Tuesday, 13 May 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Pedal Pushing

During my time living in Vancouver if I haven't been running around it then I've been cycling around it. In my heyday I would clock around 120km per week, and whilst I don't get out as often these days I do love the feeling of cycling around a city.

When visiting a new city one excellent way to see what it has to offer is to take a bike tour. Tokyo has several options for taking a bike tour and after a bit of research I emailed Tokyo Bike Tour to see if I could take part in a 6+ hr ride on my penultimate day. Akio, the friendly owner and knowledgeable tour guide of Tokyo Bike Tour, did a great job showing the local sights during a 7+ hour tour. He was also very responsive to emails that were sent prior to my visit to reserve a spot.

Even though I'd visited Meiji jingū the previous day it was worth another visit, especially now I had a local with me. I was still amazed at how tranquil a spot this was in the middle of a city like Tokyo. After that we headed over to Jingū Gaien, famous for its beautiful row of Gingko trees. In this area you can also see the baseball stadium (thee are two teams) and the old Olympic stadium, which will be knocked down and rebuilt for the 2020 Olympics here in Tokyo.

Aoyama Cemetery is a famous cemetery in Tokyo where the graves of many historical Japanese can be found. It is perhaps more famous as the memorial site of a dog by the name of Hachikō. In 1924, Hachikō was brought to Tokyo by his owner, Hidesaburō Ueno, a professor at the University of Tokyo. During his owner's life Hachikō saw him off from the front door and greeted him at the end of the day at the nearby Shibuya Station. The pair continued their daily routine until May 1925, when Professor Ueno didn't return on the usual train one evening. The professor had suffered a stroke at the university that day. He died and never returned to the train station where his friend was waiting. The dog, not realizing the death of his master, kept coming back to the train station for more than ten years hoping that his master would still show up on the same spot where they last met. His master is buried in the cemetery and a memorial for Hachikō is at the same site.

Roppongi Hills is a mega-complex of shops and cafés and an interesting insight, if nothing else, into how some of the rich live or rather shop. There was a pet store exclusively selling cats/kittens and the cheapest one was 300000¥ (about $3200CDN!).

From there we headed to Zojoji Temple, the main temple of the Buddhist Jodo shu (Pure Land) sect. It was badly damaged in World War II, but still retains the air of a major temple. The cathedral and other structures have been rebuilt, and Zojoji continues to serve as the main temple of Jodo shu as well as a training centre. The main hall was a lovely spot to sit and take a moment or two.In one particular garden at the cemetery, rows of stone statues of children represent the unborn children of Japan, including miscarried, aborted and stillborn children. Parents can choose a statue in the garden and decorate it with small clothing and toys. Usually the statues are accompanied by a small gift for Jizō, the guardian of unborn children to ensure that they are brought to the afterlife. It was a touching spot to be.

Whilst at the temple you were afforded a view of Tokyo Tower. To me it looked like the Eiffel Tower minus Parisians and the fact it is painted orange and white to comply with air safety regulations. You can go inside and view the city from observation decks, which I didn't do. The tip of the antenna was damaged on March 2011 as a result of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

Siodome is the largest redevelopment area of modern Tokyo (think lots of glass-laden skyscrapers) and a good place to stop for some food. There were great views of Tokyo Bay from the top of the building including an idea of how large Tsukiji fish market is. Admittedly I was disappointed that I didn't have the opportunity to visit the market which is the largest fish market in the world handling more than 2000 tons of 450 types of seafood daily. It is also said to be one of the best sushi destinations in the world. Apparently access is no longer permitted to the inner market, and the outer market is open to visitors only after 9:00 AM. The tuna auctions are said to be crazily impressive.

The Imperial Palace is likely one of those sights that, if you were to omit it from your trip, I suspect would make it incomplete. Yet you can only walk/cycle around a certain part of the beautiful grounds on certain days, see the moat, the gate entrance and a couple of bridges that go into the palace since the royal family still lives there. The inner grounds of the palace are generally not open to the public. Only on January 2 (New Year's Greeting) and December 23 (Emperor's Birthday), visitors are able to enter the inner palace grounds and see the members of the Imperial Family, who make several public appearances on a balcony. You can walk to the Main Gate where you can see the Nijubashi stone bridge and the changing of the guard, which is what I did.

The tour was a wonderful way to get an overview of the city, get a glimpse of many neighbourhoods, and see a lot of the major sites. Several stops along the way give you plenty of time to get photos. The tour starts and ends close to the Metropolitan Government building, in amongst the skyscrapers of Shinjuku, so even if you’re not staying in the area it’s an easy place to get to. I walked there and even had time to grab a Starbucks. The biking was pretty easy, only one real hill at the end to get the circulation going, and along a very safe route. The bikes provided are simple to use and in excellent condition, even the gears worked perfectly. A great way to spend the day and a great company to do it with.

I'd read about a great hang out spot! Weekend Tokyo Garage, from a fluke google search. It was about 10 minutes walk from Shibuya train station in a slightly random location which is best found with the use of Google Maps and GPS on your smartphone. It's got funky decor and really good food. Better yet there was live music with a modern jazz vibe and if that didn't take your fancy they were playing an old Heath Ledger movie, albeit without volume. An excellent way to eat my stir fried noodles on my final night in Tokyo.

Monday, 12 May 2014

... Crouch Like Tigers, Hide Like Dragons: Tantalizing Tokyo

My Thai Airways A330 flight from Bangkok to Narita Airport, Tokyo was in a plushy and seemingly new aircraft. This is probably a good thing because we literally, with fair warning from the Captain not long after take off, bounced all the way to Japan. I didn't undo my seat belt once. 3 turbulent flights in 2 days, there's definitely something in the air in these neck of the woods. Granted this plane's engines didn't sound like they were about to pack it in either so my over active imagination ran a little less wild. After a rather confusing serving, albeit good, of a vegan sandwich when I really wanted dinner (that came at "breakfast") I popped a gravol, inflated my camping pillow and contorted myself into a position an Olympic gymnast would be proud and went to sleep for a few hours. Admittedly this was with my travel hat over my face to block out the light which I'm sure got me lots of confusing stares, namely because all I really needed to do was turn off my personal tv. "But the travel map.....!"

We landed at Narita almost half an hour early. May be one can assume that each time we hit a "bump" we gained more momentum and bounced our way there? Customs was quick even with a security check upon collecting baggage. Lots of thanking you for your time and apologies that they are holding you up is kind of nice when you're sleep deprived and in dire need of a shower. 

