I’ve Dipped My Toes in Kolkata.

9 March 2015

We landed in Kolkata at midday, flying from “Darj” (after four days in Darjeeling, we’re referring to it like locals now) into this smoggy metropolis of 14.4 million people, the 18th largest city in the world.

Makes your own city seem like a sleepy backwater, doesn’t it.

We finally got to travel in the famous Hindustan Ambassador taxi. A car straight from the 1950s, resembling an Oxford Morris Minor. The amazing thing is this bright yellow cab hasn’t changed its design since then. The Indians have taken the saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” to extremes. No A/C, radio, shock absorbers, electric windows … but now fitted with indicators, and of course the must-have horn.

Ambassadors

Unfortunately, our backpacks wouldn’t fit in the boot; the boot was slammed down, only to bounce back up. My look of concern was greeted by the ubiquitous head wobble of the taxi driver and we were off. In defence of our non-English speaking driver, he did stop repeatedly at traffic lights and get out to check that our bags were still intact. Only Krishna knows what he would have done if he found the rusted out cavity of his trunk empty.

In this city of 1900 square kilometres, he did manage to find our hotel, oh, and several other hotels along the way that he thought we should be staying in.

My first impression as our battered yellow Ambassador taxi took a shortcut through a labyrinth of lanes, was, if for some reason we were dropped on the street, it may take me years to find my way out, if ever!

Kolkata Lanes

We dipped our toes into Kolkata straight away, with a one block walk to the nearest five star shopping mall. I know it wasn’t a daring move, but even that five minute walk involved being almost run over by a speeding truck and stepping over dead rats, dog caca and the usual street-stained sleeping bodies.

Feeling slightly reassured and braver after this short foray into the chaos of Kolkata, we then attempted a several kilometre walk to another shopping mall along the streets – literally. Footpaths are hit and miss in this city; sometimes accessible, at other times covered in pop-up tea shops and food stalls. It was peak hour and Kolkata was throwing all that she had at us. Like the streetwise and brave men we are, we made each terrifying street crossing in the shadow of some old lady or mother with child (they cross at a slower pace and are less likely to take unnecessary risks). We never found that mall; Park Street Circus, with its steady stream of trucks, buses, tuk tuks, bicycle rickshaws, Amassador taxis, scooters and motorbikes all converging on a single roundabout with its six entry and exit points was too much, and we admitted defeat.

We did, however, find The Maidan and took sanction in the green of the park with its hundreds of different cricket matches taking place.

I was starting to think that Kolkata wasn’t such a great idea; dipping my toes in this city might result in losing my whole foot.

Posted in India | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Crow’s Nest.

8 March 2015

Look up. Look way up, to the "Crow's Nest"

Look up. Look way up, to the “Crow’s Nest”

As the mist rises to meet dusk from the valley 2000 metres below, we’re sitting in “The Crow’s Nest”, as I’ve dubbed our room in the Dekeling Hotel. Although I doubt any crow would be panting as much as I am when I finally sink into the comfortable wicker chair of our hotel room. No, I’m not unfit … the air is thin in the Himalayas. Well, that’s my excuse; not the biriyanis, tandoori chicken or Kingfisher beer my stomach is lugging up the 103 steps to our crow’s nest perch over Darjeeling township.

This morning’s start was too early and way too cold. 4.30am is not my idea of a holiday starting time. It was one of those “get up before sunrise, drive 30 minutes in the dark, hike through the mist and marvel at the sunrise” experiences. I’ve done these tourist traps before, and 50% of the time you wish you were still in bed when the sun actually fails to rise due to cloud, rain or both. And at 1C, I was realising that my jeans, t-shirt, jacket and baseball cap were clearly not enough; I wanted to jump right back under my hotel’s sheet, doona, polarfleece blanket and wool bedcover. 

Tiger Hill Moonset

Well, it was worth it. This was demonstrated by the applause of approximately a few thousand Indian tourists who had also broken their sleep. How often does a sunrise get a standing ovation? Perhaps it was the sun reflecting off the Himalayas that did it. 

