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India - Central West

INDIA | Monday, 2 August 2010 | Views [1683]

Indian spices ... masala mix

Indian spices ... masala mix

Morning at Mumbai train station is pretty chaotic, people are everywhere, some sit, many sleep on floor... we can not say who is waiting for train and who permanently lives here. It was very hot night and the only relieve came from couple of fans at ceiling of each 6-birth compartment. Today we do not have to search for a place to stay, black old taxi takes us directly to Consulate of Czech Republic - we had been invited to stay here by young Czech consular family we met at Sri Lanka. After a refreshing shower and short rest our plans quickly change when we meet Honza who offers his invitation to stay at his unit in Aurangabad, which is starting town for trips to Ellora Caves and Ajanta temples. Of course we cannot refuse such an offer and we rush to book first possible flight. In meantime, Zdenek is very kind to spend his weekend with us - we visit Jain Temple, Gate to India, in-famous Taj Mahal Hotel and Elephant Island. We feel being treated like V.I.P.- very nice change from usual backpacker’s mode. One hour flight from Mumbai to Aurangabad on Monday morning is hassle free and Raju (Honza’s personal driver) waits at the airport with Skoda Octavia, taking us to housing complex adjacent to Skoda manufacturing plant… “This will be your home for next few days” Honza points to spare bedroom upstairs and continues “…and Raju will be happy to drive you to cave temples or anywhere else you want”. We can not believe our luck to meet such nice people lately. Quick coffee and our ways temporarily split for rest of the day – Honza goes to work at Skoda plant and we spend an hour in comfortable back seats of new model Octavia heading to Ellora cave temples. This jaw dropping site was chipped out of gently sloped hills by Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monks over 500 years, the first temple was created at AD 600. Seeing total of 34 temples spread over 2km takes some effort and time, it is quite hot day and after three hours we are pretty tired but it is not the end of it …on return way to Aurangabad we have one more site to visit - Daulatabad Fort built in 12th century on 200m high outcrop claims the rest of energy still left in our bodies. Mid afternoon sun is very intense, there is little shade on the way up and dry air has strong dehydrating power – luckily we have enough water to get up and down. This fort was built to be impenetrable but ironically it was conquered only once by bribing guards at the gate. Hundreds of difficult steps, dark tunnels and narrow bridges over water canals lead us through multiple doorways, some of them faked. Finally we make to the top where we find 6m cannon, apparently cast from 5 different metals. “How did they get such heavy piece of steel up here?” I am asking myself. Few minutes we enjoy nice views into valley and by 4pm we are back in car heading home. After dinner at the housing complex restaurant we are really ready for bed. Next day we take it easy - play indoor tennis, or chill out at resort-style pool … this fenced complex is nothing like India we have seen so far. Later afternoon Raju is free to take us to town where we also visit local mini-Taj Mahal. Leaving right after breakfast on Wednesday we have to cover 120km to the World Heritage site of Ajanta Buddhist caves. Much older then Ellora these secluded cave temples date from 2nd century BC to 6th century AD. Carved into shear rock of horse-shoe shaped valley the 30 caves are just breath taking. Well preserved fine internal frescoes were painted with natural pigments and we fully respect the ban of flash photography. This site had been grown over with vegetation for centuries until 1819 when it was accidentally discovered by British hunting party. Truly impressive site. Last dinner with Honza at local posh restaurant marks the end of our unexpected four days vacation within our travel, and tomorrow we fly back to Mumbay. From airport back to Consulate for one more night before we board overnight 3-AC sleeper to Udaipur on Friday 4th June 4pm. Confused with train booking system we somehow manage to score two beds tonight… but let me explain … on-line booking system placed our names on ‘waiting list’ which means that we may or may not get a berth on this train. When we arrived to station the list of passengers attached to our carriage shows two names allocated to the same bed … ?? Does that mean we’ll have to share our (single and narrow) beds with some strangers? The conductor answers our question with “No problem, you’ll get your own bed”. Train left station at 4pm and by 11pm the situation is still unresolved – young Indian girl sits on ‘my’ bed and Ivana’s co-sleeper has not boarded yet. Well, she is not bad looking…ha,ha. Why is this happening to us? Everyone else on train is already sleeping, and we have to sit for the whole 18-hours journey for the same price? Not happy!!! Suddenly the conductor marched in with a resolution … Indian girl is going to move somewhere else and we finally can rest, each on our own bed. Arrival to Udaipur at 9am is pleasant, train station is surprisingly tidy, unbearable Mumbai humidity is gone and there is hassle free pre-paid rickshaw stand outside. Heading to the centre of Old Town we hope to find Nivas hotel previously recommended by other backpacker… and it was easy. We like four days in Udaipur – scrolling through maize of streets we discover many roof-top restaurants with not only picturesque views but also with very good Indian food. The most romantic city, as it is sometimes called is dominated by copula crowned City Palace being the highest point in Udaipur. One cannot miss it. Built in 17th century this yellow stone Rajastan’s largest palace looks impressive especially when lit at night. Few hours visit was very enjoyable and worthwhile. Unfortunately the lake Pichola is almost dried up due to number of reasons (unusually low rain over last few years plus