 pounds, foreigners - 15 pounds'. Not damn likely. Again you can use the argument of 'but a rupee to them is worth so much more to them than it does to us' but then nothing really gets rid of the strange feeling of simply being seen as a walking bank - especially when children approach us, holding there hands out simply saying 'hello money'. It opens your eyes more so to the poverty around you, but on the other side of the spectrum is also hardens you to some extent - the constant pressure to part with your money (different priced menus for westerners and locals, expecting you to haggle for a simple bottle of water, grossly overcharging for admissions etc.) makes you even less willing to hand over your money, even if in as in most cases, they could do with it far more than you ever could. Anyhoo, enough of the 'lessons to be learnt from travelling' section.

The taj mahal was predictably stunning, got all the typical photos of me in front of it, then we walked round to the agra fort, then booked our train out of india. We are on a train booked to gorakhpur, from there its a bus to the border town of saunali, then a rickshaw across the border and through the nepalese customs, then a 6 - 7 hour bus ride to kathmandu. 3 weeks in nepal would bring us to the end of the second leg of our journey - ended with a hellsih day of flights, from kathmandu-delhi, delhi-madras, madras-kuala lumpur.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

1st april - onto the second leg of our trip. We have been travellign one day short of exactly 2 months and it has gone by unnervingly quickly. Probs because we have been moving around so much. This leg, we are going to be in india for 10 days, then bus it to nepal for 3 weeks. After, we fly via madras to malaysia.

The plane landed in delhi airport and we had expectionally high expectations of this crowded city. I had images of narrow alleyways lined with sari and spice shops, and bustling streets if intricately carved buildings. We got our taxi to our hotel (it was about 11pm at this time). The taxi weaved its way down a narrow alleyway where children were playing cricket alongside a herd of cows and sheep. We got into our hotel, where we were told our room had a blocked toilet. We were promptly taken to a much nicer hotel with air conditioning and tv. We were content.

When it got light, we were ready a raring to see the city. Unfortunately, we had arrived at compltely the wrong time. Not only was it Good Friday (so most things would be closed) but because of the Common Wealth Games, much of delhi was dug up. Our hotel, being off the main bazaar, was slightly redundant as, due to the building work, much of the main bazaar was closed off by day and apart from the beggars, was all but deserted After getting lost and finding our way to the tourist centre named 'Connaught Place' (again much of it wasd either closed or dug up), we were getting icnreasingly frustrated. The tempearture was well into the 30's. After wandering around for hours, we booked a city tour for the next day, and a train out of Delhi to Jaipur in the Rajasthan region for thwe day after. We navigated our way back to our hotel, over massive heaps of rubble, exposed pipes and general building mess, and settled into our hotel.

That night, feeling particularly disappointed with Delhi, I ventured out alone to see if the city could redeem itself. I left the hotel and past a series of wood and wicker beds that were positioned up and down the street, on which people presumbaly lived, and found the main bazaar. Slightly more active than it was during the day, the many sari and food shops had opened their shutters, and the city was finally starting to show itself.

People hung out from windows and open shops shouting at visitors to buy, the smell of spices drifted through the streets, vendors trundled their goods along and around the heaps of rubble, and depsite the fact ti looekd like an earthquake had recently hti Delhi, life seemed to continue. Goats and sheep marched down the narrow streets, young kids with their hands out gesturing for money, and cows sat idly on the side watching the action. I walked down the narrow yet brightly lit alleys and was entirely satisifed that Delhi had lived up to my expectations.

The tour the enxt day, we had a driver to take us around for 5 hours. We saw everything there was to see, from the Red Fort, to the India Gate, to the Lotus Temple. Unlike cities like Phnom Penn where there seemed to be an organised chaos, Delhi was just pure chaos. Bikes, cows, sheep and camels weaved through stationary traffic and some cars were stuck for hours trying the navigate through the cities narrow and congested streets. When I walked to try and find the spice market, I abandoned hope of walking on the pavements as clearly this was reserved for dogs and speeding motor bikes. I walked on the road and was soon blocked in - bikes were bumper to bumper with cars, rickshaws blocked every available exit, and I had no choice but to walk with the traffic. I was going nowhere fast, and yet I didnt really seem to mind.

