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Relaxing in Goa, the End of the Trip

We arrive at the domestic air terminal in Mumbai, check in quickly and find some coffee The security is tight and the whole place nice and clean. Normal really, we’re just not used to it.

It’s a short flight to Panaji, capital of Goa, occupied by the Portuguese until 1961. It’s a beautiful place with colourful buildings and very friendly people. In fact it seems like we’ve landed in a different country! It is hot though, about 30 degrees – no wonder this tourist looks hot.

Panaji has some beautiful buildings, including this book shop which was apparently featured in the Bourne Supremacy.

We take a short trip down the coast for Paul to go diving on a off-shore island. The underwater visibility was about 4m, pretty bad really. The dive guide explains that this is down to large rivers draining in the Sea here, and also pollution. A strange experience really, like diving on Anglesey in the 70s.

We research where to go next. It seems north Goa is a bit party-ish so we pick a small place called Benaulim which was recommended some weeks ago by travellers we met in Varanasi. Benaulim is a quiet, sleepy little beach village still with the Portuguese twist. It’s a place many retired Europeans come for the winter months, and who can blame them as it’s so cheap to lodge, eat and drink. The beach is beautiful.

It’s tough :’) but we manage to spend almost two weeks here. We take long walks along the beach morning and evening, cool off in the water, read a lot of books and eat in most of the beachside restaurants. A great way relax after the trip.

And that’s it ! Thanks to all our readers. We’ll be home in a few days to sort through our thousands of photos and get back to real life!

A Brief Pause in Mumbai

Believe it or not, one of the highlights of Mumbai is the Chhatrapati Shivaji train station where we arrive, apparently a wonder of colonial architecture. Well, we’re pretty tired when we arrive,so we exit at the side and miss the good sights. We are, though, pretty impressed with the speed of our old taxi, an Ambassador, which whizzes us to an elegant part of the city right by the sea front. We’re lucky, also, that our driver actually knows where the hotel is: we find later that many do not, and will just drive round and round, asking random strangers until they get lucky.

The grin here is not only ‘cos we’re by the sea, but we’ve just booked an internal flight for the next section of our trip. No more Indian trains!

We like the central part of Mumbai and all the old buildings. The locals are bonkers about cricket – every day, hundreds of men emerge from work at lunch time and play in this huge central park, called the Maidan.

We take a boat trip to Elephanta Island, up the coast a bit, to see some more rock carvings. The carvings are nice, but the boat trip itself is particularly enjoyable. The langur monkeys which inhabit the site have learned to steal from the tourists. They can determine which bottles contain sugary soft drinks, and which just water, and one of them chased me round for my Limca bottle.

We pass the Gateway of India, built to commemorate the 1911 visit of King George V, but for some reason not finished until 13 years later. There’s a lot of security now, after the terrorist killings here a few years ago.

After a couple of days, we start to get excited about our flight south to Goa, for the last part of our India itinerary. No more trains, and a week or two in the sun before we return to the UK.

East to West Across India

After filling our boots with excellent food in Kolkata we contemplate our next journey. When planning to this trip we thought it would be neat to travel the whole way from one coast of the country to the other, but now we are well aware how big India is! We break the journey in Jalgaon after 26 hours and book into a small hotel in the friendly little town – on the positive side the room is even cheaper than chips. The main purpose is to visit the World Heritage Ajanta Caves, about 60km away. Our genial host suggests we take the local bus, which costs only £1.50 each return.

 

Fellow travellers are friendly and the conductor reminds us we have a 5 minute stop for snacks. Stretching our legs gives us the opportunity to take a photo of this vintage car surrounded by some of the inevitable environmental problems mentioned previously. You can’t see how much rubbish was actually inside the car as well!

 

The friendly conductor and most of the other travellers shout “Cav-es” to remind us to get off the bus and we stroll on through to marvel at the 2000-odd year old carvings, each with their own Buddha centrepiece. The caves were first discovered in 1819 by a British hunting party. There are 26, most of which are open to the public although there is still a lot of renovation work ongoing. We enjoyed browsing the carvings and the cool inside the caves was welcome. Here is a selection of photos from the magnificent site which well deserves it’s World Heritage ranking.

 

 

 

 

 

We gather some energy and get ready to finish the cross-country epic, bound for Mumbai. We’re happy that all those weeks ago in Delhi we had changed this part of the journey from a night to a day train.

