October 1994 - Feb 1995, UK£1 = 47Rps / US$35We decided to plunge in at the deep end and make India our first stop. Ive always been interested in India, and Dibs, being half-Indian, had a natural instinct to go and discover her "roots". It just so happened that Dibs Dad (Sarban Singh), Sister-in-law (Kulwinder) and nephew (Govinder age 2), were also planning to take a trip to India. We decided to all go together, allowing us to spend the first week in the Punjab with some of Dibs family. We flew from Heathrow to Delhi with Thai Airways a direct flight taking about eight hours. The flight and service were excellent. Our first journey. Horn Please!As expected, New Delhi airport was hot and hectic and it took us about half an hour to get through immigration. Our immigration official had a little badge with "Smile Please" written on it, which made me laugh because he looked as if he hadnt smiled for a long time. As he stamped my passport, just for a fraction of a second, his face changed from a stern "Im an official" one to a beaming smiling one.
Once we had collected our bags and passed through customs there was an onslaught of touts and taxi drivers plying their trade. Luckily, Dibs folks had organised a driver to take us to the Punjab. They were there waiting for us, complete with Bagichar Dibs brother in law. We piled into a tiny Maruti van and headed off just after midnight.The next eight hours were the most scary, noisy, uncomfortable eight hours of driving I had ever experienced. We weaved through the suburbs of Delhi for an hour or so, to apparently avoid corrupt police who would take money off us, dodging cows, dogs, people, rickshaws and bicycles. Once we got onto the main highway I wondered why every truck (and there were lots of them) had "Horn Please" or "Blow Horn" written on the back. I soon found out. It appears that the horn is the most important part of any vehicle on India. Brakes, windows, lights are all luxuries, but if the horn stops working you get it fixed immediately. The Horn is used to warn any vehicle that you are approaching, then to let then know you are about to pass. Once past, the vehicle you have passed will use the horn to let you know you are past. As you can imagine this results in a LOT of horn blowing!
After four hours of horn blowing, mad overtaking, a few near-missed & some stick waving (from the co-pilots window at any vehicle that did not "obey" his horn), we stopped at a roadside resthouse.
The resthouse served us tea and cold drinks & offered us food which looked and smelled great but we declined. There were lots of trucks parked up and I noticed the drivers were sleeping on the roofs under old sacks. When I asked where the toilet was, I was pointed to a field behind the roadhouse. As I waded into the foot long grass "toilet" field I noticed the grass was moving. Im not sure if the movements were from snakes, rats or what, but I soon did my "business" and left. This was the next thing I learned about India.. taking a shit is not a relaxing pastime, as it can sometimes be in the west!
The next four hours to the Punjab were much more interesting. The sun came up and there were many things to see. Villages everywhere, men riding bikes with brightly coloured turbans (complete with wife and two kids on the same bike), dead cows being eaten by huge vultures, strange signs advertising "Godfather Beer" and other "macho" products. Just after 8 a.m. we arrived in Mojawal Majara a small village near to the town of Balachour. This is where Kulwinder's family lived.
The Punjab Home from home.The family we stayed with made us feel very welcome and after a lengthy sleep to recover from the long journey we sat down and ate and had a tour of the small village.
The house was a single story dwelling with many rooms, lots of shade, charpoys to lounge around on & even a western style toilet. We ate very well and got to know the locals who were extremely welcoming. Many of the people hadnt seen western faces before and I was a continual source of wonder for them. I really felt like this was a treat than many travellers would just not encounter well off the beaten track, no-one trying to rip me off this was real village India. It was a great introduction and we spent the week looking around the local area and visiting Dib's relatives. One day we went to Sarban Singhs home in a village called Langeri. His trusty housekeeper was there waiting for him (I often wonder how he knew he was coming!) and we had a small ceremony in the local Gudwara (temple).
We also managed a visit in Anadpursahib a Sikh holy town about 30 mins on scooter from Mojawal Majara. The temple there was splendid and the scooter ride through the narrow, winding bizzar reminded me of something out of an Indiana Jones film!
All week we had tried to find a bank that would change our US Dollars, but every place we went into wouldnt, so on our last day, Bagichar changed us $200 on the black market at a very good rate.
We said our farewells to the family and boarded a bus to Chandigarh. Dahbos Dad and Bagichar came along to say goodbye, but we were herded onto the rickety old bus at double speed, and had no time for a final chat.
