Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Wednesday 29th February - Camel Riding

We both wake at about 3 a.m. The celestial sky is still there and there are a few more shooting stars to see. It is getting a little chilly but neither of us is willing to get out of bed to fetch the extra blankets from inside the house. Next thing we know it is starting to get light in the east so we leap out of bed, in honour of today's date, and sort ourselves out. Back up onto the roof to see a pretty spectacular sunrise.

There are peacocks to watch until we get the call for breakfast - millet porridge, sour yoghurt and banana washed down with chai. Meanwhile our mounts for the day have arrived along with their cameleteers or whatever they are called. We hop on board and are soon heading further away from civilisation.

Our first port of call is No 1 camel boy's dad's house where pater is waiting with a state of the art camel cart. The camel pulling the cart is D's camel's dad and his son keeps up a lively pace following the cart. This contains a full load of bedding and cushions and after about 20 minutes we arrive at another cluster of dwellings in the increasingly sandy landscape. Here everybody has a breather and a chinwag while the cart is unloaded and then we head off towards the horizon.

Travelling by camel gets you much closer to nature and there were plenty of birds to see although a swaying camel does not provide a good platform for photography. We passed a herd of camels, grazing the desert thornbushes, and all marked as belonging to somebody. The baby camels are very small and have difficulty walking for a few days. We were told that this chap is about ten days old.

Our guides took us to the foot of a big sand dune and offered us the chance to climb it. Like the mugs we are we said yes please. Jock Wallace used to improve the fitness of the Rangers first team by sending them up sand dunes. We are amazed that they ever recovered enough to play. The view from the top was worth the effort. When we got back down to the camels there was half a stone of sand to empty from each shoe.

All good things come to an end and we found ourselves back at "Uncle & Auntie's". The scariest bit about camel riding is when they sit down to let you off. YOu must hold tight, lean back and try not to yell. Although it is only 10.15 a.m. lunch is ready, pretty much a repeat of last night but still very tasty. After our guides had had their meal we set of back to Jodhpur, once again our driver showing us what Grand prix racing would be like if cars travelled both ways round the circuit and there were a few goats and sheep ambling across and along the track.

Back at the Durag Niwas we met Govind, the owner. and we were able to thank him for a really excellent excursion. R has just about forgiven the place its little eccentricities
such as the colony of tiny ants (mainly) behind the wall hangings in our room, a bathroom tap that is shoogly even by Indian standards and the off white nature of some of the linen. You try washing your sheets in the river and see what they look like.

Once again it was time to pack for the next stage of our journey. This done, we took an auto into the centre to try a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant, the Indique on the roof of the Pal Haveli Hotel. We were lucky enough to get a table on the highest level of the roof where most other tables were reserved. From here we got views right across the city and in pariclar a great view of the sunset by the fort.

This was by no mens the cheapest meal that we have had in India but it was probably the best. The setting was fabulous and the heat radiating from the stone parapets kept the chill away. As it darkened candles were lit for all of the tables. Despite the place
becoming full there was no pressure for us to leave the table until we were ready.

A really splendid evening

Tuesday 28th - Part 2 - Off to the Desert.

Our guide/driver is one of the hotel family's cousins and he has brought a friend with him who has two days off from driving tourists around Rajasthan. Talk about a busman's holiday. There are a couple of errands to run, such as delivering gas cylinders and the like before we hit the road horth west. The first part is like a moonscape as we pass endless sandstone quarries and weave our way among lorries piled precariously high with chunks of rock. We stop at a travelling roadside market where people come for home essentials such as doors, ladders and charpoys. A bit like a tented B&Q.

The next stop is Balesar famed for its pakoras made from lentils with a little bit of chilli. Straight out of the frying pan into a makeshift bag made of newspaper, they are very tasty but we are a bit wary of the chilli content so only have a few. The sun is definitely sinking now as we make terrifying progress along the roads of Western Rajasthan. We have been promised a sunset so maybe that is why we are in such a hurry.

After about two hours we turn onto a minor road and then onto a track through the sand, finally pulling up in the centre of a collection of huts and square stone buldings. One of the stone buildings is being renovated but has a room and a bathroom of sorts and is to be our accommodation. We will be fed 50 yards away at "Uncle & Auntie's" and are invited to wander round but not to miss the sunset which is best seen from the roof. We are immediately a centre of attraction for the local children who had been amusing themselves by banging a drum - practice for the forthcoming Holi festival.

