A Travellerspoint blog

The Long Journey Home

sunny 40 °C

As we sat watching the sun set over the Taj Mahal sipping our delicious vanilla milkshakes we realized that we were about to embark on a 3 day long journey from Agra to Wakefield so, although we stopped in several places along the way we thought it would make most sense to write about them all together. We said goodbye to the friendly staff at the Agra guest house and got a rickshaw to Agra Fort station. Our train was an hour late but we found a nice South American guy to talk to while we waited. We had a pleasant chat with him although Ffion scared him by telling him his planned route would take him into a malaria zone; something he hadn’t come prepared for! Our train journey in the dark from Agra to Jaipur was fairly uneventful and we arrived more than an hour late. Fortunately the free pick up the hotel had offered us was still waiting for us so we had a hassle-free way of getting from the train to our very comfortable bedroom.

Around 8 hours later it was time to check out and we wished we’d been able to book a room in this hotel on our first trip to Jaipur as the room was spacious, sparklingly clean and beautifully decorated. The hotel and the driver from our ‘free’ pick up the night before were very keen for us to use their services to do a tour of the city but instead we went on a short walk to get some travellers' cheques changed, had a leisurely breakfast and checked our emails before heading back to the station for leg 2 of the journey. When we found we were sharing our compartment with a young family with a 3 year old boy and a 3 month old baby we thought we were in for a noisy day and a bad night's sleep but Indian children somehow don’t behave like British children; they’re often very placid and don’t seem to get bored on long journeys. These children were particularly well behaved and all of the adults in the compartment enjoyed watching the little boy’s delight at learning how to drink his carton of mango juice using a straw! We also had some interesting conversations with the father about his family in Rajasthan, his home in Mumbai and his hatred for Salman Rushdie (“he talks a lot of sh*t about my prophet”). We had a fairly comfortable night's sleep on our final Indian train journey and woke up on the outskirts of Mumbai.

Our first task upon arrival in Mumbai was to get to Victoria Terminus Station from Mumbai Central (we went by cab to avoid the ‘super dense crush’ you get on rush hour trains), get changed and deposit our bags at the left luggage facility. Our second task was to find breakfast. Feeling that we knew the area fairly well by then we headed for Leopold’s Café in Kolaba and were shocked at how high the prices were compared to everywhere we’d been between then and our first visit. We then did a bit of souvenir shopping at the stalls along the road and then walked up to the Oval Maiden to see where Mumbaikars (Mumbai residents) play cricket. Ffion was surprised at how official it all was – instead of the communal park she was expecting the area was divided into about 6 pitches with players in whites and proper umpires at each game. Patrick, who had read the guide book, wasn’t surprised but was still impressed at how seriously Mumbaikars take their cricket and at how many people were spending their lunch break watching the games. We caught a glimpse of the Wankhede cricket stadium nearby but couldn’t get very close as it was closed. We then went to the Museum of Modern Art that we had visited on our first day in India. We remembered that it had a nice café and also that the exhibitions changed every few weeks so we were able to enjoy it for a second time. We whiled away the rest of the day with shopping, using the internet, eating, drinking and revisiting the Gateway to India. Tired, hot and hungry we slowly made our way to the train station to pick up our bags and then got a taxi to the airport. We spent our last rupees on expensive airport food and explored the expensive airport shops comparing their prices with what we’d paid for the same items on the street just a few hours earlier. We boarded the plane on time but its take off was delayed by almost an hour which meant more time to watch films but longer to wait until we were fed and could go to sleep.

The next morning we were woken up at 5am (UK time), around 7 hours after takeoff, for a strange breakfast of spicy egg and potato before landing. We’d heard that there was a possibility of being held up in Heathrow because of a shortage of customs staff but we sailed through and were on the tube to King’s Cross in no time. We thoroughly enjoyed our ‘Irish breakfast’ at O’Neill's across the road from King’s Cross, especially the sausage and bacon as we hadn’t eaten pork for at least 7 weeks. The train ride from King's Cross to Wakefield Kirkgate seemed amazingly smooth and short and before we knew it we were in Patrick’s dad’s car on the way back to a warm cozy house, roast chicken dinner, tasty white wine and a comfy bed.

