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September 2019

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Asia » India » National Capital Territory » New Delhi First stop on a four-week tour of India - 10th January to 9th February 2018

sunny 30 °C

I’m an India addict and this is my 12th visit…

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I confess - I’m addicted to this country's culture, its myths and legends, its religions, architecture, wildlife, food and, perhaps above all, its people. They're all in my blood and I'm desperate for what's become my annual fix!

Now, I'm only a few short weeks away from satisfying that craving.

Since my first visit to this vast, unbelievably chaotic, wonderful land in 1972, I’ve visited 11 of its 29 States and one of its seven Union Territories. I’ve passed through several others, but simply passing through doesn’t count, does it? So, here I go again, adding one new State and a lot of new places, faces and discoveries. I’ll also include a few familiar ones by way of rehab.

This time, I’m looking forward to having my elder brother David with me to share a whole month's adventures and an occasional bhang lassi (Google it!). David proudly admits to being ‘the rear end of the Grey Haired Nomads', whose journeys around the world are well documented on another, smaller and less reliable travel blog site (see here, if you must). His ‘front end’, Janice, has opted for the chill of their home county of Suffolk, the warmth of her friends and family, and her duties as Ladies’ Captain of their nearby golf club. Both ends visited India with me in 2013 (Three bloggers go to Bhārata for five weeks!), became mildly addicted, and returned without me in February 2017.

Together, David and I – two able-bodied(ish) men in the autumn of their years – will be making a spiritual journey along part of India’s iconic River Ganges. We're even daring to ride a wooden boat on it for two days. We’re also hoping to see tigers in the wild for the very first time. We'll definitely be meeting many old friends and inevitably make more new ones too. And, we’ll add more wildlife discoveries in Rajasthan towards the end of our tour.

Here's where we'll be going this year (click the little thumbnails if you want to enlarge the pictures):

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Delhi, National Capital Territory (2 nights)

India’s vast and cosmopolitan capital.

We’ve been here before, but plan to see and do a few things we missed, like the elitist Golf Club, the view from the minaret of one of India's largest mosques, and maybe we'll even enjoy lunch with the congregation of a Sikh temple.

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Haridwar, Uttarakhand (3 nights)

This is one of the most important pilgrimage places on the Ganges for Hindus.

Every twelve years, a Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering, is held here. We’ll have missed that by eight years - fortunately perhaps as 10 million people bathed in the Ganges here in 2010 on one day alone! We will, however, be here for Makar Sankranti, an important solar festival, attended by only a few less millions, dedicated to Surya, the Hindu sun god.

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Rishikesh, Uttarakhand (2 nights)

In this ‘Yoga Capital of the World’ on the banks of the Ganges, the Beatles attended a Transcendental Meditation course with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and wrote many of their White Album songs.

We probably won’t transcendentally meditate and, while we may sing a few songs, we certainly won’t write any.

Instead, we'll see visitors who still dress like it's 1968, join one of the free yoga classes in our hotel (ageing limbs make this unlikely!), and we'll drive 70kms up river to Devprayag, where glacial waters from the rivers Bhagirathi and Alaknanda meet to become the birthplace of the sacred Ganges.

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Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh (4 nights)

A day of long car journeys and two flights in small aircraft will bring us from the foothills of the Himalayas to the state of Madhya Pradesh in the country's central heartlands.

There we'll hunt (with cameras) for ever-elusive tigers in Bandhavgarh National Park under the guidance of an experienced hotelier and wildlife expert - and bemoan the lack of WiFi and telephone signals!

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Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh (2 nights)

It's said that Hinduism is a religion into which you have to be born to properly understand it. Among other things, Hindus revere confluences and, in Allahabad, the Ganges meets the river Yamuna, the longest river in India which doesn't flow directly to the sea and which is almost as sacred as the Ganges itself. Allahabad has thus become the holiest of India’s pilgrimage centres and the most important of the Kumbh Mela locations (we've missed that one too - the next one here isn't until 2025).

We’ll be taking our first boat ride of the trip to the very spot where waters from the two rivers meet. Then, we plan a two-day, 180km ride in a small wooden boat, winding our way down the wide, slow-flowing Ganges. But this is India and not all plans run smoothly!
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Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh (1 night)

A convenient half-way stop on our journey towards the holy city of Varanasi.

