India part 2: Mumbai to Jaipur

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. 

India – a quick update

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".

A four legged goat

In February, I visited Southern India with my Dad. We went to Kanyakumari, a town at the country's southern tip. We paid £1.30 each to visit a museum that the Lonely Planet described as "overpriced and underwhelming":

"There's a blah display of archeological finds and temple artefacts and some freakshow paraphenalia, like the foetus of a four-legged goat and (gasp!) a three-chambered coconut

I can never resist freakshow paraphenalia. It turned out that the four-legged goat's foetus was one of the Lonely Planet's rare errors. It was, in fact, an eight-legged foetus: 


Here is a photograph of a three-chambered coconut:


Buying books in India


Books are one of the most important aspects of travelling. The Lonely Planet's guide to India makes sure to list the main bookshops for each town. In fact, one advantage of carrying a book as large as the Lonely Planet India (1200 pages) is that one always has emergency reading material.

Having time to read was one of the best things about India. I read dozens of books during my travels (what else are you going to do on a 31 hour train journey?) I visited bookshops ranging from plush Borders-style places a to shelf in a cafe. My favourites were probably the Full Circle Bookshop in Delhi's Khan Market (the cafe, while overpriced, was a good place to relax) and the shelf in Sonam's kitchen in Darjeeling. The photograph above shows Jodhpur's Krishna Book Depot, which had the feel of an old-fashioned English secondhand bookshop.

The books I read were decided by the stock in the shops and those I found in guest-houses – basically books sold in airports and the sort of books that interest travellers. Certain writers turned up everywhere, such as Howard Marks, Paul Coehlo and Salman Rushdie. Haruki Murakami and Milan Kundera were also well-represented. Occasionally you'd see a book that looked marooned, out of place among the others. An example of this was Piers Morgan's celebrity diaries, which I found in Jaisalmer (a fun read, but not as good as the first volume).

Sometimes, when supplies of fresh literature run low, one faces difficult choices. At Ajmer I was down to my last book and, faced with a poor selection, considered buying a copy of the third volume of Lord Archer's prison diaries. I was saved by a visit to Pushkar, which had several good bookshops.

I re-read Lord of the Rings and discovered it was a far, far better book than I remembered. However, revisiting the book while travelling made some shortcomings obvious – Tolkien mentions neither hand sanitizer nor digestive issues. These are notable omissions for what is, effectively, a book about backpacking.

I also read my way through the whole of Stephen King's Dark Tower sequence. I'd read the first half of it in the 90s and when I came across the whole series in a bookshop decided to read the entire thing. The seven Dark Tower books run to about 3,900 pages. It wasn't terrible, but Tolkien managed a far deeper saga with much less fuss.

While in Bikaner I found a copy of Extremely Loud and Incredibly
Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. This was one of the best books I've read
in years. As delighted as I was by the novel, I was also vexed. How
come no-one raved at me about this book? If I'd not found it in a
guest-house, huddling next to a couple of Ludlum thrillers, I might never
have read it. I now worry that there other modern classics I've missed.

Travelling in India

An old friend once said that you only need to return from a holiday with three stories, whether you're away for two days or two months. After three stories the conversation will drift, or people will change the subject.

(This same friend once pretended to be on holiday so they'd have a week to themselves. It meant they had to keep the lights off at night but they thought it was worth it. Although, looking back, if they were devious enough to think about faking a holiday, how do I know they weren't faking that they'd faked a holiday?)

I've made more than three posts about India, so I hope I've not tried anyone's patience. There are just a couple of posts left now. One is about bookshops, and the other, this one, is a collection of thoughts about my holiday. Hopefully they'll come in useful to someone:

  • Delhi is a fairly intense introduction to India. Fresh-faced tourists can be easy prey for scammers and touts. Fortunately the Lonely Planet did a great job in warning me what I was likely to face. It did feel, at times, like every person who spoke to me in Delhi was a petty cheat of some type. The touts lie and give false directions, anything to take you to a place where they get commission. The cynicism of Delhi's tourism can make one wary about people met in other places, which is a shame. India Mike has a great thread on How to handle touts. One commenter reminds readers that, while touts might be annoying, none of them is ever likely to have the opportunity tourists have to fly around the world.
  • Delhi, and Parahganj in particular, might be busy and noisy – but
    the German couple wearing blue facemasks and earplugs were probably
    overdoing it. If you feel you need to wear a surgical mask on holiday,
    you'd be better off staying home.
  • It took some time to get used to the constant touts. No sight was sufficiently sacred that there wasn't someone
    intrusively selling souvenirs or trying to make commissions. It was like real world spam: change money? want smoke? cigarette? need rickshaw?
    I hated the banal conversations the touts started before they made their pitch.
  • The most hassle I received was in Khajuraho, which I think was having a quiet spell. It seemed to be one tout to every tourist, and sometimes felt as if the rickshaw drivers were 24 hours from physically forcing visitors to take rides. One man shouted furiously every time I passed him on foot. I did end up hiring one guy who offered me a ride in his 'helicopter'. It looked like a normal cycle-rickshaw, but it was a very cheap helicopter ride.
  • Weirdly there seemed to be little correlation between hotel price and quality in the places I stayed. The best hotels I used cost about 400Rs (about £6) and the worse was around 1200Rs (about £17). The cheapest I stayed in, at 250 Rupees (£3.50), was described in the Lonely Planet as 'tolerably clean'. This was not true, and was the first time I left a toilet cleaner after using it.
  • One of my favourite things was travelling by train. I made some epic rail journeys, and loved sitting at the window watching the landscape pass by. The overnight trains were great: cheaper than a hotel, you would leave one town and wake in a whole new location. At their best you were gently rocked to sleep, although I had some long, sweaty, sleepless nights where I couldn't settle. It didn't help that some of the passengers were very noisy. I feel bad about the person playing minimalist jazz at midnight on one train, who received a rather curt request to turn it off.
  • Most of the trains I took were on time, but when there were delays they were substantial. While I was away one the the BBC World Service's main news items was about delays on the Eurostar. Apparently these had been quite long, sometimes "up to six hours". I was underwhelmed by this.

A difficult journey to Darjeeling

Darjeeling is a beautiful town 2,000 meters above sea level. I had the best Chinese meal of my life here, and watched an incredible sun-rise from Tiger Hill. The town was cold, but the friendly people more than made up for that. I'm glad I liked Darjeeling so much, because reaching the town was hard work.


Travel in India was generally fairly good. Since I wasn't on a tight budget, I didn't have to take the cheapest option for everything. This meant my stay was more comfortable than that enjoyed by friends who went as students. I did, however, have one nightmare journey.

My Dad came out to India to join me for a couple of weeks. Before coming out, he booked train tickets from Varanasi to Darjeeling. The trip would take about 48 hours in total, with an overnight break in the middle. We would leave Varanasi at 3:30pm on day 1, have a two hour wait in Bihar, then take an overnight train to New Jalpaguri, arriving early on day 2. After a night in a hotel we would take the world famous toy train to Darjeeling. This final stage was a seven hour ride through incredible scenery before we arrived at Darjeeling, a little over two days after leaving Varanasi.


We spent the morning before the journey in Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon. It was a pleasant excursion after which we returned to Varanasi, picked up our luggage and went to the station.

As soon as we reached Varanasi Station our plans began falling apart. Our train wasn't on the departure boards and no-one could tell us when it would be leaving. It soon became obvious that we had no chance of making our connection in Patna. We booked another ticket, a sleeper that would leave the following day, around the time when we should have been arriving in New Jalpaguri.


We left Varanasi after a 7 hour wait. Waiting on any train station is a drag. In Varanasi we had several persistent beggars to deal with, as well as running between platforms, chasing rumours of our train. We finally arrived in Patna around 5am.

The Lonely Planet says that Patna has 'only a handful of worthwhile sites'. It's not a place that tourists generally visit. When we arrived it was still dark. Sleeping people lay everywhere in the station. We looked for the retiring rooms but they were full so we decided to find a hotel. It was about 9 hours until our train to New Jalpaguri and all hope of a relaxed journey to Darjeeling were gone.


We took a taxi to the city's main hotel, but couldn't find any way into the grounds. The neighbouring hotel had space, but £70 seemed a little steep for 9 hours. We had a taxi drop us in an area with three hotels, all of which were full. We were then stranded at the side of a road, dawn fast approaching, with nowhere to stay. Half a dozen cycle rickshaw drivers waited for us, hoping for a fare. We called the remaining hotels in the Lonely Planet, but they were all full. We were stood on a roadside with no idea where to go.


We were about to return to the incredibly expensive hotel when a man approached and asked if we were looking for a hotel. We were indeed. Tired as we were, dealing with a tout wasn't a problem. We followed him, keeping an eye on our surroundings just in case.

