Path: Travel > Destinations > NINDIA 2008 > NINDIA 2008 Mails English

NINDIA 2008 Mails English

Following is the full text of all English emails we sent during this trip. The texts are original copies, shown here as sent: typos, errors, warts and all (the same in French).


Subject: And off we go...

Date: Sun, 28 Sep 2008 15:57:36 +0100

Dear all,

yeah, it's once again that time of the year: winter slowly approaches
and Thomas + Vero flee the British shores. As many of you already
know, this year we look forward to returning to an old favourite of
ours: the mountains of Nepal.

The idea is to hop to Delhi on the 2nd of October, catch various
trains, buses, taxis and rikshaws until we end up in Kathmandu. A few
days there, and then we take a rickety local bus to a mountain village
called Jiri. That's where the Everest trek starts for the hardy souls
who want to walk-in (as opposed to those lazy guys who fly-in to
Lukla). We did this before, so we know what we're doing;-)

Basically, the plan is to spend then another month in the Everest
region, (re-)doing all our favourite spots and quite a few we have not
done yet (or only perfunctorily). One idea is to spend a few days in
the Ama Dablam region, another to go up the route to the Nangpa La and
Tibet as far as we (or rather our equipment) can handle.

After all this we will strike southeast across the mountains to a
place called Tumlingtar (that's on the walk-out to Hille, for those
who know the region). However, once in Tumlingtar we will not continue
the walk-out to the south but turn sharply east, back into the
mountains. (We are crazy, but we love trekking and we love Nepal.)

We'd then like to spend another three to four weeks with doing the
Kanchenjunga base camp treks (north and south face, and we already
know it'll be FREEZING cold by then) and hope to finish sometime
around mid-December in a place called Taplejung -- after about 1400km
and 65 solid days of walking. Taplejung is a road-head village with a
bus station... so we should easily manage to be back in Kathmandu
before X-Mas. (There's a famous steak-house in KTM and you can bet
your bottom dollar that we'll go there first thing.)

A few days in Kathmandu, followed by a few relaxing days in
Pokhara-by-the-lake (more steaks) and then we'll cross back into
India. The plans for India are much less firm than for Nepal, but
Varanasi, Kajuraho, Orchha, Gwalior, Agra, and four, five weeks
criss-crossing the Rajasthan area are pretty safe bets. Well, a bit in
Delhi, perhaps a quick hop into the Indian Himalayas and then,
beginning of March, we'll catch our plane back to LHR. Altogether 22
weeks.

The one fly in the ointment will be the fact that once we're gone
trekking, in the Nepalese mountains, we will not really be able to
keep the mails flowing as we did in the Middle East or
Thailand/Indochina. Along the whole 65-day trek there's only one place
with half-reliable
internet access and that is Namche Bazaar in the Khumbu region. So
there will be long pauses between dispatches (and given that Namche's
internet access is based on a relatively slow and expensive satellite
up-link, the few dispatches we will get through won't be very
expansive either).

But we promise that we'll return to our normal email schedule once
we're out of the mountains and back in the lands of car fumes and
electricity.

Well, that is that. Our next mail will probably come from Kathmandu in
about ten days' time!

All the best

Thomas + Vero


Subject: Boringstoke -- Delhi -- Kathmandu...

Date: Fri, 10 Oct 2008 17:03:39 +0545

Dear all,

we are now in KTM for nearly a week and tomorrow, very early, our bus
into the mountains to the start of our trek will hopefully depart (and
arrive!) on time.

The inward journey was largely as expected; after the first night,
which we spent in Abu Dhabi airport and the plane to Delhi, we
sleepwalked through a very hot and dusty Delhi. Quick strolls through
Old Delhi, the Red Fort, the main mosque... We found Delhi relatively
easy to handle, it seemed less overwhelming than last time (but then
again, we were pretty tired).

At 19:50 local we left with the night train to Gorakhpur, where we
arrived nearly on time at 9:30 next morning. Then a rickety local bus
to the Indian-Nepalese frontier, ridiculously overloaded and extremely
hot and uncomfy. But we arrived after three loooong hours, faced a
huge traffic jam which meant we had to walk about 2km to the actual
border. Crossed this w/o a hitch at about 2pm and then took a really
heroic decision: we would take the night bus to KTM. This would mean a
third night without proper sleep but then again we would be there...

This cunning plan worked well until we arrived at a road stop (around
2am) where the driver switched off the engine. There was a big bang, a
smoke cloud and then the whole engine burst into flames. It looked and
smelled more dramatic than it actually was (still, we left the bus
VERY quickly). However, the bus was clearly a wreck (though the driver
fantasised about repairing the thing). We waited until dawn, grabbed
another rickety (but thankfully almost empty) bus to KTM, faced
another huge jam at the valley rim... but then there it was in all its
glory.

We arrived in the middle of Dasain, the biggest festival of Nepal,
which is nice in one sense but which meant that we would get not
transport to our road head village of Jiri within about six or seven
days. Well, there are worse places to be stuck for a few days: we did
many walks, visited all sorts of monuments in and around KTM and in
general enjoyed ourselves (the banking crashes around the world are
hard to ignore though, especially as we have two accounts with banks
in the UK concerned by this...). We also took part in some aspects of
the festival, notably the many sacrificial offerings (fruits and
animals) and the numerous blessings... lots of blood (for Hindu
households, Buddhists never sacrifice animals), lots of prayers, lots
of colourful activity...

The weather is not yet perfect, there is still the tail end of the
monsoon with a few sharp showers around and temperatures are just in
the mid-twenties. We don't complain though;-)

So tomorrow we will leave KTM and next day we will start the actual
walk. It should take us about ten days until we get to Namche Bazaar
where we hope to find internet access. So another mail (though a short
one) will come then.

All the best

Vero + Thomas


Subject: Namche Bazaar...

Date: Tue, 21 Oct 2008 11:15:22 +0545

Dear all,

after nine days dragging the old bones (and the backpacks) up and down
the valleys from Jiri (we already have 9000m of total height gain so
far...) we are now in Namche on 3445m altitude. All is well so far, no
problems either with blisters or stomachs.

Namche is the Zermatt of the Khumbu and it has changed quite a bit
since last time. Much more commercial and hugely more expensive than
it used to be. The clientele has changed as well: there are still the
trekkers of yesteryear but there are also many people who we'd rather
see in the shopping precincts of Paris and Milano. Well, that's
change.

The mountains are as great as ever, the views as well, though the
weather is a bit strange: many more clouds than usual at this time of
year and much, much colder. We'll see how it goes.

The next three weeks we will be up the mountains, from Chukhung in the
east to Thame in the west, crossing as many high passes as our bodies
and the weather allow. So the next mail will be due sometime around 10
or 11 Nov.

All the best

Thomas + Vero


Subject: Back to Namche...

Date: Sun, 9 Nov 2008 11:13:32 +0545

Dear all,

we're now back in Namche and trying to get rid of the last icicles
hanging from our various extremities. Yes, it really was very cold up
there. Probably this has to do with the strange weather patterns we've
been experiencing from the start: lots of cloud or even fog forming
each day, sometimes as early as 10am, sometimes at 2 or 3pm. Once the
valleys cloud over and the sun is gone, it turns bitterly cold. While
walking that's not a big deal but in the lodges, especially the
bedrooms... some of them were huge freezers. Or perhaps we're just
getting older and feel the cold more;-)

We are back one or two days earlier because we decided to skip the
Lobuche/Kala Pattar part. Lobuche always was a dirt hole and other
trekkers confirmed that it still is one... having been there and up
Kala Pattar three times before is enough we thought.