NRT airport is actually a fair distance from downtown Tokyo (I believe Haneda is closer). So to get to downtown Tokyo I took the "high speed" Narita Express (N'Ex) train, ran by the East Japan Rail (JR) company, directly from the terminal. For holders of a foreign passport you can get a one way ticket called "N'Ex Tokyo Direct" for half price of what it originally costs. Too bad that they can't do this as a return deal mind you but at least this ticket is ¥1520, on the way back to the airport you must pay the regular pricey fare of ¥3100. The trains run about every 30 minutes stopping at a handful of stations and it would take me about 90 minutes to get to where I needed to be. There's also the Keisei Skyliner, which may or may not be cheaper, I couldn't really figure that out plus would have had several changes to make. I decided my brain wasn't functioning well enough to deal with having to think about that. I had a bit of time to wait so I got breakfast from a strategically placed Starbucks right at the station entrance. Despite a reserved seat, the train wasn't full and sheer exhaustion made me fall asleep on & off whilst half sitting on one bag and hugging the other.

For my digs in Tokyo I was using Air BnB. I had, a few months back, booked the spare room of a very nice Japanese lady and her little chihuahua Honey. The dog admittedly sold it more than the fact her really nice apartment was on 10 minutes away from Shinjuku, a "city" within a city. Teruko was lovely. She met me at my final destination train station and gave me a big hug then we walked and talked like we had known each other for years. I knew I had scored big time with finding this gem of a place, before I had even stepped into her building. 

After a shower, a cuddle with the dog and giving my host her gift of green tea chai from India, it was time to head out to explore for the day. Sleep is overrated anyway, right? I headed back to Shinjuku then got onto the Yamanote line to Shibuya. The city is blessed with one of the world's most efficient public transportation systems and once you have an idea of where you want to go it really is very easy to navigate. Tokyo's train network is so exceptionally thorough because multiple operators run competing lines. JR controls two of the most useful lines, the above ground Yamanote (loop) and Chūō (central) lines. The 13 colour-coded subway lines are run by Tokyo Metro or Toei. What this essentially means is that you may find yourself having to exit the ticket gates from one line and enter the gates for a different line when transferring. Despite this fact, I found it was a pretty seamless process thanks to plenty of English signage. 

If you plan to pack in a lot of sights in one day then you may want to get an unlimited ride day pass. This is good in theory if all your sights are on the rail line covered by that pass. There's a one day combination ticket but after doing a bit of maths I figured it would be cheaper to get a Suica card, which can be used on all lines including buses and is rechargeable in increments of ¥1000. Train station vending machines and also some convenience stores accept Suica. You need to pay a ¥500 refundable deposit to get the card, which you'll get back whenever you return it at one of the station windows.

I was fully expecting my short stay in Tokyo to be nothing short of a mind-blowing experience, but one that, if I allowed it to, could also blow my budget. However, there’s actually an abundance of things to do and see in Tokyo which won’t cost you a single yen (bar transit to and from).

Shibuya has few sights, but makes up for it with sheer presence. As you exit the station you’ll first hit Shibuya Crossing, made famous following one of my favourite movies Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Shibuya Crossing is remarkable for the amount of people attempting to cross the intersection without anyone losing an eye.

It is a typical Tokyo scene of blazing neon lights and enormous video screens, which sometimes display live videos of the street scene and if you're lucky you will even see a stroller full of incredibly furry adult cats. It is arguably one of the coolest yet zaniest intersections I think I have ever clapped eyes on. There's definitely an energy about it and I must admit on more than one occasion I thought "I’m. In. Tokyo!"

Meiji jingū, one of the city’s top attractions, is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the late 19th-century emperor who opened Japan to the West. It is so wonderfully serene with 120,000 trees that it is hard to believe it is right in the middle of a city of 13 million. There's an impressive 40-foot-high torii gate at the entrance to the 200-acre park that is made of 1,500-year-old cypress, and a second one like it closer to the shrine itself. You stop at the cleansing station where you dip into a communal water tank and purify your hands and mouth before offering up a prayer.

If you like you can write wishes on little pieces of paper and tie them onto the prayer wall, or be like a local: toss some yen into the offering box near the enormous taiko drum, bow your head twice, clap twice, and bow once more. If you're lucky you might see a traditional Japanese wedding taking place here too. 

Right next to Meiji jingū is Harajuku. This is where you will find all the tiny, eccentric shops and secondhand stores from which the young un's put together their amusingly absurd head-turning looks. You can't but help be somewhat impressed even if you personally wouldn't be seen dead in that kind of attire. It's eye candy at its best and worst. There is definitely nothing mainstream about what you see as you wander down Takeshita-dōri, and that is what makes it so much fun to visit. It would have been more fun if my guidebook wasn't stolen by someone who had the nerve to deny it after I confronted him. With my handwriting scribbled all over it, he did what he could best do under the circumstances I guess and ran off. With my SLR camera wrapped around my neck, not to mention any possible safety issues, it only took a nanosecond to realize it wasn't worth the chase. It's only a book at the end of the day but I was a bit gutted as it had been a gift. 

For the briefest of moments I almost headed back to the apartment in Higashi-nakano, but that would've been letting some lowlife scumbag win. I kind of had an idea of what I had planned to do for the day and where they were located so I headed back to Shinjuku train station, which I must mention is apparently the World's busiest handling at least 3.5 million passengers daily. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, also referred to as Tokyo City Hall or Tochō, has free observation decks which provide good panoramic views of Tokyo and beyond. The 243 m tall building has two towers, and each houses an observatory at a height of 202 m. It had been the tallest building in Tokyo until it was overtaken by the Midtown Tower in 2007. On a clear day, famous landmarks such as Mount Fuji, the Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Tower, Meiji Shrine and the Tokyo Dome can be seen from the observatories. I could see part of the range where Fuji is but alas it wasn't quite clear enough to see the mountain itself. I wasn't too disappointed having flown past it during a previous visit to Japan over 10 years ago. There's a great tourist information centre here too and this is where I picked up some leaflets and maps to reacquaint myself with the city. Across the road from the building is Central Park and at one end of that the famous Park Hyatt used in Lost in Translation. 

Riding the Tokyo monorail (yep these guys have got everything covered) on the Yurikamome line I headed out towards Odaiba. This island of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay is linked to the city by the Rainbow Bridge and you can actually walk over the 918 m long single-span double deck suspension bridge to or from Odaiba. The bridge is usually white but there are lamps placed on the wires supporting the bridge, which are illuminated into three different colours, red, white and green every night using solar energy obtained during the day. It didn't take me long to walk across it, that is probably mostly due to the fact that I think I was blown across it. It was pretty windy but worth the trek for some great views. 

Odaiba was developed mostly during the 90's and is very different to the rest of Tokyo that I've seen thus far. It's as though you've stepped into a science fiction movie. The buildings are much larger, you can sunbathe on a man-made beach and there's even a to scale copy of the Statue of Liberty, an amusement zone, onsen (hot springs), arcades and a museum devoted to futuristic technologies.