The man led us to a hotel where, for the price of 800 rupees, we could have a room until lunchtime. It wasn't too bad a room either, compared to some we'd had. I'd expected the man to stay around and ask for a tip, or to wait in the hotel for a commission, but he left as soon as we were in the building. We were incredibly grateful to him.


While the accommodation standards were OK, the hotel staff themselves seemed to be trained at the Basil Fawlty School of Hospitality. All we wanted was to sleep for six hours and leave. But there were a constant stream of interruptions: could I come down and pay an advance?; could they borrow our passports to take copies?; would we like towels? About ten, after a couple of hours sleep, we were woken once more: would we like our bin emptied?

Sometimes, being gracious and polite is hard work.

About midday we returned to Patna station. Dad and I took a cycle rickshaw through the drizzly city, which rekindled my spirit of adventure. It died once more at the station, where we waited and waited. The four hour window for our connection at New Jalpaguri began to look shaky. We met another couple of travelers on the platforms, the only other tourists we'd seen in Patna. Trains came and went, with no clue to whether they were ours. We realised that most of them were local trains, and eventually found our own one.


We were traveling from Patna in sleeper class which was busy and hectic. Beggars and hawkers wandered through the carriage at each station. Other passengers listened to music on their mobiles. We got little sleep. We finally arrived at New Jalpaguri around thirty minutes after the toy train should have left. It looked as if the train hadn't departed, but the idea of another seven hours train travel was too much -  even on one of the world's greatest train lines. Instead we hired a jeep to take us to Darjeeling, the last stage of our journey.

One of the interesting things about travel is that the frustrations are an integral part of it. Admittedly, our misadventure in Patna was less trying than many of the things than some of the things people I know have. And, while I'd never have chosen to have the journey we had, it was endurable moment by moment. Even a patch of station floor can be restful – it's more about attitude than situation.


As soon as we drove off in the jeep the trials of our journey was behind us. We passed quiet forests and tea plantations on our way to the foothills. From there we rose higher and higher, incredible views opening out below us (as well us steep drops beside us). I think the mountains around Kurseong and Darjeeling are some of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen.

As soon as we reached our hotel in Darjeeling, all our problems disappeared. We stayed in the Hotel Tranquility whose rooms had stunning views. It was a long journey, but I'm glad we went.


Some photos of India


The first town I visited after Delhi was Udaipur. The town is on the shores of a lake which contains a famous (and expensive) hotel which was used in the James Bond film Octopussy. There is a local tradition for restaurants to show the film at ‘007pm’ each night.


And it’s tacky, but I went to a showing. I sat on a rooftop, watching a DVD that had been copied from a worn VHS cassette. The moon was full and I had a fantastic view of the lake to my left. Octopussy is not a great movie, but there can’t be many better ways to watch it.


Of all the cities I visited in Rajasthan, Jaisalmer was probably my favourite. It was where I booked my camel tour, it has some good restaurants and a decent bookshop. To the south of the city is a peaceful lake with some ruined pavilions. It was a lovely place to sit and read in the evening.

Jaisalmer Lake

In a Delhi restaurant, on my last night, I saw an image of the pavilion below. The photograph showed the lower steps covered by water. The rain in Rajasthan has been poor over the last few years, meaning many of the lakes are emptier than they would be normally.

Jaisalmer Lake


This ruined fort, in the South of Delhi is a pain to get to. It’s worth it though. It was cursed by Nizamuddin Auliya, a sufi mystic, who said the fort would be unoccupied and used only by shepherds. The ruined monuments are incredible: huge walls, broken towers, and a couple of underground passages. When Dad and I visited we only saw one other group of tourists.



The hotel I stayed at in Chittorgarh was described by the Lonely Planet as “tolerably clean”. This was not quite true. I made the mistake of walking to Chittorgarh’s fort in the early afternoon heat so didn’t end up staying as long as I’d have liked.

Cow at Chittorgarh


While I was in Jaipur my guide took me to a factory to see how hand-made carpets were made. It turned out to be a salesroom. After a quick glimpse of the men working downstairs I was taken to a showroom. There was no way the four men downstairs had produced all the carpets that were for sale. The ‘factory’ was obviously a fake, a reason for guides to bring tourists. I wondered what the men did between tourist visits.



Jaipur held a kite festival a few weeks before I arrived. While I was there, hundreds of children were still flying kites. Many more kites had been captured by the trees.