Okay, it might not sound interesting, but picture the mist clearing as the sun suddenly warms the air. Initially, the big red ball of the sun above the clouds, then the reflections off the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.

Tiger Hill Sunrise

The world’s highest mountains miraculously revealed as the sun warms daybreak.  The snowy peaks of the Himalayas suddenly pink in hue.  It was a only a vista for a minute, before the cold of the morning took hold and the Himalayas were once again engulfed in cloud.

Himalayan Panorama

We haven’t explored our mountain locale only by foot. Yesterday we took the DHR (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway) – a steam train named “Mountaineer” that toured us around the edge of the mountains to an adjacent hilltop town called Ghum. A bit of a touristy thing to do, but the ‘technical’ delay of one hour whet my appetite. The engine was a doppelgänger for Thomas The Tank Engine, right down to Thomas’ blue  and polished brass. The resemblance stops there.  Our Fat Controller was not top hat and tails, more stained, with a fag hanging from his mouth, and an ability to expel quite a lot of phlegm. 

All aboard the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway "Toy Train"

All aboard the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway “Toy Train”

Oh, we did the Zoo as well. Apparently the best Zoo in India, according to Trip Advisor. It was good. Tigers, snow leopards and red pandas (high in the cute stakes!).

Apparently Red Pandas spend a lot of time sleeping...

Apparently Red Pandas spend a lot of time sleeping…

The Zoo also featured The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Darjeeling is the home of Tenzing Norgay. Remember him? He was the Sherpa who was first to climb Mount Everest. He resided in Darjeeling and in fact, this is where that history-making climb began.

Tenzing Norgay

As is fitting, Sir Edmund Hillary is supporting cast in this town. Barely cracks a mention in the exhibits. But then, who do you think did most of the hard yards: the Sherpa, or the Sir?

Posted in India | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Happy Holi!

6 March 2015

Today we experience India’s Hindu Holi festival. A chance to celebrate the beginning of spring and new life. A chance to greet family and friends by smearing vibrantly coloured powder on friends, family and stranger’s faces and wish them “Happy Holi!”.

By afternoon, the party phase is in full swing. Men with faces, hands and clothes covered in splashes of colours dance through the streets, now throwing (rather than gently smearing!) vibrant Holi powders, ambushing both friends and strangers with fists full fuschia pink, vermillion green and Yves Klein blue. Add water pistols and the streets turn into riots of colour.

Happy Holi 1

Happy Holi 2

We were lucky enough to experience this as guests at a palace party in Jaipur several years ago. We have such great memories that we were  reluctant to alter those images.

Buddhist Awakening

However, it was the Buddhists who got the first word in today in Darjeeling, a major Buddhist centre. Whilst trying to sleep through the constant barking competitions that the street dogs waged all night, the first rays of morning sunshine were accompanied by a group of Buddhist monks, resplendent in their burgundy robes, blowing ancient horns and hitting tambourines (or something similar) on the roof terrace of the building opposite to us.

A good start to a religious day of sorts. We’ve wandered through the maze of streets that hug the mountain. Paths that lead you from Monastery to Temple, with day-to-day life in-between.

Bhutia Busty Gompa Tibetan Buddhist Monastery

Bhutia Busti Gompa Tibetan Buddhist Monastery

Ghostly Prayer Flags

Prayer flags at the shared Buddhist/ Hindu temple site on Observatory Hill

Darjeeling is a strange town. The people are Nepalese in appearance. The population associates more with Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim than India. The houses are a mixture of British Raj – wooden cottages with bay windows, lead lights features and rose gardens – to Art Deco curved cement buildings, stone municipal buildings built in the Victorian era, and local small wooden structures painted in fuschia, lime green and cornflower blue.

Rhododendrom TreesThey all hug the mountainside, higgledy-piggledy on narrow winding paths, with not enough room for a car. The gardens are filled with Japanese Cedars, blooming cherry trees, and giant Rhododendron trees abundant with blood red and pale pink flowers.