By now I was starting to feel hungry and admittedly tired. I decided to head back to the neon metropolis of Shibuya to see what I could find, or at least Google. Genki Sushi was about a 2 minute walk from Shibuya Crossing near the 109 building. It was busy (a good sign) but I got a seat with no wait. A great thing about this place is you can order everything from a touchscreen at your table in English and there are pictures of all the sushi so it's really easy to see what you are getting. You order up to 3 items at once and the sushi then arrives via a fast and efficient service on a conveyor belt system that's like a train and even stops in front of you. You then hit a button to send the empty "train" back. The shockingly affordable menu offers a variety of sushi and everything tasted really fresh. You can get your nigiri fix for around ¥1000. For every ¥1000 you order, you can play rock/paper/scissors to win a prize. How awesome is that?! I won and had a choice between a sushi pencil topper or a 10% off coupon (results may vary). This place has a fun atmosphere, adds that touch of Tokyo flair and filled my tummy with yummy sushi!

Sunday, 11 May 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Ready, Jet, Go!

Over the past two days I got the sense that perhaps India didn't want me to leave. It started with the flight yesterday from Varanasi to Delhi. We were delayed because lots of dignitaries were flying into Varanasi in private jets for the up and coming elections. They'd also "increased" security due to this or was it due to the Bollywood actors that also arrived. This meant putting your bags through lots of X-ray machines even though the man sat at the screen wasn't even looking at it, a female officer copping a feel of my chest and feeling violated in general. I mean really?! I'm the last person that can hide anything there. I'd probably topple over to boot. Despite leaving almost an hour late we only landed about 30 minutes later than scheduled.

For some strange reason I felt like I'd just flown an international flight and I was exhausted. Plans to go visit some last minute sights uncharacteristically fell through as I opted for the air conditioning of the hotel and watched a mouse run through their restaurant. Probably unsurprisingly, as a result of this, I found enough energy to head out into a thunderstorm to find somewhere to eat.

Another crappy night of sleep, not helped by my excitement of googling all things Japan and challenging myself to pack a silk blend bed set into my backpack with everything else yet maintain the pack's dimensions, means I am once again running on fumes. I decided to get up earlier than my already-early-alarm and head to Delhi International airport early via the Metro and the Airport Express. It should have taken me 45 minutes with all my connections/wait times for trains.... Should have.

A problem arose as I tried to exit the station at the airport using my token. Access denied. Try again. Access denied. Try again. Access denied. Hmmmm, this isn't supposed to happen. I went over to the customer service desk to sort it out.

"You should have got off at the previous stop, you don't have access for this stop".

Excuse me?

Now why would I have wanted to get off at the wrong stop given that A) I asked for a ticket to the Airport and B) I had paid the 150 rupees fare for it, not the lesser amount for  the previous station?! Thankfully I also had my receipt so I handed that over. I'm not sure why, but this didn't seem to help my cause. At least not for another 15 minutes and 7, yes 7, phone calls anyway. By about minute 10 my exhausted patience was wearing thin. I had proof of payment, the token had obviously been set for the wrong station by the guy at New Delhi station, who had been playing on his smartphone at the time. Then for some unknown reason she tried to give me my money back? Huh? I don't need my money back, I just want to be able to exit this gate and check in for my flight. It didn't make sense. I tried to smile as once again I tried to explain what it was I had done prior to arriving here and what I was now trying to achieve, that I didn't need my money back and was perfectly happy to have paid the amount to get here so would be incredibly grateful if she or someone with the ability to could just open the gate and let me through. Then she started trying to serve the person behind me who had lost his token. My smile was now non-existent and imagine my delight when she asked if I knew this other person.

Eventually someone somewhere told her, possibly telepathically, that I didn't pose any threat, that I was a law-abiding transit rider and I was allowed to pass. I felt that I really needed to find some enlightenment.

Trying to get into the airport through the front door was as much fun. However, this person had a really big gun so I'm pretty sure I faked eye twinkling along with my fake smile. I had been unable to check in online the previous evening and so all I had was a PDF with my itinerary and various numbers. It had been all I'd needed everywhere else. This was apparently a problem because he couldn't find my name as it was on my passport. I am pretty sure I silently screamed. Eventually I managed to convince him that I was the same person on the itinerary as on my passport despite the fact that the itinerary didn't contain my middle name (everything else of course matched).

20 minutes of my life I will never get back soon became an hour. Checking in was painfully slow and there had only been about 10 of us in the queue with 6 agents. "Is this your luggage" I was asked of the suitcase that had been already weighed and tagged belonging to the previous customer the same agent had just checked in. Fake smile time. Am I imagining all this as part of some sleep deprived dream? She offered to check my luggage through to Tokyo. Excellent, sounds like a fantastic idea. Then she changed her mind on my behalf. Fake smile. I managed to convince her that I didn't need to spend over 4 hrs in Bangkok airport with a bag that I didn't need anything from. I also took the opportunity to ask for a window seat with quite the winning fake smile, if one was available. Done! Great. Things are looking up.

Then came security. Let's just say they're thorough if nothing else. I know, I know, this is a good thing, air travel of course should be safe. But it was one of those classic "too many chiefs and not enough Indians" moments. Lots of officials standing around doing nothing leading you to wonder why they're there and of course as a result everyone takes forever to be screened by the few people that are working. Some passengers had to take everything out of all their carry on. Then it would be rescanned. More questions about an elephant ornament to the woman in front of me who looked like she plotted apple pie recipes rather than how to bring a Nation to its knees. The person in front of me had to take out all his electronics for separate scanning, yet when I started to do that with my plethora of gadgetry I was told not to bother. Some people got to take in litre bottles of water yet others had to throw out 50 ml bottles of hand sanitizer. It didn't really weigh up. I didn't have to unpack everything but because the people in front did you still had to wait in line. There was the usual frisking, then if you see lucky you got to grab your items without further questioning and move onto Duty Free. I burst into a fit of the giggles, this had to be the most surreal and bizarre departures from a country I have ever endured. I am glad I left earlier than planned for the airport!

It was as if someone somewhere knew I needed to catch a break. Tucked away in a corner was a sight for sore eyes.... A Starbucks. I was saved! A soy (!) latte and toasted veggie dairy-free sandwich for breakfast later I felt somewhat human enough to do a spot of shopping. I picked up some "green tea chai" as a gift for my Tokyo host and then splurged on some Ray Ban sunnies, masala chai and a blinged out elephant ornament for myself, all for a tidy price. It's the most I've ever spent in Duty Free! I just hoped security weren't going to hunt me down to interrogate me about the latter.

