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Published: December 9th 2010
Delhi - Part 2
Helen and I have gone our separate ways for a couple of weeks to see different areas of India, before meeting up again to hopefully finally manage some trekking. So this is Mike's bit first.
I have decided to move south to explore Delhi a little more, before moving on to check out a couple of areas of Rajasthan.
An overnight bus from Manali down to Delhi was not really a very pleasant experience. The bus, described as "Super Deluxe Volvo", was indeed a comfortable bus with semi reclining seats. However, what the bus can't possibly hope to make up for are the horrendous Indian roads. Suspension has not been designed to withstand the number of potholes encountered on the roads here. Sitting towards the back of the bus certainly didn't help.
I arrived tired into Delhi early in the morning, to witness a beautifully orange/red sun rising over the smog of the city. Coming in to the city by bus allows you to realize what a vast, sprawling city Delhi is, with one after another decrepit sprawl of shanty housing. It is eye opening (even at that time of the morning) to
witness the number of people who live in extreme poverty here.
I decided this time that I needed to see a little more of the "real" Delhi, rather than stay in the more affluent southern suburbs as we did last time, so I decided to stay in Old Delhi, an area that is home to many backpacker fleapits, including the one I stayed in, bed bugs and all. I was in an area called Paharganj, near the main bazaar. The contrast between this area, and the affluent part of New Delhi Helen and I had previously stayed in, was marked. Walking along the dust and dirt covered main bazaar, looking at the decaying buildings, while avoiding all the time being run over by an autorickshaw or cyclist, you realise what a dump this part of Delhi really is. It's very hard for an outsider to think how people can live in these levels of dirt and noise and pollution, but it's a way of life for so many people here.
One of the places I visited in the old town was Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. My map indicated that to get there, it was a
Kite flying at sunset over Delhi
Thousands of kites are flown by kids over Delhi at sunset each night
walk through a place called Urdu Park. Thinking this would be a nice walk, I set off. It is hard to describe what I saw on the way to this mosque, however - it was close to walking through a landfill site. There was rubbish and stench everywhere, but in the middle of it all, families were living in makeshift tents, their goats tied to the tents, kids playing in the rubbish lying everywhere, and all of this in the middle of the city. I found it really shocking to see this right in central Old Delhi, something I don't think I have ever seen to this level anywhere else.
Visiting the mosque itself and the Red Fort (where successive Mughal rulers of Delhi lived) were highlights in Old Delhi and provided a welcome break from the noise of the city in their grounds. In particular, climbing to the top of one of the minarets in the mosque provided a spectacular view over the chaos of the old part of town. I climbed near sunset, which gave the spectacular sight of hundreds of kites being flown over the city. I have since discovered that kites are a big thing
A typical street scene in India
Everyone vying for their own space on the road, including me!
among the kids of Delhi. They commonly climb any rooftop near sunset and fly small kites over the city. Looking out from the minaret, it looked like hundreds of small birds were circling in the sky over town and was quite a spectacular sight.
As I was visiting Delhi at the same time as the opening of the Commonwealth Games, security was incredibly tight around town. I don't think I have ever seen so many guns in a city (and that is saying something coming from someone from Northern Ireland!). Every policeman it seems is armed with a shotgun, slung over their shoulder. Security checks were frequent, every time I went on the underground my bag was searched and to enter many streets I had to go through blockades and the same process was followed.
To escape the dirt and noise of Old Delhi, I spent one day visiting the museums of New Delhi. After staying in Old Delhi, the contrast with the new part of the city was noticeable, with tree lined avenues and big, gated houses. It felt more like a 'normal' city again, granted with lots of tooting horns still. Of particular interest was the
Gandhi Smriti, the house where Mahatma Gandhi lived his last days and where he was assasinated in 1948. It's really informative about his life (about which I have to admit I knew very little) and it even traces his final footsteps on his way to prayers and his assasin, at which spot there is a small shrine.
After a couple of days in Delhi I felt I had had enough and needed to get out. After my previous sleepless experience on the bus, I thought an overnight train was the way to do it. Being a train expert by now (this is now the 6th country I have taken an overnight train in during this trip), I booked myself on the train to Udaipur. Indian trains compared very favourably for me with other countries. The bed was comfortable, I got a nice dal and chapatti dinner followed by a good sleep and the air conditioning worked. It's going to be trains all the way for me in India now I think.