Shimla Cool mountain air.Chandigarh seemed like a pretty normal town & as one of our main desires was to avoid the big towns, we decided to bus straight out to Shimla a hill station in the Himalayas of Himachel Pradesh. We managed to score front seats on the bus, but the journey was pretty scary. Four things worried me on this trip:
Shimla is a marvellous town perched on a mountain at just over 2000m. As soon as we arrived we were besieged by porters wanting to take our bags, or offer us a room. We decided to walk into the main part of town ourselves and after some looking around we picked a room at the White House a small hotel near the Tibetan bazzar. The climate was so nice and cool after the heat of the Punjab and the air was fresh.Shimla is a mixture of English Raj and the usual India city mayhem. The Mall, Christ Church and other buildings give it its English feel and yet the sprawling streets, which seem to hang off the mountainside are very Indian full of small shops, strong smells and people. Although we were quite nervous as this was the real start of our big adventure, we soon relaxed into Shimla and enjoyed a few days of the fresh air, good food and mountain views.
One morning we took a small trek up to the Jakku temple to enjoy some incredible views. The walk was steep and the path is "ruled" by the Rhesus monkeys, which are common in India. They try to intimidate you and if any fear is shown they are sure to sense it.
We managed to make it to the temple without incident (and saw some big monkey gang fights along the way!). At the top we sat down to rest and enjoy the temple, which surprisingly is dedicated to Hanuman the monkey God!. All of a sudden an Indian man started to shout at me in Hindi "Apka Bag Sir Apka Bag". I turned around to see a small monkey sneakily dragging my bag away. I grabbed it just in time.
A local boy sold us some nuts to feed to the monkeys and as I was team cameraman, Dibs was elected to feed them. At first a small, gentle looking monkey came to her for the nuts seconds later a big one came and scared the little one off. Then an even bigger one arrived eventually a dog scared them all (and Dibs) off and we left it at that!
Rather than take the bus back down to Chandigarh we decided to take the small "toy train". This proved to be a good decision and it was a very pleasant journey back down through the mountain forests. We made friends with a Canadian couple Ana and Trevor who were on their honeymoon. We decided to head for Delhi and changed from the toy train to an air-con train for the last leg of the journey into the capital.Delhi Delhi Complete Pandemonium.We arrived at New Delhi train station late at night and were met by total chaos. We had decided to head towards the YMCA as a safe bet, but the real problem was trying to get someone to take us there. The taxi and rickshaw system appeared to be run by some sort of mafia and all we were pestered by various "touts" trying to convince us to stay at their hotels. One of these touts claimed to be from an "official tourist bureau" and led us to an office (which said "official tourist bureau"). When we said that we wanted to stay at the YMCA he said, "OK Ill phone them". He did this and said that they were full and proceeded to tell us to other places to stay. If it wasnt for the sharp eye of Trevor we may have been scammed, but he had noticed that the "official" had dialled a completely different number to the one we had in the book. We realised that we would have to use some authority and stormed out back to the taxi rank. After a few minutes of asking around, some firm language to the touts we got a taxi to the YMCA.
The YMCA turned out to be a bit overpriced 470Rps a night. The pool (which was a big draw) was empty and being repaired and the staff were rude. It was, however, centrally positioned and relatively secure.
We enjoyed a few days in Delhi and visited many of the popular sights with Trev and Ana. These included the Red Fort and the Sikh Gudwara.
We spent quite a bit of time in Old Delhi and I was fascinated by the amount of people just going about their everyday business. It took ages to get anywhere -even by rickshaw, but was a great sensation. Even in the middle of the hustle and bustle, cows were lying in the streets, oblivious to the chaos surrounding them.
On our final night in Delhi we went to Gaylords restaurant with Ana and Trevor for a superb meal and plenty of beers. It was a real treat, quite posh, and we blew the budget.
Jaipur The Pink CityWe decided to head into Rajasthan, so after saying our goodbyes to Trevor and Ana we caught a "super deluxe" bus to Jaipur. It took six hours, but was a comfortable and interesting journey. We checked out the Jaipur Inn Hotel, but it was full, so we decided to stay at the Hotel Madhuban, which was really clean and very friendly in a nice leafy "suburb". It cost 250Rps per night for a huge bungalow, with balcony. The staff prepared food for us, which meant in the evenings we could sit out on our balcony and enjoy excellent vegetarian food.
