Sunday 28 September 2008

Traveling India: Stage 7: Goa & Hampi

Mea Culpa, it has been some time since the last post again, but what to do if you're chilling on a beach in Goa? The last thing on my mind was spending time in a grungy internet cafe instead of palm filled beaches. That said, there's not much more to say about Goa. The season hasn't started and though it was sunny, most beaches were nicely deserted. We rented bikes, drove around Goa, spend time on the beaches, swimming and drinking some beers. Of the legendary rave parties and crazy nightlife we didn't see a thing. The Summer of Love is over I guess and made room for hordes of fat tourists enjoying the good value for their euros. Nevertheless we had a great time and calmly enjoyed Goa for 3 days.

Afterwards we headed to Hampi. A horrible bus ride over way too many bumpy roads brought us to this isolated pieces of rocky hills and hundreds of temples dotted over the landscape. This very same landscape I found more attractive than the temples themselves, because maybe I have been seeing too many of them since I arrived in India, now almost a year ago. We cycled under the burning sun through the valley and catched some amazing views. While the guys prefered to go for a marathon of sightseeing, the both us took it rather easy and did everything on our own pace.

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Traveling India: Stage 6: Mumbai

The last three days in Bombay have been lovely. Not only the city is really great, but we've enjoyed the greatest hospitality from our friends here. Leti's friend, active in the fashion business, offered us a small house in the north of mumbai where we could stay for free as long as we wanted. The place belonged to family that only uses it when they are in town, so we had our own quit place with all household facilities, in many aspects better than our own flat in Chennai.

The first day we ventured into the wholesale textile market of Mumbai and had great lunch, after a horrible bus ride from Udaipur (20 hours, cos a bridge collapsed somewhere on the way). In the evening we went to Colaba to meet my friends from Belgium who had arrived late from Zurich. The reunion was awesome and we had good fun and the next day, the guys also moved into the house where we stayed.

Clock Tower and Bombay Stock Exchange

Thanks to Thomas' business contact in Mumbai we had a car (a Toyata monovolume). fully air-conditioned and with a driver from the company who took us everywhere. We did a lot of luxury sightseeing, going from one place to the other and again had great lunch. His agent also took us out for dinner in the evening, to a pretty famous restaurant in Mumbai called 'Khyber'. Afterwards Leti's friend took us to a club called 'Hawaian Shack' which was also enjoyable but unfortunately closed early at 1:30am.

Bombay Skyline, Chowpatty Beach

Next day we had another day of sightseeing together with Thomas business contact and his driver and we got to see many nice places in Mumbai. Marina Drive ,Malabar Hill, Dhobi Ghat, Ratan Tata's office in the Bombay House, Victoria Station... we've seen it all. For a moment we could also forget we were poor backpackers, as we had a coffee in the Sea Lounge of the prestigious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, with view on the Gateway of India and the Arabian Sea. We also visited the company offices in the financial center of the city.

Taj Palace

But enough luxury and free dinners for now, tonight the 4 of us are heading to Goa to enjoy some sun and beaches...

See ya!

Daravi, biggest slum of Asia, Mumbai

Friday 19 September 2008

Travel Impressions of India

Some impressions of traveling through India

The Hairdresser in Amritsar had no clue how to make a mohawk, this was his first attempt. A very funny episode....

sleeper train India
The first hour in the sleeper train you are actually still able to smile. The smile gradually fades as more and more people start to stare, remove their shoes, start putting Hindi music, spit or don't succeed in shutting their babies up during the night. Luckely the smile returns once out of the train :)

Boys swimming in the Ganges, Varanasi

Mmmm, Mutton in Old Delhi

With Shankar, Officer at Raj Ganj, Delhi

Me, riding on a Cycle Rickshaw in Agra, the driver and Leti in the backseat.

Attari, Pakistan border
People celebrating Mother India at Pakistani Border, Attari

Taj Mahal
Close up of the Taj Mahal, Agra.

Tibet, protest Tibet

No Torch in Tibet - Protest in McLeod Ganj

Hanuman, the Monkey God, Shimla

Thursday 18 September 2008

Traveling India: Stage 5: Rajasthan

We got quicker out of Jaipur as we intended and headed to Udaipur further south, after having dealt with the most important Jaipur monuments.

Jaipur boosts some amazing buildings and looks pretty organized. The old city (inside the walls) is divided in squares with specialized bazaars for every block, but despite all that it's still hot, polluted and overcrowded. The City Palace, home of the Maharajah, is surely worth the visit, but once outside the city confronts again. We walked and walked and walked around Jaipur till we literally couldn't feel our feet anymore, but we got a fair impression of the city in the 2 days we were there.

We also reasoned Udaipur would better to chill out so we took an overnight 10h bus ride to Udaipur.