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our trip as much as we’ve enjoyed doing it. We’ll try and upload some photos shortly so you can actually see some of the things we’ve been writing about. We’ve had some great experiences, met some lovely people, seen some beautiful places and have had a lot of laughs along the way. We won’t be keeping this blog up now that we’re back in the UK but perhaps we’ll write again next time we’re away so watch this space! Bye for now and thanks for reading, Ffion and Patrick x

Posted by ffionandpatrick 06:19 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (1)

Agra

sunny 38 °C

Walking through the station on our way to the metro on the previous few days we'd heard announcements that trains were running up to 5 hours late but all the trains we’d taken to this point had arrived and departed more or less on time. Considering the huge distances they cover - some trains go from Kanyakumari right in the South to Delhi in the North or Kolkata in the East - it’s an impressive feat. Our luck ran out in Delhi though as our train to Agra was an hour late. A few hours later we arrived and got a rickshaw to Hotel Shah Jahan which was run by an kind old Muslim man and his family. We arrived just in time to watch the sun set over the Taj Mahal from the hotel’s rooftop restaurant which was beautiful to say the least. After a short explore of Taj Ganj – the area around the Taj – we had tea at a restaurant which was showing the film Erin Brokovich. We spent the rest of the evening watching India versus South Africa (cricket from Johannesberg!) and chatting to our hotel’s proprietor.

The next morning we headed off to see possibly the biggest tourist attraction in the whole of India – the Taj Mahal. We felt pretty bad skipping the long queue of Indians who were waiting to get in but when we realised that tourists had to pay 15 times more than Indians we didn’t mind so much. The Taj Mahal is known as the world’s biggest monument to love because Shah Jahan, Mughal emperor in the 17th century, built it as a shrine for his favourite wife, Mumtaz. The first thing that strikes you when entering the gates to the Taj is its sheer size. From the hotel’s rooftop it’s difficult to conceptualise the size of the dome and how far apart the grand gateways and towers are. When you’re standing up against them you realise they’re enormous. The gardens between the gateway and the mausoleum represent the Muslims’ garden of paradise with four streams (representing honey, wine, milk and water) converging at a central pool. They’re a little run down at the moment and the fountains were unfortunately switched off but, again, the size of the garden was striking. While we were queuing up to get into the mausoleum we admired the walls which are exquisitely ordained with flowers cut from semi precious gems (such as coral) embedded into marble. As we approached the small opening into the central chamber the queue became a scrum so viewing the tomb of Mumtaz, and the tomb of her husband which was lain beside her after his death some years later, was quite difficult and a little uncomfortable. Still, we were able to appreciate the details of carving in the marble and the beauty of the Koranic verses on the tombs (which are actually false sarcophagi above where the actual bodies were buried). We enjoyed wandering around the outside of the Taj and comparing the mosque (on the left) with the Jawab – a ‘fake mosque’ which resembles the mosque exactly from the outside but which can’t be used as a mosque because it doesn’t face Mecca. Interestingly, the insides of the two buildings are slightly different and the Jawab was significantly more dilapidated. All in all the trip to the Taj Mahal was as awe inspiring as Patrick had hoped it would be although Ffion, who had been there 7 years ago, didn’t think it was worth an expensive second visit!

After a bit of lunch we set off to Agra’s second tourist attraction – Agra Fort. Delhi’s red fort, which we had visited a few days earlier, was modelled on the Agra Fort so it was interesting to see how the lay out and the function rooms (such as the specific room for meeting members of the public and another for meeting with his closest council) were similar. There was one section excitingly called the fish pond but the British, when they took over the fort and used it as an army barracks in the 19th century, had filled it in and used it as a training ground. From the ramparts of the fort there was a stunning view of the Taj Mahal and it was here, looking out at his wife’s mausoleum, where Shah Jahan died having been imprisoned in the fort by his son Aurangzeb.

