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April 9th 2013
Published: April 9th 2013
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Lucknow

So after a 2hrs 10 min flight from Bengaluru with Indigo we arrive at Lucknow airport just in time for sunset at 6pm. A few observations here:

The flight itself is good as usual with Indigo and the service excellent for a low budget airline. However, what catches our attention in the Indigo flight magazine is the Recruitment advertisement and the advert – extolling the “Girl Power” of their air stewardesses. Boy, are they blatantly and overtly sexist and racist in tone and content. Which is appalling and irresponsible for a corporate company at a time when India is struggling with the concept of the role of women in modern India and the inequalities and injustices they endure. We decide to write to the Company about this in the strongest terms and copy the newspapers.

The prepaid taxi fare from the airport is Rs 300 & the driver is on a mission to get us to the Lucknow Homestay (LH) in double quick time, taking no prisoners on the road. We do however seem to have a host of mossies for company and spend much of the journey waving our arms madly to get them off us and out the windows.

LH is in a quiet residential area about 1km from the main market and 3km from the train station. It’s very laid back and chilled. The rooms are basic but homely and comfortable (despite one of the temporary beds collapsing the first night!!) and freshly decorated. Our double with private bath is Rs 700 per day including breakfast. Filter water was provided as was tea & coffee + fridge facilities. There are 2 women who cook and clean. One did breakfast & the rooms, the other lunch and dinner if you chose to eat there. We did on 3 nights – fantastic vegetarian fare. Rs 75 per person. The only thing for foreign visitors is that they only spoke Hindi – so M to the rescue for translations etc.

On the first night we decide to go explore rather than have dinner in as C likes the look of Lucknow from the little we have seen on the 13km drive from the airport. We take a cycle rickshaw to Hazaratganj– the main shopping and eating area. We find the bottle shops (cold beer is Rs 100 in a small dive of a place where the guy trys to charge Rs 120, However we are now back on M’s turf – he was born in this state and his Hindi challenges the guy and we get it for the Rs 100 it should be.). Then we head to The Royal Café which Naheed the LH landlady has recommended. It’s a bit like the United Coffee House in Delhi and a bit of a local institution. Had we arrived ½ hour later we would have had to wait. It is Sunday night & it’s packed with local middle class folks – mainly families. The food is pretty good and service efficient. Outside in the day they have a chaat stand which we also try – great high quality chaat and a clientele of “ladies that lunch”.

For the remaining evenings we eat in and end the meals with long discussions about India mainly and then the rest of the world with the other guests. One is an Indian PhD student in economics he tells us – but why in Lucknow? Apparently applying for a new Indian passport and needs documents of residence & utility bills which he can get from here. He has folks in Bihar (near Patna) and clearly is from a middle class family. Ah the vagaries of the Indian Immigration system. There is also an elderly Dane – Rolf who now lives in Rome for 6 months of the year. The discussions were fuelled by some Sula red wine which they had kindly invited us to join them in the drinking of. It was an interesting travel through social topics such as politics, corruption, inequality, diversity, economics & the differences between Indian and Western cultures on these issues.

Also in the Guest House were 2 Americans (intense!) who had set up their own charity and now being funded by The Gates Foundation, doing research on various aspects of people’s lives in UP – amongst them an estimate of the % of people who crap outside in the country. Bizarre – only the Americans would consider this a worthwhile charitable project!! Next was Melissa (also intense) an American woman from Oregon who had spent 6 weeks with an NGO reviewing the issue of domestic violence in Lucknow. We are not sure from what she said that she added any value to the information that was already available. Finally we met Chuck – an American from New York who had lived in Japan, travelling post being laid off and soon to go to Sussex Uni to read Economics. He was keen to do a trek in Nepal so we got him in touch with our friends Siling & Tina of The Responsible Travellers.

