India, November 2016
Myself and Tara spent a month in India in November 2016. I've tried to keep the text to a minimum so here are some photographs (and the odd story) from our trip.
Advance warning, I can take a lot of photos in a month (and this is just a snippet)!
New Delhi, Delhi
Delhi was extremely smoggy during our time there, the air pollution was apparently 16 times the safe level, you can really notice it in my photos. At this time of year farmers (in the hundreds and thousands) in the Northern states or Punjab and Haryana burn their fields to eliminate old crops, sending smoke through the skies. Also contributing is the fact that we arrived the day after Diwali so there was haze from the constant Diwali fireworks.
Lakshmi Narayan Temple
Jaipur was fun! Some lovely forts and temples to see and the city itself was bustling and exciting. You can instantly tell I'm in a different city from the cleaner images lacking the haze.
Jaipur City Palace
Amer Fort and Jaigarh Fort.
Pushkar seemed to be a popular destination amongst the traveller community and it's not hard to see why. It's a small, much more relaxed town with a beautiful lake and market vendors lining the streets. There was a noticeable amount of 'western' people here and plenty of western food (I was still getting over 'Delhi belly' so wasn't ready for anything spicy again yet).
Udaipur is a beautiful city with plenty of lakes and lavish buildings. The narrow windy streets have scooters whizzing up and down beeping their horns and tuk tuks shipping people around. It's a city of performing arts with various shows happening every evening at locations throughout the city. The Puppet Show at Bagore Ki Haveli was an amazing experience, it was full of traditional Rajasthani folk dance.
Udaipur City Palace
Puppet show at Bagore Ki Haveli.
It was during our Udaipur stay (8th November) that the cash crisis happened in which suddenly 500 and 1000 rupee notes were no longer legal tender in India. It happened to be the same day as the US presidential election, most definitely deliberate to not attract so much media attention. We had already changed our money (into mostly 500 and 1000 rupee notes, of course), but if we hadn't we wouldn't be in any better a situation. The only option was to queue up at a bank (with every single other person in India) and swap the notes (although only a small amount could be exchanged at a time). Our first trip to the bank was in Udaipur and was not the most pleasant experience (about 5 hours of sweaty queueing and a lot of pushing and shoving when we were near the front), but we had it lucky really. With 90% of transactions in India being made by cash it isn't uncommon for Indian people to not have a bank account or government ID which left a lot of people in a really bad situation.
Agra, Uttar Pradesh
We stayed in a hostel with a nice garden just a short walk up the road from the Taj Mahal. We took time to relax here and plan the next part of our trip (and of course visit the Taj Mahal).
We were lucky that the nearby Taj Mahal ticket office turned into a temporary cash swapping office so we could swap some more rupees without waiting too long (a couple of hours I think). We were also lucky that this was only a temporary bank, without the official computer systems as we weren't aware that you weren't allowed to change any more money within so many days of the last exchange (as we found out at our next trip to the bank in Varanasi!).
The Taj Mahal
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Varanasi is a crazy city! So noisy, interesting, colourful, smelly. People often say that India stimulates all of the senses and Varanasi is the definition of this. Walking down the road will give you a headache, non stop horns, trying to dodge the traffic and avoid eye contact with rickshaw and tuk tuk drivers (or they will follow you to offer you a ride). Once you reach the ghats along the Ganges there is so much to watch, people bathing in the Ganges, bodies being burnt at the burning ghats, so many interesting faces.
Varanasi is a holy city, it is known that many Hindus go to Varanasi to die to achieve moksha (the end of the cycle of birth and death) so there is a strange (but not sad) atmosphere about the place I can't quite describe.
You definitely wouldn't want to go to Varanasi without researching some of the common scams as there are a huge amount of tourists and people trying to make money unethically from tourism.
The most difficult part of the trip was trying to get from Varanasi to Darjeeling. We couldn't find any available trains, we were open to stopping off somewhere else on the way but were struggling to work out a route (booking trains in India is a hundred times more difficult than in the UK!). So we went to the train station to speak to someone who could help us. There weren't many people in front of us at the tourist information office but each booking takes a lot of time and patience so we were waiting for a few hours to be seen. Once it was finally our turn there was a lot of checking different routes and we finally found one from a different train station (about an hour tuk tuk ride from Varanasi) that would take us to New Jalpaiguri (a few hours jeep ride from Darjeeling).