The following day we got up at sunrise to see the Taj Mahal in a different light. Agra is a very polluted town (the nearby sulphur works make all stagnant water smell like rotting eggs) so the sun sort of slinked into view behind a thick veil of smog rather than rising gloriously and shining bright rays onto the white marble of the Taj. We went back to bed for a few more hours sleep feeling a little disappointed. We had thought to visit Fatehpur Sikri, the capital of the Mughal Empire under Shah Jahan’s father Akbar, but the sun was oppressively hot even at 10am so we decided against two bus rides and an afternoon exploring a medieval city in the glare of the midday heat. Instead we walked to where we’d seen ‘craft village’ marked on our map. When we arrived the market seemed to be closed, perhaps because it was a Sunday. We asked some men in an office if they knew where the market was. They gestured around the corner but Ffion said to them that she thought it was closed. “No closed, madam” came the adamant reply. They sent one of the young men to show me the market area. When we got there is was still closed. “Closed” said the man. We tried to figure out which days it was open but were told that it was open on all days, even Sundays. We suspected that, for all the young man knew, the market might have closed down completely so we decided not to bother coming back tomorrow. On our way back to the hotel we were amused by the overgrown golf buggies that were carting tourists from the posher hotels to the doorstep of the Taj. The Agra council is very aware of the damage pollution is causing to the marble of their most precious tourist attraction so their response has been to set up an exclusion zone for petrol vehicles around the immediate parameter of the building. We suspect more needs to be done if any real impact is to be seen.

On our final day we mostly ate, drink lots (the heat was unbearable again), used the internet, shopped for jewellery, played backgammon and prepared ourselves mentally for the long journey ahead of us. We also took a walk down to a small Krishna temple by the rivers’s edge from where we had an unspoilt view of the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort and also a young boy herding some water buffalo on the other side of the river.

Posted by ffionandpatrick 09:43 Archived in India Comments (1)

Delhi (2)

Return to the capital

sunny 32 °C

Our departure from the mountain views of Himachal Pradesh was via the historical train journey down the Shimla Kalka railway, a toy train line built by a Victorian British viceroy. We booked our trains as before but on boarding the train found that it was (understandably) considerably smaller and more cramped than any other. The 90km trip takes 6 hours, which is mainly down to the number of metres the line descends through the mountains, as well as the number of tunnels (102) and switch backs in the line. However, this did give us plenty of time to admire the Himalayan foothills for the final time on our trip. Our stay in Kalka was brief, enough time to leave the toy train and get on our first and only AC chair carriage (the most similar set up to a British train) as there were no cheaper means of getting to Delhi that evening. By the time we arrived at Delhi’s Sarai Rohilla station we had spent the best part of 12 hours on trains that day, and were very pleased to be offered a lift to Pahar Ganj by one of David Cameron’s bodyguards, and his mother, a priest from Weymouth who had been doing the same journey as us. For our second stay in Delhi we booked into the same hotel as we had stayed in during the few days we were there around Holi, although as there were two hotels owned by the same people, it turned out we had a room in the other hotel this time around.

After our relaxing period in the mountains we decided to try and pack in as much as we could in our time back in the capital, starting with the New Delhi area. This part of the city was built by the British when they relocated the national capital back to Delhi. We took the metro (again, one of the most impressively Western things in the whole country) down to the stop nearest to the main attractions of New Delhi, emerging on the Rajpath, a 2km straight road with the Delhi Gate at one end and the presidential residence at the other. The searing heat of the plains had returned and the stroll around the governmental buildings of the secretariat was very hot, so we headed for the relative cool of the National Museum. There were some interesting ancient relics and another large collection of Rajasthani miniature painting, though with a number of the galleries being closed we felt we didn’t get the full experience. After another hot walk down the Rajpath we arrived at the Delhi Gate, an imposing structure similar to the Gateway to India in Mumbai but bigger and less ornate. A further walk through embassy district brought us to the Gandhi Smriti, the Mahatma’s residence during the final few months of his life. Unfortunately we arrived quite late in the day so only had time for a quick look around, although we did manage to take in some of the information about the independence campaign and see the spot where he was martyred.

