A Travellerspoint blog

Bharatpur - Delhi - Zurich - London - Bristol

Time to head for home

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Trying not to sleep on the journey from Bharatpur to Delhi proved impossible. I wanted to be as tired as I could be for our overnight flight home, so tried my best to stay awake on the road, but wasn't successful. I amused myself by photographing various scenes along the road.

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Dung being collected, dried and stored for use in the kitchen for cooking.

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We passed an impressive looking Sikh Temple under construction.

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Sugar cane juicer – a very popular road side drink: just pure sugar in liquid form.

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About half way we stopped in a tourist restaurant for lunch, and had the recommended dish of aloo til: chunks of potato coated in sesame seeds and salt and deep fried. I asked for it spicy and it was mildly off-bland. Some spicy sauce helped give it a kick.

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You can tell we are on the main tourist route, with the car park hosting a traditional musician hoping for a tip.

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The good thing about being on a popular tourist route is the fact that the restaurants all have very decent facilities. This is the first time ever I have been to India (our ninth time) where I have not encountered a single squat toilet! I am grateful for small mercies. The downside of this is that in every wash room there is an attendant who – for baksheesh of course – will open the door for you, clean the toilet seat, give you a few sheets of toilet paper (or the whole roll if you are really lucky), turn on the tap and then hand you a paper towel. I suppose it creates employment......

Humayun's Tomb
As our flight wasn't until much later this evening, we had time for a little sightseeing in Delhi.
The magnificent tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun was commissioned by his wife Hamida Banu Begum in 1562 AD, and designed by a Persian architect who introduced the idea of garden-tombs to the Indian subcontinent; later they would be found in the Red Fort in Delhi and at the Taj Mahal in Agra. The tomb is thought to be the first substantial example of Mughal architecture in India and its design went on to establish some of the important norms for later Mughal mausolea: set in a geometrically arranged garden criss-crossed by numerous water channels symbolising paradise.

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Also in the complex there are several other graves, including that of Humayun's wife, and Dara Shikoh, the son of Shah Jahan (the man who made the most beautiful ever mausoleum to his wife – the Taj Mahal).

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Now it is time to say goodbye to India – for now. We are hoping to be back very shortly – watch this space!

Posted by Grete Howard 23.03.2014 13:09 Archived in India Comments (0)

Keoladeo Ghana National Park

Excellent bird watching

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Keoladeo Ghana National Park
On our first trip to India, back in 1988, we visited this area, and passed quite close by this park on a group tour. We were offered the opportunity to travel through the reserve in a rickshaw, but unfortunately it was voted in favour of returning to the hotel and an afternoon by the pool by a majority of one – meaning that the rest of us had to follow suit. I always said I wanted to come back here and visit the park properly, which is why we are here now. We started early, arriving at the park gates as it opened at 06:30, just in time to catch the sunrise.

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After uhm-ing and ah-ing about whether or not to take a naturalist guide, we decided that for 150 Rupees and hour (ca £1.50), it was probably worth it. Boy are we glad we did, as Rakesh was really worth the money. Although the rickshaw drivers are very knowledgeable about the birds they see, they will only take you along the main road, whereas the guide take you hiking into the jungle in search of more different species as they know the various habitats.

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The wetlands are now a protected sanctuary under the protection of UNESCO. As well as being a bird watcher's paradise, the reserve protects Bharatpur from frequent floods - if only our government could do something similar for the Somerset Levels back home!. At the time of the Maharajas, this are was primarily used as a waterfowl hunting ground.

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As national parks go, it's not a particularly big reserve at 29km², but the park is a mosaic of wetlands, woodlands and dry grasslands. In addition to the numerous birds, the diverse habitat is also home to 379 species of flora, 50 species of fish, 13 species of snakes (!) 5 species of lizards and 7 species of turtles. We were lucky enough to spot a mongoose, which Prakesh assured us was a very rare sighting.

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We also saw monkeys, nilgai, chital and squirrels, as well as a couple of turtles.

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The Origin of the Name
The name "Keoladeo" comes from an ancient Hindu temple in the sanctuary which is devoted to Lord Shiva; while the Hindi term "Ghana" means dense, thick areas of forest cover.

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The original plan was to stay out for 2-3 hours, but we ended up taking almost five hours, so we totally missed breakfast at the hotel. We did managed to grab some lunch though, some delicious Malai Kofta.

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Back again to the park by 15:00.....

History
The man made and man managed park was created in the mid 17-hundreds when the then Maharaja constructed a dam at the confluence of two rivers, flooding the natural depression transforming it into a shallow wetland ecosystem which became a perfect habitat for an incredible variety of birds. Later the park was used as a hunting ground for the Maharajas of Bharatpur with annual duck shoots in honour of the British Viceroys. It is said that in one shoot alone in 1938, over 4,273 birds were killed by Lord Linlithgow, the then Governor-General of India. A plaque opposite the canteen lists British Viceroys and Indian Generals who came hunting to this park and the number of birds they killed. The last big shoot was held in 1964 but the Maharajah retained shooting rights until 1972.