After the sun has gone down we are called across to partake of aperitifs and nibbles. We have pre-ordered a couple of beers which have been warming nicely during the trip. Our guide is an expert at opening these without spraying everybody and it goes down well with the homemade papads, cooked on an open fire. No more microwaved Sharwoods' for us. The kitchen is a separate thatched hut to the rest of the house and is very much Auntie's domain. We are invited in to watch the chapatis being made and R slips easily into supervisory mode. EHOs look away now.

We enjoy a meal of vegetables cooked in a lightly spice sauce, rice, daal and two kinds of chapati, one of them made with millet a local speciality. After eating we are asked if we would like to sleep on mattresses on the roof, on beds in the courtyard or inside, or in a thatched hut. The night sky is fantastic (although it won't photograph) so we opt for beds in the courtyard. Goodnights are said all round and we are left to enjoy our night-cap before turning in. We lie watching the stars, some shooting across the heavens, for a long time before dropping off to sleep.

A fantastic experience!

Tuesday 28th - A bit of a wasted morning.

A leisurely breakfast in the courtyard followed by an expedition to find an internet cafe
with wifi. The first auto offers us a ride to the clock tower for Rs 50/- only ten more than the hotel's suggested rate. On the basis that we weigh more than most customers we don't mind paying a little extra but when our man drops us 100 yards short and tries to tell us 50 each there is an exchange of views. D pays fifty bust. No tip for you my lad.
The market around the clock tower is just waking up so we head straight to the Rough Guide's recommended internet place - opposite the north gate of the market. No sign of it but no worry - RG says that you can't move for internet places around the market. The next place is a smelly cupboard under the stairs with no wifi. We wander quite a way and see a guest house offering free wifi but they are having a power cut.

Eventually we find the Blue House where we are promised wifi in their rooftop restaurant. Their tea and gulab jamun is very good and the views across the city are stunning but their wifi is incredibly slow. Eventually we give up and head through the alleys towards the station where there is another RG recommendation. That also cannot be found. The Jodhpur chapter of our Rough Guide is now officially toilet paper.

We do spot some interesting advertising signs as we go round. By now we are getting hot and bothered so we decide to go back to the start and ask the tourist info kiosk. Praise be we find an honest auto driver who only charges Rs 20/- and is delighted with his tip. The man at the info kiosk shows us where to go but again - no wifi so we decide to see if the power is back on where we went earlier.

"Is it possible to have a beer and use your wifi?" we ask. "Everything is possible in India". But not at the same time. We are shown up to the roof for our drink and then told that the wifi works only in the courtyard and no we can't take drinks down there because there is no licence. After the fastest Kingfisher in history we take up residence in the yard and dash off some blog, but again the connection is pitifully slow. R is taken with their doors so that's a small consolation.

We decide to pack it in and go home. Again we get an honest driver with a very smart auto, not like the wrecks that they drive around Delhi. Back at Dirag Niwas there is shade and cool and the wifi is now working splendidly. it gives us the chance to catch up with the blog etc and pack ready for our trip out into the desert. We were told three, maybe three thirty would be departure but we are on Indian time and leave at just before 4.00 p.m.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Monday 27th - Jodhpur

Woke at about 7.15 after a fitful night's sleep due to the cold. You've paid for AC so you are getting it. The unit on this coach could have been used as a blast chiller. We are now passing through very different, much more arid countryside - light brown in colour rather than green. From the train we spot our first camels of this trip as well as deer and peacocks. There is a sad lack of vendors on the Rajasthan Sampark Kranti - this is the sort of occasion when even we welcome a cup of hot, sweet chai. Arriving at Jodhpur twenty minutes late D lets a porter take one bag to the autorickshaw stand where all of our baggage and us are piled into one machine.

We are taken straight to our guest house, the Durag Niwas where our room is ready. R witholds the 5 star rating but it is only costing £11 per night. At first view the room is like something out of the Arabian Nights with drapes and floor cushions everywhere. We have arrived in time for breakfast so we enjoy an omelette with a pot of black tea before getting cleaned up after our journey. Top of the list of attractions in Jodhpur is the Mehrangarh Fort, a huge place which dominates the town and which is clearly visible from the roof of our hotel.