The following morning the train pulled in to the southern Rajasthani city of Udaipur. The first thing I noticed on getting off the train
was the increase in temperature in this part of the country. Being in the desert state, the dry heat during the day was much more so than in Delhi, although in contrast to all this, arriving just after the end of the monsoon, the whole area appreared very green and lush. It was quite weird for me as I expected the whole region to be brown and burnt by the hot daytime sun.
Udaipur is a city in a fantastic location, being built on one side of the large Lake Pichola, the other side of the lake having green rolling hills going off into the distance. The city itself is dominated by the huge city palace, one side of which towers above the lake edge, Venice style. The rest of the town tails off down the hill in a series of narrow, winding streets behind the city palace.
The lake itself is studded with two island hotels, originally built as palaces for various maharajas, which now can only be visited by boat from the main town. The most stunning of these is Jagniwas island which now contains the Lake Palace hotel, a hotel that will only allow you
to visit if you are a guest, or commit to eating lunch or dinner there, or are James Bond (parts of Octopussy were filmed here, you know, the one where he goes across the lake in an artificial crocodile and goes to the island only occupied by women). As I had forgotten to pack my dinner jacket in my rucksack (oh, and the fact that lunch costs more than a week of my budget), I decided to give it a miss this time around.
However, I did take a boat trip across to the other hotel island, Jagmandir island, from where there are great views back across to Udaipur, the city palace and Jagniwas island. From here, it's possible to appreciate just what a lovely setting Udaipur occupies, particularly when the sun is setting on the far side of the lake, giving the palace an almost golden colour.
It has to be said however that the setting of Udaipur isn't always as postcard perfect. I was told while there that over the last few years the lake has periodically dried up, due to a lack of water during the monsoon season. Luckily for them, there has been a
good rainfall this year so the lake will stay full of water. If you are staying in a hotel in the middle of a lake, it's surely more glamorous to arrive at your home by boat, rather than by tractor, being driven across a muddy lake bed! The kids in town were certainly making the most of the lake being full, cooling off during the day by jumping off various parts of town that hang over the lake, into the cooling waters. They just never seemed to get bored of jumping in, swimming to the edge, clambering out, climbing back up and doing it again.... and again.
As well as taking in the setting of the town, while there I visited the city palace, with all its various courtyards, towers and balconies overlooking the lake. It's a pretty jumbled and random layout as over the decades each successive maharaja has added to it in whatever style was in fashion at the time. I also went to a really ornate Hindu temple in town, the Jagdish temple. It's absolutely covered in miniature carvings while inside there is a stone statue and various people chanting and drumming in quite an atmospheric
I also took a cooking class for an afternoon while in town. I had been meaning to do this since arriving in India to try and learn to make some of the great dishes we have been eating here. It was just me and an Indian lady who whisked me through some of the more common dishes that she would whip up at home for her family (puns here are fully intended!). I watched as she effortlessly made masala chai (the slightly spicy tea which everyone drinks here all the time, and I am slightly addicted to now I think), chapattis, aloo ghobi (potatoes and cauliflower), pakoras and dal fry, trying to keep up and make notes at the same time. They all seemed easy enough as I watched her, but I am sure back in London there will be a little bit of trial and error until I get it somewhere near as tasty as she managed. I'll be hunting out willing volunteers to try my creations out on when I get back, how hard can it be, right? After cooking up all this great food, someone had to eat it all so I put myself out
there, giving it a go and leaving her house absolutely stuffed with yet more great food.
Overall Udaipur was a really friendly place to wander in. While walking through the narrow streets, I constantly heard hellos shouted at me, usually followed by being asked what country I was from (it seems a national obsession in India to collect as many countries as possible through meeting foreigners!). The people are very friendly, much more so than in Delhi.
The only time they aren't so friendly is when on motorbikes, when they suddenly seem to feel they have a right to plough through anything. In the narrow streets, there are continuous horns as a motorcyclist gives about 1 second notice that they are right behind you. Pedestrians are expected to move out of the way, quickly, or you run the real risk of being hit. Frequent (sacred) cows in the street turn any walk along a street into an obstacle course to avoid the beasts themselves, their pats, motorbikes and cars. This would be made much easier if there were footpaths but of course there aren't any, anywhere in India it seems. Going for a walk in any town is
not a relaxing experience! The video above shows a typical street scene, just to give you an idea.
