Posted by: glenswatman | April 19, 2011

20110401-10 INDIA

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FRIDAY 1 APRIL 2011 – Manage to find a cheap Internet café, Rs20 (30p) hour then continue into Aberdeen Bazaar for lunch.
PORT BLAIR, AASHIAANA RESIDENCY – http://www.aashianaresidencyinn.com

SATURDAY 2 APRIL – Our rickshaw arrives at 9.30am to go the airport, Rs100. It is a pleasantly clean and quiet airport with interesting security. You can take through a full bottle of water providing you take the top off and give it to them and take a sip, but a European guy quickly finished his and crushed the bottle waiting the throw it away, he was not allowed to take that through! On our Kingfisher flight to Chennai we again get the exit seats with extra leg room. At Chennai airport we quickly pass through to the departures hall where everyone is glued to the TV screens. India is playing Sri Lanka in the cricket finals. The Indians are surprisingly restrained each time India take a wicket by just giving a gentle hand clap. Our 6.30pm Indigo flight has a slightly more comfortable aircraft than Kingfisher but as they charge Rs1500 (£23) extra for an exit seat we pass. During the flight the Captain keeps everyone informed on the latest scores. Delhi airport is well organised and we buy a voucher for a pre paid taxi to our hosts home, Rs115 (£165). You stand by a numbered stop until the cab arrives but the first one doesn’t know where we want to go and drives off. A Policeman helps us and convinces the next one to take us and he knows the district but has to keep stopping to ask directions. Our address is B8/21 and when he sees a big block of apartments and B8 he says that is it. We believe him and get out only to find that this is purely B8 and 21 is a few blocks away. Phoning our host we are very happy the Anita offers to drive out and pick us up as it dark and starting to rain. Anil and Anita live in a very good district favoured by many of the smaller country embassies. We realise how safe it is when we see a young girl out jogging alone. As soon as we arrive at their home we join Anil in watching the last part of the cricket. India manages a great win. The minute the match is over people are out on the street setting of fire crackers. Anita says it will be just like the festival of lights.
DELHI, VASANT VIHAR

SUNDAY 3 APRIL – Anil and Anita have suggested we do a city tour and phone and book it with Rao. Anita cooks us a delicious breakfast of toasted tomato and onion sandwiches and porridge. The tour office is just a short walk away which is perfect. Rs300 (£4.50) gives us a day out and 8 sights. Traffic is light and everywhere seems very well organised and much cleaner than other cities. Qutub Minar is the biggest minaret in the world but with Rs10 admission for Indians and Rs250 for us we are content to view from outside the fence. The Lotus temple is amazing, a huge temple shaped like a lotus flower surrounded by ponds. When we enter we are surprised to find the seats made of cold hard marble. Highlight of the day, and in fact so far in India is the gigantic and extravagant Akshardham Temple. Inaugurated in 2005 it took over 1000 workers less than 5 years to build. The pink sandstone and white marble building has virtually every surface carved, over 20,000 deities, and around the bottom of the temple huge elephants in different scenes. Unfortunately you cannot take cameras inside so we make do with buying and then photographing a few postcards. Raj Ghat is where Ghandi was cremated and a marble plinth and flame mark the spot. There’s a lunch stop at a canteen but all the other coach loads are there and it is mental. We opt for snacking on street food and are glad we did when we hear one of the ladies on our bus had her bag stolen during lunch. Head off to the enormous arch of India Gate where the surrounding grass is home to numerous cricket games. Kid’s splash about in the pools and everyone is enjoying the park. Birla Mandir is a different style temple followed up by the Nehru museum. Nehru was educated at Harrow and became first prime minister of India. The last museum is dedicated to his daughter Indira Ghandi and includes a special glass path marking the spot where she was assassinated. It’s almost prophetic that her speech the previous day started with the lines “I am here today; I may not be here tomorrow.” The 9-hour tour comes to a close and we have been very impressed with our first foray into Delhi, I know we have been cosseted in an air-conditioned bus and have probably been in some of the better areas but it has still been really good. When we get back we speak to Anis about what we have seen and he gets out an Atlas and gives us a history lesson explaining the development of the different types of buildings.
DELHI 2, VISANT VIHAR

