Agra

Also known as the home of the Taj Mahal. My trip to pay my respects to the most visited tourist attraction in the world began at 6am, and there were already long queues (given that it is the MVTAitW, perhaps having more than one person selling tickets would help). It was great to see it in the morning light though, even if the sun had already risen. The Taj is the monument built by Shah Jahan, the Mogul ruler in C17th northern India, to his favourite wife (who died after giving birth to his fourteenth child). It is therefore seen as a monument to heartbreak and has been described as a ‘teardrop on the face of eternity’ (Rough Guide to India, 2012). It is a moving sight when considered in light of this. The aesthetic beauty of the building is all about the way the light plays on the white marble. It is indeed a thing to behold, and I found myself joining all the other tourists trying to take an interesting photo of it. As you can see below, the Taj looks at its best with me in front of it.
From this start, I gave myself over to proper tourism for the rest of the day, visiting Agra fort, where I enlisted the services of a tour guide because he was old and I felt sorry for him, and then the Jama Masjid, the city’s enormous Mughal mosque. This impressive building has fallen on hard times. There was only an attendant and a couple of sleeping people in the whole building, which was covered in pigeon dung and in a very decrepit state. It didn’t look like anyone uses it, but there are certainly lots of Muslims here and calls to prayer several time a day. The caretaker told me that it is full on Fridays, and the reason it is in a bad state is because it receives no state subsidies because of Islam being a minority religion, and because there are few tourists visiting it at the moment. I only got a picture from the outside, however, as I didn’t feel like whipping my iPad out in this poor part of town.
As I have been writing this just now, a monkey has stolen the coca cola I was enjoying. He crept up while I was absorbed and just swiped it and ran away. I don’t think he enjoyed it though because I had laced it with Old Monk rum (well, I fancied an afternoon tipple) and after taking a quick sip he left it. Hope there is no law about ‘giving’ rum and coke to simians.
Writing now a little later. The monkey theft incident led to chat with fellow “tourists rest” guests who are coming to the end of an over-land trip from the uk to India, a shared tuk tuk to watch the sun set over the Taj, two hours in a mental traffic jam as half of India tried to cross the same bridge (it was like an episode of Top Gear) and some relaxation in a bar (a rarity in what has been a pretty abstemious holiday so far). Their trip by Land Rover sounds amazing, check their website by typing in Conservationontheedge into Google.
Ok, so here’s some pics.

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Jaipur

Much of yesterday was spent on a train – departing jaisalmer at one thirty in the morning I arrived here in jaipur (“the pink city”) at three. This whole journey was through just one province – Rajasthan. I spent much of the journey standing at the open door of the train, breathing fresh air (a rare commodity in the cities and in air-conditioned train compartments) and looking at the Rajasthan countryside, which varies from desert to rich farmland and low mountains.
I spoke to two Indians on this train, who gave me very different philosophies showing the heterodoxy of the country. The first was an employee on the train telling me all about God and something about how we all eat the universe, and showed me some yoga. The second was a lawyer who sometimes worked in London and very forcefully argued that everything in life comes down to money.
Had a walk around jaipur yesterday, it’s a big place absolutely covered in bazar. There must be at least four square miles of crowded bazaar with areas specialising in the full range of material objects from sewing machines to statues. I risked some street food that was delicious, but am anxiously waiting for symptoms, and watched a busy evening ceremony in a Hindu temple. Got up close to an elephant for the first time – they are intimidatingly large – more massive than I had imagined. You can see why they were used as weapons of war by Indian armies.
The guest house I am staying in here is great. It is a home stay in the house of an ex Indian army officer and is filled with antiques. I had a home-cooked meal with two French guests last night, who were both mathematicians. They were more interesting than this sounds though, as they had got together through playing music. I have managed to avoid loneliness on this journey so far quite effectively by imposing myself on people like this and making them talk to me.
I am going to enjoy the sun on the roof terrace of the hostel this morning before my train to Agra this afternoon. Agra is home of the Taj Mahal, and I am told it is best to see it as the sun rises.