Not to mention the monkeys swinging from branch-to-branch. I still don’t like, or trust, monkeys, even if I am in the home of Hanuman, the monkey deity.

As you might understand by now, we’re loving Darjeeling and our attic room Himalayan sanctuary (even if it does take 103 steps to get to – I counted).

It’s dusk, the temperature has dropped, fires are being lit, and the clouds are closing in.

Posted in India | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Darjeeling. Tea, Clouds and the Himalayas.

5 March 2015

From the dusty plains of central India to the cloudy heights of Darjeeling, via New Delhi’s Indira Ghandi International Airport.

Now I wasn’t jaded with Hyderabad. It just wasn’t the India I love. The moment I stepped off our Jet Airways flight at Bagdogra, I knew my memory hadn’t been fogged by too much sandalwood incense and tandoori chicken.

This was small town crazy. Tuk tuk drivers who never take their hand off the horn; cows wandering the streets; khaki-clad officers of the law directing traffic; the call of the crow (I had actually been missing this mournful sound); Hindi music blaring from every shopfront; dogs sunning themselves on the road’s edge; men who seem to have time to stand around smoking and discussing the day’s news while their women pick tea or sweep the streets. This is more like it.

We glimpsed a hint of the Himalayas as we descended out of the sky and onto the airport tarmac. Reality hit as we drove across the dusty plains and started to climb into the mountains that just seemed to grow out of the red dirt. Thank god we opted to book the large vehicle; these roads were steep, and the constant switchbacks needed some grunt. Which in fact was almost like the sound I made (with a slightly higher pitch and more breath inhalation) as I viewed the fall below on every hairpin bend. This bottomless drop was all the more frightening as we slowly negotiated past large trucks on a road designed for one vehicle. Maybe selecting the “large” vehicle wasn’t that safe an idea after all.

However, our driver was a legend, and my first-born will now be called Raju for getting us here safely. (Sorry Mum and Dad, we could always make Raju a new family name.)

Darjeeling

You know you’re high up when you are embraced by the clouds. Darjeeling as you probably know is home to the high mountain tea. A place where British Raj memsabs went to escape India’s heat. A town of Victorian guest houses, a few boarding schools and home to a mostly Nepalese community. The Nepalese border is only a short distance away; in fact, at one time, Darjeeling was part of Nepal. The view of the Himalayas from our hotel window is a good reminder of how close to the snow-capped peaks we are. Actually, when we open the window, we feel just how cold Mount Everest is! (Excuse me while I close my stained glass portal; frostbite can be so unattractive, and I understand balance is very difficult without toes.)

It's a dog day afternoon in Chowrasta, Darjeeling.

It’s a dog day afternoon in Chowrasta, Darjeeling.

So now, closing the window to our wood-paneled attic room, it just might be time to be reacquainted with the feeling in my extremities and sit around the fire in the hotel library.

Posted in India | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Hyderabad? Why Hyderabad?

4 March 2015

Hyderabad? Why Hyderabad?

A good question, and one asked numerous times prior to my departure, usually followed by a question as to its location.

I initially thought, “Well, it’s home to the famous Hyderabad biryanis and the wealthy Nizams of Hyderabad.”

I promptly committed myself and travelling buddy to the flights – and then did the research.

[By the way: Hyderabad’s location. On the map of India, it’s kind of in the middle and down a bit.]

My research came up blank. No tourist hotels, and no real tourist website either. Hyderabad is a commercial capital. Not really designed for the happy-go-lucky tourist.

“Oh well”, I exclaimed to my companion, “We can sit around the pool, rest from our longish flight and drink gin and tonics.”

Although he seemed slightly convinced, he did point out several concerns. Firstly, “sitting around a pool” really isn’t our thing; Secondly, Hyderabad is a Muslim-dominated city and might limit our access to G&Ts. And, most significantly, the last time I organised a rest and relax in India, it was in a vegetarian-only alcohol-free holy city (refer Pushka entry!). Clearly, he still hasn’t recovered from that holiday paradise.

However, we were committed and ready for what morsels Hyderabad threw our way.

