Rajasthan part 2 

Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur & Udaipur

In Rajasthan we had a taxi driver called Balvinder who took us around, this was great because we weren’t restricted to the train routes and times. Balvinder was really nice but sometimes wouldn’t say anything for a few hours and would then shout some words at you until you got out to discover what he was talking about. One of these examples was on our drive to Bikaner, “RED TEMPLE” he said, “RED TEMPLE!”, we didn’t understand, “RED TEMPLE” we sighed “OK, OK we’ll go see” we got out, not too keen as we’d just woken up from a long heat-induced nap and we were starting to feel a little templed-out.

Anyway, we took off our shoes and wandered in, Ella noticed a large black rat scurry through a crowd of worshipers, Isaac pointed to a group of 10 rats in one corner and another 20 rats being fed seeds by some locals. “Ohhhh RAT TEMPLE” we had read about this temple which is overrun with 25000 rats but people still come from far and wide to worship at.

Ella’s opinion was that it was that the smell was revolting and Isaac was expecting more rats…

It was c.40 degrees every day in the desert so we went out mainly in the early morning or evening. In Bikaner we took and evening Tuk tuk tour through the winding old streets seeing the most beautiful hand carved wooden Havelis (hotels).

We went to see a master of miniature painting as well which is famous in the region, he did a miniature painting on Ella’s nail and we got one (on paper, not nail) to take home. 

The highlight of the next city, Jaisalmer, had to be our visit to out into the desert. Neither of us had been on a camel before and it was a scary ride 10ft in the air! In the evening there was dancing entertainment and dinner with some other groups of tourists. There was a lot of laughing, some local children even came and sang. After dark we opted to sleep out in the dunes under the stars, the moon was so bright you could see for miles and we woke up to sunrise over the Thar desert.

Top tip: podcasts or entertainment are needed for the long car/train journeys in Rajasthan… eye-spy is not that entertaining in the desert!

Jodhpur was another beautiful city based around a fort, every hotel and restaurant had great views from the rooftops. It was also a great place for shopping, Ella got a Sari, Isaac bought a shirt and we also got some Masala tea spice for our Chai.

Our final stop in Rajasthan was Udaipur which is the “lake city”. Here we went out on a boat around the lake and also took an Indian cooking class with a lady called Shashima. We could not recommend this enough it was so interesting to learn all about her life as well as how to cook the basics for all indian curries, breads, chutneys and teas. You leave with a cook book of recipes and a very full stomach as you get to eat everything that you made during the class. Following this we watched our last sunset in Rajasthan on a roof top cafe with some chai and headed for our night train which would take us the 800km to Mumbai and then onto Goa.

Love Ella & Isaac xxx

Rajasthan part 1

We spent 2 weeks in Rajasthan so we’ve split the tour of the state into 2 parts, part 1 is Agra, Jaipur and Pushkar.

We started off in Agra, home of probably the most famous Indian temple; the Taj Mahal. On arrival we visited a park that sits behind the Taj to see the “river side” as the sun went down a small crowd gathered to watch the ant-like people swarm in and out of the domes of the temple. The next morning it was our turn to be the ants, we woke up at 5.30am as we had be told that sunrise was the best time to see the Taj Mahal and it did not disappoint. There were less crowds, but still more than we expected, lots of short queues to get the Instagram-worthy shots!7589954208_IMG_1022

Next up was Jaipur, a half-day drive from Agra. We went to the Monkey temple, which is both a shrine to the Hindu Monkey God and overrun with real monkeys, we never got to the bottom of which came first! From here it was a short climb up a hill to the Sunshine temple which has an amazing panoramic view of Jaipur.

 

Top tip: keep small notes with you in the temples because if you are blessed you will need to give a “donation”, which are not optional and you will be advised if you don’t give enough! We were blessed about 5 times before realising you can politely decline before you’re out of pocket about 1000 rupees!

 

The next day in Jaipur we went into the old part which gives the pink city its nick name. The beautiful art deco buildings are a pale terracotta colour. We visited the Jantar Mantar where Ella could geek-out over the 18th century star constellation, astrology and time measuring apparatus (they have the largest sun dial in the world which could measure the time to a 6second accuracy, in the 1700s… pretty impressive!) We are trying to be positive tourists so we accepted the offer of a local guide in order to put money into the community, however this was a disaster as he failed to tell us anything, and wondered aimlessly around the grounds, so we gave him a small tip and carried on on our own.

 

No hurry, No worry!

