It’s been a hectic few weeks, with lots of lessons being learned.9 On the 20th of September we flew from Manchester to Delhi arriving at 2am. The guest house we had booked was OK, but in a dingy neighborhood described by the Lonely Planet as; downright seedy with a reputation for drugs and shady characters. This did little to dampen the culture shock.
When we got out of bed the manager of Hostel New King acted very shocked and worried about our lack of train bookings. He offered us a free lift to the travel agents. On the way we stopped for breakfast, bread may have been better but the curry definitely didn’t feel like it was going to stay down. The travel agent turned out to be a very pushy man hidden by a caring and professional facade. Proclaiming that our intended plans wouldn’t work he offered to organise a month long tour for us. A bit taken aback by his claims of fully booked trains and Indian holidays we let him do this. He asked for a crazy amount of money and we refused straight away, trying to cling on to a respectable level freedom and low budget travel. After two more propositions we gave in and agreed to an itinerary. This decision has plagued our minds with regret for the last few weeks.
Back in England the prospect of no plan was exciting, however in hindsight a well thought out plan would have protected us from a con like this. The speed at which it all happened was also a large contributing factor. If we had spent more on I our first nights accommodation and taken our time getting used to the crazyness of Delhi we may have been able to avoid the trap.
Anyway, having paid for it we decided to try our best to enjoy the luxuries we would have not chosen on our own. We spent the rest of the afternoon sightseeing in Delhi, India Gate, Hanumans Tomb, The lotus flower of Bags’I House of Worship.
The next day we flew to Srinagar in Kashmir. The first two nights were to be spent on the House Boat Fairyland. Which was super posh with 100 year old furniture and testemonials from the first president of India! The family were very kind and cooked amazing food but sadly they made us feel a bit trapped. They were insistent that it was too dangerous for us to walk around town by ourselves, supposedly the American video insulting Muhammad has caused such outrage that we would have rocks thrown at us…… unless we were protected by the owners 14 year old nephew…… We wanted to get up in the mountains their suggestion of a trek was appealing but the requirement of 4 ponies a guide a cook and a ponie man was about as appealing as the £400 price tag.
On the second day we went for a walk up a nearby hill (accompanied by our 14 year old body guard and his 2 mates) At first they covered ground rapidly and Rachel and I were worried that we would get burned off. Luckily it turned out that they were using the classic Asian sprint tactic that can so often be seen in the annual cross country run in school PE lessons. They soon tired and we took the lead :).
The Hindu temple at the top was nice and the views of the urban sprawl were hazy but good. On the way back to the boat we tried to loose our body guards and get a second opinion what to do for the remaining (and crucially unplanned) 6 days we had in Kashmir. Sadly we were denied the privilege until later that evening when our persistent nagging got the better of them. We made friends with some shop keepers who told us how to get to the mountains like the locals do, and where to find cheap accommodation.
The next day was the day our boat captors were to set us free on the 6 unplanned days of our trip to Kashmir. Sadly Rachel was I’ll and I was sent out to find a cheap room. On my return some medication had been able to pause Rachels illness long enough for us to escape the House Boat and catch two shared taxis 100km to the mountain village of Pahalgam, for the cost of Rs 130 each. We found a lovely little guest house next to the river for only Rs 250 per night.
The next two days were spent relaxing and exploring the village and surroundings. We were keen to get higher up but all of the longer treks required ponies which increased the cost and was against our trekking ethics. It seems that although the Indians don’t have as many luxury items as us they feel the need to enjoy then wherever they are. For example: Instead of foregoing warm food for one night while on a climb an Indian will hire 2 ponies to carry a full size gas canister as well as the gas stove from his own kitchen with the required extras of a family size teapot and full on cooking pots. We avoided this but only by camping next to a Gypsy house and asking them to heat our food and make us tea. Rachel was still ill on the trek so I carried our tent and the thick heavy blanket that would be our roll mat. Only three ours of walking on the first day, but the gradient and pace was a killer. We relaxed all afternoon at about 2500m I drank tea with the gypsies while Rachel lay in bed feeling ill. We managed to grab some nice photos of the fire and the valley as well as of the gypsies warming our soup. I’ll put them up if I get to a computer.