By now it was time to head to the gate for my flight. I guess a positive in all this is that the time certainly passed quickly and I was on my way to Japan. I reminded myself of that once again when I reached my supposed window seat which was not a window seat and again every time the Brit sat in that seat stuck his elbows into me, touched me with his sweaty foot, belched after his beer, read over my shoulder before trying to sleep on it and threw his trash on the floor. I did hope Bangkok was his final stop.

The Jet Airways flight to Bangkok had a lot of turbulence and no personal TV for flight map viewing. This didn't make me a happy camper on both scores. I tried to look out of the window to be greeted with cloud as we twisted and turned. So much for planes flying in straight-ish lines! I felt like I was on a Grand Prix course at times as I envisioned a Boeing 737 flying a hairpin turn. When my meal arrived the rice was a bright orange neon colour and practically radioactive looking. It wasn't hard to give it a wide berth, I'd lost my appetite way before then.

Thankfully, we landed early in Bangkok. It took me no time to clear security and get a new boarding card for my Thai Airways flight. I spent more time hunting down the Starbucks, which I knew existed from my last visit to Bangkok airport in 2013 but seemed to have problems locating. My Starbucks radar must have been on the blink.

And so now I sit and twiddle my thumbs for almost 4 hours but at least I'm on solid ground with another shot of caffeine to at least help me make it to my gate. It's time to say konnichiwa to Tokyo!

Friday, 9 May 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Inspiring India

No one in their right mind should be running on 2 hrs sleep. This is one of the reasons I gave up shift work after coming to my senses that I am not actually superhuman nor a vampire and that I do need sleep. Yet today I am still somehow functioning, albeit barely, after being unable to sleep (not planned) and a 4am alarm (planned).

After seeing the sun set from a boat on the Ganges you have to follow it up with a sunrise. This is what I was trying to convince myself as I made sure I hadn't put my trousers on backwards whilst half asleep. It didn't take much convincing despite the fact that you've got to get up early in the morning. The sunrise was picturesque and another highlight in the otherwise dusty and chaotic city of Varanasi. Colours unravel in front of your eyes as this glistening orange ball of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields emerges from below the horizon and the clouds change colour against the sky all providing quite the ethereal quality of the morning. Unless I had seen them with my own eyes I wouldn't have believed it but fish actually live in the river. Every now and then they'd leap out of the water to catch insects. Still, I'm not about to try any fish dishes here any time soon. Although, what this river represents and what goes on here is likely inexplicable to many, you really do feel the peace and tranquillity here.

I probably should've had a nap after breakfast but of course I didn't.

Located about 10km outside of Varanasi, Sarnath is one of four primary pilgrimage sights for those interested in the history of Buddhism. Buddha spent most of his life in what is now India. Buddhists revere four historical sites associated with Buddha’s life: the place of his birth, the place where he achieved enlightenment, the site where he preached his first “sermon” following his enlightenment, and the location of his death. Now referred to as the "Deer Park", Buddha preached his first sermon, known as the "Turning the Wheel of Dhamma", to his followers at Sarnath. There is apparently a very interesting small museum adjacent to the park area but it was unfortunately closed on Fridays. However, the park itself more than sufficed with the main Stupa serving as the focal point. It's an interesting site and surprisingly quiet. It's worth a trip out in a tuk tuk.

And so my time is India is almost at an end. This past fortnight has been a frazzling, chaotic, epic journey with frayed nerves, confronting poverty and disease (polio, elephantiasis, dogs), wonderful colours, fragrant foods and amazing sights all adding to the experience. India has the ability to inspire, thrill, frustrate and perplex you all at once.... and I've loved every single minute of it. Don't be put off by tales of "I hated India, you will hate it too". Come with no expectations and an open mind then you will be rewarded beyond your travel dreams. Don't be a tourist, be a traveler! Barring any final "mishaps" I didn't get sick once but I'm definitely craving some fruit n' veggies minus spices!

So (sushi) roll on Tokyo before I head home to Vancouver on the 14th back to my furkids & crazy pseudo Canuck life.

Thank you India, it has been a blast!

Thursday, 8 May 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: The Circle of Life

Varanasi. It's going to hit you like a bullet right between the eyes, when you make it here having survived an uneventful overnight train journey. You will witness prayer, death and every day life here. Most of which is centred around the sewage-laden River Ganges. Apparently a dip in these holy waters washes away your sins and help you escape the life & death cycle. All I could envision it doing is giving you amoebic dysentery... At least. It's absolute chaos (worse right now due to the Indian election) and absolutely worth a visit. It's apparently the oldest city in the world and looks like it too.

Regarded as one of Hinduism's seven holy cities, people come to the ghats lining the River Ganges to either wash away their sins or to cremate a loved one. If neither of those then they are swimming, washing, doing laundry, bathing their livestock or going to the bathroom in the sacred waters. Basically everything is done here. It is an auspicious place to die as it offers moksha (liberation from the life & death cycle).

Famed for its textiles, Varanasi supplies quality fabrics to India and around the world. There is some absolutely amazing workmanship in silk, pashmina and cotton not to mention various blends. You will be dazzled by real gold and silver thread. You can see not only finished products in one of several fair trade shops but, as you walk around the labyrinth of streets (galis), you can watch the looms actually working, weavers weaving, men creating design sheets, threads being spooled. It was a fantastic thing to experience. Banarasi saris are made in Varanasi and they are famed for being amongst the finest saris in the whole of India. Depending upon the intricacy of the design and pattern, a sari can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months to make. Good news is they're trying to use natural dyes from plants, fruits and flowers rather than chemicals. One less thing polluting the Ganges! Did I really need a silk scarf and an absolutely stunning silk/cotton blend patchwork bed set? Probably not. But it went on my visa anyway, for less than $100! I can't get a cotton set from The Bay for that price. A sari would have been a bit harder to convince myself it was an investment.

Ghats are long stretches of steps leading down to the western bank go the Ganges. There are around 80 ghats bordering the river with the main group between Assi Ghat and Raj Ghat. Here you will find a fascinating mix of life... And death. People are taking ritual baths, washing clothes, doing yoga, offering blessings, selling goods, washing their buffaloes. The sights, sounds and smells can be overwhelming in both the best and worst of ways. Everything takes place in public here. Tonight I had the incredibly thought-provoking experience of a boat trip along the river for the quintessential Varanasi experience.

There are several "burning ghats" where bodies are cremated in public, the main one being Manikarnika. Nothing can prepare you for what you will see. This incredibly intimate insight isn't for the faint hearted. Upon reaching Manikarnika there were 8 burning corpses and I know I saw a hand and possibly a head. Out of respect I had put my camera away whilst still some distance away. The heat is pretty intense from the burning funeral pyres and a man known as the "untouchable" walks around with a massive bamboo cane "stoking" each individual fire, basically repositioning any limbs back over the flames. Thankfully the only smell came from the normal smell of burning wood.