MONDAY 4 APRIL – Anita works as a teacher and leaves early whilst semi-retired Anil stays home. With Internet we book some things for our onwards trip. Mid morning we set out on our sightseeing tour. Anita has told us exactly how to get to the bus station on the main road and an Rs5 (7p) ride in a very rickety old bus gets us to the Metro station. The metro was upgraded and extended for the commonwealth games and is excellent. We buy tokens, Rs12 (18p) each, pass a quick security check then head to the trains. The on board map is excellent as it has lights showing exactly where the train is. Safdarjang’s Tomb (Rs100, £1.50) is old and run down but in many ways looks like a poor man’s version of the Taj Mahal. It is Mughal architecture and very ornate and frothy but there is little to see inside and with hindsight we should have saved our money and just looked from outside the grounds. Nearby Lodi Gardens are lovely. A peaceful grassy oasis with lots of old tombs scattered around. Now I am not talking little tombs like we have but more of the big buildings with tombs inside. Leaving the park Steve puts his hand on a gate to find the green paint is wet. Luckily a rickshaw driver helps out with some petrol on a cloth, and then offers to drive us to our next destination for Rs100, he quickly comes down to Rs50. Humayun’s Tomb (Rs250, £3.75) is dedicated to the Emperor and as well as the main building has numerous others in the grounds. Another very impressive site an apparently there are even better on our up and coming trip, how many wow’s can we take? Our journey back is less easy as the bus up Lodi Road decides to turn off leaving us in the middle of nowhere but the walk does us good. Anita is home in the afternoon and we have a nice chat about different life styles and customs and realise how different some things are to down south.
DELHI 3, VISANT VIHAR

TUESDAY 5 APRIL – Bus and metro quickly take us to Chandi Chowk bazaar area. This is a congested section of the city with lots of vendors and street life including people delivering barrows full of rubbish to be sorted through. Needless to say it doesn’t smell great. We walk through until we reach the Red Fort, (RS250, £3.75) a very impressive structure. Inside there are many building to wander around and lots of grassy areas. Rather than put up with the hassle in Chandi Chowk we take a cycle rickshaw to the mosque. The driver immediately agrees an Rs20 (30p) fare and although it is a short distance he has to work hard with lots of stops and starts and rough patches of road. Certainly would not want to go far in one as the seat is very hard and you get jostled around. The largest mosque in India has an impressive location with good views of the fort but little else of interest. Nearby Karims is a very famous restaurant tucked away down a side alley. They have expanded into 3 different buildings and are popular with locals and tourists. Their speciality is kebabs and mutton dishes and their roti are in such demand they are in continuous production. Our cycle rickshaw ride to the metro takes us past an area with all the shops selling engineering products and then another with paper products. The wonderful metro takes us right to Akshardham temple that we visited on Sunday but want to see more off. Today there are fewer visitors which is good as we can’t leave our camera on the bus and must check it in. The procedure is very thorough as you have to list items on a form then they take your photograph, put the items in a numbered bag and give you a numbered token. This time we buy the tickets for the 3 additional attractions, (Rs170, £2.50). First we are processed Disney style through a number of theatres where each one has animatronics figures telling the life story of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, a child yogi who left home aged 11 and walked all over India enlightening people. From this we go on a 15 minute boat ride through time going back over 10,000 years of Indian culture, just missing the “Small World” music. Finally a huge screen theatre gives the full life story of Neelkanth Darsham (same person but different name). After this we still have time to walk around more of the site, follow the whole elephant story around the temple plinth and admire many more sculptures in the garden. This really wins our vote as the best attraction we have seen to date. When we get back to the house Anita has a meal ready for us and invites their Auntie to join us. Auntie’s children live in America and she is just waiting for her Green Card. Later on we have time to chat a bit more to Anita and Anil.
DELHI 4, VISANT VIHAR

WEDNESDAY 6 APRIL – Anita and Anil get up to see us off around 6am. We head off to Nizamuddin railway station in a metered taxi and for once are pleased that the drivers push ahead quickly. The fare is just short of Rs300 (£4.50). At the station booking office I suddenly realise that by mistake in the half light I gave the taxi driver 2 x RS100 plus 1 x RS500 note – ouch. In this station there are 3 lines, Indian men, Indian women and tourists. First we you queue to get a request form. Having filled this there’s a different queue to hand it in and buy your ticket. We buy A/C seats on the Taj Express to Agra in UTTER PRADISH, leaving at 7.10am, Rs241 (£3.60). They are not reserved seats and when the train arrives we take empty seats but keep finding they belong to someone. With some help we find out there is a list on the train door showing the available seats. 3-hours later we arrive to the mayhem of Agra. Touts surround us before we have stepped out of the station. Having checked the price of the pre-paid rickshaws we agree the same Rs50 fare with Vic who takes us to our hotel. Frustratingly he parks nearby then spends ages trying to sell us tours with him. I have a migraine, upset stomach and feel hot and sick so leave Steve to it. Hotel Sidhartha is an oasis of peace, the road outside is closed to cars and they have a lovely grass garden inside. Our room is pleasant, clean and has a TV. I try to have a nap whilst Steve sits in the garden but someone accidentally tries to enter our room and wakes me up. We set out to explore and waiting at the end of the street is Vic. He insists on talking through his tour offer again but we insist we only want to see “Itimad-Ud-Daulah” (baby Taj) as I am still not feeling well. Eventually come to an agreement of Rs250 for 2 sights. Needless to say they are not as far away as he made out. Baby Taj, (Rs110) is a more delicate and smaller version of the Taj Mahal and was built earlier. Vic also takes us to Mehtab Bagh where you can walk down to the riverbank and get a view of the back of the Taj Mahal. We’ve seen photos taken from here with beautiful reflections in the river but the river level is now so low you just see muddy banks full of water buffalo, but the building is still impressive. The whole trip only takes 1 1/4hours and we know we have overpaid but today feel too hassled to be bothered. In the evening we walk to nearby Shanti Lodge Restaurant where you can see the Taj Mahal from their rooftop restaurant. Everywhere you walk here you are assaulted by street kids and vendors and it is nonstop noise, hassle and bad smells so it is good to be above it. We have a good view although the sunset is nothing special and we are a little disappointed to see that the building is not lit up at night. We back track to a lower rooftop restaurant “Join Us” and end up sitting with Yorkshire couple Sue & Chris who are great company. The food is very cheap and they even serve beer so we have a good time.
AGRA, HOTEL SIDHARTHA, Rs520 Non A/c room with TV