The second day of the ‘trek’ began at 7am and more gypsie tea. A very steep incline was a nasty way to wake up, luckily we left all the heavy stuff in the tents. The steep forest spat us out in an amazingly beautiful (and flat) hanging valley with a classic frothy beck running through an alpine meadow littered with boulders and the occasional marmot. At the head of this valley came a steep loose slog up a moraine bank for about an hour, we then emerged at Tulian Lake. Mehraj (the guide) said the lake wasn’t that high, only 3500m. After a rest and some pictures we headed down, soon we were back at the tents. After packing up and some lunch the gypsies came out and asked for gifts, Mehraj was well prepared and gave them a fleece some chocolate and a blanket, all we had was some left over bread and about Rs40. They didn’t look too happy when they saw Rachel’s bight marks in one of the breads. With heavy sacks we descended through the forest popping in to see some more of Mehraj’s nomad friends. We got some good views of the Kashmir valley and an unexpected view of rich Indians zorbing in Baisarn meadow. We were pretty shattered when we finally arrived at the guest house.
We had one more day of relaxing before the return sumo rides back to Srinagar and our flight back to the heat of Delhi.
We stayed one night in Delhi in a very posh hotel, much posher than we would chose ourselves but we weren’t going to complain now that its all ready paid for. We met some Norwegian girls while we ate dinner, they too had been trapped by an expensive package selling agent. However they seemed to have spent more and be more at home with the luxuries than ourselves. They had private drivers for over a month and thought that it was wonderful. We had protested against having a driver wanting an experience that was closer to genuine backpacking with lower cost and more freedom. We had grudgingly agreed to having a driver for 6 days and we weren’t happy about the prospect.
The next day our driver picked us up and we collected our hotel vouchers and train tickets before setting off on the 5 hour drive to Agra. Agra was nice we found a good bookshop and some delicious and cheap street food. We got up early to see the Taj Mahal before the heat and the crowds. It was much better than I had expected, I’ve never been a fan of looking at things but this managed to keep my interest. Back to the hotel for a dissapointing breakfast of stale toast and warm cornflakes before a 7 hour drive to Pushka.
We stayed 2 nights in Pushka, it’s a small town with high religious importance for Hindu’s and also very touristy. The locals have many scams with which to attack the tourist. The most persistent and common are the boys giving out flowers to throw into the holy lake. They say its free but as soon as the petles hit the water they ask for a donation, we were wise to this scam and refused to take the flowers, they didn’t like this saying that we were disrespectful and that we should ‘go back to London’. Pushka is one big bazaar catering for the traveler. Hundreds of shops selling hippy pants, sandals, bags, incense and other souvenirs. With all this temptation (and added competition between shops)we did buy quite a lot, it was fun topping up our haggling skills. The hardest part was posting stuff home, the confusing postal system should mean that every postal place charges the same, but they use its confusion to scam you.
After Pushka we headed to Jaipur, there wasn’t much to do here other than sight seeing wooo so exciting. The hotel was also situated in a very touristy spot with no cheap places to eat which was slightly annoying so again we opted for Chinese food (somehow it seems to be the cheapest on every menu). Our final (2nd) day in Jaipur started with an argument with the driver who was psyched to go home. Given that we had paid for him we argued that he should technically drive us around until our train at 11:30pm he begrudgingly took us to the post office and a fort before we said our farewells. Walking around with big bags sucked and the heat (37 degrees) was energy sapping which put us both in a foul mood. That day was the only day we refused the hordes of creepy locals who asked to take our picture, it didn’t stop them taking one anyway. Rachels protests of putting her book infront of her face when they got out their camera was quite funny and brightened my mood.