The bustle and crowd of Delhi, coupled with the constant touts and people asking for money was what I expected, however the general dirt around the city (maybe quite naively) was something I didnt expect. Public toilets were open to the street, people spat everywhere, litter in metre high piles were positioned on all street corners, and lines of people simply sleeping on the pavement were along the curbs of most main roads. As we walked along the roads without the comfort of a taxi to protect us, men would approach contantly trying to draw us into their shops (many of them not taking their eyes of emily as we walked), kids came up to us with their hands out chanting 'hello money', and we couldnt walk a step without a rickshaw driver offering us a lift somewhere (even after a firm no, did they continue to drive alongside). The general consensus among travellers, is if you simply ignore them they will all soon go away. However, after years of 'British conditioning' where 'politeness is everything' it has taken a lot of will power to simply ignore people when they approach you and not make eye contact. Even when children who are no older than 5 or 6, scruffy and unwashed beg for even a small amount of money, the tempation to open your wallet is almost too much, until you realise that the minute you give one money, more will be along - and with all the rumours of kids working for bigger bosses (aka Slumdog Millionaire), or kids simply going into the 'begging profession' when they have a perfectly adaquate home life, who knows where the money you give them will end up!

Walking the streets when so much poverty is around, almost makes you feel slightly guilty for the things you do have - even more so when someone holds out their hands for money, but then after 5 days of constant hassling, something inside you just hardens and you become accepting of it - the dirt, the poor and the begging - which im assuming is what has happened to many of the locals. The frustrating thing is, for obvious reasons we are incredibley conspicuous as we walk down the street, so the minute we leave our hotel kids start to swarm and the rikshaw drivers gather, all trying to get money out of us somehow. Even the tourist attractions try to syphen as much money out of us as they can - there are normally 2 queues, one for indians and one for 'foreigners'. The latter, in many cases is 10 times the price of the former. A resrataunt we went to for lunch, even went to the effort of printing out 2 menus, one for locals and one for foreigners. I grabbed a cheaper menu from an empty table and when we questioned the waiter on the price differences, he insisted the cheaper menu was the 'older one'. I know we can all say 'yes well compared to them we are all rich so we can technically afford it, and we have to understand their needs', yes i can understand their needs. But there something almost sinister about waiting in a rickshaw at the traffic lights, and the minute you come to a halt, 4 kids gather at either side of you pulling at bags and grabbing your arm - with the rickshaw driver doing nothing but looking away somehwhat awkwardly.

Everyone who has been to India has said it is a fantastic place yet incredibley exhausting. All of the above is true. The need to want to enjoy yourself, coupled with the constant need to be suspicious of everyone who talks to you (as much of a shame as it is) is a very tiresome activity. Our time in Delhi came to an end, and at the bright and early time of 5am, we headed to the train station. Far from Waterloo with its bright concourse lined with coffee and magazine shops, people slept on platforms and washed and brushed their teeth on sinks positioend in the centre of the platforms. Also, contrary to the image of a typical Indian train station that Slumdog Millionaire had shown us - there were no large groups of people dancing in sync to Bangra music on and between the stationary trains. There was however, someone, trousers and pants round his ankles, washing his 'private area' in full view of the New Delhi Station. Once his underparts were clean, he then went on to wash a shti stain out from his underwear. Failing to do this, he then took his underwear off, and washed them under the tap. We got an air conditioned carriage, and 4 hours later were in Jaipur.

Known for the fact the old town is painted pink, it is a stunning city. Though to a greater extent, sufefred from the same problems as Delhi, to the point where on many occasions I simply didnt feel safe to leave the hotel. People would approach from all angles, using the same lines about how 'the westernes seem to hate indians so come for a drink with me to prove it', or 'where are you from? do you want to come to my shop?' - yes they could be trying to be friendly, but suspicion must constantly be excercised, especially after reading all the guide books regarding scams and people trying to con tourists by befriending them and then maing them pay extortionate amounts for fake gems and jewellery.

Once you got your head around the constantly approaching locals, both old and young, there really were some magnificnet sites in Jaipur. We saw the palace, the tiger fort that sits hgih on a mountain above the city, and also the Hawa Mahal, which consists of over 300 windows, is 5 floor high and was designed so the the wives of the Maharaja can view the city without being seen from street level. A number of locals also asked me to pose with them for photos, which I was very flattered with to say the least :D. Emily was given a baby to hold whilst she posed with the whole family (photos to follow).

Another day another city tour, we saw the observatory, and forts and the numerous palaces, settled down for a nice lentil curry (nicer than it sounds) and that was Jaipur done. Our next stop was Udaipur in southern Rajasthan. Its a 9 hour train ride, over night. We got the second class sleeper so each berth is open and contains 6 beds. Our train leaves in 3 hours. We have read the guide books about securely tying bags to anything that cant be moved. The books also advises that woman should NOT under any cicrumstances travel on trains alone. That is directed at local woman, so with our 'fine white western flesh' g-d only knows if we AND all our bags will make it safely to Jaipur. We may have to sleep in shifts tonight....