All in all an eclectic mix of folk – but interesting and a change from our usual stopping places in India – we need a few more Homestays/Guest Houses like this. To add to it all, the landlady Naheed is lovely but totally disorganised. One got more information from the Guests about how things worked than her. We enjoyed our stay here – but it will not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Through the Guest House we arrange a day trip in a Rickshaw (Tuk Tuk) driven by a guy called Gautam who takes folks to see the “main highlights” of Lucknow. We say main highlights as the Tourists trail seems to focus on a very limited part and period of Lucknow i.e the time when the British were here, the royal time of the Oudh kings and not much else which we feel is a shame. Lucknow seems to have a lot of little gems off the “Tourist Trail”, great buildings from and since the Raj, the Royal Muslim legacy – tombs, mosques and buildings etc.

The city is pretty spread out and has very little high rise development. The Muslim area and the area around the station are pretty poor and shows the down side of Indian life – yet the main drag – Hazaratganj – is largely about fancy & brand name stores, expensive restaurants and hotels, and the middle classes can be seem here in all their glory with chauffeur driven cars etc. Which brings us to a point of note – the traffic system in Lucknow is totally chaotic - worse than anywhere we have experienced in India. Cars, bikes, cycle rickshaws, Tuk Tuks, Tongas, cyclists, pedestrians all go for it in any direction. There is quite a heavy police presence and a few seem to be on random checks on motorists & bikers – fines (or bribes) on the spot!

The area near Hazaratganj also has the local Assembly building & government & Army offices – so the presence of police is pretty heavy – many with bullet proof vests etc.

Back to our day trip in the Tuk Tuk. We start at about 9.30am and it’s supposed to take about 4 or 5 hours & you can use the guy to stop off anywhere to buy things etc. The highlights for us were:

La Martiniere School/College: the Indian equivalent of Eton. It’s a beautiful old building with a weird assortment of stone statues on the roof – angels, gargoyles etc. We get a view of the inside thanks to the caretaker. It’s very ornate with a chapel with a painted ceiling reminiscent of the Cistine chapel, lots of stained glass and wooden carved partitioning. In the basement (accessed through a mist of mossies!!) is the tomb of the founder – he’s revered here. In all the classrooms – which look like they haven’t changed since it was built, boys are taking exams. On the stone steps up to the entrance boys have carved their names (apparently they are given chisels for the purpose on passing out day), which is quirky. We look for Kiplings as we’ve been told he attended school here but no joy. Sir Cliff Richard was a student here apparently, a local boy of course. The boys in their dark blue blazers with school crest and grey trousers remind M of his days at St Georges College Mussoorie – a similar institution with a good educational history. English Medium of course as they say in this part of the world.

The Residency: This was the British enclave at the time of what is termed the First War of Independence – what the history books and the Indians fail to acknowledge was that the uprising was actually led by a woman (a Muslim Begum) and that the 20K + people who died on their side were Muslims!! On the British side the losses were about 2000; a reflection of the superior fire power and military might which was reinforced by soldiers from other battalions. The grounds are quite well spread and one can get a sense of how things were. Many of the remaining buildings were destroyed in the battle with evidence of the fight (bullet & canon ball holes) – but well preserved since. There’s a small museum which helps with some of the detail. It’s well worth it.

Bara Imambara: this huge complex includes a mosque, gardens and a beautiful stepwell.The main building has a maze of passageways and stairs that lead up to the roof for great views across the area. It was built by Asaf-ud-Daula, Nawab of Lucknow, in 1784. He is buried inside. It is also called the Asafi Imambara. Bara means big, and an imambara is a shrine built by Shia Muslims for the purpose of Azadari. The Bara Imambara is among the grandest buildings of Lucknow. It is picturesque and takes a while to get around.

Chota Imambara: A smaller complex not far away from the above, that is almost completely bonkers! (no disrespect intended as it’s clearly an important Muslim edifice). The outside is decorated with Islamic script which makes it very striking, in the grounds are a couple of mini Taj Mahals as tombs for family members, and inside the main building you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a massive antique/bric a brac shop. Chandeliers and glass lights from various countries adorn the place, there’s a huge silver throne, clock casements and all sorts of other ornaments. It was built by Muhammad Ali Shah, The third Nawab of Avadh in 1838, to serve as his own mausoleum. It is also known as the Palace of Lights because of its decorations during special festivals.

