A Travellerspoint blog

Jaipur, Agra and Varanasi

How to pick the worst day to visit the Taj Mahal

sunny 25 °C
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Written: January 27, 2009

Massive crowds of tourists, locals and foreigners alike, fanned out the Taj Mahal grounds. Many were trying to get as many photos of their subject (partner, spouse, family) with the Taj Mahal. Some were attempting to get pictures of them holding up the Taj with the palm of their hands. Something I promised I'd never do after the Pyramids of Egypt.

I had picked a holiday Monday to visit the New World Wonder and it was a big mistake. The queue to enter was long and paying the ridiculous overinflated foreigner price (by 10 times) was made even more bitter by the impossibly huge crowd overrunning the grounds. Not even the complementary bottle of water and shoe coverings made it any better.

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I left Jaisalmer on Sunday afternoon by bus arriving in Jaipur at 5 am. I was a bit sad to leave since I really enjoyed my stay and Hotel Renuka. However, it was time to move on and so I was going to Agra via Jaipur. Once in Jaipur, I was told to go to the Sindhi Camp Bus stand to take a nice express bus to Agra. I thought I did just that, I went to the station, bought a ticket for Agra and got on the bus. I knew I had made a mistake since it was not the Volvo Express bus I had thought but a decrepit local bus. It took us 8 hours due to the heavy fog to get to Agra and countless stops in small towns, pick-ups along the street and yelling disagreements between the passengers and the fare collector. I have to say, riding in an Indian local bus with 3 metres of visibility is not a lot of fun. Especially when you realize the bus is on the wrong side of the road sometimes and honking like crazy to warn the oncoming traffic.

Finally, at around 1:30 pm I arrived in Agra and dropped off my big pack at Agra Cantt station before heading off to visit Agra Fort. I can't say too much about it except it has been modified by several rulers including the British who used it as barracks and prison. After the fort, I headed to the Taj with what I thought was ample time. However, closing hours were earlier in winter and due to the queue I only spent approximately 1 hour on the grounds. I wish I had more time since standing there and seeing its magnificent splendour and tribute to love is far different than seeing pictures of it.

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I returned to Agra Cantt station to wait until my train at 11:30 pm. The wait was long but I had a delicious meal at the comensum composed of curried pancakes with 2 dips/sauces for 14 INRs! I also got to finish my book called "The White Tiger" by Aravind Adiga which is really popular in bookshops in India. It's an excellent book and gives insight into the real two India's; one that is prosperous and called the "Light", the other being the poor, uneducated and hopeless called the "Darkness".

There was some confusion about where my train, the Mathura Patna Express #3240,, was going to come in but after talking to the station master and seeing a few foreigner headed to Platform 5 I knew I was correct. I had some doubts at first since Platform 5 was badly lid, incredibly dirty (even for India) and it even had live rats crawling and running around while Platform 1 was moderately clean and full of people.

I was able to easily meet many other tourists since they were confused and taking this train as well. I first met Benjamin from Frankfurt, then Doug and Kate from Australia before meeting Angéline and Brunilde from France. Little did we know how long this train ride to Varanasi would truly be. The train, which was not quite listed on Cleartrip and required the specialty of an agent in Jaisalmer everyone called "Uncle" to help me book, arrived at Platform 3 about 20 minutes late. Since Kate and Doug rented Royal Enfields from Delhi and had them waiting on Platform 5 for transport, they had to quickly push it up the ramp, over to Platform 3-4 and down to the proper platform for storage/transportation.

I don't know when we took off from the station but by the time I woke up the update was that the train was delayed by 6 hours due to heavy fog. After passing Lucknow, the train was essentially left with foreign tourists on the way to Varanasi. For the next 6 hours, we talked, exchanged stories and took bets on the train would actually arrive in Varanasi. We pulled into Varanasi Junction at 6pm after sunset and the race was on to get out and get into a decent hotel. I met up with the French girls and Benjamin and we made for Shanti Guest House. Angéline told us they had a chauffeur and I was welcome to join. I expected a car/taxi but it was actually an auto-rickshaw and so the 4 of us had to amazingly fit into the rickshaw with our backpacks as well! I of course got the honour to ride in the front which meant trying not to fall out during every crazy turn and in the stupendous traffic of Varanasi. In more than a dozen instance, I was sure we were going to hit or knock over someone. It's a miracle there was no collisions. We were not dropped off very close to the hotel, which is not accessible by rickshaw. So we walked for nearly 15 minutes through small alleys with the help of a guide (20Rs) before finally reaching our destination. I can't say much about the 70Rs room and I was definitely not found of the uneven bed but what can you expect from a room that costs less than $2? The important thing was that I arrived in Varanasi and I'm that much closer to going into Nepal.