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In 1976 the area was designated as a bird sanctuary and in 1982 it was established as a national park, with grazing being banned in the park, leading to violent clashes between local farmers and the government. Police opened fire and eight people were killed, apparently tensions still remain high in the area. The absence of grazing is now actually causing the park management problems as vegetation, mainly a perennial aquatic grass, blocks up the channels. In addition, nutrients deposited as dung by the livestock is believed to have supported a considerable numbers of insects. There are still some 700 feral cattle in the park however.

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In 1985 UNESCO added Keoladeo to their Heritage list although I had read that the park is in danger of being removed from the list due to severe drought and lack of maintenance. This was not our experience, however, as we saw quite a bit of work going on, creating new paths and even solar powered recharging points for battery operated vehicles which are due to be introduced to the park. At the moment, tourists are taken around the park by rickshaws.

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Birds
The park is one of the major wintering areas for large numbers of aquatic birds from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China and Siberia. Some 379 species of birds, including the rare Siberian Crane, have been recorded in the park, making it one of the richest bird areas in the world (*the* best according to Sir Peter Scott, and who am I to argue with the great man!). This was the only habitat in the world for the Siberian Crane crane outside Siberia and one of the park's biggest draws for bird watchers – unfortunately the crane has not been seen in Keoladeo recently. There are a number of reasons for this: a) the water from the wetlands being diverted for use by the local farmers; b) hunting in Pakistan during the migration; c) the war in Afghanistan, d) water scarcity affecting the fragile ecosystem.

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After another four hours of bird watching this afternoon, we got back to the hotel just as the sun had gone down and the palace was bathed in a beautiful light.

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By the time we'd had a shower and changed, it was time for dinner, and no time to write the blog, so I apologise that this entry is a couple of days late. The waiter was really sweet and when I asked him for something spicy, he offered a chicken curry from the 'Specials' menu.

Me: “Can I have it spicy please?”
Waiter: “Medium spicy?”
Me: “No, very spicy”
Waiter: “Very spicy?”
Me: “Yes, Indian spicy, not tourist spicy”
Waiter (waiving his flat palm up and down in front of his mouth and breathing heavily): “This spicy?”
Me: “Great!”
Waiter: “Are you sure ma'am?”
Me: “Yes, Indian spicy!”
Waiter (reluctantly): “OK....”

The food came and yes, it was spicy, with my lip tingling as I ate, but I would only say it was a 7-8 on the Grete scale of spiciness. It was very nice all the same.

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Posted by Grete Howard 22.03.2014 11:29 Archived in India Comments (0)

Sariska - Bharatpur

No tigers but the Royal Suite made up for it...

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Another safari this morning at 6.30. Inspired by yesterday’s generous tip for finding the tiger, the guide and driver were keen to find another for us today. We set off in search of the mother and cub, who had been seen yesterday afternoon by an English lady travelling on her own. We’d seen her yesterday at the ranger’s hut in the park, but she’d been taken a different direction to us afterwards. She was furious that her guide and driver had spent so much time in the ranger station rather than look for the tiger. When she heard about our sighting she was almost bursting with anger. I am so grateful she is not travelling with us!

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As we headed for the area where the tigress had last been seen, and the excitement rose when we saw some fairly fresh pug marks in the road. Despite hearing the warning calls by the langur and samba, we never did spot the elusive tiger.

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It was still a beautiful morning out, with lots of bird sightings and another crocodile.

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Back to the hotel for a great breakfast of stuffed parantha and curd before checking out and heading towards Bharatpur.

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We both slept a good part of the way, but Shiv woke us for the adorable baby camel, as well as for the baby sheep travelling in baby-slings on the back of donkeys.

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Bharatpur
Bharatpur was once the capital of the Jat Kingdom and was considered to be an impregnable city. The Royal House of Bharatpur traces its history to the eleventh Century AD. Under the able leadership of the Jat warriors the territory of Bharatpur expanded far beyond the original boundaries of the town and the Jats became a power to be reckoned with in this region.

Laxmi Vilas Palace
Now a Heritage Hotel, Laxmi Vilas started life as a Royal Palace back in 1857 and is still home to the Maharaji family. For the last hundred years or more, this was very much where it was all happening in the princely state of Bharatpur, with duck shoots, royal weddings and affairs of the court. Ceremonial rooms in the palace still play host to tradition pujas and other ceremonies. All the best people have stayed here: the Shah of Iran, the Duke of Edinburgh (did I say “best” people?), the King of Nepal, the Shah of Afghan and now the Howards.

