Archive for February, 2012

RAJASTHAN – REFRESHING UDAIPUR

Following our train ticket debacle, we flew from Jodhpur to Udaipur, the home of the famous Taj Palace, most recognised as octopussy’s residence in the James Bond film. The Taj sits prettily in Lake Pichola and can be viewed from the many rooftop restaurants in Udaipur.
We are staying at Chunda Palace, not so expensive and stunning. Our room has a jaquzzi bath, 4 poster bed and the facilities include beautiful palace lounge rooms, indoor hamam and outdoor swimming pool, worth every penny.
Food here is reasonably priced and the shopping pretty good. Nice drinking hang out is Pushkars, a hippie haunt, but extremely chilled out with only a few creepy wee Indians drinking there!
Today we had a home cooking lesson from Spice India and I’m looking forward to David replicating the dishes when we get home.
Udaipur is by far the nicest and most relaxing place in Rajasthan and I’d definitely recommend making here a major stop on your travels along with Jodhpur.

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http://www.chundapalace.com/

http://www.spicebox.co.in/cooking-class/

http://www.tajhotels.com/Luxury/Cities/About-Udaipur.html

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INDIA – TAKING THE TRAIN

Taking the train in India is an institution in it’s own right and is a must do for travellers, if only once! Buying a ticket is a trial and it is advised to book tickets online as far in advance as possible. Try http://www.clear trip.com although even this website will have you scratching your head in confusion. Buying a train ticket is not as easy at it is in most other countries, NO, it is unnecessarily complicated and unclear whether you have bought the ticket when you think you have indeed “bought the ticket”!
Your online ticket needs to be confirmed and you can only do this at the ticket office in the station, thus you still have to join the tourist queue, which still has Indians trying to push in and rub up behind you. We decided to buy our tickets as we went, Big Mistake! India railways hold back tickets called Tatkal, which are kept for emergency tickets, usually for foreigners, come at an additional cost and are non refundable, and you STILL need to get them confirmed at the office on the day of travel! Then there are waiting list tickets, again, coming with the need to confirm. You are told the train is full, made to queue for hours, then told you need a paper copy of your passport and the original isn’t accepted, so you have to go to the conveniently placed copy shop next door, fork out more and then rejoin the queue.
Your other option is to pay high hotel commission fees to sort it out. We did this once and it was still a hassle getting tickets confirmed!
We bought tickets and travelled twice in 3rd AC class. The train journey itself is fairly comfortable and the train no where near full either times. It seems India’s bureaucracy once again gets in the way of good sense, making the simplest of tasks near impossible.

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INDIA – TAJ MAHAL

From Kolkata, we flew to Delhi and then drove to Agra to see the India’s most famous attraction – The Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jahan in memory of his 3rd and favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Made from glistening white marble, with semi precious stones inserted to form decorative panels throughout, the Taj Mahal definitely lives up to expectations.

Agra is the town that houses the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. Shah Jahan’s son overthrew him, it is said due to his taste for beautiful things and spending money building intricate structures. Shah Jahan was imprisoned for years and could only admire the Taj Mahal from a window in the fort. These, along with Fatehpur Sikri, a deserted royal city 50 kilometres outside of Agra are all this town has to offer. Stunning as these are, Agra itself if a bit of a sesspit, with rubbish strewn everywhere. There are many hotels, but our experience was fairly negative. We first tried the Hotel Amar, who effectively wasted our time saying they had a room available, it was off the street and had a double bed, all of which was lies. We then tried the park plaza, who were also full, but arranged a room at the Jaypee Palace, a beautiful 5 star hotel kilometres outside of Agra’s dirty centre with 1 star service! The hotel itself and rooms are stunning, but the staff useless. It seems Jaypee’s idea of service is hiring a load of good looking, smartly dressed people to stand around all over the hotel saying hello and Namaste to guests, try to do anything like extend your stay, pay your bill or get advice and you’ll be struggling and frustrated as well as feeling ripped off!

We left Agra by train, travelling 3rd AC class, squeezing into our upper bunks in the carriage. Not as bad as you’d think though. We arrived in Jaipur on time to face the craziness of another Indian city!

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http://www.jaypeehotels.com/jp-page.php?id=jpWelcome

INDIA – JAIPUR TO JODHPUR

We are now in Jodhpur, the “blue city” which is by far my favourite place in India so far. Much smaller than the other places we have visited, Jodhpur packs a punch with its magnificent fort rising above all else. The restaurants and hotels have made great use of the sight and built rooftop restaurants, which are characteristic and very nice to sit and enjoy a beer in. Last night we checked out Indique, recommended by the Lonely Planet. Food was OK, but view over Jodhpur and the fort was well worth the visit.

Yesterday we tried out the Flying Fox, which is made up of 6 zip lines from the fort across Bastions, lakes and the Blue City. It was a bit hot, but lots of fun.

To get here, we took the train from Jaipur, again, 3rd class AC. Train journeys themselves are not so bad, but buying a ticket is highly frustrating and an experience that will leave you choosing to fly the next part of your trip!

Jaipur was my least favourite place. The sights were OK. the fort and palace were worth the trip, but the city itself is absolutely filthy and the people not very nice at all and only out to make money and rip you off. In my opinion, if you want to enjoy your trip to India, miss out Jaipur!!

In 30 minutes, we are flying to Udaipur for 3 days to hopefully relax before heading home to the real world.