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Jaisalmer

My journey to this far-flung Western outpost of India began at three thirty yesterday when I left the rooftop terrace in Delhi where I was whiling away my time writing the last update. Thinking I had left lots of time to get to Old Delhi station for my train at five thirty, I approached a tuk tuk driver for a lift to be told I would be cutting it fine, as the traffic was so bad, and he would have to take me round the long way to avoid the worst of it. Although this may well have been a ploy to get a higher fare, he was right that the traffic was bad in biblical proportions. We spent much of this journey stuck in traffic jams with barely a cigarette paper gap between motor bikes lorries and tuk tuks jammed together, beeping and emitting noxious fumes. The driver could not get near to the station (this quite often happens – a ride will not take you to the door but drop you somewhere and say your destination is over there somewhere, you’re on your own), so I had to find my way across thirty eight lanes of beeping revving vehicles to get to Old Delhi train station. This station is far more crowded and chaotic than New Delhi station, and they don’t worry about signs to tell you where the train will depart from. A young man on his way to an army posting in jaisalmer and who spoke good English overheard my desperate attempts to enquire about the departure platform and came over to rescue me. He had to go online on his phone to find out where the train was going from, so it wasn’t just me. Apparently Old Delhi station is for the ‘have-nots, and so they don’t really keep the infrastructure up to date.
So the train rolled in only a few minutes late, although with no signs anywhere to tell you it was the right train. I found my bunk on the “AC 2 tier” carriage (meaning air conditioned with two levels of bunks) and settled down for what was a reasonably rough nights sleep, given that I had to share my top bunk with my backpack (leaving baggage anywhere not right next to you is not recommended). Thanks Amy for recommending that I take my ear plugs – they cut out the worst of the train noises and mandatory loud snoring of fellow travellers.
The mild discomfort of AC 2 travel was compensated by waking up on a train trundling through the Thar desert. This morning I spent an enjoyable couple of hours watching the desert going by through the open carriage door, dismounting to stretch my legs at various station stops, and chatting to fellow passengers, including a British Indian couple and an army officer from the Manipur region (this is near Burma and as he himself volunteered, he looked more Chinese than Indian). It seems many travellers were connected with the army, because Jaisalmer is a big army base due to its proximity to Pakistan.
Jaisalmer is well worth the long train journey (18 hours). It is a desert town with a huge Jurassic sandstone fort towering over it, complete with beautifully carved Jain temples and ancient havelis (merchants’ courtyard houses). I am staying in one of these havelis, dating back to the sixteenth century and one of the most amazing places I have ever stayed in. It is made entirely from carved stone, the bedroom has a balcony with views of the Jain temples, and views of the desert can be obtained from the roof (if you don’t mind the trance music that the guests are playing in the haveli next door). I have already been to look around the maharajahs palace (diligently following the audio guide) and am now wondering whether to have a night off Indian food tonight, as there is a highly recommended Italian near the town gates. Tomorrow will be more museums and maybe a trip to the lake before having to catch a rather ridiculously timed one fifteen am train to Jaipur. I have the room booked for another night so will get a bit of sleep before heading down for the train (this is not strictly speaking very interesting blogging matter, but I am writing this without thought for drafting or much concern for my readers pleasure – it is a stream of consciousness affair I’m afraid).
Ok, please find a few pictures below, I will include some taken on the kes from the train as an update, and will get some more of the city tomorrow. Alternatively you can google ‘Jaisalmer’ to get some really good pictures).

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Haridwar

Couldn’t update my loyal readership (Amy and my mum) yesterday because I had no internet access in the hotel in haridwar. The hotel was only six quid though. Back in Delhi now in a rooftop cafe awaiting my overnight train to jaisalmer.
Haridwar was great, felt like a proper michael palin. Unlike Rishikesh, which is pretty but as Ringo described it, a bit of a Butlins, Haridwar is holy city frequented by Indians. The evening aarti ceremony in which they pay homage to the Ganges was pretty special, and I watched it in a crowd of pilgrims and locals sat on the bank of the river. I then went to bed early because I had an early train again, but was woken by a wedding party passing though the streets. A large push cart blaring out music with
Iots of people dancing in the streets behind. See the picture below.
I was actually regretting my busy schedule when I left Rishikesh, because it was very peaceful and tranquil there, but I am enjoying the movement and new sights.
So, this blog is pretty much a postcard, telling you what I have done and where I have been and putting a few photos in. In terms of traveller-type insights I can only offer the following:
There is much less all-pervasive musical accompaniment here than in some other equally busy countries like egypt and Turkey. The sonic backdrop here is largely the sound of motorbikes, tuk tuks and their horns. The music that blares out of every shop and taxi in Egypt is missing here.
The cities are low rise – there are not the huge concrete housing blocks you get in the Middle East.
People are trying to sell you stuff, but not so aggressively as in Egypt (sorry this is turning into an India/Egypt comparison, perhaps because Egypt is the nearest place to this in terms of busy-ness, poverty and bazaar culture etc).
Food can be really good and cheap – see below for a picture of a curry in a roadside place that only cost 20p.
There is a lot of dirt – along the side of roads and the railway there are often mounds of rubbish, with pigs grazing on them.
The climate is lovely in February – “like an English summer”, to use a cliche.
The landscape from Delhi up to the Himalayas (Uttarakhand province) is very flat and green with lots of brick making going on.
Travelling on the train is comfortable, though the trains are very decrepit, and offers a great chance to see what is going on in the rural areas (the train goes really slowly).
Having religious ceremonies in the outdoors, focused on the Ganges, at dawn and dusk, adds a great theatrical aspect that is missing from church ceremonies.
Ok, these insights are not very profound, but this is all I have for you right now.
Will try and send a report from Jaisalmer, if there is Internet access in the Suraj hotel (which I have just learned from trip advisor is atmospheric but dirty).