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Set amongst a sprawling 50 acres, with a mere 30 bedrooms, Laxmi Vilas oozes sumptuousness and ambience and sports an eclectic and lively fusion of Rajput and Mughal architecture. We are not generally lovers of luxury and opulence, but I came across an offer on line which was too good to refuse. Hence we now find ourselves staying in the Royal Suite of a Royal Palace.

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The public rooms are full of period décor and antique furniture reflecting the rich & varied heritage of the palace. Each of the rooms is unique in its own style to bring back the grandeur of regal Rajasthan in its heyday.

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Posted by Grete Howard 19.03.2014 07:08 Archived in India Comments (0)

Jaipur - Sariska

TIGER!

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It was hard to say goodbye to Sabu and his family this morning, but hopefully we will see them all again soon.

This morning we were heading for Sariska Tiger Reserve which is located half way back to Delhi then turn right. Once we were off the main highway, the road was more like I remember from our first visit to Rajasthan in 1988 – single track full of camel and goats….

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We arrived at the Sariska Tiger Heaven Safari Lodge around midday an had enough time before for a swim – until we discovered the pool had been used for the Holi party last night and as a result was purple!

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Shiv too us down to the gates of the reserve, where we climbed aboard an open Jeep with tiered seating for our afternoon safari.

Sariska Tiger Park
Up until it was declared a wildlife reserve in 1955, Sariska was a hunting preserve of the erstwhile Alwar state. In 1978 it was made part of India's Project Tiger scheme and declared a tiger park. In 1985, 35 tigers were reported to live in the reserve, however, by 2004, there were no tigers left, despite 16 being spotted the year before. Poaching was blamed to be one of the major reasons for their disappearance. Three tigers were flown in from Ranthambore in 2008 with two more following in 2010. Recently, two tiger cubs with their tigress mother were spotted in the reserve bringing the total number of tigers to seven with five adults – two males and three females. The relocated tigers are tracked using reconnaissance satellites so that the authorities can keep an eye on them. Despite reading a review on Trip Advisor from last month (February 2014) that a tiger had been spotted by a tourist on a safari in the park; I really didn't expect to see tigers here. My main purpose of visiting was first and foremost the bird life.

And plenty of birds we did see. Our first stop inside the park was down by a small lake with was teeming with lots of different birds plus a few crocodiles.

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As we continued through the park, we saw lots more birds plus the main mammals in the park: nilgai, chital, sambar, wild boar and squirrels. No sign of tigers.

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With the tigers being tagged, the ranges know approximately where they are at any given time. Number Six was said to be “just over that hill”, so we headed in that direction. No sign. Just as we were turning round to go out of the park, we met a tourist jeep who claimed to have seen him, so the guide told us to “hold on tight” and we set off at break neck speed up the hill. Sure enough, there behind the trees was a tiger.

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When he got up and started walking along, the driver anticipated where he would come out on the road, and he was right.

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We followed the tiger as he strolled along the road for about ten minutes, stopping to sniff a bit here and there and spray the bushes as he went along.

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Around the last bend we spotted a pedestrian in the road ahead. We tried to signal to him to go back, but he was taking no notice of us. Then the tiger spotted him too, and the driver shouted as loud as I have ever heard any man shout – it scared both the man and the tiger. The man ran off and the tiger turned to charge at the noise, but fortunately changed his mind as we were only about 20 metres away at this time, in an open Jeep. The driver slammed the car into reverse, but the tiger jumped back up into the jungle again.

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We followed him from a distance as he made his way through the bushes before we had to rush off to exit the gates before 18:00. What an exciting afternoon!

Back to the lodge for a shower and a drink before dinner – the hotel seems to be running a little low on supplies: they had no Kingfisher and no Coke or Pepsi. Rum really is not the same with Fanta.

I think we must have tipped too well at lunchtime, as we seemed to be getting all sort of extra services this evening: drinks delivered, turn-back service, soup room service? We declined the last two and made our way to dinner as the only two guests in the restaurant again. Afterwards we were invited to what I think was a staff party with drinking and dancing around a bonfire in the hotel grounds. We politely declined and retired to the room to finish the blog and have an early night.

Posted by Grete Howard 18.03.2014 09:31 Archived in India Comments (3)

Holi

The most fun I have had with my clothes on for a long time...

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Holi
For many years I have wanted to be in India during the Holi Festival so I was pretty excited about that dream coming true this year. The Hindu festival is celebrated every year at the approach of the Vernal Equinox on the full moon and is named after Holika (see yesterday's entry for an explanation of the story of Holika) and is also known as the “Festival of Colour” or the “Festival of Love”. As well as signifying the victory of good over evil, the festival marks the arrival of spring, end of winter.

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Some families hold religious ceremonies at this time, but for most Holi is more a time for fun, dancing, singing, getting high on bhang and throwing of powder paint and coloured water. The custom of coloured powder and water is affiliated to Krishna, who as a young boy spent much of his time in the company of the young cow-herd girls (called gopis), with his favourite being Radha. One day he questioned his mother about why Radha was so fair and he so dark. His mother suggested he applied colour on Radha's face to see how her complexion would change. This is said to be the beginning of the love legend between the two of them. He was also known to play pranks on the other gopis by throwing coloured powder on them.