The following day we set off to Old Delhi or Shahjahanabad, to give it its full and previous title. This is where Delhi really reflects the stereotype of Indian - busy crowded chaotic streets and hordes of people selling you everything and rickshaw wallahs refusing to give you directions unless you take a lift from them even just a block down the street. After lunch at an Indian fast food restaurant (although it’s hard to find anywhere on the street that isn’t fast for food) we headed for the Red Fort. Modelled on the fort at Agra, this was the centrepiece of Shah Jahan’s new capital at Delhi and is set over a large piece of ground on the edge of the river. We saw the various halls of public and private audience and the lawns where the Mughal emperors held court and ruled their empire. As always, we were accompanied by hurrying crowds of Indians all the way round. Our final stop on this tour was a museum of independence in one of the outbuildings, a distinctly one sided look at the late history of the raj and the struggle of the Indian people towards independence in 1947. Not for the first time we were shocked to discover a part of a museum extolling the virtues of someone who had killed many British people, this time it was a soldier who had defected from the Indian army and run away to China to get support for his idea of an Indian Independence Army. This gallery was juxtaposed by more rooms telling the tale of Gandhi, the Indian hero who abhorred violence and the idea of creating independence by force. After the Red Fort we walked round to the Jama Masjid, Delhi’s main mosque. We arrived during afternoon prayers which meant we had to wait until the Muslims had finished praying to go in even though many obviously non-Muslim or non-religious Muslim Indians were strolling in, running around and taking photos during the prayers. We were then told by the door man that we were then not allowed in at the same time without buying a camera licence for the camera in our bag. That evening we had an excellent meal at a restaurant in Pahar Ganj, with Patrick feeling brave enough to try the tandoori chicken and Ffion having chicken momos, which were both very tasty.

We spent our final full day in the capital travelling to some more outlying sights, starting with the Baha’i temple. This is a modern building in the southern suburbs which is often compared to the Sydney Opera House and with good reason – the Baha’i temple’s is in the shape of a lotus flower and is very impressive both from the approach on the metro system and from close up after you manage to get through several levels of security checks and work out which is the Indian queue and which is for non-Indians. From our brief trip (Ffion's second) we learnt that Baha'i is a religion that states there is one God, one humanity and one religion that has had many prophets. Mohammed and Jesus, they say, were early prophets of the same religion and in the mid 19th century a new prophet called Bahá'u'lláh brought new messages which added to their teaching but in reality his teachings established a new religion. Baha'i worship is similar to Quaker services in that it's based on the principle of quiet prayer and reflection with occasional readings from their holy scriptures. Before being allowed into the temple we were lined up outside and told several times in several languages that me must be quiet and not take photos whilst inside. There were volunteers from all over the world inside trying to enforce this with some success. We returned to Pahar Ganj via Connaught Place, another central roundabout, which currently has on it a touring display of Berlin’s giant bears, each painted by artists from every country in the world; the UK’s effort is particularly disappointing! We had another tasty tea at the same restaurant as the evening before, sampling some lamb kebab and a veg thali.

The following morning we packed our things for another southward journey, moving on to the remaining point of the golden triangle -Agra.

Posted by ffionandpatrick 02:55 Archived in India Comments (0)

Shimla

overcast 20 °C

The journey from Jibhi to Shimla looked daunting on the map and it turned out to be just as we expected. The distance covered between the two is not huge compared to some of our journeys, but going over the top of the Jalori Pass in excess of 10000 ft and changing at a small town called Sainj to cross the valleys of southern Himachal is enough to take the journey time to well over 10 hours. The first 12km from Jibhi up the pass took 70 minutes and as with all the bus journeys so far the bumpy nature of the road caused some unsettling of our stomachs. The road was mostly cleared of snow but there was plenty on the mountain above and below and there were a few hairy moments when we met busses coming down the hill and neither bus seemed willing to reverse along the single track road. Fortunately we both survived unscathed down the other side of the pass and along to Sainj, eventually arriving in Shimla Interstate bus station (several kilometers away from the town centre and considerably lower down the steep hill) that evening. Shimla is a good example of very poor town planning. It was built as a hill station for the British to escape the heat of Kolkata and Delhi and was originally a long, thin town spread along a ridge. Since then the town has expanded across but also downwards on a hill that is so steep that an outdoor lift is the most sensible way of getting from one level to the next! We made our way up to check in to our hotel and after going out for tea at a recommended restaurant were pleasantly surprised to find a really good chicken saag and egg curry at the end of a long day's travel.