Jaipur is known as the "Pink City" as many of its buildings are painted pink. Its quite large place with some wonderful architecture. Our visit to Jaipur coincided with the Hindu festival of Diwali. During the eve of this festival we headed into the town centre with a couple of million other people to watch various ceremonies, a precession and the constant lighting of fireworks. It was a marvellous experience purely to see the huge amount of people swarming around the city, which was at a total standstill. The kids had great pleasure in throwing fireworks at us, or exploding them in bottles at our feet much to our dismay. No such thing as the "firework code" in India I guess. Just moving a few hundred yards was difficult, but everyone was in a festive mood and happy to inform us of what was going on, what we should go and see. People in India are always happy to try and speak English with you and are always starting up conversations. After a few hours we were exhausted, so following a quick lassi (curd drink) at the Indian CoffeeHouse (a chain of cafes we used quite often), we headed back to the hotel to recover.
On our second day in Jaipur we hired an auto-rickshaw driver for the day. His name was Bikky and he had bugged us for hours the day before, so we figured out wed use his services to see the sites. It turned out to be a good choice as he took us to some highlights of this large city. We visited the City Palace and Jantar Mintar. Later on our rickshaw driver took us to the outskirts of town to some little known tombs, which were almost forgotten, but very interesting.
Before leaving Jaipur we decided we would take a bus to nearby Amber fort, 11 KM from Jaipur, costing 2.5 Rps each. The walk from the bus stop to the fort was quite long, but was worthwhile. The Fort is fairly big, and a mixture of renovation and run-down. It commands excellent views over the surrounding countryside and the town of Jaipur.
We had the option of riding up to the fort on an elephant, but 250Rps each was a bit steep and the Mahouts didnt want to bargain. Overall, the fort is fantastic, but expensive. The locals have tapped into the steady influx of tourists (especially wealthy package tourists arriving on coaches), and charge excessive amounts for everything.
We returned to Jaipur that day via three cycle rickshaws. The first man was too old and had to give up (much to his embarrassment), and the second one got a puncture.Jaisalmer Desert SplendourWe took a bus to Jodhpur (8 hours), another large Rajasthan town with a castle, but decided to move onto the desert city of Jaisalmer. We booked tickets on the night train and milled around in Jodhpur for the afternoon until it was time to leave. The station had a comfortable waiting room for foreigners & we ate a really cheap meal at the station restaurant. I think I paid 13Rps for a Thali.
The train was terrific value for money (110Rps each) in the second class sleeper. It was fairly quiet on the train (late 1994 was quiet in India due to the plague scare). We soon settled down into our bunks and prepared into the overnight journey. We chained our backpacks to the metal loops under the benches and laid out our sleeping bags on the ever-so-slightly-padded benches.
The conductor came round to us after an hour or so and checked all the doors were locked. He warned us not to open any doors when the train stopped in the night not to anyone, no matter what they claimed. Apparently quite a lot of bandits operate along this quiet stretch of railway, so we obeyed his words and soon fell asleep.
We woke early in the morning to find ourselves still moving, and we wondered how long it would be until we arrived in Jaisalmer. A man, wrapper in a shawl, walked into our carriage and asked us if we wanted accommodation when we arrived. He had jumped on the train at the last station (so much for security!) and was touting for business. I admired his style beating all the other touts who were waiting at Jaisalmer as we soon found out when we arrived. After some bargaining, we agreed to go and see the room he was offering us at the Hotel Samrat.
The room was fine, the location just on the edge of the old city and the price was cheap (50 RPS £1), so we decided to stay. We soon learned that the main aim of the hotels is to persuade you to take a camel trek with them, hence the cheap rooms. After check-in we were soon invited into the owners quarter to discuss camel-trek options. After many cups of tea and some fierce bargaining we all agreed on what we wanted. We opted for two days in the desert. The first day in a jeep, an overnight stay at the Sam sand dunes & then a day camel trekking back to Jaisalmer. We paid 650 Rps.
Jaisalmer is a wonderful city, and probably one of my favourite places in India. Its got a real "Arabian Nights" feel to it a huge walled sandstone city, set in the middle of the desert. Jaisalmer was once a very prosperous town especially in Medieval times when it served as an important trading post. Its remoteness means it hasnt changed much over the years and wasnt affected by the British Raj like so many other places. Most of the people in Jaisalmer are Muslims.
I really enjoyed staying here. It had lots of charm, the people were friendly and the old city was fascinating. We spent hours wandering through the small streets. Occasionally people would stop us to try and sell us something, or to take their photo (for money of course), but by now we were used to the constant attention you get in India - its understandable and we didnt mind taking the occasional photo or looking at carpets/clothes, etc.