Many Hindus will trek to Varanasi as they approach death in order to be cremated and cast into the Ganges for holy cleansing before they meet their god. Whilst watching from the water 4 more bodies arrived wrapped in silk and flowers. There is no crying, no praying, no singing, absolutely nothing. The "transfer" must be pure not sad or painful. Women are not allowed for fear that their crying or sobbing would affect the passage of the soul to nirvana.

One of the bodies was dunked into the water whilst another had water poured onto the head by a member of the funeral procession who then also drank some of the water. For the first little while you sit there shocked but after that you kind of accept it as being "normal". To these people it is sacred and a part of their life. If a person dies of certain causes they are apparently cast straight into the water as they are considered already pure thus simply set adrift. Otherwise after cremation, whatever remains goes into the water. It was still a little disconcerting to see people swimming near by and drinking the water that they believe heals and cleanses.

As the sun set, the river worship ceremony (Ganga aarti) started and in amongst the bats flying above, the bell ringing and chanting, I set my lotus flower tea light floating down the river to bring to a close a boat ride that will live long in the memory. 

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Hinduism 101

Today there was some time for a little bit of R n' R before heading to the hustle and bustle of "the City of Life" Varanasi via the overnight train from Jhansi. I even managed to sleep in until just after 9am! That, for me, is a lie in.

A sunlit breakfast in a palace whilst trying to wrap my head around Hinduism was a great way to start the day. I'm not even sure I made a small dent however, as there are 330 million gods/goddesses. It is one of the oldest religions and yet has no founder/central authority. Basically Hindus believe in Brahman, who is formless, eternal and the source of all existence (everything in existence emanates from it and will return to it). The gods/goddesses are only manifestations of this phenomenon. Hindus believe life (as we know it) is a circle thus you are born again and again (samsara). The quality of each of these lives depends on your conduct/actions (karma) in the previous. If you have good morals/ behaviour (dharma) then you have a better chance of being reborn into a better life. If you have bad karma then chances are you're coming back as a slug or some other animal form. Liberation (moksha) from the cycle of reincarnation can only be achieved in human form.

Brahman has three main representations: Brahma, whose role is seen during the creation of the universe; Vishnu (the preserver or sustainer), who is associated with "right action" and it is said the Ganges flows from his feet; Shiva is the destroyer to deliver salvation, without whom creation couldn't occur. Other prominent deities are the elephant-headed Ganesh (good luck/fortune) and the monkey-faced Hanuman (physical strength/perseverance and devotion) who participated in Rama's war.

By the time I appeared to have got my head around all that it was time for lunch. The palace has a mango orchard not far from the grounds and today's lunch was not only served up there but cooked/ prepared there too. Even the mango chutney was prepared on a slab of stone with rounded stone like a mortar and pestle. As authentically local as local can be, I was soon eating okra & eggplant curries, a dal and mango chutney off a plate and a bowl made of leaves using my fingers and roti. To finish off there was a delicious serving of kheer (rice pudding). It was all amazing.

After a 3+hr-sometimes-a-little-hair-raising-ride back to Jhansi train station I was sitting in the waiting room pretending to be enthralled by the cricket on TV. The train wasn't due until 1015pm and I was almost an hour early. Waiting on the platform provided me me with same sights as Agra's did the other day except with the added "bonus" of lots of rats. I think though after having seen some of the most unsanitary looking things since I basically set foot in Beijing I have become desensitized. I'm not yet sure whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. Although, 20 minutes after claiming the train was arriving and no train at the platform, I was kind of glad that the stench was not churning my stomach. Never mind "what has been seen cannot be unseen", there's also "what has been smelt cannot be unsmelt" (if there be such a word). At least inside the train, once it did arrive, my bed for the night appeared to be clean, I didn't have to fight for my prebooked seat/bed in tier 2 AC and I'm about to be cocooned in my sleeping bag liner with my trusty ear plugs without having to move for hopefully the next 10 or so hours at least!

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Bringing Sexy Back

The drive to Alipura took about 3 hours, of which I slept about an hour. Once awake, the scenery changed a little and became a little more green looking, although there's still the usual polluted looking waterways and trash everywhere. I have been told India is getting better at educating people about the environment, starting with recycling and putting stuff in the trash rather than throwing it out of the front of your door and not really caring where it lands. But obviously there's still quite a bit of work to do. I also added a couple of peacocks and some dogs eating a dead cow to my viewing "pleasure". Lovely. Peacocks roam wild here and are not allowed to be kept as pets nor harmed in any way because the are India's national bird.

Alipura was a princely state in what is today the Chhatarpur District in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The area around Alipura are filled with architectural delights - forts, palaces, temples with fascinating stories of kings fighting wars, cults, curses etc. Lots of people use Alipura as a base so that they can take day trips to the surrounding area. Alipura itself is a quaint and friendly village, filled with old-world houses and a palace in the middle.

The palace is a 300 year old heritage mansion built by the ancestors of the Rajput king Manvendra Singh, whose family still resides there. One wing of the palace is said to be 150 years old. It is simple looking from the outside, not quite Buckingham Palace by any means, yet once inside you travel back to British India. Trophies, trinkets, souvenirs, lithographs, Persian rugs and antique furniture. And I was staying here! My room was huge with a balcony and gorgeous furniture, white walls and lots of light.

Today saw a 2hr drive to Khajuraho, one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. Khajuraho was once the religious capital of the Chandela Rajputs, a Hindu dynasty that ruled this part of India from the 10th to the 12th centuries.

It is also is home to India's largest group of medieval Hindu temples with intricate carvings. The temples were built over a span of a hundred years, from 950 to 1050, with the whole area enclosed by a wall with eight gates, each flanked by two golden palm trees. There were originally over 80 Hindu temples, of which only 22 now stand in a reasonable state of preservation, scattered over an area of about 8 square miles. The western group have the most striking and best preserved temples.

Two elements feature repeatedly in these carvings - voluptuous females and.... sex. Lots of it. That may be somewhat surprising when you consider how reserved India is known to be. Apparently when the Chandelas weren't depicting battalions of soldiers going to war they had other things on their minds. Want to see a highly gymnastic nine-person orgy carved in stone? A man getting very friendly with a horse? Sensuous surasundaris (nymphs) draped in wet saris? These temples are famous for their erotic sculptures depicting scenes from the Kama Sutra.

Lakshmana temple has some of the raunchiest stonework followed by Kandaruya-Mahadev where you might find yourself wondering how on earth a handstand could produce what you see. Many of the statues here are almost 1m high. The most impressive thing about this temple though are the amazingly high temple rooftops.


Only discovered in the 20th century after being reclaimed by jungle, these exquisite temples are now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and definitely worth a visit. 