THURSDAY 7 APRIL – We get up at 5.30am again and walk to the west entrance. Tourists pay Rs750 (£10.75) admission versus the local price of Rs20 (30p) but for the extra we get ½ litre water, a small map and some socks to put over our shoes to save removing them to enter the building – bargain. There are no surprises as the Taj Mahal looks exactly like the pictures. Having arrived early we are able to get a few photos without too many other people on and also to get to the side of the building to see the sunrise over the Taj Mahal. It really is magnificent and each angle looks different. As the sun rises we move to the other side and can see the jewelled inlays sparkling. We take dozens of picture as it is just so beautiful with the clear blue sky behind it. As we are leaving Steve says, “Well I can die happy now I have completed my bucket list”, hope his words are not as prophetic as Indira Ghandi’s. The streets of Backpakistan, (Taj Ganj) area are lined with the cheapest eateries we have seen so far. Gulshan Restaurant has Rs15 (22p) breakfast consisting of coffee/tea, 4 slices of toast and butter, omelette and fresh fruit and has to be the cheapest but doesn’t look so clean so we upgrade to the Rs25 (37p) breakfast next door. We visit Agra Fort railway station to buy our onward tickets and have already filled in the request form to bypass one queue. In fact there are no queues at all but we still have to wait whilst the booking officer works his way down a computer list of names ticking them off against his sheet before stopping to serve. Walk around the edge of Agra Fort to the entrance. Our Taj Mahal tickets give us an Rs50 discount making it Rs250 (£3.75) admission. The outside walls are fancier than Delhi Fort and inside the rooms are more complete and grander. It is also a good spot to get distance shots of the Taj Mahal. Our early start has paid off as we are back in the room just after mid day and out of the intense heat. We opt for a different roof top restaurant for sundowners but again it is a non event.
AGRA 2, HOTEL SIDHARTHA

FRIDAY 8 APRIL – Today we get an Rs25 (37p) breakfast next to yesterdays spot, this time with the addition of a banana, amazingly good value. The Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays so our rickshaw driver tries to talk us into using him to go all the way to Fatehpur Sikri instead of just to the bus station. We have opted not to do the fully organised tour in an air conditioned bus for Rs300 each so laugh when he asks for Rs800 (£12). He then tells us the local bus does not go to F.S. but stops 2km away. Luckily our trusty Lonely Planet says otherwise. At the bus station we board a rickety local bus to F.S. It takes half an hour to clear the massive urban area of Agra and then 45 minutes through countryside with lots of crop fields. Water buffalo wander around and their droppings are collected, made into patties and put to dry. Once dry the patties are piled up in a circular dome shape and when this is as high as they can reach they cover it in fresh soft dung to preserve it for the winter. Fatehpur Sikri is mental as you have to walk through the narrow street bazaar then up even narrower side streets to reach the monument on the hill (a few hundred yards and not 2km). The town is famous for “khataie” biscuits and we stumble upon a bakery and buy fresh ones at Rs5 (7p) each. They are very light and sugary and have an underlying spicy after taste. At the mosque we fend off the vendors only to be accosted by a guide. He insists he is a religious person and doesn’t want paying and proceeds to take us on a tour. The highlight is the central white marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti. Akbar visited this saint hoping for and being granted a son so today childless women visit and tie a thread to the “jail” (intricate fancy concrete “windows”). We are taken to an area where vendors sell marble trinkets made in our guide’s village but decline to buy as they are all heavy however we are happy to give him a small tip for his time. The ancient fortified capital city and palace complex (Rs250, £3.75) was only used for 14 years until Akbar died. He had 3 wives of different religions and each had their own individual home with appropriate architecture. However it was built in an area with no water and abandoned after Akbar died. Today the inner palaces and buildings are in good shape whilst the surrounding ones are falling apart and being taken over by weeds. Even some of the inner buildings have been adopted by bats. We amble around admiring the unusual buildings for a couple of hours. Early evening we return to “Join Us” for a meal and are greeted like long lost family. Whilst sitting on the roof top we hear a band and see a procession coming down the street. They are letting off fireworks and coloured smoke and carrying something decorated. We hasten to take photos until the parade is directly underneath us and we realise we are looking down into an open coffin, oops.
AGRA 3, HOTEL SIDHARTHA