Mirzapur's known for carpet making. It also has some remnants of British architecture from the days of the East India Company, apparently.

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Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh (3 nights)

A full day’s boat ride will eventually bring us to our destination, the absolute holiest of Hinduism’s seven sacred cities. I think we’re both anxious about what we might experience, see and smell in this ancient, overcrowded city. Sewage flows uncontrolled into the river, bodies are cremated openly on its banks, and animals wander at will down its narrow alleyways. One blog I read recently said: 'I've never seen so much cowshit outside of a farm!' Can't wait...

During our stay here, we'll make a short journey north-east of the city to Sarnath, where Buddha came to give his first sermon after achieving enlightenment at Bodhgaya.

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Jaipur, Rajasthan (3 nights)

The capital of Rajasthan.

It's a city we've both visited before and home to many friends. We'll meet with some of them to take tea, to party, to go on photographic walks and to try spotting leopards in a reserve on the outskirts (a 'first' for David).

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Khandela, Rajasthan (1 night)

A town to the north of Jaipur visited only by those 'in the know'.

The family of some distinguished Jaipuri friends own a castle here, now converted into a hotel, and this is where we'll spend the night. We're hoping to have time for some bird-watching here too.

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Bikaner, Rajasthan (2 nights)

A day's ride from Khandela, via the Tal Chhapar sanctuary with its herds of Blackbuck antelope, will bring us to this city amid the sands and scrub of the Thar Desert.

I last came here on Republic Day 2016 (Rats, vultures and camels!) and have vivid memories of missing the parades but making visits to a temple with thousands of rats scurrying underfoot, an animal carcass dump and a camel research station. I'm looking forward to introducing David to all these wonders of incredible India.

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Khichan, Rajasthan (1 night)

My blogs of previous visits to this amazing place (The eighth Wonder of the World perhaps? and The face of Success) made David so jealous that I simply have to show him its huge flocks of migratory Demoiselle Cranes at sunset and sunrise.

I'm just as excited to be returning!
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Jaisalmer, Rajasthan (3 nights)

Another of those places that's in my blood, with a desert climate that my health thanks me for every time.

Its honey-coloured hilltop fort is unique and its proximity to the Desert National Park gives us an opportunity to spot critically-endangered Great Indian Bustards (which I did in 2017 - Once more into the Thar - and hope to do again this year!).

We'll also visit the brilliant Sunflower Learning Centre, which is supported by the hotel at which we'll be staying.
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Jaipur, Rajasthan (2 nights)
A return visit to this chaotic city, travelling by air from Jaisalmer rather than by 12-hour overnight train. The airport at Jaisalmer was built in 2012 and mothballed until October 2017, by which time some of its equipment had deteriorated or been stolen! SpiceJet has resurrected the ghost airport and will carry us in one of its little Bombardier Dash 8 turboprops to Jaipur in under 90 minutes.

We'll spend our last day meeting friends, exploring the Pink City, bird-watching or taking another trip into the Jhalana forest.

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That's it in a nutshell. It promises to be a very active month.

I hope to have time to inject life into a few blogs along the way!

Posted by Keep Smiling 04:04 Archived in India Tagged india ganges Comments (1)

There's a hint of Delhi in the air...

Asia » India » National Capital Territory » New Delhi - 12th January 2018

sunny 30 °C

Have you ever noticed the magic that happens when your flight reaches its destination?

As the aircraft taxis from the runway, a flight attendant broadcasts the local time and weather and instructs everyone to ‘remain seated until the aircraft comes to a complete halt’. Many seconds before it does, a disobedient scramble ensues as seat belts are unbuckled, mobile phones are switched on, overhead lockers are ransacked and weighty bags heaved down.

The noisy throng hovers awkwardly and impatiently for ten minutes until the aircraft door is swung open. Weary travellers stumble slowly forward to the cabin crew's fixed smiles and parrot-fashion goodbyes...

...and then the magic happens!

The smell of the air outside announces your destination.

Breathe in...

Every destination has a different scent, filling your sinuses with something beyond the distinctive tang of burnt aviation fuel. Here at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, a vague hint of chemical fog combined with camphor, body odour and a certain je ne sais quoi welcomed us on this rather chilly, misty morning.