Admittedly … I’m writing this entry while sunning myself around the pool at the Radisson, with an icy Kingfisher beer in my hand (while my gluten free other half savours his lime juice… still waiting for that G&T…).

We are Day Two into the eight centuries of history Hyderabad has to offer. The highlights being … (I promise there aren’t many, so don’t even think about diverting your attention…):

Charminar. Hyderabad’s nod to the Arc de Triomphe. The innovative Indians came up with the idea of putting a mosque on top. However, as Charminar was built several hundred years prior to Paris’ centrepiece it would seem the French are not all that original.

Chowmallah. Now this is a palace, in fact FOUR palaces within the Nizam family compound, each reflecting the Nizam of the times’ taste. Starting with one that was built to out-do the Shah of Iran’s domicile (the Nizams having originated in Iran). A carved marble edifice, complete with coloured Venetian chandeliers, and a throne that appeared to be built for ten royal posteriors (either that or the Nizam had quite a large bottom – a diet of biryani will do that to you). The most recently-added palace also a marble behemoth, but strangely with an interior straight from Downton Abbey.

Chowmallah

This family got around in style, with a collection of vehicles to protect their silk-slippered feet ranging from horse-drawn liveried carriages to a limited edition canary yellow Rolls Royce designed especially by Mr Royce for the Nizam of Hyderabad. Commissioned in 1911, it has only 365 miles on its odometer…

Golkonda Fort. This is an impressive fort built in the 16th century that now lies ruined and abandoned. Massive blocks of red granite underpin this forted city that is spread over 11 square kilometres, leading up to a lofty palace resting on a rocky peak that is the highest point in the region. A city for 3,000 (married) people (the singles slummed it outside the main gates), all there to protect, pamper, administrate and entertain the extensive royal family.

Golconda Fort

Not saying that this was one paranoid Shah (King) … but he cleverly designed a sonic feature for his highly polished white domed chambers and meeting halls throughout the city, an acoustic marvel where every sound echoed around the finely-polished walls and curved ceilings. He could hear whatever was said; every conspirator’s whisper, the rustle of a concealed weapon being unsheathed, and every courtesan’s indiscretion.

So, so far it’s been lots of walking around Palaces, Mosques and Forts. Which is a good thing as our biriyani consumption is out of control.

Architecturally, Hyderabad is influenced by the Persian style; or, to describe it on a more basic level, “I Dream of Jeannie” style. [I acknowledge that not everyone is an Architecteophile such as myself. Like that word? Don’t bother to Google it, I just made it up.]

We covered all of the major sights in Hyderabad, finishing off our visit with a walk around Lake Hussain Sagar with its giant Buddha floating in the middle, an Indian Statue of Liberty. Judging by the garbage bobbing in the scarily green water, I’m sure Buddha was pleased he had a podium to protect his white marble robes. It was a short visit to the lake due to the brazen way the rats failed to react to us, and because of the CMP Communist Rally consisting of thousands of ‘red shirts’ that we seemed to be caught in the middle of.

image

After some monumental walks around Hyderabad, covered in exhaust fumes, building dust, and general pollution, I would have to say, personally, I’m not a Hyderabad fan.

But then what would I know? The Times of India reported today that Hyderabad beat Mumbai and Delhi in the liveable city stakes. Hyderabad came in at #138 of the most liveable cities in the world. I don’t think you need to get too nervous, Zurich or Vancouver.

Posted in India | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

India. Round Three.

2 March 2015

I’m back. My third time taking on the madness that is India.

I’m not going to bore you with the initial travel details; needless to say, these include the usual longish flights, killing time in Bangkok airport and wandering aimlessly from duty free shop to duty free shop.

India is the main event – and my entry experience didn’t disappoint me.

The Australian and Indian governments have recently cemented ties between our two countries, thus permitting Australian residents to use a “Visa on Arrival” program. No longer would I have a pre-departure taste of Indian bureaucracy in my own country, queuing for visas and praying our passports would be returned prior to our travel date. Now our visas would be issued via a simple “online” facility, with the promise of breezing through the immigration process on arrival into India.

