March 8th, the day I flew home from India was Holi, the festival of Colours. This involves bonfires, throwing coloured powder and general mayhem. I was in the backpacker district of Paharganj and popped out to take some photos. That evening I flew out of India, landing in Sussex on Friday. The next day Holi was celebrated in Richmond. I'd been told about the event by an Indian friend of my Dad's, so went to visit with Vicky and Mr. Spratt. Some photos of the two events are below.
Watch out for snipers:
Celebrations in Richmond:
While the festival is supposed to be fun, a lot of Indians avoid the main celebrations. Like many carnivals, people are less constrained than normal, and some take advantage of this. In the Delhi Times, an article described "a day of harrassment". For what it's worth, Richmond Holi seemed like a more celebratory event.
The bus journey from Pushkar to Rishikesh was quite something. When we left Pushkar, the only passengers were 6 tourists. As we continued through Rajisthan more and more people boarded. I woke in the middle of the night to find a bus with people on every seat, on the roof, and lying on the floor. There must have more than a hundred people crammed into the bus.
Rishkesh was beautiful. The town lines the valley of the Ganges with beautiful mountains either side. I spent most of my time there relaxing and also met up with my friends Caspar and Emily once more.
My favourite place in Rishikesh was the ashram where the Beatles once stayed. The site was abandoned in 1997 and left to grow wild. The derelict buildings and old meditation cells had an incredible mood. I have quite a strong imagination and didn't dare explore some of the dark corridors by myself. Coming back with Caspar and Emily I visited more of the site, taking a lot of photos, the best of which I'll post soon.
I left Rishikesh for Delhi by train, arriving the day before Holi. The festival of colours involves people being covered with coloured dyes (some of which stain people for days afterwards). I set off for the airport in the afternoon, when the celebrations of Holi were calming down. The flight seemed to take ages, particularly the 3 hour stopover in Dubai. It was strange to walk down the central corridor at midnight local time, watching people frantically shopping. I barely slept on the final leg of the flight, to Gatwick, where I was met by my friend Vicky.
Despite the chilly weather, it's good to be back home. As wonderful as the trip was, I have missed Brighton.
I worked out last night that, by the time I reach Delhi again next week, I will have traveled about 6,000 miles overland in India. That's an average of just under 100 miles a day, from Bangalore to Rajasthan to Sikkim and back to Rajasthan. It certainly hasn't felt like that distance, but I have arranged for my last couple of weeks to be more relaxed.
Pushkar is one of India's holiest cities. According to legend, it is the only place where Brahma can be worshiped. The town is based around a lake, with a couple of hill-top temples overlooking it. Last time I was here (for a few hours in 2010) the lake was almost dry, but it currently seems to be full.
Pushkar is a center for travelers, and a lovely place to relax. My friend Vicky suggested a guesthouse called Lake View, which turned out to be superb: comfortable, cool rooms and a rooftop patio overlooking the ghats. I've been taking life easily here, walking to the two hill top temples and eating some fantastic food.
Tonight I'm heading to Rishikesh. I'd hoped to take the train, but I don't seem to be rising up the waiting list, so I will probably fall back on the 17 hour coach ride. It could be a long night. Still, Risikesh is likely to be very relaxed, and my friends Caspar and Emily should be already there when I arrive.
But before I set off, I'm going to have a 'Bowl of Joy' at Honey and Spice.
While Delhi has many centuries of history, Calcutta only became important in the 1700s. This means that there are fewer places to visit and, after a couple of days, Dad and I had seen most of the things we wanted to. We generally took things easy and I ate a lot of pasta and pesto.
Dad headed home from Calcutta and I took the train west to Varanasi. I was a little nervous about Varanasi as the city can be a little unrelenting, but things went smoothly. I was lucky I booked ahead as there was a big Shiva festival and the city was pretty much full (one friend had to stay in a guesthouse owner's home).
Varanasi is the most incredible city I've ever seen. It lines a section of the Ganges, with steps (ghats) down to the water. The ghats are filled with temples, holy men, con artists, drug dealers, cricket games and lots of cows. I spent the afternoons promenading, amazed by the sights around me.
Just back from the riverbank is the old city, a maze of narrow streets (but not so narrow people don't insist on riding motorbikes down them). It's very easy to get lost which is sometimes a good thing, and other times not. There are also some less hectic ghats to the North, where there are fewer tourists and fewer people offering boat rides.