The next place we moved to was Pushkar, this was the first city we had been to where there were a noticeable number of non-Indian tourists. Pushkar is a hippie paradise, people live by the phrase a tea stall holder said to us: “no hurry, no worry”. The town is tiny, we could walk from one side to the other in half an hour. There is a bazaar over 1km long full of stalls selling patchwork trousers and jewellery like that you’d find on a stall in Camden. The cafes mainly serve pizza and special lassi but we managed to find an incredible curry house (Raju, Main Bazaar) which may*** be the best curry we’ve had in India.

***The jury’s still out, we don’t want to commit!

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There is a holy lake in the centre of Pushkar which legend claims was a petal of a lotus flower placed down by a god in the middle of the desert. People from all faiths make the pilgrimage to bathe in it. For such a small town there are a lot of temples (500 or so), we visited during a festival where the statues of the gods from each temple were taken from their home and down to bathe in the holy lake, this was partnered with a lot of singing, dancing and music through the tiny streets. There are also temples on the hills surrounding the town; we opted to walked up to Savitri Mata temple (we love a steep hike apparently!) but there’s a cable cart going up and down the hill if you wish. The views are breathtaking from the top. You can see why the lotus flower legend was born as there is nothing but desert for miles around this tiny lake.

 

Love Isaac & Ella xxx

Welcome to Amritsar

We arrived into Amritsar on the sleeper train from Jammu. It was 3am and we almost got off at the station before which was deserted and pitch black, luckily the train conductor ran down the train shouting “no, no next stop!”. Amritsar station was busy considering the time; full of people waiting, sleeping or offering rides but we managed the 350m to our hotel by foot. There were large boars everywhere in the street, which made a difference from cows (although plenty of those too)! The next day we saw our first Indian elephant, being ridden down a main road.

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We really liked Amritsar, the tourist office gave us a great map and we walked/tuk-tuk-ed around the city. The streets are busy, but not like Delhi, and people take “no” for an answer, which is nice. We got lost in the maze of the walled city which is full of tiny streets and shopping lanes. People seem friendly here and willing to help you which is nice.

Top tip: you can find anything in the Hall Bizarre, and everything is grouped (4 shops for sandals, 5 shops for school books, 3 shops for stamps(?) etc.) we needed a lock for our bags on the sleeper train and sure enough there were 4 stalls in a row selling them.

We visited the Gobindgarh fort, the Jallianwala Bagh memorial garden, and at dusk we went to the beautiful Sri Harmandir Sahib (the world famous Golden Temple). The temple is beautiful, sitting in the centre of a pool of water, we queued to go inside and then sat on the bank where people were bathing in the holy waters as the sun set. The temple is free to enter for everyone and they feed 100,000 people daily for free, we later learnt you can also sleep there if you don’t have accommodation. This is all part of the charitable Sikh customs.IMG_3960

Everyone said 1 day would do for Amritsar but our next train wasn’t until 11pm so we had a second whole day to kill. We looked at the map and randomly chose a temple close to our hotel which is how we stumbled upon probably our favourite part of Amritsar: Mata Lal Devi Ji – an elaborate Hindu temple dedicated to the bespectacled female saint Lal Devi. Lal Devi was believed to hold the spirit of fertility and many people travel from around India to pray here. Hindu temples are always bright and colourful but this is something else, it was like a fun fair madhouse with mirrored rooms, huge statues of deities, doors that looked like Lion’s mouths, and a watery cave you have to crawl through to get to the shrine of Lal Devi. It was absolutely crazy and we loved it, like no other temple we have been to, we would recommend a visit to anyone in Amritsar.

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Lal Devi – Saint of fertility

Ella & Isaac xxx

Treacherous Trekking (& a proposal!)

Whilst we were in Kashmir we went on a trek into the mountains to see one of the Great Alpine Lakes. We set off to the Naranag base camp with another guy, Ben, who had also been staying on the houseboat. We had signed up for a 3 day trek but this really turned out to be: 1 day small walk and set up camp, 2nd day 34km huge climb up the vertical side of a mountain (increased elevation of around 1200m) and back down, last day pack up and walk to base camp!

We were guided by Arfaz and Israd, a young man and teenager from the village. We set up camp on the first day near the river, which Isaac and Ben swam in; it was icy cold as the water flowing straight was from the glaciers at the top of the mountains. In the evening we ate the most delicious curry, we were stunned at how good it was seeing as there was just 1 gas stove in the middle of nowhere, we had fresh trout from the river as well.

One thing we haven’t mentioned so far is the amount of people who we have met who want photos of/with us, being asked “selfie?” is quite common in Asian countries but nothing quite compared to Naranag. We were stared at, a lot, and we were told that for quite a few people we were the first white Europeans they had ever seen, except on TV.