Wrong.

After being directed into a long queue, I worked my way to the front where I was informed I would need to join the queue at the desk next door, where I was directed to the adjoining queue and then directed to another desk, and then yet another area. Finally, the “Visa on Arrival” queue. India at its best.

Meanwhile two other flights had disgorged themselves, and their occupants were already on their way to hotels and home. So much for the promised efficiencies of visa on arrival.

I wasn’t angry or short tempered. This is India. Like its roads, it doesn’t make sense, but it seems to work.

My friendly immigration officer took me through the process, finishing with the collection of my biometric details on a fingerprint recognition machine. A machine that he constantly cleaned with a dirty rag. A machine that was sensitive to sweat and grease. Not ideal in a hot country that processes long lines of sweaty travellers.

As instructed, I placed the required digit on the glass screen to have its imprint recorded. I was directed to “leave it, leave it”. My immigration officer became quite agitated as I acquiesced and kept my digits in place. It was then I discovered the instruction ” leave it, leave it” actually meant “remove it, remove it”.

Stupid tourist.

India’s machinations flooded back as we entered the Arrival Hall, clutching our pre-paid taxi voucher in my hand, only to be pestered with offers of assistance by competing cab companies who informed us we were paying too much. Ah, everyone has an angle!

Our 2am journey through the Hyderabad freeway system was a re-anointment of the thrills and chills of travelling in India. Our taxi traversed to a raised freeway, racing along at 140 kilometres per hour. We were sailing above the sleeping city, and I do mean sailing – we were airborne on numerous occasions. Our taxi had an ingenious device that monitored speed. Every 30 seconds of our 45 minute drive, our driver was informed in a clipped British female accent to “Please slow down, you are crossing the speed limit“. Our driver drowned these instructions out with distorted Hindi music, horn honking and calls on his mobile.

This experience brought a nostalgic smile to my face.

I was back. India hadn’t missed me, she was doing fine.

Posted in India | Tagged , | 1 Comment

My Passion for India

14 September 2014

I was recently asked for some advice by a person who was planning their first trip to India. Before I knew it, I had managed to fill a couple of pages with my recommendations, based on my own experiences of travelling the subcontinent that span almost three decades!

Most people start with a visit to Mumbai (Bombay). My partner and I love Mumbai for all of its chaos, colour, sound and history. In saying that, unless you are willing to truly explore some of the markets, backstreets and perhaps be an extra in a Bollywood film (yes, this is possible, they are always looking for foreign extras, and this is sold as a tour option in Mumbai!), then three days is enough. I suggest staying in the centre near “The Maidans”, Marine  Drive, “Gateway to India” or ChurchGate Station. These areas are all in the old part of Mumbai, and afford an easy walk or tuk tuk ride to most of the sights of this enormous and frenetic city.

DSC01783

Rajasthan is probably the most visited of all of India’s states. I’m guessing this is because it has the highest concentration of sights and palaces. It is also the most tourist-focused of the states in India. Rajasthan holds many palaces, temples and experiences that are well worth seeing. My favourite spots are Jaipur (think ‘Best Exotic Hotel Marigold’), Jodhpur (palaces and amazing forts), and Jaisalmer (more palaces, desert camps and camels).

Delhi has some great places to see; however I’ve never really got excited about the nation’s capital. But not far from Delhi is the wonderful Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. To experience the Taj, I suggest getting up early and being amongst the first in. Don’t be tempted to take photos (along with everyone else) of sunrise over the alabaster dome. The monument gets more and more crowded as the tour groups arrive, so rush through the gardens and into the Taj itself and experience it without hordes of people. You can explore the rest later.

DSC01899

Old Agra, the part of the city immediately around the Taj, is medieval, so all the quality chain hotels are further out. We stayed in a hotel that was well below our standards in order to be next to the entrance. Consequently, we were third in the early morning queue to get in – well worth the dodgy hotel room! Otherwise, stay in a nicer hotel, but arrange a very early pick-up. I can’t remember which day it is, but the Taj Mahal is closed on a certain day of the week, so plan ahead. And don’t miss an opportunity to have a meal on one of the many rooftop restaurants in the old city overlooking the Taj.