But other than that we stuck to our schedule. Highest point reached
was 5600m on a small summit called "Frostbitten Fingers" (gotta like
that name) in the Gokyo valley. It was, once again, the trip of a
lifetime;-)

We are well and fit and tanned and also slightly out of pocket as the
prices for food and rooms in the mountains above Lukla and Namche have
rocketed (we're not talking about the usual inflation figures here,
some 10 or 20% p.a or so. We're talking about pure and simple greed on
the side of the Sherpa lodge owners. But we will get back to this
topic once we're out of the mountains and can report at leisure.).

Plan is to leave Namche tomorrow, to head down south-east to the
Salpa-Arun region. We will be once again offline for about 15-20 days,
but once down in the plains (where it should be hot!) we will send a
much more detailed account.

All the best

Thomas + Vero

PS: Anyone interest in pictures about the stuff we did should search
via Google Images for pictures... there are plenty.


Subject: From the mountains to the plain...

Date: Wed, 26 Nov 2008 23:23:10 -0800

Dear all,

We have now, after 45 days of trekking, left the mountains and are in
the Terai, the plain in Southern Nepal which extends far into India.
Here it's hot and nice, not nasty and cold;-)

However, even after just a few days away from trekking we already
think of returning. Interminable bus drives are very nice if you
hadn't had one for a while but we just had an epic journey from a hill
station called Dhankuta to a place called Janakpur.

Normally this would be a simple 8-hour bus drive but this time it just
wasn't normal. First the route (and road) goes over the Koshi barrage
(which, as you may remember, broke a few months ago and flooded this
part of Nepal and Bihar). Well, with the barrage gone, there is no
road anymore. The whole region looks still utterly devastated and we
saw many tents camps for people who lost their houses (BTW, all this
is funded by the EU). As all the reporting we saw back then dealt with
Bihar we had not expected such damage on the Nepal side -- Bihar must
have been truly terrible.

Getting to and across the destroyed barrage by a local bus and a very
rickety, overloaded boat took us much longer than expected, not least
because the whole thing is, even months later, still totally
disorganised and our Nepali language skills are not good enough for
such a challenge.

But we finally made it, trying to find a bus to Janakpur on the other
side. Well, no way. There were about a million local buses to all
destinations but nothing to Janakpur. (We later learned why.)

So we tried to find a bus to a place nearby in the hope to connect
which was, without knowing any suitable names, not overly
straightforward. But finally a helpful Nepali with good English (all
Nepalis are helpful but not all speak English...) came to our rescue
and pointed us to a bus that would deliver us, after a five-hour
drive, to Dhalkebar, within 20km of Janakpur. From there, catching
another local bus would be a piece of cake.

Day saved. Or so we thought.

Well, another four hours later and just 15km short of Dhalkebar we
found ourselves in a big jam caused by a strike of local villagers.
They had completely blocked the road for reasons not totally clear to
us but which had something to do with a pupil killed by a bus the day
before... in Janakpur, of all places. And not only they were striking,
we learned that that day no buses would be allowed to or from
Janakpur, the town was practically isolated (the Government obviously
thinks this is a normal state of affairs, as it did precisely
nothing).

After 90min, shortly before sunset, the strike was lifted and we
finally arrived about half an hour later in Dhalkebar, a pretty crappy
place (more a road junction than a town). Still, we found a simple
lodge and some food (Dal Bhaat, our diet for most of the last weeks).

And this morning, after listening to some prolonged discussions in
Nepali, we learned that buses would "probably" resume. Which they did.
So we are now in Janakpur which is much bigger than we expected. It is
amazing that a town that size can be the object of such an impromptu
strike action.

We also learned that trekking is not so bad after all;-)

We will stay here in Janakpur for a few days: there are many temples
to visit, nice villages to explore (on foot;-), and a train ride with
a slow local train (actually one of the very few trains in all of
Nepal). The town is lively and feels like a funny mixture of Indian
hustle and bustle and Nepalese goodwill... not a bad place to be.

After these delights we will take a night bus to KTM (we are
masochists but then again, a night bus is never as crowded as the day
buses... and you win a full day).

We will finally get down to write the promised long mail about the
trek when we're in KTM.

Otherwise all is very well, though we are both fighting the last
remnants of a rather nasty cold which we caught about a week ago.
STOOOPID... to walk for so long in the highest mountains and then,
after returning to the middle hills, getting a cold. Well...

Next mail in about a week from KTM (if the Gods of the Night Busses
are with us).

All the best

Thomas + Vero


Subject: A few words about the Everest trek......

Date: Wed, 3 Dec 2008 10:44:02 +0545

Dear all,

we are now back in KTM and would you believe it, the night bus trip
went without a hitch! It is now rather cool here and the mornings are
decidedly chilly, but no comparison to the mountains.

We owe you two explanations: first, in our last mail, we should have
explained that the road over the Koshi barrage is the so-called
Mahendra Highway which is the ONLY road connection between the east of
Nepal (Itahari, Biratnagar etc) and the rest of the country. So this
road being washed away means that there is absolutely no road
transport between KTM and eastern Nepal, and everyone else is forced
to take those rickety boats.

Second, in our first mail before we left England, we mentioned that we
would trek for about 65 days, but in the event trekked only for 45
days. The reason is that the Kanchenjunga area which was supposed to
take us about three weeks can only be done as fully organised trek, ie
with guide, cook, porters. We don't like that style of trekking and it
also would have been a budget breaker, so we decided to skip it.
Looking back, it was probably good that we did, as we are not overly
keen to go back to some really cold places (everything above 4500m:-))
and we still carry around the remnants of that bloody cold we caught
two weeks ago.

Well, having said that, we will do another trek, about 8 to 10 days
north of KTM in a region called Helambu/Gosainkund. Highest point will
be around 4500m which we should just be about to manage. We will
report once we're back.

Well, back to the other trek. The 45 days can be neatly divided into
three sections: 9 days from Jiri to Namche, 21 days Namche and above,
15 days from Namche to Basantapur.

The first part cuts mainly through middle hills between 1800 and 3500m
altitude, crossing three high passes along the way. It is not as much
trekked as it used to be but there are still many trekkers, including
groups, around. There are not too many moutain views but the valleys
and ridges in the Himalaya being really huge (looking down to a river
1700m below is nothing special here) there are still lots of lovely
views to be had: green hills nicely terassed over hundreds of vertical
metres, dotted with villages, ridge after ridge slowly disappearing in
the morning mists...  A few of these trails are really like walking on
a giant balcony offering unforgettable sights.

Well, the second bit, Namche and above, is what all people look
forward to when they "do" Everest. Here are all the mountain views,
Ama Dablam, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu... It's also very easy to get off
the beaten track (or trek?) into some relatively unexplored areas, ie
Ama Dablam base camp and above or up to the Nangpa La. Experienced
trekkers with good equipment can really get into touch with the
moutains here... but of course, the higher you climb the colder it
gets. We found this region as spectacular as ever, perhaps even  more
so.

However, we have also seen some very negative things. Namche Bazar is
clearly bent on getting a Thamel-in-the-mountains (Thamel is the
tourist district of KTM and it is an amazing place in both positive
and negative senses... often, its variety and noise and flashing
lights first fascinate people but after a while many turn away in
disgust at its utter artificiality).

The Khumbu lodges and most of the owners (mostly Sherpas) are not
nearly as friendly as they used to be (though there were a few notable
exceptions), prices have exploded in such a way that even Nepalis we
spoke to are scandalised (because they now have to pay as much as we
do:-)). We could give many examples, just one may be enough: in lodges
above 4500m a small cup of milk tea (prepared from a reused tea
bag...) costs 60 rupees whereas a dal bhaat in KTM costs 40 rupees.
(Dal bhaat is THE national dish: rice, lentil sauce, vegetables and
pickles... and you get as much rice and lentils as you can eat.)