Udaipur is famous for it's Lake Pichola and the Lake Palace right in the middle of it. The Bond movie 'Octopussy' was shot here and many of the restaurants show the movie every single night for the hordes of tourists that arrive here in the season. The place is beautiful though and pretty peaceful. It has been raining quite a bit over the last couple of days, but the sun also shines regularly and the many rooftop restaurants with lake view are cool to chill out or get stuffed with continental food. We have been enjoying ourselves, visited temples and walked around the lake and generally having a good time.

Lake Palace, Udaipur Jagmandir Island, Udaipur Kama Sutra on Temple,Udaipur

Tomorrow we are taking a marathon bus ride of more than 16 hours to Mumbai, where my friends Thomas and Filip will be arriving on the same day as us...

As always, to be continued....

Tuesday 16 September 2008

Traveling India: Stage 4: Amritsar - Agra - Varanasi

It has been a while since I have been able to blog, but the last week was one of intensive traveling with little time to find a quit internet cafe. Every other night we spend sleeping in a train, sometimes peaceful, sometimes extremely irritated by the unmannerly co-travellers (spitting inside the train, putting Bollywood hits on the cellphone at 7am etc.).

After the theater at the Pakistani border closing ceremony in Attari last week, with a heavily partying Indian site and a small delegation of 3 tourists on the Pakistani side, we took a train from Amritsar to Agra.

at the Pakistani Border in Attari

The Taj Mahal is as magnificient as they say and we both loved it. Our train had 4 hours delay though and upon arrival in Agra, we got to know the Taj Mahal is closed on friday (meaning the next day for us). We kinda had to rush to make it before closing time, but still wondered around the taj for more than an hour and had a great view from our guesthouse rooftop afterwards. We also got to see the Taj in the pouring rain :)

Except for the Taj Mahal and the Fort, Agra looks more like a big slum and the Taj Ganj is dirty and congested. In addition sales people, autodrivers and others are very pushy and annoying. We got what we came for, the Taj and the fort, and left in the evening for Varanasi.

Varanasi, formerly known as Benares, is the most sacred place for Hindus and life here evolves around the sacred Ganges river. We took a guesthouse right next to the Mani karnika burning ghat, so we actually smelled the whole time some bbq smell (of bodies being cremated). The tiny streets near the river are so small that no traffic can go through, yet cows are blocking the alleys everywhere, filling them with their fresh 'packages'. Very nice to walk on slippers here...

The next morning we took a boat ride along all the ghats. It's a colourful and lively combination of people washing, swimming, drinking, praying, and offering in and from the Ganges. We also took a close look at the burning ghat and saw bodies being cremated and blessed with water from the Ganges. Parts that do not burn, such as hips and some other bones are disposed in the river. Holy men, sadhus, pregnant woman and children are just thrown in the river, their bodies are supposed to be pure already so don't need to be burned. In the same river, 100m further people are drinking andf washing their clothes...pretty strange. Yet, the rowing guy of our boat ensured us that the Ganges is a very clean river!

manikarnika burning ghat & people washing 100m further

Now we are in Jaipur, Rajasthan the desert state. We have to visit some stuff still, but tonight we are already leaving for Udaipur. I guess I'll talk about that later...

Till the next one!


Wednesday 10 September 2008

Travelling India: Stage 3: Dharmsala - Amritsar

From the cold mountain air we have been catapulted into the heat of the Indian planes again, by means of one of the most horrible bus rides till now. The only bus from Dharmsala to Amritsar is a public bus, leaving at 5 am in the morning. Together with a bunch of Israeli backpackers we threw our stuff on the roof of the bus. Though the driver ensured us no attachment was needed, I was fearing all the way long that I would see my backpack flying past the window after hitting yet another hole in the road. In the morning we were freezing in the bus and after some hours we were sweating like pigs. The temperature change is enormous and we both have a serious cough now. In addition, one of the girls (of a huge bunch of noisy kids) threw up on me while I was asleep. She actually threw up out of the window but the wind blew everything on my lap..yummie. My mood was defintely ruined for the rest of the ride after that, as you can imagine.

Luckely after our arrival in Amritsar, a small Indian city (only 1 million people) in Punjab, we got what we came for: The Golden Temple. This Guru Dwara is the holiest place for Sikhs, the ones that are commonly known in Europe for their turbans and look like the stereotype of Indians for many abroad. The temple is absolutely amazing, entrance is free and we strolled around for a while. After dinner we returned to see the temple at night, even more beautiful and a very relaxing place for a late night walk. All this made up for the bad bus experience earlier that day and we are both very glad to have made it here.