After wasting a few hours we decided to go to the famous Raj Mandir cinema and watch a Hindi film. In the ticket que there was some classic Indian pushing but we eventually got tickets to see ‘English Vinglish’. Before it started we tried the Indian version of Dominoes. At about a third of the price of the English version I think they have done OK. The film itself was good, as the title suggests there was a lot more English than the average Hindi film but also a lot less dancing. The most interesting thing about the experience wasn’t the film but the audience. Gone was the hushed silence, turn your phone off politeness of England. Clapping and cheering and noisy chomping, as well as the sea of glowing mobile phone screens made for a much more vibrant atmosphere.
After the film we were invited for Chai with a puppet sellers uncle. He had a very nice shop with lots of puppets and lots of stories. He played us a mini puppet show, and then came the inevitable guilt tripping sales pitch involving I need to pay for electricity, I need to feed my family, I am poor man. This situation is all to common and fades away the hope that there are genuinly nice people in India. He even made the cheeky offer to swap a puppet for Rachels phone, proclaiming that we can get one easily in England…… I did quite like the puppets so eventually bought a couple for a third of what he wanted.
The sleeper train to Jaisalmer, was good and the gentle rocking motion was nice, waking up with a random guy sat on my legs was less good. Jaisalmer is in the middle of the desert with an impressive fort. Our hotel was very nice with a lovely swimming pool which we used to the fullest to escape the heat of the desert. The fort was nice, its one of the last remaining forts that is inhabited and the small winding alleyways are nice (until a motorbike or cow tries to run you over) sadly the tourism boom has sent food prices sky high, after a long search and a friendly local we managed to find Thali for Rs50.
After one night in the hotel we went on a camel safari! Thankfully it didn’t start until the late afternoon when the temperature wasn’t quite so killer. We were driven by jeep to a desert village where we sat around and chatted with the other safari guests until it was cool enough to leave the shade. The camels were big but surprisingly easy to ride, everyone thought that styrups would have been a massive improvement. We all split up into smaller groups and rode around the scrubland before heading into the sand dunes to watch the sunset. Lots of pictures were taken before we returned to the village for a lovely meal with some desert speciality foods and some local musical entertainment. We were then given the option to sleep in the village in mud huts or go back out into the desert. We opted to sleep in the desert and our bruised bottoms were glad to find out that we were riding on a trailer behind a camel instead of on top of it. Sleeping outside gave an awesome view of the stars and talk of scorpions and snakes made going for a desert dump quite exciting. We woke up at sunrise and headed back to the village for breakfast. The rest of the day was spent escaping the heat, luckily we were aloud to use the hotel facilities until our train to Jodhpur at 11:30.
The train to Jodhpur wasn’t the best partly to the ‘special’ cookie a French guy gave me and the 5am wake up call to get off the train. We somehow managed to get a tuk tuk to the hotel while still half asleep and crashed out immediately. When we woke up we caught our first local bus into the old city for the fraction of the cost of a tuk tuk but at the expense of knowing where the hell we were going. It all turned out OK and we found a delicious omlette stand for lunch. We wondered around the blue painted houses of the old city before chilling in a park. We met a local who had lived in Canada and spoke good English, he helped to translate what all the other locals kept asking us, apparently because we are white they thought we must be staying in the palace, little do they know that we are in more debt than they are likely to earn in 50 years. This nice local suggested that we go to his sisters house the next day and have a meal.
That was yesterday and sadly I’m ill today so am writing this to pass the time while I lay in bed. Rachel has gone off to see the fort and to meet up with Mohammad and visit his sister.
This was a very brief overview of the last 3 weeks, we have another 12 days in India before Nepal (and freedom from this package). We have an 8 hour bus tomorrow to Udaipur where we will spend 2 days. Then we take a 22 hour train to Kujarahu where we will spend another 2 days before another train to Varanasi and the Ganges for 3 nights and then a final train to Gorakpur near to Nepal.