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One of the photo shoot pit-stops

We set off on day 2, not really knowing what we had let ourselves in for. The first 3 hours of the trek were the steepest and most difficult, when we reached a tiny hut which sold tea and snacks, we filled up on sugary chai and were able to fill our bottles with fresh water straight from the mountain. The incline eased off a little after that but we still had a long way to go!

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Scary dog at an Indian military base

After another 4 hours walk, and a brief encounter with the Indian military (and their adorable puppies), we reached the stunning Gangabal Lake. The view of the glacier and of The Indian Himalayas was breathtaking. Isaac asked the guide to take a photo of us and as we were posing he got down on one knee!!!

Top tip: if you want someone to secretly take a photo of you proposing to your girlfriend in the mountains, first ensure they know how to use a camera (!)

So no photo evidence of the moment was captured, but it was incredible, and we will 100% remember that moment forever.

After the high of the proposal wore off, reality hit and we realised we had the return half to do and only 3 and half hours until nightfall. The guide did not seem too concerned about this at any point, but then again there’s a very relaxed atmosphere in Kashmir, weed grows freely at the side of the road and people don’t seem too stressed about anything!

Down was a lot quicker than up, but a lot more terrifying. As it got to about 7pm it was pretty much pitch black, luckily Isaac’s mum Jane had insisted we pack the brightest torch known to man, which I think we can safely say saved our lives! Once we eventually made it down (13 hours after leaving camp) we were treated to another amazing curry and quickly fell asleep like babies.

Ella & Isaac xxx

Mountains and Military in Kashmir…

We flew into the tiny Srinagar airport from Delhi, the flight was ok for me but Isaac was being pretty horrifically sick at this point… As we drove through the town we both noticed the heavy military presence, along the road and in empty building sites. The region has had a turbulent political past, as it has been the centre of a territorial dispute between India, Pakistan and China for many years. The peace movement has meant that the situation has been improving since 2004, but you can clearly see the impact on the people and towns. Most of the army in the streets looked bored and were playing games or yawning but this didn’t really distract from the fact they had military grade rifles strapped to them.

We didn’t know what to expect of Kashmir (Our £2 charity shop Rough Guide to India is 2001 edition, so only gives one paragraph on the region confirming that it was not accessible to tourists at that time). But it is incredibly stunning, the snow-peaked mountains make you feel like you’re in Switzerland and you could be in Venice lying on a Shikara long boat on the lakes.

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We stayed on a 19th Century houseboat on Nageem lake, a throw back to British colonial rule, the entire thing was made of engraved wood. We were looked after by a Kashmiri family, and drank SO MUCH Kashmiri tea (which contains cardamom, cinnamon & saffron). We were sent off with a huge bag of it to take on our travels. Kashmir is the only Muslim-majority state in India and a call to prayer can be heard 5 times a day echoing around the lake.

Top tip: data in India is ridiculously cheap 400 rupees (~£4.50) can get you a month SIM with 1.5GB of data per day, but you’ll need a different package to get coverage in the northern states, which we didn’t do, so were pretty cut off!

We really think Kashmir is beautiful. Things are a bit pricier than the South as it is not well connected by train like elsewhere in India, which meant we enjoyed a dusty, bumpy 10 hour jeep ride to the nearest train station in Jammu when we left!

Love Isaac & Ella xxx

Delightful Delhi?

After a sleepy 8 hour flight from London, and a quick panic that our luggage was missing (but turned out we were at the carousel for the other Heathrow flight) we ventured into the heat and humidity of Delhi.

Ella had read up about the Airport line which was new, fast and cheap (~68p) so we went down towards the air conditioned metro. So far, so good. We only had to make the 7 minute walk from the New Delhi train station to our hostel. Not so easy. This area is renowned for touts and scammers and we didn’t believe how many there would be, everyone telling us stories that our side of Delhi was shut off by police, it was flooded, the bridge was closed, and so on. After a lot of hassle and usage of our UK data we made it across the bridge into the Main Bazaar and to the comfort of our hostel, which bizarrely came with a three person sized double bed.

The next few days we had a great time exploring the roof top bars, where beer is served in tea cups, and a day tour with an eccentric rickshaw driver. I’m sure we won’t be the last to say driving in Delhi (and a lot of India) is crazy by western standards; “good brakes, good horn, good luck!” as one of our taxi drivers told us.

“Good brakes, Good horn, Good luck!”

Delhi is completely busy, with a population of 20 million, and we’re sure parts are definitely delightful, but for us 2 nights was enough and we booked a flight out to the mountains in Kashmir.

Top tip: if it’s your first time in India get a prebooked taxi from the airport, then get out to explore once you’ve dropped the bags that scream out TOURIST.

Ella & Isaac xxxx