I found out that my friends Emily and Caspar, last seen in Udaipur, were also in the city, so we met up and wandered about together for a while. I don't understand Varanasi very well – the city seems so strange and complicated. But it's an amazing place to visit.
I'd decided to book a 12:40am train out of Varanasi, since that meant I would reach Delhi at a sensible time. The downside of this was 2 1/2 hours waiting on the station. Still, the monkey stealing grapes from a fruit seller was entertaining. The journey itself was a drag and I was glad to reach Paharganj in Delhi. Tomorrow I'm off to Pushkar, which should be interesting and restful.
Sikkim proved to be very restful, despite the cold. It also felt very remote, due to the small population, most of whom are perched on the side of mountains. On the Friday Dad and I took a jeep tour of Western Sikkim, the highlight of which was Khecheopalri lake. Legend claims that should a leaf land on the lake's surface, a bird will land to take it away. It was an incredibly peaceful place, prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.
Saturday I went for a hike of about 12 miles to visit the Rani Dhunga, a cave near Pelling. The trek was harder than I anticipated, and I was shocked at my heartrate for most of it. Much to my shame, there were people climbing the same trail with 50kg bags of concrete.
After Sikkim we returned to Darjeeling. The mountains there were still hidden by clouds and we spent much of the time resting. On Tuesday we took shared jeep down from the mountain then an overnight train to Calcutta.
Calcutta is a calmer city than I expected, and fairly easy to get around. So far I've visited the main museum (I am becoming a connisseur of bad taxidermy) and took an epic hike to the sculptor's district, walking back along the banks of the river. I'm here for a couple more nights then I say goodbye to Dad before setting off on my journey back West via Varanasi.
Having been away for so long, I'm missing certain home comforts. I was very glad to find Raj's Spanish Cafe, which serves pasta and pesto. It was so good last night that I'm going to have the same thing again tonight.
The Shimla-Delhi road is as-featured-on-TV, namely on Ice Road Truckers: World's Most Dangerous Highways Season 1. It may well have been a little bit hairy but I had my eyes tightly closed so that I didn't throw up from the constant turns. I was very pleased when we arrived on flat ground.
From Delhi we took a day-trip to Agra, which lived down to its reputation for touts but was still an amazing day. We went intentionally on a Friday, since we didn't want to visit inside the Taj. Instead we went to Fatepur Sikri, an amazing ruined city which surpassed expectations – I actually preferred it to the Taj itself. We took our mandatory view of you-know-what from the Mehtab Bagh across the river, where there were only a few people taking photos.
The 26 hour journey from Dehli to New Jalapguri (the mainline station closest to Darjeeling) turned out to be, in fact, 22 hours including delays. The downside of this was that I started falling ill with a bad cold. We decided to head straight to Darjeeling rather than wait overnight in New Jalpaguri or Kurseong, and arrived a day early.
Sadly Darjeeling is wreathed in clouds, so none of the mountains I remember from my last trip are there. However, it was good to return to Hotel Tranquillity to recuperate, even if the town was very cold. While Darjeeling's temperature is higher than Brighton right now, the hotel doesn't have heating, so we are relying on hot water bottles and many layers of clothes.
From Darjeeling, we took a shared Jeep to Sikkim. The shared jeeps are a little like that game of how many people can you fit in a mini. I think 8-9 people would fit comfortably. At one point we had 14 people (two of them hanging on the back). The road to Sikkim was tiny, a single-track mountainside dirt road in places. By the time we arrived it was raining (the first rain I've seen this year) and the power was out in the hotel. Still it was a relief to reach Pelling after 6 hours of travel, even if it did feel a little like a horror movie.
Today I've visited a couple of beautiful Buddhist monasteries, both of which involved lots of climbing. The mountains nearby put in a brief appearance about 7am, but have been hidden by clouds since. Still, at least it's warmer. I think we're going to spend a few days here, and pray for clear skies.
On January 26th, Dad and I attended the Republic Day Parade. The crowds to reach the enclosures were huge and quite frightening, but once we were sat down everything was peaceful. We saw cultural floats, various regiments (including a camel-mountain bands) and military vehicles, among them the Agni-4 nuclear missile. It was strange to see this and to hear the applause from the crowd.
Next day we set off to Amritsar. While the Golden Temple itself was beautiful and worth seeing, the city itself was busy and noisy, filled with aggressive traffic. We attended the Wagah Border Ceremony which is often recommended because of the pythonesque military drill preceding the closing of the India-Pakistan border. While it was amusing, the trip was 5 hours and seemed a little much. One of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, since I can't see myself repeating it.