Monday, 5 May 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Spice Up Your Life

The cloud cover this morning tricked me into thinking it might be a little cooler to explore some of the many temples and palaces spread along the river and surrounding countryside. Within half an hour I was starting on my second bottle of water and could feel the sweat trickling down my back. It wasn't even 10am.

The town's imposing 17th century fort, Chaturbhuj temple, is a beautiful temple which can be seen from almost all parts of Orchha. It is an architectural marvel of the Bundela kings, when you ignore the graffiti carved into the walls, and is worth a visit. The main highlight of this temple is the dome and the tall spires. It is built on a vast platform of stone and boasts sharp looking spikes on its front door to deter elephants. I'm guessing in those days a sign wouldn't suffice. This is part of a great palace complex. The paintings on the roofs of the kings room and the first queens room are great and in pretty stellar condition. The fantastic thing is you can explore many of the rooms, passages and stairwells, if heat exhaustion doesn't overwhelm you. Just watch out for the bats!

There are numerous cenotaphs that dot the landscape and they're a great location for birdwatching as the vultures nest under the cupolas and soar above you . The Chhatris of Orchha commemorate the Bundelkhand rulers after their death. The impeccably maintained complex on the banks of the Betwa river boasts of cenotaphs of varying dimensions. The greater the rule the more complex the memorial, many of which reminded me of some of the structures I saw at Angkor Wat. You can use your ticket from the fort to get in too.

Just when I thought I couldn't bear any more heat, I came up with the idea that taking an Indian cooking class would be a fantastic idea. And it was, except for the heat element. It didn't help that there was a power cut either and so the only way to keep cool was to fan myself with my note taking paper. Rajna teaches at least 3 groups per week from within her home. Her classes seem popular and you soon find out why. Today I learnt how to make 9 different items that might make up an Indian vegetarian meal. Of course now I need to hit the store and buy a plethora of herbs and spices: turmeric, green cardamom, coriander seeds, black pepper to name but a few. My usual purchase of baked beans isn't really going to get me that far. Oh and the last time I used a mortar and pestle I worked in the lab!

To start with you were taught how to make Masala chai. If I never ever make anything else other than this then the course was money well spent! You can even substitute for milk with soy, almond, coconut as there's actually not that much added compared to water and sweeten to taste. The spices are what make this drink. It was absolutely delicious and super quick to make.

Next came the curries: spinach & potato (15 min cooking time), Aubergine/Eggplant (15 min cooking time) and Okra (20 min cooking time). The heat from the gas stove was easy to ignore with the aromas that were circulating. I was starting to get hungry.

The Spinach rice used a pressure cooker (does anyone still use these things?) to cook it in 7-8 minutes. Cumin, mustard, turmeric, coriander, garam masala..... It sounded so exotic. I couldn't believe how easy the green mango chutney nor the boondi (chickpea) raita were to make, although setting fire to the raita would be kind of an awesome party trick. Watch out for your eyebrows!

No Indian meal would be complete without some Indian bread. I actually learnt how to make two different kinds of roti/chapati from the same dough mix. The regular kind you basically toast in a pan. Who knew?!? Then there's Puri, which are fried in very hot oil and puff up like puff pastry. Ohmahgerd..... Those things are addictive. They tasted a bit like doughnuts and I don't even like doughnuts! I sure liked these though. They go straight to your hips I reckon.

The whole class took about 90 minutes, Rajna was really patient and great at explaining. Then comes the best bit, you get to sit down and eat what you made for lunch. Win-win on all counts. Thank heavens I'm kind of living in a permanent sauna and sweating into non-existence.... seconds for me!

I'm now lying on a sofa in front of a very big fan in a food & heat coma. I wouldn't be moving for the rest of the day if I had my way, but I have to get a bus to Alipura. Needs must!

Sunday, 4 May 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Riding The Rails

Day in, day out across India, about 24 million (I double checked this number to see if it was a typo!) passengers squeeze themselves into 14,000 trains. Indian Rail employs 1.4 million people, with 8,000 stations linked by 40,000 miles of track. Some journeys are epic, with the Himsagar Express winning the prize for the longest route. It leaves the northern city of Jammu just before midnight on a Monday. Some 2,300 miles and 70 hours later, it arrives at India's southern tip in Kanniyakumari.

Today was my introduction to Indian Rail on a day train for a couple of hours as I traveled from Agra to Jhansi. Having ridden the rails across China this surely was going to be a walk in the park. Right?

“Let vigilance be your motto,” urged a sign at the station. Off to a good start then, I thought to myself as I double checked all 6 of my padlocks on my two packs all but vacuumed to my body.

"Clean habits make clean station." How unfortunate that, after reading this sign, I looked down at the tracks. It would appear some people don't know you aren't supposed to flush whilst stationary at the station.

Thankfully the train arrived on time. As in "really on time". Usually "on time" in India equals at least 20 minutes late. Late equals hours late. It was already starting to get unbearably hot at 815am and, bearing in mind what I'd seen on the tracks, I didn't really want to abuse my olfaction any longer.

I joined the scrum struggling to get to my nicely air-conditioned seat: pushing, pulling, heaving, hoisting. They don't give you long either, after about 5 minutes we were pulling out of the station. Some people had bagged and chained up their belongings with such impregnability that I wondered what on earth I was getting myself into. I threw my larger bag up into the rack above me and literally sat on the other, just as a man in an official looking uniform walked by with what looked like an AK47. It was a big gun regardless of the model. Ok, so perhaps I don't need to succumb to psychotic levels of paranoia I thought to myself, just as a man in chains and handcuffs was led down the carriage by another male with an even bigger gun. Oh well, my "please leave me alone" bag was basically fully accessible if you really wanted to become the proud new owner of a photocopied Heinrich Harrer book, a very squished protein bar and my hand washed underwear. I reclined my seat and cranked up my iPod. Ignorance is bliss.

If you're not traveling with a bottle of hand-sanitizer already you should really consider buying one. I hardly ever use the stuff back home, a good ol' hand wash with soap and water usually suffices, but here I've had a bottle practically glued to me. A lot of people with a lot of interesting and varying levels of personal hygiene travel on Indian Rail and so it's advisable following trips to the toilets etc. I would also avoid the food. Aside from the two slices of bread that I ate, the rest looked dubious.

After about 2.5hrs the train arrived at Jhansi. This is apparently the town where the fight for freedom against the British started. I was fighting for air as I tried to make my way through the bustling crowd. Some what disconcerting was the fact that here the kids start grabbing at you, trying to pull stuff from your hands. Granted I was only carrying a half empty container of porridge oats and an empty Tupperware for making breakfast in but I didn't like having my personal space invaded in such a way. It was never threatening or scary mind you but it certainly took me by surprise.

Thankfully I was soon on a bus and heading to the picturesque town of Orchha, about half an hours drive away.

