Friday, August 19, 2005

Colonel Hathi's Dawn Patrol

The next morning, a few hours and a few passenger assisted push starts later, our bus got us into Narayanghat. Then a short minibus ride took us to Tadi Bazaar. Then a short four wheel drive trip took us to Sauraha. Then a persistent “no thank you" to the hotel tout in the car resulted in us finally getting to the hotel we wanted to go to, the
Royal Park Hotel. We were staying in decidedly mid-range accommodation, very friendly, very nice rooms. After the first night we were the only guests. Each restaurant and each hotel appeared to have at most one set of guests. There are a lot of hotels and a good number of (identical) restaurants in what is otherwise a tiny village.

The big attraction is Royal Chitwan National Park, the jungle! In it we would see elephants, rhino, crocodiles, different types of deer, peacocks, monkeys, a mongoose and a snake. We also saw birds like storks, kingfishers, mynah birds, lapwings and parakeets.
We visited an elephant breeding centre and an endangered Gharial (fish eating) crocodile breeding centre.

We asked in Sauraha about any problems with the Maoists and were told there was none. The next day this became, "apart from blowing up the checkpoint at the edge of town a few weeks ago". Then we were told that crocodiles had eaten 3 fishermen and one old tiger, unable to hunt any more in the jungle, had eaten 3 villagers - all within the past few months. The villagers keep watchtowers in many fields where they sleep out all night on guard. Rhinos occasionally come into the fields and eat the crops. So the Maoists aren't the ones to worry about it seems.
Our camera was a casualty of our final trip to the Kasara crocodile breeding centre by jeep safari, so our next stop would be the metropolis of Kathmandu with its vast array of camera shops.


Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Destination Nepal

Nepal was a relief when we finally made it. Everyone was much friendlier, even rickshaw drivers were less aggressive. We didn't have spare passport photos for our visa applications, so the officials had me wander further into Nepal (well, a few yards anyway!) to find a photocopying shop to copy the photos in our actual passports. Then the photocopying shop insisted I wander a little farther to find a money changer to acquire Nepali Rupees instead of Indian Rupees. Eventually all was well and stamps were ours. We went up the road a few miles to Bhairawa where we checked into the lovely, deserted Hotel Yeti. We treated ourselves to room service, hot water and TV in the most expensive room we've had so far. There are definitely far fewer tourists in Nepal (nothing to do with the ongoing Maoist rebellion I'm sure).


The train to Gorukhpur

When “air-conditioned sleeper 2-tier class" wasn't available, but first class was, and first class was much cheaper, alarms bells should have rung. We heard their sweet tinkle minutes after boarding. The expected 5 and a half hour overnight journey took 14 hours to Gorukhpur in sweltering heat in a locked compartment in a cattle truck called first class. Of course we were very glad not to be in second class….We had two beds between the four of us, but we had a compartment to ourselves – which didn't stop people from trying to get in all night and peering in when they couldn't open the door. We had to keep the (barred) window open in order not to overheat, but then try to wake up at every station throughout the night to close it to stop people peering in. Which made for a lot of sleep.
We did pass through some gorgeous countryside in the morning, mainly rice paddies. Of course the train liked to stop for about 30 minutes at random villages along the way. When we eventually got to Gorukhpur we were efficiently transferred straight onto a crushed “ordinary" bus for the 3 hour journey to the border with Nepal at Sunauli. It's a good thing that children thrive on a diet of mineral water and crisps.


Monday, August 15, 2005

Death and saris

We had decided to head to Varanasi on our way to the land crossing into Nepal as we hadn't been able to get flights to Kathmandu. Varanasi, on the banks of the river Ganges, is one of the holiest places in India. Its main industries are death – cremating people on the banks of the Ganges – and making saris (Benares saris). It is also twinned with Agra as the second city of deliberately giving tourists food poisoning as an insurance scam - allegedly two Irish tourists died here in 1998 as a result.
Far from being the spiritual capital of North India, we felt threatened from the moment we arrived (after a 14 hour overnight train journey with none of our previously encountered luxuries). The rickshaw driver in front of us hit a woman and baby and gave off to them for it, the next one started punching another driver as they went past. Our driver stopped along the way, seemingly to pay off some kind of mafia boss. The next day I saw another rickshaw driver punch a woman in the face at the roadside whilst arguing. Varanasi is also known for several travelers a year mysteriously disappearing.

We took a boat ride on the Ganges, which was definitely a good experience. However, it is sell, sell, sell all along the way. It is hard to see through to any spiritual side of the city. Luckily, we had booked first class tickets on the train to Gorukhpur that same night.


Friday, August 12, 2005

Avoid Agra!