The main reason, in our view, for most of the negative aspects, is the
extremely high number of groups. We have seen so many groups this time
(with all the problems attached to them) that we are going to predict
that the Khumbu region will be "dead" for individual trekkers in five
years' time if it goes on like that. Trekkers like us will still
visit, but they will have in parts a miserable experience. Even this
time we already spoke to many independent people who were clearly
disgusted by the circus in Namche, the commercialism, the masses of
people being pressed through the system.

(As an aside, most groups, probably between 50 and 60% (!) are French,
followed by Germans and Japanese. (There is an unofficial statistic
doing the rounds that there are more French people in the Khumbu than
yaks...) The biggest group we saw numbered 50 (yes fifty) people plus
a truly enormous line of porters. Almost needless to say, they were
from France...)

The third and final part of the whole trek was pure bliss. Once again
this cuts across the middle hills down to the river Arun and a place
called Tumlingtar where we continued not to Hile (the normal route),
but east to Chainpur, the Milke Danda range and then a big swing
towards Basantpur and the road and buses.

There are almost no tourists here (we saw perhaps 4 ot 5 other
foreigners) and facilities are extremely basic to non-existant (in
some places we had to eat and sleep with the family in the same room.)
Villages and people are markedly poorer on this stretch as compared to
the Jiri-Namche walk-in; you sometimes have to wonder how such huge
contrasts can exist within just a couple of days of walking: in Namche
there are quite a few Sherpa families who are US-dollar millionaires
whereas here you can see people living on less than a dollar. Still,
we found our hosts on this part unfailingly cheerful.

So this is trekking as it should be (and, on the danger of sounding
like rusty travelling scarecrows, as it used to be in the old days).

For us, the lesson is clear: we will avoid the Khumbu like the plague
during high season. Perhaps we should give it a try during the
monsoon: we spoke to a few people who trekked there during September
and it sounded not too bad. It would not only be nearly empty, it
would also be much warmer!

A couple of unrelated observations: five years ago, mobile phones were
used by well-off people in KTM and Pokhara. This time they are
literally everywhere. We have seen porters between Jiri and Namche
happily using their mobiles while walking. There is reception in the
strangest of places where you would expect all things (like a yeti)
but no mobile coverage. On the other hand, there are many places where
people have to climb the next hill, ladder, water tower... to get
reception. It is all a bit patchy but nevertheless the sheer number of
users is absolutely amazing. Even where there is no coverage many have
a mobile to play music, games, videos... It's really a revolution.

Roads are creeping ever deeper into the mountains. In a few years'
time many places in the middle hills will be connected by a
boneshaking dirt road to the rest of the world. One victim of this
development is teh Annapurna trek: there is now a road from Baglung up
to Jomsom, Kagbeni and even Muktinath (!). On the Manang side a road
goes as far as Chame and it should read Manang within five years. We
didn't walk the Annapurna this time but we talked to trekkers who did
it and what they told us sounded pretty awful: jeeps running between
Kagbeni and Muktinath every fifteen minutes (Muktinath is a famous
pilgrimage site for Indians, but it was always difficult to reach.
With a jeep it's easy, so perhaps you can imagine what must be going
on there now...).

Still, we will take with us unforgettable memories and we are, on
balance, glad that we did the Khumbu one more time. Anyone doing it
independently should think hard about going soon.

The weather here in KTM is fine, some clouds, but mostly sunny and in
the low 20s. But after sunset, the temperature drops rapidly below
10C. We are still sneezing and coughing a bit but this should be gone
soon. And we are eating enormous amounts of food... during the 45 days
we have both lost a few kilos.

Next mail should be in your inbox in about two weeks' time, after we
return from the Helambu bit. Till then all the best

Vero and Thomas


Subject: Mini Trek --- Back in Kathmandu...

Date: Fri, 12 Dec 2008 11:52:35 +0545

Dear all,

so here we are, back in Kathmandu, a bit earlier than expected. We
left for the mountains as planned last Saturday, but somehow, the
novelty of it all is wearing off a little;-)

On the first evening, as we arrived at a very basic lodge and were
facing yet an other cold wash with a tiny water bowl, we looked at
each other and knew: enough is enough, it is time for something else,
back to Kathmandu and its delights, the bakeries and the
electricity... And the fact that Thomas had still not fully recovered
from his cold made the decision even easier: it seemed to be asking
for trouble going at high altitude again.

So we shortened the trek to 4 days. Those were 4 very nice days, in a
middle hills landscape, one ridge after the other and oceans of
terraced fields. We kept between 1800 and 2800m high, and had a
fantastic last day following the rim of KTM valley with splendid views
of the Himalayan range to the north and of Kathmandu valley to the
south.

So we are now spending another 4 days in KTM before moving ahead to
Gorkha, Bandipur, Pokhara (where we'll spend X-Mas), Tansen and
crossing into India around December 27th. But this will be the subject
of another mail.

For the time being we simply enjoy being in the city and preparing
ourselves for the second half of the trip:  there is laundry to be
done, mails to be checked, and of course, we indulge on the nice food
KTM is so famous for.

There is a lot to do in the valley and escaping the city madness is
pretty easy. Once beyond the ring road, the landscape turns quickly
rural: chickens and cows run through the streets of villages, there
are still fields, and the walls of the valley rim invite for pleasant
walking.

The number of tourists is now very much on the decrease. The trekkers
are gone, it is getting too cold. Remaining are the "globetrotters",
on the move between India and China or on a stopover on the way to
Thailand, and many Westerners eager to learn more about Buddhism and
join some meditation retreat in the valley. There are many of them,
and some parts of Kathmandu, like Bodnath, home to the Tibetan
community, are thriving on this kind of tourism.

There are many monasteries there, and many are very rich, one might
even say obscenely rich... As in many religions, the buddhist clergy
know very well how to live off the donations they receive from the
poorest...

So much for the latest news. We are spending our last 4 days in KTM in
the Ganesh Himal, a rather nice hotel, free of charge! That's courtesy
of Mukhiya, a Nepali friend of us who owns that hotel (it is actually
the Author's Choice in the current Nepal Lonely Planet as well). We
are customers (and friends) for more than ten years now.

A final word about how Nepal/KTM feels these days, after the so-called
Maoist insurgency has come to an end. One thing from many which
perfectly highlights the country's plight is the electricity supply.
There is not enough of the stuff to go round and therefore, a rather
complicated "load shedding schedule" has been installed. In this, all
areas supplied by the national grid are divided into seven regions
with each region having a separate schedule where the electricity is
cut off for about seven hours... each and every day (!).

This load shedding was always a feature of Nepal but it's grown worse
over the years to the point where it is now much more than just a
nuisance. It's not so much tourists who are having to deal with the
problems (most of the better hotels have expensive generators which
run during the blackouts), it's the Nepalese. (On a side note, Namche
Bazaar, like many other places in the hills, has its own
hydroelectricy scheme and since many years boasts electricity for
24/7...)

The Maoists and their coalition are now in power for 100 days but
there's already a growing sense of frustration with many people: they
had hoped that after all the violence, the bloodshed, Nepal would turn
a little quieter, more like a normal country where people can just go
about their daily business. But no, there are fuel, water and all
other sorts of shortages, whole towns are shut down because of strikes
and the country still feels not at ease with itself. And to top it
all, the Maoists are now threatening to leave the coalition (they have
yet to learn the meaning of the words "coalition" and "compromise")
and to go back to the their armed "struggle". This would be a
full-blown catastrophy.

If nothing dramatic (for the better!) happens during the next few
months or year, Nepal may well end up as a failed state. At any rate,
the trend over the 14 years we've been visiting the country now is
definitely not encouraging. Sad but true.

Okay, so that's the latest. Next mail should come from Pokhara, in
about 10 days.