The speed of our trip and the timings of the trains meant that we only spent one full day in Shimla, though we made sure to fill it with as much of what the town had to offer as we could. The half timbered town hall was reminiscent of Chester and the parish church with, allegedly, the best stained glass windows in India, could have come straight from any British town. We walked down this mile of old empire and round to the Himachal Pradesh state museum. This had interesting displays of temple sculpture from all around India, wooden carvings, displays of traditional Himachal textiles and the obligatory weapons gallery. Possibly the best gallery was one dedicated to the work of Gandhi who spent time conducting meetings with various other important figures during the independence negotiations, many of which were held in Shimla. From the state museum we went on to the former Viceregal lodge, now the Institute of Advanced Studies. The lodge was the summer seat of power for the raj and another building that is a little piece of Britain abroad. After a samosa and chai, we went for a guided tour around the parts of the inside which are open to visitors (many are reserved for the students of the institute). The main hall is clad in Burmese teak, all imported, the chandeliers in the dining room were brought in from Belgium and many other parts of the lodge were taken from other corners of the former British empire. The conference room was where the independence documents were signed and there is a table which apparently split in half when the partition deal was agreed. As with many tours we had been on in India there was a throng of Indians who seemed quite disinterested in what the tour guide had to say but took some pictures and then sped off ahead. After a stop on the way back for coffee and chocolate cake, and a quick look around the church we packed our bags again for the journey down from the mountains the following day, taking the viceroy's toy train down to Delhi.

Posted by ffionandpatrick 14:39 Archived in India Comments (2)

Jibhi

sunny 15 °C

The first hour of our journey to Jibhi was familiar to both of us as we were simply retracing our steps from Kullu down the valley to a small town called Aut. Ffion got a bit worried when the bus headed through the town and into a tunnel but it turned out that the big reservoir which had been under construction when she was last here had (unsurprisingly) been finished and had caused a small change in the route. We climbed slowly but surely up into an offshoot valley and, after another 2 hours, arrived at the small village of Jibhi. We stayed at the charming Doli Guest House which was where Ffion had stayed when working in a local school and orphanage with The Kullu Project 7 years ago. We were greeted warmly by the owner, Mr Rana, had settled down in the garden for chai and a sandwich. At first glance Jibhi looks like it consists of only 25 houses, a school, 3 shops and a bank but it actually spreads further with houses and small holdings sparsely scattered along the mountainside.

The only tourist activity available in Jibhi is walking so we spent our two days in this unspoiled village attempting to do short walks to local points of interest. I say attempting because our first walk to ‘the waterfall’ (marked on Mr Rana’s hand drawn map with no scale or key) took us around 2km up a very steep set of concrete stairs in the middle of a forest before we realised we’d probably taken a wrong turn at the beginning of the forest. Our second walk was going to be an all-day affair up the side of a very steep mountain finishing at a fort. After less than an hour we realized we didn’t have enough food, water, strength or stamina to reach the top. Instead we ticked off a small temple where we got giggled at by a group of small children, one of whom was clutching a lamb, and took a stroll through the forest and a small village before returning to the guest house. Our third walk was to a village and, again, the lack of scale on the map caused us some issues. We reached the bottom of what looked like a short flight of stairs up the side of a mountain to a temple. After climbing for about 20 minutes and not finding the temple we asked some young boys who’d obviously just come from the temple where it was and they pointed to the very top of the mountain. We decided we’d probably seen enough temples that week as it was so wimped out and walked back again. Although we failed to find most of the things on our map we weren’t too bothered as breathing in the crisp, clean air and wandering around the forests and villages was a pleasant enough experience in itself. After just two nights it was time to move on but we were sorry to leave Mr Rana, his staff, the guest house and the village.

Posted by ffionandpatrick 11:27 Archived in India Comments (1)

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