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Holi Milan
Holi is a time when people put an end to any hard feelings that might have emerged during the year by hugging each other as friends and covering each other in coloured powder. This tradition is called, 'Holi Milan'. The celebrations are a time of loosening of social restrictions and associated with caste, wealth, sex, and even polite behaviour and social norms. In fact, during the days of Holi, you can get away with almost anything by saying, "don't feel offended, it's Holi”!

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Drinks, specially thandai laced with bhang (marijuana) is also an intrinsic part of the Holi festivity. I had read warnings that as the day goes on, the behaviour of some people can become vulgar and unpleasant, so I figured I'd fit right in! Seriously though, after working for ten years in a nightclub in my youth, I wasn't overly worried about lewd activities and anyway, I figured at my ripe old age I wasn't likely to be the recipient of sexual attraction by young lads and the only improper behaviour I experienced was one young kid grab my boobs.

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At around 10 o’clock the girls we met last night turned up and the Holi celebrations could begin. Armed with a tray of the various colours, we left the house and headed for the street. A few of the local children had already gathered outside, and word must have soon got round about the crazy foreigners, so more and more people arrived. Before long the crowd must have been 50 strong and we were getting more and more colourful with each “Happy Holi” and each smearing of colour that accompanied it.

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Making of the colours
Originally the colours used during the Holi celebrations were home made from flowers of the flame tree, spread out on the ground to dry then ground to a fine powder called gulal or abeer (meaning the colour of the sky at sunset). These trees also had medicinal properties and Holi colours prepared from them were actually beneficial to the skin. Later, other natural plant-derived colours such as turmeric, marigold, pomegranate, beetroot and hibiscus were used and these organic colours were still not generally harmful. Although most of the colours used these days are commercially produced, I have been reassured that they will wash out! Only time will tell, but as I deliberately wore an old top that can be thrown out if need be, it doesn't really matter. What worries me more is the potentially harmful effect of the toxins in some of the industrial dyes manufactured through chemical processes.

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Each colour has different symbolic meaning:
Red - Purity
Green - Vitality
Blue - Calm and sedateness
Yellow - Pious feeling

“Just one photo” was a common refrain as each child wanted to be photographed with one of the foreigners, on his own, with his mates….. PC, Sabu’s father’s cousin was a great photographer, picking up everyone’s cameras and taking pictures for us. He atmosphere was already vibrant when the musicians turned up and brought the party to the next level. Everyone was dancing barefoot on the dirt track, with people waving money over our heads for good luck before paying the players.

Sabu’s mum was dressed in one of her most beautiful outfits, and she almost managed to keep it clean.

Later the band moved inside the basement of Sabu’s place, where we continued the dancing, drinking, easing and partying.

In the evening on this day, people traditionally clean up and sober up, then visit with family. The two girls from Chicago were moving on to Agra this afternoon, and they cleaned up well, but the shower didn’t remove anywhere near all of my colourful face “makeup”. I still have a green forehead and eyebrows and my left cheek looks as if someone smacked me hard!

PC was keen to show us off to his friends and family, so before dinner he took us off to his village some 15 minutes away, where we were paraded like homecoming celebrities, going from house to house drinking chai and lassi. With PC in charge of my camera, every moment of this excursion was captured on camera including the moment I scared the young child as well as the buffalo. I hate to think how many photo were taken, but I was captured in front of the house, on the couch, by the wheat field, in the kitchen……

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We made it back to Sabu’s in time for the tailor who was due at 18:30 – we arrived at 19:30 which would still be classed as ‘being on time’ India time. All my new clothes fitted beautifully – three tops made using one of my existing ones as a pattern, plus an Indian outfit, all made in two days which included Holi! Not bad!

Two of Sabu’s clients from Toronto, Canada, turned up this evening, and we had a very nice evening with them.

Posted by Grete Howard 18.03.2014 01:31 Archived in India Comments (1)

Jaipur for Holika

Monkeys and bonfires

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As we have already visited the main tourist sites in Jaipur in the past (albeit a long time ago), I wanted to see something different this time round. I think Sabu despairs of our inability to just sit around and chill with his family while we are here, but I want to see and experience as much as possible when I travel. It really is nothing whatsoever to do with him or his family (as I am sure he knows), I just have such a low boredom level and don't “do” chilling.

Jaipur

The largest city and the capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur is also referred to as Pink City and was India's first planned city. The oirigin of the name “Pink City” dates back to 1876 when the whole city was painted pink in honour of a visit by the then Prince of Wales. The name, as well as the colour, has stuck since.

As there are said to be 3500 temples in Jaipur, it was hard to pick just a couple to see today.