Till then all the best

Vero and Thomas


Subject: KTM - Gorkha - Bandipur - Pokhara...

Date: Mon, 22 Dec 2008 12:35:22 +0545

Dear all,

we're now in Pokhara and its famed lake for a few days. It's
relatively warm here though the nights can be chilly. But compared
with Europe... we don't complain.

From KTM we took a bus to Gorkha, the place where Prithvi Narayan, the
Shah who unified Nepal in the 18th century (and founded the dynasty
that ended this year as Nepal turned itself into a republic!)
originated. This is real small-town Nepal but high above the town on a
long ridge with great mountain views to the north there is the old
palace-cum-temple of the dynasty, a worthwhile walk and visit. We
spent a long time on a rocky outbluff and admired the mountains
(mainly the Annapurnas, Manaslu and Ganesh Himal).

From Gorkha we took a variety of buses and jeeps to get to nearby
Bandipur which is a well-preserved traders' village (and even
smaller-town Nepal), also on a ridge. Nice houses, some abandoned,
because when the road (aptly called Prithvi Highway) between KTM and
Pokhara was built in the 1950s this outpost on the route between India
and Tibet lost all commercial importance practically overnight.
However, that very fact made sure that Bandipur was preserved as in a
time capsule. Definitely worthwhile and once again with the most
amazing mountain views, this time even better than from Gorkha because
we could oversee the huge river plain 700m below from which the
Himalayas rise almost without anything in between.

Well, and from Bandipur we took another bone-rattling bus to Pokhara,
where we are now. We have done a few day trips up into the surrounding
mountains (to Sarangkot and around the lake) and are also enjoying the
rather nice weather here (Pokhara is only 800m high, so even in
December the weather is mostly balmy).

As to our health, we have both finally got rid of that nasty cold,
only to be greeted by an old acquaintance: the Giardia bug. That's a
stomach parasite that causes, well you probably can imagine what:-) It
first visited Thomas, then Vero. We probably caught it somewhere in
the mountains as it takes a few weeks to pop up, so to speak.

Fortunately, a 2.5g dose of Tinidazole finishes off the beasties, so
we are now once again fighting fit.

The next stop will be a place called Tansen (another small Nepali town
with great views and nice walks), before we slowly get to the
Nepali/Indian border. Possibly we'll visit the Buddhas's birthplace in
Lumbini, we'll have to see...

We will probably send the next mail from somewhere in India (maybe
Varanasi/Benares) after X-Mas, but we don't know exactly from where
and when as we are still finalising our itinerary...

All the best, have a nice X-Mas (and in case we don't manage to get to
an Internet terminal this side of 2009, a Happy New Year)!

Vero + Thomas


Subject: Tansen, Lumbini, Varanasi...

Date: Fri, 2 Jan 2009 16:28:55 +0530

Dear all,

we have just arrived in Jhansi which will be our gateway for the
temples and palaces of Khajuraho and Orchha. More about these two
places in our next mail; for now we'll update you on our travels from
Pokhara to Varanasi.

First stop was Tansen, a quintessential Nepali town sitting on a ridge
high above the Kali Gandaki river (which comes down from Tibet).
Tansen was the last kingdom to be incorporated into Nepal (independent
till 1806) and there's still some of this independence in the air.
There are not many famous sights, just a few nice temples but simply
strolling through the town is pleasant enough.

There are also many day walks: Tansen (1350m high) sits like a spider
in a complex web of ridges and walking possibilities (and views)
abound. We did two daytrips, one to a long forgotten and almost
overgrown palace on the Kali Gandaki (500m), the second along a ridge
to a famous Hindu temple with the largest trident in all of Asia
(alas, we were more flabbergasted at the dirt and the smells: most
Hindu temples are not exactly clean, but this temple is still heavily
used for sacrifices and it was probably the most appalling, awful
Hindu temple we've seen in 15 years of travelling in Asia).

Next we took a bus to Lumbini, confirmed birthplace of the Buddha (563
BC). There's not a lot to see per se, just a few very, very old ruins,
apparently at the exact spot where Maha Devi had a bath and then went
into labour. However, the atmosphere is serene and around the ruins
there are many Buddhist monasteries of all persuasions. Indeed, there
are probably not many spots in the world where you can see Thai-,
Chinese-, Tibetan-, Vietnamese-, Burmese- and Japanese-style
temples within a one-hour stroll.

Well, and then we crossed into India and waited in Gorakhpur for the
night train to Varanasi. We couldn't get rid of our bags (not
lockable, so won't be accepted at the Indian Rail left luggage), so we
sat for a few hours in front of the local police booth and
people-watched. The policemen were, somewhat untypically for uniformed
Indians, extremely (almost worryingly) friendly: they spoilt us with
chai (tea) and spiced boiled eggs and omelets... very nice but also a
quite strange experience.

The train trip was uneventful (apart from one guy who snored so
amazingly loudly that he alone filled the whole coach). We were going
to Varanasi with a bit of trepidation as last time, in 2004, we spent
four utterly miserable days, cold and foggy and were totally
disappointed.

Well, we're happy to tell you that this time the weather was much
better, sunny and warm. We definitely enjoyed Varanasi and the mighty
Ganges this time, though the spiritual element that many people
apparently experience on the riverbanks still eluded us. The town (and
the river) are every bit as dirty and smelly as they were four years
ago. This comes down mainly to two factors: first everybody (male)
uses wall, trees, corners... as a pissoir, so there are some places
with quite heavy smell attacks.

Second, the ghats (a 3-4km long string of riverbank steps backed by
palaces and temples used for washing, praying, bathing meditating and
burning corpses) are used by cows and buffalos as a promenade and the
steps are literally full of cow shit. (In fact, there are only two
places in Varanasi where you can be sure not to walk into a nice 'n'
fresh heap of cow shit: that's your hotel room and the boat from which
you admire the ghats.)

Nevertheless, it was good to have tried it once again. We especially
enjoyed the boat trip because there you have a much better overview
over the ghats, the buildings behind them and how it all hangs
together.

So far, India was smooth, definitely smoother than we expected (though
Indian Rail still keeps its promise to turn each and every train into
a late train...). Even the touts so far behaved themselves (Thomas
learned a few words of Hindi to tell them where to stick it and this
seems to work quite well... probably most tourists are not THAT
rude:-)). It's still early days though, so we'll see.

Next mail will come in another 7 to 10 days, perhaps from Agra where
the Taj Mahal awaits us.

Weather is fine, mornings can be very chilly and foggy but once the
sun's out it gets very nice and warm: T-Shirt weather until sunset.

And once again, we wish you all a Happy New Year! We had lots of small
fireworks and even more music in Varanasi at midnight; before that we
indulged ourselves with a pretty good Middle Eastern meal (Hummus,
Baba Ganouj, Falafel...) -- a nice change from Indian curries.

All the best

Vero + Thomas


Subject: Jhansi, Orchha, Khajuraho, Gwalior...

Date: Tue, 13 Jan 2009 10:48:20 +0530

Dear all,

four towns or cities: Jhansi is a typical Indian town, busy, noisy,
but not bad at all. We toured the town and the fort (every Indian town
seems to have a fort or two) and then went on a daytrip to Orchha
(means Hidden Place). This is a small town with another big
fort/palaces and many temples and fortunately, there were not many
tourists around.

Many of the Orchha sites are overgrown by vegetation and the whole
place has indeed a lost-world feeling. In fact, seeing the temples
(which are stylistically not unlike some of the Angkor Wat temples)
popping out of the trees reminded us very much of Angkor. The fort
area is surrounded by a rocky river bed and the setting is very nearly
romantic. A very worthwhile excursion.