We take an auto up to the gate and then sign up for the highly informative audio guides. These take us through the history of the place as we progress upwards through various courtyards and stairways. They have fascinating collections of howdahs and palanquins on display. (Look them up on Wikipedia) The views from the top are spectacular and the "Blue City" as Jodhpur is known, is seen to great effect.

We are now quite used to people wanting to stand next to us while their friends take photos. We keep asking why but nobody has told us yet. R does her usual trick of schmoozing the natives. "Thank you sir. That will be Rs 20/-."

By now it is getting warm so we ride back down into the centre of town and take refuge in a cafe for samosas and Limca. The bazaar is the usual chaos of people and motorbikes but this one has the added bonus of a turban vendor who tries to flog one to D. They are tempting at a mere £4 each (£5 for the muticoloured ones) for 9 yards of material but how does one put them back together when they fall apart?

In the heat we are shopped out and head back to the Durag Niwas, getting a much better deal on the auto for this ride. The wifi network is malfunctioning so we spend a while trying to get online. We are asked if we would like anything to drink so we ask for a beer. The waiter is sent out to the off licence to get a few in. Most of the guests seem to be German women, not particularly chatty, but the staff are friendly enough. Closer examination of our room reveals some interesting artefacts inclusing an old wind up gramaphone and what looks like a 3" mortar round.

We decide to treat ourselves tonight. The Umaid Bhawan Hotel has a Rs 3000/- minimum charge in the bar to keep out rubberneckers like us (That's about £40) The Ajit Bhawan is suggested by LP as a satisfactory alternative so we head there. The auto driver wants 50/- so we tell him that we will walk and the price drops to 40/-. As he has to drive half a mile past the place to find a gap in the central barrier we get quite a long ride for our money.

It would have been quicker to walk. The hotel is in spacious grounds and set up as a mock tribal village with rooms in individual thatched "huts". The bar is at the far end of all this and is pretty splendid. One G+T and one beer come in at £11 but we do get some very nice nuts and crisps thrown in.

On the way out we spotted their garage full of rather smart classic cars, all immaculately maintained unlike most things in Jodhpur.

Further along the same road is the "On the Rocks" restaurant, recomended in the guides but with a caveat about slow service. We are in no hurry and are soon seated alfresco under the waxing moon in what is certainly the busiest restaurant we have yet been in. The waiters were all rigged out as Frank Spencer with very silly berets and some of them seemed to be about as much use. After five attempts we managed to place an order. When the food comes it is in tureens with a bed of glowing charcoal beneath and is absolutely delicious. We send out a clear messagbe to the auto drivers that we are not to be messed with by walking home.

Sunday 26th - In New Delhi

At last we get a lie in. The weather in Delhi is definitely heading towards summer as the sky is blue and it is quite warm out of the breeze. We have a leisurely breakfast then pack and clear our room. Lutyens Bungalow is a really nice laid back place and they are happy for us to leave our luggage, come back for afternoon tea and dinner and help ourselves at the bar (as long as we pay for them). Our host Shukla is a lovely lady who goes out of her way to make her guests feel at home and for us she has certainly succeeded.

R decrees that retail therapy is required today so we head off on the metro for Dilli Haat market where she finally decides upon a suitable Ganesh for our domestic shrine. Most of the ones we have seen in India are fitted out with scarves or shawls to ward off the winter cold. We browse around the stalls and tell the salesmen that we have no room in our suitcase. They don't seem very convinced.

After a momo lunch we decide that we have time to visit the Rajpath, the area of new Delhi designed by Lutyens to be the seat of government for the Raj. The buldings are very impressive and the gardens are generally well maintained. We took a look inside one of the admin buildings, peeked through the railings at the President's house and got chased off one of the terraces by a man with a gun (but he was very nice about it).

Half of Delhi seemed to be out, playing and picnicing on the lawns on either side of the Rajpath. There were several games of cricket in progress although from what we saw nobody was likely to make the step up to test level anytime soon. By the time that we reached the imposing India Gate, a huge War memorial, at the east end of the Rajpath, the heat was starting to take its toll and we take an auto back to the metro for the ride back to LB.