Orchha (or Urchha) is a typical, small Indian town on the Betwa River in the Tikamgarh district of the Madhya Pradesh state. It owes it's popularity to its history as the oldest and highest in rank of all the Bundela states. The town was established by the Bundela chief, Maharaja Rudra Pratap Singh, in 1501 as the seat of a former princely state of central India, in the Bundelkhand region. Maharaja Pratap Singh (born 1854, died 1930), who succeeded to the throne in 1874, devoted himself entirely to the development of his state, himself designing most of the engineering and irrigation works executed during his reign. In 1901, the state had an area of over 2000 sq. mi, and population of over 300 000, warranted a 15-gun salute, and its Maharajas bore the hereditary title of First of the Princes of Bundelkhand. This is all a tad hard to believe as you wander the sleepy town that it is today. Eventually, Vir Singh, Pratap Singh's successor, merged his state with the Union of India on January 1, 1950.

You can basically walk around the town itself in about 15 minutes but it has a certain charm about it that makes you glad you did. The people are friendly and don't hassle you. Sitting on the banks of the Betwa River would be the perfect antidote to the chaos of India's cities, if it didn't also serve as the local toilet and washing area. However, there are many temples and palaces here, including the town's imposing 17th century fort Chaturbhuj temple, that you soon forget about what you have just seen down by the river. I plan to visit some of them early tomorrow when the temperature isn't quite boiling the mercury.

After almost getting attacked by a monkey that was possibly as big as I am (it seemed to think my camera lens was a food offering), this evening I went to a puja ceremony at the Ram Raja Temple, the only temple in India where where Lord Ram (Or Rama) is worshiped as a king. A Guard of Honour is held everyday, police personnel have been designated as Guards at the temple, much in the manner of a king. Ram is the seventh avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, and a king of Ayodhya in Hindu scriptures. Ram is also the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana, which narrates his supremacy. Along with Krishna, he is considered to be the most important avatars of Vishnu. In a few Rama-centric sects, he is considered the Supreme Being.The prayer ritual performed by Hindus to host, honour and worship one or more deities, or to spiritually celebrate an event. It was fascinating to watch and take part in. There's lots of bell ringing and chanting/singing. The priest will bless you with water which locals drink but you're free to run it through your hair (I saw this as the safer option).

Dinner was at this fantastic hole-in-the-wall where I had my best Indian dish to date. The Dal Thadka was amazing and it cost me just over $1. Jal jeera, a popular drink made with lime juice, cumin, mint and rock salt, is drank by the earthenware pot-full. Once was probably enough for me, it's definitely an acquired taste. Let's hope this place doesn't become too touristy and lose little things like this that make this town so charming. That would be a real shame. 

Saturday, 3 May 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: The Jewel in India's Crown

Upon arriving in Agra you could perhaps be forgiven for wondering why on earth you're here. Dusty and dirty looking, it appears to have about as much personality as a plank of wood. There are touts and vendors who would probably try and sell their mother to you given the chance. And of course, there are tourists galore. Over 3 million come here every year.

In case I've totally lost you, Agra is the home to what is considered to be the most beautiful building on the planet. Rudyard Kipling described it as "the embodiment of all things pure".

The Taj Mahal.

Constructed between 1631 and 1654 by a workforce of 22 000, the Taj Mahal was built by the Muslim Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his 3rd and favourite wife, Arjumand Bano Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal. Mumtaz had already borne the emperor fourteen children when she died in childbirth. Her death left the Emperor so heartbroken and construction of the Taj began the following year in her honour. Not long after it was completed he was overthrown and imprisoned in Agra fort by his son, Aurangzeb. It is said that Shah Jahan died in Muasamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony with an excellent view of the Taj Mahal. It is the romantic origin of the Taj as much as its architectural splendour that has led to its fame worldwide.

So it was a 4am alarm this morning, a quick shower and a breakfast of cold porridge and banana that started my Taj experience in time for sunrise. The gates opened at 540am and there's a security check point you have to clear first. There are really strict rules about what you can and can't take into the grounds: cameras, mobile phones, water (they give you a free bottle) are all good; food, any flammable type stuff, chargers and apparently small plushy beaver toys from Canada are not. Chip, my trusty mascot got confiscated for reasons unknown. May be they thought he was a terrorist beaver? Or perhaps had contraband hidden in his tail? Thankfully he was only taken from me temporarily for safe keeping so will have to be photoshopped into any Taj pictures. He was, of course, gutted.

After entering the east gate and surviving the security breach with the criminal plush beaver, I walked a little while longer. Then there it was, framed in the arched gateway like a picture, the stunning vision of the Taj Mahal. Taj means crown and you can see why. You can't help but feel a little bit awestruck. Believe the hype, it's as every bit as amazing as they say it is. I always expected that I would be pretty impressed by the Taj Mahal and I was. It's absolutely stunning.

The translucent white marble, mined near Jaipur, was already softly glowing. Even the maddening crowd (apparently less for sunrise) can't spoil what your eyes are seeing. It truly is a thing of beauty and there's a real energy in the air. You allow yourself to get wrapped up in it for a good few minutes, may be a little longer watching the sunrise before the clicking of cameras remind you that you should probably get some photos of your own. Watching the sunrise over the towers was kind of spellbinding.

Actually an integrated complex of many structures, the Taj Mahal is considered the finest example of Mughal architecture, itself a combination of Islamic, Hindu, Persian and Turkish elements. It stands on a raised marble platform at the northern end of the ornamental gardens with it's back to the holy Yamuna river. This raised position means the only backdrop is the sky. From afar it is stunning but close up is possibly even more so. The large central dome, once topped with a gold but now brass finial, represents the vault of heaven. Marble inlay work (pietra dura) found on the inside and outside walls are believed to have had 35 different precious and semi-precious stones, many in a floral design as a representation of paradise. Pishtaqs (the huge arched recesses on each side) provide depth and latticed marble screens allow patterned light within. Strips of calligraphy with quotations from the Quran surround each and get larger as they get higher thus giving the impression of uniformed size when viewed from the ground.

You can enter the mausoleum although you are not supposed to take any photos once inside. Of course some people were blatantly ignoring the umpteen signs stating photography was forbidden. Interestingly the two cenotaphs for Mahal and Jahan are fake tombs. The real ones are in an underground vault closed to the public. You are given disposable shoe covers for this section but think about helping the environment by going barefoot - you can always wash your feet later. I suspect it's probably one of the cleanest parts of Agra in any case! There's a place for you to store your shoe, which means less chance that a wily monkey will take off with them.

Having been discoloured by increased pollution a huge restoration project took place in 2002 with the use of multani mitti, a blend of soil, lime, cereal and milk once used by Indian women to beautify their skin.

Note: There is a red sandstone mosque to the west and the Taj is closed every Friday to anyone not attending prayers.