So the Taj Mahal is well worth the visit - it is much more detailed and impressive close up than the bleached white images you see of it. Agra Fort is nice. But staying in Agra is such a hassle that you just want to leave. One of the nicer cycle rickshaw drivers followed me and the children walking for one and a half hours, trying to drum up business, all the way from the hotel and back to the hotel door. He was one of the less aggressive people trying to sell you something, if a little more persistent. This was worst on Friday when the Taj Mahal is closed and so there are few tourists around. The sellers get pretty desperate then.We stayed in the lovely Hotel Sheela, a few yards from the Taj Mahal west gate, another hotel with a peaceful garden.
Taj Ganj, the area just in front of the Taj Mahal, is almost as run down as Paharganj in Delhi, but not quite. It is where apparently a few years ago some of the restaurant owners decided to poison their guests, rush them to a local clinic and in collaboration charge thousands of dollars against the tourists' medical insurance. Get rich quick. None of the clinics or restaurants involved have closed apparently. So we felt very comfortable eating there. They do like to boast of the great views of the Taj Mahal eating in their rooftop garden terrace.


Jaipur Express

The Shatabdi Express to Jaipur spoilt us rotten as far as trains go. We later had a big shock! It's a short trip (4.5 hours), there are complementary newspapers and an unending supply of free mineral water, tea, snacks and a vegetarian in-flight meal. So far, so good. Jaipur is a tourist town, you get hassled from the moment you emerge from the train station. We stayed in a former thakur (nobleman)'s palace, now the Hotel Diggi Palace, which whilst not a 5 star establishment, was certainly a big step up from Paharganj. Jasmine and Dylan enjoyed the big garden. It was worth splashing out on 14 euro a night for the room.

We visited a few of the sites here over a couple of days – the City Palace where the son and family of the last Maharaja still live; Jantar Mantar, an observatory with massive outdoor astronomical devices built in the eighteenth century by Maharaja Jai Singh; the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds, where the princesses and ladies of the court would watch goings on from behind screens. Jasmine and I visited Amber Fort just outside town on our own as Dylan wasn't feeling well – it was amazing and a great day out for just the two of us.


Thursday, August 11, 2005

Delhi VIII: The Empire Strikes Back

Our first stop was New Delhi. When I was younger I always wondered why I couldn't find Old Delhi marked on the map. New Delhi is the eighth city on this site, created by the helpful intervention of the British Empire. We stayed in an area frequented by backpackers called Paharganj, relatively close to everything interesting. It is described in Lonely Planet as “seedy", which is something of an understatement. But it has its charms. We stayed in a basic hostel called Hotel Major's Den which was very friendly. Dylan and Jasmine enjoyed the use of the bucket bath to the point that they want one when they go home now. Allegedly.

Somehow over 3 days we managed to do nothing at all in Delhi. We managed to eat in such centres of Delhi culture as Pizza Hut – where all the staff indulged in a quick Bollywood dance number at one point - and Rodeos, a Tex-Mex restaurant where the waiters dress as cowboys. We tried in vain to get an airline ticket to Kathmandu, having decided that we'd spend a few weeks in Nepal as well as seeing some of North India. Nepal has some of the few casinos in this part of Asia apparently, so all flights were booked full of Indian tourists going to play blackjack for the weekend. Together with the bureaucracy of getting a train ticket to Jaipur, that was an entire day gone!


Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Vegan in Hyderabad

It's not hard at all to find vegan food in Hyderabad. There is always a distinction between veg and non-veg food in every restaurant, with non-veg(etarian) often being the unusual option. When cheese, cream, butter or (rarely) ghee are added to a particular dish, they are usually flagged specifically as an attraction – "plain roti" or "butter roti". When they're not specifically mentioned, we usually had a hard time explaining what vegan was to any waiters. People generally want you to be happy, which means they tell you what you want to hear and rarely say "no". So you have to use your best judgement at times.
Restaurants we visited included Fusion 9, Mainland China, Angeeti, Chutneys, Haveli, and Ohri's. Chutneys (vegetarian restaurant) was definitely our favourite. Oh, and vegetarian restaurant usually means no alcohol either. Bummer.

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Sunday, August 07, 2005

Monsoon is a state of mind

We woke up in the middle of our second last night in Hyderabad to the sound of a waterfall. Monsoon has been relatively light this year, although there has been some flooding in central Hyderabad. Mumbai and Gujarat have been having a terrible time, but Hyderabad's initial worry was not getting enough rain.
Unfortunately for us, the waterfall was not coming from outside the apartment. A tap in the bathroom in the children's room had somehow exploded off the wall, leaving the pipe behind gushing water. Pretty soon there was an inch of water everywhere in the apartment and a neat waterfall going down the stairs onto the computer below. It took about 30 minutes before we could find someone with enough plumbing know-how to turn the water off. It was 4am.
We evacuated to apartment 402 where there was a spare room, flood refugees for a second time. This time we were able to move back into our own room a couple of hours later. What a nice send off to help us remember Hyderabad.


Saturday, August 06, 2005

Leaving Hyderabad

After 9 short weeks, I am off on my travels again. It is very hard to leave, tempered only by the knowledge that I'll see several of the people I worked with in either the Dublin or Mountain View offices later this year.