We finish our tour with lunch at the locally famous Tunday Kebab restaurant in the heart of the chowk. The biryani is underwhelming but the speciality galawat kebabs are awesome – and cheap! So we have lots of them!!

So goodbye to Lucknow – we feel we could have done more here – maybe we are now tired of Indian cities. It is time for a change. We are looking forward to Japan as it will be such a big change. We head to Lucknow Railway station (it’s quite big, relatively clean and architecturally shows it’s Muslim roots) to catch the train to Jhansi where we will catch a rickshaw to Orchha (in Madhya Pradesh) for 2 days and then it’s onto familiar turf – Delhi & Jaipur before flying out.

Orchha - one of India’s hidden gems.

The train journey is uneventful though we get delayed right at the end so don’t get to Jhansi until 7-10pm – 40 minutes late. M negotiates a large auto rickshaw to Orchha (Rs 200 rather than the Rs 600 the hotel had offered for a pick up). The roads are pretty good and we get to the Fort View Hotel at 8-00pm.

The room is pretty basic – although with a TV which is a surprise, for Rs 800 per night. Unfortunately it’s also full of little bugs stirred up by the fan which doesn’t impress C greatly.

Orchha is a bigger place than we thought and we go straight out to find some dinner. Walking through town we can see the outline of the now defunct palaces, lit up by a sound and light show, and temples. We head for the Sheesh Mahal restaurant as its location is good in the middle of the palaces (and it serves beer) but the menu is rubbish so we go back into town to explore more options. It’s a bit limited! Many places are closing and the LP recommendation is empty and charges way over the odds for beer. In the end we try Blue Sky where the staff are very willing and friendly but the food loses a bit in the translation. Hey ho.

Next day we find Bhola restaurant for breakfast – right on the corner of the main crossroads – which does great food and is always packed with foreign travellers. Fresh fruit juice, good coffee and they know how to cook eggs. Just along from Bhola is Ramraja restaurant which is always packed with locals – and we can see why when we try it for lunch. Awesome thali for Rs 160.

As we walk around in the day time, three things strike us; most of the buildings fronting the main street are half demolished, the town is bustling and noisy though in a good way – from the LP description we’d expected a quiet backwater, and finally, it’s nothing at all like Khajurao – another LP description. The half demolished buildings are due to a road widening that started 6 months ago. Folks seem happy about it and there’s lots of work rebuilding homes and businesses. The bustling and noise is because Orchha is a place of pilgrimage for Hindus – it has the only Temple in India where Ram is revered as a King (Ram Raja Temple). While we are here there is a festival one night and hundreds of pilgrims walk into town or arrive in super packed jeepneys (auto rickshaws designed to carry 8 and easily accommodating 18!). And as for being like Khajurao – no idea where that comes from.

Orchha is in fact a little gem of a place. The palaces and temples straddle the Betwa river and at the far end of town you can walk to some really impressive cenotaphs that border the river where it flows at its fullest. We don’t actually buy a ticket to go into the palaces as we enjoy just walking around the gardens and amongst the ruins. The insides don’t look very well preserved and most of the attraction is climbing up inside for the views. The ground level view looks fine to us.

Interestingly the entrepreneurial folk (some women, quite a few kids and most Sadhus) have learnt some English to help them along. Its "Hello….. Money” or “Picture …… Money”. The Sadhus more often just say Hello and stand there hoping for something or start playing some instrument (symbols or bugle) and hope you will reward their effort or rather pay them to shut up!! But its good natured and not hard core begging like in the cities of India where they really get up front and personal – which is really annoying & a few have gone away with a flea in their ear for it from M and other Indians who don’t like it happening to foreigners; Indians seem to be ignored from this ridiculous practise. This is not to suggest that there aren’t the needy and one can see quite a few examples of them – but oddly enough they are not aggressive at all.

Our final day in Orchha, we have a train from Jhansi back to Delhi at 11-30 pm, so rather than kill time in the heat; we keep the room for the day (at a cost). Good decision. We spend some time wandering around again then when it gets too hot, retreat to the room to catch up with some admin. We wander out again for sunset, back down to the river to see the sun setting behind the cenotaphs – it’s the advertising pic for here.