Despite the somewhat crazy heat, later in the morning I visited the walled city of Agra Fort. It was first taken over by the Moghuls, at that time led by Akbar the Great, in the late 16th century. Akbar liked to build from red sandstone, often inlaid with white marble and intricate decorations, and it was during his reign that the fort began changing into more of a royal estate. However, it was only during the reign of Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan (he of Taj Mahal fame) that the site finally took on its current state. Unlike his grandfather, Shah Jahan preferred buildings made from white marble, often inlaid with gold or semi-precious gems, and he destroyed some earlier buildings inside the fort in order to build others in his own style. It's hard to believe how it was built with all the beautiful carvings and that it still keeps its amazing red colour. No wonder I felt like I was baking in a large terracotta pot.

The size of it is quite astounding not to mention very impressive. I kept reminding myself of that fact whilst standing in the stifling heat as I started on my second litre of water. Architects back then seemed to have such amazing foresight when it came to ventilation, surface water after rain storms, stability of buildings/monuments that have stood for generations and managed to preserve longevity. Make sure you get a look at the Taj Mahal from either the Musamman Burj or the Khas Mahal.

The fort was also a site of one of the most important battles of the Indian rebellion of 1857, which caused the end of the British East India Company's rule in India, leading to a century of direct rule of India by Britain. Today much of the fort is used by the Indian military so if out of bounds to the general public.

I'timad-ud-Daulah, nicknamed ‘Baby Taj' as it's often considered to be a draft of the Taj Mahal, is the tomb of Mizra Ghiyas Beg. It was built before the Taj Mahal by Nur Jahan, Queen of Jehangir, for her parents. Whilst it doesn't have the same presence or beauty as the Taj, it is the first Mughal building to be faced with white marble and where pietra dura was first used. People often say it looks like a jewel box. The tomb is much more intricately decorated than the Taj Mahal and worth a visit even if, due to the heat, you make it a quick one. The lack of crowds made it a more peaceful experience for sure and although much smaller site is a lovely place to visit.

After all the hustle and bustle of the day so far, I'm off for a nap in the presence of some much needed and deserved AC!

Friday, 2 May 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Fortified with Red Sandstone & Minerals

Today was a long day, mostly thanks to traveling Tordi Sagar to Agra via Jaipur but with two stops to see two significant sites. Thank heavens for my trusty iPod and ability to fall asleep sitting upright! There's just something right about traveling along an Indian road with Adam Ant's "Goody Two Shoes" on full blast......

About 95km from Jaipur is Abhaneri (also known as Aabhaneri). This location is well known for its beautiful baoris (step wells) at Chand Baori and the Harshat Mata temple. Chand Baori is a stunning piece of architecture that looks like a geometric optical illusion with hundreds of steps down to a green coloured water well. Around 60ft deep, it has 11 visible levels of zigzagging steps. The palace surrounding it is crumbling somewhat and now appears to house bats and pigeons. Abhaneri is supposed to have been established by Raja Chand. Many believe that Raja Chand was in fact Raja Bhoja, a celebrated king who ruled over the Gurjar Kingdom in the 9th century. Abhaneri was earlier known as Abha Nagri or the city of brightness.

The Harshat Mata Temple dates to the 9th century and today only portions of this ancient shrine remain, like the sanctuary walls, terrace and sections of the columned mandapa (fore chamber). The walls have carvings in which are images of other deities and I was surprised by the quality given that much of this temple is in ruins. These images indicate that the temple was originally dedicated to Vishnu, the Creator of the Hindu trinity of Creator-Preserver-Destroyer. Some of the better panels have been shifted to the Archaeological Museum, Amber and the Central Museum, Jaipur. It was worth a quick look at despite the searing heat.

About an hour and a half outside of Agra is the fortified ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri, the now deserted former political capital of the Mughal Empire under the reign of Akbar the Great (1571-1585). It was eventually abandoned due to lack of water. The building material predominantly used is red sandstone, quarried from the same rocky outcrop on which it is situated. In its day, Fatehpur Sikri shared its imperial duties as a capital city with Agra, where a bulk of the arsenal, treasure hoards, and other reserves were kept at its Agra Fort for security. During a crisis, the court, harem, and treasury could be moved to Agra, less than a day's march. This massive site is very well preserved and thankfully there's enough places to take refuge in the shade as it was over 45 degrees when I arrived. There is some really beautiful architecture and plenty of interesting history (worth getting a proper guide who can tell you all the significant points that are of interest).

Ignore the touts and scam artists who were out in full force. Remember, the only thing that is free in India is air, and there's probably someone somewhere that would try charging you for that!

After having likely lost half my weight in sweat and as a crazy thunderstorm began, it was then onto the Muslim city of Agra, the city that is best known as the site of India's most famous landmark.....

Thursday, 1 May 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Rajasthan R n' R

This morning saw a 3hr drive from Jaipur to the rural village of Tordi Sagar for an insight into the complexity of rural India. I began in earnest by getting a very ornate mehndi (henna) design of a peacock done on my right fingers, hand and forearm by a very talented local girl. The henna is applied, you then allow it to dry and fall off of its own accord. It certainly made going to the washroom interesting.

Whole, unbroken henna leaves will not stain the skin until the chemical molecules, lawsone, are released. Fresh henna leaves will stain the skin if they are smashed with a mildly acidic liquid (lemon juice or strong tea) though most henna for application is made from a dry powder mixed with liquid to create like a toothpaste. The molecules gradually migrate from the henna paste into the outer layer of the skin and bind to the proteins in it, creating a fast stain.

Henna stains are orange soon after application, but darken over the following three days to a reddish brown. Soles and palms have the thickest layer of skin and so take up the most lawsone, and take it to the greatest depth, so that hands and feet will have the darkest and most long-lasting stains. After about 7 days it will appear to fade, as the stained dead cells exfoliate.

After a late lunch I took a walk through the village for a up close and personal insight into the markets, potters, ironsmiths, temples and farms. The people who live here are so humble, generous and kind. They live such simple lives with the biggest of smiles, and that's truly inspiring. They, especially the kids, loved posing for photos as long as you showed them afterwards (which they got an even bigger kick out of). "One photo! One photo!" was the cry.

Against the blandness of the scenery (think desert tones), the village was splashed with vibrant colours everywhere you turned. It was like being surrounded by giant butterflies. There's a lot of traditional dress here. Several of the women had huge hoops through their noses and wear very traditional saris and odhnis (headscarves). I also learnt that any men wearing white turbans were because they were the head of that household.

In the early evening a Jeep safari in the surrounding region enabled me to visit hamlets around the village of local tribals, ancient stepwells and, after quite the hike up a huge sand dune below an old fort, a stunning sunset complete with a cup of chai.

This was a perfect place for a pit stop.