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Well that's all for now, I've got an early morning boat ride to see sunrise and the ghats!

Posted by NomadicOne 03:08 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

On the Rooftop Under the Stars

Arriving in Jaisalmer

sunny 24 °C
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Written: January 24, 2009

I'm not riding a camel for a long time. After a 2 day camel safari, I believe my chances of having children has just gone down significantly.

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Jaisalmer, what a place. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why I like this desert city so much. The town is known for it's beautifully detailed havelis (old homes), the ornate temples and structures within the living fort and camel safaris. Jaisalmer did not disappoint me on all three counts and I've quite enjoyed the city and its people.

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I arrived from Jodhpur at 4:45 am. Amazingly enough, we had left 20 minutes late from the Jodhpur Terminus and arrived 20 minutes early into Jaisalmer. When the lights came up, I checked my watch and figured we were early and could not believe we arrived into Jaisalmer. However, upon looking at the station sign outside I realized we had indeed arrived early which is a miracle for Indian rail. Arriving at such an early hour also meant that touts would be waiting and these were usually from the sleaziest and most desperate hotels. I reluctantly took a ride from one which promised 100 Rs, double bed room within the fort. Of course, this was a lie, it was located well outside the fort and nearly 2 km from the walls. I walked out and hailed a rickshaw, haggled and got a ride to Hotel Rennuka. Since all the beds were taken until 7:30 am when some people would go off on safari, I slept on the roof for 3 glorious hours and watched the stars under the clear night skies. I missed that experience and it reminded me of being huddled close to the fire and watching the even more brilliant night sky in Ngorongoro.

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The first day I spent walking around getting a feel of the city. I quickly learned to look out for cows and the many mounds of cow crap left behind. I enjoyed the sandy coloured buildings and finally carved decorations of the havelis. The fort area was also really nice although much of it was oriented for tourism rather than everyday life. Of course, with tourism being such a big part of the local economy, he usual enticements and tricks could be seen. Walking down the main street, many shopkeepers try to sell you books, water, toilet paper, clothes, camel leather goods, etc. Hotel runners, safari operators, money changers all asking you to come in.

In the 2-3 days in town walking around, I can usually hear phrases such as:
"My friend, water, juice, toilet paper, gum?"
"Korea? Japan? China? ..."
"Hello handsome!"
"Internet? Camel safari?"

After a while, all those advertisements fade into the background.

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On the second day, I managed to get a well needed haircut and refreshing shave for 30 Rs ($0.75). I also finally found a DC 5V charger for my media player. I must've visited over 20 shops in Mumbai, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer and finally found one that has the proper connector. I then met-up with Josh, an old University friend of mine, and we booked a camel safari with Hotel Renuka. He went for the 2.5 day safari while I went for 1.5 day. It's funny how small the world, we didn't even know each other was travelling in India until I saw his Facebook status which indicated he was in Jaipur while I was in Jodhpur. I messaged him to see if he was headed to Jaisalmer like I was and 2 days later we're having a beer on a rooftop overlooking the fort and going on a camel safari together.

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The night before we left, I met up with Josh and a new friend named Menko. We had dinner and discussions together along with a hotel host. Since there was a blackout, I had to borrow a light in order to get back to my hotel at the other end of the city. However, thanks to Menko's initiative to ask and the host's generosity, I got a ride back to my hotel. What was even better was that he asked if I knew how to ride a motorcycle, I said yes and he shiftefd back and told me drive! I rode a 150cc Honda Hero motorcycle for about 10 minutes to get back. This was also the first time I rode 2-up (i.e. with a passenger) but it didn't matter much since we never went very fast and the bike had a small displacement. However, it did give me confidence to take on one of the many women who've requested a ride with me when I get back in Canada. I am extremely thankful for the generosity of the hotel host since walking back during the blackout late at night may not be the safest idea.

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On my third day in Jaisalmer, Josh and I took off for our camel safari. We visited the Jaisalmer Royal Cenotaph and then drove 45 minutes to meet the camels and guides. I called mine Chamomile and spoke to her before I got on. Each of us then got on our camels and off we went for 1 hour before stopping at the site of ruins and another hour before stopping for lunch. By that point, we could all feel the full effects of camel riding on our body. The bruising and chafing on the inner thighs, the awkward stretching of the pelvis. The pain was amplified if the camel was going downhill. By the end of the day after reaching the sand dunes, we had done f hours of riding and we were all glad for the break! Quite a few of us were glad we had opted for 1.5 day and not much longer. We arrived at the sand dunes and our camp at 4:45 pm. We spent about 1.5 hours taking it in, enjoying the views and getting some pictures of the dunes and sunset. After dinner, we talked about literature, exchanged ideas and travel stories. Russ and I actually stayed up late while everyone had gone to bed to exchange our travel experiences.