This is our last ride on the Delhi Metro on this visit. We have used it everyday during our two stays in the city, which has cost us just under £2 each. Match that Boris. The trains are clean and air-conditioned and much more roomy than the London Underground, even when busy. D could not resist the opportunity to take an illicit photo of this splendid system. There are notices around the stations detailing the penalties for various infractions. Riding on the roof incurs a fine of Rs 50/- - sounds like good value. There is no stated penalty for taking a photo, just notices saying don't so if this blog suddenly goes quiet you know what has happened.

We arrive just in time for afternoon tea and a chat on the terrace. Everybody who stays here seems to love the informal atmosphere and mucks in. Even the parakeets and the chipmunks seem to get on with each other. Eventually the sun drops behind the building and the air becomes chilly so we take refuge inside and catch up on our e-mail. THere are lots of comings and goings tonight and we dine as a small party including Shukla and a rather grand friend of hers who R dubs the Countess. The conversation is entertaining and the food is good but it is soon time for us to depart for Sarai Rohilla Station, a few miles north west of central Delhi.

The taxi firm wanted to set off at 8 p.m. while D was thinking 9 so we compromised at 8.30 which meant that we arrived at the station just before nine. The coaches were at the platform but 1AC and 2AC were locked. Delhi SR is a bit of a dump as far as major terminals go and lacks most facilities but R did find a seat while D went to check the loco (WDM 3A Class No 16374R if you must know). When he returned it was to discover that R had a ringside seat for the great Platform 2 fish catastrophe. Two chaps were wheeling a barrow laden with boxes along the platform when one of the wheels broke through the tarmac surface and turned the barrow over. There were fish and ice and bits of polystyrene everywhere. Eventually it was all swept up off the platform and back into the boxes. We won't be eating fish for a few days.

Our coach was unlocked and we found cabin C - the only 2-berth on the train, again! R voted it the mankiest train she had yet seen in India, using her precious face wipes to clean the upholstery. A very black mark for the North West Zone of IR The bedding provided was deemed unfit for purpose - R wants to know what they use to keep their sheets so grey. We were glad that we had our silk sheet bags. The Rajasthan Sampark Kranti Express was under way at 10.30, only five minutes late and after waiting half an hour for the ticket examiner we poured ourselves a night cap then turned in.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Saturday 25th - Birdwatching at Sultanpur

Another early start as we are collected by our driver at 6.00 a.m. for the 90 minute drive, south westwards from Delhi to Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary. Here we have a boiled egg breakfast at the Rosy Pelican cafe and meet our guide, Sanjay, who has brought his friend Anuroop Krishnan with him. They are both very knowledgable and are soon identifying various birds for us. Even before we leave the car park they find an owl sleeping in one of the trees.

The reserve is laid out around a shallow lake with various types of habitat in different places. There are islands in the lake, one of which is home to a colony of painted storks. There are many other waterbirds and waders around as well as at least four different large raptors. We saw both Imperial eagles and a crested serpent eagle. R is even lucky enough to see a jungle cat which D misses as he is looking up for birds.

As well as the larger birds there were lots of smaller LBJs (little brown jobs) as well as some more brightly coloured and noisy ones. This one is the Coppersmith Barbet which makes a noise like a slightly faulty oil pump. And it does it non-stop for hours at a time. Eventually we finished our circuit and got back into the car for the return drive which took nearly an hour longer due to the traffic.

We had a beer while we waited for the sun to ease off, and then took the metro to Old Delhi to do some spice shopping and watch the world go by. We had enjoyed our meal at Karim's so much last week that we decided to go back again to try the sheesh kebabs that we had seen on the grill. Inevitably sheesh kebabs "is orf" so we settled for a shami kebab and mutton burru with rice, daal and roti. A splendid meal for less than £6.

D had the call and had to make use of one of the street urinals. Verdict - "Seen much worse in Tetley pubs". We went for a wander further into the Old Town down streets where there was hardly any lighting. There were some fascinating shops and stalls to be seen but they weren't the sort of place that you would find on your average UK High Street. We managed not to get lost got home safely via the metro.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Friday 24th - Bonus 16mm Post

Almost forgot about this. The Glenmutchkin Light Railway's Delhi Agent today took delivery of the East Indian Railways coach that had been ordered in Kolkata a couple of weeks ago. Here is a sneak preview showing the authentic inward opening doors that will allow the citizens of Glenmutchkin to go door-riding.