Next we took the train to Khajuraho (we were among the first to use
that train as the line had opened just 3 days before). This town is
filled with temples, about 1000 to 1100 years old, and it is
supposedly one of the super highlights of India (the guide book is all
over the place about the erotic carvings on and inside the temples).
And indeed, K is definitely worth three Michelin stars -- a must see.
The one problem is getting there: K is quite a bit out of the way. But
the new train line helped.

We found the erotic carvings not as conspicuous as the guide suggested
-- but then again sex sells and the publisher wants to sell:-) The
temples are all in a rural setting (K is not even a town, more a
collection of hotels and guest houses with an attached old village)
and it was very enjoyable, almost un-Indian, to walk around. The
Western Group temples are the best preserved but we found the others
in the East and South just as interesting.

Next was the town of Gwalior with its, well, you guessed it... fort
(the road between Khajuraho and G is indeed as potholed as the guide
book suggested). The Gwalior fort is a sprawling affair on top of an
oblong hillock, about three km long. There are palaces, one with a
tiled frieze of yellow ducks (think bathroom duck...) and other
bizarre touches. There are a few Sikh and Hindu temples (one almost
1300 years old) as well as some very nice rock sculptures, hewn into
the bare rock of the hillock. The latter are of Jain origin (Jainism
is another old Indian religion) and show huge figures (up to 17m high)
of the Jain teachers, adorned with elephants, lions and birds (no
ducks though).

Gwalior itself is a really ugly town: if there is ever a contest for
the Most Ugly Town In India, G stands a good chance to win it. We have
seen our share of Indian grime and squalor but G is in a league of its
own.

Which brings us to a small list about some unpleasant things about
India. Besides the usual stuff you'd find in other locales (touts,
pestering kids, incessantly honking cars etc.) there are a few
specifically Indian things, in no particular order:

1. Paan eaters. Paan is a rolled tree leaf with betel nut and
condiments inside and it's chewed after a good meal (or all the time
by serious addicts, something that after a few years will turn their
teeth into a rotten set of ruins). After chewing for a while a paan
eater spits the stuff (a red, disgusting semi-liquid) onto the streets
or walls or wherever. Part of our dislike of paan eaters stems from
the fact that most we met were also pretty unfriendly: there is, we
feel, a connection between paan eating and a very specific Indian,
almost xenophobic, attitude.

2. Roaming cows and heaps of cow shit. No comment.

3. The fine Indian dust. This is difficult to describe. Indian dust
has a way of turning every surface into a smooth, sticky surface. Upon
touching something the fine dust transfers itself to your hands,
clothes etc: it's impossible to get rid of and makes the hands, even
after a few minutes, feel completely dirty. Washing doesn't help
because after a few minutes...

4. The crowds. The pressure of humanity in the cities is unbelievable
and has to be experienced to be believed. There is no concept of
private space and there are no great attempts at civility. Some would
say there are no attempts at all, but we found that Indians neatly
divide into two types: those who are at least a little considerate and
those for whom considerateness is an entirely alien concept. The
latter, alas, are in the majority. Then again, given the utter chaos
and the sheer number of people, this probably is to be expected.

We are now in Agra and will tell you more about its sights, including
the Taj Mahal, in the next installment which should reach you in about
8 to 10 days. All is fine, though the weather has turned cooler and a
bit foggy in the mornings.

All the best

Thomas + Vero


Subject: Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Jaipur, Amber, Ajmer, Pushkar...

Date: Thu, 22 Jan 2009 11:20:58 +0530

Dear all,

we're now in Ajmer, a city pretty much in the middle of Rajasthan. But
let's roll back to Agra, its fort and of course the Taj Mahal. Agra is
a relatively nice and green city, though the old city and the bazaar
can be as cramped and chaotic as any in India. The fort is a creation
of the Mughal emperors who ruled India from the 1500s to about 1700.
Almost all the Mughals left their mark in the fort, with the most
ironic perhaps being Shah Jahan (he who built the Taj Mahal for his
beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th
child...). He built a nice octagonal white-marble palace
(stylistically out of train with the rest of the fort which is mainly
in red sandstone) with very nice views across the river Yamuna to the
Taj, only to see himself incarcerated in this very palace by his own
son Aurangzeb for the last 8 years of his life.

Well, the Taj. Go and see it. It really is worth the trip wherever you
are. We spent a full day in the gardens and in and around the Taj: it
is a magical place and not only because of its history. The symmetries
of the buildings and the inlaid work, the different angles and light
under which the Taj appears during a day... it is one of the most
amazing monuments on Earth.

From Agra we also did a daytrip to Fatehpur Sikri, a town built as his
capital by Akbar, one the greatest Mughals. This was an entirely new
development, so it was perfectly planned and executed in red
sandstone, Akbar's prefered building material. The only not-so-perfect
thing about it was the fact that it was built far from any reliable
water source: shortly after Akbar's death, Fatehpur was abandoned and
the court returned to Agra -- however, this is the main reason why it
is so splendidly preserved today. Lovers of nice sculpture and/or red
sandstone should visit. There's also a huge mosque with fine carvings
(and reputedly the largest entrance gate in Asia).

Next we took a bus to Jaipur, a pretty big and chaotic city. It is
famous for its old pink city (the then maharaja had his city painted
pink for Prince Albert's visit in the 19th century... quelle idee).
There is an interesting city palace (part of which is still used by
the current maharaja and off limits), the famous Hawa Mahal (Palace of
the Winds) and of course the bazaars of the old city, less congested
than these in Agra or Old Delhi but still pretty daunting because the
Jaipur traffic is just unbelievable.

However, we found Amber, 11km to the north, a much more enchanting and
fascinating place than Jaipur. Before Jaipur was planned and built in
the 18th century, Amber was the old capital. The relatively small fort
and its palaces sit on a beautiful ridge with almost 360 degree views
(the setting is one of the most romantic of any Indian fort). The
palaces really give you the impression that this was a lived-in place,
and they are beautifully executed (and restored) with murals, mirror
palaces, gardens, a harem... all you need for a respectable maharaja
existence.

On the ridge above Amber there is yet another fort: Jaigarh. This
earlier fort was a fallback, if Amber's walls were ever in danger of
falling. It is smaller and more simple than Amber but it's still a
fort where you can see how it all hangs together: bastions, walls,
cannons (there is a cannon foundry with all the tools and works
inside) and palaces and gardens. There is also the largest cannon on
wheels in the world: an ugly beast called Jaivan.

From Jaipur we went to Ajmer, a Muslim pilgrimage town. (On a side
note, the roads and buses this time around are much better than they
used to be five years ago. Case in point is the new sixlane (!)
motorway between Jaipur and Ajmer which for us was a flabbergasting
sight indeed. It makes the journey much smoother and easily cuts an
hour from travel time. Sure, there are still bone-rattlers (eg, the
road from Khajuraho to Jhansi) but across the board we find the road
infrastructure much better. Sadly, the same can't be said about the
electricity supply: it's not as dismal as in Nepal but many places in
India we have visited during the last weeks had between 2 and 4 hours
of power cuts each day. That's clearly worse than during our earlier
trip.)

We have not yet seen the sights of Ajmer, but we have done a daytrip
to Pushkar, 11km to the west. This is a holy pilgrimage site for
Hindus and a tourist trap for the rest of us (it's also the location
of a famous camel fair). The reason why Pushkar is holy is because
there is a small lake created by Brahma (the town is also one of the
very few places in the world with a Brahma temple). The lake is
surrounded by ghats (steps leading down to the water ) and Hindus come
here to pray, to wash away their sins or simply to loiter.

The setup is not unlike Varanasi with its ghats on the Ganges, but on
a much smaller scale. It also similar to Varanasi with respect to the
many cows roaming freely all over the place and leaving smelly, moist
heaps of dung on the ghats (plus there's a lot of pigeon droppings).
The big difference to Varanasi is that everybody who wants to walk the
ghats (which are really disgustingly dirty) has to do so with bare
feet. We refrained from doing that; instead we just gazed down at
various strategic points.