It was a relief to set off for the mountains of Shimla. It's cold up here, but the views are incredible. I've been on some great walks, including a climb up to the mountain-top Hanuman temple yesterday. The only downside is that, while there is very little traffic in Shimla, I had an awful run here. I did 3 miles yesterday that felt harder than the previous week's half-marathon. I suspect that is because of the altitude (about 2000m).
Tomorrow we return to Delhi where I will be downloading some more books on to my Kindle ready for the epic 30 hour train ride to the other side of India.
I'd included Jaipur on the current trip so that I could run the half marathon. As I said last time, preparations for the race were chaotic. The race itself was equally disorganised, almost dangerously so. The start featured a dangerous crush which I was glad to escape in one piece. The heat wasn't too bad (Rajasthan seems quite cold at the moment) but I was a little disturbed to find most of the water stations had no water left by the time I arrived. It was 8.75 miles before I found anything to drink.
I was so desperate to have the race over with that I went a little faster than I should have done and finished in 1 hour 57 minutes, a time that I am very pleased with. I'm now resting for a few days while I am in Delhi, a city that is not supportive of marathon training.
For the first couple of days in Jaipur, Dad and I visited the standard tourist sites like the Jantar Mantar, museum and City Palace, which left us underwhelmed. City Palace in particular felt like a greedy little tourist trap. I would have left Jaipur disappointed but the place redeemed itself with our adventures on the last day. We started in Narahgarh fort, which included the stunning and deserted Madhvendra Palace. Jaigarh, above the Amber fort was equally fascinating, but the most amazing place was Galta, a group of temples hidden at the bottom of a valley. One of the most beautiful things I've seen in my life.
Yesterday we took the train from Jaipur to Delhi. It's strange to be back in Paharganj. The area has been cleaned up since I was last here two years ago and seems much less intense. We spent today visiting the fort at Tuglaqabad, one of the seven cities of Delhi and tomorrow is Republic Day. We have tickets for the parade which I am very excited about, having missed event in 2010.
Since decent keyboards are few and far between, I'm going to continue with the short entries and upload photos and more considered posts when I return.
We're now three weeks into the trip. I recovered from my illness in Goa and even managed some running, getting up at dawn to do 10 miles along the beach. From Goa, Dad and I went on to Mumbai. It seemed to be a very busy city rather than a place for holidaying, and it took a little while to learn how to navigate it. the most interesting thing we did was a tour of Dharavi, the famous 'slum' area. That was a fascinating afternoon, full of surprises, and something that deserves its own post. Also: Mumbai's commuters are terrifying and make the London/Brighton folk look relaxed.
From Mumbai we went on to Udaipur, which had a much more relaxed pace. Some great running in the countryside, a lovely hotel, and the world's largest turban. The countryside there is beautiful, although it is much colder in Rajasthan than the South. I also met up with my friend Emily Yates from Brighton which seemed strange and wonderful. Hopefully we will meet up again before I return, in either Pushkar or Risikesh.
Dad and I set off for Jaipur last night and arrived here at 6am. The hotel had no rooms ready, which meant 3 hours waiting around in the dining room. Once that was sorted, I set off for the half-marathon registration, which people kept insisting was closed. Luckily I met some English people who knew what was happening. A little waiting then followed around before I collected my number (3061). I am really looking forward to tomorrow's event.
I've been in India for about 10 days now and have more-or-less settled in. The end of 2011 was frantic, which meant that my head was already spinning by the time I arrived in Bangalore. That, and the lack of decent keyboards in the Internet cafes has kept me from posting.
After a short stay in Bangalore (where we failed to find the Caribbean restaurant) Dad and I moved on to Mysore and from there to Hampi for a few days. Hampi is the most incredible place I've seen in my life, a river valley dotted with boulders and ruins. I've got some lovely photos of my adventures there, which included climbing to hidden temples and visiting Lord Hanuman's birthplace. The trail along the river was probably one of the most incredible runs of my life.
From Hampi we travelled to Goa. I started feeling ill on the journey and, by the time we found a room in Bencaulim I felt pretty rough. I spent 24 hours sleeping and have recovered well enough to get back to running: I'm more-or-less up to date with my training for the Brighton marathon. The problem for me is not the heat, it's my loss of appetite. I take on far fewer calories than I do at home and end up feeling weak sometimes.
Tomorrow we head to Mumbai. Sunday week is the Jaipur marathon, which I am still planning on entering. Not sure what sort of time I'm likely to manage. I'd be happy with 2'20".