 

The bunks on the trains are ok, but the toilets could be better. Actually this one’s not too bad!

 

We arrive on the west coast in Mumbai only a few minutes late – an epic train journey East to West complete, and ready for a couple of days mooching about Mumbai.

Inspecting the Pantry Car on the Way to Kolkata

We are feeling refreshed after our relaxing few days, but all too soon it’s time for the next train. No cows in evidence as we check the information board at Gaya station, but two travellers have given up on the long delay and bedded down. Our train is late once more, this time by 6 hours.

We decide to use some time up by going to find breakfast. Outside the station is the usual chaos, even at 6.30am.

Fuelled up we return to the station, and it turns out to be a very long wait this time. This is bad news, not because we are worried about being late, but because we’re bored and we just switch off, not doing our usual research about which way the train will pull in and so forth. It’s important to know roughly where each carriage is going to pull up, because the train will have about 24 of them, and it takes about 5 minutes to walk briskly from one end to the other: but this is only a two-minute stop! As the train pulls in, we realise we don’t spot our carriage going past. Rats. We walk all the way to the front, but it’s not there: it must be at the other end. Now we’re in trouble, as the train is due to leave in another minute, and we realise we’re in danger of missing the chuffing train we’ve been waiting for for six hours. OK, so our backpacks only weighs about 12kg, but trying to run is no fun. We leg it for the other end of the train, and before we get there, the train starts to pull out, picking up speed quickly. Diane tries to jump on and luckily Paul’s there to give a shove from behind, throwing in his bag and jumping on himself. All good, but it’s not our carriage – it is in fact the Pantry Car with several men staring at us whilst stirring, cooking and packing meals into foil containers. We squeeze past uttering ‘Namaste’ and finally reach our car and collapse on our bunks a couple of miles from the station – phewey! Luckily for us our destination is the end of the line, so we can put our brains back into neutral again.

Our hotel in Kolkata is in a touristy but seedy area, and is an old heritage property run by a British woman with hundreds of articles and photographs of famous people who have stayed here. Somehow they accepted us and after many ‘dry’ evenings we’re happy there is a bar. They also include a full English breakfast in the price of the room. Unfortunately for us the bacon and sausage is apparently sub-standard at the moment so we get a few mushrooms instead, alongside real baked beans (although cold, what’s that about?). Here’s a photo of the fabulously quirky hotel hallway.

We decline offers of transport from the hand-pulled rickshaw men and take a taxi to the number one tourist attraction, the Victoria Memorial, billed as a cross between the US Capitol and the Taj Mahal. It was built to commemorate the old Queen, surrounded by gardens and ponds, but not that exciting. Nearby was St Paul’s Cathedral, but nothing like it. Here’s the Victoria Memorial from the front, reminding us of the environmental problems this country faces.

Another view.

We were lucky enough to have been given some tips earlier in our travels on some places to eat in the city and take full advantage. Here’s Paul enjoying a local speciality, Chello Kebabs, which were exceedingly spicey and topped with a fried egg!

So, next is the longest train journey of our trip: 25 hours overnight from Kolkata to Jalgaon. We decided to stop there and visit the Ajanta caves rather than go the whole way to Mumbai, a 33 hour trip!

Will We Find Peace and Quiet in Bodhgaya?

Whilst waiting for the next train we are both trying to recover from multiple assaults on our senses and wondering if we’ll find some peace and quiet soon. In the waiting hall life goes on as normal: people shouting, pushing, falling over others snoozing on the floor, drinking chai. Meanwhile, a cow is also wondering when the next train is due and what platform it is departing from. We’ve never seen that at Bath Spa station 🙂

We take a bicycle rickshaw to our accommodation. Our driver seems very cheerful and happy to take us with our luggage, even so we have great trouble squeezing both our bottoms into the seat. Luckily we’re only going a couple of miles, but hanging on gets more difficult as he cycles us off the broken tarmac and along deeply rutted farmland tracks.

We arrive safely at the Root Institute, which is a Buddhist meditation centre, happy to take tourists who sign up to their code of ethics, including no killing (anything, even the mosquitoes).There are some parts of the complex which are Silent Areas – yeah, bring it on! But, you can chatter with fellow inmates on the roof terrace.