Two of the funniest stories I heard from Russ, a musician from L.A. who was travelling India and Europe for a year, were:

1. A traveller asked a local Indian man where was the nearest toilet. The local stretched out his arm and moved it around to indicate the land and said, "In India, the toilet is everywhere."

2. A tourist sees an Indian man peeing on the side of the street and asks him, "Hey, isn't the police going to hold you for this?" The Indian man responds, "No, you have to hold it yourself."

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We slept in the open but could only see the stars every now and then when the clouds cleared. After another 2 hours of camel riding in the morning, we took a jeep ride and returned to Jaisalmer to wash up and rest. Tomorrow I take off for Agra via Jaipur and then Varanasi. I have been having a hard time finding train tickets between Agra and Varanasi though but hopefully something will be worked out soon!

That's all for now, Namaste!

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Posted by NomadicOne 02:05 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Jodhpur: The Blue City

Day 1 of training for the Everest Base Camp (EBC) Trek

sunny 25 °C
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Written: January 21, 2009

After a somewhat painful 19 hour train ride from Mumbai to Jodhpur, I arrived feeling sore and lacking energy. The reason for my state of being can be attributed to various factors. First of all, I suspected not eating for nearly a day may be an issue and I'd been doing that regularly in Mumbai and nearly that in Dubai. Secondly, I didn't sleep in a very good position since I put my main pack on the upper bunk and my pillow on top of that. Because of the height of the "pillow" and the shortness of the "bed" my neck was sore the whole night. Additionally, there was a draft coming in that made it really cold and the AC was pumping for a while as well. However, at 4-5 am, the heater turned on and blew directly in my face and I felt like I was suffocating. All of this contributed to me getting a sore throat, I'm hoping this goes away quickly since I wouldn't want to be sick for too long while traveling.

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After bargaining down an auto rickshaw from 50 to 35 INRs to take me to the "gate" of Mehrangarh Fort, I still had a steep 200m climb up with my full pack. This was essentially a introductory training run for my EBC trek. I can already see that my pack (9kg) is way more than what I want to carry and I may have to invest in a smaller mountaineering pack. I used my expired ISIC card to gain student entry and saved 50 Rs. I took the audio guide that came with the entrance fees and proceeded to the numbered markers. I have to say, the guide was very interesting and informative. It even had commentary and contributions from the current royal family relating to tidbits of information and some of their memories. What's interesting about the fort is that it's never been taken by the enemy and many of them have been at the gates. At the main gate, there's an area with hand prints of Queen's passing though the gate for the last time before joining their husbands in death. I saw a man touch one of the hand prints and then touching it to his heart in remembrance. From the ramparts and many points of the fort, you can view the city spread out before you with the majority of the buildings painted in a light blue colour. This is the reason why Jodhpur is also called the Blue City. Apparently, the reason why the buildings are painted blue is because it's a calming colour and keeps the buildings cool during the summer heat. Seeing the indigo blue buildings in contrast with the vivid colours of life in India makes it especially dramatic.

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Upon completing the tour of the Mehrangarh Fort, I walked to Jawswant Thada, the Jodhpur Raj's cenotaph. The place is also called the Taj Mahal of Rajasthan due to the exquisite white marble structure. On my trek back down through town, I stopped to eat (Gobhi Pakoda, fried cauliflower, and Mahkaniya Lassi a type of yoghurt) and then talked to a Spaniard named Mikel.

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Well, more waiting at the station until my 10 pm train. Another overnight train and this time to the desert city of Jaisalmer! Hopefully this will be a better ride although I'll be in AC3 this time instead of AC2.

Cheers!

Posted by NomadicOne 01:21 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Thoughts from Mumbai

Thanks for the tip, I will watch "Slumdog Millionaire" ASAP

sunny 28 °C
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Written: January 20, 2009


What a weird coincidence that I'm in Mumbai while many people have just seen the reportedly great film referred in the title set in the city I'm visiting. At least this time it seems more optimistic than when I saw "The Last King of Scotland" before going to Uganda. Good movie though and I recommend you readers to see it if you haven't already.

Ah Mumbai, the city previously known as Bombay, what can I saw about this crazy place? What a shock arriving from the luxurious well planned Dubai to this crazy chaos. I arrived in the late afternoon and immediately noticed the humidity and bad air quality. Kids begging at my taxi window reminded me I was no longer in Dubai. Since Alan's hotel tip was actually a hotel in Delhi, I was stuck taking a suggestion from the taxi driver on a place to stay for 600 Rs a night, cockroaches included. At least it was conveniently located in Colaba.