The rickshaw we had negotiated turns up at 8 pm to take us the 15km to Jhansi station for 11.35pm train to Delhi. Surprisingly the 3 hour wait at the station is not too bad as the waiting room is pretty good and we have access to a recharging point so use the laptop to keep busy (apart from a light snacky dinner from the 24 Hours Food Junction).

Delhi – preparing for Japan

So it’s back to “Base Camp” which is what Delhi feels like now. We arrive at 6.30 am at Nizamuddin train station (the terminal stop for the train from Jhansi). This is the first time that we are glad that the train is late as we should have been here at 5.30 am. After a quick coffee we negotiate a rickshaw to Rajiv Chowk as the Metro will now be operational.

We get to the Namaskar Hotel in Karol Bagh where we stayed when we first arrived in India. After a quick nap by miss lazy (tired she insists!) while M starts the process of getting ready for the last few days in India & reducing our travelling stuff down to one large rucksack only – we get ready for a quick lunch at Khan Cha Cha’s in Rajiv Chowk – fab! We visit here again on our last night for dinner (Biriyani sold out – that speaks volumes but we get to grips with a host of different kebabs in a roll – Romalli roti so not so greasy). Fantastic and we’d like to open a franchise wherever we are. There are more outlets of this eatery in around Delhi. We have tried their Khan market outlet and it’s just as good – it all started there!

We leave another luggage rucksack at Tony’s office. We meet up with him briefly and his “Jeeves” Shankar. This takes a load off our mind and hopefully will help with our travels in Japan & more so in the Philippines where we will have to leave the large rucksack in Manila and use it as a base for travelling as much of what we intend to do requires us to travel really light (one day sack each!!). One hell of a challenge!!

We really discover more of Karol Bagh for a change and it has a lot to offer, there are new eateries since we were last here, a new beer & wine shop nearby, we make it at last to Roshan De Kulfi for reputedly the best Kulfi in Delhi (justified we feel) – we even go there for dinner one night. The market area is big and it seems one could get anything here and it goes on till late at night. The other food gem we come across here is the Punjabi Sweet Centre – chole batura to die for (Rs 60).

Jaipur – the Elephant Fair & Holi

The Elephant Fair – what no elephants?!

So, we are ready for our final India excursion – well, at least for 2 months. We are up at 4.15 am to get our train from New Delhi station to Jaipur for the Elephant Fair today. We manage to get a rickshaw at slightly a higher rate (but worth it) at 5.20 am near the Karol Bagh station. This was after a young couple had stopped in their car to offer us help or a lift as they had seen us walking down the main road at that hour looking for a cab. This restores our faith Delhi folks and we assume is a result of all the publicity surrounding the incidents of rape etc given a lot of media coverage in the press locally. However, they are not going our way & a rickshaw guy pulls up behind them who we take for the ride to the station.

New Delhi station is enormous – it has 16 platforms and is in pretty good shape and being modernised. There are 2 entrances – one from Paharganj and the other from the Rajiv Chowk. So knowing which platform you want will help reduce the amount of walking with luggage you have to do.

The train starts here and our coach (2 A/C coach seats) is filled with about 40 young girls from Waverley school. M reminisces that there was a Waverley in Mussoorie (where he went to school) and when we chat to some of them (they want to know where we’re from and what we’re doing) it turns out they are from that school. They are intrigued by the ex St Georges “uncle” and one even declares he looks like Ruskin Bond - a famous Mussoorie based author. They are from many countries and very well educated and polite; it’s interesting to meet them.

The Shatabdi Express is recommended by many travellers and we can see why; coffee on arrival, free water, and breakfast (not bad veg cutlets) are included in the price.

We arrive in Jaipur and are met by Fateh, the son of the Colonel who owns the guesthouse where we are staying – Shahar Palace. Unfortunately the Colonel (ex Army and a hoot) is in hospital recovering from an accident - the result of a bike hit and run accident & he’s broken his knee and is in traction; we wish him well – he’s a great fellow. Fateh is a Polo player and well established in Rajasthan with the nobility – he’s also a nice guy.