Yes, we're pleased to be back in India's overpopulated and polluted capital city. It's been five years since our last stay at the Tree of Life b&b (A capital with a capital 'C'). On cue, however, the driver sent at our earlier email request was waiting outside the arrivals hall with his yellow placard announcing our names handwritten in red. He whisked us out of the airport in his little white car and through morning fog along multi-lane carriageways into the gridlocked streets of the city. The traffic here was even worse than last time, moving at snails’ pace for much of the journey and always accompanied by a smog of diesel fumes and a cacophony of car, lorry and motorbike horns.

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Later, we sauntered into the busy Saket neighbourhood of southern New Delhi. There we spent the afternoon getting acclimatised, not to just the winter warmth but to the throngs of people, odours and noises, and life-threatening walks among chaotic traffic and disintegrating pavements.

We struggled to obtain cash from ATMs. We bought a SIM card on an Indian network for one of our mobile phones from a vendor whose little tabletop littered with Vodafone envelopes would have been considered highly dubious back home. Then, we enjoyed the relative calm of a complex of restaurants and small shops amid pedestrian courtyards festooned with glittering tinsel decorations.

The presence of McDonald's, Burger King and KFC alongside vendors of traditional specialities like veggie kebabs and charcoal-grilled sweet potatoes seemed to have attracted a young generation seeking Westernised lifestyles. We opted to start our Indian adventure with an overpriced dinner in an Italian café – the food was good, the beer wasn’t. We made a note to ourselves that future meals were likely to be curries and, in Haridwar and Rishikesh at least, the beer non-existent!

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Ashwani, the b&b’s businesslike and congenial owner, had organised a taxi for part of our probably too-brief 36-hour stopover en route to the anticipated cleaner air to the north. Our sortie in it took us next day into the heart of New Delhi, former capital of the Raj. Its wide, tree-lined boulevards, open spaces and grand buildings were designed in the 1920s and 30s, predominantly by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, and we were looking forward to seeing them.

The roads had, of course, been planned for the light cycle, rickshaw and rare motorcar traffic of those days. Now, the volume of frequently stationary modern vehicles had transformed it into rush-hour on the M25 during most of the daylight hours. We’d avoided this area on our previous visit in favour of the more characterful Old City - and, reluctantly, we largely avoided much of it again now. The areas of notable Lutyens’ architecture around India Gate and Parliament had all been temporarily sealed off – apparently, for troops in training or practising for Republic Day parades later in the month – adding to already large traffic jams on diversion routes. Instead, we drove direct (or as direct as the mayhem of roundabouts and chaotic signals would allow) to Humayun’s Tomb.

Humayun’s Tomb
The tomb, an onion-domed structure built in the 16th century to house the body of the second Mughal emperor, was set amid an expansive, calming estate of well-tended lawns and gardens dotted with now very ancient ficus trees. It was a welcome escape from the nearby pandemonium.

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This tomb complex was the first of this type of Mughal architecture to be built in India. It's often considered the inspiration for the famed Taj Mahal, although its buildings lack that monument’s superior beauty and decoration. It had recently undergone extensive renovation and this, together with the nearby smaller, but even older and more elaborate tomb of Isa Khan (below) are now safeguarded for the future.

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A fact worth mentioning here is that, if you are Indian, it’ll cost you 30 Rupees (about 36p) to take a look at these remarkable monuments. If you’re a foreigner, you’ll have to put your hand in your pocket for 500 Rupees (about £6)!

Akshardham Temple
In contrast, the Akshardham Temple offered free entry to all. This magnificent Hindu place of worship was completed as recently as 2005 - a wedding cake of red sandstone and white Carrara marble intricately carved with thousands of images of people, gods, goddesses, dancers and elephants. There are sprawling gardens too and even a children’s playground and a pleasure boat ride. We didn’t have time to explore it all and certainly didn’t take the Disneyesque boat trip! I have to apologise for the sole and rather distant picture below - cameras and mobile phones were prohibited inside.

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My brother David is a keen golfer and, before leaving home, I’d tried to contact the Secretary of the well-known (to golfers) Delhi Golf Club, hoping to arrange a surprise visit for him - unfortunately without reply.