We have a simple room in the main building and have to outwardly stick to another of the principles which is not to make any gestures of affection to each other. Hmm.

The gardens and grounds are beautifully kept and the habit here is to walk clockwise around the main buddha, all pretty calming. Paul joins in with the early morning meditation sessions at 6:45am, whilst Diane has an extra lie in.

We walk into town, which is not quiet at all. It does have a giant 80 foot Buddha, reputedly with 20,000 mini-Buddha’s inside, many other Buddhist temples financed by different countries, one brilliant coffee shop and a fabulous canteen-style restaurant when we feel the need to escape the Institute’s healthy menu.

The big attraction in Bodhgaya is the amazing Mahabodhi Temple. Near the entrance we see one of our favourite icons being fed bread by a nun. Looks like our friend from the railway station got his train 🙂

The Temple and gardens are huge and bring together Buddhists from many nations.

This week hundreds of Tibetan monks are chanting for World Peace, we’re with them on that one. They are sitting under the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha achieved enlightenment, or rather a direct descendant of that tree.

When the monks and followers aren’t chanting it’s likely they have moved to an area to the side set up for people to perform prostrations – it seems to us as onlookers a bit like a continuous but more onerous ‘Salute to the Sun’ needing a lot of stamina! Traditionally, the worshipper performs 10,000 of these.

Two other guests at Root propose sharing a car to visit Rajgir, an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists, some 50 miles away. We hadn’t read the guidebook properly and were surprised to find ourselves in a huge line-up for a rickety old chairlift!

It saves us negotiating a few hundred steps and we scoot safely off at the top to admire the 40m high stupa with golden statues representing the four stages of Buddha’s life.

Wandering around the peak we found the area where he preached to his followers. It was a pretty impressive, gentle (and quiet) spot to visit – we only had to watch out for the pesky monkeys.

So, did we find peace and quiet in Bodhgaya? In a way yes, and in a way no. The Root Institute was a very calm and tranquil place, and the life there uncluttered: nothing much happens after dinner at 6pm, so early nights are in order (no TV here!). During the day, though, a lot of normal India noise drifts in, including while we were there pop music from a fairground, complete with wall of death riders. The monk taking morning meditation said to treat this as good practice for cultivating compassion for all sentient creatures, even those who play loud pop music at all hours. Easier said than done, readers 🙂

Off to Kolkata next.

Christmas in Varanasi

We arrive in Varanasi on Christmas Day morning from another overnight train having shared a sleeping compartment with a male who was obviously practising for the forthcoming International Train Snoring World Record. We are of course late by about four hours. It doesn’t actually matter to us, but our mad autorickshaw driver propels us to our hotel in double quick time. Thankful we’re still alive we give him a huge Xmas tip. After yummy breakfast on the roof terrace overlooking holy River Ganges we stroll up river.

We enjoy the warm sunshine and are prompted by the street art to sit for a while and remember these great guys.

A very different Xmas dinner this year, followed by the most delicious apple pie and ice cream. Even a few twinkly lights to remind us of the occasion.

A big thing here on the Ganges is the Aarti ceremony. We’d seen smaller events earlier in our travels, but this was like theatre performed for many hundreds of people, sitting on the steps of the ghat and on boats on the river. It was pretty mesmerising and we even went back the next night to see it again.

We were getting used to seeing life around the ghats but we couldn’t work out what these guys were up to.

Walking around town was the usual mix of interest, noise, chaos, colour and animals everywhere. Oh, and more dirt, rubbish and faeces of all types than we’ve ever seen. To really do it justice, we’d need a camera with smell-o-vision. But it was all so fascinating it might just be our favourite place to date.

People washing themselves and their clothes in the holy water.

And yes, there really is a urinal here – not that chaps normally need such an excuse around here!

Early evening and there are two choices of routes home for the cows – through the traffic-packed streets or along the quieter ghats.

A few weeks ago the river flooded to its highest level in a long time. Most of the ghats have been cleaned up to allow access, but the authorities are still struggling to sort this one nearest to us. Hopefully they’ll finish before the next rainstorms arrive.