Galtaji Temple

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Galtaji has been a retreat for Hindu ascetics since the early 1500s a while the present temple dates from the 18th century. The site consists of monkey_temple_2.jpgseveral temples set around a natural spring with the waterfalls that create two tiered pools, the upper and lower pool, used for bathing by pilgrims. The main temple is the Temple of Galtaji, built in pink stone, believed to be named after a saint called Galev who practised mediation here. Inside we were shown the main temple and given a mini puja by the caretaker there, involving a mark on the forehead and some string around the wrist for good luck. All for baksheesh of course.

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Initially I felt a little cheated that I hadn’t seen any monkeys, but that was soon to change once we reached the first of the pools. The temple is popularly known as the Monkey Temple after the large tribe of rhesus macaques that live here, who were featured in National Geographic Channel's “Rebel Monkeys” series and "Thar Desert - Sacred Sand" episode of Wildest India Series. No wonder these are monkeys with attitude, fame has obviously gone to their head. One of them attacked me to grab the flower garland I had around my neck.

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Time for some lunch in a very touristy restaurant. Being a greedy so and so, I ordered way too many dishes from the menu: dum aloo Kashmiri, dal maharani, jeera rice, channa masala, boondi rata, bharwan kulcha and banana lassis. Of course we weren’t able to finish it all, but we had a damn good try.

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Getting ready for tomorrow, we stopped at the market to buy some colours throw at new found friends for the Holi festival, as well as a water gun! We are ready to partayyyyy!!!!!!

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We stopped at the Polo Ground on the way back to Sabu’s to find out about the state of this afternoon’s Holi Festival – last year PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ) managed to get the elephant Festival cancelled at the last minute and I knew they'd been fighting for the same this year, but I was hoping they’d carry on with some sort of festival like they did last year. But no. The festival was cancelled by the government with no notice. Shame.

Holika Dahan
As soon as Sabu’s other clients arrived – three girls from US – we set off all together to see the Holika fires.

The night before Holi, bonfires are lit in open spaces and near temples, sometimes with effigies on the top representing Holika. Holika was the evil sister of a demon king who believed he was indestructible and everyone worshipped him as a god. Prahlada, the king's son, however, remained devoted to Vishnu, much to the demon-king's annoyance. After much cruel punishment at the hands of his father, Prahlada was tricked by Holika, his evil aunt,into sitting on a bonfire with her. Holika felt confident this would mean the end of Prahlada, as she was wearing a magic shawl making her immune from the fire. Prahlad, however, chanted the names of God and was saved from the fire. As the fire roared, the shawl flew from Holika and wrapped itself around Prahlada, because she did not know that her powers were only effective if she entered the fire alone. So the evil aunt was the one who perished in the fire, while Prahlada survived. Vishnu immediately appeared and killed the evil king too. This myth has a strong association with the festival of Holi, and even today there is a practice of hurling cow dung into the fire and shouting obscenities at it, as if at Holika.

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The bonfires we saw tonight were symbolic reminders of the victory of good over evil and the fire which burned Holika and ashes from Holi bonfires are thought to bring good luck. As we drove into town we saw the pyres being prepared and dead on 18:30 they were all lit! All around us were huge fires and people in party mood, exchanging greetings of “happy Holi” with all those around. One particular chap was having a long and involved conversation with me – shame I didn’t understand a word he was saying… I then couldn’t get rid of him.

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From there we continued to the Birla Temple and fort for a night time view.

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Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
Last time we came to India, we visited the sister temple in Delhi of the same name and were totally blown away, so wanted to see the version here in Jaipur. This is one of a number of temples built by a modern sect of Hinduism known as the Swaminarayan Hinduism, a form of Vaishnavism.

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The sect was started by Swaminarayan who lived from 1781 to 1830. In 1792 he began a seven year pilgrimage across India culminating in being initiated into the Uddhav Sampraday sect which he later took over the leadership of. He soon came to be regarded as an incarnation of God by his followers and the sect was renamed Swaminarayan Sampraday. Swaminarayan distributed food and drinking water to the poor, opened almshouses and initiated other social service projects including discouraging female infanticide and sati (widow burning). Swaminarayan was against animal sacrifices and is considered a pioneer of education for women in India.

He had followers not only from Hindu denominations, but also from Islam and Zoroastrianism. He built six temples in his lifetime and appointed 500 paramhansas to spread his philosophy. Now there are hundreds of Swaminarayan temples spread over five continents.

Swaminarayan temples, like other Hindu temples, have walkways around the central shrine so that worshippers can circumambulate the main shrine. The main shrine area is then divided by railings. Despite Swaminarayan fighting for the rights of women, men and women are separated in temples to allow full concentration on god. Men do a specified number of prostrations (as decided by themselves). As well as separate sections for men and women, there is also a small area reserved for ascetics and special guests.