In sum, we found Pushkar to be a sort of fake: it is full of guest
houses, internet places, money changers, shops selling toilet paper
(sure sign of a tourist trap:-)) etc, but there are not many views or
sights or things to do. It is a total mystery to us why so many
tourists go there for days on end.

Ajmer is, by comparison, a much more authentic city. It is also a big
pilgrimage site, but for Muslims: it has an altogether different feel
to it. Sadly, on the day we arrived, while strolling through the
outskirts, some of the street kids had the brilliant idea to throw
stones and tomatoes at us... something we have only ever experienced
in Muslim cities (we don't know why). Anyway, we'll talk about Ajmer's
sights in more detail in the next mail which may well come from
Udaipur. (We will do Bundi and Chittorgarh before.)

We're fine so far; we have a few different Indian curries (our current
favourite is Palak Paneer: spinach with unfermented cheese) every
evening and so far no adverse effects. The weather in Jaipur was very
warm and sunny, it has turned a bit cooler and more cloudy in Ajmer.

Well, that's it, next mail in about 8 days!

All the best

Vero and Thomas


Subject: Ajmer, Bundi, Kota, Chittor...

Date: Thu, 29 Jan 2009 01:56:02 -0800

Dear all,

we are now in Udaipur for the next five days, having just arrived from
Chittor, and picking up from where we left you, in Ajmer. Ajmer is a
predominantly Muslim city, mostly due to the tomb of a sufi saint who
died there more than 800 years ago. The site is pretty big and, given
the strained relations between Hindus and Muslims, heavily secured
with army personnel and armed police. Once inside it's rather more
peaceful though the small main tomb chamber is suffocatingly warm and
smells overpoweringly after rose water: nothing for claustrophobics.

There are a few nice mosques around, some of them ruined and the whole
has a very strong Muslim feel. Probably owing to the inter-religious
problems, we found the atmosphere pretty tense and not altogether
enjoyable. The northern outskirts, around a beautiful lake, are more
Hindu-dominated and felt calmer.

There is also a Jain temple in town with a huge model of the way the
Jains think the universe works (don't ask, it's way too complicated to
understand or explain). The whole display is like a giant, intricate
Lego model, made from thousands of metal and wood pieces. It shows the
main characteristics of the Jain world and all the Gods, universes,
continents, oceans...

Next place was Bundi, with its huge fort high on a hill. The old town
is very relaxing, almost un-Indian in its relative calm (no cars in
the old city helps). Many old houses are painted blue, so from the
fort this makes for a very nice view. The fort itself is ruined, with
vines growing everywhere. As to the famous frolicking Bundi monkeys
we've heard and read so much about, well, we were disappointed: we
came up there fully prepared with our walking sticks and ready for a
fight -- but we saw not many monkeys. The few we did see couldn't be
bothered to do anything other than opening a sleepy eye and then fall
back to their doze. Strange:-)

The city palace, below the fort, is a jewel, mostly because of the
wall paintings. Rajasthan is famous for its miniature paintings; now
imagine whole walls filled with the stuff! We thoroughly enjoyed this.
By the way, Bundi was, before Indian independence, its own small
state, that's why there is a still a local maharaja around. He has a
newer, more modern palace on the outskirts, however.

From Bundi we daytripped to the capital of another of these small
ex-states, Kota. This was actually a sideline of the Bundi maharajas
which went independent in the 16th century. Once again a big,
sprawling city palace with even nicer wall paintings, the usual mirror
palace (but this one in rather good shape) and many terraces and
balconies. Kota, the town, is rather nondescript.

From Bundi we took the train to Chittor with its... you guessed it...
fort. Once again, this is situated on an isolated hill (180 metres
above the plain), the whole setting not unlike Gwalior fort, but on a
bigger scale (actually, Chittor is the biggest fort in all of
Rajasthan; even today, more than 4000 people live inside the fort).
The palaces are mostly ruined but the ruins are in exactly the right
state of ruin to evoke a very romantic mood. There are also many
temples, some very richly carved and going back more than 1000 years.

The crowning piece, however, has to be the 37m high Tower of Victory,
a 9-storey tower with incredibly detailed carvings inside and outside.
It is possible to walk up the tower (though some staircases are really
tight and dark) and the views from the top, down to the fort ruins but
also to Chittor town, are breathtaking. If you see only one fort in
Rajasthan, go to Chittor!

From Udaipur, we will do a few daytrips, but about these and Udaipur
itself more in the next mail!

We're still fine and all is well. It tends to get warmer, though there
are still a few cool mornings in between.

Well, next mail will probably come from Mount Abu, a hill resort in
southern Rajasthan.

All the best

Vero + Thomas


Subject: Udaipur, Ranakpur, Vadodara, Champaner, Ahmedabad...

Date: Mon, 9 Feb 2009 16:13:57 +0530

Dear all,

we changed our itinerary on a whim and decided, from Udaipur, to leave
Rajasthan for a week and hop down to the state of Gujarat, to see
Vadodara (old name Baroda), the UNESCO world heritage site of
Champaner and Ahmedabad, Gujarat's main city. But before that we have
to talk about the days in Udaipur. Which were probably the nicest so
far in India, as Udaipur (of James Bond/Octopussy fame) is a calm and
in its relaxedness almost un-Indian place. No hassle, to touts, no
traffic (no, really, Udaipur traffic is definitely small scale to the
utter chaos that passes for traffic in other Indian cities), instead
lakes, mountains, palaces, havelis (old grand mansions built by the
well-to-do).

The sights in Udaipur are relatively minor, it's more a case of seeing
and enjoying the whole. However, the big highlight is the magnificent
city palace (more a collection of 8 or 9 palaces) which is much more
interesting and grand than Jaipur's city palace. This is really a site
where the maharajas have lived in and lovingly left their traces for
many centuries. Nice murals abound, beautiful courtyards with greenery
and fountains, the inevitable mirror palace... it's all there in all
its splendour.

From Udaipur we did a daytrip to a place called Ranakpur, with its
famous Jain temple. This is one of the greatest Jain temples in India,
with many pilgrims. It's located deep in the countryside north of
Udaipur, almost in the middle of nowhere. We found the temple
astounding, with lots of immensely detailed carving in milky-white
marble, but almost more than that we enjoyed the drive up from Udaipur
through the Aravalli mountains. We also thought about doing
Kumbalgarh, a big fort also north of Udaipur, but skipped that because
we suffer from a bit of fort lassitude. Instead, as already explained
we went to Gujarat.

Before we enter this state, here are a few general observations about
traveling in Rajasthan, in no particluar order:

* There's not an awful lot of water in the region so the people have
digged huge stone stepwells called baoris. These are sometimes 20 or
more metres deep with five or six levels and often finely carved
walls.

* This season Rajasthan is full of small, midges-like flies (think
Scotland!). Very annoying.

* Rajastan is enormously colourful: the women wear all-colour saris
and the older men often huge turbans, all in different colours and
even fantastic patterns. There are also huge wall paintings of camels,
elephants, maharajas... on hotel walls, mansions, in rooms.

* Camels do travel on the highway, albeit slowly and look down on the
rushing traffic with utter disdain.

Ok. Next place was Vadodara in Gujarat (or Baroda, as it's also
known). This university city is relatively relaxed; it was to be our
stepping stone for the World Heritage site of Champaner. There's not a
lot to see in Baroda, in fact the only remarkable thing is a huge and
hugely ugly palace which mixes European, Indian and Muslim
architecture in a spectacularly unsuccessful way.