Jaipur Kites

Amber Fort

The Amber fort was one of my favourite buildings in India. It’s surrounded by mountains, their slopes draped in fortifications. Above the Amber Fort is another fort, Jaigarh, which has some incredible views.

Amber Fort 


Varanasi was a lovely place to spend a few days. The town runs alongside the Ganges, with ghats, series of steps down to the water. People come to the river to worship, wash clothes, and cremate their dead.

In some ways, Varanasi reminded me of an English seaside resort. Dad & I made several promeades along the riverside. We encountered teams of children selling candles and flowers, all using the same spiel. We passed many cricket games, played in tiny spaces.

During one of our boat trips along the river, the boatman pointed out a series of marks on the wall of one of the buildings. These were the high water marks from the rainy season. I found it hard to believe how high the river could rise.



The Jantar Mantar Observatories

The Jantar Mantar in Delhi

The Jantar Mantar are a series of large observatories in India. Built by the Maharajah Jai Singh II (1688-1743) they were intended to predict eclipses and other astronomical events. There are four surviving Jantar Mantar and I saw three of these on my holiday, in Delhi, Jaipur and Varanasi.

The large scale of the instruments allows them to take accurate measurements. In Delhi it's possible to walk on and around the structures, which feature some vertigo-inducing stairways. It's impressive to walk through buildings designed to measure time.

I'd been warned that the guides at the Jantar Mantar were not particularly reliable. One man followed me around, giving explanations of the instruments in the hope I would hire him. It's been a long time since I studied astrophysics, but I remembered enough to know he was making it up.

The photographs show some of the instruments. The first four photos show the Jantar Mantar in Delhi. Below that are two photos of the cream-coloured structures in Jaipur. At the bottom is a photograph of the instruments in Varanasi. Significantly smaller, these are housed on a single rooftop.

The Jantar Mantar in Delhi 

The Jantar Mantar in Delhi
The Jantar Mantar in Delhi
The Jantar Mantar in Jaipur 

The Jantar Mantar in Jaipur

The Jantar Mantar in Varanasi

The Karni Mata ‘rat temple’, Bikaner

The temple of Karni Mata, at Desknoke near Bikaner is a remarkable place. The temple contains 20,000 rats, who are cared for by the priests. I wanted to visit because of the write-up in the Lonely Planet, which claimed that the rats were reincarnated story tellers.


The Lonely Planet says that a story-teller had died and Karni Mata asked Yama, the God of death, to bring them back to life. When Yama refused, Karni Mata reincarnated the storyteller as a rat, under her protection. This version of the story states that Karni Mata decreed all storytellers would be reincarnated as rats to keep them away from Death.

Sadly, as far as I can tell, the story is a garbled account of the actual myth. Having spoken to the caretaker at the temple museum, it turns out that a particular group of families is reincarnated at the temple (not all members of the Charan caste as is reported elsewhere). The man at the museum said that he himself expected to be reincarnated as one of the thousands of rats.

Karni Mata is a remarkable figure. The museum opposite the temple is a large hall displaying paintings of the episodes in Karni Mata's life. She was born in 1387 after a 21 month pregnancy. Karni Mata was said to be a reincarnation of the Goddess Durga. Throughout her life, she worked miracles, including healings, building a temple in one night and feeding an army with four chapattis. 

The temple is an impressive experience. Since it is a holy site you have to remove your shoes before entering. The rats are everywhere, emerging from holes in the walls. It is said that if you tread on a rat, it  must be replaced with a silver replica.

Among the thousands of rats are five white ones, and it is said to be very lucky to see one. My driver pointed out one of these white rats to me. It is also lucky to have one of the rats scamper over your feet, but I didn't receive that honour.





Space Invaders in Varanasi

When I worked in Ladbroke Grove, many years ago, there was a mosaic of an space invader on a bridge. After seeing the first alien, I spotted others, including one in Paris. They were apparently put up by a French artist called Invader. It's the sort of art project I love – playfully and subtly adding something to an urban environment. (Hob blog has some images of the London Space Invaders).

Wandering along the ghats in Varanasi with my Dad, I spotted a familiar image. As usual, once I'd seen the Space Invader motif I spotted it elsewhere.

Space Invader in Varanasi

Space Invader in Varanasi
Space Invader in Varanasi 

Invader's web-site lists the locations he's visited including Varanasi in April 2008. Apparently there were 14 images in total, including one I spotted – but the mosaic shown at the top doesn't seem to be listed.