Sabu told us no photos were allowed, but as I didn’t see any notices I just carried on taking pictures. No one stopped me. Just as we were leaving a lady came up to us asked if we wanted to do something (when you have asked “pardon” for the fifth time you just nod and say “yes”) for 51 rupees for the two of us. It sounded like a bargain, whatever it was, so we let ourselves be led down to the basement for what turned out to be a puja. Holy water from a small container was to be poured over a gold statue while reciting a verse, then we had the now-familiar wrist bands attached. As we left we were given a small bottle of holy water and a box of a sweet substance which Tasted like crushed nuts with sugar. We also had to walk at least three times around the idol.

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Time to head back to Sabu’s where his mum had prepared dinner for us again.

Posted by Grete Howard 16.03.2014 11:35 Archived in India Comments (0)

Delhi - Jaipur

A long day......

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8.30 am seemed like the middle of the night after just a few hours’ sleep, but we had a nice Indian breakfast to get us on the way.

We last came to this part of Rajasthan over 25 years ago, and back then the road was a mere dirt track with trucks playing chicken with the oncoming traffic as no one wanted to drive away from the centre of the road and onto the gravelly verge; the trucks vied for space with donkeys, camels and elephants in those days. We still saw some camel carts today, and also large herds of camels, cows and sheep. Along the road was monkeys, nilgai and a few birds hanging around on the telephone lines such as kingfishers, drongo and the beautiful Indian roller. The trucks are much more modern these days, but they still carry the HORN PLEASE signs – some things never change.

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About half way we stopped for a very nice lunch before continuing to Jaipur. I have to admit I slept a great deal of the way after lunch as we haven’t had much sleep in the last couple of nights.

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Panna Meena ka Kund Step-well


At Amber, we stopped to see the Panna Mena ka Kund Step-well.

I came across details about this step-well quite by accident on line, and thought it would be fun to add to our itinerary as a little side trip on the way from Delhi to Jaipur.

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Stepwells are basically deep wells which are reached by a series of steps. They are fairly common in this part of India and often architecturally grand, with designs dating back at least 600 years. This particular one is much younger, having been constructed in the 16th century at the peak of the stepwell construction era. As well as storing water for drinking and irrigation, the stepwell was probably also used for community gatherings as it will remain cool during the hot summer afternoons. Ramps have been built to ensure drinking facilities for cattle but the water is not potable any more.

Steps are arranged in a criss cross pattern on three of the eight-storey sides, and I was told that you cannot use the same stairs to climb up and down. Unsure of how that works in reality, David did climb down, but it didn’t make any sense

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It was lovely in the late afternoon sun with the play of shadow and sun on the steps, with the backdrop of the spectacular Amber Palace.

From there we drove throw the Pink City, past the beautiful Palace of the Winds to Sabu’s place. His house is down a quiet lane, and it is much bigger than I expected it to be, and very luxurious. Or at least it will be by the time it is finished. It is still very much “work in progress”.

Sabu arranged for a tailor to come and take my measurement and then to a cloth shop to get the materials for him to make me an outfit and copy an existing top.

Back to Sabu’s for dinner with some of his American guests from Miami. By the time they had finished doing their financial transactions, it was 10pm by the time we ate. The food - prepared by Sabu's mum - was delicious, especially the rice pudding dessert.

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Posted by Grete Howard 15.03.2014 10:52 Archived in India Comments (1)

Bristol - London - Zurich - Delhi

Back in our beloved India

sunny 34 °C

With thick fog when we left Nailsea, we were concerned that the flight from Heathrow would be delayed, and our fears were confirmed when the plane left over 50 minutes late. With only 65 minutes transfer time in Zurich, it was tight even with the pilot managing to regain 25 minutes along the way. But we made it, just as the gate was closing.

The flight was not the most comfortable I have known, but I still managed to get some four hours of sleep. Arrival in Delhi was incredibly smooth and quick and soon we found ourselves in the hotel room with a drink. Welcome to India.

Posted by Grete Howard 15.03.2014 06:40 Archived in India Comments (1)

My bags are packed and I'm ready to go...

India bound yet again

OK, we're as ready as we'll ever be, we have checked in on line, packed our bags and received our visas. India here we come! I just wish this fog would lift, it is making me kinda nervous for our flight early tomorrow morning departing on time....

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Most of our trips have a specific reason for travelling to that particular place at a certain time, and this one is no different: we are going to India to celebrate the Holi Festival where the brightly coloured powder is being thrown around. Having seen lots of photographs of this festival in the past, I have wanted to be part of it for a number of years. Looks like I am about to get my wish and get very messy indeed!

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This is our ninth time to India, and this time we are going to be staying with our friend Sabu from Icon India Tours and are really looking forward to seeing his new house in Jaipur.

All being well I should be able to update the blog regularly over there, as we not only have a new tablet, but also a mifi dongle with mobile internet. Watch this space.