This afternoon we are going to the Pakistani border in the back of an open jeep to see the border closing ceremony with Pakistani and Indian soldiers. Hope I will be able to tell you about that later;)

Indian quality Internet doesn't allow me to upload pictures for be continued

Monday 8 September 2008

Travelling India: Stage 2: Manali - McLeod Ganj - Dharmshala

As our travels are continuing, we found ourselves deeper in the Himalayas after a 10 hour bus ride through crazy, rough, and beautiful scenery and arrived in Manali. This little mountain station is a popular place for backpackers going further trekking into the Himalayas, but equally attracts Indian honeymooners. To avoid those last group of people we went 2,5 km further up to Old Manali, the backpackers area full of cheap places to stay, bars and restaurants. The first day was more or less spoiled by rain, but the second day in Manali we ventured out and walked several miles through the surrounding hills. Very relaxing, a lot of fresh air and ice cold during the night.

After 2 days Manali, we took an overnight bus to McLeod Ganj, the official place of the Tibetian Governement in exile and the current home of the 14th Dalai Lama. The ride was horrible and after very few moments of sleep we arrived at 4:30am. Of course no guesthouse is open by that time so we found ourselves on the street, roaming around in the middle of the freezing night. Eventually an early autodriver took us somehere to stay, though crappy and distant from the town, we grabbed our chance.

After barely 6 hours sleep we checked out and decided to stay in Dharmshala, the town underneath McLeod Ganj (where the Dalai Lama originally found refuge) and close to the bus station to catch the only bus to Amritsar: public transport bus leaving from Dharmsala tomorrow at 4:30 am, another short night. Anyway, McLeod Ganj is a really nice place and we walked both up and down the 10km from Dharmsala to Mc Leod, enjoying nice views, spotting multitudes of Tibetian monks and stopping here and there for coffee and water along the way.

The 'Free Tibet' atmosphere is omnipresent and apparantly already more than 250,000 Tibetian refugees have found their way to Mc Leod and surroundings, many of them by foot from Tibet itself. Noisy Israeli's and devoted monks go side by side here, but in the end it's a little bit of Tibet in India. Interesting.

Tomorrow we are leaving the high planes and going to Amritsar in the Punjab...nice perspectives again!

See ya!

Saturday 6 September 2008

Pictures of Stage 1: Chennai-Delhi-Shimla

As promised the pictures of our first stages of our journey through India. The first pictures are the most recent ones.

View over Himalaya valley from toy train. Kalka-Shimla

The toy train from Kalka to Shimla

Sunrise over the mountains

Monkeys in Shimla

Monkeys at the Monkey temple in Shimla

Jama Masjid Mosque, Old Delhi

Old Delhi, crazy traffic

Presidential Home by sunset, Delhi.

Raj Ghat, where Mahatma Ghandi was cremated

Thursday 4 September 2008

Travelling India, Stage 1: Chennai - Delhi- Shimla

My first travel blog post, right from an Internet cafe in the Himalayas...


After an early morning flight to Delhi, from Chennai, we arrived early and with plenty of time to explore Delhi for the day. Old Delhi looks even worse than Chennai, with more people, more traffic, more beggars and more street kids harrassing people. Luckely their historic buildings like the Red Fort ad the Jama Mashid, India's biggest mosque, make up for it and I'm glad I've seen it. We then headed to the Raj Ghat, the place where Mahatma Ghandi was cremated, surrounded by beautiful parks. We made acquintance with one of the guards, a really young and cool guy patrolling in the park. As he posed his semi automic machine gun next to my backpack, we smoked a cigarette together and chatted away for at least half an hour. A nice change compared to the Tamil Police...

New Delhi surely is more modern, though I must have overestimated it. The metro system is impressive but once you get out of it you are undoubtedly back in India. Modern buildings looking nice from far away but that's about it. I also have the impression that Bangalore is even more modern than New Delhi, at least comparing both 'modern' places...

In the evening we made a long walk on the promenade linking the Presidential Home with the Gate of India, and walked around the 'Government Area' to finally head back to Old Delhi for our first overnight train....

Delhi- Kalka- Shimla

From Delhi we took an overnight train to Kalka. In Kalka we immediately boarded on the toy train towards Shimla, at 5 in the morning, allowing us to enjoy the sunrise over the early Himalaya Hills, great! Shimla itself was once the summer retreat of the British governement in Delhi and that's pretty obvious here. Though it's definetely gone glory, Shimla remains charming with its rather European look. We are at 2000m here and the town also has a monkey plague, meaning there are monkeys everywhere, from the mainstreet to our own hotel window. The monkeys (in addition of some Indians) harras tourists and even steel stuff. We observed how a poor sadhu got ripped of his chapatis by one of the hairy creatures....

After a long night of sleeping, today we walked uphill to see the monkey temple on top of the hill. To keep monkeys at a safe distance they rent out sticks for 5Rs, though not really necessary.

We also booked some more tickets to Manali, Amritsar, Agra, Varanasi and Jaipur, hope I'll be able to keep you all updated, with pictures next time!