After a fun couple of days in Udaipur, I hopped on the morning bus for the hot and sweaty 7 hour journey north to the city of Jodhpur. With Indian roads once again taking their toll on my body, I arrived tired and feeling beaten up in the hot afternoon sun.
Confirming that I was indeed in a desert region, on the journey there I saw 2 elephants and 2 camels being ridden along the road. The first elephant was right in the middle of Udaipur just before I left. Sitting on the bus at a busy intersection, all of a sudden a guy comes past on top of a huge elephant, towering over all the other vehicles in the street. The slow pace of the elephant as it wandered along the roads was hugely infuriating to all the other drivers, but there wasn't a lot they could do to speed it up, except of course blast their horns continuously. It's one of those odd sights you only really expect to see in India.
another old capital of an ancient Rajput independent state, but it is dominated by the huge Meherangarh Fort which sits, somewhat like Edinburgh Castle, on a seemingly inaccessible rocky pinnacle with the rest of the town tailing off in all directions down the more gentle slopes. The fort is absolutely magnificent, sitting 125m above the rest of the town, while eagles constantly circle above it, adding to the magical feeling. The fort was the home of many of the ancient Maharajas and like Udaipur, has been added to over the centuries to give it many styles. Two features stood out for me though. One of these was the main entrance gate, built perpendicular to the main approach way and with large iron spikes on it, both features to deter elephant charges by enemy attackers. Secondly was just inside the main entrance, a number of small handprints in plaster. These were from each of Maharaja Man Singh's widows, who left them before throwing themselves, silently, onto his funeral pyre to burn to death along with his body. This was an expected duty of a Maharaja's wife, the last time it happened being in 1843.
Jodhpur is also known as the
blue city due to the number of houses in the old town that are painted this colour. Historically, it's due to them adding indigo to the whitewash for their houses, kind of like one person did it, their neighbours liked how it looked and they copied it and so on, until most of the houses in the old town were this colour. These blue cubes provide a great spectacle from the walls of the fort above, which I took loads of photographs of.
To try and get out of the Rajasthani cities a little, I took a so called "village safari" around Jodhpur, allowing me to see some of the rural Rajasthani life. The area around Jodhpur is pretty bleak really, a tough environment in which to grow crops with many gorse bushes and hard soil. A few tribes live in the surrounding area to the city, one of which is the Bishnoi. These are an ancient tribe of environmentalists really, going to extreme lengths to protect animals and trees due to the ancient teachings of a (now very) enlightened guru in the 15th Century. Their most famous act was to prevent trees being cut down to build a
Maharaja's palace in 1730. The Bishnoi hugged the trees and declared that if they were to be cut down, the workers would have to cut off their heads first, an act the workers duly followed through on. 363 of them died attempting to defend the trees of the forest before the tree cutting was stopped.
Nowadays they lead a quiet life, drinking opium tea and farming the land near their homes. Another odd tradition of the tribe that I learned about on the trip was that boys had their wife identified for them at age 2 (although we were informed they only live together when they are 20 or so). Thinking about it, this puts real pressure on their parents' skills in judgement. What if the girl ends up growing up to be a minger, or, worse still, an Enrique Iglesias fan...the poor chap is stuck with her for good!
I found Jodhpur to be a really nice city to relax around. Sure it is busy on the roads (probably the busiest and noisiest place I have been yet), which makes getting anywhere a bit stressful, but it also has some lovely rooftop cafes to relax on, most
with views over the old town and the fort. The evening temperatures made this activity even more pleasant. Again the people were very friendly and often would take time out to say hello and chat (although admittedly this was sometimes followed by a sales pitch for a spice shop or some other establishment!).
What I really enjoyed most about Rajasthan was that it is so different to the northern areas of India I had visited before. In many ways it feels like a different country, the environment, both physical and weather, is in great contrast to the lush, cooler, hilly northern areas. The feeling is a little more how I imagined India to be with extravagant palaces, great diverse foods, lots and lots of people, heat, chaos and noise all around. It's what I am learning about India on this trip though, that it has many, many different faces to it and it constantly surprises. It's frustrating and dirty at times, but I am really loving it as it is so rewarding in many other ways.