Friday 24th - The Paschim Express

Early start today as we are catching the train back to Delhi. We discover why nobody in the restaurant will actually commit themselves to a time for breakfast. We get there at 7.00 a.m. to find several people already eating and the staff ambling around laying up tables. No steamed veg today - it's baked beans. The tureen marked boiled eggs contains some kind of deep fried batter balls tasting of over used cooking oil. So Paranthas, chicken sausages and banana it was. The Country Inn and Suites by Carlson loses a point off our Tripadvisor rating by charging us Rs 320/- for a trip of less than half a mile to the station but we are delivered to the front door. D shrugs off the porters with the line "I have a strong wife" Our driver thought that it was funny even if they didn't.

In the station the info board tells us that our train is on the near platform and the announcer tells us that it will be leaving on time. We don't have too long to wait before the coaches are delivered to the platform. Cabin C in coach H1 is forward facing - another of our preferences. D goes to check that the loco is correctly coupled up to the front of the train. For those of you who are interested it is a WAP-7 No 30246. The train starts gently moving out, more or less on time and there is a sudden stampede of people along the platform seeking to board the Unreserved coaches, marshalled just in front of us. Why do they leave it so late?

This train is the Paschim Express (Train 12926) headed for Mumbai via Delhi arriving in Mumbai at 15.15 tomorrow afternoon. We are due into Delhi at 16.25 today so we are using the cabin just as day seating but it gives us the option of a lie down if required. This is not one of the really smart trains but is a more typical IR long distance conveyance. The Shatabdi from Amritsar to New Delhi leaves at 5.00 a.m. and we are on holiday after all.

Catering on the Paschim is charged on an as you go basis rather than included in the fare but the prices are ludicrously cheap. This may be why the man from the Pantry Car has difficulty believing that we don't want a Rs 17/- breakfast but we do order a pot of tea without sugar for a whopping 5/-. R refuses to believe these prices until D shows her the relevant page of TAAG. (Trains At A Glance - keep up) Soon she is engrossed in this wonderful publication and asks whether it is available for her Kindle. The tea is pretty disgusting without sugar.

The train makes good progress with only the occasional unexplained halt. As it is an express it stops more often than the Shatabdi. At some of the bigger stations hawkers board the train. One is so persistent that we have to lock him out of the cabin. Our lunch order is taken and in due course we receive two foil containers of alleged Chicken Biryani. It tastes better than it looks - medium spicy but very salty.

We are still rolling over the endless flat North Indian plain with its zillions of acres of wheat growing in the fields and looking to be doing pretty well. There must be quite a lot of Indian people who have never seen a hill. On the trip from Kolkata D had noticed cow dung heaps fashioned into artistic forms but the train was travelling too fast to get a photo. A photo of a good one is quite high on today's list and eventually the opportunity arises, coupled to a spell of travelling while hanging out of the door for D. While this is the norm for unreserved class travel it is not considered fashionable in 1AC (First Air Conditioned) so there is no squabbling about whose turn it is.

We arrive on time in Delhi and this time there are no hiccups with the car pick up. It feels almost like getting when we get back to Lutyens Bungalow and we are soon enjoying afternoon tea while we watch the parakeets. Supper is a cosy affair with Evelyn and Belinda from Oz and an English couple who live in France and who fly home tonight.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Thursday 23rd - Hindustan Zindabad

Amritsaris don't seem to be early morning people. The horns don't start blowing until about 6.15. Breakfast is pretty good including a tureen full of steamed vegetables without spicy sauce. D goes a bit mad for these. We take the chance to go up onto the roof of the hotel where there is a tiny swimming pool and a barbecue area. As this is still considered winter in the Punjab they are not in use. It does give us chance to see the Golden temple view from the hotel - spot the golden domed roof in the centre on the skyline. We are delighted that we were too cheap to pay extra for a room on this side.

We stroll along the Queens Road for a few minutes looking for somewhere to eat tonight before hailing an auto to the bazaar area. We are pretty early and many places aren't open yet but it does mean there are fewer crowds,less traffic and time and space to photograph some of the wackier signs.