We soon meet up with some fellow Brits (Rosie who is planning to live in Jaipur part time, Sarah from Majorca who is also planning to live in India part time, and Lotte from Islington who is a student) and compare travel notes, then after a catch up on emails we head to the Elephant Festival.

We have come here specially for this, otherwise we would have been in Japan 2 weeks ago. The festival is in the grounds of Rambagh Palace and as we sit there waiting for the start Rosie gets a call to say the Elephant Festival has been cancelled following a petition!!! Instead, they have renamed it The Holi Festival (as Holi – the festival of colours to celebrate the start of spring is the next day) and now there will be a display of Rajasthani cultural dances and arts to celebrate Holi. Or as she put it – an Indian village fete!! Odisha revisited!

C is very p****ed off with Rajasthan Tourism as she checked the site just an hour before and there was no mention of it being cancelled. She can feel a complaint coming on.

The Festival is pretty much a farce. The commentator (a complete and annoying pratt from the Polo club who likes the sound of his own voice too much) and the dancing troupes are swamped by the media and photographers so you can’t actually see anything even if you stand at the barrier. About 20 mins too late the compere suggests folk sit down – no chance! We leave.

As we’re on familiar territory, we head to the beer shop for a couple of beers, do a bit of blogging then head down to a pre-ordered dinner with all our favourites and really nicely cooked. We meet Matt & Lauren from California who are in India on a whistle stop 3 week tour north to south and west to east!! Sounds exhausting. We also chat with Charles & Natahsa, dentists from Wales who are off to work in Oz via Goa!! And Ektar who is from India but now lives in Dubai and is travelling on photo shoots.

Holi – the festival of colours and welcome to spring

We get up and get ready for Holi not quite sure how things are going to roll. We thought that there may be some fun in the neighbourhood which is a pretty middle class area and it’s likely to be less problematic as Holi can get a bit chaotic in some places with oil colours, people high on bhang and misbehaving, or folks throwing acid (in extreme cases). After a quiet breakfast, Fateh invites everyone down for the festivities to begin – it’s now about 11 am. He has bought in some dry colours for all to share and loads of beers, whisky and rum (Army supply Aristocrat from the Colonel’s stock no doubt) & coke. Some of the other guests have also bought colours for the event. The fun begins and it’s all pretty good natured but really good fun and everyone joins in. The booze helps and it keeps coming.

A few adventurous ones decide to go into Jaipur city and come back later covered with oiled colours which they are still sporting the next day! C ventures out with a few others into the neighbourhood & it’s a watery colour fest; fortunately the kids keep their aim away from the camera. Fateh then goes off to a Heritage Hotel where his friend has laid on a bash Rs 3000 per head – only Ekta goes with him. The rest continue to enjoy Holi in the House garden. There are savouries and Indian sweets provided as well; so all in all it’s a great fun day.

We skype with Sarah about her flat issues (Services Charges issue) and she takes a picture of us all coloured up and puts it on Facebook. Cool or what!!

When it’s all over we all shower and meet in the dining area. Most of the colour has come off – except for some reason in the cleavage of all the women!! And we have no idea how it all got there (or they are not letting on anyway)!! We have a lovely dinner again, exchange emails and then an early night for an early start in the morning back to Delhi.

Fateh has arranged a rickshaw at 5am, and we take a double decker train – the first for us in India – at 6 am for an rather uncomfortable 4.5 hours to Delhi as the seats don’t go back and are really badly designed, in addition - no breakfast either this time!!

Off to Japan!

So after another day tasting the delights of Khan Cha Cha and Karol Bagh, we do some final re-organising of bags and have an early night to head off in the morning to Delhi airport for our flight to Japan. Arun at Hotel Namaskar arranges a cab for Rs400 and we get to the airport T3 at 10 am, to check in for our Air Malaysia flight at 1-00pm. If all goes to plan we shall be in Tokyo in the morning. It will be a huge contrast and we’re looking forward to it.


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29th January 2015

Bon Voyage !!!
Great blog. was looking about north indian cities. liked the concept of genieforcity.com . it covers several north india cities .some good info too. whats ur take ?any suggestions?

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