Posted by Grete Howard 03:37 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Harbin - Shanghai - London - Bristol

Home, sweet home.

rain 6 °C

My lovely comfortable sleep turned out to be anything but. Although reasonably OK when I was sitting up, as soon as I put my head down, I started to cough. David was the same, so if one of us had managed to get off to the land of slumber, the other would would wake us both up by coughing. This went on all night. I think I had less than an hour sleep in total.

At 01:30 we heard someone try to get in the room using the electronic room card. We'd double locked the door, so they gave up after a few attempts and we could hear them trying a few other doors along the corridor too. We put it down to being on the wrong floor and thought nothing more of it. Some five minutes later, they returned, and went through the whole process again, but like last time, they gave up when they couldn't get in. After a further ten minutes or so, there was a loud knock on the door, and when we opened it, a by now very embarrassed receptionist and a couple of Chinese tourists were standing expectantly outside. We found out later from Sally that due to a staff error when we checked in earlier that day, our room was still showing as being vacant, so it had in effect been double booked and given to some late arrivals. I expect the Chinese were shown to room 507 with the giant orange ball afterwards. Which is probably where we were meant to be.

One of the benefits of not being well, is that both David and I managed to sleep for around 10 hours on the 13 hour flight, which made the journey home seem a lot quicker. We were also very lucky it seems as my dad rang us when we were half way home as he'd seen on the news that the M4 motorway was closed in the westbound direction due to a serious accident. We must have just missed it. As it was, the journey from start to finish took 24.5 hours, adding several more hours travel time being stuck in a traffic jam would not have been welcome, especially as we both felt so unwell.

Posted by Grete Howard 25.01.2014 02:56 Archived in England Comments (1)

Jilin - Harbin

Walmart, a snowy park, bullet train, Russian chocolate and a burger

overcast -12 °C
View Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival on Grete Howard's travel map.

Walmart
Today's first excursion was to Walmart – partly to see what this large department store looks like in China, and partly to satisfy Alan's desire for shopping. I stayed in bed as I was feeling still pretty rough this morning and shopping is not one of my favourite past times.

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Lunch
Next on the agenda was lunch, which again I didn't partake in as this morning I seemed to have gathered yet another ailment – an upset tummy. Best to give food a miss for a while.

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Spicy pork - it looked delicious (and I was told it was) but not a good idea with an upset tummy.

North Mountain Park
Also known as Beishan Park (and bizarrely situated in the west of Jilin), the park cover an area of 10,000m² and plays an important role in the history of Jilin. Several ancient temples can be found here and some can be dated back to the Manchurian Warlord Chang Ji-Lin Ren. There is also a bridge which is directly associated with Emperor Kangxi and a tablet which has an inscribed poetry about the Songhua River. The park is a fusion of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. “Kiosks, bridges, corridors and water garden are sprinkled among the verdant forests and serene mountains “ (quoting the tourism website), but of course being winter time, everything is covered in snow.

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Three small linked lakes run along the foot of the main mountain (Taoyuan Mountain in the west of the park), and in the north west corner of the park is a Mausoleum for Martyrs who died during the early Communist years, and the memorial hall in here has epigraphs by Chairman Mao and other high profile cadres. The Wobo Bridge divides the lake into the east and west part.

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Again I stayed in the car, while David and Alan went off to explore with Vera. David was in two minds whether he wanted to go too as he is also feeling rather rough today. We both had a very sleepless night last night with a cough. So when Vera started to head up the mountain, David came back and joined me in the sick bay, watching a municipal worker painstakingly clearing the snow from the car park. The weather has been very much warmer here than in Harbin and the roads are mostly filthy slush now.

Bullet train to Harbin
Today was really mostly a 'filler' day, and once Alan had conquered another Chinese mountain and returned safely without being attacked by any dragons, we set off for the railway station. We had quite a long wait for our train but Alan found some shops and coffee, so he was happy.

The train journey went quickly for me as I slept most of the way. This time I did the sensible thing and dressed for the +22 °C inside by having layers to remove, and it made for a much more comfortable journey.

Sally and Mr Safe greeted us in Harbin and whisked us (as far as the ever-present traffic jams would allow) back to the same hotel. I was anticipating a reunion with a giant orange ball, and was pleasantly surprised when we got to the room. Is this really the same hotel?

The room was of a totally different class: very much larger, nicer furnished and decorated, many more amenities, hanging space and a hair drier amongst other things. The bathroom was separated from the main bedroom area by a double glass wall with fake bamboo between. Very pretty but it did concern me a little in terms of privacy until I discovered there was a curtain you could pull across. As the beds here are very much softer than those in Jilin, I was looking forward to a good night's sleep in my new-found luxury.