However, we did manage to talk our way into the office of the Deputy Secretary, who reluctantly but politely accompanied us on a lightning tour of the clubhouse, the practice area and the first tee, the restaurant and other originally-British facilities, emphasising that photography was definitely not allowed.

This enormous, extremely well-maintained, very prestigious – nay, elitist - course has over 5,000 members plus their families - and a waiting list for membership of over 30 years.

Afterwards, on our way to find our driver (who’d not been permitted to park inside despite spaces in a huge car park), we photographed the club sign!

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Gurudwara Bangla Sahib
Later, we were dropped off in Old Delhi at the largest of the city’s Sikh temples, the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib. Here, we were given a very warm and enthusiastic welcome by two gentlemen in the grandly-named Tourist Information Office, each of them wearing the beard, moustache, colourful turban and cheerful smile so typical of many other Sikhs we’ve encountered elsewhere. One of them accompanied us around the gurudwara’s facilities, weaving our way among hundreds of worshippers and leaving us to enjoy the colour and atmosphere in and around the central holy pool.

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We then rejoined him for a visit to the temple’s kitchen. The Sikh religion is one of optimism, hope and tolerance towards all people, supporting everyone regardless of race, wealth or faith. One example of this is the provision of food to all-comers and, on an average day, some 30,000 people are fed by this kitchen.

Volunteers peeled and sliced onions, others prepared vegetables. Giant pans and pots above huge gas flames held lentil and vegetable stews, stirred from time to time by sweating male cooks wearing t-shirts and sarongs. Women sat nearby rolling out dough for chapattis and a machine produced even more of the same.

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We were given metal trays and ushered into a vast dining hall, where around a thousand people sat cross-legged on the floor in long lines waiting for the langa, as this community meal is called. Volunteers carrying stainless-steel buckets containing vegetarian stews from the kitchen moved along the lines, ladling food into depressions on our metal trays. Others dispensed chapattis. Then, as soon as diners finished their meals, they streamed from the room, leaving empty trays at a hatchway to be washed by other volunteers and empty space in the hall for another batch of hungry people already waiting outside. It was an amazing experience, made particularly special as we’d not been privileged to enjoy this in 2013 when we visited Sikh HQ - the remarkable Gurudwara Darbar Sahib, the ‘Golden Temple’ - at Amritsar in the Punjab (A City of Silly Walks and Sikhs).

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Jama Masjid
The city’s modern, clean and efficient Metro took us to our next destination, the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in all India, capable of accommodating more than 25,000 believers for prayers in its central courtyard. This ‘Friday Mosque’, constructed in the mid-17th century, was Shah Jahan’s final architectural masterpiece. It’s built in vertical strips of white marble and red sandstone with three gateways, four towers and two 40-metre high minarets.

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Today being Friday, the Muslim holy day, our visit had to be fitted between prayer times. Time (and, I have to admit, very tired legs) did not permit us to ascend 120 steps for a view of the old city from the top of one of the mosque’s minarets. We always have to save something for next time anyway, don’t we?

Instead, we retreated to the Matia Mahal area nearby.

Matia Mahal
There, amid narrow, bustling streets with brightly-lit, hole-in-the-wall shops, we found two or three unusual restaurants with steaming pots near the entrance and large groups of men squatting outside. We’d never seen the like of these before. Enquiring of a man who seemed to be the owner of one of these places, I discovered that these unfortunates were hungry but penniless and were waiting for well-wishers to donate 20 Rupees (24p) for the restaurant to feed each of them. My contribution fed 25 men, each one carefully counted by the portly owner with a tap on his shoulder as they all anxiously pushed and shoved into the restaurant for their much-needed sustenance.

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In turn, we walked further along the noisy, crowded lane adorned with shops selling all manner of goods, a fishmonger with huge freshwater fish and a butcher selling every part (repeat: every part) of goats to a larger, more salubrious establishment for our own dinner. Writing this now, I’m somewhat ashamed to think that the cost of our meal for two this night would have fed another 25 of those men.

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So ended an interest-filled but exhausting day in which we’d wondered at the sights and sounds of modern and ancient Delhi and of three very different religions.

Our journey next day, by 6.45a.m. train north to holy Haridwar, would continue our discovery of India’s spiritual past and present.

Posted by Keep Smiling 07:19 Archived in India Tagged india ganges delhi Comments (3)

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