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I checked out the Gateway of India, the renovated Taj Mahal hotel and Victoria terminus. The last two were viciously attacked by terrorists in December. My visit to Mumbai coincided with the Mumbai Marathon and I was happy to see signs rallying citizens to "Vanquish the Terror!" It reminded me of London's post-Tube bombing's "I am not afraid" movement. I have been to many places that have been sites of terrorist attacks. From talking to citizens and people who have been impacted, I've learned that we cannot live in fear and terror for that is the goal of the radicals. We must also not let anger and revenge make us act less honourable or less ethical. We have to look deeper to the underlying problems that are causing the radicals to act this way rather than simply resort to force.

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While talking to an Indian family my train ride to Jodhpur, I asked how Indians felt about the new U.S. President Barrack Obama and what are their biggest issue? Whether that be foreign policy, the economy or terrorism? It seemed the overwhelming issue on their minds were indeed dealing with extremists coming in from Pakistan. A young man from the family and I both wondered, why was there such tension between Pakistan and India. It couldn't just be because of religious differences since Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Jains live side by side relatively peacefully in India. He even said his best friend was Muslim. I have heard stories from others of some ill feelings toward people of other religions but not enough to resort to violence. What is the true source of the conflict?

Well I'm taking my first Indian train ride tonight in the overnight AC2 sleeper, should be arriving in the Blue City of Jodhpur in the morning!

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Directions to Bandra Terminus (Western Rail) from downtown Mumbai:

Many trains depart from the Bandra Terminus in Mumbai for cities in the north. However, there are not many directions on the best way to get to this station. After asking a few locals, I believe the following way is the cheapest and most convenient.

  • Assuming you're starting from downtown in the Colaba area, make your way to the Churchgate local rail station.
  • From there, buy a ticket towards "Vile Parle" (First Class if it's during rush hour, otherwise normal is just fine and only 7 Rs).
  • The trains going towards Vile Parle are on Platform 1 or 2.
  • The closest station to Bandra Terminus is not actually the Bandra but Khar Rd so get off there. It's one stop past Bandra local rail station.
  • From Khar Rd, make your way East (the right side since you've been heading north) and cross the tracks using the pedestrian overpass.
  • When you descend overpass, you'll feel like you're in a village in rural India. Don't worry, you're on Jay Prakesh Rd. Go towards the right and at the first intersection make a right (Pipeline rd).
  • Within a minute you should be able to see Bandra Terminus.

If you're ever lost in the area after getting off Khar Rd and wish to take a rickshaw, do not pay more than 12-15 Rs since the station is extremely close.

Use this link to see an aerial map. Bandra terminus is the triangle building south east of Khar Rd Railway Station.

This map shows the local train station map referenced in my directions.

Posted by NomadicOne 19:54 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Dubai: City of Dreams?

The urban version of "The Beach"?

sunny 22 °C
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Written: Jan 17, 2009


Dubai, where "No" is not an answer to any Engineering issue. If you've seen pictures of Dubai or read about it, you'll know it's the capital of building cranes. There man-made islands and super luxurious hotels are quite stunning and for a city that keeps trying to outdo istself, the Burj Dubai is the next big thing. Already the world's tallest man-made structure, the skyscraper is still incomplete and the final height kept secret.
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The community in Dubai is mainly made up expats living and workign in Dubai temporarily. However, people seem to truly enjoy life and have a good time. It seems like some people have been having too good of a time since some have been fleeing the country to avoid paying back loans. Due to the economic downturn that has affected Dubai (though you won’t hear of it from the local media), many expats have been leaving their cars at the airport and taking a one-ay flight out of the country. News reports talk about thousands of cars have been left behind in the past few months by expats fleeing their debts. The effects of the downturn are very real, hotel rates are down, sales have been extended, banks are closing and companies are firing people. It’s given a great deal of uncertainty about the future, something which hasn’t been felt in Dubai for a long time.

In my 4 days and 4 nights here, I’ve skied inside the Mall of Emirates, walked around Deira (old trading areas of Dubai), checked out the Burj from a distance (architectural symbol of Dubai). I’ve also met and partied with some friends of Rukmin. I even joined in on some post-partying karaoke with 2 British guys called Martin and Rich (seriously guys, “Two Become One”?)
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I had a great time; I was able to catch-up with Rukmin and meet some interesting new people. Thanks to everyone for their hospitality and now I’m off to Mumbai!

Note: The normal Dubai price for a bottle of beer at a bar was 32 Dhs ($10.25) so I'm never complaining about Toronto prices ever again.

Posted by NomadicOne 23:56 Archived in United Arab Emirates Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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