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David and Alan popped out quickly to get some more of the delicious Russian chocolate we'd bought before and by the time they got back it was really a bit too late to go out for a meal – almost everything closes at 21:00 here. So I hate to admit that we just popped across the road to Burger King for a Whopper. Last time I ate at a BK was in Miami Airport in February 2011 (are you reading this Homer?). It was very tasty, albeit extremely messy, but neither David or I could finish ours – probably not helped by the girl on the next table being sick all over the floor.

We retreated to the hotel to finish the packing and our last night in China.

Posted by Grete Howard 24.01.2014 02:53 Archived in China Comments (0)

Jilin

Rimed Trees, Longtan Mountain, Hotpot and Meteorite Museum

sunny -3 °C
View Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival on Grete Howard's travel map.

I had a really bad night last night, I was awake 51 times having to turn because of a bad back and/or cough. And yes, I did count! With a fever this morning too, the last thing I wanted to do was sightseeing, but I'd come all this way and I wasn't going to miss out on the highlight of Jilin.

It was a two-hour journey along extremely bumpy and slippery roads to Wusong Island, but I still managed to sleep the majority of the time.

Rimed Trees
Known as Tree Hangings and described as “dressed in snow as white as silver”, the rimed trees in Jilin have been named as one of the Four Natural Splendours of China (there is some disagreement as to what the other three are but the general consensus is the mountains and lakes of Guilin, Stone Forest of Yunnan, and Three Gorges of Yangtze River). The trees in question are poplar and willow trees along the banks of the Songhua River, and the key to their rarity and grandeur is “fog at night, ice spike in the morning and falling flowers near the noon.”

The “fog at night” is the mist created by a hydro- electric plant some 15 km from the city, with the river carrying the warm water and creating vapour on its surface. As night time falls and the temperatures drop, the mist continues to rise from the river, becoming thicker and thicker, floating towards both banks of the river.

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"Ice spike in the morning "is the rime on the trees early in the morning. Willows branches hang heavy with crystal spikes and pine needles bloom like silver flowers where condensation from the overnight “fog” has vapourised and then frozen, coating the naked branches with ice crystals under the unique geographical environment here.

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"Falling flowers near noon” is referring to the warmer daytime air melting the rime creating falling ice spike like silver autumn leaves.

From a technical point of view (I bet you never knew there was so much specialised knowledge about ice crystals!), there are two types of graininess and crystal form of ice spikes – one is light in structure, forming a small ice block. The other – which is what you find here in Jilin – is looser in structure, assuming a large-sized flake.

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Rimed trees are big business here, with a large car park and a ferry to take you across to the island. The ferry was operated purely by the power of the water in the river pushing against the paddle, with a wire to stop it floating downstream.

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I an so glad we packed our snowchains for our boots, they have come in really handy on this trip and today in particular. Lots of people were sliupping and sliding and falling over on the island, including Alan. Fortunately bot Alan and his camera were OK.

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Hotpot Lunch
We stopped for a very early lunch in the middle of nowhere at a hotpot restaurant with private dining rooms which are so popular around these parts. A huge pot with simmering stock is placed in the middle of the table, and you are given pork, beef, mutton and vegetables to cook in the stock. I had no appetite whatsoever, so jut had a few bits merely to taste it.

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Dragon Mountain
As I still had a fever and felt like death warmed up, I slept in the car while David and Alan walked up the 260 steps to the top of Dragon Mountain for views over the city.

The Meteorite Museum
In 1976, Jilin experienced a spectacular meteorite shower (the world's largest, covering an area of 500 km²), bringing with it not only the biggest aerolite in the world, weighing 1,775 kg, but at least a further 138 large meteorites. The blare and seismic waves created by the meteorite shower blew out thousands of windows in the city, but miraculously no-one was injured in the commotion whose power equalled that of an A-bomb.

According to scientific research, its composition has placed it to come from a planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and dated it to be around 4.6 billion years old (about the same age as earth). That's pretty ancient, pretty big and pretty darn exciting! Studies also conclude that the meteorite belongs to olivine that is the copper picrite ball meteorite (“whoosh” - that's the sound as this information flew straight over my head, but some of you with larger brains may find it interesting) and is made up of 40 different kinds of minerals which contain 18 elements, Some 8 million years ago it is thought to have bumped against other planets, and blow out of the asteroid cincture to make its way to the surface of the earth.

This is the only meteorite museum in China and has the worlds largest collection of meteorites, introducing you to an overview of the universe, the solar system members, origin of meteorites, the reason behind the Jilin meteorite shower, and researches of meteorite via an abundance of real samples, pictures, diagrams and kinescopes.

The museum was very well laid out, with an audiovisual display of space from reclining chairs. I am sure it would have e fascinating if we'd understood it.

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The meteorite was not as large as I had imagined it to be.

As soon as we got back to the room, I went straight to bed and stayed there for the rest of the day/evening/night while David and Alan went for dinner at a BBQ restaurant.

Posted by Grete Howard 23.01.2014 15:09 Archived in China Comments (1)

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