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Rishikesh

My day began early with a train to catch from New Delhi station at six forty five. Train journey was really long but lovely to seethe Indian countryside – flat but lots of trees and flower and ox carts, as well as brick yards and rounds of cow dung drying for use as cooking fuel. They kept bringing tea round on the train and got a weird breakfast of a vegetable patty with two tiny chips and four tiny peas. With some fellow travellers (including a German who looks very like Robert plant) we then got a rickshaw from haridwar to Rishikesh, an hours bumpy and hair raising journey. Rishikesh is where the Ganges emerges from the Himalayas and is worshipped here with lots of ashrams, like Hindu monastries, and people bathing in the Ganges and doing dawn and dusk ceremonies. Have thrown myself into this, by bathing in the freezing waters. Luckily it is really warm so could dry out on the lovely sandy beach afterwards. Not bad at all. Then went to witness the ashram’s aarti ceremony, with much accordion music and drums and singing as the sun went down. Am now writing this in a no-shoes no-booze cafe listening to some rather nice Sufi music. The pa doesn’t work due to a power cut, but it is nicer to hear it as the ancients heard it. Lots of monkeys here – one of my fellow travellers was knocked to the ground by two of them trying to get her dinner. The monkeys and chipmunks here look cute but they can attack. Anyway, the music is over now and I am exhausted after a long days travelling and early start, so will leave you with some pictures. Am writing this on the iPad and for some reason it doesn’t have the facility to caption the pictures that the kestrel has, so you will have to guess which is which, on the basis of the narrative given above. Continue reading

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day 2

As I am writing on my kestrel today I will keep this brief. I am writing on the kestrel because I only took photos using this today, and I wanted to show you pictures, because, as you know, pictures speak a thousand words. Have enjoyed today, looking at old Delhi, ancient mosques and ruined stuff. Leaving the noise of delhi for more rural rishikesh tomorrow. I could expand more – had some amazing thoughts about the irony of an amazingly massive and ornate temple devoted to the cult of an ascetic who performed miraculous feats of austerity, but I will spare you this. And my George Osborne joke. The pics below are a bit random because they are selected from tiny thumbnails on kes, so sorry if some are rubbish.

Paharganj

Paharganj

Pander curry

Pander curry

Akshardam temple - no cameras inside

Akshardam temple – no cameras inside

Massive twelfth cent minaret celebrating conquest of India for islam

Massive twelfth cent minaret celebrating conquest of India for islam

Red fort

Red fort

Mughal mosque, largest in India

Mughal mosque, largest in India

View from a tuk tuk

View from a tuk tuk

Connaught square and mack off flag of india

Connaught square and mack off flag of india

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Delhi day one

Had a great view of the snowy Himalayas when flying in. Got no sleep though, hence feeling a bit spaced now and not really sure what time I should be going to bed to avoid terrible jet lag. Had a panic on the plane because I had ice cubes with my whiskey and coke ( complementary). Suddenly thought, what if they are Indian water ice cubes? I began to imagine I was getting food poisoning before even stepping foot in the unhygenic subcontinent.
Met a hippy on the plane who seemed to think I was a drug dealer. She lives in a van in Cornwall. India attracts these types, there is felt, dreadlocks and face piercings all over the shop in parharganj, the budget backpacking area I am stopping in. Am beginning to think this really is a midlife crisis as the holiday so far feels like something I should have got out of my skin when I was in my twenties, like most people here are doing. There is an element of poverty porn to it all.
The people here are really good at scams.I thought I was immune to the blandishments of Jonny F trying to get my cash, but today was successfully led to a dodgy travel agent and nearly ‘did business’ with them (a complicated story about needing to validate my train tickets) before realising I was being had and walking out. The scammers are very friendly and very plausible, they start up a conversation and are really rather good at making it look like they are giving you friendly advice but are really sending you to their mates dodgy business. I think I’ve got the measure of it now, hopefully.
Had a bit of a strop with Lloyds on the phone in the airport. Having informed them that I was travelling to India so that they wouldn’t block my card, they blocked it anyway so I got here and was unable to get out any money. I phoned them up to unblock it and they put me through different security checks by different people, all of which was being charged to my phone. DAMN THEM.
What a great blog this is, full of spirituality and the joys of travel. It is exciting to be here and I AM ENJOYING IT.
Fun things I saw today included the cows wandering around the busy bazaar, and a really rather full on political parade with two different groups shouting at each other and coming to blows, whilst also driving hundreds of vans and tuk tuks down the street playing loud music, shouting through megaphones and waving flags. Apparently there are local elections tomorrow. Local elections are obviously much more exciting to people here than people at home. The downside of the local elections though is that the bars are shut so I can’t have a holiday lager.
Just gingerly at a veggie thali from a dirty restaurant (the only type). Didn’t eat the rice. maybe I will be ok. It’s eight here now and I suddenly feel really tired.
Ps there are loads of Chinese students here, just like Newland avenue.
Last thought – the bazaar streets where I am staying are not so different to those in Egypt and Morocco and Turkey. There’s a profound thought.

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