Many of the young people want to be your "guide" to show us around, but we usually found that wandering around on our own was the best choice (plus the fact that these "guides" didnt speak much English for starters). One morning I decided to take an early stroll up to the ramparts as Id been told I would get some superb views. I meandered my way around the old streets and eventually found access to the edge. A young boy was squatting down, doing a "thrupenny bit" He turned around a spotted me and I felt suddenly quite embarrassed. This feeling soon went as he said, "You want guide Sir?"Desert TrekAfter a couple of days in Jaisalmer we set off on our first desert trek. We met our guide Aladdin, late morning, and set off in a jeep with various other Indian men. We visited some small villages and looked around the small houses the people live in. They all seemed quite happy & pretty used to the odd tourist passing through. We also stopped at a collection of old tombs and some deserted old villages. Towards the end of the day we arrived at Sam and spent a couple of hours mellowing out and exploring the sand dunes. Sam was a bit more popular than I had expected. Its a beautiful place with the big rolling sand dunes you would expect in a desert, but little hotels and huts are dotted everywhere, along with camel drivers trying to persuade day-trippers to take a camel ride.
In the evening we ate in our hut (The Hotel Al-Fateh) and then bedded down in the dunes under a brilliant night sky, crammed full of stars. We rested fairly well, but were disturbed by the odd beetle trying to invade our sleeping bags. We woke at 6:30 to witness a magnificent desert sunrise. In noticed snake tracks near to our sleeping area (but didnt say anything to Dibs!). Dibs said her guts felt a bit bad & I felt a bit rough myself, but we thought wed be OK.
We met our camel boys and set off early. We saw some magnificent desert and it was much more pleasing than been in a noisy jeep. We felt like we really got off the beaten track. Unfortunately Dibs stomach problems got worse and by mid morning she was shitting and puking lots. Luckily we had plenty of water to keep her fluid level up, and she bravely continued we didnt really have any other choice! Our camels were well behaved and the two young lads who took us were very nice. Riding a camel gets quite uncomfortable after a while, but on the whole it wasnt too bad. I was surprised at how fast they can move and how they arent smelly as expected. The reign is passed through their noses, so they are easy to control.
On the way back we stopped at a tiny bar for a beer. Dibs briefly felt better and the two young lads got quite tipsy after a few sips. We got back to Jaisalmer a bit later than expected, mainly due to Dibs having to stop all the time, and the hotel owners were waiting on the road for us. They looked quite annoyed and shouted lots of abuse at the young lads, but soon calmed down when I explained why we were delayed. I gave the lads a tip and we headed back to the Hotel Samrat only to find it was full. We ended up in a small hotel called Hotel Green. Cheap at 40Rps a night, very quiet and the manager was friendly.
It was clear that Dibs suffering from something more than just an upset tummy, and we found out she actually had amoebic dysentery. She developed a fever, a severe bout of the shits and sickness. This lasted about three days. The owners of the hotel were very helpful and Dibs made a steady recovery only to have me force Complan and gallons of boiled water down her throat for another few days.
Whilst whiling my time away in Jaisalmer I made quite a few friends, including Brett from Essex, and Gianni & Bonnie (from Italy and New Zealand).
Towards the end of the week, Dibs felt better and started to walk around a bit and eat more. We met up with Brett in the evenings and decided that our next stop would be Udiapur.Udaipur Octopussy.Once Dibs had made a decent recovery we caught a bus back to Jodhpur from the centre of town. We booked a "deluxe" bus (deluxe reads as basic in India bear in mind there are deluxe and super deluxe buses) for the 5 hour trip. The bus was very basic. We wanted to go direct to Udaipur but this was not possible. The journey was OK, fairly busy and we saw a bit of desert life young shepherds herding goats, that sort of thing. It was VERY hot.
We arrived in Jodhpur in the afternoon and went straight to the train station. We had hoped to catch a train to Udaipur but this, again, was not possible due to cancellations, etc, so we decided to catch another bus. This time we had to take a night bus. We had decided to avoid night buses when the trip began as we were advised that they often crashed. My thoughts went back to our arrival in India and the long night journey to the Punjab but we decided we didnt want to wait around and would go for it.
We milled around in Jodhpur for the day and Dibs phoned the "Pratap Lodge" near to Udaipur to secure some accommodation. She had been told about it in Jaipur apparently they organised horse riding and as always, she was keen to have a go.
We got on our night bus at 11:00. . We now had a "on the buses" system Dibs would dash on and secure seats, while I would sort the packs out. We usually managed to get our packs onto the bus, but in this instance we had to load them into the boot. I waited around the rear of the bus until it departed just to make sure no one took too much of a liking to our stuff.