alleged mismanagement of water usage) and scenes from James Bond’s Octopusy movie filmed here look somewhat different. It is very easy to loose sense of time here and days go by very fast … but we want to see more of Rajastan so on Wednesday 9th June we catch overnight 2-AC sleeper to Rajastan’s capital Jaipur. It takes few steps before we settle in Vaishnavi hotel early morning and over breakfast we set for an idea to take sightseeing bus tour tomorrow which should cover all major temples and forts in and around the town. Straightforward booking at Tourist Office within the railway station is done in minutes and we can spend rest of the day by scrolling through historical Pink City for what Jaipur is famous. Hot, busy, pink buildings and colourful turbans are words to describe next three hours. Later afternoon (temps still well above 40C) we catch local bus to Monkey Temple – appropriate name as hundreds of pink face monkeys company everyone walking steep path up and down the temple. At first glance they look pretty harmless but our safe personal space can quickly be violated in presence of food … Iva loses her bag of peanuts in seconds to a larger male before having any chance to open it and share nuts between youngsters. When the larger group leader attempts to push me off the garden bench we conclude it’s time to leave. Next morning we board the sightseeing bus for the whole day to see many palaces, forts, museums and gardens. Very exhausting but also very interesting. So exhausting we have to take rickshaw to backpacker Peacock roof top restaurant for dinner and it feels like an oasis – great food and few beers to wash down that plentiful pink dust. Enough of pink so on Saturday we take a 4-hour bus to Hindu’s pilgrimage town Pushkar. Nice and clean room at hotel Everest is definitely good choice and its owner is very helpful, shortly we start exploring this small holy town to find many temples, small shops (we bought some traditional garments), ghats around the central lake (now dry), pilgrims and tourists. For over an hour we sit on one of ghats (steps leading to pools filled with ‘holy’ water) quietly watching pilgrims to bath and pray … to our surprise men and women are mixed up despite our previous observation of strict segregation. Some dip dressed, some dip half naked but all pour water over their heads several times. Few foreign tourist are lured into ‘meditation over holy water’ only to be asked for hefty baksheesh at the end of each session. Hmm, sad this happens… but fortunately now-days we can clearly see through this bul...it and we only observe from a distance. Just like Hampi also this holy town is strictly vegetarian and no booze is available … good bye beer for few days (remember? It is 40C+ every day). Without any options we settle for fresh lime and soda which is almost as good as cold beer … NOT! There are no motor rickshaw allowed in town but sightseeing can be easily done by foot in one day – one of few Brahma’s temples in India can be seen here although we find white marble Sikh temple more beautiful (not mentioned in any info pamphlets , not even shown on tourist map because Pushkar is holy Hindu town). As many times before 2-3 days is enough for any small town and we wonder what blue city of Jodhpur will be like. Dominated by captivating Mehrangarh Fort this million people town offers narrow streets and medieval bazaars in old city around the central clock tower mingled with business and rush of its population. Fresh saffron flavoured Makhania lassie and famous omelettes shop are other attractions not to be missed apart from necessary visit to Mehrangarh Fort. Over few hours walking through this magnificent palace with audio guide we admire spectacular architectonic marvel built in 18th century by maharajah Man Singh as well as collections of Indian royalties on display. From its walls we suddenly understand why Jodhpur is nicknamed blue city – views down on town reveal light-milky blue colour being traditionally used on almost all houses. Back down at town the search for an eatery is difficult as many places are closed due to low season but anyway we find one new garden-like restaurant with its friendly owner and beer secretly served in coffee mugs. Vegetarian food is tasty, setting is cool and long discussions with owner are possible on any topic such as arranged marriages, cast system and family life in India … we learn that usually … married sons continue to live with parents and all earned income goes directly to farther, he then allocates pocket money and decides how joint money is spent. Marriages between different casts are strictly impossible and love marriages are very rare. Indeed, daily newspapers report many so called ‘honour killings’ when family and relatives brutally murder their children if youngsters ‘in love’ leave the house against the will of parents. Sad, perhaps tragic but we need to stay observers only, not critics of Indian social structure and we happily return to this restaurant again and again until we leave Jodhpur. That happens on Thursday 17th June whereas our last destination in Rajastan will be desert town Jaisalmer, less then 100km from western border with Pakistan. How can five and half hours on bus going towards desert feel like? Hot-dry-hot-dusty. It is only few days till arrival of monsoon and we could not pick the worse time to be here but we did not really have any other choice if we want to see it. Besides, we are tough backpackers and even 45C can not break our spirit. Ha,ha, we took a room with air-con. Well, that is good for sleep only anyway and it is no help outside. We follow advice of young guy from Jodhpur to stay in his cousin’s Pol Haveli guest-house (seems like all here are cousins) and that includes free pick-up from the bus stand. Not sure if this was a scam or not, the truth is we were not disappointed and everything happened as promised. Brand new Pol Haveli GH built in traditional Rajastan style with lots of sandstone carved features looked more like maharajah’s residence then any ordinary hotel.