The one thing that amazed us is that we almost found no hotel room in
Baroda. We never prebook, and we only stay in budget places (say 200
to 300 rupees per double room). So Baroda is full of hotels big and
small... but all were full! We went to roundabout 30 hotels to no
avail. There was one highend place which would give us a deluxe room
for merely 1500 rupees but otherwise it was bleak. Finally, after
three hours or so, when we had lost all faith and just went through
the motions we did find a place with a room... day saved:-)

Well, on to Champaner. This is the site of the former capital of
Gujarat but today there are only ruins of the many mosques and the
city walls left. It's a bit like old Van in Turkey where the only bits
left of the town after its destruction are the mosques and minarets,
the rest is reclaimed by nature. The site is big and there were almost
no other tourists around: exactly how we like our sights! So we
wandered around from mosque to mosque through the countryside and
admired the architecture and excellent stone carving. These mosques
(like the Ahmedabad mosques, see down) are made of brown sandstone and
the geometric patterns are so fine that it is sometimes hard to
believe they were built 500 years ago. Very worthwhile.

The one bad thing was that Thomas, while exploring the old city wall,
stupidly fell off it and did something nasty to his right wrist. It is
now swollen and hurts, though the fingers and hand are usable. We'll
see how it behaves in the next week or so.

From Baroda we went to Ahmedabad which is an almost 5-million city.
The traffic is bad, the pollution is worse and it is very chaotic and
"Indian". But the city is very lively and after a while almost
bearable (though a strained wrist doesn't help...). It's also a Muslim
stronghold, like Amer, but in contrast to Ajmer, the people here are
very friendly. In fact, we found Ahmedabad one of the friendliest
places we've visited so far in India.

Again, its old city is full of old stone mosques, among them a great
Jama Masjid (main mosque for the Friday prayer) with  abig courtyard.
There is one small mosque, very unassuming, with the nicest two stone
screens we have ever seen in a mosque: big trees, cut into the stone.

There are also many nice museums, among them the klotzy city museum
designed by Le Corbusier (there are a few other Le Corbusier buildings
in Ahmedabad, all similarly "beautiful").

We also visited Gandhinagar, the newly created state capital of
Gujarat. This is India's second planned city (the first was
Chandigarh, once again done by Le Corbusier). It's built to a very
regular plan with broad avenues and much greenery but we found all
these totally straight streets quite boring after a while. Probably
nice to live in, though. There is also a big temple in Gandhinagar
(which 1992 was the scene of a great massacre when suspected Islamists
killed 31 people). We found it a bit disappointing: perhaps it's just
too modern:-)

We also visited the Calico museum of textiles, supposedly a highlight
of the city. We found it very disappointing: amazing pieces of cloth,
sure, but no labels and the guide was whirlwinding us through the
whole thing at an infurating pace. Frustrating.

The Gandhi ashram, where the great man lived for 15 years, was much
more relaxed. There's an exhibition about his life and there are his
living quarters... it was a nice, calm place where we could flee the
heat (it's now in the low thirties here).

Next mail will come in 8 or 10 days, probably from Jodhpur.

All the best

Thomas + Vero


PS: The Indians are all over the place about the snow in London and
Paris: all papers here are full with pics!


Subject: Jodhpur, Mandor, Osian, Bikaner...

Date: Wed, 18 Feb 2009 16:45:57 +0530

Dear all,

we are now in Bikaner, in northern Rajasthan, quite some way from
Ahmedabad, from where we took a train/bus combo to Mount Abu. This is
Rajasthan's one and only hill station and at 1200m it is actually
quite cool in Feb. Indeed, the differences between Ahmedabad and Mt
Abu couldn't be more pronounced: the one is hot, polluted, chaotic,
the other cool, relatively green and pretty hilly and above all
relaxed. And there's a nice lake to walk around! We really enjoyed our
three days there in the hills and used them for some long walks in the
lovely countryside.

However, the main reason to go to Mt Abu are the Delwara temples: this
is a group of five Jain temples (we have seen quite a few Jain temples
by now). We were expecting some nice temples, as usual. We found two
temples (the other three are minor) which are absolute, definite
must-sees. The carvings in these temples (as usual for Jain temples in
white marble) are nothing short of incredible. The two big temples are
800 and 1000 years old but the marble is still eye-poppingly fresh.
The carving is so fine, so exquisite, that you sometimes think it must
be a fake, it can't be real marble. There are loads of gods, godesses,
animals, geometric patterns... and literally everything is executed
with utmost care and finesse. Delwara is, in our view, on a par with
the Khajuraho temples.

From Mt Abu we took a bus to Jodhpur with its magnificent fort (Mt Abu
itself has no fort but there is one in the vicinity to which we
trekked). Jodhpur is a nice if smelly city (the latter thanks to many
open sewers and LOTS of cows). There is a great market (slightly
touristified), and a beautiful old city (much more interesting than
Ahmedabad's old city) with many indigo-blue houses.

The main highlight is of course the Mehrangarh, the old fort of the
Jodhpur rulers, which thrones on a hill 125m above the old town. This
is a relatively small fort with just a few palaces, not a huge
enclosure with temples, villages and many palaces like Chittorgarh.
Nevertheless, it is one of the highlights of Rajasthan because it
really projects royal power and invincibility and has some nice
palaces to boot. There is a very good audio tour with many anecdotes.
One touching story is about the small red handprints near the
uppermost fort gate: these stem from the wives of a deceased maharaja
who, following the then-custom, went out of the fort in a group, all
clad with their wedding dresses, singing and dancing, and jumped onto
their erstwhile husband's funeral pyre.

>From Jodhpur we did two daytrips: one to the gardens of Mandor (9km
north) and another to Osian, a small town in the Thar desert, 65km
northwest. Mandor was the old capital/fort of the Jodhpur clan before
Jodha, in 1459, founded Jodhpur (very much like the relation between
Amber and Jaipur). There's not much left these days but it's a nice
picnic spot and there are the cenotaphs of the Jodhpur rulers: the
first few are still modest structures, but then megalomania set in and
the final ones resemble real temples (hony soit qui mal y pense).

Osian is an old trading town in the Great Thar desert, and as so
often, the bus drive through the half-desert was almost more
interesting than the actual sites. Which in these case consisted of
old merchants' houses (called havelis) and a few big temples. Today
Osian looks a bit rundown and forlorn but in the old days there must
have been a lot of money going round. The temples (Hindu and Jain) are
worth the detour, especially as in the Jain temple photography was
allowed (in most Jain temples this is strictly forbidden).

Now we have just arrived in Bikaner, another city in the Great Thar
desert. You can feel the desert is not far away because it's hot and
dusty and the place is full of camels (probably the first town we've
been to in India with more camels than cows...). There is of course a
fort (to be visited), a daytrip to be done (to Deshnok with its rat
temple). More about that in the next mail.

It's also possible that we will do a camel safari from Bikaner...
depending on the mood and the cost. Again, details will follow.

We are okay, though Thomas' wrist is still a bit of a worry. We'll
see. But the weather is hot and the food is good, so no complaints.

All the best

Thomas + Vero


PS: All Indians ask questions (or, if not, at least it feels as if all
Indians have to ask you something...) The question depends on what
he/she is: a kid will always ask for your name first, whereas an adult
will always enquire about your home country. Rickshaw drivers always
ask "Whairraah you going?" with very long and rolling r's.


Subject: Bikaner, Camels, Jaisalmer...

Date: Mon, 2 Mar 2009 11:06:37 +0530

Dear all,

we're now in Delhi, after an epic train journey of 20 hours, from
Jaisalmer. But back to Bikaner where we left you.