As expected the journey was horrendous. The horn never stopped, loud Hindi music blared from the small TV (this was of course a video bus), and the journey was hazardous . Surprisingly I slept through the lot of it! I dont know how (Im usually a light sleeper), but I just did. Dibs didnt sleep a wink for a change.
We arrived in Udaipur at around 5:00 a.m. It was chilly and quiet, but there were auto rickshaws waiting. We soon struck up a deal with a driver to take us to the Pratap lodge, which was about 15 mins away. It turned out to be quite a majestic looking place quite splendid but starting to look a bit worn. After knocking on the door for some time a Belgian lady who was working there came and answered. She quickly showed us to our room and we hit the sack. Despite a minor incident with a large mouse we slept for quite a few hours.
The atmosphere at the Pratap Lodge was very European. In addition to the Belgian girl there was a German guy called Homer, an English girl called Becky both of who worked with the horses, and an older German woman who didnt seem to be doing anything. There were also numerous big nasty dogs including Caesar a rather vicious bull terrier. The Maharaja himself was a nice, elderly man who had a taste for fine things and young women (or so I gathered!).
We spent a few days at the Pratap. We rode horses around the pleasant countryside and through small villages. The horses are of the Mawari variety, which are special to the region. They have small distinctive ears and are quite slender but are very fast and feisty very enjoyable to ride. There was no such thing as safety helmets, although we were offered cricket helmets.
On day we got a lift into Udaipur, which turned out to be a really nice city. The Jagdish Temple is very impressive and the floating palace (as featured in the James Bond film Octopussy) is beautiful. We wanted to visit it, but were told boats were not running at the moment and to visit we would have to book a meal at the very expensive restaurant something we couldnt afford to do. We also wandered around the very pleasant City Palace
One evening it was the Maharajas birthday party, and Dibs and I, as the only guests of the lodge, were invited. We were treated to fantastic foods, both local and foreign and plenty of imported drinks. Many guests were present, a mix of European and well to do Indians. Everyone was very friendly and chatty, and although at first I thought that us two scruffy looking backpackers would be ignored, it seemed like everyone wanted to chat with us. We had a great time, although Dibs threw up later in the evening (she claimed it was something she ate, but I reckon she just overindulged on the spirits!).
On our last day, the Maharaja asked us if we would like to travel with him and his "entourage" to the Pushkar Camel fair. As this was going to be our next destination anyway, and seeing that we would get a relatively comfortable ride in a car rather than a bus, we were very happy to accept. The following morning we met the local "Park ranger" Panni Singh, who turned out to be a real character. Dibs and I, along with the older German lady (who was slightly mad but great fun) joining Panni Singh in his Jeep for the journey to Pushkar. It took about six hours and on the way we stopped at some marvellous Hindu temples in a small village and took refreshment breaks regularly along the way. The journey was very comfortable and Panni Singh drove well, although I was getting a bit concerned at the amount of Rum that he and the German lady swigged along the way. I think they were both quite drunk on arrival.Pushkar The world famous camel fair.We arrived at Pushkar late in the afternoon. Apparently the Maharaja stays in tents at the same place every year the grounds of a sawmill near to town. We arrived to find the place scattered with wood with no places to pitch the tents. Arguments between the Mill owners and the Maharajas crew started, but in the end we all chipped in and cleared the area of the logs and wood. This took quite a while, and by the time we had put the tents up (great big old things), it was late and everyone was a bit niggly and very hungry.
We drove down into town and dived into a small restaurant called the Sarovar offering and "all you can eat" buffet for 25 Rps. The fare was pretty good all kinds of food and we all ate heartily. All the food in Pushkar is vegetarian and no meat or eggs are allowed.
That night I slept like one of the logs we had moved earlier, despite one of the workers coughing constantly. He had Malaria and I later found out that 2000 people had died in Rajasthan from malaria that year.
We spent a couple of days at the camel fair and there was so much going on. Thousands of stalls were set up, selling all kinds of things, There was a fun fair, Kabadi contests, and of course thousands of horses, camels and cows. One morning we went riding with the rest of the group. I rode a fantastic horse called Roostum, and riding through the busy fair and around the huge "ring" was a fantastic experience.
We bumped into Johnny and Bonny and some other people in the evenings and had some good laughs. Alcohol is also banned from Pushkar, but the Maharaja had a private stock, which he was happy to share with us within the confines on the tented camp. I also tried a "Bang Lassi" one afternoon, which pretty well knocked my out for the rest of the day.
Pushkar is full of Holy Men (real and fake) and thousands of beggars some of them horribly deformed or mutilated. I saw one man who had a face that looked like it had been burnt by chemicals, and many people with no legs or no arms.NEXT >>