The next day off we went by tuk tuk to Mughal Sarai station arriving in plenty of time for our train. This is where the long evening begins.
We were due to get an early evening train that would take us to New Jalpaiguri overnight so we'd arrive in the morning ready to take a jeep up to the hill station Darjeeling (we had it all planned out!). However our train didn't show up. We waited and waited, we kept asking at the information counter how long it would be and kept getting the same answer (half an hour). There was no information available at all on roughly how long it would be or whether it was even coming. We waited and waited, amongst the cows, rats and cockroaches as the smell of urine was getting stronger (the toilet was right at the entrance to the station so many people on our platform weren't using it). In the end I sent a text message back to Scott at home and asked him to check online for me (don't know why I didn't think of this earlier). We then found out it was a few hours away (but at least it was on it's way!). Around 12 hours later than originally planned the train finally rocked up. The train also took much longer than it was supposed to and we were right in the end berth near the toilet smells. The next hurdle was trying to work out when to get off. There are no announcements and when it's already a few hours after you're supposed to arrive you start to worry. Everybody seems to speak English on the ground but as soon as you get on a train nobody does.
This then of course meant that we were travelling throughout the day, rather than night, so we arrived at New Jalpaiguri late at night. We had been warned that it was dangerous to take a jeep up to Darjeeling in the dark, as it was a very steep, windy journey and people drink drive at night. So we had another long night ahead of us waiting by the train station for daylight. It was a happy moment when we were awoken by hearing a jeep driver chanting 'Darjeeling, Darjeeling' at the crack of dawn. We just had to now wait for the jeep to fill and we were on our way to Darjeeling.
Of course all of this was totally worth it as we started our ascent up to the hill station, what amazing views and Darjeeling is wonderful!
Darjeeling, West Bengal
Darjeeling was cold. It reached minus figures at night which is hard to imagine coming from the heat of Varanasi. It was so nice to breathe in the fresh air and felt much cleaner than anywhere else we had been so far. There were lots more bins around and 'keep Darjeeling clean' signs, although if you were to peer over the sides of hill faces you can see that mounds of litter had just been chucked over the side so there was still a big issue.
Darjeeling was like a completely different country to the India we had just come from. We didn't really get stared at or asked for photos, even though there were clearly less tourists and travellers around we weren't so much of a spectacle and it was much easier to walk around freely.
The people of Darjeeling call their town 'the land of the Gorkhas' and are currently demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland. Unfortunately they are currently going through some unrest and riots, whilst we were there it was so peaceful and friendly.
I get the most excited looking back at my photos from Darjeeling, I think that might mean it was my favourite place, though I didn't realise that until now.
Kanchenjunga Mountain Range
Another late train meant arriving in Guwahati in the early hours of the morning. We eventually managed to find a hotel, after trying many that were fully booked and enjoyed a few hours kip until the morning. We had arranged to stay with a nice family for a couple of nights, who host people often from all over the world.
One of the few Hindu temples that still practices goat sacrifice.
Assam is the furthest east you can get by train in India and our next stop was Shillong, Meghalaya. So we headed to get a shared jeep to continue our journey east (in my head I can hear the jeep driver chanting "Shillong, Shillong" to find his fares).
It was a surprise to see roads built so well and with road markings as most of the roads we'd seen were full of potholes and rubble. Although the road markings didn't make any difference to how people drove. We actually had a small bump with another jeep on this journey.
Shillong is a hill station amongst the Khasi Hills in the state of Meghalaya. The predominant religion is Christianity so it was interesting to see many Christian churches and even the odd Christmas decoration (it was now late November) after being in dominantly Hindu states.
Meghalaya is a matrilineal state. The women here are in charge of the family businesses, they are free to dress as they please and the children take their mother's surname. The birth of daughters is highly celebrated. When entering Meghalaya you immediately notice women working in the shops along the sides of the roads and most of them are wearing jeans (in complete contrast to everywhere else we had been so far).
Cherrapunji is a small village, south of Shillong known for the nearby living root bridges. It's also supposed to be the wettest place on earth, with the highest amount of rainfall in the world, although it was dry during our stay.
Nohkalikai Falls and Eco Park
It was a scenic 3500 steps down to the double decker living root bridge.
Now to head back up the 3500 steps we came down.
This was the end of our month in India. The next day we headed back to Shillong to fly to Delhi to catch our flight home. It's safe to say I caught the India bug and I can't wait to return.
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A few photos of Tara and myself from the trip.