Well, definitely one of the most different Xmas venues we’ve experienced. Another different venue awaits for our New Year: Bodhgaya – the birthplace of Buddhism, where we’ll be staying in a Buddhist monastic institute. Should be peaceful, anyway 🙂

Apologies for the delay since the last post: no Internet on trains, and when we haven’t been on a train, luck has landed us with indifferent wifi. Hey ho.

The Temples In Khajuraho

After Agra, we take the overnight train to Khajuraho to see the temples. The train is, of course, late, so we don’t get into our bunks until about 1am. We’re supposed to arrive at 6:20am, but it’s after 10 when we arrive, so we get a bit of a lie-in. We’re staying at the Hotel Harmony.

Over the course of the next few days, we tour the temple complexes, eat pizza, drink Kingfisher, and sleep. The main complex, the Western Temples, are the most impressive, and come with an audio tour. This, together with chatting to other visitors, manages to slow us down so that we spend four hours looking round. The complex has a large number of Hindu and Jain Temples, and is world renowned for its erotic sculptures. Here I am standing in front of a non-erotic sculpture, together with some more images of the temples.

Yes, that is our bottle of water.

Here is Ganesha, with his elephant head. His own was lopped off by his mother’s husband, Shiva, who then replaced it with the head of the first animal he encountered in the forest, an elephant.

So, what of the erotic sculptures? One of the main Temples has a frieze all the way around it, and quite a lot of it shows figures having sex, including one of a man doing the wild thing with a horse. They are too racy for inclusion here, so here’s a shot of some buxom figures standing in characteristic sinuous poses.

All in all, an enjoyable few days in Khajuraho. Off now to Varanasi on yet another chuffing overnight train. The novelty is beginning to wear off, rather.

The Fog on the Taj

Agra is perhaps the most popular tourist destination in India, home to the Taj Mahal. It’s open to the public on every day except Friday, so naturally we arrive late on a Thursday. Fortunately, there’s other stuff to do in Agra, so on the Friday we set off for the Fort. It’s popular, as The Taj is closed 🙂

We also see the Itimad-ud-Daulah, also known as the Baby Taj, the tomb of Mizra Ghiyas Beg. It’s a smaller version of the main attraction, as you can see.

I’ve mentioned the fog before, as it affects our rail journeys in this area. Well, it’s pretty bad on Saturday morning as we head to the Taj Mahal. Our auto rickshaw driver drops us at the South Gate, and we walk in through a long array of Taj-related tat: snow domes with little Taj Mahals inside, books about it, marble (or perhaps not) Taj Mahals and so on. Foreign tourists buy a more expensive ticket than the locals, something which is common in India. In this case, we pay 750 rupees while the locals pay 10 or so. For our extra cash, we don’t have to queue to get in, nor queue to get into the mausoleum, and are given a small bottle of water and a pair of shoe covers each. Here’s the traditional Taj shot, with the mausoleum lost in the fog behind me. The whole shebang was built to contain the body of Mumtaz Mahal, beloved wife of Emperor Shah Jahan. It was completed in 1653.

We walk on, and the ghostly white marble gradually emerges from the murk.

Being a Saturday, it’s very popular indeed. Here’s the non-high-price ticket queue for the mausoleum.

So, I hear you ask, what did we think of it ? It’s a wonder of the world, after all. Well, it is fantastic, an astonishing monument, made of shimmering, translucent marble, covered with carved flowers and inlaid with semi-precious stones. The entrances are flanked by quotations from the Koran in Arabic calligraphy, which I think looks beautiful all by itself. Here I am, standing in front the queue, wearing a pair of shoes covers, grinning foolishly, and pointing at some of the aforementioned script.

So, a thumbs-up for the Taj Mahal. (Not a Thums Up, by the way, which is a local brand of cola). Now we’re off to Khajuraho on an overnight train to tour the Jain temples, complete with mucky sculptures.

Tigers and Birds

So, after the delights of Udaipur we’re off to the tiger reserve at Ranthambore hoping to catch a glimpse of the big cat. This is the only activity which we booked from the UK before we left, as the safari drives into the park book up really quickly. We are staying at a moderately posh establishment, Ranthambore Bagh, in a sort of a tent. It has tent walls and roof, but a hard floor and it’s own bathroom. It’s a cut above our usual establishment, which costs about 15 quid a night for a double room, and where you usually have to ask for the hot water to be turned on.