Bikaner is a desert town and it's quite obvious: it may be the only
town in all of India with more camels than cows on the streets. Makes
for a nice change:-)

It is a pretty lively, untouristed place with a fort (of course) and a
nice old city with many havelis. The fort is a "city fort", ie it's
not built on a hill but it's pretty impregnable nevertheless. Inside
is the usual collection of palaces and courtyards. It the proximity to
the desert that makes this fort so special: from the ramparts you see
the town and further on... nothing.

The old city has a few Jain and Hindu temples and many crumbling old
havelis: one was a few hundred years old and belonged to a merchant
family from Karachi (now in Pakistan). It is very nearly a ruin now,
like many others. Sad to see and the Bikaneris will come to regret
this neglect in the future when tourists will ask "what is there to
see in Bikaner?"

Okay. Next stop wasn't a town but the camel safari we had planned to
do. Doing it from Bikaner instead of Jaisalmer (which is what most
tourists do) has the advantage that the "circuit" is not as packed.
Also, in Bikaner they have a cart attached to the camel, so after
sitting on the back of the beast for a while, when the bum starts
hurting, you can change.

Well, the safari wasn't as "bad" as the guide book and other
travellers led us to believe. For a start, sitting on the camel was
actually enjoyable and it wasn't the bum that started hurting, more
the upper thighs (but very bearable). Plus the camel was quite
well-behaved: it didn't blubber and gurgle and the amount of farting
was acceptable as well.

A camel safari has a lot of idle hours: cooking lunch and dinner,
out-waiting the midday sun, tending to the camel and generally going
slowly: one day on the camel means about 20km. But it's not too bad.
The Great Thar desert is not a Sahari style sand dune desert, more a
combination of badlands and some dried scrubs here and there. There
are also tiny villages (actually more than we thought). We slept
outside, under the stars, which was nice but as we had done this on a
number of occasions before, it hadn't the wow factor it apparently has
for many tourists.

In sum, it was good to have done it, but we will probably not do it
again very soon.

From Bikaner we took the day train to Jaisalmer which is famous for
its golden-yellow sandstone fort. Well, after untouristy Bikaner, we
were in for a shock: Jaisalmer had more western tourists than any
other city we saw in the last few months, even more than Agra with its
Taj Mahal. It's mostly tour groups and it made the place feel very
strange. Compared to five years ago, when we had been there already,
it was positively a disappointment. Another interesting development
was the huge number of army personnel around: Pakistan is around the
corner.

Yet, the fort on its hill, surrounded by a wall and 99 crumbling
bastions, is still one of the most romantic sights in Rajasthan. It is
well worth the visit. There are also some really huge and nicely
carved havelis in very good shape: the Jaisalmeris have realised that
this draws tourists. Alas, besides these touristy locations, the city
is dirty to the gills, crumbling and falling apart everywhere. The
sense of neglect in the side alleys is much more overwhelming than in
Bikaner. Well, Jaisalmer has become a tourist trap.

Now we're doing the rounds in Delhi: Red Fort, Connaught Circle,
museums etc. More about that in our next mail which should come from
good old England. Delhi feels relatively cool (around 30C) whereas
Jaisalmer was really hot, in the upper 30s, with the strong sun.

Well, we'll get back to you in about a week or so, from the cold but
green hills of Hampshire.

All the best

Thomas + Vero


Subject: Delhi, England...

Date: Sun, 15 Mar 2009 13:30:01 +0000

Dear all,

we are now back in cool, damp England (though currently the sky's blue
and the sun is shining). Well, nothing lasts forever and it was a
great trip.

Our final days in Delhi were filled with visiting loads of museums,
strolling around Old and New Delhi and generally trying to be as lazy
as we possibly could manage (after five sight-filled months we did
feel a certain sight-seeing lassitude...).

The contrast between New and Old Delhi couldn't be greater: Old Delhi
is filled with people, cows, porters, rickshaws, motorcycles, every
other imaginable form of traffic, it's smelly, chaotic, confusing...
in a word, it's pure India. New Delhi, on the other hand, is quiet and
cool and stately with its broad tree-lined avenues, its huge traffic
roundabouts (some roundabouts actually double as public parks, no
kidding). And it's 100% cow-free.

Old Delhi has the Mughal Fort, built by Shah Jahan (he who's also
responsible for the Taj Mahal), as usual in red sandstone and white
marble. There's also the Jama Masjid, a huge mosque bang in the middle
of all the chaos and one of the few places in Old Delhi where one can
retreat to just sit for some precious tranquil moments.

Actually, almost all of today's Old Delhi was built by Shah Jahan: it
was called Shahjahanabad and it was the seventh (and last) city of
Delhi (not counting New Delhi of course). There were six other
"Delhis" before which are partly still there, albeit mostly in ruins
(anyone interested in the history of these seven cities of Delhi
should read William Dalrymple's book "City of Djinns: A year in
Delhi"). We also visited the sixth Delhi which nowadays is called
Purana Qila. Of this there's not much left, just the city walls with a
few imposing gates and a couple of mosques. Still it's quite a sight.

In New Delhi, we saw the whole government complex with the North and
South Secretariats, the huge and rather ugly President's palace
(formerly this building was the Viceroy's palace; it looks like a
cross of St Paul's Cathedral with a German war bunker) and of course
the massive India Gate (which in turn does look like a cross of the
Arc de Triomphe in Paris with a German war bunker).

A special treat were the Mughal gardens which form part of the
Presidential Grounds: they are normally closed to the public but for a
few days in Feb and March they are opened and loads of Indians stream
into them. These are formal gardens along Persian lines, with a myriad
of colourful flower beds, criss-crossing water-filled canals and
burbling fountains everywhere. Nice, though not as grand as we
imagined.

Among the museums we would highlight the Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi
and Jawaharlal Nehru museums. These three museums are all located in
New Delhi, near enough to each other to be visited in a single day and
they give one a broad insight into the Indian political caste and the
way the Indian political system developed between 1890 and 1990. In
the case of the Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi (no relation)
museums, they are in fact at the very places where both lived and were
assasinated.

Well, and that was Nepal/India 2008/9.

A few final remarks. With a little distance and with hindsight we
would say that our trek in the Everest region wasn't as "bad" as we
felt back then. Sure, the groups are a total nuisance and it was
eye-wateringly expensive... but then again, the landscapes, the
scenery, the simple pleasures of being high up in the Himalayan
mountains are more than worth it. Just avoid October and don't expect
the famed Sherpa hospitality to be as it was in the old days.

We enjoyed India a lot more than we did five years ago. This is due
mainly to three reasons: we knew what to expect; travelling in the
country is quite a bit smoother than it used to be (the one thing that
will leave a lasting bad impression is the utter inability of Indian
Railways to get even a single train in time to the destination... but
at least we arrived:-). And of course we are now much more experienced
travellers than we were 2003/4: that trip was our first real
"adventure" and we had to work pretty hard just to get all the
"mechanics" of long-time and long-distance travelling right.

Last but not least, if more people would trek in the mountains or
travel through deserts and not stare continuously at the doom and
gloom streaming down from their computer monitors or TV screens, we
might have no recession at all! It is amazing how strange it feels to
return to this stupefying world of bad banks, bad debt, bad news.

(A small anecdote to illustrate: in November 2008, deep in the
Nepalese mountains, for days on end no-one could answer our questions
about who had finally been been elected President of the US of A: the
locals simply didn't care. Even more astonishing was the fact that
many people had no idea there had been a presidential election in the
first place! We had to wait for that until we returned to Namche
Bazaar.)

As to the next destination we'll tackle, we haven't got a clue:-)
Let's just wait and see what turns up. We'll keep you posted.

All mails we sent will in due course turn up on Thomas' website; we
will also post a few pictures there. We'll send a short message once
we're ready.

All the best

Thomas + Vero


$updated from: NINDIA 2008 Mails English.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:14:23 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$