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INDIA – KOLKATA

Apologies for delayed post. Since arriving in India we have either been engrossed in wedding preparation, events, parties, travelling, sightseeing or simply not had access to the Internet.

Following our tour of Nepal, we flew to Kolkata for our friend’s, Christian and Diplina’s wedding. Although not completely traditional, the wedding followed a number of specifically Bengali rituals and traditions. For me, it was quite hard to follow, but I tried my best! Aside from that, the food was amazing, the hospitality second to none and we were made to feel very welcome.

Upon arrival, we were provided Sari’s with matching jewellery and the boys traditional Indian wedding outfits. The first part of the celebrations included henna for the women, mine is still fairly dark after a week! Then there was dancing, which I have realised follows no specific rules, much like everything else in India! The finale though was a surprise boat trip down the Ganges, where again, we ate amazing food, danced and saw temples and festivities on the banks of the Ganges.

Kolkata itself is not much to look at, the Victoria memorial is certainly worth a visit and walking through the streets, soaking in the atmosphere is interesting, but in our experience, it is the kindness and cheer of the Bengali people that will be remembered most!

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LEAVING NEPAL – A LASTING IMPRESSION

After 9 days in Nepal, we are now sitting in departures waiting to board our plane to Kolkata, India. I thought it may be a good time to reflect on our experiences and thoughts of Nepal.

Our tour was with Earthbound Expeditions and was booked through Rajan, who did a great job and made sure we felt welcome and at ease for our entire stay here and was incredibly flexible when we wanted to change our plans. Moreover, he also gave us better prices on hotels and flights than we could get directly, which I felt was refreshing as typically agencies charge more! If you are looking for a tour company in Nepal, these guys are a great choice!

In general, Nepal is a wonderful place to visit; the people are very friendly and respectful, they are gentle in their approach and you don’t feel harassed when walking through the streets, even in the tourist areas such as Thamel and Pokhara. Prices are fair, but you have to barter to get what you want. There is a great choice of things to buy, including hand painted Tibetan Thangkas (Buddhist paintings), local art, wood carvings, local and Tibetan handmade jewellery and hippie fare galore!

Nepal is still one of the worlds poorest countries and following years of political unrest and civil war, it suffers greatly from a massive pull on resources and bad infrastructure, which unfortunately has an impact on tourists. The power is cut for most of the day and at unsuitable times. As a result, everyone relies heavily on liquid gas, which is in short supply and the are long queues all over the country to refill canisters. Hot water is scarce and in the cooler months, due to no heating, rooms are cold and can lead to sleepless nights.

There is only one road from the Indian border to Kathmandu and another heading north. The roads are in disrepair, single lane and incredibly dangerous. Most of their resources come in and go out by these roads on ancient TATA trucks speed limited to 40mph. Tourist buses, cars and motorbikes torpedo themselves around the trucks to get from A to B. We, like many, chose to fly back to Kathmandu rather than run the 7 hour gauntlet from Pokhara.

Nepal also has issues with waste disposal and the growing population of Kathmandu leaves the city covered in Rubbish, particularly plastic bottles and food packaging. Signs and warnings to tourists are everywhere, but the reality is that it is the Nepalis themselves that need to take heed, but more so their government. Sadly, many Nepali’s believed things would improve after the abdication of their king and when the Maoists took power. Their government is currently a coalition where there is no majority and they struggle to pass bills and implement policies.

Apparently only approximately 800,000 tourists visited Nepal last year, but they want to increase this as tourism brings a much needed boost to their economy. Traditionally a favourite on the backpacker and hippie trail, Nepal is eager to attract a more affluent demographic, hence tourist agencies want to advertise 4 & 5 star hotels and offer heavy discounts on their rates. They also want the Tourist Board to advertise more aggressively, but until there is more focus and budget for this, Nepal has to rely on word of mouth, visitor generated reviews and popular websites and publications such as Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet.

From my perspective, Nepal has a lot to offer in the way of history and culture on top of it’s sightseeing attractions, trekking and adventure activities, but most of all, the attraction is it’s people. I have travelled extensively and have not felt so safe and welcome in any other country. The service has been second to none (in fact, too much at times) and despite being an utterly chaotic place, things do, surprisingly run according to plan, you just need to have a little patience! The one thing I would have changed is the time of year to visit. February is still low season, meaning things can be cheaper, but it is still on the chilly side when there is no electricity, heating or hot water! We are planning to return to do a trek to either Everest or Annapurna Base Camp and are told the best time to go is September/ October.

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http://enepaltrekking.com/

POKHARA

From Chitwan, our tour took us to Pokhara, best described as the gateway to trekking the Annapurna circuit. Pokhara is far more chilled out than Kathmandu, although more expensive due to being geared towards tourists. We decided that after a pretty tough few days, we’d extend our stay here rather than head back to crazy Karhmandu.
First up, we spent an afternoon sightseeing, visiting Devis Falls, religious caves and the International Mountain Museum. The following day we were up at 5am to climb up to Sarangkot to get an amazing sunrise view of “Fishtail” mountain, Nepal’s only virgin mountain due to its holy status, and the amazing Annapurna range.

Next we climbed 3 hours to the World Peace Pagoda, built by the Japanese.

Today we have been bit lazy, but made it across the lake to visit a Hindu wishing temple.

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Indians boating – Safety last!