Safari drives happen between 07:00 and 09:30, and between 15:00 and 17:30. The park is closed to the public at other times, which gives the wildlife a bit of down time. You are assigned at random to a vehicle, in our case a 6-person jeep, and the vehicles are assigned at random to a zone in the park. All this helps to ease pressure on the guides and the wildlife. Whether you see a tiger or not is completely down to luck.

These guys are everywhere, though.

There is a lot of other wildlife to look at, and the park is beautiful. These are Spotted Deer, drinking at a waterhole.

We had signed up for three safaris: afternoon on one day, then morning and afternoon on the next day. Two or three safaris, it was said, would be enough to spot a tiger. Our first two were tiger-less: in fact the first, which was on a Sunday, was more like a vehicle rally in the country, with traffic jams in the tight spots and lots of revving and shouting. If I was a tiger, I’d be elsewhere if this was going on, I thought. The second was more tranquil, and we saw a lot more of the park, but still no tigers, and saw only a couple of other vehicles. Finally, on the third, we spotted a tiger, an 18 month old male called Sultan. He didn’t seem to care about being photographed by at least 100 people. The group photography thing notwithstanding, tigers are doing ok in the park here, and they are absolutely magnificent when you see them. We saw more of Sultan later on, but couldn’t get any photographs.

The following morning, we move down the road to Bharatpur to visit the Keoladeo bird sanctuary, and internationally renowned wetland. This is way more relaxed than the Tiger sanctuary, and we have our own guide.

Again, the animals seem pretty oblivious of man, and you can photograph them easily.

There are python in the park but we didn’t see any 🙂 Here’s a discarded skin, though.

It’s quite a big park, and the easiest way round is by bike. Mine has probably the worst saddle I’ve ever sat on, not helped by it being tilted upwards at the front like the launching ramp on an aircraft carrier, forcing me to lean backwards to preserve my, er, composure. That’s what you get if you hire a bike for 20 pence.

There’s also a large colony of Painted Storks, and we saw many other animals, including antelope and jackals.

There was a small drinks kiosk in the centre of the park, with several dustbins. As usual, the Rhesus Macaques took a great interest in them, hoiking out anything remotely edible, and quite a few things that weren’t.

All in all, a jolly good week or so of wildlife watching. We’re off to Agra now, to the Taj Mahal.

Octopussy Movie Every Night At 7pm

Our train from Jaipur to Udaipur departs late in the evening, officially at 22:20. We’re dropped at the station at about 21:15, so we’re in good time. As it happens, we’re in very good time indeed, positively oodles in advance, in fact on the wrong day, because it is four hours late. We eventually board at 02:15: here’s another small untruth on the departure board.

It’s an overnight train, and we’re in Second Air Conditioned Sleeper Class, so we have bunks and everything. Despite the lateness of the service, we’re still booted out of bed at 06:45.

We eventually arrive and check in to the Panorama Guest House. A word about the Octopussy thing: much of the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy, starring Roger Moore, was shot in Udaipur. Consequently, many of the city’s rooftop restaurants and bars show the film every bloomin’ evening. Really, though, there’s a limit to how often you want to watch it. Once does us.

We like the place immediately, and it is beautiful, set on a large lake. We have breakfast, and occasionally dinner, in these restaurants, right on the shore, watching people taking a dip or washing their clothes.

The city boasts many palaces. We visit the City Palace, from which we get a great view of the famous Lake Palace. This is now a hotel, run by the Taj Hotel group. You can’t land there unless you’re a guest.

We’re keen to try cooking, so we sign up for a class. We watched and participated in cooking aubergine and tomato curry, potato pilau, dahl, onion and tomato raita and chapati. Our instructor made it look simple, and it was delicious. As usual, my chapatis aren’t round, but oval.


We take a trip to the magnificent Jain temple at Ranakpur, where Diane finds another elephant. It was nice to drive around the Rajasthan countryside also.

One of the advantages of Udaipur is that we can get coffee, which we like every now and again. This cafe, which also has a fabulous rooftop restaurant, is recommended by Lonely Plant.

Towards the end of our trip we take in a local cultural show, the climax being a dance where a large number of water pots are balanced on the dancer’s head. I’m not sure I could balance one.

So, farewell then Udaipur, after an idyllic couple of days. Off to Ranthambore Tiger Reserve next, to try and spot the aforementioned iconic cat.