SATURDAY 9 APRIL – During breakfast we overlook the rickshaw stand and are amazed to see 2 families plus children and luggage all fit into one. A Police vehicle parks up and proceeds to deliver breakfast to the guards at the fort. Predictably our train is delayed, by almost 2-hours. Meanwhile just sitting at the station is entertainment. A cheeky monkey pinches a packet of crisps from one of the stalls and races across the train track with them. The vendor chases after him and when the monkey drops the packet the crisps fall out. The vendor picks them up in his shirt and takes them back to eat. When trains pull in people race to the water taps to fill up their bottles, it is a real scrum with people fighting for position, there is never enough time so we see many leaving it to the last minute then racing down the platform to jump back onto the moving train. Our tickets (Rs368, £5.50 ) are in 2nd class sleeper with allocated seat numbers. When we board the train we find the compartment is full with a family. We explain we have 2 seats reserved and they send their father and his friend back to cattle class then the 2 parents and 4 children shuffle together. We end up with 4 of us sharing a bench meant for3 but it is not too bad. The man likes to chat. He is a Muslim man working for the railways and gets free passage. Today they are on an 18-hour journey to have a 2 week holiday with friends. I offer the children some sweets and they are too shy to take them but I leave them on the table and they soon disappear. The family offer us some tasty homemade biscuits. I walk along the train to check out the toilet facilities as we will have to use this type of carriage for a future overnight journey. The first few carriages only have Indian toilets which are tolerable but when I find the Western toilet I can barely open the door a couple of inches before the stench pushes me back. I ask the ticket inspector where I can buy bottled water and he says nowhere to buy things on the train but we will be stopping in 15 minutes. At the station Steve makes a dash along the platform to the shop. No sooner have we set off again than the vendors start to come round selling, yes you’ve guessed it bottled water plus tea, coffee and soft drinks. Arrive at Sawai Madhopur, RAJASTHAN, and phone our hotel who arranges a rickshaw, (Rs50, 75p). It is after 6pm and starting to get dark so we are really hoping our chosen hotel will be OK. Hotel Aditya Resort is more than OK and our room has been recently painted, is nice and clean, and has comfortable mattresses and the staff friendly and helpful. Tomorrow we are going on a safari and need to pick up the tickets so take a walk to check out where. Ranthambhore Road is long, has hotels, small shops and restaurants scattered along and very dark with no street lighting but we manage to find the ticket office and find it is open at 5am. Our information tells us our tour leaves at 5.30am and we must collect the tickets no later than 45 minutes before that! We eat at the hotel then settle in for an early night.
SAWAI MADHOPUR, HOTEL ADITYA RESORT, RS450 (£6.75) Non A/C with TV – http://www.adityaresort.com

SUNDAY 10 APRIL – We get up at 4.15am to be at the ticket office when it opens. On the Internet we paid Rs478 each but must pay a further Rs330 vehicle rent plus guide fee Rs16 a total of Rs 824 (£12). There is a large crowd of people waiting for the gates of the ticket office to open. Many people book the safari tickets through their hotels, which charge upwards from Rs500 for the service, who send staff to collect the tickets. Luckily for us someone pulls us to one side and takes us to a different window where we are served instantly. We are in a 16 seater canter, a sort of high up topless truck with forward facing seats. It leaves at 6am then goes around picking people up at their hotels. Ranthambhore National Park opens at 6am it is almost 7am before we arrive which will no doubt reduce our chances of seeing things. The park is famous for tigers but due to the high number of visitors and over 50 vehicles a day they have sectioned it into different areas and allocate a small number of vehicles to each section, ours is section 1. The tracks are narrow and bumpy and at once stage our driver does not have the right gear to get us up a hill. He stalls the vehicle then tries to back down but manages to scrape a tree, knock off the wing mirror and nearly have us tip over the embankment. We see two different types of deer, quite a few nice birds, a leopard footprint and some nice scenery during our 2 ½ hours in the park but won’t be returning for the evening safari as we had originally planned. It’s very hot here and there is little else to do so we just sit in the shade on the roof terrace.
SAWAI MADHOPUR 2, HOTEL ADITYA RESORT

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