Varanasi is still one of my most cherished experiences. It’s one of India’s most holy cities on the edge of the Ganges. Pilgrims travel for months to die in this city, and it has 24 hour ghats (riverside crematoriums) to service these pilgrims. But it’s not a city of mourning – don’t forget Hindus believe in reincarnation. Even if I was in my early twenties ‘hippy period’ when I visited, I guarantee that most who experience Varanasi also experience the pervasive spirituality of the city. In Varanasi I climbed  from the winding narrow streets to the top of a flat-roofed hotel and watched, in wonder, as every roof had a child flying a handmade kite from it.

Goa, on the South West coast, has always been a mecca for hippies and beach lovers. A stretch of coast that is home to palm-fringed beaches, full moon parties and a proudly Portuguese history. However, we chose to visit Kerala (the state ‘below’ Goa) two years ago. We rented a houseboat and crew to explore the ‘backwater’ canals, lakes and tributaries of this beautiful state.

In 2015, we will travel to Kolkatta, Darjeeling and then Pondicherry, the French colony, to experience the South East coast. The guide books – and cook books, with their combination of Indian spice and French sophistication – make it sound very appealing!

Incredibly, virtually every major airport in India is brand new.  I would be careful, however, when choosing which airline to fly with internally. The country has gone through a spate of new airlines. Some are highly unprofitable and you run the risk of the airline going under (So long, Kingfisher!); others you run the risk to your life. Jet Airways is probably the best we’ve used, and Air India/Indian Airlines is the government-owned airline. If you purchase your tickets online, check on luggage fees and check-in procedures, which may incur additional fees.

Indian trains are a great experience. Some of the tourist trains have great seating, and acceptable toilets. Other trains … not so much. But travelling by train creates wonderful opportunities to meet locals and feel like you are experiencing the real India. Just don’t drink lots of water before boarding, because the facilities can be, well, “challenging”! Check online for websites to purchase e-tickets.

Stay in a palace, at least once, and if it’s in your budget, stay in as many as you can. You may not be coming back, and it’s a wonderful experience that is unique to India. My all-time favourite is Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, an Art Deco wonderpiece with the Maharaja still living in one of the enormous wings of this sprawling palace. Do remember, though, that if the hotel states “Palace” in its title or description, don’t presume it actually is one!

IMG_0057

India has inherited a love of bureaucracy from the British, so be prepared for a lot of documents with multiple copies, inexplicable queues and numerous rubber stamps.

Although importing Indian Rupees is technically illegal, I always try to obtain local currency beforehand for when we arrive, for the initial taxis, tips and much-needed bottle of water. It avoids the need to focus on finding a foreign exchange booth as your first priority on arrival.

Be prepared for begging on an industrial scale. You will be presented with some appalling stories and sights. I travel with the idea that you can’t help everyone, and the moment you look like you may be going to, you will be surrounded by humanity. Instead of having your hand in your pocket distributing coins constantly, I work on the theory of giving a larger amount to one individual every day. I think it makes more of an impact, and it relieves your own guilt. The guide books warn against giving “bon bons” or sweets to the children, and they will ask. Instead, pens or similar would be more beneficial than tooth decay that they can’t afford to repair.

DSC01622

The most amazing festivals to be in India for are Holi (February or March), a festival of colour, and Deepavali (October or November), the festival of light.

Most importantly, go with the flow. India has a rhythm and way of doing things that often beggars belief, but it works,  and has done for centuries. As I often reminded my other half on our most recent travels there, “let it wash over you, don’t fight it, because India will always win”.

As you can see I’m quite passionate about India and can rave about my travels for a lot longer. But I won’t bore you.

My last word is go there, but travel with the right frame of mind, otherwise you won’t experience the beauty and mystery that is India.

Posted in Delights of Travel, India | 1 Comment