After this brief foray into another side of India, I made my way by train to Rishikesh to join Helen......who meanwhile had
been doing the following....
Mike had understandably emerged from his illness and enforced immobility keen to make up for lost time and get out there as much as possible. Meanwhile I had been gradually becoming more interested in persuing a more reflective aspect of travelling, and felt the need to exlore the spiritual side of India. So I decided to go to Rishikesh and join an ashram for a couple of weeks.
My own nightmarish overnight bus journey ensued - no super-deluxe Volvo for me, a rickety old Tata truck, broken seat-back and all, got me as far as the side of a road near Chandigarh at 4am. It was pitch black, and there was no evidence of the 'bus station' I had been promised we would arrive at. Super. I then lucked onto a bunch of Israelis also heading to Rishikesh, so we joined up and found a jeep and driver to take us there.
Being Israeli, however, they were in the mood for stopping regularly to smoke their chillum pipes 'in the jungle' as they put it...even at 5am on a Sunday. I hadn't slept, and was eager to just get on
with the 6 hour drive to Rishikesh, but was somewhat outnumbered! When they weren't stopping to smoke their pipes, they were passing joints around the jeep. I had already read the strict rules on the ashram website - no alcohol, caffeine, meat, fish, eggs, onions, garlic, drugs...I could just imagine myself being thrown out on arrival as they got a whiff of the weed on my clothes! My optimism took another dip as the driver happily partook of the smoking...were we even going to get there?
We eventually did arrive in Rishikesh, and I rather apprehensively found my way to the Parmarth Niketan ashram, wondering what to expect.
Certainly the atmosphere in an ashram is particular, and at first unnerving to the uninitiated. After the chaos just outside the entrance, people's calmness is an adjustment, but I surprisingly quickly found myself getting used to the vibe. It is fairly regimented - the rooms, and the lifestyle, is spartan, the better to concentrate on the study without distractions. Meals are rather institutional, at set times, there is a dining room with rows of little individual tables which you sit at, cross-legged on the floor, and you have your thali
The Arti celebration in Rishikesh
A nightly ritual on the banks of the Ganges
in silence. Yoga and meditation classes start at 6am, although chanting will have woken you up from about 4am. There is a very 'zen' ambiance, as a lot of people dressed in white (pilgrims, or students), or orange robes (the teachers), walk about quietly (never in a rush!) with a pensive look on their faces.
It's very restful, and it is conducive to reflection and thought. Yes, you do have to be careful with some ashrams, who can come uncomfortably close to blurring the line with a sect. But I have to say that I got a lot from the experience, without necessarily buying into it completely. It's hard to put into concise words what it was like, particularly as I am still a novice. Before I went, I had a very western notion of yoga, which was that it was just a physical exercise. I had no idea that yoga is the whole concept, the union of body and mind, so encompassing spirituality as well as the physical practise.
I took part in some physical classes, but was mainly interested in the meditation aspect, and the lectures on the intellectual study. I had never meditated before, but
The Ganges River - Rishikesh
Ghats (steps) line the river for Hindus to bathe in the sacred waters of the river
found it profoundly helpful, and the lectures were fascinating. It's a whole new way of thinking and approaching the way I see things, but it was so refreshing to challenge the relatively western take I have on my life and the world around me, and to explore very different philosophies. It felt energising, and freeing, and enriching, to leave my established prejudices at the door and allow myself to approach my conceptions from a different perspective. While the Swamis and teachers I was learning from were Hindu, and there is no doubt that it is a religion, in the commonly accepted interpretation of the word, it is non specific - a particularly memorable phrase I heard was 'if you are a Jew, be a better Jew, if you are a Muslim, be a better Muslim, if you are a Christian, be a better Christian...'
Anyhow, it turned into a very rewarding two weeks - I met a hugely varied crowd, who all had different reasons for being there. It was a breath of fresh air to hear all sorts of thought provoking conversations going on at any given time, from all nationalities, speaking without inhibitions. A whole other side
Drinking water from the sacred Ganges at Arti
Helen and Mike decided not to drink the polluted river water and to take our chances with the Hindu gods!
of India, and a huge contrast to the hectic chaos I was familiar with.
With Mike about to join me for us to head off trekking, I then endeavoured to bring my head out of cerebral mode and back into backpacker mode...
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