Next stop is the Sri Durgiana. This is a Hindu temple set out on similar lines to the Golden Temple and known as the Silver temple because of the beautifully carved silver doors. Much less busy than its rival it would be pretty spectacular in any other comparison.

R was pleased because there was devotional singing in progress when we visited but, alas, no free lunch nor any olde worlde warriors. The doorman was a real comedian who decided to try on D's hat and then insisted that we take his picture while wearing it.

We went back to the bazaars which were now starting to do business. As usual there were different areas for different trades. The fabric area was very colourful, while the plastic seating area was not so interesting. Various artisans were plying their trades on the pavement including the hand making of galvanised trunks.This was a particularly noisy process in which the practioners appeared to take great delight.

R wanted to see if she could get herself some spangly shoes to go with her outfit from Kolkata. The guy pulled out all the stops but only one pair came anywhere near a good fit and the price quoted was astronomic. He even had a go at selling shoes to D. Fat chance.

We were repeatedly asked to take photos of stallholders which seemed a reasonable swop for pictures of their wares laid out for sale. As the sun reached its highest it became quite hot and we flagged an auto for the trip back to the hotel. He twice stopped for directions, the second time within sight of the target, but he was not prepared to trust D's directions. They way they drive around here it's doubtful that many live long enough to get a grasp of the city's geography.

We had booked a car to take us to Atari, about 30 km outside Amritsar. This is the scene of the daily frontier ceremony performed by both Indian and Pakistani border guards in front of partisan crowds on both sides of the border. As we neared the border we passed lines of trucks parked up in the queue for customs clearance. Our driver parked up and gave us our instructions before pointing us in the right direction. There was quite a mob building up at the gate, reminiuscent of an old fashioned football crowd. Some of the soldiers on crowd control duty wore splendid puggarees. The gate was opened for ladies first so R set off. D had to fight his way through the crowd to catch up when the main gate opened. There were several security searches before we were shown into the seating area for foreign guests. Don't get too excited - the seating was concrete terracing.

The border gates were surrounded on both sides by open air grandstands which were rapidly filling with colourful and noisy crowds. On the Indian side there was a professional warm up man in a white shell suit who was organising activities and exhorting chanting from the the throng. There was an unruly queue of women and teenage girls waiting to take their turn at running 50 yards towards the border while waving a large Indian flag - even grannies were having a go. Judging by the noises to our left much the same was going on over the border.

Eventually the parade squad marched on, one by one, to great cheers and applause. It included two very smart female soldiers. The drill was quite ludricous - Monty Python's silly walks would not have got a look in. Then the gates were opened and the squad marched one at a time to pull faces at their Pakistani opposite numbers, who were doing just the same. The crowd by now were roaring "Hindustan Zindabad" like a football chant. The ceremony was rounded off by the lowering of the two flags, a polite handshake between the two officers and a ceremonial crashing shut of the gates. The whole thing is clearly rehearsed and co-ordinated to the n-th degree.

All absolutely bonkers.

The VIPs were allowed out before there was a mad rush by the hoi polloi towards the gate. They were held back about 20 yards short by a rope across the road. We made our way back to the car along lines of hawkers peddling DVDs of the performance. Our drive back to town was pretty uneventful by Indian standards. We had consulted the usually reliable Lonely planet for a dinner recommendation and earmarked the Crystal restaurants just about 100 yards from the hotel. These are adjacent to each other, owned by different branches of a quarrelling family and , according, to LP equally good. Tonight they are both closed so we opt for our fall back, also recommended in the guide, Sagar Ratna.

This is on the opposite side of the road and crossing 5 lanes of traffic in the dark was easily our scariest moment so far. A small boy saw our difficulties and helped us across. Sagar Ratna was barely worth the effort especially as we still had to cross back again to get to our hotel. The meal was vegetarian, temperance and resulted in us collecting thirteen separate pickle/sauce bowls on the table. Part of our order was mixed vegetable pakora and R recommended the green beans which turned out to be deep fried, battered chillis. Ouch. Our Tripadvisor review will say something like Underwhelming but cheap. The first disappointing meal we have had in India. LP needs to rewrite its Amritsar chapter.

A quick online check of our reservation status for tomorrow's train tells us that once again we have been allocated a two berth compartment.