Jaisalmer may be rightfully nicknamed ‘golden town’ for its desert-yellow colour of sandstone used in 100% of all havelis (buildings) including Jaisalmer Fort on 80m high hill built in 12th century and where large proportion of population resides today. One can see only so many palaces and this time we give The Maharaja’s Palace a miss, instead we get lost several times in maize of narrow streets paved with sandstone. What else brings travellers here? Camel safari in desert where people can spend anything between 1 day, or weeks. We decide for the former and leave the town at mid-afternoon by jeep, first to visit Jain temple thinking this must be the most beautiful Jain temple we have seen in India, and then continuing to small community of camel drivers. Me and Iva get own camels to ride for about two hours towards Sahara like dunes just in time for sunset. Watching hot golden sun going down over desert is priceless, round dunes cast longer and longer shades until sun completely disappear behind horizon. Camel drivers prepared traditional dinner, made our beds by throwing few thick blankets on hot sand and the rest was upon us as to how long we want to watch bright stars on deep sky … until we fell asleep. Despite our expectations air temperature did not drop much during the night, 6am sunrise seemed even more colourful then last night sunset. Yesterday perfectly sand smoothed by wind is covered with numerous trails this morning and we can only imagine with how many different small creatures we shared last night together. By 10am we are back in Jasailmere to have shower, small lunch … then leaving Rajastan on 4pm train for Delhi. First time in India this overnight 2AC class was very comfy and less crowded. We are impressed with expected arrival time at 11am being almost spot-on, but views of Delhi outskirts are much less impressive with unbelievably dense populated slums stretching kilometres alongside railway line where people live in inhuman conditions, we cannot imagine staying there even for one day. Stepping out of air-conditioned train into hot and smelly Old Delhi station is initially uncomfortable but we quickly adjust and take pre-paid rickshaw to hotel Ginger near New Delhi station … to our disappointment the hotel is full and with bags on our shoulders we search for an alternative accommodation. Not being very successful, in desperation we accept an offer from ‘Government Tourist Office’ (???) to stay 3 nights at Hotel Baba-Karol Bagh for total 4000 rupees, including free transfer. Delhi seems to be more expensive then the rest of India and retrospectively we were not ripped off that much, considering our room has reasonably working AC. Pre-monsoon weather is hot, dry and windy. Furthermore, Delhi’s streets are turned upside down with trenches and holes dug up everywhere due to coming Commonwealth Games in October, not exactly the most romantic place right now. One day city bus tour is nice break from dusty streets; amongst many we visit Lotus Temple, Indira Gandhi house, Mahatma Gandhi memorial and Birla Mandir Temple. Our hotel at Karol Bagh has few distinctive positives – a proximity to metro station and few great restaurants nearby, we agree on very tasty Indian food served in Jade Garden and Spicy By Nature restaurants. Despite numerous warning at Lonely Planet we get sucked into a package featuring houseboat stay at Srinagar. For 16000 rupees we get 2AC train Amritsar-Jammu, one night at Jammu, airfare Jammu-Srinagar and two nights on Safina houseboats at Srinagar, including breakfast and dinner. Enough of Delhi we leave by 8am AC sitting train on 25 June heading for Amritsar at Punjab.


Indian man seems to have more fun on social front then women. We are not sure where this custom originates from but evidence is obvious everywhere we look. Going for a cold beer after 40C hot day would mean Iva is the only female in bar, and there could be up to hundred of Indian men happily enjoying beer, wine or brandy. “Where are their wives or girlfriends?” we ask ourselves. We do not know…


To be continued ….


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